The Undiscovered Retroheathenry

Thoughts and Other Perturbations of Gárman the Wise
By Gárman Lord Ætheling

Originally published in 1992
Revised and republished  with written permission in Æftera Líða 2018 


The wisest philosophers are those
who tell us what we already know.
                                               —Gárman’s Rede

What will the future say of the twentieth century?

No doubt children will then be taught that the twentieth century was an age in which time and space were conquered; when men first simulcast events as they happened by satellite from all over the globe of the earth, onto the screen of Everyman’s living room TV set, and even from the moon. But they may also say that it was an age in which spirit was conquered; when heathenry rose again, newborn, from the ashes of its historical Ragnarök.

Real heathenry, as Ásatrú knows it, and as Anglo-Saxon Théodism knows it, is an atavism. It is ‘retro’ heathenry. It seeks to soundly re-forge an ancestral link, severed by the ‘White Christ’, as if the ‘White Christ’ never happened, and go its merry way from there. Heathen today necessarily have one eye cast back upon the remote past, often seeing it as a kind of Golden Age, even though all but the most naïve are astute enough to know that in practical historical terms, people being what they are, much about our heathen past was brutal and savage and far from golden. And of course most thinking heathen have long ago taught themselves the trick of being wall-eyed enough to keep the other eye fixed firmly upon the present, and upon the future.

One wonders, however, how many thinking heathen have stopped to think that we may be, all unbeknownst, living in a heathen ‘Golden Age’ right now! Think about it. An age when a certain select segment of the population go about their daily business bearing a mighty, mysterious, often harrowing and frightening, secret in their hearts; the mighty truth of Wóden. Those of us who live Wóden’s troth, do his meed and reck his rede, slay swine to him, convert others to his troth with tales of him or whatever, are doing small deeds that often trigger chain reactions and are thus made mighty. Those to come may one day do mightier deeds than we, but it will be by-and-large because of the deeds that we did first that they do them!

It will surely be no great offense to Ásatrú, which can boast so many first-class scholars, to note that amongst its sister cult, Anglo-Saxon Théodism, we are great philosophers and theoreticians here. Théodism likes to say, for instance, that there are three kinds of heathen: neo-heathen, retro-heathen and arch-heathen. A neoheathen is anyone who has forsaken the Establishment religion in favor of a re-plighting of troth to the old Gods, which he generally follows in whatever way strikes his fancy. A retroheathen re-plights that troth too, but with the difference that he insists upon historical religious accuracy in how he follows the old Gods, and concentrates upon forging as valid a religion link with the ancestral heathen faith, for better or worse, as possible. Ásatrú can claim to be truly retro-heathen, since it is an historically ‘received’ religion; i.e., received from Iceland, where it can be argued that the ancient heathenry has survived more or less continuously from ancient times up to this age and never been quite extinct. Another religion that claims to be validly retroheathen is my own, the Anglo-Saxon Théodish Belief. Here perhaps we need to digress for a moment and elaborate:

For Anglo-Saxon Théodsmen, whose religion is not ‘received’, the assertion of retroheathenry involves something more of an act of faith, and only those ‘faithful’ Ásatrúar to whom our position makes sense could be expected to be in sympathy with it. But we do claim that we know what we’re doing, and the assertion of retroheathenry for us is sincerely made nonetheless. As a school of theological thought, we call ourselves ‘Pragmatists’. We Pragmatists believe that there is room for more than one way of being retroheathen, if other ways can be validated, as a practical fact. The fact is, there was significant heathen religious diversity in heathen times, and confinement to the one way of heathen faith that survived the Burning Times would not only be an artificial constraint but could be invalid, theologically. Heathenry as we all know it has shown itself to be intimately interwoven, in all cases, with tribal culture…with the result that culture may often prove to have a theological impact on the religion in specific cases. It has been argued by some writers, including, I think, Brian Branston, that much of the ‘sturm und drang’ of Icelandic heathenry as we have received it, with its Nifl/Muspellheim and Ragnarök-type motifs, is a cultural artifact of living cheek-and-jowl on the same island with both glaciers and active volcanoes; others have argued that, great as Icelandic heathenry may be, it reflects an artificially pessimistic, even self-destructive theological view that is a development of a ‘later’ heathenry failing before the onslaught of the ‘White Christ’. Its world view is essentially ‘Viking’, for better or worse, and as such reflects a pirate/raider mentality that may not be an entirely true and useful reflection of heathenry as it stood in elder times when it stood as the unchallenged national religion of all the Germanies. But no one needs to look this far to agree, in principle at least, that heathenry could and did change, horizontally over the spectrum of tribal cultures and vertically over time. Tacitus himself is seen to be describing a good deal of practical theological diversity in his own description of the Germans, and we know that his own heathenry, like his culture, is considerably different from theirs, even though the two were once one, in Indo-European times. To go with the idea today that diversity is somehow suspect in heathenry would not only be artificial, but would in fact slam the book shut on heathen theology, chaining it to the pulpit-post and turning our scriptures into a kind of Bible. That, as no heathen needs to be reminded, is exactly the kind of mistake that the bad-guys made…

