An Anglo-Saxon American Heathen

Anyone who has been around the Pagan community for any length of time, whether online or in person, will hear various justifications for being interested in the religion. Reconstructionist methodologies and revivalist polytheistic Pagan religions are no different. Claims of heritage, especially from American Pagans, are often used as justification for pursuing a distinct ethno-cultural religious perspective. It does not seem that there is much satisfaction in answers of simply “being interested” in the culture. In fact, it often seems that there needs to be a justification for some of us to be attracted to deities, to the traditions, and to the cultures that we often find ourselves to be. That these justifications establish some kind of tenuous-yet-indisputable legitimacy to claims of being worthy or appropriate for following these paths [1].

Do they? This is a heavy question, I think, although not the focus of this little entry.

I’ve grown tired of hearing justifications for interactions with various Pagan cultures or religions that are based solely in heritage. This isn’t a knock against people who have interests in genealogical research, or an established lineage they wish to honor. But every new individual who introduces themselves with their laundry list of ethnic divisions, that they are 1/4th German and 1/4th Norman and 1/2th Blefuscudian, seems to reinforce and establish this tradition of defending their interest.

Admittedly, this comes from a Heathen perspective, since it seems very common on Heathen and Asatru fora. American heritage-glorification is an interesting phenomenon, and I’m not entirely sure that other states with the history of European colonialism engage in such exercises. There are scholarly articles engaging in this study, I’m sure.

I’m descended, by way of my mother’s father, from an Anglo-Saxon house. There is a book on Google Books, right now, which details the interactions of this family and another, important prominent family. It includes their origination (out of date, since it was from the early 1900s), their intermingling with this other family, and the story of their coming to the Americas in the late 1600s. I cannot say that I do not have a vested, blood-born interest in maintaining an Anglo-Saxon focus to my non-Christian, European religion.

But we must be realistic. The Anglo-Saxon pagan period lasted from the arrival of the different tribes to Britain, somewhere in the mid-400s, until the mid-700s, with conversion beginning in 597 CE. I an guarantee to you that, without a doubt, the odds of me having actual pagan ancestors in that family line is slim to none. The same is almost invariably true for the other parts of my family, the Italian (my father’s father), the Pennsylvania Dutch (mother’s mother), and the other English (Potentially Norse-Gaelic, but that’s just a hunch, father’s mother). All of these things factor in to my heritage.

A heritage which is religiously, for all intents and purposes, Latin Christian-to-Roman Catholic-to-English-Protestant and, in my case, back again. My mother’s family were Quakers when they came to the New World. My father’s family are Italian Catholics, and that is the religion that I was assigned at birth.

I can appreciate, and indeed I am envious of, Scandinavian-American Heathens who grew up in a cultural diaspora[2]. Grew up speaking their native language in their household and using their heritage as a backwards stepping stone in their quest for an ancestral religion. Their religion is tied intrinsically to their established and experienced culture, and it is that much richer for it. Those of us who have become enculturated in American society, not without our own privileges and benefits to be sure, have lost our ties to our own cultures. We have either left our cultural diaspora through our own (not necessarily individual) actions and were integrated into the morass of ‘Average Americana’, or we have been here long enough that we’ve lost our European folkloric culture and are left wanting for something that can help connect us to a religion which forms its foundation in ideas and concepts which are older than the American experience.

In my own experience I have found that applying an ancient, Germanic, worldview – that reconstructed historical perspective – does not give an exact fit when applied with modern Western life. It always feels somewhat out-of-step with my daily life. I have grappled with these notions, will grapple with them in the future, and deal with this difficulty that even my emphasis and love of an Anglo-Saxonist branch of Heathenry cannot completely gloss over.

Are these Heathens that go out of their way to justify their interest in the religion like me? Does the application of Heathenry to the average American feel unnatural? Anachronistic and separate from their daily life? I can see the allure of latching on to one’s historic ethnic heritage in such a way, especially to give someone the footing they need for further studies. When it becomes the crutch, however, which holds interest aloft it can become stagnant and problematic. It can encourage people to believe this is the only way to approach the religion.

In part, I think this has happened because for the past forty five years, “Heathenry” has been treated as a monolithic culture which is thought to be universal. It isn’t. It wasn’t. It’s clunky and untenable as something that everyone across multiple continents, in multiple environmental zones, and from multiple linguistic backgrounds can approach the same way.

What can the alternative be? How can one engage in Heathenry and make it more seamless and integrated to their day to day life?

I believe part of the answer is in regionalist Heathenry, the establishment of local Heathen practices representing, embodying, and deriving from a regional culture. Historically speaking, this is not a new process, but a continuation of the establishment of different local and regional customs which were represented by the Germanic tribes. Heathenry as a cultural monolith is an aberrant and patently wrong practice.

There are efforts presently which approach Heathenry through a regional lens. The most notable American establishment that I can think of in regards to this is the tradition of Urglaawe, the practice of Deitsch Heathenry which has as its foundation the local history and culture of the Pennsylvania Dutch communities.

