Monday, January 18, 2016


A young J.R.R. Tolkien
Last semester, I taught a new course on "The Silmarillion: J.R.R. Tolkien's Mythology." Students read and discussed the collection of epic tales that make up the mythological background for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Classes moved through the history of Middle-earth, from the creation of the world to the War of the Ring, as we explored the complex web of legends that Tolkien drew upon, including those of Norse, Celtic, Finnish, Jewish, and Christian traditions.


Tolkien worked on the mythology and legends of Middle-earth from 1914 until his death in 1973. In 1977, his son Christopher published an edited version of the lore as The Silmarillion. The book features much mythic material that is merely alluded to or mentioned in passing in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

The Silmarillion includes tales of the Two Trees of Valinor; the coming of the Elves to Middle-earth; the creation of the Silmarils; the alliance of Men, Elves and Dwarves against the dark lord Morgoth; the fall of Gondolin and Númenor; the founding of Gondor; the forging of the Rings of Power; the capture of the One Ring by Isildur, and much more.

The book includes the origins of many characters familiar to fans of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, including Elrond, Galadriel, Sauron and the Dúnedain. Unforgettable characters take the stage, including the wondrous Elf-smith Fëanor, the great lovers Beren and Lúthien, and the doomed hero Túrin Turambar. The earliest tales focus on the Valar, the Powers that acts as gods for the denizens of Middle-earth. Terrible enemies fight the forces of light, including Orcs, Balrogs, the dragon Glaurung and the primeval spider Ungoliant.


Cover of the first edition of The Silmarillion
Over the nine weeks of the course, students read The Silmarillion in the context of Tolkien's fictional and scholarly work. Connections were drawn between the lore of the book and the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, with reference to other posthumous Tolkien publications such as Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth (1980) and The History of Middle-earth (1983-1996).

The class also learned about the many mythologies that influenced Tolkien's work. We traced their influences upon The Silmarillon, with recurrent reference to Tolkien's own statements about the creation and development of his mythology in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (1981). We also discussed how Tolkien reconciled his fervent Catholicism with his great love for the pagan mythologies of Northern Europe.


Students created their own genealogies of The Silmarillion's cast of characters, which helped them to navigate kindred relationships and feuds as complicated as any in the Icelandic Eddas and sagas. I asked the students to create their family trees from scratch, rather than referring to the diagrams published in the back of the book. Whenever a new character or group made its first appearance in the text, students added it to their charts. Relationships were diagrammed and updated as they were explained in the narrative.

The Haunted Mountain by Mollie Hunter
As an optional project, students were encouraged to share their original artistic interpretations of the work, if the spirit so moved them. Purely for the fun of it, I suggested that they create shoebox dioramas of their favorite scene in The Silmarillion. I remember the fun I had as a middle school student creating a shoebox diorama of the Lairig Ghru from Mollie Hunter's The Haunted Mountain: A Story of Suspense, a wonderful tale set in Scotland and that features the sidhe and other elements from Celtic mythology.

I thought it would be enjoyable for my current students to have a bit of a break from the responsibilities of adulthood and to take some time for fun and crafting. I think they all did a great job on their projects!


Jessica Rodriguez created this wonderful diorama of The Two Trees of Valinor. Here is how Tolkien describes the trees when they first appear in "Of the Beginning of Days," the first chapter of Quenta Silmarillion: The History of the Silmarils:
The one had leaves of dark green that beneath were as shining silver, and from each of his countless flowers a dew of silver light was ever falling, and the earth beneath was dappled with the shadows of his fluttering leaves. The other bore leaves of a young green like the new-opened beech; their edges were of glittering gold. Flowers swung upon her branches in clusters of yellow flame, formed each to a glowing horn that spilled a golden rain upon the ground; and from the blossom of that tree there came forth warmth and a great light. Telperion the one was called in Valinor, and Silpion, and Ninquelótë, and many other names; but Laurelin the other was, and Malinalda, and Culúrien, and many names in song beside.
The gold disks below the trees and the gold tiles behind them give Jessica's work the feel of a Gustav Klimt composition. Beautiful!

The Two Trees of Valinor by Jessica Rodriguez

Susie Jendro built this diorama of The Awakening of the Elves, based on a scene in "Of the Coming of the Elves and the Captivity of Melkor," the third chapter of Quenta Silmarillion:
It is told that even as Varda ended her labours, and they were long, when first Menelmacar strode up the sky and the blue fire of Helluin flickered in the mists above the borders of the world, in that hour the Children of the Earth awoke, the Firstborn of Ilúvatar. By the starlit mere of Cuiviénen, Water of Awakening, they rose from the sleep of Ilúvatar; and while they dwelt yet silent by Cuiviénen their eyes beheld first of all things the stars of heaven. Therefore they have ever loved the starlight, and have revered Varda Elentári above all the Valar.
Susie represented the stars in her diorama with electric lights. Her beautifully designed diorama really captures the magic of this powerful scene.

The Awakening of the Elves by Susie Jendro

Lauren Challinor's diorama portrays The Coming of Ungoliant, arguably the creepiest scene in the book. Here is part of Tolkien's description, from the eighth chapter of Quenta Silmarillion, "Of the Darkening of Valinor":
And in that very hour Melkor and Ungoliant came hastening over the fields of Valinor, as the shadow of a black cloud upon the wind fleets over the sunlit earth; and they came before the green mound Ezellohar. Then the Unlight of Ungoliant rose up even to the roots of the trees...
The light and pleasant hues of Lauren's piece are at odds with the darkness of the hulking spider in this perfect portrayal of the final moments of the Two Trees before all turns to darkness.

