Quite a bit, as it turns out.
We all know about The Lore. You know, The Lore, capitalized. Generally referring to the Eddas and related documents, more broadly to information regarding the people of the Northern European cultures and time periods that we include in Heathenry that was recorded or produced in the pre-Christian era. It sometimes is broadened to include conclusions drawn from archeological finds and folklore and practices from that time that have survived into the modern day.
There is nothing we like arguing about more, is there? Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that there is no tool we like using more in our arguments about Heathenry. It’s a fine tool and it provides many advantages to modern Heathen practice.
It gives us common ground for our discussions. When discussing a subject, whether a God or a holy day or the price of fish in Reykjavik, it’s useful to have a common body of knowledge to compare notes on. Most of us have our own gnosis, but arguing your gnosis against someone else’s can get tiresome. “Odin told me he likes coffee.” “Nuh-uh!” “Yuh-huh!” “Prove it!” “Um….”
While it’s very hard to “‘prove” your gnosis, it’s not hard to prove that what we find in books is found in those books. Whether or not you trust the source is a matter of your own opinion, but we know that whoever sang the Havamal thought that Odin said, “Cattle die and kinsmen die, etc..”. We know what’s been written and crafted; all else is based around interpretation or knowledge brought by the soft brush or roaring tempest of od. If we base what we do off of what we do have a solid knowledge of then we are closer to the Old Ways than we would be otherwise.
It helps us understand the Ancestors. I am rather critical of the idea that there was a magnificent pan-Germanic hive mind that only Real Heathens can understand. I am also aware that it is helpful to have an understanding of the worldview of the cultures we draw from to connect to the Gods and Ancestors associated with them. It is important to acknowledge that many of the people who practiced in the ways that we seek to reconstruct, revive, or re-imagine lived with concepts that are a bit alien to modern Western thought like wyrd, orlog, hamingja, fylgja, frith, grith, and to be honest the whole polytheism thing. Context is vital to understanding; nothing exists in a vacuum. Conflating these things with modern concepts can lead to misunderstandings about the nature of our Gods and our ways. There may be value in modern re-interpretation, but if you do not start with a solid base of understanding you may soon find yourself floundering in the waters of confusion and spiritual irrelevance.
Understanding the Ancestors can help us connect to them in a very real spiritual way. Venerating a hero from one of our tales is a way to build a bridge to them and give appreciation to someone who inspires you and honor their kin and family (who may be among your ancestors) in the process.
It gives us source material for our practice. We haven’t been handed down any Heathen Books of Prayer from back in the day (though we do have a couple of pieces), but that doesn’t mean that we don’t have good material to work from. The names, epithets, attributes, and tales about our Gods provide fertile ground for modern invocations, devotional pieces, and prayers. Tales from the Sagas can provide ample hints and occasional specifics on ritual practice and religious observance. Beliefs regarding these things can also be inferred, adding to understanding of the cosmology of the authors, again vital for proper living religious practice.
Now, there a few ways that Lore can be used misused:
As a tool of control. There are forms of abuse that small, insular, tribal communities tend to breed. This does not mean that we should not form such tribal communities, but it is a good idea to watch out for places where Lore is used to reinforce the power of harmful authorities and take advantage of the marginalized and socially disempowered members of our communities.
As a weapon. There are those that take a special glee in proclaiming that ergi folks (however they choose to define that) or sexually liberated women should be cast into bogs. There are those who use the Lay of Rig to suggest that folks with darker skin should be slaves. There are folks in every faith who will use it to encourage abominable acts and ours is no exception. Using the Lore as justification for fanning the flames of hatred is as evil as using any other means of doing so, and more harmful to our people.
As an ego booster. It is good to be proud of scholarly accomplishments. It is rude to use that knowledge to denigrate others. It is foolish to assume that your knowledge makes you better at anything but knowing what you know.
You can’t follow all of the Lore. It’s sometimes contradictory, often piecemeal, and interpreted differently by many. What we call the Lore is the sum of the artifacts of a small number of individuals and tribes and in some cases may not have been representative of the views of the majority. You don’t need to start brushing your teeth with a twig just because a member of the Varangian Guard came home with a miswak. You don’t need to join your love in a funeral pyre just because Ibn Fadlan claimed that he saw it happen. There are places where the values and practices we’ve learned from our society are good to keep. There are places where they are necessary to keep in order to remain in touch with our recent Ancestors and surrounding culture and society. Sometimes they can be seen in a whole new light when witnessed through the lens of Heathenry.
In the Voluspa, when the seeress speaks of the aftermath of Ragnarok, she speaks of the lost gaming pieces scattered across the field, the pieces that the Gods played with before the end of the last age. That’s how I think of the bits of the Lore: scattered remnants of a grand but shattered thing. They serve as reminders of past majesty and power, inspiration for future creations, and in our reactions to them a mirror to who we are as people now. We may build great things without the aid of these pieces, but the things that we build around them can help to tie us back to our origins and the ancient power that stirs within them.