More recently, efforts in the Pacific Northwest (Cascadia) have constructed regional variations and approached local history and folklore from a Heathen perspective in an effort to establish their own views. Part of the future of Heathenry is in this regional development. As Heathenry grows, it is going to move beyond historic cultural bases. It’s going to take on a more local, ingrained, cultural belief. This is inevitable. It happened in history, it will happen in the future[3].

In some cases, this is a reason why I’m interested in Anglo-Saxon Heathenry. I see similarity to the morass of different regional variations that are potential to modern Heathenry as I do in the morass of historic Anglo-Saxon tribal understanding. The very concept of Anglo-Saxonism, as a historic monolith, is largely a fabrication. External accounts of Christian origin grouping the peoples populating Britain as well as later internal accounts of the 9th and 10th centuries created compound words representing the tribes of the Angles and Saxons. Even though it is not thought that there was much regional variation to Old English on the migration to Britain [4], the tribes themselves that constituted the pre-Norman Ænglisc were Angles, Saxons, Frisians, Jutes, and Franks.

There exist a myriad of circles of tribal understanding within the Anglo-Saxon experience, which we have lost. There exist a myriad of circles of tribal understanding in the Scandinavian experience, not simply represented in its entirety by Icelandic sources.

Heathenry isn’t bound to us by our heritage, nor is it a culturally monolithic religious expression. For many of us, it doesn’t matter. It can’t matter, because our heritage has largely been constructed well after a historically pagan past. It ultimately shouldn’t matter, because we’re not living in many of the same periods as our ancestors. I worship in an Anglo-Saxon – Old English – context. I’m an American. I currently live in the Hudson River Valley. I was born in and hail from New England – I am a Yankee. I do not have the luxury of having access to a diaspora’s shared folk history and mythology.

There are other methodological foundations which form the basis of Heathenry, which are far more important than some emphasized hereditary lineage to those peoples. There are practices and world views, distinct from heredity and ethnicity, which make one Heathen. I’ll get to this in a future post that is already underway. But in one, long, roundabout way, these are my thoughts as to why I feel it is frivolous to preface introductions to Heathenry based on ethnic heritage. Because it ultimately doesn’t matter.

Thanks for reading.


[1] I should reiterate that, for the record, I do not believe there are any cultural or ethnic ties that should prevent someone from entering a religious culture. Provided they want to do the work, provided they do not do it for nefarious purposes (exploitation), provided that they prove themselves to be true to their goals and stated desires. This is not to attack the concept of closed religious communities, or mystery cults or what-have-you. But I feel that proving one’s worth should suffice for engagement with the religion.

[2] Even though I’m only third generation Italian-American from my great grandfather who arrived in this country in 1922 I was not raised in that household, or in that cultural diaspora. None of my cousins were. My father and his siblings did not speak Italian at home, their family assimilated very quickly. My grandfather and his family did, if only to speak to their father. But my father divorced my mother when I was six, and I was raised in an American household that had seen various colonial wars, the Revolution, the Civil War, both World Wars, and were staunchly mainstream American.

[3] Part of the problem, of course, will be identifying what makes those cultural regions distinct. The area of the country I live in is very average, so much so that it mirrors the national averages to the point that we are often used as an early testing market for new products and advertisements. It is difficult to decide what constitutes our local culture.

[4] Peter S. Baker, Introduction to Old English, Third Edition, (Wiley-Blackwell: Malden, MA), 2012 pg 10.  Pronunciation of Old English is thought to be more or less uniform upon arrival in Britain, although later split into four major dialectical regions.  Further, the language of many of these peoples were drawn from the same family of Germanic language and were mutually intelligible.  One can read Old Saxon if one knows Old English, for instance.

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~ by thelettuceman on September 1, 2015.

5 Responses to “An Anglo-Saxon American Heathen”

  1. Agreed- I think people who say “I follow path X because I have Y heritage” often use their ancestry as an excuse for laziness while they actually know nothing about it. Whereas people who *don’t* have said ancestry will often make more of an effort to learn languages and such. That’s something I’ve been learning over time- while I am Irish, it’s 5 generations removed and my upbringing was pretty much Anglo Protestant. So the effort I make to reconnect ends up being about the same as for any other American.

  2. That book – it wouldn’t happen to be on the Corson family, would it? I know it’s a long shot, but it sounds eerie similar to a book I have about one branch of my own family.

  3. […] I am an American, specifically a Northeasterner.  I was born in the 80s.  I am part of the 21st century.  I don’t pretend to be anything else.  I have never said that any bit of my religious expression was anything but a contemporary interpretation of a historic one, modified to the present world.  Very few people in historic or reconstructionist polytheisms will say that what they’re doing is 100% accurate to the past, or believe they can totally revivify what is there. […]

  4. I’d be interested in the name of that book on your families interactions.
    As my family came from Kent in the 1600’s and have rather historical personages in the family line.

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