Saturday, August 27, 2016


One of the entrances to the University of Chicago
This week, a letter from the Dean of Students in The College of the University of Chicago to incoming freshmen received much media attention. The letter by Dean John (Jay) Ellison welcomes incoming students of the Class of 2020, congratulating them on their acceptance and thanking them for choosing to attend the University of Chicago as undergraduates. A large part of the letter is standard and uncontroversial.

However, this paragraph stood out:
Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called "trigger warnings," we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual "safe spaces" where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.
Interestingly, both trigger warnings and safe spaces were presented in quotation marks, while academic freedom was not. This guided the reporting on and discussion of the letter in both mainstream media and social media. Many accepted at face value that the university was taking a principled stand for freedom of speech.

However, as a member of a minority religion in the University of Chicago Divinity School's graduate program, I have had many personal experiences that directly contradict the letter's assertions that all perspectives are welcome at the institution. Since I joined the program in 2014, there have also been several reported incidents that suggest the university has ongoing issues with equal rights for many kinds of minorities. These problems are not unique to this institution.

Given these issues, I recently revived the dormant Interfaith Dialogue organization at the school and now serve as president. Upon seeing the dean's letter, I immediately made a public statement declaring Interfaith Dialogue to be a safe space for members of minority faiths.

I was soon contacted by Beth McMurtrie, Senior Writer for The Chronicle of Higher Education. She asked to interview me for "a story about reaction on campus to the U of Chicago's letter to new students about safe spaces/academic freedom." As happened in my past interviews with The Daily Beast, OnFaith, Public Radio International, and The History Channel, only a tiny bit of my answer was used for the article as published. In this case, Ms. McMurtrie only used one sentence of mine.

I completely understand. Journalists must collect and review a great amount of information, then condense and select what they have gathered to create a clear narrative. However, I would like to offer my full answers here, since they place in perspective the small quote that was used in Ms. McMurtrie's article.

What follows are her questions (in bold) and my answers. This is a complicated issue, and there are no easy solutions.

What's your reaction to the letter?

Interfaith Dialogue at the University of Chicago
I immediately and publicly declared Interfaith Dialogue, the registered student organization I lead as president, to be a safe space for members of minority religious traditions.

As the first practitioner of Ásatrú (a modern iteration of Old Norse polytheistic religion) in the Divinity School's graduate program and as someone who had family in death camps in the mid-twentieth century, I feel a particular responsibility to stand with minority faith adherents whose voices have not been widely heard and whose experiences have not been openly addressed.

What do you think the administration was trying to say and why?

The University of Chicago Divinity School
One of the things we learn early at the Divinity School is that we cannot know what is in the heart of someone who creates a text. We can only deal with the text as it stands and discuss various modes of reading and interpretation.

That being said, the online and social media reaction to the letter has been noteworthy.

Members of the extremist alt-right community have been high-fiving the university for standing up for "free speech" and against "social justice warriors" and "cultural Marxists." The same segment of society is using the same terminology to cheer the university as it has been using to cheer the most disturbing elements of Donald Trump's presidential campaign.

Whatever the original intention of the letter, this is troubling and should be publicly addressed.

Any broader comments about the larger debate around safe spaces and trigger words that academia is wrestling with?

Projecting an image of diversity at the University of Chicago
There has recently been heated discussion of these issues by academics, students, media, and commentariat. We are taught in the Divinity School to interrogate what is behind questions asked and to examine power dynamics of such interactions.

Within the academy, who is standing up on either side of this debate? Many very emotional issues are at play here, but I worry that stances against safe spaces and trigger warnings by faculty and administrators in the name of free speech are sometimes made in order to maintain a status quo in which young women and members of underrepresented minority communities do not feel safe questioning the often traditionally patriarchal systems in which they find themselves.

How do we balance the right to free speech of tenured professors with equal rights for undergraduate students whose worldviews have long gone unheard in the academy? I am not sure that receiving such a letter from upper administration effectively communicates the University of Chicago's true and real dedication to an open dialogue in which a young Latina student can raise her hand in class and strongly challenge a statement made by a senior faculty member without fear of reprisal.

Friday, July 29, 2016


Odin actually does look a bit like Karl Marx.
Odin the Wanderer by Georg von Rosen (1843-1923)
In the online world of Ásatrú and Heathenry, the reprimand “stop mixing religion and politics” is a regular refrain. On Facebook and Twitter, on blogs and websites, in discussion groups and comment sections, accusations are often made that a given individual or group is polluting the religion with personal political bias. This phenomenon is not specific to a particular position; invective is hurled from both ends of the political spectrum.

From one side come cries of “SJW.” Given the ideologies of many who favor its usage, I long thought this stood for “Single Jewish Woman,” but it is actually used to accuse an opponent of being a “Social Justice Warrior.” Logically, this implies that the accuser is a “Social Injustice Defender,” but logic is not often strong in online confrontations. “Cultural Marxist” is another term popular with the same social set. I assumed it was used for people who demand free streaming music as a basic human right, but it refers to those who supposedly aim to destroy “Western culture” by promoting democracy, intellectualism and protection of minority rights – despite the fact that many would consider these to be bedrock ideals of “the West.” Ironically, those Heathens who decry multiculturalism are arguing for a society in which members of marginalized minority faiths like Ásatrú are denied their rights by members of majority faiths whose prejudices are pandered to by corporate candidates and corporate media.

From the other side comes the No True Heathen fallacy, which asserts that no Heathen would subscribe to extremist philosophies such as “white nationalism” or conspiracy theories such as “white genocide.” When Heathens repeatedly pop up who promote these concepts, the boundaries of the assertion are reset to state that no true Heathen would hold these beliefs. This is parallel to the meme stating that members of ISIS are not true Muslims and that members of the KKK are not true Christians, despite the fact that ISIS clearly declares itself to be thoroughly Muslim and the KKK has long been rooted in Protestantism. Likewise, the intersection of Heathenry with extremist ideology has a lengthy and continuing history that has been well documented by academics. Declaring that agreement with liberal politics is the litmus test to be considered a “true believer” strangely puts progressives in the position of arguing for a reactionary notion of religious purity and identity policing.

The one thing both sides agree on is that the other is injecting politics into religion, while they themselves are simply expressing the true spirit of Heathenry. Each accuses the other of hijacking Heathenry to promote their political views. However, the idea that religion and politics are somehow separable goes against Heathen history, mythology and theology.


Althing in Session by W.G. Collingwood (1854-1932)
Before the conversions to Christianity, variations of the term goði were used in the Nordic lands. The title, dating to the fifth century or earlier, referred to an individual who held dual secular and sacred roles, who was both chieftain and priest. The goðar (plural) in pagan Iceland traveled each year to the national Althing, the island’s version of the great assemblies that were known throughout the Germanic world. Throughout the north, these meetings ranged in size and jurisdiction from local to national as they straddled the sacred and the profane.

Archaeological and written sources from the first century through the thirteenth attest to the sacred nature of the cultural institution that decided political, economic and legal matters. A third-century votive inscription on Hadrian’s Wall in England set up by Frisian auxiliaries in the Roman army refers to Mars Thingsus (Mars of the Thing), the god who presided over the assembly. The large annual assembly of the continental Saxons appears to have featured large-scale religious rituals. The ninth-century Life of Saint Lebuin, most likely written by a Saxon author, mentions that the meeting included prayer to pagan gods.

Given this history, is it so odd that modern Heathen leaders who have appropriated the ancient title of goði speak on secular issues? The allsherjargoði (very roughly translated as “high priest”) of Iceland’s Ásatrúarfélagið (Ásatrú Fellowship) has spoken out in support of gay marriage rights in Iceland, which has drawn the ire of right-wing Heathens and the support of left-wing ones. The alsherjargothi (an Americanized spelling) of America’s Asatru Folk Assembly has publicly spoken out against Muslim immigrants in Germany, which has brought down the fury of left-wing Heathens and the cheers of right-wing ones.

In both cases, supporters insist the leader they like is expressing the deepest ideals of the religion, and opponents declare that the leader they don’t like is perverting the religion for political ends. At root, this is a basic human inability to see faults in ourselves that we observe in others. This tendency tends to terminate any attempt at decent discussion by degenerating into denunciation and name-calling.

