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.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Heathens in the Military: At Last, Recognition

On March 27, the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense of the United States issued a memorandum on the subject of “Faith and Belief Codes for Reporting Personnel Data of Service Members.” The document from the Department of Defense announces that the Armed Forces Chaplains Board has approximately doubled the number of religious preferences recognized by U.S. Military Services.

The opening of the Department of Defense memorandum

Ásatrú and Heathenry are among the religions that now have official recognition. For the first time, practitioners of modern iterations of Germanic polytheism in all branches of the Department of Defense can have their religion officially listed in their Enlisted Record Brief / Officers Record Brief (ERB/ORB). Heathens can now choose from three different faith group codes:

• Ásatrú (FY)

• Heathen (AH)

• Troth (DA)

Ásatrú refers to a practice that grew out of the revival, reconstruction, and reimagining of Old Norse religion in Iceland in 1972. Heathen is a broader term that includes practices based on Anglo-Saxon, Frankish, and other Germanic sources. The Troth is a 501(c)3 religious organization for practitioners of Ásatrú and Heathenry; based in the United States, it currently has members served by official stewards in Australia, Canada, Germany, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom.

The addition of Ásatrú and Heathen to the list of faith group codes for all branches is a major step in the long struggle for equal religious rights by Heathen service members. There have been other victories in the last few years. In 2013, the Department of Veterans Affairs added Thor's hammer to the official list of “available emblems of belief for placement on government headstones and markers.” In 2014, the Air Force added Ásatrú and Heathenry to its list of available religious preferences. In 2016, Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein publicly supported the efforts of Heathen soldiers to gain equal rights.

In January 2015, it seemed as if years of efforts by multiple Heathen soldiers had paid off as the Army added Ásatrú and Heathenry as options in its own religious preference list. After making news with an announcement that the request to add the religions had finally been approved, the Personnel Director at the Army’s Office of the Chief of Chaplains backtracked, said he had “mis-communicated,” and left Heathen soldiers in limbo. Despite a massive letter-writing campaign that began in May of that year, and despite the Department of Defense asking for and accepting a Heathen Resource Guide for Chaplains, no decision on the Army situation was forthcoming.

The newly released memorandum from the Department of Defense has resolved the Army issue and removed the need for Heathens in other branches to continue the struggle for equal treatment. All Heathen service members can now have their religion officially added to their personal records.

What this means for Heathens

With the new announcement, the three religious preference codes for Heathens are available across all branches. This means much more than simply having Ásatrú listed on one’s dog tags. As explained in the 2015 call to action, official recognition by the Department of Defense means that Heathen service members have the full right to exercise religious freedoms that members of other faiths may take for granted, including the right to:

• have time off for attending worship

• hold religious services in one’s own tradition

• keep items or books connected with one’s faith

• when in large enough numbers, have a dedicated place of worship

Until now, some Heathens have been lucky enough to serve in situations where their rights were fully respected. Others have had less pleasant experiences. It will be interesting to see how recognition of Ásatrú and Heathenry will affect the situation at ground level.

The Thor's hammer that Matt Walters received from Mjölnir Project

In his 2014 interview with The Norse Mythology Blog, Air Force Master Sergeant (MSgt) Matt Walters explained why having their religion included on the religious preference list is important for Heathens who serve.
It allows the military member to self-identify what religion or denomination they adhere to. This gives the military a way to have a more accurate view of the religious demographic, and in some cases can allow members of a similar faith to connect through the Chaplains Office. Further, in cases where the member passes away during a conflict, by selecting their faith and having their records reflect what they wish done with their remains, it gives them the ability to have their personal wishes respected in terms of burial and last rites.
The new memorandum from the Department of Defense states additional benefits of expanding the list of recognized religions:

• accurately tracking more faith and belief systems, providing more accurate demographic data for religious groups

• enabling better planning for religious support to the force

• providing a better assessment of the capabilities and requirements of each military service’s Chaplain Corps

These items are important for two main reasons. First, given the difficulty of obtaining data on numbers of Heathens in general, it will be very helpful to have hard data on numbers of Heathens as a percentage of the general military population. Second, the statements about religious support and requirements of the Chaplain Corps seem to hint at the possibility of Heathen chaplains in the future – but only if the numbers show a need.

Looking at the larger picture, the fact that a department of the executive branch of the federal government of the United States of America has now officially recognized Ásatrú and Heathenry will hopefully have a positive impact on the lives of the wider Heathen population in the nation. Ásatrú has had formal recognition from the Icelandic government since 1973; this is likely as close as Heathens can get to an equivalent status within the laws of the United States.

American Heathens have long had to deal with the personal and professional consequences of misunderstanding and misrepresentation of their tradition. There is no magic bullet to change how the wider population views a minority religion, but this seems like a real step forward.

What Heathens have to say

Many Heathens have worked very hard for the recognition of their religion in the U.S. Armed Forces. A few of those who have been most dedicated to the cause were kind enough to share their reactions to and reflections on the news. Their statements are followed by those of other Heathens who are, in one way or another, stakeholders in all of this.

Matt Walters, Air Force Master Sergeant (MSgt), successfully engaged with the Air Force Chaplains Office and led his branch to be the first in the U.S. Armed Forces to include Ásatrú and Heathenry as options in its religious preference list.
The Air Force allowing me to officially identify as a Heathen gives me a sense of comfort that, if I passed away during service, I would be honored in a way that would have met with my beliefs and not those of another faith. Each member should be able to openly identify according to their own faith. I think that the Air Force’s move to include Heathen and Ásatrú helped the Department of Defense as a whole to accept these faith codes. For that part of it, I’m proud of my efforts.

I know that a great many others have worked long and hard for service members to be able to accurately identify themselves as Heathen or Ásatrú. This victory is the pinnacle of a long hard fight. In addition to our own win, those other faiths that may have been left out can now point to our inclusion as a means to justify their own faith being recognized. It shouldn’t be so hard to add new faiths, but each step that is taken is a win for everyone that values the freedom to choose.
Click here for more from Matt.

