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.
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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.
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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.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Haters of Gold and Keepers of Bread

The world is undergoing a crisis of leadership. We are again experiencing a situation like that described by W.B. Yeats in 1919, in which “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

Every day brings new revelations of unchecked greed and deep corruption at the highest levels of power. Those who were elected to lead us are more invested in their own interests than in the prosperity of the people. Those who were chosen to defend us seem powerless to stop the rampage of the oath-breakers.

What is a leader? What does it mean to rule over others? The lore of Ásatrú and Heathenry provide some possible answers.

Haters of Gold

With his famous poem Höfuðlausn (“Head Ransom”), the tenth-century Icelander Egill Skallagrímsson won his freedom from Eiríkr blóðøx (Eric Bloodaxe) by singing the praises of the Norwegian ruler. As he flatters the king, Egill notably calls him baugskati: “one who breaks, throws, hates gold.”

Silver penny with the mark of Eiríkr blóðøx

The idea of a leader being a “hater of gold” is common throughout Old Norse poetry. The 11th-century Icelandic poet Þjóðólfr Arnórsson calls the Norwegian king Haraldr harðráði “hater of the fire-bed of the serpent.” As always, this sort of poetic circumlocution must be solved from back to front. The serpent is the dragon; his bed is the gold that shines like fire as he coils upon it; the hater of gold is the ruler.

In a poem praising the military commander Arinbjörn, Egill writes:
The man in Fjordane
shows money no love:
he banishes rings
that drip like fruit,
defies the ring-clad
verse-brew’s thief,
hacks treasures in half,
imperils brooches.
The thief of the verse-brew is Odin, who steals the mead of poetry; his ring Draupnir (“Dripper”) drips out eight gold rings on every ninth night. In this verse, Egill says that Arinbjörn defies any collecting of wealth and instead destroys treasure.

How the treasure is destroyed is the important element here. To banish rings is to give them to one’s followers. To hack treasures in half is to cut gold objects apart and hand out the bits of precious metal. To imperil brooches is to break off the gems, cut apart the metal, and divide all among the leader’s people.

A large number of examples of this sort of imagery can be found in Old Norse poetry and saga. In Ólafs saga Tryggvasonar (“Saga of Olaf Tryggvason”), the same Eiríkr blóðøx praised by Egill is referred to as “mover of treasure” (because he gives it away) and “gladdener with fire of hands” (because he makes men happy by giving them gold, that thing that shines on one’s hand as a ring).

What is more difficult to find is any example that praises a leader for piling up wealth for himself, for collecting treasure and amassing a stockpile for his own personal benefit.

The most admirable trait for a leader, the most widely used stock epithet of praise for a ruler, is that he hates the hoarding of precious objects and instead freely shares them with his community.

Of course, this is a poetic and literary ideal, but it is an ideal. The most praiseworthy characteristic of an honored leader is that he divides all acquired wealth among those over whom he rules.

Keepers of Bread

The roots of our language often show the roots of our concepts. The modern words lord and lady are descendants of the Old English hlāfweard and hlǣfdīge. The first literally means “loaf-ward” or “bread-keeper,” the second “loaf-kneader” or “bread-maker.”

Woman making bread in a 15th-century French manuscript

In the northern world, as elsewhere on this planet, bread was both a staple food and a symbol of food in general. To be responsible for the production and distribution of bread was to be responsible for the nourishment and health of the community as a whole.

Following the evolution of the term, the modern word lord with its meaning today evolved from a sense of “bread-keeper” to “one responsible for the community” to “nobleman.” Along the way, it retained the sense that the lord was the one who saw to the well-being of all who lived on his property.

Similarly, our modern word lady evolved over time from the term meaning “bread-kneader,” the one who made and supplied food for those in her community. As with the male term lord, the female term evolved from one referring to a “maker of bread” to “one who provides for the community” to “noblewoman.” The idea of the lady providing sustenance for all remained constant.

There is less a sense of the glorious leader in these terms than there is in the more epic “hater of gold.” The lord and lady are less concerned with winning and spreading wealth than they are with protecting health.

There is also a homier feeling here. The lord and lady do not oversee the members of the war band and reward them with treasure for their service, they instead make sure that all within their lands are given the basic staples necessary to survive.

The Old English term hlāfǣta means “servant,” but its literal meaning is “loaf-eater” or “bread-eater.” In conjunction with the terms that became our lord and lady, we can see that there was a social relationship in which the local leaders were responsible for all on their land, from the closest family members to the lowest servants.

To use the terminology of the mythic poetry, the lord and lady were responsible for all classes of men: “all holy offspring, greater and lesser, the children of Heimdall.”

Today’s Leaders

What does all of this tell us about today’s leaders?

Regardless of political party, our elected officials have deep ties to the absolutely wealthiest sectors of society. There are real differences between liberals and conservatives, yet both work hard to hide exactly what shady deals they make to increase their private stores of treasure. Paid talks and tax returns alike are hidden from public view.

Illustration to a text by Baldus de Ubaldis (1327-1400)

Following this brief examination of the ideal leader in northern lore, it is clear that two of the most important characteristics are sharing wealth among the community and seeing that the basic nourishment needs of the community are met. This sounds an awful lot like the redistribution of wealth and programs for social welfare.

Before people start throwing around terms like “cultural Marxist” and “social justice warrior,” let’s try to be dispassionate about this.

