Theodism and Retroheathenry

Shane Frana Axenthowes
Texas, 2009

Theodism is a religious movement began in 1976 by Garman Lord. Theodism comes from the Old English Þéodisc Geléafa meaning “the belief of the tribe” and is a religious movement striving to reconstruct pre-Christian Germanic heathenry.1 In The Way of the Heathen, Garman refers to Theodism as a “continuous research project”.2 Though a statement such as this may belie the importance and significance of a religion, it is nonetheless particularly accurate. Any attempt to reconstruct something that has long since passed from usage and common thought is a process in which current theories are continually reshaped by new information and tested by various methods of application. The hope of those doing the reconstruction is that, through such strenuous methods, a fully functioning form modeled on an historical original will be produced. The reconstruction of a historic religiosity is no different.

In The Undiscovered Retroheathenry3, Garman Lord describes Theodish Belief as retroheathenry which “seeks to soundly reforge an ancestral link, severed by the 'White Christ', as if the 'White Christ' never happened, and go its merry way from there.”4 Completion of such an endeavor is of course impossible in addition to being undesirable from a heathen standpoint. This impossibility was fully acknowledged by Garman with the statement that the “point of positive validity is, historically, 'maybe never'.”5 He goes on to define a retroheathen as someone who “insists upon historical religious accuracy in how he follows the old Gods, and concentrates upon forging as valid a religious link with the ancestral heathen faith, for better or worse, as possible.” The theodsman (Old Frisian thiademon), according to Garman, is “practicing what seems a perpetually unfinished religion, since it so scrupulously avoids stamping anything about itself with any kind of theodish 'Papal Imprimatur'. Everything has always to be subject to further revision based upon further discoveries”.6

This emphasis on “historical religious accuracy” is essential to “forging as valid a religious link with the ancestral heathen faith” as possible. The latter cannot be accomplished in any form without the efforts put forth to fulfill the former to the degree that such is possible. Also implicit in the above statements by Garman Lord is the knowledge that if theodsmen wish to worship their ancestral gods it is only logical that they do so according to the customs of their ancestors, who worshiped them originally.7 The religiosity of pre-Christian Germanic tribes is the historic original upon which Theodish Belief is modeled.

The prospect of Reconstructionism.

It is important to understand what reconstructionism entails and what is necessary to its success. Reconstructionism is an attempt to restore the traditions, folkways, beliefs, and worldviews8 of historic cultures and bring them forth in a manner appropriate to the modern world. It is a common mistake to think that prospective heathens can pick up a copy of the Eddas and after reading that begin to make assumptions about heathen religion with no further effort involved. The error in this type of thinking lies in the fact that the myth provides no context, no understanding for the meanings, lessons, histories, and traditions embodied in their words. This is a result of transition in worldviews that has occurred naturally as a result of influence of non-heathen, non-Germanic worldviews over time. This transition is often overlooked or goes unacknowledged by many would-be heathens. As a result they fail to see how their current worldview differs from the historic Germanic worldviews and essentially prevents them from approaching Germanic heathen religiosities in a manner recognizable by their heathen ancestors and the gods.

It would be impossible for a modern man to understand what was intended to be conveyed by simply reading the mythic material as is. Reconstructionist heathens must discover the context in which these myths were shared, thereby learning, as much as is possible, what was being conveyed by the poets. With such an understanding, reconstructionists cannot rely on the mythic material alone. Therefore it becomes necessary to study other elements of the culture to learn the context. This is how an understanding of the worldview, or more appropriately the Beliefs, Attitudes, Values, and Behaviors (BAVB)9, of the culture in question will be derived. Without this understanding historic religious accuracy is impossible. As a result, the reconstructive efforts involve trying to discern underlying meaning and reasoning behind the BAVB of historic tribes by asking “What?”, “Why?”, and “How?” constantly throughout the research process.

Another misconception about reconstructionism is that reconstructionists are attempting to recreate the old heathen traditions exactly as they were. Such a notion is impossible. It is also unwarranted and undesirable because of legal reasons alone. Modern heathens no matter how extensive and strict their attempts to reconstruct elder heathen thew must live in the world and not in opposition to it. This means that reconstructionist efforts are focused on practicality, function, and suitability for the survival of the tribe's reconstructed thew in the modern world.

