On Bullying Newbies, Lore Thumping, and Viking Warriors

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:

Christianization of Iceland

Poetic Edda

Prose Edda

The Sagas of Iceland

All images are from Wikipedia Commons

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The Case for a Dancing Heathenry, Part 3

Christian History and Dance

In this essay, I’m going to talk about Christianity and Dance. Mostly how the past couple thousand years of Christian culture have basically obliterated positive attitudes toward dance, and how we need to be able to look past that enculturation. But also how attitudes toward dance are generally turning around these days, even among Protestant groups.

In the early days of the Christian church, as pretty much everyone knows, much care was taken to make sure that Christianity wasn’t tainted by paganism, and, therefore, that Christianity was as different as possible from paganism. The Christians outlawed as much pagan tradition as they could and incorporated the rest. Dance was part of the collateral damage.

Dance is so embodied, so ecstatic and beautiful, so natural a part of human worship, so fully a part of paganism, that it had to be gotten rid of. Even to the point where Christians today talking about the early church redefine dance so as to exclude spontaneous worshipping Christian movements: [speaking on Dionysian dance] “Because early Christians in no way wished to be associated with such rites, they most likely avoided dancing in church, though their intense, sometimes ecstatic worship (see Acts 2:43, 1 Cor. 14:26 for examples) may well have included motions of some sort” (Christian History blog). Motions of some sort? Seriously? If ecstatic worship doesn’t include “motions of some sort,” I’m not really sure how ecstatic it can really be. And if it is ecstatic and includes motions, is it not dance?

It seems that early Christians (and indeed Christians all throughout history) were actually quite ambivalent about the subject of sacred dance. There was bad dance, which included most dancing, especially the secular kind. But also kinds written about in the Bible, like the dancing of the worshippers around the Golden Calf. But on the other hand, what becomes of the spontaneous, joyous outbursts of people seeing the bliss of God? These were good dance, and were to be allowed, as they were supported by Biblical evidence, including the Psalms. But the Church was careful that these dances remain spontaneous and not tainted by the physical world, and thus were not to be a regular part of the liturgy.

Dance was even further removed from religion during the Protestant Reformation. Along with the Protestant Reformation came a major scaling back in religious pomp and circumstance, which meant that basically all beauty in churches, all indulgences (pun intended) were out. There was to be no dancing. At roughly the same time as the Protestant Reformation came Rene Descartes and his ideas that led to the Enlightenment, which led the the idea that bodies are inferior to minds.

Then there were the Puritans, who got rid of everything and were so afraid of dancing that they basically believed it was devil-worship. In Maypole of Merry Mount, Hawthorne describes dancing around a maypole as a demonic activity, and describes the one of the dancers as a “priest of Baal.” On the other hand, it’s arguable that Hawthorne saw no real difference between the heathens and the Puritans—his stories often show a hidden dark side behind Puritan society, where the Puritans are truly heathen devil-worshippers behind the curtain of polite society (See Young Goodman Brown and Maypole of Merry Mount. Also The Scarlet Letter, but less so).

And we, at least the Americans, have inherited that Puritan tradition. I grew up in the South among Southern Baptists for whom most joyful things are sins. A professor of mine, raised Mississippi Baptist, used to tell this joke: “You know, the Mississippi Baptists can’t do anything. They can’t dance, they can’t smoke, they can’t play cards, they can’t have sex. So I asked my Dad once, ‘what do people do?’ and he said, ‘they close the blinds.’”

Our puritanical culture dirties everything that is fun. Joy should not be a source of guilt, but of joy. Sex is not dirty, it is sacred and natural. Dancing is not devil worship, it is an exaltation of our lives and bodies and souls. The Catholic Church remains committed to the idea that dance is not to be a part of liturgy. In 1975, the Church had this to say;

Here [in western culture] dancing is tied with love, with diversion, with profaneness, with unbridling of the senses: such dancing, in general, is not pure.

For that reason it cannot be introduced into liturgical celebrations of any kind whatever: that would be to inject into the liturgy one of the most desacralized and desacralizing elements; and so it would be equivalent to creating an atmosphere of profaneness which would easily recall to those present and to the participants in the celebration worldly places and situations.

