On being a pagan

Like my previous article (Against the modern world?), the title refers to a book (the English translation of Comment Peut-On Être Païen of Alain de Benoist). Also again I do not (entirely) agree with the content of the book. The title is slightly ironic and suggestive, that is all.

I think you will not be surprised when I tell you that I do not call myself ‘pagan’ and even less ‘heathen’. I don’t like these terms that Christians in past decades (and sometimes still) used to separate people with another religion from themselves. The terms were and are mostly used in a degenerating manner. Some people have taken the terms, and transformed them in ‘geuzennamen’. This is an (as far as I know) untranslatable term which means that people use a degenerating term to discern themselves and the term becomes ‘good’ or a name to be proud of. In this way there are many people, especially youngsters, who like to call themselves “pagans” or “heathens”. I am not one of them. The term can sometimes be used because ‘other people’ will quickly know what you are talking about (they will first think of Germanics and Celtics instead of Muslims and Hindus when they hear the term “pagan”), but I prefer the description “prechristian religion of our region”. Not really a description to ‘label yourself’, right? “Asatruar” then? The term “Asatru” is a modern term, I believe it was thought off in the USA. It means ‘true to the Aesir’, the Gods of the Germanic peoples. Unfortunately nobody seems to have thought about the fact that there are not only Aesir, but also Vanir, and the term that is now widely used, excludes the Vanir. Maybe a term such as “Tyrtru” would have been better, but then again “Tyr” may simply mean “God” (“Vanatyr” is a name for Odin for example), but he is also a God. I think that most people following the old Germanic path will stick to the term “Asatru” so there is no need to try and change that. Do I call myself “Asatruar”? Nah, I just call myself “Roy”.

God(s)

The Germanic pantheon is enormous. There are a great many Gods, Goddesses, giants, dwarves, Valkyria, etc., etc., etc. A popular subject for ‘pagan discussion’ is if paganism is polytheistic. ‘Paganism’ is an umbrella-term and not a religion with a holy book (about which later), priests, dogmas, etc. so people will have to find out for themselves how they see certain things. To me, the Gods, etc. represent principles and not human-shaped beings that live in another human-like world. Odin/Wodan, to take an example, can stand for wisdom, endurance, power, etc. like Freyr/Freya can represent fertility. I do not support the ‘naturalistic’ view that ‘pagans worship nature’. Thunder can be heard when Thor/Donar is driving over the clouds in his goat-wagon. This is a valid way of putting things, but I don’t say that actually a red-bearded man is rummaging through the skies. Sun celebrations are not intended to worship the sun as such, but what the sun represents. Just an example. The course of the sun through the year with ‘raising’ after the winter solstice (the days get longer), reaching peaks on the equinoxes (day and night are equally long) or going down after the spring solstice, naturally (both literally and figuratively) marks the phases of the year. The four mentioned points are very good moments to reflect upon how the Divine expresses itself through nature. It is that which is celebrated, not the astronomical event itself, nor the sun. Myths have been connected to such events, or maybe, myths have been formed around such events, such as the death of Balder, which can be seen as the ‘dying sun’ which ‘revives’ at midwinter (the days get longer, the ‘light-side’ of the year begins). There are more layers to the myth of Balder’s death and that is what makes the study of these texts interesting.

Without blinking twice, I dare to say that there are Gods and that there are no Gods. The Ultimate Divinity is one, undivided, allcomprehensing. Since the Divine is One, there can be no ‘inferior divinities’. On the other side, since (in a manner of speaking) the totallity of all is God (under whatever name), everything is ‘part of God’. This does not mean that everything is God (pantheism), but that the Divine is in everything (panentheism), everything is a reflection of the Divinity.

From a very human standpoint, you can say that there are ‘degradations of divinity’. A man is ‘closer to God than a stone’ (which would be a very nice discussion on its own), so there can be things or beings ‘more divine’ than men. Maybe such ‘more divine beings’, ‘helping forces’, ‘higher principles’ can be named “Gods”. Maybe the Gods from the Germanic pantheon can be compared with the Christian (arch)angels, but maybe they are even ‘more divine’. This isn’t really a relevant question in my view. The Gods like they came to us in myths, represent principles and being ‘lower than Divinity’, they can be good ‘working tools’ in a certain stage of religiosity. Who could reach for or comprehend the Ultimate? Noone. Therefor we might have to set our view a little bit lower and focus on a level that is more within our reach. Think about the Hermetic division of heavenly spheres. If we start with putting our efforts in making the first seven our own, maybe sometime, we can hope to reach for the eight and the ninth.