The task of studying the historic religiosity of pre-Christian Germanic tribes is greatly limited by the source material available for study. Addressing this issue, Edgar C. Polomé states:

Any scientific study and interpretation of ancient religion is closely dependent on the available source material. In the study of Germanic religion, the value and reliability of the sources appear to be particularly important problem, since our information is scanty and desultory. What is at our disposal consists, in deed, mainly of circumstantial evidence and external testimony; we do not have any specific original ritual text, or any genuine Germanic writing witnessing the relationship between man and god in ancient times, and all we can claim to know is what we can infer from the scattered remnants of Germanic religious life according to the prevailing views of our time, combined with our personal prejudices.10

Therefore, the literary materials that are left must be compared to and supported by discoveries from archeology, such as burial practices and inscriptions, and the testimony of ancient writers. Because these sources are all so limited they must be continually weighed and tested against each other. Likewise, the reliability and limitations of the source material itself must always be acknowledged. All sources must be assessed critically before their value, significance, and usefulness can be determined.

The very premise of reconstructing a religion that has not been practiced for nearly a thousand years, or more in some areas, raises many questions regarding purpose, methods, and the possibility of success. These will need to be addressed but with the understanding that nothing about this process is set in stone. If there were any rules in the reconstruction of pre-Christian Germanic religiosity, it is that there must be a willingness to adopt and adapt to new information, situations, and results as they are encountered. Since Theodism differs from other heathen religions, what is being reconstructed that sets Theodish Belief apart from other heathen religious movements such as Asatru?

What separates Theodish Belief from other retroheathen religions?

When Garman Lord was describing retroheathenry, he was referring to both Asatru and Theodish Belief. He contrasted retroheathenry with the religious practices and beliefs of what he called “neoheathens”. Garman defined neoheathens as “anyone who has foresaken [sic] the Establishment religion in favor of a re-plighting of troth to the old Gods, which he generally follows in whatever way strikes his fancy.”11 Since the differences between neoheathens and retroheathens are obvious, this essay will concern itself with describing only the elements of Theodish Belief that differentiate it from other forms of retroheathenry and Asatru in particular. Though some of these elements have made their way into non-Theodish communities, these elements are primarily what make Theodish Belief unique among the modern heathen reconstructionist groups.

The most obvious trait of Theodish Belief is that it emphasizes the tribal nature of the Germanic religion. Garman stated, “Heathenry as we all know it has shown itself to be intimately interwoven, in all cases, with tribal culture...with the result that culture may often prove to have a theological impact on the religion in specific cases.”12 Prior to the coming of Christianity in Northern Europe there was no religious identity outside of tribal identity. The religious and the profane were inseparable, informing all aspects of social and sacral heathen life.13 Tribal religion was identified by customs and traditions dating back to mythic history and could vary from tribe to tribe though sharing identifiable features.14 The customs and traditions that informed and confirmed tribal identity included such aspects of tribal life as law, social norms and values, and taboo, as well as, inheritance customs, ritualized social exchange, and social obligations. Identification with a people and its law was necessary according to Germanic law. Each individual was bound by law to be a member of a larger group, whose membership must be willing to speak for and account for the individual in all legal matters.15 The results of this type of requirement is that a man without a tribe was unprotected by law, had no family and friends to defend or avenge him, and risked the disgrace of death without any to speak for and remember him. Theodish Belief maintains that identification with a tribe and its law and thew is fundamental to the proper functioning of pre-Christian Germanic religiosity.