Perhaps most heathens don’t have this problem of guilt for dancing. We’ve chosen another path—one that isn’t Puritanism. But I had this problem for a long time. And I’ve found a way to release myself from it. And that way is to love the Earth, to love my body for the pleasures it gives me in all of my senses, to love the sunshine not as a gift from God but as a goddess herself. As the pure golden warmth of enormous nuclear fission. As the force that feeds life. To love the aches in my muscles after a particularly intense dance rehearsal and know that I’m getting stronger, to be reminded in those infinitesimal tears in my muscles and that itchy pain that I have done something worthwhile. I take great pride and joy in exactly what the Catholic Church is here condemning. I want my body to be tied to love and the unbridling of the senses. And as for if it’s pure, I see no reason why it shouldn’t be. What is impure about letting go of the cultural constraints we press against daily and becoming our true selves?

It seems, fortunately, that pagans are not the only ones asking these questions. And, since I don’t want this to be a Christian-bashing blog, I am going to present the other point of view in Christianity—those modern Christians arguing for the introduction of Liturgical Dance.

Modern Liturgical dance is a new way of approaching dance in Christianity, and has appeared only since the 20th century (excluding, of course, the Shakers, for whom dance was essential, but who also didn’t ever have sex, and so they have since died out). The basic idea is that movement and performance can heighten ritual power and make even more emotionally clear the message of the sermon and the church meeting.

The best argument for Liturgical dance I have ever read is by Kathleen Kline-Chesson. She is a professionally trained modern dancer and an ordained minister. I highly recommend the first half of her essay linked at the bottom of this entry. The second half is mostly descriptive examples that aren’t clearly conveyed, due mostly to the fact that dance is poorly conveyed through text.

I find myself somehow mirrored in what she writes—she is a woman and a minister (I much prefer the term priestess myself, however) seeking a place for sacred dance in a world that looks down on dance as “profane.” Yes, we are operating in different traditions with vastly different opinions about bodies, but our goal is the same. And so I will close today with a quote from her essay that I think should be plastered all over churches and all over the internet. If more people were like her, perhaps the world could be a little bit better of a place, or perhaps I am dreaming.

Dance in worship is not a new concept. Humans have always communicated their religious questions and expressions in the language of gesture and dance… Unfortunately, dance as a language of worship has been largely forgotten.

Creatures with bodies as well as minds and souls were the crowning glory of God’s creation described in Genesis. Christ also appeared in a bodily form, suffered bodily pain and death, and was bodily resurrected. Though we celebrate the Word becoming flesh, modern Christians tend to emphasize verbal rather than physical expressions of faith and worship.

Works Cited and Further Reading:

http://www.d.umn.edu/~rkatzhar/Judeo%20Christian%20Trad.htm

Christianity Today: Did Early Christians dance in church?

The Catholic Encyclopedia on Dancing

Wikipedia on Liturgical Dance

The Living Word: Dance as a Language of Faith by Kathleen Kline-Chesson

The Religious Dance from Notitiae

The Maypole of Merry Mount by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Young Goodman Brown by Nathaniel Hawthorne


Religion is Art

A few weeks ago, I was driving to rehearsal and watching the sun set, and I had a thought. It was a small thought that needed a lot of fleshing out. Here is what I wrote down in my little book of thoughts: “changing roles of religion. Explain the world-given to science. Community building/cohesion—lost. Devotion to deities-check. Religion as artistic expression?”

By all that, I mean that I was thinking about the roles religion plays and has historically played in people’s lives. And that all of that is shifting monumentally these days.

When we’re children and we learn about polytheism in schools, they teach us the myths from the standpoint that the ancients needed the myths to explain the world around them. Like the Greeks needed Arachne to know why there are spiders and Zeus to know why there are thunderbolts. Fast forward a few thousand years, and we have the Jews and the Christians who do this in a different way. Religion becomes historical fact, which is in turn used to explain the world.

Fast forward a few thousand years again, and we have the scientific revolution. We look to reason as the source of truth. We find out about the Big Bang and that we revolve around the sun. We find out about evolution and that lightening is really caused by electric charges. We no longer need religion and myth to explain the world around us, and we have the rise of atheism—those people who see reason as the ultimate source of truth. And many religious groups feel severely threatened by this.