The Coming of Ungoliant by Lauren Challinor

Margaret Joyce chose to illustrate a scene from later in the book. Master of Doom shows one of the tragic scenes from "Of Túrin Turambar," the twenty-first chapter of Quenta Silmarillion. Tolkien describes Níniel's arrival at the scene of Túrin's slaying of the dragon Glaurung:
There she saw the dragon lying, but she heeded him not, for a man lay beside him; and she ran to Turambar, and called his name in vain. Then finding that his hand was burnt she washed it with tears and bound it about with a strip of her raiment, and she kissed him and cried on him again to awake. Thereat Glaurung stirred for the last time ere he died, and he spoke with his last breath...
Margaret shows Túrin unconscious upon his sword, Níniel (Nienor) weeping, and Glaurung glaring fiercely as he prepares to utter his dark final words. It's awesomely eerie.

Master of Doom by Margaret Joyce


Adam Smith decided to bake Middle-earth treats instead of designing a diorama. He made three types of Lembas, as described in "Of Túrin Turambar," when Melian presents "journey-bread" to Beleg Cúthalion:
And she gave him store of lembas, the waybread of the Elves, wrapped in leaves of silver, and the threads that bound it were sealed at the knots with the seal of the Queen, a wafer of white wax shaped as a single flower of Telperion; for according to the customs of the Eldalië the keeping and giving of lembas belonged to the Queen alone. In nothing did Melian show greater favour to Túrin than in this gift; for the Eldar had never before allowed Men to use this waybread, and seldom did so again.
Adam baked three varieties: honey shortbread, banana bread, and raisin bread. He wrapped each piece in a banana leaf and tied it with a ribbon. All three varieties were quite tasty!

Lembas by Adam Smith


This semester, I'll be teaching "The Hobbit: J.R.R. Tolkien's Mythic Sources." The course is open to the public, and no previous study is required. Registration is now open with discounts for students and seniors. Classes begin February 17. Click here for more information.

Monday, January 11, 2016


At the request of the United States Department of Defense, the members of the Open Halls Project Working Group have written a Heathen Resource Guide for Chaplains. As part of The Norse Mythology Blog's continuing series on Heathens in the Military, this article includes background on the important event and provides the full text of the document, which has now been accepted by the Department of Defense.


In 2013, I interviewed Josh and Cat Heath, co-founders of the Open Halls Project, an organization “set up to connect military heathens with civilian and military heathens throughout the world.” Part of our discussion was on the struggle to have Ásatrú and Heathenry added as options on the U.S. Army's religious preference list.

Followers of the Old Way in the military have had a couple of important victories since then. Thor's hammer was added to the official list of “available emblems of belief for placement on government headstones and markers” by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Ásatrú and Heathenism were added to the religious preference list of the U.S. Air Force.

Heathens in the Army have not fared so well. On January 5, 2015, Chaplain (Colonel) Bryan Walker, Personnel Director at the Army’s Office of the Chief of Chaplains, wrote to a Heathen serviceman that the addition of Ásatrú and Heathenry to that branch's religious preference list had been approved. It had not. After the announcement of the addition, Chaplain Walker backtracked and stated that he had "mis-communicated." As of March of last year, the status of Heathen soldiers remained in limbo.

In May, those of us in the Open Halls Project Working Group issued a public call to action. We asked soldiers and civilians to contact the Armed Forces Chaplains Board, Army Human Resources Command, Army Public Affairs Officer, and Chief of Army Chaplains. We asked that concerned people express their frustration with the fact that six years of requests from Heathen soldiers had passed without recognition of their lawful religious rights by the Army. Many, many people wrote. They all received form letters in reply.


We are happy to announce that the Department of Defense has requested, reviewed and accepted our Heathen Resource Guide for Chaplains. Josh Heath explains the events that led to the members of the Open Halls Project Working Group writing the document:
Over the last year, we worked to get details about our request to get Heathen and Ásatrú added to the religious preference list. The head of the Department of Defense working group focused on developing a new system for those preferences asked us to produce a document explaining the basics of Heathenry.

We produced a document for him modeled on the Army Chaplain’s Handbook excerpt for Wicca. This basic framework assisted us in developing information that was generally applicable to the largest amount of Heathens possible. When we submitted this document to the chaplain who had requested it, he suggested a few changes which we inserted into the document. This document acts as a basic information sheet for any chaplain that might find himself or herself working with a Heathen service member.

A working group was selected to develop the document and they put their noses to the grindstone. This work is a product of the Open Halls Project and we would appreciate it being attributed to the organization, but it may be shared freely to all who might find it useful.
Josh also gives an update on the seemingly endless struggle to have Ásatrú and Heathenry added to the Army's religious preference list:
The Open Halls Project, through a member, has been in touch with the head of the Department of Defense working group that requested this document. This chaplain requested we do some adjustments on the document to include information on books that would be useful and on casualty care.

During this conversation, the chaplain indicated there was working group interest in adding Ásatrú over Heathen. Since more of us prefer the term Heathen, it was indicated that both terms would still be preferred to be added. Overall, the working group is still moving on this issue and cannot provide a clear timeline for completion of our request, but they are highly responsive to the member who is assisting the Open Halls Project.
We have been told that the Heathen Resource Guide will be disseminated to chaplains for their education and to help them assist Heathen soldiers. The central concern of the Department of Defense was to build a foundation for helping Heathen soldiers in times of crisis. Department of Defense interactions with our representative have been very positive throughout this entire process.