Edda

So what about ‘sacred texts’? This is also a very nice subject for discussions among ‘pagans’ of various breed. I don’t believe that there are people who claim that the Edda is a direct dictation of the Gods, like the Qur’an or the Bible, but of course the texts were divinely inspired. The stories have been told and passed on for my centuries and eventually written down in Christian times. How Christianised the texts are, is one of many disputes. Close study makes it almost certain that poems from the elder Edda (the Poetic Edda) have ages-old elements and structures. They convey old and traditional ideas. Especially the elder, but also the younger (the Proze Edda of Snorri Sturluson) is really almost the only source that we have of old religious texts. Some parts of them are very usefull for religious purposes. A relatively comprehensive worldview can be destilled from them and many things of daily life explained. I wouldn’t say that everything that is written in the Eddas is true and should be accepted without reflection, but it surely gives plenty of material to lay your own ideas next to and also to give new insights. Both Eddas, but also the sagas from Iceland and Scandinavia, and also texts from the continent are important and thought-provoking enough to study. In the sagas you sometimes get a glimpse of religion, but it is mostly the ‘old moral’ that you can find there (but not necessarily copy!).

Another thing. I do not agree with those ‘pagans’ who think that ‘neopaganism’ should be a copy of the religion as it was. Things such as blood-revenge or the sacrifice of animals are in my opinion not of this time. I don’t forbid anyone to follow the path that (s)he finds most fitting, but I have different ideas. Living in this day and time, I can abstain from eating meat and still support the prechristian faith. I find that attitude more respectfull and religious than the carnivoric way. Again, I don’t forbid anyone to eat meat, because who am I to say what is right and wrong for other people? There is much in the Eddas and sagas that are charactertic for the time they were written in, like hunting, offerings, revenge, etc., but for me these texts are no holy books in the meaning that I literally have to follow everything that they say.

Conclusion: study the sagas (or read them at least), but especially the Eddas. Use the texts for referential purposes and of course the poetic Edda is the only and therefor the ultimate source for religious texts if you want to use such texts in rituals.

Dumézil

The Germanic religion has come to us very fragmentated. There are plenty of holes in our knowledge of the system, rituals, believes, etc. of our forefathers. People tend to fill in the holes, or worse, give their own fantasies a thin Germanic sauce and come up with something themselves. I am of the opinion that one should not limit him-/herself to the Germanic splinters that we have, but that we do have to try to keep a genuine and traditional (or maybe even better Traditional) faith. Scholars in the science of comperative religions, such as Georges Dumézil, have discovered that in the core, most religions are the same. Dumézil grouped these religions in the “Indo-European” section. Traditionalists such as René Guénon even believe, that there is one well from which all religions sprang. With either the sligthly limited Indo-European hypothesis or the more comprehensive Traditionalist view, it is possible to see what structures, metaphores, etc. are alike in different religions. Many people (including me) are of the opinion that Hinduism is the oldest, living religion. It definately has the oldest texts, so this is the closest to ‘the source’ as we can get. Hinduism seems on many points to be very comparitive to what we know the old faith of Northern Europe. Information that is lost for the Germanic faith, can therefor sometimes be filled with information from the Hindu religion. In the best case -of course- something is found in more than one tradition, so with more certainty can be asumed that this is really a traditional element.

In my idea it is not only extremely interesting, but even essential to look at other religions and systems. This will enormously expand your horizon and maybe even inspire your religious expression. I do not -however- say that you should have a short look on everything and especially not brewing this to your own system. Better to study one thing properly, than to study 15 things badly, but once you have ‘pierced through the surface’, found out how the study can form a part of your (inner) life, it may be helpfull to see how others are trying to tell the same in different words. Do I have to add that I support the idea that you start with your own roots? For Dutchman, German, Belgian, Norseman, etc. it seems more logical to delve into the Germanic past (but a descent study of Christianity can be just as good), while a Turk, Maroccan (even when living in Northern Europe) might better start with the Islam, or even better, what used to be in their homelands before there was Islam.

Back to Dumézil. I have said that the ultimate Divinity is one, ‘too one’ for us to grasp. Dumézil has discovered that the Divine presents itself ‘in threes’, which resulted in the tripartite hypothesis. I find this a very workable idea. Think about the Christian body-soul-mind, or the ancient division of a people (according to Dumézil): priests/kings, warriors, farmers/merchants. This idea can be found on many levels, including the religious. Think about my article about the three/nine worlds of Nordic mythology. The magnificent three that was found in the temple of Uppsala with Odin, Thor en Freyr, representing the principles of Wisdom, Strength and Beauty, easily fit in Dumézil’s scheme. The three that represent all can also be found in my living room. Thor (left, Strength), Odin (middle, Wisdom) and Freya (right, Beauty) and their colours red, white and blue (also the Dutch flag…) can be found on a small bookcase in which I keep my ‘pagan books’. The statues are not there for worship, I don’t sit in front of them and pray, but to keep reminding me of the ‘threesome divinity’.

