Thursday, November 16, 2017

Norse Mythology and J.R.R. Tolkien in Israel's Ynet


It’s been a busy month for interviews! In addition to speaking with The Atlantic about Ásatrú theology and The Boston Globe about Norse mythology and Ásatrú religion, I was interviewed by Amir Bogen of Israel’s Ynet for his article about Norse mythology in today’s popular culture.

As is usually the case when a journalist interviews someone for background information, Mr. Bogen only used a small portion of my answers in his published piece. For those interested in these subjects, I’m posting his questions here (in large bold type) with my full answers.

You can read the article (in Hebrew) on the Ynet website by clicking here.

Lately, Norse mythology became very popular in [the work of] American pop culture artists and filmmakers. What makes it so appealing to comics and super-hero and geek audiences?

I’m not so sure that Norse mythology itself has become any more appealing to that particular audience. Are comic book fans suddenly reading translations of the Old Icelandic Eddas in massive numbers?

We have yet to see a single major Hollywood feature directly based on the Norse myths. The Marvel Thor movies are based on the comic book mythology created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in the 1960s and subsequently expanded by Walter Simonson and many others.

The redesigned Thor (Chris Hemsworth) in Marvel's Thor: Ragnarok movie

The Marvel mythos directly contradicts Norse mythology in several significant ways, not least in that they substitute a Christian storyline that recasts Odin as Yahweh and Thor as Christ, as seen in the first film. There is no sense in the original mythology that Thor must prove himself worthy to his father by being willing to sacrifice himself for the good of humanity. I don’t see much in the movies that reflects ancient pagan worldviews.

The excitement over Neil Gaiman’s retelling of the Eddas has much more to do with the dedicated fanbase for his original fiction than it does with interest in the source material. Ditto for the recent Norse series by Rick Riordan. I think the vast majority of those who faithfully follow these authors would just as readily read their fantasy novels if they were based on Sumerian or Egyptian mythology.

I would love to see a big-budget Hollywood film based on the myths that were preserved in medieval Iceland. The stories that survive are full of high drama and epic excitement alongside fascinating characters and powerful emotions. What’s not to love?

Why is Norse mythology more attractive to the younger audience than the classic Greek mythology, which was so well known in the past and seems to be almost non-existent anymore in pop culture, especially in America?

I’m also not so sure that Greek mythology has disappeared from pop culture. The Rick Riordan books and movies incorporating Greek myth seemed to do pretty well. The kids I know who read Riordan's Norse series did so because they loved his Greek series so much. I’d be interested to know how many pre-teens in the United States can name Norse gods beside Thor and Odin compared to how many know Greek gods other than Zeus and Ares.

The second of Rick Riordan's Gods of Asgard books

I think kids are interested in many mythologies. When I was little, my parents told me that I could practice any or no religion as an adult, but that I needed to know the mythologies that shaped our culture: Greek, Jewish, and Christian. Back then, I was just as fascinated with the modern mythologies of DC, Marvel, Doctor Who, Star Trek, and so on. If young people aren’t forced to believe that one set of mythology is true and the rest are wicked, they’ll enjoy a much more diverse set of stories.

What misconception do we have about Norse mythology as it is presented in comics and films?

There are a lot of basic concepts in the Marvel version that don’t reflect the mythology. Thor’s power coming from his weapon, Thor having to prove he’s worthy, Loki being Thor’s adopted brother, and so on. The biggest alteration is, of course, that the gods worshiped by pagans long ago and by practitioners of Ásatrú today are really space aliens.

A farmer looks up to Thor in a painting by Max Koch (1900)

I don’t get tied up in knots over any of this. I love the Marvel comics and movies. I’m adult enough to realize that they’re part of a separate fictional universe, and I’m not going to go picket them or some such nonsense. I would simply love it if people would take the time to read the original myths and learn about the religion and culture of which they were a part. If people want to stick with the pop culture versions, bless them. We all have different interests!

Tolkien is always good to talk about, so if you can comment about Norse mythology influence on The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, that would be great.

Like much in life, Tolkien’s use of Norse materials has positive and negative elements. I love how deeply his fictional works integrated the material that he knew so well as a scholar and educator. I’m much more impressed by his transformation of the mythic elements into an original creation (or, in his terms, sub-creation) than I am by straight retellings or adaptations of the myths.

Tolkien’s process is most plain in the many volumes of The History of Middle-earth, which provide multiple versions of the same stories as he reworked them for more than a half-century. In the earliest texts, some of the gods of what became The Silmarillion are referred to by Norse names. Here, as in his other works, he increasingly obscured his source material. At the time of The Hobbit’s first publication, he very much insisted on recognition of the Norse sources that appear in his text, of which there are many: the wisdom contest, the conversation with the dragon, the runes, the wandering wizard, and so on. Later in life, he strongly stressed the original nature of his work.

The first volume of The History of Middle-earth

Why the change? For one thing, the association of Norse mythology with the Nazis during the war had made it awkward for an English professor to champion the same material in the years immediately following the Holocaust. Similarly, Hitler’s public celebration of Wagner likely led Tolkien to deny that his Lord of the Rings had anything to do with Wagner’s Ring. This is patent nonsense. Tolkien's legendarium features dwarves as anti-Semitic figures pulled from Wagner, not Norse myth. The Hobbit is the worst, drawing on the darkest stereotypes of the backstabbing large-nosed Wandering Jew consumed with uncontrollable lust for gold.

The fact that Tolkien wrote one letter stating he was against Germany’s anti-Semitic policies does nothing to change the fact that he praised the “obedience and patriotism” of German citizens under the Third Reich, questioned whether a victory of “Americo-cosmopolitanism” would be any better than a Nazi one, and put into the hands of generations of children a version of the dwarf that owed more to German bigotry than the Eddas.

When I teach Tolkien's works, I don’t cover up or brush aside the troubling elements. I think we all need to face the failings of the great artists of the modern age, and they are legion. I’ve been told by some Tolkien fans that I must be a Nazi, since I notice the anti-Semitism in his work, which is anti-intellectual and ridiculous. I’ve been told the same thing by an English opera director, when I brought up the anti-Semitism in Wagner’s writings, which is bizarre and insane.

People want their favorite creatives to be angels, or at least they want to separate the creator’s prejudices from their artistic creations. However, great artists deeply incorporate their beliefs into their work. I hope we can be adult enough to discuss these issues without either burning books or burning educators.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Norse Mythology and Ásatrú Religion in The Boston Globe


Mark Peters recently interviewed me for a column on Norse mythology and the Ásatrú religion that he was writing for The Boston Globe. He asked very interesting questions about the allure of Norse mythology today, about the appeal of Ásatrú, and about the influences of the Norse myths on modern culture.

Since Mr. Peters was only able to use small segments of my answers in his relatively short column, I am posting his questions (in large bold type) and my full responses here. I hope that something I wrote is interesting to you!

You can read the column in The Boston Globe by clicking here.

On a literary level, what do you think, at bottom, is the appeal of the Norse myths to so many readers, writers, artists, etc.? What makes them such fertile ground for novels, comics, etc.?

Iceland officially converted to Christianity over one thousand years ago, but the pagan myths that were preserved in writing by thirteenth-century antiquarians of that northern island nation continue to inspire people around the world today. After all these many centuries, the undying appeal of Norse mythology works at three levels – dramatic, emotional, and spiritual.

At the dramatic level, the Norse myths are exciting tales of high adventure that are filled with mysterious yet unforgettable characters. In the long ago time, the first gods slaughter the primeval giant and shape the world from his enormous corpse. They set the celestial bodies on their courses, create dwarves from earth, and make humans from trees. Across the mythic timeline, Thor protects us from threatening giants and trolls, Loki gets up to all sorts of wicked mischief, and Odin travels throughout the nine worlds seeking mystic wisdom. At the end of time, the gods and giants fight their final battle at Ragnarök (“doom of the powers”), and the world is destroyed before a new one with new gods rises once again. This wealth of dramatic material has provided inspiration for generations of fantasy novelists, comic book artists, opera composers, and metal bands.

Painting of Freyr facing Surt at Ragnarök by Sam Flegal (2013)

At the emotional level, the myths resonate in deep places of our inner world. We see ourselves in the gods, or we see the gods in ourselves. Many of the deities express an exuberant excitement of the experience of existence. The twins Freyr and Freya (“lord” and “lady”) are radiant and beautiful. He is the ruler of the world of elves, rides a golden glowing boar, presides over prosperity and peace, and sends both rain and sunshine. She rides a chariot pulled by cats, flies through the air on falcon feathers, loves love songs, and is greatly interested in love affairs. Another god, Heimdall (“world tree”), is likewise bright and glorious. His horse's name and his own teeth are golden, and his residence – the “castle of heaven” – stands by the rainbow bridge. He guards the worlds with hearing so fine that he can hear grass growing in the fields and wool growing on sheep. These are not the violent Viking gods of the popular imagination. Those who take the time to really read the myths meet a host of inspiring figures with whom they may feel a deep emotional connection.

