Heathenry Changed Me–For the Better

Obviously, all religions come with certain expectations about conduct. There will probably always be disagreements about the finer points, but there are still overarching themes. There are certain rituals and observances with traditions you’re at least implicitly expected to use. Or to find a sufficiently similar approximation.

But major lifestyle changes? Heathenry doesn’t have a whole lot in the way of dogma, and explicitly didactic stuff like Havamal is mostly common sense, so I didn’t expect any major changes. They happened anyway.

When I swore my pledge in preparation for a lifelong oath, one of the requirements I set for myself was that my oath ring had to be on during waking hours, and other religious jewelry should ideally be worn, especially if I was leaving the house.

For the first two weeks, I didn’t wear my oath ring to bed. The natural chemical balance of my skin runs acidic and salty, so it tarnishes every metal I wear, except for stainless steel. (Probably purer gold alloys, too. But I don’t wear gold. Sorry, Gullveig.) My oath ring is made of copper, so I kept it on the altar to prevent my skin from damaging it, and because I was paranoid about rolling over on it and snapping it. This meant climbing out of bed as soon as I was alert, so I could put everything on.

I used to wake up at a pretty normal time, but then spend several hours catching up on social media, sneaking naps, and collecting myself before finally making coffee around 11AM. Putting myself in a situation where I had to get out of bed the instant I realized I was awake has forced me to start my day earlier. I may still crawl back into bed to stay warm and check feeds, but I definitely start my day a few hours earlier and catch myself looking for ways to get a head start on being productive. I suddenly have so much more time to get things done.

And considering I have ADHD, which often comes with bizarre sleep issues (more on that here) this was a feat. I have struggled for years to keep myself up at a “normal” time. Now that I’ve managed it, I crave it. Melatonin and coffee are still useful things to have on hand, and I’ll throw in the occasional nightcap, but these are all in pursuit of a functional relationship with sleep and daylight.

Religion has also nudged me into being more active. When I didn’t have the budget or the craft skills to dress up my shrines to my liking, I relied on found objects picked up on walks. I was walking upwards of 7 miles a day to collect cute rocks and offerings. I’m out of shape at the moment, but now that the weather’s a little kinder I’ll be right back to that level in no time flat.

There’s also a lot more emphasis on trying to be self-sufficient and resourceful. Part of that was downsizing to identify a manageable workload. The rest of it was picking up new skills and advancing the ones I already had. If you can cook well enough for yourself when you were used to prepackaged food, that’s an achievement on its own. But when you cook for the gods, the pressure is on to make more exciting choices and expand your repertoire.

And when idols are pricey to buy, and the ones on the market don’t suit your style, the next logical step is to figure out how to make your own. Which, incidentally, made me far more motivated to tidy up the yard in search of workable wood and finally learn how to properly work an axe.

Being a heathen has also drastically altered my relationship with alcohol. I was never an alcoholic (thank the gods) but I had a horrible tendency to binge and get blackout drunk on the rare occasion that I did drink. If I bought alcohol, it was a matter of finding the balance of a tolerable flavor, good price and sufficiently high %ABV. If someone else provided it, and didn’t intervene, I’d just grab whatever they permitted. I didn’t drink for pleasure. I just drank to get drunk.

You’d think, from the outside, that heathenry would encourage drinking, since it’s frequently included in our group rituals and we take our cues from the supposedly very sloshy Vikings. The Hávamál suggests something pretty different, though:

[12] Less good there lies | than most believe
In ale for mortal men;
For the more he drinks | the less does man
Of his mind the mastery hold.
[13] Over beer the bird | of forgetfulness broods,
And steals the minds of men;
With the heron’s feathers | fettered I lay
And in Gunnloth’s house was held.
[14] Drunk I was, | I was dead-drunk,
When with Fjalar wise I was;
‘Tis the best of drinking | if back one brings
His wisdom with him home.

