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Asatru as a Living Tradition

NewGrange7 [1]

New Grange Hall

3,882 words

Author’s Note:

This essay was an address delivered to the members of the Asatru Folk Assembly on Friday October 16th, at the AFA’s Winter Nights in the Poconos. I wish to thank Steve and Sheila McNallen, Brad Taylor-Hicks, et al., for inviting me, and for their hospitality and friendship. Hail the AFA!

Last month I celebrated the AFA’s acquisition of New Grange Hall with a short essay entitled “What New Grange Hall Means for Us [2].” It was published on the Counter-Currents website. In the essay I stated at one point:

It will be fascinating to see the new forms of artistic expression that will take shape as members of the AFA begin to adorn this austere, modern American structure. And new forms of ceremony, theology, and community will take shape there as well. All of them will be the result of a dynamic interplay between the old and the new. The work that will take place on the building, and the new-old forms developed within it, will parallel the process that is taking place in each of us as we learn to be true to the gods of our ancestors.

Actually, I intended this statement to be deliberately provocative. I wanted to challenge the idea that New Grange Hall will simply be a place where the old is re-created. Such an idea is understandable. We tend to think of Asatru, in the main, as a revival of something old, and as a recovery of something lost. It is this, of course. But I would like to suggest that it is much more than this. It is a living tradition, not something that ever was closed and complete. And for us to participate in that tradition means to add to it, to develop it in new ways. What makes this possible, I will argue, is precisely the fact that Asatru is a folk religion: a religion of and for a specific people. This is something that members of the AFA know, at least in some abstract sense. But they may not fully appreciate all of its implications.

ThorsHammer [3]

Tommy Ferguson with his handiwork.

Let’s begin by considering the fact that many of us tend to think of Asatru as a set of doctrines or beliefs that need to be reconstructed or recovered. Even where Asatruar do not explicitly understand the religion in doctrinal terms, I think for many of them this understanding is implicit. How did it come about? The answer is fairly simple. Christianity supplanted Asatru. Most of us were raised in the Christian religion. And even for those lucky few who were not raised as Christians, this is the religion most familiar to us. There is a tendency, therefore, to understand other religions in terms of how Christianity understands religion itself. We must be on our guard here, as this tendency is very often present even when we are not consciously aware of it.

As a type of religion, Christianity can be characterized as doctrinal or creedal. The other sort of religion is folk or ethnic. This distinction has to do, really, with the criterion for membership in the religion. Folk religions are specific to a certain people or race. Examples include Hinduism, Judaism — and Asatru. One is automatically a member of the religion simply by being born a member of the ethnic group. This will immediately invite the following sort of objection: “Is Rev. Mike Schmidt, the Baptist preacher who lives next door to me, automatically a member of Asatru simply because his ancestry is Germanic?” The answer, in fact, is yes. But this is a point to which I will return much later.

The intimate tie between a folk religion and the folk is reflected in language. The term “Hinduism” is derived from the Persian word “Hindu,” which actually just denotes the Indian people. The etymology of “Judaism” is similar, deriving ultimately from a word that simply means “Jew” (a “member of the tribe of Judah”). The words themselves therefore do not distinguish a member of the ethnic group from an adherent to the religion.

Now, our ancestors did not use the term “Asatru.” They did not have a name for their religion at all — just as ancient Hindus and Jews didn’t refer to “Hinduism” and “Judaism.” Given that ours is an ethnic religion, it would make more sense that the name of our religion, if it should have a name at all, ought to be based on the name of our people. (And if our religion did have such a name, much of the controversy over whether it should be folkish or universalistic might be simply sidestepped.)

Robert Taylor's Geist-Hof, Washington Island, Wisconsin [4]

Robert Taylor’s Geist-Hof, Washington Island, Wisconsin

Today, if asked by a Hindu what religion we practice, we can answer “Asatru,” and he will tell us that he practices “Hinduism.” But think how different the conversation would be if it had taken place a thousand years ago or so. No names of religions would have been exchanged. Perhaps, instead, names of gods would have been mentioned. But there would have been an understanding that each man simply follows the religion of his people (though even the word “religion” would not have been used). It would not occur to one of our ancestors to think “Perhaps I’ll become a Hindu.” Essentially, that would have meant changing tribes. This is what it means to belong to a folk religion.

