Article written for the IPC Diary
The IPC chats with Stormerne
Why did you first become interested in Heathenry?
In the 1970s I studied many forms of divination, including the Tarot and the I Ching. It was then that I came across runes. It was only later that I was to find that there was no historical evidence for runes having being used for divination, though there was plenty for their having been used for healing and magic. At the time, however, I was only interested in runic divination, and to find out more it gradually dawned on me that I'd have to understand the people who first used runes - their culture and values - if I was to make serious headway. That led me to finding out about their religion and one thing led to another.
You mentioned history. When and where was Heathenry practised in the past?
Mostly between 1000 and 2000 years ago in all the North European lands that border what is now called the North Sea, but including right around to Iceland. It was the dominant pagan religion of that time. In England, Heathenry was prevalent between 5th and 7th centuries, and again later during the time of Danelaw.
What kind of legacy did those ancient Heathens leave?
They had an enormous effect politically and linguistically which continues to this day. However, from the point of view of relics, in many countries many of the days of the week still bear the names of Heathen deities. For example, in England we have Tiw's Day, Woden's Day, Thor's Day and Frigg's Day, and there are still many place names that derive from them too. Ironically the major Christian festival of Easter is named after the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre whose festival was in April. There have been rune stones and heathen artefacts found all over Northern Europe. The great ship burial at Sutton Hoo was a heathen burial. And we have many ancient documents - stories, sagas and treatises - that have captured the Heathen way of thinking and many of their religious practices.
How about Heathenry nowadays?
Interest in Heathen culture has resurfaced in one form or another several times over the last hundred years or so, mostly in continental Europe and Iceland. But it's only in the last thirty years that the religion has really grown, and there are Heathens now all over the world.
If Heathenry is a pagan religion, what makes it different from other pagan religions?
Heathens are 'polytheistic': we have many gods and goddesses. We see each them as individual beings with distinct personalities. We don't see them as 'aspects' of some other single or dual being and we don't regard any of them as perfect or flawless. None of the gods have 'equivalents' in the pantheons of other religions, even when they share similar interests.
How do Heathens relate to their gods and goddesses?
In many ways! Many Heathens establish two-way communication with a number of their deities. Some are happy with merely one way communication. But either way, we don't grovel or pray! Our gods would have little respect for us if we did that. They expect us to stand up for ourselves and talk with them as adults.
Do Heathens relate to any beings other than gods?
Yes, we also communicate with wights and ancestors. By ancestors we mean just that: those who have gone before - recent or distant. By wights we mean beings, spirits if you like, that we would find in our homes, or around a stretch of woodland or in a rock.
So if you relate to wights, some of whom others might call nature spirits, would you call Heathenry a nature-based religion?
In my opinion, no. Heathenry is not particularly based in nature or natural cycles. It is based around relationships with a set of gods and goddesses and a set of values that come from those relationships. Nevertheless, Heathens do work regularly with land wights, often closer than do many other pagans.
So do Heathens celebrate any seasonal festivals?
Ancient heathens did celebrate a few seasonal festivals though many were local affairs with local timing. Most appear to have celebrated a Winter Nights feast in October or November, depending on latitude, and Yule in midwinter. The Anglo-Saxon Heathens celebrated the goddess Hreğa in March and Eostre in April. Nowadays we do this too.
I've heard Heathen rituals are something to do with ritual drinking. Is this true?
Yes! A Heathen ritual is generally called a 'blot' which comes from the word 'blood' and means a sacrifice. Once upon a time it was perfectly normal to feed a community with an animal which had been ritually slaughtered at such a rite. Nowadays we make different sacrifices and there are good mythological reasons to use mead or other alcoholic drink for this. The part of the blot where it's drunk is called 'sumble', and Heathens will make ritual toasts and boasts whilst passing a horn of hallowed mead around.
You mentioned mythology. What mythology do Heathens have?
Heathen mythology is very rich and diverse. It's strange that many school children learn about Mediterranean pagan mythologies and not our own native one or, if they learn anything local, only Celtic mythology. There are many stories about our gods described originally in ancient poems called 'The Eddas'. There are stories in sagas and there are heroic poems and works by mediaeval scholars like Snorri Sturluson.
So do Heathens have a holy book?
No. There is no need since our relationships with our gods are living and everyday. Besides, our gods seem to want us to think for ourselves and not rely on scriptures.
What are typical Heathen values?
A sense of honour and integrity: doing what we say we are going to do. A great sense of hospitality. The knowledge that a gift demands a gift - "you don't get owt for nowt" - and that when you ask something of a god or any other being you're prepared to negotiate and offer something in return. A great sense that the future is always an opportunity to add to your personal reputation and to build upon the layers of Wyrd already laid down.
What is Wyrd?
A vast subject that we'll have to deal with another time!