Friday, December 19, 2014

ART CONTEST – Teen Winners, Midwinter 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SECOND PLACE
Millie Anderson
Age 16
Oberlin, Ohio, USA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Third Place: Andrew M. Kiley

Adult winners will be announced tomorrow!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

ART CONTEST – Kid Winners, Midwinter 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Place: Rowan Chiment-Scimeca

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

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

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

Laia Chiment-Scimeca

THIRD PLACE
Asha D.
Age 12
Melbourne, Australia

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

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

Third Place: Asha D.

Teen winners will be announced tomorrow!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

THREE ÁSATRÚ WORLDVIEWS, Part Three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

THREE ÁSATRÚ WORLDVIEWS, Part Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be concluded in Part Three.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

THREE ÁSATRÚ WORLDVIEWS, Part One

Bob Smietana, religion journalist and current president of the Religion Newswriters Association, recently asked me for help with a story he was writing for OnFaith, the online publication about religion that formerly belonged to The Washington Post but is now part of the FaithStreet website.

Bob's article was inspired by the announcement by Rick Riordan (author of Percy Jackson & the Olympians) that his new series for middle school students will focus on Norse mythology. The first volume of Magnus Chase & the Gods of Asgard will be released in October 2015. "Gods of Asgard" can't really by copyrighted, so Riordan was free to borrow the title of Erik Evensen's classic graphic novel.

Bob was interested in talking to parents who follow Ásatrú (the modern version of Norse religion) to learn about ways in which they speak to their children about representations of their religion in popular culture. He wanted to ask my thoughts on raising my young daughter and to get in touch with other Heathen parents. I recommended a diverse sample of parents from the Ásatrú community:
Jennifer Lohr, author of Baltic Mist (a series based on Icelandic sagas) 
Magni Thorsson, goði of Colorado's Mjölnir Kindred for over twenty years 
Haukur Bragason, goði (priest) of Iceland's Ásatrúarfélagið (“Æsir Faith Fellowship”), the organization that began the Heathen revival in Iceland in 1972 
Steven T. Abell, author of Days in Midgard (a collection of original short stories based on Norse mythology) and Steersman (Executive Director) of The Troth, a Heathen organization based in the USA
All of them gave wonderful and thoughtful answers to Bob's questions. You can read the full article by clicking here. As you can see, the questions and answers ranged far afield from the original impetus of the Riordan books. This is a good thing.

Click here to read the OnFaith story about Heathen parents
I've been engaged in an ongoing conversation with Bob on the mainstream media's inclusion of minority faith voices when reporting on religion. I'm very happy to see that our discussion has led to his engagement with a variety of Heathen voices. "The Spiritual Power of Thor" is the first article focused on Ásatrú that Bob has written, and it's the first to be featured by OnFaith.

You may notice that Bob was unable to use the answers provided by Haukur and Steven in his relatively brief piece. My own answers were much too long to be used in full in the final article. I knew that going in, but I used this as an opportunity to think through some of the issues Bob raised and to try to articulate my ideas in a coherent manner.

I'm a bit embarrassed now by how outrageously long my answers are, compared to the concise and to-the-point replies by Haukur and Steven. As always, I blame Loki.

Because they were not included in the OnFaith piece, and with the permission of all involved, I am posting Bob's questions (in red) and the full answers written by Haukur, Steven and myself. I hope that this documentation of our three different Ásatrú worldviews will be useful to those of you who are interested in Norse mythology and modern Heathenry.

1. What is your age and occupation? Where do you live? How long have you identified as Heathen and a follower of Ásatrú? How many kids you have?

Haukur Bragason
Haukur Bragason
I'm thirty-one, the youngest goði of the Ásatrúarfélagið in Iceland. I've been a part of the Ásatrúarfélagið for nine years, but I'd say I've been Heathen for about ten to twelve years.

I was an active member from the beginning, served on the board, etc., and was asked to become a goði a few years back. The title is Lundarmannagoði and I'm the Suðurlandsgoði (goði of South Iceland). I have the license to marry people and conduct many ceremonies.

I'm also a teacher. I teach biology and other fun stuff to teenagers, and I also teach Icelandic language to grown-ups. I've got a six year old daughter. She lives with me and my wife in Reykjavík, Iceland. She also lives with her mother, sometimes, in North Iceland.

Steven T. Abell
Fifty-eight. Software engineer. Silicon Valley, California. About twenty years out in the open, a lot longer to myself. One grown daughter.

Karl E. H. Seigfried
I'm forty-one years old. In addition to my work as a professional musician, I teach Norse mythology courses for the Continuing Education Program of the Newberry Library and write The Norse Mythology Blog. I have degrees in literature and music, and I'm currently working on an MA in Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School under advisor Bruce Lincoln. I live in Chicago with my wife and daughter.