The alternative to this, we think, is where Pragmatism comes in. We Théodsmen believe that, in fact, real religion was a discovery, not an invention. ‘Revealed’ religions, like Christianity, may well be inventions, like the telephone, showing the mark of man’s workmanship, as they do, everywhere on their fabrics. Autochthonous or ‘tribal’ religions, however, are more properly discoveries, like electricity. However they may have gotten first discovered by the tribes that have followed them, they only come to be followed because they work. They have survival for long on artificial usages that have merely cultural or aesthetic usefulness. Some may, occasionally, but we do not know for sure, since we do not have their testimonies to rely on. All we have for such tribes is a word: extinct.

The point is, anything that can be discovered can, after having been forgotten by the world, be rediscovered. It is the rediscovery of Anglo-Saxon heathenry that is the obsession of the serious Théodsman. He not only thinks it can be done but believes that some degree of success has already been achieved within the theology of his Théodish faith. He has particular methods for going about the pursuit of this kind of discovery, and particular standards to be followed that are beyond the scope of the present discussion, of course. One thing that we can talk about, though, is what point is considered the benchmark point for when such rediscovery can be offered as valid and successful.

Théodish retroheathen theology is to some degree a ‘Dismal Science’, because the Théodsman must be content with the fact that that benchmark point of positive validity is, historically, ‘maybe never’. The Théodsman, if he is as conservative in outlook as he properly should be, is practicing what seems a perpetually unfinished religion, since it so scrupulously avoids stamping anything about itself with any kind of Théodish ‘Papal Imprimatur’. Everything has always to be subject to further revision based upon further discoveries, everything being seen as it is through the wrong end of the cultural telescope of today. Even with that, however, Théodism has developed already into a spiritually gratifying faith to follow. There’s the occasional Thrill of Discovery, if nothing else.

And so, of course, Anglo-Saxon Théodism is always changing, and has already accumulated a definable history. The continuous thread through it all is the central quest that defined it from day one; what was the authentic pre-Christian religion of our English ancestors? This goes back to Théodism’s beginnings in 1971 as an apostate form of Wicca, with the founding of the Coven Witan of Anglo-Saxon Wicca, which didn’t even know the god-names, but merely Englished as much of its ritual as possible, basically serving up the same old magical Irish Stew, but on English china. All that changed in July of 1976, when Wóden managed to come into our lives and point us out a new course, and the Coven Witan became transformed into the Witan Théod. The Witan Théod was essentially a shamanistic cult that combined the insights of shamanry with the surviving corpus of Anglo-Saxon galdor-lore, wedding such practice as sword-forging, witchcraft and swine-slaying with such disciplines as deep-structural Anglo-Saxon scholarship; we were off to the races for fair by then. By the mid-eighties it was clear that a ‘cult’ would never do; that what the world needed was a religion. The Théodish philosophy that has emerged since then is properly referred to by insiders as ‘Geringism’. The terms ‘Théodism’ and ‘Anglo-Saxon Théodish Belief’, or ‘Geléafa’, were coined by the present writer in late 1985, in response to the felt need of many to have a name for our new ‘religion’ that wouldn’t need to use that nasty word ‘heathen’. And of course other developments have enriched the historical picture as well. Not everyone that springs from these roots and calls himself Anglo-Saxon heathen these days is proper Geringist or retroheathen. Some others, such as the Moody Hill Théod, are emerging as neoheathen. In the meantime, let us close out this lengthy digression with a question: Is there any better benchmark-time that the Anglo-Saxon Théodsman can hope for than ‘maybe never’?

