Heathens in Profile is a monthly blog series featuring the lives and practices of self-identifying Heathens across the world, in an effort to dismantle the stereotype of Heathens as looking a certain way and living a certain lifestyle. The individuals featured in this blog series come from all walks of life and have differing perspectives of the world, but nevertheless all consider themselves Heathen. All answers to the series questions are their own words.
Tell us a bit about yourself, such as what you do for a living, what your hobbies are, what your favorite books/movies/TV shows are — anything you feel comfortable sharing.
Hi, I’m Marc. I’m the bloke that runs the blog Of Axe and Plough and a variety of other endeavors across the Pagan-o-sphere. I dig Mediterranean food, single malt scotches, dark beer, black coffee, and red wine. I also like moonlit strolls along the beach and getting lost in the forest. Freddie Prinz Junior is my spirit animal.
This isn’t online dating. What is this, where am I? Who are you people?
In all seriousness, I’m a historian and social scientist by training, although I’m presently employed in the private sector designing things for rich people who spend entirely too much money on frivolous things. Otherwise, I’m around these parts, and have been for a minute. Twenty two years this year, to be precise.
And I’m really not that old.
What kind of Heathenry do you practice?
I am “Fyrnsidere,” or a practitioner of Fyrnsidu. Fyrnsidu is an Old English compound word equating to “Old Custom,” much like Forn Siðr or Forn Sed. More colloquially I am Anglo-Saxon Heathen in my focus and liturgy (Old English epithets and liturgical practices if I can manage it), but my Heathenry is largely informed by a variety of other factors. Unlike many Norse Heathens, I tend to buttress my understanding of Heathenry with comparative studies of other pre-Christian peoples as they would potentially have overlapped with the tribes that formed the Anglo-Saxons, and somewhat freely draw inspiration from the late antique period of Northwest Europe as a whole (considering Saxon foederati were in Britain before the traditional invasion).
Since “Anglo-Saxon” is an anachronistic identity in and of itself (really, check with the scholars), we must remember that during the period of ‘native Heathendom’, that is, in an unmolested state from 470(-ish) to 597 CE (and then molested from 597 until the 8th century), there are a lot more commonalities between the tribes and other early Germanic and Celtic peoples on the Continent than there would be in comparison to Norse practices. When the Angles and Saxons and Jutes and Frisians and all assortment of other tribal foederati landed in Britain there had already been a resurgence of pagan practice as the British Church was failing due to the destruction of the Roman administrative body.
So it’s not beyond the pale to believe that someone, somewhere, could have picked up native Celticist folklore or belief, or had some kind of tradition from the Continent. Unable to be proven, but I’m concerned with now, and not then. If I was able to prove it, I’d have my doctorate already.
I’ve been called a “Heathen heretic” because I am an unrepentant polytheist, or that I’m some kind of “eclectic” in light of that. I don’t believe “eclecticism” works with “polytheism” in terms of belief. If we look at the wider Indo-European and Indo-Iranian worlds of religion we see that there’s a lot of cultural transmission between varying tribes, peoples, and societies. Polytheism is pluralistic, and immensely mutable in the world.
In before someone alleges that I took an idea from them that I’ve always had.
Did you have a religion before Heathenry? What caused you to leave it?
Nnn…ye…o? On paper, yes. Forcibly baptised as a Catholic when I was a kid, so I guess you can say that I am an Apostasized Catholic (especially considering Ratzinger/Benedict XVI made it so one can’t formally leave the Church any longer, but I digress). But I grew up in an a-religious household and my child-like way of looking at the world (which I feel is not a pejorative!) never really disappeared. I came across general Paganism when I was 12 and over time I found that Heathenry was a right enough fit.
When did you decide to explore Heathenry as a potential new religion?
See above. I didn’t so much choose to explore it as found that what I had learned about it felt appropriate and that I should stick with it.
It started with the Gods, at first, but unsurprisingly in a more academic sense. A lot of Pagan types say that American Gods brought them here. In my case it was Bullfinch’s Mythology and World History in 6th grade, Beowulf in 7th grade, and a book on Norse myths that I was given as a kid with really evocative oil paintings in them.
When I started doing my religious practice “seriously” (in that I stopped being a passive participant) I found that a lot of the preconceptions regarding things like “fate” and accountability meshed well with what I understood to be within Heathen worldview and “ethics.”
I’ve been doing this ever since.
What compelled you to look into Heathenry in the first place?
I typically answer this question with, “Because I can.” So many people in Heathenry use their heritage as an excuse, as if they have to validate their reasons for being interested in and developing the tools necessary to practice the religious identity. That’s not the case, at all.
