Community in Heathenry
Updated: Jul 25, 2022
In Heathen and Heathen-adjacent spaces, we often see the idea brought up that Heathenry is a community focused or community-centric religion, but what exactly does that mean? On the surface, this seems an unassuming and simple position, but when we look at the practice of this orthopraxic religion, it becomes a bit complicated. One of the largest points of the Heathen framework that is shared by innumerable Heathens is the Home Practice, also called the Hearth Cultus, wherein an individual Heathen (or a partnership of Heathens) perform ritualistic offerings to build reciprocal relationships with the Divine. While some Heathens do this on behalf of the entire household, the Hearth Cultus is distinctly focused on the immediate individual. There are many other forms of worship, often with other Heathens and polytheists giving offerings communally through Kindreds or other groups, and these ritual practices are both wonderful and spiritually fulfilling, but one cannot deny the centrality of the Home Practice, first and foremost. If the foundation of Heathenry is the Home Practice, then how (and more importantly, why) does community factor in? Let’s start by looking at what a community is.
What is Community?
Community, roughly, is a social unit comprised of individuals who share a commonality of features or properties. Those properties are often sociopolitical in expression, but they can also be occupational, locational, cultural, economic, and religious. Naturally the religious aspect of community is where we’re aiming our focus, but the significance here is that these unit consist of individuals with specific properties, thus the units themselves are defined not by the individuals but by the properties. Separating these units from each other would be simple if those properties existed in a vacuum, but some properties commit one to hold others. With that, communities would be more defined by a shared set of fluid properties held in overlap, and less by maintaining a rigid set of properties necessary for membership. That is not to say that rigid-feature communities don’t happen, it is simply that the more restrictive a community’s property set, the narrower and smaller its participation, and the inverse would follow as well. A very brief way to use this would be to classify Polytheists as a wide unit, Pagans as a slightly narrower unit under that, and Heathens as an even more narrow unit. The community’s properties are merely a descriptive tool used to define and demarcate to commonality of its participants. Moving past descriptive notions about a community, membership in a community often carries prescriptive or normative views, which compel its members to behave in certain ways. Typically, these prescriptive behaviors increase as the unit becomes narrower, where fewer members express more behavior, but wider units have more behavioral reach.
While we can set up a framework of understanding wherein communities are defined by their properties, the easy way to determine those properties is to look at those of its members. This leads to the understanding that communities are defined only by their members, and that membership is something active and intentional. Community is then often presented through the lens of in-groups and out-groups, wherein membership grants the community’s properties to its members, instead of the other way around. This membership is the deciding factor of one’s behavior, where one must earn said membership and then uses behavioral reinforcement to maintain their own membership as well as the parameters of the community. This is, in my estimation, a grievous error, one that has caused and continues to cause no end of difficulties and harm. It would be more apt to view community as a series of obligations, wherein one’s behavior is moderated by responsibility to their co-participants and moderated by the consequences that follow. The properties lead to certain behaviors framed toward the other participants, expressed through one’s interests, contrasted with obligatory behaviors given by an authority. These behaviors can be understood either through Virtue or Utilitarian based ethics, wherein the actions taken by community members serve the community and its other members in some way. The Virtue-based behaviors would be brought about by the intrinsic values help by the community, derived by their shared properties. The Utilitarian-based behaviors encourage behavior out of mutual- and self-interest, coming from the membership toward the membership. This interest-oriented and property-based view of community not only allows for a view of communal ethics, but also helps remove us from difficult and potentially harmful tribal attitudes, as many different groups can and do share properties. The edges between communities are soft and permeable, under this view, and demarcation between two communities would be referential, not taxonomic. It is worth noting though that as these communities are property-based, membership is afforded only if the individual shares some amount of the set of the community’s properties. In this way, communities do not function due to inclusivity and exclusivity, but rather proximity and commonality. Heathen’s share certain features that place them into a large but not wide unit, such as Germanic-derived polytheistic beliefs, religious practices, methodologies, source-use, and membership in certain physical and digital spaces.
