pagan

Asatru Weddings: Marrying the Heathen Way
Followers of Asatru draw inspiration from contemporary practices to create their own beautiful and meaningful nuptial celebrations.

Followers of Asatru draw inspiration from contemporary practices to create their own beautiful and meaningful nuptial celebrations.

While Statistics Canada doesn’t explicitly count our country’s Norse pagan population, Heathenry continues to gain popularity. As new followers join local kindreds and adopt in-home religious practices, they learn about and pass on the faith’s rituals and traditions. With more Asatru weddings occurring in Canada, Norse pagans delve into older source materials and draw inspiration from contemporary practices to create their own beautiful and meaningful nuptial celebrations.

Religious and Ceremonial Customs Can Be Diverse

Modern Asatru’s origins began more than four decades ago. Washington Post reporter Terrence McCoy explains that the revival of old Norse religious traditions started with the 1972 founding of the Asatru Association in Iceland. While many cultural customs were transmitted through word-of-mouth, present-day pagans have derived some worship and ceremonial practices from a few key source texts:

  • The Poetic Edda, a vast collection of epic poems sourced from a medieval Icelandic text known as the Codex Regius
  • The Prose Edda, a 13th-century volume of narratives about Norse mythology and religious beliefs compiled by Icelandic scholar Snorri Sturluson
  • Heimskringla and Landnámabók, two historical sagas also penned by Sturluson

Contemporary scholars mostly regard much of these works’ content as historical fiction rather than factually accurate accounts. BBC Religions points out that they were composed or compiled after Scandinavian Europe had converted to Christianity during the 11th and 12th centuries. However, they still provide cultural insights. Heathens today have developed diverse kinds of spiritual, ritual, and ceremonial practices from these writings and other folk traditions, with details shifting and changing as they’re transmitted from person to person. 

Common Ceremonial Elements 

Two organizations based in the United States, The Asatru Community and the Kindred of Ravenswood, have documented modern Heathen wedding customs. The Asatru Community published a detailed description of a typical Norse pagan wedding in a March 2018 blog post, while Kindred of Ravenswood member Chris Haviland offered a basic ceremonial outline along with some common traditions.

While there are a few differences between Haviland’s and the TAC’s versions, both follow a somewhat similar order of services. First, a Norse pagan wedding usually begins with the officiant hallowing the ceremonial space. The Asatru Community explains that this can be done by blowing a calling horn and smudging the area with sage, while Haviland mentions that the officiant may perform a blessing rite before the wedding party and guests arrive.

Once the couple has processed in, the ceremony itself begins. It generally includes readings, followed by the couple’s recitation of vows and either an exchange of rings or a handfasting ritual in which their wrists are tied together by the celebrant. Haviland’s account mentions a few additional elements:

  • The couple ritualistically eating a small cake and drinking mead
  • An exchange of keys or swords, which is based on an older Norse practice of the bride and groom trading each other’s ancestral swords
  • The clergy member blessing the bride with a Thor’s hammer

Modern documentation of Norse wedding customs usually mentions heterosexual couples tying the knot. Nevertheless, they have been adapted for same-sex unions. A May 2015 Reykjavik Grapevine article mentions that many same-gender couples marrying in Iceland have traditional pagan ceremonies performed by Asatru Fellowship officiants.

Revived Customs With Deeper Meanings

Like marriage rites from other cultures and faiths, Norse pagan weddings are packed with traditions, symbolism, and meaning. When each couple comes together, they bring their families’ histories and legacies with them. At the same time, their loved ones’ hope for their good fortune is conveyed through the officiant asking for blessings from the gods, spirits, and ancestors. Although different versions of Heathen nuptial rituals exist, the final intent is similar: witnessing a new union’s beginnings in front of their larger communities.

Stand Up and Be Counted: Numbering Canada’s Pagan Population
As issues of political representation and religious freedom remain salient, some pagan Canadians grapple with how to be counted and recognized.

As issues of political representation and religious freedom remain salient, some pagan Canadians grapple with how to be counted and recognized.

How many Neopagans make up the Canadian population? That’s a hard question to answer. Even worldwide, the pagan community is hard to estimate due to a wide variety of factors, so estimates often come from third-party sources. As issues of political representation and religious freedom remain salient, some Canadian pagans grapple with how to advance the positive recognition of their faith.