Some of us think there is…which brings us round to the iteration we began with earlier. There are neoheathen, there are retroheathen, and there are arch-heathen. In real life, there are no arch-heathen. An arch-heathen was one who grew up pure heathen, innocent of Christian or other exotic religious influence, and who never knew anything else. Obviously that kind of troth would be one that no one could pretend to today, and no one can hope for unless it be our great-grandchildren, perhaps, if they grow up in some happier age than this, when such contemporary silliness as Xianity shall have dwindled away into the kind of weird footnote-cults that they seems so deserving to become. For now, we don’t even get to see very much of arch-heathenry. It only appears when it glimmers visibly between the lines of some antick tale in the scribblings of some mediaeval Christian monk or other. Such gleanings, preserved haphazardly, are not often literary gems—but to us retroheathen they are more precious than any heap of gold, for the peeks that they can give us into the thinking processes of people who lived when Wóden reigned pure and supreme.

And yet, thanks to people living and working today, a new age of arch-heathenry could come within a hundred years or less. To a great extent, it is to that Golden-Age-to-Come that the Théodsman looks for validation of his faith and efforts, if such is to be had and deserved. People with a new clear eye upon what we are both preserving and creating are going to gaze upon it with twenty-twenty hindsight, are going to know the difference. That much is only natural in the course of things. What must remain imponderable, of course, is what they make of it all…which is where Wóden comes in. It is not for nothing that Wóden is the god of insight, wisdom and genius. Whatever forms the religion of that time may take, some one of them is going to be truly Wóden-inspired and the authentic retroheathen article; all of a piece with what our ancestors were doing back when they were so rudely interrupted by Christianity. Wóden will see to it; that’s my belief. And what my role is is to make that process possible by means of whatever I do now, against an age when I and all my contemporaries who loom so large in heathenry now are reduced to footnotes as minor prophets of our Golden Age aborning.

Today, to some, even some hopeful heathen, such a notion might seem grandiose. How is heathenry ever going to so take over the world as this? How is a walk-on religion, especially an atavistic historical artifact like heathenry, going to ultimately win the theological Super Bowl?

The answer is not simple; but it will not only do it, but will in the process create a new dispensation that we of today can scarcely imagine. We ourselves might not be entirely comfortable were we to be thrust into the midst of the heathenry of some handful of decades hence. But conquer we shall, unless we try awfully hard not to; the die has already been cast. The die was case the day that more than one kind of retroheathenry sprang up at once! We are looking at some sort of Truth here, and truth, once we learn to wield it worthily, is a superweapon. The truth we have learned we learned because it has now become possible as a result of historical experience and hindsight…and there is more truth that we are still learning…but meanwhile, the cat is already out of the bag.

It is not always accurate to talk about the relative merits/demerits of Christianity/Heathenry, or even Heathenry/Wicca or such, because heathenry is so different from anything else out there. You’re talking about apples and oranges. We, however, are the ones who know that, and other deep theological truths. We are the seekers, the finders, the sophisticated ones, spiritually, in an age when the old hen of Christianity in particular and revealed religion in general spends most of its energy wringing its hands about things like “Relevance” and wondering why its two millennia of social engineering projects and such has produced so little in the way of things like human happiness and making the world safe for guys like Jesus. Even so, of course, they still believe that they’ve had it right all along, if only we degenerates would listen to our preachers; that they are the sophisticated ones, with all the answers and the wisdom, etc., if only the world would believe and give it all a good honest try. For example, a question often asked is whether polytheism is not by its nature cruder and less sophisticated as a theology than monotheism, with its elegant notion of one god who is the true god, with all other apparent gods either delusionary, or devils, or personae of the one true god, or else accounted for in some other way. There seems to most people a rightness about the idea that while men may err, there is a mastermind principle behind the rest of the cosmos that is perfect, in all the sense of the word perfect, whether that principle serve us as the god of our religion or only as a spiritual court of appeals. By such thinking, a man with many gods is rather like a man with many wristwatches. Blessed is he who owns only one wristwatch, for he shall always know what time it is!

