It’s time to return to the subject of heathenry and the military! In my previous post I claimed I would get this segment published the following weekend–what hubris that was. I apologize for the long wait. Life has been pretty busy these past few weeks, and I appreciate your patience. If you haven’t read the original post in this set, it’s worth doing so for context, and should only take a few minutes.
Heathenry and the Military
“I don’t agree with military hero worship, though a toast for a particular person during blot wouldn’t be bad.”
“If we are not careful, something like [excessive numbers of beard waiver requests] can ruin the professional legitimacy [of Heathenry] from the military and the military chaplain corps. We need to maintain the sincerity of the requests in order to maintain legitimacy.”
“When you see people using the runes and iconography to support white supremacy, that’s a detriment to us all..the misconceptions, lack of representation, those are all things that are holding us back and we need to work on changing that. We are going to change it and it’s going to be slow, but we’re going to.”
Participants explained they had little concerns regarding the culture of heathenry as it relates to the military, expressing overall happiness in their experiences with other heathens. Hero worship and the “fetishization” of Valhol and Folkvang were cautioned against. Heathenry obviously honors military experience and spirit, having emerged from a warrior culture, but more than once participants referenced the fact that honoring specific service members or veterans with whom one or a community has a personal relationship is respectful, compared to honoring the concept of the military or combat alone. The relationship between this misplaced focus and “brosatru” was noted more than once and will be explored further in Emergent Topics.
Regarding service members who are in the military, beard waivers arose as a topic and multiple participants expressed they had difficulty finding other heathens within the branches whether deployed or at home. If you are unaware of the issue of beard waivers in the military, I encourage you to read the link provided above from the Open Halls Project. It is of interest to me to return to this in the future, as I know several members of the military who have pursued and acquired these waivers and the existing reporting on this issue is rather scant, but for now that link will explain the matter. Participants’ reflecting on their difficulty finding other heathens to talk to varied from matter-of-fact to expressing frustration at either being told heathenry is, “not to be discussed at work,” or not being able to find other heathens with military experience other than online. This may support the importance of military recognition of heathenry, “inclusion,” and, “representation,” as were requested at times during our interviews. As this was not within the scope of my interview question set and did not ask at the time, I am unaware of whether or not servicemembers of other faiths discuss their beliefs more readily than heathens. It is worth noting that The Troth Military and Veterans Steward, Joshua Wood, expressed that The Troth is working to expand heathen lay clergy members in pursuit of these goals.
The Military and Heathenry
“When I became lay leader on deployment, the first question a chaplain asked was, “You’re not going to kill anything [as a sacrifice] are you?”
“It would be awesome to have a dedicated Heathen chaplain.”
The matter of heathen visibility amidst service members has been discussed above. Participants’ responses to the inquiry of whether there was anything they would like to see change with the military response to heathenry ranged quite a bit, from indifference to frustration. They mentioned colleagues assuming they, “worshipped Vikings,” implying they were white supremacists, diminishing the weight or validity of their belief, lying about being religious, and the above statement about animal sacrifice. While these are not unfamiliar to civilian heathens as frustrations, the particular weight and sacrifice of this industry illuminate the importance of recognizing heathenry for the valid system that it is. This is even more important given the complex and varied relationship of heathenry to death and the afterlife and service members’ often increased risk. While not a new revelation, to hear the scope of ignorant comments around heathenry and given the weight of the work being done is a strong reminder of the changes that are so needed. The above link over chaplains from the Open Halls Project reports that no Wiccans or Heathens have been brought to chaplain status, with the majority of chaplains being Christian. Representing heathenry honorably within your communities and working to support organizations lobbying for recognition of heathenry within the military branches are ways you can help locally. Additionally, existing groups such as The Open Halls Project, Awaken the North and The Troth have their own ongoing projects you can contribute to.
Honoring Heathen Service Members and Veterans
“When a heathen deploys, doing an honorary ritual to ask the gods to look after them [is] always a good thing. While they’re deployed, increase the acts of Frith, do what the Eddas say and partake in gift giving. Care packages are always welcome, it makes a service member feel like, ‘I may be physically away from the community, but I’m still here.” [If] someone comes back and you are glad they’re back but have made no effort to communicate with them while they’re gone, that can be really disappointing…The only disrespectful thing would be not making the time to maintain Frith.”
“Thinking of fallen friends is almost a form of ancestor worship.”
“Yule is the time to sit around the fire and discuss your dead, honor them, toast them, and tell stories about them.”
“If you’re going to do something like [Feast of the Einherjar] make sure the communication is there with the veterans because psychologically [they] may not be ready to explore those thoughts and feelings that they have. I know I did a toast for the Einherjar after a friend of mine committed suicide, and it’s definitely tough. You’re opening up old wounds[.]”
