Gnosis Diary: Life as a Heathen

My personal experiences, including religious / spiritual experiences, modern life on a heathen path, community interaction, and general heathenry.

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Erin Lale

Erin Lale

Erin Lale is the author of Asatru For Beginners, American Celebration, and other books. She has been a sworn Priestess of Freya since 1989, and recently also formalized a relationship with the triple Odin. She has been a freelance writer for about 30 years, was the editor and publisher of Berserkrgangr Magazine, and is the Acquisitions Editor at genre novel publishers Damnation Books and Eternal Press. In 2010 and 2013, she ran for public office as an out heathen.

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Thanksgiving, an American Celebration

"Thanksgiving is celebrated as a family harvest celebration, and its origins are swept under the rug. Public schools of my era put up decorations of cutesy Pilgrims and Indians and indoctrinated children in the propaganda that Thanksgiving was a continuous celebration from the First Thanksgiving and had been celebrated the same way ever since, and that the First Thanksgiving was when the settlers had a great harvest and invited the happy, friendly natives to the feast."

That's a quote from my latest book, American Celebration. I decided to write this book for several reasons. One was because I decided to go in a more modernist direction in my personal path. I reached the point where I felt that heathenry had gotten enough reconstruction to have a firm foundation and it was time to build the rest of the house. Becoming a viable religion in modern times means we have to think about how we fit into modern culture. I wanted to spend more of my holidays with my family and friends who are part of my real life, and American secular holiday culture provides a framework for celebrating with friends and family of different faiths. 

Another reason I wrote this book is because I've heard all my life that the United States doesn't have a real culture like other countries do. It's not true. There are American folkways. I discovered things I never knew about my own country's customs while researching this book, which is new this year.

Another reason I wrote the book is because while I was running for office, one day a woman from another country who happened to be at a political event with her fellow asked me why Americans are always worshipping our flag. That got me to thinking, and I also wrote this book for foreigners who want to understand peculiar customs in the United States. 

I'll return to the story of my personal journey on my path in my next blog post.

Here's another quote from the entry on Thanksgiving in American Celebration:

"Thanksgiving as we know it today was created by Abraham Lincoln for the purpose of uniting the bitterly divided American people in the shadow of the Civil War. He created the mythology of Pilgrims and Indians feasting together as a model of how the North and the South ought to come together after the massive bloodshed which had just happened. In reaching back for a foundation myth that reflected a happier and shinier view of the real history of the colonization of America, he hoped to perpetuate a happier and shinier America in his present and the future."

Links to American Celebration:

Amazon (print edition): http://www.amazon.com/American-Celebration-Erin-Lale/dp/1304916138/ref=la_B004GLACQQ_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1416415380&sr=1-2

Smashwords (ebook): https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/400543

Barnes & Noble (ebook): http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/american-celebration-erin-lale/1118328548?ean=2940045599979 

American Celebration would make a great Yule gift.

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A Book and a Cat

Continuing my story of my personal journey on my heathen path, I continued to learn various magical basics, not exclusively heathen. During the early 1990s, I studied the book The Way of the Shaman, and met a lynx. 

 A quote from my memoir, Greater Than the Sum of My Parts:

      “I worked through the exercises in a little paperback book called the Way of the Shaman.  From it I learned to read auras.  At first I had difficulty with the concept of aura reading, but then I figured out what it really was.  Learning aura reading is training one’s intuition to give information in visual form.  The color spectrum is capable of carrying more shades of meaning in a single data point than is a gut feeling.  It’s like trading Morse code for a videophone.  After that it was only a matter of practice, and in a few weeks I went on to the next exercise in the book.”

I had already connected to a spirit animal, cats of various species, but after reading that book, I went on a trip to Montana and connected powerfully with a lynx. The excuse for the trip was wildlife photography. I connected profoundly with an animal spirit that united the Native totem spirits, the Eastern martial arts animals, and the heathen bersarkrgangr animals, although I would not know about the martial of bersarkrgangr for another few years yet.

I photographed the lynx jumping over a log. The photo accompanying this post is one of the pictures of that very lynx, which I took on 35mm slide film. 

