Saturday, December 20, 2014

ART CONTEST – Adult Winners, Midwinter 2014

The adult category in this year's Midwinter Art Contest received entries from Australia, Germany, Indonesia, Poland, and throughout the United States. There were many wonderful entries, and it was very hard for us to rank them all. The difficulty of ranking such a high quality of submitted works shows in the fact that, in a first for The Norse Mythology Blog's art contests, there were exact ties for both first and second place.

Steve Parkhouse's cover art for the first
issue of Dark Horse's Resident Alien
I can't thank our two guest judges enough. They both spent a lot of personal time ranking all the entries for the three age divisions, then writing comments on each of the winning pieces. Their work is much appreciated!

Steve Parkhouse has been a major force in comics at least since his appearance in 1969 as a writer for the legendary Marvel comic Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD. He made a huge impression on me when I was a kid; his comics from the pages of Doctor Who Monthly have been reprinted multiple times in the US and UK and are rightly considered classics. He continues to blaze new trails as both writer and artist, such as work drawing Resident Alien for Dark Horse Comics.

Dr. Helga Hlaðgerður Lúthersdóttir is currently Teaching Fellow in Old Norse and Icelandic language and literature at University College London. She has also been Head of Nordic studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She has taught courses on Norse mythology, Icelandic saga, Vikings, and the Nordic sources of Tolkien's mythology. Her insights on all of the entries were very helpful.

If you haven't checked out the winners in the other age divisions, click here for the kid winners and here for the teen winners. Congratulations to all who won, thanks to everyone who entered, and hails to the judges for their work. Stay tuned for the next art contest in 2015!

Note: You can click on the art to see larger versions.

FIRST PLACE (TIE)
Levi Simpson
Age 34
Sedro-Woolley, Washington, USA

Levi writes, "It looks as if the midwinter celebration is kicking off. The blazing Yule logs have the town glowing as the Yule Goat makes his way for the yearly celebration. But it looks as if more snow is in the forecast as Frau Holle seems to be shaking her bed out again."

Dr. Lúthersdóttir says that Levi's work utilizes "great composition and excellent use of abstract patterns juxtaposed with stylized winter-scapes to create a tranquil mood of midwinter."

Mr. Parkhouse comments, "A light touch and a decorative feel make this image stand out. Images that utilise an extended landscape format have a compositional advantage over other formats, being easier to implement Golden Section ratios, which this artist has done very successfully. Together with a subtle color scheme, Levi has produced an arresting illustration."

I love that Levi has brought together elements from various folklores into a unified whole. The piece manages to exude both the cold of midwinter and the warmth of the celebrations. Fantastic!

First Place (Tie): Levi Simpson

FIRST PLACE (TIE)
Ida M. Kozlowski
Age 35
Poznań, Poland

Ida describes her piece: "The illustration shows the goddess Skaði. Natural, Norwegian winter landscape in the background. Viewers may feel the same winter climate in which I grew up. All together shows the winter weather of northern Europe – a terrible cold and wind. In these difficult conditions, every ray of sunshine, happy like nothing else on earth. Such a climate means that people always stick together. So let us be together this winter, as the Northmen!"

Dr. Lúthersdóttir was very impressed: "Excellent use of color, great composition and beautiful depiction of movement and mood. An impressive depiction of Skaði indeed."

Mr. Parkhouse writes, "This picture demonstrates a professional quality of illustration. However, I don't see any great emphasis on mythological content. The artist has focused on the characteristics of climate and has done it very successfully with a cool palette and a very knowing use of composition."

I have a very hard time deciding which piece – Levi's or Ida's – I like better! This is a wonderfully original take on one of my favorite characters from Norse mythology. Beautiful work!

First Place (Tie): Ida M. Kozlowski

SECOND PLACE (TIE)
Jean-Hubert Rouppillard
Age 39
Sannois, Val-d’Oise, France

Jean-Hubert writes, "For me, the midwinter is the moment in the season cycle where the principles of Winter/Night/Death fall back in front of the forces of Creation/Day/Life. So I choose to represent it through the confrontation between jötnar and Thor, protector of Midgard. I try to divide my picture in two. Jötnar for one side – forces of winter, long nights and event negative chaos (with the avalanche). Thor for this other side – force of Life and Order (with the rising sun to symbolize the return of Life Forces)."

Dr. Lúthersdóttir says that the piece features "dramatic composition and good use of color. Interesting personification of the dramatic relationship the Norse had to nature ."

Mr. Parkhouse comments, "This is a lively and robust rendering of a dramatic event depicting the conflict of elemental forces. It's a very ambitious project, its impact being projected through the corresponding "angles of attack" of the main protagonists. However, I can't help feeling that the impact would be heightened if Thor had been outlined against an empty background rather than mountains and trees."

I really like the idea of a jötunn taking form as an avalanche using the weapon of an uprooted tree as a weapon. This captures a profound understanding of the natural forces behind the Norse myths in a powerful image.

