Friday, March 9, 2018

Another High School Student Asks About Norse Mythology and Norse Religion, Part Two

Click here for Part One.

Do you feel that any modern persons could sacrifice themselves to such an extent as Odin did to gain knowledge?

Yes, and they often do. In one myth, Odin gives up an eye in order to drink from the Well of Wisdom. In another myth, he stabs himself with a spear and hangs himself on the World Tree, sacrificing himself to himself. He peers into the depths of death, falling back into the world of the living but bringing the wisdom of the runes back with him for the benefit of gods and humans. In both myths, he does great violence to himself in order to gain great wisdom. What does this have to do with modern people?

Emil Doepler's illustration of Odin hanging on the World Tree (1905)

If you watched the Olympics that just finished, you heard the stories of Lindsey Vonn, Shaun White, and many others who were horrifically injured as they pursued their dreams of standing at the top of their sports – dreams that their perseverance and force of will in the face of grievous bodily harm enabled them to make real. How many boxers and football players have sustained incredible damage during competition, only to battle back and become great champions? How many of them have traded brain damage for accomplishment on the field and in the ring? The sacrificing of self is a common factor among the all-time greats of multiple sports.

Yet this isn’t simply something that only athletes do. Musicians spend long years practicing for long hours each day, building their technical and artistic skills yet also creating joint and muscle pain that can become debilitating later in life. If you attend a professional orchestra rehearsal, you’ll see oboe players wearing gloves with the fingers cut off, violinists with wrist braces, and bass players stretching against the wall during breaks. Gaining knowledge and ability in the musical world regularly requires physical sacrifices, even though music educators and entertainers do not often discuss them.

But is the myth of Odin’s self-sacrifice actually about physical pain? Earlier, I mentioned Ricœur’s idea of myths being narratives in which symbols interact. Like any myth, this story of Odin has layers deeper than those at the superficial level of plot action. I’ve been asked several times by students and readers which of Odin’s two eyes was sacrificed, the left or the right? I honestly don’t think it matters. Myth doesn’t operate at the level of the everyday and ordinary. Odin didn’t have to go to the emergency room and get medical treatment after plucking out his own eye or after stabbing and hanging himself. Myth is about bigger things.

If we agree with Ricœur’s theory, then we have to ask what Odin symbolizes. His name is related to words for frenzy, fury, possession, poetry, and seeing. That’s already a wide range of symbolic meanings, before we even begin to examine the more than 150 other names under which he appears in the Old Norse sources. Which of these meanings are meaningful to you? What matters so much to you that you are willing to sacrifice some part of yourself in order to gain or achieve it? I don’t mean cutting out an eye or lopping off a body part. A dedicated author, engineer, or educator can dedicate their time to their profession and cut out time with her loved ones. The older I get, the more I believe that losing unrecoverable time with your loved ones can be as painful a sacrifice as that described in the myth.

What do you think we could learn from Norse culture and beliefs?

I’m not sure that I buy into the common idea that ancient religious texts are repositories of spiritual wisdom that can teach eternal truths to modern people, but I do believe that seriously engaging with older mythology and poetry can stimulate us to think about our own lives and our own world in interesting ways. One of the first meaningful moments in my own reading of the Norse material was when I first read this verse from Hávamál (“Sayings of the High One”), in which Odin talks about insomnia:
The stupid man stays awake all night
and worries about everything;
he’s tired out when the morning comes
and all’s just as bad as it was.
Although it’s not fun to be called stupid by a Norse god, I have to admit that I’ve spent many nights in my life staring at the ceiling and worrying about everything from school projects to the eternal void of non-being in death. Odin is absolutely right that nothing is accomplished by this, other than being exhausted the next day.

Odin by Eleanor Dawn Schnarr, second place in Midwinter 2013 Art Contest

Reading this verse, I didn’t think that I had discovered some mystical ancient wisdom that the old ones had passed down through the centuries to grant me enlightenment. What was meaningful to me was realizing that a poet over one thousand years ago was thinking about the same things I was, that people in the long ago time also stared into the darkness in the nighttime hours and were unable to sleep. It wasn’t a quest for answers that drew me to Norse mythology but a realization that these people had so long ago asked the same questions that some of us do today.

