Even though I've been Heathen for a long time now, there is a question that still passes through my mind occasionally, Bjarnharðr: what does it mean to be "Asatru" or one who has "belief in the Gods"? It's a maddening question, because it's so simple, yet not so simple at all.
A follower of the white Christ might hear "what does it mean to be a Christian?" and respond with "It means to believe in Christ, to follow Christ's teachings and live by his example." For Christians, as with most followers of a revealed religion, that is a good enough answer: you have the founder of the religion, you have his teachings, you believe his myth and you let the teachings guide you.
But Asatru is an organic religion- it has no "founder". It has no "book of scriptures". It only has the historical dispensation or Example of the Ancestors, as found in the Eddas and Sagas: what Gods they believed in, some sacred stories or myths they handed down among them, how they treated others, what they valued in a man or woman's character, and how they lived and worshiped.
That Fund of Ancestral Wisdom is what we have, and it is not a rock-firm body of unquestionable lore; it is quite open to interpretation, despite what some may say. But a wise man or woman will always put the fund of ancestral wisdom primary in their moral and ethical thinking, and look to it for advice in living. This doesn't mean "look for answers in it"- this means "look for guidance to find your own answers." The distinction there is very important.
So, what does it mean to be believers as we are- to be "True to the Gods?"
You've made the decision to enter into the world of Heathenry, to call yourself Heathen or Asatru, and so I imagine this is a question that you'd care to hear answered.
Part of the problem comes from trying to decide on just a "few points" that make a person "True to the Gods" or "True to the Old Ways". You can't really narrow it down like that; many things would seem to make a person a "true" Heathen. I could talk about how they make prayers or do fainings; I could talk about how they decorate their homes, or how they take part in rites and rituals of the old way.
I could talk about how they think, what sort of music they listen to, how they believe in the Gods and Goddesses, how they choose to self-identify, how they dress, how they view social issues. I could talk about how they sprinkle their newborn children with water in sacred Vatni Ausa rites.
There's so many things, and if I drew from them to make a small list, I wouldn't have a satisfactory answer. If I made a long, exhaustive list of everything I could think of, I still wouldn't have a satisfactory answer, in my opinion.
So what does it mean to "be True to the Gods"? It has to relate to some of those things I just pointed out, but it seems to go further than just thinking or behaving in a certain "Heathenish" manner.
It must go further than just belief, for to we Heathens, "pure belief" without a tangible expression of that belief is really of no use to anyone. But let's start with feeling and thinking, and maybe we can put some good ideas on the table that will help us to come to a clear perspective on what it means to really be Heathen.
Being True to the Old Ways and the Gods: Feeling and Thinking like a Heathen
What we think about things is often born in how we feel, or at least shaped by how we feel. Do Heathens feel and think differently from others? The answer is certainly yes; and after examining my own feelings for years, I've come to the conclusion that how I feel- and how I think about many things- is one of the outside reasons that I'm Heathen.
I won't say that there are special feelings that are unique to Heathens, nor thoughts for that matter, but how far Heathens will go to live according to their feelings and thoughts is certainly unique to them, when compared to the other religious cultures that surround us in America and Europe. Let me explain this more.
I feel the need to be free. Freedom is a big issue for Heathens, both historically and in the modern day. To feel the desire to be free, to think of freedom as an important issue, is pretty human, and very "American" even- America's spent a long time extolling the virtue of freedom, though what most Americans mean by it is up for grabs.
I'll tell you what freedom is to me- it's the power to go off on my own and be left alone. It's the power to have as few people involved in my private life as possible (unless I want them there), and to have as little interference in my affairs as possible. I want to handle my affairs. If I really need help, of course, I do enjoy people around who want to help. But freedom is about living my life the way I see fit, without having to ask permission from others, or worry about the approval or interference of others.
