Community is a huge part of our story as humans. We’re hard-wired for connection, and for our entire existence, our survival and much of our sense of well-being has hinged on belonging to a community in which we give and receive resources and protection. But not all community is created equal. In this blog post, I’m going to talk about red flags to watch for when exploring new communities, specifically as it relates to Heathenry.
This past weekend, I had the opportunity to attend the virtual Heathen Women United conference. It was such a great experience and as a Heathen who’s currently living rurally without religious community, it meant that much more to me. From talking about wolf cults and the power of sound, to brainstorming ways to honour the upcoming Year of Aun and discussing portrayals of Vikings in popular culture, it felt as though there was something for everyone, and it was special to be able to connect with other Heathens from all around the world.
Since the pandemic started, most of my connections with other Heathens have taken place online, from my kindred’s blots to events like FrithForge, which was one of my first conscious experiences of hall joy. When it’s safe to do so, I can’t wait to finally attend a gathering at Raven’s Knoll and experience in-person Heathen community.
While many of us probably have lingering Zoom fatigue, I’ve been so appreciative of the ways that I’ve been able to connect with folks who have a range of experiences, from living in countries where Heathenry takes a different shape, like Iceland and Norway, to learning from folks with specialized skills, like volvas, psychopomps and seidr workers, I’ve learned so much.
If the workshops and conferences I attended had been in person, I wouldn’t have been able to attend them, and aside from valuing my ability to participate, I’ve been so aware of the ways in which online events have made more space for disabled Heathens to more fully participate and how that is an important part of living the Heathen ethics of hospitality, reciprocity and honour– there’s no honour in only making space for just one kind of person and our communities are stronger and more interesting when a multitude of viewpoints are present and welcome.
It wouldn’t have been possible for me to feel welcome and safe and to participate fully if these events and the communities which created them were unclear about community values.
So, what are some red flags when we’re looking for community?
1. “We don’t talk about politics”.
Politics can be a sticky subject and some people prefer to talk about it with people they know well and trust– this is totally understandable and we’re allowed to create and uphold personal boundaries. So what’s the problem?
Often, this plays out as communities trying to avoid conflict by not stating their beliefs/cultural norms. But when we are silent on injustice, that’s a political act. When we run away from generative conflict, we create a space where it’s not safe to be honest or to respectfully challenge viewpoints. This is a red flag that inevitably ends up harbouring bigotry which is never exposed because that would be considered “political”. Denial and silence are not the practices of a healthy and safe community.
2. No explicit mention of welcoming marginalized groups. No indication of who this group is not for.
If everyone is welcome, that includes white supremacists, bigots, etc. Havamal 127 reminds us that when we see evil, we are obligated to speak out and act against it, rather than turn away and pretend we don’t see it. If a community is vague on whether or not bigotry is okay, that’s worth paying serious attention to. Part of creating a safe, healthy community is having an agreement about how we communicate with each other and what kind of behaviour is and isn't welcome.
There are two great starting points within Heathenry for affirming support for LGBTQ+ folks, BIPOC, and other marginalized groups. They are: Declaration 127 and the Declaration of Deeds.These declarations unapologetically make it clear that white supremacy and bigotry are not part of Heathenry and that people who currently hold those views are not welcome in community.
3. Placing a strong value on alcohol and drugs as important parts of being a “real” Heathen.
While it’s been a longstanding custom to offer alcohol to the gods and to share it with in person community members during blots or sumbels, it’s totally fine to use water or a non-alcoholic substitute like apple juice or grape juice. Some people are in recovery from drugs and alcohol or can’t partake of drugs or alcohol for health reasons.
This has no bearing on their dedication to the gods or wights, and if a community creates pressure to override people’s bodily autonomy around what they do or don’t put in their body, that can be a pattern which could show up in other circumstances. There’s plenty in the Havamal which actually discourages us from consuming more alcohol than is wise for us, because it can lead to conflict and violence.
4. Unclear or inaccurate sources.
For example, if you’re in an online group, and most of the content is memes from Vikings or other pop culture, inaccurate posts about how “true” Heathens never do XYZ. Each person’s hearth cult and spiritual practice will look different, but we have lots of information about how our Heathen ancestors constructed their society, their religious observances, family structure and the stories were important to them, like the Icelandic sagas and our heroic literature. It’s totally fine to share our personal experiences and insights, but it’s important to be up front about them, instead of implying that they are a verifiable, historical truth.
These are just a few examples to start with. I'll be expanding on this in future posts. What would you add to this list?