There are many other things in Norse mythology and poetry that modern people can find meaningful. Probably the most famous verse in the same Odin poem is this:
Cattle die, kinsmen die,
the self must also die;
but the glory of reputation never dies,
for the man who can get himself a good one.
One way to read this verse is as promoting the idea that “we are our deeds.” Everything dies eventually, even the self itself. What lives on is not an immortal soul that dances in heaven but the deeds one does in life, which live on in the memories of the living. Reading the Old Norse poem this way can be supported by comparing the verse to an incredibly similar one in the Old English poem known as The Wanderer:
Here wealth is temporary, here a friend is temporary,
here oneself is temporary, here a kinsman is temporary;
all the foundation of the earth will become worthless!
Two pairs of Old Norse and Old English words in these verses are related: /feoh (“cattle”/“wealth”) and frændr/frēond (“kinsmen”/“friend”). Even in translation, the verses are clearly parallel. The message of the endings of each verse, however, are quite different. The Old Norse poem responds to a recognition of the finite nature of life by insisting that deeds in this world are what matter, that – as in the other verse discussed earlier – you shouldn’t lay awake at night worrying about what happens after you die; your actions in this life are what truly matter to those around you. The Old English poem responds to the same realization of mortality by denigrating the worth of the world itself and suggesting that the afterlife is all that truly matters; this is made explicit in the conclusion of the poem, which is written from a medieval Christian worldview.

What is there to learn here? For one thing, if this reading is correct, it suggests that there were real and fundamental differences between the worldviews of Norse polytheism and Christian monotheism. Not just in the number of gods, but in the nature of the individual’s relationship to life and to the world. Is the meaning of life to be found in its living, or is earthly existence just a worthless sojourn before eternal bliss? Again, this isn’t so much about finding answers in these old poems, but about asking questions with them and reflecting on what answers may be meaningful.

What is something often mistaken or debated about Norse mythology?

I know that I just answered your previous question by talking about death, but I really do think that the notion that Norse mythology and religion are dark, doomy, and depressing is a mistaken one. For example, the verse from the Odin poem about an individual’s reputation living on after the person dies is, I think, a hopeful one. It suggests that living your life has meaning and value, that what you do during your years on earth is absolutely not worthless – as the Old English poet insists – but that your deeds will live on and your life really does matter. To me, that is the opposite of gloomy. It is a powerful statement of the deep value of all life and all lives.

This recognition of life’s worth runs through the Norse myths. The myth of Ragnarök (“doom of the powers”) – which tells of the gods facing off against the giants and their allies in the final battle – is often portrayed as a grim celebration of violence. When the myth is invoked by Viking metal bands and comic book artists, however, they usually leave off the ending of the story in which the earth rises a second time from the waters, green with new life, and the gods who survive the battle celebrate the lives of those who did not. As Odin says, “the glory of reputation never dies.” The gods are not defined by how they died, but how they lived.

Emil Doepler's illustration of the new world after Ragnarök (1905)

In the distant future after the cataclysm, the bright god Baldr will return from the realm of Hel and forgive the blind god Höðr, who had earlier killed him at the instigation of Loki. While remembering the deeds of the departed, the gods will live in a new golden age in which their children will prosper – including the two sons of Thor, who now carry his hammer Mjölnir. New crops will grow, new settlements will be built, and the young gods will rediscover the games played by the first gods in the earliest days at the other end of the mythic timeline. What does this all mean?

Against the idea that Norse myth all leads up to a bloody battle, I argue that what it really leads to is this, to a bright and beautiful future in some distant time. Yes, you and I will die. Our children will die. But we will also live, and our children will live, and our children’s children will live. Immortality is in the continuing line of life and memory. Some day, far in the future, maybe some distant descendant of yours will find something you left behind – a poem, a building, a cure for cancer – and will wonder about you with the same beautiful melancholy that I think is expressed in the post-Ragnarök myth.

As with any mythological system, people pick and choose the bits that reflect their own conceptions and prejudices. I’ve enjoyed listening to Amon Amarth’s songs about the final battle of gods and giants, and I loved the Thor: Ragnarok movie (which admittedly had more to do with Planet Hulk than Norse mythology). But for me, the real power of the myths is the sense within them that life is worth living, that deeds matter, and that new beauty will arise from the ashes of destruction. There is so much beauty in the myths: the goddess Freyja flying in her cloak of falcon feathers, Thor taking children with him on his epic adventures, and the gods bringing the first humans to life from the stuff of trees. I hope that you can find the wonders that I see in these tales of long ago.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Another High School Student Asks About Norse Mythology and Norse Religion, Part One

I regularly receive emails from students of various ages asking to interview me about Norse mythology and Norse religion for their class projects. These requests come too often for me to answer them all, but I have answered the questions of five inquisitive young people over the last seven years. Today, I’m posting my answers to a sixth student.

