Saturday, February 28, 2015

Iceland Magazine on Asatru

There's a really nice write-up of Asatru in the latest (print and electronic) edition of Iceland magazine:

The article itself starts on p. 30, and the whole thing is in English. Lots of interesting stuff, and I myself can't wait to visit the new hof when it is completed. It's interesting to see some of the differences between Asatru as it's practiced in Iceland, and as it's practiced here in the United States. Over there, for instance, there seems to be more of an emphasis on nature, and a certain level of ambivalence concerning the literal existence of the Gods, as compared to here.

Well worth reading!

Saturday, February 21, 2015

The historicity spectrum

Asatru being a reconstructed (sort of) religion, the question of historicity often comes up. Historicity is the historical accuracy of a given thing, person, or idea. Since no one at the time bothered to comprehensively write down just what it meant to worship the Germanic gods, goddesses, spirits, etc. before the coming of Christianity, we moderns are forced to make do with the pieces of evidence that have survived the past millennium or so.

As such, there are some things that we can say with some certainty are very accurate, some that are on more shaky ground, others that are even less likely to be historical, and some that are cheerfully and self-consciously modern inventions.

Thus, things break down in terms of historicity something like this:
  1. We know this for a fact. First-hand accounts by unbiased observers, many names of deities, major myths that are represented in multiple locations and manners, etc. Into this category would go things like the myth of Thor fishing for the Midgard serpent, which is found in written form, in carvings, etc. Also the basics of the Roman Lupercalia ritual, which were described in detail by the Roman author Plutarch, who had seen them first-hand.
  2. We strongly suspect this is so. Things that are known from archaeology without any direct contemporary textual support, thus requiring interpretation, written accounts from contemporary, but flawed or biased, observers, etc. This includes things like the dates and broad themes of holidays, more detailed aspects of deities, carvings and tapestries with recognizable figures doing unrecognizable things, recurring symbols that might mean something due to context, etc.
  3. We're not sure, but this fits some of the evidence. Here we really start moving into the realm of speculation. A lot of material derived from later folklore falls into this category, which can be compelling in the aggregate, but for which the connections are still not certain. 
  4. This is a stretch, but could fit some of the evidence if you squint. Things that take a piece of contested or ambiguous evidence and give it significance with no real certain backing. I would put the practice of runic divination into this category, which is based on an interpretation of a single ambiguous word ("notae") in Tacitus and assumes he meant runes, without any other mention of a connection between runes and divination in any other source. 
  5. We made this part up. This includes almost all of the actual text of modern Asatru rituals (there are a handful of exceptions, and even then they mostly involve re-Heathenizations of songs and charms that are believed to have been Christianized). It should be noted that there is nothing at all wrong with doing so, as long as one acknowledges that that is what one is doing. The trouble starts when invention is passed off as genuine ancient practice.
Of course, for those who do not follow a reconstructionist faith, such as Wiccans, these considerations are pretty well irrelevant. But there are quite a number of us who follow a more reconstructionist faith, such as Asatru, the Religio Romana, Hellenismos, Celtic Reconstruction, and more, and for us the question of the historicity of some part of our practice can be very important. For one thing, it allows us to "triage" things; when presented with contradictory ideas or practices, for instance, I will always defer to something that's higher, and more historical, on the scale.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Thoughts occasioned by a funeral

This weekend I had the unhappy duty to attend the funeral of the mother of one of my longest-standing Heathen friends. His mother, of course, was not Heathen, but Catholic, and so there was a Catholic service (not a full mass), and the priest made the usual statements about her being in Heaven, and waiting for the rest of us, and so forth. He seemed a likable enough sort, and I'm sure it never occurred to him that there were people in the room who diametrically opposed his religious opinions, despite the number of Thor's Hammer pendants in evidence.

It did get me thinking about the nature of the afterlife and the nature of subjective reality. There are also substantive implications for the subject of ancestor worship. If I may...

