Asatru & Heathenry: It's time to talk Divorce

The word Asatru is a neologism meaning "true to the Aesir," and for much of the 45 years of modern Heathenry, has been the pre-eminent word used to refer to the religion. It was, according to my friend AleGlad, originally coined in a 19th Century Norwegian Opera. When Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson and his friends founded a religious order in 1972 in Iceland both as a tax protest and a religious experiment, they adopted the term Ásatrúarfélagið to describe themselves. Almost simultaneously, other movements were springing up in America, England, Scandinavia, and on the Continent. Many then too adopted the term Asatru.

Time passed, and as the religion grew across America and Europe, much of the discussion centered around questions of heritage and identity — the great Folkish / Universalist debate that has done so much to stagnate the growth of heathen theology. It was the perfect argument for a religion about nothing: It is strictly subjective, and the evidence and support for it is strictly subjective. It is forward looking, and cannot be supported or disproven by the evidence. What physical culture indicates the presence of adoption and separate phenotypes in a people? How do we overly a 19th century conception of race upon a 11th century people who largely hated and feared other white people? To this question, who could be Asatru, there was no answer, there could be no answer, and because of this, any answer would suffice. This entire debate has been 40 years of wanting to be right without having to worry about being correct.

Elsewhere, others were beginning to express, both in interest and action, an attempt to reclaim the pre-Christian Germanic religion. In 1976, Garman Lord had his revelation and thus began Theodish Belief. In other places, influenced by and reacting to the rise of Asatru, people started researching and experimenting, discussing their findings and sharing the results. They began to distinguish that which they were doing from Asatru, for Asatru had become associated with national organization and the debates and questions that defined them. They adopted the term Heathen, which was in use, but defined it as something that was distinct, if related, from Asatru. Both movements worshipped ostensibly the same gods, worshiped during the same or similar holy tides, and in ritual forms, practices developed largely along similar lines. It eventually became the paradigm that Heathen and Asatru had developed a sort of Doctors / Surgeon relationship — all surgeons are doctors, but not all doctors are surgeons.

The word Heathen is an ancient one, derived from the Old English hæðen1 meaning heath dweller, and was used as a gloss for the Latin paganus which basically meant country-folk. The use was originally a pejorative, contrasting the modern, metropolitan progressiveness of Christianity with the backwards, rural paganism of the lesser common folk. Over time, the pejorative sense didn't leave, but the words — pagan and heathen — came to be closer and closer associated with the religious rather than the geographical.

Simply because something begins in a similar place as another thing, or develops along a similar path, does not mean that it will forever remain similar. Heathenry has moved beyond the questions of identity that have plagued Asatru since its founding — it has explored causality, tribal outlook, the importance of hospitality and gifting, and a host of other topics while Asatru remains hyper focused on the same question of who can and cannot be Asatru. One merely needs to look at the recent AFA Dust-up regarding folkish heathens2 and the inevitable shitstorm that followed3 to see that the conversation is in no way any different than it was at any point in the last 40 years.

It seems the dominant philosophy among the Asatruar is that no one can tell you what Asatru is, only who may claim it. Questions about prayer, ritual, behavior, honor and frið are all met with soft declarations of comparative wishy-washiness, where the answer lies inside of the seeker and was there all along, and all the seeker had to do was try hard and believe in themselves. This sort of aggressive hypersubjectivity makes great narrative sense when the purpose is to sell Disney Princesses, but when it comes to creating a cohesive worldview that stands up to the demands of human frailty and the brutal and unrelenting disinterest of Nature; when it comes to creating meaning and forging truth within the fires of the endless repetitions of ordeal; when it comes to crafting a people out of the bits and bobs of many hands and many hearts; it is then that any honest introspection reveals the limits thereof, that success in this endeavor is beyond any single person, but rather it is the work of a group, a people, a tribe.

We are mired in a hopeless situation of trying to use the same words to mean two very different things. For an Asatruar and a Heathen claim the same heritage, call upon gods using the same names, and use the same terms when discussing their liturgy. But to each, what they mean when they say these things are very distinct. Furthermore, they are growing more distinct as time passes.

The Asatruar does not kneel. He speaks of the Gods as fellows, and claims relationships with them that vary between cordial to romantic. When he sumbels, he does so outside, he does not sit. He may even pass the horn directly from person to person. When he blóts, it may be indistinguishable from his Sumbels, but if it is, it hasn't really changed since he first learned, or taught himself, how. He does not make distinctions between the sacred and the profane. He cares not for taboo. To the Asatruar, the religion is often described as "coming home." They believe that their religion is, and should be, easy.

The Heathen approaches their religion as they approach their gods, with trepidation and humility. They recognize the dichotomy between the Sacred and the Profane. They strive for perfection, and settle for doing better this year than last. They maintain taboo, and the distinctions between their rituals, which are constantly evolving as their research and the research of others move ritual action forward. They see the religion as all encompassing, and the worldview as the fountain from which both religion and culture are watered. They not only expect this to be hard, they look forward to it. For nothing of value was ever easy.

It may seem that I am unrelenting in my criticisms of the Asatruar, and for the most part I am — so long as the Asatruar insists that we share religions, I will hold him to the same standard I hold for myself. In short, if an Asatruar wants to claim heathenry, he should act Heathen. If, however, we begin to recognize that what an Asatruar believes is not Heathenry, but rather something else, the rancor fades. This is no different than the way I see a Wiccan speak of their religion, or a Catholic theirs. So long as they leave me be, they can be free to pursue whatever meaning they want so long as it does not intrude upon my pursuit. Claiming to share that pursuit, and then working at cross purposes to it is frustrating in the least and often actively damaging.

We cannot force others to believe what we believe, for in that direction we will find the fire and blades of doctrinal orthodoxy and inquisition. Instead if we simply recognize when our differences are irreconcilable, and go our separate ways, we can put our energy in moving forward rather than playing tug of war because for both parties forward is in opposite directions.

Some may claim that this attempt to separate the paths as an attempt to create an echo chamber, but I think that people often don't recognize the sheer variety in Heathen thought because we keep arguing the same topics over, and over, and over again. Its very hard to discuss our differences in ritual and custom when those topics are never surfaced, because yet again we are talking about who gets to be a Heathen or why kneeling is a perfectly acceptable Heathen practice, or why Brodin is not your special friend. If that makes an echo chamber, than the term echo chamber has no meaning, merely becoming a insulting way to refer to a place where one's own ideas may not be welcome. Surely it is a false dichotomy to claim that the only options are the current screaming matches or the dreaded and inevitable echo chambers.

Notes

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