Heathenry refers to forms of Norse and Germanic Pagan Reconstructionism, including Asatru, the Troth, Odinism, and Theodism. Heathenry is distinct from Neo-Paganism in a number of ways.
As Galina Krasskova has explained, Heathenry was originally conceived, not as an individual spiritual practice, but as an expression of group identity, often a racial or ethnic identity. Heathenry tends to be community-centered, whereas Neo-Paganism tends to be earth-centered or Self-centric.
According to Gillete and Lewis, in their essay “The Pentagram and the Hammer”, Neo-Paganism is predominately pantheistic, while Heathenry is polytheistic. Neo-Pagans tend to view divinity as a unity behind a plurality of manifestations, a unity that is co-existent with nature or the universe, and thus pantheistic. Heathenry, in contrast, does not view the gods as “aspects” of a single or dual god-form. Heathenry views the gods as radically separate and distinct individuals, much in the same way that ancient pagans did. The Heathen conception of radically distinct divinities naturally leads to a view of a world of conflict, just as conflict arises in the world of individual human beings. Thus, where Neo-Pagans find essential unity and harmony, Heathens find essential disunity and disharmony. While there is opposition within the Neo-Pagan cosmologies: light and and dark, male and female, summer and winter, Oak King and Holly King; this opposition is conceived as a complementary polarity within a perfectly balanced cycle. There is no such balance in Heathenry. This is difference is expressed symbolically in the difference between the two symbols, the Neo-Pagan pentagram and the Heathen hammer.
The veneration of an Earth Goddess is not a central feature of Heathenry, as it is in Neo-Paganism. The gods of Heathens tend to be the gods of war and civilization (the Norse Aesir), whereas Neo-Pagan gods tend to be gods of love and fertility (which more closely resemble the Norse Vanir). In addition, most Heathens do not worship chthonic deities like Loki and the giants (the Jotnar), who are associated with the primal forces of chaos. In contrast, Neo-Pagans, who are actively involved in the reclamation of chthonic deities, have no problem with worshiping a force of chaos, so long as it is done in balance with the worship of other forces. In fact, some Neo-Pagans would view the worship of these “shadow” elements as essential to a full spiritual practice and might view focus of Heathens on the Aesir as an imbalanced focus of the powers of consciousness, to the detriment of the unconscious source, represented by the Jotnar.
Text Versus Experience
Krasskova writes that Heathens invest their texts (called the “lore”) with a normative authority that is analogous to, and may even derive from, the Biblical literalism of conservative Christianity. Krasskova goes on to explain that Heathens view mystical experience with suspicion. Heathenry’s adoption and use of the term “unverified personal gnosis” (UPG) reflects this; a term which would probably never arise in Neo-Pagan discussions. As Krasskova explains that, for Heathens:
“Lore holds sway over personal experience. Personal gnosis is devalued not only because it is unverifiable by the existing sources, but because it rests on experience, emotion, and non-rational subjectivity [all categories traditionally associated with women or femininity in Western thought]. In espousing personal and direct experience with the Gods, it also presumes an authority that clearly circumvents human mores.”
In contrast, Neo-Paganism places the priority on personal experience. Tradition is devalued when it is seen as an impediment to personal authority and direct experience of the divine. Neo-Paganism emphasizes experience over dogma and doctrine.
On the boundary between Heathenry and Neo-Paganism lie forms of ecstatic spirituality like oracular seidh pioneered by Diana Paxson and the Northern Tradition Shamanism of Raven Kaldera, which incorporates pain-based ordeals adapted from BDSM. But these practices are disfavored and even condemned by many Heathens. Krasskova explains that “the hostility toward devotional practices and other liminal practices may stem from a conflation of the receptivity in devotional [and ecstatic] consciousness with weakness, unmanliness, or submission”, characteristics which are anathema to the Heathen ideal of manhood. Seidh in particular is considered a form of women’s art according to the Heathen lore.
