Monday, February 29, 2016


Translator’s Note

The Wanderer in the Exeter Book manuscript
The anonymous Old English poem known as The Wanderer is preserved only in the Exeter Book, a compilation most likely written down around the year 975. The poem provides a striking first-person lament spoken by an Anglo-Saxon warrior who wanders the world alone after losing his lord and companions.

The Wanderer's reflections on his past life experiences make no mention of overtly Christian concepts, despite the short bit of framing narration after the monologue that provides a devout gloss. Instead, we read of the workings of fate (wyrd) and the relationships of reciprocal gifting in pre-Christian warrior society.

Bruce Mitchell and Fred C. Robinson have remarked that the central figure is of "the heroic age" and "shows no awareness of Christian enlightenment." This is not to argue that the poem preserves a perfect pristine pagan worldview, but merely to suggest that even an ostensibly Christian poem can contain elements of an older belief system.

Discussing Anglo-Saxon verse, Graham Holderness writes:
While the confrontation and synthesis of pagan and Christian elements is necessarily foregrounded in the heroic and devotional poetry of the period, it seems to me that some of the 'deep-set patterns of belief' transmitted from the past into the consciousness of English Christians can also be traced in the elegies, poems regarded as quintessentially expressive of the spirit of the age, yet not formally or explicitly concerned with matters militaristic or theological.
I would argue that The Wanderer has elements of both heroic and elegiac poetry. As such, it contains holdovers from a past pagan age presented in a post-conversion package.

My translation of the poem is presented in the text boxes below. Between each section of the translation, my annotation addresses aspects of the poem including:

• Linguistic elements, such as comparison to Old Norse words

• Cultural concepts of Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse society

• Parallels to the Old English Beowulf, probably composed in the 8th century but preserved only in a manuscript of c1000

The Old English Rune Poem as it appeared
in the first printed edition of 1705
• Parallels to the Old English Rune Poem, probably composed c1000 but preserved only in a printed edition of 1705; each verse of the Rune Poem explicates the meaning of a specific letter of the futhorc, the Anglo-Saxon runic alphabet

• Parallels to Old Norse poems of the Poetic Edda preserved in manuscripts of c1270 and later, with particular emphasis on Hávamál ("Sayings of the High One," i.e. the god Odin, well-known for disguising himself as an old solitary wanderer)

• Influence of the poem on later authors, most notably J.R.R. Tolkien

• Concepts that are of interest to practitioners of Ásatrú and Heathenry, modern religions that seek to reconstruct, reinvent and/or reimagine pagan Germanic religious traditions

Readers who simply want to read the poem can skip over the annotation and move from text box to text box.

Following translators of Old English such as R.D. Fulk and J.R.R. Tolkien, I have rendered all poetry as prose. The full text of The Wanderer in Old English can be found in Bruce Mitchell and Fred C. Robinson’s A Guide to Old English, available as a paperback in The Norse Mythology Store under Books → Dictionaries & Language.

Note: All passages quoted from Old English, Old Norse, and German texts in the annotation are my own translations.

The Wanderer
Translated from the Old English and annotated
by Karl E. H. Seigfried

The solitary one often awaits prosperity for himself, favor of fate, although he, troubled in mind, through sea-­ways long had to stir with hands rime-­cold sea, to trudge the paths of exile. Fate is fully inexorable!

So said the wanderer, mindful of hardships, of wrathful slaughters, with the fall of beloved kinsmen:

Lagu rune is the third symbol on the inside
of this Anglo-Saxon rune ring (8th-10thC)
The phrase "through sea-ways long had to stir" (geond lagulāde longe sceolde hrēran) is reminiscent of the Old English Rune Poem verse for the lagu ("sea") rune, which contains related vocabulary: lagulāde/lagu ("sea-ways"/"sea"), longe/langsum ("long"/"longsome"), sceolde/sculun ("had to"/"have to"):
The sea seems longsome to men, if they have to dare in an unsteady ship, and the sea-waves greatly frighten them, and the sea-steed does not heed the bridle.
Both poems reflect the difficulty and struggle of the long times at sea necessary for northern travel during this time period.