The most common term of praise for a ruler among the Old Norse poets was “hater of gold” or some variant. Without a doubt, this meant that the ideal ruler handed out wealth among his followers rather than hoard it for himself.

The roots of the words lord and lady are terms meaning those who produce and share sustenance among all below them on the social scale, from family members down to the lowest servants.

If we self-identify as practitioners of Ásatrú and Heathenry, are our lives all about celebrating Viking machismo, or do we want to embrace the wider elements of worldview? If we do choose to expand beyond a religion of cartoonishly violent memes, how can we apply this worldview to our modern lives?

We can begin by looking at our leaders and asking how they measure up to the standards preserved in the lore and language.

Do our leaders place the sharing of wealth with their nation’s citizens over building their own personal treasure hoards? Do they see their core defining duty as guaranteeing that the basic nourishment of all citizens is taken care of, regardless of their social standing or income level?

If the answer to these questions is no, then we need to question what kind of a leaders we choose to elect and re-elect.

Sources used for this article include Heimskringla (trans. Finlay and Faulkes), Icelandic-English Dictionary (Cleasby and Vigfússon), The Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe (Davidson), Oxford Dictionaries, Oxford English Dictionary, and The Sagas of Icelanders (Penguin Classics).

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

Monday, June 5, 2017

Thor, the World Serpent, and What the World Needs Now

What is the point of mythology today? What purpose do tales of gods and monsters of the long ago time play in our post-postmodern world?

Any given myth within any given mythology can be read at multiple levels by multiple audiences. The Norse myths are no exception.

Children (and the young at heart) enjoy the d’Aulaires retellings of the myths with a sense of innocent wonder at the exciting strangeness of it all. Teenagers (and other bloodthirsty types) revel in the violence and gore of distant derivations such as the Vikings TV show. Heathens (and related religionists) mine the surviving Icelandic versions of the myths for keys to their reconstruction and re-imagining of belief and ritual, although some practitioners actively deny that these materials have anything to do with religion at all.

Like all myths, the Icelandic tales of Thor and the World Serpent can amaze, entertain, and inspire. In the wider picture, for the wider society, what can be made of these stories that will really make a difference in the lives of those who read them? What meaning can we find in myths of a hammer-wielding god who fights a giant snake that lies deep in the sea and encircles all lands?

Thor fights the World Serpent at the Doom of the Gods – Emil Doepler (1905)

Stories of Thor and the World Serpent

The most general understanding of any specific myth is as a story of wondrous adventure. This type of reading focuses on elements of plot (who fought whom), attributes of characters (what weapons were used), and connection to the wider mythology (what effect the fight had).

Here are the basic details of the myths, briefly told.

Adventure 1: The god Thor walks to the World of the Giants with his companion Loki and his two servant children Thialfi and Roskva. After some time, they come to the enormous stronghold of the giant known as Loki of the Outer World.

This second Loki has powerful magic of illusion and plays several visual tricks on Thor and his comrades over the course of a series of tests of their abilities. One of Thor’s challenges is to lift the second Loki’s giant cat into the air. The god grabs the feline under his belly, but no matter how high he lifts the cat, it arches its back enough that only one of its paws leaves the ground.

When the giant wizard reveals all the tricks he played on his visitors, he tells Thor:
That cat was not what it appeared to you. It was the World Serpent which lies encircling all lands, and its length was hardly enough for both its head and its tail to touch the ground. And so far did you reach up that you were not far from the sky.
Thor departs in great anger at having been fooled.

Adventure 2: Thor goes fishing with a giant named Hymir. The god uses the head of an ox as bait and manages to hook the World Serpent. He furiously struggles to pull up the snake, and (in a Paul Bunyanesque moment) he pushes his feet through the bottom of the boat and braces them on the bottom of the sea as he hauls on the line.

The struggle between the god and the serpent is so fiercely fought that “all the ancient earth was collapsing.” Just as Thor lifts his hammer and readies to kill his prey, Hymir panics and cuts his fishing line. Thor throws his hammer after the sea monster, but “the World Serpent lives still and lies in the encircling sea.”

Adventure 3: At the end of mythic time, during the cosmic battle known as the Doom of the Powers, Thor has his final encounter with the World Serpent. The god is victorious, but he only stumbles nine paces away before “he will fall to the ground, dead from the poison which the serpent will spit at him.”

Thor ready to strike the World Serpent – Jenny Nyström (1854-1946)

Meaning within the Mythology

Adventure 1 sets up Thor’s great strength and his position as dedicated adversary to the giants. Before he reveals his illusions to the god, Loki of the Outer World tells him:
Now you shall be told the truth, now you have come outside the castle, which is that if I live and can have my way, you shall never again come into it. And I swear by my faith that you never would have come into it, if I had known before that you had such great strength in you, and that you were going to bring us so close to disaster.
There were several tests set up for Thor besides the trial with the disguised World Serpent. In each one of them, only the deceptive magic of the giant prevented Thor from achieving total victory.

As in the poem “Graybeard’s Song,” in which Thor and Odin debate and insult each other, Thor is presented in direct opposition to magic users. He faces any challenge head-on, using his raw strength and hitting it with his hammer. From his perspective, magic and illusion are dishonest and used as the recurrent refuge of those who refuse to engage openly with their opponents.

Adventure 2 expands on these ideas, positing a situation in which Thor is able to face his opponent directly and engage in an open trial of strength and will, yet is still frustrated. Three main ideas are forwarded in this episode.

