Heathen Talk: Our Broken Relationship with Odin

Heathen Religion, Then and Now

The funny thing about living in the world that we do, is that it’s pretty much impossible to avoid taking on the broken ideas of our culture and applying them to our deities.

For a lot of Heathens, the experience of finding Heathenry is one that is often described as a sensation of “coming home”. There’s usually a sense of rightness and a feeling of familiarity. However, in many ways, this feeling of familiarity can be a false friend. It can fool us into thinking that we have more in common with people in the Heathen period than we actually do. It can make us think that we somehow ‘get’ things that we likely do not.

There’s a saying that “the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there”. Usually, we find this saying referenced when people are trying to justify the sins of the past, but it’s far more relevant here. A sea of at least a thousand years separates us from the original Heathens. To think we just automatically get things is possibly one of the biggest mistakes we can make.

The fact of the matter is that as Heathens, our gods come from vastly different cultures, and they were also subject to change within those cultures. This is not just a matter of nationality here either (although that does most assuredly play a part). The differences in time and politics are more than enough to make even those who grew up in those cultures, foreigners to the ways of their forebears. When we forget this, when we allow that false sense of familiarity to descend upon us, that is when we are especially at risk of interpreting our gods from within the framework of our own society as opposed to their own.

Over the years, this has led to a lot of twisted and even unhealthy ideas about the gods. Ideas that are actively harmful not only to the people who participate in them, but also, I believe, to the future of our overarching religious movement as well as the gods themselves.

Warlord, Leader, King

In my opinion, few deities are more affected by this than the Allfather. Out of all the Heathen deities, it is his cults that seem to become the most twisted and least hale. During the course of my years in Heathenry, I’ve seen people remake him in many images. In modern hands, he’s been the unwise leader who grasps at those beneath him, and an inspiration to countless young males in search of social standing. He’s been the sadistic dom who delights in the tearing of flesh and pain of his followers, a holder of ‘god-slaves’ to be subjected to ordeal after ordeal. He’s been a maddening force and whirlwind who would take the minds of his followers and leave them useless in the world. He’s been a justification for being an asshole to women and anyone with a lick of melanin. To follow him is to label oneself with ‘insert spear here’, and that’s all there is to it (so suck it up, buttercup).

So much for a god of wisdom!

The poison here is not that the Old Man is associated with leadership (for that is the central idea at work in all of these conceptions), but our modern ideas of what it is that makes a good leader.

Although for many he is the head of the Norse pantheon, modern scholarship by scholars such as Gunnell is lending further weight to arguments put forth by de Vries, Turville-Petre, and Ström that outside of elite circles and poets, the evidence of Odin’s cult is lacking in the land. The connection with leadership is still there, but it is not one in which he sits at the head of an Olympic-style pantheon (Gunnell, 2015).

To find the origins of this god, we must trace his spear south from Scandinavia to the warlords of Germania (though he is arguably not without his analogs in other Indo-European cultures)[1]. Here again, though, he sits both as a leader and as an example for leaders to follow.

But the leaders of Germania were not the leaders of today. Of the leaders of old among whom Woden may have grown, Tacitus gives us the following description[2]:

“About minor matters the chiefs deliberate, about the more important the whole tribe. Yet even when the final decision rests with the people, the affair is always thoroughly discussed by the chiefs. [… At the assembly, when the multitude think proper, they sit down armed. Silence is proclaimed by the priests, who have on these occasions the right of keeping order. Then the king or the chief, according to age, birth, distinction in war, or eloquence, is heard, more because he has influence to persuade than because he has power to command. If his sentiments displease them, they reject them with murmurs; if they are satisfied, they brandish their spears.”

The wise, the persuasive, those who could enthrall with words – these were the people who were heard. This is what made a leader great. Tacitus also tells us that “kings have not unlimited or arbitrary power, and the generals do more by example than by authority.” As we can see here, the people themselves keep their own counsel in this. There is no expectation that they become mindless and unquestioningly obedient.  A far cry from what we see now, no?

And the point here is simple, the wise leader does not grasp or abuse. He does not demand mutilation without purpose or solely for his own pleasure. When we ascribe the dreadful and unwise behaviors we see in our own leaders to the Raven God – when we expect them of him – we do him a great disservice. More than that though, we insult him.

