When I first considered coming to Iceland to study a few years ago, my mind was in a very different place than it is today. At that time, I was very invested in what I now call the “True Heathenry Grail Quest”. In other words, doing as much research as I possibly could in order to get to the root of authentic Heathen practice, and constructing my practice to look like how it was in antiquity in order to make it more “authentic”. I have seen more than one person on this Grail Quest before, which is why I decided to share this personal (and somewhat embarrassing) story with you. After a somewhat botched spiritual experiment in 2012, my beliefs about “true” Heathenry and what that actually means changed drastically.
Since I began walking this path so long ago, it has been a great point of sadness for me (as I’m sure it is for many others) that so many Germanic ancestral traditions and practices have been lost to the ravages of time and conquest. In a bright (and possibly misled) spark of inspiration, in the summer of 2012 I decided that I was going to perform an útiseta. For those who don’t already know, this is a spiritual practice comparable to the Native American vision quest, in which one covers themselves with a cloak or a blanket (usually while sitting on a grave mound) to gain insight from the dead in the spirit world. But this wasn’t going to be just any útiseta: I was going to travel to Helheimr itself and regain the lost spiritual wisdom of my Germanic ancestors! Not that I really knew what timeless, cosmic, world-shaking wisdom to expect, but it certainly sounded good in my head. Driven by a passion to uncover these lost “secrets”, I began to prepare for the ritual.
Having heard a thing or two about ordeal rituals before, I decided then and there I was going to have a vision even if I had to beat it out of myself. A good friend of mine concocted a sweet smelling salve of bear fat and Óðinn’s 9 Sacred herbs for me to spread on my body (that’s got to make something spooky happen, right?). Knowing that hunger and sleep deprivation have been known to cause visions, I put myself on a strict juice-fast three days prior to the útiseta, where I would be staying up all night and into the morning (I was going to be “hard core” about this). Finally, knowing that a natural spot would be preferable for maximum spiritual transmission (obviously), I picked a location in Verdi: a highly wooded town about 15 minutes from Reno.
The day of the útiseta came, and after a starved, hard day of river tubing (I never claimed Loki kids had any good sense of planning) I was ready to travel to Helheim and gain the mysteries of the ages! A group of friends walked up into the wooded hills of Verdi with me come sunset, and my friend Rob volunteered to stay at the bottom of the hill and sleep in his car that night, just in case of an emergency. We hallowed the space, and another friend rubbed the bear/herb salve on the parts of my skin that weren’t already covered in white clothing and the wolfskin pelt I had been gifted the year before (oh yeah, even Lady Gaga would have been jealous of my threads that night). After a good deal of pomp and circumstance, albeit earnest pomp and circumstance, I was left by myself, in the woods, on the mountain, ready to seek my vision.
For the first 30 minutes or so, as the sun began to set on the horizon and I prepared myself for the journey, I was feeling very mystical indeed: seated on a blanket, covered in fur and bear fat, with nothing but a small knife and a cloak to protect me from the elements. I was dizzy and tired from fasting (and river tubing) and was sure that was a good sign of impending mind-blowing gnosis. But as darkness descended and the forest grew cold, a new voice began to run through my head, and it wasn’t that of the spirits. It was the same little voice that likes to talk to me about procrastinating, not having enough money, and whether or not I turned the oven off before I left the house. It was the voice of panic, and it was starting to develop a good argument.
“Hey!” my inner voice said, “didn’t you remember that there are mountain lions out here during the summer? And I’m pretty sure they’re nocturnal. That sounds right, doesn’t it? And here you are, hunched in a little ball, all by yourself, covered in fur and oil… just like a little animal… that they eat.”
Holy crap! I hadn’t given that much thought while I was imagining my profound spiritual experience. I peeked out from my cloak and looked around myself suspiciously, my heart beginning to beat faster as every tree around me suddenly looked like it had a mountain lion hiding in wait in it’s branches.
“Yep”, my voice continued. “And there’s bears too. What’s that name of that movie again? The one with Anthony Hopkins and the killer bear? Oh yeah, it’s called ‘The Edge’. Let me run a replay reel of that movie, shall I?”
My confidence that I could successfully defend myself from a bear or a mountain lion with a tiny knife was starting to wane by the minute, and the more my inner voice prattled on, the more certain I became that if I did talk to my ancestors tonight, it would be because I had just joined them forever after being mauled to death. At this point, I had successfully talked myself into running down the hill, waking Rob up, and driving home. But just as I was about to stand up, a strange fly appeared from nowhere, and began wildly buzzing around my head.
“I don’t care what you say Loki,” I muttered to the fly “I’m leaving”.