Bearing in mind that alcohol snatches your wits has made me more likely to refuse, even when the opportunity is right in front of me at no apparent cost. Faceplanting on walls isn’t a good look. And I’m sure the gods find it funny, but what’s funny once is just really sad when you do it regularly. The real cost is a lot higher than what’s immediately obvious.

Which is something that having my fingertip crushed in a door during a bender put into painfully sharp focus.

So, I take the apple juice instead of the wine. Make instead of buy. Try to sleep and try to be mindful of my consumption and be generous with what I have. Try to be whatever it is the gods seem like they’re nudging me towards.

Wild goose chases aside (tricksters gonna trick), they haven’t really led me astray so far.

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How I Study the Poetic Edda

Translations of the mythology can be dense and a little bit dry. Personally, I like dense sources. But they do require more effort to pick apart, so I have a note-taking system in place. This allows me to not only absorb the information better, but also provides a compact source I can quickly refer to later.

When I took a poetry class, with a professor who specialized in Medieval literature and was kind enough to cover Lokasenna, she would have us do a quick skim to start. After that, she would ask us what we thought the Narrative Situation of the poem was. In other words, what it means, but without worrying about what it means. What is the event or story? What is the most obvious idea?

For example, in Völuspá, the Narrative Situation is the creation and destruction of the universe. In Rígsþula, it’s the origin of the social classes and the first king. Many of these poems are not able to be summarized in a single sentence, especially because the strength of poetry is its ability to transfer a vast amount of information in very few words.

So with that as my influence, I give it a quick read through and I take my first guess at the Narrative Situation. Then, I read the poem through again, while paraphrasing it in prose form. This can be a very serious and faithful paraphrasing, or a humorous one if it helps you. Half of my paraphrasing from studying Lokasenna is “and then Loki calls her a hoe.” Which, I mean…that’s not wrong. Simplistic, yes, but not inaccurate.

The next step is background research to improve your understanding. This is easy with Dronke’s translations, because she follows up each poem with several pages of notes. With her translation, I make note of anything that:

  • Corrects a mistaken assumption I made on the first read through
  • Provides a better understanding of the language, like explanations of kennings and wordplay
  • Provides useful historical or cultural context, like folk customs and events that may have influenced the poet’s portrayal of the story
  • Provides broader mythological context, like comparing archetypes and common narratives

Plus, I take notes on anything that’s just plain interesting or any other connections I make while doing the background research. As a Heathen, you’re studying this for spiritual use, so you can have fun with it.

Also, Dronke’s translations are hard to get a hold of. Carolyne Larrington, who was a student of Dronke, also has a translation available with many of the same merits–with the added benefit of still being in print, and therefore far less expensive.

When making notes on your background research or translator’s commentary, cite or make a note (like a page number or site name) to locate your source later. This way, you can go back and compare if new information comes along.

Something I haven’t included before, but that I’d like to start doing, is taking note of which poems and stories reference each other. Part of this is because intertextuality simply interests me. Poems like Völuspá and Lokasenna, for example, are very intertextual. But it’s also because I have a hypothesis that stories which reference one another more may potentially reflect a more reliable group of narratives. There is no guarantee of that, obviously, but this is just an idea I’d like to explore further.

Intertextuality is worth noting, either way, because it will help you understand certain flourishes used in a poem and the broader context.

I’d also like to start further exploring the symbolic meanings of a story when I study it. The symbolism of a poem is something that is useful in a religious context, because our gods have an abstract link to many concrete things in our world. Additionally, with stories like Baldrs Draumr, that helps us separate the distinctly heathen elements from later influences on the texts.

Yet another thing I’d like to start doing is writing down any questions I still have after studying the poem and taking explanatory notes, so I know what to keep in mind while doing other research.

I knew most of the stories long before I started this system, but I’m pleasantly surprised by how much more I’m getting out of it this way, and how much more sense things make this time around. Hopefully, this helps anyone starting to study the Eddas, or who wants to take a fresh look at them.

Tough Love Exists

I think one of the weirder things I have learned from Loki is how to accept tough love.