Second Place (Tie): Jean-Hubert Rouppillard

SECOND PLACE (TIE)
Sam Flegal
Age 34
Nashville, Tennessee, USA

Sam explains his work: "Frigga the All-Mother and Lady of Winter sitting atop her throne. She weaves the cosmos, holds the keys of Asgard, and wears the crown of winter. In the background are the souls of children who die young, forever in the care of the All-Mother. To the side of her throne a sprig of mistletoe hangs both as a symbol of her peace and the doom of Balder."

Mr. Parkhouse writes, "Sam has depicted a wonderful earth mother in this image, with many elements of mythology in their rightful place. Very complex compositions such as this can often look overly cluttered, but the skilful use of color has prevented this. Our eyes are drawn immediately to the Mother's warm smile and comforting anatomy. The decorative detail is also rendered with warmth and a great deal of heart."

Sam was a runner-up in the Midwinter Art Contest 2013, and he's a great guy, so it's nice to see him move up the rankings this time around. I'm always amazed by both Sam's technical skill as an artist and his love for Norse mythology – a love he clearly expresses in his striking works of art.

Second Place (Tie): Sam Flegal

THIRD PLACE
Marc Macaluso
Age 40
Oberlin, Ohio, USA

Marc explains the elements of his piece: "I was working with the idea of midwinter as a time allowing more passing between the realms and a jötunn responsible for an ice storm over Stockholm. The jötunn is wearing a robe with the rune Þurisaz."

Dr. Lúthersdóttir writes that Marc's work is a "beautiful modern depiction of the jötnar as representatives of winter. Excellent composition, beautiful coloring."

Mr. Parkhouse comments as both artist and writer, "The color range here is very subtle and altogether appropriate for the subject. Depicting an elemental jötunn in a contemporary setting is an interesting and original idea. Marc has hit upon a story idea which might be well worth developing."

Like the other winning entries, Marc's work shows a very unique approach to the mythic material. He shows a jötunn in a way I had never imagined or seen portrayed by previous artists. Wonderful!

Third Place: Marc Macaluso

Friday, December 19, 2014

ART CONTEST – Teen Winners, Midwinter 2014

This year's teen entries in the Midwinter Art Contest were all very interesting. There was a great difference of concept and technical approach between each of the pieces we received. It was fantastic to see so many original ideas!

Special thanks go to our celebrity judges, Steve Parkhouse (comic book legend behind classic Doctor Who, Hulk and 2000 AD) and Dr. Helga Hlaðgerður Lúthersdóttir (Teaching Fellow in Old Norse and Icelandic language and literature at University College London). Both of them spent a great deal of time ranking the entries and writing comments. Their contributions are much appreciated!

The three winners in the teen division all showed a wonderful combination of interest in Norse mythology and creativity in interpreting the classic texts. It's great to see a new generation of artists engaging with the world of the Norse myths in such an original way. Congratulations to Ayu, Millie and Andrew!

If you haven't seen the kids' division winners yet, check them out by clicking here.

Note: You can click on the art to see larger versions.

FIRST PLACE
Ayu Putri Kenyo Jati
Age 17
Kramat Jati, Jakarta, Indonesia

Ayu describes the winning entry: "Freyja weeps for her missing husband Óðr and seeks after him in far away lands."

All three judges ranked this piece in the top spot. Dr. Lúthersdóttir says, "Beautiful use of colour, interesting composition and mixing of cultural references; good use of watercolor as medium."

Mr. Parkhouse agrees: "This is a very strongly rendered image, without resorting to clip art or any other electronic aids. The colors are bold and confidently applied, which suggests a strong imagination. The image has a powerful tribal feeling, which some viewers may characterize as primitive but is in fact very sophisticated. A true artist in the making."

This is wonderful work of art that shows Freyja in a way that I had never imagined. Isn't that what the best art does? It helps us to see the familiar in unfamiliar ways. If you're wondering what myth Ayu is referring to, here is the relevant passage from Snorri Sturluson's Edda:
Freyja, along with Frigg, is the most noble. She married the man called Óðr. Their daughter, Hnoss, is so beautiful that from her name comes the word for a treasure that is exceptionally handsome and valuable. Óðr went traveling on distant paths while Freyja remained behind, crying tears of red gold. Freyja has many names, because she gave herself different names as she travelled among unknown peoples searching for Óðr.
First Place: Ayu Putri Kenyo Jati

SECOND PLACE
Millie Anderson
Age 16
Oberlin, Ohio, USA

Millie describes her piece: "In my artwork you will see Iðunn walking in the middle of a snowstorm with her basket of apples to an apple tree to get more apples for the rest of the gods and goddesses to keep them young this midwinter."

Mr. Parkhouse writes, "Millie's picture demonstrates a very subtle and sophisticated approach, especially in its composition. The use of white space emphasises the central pillar of tree and figure. And it asks a question: why does the goddess carry the basket behind her back?"

Dr. Lúthersdóttir adds, "Good structure and nice juxtaposition of color. Via her use of color, the artist reflects the contrasts of summer and winter of the Norse mythology, where Ásgarð is often depicted as free from the seasons of Midgarð and yet mirroring the northern world of humans."

