Towards a Modern Heathen Ecclesiology


Arlie Stephens


Rosemary Radford Ruether

Special Reading Course Spring 2004

This paper is an attempt at developing the beginnings of a heathen ecclesiology[1]. It asks what sorts of organization are most suitable to heathen groups, what purposes those groups should serve, and indeed whether such groups should even exist. It asks whether heathens should treat each other differently than they treat non-heathens and, if so, in what ways. It asks these questions not just from a practical or sociological viewpoint, but also from the point of view of how to best promote the things that have made us heathen: our relationship with our deities, and our desire to support their goals.

The cultures from which modern heathens draw their inspiration lacked a concept of a church, and did not identify as a specifically religious community, but as tribes, clans, families, etc[2]. Religion was not seen as separate from other aspects of life and was mostly a matter of custom, not something set apart and codified. Thus there was no need for a concept of a Church.

Modern heathens cannot take their religion for granted in the same way. As converts to a religion attempting a redevelopment from old roots, heathens do not have tried and true customs that can be followed unconsciously. They live in a pluralistic modern society, where religion is seen as separate from other aspects of life, requiring separate organizations. There are thus many questions about organization, ritual, community, and the proper nature of heathen-heathen relationships. There is also a huge debate about the desirability, functions, power and training of clergy.

I approached this subject by reading a broad range of literature, almost none of it directly focused on heathen organizations. In particular, I read ethnographic studies of related new religious movements, recent heathen literature of all kinds, and sociological literature selected as potentially illuminating the common characteristics of modern American religious groups, particularly those characteristics which seem to be adaptations to an environment which differs drastically from that of the cultures that provide modern heathens with their inspiration.

 This is not the project I originally planned. I had intended to look at the theologies of the neo-pagan movement, of which modern heathenry is only one small portion. I had expected to need to address neo-pagan theology in general, rather than just the neo-heathen subset, and had composed a list of books commonly cited as influential by neo-pagans, using my own knowledge of the neo-pagan community, supplemented by the books Sian Reid found most influential in her survey of Canadian pagans (Reid 2001). I intended to read each of these, looking for theologies explicit and implicit, to develop a clear idea of the theological range within neo-paganism.

This plan foundered on the very first book I read. This was To Ride a Silver Broomstick: New Generation Witchcraft by Silver RavenWolf (1993). While undeniably influential, the book was the most amazingly self contradictory mélange I have ever seriously attempted to read. I could find passages supportive of any imaginable theology, along with passages that were simply incoherent. The book was also well supplied with factual errors, atrocious writing, and other aggravations. I am afraid my will power was simply not equal to the task of analyzing this book, or reading any similar material. While I realized that most neo-pagan literature is nowhere near this absurd, and the more influential materials are often among the best written, I was also aware that I had already read most of the higher quality neo-pagan classics. Thus, I was going to either analyze material I had previously read, or find myself analyzing a high proportion of material I had previously avoided for good reason. I consequently abandoned this plan.

I then proceeded to select books based on no particular plan, choosing those books I expected to contribute to my understanding of particular questions, or felt I needed to read to provide background knowledge. It was not until I began to think about this paper that I realized that my selections fell into three basic categories, all of which contributed to the common theme of heathen ecclesiology. This actually should not have been such a surprise; the topic is one I have been wrestling with for some time, believing that its resolution is crucial to the continued growth of modern heathenry.

I first discuss the particular books I read, my reasons for reading them, and how they did (or did not) prove useful. I then explore the general question of heathen ecclesiology, drawing on these books and other sources, particularly what is known of pre-Christian heathen beliefs and practices.

The Books


The first category of books I read were academic writings about various types of neo-pagans. Two were ethnographies; the third describes itself as taking a phenomenological approach to religious studies. Only one makes any mention of heathenry in particular.

My purpose here was to get a feeling for what sociologists and other academics saw as being the main concerns of neo-pagans, particularly in terms of organizational dynamics and spiritual goals. I also wanted to update and broaden my own picture of the breadth of neo-pagan beliefs and practices, much of which is drawn from personal experience and so tends to favor the particular beliefs and practices most attractive to me.

Cynthia Eller’s Living in the Lap of the Goddess: The Feminist Spirituality Movement in America is an ethnographic approach to the feminist spirituality movement. This movement is not entirely neo-pagan, though it draws on neo-pagan sources; there are spiritual feminists who remain Christian or Jewish, even while having considerable overlap with those who are firmly in the neo-pagan camp. It is also fairly distant from most of heathenry.

Eller gives good descriptions of the beliefs and practices of spiritual feminists, and a lot of examples of individual backgrounds, goals, etc. Her presentation is not entirely sympathetic; she seems to see feminist spirituality as the result of women giving up or burning out on political feminism, and to some extent retreating to a shared fantasy world, where they can be “empowered” without having any real power outside that shared world. The book is interesting and informative in spite of this conclusion, as she gives a clear picture of some of the reasons people join New Religious Movements, and provides a good (though perhaps slightly dated) picture of one of the major components of the (broadly defined) neo-pagan movement.

Helen A. Berger wrote A Community of Witches: Contemporary Neo-Paganism and Witchcraft in the United States. This is a study of the institutionalization of neo-paganism, focusing on Wicca and closely related branches. Berger’s focus is on the arrival of a second generation among Wiccans, and the changes occurring as a result. It is surprising to see a book published in 1999 portraying the second generation almost exclusively as infants or young children and their arrival as a new event. I am personally acquainted with several young adults, raised neo-pagan, some of whom are themselves married, if not yet producing the third generation. This and some internal evidence suggests that much of the research reported was in fact done in the early 90s, and not updated. On the other hand, the focus is on the eastern seaboard of the United States, which may have been behind the times compared to California.

This book taught me more about sociologists than Wiccans, but it was fascinating to get an outsider perspective. (My own religious journey included 15 or so years as a Wiccan, ending shortly after the time when Berger seems to have begun her research.) It was also fascinating to get a sociological look at the problem of raising the second generation in a religion still mostly populated by converts.

Graham Harvey’s field is religious studies, not sociology. His book, Contemporary Paganism: Listening People, Speaking Earth takes what he calls a phenomenological approach to neo-paganism. He carefully distinguishes this from theology, but his book nonetheless says a lot about beliefs, along with religious practices. His focus is primarily on British pagans, but he attempts to include information about pagans in other locations. This book begins with a general chapter, followed by short chapters about individual types of neo-paganism, followed by chapters on themes he sees as common. The neo-pagan varieties covered include, unsurprisingly, both witchcraft (Wicca) and goddess spirituality (spiritual feminism). He also has a chapter on heathenry, and includes heathenry in most of his general chapters.

This book was fascinating, because Harvey attempts a grand synthesis of what most neo-pagans have in common, even while explaining ways in which particular groups and individuals diverge from what he sees as the common pattern. This is contrary to the discourse popular among many North American neo-pagans, who are frequently inclined to emphasize differences rather than similarities, with some groups (including many heathens) refusing to even be considered neo-pagan, insisting their religion is no more neo-pagan than it is Christian. It is, on the other hand, entirely consistent with my own view of neo-paganism.

From a theological perspective, one of the interesting things about this book is Harvey’s insistence that most pagans are in fact polytheists, even those who speak of a single Goddess, or explicitly insist that all deities are One. He particularly classes Wiccan duo-theists as polytheists; these are people who insist on exactly two deities, divided by gender, with all male deities being in fact manifestations of the male God, and all female deities being manifestations of the female Goddess.

