Weaving the Social Fabric: Folk Dress and the Revival of Heathen Community

by Friðoríc Stíweard

“The universe, the Northern Path, the true folk religion, is not at all a journey into the ‘self;’ that idea in itself is magical, a reification, and a mere romantic palliative, not a cure. The true ‘journey’ is not into the self at all, but its opposite; community.” ~ Garman Lord[1]

Since time immemorial ethnic and social groups have developed their own cultural aesthetic. They have done so as a matter of natural pride, for easy identification, and as part of the cultivation of corporate identity. Folk dress is part of the fabric of culture and is particularly pronounced, developed, and refined amongst indigenous, tribal, and rural village groups the world over. The sheer multitude, variety, and simple fertile strangeness of traditional costume dazzles the eye. Embodying multiple layers of meaning, including spiritual, magical, and political, folk dress communicates identity and worldview and has the potential to foster a profound sense of belonging within a group. As such, it has great utility in the construction and renewal of Heathen community.

Folk dress is popularly understood to refer to the traditional dress worn by people outside urban areas.[2] Peasant, ethnic, rural, and regional dress are common alternative labels that refer to the same thing.[3] The term “national dress” also captures a similar meaning and for the purposes of this article “folk dress” also refers to tribal livery. Naturally, it also extends to include jewelry, cosmetics, tattoos, hair styling, and so forth.

According to Bryan Turner, “the body is an important surface on which marks of social status, family position, tribal affiliation, gender, and religious condition can easily and publicly be displayed.”[4] Beliefs about the magico-religious and symbolic function of substances worn on the body may be as old as mankind itself. The manipulation of textiles and metals expanded the provenance of such cosmetic amulets. Anthropologists have noted that in traditional societies folk dress is thought to embody protective powers and to ensure fertility.[5]

Folk Dress and Historical Heathenry

Examples of folk dress from Europe’s cultural past seem to speak to our yearning for the small, homogeneous tribal societies that flourished before Christianity – societies in which every aspect of life was integrated into a holistic system of community, nature, and cyclic time.[6] Historian of religion James C. Russell has noted the vitality of indigenous Germanic religiosity at the time of “conversion” and the fact that our Germanic ancestors enjoyed a very high level of group solidarity, due in part to the homogeneous and rural nature of Heathen society at the time.[7] Folk dress in Germanic antiquity would have eloquently expressed this group solidarity at the tribal level.

Indeed, folk dress would have not only been an expression of social solidarity; as a kind of dramatic cultural adornment it would have played an active, integrative role in Heathen society, helping to establish and reinforce the living sense of defined custom and received tradition that structured the innangarth. Fellow Théodish author Shane Ricks has highlighted the fact that cult and identity in the world of the Germanic Heathens was fundamentally performative and integrative, expressing a dynamic play between the actors involved, the location where ritual or other cultural enactment took place, and the history informing the participants. In an insightful article in the Heathen Reconstructionist journal Óðrœrir he writes:

“Traditional custom dictated the proper expression of obligations towards three fundamental objects in the life of Germanic Heathens: their people, their land, and their gods. Maintaining these proven traditions was the foundation of Germanic society. The particular characteristics defining the expression of these obligations and categories of reciprocity delineated the hierarchy of identities or in-groups in which the individual held membership. Some common methods of displaying different social identities in pre-Christian and conversion-era Germanic Europe included food, dress, and facial hair, law and ancestral land, and language and religion.”[8]

Historian Barbara Yorke, specializing in the early medieval period, argues that there is considerable archaeological evidence that the different peoples of Britain did dress differently and that “there is wider evidence from medieval Europe for variation in hairstyles and facial hair as ethnic markers.”[9] Even Tacitus describes several folk customs around hair grooming, as well as their significance within the ancient tribal setting![10]

Folk dress in traditional Germanic society thus both contributed to and expressed Heathen group solidarity because it helped to signify and define the tribal peer group. Traditional costume can even facilitate the relationship between the tribal group and the localized natural world into which it is woven. Heathen folk dress is indelibly linked in its historical expression to a conception of Heathenism as a tribal religion.

Folk Dress and Contemporary Heathenry

Within contemporary Heathenry the most articulate and sustained advocacy for Heathen tribalism has emerged out of Théodish Belief. In Old English the word Théod simply means “tribe.” Founded by Garman Lord in 1976, Théodish Belief emphasizes a reconstructive and approach to Germanic Heathenism, the purpose of which is to not only “rediscover the real ‘Old Religion’ [but] inevitably the long-forgotten folkways as well, of their ancient English ancestors.”[11] As keeping with this, Théodish society has typically taken the shape of a “théod” or tribe. It is important to note the significant difference between an anthropological and a merely colloquial use of the word “tribe” in both Heathen and popular parlance. In a Théodish context the meaning of the word “tribe” is highly specific.

