Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Do You Believe in Interfaith?

A few years ago, I asked the director of a United Kingdom think tank focused on religion and society if organizations like hers were more comfortable with atheism than with religions outside of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. She answered affirmatively, stating that a lack of faith is “more familiar” than any non-Abrahamic tradition. She is not alone in this sentiment.

Holding a mass-produced sign promoting atheism at the Reason Rally 2016

Interfaith most often means intra-Abrahamic. There is a shared heritage between the three large monotheistic faiths that can provide a natural starting point for dialogue between the traditions. If an atheist presents an argument regarding the existence of God, that argument is necessarily part of Abrahamic dialogue. By agreeing that the discussion concerns the immanent reality of God, the atheist agrees to terms that are innately bound to an Abrahamic worldview.

For those of us who belong to faith traditions outside the Abrahamic sphere, the fundamental assumptions of standard interfaith conversation do not necessarily apply. Many well-meaning and openhearted people in the interfaith world declare that “there are many paths to God.” This is a progressive position to take when trying to bring together Christians, Jews, and Muslims. However, it leaves practitioners of polytheistic faiths outside of the tent. The atheist who asserts “there is no God at the end of the path” is more welcome than the polytheist who states “there are many gods along the path.”

The atheist and the follower of an Abrahamic tradition are part of the same conceptual world; they are arguing within a culturally bound structure. The polytheist does not agree to the basic premises of this system. For someone who shares the world with gods, goddesses, wights, giants and other powers, the concept of a single, omniscient, omnipotent God moving over the surface of the waters is as foreign as the idea of elves and spirits deciding the fate of a Member of Parliament would be to a Muslim.

My own tradition is Ásatrú, a modern iteration of pre-Christian Germanic polytheistic religion. The international Heathen community is relatively small, but it spreads across many regions of the planet and encompasses a great diversity of belief and practice. My own Worldwide Heathen Census found practitioners in ninety-eight countries, with the United States having the largest number of adherents and Iceland having the highest Heathen density.

My ritual drinking horn, Thor's hammer pendant, and oath ring

The archeological, historical, and literary record relating to the roots of the Ásatrú religion encompasses a great variety of source materials from the past 4,000 years: Bronze Age rock carvings in Scandinavia, records of interactions between the Roman Empire and continental Germanic tribes, royal annals describing wars of conquest and conversion against the pagan Saxons, chronicles of Heathen-Christian clashes during the Viking Age, the preservation of myths and legends in post-Conversion Iceland, and folk practices that survive into recent times.

The modern revival dates to 1972, when Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson founded the Ásatrúarfélagið (“Æsir Faith Fellowship”) in Iceland. Ásatrú soon began to appear around the world in the form of national organizations, regional groups, small communities, and individual practitioners. It is now Iceland’s largest non-Christian religion, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in approved Mjölnir (Thor’s hammer) as a recognized emblem of belief for military grave markers in 2013.

What place is there for Heathens in interfaith organizations? I have yet to find even one national-level interfaith organization in the United States that has a single Ásatrúar on its board, advisory panel, administration or staff. Last year, the rabbi who co-founded an interfaith journal told me that his group’s “Board of Scholars and Practitioners” (with over fifty current members) had no place for a Heathen – there was simply no room at the inn.

On the other hand, these interfaith advisory boards seem to have little actual impact on the organizations they supposedly advise. The editor-in-chief of a religion news organization that covers the intersection of faith with politics and culture told me that her group’s “Advisory Council is (as is the case with many non-profit orgs) in name only. It has absolutely zero to do with our coverage. We don't talk to them, or they to us.”

Why do organizations bother with these advisory panels full of faith leaders, then? To understand that, we need to ask what a religion think tank, an interfaith journal, and a religion news organization have in common – aside from their purported dedication of openness to varied faith perspectives. There is a clear way to find the answer: follow the money. They all receive grants from government agencies, corporate foundations, anonymous donors, and others who are attracted by the supposedly inclusive idea of “interfaith.” By pointing to a list of advisors from across a spectrum of religious traditions, the organizations can claim a multicultural approach that is attractive to granters.

From a broader faith perspective, however, this version of multiculturalism is really monocultural. Where are the voices from outside the Abrahamic axis? Apparently, they can’t pay the price of admission.

The price of admission keeps getting higher.

This influence of cash on inclusivity is not a secret. When I asked one of the organizers of a global conference focused on religions of the world if the event would include representatives from minority faith communities, he gave a financial answer: “Of course we are committed to reaching out to everyone. Financial requirements limit the things we can do. But that's the case with everything it seems. We aspire to better things, and then money has its say.”

Money does indeed have its say. As the recent Hobby Lobby decision by the Supreme Court of the United States showed us, members of religious traditions that can muster cash and votes can directly influence the course of public life. Those without such assets – like the members of the Native American Church that were less successful in their own Supreme Court case – do not have the ability to break through into the nation’s dialogue on religion.

I can already hear the rebuttals from staff members at interfaith organizations: none of us make real money working in this field, we depend on volunteers, we include everyone we can, we had a Wiccan once, etc. However, the young man who handles “mass communications” for a large interfaith youth organization told me, “You’re spot on about many interfaith groups keeping mostly within the Abrahamic traditions. Whether or not this is a result of those religious groups already being very large and generally privileged is up for debate, but I think that plays a big role.”

Without being able to deliver large amounts of cash or numbers of voters, how do those of us who belong to small minority traditions break into interfaith dialogue? The rhetorical focus on Abrahamic monotheism and the exclusion of our communities from leadership positions seem to provide insurmountable obstacles.

I do think there is a solution, but it depends on the dedication of those within existing organizations and on the level of their commitment to real interfaith work. There are two things that need to be done immediately and with sincerity. Tokenism and superficial fixes will make no lasting difference.

First, interfaith organizers need to take a good look at their programming. In order to achieve a more diverse participation in interfaith events, a conscious effort must be made by organizers. In the second decade of the twenty-first century, it’s no longer enough to book an imam for a Passover celebration at a Catholic church and think you’ve checked off all the boxes. Interfaith groups need to figure out ways to take the dialogue out of the Abrahamic box and open it up to all traditions.

