Lore and UPG

This is a revised version of an essay I have previously published.

One of the things that I like about Ásatrú is that it accepts proudly the label the religion with homework. Practitioners are expected to research and read everything from badly translated poems to sagas to commentaries by researchers on the field. In Wicca we would often see people come along who basically became Wiccan overnight: they read one book and decided they were Wiccan. The problem with this is that Wicca is a religion. It is not a club or an organization.

It takes years of study to effectively become, say, an Episcopalian. It takes Bible study, Sunday school, church attendance, baptism, confirmation classes, etc. This is time spent learning the myths and legends, studying the history and structure, getting to know the people in the Church, and all of the other things that go into being simply a lay-practitioner. If you were raised with it, then it involved a lot of things that were basically absorbed by osmosis–just by growing up around it.

Wicca is no different, Shinto is no different, and Ásatrú is no different. In the Celtic Trad coven, they had a reading list of around 40 books just to make it to your first degree initiation so that the entire coven would have a common base of reference from which to work. To this day I can recite the Nicene Creed with only minimal prompting and remember the tune for most of the parts of our sung mass. Not because I was ever required to memorize them, but just because in being around them I integrated them over time.

All religions have it, but a large proportion of Ásatrú groups emphasize it, such that the phrase the religion with homework has been tied almost exclusively to Germanic Mesopaganism and Germanic Neopaganism. It takes a long time to learn the myths and lore, not to mention rituals and technique, and even longer to grok it. Not to mention all of the little details that one learns by screwing up (e.g., an Ásatrú baptism from holding the mead horn the wrong way).

Difficulties with Lore

One of the big problems we run across in Germanic Paganism is the tension between lore and UPG. A while back Raven Kaldera had out a CFS for a Personal Gnosis Handbook which asks people to fill out a questionnaire with questions such as: How trustworthy do you find ancient texts/primary sources and How do you judge [UPG]? According to what criteria? What standards do you think should be applied to it?

The attitudes tend to split depending on whether we are dealing with Mesopagans or Neopagans.

The Mesopagan–reconstructionist–group tends to fall on the side of treating written texts as absolute, and a few groups have even elevated it to the status of a holy text, referring to it as Lore (I feel like that should be Lore™…) the way others might refer to the Bible. Their religion is built, in large part, off of the writings of scholars and these fragments of historical texts which were generally written down right after the Pagan era. To quote The Pentagram and the Hammer by Devyn Gillette and Lewis Stead:

The result is often academic/historical sources being cited in a way similar to Protestants citing Biblical references along with the adherent problems of selectivity and lack of context. The Ásatrú fascination with academic minutae often reaches a point at which one suspects some Ásatrúar would be willing to revise their core religious beliefs if a new academic source could be found.

On the other side we get the Neopagan–reconstructionist derived–group. In this group UPG is given a little more prominence. Neopagans tend to believe they are capable of and do commune with gods and wights, either on their own or through an intermediary, and what they find through these practices–and corroborative works involving them–strongly shapes their beliefs and their faith.

Thus, while the Neopagan practice is informed by the Lore™, their view of what constitutes lore is more open and dynamic, and includes both our personal experiences and the personal experiences of others. It doesn’t matter how the Old Norse society viewed ergi, how do the gods–and, more specifically, whichever gods I personally follow–view it now? What were our ancestors’ (and I use that term loosely, I’m a 10th+ generation American at this point) beliefs and why did they believe them? Do they matter in a modern cultural context?

We are forced to say that some of their practices are not right, or at least I would hope that hanging individuals involuntary in sacrifice is no longer on the menu. Egil at one point said Let us go back to the farm and acquit ourselves like true warriors: kill everyone we can catch and take all the valuables we can carry. To quote Elizabeth Vongvisith:

Is every belief of our pre-Conversion Heathen ancestors necessarily a good idea? Is the fact that some of their practices are now illegal in our modern world the only reason not to engage in them? What precludes them from having been dead wrong about some things, even if they were right about others?

Different individuals and branches within Germanic Paganism have reached different conclusions on the answers to these questions, and they are important ones to consider, relating directly to the heart of the validity of lore as a source. Similar questions could be asked about the Bible, or any set of texts used at the core of a religion: What are these practices? Do they have modern relevance? Why or why not? Even the Buddhist Kōans should be questioned and considered in context of the culture that they come from (one might even argue that this is part of the point).

Given this, we tend to encounter a spectrum rather than a binary distinction between reconstructionist and reconstructionist-derived. It is fairly clear that one could not reinvent Ásatrú as it is currently practiced simply from reading the lore: there are too many rituals, too many things that have been adapted or borrowed from other places, for even someone who had access to all of the available historical lore and academic analysis to recreate it from scratch. Clearly, even for a hard-core reconstructionist, the lore must exist as a living set of documents.

Difficulties with UPG

There are clear problems if we get too close to pure reconstructionist practices, but there are also dangers in swinging too far the other direction: we lose cohesiveness and we leave ourselves with nothing to offer those who aren’t being whapped over the head with a metaphysical spear. We must be careful, as we embrace UPG, to say this also, instead of this instead.

If we fall too far down the rabbit hole to the point where we think that the established lore is irrelevant, then we have separated ourselves from the group of religious we claim to practice and have one fewer sanity checks in place in our practice. There are several negative consequences of disdaining the written lore:

  • Forgetting the lessons of our past. Many of the stories and poems we have contain extremely valuable advice and layers of meaning which still apply today, Hávamál and Völuspá coming immediately to mind. It could even be argued that this is basically the point of much religious practice.
  • We run the risk of becoming personality focused instead of god focused, where many people read one individual and feel like they have a complete–or near complete–picture.
  • Losing one of the most valuable sources of cultural context for understanding the gods and the cultures that followed them, leading to the loss of a consistent cultural basis from which to work.

In short, to quote Robert Heinlein, A generation which ignores history has no past — and no future. In the process of understanding the gods and approaching them, we cannot afford to disdain the lore as we approach it. I haven’t seen this as a problem yet, but it is something I want to guard strongly against and it is necessary to say to understand my point of view on how lore and UPG interrelate.

Conclusion

Nathaniel Branden said of Objectivism and emotion that:

The solution for people who seem over preoccupied with feelings is not the renunciation of feelings but rather greater respect for reason, thinking, and the intellect. What is needed is not a renunciation of emotion but a better balance between emotion and thinking. Thinking needs to be added to the situation, emotion does not need to be subtracted from the situation.

Similarly, I feel that the cure for too much reconstructionism is not less written lore, but rather more UPG. Let’s contribute our own lore onto the mix with pieces like Kaldera’s Jotunbok or books of poetry like the ones Asphodel Press has been publishing recently and encourage people to read and study it all on the way to becoming educated in our tradition. Let’s add prayer books and analysis of prayers to the list as well.

After all, Christianity is more than just the words in the Bible. It also includes thousands of years of councils and discourse, analysis, theologians, philosophers, saints, and politicians. Not to mention several more thousands of years of Judaism that it built on top of.

In a sense what I am talking about relates back to the idea of All things in moderation. I believe the right answer is not lore or UPG, but lore and UPG.

Further Reading

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