Our American Folk
We’ve been having a thoughtful conversation across blogs lately about what Heathenry is (or isn’t) missing. It is, of course, a conversation we’ve been having for forty years. Before we had it online, we had it in magazines, and before we had it in magazines, we had it in mimeographed newsletters. Wherever we’ve had it, though, we’ve been having it in English, and that means that we’ve assumed a few things, and that we’ve missed a few more.
What we’ve largely assumed is that there are two places to source our Heathenry. One is the record of a religion that died centuries ago—the Eddas, some fragmentary records beyond them, and what our modern disciplines of archaeology and comparative linguistics can tell us about a way of life and thought largely extirpated by the coming of Christianity. To fill in the gaps, we can turn to another source in traditions outside Heathenry that are, in some way, cognate—Hinduism (our closest “living” relative), as well as indigenous religions the world over that preserve something of premodern sensitivities.
What we’ve largely missed is the significance of our own folk tradition. This is something that has not been lost on the Scandinavians. In the US, the UK, and Iceland, we frame a debate between eclecticism and a strict(er) reconstructionism. In continental Scandinavia and the German-speaking countries, however, these terms mean something rather different. There, “eclecticism” doesn’t refer to incorporating ideas or practices from outside Germanic lore, but rather to basing your practice primarily on academic research and the Eddas. This is what the Scandinavians call (confusingly, in an international context) Ásatrú.
It contrasts with something they call fólkatrú, which is not “folkish” Heathenry, but instead Heathenry practiced primarily from folk custom. For people living in the countries where medieval Heathenry happened, carrying on the old village dances and learning local cunning-craft is being true to the ways of the folk, while sifting the pages of manuscripts compiled by Catholic priests more than two centuries after the conversion looks suspiciously like borrowing from outside the “authentic” tradition. To a Heathen in Sweden, virtually everyone in the US is “eclectic”, and the Heathenry of the most rigorous and scholarly kindreds here might as well be Wiccatrú.
Of course, North American Heathens recognize the significance to their practice of Scandinavian folk customs, just not usually their own. What is most interesting about fólkatrú practice really is not what it includes, but what it excludes. When Dagulf Loptson asked What Is Heathenry Missing? he noted how, in the absence of much detailed record of the spiritual technologies of pre-Christian northern Europe, modern Heathens substitute technologies they know from Christianity—scripture study, sermonizing, spontaneous prayer, etc. This doesn’t just apply to technologies, though; it applies to basic concepts as well. The majority of the world’s languages (including Old Norse) have had no word for “religion” as a category of human thought and activity separate from the ordinary working of their cultures, and even the Latin religio originally meant something much more like our “folkway”. Its earliest uses by Christians had this connotation, drawing on a long Abrahamic tradition of treating new covenants with YHWH as the establishment of new “nations”. When early Christian writers proclaimed that their religio was the worship of only one god, they did not mean so much that this was the doctrine of a church they had joined, but that it was the custom of the new “nation” or people of which they were now an organic part. Only after prolonged struggle first with the remnants of Roman Paganism (which, for the first time, was learning to articulate itself as something other than the assumed tradition of the community), and then with Islam (the rapid advance of which triggered huge relocations of peoples and disruptions of established ethnic identities), did religio begin to mean a special set of beliefs and practices distinct from ethnic identity. (I highly recommend this interview for more on the history and evolution of the term.)
We have to remember, then, that medieval Norse people would not have imagined their “religion” as a specific creed that could be renounced, or as a set of practices that might fall into abeyance. Their Heathenry was a loose set of ideas and customs that drew religious legitimacy not from adherence to a defined model, but simply from the fact that they were prevalent among the folk. This self-understanding was similar, in this way, to that of Jews or Hindus—communities which, as Alyxander Folmer notes, have reinvented themselves almost completely through history. This is why a fólkatrú practitioner sees the Eddas as a kind of foreign, invasive imposition on modern Heathenry, instead of as a model. Modern Scandinavian culture is a lineal descendant of Norse culture, but it is something different, and the only religious expression that can be authentic to it is what has survived of its own accord. To reimpose the past is, in this sense, every bit as “eclectic” as to newly impose the foreign. And yet even the most traditional parts of Scandinavia (with the exception of some of the distant Saami tribes in the extreme north) have been Christianized for centuries, and the people who passed down those traditions did not do so as Heathens. They may preserve much of Heathen tradition, but we cannot really speak of an unbroken connection as a religion, can we?
