Heathenry is a modern neo-pagan spirituality informed by the folkloric practices, customs, beliefs, and worldviews of pre-Christian Northern European civilizations. People who practice Heathenry are known as “Heathens.” This particular guide focuses on a subsection of Heathenry known as Norse Paganism, also called Ásatrú or Forn Sidr/Forn Sed.
Like the name suggests, Norse Paganism is a modern adaptation of old spiritual practices and beliefs held by the ancient Norse people. We tend to think of “vikings” when we think of the Norse, but víking was a specific occupation and not all Norse people were vikings. The Norse were people like any other, and as such they had different occupations, observed different lifestyle choices, and held different values. The one thing they did share was culture, from which their spiritual practices originate.
This guide is designed to give readers essential tools to develop a fulfilling Norse Pagan practice. The aim is to be succinct but also effective in this purpose. But before diving into “how to practice Heathenry,” we need to understand how Norse Paganism functions as a spirituality.
Heathenry is decentralized, animistic, pluralist, polytheistic, life-affirming, and orthopraxic. Let’s break down what it all means:
Heathenry is a decentralized religion, meaning it has no “central” authority or core ideology behind it. This is because Heathenry doesn’t have holy books, scriptures, or key religious figures that guide practices and beliefs, nor does it have doctrines, creeds, or dogmas.
This can seem very strange for something called a “religion.” Typically when many of us think of “religion,” we think of high-demand religions. In her paper Visualizing the Transition out of High-Demand Religions, Summer Anne Myers defines them as follows:
“Religions can be described as high-demand when they involve
high time and resource commitments;
emphasis on leadership, orthodox belief, and scriptural
inerrancy or literalism; and [sometimes]
strict behavioral codes including rules of diet, dress, tithing,
education, sexual practices, media
and technology use, language, social involvement, and marriage.”
Christianity falls under this category, but not all religions are high-demand like Christianity. (Additionally, not all centralized or organized religions are high-demand.)
Heathenry lacks high-demand observances. Old Norse religions grew organically out of their cultures through family / community / regional customs, oral tradition, superstitions, and folklore. These all had differences to them across locations and time. Modern Heathenry likewise has variances from person to person, group to group, and region to region. Issues arise when high-demand requirements are added to Heathenry, as is often the case with Neo-Völkisch or “Folkish” Heathenry.
You’ll become more familiar with what the decentralized nature of Heathenry looks like as you read through this guide.
Animism is the view that everything in this world has a spiritual essence to it. This applies to people, animals, objects, buildings, the land, and even ideas. Spirits permeate the world: Wights are found in objects, landvætter (“land-spirits”) are found in the land, trolls are connected to large rocks and boulders, nisse and hausvætter (“house-spirits”) are associated with living spaces, Jötunn are associated with wilderness, and so on. There’s no hard-and-fast rules to categorizing entities and what they represent, but their presence deeply correlates to the world we experience around us, both physically and conceptually.
Because of Animism, there’s no clear-cut division between the sacred and the profane in Norse Pagan worldview. The divine is part of this world the same way colors, sounds, and physical matter are; as a property of existence, rather than a condition to achieve or a presence to earn. Because of this, there’s no such thing as “sin” or “karmic debt” in Norse Paganism. Actions don’t draw you closer or further away from divinity, nor do they affect the quality of your soul or afterlife. But even though actions don’t have divine consequences, they still have social ones (“sin” may not be a thing but “being a jackass” still is).
Heathens like to form agreeable relationships with preternatural forces the same way we like forming agreeable relationships with each other; these relationships improve our lives and our environment. But how this is done is different for everyone. There’s no singular “correct” way to approach divinity, not even with the gods.
Religions are built on many philosophies. One philosophy that religions try to address is the way things spiritually relate to one another.
Heathenry is pluralist. It believes things contain multitudes, are built on numerous principles, and contain different, multiple, or even shifting truths. This stands in contrast with dualism (two principles) and monism (one principle).
Christianity and Wicca are examples of dualist religions. In Christianity, things are categorized as either “good” or “evil” and this relation is the source of constant conflict in the world. Wicca views things as having opposites, such as the “divine masculine” and “divine feminine,” and that this duality should be honored.
Pantheism is an example of a monist belief. It believes everything is an expression of one thing—the Universe. The New Age concept of “Source” is similar, in that the essence of all things comes from one vital energy or spiritual origin.
Because Heathenry is pluralist, it doesn’t view people, entities, or forces as “good” or “evil,” nor does it believe there’s one principle force behind everything. Dualist and monist concepts may enter Heathenry from time to time, but it causes problems when they’re used for doctrines or attitudes unsupported by pluralism.
Polytheism is the belief in multiple gods. All forms of Heathenry are polytheistic, and each acknowledge their own deity pantheons. Many people are familiar with the Norse Deities thanks to their strong presence in popular culture, but these pop culture interpretations are very different from the entities Norse pagans work with.
In Norse Paganism, no god is greater than another—not even Odin, who’s chief of the Æsir. All the gods, including Odin, have different personalities, skills, interests, strengths, and weaknesses. They’re capable of extraordinary feats but also bad behavior and miscalculation. However, they aren’t less godly for their shortcomings, just like we aren’t less human for ours.
Two schools of religious thought are orthodoxy (“right opinion”) and orthopraxy (“right action”). Religions tend to employ one, the other, or both. Heathenry is an orthopraxic religion, meaning it prioritizes experience, integrity of practice, the creation/continuation of lineage, and legacy as staples of its approach. This is different from an orthodox religion, which prioritizes faith and adherence to creeds, dogmas, and doctrines.
Life is meant to be lived for the sake of living. As a life-affirming religion, Norse Pagan practice focuses on cultivating the quality, actualization, and fulfillment of our current lives and life in general. Practices and observances are centered upon our immediate reality and wellbeing, going hand-in-hand with Heathenry’s animistic and orthopraxic nature.
Life-affirming religions are different from death-focused religions, which see life as a means to achieve a desired afterlife. In Christianity, your lifestyle and actions either bring you closer to God and grant you access to Heaven, or push you further from God and land you in Hell; what actions do this are determined by doctrines and dogmas. In Buddhism, your cycle of reincarnation and your soul’s path to enlightenment are both influenced by the choices you make in life.
While conditional afterlives do exist in Norse Paganism, none of them are bad nor are they attained by “righteous living.” Because of this, Norse Pagan practice is done to create fulfillment in your current life, as opposed to the one after.