Friday, August 5, 2022

Interview with Jason Aaron (Thor: God of Thunder), Part One

Jason Aaron’s historic run as writer of Marvel’s Thor comics began with Thor: God of Thunder #1 in 2012 and concluded over a hundred issues later with King Thor #4 in 2019, but continued in another form through ten issues of Valkyrie: Jane Foster, four issues of Return of the Valkyries, and five issues of The Mighty Valkryies.

His seven-year tenure writing Thor is nearly twice as long as Walt Simonson’s legendary run in the 1980s and just shy of creator Jack Kirby’s record on the character. Elements from Jason’s many years of Thor stories were adapted in the 2022 Marvel Cinematic Universe film Thor: Love and Thunder.

Esad Ribić cover art for Jason Aaron’s Thor: God of Thunder

Jason’s other work for Marvel Comics has included Doctor Strange, Ghost Rider, Hulk, Punisher, Wolverine, Conan the Barbarian, and Star Wars. He currently writes writes The Avengers. Outside of these legacy series, he has written The Goddamned, Men of Wrath, The Other Side, Scalped, Sea of Stars, and Southern Bastards.

In my roles as Adjunct Professor in Humanities and Faculty Advisor for Pagan Forum at Illinois Institute of Technology, I interviewed Jason via Zoom on April 22, 2021. Students from my courses and Pagan Forum participated and were joined by others who were simply interested in Marvel comics and movies.

Jason was a wonderful interviewee – both incredibly open about himself and wonderfully thoughtful in explaining his work. The students and I are very grateful for his generosity in spending this time with us, and we hope you enjoy this two-part interview transcript.

Faith and transformation

KS – In the 2019 epitaph you wrote for your Thor run, you state that you “haven’t believed in God, in any gods, for a long time,” but also that the Marvel version of Thor – the one centered on worthiness, not really something the Norse original cares much about – is the sort of god you “would like to believe in.”

Although writers like Walt Simonson and Matt Fraction had already dug into the mythological side of Thor, you really get deeply into the religious side of the character in a way that, I think, is a first for how this character has been approached at Marvel.

Faith in oneself and faith in gods are key issues throughout your run. How did your own relationship to religion affect how you approached writing Thor?

JA – In a huge way. I think everything that you just said became the key to me figuring out the character to begin with.

I didn’t grow up a huge Thor fan. I read some of the Simonson stuff when that was coming out, but it wasn’t a character where I was going around with a briefcase full of Thor ideas, like I was really chomping at the bit to pitch Thor.

Writer Jason Aaron

I think the first time I read Matt Fraction’s Ages of Thunder one-shots – I think there were three or four one-shots he did – they were really, really good and were very much like a heavy metal kind of Thor, the kind of Thor you can see spray-painted on a van. That was the first time I thought, “Oh, yeah. I could see having some fun doing Thor.”

Then there was a point called “Marvel NOW!” – this initiative where really every book Marvel had was up for grabs. All creators were switching around on everything, so everybody was faced with a question of “what do you want to do right now?” That moment was really the first time I thought, “You know, I want to do Thor.”

Esad Ribić was really quickly attached to draw the book. Esad has a style very much in that same kind of vein as what Matt Fraction had done on those Ages of Thunder books, so I kind of knew right off that was the vibe I was going for -– this sort of dark, weird Kirby-ish vibe.

I had all that in place really before I had a story, so I went back and started reading those original Stan Lee and Jack Kirby Thor stories – which I’d never read before – which are really, really good and some of my favorite Kirby stuff from Marvel.

Thor at the time, kind of led by the movies, was being pushed in a direction of “well, this guy is not really a god. His people are these aliens who live a long time, and they were perceived by primitive humans as gods, but they’re not really gods.”

I didn’t really like that idea. I love what they’ve done in the movies, but that part of the idea didn’t appeal to me as much, especially when I went back and read those original issues.

Stan talked about when they first decided to do Thor. That was the idea of “how do we do somebody who’s different than the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man? Well, what if we did somebody who’s actually a god? What is that like?”

I knew I wanted to lean hard into that idea of it. That’s why that book is called Thor: God of Thunder, and the first arc is the God Butcher, and the next arc is the Godbomb.

We lean hard into that idea of Thor being a god. In the first issue, he answers a prayer, which I don’t think is something we’d really seen him do much of in the past. Knowing that I wanted all that to be a key part of it, it brought those issues of faith and worthiness to the forefront.

For me, I grew up in the South. I grew up in the Southern Baptist church, so I grew up very religious. That was a big part of who I was, up until I went off to college, and – in terms of my faith – things started to kind of fall apart. Little by little, cracks started to form – “I don’t believe this part of it anymore. I don’t believe that part.”

I literally had kind of an epiphany one time, having an argument with my dad about things, and he got frustrated with me and said, “If you don’t believe any of this stuff, I don’t understand why you believe any of it,” and this light bulb went off over my head, and I was like, “You know what? I think you’re right. I think I don’t believe this anymore.”

I’ve identified as an atheist since that point, which was my early twenties.

That said, you can look at a lot of the work I’ve done, and a lot of it has been about issues of faith, questions of faith.

I broke into comics in 2001 with this Marvel Comics talent search contest, where I submitted a synopsis for a Wolverine story. That was my first published comics work. It’s a little short story inspired by Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”

[Wolverine] stumbles out of the woods and has this encounter with this woman on a dirt road winding through the woods of the South. They’re talking about faith, and she’s asking Wolverine about his faith.

So, from the very beginning of me working in comics, that was a subject I was attracted to. I think it makes sense I’d wind up doing Thor, even though I never would have seen that coming when I first got into comics.

Wrapping all that stuff up, I think you can see so much of my Thor run goes back to those original Lee and Kirby stories, probably in a bigger way once I got to the Jane Foster part of it, because that goes back to that idea of transformation, where they put an inscription on the hammer [“Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of... Thor”].

That very first story is this guy Donald Blake goes into this cave and finds this hammer, and it transforms him into Thor, though Stan and Jack later retconned their own story, and you found out that, well, that was Thor all the time, and his dad had sent him to Earth to teach him humility.

To go back and reread those stories now, like a lot of that early Marvel stuff, they’re figuring things out as they go. The X-Men, it took them a long time to figure that out.

You can see in Thor, they pretty quickly got bored of the idea of this guy who transforms into Thor. Donald Blake would just disappear for long stretches, so it made sense eventually that they threw all that away.

But that inscription was still there, and then Walt Simonson brought that back in a huge way, right out of the gate with his run.

So, with the Jane stuff, it’s very much going back to that idea of you could pick up this hammer, if you’re worthy enough, and become Thor.

The key character motivation for me writing Thor Odinson – Thor the god – was that every day, he would wake up, that hammer sitting next to his bedside. He looks at it, he doesn’t know if he’s going to be able to pick it up today. He knows he picked it up yesterday, and he flew around the universe, and he punched people in the face, and he saved the day, but when he wakes up the next day, he’s like, “Am I going to be worthy today?”

That idea that he would always question that, and that’s the lesson that he learned from that is to not wake up every day and assume “oh, yeah, I’m totally gonna be super worthy today.”

I liked that idea, and as part of that, I knew at some point I’d do a story where he wasn’t worthy, where he couldn’t pick it up.

Jane Foster wields the hammer

KS – I’ve read that the creation of Marvel’s Thor was a conscious attempt to get a Superman for Marvel, because superheroes were having a resurgence in the 1960s. The red cape and the flying but also the love triangle, where you had Lois, Clark, and Superman – and two people in the triangle were the same person. They replicated this in their Marvel romance comics way.

JA – Exact same thing, yeah.

KS – You don’t have so much of the romance thing in your run, but you have the triangle where it’s the two women and Thor, where she’s the goddess, and she’s the person. It’s again a sort of three-way relationship. Especially when you first introduce her, Thor is totally threatened by this new female Thor and doesn’t realize that she’s his nurse from the old days.

JA – Yeah, I had tremendous fun with all that part of it. By the time I’d started that Jane Foster story, I’d been writing Thor for a few years. I’d been at Marvel for ten years, at least.

That Jane stuff still feels like the biggest, most “Marvel” story I’ve ever done, and it’s very much like an old school Marvel story.

Russell Dauterman cover art for Jason Aaron’s The Mighty Thor

She’s got a secret identity. She doesn’t want people to know that she’s secretly Thor. She’s dealing with very real-world problems in her life as Jane, and she’s going through breast cancer treatment, and the fact that she is Thor is making all that worse. It’s making her life worse and harder.

It’s literally killing her, because every time she transforms, it’s neutralizing the effects of the chemotherapy she just went through. Every time she comes back as Jane, she’s sicker than she was before.

All that stuff to me felt like classic, old-school Marvel Comics and, at the same time, I wanted to show this is someone who loves and relishes what she’s getting to do.

She’s been a part of this Thor universe since the very beginning. Her first appearance was the second issue of Journey into Mystery, the second Thor comic in Journey into Mystery, so she’s always been there.

Back then, she was – like you said – a love interest, and she was a damsel in distress a lot. Loki would show up and take her hostage to try to get at Thor, but she’s always been around.

Now, she’s getting to be at the center of that universe and getting to fly around and punch gods in the face for the first time, and she’s loving it. I liked writing that.

Her life really sucks in a lot of ways. It’s incredibly difficult. She’s getting closer to death, as it goes, but she’s enjoying every second of what she’s getting to do and enjoying exploring her powers and her relationship with the hammer.

