Sunday, August 23, 2015

Folkish Summer Hallowing 2015

I spent most of Thursday through Saturday attending Folkish Summer Hallowing, an event sponsored by the Irminfolk, at Camp Netimus in the beautiful Poconos. It's actually the second of four Heathen events being held there this year, including Trothmoot in June, East Coast Thing next weekend (which I will be unable to attend), and AFA Winternights in October. Netimus has become quite the hotspot of Heathenry in the Northeast!

There were lectures and rituals, a concert, vendors (who accepted the Irminfolk's "trade medallions", the Futhmark), and naturally the opportunity to hang out with fellow Heathens and just talk, trade stories, discuss history and lore, and on and on. That's always the highlight of an event like this; being able to talk with people face to face really puts conversations on Facebook or email to shame.

The "Changes" concert (much more well-attended than
it looks like in this photo)
I confess that the workshops left me a little wanting, if only because there were so few of them, and most of them were on more craft things like making your own sauerkraut and so forth, whereas I usually gravitate to things more focused on lore and practice. The workshop schedule was a bit sparse, a fact that isn't really the fault of the Irminfolk, as it depends on volunteers (I did not volunteer, but have resolved to do so next year, and I know at least one other person -- my doppelgänger Cliff -- has as well). This stood somewhat in contrast to Trothmoot this past June, where I felt the classes and workshops were the highlight, deep in lore.

The offering wain is burned
But also in contrast to that earlier event, the rituals at Folkish Summer Hallowing were fantastic. I attended three; the opening ritual and offering to the landwights, a blót by the Svinfolkyn in honor of Freyr, and the main ritual, which also featured a sacrificial offering to Freyr in honor of the season (this is around the same time that the Icelandic Freyfaxi was held). I wasn't able to stay for sumbel or the closing ritual.

Last year's offering featured the burning of a ship filled with offering items, and this year's featured the burning of a wain similarly adorned. It was very moving, and absolutely spectacular to see the wain consumed by fire as the assembled folk looked on. I'm also proud to say I had a small part in it, as I was one of four who carried the wain onto the fire.

One thing that stood out for me during the Svinfolkyn ritual to Freyr was the use of antlers to sanctify the sacred space, rather than the usual hammer. I spoke with the goði about it afterwards, and he explained that they do that differently for every deity. I normally am not a fan of the whole "hammer hallowing rite" in general, as it seems to be quite ahistorical, but if you're going to go that route, clapping two deer antlers together and asking Freyr to sanctify the space was a great idea. Really worked in this instance.

On the whole, I had a terrific time at Folkish Summer Hallowing. Rituals were great, the folk were great, and the overall event was definitely a winner in my book. I'll definitely be going back next year.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Towards a Theory of Reconstructionist Religion (Part Three)

In part one of this series, I set some groundwork and asked some questions. In part two, I looked at sources (especially written, but others as well), and how to treat them. Now, I'm pressing on with the gaps and how to fill them in.

That gaps exist in the historical record is obvious. If there weren't, we would have a perfect description of not only the foundational myths and legends, but also accounts of rituals (including the words spoken and the songs sung), contemporary ritual tools, and the like. But that is far, far from the case.

So that begs the question, how to fill in the many gaps? I propose a bulls-eye approach. And this works for ritual as well as mythological, organizational, social, and other considerations.

At the center of the bulls-eye is actual contemporary evidence of what our ancestors did prior to the coming of Christianity (or contemporary with the arrival of Christianity, as long as any Christian elements can be identified and excised).

But that begs the question, where is that bulls-eye centered? 10th century Saxony? The 1st Century Teutones? There could be enormous variation, even though both are pre-Christian Germanic cultures. Those sorts of questions of triage are precisely the sort of thing that each modern group (or individual) needs to work out for themselves. Not everyone is going to agree with everyone else's positioning of the center of the bulls-eye, and that should be okay. Tribal variations were the norm.

