“Prayer” in a Heathen Context

•September 19, 2016 • 18 Comments

Author’s note: I want to thank my pre-readers Forvrin, Sarduriur, and Conor for taking the time and expending the energy sometimes necessary for me to wrangle my disconnected thoughts into something more intelligible. Also, thanks but no thanks to Open Office, who decided that the excessive amounts of Old High German, Old Norse, and Hurrian were enough to completely break my spell check.

For all its claim to empiricism, popular opinions remain barriers to reconstructionist Heathen practice. Whether through misunderstanding, poor scholarship, or emotive clinging to attitudes from previous religious engagements (example: Christian-themed cultural baggage), these opinions tend to shape the growth of Heathen religious traditions for years. In some extreme cases – especially in the wider Contemporary Pagan community – the conflation between practice and this emotional baggage results in the disregarding of similar traditions or concepts.

This phenomenon can be examined in the regrettably still common Heathen claim that the pre-Christian Germanic pagans did not “kneel before their gods”. A concerted effort from various corners of the scholastic Heathen community has largely dispelled this notion, and have largely shifted the paradigm in regards to the concept of genuflection in holy situations. Yet similar claims exist for other common practices, claims which have no backing in historical or anthropological records. Indeed, many of these individuals claim an argumentum ad ignorantiam.  An appeal to ignorance based on the lack of contrary evidence, in such a culture of reconstructionism where primary source material is severely lacking, is a particularly dangerous and ultimately futile attempt to protect fragile emotional states which may press against uncomfortable baggage.

“Prayer” is one such practice which tends to find derision and criticism in contemporary Heathen groups. This is largely due to the associations with popular, particularly Christian, instances of prayer. The role and use of prayer within ritual are rarely, if ever, discussed within contemporary Heathenry, and individual practitioners often cannot articulate the purpose of prayer. This work will serve as an example for our discussion of prayer in the wider Indo-European context, in an effort to position the idea of “prayer” within a native Germanic tradition.

Understanding Prayer

Like many religious enactments within Indo-European practice, a combination of formalized prayer and ritualized action are performed in order to take part in the sacred exchange of the gifting cycle, the fundamental basis of these religions. Heathenry, as an orthopraxic religion, relies on these rites and statements just as much as other Indo-European paganisms. However, because we lack the source material for pre-Christian Germanic religious practice, alternative cultural examples must be explored in order to give a wider understanding of Germanic prayer.

Prayer supplications can – in part – be explored through oracular questions, literature, and other textual remnants. In approaching the antique (pre-Christian) context of prayer, the utilization of H.S. Versnel’s approach is aptly and appropriately done. In the case of the oracular questioning, the lesser-known oracles provide examples of the wants and needs of the day-to-day life of antiquity. Because of these insights, it is perhaps better to study the questions asked of individuals like the Egyptian magician Astrampsychos or the oracle of the Greeks at Dodona than it is to approach the most famous oracle sites in history, as at Delphi [1]. As notorious as Delphi’s oracles are to history, they are unsuitable for this examination of prayer in a common context, given their focus on legendary events and the utilization by an elite minority of statesmen or civic leaders.

These lesser-known oracular examples provide an example of the types of personal prayers which were common in supplication in antiquity. Importantly, they reflect the needs and wants of the day-to-day and provide examples of how modern practitioners of a polytheistic identity like Heathenry can find concordance within their daily lies in a formalized prayer structure. The similarity of thousands of examples of prayer across centuries show that humanity has maintained a striking similarity in prayer-format up through the modern period. Accepting that modern prayers are built on a foundation of classic, that is pre-Christian, prayers is the first step in understanding the role that they play in religious experience.

These prayers can be formally divided into three component parts, which follow C. Austfeld’s own division of prayer: invocatio, pars epica, and the preces[2]. Dissecting these components of prayer reveals three, distinct, elemental characteristics:

  1. The first is the invocatio. This forms a means by which the deity – or deities – are approached are formally invoked into the prayer formula or ritual format. Through the use of their names, surnames, epithets, or other identifying descriptive phrases, this constitutes the whom of the prayer: To whom it is addressed and directed.
  2. The second is the pars epica. This is typically portrayed in scholasticism as an ‘argument’, or a basis of explanation as to the why of the prayer. It is essentially a description of the benevolent nature of the God, insofar as that deity is disposed to intervene to mortal benefit, and why the prayer is to be/hoped to be productive in the capacity of being the God. It includes reasons the supplicant is approaching the deity invoked, the relationship which that supplicant has to the deity, the defense of asking for such things, and other reasonable explanations for approaching the god.
  3. The third is the preces. This can rightly be said to be the actual prayer itself. It consists of the service and task that the supplicant is beseeching the divine entity for, as well as any other loose ends within the prayer which need to be tied up. This is the end result and the objective of the whole engagement with the deity.[3]

These three aspects form, in essence, the totality of what is considered prayer in the sense of antique polytheism. Variations, of course, occur within history. But for the nature of polytheistic supplications, the most indispensable element to the prayer itself is the invocatio. A prayer is not, in the words of Bremer, a simple utterance of “HELP”, unguided and left open to the universe[4]. It is directed, aimed at a very specific divine entity, which is realized only through the formalized invocation of the god. However, of these three acts, the second has been identified as somewhat dispensable. A study of the Greek hymns would readily show a general lack of an ‘argument’ in various praise-prayer.

But even a deviation in particulars can highlight these particular forms of prayer creation. In an example Homeric hymn to Athena, taken from The Homeric Hymns in Apostolos N. Athanassakis’ work on the subject, we can find elements of these three categorizations. Consider the following:

“I begin to sing of Pallas Athena, defender of cities,

awesome goddess; she and Ares care for deeds of war,

cities being sacked and cries of battle.

