Heathenry is a term used to describe the religious practices of two main groups of people, one historical and one modern.
The original Heathens were the pre-Christian North European peoples who lived a thousand and more years ago in the lands around what is now called the North Sea. These included the peoples of Anglo-Saxon England, Scandinavia, Germany and Frisia (Friesland).
Modern Heathen groups around the world are reviving these old practices and call their religion by various names including Asatru, The Northern Tradition, Odinism, Forn Sed, Germanic Pagan Deconstructionism or, simply, Heathenry. In Iceland, which did not convert to Christianity until the 11th Century, Heathenry has once again become an official (nationally recognized) religion.
Heathens work to build healthy relationships with gods and goddesses, ancestors, spirits of the land, and others in their communities, both through holy rites and through their day to day actions.
There are literary sources that tell us how Heathenry was practiced before the advent of Christianity. The main such sources include medieval Icelandic Eddas and Sagas, Anglo-Saxon poetry, the works of the 8th century English monk Saint Bede, and the Germania by the Roman historian Tacitus.
Although most of these were written in Christian times, they record the religious beliefs and practices of a culture that existed before Christianity came to Northern Europe. Archaeological evidence continues to be discovered which supports this picture of Heathen religion obtained from such classical and medieval literature.
Alongside these historical sources, modern Heathens experience their own, personal, understanding of their religion as lived today, and their own relationship with their gods.
Gods and other beings
Heathenry, like all ancient European pagan religions, is polytheistic and recognizes a large number of gods and other spiritual entities. Although the Heathen gods are best known from Norse Mythology (and often called by Anglicized versions of their Old Norse names) they were honored by many peoples outside of Scandinavia. For example, the god known to early Germanic tribes as Wodhanaz became Odhinn in Old Norse, Woden in Anglo-Saxon and Old Saxon, and Wuotan in Old High German. Some of the most well-known Heathen gods are enshrined in our English days of the week. Tuesday is named after Tiw (Tyr), Wednesday after Woden (Odin), Thursday after Thunor (Thor) and Friday after the goddess Frige (Frigg).
In addition to the better known 'major gods', the names of several dozen local or tribal gods are known through medieval literature, runic inscriptions, and votive stones. Most Heathens choose to actively honor a subset of gods with whom they have developed personal relationships, although offerings are also often made 'to all the gods and goddesses'. Heathens relate to their gods as complex personalities who each have many different attributes and talents. For example, whereas Thor is popularly known outside Heathen circles as the mighty hammer-wielding God of Thunder, in Eddic poetry he is called by names such as Deep Thinker, Man's Well-Wisher, and Consecrator Thor, revealing a gentler side to his nature.
In addition to gods, Heathens recognize and relate to a wide variety of spiritual beings or 'wights'. These include the Norns - who are three female entities who weave the web of wyrd - and the Disir - who are female ancestral spirits attached to a tribe, family, or individual. Heathens also work with 'hidden folk' such as elves, brownies, dwarves and etins (giants and other not so pleasant folk). They interact with the housewights who live in their homes and the landwights who occupy features of the landscape such as streams, mountains, forests or fields. Having a relationship with landwights is an important feature of Heathen religion and outdoor Heathen rituals will not proceed until the permission of landwights is sought and obtained.
Another characteristic of Heathen religion is the respect given to ancestors in general. These may be a person's literal forebears, or may be people now dead who have inspired them in some way.
The Norse gods in history
Carolyne Larrington, Tutor in Medieval English at St John's College, Oxford; Heather O'Donoghue, Vigfusson Rausing, Reader in Ancient Icelandic Literature in the Department of English at Oxford University and John Hines, Professor of Archaeology at Cardiff University discuss the role of theology and the gods in the Vikings' daily lives.
There are no central authorities in Heathenry and no single organization to which all Heathens belong, though there are national and international organizations created to facilitate networking between Heathens. There is no widely recognized priesthood, although sometimes individuals may be recognized as godhis and gydhjas (priests and priestesses) within their own communities.
Many Heathens belong to small groups made up of Heathen friends and family members. These groups are sometimes called 'hearths' or 'kindred’s' and meet for religious rituals in members' homes or in outdoor spaces. Some hearths and kindreds have recognized leaders. Others are entirely egalitarian.
Rites, festivals, and practices
Rites and celebrations
The main rites celebrated in Heathenry are called blot (pronounced 'bloat') and symbel (pronounced 'sumble'). Heathen groups and individuals hold feasts and celebrations based around blot and symbel at rites of passage (such as weddings or baby-namings), seasonal holidays, oath-takings, rites in honor of a particular god or gods, and rites of need (in which gods are asked for help).
A blot was originally the ritual sacrifice of an animal to one or more gods, elves, or ancestors. A feast followed afterwards at which the meat was shared amongst the participants. Blots were held to honor the gods or to gain their favor for specific purposes such as peace, victory, or good sailing weather.
A modern blot centers around the offering of food or drink (often mead) to the gods and tends to be followed by a feast. It may be a simple rite or a more elaborate one depending on the purpose of the blot and the number of participants. In an indoor blot where food is offered, it is common to lay a place for the god, ancestor, or elf at the table. In an outdoor blot offering are often thrown onto a fire.
