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Is Heathenry Incomplete?

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Heathenry, in all of its many forms, is a reconstructed (or “reconstructed-ish”) religion. As Heathens, we’re essentially taking as much as we can about what Ancient Heathens did and said and bringing it forward to guide our own religious and spiritual practices. Some Heathens stick as close to the information found in the sagas and eddas as they can; other Heathens are inspired by the materials in these resources but do not attempt to use any idea or belief verbatim. Whichever side of the Heathen spectrum we fall on, however, we all have the same basic problem: we only have a limited amount of information to go on. This being the case, how can we recreate full, living Heathen religion?

There’s been several very good, thoughtful articles this year about whether Modern Heathenry is complete that have provided much food for thought. Dagulf Loptson, a longtime Heathen and member of the Troth writing on Polytheist.com, points out that as we are a reconstructed religion with no “unbroken living tradition”, such as perhaps may exist with Santeria or Judaism, there is much that we’re missing. I agree with him in this for the most part. We are particularly missing those aspects of the religion than can’t be preserved in material culture, like songs and dances. In addition, because in the Old Norse and Germanic cultures, writing was not used to record myths or histories or to create literary works of any kind, and nothing was written down by them or their contemporaries, we only have a limited amount of written material to go on as well. (Snorri, a Christian writing maybe 300 years later, doesn’t count as a contemporary.)

While the source material may be much older, the remnants we have are limited by a number of factors: 1) what Snorri and his contemporaries knew about; 2) what of that Snorri and his contemporaries decided to record; 3) of that, what we in the modern world have found, 4) and then translated into English; and 5) that unless you have put in the time and effort to read and discuss all of the lore than has been translated into English, you’re limited to what those other scholars have decided to share with a larger audience. Even then, we may be missing some crucial details; the scholar’s interpretations of the surviving evidence is always changing. For example, we now know that many of those skeletons buried in “warrior’s graves” were actually women and not, as previously assumed, “small men”. (This sheds a whole new light on the concept of the shield maiden; just sayin’.)

However, not all is lost. From the Voluspa (“The Prophesy of the Seeress”, from the Poetic Edda), we get a fairly detailed example of a ritual and the technique (and cultural attitudes) around the practice of spae (“far seeing”). From the Gesta Danorum (“The History of the Danes”), by Saxo Grammaticus (which includes the material that was the basis for Hamlet as well as the story of Ragnar Lodbrok), we get information on what kind of offerings each deity was given. The Havamal also lists various “charms”, though the specifics of how to work these charms are not included. Also, we have several Anglo-Saxon resources, such as the Leechbook, which list spells for various needs and ailments. So we are not completely at a loss when it comes to the magical, spiritual, and religious practices from back in the day.

The question then becomes how much of the specific details and non-material culture do we really need to reconstruct the basic Heathen belief system and practices? Alyxander Folmer, creator of HHH (and also the husband of a rabbi), wrote this response to Dagulf’s article. First, he points out that even those cultures which seem to have a long, unbroken history (such as Judaism) have themselves changed quite a bit over the years. Modern Judaism, in all of its forms today, doesn’t look at all like the Temple-era Judaism of 2000+ years ago. All things change over time, including components of culture such as religious customs and languages.

Secondly, he points out that we have a living religion–people have been holding blots, worshiping the gods, making offerings and sacrifices, and creating songs and dances and rituals that work for us, here in the modern day, for over thirty years now. We are having discussions online and in person about how to do this thing called Heathenry and make it work for us. As such, it’s really a challenge to be a solitary Heathen. This isn’t Wicca; it’s hard to be a solitary practitioner and attempt to reconstruct what is essentially a tribal religion. Even if the only community you can find is online rather than in person, that’s still considerably better than trying to walk this path alone.

So, to go back to the initial question of this article: is Heathenry lacking anything that we can’t that we can’t reconstruct or create ourselves? I don’t think so. While it would certainly be a whole lot easier if we did have a living tradition to pull from, where all of these songs, dances, practices, and beliefs were already known and fully entrenched into our day-to-day lives, for me, personally, the Heathen practice I have practice I have now is very fulfilling. It’s fulfilling in no small part because I took to time to find out what I needed and what worked for me: I took a lot of time (and continue to put in a lot of time and effort) into reaching out to other Heathens and other Pagans or Polytheists who have gone through similar struggles, to share thoughts and ideas and find things that work for my Heathen practice. If Heathenry incomplete, in my opinion it is up to each individual Heathen to decide for themselves what is missing in their particular Heathen practice and go out and get the necessary information or experience to create or reconstruct those missing components. Ideally, once this knowledge has been gained, it would be shared  in some way with the rest of the Heathen community. Modern Heathenry can continue to grow in complexity and scope, but as with anything valuable, it takes hard work.

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