This is the text of a flyer originally created for the first East Anglian Folk Moot,
a pan-pagan event sponsored by a number of Pagan Federation affliated groups.
This article is also displayed on the IPC Website
Copyright © 2001, 2003 Stormerne and Arlea Hunt-Anschütz
What is Heathenry?
The word heathenry describes two things:
Some modern heathens call their religion by other names, the most popular being Ásatrú.
- The pre-Christian religion of the ancient Germanic peoples;
- The modern reconstruction of that religion.
What are reconstructed pagan religions?
Reconstructed pagan religions differ from neo-pagan 'paths' like Wicca in that they are firmly based on the actual religions of specific pre- Christian cultures. They do not draw upon later sources as mediaeval ceremonial magic, Roman Catholic customs or Masonic rites. Reconstructionists use the latest scholarly evidence from fields like archaeology, history, linguistics and anthropology to determine the beliefs, practices and worldviews of their chosen ancient pagan culture. Some of these practices obviously need to be adapted for modern times (for example, animal sacrifice, common in the ancient pagan world is rarely practiced by reconstructionists). Where modern adaptations are necessary, care is taken to ensure that they are done in a way that would be compatible with a pre-Christian worldview. Reconstruction is not the same as re-enactment: whereas a re-enactor might, for example, strive to wear authentic historical clothing for a ritual, a reconstructionist would find from research that participants wore clothes than were modern then and thus wear modern clothes themselves now.
How widespread was this Germanic religion?
Although the best descriptions of heathen religion are found in Icelandic writings, heathenry was practiced throughout the ancient Germanic world - in all lands bordering the North Sea. The term Germanic is a linguistic and anthropological one, and refers to a group of Northern European people who at one point shared a common language, culture and religion (with local tribal variations). By the year 500 C.E., the Germanic culture had spread out into the areas of Europe that were to become present day Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Germany, Holland and England. By the year 700 C.E. the various dialects of the common- Germanic language were becoming mutually unintelligible and evolving into German, Dutch, English and the Scandinavian languages. Thus, for example, the Germanic god Woðanaz became known as Oðin in Old Norse, Woden in Anglo-Saxon and Old Saxon, and Wuotan in Old High German. Between the time the Germanic tribes settled England in around 450 C.E. and the time the Anglos-Saxons began to be converted to Christianity in the 7th century, all of England was heathen. There was another influx of heathenry into England with the Viking invasions beginning in the late 8th century.
Who are the gods and spirits recognised by heathens?
Heathenry, like all ancient pagan religions, is polytheistic. Heathen recognise numerous non-human entities, such as major gods, local gods, ancestral spirits and various sorts of wights (elves, brownies, hill- folk etc.). Heathens see all of these entities as real and distinct individuals (rather than archetypes or aspects of a greater being). The major gods honoured by heathens are best known from Norse mythology: Odin, Frigg, Thor, Tyr, Idun, Freya, Frey etc. (Some of the gods appear by their Anglo-Saxon names in our days of the week.) In addition, we have evidence for dozens of local or tribal Germanic gods. Heathens may be called to work closely with one or more gods.
What is Wyrd?
The most fundamental concept in heathenry is wyrd. Wyrd literally means 'that which has turned' or 'that which has become'. It carries the idea of 'turned into' in both the sense of becoming something new and the sense of turning back to an original starting point. Thus, we can think of wyrd as a process that continually works the patterns of the past into the patterns of the present. One ramification of wyrd in personal human terms is that our past (both our ancestry and our personal history) affects us continually. Who we are, where we are, and what we are doing today is dependent on actions we have taken in the past and actions others have taken in the past which have affected us in some way. Every choice we make in the present builds upon choices we have previously made. With an understanding of wyrd comes a great responsibility. If we know that every action we take (or fail to take, for that matter) will have implications for own future choices and for the future choices of others, we have an ethical obligation to think carefully about the possible consequences of everything we do.
What is a Blót?
The standard all-purpose heathen ritual is called a blót (pronounced 'bloat'). In ancient times, people celebrated a blót with a ceremonial animal sacrifice to the gods or ancestors. In some accounts, they sprinkled the blood upon statues of the gods and upon all present as a blessing. They always cooked the meat to eat at a feast during which it was shared with the gods. Blóts were held to honour and thank he entities in question or to gain their favour for a specific purpose such as peace, victory or good sailing weather. To blót in the ancient way would be impractical today for a number of reasons. Most of us do not own livestock, nor are we trained in the skills necessary to humanely slaughter an animal. The answer most heathens have settled upon is to make an offering of mead. The Germanic people associated mead with blood and saw it as blessed and holy. (They had a myth in which the blood of a wise being called Kvasir was mixed with honey to create mead - "whoever drinks from which becomes a poet or scholar".) During a modern blót, mead is ceremonially poured for a god (usually into an offering bowl, or onto a fire) and sometimes also sprinkled on the participants. A feast usually follows.
What is sumbel?
Another popular heathen rite is the sumbel (or symbel). Sumbel is a ritual drinking ceremony! It usually takes place during a feast, following a blót. During sumbel, mead (or other alcoholic beverage) is poured into a horn and ritually blessed. The horn is passed round, and rounds of toasting follow with gods and ancestors being named and honoured. During sumbel, participants may also boast about deeds they intend to accomplish. Such boasts are seen as public promises and the boaster is held accountable by all present, including the gods. Sacred words spoken over the sumbel horn are drunk down with the mead, becoming part of the speaker's wyrd.
What about Magic?
The most well known form of heathen magic involves runes. Runes were used for writing, but also for healing, enchanting objects, and other spell-work. Different runic alphabets were used in different parts of Europe. Galdr or Galdorcræft is the act of chanting or singing charms. Many heathen charms have been preserved in mediaeval materials. Seiðr is a type of magic sometimes associated with seership. All of these forms of magic are being rediscovered and practiced again by modern heathens.
Where can I find out more?
Unfortunately there is no single book in print at this time that presents an accurate overview of all aspects of reconstructed Germanic paganism. However, there are some very good resources to be found on the World Wide Web.
The online Asatru Beginners Course contains links to well-researched articles on all aspects of heathenry and guidelines for using them in a study program.
You can post questions about heathenry to