The importance of communicating personally with service members was reiterated. This could include discussions of whether hailing fallen comrades is appropriate for the kindred as a whole, whether they are ready for this act, whether service members wish to be singled out as honored guests, and how you might go about preparing for their deployment both before they are deployed and during this time away. As with any discussion of boundaries and needs, it is often difficult to articulate these when initially asked or still in the midst of recovery, so this conversation should be sensitive to their state and may require multiple sessions instead of all at once. Bear in mind that assisting deployed service members while they are deployed can also include checking in on and supporting their families if this is something they are comfortable with. The US Department of Veteran’s Affairs has published a series of cultural competency courses that may be of interest to gothar/githya and other community members, and here is a specific course regarding Military Culture and Spiritual Health.
On Valhol and Folkvang
“[There are] multiple different endings for how our lives can be, trying to stay set on one diminishes the journey. As far as the military context goes, the prospect of going to Valhalla would be much more real to them [and] unfortunately, not everybody makes it back. [It] can be not only a very limiting mindset but a very dangerous one at that. You can only think about the conflict.”
“I wouldn’t want to see [Valol and Folkvang] glorified, but when you have a comrade fall [they] can help with acceptance[.] Valhol and Folkvang are consolation prizes for dying in battle far from home.”
“[After a veteran close to me committed suicide, I] went out to an empty field, offered a libation of wine over parsley, and requested that Odin allow him into Valhol as he lost in the battle against his mind.”
Valhol and Folkvang are two potential realms in the afterlife for those who die in battle, and are often referenced outside of military contexts for a variety of reasons. I asked my participants about their thoughts regarding these and their use in both a military and civilian context. Some participants felt that these are exclusively for those who die in battle, while others felt that veterans who die outside of battle or people who have battled with diseases such as cancer can also be taken to these spaces after death. The somewhat dueling concepts of Valhol as a, “consolation prize for dying far from home,” and a comfort and honor emerged, and underscore the complexity and significance of these spaces. As heathenry is a living faith and individual experiences of it are quite variable, it is important we work together to understand our varied conceptions of these spaces.
Death and Suicide
While I did not add to my question set through the interviewing process, there were some topics that recurred and are worth noting: it was of particular interest to me that death and suicide arose in responses to even questions unrelated to Valhol and Folkvang, and at times resulted in interviewees pausing or changing the subject entirely as their emotions rose, which is absolutely understood. Even with a question set specifically written to exclude this, it came up in multiple interviews, and I believe this underscores the importance of preparing as a community for these conversations. The evident emotional impact of these topics also reinforces the need for sensitive approaches to these topics, and obviously avoiding raising these topics in an overly glorified or insensitive manner. I believe working to conceptualize service members as individuals instead of as a monolithic entity is an important step in this process, and that acknowledging them as individual people helps in not diminishing the respect given.
The topic of white supremacy’s presence in heathenry also came up in discussing heathen culture in the military. This is an issue for all of us to recognize and combat. Even if your personal experience with other heathens has not involved abject white supremacist statements, this presence is clear online and in countless examples from others, and we must not allow any grounds for white supremacists to believe they are supported. I encourage you to inform yourself about the tactics these groups take in recruiting new members, monitor your communities for members who may follow this path, support them so that this can be avoided, and take proactive, strong steps against the allowance of racism, ableism and folkism in your circles. This goes beyond simply acknowledging the issues of white supremacy in heathenry and must include proactive steps against these, not simply in claims but in actions. Additionally, much work has been done in documenting and monitoring the use of heathenry by white supremacist movements, and understanding this history can help you recognize this occurring in the present. The Heathen History podcast is an excellent source for this.
Some participants noted their frustration with ‘Brosatru’ and Folkish heathens misrepresenting or parroting misrepresented heathenry for their own gains, which highlights the importance of education to expand heathenry beyond stereotypes and only embodying the imagined Viking age. You can help accomplish this by calling out stereotypes, misinformation and intentional misrepresentation when these appear in your community and understanding heathenry as a living and ever-evolving faith; we must recognize that heathenry exists in a modern world and the richness and diversity of the world around us is a gift, not something to be ignored or closed off. Building a richer understanding in your community can also help with legitimizing heathenry in the eyes of other faiths and the wider world we live in and contribute to.
I approached this inquiry and discussion with a somewhat monolithic concept of military heathens, something I had slowly chipped away at over the course of my communicating with friends, but still found to be present in researching and writing my question set. I have come away from this experience with a more diverse understanding of the experiences, needs and wants of military heathens, and a renewed interest in developing a vocabulary and skillset for supporting them in those aspects of their lives specific to their military experience and outside of it. I hope that these questions have inspired you and might further your communities’ closeness. Please let me know if you have any questions, would like to talk, or have recommendations for future posts on different topics. Thank you so much for sticking through this with me, and once again I want to thank the contributors to these conversations for the time, emotion and honesty they put into talking with me. You have helped me and given me much to consider moving forward, have given our community some concepts to better support one another, and I wish you well.