Thursday, April 5, 2012

Three Approaches to Ancestor Worship in Modern Heathenry

I was writing back and forth with Kari Tauring today about ancestor worship and cultural identity, and this brought to mind three different approaches to honoring our ancestors that exist within modern Heathenry.  Most heathens actually use all three approaches, but most focus in on one (or perhaps two) of them as their primary approach to honoring their ancestors.  I think there is value to examing all three approaches and discussing the benefits of each one.  I'm going to progress in order from the least personal to the most personal in nature.

In modern Heathenry, some Heathens honor what amounts to an idealized image of the unknown ancestor or cultural hero.  This approach tends to be pan-Germanic, with modern Heathens taking an interest in a wide variety of Northern European heroes and idealistic imagery, without regard for whether the individual heathen has a personal connection to the nationality or culture where the ideal or hero orignated.  It can focus on very specific heroes that we know by name from stories and legends, or it can focus on more of a general ideal archetype character.  For instance, there is great respect and attention given to the brave Germanic warrior fighting against the Roman Empire.  The strong Indo-European woman overcoming all the hardships and strife of her times to raise a family in difficult weather and conditions.  The Norse tradesman or viking, exploring the world, having adventures, and fighting for new wealth and new lands.  The Icelandic settler, carving a life out of a raw and challenging land and inspiring written Sagas that have stood the test of time.

It is this approach, with its connection to cultural ideals and heroes, that leads many heathens to speak of "our ancestors" rather than "my ancestors" when talking about ancestor worship.  I myself have done this in the first paragraph of this essay.  I may not share any specific ancestors with the reader, but we have a general shared respect for "our ancestors."  This most often refers to all those that came before us, with a specific focus on all those who honored our Gods and were true to our Folkway before the Christian conversions across Northern Europe.

In many Heathen homes you will find books, statues, paintings, posters, swords, axes, and symbols from a wide selection of Northern European history and culture.  These objects show our appreciation and connection with this idealized ancestor approach.  We may read to our children about the Vikings and have an image of a viking ship hung on the wall.  We may enjoy a history channel show on Herman the German and ensure that the beer we buy for our next kindred celebration is all German beer.  We may have a replica of a Danish sword hung over our fireplace, a reproduction of the Nebra Sky Disk hung in our child's room, a Francisca axe in the hallway, and an Icelandic style hammer hung around our neck, all while serving traditional Swedish food at a family dinner.  While we may not have a direct bloodline connection back to all of these individual areas and cultures, we feel a strong connection back to the wider culture represented by all of pre-Christian Northern Europe.

Among the benefits to this approach, is the fact that most of us have ancestors from various areas of Northern Europe, with really no way of knowing the names, personalities, or stories of specific ancestors from a 1000 years ago.  For nearly all of us, the records just don't go back far enough or with enough information to allow us to identify specific ancestors or even all of the areas from which our ancestors originated or lived.  The interest we have in various Northern European cultures, heroes, and archetype characters gives us a connection with the past where no specifically known connection exists. Another benefit is an acknowledgement of the richness and triumph of our history as a wider culture and a People.  Of course, one of the shortcomings of this approach, is the absense of a personal connection, a blood connection, and a memory connection with the idealized heroes or archetypes we are honoring.

At first glance, this may seem similar to the Idealized Ancestor approach, but there is a very clear difference.  With this approach the focus is narrowed to the cultural traditions, foods, songs, dances, legends, and values of the specific Northern European culture of your actual ancestors.  With this approach, you are honoring the specific culture and traditions of your immigrant ancestors (for those of us in the Untied States).  For instance, the individual Heathen, knowing that he or she is descended mostly from Swedish ancestry, fully or partially immerses themselves in learning about Swedish history, Swedish traditions, crafts, foods, etc.  Another individual Heathen, descended mostly from German ancestors, focuses in on all the cultural aspects of traditional German culture and history.

Rather than the more pan-Germanic approach to the wider Northern European traditions, in this approach the modern Heathen individual is more focused on the culture of a majority of their own ancestors or bloodline.  Among the benefits of this approach, is the ability to delve much deeper into a specific culture.  Oftentimes, because it is the individual Heathens own cultural heritage, much of the cultural traditions, foods, etc. may have been passed down to him/her by parents or grandparents.  In some areas of the country, where large concentrations of a particular cultural background exist, there may also be communities or businesses that promote or instruct on various aspect of that specific cultural heritage.  In this sense, the modern Heathen using this approach in the United States is preserving this specific cultural heritage from the "old country" of his immigrant ancestors, and is then ready to pass that heritage on to his/her children or grandchildren.

This approach can have much deeper meaning for the Heathen pursuing it, because there is a more specific connection between his/her own cultural background and ancestral history.  But, this approach is still not a personal as our next approach.

While the two approaches above involve a connection to either a wider pan-Germanic culture or a Heathens own specific ancestral culture, this approach focuses on specific personal ancestors.  These are ancestors we know by name and may have actually met.  We may know stories about them, and we may know something about their personality, their accomplishments in life, their personal values, quirks, beliefs, and other details that tell us a little or a lot about the kind of person they were.  Their existance among our ancestors or our personal contact with them may influence, inspire, or help shape who we are individually as a person.  

