Going to the land of the dead

Lēoht Steren, Þyle of Hvergelmir International

A lot of people have made the mistake of thinking that Valhalla (Valhöll – “Hall of the battle-slain” – in Old Norse) is a kind of “Heathen Heaven”, with Odin as a benevolent father-figure to those who come to his door. This is far from what we can discern from the extant lore and, to try and shift perceptions, we offer a short story of one who does not end up in the home of the Einherjar (nor, indeed, should we want them to!):

A young child, not more than seven winters of age, stumbles across Gjallarbrú, the bridge over the river Gjöll. Tears stain her cheeks, and fear marks her eyes. Móðguðr steps before her and, for a moment, the child recoils in terror from the dís. The battle-hardened one’s face softens and she crouches down to speak: “Hello, sweet child. Don’t be afraid, this is the entrance to Hel and you’ll not be harmed inside. Your family await you with love. Let me take you to them.” Móðguðr holds out a hand and the girl cautiously takes it.

The pair walk through the realm of the peaceful dead and, though it is warm as a summer’s morning, Móðguðr feels a chill as the child tells the story of a craven man. He drank too deeply, was miserly with gifts, and beat his wife and children. The marks of the last beating still showed raw on the young girl walking hand in hand with Móðguðr through Hel.

After a short time, the pair came to a meadhall, with many homes around it. The people who dwelled in this place saw the pair coming and paused in their chores to greet the girl with all the warmth of their hearts. Móðguðr left the girl with her family and returned to her vigil on the bridge.

An elderly woman led the girl into a home near to the hall and spoke: “Dearest one, I am your great-grandmother and, happy as I am to see you again, it saddens me that we meet so soon.” As she spoke, the woman gently took the girls soiled clothes off, wiped away her tears and her wounds and gave her freshly made garments to put on. The girl’s eyes lost their fear and shone with happiness. She now dwelled with loved ones in a land with no pain.

Some time later, Móðguðr returned to that village in Hel, leading a man. The man could barely stand from his injuries, but Móðguðr slowed her pace not a bit. When those that dwelled there saw the two approaching, they paused in their chores. The girl recognised her father and clang to her great-grandmother. This time, the people did not greet the man warmly. Rather, the men of the village took him with rough hands that he could not escape from.

They led him away from the village to the place where the land met the water at Nástrǫnd. Sharp bones cut the man’s bare feet and he cried out in pain. All at once, the ground writhed and the great dragon, Níðhǫggr, burst from the corpse-hoard. The men of the village cast the girl’s father onto the floor before the malicious one and returned to their homes and their chores, the sounds of chewing and sucking fading in their ears.

Heathen Denominations

by Lēoht Steren, Thyle of Hvergelmir International
Edited and complemented by Sonne Heljarskinn

A Brief Definition of Heathenry:

Heathenry is a modern religion inspired and informed by the cultural religious practices of the pre-Christian Germanic peoples of northern, western and central Europe. Within this modern (and still emerging) religion, we can find numerous denominations that take various approaches based on varying levels of historical study and modern innovation.

Heathen Denominations

Asatru

“Asatru is an expression of the native, pre-Christian spirituality of Europe. More specifically, it is the Way by which the Germanic peoples have traditionally related to the Divine and to the world around them.”
http://asatrufolkassembly.org/

Ásatrú (Iceland)

“Ásatrú or heathen custom is based on tolerance, honesty, honor and respect for the ancient cultural heritage and nature. One principal ideal of the custom is that each person is responsible for themselves and their actions.”
http://asatru.is/

Åsatru (Norway)

Åsatrufellesskapet Bifrost is a religion for modern Åsatru, mainly built on the pre-Christian religious traditions here in Scandinavia. We want to create a viable forum for those interested in Åsatru, and to promote the understanding of culture, art and traditions with roots in pre-Christian times. We will take care of the heathen heritage and keep it alive and updated. We will do this through practice based on both source investigation and innovation in a heathen understanding of the history, ethics, myths and powers.” https://www.bifrost.no/om-bifrost

Esetroth

A translation of Icelandic Ásatrú to English. Literally translating to “Ēse-faith”.

