“Because the thing is, I think Recon is a very good initial methodology when approaching the gods of an ancient religion. But when taken too far, it risks fetishizing the culture – in other words, humans – rather than focusing on how best to honor the gods. Once again, it becomes an issue of “It’s Not About Us.”
So this is how or why Mercury came to be such a huge part of my life in just a couple of years. About two months before that started to happen, I added the Egyptian god Khnum to my religious life, for reasons that are completely unrelated to Mercury. Yet the Potter of the Nile did open the flood gates (now there’s a good metaphor for a water god), in that before Him I did not consider worshiping Kemetic gods. I knew they were out there, but they were also outside my cultural focus, which already had to juggle between Roman and Norse pantheons. And this despite the fact that, as a child and I guess like many other children, I had a fascination for ancient Egypt. In fact, the only book I ever borrowed from my high school’s library was on Egyptian mythology. From then until 2011, the only two Kemetic gods that caught my eye were Anubis and Thoth, for obvious reasons: a dog-friend like myself has a hard time resisting a dog-headed deity and the ibis god presides over writing, study and books, which is right up my alley. But, like I said, I never considered worshiping Them, even if They were on the back of my head. Until Khnum opened the gates, followed by Anubis several months later. And now it may be Thoth’s turn… perhaps. I honestly don’t know.
See, I’m increasingly a writer. I’m working on a book right now and there’s a second project down the road. Not to mention the academic papers, which I’m trying to keep at a rate of at least two per year on peer review journals. And when I’m not writing, I’m speaking in public or teaching classes on History and mythology; or publishing posts here. A few weeks ago, as I was writing, Thoth clicked. There’s really no other way of putting this. I wasn’t watching any Egypt-related movie or show, I haven’t been reading on the topic, nor was I working on a text in any way connected. Out of the blue, as I was writing, my mind pointed the lights at Thoth. And just like Mercury a few years ago after the initial seed was planted, He’s been in my head ever since. What I’m going to do about it is yet unclear. It may be an involuntary mental connection, linking a childhood reference with the very action I was doing at the moment. Perhaps He’s saying hi or perhaps it was just my subconscious empathizing with a god I can naturally relate to, with no move from His part.
And then another thought occurred to me: first Mercury, then Anubis and now Thoth… am I on a Hermes trip? Starting with His Roman version, then an Egyptian god He was syncretised with and now another? I wonder…
Every day, people use words on religion and religious practices that have a modern meaning, mostly influenced by Christianity, but which ultimately derive from a Latin and hence pre-Christian origin. And if you’re a Roman polytheist, you try to use those words in a way that’s at least close to their original sense. It’s part of the effort of having a living religion rooted in the past, but it’s not always easy. In some instances, you can go back to the old sense of the word, like in the case of “rite” being different from “ceremony”, since the former meant a method of performing the latter (e.g. Roman rite, Greek rite). Or in the case of the word “sacred”, which referred to a status of ownership and not an innate nature. These things are relatively easy to return to their ancient meaning, even if it’s just among Roman polytheists. But the case of “devotion” is different: a devotio was the vowing of life to the gods of the underworld, namely the lifes of one’s enemies. To use a Norse comparison, it’s something along the lines of throwing a spear over the battlefield, presumably as a form of giving the troops to Odin. In other words, it amounts to dying, i.e. those consecrated join the deities of the underworld or Odin. A devotio could even take the extreme form of self-sacrifice in which a military leader dedicated himself and then sought death in battle, hoping to take with him as many enemies as possible. So you can see why a Roman polytheist can think twice before using the term “devotional”: if we care about the ancient meaning of Latin religious terminology, we care about the meaning of devotio.
This is, however, a case where a Latin equivalent of modern “devotee” is hard, if not impossible to come by. It’s just one of those cases where one has to concede to modern usage and employ the Latin form to signal that you’re referring to the original sense (so “devotion” becomes different from devotio). Besides, language is a matter of shared meaning and given that there is a growing community of devotional polytheists that spans across different traditions, to have cultores detaching themselves from the term “devotional” could end up detaching ourselves from the wider polytheistic community. For better or for worst, a modern meaning has become well established. Yet the matter did have an unexpected consequence, for when I asked fellow cultores about a Latin word that could express today’s sense of “devotee”, the replies I got made me realize that several modern Roman polytheists don’t do personal religion: they do State religion as individuals. Allow me to explain.
