Friday, January 1, 2021

Ásatrú and Hindu: The Mythology Project Interview

A few months ago, I was interviewed by Utkarsh Patel, who teaches comparative mythology at the University of Mumbai in India. The interview was for The Mythology Project, a fantastic enterprise that Utkarsh co-founded and currently leads with comparative mythologist Arundhuti Dasgupta Singhal. Both Utkarsh and Arundhuti are also prolific writers and authors of groundbreaking books on myth and folklore.


The Mythology Project
is designed to be “a meeting place for myths, legends and folktales from around the world.” Its founders describe its fantastic mission in detail.
The Project is an endeavour to create a space that preserves and nurtures this immeasurable intangible inheritance, and offer a platform that encourages debate and discussion on its influence on us as people and our understanding of the world around us. It will shine a light on the manner and form in which ancient cultures nourished themselves, through stories, songs, poetry, craft and performing arts—through the legacy that lives on in among us.
While being located within India and focused on its vast heritage of myth and folklore, the Project will not be exclusive to the region. It will work to uncover the intricate web of likenesses and variances that create a criss-cross of connections throughout the global, imagined landscape of our past.
The Project understands the past as an inheritance that goes beyond monuments and statues, as one that is manifest in myriad forms that seep into the routine existence of the present. Our aim is dig into this rich cultural stockpile, piecing together the puzzle of our existence through archival collections, by researching living myths and traditions and conducting public lectures, workshops and courses for adults and children.
It was a great honor to be interviewed for this wonderful project. There are so many paths to explore between Hinduism and Ásatrú, and I am extremely happy that Utkarsh and Arundhuti have decided to include Norse mythology and Ásatrú theology. I look forward to collaborating with them in the future.

Utkarsh’s questions are in large bold type below, with my answers in the normal font.

What is the significance of myth in Nordic culture?

In the past, before northern Europe was converted to Christianity and when Germanic polytheism was a living set of religions throughout a very large region for a very long time, the myths functioned as do the myths of any religion.

Myths are traditional tales told within a religious culture that express that culture’s worldview and/or explain beliefs, practices, and the natural world. There are Christian and Jewish myths just as there are Norse and Hindu myths.

To understand the significance of the myths, we need to understand the parent culture to the best of our ability. To divorce myth from culture – as do some widely read theories of the “hero’s journey” and so on – may be a meaningful literary exercise, but it tells us little of religious meaning.

The first step is to place the myths in cultural context, to place them in dialogue with what we know from history, archaeology, and other written sources of the time period. Without doing this, the myths become nursery tales that float free from any cultural weight.

There are elements in the Norse myths that tie directly to what we know of real-world practice. For example, Thor shrinks his hammer and wears it inside his shirt as northern European pagans wore small amulets of Thor’s hammer around their necks.

Stone Thor's hammer amulet found in farmstead from Viking Age in Iceland

As in the oldest Sanskrit layers of Indian mythology, the Norse myths discuss the sacrificial act. They tell of the god Odin sacrificing himself to himself in a double ritual – both stabbing and hanging – that we have evidence of as actual sacrificial practice.

Those of us who today practice the modern form of Norse religion known as Ásatrú (Icelandic for “Æsir faith,” referring to the main tribe of Norse gods) face the task of incorporating myths of long ago into our modern lives and finding meaning within them.

In India, there are not only vast numbers of myths and legends, but there are also many long centuries of theological writings that discuss interpretations of the old stories. In Ásatrú, we are faced with a relatively tiny number of myths and no surviving second-order theological discourse by the practitioners of long ago – that is, no reflection upon the meaning of the myths in the context of a living practice.

Engaging in this type of theological discourse now, I always come back to the idea of the French philosopher Paul Ricœur that mythology is “a species of symbols” and myths are “symbols developed in the form of narrations.” This is an important key to unlocking meaning in the modern world.

We must ask: what does Thor’s hammer symbolize? If we dig into our sources and understand that it is a symbol of protecting the community from all harm, then we must ask: what do those the hammer is raised against symbolize?

Following these chains of questions and answers can help us to understand not only the meanings in the myths, but what meaning they can have for us now.

Following this line, we can ask: how do we define “community” today? What harms does this community face, and what can we do to protect it? The broader the questions become, the wider the field of possible answers. The choices of interpretation that we make say much about our own values and how we relate to the world around us.

We are not bound to accept the ancient significance of the myths – we no longer make human sacrifices to Odin, for one very obvious example – but I do believe that it is important to ground our modern understandings in study of what Icelanders long ago called forn siðr, the Old Way.

Without grounding in an understanding of the past, there is always a danger of our own creations of meaning simply floating away, untethered to any tradition whatsoever. If we believe that there is no value in that older tradition, why turn to the old myths at all?

What are the stories that hold most meaning for the people?

Even without the second-order theological discourse that I mentioned above, there is still a way to survey which myths were most important in the old times. We can assume – although assuming is always tempting in this field and can be a dangerous method! – that a story told and retold is one that was important to the culture that told it.

“The function of repetition,” writes the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, “is to render the structure of the myth apparent.” When a myth is told and retold in various forms, there must be something in the myth that is very important to its parent culture and/or addresses some key point of contention and difficulty within the culture.

The myth of Thor’s fishing trip to catch the World Serpent is a very straightforward example. It is told in both of the Eddas, the thirteenth-century Icelandic texts that provide the most coherent surviving record of the Norse myths – one is in poetic form, the other in prose. The story also appears in the work of several poets active in the ninth and tenth centuries. In addition, there are visual representations of the story, both in surviving stone carvings and in contemporary poetic references to wooden carvings now long gone.

Stone carving of Thor's fishing trip from early 11th century in Altuna, Sweden

Why was the story considered so important? Possibly because it shows Thor, the great protector of the human and divine worlds, in direct conflict with his greatest enemy – the gigantic serpent of the waters who surrounds the earth and is the literally enormous threat to the worlds of both humans and gods. Thor risks his own life as he seeks to pull the serpent from the waters and smite it with his mighty thunder-weapon. Even a young child can understand Thor’s role in these images.

There are also more subtle stories with more subtle repetitions. The tale of a father with a son who kills his other son appears in Norse myth (Odin, Höðr, Baldr) and the Old English Beowulf (Hreðel, Hæþcyn, Herebeald). The variation of a son whose father is killed by his uncle(s) appears in the Icelandic Völsunga saga (Rerir, Sigi, unnamed uncles) and the Gesta Danorum of Denmark’s Saxo Grammaticus (Amleth, Orvendil, Fengi).

The difficulty embedded in these repeated stories is one of conflicting duties within the old system of kinship relations. A father is bound to avenge his son, but how can he kill his other son? A son is bound to avenge his father, but how can he kill his uncle?

Those who know the Mahābhārata are familiar with the idea of being stuck between conflicting dharmas; this is one of many points of contact between the Icelandic and the Indian, and the great literature of both nations wrestles with these moral issues.

Whether the tale provides a way to grasp the role of the deity in an immediate way (like Thor and the World Serpent) or to examine an ethical dilemma in the form of narrative (like the fathers and sons), the fact that the same stories are repeated in multiple forms and formats does gives us a sense of core concepts and conflicts within the wider cultures that created them.

What is the significance of violence in Norse mythology? Why do we have such vivid descriptions of a battle and, in this sense, how would you compare these motifs and patterns with world mythology?

On one hand, the ancient world was a violent world, and the tales reflect the tenor of their times.

The Icelander Snorri Sturluson tells us that the bright and beautiful god Baldr is “the most beautifully spoken and the most merciful, but one of his characteristics is that none of his decisions is effective.” Baldr will rule in the golden age of peace that will begin the next cosmic cycle after the end of this one (another point of contact with Hinduism), but he is simply too kind and peaceful to have a large role in the myths of the Viking Age. In fact, it is his shameful murder at the instigation of Loki that truly begins the slide into doom at Ragnarök.

On the other hand, tales need adventure.

If Bilbo Baggins never left his comfortable home and became embroiled in the dwarvish scheme to vanquish the dragon, The Hobbit would be a book about pipe smoking and vegetable gardening. These may be very nice things to do, but they do not hold the audience enrapt around either the campfire or the fireplace. Conflict of some sort is what drives narrative, and what is the ultimate form of this-worldly conflict than violence, battle, and war? These are awful things to be thrown into, but they do keep the audience engaged.

On the third hand, it’s always good to listen to Mahātmā Gandhi on the Bhagavad Gītā.

