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Why is Spiritual Bullying Allowed in Heathenry?

b2ap3_thumbnail_569px-Lokasenna_by_Lorenz_Frlich.jpg

One day I realized that I'd started becoming a jerk. It crept up on me like a cat stalking a bird, the way it does with kids in school: I started hanging out with a group and I wanted to fit in. And I totally didn't want to be the kid who was being picked on. Even if I (shhhhhhhh!) had some things in common with that 'kid'. So I started saying nasty things about her— and I kept my mouth shut when the nasty things said by other people could apply equally to my own beliefs.

It's ironic, because I was the kid who was picked on in grade school. I totally knew better.

I thought I'd never do this. And when I realized how I'd begun to behave, I nearly choked.

A lot of Heathens take great pride in not being "fluffy" (cough) WICCAN!!!! (cough). Oh, we never make shit up. Nuh-uh. We do scholarship. We research historical stuff. We, um, re-create stuff. According to the traditions of our ancestors. We read source material like Ragnarok is coming down on us tomorrow complete with a horde of evil, undead Viking zombies and giants spewing searing, fiery destruction while some screaming Norse guy thrashes chords on an electric guitar…. erm, no.

Don't get me wrong. There's a lot of self-centered fluff out there on the internet and in print that makes me want to bang my head. There's also a lot of being so open-minded you check your brain at the door under the New Age/Shamanic/Spiritual/Not-Monotheist-But-Not-Atheist umbrella. Especially when someone is selling something. I'm not saying that you shouldn't exercise good judgment and skepticism when someone else claims some kind of divine insight or secret knowledge— cults, insanity and chicanery are made of that stuff.

But healthy skepticism is not the same as mocking someone else's beliefs or spiritual experience, simply because it's different from yours. That is called upholding the status quo, and when it comes to religion, that's called intolerance. Intolerance can lead to some incredibly vile things. In some parts of the world, members of the same religion still commit acts of violence against other members of their faith, simply because they hold varying interpretations about the same creeds. The history of Europe up through the 20th century is blood-soaked with religious and ideologically-fueled intolerance.

People who belong to a minority belief system should know better than to be intolerant. It's toxic to forming a healthy community, and our community is sparse enough as it is. As I joined a couple of different Heathenry groups online and followed discussions, however, I learned that certain Gods, subjects and people in the Heathen community, unlike among my Hellenic/Celtic polytheist friends, were taboo at worst and iffy at best. This did not stop at polite disagreement or jaw-dropping at practices someone might not understand or approve of: say certain names and a firestorm of vitriol is unleashed. A topic might be acceptable to explore if voiced by an 'elder', but that same statement made by a layperson would be ignored, shot down or mocked in a heartbeat. I've even heard women in the clergy get dismissed as 'not-Heathen' for their writings on Heathen religion (and two of them, mind you, have entirely different practices, politics and book publishers). All too often the people I've seen scoffed at were women, and the practices that got demeaned were largely ones pursued by women. In more than one group setting, any whiff of personal experience or mysticism quickly led to snide remarks or offhand dismissal of the possibility that any of this could be real outside of the imagination.

Usually this happens when a worshiper voices an opinion coming from a point at which hard scholarship can no longer help them to own a spiritual path. Maybe it's the perceived lack of material related to Goddesses and female experience in the lore, along with a daunting search for some real scrap of female tradition to cling to that unleashes the frustration of many interested in Norse spirituality. (Go read some Polish and German fairytales and folklore! The Heathen Gods are right there. Fairy Godmothers? Fingers pricked by spindles? Frigga and Holle are all over that.) Maybe it's a modern respect given to agnosticism, stemming from admiration for scholarship— a respect that is not widely granted to actual faith in the existence of more than one, let alone any deity— which triggers the scorn brigade. Sometimes the bullying is as subtle and unintentional as crowding out, dismissing or ignoring the conversations of those who are willing to look at things from a different angle, and examine other cultures and traditions, especially neighboring ones, for insight on how to fill the gaps. Sometimes, I think, this bullying and silencing of ideas is an imitation of stereotype-fueled perceptions of the lore, which can be downright brutal and easily skewed out of cultural context (so, too, is the Bible. Sometimes the behavior recorded in teaching stories—and myths are teaching stories— was not held up as an example to emulate). And sometimes— let's be frank here— it's obvious waves of sexism, homophobia and racism rippling outward from the hate-fueled influence of white supremacists and separatists, people whose beliefs are rooted far more in their own rabid insularity than faith in any deity.