I am not in any way suggesting a moral equivalency between the two leader’s positions or arguing that we should not speak out strongly against those who we believe promote troubling views. Instead, I am offering the idea that responses to statements such as these should move beyond what amount to accusations of heresy and demands for silencing that sometimes become what the media calls fatwas.

Historical goðar were involved in both religious and political matters, and they arguably would not have made much distinction between the two spheres. Members of the community sometimes strongly disagreed with prominent people, just as they do now. If historical Heathens could argue issues at the assembly without calling for excommunication or declaring someone anathema for holding a political view they found distasteful, maybe we can likewise respond to opposing opinions without demanding that there should be no discussion allowed.


Referring to mythological lore to support one’s political ideas has always been popular. The poems of the Poetic Edda provide problems for both sides of the political aisle, yet both happily quote them to shore up their positions. One oft-cited verse from Hávamál (“Sayings of the High One,” i.e. Odin) has been read in radically different ways.
Away from his arms in the open field
A man should fare not a foot;
For never he knows when the need for a spear
Shall arise on the distant road.
Some Americans read the text fairly literally, arguing that it gives a Heathen stamp to the notion of gun ownership and carrying rights. Some Icelanders read it metaphorically, suggesting that it is a poetic image about being intellectually prepared for the struggles of life. The literalists argue that they are following what the text actually says, the liberals that they are finding what it really means.

Hávamál by W.G. Collingwood (1854-1932)
The argument between these two modes of reading religious texts is nothing new. Just ask your local rabbi. In the fourth century, the Christian bishop Gregory of Nyssa famously wrote on the difficulties of choosing between literal and allegorical readings. Interestingly, allêgoria posed a bit of a problem for early Christians, since the method was associated with the old pagan philosophy. In any case, both readings of the Hávamál verse owe more to modern cultural concepts than they do to ancient Heathen views. One side is justifying conservative American ideas of gun rights, the other is expressing liberal Icelandic ideas of intellectual life. Both use the same verse from the Old Icelandic literary heritage as a touchstone for their modern views.

The poem Rígsþula (“Lay of Ríg,” a god usually taken to be Heimdall) causes some political problems for both right and left. It tells how the wandering god fathers the social classes of slaves, free farmers and nobles before tutoring Konr ungr (“young kin,” but a word-play on konungr, “king”) in the way of a ruler. Is this a religious or a political text? For those who argue against multiculturalism, the poem presents a god with a Celtic name in a narrative that – with its religious endorsement of a caste system and a descended god who teaches royal behavior – is closer to the sacred social structures of the ancient Hindu epics than it is to the Protestant work-ethic expressed in the Nine Noble Virtues. For those who champion progressive Heathenry, the poem shows that the gods gave social inequality to you. Rígsþula is awkward for both sides, but it clearly mixes the sacred and the social. Like those in so many other religious traditions, we pick and choose which parts of the lore to emphasize and which to minimize.

Another poem that is problematic for all concerned is Hárbarðsljóð (“Song of Graybeard,” i.e. Odin), which features a verbal sparring match between Thor and a disguised Odin as they compare their accomplishments. One of the best-known moments is Graybeard’s taunt that “Odin owns the nobles who fall in battle | and Thor owns the race of thralls.” The rugged individualist crowd is faced with a poem portraying Odin himself stating that class warfare continues into the Heathen afterlife. By rallying the slaves in Þrúðheim (“Home of Power”), is Thor acting like a Social Justice Warrior? By hosting them in his hall, is he providing public assistance to the poor?

On the other hand, the progressive pagan crowd is faced with the inconvenient truth that the one thing the wise god and the protecting god agree on is that it would be fun to rape a young woman together. Somehow, this section of the poem doesn’t get publicly mentioned very often. The victim the gods discuss is a “linen-white girl,” which (if the internet was a logical place) should lead to protests and petitions against Thor and Odin by the far-right crowd that rants against Idris Elba playing Heimdall (“the whitest of the gods”) and thinks there’s an international conspiracy against white women. Even leaving an in-context interpretation of “white” aside, the fondness of the gods for rape is problematic for both sides. Should we pretend this poem never existed? Should we tell the gods to stop talking about hot-button political issues?


Contemporary Heathen theology also argues against the separation of religion and politics. To say that Heathenry is a “world-accepting” religion is to say that Heathens move in the world. Our focus is on the lived life, on the world around us as we move from the past through the present and into the future. If we disengage Heathen life from the wider world and insist that Heathen action only happens in religious contexts, then we are drawing a hard line between the sacred and secular much stronger than that in any ritual hallowing.

If “Heathening” only means participating in and discussing ritual and belief, then it also means disengaging from the world – the very antithesis of “world-accepting.” Few seem to argue for any such extreme disengagement, but it is not uncommon to come across use of the Old Icelandic term for “within the yard” to state “not my innangarð, not my problem.”

Sacrifice to Thor by J.L. Lund (1777-1867)
The Heathen mantra that “we are our deeds” asserts that what matters is what we do. Like the Hindu concept of dharma, the Heathen idea of right action defines the making of a good life. What is important in life is how we act in the world, not just how we behave while participating in blót. If Heathen ethics only affect our behavior around other Heathens, we imitate “Sunday Christians” by becoming “Sumbel Heathens,” and we imitate the “churchy” by becoming “kindredy.”

It would be quite odd for members of a religion that seeks to reconstruct or reinvent practices of the wide-ranging wanderers of the Migration Period and the Viking Age to turn inwards to innangarð insularity. To say we have a “Heathen worldview” suggests that we see the world beyond our doorstep and take action within it.

None of the above argues against the separation of church and state, which most of us agree is good policy, despite the fact that it owes more to the Enlightenment than to the Heathen Age. Rather, this article addresses how we address the interaction between the religious and political beliefs of both ourselves and those with whom we disagree.

For Heathens, religion and politics are always already linked. By acknowledging that, maybe we can move beyond the childish name-calling and purity inquisitions to discuss the issues and challenges of living in the world today – and how we can each take action that is consistent with our own diverse Heathen worldviews.

This article originally appeared at The Wild Hunt.

Thursday, May 12, 2016


Click here for Part One.

3. I read on your blog that you are a musician. How have you integrated your religion into your music?

There are several ways that I have consciously incorporated my religion into my music. Here are just two of them.

Blue Rhizome by The New Quartet
First, I believe in interfaith dialogue and inclusivity, even if the “great religions” don’t really return the favor. I wrote the extended composition that appears on my Blue Rhizome album for mixed quartet. Not only were the players mixed in the sense of playing a non-standard combination of instruments, but they came from a mixed religious background: Ásatrú, Baptist, Jewish, and Greek Orthodox. The beginning of my liner notes explain the spiritual impetus for the music:
The composition of this piece was inspired by a crisis of faith. Not religious faith, but faith in humanity. 150 years from now, it is guaranteed that everyone now alive will be in the ground or consumed by flames. There will be no exceptions. All our efforts, dreams, and hopes will end as all biographies must.
In these few years that we have of consciousness and life, we divide ourselves into tribes. Our choice of friends, lovers, and colleagues is based on comfort with what we see as members of our own group. Ethnicity, race, religion, culture, and nationality are used as an excuse to shut out love, new experiences, challenges to our habits, and expansion of our experiences. The Other is judged and the Like is embraced, whether consciously or not.
Thor vs the World Serpent by Ernst Hansen
The music plots a psychological trajectory from “the sadness and despair of those wandering between tribes” through stages including “a meditation on the transitory nature of life” to “the glimmer of hope that we may find kindred spirits across tribal lines.” The peak of the piece is “Destroy All Monsters,” my electric guitar duet with drummer Chris Avgerin, which “represents the anger that can grow out of sadness, whether the Monster is racism, sexism, or the Snake That Encircles the World.”

That last bit is, of course, a reference to the World Serpent, the great enemy of the god Thor. The thought behind the guitar solo was inspired by a famous verse from the Sayings of the High One in which Odin says:
Where you recognize evil, call it evil,
and give no truce to your enemies.
I have been called a “social justice warrior” by online wags for daring to suggest that racism and sexism are evils and monsters that we must confront. Such is life.

Second, I believe that the subjective experience that I often have of composing and improvising music is the same basic experience that the Elder Heathen conceived of as inspiration by the god Odin. When I recorded some of the guitar and bass tracks for Of Alien Feelings, my collaboration with the great drummer Calvin Weston that featured a cross-section of legendary prog rock and jazz players from the last half-century, I simply hit the record button, closed my eyes, and opened my mind so that the music could flow through me without the commentary of my conscious mind. This is not always an easy thing for a trained musician to do!

