Planting Heathenry in Texas Soil

When you think of tomatoes, which country do you think of first? Probably Italy. After all, what would Italian food be without tomato sauce made from those meaty, red, San Marzano tomatoes grown in the rich volcanic soil under the shadow of Mount Vesuvius?

When you think of potatoes, which country do you think of? Ireland? After all, the tuber of Solanum tuberosum is often called the “Irish potato” to distinguish it from the unrelated sweet potato, Ipomea batatas.

What if I told you that both those plants are native to South America? You would find their ancestral homeland in Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador.

On the other hand, what about “as American as apple pie?” Johnny Appleseed is an American hero, right? Michael Pollan called him “the American Dionysius” in The Botany of Desire. The wild relatives of apples grow in the valleys of Kazakhstan.

If you look at the “original” tomato, it doesn’t look like a San Marzano. The original tomatoes were probably small yellow cherry tomatoes. They didn’t evolve into San Marzanos until they were brought to Italy, grown in that volcanic soil, and selected by Italians for their sauce-making abilities. Likewise, a wild apple from Kazakhstan isn’t going to look like a Golden Delicious, and potatoes from Peru don’t look like the ones grown in Ireland, and certainly don’t look like Russet Burbanks, the most popular potato in the United States.

When these plants were taken from their homelands and planted elsewhere, they had to adapt to the new climate and change to be better suited for their new uses in new cultures. Living things are constantly evolving. I think the same principle of adaptation and evolution works for other things besides plants.

When African religions were brought (forcibly) to the Americas, they adapted and changed to become religions like Voodoo and Santeria. Some people may see that as being “impure”, and somehow traditional African religions still practiced in Africa today are the more “pure” form, but that’s like saying that Golden Delicious aren’t real apples because they don’t resemble the “original” apples. But if apples weren’t able to change and adapt to being grown in new climates and new soils, and new cuisines and new eating habits, they wouldn’t have survived and thrived here.

Adaptation and evolution isn’t just OK, it’s necessary.

On the Golden Trail blog, there was recently a post about modernizing ancient polytheistic religions. I’ve mentioned before that I think some modern Heathens seem to be a bit too obsessed with the Vikings. This is exactly the kind of thing I was talking about. It’s good to know about the Vikings, since that’s the past Heathen culture we have the most information about, but I don’t think that modern Heathenry should be “Viking religion.”

But I propose taking it even further. When you are matters, but I think where you are also matters. Of course people in the 21st century should worship the gods in a different way than people from the 10th century, but also people in Texas are going to worship the gods differently than people in Iceland. Iceland is a completely different environment than Texas. To continue with the plant metaphor, it’s just like how most varieties of apples don’t grow well here. They don’t get enough chill hours in the winter. You have to get a special “low-chill” variety if you want to grow apples in Texas.

I have encountered plenty of Heathens that get very upset if anyone suggests that our religion is a “nature-based religion”. We worship the gods, not nature, they’ll say. Nature worship is for Wiccans. So let’s ignore how all our holidays are based on seasonal cycles (which is, frankly, where the Wiccans got the idea), and pre-Christian Heathens probably had a lot more contact with the land spirits than the Aesir and Vanir, and even a lot of our gods are associated with natural forces.

I think the idea that the divine is separate from Nature is a monotheistic idea that some modern polytheists haven’t gotten over. In the Abrahamic religions there is one god, separate from Nature and universal. In polytheistic religions, there are lots of gods and spirits, and part of the reason is because they are interwoven with Nature, and Nature is not the same everywhere.

Taken to the other extreme, maybe gods from Europe can only be worshipped in Europe. Some pagans from Europe actually believe that, and think it odd that Americans or Australians would worship these gods. But I do think the gods can move. The African gods moved over here just fine. Gods move with their followers all the time.

What I’m saying is that the religion adapts to a new area and changes. Now, do the gods themselves change, or just how people perceive them? I don’t know, but the same question can be asked about how Vikings viewed the gods compared to how modern people do.