I am not arguing for a direct genetic relationship between the two poems, but rather suggesting that the similarity of vocabulary and imagery shows that they are both part of what Maureen Halsall calls "the shared word-hoard of alliterative formulas... which was the common property of the Germanic-speaking world and which manifests itself in many other poetic contexts outside the rune poems."

The Old English hrīm ("rime," "frost") is used here by The Wanderer's narrator in the compound adjective hrīmceald ("rime-cold"). Old Norse has a parallel hrím and hrímkaldr, but readers of Norse mythology are likely better acquainted with the noun compound hrímþursar ("frost-giants").

The narrator's declaration that "fate is fully inexorable" (wyrd bið full āræd) is well-known to readers of Bernard Cornwell's Saxon Stories (now on BBC Television as The Last Kingdom) as a favorite phrase of the protagonist, Uhtred of Bebbanburg. The statement is also paralleled in line 455 of Beowulf, in which the hero declares "Fate goes as she must" (Gæð ā wyrd swā hīo scel).

This sentiment appears in various forms in several Icelandic sagas, such as the statement by Grímur Ingjaldsson in Vatnsdæla saga that "it is hard to escape fate" (torsótt er að forðast forlögin). The idea is common enough throughout Indo-European literature. In the Sanskrit Rāmāyana, Rama states that "Fate is inevitable" (4.24.6); in the Greek Iliad, Hector says that "no man, I promise, has ever escaped his fate" (6.488).

Both The Wanderer and Beowulf use the word wyrd (translated here as "fate"), a feminine noun cognate with both Old Norse urðr and Modern English weird. In Norse mythology, Urðr is the name of one of the Norns, the mystical women who sit at the Well of Fate (Urðar brunnr) and determine the destinies of men. In Shakespeare's Macbeth, the Norns are paralleled by the Weird Sisters, three prophetic women who gather beneath "lightning and thunder" and discuss meeting "upon the heath."

Direct speech of the Wanderer begins at this point in the poem and lasts until the final lines.

Often I had to alone lament my care each day before dawn. No one is now alive that I would dare to tell him my heart openly. I as truth know that it is noble custom in a nobleman, that he should bind fast his spirit-­enclosure, should keep his hord-coffer closed, think as he will. Nor can a weary spirit withstand fate, nor the troubled mind provide help.

Reconstruction of Anglo-Saxon helmet found in York
that likely belonged to a high-status noble c750-775
The Wanderer speaks of the "nobleman" using the word eorl (here in the dative as eorle), which is related to the Old Norse jarl and the Modern English earl. A character named Eorl is mentioned several times in The Lord of the Rings as the first king of Rohan and ancestor of the Rohirrim. His descendants are modeled on Anglo-Saxons (as demonstrated by Christopher Tolkien and Tom Shippey) and are known as Eorlingas (Eorl + ingas). While Old Norse patronymics used the -son suffix to mark a man's father, Old English used -ing to mark the ancestor of a family or a people. Therefore, the Eorlingas are the "people of Eorl."

The word þēaw (here translated as "custom") is used today by some modern followers of Heathen religions to refer to "practices which had proven beneficial or supportive enough of society to have become established standards for behavior or the standard way of doing things" (Eric Wódening, We Are Our Deeds). The Modern English spelling is thew.

Mōd (translated here as "spirit") survives in Modern English as "mood." The Old English word had a much wider range of meanings than does its linguistic descendant. Depending on context, it could mean arrogance, courage, disposition, heart, mind, pride, soul, spirit, or temper. In the compound ofermōd ("over-mood," i.e. "overconfidence," "overweening pride") it is a key term in the Old English poem The Battle of Maldon and is paralleled by the Middle High German übermuot, an important term in the Nibelungenlied's characterization of Prünhilt (the German equivalent of the Icelandic Brynhildr).

