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A Country Beyond Asatru - My Review of Gárman Lord's "The Way Of The Heathen" - Piparskeggrsbok

Jun. 5th, 2010

06:29 pm - A Country Beyond Asatru - My Review of Gárman Lord's "The Way Of The Heathen"

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(Lightly edited for misspellings and grammar from the original, which I wrote from a pre-production copy Gárman sent me in October or November of 1999. Amazon has sellers offering used copies of this book for almost $1000.00, I hope they slipped a couple digits there.)

Wyrd can be thought, a spider grey
Weaving all lives, within her web
Our deeds glisten, like morning dew
Then falling down, renew the Well

Ye Piparskeggrsmal - Stave 005

"The Way Of The Heathen: A Handbook Of Greater Théodism" by Gárman Lord

This book is at first glance, a very simple piece of wordcraft. The central theme, a presentation of Þéodisc Geléafa, IS simple: a man's beliefs are those of his tribe.

This is similar in theme to those Asatrúar who posit that our ancestors would answer the question “What is your religion?” (after having had the separateness of religion explained to them) with a shrug and “Vor Trú, our faith.”

There is a danger here.

This simplicity of message is but the surface of a spring fed pool. The clarity of the water is such that some who plunge in feet first may find themselves at greater depth and in swifter current than they expect.

I wrote this commentary concurrent with my third reading of this deceptively slim book (just under 230 pgs). The words ahead are my thoughts on the concepts presented about this form of Retro-Heathenry. [N.B.: Retro-Heathenry - the re-creation of the ancient folkways and faithways from the available documentary and archaeological evidences, as informed by thought and inspiration.]

I am a man dedicated to the Holy Æsir and Vanir. I believe that our faith stems from the kinlore of northern and western European tribal peoples and that these ways are most meaningful to those of that heritage.

I am informal in mine own practices, yet observant. I am filled neither with lore cunning nor a great store of wisdom, but do appreciate wit and sagacity in others. I am Tribalist in outlook, and seek Frithful relations with others of Right Good Will, which can only strengthen Vor Trú in the long run.

A man of good education and strong opinion wrote this book. It matters not the alphabet soup of degrees he may or may not append to his name. Rather then, I shall call the author a learned man, and a thinker of value. Beyond that I'll not try to credential him.

"The Way Of The Heathen" is unremarkable in its layout: topical sections, supporting chapters, appendices, glossary, index, and original illustrations.

The topics themselves though, “The Fruits of Wisdom,” “The Léode…,” “The Way of the Heathen,” “The Group Dynamic,” and so forth are not the usual “New Age, Peace and Light” alternative religious fare.

I should like to start my commentary with an important concept: “We are our deeds.” (Also the title of a most useful little book by Eric Lord Wódening.) In the “Good and Evil” chapter, lay the words: “… right action ( which is good), wrong action (which is bad), and inaction (which, since it produces no ordeal, produces no outcome, and is worst of all).” This points out that the values of our Northern Faithways ought be active, seeking to do, rather than be done for. Actions build up the layers in the Well of Wyrd, and we increase as our past increases through experience and deed. After reading this, I admitted to myself how much of mine own life I let be done.

The book, and each section, is introduced with the author's words about his goals, overall and in particular. Gárman seeks to present a form (Greater Théodism) of the religion he founded in 1976 (High Théodism). He seeks to reach the broader Heathen community, which is looking to the ancient kinways and lore, a Greater Théod as it were. Greater Théodism is presented as a faithway for those who wish to “go Théodish” but do not want or are not ready for the strictures of High Théodism.

The first section of the book is styled “The Fruits of Wisdom,” apt, as Théodism is presented as a wisdom tradition. The first main concept we find is the idea that all Théodsmen, known and unknown, are a part of the web of community. The tie that binds is Troth with the Holy Æsir and Vanir. We become members of the same (or a closely related) tribe through this web.

In this section we are informed of another concept essential to both High and Greater Théodism: “… loyalty to the mystic principle of Sacral Kingship, …” which is explained in Chapter 2. The King (AS: cyning - ON: konungr - Ger: könig), in simplest terms, embodies the Luck of the land and the Folk. The King also acts as a conduit for “the grace and favor of the gods…” The Théodish way looks to place less importance on the person of the king, rather the Thew is to adhere to the institution of the Kingship, and to reinforce Thew with Oath.