The full Heathen Resource Guide is posted below. Given that we were limited to two pages of text, the sections are quiet succinct. The members of the working group intend this to be an introductory guide, not a definitive theology. We understand that not every Heathen will agree to every line in the text. That is completely understandable. Our goal was to create a basic document that will be useful to military chaplains as they interact with Heathens.

It may also be of some use as a simple introduction to the religion for the general public. Heathens may wish to use it as they explain their religion to friends or family who are unfamiliar with the tradition. Academics and journalists writing articles about the religion might peruse the guide to get a sense of some of the core elements of the faith. Students can use it as a first source for their study of the subject.

If any of the terms used below are unclear, see also the Ásatrú definitions from the Religion Stylebook of the Religion Newswriters Association by clicking here.


No central address. Heathens worship in autonomous groups called kindreds or hearths. Some Heathens are affiliated with regional, national, or international organizations.

Heathen is the most common blanket term for this faith, but other terms used by some groups include: Ásatrú, Forn Sidr/Fyrnsidu, Theodism.

These books are not central holy texts but do represent works that influence and explain basic Heathen concepts and are accepted as useful by a large majority of Heathens.

The Poetic Edda (Anonymous, available in various translations)
We Are Our Deeds: The Elder Heathenry, Its Ethic and Thew (Eric Wódening)
Culture of the Teutons (Vilhelm Grønbech, translated by W. Worster)
The Road to Hel: A Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature (Hilda Roderick Ellis)
Sacred Gifts: Reciprocity and the Gods (Kirk S. Thomas)

No central leadership. Organizational bodies hold internal elections for a number of positions parallel to those in churches and fraternal organizations including religious leaders, secretaries, mentors, and various officiates.

Accurate membership cannot be estimated because Heathenry does not require formal membership in an organization. Results of a 2013 survey suggest there are nearly 20,000 people in the United States who identify as Heathen and that a large percentage of those people have served, or are currently serving in the US military.

Heathenry is a reconstruction of the religious customs of pre-Christian Europe with a particular focus on the Germanic, Norse, and Anglo-Saxon cultures. It shares many similarities with traditional religious practices from around the world (e.g. ancestor veneration, community focus, polytheistic worldview.)

The modern revival can be traced back to the early 1970s and has significantly evolved due to archaeological discoveries and re-examined historical contexts that have improved modern understanding of fundamental traditions. Some revivals occurred prior to this; however, most modern groups do not trace any connection to earlier movements or groups.

Thor by Max Koch (1900)
Heathenry is a polytheistic faith with a variety of holy powers. Gods such as Odin, Thor and Freyr are worshiped alongside goddesses including Frigg, Sif and Freyja. The deities are known by a variety of names from various Northern European cultures; Thor is also called Thunor (Anglo-Saxon) and Donar (German).

Heathens also venerate a variety of beings known as vættir or wights. These local land-spirits inhabit the natural world and are treated with honor and respect. A wight may represent a specific natural feature (such as a river or waterfall) or a larger geographical area. House wights are believed to watch over one’s home.

Heathens place great importance on the relationship with one’s ancestors. Individual and communal rituals regularly include spoken tribute to deceased forebears ranging from immediate family to ancient ancestors. Following Old Norse sources, some Heathens think of distant ancestors as as Álfar (Elves) that continue to interact with the living.

Heathenry is a world-accepting religion; emphasis is placed on right action in this life rather than focus on an otherworldly afterlife. Heathens commonly assert that “we are our deeds,” meaning that the sum of one’s actions is of primary importance. They place great emphasis on personal responsibility and place significant value on how they are remembered by their family and community.

Heathenry derives ethics and morals through allegory from historical texts but does not have a codified moral system or standard of conduct in the same way that Christianity and Islam do. Some Heathens use a codified list of values as a basic code of conduct similar in some ways to the Army Values – the Nine Noble Virtues: courage, truth, honor, fidelity, discipline, hospitality, self-reliance, industriousness, and perseverance. These virtues were codified by Heathens early in the modern movement and have fallen out of favor in many groups.

Norns at the Well of Urð by Charles E. Brock (1930)
Reciprocity is one of the central ethical standards of Heathen thought. The process of regular and consistent gifts and favors builds a solid relationship that must be maintained. In practice, as a Heathen soldier interacts with his fellow soldiers, they will become bound in a web of responsibility and respect. Heathens may be slow to make new friends when moving into new units because being careful around new people is considered a virtue. However, once they have begun to do so they will often be intensely loyal and expect the same in return.

Heathens believe that doing what is best for their family and community is a high moral calling. This includes a dedication to service, both nationally and locally. Heathenry is a fundamentally family-oriented belief system, and Heathens keep close ties to their extended family and ancestors as a matter of religious belief. Heathenry is also an orthopraxic religion, depending on right action over right belief. Men and women are judged by their deeds and their word. Heathens believe their deeds affect their luck, or spiritual wealth. This luck can be transferred from generation to generation, so Heathens believe what they do will not only affect themselves, but their children, and their children for many generations.

In general, Heathens celebrate five major holidays:

Yule begins around December 20 and lasts for 12 nights. It is the most important of all the festivals to many Heathens and is a celebration of deep winter breaking and the start of the new year.
Summer Finding is celebrated in late spring, and the date may vary depending on local climate.
Midsummer is celebrated on or near June 21.
Winternights is generally celebrated near the end of October but may be moved to more in line with local climate.
Day of Remembrance is celebrated frequently in line with local remembrances such as Veteran’s Day.