Those groups, most notably in American the fundamentalist Biblical literalists, see religion as science. The two seem to serve the same purpose in many ways. Rather than looking to science textbooks for facts about the universe, they look to the Bible. And that, my friends, is why we have intense, public arguments about whether we should teach evolution or creation in our science classes. Each group holds The Truth that should be science because science is, almost by definition, The Truth (even when scientists recognize that it’s only the truth according to currently known facts). The scientists want religion to remain religion, the biblical literalists want religion to be science, and so they say that science is just a new religion.

And so we heathens creating and reviving a religion for the modern world should think about this. Our religion is not science. We should not fall into this trap. The younger generation looking for a spiritual life, on the whole, looks to science for The Truth about the world and the universe. And if we fall into this and start saying that it is literally true that the world revolves around a giant tree, we will lose everyone. On the other hand, I admit fully here that I haven’t seen that happening. What I have seen happening is people taking the Eddas and Sagas to be the Truth about our gods and what we should believe, but that’s probably better saved for a separate post.

The second major purpose of religion has long been community building. The heathens used to have giant community feasts on the holidays. Christians have Church. We heathens don’t have so much of that in the real world today. Along with the rise of individualism comes the fall of true religious community. And by true, I mean fleshy. The heathen community these days is online. True, there are moots and kindred and meetups. True, we’ll drive pretty far to meet a like-minded heathen or pagan. But our like-minded heathens are few and far between. And that is because in today’s world, religion is becoming increasingly personal. It’s about you and the gods. That’s why there are so many pagans who choose to be solitary even when there’s a coven who is mostly the same not very far away. We don’t want to make compromises in our faith, even if it means flesh-and-blood community. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing. No one should have to compromise their beliefs in order to fit in if we’re to have an individualist world. We find community in other places. I find it in the dance world, and with my online heathen and pagan friends. We don’t have ritual together, but we do have intellectual conversations, which are essential. I have flesh-and-blood rituals at dance rehearsals with people who agree with me that reason is not the ultimate arbiter of knowledge. And so community building is largely lost as a purpose of our religion. Where it exists, it is a happy by-product, not a purpose.

The primary purpose of heathenry, then, is left to the mystical. We are heathens because of our devotion. Not just to the gods. Also to our ancestors and our heritage and the beautiful pre-industrialized past where our ancestors lived and died and starved. To the earth who is screaming for our attention. To the land-wights we have forgotten, who are angry with us, and who appreciate it when we treat them kindly. But also to the gods. To their passion and their beauty and their fearsomeness. To their pleasant longevity. To the way that the world goes around and the warmth of the sunlight and the sweat pouring down our backs as we dance. To the feeling of intoxication and the fear of being lost on a cold, snowy winter night. To the terrifying sound of a loud clap of thunder. To our emotions, to love and hate and joy. To all the manifold ways of gathering information and knowledge that are not reason—emotion, personal experience, bodily information, gut feelings.

And because of that, we should look to religion more as art than as science if we want to survive in the increasingly scientific world we live in. Because with art, everything is true. Everything that is possible to be believed, that is impossible to believe can all be true simultaneously. Because with art, truth is not relegated only to The Truth that is rational or written down centuries and centuries ago. The Truth in art is what makes us feel, what makes us think, what makes us act. It is what makes us see a painting and question the way that we live our lives. It is what makes people listen to music and cry. It is how we express our love for the gods and the way that they make us feel and live. But it is also the gods. When our religion is art and the gods are our truth, we are free to believe that the world revolves around a tree instead of the sun without being unreasonable, but while being simultaneously as unreasonable as they come. Because why try to apply reason to religion? To quote Nietzsche, “there is always some madness in love, but there is always some reason in madness.” We love the gods and the land not because it is reasonable, but because they call us with their immense power. That it is reasonable to respect Mother Earth is a side point, the hidden reason in our madness. But the madness of our love is that we respect Her solely because we feel She is worthy of respect.

A few days after my sunset-watching drive to rehearsal, I was reading Joseph Campbell. I alternately find him insufferably irritating and find things in what he write that inspire me to think deeply about what he’s saying. I will close with a brief example of how he makes me think.

