Living as a Heathen in 21st century Britain

By Pete Jennings    Copyright 2018

For me personally, life is so much easier now as a Heathen than when I first started to become active in the 1980’s. Due to the concerted efforts of a multitude of Pagan spiritual paths and organisations over the last five decades, (including the Pagan Federation of which I was a President) the media are in general better informed and less likely to label us as devil worshipers sacrificing babies and virgins etc. than back in the bad old days of lurid tabloid headlines. I am now less likely to have to explain what we are, and more likely to be asked onto radio and TV shows to give balance to fundamentalist rhetoric.

The UK Government recognises Earth-centred spiritual paths and pays some of us to provide a Home Office chaplaincy service into prisons. Some of us are involved in interfaith dialogue with other religions. This is still a controversial idea to many, but I believe that talking and gaining understanding of each other is preferable to ignorance and fighting. Some Heathens do not associate themselves with Pagans, but I continue to enjoy intra-faith activities with Druids, Shamen, and Witches etc., sharing their conferences, magazines, camps and moots. Personally I feel that we have more in common than that which divides us.

Yet, it is not all mead and honey cakes. Some folk are still subject to discrimination and abuse within their families, community or even at work (despite the Equality Act 2010 making the latter illegal.) One of the ways in which I and the Heathen & Pagan communities have tried to have their presence better officially recognised is by getting the official Census for the various countries within the United Kingdom to include or count Pagan and Heathen categories under religion, then encourage people to record it. Inevitably, some still fear their anonymity will be compromised whilst others label themselves so finitely as to be counted within a unique class of one!

A partial solution for this has been to persuade people to label themselves Pagan-Wiccan, Pagan-Druid or Pagan-Heathen etc., yet such is the individualistic nature of many even this was disagreed with. Some Heathens do not accept that theirs is a sub division of the more general Pagan term, unlike Christians or Muslims who are willing to be classed as ‘Christian – Baptist’ or ‘Muslim – Sunni’ etc. However, even with those sorts of restrictions on getting an accurate count, there were over 80,000 Pagan related individuals counted in the 2011 England & Wales Census, about double the number reported a decade before. Estimates of the true figure range from 100,000 upwards, meaning that there are more of us than Buddhists for example, who have always been a minority group recognised by the government. Yet we continue be a divided group, often suspicious of leaders, organisations and writers within our community, and governmental organisations outside of it. This does not serve us well, and often hinders the progress made on the ‘divided we fall’ principle. A leader who I took over from said it was ‘like herding cats’ and that still rings true to me.

When I first started reading about Paganism in the 1970’s the choice was very limited: a few good witchcraft books sold from beneath the counter of certain shops like illicit pornography, or sensationalist fiction such as Dennis Wheatley. There was next to no material on paths other than the most popular witchcraft in its many forms. Some books eventually started to filter through from the USA, but were inevitably orientated for that country and often quite simplistic. Eventually the UK started to get its own literary act together. Still most of the books were beginner’s guides (albeit including Druidry, Odinism & Shamanism) but as an avid reader I got fed up with the same old material being recycled.

Of course, from a publishing point of view, beginner’s books sell best, (and I have written some myself) but eventually there was enough of an experienced audience to justify better researched, more advanced studies. I applaud the academic Prof. Ronald Hutton for showing people how it could be done, citing proper references for every statement made and going back to source materials to challenge our own ‘sacred cows.’

This new wave of books has enhanced the qualities of talks and discussions within our community, and now includes many books concentrating on specifically narrow interests to deal with them in detail. I particularly enjoy writing in that way now. Since I research and write principally for my own interest, whatever follows in book sales or talks are a bonus.

The biggest difference of all to my life as a modern Heathen in my sixties is the internet. It did not really exist when I took my first tentative steps in trying to find others of a like mind. Using pseudonyms to prevent identification by work colleagues or journalists, and moots not yet being invented it was extremely difficult, particularly outside of major cities and any debates tended to be via slow mail letters or expensive landline telephone calls. Mobile phones were not yet generally available either.

Now I can communicate by e mail or web forum every day across the world cheaply and easily, and access most original texts I want to research from the comfort of my own office. Of course it does have the downside that instant communication can lack forethought in posting things better left unsaid, and rumours can spread out of control. (I did not die in 2005 – that Peter Jennings was the anchor man for ABC News in the USA!)

Conferences and camps have proliferated to: from the couple of small ones in London in the 1980’s we are now spoilt for choice, with at least one in almost every county of England and some reaching audiences counted in thousands. As a rural dweller I love the chance to meet others of a similar ilk and trade ideas and experiences. Otherwise, my path could become a lonely one without fresh stimulus to re-energise it. Those events have inevitably become more professionally run, with a better range and quality of speakers and workshops than their early forbears and I spend a lot of time and energy travelling around to them each year.

Yet, as I look at all the developments I have seen over the last forty years, they are as nothing if I have not developed my own insight, ability, faith, connectedness or whatever. I am a human like any other, so will inevitably fall short of my ideals, but it has been said that no spiritual path has value unless it changes the thoughts and actions of its followers. Embracing what was once termed Odinism or Asatru, or more latterly Heathenry has had several really visible effects on me:

I stopped working in sales and sought out more meaningful, moral, honest and hopefully more socially helpful employment. In my case that involved studying first as a counsellor / psychotherapist and more latterly as a social worker. I developed my interest in history and as a result became an enthusiastic Anglo Saxon & Viking re-enactor. This has enabled me to get a taste of the cultures in which my beliefs are rooted, and pass on my knowledge to the public.

As someone not afraid to live openly as a Heathen, I was encouraged to write articles, then books and lectures. Everyone has something to offer back as a gift to their Gods and Goddesses, and I like to think that my previous abilities as an organiser, entertainer, folklorist, radio presenter etc. have been utilised by my deities to increase their visibility.

Of course, my path has introduced me to many wonderful people, who form the bulk of my friends. They are very different to the people I once associated with. I am fortunate also that my wife is of a similar path, which gives us some major interests to take joy in together. To non- Pagans I guess I appear as a slightly eccentric, larger than life gruffly independent individual who is not afraid to speak his mind.

At a practical level I tend to support environmentally friendly causes and energy sources, try to shop ethically and locally and act in an honest and straightforward way. That does not necessarily mean that I am a ‘good’ man, but only that I try to be and in that I sometimes fail.  It also means that I spend far more time than I ought to on the computer as well as buying and reading loads of books, and I can get quite irate when I see situations that are unfair.

I can look back to my early writings and notes and see how heavily I was influenced by the then dominant Wiccan methods and ideas. Since then, through combined research and modern translations we now have a far better idea of what Heathens historically got up to, and what they believed in. Hence I have developed a ritual style that incorporates some of those ancient practises when useful, yet acknowledges new methods may be more appropriate for the very different culture I live in today.

I am optimistic for the future of Heathens and Pagans in general in the UK, but know that now we are better established we make a bigger, more important target for religious fundamentalists. Both our biggest strength and weakness is our diversity, but I would not have it any other way. As a path that demands that we think for ourselves and establish our own truths we will never have the mass appeal of highly organised religions with powerful officials and text giving absolute answers on a plate. Nor should we ever seek that mass appeal, but remain a group of divergent ideas that thinking people sometimes find as useful for themselves.

Pete Jennings



















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