What these books have done is increased my knowledge of what academics know about neo-paganism, and how they approach the subject. Harvey’s book was particularly useful, because of its attempt to integrate the divergent streams of neo-pagan ideas. I have also found references to a large amount of other material I would like to read eventually. All three of these books have rich bibliographies, which I look forward to mining.

The second category of books I read was works of sociology with particular relevance to the sociology of religion. The three I list here were not the only such books I read, but the ones which struck me as most important for addressing questions relevant to heathen groups in the United States.

I selected Habits of the Heart (Bellah et al. 1985) because I was told that it was the starting point for understanding the concept of therapeutic religion, or religion as (individual) therapy. Mention of this idea in other books had led me to suspect that this popular modern religious goal might account for some of the problems in American heathenry, as there is no such concept in pre-Christian heathenry. The book’s central theme is actually individualism as expressed and promoted in American culture; this proves to be even more relevant, as modern heathenry is having ongoing difficulties understanding the proper relationship of individuals and groups in a heathen context.

The thesis of this book is that American ideas of individualism, particularly expressive or “therapeutic” individualism, tend to make it very difficult to speak in terms of responsibilities and values, or of community and relationships, in terms other than personal self interest. This leads to problems in areas as diverse as civic responsibility and marital stability. It also has all kinds of effects on religion and religious communities.

I wish I had read this book near the beginning of this project. It has put into words a large number of things I had previously understood only intuitively. These seem to explain a lot of the problems American heathens encounter in discussing the purpose of religion and religious groups, and in trying to design group structures which are not simply imitations of some popular Christian denomination. Unfortunately, I have not yet had time to track down critical responses to this book, or figure out for myself in what ways it may be over-generalizing or otherwise misleading. The argument seems convincing, but that does not mean it is correct.

Robert Wuthnow’s "I Came Away Stronger": How Small Groups are Shaping American Religion is a collection of ethnographic accounts of small spiritual groups, all of them essentially mainstream. Most are associated with churches or synagogues. In size, these groups are on the scale of the average heathen or pagan group, whereas most mainstream congregations are much larger. I read it to get an idea of the variety of things Americans expect from small scale religious groups, and how such groups tend to be organized. I was looking for several things here, including practical ideas. Mostly, though, I was looking for the assumptions about group purpose and organization likely to have been brought to heathenry by converts. I would like to have looked at congregations as well as small spiritual groups. My expectation is that both would shed light on the patterns and expectations of North American heathens.

The editor attempts to evaluate to what extent these groups succeed in cultivating spirituality, and concludes that what they promote is a rather self-centered subset. He speaks critically of “me-first religion” and suggests that even those with a relatively sophisticated theology, not simply blatantly using religion to justify the selfish pursuit of wealth and happiness, still spoke as if “God exists mainly to encourage the spiritual growth of individual believers” (Wuthnow 1994a: 357). This attitude is also extremely common in neo-paganism, where it is perhaps more respectable theologically. (Some neo-pagans define deities as essentially human creations, existing entirely in human minds; others suggest that the main goal of deity is promoting “evolution” and “growth” and then particularize it in ways that emphasize the promotion of individual spiritual growth.) It is somewhat more problematic among heathens than among other neo-pagans, as heathens generally understand their deities to be real individuals, with needs and goals of their own.

Robert Wuthnow’s Sharing the Journey: Support Groups and America’s New Quest for Community is a companion volume to his I Came Away Stronger. Both books report on the same research project, but Sharing the Journey tries to give the global picture, where the other book reported on individual groups. Sharing the Journey examines both spiritual and non-spiritual groups including some, such as twelve-step groups, which fall somewhere in between. Wuthnow’s main interest is in the use of small groups to promote spirituality; much of the book is devoted to comparisons between those who did and did not report that their faith had been deepened by their group involvement.

Parts of this book are of limited relevance, particularly the extended discussion of Bible study groups, and questions of whether church sponsored groups were successful in encouraging involvement in other church activities. It will be a while before many heathen groups are large enough to need to create small groups to increase a feeling of individual involvement.

The most interesting section is the one on telling stories in the groups. According to Wuthnow’s data, those who reported that their faith had been deepened by their group involvement reported a much higher level of story telling than those whose faith was not deepened. This included telling personal stories of one’s own, hearing others’ stories, and discussing stories from religious literature. In some groups, such as twelve-step groups, the personal story telling is explicit. In others, it is present but disguised as prayer requests. Either way, it seems to be very helpful. It is interesting to realize that heathens do this too, but do not tend to focus on it as important.

These three sociology books have given me a lot of food for thought. Much of what they discuss clearly applies to heathens and heathen groups, yet the application is not always straightforward. The small groups in particular, are both like and unlike typical heathen groups, and the spirituality sought and found by Wuthnow’s subjects may not be all that similar to the spirituality sought by heathens.

The third category of books I read was recent literature by heathens, for heathens. I know of five such books published in 2003, three of which I read. All three of these were produced by print-on-demand services. Thus they are limited circulation, written for those already interested in heathenry. They are nonetheless all apparently intended for relatively new heathens, given the type of material covered.

Greg (Dux) Shetler’s Living Asatru is not intended as an introduction to heathenry, but as a single person’s take on making Asatru[3] part of his life. He begins by defining Asatru, focusing on what it is not. To Shetler, Asatru is a reconstructionist religion, based on the practices of what he calls “the ancient Teutonic peoples” (Shetler 2003: 13), with room for modern invention. It is not Wicca, not earth-based, not bigotry, and not an excuse for poor behavior. He is nonetheless very careful to emphasize freedom of individual interpretation, even while setting all these boundaries.

Shetler then proceeds to provide basic information on several common topics, as if his intent was, in fact, to write a book for new converts wondering how to be heathen. These topics are ethics, deities, holidays, magic, and rituals. The ethics section, titled “Lessons from the Lore,” is interesting and fairly well thought out, taking up almost half the book. The magic section includes a list of runes, with short explanations of their meanings. The deity section is basically a list of deities, with short descriptions. Even the ethics section is well supplied with lists, having two separate lists of heathen virtues, with each briefly explained. These lists give the impression that Shetler is trying to cover all the basics, even when he has nothing much to say about some of them, beyond what any heathen already knows.

Swain Wodening’s Hammer of the Gods: Anglo-Saxon Paganism in Modern Times attempts to provide a complete overview of the Anglo-Saxon branch of modern heathenry. This book is fairly comprehensive, starting with history, and proceeding with cosmology, ethics, the nature of the soul, the afterlife, deities, holidays, rituals, runes and magic, and finally ending with a chapter titled “Social Structure.”

The last chapter is particularly interesting in the context of this paper. This chapter discusses the organization of modern heathen groups, which he describes as being tribal in nature. To this author, being tribal implies such things as having mechanisms for excluding the unsuitable[4], creating a strong shared moral code, and trying to create traditions and rites specific to the group, whether adopted from the past or created in modern times. He presents these traditions and rites as intended to strengthen the sense of group identity.

Wodening believes that all groups are inherently hierarchical, officially or otherwise, and that a heathen group should make this official, with a system of ranks, to avoid having an unofficial hierarchy based on popularity or favoritism, as this might destroy “the tribe’s democratic structure” (S. Wodening 2003: 223). While these ranks should basically indicate differences in experience, they may also involve differences in rights and privileges. I find myself reminded of the Rule of St. Benedict, which carefully bases status and precedence on seniority, to combat other sources of status such as a monk’s age or his rank before joining the monastery.