One major difference is that Heathens are generally more politically conservative (or libertarian) than Neo-Pagans. As Ronald Hutton explains, Wicca began as an essentially politically conservative movement and became a liberal movement of feminist and progressive values in the 1960s. Krasskova writes that unlike Neo-Paganism, Heathenry “grew not out of the counter-culture itself, but out of the conservative response to those social changes”. She describes it as “counter-counter cultural”. Heathens’ values resemble the “family values” of the Christian Right, including maintenance of traditional gender roles and aversion to deviation in gender identity. According to Krasskova, this is related to the fact that many Heathens converted from evangelical Protestantism.
The environmentalism of some European Heathens can be somewhat confusing to Americans, for whom environmentalism is associated with the political left. In Germany and Northern Europe, however, environmentalism is not inconsistent with political conservativism.
Neo-Pagan ethics tend to be highly situational and laissez-faire, but based on a principle of avoidance of harm to others. Heathens do not embrace the concept of non-harm; rather, they embrace conflict. For example, the “Nine Noble Virtues of Asatru” are: Courage, Truth, Honor, Fidelity, Discipline, Hospitality, Self-Reliance, Industriousness, Perseverance. Another version reads: Strength is better than weakness; Courage is better than cowardice; Joy is better than guilt; Honour is better than dishonor; Freedom is better than slavery; Kinship is better than alienation; Realism is better than dogmatism; Vigor is better than lifelessness; Ancestry is better than universalism.
While Neo-Pagans share many of these values, especially freedom and joy, Neo-Paganism does not emphasize others, like strength. “Honor” is suggestive of a shame culture, which Neo-Paganism rejects. In addition, Neo-Paganism embraces universalism, in contrast to Heathenry’s emphasis of kinship and ancestry.
The distinction between Neo-Pagan and Heathen ethics can be expressed by comparing the symbols of each. The Neo-Pagan pentagram is a symbol taken from occultism and given a new meaning of harmony with the cycle of life. The Heathen hammer, in contrast, is a symbol of weapon of war (Thor’s hammer). Where the pentagram expresses balance and harmony, the hammer expresses conflict. These symbols are more than superficial. They reveal deep differences between the respective traditions’ understandings of nature and divinity, as well as their ideals of behavior.
Heathenry and Ethnocentrism
Both Heathenry and Neo-Paganism have their roots in the 19th century Romantic revival in Germany and England. During this time, there was a general resurgence of interest in traditional Germanic culture and nationalism in Scandinavia, England, and Germany. Organized Germanic neopagan and occult groups appeared again in Germany in the early 20th century.
Some forms of neopaganism and occultism played a role in the formative years of the rise of National Socialism. Heathenry continues to be associated with Nazism in the minds of many people, to the chagrin of most Heathens. While Heathenry may be described as an “ethnic identity tradition”, it is not necessarily racist. The appropriation of some neopagan motifs by the National Socialist movement had the unfortunate effect of tainting the entire Heathen movement in the eyes of some.
Despite some similarities in motifs and values, Heathenry did not develop out of National Socialism. It was, rather, created in the 1970s. Thereafter, Heathenry developed independently of Neo-Paganism, evolving its own ritual structure and its own cultural discourse. Still, Heathens are plagued by the associations with Nazism. The situation is complicated by the fact that there are some within the white-supremacist subculture that consider themselves Heathen, and there are some racist groups (such as Wotanism) that consider themselves Heathen. Heathenry, with its focus on ancestry and ethnic identity lends itself to appropriation by such groups. According to Krasskova, there exists a tension inside of Heathenry between a “religiously motivated majority” and a “racially motivated minority”. However, there is a ethnic character to Heathenry which is arguably legitimate. As Krasskova describes the ethnocentricity of Heathenry as:
“an attempt by practitioners to give the religion the same legitimacy as an indigenous tradition, accorded to Native American religions in the United States, Shinto in Japan, and Candomble in Brazil. Practitioners see themselves as reviving a group of religions that were once native, hence indigenous and by extension ethnic, to Northern Europe.”