Getting to write somebody who is experiencing all that stuff for the first time is really fun, and how her relationship with the hammer is different than Thor Odinson’s relationship with it had been, making the hammer more of a sentient, living being.

We see right off that even Odin can’t pick up the hammer, and he’s supposedly the one who put the enchantment on it in the first place – the worthiness enchantment. The fact that he can’t pick it up tells you this has grown beyond what was initially.

All that Jane stuff was tremendous fun.

You know, there was a backlash about her story from the moment it was announced, before it even existed. There was some backlash of “well, why is this other character coming in and taking Thor’s name? Why couldn’t you just make her a new character? Why does she have to be Thor?”

I would take all those comments and criticism and put them in the actual book. Odin many times says things people would yell at me on Twitter. We would answer those questions in the book.

I didn’t create the idea of Odin being a jerk. He has been Thor’s greatest enemy, going back to those Lee and Kirby stories. That exists. Most especially his relationship with Jane.

When you go back and Thor says, “Hey, this is my girlfriend, Jane,” Odin was not very happy about that. I didn’t make all that stuff up. I bring it to a head in a big way.

There was always that backlash of “well, why couldn’t she just be someone else?” which I think completely misses the mark of this idea of taking this character who had been a supporting character in this universe for so long and making her the center of it.

No, she’s not Thunderstrike. She’s not Thor Girl. She is Thor. It’s the difference between doing a Nightwing story and having Dick Grayson become Batman. Those are two different stories, and I didn’t want to do a Nightwing story. This was about her being Thor and being at the center of that universe.

To me, the people who would say it was a different kind of Thor story than I’d been doing or was somehow not a Thor story – to me, it was again the most Thor of any of the Thor stories I did, because it went back to his first appearance, to how things were established right out of the gate with that character and that idea of transformation and worthiness.

It brought all those things back in a big way and took all that to its next big step. I wasn’t trying to do exactly what Walt [Simonson] did with Beta Ray Bill or what had been done when other people had picked up the hammer. I think it’s the next evolution of that.

KS – In your tales of Jane Foster as Thor, you engage with the early Marvel Thor mythology in a way that writers in this century have not. The idea of having a human with a deep physical challenge who can temporarily transform into a god of old, of the dual consciousness between her human mind and her Asgardian one, even of her worry that she will turn back into her weak human form if separated too long from her hammer in battle – these all hearken back to the very beginnings of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s creation.

When Marvel first went public about the new female Thor, editor Wil Moss said, “This new Thor isn’t a temporary female substitute – she’s now the one and only Thor.” At the time, you said she was “the Thor of the Marvel universe for the foreseeable future.” As a lifelong comics reader, I’ve seen so many character redesigns, reboots, transformations, and deaths that eventually snapped back to a more traditional portrayal, so I was a bit skeptical.

Now that Jane Foster is the Valkyrie and Thor is back as the god of thunder, can you tell us how this went down at Marvel? Were you, Marvel editors. and Marvel administrators committed to Jane Foster permanently being the Thor that Marvel’s own website said was designed “to speak directly to an audience that long was not the target for super hero comic books in America: women and girls”? Or was she planned from the beginning to step aside for the return of the male Thor once he’d found his worthiness?

JA – I will say, nothing is permanent in comics. None of us who are making the comics are permanent.

These characters have been in publication for sixty-plus years, at this point. They change, they shift, they come back to center. That will always be the case.

This change came about in different stages. Like I said, I always had the idea of getting to a point where Thor Odinson couldn’t pick up the hammer anymore and wasn’t worthy for a bit.

Ryan Sook cover art for Jason Aaron’s The Unworthy Thor

That was initially an arc. I was going to do an arc called “Unworthy” where he couldn’t pick up the hammer. The Mangog shows up, who’s this great old Kirby villain. He shows up to raise hell, and that was an arc.

Then I expanded a little bit. I thought, “Well, that would be cool, while he can’t pick up the hammer, to have somebody else come and pick it up.”

I initially thought that might be his mom, Freyja, that she would pick it up and wield it for a bit.

Then that grew again as things went on. I did this event called “Original Sin,” which is where something happens so that Thor Odinson becomes unworthy, and coming out of that – it wasn’t really planned to begin with that Sam Wilson was going to become the new Captain America at that same time.

So, it became a chance to relaunch both of those titles at once, and having somebody else pick up the hammer will be its own new series. It was sort of fortuitous timing that turned into an initiative.

Coming into that, to say that it’s permanent – you don’t have any idea. If sales tank and nobody buys it, then permanent becomes six issues. You’ve got to wrap up that story of move on, and maybe I’m fired from Thor at that point. Who knows?

Yes, the idea was going to be that she was the Thor of the Marvel Universe. Once she took over, she was Thor. Thankfully, sales went up. Sales were really great.

I got to tell that story the way I wanted to tell it. She was in the Avengers with Sam Wilson Cap for a while, so, for that period of time, she was Thor.

That said, from the get-go, I was always telling a very specific story with Jane, so I knew from the beginning. She came into this with cancer. She was dealing with cancer. I was never going to “magic away” her cancer.

From the beginning, from the first issue where we find out she has cancer, Thor tells her, “Let me take you to some wizards I know, and we’ll have that taken care of,” and she says, “Nope, not going to do that sort of thing. That stuff comes with a price.”

She’s a doctor. She’s gonna beat this the good old-fashioned way. I was never going to magic that away.

I didn’t want to take that lightly. If I’m going to go into this huge story, where the main character is struggling with breast cancer, that’s the story. Her getting to fly around with the hammer is the cool part, but this is Jane’s story that we’re going to play out.

I always knew, from the beginning, how that story was going to go and what that final story would be, which turns into the Mangog story. That original one arc of unworthiness and the Mangog turned into however many arcs it ended up being at the end, a few years’ worth of stories.

KS – There really is an amazing conflict in that period of the stories between this liberation as Thor, where she’s poking Thor in the chest with his hammer and just living it up and having these great adventures that comic readers all dream of having, and this very serious, grim tale of the woman who’s dying of breast cancer.

This is something I talk about in my classes – the stories that we consume are not necessarily fun or entertaining. The stuff that lasts and has meaning is not stuff that’s fun, like throwaway summer comedies. I can’t even remember some movies I saw five years ago, but these kinds of stories are the ones that stick with you, bother you, and go on to live inside of the readers for a long time.

But there’s that contrast that you had between very broad and hilarious comedy and real human tragedy. Not mystical fantasy tragedy, but real human stories.

JA – I think that’s the challenge with all this sort of stuff.

Everything I do at Marvel – in particular something like Thor, where the scope of it is so grand and epic, there are other realms that Thor goes to, and they fly through space and all these things that are hard for us to relate to – to do all that and have the fun of all that but also in some way make it grounded and have a real emotional connection to it.

Jane’s story is one of the things I’m most proud of from my entire career in comics, because I think it’s where I got a good mix of that right. It is fun, it’s exciting, but there were parts of it that I cried while writing. People cry when I have comics signings for it.

To have all that wadded up in the same stories – that’s what I’m striving for, I think, with everything I do.

Relating to the god of thunder

KS – Many times, while reading your Thor run over the last decade, I got flashbacks to when I was a teenager in the late 1980s, and I found a giant box of an almost complete run of 1970s and early 1980s Heavy Metal comics. Part of it was the visual style of your artistic partners, but the other part was how you wrote this mixture of deeply intense personal interactions and amazingly enormous cosmic events with this way of storytelling that is both focused and expansive, at the same time.

It makes the gods seem both very much like like us and immensely different from us, and it plants narrative seeds that slowly grow underground and sometimes don’t explode into view until much later. The reader has to understand it retroactively, and some of it was like reading Mœbius and those guys, where you’re not quite sure what’s going on. You know it’s important, but you don’t understand it until later on.

To what extent have non-US, non-Marvel, non-DC writers and artists like those that used to be featured in Heavy Metal influenced your approach to storytelling?

JA – Not to a huge degree. I read more of that stuff these days than I ever did growing up.

When I was first getting into comics back in the 1980s, there wasn’t a whole lot of that European stuff that was available here, or Japanese manga. I remember the first time Lone Wolf and Cub started to be printed here. It was a huge deal.

I didn’t grow up with a lot of that stuff. I’ve read more Mœbius and Jodorowski stuff, but I certainly wasn’t reading it in my formative years.

Jason Aaron and Esad Ribić’s Thor: God of Thunder

With Thor, a lot of what you’re talking about speaks to the challenge of writing a character like that.

When I first started talking about doing it and pitching it, Tom Brevoort – who’s my editor on Avengers, who has been at Marvel pretty much longer than anybody, at this point, one of the best editors I’ve worked with and a guy with a library of Marvel comics in his head – he was talking about how he never got into Thor growing up, because when Thor would spend so much time in Asgard or flying around in these other realms, he would lose interest and lose connection to it.

I get that. At times, I felt like that, reading Green Lantern or Legion of Super-Heroes, where you just feel like this is so disconnected from the world I know. I don’t relate to it. I don’t connect to it.

So, how do you do that? How do you have Thor fly out there and lean into the fact that he is a god, lean into the fact that he’s got this unique setting where he’s got these other realms he goes to?

Captain America is not going to Jotunheim, and Spider-Man’s not going to Alfheim – the realm of the elves – but Thor does that all the time.

So how do you do that and make all that cool without losing any kind of emotional resonance to the story?

That was the challenge. I wanted to go big and grand and epic but to really make you feel and relate to Thor. I was always trying to get that balance right.

