Friday, July 14, 2017

Haters of Gold and Keepers of Bread

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

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

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

Haters of Gold

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

Silver penny with the mark of Eiríkr blóðøx

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keepers of Bread

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

Woman making bread in a 15th-century French manuscript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today’s Leaders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 5, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stories of Thor and the World Serpent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meaning within the Mythology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thor fights the World Serpent – Lorenz Frølich (1895)

What the World Needs Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Strength of the Gods

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 8, 2017

Thor: Ragnarok and Norse Mythology

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

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

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

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

Ragnarok by Sam Flegal

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

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

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

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

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

Does Thor fall in love with a human woman?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thor smites Hrungnir – Ludwig Pietsch (1860)

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

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

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Tyr and the Wolf in Today's World

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

A Myth of Threat and Sacrifice

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

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

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

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

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

Tyr and Fenrir by John Bauer (1911)

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

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

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

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

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

Siding with the Wolf

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sigmundr and Sinfjötli by Willy Pogany (1920)

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Wolf as Victim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding Common Ground

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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…


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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.

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