I’ve been reading and hearing about the proper word for people who worship the Norse gods and/or espouse a Norse-influenced worldview should call themselves. This isn’t a pointless activity to my thinking. Words have meanings and implications. There’s a very good reason why Americans of African descent have defined and redefined themselves and why there’s an ongoing debate about “Latino/a” vs “Hispanic. (For the record, I use “Latino/a”.) So I’m not surprised or dismayed to come across a discussion in the Norse religious community.
Sven and I use the Danish pronunciation of the word that means “true to the gods”, which is close to “OW-sah-tro”. Sven will shorten it to just “’tro”, but that’s a thing of his own. Other people like “heathens”, but in the modern world that too often implies not having a religion at all. It doesn’t help that I’m constantly reminded of “Sanford and Son” with Fred Sanford’s churchgoing sister-in-law Esther constantly calling him, “You old heathen!” The idea of Fred Sanford discovering Asatru would have made a great episode, especially since I think he’d make a good one with his territorial nature and savage (though comic) independence.
“Pagan” seems to have become a problematic word lately among individuals who worship ancient gods, practice magic, are involved in a nature religion or any combination of the above. My colleague P. Sufenas Virius Lupus has given an example of how, when he was a doctoral student in Ireland, he was denied use of the university chapel because, “paganism is a nature religion”. Sufenas is a devotee of Antinous, a young man who became a god by way of drowning in the Nile. Antinous was worshiped in temples. In this case, the label “pagan” was used in order to keep Sufenas and his fellow worshipers from using a ritual space.
“Heathen” and “pagan” have something in common in that they both suggest that the people who use those words to describe their religions are country bumpkins. “Pagan” is derived from “paganus” which means a rural person. Similarly, a heathen is someone who lives out in the open country. Christianity was an urban religion in its early days, and somehow worshiping gods other than the Christian ones became associated with being a hick. I admit that I find this kind of puzzling since the really popular pagan religions had large houses of worship in cities. I also find it ironic that now pagans are urban for the most part and country folks are identified with having a fundamentalist and backwards Christian faith.
The word “pagan” has also become synonymous with “Wiccan”. There’s nothing wrong with Wicca of course—but we’re not Wiccans and tend to have a very different way of looking at and reacting to the world. So it can be more than a little frustrating to have people immediately assume that because you’re a pagan, that your religious practice involves invoking the Goddess in a circle.
Currently, my dog tags read “Norse Pagan”. I know this term sounds kind of non-committal, but I decided on it strategically. I decided against having my tags to say “Asatru” because I didn’t think most people would know what that word meant. I didn’t want my tags to say “Pagan” because of the common assumption that pagan means Wiccan. I decided that if I added the word “Norse” whoever was over my unconscious body might think to call upon Thor or Odin, which is really all I want, under those circumstances.