And she protects an army going to war and returning,

Hail, O goddess, and grant me good fortune and happiness”[5]

In this traditional prayer, the deity Athena is invoked directly by name, epithet, and role as “Pallas Athena, defender of cities”. This is the invocatio, which appropriately directs the following prayer. Although Bremer does not place much in the way of an emphasis on the ‘argument’ of the prayer, we can see what could be construed as such a thing here. The writer actively defends his reasoning for the prayer: she is a warlike goddess, and protects those who go to war and are similarly returning from the conflict. Finally, the actual component of the prayer, the preces is simply stated: “Grant me good fortune and happiness.”

This tripartite division of prayer composition is inherent within Indo-European cultural prayers. Studies of Homeric hymns, Skaldic texts, local magcial and medicinal charms, and other similar writings. This indicates an important tradition of commonality in such things as meter and format, irrespective of the “level” of divinity being approached.

It should not be claimed that these prayers were only for the “highest” of deities within a culture’s religious world. It is a failing of contemporary practice in Heathenry to distinctly and arbitrarily divide the divine and their “roles” based on their relative position to humanity [6]. The ‘spheres of authority’ of these deities, whether ‘ancestral gods’, wights of the home or land, or celestial and infernal gods themselves, appear to be incorrectly and rigorously assigned. This is an utterly anachronistic, modernist approach which clashes with the traditionalism of Indo-European polytheism. Utilizing the history of these indigenous faiths, it can be seen that the ancients themselves would not have conceived in the divine in these separate ways.

Approaching the prayer formulas, and their implementation, we see that many of these prayers concern themselves with utterly mundane concepts: healing, travel, and safety, and a plethora of other socially ‘unimportant’ and intensely personal requests. We have discussed the oracle at Dodona precisely because it represents an intersection with “normal” people and the gods. In some Indo-European cultures, the concept of divinity was central to the idea a prayer, and not the varying degrees thereof. Versnel’s study of Roman prayer formulas account for this, where the idea of mis-apellation of a deity in prayer was so much of a cultural faux pas that the prayer formulas would either give the name ad hoc or left so wide that they could not potentially cause offense[7].

For the purposes of the continued discussion the modern anachronism of dividing the roles of the divine is dispensed with.

Prayer as an Indo-European Continuum

The smallest foundation of religious observance in modern Heathenry is the hearth cult. This traditional practice blurs the lines separating the priest and an individual position that does not have religious connotations. Whether this is within the nondescript house cult, or something more formally recognized as the Roman paterfamilias. An individual who necessarily performs hearth-based rites and rituals acts in the same tradition of an orator of prayer, a ritual poet, or other such official position within the Indo-European religious tradition.

There is a notable link in these traditions consisting of religious poetry, invocations and prayers, or hymns of praise which are directed towards the gods, all of which are inextricably linked to the worship of the being and the propagation and all the paraphernalia of that cult [8]. One of these traditions which spans Indo-European linguistic and poetic territory is the incidence of ‘name-giving’. This culture of giving personal names, typically a bipartite compound name, finds expression in various formulas and values, which form a nexus of tradition extending from India to the furthest extent of Western Europe. For this discussion, it is a tradition which is replicated in some of the oldest Celtic and Germanic linguistic monuments[9].

What is found is that extensive religious ritual texts can contain near-identical, if not wholly identical, enumerations in practice. A series of Hittite ritual texts grouped together contain litany-like spells and incantations in which physical maladies are addressed. These ritual texts are identical to Germanic, Indic, and Irish healing charms, and contain a linked formula with curative juxtapositions. Consider the following,

“ḫaštai=kan ḫaštai ḫandan

UZUSA=kan ANA UZUSA ḫandan

ēšḫar=kan ēšḫani ḫandan”

“bone to bone is fitted

sinew to sinew is fitted

blood to blood is fitted.” [10]

as a charm in Hurrian, especially when compared with the last two lines of the Second Merseburg Charm:

“ben zi bena, bluot si bluoda,

lid zi geliden, sose gelimida sin”

“Bone to bone, blood to blood,

joints to joints, so may they be mended.” [11]

This sequence is an example of stylistic replication, between two very different cultures and two very different periods. For the purposes of this paper, it should be looked at as an indication that comparative analysis between even distantly related pieces is a worthwhile pursuit. We will be able to suggest further practices which are in line with this foundational cultural continuum as it is currently understood.

Studies of extant Germanic texts, particularly later expressions found in the Scandinavian literary corpus, shed some light on potential applications of prayer within a Heathen context.

A paper by John Lindow, published in the Spring 1988 edition of the Scandinavian Studies journal speaks to a handful of fragmentary texts which remain from the Scandinavian Sagas, which he interprets as a native attempt to bridge the gap between human and deity through prayer. This is done in several instances by invoking the deity directly, in apparent conflict with pervasive contemporary approaches towards Heathen religious understanding.

There are two fragmentary texts penned by Vetrliði Sumarliðason and Þorbjorn disarskald, the latter potentially the same man as Þorbjorn Þorkelsson, and later preserved by Snorri. Lindow considers the association and implication of these prayers: these texts attempt to bridge the gap between man and deity, invoking the deity directly, but have no small amount of anomalous considerations of their own.

An arguably problematic par of pieces, the first of which had been penned initially by Vetrliði, and then replicated in some respects by Þorbjorn. They have historically been argued to as either a Christian-influenced prayer, or a native representation steeped in the older tradition of Indo-European prayer. Lindow ultimately disagrees with the conclusion that these prayers were the result of influence by Christianity, and agrees with older scholars that these works represent some aspect of religious continuum indigenous to pre-Christian peoples of Europe[12].

