Heathenry: the religion of conservative, straight white guys who’d rather read an academic journal than join in a ritual; plus there’s a good chance they’re secretly Nazis.
Paganism: where all the shiny parts of the worlds’ religions are brought together by aging hippies and teen girls into a mish-mash of New Age spiritual hash.
Of course I don’t believe either of these statements. However, though most people on either side of the fence are unwilling to be quite that divisive in their speech, this is the impression that I get at times. There is so much misunderstanding and distrust that runs through the two communities that leaves me baffled.
As a person who identifies as both a Pagan and a Heathen, I spend a lot of time thinking about why these two communities are so separate. I expect this sort of distance from hard-core reconstructionists. Those recons I know working with other cultures are also hesitant to identify as Pagan; though they are much more likely to interface with the Pagan community in some way or another. But Heathens of most stripes, be they academically inclined or not, seem reluctant to engage with the Pagan community.
For its part, it feels sometimes as if Paganism has written Heathenry off completely. Pagans will of course still call on Norse deities on occasion, and some work mostly with that pantheon. But I find my Pagan friends interested in Freyja or Thor turning mostly to the experience and research of other Pagans, and completely missing the huge amount of resources available from the Heathen community.
But why? What makes Heathens so different from, say, those who honor the Greek deities exclusively and in a historically-inspired way? The same applies to the rest of the Indo-European religious pantheons, as well as other traditions that have not been passed down unbroken in a culture. ‘Polytheist’ was a popular term for awhile, but I haven’t heard Heathens (outside of Galina Krasskova and her associates) claim it.
What is it about Heathenry that keeps it so separate?
I believe that a good part of it comes from the idea that Heathenry – or Asatru, the term most common when these threads were being woven – is a specifically Germanic religion reserved for ‘Germanic peoples’. Of course, I completely disagree with that idea, and so do the vast majority of Heathens I know; but it is intrinsically woven into our history. When Asatru began taking off in the US, it was often compared to Wicca or NeoPaganism in a way that established it as different – where ‘different’ was code for ‘better’.
The accusation of practicing Wiccatru (an amalgamation of Wicca and Asatru) is still used as an insult among some Heathens on the internet. It is my impression that most Heathens today don’t actually consider Wiccans or other Pagans as lesser religions than Heathenry; but that idea of separateness still remains. In my opinion, it’s largely habit, and Heathenry as a movement would benefit from breaking that habit.
For their part I see some Pagans, especially in Trump’s America with the rise of white supremacy, shy away from those who identify as Heathen. As if honoring the same deity as a few people with messed-up ideals makes that person evil, too. I feel as if some Pagans think if they separate themselves from Heathens, then racism in Paganism won’t be a problem. Think again. Greek and Slavic nationalists have both been in the spotlight recently for worshipping the ancient Gods and being incredibly racist. Not to mention Paganism’s general air of middle-class whiteness that leaves so many unable to recognize the struggles of others.
I was so lucky to be able to spend this past weekend with a group of amazing people at Trothmoot. These people were kind, considerate, passionate but willing to listen, incredibly intelligent, dedicated to solving problems, and happy to just have a great time with each other. Their values and convictions were on display for all to see, and I am honored to have been among them.
But these are not Heathen-exclusive traits. Maybe it’s my Midwestern community showing, but I largely have met people of the same integrity, dedication, and perseverance in Pagan groups. Just as Heathens do not have a monopoly on racism, they are not the only group of people under the Pagan umbrella with a code of conduct and an appreciation of virtue.
It’s my desire that eventually, these two communities will not be so separate. I’m not advocating for mixed rituals or anything for those who don’t want them, but I’d like to be able to point a Pagan friend interested in Freyja at articles in Idunna without her making a face about Heathens. I’d like to be able to discuss some aspects of my Heathen practice that draw from other regions and ideas without worrying that the wrath of the Heathen internet will descend on me.
The slow and steady way to combat this is to consciously expose my children to both Pagan and Heathen events, rituals, and communities; they see for themselves the similar practices and virtues and draw their own conclusions. Of course, this takes a great deal of time and relies on others doing the same, which one can’t quite count on. Another is to consistently put on pan-Pagan events to which Heathens are invited. Many Heathen groups make it out to their local Pagan Pride Days, and I have seen new understanding come from these encounters.
Ultimately, it’s not a divide that’s going to be healed right away. Completely healing it may not even be desirable. Given the nature of the two communities – very loosely defined and broken into innumerable numbers of factions – it’s very possible that some will come closer while some will drift farther apart. But if we could come together just a little more, recognize our similarities, I believe there is potential in both communities to grow from supporting one another.