Not all groups or individual Heathens I've met behave like this. Some are amazingly civil, welcome a variety of people to the faith, and work hard to embrace an open discourse of ideas. But I've observed it enough to see a tendency toward bullying in the religious culture of my fellow English-speaking Heathens, particularly in North America. It's hard enough to speak about faith, personal spiritual experiences, and unique perspectives on a minority religion in a world that denigrates the idea of faith itself. In an atmosphere of internal bullying, however, silence and shutting down dissent reigns supreme. It's not safe in this sort of environment to ask questions about what's missing from recorded stories and why, or to discuss personal relationships to Gods in a way that might make them easier for some people to relate to. Sorry, that might smack of Christianity. Or Judaism. (Which has an amazing amount for other groups to learn from about building community and persevering under oppression! Nevermind that our ancestors were also influenced by the beliefs of people around them; this is well-documented through comparative folklore, archaeology and tracing of ancient trade routes and marriage alliances. Just look at the shift in Viking burial customs.)

If we know that racism, sexism, homophobia and religious intolerance are morally unacceptable, then why do we as a religious culture still accept bullying? What happened to the virtue of frith, of community bonds, peace and friendship? What happened to celebrating the Gods, myths and cultural stories which exemplify this, even in situations that begin as a crisis? What happened to honoring a cultural tradition in which there were wisewomen as well as men?

What happened to the religious idea that Gods—not just a God— just might be willing to make themselves known to mortals as their beloved children? Maybe, for one person, this touch of the divine is their interpretation of one of their dreams. Maybe for another it's just an inkling, a question in their heart, a gut feeling. Maybe it's a sign they perceive or attraction to some figure, symbol or idea. Maybe it's a mystical experience in meditation. Some of the greatest works of art and literature and impulses by historical figures to make the world a better place have been sparked by just those sorts of things. Inspiration used to be considered a gift from the Gods. So why, as a religious culture, are we intellectually and verbally shutting it down? (At the heart of this, what exactly do we fear? That the Gods might actually exist?)

Unsurprisingly, I see echoes of this attitude of intolerance toward other people mirrored in a disregard for the environment— and spiritually, in a lack of regard for classes of beings related to the environment and primal powers therein. Thor smites Giants so Giants bad, right? Giants live in Utgard, Outside-Land. Ahem. Except when male Gods marry them, and female Giants behave like Aesir men, and heroes and Gods alike go to them for healing and wisdom. (And thank you, no— as a worshipper of Freyr, He who dies a horrible flamey death fighting the Giant Surt, I am as likely to approach Surt as to jump into a volcano.) If we see our Gods as some kind of cartoonish divine enforcers against evil, outside supernatural people who are unlike them, it's little wonder that mocking people over their differences of belief is considered acceptable behavior.

Maybe to uproot bullying in Heathenry we need to quit looking at our own Gods as cosmic bullies (and Cosmic White People), and act as if they care about community, value knowledge,and cherish  existence— including the rest of life on this planet— something the lore shows them over and over again seeking out and trying to preserve.

And, maybe, if we want to be respected, we need to start by showing respect and allowing inquiry to flow, trusting that time and common sense will winnow out the ludicrous. Because we'll never be respected as a community if we can't even respect ourselves.

****

(Please note: the picture from Lokasenna by Lorenz Frolich has nothing to do with what I believe about any of the respective Gods depicted, but it's the most (in)famous Norse mythological episode involving talking bad about people.)

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An illustrator, writer and spaekona (a Norse seer/shaman) for over a decade, Shirl Sazynski paints icons and tells stories revolving around myth and supernatural journeys. She also performs divination, consulting the Gods for clients at staffandcup.com.

A frequent contributor to the pagan literary magazine Eternal Haunted Summer, her work has also appeared in and is forthcoming in volumes from Bibliotheca Alexandrina and Prime Books, Idunna magazine, Witches and Pagans, Sagewoman, Odin's Gift, literary magazines, several galleries, and a launched computer game. Her current projects include an illustrated book of Northern European Goddesses encountered during the Heathen tradition of trance journey work, known as spae / seidhr.