 A quote from my memoir: 

     “The lynx got tired and sat in the shade a while, panting, its cream and red-brown fur a liability in the summer sun.  It was not much bigger than my own cat at home, and I had to remind myself that it was not in fact a domestic cat and I should not pet it, despite the temptation.   As I stood watching the lynx, it looked back at me with spring green eyes.  I did not let myself physically move to touch it, but my feelings went out to it, to her, I realized, perfect hunter, emblem of every cat spirit I had ever known, from the lion roar of shenai practice to the little house cat spirit in the field on my first day at college.  She united the big cats and the small, the tiger of martial arts with the sweet kitten who comforted me when my father died.  I forged a connection with Lynx, not just this lynx but the archetypal Lynx.  She united within me all the cat spirits I had seen and heard, every catlike instinct I possessed, and something more, something hidden deep within.”

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Honoring Both Sides of My Heritage: A Festival and a Road Trip

Continuing my story of my personal journey, in the summer of 1990, after I graduated from college, I finally met other heathens. I went to a heathen festival in Northern California near my home town of Sonoma. I happened to find a welcoming group in its historically most accepting and diverse stage, so I was fortunate that my first encounter with organized heathenry was a group that was totally OK with me showing up in half heathen garb (Viking Age re-enactor clothes) and half powwow regalia (Native American dance attire) which was how I chose to honor both sides of my heritage and spirituality. The Asatru group I happened to encounter welcomed me, and if my being part Native American was even noticed, it was something to celebrate, not something for which to exclude me. My first impression of other heathens was of a fun-loving, friendly group of people who welcomed me with open arms and open bottles of mead.

To summarize the events of the past few posts, 1989 was an eventful year: I became Priestess of Freya, and immediately my father died, I got into a street fight in the Soviet Union, I was in the Quake of '89, and then my randomly assigned college roommates summoned Satan with a ouija board and I had to get rid of him.  Then I faced my most horrible opponent of all: bylaws (I co-founded the official UCSC campus pagan club, Circle of the 13 Moons.)

It had been about a year since my father's death. The chance to find out more about the Native American spirituality he had taught me as a child, directly from him, was gone. I decided to go on a road trip in my truck—my late father’s truck—to find my Cherokee roots. At the time, I did not yet know that dad also had Shawnee ancestors; it took the internet age to find that out. Back then, being of mixed European and Native heritage and trying to honor both sides of my ancestry was seen as more than a little odd. Even the government got in on the disapproval, by having no census category for “mixed” and by only allowing people to choose one checkbox among the standard categories. But since I only met other heathens in person after college, I already felt like I was in a category by myself anyway. As the only heathen among pagans whenever I was in any sort of pagan space, whether the college pagan club or the Spiral Dance or whatever, also having my family Native relationship with the land spirits, not to mention also the Eastern martial arts meditations that had become part of my spiritual practice before I discovered that heathenry was my path, plus all those American celebrations like Yule and Halloween and birthday customs and so forth, plus all the little Austrian family traditions from mom’s family, that was all just me and my path. That was just unique me, on my own path, unlike anyone else’s.

Paraphrasing from my memoir, Greater Than the Sum of My Parts, about my first heathen festival:

      The Asatru festival showed that heathens really knew how to have a good time, with lots of music and food and jokes and a welcoming atmosphere.  In the daytime there were seminars and discussions, and on the main day a ritual followed by a feast, with plenty of time to see the vendors’ booths and participate in shenai sparring.  Nighttime brought singing and dancing around the campfire, or for those who were curious or had a question about the future, Diana and her women apprentices performed seidh in a tent in the woods.  Seidh was an old word for magic which could mean oracular trance, shapeshifting, or bewitchment; Diana and her apprentices meant it in the first sense.  The remarkable thing about the seidh tradition was that it was specifically a women’s magic, and although men could learn it, it was considered improper for men to do so, unless they either were transsexuals (living as women) or transvestites (cross-dressing as women only for ritual performance.)

