America is culturally Christian. This affects us even if we didn’t grow up practicing the faith. Without exposure to other worldviews, Americans risk carrying Christian dogmas over into Heathenry. The first step to avoiding this is to recognize what components make up Christianity that are not found in Heathenry:
In her dissertation, Visualizing the Transition Out of High Demand Religions, Summer Anne Myers of Loyola Marymount University describes a High Demand Religion as follows:
“Religions can be described as high-demand when they involve high time and resource commitments; emphasis on leadership, orthodox belief, and scriptural inerrancy or literalism; and strict behavioral codes including rules of diet, dress, tithing, education, sexual practices, media and technology use, language, social involvement, and marriage.”
Christianity is a high-demand religion whereas Heathenry is not. The spiritual practices of the Norse people didn’t answer to any greater institution, scripture, or Holy Book. The beliefs of the common people and the decisions of its practitioners drive its appearance instead.
Christianity is dualist. It’s rooted in concepts like Us vs. Them, Good vs. Evil, Chosen vs. Unchosen, and Reward vs. Punishment. Because we can see this in greater American society, it’s easy to assume other religions have similar concepts, and this concept can make (and has made) its way into Heathenry if not examined.
Heathenry, on the other hand, is pluralist. There are thought to be multiple principles behind reality. These are viewed in context with one another, as opposed to within the context of some sort of divine mandate regarding that thing’s nature. This allows for the existence of multiple different truths.
Heathen beliefs were passed down orally, varied from region to region, and were never codified. As far as we know, the Norse people did not have cultural scripture. This is the nature of Heathenry as a decentralized religion.
Lord/Servant Dynamics with Divinity
God/Devotee relationships in Christianity exclusively have a Lord/Servant dynamic. This dynamic places an emphasis on:
- Humbling yourself to God
- Placing God above all
- Risking God’s anger if you don’t
Heathen relationships with the Norse Deities can take on many dynamics, all of which vary from person-to-person. Additionally, Heathen practice is not done to glorify the deities, but instead to give you a sense of personal fulfillment. Suffering for your deities is not considered a virtue in Heathenry.
In Christianity, life must be lived in such a way to guarantee passage into Heaven. This is not found in Heathenry, which is a life-affirming religion. Heathens don’t need to do anything special to receive a good afterlife. How Heathens view the afterlife is a matter of personal views, and Heathen practice is not centered upon the need to appeal to the divine to get a good afterlife.
We naturally resent situations we had no say or control over, no matter how mild that situation was. It’s not uncommon for people to come to Heathenry who carry resentment form a previous Christian upbringing. Christian resentment and Christian trauma are very real and both deserve proper space and attention. Unfortunately, it’s not something that can be thrown off with conviction alone; there’s a lot of unlearning and relearning to do. Patience is needed.
While being angry is part of the process, defining Heathenry by how it not Christian it is can keep people from finding the spiritual connection they seek out in Heathen practices. Reputable Heathen resources will define practice this as separate from Christianity, not in opposition to it. Heathen spaces and resources that have unhealthy attitudes toward Christianity may do the following:
They define Christianity as the enemy of Heathenry
Not only is this inaccurate, but it’s also potentially dangerous. With time and the right influences, this sense of “enemy” can be broadened to include other so-called “enemies” of Heathenry, creating the exact same “us vs. them” thinking found in Christianity. No one deserves to have their resentment co-opted like this, so be cautious of groups and resources that have this narrative.
They are based in trauma-bonding
Trauma-bonding is the act of connecting with others over shared trauma and resentments. While trauma deserves to be spoken about and understood, it can be hard to move past that trauma if it gives you that sense of belonging in a group. You’d lose cohesion with the group if you moved past that trauma.
They compete with Christianity
Heathen spaces and resources may try to “out-faith” Christianity by casting Heathenry as a religion that competes with it, sometimes by emulating elements of Christianity in a Heathen way. This can perpetuate Christian-style dogmas and beliefs in Heathenry, just rebranded with a Norse flare. The following section discusses what some of these things look like.
Examples of Christianized Heathenry
Some attitudes found in Heathenry derive from Christian thinking. A few examples, and their origins, are as follows:
“Magic is bad.” – Jehovah’s Witnesses
Magic is a very normal part of Norse Pagan and Heathen practice. Not all Heathens practice magic, but it’s not at all taboo to do so; it’s an exercise of our agency and life-affirming praxis. Heathenry has many different kinds of magic.
“The gods are above us / the gods are not concerned with us.” – Catholicism
The gods are deeply involved in the everyday lives of Heathens, as opposed to being distant and absent. Additionally, Heathens can connect and interact withe the deities without the need for a mediator. No priest or holy text is required to find connection with our gods and goddesses.