There were many Japanese members of the congress, not a few of them Shinto priests, and on the occasion of the lawn party in the precincts of a glorious Japanese garden, our friend approached one of these. ‘You know,’ he said, ‘I’ve been now to a good many ceremonies and have seen quite a number of shrines, but I don’t get the ideology; I don’t get your theology.’

“The Japanese (you may know) do not like to disappoint visitors, and this gentleman, polite, apparently respecting the foreign scholar’s profound question, paused as though in deep thought, and then, biting his lips, slowly shook his head. ‘I think we don’t have ideology,’ he said, ‘We don’t have theology. We dance.’

Works Cited:

Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche

Myths to Live By by Joseph Campbell

The Case for a Dancing Heathenry, Part 2

The Historical Case for Heathen Dancing

Despite dance being so prevalent of a religious activity for paleo- and meso- pagans, as I discussed in my last post, modern reconstructionists seem to have ignored it.

While it’s true that if we’re trying to accurately reconstruct the religious practices of our ancestors, we are extremely unlikely to be able to dance like them. It might be possible to take modern folk dances, like Morris Dancing or Saami dances, and try to extrapolate backward to recreate sword dances written about by Tacitus. Dance does not survive well in archeology. Almost every kind of art leaves evidence behind—music can leave instruments, paintings and statues remain if they are lucky. But dance (and singing) do not survive because they do not have obvious tools. Dance is ephemeral by nature and never survives beyond a moment.

Despite all that, there is evidence to clearly show that our heathen ancestors are not an exception to the intimate pairing of dance and polytheism.

If we cannot accurately reconstruct the dances of our ancestors, why do we not create our own anew? Why are our religious rituals so solemn rather than ecstatic? We drink mead and cheer, make oaths, blot, give offerings, say prayers. Sometimes, but rarely, we sing. Why do we not dance? We praise the gods for giving us food, homes, sexual pleasure, lives. But we do not thank them for our bodies which are our lives. And what better way to do that than to dance? I can think of no activity more joyous, more able to build community, that brings us closer to our living, breathing nature. Many neo-pagan groups seem to have found the joy in dance, and, as far as I can tell, neopagan festivals seem to be filled with fires and drum circles and dancing. But heathen rituals are drinking and oathing.

If we are attempting to build a religion based on the past (which I am only half doing, admittedly. I believe the past is an important part of our faith, but that we should be looking to it for inspiration to create modern forms of worship rather than trying to recreate based on the scant evidence that survives for over a thousand years), then we can look to the evidence left for little hints that dance was important.

Tacitus provides us with one such example. Apparently, heathen men would “dance naked amidst drawn swords and presented spears. Practice…conferred skill at this exercise, and skill [gave] grace; but they [did] not exhibit for hire or gain: the only reward of his pastime, though a hazardous one, [was] the pleasure of the spectators” (Tacitus Germania, Oxford Translation). So heathen men, at least, danced. And it seems to me truly fitting that the heathens’ main dancing style of Tacitus’ period would be a highly dangerous one. The heathen men do like to do crazy things for honor. But this wasn’t only a crazy stunt of the kind modern teenage boys do. It took them practice, it made them graceful and agile. I would imagine that this dance would have been very helpful in battle to avoid being hit by the enemies’ swords and spears.

There is something here, also, of the presentational aspect of dance. I would love to say that I dance only for myself, that I do it because I love it and it makes me feel whole. But on the other hand, I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it largely because I enjoy having people watch me. I enjoy impressing my audience by doing things that they themselves are incapable of. It’s like a boast of the variety encouraged in sumble. It’s my way of saying, “Look how strong and persistent and graceful I am!” I don’t much like to say how strong and persistent and graceful I am because that seems like the wrong kind of boasting. It is better to boast of specific deeds. And to boast by dancing, to show how dedicated I truly am in an undeniable way seems to be the best to me. It’s the only way for my boast to be true. And this, I think, is the purpose of the sword dance. To boast by dancing, to prove through grace and agility one’s strength and power.

Tacitus isn’t the only evidence of dance, though. For the other main evidence from the time of the heathens, we must look back to the Bronze Age, to the Egtved Girl and the string skirted bronze statues.

