Thursday, May 12, 2016

A COLLEGE STUDENT ASKS ABOUT NORSE MYTHOLOGY AND NORSE RELIGION, Part Two

Click here for Part One.

3. I read on your blog that you are a musician. How have you integrated your religion into your music?

There are several ways that I have consciously incorporated my religion into my music. Here are just two of them.

Blue Rhizome by The New Quartet
First, I believe in interfaith dialogue and inclusivity, even if the “great religions” don’t really return the favor. I wrote the extended composition that appears on my Blue Rhizome album for mixed quartet. Not only were the players mixed in the sense of playing a non-standard combination of instruments, but they came from a mixed religious background: Ásatrú, Baptist, Jewish, and Greek Orthodox. The beginning of my liner notes explain the spiritual impetus for the music:
The composition of this piece was inspired by a crisis of faith. Not religious faith, but faith in humanity. 150 years from now, it is guaranteed that everyone now alive will be in the ground or consumed by flames. There will be no exceptions. All our efforts, dreams, and hopes will end as all biographies must.
In these few years that we have of consciousness and life, we divide ourselves into tribes. Our choice of friends, lovers, and colleagues is based on comfort with what we see as members of our own group. Ethnicity, race, religion, culture, and nationality are used as an excuse to shut out love, new experiences, challenges to our habits, and expansion of our experiences. The Other is judged and the Like is embraced, whether consciously or not.
Thor vs the World Serpent by Ernst Hansen
The music plots a psychological trajectory from “the sadness and despair of those wandering between tribes” through stages including “a meditation on the transitory nature of life” to “the glimmer of hope that we may find kindred spirits across tribal lines.” The peak of the piece is “Destroy All Monsters,” my electric guitar duet with drummer Chris Avgerin, which “represents the anger that can grow out of sadness, whether the Monster is racism, sexism, or the Snake That Encircles the World.”

That last bit is, of course, a reference to the World Serpent, the great enemy of the god Thor. The thought behind the guitar solo was inspired by a famous verse from the Sayings of the High One in which Odin says:
Where you recognize evil, call it evil,
and give no truce to your enemies.
I have been called a “social justice warrior” by online wags for daring to suggest that racism and sexism are evils and monsters that we must confront. Such is life.

Second, I believe that the subjective experience that I often have of composing and improvising music is the same basic experience that the Elder Heathen conceived of as inspiration by the god Odin. When I recorded some of the guitar and bass tracks for Of Alien Feelings, my collaboration with the great drummer Calvin Weston that featured a cross-section of legendary prog rock and jazz players from the last half-century, I simply hit the record button, closed my eyes, and opened my mind so that the music could flow through me without the commentary of my conscious mind. This is not always an easy thing for a trained musician to do!

Odin by Lorenz Froølich
In the best moments, I would feel like the music was coming from outside of me, that I was not consciously creating it. This is the experience of pure creativity that I think was understood as possession by Odin or as the effect of drinking his magical Mead of Poetry.

Intellectually, I understand that creativity can come from our brains combining past experiences in novel ways, that it can be partially explained by the science of the mind. I also understand that, in the actual moment of creativity, I am not aware of whatever electric connections are being made inside my skull.

Scientific theories are necessary for our understanding of reality, but there are also needs that can only be filled by religion, spirituality, and the arts. I believe that the creative experience transcends time, space, and culture, and I think of these bright moments as times when Odin’s inspiration briefly touches me.

4. How have you connected with others who practice Ásatrú?

There are many ways that Heathens find each other. Sometimes, it’s just a pleasant surprise, like when I reconnected years ago with a close friend from high school. We had drifted apart over the long period since we were teenage Motörhead fans together, but when we found each other again, somehow we were both Heathens. The Norns are subtle.

The Norns by Carl Emil Doepler
I have sought out others because I was interested in their writing or academic work, and others have sought me out for the same reason. Intellectual discussion often develops into friendship. I have also met Heathens in places where one would expect to find them, like visiting the headquarters and attending the events of the Ásatrúarfélagið (Ásatrú Fellowship) in Iceland.

There’s also the internet, of course. On one hand, you will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. There are trolls lurking everywhere, but that is not a necessarily Heathen phenomenon. I’ve seen equal nastiness in Tolkien fandom and discussions between professional musicians. It’s just an unfortunate element intrinsic to online interaction.

