Skip to content

The Call of the Vaettir

By Ryan Smith

In the modern Heathen movement everything is alive. From the breeze at our backs to the ground beneath our feet we live in a world filled with spirits. Oceans roar, forests stretch, and electricity hums every second as life dances through it all. Nothing is ever at rest whether a chunk of concrete underfoot or the mightiest of mountains. Like many Pagans and modern polytheists animistic spirituality is a critical aspect of modern Heathen practice. In Heathenry one lives in a world filled with spirits.

These spirits go by many names, referred to in different sources as vaettir, elves, dwarves, and wights. Streams, forests, stretches of beach, favorite parks, and homes are not just places to spend time in. By honoring them with simple acts of reverence, tokens of respect, gifts, and deeds like keeping an area clean and safe we build and affirm our relationships with the vaettir. Heathens, like many animistic Pagans and polytheists, exist in a state of constantly developing and maintained relationships between the Heathen and the spirits in the world around them.

But what does all this mean in a day to day fashion? Leaving out small gifts, offering toasts in blots and sumbel, and reverent words is, for some Heathens, the extent of the relationship they have with the spirits. As genuine and heartfelt as these actions are they are only chipping at the surface of animistic practice and its implications. When everything in the world must be treated with dignity and respect how we interact with reality changes dramatically. One must move in the world with consideration for the consequences of their actions for themselves and everything impacted by them. These key conclusions, however, present serious ethical dilemmas in the present.

Modern society, ever since the rise of mercantile capitalism in 17th century Western Europe, has consistently argued everything around us should be treated in terms of what humans can do with it. Trees are assessed in tons of lumber, hills and mountains by the size of their mineral deposits, oceans for oil drilling and fish stocks, and even the sky is carved into lanes for air traffic. In the world of disposable, replaceable things little space exists for proper respect. After all if one sees a cow as so many pounds of beef instead of a living thing whose death will sustain many others or an open field as space for a large house instead of home to many and worthy of respect it is easy to acquire, discard, and abuse.

This worldview stands in direct conflict with the core ideas of animistic practice. In modern consumerist capitalism, where value is measured in terms of how many things you own and the size of your paycheck, nothing is sacred or worthy of respect outside of what it can do for you and how much it is worth in purely monetary terms. This crude reduction of the beautiful, interconnected reality around us into mere commodities denies the essence inside of all things, going beyond mere disrespect and dishonor. It justifies total disconnection from the world and everything in it.

The disassociation created by the modern world stands in clear opposition to the heavily interconnected animistic perspective. In a world where one’s understanding of the natural world and society is one founded on a complex web of dynamic relationships nothing can be treated as a lone object operating in isolation. All things depend on and influence each other. If one cuts down a tree then everything living in it, from the smallest ants to the largest owls and squirrels, face catastrophe. Tearing up a cherished city park to make way for a high-rise block of luxury condos destroys many things along with the turf and basketball courts. Reducing place, beings, communities, and the people living and interacting with all of them to numbers on balance sheets makes terrible crimes, truly horrific abuse, and in some cases wholesale slaughter easily justified.

If we, as Heathens and as Pagans and polytheists, believe all that is around us must be understood on its terms through respectful relationships then the central ideas of our modern society are spectacularly at odds with belief and practice. If we are to live in true respect for the spirits then we must act to honor their existence, their relationships, and our impact in all of our deeds. Personal action and responsibility is a common starting point cited by many but with the world entering an unprecedented ecological crisis due directly to human activity it will take more than using energy efficient lightbulbs to repair the damage done.

One example of a person taking action inspired by the spirits is Ragnhildur Jonsdottir of Iceland. She led a campaign from 2012 to 2013 to halt a road development project she felt angered the local spirits who are known as the huldufolk, or “Hidden Folk”. Working with the environmental group Friends of the Laval Jonsdottir organized a series of protests in the name of the huldufolk, one of which led to her being arrested, until a new arrangement could be sorted out that as pleasing to the spirits. Jonsdottir took action because, in her words, “The elves contacted me in 2012 and pleaded with me to protect their chapel.”

If we, as Heathens and animists, are to be true to our relationships with the world around us then we must take whatever steps are most necessary and effective to heal the wounds so many thoughtless actions have inflicted. When the society we live in actively destroying the world we cannot sit idly by and do nothing. When the wealth of a few excuses destroying the homes and lives of many we must speak out and take action. We must work to restore the lost connections and rebuild our relationships with the world around us.

Ryan Smith

Ryan Smith is a Heathen devoted to Odin living in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is the co-founder of Heathens United Against Racism, a founding member of Golden Gate Kindred, is active in the environmental justice and anti-police brutality movements, and recently completed his Masters in modern Middle East History and economics.

6 Comments »

  1. It is a difficult balance. “Tearing up a cherished city park to make way for a high-rise block of luxury condos” does destroy many things – you are correct. It is worse IMO – when the city was built in the first place.It is not just as simple as profit motive though. Capitalism creates demand for products, it is true, but, and this is important, it also responds to demands of the consumer. The Chinese capitalists are earning this the hard way, They are building cities and apartment complexes that are going unoccupied.