Regarding the afterlife, there are several possibilities:

  1. We're right, and the Christians are wrong. When they die, they end up in Hel or Náströnd, or in Asgard (in one or another of the Gods' halls), or dwell in the ground, or one of the various permutations of the Germanic afterlife. It's a complex thing, and doubtless a surprise to them.
  2. The Christians are right. Everyone ends up either in Heaven or Hell, and it sucks to be us. Obviously, this is the Christian position (and the relevant variation applies to the Muslims as well).
  3. We're both right. Heathens end up in the Heathen afterlife, and Christians end up in the Christian afterlife. It follows that Muslims end up in the Muslim afterlife, Hindus end up reincarnated, Khemetic Orthodox end up in the Egyptian afterlife, and so on and so on. 
  4. We're both wrong. Either something else happens when we die (didn't expect to end up in Yima's Kingdom of the Dead, did you???), or nothing does; it's just oblivion. Nobody will be complaining, in that case.
Just from my personal experience, most Heathens tend to settle on choice #3, making the afterlife a subjective thing, based on one's expectations and religious choices in life. I tend to land here as well. But this has its own implication...

One of the cornerstones of Heathen religion is the veneration of our ancestors, in the same way that we venerate the Gods. There are traditions that link ancestors to the land-spirits, alfar, and house-spirits as well. Is it appropriate to honor a Christian ancestor in a Heathen manner? Would that be insulting? Is it even possible? The Christian afterlife would seem to preclude any interaction with the material world (except in the case of Saints), because the dead are too busy basking in the glory of their God's presence. Does burning grain in their honor have any impact, in that case, given that they don't even know it's being done, and/or can't do anything to reciprocate?

I don't pretend to have definitive answers to these questions, but I welcome your speculations.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Ritual, spectacle, and Asatru

John Beckett, writing at Patheos, has a fascinating article up about the uses (and misuses) of "spectacle" in modern America. It itself was inspired by yet another, also fascinating, article by Connor Wood on the subject of spectacle in America, inspired by the Super Bowl. I'd like to mull some of the ideas Mr. Beckett presents in his article, and see if there might be something to apply to modern Asatru. It helps that I've also been involved in helping a local Theodish group with their own ritual structure and so forth, so this is foremost in my mind lately.

First, I think it's important to rid ourselves of the stigma associated with the term "spectacle" in modern English. In some ways, it has a connotation of something embarrassing, as in "she made a spectacle of herself". But I think it should be looked at in its original meaning, "anything presented to the sight or view, especially something of a striking or impressive kind ... a public show or display, especially on a large scale."

I think there is a place for spectacle in modern Asatru, and I think Mr. Beckett is right on point when he says:
Let me be clear: spectacle is no substitute for deep, meaningful, authentic ritual and worship.  If all you do is spectacle, you've got a pretty weak practice.  But spectacle has value.  It makes a big bold statement about who you are and what you value.
And further:
With our knowledge of myth, familiarity with mystery, and skills with ritual, Pagans [and Heathens] are uniquely qualified to create and present spectacles that are far more helpful than the Super Bowl.
Asatru already has this implicit in the way we do ritual. We already differentiate between the rituals that are done at home, on the family level, and those done in a group, at the kindred or tribe (or whatever other label is used) level. These are the rituals that, through offerings and the strengthening of the Germanic gift-cycle, help us connect with the local land-wights, one another, and ultimately the gods. They are, at their core, humble (in the sense of small) and intimate.

So why not take it a step further and add another level to our practice? Something designed to be flashy, to be awe-inspiring, and to be big and bold and brash, and impress the people who live in our towns, our cities, and our states just how "cool" it is to be a Heathen. 

This need not be something hollow or spiritually empty. Far from it. But it would necessarily not be something intimate. A blót, properly done, is an intimate thing, something that not only binds the participants to the Gods, but to one another. 