“You will displease the gods for being human.” – Protestantism
This goes into the concept of sin, which is the belief that certain profane actions can push you further away from divinity. There is no such thing as sin in Heathenry, and that’s because Heathenry is animistic—the sacred and the profane are the same.
The use of holy books to understand the gods. – Catholicism
We don’t need, let alone have, holy books in Heathenry to interact with the gods.
The Poetic Edda and Prose Edda are some of our oldest surviving resources on ancient Norse pagan beliefs. Originating from Iceland, these books are popular references for Norse lore because of how comprehensive they are. But sometimes they’re mistaken for Heathenry’s “Holy Books.” However, in order for a book to be cultural scripture, it must meet some requirements:
They must be a Primary Source. A Primary Source is a cultural piece written by the culture in question. The Eddas were written by Christians reflecting upon old Norse cultural stories, and therefore aren’t Primary Sources.
They must be intended as scripture. Unlike texts such as the Torah, the Bible, the Quran, and non-Abrahamic scriptures like the Bhagavad Gita, the Eddas don’t contain any insight into Norse religious law, social conducts, rituals, observances, or modes of practice. The Prose Edda was written as a textbook on the poetic form of kenning, while the Poetic Edda was written as a poetic anthology of cultural stories.
Just because a text isn’t scripture doesn’t mean it can’t be insightful to one’s practice. We may not have nearly as much insight into the Norse mythology and cosmology if not for manuscripts like the Eddas.
The Havamal, or Sayings of the High One, is a book found in the Prose Edda. The Havamal contains words of wisdom allegedly spoken by Odin. Havamal is not official scripture for the same reason why the Prose Edda is not a holy book, but for many Heathens this book is spiritually significant.
Innangard and Utangard are old Norse words that mean “inyard” and “outyard.” Linguistically, they denote “what’s inside the fence” and “what’s outside the fence,” possibly referring to cultivated vs. wild lands. However, Folkish Heathen groups gave these words new meanings in modern Heathenry; Innangard describes the “incrowd” while Utangard describes the “outcrowd.” This rapidly spirals into dualistic beliefs of “us” vs. “them” and “chosen” vs. “unchosen,” echoing sentiments in Christianity.
Odin is the Allfather and the chief of Asgard. Because Odin is Head God, some Heathens mistakenly think he serves the same function as the Christian God and deserves similar reverence. Some of these beliefs include:
“You must work with Odin to be Heathen.” While many Heathens work with Odin, it’s not required to call yourself Heathen. Working with deities is a matter of compatibility and preference, after all, and someone isn’t less Heathen for choosing to not work with the Allfather.
“You must treat Odin with severity and the highest respect.” This attitude echoes Christian sentiments of appealing to God or risking His wrath. Heathens can have very different relationships with Odin. Some view him like a lord, but others may see him as a father, a teacher, a friend, or something else entirely. I discuss deity/devotee relations more in Chapter 1 of my Deity and Spirit 101 guide.
“You need to appeal to Odin to go to Valhalla.” This follows the same logic as appealing to God to get into Heaven. But this isn’t a universal Heathen belief, especially given the lore: Freyja had first pick of fallen warriors for her hall Folkvangr while the rest went to Odin. These days, Norse afterlives are subject to a lot of different interpretations, and Valhalla isn’t the goal of all Norse pagans.
“Odin’s judgments and actions are always justified.” In stories and sagas, Odin’s known for his controversial, underhanded, and even amoral deeds, some which lead to the death and violation of other people. Unlike God, Odin isn’t all-knowing or all-powerful, so his choices are not always good nor are they framed that way. Because the Norse deities are fallible, Heathens can hold their gods accountable and disagree with their methods.
Odin is associated with madness, wisdom, war, death, and magic. He’s seeks knowledge by any means and famously goes to extremes to get it. Some of his disguises, deceptions, and antics even categorize him as a trickster (which probably explains why he and Loki became blood-brothers to begin with). The gods are all very multi-faceted in Norse belief and can’t be quantified as “always” being one thing or another.
Blood-brother to Odin, Loki is a shapeshifter known for his mischief, cunning, and tricks both good and bad. His antics often get the Aesir into trouble but also get them out of it, sometimes even leaving them off better than before. Like Odin, Loki is a trickster.
In the same way Odin’s nature is modified to be “good”, Loki’s nature is played up as “evil” to suggest he’s some kind of Norse Devil. This controversy is particularly intense because Loki’s described as evil in Snorri’s the Prose Edda. But we need to remember the Prose Edda was written in a Christian culture. It’s no surprise Snorri’s description of Loki is almost identical to that of the Devil.
