(Author’s note: This article is the follow up to Think Like a Heathen, Part 1: The Lore)
There are a lot of challenges inherent in bringing any part of a past culture into the modern world. Things as intangible as religious and spiritual beliefs are especially challenging because while historians and archaeologists can dig up some information about a culture, much of what they find is limited and very open to interpretation. What makes things more challenging for us as Heathens is that we are also reconstructing a working belief system from a series of loosely-related cultures that spanned many centuries and many countries. There are few clear-cut answers to be had, and despite our fervent wishes, no amount of studying the Lore is going to change that.
So while it is extremely important to at least attempt to read the original sources for our Lore (or if the language of the original sources is too thick, at least read or listen to well-respected retellings of the Lore), that’s only the beginning. If your Heathenry begins and ends at learning the Lore, however, I have bad news for you: you’re not a Heathen. Maybe you are a scholar; or a historian; or just someone interested in Vikings–which are all wonderful accomplishments in and of themselves, if that’s all you are aiming for. However, to be a Heathen you need broaden your horizons a bit and add in a few more vital things. Heathenry is a religion, and as such, it needs to incorporate religious practices and beliefs.
We live in the modern day. No matter what level of historical accuracy you’re aiming for in your Heathenry, it needs to work with modern ideas and meet modern needs. At this point in Heathenry’s development, we are blessed with a variety of published modern Heathen authors to draw from. For beginners, Diana Paxson’s Essential Asatru and Patricia M. Lafayllve’s A Practical Heathen’s Guide to Asatru describe Heathenry’s beliefs and history clearly and lay out some great ways to get your Heathen practice started. These books are accessible to all readers and blend academic research with modern practices.
For more in-depth discussions of Gods, rituals, and beliefs, Our Troth (Vols 1 and 2) is a highly recommended treasure trove. I received my copy of the original one-volume edition as a gift back in 1995, and the sheer amount and variety of academic and modern ritual material in it just blew my mind. So many other reconstructed religions at that point did not have anything like this, which is written from a practitioner’s viewpoint. (So much of our material back then was strict academic work, from HR Ellis-Davidson and others; very little was written by practicing Heathens for other Heathens.) Our Troth is very comprehensive and covers everything from modern Heathens’ UPGs on Freyr’s favorite foods to how to conduct Heathen weddings and funerals.
The Notorious UPGs (Unverified Personal Gnosis)
UPGs are “Unsubstantiated (or Unverified) Personal Gnosis”: in other words, beliefs based on ideas, dreams, intuitions, and experiences that a given person has regarding any of the Gods or spirits that aren’t specifically attested to in the Lore. These beliefs can be idiosyncratic to the one experiencing or it to a common belief based on experiences had by many Heathens in many parts of the world. These beliefs can be relatively small and innocuous, such as the belief some have that Frigga views housework as a worthy offering, or life-altering, like the belief that Tyr has chosen someone to become a warrior, and they decide to join the Marines.
Most religions are based on personal experiences with the divine. Whether these were dreams, meditations, or revelatory experiences one or two people had thousands of years ago (as with Christianity or Buddhism), or experiences that someone in your kindred had yesterday, these are all important and integral parts of a religious tradition. These types of experiences are especially important in small or emerging religious traditions, such as Heathenry, Wicca, and many other new or “Neo-pagan” religions. In a reconstructed religion, in particular, these types of experiences are what separate having an “interest in history” from a participating in living religious tradition.
An example of a common UPG is that I’ve come across (as a devotional polytheist who happens to know a lot of Odin-devoted people) is that a) Odin chooses His people, not the other way around, and b) Odin stabs his dedicants with a spear to indicate that He has done so. (This stabbing could happen in a dream or meditation, or, in some cases, real life). Now, as far as I know, this practice isn’t specifically attested to in the Lore. We know that Odin hung Himself on the wind-swept tree, sacrificing Himself to Himself, stabbed with a spear; and we know that he tricked one of his heroes into simultaneously getting hung and stabbed by a spear, but whether that was a common experience that happened to all those dedicated to Odin (or, culturally, was expected to happen to all of them) is something we just don’t know. However, I have met many Odinspeople in the here and now who have claimed to have been stabbed by Him in one guise or another. Now, I’m not going to argue with them about this; a person’s spiritual experience is their own and it’s not really up to the rest of us to decide whether it “actually” happened. However, I’ve heard enough Odinspeople tell me their distinctly individual experiences of being stabbed by Him that at this point I’ve come to accept it as “a Thing That Odin Does”. Is it in the Lore? Not as such, no. Does it make sense to me, both based on Odin’s personality as seen through the myths and by stories told by Odin’s people? Yes.