The Egtved Girl is a mummy buried in a wooden coffin around 1400 B.C. She wore a string skirt and a belt with a large disc on it. The disc probably represented the sun. And many believe that she was a dancing priestess. We know this because there have also been discovered fairly contemporaneous small bronze statues of women wearing string skirts. One is doing extremely acrobatic movements that indicate a dance. Both are from Bronze Age Denmark.

I believe that the string skirt was the ritual wear of dancing priestesses of the time. I like that they’re sort of see-through. It’s sexy, which is a reminder of the embodied, physical, sexual nature of dance. And being a priestess. I would want to be a dancing priestess, and indeed, I think of myself as one in many ways. They worshipped the sun, wearing sun disks. I imagine them dancing on hilltops and basking in the warm, golden rays.

Here is a very good little video from the National Museum of Denmark discussing the Egtved girl, mentioning the acrobatic figurine, and discussing how she was a dancer.

I would like us to have more dancing priestesses. I should hope I am not the only one. To dance is to celebrate, and what is worshipping and honoring gods besides celebrating the their aweful power?

I think that children are born dancing, and we “grow up” beyond the joy that children have. Children dance spontaneously, when they are happy, when they are barefoot in the grass, when they are with their friends. Dancing is embodied joy, expressing the beauty of the world through our worldly selves. Let us look to the Egtved girl as our example. Let us love the Sun and the gifts of the gods—joy, friendship, sex, bodies, flowers, warm sunlight, green grass—and let us dance.

Dance is the art of the body, and nothing else. It is the activity in which we create from the only thing that can ever truly be our own. If we want to remember, to worship, to find the sacred in the worldly, why do we not dance until we are gasping for air, sweating, and celebrating Life?

Works Cited:

Germania by Tacitus

National Museum of Denmark’s website

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Egtved_Girl

The Viking Answer Lady on String Skirts

The Case for a Dancing Heathenry, Part 1

I, and many other modern Heathens share a dream of returning the sacred to the worldly, of creating a religion of the earth—a religion of imminent gods and land spirits and ghosts rather than the religion of a single transcendent God. And so I, in my quest to find my religion in the world,  have outdoor ritual, meditation and grounding, an acceptance of sexual activity as a sacred rather than shameful act, a ritual cycle tied to the seasons. I worship Freyja and thank her for the joy to be found in embodiedness.

It’s true that I look to land spirits for guidance, and trust my own thoughts and experiences more than the average monotheist or scientific rationalist. But there is one extremely important and historical method of grounding ourselves in the body and the Earth that is often ignored by modern heathens. Nearly all paleo- and meso- pagan groups have dance as a major ritual form. And yet, heathens do not.

Most websites and books introducing new heathens and interested parties to our religion focus on historical data. This is important as our religion is primarily reconstructed. These texts almost invariably describe the ritual forms of Heathenry as the Blot, the Sumble, and perhaps the Faining if they are being accurate about the necessity for blood in a Blot, or seidh, if the author is mystically inclined. These rituals are all quite serious and solemn. But I aim to have a religion that accurately describes the world around me as I see it. I see the gods in our world. And that world is not only solemn, and neither should our rituals be. Our world has joy and silliness and fear and hope and love and hate and apathy. And so should our rituals.

I propose that all of our secular acts and art forms should have sacred corollaries, and nowhere do I see this as more notably absent in Heathenry than with dance. We eat, and we have sacred feasts. We speak, and we have sacred words in the form of prayer (assuming you are a heathen who doesn’t dismiss prayer, of which I am one). We sing, and we have sacred songs. We promise, and we have sacred oaths. Our modern world has secular dancing—mostly done in nightclubs and bars. But where, these days, is the sacred dance? Some Christian sects have liturgical dancing, but most groups reject dance as too worldly. The Sufis have their dance. Some New Age and Neopagan groups dance. Why not us? Why do we not have an important sacred representation of our embodiedness, a reflection in ourselves of the dancing of the universe, of the dance of the seasons, of the land spirits, of the cycles of life and death, of the butterflies and the wind through the grass and the weaving patterns of Wyrd?

