Just What IS Heathenry?
So what is Heathenry? The word itself, obviously, comes from the word hearth. You may be wondering why this is being used as a religious term. Much like the word pagan, it used to have a different meaning and shares a similar history to the word pagan. Pagani was a term used by the slowly Christianizing Roman empire to describe country folk, people who often still held to the older religions of a given region. Remember, one of the hallmarks of old Rome was that it allowed conquered territories to retain their culture and religion so long as certain concessions were made. As this began to change, it was those in the periphery, the “country bumpkins” that were the last to adopt this new way of thinking. Thus, the term slowly became a byword for non-Christians. Heathen, then, is an alternative of this term, one who lives on the heath or common land or wild lands. In modern usage, though, it has come to have a very specific connotation.
The Teutonic people had a particular set of beliefs and practices in history, believing in many gods and spirits. These people settled in the areas that are now Germany and expanded outward over the centuries, settling (and sometimes conquering) lands in what is now France, England, Scotland, Ireland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, and, albeit briefly, what is now Canada. In many of these areas, their spiritual and religious view of the world came with them, albeit often adapting to the specific cultures that were mixed with or conquered. Despite this, there are many shared cultural (and linguistic) points within the regions touched by these peoples. The stories of Thor, Odin and Freya, among others, appear in each of these areas, though often the details shift a bit or the name is a different word with the same meaning. Thus, in Anglo Saxon England, Thor was called Thunnar. Despite the differences, these all bear ties to common deities and even common styles of worship. This “family” of myths and deities and worship is referred to as Norse or Viking most often in popular culture, but within non-Judeo-Christian circles, we prefer Heathenry to connotate that we are not Wiccans but attempting to recreate, rediscover, and, admittedly sometimes reinvent the worship of that set of deities and spirits. As with most pagan faiths, there has been no true uninterrupted line of religious practice of our faith, so we work from writings of the romans who interacted with the early Teutonic tribes and with they myths and legends preserved by Christian historians who came after as well as archaeological finds. Sometimes we know pretty well how things were done and sometimes it’s a LOT of guesswork, but it’s fulfilling for those that it calls to.
Still, though, we have not talked about what all those practices are. As with many of the faiths, pagan, Christian and otherwise, there are many different ways of practicing one’s heathen faith. That said, there are a few points that will generally be true for all adherents. First, the deific worship is that of the gods told of in Snorri Sturleson’s recordings of the Eddas, Icelandic poems and stories that relay the tales of the gods of the north. For most, also, there is an element of ancestor and spirit worship. Offerings are made not only to the gods, but also to one’s ancestors as well as to the vettir, or wights, spirits of the land. Some heathens focus more on one of these three groups than the other, and some are more balanced in their approach. Neither approach is wrong, per se, but we here at Iolite Compass feel an approach that better incorporates all three, or even focusing more on the wights and ancestors is better for a happy life as they are closer to us in many ways. Another common element to heathen faiths is a strong concept of honor and self-reliance. These are nebulous concepts, often interpreted differently from person to person, but it generally involves honest dealings, loyalty and forthrightness. Drinking horns are another common point, being used in the drinking ceremony known as the sumbel where praise and sometimes oaths or boasts are offered over a shared horn of beer, wine or mead. For the most part, these are the main commonalities of what we call Heathenry, though it barely represents the tip of the iceburg. While it is the faith of those we often call Vikings (the term was a profession or practice, rather than a cultural group), heathens aren’t Vikings. It is a faith about family, honor and prosperity as much as one of bravery or battle prowess… one of those sets just makes a more… colorful story than the other.
Sadly, a final note is required. Heathenry in its proper form does NOT discriminate. Many have perverted the concept of ancestor worship to mean that only those of a particular bloodline or ethnic heritage are somehow “worthy” of worshipping the gods and spirits of the North. This is utterly a-historical. They brought and shared their faith where they traveled, without a care as to bloodlines. We at Iolite Compass do not condone or in any way agree with these attitudes. If we go back far enough, we all share the same ancestors and welcome any who would share the horn in frith (peace and prosperity) with us.
We are happy to answer more detailed questions you may have about this ancient faith that we seek to honor in frith and among our many friends and family. Wassail! (Wholeness/health/holiness to you!)