Community in Heathenry

This blog was originally for me to collect my thoughts, but the idea evolved a bit as I wrote, and I felt a desire to make this a sort of compendium of one heathen's practices. Specifically, crafted to be understood by non-heathens and even non-pagans.

After my first two posts went public, I shared them with my raised-Catholic-currently-broadly-Christian mother. She appreciated the transparency and clarity, since my religion has always been pretty thoroughly obscured from her view. (She's almost certainly reading this. Hey Mama Llama!)
I took the opportunity to ask what she'd like me to elaborate on, what aspects of my faith she doesn't quite get. Her response was how heathens form communities without the worship being centered on a church gathering in favor of home practice. This is a great question, but it's one many heathens still don't have an answer to.

I'll split this into two parts: reasons we should strive for heathen gathering, and reasons we might not be able to.

The Positive: What kinds of benefits would come from heathens forming groups?

The idea of heathens in groups or communities is usually best executed in the form of a kindred or hearth group. A kindred is less of a church, however, and more of a pod or clan of people who may or may not be related by blood. These groups may meet for ceremonial holidays like Jól (Yule), Sigrblót, Midsummer, and Vetrnætr (Winternights) to name the main feasts in the Norse tradition. Maybe they also meet for weekly/monthly hearth worship. Every kindred is different, and we as a community are generally okay with that. I've personally never been part of a group or kindred so all my information is retold from the perspective of an observer.

Humans are social animals. We thrive when we find ourselves in a setting where we fit in and feel we have our needs met. This is critical when in a spiritual context! One of the core desires of every human searching for social circles is common traits and characteristics, and to be able to find that in a spiritual context is extremely fulfilling and lays a rich compost of fertile ground from which to begin personal spiritual growth. The gently abrasive practice of challenging, discussing, and comparing theology with your fellow human is exactly what it takes to grind your fresh rock of belief down into a polished gem.

The last bit is that a lot of people around my age are pretty dependent on online spaces. I'm in a lot of heathen Discord servers. This is the only way I connect with heathens at this point, and until the godsdamned plague is over, it's good enough for me.

The Negative: Why don't heathens already worship in groups?

My initial response is, well, we just don't have the numbers to warrant places of gathering. Even in my local in-person pagan meetups (pre-COVID), I was the only heathen. Hell, sometimes it seemed like I was the only polytheist. Neopaganism is extremely diverse in its beliefs, sometimes a little too broadly defined for my tastes. Typically in an effort to attract a crowd, pagan groups water down their criteria for members until it's...well...mostly water, barely coherent as its own substance. I heard this phrase somewhere once and I live by it when it comes to building safe communities: "Be open minded, but not so much so that your brain is dripping out your ears."

If I were to attempt to make a heathen group with my bare minimum criteria of "non-racist Germanic polytheists only" I would almost certainly be the only member within a hundred miles.

This brings me to a good follow up point: there's a lot of racist heathens that need to be culled to maintain a safe space for worship. The rise of nationalism and the invention of white supremacy in Germany pre-WWII is responsible for almost all interest in Germanic religion and mythology post-1900. Even today, you can find people that believe being in an "unbroken line" of "pure blooded Norsemen" being required for "real" heathenry. Sounds pretty familiar huh? The nazi revival of Norse mythos is so insidious and so well-blended into Old Norse and Viking era studies that even non-racist people part of a very similar religion to heathenry known as "Asatru" actually believe propaganda saying symbols invented by nazis are ancient heathen symbols. In the face of 2020's Summer of Protest, it is more critical than ever that we as heathens weed out these pests and take an actively anti-racist stance. Our ancestors would be ashamed of us if we saw wrongdoing and did nothing.

Truly, I would love to have a kindred I could turn to for support in person. But up until very recently, the overculture in heathen/asatru spaces is that you're not a real heathen if you aren't out there shouting at a bonfire with a bunch of biker dudes in a group. Modern heathens have fought hard to prove the validity of home worship (and there is historic precedent for it). Trying to break the cycle of shame for not having a group to worship with is hard work.

For now, I am fine knowing that every time I step into the sacred space before my altar, the sacredness is shared with my friends at their hearths around the world, even if we can't see the webs of Wyrd that connect us.

You'll only receive email when Shepard publishes a new post

More from Shepard