Polytheism. Is. Pluralistic. And. Doesn’t. Care. About. Your. Family. Or. Heritage. Insert requisite clap emojis for effect.
It is as much a conscious choice as it is a “calling”, and just because one’s heritage or family comes from the region that these people lived doesn’t make them any closer to “valid” than someone approaching it from another ethno-geographical standpoint. Newsflash, kids, your families probably weren’t hidden pagans that kept their familial practices alive post-Conversion. Especially once the Reformation and Counter-Reformations happened.
What made you decide to stick with Heathenry after learning about it?
I am a stubborn bastard. And, of course, “because I can.”
Early on I just made my way, without people. I started blogging about halfway through (bit more) being Pagan in my active phase, and just kept with it independently of the wider Heathen community.
But when I stepped into that circle? Well, that’s where my stubbornness came out.
I’ve had a lot of ideas that were not accepted by other vocal (read: not prominent) Heathens that I ran across, with such witty Protestantisms as “One man cannot serve two masters” and a number of bigoted statements due to my surname (I’m Italian-American). So for every single person that told me I didn’t belong, or questioned why I was here, I dug in harder.
I do this because it is where I want to be.
What I did decide is that Heathenry lacked a certain vitality that was present in other systems of religion. There had been a great deal of unhealthy ideas which had been floating around for a while and had become something of a meme throughout (specifically) online Heathenry. Things like:
“One man cannot serve two masters.”
“The Gods don’t care about you.”
“You can’t be a Heathen without a group.”
Et cetera, et cetera. So I decided to become more vocal about my ideas and efforts at designing and drafting a more comprehensive, tangible, religious experience.
Also I feel the need to make up for some rather egregious misunderstandings through my activity with Heathen Talk. And so here I am.
Has Heathenry influenced your perspective on your role in modern society? If so, how?
I believe that Heathenry helps to remind us of the obligations we have to our communities as social beings, even those of us who are “solitary” practitioners (a term which I despise for Heathenry). In recognizing the deficiencies created by the modern world we can more appropriately react and (hopefully) construct our relationships in a beneficial and healthy way.
The concepts of Innanbord and Utanbord (Inneryard/Outeryard) and the gifting cycle aren’t necessarily unique or exclusive to Heathenry as they replicate fairly common pre-industrial communal and kinship ties. But Heathenry’s emphasis on them as part of a religious aspect encourages us to sit down and think about these concepts which we might otherwise take for granted and/or abuse without knowing it.
No individual is an island, and no matter what we do and who we are, we create connections, whether tangible or intangible. It might just be me and my experience with a fairly detached familial situation and an isolated community, but that’s one of the largest influences in my day to day, modern life.
Are there any aspects of the Heathen worldview that you felt the need to modernize? Which one(s) and why?
Well, other than most of them? Truly?
There’s a certain equilibrium that I strive towards in regards to the integration of Heathenry into my daily life. I think that many people suffer an incongruity in some of these reconstructionist, revivalist religions; they exist “out of step” with their daily lives. Maybe this is because we’re a “secularized” society, and that we’re used to people going to Church on Sundays or on major Holidays, and that’s it.
If a religion does not blend seamlessly and effortlessly into one’s life then people (in my mind, at least), are less apt to follow through with it in the ways that are required of them. Similar to water — it follows the path of least resistance. Those Pagans become the same thing as Catholics who go to mass once a year because it is expected of them by culture and family, and not through any true need on their part.
Of course, I do not believe that Heathen “worldviews” are incongruous with the modern day, just that there needs to be more socio-cultural exploration of such things. We cannot rely on isolated texts and proto-histories that deal with postulations (specifically those like Stephen Basset, who is an ethnoarchaeologist and someone whom I recommend, and Gronbech, whom I do not) and then mucking along from there.
Which makes me wonder if “intentional worldview” possesses the same gravitas as “organic worldview.” Hmm…
Some people believe that reconstructionism is a strict adherence to the religion as we think it would have existed in situ, or something along those lines; some kind of “true” religious identity that would have existed in the fifth century, and so we can re-create it in the twenty-first. I think that there is some merit in trying to be as correct as possible for a foundation of experiential belief and religious practice, but we need to honestly take stock of where we are, what we’re trying to accomplish, and strive not to be what amounts to a Heathen version of a plain-clothes Christian.
I mean, how well are they doing for themselves? Honestly?