At the spiritual level, readers of Norse mythology encounter a incredibly powerful worldview. As he wanders the worlds seeking knowledge of the future, everything Odin learns from powerful prophetesses, ancient giantesses, and reanimated wise women confirms that he and his world will perish. In contrast to the gloomy Nordic worldview often portrayed in popular culture, the wandering god never stops searching for knowledge and never ceases to rage against the dying of the light. The old gods may die at Ragnarök, but the myth is life-affirming. We will not live forever, but our children will survive us, and their children will survive them. The branches of the World Tree will continue to grow as new leaves appear each springtime. This optimistic view of the ongoing growth of life in the world, of hope and light amidst threat and darkness, can speak powerfully to modern people at a primal spiritual level that remains unaddressed in much that we experience in our lives today.

I'm just learning about the Ásatrú religion. Like most religions, it seems to have people who find comfort and wisdom in it and those who pervert it to support hateful ideas. What would you say is the appeal of Ásatrú in both cases, for well-meaning people and for white supremacists?

The word Ásatrú is modern Icelandic for “Æsir faith,” for belief or trust in the gods of the old polytheistic Germanic religions. The modern religion began in 1972, when a small group of Icelanders met in Reykjavík to found a religious organization for the revival of what the medieval sagas call the Old Way. In the decades since, variations of the religion have spread around the world, and various related traditions are now practiced in ninety-eight countries. Practitioners have long disavowed missionary work, so the growth has largely been of people discovering and learning about the faith on their own or, as many avow, being “called by the gods.”

I can’t speak for other members of what is an incredibly diverse set of communities in a large collection of related religious traditions, but I can tell you what first attracted me to Ásatrú. I was raised by two philosophy professors not to be religious, but to know the myths of the religions that largely shaped Western art and culture – Greek, Roman, Jewish, and Christian. I read Thor comics as a kid, but it wasn’t until I was an adult that I sat down and read the original Norse myths in their entirety. I immediately saw my father – death camp survivor, philosophy professor, and teacher of human rights – in Odin, the god who endlessly seeks wisdom. I saw my grandfather – farmer, bricklayer, quick to anger and quick to laughter, lover of children and dancing – in Thor, the god of the common man. In the pagan poetry, I did not find answers to the big questions of life; what mattered to me was that poets over a millennium ago were lying awake at night, asking the same questions that keep me from sleeping. I’ve heard several practitioners say that they were always Heathen, but they just didn’t realize it until they read the myths. I’d say that’s true of me, too.

Image of Thor by Danish artist Lorenz Frølich (1907)

All religions have extremists clustered at their fringes. For the Heathen religions, there is a group of folks who try to blend Norse religion with the newly resurgent white nationalism that is rearing its ugly head in many countries right now. Historically, such people have joined groups allied with Protestantism – like the KKK – or with extreme sects like Christian Identity. In recent years, their gross anti-Semitism has led them to denounce Christianity itself as a Jewish ideology, and they have turned to Ásatrú as something supposedly more “white.” This has horrified members of the Icelandic religious organization that began the Ásatrú revival, who want absolutely nothing to do with this hateful ideology. I’ve been accused of working with the head of the Icelandic Ásatrú group to turn the religion gay and Jewish. So, the hang-ups these trolls have are those typical of the generic hate groups springing up in the U.S. and abroad. They’re just using Thor's hammer in place of a burning cross. Maybe they’ll move on to UFOlogy in a few years. Why not? Some of them already believe in Nazi myths of Atlantis and secret cultures inside the earth.

On a less heavy note, are there any influences of the Norse myths in language and/or culture that most people would not be aware of?

The influence of Norse mythology is all around us. The Marvel comics and movies are the most obvious, since they pluck characters and plots directly from the myths, before transforming them in what Stan Lee long ago called “the mighty Marvel manner.” I repeatedly remind my readers and students that he and Jack Kirby created their own mythology of Thor, and many of its core elements and relationships come from their imaginations, not from the original mythology.

Other influences are just slightly less obvious. Many people believe that Richard Wagner’s Ring operas are based on German myth and literature, but he almost exclusively used the Norse mythology preserved in Icelandic literature and simply Germanified the names as part of his nationalist agenda. J.R.R. Tolkien made a similar move, incorporating elements of Norse mythology into The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and the texts that became The Silmarillion, but he changed the names and obscured the sources in pursuit of an original work and the nationalist project of “a mythology for England.” The influence of those two titans is so pervasive that parts of Norse mythology have spread throughout modern culture without people being aware of the ultimate source.

Image of Wagner's dwarf Alberich by Maxfield Parrish (1898)

Both Wagner and Tolkien created brilliantly original works while raiding Icelandic sources for their own purposes, but we shouldn’t whitewash the darker elements. Despite his postwar denials, Tolkien himself lifted Wagner’s anti-Semitic characterizations of the Old Norse dwarves into his own work. The entire fantasy genre is largely a reworking of Tolkien's reworking of Norse mythology (with its embedded Wagnerisms), as are old-school role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons and newer digital games like World of Warcraft. When modern creators want to break free of the chains of Tolkien influences, they often turn to the same myths that inspired him. Norse mythology is a well that never runs dry. I do hope that critical readers are able to separate the source mythology from its later forms, with all their positive and negative alterations.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Ásatrú Theology in The Atlantic


Sigal Samuel, Religion Editor at The Atlantic magazine, recently contacted me for a feature she was writing on Ásatrú. For her article on Heathens – practitioners of modern religions built on Norse and other Germanic polytheistic religious traditions – she was particularly interested in “efforts being made to push back against racist appropriations of the faith.”

Ms. Samuel told me that she knew about “A Better Burden: Toward a New Ásatrú Theology,” the paper I gave at Frith Forge, the first international conference on inclusive Ásatrú and Heathenry. She wrote that she was “fascinated by the call to produce a collection of original public theology.”

When she interviewed me for her article, she asked several questions about my personal relationship to Ásatrú, the history and growth of Heathen religions, the theological project proposed in my paper, and the issue of racism – both regarding the extremist fringe of Ásatrú and the appropriation of Heathen symbols by hate groups.

Understandably, Ms. Sigal only quoted brief bits of my long answers. This is standard procedure. Much of what she asked was to gather background information and context on the subject. She also asked me to define some basic terms and to recommend other Ásatrú practitioners she should speak to outside of the United States and Iceland.

As I’ve done in the past after being interviewed, I’m posting my full answers to the questions asked. Ms. Sigal's questions are below in large bold type, and my answers are in the regular font weight and size.

Sigal Samuel, Religion Editor at The Atlantic

I fully expect that other Heathens will disagree with some or all of what I have to say. These are my own answers, and I do not expect anyone else to subscribe to them. There is a great diversity of viewpoints within inclusive Ásatrú and Heathenry, and I celebrate this vibrant range of perspectives.

I am very thankful to Ms. Sigal for researching and writing this article. You can read her feature in The Atlantic by clicking here.

Would you define Heathenry as Norse pre-Christian polytheism? Are the Vikings a “heathen” group? Is Heathen a broader generic term or does it mean specifically a practitioner of Ásatrú?

I would define historical Heathenry as pre-Christian (or pre-Christian-conversion) Germanic polytheism and modern Heathenry as a new religious movement that began in 1972 with the founding of the Ásatrúarfélagið (“Ásatrú Fellowship”) in Iceland. Vikings were raiders of the Nordic world active in both pagan and Christian times. Today, Heathenry refers to the set of new religious movements centered on Germanic polytheism. Practitioners of these religions (including Ásatrú) usually self-identity as Heathens. Both Heathenry and Heathen are capitalized in these usages, to avoid confusion with the common sense of heathen as non-Christian.

Your interest in Ásatrú is both academic and experiential. How did you come to this faith and what do you find most compelling about it today?

I wasn’t raised in a religious household. My parents were both philosophy professors who had long ago been in the monastery and nunnery, respectively. They told me that I could practice any or no religion as an adult, but that I needed to know the mythologies that are at the root of Western culture: Jewish, Christian, Greek, and Roman. As a kid, I really only knew the Norse myths through their pop culture incarnations.

After my father died, I accidentally (or providentially) picked up a copy of Irish poet Padraic Colum’s Children of Odin, the wonderful 1920 retelling of the Norse myths with fantastic illustrations by the Hungarian artist Willy Pogany. Definitely an international mix!