On the other had, what we old graybeards used to call “the Information Superhighway” can also be a great way for members of religious minorities to find fellow practitioners. I have found Heathens on social media who I have subsequently met in this thing called life. Jennifer Snook’s book on Heathens in the U.S. has a great discussion of the pros and cons of Heathenry’s relationship with the internet.

5. How are Ásatrú, Heathenry, and Paganism related?

Thor's Hammer pendant from Erikstorp, Odeshög,
Ostergotland, Sweden, probably before 1016
In very general terms, you could say that each is under the umbrella of the next. Basically, you can think of each one like this.

Ásatrú refers to religions that largely center on the Old Norse sources, meaning that they focus on the deities, myths, and practices as described in Icelandic literary sources and various other texts and archaeological finds that are related to them.

Heathenry is a larger term for Germanic polytheistic traditions that include Ásatrú as well as related religious beliefs and practices such as Theodism (which emphasizes Anglo-Saxon sources) and a wide range of praxis based on local and regional traditions (recreated or newly made).

Paganism is a yet wider term that encompasses Heathenry, Wicca, Druidism, and a large number of religions that claim connection to various cultural backgrounds (Baltic, Hellenic, Italic, and so on).

As with any religious terminology, these definitions are widely contested and argued. Some practitioners see Ásatrú and Heathenry as synonymous while others see them as oppositional. Paganism sometimes seems to only mean Wicca, especially as it used by mainstream booksellers (see, for example, the “Witchcraft, Wicca & Paganism – Modern” section at Barnes & Noble).

I once had a religion editor at a cable news network condescendingly explain to me that “Heathenry and Wicca are denominations of the religion of Paganism.” I think you would be hard-pressed to find many Heathens or Wiccans who would agree with his construction. We may argue over the fine shadings of the terms, but there are also some clear divisions.

6. I read an article that was written recently about how Iceland is building the first Norse gods temple in one thousand years. How has not having a place to worship affected your religious practice?

Valheim Hof in Denmark, dedicated to Odin and the gods
Like your question about Western culture, this makes me a bit sad. It suggests that the mainstream media misrepresentation of Heathenry has permeated popular perception to the same degree that academic misdirection of the trajectory of history and literature has shaped student views.

First, the hof (Heathen temple) being built in Iceland is not the first temple to the Norse gods built in the past thousand years. It’s not even the first one this decade. There are Heathen hofs on private property around the world, but we don’t know exactly how many. They are private places of veneration and ritual that are not publicly announced but are used by individuals, families, or groups.

We do know of several temples currently in operation around the world, including in Maryland, California, Denmark and England. We can definitely say that when it is finished – likely in winter 2017 or later – the Icelandic temple will be the first large-scale public hof built in Iceland in the last thousand years.

The story of the future Iceland temple went viral in a media frenzy a while ago, but most of the online articles misrepresented what was really happening as they plagiarized content and lifted quotes without attribution. Such is today’s religion journalism.

This is my temple, no walls needed:
Michigan's Upper Peninsula in 2015
Second, I think we have to be careful about using generic concepts of “a place to worship.” The idea that religious ritual requires a brick-and-mortar structure for large congregations to gather in front of an ordained clergyperson is not universal.

Much Heathen ritual takes place outside, where we tend to feel closer to the gods and wights. I personally feel closest to the wights when we are out walking quietly in one of America’s beautiful forests. The woods have always been a mystical place for me. We planted and dedicated a Thor’s Oak in our back yard, and that is where I speak and make offerings to the Powers in a conscious emulation of fragmentary descriptions of Germanic ritual in the surviving texts.

We also celebrate the high days of the Heathen calendar in our home, with family gathered around the table or in front of the fireplace. This also has a basis in historical practice, in which the home was often the center of family religious activity. So, I think not having a big, public, tax-exempt structure listed on Google Maps has had absolutely no effect on my religious practice.

7. I have been reading a lot about the traditional Norse deities. For example, Thor, Odin, and Freyr. What roles do these gods have in modern Ásatrú? Do you actively worship them?

Freyr, Odin and Thor by Wilhelm Kaulbach
There are many gods, goddesses, and wights that inhabit the Heathen world. Their roles are multiform and multivalent.

You often hear that Thor is the god of thunder, but I would question what function thunder has. Is Thor’s role as a deity to make noise during storms? That seems fairly limited in scope. I would say, instead, that thunder is one manifestation of his power. Thor has many roles, including protector of humanity from the threatening forces of the uncultivated world, bringer of the rains that enable life to grow and flourish, and the one who hallows life events such as marriages and funerals.