“Good and Evil” I have already mentioned. This first section ends with explanations of the two main forms of Heathen worship: Blót and Symbel. In the Asatrú of my experience Blót seems the more emphasized of the two and is therefore more familiar. Herein, the explanation of Blót takes but a few pages. Symbel though, is a much more complex religious and social ritual, thereby gaining the lion's share of the remainder of this section. I have participated in Blót and Symbel as a quest of High Théodsmen (chronicled elsewhere). The main difference to me: Blót forges links to the Holy Ones with the Folk as witnesses and Symbel forges links between the Folk with the High Ones as witnesses. The rituals are more important and powerful than this facile quip would have it.

Next we are informed about “The Léode, Its Organization and Structure.” In Asatrú we have our kindreds, hearths, garths and so forth. In Théodism, the basic group is the Léode. A big part of Théodism is its “…heavy emphasis on community, tribe and thew…” Though this coming together is granted the Honor Chair at the High Table, it is shown herein that one can be in this form of Troth (Greater Théodism) as an individual and be a true member of the broader Théodish community.

Next we are introduced to “Group Work” and organization, how a group coalesces and creates its community identity under their leader (perhaps reluctant, but the leader nonetheless). Some socio-political comments are offered, but the material steers back to Tribalism and the elder manner of community.

“Théodish Leadership,” I found to be a fascinating chapter. These three pages contain a glittering diamond of an essay on tribal leadership, stressing the adult nature of the relationship between Dryhten and Folk, always seeking to increase the worthiness of the Léode.

Now we tackle a more thorough description of “The Hierarchy of A Léode.” Of grave importance is a proper probationary period for new members, where they can learn what is expected of them and the Léode folk get to know them. Neither party benefits from someone plunging right in. Also defined are the “Goodfolk,” those who are friends but not Théodish, and from whom many “Learning Wights” emanate. This time of learning is indefinite and lasts until the Learner and Léode are ready for each other (thus the Learner becomes a Yeoman or Goodwife) and can exchange Hold Oaths, or the Learner goes away.

Oaths are an important point stressed here, for they are part and parcel of the Web. The words exchanged go into the Well of Wyrd. The social structure explained here (in terms used by Georges Dumezil,) is quite similar to that set by Heimdall in his guise as the visitor Rig, who fathers the first of each of the three strata of Heathen society: the Yeomanry or Free Folk (workers and providers, Third Function), the Gesitha or Thanes (craftsmen and leaders, Second Function) and the Dryhten (ruler, First Function).

Explained is the structure and function of the Hold Oath: between Dryhten ad Gesith, Dryhten and Man or Gesith and Man, for example. No Oath should be given or taken lightly, or without a thorough understanding of the meaning behind and within the words, for the Words have power and bind us to each other and to the Orlay of the Tribe. Also explained are the deep obligations between the oath holders: Man to Lord and Lord to Man. The section ends with a few words about “Women As Drythtens.” As is the case in the Host Community, a female must be remarkable in order to perform, and survive, as Dryhten.

We now come to the namesake section of this book, “The Way Of The Heathen.” We are reintroduced to the concept of Théodism as a “…lawless society, which operates instead by thew.” Thew being to the community what sinew is to the body, they help hold things together. Custom is presented as a stronger and natural way of acting within the community rather than looking to written law. Customary law stems from the kinlore and folkways to become layers of deed in the Well of Wyrd. This is within the Heathen worldview, rather than codification of offenses against some god's mandate from on high. Our gods we are told are “respecters of men” and their individual Worth, where the Mediterranean view is more of god as a leveler, where all are the same. The Heathen view deals more in the varying significances of events around us, and this is manifested (somewhat) through the poet's craft.

We are again reminded that ours is a religion of “Activism,” looking always to increase our worth by undertaking ordeals. We create ourselves, through right and wrong action, inaction creating nothing. Tied in with this is the idea of community projects that give each member of the Léode a place and a purpose, as well as a store of Deed and Worth, to the benefit of the Community.

In “Poetry, Law and Custom” we are shown how language has power (even now in Modern English, we still have echoes of the Elder Tongue's Cunning). The oral tradition of the Elder Folk was a powerful transmitter of kinlore, the customs, traditions and mores, and can be for us. Living within this framework helps one to become a self-regulating part of the community, where codification goes against the grain, being one size fits all, and lends itself to breakage. The heathen society will also have no “politics” as we think of the term, since everyone is part of the Web of Oaths and Thew. Custom is a much more powerful regulator of human behavior than statute, for there are certain things that a healthy society will not permit: rape, murder, theft and so forth. Other things, words on paper won't change how people are.

