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The more familiar you are with Heathenry, the more you realize that there is no one answer to the question, "What is Heathenry?" Beliefs, practices, and viewpoints vary from person to person, group to group, and even region to region. Heathenry is, by its very nature, a richly diverse belief system. So, the answer provided below is our best effort to answer this question from our point-of-view.
Your Ancestors Were Heathen
Many people with Northern European ancestry do not realize that the original religion of their Ancestors was not Christianity. If you go back a 1000 years or more, prior to the conversions to Christianity in Europe, our ancestors had their own native Folk Religion that was rich and meaningful in their lives.
Our People honored their own Gods and Goddesses, their ancestors, and the spirits in nature. These original Heathens were the pre-Christian Northern European peoples who lived in the lands around what is now called the North Sea. These included the people of Anglo-Saxon England, Scandinavia, and Germany.
Some of these heathens were convinced to convert to Christianity by missionaries. Some were coerced to convert based on threats of physical violence. Others converted due to political or economic pressures brought on them by Christians. And some of our ancestors were killed, because they refused to give up their Ways.
Modern Heathen groups around the world are reviving these old practices and call their religion by various names including Asatru, The Northern Tradition, Odinism, Forn Sed, Germanic Pagan Reconstructionism or, simply, Heathenry. In Iceland, which did not convert to Christianity until the 11th Century, Heathenry has once again become an official (nationally recognized) religion.
Heathens work to build healthy relationships with gods and goddesses, ancestors, spirits of the land, and others in their communities, both through holy rites and through their day to day actions and deeds. There is no central authority in Modern Heathenry to establish or enforce dogma or standarized beliefs. Most Modern Heathens see this as a good thing. Over time, each Heathen family or local group tends to develop its own individual practices and beliefs. Those of us that see this as a good thing, tend to refer to this as the "tribal" nature of Asatru.
This tribal approach requires Heathens to look to their similarities with Heathens from other areas and other groups, rather than engaging in endless debates, fighting, and condemnation over the smallest of differences. There are various efforts to move Modern Heathenry forward, including the establishment and growth of local groups, regional gatherings and alliances, national organizations, and plenty of on-line information sharing and networking.
A Religion, World-View, and Way-of-Life
Among Heathens you will often hear discussions about Heathenry not being "just a religion." This comes from the fact that while Heathenry does involve certain religious beliefs and activities, it also involves many cultural elements and values, a significant change in world-view from the mainstream, and for those that fully involve themselves, Heathenry is a way-of-life, and it enriches and informs almost every area of one's life.
Heathenry is not a hobby. It is not role-playing. It is not a fantasy. It is not something one only does "on-line." It is not a once-a-week or only-on-the-holidays activity.
As one delves fully into Heathenry, it becomes evident that our mainstream culture within which most of us were raised has been heavily influenced and shaped by centuries of Christianity and the foreign cultural values that came along with that conversion. A return to the Ways of our Ancestors involves more than just honoring our Gods, our Ancestors, and the spirits of the land. To truly return, one must learn the cultural values of our Ancestors and begin to see the world, our lives, and our families as our Ancestors saw them. One cannot overstate how difficult it can be to shed the cultural values of the society within which you were raised and to internalize the cultural values of a pre-Christian culture. It is an on-going process that takes years of reading, consideration, and deeds. An on-going process that never truly ends.
The Religion with Homework
Learning about Heathenry and internalizing the values and beliefs inspired by the Ways of Our Ancestors is a lot of work. There are contemporary texts to read and consider. There are scholarly works and secondary sources one can access. This is not to say that one isn't really Heathen until one has read 100 books, or some other arbitrary number. But, the learning process never really ends. There is no central authority to tell you what to think or believe. There is no one "holy book," that can be read to tell you all there is to know. In almost every case, there is no "Heathen Church" down on the corner. In developing one's Heathen beliefs and practices, one must consider a wide array of sources. And in a sense, though others have gone before you...you must still find your own way.
To gather with other Heathens, you may need to be the one to find them and gather them. To experience a religious observance, you may need to learn how to organize and conduct one. If a moral or practical question is confounding you, you may need to search out the answer...or figure out the answer for yourself based on what you learn. But, as with all things in the world, you have to work for those things worth having.
Heathenry also has a lot of "jargon" or terminology that most new Heathens really haven't heard before. The concepts of Frith, Gefrain, and Orlog are just a few. And there are words that new Heathens have heard before, that have a different or deeper meanings within Heathenry. The concept of Luck, as understood by most Heathens is an example of this. But, as in all new areas of learning, don't let the terminology discourage you. When you hear a word or concept you don't quite understand, do a little research to figure out what they mean. Or if all else fails, just ask them. Over time, these words and concepts will become clear to you and enrich your understanding of Heathenry.
Nothing was more important to our Ancestors than their kin. The smallest social unit in our mainstream culture is the individual, but among our ancestors the smallest social unit was the family. An individual on this own, had no one to speak up for him, no one to look out for him, and no one to avenge him should be done wrong. An individual was nothing.
In Modern Heathenry, there is a strong focus on healthy families. Nearly every local group encourages the whole family to be involved. Loyalty to one's family is seen as being of primary importance. The most commonly used term for local Heathen groups is "kindred," and most kindreds are organized in a structure similar to an extended family.
There are solitary Heathens. Some are solitary by choice, while others live in areas where they have not yet found other Heathens with which to associate or gather. But, for many Heathens the community aspects of Heathenry are central to the practice of their Faith. Associating with other Heathens can accellerate your learning, motivate you to greater accomplishments, and allows one to fully live and experience the cultural values that are embodied in the Ways of our Ancestors. For instance, how better to practice and share Frith in your life, than to be surrounded by other people who understand the concept?
This community oriented nature of Heathenry also fills a gap in an otherwise individualistic and fairly selfish mainstream culture. In a world where neighbors don't know each other, families fall apart on a regular basis, and it often feels like everyone is out for themselves...Heathenry is a place where you can get to know good people, and share friendship, loyalty, and mutual support with them. Amazing things can be accomplished when people of worth work collectively to accomplish important goals.
Heathenry is More Than Can be Covered Here
While we've done our best to answer from our perspective the question, "What is Heathenry," we are fully aware this answer is incomplete. Whole books have been written on the topic, and there are many more to be written. When you factor in the different approaches taken by various Heathen individuals and groups, it only increases the difficulty of really capturing
Suffice it to say, that Heathenry is a family and community-oriented religion and way-of-life that attempts to bring our People back in line with the religious beliefs and cultural world-view of our Ancestors. We honor the Gods of our People, our Ancestors, and the spirits of the land.
For answers to some commonly asked questions about Heathenry, visit our Heathen FAQ Page (http://heathengods.com/faq/index.htm).
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