I really like the sense of winter quiet in Millie's entry. Here's the mythic background of the art, again from Snorri's Edda:
In her private wooden box, [Iðunn] keeps the apples which the gods bite into when they begin to grow old. They all become young again, and so it will be right up to Ragnarök.
Second Place: Millie Anderson

THIRD PLACE
Andrew M. Kiley
Age 17
Columbia Station, Ohio, USA

Andrew writes, "My artwork is of Thor and one of his goats. Since midwinter is the longest night of the year, my artwork is set during a winter night. The symbols on Thor's hammer are the runic symbols for Thor."

Dr. Lúthersdóttir says, "Good composition. An interestingly down-to-earth depiction of the thunder god, the god of the common man."

Mr. Parkhouse writes, "This picture is clearly defined and well composed. The three picture planes lend a sense of distance and scale, and the figure of Thor is strongly present. I would encourage Andrew to experiment more with natural materials as computer generated art can be a little stiff."

As in Ayu's piece, Andrew's entry shows a figure from Norse myth in a way quite different from how I've imagined him. I greatly appreciate Andrew's originality and creativity!

Third Place: Andrew M. Kiley

Adult winners will be announced tomorrow!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

ART CONTEST – Kid Winners, Midwinter 2014

There were many wonderful entries in the kids'  division of this year's Midwinter Art Contest. We received art from children in Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. All of the pieces were wonderful and creative!

I'm very grateful for the time my fellow judges spent ranking the entries, and I'm honored to sit on the panel with comics legend Steve Parkhouse (a longtime hero of mine) and University College London's Dr. Helga Hlaðgerður Lúthersdóttir (an accomplished scholar whose insights I greatly value).

Congratulations to our three talented winners! The assignment was to create a piece that was on the theme of midwinter and contained at least one element from Norse mythology. Judging was based not only on technical ability; creativity and connection to myth and folklore were upmost in the minds of the judges. These young artists impressed all three of us, and I hope that they continue to explore the rich tradition of the lore and to create new works of original art.

Thanks to all who entered! We really enjoyed your work. I'm curious to see how your art will evolve over the coming years.

Note: You can click on the art to see larger versions.

FIRST PLACE
Rowan Chiment-Scimeca
Age 7
Fort Collins, Colorado, USA

Rowan writes: "It's a picture of Mother Holle hugging the sky to send snow to the small village below. She is dreaming about snow and protecting the good children in the village who have been working hard and who are now getting snow to play in. There is an elf peeking out from the clouds into the world of men to see what is happening. There is a person singing and a decorated tree because the people in the village have been working hard and they are now celebrating and relaxing with their families."

When my father was a little child in the German village of Wolfingen in the 1930s, his parents told him that the winter snow was caused by Frau Holle shaking out her down comforter in the clouds. He told me the story when I was a young kid in Chicago. I'm very happy to see that a new generation of children are learning this wonderful bit of old folklore!

First Place: Rowan Chiment-Scimeca

SECOND PLACE
Laia Chiment-Scimeca
Age 9
Fort Collins, Colorado, USA

Laia writes, "This is the Yule Cat pulling a holiday sleigh. Freya's chariot is pulled by giant cats, so maybe the Yule Cat used to pull her chariot but left and now helps the spirits of Yule. The Yule Cat checks out which children have done their work and have new clothes and brings the sleigh with presents to the hard-working children. The Yule Cat's harness has a light on it so gifts can be delivered at night while everyone sleeps and to remind people that the sun is coming back. The gifts in the sleigh are small but when you take them off the sleigh they grow to full size."

What a creative piece! Dr. Lúthersdóttir says, "Excellent depiction of the independent cat who treads his own path as cats are wont to do. Very interesting merging of myth and folklore."

Laia Chiment-Scimeca

THIRD PLACE
Asha D.
Age 12
Melbourne, Australia

Asha writes, "This drawing is of Odin riding Sleipnir through the midwinter night."

Dr. Lúthersdóttir says that this is a "well-structured drawing of considerable talent." I agree, and I'm happy to see another winner from the class of Cathy Yeoman in Victoria, Australia. Her students won all three spots in the Midsummer 2013 and Midsummer 2014 kid's categories, and they took two of the top spots in the Midwinter 2013 contest. Cathy teaches Norse myth to her Class 4 students, and I would like to again thank her again for keeping the tradition alive. The world needs  more teachers like her!

Third Place: Asha D.

Teen winners will be announced tomorrow!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

THREE ÁSATRÚ WORLDVIEWS, Part Three

As in Part One and Part Two of this series, the questions asked by Bob Smietana (religion journalist and president of the Religion Newswriters Association) are in printed in red. Full answers from Haukur Bragason (goði of the Ásatrúarfélagið), Steven T. Abell (Steersman of The Troth) and me are below each question.