In 2011, I answered a series of questions from a high school student. In 2012, I wrote replies to a middle school student. I was interviewed by one sixth grader in 2013 and another in 2014. My answers for a college student were written in 2016. This new pair of posts features my answers to the first high school student since the very first entry in this series. You can find all of the previous interviews in the For Students section of The Norse Mythology Blog Archive.

Heritage High School in Vancouver, Washington

Rachel Carpenter is a junior at Heritage High School in Vancouver, Washington. She’s currently taking the Advanced Placement Language and Composition course taught by Mr. Nathaniel Messer, who writes:
Students in my class are currently researching topics that they are passionate about in order to write a lengthy research paper. One of their requirements is to interview somebody who is an expert in the field of their interest. This is a rich learning experience for my students, and it is much more meaningful when it extends beyond the high school walls.
Rachel read my past student interviews and then sent me nine questions. Rather than write superficial answers to all of them, I decided to answer five in detail. There’s so much more to say on all the topics that Rachel broached in her interview questions, and I hope that the answers I’m able to provide will be interesting to her and will encourage others to explore this enormous and fascinating subject.

What is your area of specialty?

Studying, teaching, and writing about Norse mythology are the roots of what I do, but the tree has many branches. Myths are the traditional stories that give narrative form to the symbols, beliefs, values, practices, and understandings of the world that are important to the community that tells them, and they are therefore an integral part of the religious culture that gave rise to them. So I also study Norse religion, the wider world of Germanic polytheism, and the even broader area of Indo-European religions.

Germanic doesn’t mean German, but refers to the various peoples that speak Germanic languages such as German, English, Icelandic, Norwegian, and so on. Before Northern Europe’s conversion to Christianity, there were multiple forms of polytheistic religion throughout this large region over a great expanse of time. There seem to have been mythological and religious concepts that were common over parts of this area and era, but there was also a very wide variety of beliefs and practices. There was a Thor in Iceland, a Thunor in England, and a Donar in Germany. Part of the fun of this field is trying to figure out what these figures had in common and how they differed.

The term Indo-European refers to a wider set of languages and peoples of which Germanic is just one branch. The Indo-European family tree also includes language groups such as Celtic, Hellenic, Indic, Iranian, Romance, and Slavic. Along with the connections in language, there are connections in cultural and religious ideas. Similar myths, concepts, and rituals appear in Norse, Greek, and Hindu religious systems. There are amazing parallels between the myths of medieval Iceland and those of ancient India, for example. The field of comparative mythology can wander into some strange alleys, but here is much to be learned by studying these related traditions.

Family tree of Indo-European and Uralic languages by Minna Sundberg

Although I am fascinated and entranced by these other traditions, I always come back to my roots in Norse mythology. These are the myths that speak most deeply to me at a personal and spiritual level. I didn’t make a conscious choice to center on this mythology. The first time I read the Norse myths retold by the Irish poet Padraic Colum in his book Children of Odin, I immediately felt that I knew the gods, goddesses, and other figures of the tales. I saw my father in Odin and my grandfather in Thor. The myths seemed much more than merely grand tales of adventure – although they are that! From my perspective, they expressed a worldview that I already held.

So, whether I am composing columns about current events, authoring academic articles on Hinduism, teaching classes about J.R.R. Tolkien, lecturing on the operas of Richard Wagner, or training high school teachers how to teach Beowulf, the Norse myths are never far from my mind. I’m lucky enough to be able to have a specialty that I truly love.

Why do you think Norse mythology may be popular today?

I think there are as many reasons as there are people who are attracted to the myths. Mythology is a malleable and multiform thing. Myths are retold and reinterpreted across the generations and throughout the world. Three people can tell the same story and emphasize three different meanings. Nine people can read a single tale and give it nine different interpretations. I think we have to resist a fundamentalist tendency that leads some people to insist that they know what a given myth “really means.”