Another Heathen may say that one or none of these are true descriptions of Thor’s role in her life. She may not pay much attention to Thor, instead focusing on Odin, Freyja, or another deity in her thoughts and actions. In polytheistic religions, the many gods play many roles and are open to many interpretations.

I would also question use of the word worship, contemporary use of which tends to privilege ways of relating to godhood that are rooted in the monotheistic traditions of the Middle East. Heathens often talk of reciprocal gifting with the gods or of honoring their ancestors, which are both quite different modes of religious action from praising an almighty deity. When I raise a drinking horn to Odin, to the spirits of the land, or to my deceased father, the action and the meanings behind it have very little to do with, for example, the praising and flattering of God that I have often seen in Evangelical churches where I’ve been hired to play bass for services.

My ritual drinking horn, carved by Jóhanna G. Harðardóttir
One of the best poems by one of the best poets of the Elder Heathen Era both rails at Odin for the premature death of the poet’s sons and thanks him for the gift of poetic ability which enables his expression of grief. This understanding and acceptance that the gods bring both good and bad, both suffering and joy, is one of the defining areas of difference between polytheism and monotheism. Heathens don’t ask why God allows bad things to happen to good people. They accept that the gods, like everything in this cosmos, are complicated.

8. What role do the Nine Noble Virtues have in your practice?

None. I mean no offense to those who place value on them. I understand that the Nine Noble Virtues are meaningful to some Heathens, that they are a source of inner strength, and that they are a way to focus on positivity in their lives. It is not anyone’s business to tell someone that her personal religious beliefs are invalid. That way lies fundamentalism. However, I steer clear of the NNV in my own practice for several reasons.

The Seven Heavenly Virtues date to the 5th century.
What motivated modern Heathens to imitate them?
They were supposedly “codified” from the poems of the Poetic Edda. To begin with, I don’t believe that poetry can truly be translated. There is too much cultural meaning and association packed into each word, especially when you go back to poetry from over a millennium ago. How do you translate a symphony written for orchestra by Beethoven? If you play it on solo xylophone, it simply is not the symphony any more.

Following from this, I really don’t believe that poetry can be codified, especially religious poetry. How do you codify a symphony by Beethoven? If you reduce it to a few isolated and unconnected single notes, you are destroying the core of what defines the work – the act of listening to its complete duration and experiencing it in its fullness. The same goes for religious poetry. Codifying a poem or set of poems into a list of single nouns is simply not something I can get behind.

It’s also a bit odd that Odin himself violates each of the Nine Noble Virtues, right there in the poems themselves. To avoid fighting frost-giants (Courage), he gives a false name (Truth) as he breaks his pledge (Honor) to a giant-maiden (Fidelity). He can’t resist personally insulting Thor (Discipline) and refuses to help him (Hospitality), even though Thor fights the giants for him (Self-reliance) while he’s off having love affairs (Industriousness) or cursing a foster-son for his imperfections instead of continuing to mentor him (Perseverance).

You could go through this same exercise with other deities in the poems and myths. I think this further undermines the assertion that the NNV were codified from the poems.

Odin doesn't seem all that concerned with virtue.
Sculpture by Herman Ernst Freund
What these polytheistic poems paint for me is a portrait of a complex set of worldviews that offers no simple answers. Odin is subtle, and Sayings of the High One resists reduction to tidy, unambiguous virtues. The very idea of creating a list of guidelines for behavior seems to imitate the concept from patriarchal monotheist religions of revealed law, to create a simple code that functions like Ten Heathen Commandments carved onto rune-stones and brought down the Rainbow Bridge from Asgard.

To make a different religio-cultural comparison, the NNV assert a simple, communal, universal dharma for all Heathens as opposed to a complex, localized, individual dharma for each Heathen. The NNV are thus internally contradictory as they simultaneously advocate for rugged individualism and for conformist groupthink.

As I said at the beginning of my answer to this question, I realize that some Heathens find value in the Nine Noble Virtues. I don’t deign to tell them how to believe or practice. I simply don’t find the NNV valuable, and the above outlines some of the many reasons why. Your mileage may vary.

Thank you for your thoughtful questions. I hope that my answers will encourage you to dig deeper into historical and modern Heathenry. Please keep me posted on your studies!

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