One of the most difficult to overcome issues facing heathens today is distance. Heathenry is a religion of converts but it isn’t as though we were organically growing outward from one location. Islam spread from Mecca and Medina from the teachings of Muhammad. Christianity spread out forming pockets across the Roman Empire after the Jews were dispersed from Jerusalem by the Romans. These religions spread outward. Heathenry is not the same. We have no flashpoint, we are thousands of people receiving the call simultaneously all over the globe.
Also problematic is that there is not one heathenry, there are many different ideas that are similar but not identical. There are as many iterations of heathenry as there are cultures and time periods and as many people reconstructing it from a specific culture or time period or doing their own take on it. There are Anglo-Saxon heathens, Norse Heathens, and Continental Heathens to name a few. But even then there are differences; among Anglo-Saxon Heathens there are Theodish and non-theodish, oathing and non-oathing, and depending on our sources and interpretations our heathenries look vastly different. Even among Norse Heathens interpretations abound. One view isn’t going to be precisely the same as another.
This is nothing new in paganism; in the ancient world the religion of Athens was different from the religion of Thebes or of Sparta or of Eleusis. Sure, they believed in the same gods more or less but the gods of practically every great Greek city took on a local flavor that made the gods very diverse even among one god. Athena wasn’t just Athena, she was Athena of (insert epithet here) and from a modern view these epithets could contrast greatly sometimes. This wouldn’t have seemed strange to ancient people though because honestly most people were not incredibly mobile. In most cases a person was born, lived, and died without ever experiencing a non-local religious rite. In most cases the religious rites of a city were closed to those not from that city, Eleusis being the exception not the rule. The ancients often never experienced the great diversity that existed among even a single god.
This begins to change under the Roman Empire in a greater way because the world became a lot more cosmopolitan. The legions were drawn from all over and went all over and experienced many foreign rites. The Romans too were actively trying to link themselves to the Greek religion and incorporated many rites not originally from Rome. Most incredibly in very un-Roman fashion they brought in the crossdressing eunuch priests of Cybele from Asia Minor in an attempt to tie themselves more to a “Trojan” legacy. The pedigree of Trojan lineage was more important than keeping the taboos, not that Cybele ever really caught on among the Romans to any great extent.
But here we are, pagans in today’s world looking back into time and trying to rebuild a religious community. But we’re all scattered to the wind. There isn’t a single non-theodish Anglo-Saxon Heathen that I’ve found in my state besides me. There are bunches of heathens, but none that share the particular exact flavor of heathenry I have been diving into. There are only a few heathens worldwide who I would truly say I agree with universally without having to hear what it is first they were saying. One is in Canada. One is in New England. I’m in Georgia.
Finding our people online, our exact tribe as it were, is so incredibly comforting because we get to interact with people who believe exactly what we believe. But it is also incredibly detrimental. Moving isn’t an option, we can’t all just uproot and move to be with one another. But neither is just staying online. So if we are going to have a community, it will have to be local. Yet many of us have opted for online communities and online organizations. Sometimes we’ve yearned for meaning and joined large national organizations or international organizations even. But unfailingly these organizations have had to stretch themselves so thin to cover all the heathens under them that they can’t meaningfully do much of anything spiritually. Something might cause a quibble, something might upset someone else, so they water themselves down to the most basic so that anyone who remotely is heathen can take them in. But they’re so watered down that they’re not filling, not spiritually filling in the least, they have no substance. These umbrella orgs in the end do more harm than good because they have convinced us to be content with them. If we are content with watered down, unmeaningful spirituality then we are not moving towards a better future. If we are content with no temples, no meets, no public rites, no groves, or these things in some far flung place it takes all one can muster to go once – why bother? It needs to be local and frequent and personal.
The future is not online, the future is not under umbrella orgs, the future is local. As much as I love my online-only heathen friends, as much as I agree with them, I cannot move to Canada or to New England to be local to them and they cannot move to me. We are apart. There are heathens here, hundreds of heathens in my state alone. Of those many are racists, of those who are not racist many have incompatible beliefs or personalities (it happens, let’s face it). We are left with some small measure of heathens locally who we can jive with in a way that is not watered down too greatly for you or them but in a way you can hopefully meet in the middle for. There is a small group of heathens locally I can say are compatible for me, these people will be who I am building something local with. Will it be everything I want? No, but that is the compromise of actual community. We will have to work together to make sure it isn’t watered down and has substance.
All of us, every heathen out there needs to not be comfortable with just the online umbrella org. They need to create local communities of heathens and when they find the people in the community are not compatible they need to split and have two communities of heathens apart from one another. Think how many churches there are in one town, you need to worship with people you like and enjoy. For a group to work an equilibrium needs to be achieved. It is a pipe dream to think of us all under one umbrella, we’re too different. But we can find or make a group where we fit alright, that at least is not too much to ask.
You may say, what about kindreds under those orgs? They encourage kindreds, sure, but they have already watered it all down so much that it’s like… well imagine if someone was trying to design an ice cream for everyone. They encounter so many upsets over flavor and allergies that eventually they make something that everyone can have, something that fits every person but not something that encourages strong feelings. It ends up bland, flavorless. When we water it down and standardize it for everyone we lose the vast diversity of belief and uniqueness of our religion. This simply isn’t a one size fits all religion.
If you’re a heathen, you know which umbrella orgs exist. You have the choice of vanilla heathenry or vanilla heathenry with racist sprinkles. (For Anglo-Saxon heathenry a choice exists that comes complete with contract to sell your soul to the icecream store for a taste of vanilla heathenry with a hint of chocolate syrup.) I’ve read their official books and their ritual books. They’re bland, they’ve made it so universal and broad and standardized that anyone can take it in. The clergy programs they have don’t do anything to make good clergy. Their lore and reading programs are a joke. If people succeed, they succeed in spite of the umbrella orgs.
But the first step is stepping outside of the watered down umbrella orgs and actually doing something. I recently read about a Roman Temple in the Ukraine, the three guys behind it had become fed up with the international umbrella org they had been under and decided that if the org was dragging its feet that they would build what they wanted locally. We don’t need to have thousands of members to make a difference, three guys in the Ukraine built a whole temple themselves when an international org couldn’t even do it. We need that in heathenry, we need small local groups building local religious groups with the people they can get along with. If we build temples, raise groves, even if only for three or four local people it is something. And more will come, if we make our spiritually meaningful and local we will have something to hand to those who come after us. As it stands we have little to show for our collective efforts that we can give to our children and grandchildren. Online communities? Umbrella orgs? Dust in the wind. We need it to be real and lasting if we want the religion to be real and lasting.