That was the old Ring of Troth, before it split into The Troth and The American Vinland Association. It was a very welcoming group of heathens. When I attended the old Ring of Troth's festivals in northern California in the early 90s, there were several other Native Americans in powwow regalia, a few black and mixed race people, several male-to-female transsexuals, and several gay and Lesbian singles and couples. Nobody even considered excluding Loki. Back then, if someone had proposed banning the worship of Loki during the festival, the Trothers would have stared at them like they had two heads, just like European heathens today scratch their heads about that peculiarities of American Asatru. I did not come to realize it until a couple of decades later, but all of those things go together. One can gauge how much racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, and transphobia there is in an American Asatru group by its attitude toward Loki. How welcome is Loki? How welcome are gay people? How welcome are strong women who expect to be treated equally with the men? Where Loki is welcome, they are welcome. Where Loki is relegated to the sidelines, so are they. Where Loki is hated, so are they. I happened to encounter the Ring of Troth during the time when he was welcome, and so were people like me. It was lucky, or perhaps it was weird (karma/ destiny / the will of the gods / whatever.)

At the heathen festival, I met heathens who would become my lifelong friends. We sang around the campfire all night. Fog rolled in among the redwood trees, those trees that went up into infinity, their tops lost in the dark beyond the campfires over which the drummers heat-tuned their bodhrans. Flame lit up the fog in an orange glow. The night smelled like sea and smoke. We filled it with singing voices and the sounds of drums and guitars and laughter.

I was immediately part of the community. By contrast, when I went to a Powwow, I could dance the Intertribal dances (the dances that were neither competitions nor ceremonies) but I was basically alone in the crowd the entire time. At the heathen festival, I was included in all the activities and ceremonies, and was never made to feel that I was doing it wrong (although I probably was, at that point.) Heathens talked with me freely, and never once asked me my blood quantum.

It didn't matter to the heathens that I showed up to my first heathen festival never having heard the word heathen before. (Prior to meeting other heathens, I had not been using the words heathen or Asatru. In college I had been calling my path Germanic Paganism. Sometimes I called it the northern way, because I followed the gods of Northern Europe; this was long before there was a separate path called the Northern Tradition, but I imagine they probably came to use the word northern for the same reason I did.) I was instantly accepted by the other heathens there, just because I was there, and everyone was part of one big community. In contrast, at a Powwow, everyone is either there with their relatives or there alone, and only the vendors talk to anyone other than their in-group. I felt so much more welcomed by the heathens than by the Natives that it really affected which way I went with my religious life.

Going  to my first big heathen festival and then going on the road trip to Qualla Boundary, the Cherokee reservation in North Carolina, happened in the same summer. I was not consciously choosing between the two paths. I was already Priestess of Freya, chosen by Freya, initiated by Freya, and if there were no other human beings on Earth, nothing would ever change that. I was also already honoring the land spirits the way my father taught me in early childhood, and nothing else I learned about Native American ways would change that, either. I wished to honor both sides of my heritage, not choose between them. Every cell in my body is both Native American and Northern European. That would not change no matter what I found at the festival or on my road trip. However, which path I ended up working with the most did depend on how much I could find about how it was actually practiced and whether there was a readily available group of people that practiced it and were ready to welcome me into it.

Driving, I achieved a state of flow. I connected with the Southwest desert to which I later moved.

 A quote from my memoir ("we" is me and my mom. She invited herself along on my road trip.):

     “When we hit the deep desert, and the broad horizon opened up all around, I felt myself relaxing and expanding.  I had always thought I hated deserts, but I realized what I really hated was Ripon.  Deserts themselves were restful to my eye.

     There is a serenity in the desert.  It is bright, but not uncomfortably so.  The dry air felt good on my skin, and in my lungs.”

 When we reached the Qualla Boundary Reservation, I was incredibly disappointed. Quotes from my memoir:

     “I realized the costumed men posing for photos with tourists were all dressed in Plains Indians garb, not in traditional Cherokee dress... The shops mostly had T-shirts and the kinds of blankets and jewelry made in the Southwest." There was a re-enactor village for tourists and a stage play, both of which showed authentic history and culture, but they were performances, and the people performing were actors, even if they were portraying their own ancestors. It was like a less interactive Renaissance Faire: costumed actors performing for the public, not people living their authentic way.

"I failed to find a single non-Christian Cherokee.  I had been practicing Tsalagi, but I encountered no one who could speak it with me.  After days of this I finally asked a shopgirl if she knew anyone at all who spoke Tsalagi, and she directed me to the museum.  This 'person' turned out to be a machine which spoke a few sentences of Tsalagi when I pushed a button.  It was a cylinder recording kept behind a glass wall.”