Tough love is a weird and unwelcome concept for a lot of people. A lot of people hide malicious intentions behind the idea of tough love. People with agendas, or a sense of selfishness they refuse to rein in, are often needlessly harsh and fall back on claiming to mean well to avoid consequences. In retaliation, other, better-meaning people want to claim that love shouldn’t hurt, ever. Under any circumstances. Even this crowd hides its own creeping agenda, as a refusal of negative experience is also often a refusal of consequences. All these people do is sour the concept.

Tough love in its true form is best known in the context of addiction recovery, as that’s where the concept originates. While I’ve never grappled with substance abuse, trauma recovery brings out many of the same symptoms, carries much of the same baggage, and results in similarly bad behavior.

I’m a traumatized person, and I need tough love.

The way I have managed my trauma before receiving professional and divine help…didn’t work. Recovery just isn’t something you can do by feel, when the entire problem is that your brain has betrayed you. What makes sense does not necessarily have any genuine logic to it. Just because something feels dangerous or impossible doesn’t mean it really is. Alternately, just because something feels justified in your fear, doesn’t make it so.

I threw hairbrushes at people and screamed unthinkable insults at the love of my life over the stupidest things. It was not sustainable, and I needed a change that I was unwilling to make.

Loki’s a pretty well established boundary-violator. That is terrifying when your trauma comes from violated boundaries to begin with. And you can always, theoretically, say no. Low-value efforts will not be pushed farther than you allow them to be. Our relationships with the gods are a mutual investment–and our gods have things to do, they’re not going to invest in something pointless.

But always saying no doesn’t get you places. You know this. Your therapist knows this. Your gods know this. Someone in this team has to give you a hard time when something is important. If Loki’s on that team, it’ll most likely be him.

And I needed to be used to the idea that other people are smarter than me and have a valuable perspective. A power dynamic is great for making you accept that. It’s hard to believe it with other humans, because we’re all theoretically on the same level and a lot of us are really stupid. I say this on the grounds that am a human who is really stupid.

And part of distinguishing tough love from malice is recognizing that there is a difference between fearing and being afraid. To fear is to know that there can be consequences if you step out of line, and trusting that these consequences will be survivable and done for a good reason. To be afraid is to fear consequences and to refuse them by any means necessary.

I fear Loki. But I am not afraid of Loki. He is often annoying, and kind of a dick. But he acts with good reason.

And when you are throwing objects at people because you refuse to take a joke, lashing out at strangers on the internet and dropping commitments, torching bridges for petty reasons and sabotaging yourself when you really need to cut someone out, refusing to leave your house…you can’t live like that. You need a loving kick in the ass.

And Loki is more than happy to oblige.

If I had not been pestered into doing some pretty heavy shadow work, I’d be in worse shape than I already was. By contrast, I’m a much more functional person who can recognize when the Bad Brains are acting up, and who has the skills to start addressing the problem and dig up the root.

Religion isn’t a substitute for therapy. But it makes a great supplement.

A Mother’s Day prayer for those whose earthly mothers are lacking

Ironwood Witch

Happy mothers day to the moms, soon to be moms and trying to be moms in my life. To those of us with terrible moms we choose to be estranged from: at least our dads are cool.

A Mother’s Day Prayer
For those whose earthly mothers are lacking

Hail Angrboda, Mother of Monsters:
May I have the will to keep on my road, even when lost.

Hail Sigyn, Mother of Grief:
May my sorrows be bearable, even when sharp

Hail Freya, Mother of Treasure:
May I remember my value, even when knocked down.

Hail Frigga, Mother of Light:
May I remember that even when in darkness, light comes from me.

Hail Rind, Mother of Vengeance:
May what comes forth from me be my revenge, a life well lived.

Hail Jarnsaxa, Mother of Strength:
May I always be strong enough to always do better than my past.

Hail Hela, Mother of…

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My Ancestor Veneration Has No Ancestors

AKA No Wire Hangers in my Ørlog, EVER.