Odin by Lorenz Froølich
In the best moments, I would feel like the music was coming from outside of me, that I was not consciously creating it. This is the experience of pure creativity that I think was understood as possession by Odin or as the effect of drinking his magical Mead of Poetry.

Intellectually, I understand that creativity can come from our brains combining past experiences in novel ways, that it can be partially explained by the science of the mind. I also understand that, in the actual moment of creativity, I am not aware of whatever electric connections are being made inside my skull.

Scientific theories are necessary for our understanding of reality, but there are also needs that can only be filled by religion, spirituality, and the arts. I believe that the creative experience transcends time, space, and culture, and I think of these bright moments as times when Odin’s inspiration briefly touches me.

4. How have you connected with others who practice Ásatrú?

There are many ways that Heathens find each other. Sometimes, it’s just a pleasant surprise, like when I reconnected years ago with a close friend from high school. We had drifted apart over the long period since we were teenage Motörhead fans together, but when we found each other again, somehow we were both Heathens. The Norns are subtle.

The Norns by Carl Emil Doepler
I have sought out others because I was interested in their writing or academic work, and others have sought me out for the same reason. Intellectual discussion often develops into friendship. I have also met Heathens in places where one would expect to find them, like visiting the headquarters and attending the events of the Ásatrúarfélagið (Ásatrú Fellowship) in Iceland.

There’s also the internet, of course. On one hand, you will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. There are trolls lurking everywhere, but that is not a necessarily Heathen phenomenon. I’ve seen equal nastiness in Tolkien fandom and discussions between professional musicians. It’s just an unfortunate element intrinsic to online interaction.

On the other had, what we old graybeards used to call “the Information Superhighway” can also be a great way for members of religious minorities to find fellow practitioners. I have found Heathens on social media who I have subsequently met in this thing called life. Jennifer Snook’s book on Heathens in the U.S. has a great discussion of the pros and cons of Heathenry’s relationship with the internet.

5. How are Ásatrú, Heathenry, and Paganism related?

Thor's Hammer pendant from Erikstorp, Odeshög,
Ostergotland, Sweden, probably before 1016
In very general terms, you could say that each is under the umbrella of the next. Basically, you can think of each one like this.

Ásatrú refers to religions that largely center on the Old Norse sources, meaning that they focus on the deities, myths, and practices as described in Icelandic literary sources and various other texts and archaeological finds that are related to them.

Heathenry is a larger term for Germanic polytheistic traditions that include Ásatrú as well as related religious beliefs and practices such as Theodism (which emphasizes Anglo-Saxon sources) and a wide range of praxis based on local and regional traditions (recreated or newly made).

Paganism is a yet wider term that encompasses Heathenry, Wicca, Druidism, and a large number of religions that claim connection to various cultural backgrounds (Baltic, Hellenic, Italic, and so on).

As with any religious terminology, these definitions are widely contested and argued. Some practitioners see Ásatrú and Heathenry as synonymous while others see them as oppositional. Paganism sometimes seems to only mean Wicca, especially as it used by mainstream booksellers (see, for example, the “Witchcraft, Wicca & Paganism – Modern” section at Barnes & Noble).

I once had a religion editor at a cable news network condescendingly explain to me that “Heathenry and Wicca are denominations of the religion of Paganism.” I think you would be hard-pressed to find many Heathens or Wiccans who would agree with his construction. We may argue over the fine shadings of the terms, but there are also some clear divisions.

6. I read an article that was written recently about how Iceland is building the first Norse gods temple in one thousand years. How has not having a place to worship affected your religious practice?

Valheim Hof in Denmark, dedicated to Odin and the gods
Like your question about Western culture, this makes me a bit sad. It suggests that the mainstream media misrepresentation of Heathenry has permeated popular perception to the same degree that academic misdirection of the trajectory of history and literature has shaped student views.

First, the hof (Heathen temple) being built in Iceland is not the first temple to the Norse gods built in the past thousand years. It’s not even the first one this decade. There are Heathen hofs on private property around the world, but we don’t know exactly how many. They are private places of veneration and ritual that are not publicly announced but are used by individuals, families, or groups.

We do know of several temples currently in operation around the world, including in Maryland, California, Denmark and England. We can definitely say that when it is finished – likely in winter 2017 or later – the Icelandic temple will be the first large-scale public hof built in Iceland in the last thousand years.

The story of the future Iceland temple went viral in a media frenzy a while ago, but most of the online articles misrepresented what was really happening as they plagiarized content and lifted quotes without attribution. Such is today’s religion journalism.

This is my temple, no walls needed:
Michigan's Upper Peninsula in 2015
Second, I think we have to be careful about using generic concepts of “a place to worship.” The idea that religious ritual requires a brick-and-mortar structure for large congregations to gather in front of an ordained clergyperson is not universal.

Much Heathen ritual takes place outside, where we tend to feel closer to the gods and wights. I personally feel closest to the wights when we are out walking quietly in one of America’s beautiful forests. The woods have always been a mystical place for me. We planted and dedicated a Thor’s Oak in our back yard, and that is where I speak and make offerings to the Powers in a conscious emulation of fragmentary descriptions of Germanic ritual in the surviving texts.

We also celebrate the high days of the Heathen calendar in our home, with family gathered around the table or in front of the fireplace. This also has a basis in historical practice, in which the home was often the center of family religious activity. So, I think not having a big, public, tax-exempt structure listed on Google Maps has had absolutely no effect on my religious practice.

7. I have been reading a lot about the traditional Norse deities. For example, Thor, Odin, and Freyr. What roles do these gods have in modern Ásatrú? Do you actively worship them?

Freyr, Odin and Thor by Wilhelm Kaulbach
There are many gods, goddesses, and wights that inhabit the Heathen world. Their roles are multiform and multivalent.

You often hear that Thor is the god of thunder, but I would question what function thunder has. Is Thor’s role as a deity to make noise during storms? That seems fairly limited in scope. I would say, instead, that thunder is one manifestation of his power. Thor has many roles, including protector of humanity from the threatening forces of the uncultivated world, bringer of the rains that enable life to grow and flourish, and the one who hallows life events such as marriages and funerals.

Another Heathen may say that one or none of these are true descriptions of Thor’s role in her life. She may not pay much attention to Thor, instead focusing on Odin, Freyja, or another deity in her thoughts and actions. In polytheistic religions, the many gods play many roles and are open to many interpretations.

I would also question use of the word worship, contemporary use of which tends to privilege ways of relating to godhood that are rooted in the monotheistic traditions of the Middle East. Heathens often talk of reciprocal gifting with the gods or of honoring their ancestors, which are both quite different modes of religious action from praising an almighty deity. When I raise a drinking horn to Odin, to the spirits of the land, or to my deceased father, the action and the meanings behind it have very little to do with, for example, the praising and flattering of God that I have often seen in Evangelical churches where I’ve been hired to play bass for services.

My ritual drinking horn, carved by Jóhanna G. Harðardóttir
One of the best poems by one of the best poets of the Elder Heathen Era both rails at Odin for the premature death of the poet’s sons and thanks him for the gift of poetic ability which enables his expression of grief. This understanding and acceptance that the gods bring both good and bad, both suffering and joy, is one of the defining areas of difference between polytheism and monotheism. Heathens don’t ask why God allows bad things to happen to good people. They accept that the gods, like everything in this cosmos, are complicated.

8. What role do the Nine Noble Virtues have in your practice?

None. I mean no offense to those who place value on them. I understand that the Nine Noble Virtues are meaningful to some Heathens, that they are a source of inner strength, and that they are a way to focus on positivity in their lives. It is not anyone’s business to tell someone that her personal religious beliefs are invalid. That way lies fundamentalism. However, I steer clear of the NNV in my own practice for several reasons.

The Seven Heavenly Virtues date to the 5th century.
What motivated modern Heathens to imitate them?
They were supposedly “codified” from the poems of the Poetic Edda. To begin with, I don’t believe that poetry can truly be translated. There is too much cultural meaning and association packed into each word, especially when you go back to poetry from over a millennium ago. How do you translate a symphony written for orchestra by Beethoven? If you play it on solo xylophone, it simply is not the symphony any more.

