An issue I have seen come to the fore a few times around now as a polytheist, animist, Pagan, and Heathen, is the idea of 100, 200, and 300-level discourse. I touched on this with my post on being a teacher in the Heathen communities, but not as in depth as I will go into here. I have had an issue with these various communities for quite a while: so much of the material out there is 100-level material, and what material does make it to 200 or 300+ often does not get discussed or receives much in the way of support. What is worse, is that because folks are constantly reinventing the wheel, proverbially or mythologically take your pick, we never really progress far beyond 100 or 200-level in our writing or experiences.
The posts I have been writing on spiritual politics have been fairly cathartic for me because it is digging into deeper stuff than 100 or 200-level. To be frank, I find the spiritual politics discussions to be 300-level or better for the most part. While there is nothing wrong with most folks stopping after 100 or 200-level, we as collective communities need to be more engaged in deeper discussions if we hope to develop them further. For the most part this takes us away from the well-worn path of the written and archaeological sources.
Because our useful information stops. At some point there is not any more information to reconstruct from unless we are willing to look at other sources. In the case for Heathens this is tends toward looking to folklore, and Lacouteaux is one of our best English-translated resources for this. Once you hit a certain period though, the folklore either stops being relevant or the descriptions of concepts or Beings, like particular vaettir like the dvergar and álfar, tend to blend together. The information just stops being relevant to Heathenry after a certain point. This takes a lot of Heathens out of their comfort zone because from here on out everything is based in personal and communal experience, knowledge, and experimentation.
This unwillingness within large parts of the community to work beyond the bounds of the source material of the home culture(s) our Heathen worldview is based in cuts us off from considering and then exploring both the heights and depths that are possible within Heathenry. If all we ever consider is what is essentially 100 and 200 material at most then we cannot develop much as communities. We also cannot develop expertise in various fields within them, or even individually. If we limit ourselves to what has been found in the written sources we are mostly limiting ourselves to what the elites wanted written down and what has been filtered through Christian lenses in both the sources we have and most of their interpretation. Even if we include what we have through archaeological investigation we have precious little to go on outside of certain better-represented time periods and classes of people. Common people are woefully underrepresented in both written and archaeological sources. It is hard to overstate how much physical material is completely lost to time.
This overreliance on written and archaeological academia to act as an arbiter for our religious communities keeps us from the full range of Heathen religious expressions, understandings, and experiences because we have limited our options of what is possible. In so doing we cut off our ability to innovate, to develop new ways of living with our Ginnreginn, and to bring our experiences into the accepted customs and expression. In short, we cut off our ability to form living cultures. To be clear, reconstructionism is a methodology that relies on good data from academia to both keep the process honest and be useful to the projects we have. However, written and archaeological sources are the maps and not the territory of our lived religions. We cannot be bound not to see a mountain or valley because the map is out of date.
This gating off conversations to mostly 100-level subjects serves another purpose: it keeps a captive audience for books and other forms of media creation in its easiest-to-market niche. 100-level books tend to generate the most revenue in part because they are the only ones available to the everyday person, seeing both the widest distribution and marketing. The religion sections for most bookstores are vanishingly small, and most tend to be full of Christian books with a smattering of Buddhist, Hindu, and Jewish books. I have to look elsewhere for anything related to our religions, often in the New Age or similar sections, and these tend to be mostly 100-level books on witchcraft like Wicca for the Solitary Practitioner by Scott Cunningham.
This trend also exists in other forms of media, including my own. I spent 19 YouTube videos exploring The Basics of Heathenry. While it did take a bit of time and work to script, record, and edit, it is information I already knew, have taught in other contexts like workshops, and required no deep vulnerability on my part to impart to others. I am fortunate in that I am not bound to this, either for purposes of income or interest, and that both 3 Pagans on Tap and Around Grandfather Fire have a lot of leeway to dig deeper and reach higher. With the initial Basics of Heathenry project finished, I can explore other topics relevant to Heathens. This takes more work, not in terms of gathering information, but willingness to be vulnerable and talk about my experiences, views, and how the shape my Heathen exoteric and esoteric practice has been changed by these.
This is an aspect of the deeper conversations seldom talked about: getting deeper into conversation and moving beyond the 101 requires a vulnerability that laying down the basic theology, praxis, and structures of Heathenry does not require. Even some 200-level conversations on subjects like the basics of how to do magic can be so dependent on one’s home culture, focus, and individual expression that it opens us up to scrutiny in ways merely talking about what magic is in Heathenry does not. For example, how one does útiseta might be a 200 or 300-level conversation. Depending on what comes out of the experiences you have with it, though, you might be having 400+-level conversations. In other words, the folks you hope to talk with about the subject at hand are going to need to have significant knowledge and experience with the topic, not merely a basic theoretical understanding, to have dialogue with you.
