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The Last Ravenwood: attending a festival in the woods in a wheelchair

2015 was going to be the last Ravenwood. Prudence has been putting on Ravenwood since the early 90s, with her local group Freya's Folk, and at first under the umbrella of the national organization The Ring of Troth, and then the American Vinland Association, which was one of the two successor organizations to the old RoT, the other one being The Troth. Using a state park for heathen festivals had always been intended as temporary, and Prudence had bought land farther north years ago. She has been slowly improving the land at Folkvangr over the years and is almost ready to pass it on to someone who will start holding festivals on it. This campground in the redwood forest held a glow of nostalgia, but it was time for the last one. 

I was very invested in going to the last Ravenwood, both emotionally and literally. Emotionally invested, because Ravenwood had been my first experience of the heathen community. It was the place where I first met other Asatruars, after having only known Wiccan Pagans in high school and college. Ravenwood was a heathen festival held on Mt. Tamalpais in California, near where I used to live in Sonoma. I had not attended since I had moved to Nevada in 1995. Literally invested, because I intended to sell my books there, I had bought copies of my new book No Horns On These Helmets, and of my nonfiction books, to sign and sell at a vendor table at the festival.

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When My Book Was Pirated: Asking Tyr for Justice

Some people in the heathen community seem to approve of piracy, what with the whole Vikings rah-rah. Successful pirate societies don't pirate from their own. Today's Somali pirates don't pirate Somali ships. That's how it worked in the Viking Age, too; Vikings raided across the sea, not across the street.

This is an account of a ritual I performed asking Tyr for justice. My book Asatru For Beginners had been pirated shortly after the print edition came out. I was originally going to tell the entire story of what happened, and how chasing pirated versions of my book all over the net eventually led me to the file sharing section of a site engaged in immoral activities, but at that point the story really becomes about non-religious matters, so I'm just going to blog about the ritual I performed once I had done all I could do by regular means.

The type of ritual I performed is the most common of heathen rituals, the sumbel. Sumbel is a toasting ritual. It is often performed in a group, for a holiday, but it can also be performed alone. It is very simple, with a Germanic efficiency that I see as elegant like something perfectly engineered, a type of beauty completely different from flowery excess.

I assembled the things I needed for the ritual, which were my portable altar, which was necessary to hold the other things, my drinking horn, and a bottle of something to put in the horn. I chose to offer him Eau de Vie de Bourgeons de Sapin, a drink made from evergreen tree needles. The reasons I chose that drink are: 1. because it is a traditional drink from Alsace, where some of my ancestors are from, thus it has a personal connection with me, 2. because evergreen has a clean, strong flavor which seems masculine to me, and I think of Tyr as manly; 3. evergreen is also symbolic of the eternal life of the gods and of nature, so it seemed appropriate as something to offer a god, and 4. because it is a rare and special drink.

I wept as I summarized the situation briefly and asked him for justice. I ended the toast with "hail Tyr," and drank to him. What was left in the horn after the toast I poured out on the ground.

Back when I was new to heathenry, some other Asatruars said that heathens don't pray, but I realize now that they were reacting against Christianity, not following the example of historical heathens. There are numerous examples in the lore of people asking the gods for various things.  We might not pray in the way that Christians do, but we do communicate with the gods in our own ways, and we do ask them for help when we need to. When I had done everything I could do myself, I asked Tyr for justice, and he delivered it.

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Running for Public Office While Openly Heathen

I had been looking for a job for about a year when I decided that I was going to take the next opportunity I was offered, even if it was volunteer work. I sent out a very clear intent that I would accept whatever I was offered the next day. The universe having a sense of humor, the next day the Libertarian Party asked me to run for public office. So I did.

That's how I came to run for Nevada State Assembly in 2010.

