Meet the modern-day Norse devotees

NYC Heathens is a group for practitioners of—and those curious about—the old ways

NYC Heathens

Photo: Ethan Stark
The NYC Heathens, primarily an online group, had a booth at Viking Fest to teach visitors about the Heathen religion.

Victoria Hofmo
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Nazis tried to usurp parts of the Viking culture for their own propaganda. They even held up the Norwegians as near-perfect Aryans. When I was young, I remember being disturbed by the Nazis measuring the circumference of Norwegian males’ heads, to prove their superiority. And all this was done while Nazis became the violent occupiers of the Norwegians’ beloved country. Some groups in Norway burned to ashes the unique Stave Churches, on the grounds that the Christians destroyed Viking culture. What they did was destroy an irreplaceable part of Norwegian culture with Viking remnants—note the stave structure’s dragon heads and dragon-scale shingles.

So, when I came across an organization called the NYC Heathens, I was intrigued. And lest you suspect this group of being in any way connected to the nonsense described in the first paragraph of this article, see these words from Erika Palmer, admin of their Facebook page:

“In light of the events that took place in Charlottesville, VA, this past weekend, the NYC Heathens Admin would like to take this time to remind everyone here that this is an inclusive group.

“Our motto has been and continues to be ‘All who welcome all are welcome.’ That means we welcome everyone with an interest in Heathenry regardless of race, gender identity, or sexuality.

“Hate and intolerance of any kind are unwelcome here. We are our deeds and our worth is gauged by that and nothing else. Hail our beautiful diversity!”

I had a chance to speak with Ethan Stark, a member of the NYC Heathens, to learn more about the group and its beliefs.

NYC Heathens

Photo: Arthur de Gaeta
Ethan Stark leads a ritual in pouring rain at Viking Fest in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, this spring.

Victoria Hofmo: Who were the founders of NYC Heathens?
Ethan Stark: NYC Heathens was founded on Nov. 14, 2015, by Paul Mercurio, Erika Connolly, and myself. It was founded in order to gather like-minded Heathens in the Greater New York area.
The group serves as a collective and central gathering space for Heathen individuals and groups, as well as those curious to discuss, debate, and practice their religion.

VH: What does it offer?
ES: NYC Heathens offers monthly Loremoots (or lorechats) where Heathens and those curious about Heathen religion and spirituality gather to discuss specific topics relating to Germanic folklore and practices as it has (or may have) been passed down through the years as well as any current revival practice.

Additionally, public rituals may be hosted by religious Heathen groups, provided they are inclusive and welcome all.

VH: How many people follow this religion in NYC?
ES: Unfortunately, we do not have an exact number of people who follow the Heathen faith in the NYC area. This is one of the reasons we founded the group, as a means to cohesively gather Heathens so that we may get a better sense of the local community.

VH: When and why were you drawn to this religion?
ES: I was drawn to Heathenry through literature and language. When I was younger I read The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. I became fascinated with the rich fantasy and the Elvish language that JRR Tolkien invented.

It was later that I found out that not only did Tolkien model much of his works from the Old Norse myths, but that Elvish was modeled after the Old Norse language. That prompted me to research the old folklore of Scandinavia, and subsequently found that there were not only surviving practices in today’s Scandinavian society, but that a reconstruction of the ancient religion had been ongoing since the early- to mid-1970s.

VH: What is the relationship between NYC Heathens and the North River Kindred?
ES: As mentioned, NYC Heathens was created as a collective for both individuals and groups to band together under the banner of “NYC Heathens.” In essence, any Heathen group or individual (provided they are inclusive and welcoming to all) may host events and gatherings as part of NYC Heathens.

Presently though, the group that has been sponsoring Lorechats and public events for the most part is the North River Kindred. You may think of a “Kindred” almost like a religious congregation, only we do not have a physical building to call our “church” or “synagogue.”

The North River Kindred is a more private group that specifically focuses on the religious practice of the Heathen faith for those who have already dedicated themselves to the path of the gods. So most of the individuals involved with NYC Heathens are members of the North River Kindred, but the groups are separate entities.

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For example, I learned that the North River Kindred has an annual celebration, Shad Blot—a spring ritual to “honor the land spirits for feeding and nurturing us.” It is interesting to see how one can transport a religion built around nature to a contemporary urban environment. They gathered underneath a Sycamore tree, next to the Seaglass Carousel in Battery Park, a place packed with tourists clamoring to get on the ferry to Ellis & Staten islands. Tourists, concrete, and the noise of persistent traffic did not deter.

Each worshipper was asked to “Bring a story or an anecdote about why you love this land. The hills and the heights. The shores and the parks. The cliffs or the deep waters…! The landscape of NYC is very evocative, so honor the landvaettir with a story of when you felt they had honored you!”

Although I do not plan to convert, I wouldn’t mind changing my perspective—minimizing the aggravation of the city, so that the beauty that surrounds me rises to the top of my consciousness.

The NYC Heathens were part of this year’s Viking Fest in Bay Ridge, sponsored by the Scandinavian East Coast Museum and held in a bucolic park that was once the Bliss Estate. During a steady rainfall, they shared a ritual, described by Ethan as a “ceremony noting the springtime, where we will honor our ancestors, the land spirits, and then honor the god Týr—God of justice and assembly—so that he may bless those in attendance with peace and kinship.”

It involved the blowing of an animal horn and a liquid offering of stout beer. There were words hailing the elements and offering gratitude and blessings for the rain. Which led to giggles by those in attendance huddled under umbrellas. It ended with flowers being tossed in the air and landing on the participants’ heads, a lovely showering of bright yellows and soft purples.

Though I was raised Christian and still follow the faith, I am drawn to the pre-Christian beliefs found in the Nordic countries, due to the fact that women were respected and much more equal than in how Christianity was articulated, and because of the respect and connection they had to nature. So this ceremony was a very uplifting way to appreciate and commune with the green space in which we were immersed and to break down barriers between those in attendance. Seeing a Viking ritual in modern times is a rarity. That is too bad.

The NYC Heathens were a great asset to the Viking Fest, as an important piece of Viking history that most of us have never experienced or shared. One wonderful quote on the NYC Heathens Facebook page was posted by Jakob Abbühl: “When a civilization forgets its ancestors, they soon stop thinking of their descendents.” After several attempts to uncover the source of this quote, I was at a loss. Yet, that does not make these words any less worth pondering.

This article originally appeared in the June 1, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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