An Introduction to Heathenry

An Ancient Religion, Relevant in the Modern World

Heathenry is a term used to describe the religious practices of two main groups of people, one historical and one modern.

The original heathens were the pre-Christian North European peoples who lived a thousand and more years ago in the lands around what is now called the North Sea. These included the peoples of Anglo-Saxon England, Scandinavia, Germany and Frisia (Modern day Belgium and the Netherlands).

Modern heathen groups around the world are reviving these old practices under various names including asatru, the northern tradition, odinism, forn sed, germanic pagan reconstructionism or, simply, heathenry. In Iceland, which did not convert to christianity until the 11th Century, heathenry has once again become an official (nationally recognised) religion, and there are groups and individuals working for the same level of recognition in many other countries. Heathenry is Officially recognised by the Department of Defense in the United States, and in the UK the Defence Pagan Network has ensured that heathenry in recognised in the Ministry of Defence alongside other forms of paganism.

Heathens work to build healthy relationships with Gods and Goddesses, ancestors, spirits of the land, and others in their communities, both through holy rites and through their day to day actions.

Sources

There are literary sources that tell us how heathenry was practised before the advent of christianity. The main such sources include medieval Icelandic Eddas and Sagas, Anglo-Saxon poetry, the works of the 8th century English monk Saint Bede, and the Germania by the Roman historian Tacitus.

Although most of these were written in christian times, they record the religious beliefs and practices of a culture that existed before christianity came to Northern Europe. Archaeological evidence continues to be discovered which supports this picture of heathen religion obtained from such classical and medieval literature.

Alongside these historical sources, modern heathens experience their own, personal, understanding of their religion as lived today, and their own relationship with their Gods.

Gods and other beings

Heathenry, like all ancient European pagan religions, is polytheistic and recognises a large number of gods and other spiritual entities. Although the heathen Gods are best known from Norse mythology (and often called by Anglicised versions of their Old Norse names) they were honoured by many peoples outside of Scandinavia. For example, the god known to early Germanic tribes as Wodhanaz became Odhinn in Old Norse, Woden in Anglo-Saxon and Old Saxon, and Wuotan in Old High German. He is now most commonly known as Odin. Some of the most well known heathen Gods are enshrined in our English days of the week. Tuesday is named after Tiw (Tyr), Wednesday after Woden (Odin), Thursday after Thunor (Thor) and Friday after the goddess Frige (Frigg). There are also many place names across the country named for heathen Gods. For example Dewsbury is named for Tiw (Tyr), and Wensleydale is named for Woden (Odin).

In addition to the better known 'major gods', the names of several dozen local or tribal gods are known through medieval literature, runic inscriptions, and votive stones. Most heathens choose to actively honour a subset of gods with whom they have developed personal relationships, although offerings are also often made 'to all the gods and goddesses'. The Gods and Goddesses that a heathen form closer relationships with are often those that they feel have a particularly strong influence on their lives. Heathens relate to their Gods as complex personalities who each have many different attributes and talents. For example, whereas Thor is popularly known outside Heathen circles as the mighty hammer-wielding God of Thunder, in Eddic poetry he is called by names such as Deep Thinker, Man's Well-Wisher, and Consecrator Thor, revealing a gentler side to his nature. There is also crossover in the areas of influence of different gods and goddesses. For example there is no one 'god of the sea'. Njord is the god most associated with coastal areas and fishing. Aegir and Ran rule beneath the waves. Thor brings the winds that are so important to sailors. And all of these gods also have other aspects to their character. As well as being a God of the deep, Aegir is also the god of brewers.

In addition to Gods, heathens recognise and relate to a wide variety of spiritual beings or 'wights'. These include the Norns - who are three female entities who weave the web of wyrd - and the Disir - who are female ancestral spirits attached to a tribe, family, or individual. Heathens also work with 'hidden folk' such as elves, brownies, dwarves and etins. They interact with the housewights who live in their homes and the landwights who occupy features of the landscape such as streams, mountains, forests or fields. Having a relationship with landwights is an important feature of Heathen religion and outdoor heathen rituals will not proceed until the permission of landwights is sought and obtained.

Another characteristic of heathen religion is the respect given to ancestors in general. These may be a person's literal forebears, or may be people now dead who have inspired them in some way. When seeking guidance, most heathens will look to their ancestors, who have a vested interest in their well being, before the Gods, who may or may not be interested in their predicament.

Structure

There are no central authorities in heathenry and no single organisation to which all heathens belong, though there are national and international organisations created to facilitate networking between heathens. Asatru UK is one such organisation, which is open the heathens across the country and has over 2000 members, and is run by a kindred council of 9.

Many heathens belong to smaller regional groups made up of heathen friends and family members. These groups are sometimes called 'hearths', 'kindreds' or 'kiths' and meet for religious rituals, discussion and socialising in members' homes, outdoor spaces pubs etc. Some hearths and kindreds have recognised leaders. Others are entirely egalitarian.

Our group, the Heathens of Yorkshire, is an example of such a group. We have around 200 members, and the group is run by a kindred council of 9. We meet monthly, in a private woodland during the summer, and in pubs during the winter. We also have a very active Facebook page, and many of us have become close friends and meet up regularly outside of the monthly moots. Community is very important to us, and we will always look to help each other out where possible.