Illustration of the Bhagavad Gītā showing Arjuna and Krishna (India, 19th century)

Describing his first impression of the text in 1888, he writes of what he called Vyāsa’s “religious theme”:
I felt that it was not a historical work, but that, under the guise of physical warfare, it described the duel that perpetually went on in the hearts of mankind, and that physical warfare was brought in merely to make the description of the internal duel more alluring.
This allure is what I mentioned about keeping the audience enrapt, but there is something deeper in Gandhi’s words – the idea that stirring tales of violent deeds can be read at two levels: the physical and the spiritual.

I would respectfully add one more degree and say that mythology can be read or heard at three levels: dramatic, emotional, and spiritual.

At the first level of drama, myths can be enjoyed as grand tales of adventure by individuals both young and old.

At the second level of emotion, the tales can be returned to again and again as one’s life experience deepens – the same person as child, teenager, young adult, middle-aged person, and elder can hear the same story at these different life points and have very different emotional reactions as they relate the tales to their own experiences.

The third level of spirituality is seeking to understand the deeper messages that the myths encode symbolically, even if our own modern solving of the code is quite different from how the symbols may have been understood millennia ago.

The tales of Tyr and Thor are violent ones, but we can see beyond the violence to the message. In different ways, both gods stand up for their communities and put themselves in grave harm in order to protect those around them.

Tyr gives his right hand so that Loki’s enormous and terrifying wolf-son can be bound until the end of this time cycle, and Thor loses his life at the final battle of Ragnarök even as he finally defeats the World Serpent.

We can see these mythic actions embodied by those around us now – by firefighters who rush into the burning forests of America’s west coast and by front-line medical workers who offer up their own lives in sacrifice to save those stricken with this terrible virus.

Myth is life, life is myth, and both can veer between the violent and the sublime.

Which Indian god holds a close parallel with a Norse god?

The closest parallels are in the oldest layers of Sanskrit, for it is these that contain the most classic Indo-European motifs that are shared by the myths, legends, and fairy tales of the Norse, Germanic, Celtic, Greek, Roman, and other related cultures. These building blocks of story appear in so many different combinations across such a wide range of time and space.

Thor and Indra are the most obvious parallels.

Indra kills Vritra with his vajra, the thunder-weapon (India, undated)

In the great pagan temple of Uppsala in eleventh-century Sweden, Thor sat in the center and was considered the mightiest of all, as Indra was considered the great king of the gods in the older myths of India. Both have enormous appetites, both wield the thunder-weapon, both respond to challenges from enemies of the gods, and both face the great serpent of the waters.

But this sort of parallel isn’t really the most interesting. The mighty wielder of the lightning bolt is found throughout Indo-European mythologies, so the Iceland-India connection is not unique.

The creation myths of the Eddas and the Vedas have parallels that are much more fascinating. They even begin with similar lines.

The Old Norse Völuspá (“Prophecy of the Seeress”) tells of a time before the world was made:
There was no sand nor sea nor chill waves, no earth to be found nor high heaven, a gulf of gaping void, and grass was nowhere.
The Sanskrit Nāsadīya Sūkta, the creation hymn, opens in like fashion:
There was neither non-existence nor existence, no realm of air nor sky beyond... There was no death then nor immortality, there was no sign of night nor of day.
Thousands of miles and thousands of years apart, both mythic systems begin their creation songs by describing the unimaginable void as a list of what is not there, by placing the immensely ancient nothingness before creation in terms of negating what we can see around ourselves now. They both find the same solution to comprehending the incomprehensible.

According to the Sansksrit Puruṣa Sūkta, the hymn of the cosmic giant Puruṣa, the gods sacrifice the enormous figure and make the moon from his mind, the sun from his eye, the wind from his breath, the sky from his head, and the earth from his feet.

The Icelandic Eddas tell us that the gods kill the primeval giant Ymir and make the clouds from his brain, the sky from his skull, the earth from his flesh, the sea from his blood, the mountains from his bones, and the trees from his hair.

The Indian and the Icelandic are again parallel, this time sharing the idea that the gods create the world from the yet older being whom they kill together early in time. Everything that is created, both myths tell us, is made from what came before.

There are other parallels, of course. I dive deeply into these with the students in my “World Religions” course, in which we examine Hindu, Norse, and Celtic mythology and religion. I am also very interested in parallel theological ideas between modern Ásatrú and Hinduism, such as the twin concepts of wyrd and karma. We have much more in common with each other than many may think.

What is your opinion of the Marvel universe and its depiction of the Norse gods?


In India, you have a long tradition of multimedia adaptations of the great Hindu myths and legends. We have nothing that can begin to compare with something like the giant Mahabharat television series, which adapted the Sanskrit epic over the course of ninety-four episodes – plus the forty-five of the sequel series that picked up the bits that had been left out. Amazing! I show students in my “Religion and Social Movements” course the beginning of the Bhagavad Gītā scene when we study the text.

Nitish Bharadwaj as Krishna in the Mahabharat TV series (1988-1990)

There is no comparable adaptation of the Norse myths. There have been some animated features, but there is no serious film or extended television version for adults that I know. Instead, we have Hollywood films based on the comic book version of Thor created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee in 1962.

I very much believe that we should each of us read the myths, engage with them, and bring them in dialogue with our own life experiences. However, it is strange to me how much the first Marvel Thor film reforms Norse mythology as Judeo-Christian lore.

The movie Odin fumes like the angry God of the Old Testament, and there is nothing at all of his Wanderer avatar – of his taking earthly form as the old wizard who engages in riddle-contests with giants, advises heroes on how to defeat dragons, and shares his ancient wisdom with all of humanity. Instead, the film figure sits on his throne in Asgard and makes mighty proclamations – God the Father instead of the All-father.

Thor is very much recast as Christ, sent down from heaven to live as a mortal among mortals. He gathers followers unto himself and makes of them dedicated disciples by convincing them of his godliness. He proves himself worthy of divinity by being willing to sacrifice himself to save humanity and is thus restored to full godhood at the right hand of his father. Amen. This is not the Thor from Norse mythology, and this is not his story.

This doesn’t mean I don’t love the Marvel Thor comics. I do. I have shelves full of them, from the very beginning through the latest adventures. I also enjoy the movies, and I’ve seen every film set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Thor: Ragnarok is probably my favorite one, not least because they finally had the sense to use Led Zeppelin’s great Viking metal epic “Immigrant Song.”

I don’t see the comics and movies as any sort of blasphemy – not even a little bit. I enjoy Marvel’s tales of the mighty Thor as much as I enjoy stories of the spectacular Spider-Man and the invincible Iron Man. I’ve loved superheroes since I was four years old, and I was four a very long time ago.

I believe that one of the great powers of myth is that it is told and retold by each new generation. I’ve heard so many students from India say that they learned of Rāma and Sītā from their mothers or grandmothers, from being told the stories instead of reading them. There is an unlimited number of Rāmāyaṇas, and more of them are being told somewhere right now.

The fact that children and adults around the world are fascinated with Thor because of the Marvel version today is a wonderful thing. I first met him through the Marvel comics, back when he lived here in Chicago. It was very exciting to the child version of me that Thor lived down the street! It’s exciting to me as an adult that he lives wherever the storm arrives to chase away the stale air and bring the beauty of the rains.

And that’s how I hope it works for others. Not necessarily to become a practitioner of Ásatrú but to become curious enough about Thor to find the Eddas at the library or the bookstore – maybe to sign up for a course so that they can learn more about the culture that produced these wonderful myths and to reflect upon what they can mean for all of us during this dark time.

I know that the myths are helpful to me, and I am always happy to hear that they are of help to others.

An earlier version of this interview appeared at The Mythology Project.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

A Ragnarök of One's Own

In his 1936 autobiography, the composer Igor Stravinsky describes his 1912 visit to Bayreuth, Germany, to attend a performance of Richard Wagner’s Parsifal.

The opera tells the story of a quest for the Holy Grail by one of King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table, and draws upon a thirteenth-century Middle High German romance by knight and poet Wolfram von Eschenbach. Wagner freely mixes elements of the medieval work with his own idiosyncratic philosophical and anti-Semitic ideologies in his final opera, completed eight years after Götterdämmerung (“Twilight of the Gods”), the concluding part of his cycle of operas based on Norse mythology and German legend.

Richard Wagner as Wotan (Odin) in an 1876 cartoon

At the time of his trip to Germany, Stravinsky himself was in the midst of composing music for Le Sacre du printemps (“The Rite of Spring”), a ballet subtitled “Pictures of Pagan Russia.” In his autobiography, he describes the genesis of the piece:
I had a fleeting vision which came to me as a complete surprise, my mind at the moment being full of other things. I saw in my imagination a solemn pagan rite: sage elders, seated in a circle, watched a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of spring. Such was the theme of the Sacre du printemps.
Although both the German Wagner and the Russian Stravinsky turned to pagan subjects for inspiration, their music and worldviews were greatly at odds.

