I’ve worked extensively with people who’ve suffered trauma, especially those who are still working through its aftermath. I myself am a survivor of rape, and have supported friends who have survived sexual traumas and abuse. More recently, I was exposed to so much secondary trauma through my work, with so little support from the organization I was working for, that all my own old injuries were dragged back to the surface. My sense of well-being was ground away while I tried to carry others through their own battles with trauma and survival.
Given all of this, I’ve been thinking a lot about trauma through a Heathen lens—how it’s perceived, how it’s treated, how it’s faced. It’s hard to know where to start, since the lore and sagas don’t give us much to work with on this front. We are only now starting to really look at the myriad of forms trauma comes in, let alone understand the ways in which trauma can effect a person, so this makes sense. Our ancestors and those recording the lore and writing the sagas didn’t exactly have this in the forefront of their minds.
Nonetheless, our ranks are filled with people who have endured great trauma. Given the cultural and historical background our religion comes from, and the way our warrior ancestors have been hailed, it makes sense that our religion is one which would draw those who are widely acknowledged to come face-to-face with trauma: members of the armed forces who may meet with battle, or incarcerated men and women who have lived hard lives and may have to navigate treacherous paths inside prison walls. However, these are not the only people coming from backgrounds of trauma into our faith, something which is becoming increasingly important to remember in our modern world.
Trauma comes in many forms, and this is something illustrated in our lore. Freyja wanders, weeping, in search of her lost husband. Frigg attempts to forestall the death of her son, and seeks to reclaim him from death when she fails, only to fail again. My own beloved Sigyn looses her sons, one to death and the other…well, what happened to Vali isn’t remembered, but my impulse every time I re-read the story is to understand Vali as someone forced by magic to destroy his sibling, only to go on living a life which was no longer his own, in which he’d lost all he’d known or cared about. Even Angrboda, the often despised Mother of Monsters, lost her children in a way. These losses all fall within the domestic sphere, but let’s not forget Tyr, the loss of whose hand to Fenrir constitutes a serious physical loss and trauma, not to mention the parallel sacrifice he made of his honor during the deal, breaking an oath to the Fenris Wolf.
These stories are all examples of trauma. When we lose the people we dearly value, it changes us. When we are helpless to put a stop to something painful, and unable to undo the subsequent pain, this can alter our perceptions of ourselves and our place in the world. When we are forced, against our will, to do something we do not want to, the theft of our autonomy shakes us to the core and leave us feeling powerless, worthless, and demoralized or worse. When we suffer debilitating or disfiguring injuries our psyche often bears a parallel mark, as our body becomes a strange and foreign place we have to adjust to and even re-learn how to live in.
As John Mainer notes in “Reality of Consent Culture” many women in the Heathen community are survivors. War both abroad and on the streets or behind the razor-wired fences of prison are not the only places people meet trauma. For far too many people, trauma is just as easily met in the private space of a bedroom, alone with someone we thought we could trust, or at a party we’ll later hate ourselves for attending—even though we did absolutely nothing to deserve this.
Early in my attempts to start formulating a way of understanding my own and others’ trauma through this perspective, I was disappointed that there was so little to be found in our lore. But maybe this is an opportunity: this means we have ample elbow room to begin constructing our own framework for understanding trauma based on the sign posts passed down to us in these stories.
Maybe we can begin by using the stories of our gods to formulate the basis for understanding that trauma isn’t the same for all people, but that those experiences of trauma are valid regardless. Perhaps we can utilize these stories of trauma as a basis for meditating on the effects such trauma might have on the internal world of a survivor, a starting point for practicing empathy. And might it be nice to look to these stories as something to draw strength from—the strength of the god or goddess who is able to survive the universe’s cruelty to go on fighting another day?
To be honest, it is difficult to know how to write about this subject. Trauma is, obviously, something I have plenty of experience with, both on a personal, intimate level and on a professional level. Today our society is witnessing the bubbling up of centuries of silenced traumas, and it is a horrific but powerful thing to behold. I have struggled with how to process my own recent re-traumatization, let alone the ones coming to light in the news. It is my hope that, maybe, as a community, we can take what our ancestors left us and find a way to build a better framework for other Heathens, old and young, to process and cope with the terrible things they’ve encountered. Now more than ever it seems imperative that we do so.