In fact, it is significant that the concept of one universal god is an artificial construct, characteristic of revealed religions. No matter whether we find it more spiritually convenient and less confusing and ambiguous to cleave to the notion of one almighty god to whom we appeal for all things and in all ways; the fact is, heaven was never designed for man’s convenience, and the gods just don’t come that way. Polytheism is an universal characteristic of autochthonous religions, which are based on human observation and experience and are therefore truly ‘pragmatic’, truly empirical and scientific in a way that revelation can never be, and the accumulation of evidence that heaven really is a very large, very populous, very confusing place, whether we as theologians and believers find that fact convenient or not, is simply overwhelming. Revealed religions, on the other hand, are just as unanimous in the notion that there is but one god, and that he is the god of that particular cult or religion. Note that this is not, nor could it be by its nature, a truth based on observation. It is clearly a convention meant to simplify and unify the practice of the religion in question, enabling the priest to say that all we have to do is cleave blindly to a particular body of doctrine and dogma and we can’t go wrong. Would that he were right! It would certainly simplify things for suffering humanity, as well as for their babble of religions. But, unfortunately, the idea that there is one true god and that he can be attained to by the practice of any particular revealed religion is simply not true; it has in fact been one of history’s most dangerous delusions.

This is not to say that religious truth is itself necessarily an unattainable good for man. The fact is, most polytheists have always believed, as an intuitively informed article of faith, that there IS some one over-god of which all the spiritual and cosmological proliferation that we see are but manifestations. The problem is whether any existing religion that pretends to know that god really does; the evidence that none really do is overwhelming. To the heathen, the reason why is simple enough; it is that that god-level is normally unknowable to our human level, at least during our earthly life…which is why we have all these other gods that we worship, who are able to function on our behalf as intermediaries. It is likely this ultimate godhead that is referred to by heathen and pagans in eldritch literature as the ‘unknown god’. And, guess what; whoever He, She or It is, He, She or Its name is demonstrably not Yahweh, Allah or Jehovah.

In an earlier age, you could convince suffering humanity, in their hearts, that it was all sooth. Today, after a couple of millennia of living with such theological monstrosities, not many people have to be told that that is not sooth, and those who still believe usually resort rather heavily to the romantic fantasy level to live their faith…which adds little power and enablement to their real-world lives, while making them pigeons for the Jim Bakkers of the world to prey on, of course. Today it’s going to take some totally new thinking to turn mankind’s fortunes around, or else, as I firmly believe, something new/old that has today been totally forgotten about, but is being vaguely and then ever more firmly remembered as we begin to wake up and smell the Western Civilization burning down around us.

But…there is another side, too. At the same time as we bring it all back into being, we necessarily bring on a dispensation that is going to have a wyrd of its own, which our preconceptions are not going to be able to control. Already, we slay meat animals to our gods, shedding and sprinkling the blood as our ancestors did, which, after all, is what words like ‘blot’ are all about. Personally, I’m an animal-lover who hates swine-slayings. Unfortunately for me, my religion dictates that it has to be done, and that I’m the guy who has to do it. I have no real way around that fact, as some heathen who have tried to avoid such business in the recent past can attest. What really matters, for us, is that our heathenry is full of implications that, not having grown up arch-heathen, we would be hard-pressed to feel comfortable with today if we thought about them very much.

Another example is the contemporary sentiment that, generally speaking, all men are created equal. This despite being worshippers of the god who takes credit for being the founder of the idea of aristocracy, as peculiarly the god of that race of people who invented the inherently invidious art of cattle-breeding. Heathen and pagan sometimes talk in mystic terms about such quests as the Search for the Holy Grail, and are not slow to adorn their doctrine with all sorts of such patently romantic notions. But the fact is, there really is such a thing as the ‘Holy Grail’, not generally found not because romanticism keeps most people from looking in the right places. ‘Holy Grail’ is actually ‘San Greal’, which is butchered mediaeval troubadour lingo. Even so, those guys were actually talking about something, and in fact knew what there were talking about. What they were talking about was a pagan/heathen code, a kind of mediaeval mythology device, meant to edify the people while fooling the bishops. ‘San Greal’ was actually ‘Sang Real’, or ‘Blood Royal’. One has to have a sense of just how reluctantly many mediaeval communities were Christian, and how deep and anxious was the longing for the sure-handed guarantees of the old religion and the old ways and wisdoms. If only they could see us now, eh? The ‘Once-and-Future-King’ that they yearned for is, in fact, US! And through us, the old gods are alive and kicking in Middle Earth again today.