The next ring moves out both geographically and time-wise. Stay within a pre-Christian Germanic culture, but shift the focus either in time or geography, or both. It's better to fill in the gaps with something we know is Germanic, and surmise is pre-Christian, than to make it up. You know the Saxons did something, but have no details, but have something sorta similar from Sweden a few centuries later? Use that first.

The next ring moves out a little more. This ring could go one of two ways (and the next ring out will be the one you don't choose for this ring). Do you go with other pre-Christian Indo-European cultures, or do you bring in post-Conversion Germanic material? There's no one "right" answer. This is when you know something was done, but you need details to fill it in. Do you go with a Roman or Vedic Hindu approach, or do you go through Scandinavian/English/German folklore for a model? The answer might well be situational; in some cases one will be more appropriate, in other cases the other will be.

The next ring is the most creative; this is where you have exhausted all the other options, but still don't have the details needed to actually reconstruct something you know was done by the Germanic people, and you have a vague idea of how through parallel Indo-European and folkloric studies, but you are still missing specific words to use. Here you either invent them (being careful not to contradict the information you found in the other more inner rings of the bulls-eye), or ask the Gods and spirits for inspiration directly (I would say that the same applies, and acts as a safeguard against the possibility that you're either talking to a mischievous spirit or are just letting your imagination run away with you and deceiving yourself into thinking it's coming from some God or Goddess).

The best self-break you can have in this process is success. Remember that one of the reasons that Asatru is so compelling is that it is based on structures and material that were honed literally over tens of thousands of years of cultural evolution. When done properly, they speak directly to the Germanic psychology, even through the layers of modernity and Christianity with which history has saddled the vast majority of us. If something falls flat or feels false, or if further research contradicts something you've been doing, don't be afraid to jettison it in favor of a new and more authentic approach.

The best example of this is the "Hammer Hallowing Ritual" that so many Asatruar in the 70's and 80's grew up with. It's patently a "Heathenization" of the Wiccan "Calling of the Quarters", and is a product of its times. But so many Asatruar today are so used to doing it, that the thought of tossing it out and replacing it with something that ongoing scholarship might indicate is more authentic (such as a fire processional, staking out a sacred space, etc.) doesn't even occur.

Reconstructionism (and revivalism, for that matter) should be a constant process, informed by ongoing experimentation and scholarship. While there is much to be said for consistency and tradition, the potential benefits of doing something that is more authentic, and therefore will be even more effective, are great indeed.

Monday, July 27, 2015

July Garden Update

With the miserably cold Spring that we had here in the Garden State, and the unnaturally cold June and most of July, I'm surprised that the garden is doing as well as it is. But anyway, here are some pics as of today.

Tomatoes and peppers to the left, then corn, cucumbers lower right, and pumpkins behind them. (You can see the vé waaay off to the far right if you look closely, and that lattice thing in the far center is the seiðhjallr.)

The pumpkin patch. So far, it had been frustratingly all flowers and no fruit, until today I noticed...

The first actual pumpkin! Tiny, but it's better than nothing.

Corn's doing well.

Tomatoes took a while, but they're coming in nicely.

Cucumbers always do well here. I'm already giving them away to the neighbors.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

One Giant Leap

On this day in 1969, American Astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon. What an achievement of the American spirit and the human will. Let us follow up this great achievement and spread humanity to other worlds.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Towards a Theory of Reconstructionist Religion (Part Two)

In part one of this series, I tried to set the stage with some initial questions to frame the issue of how to approach reconstructionist religion (specifically, reconstructionist Heathenry, but applicable to different strains of pre-Christian religion). I'm not exactly going to follow the questions raised in that first post as an outline, but will be referring to them (and hopefully providing some answers) as I progress.

