Heathenry Musings Pt. 1

I’ve been reading, studying, lurking in online groups, and thinking a lot about Heathenry since my last post about it. The complexity of the concepts mentioned — frith, worth, wyrd, örlög — as well as others, has put me in an unfamiliar state of mind. I have this intense urge to discuss my studies and my thoughts on them, especially with other Heathens, but I don’t yet know what it is I’m trying to say. I don’t know why I want to discuss it. So instead, I am going to just write my thoughts here, disjointed as they may be.

I want to provide context for my thoughts first, though. So recently, I have read these books:

  • The Road to Hel by Hilda Roderick Ellis Davidson
  • A Practical Heathen’s Guide to Ásatrú by Patricia M. Lafayllve

…and I am currently reading The Viking Spirit: An Introduction to Norse Mythology and Religion by Daniel McCoy. Of the three, I’ve found the first and third to be valuable, while the second one is mostly information I already know and otherwise useless to me, being more Wicca-influenced.

I have also been lurking on a Facebook group called HEATHENRY, which is honestly one of the most abrasive discussion groups I’ve ever observed. And yet the information presented through the discussions is exactly what’s put me in this state of intense contemplation. The most vocal members of the Facebook group — and the individuals doing most of the teaching — are primarily followers of Theodish Belief, which is a particular flavor of Anglo-Saxon Heathenry. Theodsmen, as they are called, follow a rigid, hierarchical structure and are brought into their kindreds after a rigorous process called “worthing” that occurs during a year of “thralldom.” They claim that doing this builds exceptionally strong bonds between kinsmen and also helps everyone decide if these thralls, these prospective members, are good fits for their theods or not. So, suffice to say, the ideas I’ve learned from this group have a strong Theodish leaning.


COMMUNITY

I have always had a strong desire to be part of a larger Pagan community, which is what led me to co-found the Fellowship Beyond the Star with my friend Kaye. But as a person, I am much more comfortable in small, intimate groups of compatible personalities and worldviews. Coincidentally, that’s exactly what a Heathen kindred is supposed to be. If each person has frith with each other person, then the kindred becomes a surrogate family. It’s not just a group of like-minded people chatting over coffee on weekends; it’s not just a group of friends having a good time in someone’s basement. It’s people who become the same as your father, mother, brother, sister, or child.

I don’t know how different Heathen groups succeed at this in practice. Speaking purely theoretically, for me, this notion of a kindred means I couldn’t make a kindred with just anybody. There are five, maybe six, people in the entire world who I would consider a non-blood family member. Two of them live outside of the United States. None of them are Heathens.

Sure, I could “brute force” a new family through trials of character to in order to form a kindred. I’m not particularly keen on spreading myself thinly between obligations, though. I already have a small gathering of friends who I like hanging out with, and to divide my time between them and another group sounds absolutely exhausting. So maybe what I do is focus on turning them into my kindred, building frith with them even though some of them aren’t Heathens. After all, one thing I’ve learned is that even if you are the sole Heathen in your community, you still have a community, and you still have an inner-yard you should keep frith with.

The process of thralldom fascinates me, though. For many reasons, I am just flat-out uninterested in Theodish Belief, least of which is the fact that they are focused on Anglo-Saxon Heathenry. (They also appear to be brutish people in personality, which is a huge turn-off.) And while I don’t know all of the specifics of thralldom, I don’t like the negative connotations of that word. If I were to theoretically form a kindred with a worthing process, I would call it fostering like Lauren at Heathen Talk suggests, and the basic idea would be the same: A prospective kinsperson would be assigned a senior member as a mentor in much the same way fraternities and sororities have the Big-Little relationship. I like the idea of the mentor speaking and acting (making offerings, etc.) on behalf of the prospective member. I like the idea of proper seating arrangements around the table and the prospective members sitting at the end where they are in the best position to observe and learn, but not to participate. I like the idea of them having homework and helping their mentor and learning skills that contribute to the whole of society, not just to the kindred. I like that they have to prove their worth to the kindred before being accepted.


WORTH

To expand on that last sentiment, I’ve been thinking a lot about what the worthing process might actually entail. “Worth,” in Heathen terms, is your reputation based on your words and deeds, both good and bad — but especially your deeds. So let’s say someone wants to become a member of my hypothetical kindred and agrees to go through the year-long fostering process. What should they do to prove their worth? Homework, obviously. Reading the material and engaging with it are important. Community service. Volunteering at — but not participating in — kindred events. And then the rest of their worth is determined by how they act as a person generally. After all, “worth” in a Heathen context is not the intrinsic value a person has by simply being human; it’s given (and taken) by one’s community.

I read a comment on the HEATHENRY Facebook group that “worth manifests physically as material comfort and security.” I chewed on this for a while, read a little more, and figured this much: Heathenry’s focus is the welfare of the inner-yard. To the ancients, that meant houses for living comfortably, enough food so the family won’t starve, weapons with which to defend themselves, sufficient clothes, items for bartering, etc. Cattle was the equivalent of wealth, and having a surplus of animals with which to make sacrifices to the gods meant a greater chance that the gods would hear your prayers. Having enough material goods to pass onto your descendants so they can live comfortably and prosper was so important. And people of great worth, who had performed great deeds in the service of their communities, were usually able to obtain and accumulate material goods. This is called “material culture.”

