A note on spelling: Heathenry spans across many Germanic or Teutonic traditions, with variations in spelling and pronunciation. I use mostly the Anglicized Norse names, but by no means are those the only or even most likely used forms.
In Seax-Wica, we call our God Woden and our Goddess Freyja (generally), but they are in fact the One God and One Goddess of Wicca. In the heathen faiths, they are viewed as two of many separate gods, each one individual and distinct. Like in Wicca, where there are many ‘traditions’ that vary significantly, there are denominations of heathenry: Asatru, Theodism, Anglo-Saxon or Saxon Paganism, Odinism, Forn Sed, Pan-Germanic, Northern European Heathenry, and more, some varying significantly.
History of Heathenry
Heathenry is a reconstructionist religion: it aims to recreate the ancient religion of the Northern Europeans, from the time after the Proto-Indo-Europeans to the end of the Viking Age. There are many sources from which a Heathen draws on for this reconstruction, and while there are organizations that many Heathens belong to, everyone ultimately reconstructs these sources into what they feel is the most ‘accurate’ and applicable to them. Even after this reconstruction, it can vary widely how this information is to be applied to the modern-day Heathens life.
Some of the primary sources that Heathens draw from include the Prose Edda, the Poetic Edda, the various Sagas of Scandinavia, Beowulf, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of England, Tacitus’s Germania, and the place names and artifacts throughout Northern Europe.
When Iceland ‘officially’ became Christian, it was with the concession that each household would be allowed to worship who and how they saw fit. For the most part, though, the historical worship of the Heathen gods died out about 1000 years ago, until it’s re-emergence in the 1900’s.
Where did modern Heathenry come from?
There doesn’t seem to be one defining catalyst that started the Heathen re-birth. There was no Gerald Gardner and “Witchcraft Today” like there is in Wicca to give us a hard date for its ‘founding’. In Germany there was the nationalist Völkisch movement in the early 1900’s up until Nazism, and while some its groups ‘Germanized’ Christianity, others adopted the pre-Christian Germanic Paganism.
In the 1960-70‘s, various groups around the world, seemingly independent from each other, popped up that practiced heathenry in different forms. Asatru was recognized by the Icelandic government at this time. The Odinist Fellowship was founded in Florida by Else Christensen. Stephan McNallen founded the Viking Brotherhood. Valgard Murray founded the Asatru Alliance. Many of these groups held racialist views. Edred Thorrson and James Chrisholm founded The Troth in 1987, which held a universalist views, allowing anyone interested to join.
Who do Heathens Worship?
Many Neopagans believe in archetypal gods and goddess, such the Mother-Maiden-Crone or Father-Hunter-Sage. This really isn’t the case in Heathenry, where each god is viewed as an independent entity, with various and complicated aspects. There are not clearly defined ‘domains’ of the Germanic gods, who are often seen as very human in personality, and quite fallible.
There are many, many gods in Heathenry, which is a truly polytheistic religion. Although Odin is considered the ‘father of the gods’, he is not necessarily the ‘primary’ god of any group or individual. Many Heathens adopt a ‘patron’ god that they develop a special relationship with.
Besides Odin, some of the major gods worshipped in Heathenry are Frigga, Thor, Frey, and Freyja, although there are many more. The gods consist of two families: the Aesir, who seem more concerned with warfare and humanity, and the Vanir, who are more nature-oriented, but again no roles are clearly defined, and Thor has aspects as a harvest god, and Freyr and Freyja both have war-like aspects.
Besides gods, Heathens also practice ancestor worship, especially during the Holy-Tide of Mother’s Night. They are also animistic, seeing everything in nature as containing its own spirit, or ‘wight’.
How do Heathens worship?
There are two primary practices to Heathen worship and ritual: the blot, and the sumbel.
The blot is a sacrifice, and while the term itself denotes a form of ‘blood-sacrifice’, in modern Heathenry it typically consists of the sacrifice of mead (a libation) or other token, such as destroying a piece of jewelry.
A sumbel is ritualized drinking, usually in three parts, where a drinking horn is passed around the group, honoring gods, ancestors, or yourself (boasting) in each round.
There are six primary holidays, or ‘Holy Tides’ observed in heathenry: Yule (which lasts for 12 days), Disting, Ostara, Midsummer, Harvest, and Winternights. There are also other Holy Tides, such as Mother’s Night, that take place throughout the year.
While the blot and sumbel are the basic building blocks of rituals, each group or individual varies on how they celebrate within their own household, although group gatherings such as “All-things” and “Moots” also take place.
As a reconstructionist religion, many Heathens will delve into history to find out what they can about how the ancient Teutons honored and worshipped their gods. Meditations and prayer are also common ways to connect with the gods, and the idea of reciprocity (a gift for a gift) is also important (thus the blots).
Although there is no ‘official’ holy symbol for Heathenry, the Hammer of Thor, Mjolnir, is often adopted by Heathens and worn on a necklace. While there are many other important symbols in the faith, such as Odin’s spear, the most recognizable is the Hammer. It is also used in sanctifying an area before a ritual, a practice called “The Hammer Rite”, which in many ways in similar to the calling of quarters or circle casting in Wicca.
Heathenry often makes use of an altar, offering bowl, mead, drinking horns, and candles in their worship.
Who are the leaders of Heathenry?
Although there are major names in Heathenry that head organizations, there are no ‘Popes’ of Heathenry. They may speak for their own organization, and maybe it’s members, but never for Heathenry as a whole. These major organizations include the Asatru Folk Assembly, the Asatru Alliance, the Rune-Gild (which now seems to be defunct), the Odinic Rite, and The Troth.
What else is important to Heathenry?
The mythology surrounding creation, cosmology, and the end of the world (Ragnorok) are all important, but that will be saved for an article on Norse Mythology, as will topics like runes, Seidh (a form of magic), and a deeper look into the history of the Teutonic people.
Other than those, a major guiding factor in the life of a Heathen are their Thews, or Virtues. Sometimes called the “Nine Noble Virtues”, they are:
In addition, there are three “Joys” or “Wynns”:
There are many more things, such as Wyrd and Orlog that are important parts of a Heathen’s belief system, but you should have a general understanding by now. If you’d like more information, you can check out “A Practical Heathen’s Guide to Asatru” by Patricia M. Lafayllve, “Path to the Gods” by Swain Wodening, “Asatru: A Native European Spirituality” by Stephan McNallen or others. Remember that, like Wicca, these authors opinions and outlooks can vary significantly.
Whether you practice Heathenry or not, there are many lessons you can take away from the faith to apply to your own life. If there is another pagan religion or practice that you’d like to see an introductory article on, or if you think I’ve botched some major ideas around Heathenry, let me know in the comments!