What’s in a name?

This is one of those rare times I feel the urge to comment on contemporary matters in the western pagan/polytheist/etc. communities. Now hopefully I’ve been making it clear on this blog that I speak only for myself and not anyone else who calls themselves the labels that I also use (whether it’s “heathen” or “pagan” or the various cultural terms), but if I haven’t, hopefully I’ve made that clear now. I should also take this moment to say that I defined the term heathen for myself as well, and I do not expect anyone else to comply with it (though if people wish to copy that definition for themselves then by all means do so).

Religious labels are such a double-edged sword. On one hand, the labels are how like-minded people try to find each other, particularly in this internet age where nearly every publication online has keywords and specific search terms. On the other, people using the same labels don’t always agree with each other (just look at how many sects of Christians there are) and there’s really no way to regulate who gets to use and define them. The term “heathen” is no exception. Try searching for “heathen” topics you’ll get all sorts, from Neo-nazi ideals to recon/revivalist to wiccan-ish flavorings and all the possibilities in between.

This leads to a recurring issue with religious labels that I fear I’ll never be able to escape (though I’ve tried in the past), and that’s having others speak for me without my permission. Often those others that are speaking for me are those I have strong disagreements with, on a religious and personal level, but unfortunately those people have status and fame whereas I’m small and anonymous. They have a larger voice than I do and it gets frustrating to feel powerless over my own identity. I can put stuff up on a blog like I’m doing now, but let’s be honest, this isn’t exactly a high-traffic area. Which, for the most part, suits me just fine, but when it comes to social commentary it makes my voice a difficult thing to project.

The cause of today’s concerns is Galina Krasskova publishing a new book, and being reminded of certain things from the inevitable fall-out between her fans and her haters in the comments (honestly, it could be a drinking game by now). I’ve seen ridiculous commentary on both sides, but quite honestly her and her fans frustrate me a lot more than the haters do. Reason being is that they are quite prominent in the overall Pagan world, at least in America, and their writings are more mainstream, so she reaches a wider swath of people than the haters do, who appear to mainly keep to themselves. So when she claims to speak for Heathens and state her ideas of what Heathens should do as fact, there’s a lot more I have to negate when explaining myself compared to what’s associated with the haters.

One of the biggest concepts she pushes for is having strong devotion to the Gods above all else (and strong for her is extreme for me). I know a lot of people who do that and that’s just fine. But the problem starts when she wants all other heathens to do this, or when she starts criticizing other heathens (and even unrelated pagans) and paints anything less than the highest devotion as a sad state of affairs. As an aspect of Christian baggage in pagan thinking.

Funnily enough, I find her stance to be more Christian. I’m not here just to act like a Christian to a different god than Yahweh. I’m here to explore my heritage as fully as possible and bring back what I can into a living set of beliefs again. The gods are indeed a part of it, but they’re not the whole thing. I also get the feeling that there is a conflation of importance and receiving constant personal attention in her writings, which for me are two separate things. I am polytheistic, and I do think the gods are important, but that doesn’t mean they need my undivided attention, or that all the recognized gods are automatically in contact with humans. Like I said before, I am not going to make blanket assumptions about the gods, nor am I going to expect others to interact with them the same way. So when someone else DOES make assumptions and does expect me to show the same level of devotion to be  considered a true heathen, I find it presumptuous.

Now, to be fair, she is involved with specifically Norse gods, so perhaps her words were never meant to apply to me or to those others at all since I work with different cultures despite also calling myself heathen. Maybe I read her words as being unintentionally for a broader audience than intended. But even if it doesn’t actually apply to me, it still presumes that everyone under the Norse heathen umbrella should be following her ideas of devotion, and I still cannot support that.

It also leads to the problem of the term “heathen” itself. Many perspectives are guilty of claiming a single definition and using a “no true Scotsman” approach for those who don’t adhere to their standards. This same problem occurs with a great many religious labels, probably all of them. Heathen has several prominent, and contradictory, definitions and stereotypes both within the group and from the perspective of outsiders. Heathens are racists, heathens are loony, heathens are LARPers making it a religion, heathens are neo-Nazis, heathens are rigid, heathens live in the past, heathens are norse-flavord wiccans, etc. etc. etc. I’m confused because this is all very Norse-specific and the predominant assumption of a “heathen” is that one is Germanic-based (which is the origin of the term’s usage in contemporary colloquialism), yet the term “heathen” is obviously used beyond Nordic/Germanic culture now. There’s also an implication of history and culture that Pagan/Neopagan doesn’t always convey (since those usually get associated with contemporary, individualistic and eclectic religions in colloquial use).

So I’m torn. It took me a while to finally find a term that I thought would fit as a general descriptor, but as time goes on more and more people will contribute to the social understanding of “heathen” and change it from its original intention. I don’t know if making a post to explain how I view the term is enough, or if I should move on and find a new term (or make one up). Is “heathen” still useful, or has it become too broad and varied now?

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