Following from this, I really don’t believe that poetry can be codified, especially religious poetry. How do you codify a symphony by Beethoven? If you reduce it to a few isolated and unconnected single notes, you are destroying the core of what defines the work – the act of listening to its complete duration and experiencing it in its fullness. The same goes for religious poetry. Codifying a poem or set of poems into a list of single nouns is simply not something I can get behind.

It’s also a bit odd that Odin himself violates each of the Nine Noble Virtues, right there in the poems themselves. To avoid fighting frost-giants (Courage), he gives a false name (Truth) as he breaks his pledge (Honor) to a giant-maiden (Fidelity). He can’t resist personally insulting Thor (Discipline) and refuses to help him (Hospitality), even though Thor fights the giants for him (Self-reliance) while he’s off having love affairs (Industriousness) or cursing a foster-son for his imperfections instead of continuing to mentor him (Perseverance).

You could go through this same exercise with other deities in the poems and myths. I think this further undermines the assertion that the NNV were codified from the poems.

Odin doesn't seem all that concerned with virtue.
Sculpture by Herman Ernst Freund
What these polytheistic poems paint for me is a portrait of a complex set of worldviews that offers no simple answers. Odin is subtle, and Sayings of the High One resists reduction to tidy, unambiguous virtues. The very idea of creating a list of guidelines for behavior seems to imitate the concept from patriarchal monotheist religions of revealed law, to create a simple code that functions like Ten Heathen Commandments carved onto rune-stones and brought down the Rainbow Bridge from Asgard.

To make a different religio-cultural comparison, the NNV assert a simple, communal, universal dharma for all Heathens as opposed to a complex, localized, individual dharma for each Heathen. The NNV are thus internally contradictory as they simultaneously advocate for rugged individualism and for conformist groupthink.

As I said at the beginning of my answer to this question, I realize that some Heathens find value in the Nine Noble Virtues. I don’t deign to tell them how to believe or practice. I simply don’t find the NNV valuable, and the above outlines some of the many reasons why. Your mileage may vary.

Thank you for your thoughtful questions. I hope that my answers will encourage you to dig deeper into historical and modern Heathenry. Please keep me posted on your studies!

Thursday, May 5, 2016


College of Saint Benedict in St. Joseph, Minnesota
I fairly regularly receive emails from students with school assignments that include interview projects. There are far too many requests for me to respond to all the questions, but I have written detailed answers to various young people over the past few years and posted them in the For Students section of The Norse Mythology Blog.

In 2011, I answered a series of questions from a high school student. In 2012, I wrote replies to a middle school student. In 2013, I was interviewed by a sixth grader. In 2014, I provided answers for another sixth grader. I somehow never got around to working on one of these interview requests in 2015, but this post features the first group of my answers to a college student who is researching Norse mythology and religion.

Lily Hauger is a nursing student taking the Religions of the World class taught at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University in Minnesota by Dr. Hans Gustafson, a member of the Theology Department at the University of St. Thomas and Associate Director of the Jay Phillips Center for Interfaith Learning.

For her semester project, Lily chose to study Ásatrú (“Æsir Faith”), a modern iteration of Norse religion. She sent me some very interesting questions that show how deeply she has thought about these issues – and that reflect the excellent research she has already done on the subject.

I’m very happy that Dr. Gustafson is encouraging his students to study religions with which they may not be familiar. The two of us have been corresponding for a couple of years, and he has been a great supporter of the inclusion of Ásatrú in interfaith dialogue. He asked me a while ago to recommend texts on historical and modern Heathenry (Germanic polytheism) to include on the recommended reading list for his world religions course.

It’s great that Dr. Gustafson is so welcoming of minority religions in an academic and theological context, and it’s wonderful that Lily decided to research the topic. I hope that the answers I’m posting this week and next will be of some help to other students curious about Ásatrú and Heathenry.

1. In what ways have you blended your religious beliefs with Western culture?

An English map of the world from c.1265
My religious beliefs are rooted in Western culture, and Western culture is rooted in my religious beliefs. Let me try to explain.

I used to teach in the religion department of a private liberal arts college where “Western Heritage” is taught with the “foundational texts of the Western intellectual tradition.” This preserves an older, Eurocentric way of teaching college students that accepts a colonialist division of the world into West and East or, to use the old-fashioned terms, Occidental and Oriental.

Strangely, this division stretches a definition of the West in order to concentrate on a Christian view of culture that jumps in time and place from Latin antiquity and Biblical times in southern Europe, Africa, and the Middle East to the early modern period in western and northern Europe.

In the first semester, students read works from ancient Greece (southeastern Europe), Italy (south-central Europe), Africa (south of Europe) and the Middle East (east of Europe). The latest text is from the fourth century. In the second semester, the students skip ahead one thousand years and read texts from the fourteenth century and later. They are introduced to works from England, France, Germany, and other nations of western and northern Europe.

This raises two questions. What was happening in western and northern Europe in the years between the fourth and fourteenth centuries? Does any literature survive from this time and area?

To answer the first question: a lot was happening. As the Roman Empire collapsed and the Huns pushed westwards, the so-called Migration Age began in the late fourth century. Change was the order of the day as various Germanic tribes fought for and consolidated power over a wide geographical area in what we now call Europe. These tribes slowly converted to Christianity from paganism over the next centuries.

By the time the Viking Age began in the late eighth century with the first raids on England, the Scandinavian invaders were seen by the Christian English as terrifying pagans – despite the fact that the Anglo-Saxons had themselves worshiped the same or similar gods scarcely more than a century earlier. By the end of the Viking Age in the eleventh century, almost all of Scandinavia was Christian; paganism in Sweden held on until the mid-twelfth century.

When we look at the surviving evidence for Germanic religions between the fourth century and the twelfth century, we have to acknowledge that we are talking about a large number of divergent peoples who held a great variety of religious beliefs and engaged in a wide array of religious practices. There was no one great Heathen religion with a common theology and praxis; there was an array of somewhat related beliefs and practices that differed with period and location.

We can, in the most general terms, say that this era saw the flowering of Germanic religions with roots that we can trace back to around 2000 BCE. Unfortunately, it also saw the willful eradication of the religions by Christian clergy and political leaders.

First page of Beowulf in the surviving manuscript
To answer the second question: yes, literature survives. Beowulf’s events take place during the Migration Age; the lengthy poem that is generally considered the first great work of English literature was probably composed in the eighth century and is preserved in a manuscript from around the year 1000. The German Nibelungenlied is also inspired by events in the Migration Age and was written down in approximately 1200; another version of the story is told in the thirteenth-century Icelandic Völsunga saga – both texts influenced the composition of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. There are German poems going back quite far, like the Hildebrandslied of around 800, which share characters and themes with much later texts.

The great flowering of Icelandic literature in the thirteenth century preserved both the poems that are our primary source for Norse mythology and the sagas purporting to portray life in pagan northern Europe – and, most importantly, of the Viking Age – through shelves full of what would later be called novels, five hundred years before Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding. Almost all of these texts are available in translation for you to read.

So, the earliest literature of western and northern Europe grows out of the events of the Migration Age and the Viking Age. This time period set the stage for all the ups and downs of European history into our own times. The earliest beginnings of what later came to be the kingdoms, empires, and nations of Europe began at this time. The Germanic languages became ever more distinct from each other and set the stage for the evolution of the languages we speak today, like English, German, Dutch, and Norwegian.

The literature of this period did not simply record the events of the past; it interpreted them according to the times of its creators and influenced generations of listeners and readers to this day. Why academic study of “Western Heritage” so often skips over this time period and this literature is a complicated saga in itself, but it is beyond the scope of this already overlong answer to your question. I would, however, encourage students to ask their teachers why they skip over this period of one thousand years.

My point is this: my religious beliefs are grounded in the history and literature of one of the most important and foundational periods of Western culture. All of the texts I mentioned preserve literary evidence for the beliefs and practices of the pre-Christian religions that, since the early 1970s, have been revived, reconstructed, and reimagined as Ásatrú and Heathenry.

Thor's Hammer Pendant from the Viking Age
Bredsätra, Öland, Sweden
I look to scholarly work on this period and to the literature that survives for inspiration. The scholarship provides information on how the old pagan religions may have been practiced while offering theories on the worldviews and beliefs of what some practitioners today call Elder Heathens or Arch-Heathens. The literature preserves some of the mythology (unfortunately a mere drop in the ocean of what is forever lost) and gives us insights into pagan life preserved by writers and chroniclers relatively close chronologically to the events described.