It is a fact that we do not have anything close to a comprehensive picture of what Germanic Heathen religion looked like. Prior to the arrival of Christianity, the Germanic peoples were largely illiterate, and had no tradition of written histories, commentaries, and so forth as did their Roman and Greek contemporaries. Much of what we do know comes to us from much later Christian authors, with some Christian and Pagan contemporary accounts, plus evidence of linguistics, archaeology, and other historical sciences.

This quite properly brings into question the accuracy, and therefore the usefulness, of those written sources.

In terms of the Icelandic sagas, the question is most acutely felt. Written centuries after the fact by Christian scholars and scribes, there is fierce debate in academic circles about the historicity of each. Some are felt to be mostly-faithful historical accounts written down from stories passed down by oral tradition, some are felt to be complete inventions, or based on Continental or Classical stories. As a rule, when using saga evidence, the provenience of the specific saga being used must be evaluated.

Especially when dealing with pre-Christian practices, the question must always be asked, "is this an account of what Heathens did, or is this what Christians two centuries later imagine Heathens did?" Some Christian authors, such as Snorri and Saxo, also deliberately de-mythologized pre-Christian figures, turning them into mortals for purposes of telling the stories. The impact of such must be weighed when using them as sources.

Contemporary Pagan writers require similar scrutiny. Tacitus is the most well-known such source, with his Germania, written in the 1st century CE. But is doubtful that Tacitus himself ever visited the lands of the Germans, and it has been convincingly argued that his account was deliberately played up as a counterpoint to the failings he perceived in contemporary Roman society. There is yet another school of thought that holds that his descriptions of various Germanic tribes are actually a much-muddled account of Germanic views of the afterlife. Does this mean that Tacitus should be tossed out? Of course not. But as with the late and Christian-inscribed Icelandic sagas, care must be taken when drawing conclusions.

Written accounts can also be contradictory, which could point to a number of different issues. Perhaps there are two differing accounts, as we see with the tale of the death of Balder, recounted by Saxo and Snorri in very different ways.

Archaeological evidence is, of course, objective in and of itself, but the interpretation thereof is quite open to subjective analysis. It becomes too tempting to see Hugin and Munin in every bird-motif, and Loki in every bound figure. It should also be remembered that most scholars aren't coming at the material from the point of view of practical application (i.e., a reconstructionist point of view), and it's entirely possible that those of us who are looking for practical implications of things that puzzle scholars might come up with an insight precisely because we're actually using the material. That is called experimental archaeology.

Similarly, modern scholarship tends to take certain things as assumptions. Question those assumptions. Go back to the original source material whenever you can and find out whether it actually says what the later scholarly interpretation says it says. As I've pointed out in the past, it sometimes isn't the case.

All this said, I think we can distill down a first rule of reconstructionist religion:
Consider the source. Don't take sources at face value, but weigh the reliability of written sources, and be open to new interpretations of archaeological and other physical evidence.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Towards a Theory of Reconstructionist Religion (Part One)

It is often said that Asatru in general is a "reconstructionist" faith, meaning that it attempts to reconstruct the ancient faith of the pre-Christian Germanic peoples. While this vague description is sufficient to dstinguish it from more modern eclectic and inventive religions such as Wicca in casual conversation, it is not satisfactory when one considers the details.

I'd like to begin exploring a more systematic approach to reconstructionism in general, which would apply to many faiths which fall under that banner, including Asatru (Norse paganism), Celtic Reconstructionism, the Religio Romana (Roman), Hellenismos (Greek), Romuva (Baltic), etc. While I'm mostly going to be using Norse/Asatru, and to a lesser extent, Roman/Religio Romana examples, the general principles involved should apply across the board.

At the outset, two fundamental issues must be recognized. The first is that, thanks mostly to the efforts of Christian supremacists to eradicate pagan and heathen religions, and the general ravages of time, we are often confronted with the fact that we have an incomplete record. Even the Religio Romana (Roman paganism), while blessed with a number of excellent contemporary primary sources, is lacking in many details. The situation is far worse with Asatru, where the literary corpus is almost entirely Christian in its provenance, and is almost entirely lacking in details (such as what rituals looked like, what words were spoken, etc.).

