First of all, what is Heathenism?
Heathenism is modern Reconstructionist Scandinavian and/or Germanic Paganism.
(Slavic Reconstructionism is also sometimes included, and certainly has great similarities, but I don’t know nearly as much about it… yet!)
Can you unpack that?
“Reconstructionist” describes a modern tradition based on rebuilding discontinued historical practices. In most cases, information about the historical practices are incomplete at best, fragmentary at worst, and anachronistic regardless. The process requires considerable extrapolation, inspiration, and modernization to flesh out a viable modern practice. Pagan reconstructionists are distinguished by their focus on a particular culture or pantheon.
“Scandinavian and/or Germanic” refers, of course, to Northern and part of Central Europe: Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, England, Germany, Austria and so on – everywhere Germanic or Nordic tribes roamed is theoretically a potential source.
“Paganism” generally refers to religious movements reconstructed from or inspired by Pre-Christian religious traditions of Europe and the Mediterranean. Outside of this domain, religious groups tend not to identify themselves as “Pagan”, especially if they are continuous in practice, as “pagan” and “heathen” have long been used pejoratively against them by Christian missionaries insisting they convert, and Western scholars judging them by their own biased cultural standards.
[Edited to clarify] Any polytheistic, animistic, goddess-centered, magic-centered, or earth-centered religious practice can reasonably be identified as “Pagan” by its own practitioners, if they choose to identify as such. In practice, most indigenous and diasporic traditions are welcome in an interfaith Pagan setting whether they identify as “Pagan” specifically or not.
Wait, don’t “Asatru” and “Heathen” mean the same thing?
Not really. In the US, the largest denomination in Heathenry is Asatru, and so “Asatru” and “Heathen” are frequently treated as synonyms. This is particularly the case where government agencies are involved, who also often consider “Odinism” a synonym in this set. They tend to be confused by the term “Heathen” for a religious group because most non-Pagans are only familiar with the unreclaimed pejorative definition, which includes “irreligious, non-believer” amongst other slights.
Though necessary for political reasons when interfacing with non-Heathens, this lack of distinction creates a certain difficulty within Heathenry, particularly for non-Asatru denominations. In primarily English-speaking countries, Heathens who are not following a specific other denomination tend to consider themselves Asatru. From there it’s easy to assume that all Heathens practice Asatru, and do so more or less as they do.
However, a person practicing Swedish Forn Sed is not the same as a person practicing American Asatru. American Asatru isn’t even the same as Icelandic Ásatrú – American Asatru is usually Pan-Germanic in practice. The various denominations within Heathenry are distinguished by modern home culture, focus on specific historical cultures, and differences in modern cultural values.
For example, Theodism and Fyrnsidu are both based on Anglo-Saxon tribal beliefs, but Theodism is considerably more strict in structure and practice, and seems to attract more conservative adherents than Fyrnsidu. Missing these distinctions at least creates confusion when larger groups of Heathens gather, and at worst creates unnecessary conflict between groups that have every reason to practice differently.
What about “Odinism”?
Well, that depends on who you ask. As I said above, many people – especially government officials – treat “Odinism” as a synonym for “Heathenism” or “Asatru”. Amongst Heathens I’ve known, many seem to consider it an older, slightly awkward term, from before we found the word “Asatru” and reclaimed “Heathen”. Some people use it to mean “a person dedicated specifically to Odin”, but I think that’s a misunderstanding of newer Heathens who aren’t otherwise familiar with the term. “Odinsperson” would be more appropriate there.
Most experienced Heathens I know use “Odinism” in reference specifically to the Odinic Rite, which is a strictly structured, very conservative, Folkish organization. In my experience, if a person self-identifies specifically as an Odinist, they’re usually approaching Heathenism from a separatist perspective, or were initially introduced to Heathenism via the Odinic Rite and haven’t adjusted to the mainstream yet. I encounter this far more often doing jail ministry than amongst the general Pagan public here in Northern California, but the online demographic is more mixed. In general, if a person is coming to me asking after an interest in “Odinism” specifically, I am inclined to redirect them to more open Heathen groups like The Troth.
What about Neo-Nazis?
Using Heathen gods as a way to justify racism is completely unacceptable. I’ve already gone into a fair amount of detail about this in previous posts.
