Monday, September 6, 2021

"Articles of Faith": American Heathenry and Cultural Appropriation

After photographs and video from the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol showed one of the participants – the individual formerly known as “QAnon Shaman” – having tattoos of Thor’s hammer, the World Tree, and the so-called Valknut, American practitioners of Ásatrú and Heathenry who publicly self-identify as “not racist” issued public statements or communicated their responses to members of the media.

"QAnon Shaman" during the Capitol attack on January 6, 2021 (Manuel Balce Ceneta photo)

A common theme in reporting on the event and the American Heathen reaction was the assertion that “the Heathen community” is standing against “appropriation of their symbols by white supremacists and extremists.” Heathens themselves accused the Capitol attackers of taking “our symbols” and described them as “extremists on the lunatic fringe of the far right.”

In interviews and comments, American Heathens stated that “white supremacy is the antithesis of [their] beliefs.” They denounced “fringe right wingers appropriating Heathen iconography” and placing their “articles of faith at the center of the violence.” Reports referred to “the reactions of REAL HEATHENS on the appropriation of their symbols,” and reporters stated that the “appropriation infuriates contemporary pagans and Heathens.”

The attack on the Capitol was indeed a shameful assault on this nation’s democratic process and democratically elected officials. Racist iterations of Ásatrú and Heathenry are indeed abominations that have documented connections to hate speech and hate crimes. There is no question that Heathens who stand against racism and racist violence are right to speak out and clearly voice their strong opposition.

There are fundamental issues, however, with the repeated claims of appropriation.

Basic definitions

James O. Young, Professor of Philosophy at University of Victoria, defines “cultural appropriation” as an act “that occurs across the boundaries of cultures. Members of one culture (I will call them outsiders) take for their own, or for their own use, items produced by a member or members of another culture (call them insiders).” The in-group creates cultural goods both material and immaterial, and the out-group breaches the separation between the two groups to take these goods and use them – or even claim that they themselves are the true creators and owners.

Issues of power differential are key to cultural appropriation. Raymond Yang, a visual art teacher in Seattle who writes about approaches to teaching the concept to students, defines the term as “the adoption of the elements of another culture (often a minority group) by members of the dominant culture. It is an unequal exchange in that the appropriators often use these stolen elements for monetary gain or prestige, without regard for the value, respect, or importance paid to these images and traditions in the original culture.” It is the inequality between different cultures that spurs and enables the appropriative act, as the larger, more powerful group takes and claims ownership of the cultural material belonging to the smaller, less powerful group.

Ann Rosalind Jones and Peter Stallybrass, both professors of comparative literature, connect cultural appropriation to European colonialism. They write of unequal exchanges in which “the colonizing powers” take “appropriated goods” from Africa, America, and Asia while valorizing the “supposed heroism” of the takers and erasing the labor of the producers. Again, the stress is on the crossing of cultural boundaries, as the powerful outsider not only removes the cultural materials, but claims them as their own and negates the creative act of the insider.

Reviewing the Heathen claims of cultural appropriation in light of these definitions and explanations, it quickly becomes clear that there are some basic contradictions.

Creation

The designation of an act as “cultural appropriation” presupposes that the in-group whose cultural goods are being appropriated created those goods. In the case at hand, this presupposition has no basis in historical fact.

As portrayed on the lower torso of the tattooed Capitol rioter, Thor’s hammer is in the general shape of the small pendants that saw a surge of popularity in Scandinavia during the era of Christian conversion a millennium and more ago. Simpler versions of the hammer appear on memorial stones and in depictions of Thor from the Viking Age. In Sweden, primeval predecessors of the god’s hammer in the form of an axe wielded by a godlike figure are found in carvings dating to approximately 1800 BCE.

The three interlocking triangles sometimes called Valknut today are clearly represented on a finger-ring dating to the 700s or 800s and found in Cambridgeshire, England. They also appear on a handful of Scandinavian items of the Viking Age, most notably a stone carving from the 700s in Gotland, Sweden. The association of the symbol with the Norse god Odin, writes Christopher Abram of University of Notre Dame Medieval Institute, is simply down to the fact that “it tends to accompany pictures of warriors.”

