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 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.