In house

I think it is very helpfull to have such a ‘sacred place’ in your house, to remind you of what is important, to remind you that you intend to lead a ‘religious life’. I have more things in and around the house, but this ‘altar’ surely is the most important item. I have a very big TV-case on which I have (larger than the three on the right) statues of Tehuti/Thoth (who can in some ways be compared with Hermes Trismegistus and Odin/Wodan) and Aset/Isis (Freya?) with more room for extra things. I usually have something there which represents ‘nature’s current state’. Spring-flowers in spring; flowers in summer; leafs, nuts, chestnuts, etc. in fall; holly in the winter. When you live in a city like me, you tend to forget how nature changes over the year. I do try (and recommend) to spend much time in nature to reconnect to it. Nature is a more ‘direct’ representation of the Divine than asphalt roads, skyscrapers and malls and therefor a much better surrounding for trying to (re)find that divine spark in yourself.

My advice: if you have decided that you want ‘more religion in your life’, see to it that you are reminded to that constantly. Put (meaningfull) reminders in your house, go out in nature and experience its divinity. Also, do not shy of ‘traditional’ holy places such as churches, because you think they represent a degenerated religion (or whatever you think). A church is still a much better place for contemplation than a room with a shouting TV-set.

During the day / celebrations

‘The trick’ is to not make religion something that ‘you do’. Going to church every sunday does not make you a religious person. Religion should be the source of your life, the source of your acting, the foundation of your thinking. A Christian that truly lives by the 10 commandments without constantly have to think about them, is doing ‘a good job’. Doing good becomes a habbit, it goes automatically, it becomes part of your nature. In the beginning (but of course lateron as well) you will have to remind yourself to ‘be religious’. Make parts in your days to force you to do that. Like a Muslim prays to Mecca each and every day, you can make moments for reflection, prayer or whatever you think works best for you. I myself have two of such moments. When I wake up, I greet the sun and the inhabitents of the nine worlds that all may have a fruitfull day. Before I go to bed, I say goodbye to the sun and thank the inhabitents of the nine worlds. This is also a good moment to think back over the day, where did I go wrong, do I have to forgive somebody, is there something that made me (uselessly) angry? Nothing happens without a reason. There is no reason to worry about anything. The past is the past, but where can things be better? All this may seem a lot, but only takes a few minutes once you get the hang of it (because you will notice that you pay more attention during the day itself too).

Besides the daily ‘small things’ it can be helpfull to mark the year with some ‘bigger things’. I find the four seasonal feasts very fitting and also very traditional. Our forefathers celebrated them as well. I know very well that it is very, very hard to make these events something meaningfull. In the ideal case you know people with a similar religious expression as your own, to celebrate these events with. Even better things get when these other people are ‘experienced’. I am member of an ‘Asatru’ group and often discuss with likeminded people on several forums. With the second I can exchange ideas and experiences, with the first I can sometimes have a celebration and more frequently meet up to exchange views and ideas. Unfortunately ‘Asatruar’ / ‘pagans’ tend to celebrate the winter solstice largely, while the other three feasts pass by or are celebrated in smaller groups. Therefor I felt forced to find something meaningfull for myself. Of course joining rituals performed by ‘experienced’ people give ideas and (shallow) understanding of the meaning and symbology of certain rituals and elements thereof, but it proves very hard to make my own personal rituals satisfactory. It usually comes to the same. I find the Roman cult of Mithras a very appealing metaphore for the course of the sun throughout the year. Therefor my clothing and music on solstices and equinoxes are in the light of the ‘Sol Invictus’. For the rest I always use gold-coloured (the colour of the sun) incence (beads) and only on those four days a year, I drink mead (the golden nectar). Fire (also referring to the sun) always makes part of such small events. Not the ultimate and completely satisfactory scenario, but I suppose this has ‘to grow’ and I can only tell you for yourself these things have to grow too. Don’t try to start with a massive and complicated ritual outside with symbols that you hardly understand, but try to do something meaningfull.