The name “Asatru,” of course, does not clearly convey the folkishness of the religion, but it seems to be the name we are stuck with. An unfortunate, unintended consequence of this word is that “Asatru” becomes in the minds of modern Westerners an abstraction: one of the many religious “options” that they naively believe they may choose from, like shoppers in a department store. All these religious options are conceived, of course, in terms of the idea of a “belief system,” and of doctrines which one might take up or choose to believe in simply by reading about them in a book.

In the case of religions which make doctrine or creed central — religions such as Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism — membership is open to all. What makes one a member is not ethnicity, but the fact that one professes the faith; i.e., professes the creed or doctrine. The conversion of our people to Christianity was not fundamentally a case of one set of doctrines being replaced by another, but of one conception of religion being replaced by another: we went from a folk religion to a creedal one. And we have lived with it for so long that when we look back to what was lost and seek to recover it — to recover Asatru — we often unconsciously see the religion of our ancestors through the lens of creedal religion, and think of it in terms of a set of doctrines that must be recovered, codified, and adhered to. There is even a tendency to think of the Poetic Edda along the lines of the Bible. This is an error for a number of reasons, the least important of which is that the Eddas date from Christian times. The crucial error here is that Asatru is not, and never was, a religion of the book.

Now, one of the most significant differences between ethnic and creedal religions is that the former tend to be more tolerant of differences of opinion and interpretation, whereas the latter tend to be extremely intolerant. Consider Hinduism. Anyone who studies this religion and so-called “Indian philosophy” at a certain point has the feeling of being absolutely overwhelmed: there are so many different myths, cults, practices, injunctions, and paths to enlightenment that it is all rather bewildering. Many of these conflict. And yet they are all Hinduism. If you ask a Hindu how many gods there are you may be told 33 — or 330 million. Or that both are true. You may be told that behind all manifestation, including the gods, is Brahman. And that the gods are mere mythic ways of approaching the ultimate truth, not actual beings. A Hindu who took such a position would, in fact, be an atheist. Yet he would still be accepted as a Hindu. A different Hindu might tell you that both the Gods and Brahman are real. And yet these two men, with diametrically opposed views, would unquestionably regard each other as Hindus.

A similar diversity of viewpoints is to be found in Judaism. Beyond the familiar division between Orthodox and reformed Jews, who most certainly consider each other to be Jews, one will find great differences in all theological matters, often debated in minute detail. The history of the Kabbalah alone reveals radical differences. There are even Jewish kabbalists who believe in reincarnation. And yet, again, with rare exceptions all of the Jews taking these very different positions regard each other as Jews.

The situation appears quite different when one turns to Christianity and Islam. In Christianity theological differences inevitably lead to schisms. It is only today that Catholics can look at Lutherans and say, “Well, despite everything we are Christians, after all.” But that is simply because everything has become so watered down and dumbed down today, even in the Churches, that most young Catholics and Lutherans have never been taught what it is that separates them. Just a hundred years ago, these differences were well known. And Christians from different sects used to truly believe (and sometimes still do believe) that those other Christians aren’t real Christians. And sometimes they sincerely believed that those false Christians would go to hell.

In the last decade or so the differences between the sects of Islam have been in the news quite a bit — to the point where some Americans may be more familiar with those differences than with the ones that divide Christians. We have learned, for example, that some Muslims regard others as not being Muslims at all, and are quite willing to put them to the sword in the name of the “true religion.”

In addition to all this, we have the well-known phenomenon of Christian and Muslim intolerance toward those of entirely different faiths. True-believing Christians and Muslims think that Hindus and Jews are going to hell — unless, of course, they convert. For their part, Hindus and Jews may well regard Christians and Muslims as inferior beings, but they have no interest in recruiting them or stopping them from practicing their own religions.

What explains this curious divide between ethnic and creedal religions? The tolerance of the one and the intolerance of the other? It’s not that Christians and Muslims are monotheists, because the Jews are as well. The answer, quite simply, is that members of an ethnic religion are bound together not fundamentally by doctrines but by their ethnicity. Again, the denotation of “Jew” and “Hindu” is both a member of the ethnic group and an adherent to the religion. Thus, Jews who hold radically different theological views are still Jews to one another. Even atheist Jews are still Jews. And likewise, as I’ve said, for Hindus.

