On a Heathen Public Piety

A few days ago, I went to the gas station to fill up my car. I was in New Jersey, so I sat awkwardly and waited for the attendant to come fill it up for me. The attendant was wearing a turban and had a long beard. Because of this, I know that he is a Sikh, and that he is pious.

Whenever I go to a particular neighborhood near me, I know that many of the women around me are very pious Muslims. I know this because they wear burqas.

When I was a child, I once saw a nun riding a roller coaster. I knew because of her habit that she loves God and is a very pious woman.

Every major religion has some manner with which its very pious members can publicly display their piety, so that everyone around them can recognize it in them. These displays help them to identify members of their own group, and help outsiders recognize people who have devoted their lives to a belief system.

In terms of public piety, we heathens are sorely lacking.

On the one hand, I am glad of this. Public markers of piety can be problematic.

For one thing, outward markers of piety have a habit of creating social pressure. If you’re in a neighborhood where all the good Muslim women wear burqas, a woman who is Muslim but not particularly pious might feel pressured to wear a burqa against her will in order to fit in. So yes, public markers of piety can create peer pressure. The heathen community is too small for this to be a worry for us, yet, were we to even develop some kind of pious marker.

Sometimes public markers of piety are used against people, especially when those people are of a minority religion. There have been many cases of Sikhs being discriminated against because people assumed their turbans meant they were Muslims and, therefore, terrorists. This is an inexcusable symptom of the lack of religious education in America. This would be a danger to us heathens. We are mistaken on the one hand as devil worshippers and on the other as Neo-Nazis. Publicly displaying our faith could potentially be damaging.

But on the other hand, I think public piety does something magical. It allows people to express their beliefs without having to explain themselves. When someone wears a necklace with a cross on it, they are announcing to all who see, “I am a Christian! I believe in Christ and his Glory, and I want you to know me, fellow brothers and sisters in the Lord!”

The Wiccans and general neopagans have something like this—the pentacle. A Wiccan can wear a pentacle, which will say to other wiccans and pagans what they are. The problem with this one is the same as the problem with the Sikhs and their turbans. The pentacle is all too often mistaken for a symbol of Satan.

Heathens have a complicated relationship with public piety. Many of us feel that our faiths should be private. But how much of this is because of our fear of being misunderstood? Our most common symbol of ourselves, the hammer, is, for one thing, far too closely related to Thor for my taste. Not that I dislike Thor, and I recognize that His hammer is, in fact, the most powerful weapon the gods have. But I am not a warrior and do not care to wear a symbol of war on my person at all times. In addition, I don’t feel that the symbol properly expresses my faith as a polytheist. Why would we choose the symbol of a single deity in our pantheon to show to the world that we are heathens, that we love many gods, that most of us have a preferred god or gods who may or may not be Thor?

My first experience with public piety as a heathen was at a restaurant I worked at in Alabama. I had recently converted, and I began to wear a valknut because of my new relationship with Odin, which has since faded. One of my bosses, and on another occasion one of my coworkers, saw the valknut and asked if I was a devil-worshipper. This hurt me. I felt incredibly misunderstood. Considering that I am a remarkably “sweet” girl who compliments people whenever possible, that I smile so much that people assume that something terrible has happened whenever they see me not smiling, that it was an inside joke at this restaurant how much I love the sunset and would run to the window and stare at it with a nostalgic smile on my face every night, I felt like I was being betrayed by the symbols of my own religion. How could people think that I was a Satan-worshipper because of a valknut? Why did people think that a valknut was a symbol of Satan? Had they ever seen one before, or was it just an obviously powerful symbol they did not recognize?