Experimentation

Experiments naturally make part of a slowly growing incorporation of religion in your daily life. My idea about this: experiences with drugs or other ways to ‘open the doors of perception’ have nothing to do with religion or religious experience, how ‘mystic’ they may seem, they are dangerous and leading to exactly in the opposite direction you wish to go. Trying out rituals that you read or saw somewhere, but you don’t understand, is a very bad idea too. Experiments with ‘higher forces’ in whatever way, is a very bad idea. We live in the world we live in for a reason. We definately have to ‘reach for the divine’, but shouldn’t try to jump over the water without knowing what we will find on the other side, maybe you have chosen the wrong shore! Try to make your religion the basis of your life. Try to live upto religious values, such as ‘repect’, ‘do good’, ‘don’t judge’, ‘be persistent’, ‘fullfill your destiny’, ‘live upto the eternal Law’, etc. This kind of virtues can be found in any religion and will be very easy to think off. It will prove a hard enough job to really work on yourself, to not get angry, to not judge other people, to always do the right thing. Such things will automatically come from a religious view on life, the very view that you want to live by. This religious feeling has to be formed somehow, even when it can be quite indivualistic (initially), you will need a set of ideas and a way of expressing what you feel. This can be the prechristian faith of Northern Europe, or another religion (which is just as good). Being a Dutchman myself, I find the prechristian faith a proper basis, completed with some other symbols and in basis religious and not really of any particular religion.

Relations

I had never had a great interest in history. ‘The past is the past.’ When I started to study the prechristian faith more deeply, it (of course) proved essential to also look at the past. The fact alone that there is a gap of about 1200 years of Christianity makes this undeniable. The past can often be a very good source for inspiration. Studying the past makes you aware of who you are and how it comes that you live in the conditions that you live it. It can make you proud of your descent. This latter is often portrayed as an element (leading to) of the extreme right, but there is nothing wrong with some chauvinism or (regional) nationalism, as long as such notions are not taken into extremes or form the illusionary division between ‘us’ and ‘them’ (whoever those camps are). A very traditional value for our region is that there is nothing more important than the family. This surely is a value that has frightingly decreased over the last few decades. You don’t have to live with your parents, visit your brothers and sisters, grandparents, uncles, aunts, nephews and nieces every day, but be sure to be there for those you care for if this is necessary. First come the direct (can I say ‘blood’?)relations, then a bit further away, etc., then friends and people who you are connected with in another way than ‘through the blood’, the people of the area with which you are connected ‘by history’. If all is well (and it pretty quickly is in our time), you can also focus on the rest.

A ‘relation’ of a different kind, but ‘history’ in a way, bringing us back to the more ‘religious’ part of our discussion, is ‘folk-lore’. I am a ‘Brabander’ (a province in the South of the Netherlands) and was lucky enough to be brought up in the local dialect. Being a ‘Brabander’ is something that formed me. Typical Brabantian habbits, manners, celebrations were kept alive in our family, but much more have died out in the course of time. Studying the folklore of your region, connecting it with similar symbols in other regions and trying to find out what of these habbits still have their religious core, might help to understand why certain things are as they are. Like with the ‘reenactment’ neopagans, I do not agree with ‘folklorists’ who just copy things because they are ‘folkloristic’ whether they understand them or not, but these things can be meaningfull in our present time as well. Never forget where you came from, the past can be very helpfull to understand the present.

Conclusion

As you may have noticed, I have said some things that ‘fellow-pagans’ may not agree with, things even about which you can wonder how ‘pagan’ they are. I don’t care about that. I don’t think the answer is to copy something or to blindly follow another person’s path. Within I (think to) know what is right and what is wrong. I don’t mind what other people think about that and simply respect their opinions. This probably (and maybe even on purpose) makes me unfit for any catagory, but that is just for the better. I think (or hope) that my religiousness goes deeper than ‘just paganism’. ‘Asatru’ is just a modern expression of religion of our region. Many elements are universal, on some lays more stress than in other traditions and in general, the forn öld seems a fitting framework for me. I realise that this makes me more individualistic than I intend, but there should always be something left to work on right?

I hope that I have given you some suggestions to awaken that slumbering fire that in most people in our society almost died out. If everybody would live a really religious life, all the worlds problems would be solved (oh sweet utopia), so let us start with ourselves.

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One comment

  1. Your thoughts are very interesting. My grandfather was born in Schiedam. I have been studying pagan beliefs and history of Norther Europe for about 25 years. I grew up in the farm country, Michigan USA, our ancestors, obviously, lived on farms, and were hunters and gatherers, and I think that is the key to our beliefs. The animals, the plants and trees, the weather, the seasons of the year, the more we understand these things, the closer we come to our ancestors. And much of what you said follows this. The question is, I think, what will paganism be like 500 years from now?? Think of ‘Star Trek’, would Captain Picard put up a Yule/Christmas tree? They will think a lot about the stars when they live in space, on a space station. Ah, but they will have a greenhouse, an arboritum, oh, I just answered my own question, ha ha. I am so very glad to find someone like you, in the homeland of my grandfather’s family. Thank you for all the research you have done, and sharing it with all of us. November First is coming soon, half way between Autumn Equinox and Winter Soltice, a solar holiday….happy holy-day to you.

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