The fact that a well-educated and inquisitive college student like you would see this religious tradition as something separate from Western culture makes me a bit sad, because it means that there is a hole at the heart of our modern educational system. It also makes me more determined to continue my own projects and to promote the work of others who work to keep this material alive.

2. As a student who is studying Ásatrú and Norse mythology for the first time, what do you think is vital for me to know?

Ásatrú has often been called “the religion with homework.” Many of today’s Heathens are deeply engaged with scholarship and literature. Some have earned advanced academic degrees and have created their own scholarly works; others have moved from reading the old literature to creating new Heathen poetry and story.

For a college student who wants to dive into the subject, I would suggest this reading list. All of these books are included on the “Highly Recommended” page of The Norse Mythology Store. In an ideal world, I would ask you to read all of them in this given order. In a realistic world, I would ask you to read the descriptions and start with the one that seems most relevant to your own interests.


A manuscript of Snorri Sturluson's Edda
Iceland, 18th century
Edda by Snorri Sturluson, translated by Anthony Faulkes
We owe a great deal to the Icelander Snorri Sturluson for his work preserving Norse mythology. This book is the primary source for most of the myths you find retold by later authors. It’s important to keep in mind that Snorri was a Christian writing more than two hundred years after the official conversion of Iceland and that elements of Christian worldview creep into his book. It’s also key to remember that this is not a holy book or bible of Heathenry, but rather an instructional work for poets of his time that teaches the major myths as part of Iceland’s literary heritage.

The Poetic Edda translated by Carolyne Larrington
Written down in the thirteenth century, these poems were preserved orally from the pagan era in Iceland. They tell of gods and goddesses, dwarves and dragons, heroes and Valkyries. You will read the great Prophecy of the Seeress that tells of the creation of the world and its dissolution at Ragnarök, and you will enjoy the Sayings of the High One, in which Odin shares his wisdom, tells of his experiences, and speaks of runes and magic. I suggest reading this after Snorri’s Edda, since the poems are quite dense and can be somewhat mystifying without having first having read Snorri’s more straightforward prose accounts.

Historical Heathenry

Gods and Myths of Northern Europe by H.R. Ellis Davidson
Although it was first published in 1964, this is still my favorite introduction to Norse mythology, religion, and culture. Davidson introduces us to each of the major deities in detail as she discusses not merely literature, but archaeology, theology, history, place-name analysis, visual arts, and more in a virtuosic work that is very accessible to the casual reader. I have repeatedly assigned this as a required textbook for my own courses on mythology and religion.

Simek's Dictionary of Northern Mythology
A Dictionary of Northern Mythology by Rudolf Simek
Translated from the German, this brilliant work is really more of an encyclopedia than a dictionary. Simek’s 1992 preface to the English edition explains the breadth of this wonderful work, stating that
an English audience will associate most of the material presented in [the book] with the northern mythology of the Eddas and sagas of medieval Scandinavia. The scope of the book is, however, wider than that: the mythology and religion of all Germanic tribes – Scandinavians as well as Goths or Angles and Saxons – have been dealt with insofar as they are Germanic in origin; hence, of the English mythology of heathen times, the religion imported by the Germanic tribes is included, but not that of the older Celtic population.
Many Heathens today (myself included) have an expansive sense of the historical background of the modern religions. We look to not only Icelandic sources, but to those from England, Denmark, Germany, and elsewhere. Simek’s work is beloved by many of us for both its inclusion of a wide range of material and its insightful drawing of connections between diverse sources.

Modern Heathenry

A Practical Heathen’s Guide to Asatru by Patricia M. Lafayllve
There are many books available in what is often called the “Ásatrú 101” category. Written by practitioners, they usually give a brief overview of Heathen history and mythology, introduce the deities and wights (land-spirits), explain theological constructs, and describe the general rituals and celebrations performed today. Lafayllve’s book provides all of this in a clear and concise format, is recent enough (2013) to represent current ideas held by the average Heathen (if there is such a thing), and is both widely available and affordable. It’s a good entry point into the modern traditions, but remember that this is only one of the many perspectives in today’s Ásatrú and Heathenry.

Jennifer Snook's American Heathens
American Heathens: The Politics of Identity in a Pagan Religious Movement by Jennifer Snook
This is the first peer-reviewed academic book on American Heathens written by an American Heathen, and it is also the first long-term professional ethnographic study of the subject in the field of sociology. Published last year, it combines an insider perspective with a scholarly approach. Snook investigates such issues as the interaction of Heathenry and Wicca, the relationship between religious experience and academic research, the use of the internet to build (or tear down) communities, the many roles of women, and the place of ethnicity and heritage. You can introduce yourself to Snook’s work by reading my three-part interview with her here.

To be continued in Part Two.

Monday, February 29, 2016


Translator’s Note

The Wanderer in the Exeter Book manuscript
The anonymous Old English poem known as The Wanderer is preserved only in the Exeter Book, a compilation most likely written down around the year 975. The poem provides a striking first-person lament spoken by an Anglo-Saxon warrior who wanders the world alone after losing his lord and companions.

The Wanderer's reflections on his past life experiences make no mention of overtly Christian concepts, despite the short bit of framing narration after the monologue that provides a devout gloss. Instead, we read of the workings of fate (wyrd) and the relationships of reciprocal gifting in pre-Christian warrior society.

Bruce Mitchell and Fred C. Robinson have remarked that the central figure is of "the heroic age" and "shows no awareness of Christian enlightenment." This is not to argue that the poem preserves a perfect pristine pagan worldview, but merely to suggest that even an ostensibly Christian poem can contain elements of an older belief system.

Discussing Anglo-Saxon verse, Graham Holderness writes:
While the confrontation and synthesis of pagan and Christian elements is necessarily foregrounded in the heroic and devotional poetry of the period, it seems to me that some of the 'deep-set patterns of belief' transmitted from the past into the consciousness of English Christians can also be traced in the elegies, poems regarded as quintessentially expressive of the spirit of the age, yet not formally or explicitly concerned with matters militaristic or theological.
I would argue that The Wanderer has elements of both heroic and elegiac poetry. As such, it contains holdovers from a past pagan age presented in a post-conversion package.

My translation of the poem is presented in the text boxes below. Between each section of the translation, my annotation addresses aspects of the poem including:

• Linguistic elements, such as comparison to Old Norse words

• Cultural concepts of Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse society

• Parallels to the Old English Beowulf, probably composed in the 8th century but preserved only in a manuscript of c1000

The Old English Rune Poem as it appeared
in the first printed edition of 1705
• Parallels to the Old English Rune Poem, probably composed c1000 but preserved only in a printed edition of 1705; each verse of the Rune Poem explicates the meaning of a specific letter of the futhorc, the Anglo-Saxon runic alphabet

• Parallels to Old Norse poems of the Poetic Edda preserved in manuscripts of c1270 and later, with particular emphasis on Hávamál ("Sayings of the High One," i.e. the god Odin, well-known for disguising himself as an old solitary wanderer)

• Influence of the poem on later authors, most notably J.R.R. Tolkien

• Concepts that are of interest to practitioners of Ásatrú and Heathenry, modern religions that seek to reconstruct, reinvent and/or reimagine pagan Germanic religious traditions

Readers who simply want to read the poem can skip over the annotation and move from text box to text box.

Following translators of Old English such as R.D. Fulk and J.R.R. Tolkien, I have rendered all poetry as prose. The full text of The Wanderer in Old English can be found in Bruce Mitchell and Fred C. Robinson’s A Guide to Old English, available as a paperback in The Norse Mythology Store under Books → Dictionaries & Language.

Note: All passages quoted from Old English, Old Norse, and German texts in the annotation are my own translations.

The Wanderer
Translated from the Old English and annotated
by Karl E. H. Seigfried

The solitary one often awaits prosperity for himself, favor of fate, although he, troubled in mind, through sea-­ways long had to stir with hands rime-­cold sea, to trudge the paths of exile. Fate is fully inexorable!