“You’re not going to be able to face yourself in the morning if you leave now, oh mighty Seiðmaðr,” I heard Loki say sarcastically in my mind’s ear “At least wait the night out. The messages are coming, so just be patient.”
The fly landed purposefully beside me on the blanket, sitting and waiting as if to see what I would do.
“Fine!” I growled, pulling the cloak tighter over my shoulders. “I’ll wait…”
It took a few hours (which were filled with as much paranoia as the one before) but before long, I finally did see something. In my mind’s eye, I saw the ground open up beneath me, dropping me into a strange grey world of mist and snow. I saw a gnarled black bridge in the snowy landscape ahead of me, stretching over a bright red river of blood. I saw the guard at the Hel-gate, Móðguðr, clad in gruesome black armor, and heard her hollow voice as I passed, “She’s willing to talk to you”.
I found myself in Hel’s hall, and was quite surprised with how bright, warm, and jovial it was. I saw hundreds of people laughing and eating together: all the ancestors of my line, stretching back for thousands of years. And suddenly, she was there: the half-dead daughter of Loki. I saw her as I always do. One half of her body was a skeleton, the other half was beautiful and delicate, with shiny, long black hair and an eye as green as her father’s. But on this occasion the beautiful half of her face didn’t look serene… it looked annoyed.
“What are you doing here?” she asked tiredly, as if she already knew the answer.
“ I’m here to learn the old ways” I said, feeling less sure of myself than before “the old ways of worship that were lost… the old mysteri-”
“The old ways are dead” said Hel flatly, cutting me of. Suddenly I felt very sheepish.
“Things will never be again as they were” she continued. “You have changed, and we have changed. Nothing stays the same, and there is no bringing back what has already passed it’s time. Do you want to see what the big mystery is?” she asked me, rather sarcastically, “do you want to know the great mysteries of the past?”
Suddenly, I found myself looking at a man who I felt was my ancestor. He was a strong man, pleased but tired as he just finished making the last furrow on his family’s track of land. And when he finished making the furrow, I saw him take something out of his pocket: it looked like a small wooden, hand-carved figure, and I knew it was of Freyr. With a prayer I couldn’t understand, my ancestor buried the figure in the earth, blessing the ground with the fertility of the Lord of Alfheim. With that, the vision from the past evaporated, and I was again looking into Hel’s sobering face.
“People back then” she explained patiently “wanted all the same things people want today: Food, money, sex, love, a good life, and a good death. We want to help you have all of those things, and we still can. But we can’t help you today if you insist on living two-thousand years ago. We don’t want you to drag yourselves into the past, we want you to carry us into the present. Make us a part of your world as it is, not how it was.”
Suddenly my great visions of mystical grandeur evaporated, and I felt silly for having missed the obvious.
“Don’t overcomplicate things so much” the Lady said, “our faith has always been strong and simple. Walk with the gods every day. That is all.”
With that, the vision was gone, and I found myself sitting in the darkness of the forest once again. The fly had begun to buzz around my ears again, and I swatted him away in annoyance.
“See!” I heard Loki laugh, “I’ve always said you make things harder than they need to be.”
As I sat in the cold on my sad little blanket, mulling over the unexpected wisdom I had just received from the mother of the dead, in my minds eye I saw a figure approaching me through the woods. He was tall and extremely handsome, with long hair the color of freshly cut wheat, a sharply trimmed beard and mustache, and eyes the color of a summer sky. As he approached, I could see he was surrounded by a warm, golden glow, and I recognized him at once to be Ingvi Freyr.
Freyr is a god I’m never unhappy to see. He is one of the most joyous gods in our sometimes somber pantheon, and being in his presence always brings a smile to my face. But this time, I looked up at him curiously and cautiously as he stood above me and just stared. I didn’t say anything, waiting with baited breath to see what he would do. My eyes widened in surprise as he unexpectedly started LAUGHING HIS ASS OFF. This was not turning out to be the mystical experience I had been expecting at the beginning of the night…
When he could finally compose himself enough to talk, he wiped a tear of laughter from his eye and spoke.
“This whole ascetic thing” he said, motioning to all of me “is SO not you! You’re a disaster! And what’s that green shit smeared all over you? It smells terrible!”
I saw that speaking with Freyr was going to be the same humbling experience that speaking to Hel had been, and I only shrugged my shoulders in defeat.
“Listen,” said Freyr, not unkindly, “ I don’t know where you people got the idea that spirituality has to be accompanied by pain and hunger to be legitimate, but it just isn’t true. You don’t have to suffer in order to ‘earn’ the right to speak with us. You just need to learn to listen better; you don’t need to prove how pious you are by punishing your body. That’s so… Medieval! And you,” he continued, “are someone that is always going to commune with the gods through beauty and sensation. Use good smells, good foods, good sex, and good friends to find us; you won’t gain anything if you deprive yourself of joy and pleasure. So, I have a homework assignment for you. As soon as you get home, I want you to have a glorious pork dinner in my honor, and I want you to turn THAT into a spiritual experience. Enough of this starving nonsense, alright?”