And this very idea was precious to our Ancestors- some of our grandmothers and grandfathers even left Norway to move all the way out to Iceland in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, just to have that "leave us alone" lifestyle. Before the age of Kings being manipulated by Christianity, our Ancestors did live free lives- in small communities, headed by local leaders (called "kings" historically, but who would have looked more like "the richest homeowner in the area" if you had seen one with your own eyes.)
Their communities were small- people knew one another, watched out for one another and the community itself. They gathered together to worship the Gods, to defend one another, and to keep bonds strong with nearby communities, at least in favorable theory. They helped one another when they needed help, and help was always carefully paid back in reciprocal help- this we are certain of. They had a society based on cooperation, not competition.
There was no "central authority" over entire bodies of land the size of present-day nations, and such a concentration of power was not to be seen until the centuries of Christianity. The "center" of authority was not in a king's court miles away; it was right there in the land of the community, and the "spiritual center" was not a big church in a distant city- it was right there, in the land of the community, in a local Hof or shrine, or a field or hill that was sacred to the community.
The community was self-sufficient. It was self-policing. If you didn't like the way things were run, you could leave and start a life elsewhere. In Iceland, the democratic ideal of the Althing was created so that people could band together and vote to change how things were done, if needed. No one could tell you how to live or act in your own home, or tell you how to pray or how to think. And for me, all of this means "freedom".
The growth of nation-states, of "high kings" and of powerful churches destroyed it all. The center of political authority was now far away, and so was the center of spiritual authority. The old times of tribes, autonomous communities, and localized religion was gone. And the new age that was born led directly to the great evils that we all know and hate: industrialization, urbanization, globalization, global warfare, big government interference, absolutism, mass evangelistic religion, technocracy, and the repression of non-western peoples and their cultures and religions.
All of this led to the devaluing of folk culture, thus deeply depleting the character of many nations and groups. All of this led to the devaluing of uniqueness, of crafts made by hand, and the loss of many languages and dialects. All of this turned the land that was once seen as the sacred body of a Goddess and a collection of sacred, living powers into a huge resource pool to be manipulated and used on a massive scale for national treasuries, leveling entire forests to do it and unbalancing the environment in other ways.
The bigger it all gets, the faster, the more organized, the more centralized, the more concentrated, the more materialistic, the more you will see freedom fading away, until nothing of what the Ancestors once enjoyed really remains. It's sad to say, but what we call "freedom" today is nothing at all compared to what it once was. Yet, we accept the reality we are presented with from birth, and the "freedoms" we've known are now the only things we can understand as "freedom".
Freedom from Revealed Religion and Spiritual Dictators
Don't get me wrong, Bjarnharðr- living in the West still makes us more "free" than other places, and gives us a higher standard of living. It beats most of the rest of the world for certain. But there is something in the Heathen "way of feeling" and "way of thinking" that yearns for a more authentic freedom than the one we have been presented with- but where can we go to find more freedom? One place is in spirituality. And it is a very, very important place.
Spirituality- the religious aspect of a person's life- says so very much about how they feel and think. The entire worldview of a culture is heavily influenced by dominant religious strains within. A person can have great health, good intelligence, and ample opportunities to excel, but be ruined- and even killed- by guilt, shame, strange beliefs, and narrow-mindedness hammered into them by religious authorities. Never mistake it, friend (and I know you don't) religion can be a liberating factor, but also the most oppressive prison ever designed for a human mind.
If you have the heart of a Heathen, a heart that yearns for freedom in every aspect of life that you can personally manage, then you won't want too many people sitting around telling you what to believe about life, the universe, and everything. That's contrary to the "get out of my life" expectation of real freedom. This is why the organic spiritual approach of Heathenry is so appealing to people like you, and people like me. This is why Heathens prefer to worship under the sky, not in a church building. This is why we prefer solitude and the power to consider things for ourselves, more than a crowded room listening to a preacher.