Religious mindset

For Stravinsky, religious subject matter was subsumed into a powerfully modernist artistic vision. He had a visceral reaction to witnessing the performance at Bayreuth, where Wagner – with the financial support of devoted donors and Bavarian King Ludwig II – had built an opera house in which only his own works were performed.

Stravinsky explains his reaction to the scene:
What I find revolting in the whole affair is the underlying conception which dictated it – the principle of putting a work of art on the same level as the sacred and symbolic ritual which constitutes a religious service. And, indeed, is not all this comedy of Bayreuth, with its ridiculous formalities, simply an unconscious aping of a religious rite?
It is not merely the showy theatricality of the Bayreuth production that disgusts Stravinsky; he is repulsed by the audience’s willing desire to be swept away in quasi-religious fervor.

After calling for the end of “this unseemly and sacrilegious conception of art as religion and the theatre as a temple,” Stravinsky forwards an argument against this conflation of attitudes.
[O]ne cannot imagine a believer adopting a critical attitude towards a religious service. That would be a contradiction in terms; the believer would cease to be a believer. The attitude of an audience is exactly the opposite. It is not dependent upon faith or blind submission. At a performance one admires or one rejects. One accepts only after having passed judgment, however little one may be aware of it. The critical faculty plays an essential part. To confound these two distinct lines of thought is to give proof of a complete lack of discernment, and certainly of bad taste.
This is, of course, a generalization about the religious mindset that takes the fundamentalist and literalist as synecdoche for the diverse world of approaches to religious belief and practice. This same process leads liberal American commenters to criticize “religious people” when they often actually mean “conservative evangelical Christians of rural America.”

But Stravinsky’s point stands regarding the suspension of critical faculties by the devotee of the artist. After all, the word fan is an abbreviation of fanatic. Whether the fan is a Wagnerite, a Tolkienite, or a #ReleaseTheSnyderCuttite, the move from appreciation to devotion often leads to both dissolution of discernment and hostility towards those who dare to discuss the object of affection on its merits.

Like the sacrificer in the Ṛg Veda who begins to see himself as the god Indra (earning the wrath of the thunderer), the fan’s identification of self with the object of veneration can become so great that the boundary between observer and observed dissolves. For the most dedicated, even the mildest critique of the work is perceived as an intensely personal attack on the fan.

Does Wagner’s well-documented anti-Semitism surface in his operas? Do Tolkien’s “quite obviously” Jewish dwarves embody anti-Semitic stereotypes? The true fan will not only deny it but will furiously denounce the person daring to suggest an affirmative answer.

Fundamentalist adherence

The conclusion of Stravinsky’s argument is deeply relevant to our current cultural moment. Written as Nazi Germany was expanding and the Axis powers were ascendant, Stravinsky’s polemic against the sacralization of the artwork ends with a turn to the political developments of his time.
But is it at all surprising that such confusion should arise at a time like the present, when the openly irreligious masses in their degradation of spiritual values and debasement of human thought necessarily lead us to utter brutalization? People are, however, apparently fully aware of the sort of monster to which the world is about to give birth, and perceive with annoyance that man cannot live without some kind of cult. An effort is therefore made to refurbish old cults dragged from some revolutionary arsenal, wherewith to enter into competition with the Church.
We again find ourselves living through a time of cultic thinking and fundamentalist belief creeping into public life.

Amalie Materna as Kundry in 1882 Bayreuth production of Wagner's Parsifal

Within the online world of Heathenry, differing theological views are denounced as blasphemy (seemingly without any sense of historical irony). Inside the Twitterverse, academics posting about their research are swamped by roving gangs of anonymous mansplainers who pose endless rhetorical questions that no sane answer can satisfy. Across social media, virtual communities of intent form to affirm preconceptions and reinforce prejudices, from Facebook support groups for racist police officers to a Russian social media platform where American neo-Nazis build international contacts.

In all of these examples, critical thinking has given way to the fervor of fundamentalism. Whether the doctrine is religious or political, adherence to its precepts overrides all rational evaluation. Questioning of basic assumptions leads to denunciation by the group and excommunication of the individual, a process that strengthens groupthink as the membership in the group becomes refined down to a harder core.

We now see this process exploding from the virtual world into the regular world.

During the election, Trump’s supporters brushed aside accusations of sexual assault as politically motivated and denounced any who even slightly questioned his proclamations as traitors who wanted the communists to win. During the election, Biden’s supporters brushed aside accusations of sexual assault as politically motivated and denounced any who even slightly questioned his candidacy as traitors who wanted the fascists to win. Grossly anti-Semitic imagery, homophobic declarations, and racist symbols are proudly displayed by furious protestors demanding the end of coronavirus mitigation measures and refusing even the most common-sense safety practices. Scapegoats abound as conspiracy theories and in-group loyalty trump all rational discussion.

Steven Colbert’s truthiness has been succeeded by a belief that reality itself is a matter of opinion, not in a theological sense of maya versus brahman – of illusion versus ultimate reality – but in a very basic and everyday way.

If the president says something is absolutely fake that he said was absolutely real just minutes earlier, and his supporters believe both statements are akin to holy writ, what is real? If #BelieveWomen and #MeToo are inherently powerful and essentially undeniable when the offender is a Republican but abused women are shouted down as gold-digging liars and political tools when the offender is a Democrat, what is real? If the coronavirus is simultaneously a leftist hoax designed to take away your guns and an unstoppable danger that requires trillions of dollars in corporate handouts, what is real?

Doublethink is the order of the day as groups across the political spectrum descend into a madness of fundamentalist adherence to whatever doctrine the day requires.

Modern Pagans declare support for diversity and inclusiveness while embracing sectarian tribalism as a positive way of structuring religious communities. White conservatives in central Michigan fly the Confederate Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia while demanding stoppage of best practices for minimizing the number of coronavirus deaths in their own community. The party that trumpets its belief that “all Americans have an unalienable right to life as stated in The Declaration of Independence” insists that “[t]here are more important things than living” and dead civilians (particularly dead grandparents) are a fair trade for business profits. The “party of inclusion” puts forward the most diverse Democratic primary field in history before choosing the elderly, white, straight, male, Christian multimillionaire.

A doom of our own making

The epitaph of this age of ours is likely to be “my party, right or wrong,” whether the party is political, religious, racial, or what have you.

To point this out is not to indulge in whataboutism, to say that there is no real difference between political ideologies. Quite the opposite. It’s the willingness to wallow in the basest sort of attacks on the other/outsider paired with the resolute refusal to allow any open discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of the home team that results in the atrophy of the critical faculty. We tell college students that they must take humanities courses to develop their critical thinking skills, but what living models do they have when so much of public life is built on slandering the other side and dehumanizing the dissenter?

Igor Stravinsky plays Le Sacre du printemps ("The Rite of Spring") in a 1913 cartoon by Jean Cocteau

In the current overheated environment, there seems to be a fear that admitting any fault at all is handing ammunition to the enemy. Don’t worry, we’ll fix our own problems later. We just need to win this election, promote this conference, get these membership numbers up, finish whatever project in the now that we’ve set up as the one thing that must be accomplished at all costs. The dream is deferred, the underserved are labeled as special interests, and the status quo rumbles on.

It doesn’t have to be this way. It is possible to be reflective about one’s own group while still standing strongly against real wrong. Somehow, we need to cultivate the inner voice that stops the fingers about to type the bullying, the harassment, and the death threat. We need to build the internalized critical apparatus that asks if the thing we are about to do is truly of worth and worth doing.

We are burning up in a blazing sea of hot takes pouring forth from the endless stream of social media opinions, deceptions, and lies, from the so-called coronavirus briefings that descended into hate rallies, and from our friends and family who insist we must vote for their chosen candidate, or everything terrible to come is our own individual fault. We need a cool breeze to bring us to our senses so that we can climb out of the heat and reflect on what we can all do to move forward out of this mess.

Stravinsky writes of living in a moment when “degradation of spiritual values and debasement of human thought necessarily lead us to utter brutalization.” In our own moment, how can we elevate spiritual values and enhance human thought so that we’re able to move to higher ground? Can we find the answers to today’s problems by turning yet again to ancient texts, or do we need new words to find new solutions? How can we improve our educational systems and social systems so that they develop engaged citizens instead of enraged strangers?

It is difficult to think of engagement in an age of stay-at-home orders and social distancing, at a time when conversations occur on Zoom or through facemasks of dubious efficacy, but the fact that it is now difficult makes it imperative that we do. Will we come through this era-defining trial determined to work together to drive fundamental and consequential change for the better, or will we crawl through with a hardened determination to screw the other guy?