A God of Many Faces

“Ben zi bena, bluot si bluoda, lid zi geliden, sose gelimida sin”[3]

Have we forgotten him as a god of healing? Or how about as a god who cradled logs on a beach to breathe the breath-soul into what would become the first people? The one who struck the adder, who healed the horse, the god who is the source of all speech, the god of incantation. Have we forgotten those faces too?

One of the best examples of Woden as a healer is the Second Merseburg Incantation. In it, we’re told a story about how Phol and Wodan were once riding to the forest, and ‘Baldur’s’ horse sprained its foot. Phol, as Grimm suggested, may have been synonymous with Baldr, and the previously unmentioned Sinthgunt and Frija attempt to heal the horse with magic. However, it was only when Woden stepped forth and worked his magic that the horse was healed and able to continue on its journey.

In many ways, our relationship with the Old Man as a religious movement, on the whole, is like the lamed horse from the charm. In making him a foolish and toxic being, we create an injury as surely as forcing a limb outside of its natural range creates a sprain or break. And as with Baldr’s horse, without healing, we are unable to continue along the path.

So I guess the question here is how do we heal this particular ‘horse’? What practical steps can we take to begin the process of moving down the road again?

Healing the Wounds

The first thing I would suggest is to begin a spider diagram with ‘Odin/Woden’ in the center and fill out all the things you associate with him. At this stage, do not try to edit or intellectualize. Don’t worry about sources or whether or not something is UPG. Simply write down what your associations are, and when you have your core associations, begin to fill out your associations with any concepts you listed. In other words, explain what you understand things like “leader” and “healer” mean.

When you have your diagram, take a few moments to look it over. Now ask yourself, what is the overall ‘view’ here? Do your associations all have a certain

Heathen - deity analysis
Here’s one I made earlier to illustrate both how to do this, and also how these ideas about leadership might play out.

‘theme’, and if so, what is it? Now, what about those concepts you filled out and their further associations? How old do you think those ideas about those concepts are? Try to trace them and see where it leads you.

The second activity I would suggest, would be to begin a research project. Take the key areas of influence mentioned above and research each of these ‘faces’. Don’t just stick to the Scandinavian sources either. One point that Gunnell makes in Pantheon? What Pantheon? is that the Scandinavian sources do not seem to reflect the actual ideas of Heathen period Scandinavians for the most part (at least outside of aristocratic and skaldic circles). Moreover, the narrative of who Odin is is one that has been subject to change many times over. Leaders have often remade him in their image in order to further their political ends. So try to read widely, then bring that knowledge into your liturgy and rituals (keeping only the wise and hale parts of course).

Finally, as mentioned in the previous paragraph, Odin has been subject to manipulation for millennia. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t counter that manipulation when it is used for nefarious ends. By making a deity into a toxic being, they take from that deity’s inherent holiness, and as the Tacitus quote above hopefully demonstrates, the older view could be far more positive than one might think.

Perhaps fittingly for a god of magic, Odin stands at the edge of a shifting landscape of reality manipulation. Some groups make him the grasping and cruel leader, other groups make him a dom that delights in blood, and other groups still make him a deity of only those who have the “right” blood. In all cases, this is deity as a tool, and these are not faces that we should allow to solidify if we would see a better future for Heathenry. That would be like binding the horse’s leg wrong and continuing anyway.

In From One High God to Another: The Acceptance of Óðinn as Preparation for God, Gunnell makes the case that the manipulation of Odin by the aristocratic elite to render him the high god paved the way for the monotheism of Christianity. It is worth noting here, that this Odin was made increasingly grasping and jealous, a usurper of other deities and their skills. Their horse too was lame, but they got rid of the people who might recognize that, bandaged it, and kept on going only to ‘kill’ the horse later in favor of a donkey walking on palm leaves.

If we are to create in Heathenry, a beautiful golden thing that our children may also treasure and be sustained by, then this is a battle I believe we must fight. But not until we have first healed this horse for ourselves.

“Ben zi bena, bluot si bluoda, lid zi geliden, sose gelimida sin”

 

ancestors - odin
Created by Laura Tempest Zakroff, stickers available here:
http://www.magodjinn.com/stickers.html#psodin

 

 

[1] See Enright 1996, Kershaw 2000, and Puhvel 1987 for an overview of the relevant arguments.

