Saturday, May 21, 2011

How I Became Heathen

How I Became Heathen

I was not brought up in any religion and, in fact, I do not remember my parents ever explaining the idea of “God” to me at all. I learned about that later when my friends were talking about it, and the idea struck me as rather peculiar. If anything in this world held any numinosity for me, it was the modest woods that grew near my home. It was only a stretch of undeveloped land owned by the utility company, but to me it was a place of wonder and adventure. Always alive, always changing, always teaching and nurturing, though occasionally frightening, the woods was my first spiritual connection. At night, as I settled down to sleep, watching the woods fade into twilight through my bedroom window, I could feel it singing to me with a palpable and uncannily female voice that resonated my heart rather than my ear. Later my research would introduce me to concepts of various female forest spirits and guardians in many cultures, but back then I was ignorant of most of this, all I had was the much more valuable and genuine experience of this presence herself.

The other thing I found moving was mythology. Greek mythology was my favorite as a younger kid, but it was quickly replaced by Norse mythology as I grew older. I was also obsessed with things inspired by Norse mythology, such as Tolkien and the fantasy genre he helped create, Dungeons and Dragons, and also Star Wars, which is, of course, much more an epic space opera than science fiction proper.

A particular fascination for me were wizards. Whereas perhaps a young man would be expected to empathize with the young, sword-toting hero of a story, I identified much more with the old, bearded man in the robe who advised him. Merlin and Gandalf were two particular favorites. Also, around this same time, my constant drawings began to include figures who had a missing eye covered with an eye-patch. These were heroes of various sorts—secret agents, superheroes, science-fiction and fantasy adventurers, and some quirky characters reminiscent of Dr. Who—but, for reasons I never thought about or tried to explain to myself, many wore the eye-patch, and some were also bearded. These characters were always more trickster-heroes than warriors, and I see them now as shadows of their archetypal prototype: Woden, or, as he is more commonly known, Odin, the one-eyed magician-trickster-king of Norse mythology.

During my high school and college years other things came to interest me. Asian philosophy/religion, especially Taoism, shamanism, Campbell and Jung and the theorists who followed them, the occult, Wicca, and neopaganism in general. But, though I dabbled in all of these things to some degree, I never really felt a strong connection to them. They were either too rooted in cultures that were alien to my own, or too unrooted and universal to be sufficiently compelling.

My preoccupation with trickster figures continued throughout this time. I felt close to two in particular: the Norse Loki and the Native American Coyote. Loki was the focus of my high school days, which is appropriate enough as he is certainly a rebellious figure, and Coyote became of interest during my college years when I studied anthropology and, as many do at this time in their lives, began carefully experimenting with the more sensual range of experience, i.e. partying, as Coyote himself loved to do. However, these forays into debauchery were greatly tempered by my continued connection to wise Odinic wizards, which protected me from the dangerous excesses to which many young people fall victim. (Though, admittedly, the price of this caution was often the loss of abandon. In most cases, better safe than sorry, but not in all.)

Time went on, as it does, and I finished my education, married my wife, had children and started a career. (For the sake of brevity, I will forgo dwelling on the joy these things have given me, though I could fill many pages with them.) In my early thirties I found myself more and more preoccupied with practical matters, and I had become disconnected from the rich symbolic life I had always led. I had become a professional, a husband and a father in a very short amount of time, and had, in the process, lost track of who I was. At this time I picked up a copy of Jung’s Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious, which I had bought in college but never read. Jung’s ideas, primarily that myth still has resonance and importance in the modern world, helped me revitalize my intellectual and spiritual life and I began devouring books on psychology, anthropology, and pagan and polytheistic religion.

Then one day in my late thirties I was engaged in the inevitable act of idleness of the information age: I googled myself. I was curious about my name, especially my last name and its history. Unsurprisingly, my last name revealed itself to be of Anglo-Saxon origin. What struck me at that moment, though, was other than “very English, or “WASP,” I really had very little idea what Anglo-Saxon meant, except that they were the bad guys in Arthurian legend and the good guys in Robin Hood.