Unfortunately the quality of this book is uneven. The author shares Shetler’s taste for lists, though not quite to the same extent. The book desperately needs a glossary, particularly as it is likely to be read by beginners; the author uses a large amount of specialized terminology, much of it Anglo-Saxon, and is quite inconsistent about defining it. Wodening routinely makes statements about the beliefs and behavior of pre-Christian heathens, using them as a justification for modern practices (or simply claiming the modern practices are identical); however, there are no footnotes, and many of these statements about pre-Christian practices are not, in my opinion, matters of consensus opinion among either scholars or heathens. The edition I read would have benefited from additional proofreading, as there are some significant typos, and the correct reading is not always obvious from context[5].

In spite of these flaws, this is a good and useful book. It gives a clear view of the beliefs and practices of a significant branch of modern heathenry. It goes into more depth about many topics than most other introductions. It provides a fairly accurate flavor of pre-Christian heathenry. And the chapter on the organization of heathen groups was quite useful, even though I personally agree with very little of it, except to the extent that it describes actual modern practice.

In some ways one of the most interesting things about these two books is what is and is not included. Everybody has a list of holidays, and how to celebrate them. Both have lists of deities, with information about each. Both not only discuss runes[6], but list the meanings of each rune, even though there are a number of specialized books, still in print, which cover this material. These choices are somewhat peculiar, if considered in the context of other religious literature. Imagine a basic book for Christians which carefully listed distinguishing features of God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit; listed Christmas, Easter, and other holidays, with suggested rituals; catalogued the seven deadly sins, with brief descriptions of each; and then went into great detail about “spiritual gifts” and the practice of bibliomancy. 

Eric Wodening’s The Rites of Heathendom: Blót, Symbel, and Other Rites is a short book, almost a booklet, containing five separate articles about various aspects of heathen rituals. It covers the two rites most typical of modern heathenry, along with three important rites of passage: birth, marriage, and death. While intended for beginners, this is not a simple instruction manual or collection of ritual scripts. It is a collection of articles discussing the purpose of each type of ritual, and what is known of how they were performed in pre-Christian times. Some, but not all, also discuss the equivalent ritual among modern heathens.

This book avoids many of the flaws of the other two. The author does not try to cover everything a beginner might need, and thus avoids writing lists of basic information without the detail that would make them interesting. Each article includes a glossary, footnotes, and a bibliography. The book does presume knowledge of heathen basics, including some vocabulary, but actually seems to require less background than the other two books.

This is a good book, and there is a lot of theology lurking in its pages, in the form of explanations of ritual features, or the meaning of particular rituals. It clearly demonstrates the way in which modern heathens draw on what is known of pre-Christian practices not only as a source of modern practice, but as a source of understanding of that practice. It also shows the way in which heathenry handles ambiguity and uncertainty, clearly indicating where we simply do not know, and what some of the possibilities might have been.


Heathen Ecclesiology


Modern heathens have a very superficial consensus about the purpose and organization of heathen religious groups. Underneath this apparent consensus is a large collection of mutually inconsistent ideas; this frequently results in irresolvable conflicts. Many heathens seem to be trying, unconsciously, to create religious organizations that fit some pre-existing model, often that of the church in which they were raised. Others write as if what they really want is to return to the fifth century, or perhaps the eighth, complete with war bands, raids, and an absence of modern technology. (War bands being impractical, these heathens tend to dream of low technology heathen enclaves.) Some seek a small group model, wherein the whole group is considered family. Some are happy with a personal spirituality, seeing no particular need for shared religious experiences or organizations.

There is also considerable disagreement about how heathens should treat other heathens. Does the shared religion bring any obligations, beyond what one would have to any other person? Heathenry sees itself as one religion among many, not as The Truth to which everyone should convert. Thus, heathens should not imagine their fellow heathens as more virtuous or more saved than everyone else. Yet they tend to look with special favor on a heathen stranger, and often see non-heathens in quite stereotypical ways.

This section is a report on a theological exploration, still in progress, looking for workable heathen answers to those questions, grounded both in heathen lore and in modern heathen experience, and informed by the experience of other religions. It draws on the material discussed in the first section along with many other sources. Those sources are heathen lore, modern heathen experience, and what amounts to my own personal intuitions (or biases) of what kinds of religious and spiritual relationships and interactions with other heathens are needed and appropriate to support and enhance heathen relationships with our gods and goddesses, and the promotion of their goals in the world. I will begin with background information, then discuss several sub-topics, and finally explore ways of putting it all together.

What Is a Church?

As seen from sociology, a church is commonly called a congregation. It serves all kinds of useful functions, many of them having little to do with religion. A congregation is in some ways a cross between a social club and a mutual support society, with the additional feature of supporting social morality, both individually (encouraging good behavior) and as a group (generally providing charitable services and sometimes encouraging social reform movements).

Congregations are organized into denominations, or sometimes into a state church, either of which provide services the congregations are not large enough to manage; they also tend to provide co-ordination, quality control, and the ability to act collectively on a broader than local stage. These services tend to include religious education, with denominations supporting educational institutions and producing educational materials.

Theologians generally approach these questions rather differently. They tend to suggest that human nature is such that it is difficult or impossible to properly approach, worship, obey, or relate to deity on one's own. Churches provide mutual support, discouragement of backsliding, and ways to get closer to deity. They are also convenient instruments and organizations for doing whatever work the divine wishes humans to perform in the world, whether this is creating a just society, caring for the disadvantaged, spreading the religion, pursuing individual spiritual growth or anything else.

There may also be a lot of important symbolism. Among Christians, the Church is likely to be seen as the body of Christ in the world, a foretaste of the Kingdom of God, the Bride of Christ, etc. Within modern heathenry, the symbolism is of extended family (or clan or tribe), or sometimes of community, whether village or nation. In either case, the community includes both deities and humans together, along with many other beings. This symbolism is rather less developed than equivalent symbolism among Christians, and is frequently taken more literally than figuratively.

As far as we can tell, pre-Christian heathens had no real concept of a church in either the sociological or theological sense. There were temples, in some places at least. Regular feasts were celebrated. Some people had roles that are now translated with terms like “priest”. Some had special relationships with particular deities. But there was no Church. Feasts were hosted by large landowners, or organized by the general community. Temples and other holy places tended to be the creation of individuals, who might build and maintain a temple to a particular deity, or somehow decide a particular field or other area was holy, and protect it from profanation. Individuals and households often made their own offerings. Nor was there any concept of us and them, heathens and others, based on religion. One was part of a tribe, a kingdom or a village, not part of a Church.

It is common for heathens to insist that they have neither churches nor religion[7]. Religion is seen as something separate from daily life, whereas heathenry is supposed to be fully integrated, affecting every choice a heathen makes[8]. Churches are seen as institutions for the practice of compartmentalized religion. Heathens nonetheless do have specifically religious organizations. These include both small local groups which meet regularly for blóts[9], and larger national and international organizations. The former clearly serve many of the functions of congregations; some of the latter might be seen as incipient denominations.  

When modern heathens discuss the functions of heathen organizations, they tend to follow the sociological definition. Heathens are trying to create convenient and appropriate human organizations, meeting entirely human needs. My contention is that while this is natural, it is fundamentally flawed. We cannot lose sight of human nature, but we must draw upon more than this. We must look at the flow of Wyrd, at the desires of deity, at the nature of right relationship and right action. The way to do this is to draw upon the twin sources of lore (preserved literature and other material giving insights into pre-Christian heathenry) and personal gnosis (commonly referred to as UPG[10]).


Wyrd is a key concept in modern heathenry, without any direct equivalent anywhere else, though many religions and philosophies have similar insights[11]. The basic idea is that acts have consequences; our available choices are influenced by what has been done in the past, and our past patterns may sometimes be so rigid as to almost predetermine our current actions. Both absolute freedom and absolute predictability are vanishingly rare, if they occur at all. No one is exempt from Wyrd, not even deities. Moreover, it functions collectively as well as individually; families, organizations and even nations have Wyrd, which will be shaped by their (collective and cumulative) actions.