Later that summer, I was at a dance summer intensive in Maine. One day, in the cafeteria, I noticed that one of the cafeteria workers was wearing a small valknut around his neck. I was so surprised that I exclaimed, “Oh my! I know what that is! It’s a valknut!” He responded with, “Yes! How did you know that?” I said, “Because I’m a heathen! Are you?” He responded that he was. It was the last I ever saw of him, but I told all of my friends about it. They were all impressed that I was so surprised and excited to meet another member of my religion—all of them were Christians and quite used to it. But for me, it was the first time I ever felt like I belonged, like I was a part of a greater religious movement. That moment held power and hope—I knew that there were others like me, that we could bring the old gods back into the world, that Odin could begin seeking his wisdom once again among men and Freyja could share her love of life. I felt connected to a community seeking these things by my side.

But now that I no longer have a relationship with Odin, how am I to publicly mark my piety in ways that other heathens may recognize me? I will not wear my valknut—I grew tired of hearing that I worship Satan, I do not want to wear the mark of a god I am not so close to. The most logical option would be Mjolnir, the most common symbol of Heathenry. But I have already discussed why I feel dissatisfied with this option. There is no one symbol to obviously mark me as a devotee of Freyja. And so I am creating my own.

This is my third experience with public piety as a heathen. I wear an oath ring for Her. It’s sterling silver and amber. I do pretty things with my hair every day. And I dance. Passionately.

But none of these things mark me. None of them are remarkable or recognizable enough. How am I to share with the world as I walk through the streets that I love Her? That I want to bring back the old gods and renew their worship? That I want to recognize the cycles of life and create a world of open-mindedness toward religion that even includes us polytheists? That I revel in the flesh and find joy and reverence in it? No one would see my hair and think, “Here is a woman who loves Freyja so much that she is willing to mark herself, to prepare her body and image each and every morning in service to Her.” No one would see my ring and think, “Wow! Another heathen! How wonderful! Perhaps we can talk about our love of the Gods and our search for truth in a religion feared or misunderstood or completely unknown by the rest of the world.” Most tragically, no one will see me dance and know the flames burning inside me. No one will see that those flames are fanned by Her wind, that She is slowly blowing until I become a glass flower for Her. No one will see the ways that She has opened my eyes, that She has changed my life for the better. No one will see that hope that dancing for Her has given me.

And I mourn that. That we have no marker for each other, no way to recognize each other on the street, on the stage, in worship. We are all just random strangers walking by to each other. Because we all seek individuality and have forgotten the community. We fear being recognized by those who do not understand us. But will we ever recognize the joy in each other?

I believe

In this blog, I hope to seek my dancing heathenry. I mean this both literally and figuratively. I want to find a place for dance in this heathen revival. And I want to find a heathenry that makes my spirit dance in joy. To me, these are one and the same.

To start off with, and as an introduction, I am going to post an essay I wrote for my mother. She’s an evangelical Christian and I recently told her that I am a heathen. I wrote this essay to explain to her what I believe and how I feel about it, why I converted. I sent it to her over a week ago and she hasn’t responded, but it was, nevertheless, a good exercise.

For clarity’s sake, I will mention that Gent is my Christian boyfriend. We’ve been together for six and a half years, since high school.

Mother–

You asked me what I believe. I will tell you.

Practically speaking, I worship the gods of the ancient Germanic tribes, the Norse, the Anglo-Saxons. These gods are earthy, powerful, and real.

I believe that the Earth is our mother. We call her Nerthus or Jord. I prefer Nerthus. You’ve said to me that you believe that Mother Earth takes care of herself, and that some day she will fix the overpopulation, the awful way that we treat her. I believe this, too. And so I worship Mother Earth and strive to live in balance with her, to walk lightly upon her. I do not want to be selfish. The Earth is our home, the only one we have.

I believe that the Universe is worthy of reverence because it is so complex, so beautiful. I see the ebb and flow of energy, the ways that death feeds life. I see how everything is connected, how the smallest change can forever alter the course of history. And I revere that. I have no name for this. I refer to it as “the All,” because it truly encompasses All That Is, Was, and ever Will Be. It is the act of destruction that leads to a new act of creation. You have said to me that, after the fact, even the worst parts of your life you would never change because they have made you the person you are today. In revering the All, I revere that. That the chance occurrences, the pain of the past have created the present. That the beauty, pain, fear, love of today will create the future. That every act of creation begins with an act of destruction. That life is change. That All That Is is at the same time all exactly the same and completely different. We are One, and we are All.