Consider the fragmentary text of Vetrliði Sumarliðason, as it reads:

“Leggi brauzt Leiknar,

lamðir Þrivalda,

steypðir Starkeði,

stett of Glop dauða”

“You smashed the limbs of Leikn;

you bashed Þrivaldi;

you knocked down Starkaðr;

you trod Gjalp dead under foot” [13]

Scholars have identified two components of prayer components within the manuscript fragments: deific praise summarily followed by a request. In short, they contain the invocatio and the presces from the aforementioned Versnal prayer format.

Vetrliði’s extant stanza attempts to invoke the deity Thor, laying out the actual groundwork of the prayer itself by beseeching the Giant-Slayer to kill and maim the targets of his ire. While the poetry identifies no less than four men and women, it has been commonly accepted in scholarship that the two Christian missionaries Þangbrandr and Guðleifr were the targets of the text [14]. Vetrliði implicitly assigns two Jotun a piece, one male and female, per missionary, at once both including them in the mythological cycle as agents of destruction and chaos, and summarily emasculating and ‘othering’ each through identification with the feminine.

Vetrliði’s words were most effective at one thing: rousing the ire of the missionaries, who were said in the sources to have “attacked Vetrliði in such a way that a murder-hammer resounded from his head in the way that a smith’s hammer resounds from an anvil”[15] and summarily slew the man. This builds off of the known quality of Vetrliði raising a nið against Þangbrandr [16], and that he intended Thor to slay the missionaries like other trolls. Bo Almqvist concludes that Vetrliði’s extant verse is the first helming of his nið, and that the survival within Snorri’s works would put him in a position not to continue the recording of those lines, his religious ethos overriding his inclination to preserve his cultural heritage [17].

The study of other Indo-European prayers and traditions supports this comparison. Following in the footsteps of Chadwick, an exploration of the Iliad, or the Homeric hymns provide an European correlation. Vedic parallels lay the foundation of the overall origin-of-form for the Indo-European practice, especially those to Soma and Maruts containing the same invocatio and presces formats in blending praise and request. Vetrliði and Þorbjorn’s work simply represent the latest, and arguably last, pagan prayer type commonly shared among the Indo-European peoples[18].

Even the Merseburg charms, the other Germanic representation, show connection to epic poetry which implicitly praise a deity, then demanding some action. We have already seen how they share a tradition with older Indo-European linguistic charms. They are nevertheless useful to look at in the concept of a prayer. “Phol and Wotan went into the woods” and “bone to bone, blood to blood” can be seen as constituting vestigial aspects of the prayer formula; a clear connection to the cultural expression of prayer itself, and not simply related in meter or format to charms.


We have thus approached the idea that the Germanic peoples were capable of articulating what can be considered “traditional Indo-European prayer” and that the concept of prayer in contemporary Heathenry is not something which should be approached as a ‘vestigial Christianism’. It is very much an extant, attested tradition in its own right and would understandably be utilized as a central, important facet in the intersection of man and divine.

In the utilization of a comparative method, modern practitioners are capable of avoiding a deleterious disputation buttressed by fallacious arguments relating to the employment of traditional prayers and charm formats. The Austfeld/Versnal prayer-format, in some capacity, provides an easy-to-understand template for the history, purpose, and ultimate proliferation of uniquely Heathen prayers, approachable by contemporary practitioners eager to do so.

More importantly, in doing so, Heathens are not breaking with tradition in the slightest, but instead are engaging quite naturally within the cultural continuum of Indo-European polytheistic traditions. To argue the idea of prayer is a ‘foreign’ concept is ultimately to deny one’s practice the rich and fulfilling history of poetic composition, and allowing one’s emotional attachment to preconceptions to override critical inquests to history and culture.



[1] H.S. Versnel, Faith, Hope, and Worship: Aspects of Religious Mentality in the Ancient World, (Leiden: Brill, 1981), pg. 6.

[2] H.S. Versnel, Faith, pg. 2.

[3] H.S. Versnel, Faith, pg 2. In this, Versnel points to J.M Bremmer’s paper focusing solely on the pars epica and the argumentative aspects of that position in prayer. Versnel avoids speaking to the pars epcia due to the combination of this aspect of prayer and the invocatio being closer to a hymnal or religious poetry and unsuited to his dissertation. Bremer’s work articulates that the pars epica is better suited to an intermediary position, and is readily replaced with other terms (‘argument’ by JM Bremmer himself, or sanctio by Zelinksi). As this work deals with prayers, not necessarily ‘hymns’, we shall keep to Ausfeld’s particular definition.

It should be noted in the second item in the list, the pars epica, that “benevolent” does not necessarily constitute the orientation of the God vis-à-vis their mortal supplicants as a wholly “good” or beneficial deity. A deity which intercedes in the doings of a mortal, for the benefit of that mortal, is thus acting in a benevolent capacity. This holds even if their benevolence manifests as benign neglect or condescension.

[4] J.M. Bremer, “Greek Hymns”, in Faith, Hope, and Worship: Aspects of Religious Mentality in the Ancient World (Leiden: Brill, 1981), pg. 194

[5] Apostolos N. Athanassakis, The Homeric Hymns, (Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, 2004), pg. 53

[6] On certain online fora, it has become trendy to argue that Heathens go “first to their ancestors, then the wights, then the gods” or that the “gods only care about the group, and not the individual”. Prayer formulas from other related Indo-European religions would position this attitude as an incorrect one.

[7] H.S. Versnel, Faith, pg. 15.

[8] Calvert Watkins, How to Kill A Dragon: Aspects of Indo-European Poetics (Oxford University Press, 1995), pg. 69.

[9] Watkins, Dragon, pg. 246.

[10] Watkins, Dragon, pg. 250.

[11] Bill Griffiths, Aspects of Anglo-Saxon Magic (Anglo-Saxon Books, 2003), pg. 173.

