Gnosis Diary: Life as a Heathen

My personal experiences, including religious and spiritual experiences, community interaction, general heathenry, and modern life on my heathen path, which is Asatru.

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The Heathen Gods as Ideals

Picture the Platonic ideal of a cloud. Is it oval, white and fluffy? Set against a blue sky? Pretty, static, happy in a mild and calm way? Or did you imagine a thundercloud squirting rain and lightning and booms and rainbows and wind in all directions, wild and raw? Starting wildfires and putting them out? Fertilizing the earth, growing crops, and also flooding them, knocking them over, sheeting them with ice?

We are not always talking about the same ideal when we picture something as natural and observable as a cloud. How much more nebulous-- how much cloudier, as it were-- is the picture when we talk about such a thing as masculinity, in toxic and non-toxic flavors? Or any other quality that is socially constructed?

Thor is an ideal of masculinity. He is a manly protector with big muscles and big hammer. In heathen lore he enjoys contests of strength, fishing, and drinking. He is also called, in heathen lore, "Deep-Minded," and defeated some of his opponents through guile instead of physical fights. Even without reference to the Marvel character, we modern people tend to see Thor as a big dumb jock, but that is not how he's portrayed in the Eddas and other literature of heathen times. Rather, "dumb jock" is our society's confounding view of the ideal masculine. Thor in the lore chose a contest of wit to defeat the wise dwarf who came seeking Thrud, and Thor won. We get Thor the masculine ideal confused with "dumb jock" the masculine ideal, just as someone might say "cloud" and the person listening pictures white and puffy while the person speaking meant a cracking storm that turns the sky green and makes it rain frogs.

Similarly, Freya is an ideal of femininity. Her beauty is legendary, and she is associated with feminine things like roses and cats. But she is also a goddess of war, equal to Odin in receiving dead warriors for her army. Our society's ideal of the feminine is of someone soft and gentle. Freya in the lore is the chief of the Valkyries. Many people share memes about Freya as goddess of love, and leave out the war. They see fluffy Freya, while Freya herself rides a battle swine. People confuse Freya the feminine ideal with "sweet gentle polite lady" the feminine ideal. Conversely, there are also those who see Freya in her aspect as owner of her sexuality and see "sexy woman" the feminine ideal, which also leaves out her fiercer side.

Odin is an ideal of leadership. He is wise, and equally able to speak beautifully and to the fight like a bear. He knows magic, and gives advice, and does whatever it takes to increase his knowledge. Sometimes we think of Odin the king and forget Odin the wanderer. Or, we might think of the wandering wizard, picture Gandalf (a character undoubtedly influenced by his author's knowledge of Odin) and forget the king. King and wanderer don't go together in our minds, so we tend to see one or the other, but he is both at once. Odin the wanderer is also wise, and gives advice, and knows magic, and so forth. When we picture Odin the king, we might picture our ideal of a king, and ascribe traits we consider kingly to Odin, even if those traits don't appear in the lore.

Our personal experiences and our society's ideas about certain concepts, like "femininity," "leadership," etc. can filter our perceptions of the gods. If we picture a king riding into battle when we think of Odin, what then of Odin the artist? Odin the father? Odin the mage? Odin the poet?

It is perhaps inevitable that we apply our ideals to our thinking about the gods, but if we are aware of it, we may be able to see through it. We may be able to see past our selves and our society's expectations and perceive the gods in a truer way.

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Erin Lale is the author of Asatru For Beginners, and the updated, longer version of her book, Asatru: A Beginner's Guide to the Heathen Path. Erin has been a gythia since 1989. She was the editor and publisher of Berserkrgangr Magazine, and is admin/ owner of the Asatru Facebook Forum. She also writes science fiction and poetry, ran for public office, is a dyer and fiber artist, was acquisitions editor at a small press, and founded the Heathen Visibility Project.

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