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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Asatru FAQ: Religion or Folkway?

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

Frequently Asked Question: Why do some people say Asatru is a religion and some say it's a folkway? What's the difference and who is right?

My answer: There are heathens who practice only the religion, heathens who practice only the folkway, and heathens who practice both. There are also xians and secular communities who practice various of the folkways we heathens claim as heathen, and some pagans who practice them too, for example maypole customs. Whichever way you want to do your heathenry is fine.

So what are those and what is the difference? It's religion when you're making a sacrifice to the elves, it's folkway when the highway dept. routes a road around their hill. It's religion when you're consciously choosing to do something relating to gods or spirits because you want a relationship with them, folkway when a culture or nation continues a traditional practice because it's what that culture does, regardless of whether the majority of the culture's members actually believe in gods or spirits.

Then there's "the (insert name of heathen sect) folkway" which is another animal entirely. That is a set of practices extracted from the traditions of cultures with which that sect identifies, plus reconstructed practices based on lore, consciously adopted by the founders of that sect and then passed on as a traditional practice to new generations. 

There is no one right choice between religion and folkway. One can have both, just one or the other, or neither one, as one chooses. Traditionalist and reconstructionist heathens usually practice both a religion and a folkway. Modernist heathens often practice only the religion, or have modified or selected versions of folkways. For example, a free male Asatruar who is a traditionalist would be likely to wear a religious beard, while a modernist would consider having a beard or not a mere fashion choice with no spiritual importance. (Modernism arose in Asatru after the publication of my book Asatru For Beginners, which was first published in ebook form in 2001, and the 2010 print edition was not substantially different from the original, so my book only includes information on traditionalism. I've written a new edition and am seeking a publisher for it.) One can be a modernist, a traditionalist, or choose a personal path between the two, choosing some traditions and not others, and those are all OK ways to practice Asatru.

So, are the folkish the ones who do folkways, then? No. It certainly sounds like it, but the schism between folkish and universalist Asatru is older than and very different from the split between modernist and traditionalist Asatru. The folkish and universalist sects disagree over who can join; the traditionalist and modernist sects disagree over what the practices of Asatru are. Traditionalist and modernist sects are also either folkish or universalist, or with a third option between them now known as tribalist. So there are three ways in orthopraxy: traditionalist, modernist, and modified traditionalist between the two extreems, and three ways in membership: folkish, universalist, and tribalist between the two extremes. Each particular organization, kindred, group, or individual Asatruar falls somewhere on both of those spectrums.

If that's not enough uses of the word folk, all of Asatru in general is known in scholarly terms as a folk religion, that is, a religion that has no central authority. The orthodoxy and orthopraxy of a folk religion arise from a consensus of those who practice it and self identify with it, and from a history of such practice and consensus in the past. A good example of how this consensus works in Asatru is that certain works of literature are collectively known as "the Lore" and although different groups and individuals will have smaller and larger lists of what constitutes the lore, there are some works that everyone agrees on. So, Asatru has a canon even though it has no one with the authority to determine what belongs in the canon. That's pretty good proof that it is indeed a folk religion.

Tune in next time, and for now-- that's all, folks. :)

Image: Midsummer Eve Bonfire on Skagen Beach by P.S. Kroyer, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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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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