The Confederation of UK Heathen Kindreds is an umbrella organisation which groups can choose to be a part of to share ideas and work together towards projects that benefit the whole heathen community. The confederation has no authority over its member groups, and the chair is rotated on an annual basis.

There is no widely recognised priesthood, although sometimes individuals may be recognised as godhis and gydhjas (priests and priestesses) within their own communities. There is no 'qualification', and no heathen is obliged to recognise anyone as a Gothi.  Some groups do not have a recognised spiritual leader at all, and share the role between all their members.

Rites and celebrations

The main rites celebrated in heathenry are called blot and sumble. Heathen groups and individuals hold feasts and celebrations based around blot and sumble at rites of passage (such as weddings or baby-namings), seasonal holidays, oath-takings, rites in honour of a particular god or gods, and rites of need (in which gods and/or ancestors are asked for help).

A blot was originally the ritual sacrifice of an animal to one or more gods, alfs or ancestors. A feast followed afterwards at which the meat was shared amongst the participants. Blots were held to honour the Gods or to gain their favour for specific purposes such as peace, victory, or good sailing weather.

A modern blot centres around the offering of food or drink (often mead) or other items to the gods and tends to be followed by a feast. It may be a simple rite or a more elaborate one depending on the purpose of the blot and the number of participants. In an indoor blot where food is offered, it is common to lay a place for the god, ancestor or alf at the table. In an outdoor blot offerings are often thrown onto a fire.

Sumble is a ritual drinking ceremony in which one or more drinking horns or other vessels are filled with mead (or another appropriate drink) and used for toasting or boasting. It is common for modern heathens to pass the horn(s) around all those participating after liquid is blessed. The first round of toasts may be to the gods, the second round to wights or ancestors, and the third round may be to whatever else the assembled heathens wish to toast. There may be many more rounds, or the symbel may stop after a designated number. A separate libation (drink offering) may be given to the Gods, landwights or housewights, or some of the contents of the horn may be poured out as an offering to them.

As well as major offerings to the gods or alfs, heathens like to leave gifts for their domestic hidden folk: the wights who live in their garden and house. For this purpose, many heathens keep a special bowl to leave offerings in the house of cakes and ale, or may leave food or drink on or near a small garden altar. Many heathens will give offerings to their housewight whenever baking or brewing, as these things can easily go wrong, and so it is important to have the wights favour. It is also important when dealing with wights to be respectful of their space. In the case of a housewight this can be done by keeping the house clean and tidy.

Festivals

Different heathen communities and individuals celebrate different cycles of seasonal holidays based on their cultural affiliations, local traditions, and relationships with particular gods. There is no fixed calendar of heathen festival dates. The three heathen festivals most commonly celebrated in the UK are Winter Nights - usually celebrated in October or November, Yule - a twelve day festival that begins around the time of the winter solstice, and a festival for the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre in the spring.

In recent times the Asgardian Heathen Festival has become an important part of the heathen calendar in the UK. Whilst it does not tie in with any historical festival, it is now the biggest annual gathering of heathens in the UK, with hundreds attending the summer event each year. The festival involves rituals, workshops, talks and traders, covering all aspects of heathenry. In the years since the first event in 2016 heathenry has seen massive growth across the country, with national groups like AUK seeing a large rise in membership, and many new groups springing up across the country. The festival has given the opportunity for many solo practitioners to experience the community aspect of heathenry for the first time, and led many to get much more heavily involved in the community.

Magic and seership

Magic and seership were practised by some individuals within ancient heathen cultures, and this is also the case with today's heathen community.

Some Northern European magical practices being revived by heathens include the carving of runes onto talismans and the chanting of charms called galdor. Some heathens are also rediscovering Northern European shamanistic practices known as seidh. In a ritual called 'oracular seidh' a seer or seeress answers questions or gives advice to participants. Many modern heathens also practice runic divination.


Although magic was part of ancient heathen culture, it did not play a part in the religious rituals of blot and sumbel. Therefore, it is not seen as an intrinsic part of the religion. Although most heathens share a belief in the ability of the Gods to enact change in the world, they do not all believe in the ability of magicians to do so.

Wyrd and ethics

One of the central concepts in heathenry is wyrd, the force that connects everything in the universe throughout space and time. Heathens believe that all of their actions can have far reaching consequences through the web of wyrd. They understand that who they are, where they are, and what they are doing today is dependent on actions they and others have taken in the past, and that every choice they make in the present builds upon choices they have previously made.

With an understanding of wyrd comes a great responsibility. If we know that every action we take (or fail to take) will have implications for our own future choices and for the future choices of others, we have an ethical obligation to think carefully about the possible consequences of everything we do. Thus one of the principal ethics of heathenry is that of taking responsibility for one's own actions.

Another heathen value is frith, the maintenance of peace and friendship within a social group. Obligations towards friends, kin and community are taken seriously by heathens. Like many peoples living far apart in a harsh climate, pre-christian heathens put great stress on hospitality, and this is still valued by modern heathens. A related concept is the giving of gifts, though both gift-giving and hospitality are bounded by reciprocity, a principle that heathens consider important.