Finger-ring from 8th-9th century found in Cambridgeshire, England (British Museum)

Yggdrasill, the World Tree of Norse mythology, appears in the Old Icelandic mythological poems and Snorri Sturluson’s Edda of c. 1220. There have long been theories forwarded that attempt to connect various medieval descriptions and representations of trees and other objects to Yggdrasill as described in the literary sources, but images of the tree used by Heathens today – and in the tattoos of the Capitol attacker – seem to be based on either illustrations from the 1800s and 1900s or on original art from the wider modern Pagan sphere.

Aside from copyright issues relating to specific modern interpretations by individual living artists, there can be no claim of creation by American Heathens of the symbols of hammer, triangles, and tree that are historically related to Old Norse mythology and religion in one form or another. Even the most casual perusal of archaeological and literary attestations shows the ancient nature of these symbols, as it does of religious symbols from around the world.

The American Heathens now speaking out are not claiming creation, but the act of creation is fundamental to the very notion of cultural appropriation. Without it, the claim is built on quicksand.

Ownership

A group can claim legitimate ownership of a cultural good even when it was anonymously created long ago, if it was subsequently reproduced and used over many centuries. This continued reproduction and usage over the long term – especially when intrinsically connected to religio-cultural practices – can form the rightful basis for righteous claims of appropriation.

Unlike the claim of creation, the claim of ownership of the hammer, triangle, and tree symbols is specifically being claimed by the American Heathens and clearly attributed to them by reporters. Like creation, this has no basis in historical fact.

When I asked Uppsala University Professor of Scandinavian Languages Henrik Williams who owns these three symbols, he simply replied, “Nobody and everyone.”

Helga Hlaðgerður Lúthersdóttir, Lecturer (Teaching) in Icelandic at University College London, likewise said that the symbols are owned by “no one,” and explained some of the elements in play:
This is a cultural heritage, but even so something that is very much a thing of the past and in no way alive in Nordic cultures today. Where these symbols have gained new lives is in congregations and kindreds of neo-Pagans, and there, symbols such as the Thor’s hammer have absolutely new importance, a religious importance, similar to the Christian cross. But this is not a cultural heritage, and I have never been able to accept arguments to that direction.
She specifically addressed the enormity of the gulf between the Old Norse religion and American Heathenry.
With the massive gap we have between the source culture, the Norse, and the target culture, the contemporary white American, there is absolutely no way anyone can claim an unbroken line and, thereby, “ownership” of any of those cultural components. Whether we are looking at claims to Viking heritage or pagan heritage, we are looking at a recreation or reestablishment of a culture that not only firmly and squarely belongs in the past, but which came to an end. Certainly, certain cultural elements survived the conversion to Christianity and the shift to (near) feudal agricultural society under church and king, but they did not do so as remnants or beacons of glorious past, but rather as folkloristic reactions to work and environment.

An item like the Thor’s hammer found in Denmark is likely to have meaning to a Dane as something that refers to their ancient history. But the meaning of it as a religious item has been broken long since, and any such meaning attached has been recreated. This meaning can absolutely be true to the believer, but it is not a meaning the culture has carried on, but a culture that has been re-established through scholarly and cultural work.
Illustration of Thor's hammer pendant from Östergötland Sweden
Kulturgeschichte Schwedens von den ältesten Zeiten bis zum elften Jahrhundert nach Christus
by Oscar Montelius (1906)


The leaders of Iceland’s Ásatrúarfélagið (“Ásatrú Fellowship”) have long taken a strong stand against racism, including in a 2014 statement particularly rejecting “the use of Ásatrú as a justification for supremacy ideology.” The statement also recommitted to welcoming foreign visitors “with an interest in our cultural heritage and spiritual traditions.” But any American Heathens – even the self-declared “not racist” ones – claiming the symbols as their own and accusing others of appropriating their cultural property gets a strong reaction in Iceland.

Jóhanna G. Harðardóttir, currently serving as the Icelandic organization’s allsherjargoði (roughly “high priest”) while Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson is on leave, resolutely rejected any American Heathen claim to ownership of the symbols. “In my eyes, these ‘non-racist groups’ are in their own minds some kind of mentors of a culture they don’t know and is not their own – something they just don’t understand and never will,” she told me. “For me, this is like looking at children in the playground fighting over whose sand it is they are throwing into each other’s eyes.”

