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Posted by on in Paths Blogs
Asatru FAQ: Beards

Recently, a heathen US soldier was granted permission to wear a religious beard. This has sparked controversy in the heathen community.

The religious beard exemption in the US army was created for the benefit of Sikhs. Many Asatruars and other heathens think it's wrong for heathens to use this exemption because heathens don't have the kind of religion in which our gods require all their followers to follow commandments in order to achieve a proper afterlife. (In heathen lore, there is only one way into Valhalla, and that is to die in battle. Most of us are going to Hel. And that is not a bad place.) Asatru has no central authority, and so different groups and individuals vary in their practices. One group may wear beards while another group does not. Individuals may be given personal taboos not practiced by the rest of their community. The soldier in question is a member of Norskk, which is an organization within the Forn Sidr sect of heathenry, not Asatru. However, many Asatruars are asking in heathen forums whether they can also get religious beard exemptions, so I am attempting to address that here.

As it happens, I've been working on a new edition of my book Asatru For Beginners, in which I am rewriting a lot of the sections dealing with folkways such as wearing beards to account for the rise of modernism in the generation which passed since I first wrote my book in 2001. During the early part of the revival of heathenry, it was the heathen's task to reconstruct what was, to determine what the actual practices of ancient heathens were, based on "the lore" (written literature), archeology, surviving folk practices, etc. Many heathens went so far as to practice a living-history lifestyle. Some still do, but in recent years modernists have arisen whose task as a heathen is to fit what we already know of heathenry into modern life.

Wearing religious beards, clothing, weapons, and so forth are part of what we call the folkway. The folkway is a way of life based not on holy scriptures but on how our ancestors lived, and the folkway is just as important to traditionalist Asatruars as is the worship of our gods. The folkway is a combination of traditional practices that survived Christianity and were passed down continuously, such as maypole dancing, plus revived practices based on pre-Christian cultures, such as wearing beards. Lore-based folkways were reconstructed as part of the early reconstruction of Asatru. Different sects of heathenry were based on different cultures and time periods, so, the folkways of an Asatruar are different from the folkways of a Theodsman. Different groups within Asatru developed different folkways from each other. In the 20th century, most American Asatruars practiced both the religion and some sort of folkway. Recently, modernist sects have arisen which practice the religion without the folkway.

Because the question of beards in the military is being framed as a question of how similar Asatruars are to Sikhs, let's talk about that. Sikhs grew from Indo-European roots, as did Asatruars. If one goes back far enough into history, there are some shared cultural tropes. Adult male Sikhs wear blades as part of their Sikh ways. Asatruars (regardless of gender) who practice the folkway wear weapons, typically blade weapons but other types are acceptable, to symbolize their free status in the community.

Another part of the folkway which is ancient and similar to Sikh practice is the prohibition against cutting the hair.  Sikhs of both genders do not cut their hair, and male Sikhs wear religious beards. In some traditionalist sects of Asatru, men wear religious beards, and women do not cut their hair. Unlike the Sikhs, in Asatru this is not a religious dictate in that it is not required to achieve a proper afterlife, because Asatru does not have that kind of religious dictate (the word of Odin in the Havamal is advice to humanity, not commandments.) Rather, in Asatru beards are a cultural tradition. While traditionalists might or might not practice that part of the folkway, modernists don't practice any part of the folkway.

There are exceptions to the no-cutting rule even among the most traditional groups in Asatru. Women can remove their facial hair and body hair. Professional warriors, including military, police, mercenaries, etc. retain warriors’ honor even if they cut their hair and shave their beards. The reason for this exception is because of Germanic mercenaries who served the Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire. Germanic tribesmen who served Rome or Byzantium conformed to the standards of Roman soldiers and shaved their beards. They were considered to retain warrior's honor. The Germanic mercenaries had great admiration for the Roman Janissaries. Janissaries were slaves but had warriors’ honor. So there are both practical (they shaved their own beards) and theoretical (they counted warrior slaves as warriors rather than slaves) historical precedent for warriors shaving beards. Even in very traditionalist Asatru sects warriors are allowed to shave their beards. The soldier in question is a member of a heathen sect that looks to Norse sources only, not to Germanic sources, so his group does not acknowledge that exception.

The wearing of weapons, uncut hair, and religious beards in traditionalist Asatru all signify free status. Like most other ancient societies, the ancient heathens had a slave class. Short hair was a social signal of being a thrall or prostitute (this is the reason the cutting of Sif's hair in the lore story was told as a wrong that had to be made right); an iron collar signified the same. In modern society, slavery is illegal, and no one is actually a thrall, even among the Theodish where that word is used for a novice. However, there are people even in modern society who do not have free status. Prisoners of various kinds, including criminals in prison, prisoners of war, and the involuntarily hospitalized, are not required by religious obligations to wear weapons or religious beards or to refrain from cutting or shaving the hair, if they are required to be weaponless or beardless by those in power over them. Even among the most traditionalist, those who do not have free status are neither required nor entitled to have the markers of free status. This is not relevant to the case of the soldier, but has come up before when heathen prisoners request a religious accommodation to wear a beard.

Modernist sects do not practice the folkway, and some traditionalist sects do not practice this part of the folkway either. For those who do, wearing religious hair and beards is just as important as it is for members of other religions who wear religious hair and beards for cultural reasons. The majority of heathens would not say a soldier must have a beard, but that doesn't matter for purposes of determining if the soldier in question has a sincerely held belief, which is the standard that employers in the US adhere to for determining religious exemptions. There is no Asa-Pope, there is no one heathen organization that determines how all heathens must live, and there is not majority rule either. Each Asatru organization, kindred, or individual determines for themselves whether to adopt folkways and if so, which ones.

