Defining Heathenry

What is Heathenry?

As stated on our front page, Heathenry is a revivalist religion seeking to bring the practice of the ancient Germanic peoples into the present day. In simplest terms, it uses information inferred or represented in scholarship to form the foundation of a modern, polytheistic religious tradition.

What makes someone a Heathen?

For the purposes of this website, a Heathen is considered someone who:

  • possesses a worldview aligned with the cosmological concepts of the Well and the Tree, and accepts wyrd and orlæg as cosmic forces;
  • engages in the gift cycle through reciprocity with appropriate divine figures—the gods, the ancestors, and the wights; and
  • is animistic, polytheistic, and/or panentheistic.
What are the cosmological concepts of the Well and the Tree?

Please read the page on wyrd and orlæg to learn more.

What is the difference between a Pagan and a Heathen?

“Pagan” is used to described any individual who practices a religion within the Contemporary Pagan movement. Religions that fall under this “umbrella” of Contemporary Paganism usually either focus on reviving the pre-Christian beliefs of Europe, North Africa, and the Near East; or they are modern romanticist traditions such as Wicca or Druidry. “Pagan” usually does not describe living traditions such as Hinduism, Shinto, Buddhism, indigenous beliefs, or any other tradition that does not self-describe as Pagan.

Heathenry, as a religion focused on the revival of the pre-Christian beliefs of the ancient Germanic peoples, falls within this “umbrella” of Contemporary Paganism. A Heathen (with a capital H) is an individual who specifically practices Heathenry. Heathenry is not to be confused with Norse Paganism, which can be any Contemporary Pagan religion that focuses on the worship of the Norse gods but does not adhere to the definition of Heathenry as proposed by this website.

As a note, readers may occasionally encounter people who use “heathen” (with a lowercase H) to refer to anyone who is not Christian.

What is the difference between Ásatrú and Heathenry?

This distinction varies depending on location. In Europe, “Ásatrú” is often synonymous with the North American definition of Heathenry (read on to learn more). In Iceland specifically, Ásatrú references the organization Ásatrúarfélagið, which was established in 1972 by Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson.

In order to understand the distinction as it exists within the United States and Canada, one must first know the history of Heathenry in America.

The Contemporary Pagan movement began spreading in the United States and Canada during the 1950s and 1960s after the introduction of Wicca and Druidry to North America. One of the first groups established for the specific worship of the Germanic gods was the Odinist Fellowship, founded by Else Christensen in 1969. Ásatrú as a term, however, first appeared in the late 1970s when Stephen McNallen founded the Ásatrú Free Assembly (AFA). This organization split into two entities in 1986 following a disagreement between two parties, one racialist (“folkish”) and one not racialist (“universalist”). The two parties formed their own organizations; the former group established the Ásatrú Alliance, while the latter group established The Ring of Troth (now simply called The Troth). Prior to this split, McNallen had left the AFA to found a new, racialist organization, the Ásatrú Folk Assembly (also AFA), which is still active today.

The Troth was founded in 1987 by Edred Thorsson and James Chisholm, both Satanist members of the Temple of Set. Subsequent leadership included Prudence Priest, Stephan Grundy, William Bainbridge, and Diana Paxson. Through their efforts, The Troth became a well known, anti-racialist organization within the Wiccan and Neopagan scene by the 1990s. In fact, practices developed within The Troth, such as rune magic and the Hammer Rite, that drew from Wicca’s great influence on the Contemporary Pagan movement during those early decades. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, these practices became popular within Ásatrú, along with the Nine Noble Virtues, which were developed and popularized by either: John “Stubba” Yeowell and John “Hoskuld” Gibbs-Bailey of the Odinic Rite, Stephen McNallen after establishing the Ásatrú Folk Assembly, or Edred Thorsson while he was a member of the Ásatrú Free Assembly.

As a result of this history, Ásatrú in the United States developed with heavy Wiccan, Odinist, and occultist influences. Heathenry, in turn, developed partly as a response to these influences on Ásatrú. Though the term “Heathen” has been in use by some individuals who worship the Germanic gods since the late 1970s, the effort to distance Heathenry from Ásatrú truly started gaining momentum in 2016. First, a greater emphasis on scholarship and historicity turned individuals away from the ahistorical beliefs and practices within Ásatrú that were inspired by Wicca, Odinism, and occultism. Second, the Ásatrú Folk Assembly’s new leader, Matt Flavel, made a statement establishing his organization’s stance promoting white supremacy, which soured the term “Ásatrú” for many people. Third, recent interviews with the high priest of Ásatrúarfélagið reinforced the organization’s pantheistic, archetypal view of the Germanic gods, which created distance between them and polytheists who view the gods are real, cosmic beings with intelligence and agency.