Another characteristic that separates Theodism from other retroheathen groups reconstructing heathen religion is that of sacral kingship. Garman Lord defined sacral kingship as “the folk-religious principle whereby men are understood to be directly connected to the gods, from whom they are believed to be descended, through the appointment of a sacral king who is considered High Priest of his tribe.”16 Currently the reconstruction of the responsibilities of the sacral king as part of modern heathen religiosity is unique to Theodism and its tribal structure. These obligations are the responsibility of the lord of the thiad and all heads of the households of the thiad. The lord is the luck wielder of the tribe and is charged with establishing a realm of order in a world of hostility.17 The lord of the tribe maintains his sacral function by establishing, maintaining, and defending the lands, thew, laws, and religious practices of the tribe. The sacred nature of these responsibilities is reflected in the dual nature of the holy in pre-Christian Germanic culture and in the fact that society and law were fundamentally religious in orientation and that the punishment of crimes reflected a breach in a sacral order and not a criminal act against an individual or the community. This correlation between the health, wholeness and luck of the tribe and the actions of the heads of the various strata of society, whether it is the head of a household or the head of the tribe itself, is fundamental to understanding the nature of sacral kingship. When thew is maintained the luck and power of the sacral leader is good and strong and the health, wholeness and luck of the tribe is in turn strengthened. The tribe sees times of peace and plenty in the communities, victory in war, and good health for the folk. When the sacral leaders fail to perform their sacred obligations, or fail to live up to the standards demanded of them by their folk and the gods, the tribe suffers the negative consequences in turn.18 Because it would be impossible to separate the role of the luck wielder and the obligations that surround the role of the heads of households and tribes from the pre-Christian heathen concepts of health, wealth, prosperity, luck, power, and wholeness this role is a critical element of the reconstruction of pre-Christian Germanic religiosities in Theodish Belief.

Another major difference that needs to be addressed here is the hierarchical social structure of the theod. Asatru groups generally adopt an egalitarian social structure and many are actively opposed to the institution of hierarchical social structures in modern day heathenry. In contrast to this theodsmen recognize the fact that the proper functioning of the pre-Christian Germanic social order can only be maintained through the structures of a hierarchical society. In cultures such as those of the pre-Christian Germanic tribes the natural gravitation towards hierarchical structures is inevitable. In addition to this natural tendency towards hierarchy, the social structures have mythic ramifications with their origins in the thew established by the gods themselves. From a strictly practical perspective it is impossible to know to whom you are obligated and accountable without having developed some form of hierarchical structure. As part of the reconstruction of pre-Christian Germanic religiosity in a tribal setting, and bearing in mind the fact that the hierarchical nature of early heathen society was an established element of the thew of the gods and that acting in accordance with that thew was the obligation of all members of Germanic heathen society, theodsmen have readily bound themselves to this thew.

The final major difference that will be quickly addressed is the use of the elder languages in addressing the gods. Unfortunately there is not a lot that can be said about this. Very few heathen groups outside of Theodism use the old tongues as the primary languages for their liturgies. The reasons for use of the elder languages are quite simple. First, there is obviously something worthy about learning, and putting forth the effort, to address the gods in the elder tongues. Second, there are ideas, semantic concepts, and poetic phrases that are only properly conveyed in their original forms. Third, but by no means finally, addressing the gods and our ancestors in their own languages is a way of paying them the honor they are due. Ultimately though it is Theodish thew to use the appropriate elder language for the thiad during participation in solemn customs.

Some final thoughts on methodology.

The reconstruction of pre-Christian Germanic religiosity by theodsmen requires a significant amount of effort to be put forth to research alone. It also requires knowledge of multiple disciplines in the social sciences including linguistics, anthropology, archeology, sociology, and cultural studies. Reconstruction also requires working knowledge of comparative mythology, literary criticism, and folklore of the regions being reconstructed. Though the methodology19 chosen will differ from theodsman to theodsman and from theod to theod, one thing that is constant is the absolute necessity of the participatory element of the reconstruction. Reconstructionists are attempting to reconstruct pre-Christian Germanic religiosity as a lasting living tradition capabable of surving in a modern world significantly different from its original environment. It is always in the mind of the theodsman that the materials being studied only exist in small elements that have long been divorced from their original contexts. As a result reconstructionists participate in their reconstruction testing their theory through the practical application of their conclusions.

Being a theodsman requires constant effort, diligence, and willingness to forgo immediate satisfaction and success for the hope of establishing something that will be sustained into the future. Though it is a difficult task, it is a task that has proven immensely satisfying to those willing to truly commit to it. As theodsmen we have chosen to reconstruct our ancestral thew and the thew of our ancestral gods with the intention of proving ourselves worthy of their attention. There is no better way to demonstrate that worth than to do it according to the customs, manners, and values of those we wish to honor.