A Minority in Many Nations

In most Western countries, Neopagans usually make up less than 1 percent of the population. Organizations such as the Pew Research Center in the United States have attempted to assess these numbers. Yet according to Religious Tolerance, even Pew has not been consistent in its analysis and classification of adherents to modern forms of paganism. Around 0.4 percent of respondents answered “Pagan” or “Wiccan” on Pew’s 2008 Religious Landscape survey, yet Pew classified some of these same responses under the “New Age” category in other years. Pew’s own 2010 estimates stated that 0.8 percent of the world’s population belonged to “other religions,” but it includes faiths such as Zoroastrianism, Sikhism and Jainism alongside various pagan paths such as Wicca, Kemetic paganism and Norse Heathenry.

The Impact of the “Broom Closet”

Depending on where they live, many pagans contend with outright persecution. Some individuals keep their chosen faiths quiet among family, coworkers and acquaintances to avoid discrimination and harassment. In a 2015 Vice article, contributor Leonie Roderick cited examples of the prejudicial actions that practitioners of Witchcraft and other pagan paths face. For example, an English witch named Charlie Mallory Cawley documented years of bullying and abuse both in her workplaces and at school. Her tribulations included accusations of animal sacrifice and being cornered in a women’s restroom and called names.

Problems With the National Household Survey

Statistics Canada incorporated several religious categories for respondents to select in its 2011 National Household Survey. However, a 2013 HuffPost Canada article reveals much of the criticism expressed about the instrument, namely its low response rates among marginalized populations such as the poor, immigrants and indigenous First Nations communities. The 2011 survey listed the following classifications for religious faiths:

  • Roman Catholicism
  • Other Christian
  • Non-religious
  • Islam
  • Hinduism
  • Sikhism
  • Buddhism
  • Judaism
  • Other religions

The Pagan Business Network also mentioned the lack of options for Neopagan respondents in a 2016 blog post. Nevertheless, one possible factor influencing lack of recognition may be the vast range of spiritual paths existing under the banner of Neopaganism. For instance, the Canadian chapter of the Pagan Federation International mentions many different iterations on its website, such as Wicca, Druidry, Heathenry and Shamanism.

Furthermore, PBN writer Mark J. Newby opined that “the Canadian Government is at a loss about how to recognize religions that do not have a centralized, hierarchical structure.” At the same time, he pointed to a recent chaplaincy guide available from Canada’s governmental publications as an example. While it offers an extensive amount of information about Wicca, Newby mentions that Wicca is the only Neopagan faith in the guide and that it seems to consider the Wiccan Church of Canada as a central authoritative body. As pagans themselves can attest, many contemporary Neopagan spiritual movements do not have centralized hierarchies.

What Does the Future Hold?

Pagan participation in politics and other aspects of Canada’s public life is increasing, as evidenced by growing membership in pagan organizations and the growing number of chaplains at higher educational institutions. However, a variety of factors still contribute to the difficulty in determining how many people follow Neopagan spiritual traditions in our country. With the eclectic nature of modern pagan movements and social stigmas that keep their practitioners “in the broom closet,” the future of pagan social and political representation remains to be seen.

The Christian and Pagan Roots of Halloween
Halloween blends Pagan and Christian traditions.

Halloween blends Pagan and Christian traditions.

Halloween is a billion-dollar industry in Canada, ranking only second behind Christmas among profitable holidays. As with many modern holidays, it appears to be a mingling of Christian religious observances and Celtic pre-Christian traditions originating in an older festival known as Samhain. So where does Samhain end and Halloween begin? Keep a dish of sweet treats nearby to nosh on as you read through the mysteries behind this popular spooky celebration.

Is Halloween a Celtic Import?

The Canadian Encyclopedia reveals that Halloween’s most popular traditions came to North America sometime in the 1800s. The first documented instance in Canada of costume wearing occurred in Vancouver in 1898, while “trick or treat” was first recorded in Alberta in 1927. The Canadian Encyclopedia’s entry further suggests that these customs likely migrated here with Irish and Scottish immigrants. South of the border, the United States Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center appears to back up the assertion that Halloween came to us from Celtic Europe, with its observance rooted in older Samhain practices.