KS – In several of my courses, we talk about the immense tradition of Indo-European storytelling from ancient India and ancient Greece to Viking Iceland and nineteenth-century Germany and on to our own American popular culture. We work to identify what Wendy Doniger calls “Indo-European building blocks” – ancient bits of story that are continually combined in new forms.

You’ve been working at a unique historical nexus, creating original work where ancient mythology and modern commercial culture smash into each other. What is it like to sit at that particular spot and produce new stories with ancient elements on a regular deadline?

JA – It’s really cool. I mean, it sounds great, when you put it that way.

From the get-go, from when I first learned how to read, I was a huge comic fan. Loved to read. I think, like anybody who goes on to write for a living, the first step was that I was just a voracious reader.

I read everything I could get my hands on. I particularly loved comics. Loved fantasy. Loved Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories.

Once I went to college, I knew I wanted to write but didn’t really know what form that would take. I didn’t have any idea how to break into the comic business, and it was a lot harder to do back in those days, anyways.

One of the smart things I did when I went to college is I took a lot of literature courses that were outside things I’d been interested in before.

I took a Mark Twain class that I really, really loved, and I’d never really been much of a Twain fan. I’d read Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, and that was about it. But going past that, I became a huge Twain fan. I became a huge William Faulkner fan, when I took a class about him.

I read Beowulf in college and really loved it. A thing I’d read before, and it didn’t stick with me, didn’t touch me or affect me, and read it in college and really loved it.

I think breaking outside my limited sphere of reading influence was a big deal for me, to open me up to other stuff. I still try to do that. It’s harder, these days, just being busy.

I don’t know about everybody else, but a year ago, I felt like “we’re not going anywhere [because of coronavirus lockdowns], so at least there’ll be more time for reading.”

It didn’t really work out that way. It was harder to work, harder to read, at times last year. Kind of getting back to that now.

I still try to read things that are not for work, because I think my work has always been the best when it’s pulling from a lot of different sources.

My cousin Gus [Hasford] was a writer. He was a Vietnam vet and wrote the book The Short-Timers, which is what Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket was based on. He was a big influence on me, the first guy I ever knew who wrote for a living. I’ve got a bunch of his old letters and stuff.

He died back in the 1990s, but I’ve got a letter he wrote to the customs department at one point, when he was living somewhere overseas and was having a shitload of books shipped to him. He wrote, “You know I need all these books, because I’m a writer, and the secret to a good writer is stealing your ideas from as wide a variety of sources as possible.”

I think it’s true, in some sense, that it helps to just read a lot of different stuff and pull things from a lot of different sources, especially when you’re talking about what I do for a living.

On the one hand, I get to stand on the shoulders of giants like Jack Kirby and all these creators who have worked on these characters for many years, and you get to pick and choose the cool stuff from what they’ve done in the past, but it also makes it more challenging to bring something new to the table.

How do you tell a Thor story that hasn’t been told before, a hundred times? How do you tell a new Spider-Man story?

I think the challenge is always to bring something from somewhere else, bring something that isn’t already there and bring something of yourself. What can you say with Thor that hasn’t been said before?

I think that’s the challenge I face every day, when I sit down to write whatever it is I have to write for the day.

“The kind of god I would like to believe in”

KS – Thor and the Norse gods are, of course, fundamentally not creations of Marvel – but there are now nearly sixty years of history and mythology of Marvel’s own Asgardians that so many writers and artists have built, and this mythology often diverges widely from the original Norse mythology. When writing Marvel’s Thor, how much was the Norse Thor on your mind, if at all?

JA – Not a whole lot. I didn’t have much of a background in Norse mythology.

I hadn’t read a whole lot, so once started working on it, I bought a bunch of books and read more and thought to maybe use some of it but pretty quickly realized – like you said – this is not the same.

I think Walt Simonson did a great job injecting more Norse mythology into the book, but I wouldn’t say it was a huge driving force in what I was doing.

Russell Dauterman cover art for Jason Aaron and Torunn Grønbekk's The Mighty Valkyries

You can see more of it in the Valkyrie book that I co-write right now, because my co-writer Torunn Grønbekk is Norwegian, and literally her entire family’s named after Thor.

She shows me pictures of her childhood, where they’re straight up dressing like Vikings and running around the fjords, so she has a very intimate relationship with all that stuff. She injects more of it into the Valkyrie stuff she and I have been doing together.

KS – Long before that series, you were notably doing what Walt Simonson had done by not only creating original characters of your own around Thor but also bringing in several figures from Norse mythology – such as Bor and the Disir – even while radically changing them from their portrayal in the myths. What was the process you went through for transforming characters, objects, and concepts from the mythology into the Marvel universe?

JA – I’d have to know specifically which ones we’re talking about. I don’t know that I’ve got a process for that, beyond just whatever seems right.

KS – For example, the Dísir. In your version, they’re like undead Valkyries of ancient times. I wonder if you have a character, then you go looking for a name to fit it – or do you read something and say, “Oh, wow. I can use that and transform it”?

JA – To me, it’s all of those.

Literally, I’ve got my Thor notebook there that’s a few hundred pages of ideas jotted down – thoughts I had, words from stuff as I was reading, going back and reading old Thor comics, as I was doing research. Just jot this down, jot that down.

Some of it never turned into anything. Some of it, you can see the first kernels of what became five or six years worth of stories. So, it depends.

Sometimes, you’re looking for something to serve a function within the stories. Sometimes, it’s just about “I like this cool thing, and where do I work it in?” Sometimes you might have to hold on to that for issues and issues before it’s the right time.

One secret to writing, I think you have to learn pretty quickly, is just because you have a cool idea at the time doesn’t mean it needs to go into what you’re working on, which sucks.

There are times you’re like, “Man, this is a really good page” or “This is a really good three lines of dialogue,” but it doesn’t belong here, so it doesn’t need to be here, so you hang on to it until the time is right.

Again, I think it helps that I love to read comics. I always have. I never had that period where I stopped reading, got out of comics.

I’ve always been reading, so in some sense I’ve always been doing work-related research. It helps to give you inspiration and things to pull stuff from.

KS – The Norse gods you write about are not only part of Marvel myth and Norse myth but also part of Ásatrú and Heathenry, modern iterations of Norse and Germanic religion. Back in 2013, the months-long Worldwide Heathen Census I ran estimated that there were nearly 40,000 practitioners around the world at that time, with the largest number living in the United States. Anecdotally, the population seems to have greatly grown since then, possibly driven by the popularity of the Vikings TV series, the Thor movies, and your own run on the comics.

You several times show Thor directly interacting with his worshipers – even responding to prayers. Did the fact that these Marvel characters are alternate versions of deities actively venerated today play into your work?

JA – No, not really. As someone who grew up with faith and lost that faith along the way and became an atheist but still remained fascinated by the ideas of faith and of all different religions, I looked at all of it as story fodder.

I do a book called The Goddamned which is a really dark and brutal version of the pre-flood Biblical world. The first story arc was the story of Noah, where it turns out Noah was not a very nice guy. He’s the guy who’d come to town and chop down all the trees and steal a bunch of people as slave labor to go build this giant boat he was building.

I’m very indiscriminate in terms of the religions I choose to make stories from. So, no, I never really thought of it that way.

To me, with Thor, I was trying to write as an atheist, to write the kind of god I would like to believe in.

The first issue I did after that first big arc about the God Butcher, the serial killer of gods, and building this Godbomb to kill all the gods. Right after that, it’s eleven issues of big, cosmic craziness.

Right after that, I did a standalone issue where Thor came back to Midgard – came back to Earth – for the first time in almost a year, at that point. It was about what does Thor do when he when he comes back to Midgard? Who does he go see? Who does he hang out with?

We see him do things like show up to spend time with this guy who’s on death row and is about to go be executed, and he brings him some rare fruit from some faraway planet. We see him hanging out with nuns and old vets. We see him make it rain on the Westboro Baptist Church protesters. We just see how does Thor interact with real people.

I was very interested in that. That’s another one of my favorite issues of the stories I’ve done – just a day in the life of Thor on Midgard.

He also goes and gets drunk on mead at some point, but a lot of it is to show the very real human interactions between this god and the people he connects with – people of different faiths and religions, not all people who are worshiping Thor.

So again, that was very much me saying I’d like to believe in this kind of guy, and I hope that if one exists, I hope he’s like this guy.

KS – There was a story that I loved where Thor’s in love with a human woman – I think it’s in Viking times – and he goes on some space adventure. By the time he comes back, for him it’s just a moment, but she’s already dead and gone after waiting for him for her entire life.

JA – That was in the last Thor series I did.

Through my whole ride, I’d flash back and do young Thor stories, stories of Thor before he could lift the hammer. That was one of them. I don’t remember exactly what issue it was.

He references her. She’s brought up a few times. That was a first lesson to him of “oh, these [human] lives are really fleeting.”

It’s the first time he has that godly perspective when it comes to interacting with life on Midgard.

To be continued in Part Two.

Thursday, July 7, 2022

“And All the Generous Earth”: Ásatrú Ritual and Climate Change Ethics, Part Two

Click here for Part One of the article.

