Returning to a familiar neighborhood – or not

One interesting and entirely unforeseen outcome of attending the Lokasenna ritual at PantheaCon was feeling oh so slightly inclined to go spend some time with Heathens. I’ve spent probably twice as long away from Heathenry as I did in it. Even saying I was “in Heathenry” is a bit of a stretch.

When Loki dropped into my life I was a more or less generic-flavor pagan with a spiritual and magical practice that were entirely satisfying if not necessarily spectacular or high octane. Loki changed that, tapping into little gifts and talents I already had and showing me how they could be used to much greater effect. Things sped up, got heavy, and got intense very quickly.

Thinking that the arrival of an ostensibly Norse deity in my life meant that I should go and do Norse things, I made mental noises about looking into local Asatruar groups. But no; I was prompted repeatedly that this was not what I should do with my time. So I didn’t – but I kept pushing it, thinking that I needed a peer group, people who could teach me, people who had experienced the same things I did. Thing is, I didn’t actually *need* these things. I wanted them and I didn’t recognize the difference.

Eventually I did go seeking some Heathen company. I found a large and dynamic group comprised of Asatruar/Heathen pagans and witches – which was actually possibly the highest functioning Heathen-type group I ever spent time with. Monthly rituals were always well-attended, we shared a meal afterwards, and there was much camaraderie and support. There was also a good measure of interpersonal tension between some members and when the couple whose house we met at broke up the participants all went their separate ways. I feel like that group was as successful as it was because somehow or other everyone wanted the same things – in this case, collective ritual experiences celebrating the gods and the occasional magic working.

The second Heathen group I associated with was more traditionally recon, more distinctly Asatruar. I met the gythia on a mailing list, discovered we had some Powers in common, and got to know her and her husband personally. She was a Hel’s woman and put together some lovely rituals celebrating the ancestors and the dead. That group too did not last forever and was starting to destabilize about the time that I left the region.

I won’t detail each of the handful of Heathen and Asatruar groups I associated with. Each had their own character and each, I discovered, had somewhat different focuses. Some, like the second group, built their structures according to some sort of historical basis and then infused those structures with insight and passion borne from personal practice. Others were little more than rune study groups and consisted of people who couldn’t ritual their way out of a wet sack yet somehow managed to hold symbels lasting several hours in their back yard with a scant few people. (During that disastrous ritual I fell asleep on the couch and left without saying goodbye.) Sometimes the groups were little more than a bunch of friends who happened to have similar religious predilections, which meant that they had no real ability or inclination to welcome newcomers.

At the time, I kept thinking that my inability to fit in with any group was my fault. I was doing something wrong. I was too weird, too witchy, too Lokean, too something. Now I recognize that these groups all consisted of people who simply had different religious, spiritual, and magical priorities than I did. They created or joined groups of people that shared those priorities; anyone who didn’t would not be a great fit. See, despite efforts to clearly state the singular purpose that religion serves, any observation of actual religious bodies will show that multiple ends are achieved. This is true of polytheist traditions, too. If I want to study runes, the first group would have probably been a pretty poor fit for me. If I wanted a peer group, the kindred full of shitty ritualists would have been a poor fit (and it was).

Also, I started noticing a weird pattern in the groups I associated with. No matter how well-established or functional they seemed to be when I arrived, by the time I left or started to separate myself from them shit was already starting to get tense and weird. After actual murder-suicides and other assorted felonies destroyed more than one group I spent time with, I started to wonder if perhaps I was bringing a certain destabilizing energy to each collective.

(Today I feel that yes, I did in fact have a destabilizing effect on several of these groups but not deliberately and certainly without malice. I can’t do magic or ritual with most people because I bring a radioactive flavor to their current and since people don’t know what’s happening or how to mitigate it, everything ends in tears and federal charges. I’m considerably more delicate in how I approach group workings these days and I’ve even managed to find groups that deal with heavy energy currents. I’m also upfront with the fact that I’m going to fuck things up; nothing personal and no, there isn’t anything I can do to stop it except leave. On the other hand, in exchange for the high mayhem potential of a spiritually radioactive Lokean you get someone with decades of ritual and magical experience, with a willingness to learn and teach and do the work, and with a large body of creative and artistic knowledge all ready to help your group do whatever’s important to you. At least one group leader feels this is a reasonable trade-off.)