How is Community expressed in Heathenry?
Before getting into the specificities of Heathenry and Community, we need to discuss a few smaller points: Wyrd and Orlæg, as two defining cosmic forces within the Heathen framework, play a significant role here. Briefly, Orlæg is the metaphysical and physical starting position of a system, and Wyrd is the flow and change brought about by action on a system. Together, they describe a cosmic system ruled by causation. While many Heathens accept this tacitly, I think that the incredible significance of these forces is often unappreciated, both in its simplicity and its reach. To be connected causally is to be tethered in a spatiotemporal degree, bound by consequence. It is not enough to recognize that all things have a cause behind them, but also that the effects of Wyrd run in all directions, leading to a reverberation of all actions. While some actions might be large and others small, the unending echoes of Wyrd permit, or rather necessitate, that all consequences effect all that follows, in an immeasurable fashion. The web of interconnectivity is so grand and immense that no action can be called inconsequential, given enough space and time.
Reciprocity and Hospitality are two concepts discussed often and at length within Heathen spaces, and rightfully so as they form the cornerstones of the method by which we engage with the Divine: The Gifting Cycle. The primary method of offerings is to give consumables to the various divine beings at your Hearth, which establishes a reciprocal relationship through the process of indebting. The divine bestow gifts to the worshipper, who in turn bestows gifts to the divine, and this cycle continues as long as all parties are willing to and in good faith maintain an interpersonal relationship. Reciprocal actions taken affect the Wyrd of both parties, which allows those actions to have a compounding affect on the relationship, which grows over time. Right here we see one of the most important connections to community, the interpersonal aspect of our worship. The standard form of worship is not subservient or necessarily devotional, but is at its base interactive and social, and as such, the Gifting Cycle can be performed with anyone who reciprocates it. On top of this relationship lies the location of the gifting, namely, the hearth of the home. As such, the worshipper not only offers gifts to the divine, but invites them to join the worshipper around their fire, to metaphysically and physically enjoy the confines and amenities of the worshipper’s home. Here we see how behavioral obligation gets added to the Heathen praxis, at a fundamental level, as the Heathen is now engaged in a Host/Guest relationship. A friend, Kunigunde of Skíðblaðnir, who is developing a robust understanding of this relationship describes this as a foundation of the Heathen praxis. She defines this as “gʰóstis (plural: gʰóstes): either a guest or a host or both,” as well as “gʰóspitality: the exchange between gʰóstis and gʰóstis, the keeping of frith and/or grith in a guest/host relationship; the gʰóstis relationship.” Paraphrasing one of her discussions, she says that this idea of hospitality cannot be separated from the home, as to host someone is to bring them in to your most immediate space. This space cannot be a “strange place,” unknown, unsafe, and uneasy, but must be, by necessity, safe and secure to all parties involved. Following out of this delineation of space, we get to explicit behaviors, which Kunigunde describes as various sets of obligation, from host to guest, guest to host, and host and guest to the mutual space. These relationships only function so long as proper behaviors are followed, and improper behaviors avoided.
While not a dogmatic or doctrinal focus, many Heathens do in practice focus on the present. A temporal concept derived from the Iron-Age Germanic beliefs is that of the Past and the Non-Past as the only meaningful separations in time. Bauschatz’ The Well and the Tree is fantastic, if dense, work for understanding the Germanic cosmological concepts. He argues that the three Norns are often presented as analogous to the Fates, the Moirai, who oversee the Past, Present, and Future, and who are responsible for enforcing those states on all living things, but that said view is incorrect. As Bauschatz argues, they should be more properly understood not as Past, Present, and Future, but instead as What Has Become, What Is Becoming, and What Must Follow. The past is not some event written in stone but is instead the total accumulation of actions and events the proceed and influence the present, they are the weave that the current time is built from. The present is not some state of affairs that has been ordained, the present is a continual and eternal progression and evolution out of what has come before. This is not only a fascinating look into Heathen cosmology, but also presents a highly significant aspect of Heathen behavior as it relates to Utilitarian or Consequentialist views: instead of choosing the best option to obtain some optimum future, the Heathen chooses the best option to form the eternal now, in which we are all active participants. The actions of now, taken now, will continually affect the now, as there is no determined future. Without a gaze on some future world, being centered in the now also puts a focus on the here, as Wyrd stretches throughout the entire world we inhabit, which included the mundane and divine beings that inhabit the world around us. The eternally growing web of interconnectivity binds one to everything in the now. This spatial and temporal interconnectivity leads to a complex system of obligation, but there is no way around it, we must instead understand it.