Committing to real change is especially hard for anyone convinced that a holy text is inerrant, that the gods speak truths directly into their ears, or that the leader of their particular group can do no wrong. Stravinsky writes that “one cannot imagine a believer adopting a critical attitude towards a religious service” and warns of the danger of such a species of true and unshakable belief growing in the public realm.

Are we still capable of adopting an attitude that is constructively critical, or are we doomed to slouch towards a Ragnarök of our own making?

An earlier version of this article appeared at The Wild Hunt.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

New Gods of the Fourth World

I’ve known about Darkseid at least since he appeared on the cover of the first issue of DC Comics’ Super Powers in 1985. Since then, I’ve read dozens of comic books featuring the dark master of Apokolips and all the associated New Gods created by Jack Kirby.

When yet another reboot of Superman comics introduced Lex Luthor’s Apokoliptian armor and use of a Mother Box, I realized that I’ve never really had a particularly clear grasp of Kirby’s whole DC mythology. I know who the characters are, I know about the strange melding of mysticism and technology, but I’ve never really felt like I fully understood what all the fuss and bother with these strange figures was all about.

I decided to pick up a used copy of the first volume of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World Omnibus to start at the beginning and see if I could get a better understanding of the weirdness.

Mythological works of Jack Kirby (photo by Karl E. H. Seigfried)

From the first 1970 issue of Kirby’s run on Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen – the bizarre choice for Kirby to launch his new mythology after arriving at DC – it was clear that breaking free of the leash that Marvel editor Stan Lee held on his creativity led to some fundamentally strange storytelling.

As writer, artist, and editor of his own work, Kirby brought back the Newsboy Legion – a corny gang of kids he had co-created for DC way back in 1942 – even as he began introducing freakish concepts of hidden conspiracies that would quickly blossom into the complicated plot of what DC called (without explanation) the “Fourth World” storyline, which wound through the Olsen series plus the Kirby-created titles The Forever People, The New Gods, and Mister Miracle.

By the time the first issue of The New Gods arrived in 1971, Kirby had already introduced Darkseid and several of his accomplices, a secret federal genetic lab known as the DNA Project (morphed into Project Cadmus by DC after the 1985 Crisis on Infinite Earths series), a big green Jimmy Olsen that veered awfully close to copyright infringement on the Hulk (co-created by Kirby for Marvel), a new version of the Guardian (another 1942 DC co-creation of Kirby), a group of New Age hippie teenager gods from space in the form of the Forever People of New Genesis, and the mystical female sentient computers known as Mother Boxes.

It was clear that DC was giving Kirby free rein to spin out his strange visions of society, science, space, and spirituality, but things took a surprising (to me, at least) turn in that first issue of The New Gods.

The fall of the old gods, from the first issue of The New Gods by Jack Kirby

In a two page prologue titled “Epilogue,” Kirby writes,
There came a time when the old gods died! The brave died with cunning! The noble perished, locked in battle with unleashed evil! It was the last day for them! An ancient era was passing in fiery holocaust!
The full-page illustration shows figures who look an awful lot like the Asgardian gods Kirby had drawn for Marvel from 1962 until 1970. There’s even a shadowy portrayal of a powerful figure in a winged helmet wielding a short-handled hammer.

Kirby continues with a description of “the home of the old gods” being torn asunder into two halves and accompanies it with a drawing of an island in outer space with an outline that looks suspiciously like that of the version of Asgard he had long illustrated over at Marvel. The two halves of the old gods’ dwelling become the paired planets of New Genesis and Apokolips, the domains of Highfather and Darkseid, and new deities that arise to take the place of the old.

From Asgard to Apokolips

This was the point at which I realized Kirby was giving DC a direct sequel to the sagas of the Norse gods he had produced for Marvel. Indeed, he had already been working on the concept while still employed at Stan Lee’s company, planning out a Ragnarök that would kill off the Asgardians and give rise to new gods of a new mythology. Due to his ongoing and now well-known shafting by Marvel over creator rights and compensation, he refrained from sharing his plans until he had moved over to the Distinguished Competition.

The Fourth World mythos is a direct continuation of Kirby’s long project of bringing the gods of Norse mythology into modern settings – a project dating back to at least 1941, when Kirby created a version of the Roman god Mercury for Timely Comics who was soon renamed Hurricane and declared to be “son of Thor, god of Thunder.” In 1942, Kirby drew an incarnation of Thor with red beard and horned helmet for DC’s Adventure Comics, then created another bearded Thor in 1957 for DC’s Tales of the Unexpected. His deepest dive into the mythology of the Eddas was, of course, his long run on Marvel’s The Mighty Thor and its backup feature Tales of Asgard.

After seeing the Norse connections of Kirby’s 1970s material for DC, I picked up the insanely huge complete compendium called The Fourth World Omnibus. Containing all of Kirby’s New Gods tales from 1970 through 1985, the weight of the 1,481-page monstrosity felt like it was bruising my rib cage when I laid down on the couch to read it. It didn’t disappoint in the deity department.

Relaxing after Ragnarök, from the seventh issue of The New Gods by Jack Kirby

The seventh issue of The New Gods, published in 1972, tied Kirby’s new mythology even more deeply to the Norse myths. “In the beginning,” the narration begins biblically,
The New Gods were formless in image and aimless in deed!!! On each of their two new worlds, their races had sprung from a survivor of the old!! The living atoms of Balduur gave nobility and strength to one!! – And the shadow planet was saturated with the cunning and evil which was once a sorceress!!
I’ve written before about the fact that Kirby and Lee sometimes seem to know more about the sources of Norse mythology than prominent academics. I’ve also written about the blend of Judeo-Christian and Norse mythologies the two of them created. Both Stan Lee (Stanley Lieber) and Jack Kirby (Jacob Kurtzberg) were born in New York City to Jewish immigrants from Europe, and they both repeatedly mix elements from Abrahamic and Indo-European myths.

Here, Kirby moves easily from the opening words of the Book of Genesis to the final verses of the Old Norse poem Völuspá (“Prophecy of the Seeress”) and their revelation that the god Baldr will rule over a new world of peace after the devastation of Ragnarök. Kirby’s line about the aimlessness of the New Gods in their early days seems to echo the lines in Völuspá about the first age of the Norse gods, when sun, moon, and stars wandered about without knowing their own paths.

If the spirit of the bright god Baldr suffuses the beautiful world of the New Gods, who is the evil sorceress who gives her character to Darkseid and the dark gods of Apokolips? The obvious choice is Kirby’s own Enchantress, an enemy of Thor and sometime ally of Loki in Marvel’s version of Norse mythology. In his Thor comics published late in the first decade of this century, writer Matt Fraction explicitly equated the Enchantress with the Norse goddess Freyja. Did Kirby also make this connection?

In Völuspá, the prophetess speaks of a female figure named Heiðr (“bright”) who makes prophecies, practices sorcery, performs enchantments, and “was always the joy of an evil woman.” She’s usually interpreted to be Freyja, the Vanir goddess who teaches magical practices to the Æsir. Maybe this suggestion of a connection between Freyja, sorcery, and wicked women suggested the idea of the Enchantress to Kirby.

Kirby associates the sorceress progenitor of the Apokolips gods with “cunning and evil,” the core traits of his own Marvel version of Loki. The Old Norse Hyndluljóð (“Song of Hyndla”) has a striking description of Loki being impregnated by an evil woman and becoming the ancestor of every ogress that came after. Perhaps this connection between Loki and ill-working women was also in Kirby’s mind when he conceived the origins of Apokolips.

Loki looms larger in the character of Metron, especially as portrayed in this particular issue. Although one of the New Gods of New Genesis, he strikes a pact with Darkseid and is willing to provide services that harm his original tribe in order to further his own personal ends even as he brushes aside the fact that his double-dealing will “create the means for mass slaughter.”

In the Eddas, Loki is likewise a figure who plays both sides as he moves between the giants of his original tribe and the gods with whom he lives in the mythic present. Like Metron, he shows little loyalty to either side in the cosmic conflict, is motivated by his own needs, and moves everyone down the line to the bloody climax of Ragnarök.

The issue ends with Highfather and Darkseid exchanging hostages to – for a time – end the conflict between their two tribes of warring gods. Snorri Sturluson’s Ynglinga saga (“Saga of the Ynglings”) tells of the similar exchange of hostages that ends the first great mythological war between the god-tribes of the Æsir and Vanir. Given the obvious similarity between the names Highfather and Allfather (an English translation of the Old Norse Alföðr, a byname of Odin) it would seem that the patriarch of the New Gods is a parallel of the patriarch of the Norse gods as portrayed in the Icelandic sources.