What information you get and what one does with the information can hit depths most folks are uncomfortable talking with. Perhaps the vaettir have touched on sensitive areas like trauma, or just subjects we are unfamliar with. Perhaps the vaettir are contravening written or archaeological evidence or including information simply not found in them. Even setting aside the esoteric side of things, developing theology, praxis, and structures beyond the basics requires us to be open to scrutiny, our methods to be open to examination, and our conclusions to be disagreed with unless we are determined to share nothing with one another.
Let me say this as clearly as possible: cultural appropriation should be condemned. Note, that I am not saying cultural appreciation or exchange should be condemned; appropriation should be. With this in mind I think it is worth us looking at what it is folks are looking for when they are reaching for pathways that are not open to them. In other words, are they reaching for something they ought not to because their own path(s) are lacking something essential they see within that culture, cultural practice, spiritual technology, etc? To be sure, some folks are reaching because they want what cannot be theirs out of a sense of entitlement. I find for those who are not, especially with white polytheists, Pagans, witches, and others in our communities who do this reaching, is that the majority of them are looking for authenticity and connection. While the desire for authenticity and connection are good things to pursue, this desire needs to be turned towards the pathways that are open to us.
If our conversations only stay in the 100, 200, or 300-level range then not only do our conversations never deepen, our experiments, experiences, and development as communities stay here as well. If we do not face our lack of resources and the new territory before us with bravery, then we condemn many of us to hunger for authenticity and connections that cannot be made without them. Rather than making a kind of Heathenry which only grasps at, or for, the spiritual technology, perspectives, information, and living wisdom of other paths, we Heathens need to dig deeper, carve surer, and explore even further with our Ginnreginn into our own forms of spiritwork, magic, folklore, and relationships with the Ginnreginn. We need to be brave enough to develop our spiritual technologies, perspectives, information, and lived wisdom with our Ginnreginn. Let us do the work to improve the soil of Heathenry for everyone as we settle our roots, communally and individually, even deeper into our Heathen religions, practices, and spiritwork.
It is easy to say “We need to talk more about x or y” or “we need to dig in deeper into a topic at such-and-such a level”. How, though, do we do that? For starters we need to be really clear on what we mean by 100, 200, 300, and above. Are we talking for exoteric only? What about esoteric topics? Do we put exoteric and esoteric topics together, or try our best to keep them separate? I cannot answer this for everyone, I can only make my thoughts on the subject known, and hope to further dialogue. It might be that thinking of things in this way is completely backwards, or just the wrong way to go as a model. However, we do need to begin to have some dialogue about it and this is using models of experience and expertise that we have. Wherever we can, we should develop our own ways of understanding and reckoning our ideas, experiences, and expertise as animists, as polytheists, and as Heathens.
I am going to propose a structure so that we can get to deeper conversations. It is not the do-all end-all, but my hope is that it can be a good place to start. Exoteric is defined as “suitable for or communicated to the general public. not belonging, limited, or pertaining to the inner or select circle, as of disciples or intimates. popular; simple; commonplace. pertaining to the outside; exterior; external.” Exoteric practices, then, are those that are obvious, that anyone in a given religion can do. For Heathens these are things like hearth cultus, prayer, making offerings, and doing basic divination, such as a simple yes/no to see if an offering or sacrifice was accepted. Whatever these practices are requires no special knowledge, training, expertise, or study to do right or well.
Esoteric is defined as “understood by or meant for only the select few who have special knowledge or interest; recondite:poetry full of esoteric allusions. belonging to the select few. private; secret; confidential. (of a philosophical doctrine or the like) intended to be revealed only to the initiates of a group:the esoteric doctrines of Pythagoras.” Where exoteric practices are those that anyone can do, esoteric practiced are generally only regularly practiced by a handful of individuals. For Heathens, among these folks would, among many possible practices, be those who engage in Runework, seiðr, spá, and/or those who work to cultivate direct encounters with the Ginnreginn.
Now, if this last part seems like it is a mainstay of modern Pagan religions, including Heathenry, it is. A lot of modern Pagan religions in America can trace their start to the influence of Wicca. It was not and is not unusual for a lot of American animists, polytheists, Heathens, and Pagans in general to get their start in various Wiccan or Wiccan-derived religions. At some point folks in this circumstance may bring in additional religious identities or transition out of the Wiccan/Wicca-derived religion. Since Heathenry is not doctrinally exclusivist most folks bring their practices and experiences that worked from previous religions with them into it.