It's time to broaden the definition of interfaith.

There are many topics that would be interesting to monotheists and polytheists alike. Examples include:
• How do members of a religious community strike a balance between adhering to ancient forms of their faith and responding to realities of modern life?

• How do we create a discursive space in which believers in the literal reality of a tradition’s mystical elements can engage in meaningful and respectful dialogue with practitioners who see ancient texts as cultural or metaphorical

• What weight should religious people give to scholarly works on their faith written by academics who are not part of their faith – or are even hostile to it?

• When the perpetrator of an extremist act claims allegiance to a religion, how should members of that tradition publicly react – and how should they deal with inquiries from the media?
None of these questions privilege any faith tradition or suggest that answers from, for example, a Presbyterian minister and an Ásatrú goði have different levels of importance. A forum on these sorts of issues would create a level playing field between all faiths, regardless of how many gods each one has.

Unfortunately, merely asking these types of questions will not be enough to bring members of marginalized faiths to interfaith events. A sincere move must be made to bring in those who have been shut out. It may be difficult for interfaith organizers to find members of minority faiths in their region. If so, time will be well spent searching the internet for minority organizations, small groups, or individuals and then reaching out personally. You may be ignored, and you may be rebuffed. It will take some time to convince people that your tune is really changing and that you honestly want to hear their perspectives on the issues – and that you aren’t simply seeking greater ticket sales or the ability to pencil the name of another faith into a grant application.

Even Google privileges the Abrahamic religions.

This leads to the second thing that needs to be done: interfaith organizations must engage in some serious affirmative action. To pick just one of innumerous examples, when I looked at the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee’s board of directors in 2014, it had thirty-two Christians, three Muslims, two Jews and two Buddhists. All of them were identified with an established church or religious organization. Here and in other interfaith organizations, participation at the leadership level seems linked to affiliation with an existing organization. In other words, the requirement to be part of the system is that one is already part of the system. Where does this leave Heathens, many of whom are lone practitioners, worship with their families, or belong to small kindreds unaffiliated with any large regional or national group?

According to the editor I quoted earlier, these boards often are nothing more than a list of names on a website. However, to the members of a minority faith who looks into an interfaith organization in their region and sees a list like that of the Milwaukee group – a list that was ninety-five percent Abrahamic and had no representative from a polytheistic tradition – there is simply no reason to imagine that they would be welcome. It’s time for the organizations to make some room at the inn, even if they think they can’t possibly fit another name into the HTML code for the web page listing their board members.

If the organization’s actual leadership – i.e., administrators and staff – contains no one with a background outside of the Abrahamic tradition, there is very little reason to expect programming to change in any fundamental way. If no voice on the planning committee argues passionately for inclusion of minority perspectives or questions the inherent Abrahamic bias in the way that many interfaith events are presented, nothing will change. Now is the time for all good people of faith to fight for the inclusion of underserved communities at all levels of their organizations.

Maybe you’re involved in an interfaith organization that truly is inclusive, that has really freed itself from the Christian-Jewish-Muslim dialogical track, and that has actively recruited members of minority traditions for real leadership positions. If so, hail to you! I would love to hear from you and learn how you made this needed change.

Progress does happen. Three years later, the board of the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee now includes four Sikhs, three of whom are listed simply as belonging to the Sikh community. We should all applaud this group both for growing more inclusive and for realizing that it is sometimes more important to turn to members of a religious community than to engage only with the leaders of established churches and religious organizations. I hope that they build on this inclusiveness and reach out to practitioners of Hinduism, Bahá'í, Ásatrú, and other religions in the Milwaukee area.

Inside the Hindu Temple of Wisconsin

Maybe you’re a Heathen and think this is all a bunch of hooey, that Heathens should go it alone, and that we should simply give the finger to the interfaith world that has ignored Ásatrú for so long. I respect your position and wish you all the best as you work within your own community. I do not claim to be a representative of Heathenry or to speak for anyone beside myself.

Personally, I think that including perspectives from Ásatrú – and from Dievturība, Rodzimowierstwo, Romuva, and other revived pre-Christian polytheistic traditions – can only bring new ideas and fresh perspectives to the wider interfaith discussion. If you truly support the free exchange of ideas between all religious traditions, there is no real way forward but to throw open the doors and seek out those whose voices haven’t been heard.

If you believe in interfaith, it’s time to act.

An earlier version of this article originally appeared at Interfaith Ramadan.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Nine Heathens Speak of Spring

The Northern Gods Descending
by W.G. Collingwood
Since the beginnings of the modern Ásatrú and Heathen era in the early 1970s, the revival, reconstruction, and reimagining of a wide variety of religious beliefs and practices rooted in northern Europe have spread across much of the globe. The Worldwide Heathen Census 2013 received responses from ninety-eight countries, ranging from a single practitioner in Algeria to nearly eight thousand in the United States. That’s an amazing spread of a new religious movement in a relatively short period.

As we neared the vernal equinox and the beginning of spring here in Chicago, I began to wonder how Heathens around the world welcomed the change of seasons. I contacted Heathens in Canada, Costa Rica, Denmark, France, Germany, Iceland, Mexico, Scotland, and the USA and asked them a few simple questions: How do you celebrate the arrival of spring? Do you have a specific ritual? Do you use specific texts? Do you honor specific deities, wights, or ancestors?

In order to avoid any sense of preference, I present their responses in alphabetical order by country. I have not listed any organizational affiliations, since I asked each person to write about what he or she thinks is important as an individual, not necessarily about what any organization they belong to says or does officially. These nine people do not serve as representatives or spokespeople for their national, regional, or local communities. They are simply Heathens offering personal perspectives on the coming of spring.

The diversity of Heathen worldviews and practices shines strongly through in this small sampling. From the philosophical to the spiritual, from family tradition to sacrificial ritual, these answers show how much individual difference exists within Heathenry today. On the other hand, there are commonalities both subtle and overt that weave through the tapestry of these thoughtful reflections. Whether or not you believe that there is such a thing as a larger Heathen community, there are certainly common touchstones that are shared across wide distances.