There may also be regionally and locally celebrated festivals such as the Charming of the Plow, Eostre, Loafmas, and Winter Finding, though this is not an exclusive list.

Heathen groups have various organizational structures. Some organizations have distinct top-down leadership, and others are more loose democratic associations of families and extended tribal groups. The kindred is a common model based on creation of oaths and agreements to treat members as family. Many kindreds form loose alliances with one another to create regional meetings and events. There are some Heathens that do not have a large community near them; these individuals are often in contact with others at least through social media.

The leadership of an Ásatrú/Heathen group is responsible for the group’s ritual schedule, events that are attended or hosted, facilitating religious knowledge amongst its membership and its surrounding community, and mediating issues as required. There are numerous titles for these leadership positions, but some of the most common are: gođi [GO-thee] (priest), gyđja [GEE-thee-uh] (priestess), and chieftain. Often the gođi/gyđja/chieftain conducts the spiritual and administrative tasks.

Drinking horns are regularly used in Heathen worship
Heathen worship is based on the concept of reciprocal relationships. For Heathens, all relationships – be they with other humans, gods, ancestors, or wights – are reciprocal in nature. The majority of Heathen worship involves gifting, or making offerings. Typical offerings include drink, bread, items the worshiper has made or grown, or incense. Heathens offer these items to the Holy Powers in exchange for favor for themselves or others. Many Heathens refer to this type of gifting worship as blót.

Another form of Heathen worship is sumbel, a ritual that strengthens both the bonds within the human community and the bonds of that community with the Holy Powers. During sumbel, a horn of drink, usually mead, is typically passed around the assembled worshipers three times. Each round is dedicated to toasting and praising a group of beings; for example, the first round for the gods, the second for the ancestors, and the third for the land spirits or community. Depending on group or occasion, there may be more than three rounds in sumbel. These further rounds may be dedicated to making oaths and boasting.

There is no universal Heathen liturgy, although groups and organizations may elect to create their own standard formats. In spite of this, these ritual forms are still almost always recognizable enough that Heathens from different groups and communities can worship together with ease.


Thor's hammer from Veterans Affairs
list of belief emblems for headstones
Individual preferences are honored. If death occurs in combat zone, refer to service member's will for further instructions. The Thor's hammer symbol, which is held as sacred by the majority of Heathens, is included among the Veterans Affairs headstone emblems.

No medical restrictions. Casualty care should be developed on an individual basis. Each Heathen has a different level of appreciation and understanding of Heathenry in their own lives. Prepare probing questions for any service member receiving care to help develop an individualized plan to assist them during their recovery.

Many involved in Ásatrú/Heathenry are incredibly supportive of all forms of public service, relating to the need to care for the community’s welfare such as the military, police, firefighting, and EMT professions; by a wide margin, military service is often seen as one of the most honorable professions. Many pride themselves on depth of knowledge regarding religious aspects, history, and traditional crafting skills to a point where Ásatrú/Heathenry is referred to the “religion with homework.”

Tuesday, December 29, 2015


I was contacted in July by Phil Pegum, Senior Producer for BBC Religion and Ethics. He was working on a project for Radio 3, “the BBC’s art, classical music and new ideas station.” Slated for broadcast at midwinter was “a festival of programmes celebrating the life and culture of the countries of the north.” The Religion and Ethics department had been asked to produce a series of “talks for the festival around the areas of belief, religion, mythology and history.” Mr. Pegum, in turn, asked me to write and record a radio essay on the continuing popularity of Norse mythology, its broader cultural significance, and the resurgence of Heathen religion in recent decades.

What follows is the full script that I wrote and recorded for the series Religion in the North, broadcast as part of The Essay, a regular program which features “leading writers on arts, history, philosophy, science, religion and beyond, themed across a week – insight, opinion and intellectual surprise.” I feel greatly honored to have been included as one of the authors chosen for this prestigious series, and I am very thankful to Mr. Pegum for the time he spent and the wisdom he shared with me, both during the writing phase and during the recording of the audio for broadcast.

My radio essay was broadcast by the BBC on December 23. You can listen to the complete recording via the audio player at the bottom of this post.


The Dark Gods by Max Ernst (1957)
Hail to the gods!
Hail to the goddesses!
Hail to the bounteous earth!
Speech and wit
Give to us famous ones
And healing hands, while we live!

A white-bearded Icelandic gentleman, a Heathen priest, bundled up against Reykjavík’s midwinter cold, recites these verses of medieval pagan poetry before an attentive gathering. They stand closely together beneath a clear night sky, holding candles, gathered in a circle around a roaring fire. So begins the Yule celebration of Icelanders who practice a modern iteration of Norse religion, a contemporary practice that considers the poems and legends of Norse mythology to be core texts for ritual and reflection.


Willy Pogany's illustration of the Norse god Odin
from Padraic Colum's Children of Odin (1920)
Far from Iceland, my parents were philosophers in Chicago. When I was a child, they made sure I read Greek, Jewish and Christian mythology, telling me I could believe whatever I wanted as an adult, but that I needed to know these three traditions, so I could understand the art, literature and music of the western world.

My father, from a German farming village in eastern Europe, told me stories of Siegfried the dragon-slayer and introduced me to Grimms’ Fairy Tales and fabulous folklore from the Rhine River region. The one thing I didn’t learn about was Norse mythology. As a kid, Norse myths seemed like the exclusive property of far-away Scandinavia.

