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?

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9 thoughts on “On a Heathen Public Piety

  1. You might look into something custom made. I remember seeing a stamped silver ring on Etsy that was just a plain band with the name “Freya” on it; I can’t find that artist at the moment, but there are many silver artists who’ll do custom work like that.

    http://www.etsy.com/view_listing.php?listing_id=28805381

    Pendants as well, I just had one made for myself. Look for “hand-stamped silver”. This wouldn’t be one “symbol” that is spread through the whole group, but it would be a pretty unsubtle tip-off for those in the know.

  2. Interesting post, and something I think all the Recon traditions have struggled with. As to having a common and recognizable symbol, not sure if that will ever have full consensus – in the Hellenic community, various ideas are regularly tossed around but most people would prefer symbols of their patrons than a generic one for Hellenismos. And then of course that makes it even less likely that anyone outside the religion is going to recognize it for what it is. Which could be good or bad, depending on your disposition.

    Personally, I wear religious jewelry every single day, I have a ton of religious tattoos, and I also do something particular with my hair each day that has religious significance, and on holy days I’m usually wearing certain colors too. But none of these things would be recognizable to the average non-pagan (some wouldn’t even be recognizable to pagans, because they’re such personal symbols). I wouldn’t mind if they were, as I have no problem being open about my religion and will discuss it when asked or if it comes up naturally. But neither am I upset that more people don’t know what religion I am just walking down the street – mostly because I don’t really care what the average person thinks of me in any way.

    I’ve found that you can often tell a fellow polytheist by a subtler, wider array of clues in dress, jewelry, attitude, etc., although of course that’s not foolproof.

    • Yes, I think that a wider Heathen symbol will be a long time coming, and will more likely be something that grows naturally out of the revival than something we all agree on together. But I think there are definitely options–some depiction of Yggdrasil or Irminsul, perhaps. Maybe even something runic.

      I am quite ambivalent about how I feel about how widely recognizable I would like it to be. We, and probably America in general, certainly aren’t ready for every single person who sees us to know the way people are with Nuns and women in Burqas. And even if it weren’t for that, I also don’t much care what the average person thinks.

      But while we can usually pick each other out with subtler clues, I wish it were easier–my boyfriend’s best friend is pagan, but it took us two years to figure out that both of us are, and I am sad that we missed all those opportunities to talk about it.

      • Well, maybe the solution to situations like the one you mention there is for each of us to just be very open and vocal about our religion with anyone we talk with on a regular basis like that (not to get in people’s faces or where it’s not really relevant or appropriate, like work, but with friends and acquaintances at least).

        Personally, it is such a huge part of my life that I can’t really talk about *anything* for long with someone without it coming up, unless I were to purposely hide it. If they ask about one of my tattoos, it comes up. If we talk about what we’re doing for the weekend, it may come up. If I talk about how I met my partner, it’s a crucial aspect. Etc.

        • I understand what you’re saying. And it’s that way with most of my friends. It just comes up eventually.

          That particular instance was more that all of our conversations sort of happened through my boyfriend, who is not as interested in talking about religion as I am, and my trying not to muddle up his relationships. Or something. In general, I probably tend to avoid talking about it more than I need to since I spent so long living in the Bible belt. It’s hard for me to remember that where I live now is not the kind of place where mentioning a goddess is going to get me proselytized at for hours.

          Anyway, I agree. More openness in conversation is definitely the way to go.

  3. For a long time, the only religous symbol I wore was the Irminsul, symbolic representation of the Pillar of the Worlds. I just … can’t wear Mjollnir, it feel too strange for me.

    I always have it, but I changed recently for something I found more related to the Gods I’m linked. But when I go out somewhere I don’t know … I put it around my neck. Never met another heathen (it’s pretty hard in France u_u), but once I was recognized as one because of it. That was pretty surprising for me, but I was very happy. I could talk a bit with someone who knew something about my faith and not be treated like some kind of crazy girl.

    The only problem is … The Irminsul symbol is not really popular. If you talk to someone about norse paganism, the first though is about the Mjollnir. Maybe, sometimes, runes or valknutr or Hugin & Munin. To be fair, it’s not very common to be linked with a Vanir or a Jotun in the french community (just by head … I can only name … two people linked with the Vanir, and, beside me, maybe one person linked to a Jotun), so no one really though about it.

    • I once saw a girl wearing an Irminsul, and I was hoping that she was a heathen. But then it turned out that she had no idea what it was because it was a gift from a choreographer of hers.

      I wouldn’t be opposed to wearing an Irminsul necklace if I could find one I liked. I would worry just a little that people would mistake it for a cross, but don’t much care about that. What I think I would most like would be a recognizable Yggdrasil. I should think that would be a symbol all Heathens could agree on. Which is why I like Irminsul more than Mjollnir or valknut.

  4. Pingback: On Paganism and Christian Privilege | Flame in Bloom

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