More information about her work can be found at: shirlsazynski.com.

Comments

  • Jennifer Lawrence
    Jennifer Lawrence Monday, 01 July 2013

    >>As I joined a couple of different Heathenry groups online and followed discussions, however, I learned that certain Gods, subjects and people in the Heathen community, unlike among my Hellenic/Celtic polytheist friends, were taboo at worst and iffy at best.

    Oh, trust me, depending on which Hellenic or Celtic groups you get involved with, you get subjects that are every bit as taboo, and infighting that is just as vicious. The Celtic and Hellenic orgs (especially the hard recon ones) are just smaller than the Heathen contingent, so it's less well-known.

  • Joseph Bloch
    Joseph Bloch Monday, 01 July 2013

    You lay out a lot of broad accusations, painting the Heathen community with a mighty broad brush, but without specifics your arguments don't hold any water. It's the ultimate "they're mean and awful, but I won't tell you why, just believe me" argument, and thus fails. You also imply that those who are guilty of the crimes of which you accuse them have "cartoonish" views of the Gods. How convenient.

    Which groups are you talking about? Which Gods (although one can surely guess)? Which subjects are "taboo"? Who's heaping scorn on who? Was it just wild insults and derision, or was there any substance to what they had to say? Who has Ragnarok with metal guitars?

    Without that, this is nothing more than a drive-by hit piece. A passel of vague accusations of "INTOLERANCE" and bullying (and of course with the implication that it's the women who are the victims of the Mean Old Men) which are impossible to defend against, because there are no substantive points that can be refuted. "Pity me, pity me, for I am a victim. But you'll have to believe me."

  • Christopher Blackwell
    Christopher Blackwell Tuesday, 02 July 2013

    Joseph,

    Why so on the defensive, all religious groups have similar problems. To point this out is in no way an attack on the religion.

    Shiri,

    I think it is more of a people problem, then a religious problem. There are plenty of people who have an ego problem and to disagree with their opinion is seen as an attack on them personally, rather than than just a different opinion. It becomes a matter of distorted honor that everyone must agree that their opinion is the right one. Often it is a sign of their own lack of confidence about their beliefs and opinions, thus they savagely attack other opinions to hide the weakness of their own opinions

    Certainly our ancestors had different views on their religions some saw some gods a more important than others, sometimes those might be strictly local gods. There never was just one right way, though perhaps the coming of Christianity brought in that idea at some point in its own fight against differing points of view.

    Also remember a great many of our modern ones were former Christians. First generation is very likely to still carry some Christian baggage into their new religion. I have noticed that in other nonChristian religions. Changing a person's religion does not always change how they treat religion. If they come from one of the moor fundamentalist Christian group, they may be just as fundamentalist in their new religion. Perhaps we will have to wait until the second and third generation come to power to see the end of left over Christian baggage.

    Agreement with the bully is often because most people want to stay out of trouble with the bully, that is a sign of weakness. Those are people who follow anyone that in more outspoken than they are, or speak louder. This is what gives apparent power to the bully, people kowtowing to him. Once people refuse to back the bully, he has no power. Bullies are cowards anyway and only attack those that they thing they can easily beat.

    Disagreement between two people is not great danger to any group until we begin to start taking sides. Then we can cause the group to be divided against itself and rip itself asunder. That too can happen in any group, not just religious ones.

  • Candi
    Candi Monday, 01 July 2013

    After the last flame war involving Heathens and Heathen beliefs here on PaganSquare, I fully see Shirl's point completely and need no other reference to understand what she's talking about.

    Before becoming involved in the Pagan Internet community, I've known folks who ran like hell away from the Asatru Alliance and specifically Heathen groups because they saw others being bullied and picked on, they personally saw evidence of racism, misogyny, and other things, and chose to leave those groups and start new groups that focus on Frith, community, and healing in a Norse way. I can ask some of these folks if they would like to talk with you personally about their experiences. They are local to my area, and to my knowledge, aren't bloggers on PaganSquare. I have met them in person, and know them to be good folk.

