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.

1 comment:

James Moore said...

Fascinating article! It's great to see multiple points of view on a wonderful spiritual practice often shrouded in mystery to most people. Hopefully many people will read and take something from this. Thanks for the great read!

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