2. How do you describe your faith? What's the term you like to use?

Haukur Bragason
I'm an Ásatrúarmaður (what I believe Americans call Ásatrúar), but I usally say I'm heiðinn (heathen) or heiðingi (noun of the same word).

I believe in Mother Earth, first and foremost. Nature, the cycle of nature, the powers around us. I follow the old gods and the old ways, but I do so living a completely modern life.

Steven T. Abell
The fancy word is Ásatrú (that's pronounced OW-sa-troo), but most of us call ourselves Heathens these days.

Karl´s drinking horn (made in Iceland), Thor's hammer pendant
(made in Denmark) & oath ring (made in the United States)
Karl E. H. Seigfried
I self-identify as a follower of Ásatrú. The term refers to the modern iteration of the pre-Christian Germanic religion. The word Ásatrú is Icelandic for "Æsir Faith," the belief in the Old Norse gods. You can read a more formal description of the term in the set of Ásatrú definitions that I wrote for the Religion Stylebook of the Religion Newswriters Association by clicking here.

Instead of faith, the term worldview would be a closer approximation of how I personally conceive of the nature of the tradition. It's arguable that there was not an indigenous Old Norse word for "religion" before the northern peoples came into contact with Christianity. Early written sources from Iceland refer to "the Old Way" and "the New Way" in reference to, respectively, the native polytheistic religion and the radical new monotheistic tradition being imported from southern lands. I think this conception captures the sense that what we now call Ásatrú was then a traditional way of experiencing life that engaged with the numinous as an intrinsic part of the world, not as an external force that stood outside time and space. This mode of experience is at the core of my own understanding of today's Ásatrú.

I sometimes explain Ásatrú as "a poetic gloss on life." I don't view Ásatrú as list of laws for living or a registry of rules for ritual. George Eliot expresses a similar idea:
Love does not say, “I ought to love” – ­it loves. Pity does not say, “It is right to be pitiful” – ­it pities. Justice does not say, “I am bound to be just” – ­it feels justly. It is only where moral emotion is comparatively weak that the contemplation of a rule or theory habitually mingles with its action; and in accordance with this; we think experience, both in literature and life, has shown that the minds which are pre-eminently didactic – which insist on a “lesson,” and despise everything that will not convey a moral, are deficient in sympathetic emotion.
Experiencing a sense of spiritual rootedness:
photo from a recent forest walk in Wisconsin
Rather than serving as a rulebook for orthodoxy and orthopraxy, I believe that the poems, myths, sagas, legends and histories of Northern Europe provide a way of seeing, a means of interpretation, a philosophical orientation. For example, walking quietly through a forest can become a deeply meaningful experience that is informed by conscious and unconscious internal connections of the present moment to lore of the elves, to myths of Odin, to legends of Siegfried, to history of the Germanic tribes. The meanings of this experience are not necessarily reducible to language and narrative; they can appear in the mind in symbolic form. Sometimes symbols held in the mind can be more meaningful than intellectual ideas expressible in language.

In light of this way of seeing, a way of living can be found – a way that focuses on living in the moment with as full a knowledge of the past as possible. The past is not an abstract conception, but a force that continually affects the present as the living moment becomes the lived moment. Your actions are of paramount importance, because they immediately become part of the past that shapes the experience of the next now. We don't have a Faustian ability to make the living moment into a frozen gem; as soon as an experience is lived, it becomes part of the past.

Death marks the final action of the individual life, but not the end of that life's effect on the future present. This is made most clear in the famous words of the god Odin in the poem Hávamál (“Sayings of the High One”):
Cattle die, and kinsmen die,
And so one dies one's self;
One thing now that never dies,
The fame of a dead man's deeds.
This acceptance of the finality of death has often been misunderstood by Christian thinkers to express a sense of Germanic gloominess, of depressed resignation. In a discussion of theological themes behind Greek tragedy, the French philosopher and theologian Paul Ricoeur writes that "the fatality of death and of birth haunts all our acts, which are thereby rendered impotent and irresponsible." I think he misunderstands pagan worldviews in a way that many have misinterpreted the theology behind Old Norse poetry. The realization of the reality of death for the individual does not lead to paralysis; it leads to a wholehearted embrace of living life to the fullest, so that one's deeds can continue to live in the minds of future generations. In my view, it is the religions that focus on salvation into a paradisiacal next life that minimize the experience of a life lived in this world.

Ásatrú's emphasis on the importance of deeds has real implications on the life choices one makes. What will you do to make a positive impact in your lifetime? How will you work to make a better life for the next generation? Will you allow harm to come to your community through inaction? How will you preserve the lore of the past so that it continues to live on and have real effect in the present? Of course, these questions are also asked by other religious traditions. Perhaps the difference is that they are at the core of the Ásatrú experience and are not secondary to questions of salvation of the individual soul.