7. How would you compare how you teach your kids about heathenry with how your parents raised you?

Haukur reading with his daughter
Haukur Dór Bragason
I was raised by Christian parents. My mother tought me to pray. I had my Christian child-faith until I was around fifteen, but I really never felt good about it. I was afraid of Hell, and I didn't understand God. I've never felt as free as when I lost my faith.

I do not want to teach my kid anything about Heathenry as a spiritual thing. I teach her the stories, and she likes them – just as she likes Cinderella and Frozen. I stop there. I have no right to impose religion upon my child. It is my belief that children shouldn't think about religion, be afraid of Hell, or try to understand God or other gods and religions. Let's save that for a later day.

Steven T. Abell
My parents read to me and talked with me about all kinds of things. I don't recall that they ever talked down to me – not that it would have turned out well if they had tried. I made an effort to do the same with my daughter.

I grew up going to a mainstream Christian church in the 1950s and 1960s – not the firebreathing kind. I was required by my parents to go to Sunday school. When the teachers were good, it was okay – but not for the religious aspects. My family was never overtly religious, but church was an important part of our life for a long time. That disintegrated as the late-1960s took hold of things.

When my daughter was little, I took her to a mainstream Christian church – not the firebreathing kind. The religion was never important to me, but I wanted her to know something like the community I had growing up. There were several reasons we stopped going there.

After I discovered organized Heathenry, we attended those events regularly. She is grown now, but still likes to attend when her schedule permits.

Karl E. H. Seigfried
I think I covered this in my earlier answers, really.

8. What do your kids think about being Heathen? Do they ever get pushback from their friends about their religion? Do you get pushback from friends and family?

Haukur Dór Bragason
My kid isn't Heathen. My kid's just a kid.

I don't get pushback. Heathenry is respected in Iceland.

Steven T. Abell
My daughter went to a high school that was almost entirely Catholic (the Filipino population) or Baptist (the Black population). I remember her saying that sometimes she had friends who were having trouble with whatever the religion was at home, and she would tell them that there were other options. If she caught any flack for this, I didn't hear about it.

My mom is still a little uncomfortable about me being Heathen, but some things have changed for her. For one thing, she comes to Yule at our house now, then goes home a day or two later. She says that Christmas is "someone else's holiday" now, and that seems to be just fine.

Lightning over Silicon Valley (Photo: Michael Ramirez)
I live and work in Silicon Valley. Most of my coworkers are Hindus. We can and do have very interesting conversations about our pantheons and their putative common origins. Here, I only occasionally meet people who react negatively. There are other places I could live, even in California, where I would probably have to pretty much hide out. A friend of mine is not only Heathen, but a professor of Evolutionary Biology at a college in the Deep South. I don't know how he does it. A well-developed sense of humor probably helps.

Some Heathens have an awful time with family over it. These stories appear in our online discussion groups all the time, posted by people who are trying to be nothing but honest and respectful with their kin. And being overtly pagan of any stripe is still the wrong thing to be during some divorces. Some judges never figure out what Freedom of Religion actually means.

Karl E. H. Seigfried
I'm not quite sure how to answer that question. Pushback implies that I'm trying to force my beliefs on someone, and that the person is resisting. One thing that I think most followers of Ásatrú would agree on is that proselytization is not part of being Heathen.

When speaking about the founding of the Ásatrúarfélagið (“Æsir Faith Fellowship”) in Iceland and about the organization's structural rules, Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson once said, "In the law, it's forbidden to go out and do missionary work. No one should be able to force his beliefs on another. They come on their own, when they are minded to do so." I wholeheartedly agree with that idea, and I think that our world would be a much better place if this policy was adopted by people of all faiths.

A completely valid objection to this viewpoint would be to argue that a tradition will eventually die out if it doesn't find new members. I would counter that this religion that we practice is the rebirth of a faith that was willfully stamped out and eradicated by Christian missionaries and their converts, yet managed to come back and grow when the time was right – without having to do violence to anyone, force unwilling people into the religion, or proselytize to convince others that this is The One True Path.

If it's right for you, you'll find a Heathen path – no missionaries needed.
Can you imagine a world in which all religious people had enough confidence in their tradition's teachings and its spiritual power that they simply let people come to it on their own? What if we lived in a world where people stopped worrying about the spread of their religion and simply practiced it? Will we ever reach a point on this planet where people stop caring about what other people believe?

No, I don't get pushback from friends and family about my religion. They continue to be supportive, curious and welcoming. The pushback I regularly receive has been from people in positions of power related to religion, most often where there is money involved.

I wrote an article for Interfaith Ramadan about some closed doors I've run into when engaging with interfaith organizations and religion news organizations. I've been told by administrators and reporters from around the world that Ásatrú isn't included in interfaith organizations (because it's uncomfortable for their members to be confronted with the unfamiliar), that Ásatrú isn't newsworthy (unless a Heathen commits a violent crime), and that Heathen voices aren't needed (because Christian journalists can explain every worldview).

So, the pushback I've received has only occurred when I've called for inclusion of Ásatrú at the table with the religious traditions currently dominant in our culture. Institutionalized power structures are a Hel of a Thing, if you'll forgive me for a Norse pun.