Immediately, I saw my father in Odin. My dad came from a German village in what is now Yugoslavia, rescued his family from anti-German extermination camps as a child, studied religion in a monastery in Austria, did his doctoral work in philosophy in Bonn, and held positions at Yale University, University of Texas, and Loyola University Chicago. He spent his professional life teaching concepts of human rights to generations of students across half a century and never stopped seeking new knowledge and fighting against prejudice.

In the mythology, Odin wanders the world seeking knowledge of the future so that he can work to save the world from the horrors of Ragnarök, the coming “doom of the powers” at the end of the mythic timeline. Everything he learns confirms that he will die and the world will go down in fire and flood. Instead of becoming depressed and fatalistic, he resolutely seeks out more knowledge to fight against the coming darkness. This constant search for knowledge – even when that knowledge is terrifying – and this deep care for future generations is what I felt connected to my father.

Odin the Wanderer by Willy Pogany (1920)

I also saw my Opa in Thor. My German grandfather had gone from being a farmer in the old country to being forced into service as conscripted soldier to being captured and marched across Eastern Europe to a prisoner of war camp in Siberia to living in Austria as a displaced person to working as a bricklayer in Milwaukee. As long as I knew him, he was quick to anger and quick to forgiveness, a lover of children and dancing, and someone who never stopped working to take care of his family – even when his heart was almost completely blocked. Thor can be seen as the idealized self-image of the common man, of the Germanic farmer who particularly venerated the god that brought rain for his crops and defended his lands from destructive forces. I felt like I already knew Thor before I met him in the myths.

That is the feeling that a lot of today’s practitioners of Ásatrú state they have had. Many have said to me some variation of, “I was always Heathen, but I didn’t know it until I read the myths.” For many of us, our coming to this religion was a very different process from that usually described in reports of conversion to the Abrahamic religions. There is a common feeling that this path is something that we were already on as individuals, long before we had ever heard of Ásatrú or Heathenry. Some refer to this process as being “called by the gods.”

For me, Ásatrú enriches life in a myriad of ways. At one level, it’s a poetic gloss on life that adds a deeper (or at least different) level of understanding. As a creative person – a musician and writer – I can understand intellectually that my brain is combining past experiences in new patterns that result in new compositions, improvisations, turns of phrase, and so forth. But this scientific explanation doesn’t get to the heart of the subjective emotional experience of artistic creation. It means more to me to know that Heathens of the long ago time viewed Odin as the god that inspires, the god whose name can mean “inspiration,” and the god who gifts the Mead of Poetry that fills the follower with creativity.

There is a specific feeling of trying to get a guitar solo “right” on a recording, of hitting the record button over and over again, of playing one improvised solo after another, struggling endlessly but producing only disposable nonsense, and then finally having a perfect solo flow out without even trying, only to look up at the clock and notice that six hours have passed with no sensation of the passing of time. The feeling of being outside of time and the sensation of having the perfect solo come from outside of oneself is, for me, the fundamental Odinic experience. Knowing that I share this experience with pagan poets of centuries ago means much more to me at an emotional or spiritual level than what the science of the brain can tell me.

Ásatrú also offers the elements to construct a modern worldview that engages with the world we inhabit. From the Old Icelandic poems, one can develop a morality centered on the value of right action, defined as doing what is beneficial to one’s community. The definition of community itself can range, depending on the situation, from the nuclear family to the entire world, from those who are closest to “all the children of Heimdall.” Many modern Heathens use “we are our deeds” as a mantra, meaning that our actions are of paramount importance. The deeds one has taken in the past determine what one is today and what possibilities are open in the future. In an age when the U.S. president tells outrageous lies and falsely accuses his enemies list of doing exactly what he and his entourage have been doing, I do think the Heathen worldview can offer a corrective.

How many Heathens do you believe there are in the world today? I looked at your 2013 census and wonder if you have a sense of the numbers since then. If the faith is growing – as it certainly is in Iceland – why do you think it’s growing?

Responses to my Worldwide Heathen Census 2013 came from ninety-eight countries and led to an estimate of nearly 40,000 practitioners. The largest density was in Iceland, and the country with the greatest total number was the United States. The sense many of us have is that the numbers have grown greatly in the years since, judging from the constant influx of new people in online discussion groups and in religious organizations. There has also been a major uptick in contact and cooperation between Heathen individuals and groups across the planet.

Click here for results analysis of Worldwide Heathen Census 2013

It would be great if the heavy hitters like the Pew Research Center would help out the efforts of Heathens like myself and others who study and write about the communities. To date, Pew has tended to disappear minority religions into the black boxes of “Unaffiliated” (which could include the relatively large number of Heathens who are lone practitioners), “Other World Religions,” and other such undifferentiated categories. I have yet to meet any Heathen who wouldn’t shudder at the thought of being identified as “New Age,” yet Pew includes “Pagan or Wiccan” under that umbrella. Clearly, there needs to be some retooling of the basic concepts and methodologies of such big-name religious surveys, especially given the fact that journalists tend to unquestioningly repeat their findings as fact.

In part, I think that the numbers of Heathens are growing because there is has been an accelerating fracturing of traditionally dominant religions in the Western world. There still hasn’t been a mass arrest and conviction of pedophile Catholic priests and the upper figures who protected them. Large numbers of white Evangelicals continue to support Donald Trump, no matter how hateful and repugnant he speaks and acts. Part of the appeal of Heathenry may be the absence of the large structures that seem to inevitably lead to corruption and cooperation with powerful forces. In Heathenry, lone practitioners and small local groups tend to be the norm worldwide. Even where there are large organizations, they are more like gatherings of independents and without either top-down hierarchy or enforced doctrine.

This lack of rigid and doctrinal belief is greatly attractive to many people around the world today. This is not to say that Ásatrú and Heathenry are religions that are blank slates on which one can just write any old thing. Heathens tend to call this “the religion with homework,” and the average practitioner is often a sort of lay rabbi who obsessively studies ancient texts, primary historical documents, folklore collections, scholarly works, the latest reports of archaeological finds, and so on. The important thing is that people judge these sources for themselves, discuss them with other Heathens near and far, and think deeply about how all of this material relates to modern belief and practice. For those of us who are involved in this work, it is very rewarding in a way quite different from the experience of attending a hierarchical and patriarchal service in a mainstream church.

In your paper, you invite followers to embrace an identity as members of a new religious movement (NRM) that began in 1972. Why identify as an NRM? What are the benefits of seeing Ásatrú as new versus as continuous with an old tradition?

Ásatrú is a new religious movement. We can mark the moment of its creation, when twelve Icelanders gathered at the Hotel Borg in Reykjavík on April 20, 1972 to discuss the founding of what would become the Ásatrúarfélagið (“Ásatrú Fellowship”). The word Ásatrú itself is Modern Icelandic and means “faith/trust/belief in the Æsir,” referring to the main tribe of Old Norse gods. There is no recorded self-identifying term for the religion of the ancient Germanic pagans. After the coming of Christianity, we have sources referring to the “old way” of polytheism, as opposed to the “new way” of Christ. There is no pre-modern text using the term Ásatrú.

Ásatrúarfélagið founder Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson in 1960

Public practice of Heathenry was officially outlawed in Iceland by the year 1000. Christianity was already the public religion in England and on the continent, and all of Scandinavia was formally Christian by the end of the twelfth century. There is much evidence for the continuance of pagan practices and of their blending with Christianity, but the old Germanic polytheism as a functioning public religion was long gone by the time the Icelanders decided to bring it back in modern form. Some of today’s practitioners claim continuity in the form of family traditions, but Ásatrú and Heathenry are really modern revivals, reconstructions, and reimaginings of what the old pagan religions may have been and can now be.

As in many religions, there is always the danger of fundamentalism. Some Heathens do claim that they are able to know the internal mindset of Heathens in ancient times and insist that they can alter their own modern worldview to line up with this model. Personally, I tend to back away from anyone of any faith who declares that we must live in the same manner “as our glorious ancestors did.” Yes, we should study and learn about the past so that our modern practice can be rich and grounded, but we should also avoid embracing the old fundamentalist mindset that leads to Westboro Baptist Church, ISIS, and other hateful groups that long for “the good old days.”

Why the need for a new Ásatrú theology?

We already have Ásatrú and Heathen theologies. I’m simply suggesting that some of us work on widening the focus. Much of what has been published in the last decades has focused on belief and practice. Whether turning to scholarly sources or personal religious experience, most authors have either written about what Heathens believe regarding gods, the soul, the afterlife, and so on, or about how to perform individual and group rituals of various sorts. I fully support the creation of this literature. We need multiple perspectives on these core elements in order to have a living and thriving faith. However, there is also need for something else.