1. Thor is portrayed as protector and defender. In the late 10th century, the Icelandic poet Úlf Uggason told the story of Thor’s fishing trip, writing:
Fiercely flashed the brow-moons [eyes] of the friend of gods and mankind [Thor], deadly glances darting down upon the serpent.
Similar language appears in the parallel spot in the Eddic “Hymir’s Poem”:
The protector of humans, the serpent’s sole slayer, baited his hook with the ox’s head. The one whom the gods hate, the All-Lands-Girdler [the World Serpent] from below gaped wide over the hook.
The major attribute of the god is not thunder, but protection of the community. He fights to defend the worlds of gods and humans from the threatening forces outside of them.

This story clarifies the conflict between Thor and Loki of the Outer World, providing a motivation for Thor’s journey to the World of the Giants – he wishes to challenges those outside that threaten the world within. It also suggests that the image of Thor traveling with a human boy and girl is to underscore his protective role.

2. Thor is so dedicated to destroying his great enemy that he is completely oblivious to the consequences. He puts his feet through the bottom of the boat and the world collapses around him, yet he never loses focus on his fight to defeat his foe. This concept will be clarified in the next adventure.

3. As in the adventure with Loki of the Outer World, Thor can only be defeated by dishonesty and cheating. Here, Thor is seconds away from finally smashing the World Serpent with this hammer when the giant Hymir cuts his fishing line and allows the sea monster to escape. Without the intervention of the giant, Thor is fully capable of destroying the threat to the worlds he protects.

In typical fashion, Thor’s response is to throw the meddling giant overboard.

Adventure 3 takes two of these strands and follows them to their logical and emotional conclusion in the last battle of Norse mythology. In the “Prophecy of the Seeress,” Thor’s final fight with the serpent is described in cosmic, religious, and moral terms:
Then comes the glorious child of Earth [Thor], Odin’s son strides to fight the serpent. He smites in fury, shrine-guarder of the world; all warriors must abandon their homesteads. He steps nine paces, Earth’s child, exhausted, leaving slain the snake which fears no shame.
Thor’s role as protector of the world is emphasized by twice identifying him as the son of the earth goddess. He guards the world itself, but he also defends the culture of men as represented by their shrines. The religious concept of reciprocal gifting between gods and humans is suggested by the juxtaposition of the god guarding the shrines and the warriors leaving their homesteads to join him in battle.

Or do they leave their homes because the battle between Thor and the World Serpent – as in the tale of the fishing trip – tears the world itself apart? In either reading, any wall between the god and his worshipers has now broken down as they are equally affected by the destruction of the last days.

Finally, Thor is able to do battle with his great enemy without illusion or interference. As suggested by both of the preceding myths, his might is enough to destroy the serpent in open combat.

However, both of the other tales suggest that there is a near-equality of strength on both sides, that the protective force is barely stronger than the threatening force. Here, Thor does manage to slay the serpent, but he only lives long enough to take nine steps before he is overwhelmed by the poison spewed by the snake.

Thor fights the World Serpent – Lorenz Frølich (1895)

What the World Needs Now

In 1916, pragmatist philosopher John Dewey wrote, “a theory apart from an experience cannot be definitely grasped even as theory. It tends to become a mere verbal formula, a set of catchwords used to render thinking, or genuine theorizing, unnecessary and impossible.”

In 2016, I suggest a new version of his statement: “a myth apart from an action cannot be definitely grasped even as myth. It tends to become a mere written formula, a set of catchwords used to render thinking, or genuine reading, unnecessary and impossible.”

So, how do we read the myths of Thor and the World Serpent in a way that leads to action today? If Heathenry (both ancient and modern) is truly a world-affirming religion, if we truly are our deeds, how do these myths lead to action in the world?

From the above reading of the myths, here are five concepts that can be applied in our daily lives.

1. Be an adversary. Thor is willing to travel to the World of the Giants and take on any trial. Are you willing to leave your comfort zone and openly challenge those whose actions you oppose? Will you simply signal virtue with a safety pin, or will you stand up to hate like the heroes of Portland? We can’t all fight on the front lines, but we can each find some path that leads us beyond our front doors and off of Facebook.

2. Fool me once. After his trusting nature is taken advantage of by the second Loki, Thor heads straight to the sea to pull the serpent from the depths. Once you realize you’ve been played, will you head straight for the core of the corruption and call it out? Americans all along the political spectrum are furious that media and politicians of every stripe have promoted lies and misrepresentations. At what point will you brush illusion aside and focus on reality?

3. Throw the bums out. As soon as the giant Hymir thwarts his victory by cutting his fishing line, Thor throws the giant off the boat. If some supposed ally actively subverts your work, will you keep on smiling or call them out? In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote of just such fellow travelers:
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
How will you respond to those who claim to have your best interests at heart yet constantly work to undermine them? Will you throw them out or repeatedly reelect them?

4. Defend the world. Thor fights for the Earth and all who live on it. His most consistent portrayal is as the defender of the world community. We are all children of the Earth, and we are all part of what was once called – in a more hopeful (albeit patriarchal) time – the brotherhood of man. What can you do to fight for the planet as our common home? What can you do to fight for human rights? As the very ideas of protecting the Earth and the universality of human rights are openly attacked, what will you do to push back?