Highfather rejects his war-staff and renounces war, from issue 7 of The New Gods by Jack Kirby

But Kirby’s Highfather is more closely connected to the Old Testament than he is to Old Norse. He bears a staff in the shape of a Mosaic shepherd’s crook, not an Odinnic spear. Indeed, the seventh issue of The New Gods shows him rejecting his “war-staff” as a weapon as he renounces war itself. After he does so, a wall appears in a desert waste and “a hand of flame” writes a message on it, stating that the inheritance of the man who becomes the Highfather is the Source, Kirby’s pre-Star Wars concept of a universal force that courses through the universe.

This fairly obviously refers to the mystic hand that writes on the wall of Belshazzar in the Book of Daniel, delivering God’s message that the Babylonian ruler’s kingdom will be divided. Division also relates to Kirby’s tale, as the exchange of hostages immediately follows and the two tribes of gods agree to stay apart on their own respective planets.

Highfather discards his staff of war and carries a staff of peace, eventually – at the conclusion of The Hunger Dogs, the 1985 graphic novel at the end of the Omnibus – raising his staff meaningfully as he leads the New Gods in search of a new home for his tribe in a not altogether subtle reflection of Moses as a shepherd leading the Israelites away from oppression and towards their eventual home.

So if Highfather is Kirby’s new Moses, where is his Odin?

Odinnic fury and a Broadway star

The same issue shows that Darkseid’s young son Orion has been given to Highfather as part of the hostage exchange. He grows up to be the great warrior prophesied to bring down Darkseid himself. Throughout his Fourth World mythos, Kirby portrays Orion as a figure whose rage continually threatens to overwhelm him. He pushes his allies aside in his furious determination to gather information that will enable him to win victory over his enemies and wreak bloody havoc as he obsesses over the prophecy of the final battle and his own ultimate fate.

Odin’s very name has etymological roots in terms for fury and madness, and his berserker devotees are defined by their overwhelming rage. I’m one of many people who give precedence to the Icelandic images of Odin as a wandering sharer of wisdom and inspirer of creativity, but he is also the bloodthirsty god of war who seeks information about the final battle to come, stirs up violent strife among men, and is identified by the medieval German chronicler Adam of Bremen as “Wodan, id est furor” (“Wodan, that is fury”).

It is this darker aspect of the god – himself the son of a giantess and the grandson of a giant named Bölþorn (“evil thorn”) – that Kirby transmutes into Darkseid’s universe-traveling son Orion, willfully mashing up Greek and Norse mythology as he names his Odinnic character for the Greek hunter.

Kirby may have chosen this particular mythic name to connect his character with Odin as the leader of a form of the Wild Hunt, but a penchant for Greek-Norse hybridization is already evident in his 1941 tales of Mercury, son of Thor. Even in this, he echoes Snorri’s Edda, with its insistence that the Norse gods can be traced back to the legendary heroes of the Trojan War.

Kirby also seems to be following Snorri in his portrayal of Lightray, the bright and shining god of New Genesis who dresses all in white and refuses to engage with the dark fury of Orion’s single-mindedness and bloody-mindedness. Much of Kirby’s characterization of Lightray parallels Snorri’s introduction of Baldr in the Edda:
He is so fair in appearance and so bright that light shines from him, and there is a plant so white that it is called after Baldr’s eyelash… He is the wisest of the Æsir and most beautifully spoken and most merciful, but it is one of his characteristics that none of his decisions can be fulfilled.
With only the smallest of changes, this could be modified to describe Lightray, the bright one whose words of peace are furiously brushed aside by the raging Orion.

And what of Thor?

At the end of the 1960s, shortly before he left Marvel, Kirby made a series of presentation drawings showing radical reworkings of the cast of The Mighty Thor. The character and costume designs show a conceptual midpoint between his 1960s Marvel gods and his 1970s DC deities. He was clearly thinking of new directions for the thunderer, and two very Thor-ish, but very different, figures appear in his Fourth World epic – one male and one female.

In a backup feature paralleling his old Tales of Asgard series for Marvel, the 1971 fifth issue of The Forever People features Kirby’s introduction of a New God named Lonar who wanders alone (hence his rather transparent name) through the ruins of Asgard on New Genesis in search of remnants of “the elder gods.” He finds a “battle horse” of the past era who is given the name Thunderer in Lonar’s next backup feature, two issues later.

Perhaps echoing the hostility between Thor and Odin in the Old Norse Hárbarðsljóð (“Song of Graybeard”), the horse rears up and bolts when touched by Orion. Or maybe the horse, a survivor of one Ragnarök, recognizes that Orion is destined to bring about another.

Lonar wears "the trappings of the elder gods" in Hunger Dogs by Jack Kirby

When Lonar reappears thirteen years later in the graphic novel that brings a form of closure to Kirby’s mythology, he is drawn like a slightly redesigned version of Kirby’s Marvel Thor – a design much closer to the 1960s character than to the proposed updates Kirby created before leaving for DC. Lonar’s long hair flows from beneath a winged helmet as he returns to the city of the New Gods and Highfather remarks, “Don’t you look splendid in the trappings of the elder gods!” and tells him that he’s “not the first to be intrigued by the ancient past.”

As with several of Kirby’s characters – he openly said Ben Grimm of the Fantastic Four was a self-portrait – Lonar seems to be a reflection of an aspect of the artist’s self. In this case, he is an acknowledgement of Kirby’s lifelong love of ancient mythology and its tales of gods and heroes.

That said, the character who seems the most direct descendant of Marvel’s Thor in DC’s New Gods is Big Barda. She appears in all her glory on the first page of the 1971 fourth issue of Mister Miracle, wearing armor and helmet heavily stylized in the Kirby manner. Like Kirby's Thor, Barda is the tank of the party, always ready to rush in and start smashing enemies with her “mega-rod,” an hand-held weapon that – like Marvel’s Mjölnir – isn’t only a blunt instrument, but manifests whatever amazing powers Kirby needs it to have at a given point in the storyline.

She’s arguably the most macho figure of the Fourth World, bringing a direct Thor-like energy to what sometimes devolves into posturing Wagnerian space opera. Big Barda is also the leader of the Female Furies, the bizarre Valkyrie-like force that follows her lead from Apokolips to her adventures on Earth and elsewhere. In 1987, artist, writer, and Kirby devotee Walter Simonson strengthened the Thor-Barda connection when he introduced the new-look Marvel Thor wearing armor that was awfully close in color scheme, concept, and design to that worn by Big Barda.

Given his mixing of mythologies, it’s interesting that Kirby’s direct inspiration for Big Barda was the Jewish Broadway singer Lainie Kazan, then a rising star after stepping in for Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl and being featured in an issue of Playboy. Multiculturalism is a feature of the Fourth World, with three of the series having black characters in the core cast and the other having a prominent recurring African-American character.

“Mugged by the Word of God”

Kirby’s social and political concerns come through in other ways, such as in the depiction of Glorious Godfrey in the 1971 third issue of The Forever People. Based on the anti-Semitic and homophobic evangelical Christian minister Billy Graham, Godfrey smilingly encourages his followers to embrace “anti-life” as he issues helmets that enable them to hide their identities and – with the freedom from morality granted by anonymity – wield brutal violence against those they wish to eliminate.

Glorious Godfrey evangelizes for Darkseid, from the third issue of The Forever People by Jack Kirby

Kirby introduces Godfrey by showing him standing on a giant stage and preaching of a coming holocaust before smilingly telling his followers that they are superior to those to whom they will bring “Darkseid’s gift of anti-life.” Always ratcheting up his influences to symbolic levels, Kirby portrays Billy Graham’s manipulation of his enormous audiences in cosmic terms.

Sometimes the mythological and sociological influences coincide, as in Kirby’s portrayal of the “bugs,” humanoids who evolve in underground colonies from poisonous “micro-life” sent against New Genesis by Darkseid as the dwarfs of Norse mythology evolve “by decision of the gods” from where they squirm in the flesh of the dead giant Ymir “like maggots in flesh.”

In the 1972 tenth issue of The New Gods, Kirby shows the rulers of New Genesis – as imperfect as the gods of the various Indo-European mythologies – working to eradicate what they see as a lesser race by denouncing them as pests who seek to rise above their station. In case you miss the parallel with the Nazis gassing their Jewish prisoners in extermination camps, Kirby provides disturbing imagery of a field covered with dead and dying as the lone standing figure chokes to death and yellow clouds of gas drift over the scene.

Kirby’s idiosyncratic admixture of the mythological, sociological, and technological sometimes gives the work a prescient quality. At the beginning of his Fourth World saga, Kirby’s portrayal of the Mother Box as a small computer obsessively loved by its owner, always kept close to the body, and turned to for information and help in all circumstances predicts the ubiquity of and intense love for smartphones nearly forty years before the appearance of the first iPhone.