Ancient Roman religion is known mostly from sources that pertain to public cults and, in some instances, to the private practices of the elites, whose views on religion dominate our perception of the past. It is, in other words, a partial view of the matter, largely focused on State religion from the late Republican period on. And one of the ideas that comes out of the sources is that of superstition. To put it simply, superstitio is the religious equivalent of paranoia and obsession and Roman authors used the term to coin a deep fear of the Gods and the resulting extreme behaviours. In other words, it refers to the excesses of religion, which were frowned upon, because Roman religion was supposed to be based on moderation and the belief that the Gods are good and reasonable. This is something I can agree on, but what I don’t agree with is the idea that devotional polytheism amounts to superstition because it is excessive worship. Or that to claim a special link to a god is a Christian notion. Or that a cultor is a worshiper of the Gods and not Their fiancé. These are all things I was told when I explained what a devotee is and the ensuing discussion gave me the aforementioned impression: that several Roman polytheists don’t do personal religion, just State religion individually.
See, a State is naturally a formal thing because it is an institution. It’s made out of people, yes, but it works as a collective of large and diverse numbers, not an individual. It’s not your buddy or neighbour and so dealings with the State are marked by a degree of formality and emotional sanitation. Every time you resort to a government agency or department, things have to follow a certain protocol and bureaucracy (and if they don’t, it usually hints at corruption). The matter is of course different when it comes to your friends, family and partners. You don’t normally ask them to be emotionally sanitized or neutral with you and to fill in forms if they want something from you. When it comes to a one on one relation between individuals, it’s a naturally close, emotional and informal thing.
In the same fashion, State religion was naturally formal and emotionally sanitized. A priest or a magistrate in a public ceremony sacrificed in the name of the entire community, not separate individuals with their devotions or feelings. The only way that could happen is if you were an individual of public importance, like the emperor. Augustus is a case in point, since he had a personal devotion for Apollo and that propelled the god’s cult to the top places of the State religion. This is also one of those instances where you get a glimpse of personal devotion in ancient Rome. But otherwise, personal connections with specific deities were not expected to break through the fairly neutral, formal wall of public cults. Because they were public, not personal. Yet individual relations with the Gods are a different matter, since it’s a one on one thing, non-institutional. And as it happens between individual people, it’s naturally something close and emotional. To argue that to be a devotional polytheist is to be superstitious, is like saying that to like someone, to have a best friend or a partner, is to be obsessed about other people. It’s putting things in terms of extremes, which is a very Christian thing to do and also very ironic, since it’s claiming to stand for moderation by being immoderate: it’s either black or white; either a formal and emotionally sanitized cult or superstition. It’s the equivalent of saying that food is either a matter of cold chemistry or morbid obesity. But between the extremes of distant formality and emotional obsession, there is a vast middle ground where personal and healthy relationships with the Gods can be built. So long as you keep it balanced, so long as you maintain a sense of moderation, just like normal people do in their everyday dealings with other people. Close friends or partners are not obsessed or paranoid individuals: they’re just regular people who have close and healthy relationships with each other.
This is something that several Roman polytheists don’t get. For them, you’re a cultor if you worship a god on a yearly, perhaps monthly basis, and that’s it. More than that is considered by them as excessive. At some point, it feels like you’re in the movie Equilibrium. And the reason for that is that they don’t do personal religion: they do State religion individually. In other words, they take what we know of ancient Roman religion, which pertains largely to public cults, and apply it to the individuals, resulting in each cultor dealing with the Gods as a State would: formally, in an emotionally sanitized way. If you go beyond that, if you become a devotional polytheist, you’re being superstitious, just as you would be crossing the line if you became too intimate with a State official you’re working with.
There’s a sense of re-enactor’s mentality in all of this, in that people don’t go beyond what the sources present. If the texts focus mainly on public religion, that’s what you’ll get in your personal dealings with the Gods. I agree that it is important to be rooted in the past, since that is what distinguishes a recon or a revivalist from a wiccanish neopagan. It is essential to know how things were done and seen in the ancient world, but keep in mind the limitations of the surviving sources (stress on the word “surviving”) and, above all, never forget that only the roots are supposed to be buried, not the entire tree. If you don’t grow past them, you’ll never be a tree at all. Living things naturally change, evolve, diversify. That’s why they’re living and not dead. We can certainly question the quality of the evolution, which is why it’s important to be rooted in the past so we can keep things true to their origins. But that doesn’t mean that we should limit ourselves to what was done in the past or the views given to us by surviving sources. The difference between a revivalist and a re-enactor is that the former breathes new life and hence new forms into the old, while the latter never leaves the old. You may even be sincere in your practice, but if you don’t grow past the old, if you don’t go beyond the sources, you’ll still be in a re-enactor’s mental frame.
Once it was ready, I filled a small bowl with sea water (wetting my naked feet in the process, which also has a symbolic significance) and washed by hands and face. I then made an opening salutation to the Vanir, the Elves, the fertile Earth and Her countless landwights, casting a handful of wheat as an offering. And after ringing a bell, I addressed Njord, the Boater of Fair Feet, praising Him and consecrating the sand boat to Him by dripping sea water over it. Then I presented by offerings, placing them one by one in the boat: a wreath, an apple, a slice of home baked bread. The ringing of a bell and the sprinkling of sea water consecrated the offerings, which from that moment on were Njord’s propriety, to be taken by the sea or animals. I poured the remaining water around the boat, levelled the sand around it and, as a final tribute, I saluted Freyr’s father one last time, kissing the fingertips of my right hand and pressing it against the sand. A mark of devotion, if you will.
