Heathenry is a modern revival of the pre-Christian religions of Northern Europe. It is sometimes placed under the wider Neo-Pagan umbrella that encompasses Wicca, Druidry, and a bewildering array of other modern, often nature-based, spiritual traditions. There’s a certain amount of argument as to whether it even belongs there; it’s a reconstructionist tradition, which gives it a grounding in historical practices that has left it feeling distinct.
One feature that keeps it firmly next-door to Paganism, if not actually in it, is the focus on practice over beliefs. Heathens are bound by common rituals and stories, rather than by any structured belief system; they are polytheists, who aim to develop personal relationships with the gods, and some may have one deity they are particularly devoted to; some are more concerned with honouring their ancestors, or the powers dwelling within their local landscapes; some are more into witchcraft and rune-magic, and some are romantic atheists, pantheists, storytellers, artists, mythology-loving mead drinkers or earth-worshiping eccentrics. Some are all of these things at once. Some just want to get the trolls off their land.
It has no single sacred text, no governing body, no dogma. There are groups around, the most well-known being Ásatrúarfélagið in Iceland ( who define Asatru as ‘A pagan tradition based on tolerance, honesty, dignity and respect for ancient cultural heritage and nature’)
Here in Britain, we are less organised; there are a few small groups, the largest seems to be Asatru UK, that runs meetings, events, the Asgardian festival, and a facebook group. Many Heathens either attend the occasional independent pub-moot or are basically solitary.
The main rituals are Blot, and Sumbel. Blot is usually based around an offering of food or drink. Sumbels are usually more private, and centered around a ritual meal. At both, a drink (usually a horn of mead) is passed around a gathering, and toasts made with it. Both can range from quick and simple personal rites to more complex and highly organised ceremonies. Sometimes the two are combined, and there are huge variations in how formal or informal, serious or irreverent, they might be, but those are the basics of Heathen practice – gifting, feasting, and toasting.
Seasonal festivals vary across different groups, and across different countries – in Britain, the most popular seem to be Yule, midsummer, easter and winternights (at the end of autumn).
Highly-regarded values include hospitality, self-reliance, and friendship. We try to act with honour, and take care of our families and communities. Heathenry is expressed in deeds, in words, and in the way we relate to the our landscapes, our history, and the people around us.
If somebody new wanted to know the best place to start, I would recommend getting familiar with the mythology, either by going straight for translations of the Eddas, ( try Caroline Larrington’s ‘Poetic Edda’ and Jesse L Byock’s ‘Prose Edda’) or by reading one of the modern retellings, such as ‘The Norse Myths’ by Kevin Crossley-Holland, or Neil Gaiman’s ‘Norse Mythology’.
After that, it might be time for a little history- try ‘The Hammer and The Cross’, by Robert Ferguson, ‘Gods and Myths of Northern Europe’, by Hilda Ellis Davidson, ‘Pagan Britain’ by Ronald Hutton, Stephen Pollington’s ‘The Elder Gods’, (throw his Rudiments of Runelore in there too) and any of the Icelandic sagas.
After that? I’d put the books down, and go outside. Hail the gods, honour your ancestors, respect the land. Get to know your local area, it’s history, folklore, ecology, and special places. Meet some heathens; get a group of us round a fire with some good food (and good mead) and we’ll be happy to answer any questions 🙂
E L Brooks