Firne Sitte

“It is a world view, or rather a religion, which is alive among some people here, something which is usually excluded and partly dismissed from outsiders as a vacation. It is, however, a complete religion with a comprehensive spiritual and philosophical tradition. Our custom is habit and culture. Customs are expressed in traditions, festivals, forms of life, and values.”
http://www.firne-sitte.net/

Forn Sed (Norwegian)

“Foreningen Forn Sed is a religious society for those who believe in the Norwegian folklore, the spirits and entities the folklore represents, in addition to gods and other beings from the Norse pantheon. The purpose of the society is keeping alive the old traditions, beliefs and ways, and making interest for the popular faith and the Norse cultural heritage.”
http://www.forn-sed.no/main/english/english.htm

Forn Sed (Swedish)

“Samfundet Forn Sed Sverige (Forn Sed Sweden) is a religious organisation based in Sweden. We practice pagan religion, inspired by pre-Christian Norse and Germanic tradition and myth, adapted to our time and our lives. “Norse Paganism has many names. Nineteenth century scholars called it “Ásatrú” (“Belief in Æsir”). Many practitioners and current literature use this name, although many prefer the term “Forn Sed” (“Old Way/Old Custom”) or simply “Sed”. “Forn Sed is a spiritual path with roots in pagan practices and lore. Our beginnings are found in nature and life.”

Forn Siðr (Danish)

“Belief in Norse mythology is today called Asatru. This term was coined in the 1800s, Grundtvig. The ancient Asatru did not even have a name for their faith. In religion changed around 1000, originated the term “hinn forni Siðr” – the degraded sperm, or the old custom. “Nearly 1,000 years after November 15, 1997, held twelve people the founding Everything for what is today called “Forn Siðr – Asa and Vanetrosamfundet in Denmark”. “From then working religious community Forn Siðr, again making the degraded sperm for a real alternative to other faiths. On 13 December 1999 we applied therefore for official recognition as a religious community in Denmark – It took almost four years; November 6, 2003 approved Church Minister Forn Siðr as a religious community.”

Fyrnsidu

“Fyrnsidu is an Old English term meaning “The Old Ways”. We use this term today to refer to the spiritual and religious practices of the so-called “Heathen” Germanic peoples, specifically, the Anglo-Saxons. These ancient peoples had a way of life that recognized the interconnectedness of all things; the physical, spiritual and mental realms, and the natural cycles which govern all living creatures. This way of life was, and still is highly ethical and holistic. Fyrnsidu is not an historical recreation, it is a living religion based o¬n the tenets and world-view of the “Heathen” Germanic peoples. Our way is not an anachronism, although we draw great strength from the traditions of our ancestors. Rather, Fyrnsidu is a dynamic, growing faith for the present, but deeply rooted in the past.”
http://fyrnsidu.com/node/1

Irminenschaft

Irminenschaft represents the German Heathen expression as it has evolved over the centuries. It is the spiritual and cultural expression of those who hail from bloodlines of German descent (including both High- and Low-Germans). Our triuwa (faith, fidelity, loyalty) is not a retro-Heathen endeavour, nor is it a “wake up this morning” New Age ideology proper, but a viable, living approach to ancient thau (custom) and practice as is has been handed down to us. Thus, it is as pragmatic and alive as are the Volk (people) that carry on its traditions. The ethnic Being of the Germanic Volk is a complex manifestation- one that exists today as a result of Rita (Cosmic Law) as well as the socio-political history that has affected us.
http://irminenschaft.weebly.com/what-is-irminenschaft.html

Odinism

“Odinism is an entire and whole system – a way of “being”. It is concerned with all aspects of our folk – cultural, historical, ecological, mystical etc. etc. It is concerned with the ethics of social behavior, our relationships with one another and nature, with the whole of life.”
http://www.odinic-rite.org/main/faq/

Ôðalism

“Ôðalism is in the strictest sense an ideology based on blood (of the native population) and soil (the homeland of the native population); protecting, promoting and if necessary reviving the customs, traditions, world view, values and religion that naturally came from each particular population in their homeland. It can be applied to each and every people on this planet, and will also be different to each and every people on this planet, because they are in essence different from each other.”

