So there’s often a lot of talk in some (usually American) pagan and heathen circles that a literal, “hard” polytheism is the natural, proper or even only way to be a “real” heathen. The belief in literal gods existing out there somewhere and acting on the world through some supernatural force, often confidently asserted without any compelling evidence, seems to me to be quite naive and does not fit with a modern, scientific understanding of the world.
Sure, our ancestors probably thought that, but our knowledge has moved on. I don’t see paganism or heathenry as an attempt to go back in time and ignore centuries of scientific (or moral) progress. It’s inspired by the past, but not enslaved by it.
For some, this difference of opinion is enough to cast damning vitriol on humanistic/naturalistic pagans and heathens, calling us “peddlers of garbage” and accusing us of “blasphemy” or “poison”. Those are all quotes from real internet comments, by the way and no, I won’t link to them.
However, I am not alone in holding to a non-literal form of heathenry. When I was looking at the recent hate mail Asatruarfelagid have been recieving from US far-right heathen groups who oppose their blessing of same-sex marriage (now overpowered by a wave of support I’m happy to say), I was reminded of something else I like about their approach.
In an interview earlier this year, Hilmar Orn Hilmarsson, the chief priest of Asatruarfelagid, stated that:
“I don’t believe anyone believes in a one-eyed man who is riding about on a horse with eight feet. We see the stories as poetic metaphors and a manifestation of the forces of nature and human psychology.”
This brought about the inevitable over the top backlash from some hard-polytheist heathens, who wrote about how “disgusted” they were that Asatruarfelagid had “sh*t on our faith”, but this goes to show that a leading figure in arguably the world’s most successful heathen religion (hey, they’re the only ones to have overwhelming popular approval and the first heathen temple in over 1,000 years), can hold to a non-literal, metaphoric belief about the gods.
Hilmar’s view is very, very close to my own and if he can be a non-literalist heathen, then so can I! You don’t have to believe the myths and the gods are “really true” in order to see value, beauty and meaning in them.
I’m not one to tell people what to believe and if you want to be a literalist polytheist, if that makes sense to you, then good for you (but please don’t denigrate those who aren’t), but it is reassuring to see prominent pagan and heathen leaders show that there is another way to interpret the myths of the gods in a heathen context.