5. Accept the risks. Thor is willing to destroy the World Serpent even at the cost of his own life. Without taking this literally, without reading the myth as a call for suicide bombing, will you accept the repercussions of standing up for your values? From microaggressions in the classroom to retaliation in the workplace, to hate speech in the online world, will you accept that the trollish elements will rise up to oppose your positive acts – yet still perform those acts? Will you stand strong in the face of ugly opposition?

Hymir cuts Thor's fishing line – Emil Doepler (1905)

The Strength of the Gods

During the fishing trip, when Thor can finally engage in open battle with the World Serpent, he summons his ásmegin, his god-power. It is this power that enables him to grow to enormous size, to push his feet through the bottom of the boat, and to stand on the floor of the ocean as he fights above the waves.

Aside from his famous hammer, Thor also owns a magic belt and a pair of iron gloves. The belt is called megingjörð, the belt of power, and wearing it doubles his god-power. The iron gloves enable him to grasp the lightning-hammer that he uses to crush those who threaten the community of gods and humans.

If we again step out of a literal reading of the myths, we can find a contemporary meaning in this god-power that Thor summons within himself and that his mystic belt doubles. The myths themselves can inspire us and fill us with a unique power that drives us to action, and girding ourselves with their inspiration can make our commitment to act even stronger.

This is not gamma radiation that turns us into superheroes, but an internal inspiration that rises within us to strengthen our resolve to perform the acts that the world needs now. Odin may bring the Mead of Poetry that brings creativity in the arts, but Thor brings the god-power that leads to action in the world.

Why the need for iron gloves? Because the hammer that would smash the trolls burns hotly, and grasping it with bare hands would destroy the wielder. If you are ready to take up the task, be prepared to hold on.

Note: The quotes from Icelandic texts in this article have been adapted from published translations of the Edda (Anthony Faulkes), Poetic Edda (Urusla Dronke, Carolyne Larrington, Andy Orchard), and Húsdrápa (Lee M. Hollander).

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

Monday, May 8, 2017

Thor: Ragnarok and Norse Mythology


Kastalia Medrano of the online magazine Inverse recently interviewed me about the relationship of Marvel’s upcoming Thor: Ragnarok movie to the original Norse mythology. Since the brief article she wrote based on my comments largely consisted of paraphrasing my answers, she has kindly allowed me to post her questions (in bold) and my full answers here on The Norse Mythology Blog.

Is there a period where Thor is shirking the responsibility of his rightful throne and is simply wandering around being self-destructive/attempting to be anonymous?

Nope. In the major Norse myths that survive, which mainly come from the two 13th-century Icelandic texts known as the Eddas, Odin is the ruler of the gods. He has been ruler since he and his two brothers killed the first Frost Giant and made our world from the massive corpse. He will be the ruler until the destruction of this world at Ragnarök.

At that point [SPOILER ALERT], Odin dies, Thor dies, everybody dies. Well, not everybody. Two humans survive the cataclysmic battle by hiding inside the World Tree, the god Baldr returns from the world of the dead, and a few assorted secondary gods and sons of gods rule over the new world that rises up from the ruins of the old.

Ragnarok by Sam Flegal

So, there is never any idea that Thor is a young prince who will someday inherit the throne of Odin. That courtly sort of plot was imported into the mythology by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, who created the pop culture version of Thor for Marvel Comics in the 1960s.

They also imported a whole bunch of other stuff that has nothing to do with the original myths, like Loki being Thor’s adopted brother, Thor having to prove he’s worthy, and Thor’s hammer Mjölnir being so heavy that only he can lift it. Interestingly, the things that a lot of people think are the core of the Thor mythology are the exact things that were made up from whole cloth by Lee and Kirby.

There is evidence that Thor was worshiped as the central god in some areas, such as at the pagan temple of 11th-century Uppsala, Sweden. We don’t have mythic narratives of him in such a role, however – just a brief description of the imagery and rituals of the temple.

We have Icelandic narratives of Thor wandering around, but he’s definitely being destructive of others, not of himself. His main pastime (aside from eating and drinking prodigious amounts) is smiting giants. He does disguise himself as a young boy in one tale, but that’s just so he can further his mission to destroy his nemesis, the mighty World Serpent.

I wouldn’t say Thor’s destructive adventures are shirking his responsibilities, because he’s defined by his role of protecting the worlds of gods and humans from the giants, who would overrun us all if given a chance. That’s why the business in the first movie about Thor sneaking off to Jötunheim (“World of the Giants”) to smite Frost Giants against the wishes of Odin makes no sense. In the myths, that’s what he does for a living.

Does Thor fall in love with a human woman?

Nope. That’s another thing made up by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.

In the early 1960s, Marvel Comics grew out of Atlas Comics, which had published in a wide variety of genres, including medieval, science fiction, romance, and monsters. The genius of Lee and Kirby was to combine all these strands into one title. They relocated a deity from medieval Icelandic mythology to a futuristic world of gods in outer space, then brought him to earth to protect his love interest from monsters.

"Oh… that Thor! What a man!" – Daydreaming Jane Foster by Jack Kirby (1963)

Now Disney owns Marvel and keeps the genre-mixing formula going in its movies and TV shows. It’s fantastic stuff. It simply has very little to do with the original mythology.

Does anyone ever take his hammer? Is the theft related to the Ragnarök or Doomsday aspect?

There’s a great old myth about Thor’s hammer being stolen that appears in Þrymskviða (“Lay of Thrym”), an Icelandic poem written down in the 13th century. Although the gods state elsewhere that Thor’s hammer is the greatest treasure they have – because it “provided the greatest defense against Frost Giants” – this story is less apocalyptic than it is what our First Lady calls “locker room talk.”