Transtemporal care

In addition to thinking with the planet, to focusing on a landvættir ethic and a Jörð ethic, Heathen ritual addresses issues of scale raised by American philosopher J. Baird Callicott in Thinking Like a Planet: The Land Ethic and the Earth Ethic. In the conclusion to his book, Callicott discusses questions of relationships between generations near and distant in connection to the climatic consequences of current actions. His own personal emotional investment of care is centered on his son, grandson, and possible great-grandchildren – those individuals with whom he has or is likely to have intimate relationships. “After about a century,” however, his “personal stake in the state of the world begins to fade and its demographic composition is presently indeterminate.”46 He asserts that “[e]thics is scale sensitive” and that “[t]here is a temporal limit to care.”47

Souvenir of the Kanawha, Western Virginia by William Sheridan Young (c. 1860)

Taking this position leads Callicott to ask, “Can one really care that in about a million years the human species will, one way or another, become extinct?”48 To address the problem of individual disconnectedness of interest from possible peoples in the far future – the difficulty of “car[ing] for something so abstract as indeterminate distant future generations considered holistically or collectively”49 – he suggests “global human civilization” as the object of care, setting a future temporal limit of five thousand years based on a past cultural history of the same time length.50 “Global civilization,” he concludes, “can serve as a surrogate for Unknown Future generations because it is scaled proportionately to the effects of our present actions on the global climate.”51

The Norse mythology that constitutes an important part of the conceptual background for modern Ásatrú provides a tripartite concept of temporality that undergirds modern blót practice and an embedded Heathen response to Callicott’s questions of transtemporal care. The Old Icelandic poem Völuspá (“Prophecy of the Seeress”) tells of three maidens who come from the water beneath the World Tree:
From there come girls, knowing a great deal,
three from the lake standing under the tree;
Urd one is called, Verdandi another—
they carved on a wooden slip—Skuld the third;

they laid down laws, they chose lives
for the sons of men, the fates of men.52
Paraphrasing these lines, Snorri Sturluson writes, “These maidens shape men’s lives. We call them norns.”53 Connected to both water and trees, sources of life in the myths and important carbon sinks in the environment, the three norns have individual names derived from verbs related to the act of becoming. Urðr and Verðandi are both connected to the verb verða (“to become”) and so can be interpreted as, respectively, “what has become” and “what is becoming.” Skuld parallels the verb skulu (“shall, must”) and, taken together with the other two, can be read as “what must become.” It is an oversimplification to translate these names as “past, present, and future,” since their implicit temporality is paired with implications of both emergent action and necessary causality. These significations are echoed in the modern blót rite as practitioners speak over the ritual drinking horn.

The Ásatrú practice of blót builds a concept of care in three temporal directions: sideways, backward, and forward. The ritual life of the religion nurtures a sense of both intra- and intergenerational solidarity, answering a need articulated by Pope Benedict XVI in his popular 2015 encyclical on the environment:
Beginning in the middle of the last century and overcoming many difficulties, there has been a growing conviction that our planet is a homeland and that humanity is one people living in a common home. An interdependent world not only makes us more conscious of the negative effects of certain lifestyles and models of production and consumption which affect us all; more importantly, it motivates us to ensure that solutions are proposed from a global perspective, and not simply to defend the interests of a few countries. Interdependence obliges us to think of one world with a common plan.54
As detailed above, the blót ritual reinforces a conception of the earth not only as a homeland or physical field but also as an anthropomorphic goddess with whom the human community has an interdependent reciprocal relationship. Despite the racist proclamations of neo-völkisch Ásatrú, the lore studied by modern practitioners does not suggest that the earth was gifted by the gods to any specific group of any particular race, ethnicity, or nationality. A progressive Ásatrú worldview is built upon a mythology that tells of a World Tree spreading its branches over all lands and a World Serpent threatening all peoples. The “global perspective” for which Pope Francis argues is already built into Ásatrú, and it is expanded within blót to embrace interdependency across time as well as space.

The sideways temporal relationship exists between current Ásatrú practitioners as they relate to each other. The small-group kindred structure of American Ásatrú is centered on the concept that members are “kindred by choice,” that they willfully join together in constructed kinship. This creates relations of “elective affinities” as practitioners – largely adults and young adults who come to Ásatrú as a consciously chosen religion, rather than an inherited family one – “embrace a sense of kinship… that stem[s] from affinities ‘of mind and soul.’”55 Standing together in blót, kindred members share intimate accounts of their lives and concerns, particularly in the portion of the rite dedicated to ancestor veneration (see below).

American practitioners largely come to Ásatrú after being raised in other, most often Christian, religious traditions. The kindred setting empowers them to speak openly about relationships and issues that may be verboten within their own families and familial religious structures. The membership of Thor’s Oak Kindred has included trans, gay, and adopted individuals, as well as individuals either estranged from parents or with parents who have never been present in their lives. The kindred’s ritual setting creates a supportive space in which members can speak more openly than they may be able to in family situations. By embracing elective kinship, practitioners forcefully reject the theology Pope Francis injects into his environmental encyclical to attack transgender people and those making feminist arguments56 as he apparently connects them with the “negative effects of certain lifestyles” mentioned above.

Participants in blót regularly share deeply emotional and private information when they speak during the ancestral portion of the ritual. Doing so serves to build a wider circle of the “intimate relationships” that Callicott speaks of exclusively in connection to blood relations and strengthens the sideways temporal relationship among the members who stand together during the rite. This expands a strong feeling of reciprocal responsibility beyond merely one’s own original family and opens the individual to a broader concept of care and connection, as will be discussed below. In addition, this segment of blót stresses more than only the sideways connections.

The backward temporal relationship is clearly foregrounded during the section of blót focused on the veneration of ancestors. Concepts of ancestry vary greatly, but American practitioners generally take a broad view of who can be honored as an ancestor. In Thor’s Oak Kindred, the category of ancestor includes deceased family members with whom one has a personal connection (parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, etc.), more distant family relations (such as unknown family members who immigrated to the United States), larger ancestral groups (in one case, a particular kin group in Ireland), aspirational ancestors (including Germanic tribes of the Roman Era), and those who are kindred by choice (close family friends, for example).

In addition to addressing such individuals and groups from across a wide racial and ethnic spectrum, participants have hailed as ancestors a diverse range of figures who are not directly related to the speakers, including African-American victims of police brutality, Asian-Americans killed in hate crimes, LGBTQ+ activists who founded social movements, casualties of HIV/AIDS and COVID-19, journalists who stood up to powerful political forces, and early environmental activists. In each instance, the speaker expressed a strong sense of connection to the deceased person or people, often evoking similar feelings in the other participants.

This expansive conception of the ancestor category serves to further develop the participants’ concept of care, to broaden the embrace of connectedness in ever-expanding temporal and spatial circles. Such communal growth is strengthened by the fact that this portion of the blót is more participatory than the opening hailing of the Powers. The ritual drinking horn is passed around the circle, and each kindred member addresses their chosen figure(s) like this:
Participant: I raise this horn to all the Syrian refugees who have died while seeking better lives for themselves and their loved ones, from two-year-old Alan Kurdi lying on the sand to the elders lost in the waters. As the son of a refugee, I understand the horrors that drive people from their homes and the necessity that sends them onto dangerous paths. We have failed you, and we must work together to help those who even now have embarked on attempts to escape terrifying situations. Hail to the fallen refugees from Syria!

Other kindred members: Hail!

Participant drinks from the horn, then pours a draft for the Syrian refugees into the soil at the base of the tree.
Given the diversity of the individual participants and the openness of the ancestral concept, the turn to the ancestors crosses all constructed lines of race, ethnicity, and class as it moves beyond both Callicott’s allegiance to close blood relations and his care for faceless “global human civilization.”

Several years ago, an African-American Heathen member of Thor’s Oak Kindred hailed Thorhall the Huntsman, a member of Eirik the Red’s crew who sailed to North America around the year 1000. A resolute pagan in the age of Nordic Christian conversion, Thorhall “had paid scant heed to the faith [of Christianity] since it had come to Greenland. Thorhall was not popular with most people.”57 As a black man practicing Ásatrú in mostly white and mostly Christian southeast Wisconsin, the kindred member felt a deep kinship with the stubborn pagan who clashed with Eirik’s Christian crew. For this modern practitioner, an engagement with the lore led to a personal connection with an individual distant in time and place that was subsequently celebrated in the multicultural (African-American, Mexican-American, Guyanese-American, German-American, etc.) and intergenerational (toddler to middle-aged) setting of the group blót.

The expansiveness of this view of ancestry nurtures the ability of participants to deeply empathize with ethnically and spatially “other” people, including those who are often on the front lines of the extreme weather events generated by climate change. The wider the concept of community becomes, the more one feels connected to and responsible for distant peoples.

The backward temporal relationship leads to a forward one. Radcliffe-Brown’s analysis of this turn in “primitive society” can also be applied to modern Ásatrú practice:
For in the rites of commemoration of the ancestors it is sufficient that the participants should express their reverential gratitude to those from whom they have received their life, and their sense of duty towards those not yet born, to whom they in due course will stand in the position of revered ancestors. There still remains the sense of dependence. The living depend on those of the past; they have duties to those living in the present and to those of the future who will depend on them.58
By regularly focusing on the dependency of the present on the past, Heathens internalize a sense of kinship (literal and symbolic) with a deep past that simultaneously builds a sense of responsibility for the deep future. Studying a lore that includes rock carvings from approximately 2000 BCE connects modern Heathens to an ancient tradition across time; studying scholarship that places Germanic languages in the context of a wider Indo-European “family tree” connects them to a cross-cultural network across space.

This process of expanding understanding of dependency and responsibility moves far beyond Callicott’s “personal stake in the state of the world” based on relationships of blood and his abstract concept of deculturated “global human civilization.” By foregrounding connections to a broad and deep past in group ritual, Ásatrú praxis inculcates a conception of connection to a broad and deep future.

