Insularity and the Other, On Being a Heathen “Citizen of the World”
Posted on September 9, 2020
It should surprise no one that Heathenry and its associated, yet nascent, theology breeds insularity. Many reconstructionist attempts at understanding pre-Christian Germanic religion have fixated, falsely I feel, on the concept of a smaller tribal nucleus as an attempt to organize their worldview and establish an identity within and beneath the wider Western culture. While in-groups and out-groups exist in all walks of life and all social situations, Heathenry’s efforts are ultimately derived from the dated scholarship of Vilhelm Grønbech, and other contemporaneous scholars of his time, further inspired by romanticist movements, and taken to almost fanatical levels of dogma among many disparate groups of Heathens.
The Inner-Outer dichotomy, a feature of Heathen social and religious positioning, is admittedly under-attested in the majority of the ‘Lore’ that Heathens utilize and rely on to inform their praxis and worldview. Nevertheless, these concepts are present within Germanic linguistics, particularly in the case of Old English, which includes a number of distinctions for in-groups and out-groups. This is a fact which is conveniently overlooked by current discourse arising from more critical sectors of Heathenry and Heathen-adjacent views that seek to typify the dichotomy as an anachronistic breeding ground of problematic ideology.
We know that the Old English language maintains divisions of knowns and unknowns, representing various geographic or locative relationships (town dweller vs. country dweller, foreigner, etc.). In the linguistic corpus, these are employed in a similar manner as the modern concept – delineation of space.
What we do not know, and what we will ultimately never be able to ascertain, is the role that this view played in the wider cosmological and metaphysical worldview as articulated by these pre-Christian groups, and how that can be applicable towards a working religious paradigm that contemporary practitioners can engage with. To be sure, this is a familiar story in Heathenry.
Heathen theology exhibits hints at concepts like containment and boundedness, with the Well of Wyrd holding all of reality and, if one follows Bauschatz, an upheaval of chaos when the Well overflows (exemplified by Ragnarok). We can also couch the Germanic exegesis into the wider Indo-European and related religious developments of sacred space, of cordoning off such things from the mundane, and other such examples.
But, if there were any cosmological significance that existed at all to the inner- and outer- dichotomy it is ultimately lost to us, as far as we are presently able to ascertain. While this is a roadblock, to be sure, this does present a collective opportunity for contemporary practitioners to innovate a workable metaphysical model which can be employed for the furtherance of the religious identity.
Heathenry’s tendency to self-isolate, separate, and create an insular network of relationships is not a singular phenomenon. What it has done in the Heathen sense is attempt a form of neo-tribalism, providing some manner of band or tribal system of enforced, constructed connections, duties, and obligations. Ultimately, this is a feature of postmodernism, which reacts to the communal and social failures perceived in society as well as the degradation of the idea of the individual and the domineering guise of the West-as-it-had-been and modernity.
With a root in the same genesis as other subculture/neotribe/band groups in the past forty years or more, combined with an increasing trend of social isolationism, devaluation, and being ‘left behind’ by what is ultimately a system of social and economic forces and other inequities, Heathenry’s neo-tribalistic view is hardly unique.
The present fixation on the idea of the clan as affecting the relationship between the group and the Other, specifically to the stranger, and is called an “obsession” of postmodernism by Maffesoli (Maffesoli 1996, 104). With cultural and individual dynamism based on the tension between heterogeneous elements in society, Modernism’s views of unity and the end goal of rationalism have been left far afield. Historic surveys have, of course, shown that this is a common result after attempts at unification and centralization, that the pendulum returns once again to particularism and localism (Maffesoli 1996, 105).
While the efforts at a Heathen organic solidarity are not in and of themselves problematic (indeed, the multiplication of small affinity groups is a feature and not a bug for our multicultural centers, one which I support), it is the lack of harmonizing with wider sociality makes it particularly troublesome: it becomes reminiscent to that of a disputatio, the assertion of necessary self isolation for affectations of socio-cultural and religio-cultural purity. Heathenry’s social self-isolation attempts small-scale religious unity, even as it reacts to the efforts of unity on a wider scale, and it has erected barriers which encourage ambivalence (at best) and disregard (or worse) to people outside such a system. These barriers are, as above, the dichotomous relationship between the collective Inner(yard) and the wider Outer(yard).
The above diagram is an example of the typical arrangement of the Inner-Outer in contemporary (especially (neo)tribalistic) Heathenry, despite having tradition-specific. Roughly, it focuses on the ‘hearth’, the familial unit (although in this example extending to non-family members sharing a communal housing situation), extending to the wider extra-residential kin group, and finally to one’s unrelated-yet-still-local community, the intentional neo-tribal entity.
