This essay is written for those that know very little about Asatru or Heathenry, or perhaps have not even heard of it.
It is a simple question, really. Did your family come to America from Northern Europe…or do you have Northern European Ancestry? Well, if you do…then your ancestors were “Heathens.”
Many people with Northern European ancestry do not realize that the original religion of our People and our ancient culture was not Christianity. If you go back a 1000 years or more, prior to the conversions to Christianity in Europe, our ancestors had their own native Folk Religion that was rich and meaningful in their lives.
Our People honored their own Gods and Goddesses, their ancestors, and the spirits in nature. These original Heathens were the pre-Christian Northern European peoples who lived in the lands aroudn what is now called the North Sea. These included the people of Anglo-Saxon England, Scandinavia, and other areas of Northern Europe.
Some of our ancestors were convinced to convert to Christianity by missionaries. Some were coerced into converting, based on threats of physical violence. Others converted due to political or economic pressures brought on them by Christians. And some of our ancestors were killed, because they refused to give up the Ways of their People.
THE ORIGIN OF THE WORD “HEATHEN”
If you are just hearing about Heathenry, then you are very likely thinking, “But isn’t the word Heathen a word for a bad person?
Well, it is true that Christians frequently use it this way. The word “heathen” refers to people who don’t worship the Christian God or follow the Christian religion. The historical origin of this use of the word “Heathen” is pretty interesting.
The word “Heathen” comes from the fact that the country people (those living on the heath), honored the old gods for centuries after the city-dwellers were already converted to Christianity.
This is why “heathen” is a bad word in Christianity. The missionaries and preachers in the cities would rail against the “heathen” (those living out in the heath), that still honored the old gods. But we embrace the term, for we are proud of those ancestors that resisted the conversion to a foreign religion, and who remained loyal to the Gods and the Ways of our People.
Another word commonly used for heathenry is Asatru, meaning “loyalty to the gods.” Though, Asatru is normally used to refer to a more Icelandic influenced heathenry, while the word heathenry itself is a broader term encompassing those focusing on the Icelandic, the Anglo-Saxon, the Frankish, etc.
Our Heathen ancestors did not refer to themselves as “Heathen” or “Asatru.” It is believed they did not have a name for their religion, and simply called it their Way.
HEATHENRY IS A VIABLE OPTION IN OUR MODERN WORLD
So many modern Americans are dissatisfied with their religious options. Many of the descendants of our Heathen ancestors have become dissatisfied with Christianity. Modern Heathens would make the point, that much of this dissatisfaction comes from the fact that Christianity did not originate with our People. It is a foreign religion that was relentlessly pushed on our Ancestors, until our native Folkway was suppressed or destroyed among our People.
Modern Heathens around the world are reviving the Ways of our Ancestors, and find that the religion of our Ancestors is truly satisfying and feels “like coming home.” Heathenry is very family and community-oriented, and encourages us to live responsible lives of loyalty and honor. A person’s word matters greatly, and each person is judged by his/her choices and actions. The Ways of our Ancestors are life-fulfilling and natural to who we are and how we think, and they work to strengthen and enrich our lives.
You will hear modern Heathenry called many things by the people who practice it. You may hear it called Asatru, the Northern Tradition, Odinism, Forn Sed, Germanic Pagan Reconstructionism or, simply, Heathenry. In Iceland, which did not convert to Christianity until the 11th Century, Heathenry has once again become an official (nationally recognized) religion. There are growing numbers of Heathens and Heathen groups across the United States, and that growth seems to be accelerating as more and more people tire of the foreign religions.
SOMETHING WORTH CONSIDERING…
If you have found yourself dissatisfied with Christianity and organized religion, take a little bit of time to look into modern Heathenry. When your heathen ancestors were pestered, coerced, or forced into giving up the Ways of the People, I have to imagine that they wondered if years down the line their descendants would again return to their true religion and way of life. As someone who has returned to the religion of my Ancestors, it is hard to describe how much it has improved my life. In the end, it is something you have to look into yourself and explore whether it makes sense for you.
A good starting place to learn more, is this Heathen FAQ. Reading through all the topics there will give you some idea of what heathenry is all about:
And for some basic information on Heathenry and how to start and maintain a Heathen group (normally called a kindred), you might want to read this books which is available as a free download or in paperback and hardback versions:
Mark Ludwig Stinson
Jotun’s Bane Kindred
Temple of Our Heathen Gods