5 Ways to Practice Heathenism in the Modern World

by Sarah Birdsong
5 Ways to Practice Heathenism in the Modern World: true practice is a little more nuanced than we're lead to believe.

It’s not easy for me to pinpoint when I became a heathen. I knew organically, even in my youth, that I was drawn to animism, to ideas lacking supraregional rules and institutions. With the internet and the local library at my disposal, seemingly without real effort, I fell upon reading material speaking of the customs of Pre-Christian cults and regional belief systems. And yet, of all the belief systems I read about, only the Germanic belief systems stuck with me. I gravitated towards a local belief system carried over from one generation to another. Devoid of dogma, strict hierarchies of gods, or beliefs. That beliefs and practices varied from town to town, household to household, enraptured my young mind.

During that time I was required to keep my burgeoning ideas and beliefs quietly to myself. My parents’ hyper Abrahamic religious addiction was such that I would be dealt with swiftly and severely if my inclinations were discovered. Their religious fervor was not strong enough to strip me of them, however.

I didn’t know it at that time, but I was heathen even then. Even before I knew the word describing my newfound spiritual inclinations. Of course, the term “heathen” would not be used to describe this branch of paganism until many years later. This followed a concerted effort from its practitioners to distance themselves from other pagans.

“Heathen” normally describes those practicing a Germanic based faith. Conversely, you have the ever growing in popularity Asatru normally describes those practicing a more Icelandic version. “Pagan” normally encompasses anyone who follows or believes in a multiplicity of deities in keeping with the writings of Buckland and the like. Speaking in terms of linguistics, however, heathen is a uniquely Germanic word compared to pagan, which has Latin roots.

Owing its roots to the Gothic haiþi (“dwelling on the heath”), “heathen” differs from the Latin “pagan,” stemming from paganus.  Modern heathens seek to separate themselves from the Neo-Pagan movement heralded by Buckland, owning a previously derisive word as a badge of honor. The bulk of this reasoning has to do with the vast conglomeration of various proto-religions into a massive movement with unverified personal gnosis. Heathens proudly proclaim their religion as the religion with homework, eschewing anything outside the historical record.

I’ve grown in my beliefs since my adulthood and private apostasy. That apostasy would later be public, met with no small degree of chagrin and brimstone. 2009 was a tumultuous year.

Practicing a non-major religion in the modern world is difficult—especially when you’re a solo practitioner. There are exceptions, but many major religions of the world enjoy a wide berth in terms of observances for their holy days. Additionally, they often have designated times for spiritual communion while we do not.

When you add the normal craze of your daily life to this mixture, it’s easy to let your practice suffer.

Most importantly, in a time when symbols and ideologies from your practice are being levied against others by hate groups and extremist parties, it’s important to find your center. It’s important to differentiate yourself from those who would usurp your practice. In the spirit of this knowledge and the New Year, I have compiled a list of activities in my daily practice that keep me rooted on my path and centered in my practice.

It’s also easy to believe we need special tools, adornments, and locations in order to practice. If we aren’t wearing an apron dress with plated hair in the middle of a field of like-minded folks, can we truly call ourselves heathen?

The truth is, true practice is a little more modest than that.

5 Ways to Practice Heathenism in the Modern World

  • Participate in your community.

“We are our deeds” is a popular mantra within heathen circles, which circles back to early Germanic tribal life. Because communities rely on the cooperation of its members, individuals are required to work together for shared success. This brings us to the concept of social good.

My practice permeates everything I do; there can be no separation between it and my deeds. I live in my community. My family lives in my community. It’s something we live and breathe. It’s in my best interests and the interests of my community to work towards bettering it. But sometimes, it’s difficult to know where to start.

I’ve worked for my community in various ways for many years. But I truly began serving it in 2010 when I worked in the library of my local community college.

Central Piedmont Community College avails itself to a greater cross-section of its community, with programs and scholarships designed just for needy populations. CPCC’s libraries routinely host book sales, the proceeds of which are used to fund the Theresa Thompson Scholarship. Additionally, the libraries host drives for the Emergency Food Pantry, striving to provide individuals and households within the CPCC community with 2 days worth of food per visit.

Working for the community in these programs and in the library gave me a deeper appreciation of the needs of my community. Assisting non-traditional students—often victims of domestic abuse, single parents, or veterans—with technology, homework, and class projects, gave me a greater appreciation of my own privileges.

The succeeding years have seen my continued involvement in my community, wherever it happens to be. I contend that a good practice, and good heathenism, involves public work. Religion isn’t just about your personal spiritual well being, which is just a small part of the overall picture. Religion holds culture. It binds people together and creates a common narrative.