Instead of a priest or bishop or minister telling you what you should believe, the Heathen way invites you to examine the fund of Ancestral wisdom and seek their guidance towards your own conclusion. This is an enormous freedom- an enormous "reduction of bureaucracy" as it were. So long as you respect the Ancestors for who they were, and take their wisdom seriously, you can't go wrong. You certainly won't be offending our Gods, for even the Gods only offered "good rede" or good advice to mankind about how to live- not commands.
All of these things I've been talking about should tell you something about what it means to "think like a Heathen." It means to have the desire to think for yourself, and to make your own way.
Now, I say this, and I mean it, but can't stop here; to make this statement about "thinking for yourself" is a good thing, but if you don't qualify it, it can fly off into the realm of the boring and immature. Kids are always being selfish and thinking they know everything, and not wanting to listen to their elders' good advice. "Thinking for yourself" in a wise way never means "ignoring everyone else." But it still expects you to make your own mind up.
Only a fool would think that they alone knew everything they needed to know to be guided successfully through every situation in life. Grettir's Saga tells us that "Many have been brought to death by overconfidence." It's wise to seek advice and know your limits. And yet, one must be confident that they have the spirit of Gods in them, and be brave. This "middle ground" that we must walk is a challenge, but it alone gives us the peace and freedom we desire.
We value the wisdom of the Ancestors, and we value one another's inputs, because we share a big, complex world of many perspectives. None of us are truly self-sufficient, but as a community, and in friendship and respect for one another, we can approach sufficiency. The Ancestors are part of our extended community- they still exist, both inside of us, in the lore they left behind, and in the strangest of ways in the Unseen worlds. It is no shame to embrace the idea that it is good to seek guidance, even when we have the freedom (which we should have) to think for ourselves.
Without seeking out one another and the Ancestors for help in considering life's many challenges, we can't really consider ourselves "Heathens" in the best sense of the word. So freedom yes- but don't ever forget to know your limitations, and seek the wisdom of the old world and of other people to help you on your way.
Of the Resurrection of the Village
The return to a Heathen way of living and thinking is a spiritual return to the "old village"- we are freed from "distant authorities", whether temporal or spiritual, and our own homes and hearths become the center of family, authority, and spirituality. No one can stop this from happening; it is a conscious choice, and one that helps us to internally reverse the harm done by massive urbanization, consumerism, and dehumanization and deculturation of everything.
You can have a hearth where the Old Ways live again, even in the center of a city- trust me, it is possible. With your friends and kindred near you, worshiping our Gods according to your home-custom, and being free of unnecessary authority, you can find a place of great serenity. A Heathen's mind is not happy with everyone being forced into a huge herd, or with brainless conformity of thought, conformity of behavior, and conformity in other ways.
A Heathen's mind and heart don't like to see the earth turned into a massive factory, and they don't like the dingy, ugly ruins of the land left behind by untethered, unwise technological impact. Something in us longs for the peace of nature, for the bliss of good cheer and good company, being with our own, in safety and peace.
Do you know what is found in a hearth, in a kindred, surrounded by dear family and friends in the Old Ways? One of the ultimate lessons and blessings of the ancient religion: we discover that our deepest spiritual well-being and our real strength for living is in each other. Community, in this sense- a sacred sense- is another way of experiencing the power of the Heathen way. This experience is just as important as knowing the Gods. Revealed religions have their spiritual leaders to guide them through what they have been taught to believe are the "dangers" of the spiritual world, and even this life- but we only have one another. And in my way of thinking, we are way ahead of the game.
Most of us find that we have a desire to move "out" further, to be closer to the countryside and further from people, at some point. In a way, we all have the "going to Iceland" impulse, after a while. It's part and parcel of feeling and thinking like a Heathen, in my experience.
The Way of High-Mindedness
Now, before I move on to talking about particularly Heathen belief and behavior, I have to cover one more important aspect of "heathen thinking"- and in this case, it is the notion that was historically called (and is still called) "high-mindedness."
