‘Anemoia – nostalgia for a time you’ve never known’
The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows
Have you ever felt nostalgia not so much for a time you’ve never known but for an event, a gathering, a coming together of a community, a possibility that might happen in our time but hasn’t?
Maybe, just maybe, the Second Heathen Women United Conference, which took place at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) in Preston over the weekend was that event. Organised by Linda Sever and other HWU members it brought together Heathen women (and a few men) from across Europe, the US, and Canada, to share research on topics ranging from prophesy, seership, and magic, to gender and sexuality, to runes and Galdr, the power of the sagas and storytelling, and the Pagan census. (I spoke on Belisama, goddess of the Ribble, and local wells and watercourses existing and lost).
When I joined UCLan Pagan Society in 2011 most members were Heathen and I felt a strong connection with many aspects of Heathenry – the combination of academic and experiential research, honouring land, gods and, ancestors, the practices of journeying to otherworlds (Seidr) and spell-singing (Galdr). However, I was drawn to the Brythonic mythos rather than the Germanic and Norse.
No-one ever made me feel not at home. No-one ever denied me the right to express my devotional relationships in ritual. Likewise in Druidry I’ve never been disallowed to express my relationships with my gods (although this has been limited to the local and seasonal context). Still I’ve felt like an outsider working with myths and gods nobody else knows or understands and feeling irreparably sad.
At the HWU Conference, during the opening blot, it was enlivening to hear Heathens identifying as ‘Friend of Tyr’ and ‘Daughter of Freyja’, expressing similar levels of devotion to which I feel for my god, Gwyn. Although most of the talks were orientated toward the academic rather than the experiential side of Heathenry, in between, I had a number of conversations about personal gnosis, the doubts, terrors, descents, homecomings, and joys that led others to polytheistic religion, similar to my own.
Throughout the conference, why, I wondered, why are so many people drawn to Heathenry – to the Germanic and Norse traditions rather than the Brythonic? Why am I one of the only ones?
Firstly, there is far more literature in the Germanic and particularly the Norse traditions with which to reconstruct a cosmology and theology and thus a religious framework. Plus, the Norse gods are far more prominent in pop culture, which seems to modern Heathens to be both a blessing and curse.
Secondly, the Brythonic tradition has been incorporated into Druidry. Literary evidence suggests the ancient druids were polytheists who performed the rites and maintained the myths of the Brythonic gods. Whilst some modern druid groups maintain traditions of devotional ritual and deep engagement with myth (ADO), for the most part the gods have been reduced to archetypes and the myths to blueprints for psychological development and re-enactment (OBOD), or the gods and myths have been sidelined in favour of nature connection, seasonal celebration, and human community (TDN).
For these reasons, I’m doubtful I will witness the coming together of a thriving community of Brythonic polytheists in my lifetime*. The HWU Conference was possibly the closest to my anemoiac event I will ever get. At the closing blot many people expressed (and some tearfully) their sense of community and connection and regret at having to depart. Will these connections be maintained? Will a similar event be brought into being by dedicated members of HWU again?
*I attempted to bring this about with the Dun Brython group but we failed to gain any interest.