The philosopher Paul Ricœur wrote about myths as spaces in which symbols interact in narrative form. What does Thor represent? What does Odin represent? What does it mean when they face each other across a river and trade detailed insults, as they do in the poem Hárbarðsljóð (“Song of Graybeard”)? The most respected academics in the field of Old Norse studies have long disagreed about the meanings that underlie this and other mythological poems of medieval Iceland. If you include the views of non-academic readers, there is an even larger number of interpretations.

W.G. Collingwood's 1908 illustration of Thor and Odin in Hárbarðsljóð

I am not saying that anything goes, that myths can mean absolutely anything. I believe that the person who really wants to dig into Norse mythology (or any mythology) should learn as much as she can about the myths – who likely composed them, why they may have been composed, who wrote them down, why they were written down, what the historical and cultural situations were in which they were told and preserved, how they relate to religious beliefs and rituals, and so on. Part of both the problem and the fun of this field is that the evidence can be interpreted in different ways. I’m arguing for informed interpretation, for being able to read the myths in a way that makes sense within their long and complicated histories.

But we are not all academics, and we are not all scholars. The world would be a boring place if we were! There have been generations of brilliant retellings and reinterpretations of the myths by poets, painters, authors, and artists. Some, like Padraic Colum and Neil Gaiman, stay very close to the recorded sources from Iceland and basically repackage the existing tales in modern language. Others, like Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, place the figures of myth in radically different narrative settings. Still others, like J.R.R. Tolkien and the fantasy writers that followed him, use elements of the mythology in such transformed form that much of their audience is completely unaware of the sources.

I suppose my answer to your question is that Norse mythology continues to be so popular today because it can be endlessly retold and reshaped to fit an enormous variety of settings and situations. This is true of mythology in general. There is a current fascination with Vikings in popular culture that already seems to be on the wane. Twenty years ago the obsession was with all things Celtic. I’m willing to bet that the Norse and Viking trends will soon give way to another ancient mythology being the center of popular culture. Maybe it will be middle-eastern myth. It’s been nearly eighty years since The Thief of Baghdad played in movie theaters. There are many other tales in One Thousand and One Nights waiting to be retold for new audiences.

To be continued in Part Two.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Remember the Shield-maidens

Last June, Jade Pichette started the #HavamalWitches hashtag on Facebook. Her explanatory post referenced the Old Norse poem Hávamál (“Sayings of the High One”) and was addressed to women who practice Ásatrú and Heathenry, modern iterations of Germanic polytheism. She called upon her audience to share their experiences of sexism within their religious communities:
So a hashtag #HavamalWitches has started to critique sexism in the Heathen community. Overall the women and femmes in the Heathen community have put up with a lot of sexism and this is basically us letting off steam and making transparent what we experience. It references the fact in the Havamal there are some really sexist stanzas so we are the Witches the Havamal warns you about. If you have posts to make please do, and if you are comfortable feel free to do so publicly.
As so often happens, the hashtag was quickly hijacked by straight white men who questioned the women’s knowledge of poetry, mythology, and history; who challenged the veracity of their testimonials of personal experience; who denied that misogyny and sexism exist within their own communities; and/or who insisted that men are the ones who are really discriminated against.

Of course, #NotAllMen acted like this. Some jumped in to support the women and argue with the trollish types. I followed one long Facebook thread that was completely swamped by men fighting each other. Despite the good intentions of the anti-troll brigade, the fact remains that men on both sides took over a hashtag asking women to share their experiences with sexism.

Man vs. Woman by Clauss Pflieger (1459)

This was not a unique happening. Over and over again, we see public online dialogue between women interrupted and dominated by men. This happens whether the initial posts are critical or celebratory.

Last May, men’s rights activist types were furious when the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin announced women-only screenings of the new Wonder Woman film “for one special night.” As with the #HavamalWitches thread, the nastiness of the reaction proved exactly the point being made – in this case, that women just maybe might enjoy one single evening of their lives celebrating and enjoying a female hero for a couple of hours without a chorus of condescension from male companions. For the men’s online chorus, this was absolutely and utterly unacceptable.

Last July, the announcement by the BBC that Jodie Whittaker would be the thirteenth actor to play the lead role on Doctor Who (not counting John Hurt and other special cases) caused such a flurry of fury from men with opinions about women that some people began playing “13th Doctor Casting Comments Bingo,” collecting the completely predictable predictions of disaster and outraged declarations of wounded male pride that flooded social media.