Beyond the terminus of this community entity resides the Outer-yard (Ūtanbord/Ūtangeard), that which encompasses everything else. In the most prolific Heathen view, which replicates what is known or surmised of the pre-Christian Germanic peoples, this is representative of the unknown and the wilds. Given its traditional, historical, concepts of extra-territorial living, groups of people or individuals living beyond the common laws of the tribal body commonly drew on connotations of outlawry, for the cohesive tribe was governed by common laws for the good of the people, and everything else existed outside those laws. (Harlan-Haughey 2016, 25)
It should be readily apparent how, especially in a modern, politically charged climate, Heathenry has comparatively found itself grappling with the problems of a classification of existence which actively Others groups of people, dividing them literally into an “us vs. them” mentality, which lead to the aforementioned anachronistic ideologies taking root and proliferating among practitioners. This is all despite warnings and amonitions from “the Lore” regarding courtesy and hospitality to guests and the unknown peoples of the world (as the random visitor may yet be a deity in disguise!).
This is one of the failings with attempting to relocate a religious conception from a period vastly different than the present: a period of insularity, where many men and women would largely not have moved beyond the borders of their immediate vicinity, as compared to one of a globally interconnected world that purports universal idas of human rights and natural laws. This dialogue has not found much purchase in common Heathen spaces, where we have spoken about different “types” of inclusive or exclusive Heathenries. Historically, we have been forced to speak in terms of “universalism” versus “folkishness”, although these have lately been recognized for what they really are: non-racism versus racism.
Wedged into this discussion is the late-comer of “tribalism”, a third way of discussing Heathen views which has elaborated on and pressed forward with the strict erection of an inner-outer dichotomy, as we have mentioned above. Yet, in this discussion of the outer-as-beyond-law, are not all citizens of one state, then, subject to the same laws (however unequally they are enforced, but that is for another time)? Could someone, anyone, be rightly determined as an outyarder in a system where we recognize the theoretical sanctity and importance of all human life in a fundamental and essential, intrinsic way? More importantly, as the world hurtles towards greater challenges in the next phases of this new anthropocene, are these perceived barriers between peoples truly the best way to move forward?
It would be simple to assert that, both cosmologically and religiously, the Inner and Outer can only be held with regards to practitioners of Heathenry-as-a-religious-system, and perhaps extend to any person who can rightly be determined to be “Heathen-Adjacent” (partners/family, etc.). Doing so, however, would run counter to the common assertion that the maintenance of frið (a reciprocal relationship of selflessness, often glossed with ‘peace’) drives all of a Heathen’s interactions with the wider world and is paramount to maintain if at all possible. So we are necessarily forced, in the present moment, to consider interactions and worldviews that include members of dissimilar religious and cultural ethos from the Heathen individual.
Where a person is in the world, and the duties which they possess to that world at large has been a constant question for philosophy for millennia. Numerous philosophical schools sought the answer to this situation, but it is in Stoicism where I have found a world-view system where various obligations of the Inner fit and, more importantly, are expanded so as to offset the hyper-inclusive view of many Heathenries. This comes through the Stoic concept of oikeiōsis (οἰκείωσις), and the duly required levels of beneficence given to the perception of the world.
A diagram of this is below:
While a thorough discussion is out of the scope of this paper, an explanation is nonetheless required. Roughly, oikeiōsis is a practice of “appropriation” which was positioned by the Stoics as an intrinsic act of all living things, although given the failings of English at translating other languages, it is also correctly translated as “familiarization” and “affinity”, and similar words, which all must be looked at to gauge the concept. (Sedley 1998). In Stoic philosophy, oikeiōsis is divided into “interior” and “exterior”, split between looking to the self and to one’s own constitution and nature, and looking towards the external good and that which regards other people. In the original sources, this multifarious definition is referenced different times by different names, different definitions for oikeiōsis, which makes a simple English translation all the more difficult.
In Stoicism, the first, natural impulse, of all living beings is one which consists of self-preservation, procreation, and social bonding by developing a perception of the self and then moving away from that self-awareness to active self-preservation. This self-preservation is done through identification of similarities in nature through other beings, or to familiarize oneself with the reflection of one’s own constitution within another entity. This act of self-preservation, or, in Cicero’s words, a formation of a “bond of mutual aid”, extends from the initial recognition of the self to encompass the whole of the world.
Thus, the perceiver, the perceived, and both the act of perception engages in self-love, characteristic in the Stoic view, of all creatures in Nature (Ramelli 2009, x). To have hope to survive entails caring for other beings, extending as one matures into their rationality and reason.
It is important to understand that while all things reach out towards benevolence, this appropriative familiarization, is also actionable. By recognizing similarities which we share in others, both human and divine, we establish as great a continuity as possible between wider circles of sociable oikeiōsis and narrower ones – the end result being that others are as closely bound to us as possible in terms of benevolence or, at the very least, affinity (Ramelli 2009. 128).
