This article is adapted from an article published in The Runestone, Fall/Winter 1996. It was written as a comment on the Asatru festival called “Winter Nights,” held in mid-to late October.
The Disir are those ancient tribal mothers who have departed this life for the Otherworld. These powerful female ancestors, traditionally led by the Goddess Freya, look on with loving interest in the affairs of their descendants. Nurturing, advising, helping out from time to time on the borders of perception, they remain an active, though normally hidden, part of the family. As Fall comes upon us, our minds turn to these holy mothers and we prepare to celebrate their special time of year, called Winter Nights.
The Disir serve many functions, one of which is to remind us that we are more than we appear to be. Like mountains jutting up from the sea floor to rise above the surface, most of the essential “us” is hidden from view. Psychologists have long understood this idea; Jung and Freud both told us that most of our mental processes are submerged below the threshold of awareness.
Most of us, however, have failed to see what this means to individual Asatruar. Beyond our immediate waking selves is the personal unconscious. It is laden with the mental “baggage” we acquire during our passage through life. Childhood memories, fears, traumatic events and impressions, superficial dreams that echo our daily lives, are all packed inside. Deeper still is the collective unconscious, the realm of deeper dreams and mythological motifs – where the ancestors speak to us, remind us that we are part of something much older and larger – our entire ancestral line. The Disir, those mighty foremothers, talk to us in a whispering that sounds like the fallen leaves, rustling in the chilling winds of Autumn.
How arrogant it is, the Disir tell us, to think that joining an organic religion is a matter of mere preference! To take up an ethnic religion like Asatru, or Native American belief, or any other indigenous faith is to take up the ancestors themselves. Only those who are of their line can bear their weight. All real religion springs from the deepest recesses of the heart, not from the superficialities of logic and debate. The heart is tribal and ancestral, shaped by the forefathers and foremothers; it beats to the pulse they gave it.
But can ancestry really matter, in this age of Calvin Klein and Kim Kardashian? Pop culture is hostile to ancestors, because ancestors imply something special, something that cannot be satisfied by good intentions. You can’t buy ancestry, or co-opt it to pretend that we are all blank slates at birth, ready to be programmed by the commercial state.
However, those who value the old ways, the true ways, have a weapon on their side in a principle I call “metagenetics.” This principle flies in the face of contemporary media-and-market-induced “culture.” It states that beings who share a common ancestry are linked in many ways, some of which are obvious and others which are much more subtle, more spiritual. Metagenetics states that our biological, ancestral inheritance influences not only our obvious physical makeup, but our behavior and spirituality as well. This worldview validates the voice of the Disir.
Metagenetics may go against the current American materialistic ethic, but ironically, it is consistent with other very modern ideas. “Holistic” is a word we used to hear a lot; it’s rarer now, but the underlying concept is still with us and we still hear terms like “holistic medicine.” A holistic view of the human being, for example, holds that body, mind, and spirit are not separate things, but represent a continuum. People are unitary organisms; all the different aspects of our beings work together to produce the sum of what we are.
Everyone understands that the body and the mind are linked. We all know that our mental processes and our moods are affected by everything from breakfast to booze to menstrual periods. Similarly, hypnosis, meditation, and biofeedback can alter our pulse rate and change the pattern of our brain waves.
Less apparent is the truth that the body – particularly the brain – and the spirit are just as surely connected. This wondrous lump of gray matter is the seat of logical thought – but it is much more than that. It is also the source of our deepest religious symbolism and our most profound spiritual longings. We think of the archetypes of Jungian psychology as “mental” or “psychic” things, but they correspond to specific physical structures. Briefly, they seem to originate in the deep areas we call the limbic system, but are modified and elaborated by other portions of the brain, to include the cerebral cortex. [For an examination of archetypes and brain structure, the Archetypes: A Natural History of the Unconscious, by Anthony Stevens.]
It should not be surprising, then, that genetics, which shapes our cerebral cortex and the limbic system as surely as it influences the size of our ears, is also a factor in spiritual or psychic matters. The numinous, awe-inspiring patterns which inform our religious lives are, indirectly, products of the same forces of biological evolution that forged the rest of our organism. As Jung said, “Because the brain is the principle organ of the mind, the collective unconscious depends directly upon the evolution of the brain.” The physical and the spiritual are ultimately one – or at least, they cooperate remarkably well!
Now, please do not misunderstand me! I am NOT saying that the Gods, the Disir and so forth are “just archetypes” or that they’re “just inside our heads.” Humans are multi-dimensional beings. The body, to include the brain, is part of us but it is not all that we are. Consider, for example, the structures known in yoga as “chakras.” They correspond with certain structures in the body – nerve centers, different organs and so forth – but those tissues are not the chakras themselves. The chakras may be thought of as “other dimensional” or “astral” or “subtle body” parts of our totality. So it is for the structures that, according to Jung, relate to the archetypes; I think of our brains – or perhaps our hearts? – as our “contact point” with the Holy Powers, but the Holy Powers themselves are not the mere product of our organism.
We of Asatru consider our religion to be an expression of the whole of what we are. Asatru is not something apart from our bodies, which were shaped by thousands of generations of evolution in the rugged winters of the Northlands. These bodies/minds/spirits were bequeathed to us by our ancestors, which is why ancestry is paramount in our religion. And that’s where the Disir, those wonderful female ancestors, enter the picture.
The Gods and Goddesses manifest in Midgard through our people, our Folk. They and we are an inseparable unity. We live in them, and they live in us – “The Gods and their people are one.” As Native American activist Vine Deloria stated in his book, God is Red, “Most tribal religions make no pretense as to their universality…The idea that religion was conceived as originally designed for a specific people relating to a specific god falls well within the experience of the rest of mankind and may conceivably be considered a basic factor in the existence of religion.”
Metagenetics says there is a special relationship between the peoples of Northern Europe (and their descendants everywhere around the world) and Asatru. But it goes beyond that – it announces that all biological/cultural groupings have a special relationship with their own Gods and Goddesses, and that this is not only natural and good, but that it is holy! European-descended peopled are unique…and so are African people, and Asian people, and everyone else. We must approach each other with honor, with mutual respect, aware of our differences, and knowing that those differences are something to be treasured and preserved. Every human being, regardless of where his or her ancestors came from, is innately bound to those ancestors and to the mighty Powers of their people. Thus is the human mosaic constructed.
The Disir watch. They whisper in the wind and in our hearts. We are more than we appear, they say: “We are the latest manifestation of all our kind who have gone before us. Ancient and ever-young, we spring from the soul of our people.”…Listen to the rustling of the autumn leaves…to the the heartbeat of the Disir….