At this time, the movement of Heathens away from Ásatrú and its related trappings is in its earliest stages. Some individuals agree with the split and take on the label of Heathen (instead of Ásatrú) as a result. Meanwhile, some non-Heathens do not agree with the split — or do not see a need for it at all.

What is Odinism?

Odinism is a white supremacy movement whose members claim to worship Odin. The movement began in the late 1960s in the United States and in the early 1970s in England. In the US, Else Christensen founded the Odinic Fellowship and published her racialist views in her magazine The Odinist. In England, John “Hoskuld” Gibbs-Bailey and John “Stubba” Yeowell founded The Committee for the Restoration of the Odinic Rite (also called The Odinist Committee, later called The Odinic Rite). Most notably, Yeowell was a member of the British Union of Fascists and National Socialists in his teenage years.

Heathenry claims no ties to Odinism, and Heathens denounce white supremacy, Nazism, and racism.

What is universalism? What is folkism?

The Ásatrú Free Assembly dissolved in 1986 over disagreements between two factions, which later split and formed their own organizations. The former group promoted what it called “folkism” while the latter group promoted what it called “universalism” — essentially, racialism and non-racialism. Over the years, however, people began attributing new definitions to these terms. In particular, some people claim “folkism” to be a preference for the religion of one’s ethnic ancestors and “universalism” to be having a practice of accepting of individuals into a group with disregard for the Heathen concepts of inner yard and outer yard.

The contributors of The Longship, as well as their affiliates, adhere to the original definitions of folkism (“racialist”) and universalism (“non-racialist”).

 

The Heathen identity

Do I have to be European or be of European descent to be a Heathen?

No, you do not. All people of all races and ethnicities can be Heathen.

Are Heathens Nazis?

Absolutely not. Heathens denounce white supremacy, Nazism, and racism.

Can I be a Heathen if I am a person of color, or if I am LGBTQIA+?

Yes, absolutely! There is no discrimination among Heathens against persons of color or people who identify as LGBTQIA+.

What is a kindred? Do I need to join one to be considered a Heathen?

A kindred is a group of individuals who live near each other and worship together. This term was popularized by practitioners of Ásatrú to describe their worship groups in the same way Wiccans describe theirs as covens. Some Heathens also use this term, but some do not, as part of the effort to diversify away from Ásatrú.

Due to the emphasis on hearth cult within Heathenry, Heathens generally do not believe joining a local worship group is necessary. Instead, Heathens prefer what has been coined as “Freehold Heathenry,” which emphasizes the independence of individual hearths that are loosely networked to their neighbors in a commonwealth. For more on Freehold Heathenry, we recommend the article “Frēosceatt Hæþendom and þe Frīfolc” on the blog Of Axe and Plough.

 

Heathen practice

How do I find Heathen groups and communities?

In-person Heathen groups sometimes advertise online on websites such as Facebook, Reddit, and Meetup. Facebook also has many Heathen groups one can join for online socialization, and there are several Discord servers for Heathenry (and Norse Paganism) in general, including our official Discord server, Skíðblaðnir.

What are some Heathen rituals?

For Heathens, the most important ritual is the hearth cult offering ritual performed at home. This ritual is usually performed by the “familial priest” — the individual chosen to perform rituals on behalf of the hearth. Other members of the hearth can be observers or participate as assistants.

The two group Heathen rituals are blót (OE blōt) and sumbel (ON sumbl, OE symbel).

During a blót, a sacrifice is given by the group to the gods in a similar manner to the hearth cult offering ritual. However, modern Heathens will only hold a blót on holidays or for important group events, such as weddings and funerals. Blóts are also a good time to make animal sacrifices, as several helpers are necessary for the humane slaughter of an animal and the collection of its blood.

Sumbel, on the other hand, is an Anglo-Saxon drinking ritual that has spread to other Heathen traditions. During a sumbel, members of the community participate in several rounds of drinking, toasting, boasting, gifting, and oath-making. One common format involves one round to address the gods, one round to address the ancestors, and one round to address fellow members of the community.

Am I required to worship certain gods?

Though Heathen worship focuses on the Germanic gods, there is no requirement for all Heathens to worship any specific gods. Even worship of Odin (or Wōden, Wotan, Wōdan, etc.), who many consider the leader of the gods, is not mandatory.

Am I required to worship all of the gods, or can I just worship one/a few?

Since there are so many gods within the various regional traditions of Heathenry, trying to engage in a regular gifting cycle with every single one of them is not recommended. Instead, Heathens are encouraged to focus on a few gods who have associations with regular aspects of their lives. For instance, a sailor might worship the Norse god Njörðr or the Anglo-Saxon god Wada, both of whom have associations with bodies of water, but not Skaði or Ēostre, who do not. Heathens might also feel that some gods’ myths or attributes relatable in some way, such as Týr and oaths or Ing and death, and choose to worship them for that reason.

