It’s a romantic story we tell ourselves in the Heathen community; the story of how Old Norse Polytheism was lost in the annals of history and forgotten during Scandinavian Christianization. We console ourselves about this loss, hoping and waiting for the day we discover “true Heathenry” buried in an undiscovered Norse ruin. We busy ourselves in the meantime by pouring over old texts, relics, and academia in hopes they can give us some hint or clue about the fundamental praxis of Old Norse spirituality.

We tell ourselves this story because we assume, perhaps incorrectly, that there’s something to be found at all. Many Heathens imagine there was once a form of Old Norse Polytheism that was just as developed as Greek or Roman Polytheism. There had to be…right?

Perhaps we think this because we assume all forms of European Polytheism advanced equally. Perhaps we assume that anything called a “religion” must have been organized and structured. Or perhaps we simply don’t want to entertain the most likely possibility: That we can’t find a fully-matured historical Norse Paganism because it died out early, never getting the chance to mature at all.

However we came to the conclusion we did, it’s time we face the truth about Historical Norse Paganism: That we can’t find a clear picture of it because such a picture never existed in the first place.

The Maturation Process of an Animistic/Polytheistic Religion (And where Norse Heathenry Was in its Development)

Alexandra Ravenscroft (M.Div, Norse Pagan Clergy) once described to me a process for how polytheistic religions develop. This process is seen amongst many multi-deity religions that rose up around the Mediterranean.

  1. Decentralized tribal animism: Nature veneration appears amongst small tribal communities, beginning as an imminent faith. Veneration practices and beliefs are local to the decentralized tribes, who are only beginning to exchange customs.
  2. Decentralized Tribal Polytheism: Nature-based animistic figures begin to take on the function of deities. These deities may be recognized and worshipped across multiple communities, but worship is still folkloric and unstructured in nature.
  3. Development of decentralized cultus: Cultus is a term for the parameters a religious/spiritual practice operates in. These only begin to form once a civilization is stable enough to divide labor amongst its social classes, giving the intellectual class time to think about their religion. Many different cultuses or culti form during this time.
  4. Popularization of centralized cultus: Over time, one cultus will become the dominant “look” of a polytheistic religion, establishing the baseline praxis for the whole religion.
  5. Written texts about cultus: Once a dominant cultus is popularized, people begin to write things down about their religion. These early writings sometimes form the basis of eventual scriptures.
  6. Establishment of doctrines: With texts to guide practice, the religion has developed a clearer image of itself and doctrines appear.
  7. Persistence of Imminent-Faith Praxis: The religion continues within an imminent-faith framework for a while. Worship of powers remains its focal point, but concepts around the afterlife and other forms of transcendence have yet to be explored.
  8. Development of Transcendent-Faith Praxis: Eventually, people start wondering about existence “beyond” their lived lives. In order to answer these questions, the religion develops philosophies around transcendence. These enter into the religion as worldviews and lifestyle practices.

An example of a fully-matured, animistic religion we can see in the world today is Shinto. If Norse Heathenry had developed to maturity, it may have been structured very similarly, even if its cultus may have been different.

However, when Norse Paganism died off, it was just beginning to enter step 3; developing decentralized cultus (Alexandra cites the mystery traditions of the völva and berserkír as perhaps the only two examples). Due to Norse Heathenry’s premature death, there’s no way we’ll ever know what culti would have developed, and which would have become dominant in the religion. And that is the mistake we make in Norse Heathenry; we assume the Old Norse established this framework before Christianization.

So What Happened to Norse Heathenry’s Development?

This model of religious development is intimately tied to the stability of its parent civilization. For many cultures around the Mediterranean, stability correlates with the development of agricultural practices.

Because the Norse society lived in frozen Northern Europe, they achieved stability much later than the civilizations south of it. They were late to the Bronze Age and Iron Age due to their harsh geographic environment, and their religions remained in “tribal” states for much longer as well. Any historical written information we have on Norse Paganism comes not from the Norse people themselves, but from outside observers whose motivations had nothing to do with the preservation of cultus.

Given the model of polytheistic religious development, the Norse people were perhaps hundreds of years away from writing down their religion for themselves.

How this Affects Modern Norse Paganism

There’s no finding out about what never existed. What scant information we have only represents brief windows into the past, and only for the geographic area they concern. This is important for us to acknowledge as Norse Heathens because it means we can put our energy where it yields results.

As of right now, historicity is relied on as a litmus test of “authentic Heathenry” in some circles, particularly in American Heathenry. But the depths of historical claims are shallow at best and only serve to mask the insecurity that American Norse Pagans have about an unmoored religion. For the lack of a Norse bible, we turn to ancient history as scripture.

What claims of “Ancient Practice” may mean

Someone claiming to practice an ancient form of Norse Heathenry could mean one of a few things:

  • Their practices are Reconstructionist, which means they’re informed by what little information we know about the past. While Reconstructionism is informed by ancient practices, they’re guesswork based on secondhand sources. They aren’t ancient in and of themselves.
  • Their practices are family/customary practices that have existed for as long as that family remembers, as is the case with some Scandinavian Heathens.
  • Their practices are informed by neo-Völkisch misappropriations, which claim to have a historical basis but are actually the product of German Romanticism.

It’s also possible someone could be lying (usually for profit or accolade), but this is fairly uncommon.

Where to take Norse Paganism from Here

The only thing that can be done with Norse Heathenry is to pick up where it left off, and in many ways we’re already seeing that. The differences you see between Norse Pagan resources? Each represents a different cultus.

Continuing Norse Paganism in a way that’s faithful to pre-Christian Norse worldview involves a multi-disciplined approach. This includes looking at history and anthropology, collaborating with surviving Scandinavian practices (in the case of Americans), and combining this with religious studies. It also requires weeding out non-Heathen influences such as neo-Volkisch propaganda, the Classical Model (i.e. the assumption that all polytheistic religions are just “Hellenism but with different gods”), and practices/concepts appropriated from other religions.

This process is a collective effort rather than an individual one, and organic as opposed to forced. It will take many years, if not generations, for Norse Heathenry to settle down into an integrated and cohesive praxis. The only thing we can really do is help it along, and try not to get caught in the weeds of “One True Heathenry.”

Published On: August 24th, 2021|Last Updated: August 24th, 2021|Categories: Pagan Guides|

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