[12] John Lindow, “Addressing Thor”, Scandinavian Studies, 60:2 (Spring, 1998): 119. It is important to note that earlier scholars, such as H.M Chadwick in the 1930s and 1940s, had already made this association between these extant texts and Homeric hymnals in the tradition of the Heisod.

[13] John Lindow, “Addressing Thor”, from Finnur Jonsson, Skjaldedigtning, B1:166, pg. 121
Translation from Gabriel Turville-Petre, Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia, (Holt, Reinhart, & Winston: New York, 1964) pg 85.

[14] John Lindow, “Addressing Thor”, pg 133.

[15] John Lindow, “Addressing Thor”, pg. 134.

[16] John Lindow, “Addressing Thor”, pg. 131. Vetrliði is known in a number of sources: Landnamabok, Heimskringla, Kristni saga, Njals Saga, and the Longest Saga of Olaf Tryggvason. His raising of a nið is probably what the man is best known for in history.

[17] John Lindow, “Addressing Thor”, pg. 131.

[18] John Lindow, “Addressing Thor”, pg. 135

Updates from the Shed II

•August 30, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Amidst the drama and brouhaha of Paganism, polytheism, and Heathenry, I’ve been trying to work on some behind the scenes things here.  It keeps me out of trouble, you understand.

As I put more “professional” focus on my writing, such as it is, I find myself to be caring more over the form and function of the blog, instead of focusing exclusively on content.  A lot of this space was established and then not completed, and I’ve taken it upon myself to try to rectify this.  I’m tired of my theme, but I don’t like the WordPress themes available currently, so I’m in the process of trying to make this space more engaging.  We’ll see what comes from it.

A big addition is me actually fleshing out my Books, Links, and Resources page, which has largely sat unchanged for the past three years.  I’m in the process of adding links to the works that I mention, if I can find them.  Otherwise, this is a partial bibliography of what I use in order to establish the foundations of my practice.  I don’t think it will ever be exhaustive.

Otherwise, I’ve updated my blogroll, with a few new voices that I had lapsed in adding finally being done.  I’d really like to run two lists of links – one for active blogs and the other for legacy or archived blog links which are no longer being updated but are nevertheless still being hosted.  Unfortunately, I am unable to include a second link widget.

That is all.  Carry on.

Baggage and Reactionary Definitions

•August 16, 2016 • 6 Comments

Baggage is one of the major topics which I harp on as a cause of major issues with Paganism. In this context “baggage” can run a gamut of incidences: unidentified emotional hangers-on, obvious biases based off of previous interactions or disappointments, or even trauma which needs to be addressed, but nevertheless colors the topic. It largely is considered an emotional response (“emotional baggage”) and there is an implicit assumption that “baggage” is negative. Baggage of all kinds can have an impact on the types of discussions which are had.

Paganism is no exception.

After all, how could it be? Many people come to Paganism after a less-than-affectionate parting with Christianity, or otherwise have had some previous experiences which color them to the prevalence of Christian overculture. As a religious expression which spent a great deal of its life as a counter-cultural representation that defined itself by what it was not, it’s understandable that Paganism has in some way internalized a basic reaction towards what people view as fundamental concepts to Christianity.

For instance, it is popularly considered to be not dogmatic, focusing on ritual and not belief. It is often decried that there are no “Pagan Popes”, or other such authority figures when a greater accountability or organizational effort is made. It is not a religion which concerns itself with morality. It is not a religion with “Sin”. It is an inclusive religious understanding, and telling people they are not welcome or do not belong is seen as aberrant. There’s no place for hierarchy, and very little emphasis on the division of labor in terms of priestly duties.

All these, and many more, are hallmarks of popular Pagan attitudes towards their religion.

But they are not attitudes of Paganism-as-a-religion. They’re not reasoned arguments which benefit the religious understanding of Paganism, they’re not laying the foundations or furthering some of the discussion which can aid in building something new. They’re not unpacking these concepts in a useful way. They’re attitudes of reaction. Discussions about Sin (and I’m picking on “Sin” because it’s the current hot topic, and this actually came up in other social media circles in June) don’t gain traction because of the assumption that it is something that Christians do, and that Pagans do not do. There are mischaracterized beliefs that “Sin” is a Christian intrusion into a people who had no concept of the idea of violation of divine (or mortal) law.

And concepts like sin are not alone. Paganism is replete with attitudes which ultimately have no standing in light of evidence, yet nevertheless are perpetuated by popular opinion or emotional appeals. It took a concerted effort for the idea of genuflection in Heathenry to not be associated with a type of Christian subservience (“Heathens don’t kneel to our gods! We’re not Christians!”) and we still have to fight the misinformation that people spread about it. Some hardcore reconstructionists have problems with the idea of a “personal relationship” with deities because of the overabundance of “Jesus loves me” themes. Religious purity and personal pollution. Prescribed and proscribed religious ritual convention. These are just a few examples.

It happens. After all, these issues are built upon a foundation of previous experience. But they’re not constructive attitudes when they don’t lead to a greater discussion. They’re attitudes of Paganism-as-not-Christianity.

Pagans defining themselves by what they are not is absolutely not a new concept. Even here, in this blog space, I had a handful of years where I did it. And then I made a concerted effort to really take a look at what I was doing, be constructive, and approach my practice(s) positively. Which meant unpacking and working through any baggage I had from Christianity.

There’s an interesting phenomenon when Paganism is defined solely as a reaction to Christianity.

When one reacts to Christianity, they often end up with something that looks like Christianity

Looks familiar, doesn’t it?  Artist: Forvrin.

You end up with something that looks an awful lot like Christianity.

Certain constructs exist in religion that transcend any one particular paradigm. Yoking them to a singular religious expression does disservice to the tradition and gives rise to ignorant attitudes about them. We each, as Pagans, have the individual obligation to make a concerted effort to move beyond our preconceived notions towards these constructs. This is of paramount importance if we want to be able to approach these important concepts in a mature way.

