This is one of what will be many inter-linked meditations on Heathen understandings of kinship. The rest will be linked via the Kinship Masterpost. There is no particular reading order – I am writing these primarily to organize my own understanding of what I consider central cultural-ethical issues in Heathenry, but I hope others benefit from reading them!
So once upon a time I was making special effort to understand Thor. I had set up a special shrine space. He would get all of my devotions, from the end of Yule to Thorrablot.
And it just so happened that my life fell all apart right then. Job, money, house, social life. My stress was off the chart, and I was fragile as a china plate over a ton of long-repressed baggage.
And so I come to the shrine space to make offerings and pray. I start off with Thor’s names and deeds and praises, but prayers quickly devolve into problems, of ever-increasing scope: I’m worried for my job, I don’t trust men, the economy is going to shit, there’s a squillion global crises, the statistics of violent crime are terrifying, the wealth gap is impassible, poisonous Christianity is squatting on top of most of the planet, industrial capitalism wrecked the lives of generations of my ancestors, everything is terrible forever.
It’s a prayer with a long and venerable history, I’m sure. Manvinr, how could you let this happen?
The response was surprising. Mostly because I don’t often get such concrete impressions in reply to my prayers, especially ones that surprise me. As I came to understand it over the course of many evenings of upset complaints, if I could put it in words, the response would be “I think you are confused about how big you are.”
And so I started to evaluate how big I was, really.
It turns out I am, and most people are, quite small.
I started to seriously consider this question of scope when I started praying. I started seeing the ubiquitous prayer requests that fly around the internet as more than just good intentions but a spiritual currency with real effects. So I could pray for these people in need, if I wanted to. I could pray, but without sharing gods, or an understanding of gods, I had nothing to pray for. I didn’t know a god with intimate details of any arbitrary stranger’s situation and needs. I didn’t agree with any arbitrary stranger on a single spiritual best outcome.
I was spoiled for choice. When confronted with the idea of a friend’s friend’s grandmother fading from life in the hospital, via a facebook prayer request, I had no idea what to do. Who was she? What did she want out of her last days? Painlessness? Lucidity? A smooth transition to death? Reconciliation with living family or ancestors? Without really knowing this woman, all I could pray was an impotent wish for the best possible outcome, and no one to direct that wish to. To presume more, I would have to put my beliefs over this unknown woman’s actual wishes, or stop treating my own prayer as an actual spiritual act with consequences.
So, I can’t pray for someone I don’t know. She isn’t part of my circle, the people who I effect and who effect me. I had to give up that illusion of relatedness.
That leaves me with the question: Who AM I related to?
Othila comes into play, here. I’ve interpreted the shape, in this context, as a set of enclosing arms. The real reach – physical, magical, metaphorical, social – of a human being. My homeland which is to say my stomping grounds. The place familiar to me where I am familiar. My family, my kin, the people most important in ancient Heathen culture, the group of people that I am entangled with, and through which my reach is magnified.
This is the conclusion I am at right now, though my understanding is still evolving:
I am related to anyone who shares a feeling of relatedness with me. The closeness of that relationship can be measured by how readily either one of us will work to materially benefit the other one.
Tautological! It’s not just what everyone else would call “family”, parents and grandparents, or close friends, though I have those. Heathen culture was local in the most concrete sense. The people I live near ought to be related** to me, though often in the modern world they aren’t. Who borrows a cup of sugar from their neighbors anymore? I consider it part of the work of reconstruction to rebuild those dense social ties. If even a small scale crisis happens – water, power, heat – and you don’t know the people right up next to you, you really are in the wilderness.
I am related to any politician I vote for – there is a reciprocal benefit, right there – but the closeness of the relationship fades out the less likely that politician is to see my face or listen to me personally. I am much more related to my Alder or Sheriff than my President. I can be related to anyone I interact with regularly, if I take the effort to make that interaction a relationship rather than a transaction.
In the Sagas, often relatedness seems to be a matter of circles with different centers. I am related to my father, so I have obligations to his relations. Family he knows but I might not, old friends and the like. In that way, I can spread my relationships to new people based on mutual allegiance to a common person or entity.
Say, as a thought experiment, I consider myself related to members of my college. Its founders and notable people are among my ancestors-of-the-mind, and I have something in common with its students and alumni. I identify with the college – its mascot and colors. I give advice to new students. I visit for concerts. It would give me a connection with a stranger if they said to me, I went to [College]. That is a starting point of connection! But, if a person comes to me saying “we went to the same college therefore help me,” I can’t. I have a very small pool of resources and power right now, even if I wanted to, so my connection to this stranger in need remains thin. The amount of aid I can give to build up relationships based on reciprocal aid (and I think reciprocal aid is the foundation of the extended family in a Heathen sense) is small.
On the other hand, if I went to someone I knew was an alumna, and said, “We went to the same college therefore help me,” I don’t know the response I would get! I might get help, I might get nothing. We don’t live in a culture which agrees on the terms of relatedness in any way and we don’t have a culture that socially enforces – through shaming or nagging or loss of esteem – keeping up those responsibilities. This other person just might not feel related to me. That, then, is not a real connection! I think it is important to be willing to extend the network of relatedness, but to focus on, and build, the web of relationships that are actually reciprocal.
So how does one build up family connections? In the first place, by being reliable. Here is the place for the Heathen value placed on keeping one’s word and acting honorably. I try to be present for my family – to connect to them materially to the extent I can. This means holiday cards, phone calls, an effort made to get to events that are important to them. This means recognition, engagement, help in the form of information, recommendations and networking. Rides. Prompt and sincere thanks that lets another person know that their concrete help to me was real and significant. This means going to the city planning meeting about whether or not my street should be one-way, and the hearing about mining legislation in my state. This means offering my neighbor a hamburger when I’m barbecuing. This means talking to the people who are at the park. All in all, a concerted effort to live where I live, and live with the people around me.
It is not easy! There are actually some social taboos about this kind of friendliness, like I said, who borrows a cup of sugar from their neighbors anymore? But as they say, everything serious is difficult, and everything is serious.
** I will always be using this word to mean socially related – friends that can rely on one another, not literal blood or legal ties.