Why Can't You Just Be Heathen?
A couple months back, I facilitated an online event with my local CUUPs group about Rokkatru: “Honoring Loki and the Roku: A guided discussion on Rokkatru.” During the event I was asked a question which has bugged me ever since. It was a long question and to be truthful, I forgot half of it as I went into a ramble. This is not the exact question I was asked, but it pretty much boils down to a question that most anyone who claims the label “Rokkatru” gets asked; “Why can’t you just be Heathen?” I was also asked, where do I draw the line between the Aesir and the Jotun.
I’m not going to go over Norse Lore in this post, but if you need a refresher, please Google Ragnarök in Norse Mythology.
I have struggled with labels and continue to do so. I aim to use the term Rokkatru within circles that know something about Norse Lore, and outside of those circles, the term Northern Tradition. I do not want the label Heathen and am by no means Asatru. Asatru is specifically followers of the Gods of Asguard or the Aesir (and I use those terms interchangeably). Technically speaking, some of the Vanir are also Gods of Asguard; Frey, Freya and Njord. If you follow, honor or work with them, you’re technically Asatru- I will never force a label onto someone, whichever label, if any, you use, I will respect and use it for you. Rokkatru is specifically followers of the deemed dark Gods of the Norse pantheon. Where the line is drawn, is who fights on which side during Ragnarök. Yes, some Jotun are friendly to the Asier and some of the Asier are in fact Jotun (here’s looking at Odin and Thor) but in the end, at Ragnarok, who fights where is where that line is drawn. With that answered, it typically leads into the “how could you root for that side?” According to Asatrur, I’m rooting for the bad guys. Well of course a devotee of the Aesir would say it’s the bad guys because it’s their Gods being fought against. What about the larger picture?
If I were to take a look at the lore and apply the common binary thoughts on good vs. evil (and I’ll address that topic later), I cannot look at the Aesir and go “yeah those are the good guys.” And this is where I tend to tick certain people off so I’m going to note: I do not dislike ANY of the Norse Gods, Beings or Powers. I am taking an objective look at the lore and nothing more. I am a human being and try as I may, I have to view things in a human context in order to understand them. With that context in mind, the Aesir are, to me, “the bad guys.” With very rare exception, I cannot see justification for the treatment of the Jotun by the Aesir. They’re treated as a lower race, as sexual deviants, as perverts, as a threat. Is Ragnarok a self-fulfilling prophecy? Did the Jotun receive enough aggression and oppression that they finally rose up and merely defended themselves? It’s a valid question to ask when viewing the lore from the human perspective. Thor is often mentioned as being off in Jotunheim on a killing spree. Fenris, Hela and Jormungandr are kidnapped from their parents’ home and one of them is horribly tortured, the other two thrown to what could have easily been their dooms. The Jotun are referred to as vile creatures and treated with distain, unable to cross the border because of their given low status. When the very creation story has aggression against them to begin with. 7 of the 9 worlds were created via murdering, without provocation, Ymir. Essentially, racism is an institutionalized part of the Norse Lore with the divide between the Jotun and the Aesir. The Aesir even treated other beings as lower class, such as the dwarves. The Jotun are treated the worst of the worse.
As a human, I make comparisons to the world today around me. I see members of the LGBTQIA+ community labeled as sexual deviants., treated with distain and even called a danger. Parents allowing their children to be themselves, or parents that are members of the LGBTQIA+ community and those in power wanting to remove the children… and I think of Fenris, Hela and Jordmungandr. I see persons of color labeled lesser, inferior and even called a danger. I see something I can grasp as the treatment of any non-Aesir being, particularly the Jotun. When I see armed-white men, both past and present, marching in the streets saying that they need to defend their women against attacks from African-Americans… I think of Thor going into Jotunheim and murdering Jotun because he feels he is defending his people despite no provocation at the time. Then I see the assault on body autonomy, the overturn of Roe V Wade and many other things… and I think of Freya, who had no choice. She, as powerful as she is, couldn’t refuse Odin’s order and would have had to marry the mason (yes, A Jotun in disguise) and in turn sleep with him against her will. She did not have authority over her own body… Odin did. When I see such parallels between my experience and the lore, I can better understand. Because I can better understand, I can more easily go to the Jotun and ask of their experience and build that relationship. I can relate to the struggles of the Jotun, of being persecuted, of being hated and despised, of those in power believing that I am a threat and endangering me because of their perceived threat, more than I can relate to the struggles of the Aesir, of delaying death, of maintaining power over others.
I know I’ve said a lot of negative things about the Aesir. I do not believe in ultimate good or ultimate evil. I believe that absolutely everything is good and beneficial to something, and bad and harmful to something else. I do not view good and bad as a binary. I do not hate Odin or Thor and many of the actions which they do that I dislike; I can understand their justification. I disagree with it, but I can understand it. I do not think Thor kills Jotun for funsies and that in his viewpoint, it is absolutely necessary. Oddly enough, through my relationship with the Roku, I’ve better understood it as a need. The Gods are not human and try as I may, I will never fully understand them but I can get along with those I find weird, but let everyone be who they are. Acceptance and inclusion are high with the Jotun and in my perspective, low with the Aesir.
The second half to the answer is that, unfortunately, Heathenry has a white supremacist problem. After what was said above, it should be easy to see how white nationalists feel pulled to it. They are a minority among the Norse of Heathens but they are a big problem; they are loud and active. It has come to it that they’ve caused many sacred symbols of various traditions to be labeled as hate symbols. I personally know of organizations that were punished for using these symbols of their own faith. They are a problem akin to an invasive weed in the garden. I do not choose to share a title with them, particularly when that title puts me into situations that I choose not to be in. It is a common occurrence to be in a heathen group or at a gathering and be told things like “Death till Valhalla sister!” or negative things about the Jotun. Even worse, within “inclusive” heathen groups, Rokkatrur are often excluded or, at best, tolerated but berated. We get labeled as cringy, counter-culture, idiots, uneducated, deviants. We get treated like crap because of some cosmic battle between the Gods.
I understand devotees of Odin feeling uncomfortable with devotees of Fenris; Fenris eats Odin. But maybe he wouldn’t eat Odin if Odin let him grow up with his mother and his kin. I understand devotees of Thor scoffing at people honoring or devoting themselves to Jormungandr, but maybe they wouldn’t have had the cosmic battle to the death if Thor would just have let him be on that fishing trip. I can preverbally cross the bridge and honor and work with the Aesir but others inability to see it or inability to be comfortable crossing that bridge… it makes me more nervous than anything in the lore. Between the issues with white supremacy and the exclusion of devotees of the Roku, I don’t desire the label “Heathen.”
Why not just use the label? Why must I have something separate? Because I’ve been separated. I’ve been excluded. Sorta like “why does there gotta be a pride month”, “why does there gotta be” a black history or women’s history month. I use the term Rokkatru because of exclusion, the poor treatment. We needed a space for us when we weren’t allowed in others spaces.
Yes, SOME organizations now allow for Rokkatrur and Lokeans to be in their spaces, just as much of the world has become accepting of same-sex marriage… but there is still a LOT of hate, and that safe space is still very much a need. That label, too, is very much a need.