“So stick up ivy and the bays, and then restore the Heathen ways…” The True Christmas, Henry Vaughan (1621-1695)
When the Welsh metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan penned The True Christmas he was attempting to convey a sombre note about the festive season. It did admittedly from his own Christian perspective and as a young child I have a vague recollection of Vaughan’s verse being read to me.
Vague, because both the reader and the place are lost to my memory; but it was his opening line and a particular word that vividly struck a chord with me: Heathen. Those seven letters fired my imagination, conveying all manner of things to my youthful mind. More than anything, it sounded… strong.
As time went by this particular experience was put to one side. After all, a lad had more pressing matters on his mind such as Batman, climbing trees, making dens in woodland and later… girls! Words being words, Heathen would surface periodically and that fascination would resurface, albeit fleetingly. The turning point came later in life, as a young man perusing a bookshop in Brighton. I chanced upon a book about Heathenry and in that one instance everything changed.
Between those covers was a plethora of information, captivating me with each turn of the page. So new, yet strangely familiar. I had an almost perceptible sense of arriving home without realising I’d ever wandered. The book was Hammer of the Gods by Swain Wodening and it is one I still return to. From here onwards this would be my path. I also learned that unbeknownst to me, every event in my life was inter-connected and through my travels in Heathenry, wyrd was woven together.
I realised that the word Heathen had developed to mean something much more; it was a reclaimed term to denote a specific religion. It linked me to the earth beneath my feet, with history, language and culture. I still feel an almost childlike wonder when discovering a place name, word, saying or story has Anglo-Saxon and/or Viking origins. It fills me with the same sense of fascination and curiosity I felt on hearing the opening line of Henry Vaughan’s poem all those years ago. In that moment, past and present merge.
‘Paganism with homework’
Heathenry is sometimes described as “Paganism with homework” and is seen as just as much a journey of wisdom as spirituality. Theory and practice are balanced. Time is often spent on unstructured, individual study, allowing for complete freedom to arrive at one’s own conclusion as to what it means to be a modern Heathen.
Moreover, aside from factual, historical and archaeological publications, there is the literary side of things: what travels they take us on. From the Poetic and Prose Eddas to the Icelandic and Volsung Sagas (to name but two), with forays to Beowulf and more contemporary reading such as JRR Tolkien, who was was inspired by Anglo-Saxon and Norse elements. Heathenry is a lifetime of study, whether scholarly or experiential.
Considering that a root origin of the word Heathen denotes “one who dwells on the heath”, it is hardly surprising that a great part of its appeal lies in its reverence for the natural world. Although more obviously associated with other Pagan traditions, nature features strongly in Heathenry and derives many of its experiences from the cycle of birth, life and death for its seasonal festivities.
Which brings me to our ancestors and ancestral veneration. As with many ancient and traditional cultures, the concept of the living honouring the dead can be found in both hemispheres, from north to south, east to west and all points in between. Physical time and religious times have changed, hence this particular tradition and practice has mostly (with the exception of traditions such as the Dia de Los Meurtos) ceased in much of the world. It is nevertheless a salient aspect within Heathenry and is taken a step further than one might expect.
A modern Heathen may customarily talk to his or her ancestors and take part in feasts, celebrations, remembrance and rituals for honouring loved ones. Those loved ones join us for sustenance; in turn we call upon their council and strength. It must be clarified that for many of us, not just blood relatives are included: I believe kinship of spirit is as powerful a union as ancestral kinship.
A path fraught with issues
From my own perspective (as Heathenry can differ widely from one adherent to another), explaining the path can be fraught with issues, often digressing into other lengthy conversational areas, ranging from the comical to the contentious via all points in between.
Many times, discourse between myself and others, especially non-Pagans, can become convoluted as I endeavour to keep it in a nutshell… with mixed results. This is not helped by the fact that as a word Heathen is often loaded with derogatory connotations, meaning someone who is essentially a non-believer of one of the main, monotheistic faiths. Add to the equation images of someone who is generally uncultured and unclean and the overall impression can, sadly, be very negative.
Yet if we explore a little further along the path, something unexpected and not a little ironic is discovered: the striving to live a life morally and ethically. Heathens try to live in accordance with a specific set of values, better known the Nine Noble Virtues: courage, discipline, fidelity, honour, hospitality, industriousness, perseverance, self-reliance and truth. Or in the case of the Anglo-Saxon Heathen, the Twelve Aethling Thews: industriousness, equality, courage, geferscipe (or the putting of the needs of the community before one’s self), generosity, hospitality, moderation/self-control, selfdom (being true to oneself), truth/honesty, steadfastness, loyalty/troth and wisdom. Although there are slight differences between the two moral axioms, the similarities are obvious. Along with the Heathen attitude towards the importance of oaths (that is, not breaking them), they are clearly the code of life that is anything but “heathen” in the derogatory sense of the word.
It is also worth noting that women were shown a great deal of respect in Norse society, particularly in comparison with other European cultures, experiencing great freedom for that era. The first few chapters of the Saga of Laxdaela convey the story of Unnur Djúpúðga (the Deep Minded). She was already widowed when she left Norway for Scotland together with her father and son. After they too were killed, she wanted to leave Scotland and be reunited with her family in Iceland. So Unnur arranged for a ship
to be built, gathered her family and followers and left for Iceland.
A positive attitude to women
Once there, she claimed land herself, settled, arranged for a farm to be built and ran it independently. Unnur took over all the responsibilities normally held by the husband. When she died, she was laid in a ship in a burial mound, an honour normally reserved only for the most powerful and wealthy men. Again, that a saga such as this came to be (and to be passed down from generation to generation) shows a positive attitude to women that is hardly representative of a barbaric mindset.
Everything, they say, comes full circle in the end. I am certain that one day to be Heathen will be understood far and wide, by all, for what I believe it is: a way of life that has many wonderful branches, yet has roots as strong as Yggdrasil.
A balanced, ethical, polytheistic spiritual religion where ancestors, Gods and Goddesses are honoured, oaths are sworn and venerable virtues such as honour, courage, self-reliance and perseverance (to name but a few) are aspired to at all times.
To paraphrase Shakespeare:
“What’s in a name? That which we call Heathen
By any other name would smell as sweet.”
Eofor came to Heathenry through the works of Swain Wodening and tries to convey his path through the written word. He has worked in the care sector for most of his adult life and tries to heed the Noble Virtues at all times.