The Importance of Ritual
The culture comes from the cult, and without the cult, we’re just kidding ourselves.
Radical Traditionalists are excellent critics. They can analyze the collapse of a civilization. They can pinpoint the mistaken premises that have led to the wasteland of modernity. They can discover in the most minute expressions of pop culture or contemporary vocabulary the egalitarian rot that is poisoning even the most petty social interaction.
Yet criticism is only a means. The objective is not just to bemoan the Kali Yuga but to restore – or failing that, create – an organic society that can facilitate the upward development of the race. This requires something beyond intellect, criticism, and reason. It requires laying the foundation of a new order of society which can encompass all those necessary to make it function. This means weaving a tapestry of meaning and experience that can enmesh the worker with the philosopher and overcome differences of class, education, and wealth with a shared cultural context. This means religion. To put it more precisely, this means a cult.
Neo-paganism today is largely an intellectual exercise, what Collin Cleary has called “paganism without gods.” Arguably this has been true since the days of Julian the Apostate, when the emperor vainly tried to resurrect the ancient gods through polemics, crackdowns on Christianity, and animal sacrifice. Even in the late Roman Empire, paganism was an aesthetic choice, a sign of cultural rebellion against Christianity, rather than a vital “faith” that had the power of literal belief behind it. Despite the scathing contempt of a Galen or the slashing criticism of the Emperor Julian, Christianity would ultimately subsume the Roman Empire and the last pagan to wear the purple would mournfully cry, “You have won, Galilean.”
The contemporary heathen lives in a world of disbelief and is himself a product of that disbelief, most likely having rebelled against the Christianity of his fathers and grandfathers. Reason, irony, and iconoclasm are the hallmarks of the age and this manifests itself in the tepid spiritual practice of contemporary paganism. For contemporary pagans, their new age “faith” is simply an attempt to rebel against the “restrictions” of Christianity without challenging any of its deeper moral suppositions. Feminist Wiccans, universalist “heathens,” and Renaissance Faire Vikings litter the American landscape, and these supposed rebels align themselves even more firmly with the egalitarian Zeitgeist than the most committed evangelical. One has to ask the universalists and the practitioners of “Wiccatru” – why not just become Unitarians?
“Reconstructionist” heathens present their own challenges, poring over incomplete pagan texts most likely saved by Christian authors and arguing like Byzantine clerics over what are the “correct” interpretations and practices. Like Civil War re-enactors insisting on using historically accurate buttons, this is simply a flight into fancy, interesting and entertaining but without real importance. Learning abut the past is always a worthy effort, but the attempt to escape into a bygone era is an admission of impotence. Dressing in medieval garb or affecting archaic speech is less a rejection of modernity than a surrender to it. The luxury of escapism is a product of affluence and leisure, not a consistent effort to Revolt Against the Modern World.
If being a heathen is to stand for anything, it has to offer an authentic spiritual experience and cultural framework that is meaningful within the modern world. In the same way that a Christian church can offer something to both the humble parishioner and the sophisticated theologian, Ásatrú has to forge bonds of spiritual community regardless of a person’s intellectualism and chosen level of involvement. More to the point, in order to avoid the embarrassing debacles of Christian apologists defending such things as young earth creationism, heathen “theology,” for lack of a better word, has to be open to correct understandings of science and the nature of existence.
It begins with, as Collin Cleary suggests, simply premising that the gods exist and that we have in some sense lost our “openness” to them. However, in a deeper sense, to be a heathen in the modern world is to live out the mythology. To the authentic pagan, every social interaction, sexual relationship, meal, creation, struggle, or accomplishment is fraught with meaning, and open to ritual and magic. Instead of simply premising that the gods exist or that there is a divine sphere, the heathen and magical practitioner must regard himself as a character in his own saga, capable of tapping into the power of the gods through study and discipline combined with ecstatic experience.
Such a revolution in thinking is not easy and therefore it must begin with something even Christians regard as otherworldly – ritual. In the High Church tradition of Traditional Catholics or the Orthodox, the Mass is an attempt to bring heaven to Earth, to literally transport the consciousness of the individual to another world. In Germanic paganism, we quite literally seek to bring the gods to ourselves, either as present during a ritual or as a kind of possession within us. This requires a physical and mental separation from the workaday world, accomplished through the archetypal heathen practice of “hallowing.”
Though the specifics differ from group to group, the gothi will carve out a space separate from the rest of the world through the power of Mjölnir (Thor’s hammer), Gungnir (Odin’s spear), or some other instrument. This represents a psychological break with the mundane, as within the vé (or sacred enclosure), it is accepted that reality itself has changed. As one practitioner put it, “Outside the vé, I am an atheist, inside the vé I am a religious fanatic.” Through changes in physical appearance, ritualistic chanting, music, and other practices, consciousness itself is changed, as the holy is separated from the mundane. The demarcation between the sacred and the profane is arguably at the root of all cultural identity, and the very definition of what separates one people from another.
Some could sneer that this is simply a pointless “light” show to “trick” the brain into seeing what is not there. If this is true, so too is the design of the Hagia Sophia (an earthly attempt to imitate heaven), or the use of incense during mass, or even the communal singing and chanting of just about any church service. However, in a greater sense, the ritual is the “lowest” attempt to transform consciousness above the mundane. As the modern world has removed the sacred (indeed, is characterized by the removal of the sacred), beginning practitioners must use extreme methods to “shock” their consciousness into openness to the divine.