Rökkatru

“Currently, at this time, Heathenry (reconstructionist Norse/Germanic religion) prefers to limit itself to worship of the Aesir and Vanir. Northern Tradition Pagans, however, believe that Gods are not divided into categories of “good” and “bad” Gods. They are all worthy of honor, and we honor all of them.”

Þéodisc Geléafa

“Þéodisc Geléafa, more commonly called Theodish Belief, or Theodism, is a religious movement rediscovered by Gárman Lord on the night of July 4th, 1976 C.E, in Watertown, New York. Unlike other present-day Pagan movements, Théodish Belief constituted contemporary Heathendom’s first truly earnest effort to reconstruct, as authentically as possible, the ancient, ancestral Teutonic religion – that of the Anglo-Saxons in particular. ” Reconstruction is an integral part of Théodish Belief, yet Théodish Belief is more than a reconstructionist approach toward Heathendom. Théodish Belief is a religious tradition. There are now nearly forty years of wyrd and thew unique to this great experiment we call Théodish Belief – wyrd and thew that are as much an essential part of Théodish Belief as its reconstructionist approach. You can have Reconstructionist Heathenry without true blót, shaftcunning, maincraft, Right Good Will, the Three Wynns, sacral kingship, or any ties to the Witan Theod, but such would only be Reconstructionist Heathenry. It would not be Théodish Belief.”
http://ealdrice.org/theodish-belief-oft-askings-frequently-asked-questions/

Thia Frankisk Aldsido

“Thia Frankisk Aldsido is by virtue of being what it is, a civic tradition of Frankish heathendom, post-tribal and just-prior to their conversion to Catholicism. By “civic tradition” what is meant is that the primary focus of the tradition is the restoration of the societal paradigm within which the Frankish people lived in the Merovingian age. This social paradigm was a peculiar admixture of vestigial Roman civic institutions, co-opted by the ruling Merovingian Franks, and Gemanic feudal patrimony.”

Þursatrú/Jötnatrú (Thursatru)

“Thursatru means basically THE BELIEF IN THE THURSES; it is the name of the religion, traditions and praxis associated with the anti-cosmic giant-race called þursar (anglicized to thurses, pl.). With the usages of the Old Norse plural form þursar it aims at the thursian powers, the true essences of the darker and adverse aspects of the giant-clans in the underworld and beyond.”
http://www.ekortu.net/docs/thursatru.pdf

Urglaawe

“Urglaawe is a tradition within Heathenry that is derived from the living Deitsch (Pennsylvania German or Pennsylvania Dutch) folk culture. “Broken down and translated, “der Urglaawe” literally means “the original faith” in the Deitsch language. Our focus is on the pre-Christian religious and cultural undertones that still flow through the Pennsylvania German culture. Although the Pennsylvania Germans did not exist as a distinct ethnic group during the pre-Christian era, our ancestors brought with them many Heathen practices that continued to flourish here after the Diaspora into the Americas.”

Vanatrú

“Vanatrú means “Faith in the Vanir”, just as Ásatrú means “Faith in the Æsir”. Those who practice Vanatrú generally find that their practice is reflective of a long time dedication to one or more of the Vanic Gods and want to explore this in a fuller context, looking at things in as historical a context as possible. The most well known of all the Vanic Deities are, Freyja, Freyr, and Njord due to their association with the Æsir, as well as Nerthus their mother. “As the Vanir have command over the elves, magic and wights are a significant focus of Vanatrú.”