It was, after all, Wóden who invented the institution of Kingship, as a sacral office, and stipulated what all the protocols were thereof. The one most familiar to us, of course, is that a candidate for kingship must be Wóden-descended, and his family tree not in any doubt. It was that question of doubt that he was bound to prevail over ‘Harold the Usurper’, a better man, I suspect, but one who made no claim of documented Wóden-descent and was therefore called usurper. It is the claim to be Wóden-sprung that is the sole basis for why every otherwise perhaps ordinary mortal who sits a throne anywhere in the Western world sits that throne today. Kingship is the peculiarly Indo-European institution whereby Wóden passes his special mains along into the community, and it would be foolhardy of us to imagine that Kingship will not be reinstituted by Wóden in the very arch-heathen world that we ourselves are in the business of spawning, willy-nilly.

Ah…but where does that leave us? Where does it leave me, as the descendant of some dozen or so different Yankee revolutionaries who pledged their lives, fortunes and sacred honor to the fight to overthrow the sway of their own English or any other crown, under the banner of Liberty or Death, and never looked back? Sometimes I’m not sure I know.

Worse yet, where does it leave Ásatrú? Ásatrú has always been able to maintain under the smug assurance of its Icelandically democratic ways that it is hardly to be found incompatible with the most liberal of contemporary democratic, at least as we know it. And yet, historically, Iceland is an oddball case, making its heathenry religiously a somewhat oddball case. Is Icelandic heathenry really the gift of Óðinn? Mystically, the greatest gift to Middle Earth in general of Wóden is the Sang Real; speech has proved at best a mixed blessing, the runes are best left to experts in that particular calling, and real wisdom is never in the long run vouchsafed but to a few. Alas, poor Iceland! Colonized by outlaw Vikings, Iceland had no king that it could cheerfully plight troth to. The outlaws who colonized Iceland were mostly aristocratic types and their households who were refugees from the attempts of Christianized kings back home to impose a law of Follow the White Christ or Die, so that they could be crowned and awarded empires by the Pope, in perhaps history’s lousiest sell-out. In other words, the Icelanders never broke troth with their kings; their kings broke troth with them. They kept up their heathenries as long as they could, of course…but without the ‘Holy Grail’. Naturally enough, they have made a virtue of necessity by evolving the notion that democracy is somehow the best way in the long run. But at what theological cost? Isn’t Wóden’s institution of Sacral Kingship from it? Have any contemporary Ásatrúmen ever thought seriously about that?

It is the case that heathenry, once burnt down to the ground and now rising phoenix-like from the ashes, has been through an ordeal, upon which we cannot help looking back appalled. But back is not the only way we should be looking, nor is the ordeal behind us the end of ordeal for us. Actually, ordeal is what we are all about, and we ain’t seen nothing yet. Ordeal is not only ours but all of mankind’s destiny; we are merely the prevailing experts on the subject. The proper object of religion is not the ‘salvation’ of man at all; it is the management of ordeal, in all its aspects…because of what man is, and what human nature is. As to what human nature is, its history speaks for itself. In a way, the ancient Jews were right; man is born unworthy, and must always strive to grow, generally through ordeal. If man were born worthy there would be no need in the world for religion. But a cry for ‘salvation’ is the cry of despair of the doomed, and only that religion that understands such things is fit to survive. The oriental religions can’t do it here. Their answer is Quietism; the yielding up of the ego to the Infinite. We often think of such notions as somehow superior, not realizing that Western man has probably yielded up ego enough a long time ago; in fact, the Oriental Yielding Up of the Ego may well be merely the Ultimate Ego Trip in disguise, the Western Spirit naturally craves instead to match egos with the Ultimate Ego of Wóden, and the only danger in holding Western Activism as the spiritual equal of Eastern Quietism is that Western Activism would immediately emerge as superior. Or so it strangely somehow seems to me.

In the meantime, this ordeal is not a matter of considering our historical choices. Whatever we may sometimes think as we hack away at shaping the future, we do not have any historical choices; that’s what ordeal means. Ours not to reason why; we can but bird on the sword and byrnie and leap into the breach. So, how about it, shoulder-companion? Feel lucky?