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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Erin Lale

Erin Lale

Erin Lale is the author of Asatru For Beginners. An updated, longer version of her book, Asatru: A Beginner's Guide to the Heathen Path, is coming in 2020 from Red Wheel / Weiser. Erin was sworn to Freya as Priestess in 1989, given to Sigyn, and is a Bride of Odin and his brothers (Honir, Lodhur, Loki.). She has been a freelance writer for about 30 years, was the editor and publisher of Berserkrgangr Magazine, is gythia of American Celebration Kindred, and admin/ owner of the Asatru Facebook Forum. In 2010 and 2013, she ran for public office. She is a dyer and fiber artist, was acquisitions editor at a small press for 5 years, created the Heathen Calendar 2017 and 2018, and founded the Heathen Visibility Project.

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Of Death and the Butterfly

Shortly after my mom died, the goddess Sigyn told me our relationship would change soon. She did not elaborate, but I did not have long to wait.

(To recap: I became sworn to Freya in college, and Freya gave me to Sigyn a few years ago.) About a week or so after mom passed on, Sigyn told me I was free. She assured me that she would always be part of my life, and she would help me through my grief and would still send butterflies sometimes, but I no longer belong to her. I would never need her again the same way I needed her while caring for mom. This is a grief unlike any other. I would now grow closer to another goddess.

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Hail Hel

Hail Hel, goddess of the dead.

On Feb. 4th, 2020, in the words of my brother, "My mother won her last struggle to free herself from the limits of her form, emerging from an outworn body as a transcendent and radiant being into the limitless possibilities of the Infinite and the unknown."

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Mom and the Neighborhood Bengal

The last time my mom ever sat on the back porch, enjoying the sunshine, she said she wanted to have her ashes scattered by the cat graves so she could see Beni one more time after she dies. A few minutes later, she saw him. Or at least, she saw a cat that looked like him.

Mom had just switched from oncology care to hospice care. She had previously said she wanted her ashes scattered other places, including a specific park in Sonoma where we used to live, and a park here in Henderson with a memorial tree, and the redwoods in California, and up on Mt. Charleston. She was looking at the part of the yard we call the Shadow Garden, after the first cat buried there, when she made this statement, so I wasn't sure if it might just be a passing fancy. But I was sure she really wanted to see Beni-Wan Cat-Obi again, another of the cats buried there. She often said he had been her favorite cat.

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World Chillout Day

World Chillout Day is a day to visualize all things cool and calm. It’s like Visualize World Peace but more. Imagine war cooling down, imagine wildfires going out, imagine hot-heads cooling off and cooler heads prevailing, imagine winter in the air and snow falling on the earth.

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The Afterlife in Asatru

In Asatru, and many other sects of heathenry, we believe the soul has multiple parts, and that some of these parts can go on to an afterlife, while other parts can be reincarnated. The soul part that corresponds with the personality and memory can go either way, and it can also reach oblivion before being recycled / reincarnated. Other parts of the soul complex can go on, be reincarnated, or just stop. Actions one can take on Earth can affect this outcome. If one is going on to an afterlife, there are many possible afterlife destinations, some of which are here on Earth—which we call Midgard—and some of which are in other worlds / other dimensions.

Some people have been sharing a meme based on a Wikipedia page on one sect of heathenry, "Norse Paganism," thinking that it applies to all sects. It does not apply to Asatru. The page, and the meme, is divided into 4 sections, labeled Valhalla, Folkvangr, Helgafjell, and Helheim. The sections on Valhalla and Folkvangr are not bad. Those realms are the two places where the battle slain go, to Odin in Valhalla within Gladsheim and to Freya in Sessrumnir within Folkvangr.

The section on Hel gets Hel wrong. Hel is not a place of punishment. It's just the world of the dead. Christians used the word Hel to translate their word for the realm of the dead, just like they used the word godh (god) to translate their word for God. Both words ended up having Christian connotations in modern English, but the original heathen Hel had as much resemblance to the Christian Hell as original heathen god has to Christian God. Rather than a place of punishment, Hel or Helheim is the catch-all, or default realm. It is ruled by Hel, or Hela. Hel the goddess and Hel the place have the same name for the same reason that Normandy is the name of a land and a Duke.