There was nothing there for me. There was no path for me to follow, no group to join, nothing to learn that was not in books and museums.

I went camping in the Great Smokies, but the land felt strange and the humidity bothered my asthma. I hiked the Road to Nowhere and back, climbed over a huge fallen tree, followed a tree-lined river to a placid lake and watched the lightning bugs flick on in the evening. The green trees and hazy blue hills receding into the distance were beautiful, but I did not feel a connection to the land spirits.

I was born a creature of the desert. It was to the desert that I wanted to return, and if I was to formally belong to a religion, it would be Asatru. The Asatruars I had found had no problem with me being of mixed race, and I found that what my father had taught me about having a relationship with the land spirits fit perfectly into heathenry, since Asatruars in California were connecting with Native American land spirits anyway, since they lived in American land. I gave up on trying to find anything more of Native ways beyond what dad had taught me.

On the way back to California, we stopped in Missouri and I saw the log cabin where dad was born. I did not connect to the land there either, although I did meet some relatives. Then we passed through the Southwest again.

 A quote from my memoir:

     “Mom and I camped in Sedona in the red desert, at a site known as a spiritual power spot, and a double rainbow appeared over the river in a clear blue sky.  Other than that, all I sensed was people, the spiritual seekers full of longing and the locals full of hucksterism.

     The open desert was another matter.  Once again, as on the way east, I found a peacefulness to the desert that made little sense, logically, since trees and water were the usual things which came to mind when picturing a spot to commune with nature.  However, the most perfect test of one’s logic is whether one can accept data that do not fit one’s theory.  In this place where little lived, where rock stretched from horizon to horizon, I felt most keenly aware of the Life-force.  I loved the desert.”

I had found my place, the desert. It would be a few years after that before I finally moved to the desert in 1995, but from that summer I knew I wanted to live in the desert. I had no connection at all with the land on which my Native ancestors had lived. My connection was to the land I was born in.

I had reconfirmed that Asatru was the path for me. I had driven 6,000 miles round trip, and had come back to where I had begun

 

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Circle of the 13 Moons

Continuing my story of my personal journey on my heathen path, it was still my senior year of college, 1989-1990. I was 20, and still had never met any other heathens, but I knew lots of pagans. I co-founded the UCSC official campus pagan club, Circle of the 13 Moons. 

 

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The Day I Cast Out Satan

Continuing the story of my personal journey on my heathen path, I had to confront an entity that answered to a name of Satan-- I won't write the actual name here. This thing was dark, cold, and evil; it was definitely not an angel, fallen or not, nor any kind of light-bringer, so although it answered to Satan, it was not Lucifer. 

 

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The Great Quake of '89

My senior year of college at the University of California at Santa Cruz was the Loma Prieta earthquake.  It was not a spiritual experience, but it greatly affected the course of my life, caused me to invest magic in my truck, and led to a significant event in my life as a heathen. This year is the 25th anniversary of this event.

Quotes from my memoir:

     “Most of my memories are fuzzy about the time and date on which they took place, but there is one I can date to the minute:  October 17, 1989, 5:04pm.”

 “…the plate glass sliding doors in the living room rippled like water…”

It was the great quake of ’89, its epicenter in Santa Cruz County. I have a detailed description of what happened in my memoir, Greater Than the Sum of My Parts. After a week of sleeping outdoors because the buildings were not certified safe, I thought:

      “If I had dad’s truck with me, I could sleep in it.  No freezing soccer fields.  No worries about rain.  I could have all the supplies I needed right in there, ready for me any time I wanted them.” 

      “…The only coherent thought I had all afternoon was, “This is not going to happen to me again.  I am not going to depend on anything or anyone outside myself.  I can’t depend on the water always turning on and being fit to drink.  I can’t depend on the buses always running and the stores always being open.  I was depending on the government.  Now I’m going to depend on myself.  Alone.”

When I returned to Santa Cruz from the family home in Sonoma, I was driving the truck. The same one I still drive, which my mom had named The Warhoop Wagon while it was still my dad’s: an ’84 Chevy Silverado. Longbed. Two-tone brown and cream paint job like a palomino. Camper shell on the back. Freshly stocked with supplies from survivalist catalogs. Not just a vehicle: a place I could live in.