Last October, the #MeToo hashtag on social media began as a platform for women to share experiences of sexual harassment and assault in order to show how common these acts are. Since then, a social movement has grown and outed many high-profile men for (often serial) sexual misconduct. Predictably, there has been a strong backlash from powerful figures in politics and the media, and denunciations of a supposed “witch hunt” have been forwarded to defend men accused and to discredit victims of their assaults. Given that new revelations appear almost daily and that not one of the prominent men accused (including the president of the United States) has yet gone to jail for sexual assault, it seems absurd to claim that #MeToo has gone too far.

Ásatrú and Heathenry have long struggled with a very vocal minority of practitioners who espouse racist beliefs. There is an incredibly strong stance in the mainstream of the religious communities against such extremism. Sexism, however, is a more insidious force. Heathen women have shared their experiences with sexist attitudes, behaviors, and statements even in organizations that are outspoken on issues of inclusion.

“On a Whirling Wheel”

When faced with divisive issues, Heathens often turn to their hoard of inherited mythology, poetry, saga, and historical accounts, supplemented by academic works both fresh and dusty. What insights into sexism, misogyny, and the social roles of women can we gain from such a turn to the past?

Hávamál, the medieval Icelandic poem cited in the #HavamalWitches hashtag, purports to be in the voice of Odin. It does have some strikingly sexist stanzas:
84. A maiden’s words must no man trust,
nor what a woman says,
for on a whirling wheel
were hearts fashioned for them
and fickleness fixed in their breast.

90. So the loving of women –
those who think in lies –
is just like driving a horse smooth-shod
over skidding ice
– a lively two-year-old,
and badly trained –
or in a mad wind maneuvering a rudderless boat –
or like a lame man having to reach
a reindeer on a thawing hillside on skis.
The poem’s presentation of gender roles isn’t all one way, however. The speaker is also critical of male behavior towards women:
91. I now state a bare fact
– for I know both sexes –
men’s devotion to women is not dependable.
We speak fairest words
when we foster slyest thoughts –
that deceives a delicate mind.
This multivalence of views also appears elsewhere in the Poetic Edda, the collection of Icelandic poems largely found in the Codex Regius (“Royal Book”) manuscript of c. 1270 that includes Hávamál.

In Lokasenna (“Loki’s Quarrel”), many of the goddesses speak out against the belligerently sexist verbal assaults of Loki. Nearly as many women as men speak in the poem, and their responses are equally proud and powerful.

In Völuspá (“Prophecy of the Seeress”), it is a female voice (or set of voices) that speaks of what has been, is, and will be. The audience is all of humankind – “the offspring of Heimdall” – and even the wisdom-drinking patriarch Odin himself must bring gifts and plead with the wise woman to share some of her vast store of knowledge.

The Seeress and Odin by Emil Doepler (1905)

However, side by side with these portrayals of powerful women, the Poetic Edda presents pictures of stark sexual violence. The poem Skírnismál ("Sayings of the Shining One") provides a notorious example. After the giantess Gerd (“Yard”) repeatedly refuses to leave her home and marry the god Frey (“Lord”) – who may have killed her brother – his messenger threatens her with beheading, killing her father, magical domination, starvation, social ostracism, and a host of other horrors culminating in sexual slavery:
35. Hrímgrímnir [“Frost-Masked”] the ogre is called
who will have you
down below the corpse pens:
let serfs there
at the tree’s roots
serve you goats’ urine.
Grander drink
you will never get,
girl – to meet your wishes,
girl – to meet my wishes!
In Hárbarðsljóð (“Song of Graybeard”), the one thing that the quarreling Thor and Odin (in disguise as Harbard, “Graybeard”) agree upon is how enjoyable it would be to commit rape together:
Thor: You had good dealings with the girl there.

Harbard: I could have done with your help, Thor,
to hold the linen-white girl.

Thor: I’d have helped you with that, if I could have managed it.

Harbard: I’d have trusted you then, if you didn’t betray my trust.
The same balance between inspiring portrayals of powerful women and sickening celebrations of sexual assault appear in prose sources. For every brave heroine, there is a violated victim of violence.