I began to delve into Anglo-Saxon history and culture and shortly made a rather startling, if belated, discovery. I found that there was quite a bit of evidence that the pre-christian Anglo-Saxons, like all Northern European Germanic peoples, honored gods who shared ancestry with the deities of Norse mythology. At that moment something like a bell or gong went off in my head and I was hurtled back into the woods of my childhood, my drawings of one-eyed, Odinic heroes, the endless games of Dungeons and Dragons, reading Tolkien, watching Star Wars, my fascination with Loki during my adolescence--that feeling I had felt hints of again and again growing up and had striven so long and in so many ways to find again. Further, this feeling was now tied directly to my ancestry, providing me with something I had craved all along: a tradition. Not a borrowed tradition, but an honest-to-gods tradition of my own heritage.

And then I discovered that there were others like me who felt this same call and that many of them had been gathering in various loose organizations since the early seventies, and eventually developed a rich and varied online culture. Specific terms for this folkway (we usually don’t like the term ‘religion’ since the idea of separating identifiably ‘religious’ elements out of a culture is a relatively modern, monotheist/secular concept, and when you say ‘religion’ most people hear ‘monotheism’,) include such exotic sounding names as Asatru, Fyrn Sidu, Theodism, and others. These terms also imply different practices and ethnic divisions, but the blanket term is “heathenry,” and all of the above practitioners would likely consider themselves ‘heathens’ no matter what their differences were.

So I have officially considered myself a heathen for the past six years or so, (though I would say I have been an unofficial heathen since my days back in the woods,) and have been slowly learning and exploring what it means to be a polytheist in the modern world. This path has had profound implications for my relationships to my own mind and body, my family, my community, the natural world, my politics, and, perhaps most important in heathenry, my everyday actions--my deeds. In short, I am at home in my own skin and the world in a way I only dreamed of in the past. This, in my opinion, is the real purpose of “religion”; it was never meant as some kind of purely empirical statement, despite what atheists and fundamentalists (and fundamentalist atheists) may think and say.

You will find plenty of information on the Internet regarding heathenry. There is no central authority or official dogma, so take everything you read with a grain of salt. (Also be aware that, to the dismay of most us, there are certain rather loud groups of people with a distorted view of history struggling with the difference between cultural pride and the politics of racism who call themselves “heathen.”) As for myself, I have not been much for ritual up to this point, though I have done quite a bit of research on ritual in many cultures. I like to say that my altar is the world and deeds are my sacrifice. However, I have become more and more interested in developing a more ritualized relationship to heathenry. I will have more to say about ritual in future posts. Despite my lack of ritual modes of expressing them, I do have relationships with gods and spirits, but I have a rather complex, non-supernatural way of seeing these entities, and explaining, sharing and listening to others about these ideas is the reason I began this blog. Which brings us to the end of of one story, and the beginning of what I hope to be many more.

Copyright 2011 The Heretical Heathen


  1. hello brother,
    had to shut my eyes and imagine the layout of our house to realize you had a view of the woods from your bedroom at night. I had the patio, and couldn't see out the door well at night. It never occurred to me you could see the woods. It is strange to hear you call it anything but "the woods."

    Aside from the inaccurate use of "forest" where you should have said "the woods," I can corroborate the rest of your story for your readers.

    I will add (because it feels related) that you have always had an unusually strong moral code. I wonder if the mythology that you were drawn to so early was a hook on which to hang this instinct or if mythology prompted it (as so many contend mythology does). Contrarily, I think the former. I think there was a compulsion that was strengthened from a framework. Mythology structured what was already there.

    I have never been sure how much of my own moral code I picked up from you, but it is something other people have commented on in me. Somehow I have always (barely-consciously) thought that from unkindness (at school), you were driven to kindness and, perhaps, passed that on to me.

  2. hello sister,

    You are right about "the woods," of course, and I have corrected this error and, feeling inspired, added some new material to the story of How I Became Heathen.

    Since myth is a vehicle for morality, it would make a natural hook for such feelings, though magic swords, wizards, trolls and dragons are certainly compelling by themselves, but perhaps it would be artificial to separate these elements from their moral backdrop. I have noticed that modern people always seem somewhat uncomfortable when the topic of mortality comes up, as if it were some embarrassing old fashioned notion that should not be introduced into polite conversation. But in these days where every dollar we spend is a vote for a kind of relationship to the world, I think morality and the myths, both ancient and modern, which explore and perpetuate morality need to be a continuous topic of dialogue. Which is one of the reasons for starting this blog in the first place.

  3. Hey, if you change the text after I have corroborated it, then you have tricked me into corroborating something I may not have read. I call shenanigans.

  4. Calling shenanigans on someone who has truck with Loki and Odin is a bit redundant...