9. Do you think the Norse gods are real? Are they actual beings, or are they myths who inhabit inspiring stories?

Haukur Dór Bragason
Yes and no. Usually, when a Christian asks me the question "Do you think the old gods are real?", what he really means is, "Do you believe in the old gods in the same way as I believe in God?" In that case, the answer is no, they are not "real."

The monotheist religion and fundamentalism are not comparable to this polytheist religion, or what I would like to call siður (way, custom, tradition) instead of religion. It is hard for someone brought up thinking "monotheism = religion" to understand a whole other belief system and an entirely different set of rules – or lack of rules, more pertinently. He doesn't have to be a religious man to have a hard time getting it; he just has to be used to this monotheist religious frame, and then he might have a hard time thinking outside that frame – and that's understandable.

Milky Way, northern lights & volcano (Iceland photo: Maciej Winiarczyk)
The old gods are the powers around and within us given names. They are earth, sea, wind and fire; they are strength, lust, fertility and greed. They are nature and human nature. I don't feel the need to find something more divine than the stars above me and the incomprehensible distance between them. The immense power of a large waterfall, the breathtaking beauty of rare rock formations or the black depths of unknown oceans – to me, this is divine. I am struck with awe when I think about Mother Earth and the world we live in.

So, if by asking "Do you think the old gods are real," you are really asking "Is there something more than man?" – then the answer is yes, the old gods are real. We are surrounded by divinity.

The poems and stories found in the Eddas are man-made; they are not considered to be holy texts from divine sources. The people created gods in their own image and gave them names. This way of drawing the entities people saw as gods near them, giving them a human form and names – they were able to familiarize them and think about them more concretely. If you walk through a forest what you might see is just green grass and trees. If you know your plant taxonomy, you see all kinds of different plants; you know them by name, and you are much more familiar with your surroundings. An unknown face in the crowd is just part of the people, but as soon as someone tells you his/her name, he stands out and you associate him/her with an identity.

What I'm trying to say is that we do much better thinking about something that we have names for, and that it's very understandable that people did this. That's how the stories come to life. In that sense, the gods are much more than "myths who inhabit inspiring stories." If what you mean by "actual beings" is someone I could meet at the grocery store, the answer is no – but since there is nothing more "actual" than the wind you feel on your face or the ground beneath your feet, the answer has to be yes.

Steven T. Abell in a photo
from The Troth Blog
Steven T. Abell
What do you mean by "real"?

Some Heathens believe the gods have physical bodies. Some believe they are spirit beings. Some believe they are deep pervasive metaphors. Some don't believe in gods at all – but if they did, these would be the ones. The "belief" thing is not all that important to most Heathens. The kind of person you are, on the other hand, is.

I have a hypothesis about what gods are and how they work – one that does not require the supernatural to be effective.

Meanwhile, I am Steersman (Executive Director) of The Troth, an international Heathen organization. Our members fall into all of these categories and probably more. I don't talk much about my personal take on things, as a point of respect to my office and our members. Ask me again in late 2016 and we might have a more interesting conversation.

I will tell you this: gods are not immortal, but the good ones are very hard to kill. Unfortunately, so are the bad ones.

Karl E. H. Seigfried
I think the Norse gods are absolutely real. I do not, however, think that they are walking, talking characters like they are portrayed in the Norse myths. This distinction seems to hang up a lot of people – some Heathens included. If one does not literally believe that Thor is a burly fellow with a red beard and a hammer who drives a chariot pulled by goats through the sky during thunderstorms – so the argument goes – then one is really an atheist. I don't think this is true.

Among Heathens, there is a very wide range of relationships with the divine. Depending on whom you ask, the gods are natural forces, psychological drives, poetic constructs, cultural figures, immanent material beings, or something else entirely. I may disagree strongly with what another Heathen believes to be the nature of the gods, but that doesn't mean that her experience of the divine isn't valid for her in as deep and as profound a way as that of someone with a radically different concept of godhood – in Ásatrú or any other tradition.

I believe that the gods are all around us. I feel Thor's power in the intense thunderstorm of the midwestern summer. I feel Odin's inspiration in the moment of musical improvisation. I feel the presence of the elves in the quietest places of the northern forests. In the surviving Old Norse texts, the gods are sometimes referred to as "the powers." I can understand that concept at a very fundamental level.

As for the myths, I think they portray the gods in understandable form – as symbols interacting with each other in narrative. Listening to a story about Thor can be a spiritual experience that is related to – but very different from – experiencing the presence of his power in the storm. Personally, I don't think we should take mythical narratives literally as history; to do so does violence, in some way, to the depth of their symbolic, religious and cultural meaning.

That violence can all too easily spill out into violence in our own world. I'm coming to believe more and more that the harm caused by religion (in history and today) most often arises from ancient texts – i.e., myths – being read literally. The texts may be polytheistic or monotheistic; literal reading of Norse mythology is just as problematic as literal reading of Christian mythology.