[2] Germania (https://facultystaff.richmond.edu/~wstevens/history331texts/barbarians.html)

[3] Bone to bone, blood to blood, limb to limb, so be glued (from the Second Merseburg Incantation, Griffiths transl. p 174)

Sources
Griffiths, Bill (2006 [2003]). Aspects of Anglo-Saxon Magic. Anglo-Saxon Books.
Gunnell, T (2015) Pantheon? What Pantheon? Concepts of a Family of Gods in Pre-Christian Scandinavian Religions.

Past Views and Elders

A Moot Gone Wrong

Once upon a time in a shithole far from where I live now, I was sitting at a pub moot that had gone severely downhill. (For those of you who have heard of the ‘Coarse Witchcraft’ books, it was the kind of event that would have taken up a whole chapter, for the fuckery was that deep.)

To cut a long story short, our local monthly moot had been taken over by another moot composed solely of Druids of the OBOD variety who then proceeded to hold their own event at our moot with us as…I dunno, audience to their greatness, I guess?

They didn’t think a whole lot of anyone who wasn’t them or who hadn’t done their courses, and they talked over or patronized anyone who wasn’t them. Well, except when trying to hand out business cards for whatever they were trying to flog us, of course.

Now back in the 2000s, I was way more of a fucker than I am now. My fucks had flown the coop at some point in the 90s, and I had zero problem with in-person trolling. So that’s what I did. I forcibly inserted myself into their conversations and made digs at them that were humorous to the few regular members who had stuck around instead of fleeing the pomposity.

Did I mention that I often have no filter and that I’m the kind of person who doesn’t just see an innuendo passing me by, but jumps out, grabs it, and dry humps it into the gutter?

As the moot ground on, they must have realized I was impervious to them and that shittiness would just earn them shittiness in return.

Infinitely more embarrassing shittiness (for them).

At one point, one of the OBOD members began to diss my shithole of a hometown – which don’t get me wrong, I have zero issue with. But what this lady and her husband followed up with was pure gold.

“I hate this place. We once tried moving here and it almost killed us!” she said.

Now I’m fully aware of the sins and dangers of my chav-infested hometown, but that seemed a bit steep and so I asked for clarification.

“We bought a house down near (place name omitted) because we wanted to live like the Pagans of old. But it had no water and electricity and it was terrible! We almost died.”

That made me laugh, and I congratulated her on her authentic ancient pagan experience with no running water or electricity and struggle for survival. She was not amused, but most importantly, they never came back again.

 

The Past Through A Rose-Tinted Lens

For all the fuckery of that moot though, the story told by that wannabe emulator of ancient pagans ways highlighted a mentality we see a lot of in modern Pagans and Heathens – the romanticism of the past.

As a movement, Pagans and Heathens have a somewhat romantic view of the past. It’s always thought of as a simpler time when no one had things like credit card bills to think of. A time in which no one felt like anything was missing from their lives, and that whatever hole people are trying to fill inside themselves when they come to Paganism and Heathenry is just magically filled. A time of belonging, and tribe, and incredible rituals that make you feel like you’re a part of something greater.

Or whatever.

But the past was far from simple. It was often bloody, people buried their children far too often, diseases we hardly think about now (but for antivax idiocy – yeah, I said it) were things that could carry you from this world. Rituals could also be deadly, and slavery was a thing for a good chunk of people. It wasn’t some ‘Mists of Avalon’ fantasy in which people just kind of knew all the things and looked ethereal and shit. They fought, fucked, got sick, dealt with debt, lost loved ones, feasted, starved, worked their asses off, loved, hated, and died. That’s just life in every era.

 

That Never-Filled Hole

And speaking of that hole inside, lemme just drop something on you all here: there isn’t *anything* in existence that you can take, exploit, or buy that will fill it or get you closer to what you imagine those Pagans of yore to have had. The key to that one is inside you – available for the steep price of ‘free, but with an assload of work’.

 

The Sins of the Past and Our Elders Today

In a similar vein, there’s been a lot of controversy surrounding Pagan elders of late. People are also looking at the early years of modern Paganism with a critical eye – for many Pagans now, the actions of these religious forebears is no longer something to be ignored in favor of the achievements of those individuals who are falling under a spotlight attracted by bigoted words and sinful deeds. It’s all very ‘Saturn in Capricorn’, and what was sown is what is being, and what will be reaped.