In an article concerning the relationship between Heathenry and tribalism, Gárman Lord, the founder of Théodish Belief, further articulates the importance of folk dress to tribal group solidarity:

“What is sometimes not appreciated is that there is a biological limit that nature imposes upon the size of any human peer group; one that Anthropologists refer to as a ‘magic number.’ In order to achieve peer-identity, we need to be able to effortlessly and efficiently recognize and identify who our peers are, and nature imposes a limit of about five hundred on the number of face-recognition imprints that the average human brain can store and process…Even a tribe, however, may swell to higher numbers than (500), whereupon they will spontaneously start evolving adjustment mechanisms that are an expression of the tribal social dynamic…One of the most important such mechanisms is of course tribal livery. For tribesmen, it is generally not enough that that they all look pretty much alike; they will affect a distinctive tribal dress and style that makes them look even more alike. Even a tribe that normally goes about naked will at least affect traditional tattoo patterns, hair styles or body paint. Obviously a socially efficient society is a healthy happy society, but there is an even more vital function of tribal livery that ought not to be discarded; namely, the case of a tribe which may go over a population of five hundred individuals. In such case, since no one man could expect to recognize every member of the tribe, the right tribal livery tells every tribesman what he really needs to know day-to-day; namely that even if we may not know exactly who he is, we know at least that he is somebody who belongs here.”[12]

One function of Heathen Tribalism is that different Théods (tribes) can develop very specific and highly differentiated thew (custom), due in part to the inherent local and ethno-centric nature of the tribal model. Thus law, custom, belief, and practice may differ significantly between tribes and between Heathen Tribalism itself and the wider Heathen community. One significant expression of this organic differentiation that awaits further development and refinement is tribal livery or folk dress.

For those inclined to wear Heathen folk dress the main model of inspiration for a revived folk aesthetic is of course the clothing of Germanic antiquity. In some ways this is quite natural because the early Middle Ages represents the time when we, as a folk, were last loyal to the gods of our fathers and enjoyed real Heathen cultural integrity. The early Middle Ages seem to provide models of cultural continuity and integration, paralleling that of other Indigenous peoples who takes such obvious pride in their respective national dress styles.

There is however a significant difference between we Heathens and many other peoples who share an orientation toward tradition and who claim an indigenous identity: the forced imposition of feudalistic Christianity on our European ancestors means that we have been long since severed from the organic totality of our original Heathen culture. We simply do not enjoy as much continuity of custom and Heathen folk dress; indeed, the whole neo-Heathen enterprise can appear contrived or artificial, even “invented.” These are challenges to which I will return.

We live in a non-traditional, de-tribalized society. Modernity has forced a heightened level of self-consciousness and reflexivity upon us and this forces us to consciously reclaim and evolve, perhaps “invent,” workable cultural traditions. Folk dress has such ample potential for the development and renewal of European cultural identity, as the history of national dress attests, but it brings with it these issues of cultural agency, authenticity, invention, and tradition.

An instructive example of the successful navigation between the reinvention of national folk dress and revived Heathenism comes from Eastern Europe. There, a search for a deeper understanding of ancient Baltic religion has given birth to the “Pagan” style of folk dress, which is based loosely on archaeological findings.[13] Describing this type of folk dress, folklorist Ruta Saliklis writes:

“[Neo-Pagan folk costume] was by nature more stylized and impressionistic, being based on very scanty archaeological evidence. I was told that it was more “Lithuanian” because, in the words of one proponent, it reflected the only true Lithuanian religion. The display of creativity allowed the makers to get in touch with a more “archaic truth.” A wide variety of interpretations was evidenced, and the overlay of what the adherents believe to be ancient religious elements on the “reinvented” costume worn by folklore ensemble members was common…”[14]

As this passage shows, the reinvention of Lithuanian national dress in Pagan terms itself occurred within the context of earlier such reinventions, themselves negotiated and evolving, rather than emerging unchanged out of the primordial past.