As practitioners peer ever farther into the prehistory of their religion – whether in study of reconstructed Proto-Indo-European linguistic roots, examination of the oldest human art objects, or consideration of the earth's origins through the lens of Norse mythology – they come to see themselves as nodes in a branching network that extends into distant pasts and futures that are equally unknowable yet feel equally connected. In this context, Callicott's setting of the temporal limit of care at five thousand years seems somewhat myopic.
46Callicott, Thinking Like a Planet, 297.
47Ibid., 298.
49Ibid., 302.
50Ibid., 298-9.
51Ibid., 302.
52Larrington, 6.
53Snorri Sturluson, 18.
54Pope Francis and McDonagh, On Care for Our Common Home, 225. Emphasis in the original.
55Penny, Kindred by Choice, xi-xii. The subjects are Germans and their relationships with Native Americans, but the concept maps well onto American Ásatrú.
56Ibid., 221-222.
57The Sagas of Icelanders, 666.
58Radcliffe-Brown, Structure and Function in Primitive Society, 176.

From lore to ritual

Theological readings of the lore reinforce this concept of community with both past and future. The Vita Vulframmi on the life of the missionary Wulfram of Sens tells of the pagan Frisian ruler Radbod pulling back on the verge of being baptized. When Radbod asks Wulfram if his forefathers await him in the Christian heaven and is told that, as pagans, they are surely damned, he replies, “I cannot abandon my ancestors and the fellowship of all the greatest men of the Frisian people… I would rather remain in the places that have been reserved for me and all the Frisian nation from time immemorial.”59 Radbod’s sense of connection to those who came before him overrides any desire for a promised afterlife of heavenly bliss.

A similar dismissal of newly arrived afterlife ideas appears in the voice of the god Odin in the medieval Icelandic Hávamál, likely composed during the years of pagan interaction with Christian missionaries and converts:
Cattle die, kinsmen die, the self dies the same, but the glory of reputation never dies for the one who gets himself a good one.60
This suggests that the judgment of future generations on those now living mattered deeply to early pagans. As Radbod’s feeling of dependence on past generations trumps desire for individual access to paradise, Odin’s feeling of responsibility to future generations trumps desire for the survival of an individual soul.

The contrast between pagan and Christian conceptions of the future is made explicit in the Anglo-Saxon Christian poem The Wanderer, which contains a verse parallel to the one attributed to Odin (the connections are even clearer in the original languages) with a theologically significant change to the punch line:
Here wealth is temporary, here a friend is temporary, here oneself is temporary, here a kinsman is temporary; all this foundation of the earth will become worthless!61
Where the focus of the pagan poet is on the time-transcending importance of one’s deeds for later generations, the Christian poet brushes aside all earthly things as “worthless.” The pagan worldview presented stresses the relationship between current and future generations, while the Christian worldview expressed denigrates any relationship whatsoever with the world itself.

The pagan emphasis on the importance of the deep future’s view of the actions of today’s individuals appears in statements such as the Saga of the Volsungs aside that the hero Sigurð’s “name is known in all tongues north of the Greek Ocean, and so it must remain while the world endures.”62 It also appears in the Old Norse doomsday myth of Ragnarök, which includes a postscript about the inhabitants of the far future time cycle after the earth has been renewed following the massive cosmic cataclysm:
Then they will all sit down together and talk and discuss their mysteries and speak of the things that happened in former times, of the Midgard serpent and Fenriswolf. Then they will find in the grass the golden playing pieces that had belonged to the Æsir.63
In this melancholy passage, there is an emotional sense of longing (at least for Heathen readers) for a connection with our far distant and unknowable descendants, a hope that they will think of us with kindness and forgive the poor choices we continue to make. As in the saga statement about Sigurð, the scope of that hope extends to the farthest future of humanity.

This heartfelt bond with future people also appears in the oath-poem performed as part of the Icelandic Ásatrú ritual of the Landvættablót, as described by Jóhanna G. Harðardóttir:
One special thing we always chant at these blóts is Tryggðamál [“Peace Guarantee Speech,” a medieval Icelandic “ode… about [how] you will keep your word as long as the earth revolves, snow falls, a ship sails, and a Finn skis”64] – a very holy and beautiful text.

While fire burns,
Earth is fertile,
A child (which can speak) calls upon its mother
And mother gives birth to her offspring,
Men light fires,
A ship glides,
Shields flash,
Sun shines,
Snow falls,
The Finn skis,
Fir grows,
The falcon flies
On a spring day,
The breeze carries him
Under both wings,
The heavens revolve,
The world is settled,
Wind blows,
Waters fall into the ocean,
Men sow their seeds (of corn).65
Including a performance of this particular text in this particular blót – the ritual dedicated to remembering and thanking the land spirits and to “reminding us to do our best” – focuses the attention of the participants on the far future while simultaneously (via the poetry) celebrating the continuity and connectedness of life across vast stretches of time and (via the oath) emphasizing and sacralizing the responsibility of the present generation to those yet to come. In addition, the recitation of the text connects human and natural worlds in a tapestry of “the eternal things,” or at least those things hoped to be eternal.

Callicott asks, “Can one really care that in about a million years the human species will, one way or another, become extinct?” Heathen ritual and use of texts suggests that we can, and that we can share and encourage that care with others in our person-to-person communities. The care thus generated and strengthened can be deeply moving in a way that an intellectual commitment to “global human civilization” may not be.
59Caciola, Afterlives, 11-12.
60Seigfried, “The Wanderer: An Old English Poem.”
62Byock, Saga of the Volsungs, 72.
63Snorri Sturluson, 56.
64Seigfried, “Interview with Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, Part Two.”
65Jóhanna G. Harðardóttir, email communication.

The web of wyrd

The above discussion shows that a broad spatial conception is accompanied by a broad temporal conception in Ásatrú as a lived religion. Callicott has suggested that the “protracted global scale” of climate change provides a challenge to ethics that is poorly addressed by a turn to moral paradigms of the past:
Giving equal consideration to the equal interests of billions of spatially and temporally distant moral patients appears to be absurd to all but a few moral philosophers willing to embrace the implications, carried to their logical extremes, of a moral paradigm, constructed in a time when people lived in actual villages, not a global village.66
Perhaps Callicott simply is looking to the wrong past. Germanic tribes of the Migration Age and Nordic peoples of the Viking Age – two broad historical groups that provide much of the cultural background of modern Ásatrú and Heathenry – are notable for their far-ranging travels, their contacts with many other societies, and their cultural exchange of everything from art styles to religious concepts. The idea of a global village existed long before Marshall McLuhan popularized it, and it has a modern life within the rite of blót.

The tripartite temporal connections in Ásatrú ritual intersect with planet-wide spatial connections through the concept of wyrd, a theological construction built on Old English and Old Norse models. Wyrd encompasses ideas of action and fate, and it centers on the belief that actions taken in the past determine what destiny awaits in the future.67 There are linguistic and conceptual connections to the norns discussed above; in Old Icelandic sources, the same word appears as the name of the norn whose name can be interpreted as “what has become” (Urðr) and as a term for "fate" (urðr). Together, these two usages reinforce the idea that past deeds set the parameters for future possibilities.

In an Ásatrú conception of wyrd, the actions of an individual’s ancestors determine what paths are open to her, and her own actions modify those possible paths for good or ill; they work on her personal wyrd. Yet her wyrd is also modified by the wyrd of every person with whom she comes into contact – from family, friends, and colleagues to people she meets once on the street. Her wyrd is also affected by the wyrds of all those who interact with the people she herself engages. This complicated branching of causality is known among Heathens as “the web of wyrd.”

Reinforced by the emphasis on wide-ranging relationships in blót, the wyrd concept builds an awareness of interconnectivity between far-off actors – an acknowledgment, for example, that our consumer choice to burn fossil fuels has profound consequences for families in areas already experiencing traumatic effects of climate change. A conception of the global workings of the web of wyrd through both our personal stories and our multitudinous impacts upon the world is reflected in the common Heathen statement that “we are our deeds.”68

For practitioners of Ásatrú, there is an understanding of the relationship between action and consequence – an understanding that counters Callicott’s claim that the “protracted global scale” of climate change cannot be addressed by moral systems built upon ancient paradigms. By studying ancient lore and reifying its concepts in ritual, practitioners of Ásatrú build an understanding of the interrelatedness of all human actors.

Wyrd is often specifically invoked in blót, especially in making a connection between the drink in the ritual horn and the water where the norns meet and choose “the fates of men.” In her recommendations for designing rites, Lafayllve uses several variations of this invocation, such as in her instructions for a blót to the goddess Frigg (here called Frigga):
When the horn returns to you, offer up your own words of prayer and thanks. Then place your hand over the horn.

SAY: Wealful words have been whispered over the waters of the Well, where they will form their own layer in wyrd. Wishes offered, thanks given, we share this drink now with Frigga.69
There is a commonly held Ásatrú conception that what is said in blót alters the wyrd of the rite’s participants. The speech act in ritual is accepted as a real action, with all the implications of effect upon the individual, the practitioners present, and the more distant individuals connected via wyrd and its associated liquid. By clearly acknowledging the workings of wyrd during the blót, participants indeed use paradigms of the past as the basis for a modern moral system that addresses Callicott’s “protracted global scale.”

As I write this, we are still weighing the ramifications of the Supreme Court of the United States announcing a decision that severely hampers the ability of the Enivronmental Protection Agency to regulate climate-changing carbon emissions. The Heathen ideal of weighing the wider implications of one’s words and deeds – and considering the consequences even for those we will never meet – seems very attractive today.
66Callicott, 282.
67Seigfried, “Wyrd Will Weave Us Together.”
68Wódening, We Are Our Deeds.
69Lafayllve, 182.