Daron Regan, Army Staff Sergeant (SSG), was a strong advocate for the Heathen community as he advised the Department of Defense on the beliefs, practices, and diversity of the tradition over the past two years.
I'm honored to have been a part of this. Now begins the real work – to educate, grow, and support our Heathen community. Now is the time for each of us to reflect upon our future actions, thoughts, words and deeds – to support one another, to set the good example for others to see, to speak with knowledge and share with sincerity. This will be both a wonderful opportunity for us all, but also a burden to not be taken lightly.
Daniel Head's Thor's hammer from Mjölnir Project

Daniel Head, Army Sergeant (SGT), moved the ball forward by engaging with the Army’s Office of the Chief of Chaplains; his hard work and persistence led to the approval of Ásatrú and Heathenry as options in the Army’s religious preference list in 2015 – until the approval was annulled a few weeks later.
I’m glad to finally get closure on this administrative action and happy it was a positive outcome in our favor. I first submitted the request about three years ago and have constantly followed up regarding the status. I know Josh [Heath] has been pursuing this for even longer, so it's comforting – and definitely worth celebrating – to finally have our victory. This will make a difference for me, knowing that I and any of my soldiers in the future will have a way to ensure the proper services – postmortem included– while in service.
Click here for more from Daniel.

Josh Heath, Army veteran, has been involved in the quest to add Ásatrú and Heathen religious preference codes in the Army since 2009 and has supported Heathens in the military with The Open Halls Project since 2010.
This is a small step toward encouraging equal religious protection. It has greater impact for service members, and it will allow for a more effective creation of communities around military facilities. The impact for non-military-affiliated Heathens is likely small, but it adds another layer of legitimacy before the laws of our land. It is no panacea for religious discrimination, but it is an important step.
Click here for more from Josh.

Nick Scott, Navy Reserve Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class [MC1(SW/AW)], served on Active Duty from 2009 to 2014 and is now a development writer at Roosevelt University and a member of Thor’s Oak Kindred in Chicago.
It means a lot for my religion to be recognized by the organization I love so much. I have been a proud sailor for eight years, and I think every person who wears the cloth of his or her nation has the right to worship freely or not at all. That is one of the things I help defend when I wear my uniform. I am proud to have the right to claim Heathen on my service record and replace the “other religion” label I currently have.

The Navy core values of honor, courage, and commitment are the same values I strive for in Heathenry. In my experiences, the Navy has always strived for diversity, and this is no different. We take pride in talented sailors, no matter their religion or philosophy. My shipmates have always been accepting of me as well as other sailors who might be Pagan, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Atheist, or Agnostic. That being said, being officially recognized by the top brass still feels pretty good.
Daniel Klug, blacksmith at White Hart Forge, together with his wife Heidi Shewchuk runs the Mjölnir Project, which sends free hand-forged Thor’s hammer amulets to enlisted persons stationed anywhere in the world, because “service members could use a little of Thor’s might to keep them safe while serving their country.”
It's about time, and I'll believe it when I see it! Personally, I am humbled to be a part of something that is so strong and emotionally uplifting to so many soldiers – to give them the strength of belonging to community, frith [Old Norse “peace”], and kin. Out of the mead closet, at last!
Robert L. Schreiwer, Steersman of the Troth, currently leads the only Ásatrú and Heathen organization officially recognized by the Department of Defense.
Although the Troth's code has been in place since about 2011, the addition of Ásatrú and Heathen to the list of faith codes is very important to U.S. Heathens, both military and civilian. While we do not need a government body to lend us credence, in this case, it certainly does not hurt. It raises our visibility and gives us a seat at the table alongside the major religions. The presence of these identities on the list may result in more religious resources for our military, which is the least that can be done for our folks who put themselves in harm’s way.
Diana Paxson, Coordinator of the Troth’s Clergy Program, has long been involved in public advocacy for Heathens as she guides the training of those who may one day serve as military chaplains.
Ten years ago, we were fighting for permission to put pagan symbols on U.S. military headstones. A Heathen veteran could not be buried under a Mjölnir [Thor’s hammer] until 2013. The decision regarding listing religious affiliation allows Heathens in the military to identify themselves as members of our faith while still alive. Hail the heroes!
On a personal note, I would like to salute everyone who has worked for this victory, whether through direct engagement, advocacy, or support. My own respect for Heathens in the military has grown exponentially since I first began covering these stories in 2013. Almost without exception, the military Heathens I’ve communicated with have been kind, generous, and respectful individuals who care very much about right action and about publicly representing their religion in a commendable manner.

I hope that all Heathens of positive intent can work together to build on the accomplishments of these good people who serve. Onward!

Friday, April 21, 2017

Interview with a Druid: Kirk S. Thomas of Ár nDraíocht Féin, Part Three

Click here for Part One and here for Part Two of the interview.

Scholarship and Belief

Kirk S. Thomas among his books

KS – You have taught workshops at many Ár nDraíocht Féin (ADF) festivals. Rather than religious services or magical rituals, you have largely focused on giving academic presentations on topics such as Irish sacred kinship and the nature of sacrifice. What skills and presentation methods have you found work best in presenting the results of your scholarly research to non-academic audiences?

KT – It isn’t easy. Telling stories from the lore always goes down well, and a dramatic and theatrical mode of presentation sure helps, as well.

KS – Your book cites ancient sources, classic scholarship, very recent academic work, and writings by modern Pagans. You have written that “the best scholarship is useless without spiritual experience to inform it.” How do you find a balance between secular scholarship and unverified personal gnosis (UPG)? Where is the balance point between extreme reconstructionism and freeform Neo-Paganism?

KT – Balance comes through experience, I think. If I have a vision of the war goddess, the Morrighan, as motherly and nurturing figure, then I really have to question the UPG because she just isn’t like that. And UPG is only for me, really, and my own spiritual journey. Should I have UPG experiences that match up with a number of other people’s experiences, then maybe we could say that there’s truth here. Otherwise, I take it with a grain of salt.

As for the balance between reconstructionism and freeform Paganism, I think ADF serves as an example. We are not fifth-century BCE Athenians, or first-century BCE Celts, or ninth-century CE Norsemen. We are modern people living in the modern world who are trying to reimagine the ancient religions of the past for modern times. But without using scholarship as a basis for what we do, we could end up with the excesses of the New Age, such as believing that Stonehenge and the pyramids were built by aliens from beyond the stars, among other things.