So what does this mean for us? What does it mean for Asatru? Quite simply, if Asatru is a folk religion then what unites us fundamentally is not a particular set of beliefs, but blood — common ancestry. And because of this, we may tolerate, indeed celebrate, an infinite variety of ways in which Asatru might be interpreted and developed. Nothing except betrayal of one’s people — or adoption of a creed that would lead to such betrayal — could justify the claim that someone is no longer practicing Asatru. This means that Asatru can be and ought to be an incredibly rich and vibrant religion. And yet, as I noted earlier, there is a tendency among Asatruar to think that the practice of our religion is a matter always of going back, and staying true to so-called canonical sources.

As an example of this, consider the attitude of many Asatruar to Wagner. I wrote an essay several years ago titled “Wagner’s Place in the Germanic Tradition [5],” in which I argued that the great composer should be seen as a modern skald — indeed, the greatest of all times. But, the familiar objection goes, why did he have to change the myths? Well, the simple response to this is: why did all the other skalds have to change the myths?

All the Scandinavian accounts of the Siegfried or Sigurd legend that Wagner drew on are now thought to be developments and elaborations of German originals. If one compares the accounts of the legendary hero in the Völsungasaga, Poetic Edda, Prose Edda, and other sources, one will find that they differ with each other as much as do Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. It is completely pointless to debate which is the “authentic” story. Each of these sources is an artistic creation. They are not self-effacing attempts to faithfully mirror some original source. That would, in fact, be contrary to the Germanic spirit! No, they are highly individual creations, using certain basic stories as a framework which they then embellish and elaborate, often intermingling it with other myths and heroic legends.

Even if one points out the obvious fact that Wagner employs the myths to convey his own ideas, this is irrelevant. Should we suppose that the authors of the Eddas and Sagas were really doing anything different? They too were recasting pre-existing material in order to speak to their own time – and to reveal truths that were timeless and universal.

For our ancestors, Asatru was something that they were actively involved in creating. And to return to that religion means for us to continue this act of creation.  For our ancestors their religion was a living, growing tradition. And each individual member of the folk had the power to add to, expand, and recast it. Thus, to revive or re-create Asatru cannot be a matter of simply reaching back into the past and setting up old forms and beliefs as gospel. Those old forms and beliefs, in fact, changed and evolved over time.

This process involved a continual oscillation between past and present. Steeped in the lore of their forebears, our ancestors responded to new challenges, discoveries, dreams, and inspirations by adding to, transforming, and sometimes discarding old, established forms. What made this process possible? Again, the answer is precisely that Asatru is a folk religion. Not only were our ancestors steeped in its lore from infancy, that lore came from them — and could only have come from them.

Here I touch on something absolutely essential, but also quite mysterious and impossible — I believe — to ever fully explain in rational terms. Each race, each ethnic group, each tribe is distinct both on the outside and on the inside. In addition to conspicuous physiognomic characteristics, each also has distinctive ways of thinking, feeling, and moving. They have distinctive ways of responding to nature, responding to challenges, of looking at the past and the future, of thinking about the heavens and the earth, of understanding the differences between male and female, of dealing with the ever-present possibility of death, and so on. In some cases, the differences are great: the differences between any member of any European tribe and any member of any tribe of Asia are very great indeed. Whereas comparatively the differences between members of the different European tribes is much less, though there are still significant differences.

Why do these differences exist? How did they originate? One answer is that peoples changed and evolved as they adapted to different environmental circumstances. But, as I have said, the precise reasons why these differences exist will probably forever remain somewhat mysterious. In any case, each people, each tribe has produced its own religion. And these religions are expressions of the spirit of each people, and are saturated with its idiosyncrasies. As I have written elsewhere, Ásatrú is an expression of the unique spirit of the Germanic peoples. And one could also plausibly claim that the spirit of the Germanic peoples just is Ásatrú, understanding its myth and lore simply as a way in which the people projects its spirit before itself, in concrete form.

This means that each of us carries Asatru inside of us. And this is also true of those of our people currently committed to other faiths. As I have said, one is a member of a folk religion simply by being born a member of the folk. Therefore, we must learn to see others like ourselves as Asatruar who do not know that they are Asatruar. Those tall, blond-haired and blue-eyed Mormons swarming around Salt Lake City talking of Joseph Smith are kinsmen of ours, built to worship Odin and Thor. They have just not yet awakened to who they are. But if we all carry Asatru inside us, this will manifest itself in countless ways even if we are consciously committed to other faiths. This is the root fact that explains the phenomenon that has been called the “Germanization of Christianity,” a very long process, which culminated in the terrific upheaval and bloodshed of the Reformation.

