So what are Heathens? Well the term comes from an Old English root that more or less means the same as pagan did to the Romans. So in effect Heathens are Pagans, however the reverse is not strictly true, at least within the modern Neo-Pagan community. Rather than referring to paganism in general, the term Heathen has been adopted by many who today follow what are also termed the Northern Paths.
Simply put a Heathen is someone who follows a path that is based upon the writings and gods of the old Germanic peoples. In truth the there was no real division between the Germanic and the Celtic tribes until Julius Caesar decided to class the northern tribes which were crossing into Roman held Gaul, as a separate people; it was a political spin to excuse the unrest that had arisen in what had been a conquered land. Of course over time the two cultural spheres drifted further apart. While some underlying themes and beliefs may not be dissimilar, there are definite differences.
The Germanic tribes covered the northern territories of what we now call Europe. Their tribes covered what is modern Germany up into Scandinavia and across into Russia. After the Romans withdrew from the British Isles, it was the Germanic peoples that moved in, though it was not a welcome migration. The Celtic people and the Romano-Celts were pushed to the corners of the islands and later still other Germanic people moved in from the north, we call these somewhat erroneously the Vikings (to go a Viking simply meant to go and raid overseas). Over time there were battles and divisions, treaties and treachery, but the end result is the mongrel race that are the Britons today. Oh yes the Normans came over too, but they werenít strictly French, having originated as another Germanic people - The British Isles were a valuable commodity you see.
As well as the gods there is also belief in spirits of place and landscape that are called wights or landvaettir and they too are accorded respect and honour.
The Norse (northern) gods come basically in two groups; the Vanir and the Aesir. The Vanir are the older pantheon and are largely concerned with Nature. The Aesir however were concerned with civilisation and agriculture in the most part. The two pantheons merged after a period of conflict and while the Aesir became largly dominant, the Vanir were not forgotten. For further details please click on the link for World Tree. Followers of the Norse pantheons generally dedicate themselves to a single or group of the gods, perhaps one pantheon or maybe just the god/gods that embody aspects of their life, however this is a religion of hard polytheists and while an individual may deal mainly with only their own gods, they recognise that the other gods are also real and may at times seek counsel from them. In addition to a general Norse paganism, Heathens may also class themselves as:
Odinists - dedicated to Odin, though as noted the other gods are recognised and respected.
Asatru - dedicated to the Aesir, though again the Vanir are still recognised and respected.
Vanatru - dedicated to the Vanir, whilst also recognising and respecting the Aesir.
Heathenry in Practice
While there are many similarities between Celtic paganism and Norse paganism there are also many differences. As described above the Germanic and Celtic tribes were closely related (separated, you might say, only by a river, language and Roman politics) and so it is unsurprising that this should be the case. The most obvious differences are that whereas the Celts left little in the way of written language, they were mostly an oral culture; the Germanics however were more literary. It must however be remembered that while many of the Norse sagas and eddas were written down, the versions that are known today were largely compiled and written down centuries later and mostly by Christian scholars, consider the common view of Vikings as violent rapists and pirates; while not completely untrue it is only a fragment of history taken out of context with their culture.
The Germanic people lived by a code of honour and are responsible for many of the ideas that formed the basis for modern governments and laws; one of the oldest continuous parliaments being the Tynwald on the Isle of Man. This belief in honour is strong in the belief of modern Heathens and their beliefs can be summed up as follows:
Troth - a voluntary obligation of loyalty; to do the right thing by your gods, family, friends and ancestors. To act with honour, to keep oaths and to accept responsibility for ones actions. Much of this is detailed in a moral code called the Hávamal, which details the etiquette of giving and receiving hospitality and is said to have come from Odin himself. Many also live by what are called the Nine Noble Virtues which while they sometimes vary are mostly detailed as: Courage, Fidelity, Industriousness, Truth, Discipline, Self-reliance, Honour, Hospitality and Perseverance.