In point of fact many of the most singular and inspiring ‘traditional’ costumes, including those of Wales, Scotland, and the Scandinavian countries, were self-consciously re-interpreted, if not outright invented, by an educated urban middle class in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This does not make them any less authentic or overly proscriptive or indeed any less traditional. They all build on past models and are a worthy expression of the aesthetic will of the nation, at least after they catch on and attain popularity. Imagine Scotland without the kilt? I wouldn’t want to.

It follows that if, in constructing a neo-tribal Heathen aesthetic, we rely exclusively on historical Germanic models, we are in danger of not developing the full cultural potential of folk dress. A relentless focus on “accurate” material representation can lead, as it has done within the re-enactment community and amongst the arbiters of national folk costume “authenticity,” to a lack of differentiation born of the relative paucity of historical examples available to us from the past.

Inter-tribal, regional, and historical differences, even personal idiosyncrasies – for which there must always be a place – are obscured, because they cannot be recovered from the historical record. Much of the dynamism of traditional clothing comes from its localism and its organic, evolving nature. In the remnants of the past we may find, inherit, or develop more coherent visual imagery but that does not mean that symbolic meaning is fixed or immutable. Pattern, meaning, and belief can and do alter with changing circumstances and can change to meet emerging needs or new ideas.

Heathenry is undoubtedly enjoying a period of cultural and religious renewal. And yet, as some Théodish commentators have noted, Heathenry today is often still a culturally “thin” phenomenon and tends to lack the variation in cult, ritual, and aesthetic that one might expect.[15] The development of historically informed but nonetheless localized and evolving folk dress offers a wonderful opportunity for building a richer tribal community. Each Théod, each group, must itself be the ultimate arbiter on questions of authenticity, as its members undergo their own ethno-genesis and develop unique traditions.

A Stitch in Time: Does Heathenry Really Need a Folk Dress Repertoire?

“Théodism has never been play-acting and isn’t anything like the SCA.” ~ Garman Lord[16]

Despite the arguments I have advanced, the question of folk dress typically divides opinion amongst modern Heathens. As it turns out there are very good reasons for the strong ambivalence some Heathens feel toward ‘costume’ of any kind. That is why I have decided to preference the word “dress” over “costume” in this article, because they do not necessarily mean the same thing. I agree with folklorist Linda Welters emphasis when she writes that “Dress is preferred to costume because the latter evokes images of Halloween costumes, theatrical or stage costumes, or historical ensembles.”[17]

The propensity of some Heathens to wear “Viking” clothing to ritual events is well known. In addition to the integrative function of adornment already noted, the inclination to “dress up” ostensibly expresses a desire to engage with heritage, to honour ancestral culture, and even to facilitate a change of consciousness during ritual, signifying the transition from a profane to a sacred state. Furthermore, many mainstream religions make good use of archaic ceremonial clothing without inviting ridicule.

On the negative side, sublimated within Heathen culture there are often less edifying reasons for wearing costume that have to with the modern propensity for play acting and a tendency to emphasize form over substance. Seen in this light, dressing up in historical garb brings Heathenry perilously close to medieval re-enactment and it is certainly true that many Heathens are all too enamored of the Viking cliché, to such an extent that they reify the ancient past, substituting fantasy for reality.

Some Heathens have also objected to the use of ritual clothing because they would like to see Heathenry become a more mainstream religious option and outlandish costumes are perceived as too counter-cultural.

I would like to suggest that a more nuanced and selective approach to Heathen-inspired clothing may emerge if we tackle the central issue at stake: the question of authenticity. Let us address what I have come to think of as “the problem of medieval re-enactment.” Doubtless I and many other Heathens have gravitated toward historical re-enactment in quest of our own cultural heritage. Some of us have even discovered Heathenry for the first time in such a setting. Modern secular society leaves few other avenues open to us to engage with our Heathen heritage, especially when we are just beginning our journey. Often our spiritual impulse is sublimated within a fascination for the genre of fantasy, or arcane music, or with the occult as presented in popular culture. Often these genres are soaked in a Northern European mythos and aesthetic.

Naturally, problems occur when Heathens are unable to differentiate between Medieval re-enactment or role play and the practice of a living religion with ancient, albeit revived, antecedents. This confusion of categories is sadly all too common in some circles and can lead to an emphasis on superficial outer forms at the expense of deeper personal and communal engagement with Heathen tradition.