KS – Your writing on building relationships with spirits includes the borrowing of Buddhist breath techniques and Christian mystic body-stress practices. What is the effect of bringing non-Indo-European practices into Druidic practices? Is there a point at which a weight of outside material would swamp the distinctively Druidic nature of the religion?

KT – Technique is technique. If it works, then why not steal it? Christianity had no such compunctions. We simply don’t know enough about ancient practices to know for certain what they did.

We do know that entheogens were used by the Vedics (soma) and Avestans (haoma), and maybe by the Germano-Norse folks from the stories of the mead of inspiration and of the berserkers. Mind-altering substances get a bad rap in modern culture – and often for good reason, since moderation can be so difficult, so we usually don’t go there.

Odin about to drink the Mead of Poetry – illustration by Carl Emil Doepler (1900)

As for ecstatic body-stress practices, the ones I prefer are more Native American, actually, but while the Christians did use some of them, they have been around for millennia, all over the world. Christianity just tapped into something that was already there.

You do have a point about the weight of non-Indo-European practices swamping Druidic ones. And for that reason we have to be careful. We suspect that the ancient Indo-Europeans did similar things – the entheogen angle being particularly strong – but we don’t really know for sure. So, for us to have a profound mysticism in Druidry, we may need to borrow from others. The important thing is to acknowledge the borrowing and not try to claim that it came from our Druidic past.

KS – You have cataloged and compared an enormous amount of information on Indo-European belief and practice. What is your method for deciding what can be left in the past and what should be brought into modern religions?

KT – Ah, this is an excellent question and one that hasn’t been fully addressed in ADF. I expect that we need to balance what we know about the Indo-Europeans with our more modern values. Let’s face it, the Indo-Europeans were patriarchal to a significant degree, with women being forced into the background of public life, if not excluded altogether. The warrior emphasis in most of the cultures – which Zoroaster specifically rebelled against – is another sore point. These are things that we need to face in order to be fair and egalitarian for all our members.

KS – Today’s world often seems post-scientific and post-rational. What relationship do you see between spirituality and science? Do you believe religious ritual can create real-world results beyond personal change?

KT – Two questions here. For the first, we in ADF are cautious technophiles. Since we don’t take our various myths and cosmologies literally, we see no conflict with spiritual and religious values and the advance of science. As long as science is helping people, we have no problem with it.

As for real-world results, well, what can I say? Many people believe that they do get results outside of themselves when they do magic. I’ve done healing rites for people with cancer – one said to be terminal – that succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. Was it just a placebo effect? Did I only support someone in healing themselves? I don’t know, and I don’t think I care. As long as it works, I’m happy. And I make no claims. I guess the short answer is, who knows?

KS – Your book is both an academic study and a practical guide. The central goal is to establish and maintain a reciprocal gifting relationship with the gods. What specific results have you experienced from putting the scholarship to practical ritual use?

KT – I wrote the book after doing the work of forming relationships. Had these rituals not worked for me, I probably wouldn’t have written the book. I have had mystical experiences of seeing and hearing the gods and some other spirits, and this has usually happened when in a ritual or ritualized setting. Just knowing they are there is an immense comfort to me. And I have to say that the only successful magic I’ve done – like my healing work – has been through my relationships with specific deities. Unlike chaos magicians I don’t only rely on my own “powers” but rather get help from those greater than myself.

Sacred Gifts: Reciprocity and the Gods by Kirk S. Thomas

KS – At the conclusion of the main, scholarly section of Sacred Gifts, you write, “This entire book is based on the idea that the gods and spirits are real and have agency in the world. And all this implies that the gods are many, and not mere archetypes or parts of some greater whole. And this view of Spirit is called polytheism.” How does this fit in with your focus on comparative Indo-European work? Do you believe that all the distinct deities and spirits of all the Indo-European move in the world, and practitioners choose which to interact with? Are the deities of non-Indo-European religions also around us and interacting with each other? Does Allah interact with Odin?

KT – Ah, the perennial discussions about soft and hard polytheism are at play here. Hard polytheism holds that every single god or spirit exists independently of each other, while soft polytheism holds that certain types of god – say, thunder gods – may be the same god, or perhaps different aspect of a single god. For the purposes of ADF, we ask that public rituals call on individual gods as distinct individuals (hard polytheism) whether they believe that or not.

I do believe that the gods and spirits are many and in great multitude. Do they interact with each other? I have no idea, though I’m pretty sure that those in the same pantheon do. As for the monotheistic gods, I guess it depends on whether or not they believe the propaganda their worshippers have spread around about them: that they are omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent, – all things I don’t believe any god can be.

There are just far too many issues involved with such claims, such as the idea that a god is not part of nature but rather above it somehow – and then, of course, the problem of evil. Why would an all-good god allow monstrosities like the Holocaust to happen? Either that god is not all-powerful or not all-good. I prefer my gods who can’t ignore the laws of physics and who have to exist within nature instead of somehow outside of it.

KS – There is a strong sense in much academic writing on new religious movements based on ancient religions that scholars must challenge what they see as misinformation promulgated by non-specialists. Writing of the relationship between academia and identity, Gonzalo Ruiz Zapatero, Professor of Prehistory at the Complutense University of Madrid, has called on archaeologists “to identify and refute distortions and biased uses of Celtic pasts and... heighten our contribution to the dissemination of a critical perception of the Celts and in so doing effectively combat the ‘fringe Celts.’” As a leader and clergy in this modern religion, how do you respond to secular academics who set themselves as determiners of authenticity?

KT – We agree that scholarship is important, and we don’t want to further misinformation. We don’t see ourselves as “fringe Celts” since we actively follow the scholarship. We want to do this right. It is true that there are some scholars who actively work against modern Paganism out of some sort of animus, but we just point out their obvious biases and laugh at them, keeping any of their well-founded criticisms in mind. We do have folks who enjoy destroying the unfounded criticisms of apologists from other religions, though this strain in Paganism does need more developing.

KS – Isaac Bonewits has said that ADF “is based on the idea of continual research and on changing and adapting our policies and procedures based on the results of that research.” This is a sound academic approach, but how does it work in a religion? Does adapting to new scholarly work only affect the outer trappings of ritual, or do Druids literally change their fundamental religious beliefs – in the nature of deity, for example – according to the results of the latest academic research?