Deities are complex beings, perhaps more complex than humans, and do not desire the same things from all people, in all times. They also do not always agree with each other, particularly in fine details. However, heathens do know a fair amount about what deities want. Deities want to form relationships with humans, individually and in groups. They also appear to form relationships with non-humans. They want everything and everyone to thrive, to the extent that this is possible, but particularly those with whom they have (closer) relationships. They like seeing things work right (effectively and according to their nature), and humans and others live up to their full potential. They like humans to have initiative, and determination, and skill, and many other virtues. Deities are not omnipotent, and must choose where to devote their efforts; this is one reason why they appreciate human assistance. They have a much broader perspective than human beings, and some divine goals do not particularly involve human welfare. Deities also have a somewhat different understanding of death and other things that seem extremely important to most human beings. Thus divine plans do not always look attractive to the individuals involved.  


To understand how heathens should behave in organizations, it is useful to take a brief look at heathen ethics. There is a variety of opinions about proper heathen ethics, and a variety of ideas about the right basis for looking at them. The usual sources are the Hávamál, general ideas of pre-Christian heathen cultural norms, common sense ideas of good behavior, and some lists of codified heathen virtues which have been around long enough to almost count as lore.

The Hávamál is the nearest thing heathens have to Biblical wisdom literature. It is a long poem giving advice for how one ought to live. It appears not to have a single viewpoint or common theme, but rather to be the result of the grafting together of verses from several poems; perhaps the person who committed it to writing simply wrote down all the similar poems he could remember. The title means “The Sayings of Hár.” Hár is one of the names of the god Odin. Thus this poem is presented as a deity’s advice on how human beings ought to live. Values expressed in the Hávamál include friendship, caution, shrewdness, moderation and making the best of what one has.

When looking at pre-Christian cultural norms, it is important to realize that heathenry existed for at least one thousand years[12], spread across a wide geographical range. While there is some continuity, and many common elements, there are also significant differences. Icelandic settlers may have emphasized different values than Angles and Saxons invading Britain or Germanic tribes resisting Roman incursion. Technology changed, organization changed, and there were quite different outside influences early and late in the heathen period. To make things more difficult, the available records are quite limited, mostly quite late, and almost entirely recorded by outsiders. Nonetheless a number of values are evident. On the one hand, there is an immense attachment to family and community, in ways hardly conceivable to mobile Americans living in nuclear families. On the other hand, much was made of warrior virtues, both those still appreciated today, such as courage, and others no longer so popular, such as vengeance and a somewhat touchy concern for one’s honor. All three of these – family, community, and warrior virtues – have become important themes in modern heathenry.

There are several modern heathen lists of virtues, with variant forms of each. All attempt to present the essence of heathen ethics, boiled down into simple and memorable form. The value of these lists is contested within modern heathenry; some suggest they are a bad attempt to summarize the Hávamál, or a modern imposition on a religious tradition which had no idea of soundbites, categories, and checklists of this kind. Most heathens do accept them, at least as useful principles, though often in combination with other sources.  Some heathens create their own lists. The most common such list is called the Nine Noble Virtues; Shetler’s version of this list contains: courage, truth, honor, fidelity, discipline, hospitality, industriousness, self-reliance, and perseverance (Shetler 2003: 17-21).

This broad range of ideas can be synthesized in a number of ways, and there is no clear agreement on one predominant attitude. Most heathens stress self reliance and personal responsibility in some form, even while also placing great emphasis on family and community loyalty. Some place great stress on warrior virtues; others focus on prudence and moderation. Many suggest that ethics are universal and promote their own idea of commonsense ethics as both heathen in essence and good for everyone regardless of religion. The one thing everyone agrees upon is that heathens are (or should be) ethical.

Heathen Organizations Today

Heathens have small local groups, often called kindreds[13], which meet regularly for ritual, and often share other activities. They have large national or international groups which tend to provide networking, journals and other publications, annual gatherings, and often some amount of training or certification of clergy. They have regional gatherings, often supported by one or more local kindreds, which usually involve rituals, workshops, and much social activity. They also have a large number of web pages, email lists, discussion boards and small journals; most of these are sponsored by individuals or one of the larger heathen organizations.

While many heathens are members of kindreds, many others are not. This is sometimes a matter of personal preference and sometimes the result of geographic isolation. Some kindreds and individuals are associated with one or more of the larger organizations, but many choose to remain unaffiliated. Some attend regional gatherings, but many do not. The same is true for participation in mailing lists and discussion boards. Thus these organizations are all options; none are seen as mandatory for all heathens[14].

Heathen kindreds provide a sense of community, an approving and supportive group that can provide moral and physical support, friendships, and social activities. People call on their kindred for help with practical problems. They find friends in the kindred, and spend time with those friends. They develop a sense of shared identity. In this, kindreds look very much like the small groups studied by Wuthnow. The same thing happens on a larger and more distant scale, with mailing lists and (inter)national organizations. People make friends and build relationships.

Note that this is not entirely secular. One of the main forms of support provided is encouragement in remaining heathen, and advice and assistance coping with unsympathetic non-heathens. The shared heathen worldview is developed and spread in kindreds, as well as on mailing lists, at gatherings, and via various publications.

Secondly, kindreds and gatherings provide religious rituals. Heathenry has a number of standard ritual forms, each with its own purpose, which the heathen deities appear to appreciate. It is important to have a basic understanding of these forms, as the forms of ritual necessarily affect the nature of the groups in which they occur. 

One of these forms is the blót, which is essentially the making of an offering. The usual offering in modern times is a beverage, most often mead, though other offerings are made. In pre-Christian times it was common to offer an animal; its blood would be poured on the altar and its body would usually become part of the ritual feast. A blót can be performed by any heathen, and does not require others to be present. Almost all heathens do some blóts alone, or with only their immediate family. However, many particularly enjoy group blóts, and some report that they get a stronger sense of the divine presence in group rituals.

The second standard ritual form is the sumble (or symbel). This is a formalized series of toasts, potentially also including oaths and boasts. It is believed that toasts made in sumble go directly into the Well of Wyrd, having a power to affect people’s fate far beyond the usual impact of mere words. The best way to change your Wyrd may be to make a sumble oath to perform some worthy action, and then fulfill it; this will tend to make this kind of action become normal for you.

A sumble does not require any special expertise or ordination, but is pretty much impossible alone. The toasts and boasts should be witnessed by more than just deities and vættir (spirits of various kinds). Important oaths should be witnessed by one’s whole community. Also, it is important to note that a sumble involves toasts, oaths, and boasts from everyone present. It thus results in everyone sharing a bit of whatever is on their mind[15]. This tends to reinforce or build connections among the people present.

The third standard ritual form is the husel, or sacred feast. Its purpose is primarily building community. Note, however, that this community includes deities and vættir as well as humans. Anyone who can cook (or buy prepared food) can host a husel. This ritual obviously requires a group, which should be of manageable size.

There are a number of other less common experiences in the ritual category. In particular, a number of heathens participate in various shamanic or magical activities[16]. These involve intense spiritual experiences of various kinds. The mildest might be guided meditations that seem to be entirely subjective, occurring in the participants’ imagination. Some see visions that seem rather more than just subjective. The most intense and spectacular of these practices is perhaps “possession” or “channeling” of deities[17]. Those who do any of these things often find them much easier in groups. More importantly, most heathens experience the more intense forms only second hand, if at all. Thus, they participate by asking questions of those who have the gifts of seeing, listening to the accounts of those who journey, and interacting with embodied deities[18] . Those who cannot do these things themselves would miss these experiences without the group.