I’ve proposed that those interested in such things should work together to create a new public theology of Ásatrú on the models of Liberation Theology and Womanist Theology. We often say that we are a world-affirming religion, so maybe it’s time that we turn to the world and address the issues that face us today. What do Heathens think about reproductive rights? The role of government? Climate change? Gender identity? There is an endless list of important issues being discussed in the wider world, and I believe Heathens can provide new and unique perspectives on these issues. We will never be included in the greater public discussion if we don’t first step forward and put our ideas on the table.

In no way am I suggesting that there is one Heathen response to these issues. We’re a notoriously argumentative bunch. What I would like to edit and produce myself is a collection of essays by a diverse group of progressive Heathens reflecting on a cross section of important issues today, from a variety of Heathen religions and from a range of locations around the world. If we put our thoughts and work out there, maybe it will encourage other Heathens to speak out, and hopefully it will encourage academics, journalists, and interfaith leaders to contact us about issues other than only the extreme right fringe.

Why the decision to crowdsource an original theology online? Is the collaborative, grassroots approach (as opposed to a top-down approach) reflective of Ásatrú values? Or is it simply that there are no agreed-upon central authority figures for the faith?

I wouldn’t characterize what I’m trying to do as online crowdsourcing. I presented a paper at Frith Forge, the first international conference of inclusive Heathenry. It was attended by leaders and members of a large number of religious organizations that are all dedicated to a positive and welcoming Heathenry. It would have made little sense to give my paper at the meetings of organizations to which I belong that focus on the academic study of religion, on reporting about religion, or on the study of historical Scandinavia. This was specifically an in-person address to members of the wider Heathen communities that invited them to participate in a Heathen theological project and to pass the invitation on to their colleagues.

Poster for the Frith Forge conference held in Germany in October 2017

My paper has now been posted at The Norse Mythology Blog and will be published in other places where Heathens will see it, such as the Idunna journal of the Troth, the international Heathen organization based in the United States. Shortly after I posted the paper on my website, I received messages from several people interested in discussing paper proposals. It will be a lot of work, but I do hope that we will be able to produce a solid collection that reflects a diversity of perspectives on a variety of topics. One of my models is A Buddhist Response to the Climate Emergency, which has a fantastic and inspiring range of worldviews, methodologies, and modes of writing. My goal is to create a work that has a similar depth of responses within it.

Does this method raise any concerns about religious “authenticity” for you or others?

Claims of religious authenticity within Heathenry tend to focus on either scholarly sourcing or unverified (or unverifiable) personal gnosis (UPG). There is a sense that being able to footnote one’s theological assertions with references to the work of secular scholars somehow authenticates one’s personal beliefs. There is another idea –sometimes in conflict, sometimes in tandem with the first – that testifying to individual experience of the numinous gives an authentic sheen to what is being said. In the first case, the claim is tied to the work of some academic author, usually a professor in Scandinavian Studies. In the second case, the tie is to a personal experience of divinity – a message from a particular god or a visionary moment of revelation.

Both of these things are valuable in a living religion. I believe that it’s important for those working on a new Ásatrú theology to be comfortable both citing mainstream work by non-Heathen scholars and discussing what William James called “the varieties of religious experience.” There should be a fruitful ground where academic scholarship can exist in dialogue with personal and communal experience of the divine, in whatever form it takes.

The idea of institutionally approved authenticity really isn’t an issue here. There are no Grand Poobahs of the Heathen religions, even if some have unsuccessfully tried to position themselves as such. We have no Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Even organizations like the Ásatrúarfélagið and the Troth who train clergy don’t enforce doctrine. To the contrary, they encourage clergy and members alike to read widely and discuss both what they study and what they experience. There simply isn’t a top-down dissemination of religious doctrine, and a great variety of approaches to belief and practice can be found around the world.

Have you received any responses yet in reply to your call for anthology submissions?

Yes, several! And this is before it’s been published anywhere but my own website.

You call for followers to create a new Ásatrú theology. I’m wondering how strongly you feel about “rescuing” old Ásatrú symbols/theology from Heathens on the extreme-right fringe and white nationalists. You write that you don’t want to be reactionary and let them set parameters. But do you feel it’s your job to directly engage with them in some way?

The theology I’ve read from the extreme right fringe of Heathenry is not anything I’m interested in “rescuing.” Stephen A. McNallen, founder and former charismatic leader of the overtly racist Asatru Folk Assembly, now a participant in and vocal supporter of the alt-right, goes places in his 2015 book Asatru: A Native European Spirituality where I have no desire to follow. He repeatedly asserts that Heathenry has a teleology (strike one) in which the white person (strike two) becomes a demigod (strike three) and may be “cast backward in time” to appear to their twenty-first century self as a deity. Even without the strikeout of the first propositions, the last bit lines up far too closely with the theology of Ancient Aliens and Marvel Comics for my taste. I’m perfectly happy to let him and the authors in his circle – the “radical traditionalists” and others – write what they write without feeling that I need to “rescue” any elements of their ethnocentric theology.

The illustration used by The Atlantic for Sigal Samuel's article on Ásatrú

You ask if I feel the need to directly engage with the racist fringe of Heathenry. I believe that the inclusive mainstream of Heathenry has a responsibility to denounce hate speech and hate groups at the extreme edge of the Heathen religions. We do, repeatedly. Academics and journalists tend to only contact us in reference to this one issue. Every time, we give the same response that Muslims have given to scholars and media since September 11, 2001: the radical right does not represent the rest of us, and we strongly denounce their speech and acts. What’s the result of these years of statements? More inquiries asking about racist Heathenry from writers and online threats against us and our families from the hateful.

Some American Heathens think that we should be engaging with white nationalists in the prisons and white supremacists on the Heathen fringe. The idea is that we should offer them a better way, that we should welcome them in and seek to change their hearts while encouraging them to walk a righteous path. I’m not a missionary, and I don’t believe in Christian forgiveness. I believe that we are our deeds and that evil deeds must be set right. If someone was a practicing member of a racist and anti-Semitic hate group for twenty-five years, it’s not enough to go to prison. Incarceration is something forced upon the individual by secular authority. Let that person work to make good for their hate by spending the next quarter-century volunteering for the Southern Poverty Law Center and the NAACP. Then, and only then, we can start a discussion about raising a horn to the gods together. I know that many of my fellows strongly disagree with me on this. Such is the diversity of Heathen belief.

My personal idea of inclusion doesn’t extend to including Nazis, neo or otherwise, in my circle of family and friends, in my professional world, or in my religious life. Others may have more tolerance. On this issue, I have none.

Is your call for a new theology actually a way of reacting to heathens on the extreme-right fringe and to white nationalists? Is part of your goal to make Ásatrú theology racism-proof? To what extent do you think that’s possible?

No, I am explicitly calling for a new public theology of Ásatrú that expresses Heathen perspectives on a wide variety of issues in the world today. As I said earlier, there is nothing in racist writing with which I am interested in engaging, other than to denounce it as a hate speech that has no place in modern society.

I’m reacting more to experiences in academia, journalism, and the interfaith world with those in leadership roles who will only mention any form of Heathenry in the context of white supremacy. When professors at major divinity schools allow graduate students in Heathenry to only write on the racist elements, when peer reviewers insist that coverage of racist leaders must be central in any work on American Heathenry, when journalists only interview Heathens when they want to write the umpteenth piece on “How a Thor-Worshipping Religion Turned Racist,” when leaders of interfaith organizations bar Heathens from participating because they once read something racist on a random Heathen blog, those of us in the inclusive mainstream need to stand up and say that not only are we absolutely not sympathetic to the racist element, but that there is a huge and untapped world of our religious beliefs and practices that are being completely and willfully erased.

Those of us in the mainstream of Heathenry are more than what we are not. No one comes upon Heathenry and says, “Oh! I’ll join this so that I can be a non-Nazi.” They become practicing Heathens because there are deep and meaningful religious, spiritual, moral, cultural, and communal elements that speak to them on a profound level.

I am deeply disgusted by those who participate in hate groups while waving the Heathen flag, but there is no way “to make Asatru theology racism-proof.” There are racists and bigots in all religions. All religions. I have zero tolerance for that evil in my life. How many religious leaders of any tradition in America today would ban a member of their congregation for promoting alt-right views, for marching with Richard Spencer, or for insisting that members of the LGBTQ+ community are mentally ill? I and many other Heathen leaders have done and continue to do so. I challenge clergy of other faiths to live up to their own ideals. As always, we are our deeds.

How did the racist interpretation of Heathenry begin? Is it a total perversion of true Ásatrú values and foundational texts, or is there some basis for the view of white ethnic superiority in the original myths?