John T. Mainer (Canada)
John T. Mainer (right)
The celebration of spring for me has always been not a single action or event. Like our ancestors, I mark the turning of the seasons less by the liturgical calendar and more by the state of the land. The mudding of the fields is the beginning of spring, the point at which you can break the ground with the plow. It is at this time that we gather to do a few things in group ritual.

We prepare the tools that we will use in the harvest, sanctifying them at Dísirblót [Old Norse dísablót, “sacrifice to the female deities”] that what we gather be gathered with full awareness of the price paid. We reach out to our dísir [“female deities”], call to those dísir who are closest to us, and ask their guidance for the year to come. Dísirblót is a powerful but somber ceremony, about turning away from the dark, counting the cost of the season past, and making sure we face the season to come with due reverence for what we are given.

Easter is less somber. When the rabbits dance, Easter is come. Quite literally, when the rabbits hit mating season and begin dancing – it’s not a metaphor, they really do it – then Easter is come. We celebrate the way the secular society does, as they stole it from us, and such things as chocolate that have snuck in we gleefully vike back. Easter is for the children. It is the bright face of spring; the renewal, rebirth, the rising of hope; and the giving of thanks for the promise of life that explodes around you.

On May Day or Walpurgisnacht, the last act of spring is the eternal dance at the maypole. Symbolic of the phallic male renewing power of Freyr, the maypole is the rising potency of the earth that we seek to bind to the needs of the folk. The dance at the maypole, the crowning of the May Queen to echo bright Freyja is to give thanks, to celebrate the wild love and passion of renewal.

There is a soul-deep connection between humanity and the land. The turning of the world, the cycles of life are not alien to us. They are a part of us, and in springtime, for our own mental and spiritual health, we need to renew those ties and ground ourselves in the earth that sustains us, that we may better hear the gods, wights, and ancestors.

Esteban Sevilla (Costa Rica)
Esteban Sevilla
One of the main problems is that in my country the weather is extremely tropical. We don’t have spring or winter. So I celebrate it around the time the rains should start, some time around mid-April. I don’t celebrate Ostara, since I am mostly centered on the Norse gods.

What we do is a mix of Sigurblót [“victory sacrifice”] and Várblót [cf. Vár, goddess of oaths]; an offering to the agricultural deities such as Thor, Freyr, and some other fertility gods like Freyja; and for victory we honor Odin. Also, we honor some vættir [“wights”], since we consider them important during this time of change. The spirits will nurture with the rains, and nature will flourish again after the dry season.

We try to read some poems from the Poetic Edda, but this is a thing we are still trying to define, since we still haven’t found a specific reading that matches with the blót’s theme.

Mathias Valentin Nordvig (Denmark)
The Gudenå in Denmark
I used to celebrate the arrival of spring by going to the well of the largest river in Denmark. It is called Gudenå, which means “River of the Gods,” and it most certainly was an important holy river to our ancestors. Along its course, there are several important historical sites such as the city of Viborg, its name meaning “Holy Citadel” or possibly “Holy Mountain.”

Giving offerings to the well of the Gudenå in late April or early May, my celebration of spring is not just a celebration of the cycle of nature, but the health and wealth of the land and nation of Denmark. There are several ancient burial mounds there, and the old Iron Age highway that cuts through the Jutland peninsula runs close by there. This is a site of immense historical, religious, and national power in Denmark where nature, our ancestors, and our land become one.

I have typically given offerings to Freyja, Frigg, and Sága. In this context, they represent a kind of trinity of fertility comparable to the Matronae of the early Germanic cult in the Rhineland. They also represent a trinity of time comparable to the Nornir.

Sága represents history and the iteration of the past. She drinks with Odin every day in her court at Sökkvabekkr [“sunken bank”], and I see this as a variation on the theme of Odin drinking from Mimir’s well to gain knowledge. It is also a variation on the theme of Odin retrieving the Mead of Poetry from Gunnlöð inside the mountain. Mead is therefore shared with the well of the Gudenå.

Freyja is known as the goddess of our land. For two hundred years, our national anthem has repeated this idea. We sing, “There is a wonderful land; growing with broad beech trees; and it is the Hall of Freyja.” Freyja, to me, represents my country with its lush green growth, fertile rolling hills, and imposing wetlands. The physical, the concrete, is that which is present now, not something that exists in the past or the future.

Frigg is associated with the future. This is because she has foresight, and, in my opinion, a hand in the creation of fate. It is her purpose to secure the future and our fate, and I give her offerings for that.

I typically use a combination of Grímnismál [“Sayings of the Masked One”] and Hávamál [“Sayings of the High One”] for my rituals, as I find the idea of using Skírnismál [“Sayings of Shining One”] out of the question. Many would like to see Skírnismál as a romantic love story about the marriage of Freyr and Gerðr, but the fact is that the story is not about marriage and love, but rather coercion and sexual dominance.

Úlfdis Haraldsdóttir (France)
Úlfdis Haraldsdóttir
Usually I do a simple blót to celebrate spring, with some food and drink to offer. For this occasion, I usually invoke the landvaettir [“land spirits”] to celebrate the return to life of the earth. I adapt the ceremony each time depending on the current situation of me and my relatives. I have no specific ritual outside from the opening and closing of the ceremony.

The opening is made by invoking different deities at each cardinal point. I usually have at least Odin and Freyja, and I adapt the others depending on the ceremony – Freyr in addition to Freyja, of course, and usually elves, too. I invoke them and offer to each of them some mead. For the closing I just redo a circle around the place, thank them all for their presence, and declare the ceremony is closed. Quite simple. I don’t use any specific text but do it fully on improvisation, depending on my mood at this moment.