A New View of the Yards
Inner Yard and Outer Yard are often presented in simplistic and misunderstood frames, which lead to specific issues in Heathenry. Contrasting the earlier points about participatory community, ethical behavior, and property instantiation, views of the Inner Yard and Outer Yard usually hold a view where people are granted membership into the In-Group by their relation to someone, and membership to the Out-Group is granted by a lack of relation to that someone. The inclusivity and exclusivity here centered on some person, regardless of property-commonality. While this need not descend into neo-tribalistic views, it often does. This dichotomy leads to perceptions of help (from the In-Group) and threat (from the Out-Group), by means of relation alone. The blog Of Axe and Plough, written by Marcus Arminius, has a brilliant article on this very issue (linked below), and should be considered essential reading on this topic. The author pointedly notes this issue, saying: “It should be readily apparent how, especially in a modern, politically charged climate, Heathenry has comparatively found itself grappling with the problems of a classification of existence which actively Others groups of people, dividing them literally into an “us vs. them” mentality, which lead to the aforementioned anachronistic ideologies taking root and proliferating among practitioners. This is all despite warnings and admonitions from “the Lore” regarding courtesy and hospitality to guests and the unknown peoples of the world (as the random visitor may yet be a deity in disguise!).” For a religion that places such import on community-focused behaviors and functions essentially and primarily due to interpersonal reciprocal relationships, establishing any sort of Othering dynamic is completely antithetic to the practices and worldviews of Heathenry. Many of these instances can arise due to a search for some solidarity. It is completely natural and understandable to want to be surrounded by people in commonality, after all that is the very point of a community. The issue arises when Heathens, in search for narrow Heathen communities, abandon or otherwise diminish their role as a Heathen in non-Heathen communities. From Of Axe and Plough, “While the efforts at a Heathen organic solidarity are not in and of themselves problematic (indeed, the multiplication of small affinity groups is a feature and not a bug for our multicultural centers, one which I support), it is the lack of harmonizing with wider sociality makes it particularly troublesome: it becomes reminiscent to that of a disputatio, the assertion of necessary self isolation for affectations of socio-cultural and religio-cultural purity.” While the properties of a communal unit a dependent on the commonality of its participants, the community will not contain every property help by every participant. Every person will contain properties not reflected in the community; for instance, a community of sports fans may share features, such as the preference for a certain sport, admiration of certain individuals, engagement in sport analysis, and so on, yet many members may also contain properties for architectural interests, multilingualism, literary preferences, and culinary knowledge. None of these properties are intentionally prohibited, by any means, they are simply not reflected by the unit as a whole, thus there expression may feel out of place. That said, the lack of (or more accurately, the moderation of) that expression does not diminish in any way the strength of those properties in their participants. Perhaps one could express their architectural property through a sports medium, via the design of a stadium, or the arrangement of uniform and color. Multilingualism could allow for a greater community reach. The literary could be expressed through artistic appreciation of the sport. The culinary could be used as a form of bounding during community activities. It is not the properties themselves that are out of place, merely how they are expressed. It follows then that as Heathens exist and participate in many different communities, their Heathen-properties do not need to be shunted, but instead can be expressed in directed matters. Marc goes on to say that “Heathenry’s social self-isolation attempts small-scale religious unity, even as it reacts to the efforts of unity on a wider scale, and it has erected barriers which encourage ambivalence (at best) and disregard (or worse) to people outside such a system." With that in mind, what does it mean to be a Heathen in non-Heathen communities?