Separate and unequal

In addition to issues of creation and ownership, the concept of cultural appropriation foregrounds (a) unequal exchange between separate cultural groups in which (b) the larger and more powerful group takes cultural goods from the smaller and less powerful group and (c) claims the goods as their own while erasing the claim of the first owners. Statements on appropriation from American Heathens in media accounts after January 6th fail on all three counts.

Overtly racist American Heathens do not belong to a culture that is separate from that of those making the claims of appropriation against them. American Heathenry today encompasses a range from white supremacist to antifascist activist, with practitioners found at multiple stops between the two extremes on right and left. Since the beginning of American Ásatrú in the 1970s – and especially after its splintering in the 1980s – there has been a porous border between the overtly racist and not-overtly-racist factions, with practitioners, clergy, authors, and leaders moving from one side to the other at various points.

This lateral movement within the subcultural milieu of American Heathenry has been long documented by academics such as Jeffrey Kaplan in religious studies and Mattias Gardell in comparative religion. It can be seen as an ongoing process in expulsions of elders, exchanges of authors, and swaps of publishing rights. Scholars tracing the history of the various warring factions over time find those who lead one side writing articles and rituals for the other. With such intertwined roots and growth, the element of unequal exchange between separate cultural groups is simply absent.

The point regarding the larger and more powerful group taking cultural goods from the smaller and less powerful group is also vexed in this case. If those accused of appropriating the symbols belonging to “not racist” American Heathens are “extremists on the lunatic fringe of the far right” and “fringe right wingers appropriating Heathen iconography,” as is claimed in the media reports cited above, the racists are then a smaller, less powerful group taking the symbols of a larger, more powerful American Heathen group that opposes them. This claim that the appropriators are members of a small “fringe” puts the concept of cultural appropriation as a power imbalance on its head and knocks out this element of the term’s definitions.

The claim doesn’t work even when reversed. If the racists are a smaller group, then the claim of appropriation doesn’t work; if the racists are a larger group, then the claims that they are merely a fringe is false. It has been quite difficult to find out where the largest numbers of American Heathens actually do fall on the left-right spectrum, with numbers of active participants in various organizations difficult to verify, with an unknown number of solitary practitioners, with the high amount of turnover in this relatively small new religious movement, and with the general problem of taking claims of “I’m not racist” from white Americans at face value. In any case, it doesn’t really work to simultaneously claim to be both the righteous majority and the victimized minority.

The element of the dominant group claiming given cultural goods as their own while erasing claims of the first owners not only bumps up against unfounded assertions of ownership but also inverts the history of American Heathenry. The overtly racist, neo-völkisch version of Heathenry was here in the United States growing its numbers for nearly two decades before any significant “not racist” form appeared. Indeed, the branch of American Heathenry that declared itself to not be solely centered on völkisch ideology split off from the racist version during the mid-1980s schism mentioned above.

Glass rune pendants issued in Germany by the Nazi Deutsche Jugendherbergswerk (1940)

After the split, not only were individuals and writings able to move freely between the various branches that grew from a common racist trunk, but “not racist” practitioners did and do use concepts either created by the first, völkisch American Heathens or imported by them from 19th century Romantic nationalists, German völkisch mytics who influenced the Nazis, and actual Third Reich occultists. There remains to be written a detailed academic study of today’s American Heathen theology and practice that carefully parses the origins of each individual strand.

Perhaps this part of the argument is off-topic, and the American Heathens making claims of cultural appropriation are only and specifically talking about non-Heathen racists. The problem with this idea is that we have seen denunciations and accusations using the same language whenever a racist or neo-völkisch Heathen individual or organization makes an offensive statement or is in the news for hate speech or hate crimes. In those cases, the racist Heathens are often said to be “not actually Heathens” – as echoed in the statement about “real Heathens” cited at the beginning of this article.