It is perhaps important to note that heathens are not unique in having intense experiences of this kind, particularly in a context of group worship. This sort of thing is standard (for some people) in shamanistic cultures, including many African and African-derived religions. Pentecostals also have their own set of intense, non-rational, spiritually valuable experiences.

Third, kindreds and other organizations provide opportunities for teaching and learning. This can be informal, or it can be the heathen equivalent of a Bible study group, complete with assigned reading, homework, etc. Kindred members lend each other books, and discuss them. One national group has a mandatory formal study program, complete with exams and papers. Other national groups offer optional programs, and provide informative web sites and printed publications. This teaching function is particularly important with the large number of converts in heathenry.

Fourth, the larger groups (big kindreds and larger organizations) tend to be involved in outreach and apologetics. They produce publications, web pages, and fliers. They send people to gatherings where they expect to find potential heathens, or even sympathetic friends. Some participate in interfaith organizations. This is to some extent an individual rather than a group activity, as some people do this sort of thing on their own initiative, regardless of groups. However, most of those with a tangible long term presence are operating out of kindreds or larger groups.

There are a couple of functions missing here, which are seen as important by other religions. There is a lack of charity and social action, except on a very limited scale. There seems to be no concept of a kindred as being a place to learn how to live more virtuously, and develop relationships of the kind that deity and ethics both demand.

There is also little other idea of trying to discern what deities want, and do this. There seems to be a presumption that what heathen deities want from heathens is limited to ritual, to relationships with individual heathens, to spreading the religion and perhaps to improving heathen scholarship. Yet in pre-Christian times Freyr was well known to be concerned with peace and the produce of the fields[19]. Odin was preoccupied not just with gaining wisdom, but with using it to stave off the eventual doom of deities and humans together. He worked to create the best possible Wyrd for the world, so that some would survive even that doom, and the survivors would be in a position to rebuild not what had been, but an even better world. Loki might be said to have worked hard to improve the technology available to deities and humans both. There is no reason to believe that they no longer have the same concerns. It would make sense for heathen organizations to pursue similar aims, particularly as Odin, at least, is known for recruiting human beings to assist in his projects.  


Modern heathens have a variety of opinions about the role of clergy. Many heathens care a lot about being a legally recognized religion, with legally recognized clergy, entitled to the usual responsibilities and privileges of clergy in North American society. They want to have clergy able to perform legal marriages, and be accepted as chaplains in various institutional settings, such as prisons and hospitals. Others feel that clergy are completely unneeded, as any heathen should be able to make their own offerings, and need no kind of mediation between themselves and their deities.

It is unclear to what extent pre-Christian heathens had clergy, and what roles they may have served. What records we have are sparse and inconsistent. Many may have been influenced by the preconceptions of their authors, who were mostly Christians. It is extremely likely that there were different practices in different locations, and quite possibly substantial changes over time.

Tacitus, writing in approx 98 CE about the tribes of Germania, mentioned priests as the only people allowed to inflict capital punishment, imprisonment, or flogging (Tacitus 107). He also mentioned the “priest of the state” performing divinations on public matters, with other divinations handled by the “father of the family” (Tacitus 109).

Bede, writing early in the eighth century of events about a century earlier, told the story of Coifi, an apostate heathen “chief priest” in the kingdom of Northumbria; upon his conversion to Christianity Coifi made a point of violating priestly taboos and desecrating his prior temple (Bede 129-131).

Ibn Fadalan wrote of an “Angel of Death” among the Rûs (a Scandinavian group) in the early 920s. She had various functions in the funeral he described, including performing a human sacrifice. (A slave was killed to accompany her dead master.)

Adam of Bremen wrote (late in the eleventh century) about the temple of Uppsala, in Sweden, with priests whose function was to offer the people’s sacrifices (Adam of Bremen: 207-208). He presented the information as contemporary.

We have more information about Iceland, but much of it was written in the twelfth century or later, well after the conversion to Christianity in 1000. The word goði is translated as both “priest” and “chief” and was used in Christian Iceland to refer to members of the oligarchy that led the country. (This was a political office that was normally inherited, but could also be given or sold.)  It seems likely that this office had previously included organizing and hosting the major yearly feasts, which were religious in character, as the animals offered to the gods became the feast. Snorri Sturluson wrote of priestesses (gyðia) being taught seiðr, a form of magic, as it was deemed too unmanly for men to learn (Sturluson 11). There are also several examples in the Norse sagas of people having a special relationship with a particular god or goddess, in one case being dedicated to the god in childhood by his father.

These are, however, almost the only references in the lore to heathens who might be considered clergy. Moreover, there are numerous references to people performing their own sacrifices, particularly in Iceland, as well as descriptions of sacrificial feasts that simply do not mention anyone with a special role.

It seems clear that the primary function of clergy would have been making offerings. It is unlikely that their functions included religious education or pastoral counseling. They may well have had little involvement in rites of passage, though Adam of Bremen suggests that offerings were made to Frikko (probably Freyr) as part of marriage (207-208), and Ibn Fadlan’s description of a funeral includes a possibly clerical role. I am unaware of any similar references in other sources, including Icelandic sagas, even though these regularly mention births, marriages and deaths. There is no mention of any kind of weekly or monthly services; however, both Sturluson (110-111) and Adam of Bremen (208) mention feasts where attendance was compulsory; in the one case the feast occurred once a year, and in the other case every seven years.

Modern heathen clergy tend to do rather more than offer sacrifices. Many attempt to perform most of the functions of clergy in any other American congregation, except generally on a smaller and less professional scale. (All modern heathen clergy are unpaid part time volunteers; some would like to change this, but heathen kindreds are almost all too small for paid clergy to be practical[20]. The largest such group known to me draws between twenty and forty people to each of its monthly rituals, from a population of about sixty; its priestess supports herself as a novelist.)

Some heathens reject the idea of clergy entirely. They rotate the leadership, hosting and organization of rituals among all capable members. Knowledge is shared and discussed rather than taught. Pastoral counseling may be regarded as absurd, or may be replaced by a tendency for people to take their troubles, informally, to older and more experienced heathens.

Others consider all organizations to require leaders, and this to be the primary function of clergy. Some of these apply the family model, and see their leader as family patriarch[21], with leading rituals merely one of his responsibilities.

Some see clergy as people whose primary commitment is to one or more deities, and whose function is in effect to do whatever those deities want, within reason. In this model, a clergy person is someone with a particularly strong relationship to a deity, with particular commitments to their deity and an expectation of his or her assistance and support. These clergy may serve the needs of the human community, but it is only their job to the extent that this is what their deity requests. Such a person may found a kindred or they may do something else entirely. Unfortunately, the lore mentions both priests and people having special relationships to individual deities, and they are not usually the same people. However, it could be argued that this is a regional difference, with special relationships in Iceland, and clergy in Scandinavia and England.

While these models seem to work for some people, I do not think that the idea of heathen clergy has really gelled. Heathenry is still in a state much like second century Christianity, with numerous leadership titles and organizational models.

Attitude to Coreligionists

It is a commonplace that members of many religions favor their coreligionists, patronizing their businesses preferentially, assisting each other, treating strangers as “brothers” and “sisters”. There may be a presumption that coreligionists are more honest or honorable than others; some go so far as to insist that decent behavior requires religious belief, generally in some particular religion or type of religion. Too often, believers are actively hostile to members of other religions. Some religions appear to specifically require this, suggesting separation from unbelievers, or telling believers to treat each other as brethren. In other cases, it appears that the affinity may in fact be motivated by ethnicity, or by being members of the same face to face organization. In still others, it seems like the real motivation is the human tendency to construct in-groups and out-groups, and then favor the in-group. Some modern heathens believe that heathens should do this too; others disagree, sometimes quite vehemently.