Thor wakes up, gropes around under the sheets, and notices his hammer’s missing. Paging Dr. Freud! He turns to Loki and says his hammer’s been stolen. Yes, he turns to Loki after he wakes up, not to his wife Sif. Hmm.

Loki borrows the goddess Freya’s magic cloak of falcon feathers so he can fly to Jötunheim and look for the hammer. He finds out that a randy giant named Thrym has hidden the hammer underground and won’t return it until Freya marries him.

Thor cares less about Freya’s consent than he does about feeling his hammer’s shaft back in his hand again, so he tells her he’s taking her to get married to the giant. She furiously replies that only “the most man-mad of women” would do such a thing, and she absolutely refuses to go.

The gods meet together in council, and Heimdall comes up with the idea of dressing Thor in drag and sending him off as the bride. The extremely manly Thor is horrified by the idea (especially after Freya’s comment about being “man-mad”) and is convinced everyone will think he’s argr – an Old Norse word meaning everything unmanly, from unseemly sexual behavior to rank cowardice.

Loki tells him to shut up and put on the bridal gown. In the myths, Loki changes gender and species and, at one memorable point, seduces a stallion and gets pregnant. Here, he happily dresses himself as Thor’s bridesmaid.

Loki gleefully dresses Thor as a bride – Carl Larsson (1893)

At the wedding party, Thor-as-Freya eats “one whole ox, eight salmon, all the dainties meant for the women [and] three casks of mead.” When the giant is surprised by the lady’s appetite, Loki says, “Freya ate nothing for eight nights, so madly eager was she to come to Jötunheim.”

When the giant leans forward to lift the veil and kiss his bride, he’s terrified by Thor’s burning eyes. Loki says, “Freya did not sleep for eight nights, so madly eager was she to come to Jötunheim.” Of course, Loki repeatedly telling Thor’s greatest enemies that s/he is “madly eager” does nothing to lift his mood of impotent rage.

After the giant’s sister tells Thor that she’ll need a lot of presents to treat her/him as a loving sister-in-law, the giant commands that Thor’s hammer be brought in and placed on Thor’s lap “to sanctify the bride.”

As soon as the hammer is in his lap, Thor feels his old manly self again. Dr. Freud, did you get our page? He immediately goes back to doing what he does best, and what he does isn’t very nice. He kills the giant, smites his sister, and demolishes all the giants – a red wedding centuries before Game of Thrones.

What is all this? The poem is the funniest one in the collection we now call the Poetic Edda, and it really does seem like it’s about the manliest of the gods having a bout of impotence. This is not unheard of in Indo-European mythology, the wider transcultural system to which the Norse myths belong. Thor’s Indian counterpart Indra at one point gets castrated by an angry cuckold and has to replace his missing bits with ram’s testicles.

Throughout the Indo-European myths, there’s an idea that gods must sacrifice what is most important to them in order to gain the cosmic power of exactly that thing. Odin gives up an eye in order to have second sight. Tyr gives up a hand in order to join men’s hand in compact. Baldr gives up his life in order to survive Ragnarök.

Thor, the manliest of the gods, must give up his phallic hammer in order to have the ability to become more potent than the giants. Narratively, the giants try to steal the women of the gods’ tribe; symbolically, they represent the uncontrolled forces of nature that seek to overwhelm the land of the human tribe.

By losing his hammer from his wife-less bed and going through the humiliation of becoming a bride himself, Thor gains the ability to reign/rain over the fields of men, bringing fertility as he showers down the life-giving emissions from his mighty hammer.

So, the sexual innuendos of the poem serve a larger cosmological point. However, the whole narrative really takes place at the other end of the mythic timeline from Ragnarök.

Can you elaborate a little on what powers the hammer gives him?

The powers of Thor’s hammer are described by the Icelander Snorri Sturluson in his Edda of around 1220.

Brokkr, the dwarf who forges Mjölnir, hands it to Thor “and said he would be able to strike as heavily as he liked, whatever the target, and the hammer would not fail, and if he threw it at something, it would never miss, and never fly so far that it would not find its way back to his hand, and if he liked, it was so small that it could be kept inside his shirt.”

Brokkr presents Mjölnir to Thor – Don Crane (c. 1920)

It never breaks and it never misses. The bit about always finding its way back to his hand could be interpreted to mean that Thor will always be able to find it when he goes to look for it after throwing it. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby interpreted it to mean that it magically flies back to his hand like a boomerang.

The bit about the hammer shrinking down and being worn inside Thor’s shirt seems like a reference to the Thor’s hammer pendants worn around the neck by pagans of the long ago time and by followers of the modern Norse religion of Ásatrú today. It also could have solved a design issue for Lee and Kirby, since their Thor always has one hand full holding his hammer at all times!

Lastly, if you'd like to watch the trailer and just leave any thoughts about its merits, that would be much appreciated.

It looks awesome. Disney clearly told Marvel to adapt the Planet Hulk storyline in the style of the Guardians of the Galaxy movie and throw in Thor for added marketing synergy. I’ll bite, since I really enjoyed both of those corporate entertainment products.


It has nothing to do with Ragnarök, of course – neither the original mythology nor the way it’s been retold in Marvel Comics over the years. As a comic nerd, I would have preferred to see a true Thor film that tied off the trilogy by following the plot lines set up in the first two movies. I guess that didn’t fit in with Marvel Cinematic Universe Phase Whatever-This-Is.