In addition to veering into a “no true Scotsman” fallacy, this idea of “not actually Heathens” also touches on the fallacy of equivocation. When the social media accounts of someone like the tattooed Capitol rioter use images and texts from non-Norse mythologies and religions in addition to ones associated with Heathenry, American Heathens says this means he is “not Heathen.” Yet it is not uncommon for American Heathens to include veneration of deities and mythological figures outside of the “Norse pantheon” in their practice, nor is it uncommon to incorporate elements of worship taken from other traditions. Generally, these individuals are not publicly branded “not Heathen,” but are instead described with terms such as “dual trad[ition]” or “honoring the gods of their ancestors.”

Making the claim

When American Heathens make claims of appropriation, are they themselves engaging in appropriation of a term used to elucidate ways in which white Americans have appropriated cultural goods from BIPOC (black, indigenous, and people of color) communities here and around the world? I asked a variety of scholars what they thought of this complicated situation.

Yolanda Martinez-San Miguel, Professor in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures and Chair of Latin American Studies at University of Miami, addressed this question in the context of the term’s roots in resistance. “When I learned the notion of appropriation,” she told me, “it was a strategy of resistance – I learned about it in feminist scholarship – and it was good. This new understanding of the term seems to be a co-optation of the term. [I’m] thinking about it as a notion that had subversive potential and was co-opted by straight, white, Christian men and like-thinking people to whitewash cultural referents.”

Utkarsh Patel, who teaches comparative mythology at University of Mumbai in India, suggested that the claim of ownership embedded within the accusation of appropriation is itself an act of appropriation:

I would think that when there is a cultural vacuum, there is a greater need for appropriation. Historically, there are no original white Americans, and the natives were driven away or marginalized. In such a scenario, they have a vacuum, and there is a greater need to appropriate, and it is this vulnerability that drives them to do what they do. Often, the communities who move in carry their cultural symbols/rituals with them, which makes the earlier ones further vulnerable. And then, they appropriate what suits them or works for them, often without understanding the nuances of the symbols.
Cristián Roa, Associate Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies at University of Illinois Chicago’s Latin American and Latino studies program, was sympathetic to the motivation but not to the method. “I basically understand the desire for those groups to distance themselves from that,” he said, referencing the appearance of Norse symbols at the Capitol raid, “but I believe the accusation of appropriation is misplaced. ‘That is not who we are or what we stand for’ sounds more accurate. White supremacists, fascists, etc. have their own kind of spirituality, however dark or misplaced it may be.”

"QAnon Shaman" with U.S. flag at the January 6 Capitol attack (Manuel Balce Ceneta photo)

Helga Hlaðgerður Lúthersdóttir of University College London, already quoted above, was also sympathetic, but highlighted the racialized nature of these appropriation claims.
It is extremely difficult to see how any group made up of white Americans can possibly claim Nordic symbols as their own through heritage, and any claims for appropriation based on “ownership” through heritage are very difficult (I want to say impossible) to honor due to overt racial undertones. At the same time, the Pagan side of this argument, i.e. the religious side, has a point – to have a symbol that is sacred to you used (often quite casually) in racist/white-supremacist context must be absolutely infuriating and extremely hurtful – IF you have no such tendencies yourself. And that’s where the water gets murky and where we need a much more open discussion.
Joseph Pierce, Associate Professor in the Department of Hispanic Languages and Literature at Stony Brook University, was not sympathetic to the appropriation claims at all. After reading the “disavowal” published in The Wild Hunt, he said:
But the idea that there is a “not racist” version of contemporary Paganism, is, to my mind, lacking in historical depth. The question of belonging is at the heart of the revival of Norse mythology, it seems to me, but this revival is always already inflected with an understanding of place that is inseparable from settler colonialism in the U.S. So, the rioting, and the wildness that it invokes, that is an expression of some sort of deep and almost mystical connection to land, is in my mind, just another version of “playing Indian” that is a foundational gesture in the U.S. Or, as I put it, a desire for indigeneity without Indigenous people.

The inherent violence of whiteness in the settler colonial regime cannot be overlooked in our discussions of Norse revivalism because it takes place in the context of waning white supremacy (thus MAGA) and a reinvigorated search for white belonging in a land that cannot ever be truly “theirs.” At least from the perspective of a Native American person, this is how I read it.
Given all of the above, I hope that American Heathens and those who write about them will reconsider the casual use of the appropriation accusation when the next such story hits the news – and there will be many such stories.