I think this disconnect might be an explanation for why many if not most public rituals, with a large mixed audience, fall flat. No amount of explanation ahead of time is going to adequately prepare someone for the sheer personal experience of a well-done ritual. That's something that is gained with experience. To try to apply that same sort of experience on a truly large scale will almost always fail.

In ancient times, I think the nine-year sacrifices that were held at Uppsala fulfilled this function. A sacrifice of a single swine is an intimate act. A sacrifice of hundreds of animals, in the presence of hundreds or thousands of people, loses that intimacy and becomes spectacle. Does that rob it of its spiritual significance? I would say emphatically no. It just moves that spiritual significance from something that is experienced at an individual emotional level to one that is experienced at the level of an entire group of people. 

In modern times, such a spectacle must necessarily change in form, for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, mass animal sacrifices would not be seen as acceptable, both within and without the Asatru community; the reaction to such mass sacrifices in Hindu communities, where they have been done for thousands of years, shows that modern Western audiences would lose more than they would gain. 

So what form should such spectacle take? Let's look at some of our modern spectacles for inspiration. Big sporting events, blockbuster films, celebrity awards ceremonies... Before you roll your eyes in disgust, remember that I'm talking about taking the form and applying it to a spiritual purpose. Thor 2: The Dark World is surely a spectacle and without any spiritual content. What if there were a film that had just as high production values, and just as awesome fight scenes, but with a message that demonstrated the impact that faith in Thor can have on a common man? Or an enormous televised gathering of Asatruar, with flashy and eye-catching entertainment, showing off the good things that Heathenry can and does do.

I don't offer these notions as definite proposals, of course; they're just conversation-starters. I just want to get people thinking in the direction that sometimes big and flashy and entertaining isn't necessarily also vapid and commercial. If we take the tools of the spiritually empty and materially-centered culture around us, and turn them to noble ends, we might do very well, and follow in our ancestors' footsteps in the process.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Some more about that Asatru temple in Iceland

Plan for the hof building - sleek and modern
Iceland Review has a nice story about the Asatru temple that is about to be built in Iceland. Ground-breaking is set to happen in March, and early 50% of people polled in Iceland support its construction (just imagine that poll in the U.S.!). There were a couple of very interesting items in this story that I hadn't heard before, though:
The 350-square-meter building, which will house 250 people, is expected to be completed in the summer of 2016. The building will be constructed around the path of the sun and the sacred numbers of 9 and 432,000 are used in the design, reports.
The City of Reykjavík donated the site to the Ásatrú Association but the building’s costs, estimated at ISK 130 million (USD 975,000, EUR 860,000), will be raised by the society itself.
It's nice to hear that they're incorporating some of the sacred numbers of ancient Germanic belief, but what I, as an American, am simply astounded by is the fact that the city donated the land for the temple!

And here's a short video about the project (in Icelandic, but you can get the gist from the images, I hope).

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Odinist Prisoner News: Planker v. Christie

From New Jersey comes Planker v. Christie, that was dismissed without prejudice on January 20, 2015. Amongst (many, many) other complaints, the plaintiff alleged that his rights as an "Organic Odian" (which, I must admit, is something I've never heard of before) were violated. Specifically, he was denied materials such as a Thor's Hammer, runes, candles, sea salt, and mushrooms (?), and was denied access to Odinist services due to scheduling issues.

But most disturbing are the alleged comments of the (Muslim) prison chaplain to the effect that the plaintiff should convert to Islam if he wanted full access to his religious rights.

Interestingly, the opinion cites DeHart v. Horn in stating that:
"[t]he mere assertion of a religious belief does not automatically trigger First Amendment protections, however. To the contrary, only those beliefs which are both sincerely held and religious in nature are entitled to constitutional protection."
On the same day that opinion was published, the US Supreme Court published Holt v. Hobbs, which in many ways turned the court's interpretation of RLUIPA (the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act) on its head. As Howard Friedman of the award-winning Religion Clause blog put it:
"Those who follow Religion Clause's weekly summary of prisoner free exercise cases know that inmates professing a wide variety of religious beliefs seek religious accommodations relating to grooming, clothing, possession of religious items, worship space, congregate religious services, religious dietary restrictions, and more.  The Supreme Court has now reaffirmed the conclusion of most courts that an inmate may invoke RLUIPA to require accommodation of a totally idiosyncratic belief-- so long as it is sincerely held. Religious visions shared by no one else apparently still qualify."
That could indeed have an implication for Planker v. Christie, not to mention many other religious-based lawsuits that rely on RLUIPA as their basis.

