Gnosis Diary: Life as a Heathen

My personal experiences, including religious and spiritual experiences, community interaction, general heathenry, and modern life on my heathen path, which is Asatru.

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When a Baby Becomes a Person in the Asatru Religion

This blog post is about the modern religion Asatru. It's not about science and so it's not about when life begins. This is about when Asatru teaches that a being becomes a person. A person is a member of a society with rights. This is about souls and the way society recognizes human rights and the rights of other types of beings. 

Asatru is one of several modern Heathen religions based on the historical Heathen cultures, which are generally the cultures spanning the areas and time periods of Germania, Scandinavia, and Scandinavian colonies such as Iceland. Iceland has a unique place in Asatru as the culture that wrote down many oral traditions and gave us a lot of the literature on which we base our collectively decided canon we call The Lore. 

Asatru is not the same as any of the historical religions on which it is based. It is a modern reconstructed religion and has many elements different from ancient ways. However, the question of when a baby becomes a person in Asatru and some other modern sects of Heathenry is firmly rooted in The Lore. Historical heathens had a naming ceremony that included a water sprinkling blessing; we don't call it baptism since that word has xian connotations in English but it a similar idea. It is a religious ritual in which a name is bestowed on a baby after it is born, and the baby is blessed. 

In modern Asatru we typically do the baby naming ritual at 5 days old. By then, the baby is already born, the baby already has breath, and has already had food and water. None of those things are the things that determine when a baby is accepted as part of the community and accorded personhood. It is having a name.

A life form with a name and a thing with a name both have souls, though only a human baby becomes a human person.  Asatru is animist in that souls don't only have to be in humans or in living things. If you named your car, it has a soul. Named your guitar? Soul. Horse with no name? No soul, sorry horsey.

Asatru and other forms of Heathenry teach that we have a multipartite soul. That means that a dead person's soul can simultaneously go on to an afterlife and also be reborn. Generally the part that goes to an afterlife contains the memories, while talents and body related gifts are reborn. Such talents can be reborn into the family line, but can also be deliberately called by naming a baby after someone. (See my prior post on naming, souls, and rebirth.) 

The naming ceremony calls a soul into the baby. That soul may be a reborn ancestor, another reborn soul, or a new soul. The naming ceremony traditionally includes the mother's husband claiming the baby, though there are many possible variations. The main point is that the mother has produced the baby and her partner does his part by gifting the soul along with the name, which may also be a connection with the ancestors. The ritual may have more elaborate portions for ancestor connection. The person in the partner role does not have to be the baby's biological father and indeed that would have been a very difficult thing to determine with any certainty during the historical time period in which the oldest form of this ceremony was first performed. Although in historical times most people claiming babies into their households were married, it is not a requirement, nor is it a requirement that the partner be any particular gender, and indeed there is no real requirement that the person who gave birth has to have a partner, the ceremony just gives this ritual role to the partner so they have a part to play in the creation of a new person; of course the mother can name the child if there is no one else who needs to be part of this. There is no real requirement that the people naming and claiming the baby have to be biologically related to it; there are historical accounts of people leaving newborns to be exposed and whoever happens to have found the child in the woods can name them and claim them as their own.

That brings us to the subject of abortion. I talked a little bit about this in my beginner's book, but I'll repeat myself: abortion is allowed in Asatru based on historical heathen cultures' acceptance of indirect infanticide. Before the naming ceremony, the baby is not a member of the community and does not have rights yet. Historical heathens in historical times sometimes practiced indirect infanticide, that is, they left unwanted babies outside to die of exposure. This is usually only mentioned in the Lore when the baby is picked up by someone else and survives. That is adoption, and that was the preferred outcome in historical literature, but it would probably have been unusual. The usual outcome of exposure of newborns would probably have been death, and heathen society in historical times accepted that. 

For those of you who watched the Vikings TV show, remember when Lagertha has a baby with a birth defect in its eye and goes to leave it in the woods, but then changes her mind and brings it home? That kind of thing really happened in those days. And if she had left it there no one would have thought it was a criminal act. 

In modern Asatru we live in modern times. Most of us have access to modern medicine. All of us live in countries where infanticide after birth is illegal, although in the case of an accidental birth after attempted abortion, laws and policies may differ. So, we adapt the historical ways to modern ways, and substitute modern medical abortion for exposure of unwanted infants between the periods of birth and naming. 

Now to the subject of legal names on birth certificates. In many modern countries, parents are required to name their baby at birth for the paperwork, even if they are planning to do a formal naming ceremony later. Just as xians can have both a birth certificate and a baptismal certificate, which is a record of a xian naming ceremony after birth, Asatru and other Heathens can have both an official legal name on a birth certificate and the same or a different religious name from the naming ceremony. 

Infants which are stillborn or do not survive much past birth may or may not be given names. Traditionally in Heathenry, they would not be named. Some modern Asatru and other Heathens do give them names, though, often naming them Nari or Narvi, after the children of Loki and Sigyn who died as children. These names mean Corpse, and this is similar to xians naming stillborn children Angel. 

Most modern Asatruers were not born into Asatru. Some may have been baptized in the xian way in addition to being given legal names. Generally adult Asatru and other Heathens don't have to do anything to keep their given names. Historical heathens acknowledged the names of people of other cultures even when they came to live in Heathen societies, so people who want to keep their birth names don't have to do anything ceremonial in order to do so. However, some modern Heathens want to change their names, often during a rite of passage to adulthood, upon conversion to Asatru, for purposes of changing gender, to acknowledge one's patron god, etc. As adults, they name themselves, rather than being named by parents or parental figures. I go into more detail on naming rituals and rites of passage in my beginner's book. 

Names are a big deal in Asatru, as they are in other Heathen sects, and were in historical Heathen societies. People who earn nicknames as adults are considered to have great social importance, even if the nickname is Fuzzypants (Lothbrok) or something else that is not precisely dignified. Childhood nicknames are often abandoned in adulthood, though. To name a thing, such as a sword, is to likewise give it importance, to give it soul, or to wake it up and interact with as if it were a person, even if it belongs to a class of things that are usually not treated as self aware beings. To name a house is to make the house a being one can speak to, who may or may not approve of alterations to it or new people moving in. In Asatru, to name a baby is to call soul into its body, after which it has all the same rights as any other human member of the community. 

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Erin Lale is the author of Asatru For Beginners, and the updated, longer version of her book, Asatru: A Beginner's Guide to the Heathen Path. Erin has been a gythia since 1989. She was the editor and publisher of Berserkrgangr Magazine, and is admin/ owner of the Asatru Facebook Forum. She also writes science fiction and poetry, ran for public office, is a dyer and fiber artist, was acquisitions editor at a small press, and founded the Heathen Visibility Project.


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