If someone wants to go spelunking for mythological justifications of ethnic superiority, they’ll hit pay dirt in the texts of almost any religious tradition. Mythology is full of tales of in-groups versus out-groups, of the threatening Other who comes from the outside to threaten the community and take away women/cattle/horses/wealth/etc. Accordingly, we have fundamentalist, sexist, homophobic, anti-immigrant, and otherwise hateful branches of multiple religious traditions.

If the only religious people who voted for Donald Trump had been racist Heathens, he wouldn’t be president today. The appeal of hateful rhetoric that scapegoats minorities and other “outsiders” cuts across denominational lines. Clearly, plenty of people of much larger faiths were completely comfortable with his statements and promises. Read the brilliant essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic about “The First White President.” Racism is a cancer deep in the heart of the United States of America.

The embrace of violence cuts across religious lines.

Medievalists and scholars of Scandinavian Studies have spilled a lot of ink recently pushing back against white supremacist assertions about a supposed “purely white” Northern Europe of the long ago time. History is much more multicultural than the pseudo-intellectuals of the alt-right would have you believe.

As for what you call “foundational texts,” we don’t have them in the same way as most other religious traditions. Germanic society in pagan times was not a literary culture. Runes were used for writing, but they tended to be carved into wood and stone for relatively short inscriptions. The writing of long texts with ink came northwards with the spread of Christianity. Aside from the runic material that survives, we don’t really have anything written by Heathen hands. Instead, we have pagan poetry written down by Christians centuries after conversion. We have sagas that are really works of historical fiction composed by Christian Icelanders about their forefathers, and their portrayal of Heathen belief and practice is in no way the expression of a living religion by its own practitioners.

Even within the poems that survive, there is no clear and systematic statement of Heathen values. Hávamál (“Sayings of the High One”), the major poem spoken by the god Odin, offers advice and gnomic wisdom but is not in any way comparable to anything like the rules laid down in the Hebrew Bible. Today’s Heathens spend a lot of time reading the poems and sagas. They read contemporary accounts of the Germanic tribes by Romans, Christians, and Muslims. The read modern scholarly works and sift through reports of archaeological finds. They talk to other Heathens and read new works by Heathen authors. The worldviews and value systems of modern Heathens exist in dialogue with all of these but are not inscribed on ancient stone tablets.

Those who use Heathen symbols and texts to promote ideologies of hate select from the same smorgasbord of materials that the rest of us do. Like the extremists of other religions, they pick and choose the bits of poetry and prose that they can read as supporting their hateful views, then they make these readings central to their ideology.

The first lines of the Odin poem Hávamál are
Within the gates ere a man shall go,
Full warily let him watch,
Full long let him look about him;
For little he knows where a foe may lurk,
And sit in the seats within.
I’ve seen this cited by one hate group as giving divine mandate to white nationalism. From their obsessive perspective, in which everything in life is about whiteness and racial holy war, this shows that Odin is warning them to be wary of immigrants, people of color, “race traitors,” or whatever boogymen they most fear at the moment.

Is there some dark racist secret hidden within the medieval poetry of Iceland? Of course not. This sort of hermeneutical game can be played with nearly any text, and those who seek validation for hateful views will always manage to find some passage they can interpret in a way that justifies their bigotry.

It’s odd to me that professional scholars and journalists continue to repeatedly ask this question of whether Norse mythology is inherently racist – the same journalists who would be never dream of contacting a rabbi or imam to ask whether the Torah or Qur’an are textbooks for extremism. Of course, this is the result of a circular system in which the only aspect of Heathenry covered is the racist fringe. When a writer new to the subject searches the web or academic databases, they find articles about the extremists. This shapes their own approach to the subject, and yet another piece on the topic is published. Circle of life. One of my goals with this new theology project is to make materials available for scholars, journalists, and interfaith leaders that cover the many aspects of these religions that they have resolutely ignored.

I was interested in the parallel you drew with Liberation Theologians. As another potential point of comparison: I recently interviewed an imam in France who said he and others are working on a “preventive theology” – a version of Islam that’s meant to be, if not terrorist-proof, at least resistant to being coopted by fundamentalists. Do you see your effort as being at all similar?

I am not aware of this particular imam’s work. If that really is the goal, I’m curious how this would be done and why it would be done. Extremists don’t read works of liberal theology in their tradition and then edit them to fit their own hateful ideologies. They turn to the ancient holy texts and to works by later authors with worldviews similar to their own. I doubt the members of the KKK read Pope Francis on climate change and then say, “Aha! We can edit this to be about black people destroying the world!” That’s simply not how promulgation of hate works.

I once wrote an article that went through the texts issued by the Asatru Free Assembly and showed, in a very straightforward manner, how they have promoted racist views over many years. This did not result in Norse mythology or Ásatrú theology being somehow made proof to use by extremists. It resulted in podcasts, blog posts, and Facebook posts being written calling me all sorts of infantile names and making threats against me. The idea that we can engage with leaders and members of hate groups in some sort of intellectual and theological dialogue simply doesn’t work in reality.

I’m interested in building a theology that engages with multiple issues facing those living today that will have serious repercussions for future generations. This has been done by theologians of many other traditions, both in the so-called “world religions” and in the smaller minority faiths. I think that Heathens of positive intent need to take a place at the table of international dialogue with other people of faith who bring their unique perspectives to bear on the problems that we all face.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

A Better Burden: Towards a New Ásatrú Theology

On Saturday, I presented the following paper at Frith Forge, the first international conference focused on inclusive Ásatrú and Heathenry. The event was held October 6-8, 2017, outside of Potsdam, Germany.

There were thirty-one participants in attendance who represented fourteen organizations from twelve countries. I will be writing a full report on the conference for The Wild Hunt later this month.

I attended as goði (priest) of Thor’s Oak Kindred in Chicago and as a member of the Troth Clergy Program. I am very grateful for the opportunity I was given to address the attendees by the event organizers from the Troth, the international Heathen organization dedicated to inclusivity, education, scholarship, and training.

What follows is the full text of the paper that I read on October 7. Footnotes are included at the end of each section, and a bibliography appears at the end of the paper.

Any Ásatrú or Heathen authors interested in contributing to the theological project proposed in the paper’s final section are welcome to get in touch with me via The Norse Mythology Blog’s contact page.

A Better Burden: Towards a New Ásatrú Theology
by Dr. Karl E. H. Seigfried

This paper makes the case for a new direction in Ásatrú theology. After making a clear distinction between dogma and theology, a succinct review will be made of two common approaches to writing on theological issues within the cluster of modern Heathen religions. The paper will then address some pitfalls that have arisen in work that strongly focuses on either secular scholarship or personal religious experience.

A turn will be made to the concept of public theology, to the idea that there is a growing “need for theology to interact with public issues of contemporary society” and to “engage in dialogue with different academic disciplines, such as politics, economics, cultural studies and religious studies, as well as with spirituality, globalization and society in general.”1

This paper forwards the notion that we embrace our identity as members of a new religious movement (NRM) that began in 1972 as we fully engage with contemporary issues. In Hávamál, Odin says, “A better burden may no man bear for wanderings wide than wisdom.”2 This paper suggests that we continue to carry the wisdom of the past, but that we resolutely turn our focus to embracing the world we live in today and to engaging the challenges of the present with the resources of wisdom that we carry.

In conclusion, the paper calls for a collaborative international project to produce a collection of original public theology by authors from a wide variety of perspectives.
__________________
1 Kim, 1.
2 Bellows, 31.

Dogma and theology

In informal conversations with other Heathens, my suggestion that there is a need for new Ásatrú theology has sometimes been met with the somewhat hostile declaration that “we don’t want dogma in Heathenry.” The less polite response has been to assert that the very act of writing a theological work actively forces one’s personal dogma upon other practitioners. To clarify matters, and to clear the path for productive discussion, I offer basic working definitions of these two terms so that their quite different meanings can be set at the outset.

Many Heathens are interested in etymological roots, so they may interested to learn that the word dogma can be traced back to a Greek term for “to seem, to seem good, to think, suppose, imagine.”3 This has none of the negative sense implied in today’s accusations of fomenting Heathen dogma but instead seems somewhat straightforwardly collegial and almost apologetic. At this point, we must throw down a red flag and avoid the etymological fallacy that can creep into Heathen discussions. This particular fault in reasoning assumes that “knowing about a word’s origin, and particularly its original meaning, gives us the key to understanding its present-day use.”4

Already in ancient Greek, the noun form of the ancestor of our modern English word meant “that which seems to someone, opinion, belief, doctrine, decree.” The sense had even then begun the move from that which seems good to a belief forged into a formal statement. In classical Latin, the term came to mean “doctrine, tenet, principle,” and then, in post-classical Latin, “decree, order, orthodox belief, religious doctrine.” It is this latest sense that we use it today, when we accuse other Heathens of attempting to claim authority and force their beliefs on others.