Naturally people are divided here and these elders retain their supporters. The division has also become something of a generational one, with older Pagans casting aspersions on the younger generations for having the audacity to call out the elders and gurus of the movement.

All in all, this has become a more pagan-flavored version of the “Millennials are destroying (Applebee’s/washing powder/the diamond industry/insert every insignificant thing here)” bullshit that we see in the mainstream.

To my mind, this is yet another iteration of the larger tendency to see the past with rose-tinted glasses. As a movement, people seem to want to have elders that know all the things and somehow remove the doubt from life. They want people who hook them up with the path that will fill all holes.

But just as the historical past is complex, so are people. We are all the product of many factors, and none of us are the same person we were even a year ago. Why? Because everything around us is subject to change and we have the wonderful gift of learning. We are not static, we can change with work and time – even elders.

And that is what I believe will be necessary for those elders who wish to truly serve their communities and everyone in them regardless of how similar or different people are to themselves. Because it’s one thing to claim to be inclusive, but to actually be inclusive requires intersectionality. (I’d recommend this book for its explanation of intersectionality alone.)

I truly believe that not doing this work, staying static, and falling back on ire against detractors is going to be a fatal flaw of the elders concerned. Because just who do you think will be around to carry their wordfame when they are fallen from this world?

That’s right, those millennial iconoclasts, and that ain’t something you get a choice in.

We all die.

From

Your friendly neighborhood Gen-X/Xennial.

Whiteness is the Witchcraft-Killer

Introduction

I’ve sat on this post for a long time. It’s a post that started with a dream that became a maelstrom of thoughts. And since the morning of the 27th of October (which was when I entered the dream into my journal), I’ve been turning it over in my head. You see, I want to be clear about this, because this topic is important.

But it may also be difficult for those of you who share my melanin-deficiency.  I do however, ask you to set aside your initial feelings, read with an open heart, and then turn this topic over in your own mind some before reacting.

Because it is not white skin that is under attack here. I do not deny the realities of white privilege or the different lived experiences of oppressed peoples – those things are as plain to me as the nose on my face. But this is about whiteness, why we must not buy into it, and why we must work to free ourselves of it.

Before continuing though, I should probably define what I mean by whiteness - gated community“whiteness” in this post. When I speak of “whiteness”, I speak of a construct that sits in our society like a gated community that limits its entry to those who fit certain criteria. To reiterate, this is not a post about the the intrinsic and innate, of melanin and ancestry. It is a post about a social construct which actively excludes, harms, and which I believe to be completely incompatible with Witchcraft.

A Brief History of the Concept of Whiteness

Before the 17th century, “whiteness” as a concept or racial category didn’t whiteness - struggleexist. Laws both in the early colonies and Barbados instead focused on religion, setting aside freedoms for Christians and relegating non-Christians to servitude and slavery. However, as times changed and more people of color (both free and enslaved) became Christians, that legal language was changed. The goalposts were moved in order to retain power among the white landowning elite. 1697 saw the passage of the first law that restricted voting rights to only the white [Source].

But whiteness then was not the whiteness we know now; the membership requirements for that gated community have changed again and again, and ethnic groups that are now automatically considered white often found themselves on the outside. They were, according to the thinking of the day, varieties of “lesser” white [Source].

The construct of whiteness as it exists today is inherently a modified version of WASPishness.

Originally coined in 1962 in opposition to the Civil Rights Movement, the term “WASP” stood for “White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant”. (There’s also some further underlying fuckery with the “Anglo-Saxon” label that further elucidates the intentions of the creators of this term which you can read about here). But the stereotypical WASP is, in a sense, the epitome of the whiteness ideal. It is that which is to be emulated in so far as nature and circumstance will allow if one wishes to gain and retain access to that gated community. The criteria has changed somewhat since the 60s – largely to allow greater buy-in from a greater number of people, but they can be summarized thusly:

You must have the right skin.
You must have the right tongue.
You must have the right faith.
You must have the right worldview.

And should you catch a glimpse of another worldview, you must not rock the boat.