Aside from mismatched priorities and energy dynamics, I also never felt at home in Heathenry. There’s an experience shared by many – but by no means all – Heathens irrespective of tradition, and that’s the feeling of finally arriving at a spiritual home. This never happened for me. My feelings of belonging were always simply a suspension of disbelief, a momentary shift in awareness that was always, always, always demonstrated ultimately false. These were gods I loved and prayed to, these were the rituals I did, and this was even the language of cosmology and magic I employed, but it wasn’t where I fit. Heathenry was a time and place, a style of working, a group of friends – not my spiritual path.

I realize that religious identification is a complicated matter and for some people time, place, style of working, social group, etc. are what constitutes their Heathen identity and participation in the tradition. And that’s great. For whatever reason, there were other things I wanted even if I didn’t exactly know what they were. I found Heathenry unfulfilling.

There was also the Loki issue. Groups as a whole rarely had any outright policy regarding Him (that’s one of the ways that Heathen culture has changed since I left) so it was always on an individual level that I encountered acceptance, rejection, or wary confusion. This meant that some people in a group welcomed me while others did not. Put another way: my personal spiritual choices had public consequences. This is a strange thing and it’s definitely not one that I was expecting to be as problematic as it ended up being. No matter how helpful or willing or educated or sympathetic I was, I was always pushed out by some and drawn in by others.

You don’t expect to have to justify your existence to your religious community. Having already spent time in religious communities that had required exactly the same thing of me, I knew that the only solution was to leave. One cannot fight a battle in which one’s opponents have already determined the outcome. Trying to justify the relevance of my path, my choices, and my alliances would be a terrific waste of time and win me absolutely nothing.

I am not Heathen. I’m also not not Heathen. However, I think I am too many other things, I draw from too many currents, and I bring too many perspectives to ever be a good fit for a Heathen group even if I was entirely willing to “just be Heathen” while in their company.

I’m not making a value judgment for or against myself, or for or against Heathenry. My experience is just that I’m usually a spectacularly bad fit for Heathen groups and this will eventually make everyone very unhappy.

So I’m not sure. So far as I know, there are no actual kindreds in my area. There’s a group that sort of focuses on pan-European pagan cultural traditions (Celtic, Germanic, and Norse primarily I think) but they seem little more than a coffee club. There’s no Troth presence, even if I wanted to spend time with them. A godhi I used to know is still occasionally doing something but so far as I know it’s just him and his partner. The only seidhman I ever knew in the entire state when screaming back to Mormonism. I’m also not willing to do any organizing because a Heathen group should be organized by a Heathen and also because I fear sitting around in a lot of shitty coffee shops listening to people compare notes on shitty rune manuals.

There is, however, a newly forming group of Hellenic polytheists. Despite allegiances to very different Powers, I feel like I probably have most in common with them. We have a similar stance of religious regard and even of ritual structure. At this point, it even seems like we share similar views on  how revitalized polytheist traditions can fit into modern life and find contemporary expression. For the time being, I’m looking forward to spending time with them.

I have no doubt that I’ll find like-minded Heathen-types some day; I actually already have and some I’ve known for a long time. But as things stand now, Heathenry will be a sometimes food and not a primary part of my spiritual sustenance.

 

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15 thoughts on “Returning to a familiar neighborhood – or not

  1. norsestormdragon says:

    Thanks for great writing and for expressing your situation so eloquently. I am Norse Heathen, although I my beliefs are far more primitive. I do not feel inclined to seek out any groups and I think my Gods want it that way. I do however follow various blogs of people I find I learn most from. So thank you for letting me know I am not alone.