Myths are not history. To read myths as history is to blind oneself to the deeper meanings inherent in the texts and to prevent ourselves from discovering our own personal meanings by engaging with the texts in a spiritual way. At least, in the words of Thelonious Monk, "that's the way I feel now."

This concludes the series on Ásatrú worldviews. I'd like to thank Bob for asking the questions, and I'd especially like to thank Haukur and Steven for their thoughtful and thought-provoking answers.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

THREE ÁSATRÚ WORLDVIEWS, Part Two

As in Part One of this series, the questions asked by Bob Smietana (religion journalist and president of the Religion Newswriters Association) for his OnFaith article on Ásatrú are in printed in red. Full answers from Haukur Bragason (goði of the Ásatrúarfélagið), Steven T. Abell (Steersman of The Troth) and me are below each question.

4. Have you read or watched any of the pop culture treatments of Norse mythology – such as the Thor movies and comic books, or other books about Norse mythology? If so, what's your reaction to them?

A selection of books & movies based on Norse mythology
from the library of Haukur's daughter
Haukur Bragason
Yes, I've read and watched a lot of the pop culture treatment of Norse mythology. Here in Iceland, we have a lot of it – a big part of which is by Icelandic authors and published only in Icelandic. I've also seen the Thor movies, etc., and I read pop culture books with northern mythology. Some I like, some I don't – just as with any other book or movie.

I love it when people use the stories, the characters and the northern mythology and create something new. Some of it's accurate (compared to the original texts), some of it has changes I perhaps wouldn't have done myself, some of it is great, and some of it's not.

That opinion of mine has nothing to do with thinking the gods and lore are too sacred for me to cope with people using them for what they want. Blasphemy is something I don't think Heathens feel at all. I've never felt it, at least. We make jokes about our gods.

The foundations for the old faith are the stories made up by people – the stories told in the poems and Eddas. Why shouldn't modern people continue with new stories? It's a living treasure, not a dead text. By all means, use it.

Stan Lee & Jack Kirby in 1966, the year
Marvel Comics' Journey into Mystery
changed its title to The Mighty Thor
Steven T. Abell
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby understood that people need to know greatness, and stories are how most of us do that. Amid the schlock of the comics business, much of what they did was pretty amazing. I am old enough to remember when the Thor comic was new. When I started reading it, I already knew that it was an adaptation. It was easy to see the differences between the original myths and what Lee and Kirby had done with or to them. And a lot of it was just made up.

The Thor movies are interesting. The thing that the movies got most right is Thor's attitude. What a lot of people don't know is that Thor is a pretty cheerful guy, unless there is something serious to deal with. Anthony Hopkins' rendition of Odin, on the other hand, is so very wrong. And the movie Heimdall is not how I think of him at all, but he is also one of the most interesting characters in the movie. So I remind myself that it is a movie, and I mostly enjoy it. I only occasionally want to hiss and spit.

As for the narrative mythology translations that are available, there are things to complain about in any of them, if you are a purist. I try to appreciate what I can in each of them. In the preface of my book Days in Midgard, I say that anyone trying to make a cohesive whole out of the original materials has some difficult choices to make.

Wotan raises the sun: a powerful image from
Siegfried II: The Valkyrie by Alex Alice
Karl E. H. Seigfried
Yes, I definitely have. There's a huge variety of material built on the Norse myths, whether you call it popular culture or high culture – I'm not so sure that distinction is really valid, anymore. The myth-inspired work I've enjoyed includes Wagner's operas, Tolkien's prose and poetry, Marvel's Thor comics and movies, Joanne Harris' Runemarks books, M.D. Lachlan's Wolfsangel, and the music of Amon Amarth, Heidevolk and Týr. There is much more, of course, and I'm always amazed when someone comes along with a striking new approach to the material – as Alex Alice does in his brilliant Siegfried graphic novels, which are shocking in their mediation between tradition and innovation.

My reactions to these creative works are as varied as the pieces themselves. Sometimes, I manage to turn off my critical mind and simply enjoy the cosmic spectacle of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's Thor. Other times, I have moral issues with the repulsive politics of the work, but I can still enjoy the genius of the art – as in Wagner's operas. With an author like Tolkien, I can enjoy the work on multiple levels simultaneously; I can be swept away by the narrative, I can enjoy the philological humor, I can be amazed at his transformation of the source materials, and I can engage in a dialogue with his sociopolitical motivations. The approaches of these creators are as varied one would expect from work inspired by such infinitely interpretable symbols and narratives.

All of that being said, I personally draw a very strict line between mythology and religion on one side and creative work inspired by the myths on the other. I'm using the primary definition of myth as given, for instance, by Merriam-Webster: "a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon" – with the emphasis on "traditional story" and "world view of a people" (the idea that these myths were ever considered "historical" is debatable). The Norse myths can be enjoyed on many levels, including as fun stories that can be told to children. Fundamentally, however, they are the narratives that encode the worldview of a religion. The Norse myths are to historical Germanic Heathenry (and modern Ásatrú) as the Hebrew Bible is to Judaism; the ancient tales encode the spiritual and worldly beliefs of their source culture. Unfortunately for followers of Ásatrú, we have only the fragmentary remnants of an oral tradition as preserved in writing after the conversion of Northern Europe to Christianity.

