Now for something completely different… Amateur Religious Ethnography Botched, Or the Pagan Interviews, Part 8

Jessica G. is a pagan Reconstructionist from the United States

Skepoet: What is your religious background and how did you come to it?
Jessica G.: I was raised in a very conservative Methodist family, and I was the church’s “guinea pig” child for experimenting with teaching tools and programs. They would try out different books and movies and songs on me, then based on my reaction decide whether to roll them out into the Sunday School programs. (Ironically, this didn’t have much effect on increasing my belief – I stopped believing in Christian doctrines at a very early age, other than a residual baseless fear that the Divine was an angry otherworldy judge who punished every little thing.)

My parents encouraged me to read, and didn’t seem to much care or pay attention to what I was reading, so from about age five I started devouring mythology and folklore books. I also had a fascination with books about other religions. At one point, about age 8, I became aware that Wicca existed and, because I didn’t know of the existence of any other pagan religions, I became Wiccan. As I grew older I learned about other branches of the Pagan family, but while the Norse branch caught my interest I was frightened off by the reputation and stereotypes of Asatruar/Heathens. Eventually I met friends who were majoring in Scandinavian Studies, went to a school affiliated with Sweden and met a bunch of exchange students (including some Saami), Loki took an interest in me, and the dam broke. I still have a distaste for and distrust of a lot of Asatruar and Heathens, however, for various reasons. (And they for me, as Lokeans are pretty widely discriminated against in that community and regarded something like how Christians regard Satanists.)
Skepoet: What is your academic background?

Jessica G.: I was in the Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs all through K-12, then was a Physics and Spanish major at college, with a side focus on business, other languages (I love learning languages as a hobby) and several world religion and (Christian) theology courses.

Skepoet: How do you see these interacting with each other?

Jessica G.: My language skills help me translate and read research documents I wouldn’t otherwise be able to, and my background in math and science causes me to think about many things logically. That said, at some point there is always that “suspension” of logic and cynicism when you come across experiences that cannot be rationally proven or measured and recorded. Religion and spirituality dips into a realm where we have no empirical tools – when confronted with unexplainable experiences, the individual comes to a choice of trusting their gut feeling about it, or clinging to cynicism and disregarding it as a bunch off fluke happenstances. My personal experiences would be very difficult to ignore, and so I choose to suspend the scientific way of thinking in that area and deal with them the only other way that I can: within the realm of belief and intuition, with a side of historical research.

Skepoet: Can you explain the strange relationship to Lokians and Asutaurs a bit more?

Jessica G.: This is a complicated situation. It’s a conglomeration of a number of different factors – the average personality type that is attracted to Asatru/Heathenry, the background and culture said people tend to come from, the saturation of dualism throughout Western culture overall… many things.

Many Asatruar/Heathens tend to come from Christian upbringing and absorb both the dualism and the tendency to rely on texts as the ultimate authority. When they convert, they keep this reliance on texts and tend to regard “The Lore” as a sort of Heathen Holy Bible. Being as most of the surviving texts counted as Lore were put down in the dying/dead years of the old faith by Christians who had a vested interest in portraying things in certain ways, there is a certain amount of “Christianization” and corruption in the texts. The converts swallow the texts wholesale and interpret  things according to their background (usually Christianity), and you get Judgement Day/Ragnarok with God/Odin/Good on one side and the Devil/Loki/Evil on the other, black and white. (This is the simplest explanation, which is USUALLY the reason there is such opposition to Lokeans.)

Lokeans, of course, feel close to Loki, tend to read the texts differently, and have a very different worldview. Because the original texts have to be closely examined for Christian slanting and corruption and, as it’s poetry, a variety of interpretations are possible, Lokeans are not simply “choosing the evil side because they think it’s goth/badass/etc”. The opposition is so uniform, however, that Lokeans are always dismissed as angst-ridden goth rebellious teenagers, crazy dangerous fringe people, Heathen Satanists, cult leaders, or the like. It’s not even accepted that Lokeans have a different interpretation and worldview so that, to them, they AREN’T picking the “obviously evil” side… but other Heathens tend not to be interested in learning about what their interpretations ACTUALLY ARE.

