Mysticism and Personal Practice
In Heathen and Norse Pagan practice there is an ongoing debate over the role of mysticism, folk magic and other similar practices in modern spirituality. The revival of the arts of seiðr and runic mysticism have gained a lot of momentum in the wake of the modern resurgence of Norse Paganism. For some these occult arts are a vital part of their understanding of spirituality. They provide a doorway to the Powers and greater understanding of the world around them. For others their use undermines the authenticity, seriousness and gravitas of the broader movement. One of the best discussions of these dynamics, along with a strong argument for using these mystical practices, is Dara Grey’s recent essay available on academia.edu titled, “Wiccatru, Folk Magic and Neo-Shamanism: Reconstructing the historical roots of magic and mysticism in Nordic pagan traditions”. The questions that will be discussed here are those of authenticity and guidance for how to best handle mystical practice regardless of if you incorporate it into your personal spirituality.
The best place to start in this discussion is history, the wellspring for all forms of Norse Paganism and Heathenry. There is little debate in the ancient days that runic magic, seership and other forms of folk magic were practiced by many members of society. Probably the most famous example are the well-documented völur, also known as völva when presenting as women or vitki when presenting as men, who were said to be versed in the arts of seiðr. They were reported, in many sources, to see visions of the future, interpret omens, speak to the dead and perform acts of sorcery. The völur were frequently consulted for guidance and assistance. Their works were also not uniquely the province of a specific group of individuals but could be done by others as shown by Thorgeir the Lawspeaker “going under the cloak” to seek a solution to the challenge of Christian missionary activities in Iceland. There is also evidence in the sagas of multiple individuals, including great heroes, using runes for magical workings and runic divination is a common practice in the present day.
Unfortunately, even though we know these practices existed, there isn’t much in the way of documentation or description of how such actions were performed or their metaphysics. Yet despite this limited information one consistent factor among the ancient practitioners is they seem to have employed some form of altered state of consciousness, also known as a trance or ecstatic state, as part of their workings. This piece of information is incredibly valuable for the modern spiritual seeker thanks to recent breakthroughs in the young yet growing field of neurotheology, the science of studying what happens to the brain during religious and mystical rituals. This research, pioneered by Andrew Newberg, has uncovered rather surprising results.
Newberg’s research, which was based on neural scans performed on Buddhist monks and Catholic nuns engaging in meditation and prayer, found the brain responds to such practices in unconventional and unexpected ways. Subjects who were engaging in meditative practices during these tests registered brain patterns showing a shift away from the parietal lobes, the regions of the brain responsible for tracking objects in three-dimensional space, a response which the subjects described as feeling one with the world around them. Chants and prayer saw increased activity in areas of the brain associated with regulating behavior and directing attention. Participants engaging in mediumship, channelling and other forms of possessory work saw the thalamus, the region of the brain responsible for processing information, increase while activity in the sensory lobes drop suggesting they were receiving something from an unconventional source. Subjects who felt moments of profound religious ecstasy registered increased activity in the same parts of the brain association with sexual arousal.
To be clear none of this research proved the existence of any specific entity, Power or divinity. What it does, however, show is such practices are certainly doing something that is engaging the brain and human consciousness is ways that are outside of the ordinary. Such experiences, according to Newberg’s research, were accompanied by flashes of insight, understanding and intuition in the participants. This strongly suggests that people who engage in mystical practices, regardless of their specific form of spirituality or religion, are experiencing reality in a different way than is normally the case and their experiences are providing them some sort of guidance for their daily lives.
Between the historical evidence, research on modern adaptations of these practices and the scientific research into brain activities during these periods there is little doubt that mystical practice can be rewarding for those who engage in it. This is not to say that such practices are a required or necessary part of modern Norse Paganism or Heathenry yet it does show there is a place for such mysticism for those who feel it has value for them. Whether or not you pursue such mysticism is, ultimately, a personal matter. Just as you have the right to engage in or refrain from seiðr or the more occult aspects of the runes you should also respect other people’s choices to pursue these paths.
The question of the validity of mystical practice and whether to incorporate it in your spiritual work is far from the only one that must be wrestled with. Mysticism carries with it more than just personal insights and spiritually fulfilling experiences. It also poses challenges to how we understand reality, the potential social power mystical workers can wield, the harm they can do and what these mean for all practitioners. These are problems that must be confronted regardless of your take on incorporating mysticism into your spirituality since they could directly impact your life regardless of the particulars of your personal practice.
When it comes to knowledge, reality and mysticism there are many potential pitfalls to be aware of. Mystical insights, while at times profound and potentially earth-shattering, are filtered through the pra0ctitioner’s understanding and experiences just like any other information is. This is further complicated by the vast gulf in capacity between humans and the Powers. Personal biases, assumptions and desires play as much of a role in interpretation as mystical prowess. All these factors pose serious problems for using mystical insights regardless of their source.
The best answer to these problems is to consistently apply critical thinking. Mystical knowledge is, at the end of the day, another form of information that must be processed using the same skills that apply to any other source. Any assertions or discoveries should be checked against available sources and extraordinary claims must be supported by additional, extraordinary evidence. This, of course, depends on the nature of the insight and its significance. There is a world of difference in impact between a seiðworker claiming Loki’s favorite color is purple and depending solely on runic divination for guidance on your mental health. When in doubt seek a second opinion that ideally should come from a different source. The same is true of any magical workings. If, for example, you cast a bindrune for getting a meaningful job it won’t do very much if you don’t actively seek work.
On the flip side of the coin from critical analysis is the question of power. Mystics of all kinds in the ancient world wielded enormous social power in their communities and the same is true, to an extent, in modern Norse Paganism. There are some consistent warning signs to watch for when it comes to mystical abuse of power. If a person is claiming their skills grant them special authority over others, such as claiming they are the chosen voice of a certain Power, you should correct them if possible or avoid them for two reasons. The first is such claims of authority are very difficult to challenge since there is no way of consistently verifying what has been claimed. The second is anyone making such a claim is creating a foundation for power that is prone to abuse. When someone asserts they are only answerable to the Powers then anyone who is caught up in their orbit will, sooner or later, face abuse thanks to the total lack of accountability to those around them.
The same is true of people making other difficult to dispute claims such as the all too commonly invoked, “ancient family secrets” line. Such groups or individuals have the problem of usually impossible to verify claims wrapped up in a veneer of respectable, indisputable authority. One notorious example of this is the Odin Brotherhood, an organization whose founder claimed his works were the product of a surviving line of Nordic practice that was secretly passed down completely unaltered within his family for nearly a thousand years. Such claims are usually very different from people who focus on working with surviving folk practices, such as folk magic or folklore, as those who genuinely work with folklore treat their sources as another form of information and not indisputable gospel truths. People making assertions of ancient, totally authentic secrets are just as prone to abuse as those claiming to be specially chosen by the Powers thanks to the total lack of accountability that comes with their claims to unimpeachable authority.
Ultimately the question of mysticism, if it is right for you, what it means and how to approach potential abuses of it is one that will remain in constant debate as long as modern practice exists. What matters most is answering if these practices are good for you and what practices you choose to incorporate. Whether or not you find mystical work useful incorporating it into your practice always a highly personal choice that should be respected so long as the practitioner is not using their skills as a tool for gaining untouchable authority over others. Regardless of your choice the information obtained by such means should always be treated critically, just like any other source, and never used as a tool for abusing or ruling over others. Such insights are a guide for practice and must never be a scepter for lording over others.