Find something in your community you believe in and get involved.

  • Keep and maintain a green space.

I grew up in the country for the whole of my childhood. Planting gardens of violets and pansies next to our food garden of carrots, potatoes, and squash gave me a deeper appreciation of the land I lived on. When I exchanged the wild gallery of wilderness for the Gordian Knot of concrete in my adult life, I fell out of touch with this aspect of myself.

However, due to my busy lifestyle, sensitive plants often found themselves neglected in my care. Therefore, I required hardier charges to care for. While Sean worked in Arizona, he gifted me a purple Phalaenopsis Orchid, a plant which thrives on neglect. It was then I began keeping a small porch garden consisting of geraniums, butterfly bushes, morning glories, and herbs. I gravitate towards rosemary, oregano, and basil. These plants don’t require much attention and will complement any less-than-green thumb.

But if you’re in a place where you can’t keep an outdoor garden—and yet still want to keep something green—there’s hope yet. I’ve had my eyes on the Miracle-Gro® AeroGarden™ Harvest Plus for some time, now. Aside from the benefit of having a year-round herb supply, my current porch is east-facing. It doesn’t lend itself to a healthy, happy herbal environment.

Tending a garden keeps me centered and focused, especially when my life seems out of my control. It comes full circle when you use your own herbs in your cooking, or frame dried flowers you saved from your garden.

  • Create.

I can be bad about letting this slide. I get preoccupied with my daily responsibilities, people who need me, chores that need to be done, and bills that need to be paid. Before I know it, I’m getting ready for bed.

However, setting aside time either daily or weekly to create something nourishes both my spirit and my practice. Being creative is something deeply personal to each of us, and will thus have different implications for each of us. For me, being creative could be different day to day, moment to moment. From writing to painting to pressing flowers, I have my hands in too many pots to narrow it down to a neat and tidy list.

Being consistent is the most important factor. Find your outlet and maintain it. If everything you fill your days with is lead by your intentions and thoughts stemming from the ideals of your path, everything you do is then a celebration of it.

  • Keep your word.

We are the masters of unsaid words, but slaves of those we let slip out.

Winston Churchill

Words matter. Words are sacred. Fulfilling or breaking them affects the wyrd of yourself and those around you. This concept grows increasingly complicated in our present culture where we’ve developed a complex and expensive legal system around compelling people to keep their word.

Regardless of their form or presentation, whether it be a private conversation or public speech, words matter. What can happen if we start to believe they don’t? Our social institutions where we’ve designed the very concept of social good are undermined, for starters.

When you speak, you create. Honor what you speak.

  • Persist.

In the face of discouragement, obstacles, and major life difficulties… persist.

Stay the course and maintain your actions in spite of your apprehension. Holding hope and fear in tension has the potential to create something life altering in the best of ways. They can and will coexist with your wyrd. Persist until you succeed. Use every obstacle—whether it be at the hands of others or yourself—as a stepping stone to your goals.

People like stability; in some ways, a miserable but stable existence is more comforting than a happier life with less stability. It’s more comfortable to stick with the devil you know than to risk fear, failure, and vulnerability by taking risks. Added to that, it’s easy to fall into maladaptive patterns because constant low-grade misery seems preferable than the potential for short-term but incredible misery.

Don’t fall into this trap. Be an example to yourself and to others. Persist.

IN CLOSING

Spiritual belief has always been a deeply personal topic to me. In the past, I’ve declined to speak of it with others. I’ve certainly shied away from sharing my thoughts in public forums. However, I’ve since realized silence is an active form of communication just the same as speaking. In some ways, it can be active compliance.

To this end, these five points are just a few of the ways I have learned in nearly ten years of my heathen practice to incorporate my faith into my daily life. Because I have always been solo—this fact owing itself to my own wounds from group religious settings—I’ve lacked a fair amount of pretense in my spiritual presentation.

I am a largely non-theistic heathen, however, and these may not speak to someone whose own practice involves more symbols, blóts, or moots. I would love to hear how others incorporate their faith into their daily lives—whether it be heathen or pagan, or anywhere else in between.

ADDITIONAL READING

I have compiled a list of additional resources regarding this entry and its contents for researching the topics therein:

Raymond Buckland’s Complete Guide of Witchcraft: Buckland is a controversial figure in the pagan community, but he is nonetheless a prolific voice among its members.

Wild Hunt and Furious Host: an in-depth study of historical artifacts and lore of the Teutonic peoples.

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