Book Review: Path to the Ancestors

I recently had the pleasure of ordering Swain Wodening's book Path to the Ancestors: Exploring Ancestor Worship within Modern Germanic Heathenry from At 62 pages (not counting the glossary and bibliography) it's a quick read, but that should not be mistaken for being light on information. Rather, it is succinct and narrowly focused.

Although it's written from an Anglo-Saxon Theodish perspective, Asatruar and other Heathens will be able to make full use of this book. There are five chapters:
  • Why worship the ancestors?
  • Ancestor worship in the lore
  • Our ancestors
  • The ancestral altar
  • Rites to the ancestors
Perhaps the biggest departure from "standard" Asatru practice will be Swain's argument in the first chapter that, since offerings to the Gods are best made on a family or group level, it makes more sense for individuals to focus their own personal practice on their ancestors. This is a defining attitude of Theodish Belief (and is held by some Asatru groups as well), and while many Asatruar may disagree with the premise, doing so in no way invalidates the concept of incorporating ancestor-worship into one's routine of personal practices.

The second chapter necessarily concentrates (although not exclusively, of course) on the cult of the Matronae ("mothers") that flourished during the Migration Age in those lands where Roman and Germanic cultures intermingled. There is ample archaeological evidence, and no small amount of textual evidence, for this sub-cult, and he (in my opinion properly) argues that it represents, if not cast-iron evidence, at least a model, for historical ancestor worship.

Matronae altars
If anything, I think this represents the weakest chapter in the book, as he misses an excellent opportunity to delve into the evidence around the cult of the Matronae, that could have provided a much-needed historical framework upon which to build the rest of the book. The evidence from inscriptions on Matronae altars alone would be enormously helpful in this regard. Alex Garman's The Cult of the Matronae in the Roman Rhineland: An Historical Evaluation of the Archaeological Evidence is notably missing from the bibliography (although to its credit, the bibliography does include Philip Shaw's excellent Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic World: Eostre, Hreda and the Cult of Matrons).

Swain does supplement his information from Germanic-based sources with practices from other Indo-European sources such as the Roman cult of the Lares and Hindu ancestor-worship practices.

The remaining two chapters deal with the practical side of ancestor worship, and leans heavily on Swain's own practice developed over the course of many years. This is good stuff, but a few more examples of variations on the themes presented would doubtless have been helpful for some readers.

There is one question that the book does not address that I wish it had, as to my mind it is central to the question of ancestor worship, and its omission is a serious enough lacuna for me to take a star away from my review. This is the question of Christian ancestors.

Especially in the modern world, it is entirely likely that the overwhelming majority of our ancestors, going back many generations, were Christian (or at the very least, non-Heathen). A discussion of the appropriateness of offering what are essentially Heathen rites to non-Heathen ancestors would have been welcome. There are serious questions, both philosophical and theological, that are raised by the idea. Is your devoutly Catholic great-grandmother going to appreciate being the center of pagan worship? Is she even capable of responding, or is she removed from the world in a Christian Heaven (or Hell)? Is doing so disrespectful?

But noting this omission shouldn't be taken as knocking the content that is there. Path to the Ancestors is a wonderful book, and explores a side of Heathen worship that in my opinion is largely overlooked in contemporary Heathen practice. I heartily recommend this book for any Heathen who's interested in adding this forgotten, but vital, aspect of pre-Christian religion to their regular worship. I give it four out of five stars.