Symbel is a ritual drinking ceremony in which one or more drinking horns or other vessels are filled with mead (or another appropriate drink) and used for toasting or boasting. It is common for modern Heathens to pass the horn(s) around all those participating after liquid is blessed. The first round of toasts may be to the gods, the second round to wights or ancestors, and the third round may be to whatever else the assembled Heathens wish to toast. There may be many more rounds, or the symbel may stop after a designated number. A separate libation (drink offering) may be given to the gods, landwights or housewights, or some of the contents of the horn may be poured out as an offering to them.
As well as major offerings to the gods or elves, Heathens like to leave gifts for their domestic hidden folk: the wights who live in their garden and house. For this purpose, many Heathens keep a special bowl to leave offerings in the house of cakes and ale, or may leave food or drink on or near a small garden altar.
Different Heathen communities and individuals celebrate different cycles of seasonal holidays based on their cultural affiliations, local traditions, and relationships with particular gods. There is no fixed calendar of Heathen festival dates. The three Heathen festivals most commonly celebrated in the UK are Winter Nights - usually celebrated in October or November, Yule - a twelve day festival that begins around the time of the winter solstice, and a festival for the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre in the spring.
Magic and seership
Magic and seership were practiced by some individuals within ancient Heathen cultures, and this is also the case with today's Heathen community.
Some Northern European magical practices being revived by Heathens include the carving of runes onto talismans and the chanting of charms called galdor. Some Heathens are also rediscovering Northern European shamanistic practices known as seidh (pronounced 'sayth'). In a ritual called 'oracular seidh' a seer or seeress answers questions or gives advice to participants. Many modern Heathens also practice runic divination.
Although magic was part of ancient Heathen culture, it did not play a part in the religious rituals of blot and symbel. Therefore, it is not seen as an intrinsic part of the religion. Although all Heathens share a belief in the ability of the gods to enact change in the world, they do not all believe in the ability of magicians to do so.
Ethics, beliefs, and other paths
Wyrd and ethics
One of the central concepts in Heathenry is Wyrd, the force that connects everything in the universe throughout space and time. Heathens believe that all of their actions can have far reaching consequences through the web of Wyrd. They understand that who they are, where they are, and what they are doing today is dependent on actions they and others have taken in the past, and that every choice they make in the present builds upon choices they have previously made.
With an understanding of Wyrd comes a great responsibility. If we know that every action we take (or fail to take) will have implications for our own future choices and for the future choices of others, we have an ethical obligation to think carefully about the possible consequences of everything we do. Thus, one of the principal ethics of Heathenry is that of taking responsibility for one's own actions.
Another Heathen value is fridh (pronounced frith), the maintenance of peace and friendship within a social group. Obligations towards friends, kin and community are taken seriously by Heathens. Like many peoples living far apart in a harsh climate, pre-Christian Heathens put great stress on hospitality, and this is still valued by modern Heathens. A related concept is the giving of gifts, though both gift-giving and hospitality are bounded by reciprocity, a principle that Heathens consider important.
Plain speaking, honesty and forthrightness are also important to Heathens. This may be seen as part of a value system based upon personal honor, which eschews deceit and dishonesty towards members of the social group. Thus, Heathens place great value on the giving of their word, and any form of oath-taking is taken extremely seriously. This often means that Heathens will not sign their name to something unless they can assent to it in both letter and spirit.
Heathenry is focused on right living in the here and now and does not place as great an emphasis on the afterlife as do some other religions. Whereas Valhalla - Odhin's hall - is popularly seen as the Norse equivalent of heaven, this is a misconception. According to the mythology as recorded in the Eddas, Valhalla is only for warriors who die in battle. Moreover, half of these battle-slain warriors go to Freyja's hall and half to Odhin's hall. Those who drown at sea go to the goddess Ran's hall. People who die of natural causes go to the hall of the goddess Hel. Most of today's Heathens see Hel as a neutral place where they will be reunited with their ancestors.
Sources do not enable a complete reconstruction of the pre-Christian Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon views of the soul. One concept, however, which is still retained in folk stories, is that of the fetch or fylgia. The fetch was held to be a part of the person which might be contacted during life, but which would not be physically seen until just before death. The sight of one's fetch was, indeed, a signal of the ending of one's life.
There are a few passages in the sources which are interpreted by some as indicating an ancient Heathen belief in reincarnation, but they are far from compelling. Some modern Heathens believe in the continuation of part of a person through reincarnation, while others do not.
Heathenry and other contemporary Pagan Spiritualties
Heathenry is a living religion based on literary and archaeological sources for the religious practices of a particular pre-Christian culture and extended by the relationships of modern Heathens with their gods. It differs from Wicca and other modern day non-reconstructionist* Pagan paths in a number of ways. Perhaps the primary difference is that Heathens are 'hard polytheists': they honor a large number of individual gods, goddesses, and other spiritual beings whom they see as existing independently from humans. And in common with many indigenous religions world-wide, they also honor their ancestors.
Heathens differ from Wiccans and many of the other modern day non-reconstructionist Pagans in many other ways. They reject the concept that all goddesses are aspects of 'The Goddess' and that all gods are aspects of her consort. They also reject the Jungian concept of Gods and Goddesses as archetypes in the unconscious mind. Heathen festivals do not follow the 'Eight-Fold Wheel of the Year' based on solstices and equinoxes. Their rituals do not involve 'casting circles' or 'calling quarters'. Magic is not an essential or central part of Heathenry, and the majority of Heathens do not consider themselves 'witches'. There are no 'degrees of initiation' within Heathen religion and no 'high priests' or 'high priestesses'.
Despite these theological differences, many Heathens are involved in the wider pagan community for social and political reasons.
Very informative, thanks Mystic Wolf!