Ulrike Pohl (Germany)
I do not celebrate the arrival of spring in a ritual manner at home. Around the twenty-first of March, what I do is to bring some forsythia twigs and decorate them with painted eggs – empty ones – and place them on the altar. I save eggs, and we dye them. In some years, I get up very early on the twenty-first and collect Osterwasser [“Easter water”], which is supposed to be collected in silence and at dawn. We wash our faces with it, and the rest is sprinkled in the garden. Other spring traditions around here are usually placed around the Easter holidays, for example the Osterfeuer [“Easter fire”].

My community meets around the equinox date to celebrate Ostara. We have a big blót and three very full days. Apart from the blót being in the morning and that we sometimes incorporate a blessing with freshly cut twigs like hazel, it isn’t overly spring-related. Some of us feel like Ostara/Ēostre is a goddess, or at least a goddess name, like a byname of Freyja. I’m not sure.

For me and my family, the arrival of spring is marked by transitions in nature, not necessarily a date like spring equinox. So we enjoy seeing “firsts,” more light and warmth, but we mark it by traditional actions like egg dyeing and bringing twigs inside to force blooms – not so much actions with religious meaning.

Jóhanna G. Harðardóttir (Iceland)
Jóhanna G. Harðardóttir (with drinking horn)
We have a very special ritual in spring. It is called Sigurblót, blót of victory. We call upon Freyr and Freyja and Mother Earth and celebrate that summer has won over the winter. Our celebrations are especially for the children and for the young growth of spring.

There are always the same actions to beginnings of all blóts and ceremonies: light the fire, have something in the horn. I always use the oath ring for the ceremony’s start. I hold it up, sometimes I move it over my head – first left, then right, and at last just straight upwards.

After reciting from Sigurdrífumál [“Sayings of the Victory-Inciter”], I talk about sigur [“victory”]. Not always the same text; it depends on what is on my mind; usually the coming of spring, children, the beginning of the Ásatrúarfélagið [“Ásatrú Fellowship”]. Poems, stories and that sort of thing are absolutely something that I always use, but that is just the spur of the moment. We are living people, and we must do things our way and follow the moment.

We end by having a feast where we eat, drink, talk, sing, and are happy. Otherwise, we are acting upon what is going on in society, with our people, in nature, and so on.

Click here for more from Jóhanna.

Stracy Bryan Salazar Arellano (Mexico)
Stracy Bryan Salazar Arellano
We celebrate the arrival of spring on the spring equinox within the Ostara celebration. We offer blót to the gods and goddesses like Freyr, Freyja, Jörð, Sunna, Ostara, Eir and Óðr to have fertility, health, prosperity, and much work.

Our blót includes some mead, our blood, and blood from a sacrifice -– in this case a rabbit -– offered to the gods and goddesses, irrigating the ground. The meat of this sacrifice is eaten, and the skin used to make bags for our runes, hats, or shoes. We also burn a representation of a sun-wheel. We use the Sigurdrífumál, and sometimes we read some text from the Edda talking about the gods and goddesses included in the celebration.

Páll Thormod Morrisson (Scotland)
Spring in Scotland is humorously expected to be heralded in with a snow flurry, but whenever the sun does show itself, natives like myself are possibly inclined to grump a little less, but acknowledge any seasonal change with a hearty drink.

I don’t really do much ritually beyond a libation to gods and relatives on the other side, and readings from Celtic or Norse myth and legend, being more philosophically minded than religious. As someone who has studied both Celtic and Nordic tradition in a country that had people following either of these paths –- and sometimes a combination of the two -– the deities I honor are reflective of this mixture of traditions.

Jennifer Snook (USA)
Jennifer Snook (in Colorado, not Iowa)
Spring is very exciting for us in Iowa. The snow has melted -– finally! –- and we can see the earth again. Our trees start to leaf out. We can get the garden tilled and compost mixed and begin to plant our vegetable seeds indoors. The ice on the pond has melted, we can see the fish again, and be outside without our faces freezing.

Our family ritual this year, and for years to come, centers around our garden and working outside, during which I think deeply about the land spirits on our property. I do sometimes speak to them when I’m working in the yard, or walking by the garden, or sitting by the pond. We just moved here, so everything is very new, and we are all still getting acquainted.

My experience of Heathenry is outside of texts and deity. For me, it is much more about teaching my girls to think of nature as alive and to celebrate the changing seasons by being mindful and deliberate about how we interact with the natural spaces around us.

Click here for more from Jennifer.

An earlier version of this article originally appeared at The Wild Hunt.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

What Do Your Deeds Make You?

Sigmund's Death by Johannes Gehrts (1885)
All years are full of death, just as they are full of life. Last year, however, seemed particularly violent. Admittedly, this dark feeling is encouraged by the mainstream media, the alternative media, and social media. Even with that caveat, the past year saw a heartbreaking tide of killing. Within six weeks during the summer, we collectively witnessed over 150 violent deaths: the Orlando nightclub shooting, the Dallas and Baton Rouge police shootings, the Nice and Munich attacks, and the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.

Of course, there were many, many other killings in the United States and around the world, but these are some of the ones that dominated our national discussion. During the same period, more than 80 people were murdered here in Chicago. Although repeatedly referenced in arguments and memes, the names of the Chicago dead go unspoken as they are used in politicized one-upmanship. Even as we change our Facebook profile images to show solidarity with victims of one of the tragedies obsessively covered by the mass media, mass murders in Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere continue to go unmentioned. Such are the workings of our collective consciousness.

I unequivocally condemn every one of these killings. They are all acts of terror and horror, and people of conscience should be mortified by each of these awful acts of violence. Depending on our politics, we blame some victims and lionize others, allowing our prejudices to parse which victims are more deserving of being honored. It is time to move beyond such narrow perspectives and recognize that each life snuffed out is an equal tragedy.

The deceased themselves are no longer able to care what ideology or mental state lead to their death. Dead is dead. The question for the rest of us is whether we can find a response better than blaming entire religions, professions, races, or movements. Can we do something more productive than increasing the level of hate?

The time has come for those of us who practice a form of Ásatrú or Heathenry to ask what positive actions we can take in such a charged climate.