    So what is creating the demand for more houses here in the West? More people. What is creating the demand for more food? More people. For more cars? For more mining? For more timber? For more highways? Population growth we are experiencing is not sustainable – yet it is the 800 pound gorilla in the room that no one has the courage to tackle. (How do you tackle an 800 pound gorilla? – With a bigger gorilla, I guess.) So, how do you reduce the population without resorting to abhorrent methods? You have to convince people to stop fucking. Good luck with that!

    Like

    • Birth rates in the west are falling, and in many European nations they are below parity. Not sure how much more “not fucking” you’re wanting people to do.

      “What is creating the demand for more food?”

      Convenience and manufactured scarcity. 40%+ of edible food in the US is thrown in the garbage.

      “For more cars?”

      Lack of any other option to get around for anyone who doesn’t live in an urban environment. People wouldn’t be buying cars if transit was good enough, if there was sufficient bicycle infrastructure, and if capitalistic demands on people’s lives and finances didn’t require ridiculous commutes to the workplace.

      “For more mining?”

      Planned obsolescence, a marvelous capitalist innovation. Tungsten for light bulbs that are designed to only last for a few thousand hours; rare earth metals for smart phones and electronics that are designed to be replaced in a year because apps and software is becoming less and less backwards-compatible and batteries, which are being glued into place now instead of being removable like they used to be, only last for so many hundreds of charges (or they’ll outright break your phone if you hold onto it for too long – ask the iPhone 4 users); steel and aluminum for more cars (see above), or for high-rise buildings to house corporate jobs that no one actually likes working at; phosphorous because composting in many municipalities is illegal and it’s not easy enough for large corporate monocropping enterprises anyways. I could go on. (I do, actually, here: https://zerowastemillennial.wordpress.com/2015/09/04/peak-everything/)

      “For more timber?”

      See above. Also, much timber goes toward building the hideously inefficient, short-lived, unsustainable, and ubiquitous stick-frame house that is mandated by building codes in every western nation that I can think of. Building codes that have been shaped, in no small part, by corporate interests – the same people who decided that a structure smaller than 500 sq/ft cannot be legally called a single-family residence, the same people who get laws passed claiming that off-grid homes are dangerous, and therefore are made illegal.

      “For more highways?”

      See above. Also, the car and oil lobbies.

      Capitalism is in the mighty habit of creating demand. Remember that time Lysol convinced an entire generation of women that douching with bleach was safe, healthy, and without it your husband secretly didn’t love you? No? Well, some people do: http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/sexist/2009/05/14/vintage-lysoldouching-advertisement-corner/

      If you’re willing to blame those women for suddenly creating a “demand” for Lysol, then I think you’re reading the wrong blog.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. of course almost everything in industrial capitalish nations is destructive to the enviornment, and no one is prepared to change. we await the collapse. the delsuional ideologys get worse and worse. while the oceans are dying and soon after life on land. all the while the ameican politicans moslty preach war and climate denila and deregulation of pollution. so we can make offerings etc, but the ability of the earth to sustain higher lefe forms is almost over. i’m glad i’m old..

    Like

  3. We talk of being Heathens, Pagans, and Polytheists, and we are good at talk. But transforming the talk into actions takes more energy than many are willing to put out. So most do very little about living their religion. However as has been mentioned the Earth has passed its limits of what it can handle and a corrections will take place with a complete collapse of all the complicated systems of government and economy that we humans have created. We will have many generations of sever suffering with a great deal of fear and death before things will improve. How long will that be? As long as it takes to balance the damage to the ability of the Earth to Recover. What our own actions change is how long we will have to suffer from what we have done and have not done. What is at stake is our possible extinction or survival. Remember that over 95% of all life that has ever lived on this planet are not extinct and the is nothing special about humans to keep them from their own extinction The gods are not on our side, they have their own agendas that will continue whether we survive or not. But we have part to play as to whether we survive or go extinct.

    Like

  4. “Modern society, ever since the rise of mercantile capitalism in 17th century Western Europe, has consistently argued everything around us should be treated in terms of what humans can do with it. Trees are assessed in tons of lumber, hills and mountains by the size of their mineral deposits, oceans for oil drilling and fish stocks, and even the sky is carved into lanes for air traffic. In the world of disposable, replaceable things little space exists for proper respect. After all if one sees a cow as so many pounds of beef instead of a living thing whose death will sustain many others or an open field as space for a large house instead of home to many and worthy of respect it is easy to acquire, discard, and abuse.

    This worldview stands in direct conflict with the core ideas of animistic practice. In modern consumerist capitalism, where value is measured in terms of how many things you own and the size of your paycheck, nothing is sacred or worthy of respect outside of what it can do for you and how much it is worth in purely monetary terms. This crude reduction of the beautiful, interconnected reality around us into mere commodities denies the essence inside of all things, going beyond mere disrespect and dishonor. It justifies total disconnection from the world and everything in it.”

    The alienation and commodification of Capitalism with Paganism’s inherent rebellion in a nutshell.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: