A Day in the Life of a Heathen Activist
This was written by my sister Gert. I know it's almost 20 years old, but there's some interesting stuff in here. Enjoy.
A Day in the Life of a Heathen Activist
By Gert McQueen
First published in Idunna (March 1992) and in Going Public Vol. 1
Published by THEOD, PO Box 8062, Watertown, NY 13601
Everywhere we turn in our day to day lives we are besieged with some form of Christianity. Heathen looking for acknowledgement of their beliefs usually don’t have a prayer of acceptance. But times are changing, and change means having some apple carts turned over. Christianity doesn’t have a patent on those apple carts. The apples of Idunna were stolen away by Christianity, and for every apple that is taken back from them, Germanic heathenry grows.
Christianity has, for centuries, warped the best of our time-honored traditions to where the average seeker actually is afraid of the so-called radical views that heathen profess. Most people don’t realize that radical means “at the root of.” As such, heathenry goes to the root of the issue, using intellectual and critical apparatus coupled with instinctual and spiritual awareness to arrive at this understanding of life. It’s radical all right, and most Christians can’t begin to fathom it.
There are of course some Christians who are liberal-minded and open to new ideas which are really quite old ideas. They may even think that all gods are one god, so why not try to understand those other gods? That philosophy doesn’t wash with a heathen; in fact, that’s why heathenry isn’t liked by some pagans and new agers …so what is new?
Some years ago, I started writing letters in my local newspaper challenging some long held Christian convictions. I wrote for three years, a long time to hang there on such a controversial subject as religion. Obviously the paper thought the “debates” were well worth continuing, and I’m glad they did. As with anything that has “staying power,” I had developed a “reputation” in the community, and in some places, fan clubs, from those who dislike what I say to those who like, agree, or find the things I say interesting.
Most people who read my words have never met me and thus have formed many different mental images of who I am. I always find it interesting, when upon meeting me, their reactions when they make the connections to my letters. I’m usually just like them! Nothing out of the usual except…I don’t back down from my position and my religious convictions. This generally results in a form of respect even though they might totally disagree with me.
And so I received a call from the chairwoman of the adult education committee for the Universalist’s in Watertown, New York. She said many of their members have been following my letters, and upon discussion decided to invite me to speak to them about my beliefs.
Newspaper announcement: Watertown Daily News, Watertown, New York
LOOKING AHEAD (community events) Unitarian Church Set Seminars in February –
February 2 – “Teutonic Religion,” presented by Gert M. McQueen of Watertown (by the way folks, this is “free” advertising).
I arrived at the “Uni-Uni” church, and after the initial introduction of myself to the husband-wife team of ministers, I donned a heathen-style hooded fur trimmed cloak with matching rune bag and drinking horn. As I turned to the ministers, I noticed a bit of raised eyebrows but they proceeded to give me a tour of the building without comment. Various people began to arrive, including a student from my public Rune Gild classes that I hold at the local pubic library, who all greeted me warmly. The study group of ten met in a small cozy room of sorts with seating in a circular fashion. After we were comfortable the floor was mine. I presented the following.
An Introduction to Heathenry, a Belief.
Waes Hael! or in modern English BE YOU HEALTHY. I’m glad to be here and I thank you for your interest. I am Gert McQueen and I am a Germanic heathen. I hope you have questions for me later but….
First let me explain what a heathen is. Modern dictionaries define a pagan or heathen as one who is without god or a religion. This is not true. This connotation comes from the Christian philosophy of one god for all people. Heathen is the German word for the Roman word pagani, that is pagan. Both words mean one who lives in the country and has his own Gods or religion.
Ancient Rome had its own state religion, polytheistic in nature, and was quite tolerant of other religions within its provinces, including that of the Jews. Those outside of Rome who followed their own country beliefs were called the pagans. The German people became known to Rome through trading and soldiering but were never part of the Roman provinces. As Rome waned as a world power and Christianity waxed in its spread of a one-god philosophy, the pagani became known as those who were not Christian. As Christianity spread into the Germanic territories, native Germanic Christians used the native German word heathen as a translation of “pagani” to refer to those Germans who were not Christian.
“Country” in this sense is not what we today may think of country. The ancient people of the world were tribal in nature, small groups of people who were hunter-gatherers and had small agricultural communities. There were large cities like Rome and Athens along with other trading centers. Within these cities all roads crossed, and so did all religions.
The Roman historian Tacitus was and Imperial commissioned officer in charge of reporting on the religions within the province. In his Annals he tells us how the Romans viewed the religion of the Jews. The Jews were intolerant of other religions, but for the most part kept amongst themselves. We know much about the heathen religion of the Germans from Tacitus’ Germania.