On one hand, there are the strong women of the Icelandic sagas such as the poet Steinvora. She confronts the Saxon missionary Thangbrand, proudly preaches paganism to him, boasts that Christ was afraid to accept Thor’s challenge of single combat, and sings verses gloating that her god demolished the priest’s ship.

On the other hand, there are reports of extremely violent sexual assault. The Arab chronicler Ibn Fạdlān tells the grisly tale of a slave girl who, after she is “befuddled” with alcohol, is raped by six men before being stabbed and strangled to death beside the decaying corpse of her dead master.

“A Decay of Her Honour”

Perhaps it is time for today’s Heathens to embrace the fact that they are part of a new religious movement (NRM) founded 45 years ago. Whatever subset of Heathenry practitioners practice, the beginnings of their praxis date to the first meeting of what would become the Ásatrúarfélagið (“Ásatrú Fellowship”) at the Hotel Borg in Reykjavík on April 20, 1972.

Although historical heathenry has roots that go back 4,000 years to shadowy origins in the Bronze Age of Northern Europe, modern practice follows in the footsteps of that fateful day when a dozen visionaries gathered in Iceland to revive the old way. What that small group began has now grown into a cluster of religions found in nearly 100 countries.

Despite declarations and denials from various subsets of Heathenry, these are not ancient religions that are practiced today but rather a set of overlapping new religious movements that revive, reconstruct, and reimagine ancient Germanic polytheism using elements gathered from a great variety of sources on long-ago beliefs and practices. We study and learn as much as we possibly can about the olden times, but we cannot escape the fact that we are citizens of modern nation-states who live in the twenty-first century and self-consciously practice post-1972 traditions.

As members of modern religions, we are not bound by holy writ. The poems of medieval Iceland are intense and inspiring, but they are not divine commandments of belief and behavior. They are religio-cultural products of a specific segment of a specific population at a specific time in a specific location, and they reflect the assumptions and prejudices of those people then and there.

Codex Regius stands behind Flateyjarbók ("Flat Island Book")

The fact that the poems contain conflicting views of women underscores their human and non-definitive nature. There was disagreement then, as there is now. No single, pure, and dogmatic heathen worldview waits to be unearthed by studious spelunking through the sources. To the contrary, the fact that there is a vast variety of views is something that can push us to accept diversity within and between our own communities.

This diversity of views can also be found in professional scholarship. For every Jenny Jochens carefully parsing medieval sagas and law codes for evidence of women’s roles in Old Norse society, there is a Vilhelm Grønbech celebrating the honorable “Germanic standard” of killing one’s own daughter for having sex outside of marriage, in order to save the family from “the danger arising from a decay of her honour.” Like all of us, academics allow their own worldviews to shape their views of the past, and the result is a set of widely divergent analyses of the same materials.

Commitment to Community

If ancient sources and modern academia alike present us with conflicting ideas about women’s roles and rights, maybe we should simply recognize that views of gender and sexuality are — like those of race and ethnicity — changeable concepts that evolve over time.

We are modern people with access to amounts of information that were unimaginable even a decade or two ago. There is nothing to prevent us from being mindful members of society rather than slavish historical re-enactors.

We shouldn’t need to recite poetic verses or cite academic sources to convince men that women are people. We should all respect women as individuals and honor their input, because they are human beings with identities and agency. Period. This shouldn’t need to be spelled out, but it apparently must.

Frey ("Lord") and Freya ("Lady") by Donn P. Crane (1920)

It is possible for positive change to occur. Straight white men have to internalize the fact that they will not always be the authoritative voices and centers of attention. They have to understand that, in some situations, they need to keep their opinions to themselves and let others speak without interruption, reply, or rebuttal.

Maybe it is beyond the emotional capacity of some men today to accept that everything isn’t for them. As time goes on, these men will become increasingly marginalized as relics of a bygone era. Hopefully, they will at least find the self-restraint to refrain from committing the violent acts that they so often threaten online.

This isn’t a Heathen problem, necessarily, but it plagues Heathen communities as it does so many others. If we are proud of our commitment to community – and many of us are – let’s lead the way and work towards making our communities positive models of respectful behavior.

Sources used for this article include The Culture of the Teutons (Grønbech, trans. Worster), “Ibn Fạdlān and the Rūsiyyah” (Montgomery), The Poetic Edda (trans. Dronke, Larrington), The Story of Burnt Njal (trans. Dasent).

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

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.
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