I do hope that someone someday makes a series of movies that’s actually based on Norse mythology itself. There’s more than enough there to make some fantastic films, without having to rejigger it and add a whole bunch of other business.

Do you have any thoughts about whether Thor or the Hulk would win in a fight?

The Thor of the myths would have had absolutely no problem with the Hulk, since he never has and never will meet a giant he can’t quickly demolish (aside from one who tricks him with magic, but that’s another story). His list of epithets includes names like “killer of Hrungnir, Geirrod, Thrivaldi.” The jolly green giant would be just another notch in Thor’s belt.

Thor smites Hrungnir – Ludwig Pietsch (1860)

The Thor of the comics, who knows? His power levels and abilities change from year to year. These days, Disney owns Marvel and issues like this seem to get settled by their market research department, in order to provide fan service to the largest number of potential consumers.

The question my nerdy friends and I had as kids in the 1980s was, “If the Hulk got mad enough, could he become strong enough to lift Thor’s hammer?” Life is full of mysteries.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Tyr and the Wolf in Today's World

The story of Tyr’s binding of the wolf Fenrir is the only surviving myth of a god who must have once been a major figure in Germanic religion. Today, there are two popular readings of the role of the wolf that place twenty-first century identity politics over a deep understanding of the mythic figure itself. After examining the myth and the variant interpretations, maybe we can agree on a reading that is both historical and contemporary.

A Myth of Threat and Sacrifice

The very name of the god Tyr provides the strongest evidence for his former greatness; the word týr is used in Old Norse as a synonym for “god.” Parallel names appear in related Indo-European religions as designations for major deities of the sky. By the time the Norse myths were written down in Iceland, this great god had been reduced to a minor figure with only one attached myth.

He appears in the Edda when Snorri Sturluson tells the tale of the gods attempting to neutralize the existential threats of Loki’s three monstrous children: the half-corpse Hel, the gigantic World Serpent, and the monstrous wolf Fenrir.

At first, the gods keep and raise Fenrir, and only Tyr is brave enough to feed the growing wolf. However, Fenrir’s rapidly increasing size and the prophecy that he is destined to attack the gods leads the deities to attempt his binding for their own safety. The wolf manages to break out of the various fetters placed on him under the guise of a game, so the gods ask the clever dwarfs to make an unbreakable band.

The gods then take Fenrir to an island overgrown with heather and tell him that, if he is too weak to break the new fetter, they will know he is no threat – and he will then roam free. Understandably suspicious that they will leave him in bonds, he asks to hold a god’s hand in his mouth as a guarantee of their good faith.

Tyr volunteers his own right hand. When the gods see that the wolf is unable to break free from the dwarf-forged fetter, “they all laughed except for Tyr. He lost his hand.” Thanks to Tyr’s sacrifice, the wolf is now bound for the coming ages and will be a captive until the arrival of Ragnarök.

Tyr and Fenrir by John Bauer (1911)

What meaning is behind this myth? The poem Lokasenna (“Loki’s Quarrel”) provides a clue. Loki insults the gods and goddesses one by one, but each taunt also serves to bring out a quality or attribute of the deity being targeted. When he turns to Tyr, Loki says:
Be silent, Tyr, you could never
deal straight between two people;
your right hand, I must point out,
is the one which Fenrir tore from you.
This can be seen in the context of the mutilated gods – figures who have given up a part of their physicality in order to gain a higher power that defines their religious role.

Odin sacrifices one of his eyes and gains mystic insight as the god who seeks wisdom. Heimdall casts away one of his ears and gains the ability to hear all that happens in the nine worlds as the guardian of reality. Freyja gives her body for the sexual pleasure of the dwarfs in order to gain her necklace, an ancient symbol of female fertility power. Both Freyr and Thor have compromised phallic weapons – Freyr gives away his sword, Thor has a hammer with a shortened shaft – and are associated with human and earthly fertility, respectively. Baldr gives up his life so that he can return from Hel after Ragnarök as a bright god of the next world.

This interpretation can be argued against, as can all such systems. However, in this context, it seems that Tyr has given up his hand so that he can do exactly what Loki claims he cannot – bring the hands of men together in honest compact. Tyr is invoked in the inscription to Mars Thingsus on the third-century altar on Hadrian’s Wall in England; as the god of the Thing (assembly), Tyr would indeed see to it that that there were straight dealings between people as they negotiated legal and business cases. As with the other mutilated gods, Tyr has given up a physical part that gives him spiritual power – in this case, as the god who oversees contracts and compacts between men.

So Tyr’s sacrifice in the myth has dual functions of immediacy and implication. Tyr protects the community from the immediate threat by binding the wolf, and he protects it from future threat by becoming a god who insures straight dealings between individuals.

Both threats threaten the safety of the community. The wolf will attack the community of which Tyr is a part, and violations of the social contract lead to chaotic violence – as is so often illustrated in the escalating conflicts of the Icelandic sagas.

Siding with the Wolf

There is a subset of modern Heathenry – of contemporary traditions reviving, reconstructing, and reimagining pre-Christian Germanic religions – that seems to valorize the wolf’s violent threat over Tyr’s protection of the community. The image of the snarling wolf appears on Heathen jewelry, logos, avatars, websites, and memes.