Therefore the glory-eager ones often in their breast-­coffers bind sorrowful mind fast, as my spirit, often wretchedly troubled, of ancestral home deprived, far from noble kinsmen, I had to fasten with fetters, since very long ago I covered my gold-­friends in darkness of earth, and I wretched from there went winter-­desolate over binding waves, hall-­sad sought bestower of treasure, where I far or near could find him who in mead-hall might know of mine, or me friendless would console, entertain with joys.

Sae Wylfing, a half-size replica of the Sutton Hoo ship
Ēþel (translated above as "ancestral home") appears here in the dative singular form ēðle. Like mōd, this is a term with a wide range of meanings: ancestral domain, ancestral region, hereditary estate, home, homeland, native land, and territory. The Old Norse parallel óðal covers a similar set of meanings: ancestral property, family homestead, home, inheritance, native place, and patrimony. The Old English Rune Poem verse for the ēþel rune reads:
Ancestral land is exceedingly dear to each man, if he may there in the hall enjoy what is right and fitting in prosperity most often.
Like The Wanderer, the Rune Poem makes a connection between "ancestral land" and the pleasures and rewards of life in the hall.

When the Wanderer refers to the "mead-hall" (meodoheall, here in the dative form meoduhealle), he uses a term that both Hrothgar and Beowulf use to refer to Heorot, the hall that is the site of Grendel's attacks in the night (lines 484 and 638). The Old Norse equivalent is mjöðrann, which appears in the Eddic poem Atlakviða (verse 9). However, mjöðrann is actually more closely related to the Old English medoærn, a term used by the Beowulf narrator to refer to Heorot (line 69).

Wynn ("joy," here as dative plural wynnum) is the subject of a verse in the Old English Rune Poem:
Joy he enjoys who knows little of woes, pain and sorrow, and for himself has prosperity and bliss and also the abundance of strongholds.
This expresses a concept of "joy" that is quite close to that of the Wanderer, centered as it is on contrasting mental states and the prosperity and shared experiences of the hall.

He knows who knows first-­hand how cruel sorrow is as companion to him who for himself has few beloved confidants: path of exile holds him, not at all twisted gold, frozen heart, not at all wealth of earth. He remembers retainers and receiving of treasure, how in youth his gold-­friend accustomed him to feasting. All joy has perished!

"Odin the Wanderer" (1886) by Georg von Rosen
The Wanderer's reflection on loss of "joy" (wyn) continues with more parallels to the verse from the Runic Poem quoted above. Shared vocabulary between this section of The Wanderer and the wynn verse includes cunnað/can ("knows"), sorg/sorge ("sorrow"), blæd ("wealth," "prosperity"), and wyn ("joy").

The lament of the man who "has few beloved confidants" (lyt hafað lēofra geholena) is echoed by the words of Odin in the Old Norse Hávamál ("Sayings of the High One," verse 50):
The young fir-tree withers, that which stands in an unsheltered place; neither bark nor needle shelters it. Such is the man whom no man loves – how should he live long?
Although the imagery is different, the two poems share an underlying concept of community.

The Wanderer's emphasis on "receiving of treasure" (sincþegu, here as accusative sincþege) from the "gold-friend" (goldwine) underscores the importance of reciprocity and reciprocal gifting between the lord (a Modern English word descended from the Old English hlāfweard > hlāford = "loaf-ward," "bread-keeper") and his dependents. The leader was responsible for providing food, shelter, and treasure for his retainers in exchange for their loyal service. This relationship is also at the heart of the Old English poem The Battle of Maldon.

In Hávamál, Odin mentions this relationship of reciprocal gifting (verse 42):
To his friend a man must be a friend and repay gift with gift.
The Wanderer makes a direct connection between loss of friends and the loss of gifting. Odin also seems to warn against the very situation in which the Wanderer finds himself (Hávamál, verse 41):
Those who exchange and those who give again are friends to each other the longest – if that continues to go well!
Clearly, things haven't gone well for the Wanderer.

