I occasionally receive emails and questions about beginning a Heathen Group from other new Heathens. Some want to know how we got started, others want advice on how to manage a small study group. This post is going to share our experience as a new Heathen Tribe. I hope some of you out there craving community can make use of this. My intention is to encourage those of you still looking for tribe to stop looking and start building.
Getting Started: Building a Community From Scratch
If you know you want to practice Heathenry, then you need to reach out to other Heathens. Our religion, unlike other Pagan religions, is not one where the phrase “solitary and eclectic” is tossed around often. We are tribal and community-based. And it is in those communities that we practice our faith and offer thanks to those who came before us. So if you are alone out there, anywhere in the world, start looking.
Tyr’s Good Hand was started by myself, a single woman farmer with very little experience with Asatru. I didn’t care. Part of that not caring came from my own stubbornness, and the other part (the larger part) came from how little I understood the Heathen value of reputation. My messy combination of determination and ignorance was just the right alchemy to start a study group.
I you are reading this you have the internet. Congratulations, you have a networking and communication tool our ancestors would have killed for. Begin by using the communities already established through Facebook, Reddit, and Heathen Location Maps. None of these resources are a guarantee the people or groups are of any worth, but they can be leads and guideposts towards tribe.
I think part of leadership in any community is putting aside the fear of starting something new and the judgement of others and just getting to work. I did ask for advice on the sub reddit if this was or wasn’t appropriate to do. I didn’t want to come off as any sort of expert, religious leader, or scholar. I just wanted to basically start a book club with Heathens to learn with. That Meetup was the first step.
I chose Meetup because its focus, unlike other community sites, is on meeting in person. I advertised it on /r/asatru and local Pagan Facebook Groups. About six people showed up at that first meeting in winter of 2015. Many of them were lurkers on the sub I didn't even know were my neighbors! We met in a public place (a local bookstore/cafe) the first time and there we had a sort of coffee moot to discuss what we were all looking for as Heathens.
Study Group to Tribal Beginnings
After that first meeting I opened up my farm for the next gathering. I wanted to both host and share the resources of land I had acquired over the years as a writer and farmer, offer these to others looking for a Tribe. The plan was simple at first gatherings. Everyone was asked to bring a dish to share with the folks present and come having read an assigned bit of “homework” - a piece of literature we could all access, either online or in our own libraries at home. The reason for an assignment was twofold - to have a basis of conversation and to begin the idea that being a member of this group was not just a potluck at a farm, but something that demanded some preparation and seriousness to be an active part of.
After that talk we gathered outdoors in a quiet, woodland place behind my barns. There under an old apple tree with snow on the ground a makeshift altar was set up. It was a card table with a cloth and one of the more experienced Heathens who had a large horn and horn stand and ritual experience lead us in our first group Faining to the Gods. I don’t remember much, but the offering of mead was made and an announcement of our intention to become a community was said, out loud, to the Gods, Ancestors, Members, Wights and Radar.
A structure came out of this. Every month we met to a potluck and casual discussion, then moved into talking about an assignment from the month before. after that we headed outdoors to our ritual space for blot. (While we only offered mead or ale, the term for a sacrifice was used colloquially and still is by our tribe.) So every month our gathering was a combination of a shared meal, study, and ritual. But we wanted to serve more than just each other.
Walking the Talk
One thing our Kindred focuses on is community service. We feel it is important that our community is not just other Heathens, but our neighbors, other religious groups, and local wildlife/the natural world as well. Every month a community service event is listed, and always outside the Tribe. We are all "out" as Heathens and are so without fear. We have ran food drives for the local pantries, cleared trails at a local Nature Center, repaired and painted outbuildings, helped bottling at a local brewery, stacked firewood for farm volunteers, built wildlife housing, and this month we are working at a local farm outside our own. We have endeavored to do this (so far) in three states surrounding us. We do this not as outreach to grow the tribe but to come out to the community as a group that is useful, willing, and able. Now secular people and associations call on us to help when needed. We are there.