The second is that, by the nature of history and social evolution, it is fallacious to refer to "the Religio Romana" or "Germanic paganism" as if they were monolithic and never-changing edifices spanning centuries and hundreds or thousands of miles. We find, for instance, two distinct versions of the myth of the death of the Norse god Baldur; the Icelandic version portrays him as an innocent slain by Loki's machinations out of spite, while the Danish version portrays him as a lust-filled warlord who goes to battle to take a wife who has scorned him from another man. Loki doesn't appear in the Danish version at all. Gods appear in some places and not others, and even in the Religio the Collegium Pontificum would vote to make alterations over the course of time.

Given those two basic premises, we find ourselves faced with fundamental choices to make based thereon:

  1. How do we identify gaps in the record?
  2. How do we properly vet the material that we do have?
  3. How do we go about filling in those gaps?
  4. How do we identify Christian (or other) influences? 
  5. What do we do once we've identified it? Do we ignore it, or "de-Christianize" it, or something else?
  6. Do we focus on a particular point in time and space, or do we use a more syncretic approach?
  7. How do we set the boundaries of eclecticism and invention in a reconstructionist context?
I don't pretend that my answers to these questions will be universally accepted, but I hope to demonstrate that attention to them will result in a much more robust and viable reconstructionist experience. Those questions will be explored in subsequent articles in this series.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Review: Asatru: A Native European Spirituality

I've been meaning to start a series of reviews of "beginner's Asatru" books, since one question that keeps coming up in online (and face-to-face) conversations is, "what's a good book I can start with?" So when Stephen McNallen's Asatru: A Native European Spirituality arrived a couple of weeks ago, it seemed like a perfect opportunity.

I'm not going to go into Stephen McNallen's history or that of his organization, the Asatru Folk Assembly (full disclosure, I'm a member of the AFA). There are some people who are biased against him, and nothing anyone says will change their minds. This review is not for those people.

The book's twenty-five chapters are divided into two parts; "A New-Old Religion", which covers a lot of the history and underlying philosophy of Asatru, and "Practicing Asatru", which, as might be guessed, offers somewhat more practical advice in terms of ritual, calendars, etc.

But even so, what distinguishes this book from many others is that it is both more philosophical and more practical at the same time. Even the chapters that describe the philosophical underpinings of Asatru go out of their way to explain how that philosophy can be expressed in the everyday world. I found this grounding of the history and philosophy in practical application to be refreshing and it turned the book up a notch or two in terms of applicability.

To be sure, the book has the usual descriptions of the Gods and Goddesses, ritual calendars, and outlines of the two main rituals of Asatru; blot and sumbel. But it deliberately does not include sample ritual scripts, or a Yule ritual, then an Ostara ritual, then a Midsummer ritual, and so on. He covers soul-lore and the afterlife, as well. There is a brief obligatory chapter on the runes, and the book closes with thoughts on the future of Asatru, including an intriguing suggestion regarding intentional communities.

While the book is definitely written from a folkish perspective, it is by no means obsessed with the subject. It explains the concept that the Gods are our ultimate ancestors, but there are no lengthy and tedious ramblings on metagenetics and the White Race and so forth; those expecting the stereotypes of who McNallen is will be sorely disappointed. The book simply takes for granted that Asatru is, as the subtitle says, a native European spirituality, and then moves on from there. There is definitely a lot of worth in these pages that even a non-folkish Asatruar will be able to use, if they can just get past the author's name.

On the whole, this is a wonderful book for Asatruar from all ends of the spectrum. It's certainly not perfect; there are a few things in there that I might quibble with, such as "days of remembrance" for Heathen heroes and martyrs and such, which I find both ahistorical and unnecessary. But the pluses outweigh the minuses by a huge margin, and the book is easily worth the modest price.