Monday, January 08, 2007

The Essence of Heathenry

"What is the essence of Heathenry?"

As the word, essence has multiple meanings, so, too, does Heathenry have more than one quality that could be described as being essential. And to be honest, the answer to this question will tend to differ among Heathens.

In one of my posts here last summer, I stated that the true essence of Heathenry was to be found in home and community. This statement is a good leaping-off point, just as the post from which it comes, Heathenry in 300 Words or Less, would be a good refresher for readers who may not be fully familiar with what Heathenry is. Our Heathen forebears spent a lot of time in their homes with one another, and lived in some pretty tight-knit communities. Children grew up hearing stories of gods and heroes, of relatives who traded, explored and sometimes fought in distant lands. In some cases, people might be treated to the eloquence and complexity of a skald's presentation of our lore; but the majority of the entertainment and story-telling would have taken place in the mundane home, provided by family members. The people they would have enjoyed this religious entertainment with would be the same people who were relied upon to hunt, trap, fish and grow food, to provide them with all the other necessities of life, including defending them from predators and enemies with their own bare hands when necessary. In time, these children would grow up to take their places within the family and community, providing what was within their power to provide, and telling stories of their own around the hearth fire at night - and thus the cycle would continue. This, then, is one of the essences of Heathenry, past and present, that our homes, our families, our communities are the sources of our lives and a critical component in the foundation of what we deem sacred. It's likely that this tradition connects us to our forebears as far back as the cave-dwelling days; and likely that it will connect us with our future kin and communities dwelling in the shelter of lunar craters. Hávamál, stanza 50, might best explain the emphasis Heathens place on kin and community:

On the hillside drear | the fir-tree dies,
All bootless its needles and bark;
It is like a man | whom no one loves,--
Why should his life be long?[1]

This stanza compares people to trees (from which our lore tells us we were made). The man, 'whom no one loves' represents someone who has neither friend, family nor community. Like the lone tree on the wind-swept hill on a dreary day, such a person has no one to offer support, no one to act as brace or break from the howling winds life sometimes sends in our direction. The fir tree, especially back in the days when this poem would have been written, is not normally seen as being fit for general lumber uses - neither was the person who had lost all support from family and community seen as being very useful. This stanza is meant to describe the importance of our friends, family and community...what we have, we should treasure and seek to be as useful to as possible. We should seek not just those who might shelter and bolster us in times of need, but also seek how we might be able to do the same for others. Important as this typically is to people, to most of the Heathens I've encountered, it could be called essential.

The man in the stanza above, cut off from love and support, would fit the description for someone who had been banished - among the most severe of punishments among our forebears. One of the reasons for this is because banishment also disinherited one from the Wyrd and luck of family and community. Wyrd would be the second thing I would say is safely considered an essential part of contemporary Heathenry. Wyrd, as I defined in another post from last summer (Beyond Midgard), is a dynamic, always-turning, always-becoming process that many liken to Karma. Wyrd is something Heathens believe we are all subject to and a part of, even our is the natural process by which the fabric of the past is woven into the fabric of the present. We are not just a part of Wyrd, our existence is a result of our Wyrd. To say that Wyrd is essential to Heathenry is one way to put say that Heathens believe Wyrd is essential to everything would be another. As you might imagine, one's own fabric is strengthened when interwoven with the fabric of a strong network of friends and family.

Tied in with our family, friends, communities and our Wyrd are our Elder Kin, which is another name for our gods. While most Heathens see our gods as being a part of our family I'm treating this area as a separate essence because our gods are our mightiest members of family and community. Many of you will already know the names of several among our gods: Odin, Frigga, Freyr and Freyja, Thor and even Loki are pretty well-known (for a more complete list, check the Wikipedia entry for Norse Gods). It is to Odin and his brothers that we owe the creation of Midgard, while Thor stands between us and those forces that would destroy Midgard. Despite the importance and high value we place on our gods, some might observe a certain degree of irreverence that Heathens (both historical and contemporary) seem to show when dealing with our gods. Actually, it's our informality that I tend to see as our highest sign of reverence for our gods: they are a part of our family, a part of our community and although they deserve (and receive) the highest of respect as our community's mightiest members, we are essentially as one and at ease with our gods, as we are one and at ease with our families and friends.

So if I were to try to blend these three things together, and pull from them a single, unifying thing that could be described as the essence of Heathenry, I would say it is the way in which we tend to see all things as interwoven, interconnected, and interdependent. While this interwoven state can be found in many things throughout Nature and the cosmos, I think for us it's found most truly in the relationships we build with those around us. But just as interweaving denotes multiple things joining to become one, the interwoven essence of Heathenry reminds us that multiple essences are true and play their part in the greater whole.


[1] Hovamol, Henry Bellows Translation, made available on the Internet Sacred Text Archive


Steven said...

Good post, Bernulf. Well said, especially the stress laid on the Elder Kin as our family, and also upon the importance of community.

Bernulf said...

Steven, thank you for the comment and the compliment! I'm glad that you enjoyed the read - I have been wondering what reactions this post might generate from other Heathens :-)

Jeff Lilly said...

Bernulf, I really like the emphasis you have here on interlocking and weaving. Sometimes it seems to me that Heathenry itself are the result of weaving togther separate traditions. Take the Aesir and the Vanir -- two "tribes" of gods that first made war, and then peace, and intermarried. It's almost as if two pantheons worpshipped by two peoples were woven together when two people were joined into one. A great example for the modern world to follow! Have you heard of that possibility before?

Bernulf said...

Jeff, thanks for the comment and compliment :-)

The possibility that you mention is, in my opinion, more of a likelihood (excepting that I don't think it was quite so polarized) - it's a likelihood that I think most contemporary Heathens and scholars would agree with. Good observation :-)