Monday, August 14, 2006

On the Nature of Heathenry

Heathenry is a system of beliefs that has undergone a number of changes both in classical and contemporary times. In looking at the general timeline, we see a primal religion that grew along with its people from hunter-gatherers, to farmers, to city dwellers. The way in which this has happened is one of the things I find truly impressive about Heathenry because, rather than abandon our connection to the natural world around us in favor of a religion that focused more on the doings of modern civilization, we married the natural to the civilized...literally. Like any kind of marriage, this relationship takes on some incredible complexities as well as some surprising simplicities.

From the archeological record, we understand that life in Heathen lands was not easy. Despite the mild summers we experience in this region, the winters here can be hard and unforgiving. As I write this article, it's 63° F outside, with a stiff breeze and steady drizzle...and this is the middle of August! People who lived in this region a thousand years ago had to remain in touch with nature and the seasons - conservation, moderation and preparation were concepts understood by our Heathen forebears, life back then depended on understanding these concepts. As a people who sailed in the open waters, out of the sight of land - and as a people who farmed - an understanding of weather patterns and a knowledge of the night skies were important. The advanced technologies utilized by early Heathens also argue for a people who clearly understood the workings of the natural world around them.

So what role would early Heathens have considered themselves as playing, in regards to the nature around them? I think it's safe to say that they considered themselves always a part of nature - even the Heathens who lived in cities a thousand years ago. Our lore tells us of Yggdrasil, the mighty ash (or yew) that serves as cosmic axis and supports the worlds of gods, men and giants alike.(1) Our lore also tells us that the first humans were fashioned from trees - and a number of types of trees continue to remain sacred in contemporary Heathenry. Animals are also sacred in Heathenry - some are directly associated with the gods themselves - such as wolves, ravens, gulls, and boars. Our ancestors also used elements of nature to describe themselves - this is commonly seen in kennings, metaphorical descriptions built of compound words or phrases used in Skaldic poetry (e.g. 'tree of battle' for 'warrior'; or 'brine stallion' for 'ship'). Personal names also reflect natural descriptions, as many names include the names of animals, like Arnbjörn, which means Eagle-bear.(2) Although not proven, my personal opinion is that early Heathens held totemic beliefs, and I think that the names (along with the famed Berserker cults) are a strong indication of this.

Early Heathens also revered the natural world around them. One of the earliest indications of this comes from Tacitus' Germania, in which he describes the various Germanic peoples worshipping in sacred groves. Our Heathen forebears did not originally utilize anthropomorphic representations of our gods - this came later, as exposure to southern cultures increased. Our Heathen forebears found the presence of the gods in springs, groves, rivers, seas and mountains.(3) In time, of course, this view expanded to include an anthropomorphized representation and understanding of the gods...but the veneration for these natural features did not stop. Njord was still found along the fertile coasts, Ægir in the depths of the sea, and Odin in the storm. The Vanir gods in particular were heavily associated with nature and fertility, while the Æsir were more concerned with the cultural and civil aspects of life. The marriage between nature and civilization that I spoke of earlier comes from the peace pact and exchange of hostages between Æsir and Vanir. There has also been recent work trying to establish Frigg, wife of Odin, as being of Vanir origin and also previously wed to Njord.(4)

It's also important to point out here that the gods who are referred to as 'mightiest' among gods have their origins in the natural world. Thor is son of Earth, Heimdall is born from the Nine Mothers (the waves of the sea). Freyr's abode is the land of Elves, and he is strong enough to bring down a giant with no other weapon than a deer antler.

Landvættir and sjóvættir (land wights and sea wights, respectively) figure prominently in the beliefs of early and contemporary Heathens, as do Elves and Dwarves.(5) By and large, these extensions and or guardians of nature were abandoned by early Heathens reluctantly...even after the conversions to Christianity, people would still honor the wights of land and sea. The bell ringing from the churches was an attempt to drive these spirits away, since it was widely regarded that the land wights in particular were not fond of bells or other forms of loud noise. The belief in land and sea wights, along with the veneration of divinity and spirit found in natural formations, can be viewed as a form of animism.

So early Heathens viewed themselves as part of a natural world that they simultaneously venerated, were connected to, and were challenged to survive in. Another point to consider is that even the gods were susceptible to Nature. Without the apples of Idun to preserve their age, the gods would grow old.(6) The gods can procreate, and they can die. So, from the Heathen perspective, not even our gods are above Nature.

Nature, to the modern Heathen, is no less important. The lessons and explanations of science aren't lost on us, ours is a religion that has never had a problem embracing technology or science; but our reverence for the gods and wights, our identification with the qualities and strengths of various animals, our consideration of animals and plants as sacred, and our belief in the sacredness of Earth, Sea and Sky are unchanged by science. We keep in mind that this world was created by the gods, we see our gods as our honored ancestors, and to dishonor this world is to dishonor them. It is also important for many Heathens to preserve the nature skills of our forebears - hunting and fishing, farming and the raising of livestock, survival-style excursions, sailing and a number of other activities of our forebears are pursued by contemporary Heathens. In fact, if anything, I would wager that the understanding gained from science and technology has increased our appreciation for the natural world around us, and provided us with greater insight into our own position in the weave of Nature's fabric.


