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.