Alas, there are self-proclaimed Heathen groups out there which are openly racist, and even more which are quietly racist under the auspices of “Folkism”. While I have my own impressions of which groups to avoid entirely and which group memberships prompt me to watch an individual carefully, I have not made an extensive study of this yet, so that will have to wait for another time.
My suggestion for now is that if you’re interested in a Heathen organization, read what they have to say about themselves. If they declare themselves “Folkish” or are using a lot of careful language to say they’re “not racist, but…” instead of making an open statement about actively welcoming diversity in their membership, be very careful.
What about Lokeans?
What about them?
I know a lot of people have difficulty with Loki. He’s not one of the Vanir, but as long as He respects hospitality, They don’t seem to have a problem with Him. Personally, I have had far more trouble with Odin over the years than I’ve ever had with Loki.
But there’s nothing about being Vanatru that would specifically prevent a person from having trouble with Loki, per se. Most Vanatruar I’ve met are pretty mellow about Him, but I know at least one exception.
I’m not aware of Lokeanism as a distinct denomination of Heathenry, but they may be headed in that direction. I suspect most Lokeans who would be inclined to form a separate denomination already identify as Northern Tradition Pagan instead, though. (See below.)
Okay, then what’s “Northern Tradition Paganism”?
That’s an interesting question. I would have said they’re a particularly liberal, direct-experience focused denomination of Heathenry distinct from Asatru and other denominations. However, NT Pagans generally don’t consider themselves Heathen at all. They don’t consider themselves reconstructionist, being more deeply inspiration-based than most Heathens. They also explicitly wish to not be grouped together with more conservative Heathen groups – a sentiment I sympathize with tremendously.
I respect their self-identification as non-Heathen, and their desire not to be bound by Heathen ideals about what is and is not an acceptable basis for religious doctrine. I admit, I’d prefer for Heathenry to acknowledge the reality of separate denominations, and that reconstructionist-inspired practitioners like NT Pagans are just as dedicated to the Northern gods as we are, but my desire for a cleaner organization chart is no reason to disregard someone else’s self-identification to the contrary.
That said, the literature available for Heathens and NT Pagans is often useful to both groups, as long as the authors cite their sources properly. Those at the liberal end of the socio-political spectrum within Heathenry (like me) generally get along fine with all but the most radical NT Pagans, and vice-versa.
What about Rokkatru?
Rokkatruar are a sub-set of NT Pagans who focus on the Jotun gods. Some Jotnar are accepted by mainstream Heathenry as gods because they are allied to the Aesir by marriage or adoption: Skadhi and Gerd are both Etin-Wives, as may be Frigg. Loki is Odin’s blood-brother, and some of His children – Hella, Sleipnir – hold respected roles as well. Even so, many Heathens are wary of even the allied Jotnar.
Not all Jotnar are considered gods by Rokkatruar, but they do accept as gods considerably more than the handful of Jotnar allied to the Aesir or Vanir, including those who come into direct conflict with the gods at Ragnarok, such as Surt and Fenrir. As such they approach the Jotnar as a pantheon of “Dark” gods, similar to the Cthonic gods of Hellenic or Celtic lore.
Negative attitudes towards Rokkatruar tend to arise for one of two reasons: Issues with their focus on the Jotnar, or issues with dramatic personal practices.
In general, I find the Vanir, and by extension most Vanatruar, are more comfortable with the Jotnar than most Aesir and Asatruar tend to be. Gerd in particular encourages our tolerance – many modern practitioners have experienced Her hesitance to enter a space that categorically forbids other Jotnar. However, the Jotnar are not our primary focus. We accept individual Jotnar according to Their behavior towards the Vanir and towards those who do not needlessly provoke Them. Clearly Jotnar are dangerous and powerful, and not to be trifled with. This is not at all the same as Them being evil. The same can be said for Odin, after all.
As for anyone’s personal practices, what consenting adults do that harms no one uninvolved is not mine to judge. Vanatruar are generally fairly tolerant of diverse sexual practices, provided everyone involved is informed and consenting. We may not always agree about specific social values, but if no one is actually being harmed, that’s not grounds for dismissing an entire group categorically.