Confronting “Folkishness”

Besides my desire to find other heathens, the biggest issue before me is what to do about the concept of “folk” and what is politely called “folkishness.” My distant friend who is my guide so far (and is a follower of the syncretic goddess path but also very much Nordic and of Sami blood), asked her friend a prominent heathen to let me get in touch about finding other heathers who are “not folkish.”

What is “folkishness?” It is the idea that heathenism is meant for people of north European extraction, whose language and mythic tradition grows out of the Germanic that is the root of the languages and cultures of much of northern Europe. This is a difficult question because I understand that there are heathens out there who take this to an extreme, who are frankly racist; that the warrior path of heathenism has a large following in prisons, where division along racial lines is part of the culture of survival. There are people who still cling to the Nazi’s crude adoption of superficial symbology and judge modern heathenism by that aberration.

Today I am drawn toward a religion where many say I must put aside the gods of other traditions, to embrace my tradition. I spoke to this in my last post when I said that I felt a call from my ancestors, presenting itself in the forms of Frau Holle and Nerthus. I can’t ignore that what I thought would be a cursory re-read of the pagan roots of Carnival attributed to Roman traditions led me somehow to Nerthus, as searching Yule for someway to honor that season lead me to Frau Holle. Something is operating here, whether it is external or simply my ancestral memory. (I actually started to type racial memory but I’m not an idiot. There is only one race of homo sapiens, but I was raised in the south to adopt the racist ideas of my grandparents. It is like being an alcoholic. Something taken in so early becomes a part of you whether you like it or not, and you take it one day at a time, not being that person).

Clearly I am struggling with the question of folkishness. I have an old friend who is of European extraction who studied for years under a Navaho wise woman, who studied and learned Navaho. She was not a Native, but undertook to learn this tradition and was welcomed by a learned teacher. Once, that seems perfectly natural to me. I was syncretic as any other post-Christian seeker. The altar that stood on a mantle in my house mixed a northern deity tied up with my fascination with crows with the White Tara of Buddhism, syncretic Catholic saints, and personal heroes of a spiritual nature. Above all stood a picture of a Green Man. I still have a statue of Ganesh in a place of honor, a gift from my former boss who was a yogi, a Unitarian minister, who saw in Ganesh–the god of great undertakings–a perfect patron of our work in project management. When I was ready to buy a house, a friend of Indian ancestry offered to do puja to Ganesh to aid in the deal, even sending her husband out for our “traditional” offering at work of a Rice Krispie Bar in lieu of sweet rice modak dumplings.

Ganesh didn’t feel weird. There is a universalist strain in the West of Indian religion. Taking up Navaho tradition clearly worked for my friend. I think I would feel uncomfortable, in spite of my veneration for the truths buried in the superficially fraudulent works of Carlos Castañeda. I can’t let go of Castañeda completely, if for no other reason that my reading of him as an adult (as opposed to my first brush as a dabbler in mystic use of ethonogenic drugs)revealed a great deal of wisdom. Much of that wisdom echoes when I read heathen books. Don Juan was not simply a shaman; he was also a warrior, one who battled against other workers of ill intent, and against what he called “petty tyrants” in every day life. His god (if that is the right word; let us say his guide) was an ally, a familiar, although one of power to be respected. And in the words of Don Juan, “a warrior must be impeccable.” The idea of being an impeccable warrior comes out again and again in heathen literature. Still, I could not see me going down my friends path of Native American spirituality. It simply wouldn’t feel right. The tradition of my ancestors has its own relationship to the natural world through the vættir, one of respect that any student of native American traditions would recognize as two paths in the same direction.

If I reject racism, as I have almost my entire life in spite of being raised to it, is is then wrong to consider the idea that every people, every culture have their own path to the sacred, each with its own gods, myths and rituals, and that my path is naturally emerging at this point in my life as that of my ancestors? I don’t know, and until I can connect with other heathens and have this conversation, connect with other pagans as well and discuss it openly, I am leaving myself open to the idea of “folkishness.” As long as one respects others, discriminates against none, I am struggling with the idea that is is wrong to think that each people should follow their own ancestral culture’s path. For now, I simply don’t know. What I do know is that I will likely put Ganesha away is a comfortable, lined box until I find him a new home. Or perhaps put him among the things of my past, to be rediscovered and carry me down the path of memory to times and friends past.

I will take up my next book, the “folkish” The Troth by Edred Thorsson, and keep my mind open and listen. Listening to the world around us, and to ourselves, is how we find the sacred. The fine details can be worked out as we go along, and I will allow my ideas to work themselves out in the context of who I am, a person raised in a racist Anglo-Saxon tradition who rejects that tradition as I reject Catholicism. The true path lies as always somewhere in the middle, somewhere between a racist “folkism” and fuzzy universalism.. I still believe in a One that presents itself in the form each culture is ready to receive it in. That belief is not inconsistent, in my novitiate mind, with the idea that the gods and ways of my eldest, continental ancestors are what speak to me today for good reason, and in a way my more recent ancestors’ Catholicism rarely did, and today does not at all.

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3 thoughts on “Confronting “Folkishness”

  1. Two views – Heritage as culture. Heritage as genetics.

    Notice that we’re reading and writing English here? Taking heritage as culture all who are native speakers of languages in the pan-Germanic languages and/or native members of the Anglo-Germanic branch of western secular civilization are heirs to Asatru.

    Want it only whites? Then you have to explain why Chechnians aren’t heirs to our ways.

    Clearly I am highly biased as to which I think dominates. Even though study after study shows that nature and nurture contribute roughly equally. The trouble with those studies is scale. The pan-Germanic branch of the Indo-Iranian cultural and linguistic tree is one branch of many. Thinking of Asatru in any genetic sense is far more narrow than is possible.

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  2. You could see this as two views, heritage as culture and heritage as genetics, but when it comes to the genetics, we don’t LIVE in the same places our ancestors did. That’s where the culture comes in. And even that doesn’t cover all the bases. Because as you put it so beautifully in your post, there are those who have been taken in by other cultures, and there are also those who are just drawn to other cultures and do their best to acknowledge that.

    Long story short, if you do what you feel is right in your heart and make a purposeful effort toward it, I don’t think it really matters.

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