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    • Silence says:

      You’re welcome, and thank you for reading. Every time I start to explore new bodies of information I think about Odin always questing after knowledge He doesn’t have yet. 🙂

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  2. Krei says:

    I’m the polar opposite. The people I’m most similar to in terms of personal spirituality are eclectic and honor gods from different pantheons. I can acknowledge, like, and respect other Gods (like I seriously dig Oshun and Demenon), but I can’t love them the same way. I’m Norse Heathen. An actual devotional practice is unthinkable when there is so much to learn about my own Gods. I think it better to acknowledge ok this isn’t for me, then do what so many people do and play Heathen authority figure but spend half their energy working with say Shinto gods . There’s this whole shitty mentality going around saying Heathenry is not enough, our liturgy is not enough, our rituals are not enough, our Gods are not enough. Lazy thinking. So untrue and hateful. I dont want to bring Ifa ritual dance or Hindu festival into my faining. If you do, cool, but don’t set it as a model for Heathenry. That’s where the antagonism rightfully lies. If your spirituality is a diaspora, own it. Most Heathens I know respect honesty over trying to crush people into molds. Hopefully, hospitality thew (dual sided) will keep a kindred or felagidh event a safe and welcoming space for anyone with good intentions.

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    • Silence says:

      I’m not sure who I’m most similar to; my practice gets more idiosyncratic over the years and I have no idea where it might head next.

      I don’t think that Heathenry is insufficient as a tradition(s) but that’s because I think that its fullness only emerges when people are willing to put in the effort. A religiously fulfilling life is not necessarily going to happen if one doesn’t dive into the tradition and begin actively participating and building up. (People will, of course, have very different ideas on what appropriate participation in Heathenry should look like but that’s going to be true of any tradition I think.) A tradition can feel insufficiently sustaining if personal effort isn’t made, though it has to also be acknowledged that the experience of Heathenry – one’s own or a group’s – is an emergent property and as such is not necessarily readily served up to all comers. These traditions will only become richer and more fulfilling as effort is put in over generations; expecting current Heathenry to look like any other tradition, especially one that’s been around for centuries, isn’t helpful.

      I don’t think that my spirituality is a diaspora. I’m not actually sure what it is. I do know that for twenty years I’ve been a devotionalist and that’s the one thing that remains entirely consistent, even as all kinds of other features shift and evolve. Even the Powers in my life have not remained entirely the same in that time. Learning from many different traditions has been an honor and a pleasure and have brought a richness to each facet of my personal practice. I understand my relationship to the Norse Powers better because of this exploration and on-going education but I have no good answers for what my spirituality can be called aside from polytheist and devotional. (Well, there’s also the spirit work but that’s perhaps even more challenging to describe in an accurate or meaningful way.)

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      • Krei says:

        When you get a pull from a deity outside the usual suspects (say Santa Muerte) is it like relearning a language to communicate or just tweaking existing structure the way you might alter tone depending on who you’re talking to? I like observing for mechanics, traditions, to get a glimpse into other Gods. It was odd how little I felt at a Shinto purification ritual, but super connected to the Taino one. Same basic premise, totally different energies. Is that how devotional work is? Hinduism for example, such rich traditions and very explicit instruction. Norse devotional, not so much.

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      • Silence says:

        Yes, in my devotional studies I’ve observed the same outcomes occurring (religious emotional engagement in a consistent and meaningful manner with internal coherency and consistency on a personal level contextualized within the body of greater tradition) even if the tools are sometimes quite different (many of the tools/technology/mechanics are very similar, even if the meaning(s) attached to them naturally vary according to tradition). That was part of what made my time in Heathenry so very confusing. I already had a devotional practice to Kali (albeit a super white girl one that I later corrected as I was led to groups with proper authority that could instruct me in practices appropriate for me) and a magical practical practice based in European witchcraft; I had to relearn some of these concepts upon dipping into Heathenry but I kept coming up against the protest that there was no devotional tradition in Heathenry *despite the fact that there demonstrably was*. People just didn’t like the word and didn’t like its associations with Christianity in particular, so it was a battle that I couldn’t begin to fight. Spirit workers were the same way; I kept getting told that there was nothing devotional about spirit work *despite the fact that there demonstrably was* (and Heartroad was the result).