After my dad died, I read Children of Odin, a retelling of Norse myths by Irish poet Padraic Colum. The god Odin, wandering the world in a quest for wisdom – a quest confirming his existential concerns about the future – reminded me of my father’s decades of work in philosophy after escaping from anti-German extermination camps run by Marshall Tito’s Communist Partisans. The god Thor, world-traveler, lover of children and ale, quick to anger and quick to forgiveness, reminded me of my Opa, my grandfather who went from family farm to Soviet prisoner-of-war camp to new life in America, yet never lost his passion for living. Sigurð, wooing the Valkyrie in a ring of fire, was the Norse version of Siegfried, the dragon-slayer my father had told me tales about when I was a child.

It suddenly seemed as if I had always known the Norse gods and heroes. I began to read the mythic material written down in medieval Iceland and Denmark, to study the poems preserved in what we now call the Poetic Edda, to learn about the literature, religion and history of the ancient northern world. Along the way, I found that many other people have been bitten by the same bug that bit me.


18th-century Icelandic manuscript of Snorri's Edda
There have been repeated revivals of international interest in Norse mythology as people around the world continue to find connections to the gods, goddesses, heroes, and heroines. The Eddas – the thirteenth-century Icelandic sources for the majority of surviving myths – were first published in modern translation three-hundred-and-fifty years ago in Denmark. Further translations and studies followed in England, France, Germany, Austria, Sweden, Russia, and elsewhere.

Nineteenth-century Romantics plunged into Norse mythology. William Morris worked with Eiríkur Magnússon to translate selections from the Eddas and sagas – Iceland’s great prose precursors to the novel – then wrote original poetry and prose inspired by them. Jacob Grimm’s massive treatise on what he called “German mythology” arguably launched the repeated appropriations of medieval Icelandic literature for nationalist projects throughout the century. The greatest flowering of this Romantic fascination (or its lowest ebb, depending on your perspective) is Wagner’s seventeen-hour Ring of the Nibelung, which – despite Germanization of character and place names – is almost completely based on Icelandic sources.

In the twentieth century, the Romantic melding of myth and nation yielded a strange and bitter crop in the Third Reich’s propagandist imagery. This perversion continues to seduce the radical right of racist revivalists, despite Hitler’s repeated repudiation of those who, in his words, “keep harping on that far-off and forgotten nomenclature which belongs to the ancient Germanic times.” Tolkien, whose works include many elements taken directly from Norse mythology, famously railed against Hitler for “ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe.”

The myths recovered and were recovered. Tolkien’s friend W. H. Auden and Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges published translations of the Eddas. More recently, Norse gods have appeared in fiction by English writers including Joanne Harris. She told me, “What I’m trying to do in my way is to demonstrate how stories evolve and how heroes… cast long shadows in their wake. These shadows become part of the oral and written tradition and, as centuries pass, are embellished, rewritten and re-interpreted by successive generations.”

Hollywood has done its fair share of rewriting. Based on a superhero first appearing in comic books in 1962, Marvel’s Thor films are far removed from Norse myth. Core elements of the 1960s character were lifted from Superman and Shazam, who provided inspiration for Thor’s red cape, his ability to transform from human nebbish to powerful superhero in a flash of lightning, and the love triangle between his two identities and the co-worker to whom he longs to reveal his secret identity.

Marvel’s movie versions of the Norse gods are rewritten to fit a Judeo-Christian worldview. Instead of the wondering, wandering wizard of the myths, Odin is an angry Old Testament patriarch. Although Thor plays his mythical role as protector of the human world, the first film follows the comics in recasting him as a Viking Jesus from outer space. He is sent by his father to live as a mortal among men, win a small group of faithful followers who must be convinced of his godliness, and prove his worthiness by sacrificing himself to save us all. This is New Testament, not Norse mythology.


Odin and his two brothers vanquish the giant Ymir
in Katherine Pyle's Tales from Norse Mythology (1930)
Whatever form it takes, there is an eternal return of interest in the myths. A thousand years after the conversion of the Nordic countries, Norse mythology still somehow speaks to people around the world. I think that this appeal works at three levels – dramatic, emotional, and spiritual.

At the first level – that of drama – these are grand adventure tales. The gods create the world from the corpse of a primeval giant and set the moon, sun and stars on their courses to begin a golden age. The dwarves are created from earth, the first humans are made from trees, and a mysterious unkillable sorceress brings strange magic.

Ages pass, a dragon sucks juices from the dead by a stream full of murderers, and a giantess gives birth to the wolf that will eat the moon. A monstrous dog breaks free, signaling an age of axes, swords and shields, wind and wolves. The gods, elves, giants and dwarves prepare for war, and a figure of fire comes from the south. The sun and stars are destroyed as the world perishes in fire and flood.

Finally, a new world rises up from the waters, new gods appear, and a new golden age begins. All is joy in the halls of the gods, until the corpse-sucking dragon is seen flying over the hills under the moon.

These mysterious goings-on are enough to fill a series of fantasy novels, yet they are merely elements of the first prophetic poem of the Poetic Edda. From this snapshot of the barest beginning of the mythology, it should be clear that this is exciting stuff.

At the second level – that of emotion – the myths appeal as an expression of exuberant excitement at the experience of existence. There is a cast of colorful characters including Njörðr, the god who rules over wind and sea, and Freyr and Freyja, his beautiful children. Freyr rules the world of elves and presides over prosperity and peace, rain and sunshine. Freyja rides in a chariot pulled by cats and loves love songs and love affairs. The bright god Heimdall is, enigmatically, the son of nine mothers. His horse’s mane and his own teeth are of gold, and he lives by the Rainbow Bridge in the Castle of Heaven – from where he can hear the sound of grass growing in the fields and wool growing on sheep.