http://heathenry.wikia.com/wiki/Vanatr%C3%BA

Wodenism

“The Woden Folk-Religion or Wodenism is part of the overall Odinist, Wotanist, Asatru movement that is Folkish in essence and form, though we do not follow the more ‘universalist’ forms that are not Race-Conscious but suggest that anyone can take up this religion. Wodenism is Race-Conscious because we believe that race has importance in this world especially in view of the destruction of our Folk that has taken place due to two devastating world wars and the alienation of our Nation.” http://wodensfolk.org.uk/folkreligion.html

Wotanism

Wotanism is the name of a racial religion promulgated by David Lane. Wotan is the German name for the Germanic god known in Norse as Odin. Based on the essay entitled Wotan by Carl Jung, the term Wotanism in modern times heavily emphasizes white supremacy and National Socialism (NS). W.O.T.A.N. is an acronym for Will Of The Aryan Nation, used by some Wotanists. Unlike Germanic neopagans, most Wotanists emphasize dualism and view the Gods as Jungian archetypes. “Wotanism is a ancestral ethnic European faith. We focus on the principles of Folk, faith, and family. Anything other than those concerns are irrelevant. We are polytheists and we believe in the teachings of the Eddas”.

An Introduction to Heathenry

By Lēoht Steren, Thyle of Hvergelmir International
Heathenry is a modern religion inspired and informed by the cultural religious practices of the pre-Christian Germanic peoples of northern, western and central Europe. Within this modern (and still emerging) religion, we can find numerous denominations that take various approaches based on varying levels of historical study and modern innovation.
The core of the Heathen worldview is community – the social group within which the Heathen exists. When we look back at the historic Germanic tribes that Heathens draw many of their spiritual and philosophical inspirations from, we see a very strong importance placed on friends and family. The Eddas and Sagas are littered with tales of the close bonds of both kith and kin, and warnings of the consequences of transgressions against these bonds.
Everything else about the general Heathen worldview hinged off the concept of community. Our actions, for example, are moderated not by guilt, but by shame. Whereas guilt is internally generated, shame comes from your community. To act in a manner unbefitting of your community is shameful and can have undesirable results up to and including expulsion from your social group. In the historical context, being ostracised from your community could well be fatal as living in the wilder parts of the world was a very dangerous and arduous undertaking. In modern times, the dangers are not quite so real, but social ostracism can still have significant consequence. Conversely, there is worth, which is also given by the community. When someone performs a worthy deed, they are (and should be) well recognised for it. Prestige is gained and respect is garnered.
The act of performing certain rites and celebrating certain festivals is also community based. These are social occasions used, at least in part, as a way for the community to affirm, confirm, and reaffirm social bonds and obligations. Within this, we further find the concept of reciprocity. People give so that they may receive. In this way, each gift reinforces the social bonds and also serves to strengthen the community.
In the ritual sense, community is not just those members of the human community of which the Heathen is a part but includes a wide range of non-human intelligences commonly known as “wights”, as well as greater beings known as gods. The word “wight” comes from the Old English “wiht” and simply means “being”. They are the unseen (but not always!) beings that exist in the world and can be called upon to act as guardians, aides and tutelary spirits. A well known example of a wight would be the British brownie – a helpful spirit that would live in the home and help with household chores, in exchange for small gifts of food (once again showing the reciprocal nature of relationships in the Heathen worldview).
The Heathen gods are the gods of the historic Germanic peoples and are well-known today through the distorted lens of popular media, including Marvel Comic’s “Thor”, and have given the English language many of its weekday names. They are beings of great (but not unlimited) power and it is often the differing perceptions of them that defines the various denominations of Heathenry that we see in the modern day. The gods are divided into two categories or “tribes” – the Aesir and the Vanir. We read, in the Icelandic Eddas, that these two tribes were once at war but made a truce with an exchanging of captives. Most of the stories of the gods concerns the Aesir and their Vanir hostages. Notably, their dealings with the often antagonistic jotnar (commonly called “giants”).
Whilst we do find myths talking about possible post mortem destinations for the soul, Heathenry is more a world accepting religion. That is to say that the Heathen does not fixate upon living in the hope of a reward in the afterlife, as we see in world rejecting religions such as Christianity. Rather, the Heathen lives very much with their focus in this world.
