In my years as a Heathen, I’ve witnessed quite a range of responses to service members and veterans, from stilted change-of-subject, to the oft-repeated and variably appreciated, “Thank you for your service,” to intentionally drawing up a soldier’s traumatic experiences. It should be our goal to allow group spaces in-person and online to give service members and veterans a space to lay down their arms and armor, both physical and mental, and experience Frith with their lives and experiences acknowledged in healthy and respectful ways. As heathenry springs from a warrior culture and surviving texts are sparse and often have their own unexamined goals toward military service, a complex relationship exists between heathenry, the present-day civilian experience in the United States, and the military. These articles will aim to answer questions modern heathens may have in understanding and honoring the members of their communities who are service members and veterans, and bring about more open discussion of what your community members need. It is especially my hope to illuminate the fact that military service members’ experience of heathenry, as with any other practitioner, varies greatly; theirs is not a monolithic experience, and thus having the rich, open conversations that heathenry allows will help in supporting one another.
In order to better understand the current experience of heathen military servicemembers and veterans, I wrote up a set of interview questions and organized video interviews when able. These questions were published to the Heathenry subreddit and distributed to representatives at The Troth, Awaken the North and the Open Halls Project. I also spoke with members of my communities. While I will not be attributing quotes to specific individuals to protect their identity, all quotes included in this article are from current or former service members of varying lengths of service and branches. Quotes are edited for clarity only. I want to thank these participants, the moderation team at r/heathenry for allowing me to post my question set, and those community leaders who pointed me toward potential contacts for their help. If, throughout the course of reading this, you find a need for definition of terms or a reminder of their context, I invite you to read The Longship. I will endeavor to include direct links to definitions for the first instance of these terms where possible, as with Frith above.
As the intent is for at least one more portion of this to be published at a later date, if you read this and are interested in contributing, please feel free to reach out to me–I am always happy to set up discussions and would like to return to this topic at a later date with more data!
Finding Heathenry and Meaning
“Heathenry allows you to live life to excel and help others do the same.”
“Heathenry is about finding your own path in life, knowing that life is what you make of it–a lot more than the Brosatru, ‘I’m going to die and go to Valhalla.”
Of those interviewed, the majority of participants came to heathenry early in their military service having been introduced to the Norse myths earlier in life. Several of them spoke to the individual growth and responsibility given to them by their finding heathenry. While some referenced that they knew of other heathens in the military during their service, they also stated that heathens queried about iconography or practice were hesitant to discuss their beliefs in a work environment. Similarly, some noted that non-Heathen servicemembers misunderstood or teased them for their being Heathen, claiming that they believed themselves to be vikings or worshipped Marvel characters. Potential solutions to this will be expanded on in The Military and Heathenry. One participant who had come to heathenry outside of his service experience explained he believed he would have stayed for 20 years were he a heathen beforehand, and said several times that heathenry has built on his self-concept having a, “warrior spirit,” and being a, “front-line person.”
Military Service and the Texts
“[Being in the Navy] was almost feeling the continual bond with the ancestors that would sail on their own longships, go explore, and just discover different aspects of the world.”
“I do enjoy reading but never felt that it was service related.”
“After years as a warrior, I identify with the violence, aggression, and the Code of Honor present in the Sagas. For example, in the Story of Freyfaxi, the King had to uphold his oath; [while] a layperson may read this as violent or awful, as a soldier you understand he is upholding the oath.”
I expected, given much of the warrior aesthetic and focus that are popular in heathenry in the US today, that military service and culture would lead service members to experience their reading quite distinctly. Instead I found an even divide; there were those who felt closer to the figures in the texts or their ancestors for their service, and others who felt that reading the Sagas was removed from their service. Another participant explained that while he did not feel his service shifted his view of the texts, his background in analyzing religious texts from an English degree was helpful, stating, “my time in Catholic education classes with biblical scholars who took common verses and reverted them to their original language has served as a template for avoiding a lot of the folk-bro nonsense.”
