Heathenry and Historical Reconstruction

by Arlea Æðelwyrd Hunt-Anschütz
Copyright © by A. Anschütz 1997

Heathenry (or Asatru) is the modern reconstruction of the pre-Christian religion of the Germanic peoples. The linguistic/anthropological term "Germanic" refers to a group of Northern European people who at one point shared a common language, culture and religion. By the year 500 CE, the Germanic culture had spread out into the areas of Europe which were to become present day Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Germany, Holland, and England. By the year 700 CE, the various dialects of the common-Germanic language were becoming mutually unintelligible and evolving into German, Dutch, English, and the Scandinavian languages.

Although the heathen Germanic people were literate, they tended to use their runic alphabet sparsely. They relied on trusted law-speakers and skalds (bards/poets) to memorize and pass on their stories and history through oral tradition. They carved their marks in wood, stone, and bone for specific practical purposes. The runic alphabet was often used for signing works of art. Some examples from artifacts are "Habuku made this comb" and "I, Hlewagastir son of Holti, made the horn". There are several instances in the literature of important messages being carved in runes on pieces of wood for delivery to distant kingdoms, but none of these message-staves have been found. Brief runic messages were carved on large memorial stones to commemorate particular people or events. Runes were also used for working magick. No detailed historical records were ever written down by pre-Christian Germanic people.

As the various Germanic kingdoms were converted to Christinity, during a period spaning 400-1000 CE, they were exposed to Latin and the concept of writing down history on velum or parchment, with pen and ink. The conversion to Christianity was also a conversion to literacy. Generally the king and nobles converted first, for political reasons: to gain the needed alliance of a Christian nation against a common enemy, to establish trade with a rich country unwilling to trade with heathens, or in order to marry the woman of their dreams, who just happened to be from a politically useful Christian nation. Once the king had converted, the common folk generally had no choice. When Christianity was declared the national religion (as it still is in modern Scandanavian countries), the people were generally compelled to be baptised. Heathens who unsuccessfully defended lands which were conquered by Christian war-leaders were typically given the choice of conversion or death.

Conversion to Christianity didn't happen over night. For centuries after the king of some nation officially converted, the farmers, fisherfolk, and sailors --people who relied on the unpredictable forces of nature for their livelihood, continued to call on the old gods when in need and continued to celebrate the heathen holy days. Meanwhile, the Germanic men who had been recruted as monks or priests were getting a classical education from the Roman Catholic church. They learned Latin and were able to read Roman history and mythology, including stories of Roman pagan gods. This inspired them to write down their own mythology and history. Because many of the peasants were still worshipping the old gods long after the nobles had converted, there was a period in which literate Christian Germanic men (at this point, the church did not believe in educating women) could not only record their folk-mythology, but could also comment (usually negatively) on the heathen practices of the uneducated folk.

It is mainly from these early Germanic-Christian treatices (from various Germanic nations and ranging in date from about CE 600-1300), that we gain knowledge of the ancient religion of the Germanic folk. Since the writers themselves were not heathen, we can only establish the veracity of their descriptions of heathen beliefs by comparing their descriptions with other kinds of evidence. One such type of evidence is the contemporary writings of peoples of other nations (i.e. Roman, Arabic) who came in contact with the heathen Germanic tribes and descibed their activities. The Germanic historical literature can also be confirmed by the archeological record. Votive statues of several heathen gods have been uncovered which match descriptions of those gods given in much later historical accounts. Pictures carved in stone in heathen times depict scenes from myths later recorded by Germanic Christians.

Modern heathens, whether individually, in small groups, or as part of large religious organizations, are attempting to reconstruct and revitalise the heathen religion of Northern Europe. Reconstruction begins with a thorough investigation of the literary, historical, and archeological evidence pertaining to Germanic belief. Where historical evidence is lacking, Heathens use intuition, logical deduction, and divine inspiration to fill in the gaps.