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Life With the Gods: The Goal of the Way

By Kveldulf Gundarsson (*)

Initial letter 'T' illuminated with image of Thorhe goal of religion is to bring the human into a proper relationship with the godly, and by doing this to create a state of harmony between all the realms of being. You who are now beginning to call the gods and goddesses of the North into your lives and into the world around you have already taken the greatest step towards this state of wholeness; you have shown that you are willing to learn a sounder and truer way of living as a partner to the earth and the hidden worlds of spirit around you. May all the gods and goddesses bless and help your works!

     The faith of the Germanic peoples is deeply rooted in prehistoric times. Germany and Scandinavia were originally settled by a non-Indo-European people, about whose religion we know very little. Although it has been suggested by some that these folk were matriarchal and/or worshiped a "Great Goddess" above all, there is no evidence for this. The forerunners of the Germanic folk, together with the ancestors of the Celts, Greeks, came across Europe from the area between the Carpathians and the Caucasus-- the original Indo-European homeland. Such sparse evidence as we have suggests that the group who were to become the Germanic folk then went up to Scandinavia, mingling with the pre-Indo-European natives and possibly absorbing some elements of the native religion into their own Indo-European faith. Many centuries later, perhaps driven by the stress of climactic changes or of expanding population, one group of tribes left the area which is now southern Sweden and went south and east, into the steppes of Eastern Europe, while other groups migrated into the area which is now modern Germany (previously ruled by the Celts), expanding south and west until they were temporarily halted by the Roman Empire and the Celts of Gaul. At last, through a long series of diplomatic negotiations and military conquest, Gaul fell to the Franks, Spain to the Visigoths, and Britain to the Angles and Saxons, while the Ostrogothic leader, Theoderic the Great, became Emperor in the West. The Germanic peoples had conquered; but as part of the price of their ascendancy, many of them were forced by political necessity to abandon their native faith and to maintain Roman administrative mechanisms and authority.

     The Teutonic way as we know it now was born out of the stormy and turbulent times of these migrations. Although its most traceable roots are those stemming from the original Indo-European religion, it swiftly became something wholly unique, shaped by the harsh weather and mountains of the North, the fierce warrior spirit of the Migration Age, and the troth (unfailing loyalty and honor) to kin and folk without which the Germanic people could never have survived the rigors of their world. It is to regain that strength and that troth that we who follow the way of the North struggle each day; to reclaim the religion that grew from the souls of our ancestors and the heritage in which we can take rightful pride. We have come far from the rocky mountains of Scandinavia and the misty depths of the German forests, but out gods are still with us, hidden in our souls, in our hearts-- in the very days of you week-- Tiw's Day, Woden's Day, Thunar's Day, Frigg's Day-- knowingly or not, we have honored them all our lives.

     In the year 1000 of the Common Era (1), the Lawspeaker of Iceland declared an end to the old religion, decreeing that the land should be Christian thereafter. But . . .

It was not in Wotan's nature to linger on and show signs of old age. He simply disappeared when the times turned against him, and remained invisible . . . working anonymously and indirectly. Archetypes are like riverbeds which dry up when the water deserts them, but which it can find again at any time . . . The longer it has flowed in this channel, the more likely it is that sooner or later the water will return to its own bed . . . The "German" god is the god of the Germans. (2)

     Now that the millennium is over, and it is time for the ancient river to flow again as we stand to greet the gods of our ancestors.

     Germanic Heathenism is braided from three great strands: the individual, his/her clan or social grouping, the god/esses. All three of these are equally important and equally dependent upon each other. The path of the North begins at an individual level, with personal study of the ways of your ancestors and what they knew about the god / desses with whom they dwelt and worked. Then, as you begin to take notice of the god / desses and to call upon them and consider their power in your life, they will take more and more notice of you. At the same time, you will come closer to all your ancient kinsmen and kinswomen who have gone before you, whose strength is reborn in your blood, and you will learn to deal with your living kin and those around you according to the ancient ways of troth and honor.

     The greatest differences between the Teutonic way and that of mainstream Christian culture stem from the relationship between human beings and the god / desses. Most people are taught at a young age that there is a single masculine God who is all-knowing, all-powerful, all-benevolent, and to whose will they must submit themselves if they are to find fulfillment. This teaching has been used over the ages to justify the subjugation of women, the maintenance of the most extreme sorts of social stratification up to and including slavery, and the suppression of individual thought. In contrast to this, the last thing the god / desses of the North expect from humans is submission-- our ancestors found few things more contemptible than a willing slave! Woden, Frowe Holda, Fro Ing, Thunar, and the rest do not lay down commandments for those who worship them. Instead they issue challenges to show courage against adversity and strength through difficulty; to stand on your own as a free man or woman, trusting in your own might and main; to use the gifts of life, mind, and might which the god/esses have given to you in order to carve out the path you choose.