The fact that each of us carries the spirit of Asatru means that each of us is capable of bringing forth new forms and developments of Asatru that are authentic. Of course, one of the problematic characteristics of our people is our tendency to become lost in idealism, lost in abstractions, and to become disconnected from our roots. How can we be sure, then, that some of our own might not unwittingly bring forth material that perverts the spirit of Asatru? This is certainly possible. But this is why the oscillation I spoke of earlier is absolutely necessary: we must first look to the past, and then from that encounter bring forth the new. Our ancestors lived in intimate connection to the lore. We must recover that connection. But, to repeat, the lore was changing and expanding constantly during the lifetime of our ancestors. In order to make ourselves capable of becoming creative actors continuing that process, we must pick up the lost thread and first familiarize ourselves with it. And once the spirit of Asatru has awakened in us — once we know again who we are, who our people is — then we may be confident that the new that we bring forth will be an authentic expression of that spirit.

Pick up the lost thread — or find again the path that we have strayed from. As a way to reorient ourselves, I suggest that we think of Asatru not as a creed or faith, but rather as a path or a way. When we consider the conversion of our people to Christianity, we should see it not as a matter of losing a set of doctrines, but instead losing our way. Or, if you prefer, becoming side-tracked.

In what sense is Asatru a path? This term is so familiar to us that we have lost the sense of it as metaphor. A path or trail in the forest is one that has been deliberately cut or trampled. The forest is the wilderness. It is the wildness that human beings encounter and must contend with. A path is our way of passing through this wildness. A path is not a superhighway. It does not simply eradicate or remove wildness by bulldozing it. Instead, a path is a way through the wilderness. It follows the land and makes its way around its features. It is a human creation, because, again, it must involve some degree of cutting or trampling, but the path preserves wildness, and is our own way through it. Paths are formed by those who know the land and wish not simply to move through it but to live in it.

Now, most actual paths have a beginning and an end. A path is usually a path between two definite points. For example, a path may begin at the edge of the forest, take us through the forest, and deposit us out the other side. But wilderness as such, the natural world surrounding us, the universe in which we find ourselves, has no end. The metaphorical paths that lead through it may have a beginning, but they can have no end. Human beings are continually finding their way through wilderness. There is no end to this process, and so no end to the path.

All folk religions are paths through the wilderness that have been created by a unique people, forged in its encounter with a certain part of the earth. In the case of living folk religions, these paths keep growing; the people continues to extend the path through the wilderness, finding new ways around and through the new features of the world and of human experience that it encounters. Our task is to set ourselves back onto the path of Asatru, and to extend that path.

As I have said, the careful study of what has come down to us from our ancestors is a necessary precondition of finding the path again. But then what it is needed is nothing more complicated than imagination. The old stories have the power to capture our imagination. We know this. That is why we are here. But can we take this a step further? Can we retell those stories — and, dare I say, embellish them? For this is just what the authors of the Eddic poems and the Sagas did. And, to make an even more radical suggestion, can we invent new stories, new situations involving the gods and the heroes? For our ancestors did that as well.

But won’t these just be made up stories? Yes, and no. The myths that came down to us were made up stories as well. Their truth does not consist in the fact that they reported things that actually happened. Rather, it consists in the fact that they “rang true,” as we say. They said something about life and death and the forces of nature and human trials and tribulations that moved our ancestors, and to which they gave their assent.

So yes, let us make up stories. Our kinsmen will decide whether or not they ring true. Those that do will be added to the hoard. Those that do not will be forgotten. Each of us, each member of the folk, has the power to do this: both to add to the hoard of lore and to decide what should or should not be added.

Those who are of the folk, but not awakened to that fact and to the fact that they carry Asatru within them will only respond to our message if Asatru can clearly be seen to be a way of living in the present. Rather than a way of living in the past. A living religion is one that continues to have the power to make sense out of the world for us, and to orient us in present actuality. A dead or dying religion is relevant to the past alone. Its myths, which are fixed and unchanging, must be explained, for they no longer have the power to speak to us directly.

Asatru as a living tradition begins in the past, and to know this path involves knowing its origins. But just as it was for our ancestors, Asatru must be a path taking us through the present, and into the future.