Erin Lale, author of American Celebration, responds to the internet meme that claims that Ash Wednesday has a heathen origin. She is also the author of Asatru For Beginners, a book about heathen religion.
March 6, 2014 (Newswire) - Erin Lale, author of American Celebration, responds to the internet meme that claims that Ash Wednesday has a heathen origin. She is also the author of Asatru For Beginners, a book about heathen religion.
Lale says, "The internet meme making the rounds that claims that fire and ash is an exclusively heathen or pagan symbol is ridiculous on its face; all cultures used fire. All cultures that had agricultural animal husbandry also turned the occasion of animal slaughter into some sort of ritual or public feast. The internet meme claims the ashes from heathen festivals were protective in heathen culture. I've been a gythia of Asatru for 25 years and I've never heard of that. It is possible that some heathens in the past did use ash for some magical or religious purpose, but if so the person who created the meme really ought to cite the source.
"Associating fire and ash with Odin can be done but only in a very roundabout way. To make this association, first one must hold that Odin in his triple aspect as Odhinn/Lodhur/Hodhur is all one god and each hypostasis is interchangeable with the other. That would make Odin and Lodhur the same god. Lodhur is one of the names of Loki. Loki is associated with the hearth fire, cooking fire, and cremation fire. So it is possible to do this, but only in a way that most heathens, who are generally hard polytheists, would find cringeworthy. Heathen culture generally see Odin and Loki as completely separate beings.
"Ash Wednesday is positioned in time in relation to Christian Easter by calculating 40 days exclusive of Sundays prior to Christian Easter. The number 40 is significant in Christian culture because it is the number of days Jesus spent in the desert being tempted, and the number of days that the rain lasted before the Great Flood. The claim in the internet meme that this has something to do with Odin because "most wars lasted 40 days" is utter tripe. Wars lasted until there was a winner, or until one side quit, or was wiped out, or until there was a negotiated peace treaty, just like they do in the modern world.
"In Christian culture, wearing ashes is an act of penance for sin. In the 2nd century, Tertullian wrote that it was the practice to wear sackcloth and ashes to do penance for a grave sin. Entire communities of Christians repent of original sin by wearing a bit of ash on their foreheads. In their culture, the physical mortal body can be mortified to reach a purer level of spirituality. In the 40 days of Lent, they give up some physical pleasure, often a type of food, as an act of self-discipline and a mild form of mortification of the flesh (historically, and in some other countries, mortifications could reach levels that modern American society would consider perverted, involving whips and blood and even re-enacting crucifixion, but only particularly holy people and groups participated in extreme mortifications.)
"This mindset is alien heathen culture. It stems from dualism, seeing a separation between nature and supernature, and placing one 'above' (super) the other. In heathen culture, everything is natural, including the gods and their world, and one does not reach a holier state closer to the gods by punishing the physical body.
"Now, there ARE a ton of holidays that have pagan and heathen origins. Ash Wednesday just doesn't happen to be one of them. In my book American Celebration, I detail the origin stories and modern practices of popular holidays in the United States of America, along with other American customs. Ash Wednesday is not included because it is strictly a religious holiday, and American Celebration is about holidays celebrated in secular American culture regardless of religion, including religious holidays like Easter that have cultural components. Ash Wednesday is a holiday that is exclusively celebrated by some denominations of Christians."