At first glance, there seems to be no justification for heathens treating fellow heathens differently from other people. Heathenry emphasizes relationships, not categories or logic. One can be expected to develop relationships with people with whom one worships, or studies, or works together on joint projects. Those people will be treated as individuals, and as members of common organizations. It may well be that some heathens will find that they develop such relationships primarily with fellow heathens. But how can this suggest that it make sense to treat heathen strangers better than other strangers, or better than non-heathens with whom one has an actual relationship?

Many heathens believe that we are kin to our deities[22]. By extension, that would seem to imply that heathen strangers are kin to us, via their shared kinship with deity. Thus, we may have some obligation to them via our shared kinship. But does this make heathens any different from non-heathens? Are non-heathens descended from heathen deities? All modern heathens have non-heathen relatives, and in many cases these are quite close relatives: parents, siblings, spouses, and children. How can a heathen be related to the heathen deities without his or her Christian cousins also sharing this relationship?

The other common model for heathen interrelationships is one of community. This is based on the Hávamál, and what we know of pre-Christian community norms. Such a community would be a small one, where people are known to each other. It would be homogenous, in terms of religion and customs. But it would be quite heterogeneous otherwise, containing all occupations, and a wide range of status, from slave to noble. And it would farther be quite interdependent, unlike either a modern suburb or a modern congregation.

Some try to apply this model to individual heathen groups, or to heathenry as a whole. But does this make sense, in a complex, modern society? How can it make sense to exclude one’s neighbors and one’s coworkers from a heathen concept of community, simply because they honor different deities or no deities at all? Pre-Christian heathens are known not to have excluded those who chose to trust only in their own might and main rather than in the gods and goddesses. They also did not exclude those who converted to Christianity, provided they refrained from scandalous behavior.

It is possible to come up with theological justifications for taking an “us and them” attitude to heathens and others, particularly when those others have no close personal connection to anyone who happens to be heathen. One option is to use the idea of the war band, or the created tribe. Both of these institutions were created, by pre-Christian heathens, out of previously disconnected individuals and sub-groups. They then operated as a unit, and, in the case of tribes, eventually developed a shared identity. Modern heathens can be conceived of as forming new tribes, either one new tribe comprising all heathens, or various groups forming sub-tribes. This is the model used by most groups identifying as Anglo-Saxon heathens, who form tribes composed of several kindreds (S. Wodening 2003).

Another way some heathens create an “us and them” distinction is by dividing the human species into two rough categories: those primarily descended from pre-Christian heathens and everyone else. Those strongly connected to pre-Christian heathen cultures (genetically, culturally, or via family line) are considered part of the Folk. All the Folk are descended from the heathen deities, who maintain a caring and responsibility to their kin. Anomalous individuals are assigned or assign themselves to Folk or non-Folk. The Folk are then divided into the Folk Within and the Folk Without; the former are modern heathens, the latter have yet to recognize their connection to the heathen deities. (Converts from outside the Folk are discouraged, or re-categorized as being Folk.) This particular model tends towards racism, and is often blatantly and unashamedly racist. However, it also accounts rather nicely for a common reason for conversion (an interest in one’s heritage) and for the demographic characteristics of converts. Moreover the weak form of this model is not racist; simply being raised in an English speaking country counts as a strong connection to a pre-Christian heathen culture, namely the Anglo-Saxon.

The other way to create an “us and them” distinction is, unfortunately, simply to go with human nature. Michael Hogg and Dominic Abrams (1998) discuss the ways in which human perceptual habits create stereotypes, creating an “us” and “them” with distinct boundaries, and the more desirable traits attributed to “us”. It takes very little time and observation to realize that modern heathens are doing this, attributing superior ethics, willpower, scholarship and even commonsense to those who share their religion, while stereotyping various non-heathen groups with the opposite qualities. Naturally someone who believes these stereotypes will tend to treat unknown heathens favorably[23].

Weak and Damaged Heathens

No human being is perfect, and we all have personality flaws, physical and mental limitations, misfortunes, and areas where we are essentially incompetent. We have all done some wrong that could have been avoided. We all have some unpleasant patterns in our Wyrd. However, it seems as if rather a large number of converts to heathenry are flawed in some notable way, beyond the law of averages. The evidence for this is mostly anecdotal, and not a matter of general agreement. However, one thing is well known: there are a lot of people in American prisons who claim to be heathens[24].

Heathenry does not offer forgiveness of sins in exchange for repentance. It also offers no assurances of eventual justice or redemption. Changing Wyrd requires changing one’s behavior, consistently making choices that lead in the direction one wants to move. Moreover, one must start with one’s present situation; if that is bad, one can generally only move to something slightly better, not directly to something very good. This is true whether or not one’s difficulties are in any sense one’s own fault. The gods may help, with encouragement and opportunities, but one must still take those opportunities, and even then, there is no sure thing.

This is not unattractive to those who convert to heathenry. There is a strain of fatalism among heathens and of stubborn insistence on doing the best one can rather than asking for help. Many heathens appreciate “tough love” and see heathen deities as providing it. This is prominently displayed in most discussions of heathen ethics, with four of the nine Noble Virtues commonly being self-reliance, industriousness, perseverance, and discipline (e.g. Shetler 2003: 17-21).

Nonetheless, we have a lot of people with serious problems, and have been surprisingly unwilling to help, or even make allowances for people’s weaknesses. While people may try to better themselves, and improve their Wyrd, there is a tendency to treat others as either perfect (requiring no improvement) or irretrievably flawed. Moreover, requests for help are frequently answered with lectures on self-reliance. There is a surprising inability to see human weaknesses as both a fact of life and something to be dealt with collectively as well as individually.

This shows up particularly clearly in discussion of prison ministry. When the subject comes up, there is always a strong contingent who not only do not feel called to assist prisoners, but appear to be adamantly opposed to anyone else’s prison ministry, considering prisoners to be undeserving evildoers, probably intent on scamming would be chaplains, and at best simply less deserving of organizational time and effort than those not imprisoned.

Some heathens go farther than simply advising others to take care of their own problems. They attempt to create communities and organizations containing only those that meet various standards, both of virtue and to some extent of good fortune, and to eject those group members who develop problems or at best to encourage them to go away until their problems are resolved.

This appears to be quite inconsistent with the lore. In pre-Christian times, people were often loyal to a fault. One of the classic saga plots involves a stupid or pugnacious family member, who creates no end of trouble for his or her clan, yet is continually bailed out as long as this is possible. (This is practically a stock device for getting a wise hero into ridiculous straits.) They were also frequently extremely generous; indeed, generosity was pretty much a requirement for any significant social status. It would be unheard of to cast someone out of the community simply because they were depressive, or a bore, or constantly looking for handouts. Even those subject to banishment[25] could return when their time was up.

Some heathens suggest that the difference is one of family, and all this loyalty and generosity was to kin. They may also point out that heathens regularly raided both heathen and Christian kingdoms. Thus they feel heathens should be loyal to kin, perhaps including chosen kin, and perhaps their local community, but have no responsibility to anyone else.  