For our purposes, we can combine elements of Van A. Harvey’s detailed definition5 and define doctrine as “those official beliefs explicitly formulated by the leaders of a religious group and thought to be so fundamental that to deny them is warrant for expulsion from that body.” It is aversion to doctrine in this sense that, I think, drives some Heathens to react so negatively to the idea of theology. There are actually many examples of doctrine enforced in various Heathen communities, but what matters for this paper is that doctrine is really distinct from theology.

The term theology itself comes from the Greek for “discourse of deity,” or, in a more modern mode, “god-talk.” The Roman pagan scholar Marcus Terentius Varro (116 BCE – 27 BCE) wrote of three branches of theology: (1) poetic, theatrical, mythical; (2) philosophical, rational, natural, and (3) ceremonial, ritual, civic.6 The multiplicity of approaches to theology continued into the Christian era, with generations of theologians either adapting concepts from the classical period to their discussions of the new religion or declaring their independence from the ancient approaches.7

In modern times, there is a daunting diversity in an enormous field. Theology can be ecumenical, exegetical, fundamentalist, historical, homiletical, liberal, moral, philosophical, practical, spiritual, and so on. It can focus on liberating the oppressed or increasing the prosperity of the wealthy. Within any subset of each subdiscipline, there are disagreements as fierce as any we see within the various branches of Heathenry.

All this is to emphasize that theology is not doctrine. Theology may discuss doctrine, but it plays a wholly different role in religious life. There are as many theologies as there are theologians. A work of theology may certainly attempt to convince, but the method is reasoned argument rather than dogmatic command.

In order to move into the topic at hand, we can define theology as “discourse on the divine and its relationship with the world.” There are a many other possible definitions, but this one recommends itself with (1) emphasis on reflection, communication, and discussion and (2) recognition of Heathen ideas of world-affirmation and the interconnectedness of the material and the spiritual.
__________________
3 Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “dogma,” http://www.oed.com.ezproxy.gl.iit.edu/view/Entry/56479.
4 Durkin, 27.
5 Harvey, 72.
6 Brown, 133 and Cancik, 43.
7 Harvey, 240.

Recent Heathen work

There has been a great diversity of Heathen writing published over the last thirty years, and it has exhibited as much of a diversity of approach as can be found in the works other world religions. I would like to discuss two broad trends that can be found throughout the modern Heathen corpus. They are very often intertwined within a given individual work. First, there has long been a turn to secular academia for material and as authority. Second, there is a long tradition of turning to what Heathens call “unverified (or unverifiable or unsubstantiated) personal gnosis” (UPG), to what William James called “direct religious experience” and what believers in other traditions may call revelation or vision.

The turn to secular academia takes several forms. In general, Heathens writers incorporate the work of non-Heathen academics by (1) summarizing pre-existing data, interpretations, and conclusions to provide a pre-1972 context for modern beliefs and practices and/or (2) citing the the pre-existing data, interpretations, and conclusions to lend the heft of authority to their own beliefs. A few examples should make this process clear.

In A Practical Heathen’s Guide to Asatru, Patricia M. Lafayllve provides a prime example of what are known among Heathens as “Ásatrú 101” books. When she turns to historical Germanic paganism, she uses information gathered from a group of secular scholars whom today’s Heathens repeatedly turn to as sources: Davidson, DuBois, Dumézil, Larrington, Lindow, and Page. These names and a handful of others turn up over and over again in Heathen footnotes and bibliographies. From an academic standpoint, it’s notable that the works cited are almost uniformly book-length retrospective presentations and almost never articles from academic journals. Although Dumézil is usually referenced with a standard caveat questioning the applicability of his tripartite theory to Old Norse materials, these select scholars are generally cited as unproblematically authoritative sources for information on historical religious beliefs and practices.

The work of Robert L. Schreiwer and Ammerili Eckhart on the new religious movement known as Urglaawe (which they translate from the Pennsylvania German dialect as “primal faith”) exemplifies a second mode of turning to secular scholarship. In this case, the sources used are from the field of folklore studies in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The bibliography to A Dictionary of Urglaawe Terminology includes a number of folklore collections, academic studies, and articles side-by-side with Davidson and Larrington. Jacob Grimm’s monumental Teutonic Mythology also appears; the work has remained greatly popular as a source for modern Heathens long after academics dissected it and left it behind. Schreiwer and Eckhart integrate the academic folklore work new and old into their vision of a modern religion. As in other Heathen works, they tend to accept the scholarly sources as authoritative.

A standard work in the modern Heathen library is Eric Wódening’s We Are Our Deeds: The Elder Heathenry, Its Ethic and Thew. In a method that would likely surprise theologians from other religious traditions, Wódening builds a Heathen ethical system almost entirely on dictionary definitions of words from Old English, Old Norse, and related Germanic vocabularies, as well as theoretically reconstructed Proto-Germanic and Proto-Indo-European words, root-forms, and their scholarly definitions. Although his bibliography includes standard academics regularly cited by Heathens (Bauschatz, Byock, and Turville-Petre), the preponderance of the text turns to ancient and theoretical words treated in isolation and examined through their definitions in a small selection of dictionaries. While Wódening has created a work of ethics that has been greatly valued and very influential in some sectors of modern Heathenry, the process of deriving an ethical system from modern academic etymological work raises many questions.

The turn to personal religious experience also takes several forms. Heathen authors who go down this path tend to (1) incorporate results of ritualized magical workings, (2) report information gained from visionary states, and/or (3) make definitive statements based on idiosyncratic personal beliefs. Again, a few examples will clarify this approach.

Stephen Flowers, writing under his pen name of Edred Thorsson, divides his 1987 Runelore: A Handbook of Esoteric Runology into two sections. The first, “Historical Lore,” uses a generally academic tone to review standard historical material from the academic discipline of runology. Flowers breaks with mainstream academia when he connects early Germanic and Viking Age rune usage to German racist nationalist Romantic mystics, Nazi occultists, and modern rune magicians as part of a unified grand narrative. The real break with academic tradition is in the book’s second half, “Hidden Lore,” in which Flowers declares that he and his colleagues in the Rune-Gild “go well beyond the limited academic/scientific aspect” and “quicken the wooden forms of academic findings with the inspiration of Ódhinn.”8 For the rest of the book, Flowers freely mixes references to historical, literary, and mythological material with ideas rooted in his own magical practice and occult work. When the book is taken as a whole, the first, historical part seems mere prelude to the UPG-based second half, which is presented as a guide for the would-be initiate.

A similar mixture of the sourced and the experienced appears in Diana Paxson’s Essential Ásatrú: Walking the Path of Norse Paganism. For example, in the chapter on “The Gods,” Thor is introduced with brief references to the sagas of Iceland, place names, Roman sources, Old Norse poetry, and mythological material. This documentary material is followed with details of modern practices, what type of beer to hail him with, what color he likes, and the text of Paxson’s own personal invocation for the god.9 Elsewhere in the book, she specifically addresses UPG and gives the example that some Heathens believe the colors of the goddess Frigg to be white and pale blue. “Over the years,” she writes,
People in my group and heathens in other parts of the country have independently visualized the goddess in these colors… Whether the belief of so many has somehow imprinted this idea on the collective unconscious, or Frigg always liked those colors, she certainly seems to like them now.10
The move from individual vision to group reproduction of that vision to statement of the goddess’s own preferences is a clear example of how individual revelation can spread through a religious community and become accepted as a socially verified gnosis.

A more top-down approach to UPG appears in Asatru: A Native European Spirituality, published in 2015 by Stephen A. McNallen, founder and longtime leader of a strongly hierarchical Heathen organization. Throughout the book, McNallen repeatedly forwards his belief that Heathenry has a clear teleology, with the end goal of the practitioner being transformation into an immortal demigod. He writes of “a path of transcendence, a way of becoming a demigod, by paradoxically utilizing the power of death to overcome death. The lesson here seems to be that immortality is attainable only by those not afraid to die.”11 He states that he has considered whether the Norse gods may in fact be the future selves of Heathen practitioners who have attained godhood, “cast backward in time” to appear to believers as deities.12 His personal beliefs take precedence over the surviving lore of historical Heathens; he clearly states that everything written in the ancient sources about dying into the halls of the gods “should be taken metaphorically,”13 while his own beliefs are held to be synonymous with Ásatrú. As to be expected in McNallen’s work, there is a racial underpinning to his UPG, and he insists that those white people whom he accepts as valid Heathens are “kin to the Gods,” and “the cosmos is our playground and we will dance among the stars.”14

This last example clearly shows some issues that can arise from a UPG-based approach, but I would like to more clearly examine some general problems with both the academic and experiential modes of writing.
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8 Flowers, 114.
9 Paxson, 64-66.
10 Ibid., 147.
11 McNallen, 158.
12 Ibid., 21.
13 Ibid., 113.
14 Ibid., 75.