KT – So far there hasn’t been too much contradiction. I think the biggest on is Dumézil’s ideas of tripartition, where he divided society into three classes: the magico-religious group on top, the warriors in the next level, and the producers at the bottom. Besides the fact that this leaves out the peasants and slaves, it also became pretty apparent that only a few cultures might follow this paradigm – such as Irish, Vedic, and Roman – while others, like the Norse, don’t follow it at all.

So what did this mean for us? Not a lot, actually. We have already enlarged the word Druid to include everyone in ADF and not just some religious elite. While we have folks who want to identify as warriors of some kind, it has no bearing on ritual, necessarily. It’s a fun topic to debate but doesn’t have much bearing on anything in reality.

I sincerely doubt that the nature of deity would change thanks to upcoming research. It might expand, but the ideas in ancient IE poetics won’t be going away. But should something happen that might enlarge our understanding of deity, then I would hope that we would enlarge our minds to encompass it.

KS – For ancient Celtic and Norse polytheism, we have material artifacts that are explained by turning to (1) outsider descriptions by largely hostile observers who often reported hearsay and (2) mythological texts written down by sometimes hostile Christian scribes after the conversions to Christianity. What we don’t have is native, contemporary second-level theology that explains the belief system or practice. Much of modern Pagan theology seems based less on the primary sources than on decades-old work by secular academics – Dumézil, Eliade, Lincoln, etc. – who are themselves often openly hostile to the very idea of modern Paganism.


Mircea Eliade's The Myth of the Eternal Return

During the memorial ritual for Isaac Bonewits, you said “Let us recreate the sacred center of the worlds.” I know that you know deeply the work of the historian of religions Mircea Eliade, and this is an idea at the heart of The Myth of the Eternal Return. In a new religious movement with roots in an era where there are no primary written sources, what are the theological implications of incorporating the theoretical conclusions of secular scholarship directly into the heart of ritual?

KT – We simply have no choice. The problems you mentioned concerning what we know about the past are real. Again, if it works, why not use it? I honestly don’t care if modern scholars are hostile to what we do. Tough. We take the best and leave the rest. If they want to do this work they can hardly complain if we take it and run with it!

No Man Is an Island

KS – What were your first religious experiences? How did they lead to your commitment to Druidry?

KT – As a child I had the experience of “something” in the woods behind my grandmother’s house. It didn’t exactly terrify me, but my hair did stand on end. I didn’t know what it was, but I did realize that I had to give it something. I found some grapes in the refrigerator and left them outside on a rock in the woods. The grapes were gone the next day. I wonder now who it was. Maybe it was a spirit similar to the god Pan?

It’s funny, but I denied that this happened to myself for a long time. After all, I believed then that gods and spirits weren’t real. It took me a while to get over this misconception. But it did awaken an interest in mythology that has been a great joy in my life.

KS – What was your early experience with witchcraft? Did you identify as Wiccan? How did these experiences affect your conception of Druidry?

KT – In the late 1960s I found Diary of a Witch by Sybil Leek. It’s a silly book, but it caught my imagination as a teenager. Later, with Paul Huson’s Mastering Witchcraft, I started creating magical tools and drew pentagrams on the garage floor and absolutely loved it! I was so filled with wonder that I found it all terribly exciting.

First edition of Sybil Leek's Diary of a Witch

While in college my interest waned. Had I ever run across a coven, this might have been different, but I had no idea about what I was doing. When I decided in 2000 to come back to Paganism, I naturally assumed I’d end up being a Wiccan, but the ADF website just drew me in, and I went there instead.

KS – The first stone circle you built includes shrines to Brigid, Cernunnos, Lugh, Manannán mac Lir, the Morrígan, and Taranis. You write that the second circle is “connected to sacred Celtia” via the small stones collected from near sacred sites in England, Ireland, and Wales that you placed under the large rocks during construction. In your own belief and practice, what attracted you to Celtic deities over figures from other world mythologies?

KT – Actually, it’s because they were the ones who showed up in trance for me first! That made it easy.

KS – How would you characterize your belief in the gods? For you personally, what is the nature of deity?

KT – I believe that they exist. I believe that they have agency and can work their wills in the world – within the limits of the laws of physics, though I also accept that there may be laws we’re not aware of yet; quantum mechanics bends my mind. The gods pay attention to us only if we make an effort to get their attention and work on forming a relationship.

KS – There is a long history of academic debate over the difference between magic and religion. How do you yourself distinguish between the two, and how does that distinction affect your own work as cleric and practitioner?

KT – I’m not sure that there is a difference. Both are concerned with creating change, both within and without. ADF rites are full of magic, like recreating the sacred center of the worlds, opening the closing the gates, hallowing the blessing, and calling on the gods and spirits. I see no need for a distinction to be made between them.

KS – You write, “For those who have a religious or mystical experience, all of nature is capable of revealing itself to us as sacred.” How does being a Druid impact your views on ecology and climate? How does Druidry’s relationship to the environment differ from that of other religions?

KT – I believe that climate change is real, and that we are responsible for much of it. I also believe that we are as much a part of nature as anything else in this world. The world does not exist for us to exploit only for our own ends. Rather it is a living, breathing entity that we must share with the rest of the biosphere.

It’s hard to live in the modern world without consuming stuff. It’s hard to live lightly on the land. But I try to do my best with growing and buying organic foods, and cutting back on my emissions. I’m not doing as well as I’d like, but I am conscious.

ADF also understands all this, even if we tend to put ritual and fellowship first. I’m hoping that in time we will become more eco-aware as a religion and put our money where our mouths are.

Kirk S. Thomas performs Prayer of Sacrifice in 2016

KS – Isaac Bonewits has said, “On one level the primary function of neo-Pagan Druidism and of the neo-Pagan movement as a whole is to save the planet. To bring back that attitude of reverence towards Nature that our ancestors had.” However, he also acknowledged that “our Pagan ancestors were not ecological purists. They changed the entire environmental state of Europe through what is called slash-and-burn agriculture.”

In an organization based on a harmony of scholarship and practice, how do you address the fundamental fact that the modern idea of a nature religion – a practice that seeks to bring humans in tune with the natural world – goes directly against what we know of the ancient religions?