We drive cars. We have faster-than-sound travel. We’ve been to space. We possess, for all intents and purposes, instantaneous communications with anyone around the world at any time (situations pending). We can get out-of-season and foreign goods in our grocery stores at any time of the year. Salt has become a commodity that we blink at when in the past one’s salary would be the weight paid to an individual in salt.
We exist in a society that has destroyed the home, destroyed the family, and placed a disproportionate emphasis on mobility for the sake of economy, an importance on capitalistic endeavors, and a wider concern for things other than twenty-five or so families which constitute our hypothetical Heathen hamlet.
Heathenry-as-a-tribal religion was established during a time of increasing globalization and interconnectivity. There’s a certain anachronism that takes place in the religious identity, either willfully or not, and we’re frankly ill-equipped to approach the future in any tangible way (in my opinion). If we do not take care we will isolate ourselves into obscurity.
Reconstructionism isn’t the end-all, be-all of the religious engagement for these reasons. If it is, we’d be little better than the Shakers or, worse, the weekend reenactors that put their faith up and down at convenience. It’s a method of data accrual. And no amount of banging on about Saxon calendars and proper historicity will make you any closer to the “ur-heathens” or “arch-heathens.”
Do you find yourself focusing more on Heathen beliefs or culture?
I think for the purposes of this question “belief” is more apt, although there would have been no distinction between the two prior to secularization. Why is it more apt? I am American culture. New England region, and I practice Old English Heathenry and other assorted familial and cultural practices. I can say “both,” but… ehhh…
Obviously, it’s not so simple as “belief” and “culture” as both are intrinsically linked. What are Heathen beliefs in light of my New Englander culture? They are the Well and the Tree, the daily speaking of Orlæg, the understanding of the cosmic forces of Wyrd, my deeds and actions as eventually becoming reality, and the polytheistic, pluralistic, understanding of divinity. These things separate my ‘beliefs’ from my culture. These cosmic forces, the recognition of the multiplicity of the divine, the following of do ut des, they’re currently distinct from my local culture.
And then we come to the Old English Heathenry and its historic culture. What is “Anglo-Saxon” culture? Now that is a loaded question, given the predilection towards association with less-than-savory aspects of Western Anglophone culture. But in this, I am reminded specifically of the Gaulish polytheists who utilize their linguistic (re)constructed heritage to formulate their identity irrespective of nationality, creed, or denomination. Should we approach it in that way? Should Anglophone speakers (Native or non-native) be more likely/expected to pick up Anglo-Saxon Heathenry when they venture into this?
Does modern Heathenry have a “culture,” or even a “subculture”? This is a question I’ve pondered fairly extensively. Obviously, we’ve a religious, theological culture that exists and is growing. But a material culture? Social culture? How do we define these as separate from the overculture, or from any other subculture that we may share symbols, music, aesthetics with?
Do your family and friends know about your religion? If they do, are they supportive?
Yes and no. Some of them know I’m some breed of Pagan, although we don’t talk about it. I have friends who have paid attention to what I write, and have listened in when I’ve spoken (my poor hiking buddies — Three Wanderers represent!)/ranted about such things that bother me.
Do they know the particulars? No, not unless the read my blog. They know of my work, but have not asked me directly. Some, I’m sure, view it as wrong and incorrect, as is the way of it. I have a few Pagan-types in my family, but they’re largely granola-crunching wooey types that verge on the New Age, so we don’t really talk shop.
I’ve had previous relationships who felt… threatened?… by me. Either some who thought that I’d eventually “come around,” or some who heard of me speaking ill of a particular theology (looking at you, Protestants) which caused them to think that I was some angry, hateful person. I’m not.
There’s just a power disparity between polytheists and non-polytheists/atheists. People tend to mistake criticism as attacks. And you cannot help but be vociferous at the failings of the majority.
Or, at least, I cannot.
What do you think makes your hearth cult unique or personalized?
By its very nature one’s “hearth cult” is experiential and subjective to each individual person and household just as one may have different life experiences compared to another, despite living next door to each other. The experiences are distinct and different and ultimately self contained. This is the nature of hearth cult. There is not, cannot, be any uniformity.
My hearth cult is unique because it is mine, it is personalized because it is mine. Because I live it, that makes it different from yours. I am not you.
But beyond this, I incorporate other deities into my practice (as the audience gasps audibly). I maintain something of a “boar cult” or “swin cult” to a number of (non-Germanic!) boar gods found throughout a pan-European spectrum. It is unrepentantly contemporary, and I make no claims to any validity of practice.
