(Another entry into the Pagan Blog Project)
Bodies. Everyone has one, and it is the source of our knowledge of everything. As a divinity student I became aware of the enormous amounts of writing about the body according to religious writers. The Greeks loved to think about the interplay of body and soul, and this thread has been taken up for millennia by philosophers and theologians.
So of course I became a Norse Heathen where there is no wide field of philosophy to delve into. Although the Norse had the runes, they didn’t use it to write down much, and this is very much indicative of how they thought about life and body.
Life was to be lived, and life was good and desirable. “It is better to live, even to live miserably,” Odin says in Havamal verse 70. In Havamal 71, he adds that “no one gets any good from a corpse”. Even life in a damaged body is better than being dead. Crippled? Ride a horse. Deaf? You can still be brave in battle. Blind? Even in a harsh climate and conflict-filled culture it’s better to be alive than dead, especially if it’s later in life and you have your family around you.
Popular imagery of “the Vikings” usually portrays big, hearty people, laughing, drinking, fighting and eating large roasted animals. In other words, the qualities of the Vikings that appeal to us in the modern era are qualities tied to their physicality. The appeal of the gods is secondary. A Norseman would find this completely understandable and be puzzled by asceticism. Why would anyone give up food, drinking alcohol and having sex in the name of religion? That is why Odin, Thor, Freya and the other deities enjoy feasting, partying and having lovers—because that’s what life is for! When you do want to encounter the gods and the land-spirits, you don’t need to meditate quietly in a temple but to go out and experience them face to face.
The word “heathenry” points to it being a religion of people who spent much if not most of their lives outside, that is, on the heath. We may speak about ours being “the religion with homework”, but to really be doing it right we ought to be outside, and not necessarily doing ritual. Asatru should be experiential. The building of a Heathen spirituality should come with just enough reading to make us eager to close the book, go outdoors and feel the forces that are embodied by the gods. I believe that the best prayer we can offer is to go hiking, being constantly aware of what we feel, see, hear and smell. I don’t live in anything resembling the forests of Scandinavia (and no, going to Ikea doesn’t count), so Sven and I like to go walking in the deserts near our home. When we do, I like to wear athletic shoes with toes that allow me to feel the textures of the trail as if I were barefoot without having to worry about cactus spines or burning hot sand.
I also believe that physical fitness should be part of heathen practice. Most of the heathens I know are a fit and outdoorsy bunch, which is what I would expect from people who are reviving the religion of a set of cultures where everyone had to work their bodies hard just to stay alive. We may not have to hunt, raise all our own food, build our own shelters, invade and battle off invaders, but we should develop strength by which we could. If we cultivate the strength and skill, tracking, farming and building are good things to do in order to both experience nature and get a feel for the lives of our ancestors.
That the Norse enjoyed life is made evident by the fact that the afterlife wasn’t a preoccupation of theirs. When they did think about it, it was a continuation of the life they had lived on earth. After death most people went to sit with their family members who had gone on before them. I’m not sure how many people actually believed in Valhalla or their chances of ending up there, but it was a never-ending round of fighting and partying with all wounds healed by evening and nights spent with plenty of meat and booze. In contrast to the Christian heaven where the saved spend eternity bodiless and in perpetual praise of God, the heathen can look forward to a very physical afterlife that reflects the joy of being alive and embodied.
Go outside and feel the sun, the rain and the snow if you have it. Submerge yourself in the oceans or lakes. Smell the air and feel trees. I wrote earlier about giving thanks for your food; add to that by paying attention to the flavours and textures in your mouth. When you drink alcohol, be aware of how it makes you feel. I took up yoga in the past few months and while it’s very obviously not a Norse practice, I do appreciate the way it makes me think about how I move, what the limits of my range of motion are and what perspectives I get when I’m doing the poses.
Asatru is not a religion of withdrawal from the world. Embrace it.