Therefore knows he who must do without counsels of his beloved friend-­lord for a long time: when sorrow and sleep at the same time together often bind the wretched solitary one, it seems to him in his mind that he embraces and kisses his liege lord and on his knee lays hands and head, as he at times before in days gone by enjoyed the giving-­seat. Then the friendless man awakes afterwards, sees fallow waves before him, sea-­birds bathe, feathers spread, rime and snow driving mingled with hail.

Hrothgar doesn't look like he's in a giving mood
in this illustration by Randy Grochoske
Bruce Mitchell and Fred C. Robinson suggest that the Wanderer's embracing of the lord and the laying of hands and head on his knee "is evidently a ritual confirming the close ties between the lord and his retainer." Laurence M. Larson writes, "There can be no doubt that the singer refers to his initiation into his lord's following. In several important particulars – the kneeling (which is implied), the kiss, the placing of the hand – this ceremony resembles the one described in Court Law."

The "giving-seat" (giefstōl, here as genitive giefstōlas) from which the lord rewards his retainers seems equivalent to the Old Norse "high-seat" (hásæti, hástóll, öndugi, öndvegi) that is mentioned so often in the Eddas and sagas.

Hæl ("hail," here as dative hagle) is featured in one of the verses in the Old English Rune Poem:
Hail is the whitest of grains; it whirls from heaven's sky, storms of wind toss it; afterwards it is made into water.
Perhaps a bit more prosaic than the other verses quoted above, but there it is.

Then wounds of the heart are the heavier, sorely longing for the beloved. Sorrow is renewed. Whenever remembrance of kinsmen pervades his mind, he joyfully greets, eagerly examines companions of men; they often swim away. Spirit of floating ones does not bring there many familiar sayings. Care is renewed for him who must very often send weary heart over binding of waves.

Therefore I am not able to think throughout this world why my spirit does not grow dark, when I fully ponder life of noblemen, how they quickly abandoned hall, brave young retainers. So this middle-­earth each of all days declines and falls; therefore a man can not become wise, before he has a portion of winters in the kingdom of the world.

Hávamál illustration (1908) by W.G. Collingwood
"Middle-earth" (middangeard, "middle-yard") is the Old English equivalent of the Old Norse miðgarðr (also meaning "middle-yard"). The former is the source for Tolkien's "Middle-earth," the latter for "Midgard" in Modern English translations, retellings, and reimaginings of Norse mythology.

The emphasis on wisdom and experience is reminiscent of sections of the Old Norse Hávamál in which Odin speaks of the "unwise man" (ósnotr maðr, verse 26):
An unwise man thinks he knows all, if he has for himself a corner to stay in.
That is to say, the fool who never leaves home considers himself wise – an observation that still holds true in this age of internet trolls.

We still use the Old English word winter (here as genitive plural wintra). Both the Anglo-Saxons and the Norsemen measured a person's age by winters instead of years. Beowulf rules his kingdom for "fifty winters" (fiftig wintra, line 2209) before the dragon attacks; Helgi of the Völsunga saga goes off to war when he is "fifteen winters old" (fimmtán vetra gamall, chapter 8).

The wise man must be patient, must not be too hot-hearted nor too hasty with words, nor too weak a warrior nor too reckless, nor too afraid nor too obsequious, nor too wealth-greedy nor never of boasting too eager, before he clearly has knowledge. A warrior must await, whenever he speaks a vow, until stout-­hearted he knows clearly whither thought of his heart will turn. A wise man must understand how terrifying it will be, when the riches of all this world stand deserted, as now in various places throughout this middle-­earth walls stand wind-­blown, rime-covered, the buildings snow-­swept.