When the Christians began converting people they referred to the pagans and heathens as “godless,” not of the Christian god. This threw a negative bias upon the pagan and heathen and has made these words “dirty” in the mind of modern man.
There are basically two types of religions: autochthonous and revealed. Autochthonous religions are indigenous religions, the springing up from collective experiences of any given people. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are revealed religions. Judaism began as an autochthonous religion, being a heathen, or pagan religion and polytheistic in nature. It became a monotheistic revealed religion when of the many gods, that is, Yahweh, revealed himself to Abraham and then demanded that there be no other god. Christianity is a revealed religion due to the revelation of Yahweh to Jesus, and Islam is a revealed religion due to the revelation of Allah to Mohammed, (Allah being the Arab word corresponding to the Hebrew Eloi).
Autochthonous religions are tolerant religions, for they recognize not only the diversity of gods and goddesses within their own pantheon but also of other pantheons. Autochthonous religions have no doctrines or dogmas but follow customary traditions and values within that given organism. Autochthonous religions are organic.
Revealed religions depend on the revelation of their founders and no one but that founder really knows what was revealed. A revealed religion becomes intolerant because of doctrine and dogmas. Revealed religions have to rely on mechanisms that keep that revelation in the foreground, thus affecting individual liberties.
Autochthonous religions do not necessarily die, their practices are apt to be absorbed into the new religion. Some religions and their practices seem to have been forced into underground for centuries. Gerald B. Gardner claims that after the repeal of the last witchcraft laws in England in 1951 many old traditions resurfaced that were still practiced in secret. His book “Witchcraft Today,” started a fad with many books being written explaining these old religions. Many traditions were refashioned out of anthropological studies and some were made up whole cloth using ceremonial magic, Jewish Qabala and what-have-you. The Wiccan religion developed in just this sort of way. Wicca called itself the Old Religion, but it is really the resurgence or the rising again of the Western Mystic Tradition, which is not really a religion with gods and goddesses.
Wicca says it has gods and goddesses but in reality Wicca is just playing a game with itself, just as the New Agers are. Wicca and The New Agers have a feel good philosophy. If it feels good, it must be good. The problem with that is that Wiccans never really come to terms with real gods. In recent years there has been a spontaneous growth of paganry and heathenry that has turned many Wiccans in the right direction. This spontaneous growth is the result of the fact that Christianity is dying. The age of Christianity is coming to an end and we all are experiencing the end times. In end times people in varying degrees feel the changes but don’t know what to do about it. Others do something about it and for the most part are not understood. Real pagans and heathens differ from Wicca in that they worship and serve their real ancestral gods and goddesses, those that were deposed by Christianity.
Germanic heathenry is the religion that was practice by the Germanic tribes, Scandinavian, English and German, Dutch and the Baltic Germans. Each tribe would have its own dialect by which is spoke and called its gods, such as Odin, Woden, Wotan, Thor, Thunor, Tyr, Tiwaz, Frey and Ing Frey. These Germanic gods were worshipped throughout northwestern Europe.
I follow the Anglo-Saxon tradition of heathnry that was practiced in England. We call it Theodish Belief, the belief of the tribe. If asked, the ancient heathen would have called his belief, the belief of the tribe. He would not have thought in terms of a religion just in what his tribe believed. My gods and goddesses are the same as those of all the Germanic tribes but with dialectical differences.
Around the 1970’s a tremendous interest developed in England, Germany, Canada, and America in regards to Germanic heathenry. A lot people have been struck with the spontaneous growth and developments in different place in 1972, Watertown being one. It has been speculated that Wicca may have contributed to the search for the Real Old Religions. Much scholarship both in the general culture and in the religion of Germanic heathenry has brought heathenry to many people who have been cut off their ethnic heritage. Religion, autocthonous religion, is in the blood and it can’t be denied when you are at home with your own.
Like most people I was raised Christian, but in my early adulthood I became agnostic, for I had had enough of organized religion and its frustrations. For some reason I couldn’t explain, I knew god didn’t want all those rules. Much later in life, situations made me take another look at church and god. I found the same meaninglessness and frustrations but felt compelled to search and search and search within all Christendom. But then my ancestral gods stepped in and pointed me in a direction. It took me six months of solid skepticism and dissecting everything before I was willing to give it a try. No one had ever told me in my life of forty years that I had a choice. I had been told that anything besides Jesus was the Devil. I can tell you it the best thing I ever did in my life when I became a heathen and a friend to my ancestral gods.