Then again, there will also be UPGs that are specific to a given person. And for that person, that UPG is completely valid. If they decide to share it, great. They may find that others have had that experience or intuition as well. (Then again, they may not.)
When assessing someone else’s UPGs, as with assessing any information, consider the source. Is the UPG coming from someone who otherwise seems pretty sane and well-balanced? Then, maybe the UPG is true, or at least worth considering. Or, is the person in question attempting to garner fame or power with their UPG? (for example, “I am Odin’s wife and therefore am more important than you!”—yes, someone has seriously tried to argue this). If so, maybe this person’s UPGs are suspect. Keep an open mind, but not an empty one.
One final thing about UPGs: if you are sharing them, make sure to label them as such. UPGs are valid part of modern Heathenry; however, I would prefer to have them presented as such. A good exampled of this is Freya’s Cats. Many Heathens on the internet will state point blank that Freya has two cats who pull Her chariot and that their ancient Viking names are Bygul and Trjegul (“Bee-gold” and “Tree-Gold”). The names “Bygul” and “Trjegul”, however, are actually modern UPGs from Diana Paxon’s book Brisingamen–a fantasy novel written before Diana even became a Heathen, ironically enough. However, the names sound plausible, and given the Viking Age cultures’ habit of naming anything and everything, they easily could have been the names people back them gave to Freya’s cats. The important thing is not whether or not people call Freya’s cats Bygul and Trjegul, but that they know that these names are modern interpretations before they decide to incorporate these names into their Heathenry.
When it comes down to it, the most important thing with UPGs is to clearly label them as such, and then let others decide for themselves. Again, this is why it is so important to know the original material first so you can make informed decisions. (The number of opinions I have about UPGs and how they are used or misused in Heathenry could easily make its own series. Then again, major religions have divided up and gone to war with themselves over what are pretty much minor differences in UPGs, when you think about it. Therefore, it may just be expected that Heathens will argue with other Heathens about their own UPGs.)
I’ve found UPGs and personal practices of Heathens and other reconstructionists who have strong devotional relationships with their Gods to be inspiring. They help me continue to grow my own beliefs and practices. Even if I don’t agree with all of the ideas presented by a given person in any given book, I’ll usually find at least one idea or practice that further expands and deepens my own beliefs and practices,or at least gets me thinking about it in a new way. Here is a list of great Heathen-specific devotional books, anthologies, and deity-focused books:
- Fire Jewel: A Devotional For Freyja, ed. by Gefion Vanirdottir, 2013.
- Freyja, Lady, Vanadis: An Introduction to the Goddess by Patricia M. Lafayllve, 2006.
- A Devotional: Honoring Thor and Family by Robert James Etter, 2013.
- Odin: Meeting the Norse Allfather by Morgan Daimler, 2018.
- Odin: Ecstasy, Runes, & Norse Magic by Diana Paxson, 2017.
- The Whisperings of Woden: Nine Nights of Devotional Practice by Galina Krasskova, 2008.
- Norse Goddess Magic: Trancework, Mythology, and Ritual by Alice Karlsdottir, 2015 (Frigga and her handmaidens)
- The Trickster and the Thundergod: Thor and Loki in Old Norse Myths by Maria Kvilhaug, 2017.
- Honey, Grain, and Gold by Joshua Tenpenny, 2010. (Freyr)
- Feeding the Flame: A Devotional to Loki and His Family by Galina Krasskova, 2008.
- Sigyn: Lady of the Staying Power by Galina Krasskova, 2009.
- Playing With Fire: An Exploration of Loki Laufeyjarson by Dagulf Loptson, 2015
Podcasts and Blogs
Another way to learn about what other Heathens are doing is to listen to podcasts and read blogs.* A great Heathen podcast is “Gifts of the Wyrd”, put on by Jan Tjeerd. He also writes a blog. Several bloggers here at HHH, including myself, write quite a bit on modern devotional and magical work within Heathenry. My series of Heathen How To’s, for example, is aimed new-ish Heathens or Heathen who want to broaden their practices. My personal blog is dedicated to my work with the Vanir. Weiss Alb Hearth is a also great blog to visit if you’re looking for historical content and research.
Heathenry is a living, growing religion and we are all vital in creating and shaping this religious tradition. Make sure that your Lore is tempered with experience or practice, and that your experiences have a foothold somewhere in the Lore. Both are necessary to make Heathenry a healthy religion that will last the ages.
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- * To clarify, I’m not saying that you should believe everything you read or hear from a blog or podcast. (ALWAYS FACT CHECK!!) However, these types of sources do provide a great insight into what modern Heathens are doing, and what they believe. It’s the difference between studying, say, the history of public schools V.S. talking to current public school teachers about their daily lives.