Non-literal heathenry

Himar Orn Himarsson leads an Asatru procession. Image from humanistic paganism.

Himar Orn Himarsson leads an Asatru procession. Image from humanistic paganism.

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.


4 thoughts on “Non-literal heathenry

  1. I don’t understand the literal vs. symbolic polytheist stuff either. I actually don’t think ancient polytheists would have cared that much about whether Asatruarfelagid literally believes in the Gods or not; in fact, it kind of goes against the basic nature of polytheism. For me, it’s less about what we believe concerning Gods and more about how we treat Them. Just look at Hinduism, in which there are more schools of thought than I can count. Some of them are literally polytheist, while some are pantheist or monotheist; heck, there’s even an atheist school in Hinduism as well. Yet at the end of the day, practitioners still pray and/or make offerings to Deities according to Their traditional rites and lore, regardless of what the Deities might (or might not) be (e.g., real paranormal beings, a single paranormal being under many forms, man-made archetypes, etc.). I think the people who are criticizing Asatruarfelagid are actually behaving more like Abrahamic monotheists than true polytheists; the idea that we must all adhere to certain theological dogmas and avoid certain “heresies” is completely alien to ancient polytheist thought.

    For my own part, I support Asatruarfelagid’s right to consider themselves Heathen so long as they respect the Norse Gods, treat Them as holy (however else They might be defined), and celebrate rituals in Their honor. You don’t have to believe in the Gods as literal paranormal beings to do either of those things. I’d only have a problem with Asatruarfelagid if they had no real interest in the Norse Gods and were simply using them to justify some kind of racism or extremism (like certain other groups that exist).

    • Oh, I totally agree. Ancient pagan cultures tended to be about practice, not belief. As long as you did the stuff, nobody really cared what was going on inside your head. That’s one of the things I like about both Asatruarfelagid and ADF (the latter of which I am a member): they are orthopraxic, not orthodoxic. Beliefs just aren’t as important as actually doing the work.

      I like your comparison with Hinduism, people can have all sorts of different interpretations but still be Hindu. That for me is how heathenry/paganism should be too.

      And Asatruarfelagid certainly do honour the Norse gods as sacred, that’s why they’re building a great big temple for them! I think that some of the more “hardcore” fundamentalist groups are probably the ones you want to watch out for when it comes to the racism and homophobia (naming no names, but you’ll know it when you see it).

      • Oh man, I’ve actually met people like that! I’m also a metalhead, and I’ve run into racist/extremist “Odinist” crazies at metal shows a few times. (Seems like there’s always one or two of them at any black metal show these days, if not more. Luckily they tend to be extremely picky about what they consider “true metal,” so they stay the hell away from my Alice Cooper shows, thank the Gods!) Anyhoo, people like Varg Vikernes of Burzum are clearly the problem here, not Asatruarfelagid.

      • Ah, I know the nutters in the metal scene, although like with you, they tend to stay away from the more symphonic/orchestral stuff I’m into (Nightwish and the like). “Odinist” seems to be a pretty good indicator of “racist”, I’ve never come across anyone other than the right-wingers use that term.

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