Before I start this, I might want to introduce myself for a bit. I am Hrafn, and I am student of scandinavian studies in the city of Munich. I have been a Heathen for years now and I have a lot of thoughts about the current state of Heathenry in our current society, about how we as heathens need to conduct ourselves, about how we are organised, about our gods and about life itself. I want to use my knowledge and future role as educator to shine a light on our religion and how it works in the 21st century.
There is no authenticity in modern heathenry, and there are a couple of reasons why:
First of all, we lack sources. The vikings – and all pre-christian germanic tribes for that matter – lacked interest in written history – or writing in general for that matter – and because of that, the best thing we can get is secondary sources from authors of the time and archeology. There are only a few authors that ventured in the germanic regions of Europe to study the – in their eyes – savage tribes of the North. Resulting from this even the secondary sources are scarce and leave a lot to interpretation, since this was long before modern scientific methods and practices. A good example of this the goddess Nerthus, as mentioned by Rudolf Simek in his: “Religion und Mythologie der Germanen”. A lot of modern day scholars equate Nerthus with Njöðr, a connection first made by the Jacob Grimm in the 19th century, but this equation has been called into question, warping the significance of the goddess for the whole Germanic Paganism. In early editions of Tacitus’ Germania, the goddess that is today called Nerthus is called a lot of differnt names including Verthum, Herthum and Necthum, making the connection of the gods, that has been based on liguistic relation, crumble. Looking with this knowledge at the source, it seems more likely that Nerthus was a local goddess of the land of Frisia, and more cognate to the german figure of Frau Holle.
This is just one of the many examples that show even our literary knowledge about germanic paganism is shady at best. Archeology on the other hand is an even worse source for knowledge about religion, because it is a mute source. It cannot provide context to a find, and it can often lead to misinterpretation or assignment of significance to actually rare or unnoteworthy phenomenons. And even with all this in mind, the european North has very few finds from the Iron Age, for inconclusive reasons.
Secondly, our perception of the world and our surroundings has changed drastically over the last 1000 years, and therefore we cannot maintain the same cosmologic understanding of the world, and cannot maintain the same concept of gods that our ancestors had. Old Norse Religion, as practiced in the 9th to 11th century, had personal gods in mind, gods that could visit your homestead, gods that literally controlled the weather, nature and magic. Their gods were gods of flesh and blood and were therefore a lot more real and fearsome than they are now to us. Sources suggest that their cosmology was based on the fact that the locations of the worlds were here on our earth, wander far enough north, and you will find Niflheim, wander far enough south and you will stand at the gates of Muspellheim, dig far enough and you will find Utgard. Today, with our understanding of the world and science, we know that weather and nature are natural, mindless phenomens, results of millions of years of change. We cannot think of our gods as gods of flesh and blood, Thor doesn’t control lightning, it’s just electricity.
Modern Day Heathenry
As I explained above, we cannot achieve authenticity in our religion today, but I think that we don’t even need it. Our view of the world and, with it, our religions have changed to accustom to that change. So why shouldn’t our modern day Heathenry change also? I think of the gods as concepts, as ideals to strive after. Of course they retain human characteristics, they are not infallible, as are we. The gods are impersonal in nature, they surround us, but we need to make them personal to understand them, to make them graspable. We can feel their nature and their being in the phenomenons of nature, but we need to see that they are only our representation of these concepts. That doesn’t make them any less real, any less important, but lets them fit into the system of pagan interpretations of other cultures, especially in the indo-european Region. I am a firm believer in the fact that we are all seeing the same divinity in the world, but we all experience it differently and therefore have different concepts of our gods.
Of course this is only my interpretation, and I would very much welcome inputs on this matter from other Pagans, be it Germanic or other.