KT – There were so few people, relatively speaking, in the ancient world that they didn’t understand the consequences of their actions. They could cut down a forest and nothing would really change, because they couldn’t make a big enough difference. Today, though, we are quickly destroying our environment. I can forgive my ancestors for their actions, but I sure don’t have to imitate them. Conditions have changed!

KS – You write, “Many LGBT people fled Christianity and its discriminatory practices into Buddhism, atheism, agnosticism, and yes, Paganism, where they were able to feel valued.” Do you feel that your life experiences as a gay man have played a role in your religious choices, beliefs, and practice?

KT – Oh, absolutely. Growing up gay at a time when all of society – and particularly the churches – believed that I was a horrible sinner and unworthy of being a whole and respected person in my own right certainly affected my view of the world. I have always been eccentric anyway – my mother used to say I was too young to be eccentric – and I’m certainly old enough now. Ha!

Since the established paths to spirituality were closed to me, I was forced to look elsewhere.

KS – “No Man Is an Island,” the first chapter of your book, makes interesting connections between sociopolitical relationships and religious ones. Throughout your work, modern political examples are used to illustrate ancient religious concepts. As a practicing Druid and religious leader, how do your spiritual and social beliefs interact?

KT – They go together, hand in hand. We have to live in the modern world, and life means compromise. But reciprocity is the basis of both my religion and my social and family life. It’s an easy talk to walk.

KS – Thank you so much for taking the time to so thoughtfully answer my too many and overlong questions!

KT – My pleasure! Now back to doing taxes…

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Ár nDraíocht Féin: A Druid Fellowship (ADF) website. https://www.adf.org/

Berthoff, R. “Celtic Mist Over the South.” The Journal of Southern History 52(4) (1986): 523-546.

Bowman, Marion. “Contemporary Celtic Spirituality.” In New Directions in Celtic Studies, 69-91. Edited by Amy Hale and Philip Payton. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2000.

Butler, Jenny. “Druidry in Contemporary Ireland.” In Modern Paganism in World Cultures: Comparative Perspectives, 87-125. Edited by Michael Strmiska. Santa Barbara: ABC Clio, 2005.

Cherry Hill Seminary website. http://cherryhillseminary.org/

Dietler, Michael. “Celticism, Celtitude, and Celticity: the consumption of the past in the age of globalization.” In Celtes et Gaulois dans l’histoire, l’historiographie et l’idéologie moderne. Actes de la table ronde de Leipzig, 16-17 juin 2005, 237-248. Edited by Sabine Rieckhoff. Glux-en-Glenne: Bibracte, Centre Archéologique Européen (Bibracte 12/1), 2006.

Hague, E., B. Giordano and E. H. Sebesta. “Whiteness, multiculturalism and nationalist appropriation of Celtic culture: the case of the League of the South and the Lega Nord.” Cultural Geographies 12(2) (2005): 151-173.

Hale, Amy. “Whose Celtic Cornwall? The ethnic Cornish meet Celtic spirituality.” In Celtic Geographies: Old Culture, New Times, 157-170. Edited by David C. Harvey, Rhys Jones, Neil McInroy and Christine Milligan. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Homan, Ellen Evert and Lawrence Bond. Being a Pagan: Druids, Wiccans, and Witches Today. Rochester: Destiny Books, 1996.

Hutton, Ronald. Blood and Mistletoe: The History of the Druids in Britain. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.

Kirk S. Thomas website. http://www.druidkirk.org/

McCarthy, James, and Euan Hague. “Race, Nation, and Nature: The Cultural Politics of ‘Celtic’ Identification in the American West.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 94(2) (2004): 387-408.

Ruiz Zapatero, Gonzalo. “The Celts in Spain: from archaeology to modern identities.” In Celtes et Gaulois dans l’histoire, l’historiographie et l’idéologie moderne. Actes de la table ronde de Leipzig, 16-17 juin 2005, 197-218. Edited by Sabine Rieckhoff. Glux-en-Glenne: Bibracte, Centre Archéologique Européen (Bibracte 12/1), 2006.

Seigfried, Karl E. H. “Heathens in the Military: Heathen Resource Guide for Chaplains.” The Norse Mythology Blog, January 11, 2016. http://www.norsemyth.org/2016/01/heathens-in-military-heathen-resource.html

Thomas, Kirk S. Sacred Gifts: Reciprocity and the Gods. Tucson: ADF Publishing, 2015.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Interview with a Druid: Kirk S. Thomas of Ár nDraíocht Féin, Part Two

Click here for Part One of the interview.

Kirk S. Thomas leading a ritual at White Mountain Druid Sanctuary Complex

Ár nDraíocht Féin: A Druid Fellowship

KS – Ár nDraíocht Féin (ADF) has also been translated as “Our Own Magic,” which raises the old question of the difference between magic and religion that has vexed generations of scholars.

Jenny Butler’s work on the Owl Grove, a group in Ireland following the Irish Hereditary Druid Tradition, portrays an association claiming “a strong connection between their own practices and those of Druids in pre-Christian Ireland.” Butler herself accepts “the continuance of ancient practices in the Irish context.” However, the rituals she records seem firmly grounded in somewhat generic Theosophical, Wiccan, and Neo-Pagan magical practice: calling the quarters; mixing Irish, Welsh, Breton, and other Celtic deities; “a Neo-pagan reinterpretation of what the Sidhe are”; use of crystals and pentacles; the Neo-Pagan Wheel of the Year with non-Irish terminology; manipulating “energy” within ritual “workings” in order for it “to be sent outward to achieve some goal;” interaction with “the spiritual plane;” and an emphasis on “personal spiritual journeys.”

How much of modern Druidry is based on Wiccan belief and practice? Do you see a great amount of holdovers from earlier influences on modern Celtic spirituality like Theosophy?

KT – When I talk about “modern Druidry,” I am talking about ADF. We have consciously shed as much Wiccan stuff as we can. While we have kept the Wiccan Wheel of the Year (sort of) in order to not be too different from the rest of general Paganism, we never cast circles or call quarters in public rites. We also discourage the mixing of deities from different cultures in the same rite, preferring our folks to stick to one culture at a time.

The Wheel of the Year by Phaedra Bonewits

As for the Wheel of the Year, we usually don’t use the same names or meanings of the holidays that the rest of Paganism does. If someone is doing a Hellenic rite for a High Day they will often find an ancient rite that fits into that time of year and do that. It would be absurd to use Irish words in a Greek rite. And the same goes for all our cultures.