After a year of monthly meetings it was decided at a summer campout to move away from the title of Study Group and accept ourselves as a Kindred. A full year after our first gathering we held a mandatory attended Thing, complete with an itinerary, dues collected for a communal beehive, and went over our bylaws and goals. We officially voted in members. We decided the only time new members can be voted in is Summer and Winter Thing. And only after potential members have dedicated a full year to the Tribe and met all requirements of attendance, reputation, and are welcomed unanimously. We are not easy to be a part of and we like it that way.
I wanted something to represent such a huge Tribal Decision. I commissioned a local artist to create unique pewter pendants of our sigil - Fenrir with the swallowed hand of Tyr inside him. That sigil is not at all a praise towards the wolf, but a symbol of the sacrifice of Tyr. We are new at this. We are doing the best we can with what resources we have. Tyr, the one-handed God, is the inspiration and reason for our name and actions. Know that these pendants are not given, but lent to members. If a member chooses to leave the Tribe for personal reasons (can’t commit to the attendance demands and work) then they return it. Pendants have been returned. Sometimes they need to be removed.
Tribe is Hard. Tribe is Worth it.
When we created the rules and thew of our group. I didn’t realize we would need to use those rules so very soon, but I am grateful we had them in place when we need them. Two of our original members have since been removed. It was hard, but as a tribe we were able to meet and discuss this in person, have the members speak their peace, and vote a few days later. Thanks to our bylaws and the import of reputation and tribe - we came to a unanimous decision. It was a hard but important milestone for our group.
We are not a church, we are not a 501(c)(3), we are a club. This is important because clubs can create their own rules and members. This is very much a private gathering on private property. My tribe is my family, but it is not open to the public. This is important because I feel you need to be comfortable and respect all people who choose to raise the horn beside you. I went with my gut many times, telling applicants to the Meetup Group no thank you. Now we have Heathens as far away as Massachusetts and New Jersey driving to be a part of us. Our events calendar now has rituals, community service events, sumble, and camping events posted. There are potential new members contacting me all the time and while we continue to grow slowly, we are growing despite a few folks leaving or being removed.
I also do not care if the group stays at a handful of dedicated people or grows into something larger. Right now it is the quality of the group I care about, and that all who attend are met with hospitality, respect, and a place and people worth the effort to be a part of. Experience isn’t as important as heart and effort here. Slowly we grow and by this Winter Thing there may be new wolves around the necks of new members. Perhaps it will just be myself? Whose to say? But the point is to keep going with the intention of community.
Leading A Tribe
Organizing and hosting is what I am good at, as wel as leading group decisions and events. I am only in this position because I started the group,and the landowner, and have the time to continue to organize the tribe. Perhaps someone else will take over someday, but right now that happy effort is mine. That said, I am not a religious leader and would never claim to be. I am also still no scholar compared to others out there. But my feet are firmly planted on Heathen Ground and year into tribal leadership I feel I have learned much and we are moving forward as a people. We are dog paddling against the current of Over Culture and building a reputation worth raised eyebrows.
Most importantly, I have learned that leading a group is never acting like anyone’s boss or assuming any control over any other highly spirited and amazing people. Everything our group does we do as a tribe. We take turns choosing assignments, community service, leading discussions and leading ritual. I am most proud of this mutual mindset. We are a gathering of many leaders, and it is that type of person we hope finds us. And if they aren't that person yet, by the time they are a member they will be.
This all started with a new Heathen asking on a subreddit if a starting a study group was okay. I didn’t know wryd from a whetstone then but I knew I wanted to be a part of something bigger, real, and whole. Sometimes that is all you need to know. If the idea of starting a group scares you, so what? If you have nothing the stakes couldn’t be lower and you have nothing to lose. So put aside your hangups if a Kindred is what you desire. If groups around you are not what you want, build what you want. Create the community instead of wishing it existed. Because for every one of you just toying with this idea there are dozens within a few hours of you hoping you do.
Start today. Start now. We're all counting on you.