Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Heathen South: Interview with Ryan Denison

This July, Atlanta will once again host Mystic South: Theory, Practice, and Play. According to the convention’s Facebook page, the Pagan event “highlights the Southern flair and mystic spirit of our own part of the country.”

Headliners this year include Lilith Dorsey, Jason Mankey, Sangoma Oludoye, and Tuatha Dea. The conference schedule features rituals, workshops, papers, panels, presentations, and a live podcast. Information on Mystic South 2019 can be found at the convention’s official website.

Several events last year centered on Norse material and Heathen religions. To get a sense of the conference from a Heathen perspective, I spoke with Ryan Denison of the Mystic South organizing committee.

Ryan Denison of Mystic South

Ryan is co-founder, secretary, and a member of the clergy for Berkano Hearth Union. The relatively new organization describes itself as
a community of Heathens who are working together to create an inclusive group to learn, grow, and deepen our shared spirituality. We seek this whether it be toward Norse, Anglo-Saxon, Slavic, Sami, Finnish, or other flavors of Heathenry. The organization desires to provide a safe environment where everyone has a voice and members can turn to this community and have other members there for help or someone to listen to them.
Ryan is also co-founder and administrator of Heathen Men United, a Facebook group dedicated to fostering “affirmative productive change in the Heathen community by focusing on positive, supportive examples of masculinity.”

KS – Were you the only Heathen on the Mystic South organizing committee?

RD – Actually, no. Gypsey Teague is also an Icelandic Heathen. So two out of the seven organizers are Heathen.

KS – How do Heathens function (or not) within the wider Pagan communities of the southern United States?

RD – From my experience, I feel we function and interact well with the communities in the South. Berkano Hearth Union hasn’t been around long enough to interact with other communities yet, but we would definitely be willing to do so.

KS – What makes Heathenry qualitatively different in the South than it is in other regions of the U.S.?

RD – A lot of characteristics of Heathenry – such as hospitality and honor – are also stereotypical Southern characteristics and are emphasized in Southern Heathenry.

Being from Appalachia, I grew up in the hills and playing in creeks, so the animism of Heathenry also came easily to me, although I don’t see that as being specifically Southern.

There are of course the negative stereotypes of the South – namely, racism – which I have run into in Southern Heathenry, as well, over social media. Luckily, the groups I have become involved with have been very quick to dispel any person that showed racist tendencies.

KS – I’d love to hear about the Heathen presentations at the last Mystic South. What did Birna Isleifsdottir discuss in her presentation on Norse cosmology?

RD – This was actually an amazing presentation discussing the cosmology as seen in the Eddas, with the use of Legos! Essentially telling the story of creation using the Legos.

KS – How did Gypsey Teague’s discussion of early Norse navigational tools go?

RD – Gypsey’s presentation was pretty amazing, discussing the historical use of Norse navigation tools, including the famed sunstone. I don’t want to go into too much detail, as I am hoping to get the papers published in an annual journal edition.

KS – I’m especially curious about Morgan Daimler’s talk on Wodan and the Wild Hunt.

RD – Morgan is an amazing presenter who is very academically oriented, which I love.

She discussed the many varied stories of the Wild Hunt over Europe and how each of those stories had their regional details – i.e., the different leaders of the hunt from various regions. She discussed the participants of the hunt also being varied a bit by region, but all are hunting for new members to join the group.

She also spoke to the fact that the hunt was a terrifying experience, and yet in some regions there are tales that if you treated the hunt with respect and hospitality, you could be rewarded greatly.

KS – What were the central issues in J. Beofeld’s talk on the multi-part soul in Anglo-Saxon paganism?

RD – Joseph talked about the fact that the idea of the singular soul is an oddity in religion and discussed the idea that each person has a multi-part soul that can also be split up on death.

KS – Were there any other Heathen presentations?

RD – There was a workshop on land wights, but it wasn’t specifically Heathen in nature.

KS – You moderated a panel called “Reconstructing a Faith.” Can you explain the subject and talk about how it went?

RD – The idea of the panel was to discuss the basics of reconstructionism within Paganism and how we bring those researched findings into the present day. The panel was well received.

We began the discussion by defining reconstructionism. The participants defined the term in their own words, but there was general consensus that the idea is to base worldview and actions on those that we can find through holistic research.