I did not linger. The wind had blown away the clouds and the sun was shining. So I got on my bike, rode it up the nearby coastal hills and spent one happy hour on the sand of a perfectly shell-shaped bay. It was a good Njord’s day!
These last few weeks have been very busy with seemingly endless writing about Vikings, medieval texts and Norse mythology, though for work reasons and not related to practicing polytheism. But I’ve going so deep into Scandinavian topics and sources that I started wearing my old Thor’s hammer again. To be honest, I’ve been keeping it in my pocket since last October and when I couldn’t find a good replacement for my broken caduceus pendant, I went back to the little hammer I bought in Sweden almost ten years ago. Surprisingly, I feel perfectly comfortable with it. I expected a sense of displacement, as if I was wearing something that no longer reflected who I am, but no. It feels fine; at some points, it even feels right. Perhaps because religiously I’m still half Norse and professionally I’m focused on medieval Scandinavia, so I guess a Thor’s hammer bought when I made my Masters in Uppsala is appropriate. And also I love a good thunderstorm. Yet I acknowledge that it’s the symbol of the Red Bearded Thunderer, so I’ll be adding libations to Thor on the Ides of every month, when I also honour Jupiter. No intent of syncretising Them, though: as with Frey and His family, I’m Latinizing, in this case by allowing Roman praxis to determine when I honour a Norse god.
I’ve also been working on a long poem dedicated to Ingui, which should be partly devotional, partly ritual and bit narrative too. Basically, I want it to be a poetic summary of His Latin cult, but there’s still a lot of stanzas waiting to be written and I need to perform divination in order to get Frey’s approval on several things. To that end, I brought back something I haven’t used since my long gone days as a Wiccan: a tarot deck! Back then, I bought the Sacred Circle Tarot, which I haven’t used in over a decade, but since I’m not particularly in tune with runes and I need a tool that allows me to contact Frey when there’s need of it, I decided to try using something I already have at home. Ergo, enter the fourth suit of the minor arcana, which works with earth symbolism. It seems appropriate to Him, especially given that the King of Discs sits on a throne with boar heads. Time will tell if it works or not. If it doesn’t, I’ll just have to create a divination system from scratch, which I’m also doing anyway, but for use at the end large ceremonies. This follows the common practice in the ancient world, when lots were drawn or signs looked for in order to determine if the sacrifices had been well received by the Gods. Which is why I want a simpler system than tarot cards for that end, so I’ll be using chest or hazelnuts and enjoy the pun of consulting Ingui’s nuts to know if He enjoyed it. Enjoyed the sacrifice, that is.
Other than that, it’s been mostly regular offerings and ceremonies. On my birthday, I performed a long one with an extensive opening where I honoured ten deities, plus my ancestors, all before the main focus of the ceremony, which was my genius and my penates. Having been born at home, I feel like my house wights are a sort of personal spirits too, so I placed a wreath around Their images. I also ran 10 kilometres in 39 minutes on May 18th as a tribute to Mercury, taking advantage of a local race so close to Mercuralia. And I’m getting into the habit of making small sand ships by the ocean and then pour wheat in them as an offering to Njord. It just feels great after a good sunny afternoon on the beach, coupled with an offering of honey to Ingui-Frey every Sunday morning. That and throwing a coin into the air and let it fall wherever it may as a tribute to Mercury before I head back home on my bike. And as I pedal, as I go through fields and pass next to wooded hills, I may see kingfishers, hawks, crows or herons flying next or over me.
Honouring the Gods through our everyday pleasures and smiles feels great!
It’s not easy being a Vanic heathen. I know this because I used to be one. There’s a recurrent hostility originating from trends within modern Norse polytheism: those who believe that people should not focus on particular gods, but ought to worship all equally; those who argue that people should focus on their ancestors and local wights instead of gods who, they claim, care little about individual humans; the would-be raider, i.e. those who see Heathenry as a synonym of viking religion and therefore a warrior path with no place for Vanic wussies. And then there are those who carry a huge baggage from Christianity and for whom Norse polytheism should be what a “proper” religion is “supposed to be”: uniform, moralistic, complete with scriptures and a dualistic view of the world (gods and giants, us and them, ours and theirs). When you tell these people that you are a Vanatruar, that you focus on the Vanir or have one of Them as your patron, chances are that you will be frowned up, criticized or shunned. It’s not easy being a Vanic heathen, which is why many prefer to set themselves apart so as to have their own safe haven. Just like many Lokeans do and for the very same reason.
