Northern-Tradition Paganism & Heathenry

runestone2As a northern-tradition Pagan, I often get people deciding that my practice is Heathen/Asatru/etc. when it isn't. Even worse, I get people deciding that I am a bad Heathen when in actuality I'm not one at all. Because Northern-Tradition Paganism isn't as large or widespread as Heathenry, there is less known about it. Therefore, this FAQ has been created to inform and educate people.

What are the main differences between Heathenry and Northern-Tradition Paganism?

Before we get to that, let's define Heathenry for the confused folks reading this who aren't sure. (It all just looks like horn-hatted weird stuff to them!) Heathenry is a generally accepted umbrella term for a number of religious reconstructionist groups (including Asatru, Forn Sedh, Vanatru, Heithnir, etc.) that base their religion on the early-medieval Iron Age writings about the Gods and myths of Norse, Germanic, and Anglo-Saxon peoples.

The key word in that statement is "reconstructionist". Heathenry is a reconstructionist religious practice. Northern-Tradition Paganism is a reconstructionist-derived practice. For more information on the difference between these two terms, please refer to the article about Neo-Pagan sects on this site. However, the short form is that "recons" are pretty strict about basing as much as possible on written sources, or "lore", while recon-derived religion starts with lore and goes from there, using inspiration, divine communication, and sometimes imagination to fill in the gaps in the lore and adapt the religion to modern times. If you wanted to put it more bluntly, for recons the primary source material is the Ancestors. For recon-derived practices, the primary source material is the Gods, and the lore of the Ancestors is merely a means to an end, creating enough context that one can access the Gods and continue from there.

That's the main difference. However, there are others. The second major difference is cultural. Northern-Tradition Paganism tends to ally itself with the modern Neo-Pagan demographic rather than trying to separate itself from that rather large and amorphous entity. It also tends to reflect Neo-Pagan values -- tolerance for diversity, political progressiveness, etc. More on that below.

Another major difference is theological -- the issue of which Gods are acceptable to worship. Modern Heathenry currently encourages the worship of some of the Gods of this cultural background and finds others to be taboo for them. Without going into the theological reasons for this (which would take all day and is irrelevant to me anyway), I will simply state that in Northern-Tradition Paganism, all gods are worthy of worship. In this way, we are more similar to Hellenic (Greek) reconstructionists, who have a mandate in their own lore to that effect. While any given person may choose not to work with one or more specific deities out of personal choice or lack of affinity, the general acknowledgment is that they are all sacred, and if I'm not worshipping God X, it's good that someone else is doing that for me.

This tolerance extends beyond the Northern pantheons; it is fine to work with non-Northern deities in one's own private practice, or belong to non-Northern-Tradition religious groups, unlike some reconstructionist groups who encourage theological separatism. A significant number of Northern Tradition Pagans are dual-tradition, because our sect is fine with that. The majority are Norse and Celtic, but there are a few other combinations. There are also some of us who work primarily with Norse deities, but have the occasional strong and rewarding relationship with a God or Goddess (or two, or three) from another area of the world. There are also some of us who don't work with Gods at all, but work with nature spirits or ancestral spirits in a Northern Tradition framework.

Calling a Northern-Tradition Pagan a "bad Heathen" is rather like a Catholic calling an Episcopalian a "bad Catholic". Doubtless there were a lot of Catholics in the early days of the Anglican Church who felt just that. In fact, there are probably a lot of Catholics to this day who feel that way ... but it isn't accurate. The two are apples and oranges. A non-reconstructionist group cannot be judged by reconstructionist standards -- not accurately, anyway.

Is Northern-Tradition Paganism another term for Norse Wicca?

No. While some individuals ignorantly use "Wiccan" as a term for everyone in the Neo-Pagan demographic, regardless of tradition -- and while others sneeringly use "Wiccan" as a deliberate and empty insult to denigrate anything that is not their tradition, regardless of what it looks like -- Norse Wicca is actually another tradition entirely, and to lump it all together is to properly respect neither. It is a later form of traditional Wicca that uses some Norse symbolism, and uses Norse Gods (usually Frey and Freya, though sometimes Odin and Frigga) as its Lord and Lady-figures. It is similar to other forms of Wicca that have taken on a specific cultural overlay, such as Celtic Wicca, or Faery Wicca. Seax Wicca was an early example of Norse-based Wicca. Norse Wicca is, like all forms of Wicca, an initiatory mystery tradition that is coven-based, uses traditional Wiccan structures, and as likely to be pantheistic as polytheistic.

Northern-Tradition Paganism is not an initiatory mystery tradition, it does not use Wiccan underlying structures, it is not coven-based, and it is always polytheistic. However, since NT Pagans are not restricted in belonging to other groups, some might choose to ally themselves with various Pagan groups that might work with the Norse pantheons frequently or occasionally in whatever capacity.