Others argue that we should in fact help deserving fellow heathens, regardless of whether or not they are connected with us in any way. The definition of “deserving” then tends to get interesting: it often involves being deemed both generally virtuous and not to have contributed significantly to one’s problems. Those who are deemed unworthy are often considered best helped via “tough love,” i.e. giving them nothing but criticism, so as to teach them the error of their ways. This is extremely reminiscent of George Lakoff’s concept of Strict Father Morality, where the road to both virtue and success is self-discipline, misdeeds require retribution, and the best help one can give someone is often to let them suffer the consequences of their own irresponsibility (Lakoff 2002: 65-107, particularly 97). 

My position is that this is inconsistent with the lore and with the behavior of heathen deities in modern times. They have been recruiting and encouraging all of us, not just those meeting some standard of perfection. Moreover, many report prayers answered and other seemingly tangible assistance from these deities. This suggests that “tough love” is not their only approach, just as it was not the approach of pre-Christian heathens. In fact, it seems that they frequently display the generosity expected of leaders in pre-Christian society. It behooves modern heathens to keep this in mind and behave similarly.

High Level Models

Most modern heathen answers to these questions can be reduced to three standard models. These models might be called the family model, the individualist model, and the denomination model. All have both good and bad points. None seem obviously superior. Thus, there is room for other models; I propose one which I will call the interdependent community model.

In the family model, heathen organizations are based upon families. To some heathens the only plausible heathen organization is the extended family, or clan, or tribe, and it behooves heathens to create such clans artificially, or to attempt to involve their relatives in heathenry, and then blót primarily with their (created or literal) family or clan. Others follow a looser version of this model; they try to make their kindreds as family-like as possible, and regard a kindred as an essentially permanent organization; one should be no more willing to leave or disband than to leave one’s biological family.

In this model, one has a special loyalty to members of one’s clan and a duty to assist them. Indeed, the group’s ideals may require putting the welfare of the clan ahead of one’s own personal welfare. One may also have a loyalty to other clans with which one’s clan might be allied (e.g. into a large scale heathen organization), but one does not have any particular affinity for other coreligionists. One also should almost always pick familial ties ahead of religious ties, where there is conflict. Group rituals are generally led by the head of the literal or metaphorical family, who is only incidentally clergy.

The family model provides small scale community, but tends to isolate heathens from their non-heathen neighbors, and to make it difficult for the damaged and dysfunctional to find a place within heathenry, unless they happen to have actual heathen kin. It also does not scale well; clans can ally, but they can schism just as easily. It is unfortunately quite vulnerable to the problematic Wyrd of individuals from dysfunctional families, who often find the model quite attractive; they may well create organizations that repeat their familial dysfunctions. To adherents of this model, it is the only model really consistent with pre-Christian practices; others disagree.

The second model is the individualist model. In this, individuals are responsible for their own spiritual development, and individual relationships with deity. They come together into organizations essentially for convenience, for various benefits such as those described in the section on heathen organizations today. Heathen organizations may take any convenient form, but ordinarily operate on democratic or consensus principles. Clergy are people with special expertise, whose services are found more useful than having each individual do their own thing. They are not required in any way.

This model has some surprising overlaps with practices in pre-Christian Iceland, which had a surprising amount of individual choice, within the rules of the system[26]. However, it pretty much contradicts what we know of pre-Christian heathen cultures other than Iceland.

The individualist model is vulnerable to most of the criticisms in Bellah et al’s Habits of the Heart, and many of the ones in Wuthnow’s I Came Away Stronger. An individualist model makes commitment difficult. Community is weakened, being seen as existing entirely for individual benefit. Loyalty and charity are both likely to be seen as a mere matter of personal preference, something one does because it feels good, rather than as any kind of ideal, let alone a presumption. It is also very much an expression of a modern American ideology, no more likely to last than any other ideology.

The third model is the denomination. In this model, heathen organizations look like other American congregations. It is important to fulfill all the usual functions of a church, and to have clergy who fulfill all the usual functions of clergy. Moreover, it is highly desirable to have well educated clergy, paid salaries commensurate with their contribution. There should also be dedicated heathen temples, retreat centers and, eventually, seminaries, perhaps even an academically respectable heathen college, once heathenism becomes popular enough to support such services. There should also be heathen charities, serving both heathens and non-heathens, in typical denominational fashion.

 The denominational model is excellent for getting heathenry a comfortable place in the modern community. It makes heathenry understandable and non-threatening. Unlike the other two models, it tends to promote interaction with and responsibility towards both heathens and non-heathens; this seems to be a natural adaptation of pre-Christian Icelandic norms to a modern pluralistic society.

It may be inevitable, to some extent at least. Sociologists studying immigrant religious groups have noted that there is a tendency for these groups to adapt to the religious patterns of the host country. In the United States, they provide regular weekly worship services, even if that was never the practice back home. They perform marriages, even if this was not a religious function at home. Their clergy take up pastoral counseling (Warner 1998). Heathenry may find itself in the same position, only more so, since modern heathens are drawing inspiration from cultures which they have actually never experienced, even while having the socialization of other modern westerners.

Nonetheless, this model has a number of problems. There are a lot of denominations, and those following denominational models seem unable to decide which particular denomination to imitate. Some want high church ritual and an episcopal polity. Others want intellectually focused activities, low church ritual, and a congregational or even consensus based polity. In fact, there is probably a faction corresponding to every denomination that has provided converts to heathenry. More importantly, it is difficult to see how it serves any specifically heathen purpose to become just like any denomination.

In my opinion, it might be better to start with the idea of humans, deities, vættir and all living creatures as co-participants in one giant interdependent community, sometimes broken into smaller partial communities for convenience, to work around human limitations of understanding and the human limit on the number of concerns we can handle at one time. Families, clans, congregations, denominations and local communities are just convenient subsets of that community. A heathen organization would be both a model of that greater community, and a way for that community to act through some of those who see particular parts of its essence, and share particular patterns of understanding and emphasis.

It is also too often forgotten that different deities have their own particular approach to every situation. Those who honor Odin tend to see his particular approach and emphasize the types of problems and solutions that most concern him. Those who follow Frigga have another, slightly different approach. Moreover, the same is true of those who follow Yahweh, or Pan, or Allah. The universe is complex enough that all these perspectives are needed. This is an argument for heathen groups devoted to particular deities, as well as for co-operation among all religions.

Heathen deities operate among themselves as an interdependent community, making decisions in council, but also taking independent action on their own initiative. This provides a model for heathens to follow, not just in heathen organizations, but in all their activities. Deities also constantly reach out beyond the divine community; this, too, provides a model for humanity. Heathens should not be isolating themselves, but reaching out and making common cause with others. There is much work to be done that heathen and other deities both desire.

Heathens should be paying more serious attention to the other members of the greater community, not just deities, vættir and human beings, but animals, plants and even the land. There is more reason for this than simple fellow feeling. Odin seeks ever to postpone the Ragnarok, the doom of gods, humans, and indeed the whole world. Humans should be helping with this task, not working against him, or even idly standing aside

It is not good to leave kin in need, but all are ultimately kin. It may be wise to tend first to the needs of one’s close friends and relatives and one’s local community, but ultimately we are all together, and the nature of Wyrd ensures that there is no need for one being’s gains to always come at another’s expense. It is better that we recognize our interdependence, and work towards the general good, rather than forcing our deities to work around our human tendency to create in-groups and out-groups.

Likewise, while it may be wise to avoid enabling bad behavior, we know that improvement is always possible. We should not be trying to create communities of the perfect, excluding the merely ordinary. We should instead be following the Hávamál’s advice and making the best of what each person has[27]. And we should be assisting those in need just as any pre-Christian heathen community would have done.

