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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No, Christianity Didn't Steal Ash Wednesday from Heathens

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

No, Ash Wednesday is not a heathen or pagan holiday. Yes, Wednesday is named after Odin (Woden.) Yes, other cultures besides Christianity used ritual fire and some even used ritual ash. Some Hindus in India receive a blessing from ash from a sacred fire. Fire as a source of cleansing, heat, and light is pretty basic and obvious, and the fact that x culture used it does not mean y culture stole the idea from x culture.

The internet meme making the rounds that claims that fire and ash is an exclusively heathen or pagan symbol is ridiculous on its face; all cultures used fire. The internet meme claims the ashes from heathen festivals were protective in heathen culture. While it is possible that some heathens in the past did use ash for some magical or religious purpose, but if so the person who created the meme really ought to cite the source.

Ash Wednesday is positioned in time in relation to Christian Easter by calculating 40 days exclusive of Sundays prior to Christian Easter. The claim in the internet meme that this has something to do with Odin because "most wars lasted 40 days" is utter tripe. Wars lasted until there was a winner, or until one side quit, or was wiped out, or until there was a negotiated peace treaty, just like they do in the modern world. The 40 day time span has significance in Christian culture because it's the amount of time Jesus fasted in the desert.

The cult of Tammuz bestowed a blessing with a mark on the forehead. While it seems reasonable to draw a link between the Tammuz blessing mark on the forehead and the Christian Ash Wednesday mark on the forehead, the meanings of the two marks are different. The one is a blessing, the other a mild penance. Also, for the forehead mark to be a holdover practice from pagan Middle Eastern religion, it would have had to be part of Christianity from the very beginning. However, only the Western Rite (Catholic and Protestant) denominations have Ash Wednesday, while the Eastern Orthodox denominations don't have it.

In Christian culture, wearing ashes is an act of penance for sin. In the 2nd century, Tertullian wrote that it was the practice to wear sackcloth and ashes to do penance for a grave sin. Entire communities of Christians repent of original sin by wearing a bit of ash on their foreheads. In their culture, the physical mortal body can be mortified to reach a purer level of spirituality. In the 40 days of Lent, they give up some physical pleasure, often a type of food, as an act of self-discipline and a mild form of mortification of the flesh. The mark on the forehead is not a blessing but a reminder about their God and his orders and how humanity falls short. The blessing comes at the end of Lent, at Easter, when they celebrate their forgiveness from sin through Jesus.

The mindset that the body must be transcended to achieve spirituality is alien to heathen culture. It stems from dualism, seeing a separation between nature and supernature, and placing one 'above' (super) the other. In heathen culture, everything is natural, including the gods and their world, and one does not reach a holier state closer to the gods by punishing the physical body.

Now, there ARE a ton of holidays that have pagan and heathen origins. Ash Wednesday just doesn't happen to be one of them. If you're interested in reading about the the origins and modern traditions of popular American holidays, please see my book American Celebration.


Image: Gregorian calendar

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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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