Approaching and Processing Service
“Whenever I or any of my friends have gotten back from deployment, we’ve done smaller ceremonies thereof–you’re back, you’re symbolically laying down your sword and done for now.”
“[It is] definitely easier to process service-related deaths [and] easier to focus on the job when I’m taking high risks.”
“There’s as much in the Havamal and Eddas about living a peaceful and humble life as there is going into combat. It’s not like the religion’s drilling it into us by any means. It just recognizes that it’s an active part of global life. To seek it out is very dangerous.”
Several participants referenced the impact of a heathen concept of death and the afterlife as comforting in processing the deaths of their comrades and friends. One participant explained that he offered to Odin after a relative died by suicide following their military service, later explaining, “thinking of fallen friends is almost a form of ancestor worship.” While not always in response to this particular inquiry, participants stated that heathenry contributed to their strength, wisdom, endurance, desire to excel and decision-making skills in stressful and dangerous situations, which I will return to in Heathenry and Returning Home.
Heathenry and Others
“In heathenry, there’s the concept of Frith, ‘the communal bonds that you build with other people.’ Since I’ve been out, that bond has been stronger with prior servicemembers and bonding over experiences that I had in active service. With colleagues it’s like, ‘Yeah dickhead, we were there too.’ Now it’s explaining experiences and the differences [with other veterans] and ‘helping each other out,’ especially when you’re out knowing how difficult transition can be. The kinship within the veteran community [is] trying to help each other out and succeed.”
“Civilian heathens strive to have that warrior spirit. I tell people about boot camp and non-heathens laugh, [while] heathens can embrace the feeling of community and shared effort. As heathens, we strive to build the community up.”
My specific questions were, “Has heathenry impacted your interactions with other service members and veterans?” and “What have you observed in interacting with civilian heathens? Is this distinct from your interactions with non-heathen civilians?” One participant spoke to his frustration with the use of Valhol as accessible to the non-military dead via combat with mental or physical illnesses in talking to civilian heathens. Similar to the above comments on heathen community efforts and building Frith, one participant said that talking to civilian non-heathens removes an additional layer of shared experience, making it such that he has to, “dig for a connection a bit more, work a bit more,” with them.
Heathenry and Returning Home
“The experiences don’t leave you–they knew that back then, we know that now. Despite being in a different world and mentality, you’re still going to have those experiences–those still make you who you are in their own way. The stress levels, the challenges and everything you did–I worked in the Navy and there were times when I’d be lucky I’d be getting sleep at night doing a 36 hour shift without eating for 2-3 days[.] Compared to that, I’ve almost seen no stress in the civilian world. To see those stanzas in the Havamal and to see that they got it then, you know, it makes it seem like the experiences are a lot more shared.”
“I feel more tied to my family, community, and the earth as a Heathen.”
While heathenry was referenced positively in contributing to soldier’s strength, wisdom, endurance, desire to excel and decision-making skills, one participant warned against constantly seeking danger and death by combat. He referenced Havamal 16 as initially a point of concern for him in considering returning from his service:
“An unwise man
Thinks he’ll live forever
If only he can avoid a fight,
But old age
Will give him no peace,
Even if weapons do.”The Wanderer’s Havamal, Crawford, 9
This participant went on to state that witnessing portions of the Havamal that clearly acknowledge traumatic memory and PTSD as aspects of combat experience were helpful for him in reintegration. Dr. Jackson Crawford recently published a video on Veterans Issues in the Sagas which may be of interest in this regard, included here.
As mentioned above, I will be publishing the second set of quotes and discussion points in the near future–these will include some larger sections and resources:
- Heathenry and the Military
- The Military and Heathenry
- Honoring Heathen Service Members and Veterans
- On Valhol and Folkvang
- Emergent Topics
Like before, if you have read this and are interested in arranging an interview to contribute to the data set, please reach out! To everyone who contributed to this and has sought these pieces out, thank you so much for your interest and working toward the betterment of our community and the building of Frith. I will be working the next few days but will aim to publish the rest of this by this upcoming weekend! Until then, I wish you all the best!