I believe in the Goddess Freyja whose name means Lady. She is passion. She shows me the beauty and magic that life has to offer. She teaches me to use the psychic gifts you have given me, to embrace them. You have said to me that you were told that your gifts were of the devil, but that you reject that and believe they are gifts. And Freyja has helped me to embrace that gift and begin to use it. Freyja gives me gifts of flowers and love. For my fifth anniversary with Gent, she gave us a dozen roses. She is the passion that drives me to dance, to laugh, to love. She brought me out of depression. She teaches me that, no matter what, I should keep fighting for the life I want, that nothing is ever easy. Freyja is sex and dance and life. She teaches me never to fear for enjoying life or my body. My body is my life. They are the same. And so Freyja teaches me to love my life by loving my body.

I believe in the Goddess Sjofn who grants love. She creates the ties between people that are essential to a happy life. She helps me remember that I love Gent even when I’m feeling as if I don’t. She helps me to find friends and to love them. She helps me create peace in fights. She has taught me that, no matter how much I think a fight is the other person’s fault, I should try to bridge the gap, try to help mend the ties because interpersonal ties are our lifeline.

I believe in the God Frey whose name means Lord. He is Freyja’s brother. He shows me beauty in the green world. I find him in the warm sunlight and the cool breeze. I see him in Jimmie’s pigs who are living in mud, rolling in it, showing the truth that is life. He is in horses. The mud is sacred. There is no difference between sacred and profane in my religion, no exaltation of the beautiful while reviling the ugly. We are all cells that grow, that feed on other cells, that die, that feed other cells. He is there in gardening and agriculture, in delicious bread. He is there in the cycle of life, embracing it.

I believe in many other gods and goddesses, too. I believe in the God Odin who endlessly searches for wisdom, who achieves states of ecstasy in his search, who gives up his eye and hangs himself on a tree in order to learn the wisdom that will help him save the world at the end of time. I believe in the Goddess Holda who makes the snow fall and taught humans to grow food. I believe in the God Thor who protects us from the darkness and danger in the world.

I believe in the Norns, three women who spin threads and weave them into the Web of Wyrd, the way that history unfolds, the way that our lives become themselves through our choices.

I believe that our ancestors live on, and that they help us in our lives. I call them the Grandmothers and the Grandfathers.

I believe that the land is inhabited by spirits. That these spirits live in the rocks, the trees, the mountains, the flowers, the grass, the homes.

I believe that we are responsible for our own actions. That we should follow a high ethical conduct because we have no one else on whom to blame our actions but ourselves. My most important ethical values are Honesty, Generosity, Perseverance, Love, Moderation, and Loyalty. I view ethics in terms of positives rather than negatives. Instead of rules we should follow (don’t sin, don’t be greedy), it’s better to look at it in terms of positives ideals to strive for.

I believe that the human imagination has a far greater power than is usually attributed to it. Nothing in society exists that was not first imagined. Everything from cars to religion to friendship to cooking was imagined by somebody or other. And so we should embrace the imagination and love our ideas instead of fearing being wrong. We should boldly live the lives we want, that we imagine, that we dream instead of worrying that we have the wrong answer. We should listen, first, to ourselves.

I believe that, when we die, there is a whole host of potentials. On the one hand, our bodies are eaten by other beings, giving them life so that we live on through them in the same way that the food we eat lives on through us. “You are what you eat” is not just a metaphor. The proteins and vitamins and calories in the food we eat literally becomes the flesh of our bodies. And so we quite literally become the flesh of the flies, the bacteria, the worms, the scavenging animals that eat our bodies. And I think this is beautiful. Spiritually, we may reincarnate down the family line, or go to live with a god or goddess we are closest to, or go to live in Helheim with our ancestors under the kind and watchful eye of the Goddess Hella, whose name was stolen by early Christians as a name for the world of afterlife torment.