      “Before we left I walked around the truck, simultaneously conducting a safety check and casting a spell of protection.  I imbued the truck with energy to journey safely and to prevent harm to myself and others on the road.  To my inner eye it glowed with the armor of my directed will, but beneath that was its own personality, a protectiveness like the best qualities of its previous owner.  Driving my truck—my father’s truck—was a holy act of inheritance of ability.”

Over the years, I have reinforced and enhanced the safe-journey magic and the truck's own personality grew stronger. Its formal name is still the one my mother gave it, but I more often think of it as My Faithful Truck. It's hard to explain to non-pagans why I won't give it up; I usually just tell them it's lucky.

The first place I drove it was to a pagan ritual in the middle of rubble-strewn San Francisco, in the hard-hit Marina district which was still blackened and choked from gas main fires: the Spiral Dance. I brought my mom with me, and that was how I came out as pagan.

Back at college, I found myself in a spiritual battle for which I did not feel at all prepared. That is another story, coming in the next post.

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The Berserker Trance

Continuing my story of my personal journey on my heathen path, when I was studying at the University of Kalinin (now Tver), USSR, I experienced the berserker trance during a street fight, although I had not yet begun studying the martial art of Bersarkrgangr. This was one of the events in my life that qualified me to study it. 

Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault

It was broad daylight, and I and another American were walking to the post office. Tale of the tape: I was 5'3" and weighed about 117 lbs. My opponent, whom I only saw briefly before going into a berserker trance but whom I will never forget, was about 5'10" and about 170 lbs. 

A quote from my memoir, Greater Than the Sum of My Parts:

     “The crowd pressed in on all sides, so I had no warning alarms go off in my mind when a man came very close.  He grabbed me by the left breast.

     Light.

     A flash of light, and nothing else.  No sound, no sensation.  Bright white light.

     I was inside the post office.  I was standing in the lobby, busy people flowing all around me.  I stood staring at a police officer sitting on his stool.”   

I still have a total blank where any memory of what I did would be, but I guessed that I had run away. I may or may not have punched or kicked him or did any other martial arts moves, but I had to have run off because I was out of breath and a block away when I came to awareness again, with a wave of berserker fury crashing over me. It bothered me that I had run. I had this self image as this badass kung fu fighter, and the berserker in me ran away.

I only considered reporting the incident to the policeman for about a second. This was a Soviet militiaman, there to guard the post office in the midst of the anarchy of what was obvious even then was about to be the fall of the Soviet Union.  This was a city where the black market traded openly in the daytime and street gangs ruled the night, zipping along on their motorcycles with AK-47s they had bought from corrupt soldiers who were trading them for food because the army’s pay was worthless in the middle of a currency collapse. I had already witnessed numerous assaults on the street and knew that street crime might as well be the weather for all the attention it was going to receive. Plus, I was an American, and was not someone they would automatically protect. So I just went about my business.

Later, this was one of the life experiences that the teacher of the martial art of the berserkers considered one of my qualifications to learn Bersarkrgangr. Bersarkrgangr was a traditional martial art of the heathen culture, and still is, although it has undoubtedly changed over time. Learning it was one of the major experiences of my life, and this street incident was one of the things that led to my learning it, so although I started having flashbacks to the childhood sexual abuse after that incident, on the whole I actually have to say it was a positive turning point, although it certainly didn’t feel like it at the time. From the perspective of 25 years later, I look back and think, four things happened after my dedication to Freya that felt very dark when I was going through them, but which I see now shaped me into the person she wanted me to be.

The first person I ever really talked about this incident with was the Bersarkrgangr teacher, several years later. I expressed my embarrassment at having run away, but he relieved my guilt about that. He said, "Erin, you won that fight. When I was in Vietnam, I sometimes went on scouting missions. We weren't supposed to engage the enemy, just go out, look, and report back. If they came too close, I hid. (He told a story about climbing a tree and pretending to be a bird while the enemy passed beneath him.) It's not cowardice. It's completing the mission. You weren't there to fight anybody. Your mission was to go mail a package at the post office. You used only the amount of force necessary to disengage, escaped unscathed, retreated, and accomplished your mission. That's what warriors do." 

I've written a paper about Bersarkrgangr, which is available free here: https://www.academia.edu/8013139/Bersarkrgangr_The_Viking_Martial_Art

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