Opening a space

Ásatrú lore provides guidelines and examplars, not rules or commandments. These models can suggest innovative ways of thinking about and relating to climate change. As this article has argued, the ritual of blót, recognition of reciprocity with the earth, appreciation of inherent value in the natural world, conception of transtemporal relationships, and wyrd theory of interconnectedness and consequences of human action all serve to build individual and community understanding of issues that have challenged previous ethics of climate change.

Despite coming from a minority, marginalized, and misunderstood religion, these ways of engaging in a ritual context with issues raised by climate change ethicists can provide possible paths forward for members of other faith traditions. In particular, religious leaders who are seeking additional ways to involve their communities with environmental issues may find some inspiration for their own ministerial work while changing and adapting the specific elements to fit the theology and praxis of their respective religions.

Exactly how the Ásatrú model can be modified to fit other religious traditions is up to the creativity of the adapters. In academic and interfaith settings, Heathens are regularly expected to knowledgeably discuss the core concepts of other, more populous and powerful faiths. For members of those dominant religions, it may be a fruitful exercise to engage with ideas from a progressive Ásatrú perspective.

In the field of ethics, I hope that this article will open a space in the discussion of climate change for practitioners of Ásatrú to inhabit. Jenkins begins his introduction to The Future of Ethics by writing that “[e]thics seems imperiled by unprecedented problems.”70 If this is so, any voice from a heretofore unrecognized perspective with something meaningful to say regarding the critical problems of climate change should be made welcome.
70Jenkins, 1.


Adam of Bremen. History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen. Translated by Francis J. Tschan. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

Ásatrúarfélagið website. Accessed July 6, 2022.

Bellows, Henry Adams, trans. The Poetic Edda. New York: American-Scandinavian Foundation, 1923.

Berg, Jónína K. “Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson: A Personal Reminiscence.” Tyr: Myth–Culture–Tradition, 3 (2008), 263-72.

“Blótuðu Þór í Úrhellisrigningu.” Vísir, August 7, 1973.

Byock, Jess, trans. Saga of the Volsungs: The Norse Epic of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

Caciola, Nancy Mandeville. Afterlives: The Return of the Dead in the Middle Ages. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2016.

Callicott, J. Baird. Thinking Like a Planet: The Land Ethic and the Earth Ethic. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Grundtvig, N.F.S. Poetiske Skrifter. Edited by Svend Grundtvig. Kjøbenhavn: Karl Schønbergs Forlag, 1880.

Haukur Bragason. Personal communication, March 23, 2014.

Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson. Email communication, July 10, 2016.

Jenkins, Willis. The Future of Ethics: Sustainability, Social Justice, and Religious Creativity. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2013.

Jóhanna G. Harðardóttir. Email communication, 2013-present.

Jonas of Bobbio. Life of St. Columban. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1895.

Kant, Immanuel. Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone. Translated by Theodore M. Greene and Hoyt H. Hudson. Chicago: Open Court Publishing, 1934.

Lafayllve, Patricia M. A Practical Heathen’s Guide to Asatru. Woodbury, Minnesota: Llewellyn Publications, 2013.

Larrington, Carolyne, trans. The Poetic Edda (Revised Edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Munro, Dana Carleton, ed. Translations and Reprints from the Original Sources of European History (VI, no. 5). Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, c. 1900.

Northcott, Michael S. A Moral Climate: The Ethics of Global Warming. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2007.

Penny, H. Glenn. Kindred by Choice: Germans and American Indians since 1800. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013.

Perkins, Richard. “The Gateway to Trondheim: Two Icelanders at Agdenes.” Saga-Book, XXV (1998-2001), 179-213.

Pope Francis and Sean McDonagh. On Care for Our Common Home: Laudato Si’, The Encyclial of Pope Francis on the Environment. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2016.

Radcliffe-Brown, A.R. Structure and Function in Primitive Society: Essays and Addresses. Glencoe, Illinois: The Free Press, 1952.

The Sagas of Icelanders: A Selection. London: Penguin Books, 2001.

Seigfried, Karl E. H. “Elf Kerfuffle in Iceland.” The Norse Mythology Blog, May 24, 2012.

–––. “Interview with Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson of the Ásatrúarfélagið, Part Two.” The Norse Mythology Blog, June 30, 2011.

–––. “The Wanderer: An Old English Poem.” The Norse Mythology Blog, February 29, 2016.

–––. “Wyrd Will Weave Us Together.” The Norse Mythology Blog, November 30, 2016.

–––. “Worldwide Heathen Census 2013: Results & Analysis.” The Norse Mythology Blog, January 6, 2014.

Seigfried, Karl E. H. et al. “Heathen Resource Guide for Chaplains.” The Norse Mythology Blog, January 11, 2016.

Simek, Rudolf. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1993.

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

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

“And All the Generous Earth”: Ásatrú Ritual and Climate Change Ethics, Part One

This article presents an Ásatrú perspective on climate change ethics. It addresses ways in which a progressive Ásatrú public theology can offer new perspectives on problems of climate change ethics via examination of the modern practice of historically grounded ritual known as blót – a rite that foregrounds reciprocity with the earth, inherent value in the natural world, transtemporal human relationships, global connectedness, and the consequences of human action.

Landscape with a Wanderer by Thomas Fearnley (1830)

In addition to discussing Ásatrú textual sources and examples of ritual, the article engages with recent work in environmental ethics by Willis Jenkins, Michael S. Northcott, and J. Baird Callicott as it offers a new ethical model for responding to issues of climate change.

A new Old Norse religion

Ásatrú is a modern religion that revives/reconstructs/reimagines pre-Christian Germanic religion with emphasis on medieval Icelandic texts. The term Ásatrú is modern Icelandic for “Æsir faith,” belief in or loyalty to the major tribe of Norse gods and goddesses; its earliest known appearance is in N.F.S. Grundtvig’s 1811 Optrin af Norners og Asers Kamp, which uses the Danish form Asatro.1 Practitioners often self-identify as Heathens.2

The term Heathenry refers to the wider world of Germanic polytheism, which includes elements of Anglo-Saxon, continental European, and Scandinavian pre-Christian religions. Lore is an emic term for the wide range of source texts, which include Roman reports, Old Norse poetry, Icelandic sagas, legal codes, medieval literature, nineteenth-century folklore, etc. Blót (“sacrificial worship”) is the central rite in both ancient and modern practice. The specifics of contemporary ritual will be discussed in detail later in this article.

The beginning of the new religious movement can be specifically dated to April 20, 1972,3 when twelve men and women met at Hotel Borg in Reykjavík to discuss a revival of Iceland’s pre-Christian religion and to found the Ásatrúarfélagið (“Ásatrú Fellowship”).4 Officially recognized by the Icelandic government as a religious organization in May 1973,5 the group held the first public blót in Iceland since pagan ritual was outlawed in 1000 CE on either the 1972 summer solstice6 or on August 5, 1973.7

The religion soon spread out from Iceland, and the number of adherents has greatly grown over the past fifty years. The Worldwide Heathen Census 2013 received responses from ninety-eight countries and estimated the total global number of adherents at 36,289.8 As of May 2022, Ásatrúarfélagið membership has increased by more than 41,000 percent since the organization’s founding.9
1 Grundtvig, Poetiske Skrifter, 333.
2 This article uses Heathen to refer to contemporary practitioners of Germanic polytheism and pagan to refer to those of the medieval period and earlier.
3 Berg, “Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson,” 269.
4 Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, email communication.
5 Berg, 270-1.
6 Ibid., 269.
7 “Blótuðu Þór í Úrhellisrigningu,” Vísir.
8 Seigfried, “Worldwide Heathen Census 2013: Results & Analysis.”
9 Ásatrúarfélagið website, “Um Ásatrúarfélagið.”

Ethical competency

If a progressive Ásatrú public theology is to engage with the ongoing discussion of climate change ethics, a basic first point of contact is the question of ethical competency raised by religious studies scholar Willis Jenkins in The Future of Ethics: Sustainability, Social Justice, and Religious Creativity.

Jenkins argues that “[o]ur ethical traditions seem incompetent to the trouble our powers create.”10 Rather than leaving behind “imperfect concepts and incompetent communities,” he attempts “to do ethics in the context of reform projects.”11 In his system, religious ethics of climate change should not be constructed on a ground of worldviews, cosmologies, and “grand stories of human purpose,” but should instead “begin from concrete problems, uncertain traditions, and incompetent communities.”12

Jenkins does not abandon what he views as an “incompetent” North Atlantic Christianity, which “cannot generate an adequate climate ethic,” but asserts that, when a religious tradition “finds itself incompetent to a changing context, religious traditions need reform projects capable of generating new possibilities of action that can be recognized by its members as legitimate interpretations.”13

For Jenkins, the starting point of a Christian climate ethic is therefore an analysis of “how the problem alienates the practice of Christian life from reality.”14 In his work, Jenkins seeks to “interpret the conflicts, uncertainties, and perversions that corrupt Christian ethics,” with the goal that Christian communities recognize how their corrupted ethics “renders uncertain and incompetent their practice of life” and then “may begin to create practices in which it becomes possible to give answer to God for atmospheric powers.”15

This article accepts Jenkins’ concept of necessary ethical competency and asserts that Ásatrú already addresses the specific areas in which he calls for reform. Faced with the problems of climate change, Ásatrú offers focused concepts and competent communities. Rather than working on the reform of “uncertain traditions” that “cannot generate an adequate climate ethic,” this article turns to a religious system well suited to engage with the problem – a religion with a life that already relates to reality in a way that addresses major issues raised by climate change ethicists.