I've been completely out as a heathen for a long time, and I've always published under my birth name, even as the publisher and editor of Berserkrgangr Magazine in the 90s. The print edition of Asatru For Beginners was just hitting the presses, and I was publicizing the new edition, so when I ran for office, I knew that a few seconds with a search engine would bring up the words Asatru, heathen, and pagan. Sometimes reporters covering the election asked me about Asatru, and included a short quote about it in the election coverage. Sometimes heathen and pagan reporters reported on my campaign as news of interest to heathens and pagans. Other than that, it didn't really come up as an issue during my campaign.

Most people were far more interested in what I could do for them than in demographic details of my identity. Other than organizations for a specific religion, ancestry, sexual orientation, etc., the only demographic that seemed to matter to most people in my local area was that I was a woman, and that was a plus. It was such a plus that I adopted a more feminine style for my campaign style than I use in my real life. In real life I'm a little non-binary. In the campaign, well, being female is good for an extra 5% of the vote, and one of my campaign's major goals was to show that women had a place in the Libertarian Party, so I made sure I always photographed as female. My hair was always down, and I wore a lot of pink.

I ran again in 2013, for Henderson City Council. Again, my religious affiliation didn't seem to matter much to anyone but other pagans and heathens. After the campaign was over, I heard that one group decided not to endorse my campaign because of my religion, but I only heard about it because a supporter told me.  I got support from a wide array of different local groups and individuals from various points on the political spectrum. The City Council race was a 4 way contest, and I received over 15% of the vote.

Over the course of my two campaigns, I became deeply connected to the local community, as well as becoming much more well-known in the heathen and pagan communities nationally. I don't know how much of my new fame came from my book tour and how much from running for office, since I did both in the same year. I learned a ton, influenced the local conversation on issues, and made lots of great friends, and I'm glad I did it, but I am never, ever, ever running again.

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Celebrating With a Series of Local Groups

Sunnasfolk, Silverhof, Hammarheim, etc.

I had been trying to find a local festival or a group that put on public rituals since I had arrived in the Las Vegas area in 1995. The closest heathen festival I could find was the Thing in Arizona, which I went to once. I still wanted something local. If I couldn't find a local festival or other public ritual in which to participate, then I was ready to try a kindred again, despite my disastrous first experience with kindred membership, because I had been informally involved with enough different groups to know that the unsafe one I happened to join was the exception, not the rule, and because after that experience I would know what to watch out for to make sure I would be safe. I tried to find a ritual group to join, and could not find one. I held sort of half heathen, half American style holiday celebrations in my old apartment, but as it was almost exclusively my non-heathen friends who attended, it wasn't completely what I was looking for. I eventually gave up on that and resumed looking for a festival to attend or group to join, but didn't find either in my local area until after I moved from a more urban part of the Vegas valley to a more suburban part at the end of 2001.

After moving from my apartment to our house, I thought, "Now that I have a real house and feel a permanent tie to the land, you know what, I'm going to do it myself."

I have been a gythia of Freya continuously since my dedication to her in 1989. Sometimes I am also the gythia of a kindred. I was gythia of Sunnasfolk, and now I am gythia of the group of heathens who celebrate at my home, which does not yet have a name.

This article explains the multiple definitions of godhi and gythia:

http://www.bubblews.com/news/9864781-what-a-godhi-or-gythia-is

One of the first things I did when I moved from my old apartment to our house was to plant a pine tree that I had grown from seed, which had been living in a pot on my balcony. As gythia of Sunnasfolk, that was my sacred tree which supplied the aspergers used in blot. It's a big tree now, and now it supplies the aspergers for the rituals for my current group.

As with my American style holiday celebrations, most of the people who came to Sunnasfolk holidays were my friends and family who were not necessarily heathen, such as Etta the One Crone Band. She played the accordion and had automated drums, and provided German folk music for waltzing and other traditional dances for the party and feast time after ritual. She's a distant relative I discovered after moving to Henderson. There were actual heathens, too, but they were younger people who all dropped out over the years, mostly because of moving away from the area. College students graduated and moved. College age non-students joined the military and were deployed. Young brides had babies and apparently dropped off the face of the Earth. Sunnasfolk ended when all the other heathen members went away. That was over a decade ago now.

