7/14/2013

1.2 Reincarnation and the Modern heathen

Reincarnation is a common belief among modern heathens. Two flavors of reincarnation seem to be especially popular:
  1. The eternal cycle of souls cycle in and out of a 'pool of souls.' As one person dies the soul drops back into and is absorbed by either the family or the universal collective for recycling back to Midgard.
  2. The spiral to perfection of the same soul is brought to earth in a series of incarnations in order that the the individual 'learns' certain lessons during each incarnation so that eventually when all the lessons are learned the individual is raised up to godhood in one way or another.

Initially, we attempted to find some correlation between the alternative religion, Wicca, and the concept of reincarnation, but this has proven somewhat difficult. It is known that reincarnation being accepted as a 'style of Afterlife' has been slowly incorporated into modern heathenry and to some degree has had a snowballing growth pattern so that by 1990, the belief had become a dominant discussion on newsgroups and email lists. In discussing this matter with modern heathens, it has been very difficult to find any real and direct Wicca-Ásatrú connection.
  1. It is known that several books and articles between the years 1989-2004 discuss reincarnation as being a form of Afterlife.
  2. During this same period of time, there was a large growth in the acceptance of reincarnation as being part of the heathen worldview.
  3. During the past decade, many of the newcomers to modern heathenry had passed through a period as Wiccan and, indeed, the top people in the RoT (Ring of Troth) were from the wiccan priesthood and continue to practice as wiccan which may have helped with the generalized acceptance of reincarnation as modern heathen.

However, correlation does not mean causation. There seems to be a large enough number of modern heathens who never had anything to do with wicca or any other alternative or new age religion but who also accept reincarnation as Afterlife, and it appears to be too simple to say that these folks were simply caught up in the 'reincarnation fad.'

Jordsvín (aka Patrick Buck), a popular internet figure and writer on heathen topics, maintains

"Nor do we neglect the Goddesses, who are equal in power and holiness to the Gods: Frigga, wife of Odin, seen under such guises as Allmother (feminine counterpart of Odin), the all-knowing but silent Goddess, and many other aspects; Freya, Goddess of fertility, love, magic and war; Idunna, Goddess of renewal (Eostre/Ostara, an Anglo-Saxon and German Goddess who provided the name for "Easter" may be the same Goddess); Hela, who rules over the place between death and rebirth (most of us Heathens believe in some form of rebirth or reincarnation) [my italics]; Nerthus, the Mother Earth Goddess mentioned in Tacitus' book Germania (98 C.E.), and many others. This should lay to rest erroneous notions, popularly held in the larger Pagan community, that Asatru is "patriarchal" or a "testosterone rush." We also revere the spirits of nature (landvaet- tir) and various guardian spirits, such as the Disir and Alfar (Elves). Our Gods are friendly, practical, dependable and approchable. They basically ask only that we honor them and in doing so live our lives in such a way that it helps uphold cosmic harmony, preserve life in Midgard, the world of which we are apart, and help life and the Universe continue to evolve. Thus, Asatru is in a very real sense a nature or Earth religion. We are friends and co-workers of our Gods, whom we sometimes address as "Elder Kin." We are not their slaves, nor do we grovel before them."

It should be noted that even though Jordsvín, himself, claims no relationship to the new age practice of wicca, his writing style and tone would indicate that he has a certain degree of simpático with new heathens coming from that arena. Jordsvín's claim that "most of us Heathens believe in some form of rebirth or reincarnation" may, indeed, be correct. Most modern heathens who entered heathenry 1990 CE or later seem to at least accept the possibility.