Helgafjel is an obscure place name that most heathens don't even recognize. Is it a place within Hel, or a mountain on Earth? It can be argued that all grave mounds are simultaneously on this earth and in the realm of the dead. There is a real place in Iceland called Helgafell, meaning "holy mountain." The place spelled Helgafjel also means "holy mountain," but it may not have been the same place. It may have been in Norway, in which case, it is now named something else, since it no longer appears on any maps. Either way, Helgafjel was a real physical mountain, and the belief in Helgafjel was a local belief in a mountain in which the dead of a particular set of linked families or the dead of a particular locality went. The page is specific to a sect of heathenry where the people lived within sight of the mountain. The meme makers have mistaken it for a generalized belief across heathen cultures (that is, pagan cultures which worshipped the gods generally called the Norse gods.) As a physical place where the dead are said to reside, this then is a type of mound-dead belief, even though there is no evidence the mountain was actually used as a burial site. The dead in a specific mountain, mound, ship burial, graveyard, etc. are specific dead people with names, usually people who lived in the area.

Historically, the line between the mound-dead and the mound-elf was fuzzy. Freyr as king of Alfheim (elf home) may have had an aspect in which he was also king of the male dead ancestors. His sister Freya may have had an aspect as queen of the female dead ancestors, as indicated by her name Vanadis, goddess of the disir (female ancestral spirits.)

Other possible afterlife destinations include the home of Thor, who may have been considered to collect farmers in historical times, although the word used in the lore was a more general word for the non-warrior caste. The goddess Ran collects the drowned dead. Frigga (or Frau Holle) collects the souls of dead children; this is the meaning of Mother Night, when the Dark Mother rides the Wild Hunt. In an earlier time, when Tyr was king, his wife Zisa collected the dead in her war-boat. Gefjon, who may be an aspect of Freya, is said to collect the souls of unmarried women. Many if not most of the heathen pantheon have halls where they house the souls of dead humans.

In historical times, people who wanted to go to a specific god tried to live their lives in such a way that they would be likely to die doing the god’s special thing, such as sailing. Some heathens today also do this, although others believe that devotion to a god as a priest or other type of specialist opens the way to that god.

Naming customs also can affect the afterlife, but it affects the afterlife of the named person, although this is a bit complicated. The soul part in which talents reside is not the same as the soul part that contains memories, so when someone names a child after their grandfather hoping to gain grandfather’s musical talents, that does not necessarily draw the memory part; it is possible for grandfather to both be reborn in his line and stay with his god in the afterlife at the same time. On the other hand, if one names a child after a friend specifically to honor that friend who is still alive, no part of the still alive person’s soul is transferred at the ceremony, but it is possible for part of the soul to arrive later, upon the death of the other party, as the shared name opens the way between them.

Historical heathen cultures spanned a great deal of time over a great many places. Some heathens spoke languages that other heathens from other times and places would not understand. Modern heathens in America usually draw their heathenry from a wide variety of cultures, although some of them can be as local and specific as their European counterparts.

Image: Valknut, fiber art by Erin Lale

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Toasting Ullr

We know our gods are getting mainstream attention when I find an Ullr brand schnapps in a big normal store with a prayer to Ullr printed right on the bottle. Of course it had to come home with me and be used for a sumbel toast. In this photo I'm pouring the Ullr peppermint cinnamon schnapps into mugs of hot cocoa.

Also on the altar are two candles. The blue one I found in Tom's house, where the ritual was held. As a former Strega practitioner, he has a lot of candles, which I'm trying to incorporate into our heathen rituals. He also has a lot of oils, but fewer of them now because we did a soap making workshop too and used a bunch of them up. The white candle is a souvenir from Pagan Spirit Gathering in 2010. Blue and white are winter themed colors, which is why I selected those two.

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Berserker Way

My paper on Bersarkrgangr recently published in Enheduanna Journal #3 was based on a lifetime of learning. It includes an analysis of the raw data from the reader survey I conducted via Bersarkrgangr Magazine. The raw data had been published in Bersarkrgangr Magazine in the 90s but the analysis had never been published before, so finally seeing it in print brought both excitement and relief.

I had a work in progress version of this paper on academia dot edu but it was not edited and did not have the citations. Enheduanna's editor helped me organize my paper, and greatly improved it thereby.

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