What Is Heathen Culture?

It’s totally impossible for us to know what exactly the cultures of historical societies were like. We can’t go back and live them and know what people thought and felt. This is one of the reasons reconstructionism is hard. And yet modern Heathen culture isn’t totally modern-made. It draws its inspiration and roots from historical cultures.

So what is Heathen culture nowadays?

There are two main fora where our culture develops, and those are online, in the wild wastes of racist roulette, and in meatworld, in the slightly less wild wastes of racist roulette. Admittedly, I don’t have a lot of experience with meatworld Heathen and Neopagan groups, because there aren’t a lot of Heathens around here and I am extremely wary. But there is certainly etiquette and commonly-held ideas and values. As a side note, not all Heathens are theists, and even though a lot of Heathen culture is centred around deities and religious practice, Heathen culture is not dependent on a theistic framework. (I find this fascinating.)

A lot of the aforementioned ideas and values are drawn from sources like myths and sagas, which I will talk about in detail in a later post. This is stuff like sticking to your kin (if they are honourable), being generous when possible, and defending your friends.
There are also more concrete, practice-based things we do based on the sources. For example, we use words like “heill” or “waes hael”; we might recite poetry from the Eddas or pour out a blót to the vaettir and gods; we carve idols and runestones and drink toasts of mead. These are all things done like they were “back in the day”, as close as we can make them, of course. This is the realm of the reconstructionist.

Then you have the practices which are heavily influenced by modern paganisms, or which are purely modern developments. An example is divination by runes. People who do this often use the Elder Futhark, because it’s clean and orderly and it’s easier to find runesets of these than of other futharks. First of all, in the Viking Age, the time most of us emulate/are spiritually inspired by, people used variants of the Younger Futhark, not the Elder. On top of that, there is no good evidence that runes were used for divination. Tacitus mentions some sticks with carvings on them being used for divination by the Germans – but we don’t know that the markings were runes, and his writing has problems of its own, quite apart from being centuries before the Viking Age. Regardless, modern Heathens use runes for purposes of divination and magic, and the practice is not going to die out any time soon. It is a part of modern Heathen culture. Other things along this line are the hammer rite, which seems to have some influence from Wicca, taking a Heathen patronymic containing a god’s name, using runes as simple letters to spell out English or other languages that are not Old Norse/Proto-Norse, using mead or other drink instead of blood for blót – the list goes on, I am sure. None of these things are bad or wrong if you ask me. They’re simply part of our culture. That culture is alive and changing, and we’re living in it.

Then you have etiquette sort of things. Again, I don’t know many Heathens in meatworld, so I can’t say as much here. Every kindred will have different etiquette: who speaks first at ritual, what one is supposed to say, what is appropriate for the hörgr and what is appropriate for the table, even what entities to hail (some groups frown upon Loki being included, wrongly, I think). These things, too, are Heathen culture, and they change from group to group.

What is Heathen culture? It’s not one thing I can point to. To be honest, I don’t think I can really answer that question. But I can tell you what it’s made of: historical practices, derived practices, and organic social habits. Heathen culture is a big, developing body, reaching and changing as it grows, like Yggdrasil’s branches, and we are all a part of it.

One thing I think we have to be careful of is dismissing newer practices as unprecedented or ahistorical. Saying “this is a modern habit, therefore it’s invalid”. This is dangerous. I’m not the first and I won’t be the last to say this: if we don’t allow our practices to evolve and grow, we will be stuck in a rut. Times change and people change, and to cleave solely to historical traditions while dismissing newer practices is kind of defeating the purpose of being Heathen. We’re here to live our lives as Heathens, aren’t we? That means doing things with heart, as they happen, naturally. Our world is necessarily different to the world 1000 years ago. Of course we will find and develop new ways of worship, ritual, and living.

Culture is alive. Religion is alive. We should be in it celebrating it and living it.

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One thought on “What Is Heathen Culture?

  1. Myriad 14. September, 2014 / 00:27

    In my personal opinion, you have a very good grasp of what reconstructionism is about. I enjoyed reading this post, although I don’t agree with everything 🙂

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