Many Pagans have developed, adopted, or continued traditions which carry some kind of wider stigma or baggage when it is placed within the attitudes of the modern world. For instance, certain attitudes of Pagan women have taken to veiling themselves due to devotional or sacred reasons – a topic which caused some amount of controversy in the Pagan blogosphere four years ago. Divisive attitudes towards women purposely covering their head had less to do with the theological merits of the action and more to do with notions and interpretations of the apparent lack of agency found in perceptions from the Muslim world. These were applied broadly to the whole tradition of religious head-covering as a mandated aspect of some of these religious traditions.

It doesn’t end there, and does not remain within practical traditions. Christian and monotheistic baggage informs character critiques, as well. “One man cannot serve two masters” is a common refrain that I have personally heard from Heathens who have specific issues with the practice of multiple polytheistic traditions. As I have written at length on this blog, these attitudes simply do not hold water in light of traditional polytheistic mutability. I view them to be more likely post-Christian baggage, rather than any concrete view of a traditional religious identity.

Baggage and reactionary thought has been utilized in order to discredit another position. “Fundamentalism” is a word that is bandied around as a destabilizing scare word in order to undermine the credibility and attack the character of another, and relies entirely on Christian baggage and associations with wider monotheistic fundamentalist persecution to operate. In reality, Pagan “fundamentalism” is a pathetic scare word, but it still carries those connotations. True story: I have been accused of being a right wing fascist and fundamentalist strictly because I clearly define a line (using academics) between what polytheism is (worship of more than two gods) and what it is not (worship of two or less gods), and refuse to entertain the “soft/hard polytheism” frivolity all together.

Contemporary Paganism cannot properly flourish in the shadow of the Christian bogeyman, jumping at every turn where there’s a concept or theme which might have some comparative similarity to the other religious institution. Purposely neutering intellectualist debates because of baggage stunts the vibrancy and shoehorns Paganism and all the Pagan traditions into an inverse representation of Christendom. It limits the ability of people to think about what they are, and it tethers this non-Christian religious orientation in a very fundamental way to Christianity. What’s more, it constantly puts Contemporary Paganism on the defensive. If we have to establish ourselves by what we are not, in essence have to defend our choices of religious belief to ourselves, then how can we be expected to respectfully articulate our viewpoints to people that hold differing perspectives?

If a person encounters concepts like purity, miasma, or some other concept of spiritual pollution and finds oneself “emotionally thrown back into a place of shame”, that is on them to work through. It is not on the group to work through for them. These people do not have the right to direct the flow of conversation in order to mitigate their personal deficiencies and feelings of inadequacy, simply because they seemingly lack the capacity to address their emotional attachments to these terms or concepts.

Obviously, there are people who have suffered extreme emotional and mental trauma which they associate with wider pre-Christian religious experiences. I am not denigrating those experiences, victim blaming, or otherwise diminishing that experience.

However, there is a certain maturity expected when engaging in philosophical and theological discussion. If someone wants to be a Pagan, be a Pagan. Do not be a Pagan-chained-to-Christianity. Or monotheism. Or anything else that is not-Paganism. Entering the wider dialogue of theological debate means accepting that there are multiple worldviews, approaching them rationally, and not engaging in knee-jerkism.

If you’re going to join the discussion, you can’t hobble yourself with those attitudes.

Does Paganism have Sin? Yes, it does! …Well, SOME of it does.

•August 11, 2016 • 10 Comments

There are certain topics that arise in discussion within Paganism which have so thoroughly associated with cultural or religious baggage that there is a great difficulty in cultivating an ordered and reasoned critique of that topic. The concept of ‘Sin’ has recently been brought up over on Patheos in a post by John Beckett. Titled, “Are We Bringing Sin into Paganism?” [1], Beckett explores the connections between the increase of concern with displays and attitudes towards piety, the confluence of those ideas with what is considered “purity”, the necessity of piety and purity within a Pagan context, and other such themes. Beckett concludes that while “Sin” is not part of Paganism, it could be if the collective Pagan world did not tread lightly, leading to the potential for the intrusion of a Christian-style “sin” within a wider theological paradigm.

His commentators agree with him, continuing with the theme of Christo-centric baggage. In a comment on the piece, one “Woods Wizard” states that “Sin is definitely a Christian concept related to judgement [sic] after death. It also involves forgiveness by a Deity who seems insulted that we would break his rules. But Pagans have no commandments, only guidelines like the Rede or the Noble Virtues. Pagans have no one who sits in judgement [sic] of them at the end of their lives. We have concepts like karma, fate, or the Wyrd. So we have no need of the concept of sin.” [2]

Beckett and his commentators have fallen into the all-too-typical trap of speaking for the whole of “Paganism”, without understanding the implications of doing so, or the facets of the myriad religions which exist underneath the umbrella of Contemporary Paganism. They declaim, quite vociferously, that there is no sin in Paganism and, indeed, that it has no place within Paganism, because their attitudes towards what is, or is not, sinful are colored by their exposure to the all-prevalent concept of what embodies “Christian Sin”. In doing so they forget that there are traditions which do have deep, important, concepts of “sin”.