There are plenty of other reasons for why folks in modern Heathenry have or are incorporating esoteric practices. Some folks come into Heathenry through direct experience of the Ginnreginn and develop an exoteric practice in response to that. Other folks in modern times are actively moving away from religions which are primarily exoteric or have few accessible/desirable esoteric practies. Whatever the reason, a significant amount of folks in modern American Heathenry have religious practices that are a blend of exoteric and esoteric.
For purposes of our conversation, and to deepen it, I will put forward that most esoteric discussion is going to be 300-level for the most part. Why?
100-level subjects are the rudiments and baselines of Heathen practice. This is how to start and engage in the absolute basics of the religion. Among 100-level subjects would be about Who the Ginnreginn are, the particular Heathen cosmology one is part of and how we fit into it, how to begin and maintain a hearth cult, how to pray, how to offer, and how to maintain right relationship with the Ginnreginn.
200-level subjects build on the rudiments and baseline. This includes many of the ‘why’ for why we do a thing at the 100-level. Some folks may find it odd that I put the most of the ‘why’ behind the 200-level and not 100. The reason for that is the practice of Heathenry is something that can be understood in its basic forms by most anyone who engages in it. My young kid does not understand all the ins and outs of the religion. At the 100-level understanding the why we do a thing is simpler or is less pressing than understanding the what or how of doing something. When we make prayers at the stalli, she knows the expectation is to look at the Ginnreginn when we do so, and to bow when we are finished. It will be some time before she has the capacity to understand all the “whys” for why we do what we do.
Examples of 200-level subjects would be: connecting with Gods in ritual through the use of particular heiti, beginning reconstruction and revival work in general, and the use of basic liturgical language in ritual. I consider developing or working with liturgical language beyond some basic phrases or words, such as those used to greet Ginnreginn, to be higher than 200. It requires specialized knowledge and experience to do well. Other examples of 200-level practices would be applying genealogical resources to Ancestor cultus, engaging in more specialized cultus than the hearth like an athletic cultus or a cultus based in a field of study, and producing religious artwork, prayers, and rituals. Using 200-level courses in college as our basis here, 200s are often the applications of the basic subjects you learned about into specialized ways that deepen your knowledge, understanding, and expertise of the subject.
300-level subjects are about building expertise from the previous levels, generally towards an object of study. In college level courses these tend to go towards Bachelor and Master degrees, and the focus is a lot narrower than the previous courses. In my experience, specific forms of psychology were covered as part of getting through my BS in Psychology program. The higher the number the more specialized and nuanced the topic, eg the lower 300s were broader like Abnormal Psychology and the higher 300s were courses like Statistics in Psychology. 400-level courses were mostly relegated to Master degrees, 600 to PhD, and 700 to postdoc courses.
Examples of 300-level subjects would be the study of seiðr, spá, Runework, and in my view, any form of spiritwork I could think of. There is a need for foundation in and grounding in the basics and study of 100 and 200-level work in order to effectively understand what we are doing, why, how it works, and what the effects of a given action can entail. That grounding in the basics of Heathenry are necessary to troubleshoot and to determine when a given form of spiritwork would be effective, or if it would be called for at all. The grounding in 100 and 200-level work is necessary for discernment for ourselves, and especially if we hope to do any of this work for others. This grounding is also necessary for developing theonyms, toponyms, and related new infromation that we can bring to bear for our communities that may not require direct experience of the Ginnreginn, yet nonetheless it requires a firm foundation of knowledge to do well.
Suffice it to say, these metaphors for where we are, and where we hope to go, have limits. There is no certification process for a spiritworker beyond the Ginnreginn and maybe a teacher and/or a given community. If folks find the metaphor clunky to the point of being unwieldy, or even find the metaphor offensive, feel free to toss it and suggest another.
In no small part, why I feel so strongly on the need for deeper conversation is that they’re happening anyhow, and developing the means for understanding where we are, where we are going, and how we wish to develop ourselves individually and communally are well within our hands. Another reason is that these more esoteric questions and subjects of study, experience, and interaction with the Ginnreginn heavily impact our communities. There is direct good and harm that comes from entertaining these ideas, let alone engaging in the study and experience of the ideas here. Far better for us to take an active interest in developing the conversations for our own sakes than to find ourselves in situations where we have to make judgment calls we are not prepared for. By moving these conversations along we can better situate our communities for the future they will be coming into. My hope is that, looking back, we will see our efforts as turning points that brought needed dialogue and work to our communities that inform and empower both exoteric and esoteric expression within and between our communities far into the future.