        I’ve drawn from some pretty specific currents of bhakti philosophy because they’re explicitly accessible to me as a non-Hindu and because they are extremely helpful in explaining the things I experience and placing those experience within a larger context of ongoing, long-term devotional practice. Perhaps not surprisingly, the same things that I had to look elsewhere to learn about are now emerging in places like Heathenry; I think this is because devotional practice, regardless of tradition, draws upon a more or less similar foundation of human emotional capacity. In a way, Heathenry failed to provide me with the answers I needed not because the answers weren’t there, but because almost no one had gotten to the point where they were asking the same questions I was. The devotional textbooks of Heathenry are, so to speak, still behind written. This is great and exciting and it means that right now today is a very wonderful time to be part of Heathenry – but some people are going to have questions and concerns that are not adequately answered at this time.

        Hmn, I think I tailor my approach depending on the deity in question. Some Powers have a very explicit context of culture, tradition, and practice (such as Maa and the lwa) and so it’s on me to seek out appropriate guidance from people who are, in my very best ability to judge such things, qualified to provide it. I then try to adhere to that guidance and respect the boundaries of the tradition that has been so generously shared with me while giving the Powers space to express themselves as they choose. Santa Muerte is an odd ball because even though She has a context it’s a context that is constantly changing and evolving; She can’t be called (just) a “Mexican folk saint” when people around the world believe in Her powers. With Her I have just relied on basic spirit hospitality – giving Her a space of Her own, a candle, some offerings, and my willingness to listen to what She has to say. And Loki isn’t honored in a particularly Norse fashion, though He receives offerings and attention in a manner that Heathens would probably find more or less familiar.

        So perhaps I fundamentally adhere to the provision of hospitality and then adapt the expression of that hospitality to what is most appropriate to each Power concerned with respect to our ever-growing relationship.

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  3. Beth says:

    >>You don’t expect to have to justify your existence to your religious community. >>

    I’ve become used to being expected to justify my existence to pretty much everyone. (I used to attempt to do so; these days I generally decline and leave.) While my presence hasn’t engendered any felonies (at least as far as I’m aware), people sense Odin around me and usually it makes them very, very uncomfortable if they’re exposed to me on a too frequent or ongoing basis. (I don’t expect having the Morrigan around is going to improve this situation, either.)

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    • Silence says:

      I know what you mean; I have canned speeches for all occasions. Even though some of the more recent group-related stuff I’ve becoming involved in is the polar opposite from pagan-flavored stuff, no one has ever challenged my presence or asked me to justify my reasons for showing up. I keep realizing that I’m still carrying around some resentment about the way I was treated in various pagan-flavored circles.

      I cause nightmares, felonies, all kinds of mayhem. I should come with a warning label.

      I’m pretty sure that people can probably sense the Loki in my presence more than I think they can; I also think that most of them don’t exactly know what they’re sensing simply because they’re not as familiar with Him. I also work very hard at being entirely soft and harmless; no one is going to invite a potential worldbreaker to dress the temple deities or to assist with high level initiations. I’ve got shit to learn and so being undercover is a necessary job skill.

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      • Beth says:

        >> I also think that most of them don’t exactly know what they’re sensing simply because they’re not as familiar with Him.>>

        Yes! In fact most people probably can’t put their finger on exactly what bothers them about me, they just feel an urge to treat me with less consideration than they would anyone else in the same situation. (This happens with the more sensitive mundane people, too.) I’ve had to work really hard at having a public persona that counters this, but it still doesn’t always work.

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      • Silence says:

        I think it most comes across in your videos. The Odinic vibe I get from you is distinctly creepy/unsettling but it doesn’t bother me; I like it because that vibe means Odin and I like Odin. So I’m glad you carry that presence with you even if I’m sorry that it can cause you difficulties.

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