Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Gift for a Gift

     For a comparatively small religion, Heathenry seems to drown at times from sectarian tensions between various groups who are at loggerheads with each other.  Some of these debates can seem petty and puerile, but others admittedly are matters of great importance.  The latest imbroglio falls within the latter camp – who gets to be part of the religion, or more properly, who is excluded, and by what criteria are they so excluded.   As far as internal mores among Heathens themselves, and as far as relations between Heathens and outsiders, there can be no more salient question.

     There is no small amount of rhetoric on both sides of the debate.  I would like to address the issue obliquely by asking two simple questions: What exactly is the point of Heathenry, and why do (or should) people go into it in the first place? 

     I understand Heathenry as an umbrella term for a set of highly related practices based on the polytheist, pre-Christian religions of the various Germanic peoples.  Heathenry itself is related, in linguistic and cultural terms, to a wider set of cultural realities that philologists collectively call the Indo-European world.

     “Theology” is a grandiloquent term for what these peoples believed and practiced.  But let us say there was a central assumption that underlay all that they did spiritually.  And that assumption was one of gifting. 

     The give and take, the exchange of goods and favors and good will, is typically what united individuals in these pre-modern times.  If gifting was the impetus behind social bonds, it carried over into the realm of the spiritual as well. Gods, ancestors, wights – these were not forces to be obeyed or commanded, but entreated.  Religion was votive.  A gift was given to the gods, ancestors and wights – and in return, or so it was thought, they were supplicated to return friendship and favors to the ones gifting. 

     The Romans had a saying, expressed in Latin: do ut des.  I give so you may give.  If our ancestors had a similar pithy quote in their own native languages, I have yet to encounter it.  But the modern English “a gift for a gift” succinctly summarizes the sentiment.  We gift you in friendship. Be our friends. Gift back to us.

     This is our religion.  Or, if you have pedantic aversion to the word “religion” as applied to Heathenry, then let us say this is our worldview.  However one wants to term it, gifting is That Thing We Do That Makes Us Heathen.

     Let us return to the original two questions: what is the point of Heathenry, and why do (or should) people go into Heathenry?   If the point of Heathenry is gifting the gods, ancestors and wights, then it follows logically people should go into Heathenry if they wish to gift the gods, ancestors and wights known to Heathenry.  They presumably seek to draw into mutually reciprocal relationships with those powers.

     This may seem obvious, but apparently, it is not.  We have people who seem to think the point of Heathenry is flexing (literally or metaphorically) their muscles as great Viking warriors.  Or some such.   And so, their sine qua non is playing with axes, and swords and guns.  Or contemplating ever more sophomoric ways of getting into Valhalla without actually, you know, dying in battle.  I daresay they are in the wrong freaking religion.  Or, to employ quintessentially Heathen parlance, they are doing it wrong.

     But to return to the more immediate question that prompted this whole essay, who gets to be in the religion, or who should be excluded? To my mind, anyone who brings a gift to the gods in good faith is a Heathen and should be treated as such.   If they are excluded from the community of gift-givers, it is because they have committed egregious deeds that are deemed harmful or otherwise dishonorable to the community itself.  Not because of who or what they are outwardly.

     Do we say that a gift is invalid because of the ethnicity or gender-identification of the one making the gift? Those that say such things speak for themselves and their ulterior causes, not the gods.  Only the gods may proclaim if a gift is lacking. If a gift is lacking I suspect it was simply because it was a substandard gift, not because the person who made it did not live up to some ethnic or gender criteria.  
     I have heard a lot of talk about “inclusive Heathenry” or “rainbow Heathenry” as a way of consciously countering bigoted Heathenry.  I find this superfluous.  We simply need to adhere to our roots.  A worldview of gifting is inclusive by its nature, insofar as the emphasis is on the act of gifting, not on the various biological designations of he or she who does the gifting.   

     An emphasis on gifting also has the virtue of weeding out other unsavory groups, such as the aforementioned individuals who seem to think the point of Heathenry is internalizing the most superficial martial aspects of the Viking stereotype.

     Gifting. A gift for a gift!   Heathenry is enriched, enlivened and ennobled by the addition to its ranks of worthy individuals who come in good faith to gift the gods. 


  1. Thanks for this thoughtful piece. May it help heal some wounds. I would offer two points for consideration (these are not necessarily direct disagreements but may expose deeper worldview differences between camps).

    The first is the question of what inclusion or exclusion really should mean. In all traditional societies there is a shadowy place between these two categories, the liminal, those on the doorway, those who are neither this nor that. Guests, probationary members, and more are liminal. And the relationship between the liminal and the core view of what the good life is, is an important one.

    For those of us who see the conversion from ancestral religions to Christianity as a mistake, and who see further the rise of capitalism and industrialism as compounding that, and who believe that only in a society dominated by paternalistic corporations and governments can we even consider the possibility of equality for same-sex couples (because otherwise having children is one's retirement plan), a healthy relationship with the liminal does most of the work of "inclusion" among those who embrace the social theories (Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau) which lead to liberal capitalism and plutocracy.

    Would you devalue my gift because I believe that having children *should* be one's retirement plan for the normal case, that people should retire with their children so they can help continue to shape the culture and pass on tradition to grandchildren? That I think that surrogacy and sperm banks should be banned because they turn people into commercial products? That doesn't mean that same-sex couples can't build their own support structures. Same with trans folks.

    One of the real problems is that "liminal" is a bit of a foreign concept to modern Western culture (but it didn't used to be so -- the whole point of ritual reversals such as ritual cross-dressing for priests or Thorr's cross-dressing when he went to Utgard is that these set ritual action apart from normal life).

    I thus see equality as a value not between individuals but between communities. There's nothing wrong with some heathen communities being aggressively heteronormative and seeing to build family structures which bring back perpetual family business and multi-generation householding. Nor is there anything wrong, really, with gays and lesbians forming their own halls with their own (probably very different) support structures. But what is important is that the different halls treat the other halls as equals. They don't have to agree in order to cooperate on matters where both are impacted. But neither hall gets to tell the other what marriage should be, or whether one has a duty to have children of one's own or the like.

    So my question for the Troth (and I have asked it a number of times and not seen an an answer) is whether there is room for different halls with different views on the most cultural of institutions (sexuality, marriage, etc) or if a requirement is to adopt the rights-and-liberty views which have shaped the modern West.

  2. Roof beam thew; the principal that under your own roof beam, your own thew holds, is valuable to many of us as a concept that permits us to work together as a community that accepts differences.

    We are not now, nor ever will, tell you who to accept under your roof beams, but we are likewise not permitting others to tell us who we may accept under our own roof beams, nor denying entry to the community to any simply because they are not welcome under your particular roof beams, though a hundred other halls would take them.

    Since modern reproductive technologies offer the same range of reproductive choices to gay and straight couples about including, or not including children in their life plans, I feel the issue of biology in marriage has been rendered moot by biologists.

    Gay couples may undertake the burden of children as part of their definition of marriage, while other straight couples may elect not to include children. Marriage in the modern definition no longer fits under the definitions of an age with far fewer options.