What is sin? Without going into the myriad iterations of what might be considered “sin” in a Christian, Mosaic, or Islamic context, we should take a quick look at the etymology of the word. Ultimately, the modern word “Sin” comes from Old English (sinn, senn, synn), and is defined as:

  • (theology) A violation of God’s will or religious law.
  • A misdeed.
  • A sin offering; a sacrifice for sin.
  • An embodiment of sin; a very wicked person. [3]

Important for this discussion is the exploration of the Old English antecedent, for it provides the foundation for the understanding that pre-Christian peoples might have had when approaching this terminology. Bosworth-Toller’s Online Dictionary accounts “Syn” (also: Synn) as:

  • With reference to human law or obligation, misdeed, fault, crime, wrong
  • With reference to divine law, sin [4]

We see the multifaceted concept of what, tongue-in-cheek, can be considered the “original sin”. It is both the violation of divine law as well as it is a misdeed or wrong as considered in the light of more mundane, human affairs. The phrase “synne stǽlan” literally means “to charge with a crime” [5]. While a seemingly pedantic counterpoint to John Beckett’s critique of the concept of “Sin”, it is an important one nonetheless, for in the whole of Contemporary Paganism it does come up with some frequency in reconstructionist Heathenry.

Heathenry is a religion established on the basis of law, over disorder. These laws, known as thews in some Heathen circles, form the basis of social understanding and govern interpersonal relationships and ritual practice alike. This is buttressed by the understanding of the Heathen worldview, which is one of concentric rings of duty and obligation which focus from the individual heorþ (hearth), to the sibb (kin), and finally to the folc (folk). This forms the basis of the innangeard – the inner yard – which is cultivated through a series of reciprocal relationships for the betterment of the unit as a whole. Everything outside of the innangeard is known as utangeard, the outer yard. The inhospitable wilderness is as much utangeard as a neighboring, yet unfamiliar, tribal body or people. [6]

“Sin” is an important concept in Heathenry, because it represents a violation of these laws and a fundamental imbalance in the nature of these relationships, leading to discord and disharmony among the people. It creates a debt between the offending parties, which must be righted with some form of recompense. Violating an oath to one’s folk is as much a sinful act as the violation of ritual mandate or religious precedent, both of which ultimately require restitution in order to correct the imbalance [7].

Beckett propagates the Pagan misunderstanding that sin is intimately connected to morality, and failure to abide by someone’s potentially strict codes of moral understanding is what causes sin. Further, he sounds an alarmist response that the overt emphasis on concepts like purity and piety only damage the relationships which are to be had between Pagans and the Gods, which devolves into fear mongering the rise of some form of eventual Pagan Ayatollah Khomeini.

Is it not in the best interest of Paganism to dispense with the persistent baggage and hanging on of Christian themes which otherwise pollute our conversation? Do these fearful conflations really have a place within the wider discourse of Paganism as anything more than a nuisance and distraction?

The reconstructionist wing of Paganism is, by large, is a group of religions which places a great deal of emphasis on reciprocity, proper ritual forms, and the nature of obligation. In a religious expression which places as much emphasis on these concepts, how can the misdeed of violation of law not be construed as sinful? What is the difference between religious impiety in this sense, and the violation of an ordered system, as Beckett seems to wish there to be?

John Beckett goes on to say that “avoiding sin requires perfection”, and that is perhaps true if we approach “sin” from something resembling a Baptist or otherwise Protestant perspective. However in a Heathen, and thus a form of Pagan, context avoiding sin requires “following the law”. It requires understanding the dynamic relationships between people and their peers, people and their gods, and the whole of the ordered cosmos. For failing to recognize the vagaries in debt and obligation can cause all measure of impiety, or impurity, or otherwise damage and harm the connection which is made between the mundane and the sacred.

Some Pagans, especially Heathens, understand that “sin” is not some state which can be conferred due to attitudes towards morality. Instead, it is recognized that the world is made up of a series of obligations and laws, webs of obligation and  of responsibility, of which the violation of such edifices can cause imbalance and lead to disharmony.  That is the nature of “sin”.  But to claim that “Paganism does not have sin” is objectively incorrect.


[1] John Beckett, “Are We Bringing Sin Into Paganism?.” Under the Ancient Oaks Blog, Patheos. August 11, 2016, accessed August 11, 2016, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/2016/08/are-we-bringing-sin-into-paganism.html

[2] John Beckett, “Are We Bringing Sin Into Paganism?.”

[3] “Sin,” Wiktionary, last modified August 8, 2016, accessed August 11, 2016, https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/sin#English

[4] Joseph Bosworth, “Syn”, An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary Online, Ed. Thomas Northcote Toller and Others. Comp. Sean Christ and Ondřej Tichý. Faculty of Arts, Charles University in Prague, 21 Mar. 2010. Web. Accessed August 11, 2016 http://www.bosworthtoller.com/030025

[5] Joseph Bosworth, “Syn”.

[6] Wodgar Inguing, “Innangeard-Utangeard”, Larhus Fyrnsida Online Resource, Accessed August 11, 2016 https://larhusfyrnsida.com/fundamentals/inangeard-utangeard/

[7] Ashli, “Sin, Thew, and the Bones of Innangeard”, Real Heathenry, July 13, 2016, Accessed August 11, 2016. http://www.realheathenry.com/sin-thew-bones-innangeard/

To Be Wegfarende

•August 10, 2016 • 8 Comments

As I stated yesterday, when I made my anniversary post, I had something else I wanted to write up. It’s a bit of an announcement and an update for a potential interruption in service, here.

As of yesterday, I am officially a wegfarende. The word is Old English (weg-farende) for a “wayfarer”, or a traveler. Effectively, I have no permanent home over my head at the moment.

The property I’ve been living in was sold, and I have been thus far unsuccessful at attaining an apartment or more professional employment in order to support said space. One would think with a Master’s degree that decent (read: livable employment that is not simply subsistence-based) work would be more easily attainable. I’m in New England, where rents are outrageous, but there are higher wages and more opportunity. You’d think it’d be easier than this.

Well it is not.

I’m currently floating between a number of places, with the entirety of my life save my luggage and a few accoutrements in my car. I have some family that are offering me very temporary space. I’ve taken the opportunity to try to leave the region I had been inhabiting, but it’s difficult in devoting the time (and money) to the search.

