This past summer I did quite a bit of research about heathenism, specifically the brand of paganism that is based off the Norse pantheon. Since I’ve recently had a young woman comment on the blog who to some degree or another has left the Catholic faith to worship Odin, Thor, Baldr, and the other numerous pagan gods of the Norsemen, I think it is relevant to share what I have learned. While I wouldn’t say that there is any kind of significant portion of the lay faithful that are abandoning Christ for the Norse pantheon, even one soul lost is a sad day in heaven. So I think it is important to understand what people find so attractive about heathenism.
Equality with the gods
In the creation story of the Norse myths, the universe as we know it was created from pre-existing material that was in two states: some was ice and some was fire. These elements somehow began moving toward each other into an abyss, and when these opposites met, a frosty substance was formed, which became a living breathing giant. Without recounting the entire myth, this giant is the father (and grandfather, etc.) of the gods and the giants. This is the fundamental difference between heathenism and Catholicism: the true God is eternal and uncreated, the heathen gods are created beings that have a beginning and according to their own apocalyptic folklore, will have an end. And so, while some of the gods did create the world and humankind from the pre-existing material of the universe, they are essentially equals: brothers and sisters. There is no reason to see the gods as superior to you. This is diametrically opposed to the Catholic faith in which God is eternal and the source of the existence of all things. He is a brother, but first and foremost he is Lord, King of the universe. He owes his existence to no one, whereas the Norse gods do owe their existence to someone or to some force.
The appeal of such a belief system is difficult to deny, especially in this age of individualism, which has unfortunately seeped into the Church. To believe that we are simply brothers and sisters with the gods, created from the same stuffs is hugely appealing, especially to those who feel marginalized or forgotten within the Church.
Due to human equality with the gods, there is nothing owed to them. Worship and devotion become totally optional. You can choose which gods to worship and which ones to not. The gods won’t feel snubbed if you don’t offer anything to them. Thor won’t get jealous if you only pray to Odin and vice-versa. In fact you don’t have to worship any of them if you don’t want to. It really can seem like a breath of fresh air to those in our ranks who have been poorly catechized and don’t understand why we do the things we do. When our rites seem meaningless because of poor teaching, a system without required rites becomes very appealing.
Perceived ancestral injustice
As silly as this sounds, it is actually a common theme that runs through many websites dedicated to heathen worship. There is a great animosity for the violence that early Christians inflicted upon pagans to force them to convert. Just like all humans, it can be difficult to see the entire picture when we feel defensive.
But it is an overstatement to paint the Christianization of the pagans as some ludicrously bloody mowing by the sword. To start, the Catholic Church did not come rolling out of the Crucifixion with a sword ready to conquer the world. The Church was persecuted for nearly three and a half centuries before it gained legal status. During this time, many pagans converted, totally and utterly freely despite the illegality of Christianity. If anything, these conversions were met with violence at the hands of the pagans.
Violence in conversion didn’t begin until after the legalization of Christianity, but even then, violence was used on Christians, not pagans (not that that is any kind of excuse). The violence was used to keep Christians orthodox. It wasn’t until Charlemagne in the ninth century that violence was really used against the pagans. However, the violence wasn’t simply used as a conversion tool, but was part of a much larger campaign to conquer territory. It’s important here to point out two facts: one, that Charlemagne was a Christian, but he was not the infallible source of Christian dogma. He was a political leader, a human, and a sinner. And two: that the use of violence to gain control of territory, and to dominate people, did not originate at this point in history. Pagans were not peace-loving hippies. They were also violent. They conquered each other and when they did, one tribe brought in their gods and those who were conquered adopted or adapted new pantheons. It’s sad, but this is part of our fallen nature, we hurt each other and wage violence. Even good people do bad things.
What many heathens fail to realize, or admit, is that even after these violent events, the pagan religions were not simply wiped out. The polytheistic religions actually “converted” rather peacefully. They initially adopted Christ into their pantheons without giving up their gods, as they had been doing throughout history when one people conquered another. This is why you had paganism surviving well into the Christianization of each people group. It sometimes took generations for the conversion to be complete, and the completion did not occur by violence, but by catechesis.
Violence can never be justified in conversion (you hear that ISIS?), but it should also not be overstated when talking about the spread of Christianity.
These have pretty much been the three main things I’ve noticed when researching heathenism that seem so attractive: that the gods are actually fellow creatures (though, by whose will were they created, nobody seems to know), that there are no true obligations to the gods, and that our ancestors were violently persecuted and forced to convert by evil Christians.
Despite these allurements, there are real, intellectual reasons to reject polytheistic heathenism and accept Catholicism. We need to pray for our Church, that those becoming disillusioned by the human aspect of the Church, hold fast to the faith, and that those who have already left the Church to return to the false religions of the past would consider engaging intellectually with the faith, so that they may return to what is true, not to what is easy or trendy.
This post is not meant to belittle anyone, but if you are a member of a heathen kindred, especially if you are a former Catholic, I welcome you to share your perspective and experience on why you left the Church.
St. Olaf, patron of the peoples of Scandinavia. We ask for you to obtain for your people the blessings of peace and truth, and the strength to forgive. We ask that through your intercession God would show them tenderness and mercy, and that the nations would be brought back from paganism and secularism to worship the creator of the universe who alone is un-created and upon whom all that exists is reliant for its very being. We ask all of this in the name of the Son of the Father, Jesus Christ, God incarnate. Amen.