The appropriation claim is an easy thing to say and a tempting thing to write about, because it has a feel of truthiness about it to some white Americans who practice some form of Paganism. It adds what seems to be a deeper resonance to the right and proper denunciations of heinous acts and actors. But it’s simply false on its face.

Worse, it forwards a notion – intentionally or not – that white Americans who choose to practice some form of this new religious movement and resent the symbols they find meaningful being used in tattoos and on flags of admittedly awful insurrectionists are somehow equivalent to Native Americans and other indigenous peoples who speak out against centuries of cultural appropriation, horrific violence, and genocide perpetrated against them by white Americans.

And that is racist.

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

Thursday, August 19, 2021

It's Up to You

The United States of America is not at a turning point. We took the wrong step years ago. We’re now having breakfast in the ruins of the American promise and watching the chickens coming home to roost.

Illustration from In an Enchanted Island (1889) by W. H. Mallock

For those of us who still believe that this ship can be forced back on course toward a better future, there is work to be done. For those of positive intent who still believe in hope and change, there are tasks to take up.

The path to progress is both simple and difficult, but it takes clear vision and determined will to see it and to follow it. Here are three simple signposts to mark the way.

1. Choose diversity over inclusion

Within Ásatrú and Heathenry and throughout the wider modern Pagan world, the buzzword “inclusion” has led to much complacency and little fundamental change.

From the outset, focusing on inclusion has simply allowed the same old arguments to continue with new terminology and allowed the same cancers to spread and fester in new mutations.

What does it mean to be inclusive? It means to include people. Should we include people with different opinions? Of course. Should we include people with different politics? Yes. Should we include racists? Gosh, it’s so hard to say if someone is really racist or not.

There’s the trouble. Almost immediately, we’re mired in the same old muck of arguing over the definition of racism. Is belonging to an all-white religious organization racist? Is electing all-white leadership racist? Is programming an event with only white speakers racist? Is ancestor veneration racist?

When people start answering “no” to these sorts of questions, they’re playing on a field with goal posts controlled by racists – goal posts that are moved a bit farther back every time a question is answered in the negative.

The result is a community with racists in it. The result is a community where accusations of racism and denunciations of racists are considered far worse than promoting racism and being racist. If the definition of racism is always debated, the racists retain their seat at the table indefinitely.

The clearest way forward is to dump inclusion and embrace diversity.

Before a single positive step forward can be taken, though, we must be willing to question the assertion that all-white organizations are already diverse enough if they have white people with a plurality of abilities, identities, orientations, and relationship structures.

Yes, bless, this is fantastic! So many good people have been excluded from so many religious communities because of outright and/or sublimated bigotry over these issues for so many long years. It is only to be celebrated that we can all welcome each other in loving communion. This is positive and beautiful, full stop.

However, the cancer at the heart of these United States is, has been, and seemingly will always be racism. Diverting the issue of racial diversity to other avenues of identity again allows the racists to move the goal posts.

It’s far past time to make a stand and take action.

If our communities and our organizations are all white, we must ask what we have done in the past and are doing now that only attracts white people. If our community events are all white, we must ask what choices we have made in the past and are making now that exclude everyone but white people. We must answer honestly, and we must make immediate and radical changes of intent, direction, and action.

Diversity is not a box to be checked. It is not a meaningless catchphrase of political correctness. It is a value in and of itself. It is part of what really makes America truly great. It strengthens us all and opens doors to new ways of seeing, new vectors of relating, and new paths toward a better future.

When we build diverse communities, there will be no place for racists. When the discussion finally moves past debating racists over the definition of racism; when we accept that racism is the blistered disease of white America; when our communities, organizations, leaderships, events, festivals, rituals, and rites actually reflect the beautiful rainbow coalition that is America’s fundamental strength; then we will finally have built a space in which racists will truly be unwelcome.

2. Stop making violent threats

White America has an obsession with making violent threats. Not just the far right, not just the conservatives, but white Americans generally. In a time when there’s so much discussion of finding common ground, here is one thing with wide acceptance.