So yeah, that’s basically what’s going on back here. I’ve been so stressed and busy with the sale of the property that I haven’t been able to give much thought to anything. Last night was the first time I forced myself to relax in a few weeks.

I have been praying and hoping that things will turn around, but as yet there is no such result in sight. I have some leads out, and some applications pending. We’ll see what comes.

Just wanted to let my readers know.

Also, I found it amusing that Helio posts about the Lares Viales yesterday, the day I became a wayfarer. Just one of those little things, I guess.

Probably My Most Consistent Anniversary

•August 9, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Today, I was informed by WordPress that seven years ago today I registered for their service.  By extension, this marks the seventh anniversary of the founding of Of Axe and Plough, which I launched immediately after registering here.

Truthfully, it doesn’t feel like I’ve been around that long, and my post-count certainly doesn’t scream to my successes of blogging for seven years.  I migrated, initially, off of LiveJournal because I wanted something a bit more professional looking.  And I had forgotten my password.  Ahem.  This blog sat fallow until about 2011 with only a smattering of posts, and almost all of those posts were not something I wanted to keep around.  So I purged this space at least twice and realigned it into something more productive.

I’d like to think that, by in large, my words have had a positive impact within the circles I travel.  I really do not have much in the way of drama here, and I am content with my little space.  It’s odd to see my posts being shared by people I do not know, to be recognized by people around the ‘net based on my words.  I am absolutely not a Big Name Pagan blogger, or even a second or third stringer.  But I do try to hold myself to a higher standard.  At least for blogging.  When it comes to social media I tend to still get rough and tumble.

However, this blog seems to be migrating in its orientation.  From the onset, I had always envisioned it as a way to really work through my religion.  I’ve been doing this for a long time (Pagan, 19 years or so) in theory, but very infrequent in practice.  But it always seemed to default to community critique, or speaking to wider themes that I have opinions on.  I’m trained in the Social Sciences (specifically History and Anthropology, and I won’t brook an argument about how History isn’t a social science.  It is in Europe.), so I tend to analyze cultural themes and social groupings.  I’ve always written from a perspective of a polytheist Pagan who interacted with the community, observed the community, and dealt with aspects of that community.  My actual practice writing is few and far between, although I still intend to do it.

But I’ve become convinced that we still need more visibly polytheistic bloggers out there, and I’d like to help fill that void.  The dust up that happened which spawned the Polytheist Movement and initiatives like Polytheist.Com is still relevant today, although I feel that a lot of what has been said is being lost in a political back-and-forth between a few bloggers associated with that site, and other groups like Gods & Radicals.  Misunderstandings and mischaracterizations abound, which tend to be applied to all the writers of a particular site.  Even Patheos has only a handful of dedicated polytheistic blogs, the rest of their polytheistic bloggers are wedged into two columns.  And if I ever end up writing for Polytheist.Com, or Patheos, then, whatever.  But for right now, I can be a more visible independent polytheist blogger.

I’m a Heathen, and I’m a Roman practitioner, and I’m a Pagan.  But I’m also a polytheist.  And perhaps that’s one of the core facets of my understanding, and I think at the moment that’s what I want to explore more.  How I express myself in society.  How I interact with society.  And how I can help other people through my lessons.

But it’s just a thought on the nature of this blog.  It probably will continue as business as usual.  Although I’d like to keep up posting.  I have an update to make tomorrow about that, however.

For now, hooray seven years!

[sad confetti]

A Thrill of Polytheistic Discovery and the Dissatisfaction of its Spread

•July 15, 2016 • 6 Comments

Helio recently wrote a piece about the discovery of a little-known indigenous Iberian canine god, Quangeio. I have provided a link to it, because I think it is really cool, and not at all because I’m going to disagree or speak to his points. Gods, especially local gods, can help tie people to the place more fundamentally and intimately than a wider pantheon, and there’s something noteworthy about being able to claim that one’s back yard is quite literally the old stomping grounds of a deity. Unfortunately, this is not something that many polytheists from the New World that do not follow indigenous tradition can speak to. So perhaps there is a little bit of jealousy coming from this, as well.

There are many Gods who are unknown to modern Pagans and polytheists. They are recorded in dusty tomes filed away in the collections of antiquities and folklore studies, in historic collections, and scholastic libraries. Their names are known only academically, from those scholars who study epigraphic, literary, or other forms of historic remnants, and who are not at all interested in the contemporary rehabilitation and recreation of their cults. In all actuality, Western polytheists barely scratch the surface of the sheer plethora of deities that the ancients would have recognized, worshiped, and interacted with on a frequent basis.

Collectively, we constrict ourselves to known deities, popular deities, or otherwise late-stage pantheon developments for a number of reasons, but mostly due to the accessibility of the knowledge of them. For those polytheists who generally have no form of “revealed” experiences or personal interaction other than the rites and rituals which we engage in, it is understandable that there is some reticence to explore deities which are not better attested in terms of cult and practice. Some of these deities are, quite literally, bare names or scant figures on a stone somewhere in the middle of Europe, and there is nothing informing practitioners as to the nature of their cultus. Otherwise, some practitioners do not have the academic inclinations required to sift through the material, so they content themselves with remaining within that which is familiar, and there is no shame at all in that.

But there are times when the individual is drawn to the worship of these deities, where the work in uncovering in-depth studies or developing contemporary practice in order to dig deeper into the nature of these little-known cults needs to be done. Just as Helio was pulled to explore Quangeio, just like River Devora was pulled to explore the Matres and Matronae and perpetuate their cultus, and just like a hundred other polytheists are pulled to the liminal, the less-than-accounted, and the rare expressions of divinity. There are more gods out there to be worshiped than there are modern worshipers, I feel.