(1) For further information on Yggdrasil and trees in Heathenry, I recommend this short article in Wikipedia.
(2) This name and others can be found in this article from the Viking Answer Lady, the name used in this case is a male name.
(3) Germania, Cornelius Tacitus (source, Medieval Sourcebook), chapter 9.
(4) Nerthus, Toward an Identification, William P. Reaves, written for Boudicca's Bard.
(5) Those not familiar with these terms should start with the overview offered in this Wikipedia article about Wights.
(6) Prose Edda, Gylfaginning XXVI.

*This article was posted by Bjorn of Expanding Inward while he was a guest blogger here. When I switched over to the new Blogger system on 9/12/06, the byline was changed by Blogger. I want to give credit where credit is due.


Sojourner said...

I think that you really did this subject justice when you mentioned the fact that most modern heathens (and people of any relgion for that matter) no longer live close to the land or nature, but still show their respect through their activities and daily actions.

Another good point you brought up is that we see nature through our "civilized" point of view and that we have to learn to incorporate one with the other. It is difficult to have a belief system that is nature-based, but yet not be as connected to the natural cycles due to our modern technology and lifestyles.

How do you, as a modern Heathen, deal with the dissonance of those "two worlds?"

Rubicon said...

by going outside... ;) kidding. well okay I'm not kidding. I think we have to almost develop a hyper-awareness of the cycles of nature and agriculture. We are bombarded by multi-nationals and every other corporation trying to shape and mold our lifestyles to get our money. So we need to outsmart them and remain vigilant in order to remain true to ourselves, our spirituality and our planet. We can't afford to be slack.

Bernulf said...

Sojourner - I think that one way I deal with it is that I try as much as possible to see one world as an extension of the other. Looking around in the city, there is still plenty of nature to be seen in the form of birds, trees, grass and even the weeds that poke up through cracks in concrete. There is also human nature in abundance (another major focus for Heathenry is the community). Like I said, with Heathenry, nature and civilzation are married to one another. There are times when I can't really see that, when I need the peace and presence of raw nature...when that happens, I go to the river, or outside of the city somewhere. There is a great spot across the river from Bremerhaven where you can sit in the grass and trees, and look at the city from a small distance...this is perhaps my favorite place to go, because it helps me to put things into perspective. I think everyone should seek and have such a place.

About the difficulty of incorporating modernism with a nature-based belief system, I agree with you in that it's not the easiest thing to do. But I also think that, following a nature-venerating path, we have the ability to recognize nature in all things.

Rubicon - I agree with you 100%, we can't afford to be slack. If we revere nature, then slacking would be irreverent.

Nixie B said...

Bjorngrimnir, I really enjoyed your post! (and greatly admire your dedication to providing sources! you must be an academic!) :)

It's interesting to me that you discuss Heathenry's tradition of incorporating technology. When we think of technology, our minds go to nanochips and iPods, but I think it's important to remember that the first time someone made an iron tool, that was cutting-edge technology (ok, no pun intended, but I'll leave it, I'm wicked that way). Your very last sentence struck me particularly - I hadn't ever considered the issue that way before.

I also was very interested in the creation myth of Yggdrasil. Trees carry a similar signficance for Celtic traditions and I need to spend some time reading up on that. I also bought some Ogham Celtic Oracle cards when I was in Ireland - each one is associated with a particular tree. I wonder if there is a good book on the world's tree mythologies?

Bernulf said...

Nixie - I'm glad you enjoyed the post! If you find a good book on world tree mythologies, I would certainly be interested in reading it.

I only wish I were an academic! Providing sources is something that comes second nature to Heathens who debate bits and pieces of lore amongst other Heathens :) I was also trying in this case to keep to sources that could be readily checked online, since I know not everyone reading here will have quick access to Heathen-related books.

I love the remark you made about 'cutting edge' technology! And it's very appropriate, too. The other thing to remember is that all of our technology functions on the order of nature's actions and reactions - without an understanding of how things happen in our world, we would have no technology. The question is how we implement that technology, and in what ways we alter the world around us.

Mike said...

This was a great read. The tree of Yggdrasil, which you noted serves as the cosmic axis, is just like the Bodhi tree in Buddhism (like I mentioned in my post)—the axis mundi. Some canonical Buddhist works reference devas (demi-gods) that live in trees. This could be considered as very closely related to animism, although there is definitely a distinct philosophical difference.

I enjoyed reading about the history of Heathenry, which I knew little about beforehand.

Bernulf said...

Mike - you might find Indo-Europeans an interesting topic of research, as a possible furthered connection between Yggdrasil and the Bodhi tree :)

I'm glad you enjoyed the post!

Mike said...

Neat! Thanks for the link! I've noted it and plan on reading it in short order.