Don’t like how the governor is instituting lockdowns? Make a threat to kidnap her.

Don’t like how the legislature is handling the coronavirus crisis? Make a threat to storm the state capitol.

Don’t like how a business requires masks? Make a threat to torch the place.

Don’t like how the election turned out? Make a threat to assassinate the winner.

Don’t like how a journalist covered an issue? Make a threat to stab them.

Don’t like how a columnist wrote about your deity? Make a threat to smash their head in.

Don’t like how someone wrote a comment on social media? Make a threat to cut off their hands.

We have to resist the urge to deflect from this, to insist that it’s not just white people, to shout that it’s really the other side, to claim that it’s serious when they do it but just a figure of speech when we do it. That way of thinking is intellectually dishonest and morally bankrupt.

American Pagans have unfollowed, unfriended, and unliked me over the slightest suggestion that maybe, perhaps, somewhere within the infinite realm of possibilities lies the smallest chance that there is even the most miniscule of connections between this nation’s obsession with (1) ultraviolent first-person shooter video games, super gory action and horror films, insanely macho misrepresentations of historical groups (Vikings, Germanic tribes, Greek warriors, American vigilantes, various militaries), and feverishly emotional attachment to private ownership of firearms as a determinant of white male identity and (2) the prevalence of violent threats by white Americans.

I’ve been told that violent threats are “just how my generation expresses itself online.” I’ve been told that extremely specific threats of extremely specific acts of violence directed extremely specifically at a specifically identified person are “just being metaphorical.”

This is patent nonsense.

Across political lines, a desperate neediness has taken hold of white Americans. An intense and unfillable quivering hole of want resolutely insists on devouring the public conversation and consuming anyone who dares suggest that we take a turn listening to non-white voices for a change. This nation is driving off a cliff at full speed, and the shaking hand of white America is clutching the steering wheel in a rictus grip.

Photograph from California Highways (1920) by Ben Blow

The knee-jerk reaction to demands for real progress – from white conservatives, white moderates, and white liberals – is to counsel patience, to advise a gentle march to slow improvement at the land-speed rate of a retreating glacial wall at the beginning of the ending of an ice age. Anything faster than that and the Right will demand the National Guard be sent in, while the Left will indignantly hashtag about it but stop well short of taking any real action to support any timely change.

To paraphrase Dr. King, I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the nation’s great stumbling block in its stride toward freedom is not the extremist or the terrorist, but the white citizen, who is more devoted to their own supposed unique specialness than to equality; who prefers the making of violent threats which promote a violent culture to the true ceding of privileged power, which is the real basis of societal progress.

If some of our neighbors, family, friends, and colleagues simply can’t refrain from making threats – whatever their twisted internal psychology may be – it’s up to the rest of us to shut them out of the public dialogue. If we care about this nation, that’s all there is to it.

3. Care about other people

Caring about other human beings sometimes seems to be an impossible ask in today’s United States.

The long line of American rhetoric about “freedom” may not always have been about personal selfishness and individual entitlement, but it sure as shooting is now.

What is freedom? Owning as many guns as income allows. What is freedom? Coughing in someone’s face during a pandemic. What is freedom? My way or the goddamned highway.

When did America go wrong in this regard? When was it ever right in this regard?

Our Founding Fathers waxed poetic about the beauty of individual liberty while they legally enshrined human slavery. As the great American historian Randy Marsh famously said, “The strength of this country is the ability to do one thing and say another.” And so our very concept of freedom was built on a quicksand foundation of lies and deceptions.

Yes, the people of this nation have risen up for good causes now and again. The Confederacy lost. The Axis lost. The Klan lost. Trump lost. But the hatred continues, on both the grand political and the small personal scale. How do we break with the hateful weight of this country’s history?

Care.

Care about other people.

That’s it. That’s the answer.

Simply acknowledging that other people are actually other people – simply allowing that they have the same claim to all the rights we demand and deserve the same privileges we expect – would go a long way toward fixing the mess in which we find ourselves mired.

Should the vote of a black woman on the South Side of Chicago be equal to the vote of a white man in rural Nebraska? Yes. Should a Latina owner of a small business receive the same amount of federal aid as a white owner of a corporation? Yes. Should a Native American teenager have the same access to higher education as the son of a real estate mogul? Yes.

