The Matter of UPG
UPG. “Unverified/Unverifiable Personal Gnosis.” It’s a term that will come up at some point in nearly every Heathen forum, group, or discussion. It can be an especially divisive topic, or an accusation leveled against any belief or practice that isn’t clearly described in lore. And while the term has its origins in early modern Heathenry, it has spread to other reconstructive religions and even into non-reconstructive (yet still pagan) faiths like Wicca. Yet it is especially important in Heathenry, and many Heathens insist that any discussion of UPG include a caveat that it is, indeed, UPG.
The Wikipedia description of UPG is simply “the phenomenological concept that an individual’s spiritual insights (or gnosis) may be valid for them without being generalizable to the experience of others.” And while using Wikipedia as a source is always considered shaky ground, in this case it’s a good, working definition. The things that each of us have learned personally, through what might be called “revelation,” or even through trial and error in terms of actual practices, is typically UPG. And understanding that it is so, even though it may feel overwhelmingly valid to you personally, is important. Even more so when you note that Heathenry is a reconstructionist faith.
“Reconstructionism” is another term that many people struggle with when coming to Heathenry. The idea of dogma or orthopraxy seems anathema to new Heathens, but reconstructionism is the foundation of Heathenry. Without the attempt to adhere to ritual traditions, or without making the effort to understand and adapt the beliefs of early Heathens, Heathenry becomes just another syncretic pagan branch, wherein any belief or practice becomes valid, regardless of origin. Simply put: to be Heathen is to adhere to the practices, beliefs, and general worldview of arch-Heathens.
This is where the importance of labeling UPG comes into play. If we are to adhere to those practices and beliefs, we must be able to distinguish what was known truth to arch-Heathens and what is a modern creation. And not every Heathen has the time or inclination to self-educate through reading texts like “Culture of the Teutons” or “Road to Hel.” In fact, many new Heathens learn what they can through the discussions on Heathen forums or in Heathen groups on Facebook. For a large number of these new reverts or converts, the knowledge they glean through these conversations become the basis on which they center their new religious beliefs. And this becomes problematic when someone’s UPG is being discussed as if it is generally applicable to all Heathens rather than to just themselves. Those without the proper knowledge to discern the difference may make the mistake of believing it is a generally understood and practiced part of Heathenry when it is in fact not.
This is especially true when UPG directly contradicts lore. When a personal belief or revelation outright disputes arch-Heathen beliefs, we still tend to place it under the umbrella of UPG. But it is much more damaging to Heathenry as a whole to see UPG of that nature unlabeled and miscategorized as universal truth. Again, Heathenry is about reconstructing arch-Heathen beliefs and traditions. It is our responsibility to ensure that we are doing so, even if that means actively warning others that something we, or anyone else, says may be UPG.
UPG isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It is what we use to “fill in the gaps” when we don’t know exactly how arch-Heathens may have practiced a certain thing, or whether they believed something. We’ve seen practices that were UPG in early modern Heathenry, such as the “hammer sign,” become a common part of present-day Heathen ritual or belief. And while these practices are acceptable in that they fill a role or need for the tribe that engages in them, we cannot make the mistake of ignoring their modern origin. It is important that we understand where our beliefs come from, why we conduct rituals in a certain manner, and from where the foundation of a modern Heathen worldview derives.