This post will be the first in a series that will state my case for an infusion of dance into Heathenry. This first one will be evidence for dance by looking at other polytheistic traditions. Other topics will include how the West lost sacred dance, the historical case for heathen dancing, and the need for dance as an expression of our embodied, earthly selves. I may add more if I am so inspired.

African Diasporic Religions, such as Santeria and Voudou have regular dancing rituals that lead to both spiritual possession and political action. Elizabeth McAlister discusses a particular Voudou festival, Rara, in her book Rara! Vodou, Power and Performance in Haiti and Its Diaspora. She says that “it is possible to conceive of a distinct continuum in Haitian dance ranging from purely social, secular dance, whose purpose is to amuse, all the way to specific, sacred dances that are considered an integral and serious part of the work of serving the spirits” (McAllister 48, emphasis mine). You cannot worship the lwa without the dance. And yet we heathens, who worship and serve our own spirits, seem to have no place for dance in our worship, our festivals, our holidays. Why do we expect our gods to dismiss the dance as we do?

a documentary that further explores dance as a sacred act in Vodou. The first half is more relevant than the second, but the second is equally interesting.

In Hinduism, even the world is created and destroyed by the dancing god Shiva. Like dances in Vodou and “many other indigenous dances, the traditional Hindu dance Bharata Natayam is an expression of spirituality united with a deep commitment and respect for the environment…The dance is an offering of oneself to the divine” (Stichbury). And can there be any sacrifice more deeply felt, more selflessly given, more honest than a gift of the self? Shouldn’t all practitioners of Earth-based religions dance to feel that deep commitment? Shouldn’t all devotees turn themselves over completely to the gods they so love, to the ecstasy of dance, the breath that enters and exits the lungs, the mouth, the belly at an ever-increasing speed?

Evans-Pritchard makes extraordinary insights into dance and religion in his book Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic Among the Azande. He talks about the village shaman answering oracular questions by dancing. He does not suggest that after the question is asked, the shaman dances around while he thinks of an answer, but rather that the shaman “dances the question,” as if the act of dancing is the act of pondering and finding an answer. He is here suggesting that to dance is to think, that thought does not exist solely in the mind but also in the body. He is suggesting that to meso-pagans, there is no Cartesian body/mind disconnect, but rather that there is an intimate understanding that the body is the mind.

Think of yourself. Your mind is doing the thinking, and your conception of yourself includes a self-image. When you think of yourself, can you help imagining a body also? We, as modern people who have grown in a society that believes completely in the body/mind disconnect, forget that above all else, the mind is a function of the body. We think that our minds are separate from our bodies. But the brain, the theoretical house of the mind, is a bodily organ. And our minds are so strongly influenced by our bodies. As an example, extreme pain tends to remove in us the ability to philosophize. We are reminded through the pain that we are a body, and we experience our lives from that place.

Just as with pain, when you truly dance, you cannot think in the way you do in your daily life. You can only think through your body. DeCartes said, “I think, therefore, I am.” But if we break down his body/mind dualism, we find that to be embodied is to be, and there is no way to more fully express embodiedness than to dance. To think is to be just as to dance is to be. But these aren’t even separate. The body thinks and dances, the mind thinks and dreams and dances. We can dream through our bodies, we can experience our gods through our bodies. We can find, just like these polytheists in a living tradition did, that to dance is to think.

It is clear that dance is important in so many religious traditions, and it’s time that we heathens break out of the Eddas and Sagas and begin to construct a living tradition—one that lives and breathes in a way writing and toasting and researching and pouring mead into the ground never can. Dance is the art that is our bodies and, through them, our lives.

Works Cited and Further Reading:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dance_in_mythology_and_religion

Hindu Dance Celebrates the Earth and Spirit

Rara! Vodou, Power, and Performance in Haiti and Its Diaspora by Elizabeth McAlister

Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic Among the Azande by E.E. Evans Pritchard

Discourse on Method by Rene Descartes (yes, I have read this and I am not just quoting it because it’s a famous quote. And I believe that this work has been extremely detrimental because it reduces our bodies to carriers for our minds, which has led to the Enlightenment and the belief that reason is the most important faculty of Man, which has led to the destruction of our planet. And yes, I did just make that argument fully aware of the fact that many people will most rabidly disagree with me. Oh well, it is what it is.)


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.