A major part of Heathenism includes the concept of ancestor worship.
To some people this is at first glance a rather foreign or alien concept; however if you stop and think about it, nothing could be further from the truth.
In our modern society, we still have pictures on our walls of our family members, both living and deceased.
Items that once belonged to loved ones who have passed away tend to get handed down from generation to generation. These items tend to have pride of place in the home, or are kept under lock and key. When brought out for display purposes, they are treated with reverence and respect.
Prime examples from my own life include my Wife’s Grandfather’s WWII medals, or my Uncle’s beer stein from the former Canadian military base he was stationed at in Germany. Even something as seemingly mundane as my Grandfather’s harmonica takes on a special significance as a relic of my ancestry.
I am fortunate enough to have a head start on digging into my own family’s past. My paternal Grandmother was a genealogist. Through her, I know my direct ancestors on my Father’s side moved to the U.S. from Scotland before the War of 1812. They moved north into Canada during that war, and were United Empire Loyalists.
History, however, has a way of muddying the waters of ancestry.
My mother’s side had no clue where they came from. Their last name, Christo, is an obvious derivative of the Greek “Christos,” or “Christ.” This made sense for the most part. Dark hair and olive skin tends to run through that side, so it was widely accepted that my maternal grandfather’s side of the family were Greek. No other markers of this culture have been passed down, all having presumably been lost to time and distance from the “old country.”
In one of those quirks of fate, it turns out that the “old country” is actually England.
Cornwall, to be exact.
My mother ran into a distant cousin who has been tracking down the genealogical threads of that side of the family, and it turns out I’m part Cornish, and not Greek. The dark hair and olive skin? Apparently the name Christo was changed from Christoe, and the members of that family who resided for generations in Cornwall originally migrated there from Spain. Go figure.
So what does this have to do with Ancestor worship or being Heathen?
Well, my little rabbit trail had a point. Even if you think you know where you come from, your family tree may not be as straight as you think.
Some people think, inaccurately, that to be Heathen you must be able to prove a direct ancestry from Scandinavia. On a broader scale, the Germanic tribes are also generally accepted.
Here’s where History muddies the waters.
Let’s say that, like me, you believe all of your descendants came from the United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales… Ok, yes, Cornwall too. Mustn’t leave anyone out.)
It’s generally believed in Pagan circles that this ancestry puts you firmly in Celt territory, and yes, at one point in history, it would have.
However, Northern Europe has a long and varied past. The U.K. being in Northern Europe shares in that past.
If you go back far enough, the map of Europe looks very different.
The Britons were displaced by the Romans. When the Romans left, the Angles and Saxons filled the void. This was a Germanic tribe, practicing their own form of the religion now being reconstructed by modern Heathens.
The Orkney Islands and the Hebrides were, for a long time, considered part of Norway. They are today part of the U.K.
The map shows Europe in 526.
By the 8th of June, 793 the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles tell of the first Viking raid on British soil:
“They came…to the church of Lindisfarne, and laid all waste with dreadful havoc, trod with unhallowed feet the holy places, dug up the altars and carried off all the treasures of the holy church. Some of the brethren they killed; some they carried off in chains; many they cast out, naked and loaded with insults; some they drowned in the sea.”
There’s a lot going on there. First of all, this is an example of an attack by the vikings on a Germanic tribe (the Anglo-Saxons.)
It’s obvious that at this point in history Christianity has displaced the former pagan religion of the Anglo-Saxons, so it can be argued that this isn’t Heathen on Heathen violence. It does, however, give us a glimpse of the motivating factors of the vikings. At this point in history every little settlement was fortified and defended. Churches were not. What the monks of the time view with horror (how dare they trod with unhallowed feet!) The vikings saw as easy pickings.
These weren’t religiously motivated raids. This was a case of the church believing that their god would keep them out of harms way, and thinking that no one would dare defy him by intruding on his house and taking off with his treasure.
This is the modern equivalent of leaving a car unlocked and unattended in the bad part of town, with the keys in it, then walking away and praying that no one enter “with unhallowed feet” and take off in your ride. Innocence? Ignorance? Arrogance? Take your pick.
If you are the one writing the history books, I’m sure you can spin it however you’d like.
Here’s where I’m going with this:
The Anglo-Saxons were raided by the vikings, who were a mix of Scandinavian peoples.
By 1066, the earl of Wessex (an Anglo-Saxon Lord), the Duke of Normandy, and the King of Norway were all eyeing the throne of England. The English King, Edward the confessor had died, kicking off the Norman Invasion.
As a thank-you to a group of Flemish (Belgians) who had fought with him during the conquest, William the Conqueror gave titles and land in Scotland. This is where my ancestor, Freskin de Moravia comes into play. He is the founder of the Scottish Clan from which I am descended.
I’m sure there are remnants of Pictish, British, Celt, Anglo-Saxon, Norman, Flemish, and potentially Norse blood flowing through my veins. History has a way of twisting things around. Conquerors become settlers, who become locals, who become the conquered.
Short of DNA testing, there is no way to know for sure who your ancestors were. Taking sides and saying that one group of ancient peoples was somehow superior to another group from a similar culture is…innocence? ignorance? arrogance?
Take your pick.
The fact remains that Northern Europe was a swirling pool of tribes and cultures, from whom our modern western civilization has sprouted and grown. We can take pride in knowing that we are the descendants of an entire region full of people who lived, raised their children, and honoured their ancestors, just as we do today.