We are connected with these personal ancestors by family, by blood, by history, and by our Orlog, a part of our soul that is passed from parent to child down through one's line.  That connection or relationship with our personal ancestors can be strengthened and honored in a variety of ways.  One way is to get to know them as best you can, by collecting and seeking out stories and information about them from living relatives and other sources.  You can investigate your family tree from a geneological approach, or even DNA testing.  It has never been easier to bring all of that information together into one place, and self-publish it or archive it in some other way, so that the information can be passed down through you family to your descendents.  Preserving and honoring the memory of your personal ancestors is another method of building and strengthening that relationship.  Teach your children about their specific ancestors, create artwork or poetry that memorializes them, set aside an ancestors plate a family dinners and set aside time to welcome and share your appreciation with your personal ancestors. Speak of them in Symbel and create an ancestors' altar in your home.  You can then gift your ancestors at this altar, and show them through your memory of them that you truly value them.  Another way of honoring personal ancestors that is often over-looked, is living your life in a way that would make them proud.  

For me, there are several personal ancestors that I honor more often than others.  My relationship with them is stronger.  First, there is my father, Glen Stinson.  He was a WWII veteran, an amazing father, and a very strong and ambitious man who gained great wisdom over his lifetime.  There is my great-grandfather Ludwig Schweiger, a German by blood but Hungarian by nationality, who came to the United States in the early 1900's to make a better life for his future family.  There is also my grandmother, Elizabeth Shoop (Ludwig's daughter), who was a fun-loving, imaginative, and nurturing influence on me as a child.

With the Personal Ancestor approach, the individual heathen can focus on specific knowledge or activities that are directly tied to these personal ancestors.  You can learn crafts these personal ancestors excelled at or enjoyed.  Cook food following recipes passed down from these personal ancestors.  Sing songs to your children, that these personal ancestors sang to their children.  You can keep and cherish objects that belonged to them, and preserve family traditions that they started or passed down through the family.  You can even ask them for advice or a little nudge in the right direction when you need it, and then have the respect to listen and consider whatever guidance they give in whatever form it takes.  

The strong benefit of this approach to honoring one's ancestors is the close personal relationship you can establish with these personal ancestors.  Of all the forces in the world that might help you, none are closer to you or have more of a vested interest in assisting you, than those ancestors you have a personal relationship with...and honor regularly.  You carry their Orlog, their blood, and their memory with you always.

As I said at the beginning of this essay, most Heathens actually participate to varying degrees in all three approaches.  Depending on an individual Heathen's personality and knowledge of family history, as well as his/her personal interests, circumstances, and experience in life, each Heathen will tend to focus more on one or two of these approaches more than the others.  It is such a personal matter, that it is impossible to identify one perfect ratio of these three approaches that would work best for everyone.   

An essay I wrote called "Honoring One's Ancestors" dovetails very well with this current essay, and it is available by clicking here.

Mark Ludwig Stinson
Jotun's Bane Kindred
Temple of Our Heathen Gods

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Our Relationship With Our Gods and Goddesses

Do the Gods and Goddesses care about us?  Do they notice us?  What is the nature of our relationship with them?  For any religion or worldview that acknowledges the existence of Divinity, these are some fairly basic questions.  Like so many other topics within Asatru or Heathenry there are many different beliefs and opinions held on this topic, covering a wide spectrum, existing between two positions at the extreme. Just to be clear, in calling these two positions "extremes," I don't mean that in a negative way.  I just mean, these two positions are at the extreme ends of a wide and varied spectrum of belief.

This extreme take many forms, and is expressed in a variety of ways by the Heathens that take this position.  There are Heathens that talk of how significant and powerful the Gods are, and how insignificant a human must seem to to the Gods.  There are heathens that say the Gods are "too busy" with important work and solving important problems, for them to actually notice or spend any time on the problems of a single man or woman.  There are Heathens that point out that in the Lore, the Gods focus their time on great heroes and kings, and like to point out that the Gods have no need or motivation to interact with the common man.  Heathens at this end of the spectrum believe the Gods and Goddesses are too important, too busy, or too distant to have contact with them, give them advice, or any sort of direction.

This extreme takes many forms and is expressed in a variety of ways by the Heathens that take this position.  There are Heathens that refer to themselves as "Brides of Odin," and mean that quite literally.  There are Heathens that believe that Odin or one of the other Gods is their personal mentor, and speaks to them on a daily basis, giving them frequent advice on even the most mundane matters.  Many of these Heathens believe they receive frequent signs from our Gods, directing nearly every aspect of their lives.  Heathens at this end of the belief spectrum believe the Gods and Goddesses are in direct contact with them, mentoring them, guiding them, and giving them advice and direction on a frequent basis.

As with almost every topic, it is complete inaccurate to think that all heathens fall into one of these two extreme positions.  The vast majority of heathens fall somewhere along the spectrum. The nature of our relationship with Divinity is a complex issue, and the Truth of the matter, is unknowable...or at least unprovable in any acceptable way acknowledged by all.  So, each Heathen will have his/her own views of the matter.  Within a kindred over time, common beliefs or at least similarities in belief on the issue will develop.  But, an expectation that everyone should or will agree with anyone else's point of view on this subject is unrealistic.

Among our ancestors the beliefs regarding this topic varied.  And so it is with modern Heathens.  

From my point of view, one's relationship with the Gods and Goddesses, is a personal issue.  I'm always a little amazed when I see people posting on a public message board or social networking site about their relationship with the Gods.  Why on earth would I care what Frejya supposedly told some Heathen that lives 500 miles from me?  What is my interest in what Odin reportedly communicated in a dream to a Heathen that lives six states away from me?  What business is it of mine what "sign" was interpretted by a Heathen I've never met, and will likely never meet?  I'm always a bit suspicious of the background motivations of those that publicly boast to strangers on-line about a communication or message they believe they've received from the Gods and Goddesses.  

What I've written above does not even consider the wide spectrum of belief regarding the Nature of our Gods and Goddesses.  The subject of whether our Gods are literal beings, archetypes, personified forces of nature, or some else altogether is the subject for some other essay.

Mark Ludwig Stinson
Jotun's Bane Kindred
Temple of Our Heathen Gods