I have never really felt fortunate about the idea that I inherit the deeds of my familial ancestors. We have some truly terrible people in my family tree. I am not honored, flattered or proud to be tied to them by blood. It’s a millstone on my neck.

Perhaps in more of a Juniper Tree sense than a New Testament sense.

And the obsession with genetics in a Heathen context is…creepy. The dog whistles are shrill.

Family is of little value to me in terms of metaphorical inheritance. Frankly, I’m more interested in what I’ve inherited culturally. The objects and tools (both concrete and abstract) that people create say so much more about us than our family names. Our languages, our habits, our codes of conduct, our specific ways of relating to one another and the world that we’re thrust into, are all vastly more important to me.

That is what I choose to honor.

In the skills realm, I’m a knitter, a crocheter, a naalbinder and a tablet-weaver–continuing a variety of utilitarian skills that ensured our survival and became vehicles of culture. My dad made sure I knew how to use tools, some of which were antiques. I picked up whittling on a whim (actually, to avoid spending money on hair forks), and it’s becoming an important lesson in slowing down and trusting the process of unleashing the potential of wood.

My lofty goal is to take up spinning, because it’s the foundation of all of the fiber arts I use–something that woodworking will help with, too, so I can make my own spindles. If I could sew worth a darn (sorry), I’d probably be quilting as well. My grandmom is a big deal in the quilting niche, but while I’m the spitting image of her, I didn’t quite inherit her grasp of how shapes interlock, or her confidence with a machine. Majoring in math or calmly removing yourself after getting trapped in the machine (which happened to her!) are not, as it turns out, heritable traits.

Nor did I get her ability to casually brush off injuries. Grandma slipped and smacked her head on a metal-reinforced corner in her kitchen, and then calmly walked to get stitches. You should have seen the wall.

Anyway.

If you do any handicraft, you’ll know that you begin to relate differently to objects related to your skillset. I used to think wool was an awful, scratchy material. Knowing how deeply important wool has always been to people in cold and wet climates, and how much variety is available depending on sheep breed and treatment has changed that. Wool–especially fresh, greasy wool–absorbs very little water compared to most natural fibers and stays warm when wet. Now I never wear a plastic layer in the rain, and am still perfectly comfortable from neck to knees even when it’s pouring.

I’ll see sweaters that I used to think were just ugly or tacky, and now take a few minutes to appreciate the prominent stitch pattern, the texture of garter versus seed stitch versus stockinette and ribbing, the elaborate intarsia or stranding, and try to guess at what size needles they would have been made on. I think about whether, for handmade sweaters, the knitter was a continental-style picker, or an English-style thrower like me. Or maybe they knitted with their yarn tensioned over the back of their neck, or their working needle clamped against their ribs.

I’m starting to notice this tendency with wood working, too. You’d be surprised how many spoons there are in a tree. Or bowls. Or miniature viking ships, if I am ever ambitious enough to try and hack it. Any given stump looks like a promising drum frame. God poles and runes lurk in widowmakers. A collapsing mulberry tree looks like it has a secret spindle waiting to be liberated–and some rune sets for my Urglaawische friends, to boot.

My ancestors are not my family. Genetics and family names are happenstance. My ancestors are the wool- and wood-workers who kept us alive and created objects that made life more enjoyable. Being born a certain way is not an achievement. Nobody chooses to be born, let alone how. Using our gifts as human beings to bring comfort and comprehension into our existence–that is something to celebrate.

I’m a Fussy Jerk about UPG

By and large, I prefer combing through academia for information I can use in my practice, rather than consulting coreligionists.

There was someone I knew in my earlier Heathen days who made huge logical leaps from incredibly sparse information. Her…contributions in that vein are more famous in the Marvel and general Hiddleston fandom, but she brought a lot of that into the Lokean spaces, too.