Rather than pin the insertion of reincarnation into heathenry onto wicca, which does not appear to be provable in any case, we believe the best place to look for the origin is most likely to be found in multiple places. The first scholarly discussion about reincarnation in ancient heathenry was probably Edred Thorsson's "Is Sigurðr Sigmundr 'aptrborinn'?"    Prior to this, very little was heard among modern heathens regarding reincarnation which, at the time, was regarded as an importation from wicca and had been generally frowned upon as a topic of conversation. In 1989, Thorsson had published A Book of Troth and had devoted Chapter 18 to the topic Rebirth (the heading of the chapter). His conclusions were that

"at this point it must be stressed that in ancient times it was not believed that the personal consciousness, with memories intact, was reincarnated-only certain innate transpersonal powers and characteristics as well as certain obligations and weaknesses were. Also, it was not the free-form, arbitrary parlor-room version of 'reincarnation' where souls go flying off to distant parts of the globe to be reborn as Chinese or Polynesians."

His conclusion to the piece published 3 yrs. later in the RoT's Iðunna echos exactly the same sense of rebirth. In this essay/ article he discusses the 'arguments' often used to support an ancient Germanic belief in reincarnation, i.e. that of Sigurðr, Víðarr and Váli, Þórðr, Kolbeinn Túmason and also to though not mentioned specifically 'the Helgi argument' where it is stated in English translations of the Elder Edda that Helgi was 'reborn' (the original words utilized were either endrborinn or aptrborinn).

"Fundamentally, the phrase of the Norse Sigurðr saga* describes a process of aptrburðr* in which the innate powers of Sigmundr are 'reborn' in his post-humous son.    This is evident in the relevant texts where we find that Sigurðr is able to ingest the venomous blood of Fáfnir after we have learned that only Sigmundr, and none of his sons, could perform this feat without harm. Thematically, similar myths (Víðarr and Váli) and saga figures (Þórðr, Kolbeinn Túmason, etc.) provide important analogs to this process. A wide range of cultural evidence, e.g. the Norse belief in rebirth and/ or transference of entities (hamingjur, fylgjur, etc.) which carry certain powers from generation to generation, naming practices connected with this belief, and the importance of rites of passage in fulfilling this transference also support this view."

In 2004, Thorsson republished an updated version of The Book of Troth privately but no words of the chapter cited were changed. Over the course of 16 years, Edred Thorsson stills maintains the same position held since the early 1980s and his writings cannot be held accountable for the belief in reincarnation as it is currently accepted by Jordsvín's reckoning. Looking through the RoT's Our Troth such a belief is not emphasized but is discussed in the same manner as Thorsson's article; however, H. R. Ellis-Davidson, a popular British interpreter of Norse Mythology writes at length about the Norse concept of soul, and its movement after death. In the conclusion to her Road to Hel, Ellis-Davidson mentions that that there seems to be two broad categories of an Afterlife among the Norse that of dying into the realm of the gods, which as we have shown above, now seems to have been rather late developing and may have been more a poetic metaphor than actual practice, or into a generalized land of the dead. She, like others, has remarked on the ability of a soul to move in a way which seems independent of the body such as in dreaming, or conscious 'faring-forth' as described in Chapter 10 of the Ynglinga Saga (see Section 2.0.3 below) but beyond this has not made any hard and fast conclusion that the soul is separate from the body and seems to deny that true transmigration of the soul is related to ancient heathen belief. To see the development of reincarnation, we must look elsewhere.


In 2004, Swain Wodening, who has been associated with modern heathenry since the late 1980s, published Hammer of the Gods: Anglo-Saxon Paganism in Modern Times. Wodening informs us in the Forward that the "book was not, and is not intended to be an academic work. While it is based in the lore of the ancient Germanic religion, as that religion is a living one, much is taken from [his] own personal experiences as well as the lore." In his his section on 'Rebirth,' there exists a possible explanation for the reincarnation phenomenon which cannot be attributed to Wodening, himself, since this author had encountered the argument over a period of 10 years on various email lists.

"There is some evidence that the ancient Norse believed in reincarnation of sorts. There is no evidence that the Anglo-Saxon tribes shared this belief, however the lack of evidence does not mean that they did not. Indeed it would be odd if they did not share this belief with the Norse."

He then discusses the the same two forms cited from Thorsson's research. Not to remove any of Wodening's documentation from context, we wish to focus on only the italicized phrase above.