In short, heathenry needs to go beyond making offerings and developing the reconstructed religion. It needs to engage with the world, and heathen organizations should be in the forefront of this, not just quietly promoting fancier rituals or private communities of mutual support. It needs to do this for the right reasons, recognizing that all is ultimately connected, and that deity recognizes this. Perhaps this universal community model will help get heathens thinking along these lines.


I have discussed how heathens organize themselves today, and how they treat fellow heathens. I have tried to show the logic behind these practices, and what support exists for that logic, within a heathen understanding of how to determine what is right, appropriate, and truly heathen. I have then critiqued them, still within the heathen worldview, and suggested alternative principles that might be more effective, while remaining consistent with heathen lore, modern experience, and current needs.

This exploration is nonetheless only a beginning. It has only skimmed the surface in far too many areas. Modern heathen views are represented almost entirely by my own observations, and a handful of authors. There is far more interesting material within the sociology of religion, which might throw additional light on what is really going on when heathens say one thing and do another, or pick a particular option from the many choices available within our knowledge of pre-Christian practices. Even the surviving lore has more to offer; there is much useful scholarly material on heathen cultures, with research continuing.  

Works Referenced


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Wodening, Eric [Terry Canote]. 2003. The Rites of Heathendom: Blót, Symbel, and Other Rites. n.p.: Cafe Press.


Wodening, Swain [Berry Canote]. 2003. Hammer of the Gods: Anglo-Saxon Paganism in Modern Times. Little Elm, Tex.: Angleseaxisce Ealdriht.


Wuthnow, Robert, ed. 1994a. "I Came Away Stronger": How Small Groups are Shaping American Religion. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.


Wuthnow, Robert, 1994b. Sharing the Journey: Support Groups and America’s New Quest for Community. New York: The Free Press.

[1] I use the Christian term here for lack of a better alternative. It is not a word that most heathens would use.

[2] Iceland is a special case, settled by individuals and families rather than tribes, but organized under a common law. Referring to them as a nation is somewhat anachronistic, but they probably identified as Icelanders. Even after the island split into Christians and non-Christians, they had a major concern for unity and a shared law; in fact, the heathen part of the population converted with the stated goal of bringing the land back under a single law. In any case, Iceland was settled late enough that people were probably beginning to define themselves in opposition to Christianity, with religion no longer being simply part of an integrated whole.

[3] A large number of names are used for heathenry; the choice of name used often indicates a person’s particular emphasis. Shetler’s choice of the name Asatru suggests he may be focused on Scandinavian sources, and wish to distinguish his religion from Wicca and neo-paganism in general. It might also indicate affiliation or sympathy with particular heathen organizations, such as the Asatru Alliance.

[4] Wodening explicitly states that non-tribal religious groups may not be able to exclude the unsuitable, perhaps being forced by law to include such people as “a convicted serial rapist that has served their time” (S. Wodening 2003: 221). This seems implausible.

[5] I understand that a revised edition is now available, with the typos corrected.

[6] The runic alphabets are part of the surviving lore, with three rune poems preserved, along with numerous inscriptions written in runes. Surviving sagas refer to their use in magic, both healing and harming. Modern heathens use them for divination and magic, and have developed a common understanding of the meanings of each rune, based only loosely on the surviving rune poems.

[7] This is common, but not overwhelmingly so. Other heathens see heathenry as a religion among others and put considerably effort into seeing it recognized as such.

[8] Many religious groups see themselves as unique in not compartmentalizing their lives into religious and secular spheres. Heathens are not as unique as some of them believe.

[9] The blót is the most common type of ritual in heathenry, and the term is commonly used in contexts like this to represent heathen rituals of all kinds. This avoids using terms which are problematic, such as “worship”, which many heathens see as implying inappropriate subservience in divine-human relationships.

[10] UPG has become the common term for personal gnosis within modern heathenry. This is an acronym for Unsubstantiated Personal Gnosis. It can mean anything from persistent intuition to direct communication from a deity. It is commonly held that UPG can become equivalent to lore, if it is widely shared, not contradicted by other evidence, and persists long enough to seem traditional. In particular, many people assert that even the surviving pre-Christian material records information that was once someone’s UPG. Manny Olds’ Revelation in Asatru gives a useful explanation of the process of evaluating UPGs.

[11] Wyrd is commonly compared with the Hindu and Buddhist concepts of karma. The familiar, westernized version of karma is rather more rigid than Wyrd, and concerned with value judgments (good and evil) in a way that Wyrd is not. However, this may be a matter of oversimplification and popularization; karma may be more like Wyrd than it appears.

[12] This is an underestimate. We have written records as early as Tacitus’ Germania, written in approx. 98 CE. Iceland converted to Christianity in 1000 CE.

[13] “Kindred” is probably the most common term used in modern heathenry for a small group that meets regularly for ritual, and may serve other purposes. The name does not imply that the members are in fact related by blood or marriage, but only that those originating the name thought of them as being a kind of chosen family. Those using the name today may or may not share this opinion, since the term has become conventional.

[14] More correctly, none is seen as mandatory by all heathens. Some insist that no real heathen would voluntarily choose not to belong to a local kindred, if one were available.

[15] Sumble can be an important venue for telling personal stories, an activity which Wuthnow found important for deepening people’s spirituality.

[16] Both terms are problematic, but will be understood by most heathens. The boundary of what is and is not shamanic is quite unclear, and arguably does not include anything practiced by educated westerners, including modern heathens. The term “magic” remind many heathens of Wiccans and others with which they prefer not to be associated.  These terms are used here for lack of a better alternative.

[17] It should be noted that this practice is quite controversial within heathenry. Some find it believable and valuable; others consider it to be charlatanry or worse. The lore evidence is slight and its meaning is contested, so most of the supporting evidence is UPG.

[18] I am intentionally avoiding speculating as to what is really going on in these rituals. Even those heathens who accept this practice disagree on what is actually occurring; moreover, many figure that while deities may sometimes come through in this way, much channeling involves self delusion. The important thing in this context is that many heathens find this practice spiritually valuable, believe that the gods and goddesses find it desirable, and may participate in groups in part for this experience.

[19] Ann Gróa Sheffield’s Frey, God of the World (2002) provides a convenient summary and analysis of the surviving lore about Freyr.

[20] Some heathen clergy do get their expenses reimbursed, particularly for such things as traveling to teach classes or perform weddings. Some may be making some actual income this way, but none are paid employees of congregations or other heathen organizations.

[21] These groups are usually led by males, though the role is not officially gendered.

[22] This is sometimes taken as literal genetic truth, sometimes as a kind of spiritual truth. Genetic or not, it is almost always taken as coming from the distant past, the days when royalty customarily claimed descent from Wotan (i.e. Odin) or other heathen gods.

[23] Alternatively, they will insist that those who do not match the positive stereotypes are “not really heathen.”

[24] The National Prison Kindred Alliance claims to work with over 11,000 prisoners, most of them in the United States (NPKA). This is a large number, given the size of heathenry. (The NPKA number may of course be exaggerated, and e.g. include everyone who has ever been on their mailing list.)


[25] Iceland had a legal institution of outlawry, which could be permanent or time limited. A person outlawed could be killed with impunity, if found within Iceland, and those the outlaw had wronged were generally eager to do so. Getting outlawed generally required killing people, and even then was not inevitable.

[26] Notably, a farming household could pick its own goði, and switch in search of a better deal. Also, divorce was available simply by declaring oneself divorced before witnesses, with little or no reason required. Iceland was settled in large part by people who did not get along with powerful people in their homelands, and so sought safety and prosperity elsewhere. Moreover, they seem to have emigrated by households, not clans. This may account for these differences.

[27] Hávamál 71 gives examples of useful roles which can be fulfilled by people with various handicaps.