So said the wanderer, mindful of hardships, of wrathful slaughters, with the fall of beloved kinsmen:

Lagu rune is the third symbol on the inside
of this Anglo-Saxon rune ring (8th-10thC)
The phrase "through sea-ways long had to stir" (geond lagulāde longe sceolde hrēran) is reminiscent of the Old English Rune Poem verse for the lagu ("sea") rune, which contains related vocabulary: lagulāde/lagu ("sea-ways"/"sea"), longe/langsum ("long"/"longsome"), sceolde/sculun ("had to"/"have to"):
The sea seems longsome to men, if they have to dare in an unsteady ship, and the sea-waves greatly frighten them, and the sea-steed does not heed the bridle.
Both poems reflect the difficulty and struggle of the long times at sea necessary for northern travel during this time period.

I am not arguing for a direct genetic relationship between the two poems, but rather suggesting that the similarity of vocabulary and imagery shows that they are both part of what Maureen Halsall calls "the shared word-hoard of alliterative formulas... which was the common property of the Germanic-speaking world and which manifests itself in many other poetic contexts outside the rune poems."

The Old English hrīm ("rime," "frost") is used here by The Wanderer's narrator in the compound adjective hrīmceald ("rime-cold"). Old Norse has a parallel hrím and hrímkaldr, but readers of Norse mythology are likely better acquainted with the noun compound hrímþursar ("frost-giants").

The narrator's declaration that "fate is fully inexorable" (wyrd bið full āræd) is well-known to readers of Bernard Cornwell's Saxon Stories (now on BBC Television as The Last Kingdom) as a favorite phrase of the protagonist, Uhtred of Bebbanburg. The statement is also paralleled in line 455 of Beowulf, in which the hero declares "Fate goes as she must" (Gæð ā wyrd swā hīo scel).

This sentiment appears in various forms in several Icelandic sagas, such as the statement by Grímur Ingjaldsson in Vatnsdæla saga that "it is hard to escape fate" (torsótt er að forðast forlögin). The idea is common enough throughout Indo-European literature. In the Sanskrit Rāmāyana, Rama states that "Fate is inevitable" (4.24.6); in the Greek Iliad, Hector says that "no man, I promise, has ever escaped his fate" (6.488).

Both The Wanderer and Beowulf use the word wyrd (translated here as "fate"), a feminine noun cognate with both Old Norse urðr and Modern English weird. In Norse mythology, Urðr is the name of one of the Norns, the mystical women who sit at the Well of Fate (Urðar brunnr) and determine the destinies of men. In Shakespeare's Macbeth, the Norns are paralleled by the Weird Sisters, three prophetic women who gather beneath "lightning and thunder" and discuss meeting "upon the heath."

Direct speech of the Wanderer begins at this point in the poem and lasts until the final lines.

Often I had to alone lament my care each day before dawn. No one is now alive that I would dare to tell him my heart openly. I as truth know that it is noble custom in a nobleman, that he should bind fast his spirit-­enclosure, should keep his hord-coffer closed, think as he will. Nor can a weary spirit withstand fate, nor the troubled mind provide help.

Reconstruction of Anglo-Saxon helmet found in York
that likely belonged to a high-status noble c750-775
The Wanderer speaks of the "nobleman" using the word eorl (here in the dative as eorle), which is related to the Old Norse jarl and the Modern English earl. A character named Eorl is mentioned several times in The Lord of the Rings as the first king of Rohan and ancestor of the Rohirrim. His descendants are modeled on Anglo-Saxons (as demonstrated by Christopher Tolkien and Tom Shippey) and are known as Eorlingas (Eorl + ingas). While Old Norse patronymics used the -son suffix to mark a man's father, Old English used -ing to mark the ancestor of a family or a people. Therefore, the Eorlingas are the "people of Eorl."

The word þēaw (here translated as "custom") is used today by some modern followers of Heathen religions to refer to "practices which had proven beneficial or supportive enough of society to have become established standards for behavior or the standard way of doing things" (Eric Wódening, We Are Our Deeds). The Modern English spelling is thew.

Mōd (translated here as "spirit") survives in Modern English as "mood." The Old English word had a much wider range of meanings than does its linguistic descendant. Depending on context, it could mean arrogance, courage, disposition, heart, mind, pride, soul, spirit, or temper. In the compound ofermōd ("over-mood," i.e. "overconfidence," "overweening pride") it is a key term in the Old English poem The Battle of Maldon and is paralleled by the Middle High German übermuot, an important term in the Nibelungenlied's characterization of Prünhilt (the German equivalent of the Icelandic Brynhildr).

Therefore the glory-eager ones often in their breast-­coffers bind sorrowful mind fast, as my spirit, often wretchedly troubled, of ancestral home deprived, far from noble kinsmen, I had to fasten with fetters, since very long ago I covered my gold-­friends in darkness of earth, and I wretched from there went winter-­desolate over binding waves, hall-­sad sought bestower of treasure, where I far or near could find him who in mead-hall might know of mine, or me friendless would console, entertain with joys.

Sae Wylfing, a half-size replica of the Sutton Hoo ship
Ēþel (translated above as "ancestral home") appears here in the dative singular form ēðle. Like mōd, this is a term with a wide range of meanings: ancestral domain, ancestral region, hereditary estate, home, homeland, native land, and territory. The Old Norse parallel óðal covers a similar set of meanings: ancestral property, family homestead, home, inheritance, native place, and patrimony. The Old English Rune Poem verse for the ēþel rune reads:
Ancestral land is exceedingly dear to each man, if he may there in the hall enjoy what is right and fitting in prosperity most often.
Like The Wanderer, the Rune Poem makes a connection between "ancestral land" and the pleasures and rewards of life in the hall.

When the Wanderer refers to the "mead-hall" (meodoheall, here in the dative form meoduhealle), he uses a term that both Hrothgar and Beowulf use to refer to Heorot, the hall that is the site of Grendel's attacks in the night (lines 484 and 638). The Old Norse equivalent is mjöðrann, which appears in the Eddic poem Atlakviða (verse 9). However, mjöðrann is actually more closely related to the Old English medoærn, a term used by the Beowulf narrator to refer to Heorot (line 69).

Wynn ("joy," here as dative plural wynnum) is the subject of a verse in the Old English Rune Poem:
Joy he enjoys who knows little of woes, pain and sorrow, and for himself has prosperity and bliss and also the abundance of strongholds.
This expresses a concept of "joy" that is quite close to that of the Wanderer, centered as it is on contrasting mental states and the prosperity and shared experiences of the hall.

He knows who knows first-­hand how cruel sorrow is as companion to him who for himself has few beloved confidants: path of exile holds him, not at all twisted gold, frozen heart, not at all wealth of earth. He remembers retainers and receiving of treasure, how in youth his gold-­friend accustomed him to feasting. All joy has perished!

"Odin the Wanderer" (1886) by Georg von Rosen
The Wanderer's reflection on loss of "joy" (wyn) continues with more parallels to the verse from the Runic Poem quoted above. Shared vocabulary between this section of The Wanderer and the wynn verse includes cunnað/can ("knows"), sorg/sorge ("sorrow"), blæd ("wealth," "prosperity"), and wyn ("joy").

The lament of the man who "has few beloved confidants" (lyt hafað lēofra geholena) is echoed by the words of Odin in the Old Norse Hávamál ("Sayings of the High One," verse 50):
The young fir-tree withers, that which stands in an unsheltered place; neither bark nor needle shelters it. Such is the man whom no man loves – how should he live long?
Although the imagery is different, the two poems share an underlying concept of community.

The Wanderer's emphasis on "receiving of treasure" (sincþegu, here as accusative sincþege) from the "gold-friend" (goldwine) underscores the importance of reciprocity and reciprocal gifting between the lord (a Modern English word descended from the Old English hlāfweard > hlāford = "loaf-ward," "bread-keeper") and his dependents. The leader was responsible for providing food, shelter, and treasure for his retainers in exchange for their loyal service. This relationship is also at the heart of the Old English poem The Battle of Maldon.

In Hávamál, Odin mentions this relationship of reciprocal gifting (verse 42):
To his friend a man must be a friend and repay gift with gift.
The Wanderer makes a direct connection between loss of friends and the loss of gifting. Odin also seems to warn against the very situation in which the Wanderer finds himself (Hávamál, verse 41):
Those who exchange and those who give again are friends to each other the longest – if that continues to go well!
Clearly, things haven't gone well for the Wanderer.