Of course, the reasons for this is up to the individual enacting the study. Just as many people do it out of some primal connection and urge to worship as they do it for the prestige and notoriety of being the one to uncover and craft the foundation of a new cult. And, unfortunately, there are people who utilize the gods for their own personal, egotistical ends. To make a name for themselves as the authority in some facet of the wider Pagan community.

And please understand that I am most assuredly not accusing Helio of doing this. Nor River. Nor anyone else I might name in this piece. I respect them and their piety too much to accuse them of utilizing the Gods for selfish ends.

However, I cannot help but sometimes feel that Paganism, and all the religions that fall under the overarching Pagan identifier, has a problem with egoism, cults of personality, and selfish ends masked by false piety. Whether it is pervasive or not, I cannot say. But there is no doubt that our religious communities are so small that even new bloggers can appear and make a name for themselves as an authority figure within a relatively short amount of time. Our demographics are such that many Pagans, either by virtue of the blogging networks or the Pagan convention and festival circuit, do not have to try very hard to really become “household names”. This is even more likely if one publishes any kind of widely disseminated book. The ease of which one can become an authority at any measure is somewhat shocking, if we sit down and really think about it. We’re demographically scattered, to the point where even the in-person association we have is so fleeting that there’s few chances to vet an individual as a charlatan or otherwise disingenuous (at best) or dangerous (at worst) individual. We can be whoever we want to be on the internet.

The proliferation of ideas and the speed of which they can be spread is outstanding, and any information that gets published to a blog or on a forum post or in social media can be taken and spun by someone elsewhere. It sometimes feels like there is a very real threat of the gods being appropriated because they are less known, because there’s something unique and different and notorious . All too often we hear stories from sites like tumblr where individuals have heard of a deity, and immediately assume the mantle of some kind of high worshiper of that god, seemingly for the fact that it is an edgy, “new” thing. Gods whose memories and reconstructed cults get beaten into a mockery or what they should be, or wholly utilized for personal gain.

So then scholastic polytheists who are interested in rehabilitating and recreating the cults of these lesser known deities are placed in a position as to what they do with the information they’ve accrued and positioned. Very often, we have to decide whether or not we hoard our knowledge and our devotional practice, or publish it and risk it spiraling out of control as the newest “fad” within Paganism. This tendency within Paganism places some of us in the position of addressing some questions that very few people of other religions have to ask themselves. Some very uncomfortable ones, if I can be completely honest with you.

Questions such as: Is it better that the information gets published regardless of who can use it and what comes of it? Is it better for a god to be worshiped, even if they are not worshiped well? Do we trust that They will react appropriately to the people who are not as vested in the authentic reconstruction of their cultus?

Do we gatekeep these lesser known gods that we find? Do we have the right to protect their cultus, the memory, and take an active role in guiding the foundations of a modern iteration of their cultus? If it is not a right, is it an obligation that we take upon ourselves as being stewards of the memory of their cults? Obviously the people who have done the research have invested a great deal of energy in the uncovering and interaction with these gods. Is it a duty to cultivate the cultus after we put it in motion? If we are to consider ourselves ethical, that we do our practice out of veneration and respect and the giving of worth to the divine, can we ethically direct these initiatives? Is it even ethical to contemplate it?

Do I even have the right to open this particular can of worms?

It should be obvious that there is going to be no universal agreement to the proliferation of polytheistic identity. And, ultimately, very few of us are in a position to dictate the methods of religiosity to anyone but ourselves. We can all lead by example, of course, but much like my previous critiques about Paganism and pseudoscholarship, the appropriation and exploitation of these cults is something that can and will absolutely happen. In essence, it is something that has already happened, and numerous spheres of misinformation have threaded their way into the popular discourse of particular divinities.

I cannot speak for anyone else reading this, but I do know that contemplating my own questions makes me uncomfortable. I don’t want to be put in the position where I feel like I have to shepherd the identity of these deities. I don’t want that responsibility. But, at the same time, I believe that as polytheists who decide to do ‘the work’, that is we put our words out there and do not stick to a wholly private practice, we have an obligation to do it honestly and, above all, well. I cringe every time I read or hear about an individual picking up the mantle as spokesperson, priest, or priestess of a deity that had only just been spoken of in wider dialogue. I weary of getting into fights with anti-intellectuals who cannot articulate why they want to do what they do, simply because they mistrust academic, educational, or cultural authority.

For the record, I do not believe in gatekeeping basic information. I believe in making things intelligently accessible and available for people to educate themselves with, which means I believe in accuracy. I believe in terminological and philosophical defense, which has unfortunately been often misconstrued as gatekeeping and protecting of identity to the point of exclusivity. I also believe in the right of individual traditions and cults to protect their mysteries, and reveal only what they wish to for mass consumption. I do not have a problem with organizations that do not share their inner workings for everyone to read with no consideration to it. I recognize that cults will change from region to region, and a natural dissemination of religious knowledge is unavoidable (even were we to want to avoid it, which I do not).

I hate the idea of having to consider the impact of my words, and whether or not someone can twist them to suit them and their agendas. But they can, and do, and I must. I have to make the decision to answer my questions each time I go to write or contemplate something little known. I do not think I am alone in these concerns. I have lesser known Gods I am investigating, and pulled to. And it will get to the point where I have to made the decision whether I have the right to protect this knowledge, or I have the duty to spread it to people who may be interested. Or neither, and then be really out of sorts.

But I do know that there is a certain thrill at being pulled to discover/rediscover lost and forgotten gods, and it is something that many people should be rightly proud of doing and recognized for. But, there is also dissatisfaction at seeing how some people take that discovery and utilize it for themselves, and that is something which we ultimately cannot control.

Welcome to the world of revitalizing polytheism, I guess?