For many Heathens in the United States, a cornerstone of worldview is the declaration that “we are our deeds.” If this is to be more than a slogan, we should treat the killers in each of the tragedies equally and hold them accountable for their actions. Rather than focusing on the dead who can no longer speak for themselves, we can demand that the perpetrators be put on public trial and face a lawful reckoning. We can act like the Heathens of old, and insist on bringing the killers before the modern-day equivalents of the ancient Thing, the assembly where public judgments were rendered.

If we are our deeds, let us hold the doer of the deed publicly accountable rather than declaring him innocent without indictment or giving him the martyrdom he seeks by executing him in the street. We often hear the refrain that the innocent have nothing to fear from the police. If that is so, then any officer who kills a citizen in the line of duty should have nothing to fear from a jury of citizens and should volunteer to be put on trial instead of asking his union to prevent legal proceedings. Rather than killing a mass killer on the spot or blowing up a shooter with a robot, let the professionals we employ with our tax dollars use their training to capture and bring killers to account.

World map from the Nuremburg Chronicle (1493)
Heathens often point to academic definitions that tag historical polytheism as “world-affirming” — in contrast to traditional Christianity, which is asserted to be “world-denying.” Are modern Heathens truly “world-affirming?” To be so means that we are active in the world, that we have a place in this world’s flow of events. Many of us are attracted to the history, legends, and sagas of the ancient Germanic tribes and peoples because of their wide-ranging travels and the determined spirit that led them to play major roles in the timelines of multiple world cultures and civilizations. If we consider ourselves the spiritual descendants of the ancient Heathens, how do we make our mark on the world of today? How do we involve ourselves in the great debates of the issues of our own time?

Some Heathens insist that they are only interested in their own innangarð, focusing exclusively on the “inner yard” of their closest family and friends. As in the distant past, today the outside world forces itself into the inner one. Family members who are part of the LGBTQ+ community are targeted for hate crimes by both Islamic extremists and those whose personal issues lead them to strike out in extreme acts of public violence. Our African-American loved ones are disproportionately targeted by police officers who break their own rules of conduct. Right-acting police officers in our communities are gunned down, and their killers –- in both Dallas and Baton Rouge –- are damaged veterans of our nation’s military.

If we turn our backs on the world and pretend that nothing affects us or those we love, honoring the deeds of our literal and aspirational ancestors while performing blót and symbel, how are we different from Sunday Christians who only turn their thoughts to Christ while sitting in church pews?

If we truly believe that we are connected in a web of wyrd, we must acknowledge the length of the threads that bind us all. We are affected by the wyrd of the police officer shot by a sniper and by that of the unarmed African-American man shot by a police officer. We are connected to the children driven down in Nice and to the club-goers massacred in Orlando. Rather than fanning the flames of division, can we agree that all who commit these acts should be held accountable in courts of law, rather than crucified in the court of public opinion or gunned down in primitive street justice?

By putting the perpetrators on trial, we can distinguish between the lone gunman and the agent, between the disturbed and the driven. Maybe this can prevent us from tarring an entire community with the deeds of one violent person. By refusing to even indict officers who shoot unarmed African-American children, we encourage conspiracy theories suggesting all police departments are filled with white supremacists. By executing mass shooters in the street rather than prosecuting them, we enable the hateful to draw connections to racial, ethnic, and religious communities where there may be none.

As members of a much-misunderstood minority religion, these issues are of primary concern to us. The targeting of specific groups and the slandering of their reputation is something with which we can deeply empathize. As individual Heathens, we are often tarred with the deeds of the most extreme who claim a connection to our tradition, and even the deeds of those who are only connected to our religion by unprofessional journalists who refuse to perform due diligence.

Shortly after the shooting of the Dallas police officers, The Huffington Post accused one of the victims of being a white supremacist and connected him to Ásatrú – even while acknowledging that he was a Christian. The accusation was based solely on the “research” of “a band of international internet sleuths;” in actuality, on a meme and a blog post by “Johnny Islamabad.”

Thor's hammer pendant from Sweden (c. 1000)
Quoting the same old quotes from the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center that are trotted out every time a Thor’s hammer is mentioned by the press, The Huffington Post states that “Asatrú” symbols are not “inherently racist” while still insisting that “Asatrú beliefs appeal to white supremacists.” No parallel assertion is made for the appeal of the officer’s Baptist beliefs to violent racists.

When practitioners of Ásatrú or Heathenry complain to writers and editors about this sort of meme-based and poorly sourced journalism, their concerns are laughed off or ignored. For Heathens who neither deny their religious beliefs publicly nor cover them with assumed Icelandic-styled pseudonyms, articles like this have serious consequences: no matter how derivative or poorly written they are. In our private and professional lives, we are faced with people who only know of our religion through this sort of journalism. They assume that we share views of the most extreme fringe, or they are at least suspicious that we harbor unsavory notions.

We can pretend that this doesn’t matter, or that we are “tough guys” who care little for the opinions of others. However, these types of media-driven assumptions can have serious repercussions that affect our ability to earn a living or make us targets for various stripes of bigot.

In such a climate, how can we not support others who are suffering the same slanders? We can say that we do not stand up for Black lives, because we are not Black. But when they come for us, who will be left to speak for us? If we don’t want our own rights taken away, we must stand up for the rights of others.

We often speak of the ancient Heathens who faced violent conversion from overbearing rulers in Scandinavia and continental Europe. We puff out our chests and fantasize about how we would have acted if we lived then. We place great emphasis on the keeping of oaths. Shouldn’t we stand today against the oath-breakers among the police who abuse their power to terrorize, torture, and kill our fellow citizens? Shouldn’t we stand with the honorable members of the police departments, the Muslim community, the Black community, and the LGBTQ+ community against those in every community -– including our own -– who would harm us all?

There is much that we can do. Heathens of positive intent can push back against horrifying acts of violence, engage with the larger world, take part in the dialogue of our times, and help Heathens themselves overcome the slander of our own tradition. This is a question of individual conscience and local community initiative, but there are many actions that we all can take.

