Disclaimer: The following is only one heathens opinion, mine, and I’m learning as I go just like everyone else. Different opinions by better educated folks are available.
“… Although the different notes appear to be mere modalities in vibration, it is in their difference, in their relation, that the nature of music lies…”
– Alain Daniélou, the Myths and Gods of India
Heathens worship many gods. But what are these gods? Personifications of natural forces? Poetic metaphors? Jungian Archetypes? Spiritual entities? Manifestations of a higher consciousness? The awareness of the natural world? Inter – dimensional beings? Aliens? We don’t know. Or rather, the lack of dogma and central authority means that there are as many beliefs about the true nature of the gods as there are heathens.
Despite this, there is common ground to be found, as all heathens base their practice (at least to some extent) on the polytheism of the Pre – Christian Northern Europeans.
Two common features are –
– the view that gods are immanent within nature, that they dwell or manifest in some way within the physical world;
– the view that gods are not omnipotent or omniscient, but complex and individual, each with their own areas of concern.
Those who believe that the gods are independent beings tend to feel that they ‘walk with us’ in this life, rather than looking down on us from the next. They are seen as a part of the ordinary world, just as much as those who believe that they are aspects of it; Those who believe the gods are archetypes don’t turn up at a ritual and hail ‘the great archetypes’; the gods are treated as individuals, greeted with their own names as you would any other friend, just as much as those who believe they exist independently of the human mind.
Germanic paganism was a patchwork of localised traditions, beliefs and practices, rather than a unified religion, and in that sense, modern heathenry resembles its predecessor rather well. It’s orthopraxic, not orthodoxic; Your actions are more important than your beliefs. It’s perfectly common to have a room full of heathens, each with a different conception of the gods, coming together to practice the same ritual.
That’s not to say that beliefs are irrelevant. The kinds of ideas that are accepted or not will vary between groups. Some communities are more open, where your beliefs will be largely your own business, and some will be more restrictive, admitting only those heathens who share a similar outlook.
It’s important to understand the ideas behind the practices we aim to revive, and important, too, to understand where your own beliefs come from, as a creative mix of education, personal experiences, and what we think we know about our polytheistic history.
The most popular holy powers in Heathenry today are Odin, Thor, Tyr, Frigg, Freya, and Frey. Odin is a creator, a poet, a source of inspiration, but also a trickster, a shaman, and a god of death. Thor is
“…more common than Óðin (Odin), more people-friendly. He is the God of farms; He makes the earth fertile with His Hammer; The God of Strength and Help.”
– Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson
Tyr is a sky – god, a warrior, whose principal myth is about the consequences of oath- breaking. Frigg is called on to oversee childbirth, and the everyday running of the household, while Freya is all about the gold – sex, death, and prosperity are intimately linked in the figures of both her and her brother, Frey, a god of peace and good harvests.
Those are some of the ‘universal’ deities, who were known by similar names and attributes over a wide area. There were also many gods and goddesses attached to particular features of the landscape, gods of rivers and lakes, woods and mountains, who were only known to those who lived close to them.
Our polytheist ancestors were slaves, farmers, poets, and craftsmen. They believed in what worked, and this essentially practical approach is one that serves us well today. They turned to the gods for signs, for luck, for fertile fields, but didn’t expect them to fix every problem. A relationship with a deity is one of give and take, and this is reflected in the Heathen rituals of blot and sumbel (We’ll get on to those in a different post).
“If such beings exist and govern the natural world, their gifts are as obvious as food and drink on the table, rain on the fields, fertility in the soil, and the fact of life itself… In the same way, and for many of the same reasons, anything that is a source of benefit to human beings may be seen as a giver of gifts, and an appropriate recipient of reverence and offerings.”
– John Michael Greer, A World Full of gods
So how do you get started? Get in touch with your surroundings. Look at your local history. Are there place – names related to Anglo -Saxon or Norse deities? Are there special sites, woods, burial mounds, features of the land that have folklore attached to them? Find one and go there. Read the Eddas, get to know the personalities of the gods through their stories. And don’t be stingy with the gifts; mead, wine, bread, cake, poetry and the blood of your enemies are all historically appropriate offerings 🙂
A little suggested reading –
www.indigogroup.co.uk/twilight/ast0440.htm Bob Trubshaw’s essay on Anglo – Saxon worldviews,
John Michael Greer’s ‘A World Full of Gods’, is an argument for traditional, or ‘hard’ polytheism,
Hindu philosophies are often cited as a source for a lot of modern pagan ideas, so for an alternative side of polytheism, take a look at Alain Daniélou’s “The Myths and Gods of India,”
H R Ellis Davidson’s “The Gods and Myths of Northern Europe” is a classic introduction to norse mythology,
The Poetic Edda – the Carolyne Larrington translations are good, I’ve heard great things about the Jackson Crawford, and the Bellows is free, at