At the end of his epic, Darkseid becomes almost pathetic as he laments the rise of Micro-Mark, the new technology developed for him by the deviant New Genesis god named Esak that seems to portray digital technology and/or nuclear weapons. In 1985, the year the Hunger Dogs graphic novel appeared, Microsoft released its first iteration of Windows and began the digital transformation of postmodern life even as the Air Force began testing its Mid-Infrared Advanced Chemical Laser as a possible defense against incoming nuclear missiles. As always, Kirby reworked his concerns about real-world developments into symbolic form.

In his introduction to the first book of the multi-volume collection of the Fourth World comics, Scottish writer Grant Morrison discusses the effect of first attempting to read this material at age eleven. Kirby’s tales, he writes,
operated at a higher frequency than my pre-adolescent brain was wired up to match; his operatic visions of burning planets and snarling sci-fi deities left me with an inner shudder of the numinous and uncanny. Kirby’s dramas were staged across Jungian vistas of raw symbol and storm…. Kirby was too wild, too creepy, too raw.
He describes “experiencing a near-religious sense of awe and terror” and feeling like he’d “been mugged by the Word of God and somehow walked away.”

Despite being thirty-five years older when I first read this material, I had a similar experience. At every step, I felt like Kirby’s tales manifested at the level of mythology, of myth as described by the French philosopher and theologian Paul Ricœur as “symbols developed in the form of narrations.”

In Kirby’s sprawling epic – improvised and willed into material form as he furiously created page after page and issue after issue for year after year – the narrative is often difficult to follow, the dialogue is many times obscure, the motivations of the characters are regularly unclear, good and evil are sometimes not so clearly delineated, death is always a threatening presence, and there constantly seems to be some deeper symbolic meaning that is just out of reach behind the surface action.

Kirby really was transcending the medium in which he worked and creating a new mythology that followed and built upon the ancient Norse mythology that he so long and so deeply loved. Like the myths of ancient times, Kirby provided no key to decode his symbols – even though DC later attempted, in Snorrian fashion, to explain away all the inherent uncanniness of his vision as they sanded away the rough edges to fit Kirby’s characters into the mainstream of their own corporate mythos. Also like the old myths, Kirby’s work both expresses the deepest concerns of his time and speaks to the worrying aspects of our own age.

1944 self-portrait by Jack Kirby, colored by Rob Steibel

Last year, I wrote about baseball player, author, and activist Jim Bouton as one of my personal saints. The other very human individuals I consider in that category are John Coltrane, Jack Kerouac, and Malcolm X – all of whom challenged themselves to be greater while publicly speaking out against the failings of their own society. After reading the Fourth World saga and Mark Evanier’s excellent illustrated biography Kirby: King of Comics, I’ve now added Jack Kirby to that short list. Like the others, he is a prophet – not only in the sense of speaking of things yet to come, but with the meaning of being inspired with deep spiritual insight.

There’s much more to be said about Jack Kirby. As lengthy as this article turned out to be, it barely scratches the surface. Hail to the king of comics!

An earlier version of this article appeared at The Wild Hunt.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

The Fall Equinox and the Lives We Lead

Here in the northern hemisphere, the autumnal equinox occurs on Tuesday, September 22. Due to the crowded calendars of our busy modern lives not lining up exactly with the cosmic movements of celestial bodies, I and my friends in Thor’s Oak Kindred will get together via Zoom to celebrate our annual fall blót on Saturday night. The fact that we will be celebrating a modern version of ancient ritual via videoconferencing led me to reflect on what it means to celebrate this particular turning point of the year in a multicultural urban setting of non-farmers.

In 2017, I asked several Heathens in England, Germany, and the United States how they and their religious communities celebrate the fall equinox. In one way or another, each mentioned farming and fishing, harvest and hunting, rural life and regional traditions. All the answers were interesting, and there were as many differences in their responses as similarities. Reading their comments today, however, I’m struck by how much my own experiences in the Second City don’t line up with theirs.

Vintage Chicago postcard

Urban Heathen

Spending hours fighting rush-hour traffic among the hazy forms of sky-scraping towers of commerce, crowding into an L car to come back from Wrigley Field after cheering the Cubs on to a September win, pushing through the crowds of tourists at the Chicago Jazz Festival to get to the sea of smiling faces in the playgrounds at Maggie Daley Park, putting together PowerPoint presentations on the Great Migration of African-Americans from the rural south to the urban north for classrooms full of students from around the country and around the world, looking on as Little Leaguers determinedly take to fields surrounded on all sides by busy city streets to extend the softball season through September and into October, picking up a pizza for Friday night dinner from a crowded corner bar that has been serving slices in a Jewish neighborhood for sixty-six years, trying to decide between a twelve-pack of German or Mexican beer at the liquor store that had a tiny counter for foreign cheeses at the back when I was in preschool and the regular grocery stores only had Kraft Singles and Easy Cheese, trying to count how many different languages are being spoken by parents and children at the neighborhood playground after school gets out, heading out to the highway to drive up to Wisconsin for orchestra rehearsal a few days after recording a season’s worth of South Side Chicago gospel music for programs WGN-TV: these are some of the things that have happened around the fall equinox in my own life, and I’m happy with this life.

It’s simply a fact that I have no direct connection to the rural traditions cited by those other Heathens. My mom grows some little vegetables in pots on her condo porch overlooking a city thoroughfare. Aside from those tiny tomatoes and miniature carrots, everything we eat and drink is mediated by multiple levels of distribution. It’s definitely problematic how much fossil fuel is used and how much pollution is produced to get a pumpkin from country farm to city grocer, but I must admit I still get a thrill from being able to eat marzipan made in Germany and drink Bitburger “brewed according to the German Beer Purity Law of 1516.” International trade has its benefits.

It’s also a fact that I get a kick from the bright lights of the big city. It’s exciting to play with legends of gospel music while surrounded by gigantic TV cameras and to record in the same studios and on the same equipment where classic Chicago blues and jazz has been recorded for decades. It’s a blast to host a weekly FM radio show in the same part of the city where Jack Johnson, Louis Armstrong, Richard Wright, and Gwendolyn Brooks made important contributions to our nation’s history. It’s amazing to perform at Symphony Hall and Millennium Park and so many other venues and stages. It’s fantastic to stand up at Wrigley and feel the entire stadium shake with the roaring crowd when one of our Cubbies hits a ball out of the park.

It’s wonderful, also, to be able to share my love of what Heathens call “the lore” in this wild world I inhabit. My classes on the Eddas, Beowulf, Völsunga saga, and the Nibelungenlied have been full of students from China, India, Japan, Nigeria, eastern Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere around the planet. It’s one thing to discuss these texts in all-Heathen Facebook groups. It’s another to dive deeply into them with international students of all creeds and none. Coming to these texts with fresh eyes, my students have often had insights and made comments that caused me to rethink fundamental assumptions I had made about specific lines and verses. In this multicultural setting, it has also become painfully obvious that even the latest translations make word-choices that are fundamentally racist and still beholden to the old nineteenth-century colonialist ways of rendering the texts.

Still we celebrate

So I’m happy with this urban life. I don’t have any Romantic longing for a supposedly simpler agrarian past, whether of the 1950s or the 950s. Yes, I’m thankful for the American farmers who work long hours every day to keep us fed with nutritious food, for all those who labor endlessly to make our modern lives possible. Yet I’m also thankful for the city workers who make our urban lives livable and for the scientists who bring us the medications that enable me to keep breathing. Our current American era is one of deep divisions and bitter strife, but I would rather be here in the thick of it than in any other time or place. I study the past and obsess over its mythology, poetry, religion, and ritual, but I have no desire to live in those ancient times or to somehow reconstruct an age before human rights, modern medicine, and the scientific method.

Vintage postcard of Chicago by night

Yet still we celebrate fall blót. What symbolism and meaning can such an event have for those of us who have no direct connection to agrarian life, who are happy with the diverse urban world we inhabit, and who have no longing for the long ago time? What does the cycle of the year mean to those of us who gladly live in urban America in 2020 and consciously practice a New Religious Movement with no pretense of reconstructing a supposed ancient tradition? Do we need to shame ourselves for shopping at the grocery store, or can we celebrate the lives we lead and still find celebration of the turning points of the year to be deeply meaningful in our religious practice?

The wheel of the year turns as much for us as it does for our friends who live closer to fields of Monsanto-branded corn and soy. Although the changing of the seasons have shifted on the calendar from where they were when I was growing up, we still experience the glory of fall colors, the thrill of chilly nights, and the steady creep of lengthening darkness. The air feels and smells different now than it did just a few weeks ago. The skies are changing above and clothing is changing on the street. There’s a sense of both holding on and looking forward. Personally, I’m reluctant to acknowledge summer is really over until the final out of the World Series, but the world turns whether we will or no.