This is an impoverishing trend in modern Heathenry, but one that’s the result of a misguided view of religion as having to be united in uniformity. Yet when you have multiple gods with different agendas, you will naturally have multiple cults with specific forms of worship. And those cults can exist both within their native religious system or stand on their own and move around independently. There’s nothing new about this: Isis was very popular in ancient Egypt, indeed She was and is one of the main deities in the Kemetic pantheon, but She also had a mystery cult of Her own that spread throughout the Mediterranean world, far beyond Her native land and independently of the rest of Egyptian religion. The same holds true for Dionysos, who was and is simultaneously an important element of the Greek pantheon and the focus of mystery cults that can exist outside standard Hellenic religion. This was normal in the ancient world. When you have multiple gods, you will have multiple cults, so there’s nothing wrong in the existence of Vanic religion simultaneously within and outside Heathenry.
Now some heathens (dare I say many?) have a narrow view of History and will point out that there is no clear record of a separate cult of Freyr, Freya or Njord. This is the purist view of the re-enactor and the “lorish” perspective, the notion that the lore is a form of sacred scriptures by which we must guide our lives and religious practices. And it is also a case of Christian baggage. Because the lore – i.e. Eddas and sagas – are late fragments of a religious system. They’re not in any way the whole picture, not geographically, chronologically or even religiously. There’s a reason why Odin features highly in the existing sources: they were largely recorded or produced by poets in a military and aristocratic context, which is basically Odin’s realm. Practices and tales may have been very different in the minds of farmers and fishermen in other parts of Scandinavia and at different times. This diversity existed in ancient Greece, where religion assumed local forms and there were multiple creation myths stemming from different origins, from poetic to philosophical. We know this because there is a relative abundance of Greek and Roman sources; we don’t have the same clear picture for ancient Scandinavia because we have very few sources, almost all of which are late and from a particular context. The lore is neither scripture nor the full picture. And reconstructionism is not viking re-enactment: even if something didn’t exist in the past, there is no reason for its non-existence today if it stems from an historical basis. And the historical fact is that polytheistic religions are naturally diverse and complex in the number of gods, their roles and their cults.
Of course, just as there is hostility towards Vanatru, there is also a form of counter-hostility. Some (dare I say many?) Vanatruar have put up with a lot from narrow-minded heathens and they reacted in the same measure. Hence the emphasis on peace as opposed to the warrior qualities of Odin and Thor, on nature as opposed to a supposed focus of the Aesir on civilization, on UPG as a reaction to a strict lorish view. There is a lot of baggage in Vanatru and it comes from the bad experiences of many of its members with the wider heathen community. People have been hurt and they react by severing whatever ties they can with those who shunned them, thereby stressing differences that are largely artificial. And this too is impoverishing. For if we focus on the peace-loving qualities of the Vanir and ignore or downplay Their fighting aspect because that’s viking war centeredness, we neglect, for instance, an important part Freya’s nature; if we put things in terms of nature versus civilization, we forget that farming communities too are part of human civilization and that the Vanir have a role to play in sustainable urban life; and if we neglect the lore and academia to depend on UPG, we risk building religions disconnected from the past (and we are worshipping old gods, not new ones). Yes, some heathens can be aggressive because they have too much “vikingness” in their heads, but the exact opposite can be just as bad. And the same goes for the opposition between lore and UPG: we need a balance of both to breathe new life into old cults, otherwise we’ll just be making news ones with no connection or regard for the centuries of experience that others have had with our gods.
So what am I saying here? That the label Vanatru makes sense when referring to a subsect of Heathenry. If only heathens could understand that subdivisions are a natural part of a polytheistic religion and that specific cults can both exist within and outside their native system. And if only Vanatruar could be accepted and accept themselves as part of Heathenry without drawing deep borders. But that calls for the end of both historical narrow-mindness and the stressing of artificial differences. And we still have a long way to go on that front, so if you can’t solve the problem and really want to move on, just drop the name. A label is a matter of shared language, in that it must be understood by others while conveying your identity in an accurate fashion – in this case a religious identity. If it is confusing, if it fails to transmit what you want or if it distorts your own practices, just drop it. And in my case, I am neither a heathen, nor do I wish to use something that is so often placed in sharp contrast with Asatru.
The past few years have produced new Vanic traditions, of which Waincraft is perhaps the most notorious example. It’s not Vanatru – at least I don’t think they describes themselves as such – but it is rooted in Vanaheim, so there is a wider community rising. One that is Vanic and polytheist, but not necessarily heathen, since it includes people from different religious backgrounds who share a common devotion for the Vanir. I myself am becoming part of that process by working on a Romanized cult of Freyr. A broader label may be in order.