Again, we find ourselves mired in our modern terms. No one in pre-Christian Scandinavia thought of themselves self-consciously as “Heathen” or any other defined term, or thought of their worship of the Gods as a “religion” in the sense that we understand the word. A better window into their way of understanding comes from the term “worship”. In its modern sense, the term is exceedingly complex, and I have argued elsewhere that it should be retired from Pagan vocabulary because, by the strict theological meaning it has come to hold since the Christianization, Pagans don’t actually “worship” their Gods at all. Its original meaning was quite simple, though, and is still very useful for understanding how our forebears understood their work. The Anglo-Saxon term weorthscipe was not necessarily a “religious” term at all; it simply indicated that you were acknowledging someone or something as being “worth-y” of respect. To this day, magistrates in Britain are addressed as “your Worship” without the slightest hint of idolatry. The Anglo-Saxons (and other Germanic peoples with cognate terms, such as the Scandinavian cultures) worshiped their chiefs, their mothers, and their favorite trees. On the grandest scale, they worshiped their Gods.
We must not confuse a quantitative difference for a qualitative one. By its original, Viking Age meaning, “worship” included a vast and diverse array of acts, including very small ones. Carving statues of the Gods, telling Their stories, or teaching your children to see Their mighty weapons in the constellations, were all worship to the medieval Norse. Christians of the middle ages often appear to us to have been insanely intolerant of what seem, to us, innocuous artistic and cultural traditions, but the reason (in no way an excuse, but a reason) becomes apparent when we recall (as the inquisitors did) that a vast array of everyday activities that a Christian might regard as “cultural” and not religious, and thus think innocently to participate in, are, within the framework of an indigenous culture with no strict culture/religion separation, acts of worship.
Culture is a hard thing to subdue, however, and for centuries Christians have still been remembering the Gods in their national anthems, telling Their stories in opera, and honoring Them in the naming of chemical elements. Most of these men and women saw these acts simply as celebrations of their cultural heritage, but their ancestors would have called them worship and troth to the ways of the folk.
So we come, at last, to America—poor, distant, insecure America, which is perpetually afraid that it has no tradition. It is here that the Eddas reign most supreme, that wedding vows are MLA-formatted, and that piety is measured by archaeological h-index, all largely because we think ourselves isolated. Perhaps, if only we had access to the stream of living folk tradition that those lucky Scandinavians do (to say nothing of access to their free university educations and thirty-six hour work weeks) we, too, could produce a fólkatrú Heathenry…
We sell ourselves short.
My wife and I are members of the American Swedish Institute here in Minneapolis, and have a poignant view of just how much unintentional Heathen worship was brought here with immigrants, most of whom came far more recently than Americans tend to think. This awareness gives a vision, though, beyond mere inheritance, to the ways in which those traditions have birthed new and unique expressions here. There are authentic, American forms of Heathen worship even if, as in the old countries, the people responsible for them did not think of themselves as Heathens. Some resemble the Old World and some are altogether original, but all are legitimate. North American worship of the Gods is not restricted to what we as the Heathen community have birthed in the last four decades, but is a much older and mightier growth, upon which modern Heathenry is only the latest flowering of a single branch.
There are limits, of course, to the usefulness of our innovations. I am certainly not suggesting we should use the Marvel Cinematic Universe™ as a Heathen Book of Mormon (as fascinating as that would be). The limits, however, are set only by the acceptability of our new, traditional worship to the living community. What has power and resonance, and speaks to us in our own idiom, will survive and deserves to (a Black Heimdallr, for example, actually makes a lot more sense given His role as the “father of mankind”, considering what we know about the African origins of humanity); what does not will remain simple entertainment and eventually pass from memory. The end result will be our North American fólkatrú—inspired by archaeology and Edda, certainly—but unbounded by them. It will often seem strange to our European brethren and sistren, and often enough will seem strange even to ourselves, but it will be authentic to who we are, and this is enough to make it true to who our ancestors, of blood or of spirit, were and wanted us to be.