Since I live in New England and I am from the Northeast my religious engagement is intimately tied to my local geography and climate. I exist in a juxtaposition between easy access to the sea and the overabundance of forested hills and mountains further inland (especially where I grew up in New York). These, along with the rich histories of the region and the folklore which encompasses it, all help to shape my experience of divinity.
Have you had any divine experiences (hierophany) that you are willing to share?
Mm. Insert trite “hierophany is sacred” commentary.
I mean it is, but that’s not the point. I had one incidence when I was in Italy where I saw the manifestation of the divine, as I viewed it, but it didn’t have to do with a “Heathen deity.”
How would you say Heathenry has changed your life?
As I said, I found myself largely following parallel to what I understand to be Heathen ideology and thought. This is not to say I’m some kind of crypto-Heathen or some other person who “Magically Found Out He Believed Exactly What He Found™.” Not at all, and I’d be the first to say it.
I’m also going to have to admit that Heathenry in and of itself (as a unique, “Germanic,” institution) has not had a direct impact on my life. What has is the effort in delving deeper into it as a religious practice. I’ve become more open to notions of interpersonal relationships, responsibilities therein, and some more specific cosmological arguments which have all shifted my perception of my role in society and reality as a whole.
The most “Heathen” one would, of course, be the concepts of action and inaction. We always hear that “actions are louder than words”, but very rarely do we put the gravitas on them in the same way as Heathens do. Our actions literally create reality. When you think about that, and the impact that our actions have on the not-past (what some might call the “future”) in a cosmological sense… well, you become a lot more concerned with proper, right, action — even outside ritual enactment.
The infrastructure that supports Heathenry exists from a time before modernity, and in some cases can help us detangle the more toxic aspects of our society from ourselves (as much as possible as being ensconced within the social overculture). It is pluralistic, although admittedly insular (see above, regarding globalization). It’s unconcerned with the background of people, but concerned with their actions and quality.
No, I am not advocating a “return to traditionalism,” or any such nonsense thing. But in reassessing ourselves, especially someone like me who grew up as a white male of lower-middle class, we can stymie some of the unfortunate problems that we’ve developed for our society.
Is there an answer in Heathenry? Maybe not for everyone. Notions of accountability, plurality, duty and obligation, etc., are found elsewhere in other revivalisms, other schools of thought, other philosophies. But for me, and for those I know in Heathenry, it’s been formative and foundational.
Is there anyone (Heathen or non-Heathen) you look up to? Why?
I have historic figures that I look to towards inspiration, but I’ve always been someone to tend to go my own way.
What advice would you give to new Heathens?
This isn’t exactly a religion that one can pick up and just run with – even if one were born into Heathenry (which we’re seeing more and more of!) there’s a significant pressure from external sources which would mitigate our experiences. The overculture weighs heavily on us, the Protestantized Christian (for most) world tends to strip our discernment of a living polytheistic tradition. There’s honestly so much advice to new Heathens and new polytheists that I do not think I can succinctly give an answer, but I will try to give some in part.
The cultivation of critical thinking is inherently important, for it allows one to parse through both close readings of original source material (Ie not taking them at face value as scripture) and potential motivations behind contemporary writers (ie not inculcating ourselves with unfortunate political leanings). Socrates said, “All I know is that I know nothing,” and I think approaching this religion with that mentality will help. We are reconstructing themes and a foundation to a religion in order to press forward into a new era of religious identity that necessarily deals with decolonizing ourselves from an oppressive worldview that is ever-present.
There’s no single book, or even a series of book, that one can read and suddenly be “Heathen.” Every author is writing from an angle, or arguing a point, and they are not the sum total of religious understanding or experience. It’s a hard pill to swallow, but that’s what it is.
Do not get discouraged. Networking can be good for study, but toxic for communications. I also liken it to Instagram, where one can feel discouraged because another person cultivates an image of piety, success, and religious fulfillment, when in reality it’s a simple illusion. People doubt, and make mistakes, and stumble. It’s natural. Approaching Heathenry expecting an immediate revelatory experience or some other theophany that proves that what you’re doing is “right” or “real” is setting yourself up for disappointment, frustration, or worse.
Keep in mind that there are several shades of “right,” even though people will tell you that you are doing it wrong. A minority of incidences, largely in regards to orthopraxic concepts of purity, ritual format and the overarching themes of divinity (which is an unpopular opinion) can be “wrong.” The rest? Polytheism and polytheistic engagement of every kind of pluralistic and mutable and will take on individual approaches. Hearth cult, local cult, tribal cult, hero cult, etc., are all innately distinct among different peoples, groups, and locations. No two will approach it the very same way.
Keep with it. Don’t get discouraged. And keep an open mind.