Not All Heathen Groups are Alike
Certain beliefs and customs unite Heathens (also known as Asatruar, Odinists, usw) in a common religion and differentiate them from other Pagans such as Wiccians and Druids. These include, but are not limited to: kinship with the gods of the Germanic pantheon, recognition of the Eddas as a source of wisdom and understanding, the ritual practice of the blót and sumbel, and a world view rooted in the concept of wyrd.
But, like all religions, heathenry has its factions and subsects. This is not surprising when we consider that the information that has come down to us about the pre-Christian religion of the Germanic peoples spans a wide range in terms of time and place. The religion of the tenth century Icelanders as described in the sagas is notably different from the religion of the Germanic tribes bordering the Roman Empire as described by Tacitus-- although a comparison between the two yields a continuous core of belief at a deeper level. Some groups focus on the common threads throughout all incarnations of Germanic paganism. Others focus on the heathen practices of a particular place and time. The sources and evidence for the actual beliefs and practices of the pre-Christian Germanic peoples are subject to a great deal of interpretation and reinterpretation by philologists, archeologists, anthropologists and psychologists, and are being examined by new academic disciplines all the time. The continuing scholarly debate allows modern heathen groups a measure of leeway in determining which religious practices are "authentic".
Theological differences between heathen organizations can also arise based on the individual religious experiences of their members. Groups have distinct opinions on such matters such as: to what degree ritual activities should be reconstructed based on the historical sources; to what extent practices are directly inspired by the gods; how great a role magickal or shamanic practices have within the religion; and how the Eddic material should be interpreted.
Modern heathen groups are also divided by what has come to be seen as a "political" rather than a religious issue, usually summed up in one word: race . Organizations which describe themselves as folkish believe that people of Northern European genetic heritage are naturally suited to the ancient Germanic religion and that people of other "races" should seek inspiration within the religion of their own ancestors. Most folkish groups do not accept members who are clearly "Non-Germanic" -- in practice this can mean turning away perspective members based on the colour of their skin or the origin of their surname. Representatives of folkish groups will state that they are not racist; they believe that people of all races, cultures, and religions are equally worthy of respect. However, they also tend to believe that, like Yahweh, Oðin champions a "chosen people" and that his choice is genetically based. Folkish heathen groups often defend their stance on the "race issue" by comparing themselves with other indigenous tribal religions which shun "outsiders".
Other heathen organisations have made a point of including a non-discrimination clause in their charters. Although they understand that pride in heritage and reverence of ancestors is a vital part of Germanic Paganism, they welcome anyone inspired by the Germanic gods to attend their rituals, regardless of their "race". They see the concept of "tribalism" in cultural, rather than genetic, terms and tend to view all folkish groups with suspicion.
Heathen organizations also differ in practical group dynamics. Some are heirarchical, some democratic, and some in between. Some groups have "ordained clergy" and others do not. Some large national groups offer memberships to individuals, whereas others are confederations of smaller groups (kindreds, hearths, hofs, feligs, usw).
How to Avoid the Wrong Sort of Groups
There are many wonderful groups out there which encourage fellowship and spiritual growth among their members. There are also some that are little more than a power-trip for some self-appointed "leader" with a personal agenda. The later kind survive largely by attracting niave and impressionable new members. The following tips may help to wisen you up.
Do not confuse an organization within a religion with the religion itself. The Catholic Church is not "Christianity". You can quit the Catholic Church and become a Baptist and still be Christian. You can decide that organized Christianity is simply not for you and still be Christian. Similarly, you don't need to join anything or profess in any sort of formal ceremony to be a Germanic Pagan.
Before joining a group, ask questions about the various theological and political issues mentioned in the first section of this article. Don't be afraid to ask why a group holds a particular belief.
Don't assume that just because someone has a fancy title they know what they're talking about, and certainly don't assume that they are trustworthy. The most foolish of folk often use titles to lend themselves legitimacy.
Avoid any group that pressures you to formally join before you're ready to make that decision on your own. They clearly need you more than you need them.
Never take a life-long oath to a large organization! Think about it for a moment. If you take an oath to an individual, that person is directly accountable to you, whereas an organization is not accountable for its actions. High ranking members can pass the buck and avoid responsibility for decisions made by "the group". The membership of an organization is going to evolve over the years. Even if those in the top ranks were your trusted friends when you joined, there is no guarantee that the same calibre of people will be involved the future.
How to Make Initial Contact
I highly recommend that, before contacting any heathen organizations, you join one or both of the Asatru mailing lists. You can find information about these lists using the links that follow.
This article was orginally posted at the Germanic Heritage Page