Within Heathenry, there is the concept of Wyrd. This word is often translated as “fate” but it is not quite fate as people know it. “Fate” carries implications of inevitability, of a certain lack of free will almost. Wyrd, on the other hand, is more about the influence of the past on the present and, thus, the future. As you progress in your life you make choices, actions and inactions. Each one of these influences your future choices and limits your potential actions. Your ultimate fate remains fixed (for all are doomed to die), but you have the power to approach it on your own terms. Wyrd therefore gives the Heathen all the motivation they need to live a good, worthy life without the threat of an unappealing afterlife.
In around the year 1000, Iceland officially converted to Christianity and the Heathen Era of the Germanic cultures came to an end. For almost a thousand years Christianity exerted ever more influence on Europe and much of the old customs, beliefs, and practices were either forgotten or syncretised into Christian traditions. The “old ways” first saw a revival in the second half of the 18th century in the romantic nationalism movement that lasted until the early 20th century. With this came a lot of ahistorical notions (such as the myth of the noble savage) and a certain amount of racist mentality. With the rise of a certain German workers’ party, the romanticism of Germanic culture experienced a rather rapid wane in interest and, so, we did not really experience any serious interest in the old customs of the pre-Christian Germanic cultures until the early 1970s. In 1972, the Icelandic Asatru Fellowship was formed with the express purpose of promoting a revitalised form of Heathenry, with American and British organisations forming in the following years. With these new organisations, we saw different approaches arise and the effective creation of the various denominations of Heathenry that we see today.
Some of these denominations are described as “folkish”, which is to say that they hold the romanticist belief that there is an ethnic component to Heathenry. Put simply, they advocate that Heathenry is about a return to the beliefs of their distant ancestors. If your ancestors are not of “Germanic stock”, expect many folkish Heathens to encourage you to look to your own ancestry for guidance on a spiritual path. Other denominations are more “universalist”. They hold that there is not racial aspect to Heathenry and that anyone can be called to the religion. The fundamental difference between the folkish and the universalist Heathens has caused controversy over the years.
Once we get past the folkish/universalist distraction, we can see that modern Heathenry is largely divided by cultural approach. Many heathens focus their religious reconstruction on specific temporal periods and geographical regions. There are those who look to Anglo-Saxon sources for the bulk of their inspiration, whilst others look to Icelandic or other sources of information. The most numerous demographic are those who look at the whole body of information available (especially the mythological tales collected in the Icelandic bodies of works known as the Poetic and Prose Eddas) and take the bits that have the most appeal.
Whilst numbers are still very low, compared to some other modern religions, Heathens are organising more and more events where they can come together and hold community rites. Oftentimes, a group will have adherents of several denominations who will set aside their differences in order to focus on the larger matters at hand. With the rise of the internet we have also seen the rise of online communities that are allowing Heathens to “network” in order to come together with those of like mind. Some groups and individuals may also maintain links with Pagans and/or Pagan groups.
One subject so far untouched is that of magical belief and practice. Historically, there is evidence that the Germanic peoples did employ magic and magic users for certain purposes, but that it was not likely something to be undertaken by the everyday person. In modern times we find similar feelings about the efficacy of magic, as well as the notion that it is not for everyone to use. Instead, people are more likely to be inclined to give offerings to either the gods, the wights, or even their ancestors in the hope of attracting their favour in situations where a more than mundane approach may be desirable. Those who practice Heathen magics do so in relative secrecy.
As Heathenry continues to grow, groups become more established and draw greater numbers, allowing more and more projects to unfold. One example of this is the purchasing or construction of buildings for use as temples or community spaces. The (folkish) Odinist Fellowship has already acquired a building in Newark for use as a temple and the (universalist) Icelandic Asatru Fellowship have started constructing a dedicated Hof or temple. Doubtless we will see more of this kind of endeavour, as Heathenry grows. Who knows what else the future will bring? Wyrd wends ever as she will!