Orlog or Wyrd - this is best described as a form of predetermined fate, however it is both personal and familial, therefore actions taken today may affect effect not only yourself, but perhaps one of your relatives either in the present or the future. In many ways it can be equated in the eastern belief in karma or the Wiccan law of three fold return, however it is somewhat more complex and not simply a case of doing good or bad. Orlog is meted out by the three Norns; Skuld, Urd and (Being, Fate and Necessity). The Norns are roughly equivalent to the Greek Fates and the orlog itself could be envisioned as a spider web, where touching one thread can affect many others.
Rituals are very different from that of the formalised circles of Wicca and Druidry, though to be honest the form of rituals across these paths is not set in concrete and vary in solemnity and composition. Rituals are called a blot, which rhymes with boat and signifies the use of blood sprinkled around in the ancient rituals. A blot usually takes place outside in a rectangular area of sacred space (called a ve, which rhymes with hay) and may include the swearing of oaths, which are sworn on a special arm ring which may be anointed with the blood of the ritual meal (vegetarianism not being a required practice) and a sumbul which is a form of ritualised boasting, Drink may be consumed from horns and celebrants and their tools are blessed by a mjolnir (Thorís hammer), dancing, chanting, reciting of poetry are all common and the rite may be ended by a cry of Waes Hael, which is the equivalent of "good health". In many ways you can see that blots make bloody good parties!!
Whereas Wiccans may work together in a coven, Heathens form what is usually termed a hearth, though sometimes it may be refered to as a kindred, garth or godhord. Rituals may be lead by either a gothi (priest) or a gytha (priestess) as sexes are seen as equal; also present maybe a female shaman/seeress called a volva. Male shamans or runemasters are sometimes called a vitki.
While many Heathens may not practice magic, there are two distinct forms galdr, which is a ceremonial magic usually practiced by the gothi/gytha, and siedr, which is more intuitive and shamanic and mostly the province of the volva/vitki.
While rituals take place at set times and mark recognised dates most Heathens do not follow the Celtic influenced Wiccan wheel of the year.
Nazism a tale of caution.
While modern witches, Wiccans and other Pagans are often required to put people straight over accusations of animal mutilation and baby sacrifice (which need I say are untrue), Heathens are often accused of being fascists or Neo-Nazis. The reason for this is that Hitler and the Nazi movement co-opted various ideals and symbols from the Norse beliefs to both justify their eugenics programme and to validate their claim to be the Master Race. Quite honestly I fail to understand why the public think that Hitlerís claim to Norse mythology should be demonised when he also claimed aspects of Christian mythology, most notably the Spear of Destiny, which are always seen as blameless and misused. Adding to this are a number of fascists/white supremist groups that have either tried to infiltrate Heathen groups or have incorporated Norse beliefs into their public manifesto for the same reasons that Hitler did. Some of these groups have websites which if read by someone with even the slightest understanding of Heathenism or Norse myth would find beggars the mind (one example was stating that Jesus Christ was the son of Odin!!!) but there are unfortunately always some people who are either gullible or vulnerable enough to be sucked in by such rubbish.
I will not offer any links to such sites here and if any such views are expressed in Fool's Forum I will ensure that appropriate action is taken. This may be seen as a sign of censorship, but while I believe that that the beliefs of all people should be respected, the views that come from this extreme tend to be inimical to this philosophy.
What must be born in mind is that all faiths are capable of being perverted to serve other motives (witness Christianity and the 'Burning Times' so beloved of angst consumed Wiccan reactionaries) and true followers of the Northern Paths are quick to expel any such elements.
One last point, the Norse belief that the homeland is great is not the same as the Nazi belief that the fatherland is greatest. If there is one thing that proves this beyond doubt is that just as the ancient Germanics settled in new lands and embraced them as there own, respecting local gods and intermarrying with the pre-existing population, so to, do modern Heathens respect the beliefs and rights of others.