1     The terms Theodism and Theodish Belief were coined by Garman Lord in 1985, but the origins of Theodism are traced back to July 1976. The modern movement is comprised of the efforts of each independent Theodish tribe (OE theod, Old Frisian thiad) to reconstruct the thew of their chosen tribe. Though the movement originally began as an attempt to reconstruct Anglo-Saxon tribal religiosity, it has since expanded to include the reconstruction of the thew of various Germanic tribes.   

2     Garman Lord, The Way of the Heathen (THEOD, 2000), 2.    

3     Garman Lord, “The Undiscovered Retroheathenry,” Idunna 4, no. 1 (1992), 14-18.   

4     Ibid, 14.    

5     Ibid, 15.    

6     Ibid, 15.    

7     In a conversation, the Lord of Axenthof made the following statements regarding retroheathenry:

[T]he wish to reforge a link to something ancestral is primary and historical accuracy is only useful or important as a means to an end.

So, what's so great about reforging an ancestral link? It seems that one or both of two suppositions could lie behind this, both of which I happen to think are true. The first is that it is simply good in itself to be connected to your ancestors. They are the basis of who you are. Know them, honor them, be worthy of them.

The second supposition is that our ancestors knew better than we do how to properly honor, worship, whatever-you-want-to-call-it, our gods. I think this is a completely undeniable truth.    

8     James C. Russel, The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity. (Oxford University Press, 1994), 132:

The worldview of a society comprises that society's most fundamental assumptions about reality and as such directly influences that society's religious attitudes, customs, and beliefs.    

9     The BAVB of a society reflects the totality of its mental culture (e.g. worldview, value orientations), behavioral culture (e.g. bowing during introductions, throwing salt over your shoulder) and to some degree its material culture (e.g. drinking horns, wooden idols). Material culture is the result of the interaction between mental and behavioral culture. The primary notions exemplified in the mental and behavioral culture result in the development of the tools (material culture) to fulfill those notions.    

10     Essays on Germanic Religion, JIES Monograph 6 (Journal of Indo-Eruopean Studies, 2005), 1.    

11     Garman Lord, “The Undiscovered Retroheathenry,” Idunna 4, no. 1 (1992), 14.    

12     Ibid., 14.   

13     Charlotte Fabech, “Centrality in Old Norse Mental Landscapes: A Dialogue Between Arranged and Natural Places?,” in Old Norse Religion in Long Term Perspectives (Nordic Academic Press, 2006), 26-32; Svanberg, Fredrik, Decolonizing the Viking Age, vol. 1 (Almqvist & Wiksell International , 2003); Simek, Rudolph, “Germanic Religion and the Conversion to Christianity,” in Early Germanic Literature and Culture, Brian Murdoch and Malcolm Read ed. (Camdem House, 2004); Andrén, Anders; Jennbert, Kristina; Raudvere, Catharina, “Old Norse Religion: Some Problems and Prospects,” in Old Norse Religion in Long Term Perspectives (Nordic Academic Press, 2006); Russel, James C., The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity.; Christiansen, Eric, The Norsemen in the Viking Age (Blackwell Publishing, 2002).    

14     Rudolph Simek “Germanic Religion and the Conversion to Christianity.”, 74.    

15     Marc Bloch, Feudal Society Vol. 1: The Growth of Ties of Dependence, L.A. Manyon trans. (University of Chicago Press, 1966), 224; Prisca Augustyn, The Semiotics of Fate, Death and the Soul in Germanic Culture: the Christianization of Old Saxon (Peter Lang Publishing Inc., 2002), 27; Jesse L. Byock, Medieval Iceland: Society, Sagas, and Power (University of California Press, 1988), 119-21.   