This does not mean throwing on a wolf skin and running around screaming will lead to a person meeting the Allfather in the woods one day. However, if done properly, ritual and magic introduces the necessary openness to spiritual experience that begins a transformative process. The point is not simply to perform a ritual once in a while and enjoy fellowship with those of like mind, although this in and of itself is healthy. The point is to understand that the gods, the lore, the runes, and the process of spiritual transformation can be applied to oneself and one’s folk through a kind of psychological programming.
In normal time, one does not have to take a position on whether the gods are literally real or merely cultural archetypes. Instead, whether the gods are real or not, ritual begins a process of mental transformation that works on a continuous basis. This is best described by Aleister Crowley’s view of magic – “the methods of science, the aim of religion.”
In the Hávamál (the words of the High One), we are told how Odin grasped the secret of the runes.
I ween that I hung on the windy tree,
Hung there for nights full nine;
With the spear I was wounded, and offered I was
To Othin, myself to myself,
On the tree that none may ever know
What root beneath it runs
None made me happy with loaf or horn,
And there below I looked;
I took up the runes, shrieking I took them,
And forthwith back I fell.
The Allfather grasps the runes in a moment of ecstasy, but before this moment there is a long period of deprivation, suffering, and discipline. The nine days pinned to Yggdrasil suggests an entry into an alternate form of consciousness, a higher state of awareness similar to that claimed by Christian saints who practiced fasting or sexual abstinence. The acquisition of supreme wisdom comes from the sacrifice of “oneself to oneself,” regulated through ritual, prepared by conscious study, enabled by ecstatic experience.
A talented musician or gifted general may benefit from a blinding insight at a critical moment, but this kind of divine “Odinic” inspiration doesn’t just show up randomly. It is the product of a lifetime of conscious study, united with the unconscious forces within the human mind that seem beyond deliberate control. Anyone can feel the “Muse” – but for the insight to be worthwhile, the ground must first be prepared.
Excellence, said Aristotle (another great pagan) is a habit. We are what we repeatedly do. In pagan societies, ritual is a way of elevating mundane conduct to a higher level of meaning and regulating our baser impulses to give way to a more elevated sensibility. In feudal Japan, for example, the samurai pursued both combat and artistic expression (through such means as the “tea ceremony”) towards the aim of perfection in everything they did. For the heathen, occasional ritual should be the beginning of a process of transformation that eventually informs every action he takes.
Nietzsche called for the Übermensch to live his entire life as a work of art. Total mastery for the heathen would mean turning one’s entire life into a ritual, a Great Work that would transform both his own nature and the world around him through a kind of spiritual alchemy. In the Traditionalist understanding of history, there was a Golden Age when men were one with the gods and their purity of blood, mind, and spirit allowed to them to work wonders and reach depths of understanding denied to the denizens of the Kali Yuga. Ritual, correct practice, discipline, and Odinic frenzy allow the heathen to enable the process of transformation to once again reach for that Golden Age. As it says in the Hávamál,
Knowest how one shall write, knowest how one shall rede?
Knowest how one shall tint, knowest how one makes trial?
Knowest how one shall ask, knowest how one shall offer?
Knowest how one shall send, knowest how one shall sacrifice?
The modern man is at war with nature, at war with his fellows, at war with himself. The heathen seeks to align his spirit with that of the cycles of nature, discover frith with his kinsfolk through organic community, and master himself so he is no longer a slave to his baser impulses. While Christianity suppresses the Will, heathenism glories in it, provided that it can be controlled and understood. To be a heathen is not just to be “open” to the gods, but to pursue the god within. Once properly understood, the heathen carves out in his blood his own Vinlandic Saga each and every day, and even the most mundane activities become a kind of elevating practice.
This requires real experience – real, authentic practice either as a solitary apprentice or, preferably, as part of a kindred or tribe. To rebuild organic culture means creating a shared experience as a community. Heathenism can not be limited to books – or, worse – to the internet. It is to be lived through blood and sweat, the frenzy of inspiration, the toil of shared physical activity, the comradeship and community of shared practice.
Though our sources for “reconstructing how our ancestors did it” are limited, that is relatively unimportant. What is important is taking what we know and embarking on a sincere quest to understand the ancient mysteries, and in so doing, restore our link with Primordial Tradition. The metapolitics, metaphysics, and moral principles of Ásatrú must be explained and defended through every medium possible, but in the end, tens of thousands of words do not carry the power of one authentic “Odinic” experience.
Authentic ritual also allows us to build real community on a level that does not need to be rationally explained. People join groups for one of three reasons – ideological, material, and social. The weakness of abstract, purely “ideological” groups prone to infighting and division is self-evident here. In material terms, a real “kindred” or “tribe” can develop the ability to support its own members through labor, financial aid, and job connections, particularly among working class whites that are cast out on their own by society. However, most importantly, communal ritual, communal symbolism, and communal gatherings “create” a people, and give them their own definition of “good” and “evil,” as described in Thus Spake Zarathustra. It is not whites as they are that we defend, but whites as they could become, and that process of transformation and folk creation has to begin with the establishment of the sacred.
Christianity asks us to rationally believe the unbelievable. Heathens should not compete in apologetics, or take refuge in abstraction. It remains for them to write their own saga by living out the mythology in the modern world. It is not a question of “believing” in Odin, but walking his path, and in so doing, becoming one with the gods. In the end, Ásatrú isn’t something you believe. It’s something you live. It’s not just a tradition “for” a folk. It’s a practice that can create one.