I’ll have to think more about material culture and write about it later. I know what it looks like in a modern Heathen’s life, but as someone who notoriously throws out or donates things that’s no longer of use to me, I have to consider how I can cultivate a material culture of my own… especially since I have no current intentions of having my own children.


HONOR

Now, I haven’t read too much on honor yet; Honor in Germanic Literature by George Fenwick Jones is still on my list. But it’s my understanding that honor is also something the inner-yard gives an individual based on whether that individual acted to uphold, protect, or enhance frith. Honor, along with other aspects of Heathen morality/ethics, seems to derive meaning completely from the inner-yard; therefore, one person’s act of honor could be a dishonorable act coming from another person depending on the cultural norms of their respective inner-yards. The article “Decoding Heathen Honor” on Real Heathenry gives this example:

Farout Hearth, consisting of an extended Heathen family, lives in a rural area and is currently going through rough times. During a trip to town for groceries, they come upon someone pan-handling for money. The wife reaches into her coin purse and gives some change to the man, but her husband and mother-in-law glare at her. It was obviously not an honorable act in their eyes and the wife feels ashamed. Farout Hearth is struggling. They are having trouble paying for the necessities in life and are literally eating beans and rice in order to keep a roof over their head. They have absolutely no money to spare. So while this sort of generosity is encouraged by many cultural and religious bodies, it was not acceptable for Farout Hearth. It was dishonorable as it could cause them more hardship.

When thinking about honor, I think about my recent family trip to Arizona. My family doesn’t spend a lot of time together, and it had been years since we’d taken a family trip. I was encouraged to go after compromising on the itinerary with my mother. It was not the most relaxing trip, so I was relieved to return home, but beforehand I left, my father pulled me aside and thanked me for going. It had meant a lot to my mother that we all go together. And so, despite all the stress and illness I suffered during that week, I had acted honorably in my inner-yard’s eyes by going — because going on the trip was a frithful act.

Will I go more often? Not likely. My parents, for their part, know that in order to keep frith with me, they can’t call on me too often. And so it goes.


THE GIFTING CYCLE

“If you have a good friend, be a good friend back.
Answer every gift you get with a gift in return.
Repay laughter with more laughter,
But repay lies with deceit of your own.”
Hàvamàl 42

I have a lot of thoughts about the gifting cycle that I haven’t fully formed yet. Theodsmen view gifting as an aggressive act because the giver is putting the receiver in a position of debt. They say that the only way to resolve this imbalance would be to give something of equal or greater value back — hence gifting cycle. There seem to be a lot of nuances to this:

  • Giving someone a poor gift would be an insult to the receiver. Example: Chieftain Olaf gives Chieftain Sven a blind, lame horse. Sven is insulted.
  • Giving someone too great of a gift would indebt them to you for, essentially, forever. Example: A jarl giving land to a farmer would forever indebt that farmer to the jarl, because in most cases, the farmer has no means to give the jarl a gift of equal or greater value. This could also be viewed as an insult by the gift’s recipient.
  • Both refusing a gift and returning a gift are declarations of war.

This is why some Heathens believe that it’s better not to give a gift, than to give the wrong gift, give too often, or give too richly. It’s actually mentioned in the Hàvamàl as well:

“Better to avoid asking,
Than to sacrifice too much to the Gods;
Always a gift seeks a gift in return.
Better to avoid slaughtering,
Than to slaughter too much.
This, Thund carved before humankind’s origin.
He who came back, when he rose from the deep.”
Hàvamàl 145

I don’t believe that Heathens of this mindset feel that gifting is always done with ill intentions, though. After all, Odin advises in Hàvamàl to give gifts to the people you fancy and to your good friends. I think the notion of gifting being “aggressive” is less in the sense of hostility and more in the sense of intention. There’s an ulterior motive, but a positive one. After all, the purpose of the gifting cycle is to strengthen bonds within a community, or to create new bonds between people in each other’s outer-yard (perhaps for the purpose of hopefully becoming part of each other’s inner-yard).

This concept is completely opposite of the modern Western idea of gifting; that is, in today’s society, we give people gifts without expecting any kind of return. But to a Heathen, the act of giving someone a gift is an act that says, “I am interested in forming/strengthening our bonds of community. I consider you a person in good standing [honorable/worthy]. If you give me a gift in return, I will know you reciprocate my feelings and intentions; however, if you never do, I will take that as a rejection of my goodwill.”

I should note that gifts need not be material possessions. Hosting a friend for a couple of nights, helping your sibling move to a new house, building a garden planter for your wife, and being a shoulder to cry on are all examples of gifts you can give another person. Per Hàvamàl:

“You don’t have to give great things;
Often, just small things will earn you much praise.
With just half a loaf shared, and a tilted cup,
I have won myself many good friends.”
Hàvamàl 52

Now, I love finding gifts for people I think they will love, and it pleases me to see their faces light up upon seeing those gifts. People have a much harder time giving me gifts because I am extremely picky. In fact, I prefer useful gifts, or being treated to a good meal. I’m not sure yet if I like the idea of the gifting cycle, but I understand its purpose, and I know for certain that giving and receiving thoughtful, meaningful gifts does increase bonds between people.

Sources

  • Artisson, Robin. The Words of Odin: A New Rendering of Hàvamàl for the Present Age. Createspace Independent Publishing Platform, 2016. Digital.
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