Thor most embodies the joy of life lived. Unlike Odin, he doesn’t meditate on coming darkness. Instead, he wrings every moment of life for its full flavor. Admittedly, he spends much of his time smiting giants with his heavy hammer, but he does so with his heart laughing in his breast. Otherwise, his main interests are drinking prodigious amounts, taking kids on adventures, going on long walks with friends, and feasting on the magically regenerating goats that pull his sky-chariot. This is a fellow who likes to enjoy himself.

At the third, spiritual level, the myths present a powerful worldview. Although everything Odin learns about the future tells him he and the world will die, he never stops searching for knowledge and never ceases to rage against the dying of the light. The gods die, yet the ending of the prophecy is a life-affirming one. We will not live forever, but our children will survive us, and their children will survive them. The branches of the World Tree will continue to grow as new leaves appear each springtime.


Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson in 1960
The spiritual message of the myths survives, despite bloody centuries of Christian conversion. In 1972, Icelandic farmer-poet Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson led the foundation of the Ásatrúarfélagið, a fellowship for those who follow the religion of Ásatrú – an Icelandic term meaning “faith in the Norse gods.” For those raised to believe that Christianity is the natural religion of the western world, and that the structure of Christian belief is the yardstick by which to measure other faith traditions, it may come as a surprise to realize that the older religions of northern Europe were closer to Hinduism. Today, Ásatrú attracts those who feel a connection to the Old Way, and – like other religions – it provides a rich experience of ritual, celebration, and community.

In 1973, the Icelandic government officially recognized the Ásatrú religion. Forty years later, it is the largest non-Christian religion in Iceland, and the faith has spread throughout the world. Although practitioners respect the Icelanders for beginning the religion’s rebirth, the Icelandic organization is a local group and now just one aspect of a global practice. There are many branches of the tradition, yet most participants agree that Heathenry (with a capital H) is the most general term to cover all of today’s variant forms.

In 2013, I conducted the first Worldwide Heathen Census and received over sixteen thousand responses from ninety-eight countries. Iceland has the highest Heathen density – the greatest number of Heathens as a percentage of the country’s population. The United States has the highest number of Heathens; my interpretation of the data suggests that there are approximately twenty thousand American practitioners. That may not seem like a large number in a country this size, but it is impressive for a religion that is not even half a century old, has no central authority, does not engage in missionary work, and has been almost completely ignored by academia and media.


Iðunn and Bragi by Nils Jakob Olssen Blommér (1846)
Mythology is only one part of a lived and living religion. What matters most to me is how myths can inspire us to live our lives in new ways. As a professional musician, I understand intellectually that improvisation and composition involve chemical interactions between stored memories of past experiences that interact across areas of the brain to produce new combinations. However, my experience of performing and writing music is more spiritually understandable when I consider that, over a thousand years ago, northern poets felt that their flashes of inspiration came from Odin, the god who brings creative frenzy.

Like most artists, I feel my best work is done when I’m not fully in control of the creative process, when the melodies appearing in my head seem to come from somewhere else. It deepens the reality of the creative moment to realize that I share this feeling with poets of long ago, and that we also share a vocabulary and system of symbols that enable the experience to be emotionally understood at a deeper level.

Jimmy Cheatham, one of my musical mentors, often talked about “opening yourself up to the Creative Spirit.” At the time, I was young and dumb and thought he was an inscrutable mystic. Decades later, I understand what he meant about turning from our everyday lives of volunteered slavery and listening to what Odin has to tell us. At least, that’s how I choose to understand it. Norse mythology offers a poetic way of perceiving our experiences from a perspective outside our day-to-day existence. It overlays the mythical over the mundane, which is especially welcome during the long winter darkness.


A Bonfire in the Moonlight by Hermann Herzog (1832-1932)
At the Icelandic Yule celebration, a priestess with joyously twinkling eyes explains how the god Freyr falls in love with the beautiful maiden Gerðr. In this telling of the tale, Freyr’s desire for the girl with the shining arms is parallel to the longing of Icelanders to see the sun during the long nights of northern winter. When Gerðr finally agrees to give her love to the young god, she tells him he must wait for nine nights. His lament ends the medieval poem that preserves the myth:

Long is a night –
long are two –
how can I suffer through three?
Often a month to me
seemed shorter
than half of this nuptial night.

After the sharing of the story, the Yule-feast begins. Like Freyr, we all wait through the long, dark nights for the coming of the sun. The communion of companionship in celebration of our lives together makes the wait a joyous one, and the Norse myths – like the myths of any faith – give us a shared tradition that shapes the cycle of the year. That is a wonderful gift from the past that continues into the future.


Listen to the complete radio essay by clicking the ► button in the player below.

For more information on Ásatrú, check out the articles in The Norse Mythology Blog Archive by clicking here.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

ART CONTEST – Adult Winners, Midwinter 2015

The adult division of this year's Midwinter Art Contest was very, very competitive. There were many fantastic entries from talented artists in Brazil, England, Finland, Germany, Poland and the USA. It's wonderful to see myths and folklore moving people in so many different places around the world!

I would again like to thank my fellow judges Simon Coleby (comics artist for 2000 AD, Judge Dredd Megazine, Lobo, Punisher and much more) and Dr. Kendra Willson (researcher at the Turku Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of Turku in Finland) for all the time they spent considering the entries and for their thoughtful comments on all the works. The adult division was particularly difficult to judge, and I really appreciate the work Simon and Kendra put into this.