Days in Midgard by Steven T. Abell
Many may disagree with me – and I welcome their different viewpoints – but I believe that the intention of the creator of the myth-inspired work matters. When Steven T. Abell, the current Steersman of the Troth, tells his original stories in Days in Midgard: A Thousand Years On, I think that is very different from Kenneth Branagh being hired by The Walt Disney Company (which owns Marvel Entertainment) and directing a Thor movie with the involvement of hundreds of technical staff members. One creation comes from the serious reflection of a religiously minded person and is designed to be experienced as both engaging narrative and as spur to further thought; the other is a corporations's commercial property designed to sell tickets and move product as part of a global entertainment empire. I'm not saying that I would necessarily consider Abell's work to be a religious text, but I am saying that I would definitely not consider Disney's film to be one. I would hope that this is fairly obvious.

None of this means that the commercial properties aren't enjoyable. It also doesn't meant that they can't lead people to think about issues or to become curious about reading the original myths. It simply means that I make a distinction between the texts that are at the core of a religious tradition and those that are part of an entertainment business. I also make a distinction between modern works created by an artist who is meaningfully engaged with a religious tradition and works created by non-participants as part of a separate literary or commercial enterprise. The Norse myths themselves are problematic as religious texts; they were written down by Christians after a sometimes bloody northern conversion. That is, however, a discussion for another time!

5. What are some of the challenges in passing your faith tradition on to your children, especially at a time when many other people disregard that faith as outdated? How do you convey the seriousness of the faith to your kids or to other people?

Haukur Bragason
I don't see it as my role to pass my faith tradition to my children, and I don't talk about religion with my daughter. Spirituality is not the stuff for children. Stories are. The foundations for everything we call Ásatrú are the stories and poems, and they are fantastic as just that – stories. They are what children find interesting, and there's no need to put religion in the mix.

"Trúboð er ósiður," it says in the laws of Ásatrúarfélagið. That means "Missionary work is rude." That goes for members of our family, same as anyone else. Preaching faith to children is something I think we should leave to other religions.

Telling the stories, our cultural heritage, and doing it exactly like that – just telling them as stories – is different. If the children listening to those stories grow up and see those stories as something more than just stories, then that's great – but it should come entirely from them.

Steven tells "Tomten: A Yule Tale," Bay Area Heathen Yule Dinner
Steven T. Abell
Mostly, you just live it. You start by telling them the stories when they are young. You have regular practices that they come to count on. Sometimes you might ask them how they think Thor or Odin or Freya or Tyr would handle some situation.

They will figure out on their own that their family is different. One of the most important things you can teach your children is that, in most regards, it doesn't matter what other people think.

You don't get to program your kids, you only get to influence them – so be realistic. They eventually have to decide for themselves what they will become. My now-grown daughter is not a practicing Heathen, but our household holidays are still an important part of her life – and things she hates to miss.

As for how I talk about this with other people, that's a big topic that won't fit here.

Karl E. H. Seigfried
I'm not sure that I personally believe in passing my faith tradition on to my daughter. I have issues with indoctrination of the young into any religious system. Even as a very young child, I felt that C.S. Lewis was attempting to manipulate me into a Christian worldview in his Narnia books. I loved Aslan in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but I distinctly remember feeling that something not quite kosher was going on when he appeared as a lamb in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. As an adult, I'm somewhat repulsed by the way in which Lewis consciously manipulates the emotions of young children to lay the psychological groundwork for later Christian belief.

Thor with his hammer & his goats
from D'Aulaire's Book of Norse Myths
Of course, I'm going to read D'Aulaires' Book of Norse Myths with my daughter – but we're also going to read D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths, the Jewish myths, the Christian myths, and many others. As my parents told me, I will tell her she can believe and practice as she wishes as an adult. As parents, however, I think my wife and I are responsible for giving her as rich an experience of the great myths of the world as we possibly can. I don't have much faith that our public education system will do very well in this regard.

Other Ásatrú parents will have very different ideas on how the tradition should be passed on. Some believe that people are "called" to the religion. Others believe that it is very important to pass the tradition on to our children, so that Ásatrú will continue to thrive in the future. We all do as we think best for our families. I respect their decision as I can only hope they will respect mine. We don't have to agree, but we can still be agreeable!

I would question the idea that "many other people disregard [Ásatrú] as outdated." I think most people simply don't regard Ásatrú at all. I've only met one non-Heathen person in the United States who saw my Thor's hammer pendant and asked, "Are you Ásatrú?" It was a different story when visiting Iceland, of course, where Ásatrú is the nation's largest non-Christian religion. If you know individuals who've publicly stated that our tradition is "outdated," I would be happy to meet them in an open forum and discuss what it means for a tradition followed by many thousands of people in nearly one hundred countries to be "obsolete." I would also love to discuss what it means for any ancient tradition to be "up-to-date."