Yet if the outer forms are frequently shallow or escapist, they nevertheless represent an urgent, if unrefined, need: a cultural desire for self-determined authenticity, that very same impulse which led to the Germanic Revival in the first place. If the objection to Heathen folk dress is based on a rejection of the shallowness that can plague historical re-enactment and its ilk, I would argue that this very shallowness underscores the need for Heathen folk dress as significant vehicle of cultural identity and pride, just as it is for other ethnically self-conscious peoples who emphasize the importance of tradition.

What then constitutes “authentic” Heathen folk dress? I would suggest that there is a qualitative difference between cultural re-enactment and cultural enactment proper. When the Maori of New Zealand perform a haka they do so in the traditional livery of their ancestors, yet they are enacting their culture, not re-enacting it. This is because their tribal livery is but one part of a greater whole; it is situated within the organic totality that is the tribal organism, which encompasses simultaneously their law, customs, social mores, and worldview.

Until Heathenism has developed some of the tribal holism that other traditional peoples enjoy it will remain a culturally “thin” phenomenon. Even if it develops further intellectual sophistication – and there are moves in that direction– Heathenism will not be able to fulfil its promise unless it can cultivate strong social integrity and build communities that can flourish over time. The tribal model of Heathenism may yet prove the best vector for that project. And because of its socially and spiritually integrative function, tribal livery offers significant aid toward achieving this transpersonal Théodish vision.

Conclusion

Our ancestors were highly pragmatic people and they were survivors. They endured the most extraordinary hardships and trials, particularly in the Migration Age when the troth as we know it was forged and the symbolic repertoire of Heathenism reached its most highly developed material expression. I think we can assume that no element of their culture was surplus to requirements or merely superfluous, including their tribal livery. The significant role of national clothing in the revival of various traditional cultures suggests that the kind of cultural intensification represented by Heathen folk dress may be indispensable to our long-term survival as a group.

To advocate for the (re)introduction of tribal livery into Heathenism is not to assert the primacy of external appearance over internal spiritual development. Nor is it to suggest the primacy of impression over deeds. The ultimate goal of Théodish Belief and other forms of tribal Heathenism is holism and within this paradigm the material culture should reflect the spiritual culture, thus forming a seamless continuum.

Heathen tribal livery should be an emanation of several things: ancestral tradition, local environmental factors, custom, personal preference, and communal affirmation. A newly forming Théod should actively engage in founding these traditions. The one thing it cannot do is cope without tribal livery of some sort – no traditional culture in the history of the world as seen fit to do without it. Why would we be any different? Let’s recover our cultural autonomy and strengthen our spiritual sovereignty through Heathen folk dress!


[1] Garman Lord, “A Quote on the Northern Path,” http://www.gamall-steinn.org/oldway.htm

[2] Linda Welters, “Introduction: Folk Dress, Supernatural Belief and the Body,” Folk Dress in Europe and Anatolia: Beliefs About Protection and Fertility, ed. Linda Welters (Oxford: Berg, 1999) 3.

[3] Welters 3.

[4] Welters 6.

[5] Welters 1.

[6] Joshua Buckley, Collin Cleary, and Michael Moynihan, eds., Tyr Journal: Myth – Culture – Tradition, Vol 1 (Atlanta: Ultra Publishing, 2002) 1.

[7] James C. Russell, The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity: A Sociohistorical Approach to Religious Transformation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994) 212.

[8] Shane Ricks, “Cult and Identity in Modern Heathenry,” Óðrœrir 2 (2012), 29, http://odroerirjournal.com/

[9] Barbara Yorke, “Britain and Ireland, c.500,” A Companion to the Early Middle Ages: Britain and Ireland c.500–1000, ed. Pauline Stafford (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009) 52.

[10] Cornelius Tacitus, Tacitus on Britain and Germany: A Translation of the Agricola and the Germania, trans. Harold Mattingly (Penguin Classics, 1965).

[11] Garman Lord, “The Evolution of Theodish Belief: Part II, The Witan Theod,” first published in the Hallows 1995 issue of THEOD Magazine.

[12] Garman Lord, “May Your Tribes Increase: Heathenry and the Tribal Model: Great Mother vs. Big Brother; Tribalism vs. Ecumenism,” Theod Magazine 5 (1997) 28.

[13] Ruta Salikis, “The Dynamic Relationship Between Lithuanian National Costumes and Folk Dress” Folk Dress in Europe and Anatolia: Beliefs About Protection and Fertility, ed. Linda Welters (Oxford: Berg, 1999) 222.

[14] Saliklis 222.

[15] Ricks 27.

[16] Lord, http://www.gamall-steinn.org/theod/gl-tribes.htm

[17] Welters 3.

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