Cattle in the winter snow of Exter, England
The qualities given here of "the wise man" (wita) parallel those discussed by Odin in Hávamál. Both the Wanderer and Odin place an emphasis on moderation (Old English metgung, Old Norse hóf). In Viking Age Iceland, Jesse Byock connects this idea to the reciprocity discussed above: "Success in maintaining reciprocal agreements... required conformity to a standard of moderation, termed hóf. An individual who observed this standard was called a hófsmaðr, a person of justice and temperance." Maybe today's Heathens who adhere to the "Nine Noble Virtues" should consider adding "moderation" to the list. In today's world of overheated online rhetoric, a little restraint couldn't hurt.

The Old English word feoh appears here joined to the word gīfre ("greedy") to form the compound adjective feohgīfre ("wealth-greedy"). The Old English feoh and Old Norse have two ranges of meaning: (1) cattle, livestock and (2) property, wealth. In his Dictionary of English Etymology, Hensleigh Wedgwood writes, "The importance of cattle in a simple state of society early caused an intimate connection between the notion of cattle and of money or wealth." Related words in Modern English include fee, fief, and feudal.

Feoh is the subject of the first verse of the Old English Rune Poem:
Wealth is a consolation to all people; though each man must deal it freely, if he wishes to obtain glory before the lord.
As in The Wanderer, the importance of reciprocal gifting is underscored.

Beorn (here translated as "warrior") is a word that only appears in Old English poetry (i.e., not in prose works) and is used to mean man, warrior, prince, nobleman, or chief. Both beorn and bera ("bear") are cognate with the Old Norse björn ("bear"), but the meaning of björn seems to have evolved from the animal to the human. Tolkien tapped into the transformation of the word when he created The Hobbit's Beorn, a mysterious character who shifts between bear and human form.

The Wanderer stresses the gravity of making a vow (bēot). Mitchell and Robinson write that "the speaker is warning against rash vows... uttered in public, since a man would earn contempt if he failed to carry out what he boasted he would do." This view of vows is held today by many modern practitioners of Heathenry, and the seriousness of making oaths is discussed at length by contemporary Heathen authors such as Patricia M. Lafayllve, Diana L. Paxson, and Eric Wódening.

Edoras (translated here as "buildings") is the plural form of the noun edor ("place enclosed by a fence," "dwelling," "house"). Again connecting the Rohirrim to the Anglo-Saxons, Tolkien gives the name Edoras to their hilltop fortress in The Lord of the Rings.

The wine-halls decay, rulers lie deprived of joy, troop of seasoned retainers has all perished, proud by the wall. War took some away, carried into the way forth, a bird bore away a certain one over the high sea, a gray wolf shared a certain one with death, a sad-­faced nobleman hid a certain one in an earth-­grave.

The imagery of animals preying on the battle-dead should be familiar to readers of the Norse myths and sagas, which feature ravens and wolves as the battlefield-haunting creatures of Odin. The Wanderer's statement that "a gray wolf shared a certain one with death" (sumne se hāra wulf dēaðe gedælde) brings to mind Odin's rationale for gathering heroes to Valhalla in the Old Norse poem Eiríksmál: "the gray wolf gazes at the homes of the gods" (sér ulfr hinn hösvi á sjöt goða).

So the creator of men laid waste this dwelling place until, devoid of the revelry of the population, the ancient works of giants stood idle.

Sword with Anglo-Saxon silver inlay
found in a grave in Heggestrøa, Norway
"The ancient works of giants" (eald enta geweorc) here refers to buildings, but a similar phrase is used in Beowulf to describe a sword when the hero finds an oversized weapon during his battle with Grendel's mother (line 1557):
Then he saw among the war-gear a victory-fortunate blade, an ancient sword made by giants (ealdsweord eotenisc) strong in edges.
In Old English, ent (here in genitive plural enta) and eoten (here in the adjective form eotenisc) both mean "giant." The latter word is related to the Old Norse jötunn ("giant"), a word that may derive from eta ("to eat"). The sense of the enemies of the gods having enormous appetites is also present in the Sanskrit texts of India, in which the rakshasas are defined by their monstrous hunger. Like the jötnar (plural of jötunn) of Norse myth, rakshasas appear in Indian texts as both terrifying ogres and beautiful women.