This is not to deny that there are deeply problematic forms of Ásatrú in the United States. Neo-völkisch Ásatrú translates older racialist German völkisch ideology into contemporary racist American “folkish” theology that insists upon race as a deciding factor of religiosity. The core belief that DNA determines spiritual worldview is inextricably bound with the insistence that neo-völkisch Ásatrú is for white people only. The writings and actions of these practitioners have led to international public protests by other Heathens, bans from social media platforms, and inclusion in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s ongoing documentation of hate groups in the United States.16

The progressive Ásatrú public theology forwarded in this article absolutely rejects the neo-völkisch movement and insists on diversity as a fundamental strength of our nation and our religious communities. An emphasis on diversity is a central concern of Thor’s Oak Kindred, the Chicago-based religious organization I lead as goði (“priest”).17 This emphasis emerges not only in the makeup of our membership but also in our theology and practice, as will be discussed below.

In regards to climate change ethics, progressive Ásatrú is largely free of what Jenkins asserts are “the conflicts, uncertainties, and perversions that corrupt Christian ethics,” and its practitioners are both certain and competent in a life-practice that directly engages relationships within the transtemporal human community and with the wider world. Through study of lore and celebration of ritual, the practice of Ásatrú reinforces understanding of reciprocal relationships with the natural world, inherent value of living things, connections to past and future peoples, interrelatedness of all human actors, and consequences of human actions.

This article specifically examines the ritual of blót as a model for addressing multiple problems of climate change ethics.
10 Jenkins, The Future of Ethics, 3.
11 Ibid., 4.
12 Ibid., 19-20.
13 Ibid., 21.
14 Ibid., 23.
15 Ibid.
16 Southern Poverty Law Center website, “Neo-Völkisch.”
17 Thor’s Oak Kindred website, “Kindred.”

The ritual of blót

The basic root of the blót ritual is a reifying of reciprocal relationships between the performer(s) of the rite and the receiver(s). A gifting cycle is established and maintained in which, as the god Odin states in the Old Icelandic poem Hávamál (“Sayings of the High One”), “mutual givers and receivers are friends for longest, if the friendship keeps going well.”18 The word blót and the paired verb blóta (“to sacrifice”) likely have an original meaning of “to strengthen (the god).”19

By making an offering to strengthen the deity, the follower hopes to receive a favor (general or particular) in return. The offering is neither payment nor bribe, but rather an instance of gifting in an ongoing and reciprocal cycle. In Hávamál, Odin emphasizes an ethic of hóf (“moderation”) and reciprocity as he warns his followers that it is “[b]etter not to pray than to sacrifice too much: one gift always calls for another.”20

In the Norse mythological poems written down in thirteenth-century Iceland and collected together in a set now known as the Poetic Edda, the deities themselves hold blót, sometimes to each other and sometimes to themselves. In the poem Hyndluljóð (“Song of Hyndla”), the goddess Freyja says that she will sacrifice (blóta) to the god Thor so that he will grant her request to be friendly to a certain giantess, despite his sworn enmity to the giants.21 In Hávamál, Odin famously sacrifices himself to himself to gain mystic knowledge of the runes.22

The medieval prose narratives (often with interpolated poetry) known as Icelandic sagas were composed after Iceland’s conversion to Christianity but offer detailed accounts of pre-conversion blóts that may have been passed down via oral tradition. Descriptions in these literary sources dovetail with accounts given by continental Christian scribes (with varying degrees of anti-pagan polemic) in their descriptions of interactions between missionaries and the northerners they aimed to convert.

As in the Vedic sacrifice of India, there seems to have been a hierarchical sense of what was to be sacrificed. At one end of the scale, the massive national sacrifice at Uppsala every nine years offered “of every living thing that is male… nine heads”; men, horses, and dogs were among the victims.23 At the other end, the Swabians are said to have made a much more modest “heathen offering” of a cask of beer “to their God Wodan.”24

Today, the great violence of the Uppsala rite is a distant relic of history, and modern blóts tend toward the second example. The most common offerings are of alcoholic beverages – usually beer or mead, often home brewed. Throughout the year, blóts are held as part of a cycle of annual rituals, to celebrate life events, and at a community’s need.
18 Larrington, Poetic Edda, 18.
19 Simek, Dictionary of Northern Mythology, 271.
20 Larrington, 33.
21 Ibid., 246.
22 Ibid., 32.
23 Adam of Bremen, History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen, 208.
24 Jonas of Bobbio, Life of St. Columban, 31-2.

Earth goddess and land spirits

In contrast to the “uncertain traditions” that Jenkins insists “cannot generate an adequate climate ethic,” the central Ásatrú ritual is inherently centered on reciprocity with the world in which we live. Even when the rite is focused on a particular deity or celebratory occasion, the performative act of modern blót is built upon an understanding of human life as directly engaged with the earth and environment.

Although there is a great variety of ritual praxis throughout today’s Heathen world, it is common to open blóts with the Valkyrie’s prayer from the Old Icelandic poem Sigrdrífumál (“Sayings of the Victory-Driver”). The Icelandic Ásatrúarfélagið uses the two verses as a standard ritual element,25 as do many American Ásatrú practitioners.

In the United States, the 1923 translation by Henry Adams Bellows remains popular for ritual use:
2. Hail, day! Hail, sons of day!
And night and her daughter now!
Look on us here with loving eyes,
That waiting we victory win.

3. Hail to the gods! Ye goddesses, hail,
And all the generous earth!
Give to us wisdom and goodly speech,
And healing hands, life-long.26
The earth is addressed in each of these verses, although – as in many of the anonymous works included in the Poetic Edda – the references require a bit of mythological exegesis to uncover.

In verse 2, the second line’s reference to the daughter of night is usually read in light of Snorri Sturluson’s Edda of c. 1220, in which the Icelander states that the earth goddess Jörð (“Earth”) is the daughter of Nótt (“Night”).27 In the second line of verse 3, Bellows translates in fjölnýta fold as “the generous earth,” which could be taken to refer to Jörð. However, the word fold (cognate with English “field”) refers to earth as soil and ground rather than as a concrete deity.

So, whatever the specific occasional context, recitation of the Valkyrie’s prayer focuses the attention of the ritual participants on the earth both as an anthropomorphic goddess who brings success and as a physical field that provides sustenance. In the context of a ritual built on reciprocity of offering and asking, the bipartite grounding in the earth is a central relational component from which the remainder of the rite grows.

This double consciousness of the earth as both deity and material is paralleled by the honoring of the landvættir (“land wights,” “land spirits”) in blót. American Heathen priestess and author Patricia M. Lafayllve states that the landvættir are “spirits of the land, rocks, trees, bodies of water, and so on.”28 This modern Ásatrú conception of inspirited natural objects reflects historical evidence.

The Capitulatio de partibus Saxoniæ, an ordinance issued by the Christian Charlemagne for governance of the pagan Saxons in c. 785, levies monetary fines for making (1) “a vow at springs or trees or groves” or (2) “partak[ing] of a repast in honor of the demons.”29 Reading through the condemnatory language, this seems to refer to Saxon analogues of the pre-conversion Icelandic (1) veneration of land wights and (2) human consumption of the meat offered in blót after the conclusion of the ritual.

Written sources of medieval Iceland portray land wights as living in trees and boulders, as being “closely connected to the land surrounding the farm and the cultivated soil.”30 These beings functioned as “the guardian-spirits of particular areas or localities” who “defended their territory against hostile forces and controlled the welfare of its inhabitants and those who travelled through it.”31 This sense of inspirited place appears to stand behind the outdoor pagan rites anathematized by Charlemagne’s ordinance.

Medievalist Rudolf Simek writes that “the ritual meal of the sacrificial meat can be traced back to Viking Age heathen practices”32 and that “[t]he sacrifice of food was one of the most important forms of sacrifice among Germanic peoples, in which the slaughtered animal was eaten by the sacrificing community.33 This meal as part of the pagan sacrificial rite seems to be what the Capitulatio condemns as “a repast in honor of demons.”

The veneration of land wights and the sacrificial meal both parallel the double sense of spiritual being and material object in the Valkyrie’s prayer. The land wight is paired with the natural location, and the sending of the sacrifice is paired with the eating of the meal. The spiritual world and the physical world are engaged as intrinsically interrelated, as always having been intimately intertwined.

A strong sense of reciprocal relationship with land wights continues in Iceland today, where Ásatrúarfélagið allsherjargoði (“high priest,” leader of the religious organization) Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson relates contemporary Ásatrú practice to the nation’s original settlement:
It’s part of my oath that I will fight with nature [i.e., on nature’s side] and respect the . . . how can I say it? We sincerely believe that, when we settled this country, we did it in good connection with the nature spirits and the spirits of the land. When we do our ceremonies, we are also offering our greetings and pouring out beer for the genius loci - the local spirits. I think it’s really important that we should give this country in better shape to our children and grandchildren than we receive it. If you have to take a political stand, so be it.34
Hilmar connects the history of Icelandic landnám (“settlement,” literally “land-taking”), positive relationship with land wights, ritual veneration of land wights in blót, land stewardship for future generations, and direct action in the political sphere. He makes no division between the historical, spiritual, ritual, ecological, and political. To the contrary, all are forwarded together as elements of a unified system of becoming, being, and doing that maintains an interconnection with the earth in the human past, present, and future. This engagement with tripartite temporality will be discussed in more detail below.