Volunteer and vote for candidates who stand against hate aimed at any community. Openly challenge friends and family (online and in real life) who promote prejudice. Contact the media and push back against biased reporting. Call your representatives and tell them you want them to fight against hate. Get to know your local police officers and support the ones who publicly speak out. Support minority communities in your area and take part in their protests. Join interfaith organizations. Work to make your own Heathen group welcoming to practitioners from all generations, races, ethnicities, genders, and sexual identities.

Or, you can welcome the current climate of hate, deny the world, draw lines of separation between people, and retreat into a monochrome practice that excludes anyone who isn’t exactly like you. But then you must ask what your deeds make you.

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

Friday, December 23, 2016

Art Contest – Adult Winners, Midwinter 2016

The adult division of the 2016 Midwinter Art Contest had a large number of fantastic works from around the world. We received entries from Australia, Hungary, several locations in the United Kingdom, and throughout the United States. All were wonderful, and the judges had a very hard time choosing between them. Congratulations to all who entered!

I'd like to thank my fellow judges Rufus Dayglo (comics artist for Judge Dredd and Tank Girl) and Diana Paxson (author of Taking Up the Runes and Essential Ásatrú) for the time they spent considering entries and for their thoughtful comments on the works created by these talented young people. This contest would not be possible without their generous participation.

Congratulations to our four winners! The assignment was to create a piece that somehow related to the character and legends of the goddess Freyja and the celebration of midwinter.

This complex goddess has many aspects. The job of the artists was to find something about Freyja that spoke to them and inspired them, then combine it with some aspect of midwinter and create their own original work of art.

The five winning artists created very unique and original works of art. I look forward to their future work and hope they continue to engage with Norse mythology as a spur to their creativity!

Note: You can click on the art to see larger versions.

Chad Nelson
Age 45
Sioux Falls, South Dakota, USA

Chad describes his winning entry:
This woodcut (Freyja and the North Wind) represents the dual nature of the spiritual and nature. In this piece, the nature and serenity of Freyja and my impression of what midwinter represents to me.

My daughter modeled as Freyja for me. I studied the color of light and shadows outside the studio as the sun sets earlier and earlier each day, becoming more and more saturated as the angle of the sun became more oblique approaching midwinter.
All three judges voted this piece in first place. It's a truly powerful work, and Chad completely deserves the win for such a beautiful creation.

Rufus writes, "I absolutely love this piece by Chad! It is a very considered and well-balanced composition and is masterfully executed. I love the light coming through the trees and reflective light on Freya's face. In its simplicity, it shows how much can be achieved in a monochromatic piece. It is a joy to behold!"

Diana adds, "Excellent presentation of the quality of midwinter light. The blending of hair and foliage is beautifully done. Her meditative expression is also very appropriate. Fold this in half and you would have a very nice Yule card."

First Place: Chad Nelson

Julia Hopkin
Age 20

Julia explains her artwork:
A fire burns in the hall under the stars, where Freyja celebrates midwinter. In her height of power at this crucial moment, she rejects grand displays of power and chooses instead to share her energy for life and growth and love in celebration with the women who came to her when they died. Welcoming all newcomers to their hearth, they sing, exchange stories, share food and laughter, delight in their differences and rejoice in their similarities.

Around them, the heavens are still in motion; the sun, unseen, poised on the brink of change, the wolf chasing the moon on its longest journey of the year. But by sharing their love for each other, for their world and for themselves, Freyja and her companions create a circle of hope, generosity and understanding, enough to transcend time and distance, and spread light and warmth throughout the world.
Amazing! I love this piece. The thought and execution are both transcendent and moving.

Diana says, "Beautiful use of color. The night sky is rendered with great subtlety. The wolf is a good touch. Making Freyja’s hair the protective enclosure is very effective."

Rufus writes, "Julia's piece of art has a beautiful warmth, and the clever way the women are depicted as living/dead is a lot of fun! The arcs in the sky and semicircular group of figures offset with the moon pulls the picture together to great effect."

Second Place: Julia Hopkin

Andrew Pappas
Age 25
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA

Andrew describes his entry:
In my submission, I chose to depict Freyja as the magical queen of the winter season. In my painting, Freyja is ridding on her boar Hildisvíni and is flanked by her two cat totems. Behind her head, I put the symbol of wyrd. In her right hand, I put a wintry scepter, showcasing her connections with magic.
A parade of elves accompany her as they work to bring in the winter season. From my many studies of Germanic mythology, I always found the relationship between the elves and the Vanir very interesting, the distinction between the two races graying at times. I chose to represent this relationship by giving Freyja the elvish ear trope to suggesting that the Vanir and the elves could be the same race, the Vanir being a group of ruling aristocrats to the elves.
I really like this piece. It shows a looseness of creative freedom with the source materials while presenting a strong and graceful image. Great!

Rufus writes, "Andrew's piece is gorgeously painted and playful, with the boar Hildisvíni looking out at the viewer and Freyja ethereally looking straight ahead. It's a wonderful fantasy piece!"

Diana comments, "The drawing is excellent, as is the use of stylization and design elements and color. Your interpretation of the relationship between the Vanir and the elves is interesting. I wouldn’t say they are the same race, but certainly they are connected."

Third Place: Andrew Pappas

Tara Cochrane
Age 34
Portland, Oregon, USA

Tara explains her artwork:
In the serene darkness of midwinter, the goddess of magic, love, and war takes a break from her endeavors to drowse beside a roaring fire in the secure sanctuary of her hall.

Freyja is joined by her two cats, who are happy to have a holiday from pulling her chariot. She reclines against the bulk of her steadfast companion, Hildisvíni, the boar itself a traditional symbol of the solstice celebration. In the soporific glow of the fire, Freyja dreams of the events of the coming year.

Through the windows above the hearth, the first rays of the newborn sun are seen emerging over the mountains on the horizon, signifying the waxing of the light of day and the imminent return of plant and animal life to the earth after the cold desolation of winter.
This has such a great graphic design and strong composition. I love the choice of color palette to emphasize the warmth of the fire, rather than the cold of midwinter. Brilliant!