We call on Nature Spirits but not the Sidhe, necessarily, and believe me, it’s not all sweetness and light. We don’t use pentacles, although some people will use crystals for healing. But yes, we do raise energy for magical purposes occasionally, and much of our Order of Ritual is magical in nature, but that’s another question.

KS – In forming ADF, Isaac Bonewits took a strong stance against Wiccan-influenced and generic modern Paganism, yet the organization now includes a wide range of religions from a great variety of parent cultures. At this point, how is ADF fundamentally different from eclectic Neo-Paganism?

KT – We are held together by our common Order of Ritual. Certain steps, based in IE concepts, take place in a certain order. An ADF member visiting a grove [ritual worship group] far from home will know exactly what is going on in the ritual, even if the culture being honored is different from their own.

KS – Is there any formal relationship between ADF and other Druid organizations around the world? Have you yourself participated in rituals or otherwise interacted with members of these groups?

KT – Not really. Some of us know each other and interact on a personal basis, but nothing formal.

KS – One of the most striking classical accounts of Druidry is the description by Tacitus (c. 56-115 CE) of female druids on Anglesey “raising their hands to the sky and shouting dreadful curses” that terrified and paralyzed the invading Roman soldiers. What percentage of ADF Druids would you estimate are women? How has ADF worked to promote women in clergy and other leadership roles?

KT – I’d guess that women outnumber men in ADF. In the clergy, there are nineteen female members and sixteen male. I’d say we’re promoting women pretty well.

KS – The association of Germanic polytheism with racism has long been something that mainstream practitioners of Ásatrú and Heathenry have struggled against. Modern practitioners of Celtic religions also have to deal with the appropriation of elements of their root culture for racist nationalist ends.

Wise Use activists, the League of the South, the Lega Nord, believers in the Celtic nature of the Confederate States, and others in the United States and Europe have asserted a Celtic identity as a white identity that enables them, in the words of geographers James McCarthy and Euan Hague, “to claim for themselves an ethnic identity strongly associated with oppression and resistance to the state, a position that affords them symbolic resources in negotiating the challenges of both multiculturalism and neoliberalism.” Isaac Bonewits drew a hard line to keep neo-Nazis and anti-Semites out of ADF, stating that “personally I don’t think they belong in the neo-Pagan community at all.”

Although your own work focuses on comparative Indo-European work, ADF discourages the mixing of deities from different parent cultures in a given rite. Does this reinforce ideas of racial and cultural essentialism and go against the idea of Indo-European connections? How did you deal with issues of identity, race, and religion in your capacity as ADF Archdruid?

KT – I have always been quite adamant that racism has no place in ADF. And most of us worship the gods and spirits of multiple cultures. My personal work is in Irish, Welsh, Gaulish, Norse, and Hellenic cultures. While some stick to only one or two cultures – Irish and Norse are a popular pair – it’s hard to say no when a god or goddess approaches you and wants your attention. I don’t think racial and cultural essentialism is an issue for us at this time.

Kirk S. Thomas in Stone Circle at White Mountain Druid Sanctuary Complex

KS – Isaac Bonewits was raised Catholic and briefly attended “a high school seminary for kids, sort of like a prep school for future priests.” When asked why he remained a Druid, he replied, “I have a ‘vocation’ to be a Druid, using the Catholic terminology, since I don’t know any Celtic terminology to describe the same thing.” After reading this, I began to look at the idea of ADF as a Druid Catholic Church – to examine the extent to which the organization is built on a Catholic model. Please excuse my lengthy excursus, but I’ve been thinking a lot about this issue – not just in Druidry, but throughout the wider world of modern polytheism.

From its inception, ADF moved away from the small group structure and private rituals of Wiccan covens to focus on larger public rituals. Bonewits spoke of Wiccan leader “Gerald Gardner’s efforts to create what amounted to a Pagan house church movement” closer to the practice of early Christians; ADF instead focused on “liturgical work… mostly based on medium-to large-group liturgy,” which sounds more like the ritual practice developed by the Catholic Church. When Bonewits says, “I believe that modern-day Druids… have the ability to bring people together from many different origins and help them to learn how to work together to contact the Gods,” it sounds like he views ADF in a very Catholic – or at least catholic – sense.

Interestingly, practitioners of American Ásatrú tend to have private rituals within a local kindred structure, while their Icelandic counterparts hold larger public rites within a national structure. The American system is clearly based on Wiccan practice, turning covens into mostly independent kindreds and the Wheel of the Year into a variety of circular calendars with various mixtures of Norse, German, and English names for reconstructed and invented holidays. In contrast, the Icelandic system is built on a national clergy system with a specified calendar of celebrations and rites of passage quite close to those of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the National Church of Iceland.

ADF seems to follow the Icelanders in partially modeling structure and practice on a large Christian system, including the requirement that ADF groves required hold public rituals on the “High Days” of a generic Neo-Pagan Wheel of the Year. Like the Icelanders, ADF focuses on a structure with a single leader at the top of the organization and a practice of public, large group ritual. While the Icelanders follow the model of a national Lutheran church, ADF turns to the international model of Catholicism.

A core idea of ADF is its prescribed ritual form. According to Bonewits, “The primary advantage to having a standard liturgical outline is that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time it’s time to do a ritual, and people from various parts of your organization who are traveling through your territory can participate and know more or less what’s going to happen.” This idea has been put to use through all the “Kins” of ADF – Vedic, Germanic, Hellenic, Slavic, etc. Your own scholarly work has focused on similarities of belief and practice across the ancient Indo-European world, but ADF practice seems to again turn to the model of the Catholic Church, where a practitioner can find a church anywhere in the world, walk in, and expect a locally flavored variation on the same liturgical model.

Theologically, ADF places great emphasis on triads. This can be tied to Celtic ideas, but it seems to be used in a way quite close to Catholic doctrine. The Three Kindreds honored with ritual are ancestors, deities, and nature spirits, which are somewhat analogous to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. The Three Realms of Reality are the Heavens, Underworld, and this world – closer to Heaven, Hell, and this world of ours than to the Norse idea of nine worlds or the Celtic concept of the Otherworld intersecting with our own like a parallel plane of reality. Even when ADF overtly distinguishes itself from Christianity with the Doctrine of Archdruidic Fallibility, it is noteworthy that the distinction is made in opposition to specifically Catholic dogma.