A hostile witness

In a cluster of religions without central authority or dogma, there is a paradoxical and continual struggle within Heathenry to assert authority while positing one’s own perspective as the one that is right and proper. Such assertions often turn to academia for authentication and justification. Perhaps surprisingly to those unfamiliar with the Heathen subcultures, practitioners sometimes adjust their religious beliefs to accord with academic works written by secular scholars who are openly hostile to modern Heathenry.

Whether seeking to justify their own beliefs or to critique the practices of others, Heathens often turn to academic writing on ancient Germanic paganism as the fundamental arbiter of modern religious authenticity. Secular scholarship on primeval paganism is widely seen as the fundamental ground of authority on what Heathen religions are in the twenty-first century. This belief in the primacy of non-Heathen scholarship as bedrock of belief, practice, and theology can be found in multiple iterations of Heathenry. The deference to academia cuts across divisions within the wider Heathen community.

The scholars most often cited as sources for modern Heathenry do not focus on any of the Heathen religions that have been developed as living traditions since the founding of the Icelandic Ásatrúarfélagið (Ásatrú Fellowship) in 1972. Indeed, there has been some hostility within various Heathen communities to scholars who do study modern Heathenry, such as sociologist Jennifer Snook. Instead, the favorite scholars are mostly specialists in medieval Germanic (largely Old Norse) literature, medieval and pre-medieval Germanic religion, and archaeology of related areas and periods.

The literature covered by the scholars is of the post-conversion period, given that the writing down of long texts (i.e., not short inscriptions on stone or wood) arrived in northern Europe with the coming of Christianity. Although poetry may have been composed by pagan poets and passed down via oral transmission, the major mythological poems were not codified in writing until over two hundred years after the conversion of Iceland. The Icelandic sagas, often mined by Heathens for descriptions of belief and practice, are works of historical fiction composed by Christians centuries after the events they purportedly record.

Some of the major scholars of this literature have made derogatory comments about modern Heathen religions. In John Lindow’s Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs, the University of California, Berkeley professor of Old Norse and folklore “explores the magical myths and legends of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland and Viking-Age Greenland – outlining along the way the prehistoric tales and beliefs from these regions that have remained embedded in the imagination of the world.”15 Although his subject is the mythology of the Nordic countries in pre-Renaissance times, he ends his introduction with snide remarks on Heathen religion in the postmodern era:
There was a revival of “belief in the æsir” some years ago in Iceland, which seemed to have to do at least in part with tax breaks for organized religion, although partying is also important. That revival had its counterpart in Norway, where a group of students announced themselves to be believers in the aesir. In celebration, they drank some beer and sacrificed a sausage.16
“Belief in the æsir” is a translation of Ásatrú, the name of the Heathen religion founded in 1972 in Iceland. The establishment of the Ásatrúarfélagið in that year was the first major event in the worldwide revival, reconstruction, and reimagining of Germanic polytheism. Today, the organization continues to thrive, and Ásatrú is now the largest non-Christian religion in Iceland.

Lindow’s work was published in 2001, nearly thirty years after the Icelandic government officially recognized the religion. There were decades of media coverage by this time. For example, in the year 2000, a major conflict occurred between the Ásatrú group and the National Church of Iceland over events surrounding the thousandth anniversary of the nation’s conversion; over one thousand people attended the Ásatrú event.

Given the seriousness of Lindow’s scholarship, it is odd that he chose to minimize the history and practice of the Ásatrú religion by referring to it as some strange thing in the past and making dismissive comments about tax breaks, partying, and sausage. It is difficult to imagine a Berkeley professor writing a guide to historical Judaism or Islam turning aside from their ancient sources to make a derogatory remark about today’s Jews or Muslims in their published work.

We all pick and choose what we want to use from problematic sources. As adults, we are capable of noting the bias of authors as we evaluate their work. The important question here is this: why would Heathens privilege the work of an outsider who openly slanders their religion over the writing of those within their tradition? What other world religion sets up such a self-abnegating hierarchy?

Imagine practitioners of Judaism today basing their theology on works by non-Jewish archaeologists who include anti-Semitic statements in their texts. Imagine Muslims around the world privileging non-Muslim literature professors who take Islamophobic positions in their studies over books by their own writers. Imagine members of any minority faith fundamentally altering their spiritual beliefs to line up with theories of scholars who openly denigrate their religion.

Some Heathens may read the passage quoted above and say, “He’s right! The Icelanders are doing it wrong. Only those of us who practice like the members of my Facebook group are true Heathens.” Such attitudes are similar to those of the Germanic or Celtic tribes who allied themselves with Rome in order to gain power over local rivals. Such willingness to celebrate public disparagement of Heathenry in order to move up in an in-group pecking order is closer to jockeying for position in subcultural online communities than to thoughtful theological discourse. Even worse, the desire to declare one’s own denomination superior to all others often feels like fundamentalism.

None of this is to say that the study of scholarship is unimportant. In order to revive, reconstruct, and reimagine Germanic Paganism today, a deep engagement with the heritage of Heathen history is of great importance. The issue here is how practitioners of living religions engage with academic work on ancient sources as the primary authorities for today’s belief and practice.

There is not an equal sign between modern Heathenry and pre-Christian Germanic polytheism of the Long-Ago Time. Academic work on one does not necessarily transfer onto the other. A medievalist’s theory regarding the portrayal of women in mythical poetry of medieval Iceland is interesting. It’s fascinating. It can provide us with insights into ways in which male poets of that particular time and place portrayed idealized or stereotyped images of women on the mythic level. It can enrich our understanding of the changing status of women on the island during the age of conversion. But to use this sort of literary study to determine the nature of one’s experience of deity in the wider twenty-first-century world is a very strange thing.
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15 Lindow, back cover.
16 Ibid., 38.

Scholarship versus experience

There is a strong division drawn by many Heathens between secular scholarship on one hand and unverified personal gnosis on the other. Academic writing by non-practitioners is portrayed as definitive, despite the fact that there are arguments between scholars and changes in scholarly approaches over time. The ability to footnote one’s beliefs and practices by citing a passage from a publication of a university press is widely valorized in Heathen communities. Personal experience of the spiritual is often seen as (at best) something one should keep to oneself and close relations or (at worst) a bunch of nonsense that deserves the harshest public ridicule.

This portrayal of religious experience as something to be hidden and mocked is deeply problematic. Yes, if someone insisted to me that the only true Heathen belief is of Loki’s son Narfi as the light of the world and savior of mankind, and that Narfi’s mother is really Mary Magdalene, and that the one proper ritual worship is to eat burnt cat hair, all based upon a dream he had after eating a large anchovy pizza before bed, I would smile politely and back away. However, I would have a similar reaction if someone told me that she could undo a lifetime lived in modern society and consciously alter her consciousness in order to erase all of her experiences and replace her worldview and causal belief system with that of a male warrior in a first-century Germanic tribe, based upon her reading of an academic journal article illegally downloaded from Scribd.

The old mythological poems that survive are — if not written as antiquarian works — based on UPG. The old representations of mythical figures in art are — if not simply made to order — based on UPG. The religious objects found in religious settings are — if we accept the interpretations of past generations of archaeologists that they are indeed driven by religious belief — based on UPG. Religious experience cannot, by definition, be verified. Some may respond that past UPG became verified when it was accepted by the community and stood the test of time. However, our theoretical understanding of past Heathenry is mediated by centuries-later (sometimes hostile) Christian writers and millennia-later (sometimes hostile) secular scholars, which makes it quite difficult to definitely know exactly what specific UPG was accepted by what community. As for standing the test of time, we wouldn’t need to discuss any of this if ancient Heathenry had not disappeared as a set of public religions.

In any case, to assert that the supposed beliefs of the past are somehow verified is to go against the very academic system that is cited for support. Interpretations and explanations of the textual and material sources change with the generations. Compare the old scholarly works insisting that every myth is really about the return of the sun to new scholarship insisting that the trolls of lore are really racist representations of the Sámi people. The idea of changing one’s religious belief and practice with every new theory published is simply bizarre and, in fact, not what is done; practitioners hold on to the scholarly works that they feel reflect something real and authentic, even if they have long been rejected as spurious by subsequent scholars. A case in point is Hilda Roderick Ellis Davidson, whose 1940 PhD thesis and 1964 non-academic introduction to Norse mythology continue to be regularly cited by Heathens long after being dropped from academic use.