To be "high-minded" means to live like you have the most precious gift a being can have- the light of Men and Gods. And you do have it, Bjarnharðr: the Allfather and his kin saw to that. We humans all have the light- the light that makes possible cooperation, creativity, bravery, nobility, reason, and compassion, but not all humans allow it to suffuse and shape their thinking and acting.
Now, this topic is important, and I have written at length about it over at Cauldron Born. At this point, please take a break and go read the essay on "Heathen High-Mindedness", which you can get to by clicking here. This topic of High-Mindedness is central to an appraisal of Heathen morality, both historical and modern. You might call it much "food for thought."
Being True to the Old Ways and the Gods: Acting and Believing like a Heathen
Heathens don't have a "set" of beliefs that they have to share in common, but they do all have beliefs. You can bet that most honor many of the same Gods- like Thorr, for instance, the Thunder God who is the living and powerful protector of Heathens both in this day and age, and in the centuries before now. But not all Heathens do honor the same Gods at the same times or in the same ways, and that's more than acceptable.
It was acceptable in the past, too- who you believe in and pray to really is your concern, though if your family or community is devoted to certain Gods or spirits, you would have had a duty to join your kin in those customs, and at least make a good showing of it. But no one could "make" you, and you certainly wouldn't get burned at the stake if someone discovered that you just weren't praying enough to the local community God.
I've talked at length about the Gods at Cauldron Born and in other places, but I feel the need to say something about them now. It is my perspective, but it is a perspective that I've found very useful. Most modern people don't understand the Gods, or what we Heathens mean by "Gods", because they have caricatures of the Gods in their heads. They imagine that the ancient Heathens really believed that a carved statue of a God was THE God, or they think that the ancient Heathens somehow mistook the stories about the Gods for the realities of the Gods.
Neither is true. A statue is a statue, a story is a story, and a God is a God. Now, a statue may remind us of a God, and help us to enter into a state of mind in which we can appreciate the God's power more; the statue can become filled with the power of a God, becoming an object capable of some amazing things, but it is still a statue.
A story can help us to understand something of the character of the Gods, and teach us important, wise perspectives about deep issues in life, but a story is still a story. It can be a sacred story, and we can gain so much guidance and peace from it, but it is still a story.
A God is a person- a non-human person who lives just as we do, though they often keep their homes in other "worlds"- perhaps other "planes of reality", to use more modern-sounding terminology.
Gods have life-spans that are far greater than human beings; they have the power to live as long as the universe-cycle lasts, and some Gods can regenerate themselves, or be regenerated by strange powers, after the cosmos finally ends and is reborn, which, according to the Ancestral wisdom, it must be and will be. The Gods clearly have powers that humans don't have- but then, humans aren't totally impoverished; humans are capable of great things, too.
The Gods can't live our lives for us, but they can affect reality in ways that humans can't, and can come to know things that humans can't know easily, and thus, they make good friends and counselors. The Ancestors believed strongly in not pestering the Gods- "better not to ask than to ask too much" Allfather advises humans, with respect to prayers and sacrifices.
Humans have in them all the cleverness and vigor needed to make good lives. Joining with the Gods as friends and as kindred is simply a reflection of our true relationship with them (we are kin to them) and it is to the benefit of both parties that such alliances be forged. That's why we do it. And that's a good reason. We keep the statues of the Gods around, and their sacred stories, because the Ancestors- who were very wise- found these things useful. And we trust them.
The Mystery of the Gods and Wyrd
No one really knows who or what the Gods are- they are beings, full persons, who dwell in this universe in another way than we do, and they are friends to man- but that's about all the hard facts we have. We know that they helped our Ancestors, and that they still honor our connections with them, through our Ancestors- it is said that they do not "forsake" their kin, in our lore. We know that they have a fateful, Wyrd-created purpose and role in the universe, as co-creators and maintainers of the universe. We know that they are good role-models for high-minded human beings.