After Sunnasfolk Kindred, I belonged to Silverhof Kindred. Its leader, Eric Hammers, moved away and gave me my carved bone Thorshammar, and I assumed leadership of the group and tried to keep it going, but without Eric, the other members drifted away. After that, I found that several old members of Silverhof were members of Hammarheim, which had a core group of heathens but also a large group of non-heathen re-enactors and was focused on Renfaire and re-enactment events. I was not really that interested in belonging to a Renfaire guild, even though I enjoy the local faire and go every year, I didn't particularly want to spend all my weekends doing faire related things, and had neither the time nor the money to devote to that. I still wanted to be part of a local ritual group, though, so I participated in some of their Renfaire activities, in addition to their holiday celebrations. (The King credits me with saving him one night when he fell into a firepit.) Then Hammarheim sort of spun off into several other groups, all quite large, all with core groups of heathens and larger groups of non-heathens, all centered on our local Renfaire. I've participated in some holiday and other activities with one of them (the one headed by Hammarheim's old King) and visit the others at faire every year. In addition, I have celebrated both heathen and Wiccan holiday rituals at, or sponsored by, local store Well of the Moon, which closed last year.

The photo accompanying this post is me about to go parade with Hammarheim at my local Renfaire, in Viking costume, balancing my sword on my shoulder. I would have liked to post a group photo from one of the 3 kindreds I've belonged to, but not everyone is as totally out as me. (I know straw hats aren't very Viking; this is the Mojave Desert, and it's really hot in the sun. That's my Missouri farmer hat that I bought at PSG after wearing out the hat I brought with me.)

I participate in Pagan Pride Day-- my longed-for public ritual festival at last, even though heathenry is kind of a side event there and both the rituals and the workshops are dominated by Wicca and Wiccanate paganism. I've given talks on Asatru at PPD and one year sang in a band there. In 2014 I was an active member of the local PPD planning committee and led the drum circle.

Recently, I've been leading my own kindred again as a gythia of a group for modernist heathens who aren't interested in being part of a Renfaire guild, going largely with my American Celebration style in addition to blots and sumbels. Also, recently I've been attending local Asatru pubmoots, and may someday attend one of the rituals from that group. I've also attending rituals at the Temple of Sekhmet in Cactus Springs, although those are Egyptian-flavored Wiccan rituals rather than heathen ones. I was also a member, and sometimes the conductor, of the SageWomen Drum Circle, and later led the Unity Center Drum Circle. Also, during my book tour in 2010, I attended Pagan Spirit Gathering and participated in public rituals there. And in 2013, I attended PantheaCon and participated in rituals and led a public sumbel there.

So, in the 15 years I've lived in Henderson, I've formally belonged to 3 different kindreds, 2 of which I founded, and the other one I briefly ended up leading as it was winding down after its founder left. In those 15 years, I've also participated in rituals with 2 other kindreds, and in public rituals with both a nonprofit group and a for-profit store which has recently closed when its owner left the state. That's 7 different ritual groups and 1 permanent temple (not counting drum circles or out of state festivals. Also not counting the Dances of Universal Peace, almost forgot them. Mom and I used to attend with our next door neighbors. And not counting powwow dancing either, obviously, since that's a totally different tradition.) Groups come and go, but family, friends, and the gods remain. The land and the landwight remain. Both the local heathen and pagan community and the wider community on the net remain as well. The community is people, not institutions.

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Early Net Experiences Part 2: The Writing of Asatru For Beginners

I had only been a member of MSN ASATRU for a few months when suddenly one day I logged in and discovered I had been made the group's manager. The previous manager was nowhere to be found. There were no other managers, moderators, or admins. I was a still a near-total net newbie and I didn't know how to make a thread show me previous comments, let alone how to manage an internet forum. I had to learn how to use the back end controls of the time period. I had to learn some html programming so I could put text and graphics on the landing page and other pages, and create live links to photos hosted on host sites (yes, you had to known html to do that back then.)

