Heathens are not, as a rule, very good at talking about spirituality. A Heathen acquaintance of mine is always quick to point this out in any discussion, which is really unfortunate as this tends to derail the conversation and take us away from the subject at hand. But no, we’re not terribly good at talking spirituality. Heathen discussions (at least online) tend to get bogged down by tangible matters like archaeological finds, or textual sources. I know I do this often when writing, too – trying to get this piece together sent me on many digressions into very non-spiritual things. Actual spirituality seems often to be brushed aside and regarded as “fluffy” and “New Age-y”. But to me, and I expect to many others, Heathenry is naturally very much about spiritual matters.
I find Heathenry to be a very self-conscious religion, because of it being a modern incarnation/iteration. Many come to Heathenry seeking (though often unconsciously so) the same kind of certainties that are found in other religions. Since it hasn’t been practiced as a religion in its own right for nearly one thousand years, many of these certainties are just not there. So we try to find them in academical research and historical sources. We pride ourselves on being a no-nonsense “religion with homework”, and frown upon anything that cannot be sourced or have references.
To a point, this is beneficial. Study and learning more is always good, but specifically in a religion such as ours, with no dogma, no popes, no holy writ, and where the boundaries aren’t set. There isn’t really any way to define Heathenry that includes both myself and at the same time certain other Heathens that I interact with, without being so general as to be useless (eg by including those who do not even define Themselves as Heathen). This focus on historical sources can act as a force for coherence, holding Heathenry together and preventing it from being diluted into a vague and generalized ‘paganism’, but to do so exclusively comes with a price and the cost can be the spirit of the religion itself.
It isn’t very easy to explain what spirituality is, though. I mean, obviously, it is something to do with spirit, but the sharp dichotomy between the spiritual and the material that is so ingrained into Western thought may not be entirely fitting for a Heathen context. Physical places in the world and very material surroundings, (trees, stones, earth and water), are important components of our traditions and the Heathen experience of the spiritual.
Heathen spirituality is based in experience, but these experiences can vary widely. The feeling of a presence or presences around you when you go for a walk in the woods, the sensation of meeting a deity when leaving an offering at the hörgr during a blót, or the overwhelming power of the feeling when a god speaks to you – these are some of my own experiences, and as such they are limited because they only reflect my own perceptions. Mine is a devotional Heathenry, and as such it is focused on “seeing” the gods, meeting them. My practices reflect this, and so does my philosophical and theological take.
Devotion is, I believe, the one spiritual path that is more widely practiced in Heathenry, but is also looked down upon. The idea of communicating with a deity is often ridiculed as delusional by people who use medieval texts as holy writ, even though there are many instances in the lore where people talk or otherwise interact with the gods. While I know that there are people out there that go around acting as if anything they want is what the gods really want, to my mind a very important part of our religion is a belief that we can communicate with the gods, and that the gods can act in our lives. The giving of offerings is itself a communication, and we often hope for an answer in one way or another.
But devotion is so much more than talking to the gods and listening for an answer. It takes place in so many things I do in life. Cooking can be a spiritual exercise, and so can cleaning (I’ve been told). Whenever I bake, and I do that regularly, I always try to remember to make a small bun that I mark with a gifu rune as a sign of it being a gift to the gods, and I place it on the kitchen altar. I might not always feel a powerful presence of a deity at that moment, but the sight of that bread on the altar in my kitchen does give me a sense of everything I do being part of a whole, where spirit and matter are separate, but flow into one another.
Even outside of Heathenry spiritual practices can take many forms. Singing and dancing can be intensely spiritual, as evidenced by Sufi dancing, Hindu bhajan and kirtan worship, or the possession-inducing dance-rituals of African Diaspora religions like Candomble or Vodoun. While I don’t know of dancing being used in what to a modern Westerner might be understood as a spiritual way in pre-Christian Scandinavia, having myself taken part in “kvaðdansur” to Heathen songs I can only say that I and others can testify to the effectiveness of the practice.
Whether or not one considers magic to be spirituality, there are those that are inspired by what little we know about (mainly Norse) pre-Christian magic practices. Much of modern seiðr that I hear described seems to be aimed at inducing spiritual experiences for the purposes of personal growth rather than the tool for helping or harming people and communities, as the ancient seiðr was. Even the galdr have been reinterpreted in a similar manner in some modern traditions. These traditions are not in the Heathen mainstream, though, and are frequently scoffed at and derided. “Fluffy”, “New Age” and “lack of historical precedent” are most often the reasons I heard level against these practices. But reinterpreting phenomena and concepts in one’s religion to suit new needs is a staple in the history of all religions. It should be embraced and lauded, even the ones that seem outlandish, for their bravery. Spirituality is needed to invigorate Heathenry and to inoculate it in a world of base concerns and ideals and to, literally, breathe life into what we do.