I believe that the afterlife should be irrelevant in how we live this life. There is no way to know that the afterlife truly exists, or what it entails. But we know that this life exists, and so we should live well and honorably. That, to me, is the point of life. To live a good one.

I believe that my gods and goddesses make me happier. In the midst of my pain, they show me potential futures that will come out of the pain. They help me to think of my pain as a tool to help me grow, so that I use the pain as fuel rather than as a wall. They show me how to fight.

I believe that my gods act very concretely in my life. Gent believes this as well. He has seen it. Precisely when I converted, all of my professors began talking about how I was suddenly dancing much better. They could see the way I had found the magic in dance, in my body, in life. My gods give me concrete gifts like flowers that show up. There have been so many unexplainable coincidences that show me that my gods are talking to me and that they are acting in my life, that they care about me. I have become a better girlfriend, a better dancer, a better woman.

I believe that everything that is possible to be believed is an image of truth. William Blake said that, and it’s true. I don’t think there is any religion that is false, really, because all of them are driving at the real truth, the “bowels of life” as you referred to it. I hate to say that all religions are the same because they are not, but I believe that the gods, goddesses, and spirits of every religion do actually exist, and that some of them are just more jealous than others.

I believe that Gent and I will make it. He was leery, at first, when I converted. But the more I talked about it, the more he realized that it was the perfect religion for me. He saw how my happiness and confidence bloomed. And then, on our fifth anniversary, he became as convinced as I am that my gods are real, existing beings who act upon the world. Each of my gods gave us a gift that day precisely in line with their personalities. Odin left a rune on a path that means Good Luck. Thor, the Thunderer, left a giant oak felled by lightening, whose wood has been burned so as to look like lace, in our path, letting us know that he would protect us with his mighty hammer. Freyja gave us a dozen roses. And he knew that they were real, and that they bless our union. He prefers Jesus, and continues to worship Him, but has a hard time with Christianity now because it is not as accepting of other religions as he would like it to be.

I believe that you should not fear that I will not be damned for this. For one thing, I do not believe that a person searching for happiness, truth, and goodness could ever be damned by an all-loving God. But there are even Biblical reasons you shouldn’t fear. As an example, 1 Corinthians 7:14 states that “the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the believing husband.” And so instead of using my religion to drive a wedge between Gent and I, take comfort that our union is both honored by your beloved Bible and that I can be sanctified through him so that, even if I would be going to Hell for my blasphemy, I may be saved by my associations with Gent. For another thing, Paul talks in the Bible about the “unknown God” who the ancient Greeks worshipped. In his discussion, Paul shows the Greeks that they really are worshipping God because the Unknown God is really God. And, as I told you early on in my essay, I worship an unknown God, the All.

When I was a child, I did not believe in sin. It was a concept I could never get my head around. I did not think that the purpose of life was not to sin, but rather to be as happy as possible and that, no matter what the religion, if there were a heaven, everyone who strove to be as happy as possible given their circumstances would go there. That Hell could be reserved only for the most horrible of people who hurt many and the people who purposefully lived a life of sadness. I will not live a life of sadness. I will live a life filled with joy, with gods whose experiences accurately describe the world to me, with dancing and love. Christianity never worked for me, and I tried so hard to make it. I read the Bible, I went to Church. But there were too many things that didn’t fit. Like that it didn’t teach happiness, but rather ignoring life and the body in favor of a transcendent God. Like that I could see magic, but that the Bible says that magic is evil. That I love Gent and wasn’t going to wait until marriage, but that our love was a sin. That my friends who are gay are sinners. That people would be burned for ever and ever for being born into a family who practices the wrong religion. That three of the world’s major religions who all worship the same God nevertheless are constantly warring with each other over it. These are things I could never believe. And so I believe in the gods and goddesses who teach me to embrace my life, to take responsibility for it, and to search for my happiness. Do not think that I think it is wrong to be a Christian. I would not have stayed with Gent if I did. It is a fine religion, full of beauty and power, but it is not the religion that makes my heart dance.