Diana writes, "Good portrait of Freyja as Love’s fire. This would make a good Yule card."

Rufus comments, "A lovely warm composition to help us all through the dark nights! I love the sun peaking through, heralding the approaching spring and rebirth, even in the darkest of times. This piece warms the heart and the hearth!"

First Runner-Up: Tara Cochrane

Stephanie Pasculli
Age 47
Chicago, Illinois, USA
This pencil and watercolor offering is my most heartfelt “thank you” to Freyja. Twenty years ago this past fall, I was gifted her name by an elder in my first spiritual circle and our relationship since has been rich, real, and intense.
Technically, I chose the feminine circular frame to represent one day. The line of darkness literally shows how much time Chicago will be in darkness this Winter Solstice. As an “unseen” spiritual force in my life, I chose Freyja's eyes to be watching from this darkness, but with their own unclouded connection. The moon above is the phase the moon will be in on December 21st as well.
She is wearing Brísingamen, of course, but strung with four golden bands to represent her relations with the dwarves. Fólkvangr is the mountain rising up from the fields behind her.
Spiritually, my tribute is woven into her hair where I have written in the Anglo-Frisian futhorc (as it phonetically transliterates to English the best) the most magically powerful moments of my life. Along with the cursory "Stephanie Lynn was here Ha Ha Ha" and a tribute to my four most “treasure bearing lovers.” Long live the Lady!
Wow! I love how much feeling, wisdom, and thought Stephanie put into this image. It's a truly haunting work of art and expresses aspects of both the goddess and the season in an absolutely unique way.

Diana writes, "Delicate and precise. I really like the use of runes."

Rufus comments, "With the runic devices and use of duality within the circular form, Stephanie's piece very intelligently demonstrates both the balance of the natural and the spiritual realms."

Second Runner-Up: Stephanie Pasculli

Thank you to all the kids, teens and adults who entered this winter. We really enjoyed everyone's work. See you when the next contest rolls around!

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Art Contest – Teen Winners, Midwinter 2016

The teen division of the 2016 Midwinter Art Contest had some incredibly creative entries this year. Each artist presented a very individual and insightful interpretation of the contest theme.

I'd like to thank my fellow judges Rufus Dayglo (comics artist for Judge Dredd and Tank Girl) and Diana Paxson (author of Taking Up the Runes and Essential Ásatrú) for the time they spent considering entries and for their thoughtful comments on the works created by these talented young people. This contest would not be possible without their generous participation.

Congratulations to our four winners! The assignment was to create a piece that somehow related to the character and legends of the goddess Freyja and the celebration of midwinter.

This complex goddess has many aspects. The job of the artists was to find something about Freyja that spoke to them and inspired them, then combine it with some aspect of midwinter and create their own original work of art.

The four winning artists created very unique and original works of art. I hope that they will all continue exploring Norse mythology and developing their artistic skills!

Note: You can click on the art to see larger versions.

Caitlin E. Terwedow
Age 18
Ashton, Illinois, USA

Caitlin provides a detailed explanation of her winning entry:
Freyja is depicted as taking on a number of disguises as she searches for her husband. As a result, you never know what she may look like, which is why I chose to leave her face out of the picture.

I included her cats in the background, and made it after dark with snow blanketing the ground. One of the cats is playing in the snow, and the other is more curious about what she is doing.

In Freyja's hand is a golden apple, showing what I hope looks like a summery scene of an apple tree near a small house. I chose to do this because Freyja shares an attribute with Idunn, fertility, and sometimes the two are depicted as the same goddess.

Additionally, I have this little personal belief that in the winter, Idunn needs to work harder, in order to keep her tree from going into hibernation. Freyja, who is helpful to others across the mythology would probably offer her assistance here and there.

The whole theme I was aiming for however, is that in the deepest times of winter, we can hold hope that spring will be here soon, heralding warmth, and the stories that might be told to each other in the dark when we are waiting.
It's absolutely fantastic to see a young artist who both thinks deeply about her work and has the technical ability to manifest her creative vision. Congratulations for a deserved win!

Rufus writes, "This is a very well-researched and beautifully drawn piece. I am so impressed by the level of workmanship and artistry. The hands are beautifully drawn. It is a very clever composition, and extremely well thought out! I hope you make many more paintings. Your art is fantastic!"

Diana adds, "Drawing and use of color and shading excellent. The apple has a luminous glow. The concept is unusual and thought-provoking."

First Place: Caitlin Terwedow

Anna DeLotto
Age 16
New York, USA

Anna also wrote an explanation of her artwork:
I chose to focus on the feeling of Freyja and midwinter, because I experience the gods mostly as feelings. My image features me (with the brown hair) and my best friend sitting in front of a fire, watching a Yule log burn, and the log has the runes Fé (Freya's rune for wealth), Peorth for luck, and Ós for knowledge carved into it, to represent wishes for the new year as per tradition.

I drew some mistletoe over the door frame, just because I know that was an old tradition as well. The tree is an obvious representation of ancient pagan tradition that many people see as a symbol of this time of year. It's kind of hard to see in the image, but the fire is casting a warm glow over the room, showing that Jól is a time dedicated to love and family. I also chose to make a lot of things shades of red and green for obvious reasons.

There are statues of Thor and Freya on the mantelpiece. The scarf (purple and pink) draped around me and my friend is showing the generosity of love/Freyja, and what happiness can be caused if love is shared with one another.

Freyja, to me, is very generous, loving, and self-sacrificing. My favorite story about her is when she lends her cloak to Loki for the greater good of saving Mjölnir, and when I read the quotes from Þrymskviða, it reminded me of how willing she was to help.

Freya's influence on Jól in my interpretation is that strong sense of love that is always around while performing rituals such as the Yule log and just putting up a tree in your house with the ones you love.
What a thoughtful approach to art! It's wonderful that Anna is able to evoke such powerful and deep associations with the goddess without actually literally portraying her (aside from the small statue).

Diana says, "Excellent use of symbolism – a good portrait of Yuletide happiness."