Her assertions were along the lines of “blood oaths were marriages, so Loki and Odin were totes married!” (No.) “Jotunn means cannibal, Jotunheim means ‘cannibal town,’ and they were neanderthals” (What?!) And a lot of wildly inaccurate linguistic assertions. She claimed to have taken some language classes. She was not a linguist. This didn’t stop her, even though it really should have.

She was utterly convinced “Loki” was a cognate of the Proto-Germanic “laguz,” (from which the rune name is derived, yes) and therefore Loki was a god of lakes. Oh, never mind that there was absolutely zero attestation regarding Loki and lakes, or that Proto-Germanic is a reconstruction of a language that was never written down. It was her UPG. Apparently the definition of “cognate” she was using was also her UPG, because she used this word constantly.

Except…”cognate” doesn’t mean, “these words are vaguely similar.” In linguistics, a cognate of a word has the same linguistic root as another word. That is not optional.

The prevailing theory about the etymology of Loki’s name, for the record, is the Proto-Germanic root “*luk-.” It refers to concepts of attachment, ensnarement and closure; we see that in the lore with the stitching of Loki’s mouth, his creation of the fishing net and his binding. Nothing in that is relevant to lakes.

She could have found this out with a two-minute internet search, because that’s how long it took me to compare these etymologies. I’m not a linguist, either. I just know how to Google.

Granted, this was an abnormally bad instance of this kind of behavior, but I don’t put stock into other people’s UPG, for a few reasons. Reason one is pretty straightforward. It’s personal. That is information between you and the deity you work with. It is only reliably true and useful between the two of you.

Reason two is that “unverified” is part of the name, and at this point in my life I’d really prefer running that by an objective (or at least thoroughly-backed) source before adopting it.

I have had UPG-type experiences involving directly given information, and then stumbled upon that same information in a devotional where the author and I were mutually unknown to each other. I’ve also had hunches verified by academia completely by accident. So, yes, UPG does sometimes end up becoming a peer-verified or academically-verified Gnosis. But not always. I’d prefer not to count on it as reliable information until I see it proven. I don’t need to whip out the whole scientific method to feel confident, but I need a second opinion.

Reason three is the tendency I saw among the Tumblr-based Lokean community (myself included, before people smarter than me were kind enough to redirect me) picking up tidbits of unsupported information, and parroting them as if they were proven facts. I’ve got other gripes about the way Tumblr works, but the speed at which inaccurate information spreads is easily the biggest.

I feel like I’ve been burned by what I’ve seen happen to UPG. So, I ran far away from that and ended up as kind of a lore-thumper. I can at least be reassured the lore won’t change to be on trend. Not nearly as much, at least.

Yes, the lore needs to be approached carefully, because, yes, it was written down by non-Heathens. That just means you do more background research to work around the bias. Not consult some random person on the internet whose most compelling credentials are not being a Christian like Snorri Sturluson, and “it’s my UPG.”

People lie.

It’s a trap anyone can fall into, though. Making connections between information is deeply satisfying, and it’s something our brain does by default with incredible speed. Pattern-matching is a feature, not a bug. And we’re supposed to like and prefer things that are satisfying. Reaching a realization on our own feels rewarding. Having a source of information who is part of the community is comforting.

The problem is that facts and scholarly consensus are going to be more accurate than something that occurs to you while you’re making dinner. Even a bad academic assertion with thorough citations has a trail you can follow for better information. A trained professional has the background knowledge and discernment skills the layperson usually doesn’t have.

A linguist doesn’t equate similar sounding words, because they know how the language and its relatives operate. A lock is not a lake unless it’s a loch.

A historian knows history is written by the victors, but witnesses still leave a trail. Our myths may be transcribed by Christians, but some poetry survived mostly unchanged from before the conversion, and the sagas provide other helpful hints.

A mythologist worth their salt is trained to recognize when similarities between plots and motifs are caused by a common source material, and when they’re just coincidence. A spark nestled in a salmon and a child born from a swallowed pine needle have fascinating similarities to some of Loki’s escapades–but they are only fascinating similarities.

Even though religion is not science, we’re not exempt from carefully examining what we come across.