For all of my life, I’ve gone hiking in the large forest preserves near us, in the state parks up in Wisconsin, and in the national parks to the west. Long before I learned about modern Heathenry, I was deeply in love with the quiet mysteries of the forest, in awe of the changes that came over the woods as the sun set, and in touch with the way life ebbed and flowed from season to season, each with its own special sights, sounds, and smells. Listening to dry leaves crunch underfoot and gazing up at the glorious explosions of red, yellow, and orange has been a fall ritual as long as I can remember. But the forest preserves here are bound by multi-lane highways and giant expressways, and the roar of traffic creeps into the woody quiet when you least expect it.

This encroachment of our machined life upon the natural world is one of the things foremost on my mind during this time of seasonal change. There are nearly three billion fewer birds in North America now than when I was a child chasing sparrows in the front yard. As biodiversity declines around the world, urban areas are facing real negative effects that disproportionately affect poorer areas and communities of color. If Heathens and other Pagans really do believe that we are our deeds and that we practice world-affirming and earth-based traditions, do we have a special responsibility to lead the way on climate change issues?

From words to deeds

I believe that we do, and I believe that practitioners of modern religions should spend at least as much time on looking to the future as they do gazing at the past. Aside from our personal choices regarding plastics and petroleum, aside from making toasts to the gods of the earth in ritual settings, we need to be making our voices heard in the public sphere and openly joining those like Greta Thunberg who are brave enough to echo Thor’s stand against the World Serpent by challenging governments and corporations to make real change. If we are going to venerate our ancestors, we would do well to remember that we will also someday be ancestors. How will our descendants judge our actions and inaction at this crucial turning point?

Vintage postcard of Chicago night scene

Issues of access, diversity, and equality are intimately tied up with issues of ecology. This deep connection between human society and the natural world has long been at the core of paganisms past and present. As we work for change in the ecological sphere, let’s also work for change in the social sphere. As federal payouts to farmers in 2019 reach double the amount paid to the automobile industry in 2009, let’s fight the enormous cuts to education funding that disproportionately affect students of color in urban areas. As we face the reality of a third Supreme Court justice being appointed by this Republican president who lost the popular vote, let’s fight to end the electoral college system that gives greater weight to the votes of rural white people than to those of urban people of color. As more Pagans publicly declare their commitment to inclusivity, let’s make sure that our deeds reflect our words.

In his 1793 book Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant writes of the power of group ritual to affect change within the individual participants and, by extension, in the larger society.
The oft-repeated ceremony (communion) of a renewal, continuation, and propagation of this churchly community under laws of equality, a ceremony which indeed can be performed, after the example of the Founder of such a church (and, at the same time, in memory of him), through the formality of a common partaking at the same table, 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.
Kant’s language obviously refers to the Christian rite, but can, mutatis mutandis, be applied to the Ásatrú ritual of blót. By standing together under the autumn sky and speaking over the communal drinking horn, we can expand our inward individual gaze outward to embrace our religious communities, our cities, our states, our countries, and the world itself. The ritual act of speaking and listening can be an agent of change that expands our narrow inward focus to encompass a far larger and more diverse world. As we speak of this changing of the seasons and the turn towards winter, we can send our thoughts out like Odin’s ravens to look out over all the world and to deepen our connections to all the life that it holds. Our words can spur on the deeds needed in these dark times.

For the 1973 song “Spiral Architect,” Black Sabbath lyricist and bassist Geezer Butler wrote these lines:
Of all the things I value most of all
I look inside myself
and see my world
and know that it is good.

Of all the things I value most of all
I look upon my earth
and feel the warmth
and know that it is good.
Like Kant, Butler connects the inner experience of the individual with the outer life of the world and moves from one into the other. As shown in the parallel structure of the verses and the equal declarations of worth, to connect oneself to the wider world’s story is not to negate one’s personal narrative. While participating in blót, we share our own experiences and share in the experiences of those who stand beside us. For both Kant and Butler, the journey is from the inner world to the outer one. Heathens of positive intent move farther along the path of that journey each time we perform the rite of blót, each time we join the living community of practice to send out our words and direct our sight outwards.

As the light of the summer fades, may we more clearly hear the voices of others and more resolutely focus on right action that leads to a better world for all of us.

An earlier version of this article appeared at The Wild Hunt.

Friday, September 11, 2020

Innangard and Utangard: Problematic Roots of Heathen Dualism

The paired concepts of “innangard” and “utangard” regularly appear in discussions within the various Ásatrú and Heathen communities in the United States. Supposedly, they together form a key structural element of worldview for ancient Germanic polytheism and the modern reconstruction, recreation, and reimagining of the Old Way.

In reaction to the popularity of these terms on the American Heathen scenes, a recent YouTube video by the Old Norse translator Jackson Crawford forwards an argument that innangard and utangard are “two non-words in Old Norse.”

Like so much having to do with the intersection of ancient paganism and modern Paganism, however, the situation is complicated.

The Siege of Antioch in a medieval miniature (c. 1475)


Mundane terminology

The Old Norse innangarðs does indeed exist, but it has the simple meaning “within doors” and lacks any deeper resonance. The related word innangarða also exists – with the plain meaning “within the ‘yard,’ inside the fence” – but it appears in church histories, not in texts connected to pagan myth, belief, or practice.

Likewise, the noun útangarða simply means “outside the yard (house)” and appears in Icelandic law codes that were not committed to writing until over a century after Iceland’s official conversion to Christianity in the year 1000. The earliest surviving manuscripts of these codes are from nearly three centuries after the conversion.

A form of the term appears in the mythological poem Fjölsvinnsmál as útan garða and simply means “outside the walls”; the earliest record of the poem is in paper manuscripts of the 1600s. The related term útangarðs means “outside the fence” and again has no profound sense attached.

The plural noun útgarðar means “the outer building” but appears in Old Icelandic mythology with the meaning “the lands outside the fences” as part of the name or title Útgarða-Loki. In the Edda of Snorri Sturluson, composed around 1220 – over two centuries after conversion – the god Thor travels eastward and crosses the ocean and a large forest before reaching the castle of the giant king called Útgarða-Loki (“Loki of Útgarðar”). In Snorri’s text, the name Útgarðr is used specifically to refer to the castle, not to any wider area.

Around the same time that the Icelandic antiquarian Snorri composed his Edda, the Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus wrote his monumental History of the Danes. It features several mythological tales of the Norse gods rewritten as semi-historical legends of human and superhuman heroes with Latinized names.

In one of these tales, the hero Thorkillus embarks on adventures that parallel those of Thor in the Icelandic texts. He sails over the ocean to a land of eternal night before crossing a dark land without grass to find an enormous cliff and enter a cave in which he finds a giant named Vgarthilocus. Modern editors have changed the giant’s name as recorded in the first printed edition to Utgarthilocus or even Utgartha-Loki to make it line up with the character in the Icelandic Edda.

The various versions of innangarða and útangarða that appear in the source texts seem fairly mundane, yet the Americanized terms “innangard” and “utangard” are invested with heavy meaning by Heathens in the United States.

The Americanization of Early Medieval Paganism

In the second volume of Our Troth, published by the U.S.-based organization founded by members of the Ásatrú Free Assembly and now known as the Troth, innangard is defined as “the enclosed world of the human community, within which order, law and security are found, and which must be protected from the outside (by defense against intruders) and from the inside (by maintaining frith [Old Norse “peace”]).”

Gravity is given to the term by an assertion that “[t]he opposition between the innangard and utangard is fundamental to the way the Teutonic peoples saw themselves in the world.” The corresponding utangard is defined as “the wild and chaotic world, home of outlaws, strangers, giants and monsters.”

In Asatru: A Native European Spirituality, written by the neo-völkisch American Stephen McNallen who founded both the Ásatrú Free Assembly and Ásatrú Folk Assembly, innangarth is made synonymous to “Folk Within.” This term is defined as “[c]ollectively, the people descended from the European tribes, wherever they may live or whatever their religious belief.”

The term utangarth is not in the book’s glossary, but it used in other Ásatrú Folk Assembly publications with the meaning “all forces gathered against the Folk.”

As with so much of Heathenry in the United States, a rather plain Icelandic concept is seen through a lens of prototypically American worldview and recast in a form that touches upon conservative American concepts of law and order, defense from intruders, paranoia about outsiders, and a concept of ancestry grounded in racialist ideas of Europeanness.

Like many modern Heathen concepts in this country, the source seems to be a Danish scholar named Vilhelm Grønbech.