Therefore knows he who must do without counsels of his beloved friend-­lord for a long time: when sorrow and sleep at the same time together often bind the wretched solitary one, it seems to him in his mind that he embraces and kisses his liege lord and on his knee lays hands and head, as he at times before in days gone by enjoyed the giving-­seat. Then the friendless man awakes afterwards, sees fallow waves before him, sea-­birds bathe, feathers spread, rime and snow driving mingled with hail.

Hrothgar doesn't look like he's in a giving mood
in this illustration by Randy Grochoske
Bruce Mitchell and Fred C. Robinson suggest that the Wanderer's embracing of the lord and the laying of hands and head on his knee "is evidently a ritual confirming the close ties between the lord and his retainer." Laurence M. Larson writes, "There can be no doubt that the singer refers to his initiation into his lord's following. In several important particulars – the kneeling (which is implied), the kiss, the placing of the hand – this ceremony resembles the one described in Court Law."

The "giving-seat" (giefstōl, here as genitive giefstōlas) from which the lord rewards his retainers seems equivalent to the Old Norse "high-seat" (hásæti, hástóll, öndugi, öndvegi) that is mentioned so often in the Eddas and sagas.

Hæl ("hail," here as dative hagle) is featured in one of the verses in the Old English Rune Poem:
Hail is the whitest of grains; it whirls from heaven's sky, storms of wind toss it; afterwards it is made into water.
Perhaps a bit more prosaic than the other verses quoted above, but there it is.

Then wounds of the heart are the heavier, sorely longing for the beloved. Sorrow is renewed. Whenever remembrance of kinsmen pervades his mind, he joyfully greets, eagerly examines companions of men; they often swim away. Spirit of floating ones does not bring there many familiar sayings. Care is renewed for him who must very often send weary heart over binding of waves.

Therefore I am not able to think throughout this world why my spirit does not grow dark, when I fully ponder life of noblemen, how they quickly abandoned hall, brave young retainers. So this middle-­earth each of all days declines and falls; therefore a man can not become wise, before he has a portion of winters in the kingdom of the world.

Hávamál illustration (1908) by W.G. Collingwood
"Middle-earth" (middangeard, "middle-yard") is the Old English equivalent of the Old Norse miðgarðr (also meaning "middle-yard"). The former is the source for Tolkien's "Middle-earth," the latter for "Midgard" in Modern English translations, retellings, and reimaginings of Norse mythology.

The emphasis on wisdom and experience is reminiscent of sections of the Old Norse Hávamál in which Odin speaks of the "unwise man" (ósnotr maðr, verse 26):
An unwise man thinks he knows all, if he has for himself a corner to stay in.
That is to say, the fool who never leaves home considers himself wise – an observation that still holds true in this age of internet trolls.

We still use the Old English word winter (here as genitive plural wintra). Both the Anglo-Saxons and the Norsemen measured a person's age by winters instead of years. Beowulf rules his kingdom for "fifty winters" (fiftig wintra, line 2209) before the dragon attacks; Helgi of the Völsunga saga goes off to war when he is "fifteen winters old" (fimmtán vetra gamall, chapter 8).

The wise man must be patient, must not be too hot-hearted nor too hasty with words, nor too weak a warrior nor too reckless, nor too afraid nor too obsequious, nor too wealth-greedy nor never of boasting too eager, before he clearly has knowledge. A warrior must await, whenever he speaks a vow, until stout-­hearted he knows clearly whither thought of his heart will turn. A wise man must understand how terrifying it will be, when the riches of all this world stand deserted, as now in various places throughout this middle-­earth walls stand wind-­blown, rime-covered, the buildings snow-­swept.

Cattle in the winter snow of Exter, England
The qualities given here of "the wise man" (wita) parallel those discussed by Odin in Hávamál. Both the Wanderer and Odin place an emphasis on moderation (Old English metgung, Old Norse hóf). In Viking Age Iceland, Jesse Byock connects this idea to the reciprocity discussed above: "Success in maintaining reciprocal agreements... required conformity to a standard of moderation, termed hóf. An individual who observed this standard was called a hófsmaðr, a person of justice and temperance." Maybe today's Heathens who adhere to the "Nine Noble Virtues" should consider adding "moderation" to the list. In today's world of overheated online rhetoric, a little restraint couldn't hurt.

The Old English word feoh appears here joined to the word gīfre ("greedy") to form the compound adjective feohgīfre ("wealth-greedy"). The Old English feoh and Old Norse have two ranges of meaning: (1) cattle, livestock and (2) property, wealth. In his Dictionary of English Etymology, Hensleigh Wedgwood writes, "The importance of cattle in a simple state of society early caused an intimate connection between the notion of cattle and of money or wealth." Related words in Modern English include fee, fief, and feudal.

Feoh is the subject of the first verse of the Old English Rune Poem:
Wealth is a consolation to all people; though each man must deal it freely, if he wishes to obtain glory before the lord.
As in The Wanderer, the importance of reciprocal gifting is underscored.

Beorn (here translated as "warrior") is a word that only appears in Old English poetry (i.e., not in prose works) and is used to mean man, warrior, prince, nobleman, or chief. Both beorn and bera ("bear") are cognate with the Old Norse björn ("bear"), but the meaning of björn seems to have evolved from the animal to the human. Tolkien tapped into the transformation of the word when he created The Hobbit's Beorn, a mysterious character who shifts between bear and human form.

The Wanderer stresses the gravity of making a vow (bēot). Mitchell and Robinson write that "the speaker is warning against rash vows... uttered in public, since a man would earn contempt if he failed to carry out what he boasted he would do." This view of vows is held today by many modern practitioners of Heathenry, and the seriousness of making oaths is discussed at length by contemporary Heathen authors such as Patricia M. Lafayllve, Diana L. Paxson, and Eric Wódening.

Edoras (translated here as "buildings") is the plural form of the noun edor ("place enclosed by a fence," "dwelling," "house"). Again connecting the Rohirrim to the Anglo-Saxons, Tolkien gives the name Edoras to their hilltop fortress in The Lord of the Rings.

The wine-halls decay, rulers lie deprived of joy, troop of seasoned retainers has all perished, proud by the wall. War took some away, carried into the way forth, a bird bore away a certain one over the high sea, a gray wolf shared a certain one with death, a sad-­faced nobleman hid a certain one in an earth-­grave.

The imagery of animals preying on the battle-dead should be familiar to readers of the Norse myths and sagas, which feature ravens and wolves as the battlefield-haunting creatures of Odin. The Wanderer's statement that "a gray wolf shared a certain one with death" (sumne se hāra wulf dēaðe gedælde) brings to mind Odin's rationale for gathering heroes to Valhalla in the Old Norse poem Eiríksmál: "the gray wolf gazes at the homes of the gods" (sér ulfr hinn hösvi á sjöt goða).

So the creator of men laid waste this dwelling place until, devoid of the revelry of the population, the ancient works of giants stood idle.

Sword with Anglo-Saxon silver inlay
found in a grave in Heggestrøa, Norway
"The ancient works of giants" (eald enta geweorc) here refers to buildings, but a similar phrase is used in Beowulf to describe a sword when the hero finds an oversized weapon during his battle with Grendel's mother (line 1557):
Then he saw among the war-gear a victory-fortunate blade, an ancient sword made by giants (ealdsweord eotenisc) strong in edges.
In Old English, ent (here in genitive plural enta) and eoten (here in the adjective form eotenisc) both mean "giant." The latter word is related to the Old Norse jötunn ("giant"), a word that may derive from eta ("to eat"). The sense of the enemies of the gods having enormous appetites is also present in the Sanskrit texts of India, in which the rakshasas are defined by their monstrous hunger. Like the jötnar (plural of jötunn) of Norse myth, rakshasas appear in Indian texts as both terrifying ogres and beautiful women.

The phrase "works of giants" (enta geweorc) also appears in several other Old English poems: Andreas, Beowulf, Maxims II, and The Ruin. In his Mittelerde: Tolkien und die germanische Mythologie ("Middle-earth: Tolkien and Germanic Mythology"), Rudolf Simek explains why the Old English poems credit "giants" with the construction of ancient structures: "To these old giants, people in the early middle ages attributed the creation of the prehistoric stone-monuments and also the Roman streets and buildings, which were still visible then in great ruins." Earl R. Anderson writes of a "theme of an awed regard for Roman ruins" in Old English poetry: "These ancient stone structures have endured the ravages of time, wind and weather, and are admired [by the Anglo-Saxons] in part because of their antiquity."