“The Théodish Learning Dynamic” can be easily summed up with the Théodish proverb: “Everything we are taught is false, everything that we learn is true.” Another important point is about personal “Eureka” moments, those gestalts which shatter illusions of thought and drive one to solitude, and may or may not lead one back again, the Théodish folk call this “going into the woods.” A few words here are said about one of the maladies of modern American society, our reaction to change in a superficial, cynical manner, due an inability to grasp the Significance of things.

The section concludes with a couple of pages styled “the Place of Modern Religion,” which speaks to the motivation for seeking an “alternative” to the mainstream religions. Contained here is the gem that religion is indeed serious, where one tends to meet oneself “ coming around the corner.” That is, getting the actual reason.

The next section of the book, “The Group Dynamic in the Modern World” seeks to define the type of persons who would come into the Léode. To a man these will be the offspring of the modern, spiritless society, not fitting the hive mind. One cause of these misfits may be the lack of a true, American folk culture (addressed later in the book). And of course, not all misfits are equal to the task of joining a Retro-heathen society.

The first supporting chapter brings to the fore the topic of “Anomie” or the general meaningless nature of modern society. I have long termed the “cliquish” or “fannish” reaction to this the “herd instinct” in our society. There are very few anchors to the past, so many just drift from trend to trend, fad to fad, mobbing up in “rebellious” ways, where the members of these dysfunctional tribes look so much alike because they are desperately seeking some belonging: the Hippies, Punks, Bikers, Yuppies, Goths, Hip-Hoppers, Jocks as a few examples.

Then there are the “role players” where one creates a fantasy life to plug in the spiritual chasms. In and of itself this need not be bad (“sleep walking” through life, as it were), except when combined with a need to control, then disruptions can occur (but a healthy community will see the attempted manipulation and react accordingly). Also there are those looking to create a family where on has not or does not exist. We are reminded that while a Léode may contain families, it is not and cannot, be a family substitute.

In the next chapter we are shown the signs to look for those trifling with the Léode as an underlying cause “When Things Go Wrong…” Most triflers are simply dilettantes, looking for the “flavor of the month” spiritual path, here at this Blót or Moot, gone the next.

The others are a danger to the Léode, as they want to control without seeming to control, being a “Master of Puppets.” They are present, not due to some social, religious or spiritual need, but some weird, vampiric ego, which feeds on strife. The trifler has no core, so looks at those who do as having “silly, pretentious conceits” which offend or bore him. Suffice it to say that an adventurer such as this begs off from any responsible position, but excels in leaving knives implanted without fingerprints, all big eyes and “who me” innocent smiles. A crafty Dryhten will be on guard, and almost expect this sort of interference over the course of time.

Another type of trifler is the “Agenda Monger…” This creature seeks to distort the Léode for his own socio-political purposes, usually because he was a very small fish in the ocean of the “movement” from whence he came. Predominantly, this has been an attack by those ideologically to the “Left” of the host community (Gay Rightist's, Greens, Militant Feminists and so forth), though a few “Rightists” (mainly White Supremacists and neo-Fascists) have tried to inject their agenda into Alternative Religions also. The main guard against this is Retro-Heathenry being Religious, not Political or Ideological in nature. Also having a well-read, wise core of leaders in the Léode, the Dryhten and Wizards, will help keep intrusions into the life of the community to a bare minimum.

We are again introduced to the idea of the Thyle being the point man for fending off these attackers, leaving the Dryhten as a leader unstained by such dealings.

A few words are again given about the role of women.

“The Thew of Leadership” is next explained, and is as important as good followership. Leadership is an inborn talent, not necessarily correlating to good character (current occupant of the White House an example). The folk are supremely able at choosing good leaders, but lousy at judging character. All good leaders possess these few attributes: the Talent for leadership, an analytical intelligence or talent for choosing the right course of action, good character (be a hard worker, able to sacrifice own ambitions to the good of the community, disdain for personal power, asf), and a thirst for Wisdom of Odinic proportions.

The wise Dryhten must also be able recognize the character of his people and keep a hands off approach as much as possible.

Heathen leadership, unlike the great American level playing field is a natural process of the most able riding to the fore. For many Americans entering Heathenry, this is a difficult concept to grasp, that the “we're all equal” mythos of the host culture is false, and that politics are (should be) nonexistent in the Léode. (I'm still not sure of my grasp on the concepts in this section.)

The final group dynamic to which we are introduced is “Choices.” The choices the folk must make and the choices the Dryhten and other leaders must make, especially about admitting new members, which a wise Dryhten should not do on his own. After the probationary period, a Folk Moot should be called and the people must decide, that way the Dryhten can dispassionately rid the Léode of the person if they become disruptive and folk action does not correct the behavior.