“Our folk is Middle-garth”

In 1909, Grønbech published the first part of Vor Folkeætt i Oldtiden (“Our People in Ancient Times”), translated into English as The Culture of the Teutons in 1931. PDFs of the translated text continue to be circulated among American Heathens, and the book is regularly listed in Heathen bibliographies and recommended reading lists. Over the years, several Grønbechian concepts have become hardwired into modern Heathenry in the United States.

Vilhelm Grønbech (1873-1948)


Unfortunately, the book channels racialist völkisch concepts through Grønbech’s idiosyncratic readings of the Icelandic sagas. It forwards a supposed reconstruction of the inner workings of the souls of various ancient northern European peoples that are mashed together as Grøbech’s primeval Teutons, unquestioningly accepted to be “our forefathers.”

The work is saturated with nineteenth-century Romantic and pseudo-Nietzschean ideals of the Germanic “central will,” the transformative spiritual effects of physical violence, and a pan-Germanic identity shared across time by readers and subjects. Core to this ideology is Grønbech’s portrayal of “Middle-garth” and “Utgard.”

The Old Icelandic miðgarðr means “middle yard” or “central enclosure” and has cognates throughout the old Germanic languages. It refers to the world of humans, as distinct from those of gods, giants, and other mythological tribes.

In Grønbech’s work, the word takes on a völkisch meaning and is directly opposed to his conception of Utgard. “Our folk,” he writes, “is Middle-garth, and that which lies beyond is Utgard.”

Using language disturbingly similar to that of Third Reich propaganda and today’s white nationalism, he discusses killing foreigners as an act free of moral consequence shortly before asserting the mystic sacredness of the clan. Biological mysticism and anti-modernism appear as he writes that “the brethren of the clan are not only one soul but one bone, one flesh, in a literal sense that escapes modern brains.” Middle-garth, according to Grønbech, “belongs to men, and belongs to them because they are the strongest, the conquerors” who are fundamentally opposed to “the rabble of Utgard.”

More than recalling the infighting protagonists of the Icelandic sagas, this rhetoric is reminiscent of the Nazi appropriation and manipulation of Friedrich Nietzsche. The philosopher’s image of “the splendid blond beast, prowling about avidly in search of spoil and victory” was transformed by Nazi propagandists into a symbol of the conquering Aryan hero as part of their twisted justification for the mass murder of the Jewish population and the invasion of neighboring nations.

In Grønbech’s hands, the diverse polytheism and wide-ranging cultural exchange of the ancient world is transformed into a Romantic nationalist dualism of the unified Teutonic clan versus the Others who deserve no ethical consideration.

Unsurprisingly, the audiences for Grønbech’s public lectures skyrocketed during the Nazi occupation of Denmark. The Culture of the Teutons was translated into German by the National Socialist academic Otto Höfler, printed by a völkisch publisher under Nazi control, and included in the library of the Institute for Research of the Jewish Question, a planned Third Reich university system for research and indoctrination focused on anti-Semitic ideology.

Grønbech as guru

It is popular in American Heathenry to dismiss facts such as these by asking “should we throw away the runes because the Nazis used them?”

The counter-question I would ask is, “what in Grønbech appealed so powerfully to Nazi officers and ideologues?” As a follow-up, I would ask, “what are the implications of American Heathens being attracted to the same twentieth-century text that so captivated the leaders of the Third Reich?”

Although some Heathens view Grønbech as a neutral chronicler of ancient worldview who bases his conclusions on solid academic research, the mode of this work is much closer to the rhapsodic imaginings of Romantics waxing lyrical on the rough virtues of noble savages ancient and distant than it is to the focused, critical, and relentlessly sourced work of scholars in the 111 years since the work first appeared.

I have repeatedly read material by and had discussions with American Heathens who consider Grønbech’s theories to be not theories at all, but rather the factual and undeniable core beliefs of actual Heathens of the long-ago time, be they first-century continental Germanic tribesmen, sixth-century English pagans, or ninth-century Icelandic heathens.

Grønbech’s theoretical distinction between the supposed spiritual meanings of Middle-garth and Utgard has morphed into the general acceptance of the innangard-utangard dualism in much of modern American Heathenry of various flavors, with Middle-garth being replaced by innangard due to the regular use of Midgard for the earth (without spiritual or mystical connotations) and the more obvious in-out opposition of the adopted pair of terms.

An objection can be made that, aside from the purely linguistic issues, Norse mythology does indeed show a distinction between inner and outer worlds.

As described above, Thor must travel over some form of natural boundary in order to reach the land of the giants, the territory of the tribe of anti-gods that competes with the gods. This idea of crossing a boundary – river, sea, forest, wasteland, or mountain range – in order to move from the familiar inner world to the strange outer world appears throughout Indo-European mythologies, from Sanskrit to Norse, from ancient Indian epics to 19th-century German fairy tales.

Yet it is a narrative trope, not necessarily a spiritual teaching. The hero of the tale must leave home to have the transformative adventure, whether it is Rama going into Dandakaranya, Beowulf sailing to Heorot, or Thor traveling to Jötunheim. The journey is required by the demands of story, not the callings of spirit.

There’s still time to change the road you’re on

When American Heathens scoff at the idea of having basic empathy for anyone except their inner circle by saying “not my innangard, not my problem” or write social media posts describing people outside their insular Heathen community as subhuman denizens of the utangard, they are channeling the ideology of the early 1900s völkisch milieu, not any demonstrably real religious worldview of long-ago pagans.

When they speak of a unified and ultimately mono-racial modern Heathen in-group that stands in opposition to their African-American, Latinx, Muslim, Jewish, and LGBTQ+ neighbors, and when they speak of those fellow Americans as “stranger peoples,” they are reconstructing Third Reich ideology, not ancient heathen spirituality.

The World Tree in an 1886 illustration by Wilhelm Wägner


My original intention was to write a somewhat hippy-dippy article about “the expanding innangard” that challenged the inherent divisiveness of the Heathen concept by discussing widening rings of human connection, by building upon what I’ve written before on wyrd weaving us all together. Then I stumbled upon a reposting of the YouTube video about “two non-words in Old Norse,” started to do some digging, and ended up with yet another element of American Heathenry that has deeply problematic ties to racialist völkisch ideology.

The situation is less one of pure and ancient Heathen ideals that were temporarily appropriated by the Third Reich than it is of today’s Heathens accepting as ancient truths what are actually interpretations and manipulations of Old Norse material by Nazis and those whose writings were adopted as dogma by them.

Just how much of today’s Heathenry in the United States is really rooted in Romanticism, völkisch ideology, and actual Nazi propaganda?

If today’s Ásatrú and Heathenry really is focused on reconstruction, recreation, and reimagining of the Old Way, we need to be clear about which old way we intend to follow. For some, the difficulty will be in pruning away beloved elements with roots in a relatively recent and decidedly dark past.

Selected Sources

Laws of Early Iceland: Grágás I. Translated by Andrew Dennis, Peter Foote, and Richard Perkins. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2006.

Lindow, John. Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs. Oxford: Oxford, 2001.

Mees, Bernard. The Science of the Swastika. Budapest: Central European University, 2008.

–––. “Völkische Altnordistik: The Politics of Nordic Studies in the German-Speaking Countries, 1926-45.” In Old Norse Myths, Literature, and Society: Proceedings of the 11th International Saga Conference, edited by Geraldine Barnes and Margaret Clunies Ross, 316-326. Sydney: Centre for Medieval Studies, University of Sydney, 2000, 319.

Mitchell, P.M. Vilhelm Grønbech. Boston: Hall-Twayne, 1978.

Poetic Edda, The. Translated by Carolyne Larrington. Oxford: Oxford, 2014.

Saxo Grammaticus. The History of the Danes, Books I-IX. Edited by Hilda Ellis Davidson, translated by Peter Fisher. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1996.

Simek, Rudolf. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1993.

Snorri Sturluson. The Prose Edda. Translated by Jesse Byock. London: Penguin, 2005.

Stork, John. “Artifacts of Fascism: Nazi Books at the University of Cincinnati Libraries.” University of Cincinnati Digital Resource Commons website.

Vigfusson, Gudbrand. An Icelandic-English Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford, 1874.

Vikstrand, Per. “Ásgarðr, Miðgarðr, and Útgarðr: A linguistic approach to a classical problem.” In Old Norse religion in long-term perspectives: Origins, changes, and interactions, edited by Anders Andrén, Kristina Jennbert, and Catharina Raudvere, 354-357. Lund, Sweden: Nordic Academic Press, 2006.

Wellendorf, Jonas. Gods and Humans in Medieval Scandinavia: Retying the Bonds. Cambridge: Cambridge, 2018.

An earlier version of this article appeared at The Wild Hunt.
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