Heathenry operates on customary laws and tradition. Heathenry’s ethics and values come from a wisdom tradition, the wisdom of our Gods and our ancestors. Woden is the god of wisdom. The three most important redes of living are wisdom, generosity, and personal honor. Wisdom guides and tempers all actions. Generosity is an attribute of such gods as Frey and Thunor and guarantees fruitfulness. Personal honor is typified by Tyr and is your worth. The main goal of living is to become worthy, for then you will go to Valhalla or the other halls in (heaven) instead of Hel (the world of the dead).
Most people think heathenry is dangerous. This is mainly because heathenry apparently doesn’t fit into their notion of how modern society and religion work. Heathenry is not dangerous. It is in fact a highly social religion and has no intentional danger within its structure. Heathens operate with a different set of standards that modern society no longer recognizes. Heathens tend to be quite sure of their standards, they don’t doubt their moral sense like Christians do. Therefore heathenry is perceived to be dangerous because others do not understand where the heathen is coming from.
For example, personal honor. Most people would think they understand what honor is. But do they? How many people treat their children in an honorable way? Do we teach personal honor to our children? Do we give them bottom lines of acceptable behavior? Do we make them the consequences of their actions? Do we as adults live with a personal honor? We have been living for centuries with the end of the world – Pauline standards that lack self confidence and cause relative morality or situation ethic lack of self-confidence in standards results in no standards. And because of this modern society no longer supports the personal honor philosophy. We all have rights. Rights to do most anything we please without paying the price. Look at any aspect of human interaction, you can’t find anyone out there that you can trust. Honor means nothing in today’s world. The lack of personal honor is a contributing factor to the many bizarre lifestyles in American life. Heathenry is a lawless society and as such depends upon honor. This is not to say that heathenry is an anarchy, far from it. Instead heathenry operates on customary law, everyone knows the custom therefore there is no need for codified laws. In heathenry a man and a woman’s word has to be trusted for the society depends on that honor for its survival. If a person’s honor is untrue the tribe eliminates that person, for not to, would allow the dishonor to grow and destroy – like a cancer in the body. In this sense heathenry is harsher in its punishments to wrongdoers.
The development of personal honor is closely linked to the worth of the individual. This worth is not a dollars and cents worth. Heathens are here in Middle Earth to develop their spiritual worth by uniting themselves with the Gods and Goddesses while they are here. This helps us to gain Valhalla. This spiritual worth begins with personal honor.
The principle of generosity resembles the Christian “casting the bread upon the water” principle but differs in that the heathen’s prosperity in this life is the luck of the Gods, in other words, the Gods have seen the heathen and remembers him. Generosity is closely linked to the worth of an individual and his tribe. To prosper and grow is essential to life. This realm of Middle Earth is a harsh one and without the generosity and hospitality of all the members of the heathen community one can perish. Generosity is service. It is giving of one’s talents and gifts. It is giving in an honorable loyal trustworthy way that guarantees the benefits of fruitfulness such as a harvest, or community well being or having friends you can depend on. When a person is generous he receives the generosity of the Gods. The Gods love to give gifts as much as they enjoy the gifts we give them.
Wisdom is found in the lore of the heathen both in written and oral traditions. Heathenry is lore intensive. It is like a catechism but not in the Christian sense which is based on doctrine, dogma and scripture. Religions that are based on books become religions that create idols out of their books. Heathenry does not idolize its words. The lore gets studied because people are drawn to it because to learn from it is a joy. Such sources as Beowulf and the Havamal instruct the heathen in the many customary ways of living that contribute to his understanding of wisdom, generosity and personal honor. Today, heathenry seems so foreign because we have been living with a foreign philosophy so we no longer recognize our own native lore and philosophy.
Ah! Romanticism! The concept of Romanticism has dulled our impressions of the old Germanic traditions. Anyone familiar with Richard Wagner’s opera’s of Siegfried and the Ring Cycles has a romanticized Wagner impression of Wotan which is far from the truth. Granted, Wagner’s music brings out the Germanic spirit, for it was produced in an age when nationalism was strong. Today we are afraid of nationalism. Instead we homogenize all peoples, eliminating the ethnic cultural spiritual dynamic that produces greatness.
Romanticism dulls our impressions in literature too. It does this by reducing the literature to a fantasy that doesn’t apply to reality. In book religions the fantasy becomes the reality. Mythical literature is meant for study and questions. It is not meant to be taken as reality. Mythological literature is meant to remain mythical. It contains codes, codes that the reader or listener then combs through to gain his wisdom.
When we sentimentalize and create a fantasy out of the mythical we make that literature personalized. This personalization of the literature actually removes the wisdoms in code. Mythical literature must retain its depersonalization so as to present to us the tragedy of life, the deep level of the soul. To know the tragedy is to grow and to grow is worth. Growth is a mind expansion that goes deeper and beyond the best cultural awareness in order to grasp the worth needed to get to heaven. This is why heathenry never has scriptures. Its written lore is not dogma. The individual decodes and finds the wisdom and then lives his religion.