This can be envisioned as follows:
I must note that modern depictions of oikeiōsis ignore the final, most distant, ring which I have included here – the Gods and Nature. This incidence is part of the de-polytheisation of ancient philosophy and supports a commodification and repackaging of modern Stoicism into atheistic and capitalist, consumerist, needs.
At first glance, the concept of oikeiōsis would appear to reinforce at least one conceptual understanding of Heathen theology: that the Gods are most distant and least-vested in the individual petitioner’s life, that they conform to the outermost ring of one’s awareness and are, thus, the least important (See “Eric” 2020, and Gregsson 2020 for fairly typical takes regarding individual-divine relations and one’s place in the world in Heathenry). This may be the case, were it not for the actionable aspects of oikeiōsis.
Stoics, effectively, would seek to draw the outside inwards, becoming familiar with the outermost ring of oikeiōsis first and pulling it towards the self, doing so by recognizing shared attributes with the wider world – that is, recognizing the reason which is shared among creation. In this polytheistic system, a sage would first come to know the Gods and the divine Nature, and then seek to understand the wider human community, a key focus of its cosmopolitanism and the ethical arrangement of the Stoic philosophy and moral/ethical virtue (Sedley 1998).
Oikeiōsis can be informally divided into the intrinsic, contrasting to the extrinsic. The intrinsic, to reiterate the earlier point, would be that which is the innate understanding of the self and the urge for one’s self-preservation. I would argue that familial relationships and those closest to the development of rational awareness, as a child naturally does with those who occupy the first three circles depicted in the model above, also can be grouped within the intrinsic.
From there, the individual must make the conscious, rational, choice to appropriate themselves towards the wider community, the whole of mankind, and the very divine of the world. Doing this foments virtue and understanding of one’s place in the world and, importantly, engenders a reciprocal obligation towards compassion and concern for the well being of others.
It is naturally impossible to maintain the same intensity of benevolence within a system of ever-widening circles of individuals. The oft recited “friend to all is a friend to none” among Heathen circles is, however, accounted for. Benevolence may decrease the further one moves from the core, yet the sense of affinity must nevertheless be maintained with these efforts of appropriating ourselves to these circles (Ramelli 2009, 127), for to do so is to maintain the universal understanding of rights pertaining to humanity and nature at large. Rendering these degrees of affinity through oikeiōsis within the system as promulgated best by Hierocles does not, and cannot, excise the close or traditional kinship relationships for the sake of humanity at large; there is no expectation of surrendering the importance of these close social ties (Reydams-Schils 2002, 246).
The stance of the Middle Stoa is that there is no community unless we collectively start with the one closest to our home, a stance of Stoicism which aligns closest to the perception of the social values of Heathenry. The familial affection and the relationships between close friends, allies, and the immediate community, that of the intrinsic oikeiōsis is “in accordance with nature, and good” (Epictetus 1904, I.II), where the extrinsic oikeiōsis can be considered “reasonable and rational”.
Where does this place the concept of the Outer? If the whole of the world recognizes (optimistically, to be sure) that of fundamental human law and the rights of nature, and that it is both reasonable and rational that we seek to draw ourselves in affinity to the whole of the world and the Gods and of the divine Nature, then there is thus no outer save for that which is intentionally done.
Heathen and Heathen theology is, above all, based on the relationships between action and inaction (see “Marc” 2018). One’s actions are intrinsically important to their sense of being and the very reality of the world, with little regard for their circumstance of birth, location, or whichever malleable and nascent neotribal entity they hold allegiance to. It is the conscious desire, then, to set one’s self against what is good and virtuous, to willingly step beyond into the Outer where reason holds no sway, and to embrace a life that is, in Harlan-Haughey’s position, one of an outlaw.
“Eric”. “Personal Relationships with the Gods.” Accessed September 7, 2020. https://archive.is/nUdAR
Epictetus. 1904, “Discourses”, trans. George Long.
Gregsson, Lee. “Tribe as the Foundation for the Reconstruction of Heathenry.” Accessed September 7, 2020. https://archive.is/y1eHW
Harlan-Haughey, Sarah. 2016, The Ecology of the English Outlaw in Medieval Literature: From Fen to Greenwood, Routledge.
Maffesoli, Michel. 1996, *The Time of the Tribes: The Decline of Individualism in Mass Society*, trans. Don Smith, Sage Publications: London.
“Marc”. “De Natura Temporis Et Rituum Germanicorum”. Accessed September 7, 2020. https://axeandplough.com/2018/07/12/de-natura-temporis-et-rituum-germanicorum/
Ramelli, Ilaria. 2009, Hierocles the Stoic: Elements of Ethics, Fragments, and Excerpts, trans. David Konstan, Society of Biblical Literature: Atlanta
Reydams-Schils, Gretchen. 2002, “Human Bonding and Oikeiosis in Roman Stoicism”, Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy, vol. 2.
Sedley, David. “Stoicism.” Accessed Aug 31, 2020. https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/stoicism/v-1/sections/oikeiosis