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Posted by on in Paths Blogs
Revising My Successful Book

I'm nervous about messing with success. Nonetheless, it's time for a new edition of Asatru For Beginners. Modernism has arisen in Asatru since I wrote my book, and a beginner's book needs to describe that. Also, on some topics in heathenry, we know more than we did around the turn of the millenium. I'm tempted to subtitle the new edition, "New and improved! Now with more gods!" 

One thing that won't be changing in my book: in my intro, I mention that my father was Native American. That information is right up front for three reasons. 1. to tell racists that my book isn't for them, unless they stop being racists. 2. To tell other mixed-race people like me that if they are called to this path, that is OK. There are a lot of mixed-race people in American Asatru, reflecting the wider American society of which we are a part. 3. Because my father's advice, "listen to the wind, listen to the corn, listen to your heart" was one of the major spiritual influences on my life which started me down the path that led to Asatru. 

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  • Thesseli
    Thesseli says #
    Awesome!
Seidhr: Real Life Examples of Norse Oracular Trance Magic

There are many ways of performing seidhr-- Norse trance magic, mediumship and fate weaving. Here are two real-life examples of the results, drawn from several sessions I witnessed or participated in, illustrating the pitfalls, challenges, divine connection and deep lessons that come with this amazing work.

Seidhr For the Hel of It

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Why are Heathen Women So Scared of Magic?

Heathen women, reclaim your rightful place of power as witches, please. It's not a Wiccan thing. It's our heritage.

Magical practice-- witchcraft-- is the great heritage of central and northern European women, as vital as the male warrior traditions to our ancestors’ communities. From noblewomen to the humblest farm wife, women were expected to work magic on behalf of their family, the sick and the woundedand to uphold their kingdoms! Bands of professional priestesses, the volur were esteemed and traveled safety over both land and rivers, surviving into the time of the Greenland colony.

These two facts can be quoted by plenty of modern Heathens, but how many actually put stock in it by their actions, attitudes and beliefs regarding witchcraft-- and the women who practice it?

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Recent Comments - Show all comments
  • Shirl Sazynski
    Shirl Sazynski says #
    Why not try reading Maria Kvilhaug's lovely book on the Northern mysteries (which are human understandings of the esoteric, neithe
  • Kayly
    Kayly says #
    You disappeared from this site for a long time; I missed reading your articles. Regarding magic: The Norse system has a stereotyp
  • Shirl Sazynski
    Shirl Sazynski says #
    If you get a chance to read my column, you will see that I use runes for magical purposes (they are sigils, abstract signs) and ta
  • Thesseli
    Thesseli says #
    They're scared of magic because most of them are enmeshed in patriarchal Indo-European mythology, and the retelling of that mythol
  • Shirl Sazynski
    Shirl Sazynski says #
    But the myths themselves are not so patriarchal! That is an over-simplification and due to the emphasis of scholars and prejudice

Posted by on in Paths Blogs
The 5 Kinds of Gods in Asgard

The heathen gods set an example of an inclusive society. Asgard has former enemies from the First War living together in friendship. The Aesir and Vanir made peace ages ago and now the Vanir in Asgard are treated as full citizens of Asgard; for example, Freyr is expected to fight on the side of Asgard at Ragnarok.

There are 5 kinds of beings counted among the Aesir in Asgard, including those born Aesir and 4 other kinds. These kinds of beings are interchangeably called races, tribes, nations, and species. The 5 kinds are the Aesir, Vanir, Jotnar, Thursar, and even an ascended human.

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  • Thesseli
    Thesseli says #
    I will never understand why some Heathens embrace racism, when the stories of their gods are full of intermarriages between beings
  • Erin Lale
    Erin Lale says #
    Thanks, Kayly!
  • Kayly
    Kayly says #
    Hi, I recently joined the site but have been reading your articles here for a long time. I just came to say I really enjoy your w

Posted by on in Paths Blogs
Powers That Changed Gender

One of the things people coming from either Wicca or Christianity to Asatru notice is that the idea that the sun god gets resurrected at Yule doesn't fit in our culture, because to heathens the sun is she. Yet, people still try to wedge the sun god into heathenism, and go looking for a sun god, and identify Baldr as a sun god-- correctly! -- and end up trying to celebrate Baldr's resurrection at Yule, although the lore says he won't come back until the after the end of the universe. 

I have novel gnosis on this topic, that is, gnosis that I received while writing my overgrown unpublished novel Some Say Fire. In the Fireverse, powers that are transferred to another host upon the previous host's death always swap to a host of  the opposite gender. Thus, when Baldur died, the sun power was transferred to Sunna, who became the sun goddess. When Baldur's wife Nanna died, the moon power was transferred to Mani, who became the moon god. Like many things in the Fireverse, that's an oversimplification of the process, but has a kernel of truth in it.

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Recent Comments - Show all comments
  • Erin Lale
    Erin Lale says #
    Hi Anthony, that's cool, I didn't know about that manga. Yes, heathens did "Thor loses his hammer and then gets it back" AND "Thor
  • Anthony Gresham
    Anthony Gresham says #
    In the manga series Oh, my Goddess the three Norns become goddesses and the middle one Verdandi (called Beldandi in the series) se

Posted by on in Paths Blogs
The Heathen Worldview

What is "the heathen worldview?" That's a topic that comes up on heathen forums regularly. This is my attempt to answer it. 

With so many cultures and time periods to choose from on which to base heathen practice, there are bound to be many differences between various heathen paths. On the old Asatru MSN Group, which I used to manage, I put a welcome message on the landing page that advised newcomers that "there is no Asa-Pope." Today, Asatruars are still quoting it, so it must have resonated with the Asatru community. In other heathen traditions, though, there are central authorities. For example, the various forms of Theod each have a king. Both Asatru and Theod based their leadership structures on historical examples, but from different countries.

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