Thursday, October 6, 2011

Health and Holiness

A couple of weeks ago, I was at a Sumbel with a local group.

One custom of the group when passing the horn from one person to the other, was the spoken exchange of 'Trink Heil' (drink hale) and 'Sei Heil' (be hale).

Unfortuantely, most people have only ever heard the word 'Heil' in reference to the nazis. Everyone has seen the old footage of Hitler and thousands of jackbooted followers giving their salute and shouting 'Sieg Heil!', but that's not all there is to this word. In fact, that does a great disservice to this word and the sacrality represented in those four, little letters.

'Heilen', the verb from which 'Heil' is derived in modern German is generally given the meaning of 'to cure', 'to heal', or is even found as 'das Heil', 'salvation'. 'Heil' can also be found in compound words such as 'Heilkunde'or 'medicine' and even 'Heilig' or 'holy. The word 'heil' can be traced back to Old High German (in which it can also mean 'safe'), after which there are two theorised proto-Germanic etymological origins of the word 'heil'.

*Hailaz (parent to the OE word 'hāl' and the Frisian word ' hēl), meaning 'whole' and theoretically derived from the Proto-Indo European word *koylos, meaning 'healthy, intact, well-omened).

*Hailan (parent to OE word 'hael' and ON word 'heill'), noun 'heil', meaning 'luck'.

If you look at the Anglo Saxon Magico-Medical charms, the focus is much more holistic than modern medicine tends to be. The focus is on whole-making, protecting, strengthening. A break in the 'scinn' (skin - sometimes referring to the physical skin but also potentially referring to an 'astral' skin similar to the ON concept of the 'hamr') could cause a person to lose 'hǽlu'. To lose 'hǽlu' invites sickness, which back then, was either conceived to be due to invasion from an outside force (such as 'flying venom' or 'elfshot'), something that subtracted from the 'wholeness' of the person (such as a supernatural creature that fed off them) or something that disturbed the balance of the body (also attributed to elves).

Of further interest in the Anglo Saxon worldview are words connected to 'hælu', such as:
hæle2 [] m (-þes/-þ, -as) man, hero [] m (-þes/-þ, -as) man, hero

So what kind of a picture can we build of the concept of health in (at least) Anglo Saxon Heathen culture (and possibly others)?

Hælu and its cognates were linked not only to 'health' and 'wholeness, but to 'safety', 'holy', 'luck' and 'salvation'.

What though, does this have to do with us as modern day Heathens?

In our modern day world, we often tend to think of physical health as being completely separate from anything remotely 'spiritual' (for want of a better word). We've all grown up in a culture that values this thing called the 'soul', often at the expense of the physical body. We grew up in a culture that is heavily based on a religion in which mortifying the flesh or putting it through hardship was considered an admirable spiritual endeavour. Something that is still practiced by Christian sects in various parts of the world. There's a disdain for the physical, it's considered worthless. Is it then really any wonder that so many of us have such little regard for our bodies?

We live in a culture in which most of the food we buy, barely passes for actually being food. Hot Pockets, microwave burritos, Hungry Man meals, frozen pizzas, Hamburger Helper and bread that is so pumped with fake nutrients and sugar, it should come with a health warning. What's even crazier is that this non-food that is sold as food, is actually cheaper than real food. For the first time in human history, the poorest people are actually the fattest!

On Heathen sites around the internet, I read a lot about people doing 'daily devotional practices', about them 'building a personal relationship with _(insert deity name here)_' and asking about things like 'growing spiritually'.

This is plug in and play spirituality.

It's time we started to look to the physical and get over this whole mentality of a spiritual/mundane dichotomy. As I've said in this blog before, Heathenry is world accepting. We are part of this world, our bodies are part of this world. There is no separation between our 'spirituality' and our physical bodies. If we really want to grow, we should not only endeavour to grow in our physical communities, but grow our bodies well too.

Now I'm not talking about weight here or having the perfect bodies or all Heathens looking like the Asgardians from the Thor comic. I'm talking health, strength and capability. Those should be our goals. Not only for ourselves but our communities as as we become stronger and increase our capabilities, we also increase our usefulness as members of our communities.

You want to do something Heathen? Educate yourself about exercise and nutrition. Cook nourishing food for your families and friends. Gift nourishing food to people in your community that you care for and who might not be eating enough of what they need (I'm thinking mostly of older people here). Strengthen your bodies. Respect your bodies. Recognise the worth in your body and love it for what you can do with it. Enjoy your bodies. Make yourselves whole.

Waes thu hael!


Leechcraft - Stephen Pollington

Woerterbuch der Indogermanischen Sprachen:
Dritter Teil: Wortschatz der Germanischen Spracheinheit - Fick, Falk & Torp

Bosworth and Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary:


Mari-Anne said...

of course you know I"m not heathen, but I'm all sorts of liking this. It applies to so many and has been my thinking as a polytheist as well. My body is sacred...and viewing it as such, I should take care of it. That was really the thinking that finally inspired me to lose 112lbs. :-) Great blog!!!

we have to work harder to take care of our bodies now in an articifical way to some degree since our livelihoods generally don't involve physical labor (for many of us anyway) and our chores at home have gotten so much physically easier. And as you said, the food is processed and often unhealthy or unwholesome. While some of that is okay, eating it all the time is not honoring yourself...I would even venture to say it dishonors my ancestors in that their genes flow through me. I should aspire to use those genetics to their best end to benefit me in the world.

Birka said...

Thank you Mari-Anne, I'm glad you like this, although I'm not surprised you feel similarly with knowing some of your views on health and fitness :).

Frigga's Keys said...

awesome read! wonderfully thought out and expressed concepts.

Heidianne said...

Exactly! Thank you for the information on such a sacred word. Its the other religions who teach that our body is "corrupted", a vehicle of suffering or sin,or other such nonsense. We are highly evolved, thinking animals, part of the earth, not apart from it. Our bodies are sacred. So for my own heatheny path being active,working out and trying to eat whole good foods is part of that.

Thunor Odinson said...

Thanks for another great read. I couldn't agree more. Rather struggling myself to change my eating habits somewhat. I'm taking it slow and gradual so the change will stick & I won't fall back into my old unhealthy ways. Slowly starting a moderate exercise regime is my next goal.

Great point about the need for heathens to maybe start thinking about the unity of body and soul (duality being apparently a foreign concept), as it seems to have been such an integral part of the overarching heathen worldview across multiple ancient heathen cultures. It's admittedly one of the harder xtianised modern cultural concepts to deprogram from ones mind for some reason. I myself can grasp it intellectually but am yet to bridge the gap between that and totally accepting it and making it a part of my worldview. Rather serendipitous that I read this only a few weeks after the Raven Radio shows on death and afterlife, in which Jill brought up the problem most people have in giving up the concept of the duality of body and soul/spirit, which has been on my mind lately.

I'm so glad you're mentioning what many studies and health advocacy groups are finding and speaking out against these days. There is a health and nutrition deficiency in our society, specially at the lower economic class levels. The cheap food is pumped full of crap that is bad for you while the healthier and whole foods are much more expensive. I've heard of areas where you have to drive quite a few miles just to buy actual produce. At least one organization (don't remember the name but it was spearheaded by some TV show Chef) is even forming what it calls "food banks" to help lower income people who either can't afford healthy foods and/or just don't have the means to travel the required distance to get some to be able to eat at least some healthy meals.

It's a sad reality, but not really surprising in a world where Monsanto gets Congress to approve a bill to exempt them from any after effects of their GMO's and the Amish are harassed by the government for trying to sell raw milk and other non FDA approved natural foods.