We then discussed good versus bad research. We had a long discussion on source criticism, bias, historiography, interpretatio romana, and the dangers of not being thorough in your research and/or basing too much on a few sources – for example, using a text that only uses philology, and not taking into account other findings of archaeology.

We finished the panel by discussing the fact that we don’t want to reconstruct everything from the past. There are many things that need to be left in the past and do not fit in to our modern world.

Altar for opening ceremony at Mystic South (Photo by Heather Greene)

KS – What was the thought process in designing and performing your welcome ritual?

RD – The idea was to ask the appropriate gods to help foster learning, magic, and frithful communication amongst the diverse paths represented, as well as provide a level of protection for our conference. With that in mind, we asked for the assistance of Odin (esoteric knowledge), Freya (magic), Thor (protection), and Tyr (frith, grith, and god of the Thing).

We had to take into account that there would be many paths represented that may not wish to drink alcohol or may not want to drink from the same horn. Therefore, we decided to use locally obtained spring water in lieu of mead. We also had a separate bowl from which water could be poured into paper cups. We also could not use fire – big hang up for a Heathen blót! To that end we used fake fire made from paper and pipe cleaners on a torch that had previously been burned.

As we passed the horn, we had each participant say a sentence or two about what they wanted to take away from the conference. We received many compliments that this set a fantastic tone for the nature of the conference as being one of the reception and dissemination of sacred knowledge.

KS – What’s the Polytheist and Pagan Educational Symposium (PAPER) that you started at Mystic South?

RD – PAPER was born out of the fact that I can’t afford to travel. Ha!

Seriously, I wanted to attend religious academic conferences and could never find the time nor money to attend. So I thought, why not start one in Atlanta and bring these great minds here? From that came PAPER and attaching onto Mystic South.

The idea has evolved into bringing academia to the masses – allowing thorough and original research to be presented by these fantastic minds to groups of Pagans and polytheists that have never experienced this type of setting.

The past two years have been very well received, and I hope the idea continues to grow by publishing the PAPER presentations in an annual journal.

KS – Looking back, how do you think the Heathen portions of the conference went?

RD – I believe that Heathenry was represented with honor and honesty. We will know more when we have the survey data available, but I feel the Heathen portions went incredibly well.

KS – What Heathen events, rituals, and presentations do you have planned for this year’s conference?

RD – “Connecting to the Land” by John Beckett. Although he's not Heathen, it definitely applies to Heathen practice. “Creating Modern Art from Ancient Pagan Poetry” by Sam Flegal, “Pagan Interplay: Honoring our Ancestors” by Berkano Hearth Union member Jennifer Dodson. “Reconstructionism for Dummies: An Intro and How-to Guide to the Methodology of Pagan Reconstructionism” by BHU members Ryan Denison and Joseph Beofeld.

We really don't have any Heathen specific PAPERS this year. The rituals, too, are all more Wiccan.

Berkano Hearth Union logo

KS – I’d like to talk a bit about Berkano Hearth Union. What led to the creation of the organization?

RD – The creation of Berkano Hearth Union was prompted by several Heathens in the local groups coming together to form a union of various hearths that would focus on inclusivity, research, and community.

KS – What are your goals for the group?

RD – The goal is to foster community and provide knowledge to our members. We are now incorporated as a non-profit and will seek 501(c)(3) status, which we hope to use to better our community through fundraising for groups such as veterans and volunteering in our local community. We had our first full election at Yule, and all went well, with new board and officers in place.

KS – How do you see local, regional, national, and international Heathen groups interacting? Should they interact?

RD – Yes, I think they should. From my perspective, I feel any interaction between these groups would be a huge positive with the potential to grow and learn.

KS – You spoke to The Wild Hunt last April about the Heathen Men United group. Has anything developed since then, and do you have plans for action outside social media?

RD – Heathen Men United is continuing to grow online with some very tough but positive conversations happening. Because we have members all over the world, we are encouraging those who live close to come together once a month for food, drink, and fellowship.

Here in Atlanta, we have done so for several months, with really positive responses. We have had as many as fifteen men come together for dinner, discussion, and support of each other.

KS – Thanks for agreeing to discuss all of this, and good luck with your work!

RD – Thank you for all your work with your research, blog, and writing! I truly feel that we need to be more open to show the world the great and positive impact of our faith.

An earlier version of this interview appeared at The Wild Hunt.

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