In short, it should be considered the very anathema of witchcraft. The gated community of whiteness is not a space in which Witchcraft can truly exist, and any attempt to root it within those manicured lawns is not without its betrayals.

Respectability Politics

The term, “respectability politics” was first articulated in 1992 by Professor Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham in her book Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920.. It is a tactic of performed compatibility that is undertaken by minority groups in the hope that they are either treated better by the dominant group, or given access to the same benefits. Here too we find our gatekeepers.

People of color are well acquainted with this tactic. It has, after all, been a matter of survival for them. The more a person of color endeavors to make themselves more “respectable” from the perspective of the whiteness construct, the more “acceptable” he or she is considered to be. POCs routinely report code-switching around white coworkers and friends, dressing more ‘white’, emulating white seeming hairstyles, and a whole host of other behaviors that are ultimately designed to coddle white feelings in the hopes of getting thrown a bone.

whiteness - harmless pagans
“See how harmless I am as I wander whimsically through this field with (probably) tick-laden flowers on my head!”

This is essentially what we Pagans and Witches also do when we reassure the Christians in our lives just how “normal” and “harmless” we are; when we hold up the threefold law as a kind of “See! We’re not really dangerous!”; and when we get into that mindset of seeing it as some kind of “win” to be deemed acceptable enough to be invited to Interfaith meetings.

But what is lost when we do this? What is traded away for the scraps we’re thrown? And what of the value of these scraps? Do we truly believe that these would protect us should the law change tomorrow and allow our active persecution? Gentle people, this is what is known as a “forlorn hope”.

Witches and the Other

It is here though that we come to the real crux of this matter: Witches belong far more to the Other than to any inner, and not only do we belong to it, but we are also driven to interact with it.

whiteness - fence
Hedge…fence…whatever.

The image of the hedge rider is a powerful one here. We do not belong fully to any one world, instead going between and negotiating many, and we’ll always have far more in common with those without than those within. As my friend Morgan says, “the Other is the soul of witchcraft”. They are absolutely correct in this, and for more than one reason.

We’ve always seated our cults and practices in both the between places, and among those who society fails or allows to fall through the cracks. The ancient groves of Diana with their diverse adherents comprised of those who would traditionally be excluded are an old world example of this (Green 53-54), but as Peter Grey demonstrates in Apocalyptic Witchcraft, witchcraft has ever been the tool of the oppressed. To then exclude others in our modern cults because of sexuality/gender/social status/ethnicity – the values of the gated community of whiteness – rather than what they have shown through their actions, is to betray that heritage.

Moreover, when we subscribe to whiteness, we hinder our own interactions with the Other. When you exist within a paradigm within which other humans are not fully human depending on arbitrary and innate qualities, then you have little chance of forming the kind of relationships with non-human persons that are the fuel and soul of Witchcraft. I have already written a little about how our attitudes towards other humans affect how we interact with the Other, and some of the common assumptions that that has led to. You can read about that here, but hopefully my point is made.

There is no Witchcraft without the Other, because no matter how much Witchcraft is made increasingly safe and removed from its beating core of inspirited dark nights and heart-pounding experiences, that is what Witchcraft has always been and always will be. It will always be about partnerships with the Other, be that Other the elves spoken of Isobel Gowdie, and referred to as far back as the Old English magico-medical manuals, or the Ov of the Witch of Endor. You cannot replace that with whitewashed bullshit that exists to make the practitioner feel good as a form of edgy self-help.

Witchcraft is service.
It’s not safe.
It’s hard.
It takes work.
And it sure as shit isn’t compatible with whiteness.

If anything, whiteness and the respectability politics it demands for bare scraps of “acceptance” is a Witchcraft-killer, and that is by design rather than accident.

So please, dear people, think about where you stand and what you espouse. whiteness - groveThink about the voices you listen to and the voices you give space to and elevate (here’s a good video by the amazing Benebell Wen about that very thing). Rock that damn boat, use your voice to argue for destroying those gates, make an effort to learn about how things are outside those gates, and make damn sure you don’t erect the same gates in your Pagan and Witch communities. In other words, return to the groves, the Other, and your human siblings.

Bibliography

1. Green, C.M.C Roman Religion and the Cult of Diana at Aricia
2. Grey, Peter Apocalyptic Witchcraft