Plain speaking, honesty and forthrightness are also important to heathens. This may be seen as part of a value system based upon personal honour, which eschews deceit and dishonesty towards members of the social group. Thus heathens place great value on the giving of their word, and any form of oath-taking is taken extremely seriously. This often means that heathens will not sign their name to something unless they can assent to it in both letter and spirit. Breaking an oath is one of the worst social taboos a heathen can commit, and has the potential to destroy ones reputation.

After death

Heathenry is focused on right living in the here and now and does not place as great an emphasis on the afterlife as do some other religions. Whereas Valhalla - Odhin's hall - is popularly seen as the Norse equivalent of heaven, this is a misconception. According to the mythology as recorded in the Eddas, Valhalla is only for warriors who die in battle. Even then, half of these battle-slain warriors go to Freyja's hall and half to Odhin's hall. Those who drown at sea go to the goddess Ran's hall. People who die of natural causes go to the hall of the goddess Hel. Most of today's Heathens see Hel as a neutral place where they will be reunited with their ancestors.

Sources do not enable a complete reconstruction of the pre-christian Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon views of the soul. One concept, however, which is still retained in folk stories, is that of the fetch or fylgia. The fetch was held to be a part of the person which might be contacted during life, but which would not be physically seen until just before death. The sight of one's fetch was, indeed, a signal of the ending of one's life.

There are a few passages in the sources which are interpreted by some as indicating an ancient heathen belief in reincarnation, but they are far from compelling. Some modern heathens believe in the continuation of part of a person through reincarnation, while others do not.

Extremists and misappropriation of heathenry

Unfortunately, like many religions, heathenry does suffer from some unsavoury elements, and whilst the majority of heathens do not associate or engage with these groups or individuals in any way, they do exist.  This darker side of heathenry is more prevalent in the US and Canada, however there are unfortunately also some elements in the UK. These individuals use heathenry as a mask for racist and discriminatory beliefs. They argue that heathenry should only be open to those of northern European descent. They also tend to have discriminatory beliefs towards women and members of the LGBTQ+ community, and place an unhealthy emphasis on masculinity.

These beliefs are universally rejected by the majority of heathens, as they are simply not compatible with heathenry. Heathens believe Odin wonders the whole world, and with his brothers created all mankind. This includes people of all races and ethnicities. Heathenry has many strong female goddesses, and historical evidence suggests that women historically had far more importance in society under pagan rule than they did under Christianity. There is also no justification for homophobia or transphobia in heathenry. Indeed, evidence from mythology suggests that there are hardly any sexual taboos at all amongst the Gods. Cross dressing, homosexuality and polygamy all feature. Ironically, the beliefs of these groups have far more in common with hardline Christian groups like the KKK and Westborough Baptist Church than they do with heathenry. They have adopted heathen symbols, and cherry-picked parts of the mythology that fits their agenda, but ignored the vast majority of heathen values. In the same way as the KKK does not represent Christianity, and Daesh does not represent Islam, these racist groups do not represent heathenry.

Unfortunately the media loves sensationalism, and as a result the unsavoury side of heathenry gets a disproportionate amount of coverage, with stories of ‘neo-nazi rituals’ dominating the headlines, and normal, peaceful and inclusive heathens being largely ignored. It is vitally important that we work to dispel the myths, and raise awareness of what true heathen values are, and that there is no place in our beliefs for discrimination of any kind.  

Heathenry and other contemporary pagan spiritualities

Heathenry is a living religion based on literary and archaeological sources for the religious practices of a particular pre-christian culture and extended by the relationships of modern heathens with their gods. It differs from wicca and other modern day non-reconstructionist pagan paths in a number of ways. Perhaps the primary difference is that heathens are 'hard polytheists': they honour a large number of individual gods, goddesses and other spiritual beings whom they see as existing independently from humans. And in common with many indigenous religions world-wide, they also honour their ancestors.

Heathens differ from wiccans and many of the other modern day non-reconstructionist pagans in many other ways. They reject the concept that all Goddesses are aspects of 'The Goddess' and that all Gods are aspects of her consort. They also reject the Jungian concept of Gods and Goddesses as archetypes in the unconscious mind. Heathen festivals do not follow the 'Eight Fold Wheel of the Year' based on solstices and equinoxes. Their rituals do not involve 'casting circles' or 'calling quarters'. Magic is not an essential or central part of heathenry, and the majority of heathens do not consider themselves 'witches'. There are no 'degrees of initiation' within heathen religion and no 'high priests' or 'high priestesses'.

Despite these theological differences, many heathens are involved in the wider pagan community for social and political reasons, and despite the differences, there are also plenty of similarities.


We would like to thank Alexa Duir and Arlea Hunt-Anschütz who wrote the heathenry page on the BBC website back in 2003 with input from Jenny Blain, and the team UK Heathenry. This article has drawn upon much of the work done for that article, but added to and brought it up to date, as a lot has changed over the nearly 2 decades since.

The original article can be found here:

 http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/paganism/subdivisions/heathenry_1.shtml