  • Joseph Bloch
    Joseph Bloch Monday, 01 July 2013

    Can you be more specific about "the last flame war involving Heathens and Heathen beliefs here on PaganSquare"? I can certainly recall some heated discussions involving Heathens, but not any that discussed Heathenry per se. Polytheism, yes, but that's hardly an exclusive Heathen area of discussion.

  • Constance Tippett Chandler
    Constance Tippett Chandler Tuesday, 02 July 2013

    Joseph....please! Everyone has a right to speak without and say what they want. And, yes there are victims...because there are perpetrators. In the quest to follow the exact and literal compliance to their "religion", many loose site of common scene. Trying to go back centuries and re-create a belief system is difficult. It's like reading modern textbooks (without finding Howard Zinn) and believing every word is true. We live in the 20th century and in many ways have advanced our thinking and beliefs. Just try for one month, living in those physically harsh times, and you will understand why their believes where so harsh. Lighten up girl, and believe what you will. And, if someone yells at you, tell them to stop and walk away. Don't take IN the abuse. Some people just like to fight.

  • Joseph Bloch
    Joseph Bloch Tuesday, 02 July 2013

    Everyone has a right to speak without and say what they want.

    Apparently not. Shirl seems to think that some people expressing opinions with which she disagrees is "bullying". I have an idea of which opinions those are, but until we get some more specifics, all we're left with is "spiritual bullying is allowed in Heathenry", which unfairly taints all Heathens with the same brush.

    I think it should be possible to disagree with someone without having to accuse them of being a bully, shutting down conversation, being dismissive, and intolerant. Speak about the specific issue, not the people who disagree with you.

  • Gunnar Runa
    Gunnar Runa Tuesday, 02 July 2013

    Maybe were just tribal by nature...We don't always have to get along...our personal ancestors warred with each
    other over differences and so to will we...
    Just don't cry about getting your feelings hurt it smacks of weakness.
    I have had people tell me I'm full of shit...If I don't like it I move on or I argue my point...If I feel 'Bullied' then the group I am on probably isn't for me...
    Go find someone who believes in your version if Asatru or your personal mumbo jumbo and hang out with them and explain to your friends how you had sex with Odin and are married to him...(Actual experience)..
    Sorry when I hear this in topics of discussion. I see mental illness and further more I will ignore you or laugh at you or maybe insult you...Depending on how I feel at the time...What I will most definitely do is keep my kinfolk safe from people like that....
    What some people who come from Wicca into he at Henry fail to see is the concept that Frith is not universal in that it is not just given freely...To my family I owe the most Frith to...To a stranger none at all...If I offer it, That is my perogitive....We must be wary of any seeking Frith with us. We should be selective of who we mix sure with..

  • Gunnar Runa
    Gunnar Runa Tuesday, 02 July 2013

    Mix sure* with

    My android is bullying me....Grrr!

  • Gunnar Runa
    Gunnar Runa Tuesday, 02 July 2013

    I meant *wyrd...lol

  • Gunnar Runa
    Gunnar Runa Tuesday, 02 July 2013

    BTW..I agree with Joe Bloch

  • Byron Ballard
    Byron Ballard Tuesday, 02 July 2013

    I like it when people comment and prove the whole point of a piece. Good writing, Shirl. Thanks!

  • Gunnar Runa
    Gunnar Runa Wednesday, 03 July 2013

    I like it when outsiders who don't know what their talking about make comments about something their not a part of...Vindicating why some people ridicule those who insist...But it's your perogigive to do so...Carry on!

  • Candi
    Candi Tuesday, 02 July 2013

    What exactly "is" frith? Is it just being nice to someone? Using manners? I apologize, I don't think I really understand what it means from the context.

  • Shirl Sazynski
    Shirl Sazynski Wednesday, 03 July 2013

    Here's another excellent definition of 'frith' from Patricia LaFayllve, elsewhere on this site:

    "Frith. This concept is often explained as an inviolable peace occurring between kindred, family members, and close friends. Frith does not necessarily mean keeping silent and peaceful. Arguments can — and in Heathen circles, often do — break out over a variety of subjects without frith being violated.

    These ethics build upon one another. A frithful guest maintains reciprocity with his or her host. A good host maintains frith by engaging in peacemaking, if needed. We build frith with the gods and goddesses by offering reciprocity with Them.