The phrase "works of giants" (enta geweorc) also appears in several other Old English poems: Andreas, Beowulf, Maxims II, and The Ruin. In his Mittelerde: Tolkien und die germanische Mythologie ("Middle-earth: Tolkien and Germanic Mythology"), Rudolf Simek explains why the Old English poems credit "giants" with the construction of ancient structures: "To these old giants, people in the early middle ages attributed the creation of the prehistoric stone-monuments and also the Roman streets and buildings, which were still visible then in great ruins." Earl R. Anderson writes of a "theme of an awed regard for Roman ruins" in Old English poetry: "These ancient stone structures have endured the ravages of time, wind and weather, and are admired [by the Anglo-Saxons] in part because of their antiquity."

Tolkien credits the creation of the Ents in his own mythology to this line of The Wanderer, writing to W. H. Auden (letter 163) that his giant figures of the forest "are composed of philology, literature, and life."

He who then wisely considered this foundation deeply meditates on this dark life, wise in spirit, often remembers large number of slaughters far, and utters these words:

Where has the horse gone? Where has the young man gone? Where has the treasure-giver gone? Where have the seats of the feasts gone? Where are the hall-­joys?

Alas, bright goblet! Alas mail-­warrior! Alas, glory of the prince! How that time departed, grew dark under helm of night, as if it never was. A wall wondrously high, decorated with serpent shapes, stands now in the track of the beloved troop of seasoned retainers.

Powers of ashen spears have taken noblemen away, weapons slaughter-greedy, fate the glorious, and storms batter these stone cliffs, falling snowstorm binds the earth, tumult of winter, when dark it comes, night-­shadow darkens, sends from the north fierce hailstorm to the warriors in hostility.

Warriors drink in the hall
Beowulf illustration (1939) by Lynd Ward
The Wanderer uses the word frōd ("wise") in the phrase frōd in ferðe ("wise in spirit"). In J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, Tom Shippey points out that Frodo is "the one name out of all the prominent hobbit characters in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings which Tolkien does not mention or discuss." Given that "wise in spirit" seems such an apt description of the Ring-bearer, perhaps this half-line from the poem Tolkien knew so well played some part in his naming of Frodo.

The Wanderer again refers to reciprocal gifting when he mentions the "treasure-giver" (māþþumgyfa). Of course, gyfa ("giver") is related to gyfan ("to give") and gyfu ("gift"), the latter of which is the subject of a verse in the Rune Poem:
The gift of men is honor and praise, support and respect; and help and substance for each wanderer who is without other.
This reminds us that the Wanderer is not bemoaning the simple loss of material things, but of the relationships and cementing of status that the giving and receiving of gifts represents.

The Old English symbel ("feast," here in the genitive plural symbla) is parallel to the Old Norse sumbl. In The Well and the Tree: World and Time in Early Germanic Culture, Paul C. Bauschatz presents a detailed analysis of usage of both terms in the literature of the two languages, arguing that Beowulf and several poems from the Poetic Edda provide evidence for a Germanic ritual based on drinking of an alcoholic beverage, making of speeches, and giving of gifts.

Bauschatz's theories have been widely influential on modern Heathen practice. So far, every book that I have found published by a Heathen author that discusses the contemporary version of the symbl or sumbl ritual cites his work. Our Troth, a two-volume religious guide by the Troth (an American Heathen organization), states that nearly all practitioners "who have written or spoken on the meaning of the sumbel in latter years have drawn their understanding of the rite from this text."

The section of The Wanderer beginning "Where has the horse gone?" should be familiar to readers of The Lord of the Rings. In The Two Towers, Aragorn recites the "Lament for the Rohirrim":
Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?
Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?
Where is the hand on the harpstring, and the red fire glowing?
Where is the spring and the harvest and the tall corn growing?
They have passed like rain on the mountain, like a wind in the meadow;
The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow.
Who shall gather the smoke of the dead wood burning,
Or behold the flowing years from the Sea returning?
At it's opening, Tolkien's poem is quite close to the lament of the Wanderer. Although the language quickly diverges, the spirit, mood, and imagery remain very similar.