Despite what some interfaith organizations will tell you,
these three faiths are not the only religions on Earth.
If there is to be real interfaith discussion in America, good people of all faiths have a responsibility to work towards an objectivity that sees every religion as equally valid and meaningful. Belonging wholly to one tradition shouldn't mean denigrating those who belong to other faiths. Rather than simply providing polemics and proselytizing, can't we simultaneously be true to our own traditions and respectful of people who follow different spiritual paths? In any case, I would hope that we can move beyond a hierarchical ranking of religions inspired by social Darwinism.

In terms of conveying the seriousness of my own approach to Ásatrú, I think a large part of it is doing interviews like this one. I wholeheartedly believe that speaking openly and honestly to others is the best way to build understanding. Whether the questions come from a journalist, a child, a teacher, or a student, people of good intent from any given religious tradition should take them seriously and do their best to answer in a fair manner. I'd also like to point out that there is a non-serious side to the tradition; some of the myths are fairly hilarious, and today's practitioners of Ásatrú often have great senses of humor. Taking one's tradition seriously doesn't necessarily make one a gloomy person!

6. The new series by Rick Riordan (author of the Percy Jackson books) will feature Norse mythology and be aimed at middle school kids. How should Ásatrú parents engage with those books and help their kids understand the difference between fiction and spirituality?

An illustration of the goddess Frigg
from Peter Madsen's Valhalla
Haukur Bragason
We should use the old stories, and we should play with them. They were made up, and we should continue making up stories and playing with those that already exist. There is absolutely no need for children to understand the difference between fiction and spirituality. Let them enjoy fiction without it.

It's great if parents help their kids grasp the concept of the original stories and characters – how old they are and where the characters come from. Help them to understand that people have been making up stories and playing with those characters for very long time, and it's great if we can continue to do it. Enjoy stories with your children and use them for fun; it doesn't matter if they are over a thousand years old or brand new.

Steven T. Abell
That's really pretty easy to deal with. You tell them this is based on this author's understanding of the myths to make a new story. Then you have some respect for your kid's intellect. You read the book with them, you talk about it with them while you do that, and let them do most of the talking. Ask them if it fits well with how they understand the myths themselves.

Not the final cover of Riordan's new book
Karl E. H. Seigfried
I haven't read Riordan's previous work, but I would be interested to learn about the mixture of research and invention in his new series. When creating a new series appropriating characters and narratives from Norse mythology – as opposed to "featuring" it, which implies a sort of faithful retelling – I think there's a great danger of accidentally falling into writing Marvel or Tolkien fan fiction, of unconsciously replicating concepts that come from later literature instead of the older mythology itself. The real creative challenge, I think, is to go back to the Norse sources and come up with a unique spin on the material that doesn't simply follow these well-trodden literary pathways.

I'm troubled by the fact that Riordan has told interviewers that "Loki is his favorite Norse god." Aside from the question of whether Loki is actually a god – Snorri Sturluson wrote around 1220 that Loki is merely "counted among" the gods – we've recently been inundated with modern fantasy works placing Loki at the center of the narrative. He is so much at the core of Joanne Harris' books that her third Norse-enspired novel is told entirely from his perspective. He's also at center stage in M.D. Lachlan's Wolfsangel and has been recast as a (complicated) protagonist in several recent Marvel Comics series. In the wake of Marvel's Thor movies, Tom Hiddleston's Loki seems to have more fans than Chris Hemsworth's Thor.

This is creating something of an impression that Loki is the "hero" or "protagonist" of the Norse mythological cycle, which he clearly was not. I would argue that ideas of character development and psychological insight are being projected from the present onto a body of myths belonging to a time when these would have been very strange concepts. Of course, each age interprets and manipulates myths of the past to tell stories about the current moment. The Romantics used Norse mythology for their own ends, as did the National Socialists. I simply ask: What is it about Loki that makes modern authors and audiences unable to resist him? What does this fixation say about our own cultural moment?

Sensing the presence of elves in the forest:
photo from a September walk in Wisconsin
I hope that Riordan will choose to focus on another figure and avoid appearing derivative of these other Loki-centric works. Why not a series centered on Freyja, the goddess who flies through the air as a falcon? On Baldr, who becomes invincible to everything except one little plant? On Völundr, the great mystic smith of the North who creates wings after his legs are destroyed? There are so many characters in the myths that have been underused by recent authors. Personally, I'm not going to rush out to pick up yet another book centered on a conflicted-yet-charming Loki. We'll have to wait and see what Riordan decides, I suppose!

As for helping children to understand the difference between fiction and spirituality, I wouldn't presume to tell Ásatrú parents how to raise their children – I can only speak for myself. I actually think fiction and spirituality are clearly distinct realms. I would simply say to my daughter, "Fiction means something that someone made up and told to you, like a story in a picture book. Spirituality is feeling connected to things you can't quite see or explain, like sensing the presence of elves in the forest." That should be enough to get a good family discussion started. In the end, I would be more interested in hearing what my daughter thinks the difference is than defining it for her.

To be concluded in Part Three.
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