When it came to actual content, though, I was on firm ground, having been heathen since 1986. I was always seeing newbies come on the group and ask for a beginner's book and people directing them to read the Eddas or academic papers, which can be intimidating even for adult readers, and a lot of the newbies were in their early teens, and just did not have the educational background to understand classical literature or college-level papers.

I started compiling a FAQ file on the group site. The FAQ page eventually became the first chapter of Asatru For Beginners.

At the time, my mom was a public high school English teacher. Sometimes she had free reading time in her classroom, and she kept a rack of books and other reading material for the students. I asked her what the typical American 14 year old boy read for pleasure during free reading, and she said Motor Sports Magazine. That's the reader for whom I wrote my book.

I kept Asatru For Beginners down to 20,000 words because mom told me that many average level teen readers found books longer than that so intimidating that they would not even start them. I kept the book entirely free of footnotes and quotes from foreign languages, both of which were typically found in any given Asatru related paper of the time period, since almost everything available was written for an academic readership. I wrote in American Family Newspaper style, with which I was familiar because I had written for newspapers.  I also filled my book with handy lists, so that as the book's owners became more advanced, they would still find it useful. I made my book non-sectarian, which set it apart from any other beginner's books available at the time, the others having been produced by sectarian organizations.

Since I first wrote it, Asatru has experienced some generational change, and some change sparked by the changing technology of the internet.  I'm working on a new edition to reflect these generational changes, which I hope to publish in 2017 when the book's current contract runs out. In the meantime, I still think it's the best and the easiest to understand of the beginner's books on Asatru.

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Early Net Experiences Part 1: MSN ASATRU

In 2001, I moved to a house where I could get internet access at home. I had been using the net at the public library, but the time rationing system meant I never had time to learn much. Search engines like Google didn't exist yet, but there was a search capability within the MSN Groups website, and one of the first things I did with my home net connection was join MSN ASATRU.

It was exciting to be able to connect with other heathens, and for the first time I encountered other heathens who lived outside of the USA. An Icelandic Asatruar joined the group and told us we were using Icelandic words wrong and we sounded ridiculous. American Asatruars had been greeting each other with "hailsa" for as long as I'd known any other Asatruars, but now we learned it was grammatically incorrect. Although it was hard to break a habit of using a word I'd been using for over a decade, I started using terms in my own language instead, and adopted the traditional "hail and well met."

Among my other early internet experiences was encountering the word Vanatru for the first time. I considered using it myself because of my dedication to Freya, but ultimately decided to stick with the word Asatru to describe my path because I consider all the gods who live in Asgard to be my gods. I'm very happy with that decision, as since then Vanatru has become its own sect very different from Asatru, and I have broadened and deepened my relationships with the gods of Asgard and have remained firmly committed to Asatru.

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Holding a Heathen Ritual Upstairs

Continuing my story of my personal journey on my path, in the late 90s I started holding my own blots and sumbels in my apartment. My local area had neither festivals with public rituals nor any heathen groups I could find to join, so I started holding the holidays myself, sometimes alone and sometimes with friends. When I had non-heathen friends over for the holidays of the American holiday calendar, I did my holidays the American way. That eventually grew into my personal practice which I talk about in my book American Celebration. 

When I held specifically Asatru rituals, I usually held a sumbel (toasting ritual) but also sometimes held a blot (blessing) in addition. In preparing to hold a blot or sumbel for the first time, there was a practical consideration: Where do I pour out the blotbolli or horn? At the end of a heathen ritual, there is leftover liquid-- usually mead these days-- in a bowl (for a blot) or a horn (for a sumbel.) This liquid is supposed to be given to the landwights. I would have had to leave ritual space to access the ground, which was a common strip of lawn used by all the neighbors, down a flight of stairs. So I decided to pour the horn or bowl into my potted plants on the balcony, which I called "the hanging gardens of Las Vegas."

Offering through my plants connected my potted garden, in which I grew food, flowers, and small trees, with the land spirit. There is something very primal, very pagan, about gardening. It connected me with the land, the seasons, the weather, and all those gods and beings related to those things: spring maiden and harvest lord, sun and rain, and the spirits of nature.

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