We do know that the Gods came into being before humans did, in this universal cycle, but they were shaped by the same web of Wyrd that shaped us. They are "earlier" than us, and they had a hand in shaping us, but we share the same origin, ultimately, as the Gods. And we share something of their spirit in us, which they gave to us as a gift. All Persons (human, godly, or otherwise) have the same origin- the Web of Wyrd. All things have their origin in Wyrd.
I know you understand this "Wyrd" idea already, and goodness knows I've written enough about it. We will discuss it more, later. For now, it is enough to know that Wyrd is the timeless inter-linked web of power and causality and relationship that is responsible for the arising, sustaining, and passing away of all things, even up to the Gods and the cosmos itself.
Wyrd is, arguably, the central cosmological tenet of Heathenry. In fact, as we examine "what makes us Heathens", one of the things you will discover is that many other world religions don't have an equivalent to Wyrd. Our wise Ancestors gave us the amazing science of Wyrd, thus making us far more complete and able to make sense of our world because of it. When other foreign religionists want to explain why "something happened", they normally have to either trust some scientific explanation, or just say "God willed it"- and needless to say, the first of those has its limits, and the second is rather silly, 99% of the time.
The Gods can't be "doing" every damn little thing that happens. The sheer scale of the many worlds simply makes that so improbable as to be laughable. Can the web of power that is the universe not self-regulate and bring about causes and effects and changes without a celestial king or bureaucracy siting behind it and punching the paperwork? Our Ancestors thought so, and so did many others who were not our Ancestors, but who shared in the same primordial wisdom that our Ancestors enjoyed.
Wyrd is a system of event and a system of creation and destruction that even the Gods must use, must study and understand, and must live within. We must do so, as well. We don't have to worry about "why the Allfather let our child die" when a car accident takes our child from us- Allfather likely had nothing at all to do with it. It was Wyrd, the ubiquitous and inexorable power that rules over destiny and causality. It is a very mature and wise belief. It is also quite a bit less absurd than many others, in my way of seeing.
We don't pester the Gods; we invite them to join us in celebrating our kinship with them and with each other. We ask them for help when only they can give it. We honor them for the great things they do for the many worlds- such as protecting us from wicked powers- just as we honor great humans for the things they've done for us. Heathens have no reason to believe that the Gods are out there "messing with them" or "doing bad things to them" when misfortune strikes- the Web of Wyrd has more than enough entanglements to cause a lifetime of challenge for everyone.
When challenges come, we must endure them bravely and with fortitude- that is one of the chief Heathen values. It is a value that you will study yourself more over time. To put it in a more rugged way, you're expected to have balls when it comes to life pushing against you. No one can make you have balls, but in the old days, they were necessary- and I'd say they're still pretty necessary.
Now, if you asked a follower of the white Christ what was included in "living right", he'd say something like "believing that Jesus is God and the he died for our sins, and following Jesus' commandment of love for god and neighbor." That's a good answer from a revealed religious perspective. But we Heathens have a different notion. Our notion is based far less on what you believe, and more on what you do.
Belief certainly plays a role. But Heathens never believed that the universe was flawed, or that the chief ruling power of the universe was angry at us, or waiting to possibly condemn us. How anyone could believe such a thing now is still a head-shaking mystery to me. Heathens did, however, think that certain principles of life needed to be understood and acted upon, if a person or a community wanted to assure the maximum chances of doing well.
And there you have it- there is a "right" way to live, a way which is "with the right order" of the world or the cosmos. No one can make you live it, but the Gods did advise us that if we didn't live that way, we'd have a harder time of it. Who wants a hard time? There are already enough hardships that we can't control, so why make it worse?
The principles of life have to do with cooperating well with others- being a good family member, a good host, a good friend, and keeping oaths that you make. This is a very important part of Heathenry, both historical and modern. But the principles of life are also tangible things. By this, I mean seeing the earth and sky for what they are- sacred and beautiful and powerful, great powers worthy of respect and worship.