Samhain: A Time for Harvests and Spirits

The modern Irish term “Samhain” (pronounced “SOW-in”) refers to end-of-harvest revelries. It’s hard to ascertain when ancient Celts began marking the end of autumn, but the oldest documented example appears in Irish literature from around the 10th century C.E. Prior to that, Irish mythology mostly existed as spoken word traditions. Samhain’s festivities were held starting at sundown on October 31 and ending at dusk on November 1, a date that originally lined up with the Celts’ New Year. It’s also one of the four major seasonal holidays, along with Imbolc, Beltaine and Lughnasadh, on the ancient Celtic calendar.

Besides heralding the arrival of the cold season, these pre-Christian Celtic peoples believed that the barrier between the land of the living and the realm of the dead thinned at Samhain, allowing the souls of the dead to enter the waking world. Bonfires were lit to honor them and encourage their return to the Otherworld, a vast supernatural plane in which fairies, demons, deities and departed souls dwelled. Because these beings were thought to wander around on Samhain, offerings of food and drink were left out so that they’d leave the living alone.

Christianity and All Hallows’ Eve

Multiple sources have pointed to Catholicism’s adoption of pagan holidays into its own liturgical calendar. For instance, the December 25 date of Christmas also coincides with older celebrations of Saturnalia in ancient Rome and mid-winter celebrations across the rest of Europe. The American Folklore Center remarks that Pope Gregory I actively sought to absorb older customs and celebrations from non-Christian cultures in hopes of converting more people.

As Church leaders demonized native Celtic beliefs and condemned their Druids as devil worshippers, the All Saints feast was also moved to November 1. The day before became known as All Hallows’ Eve, yet the association of October 31 and November 1 with the mythology of Samhain never completely faded. Older Celtic practices of playing pranks, wearing disguises to confuse the dead and leaving out treats to mollify malicious spirits continued. 

Modern-Day Celebrations in Canada

While some fundamentalist Christians condemn Halloween as evil, the Canadian Encyclopedia disclosed that 68 percent of Canadians participate in its festivities every year. Followers of Celtic Neopagan spiritual paths might mark the day with bonfires, magical and ritualistic celebrations, and gatherings with friends and family. Moreover, the people who buy candies, dress up for trick or treat and throw Halloween parties come from many different faiths. With pagan and Christian contributions to the modern holiday and the childlike wonder and fun it can bring, there’s little surprise as to why it remains popular with Canadians in the 21st century.

 

ULC Monastery celebrates Beltane

May Day Celebrations

Girl with flower crown next to May Pole

Dancing around the May Pole

The transition from April into May marks the end of spring and the beginning of summer. During this time, the northern hemisphere is flourishing with new growth and warmer weather. The memory of winter is melting away, being replaced with brighter prospects. During this time, the earth is fertile and ready to foster the animals and crops which in turn sustain us all.

Beltane, or May Day, is a celebration of this new season, traditionally held on May 1st. This originated in pre-Christian times with the festival of Flora, a Roman goddess of flowers. Beltane originated as an ancient Gaelic festival, which was observed in Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man. These celebrations, and various other festivals held all over Europe, are closely related as they all celebrate the same thing.

As a cross-quarter day, Beltane marks the midpoint in the suns journey between spring equinox and summer solstice. According to myth, during this time the goddess and the god are united in holy matrimony and their relationship consummated. This symbolizes the fertilization of the earth and animals for the coming year. As part of the celebration, many earth-centered religions perform a ritual known as the Great Rite.

The Great Rite is the union of the male and female forces in creation. During this union, two halves become whole and bring all things into existence. The rite is performed by placing a male ritual tool into a female ritual tool, and couples are encouraged to perform the act de facto.

The holiday can be celebrated in other ways as well. Children, or those wanting to participate in ways other than the Great Rite, can make paper baskets by folding a piece of red or white decorative paper in half from one corner to the other; and string yarn through holes punched in the two connecting corners. Then, by placing a motley of spring flowers inside and leaving it on doorknobs, celebrants can spread the good will to friends and neighbors. This can be especially fun for children because you have to be sneaky and not let anyone know who brought them May flowers.

Another May Day celebration is the dancing of the May Pole. In this rite, many colored ribbons are woven around the pole, symbolizing the union of the goddess and the god. This is accompanied by the jumping over bonfires and making wishes.

While this celebration originated in Pagan and earth-centered religious, we all share the same home, and anyone can celebrate the changing of the seasons and the bounty that is provided by the Earth.