Narratives are the stories that we tell ourselves to make sense of the world, how it works, our place in it, and the places of others in it. Narratives are very powerful, and often make up the underpinnings of cultures and belief systems. Changing narratives can be difficult as well, and more often than not, instead of changing them, we simply adjust them to our new circumstances or ideas (let’s call this “narrative creep”), and in doing so, avoid a lot of cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance being the mental discomfort that is triggered when presented with a situation or argument that challenges our narratives or ideas. It’s my opinion that in modern Heathen practice, narrative creep has occurred in at least two places, and it’s time to examine these occurrences.
The narrative in question is that of dichotomy, specifically in the form of Dualism. In the modern Western world, our “religious background radiation” is that of Judeo-Christian belief. There is spiritual good, there is spiritual bad, and they are always in conflict with each other in diametrical opposition. This idea saturates our media, popular culture, and many of our common narratives, particularly in North America. As a narrative, it is very difficult to let go of as well, precisely because of its ubiquitous nature. A direct result of this is the recasting (with adjustments of course) of old gods into new roles when people convert to Pagan belief, and subsequently, these re-castings are passed onto new generations and new converts as being dogma. Heathen practice has not been immune to this.
The war between the Aesir and the Vanir has been re-spun by this modern narrative. In many modern interpretations, the Aesir are regarded as the gods of civilisation, whereas the Vanir are cast in the role of being the gods of the wilderness and countryside. To me, this isn’t a sound interpretation. The Aesir have many deities, including Thor, who carry fertility related duties. The Vanir have halls, farmlands, and Njord has Noatun, a shipyard and storage place. They do not, in lore, have the dynamic opposition attributed to them that some modern practitioners credit them with. However, our background narrative that demands opposing forces be diametrically opposite does demand the rendering of the Aesir and Vanir into a simplistic urban vs wild conflict.
Another, although somewhat questionable, victim of this is Loki. Now, Loki is no saint, and his lore recorded transgressions are numerous. He has also become a veritable leper of a god in modern practice, shunned as surely as Lucifer is by Christians, or simply denied existence by some (who have been termed “Nokeans”). His followers (Lokeans) are shunned as hard as Rokkatru, if not harder at times, since no one denies that Fenris or the other monstrous creatures in the Rokkr exist. It’s my estimation that at least a portion of this ire directed towards Loki is from this issue of narrative creep. As a society, we’re accustomed to having an ultimate spiritual evil, and re-casting Loki into that position was not a large step.
Now, I’ve talked about this within the framework and cultural lenses of my own faith and in accordance with my opinions, and some may be tempted to simply shake their heads and say something to the effect of “Oh, those Heathens.” before rolling their eyes. This is a mistake though, because the same narrative influence discussed here affects how we all think and react to things. So it behooves us, as modern Pagans who are building the narratives and ideologies for future Pagans and new converts, to critically examine from where our ideas are coming, and to ask whether or not these are spiritually healthy practices we are developing. After all, why start down a path that ends with the same issues that many of us left our birth faiths for?