By tangible, I mean the organic realities of life- recognizing nature as a sacred power, and recognizing our place in it. This includes seeing our bodies and our bodily processes as natural and appropriate- Heathens had no distrust for sexual powers, for instance. There's nothing wrong with the urges and feelings that spring naturally from us; the only "wrong" that can occur in relation to those things would be in how we may act on them in irresponsible, harmful ways. Having sex with a willing partner who isn't someone's wife or husband (unless they swing that way) is fine; rape never is. You can figure the rest out for yourself- it is organic and simple.
Being "right" with the principles of life means being a good human, and respecting nature, and respecting the Gods and Ancestors- because the Gods and Ancestors are not just Persons, but also Principles, in their own way.
When you understand that the Ancestors are important parts of your very being, and important parts of your past, you will honor them. To make a Blot or sacrifice to them, to fain or pray to them- THAT is how you put the principle into the proper place in your life. The same goes with the Gods, or with natural powers. You recognize them, and you honor them with deeds, and they are "placed" properly. Then, your life is filled with blessedness.
There are non-human persons- spirits or wights- that dwell in the land itself. Honoring them with blot and faining is another way to "respect, recognize, and place the principles of life properly"- in this case, recognizing and respecting the powerful processes of life in the land, for the wights of the land are very much associated with the principles of life expressed by the land.
But the key here is DOING. You have to honor them with words and deeds, not just belief. Wyrd is in beliefs, but the Wyrd becomes more tangible through your deeds, through your mind and body, and with that tangible manifestation, blessedness comes into you. This I have always found to be true. Never forget it, Bjarnharðr.
But never forget that your own light and power as a human is just as important as your friendship with the Gods. You have a power which is natural to you- a power passed down to you from your Ancestors. That power gets stronger the more you act in accordance with High-Mindedness; it gets weaker the less you do. That power for living is crucial. We can never forget about that power and replace it with beliefs or Gods. Never. And the Ancestors said the exact same thing to Christian missionaries.
There is no room for human beings to forget their humanity and their own skill, power, and luck, and try to turn their lives over to someone else's ideas or Gods, or even some notion of "God". Such behavior is contrary to the Heathen way of being.
So What Makes us True to the Heathen Way?
Now, we've reached the end of this perspective sharing. After writing it out myself, I think I have an answer to our original question. This is my conclusion; you may have a different one. But here's what I think.
* * *
We are Asatru, True Believers in the Aesir or Gods, True to the Heathen Way, when we
1. Respect the Ancestors and Look to the Fund of Ancestral Wisdom for guidance through life-situations
2. Love Freedom and Seek Freedom
3. Live by the dictates of High-Mindedness
4. Understand Wyrd and don't blame our misery on Gods or other cop-outs
5. Recognize and place- through our deeds- the Principles of Life properly in our day-to-day existence.
* * *All of these things are important, but if I was forced to pick, I would say that either the value we place on respecting the Ancestors and looking to their fund of wisdom for guidance, or our stance of valuing High-Mindedness would be the two most important things on this list, and the things that made us stand out the most as unique from the other religions of our world in the modern day. We certainly stand out in the west as the only "Ancestor Worshipers" left out there!
Yes, I'm liking this "five-point" perspective on being True to the Heathen Way. As you can see, it includes elements of thinking and believing and acting, but it's more than just that; it includes trust for the Ancestors. right deeds, and an expectation of nobility from ourselves.
I'm not suggesting that this is gospel, but it is based on much experience of the Heathen world, and a long consideration of our Ancestral lore. Nearly all heathens like to wear Thor's hammers around their necks, but no matter how people dress or what they wear, or what they call themselves, if they don't understand these five points- and actualize them- in some form, in some fashion- they are likely only playing Heathen dress-up. That's my perspective, and I'm sticking to it.
I hope you consider all this and get some good out of it. Please comment here below with your questions and discussion.
Raise the Horns!
Your friend, Ule Alfarrin