Tolkien credits the creation of the Ents in his own mythology to this line of The Wanderer, writing to W. H. Auden (letter 163) that his giant figures of the forest "are composed of philology, literature, and life."

He who then wisely considered this foundation deeply meditates on this dark life, wise in spirit, often remembers large number of slaughters far, and utters these words:

Where has the horse gone? Where has the young man gone? Where has the treasure-giver gone? Where have the seats of the feasts gone? Where are the hall-­joys?

Alas, bright goblet! Alas mail-­warrior! Alas, glory of the prince! How that time departed, grew dark under helm of night, as if it never was. A wall wondrously high, decorated with serpent shapes, stands now in the track of the beloved troop of seasoned retainers.

Powers of ashen spears have taken noblemen away, weapons slaughter-greedy, fate the glorious, and storms batter these stone cliffs, falling snowstorm binds the earth, tumult of winter, when dark it comes, night-­shadow darkens, sends from the north fierce hailstorm to the warriors in hostility.

Warriors drink in the hall
Beowulf illustration (1939) by Lynd Ward
The Wanderer uses the word frōd ("wise") in the phrase frōd in ferðe ("wise in spirit"). In J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, Tom Shippey points out that Frodo is "the one name out of all the prominent hobbit characters in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings which Tolkien does not mention or discuss." Given that "wise in spirit" seems such an apt description of the Ring-bearer, perhaps this half-line from the poem Tolkien knew so well played some part in his naming of Frodo.

The Wanderer again refers to reciprocal gifting when he mentions the "treasure-giver" (māþþumgyfa). Of course, gyfa ("giver") is related to gyfan ("to give") and gyfu ("gift"), the latter of which is the subject of a verse in the Rune Poem:
The gift of men is honor and praise, support and respect; and help and substance for each wanderer who is without other.
This reminds us that the Wanderer is not bemoaning the simple loss of material things, but of the relationships and cementing of status that the giving and receiving of gifts represents.

The Old English symbel ("feast," here in the genitive plural symbla) is parallel to the Old Norse sumbl. In The Well and the Tree: World and Time in Early Germanic Culture, Paul C. Bauschatz presents a detailed analysis of usage of both terms in the literature of the two languages, arguing that Beowulf and several poems from the Poetic Edda provide evidence for a Germanic ritual based on drinking of an alcoholic beverage, making of speeches, and giving of gifts.

Bauschatz's theories have been widely influential on modern Heathen practice. So far, every book that I have found published by a Heathen author that discusses the contemporary version of the symbl or sumbl ritual cites his work. Our Troth, a two-volume religious guide by the Troth (an American Heathen organization), states that nearly all practitioners "who have written or spoken on the meaning of the sumbel in latter years have drawn their understanding of the rite from this text."

The section of The Wanderer beginning "Where has the horse gone?" should be familiar to readers of The Lord of the Rings. In The Two Towers, Aragorn recites the "Lament for the Rohirrim":
Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?
Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?
Where is the hand on the harpstring, and the red fire glowing?
Where is the spring and the harvest and the tall corn growing?
They have passed like rain on the mountain, like a wind in the meadow;
The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow.
Who shall gather the smoke of the dead wood burning,
Or behold the flowing years from the Sea returning?
At it's opening, Tolkien's poem is quite close to the lament of the Wanderer. Although the language quickly diverges, the spirit, mood, and imagery remain very similar.

When Aragorn performs the poem for his companions, he is himself a wanderer standing next to "the great barrows where the sires of Théoden sleep." The character name Théoden is from the Old English þēoden ("prince, lord") which appears in this passage of The Wanderer as the genitive þēodnes in the phrase Ēala þēodnes þrym ("Alas, glory of the prince"). In Peter Jackson's film of The Two Towers, three non-contiguous lines of Aragorn's lament are transferred to Théoden, with editorial "improvements" of language by the movie's producers.

All is fraught with hardship in the kingdom of earth, the creation of the fates changes the world under the heavens.

Here wealth is temporary, here a friend is temporary, here oneself is temporary, here a kinsman is temporary; all this foundation of the earth will become worthless!

"December" by Hans Thoma (1839-1924)
The second sentence here is quite close to a popular passage from the Old Norse Hávamál. The Old English uses the word feoh in its opening phrase, and the Old Norse uses at the start. As discussed above, both words can mean either "wealth" or "cattle." In the words of the Wanderer, the meaning is generally accepted to be "wealth" or "property"; in the words of Odin, it is clearly "cattle." Verse 76 of Hávamál states:
Cattle die, kinsmen die, the self dies the same, but the glory of reputation never dies for the one who gets himself a good one.
Two pairs of the Old English and Old Norse words are related: feoh/fé ("wealth"/"cattle"), frēond/frændr ("friend"/"kinsmen"). The parallel nature of the two verses is obvious. However, the worldview expressed by the two endings are quite different.

The Old English poem responds to the realization of the transitory nature of life by denigrating the worth of the world itself, and suggesting that the afterlife is all that truly matters (as made explicit in the narrator's Christian conclusion below). The Old Norse poem replies to the same situation with an insistence that deeds in the world are what matter, that the only immortality is in the reputation we leave behind. One attitude is world-denying, the other world-affirming.

Direct speech of the Wanderer ends at this point in the poem.

So said the one wise in spirit, sat himself apart in secret meditation.

Good is he who his maintains his faith, nor ought a man ever his grief too quickly of his breast make known, unless he, the nobleman, before then knows how to bring about amends with courage. Well is it for that one who seeks mercy for himself, consolation from the Father in the heavens, where for us all the fastness stands.

The narrator returns and states that the Wanderer sat alone "in secret meditation" (æt rūne). The word rūn (here as dative rūne) refers to the secret and mysterious nature of the act, not to the runic symbols. What we would today call a rune was known in Old English as a rūnstæf ("runic letter").

Trēow (as accusative trēowe) is here translated as "faith," but also means "trust" and "loyalty." It is related to the Old Norse trú ("faith," "belief") which is used today as part of the Modern Icelandic term for the contemporary Heathen religion Ásatrú ("Æsir Faith," belief in the Norse gods).

The poem ends with the narrator's statement on Christian "mercy" (ār, as accusative āre) and "consolation" (frōfor, as accusative frōfre). However, the final image is that of a "fastness" (fæstnung) "in the heavens" (on heofonum), which fits well with the Wanderer's nostalgia for bygone days of drinking in the stronghold of his lord.


Anderson, Earl R. "The uncarpentered world of Old English poetry." Anglo-Saxon England 20 (1991): 65-80.

Bauschatz, Paul C. The Well and the Tree: World and Time in Early Germanic Culture. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1982.

Carpenter, Humphrey, ed. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1995.

Dronke, Ursula, ed. The Poetic Edda, Volume III: Mythological Poems II. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Eiríksmál. Heimskringla website,

Fulk, R.D., Robert E. Bjork, and John D. Niles, eds. Klaeber's Beowulf and the Fight and Finnsburg. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008.

Gundarsson, Kveldúf, ed. Our Troth, Volume Two: Living the Troth. BookSurge Publishing, 2007.

Halsall, Marueen. The Old English Rune Poem: a critical edition. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1981.

Holderness, Graham. "From Exile to Pilgrim: Christian and Pagan Values in Anglo-Saxon Elegiac Verse." In English Literature, Theology and the Curriculum, 63-84. Edited by Liam Gearon. London: Cassell, 1999.

Homer. The Iliad. Translated by Stephen Mitchell. New York: Free Press, 2011.

Larson, Laurence M. "The Household of the Norwegian Kings in the Thirteenth Century." The American Historical Review XIII (October 1907 – July 1908), 459-479.

Mitchell, Bruce and Fred C. Robinson. A Guide to Old English. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

Rāmayāna, Book Four: Kiskindhā. Translated by Rosalind Lefeber. New York: New York University Press, 2005.

Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005.

Shippey, T.A. J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000.

Simek, Rudolf. Mittelerde: Tolkien und die germanische Mythologie. Munich: Verlag C. H. Beck, 2005.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings, Part Two: The Two Towers. New York: Ballantine Books, 1981.

Völsunga saga. Heimskringla website,

Wódening, Eric. We Are Our Deeds: The Elder Heathenry, Its Ethic and Thew. Baltimore: White Marsh Press, 2011.

This modern English translation and annotation
© 2016 by Karl E. H. Seigfried

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