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Of Roots and Branches: Balancing Tradition and Innovation in Modern Heathenry

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(Written by new HHH contributing author Eric Word-Weaver Sjerven, Gođi of the Hridgar Folk.)

Throughout my short years on Midgard, I have seen Heathens debate on the nature of Heathenry and what forms it should take. Not one for quiet repose, I, all too often, expound on my own insights regarding the way I see the world… my Heathen Worldview. While the fullness of this philosophical exercise is beyond the scope of a simple article, a key metaphor fuels my approach and merits further exploration. I have long seen Heathenry as a Tree; rather, I see each individual Heathen as a Tree, coming together in the forest of Heathenry today.

The trunk of that tree represents our current place in Wyrd, Verđandi’s domain. It is in the here and now that we weave the patterns of our actions and deeds into the trunk rings that will be recorded in our Orlog for the betterment of those that will come after us. It is in these times that we strive to grow and build strength in the world around us. Each experience, each choice, expands that trunk as our tree grows day by day. This is as things are, each tree bears a trunk, but the meat of this metaphor is in the branches and roots. Let us explore.

It is essential to any tree that its roots run deep and be strongly set in the soil to survive. The tree draws nourishment from the soil, and the decayed forms of trees gone by are the life-sustaining kiss of the Earth supporting the great trunk. Waters from the well are pulled upward through the roots into the trunk that it may thrive and reach its fullest potential. Without these roots, the tree would wither and calcify into a mockery of what once was a tree. So too does each Heathen drink deep from Urđarbrunnr (Urđ’s Well, the Well of Wyrd). It is said that the Norns bathe the roots of Yggdrasil in the waters of this bubbling wellspring, caking the roots in the white clay mud of the well. Urđ’s well holds the full might of our Orlog, that primal layer of Wyrd recording the deeds of our Ancestors as they have gone before us. As Heathens today, we drink deep of those waters and nourish our souls. Within those ancient waters, we find the marks of ritual and tradition set down by our ancestors. We take those waters deep within and make them a piece of our souls. These traditions feed our Heathenry today, and it is by them that we know what it is to be a Heathen. As such, the roots of tradition are essential to any Heathen seeking to stand strong in the current world whose climate is not yet hospitable to the ancient growth of the Heathen Tree.

Just as a tree needs roots to grow and sustain, no tree will grow to full size unless it is free to grow toward the heavens. Reaching for the divine, the tree continues to change its shape and form. Free growing branches reach skyward, stretching out to gain that life-giving kiss of Sunna’s grace. This growth is guided by the need to survive, yet it is not bound by predetermined designs and dictations of what should be a “tree.” Rather, the leaves reach out toward that from which it finds nourishment. Each limb branching as the need pulls it in a different direction. No two Oaks appear the same, the Ash is as much a tree as the pine, yet their forms are strange and alien to one another. Two trees planted next to one another will not grow identically, even if they come from the same parent tree. Instead, their branches take on a wonderful mosaic of cause and effect. A topiary crafted by the wild, tended by the hand of Wyrd, trimmed by need and reaction to the environment. Without this growth, the artistic swath of Skuld’s brush, the tree will slowly die as well. It is through the budding greenery that the sunlight is photosynthesized into energy, feeding the body and soul of the tree. This is the new development of Heathenry today. Each bud is a fresh insight and a new interpretation that allows the Tree of Heathenry to thrive in an ever changing world.

Many would call this Unverifiable Personal Gnosis, or UPG. I find this to be an ugly word that devalues personal insight and experience. Without this new growth, the tree will not thrive. It will be a lifeless husk of a tree, slowly rotting away without the warmth of the sun to fuel it. The skyward reach of the branches harkens to the Heathen’s constant striving to reach out for the divine. The Gods and Goddesses kiss our branches with light as we grow.

Each of these components is essential for the tree to reach its fullest potential, but, as is urged in the Havamal, moderation is key. A tree that is all roots and no branch quickly becomes root-bound. Herein, all of the energy is focused into the roots, and no new growth feeds the tree from above. A root-bound tree is choked to death by its own life-sustaining structures, and the tree dies a slow and agonizing death. In the end, a rotten stump is all that remains, unmoving as it is firmly attached to the ground, but dead all the same. If Heathens focus overmuch on tradition, to the detriment of new growth, we become bound by therestrictions of an age gone by, and the trunk of our Heathen tree grows sick and withers. Similarly, a tree that is all branch and no roots will topple with the first headwind that comes by. If Heathenry today is composed of new growth without rooting in tradition, then the construct will topple at the first sign of opposition. New growth must be rooted in tradition, but allowed to grow and develop as it needs in this ever-changing world in which we live. It is through the balance of these elements, roots in tradition and new growth into innovation, that our trunk grows, ring by ring, deed by deed. There, in the middle, we stand strong, nourished from below and stretching toward the Gods with each deed we undertake.

The roots of Orlog feed the trunk of Wyrd as the branches reach toward the unmaterialized possibilities of Skuld’s domain. The tree starts as roots first, growing into the trunk, then ever expanding through the branches and buds. This is Heathenry today. We begin with tradition, learning of the Old Ways, hearing the call of our Gods and Goddesses, and we begin to grow. Our trunk solidifies as we begin to take the steps forward that are fueled by the inspiration of our Ancestors. Once we are firmly set in the soil, we are free to grow toward new heights, expanding our understanding and making Heathenry a living, breathing entity in the modern ecosystem. It is easy to become firmly ensconced in either roots or new growth, all the while forgetting to nourish the other. If balance is maintained, and the tree nurtured along its natural path, the resulting giant will be wondrous to behold and strong enough to be viewed in awe by the new growth in generations to come.

What is known is that we live and die here on Midgard. We worship the Gods and Goddesses, revere our ancestors, maintain a relationship with the Vaettir, and tend to our folk. All the while, we seek to leave behind a mark that will be remembered fondly by those that continue to speak our names. We seek to grow our individual trees strong and true so that they will make worthy contributions to the forest of Heathenry that is sprouting up today. Sagas were written by our ancestors, great deeds remembered. It falls to us now to undertake those things that will be worth telling in the generations to come, so that our names may echo over the horn in Symbels yet to come.

To do this, we must tend our trees. We must grow them strong enough to stand the test of time and with sufficient new growth to bear the fruit that will go to seed for the future generations of Heathenry. The fruits of our actions will nourish and foster the seedlings of tomorrow to become even greater than we can reach in our lifetimes. Without this, the forest will die in one season, and only the petrified remains would mark our presence on Midgard. Instead, we strive to leave a living memory that will flourish long past our days on this Earth. What then is your choice? How do you balance the pull of the roots with the weight of new growth? Will your tree stand the test of time and weather the storm? Only you can know the answer to these questions. Choose well, for together, tribes form great forests of beautiful trees, swaying and growing as the Gods intended when they crafted us from Askr and Embla. These legacies will form the groves of tomorrow wherein future generations of Heathens will find the Gods, and in so doing, find themselves. Grow strong friends, and may your tree stand for ages to come.

Eric Word-Weaver Sjerven is the Gođi of the Hridgar Folk, a Heathen Tribe in Texas.  He has been a Heathen since his teenage years and has a unique view on the world that he shares through his writings and his YouTube channel.  His focus is largely on Grassroots Heathenry and finding a balance between innovation and tradition within Heathenry today.  His YouTube channel can be found at https://www.youtube.com/ericwordweaversjerven.

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