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The Ancestors as Bridges Instead of Barriers

About

Dagulf Loptson has been a devotee of Loki and the Northern Powers for over 20 years. He is a tattoo artist, with a focus on devotional tattoos for polytheists, and is the author of Playing With Fire: An Exploration of Loki Laufeyjarson through Asphodel Press.

It is unfortunate that factions of outspoken white nationalists have increasingly found their way into Heathenry and, perhaps due to this, the subject of lineage and ancestry in the Northern Traditions has become an extremely sensitive one. Because of a desire of more moderate Heathens to distance themselves from these elements, I am afraid that I am beginning to see an opposite, knee-jerk reaction arising in Heathen discussion: ignoring or downplaying the lineage, power, and cultural significance of the European ancestors entirely, and essentially writing them out of their own legacy. I personally tend to lean towards the stance of Adoptive Heathenry, which I define as a belief that ancestry and lineage do carry spiritual power; however, if the gods, spirits, and ancestors of Northern/Western Europe are genuinely calling to someone who is not of Germanic ancestry, then they can be ritualistically adopted into the lineage, and thereby be considered a spiritual (if not genetic) part of that family.

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Rituals of initiation are the common way of accomplishing these adoptions in unbroken traditions like Vodou, Santeria, Ifa, Hinduism, Shinto, Native American traditional religions, and Judaism. Though of course there are people in some of these traditions who resemble those on the Folkish spectrum, and are suspicious or hostile to the idea of people outside of their physical lineage being adopted into their spiritual ones, there are many others who are open to the idea of admitting sincere devotees or those who the spirits direct them to adopt into the tradition. In Santeria, Hinduism, and Judaism, this may take the form of a special ritual (often including a ritual bath) and usually a re-naming of that person with a traditional name. A precursor to this in some traditions may be using divination to ask the blessing of the gods and ancestors on the new convert or making them go through some kind of ordeal or test of their sincerity. This is certainly the case in Santeria and Palo, where many initiates are not directly descended from the Yoruba or Congo people (though of course there are many who are the direct descendants of those people as well). These traditions also each have their own ways of forging a relationship between the devotee and the ancestors of the lineage they are adopting. Unfortunately, the ancestors of Northern and Western Europe have been used so often as a bludgeoning stick against Heathens of non-European descent, that I feel many people are becoming increasingly uncomfortable talking about the European ancestors at all. I have heard it stated more than once by liberal-leaning Heathens that “the gods are not white”. While this may be true, it’s hard to deny that it would sound incredibly racist and dismissive to apply this logic to other cultures: The Orishas aren’t really black, Tezcatlipoca isn’t really Mexican, Kuan Yin isn’t really Asian, therefore their lineage doesn’t matter? While removing the Germanic gods from the context of their European roots may be a simple way to eliminate the problem of racial exclusion, it also sounds to me to be a disrespectful way of sweeping the ancestors who created their traditions under the carpet. The Germanic gods may not be “white”, but they are certainly a European expression of the divine.

If I, as a purely European-descended person, began to adopt the spiritual culture of Nigeria but gave no recognition to its ancestors, there are plenty of people who would find that offensive, and (quite correctly) call my behavior out as the cultural appropriation that it is. Even if I was very sincere in my worship of Orisha, by ignoring or downplaying the lineage of ancestors and their descendants that the tradition owes its existence to, I am neglecting to honor the ancestors on whose shoulders I’m standing (or in this example, trampling on). It is my belief that when you are inheriting a tradition, you are not just inheriting the tradition itself, but also the ancestors whose thoughts, prayers, victories, and struggles carried that tradition to you in the first place. The ancestors of Europe are not the only exception to this rule because many of their descendants have regretfully done some heinous things to other peoples and cultures in recent history.

This can be a very different way of seeing the world for people who are used to Universalist religions like Christianity and Islam, whose only condition for entry is to state that you’re Christian or Muslim. Since lineage and ancestry is, in my opinion, a spiritually important thing to consider when adopting the religion of a certain people, I think the logical question for modern Heathens of all ancestries is: how can a spiritual connection to the ancestors of these traditions be created in a healthy way, instead of using the ancestors as supernatural barriers around exclusive “white-only clubs”? The other next tricky question to ask is: as no Heathen religion possesses a perfect, unbroken lineage going back to Europe, do people of European descent, like myself, even have the ability (or authority) to bridge that connection for people of other ethnicities? Or due to the condition of modern Heathenry, is this a relationship the ancestors and devotees must forge on their own?

If one leans towards an adoptive way of approaching heathenry, some form of initiation or oath ceremony into one’s ancestral religion may be seen as a solution for forging that spiritual link with the Western/Northern European ancestors and non-European people. One could turn to divination to make sure that the ancestors and the gods are in support of adopting this person into their spiritual line, and this really is the most beneficial path for them at this time (as often occurs in African Traditional Religions). Some may find a re-naming with an ancient Germanic name while sprinkling the person with water as an appropriate way of accomplishing spiritual adoption, as naming ceremonies of this sort were possibly performed for new babies in the Viking Age. BabysprinklesWe also have descriptions of rights of blood brotherhood that could conceivably be used to forge a link between the new devotee and the blood of the Germanic ancestors. For people of non-European ethnicities who are solitary Heathens, along with keeping a shrine for their blood ancestors they might consider keeping a shrine for the ancestors of Heathen Europe as well. I would like to stress that these suggestions aren’t being put forward to imply that people of non-European descent need validation to honor the Germanic gods; rather that the ancestors of the traditions they’re practicing deserve recognition and respect.

I think as Heathens we talk a great deal about people fostering relationships with their blood ancestors, as was customary among many polytheistic traditions. While this is certainly a good thing to do regardless of tradition, I have rarely seen discussion about the ancestors we inherit spiritually (which may be the same as our blood or not). We often talk about the gods calling someone of non-European descent, but rarely about the role the European ancestors come to play in that person’s life. It is my suggestion that whether a Heathen possesses no European ancestry, is predominately of Celtic ancestry rather than Germanic, or is 100% Norwegian in origin; their spiritual ancestors are same and need to be acknowledged and respected. A shifting of consciousness towards how to treat the Northern and Western European ancestors could become the link that ties Heathens of all ethnicities together, rather than determining who comes in and who stays out.

So, to end with some food for thought: are there ways in which the Heathen ancestors could become bridges rather than barriers for non-European descended converts by including them in their practice? Are the blood descendants of the Heathen ancestors qualified to facilitate some kind of spirit adoptions on behalf of their ancestors, or should that be left up to the ancestors themselves? What kinds of spiritual technology do unbroken traditions use to accomplish ritual adoption today, and are there any comparable traditions we could be looking to for inspiration? I love my ancestors (who just happen to be Europeans from many regions) and don’t want to see them explained away as unimportant technicalities in their newly revived traditions, but neither do I want them used as excuses to turn away sincere people. It’s my hope that more inclusionary Heathens can take the ancestors back in a way that can be healing for anyone that wants to enter Heathenry, whether they are descended from Europe or not. When it comes to the ancestors, I don’t think it has to be all or nothing.

2016 Huginn's Heathen Hof