I grew up in rural southwestern Missouri. My parents are both fairly moderate both religiously and politically – my dad is probably an agnostic and my mom, I think, would probably refer to herself as a nondenominational Christian. We didn’t really go to church on a regular basis growing up – I think I had probably gone maybe 3-4 times before I was seven or eight.
I was always kind of a “weird” kid. In second grade, I found a book in the library that was about superstitions, but the librarian wouldn’t let me check it out – she said it was too hard for me to read! This really upset me, and I went home and told my parents about it. It royally pissed my dad off, so he went in to the library next day and told the librarian that she shouldn’t be trying to stop kids from reading. She admitted it was the subject matter, not the reading level, and he told her that that was their (my parents’) job to worry about. So I got to check out and read the book.
And then two days later I was sent home with a note saying I was teaching the other children witchcraft symbols on the playground. *badumtish* (That’s supposed to be a cymbal noise. Like after a joke.)
I got curious about spirituality & religion when I was a little older (I’m thinking about nine or ten), and started going to church with my Mormon grandparents. I was baptized, but I don’t really think Christianity was ever going to be a good fit for me – I remember my grandma being baffled when I asked her if Mother Nature was our heavenly mother, since God is our heavenly father.
When did you become interested in Paganism
I decided that Christianity wasn’t for me at probably…hmm, I’m going to say ten or eleven? I was pretty young, I think sixth or seventh grade. I read up on a bunch of world religions and I’ve been some form of pagan ever since.
Could you tell us about the basic tenets of Paganism?
The thing about “paganism” is that it’s a very large umbrella term, and the definition depends on who you’re talking to. I would define a pagan religion as a non-Judeo-Christian or non-Islamic religion that places an importance on a connection with nature, and whose adherents self identify as pagan. The last part is very important, because Hindus or practitioners of Native American religions (or other people) sometimes get lumped in with pagans, and depending on the person, they don’t necessarily feel positively about that.
So under the umbrella term of paganism, you have a huge amount of religions. There’s Wicca, which is a newer religious movement that was founded by Gerald Gardner in the 1950’s. Depending on who you talk to, to be a “real” Wiccan, you need to be initiated into an official coven, or you can be a solitary practitioner who believes in the tenets of Wicca. I would say those tenets are duotheism (all deities are facets of the God or the Goddess), the Rede, and the Law of Three/Law of Return (which basically says, think about your actions because they have reactions, some of which will affect you). Those are pretty hotly debated within the Wiccan community, though – both the basic tenets and the solitary vs. coven issue.
There are also people who just refer to themselves as “pagan”, not feeling the need for any more specific term. Another example of a “subset” of paganism would be re constructionist or revival groups – people who seek to practice ancient pagan religions, more or less as they were then. The “more or less” is also a matter of debate within these communities – some individuals try to do things as close as they can to what was done back then, and some individuals allow for leeway, since the modern world is so different.
I would fall under that category (a reconstructionist/revivalist pagan, that allows for leeway). I’m a heathen, which is kind of a catch all term for a pagan who worships the old gods of Europe and Scandinavia. That’d be Odin, Freyja, Thor – that group. I prefer the term “heathen” to the term “Asatru”, even though Asatru is the more common term. To keep this interview from getting too long, I’ll just say you can check out this article if you want to see more about the different terms for us and why some prefer one over another!
The tenets of my belief:
I’m a hard polytheist. “Soft” polytheism is when a person interacts with the gods as individuals but thinks they’re all part of some greater “god” or “force” – facets of it, if you will. A hard polytheist, like me, feels that all of the gods are individuals “forces”. This means I also believe that, say, Zeus or Brigid or Thoth exists, I just don’t necessarily work with them. The term “animism” gets thrown around a lot nowadays, but it applies here. Quoth Wikipedia: Animism is a philosophical, religious or spiritual idea that souls or spirits exist not only in humans but also in animals, plants, rocks, natural phenomena such as thunder, geographic features such as mountains or rivers, or other entities of the natural environment. In heathenism, these spirits are generally referred to as “wights” or “vaettir” (they’re different forms of the same word).
A very large part of heathenism is showing respect for the local land wights – some people put more emphasis on this and ancestor veneration than on interaction with deities. For me, it’s more of like the wights are my close neighbors – interaction with them on a daily basis is a fact of life. The gods are more like friends that I might need to use a telephone to get a hold of, if that makes sense. Ancestor veneration, as mentioned, is also important – we feel that our ancestors watch out for us and since we wouldn’t be here without them, we make sure to remember them.