3. How did you come to follow that religious tradition? How does it impact your day to day life?

Haukur Bragason
I was raised in Christianity but lost my faith when I began to read and think about religion. I was sixteen. After some years I had developed a deep respect for nature, and in the end I found my path joining with Ásatrúarfélagið.

Vor siður (the old way) is timeless and works 100% with modern life. It is not at all outdated; it breathes with the people. It impacts my day-to-day life with my every thought and action, but not consciously. It's just the way I think.

Steven T. Abell
Steven T. Abell
On a whim on the way to the hospital, my parents named me Thor. That's the T in the middle. A name like this predisposes one to be interested in Norse myths. My folks had no idea what they were getting me into, but I can only thank them for it.

They didn't know what to tell me when I asked them about Thor, but my mom went to the library and brought home an armload of books. I knew these stories were the foundation of an old, dead religion. I also knew these stories meant more to me than anything I heard in Sunday school, and they wouldn't leave me alone.

As I got older, I felt a need to honor what was in those stories on their own terms. Eventually, I realized that what I was doing was religion, and that it was important to me. It was a long time after that when I discovered there were other people who felt the same.

Makes me wonder how many Closet Heathens there have been over the last thousand years. Nice that we don't have to hide anymore.

On a day-to-day basis, this is mostly about outlook for me, which is a kind of cross between Stoicism and Life As A Grand Adventure. I am not a supernaturalist, although many Heathens are.

One of Willy Pogany's Children of Odin illustrations
Karl E. H. Seigfried
When I was a child, my parents insisted that I learn the Jewish myths, the Christian myths and the Greek myths. "You can believe whatever you want when you grow up," they told me, "but you need to know these traditions, or you'll never be able to understand literature, art and music." I was familiar in a general way with Norse mythology, but the turning point was stumbling across a copy of Children of Odin, a 1920 retelling of the major Norse myths by the Irish poet Padraic Colum. The back cover stated, "The age-old legends and tales of Nordic mythology are a common heritage of German, Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon peoples." This intrigued me, as I had always thought of the Norse myths as "belonging" to the Scandinavians. My father had told me tales of Siegfried, Frau Holle and other legendary German figures from his childhood in a German farming village, but not so much of Thor, Odin and the Norse gods and goddesses. I know today that the specific myths retold in Colum's book are really taken from medieval Icelandic literature, not some proto-Germanic source – but that's another issue.

Upon reading the book, I immediately saw my Opa – my German grandfather – in the tales of Thor. My Opa loved drinking, dancing, children and good solid food. Thor shares these loves (I can't be completely sure about the dancing) and arguably represents the idealized self-image of the free farmer, the ancient social class to which my Opa himself belonged. Both Thor and my Opa were quick to anger, yet equally quick to jollity. If I were granted three wishes from a genie, one would be to raise pint of beer with both my Opa and Thor and share a laugh around a warm fire. Until that happens, I strive to live my life as fully as they did, to cherish moments with family and to experience living in a very vital way.

Wolfingen (Karavukovo), my father's home before horrors of WW2
Odin, on the other hand, reminded me of my father. As a young child, my father not only survived the anti-German extermination camps run by Marshal Tito’s Yugoslavian Communist Partisans, but he single-handedly rescued his extended family and led them to freedom in the British Zone of Austria – repeatedly walking across a vast distance of hostile territory in Eastern Europe. As a philosopher, he spent his life questioning and seeking answers for the most profound of life's questions. Odin appears when his descendants are in seemingly hopeless situations, as my father did in his youth for the members of his family. Odin, in his guise as the Wanderer, roams far and wide, questioning all and seeking wisdom – which is also the task of the modern philosopher. Neither Odin nor my father necessarily found joy in the wisdom they gained. Odin learns that all must someday die, even the gods and the world itself. My father was greatly saddened that – more than half a century after he survived torture at the hands of brutal camp guards – the president of his adopted United States worked to enable the torture of "enemy combatants." For both Odin and my father, the heaviness of wisdom lead not to paralysis, but to determination to fight the good fight to the end. I hope that I can have the same strength in my own life.

As I dove into the study of Norse mythology and religion, I also saw myself in Thor and Odin. Thor is the great protector, the one who fights for gods and humans. He goes alone against the giants, against the forces that threaten those under his protection. He seems to have very little care for his own safety, but rushes headlong into battle with overwhelming opponents. I find this to be a great inspiration in the battles of modern life – battles against racism, sexism, homophobia and injustice of all kinds. We must be willing to risk the danger that comes with challenging bigotry and domination. Odin is also inspiring, but in a very different way. His endless questioning on the future – on life and death – is what appeals to me. I am not seeking mystical answers in the words of Odin; it is his questions that move me. It is amazing to me that poets a millennium ago were asking the same questions that keep me awake at night. This doesn't erase the darkness of the wee hours of the night, but it is comforting somehow to know that Odin is wandering in some far off land, pondering the same questions under the same stars.

To be continued in Part Two.
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