16     Garman Lord, The Way of the Heathen, 14. For more information on sacral kingship see William A. Chaney, The Cult of Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England: The Transition from Paganism to Christianity. (Manchester University Press, 1999) and Rory McTurk, “Scandinavian Sacral Kingship Revisited,” in Saga-Book, vol. 24 (Viking Society For Northern Research, 1994), 19-32. For more information on descent from the gods see Anthony Faulkes, “Descent From the Gods,” in Mediaeval Scandinavia, vol. 11, 1978, 92-125.    

17     Jennifer Neville, Representations of the Natural World in Old English Poetry, vol. 27, Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England (Cambridge University Press, 1999), 62:

[K]ings are imagined as builders of havens in the midst of hostility, transformers of chaos and darkness to order and light and protectors of their constructions, their societies, from the forces around them.   

18     Chaney, The Cult of Kingship, 2-3:

In northern heathenism the primary leader of the tribal religion was the ruler. The king's god was the people's god, and the king as heilerfüllt stood between his tribe and its gods, sacrificing for victory and plenty, 'making' the year. Tied into temporal and cosmic history by divine descent, he represented and indeed was the 'luck' of his people. Thus it was the king's relationship with the gods which 'saved' his folk as much as did the gods themselves[.]   

19     For the purpose of this analysis, methodology is defined as a means of collecting data regarding pre-Christian Germanic religiosity and confirming or discrediting the conclusions drawn from the collected data. Unlike scientific inquiry where scientific objectivism is the norm, the methods for the reconstructionist resemble the efforts of ethnographers where the reconstructionist attempts to learn the culture while being an integral part of the interactive process and not just observe it externally and objectively. This is accomplished by generating useful information about culturally patterned behavior and the reasons for that behavior through research and the study of Germanic cultural remains.   

Works Cited

Andrén, Anders; Jennbert, Kristina; Raudvere, Catharina. “Old Norse Religion: Some Problems and Prospects.” Old Norse Religion in Long Term Perspectives: Origins, Changes and Interactions, an International Conference in Lund, Sweden, June 3-7, 2004. Nordic Academic Press, 2006.

Augustyn, Prisca. The Semiotics of Fate, Death, and the Soul in Germanic Culture: The Christianization of Old Saxon (Berkeley Insights in Linguistics and Semiotics). Peter Lang Publishing Inc., 2002.

Bloch, Marc. Feudal Society: Vol 1: The Growth and Ties of Dependence. L.A. Manyon trans. University of Chicago Press, 1966.

Byock, Jesse L. Medieval Iceland: Society, Sagas, and Power. University of California Press, 1988.

Chaney, William A. The Cult of Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England: The Transition from Paganism to Christianity. Manchester University Press, 1999.

Christiansen, Eric. The Norsemen in the Viking Age. Blackwell Publishing, 2002.

Fabech, Charlotte. “Centrality in Old Norse Mental Landscapes: A Dialogue Between Arranged and Natural Places.” Old Norse Religion in Long Term Perspectives: Origins, Changes and Interactions, an International Conference in Lund, Sweden, June 3-7, 2004, 26-32. Nordic Academic Press, 2006.

Faulkes, Anthony. “Descent From the Gods.” Mediaeval Scandinavia, 11:92-125, 1978.

Lord, Garman. “The Undiscovered Retroheathenry.” Idunna 4, no. 1 (1992).
      ---. The Way of the Heathen. THEOD, 2000.

McTurk, Rory. “Scandinavian Sacral Kingship Revisited.” In Saga-Book, 24:19-32. Viking Society For Northern Research, 1994.

Neville, Jennifer. Representations of the Natural World in Old English Poetry (Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England). Vol. 27. Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England. Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Polomé, Edgar C. Essays on Germanic Religion. JIES Monograph 6. Washington, DC: Journal of Indo-Eruopean Studies, 2005.

Russel, James C. The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity: A Sociohistorical Approach to Religious Transformation. Oxford University Press, 1994.

Simek, Rudolph. “Germanic Religion and the Conversion to Christianity.” Early Germanic Literature and Culture (Camden House History of German Literature). Camdem House, 2004.

Svanberg, Fredrik. Decolonizing the Viking Age (Acta Archaeologica Lundensia Series in 8, 43). Vol. 1. Almqvist & Wiksell International , 2003.

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