Society and civilization have evolved since the days of the pre-Christian Germanic peoples. While some Heathens do enjoy living situations that allow them more rustic lifestyles, many have homes in urban or suburban areas. Beginner Heathens in cities and city suburbs might feel that their environments are limitations to their practice, but that doesn’t have to be the case! In this blog post, I’ll address some common concerns beginner Heathens have expressed about practicing the religion in urban living spaces. Please keep in mind that this blog post assumes a Western-style housing situation; not everything mentioned will apply to urban dwellings in non-Western countries.
Historically, the hearth was the center of the communal living space in any domicile. Women would cook meals at the hearth, and families would eat, drink, and talk around it. Beyond its mundane, social applications, however, the hearth had religious significance as well. Extensive evidence exists of fire as the premiere cultic representation of divinity in the Indo-European religions, supported by comparative study of said religions , so the fact that the ancient Romans , Greeks , and Hindus  burned offerings to the gods is unsurprising. Comparative study leads us to the logical conclusion that the ancient Germanics may have done this, as well.
So what does a hearth look like in a modern, urban dwelling? Its most obvious evolution is the fireplace. In fact, fireplaces share many features of the ancient hearth: they are usually still located in a communal area of the house, and people still enjoy them together as a social activity. The Danish have even incorporated the act of socializing in front of a fireplace into the cultural phenomenon known as hygge, which has elevated the fireplace almost to the same importance (socially) as the ancient hearth. A modern Heathen might be able to throw some small offerings into their fireplace, though they should take care with any offerings that could agitate the fire or explode.
In terms of using a hearth for cooking, the obvious modern iterations are the stove and the oven. However, neither of the two appliances promote social interaction in the way a fireplace does, and neither are they suitable places for burning offerings. Provided there’s enough space in the kitchen, a Heathen might set up an altar near the stove and make offerings there instead of on the stove proper.
The vast majority of Heathens living in urban spaces use candles to represent their hearths. Instead of tossing offerings into a large fire, a Heathen can pour the offerings into nearby dishes and cups, then dispose of them later as appropriate (more on this below). Moreover, this option is appealing for many Heathens because of the great number of options available in terms of candle material, height, size, scent, and color. Heathens can decorate their altars however they wish, allowing them an outlet for creativity and a way to make their hearth cults even more personalized.
However, there are some situations where an open flame is discouraged or prohibited. Many universities and colleges have shared, on-campus housing, and their rules often prohibit the burning of candles — or any kind of live flame. People with asthma are also recommended against burning candles, since both fire smoke and the odors released by scented candles can trigger asthma attacks. A person also shouldn’t burn candles in places of poor ventilation, especially small rooms without windows. In these situations, electric candles are a recommended alternative. Some types even mimic the flicker of real candlelight.
One of the most common questions asked by Heathens in urban spaces is how to dispose of offerings. Many new Heathens, especially those coming from more nature-centric Pagan religions, feel restricted because they are used to the idea of leaving offerings in nature. As previously mentioned, offerings were burnt in the hearth in ancient times. However, since this option is usually not available for urban Heathens, throwing offerings into the garbage bin or pouring them down the sink are perfectly acceptable alternatives.
The reason for this is twofold. First, if one observes the Eliadean framework of the sacred and the profane, removing an offering from a god’s altar immediately profanes the object, ridding it of its sacred quality. It is now an ordinary item and can be discarded like other ordinary items, without fear of divine repercussion. Second, a common practice among polytheists, not just Heathens, is applying religious significance to mundane actions. This is not to encourage the perception that everything is sacred by default. Instead, it encourages the understanding that ancient, pre-Christian peoples did not always have a distinction between “things that are for religious use only” and “things that are not” in their day-to-day lives. Mundane items and actions always carry the potential for religious meaning. A modern Dutch oven can be used to cook meals, but it can also be used to burn offerings in ritual. A cup is for drinking, but it can also be used to pour libations to the gods.
Some people come into Heathenry with the impression that all Contemporary Pagan religions, including Heathenry, are nature-centric. Some people also feel more comfortable surrounded by nature or can only recognize the presence of wights in those locations. Therefore, it is not uncommon for beginner Heathens to ask about wights in urban settings — if they exist, where they are, how to recognize them, and what to do about them.
First, there are house wights. Domestic or household gods, which is the category of entities to which house wights belong, were common across pre-Christian Europe. These lived in the home, the yard, or an outbuilding and received offerings from the humans they lived alongside . Because these wights are associated directly with man-made spaces, not with naturally occurring landmarks like rivers or mountains, it stands to reason that they continue to exist and flourish in urban dwellings as well as more rural ones. They might even move with their humans from house to house, as was believed some pre-Christian, European peoples . Heathens are recommended to include these wights into their hearth cult, and to make offerings to them on a regular basis to establish good relationships.
Wights that do dwell in natural locations, such as forests and fields, are not necessarily driven away by humans, either. After all, the land on which a city is built is still there. Some Heathens might recognize the wights of rivers that flow through their towns, of nearby forests or mountains, or of the desert or swampland that encompasses their cities.
Humans also have a tendency to anthropomorphize inanimate objects in a way that harkens back to times when household spirits were a universal notion. The maneki-neko is a Japanese figurine that functions as a good luck charm; shop owners will place them in storefronts so their businesses prosper. Roombas are autonomous vacuum cleaners that some people talk to as if they were living pets. People with garden gnomes sometimes give them personalities and imagine that they have secret lives. The Elf on the Shelf is a growing Christmas tradition meant to ensure children stay on their best behavior; the idea is that the elf is always watching them from various hidden locations in the house.
Modernization brings with it certain challenges that the pre-Christian Germanic peoples never had to consider, and urban living may require modifications to rituals, practices, or viewpoints. However, none of these changes should impede one’s Heathen practice. In fact, urban spaces can contribute to Heathenry’s growth and evolution as a modern religion. While we Heathens use reconstructionist methodology to establish a foundation for our beliefs, we must always keep in mind that religion is not a stagnant thing. We cannot conceivably practice the way the ancient Germanics did. Instead, we need to adapt what we have learned about the ancient ways to suit the modern, urban world in which we live.
- James Mallory, D. Q. Adams, ed., Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture (Routledge, 1997), 203.
- John Scheid, An Introduction to Roman Religion (Indiana University Press, 2003), chap. 6, Kindle.
- Marcel Detienne, Jean-Pierre Vernant, The Cuisine of Sacrifice Among the Greeks (University of Chicago Press, 1998), 25.
- Michael Witzel, “Vedas and Upanisads,” in The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism, ed. Gavin Flood (Wiley-Blackwell, 2008), 78.
- Claude Lecouteux, The Tradition of Household Spirits: Ancestral Lore and Practices (Inner Traditions, 2013), Kindle.
- Lecouteux, Tradition, chap 1.