I nodded in perplexed consent, and with that, he was gone.
By this time, it was 4:30 AM, and I was beginning to feel triumphant that I had almost accomplished my task. I had gained two great pieces of insight… though it wasn’t quite what I had been going for, and I had almost faced my fear and sat in the wilderness all night by myself. Then, on the horizon, I heard a strange sound.
Yip, yip yip!
Was that a dog? But what would a dog be doing out here in the middle of the night? Then suddenly, there were two animals making the same noise.
Yip, yip, yip!
Oh! It was coyotes! Here in Nevada, coyote is the famous trickster among the Paiute and Washoe tribes, and as I equate their energy with that of my fulltrui, I usually take it as a good omen when I hear or encounter them. This must be a good sign, I told myself, that I learned everything I needed to learn here tonight. Then I suddenly heard the awful, bone-chilling scream of an animal (probably a rabbit) being killed echo loudly over the dark mountains, filling the early morning air with dread.
“Aaaaand… we’re done” I said aloud, jumping to my feet and quickly gathering all of my fur and ritual tools in the middle of my sitting-blanket; all except the knife, which I held in one hand as I heaved the huge bundle over my shoulder with the other. Then I began a comical scampering through the woods and down the hill in the dark, the bundle of stuff wildly smacking against my shoulder and the outstretched knife in my hand making me look like a deranged Santa Claus. Finally, I saw Rob’s car up ahead, and panting, I threw my blanket on the ground nearby, sat back on the ground, and promptly passed out until dawn when I was gratefully driven home, though with less pride than I had carried with me when I got there the evening prior. On the journey home I swore I could hear Loki and Freyr, laughing together in my mind.
So, what is the moral of this story you might ask? What did I take away from this experience and what did I learn about my faith along the way? Hel and Freyr had taught me two valuable lessons that I think are applicable to anyone walking this path. I learned that the gods want to be a part of our everyday lives, and they want to be made applicable to the modern world; not to remain dusty relics of the past. We don’t need to drag our lives back to the Iron Age to prove how righteously “Heathen” we are. A faith that does not grow and change with the people ceases to be alive, and it’s up to us to invite the gods, the ancestors, and the spirits to be part of our walk through life every day. Just as Hel suggested, a practice doesn’t need to be complicated to be powerful, and I don’t think it has to look ancient to be considered “serious” anymore. It was after this experience that I lightened up, and realized that the only authenticity that my spirituality needs is that it serves the gods and serves myself. When I finally did come to Iceland, it was to deepen my knowledge, meet new people, and to experience the landscape, not to make my practices more legit. The Grail of “True Heathenry” doesn’t really exist; or at least it is what you make it.
I also learned that the spiritual path of pain and deprivation is not inherently more powerful or meaningful than the spiritual path of joy and plenty. Our ancestors often lived hard, short lives, and any opportunity for happiness, pleasure, and kinship was surely considered a blessing from the gods. We don’t have to suffer in order to see the gods, but instead should try to find the gods in the everyday things that make life worth living. Try an experiment, and do what Freyr suggested I do: turn a good diner with family and friends into a spiritual experience; feel the joy of the gods on a beautiful winter morning, hear their voices sing in your heart when your favorite song comes on the radio, let sex with your partner become an act of worship to the mighty ones that filled us with breath, senses, and fire. Pain isn’t the only legitimate path towards touching the gods: the pleasure of our senses has just as much untapped power within it if we choose to utilize it for that purpose. It took the Lord of pleasure and plenty to teach me that lesson, and to remember not to feel that if one isn’t suffering enough, somehow one isn’t being “worthy” enough to touch spirit.
I had my dinner for Freyr that week. I filled my senses with bright colors, the sweet smell of flowers, and the lilting sounds of Swedish folk music. I treated each delicious bite of pork as a gift, each one a reminder of my precious mortality and how I should not squander any opportunity for happiness and fulfillment while I’m still alive. Most importantly, the diner was shared with friends: Tribe, like so many other aspects of our faith, is a simple yet powerful concept that should not be overlooked. All of this served as a reminder for what is easily forgotten: being alive, is in itself, a spiritual experience.
So I hail Hel and Freyr, who as the gods often do, didn’t give me the advice I wanted but gave me the advice that I needed. And as always, I thank Loki for giving me the courage to see the journey through to the end (even if the “end” felt like a scene from a Laurel and Hardy movie).