That covers the very basics – an in-depth overview could take ages! If you want to learn more, I’ll be happy to answer questions in the comments, or you can check out this website for a lot of links/information. If looking for a book, I’d recommend Essential Asatru as a very basic jumping off point. I will give you a heads up and say that when looking for information, there’s a good chance you’ll run into a racist group at some point. They are very unfortunately out there, but don’t represent the heathen community as a whole.
Tell us about how you incorporate your beliefs into your daily life. Do you go to ‘services’? Do you get together with other people who practice Paganism?
We have two altars in our house – the “main” altar, so to speak, is in our bedroom. (My husband used to be agnostic, but is now also heathen, after being “bopped on the head” by Freyr.) The top shelf of it has a painting I did in high school of Yggdrasil, as well as the land wight altar and the ancestor altar. There’s an incense burner between the two altars & a little cup for liquids.
The shelf underneath that – I use a bookshelf for my altars – is the gods altar, and statues, my bag of runes, an offering plate with a tree carved on it, candles, and stones. The house wight altar is in our living room, since that’s the room we’re in the most. We try to give him food or burn some incense for him on a fairly regular basis – probably every 2-3 days. I like to set aside some time in the evenings or before bed to burn some incense for my ancestors and the gods and thank them for our blessings, or just sit and meditate.
As far as ‘services’ go, there is a fairly informal group in Austin that has once a month social chats, and then does celebrations at the holidays. The last one was a disablot in February (in honor of our female ancestors, the disir), and Walpurgis (May Day) is coming up. This link has a pretty good overview of the main heathen holidays, although it has a ton of “days of remembrance” thrown in that I don’t observe (nor does anyone I know). We really enjoy those get-togethers, although we’ve only started going recently. There are a few general pagan meet ups active in Austin, and we sometimes go to those, though not necessarily regularly. They’re more social than anything else.
What does this belief system bring to your life?
Oh wow! What a hard question to answer! Not because it doesn’t bring anything to my life, of course, but because there just aren’t enough words. It gives me a feeling of being rooted – these are the beliefs my ancestors had, a thousand years ago. I don’t believe the physical world is “less than” the afterlife or other worlds, and so I take joy every day in the gift of a body that the gods gave me, so that I can taste and touch and feel. I look around outside and I don’t just see trees and rivers, I see fellow spirits and representations of the World Tree that is at the center of everything. My goddesses are not any less powerful than my gods, which is good, since I’m a feminist!
What are the biggest misconceptions that people have about Pagans?
One big misconception is that all pagans believe the same thing – we emphatically do not! If you’ll look at the description of Wicca above, and them compare it to my beliefs and practices, you’ll see we don’t have the same religion, even though we fall under the same religious category.
There’s also silly things like people thinking pagans today doing human sacrifice. Ancient pagans did, yes, but honestly if you’ll look at any ancient religion, they all did. One of the things that gets on my nerves the most is when people think or say that any deity that isn’t the Christian God is just a demon masquerading as a god. It’s offensive, patronizing, and quite frankly, it annoys the crap out of me.
Any advice for people interested in exploring Paganism?
Read, read, read! And do some soul searching. Are you more of a monotheist, or a polytheist? Somewhere in between? Does the idea of being an eclectic pagan, and making it up as you go along appeal to you? Or would you rather practice something with a grounding in history? Are there any particular deities who call to you?
As far as reading material goes, I’m woefully out of the loop with online sources. Witchvox is good for finding local pagans near you, of almost any stripe, although most of the members are Wiccan, I think. As far as books go, I’ve never read any of the following, but they look good & have good reviews: Which Witch is Which?, Paganism: An Introduction to Earth Centered Religions, and Drawing Down the Moon. You should be able to find one or all of these at a local library (don’t forget about interlibrary loan). If not, they’re easily ordered online through Amazon, or can probably be ordered through most book stores.
As far as heathen specific information goes, there are several Yahoo groups that are good (Asatru, Heathen Discussion, One Eye) – there’s a lot of great discussion and they’re not too abrasive to newbies. Ravencast is an amazing heathen podcast, with a decent amount of Asatru 101 podcasts. The aforementioned Asatru U link has a lot of great material. I’m a member of the Troth, which publishes a quarterly magazine and has a member’s email list that’s great for discussion and learning.
When reading about paganism, you need to have a good BS detector. There is a lot of crap out there. This is one reason to read as much as you can – you’ll get a knack for which authors are full of it, which ones tend to be a mix of good and bad, and which ones are generally trustworthy.
Are any of you pagan? Any (polite! respectful!) questions for Michelle?