A last point to bring up from this article is that: “Ultimately, we are not trying to resurrect or reconstruct the social and cultural frameworks of the various Iron-Age and pre-Christian peoples. Even if that were possible, which does not seem likely outside of insular attempts at communes, this attempt would seem to come from misplaced or misguided intent. Heathenry concerns the reconstruction of the pre-Christian Germanic religious traditions, modernized into the present world. That means we must measure and configure such social elements into the current system, if they can be included at all. Those that cannot be must be discarded, for too heavy a focus on them leads to reenactment and the stagnation of religious and spiritual growth, by means of striving for something non-religious.” This gets back to my earlier point about modernizing our worldview, because we live in the modern world. Reanalysis of social and cultural components found within Heathenry is not just a good idea, it is absolutely necessary for the continuing growth and development of a modern religion. With that in mind, we must turn to the ideas of Frith and Grith, not as static relations, but as behavioral codes on a sliding scale. If Frith and Grith represent communal obligation, and our communities are overlapping, blurred, and multifaceted, then those obligations exist in a fluid and intersecting manner. Instead of relying on antiquated views of a two Yard system, where the inside is good and the outside is not, we can formulate a new view, with a sliding scale.
Here Frith and Grith are presented in concentric rings, which could be used to indicated levels of responsibility owed by the center, with the heaviest bonds in the center, moving out to lighter levels of obligation. That obligation, while varying in strength, does not ever stop. More, we can envision these different layers having layers themselves.
The Heaviest Frith may involve one's life partners, with whom they share the strongest bonds. Lesser obligation relative to them would be immediate and chosen family, who still deserve Heavy Frith, but not to the same level. On the opposite side, Light Grith is given to those who are unknown, and often are met in mutual spaces. This level of obligation may be referred to keeping the peace, but it is more than that: even to strangers, ethical consideration must be paid. The above diagrams still leave us with difficulties though, as we can't easily determine what those obligations entail, and the "divisions" between the rings will turn out more arbitrary than we'd prefer. We can instead view hospitality-based obligation like this:
Here, we can frame these obligations in two metrics: immediacy and reach. Frith and Grith increase inversely to each other, with Frith-obligations aimed at those beings who are more immediate to oneself in a gʰóstis space, and Grith-obligations aimed at those who are mutuals within some shared space. Due to the nature of Wyrd, these two attitudes are never separate, but instead intermingle through the web. Your obligations to those close to you have the highest degree, because they are more narrow to your immediate life, but those obligations to the wider groups have far more reach, and in turn affect every narrower unit. Maintaining Frith in the narrow requires the maintaining of Grith in the wide, as no action is isolated. We can bring this back to the article above, concerning how Heathens can and should exist in wider communities. "This is one of the failings with attempting to relocate a religious conception from a period vastly different than the present: a period of insularity, where many men and women would largely not have moved beyond the borders of their immediate vicinity, as compared to one of a globally interconnected world that purports universal ideas of human rights and natural laws.” The views that support rigid and strict Yard dichotomies are erroneous based on Iron-Age conceptions of society, which do not exist for us in our present world. Coming off of the previous post about the Ethics of Heathenry, if Heathens can be better, understanding their place in the world, recognizing their power in the world, is one way forward. It would be easier to have a system with one way of behaving, but as Heathens (and as Humans) we have multifaceted and multitudinous obligations that all affect each other, and when it comes to moral obligations, there are no neutral decisions. The last bit we have to talk about is those people we call Firth-breakers, and where they fit in, but that will have to be a (much longer) different blog post.
In the meanwhile, please check out Of Axe and Plough on this matter: https://axeandplough.com/2020/09/09/insularity-and-the-other-on-being-a-heathen-citizen-of-the-world/
The roots of the Tree run deep, and all is fed from the Well,