    It is difficult to violate frith."

  • Gunnar Runa
    Gunnar Runa Wednesday, 03 July 2013

    That is a great explanation of 'Frith'
    Other than the point that it's difficult to violate Frith. I would tend to agree with that assessment.
    Arguments even severe ones at that won't don't constitute a violation of frith..although when someone's personal honour is disregarded that is when Frith could be violated...
    In my opinion there are pretty clear cut lines that one should not cross with some one Frith is shared with

  • Gunnar Runa
    Gunnar Runa Wednesday, 03 July 2013

    Good question Candi.
    Frith literally means peace but not in the sense of the John Lennon, Hippy idea of the word.
    In heathenry everything to some degree is owed a certain amount of 'Frith'
    Those in a persons 'Innangarth' or inner circle get the bulk of Frith, Starting with imediate Blood kin, Children, Mothers and Fathers,Brothers and Sisters, Then spouses, Cousins nephews and neices, Uncles and Aunts,Then friends, associates, as a person gets farther and farther away from ones inner circle the less and less frith is owed...Where complete strangers get little more than none....
    Frith in a sense is an oath of peace and once that oath is broken then no frith is owed to that person..No regard, No further consideration, No forgiveness. Unless of course one wants to be forgiving...
    That is up to the person.
    We do not turn the other cheek but face our antagonists head on...If people say something we find annoying we speak our minds or or we ignore them...or if we feel obliged we insult them...It's the way life is and to cry about it shows weakness.
    Asatru/Odinism is not just another path in the greater wiccan or pagan comunity but an Organically developed cultural and indigious European faith and cultural practice.

  • Gunnar Runa
    Gunnar Runa Wednesday, 03 July 2013

    Also one may I add based on a warrior culture not on a 'do as you will harm ye none' view

  • Shirl Sazynski
    Shirl Sazynski Wednesday, 03 July 2013

    Candi,

    Thank you kindly for your offer. The outpouring of welcome and invitation elsewhere from kindreds across the Northeast has been lovely. (The first such welcome I received, long before writing this article, was from Frithstead in New Hampshire, who live up to the name.)

    You were showing 'frith' by welcoming me in your first comment when you said, "I can ask some of these folks if they would like to talk with you personally about their experiences. They are local to my area, and to my knowledge, aren't bloggers on PaganSquare. I have met them in person, and know them to be good folk."

    Think graciousness, calmness, hospitality and good manners that set someone at ease. Stepping stones that build bonds of community. It's good-faith personal connections, forging healthy relationships both within a group and to outsiders, for the same reasons diplomatic exchanges have gone on throughout history. Being neighborly is also a form of it.

    Not all Heathens have any concern with 'innergarth' or 'outergarth', either. I do not; my groups are many and overlapping. I have never been interested in dividing people; it accomplishes very little for growth and happiness, in my experience.

    Good frith to me is also being willing to listen and show respect for the other members of the community here, since I was graciously allowed to blog at PaganSquare by the same hostess, Anne Newkirk Niven. You don't have to agree with someone, believe the same way, or belong to the same group to show frith. Part of it is actually looking past those differences to what can bind you together.

  • Virginia Carper
    Virginia Carper Wednesday, 03 July 2013

    I have seen it on the internet - the bullying. I wonder if the old bugaboos of Paganism - orthodoxy and or UPG have something to do with it? What I mean is that when UPG is brought in a discussion, the discussion can become contentious. Orthodoxy, at least in recon Paganism, tends to rear its ugly head when discussing the "lore" - i.e. if it is not written by the original Pagans, than is it admissible as a belief? I am speaking in general terms since these two topics seem to pop up elsewhere and end with bullying behavior from someone.

    There is one thing that puzzles me though - the" authors and books not read lists." For example, I do know that Raven Kaldera is on those lists for Heathens. Though he does discuss the same Gods, he has stated that he is not Heathen and his approach is mostly UPG. I have seen the same sort of problem with Silver Raven Wolf's books on Wicca, and D.J. Conway on Celtic Paganism as well. Therefore it is not a "Heathen" issue, but a general one. I presume that most beginning Pagans are adults and have some sort of discernment when they read various books. But why the "do not read lists?"

    For the record, I am a Roman polytheist.

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