Valorizing past religious experiences as more valid than present ones fetishizes the past in a way that it is hard to imagine those living then would have themselves done. Literary and material evidence suggests that beliefs and practices changed greatly over time, even in a specific location. New ways arose, whether from outside pressure, internal dissent, spiritual experience, or any of a host of unknowable causes. An argument can be made that we must have a different relationship to past Heathenry, given the long centuries without public practice of Germanic paganism. I am not challenging this idea but rather the privileging of theoretical reconstruction of past religious experiences over those of today’s living religions.

The very distinction that is made between academic sources and modern UPG sets up a dichotomy that unfairly favors secular academia as authoritative in a way that denigrates actual religious experience. Those who champion scholarly authority parody anyone who disagrees with their own positions as hopelessly unintellectual and goofily mystical. Those who question the hegemony of outside scholarship and insist on their own personal experience fight a losing battle that is not helped by the prevalence of the most extreme visionary claims in the online world. Posting on social media that “Loki loves me! This is know, for he manifested as Tom Hiddleston in my shower, held me close, sang me a Nickelback song, and told me so,” then calling anyone who questions your reliability a Nazi is not forwarding the cause of serious engagement with the numinous.

A path forward

There is another way. We can respect academics for their diligent scholarship and learn from what they write without treating their work as cudgels with which to beat down those whose views don’t line up with our own individual and idiosyncratic positions within Heathenry. We can accept that religious experiences today are not different in kind from those of the past and resist lumping in anyone who speaks from the heart with the most outrageous elements of online testimonials.

To find a new path, we can choose to avoid the false opposition of academia-as-authority and experience-as-nonsense and instead turn to public theology of Heathenry. We can create deep, thorough, passionate, quality work that combines the best of what we have learned from the secular academics with the most powerful of personal experiences as we address the important issues of contemporary life.

Rigor of study and depth of experience are not mutually exclusive. We must incorporate both as we create modern theology. What I am suggesting is a deep engagement by Heathens with both scholarship and experience that leads to a rich body of works that exist in fruitful dialogue with each other and with the world in which we live. If we truly are a world-affirming and not a world-denying religion, we must affirm the world. We must engage with events and discourse in and across the societies we inhabit. Feminists long ago taught us that the personal is political. I would turn this dyad into a triad and assert that the personal, political, and religious are inextricably linked, whether we wish them to be or not.

Heathens on the extreme-right fringe are already engaging in the conflicts of our times and have been doing so for quite a while. As Heathens of positive intent, we are disgusted by the mutual embrace between white nationalist Heathens and the latest version of neo-Nazis. However, these are the people determining the interface between Heathenry and the larger society. These are the people interviewed by journalists, featured in media reports, and covered by academics. These are the people who our non-Heathen friends and colleagues see and read about. These are the people who are the public face of Heathenry.

By repeatedly reacting to them, we allow them to set the parameters of public discussion. Yes, we must denounce their hateful statements and actions and insist that they do not represent the mainstream majority of worldwide Heathens, but we are in danger of becoming mere footnotes and allowing the extremists to become the main story of modern Heathenry.

As I alluded to earlier, the distinction I have been making between scholarly and experiential writing in Heathenry is not really so distinct. Much excellent work has been done that bridges these approaches. The massive two-volume edition of Our Troth – composed collaboratively by members of the Troth – brings together a wide variety of Heathen authors from a multiplicity of perspectives as it bridges the scholarly and the spiritual. Sacred Gifts by Kirk S. Thomas may be written by a Druid, but it is greatly valued by many Heathens and is a model of combining dedicated research of primary and secondary sources with an open discussion of personal religious experience and spiritual insight.

However, what these and other excellent texts have in common is that both the academic and experiential streams are funneled into the cauldron of religious belief and religious ritual. We study ancient texts to understand concepts of deity, we meditate in order to learn how to address the gods, and so on. A living religion needs these things. It needs a connection to tradition and community. It needs an understanding that is both intellectual and spiritual.

What I am suggesting is that it also needs something more.

A new Ásatrú theology

Jörmundur Ingi Hansen once said of Icelandic Ásatrú, “The behavior of people within society is absolutely the same as within the religion. You have to be consistent in your beliefs, so you don’t believe one thing during the week and then switch over and believe something entirely different on Sunday.”17 If you agree with this – and I do – the question arises of how our beliefs affect our behavior in society. If we are not to imitate Sunday-only Christians and be blót-only Heathens, we must ask how the beliefs we hold and the rituals we practice affect the other elements of our lives.

Catholic religion journalist Kenneth L. Woodward writes that what drew him to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel “was the understanding we shared of religion as hallowing the everyday,” the idea that Jews “are called to ‘sanctify time’ through daily prayer, observance of the Sabbath, and prophetic witness.”18 As Heathens, we have our own forms of prayer and holy days, but we are missing the element of prophetic witness in the sense of speaking truth to power. For me, this is something that fits with the theology of Thor, the god who stands against the serpent who threatens the world, even though it means his own destruction. It fits with the theology of the Seeress, the wise woman who addresses the revelation of her grand vision of past, present, and future to all the children of Heimdall, to all humanity. It is time for us to stand up and for us to address the world.

Decades ago, the progressive Catholic theologians of Latin America created Liberation Theology “in response to Vatican Council II’s declaration that the church should immerse itself in the problems of the world.”19 With their incredible dedication to fighting for the common folk against their oppressors, the Liberation Theologians went too far for the pope and were publicly censured by him. Heathens are already immersed in the problems of this world. The very existence of this conference shows that we are. Let us learn from the brave Liberation Theologians, many of them martyrs for liberty, and let our knowledge of lore, our study of scholarship, our living of ritual, our experience of the divine, and our love of this world guide us to create a new theology that engages with the important issues of our time.

The basic form of this theology can be simple: identify an issue, discuss it in the context of a Heathen worldview, and offer a path forward based on Heathen ideals. If Heathenry in all its forms is truly unique and fundamentally different from the dominant world religions that have for so long determined the course of world events, we should be able to offer new perspectives and solutions. We have all been transformed by our practice. I believe this transformation gives us insights into today’s events that are valuable and deserve to be heard – not just by other Heathens, but by all the children of Heimdall.

A small group can make a large impact. The twelve men and women who met at Reykjavík’s Hotel Borg in 1972 began a modern religious movement that now has followers of its various forms in ninety-eight countries. If only a few of us agree to write in this new mode of Heathen theology, we can make positive changes in the wider world.

I hereby offer to serve as editor for the first international anthology of the public theology of Heathenry. I welcome all who practice an inclusive form of Heathenry to contribute to this project. I invite those who want to write an essay or already have written one that fits this model to contact me. I will work to gather a collection of writings on a variety of issues from a multiplicity of perspectives from a range of locations. I am willing to work with writers to get their essays into a proper format, and I am willing to find a publisher who can really get this work to the wider public.

We came here to Germany to build frith and to build bridges. Let us now work together to make a positive impact on this world that we affirm in our hearts and with our deeds. Hail to the frith-weavers and hail to those who stand against the serpent, for we deeply need those who work for peace and those who resist the forces of darkness.
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17 NextTV, “Asatru in Iceland,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u1nI1qA9zJQ.
18 Woodward, 188.
19 Ibid., 198.

Bibliography

Bellows, Henry Adams, trans. The Poetic Edda. New York: American-Scandinavian Foundation, 1923.

Brown, Stephen F. “Medieval Theology.” In The Blackwell Companion to Modern Theology, 133-146. Edited by Gareth Jones. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.

Cancik, Hubert and Hildegard Cancik-Lindemaier. “The Truth of Images: Cicero and Varro on Image Worship.” In Representation in Religion: Studies in Honor of Moshe Barasch, 43-62. Edited by Jan Assmann and Albert I. Baumgarten. Leiden: Brill, 2000.

Durkin, Philip. The Oxford Guide to Etymology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Flowers, Stephen (as Edred Thorsson). Runelore: A Handbook of Esoteric Runology. San Francisco: Weiser Books, 1987.

Harvey, Van A. A Handbook of Theological Terms. New York: Touchstone, 1992.

Kim, Sebastian. “Editorial.” International Journal of Public Theology 1 (2007), 1-4.

Lafayllve, Patricia M. A Practical Heathen’s Guide to Asatru. Woodbury, Minnesota: Llewellyn Publications, 2013.

Lindow, John. Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

McNallen, Stephen A. Asatru: A Native European Spirituality. USA: Runestone Press, 2015.

Paxson, Diana. Essential Ásatrú: Walking the Path of Norse Paganism. New York: Citadel Press, 2006.

Schreiwer, Robert and Ammerili Eckhart. A Dictionary of Urglaawe Terminology. Published by the authors, 2012.

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

Woodward, Kenneth L. Getting Religion: Faith, Culture, and Politics from the Age of Eisenhower to the Era of Obama. New York: Convergent Books, 2016.

Some parts of this paper appeared in an earlier version at The Wild Hunt.
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