When Aragorn performs the poem for his companions, he is himself a wanderer standing next to "the great barrows where the sires of Théoden sleep." The character name Théoden is from the Old English þēoden ("prince, lord") which appears in this passage of The Wanderer as the genitive þēodnes in the phrase Ēala þēodnes þrym ("Alas, glory of the prince"). In Peter Jackson's film of The Two Towers, three non-contiguous lines of Aragorn's lament are transferred to Théoden, with editorial "improvements" of language by the movie's producers.

All is fraught with hardship in the kingdom of earth, the creation of the fates changes the world under the heavens.

Here wealth is temporary, here a friend is temporary, here oneself is temporary, here a kinsman is temporary; all this foundation of the earth will become worthless!

"December" by Hans Thoma (1839-1924)
The second sentence here is quite close to a popular passage from the Old Norse Hávamál. The Old English uses the word feoh in its opening phrase, and the Old Norse uses at the start. As discussed above, both words can mean either "wealth" or "cattle." In the words of the Wanderer, the meaning is generally accepted to be "wealth" or "property"; in the words of Odin, it is clearly "cattle." Verse 76 of Hávamál states:
Cattle die, kinsmen die, the self dies the same, but the glory of reputation never dies for the one who gets himself a good one.
Two pairs of the Old English and Old Norse words are related: feoh/fé ("wealth"/"cattle"), frēond/frændr ("friend"/"kinsmen"). The parallel nature of the two verses is obvious. However, the worldview expressed by the two endings are quite different.

The Old English poem responds to the realization of the transitory nature of life by denigrating the worth of the world itself, and suggesting that the afterlife is all that truly matters (as made explicit in the narrator's Christian conclusion below). The Old Norse poem replies to the same situation with an insistence that deeds in the world are what matter, that the only immortality is in the reputation we leave behind. One attitude is world-denying, the other world-affirming.

Direct speech of the Wanderer ends at this point in the poem.

So said the one wise in spirit, sat himself apart in secret meditation.

Good is he who his maintains his faith, nor ought a man ever his grief too quickly of his breast make known, unless he, the nobleman, before then knows how to bring about amends with courage. Well is it for that one who seeks mercy for himself, consolation from the Father in the heavens, where for us all the fastness stands.

The narrator returns and states that the Wanderer sat alone "in secret meditation" (æt rūne). The word rūn (here as dative rūne) refers to the secret and mysterious nature of the act, not to the runic symbols. What we would today call a rune was known in Old English as a rūnstæf ("runic letter").

Trēow (as accusative trēowe) is here translated as "faith," but also means "trust" and "loyalty." It is related to the Old Norse trú ("faith," "belief") which is used today as part of the Modern Icelandic term for the contemporary Heathen religion Ásatrú ("Æsir Faith," belief in the Norse gods).

The poem ends with the narrator's statement on Christian "mercy" (ār, as accusative āre) and "consolation" (frōfor, as accusative frōfre). However, the final image is that of a "fastness" (fæstnung) "in the heavens" (on heofonum), which fits well with the Wanderer's nostalgia for bygone days of drinking in the stronghold of his lord.


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Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005.

Shippey, T.A. J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000.

Simek, Rudolf. Mittelerde: Tolkien und die germanische Mythologie. Munich: Verlag C. H. Beck, 2005.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings, Part Two: The Two Towers. New York: Ballantine Books, 1981.

Völsunga saga. Heimskringla website,

Wódening, Eric. We Are Our Deeds: The Elder Heathenry, Its Ethic and Thew. Baltimore: White Marsh Press, 2011.

This modern English translation and annotation
© 2016 by Karl E. H. Seigfried

Click here for more free full text online translations from the Old English.

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.
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