When we, as modern Americans, think of the ancient Norse, we think of Viking warriors with fur outfits and a horned helmet and bulging muscles with a battle axe, terrorizing Europe, raping and pillaging.
When we, as people reviving the religion of the ancient Germanic tribes picture the world that we’re taking inspiration from, we see a very different, more historically accurate version. Not all of the people are Vikings. Some of them aren’t even Nordic. Most of them are farmers. They don’t hate women, and indeed give their women some power.
Nevertheless, the Viking warrior thing infiltrates us anyway. Even in the pagan world, the stereotype of an Asatruar is big and bullying. They have to be right all the time, there is a right way to practice their religion and a wrong one, and they’ll beat you up if you tell them you’re wrong.
Okay, perhaps that’s an exaggeration. But perhaps not.
When I first switched from Wicca to Heathenry, I was very confused. I had never, ever heard the Norse myths before. And I was trying to learn, but it was hard. I had no grasp of who was who among the gods, except for Freyja, who I had already met, and Thor, who I thought was an angry, hateful demon-figure who just liked to go around destroying things for no reason. I was trying to figure out who were the “main” gods and who were the “lesser” ones, in the same sort of setup I had learned for the Greek gods in school. And I tried to read the Eddas and Sagas, but I was so overwhelmed by how much I didn’t know, that I had to start off somewhere else, with books that sort of tied everything together for me. Books like Essential Asatru, and Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe (which was also a bit over my head at the time).
And so I joined a popular online forum for discussing Asatru. When I introduced myself as a heathen and a dancer, I was met with shock. People were saying things like, “A heathen and a dancer? That’s not something you see every day!” as if the two were almost mutually exclusive. One man had met a heathen who was a stripper, so he didn’t think I was that weird…
At some point while I was there, I posted a thread expressing my frustration. I said that, while I enjoy reading the Eddas and the Sagas, there was just too much information all at once for my brain to handle. I didn’t know what almost any of the words meant, I didn’t know which god was who and certainly had no idea that most of them were Odin. And so I basically said that I was confused and sometimes felt overwhelmed by all the reading that’s required of heathens.
The response to my frustration was not understanding.
I was told that if I didn’t like the reading, I had probably chosen the wrong religion because this is “a religion with homework.” I was told that reading the Eddas and Sagas (I’ve only read one Saga to this day—Njal’s—and I found it quite insufferable. I have no interest in reading about battles and family arguments, regardless if there are little bits and pieces of useful cultural information tossed in) was essential for being a heathen, and that if I didn’t love reading them, I certainly wasn’t going to go any deeper than that.
I came out of the conversation feeling hurt and rejected. I knew I couldn’t be the only heathen who had ever felt overwhelmed. But it was as if feeling overwhelmed condemned me to a life of ignorance on the subject of the gods and the worldview of our ancestors.
Over the course of the time that I was at that forum, I noticed over and over new people coming in, being told they were wrong, and leaving. The prevailing attitude seemed to be that we needed to bully new people because if they couldn’t put up with bullying at the beginning, they didn’t really want it, and they wouldn’t be able to handle all the SUPERINTENSE arguing that goes on all the time in heathenry about the meaning of words and tearing apart each other’s lore references and arguing about whether or not the Hammer Rite has any place in heathenry. Basically, if we don’t bully new people, they won’t be able to handle the bullying that goes on all throughout the religion, and they aren’t really committed.
So we bully people so that they can handle our bullying. Isn’t that a bit circular?
Well, I’m questioning that. For one thing, I was overwhelmed at first, but now I’m not. I’ve read the Eddas and I’ve gone much deeper into my research, as should be evident by this point. I left that forum because I don’t like being bullied unnecessarily. And I have an unbreakable bond with my gods.
Bullying each other in our religion is not the way to go. We want to create a community. If we can’t even stop fighting with each other, can we ever hope for general acceptance?
The lore is not the Bible. We don’t have to tell other people they are wrong for reading it differently. So what if I put a slightly different spin on things than you? Yes, it’s a good topic for discussion. We should definitely be discussing the lore, playing with every angle, seeing where we can improve or deepen our understanding.
But telling people they are wrong for being overwhelmed, or that they are not a heathen because they don’t perform Sumble the same way you do is not conducive to our creating a viable religion in the coming world.
People are running away from that when they leave Christianity.
Perhaps I am wrong when I think that we choose heathenry because it brings us joy. Yes, there are manifold reasons to choose it—because you’re seeking a tie to your ancestors, because you’re seeking a tie to the land, because you loved the Norse myths as a child, or because, like me, the gods grabbed you and left you longing for them, seeking to learn more about them.
But all of these reasons come from seeking joy. When we seek to create a tie with our ancestors, we aren’t doing so because of hate, we’re doing so because we love those generations who have given us life. When we’re seeking a tie to the land, it’s not because we hate modern life, it’s because the beauty of the plants and rivers and animals is something worth revering, worth saving. When we love the myths, it is because they inspire us.
Perhaps I am wrong, and most people turn to heathenry because of a obsession with being right or a hatred of Christianity. And that that obsession and hatred makes us angry with each other.
Perhaps it’s because the Nine Noble Virtues exclude compassion, frith and moderation, values discussed in the Havamal, leaving only “macho” sorts of Virtues like Courage and Perseverance. Don’t get me wrong, I agree with all of the Nine Noble Virtues. But they are missing something.
I’m sure this will sound to some as a naïve, “hippie” rant, seeking to fill the world with brotherly love and there never be a fight again. Well, I am a hippie. And no, I don’t believe world peace is possible. We are human beings with human instincts and desires and emotions. To be human is not never to get angry. Yes, we fight. Yes, we get defensive when people tell us we’re wrong. Yes, we defend our viewpoint and our land and our people fearlessly.
But let’s not fight for no reason. Let’s remember that we do share something, that we are not trying to revive the Viking raiders who tear down churches, ruthlessly murder monks, and steal the treasures of Europe.
We are trying to revive the religion of a people we respect, who lived hard lives with courage and honor, who tilled the soil of Europe and saw it covered in a blanket of snow each winter. People who loved their way of life, who were the last to keep it safe from the ruthless spread of Christianity.
These people loved their gods, and they kept them as long as they could. And let’s remember that in Iceland, they resolved the conversion with a compromise.
Works cited and Further Reading:
The Sagas of Iceland
All images are from Wikipedia Commons