Real heathenry has to be taken on its own terms, not on terms imposed by our perceived understanding of history or religion. To understand the real past it must be looked at from their point of view, not from ours. By what standards are we using when we say “Those ignorant, primitive, barbarian, dirty, savage, heathens?” By what standards will people and historians judge us 500 years from today? Heathenry as an autochthonous religion is learned and understood and thus is able to communicate itself to the rest of the world through the process of living it. It is a live religion, always developing as its members relive the timeless traditions of their ancestors. Thank You. And I now invite your questions.
The questions that followed were varied. The group as a whole had many questions about my letter writing activity in the newspaper and its association with my religion. My answer: I have a strong sense of community and belief in religious freedom. My letter writing is a private venture. My religion does not proselytize.
Q. How did you find out about this religion? I never knew it existed until I read your letters.
A. I didn’t either until I began a quest to know who god was. As it says in the Havamal, “one word leads to another.” I had met someone who told me of the religion and I began reading and looking at more books from the biblios and asking questions and digging. I found that I did have a choice in religion and god. I also discussed the various organizations of Asatru and their publications as sources for learning.
Q. You said religion is in the blood; does that mean someone who is not of Germanic descent is excluded (ah political racism!)
A. No. The way I see it, if someone really feels attracted to the morals, ethics and philosophy I don’t see why they would not be at home with the religion. Of course, it is up to the individual to decide if they are at home. Personally speaking, and this is not being said in any political sense, I am not black and I can not relate to black culture let alone a black tribal religion. It is my individual choice to decide if I want to be a follower of a tribal religion outside of my heritage.
Q. I’ve noticed what you are wearing. Tell us about it.
A. I’m dressed as a traveling wise woman may have dressed. In my bag I am carrying my runes, which is one of the crafts I practice. (I then took them out and allowed them to be passed around while very briefly discussing their purpose). In Beowulf we find that “the showing of the holies” is a reference to runic divination and their importance to the heathen. I mentioned that when one goes to faining, which is celebrating the gods, one is either naked or “sharp,” i.e., clothed. Today I am “sharp,” or clothed. The reason I had to mention that was due to some inappropriate PR work that some in my community were engaging in, in which they pointedly stated that they do their rituals in the nude and the community was scandalized by that. The discussion then moved on to that of crafts, such as witchcraft, which is not a religion; contrary to what some believe. Witchcraft is the craft of “knowing” things, as well as involving herbs, medicine, dealing with the unknown, and it is not necessarily anything to be afraid of.
Q. Do you believe in a universal god?
A. That is a good theological question. Many heathen feel that due to our human condition we are really unable to know whether there is a one god and we refer to that as the unknowable god. This led into a discussion of Jesus’ and Paul’s god and of the importance of heaven from other cultures into Christian theology. I said that heaven and how one gets there are deep theological questions which have been confused by Christianity.
Q. How do you get to heaven?
A. By staying pure, which is not easy, because that spiritual essence which you cannot see or dissect is like Velcro – things get stuck to it. The trick is to live your religion by the use of all that is available to you, and strive to eliminate that junk from your spiritual essence.
Q. It seems that your religion is very practical; is there a separation of your religion from your everyday life?
A. To most heathen there is no separation; life and religion is an every – moment thing, because you are learning how to get to heaven.
Q. Do you believe in reincarnation?
A. No; instead it’s a kind of rebirth. I was named after my two grandmothers, so I carry the rebirth of their essence or luck with me. Rebirth of that spiritual essence is what is central to diving kingship. All Anglo-Saxon kings traced their lineage back to Woden; they were god-descended kings and carried the rebirth luck with them.
All in all the questions touched on many areas, and I have included only a few of them here. I have attempted to show what was in the people’s minds while they looked at a non-Christian religion. In retrospect, I’m sure I could have done much better, but I do think that I gave them a sense that, yes, there is a theological aspect to this religion called heathenry. No, you can’t grasp it all in one hour. And no, it’s not what you thought it was.
After my discussion, I attended their service, which was personally a religiously painful thing for me, but for public relations and tolerance - - necessary. I am relating this in such detail for a reason folks. Heathen can be heard and can make a difference. This speaking event came after two years of public letter writing. Just think what could be accomplished if more people spoke up for religious freedom and tolerance. There’s a lot of “bad press” out there and a lot of ignorance. Isn’t it about time they heard from us? By the way, they’re already talking about inviting me back!