     Another difference between Teutonic and Christian beliefs and attitudes stems from the fact that the Northern folk had no concept of "sin," only of honor and dishonor. "Original sin" -- the idea that you are born with something innately wrong with your soul-- is a concept that makes no sense at all in the context of Germanic heathenism, no more than the idea that the individual human is too weak to redeem his/her own honor and must have it done by another. On the one hand, the Northern god / desses do not niggle over the "sin" or "virtue" of petty actions; on the other, they do not offer the chance for dishonor or weakness to be washed away by a single act of groveling before their majesty-- in our tradition, every human being is fully responsible for his/her actions and their consequences, and every act of ill must be paid for in some way.

     Mainstream Western / Christian culture is grounded on the Classical Greek belief in a stark separation between the world of spirit and of things physical. This has led to the dual concept that humans have and ought to have dominion over the natural world, and that the soul is in some way superior to the body, which is at best no help and at worst a thing of "evil." This separation has led to Western insensitivity to nature and continues to lead toward the destruction of the earth as we exploit and poison her-- a thing which our ancestors would not have tolerated. To the peoples of the North, the earth was not only the mother of all, but a demanding goddess on whose kindness they depended for every bite they ate; as an agricultural society, they were able to see the need for honoring her in a way that most modern Americans do not, for one year of bad harvest meant one year of famine. A great deal of the Teutonic faith is based on this awareness of the need to live with the natural world in a balanced fashion-- and on the intense love for the free woods and meadows of the world which is still part of modern German and Scandinavian culture, as the passionate writings of the German Romantic period show.

     The Western belief in a separation of body and mind/soul has also taught us to be contemptuous of either our own bodies and our physical needs or of our intelligence, to the point where popular American culture hardly admits that the two can go together-- our stereotypes are those of the physically strong/attractive but stupid football player or cheerleader, and the physically weak and unattractive "egghead." Our ancestors, in contrast, honored both aspects of the self equally. Nearly all the heroes whom they held highest were great poets as well as being mighty warriors. The boasting verse which the Earl Rognvaldr Kali made about himself in his teenage years expresses the Norse ideal of manhood: "I'm talented at tables [a chesslike game] / at nine skills I'm able / scarcely spoil I runes / I'm often at books and writing / swiftly glide on skis / I shoot and row well enough, / at each of these I'm able: / harp-playing and poem making." (3)-- In other words, Rognvaldr Kali was the equivalent of a high school athlete who was also in the orchestra and the chess club, while writing for the school literary magazine and maintaining a high grade point average. To the Vikings, the most attractive women were those who could meet them as equals in both bravery and intellect, exchanging swift-witted words and poetic staves with the menfolk, risking and bearing wounds and death with the same steadfastness as any male warrior. Individuals who are true to the ancestral ways will develop their bodies, intellects, and artistic faculties to their highest peaks; to leave out one side of being is to be less than a whole human.

     While much of modern culture seems to be rooted in the worship of the "norm" and the "average person," a standard which requires entertainment and society to maintain a level of mediocrity that excludes no one, the ways of the Germanic folk offer a continuous challenge of excellence. The average is worthy of nothing; the best is our goal, in every way. We come of a heroic folk; it is our duty to make ourselves worthy of our ancestors and our gods.

     Because the Northern ways offer not comfort to the weak-- no leaders or prophets whose voices can replace your own conscience; no set laws which you can point to and say, "That's against my religion"; no promise of absolute bliss or damnation in the afterlife; no free absolution; and no god / desses who claim to be simultaneously all-knowing, all-powerful, and all- benevolent-- they do not appeal to the masses who prefer comfort to struggle and certainty to risk. What the ways of the North offer is a guide to honor and troth; to a strength which is not only yours, but that of your entire clan; and to a way of life which harmoniously integrates your own being, your society, the world of nature, and the god /desses. These are your byrnie, shield, and sword in all the struggles of your life, if you have the bravery to take them up and step into the fight.


NOTES

(*)  Copyright © 1993. Llewellyn Worldwide Ltd. P.O. Box 64383, Saint Paul, Minnesota 55164. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.  This article was originally published as Chapter 1 of Teutonic Religion: Folk Beliefs & Practices of the Northern Tradition, by Kveldulf Gundarsson. Llewellyn Publications, 1993. HTML © 2000, Kadlin Waltheofsdottir, who takes all blame for transcription errors. (Back)

(1)  Common Era. See Glossary [HTML transcribers' note: unfortunately, this is not online. However, an adaptation of the Glossary may be found at http://zurix.apana.org.au/asatru/Webpage2/whoard.htm.] CE/BCE dates are identical to AD/BC dates but have no religious connotations. (Back)

(2)  Jung, C. J. Essays on Contemporary Events, 20, 22. (Back)

(3)  Orkneyinga saga, ch. 58. (Back)