Congratulations to the winners! The assignment was to create a piece that somehow related to the character and legends of Frau Holle. If you're unfamiliar with this figure of folklore, click here to read more about her in the original announcement of the contest.

These wonderful artists each created works that show unique visions of the source material. This year's winners really show a very high level of creativity and skill. Each one of them could have won first place; placements reflect the combined scores of all three judges.

Maria Bogdanova
Age 32
Oulu, Finland

Maria writes:
Up in night northern skies, she sits on her throne of icy diamonds – the Lady of the Winter, the goddess of heaven. Her silver crown is adorned with silver stars, lighting up the night, and the silver spinning wheel spins new shiny threads of maidens' destinies. Gentle white feathers surround her as they softly fall, swirling to the earth, transforming into snow, for she is it's keeper.
The idea of Frau Holle / Lady Winter I got from several sources, the first one was where she was mentioned as the Lady of Heavens. So I painted her sitting on her shining ice throne above the clouds. The silver spinning wheel is coming from the reference of her being a spinning-wife, so I imagined a silver spinning wheel spinning on it's own a thread of the destiny as the Lady is watching the process. And of course, I couldn't resist to frame the picture with feathers as it is mentioned in several stories I used to read, too. The colors used in the throne are what I have seen in northern lights around here.
Maria has created an absolutely gorgeous work of art. I truly love the thought she put into this work and the wonderful way she combined research and personal experience. Congratulations on a beautiful piece!

Simon says, "This is a superbly conceived and executed painting. The composition is very strong, and it's a striking and captivating image. I especially like the way the prism of color in the ice of the throne is picked up in the painting of Frau Holle, herself. That almost suggests a transparency in the figure, which adds a subtle, intriguingly ethereal note. The feathers framing the piece are a perfect touch, and they are very well rendered, indeed."

Kendra comments, "Nice decorative design. I like the frame of feathers and the rich textures that both contrast and blend. The red and yellow highlights in a primarily blue composition are striking. The figure looks strong and determined. The complex iconography reminds me of medieval paintings of saints. This would make a stellar postage stamp!"

First Place: Maria Bogdanova

Ida M. Kozłowski
Age 36
Poznań, Poland

Ida writes:
Level 1: Frau Holle is a teacher. She guards what is good and punishes the bad. Her eyes see everything, even what you hide. She is an old woman and very experienced. She evaluates everything right.

Level 2: A woman who is like a ghost, Frau Holle is everywhere – even when you do not see that she sees you. You must be on guard!

Level 3: Frau Holle always reminds me of Adelaide. Adelaide is my great-grandmother. She was born in East Prussia (Ostpreußen), a land that no longer exists. She watched everything that was "sehr gut," as she would say. She was very demanding. She taught me the laying of bed linen and chided me very much for that reason.

Adelaide died long ago. She passed away, as did the land from which she came. Now it reminds me of how our life is fleeting, like those goose feathers in the wind.
I love everything about this work. As the son of someone whose German village has likewise vanished from the earth, I truly feel the power of what Ida writes. I also love the idea of portraying figures of myth and folklore with a contemporary appearance, which makes them come alive to modern audiences in a very different way than presenting them in traditional clothing. Wonderful!

Simon comments, "I think this painting is quite excellent. It's fascinating to take a mythic archetype, and transpose it into a contemporary context. In this case, it has made for a very captivating piece of art. I love the enigmatic expression of the lady's face. She looks strong, and perhaps a little stern, but she doubtless has stories to tell. The interaction with the feather adds a touch of magic, which invites the viewer to ask questions. A simple, strong idea, superbly executed. This is a very successful piece of art."

Kendra writes, "Striking realistic portrait. A challenging gaze and a strong woman with a lot of secrets. Dynamic hand (younger than her face) touching the feathers."

Second Place: Ida M. Kozłowski

Jorge Alves de Lima Júnior
Age 47
Campinas, São Paulo, Brazil

Jorge writes:
Frau Holle like a powerful goddess of the sky: I was delighted with the transformation of a deity to a character of fables. I chose the first aspect as goddess. I tried to avoid the old illustrations and also the characters of Marvel.

Gods have no form; they assume forms that sometimes we can recognize. That's what I tried to do.
Jorge has such deep insights into the nature of mythology and folklore. I love his approach to portraying deities. He has created a truly visionary work.

Simon says, "This is a very strong, energetic painting. Rendering the figure to resemble the Aurora Borealis is a powerful idea. This has the feeling of something cataclysmic, and quite awe-inspiring."

Kendra writes, "I like the variety of textures and contrasting colors, the square edges in the sky. The unusual colors – almost a design like a Nordic (or South American) knitted sweater – are striking in the figure that is at once bird, woman, aurora, a force of nature and part of the sky."

Third Place: Jorge Alves de Lima Júnior

Hannah M. Vale
Age 24
Pittsville, Wisconsin, USA

Hannah writes, "I chose to interpret Frau Holle as the Woman on the Lake. I did some research on her and found some cool information about how she related to spinning, and I decided to give her the staff that she was depicted with in many of the medieval art portraits of her. "

This is one of my favorite pieces of all the contests that have been run on this site. I love that Hannah has taken a completely different approach to Frau Holle and avoided the standard image of pillows and snow. This is a uniquely beautiful and inspiring work.

Simon says, "I like the combination of clean, defined lines and blended colors in this piece. The addition of the flowers in the hair adds a point of interest which sets the painting off, very well indeed."

Kendra comments, "I like the blue and green background that blends with the figure's hair. Interesting to blend Holle and Woman of the Lake – almost a Triton or sea-king figure as well."