Lokeans are often banned from live events, ridiculed or banned from online communities, and in some cases recieve threats of violence or death if they don’t stay hidden and quiet. Lokeans tend to also be very Liberal-leaning and include a lot of people from the LGBTQA community, which adds two more tension points in contrast to the makeup of mainstream Heathenry.

Skepoet: Heathenry and Astru seems to have a mixed reputation, maybe not entirely earned, for being the somewhat reactionary politically compared to the rest of the Neo-pagan movement.   Well this is honestly not entirely fair, what do you think has led to this
stereotype?

Jessica G.: It’s not undeserved – it is, quite sadly, a result of the population base Asatru tends to attract. Despite the fact that Norse/Germanic culture and Celtic culture were “kissing cousins” and experts have trouble sorting out what names and archeological finds apply to which culture… the Celtic branches of Neopaganism tend to attract more Liberal-leaning people, and Asatru/Heathenry more conservative-leaning people. This is not entirely uniform – there are pockets who are moderate or liberal, and Lokeans as a sub-group tend to be VERY liberal. Overall, however, the stereotype is there for a reason.

I’m not entirely certain of why certain types of people are attracted to Asatru/Heathenry over other Neo-pagan branches. I think it has something to do with the (incorrect) notion that the Norse gods are the most “badass and masculine” of the gods, just like to fight and kill things a lot, and that the women were the keyholders and kept house and cooked and did weaving and “traditional womanly arts”. Asatru is perceived as having a social structure much like conservative Protestant branches, and so it attracts people who favor that structure. They take that framework and slap Heathen wallpaper over the top – the Bible becomes the Lore, God is Odin or Thor, Balder is Jesus, Loki is the Devil, women need to marry a Good Heathen Man and Propagate The Race With Lots of Kiddos. (The racism stereotype is also, sadly, deserved, as much as people are working within Heathenry to try to fix that problem.)
Skepoet: Was it one experience or a slow built up that led you to Loki?

Jessica G.: It wasn’t a slow buildup. He was the first god to actually answer me and manifest changes in my life. Despite the idea people seem to have that calling Loki is like calling a hurricane, every single thing he’s done has taught me a crucial skill, positioned me in the right place at the right time, networked me to crucial people, healed me of something… the net effect is always positive, even if it doesn’t appear like it at the time. I’ve also experienced freak bursts of luck that “pull the bacon out of the fire”, so to speak. The key to him seems to be whether you treat him with respect and what you’re expecting. If all you can mentally fathom from him is “horrible troublemaker”, that’s the only doorway you are giving him, so that’s the way he’ll manifest.

Loki and Odin are both very responsive gods, more like each other than the followers of Odin perhaps like to admit, and both gods are interacting quite a bit with humanity now and recruiting people to Heathenry. (This doesn’t mean, however, that everyone claiming to be a Lokean or Odinsman actually is one. Some do just like the concept of Bad Boy Trickster or Warleader Gallows God. My litmus test for whether an Odinsman has actually interacted with Odin is whether or not they accept Lokeans. Not whether they like them or are friends with them, but whether they just plain accept them and are at least neutral towards them. If they aren’t, I doubt they’ve really had experiences with Loki’s blood brother.)

Skepoet: There are many even within Asatru that admit that Asatru’s source material, such as the Eddas, were already corrupted by exposure to Christian ideology.  Do you think there is a lot of truth to this?

Jessica G.: There’s more than a lot of truth to this. There have been multiple papers written on it by non-Heathen scholars. As a direct result of reading said papers, along with my personal experiences (which are often called UPG, Unverified Personal Gnosis, and disgustedly dismissed in Heathen communities), I don’t believe in a Linear End-times Ragnarok as it’s written in the surviving texts. I believe that that interpretation is a result of Christian corruption and that, previously, everything was cyclical. I think Heathenry as a whole would be much improved if people would work past the Christian framework and interpretations they carry with them.