The clause "the lack of evidence does not mean that they did not" in logic is called a 'false premise,' i.e. it means "there is no information available" and, therefore, logically cannot be used as an argument to prove the existence of anything. In the context Wodening utilized above, it could be construed that he is giving a stamp of 'OK' onto the idea that a modern AS belief in reincarnation is acceptable in spite of the fact there is no evidence for it. There is no evidence for any form of 'reincarnation' in any branch of the heathen Germanic worldview in literary record or in archeological record. Beyond the post-humous transference of of certain powers, taboos, obligations as mentioned above as indicated by the ancient and modern forms of the original words from the texts used to support such an idea, i.e. aptrborinn/ endrborinn (ModG nachgeboren), the whole concept of 'rebirth' is non-existant in any Germanic text and is probably little more than a very poor translation (of a word) for a richly complex concept that is distinctly Germanic heathen.

 It is our opinion that although the phrase, "the lack of evidence does not mean that they did not," is a common excuse used by the non-scientific to justify actions, it probably should be dropped from all research being done by modern heathens. As a premise to generate argument or proof it is disallowed in any university level paper because it undermines the credibility of the entire paper. It is such a common excuse to justify personal desires that it destructive qualities upon arguments is often overlooked. Wodening's argument 'sounds' completely logical because a large number of folks obviously want to believe in reincarnation, but when the argument is presented in a slightly modified fashion the ill-logic is revealed.

There is no evidence that the Anglo-Saxon tribes shared this belief in UFOs and martians, however the lack of evidence does not mean that they did not believe in UFOs or martians. Indeed it would be odd if they did not share this belief with the others.

Using the same logic, i.e. the 'false premise,' the above sounds completely ridiculous. The logical or illogical structure is this:
  1. There is no evidence that Mary killed John's dog.
  2. There is nothing to show that she did not kill John's dog.
  3. Therefore, it is OK for some people to accept that she killed John's dog (so long as they wish to believe the accusation in spite of the lack of evidence).
Absolutely, nothing has been proved or even suggested as possible proof other than the fact that one cannot prove a negative or the non-existence of something utilizing the lack of evidence. One cannot for example, 'prove the use of electric mixers by the ancient heathen Norse' by saying that "there is no evidence that they did not" nor 'prove' a belief in 'reincarnation' by the ancient heathen Norse by saying "there is no evidence to the contrary."

This should not be construed as denigration of Wodening's research which is very good in this author's opinion. It should also be remembered that his entire book was written as an intended to be an extended 'appeal to the masses' which in argumentative essays is generally considered to be a false premise and in itself cannot be used to prove anything either. Wodening wrote a 'popular' book and we feel that it can be left at that. We believe that Wodening was merely echoing those arguments commonly used in email lists, newsgroups, etc.

That 'rebirth' or 'reincarnation' in heathenry is directly the result of the conspiratorial efforts of wiccans is probably weak. That the original impetus came from the expansion and spread of new age concepts such as reincarnation through the 1970s and 1980s seems more likely and many of these concepts represented a good portion of the common modern worldview as being part of 'alternative religion.' Around that time, there was a large population moving over to heathenry from wicca, and with the bond between alternative religion/ reincarnation already in place, the acceptance of reincarnation as part of heathenry was almost inevitable in spite of the fact that the historical precedence is missing. This general acceptance coupled with the false premise that "the lack of evidence does not mean that the ancient Norse did not believe in rein- carnation," which this author had experienced as a primary argument for the existence of reincarnation since 1993-94 in various internet fora, seems to indicate that although wicca may not have been in conspiracy to undermine the historical basis of heathenry, it was in fact probably the one of the originators by its spread in popularity through the 1960s through the 1980s. The promotion efforts, however, seem to have come from heathens themselves by their (regardless of their spiritual background) buying into the poorly constructed arguments and passing them on as fact rather than questioning the validity of the argument.

No comments:

Post a Comment