Common to the many variations of this theme is the embrace of the attacking wolf as role model set in opposition not to the one who guards the community, but to sheep who are portrayed purely as prey for the wolf. This brackets the fact that sheep are herded and raised for the benefits they provide to the human community, and it instead posits the outer beast who attacks the inner world of men as the ideal.

This disdain for symbolic sheep is sometimes coupled with an attack on supposedly passive Christians, as in the various iterations of the slogan “Better to be a wolf of Odin than a lamb of God.” This imagery sits uneasily with Heathen assertions that Christians have a violent history of converting past pagans by the sword. If the use of force against the weak is something to be celebrated, wouldn’t the Christians who bloodily converted the northern world be heroes to macho Heathens today?

This somewhat self-contradictory valorization of wolfish violence as a specifically Heathen ideal is problematic for other reasons, as well. Those who promote the concept of the wolf-model can push back against the above points by turning to the ulfheðnar (“wolf-skins”) of the sagas as examples of strong men who took on the qualities of wolves. The problem is that the best-known examples of ulfheðnar are harmful to their communities and to themselves.

In the Icelandic saga of Egill Skallagrímsson, Kveldúlfr (“Night-Wolf”) is a Norwegian landowner who is a purported shape-shifter. He is kind to his farmhands and workers during the day, but “towards evening he would grow so bad-tempered that few people dared even address him.” His wolfish tendencies drive away human contact, even from those within his closest community. This antisocial behavior is not portrayed as something to be emulated.

In the Völsunga saga, the hero Sigmundr and his son Sinfjötli don the wolfskins they find beside bewitched men. They howl like wolves and break their companionship to individually assault groups of men who venture into the forest. Sinfötli betrays his promise to his father to only attack small groups and to call on him for help when facing greater opposition – a breach of trust that Sigmundr answers by assaulting him and biting him in the windpipe. The right relationship between father and son is not repaired until they are able to take off and burn the wolfskins, therefore turning their back on animalistic behavior.

Sigmundr and Sinfjötli by Willy Pogany (1920)

In both cases, the closest bonds of kinship and community are broken by the assumption of wolf-like character. Is this something to be celebrated? If so, it goes directly against the example of the god Tyr as binder of the wolf that threatens the community.

Defenders of the attacking wolf as a Heathen symbol can also point to berserkir (“bear-shirts”) as examples of men inspired by Odin who fight with the assumed ferocity of wild animals. In the sagas that purport to tell of historic times (as opposed to ones dealing with fantastic and legendary subjects), these figures are portrayed as out-of-control threats to farming communities who wander in from outside of inhabited areas to demand hard-working people fight them or give up their wives and daughters for their own pleasure. These wolfish figures are portrayed as outside the pale of human society and directly threatening to it, not as anything to be celebrated.

What of the two mythic wolves who are portrayed as the loyal hounds of Odin? They appear in the poem Grímnismál (“Sayings of the Masked One”):
Geri and Freki he satiates,
the glorious Father of Hosts, trained in battle;
but on wine alone the weapon-magnificent
Odin always lives.
The names of the wolves both translate as “greedy.” Odin appears here in his role as a bloodthirsty god of war, as he does at other points in the lore. We know that Old Norse literature regularly refers to warriors as those who feed the wolf and the raven with corpses they slay on the battlefield, and that seems to be the image invoked in this stanza. To take poetry literally is usually a mistake. The idea here seems to be that Odin-as-warlord is feeding his wolves with dead bodies by causing war in the world while he himself glories in the shed blood which he metaphorically drinks as wine.

I would ask those creating and forwarding memes of the Heathen wolf: who celebrates the destruction and death caused by war? Over the long centuries of human history, we have repeatedly learned the lesson that mass killing is not a glorious and heroic thing.

This is not some sort of postmodern revisionist rewriting of Heathen history. Even in the oldest sources, images of the glorious and victorious warrior are countered by portraits of men made so miserable by their war wounds that they beg to die, of wives who watch their husbands bleed to death on the battlefield, of women violated and enslaved as plunder, of children living among strangers who never know their parents. The Heathens of the elder era lived with their eyes wide open to the realities of the world.

Today, only a true monster would look at the photos of Alan Kurdi and Omran Daqneesh and gleefully or wolfishly howl that war is magnificent. To demand that the international community stands up for the human rights of those whose lives are upended by war is to invoke the power of Tyr; to deride these young people as passive sheep is to celebrate and embody the threat that Fenrir brings to the world community.

The Wolf as Victim

Another subset of modern Heathenry reads the binding of Fenrir as a tale of cruelty perpetuated by the gods, with Tyr as the willing deceiver who enables the abuse. Those who promote this idea tend to be of kind heart, and that should be respected. However, this reading makes the common error of reading mythology literally, of mistaking the surface imagery for the metaphorical core of the myth.

The interpretation in question goes something like this. Loki is a sympathetic and misunderstood fellow who is treated poorly by the gods, a group of ingrates who don’t appreciate all that he does for them. When he fathers three innocent young children, Odin and his tribe abuse them by throwing the girl into the underworld, tossing the young snake into the ocean, and abusing the wolf pup.

Loki's Children (detail) by Emil Doepler (1905)

In this interpretation, Fenrir is a gentle creature who is bound and tortured by the evil gods. The fact that he later kills Odin and aids the destruction of the world at Ragnarök is a fair and just retribution for his cruel and unusual treatment as a pup. Tyr is a deceitful cad who betrays the creature he had once fed, gaining its trust only to wickedly trick it into allowing its own painful binding. The gods are the villains of the story, and the myth is really about the unjustified and unjustifiable violation of the innocent.