Regardless of how many gods someone worships, Heathens generally agree that all of the gods should be shown the respect they are due.

Can I have personal relationships with the gods? What about patron gods?

Absolutely, though choosing a patron and having personal relationships with gods are not requirements to be a Heathen. Neither of those things legitimize nor delegitimize one’s practice or Heathen identity.

Which god(s) should I devote to?

A Heathen should devote to the ones that draw their interest. Sometimes, that means a Heathen will worship a god with associations to their line of work. Other times, that means they will worship a god with associations to their hobbies or interests. And some Heathens might even worship a god whose myths and attributes they admire. Ultimately, the individual must decide for themselves who to worship.

Can I worship gods from other pantheons (Greek, Roman, Celtic, etc.)?

Yes, you can, if that is what you wish to do. The ancient Germanic peoples did not live in a cultural or religious vacuum, and they traded ideas, stories, and gods as easily as they traded goods.

How personalized can I make my hearth cult?

One’s hearth cult can be highly personalized. Hearth cults can be made unique in a variety of ways, such as the holidays that are observed, how holidays are celebrated, which gods are worshiped, the frequency of worship, the details of the hearth cult ritual, which items are considered standard offerings and which are special ones, the influence of other cultures and religions, and which liturgical language is used.

Do I have to learn the runes?

No. Learning the runes is not required, and neither is using the runes in any magical or mundane capacity.

 

Coming from Christianity (or atheism)

Is there a concept of “sin” in Heathenry?

Yes, there is, but it is not the same as the Christian concept. In Heathenry, a sinful action is any action that breaks frith with one’s group. A group is within its rights to ostracize a frith-breaker. In a less dramatic sense, inaction and stagnancy are also considered morally bad. There can be exceptions, but Heathen ethics is a complex topic, and in-depth discussions of it are outside the scope of this website.

Do Heathens believe in an afterlife?

Some Heathens do, especially those of the Norse tradition. Heathen cosmology includes the concept of multiple worlds, the number of which differs between traditions. Some of these worlds, such as Hel (the place, not the goddess) and Valhalla, are places where humans might go after death. Norse Heathens generally agree that most people go to Hel when they die, whereas soldiers who die on foreign soil and cannot be returned home go to Fólkvangr or Valhalla instead. Some individuals hope to go to the halls of their gods, such as Thor’s Bilskírnir or Frigg’s Fensalir.

Other Heathens believe that the only afterlife is in the burial mound, which is where they hope to rest after death, with their ancestors, for eternity.

Are the Germanic gods omnipresent, omnipotent, and omniscient?

While there is no strict theology to which every Heathen must adhere, most Heathens agree that the Germanic gods are neither omnipresent, omnipotent, nor omniscient, but are instead more powerful cosmic beings whose perceptions of time and space are not the same as humans’. Nuances of that concept differ between Heathens individually.

What do Heathens think of the Christian god and Jesus?

Every Heathen will give a different answer to this question. Most believe, however, that the Christian god and Jesus are divine beings that exist alongside all of the other gods from other religions. Most Heathens are indifferent towards them as deities but will not worship them. Heathens who have poor histories with Christianity may carry leftover anger and resentment toward these deities, while other Heathens might extend a measure of respect to them due to their divine nature.

 

Popular misconceptions

I’ve heard that the Nine Noble Virtues are the central tenets of Heathenry. Is this true?

This is not true. While there is contention over who invented the Nine Noble Virtues, the candidates are either John “Stubba” Yeowell and John “Hoskuld” Gibbs-Bailey of the Odinic Rite, Stephen McNallen after establishing the Ásatrú Folk Assembly, or Edred Thorsson while he was a member of the Ásatrú Free Assembly. Since both organizations exist or existed in support of white supremacy and racism, Heathens do not adhere to the Nine Noble Virtues as a moral guideline. Moreover, since the Nine Noble Virtues were invented in the late 1970s, Heathens view them as ahistorical.

Are Heathens modern Vikings?

No. The Norse raiders called víkingar were often young, unmarried men who engaged in piracy for wealth, land, and trade. Most Norse people during the Viking Age — and, indeed, most ancient Germanic peoples — were actually craftsmen and farmers. The goal of Heathenry in the modern age is to revive the beliefs of these people, not their marauding practices.

Is growing and maintaining a beard a religious requirement in Heathenry?

No, it is not, though some groups might encourage beard-growing among their members.

 

Miscellaneous

This is a lot of reading! Is this all really necessary?

Take your time! This website provides the foundation for a Heathen practice and delivers the core, fundamental concepts of Heathenry in a simplified and concise way. A Heathen can practice for years with only the knowledge obtained from this website. But we will always encourage exploration, learning, and expanding one’s understanding of their faith.