We don’t often recognise the moments that will affect the direction our lives until viewed in hindsight. A few weeks ago I reminisced in a post about my history with Heathenry, and this dredged up memories of an event I attended in the August of 2011 in Peterborough named Heathenfest. Anybody of serious mind who attended the event may well laugh at the idea that it could possibly have positively influenced anyone’s direction in life…
The event was held in a community centre one sunny Saturday morning and featured talks by several individuals involved in the UK Heathen ‘scene’. These talks varied from a discussion about standing stones to a woman hawking her paintings of various gods (one of which looked suspiciously like the Virgin Mary!) There was also a chap dressed head to toe in black, sporting a runic belt buckle, cowboy boots and hat, giving “rune readings” to anyone dumb enough to cross his palm with five pounds – I recall his ‘talk’ consisted of trying to get the handful of attendees to chant the mispronounced, unattested and reconstructed Proto-Germanic name forms of the runes to mostly embarrassed laughter.
Ultimately, despite attending in fantastic company, what I found at Heathenfest was a concept of Heathenry that did not resonate with me. There was very little in the way of genuine historical research or guidance on display (although I must credit one speaker, Pete Jennings, for being a cut above the rest); instead, the focus was on eclecticism and an “anything goes” attitude, not to mention the hawking of wares – a primary focus! This “follow your feelings” attitude was, at the time, common in Heathen-circles, and there are perhaps some reasons for this:
Firstly, some strands of Heathenry in the UK having developed from the wider Neo-Pagan scene, including ‘Druids’ and Wicca, where eclecticism is encouraged due to the lack of historical sources from which these religions have been constructed. Secondly, many Heathens have come to the religion by rebelling against a strict Christian upbringing, and aren’t willing to accept anything that could be perceived as a dogma or authority, but are still desirous of the sense of community that religion can provide. Finally, many Heathens are too lazy, uninterested or busy to research, and a severe lack of concise resources makes solving this problematic.
By the time of the Heathenfest event I had left the Odinic Rite behind to concentrate on reconstructing a more English-focussed form of Heathenry and was looking for direction in that area. ‘Anglo-Saxon Heathenry’ was popular in the United States (where it was called Theodish Belief, or sometimes Theodism – despite some claiming it was never an ‘-ism’!) but here in the UK, as at Heathenfest, Heathenry was dominated by more Icelandic/Scandinavian approaches which … just didn’t speak to me.
I left Heathenfest with the growing realisation that the ‘Heathen scene’ here in the UK was something of a joke. How had the Americans gotten so far ahead of us in terms of reconstructing English pre-Christian beliefs? In fact, the concept of focussing on academic material as the basis for reconstructing a religious ‘worldview’, as opposed to the “anything goes”/“trust your feelings” approach, I believe can also be attributed to the Americans who termed this ‘reconstruction’. That’s not to say that the new religious movement of Heathenry hasn’t, since its inception, utilised academic research – of course it has – but never before as a foundation.
This methodology inspired me, but it too has its drawbacks. It resulted in a pervasive one-upmanship in dedicated social media groups where some would jump at any opportunity to ‘shame’ another member in order to be perceived the ‘alpha’ of the group. This caused many of the more knowledgable members to leave thus resulting in echo chambers for the loudest voices therein, under the guise of innangeard. However, despite American Heathenry’s public, online persona devolving into a cesspool, it has had a remarkably positive effect upon UK Heathenry where Anglo-Saxon and continental Germanic perspectives are now often given equal, or in some cases more weight than those of Iceland and Scandinavia (the ‘Vikings’).
Of course, there are still those who eschew historical fact for the fictions of their own creation, but it seems very little credence is given to their UPG (Unverified Personal Gnosis), and people who have studied a subject (whether academically or personally) are now listened to far more. In fact, it is not uncommon for the works of ‘pagan’ authors that were once treated as near-sacrosanct to be somewhat mocked. How long it will last, who can say? It is far from perfect, but hopefully with wider understanding and being disseminated, eventually small localised communities can develop and build upon historical approach in a modern setting to once again breathe life into Heathenry and within a few generations be able to forego any such misnomers in favour of simply being a unique culture.