Leaving aside the question of Loki’s role in Norse mythology, this reading seems to be a willful inversion of the symbolism inherent in the myth of Tyr and the wolf. Like the Heathens who embrace the wolf as an ideal of thrilling violence to be emulated, the promoters of this view pull the wolf out of the context of ancient myth and rewrite him as something entirely postmodern.

Wolf-pups are gentle creatures, says the pro-Fenrir faction, and to bind them is an act of wickedness. Wolves are beautiful and intelligent creatures of the wild, and they form wonderful and close-knit communities that care for their members in a way that humans would do well to emulate. Such assertions are often accompanied by high-definition nature photographs of smiling wolves cavorting with their offspring.

This may all be true, but such a portrayal goes directly against the worldview of the peoples that created the myths and handed them down through the generations. The ancient Norse and Germanic peoples were largely dependent on farming and animal husbandry for their livelihood. In such societies, the wolf was no kindly creature to be cuddled, but a dark and dangerous threat that lurked on the edges of human habitation, always ready to strike and terrorize.

In the 1930s, my father grew up in a German farming village in what was then Hungary. The town’s name was Karavukovo (“the place of the black wolf”). In no way were wolves celebrated by the hardworking rural community as beautiful and wonderful creatures to be marveled at and fêted. They were terrifying predators who prowled the edges of what the Icelanders of long ago would have called the innangarð, the enclosed world of humans.

Due to the very real threat they posed in life, wolves serve as the great symbol of that which threatens human communities. They are found playing this role throughout Germanic folklore, from the earliest surviving examples through the so-called fairy tales collected in the nineteenth century.

In the era described in the Icelandic sagas, the wolf is the symbol par excellence for that which endangers society. Prof. Jesse L. Byock writes of the Old Norse term for one man killing another in stealth and hiding his action: “The killer was then referred to as a morð-vargr, murderer (literally, killer wolf), and was beyond the pale of the law.” He goes on to explain the use of the term vargr (“wolf”) in Icelandic law codes “to refer to outlaws, who could be hunted down like wolves.” A human who commits an inhuman act of violence is then treated like a wolf, is beyond the protection of the laws, and can be cut down in cold blood like a wolf. There is no sympathy in this hard culture for the beast that kills men.

In the poem Hákonarmál (“Sayings of Hákon”), Odin speaks ominously of “The grey wolf watch[ing] the abodes of the gods.” The mythic image of Fenrir connects to the legal concept of the murderer and to the real threat of the actual animal. In light of this context, it seems willfully contrarian to assert that Fenrir is the hero and Tyr the villain.

Finding Common Ground

Myths can be read in many ways. We can both strive to understand the meaning of the mythic image in the parent culture and assert our human right to reinterpret it in light of our own life experiences. However, problems creep in when we choose to forward readings that go directly against everything we know about the religio-cultural worldview from which the myths emanated.

Is it possible to examine the myths from our own cultural vantage point while still being honest about the source material? Both positions of identification with the wolf discussed above – whether as violent predator or gentle victim – toss aside the deeper meanings inherent in the mythic symbol and superimpose concepts from today’s hyper-divisive personal politics.

Tyr and the Gods by Rona F. Hart (1914)

The core problem here really seems to be an insistence on emphasizing the surface symbol over the metaphorical referent. The modern use of memes – of visual markers to assert meaning – underscores this approach to myth. The photo of the snarling wolf expresses the rugged individual’s constructed self-image as a tough-guy who always stands up for himself. The images of joyous wolf-parents and loving pups suggests that the individual is someone who feels misunderstood and outside of the social mainstream – and therefore seeks alternative images of non-mainstream belonging.

Both projections of self-identity can be deeply meaningful to those who deploy them, and they are completely understandable as social-media creations that seek to assert an image of self within a given community. However, both also go directly against what the wolf represents in the myths themselves.

The tale of Tyr and the wolf neither valorizes the violence of the wolf nor portrays the animal as a sympathetic figure. This is not a literal tale of tying up a struggling young wolf. It is part of a mythology of deities with names like “god,” “thunder,” “fury,” and “lady” – and of a monstrous creature whose name Fenrir means “fen-dweller,” a threat from the uninhabited outer lands who comes to destroy the cultivated worlds of gods and men.

Maybe we can agree on a reading of the myth that is both true to the text and to what we believe today. Here is a simple suggestion that focuses on the symbolism of Tyr and fully accepts that that the wolf is a metaphor rather than a real-world animal.
Out of an entire community, only one individual is willing to offer great personal sacrifice in order to protect his fellows from a dire threat that has grown up within the community. Rather than turning to violence against others, he nobly stands up and takes the resulting damage to himself. As a result, he gains the ability to join the hands of other people in agreement and harmony.
This uncomplicated reading makes sense in terms of the worldviews of then and now. It is up to the individual to fill in the blanks of what they consider sacrifice, threat, community, and harmony.

Will you stand up against the threat to American society posed by the alt-right, knowing that they will target you for retribution? Will you cross the fault-lines in our racially-divided society to work for change, even if people on every side deride you for it? Will you take the risk of standing up for your community, be it Heathen, immigrant, or LGBTQ+? Will you face the harmful elements within your own family, faith, city, and country?

If you are brave enough to stick your hand in the mouth of the beast, maybe you will help your community to bind the forces that threaten it and move forwards toward future reconciliation.

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