What does that "tolerance" thing mean, really?

In Northern-Tradition Paganism, it means that racism, sexism, homophobia, and intolerance of alternative lifestyles is unacceptable, period. No one needs to prove anything about their genetic background in order to participate. We believe that if our Gods want you, they'll have you regardless of that ... and if they don't want you, the purest Norse blood in the world won't help. Our ergi folk have their own sacredness. Much of the rest isn't our business anyway.

This is not to say that there are not Heathens out there who also commit themselves to such radical tolerance. There are, and that's great. But it's hardly universal -- quite the contrary. We support the good work of Heathens Against Hate, and other similar groups, and wish them a great deal of luck.

What about the Rökkr?

This comes under that issue about which Gods are acceptable to worship. There are three main pantheons in Northern mythology: the Aesir (sky gods), the Vanir (agricultural gods), and the Rökkr. The term Rökkr was coined from the Old Norse word for "shadow" by Abby Helasdottir more than a decade ago to label the third "underworld" pantheon. NT Pagans find that third pantheon just as acceptable as the other two, in the same way that a polytheistic Hellenic would honor Hades as well as Zeus, or that a Hindu would honor Kali as well as Lakshmi. Working with the Rökkr and the Giants gives a different slant to our politics as well. Those of us who work with the Giants find them to be strongly allied to the forces of Nature (as opposed to the forces of Civilization), and their values reflect this, and reflect what they ask of us as well. For the Rökkatru among NT Pagans, environmentalism isn't just a hobby; it's something that our spirit-allies ask of us. The best offering you can give to Ran and Aegir is to clean up a beach. Honoring Hela means that composting organic waste is more than a quaint idea. It's an integral part of our beliefs.

Did Northern-Tradition Paganism come out of the Neo-Pagan community, or is it derived from Heathenism?

Something of both. For a long time, NT Pagans (as I will refer to it here for convenience) were mostly solitary, so it's only been recently that they are banding together in groups. Some are Neo-Pagans who started working with the Northern Gods on their own, still considering themselves very much Pagan, and not getting involved with Heathen communities, values, and theology. Some were Heathens who found that certain aspects of Heathenry did not work for them, and left that demographic.

It's certainly true that reconstructionist Heathenry gelled first, and that NT Paganism is fairly new as a group effort. Sometimes, seeing people get their act together and do their thing in a group can stimulate others to say, "Hey, I can do that too -- but differently." In that sense, one group's formation is "derived" from inspiration from another group.

What do you mean when you say that the Gods are your primary source material?

While the focus in Heathenry is on the Folkway and the group -- and there's nothing wrong with that -- in NT Paganism the focus tends to be more on the personal revelation. Our Gods are very real to us; they aren't two-dimensional archetypes or distant figures with whom we cannot hope to speak until we resemble our medieval ancestors. NT Paganism encourages and respects personal devotion and connection with one's deities. If we are hardline about any specific belief, it is that we are firm in our polytheism.

We are aware that not every personal revelation is accurate or direct connection with deities, and we are working out methods of comparison to build up enough modern "auxiliary information" to have a critical mass of peer-corroborated personal gnosis. The territory between a bit of added inspiration, an amazing divinely-inspired revelation, and the rantings of one's internal sock-puppets is something of an uncharted wilderness in Northern Religion, but we are plunging into that wilderness to explore and learn it, rather than simply staying safe at home in one's small village.

Isn't "Northern-Tradition Paganism" kind of a long and unwieldy name?

Yeah, it is. Sorry about that. Some people call themselves "Norse Pagans", but as we get our inspiration from more than just the Norse, others are uncomfortable with that.

Why has there been conflict between the two groups?

It's always hard when you have two religions who worship the same God(s), but do it in different ways with different theology. Just ask the Christians. People have to work to get over their issues and leave each other alone. Being able to say, "It's not my way, but it's a way," is sometimes a difficult place for people to come to, especially when they are already members of a small fringe sect and have insecurities about that.

Still, I'd make the (perhaps ambiguous) comment that merely screaming at someone that they're doing things in a wrong and evil way never (as in never, in the history of the world!) made the recipient of that screaming change. At best, it made them dismiss the message because of the attitude. There's also that for all their complaining, orthodox religious organizations have often found alternative groups to be a good place to dispose of their heretics: "Look, clearly you don't belong here; why don't you try going over there and getting out of our hair?"

And, finally, all things pass and that includes ideological conflicts. We prefer to be frith-makers rather than instigators of conflict. Neo-Paganism has always been a demographic with underlying values of tolerance, and we are carrying on that tradition.