The ritual garb you yourself wear while officiating looks very much like the vestments of a Catholic priest. However, some of your own statements seem to lean towards a Protestant outlook. “It is my belief that ADF Priests are primarily ritual specialists,” you have written. “While priests lead groups of the People in making sacrifices, acting as the face of the People towards the Kindreds [ancestors, deities, nature spirits], anyone, with experience and practice, can experience the Kindreds on their own.” This sounds more like Martin Luther than the pope.

So, there you have my overlong analysis! I’m very curious to know your thoughts on this. Did the Catholic background of Bonewits lead to a hardwiring of Catholic structure and theology into ADF? In turning away from Wiccan influence, has ADF embraced a Catholic one? I don’t mean in a parodic sense of a pope on a throne dispensing dogma, but in the way that the Catholic church actually works – a central leader and standard ritual, a core set of beliefs and practices, flexibility in local churches to address the needs and concerns of their own parish, and the other elements that I’ve addressed.

KT – I expect that Isaac did model us, at first, on the Catholic one. It’s what he knew. But we’ve moved far beyond that. Yes, we have an Archdruid, who is only first among equals. He has one vote on the Mother Grove and can be – and often is – outvoted. In no way could the President of the Corporation of ADF be compared to the pope. I expect that our rejection of the Catholic idea of the pope speaking ex cathedra – in that the Archdruid is fallible – was a reaction to the accusation made by others back in the day.

Kirk S. Thomas reads eulogy for Isaac Bonewits at his 2010 Memorial Service

As for theology, we couldn’t be more different. Catholicism is about submission to the will of God. And no one can access God without the intervention of a priest. We have none of that nonsense. We form relationships. We do not grovel. There is no idea of original sin – nor of grace, for that matter. We’re just fine the way we are and need no saving.

As for our ritual order, it is just that – a list of steps to be taken. The words are up to the celebrants. While there are certain tropes that have become popular that you may hear coming from different mouths, our rituals are as different as the people performing them. There is no set text, only a series of set steps – and these have pretty wide latitude as well.

As for triads, yes, the Christians stole a lot from the Irish. But our triadic models are functionally equal. Upper, middle, and lower worlds are metaphors only, a way of expressing an idea of the cosmos. The Irish horizontal version still equates – land is the midworld, sea is the underworld, and sky is the upper world. The Norse nine worlds also fit into this, with three worlds equating to each of the basic ADF three worlds.

You may be overthinking the comparisons. Modern people have been trained to want congregations and religious leaders. In ancient times, the entire city or tribe would come together for ritual, but we don’t have that luxury any more. We in ADF are a collection of local tribes, if you will, bound together in a larger tribe. And that’s what the standardization – what little we have – is for: to hold us together.

Indo-European Religion

KS – There is a very fierce debate raging between Indian Hindus and American academics over the ways in which Hinduism is studied and taught in the United States. In a very broad sense, the dispute can be summed up as Hindus believing that the voices of actual Indian practitioners are denigrated in American academia, and American academics believing that their scholarly training gives them a deeper understanding of the Indian religious traditions than Indians themselves have. I have spoken to passionate people on both sides of the aisle, and the animus can sometimes be quite intense.

Throughout your book, your examples from India are centered on Vedic religion of the earliest recorded period, not from modern Hinduism. Unlike continental Europe, the British Isles, and the Nordic countries – the root lands of the various forms of modern Paganism – India never underwent a major conversion to Christianity, and Christians only make up 2.3% of the population today. Indian religion has undergone many major changes from the Vedic period through the varieties of today’s Hinduism, yet there is a rich living tradition with Indo-European roots stretching back 3,500 years. The early Vedic texts are definitely closer to Celtic and Norse traditions than today’s Hindu teachings, but it seems that Hinduism provides a model of what other paganisms could have developed into if not for the Christian conversions.

All of this raises several questions. Are there Hindus from India or of Indian background in the Vedic wing of ADF, or is it comprised of European-Americans practicing their own academically based versions of Indian religion?

KT – We are starting where the ancient religions left off. Hinduism is it’s own religion. As I tell people, if you want to be a Hindu, go be a Hindu. ADF doesn’t need to reimagine something that already exists.

The changes in Vedic religion that occurred by the time of classical Hinduism, including the splitting off of Buddhism and Jainism, were profound. Sacrifice was replaced by puja. Even the gods changed. Major Hindu gods – such as Shiva, Vishnu, and Brahma – are hardly mentioned in the Rig Veda and were very minor gods. Great Vedic gods – such as Indra – became much less important and even became demonized in some minds.

The mighty Indra uses his thunder weapon against Vritra

This is why we say ADF is based on pre-Christian, pre-Hindu, and pre-Zoroastrian ideas. I have no idea if we have any Hindus of Indian background in ADF. We do have a western scholar studying in India who has been very helpful for the Eastern Kin.

KS – Modern Hindus practice a living religion that has evolved over the centuries from an early Indo-European polytheism and did not have to be revived after being eradicated. If the central goal of ADF is to rebuild and strengthen living Indo-European religions, wouldn’t it make sense to work with Hindus and learn from their religious insights?

KT – Not really. Modern Hinduism is as different from ancient Vedic religion as modern Christianity is from the tiny churches that existed before Constantine. It’s interesting, perhaps, but why bother? To favor Hinduism would force us to favor Christianity, as well, and that sort of defeats our purpose.

KS – We discussed ADF’s prescribed ritual earlier. Although there are fascinating similarities between various Indo-European religions, there are real and profound differences in belief and ritual. Aside from adding “local color” to the standard ritual – using culture-specific deity names, for example – how do you address the major temporal, spatial, cultural, theological, and ritual differences between the religions? Do you view the Norse, Celtic, Slavic, Vedic, and other polytheistic traditions under the ADF banner as separate and distinct religions, or are they all “denominations” of one overarching religion?

KT – Since we follow our own Order of Ritual, this transcends all those differences you mention above. ADF is Indo-European religion, so all the various cultures you mention would be denominations, I suppose, rather than different religions. Remember, we’re not trying to recreate ancient religion. We are reimagining it for modern people. There’s a big difference there.