However, this doesn’t stop some Heathens from trying to prove Loki’s “true” nature as an adversary, pointing to instances in the Eddas where Loki’s tricky behavior took malicious turns. Arguments for this are inconsistent under close examination:
“Loki slandered the gods in Lokasenna.” Lokasenna, or “Loki’s Quarrel,” is a story in the Poetic Edda. Loki gets drunk at a dinner party and ruthlessly accuses the Aesir of lewd and taboo behavior. This get interpreted as a devastating event that reveals Loki’s true nature. But in Ursula Dronke’s culturally-aware translation of the Poetic Edda, she determines Lokasenna is satire. Because it’s satirizing a social structure that doesn’t exist anymore, we don’t realize it should be viewed that way. There’s also the fact Old Norse doesn’t translate well into English; all nuance is gone in English translations.
“Loki killed Baldr, the god of light.” All historical accounts of Baldr’s Death share a similar narrative; Baldr is killed by the hand of Hoðr. Only Icelandic Eddas suggest Loki had anything to do with this act, and the only detailed account comes from Snorri’s very Christianized Prose Edda. Baldr also doesn’t stay dead in some versions of the story; the yuletide tradition of kissing under the mistletoe celebrates his return to the world in a yearly cyclical fashion. There’s also a belief that Baldr’s death was originally a ritual sacrifice to keep Odin’s greatest secrets safe in Helheim until Ragnarok ended. Ultimately, trying to prove Loki’s evil nature with Baldr’s death means adhering to one specific interpretation of the story.
“Loki causes Ragnarok.” This is incorrect. Ragnarok starts with a natural event called the Fimbulwinter, a sunless winter that lasts for three years. While Loki fights against the Aesir in Ragnarok, so do all the dead in Helheim; Ancestors, non of which were dishonorable people. The exposure of Loki’s evil nature in Ragnarok really hinges upon Ragnarok being a war between Good and Evil…but it’s not.
Ultimately, a Norse god’s place in the world is determined by the active beliefs of people. Loki is one of the most popular and beloved gods in America and Scandinavian countries.
Baldr is described a god of Light and Fair Judgement, one of the few gods to survive the cataclysmic war Ragnarok. It’s implied that he’s the embodiment of all that is good and beautiful in the world. His role in the Eddas and his descriptions sound very suspiciously similar to Jesus. There’s also evidence that this depiction of Baldr isn’t universal; Baldr is a demigod warrior in the Danish Gesta Danorum.
Jotun represent the wilderness. Specifically, they represent the things human beings can’t control, such as tides, avalanches, and wildfires. The Aesir, who represents society, are always at odds with Jotun for this reason, but many of the Norse gods are Jotun or part-Jotun themselves. This includes Odin, Thor, Loki, Skadhi, Gerd, Jord, and many others. Nevertheless, Jotun are sometimes treated as evil spirits that shouldn’t be honored.
Valhalla is Odin’s hall, where fallen warriors are (or were) collected for the final battle of Ragnarok. While many Heathens look to Valhalla as a desirable afterlife, it’s not the desired afterlife for all Heathens. Heathens aren’t required to life their lives a certain way to achieve a good afterlife.
Don’t be confused by the name “Hel.” The Norse underworld is a place of ancestors, not damnation and torment.
Whether or not Ragnarok is a Christian invention is up for debate, but even in lore it’s not an honorable war between good and evil forces. Everyone ends up dying with the exception of a few figures, who usher in new life under the rule of a new Supreme Being.
“Vinland” was the name Leif Erikson gave the location he landed on when visiting America in 1000 c.e. However, white nationalist Heathen groups use “Vinland” to describe a hypothetical white American ethno-nation, a “promised land” for the efforts they put in to establishing it. Clearly there’s many issues with this beyond sharing a Christian similarity.
Asatru and Vanatru are words that describe believe and loyalty to the Aesir and Vanir gods. These paths are treated as the lawful, virtuous paths of Heathenry, regardless of the origins of these words and how true that actually is. However, dualism wasn’t present in historical Norse pagan practices, so this is a superficial creation.
“Rokkatru” and “Lokean” are new concepts. The term “Rokkatru” was created by Raven Kaldera for his Northern Tradition of Norse Paganism. This term describes groups of beings that stand in opposition to the Aesir and Vanir. This includes Jotun, Loki’s family, and Loki. Despite the name, the “Rokkr” are not a tribe like the Aesir and Vanir are. “Lokean” has unknown origins but was entered into Urban Dictionary in 2006. It’s a term some Lokispeople use to describe their patronage to Loki.
While not acknowledged as such, these paths are treated as Left-Hand Heathen paths that contrast the virtuous Asatru and Vanatru paths. While some people work with the chaotic forces of Norse Paganism in a left-hand fashion, working with Jotun, Loki, and Loki’s progeny do not automatically make someone’s path “left-handed.” Whether or not someone uses these terms is up to them.