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Negotiating Boundaries

As many Heathen practitioners will attest, there is more to this spiritual practice than simply worshipping a different group of Gods and having a particular set of holidays. It comes with a very different understanding of how the world works and this includes our relationships with the Powers. This is especially true of the Gods who, in many forms of Heathen practice, are treated as fallible, flawed yet wise beings whose good and bad examples are equally instructive. Fire & Ice practice, in particular, emphasizes the fundamental autonomy enjoyed by all beings in the Nine Worlds which is exercised by the granting or withdrawal of consent.

In practice, this means negotiating healthy boundaries with the Powers is an important aspect of personal spirituality. On the surface, this expectation can be a bit jarring for newer practitioners. One major reason for this is Christianity’s fusion of goodness and divinity. God, his agents, and purposes are inherently benevolent, loving, and righteous. This tends to mean relationships with divinity and its manifestations are defined by surrender and submission to their demands. Most Heathens, regardless of if they were raised in an actively Christian household, have to contend with this understanding of divinity because it is so deeply embedded in how modern society, media, and popular culture represent it.

Heathen Gods, in stark contrast to the case in Christianity, are not understood as being inherently good, righteous beings whose actions are always justified. One of the central drivers of conflict in the Nordic mythos that informs modern practice are the flaws, mistakes, and outright immoral choices made during difficult, ethically complex circumstances. This is as true of the protagonists of the sagas as it is of the Gods whose own actions, like the binding of Fenrir and their wars with the Jötnar, play a critical role in making Ragnarök both possible and inevitable. In short, the Gods of Heathenry are treated as imperfect, very human figures.

The same is also true of the animistic Powers known collectively as the vættir and the hosts of the dead. They are driven by their own desires, goals, and perspectives that sometimes lead to misunderstandings and conflict. Some are even actively hostile to humanity and all our works for reasons that are, based on their needs and desires, fully justified. Resolving conflicts with these beings is a common thread in folklore as are the consequences of rupturing right relationship.

These known tendencies are further reflected in historical materials like the Saga of Hrafnkell Freysgoða. The saga of Hrafnkell describes the life and tribulations of a devotee of Freyr who relocated from Norway to Iceland and devoted his life, land, and resources to his God. Over the course of the saga, Hrafnkell endures many hardships and setbacks that ultimately cause him to renounce his allegiance to Freyr. This instance suggests in this case during the time of King Harald Fairhair that being in relationship with any of the Gods was a personal choice and could be ended voluntarily by the individual adherent.

Fire & Ice practice further reinforces this example with the story of the creation of humanity as related in the Poetic Edda. As it says in verses 17 & 18 of the Voluspo:

Then from the throng | did three come forth,

From the home of the gods, | the mighty and gracious;

Two without fate | on the land they found,

Ask and Embla, | empty of might.

Soul they had not, | sense they had not,

Heat nor motion, | nor goodly hue;

Soul gave Othin, | sense gave Hönir,

Heat gave Lothur | and goodly hue.[1]

These two verses are all that remains from a potentially pre-Christian source describing the creation of humanity. What is very striking, in contrast to other creation stories like the Book of Genesis, is how the Gods who made the first humans give them no commands or decrees. There are many ways you could interpret this conspicuous absence. In Fire & Ice practice, this is taken to mean that autonomy and free will are inherent to the condition of living and are not gifts or special privileges granted by the Gods to humanity. If, as this line of reasoning argues, being alive is what makes us free to make our own decisions then it also follows this is true of other beings in the Nine Worlds.

If autonomy is fundamental to existence then it also follows that expressions of autonomy should be respected. Consent is one of the most direct expressions of autonomy as it is a clear statement of a being’s desires on any given topic. All relationships, under ideal conditions, should be founded on freely given consent and coercive measures only used when autonomy has been violated. This does not mean the Powers always do this, as shown by Odin’s use of magic to force the Nameless Seeress to give information in the Voluspo and Baldrdraumr, but such incidents are conspicuous in both their comparative scarcity and the clear condemnation of such deeds by the people on their receiving end.

It, therefore, makes perfect sense for a practitioner to be clear in establishing their boundaries with the Gods when you begin a relationship with them. One common method of doing this is writing out a clear, delineated set of expectations or reciting them aloud to the God in question and putting these expectations forward as what you will and will not consent to as I’ve outlined previously on this site. It is important to also remember that it is, in Heathenry, alright to ask for things from the Powers in exchange for whatever services or offerings you give them and to be clear in what you are seeking. These conditions can be renegotiated as your relationship grows and develops, just as we are always reviewing and revising our boundaries in life with the people and institutions around us.

In closing, setting and holding to healthy boundaries is a core element of Heathenry and Fire & Ice practice that reflects our unique understanding of the Powers. Our Powers are flawed and fallible, a condition which stands in contrast to Christian-influenced perspectives that treat divinity as inherently good and righteous. This puts the agency and responsibility on the individual adherent to assert what you have the capacity to do to the Powers and others in community. It also means it is perfectly alright to refuse to take a course of action urged by the Powers or your community if doing so would violate those boundaries.

[1] Voluspo 17-18, Bellows translation

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