Feminism and Our Pagan and Nordic Roots

Back in July, I posted a response to #YesAllWomen on our Facebook page. Harassment is a problem in the pagan community. It probably has been since its inception. Harassment has definitely been a problem since I became a pagan back in the 80’s. This week, someone posted a response.

“stupid feminist! you and your feminist screwed ideas have nothing to do wiht our pagan and nordic roots.”

I expect a certain amount of criticism when I put my ideas out into the ether. If you write a blog, you get trolls. It is the style. My reaction to such responses is mixed.

I am not surprised. In my experience, this is very much the attitude of modern Heathenry. There is an unpleasant emphasis on heteronormativity and gender traditional roles in many kindreds. Women get belittled, mansplained and then chastised for being inhospitable when they protest. It’s the most important reason I avoid the community.

However, I am annoyed. I am not only a pagan and a feminist, but a historian and a journalist. I know from my studies of the primary sources that women were a valued part of Norse culture. Not just for their housekeeping (which should never be discounted or downplayed. They kept their families from dying of starvation or exposure) skills, but for their political skills, their social skills, their economic skills, their magical skills, and sometimes their warrior skills.

So, let’s define feminism. The dictionary definition is: the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men. But I know as a journalist that the definition has shifted in both popular perception and pagan perception.

Feminism has always been part of my experience of paganism. I started out in Gardnerian Wicca, which in the 80’s was very much a reaction to the Abrahamic religion’s emphasis on phallocentric monotheism. The idea that women were equal with men was assumed. The idea that women were neither whores nor Madonna, rather just fallible human beings was assumed.  The idea that there were goddesses with as much power and wonder as the gods was assumed. Now, before this all sounds idyllic, it wasn’t. There was (and is) still systematic misogyny in my experience of Wicca (the difference between the requirements for a priest and priestess is a perfect example), and because it was (and is) a “nature” religion, a horrific amount of heteronormativity and trans-misogyny. But the thought that women and men could and should be equal in a spiritual context was a powerful thing.

As my experience with paganism grew, as well as my studies of history, archeology and mythology, I went Reconstructionist. Many people were going Reconstructionist at the time, a reaction to the fuzzy historicity and the “woo” of Wicca. There was also some blowback reaction to the Goddess-centric emphasis.  My experience with the Reconstructionist community, while valuable, was problematic. The insistence that the “lore” (the Eddas, the sagas, plus a few other historical texts) was the end all, be all of Norse practice was as dogmatic as the Abrahamic religions where we started. I’ve expressed my opinion about the lore.

The most common take away for many people from the lore is that women were not equal to men in ancient or medieval Scandinavia. Women in ancient Scandinavia probably weren’t equal the way we think of equal.

HOWEVER…

My beloved gave me the simplest and most profound definition of feminism. She said, “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.” (The quote is originally from Marie Shear)

What does that have to do with feminism and our pagan and Nordic roots?

The idea that women are property to be disposed of is not a Northern European idea. You can trace it through  Sumerian, Hebrew and Greco-Roman culture, see enshrined in the Abrahamic religions and document its imposition on women for a thousand years. You can see the attitude shift in the changes in codes of laws across Northern Europe, from Ireland to Scandinavia to Lithuania. Pre-Christianity, women were protected to the same extent as men under the law. Post-Christianity, they were not.

The lore tells us that women in Norse society were respected political, social and economic powerhouses that kept their families and their societies afloat. Both men and women in Norse society believed women were people, to be listened to, consulted and obeyed.

I would also submit, even if we didn’t have several examples in the lore of women as political, social and economic equals with men, that unless you are a total ostrich or have a Tardis in your backyard, we don’t live in 10th century Scandinavia. We literally and practically live in a different world. The plants, animals, earth, sky and sea, our understanding of the universe around us and our relationship to gods, ancestors and place are not the same as they were, even if you actually live in modern Scandinavia. And if you live in America, well, you’re not even in the same ecosystem. We at Weaving Wyrd live in 21st century America.

I am a soft Reconstructionist. Which means I am cognizant of and responsive to the changes that have happened in thought and understanding in the last thousand years. Even if women weren’t people then, and that’s just not true, they are certainly people now. While there are still deep and disturbing inequalities, women have access to political, social and economic power in a way that was not possible for my grandmothers or even my mother.

And it seems modern Heathenry is responding to the world we live in now, rather than the imperfect view of the world our ancestors may have lived in then. Women are redefining their roles in society and faith by their strength and pride, their wisdom and courage. Many prominent women have shaped the conversation about what it means to be a Norse Reconstructionist, writing insightful and educated articles and books about ancient and modern practice. A local kindred is home to a lesbian couple. While these things do not impel me to rejoin the community, they do give me hope that Heathenry is changing.

Both historically and currently, women are people. Trolls, beware.

Your mileage will most certainly vary.

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