Other issues, the Dryhten must be able to discern which should be put before the folk and which he must take care of himself, hence the need for good Wizards (wise advisers). Sometimes the best course of action is to “decide not to decide. Sometimes a matter will resolve itself, or may be made worse by interference - either the Dryhten or Folk can initiate the “non-decision.” But the folk do look to their leaders to lead; a light hand on the reins is urged, leaving the community self-regulating as much as possible.

In section 5 we are introduced to the Théodish manner of “Blóts and Fainings.” There exists no “Book of Shadows,” no “Catechism” of High Théodish worship. As much as possible, it is an oral tradition, like that of the Honored Ancestors. This is much more personal than dusty words on musty paper, a live tradition beyond the control of any one authority. These chapters are presented for the Greater Théodsman who does not have access to that tradition.

Oddly enough the supporting material is entitled “Blóts and Fainings” and “Faining: An Outline.” Quite simply these two chapters set forth the Théodish method of worship and communing with the Holy Ones. They explain the elements of a Blót, Faining being the day of Celebration, perhaps having several Blóts over the course of the day. Théodish practice is to be as melodic, as poetically significant as possible, utilizing an Elder Tongue if possible (though the Holy Ones speak the Modern Tongues quite well). A good Faining should include feasting and Symbel as a good conclusion to the celebration. Suggestions for the lone Théodsman are given.

The final section is entitled “When Things Go Right,” a gladsome title. Our relationship to the Holy Ones is familial, unlike the desert religions where one is chattel of “God.” Our intellect is not Godly, but we can add to Orlay by observing the holy days and remembering that our religion is our life and that living a worthy life is a religious act. If we do our duty, the Gods see us, if we don't, well they don't.

The first chapter here addresses “The Decorum of A Léode.” The main point to consider here is that the social structure of a Théodish Léode is fairly strict, though upward movement due to ability is inherent therein. Courtliness in personal manner and mode of address is the order of the day (SCAdians in the audience will be familiar with this). Milord, Milady, Edmund Thane, Gunnora Thygen, Piparskeggr Godmon - polite forms of address help to build a sense of community and Frith, and place within the structure of the community. It also shows a personal sense of propriety in the speaker.

This is not to say that a Théodish gathering is stuffy, far from it in my personal experience. Théodsmen take their religion seriously, too seriously not to have the joy of it.

Which leads us to “The Philosophical Implications of Théodism.” The main thrust of the book thus far has been the “whats” of Théodism instead of the “whys.” As the author points out, this is how the religion itself developed, the forms were set and the substance was discovered in the building. In “Christianized” society, religion is set apart from one's personal substance, one hour a week in “God's house” and the obligation is done.

In Heathenry, we are the Gods and They are us, part and parcel of each other, our obligation exists with each waking breath. Théodism is presented as a product of an irrational, revolutionary strain of thought and belief, that is relying on instinct and intuition in a religiously, sociologically “radical” manner. Within this “radicalism” is the train of thought that Théodism is pre-American, as it stems from ancient Folkways, of which America is bereft. Being a reason why such “micro-communities” as Théodism have arisen, people need a sense of place.

“The Great Good Place' which each of us needs for a full life. For me, it's a corner tavern to which I go with my hunting buddy for a few pints and some good conversation. The concept in this chapter really struck home with me. I know these places, having been lucky enough to grow up in a fairly small town where the concept of home, work and “Good Place” were part of the local ethos. I knew that I was a man when my dad brought me down to the tavern for a beer and to meet his buddies. There was a sense of community, a sense of completeness, which my joining in the Heathen Community enlarged, or, rather, came home to, having lived in places without the benefit of a “Place.”

This book is capped off with an essay on “The Sociological implications of Théodism.” We are treated to a comparison of the factors affecting the origin of the Germanic Worldview versus the Levantine (from whence come the Judeo-Christian-Moslem mindset). Also why Christianity caught on and spread, and why the True Nature of northern peoples is re-awakening. Again, I write some words unable to show the true measure of the author's purpose, this chapter would, I think stand on its own.

Not much more to cover. The “Afterward” reminds us the Théodism is a wisdom tradition based upon ancient lore, and that there is much left to discover. We are treated to an essay by Eric Lord on the Holy Ones of the North, presented with a “Wordhoard” of what may be unfamiliar terms, given an article -“The Wheel of the Year” - which presents the High Théodish sacred calender and its basis. Finally we have the “Bookhoard” of recommended readings and the Index.

All in all, a book I shall have to read several more times and one which I recommend to others.