So you want to be a Heathen
Recently in a Facebook group I’m part of a friend asked the question: “let’s say someone is interested in becoming a Nordic Pagan, what advice would you give and what would you suggest to them?” I find this to be an important subject, and how we answer says a lot about what Heathenry is to us. As I’m a Swedish Heathen, there are parts of how I answer that won’t work in other countries – societal and cultural differences may be in the way, or the way Heathenry works there may be too different. Still, I’m going to give this a shot. (Obviously, this isn’t the only way to become a Heathen, if that even needed to be said…)
I always argue that one needs to start by practicing rather than getting bogged down in the minutiae of belief. Europe and the areas once under European control has been heavily influenced in matters of religion by Christianity; maybe one can even claim that our collective understanding of what religion is has been largely shaped by it and in particular its focus on belief. Especially in northern Europe where Protestantism has dominated for centuries, emphasizing “sola fide”, there is a tradition of disregarding things like sacraments and the more ‘magical’ practices in favor of just talking. And talking about what people should believe. What is the right thing to believe? This causes many people who are interested in Heathenry to ask what we believe about certain things, expecting me as a representative of a Heathen organization to convince them that I have all the answers. Or recommend them a book that does.
If one wants to understand Heathenry, one needs to start with actions, by doing Heathenry. To my mind, one cannot overstate the importance of practice. I would argue that practice is the most important part of becoming a Heathen. Ours is a religion of doing. This doesn’t mean, as some critics of Heathenry would have it, that we don’t believe, but that belief is largely a personal matter. Heathen religion spans thousands of years, and belief has varied a lot over time and between places. (And, let’s not forget, so have practice, which sort of rules out the One Right Way of Doing It approach to cult as well.) But it was never an armchair religion. Taking a purely theoretical and philosophical approach to Heathenry isn’t bad, but if that is what you’re looking for this post won’t have very much of interest for you, I’m afraid.
But how to start doing Heathenry then. While it’s strictly speaking true that “you can do it any way you want”, this is not a very helpful answer. Saying this is meant to validate and empower the person asking to allow them to take responsibility for their own connection with the gods, but all too often it’s just confusing and paralyzing. Someone that has never seen a blót or anything similar may be at a total loss about what they can do. Because of this I usually advise that they try to find an existing group – blotlag, hearth, kindred – in their area and ask to attend a blót there. Learning from participating in a living tradition of a group that actually practices was the only way for thousands of years. A group that has existed for a few years, at least, will have found ways that work for them and developed relationships with both local spirits and certain gods, which will make it easier for someone starting out on the Heathen path. Even if one does not remain in a group, the experience and practical knowledge gained is invaluable when one practices on one’s own.
Of course, not all groups are open to outsiders, and even if they are they might not be the right group for you. There are a lot of things that can go wrong in a group, and if your gut feeling tells you there’s something off you should probably go with that feeling. But the complexities of joining a group is a much longer discussion than there is room for in this post.
Maybe there is no group where you live, or the groups around aren’t admitting new members, or you just don’t like the people in them. In many countries, there are organizations that hold larger blóts, open for anyone to attend whether one is a member or not. These blóts tend to be more infrequent that those held by local organizations, and due to the larger number of participants they may be quite different from blóts you will do by yourself at home. However, larger numbers also means not having to fit into an existing circle of friends, and if it turns out you don’t like the people or the mood there you can probably just slip away without worrying about people being offended. At the same time, you can get a feel for the way a blót is done, and established organizations are likely to have knowledgeable people open to answering your questions, or even trained clergy whose job it is to do so. Even if you have to travel far to get to something like this, the occasional cross country road trip shouldn’t deter you. Taking part in and experiencing blót at both the spiritual and hands-on level will tell you much more than reading about it.
There may be tons of reasons why you can do none of the things I’ve suggested above, does that mean you can’t hold blóts to the Norse gods? Of course not. I do believe you miss out on a big part of what modern Heathenry is, the shared experience and accumulated knowledge of our living traditions, but there are many Heathens that live away from others, doing their own thing and being happy with that. If that’s what you end up doing, by choice or out of necessity, my advice is to test different ways to approach the gods, different ways to hold a blót. Find what works for you.
Start simple, very simple, and build from there. Find a place where you can be undisturbed, a place that feels good, and bring a small offering. Find a tree, a lake, a stone that gives you a good feeling, and think of it as a meeting place. A place at which to find and be found. Talk to the place, talk to the gods, and do it out loud if you can. Speak from your heart or write something down in advance, but be personal, this is you introducing yourself to the gods, after all. You may feel silly, to begin with, but you’ll get over that after a while. Speak the names of the gods you want to know, greet them, tell them who you are, and tell them you bring them an offering. Hang it from a branch, throw it in the lake, or leave it on the stone. Or bury it in the ground, or burn it in a fire. I’m sure you can figure out what to do but remember not to offer something that might be harmful to nature, you’re there worshipping gods that are immanent in nature.
You might not feel anything the first time (or times), or you might be blown away by the intensity of the experience. Regardless, there are going to be times when nothing seems to happen, but persistence in practice is what gets us there in the end. Try doing things differently and see what works better for you. And this is the time to start doing research. I don’t know of any good beginner’s books for Heathens – good being the operative word here – but there’s a lot of suggestions around the web. Try them. Keep doing what works, and discard the rest. You’re the boss of you, and you’re doing it right.
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