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home / articles / heithanic studies / christian influences in contemporary heathenry

Christian influences

There is something that I've come across a couple of times in certain heathen paths and groups; the 'unlearning of Christianity' as way of initiation or introduction to heathenry. The basic idea here is that, if you wish to walk a heathen path, one has to first unlearn the ways you might have been raised with to start 'fresh' (which for a lot of people means letting go of Christianity). A not so odd concept if you think about it. It's there to make sure you have a clean view on what is heathenry and don't fall back into old patterns that you were raised to believe in?

Noting the difference

Donars hammer
It is a common pitfall to rely on the moralities and traditions that have little or no place in our ways, things we have picked up from our childhoods, our surroundings. Morals and values which could hold a person back in becoming a proper heathen. Getting rid of that, would be a great start. But it's also a lot easier said than done. Sure, there's the relatively easy bits; accepting the idea of a polytheistic pantheon, the absence of a devil figure, more responsibility for your own actions and fate, etc. The list however quickly goes from simple black and white into a much grayer area that begs to question what is and what isn't Christian? In an ideal world, our minds might behave like computers and we could simply delete all the related files and start anew, but this is not the way we function. Furthermore, there is the fact that Christianity on itself has been heavily influenced by multiple religions and cultures over the centuries, that it becomes even harder to identify the influences.

To the novice heathen, a celebration like Christmas might seem very much a Christian concept. The birth of Christ is the main theme and that's Christian, so best unlearn all that, right? Well no, the general way of celebration (the tree, the gifts, the food, the company, etc) are heavily rooted in heathen traditions and the idea of the son of god being born on the 25th is an idea that extends far beyond Christianity and is found in numerous older religions and myths, including several Indo-European ones. The idea of the light reborn is not far from our own Yule celebrations in which we can find the longest night to be a metaphor for the return of longer days. In fact, much of the Christian winter-solstice celebration is in fact non-christian, except for going to church and the name of Jesus.

Separating Christian from Heathen origins

To make matters even worse for the beginning heathen, there is the influence of Christianity within the faith. First of all there is the discussion of how much of our lore has been changed or influenced by Christianity. Some scholars and translators state that even the poetic Edda has had it's verses changed and/or added to, in light of the new faith. Other scholars state that the poetic Edda is still quite complete at it's core, but doubt influence in Snorri's work, the sagas or cultural influence in historical works from Roman and Greek times. Then there is the Thor's hammer, a symbol for many heathens of their religious pride and connection to the gods. A symbol however that arose as a counter to the Christians that wore a cross around their neck. There is much documented about the friendly competition between Thor, son of Odin and Jesus, son of Jaweh in the the late Viking age. The necklace with a Mjolnir pendant is a product of this competition and thus we can state directly influenced by Christian presence.

Furthermore, there is the somewhat hidden influence. If we look to the Germanic peoples, we have to count for around 1300 years of Christian influence. That is a long period of time to simply do away with. We can note the heathen influences in Christian practice today quite clearly, parts of an older culture shining through the new, ancient practices that simply could not be removed from the people. Yet if this is the case, should we not expect the same for our new found heathen practice? Should we not expect to see a glimmer of Christian influence in our own faith and with that in mind, should we expect to be able to remove such an influence all together?

Taking off the Christian glasses

The biggest problem with these hidden and subtle influences is that they are just that, subtle and often hidden. One can only speculate whether or not they are of Christian influence, personal or a simple coincidence. A good example of this I find to be the monotheistic approach to the polytheistic faith that is heathenry. The worship of one god above all others or even primarily that god alone. A common practice, which seems to be more dominant among solitary heathens then those in groups. A practice that is not without historic evidence however. Cults of specific deities have been documented and there have been notes of people devoting themselves in particular to one god or goddess. That said, even then, the other gods were still praised and honored and the true devotion or joining of a cult were not as common as the many followers of the Allfather, Freya or Lokians (to name the most common) out there. What can we conclude here? Is this a resurrection of the cults of old time or are we dealing with Christian influence here demanding a more monotheistic view?

A similar question can be asked for 'the problem of Loki', as Jan de Vries so eloquently put once. To some Loki is a part of the pantheon and a much needed addition at that, to others he is an outcast of the gods and should not be considered a deity at all. I find it interesting to note that my American heathen friends seem to lean towards the latter idea of outcast, whereas most of my European heathen friends seem to lean towards the first; a vital part of the pantheon. Considering the much stronger Christian values and influence in the United States over the most western-European countries of today, could one conclude a Christian impact here? Is Loki viewed as devilish on a subconscious level more so by the heathens in the United States than in Europe? Or are we talking about coincidence here or a possible other cultural difference?

Whatever your own thoughts are about the Christian influence are, I think it's impossible to assume we can get rid of it all. It certainly needs to be addressed and considered if we as heathens wish to grow, no doubt. But we can not expect such a long period of time under Christian ruling and teaching to not have any effect on our believes. This would not only be a less than intelligent notion, it would also be dishonoring our ancestors that lived in Christian times and did the best they could. We as heathens should investigate our roots, roots which include Christianity and roots that extend beyond Germanic heathenry. How can we truly live up to our potential if we ignore these parts of our heritage?

 


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