KS – Discussion of Indo-European theory is largely verboten in much of academia today, due to its connection with racialist thinking before and during the Third Reich. Historian of religions Bruce Lincoln once insisted to me that all the major scholars in the field were fascists, war criminals, or both. However, many modern Pagans still embrace the older scholarship. ADF is fundamentally built around a comparative Indo-European approach, as is your book. How do you respond to scholars in the academy who view any such work with intense suspicion?

KT – Yes, and Bruce Lincoln is a socialist. Ha! So all of them need to be taken with a grain of salt. ADF used to accept Dumézil’s tripartite theory, but it’s so obviously flawed that we’ve pretty much dropped it now. We do still value Eliade and his theories of the sacred and profane, the center and the border, but I honestly don’t see any racialist attitudes in his work. And we also value Mr. Lincoln. He’s in my book as well. We just take the best and leave the rest.

Sacred Spaces

KS – You’ve built two stone circles for ritual use, one used in the past by the Sonoran Sunrise Grove in Tuscon and one currently used as part of the White Mountain Temple Complex in Trout Lake, Washington.


Consecration of Summerland Stone Circle (Tucson) on night before Imbolc 2002

Given the dedication of ADF to scholarship and the detailed precision of your own scholarly work, I’m curious why you call both of these stone circles Nemetons. The term has complex meaning but is most often associated with sacred groves of trees. Isaac Bonewits himself said, “A Nemeton is a sacred grove, or a sacred space in general, but it was always associated with groves of trees. Archaeologists and philologists have said that it means ‘sacred grove.’”

Do you have a different interpretation of the Nemeton?

KT – You are right that Nemeton usually means a sacred grove. However, in Gaul, these groves also gained small temples inside them, usually by Roman times. So for me, a Nemeton can also be a sacred temple.

In Tucson, I was confronted with a desert. Trees are very difficult to grow, and a grove would take forever and would also take a lot of care. So, I went with a stone circle instead.

The circle design I’ve used in both places is more akin to the pre-Indo-European stone circles of the British and Irish megalithic eras. I admit this. There is some evidence that the last phase of Stonehenge was built by Indo-Europeans, but that doesn’t really help.

Plan of the Summerland Stone Circle (Tucson)

The earlier designs were more egalitarian, where anyone could sit on the ditch bank and watch what went on inside – think Avebury – while at Stonehenge it would be far more difficult, so that elite rituals could take place inside in private. I’m not proud of this. But I believe that the great stones soak up and store energy, making the place juicy, which I like. This is just my own UPG [unverified personal gnosis], of course.

KS – Since ADF is so clearly centered on Indo-European practice, I’m also curious why you base your ritual space on megalithic stone circles, which long pre-date the arrival of Celtic peoples in what we now consider Celtic lands. Stonehenge, the most famous example, was built over a period of time around 2500 BCE and likely in ruins by 1000 BCE – before any evidence of people speaking what we now call Celtic languages appear in the area. Furthermore, there is no archaeological evidence for the use of Stonehenge in the Celtic period.

However, the image of Druids performing rituals at Stonehenge has been hard-wired into the popular imagination since the English antiquarian John Aubrey suggested in 1659 that the monument was set up as a Druid temple by the Celts. More recently, this connection has been famously embraced by Athur Uther Pendragon of the Council of British Druid Orders, a regular fixture at the summer solstice rituals held each year at Stonehenge. What’s your view on the connection between the stone circles (ancient and modern) and Druidry (ancient and modern)?

KT – I believe I answered much of this in the previous question. And I don’t think there is any connection. Stone circles are just cool. Ha!

KS – The two ritual complexes you built are impressively massive, and required professional engineers, construction crews, and heavy machinery to build. They include pavement, paving stones, and concrete poured over metal receiving rods. The second complex includes a sanctuary originally constructed by the previous property owner to be a Judeo-Buddhist retreat house. The structure now has running water, electric power, artificial lighting, and a heating system installed. The ritual area includes a plastic-lined Sacred Well and a stone-lined fire pit for offerings. The entire complex is truly amazing and extremely impressive. Mount Adams and the rest of the natural setting that serves as a backdrop is magnificent, but the constructed space seems constructed in a post-industrial sense.

At first, I struggled to reconcile the concept of you have called a “nature religion” with these engineered spaces, and I wondered about the spiritual and psychological results of moving a sacred space from forest grove to manufactured complex. Then I started to think about the massive temples of the ancient Greeks and Romans and the unbelievably ornate temples of ancient and modern India. Maybe the Celts practicing in the forest were simply at an earlier stage of Indo-European development and would have eventually built mid-sized buildings like the Nordic hofs before moving on to larger and more sophisticated temples like those of the other cultures.

What was your thought process when designing your sacred spaces? Were you trying to imagine what the physical structures of Druidic religion would have developed into in the modern age, if not for the destruction of the old Celtic religions?

KT – We live in the modern world. People won’t come if it’s too uncomfortable, hence the benches and paving. We get up to five feet of snow per year – this year was bad – and no one likes mud. Also, I wanted to include the Cosmos Sigil in the floor, to help tie in the well, fire, and tree – the axis mundi pillar. The entire circle is aligned on the pole star over Mount Adams, as well.

Stone Circle at the White Mountain Druid Sanctuary Complex (Trout Lake)

I believe that had the ancient Gauls and Druids been left alone they would have turned their oppida into cities, and the primitive temples – such as the stone ones at Entremont – might have spread throughout Gaul. Yes, the idea of using stone for a temple might have come from the nearby Greek colony of Massalia, but ideas spread, anyway. They would not have built stone circles, though, like I did. That time had passed.

KS – I’ve read of your plans to build Trout Lake Abbey as a “cultural complex to include the entire Indo-European spectrum,” and I’ve found information about it being a “joint venture to create both a Druidic and a Buddhist monastery on the same property.” You’ve also referred to it as an “ADF monastery and seminary.” How have your plans progressed at this point, and what are the current goals for the project?

KT – Actually, once I became Archdruid everything came to a stop. I’ve not made any plans to date, I fear. Now that I’m no longer in that position, I hope to begin working on this seriously soon.

To be concluded in Part Three.
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