Skepoet:  Do you think such scholarly issues complicate pagan Reconstructionist movements?

Jessica G.: Yes and no. It certainly fills in the gaps and helps people understand pieces of the ancient worldview. It gives some guidance for how to practice the faith. At the same time, people take such findings and scholarly theories as rock-solid proof and build their entire faith core around things, then are shattered when certain theories are disproven. (This is exacerbated by the fact that most easily available scholarly documents are VERY out of date, so people tend to be working with things that were disproven 50+ years ago…)

Good example of this – a lot of people build core pieces of their belief on the idea that the Vanir are a different tribe than the Aesir, were defeated, and are now dominated by the more warlike clan. There is even a separate branch of Heathenry called Vanatru which focuses ONLY on Vanir-tribe gods and goddesses. Rudolf Simek recently came out with some findings and a theory that tries to show that there was no separate Vanir tribe, and he’s very convincing. Despite the fact that all his other works have been lauded, many people have been ignoring the hell out of his Vanir paper because they don’t want to reconsider what they’ve constructed.

Skepoet: Do you think the lack of access to scholarly material easily has led to a lag in the pagan community?   For example, many Wiccans held up to many theories of Robert Graves and Frazer for about three more decades than the scholarly community, but now the problematic issues of those texts is pretty readily accepted.

Jessica G.: Yes, that’s a very apt comparison.

Skepoet: Do you think the educational level of those involved with pagan reconstruction and other craft/occult movements has changed recently?

Jessica G.: I cannot really speak for all branches of Neo-paganism, but I’ve noticed many general Neopagans and Wiccan-leaning pagans getting relevant degrees and starting to research and write (as with Triumph of the Moon), and there has certainly been an increase in people interested in pursuing higher education levels in Heathenry. Archeology, linguistics, Norse or German cultural studies, psychology, divinity… we seem to have a growing base of people willing to take on the role and work of the scholar or informed researcher, and to me this seems to be showing as current scholarly works and papers are becoming more accessible in the community.

Skepoet: Are there any other demographic shifts you’ve observed in recent years since becoming involved in the various pagan communities?

Jessica G.: This could be regional, and it’s based upon limited personal experience… but I’m seeing more of a shift towards gender balance (more women getting into Heathenry, more men getting into women-dominated branches of Neo-paganism) and a surge in interest in recon forms of Neo-paganism. Celtic recon, recon Hellenismos, recon Kemeticism, and recon Heathenry have all seen a boost of activity and interest and/or increased publicity.

Interestingly, while this isn’t a demographic shift per se… the popular cultures to appropriate ideas from no longer seems to be Native American cultures. I’m noticing a huge influx of people borrowing from the African Traditional Religions and African Diaspora Traditions and folklore.

Skepoet: Do you see this appropriation as problematic in any way?

Jessica G.: It depends on how it is done (respectfully or not), whether it’s fullscale appropriation or gathering inspiration for developing one’s own practices, and whether people are trying to pass said new or appropriated practices and ideas off to others as being old, authentic traditions.

Good examples of this: Norse cultures were historically VERY close to the Saami tribes and both of them borrowed heavily from one another, so looking to Saami practices to try to understand Norse Seidhr and shamanic practices isn’t too far of a stretch, and as far as I know the individuals who have done this sort of research (like Yngona) have been respectful when visiting and learning from the Saami.

Poor examples of this: wholesale borrowing of the Vodou, Santeria, Candomble, and other North American African Traditional Religions and then pasting new god names in. Not only can the practices in these traditions be very dangerous for someone who isn’t properly trained, it’s often steeped in false information (such as trying to pass it off as historically authentic) and accompanied by a lot of drama and accusations of plagiarism and theft. Heathens swiping the Dakota Sun Dance ordeal wholesale and certain Kemetic branches swiping ideas and practices from completely different areas of Africa are samples of this that I find troubling, especially when they vehemently deny what they are doing.

There prior interviews in this series can be found here, here, hereherehere, here, and here.

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