First Runner-Up: Hannah M. Vale

Susanne Beneš
Age 44
Berlin, Germany

Susanne writes, "An invocation of an old Goddess: In times of climate change we strongly need the aid of an old goddess of snow and wisdom. With my contribution I am invoking Holle as an intermediary between worlds, so she can guide our journeys. I am asking her to give us clear thoughts – unique like ice crystals – so we can understand what is right. And to let us dive deep into wisdom, so we might act wiser than before. The sigils are four variations of the word truth, developed from the old futhark of runes."

Susanne's work is powerful and mystical. She has managed to capture elements from the folklore that go far beyond feathers and pillows. Absolutely fantastic!

Simon says, "This is a somewhat brooding picture, which has both a sense of menace and of wisdom. I like the way the face emerges from the almost abstract textures, making it a rather otherworldy image."

Kendra comments, "I like the subtle textures in black and white. The face is haunting – wise and a bit demonic, a mischievous mouth and a determined brow."

Second Runner-Up: Susanne Beneš

Thank you to all the kids, teens and adults who entered this winter. We really enjoyed everyone's work. See you when the next contest rolls around!

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

ART CONTEST – Teen Winners, Midwinter 2015

The teen division of this year's Midwinter Art Contest features some very creative work by talented young artists. It was quite difficult for the judges to rank them!

A big "thank you" goes out to my fellow judges Simon Coleby (comics artist for 2000 AD, Judge Dredd Megazine, Lobo, Punisher and much more) and Dr. Kendra Willson (researcher at the Turku Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of Turku in Finland) for all the time they spent considering the entries and for their thoughtful comments on all the works. There were a lot of entries in this division, and it took quite a while for each of us to rank them.

Congratulations to all four winners! The assignment was to create a piece that somehow related to the character and legends of Frau Holle. If you're unfamiliar with this figure of folklore, click here to read more about her in the original announcement of the contest.

These talented artists each created wonderfully imaginative works of art inspired by Frau Holle. I look forward to seeing more work from each of them in the future!

Heather Mathis
Age 16
Woodstock, Georgia, USA

Heather writes, "Frau Holle is depicted in many different ways, most of which have something to do with the cold time of year and snow. I wanted to express this, as well as the duality of how she's usually shown as either a beautiful young woman or more of a haggard old one."

I love everything about this piece – the design, the technique, the colors, the spirit. Wonderful!

Simon says, "This is a wonderful image, and amazingly accomplished for such a young artist! I love the subtleties of the coloring in Frau Holle's cloak, and also the inclusion of foliage amidst the swirls of tone. I also like the contrast between the slightly warmer tones on one side of the picture and the cold hues on the other. The gesture of the hands is also very well done. This could easily be offered as a card or poster for sale. It's an excellent piece of work."

Kendra comments, "I like the rich textures and subtle colors, the skirt and the hands filled with snow. The face has a mischievous, pixie-like quality."

First Place: Heather Mathis

Marquellius Nunn
Age 19
Elyria, Ohio, USA

Marquellius says, "Frau Holle is bringing the midwinter snow over the lands, while her raven searches for the lost souls of children in need of caring."

This has very striking design and comes across as quite powerful.

Simon comments, "The bold contrast of colors in this makes it a strong piece of work. I like the enigmatic expression of Frau Holle's face, and also the way the gray hair sweeps over her shoulder. That's a nice compositional touch, and it works very well."

Kendra writes, "I like the different shades of blue and purple in the mountains and sky and the way the figure's sleeve becomes part of the line of the mountains. The figure is intriguing with her wise and secretive expression."

Second Place: Marquellius Nunn

Stefano J.
Age 15
Florida, USA

Stefano writes, "When she made her bed in the sky, she would shake out her comforter, and the downy feathers would fall to the earth as snow."

I really like the energy and wildness of this piece. Stefano has created a very special image of this folklore figure.

Simon says, "Being an artist who uses traditional media, I always like to see this kind of straightforward approach to an image. It's a nicely composed and rendered drawing. I like the way the details lead the eye around the outside of the picture, while Frau Holle is framed in the center of the piece. A very good drawing, indeed."

Kendra writes, "I like the different textures of the feathers and leaves and the energy in the figure's hand and face."

Third Place (Tie): Stefano J.

Kaytie Corbett
Age 16
Oberlin, Ohio, USA

Kaytie writes, "I chose to illustrate the legend where Frau Holle is said to 'haunt the lakes.' I put the color scheme in the blues mostly to incorporate the mix of snow and such due to show cold – also to show the midwinter night and darkness. I incorporated Thor in the top; his symbol is on his sleeve. This is because I like the mood of that piece in this, it is a rather dark feeling legend. It's said that Thor was the protector of the kinds of forces that roamed free on the earth during the frightening time between the rebirth of the sun and the resurrection on January 12th. So seeing as Frau Holle haunts the lakes, he is there in the sky being the protector, rather right along with her. "

I really like the way that Kaytie thought about the myths and folklore and found a creative way to combine them. Great work!

Simon says, "This is a quiet and intriguing image. I like the simplicity of the composition, and the small details which enhance the piece. The gesture of the figure is very nicely done. The emphasis on the hands of both Frau Holle and Thor pulls the picture together well and makes the image work as a whole."

Kendra comments, "I really like the deep blues with the strong jagged white horizontal line, the dark hand barely contrasting, the brown tree fading into black. The figure appears to be bathing in sky. I like the idea of bringing together Frau Holle and Thor."

Third Place (Tie): Kaytie Corbett

Adult winners will be announced tomorrow!
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