Rufus writes, "I really love this piece. It resonates with love and friendship, which is perfect for this time of year. All the clever details, like the scarf and statues, add up to make it a well thought out piece of art. It makes me happy to see people care about their friends!"

Second Place: Anna DeLotto

Skye P.
Age 16
Elyria, Ohio, USA

Skye describes her entry:
I drew Freyja standing in a blue dress with her feather cloak on. She’s part human while her face is a falcon, because I read that when her husband Óðr went missing, she used her feather cloak to change into a falcon to search for him.
I also have one of her cats sitting next to her, because Freya has many cats as pets and they are normally represented as gray cats. She used them to pull her chariot, send messages, and assist in casting spells. I added Freyja’s necklace which is named Brísingamen.
Very original! There's a deep thought-process behind the art, which gives real weight to the work.

Rufus writes, "I like this piece as it shows Freya differently than the others chose to represent her. With the falcon cloak, it shows an adventurous and daring side to Freya, and I like all the research you have done. Well done!"

Diana comments, "The structure of the design is very nice. I also liked the way you drew the falcon cloak. I have never seen her as a falcon-woman before, but the beak is effective."

Third Place: Skye P.

Lindsey Boykin
Age 16
Sheffield Lake, Ohio, USA

Lindsey writes:
I drew the moment Freyja’s necklace was stolen by Loki, but instead of the setting being in her bedroom, I drew her outside, sitting in the snow, crying her tears of gold to relate to midwinter. She is crying because now that it is stolen, they will find out her secret.

Her cats represent confusion as to why Loki stole the necklace. Deep down she knew it was stolen because Odin told Loki to take it for his own use.
Lindsey has a very creative interpretation based on thinking deeply about Norse mythology. This engagement with the lore has led to a unique approach to the subject. Great work!

Diana writes, "I really like the expressions on the faces of Freyja and the cats. Putting the theft of the necklace in winter is a nice bit of symbolism."

Rufus comments, "This is a fantastic drawing! I love how you can see Loki fleeing with the necklace off the page. It is a well-drawn study of Freya and a brave composition. You've used a very dramatic pose and chosen the scene carefully. You are very talented!"

Runner-Up: Lindsey Boykin

Adult winners will be announced tomorrow!

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Art Contest – Kid Winners, Midwinter 2016

The kids' division of the 2016 Midwinter Art Contest included some fantastic entries. It's always difficult to judge such wonderful works!

I'd like to thank my fellow judges Rufus Dayglo (comics artist for Judge Dredd and Tank Girl) and Diana Paxson (author of Taking Up the Runes and Essential Ásatrú) for the time they spent considering entries and for their thoughtful comments on the works created by these talented young people. This contest would not be possible without their generous participation.

Congratulations to our four winners! The assignment was to create a piece that somehow related to the character and legends of the goddess Freyja and the celebration of midwinter.

This complex goddess has many aspects. The job of the artists was to find something about Freyja that spoke to them and inspired them, then combine it with some aspect of midwinter and create their own original work of art.

These four young artists created wonderfully imaginative works of art. I hope that they will all continue exploring Norse mythology and developing their artistic skills!

Note: You can click on the art to see larger versions.

Rune Hatrak
Age 9
Belleville, New Jersey, USA

Rune writes, "This is the burning of the julbukk [Yule goat]. Above it, you can see Freyja's eyes crying gold tears for her husband. The tears become the fire of the burning julbukk at the bottom."

What a wonderful graphic design! It's strikingly original and powerful. Rune was the runner-up in the Midsummer 2015 contest and now leaps to first place. Congratulations!

Diana says, "The simplicity of this design has a very stark, Scandinavian quality. The Julbock is especially well-done. Good use of symbolism. I could see this working as a Yule card."

Rufus adds, "This is very inventive and captures the spirit of Freyja, and it uses imagination to depict the Julbukk, the golden tears, and the fire. It's a very well constructed and clever idea!"

First Place: Rune Hatrak

Orsolya Nagy
Age 7
Tab, Orgona, Hungary

Orsolya says the image shows "Freyja before the sun rises up."

Such a great drawing! I love how friendly Freyja looks.

Diana says, "Using crayon over lavender paper makes it look as if light is shining through – very effective. The elements in the picture are very well balanced, and I like Freyja’s expression."

Rufus writes, "I love this piece. It is so happy, and I love Freya's cats! I like that Orsolya was so brave using colour, and her drawing of Freya is beautiful!"

Second Place: Orsolya Nagy

Zoë Terwedow
Age 11
Ashton, Illinois, USA

Zoë writes, "My picture is Freyja in the snow when it's snowing. Since we had to draw her in midwinter, I thought of drawing her in the snow when it is snowing. The cats are the ones that pull her chariot."

Another friendly Freyja! What a lovely picture.

Rufus comments, "Beautiful depiction of Freya in the snow. It is atmospheric and makes me so happy! I love how you drew Freya and the cats! The blue and brown are a great complimentary color combination, and the composition is simple, direct, and clear. You are a great artist!"

Diana adds, "The way the snow is shown makes is look very snowy. I really like the expressions on the cats."

Third Place: Zoë Terwedow

London Hatrak
Age 11
Belleville, New Jersey, USA

London writes, "This is a picture of the burning Yule log in the hearth. Two cats sleep in front of the fire as a symbol of respect and reverence for Freyja."

London won second place in the Midsummer 2015 contest and tied for third place in the Midsummer 2014 contest. This is another great work! Part of the assignment for the artists was "to find something about Freyja that spoke to them and inspired them." London definitely did this in a wonderful way.

Diana writes, "The cats look very contented. The runes on the Yule log are a great touch. I also like the way you’ve done the bricks on the fireplace. This is a good picture of the meaning of Yule."

Rufus comments, "It's a great simple composition. I love how you drew and coloured the brickwork. Freya's cats look so happy and warm! There are some lovely details, the horn, the runes, the candles, and fir tree branches. It's a wonderful midwinter piece of art!"

Runner-Up: London Hatrak

Teen winners will be announced tomorrow!
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