I think it would be perfectly natural for modern Heathenry in Texas to be different than Heathenry in Iceland. It’s good for us to know how Heathenry is done in Iceland, but that doesn’t mean we have to perfectly recreate it over here. Besides, we don’t already. From what I’ve heard, Texan Heathens tend to be much more conservative than Icelandic Heathens, Icelandic Heathens don’t have this big problem with Loki that Texan (and other American) Heathens do, Icelandic Heathens are much more into the land spirits than the gods, and probably other differences I haven’t heard of. It sounds to me like Texan Heathens are a lot more heavily influenced by Christianity than Icelandic Heathens are, which makes sense because Texas is in the Bible Belt, and Christianity is in decline in Europe.

That’s not a regional variation I particularly like, so I think it would be good for more American Heathens to learn about how it’s done in Iceland and other European countries. But then our task would be to adapt the essential core values of the religion to a different environment, just like we need to adapt the essential core values from the pre-Christian culture to our post-Christian culture. And that requires figuring out what those core values are. Then you end up with something that’s still Heathen at its core, but with a Texas flavor.

For example, Thor probably plays a different role in Texas than in Scandinavia. In the old lore, he protects people from the frost giants. We don’t really have a big frost giant problem here in Texas (though when it does freeze, it’s probably a good idea to pray to Thor for protection if you try to drive anywhere because Texans do not know how to drive on ice!), but we do have a problem with heat and drought, and thunderstorms bring us relief. I really doubt any Viking ever prayed to Thor to please bring a nice refreshing rainstorm to cool things off, but I certainly do. That’s what I mean by the gods being different here.

The only Heathen denomination I know of that’s done something like this is Urglaawe, “Pennsylvania Dutch Heathenry.” Yes, the Pennsylvania Dutch were Christians, but they still had Heathen elements in their culture, so this is an attempt to re-Heathenize them. It’s like a seed in their culture that had gone dormant, and now a few people are trying to nourish and grow it into an entire religion.

But the religion that grows from that seed is not the same as that of the pre-Christian Germanic people. It’s grown and rooted in the Northeastern U.S., so of course it’s going to be different, and probably better adapted to America than a purely European style of Heathenry. In Urglaawe, the gods are viewed slightly differently (Holda is a major deity, for example), the holidays match the seasonal cycles of the Northeastern U.S., and folklore incorporates New World plants and animals.

For some reason Urglaawe seems to be OK with other Heathens, instead of being seen as impure because it doesn’t come from pre-Christian times. Maybe it helps that the Pennsylvania Dutch have managed to keep their distinct culture all this time, so there’s continuity there.

I wish there was something like this for Texas. When you take something like Heathenry and plant it in Texas, what grows? What kind of adaptations need to be made to allow it to thrive in new soil without completely losing its original character?

There were a lot of German settlers in Texas, founding cities such as Fredericksburg and New Braunfels, but they have been less successful keeping their traditions alive than the Pennsylvania Dutch. Texas German is dying out, the only people who speak it anymore are seniors, and losing a language is always a big blow to a culture. If there were any Heathen elements to the culture of the Texas Germans, that’s probably died out too. It’s a shame because that means we have to start more from scratch if we want to have a Texas equivalent of Urglaawe, though I think the legacy of the Texas Germans would still be a good place to start to figure out how Texas Heathenry can be. There you can see how German culture adapted to Texas.

There’s a good reason why barbecue beef brisket is my “traditional” Midsummer feast food (beyond it being delicious). Texas style barbecue was invented by the Texas Germans. Lockhart, Texas is the “Barbecue Capital of the World”, and all the historic barbecue places there were founded by Texas Germans. Germans already had a tradition of smoking meats, so when they came to Texas, they started smoking the most easily available meat here, beef, using the most available wood here, oak and pecan. Eating it for Midsummer honors their ingenuity in adapting their traditions to a new land. (And that’s just one example of a Texas dish with German roots. Chicken fried steak is the Texas version of schnitzel, and Texas beers are brewed in German styles, because most of our breweries were also started by Texas Germans.)

In a past issue of Idunna, there was a recipe for “Heathen Stew” with a note at the end explaining that potatoes were left out of this recipe, because potatoes aren’t native to Europe. Now, to be fair, the recipe writer probably had that in there just as an interesting historical note, and wasn’t implying that Heathens aren’t allowed to eat potatoes, but some of us seem to be doing the religious equivalent of that.

The irony of course is that the Vikings seemed to have no problem traveling far and wide and picking up things from other cultures as they did. And sometimes, they ended up settling down and mixing into the local population. As their spiritual descendants, why would we quit doing that?