Modern Icelanders’ concept of the landvættir sometimes overlaps with that of the álfar (“elves”), an originally distinct type of beings who may have once represented the spirits of departed ancestors. Government road construction projects are still rerouted around boulders believed to be elf homes. In 2012, a member of parliament personally paid to move an enormous stone from the mainland to his residence in the Vestmannaeyjar (Westman Islands) after – according to elf specialist Ragnhildur Jónsdóttir – the elf family that inhabited it saved his life during his car accident in its vicinity.35 In this gratitude to the invisible elves and care for the boulder they are said to inhabit, the double understanding in the Valkyrie’s prayer of the natural world manifesting in both spiritual being and physical object appears in yet another guise.

Underlying these various conceptions of the earth and natural objects is the idea of independent life in the natural world, of conscious creatures that embody or inhabit both animate and inanimate things. The manner in which these beings are honored relates to an Ásatrú ideal of inherent value.
25 Jóhanna G. Harðardóttir, email communication.
26 Bellows, Poetic Edda. 389-90.
27 Snorri Sturluson, Edda, 14.
28 Lafayllve, Practical Heathen’s Guide to Ásatrú, 73.
29 Munro, Translations and Reprints, 2-5.
30 Raudvere, “Popular Religion in the Viking Age,” 237.
31 Perkins, “The Gateway to Trondheim: Two Icelanders at Agdenes,” 196.
32 Simek, 272.
33 Ibid., 271.
34 Seigfried, “Interview with Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, Part Three.”
35 Seigfried, “Elf Kerfuffle in Iceland.”

Offering and inherent value

Lafayllve suggests a variety of items that modern Heathens can offer to land wights in their local vicinity – including milk, butter, beer, mead, cider, honey, oats, barley, fruits, herbs, and vegetables – “particularly during their respective harvesting seasons.”36 The offerings are either natural objects or traditional products made directly from them. Kirk S. Thomas, former Archdruid of Ár nDraíocht Féin: A Druid Fellowship but a pagan theologian much respected by American Heathens,37 emphasizes that offerings to nature deities should not be plucked from natural settings, but “must be something that the giver has a right to give.”38 Lafayllve’s list of offerings underscores this idea; the optimal gift is something that the giver spent time cultivating or crafting from natural ingredients. A secondary option is to purchase these items using one’s own earned income. In either case, the nature of the object offered foregrounds a reciprocal relationship with the natural world that acknowledges the cycle of cultivation, craft, consumption, and gratitude.

This recognition and reinforcement of reciprocal relationships with the natural world offers a conception of inherent value notably different from that found in Michael S. Northcott’s modern classic A Moral Climate. The ethicist and Scottish Episcopal priest argues that “the value of non-human species arises from their having been made by the divine Creator who made them in their myriad diversity as a reflection of the divine nature.”39 The Christian deity implants value into the world through “an act in which intrinsic worth is created by divine freedom and generosity.”40 “From a Christian perspective,”41 as presented by Northcott, the earth and its other-than-human inhabitants have a value that is intrinsic only insofar as it is placed within them by God and as they serve to reflect his divine glory. Respect for the natural world is – through a transitive property – veneration of the Creator, rather than a direct engagement with independent subjects with value that is truly inherent (in the basic sense of being innate to the thing itself).

In contrast, an Ásatrú worldview – as reflected in the ritual of blót – sees the earth, elements of the environment, and “non-human species” as entities with individual agency and inherent value. There is no sense of ex nihilo creation in Heathen lore; the material universe predates the birth of the gods, who themselves are craftsmen and organizers – demiurges, in the original sense – rather than all-powerful creators. Instead, the earth and elements of the natural world are addressed as enchanted and active anthropomorphic beings who have value in and of themselves and with whom we must build relationships of reciprocity. Rather than relating to the natural world as a vessel for the transmission of a creator god’s divinity, the practice of blót reinforces a sense that the earth is an active agent with value intrinsic to its own distinct being.

The land wights, while lesser powers than the earth goddess, are also given veneration in a way that focuses the community’s attention on its multiple levels of connection with its surroundings. The anthropomorphic conceptualization of trees, rivers, and other aspects of the environment necessarily fosters a sense of relationship with active partners that deserve respect. Approaching elements of the world not as things serving as conduits to an outside divinity but rather as beings of inherent worth with which we can interact in the here and now strengthens a relational sense that situates blót participants within a living system of valued agents.

In the blóts of Thor’s Oak Kindred, we regularly honor and offer to the earth goddess Jörð and to the land wights. Our standard ritual form includes addressing an individual power (from Old Norse regin, “[higher] powers”), citing meaningful bynames (secondary names or titles of divine figures), thanking her for her gifts, asking her to continue giving, offering a group hail (a wish for heill, Old Norse “[good] luck, [good] health”), and making an offering of sanctified beer from the ritual drinking horn. As the participants stand around the oak tree dedicated to the god Thor, one of these addresses is performed like this:
Goði: Jörð, earth goddess, giver of plenty, we thank you for the gifts of sustenance you give us, despite our mistreatment of you. We ask that you continue to share your bounty with us as we work to protect you from our own misdeeds. Hail Jörð!

Kindred members: Hail!

Goði drinks from the horn, then pours a draft for Jörð into the soil at the base of the tree.
For Thor’s Oak Kindred, a standard blót includes such individual addresses to an array of figures, including the divine trio Odin, Thor, and Freyja; the cosmic trio Jörð, Sól (“Sun”), and Máni (“Moon”); and the land wights. Given the fact that the Valkyrie’s prayer is recited to begin the blót, the earth is specifically addressed three times – two more times than any other power.

The land wights of the areas inhabited and traveled through by the kindred are specifically honored at blót. In this ritual performance, the community reminds itself of its relationship to the earth and the environment through engagement with the anthropomorphic Jörð and landvættir. Well over two centuries ago, Immanuel Kant wrote that the repeated ritual act of communion
contains within itself something great, expanding the narrow, selfish, and unsociable cast of mind among men, especially in matters of religion, toward the idea of a cosmopolitan moral community; and it is a good means of enlivening a community to the moral disposition of brotherly love which it represents.42
Similarly, by regularly standing together at blót and reaffirming commitment to a reciprocal relationship with Jörð and landvættir, Heathens move beyond solo rituals of devotion – which can tend towards a focus on the desires of the individual – and engage in a group rite promoting the growth of a Kantian moral community that engages with the planet and non-human species in a deeply emotional way. The act of participating in blót promotes a mindset of mindfulness specifically oriented towards respect for the environment. Such direct address obviates the need for Jenkins’ religious reform project; the reorientation of worldview he calls for has always already been hardwired into Heathen ritual.

Parallel processes are evident in Iceland, where the Ásatrúarfélagið’s annual calendar of five major blóts includes Landvættablót, a ritual specifically dedicated to the land wights. Goði Haukur Bragason states that the ceremony’s two central functions are “to keep the land strong and remind the people that we are guests here”.43 The ritual faces both outward (toward a positive relationship with the land) and inward (toward the “moral disposition” of the religious community). Staðgengill Allsherjargoða (“Deputy High Priestess”) Jóhanna G. Harðardóttir underscores the reciprocity of the relationship celebrated at Landvættablót:
We made a contract when the settlers came to Iceland; they [the landvættir] would let us pass and live here, and we would take care of the land and treat it well. The story is told in Landnámabók [“Book of Settlement,” literally “land-taking”]. The landvættir have kept their part of the bargain. It’s a question if we are doing the same. This blót is for them, remembering our deal, thanking them. The blót is for reminding us to do our best, too.44
Jóhanna’s statement on recognition of a reciprocal relationship with the land and a Kantian direction of community attention to moral issues of environmental engagement reflects the dual focus of Landvættablót mentioned by Haukur and the dual function of blót in general discussed above. The reification of reciprocity is grounded in the conception of land wights as distinct entities of agency and value with whom a transgenerational “contract” can be made and regularly reaffirmed. Engagement with the environment emerges from ritual, which itself emerges from worldview; the very identification of land wights as valued agents leads through ritual engagement as covenanted partners to a communal sense of responsibility to the land.

Some Ásatrú practitioners in the United States follow an annual ritual calendar that includes several rites based on the traditional agrarian year of northern Europe, including various versions of Charming of the Plow (“a turning point into the end of winter”), Harvest (“when the final preparations are made for the coming winter”), and Winternights (“at the end of autumn and after all the harvests have been brought in”).45 There is little to suggest that a significant number of American Heathens are full-time farmers, yet the rites are celebrated even by urban practitioners in order to maintain a connection to the earth as a source of sustenance – “the generous earth” of the Valkyrie’s prayer – and to reaffirm respect for those who work with the earth to provide for the needs of others. By incorporating an awareness of regional farming cycles into their scheduling of celebrations, practitioners ritually endorse the emphasis on locally sourced food that has been embraced by environmental activists.
36 Lafayllve, 80.
37 Although written by a Druid, Thomas’ Sacred Gifts is one of only five texts included in the “Suggested Reading List” of Seigfried et al., “Heathen Resource Guide for Chaplains,” written at the request of the United States Department of Defense.
38 Thomas, Sacred Gifts, 74.
39 Northcott, A Moral Climate, 60-1.
40 Ibid., 77-8.
41 Ibid., 60.
42 Kant, Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, 187-8. Emphasis is in the original.
43 Haukur Bragason, personal communication.
44 Jóhanna G. Harðardóttir, email communication.
45 Lafayllve, 193, 199, 203.

Sincere thanks to Prof. Sarah E. Fredericks of the University of Chicago Divinity School for her constructive comments on this article when I was a graduate student in her Climate Change Ethics course. A full bibliography will be posted in Part Two.
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