We all know the answer to questions like these, though, is a quiet but firm “no” whispered in the ear of a congressman with corporate sponsorship.

We don’t really believe in freedom here in this land. We don’t really believe in equality. We believe in the self.

What does Odin – all-father, high one, bringer of victory – have to say about the self? He says the self shall also die.

Odin and Quetzalcoatl on doors to John Adams Building of Library of Congress by Lee Lawrie (1939)

Odin says a lot of interesting things. He says the wealthy man will lie dead before his door while the fire he paid for burns brightly within. He says generosity and friendship are mighty values and great responsibilities. He says the joy of the person is another person. He says that friendship is valuable and must be maintained.

Do we care anymore what an old god had to say nearly a thousand years ago? Do we care what words those old poets spoke and those younger scribes transcribed on a faraway island? Do those old verses still matter? Does anything matter?

Yes, gods damn it. It all matters. But even the one-eyed raven god can’t shake this country out of its selfish obsession.

Only we can, and we only can if we can get out of our own demented heads and accept that our neighbors are just as good, just as valuable, just as human as we are.

We need to get over ourselves and care about each other. We need to stop staring at ourselves in the mirror and start looking out the window.

Until we’re able to see each other as equally valuable, we’ll continue marching in lock step towards a darker future.

I choose diversity. I choose to reject violence. I choose to care about other people.

The rest is up to you.

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

Friday, July 23, 2021

Sigurd, the Dragon, and Our World Today

Mythology matters. The tales we tell reflect our values, even when we tell ourselves that they do not. The old stories bring with them the old worldviews, yet we are not duty-bound to accept everything that is woven into the texts to which we still return after all these long centuries.

In the formulation of French philosopher Paul Ricœur, myths are spaces where symbols interact in narrative form. Symbols are notoriously slippery, and what they may have meant to the peoples of the long ago time are not necessarily the same meanings they carry to all of us in the now.

One of the stories that now seems particularly pregnant with contemporary meaning is that of the Sigurd and the dragon.

Sigurd and the dragon in Tales from the Far North (1909) by Maria C. Klugh

The Old Norse poem Reginsmál (“Sayings of Regin [the mighty one]”) tells the tale of the famously cursed treasure hoard that plays a major role in the tragic events of the Icelandic Völsunga saga (“Saga of the Völsungs”) and the German Nibelungenlied (“Song of the Nibelungs”), both written down in the thirteenth century.

The poem begins in the mythological world of gods, giants, and dwarfs before pivoting halfway through to the legendary world of Sigurd, the Odin-descended dragon slayer distantly connected to the historical sixth-century Frankish king Sigibert. Regin the smith, who is either a dwarf or simply “a dwarf in height,” tells his mythic backstory to the young Sigurd, sent to him to be raised as a foster-son. Here are the key elements, briefly retold.

The smith’s tale

The gods Odin and Hœnir and the giant Loki arrive together at a waterfall. Loki throws a stone to kill an otter sitting on the riverbank with his eyes closed, eating a salmon. The trio makes a bag from the otter’s skin and proudly show it and the fish to Regin’s father Hreidmar, with whom they spend the night.

The animal killed by Loki was actually Otr (“otter”), another son of Hreidmar, who had the habit of fishing at the waterfall while changed into the form of an otter. The father and his other sons grab Odin, Hœnir, and Loki, then threaten the trio with death unless they fill the otter-skin bag with gold and cover it with the same.

The two gods send Loki to find the needful gold. He borrows the net of the sea-goddess (or sea-giantess) Rán (“robbery”), returns to the waterfall, and catches the dwarf Andvari (“careful”) who had been cursed by a norn “in the early days” to swim in the water as a pike.

Echoing the deadly threat of Hreidmar, Loki demands that the dwarf-turned-fish hand over all his gold, including the ring Andvaranaut (“Andvari’s gift”). As he retreats into a rock, Andvari curses the gold and declares that it will cause death and strife.

When Loki returns to Hreidmar with the treasure, the gold is used to fill the otter-skin bag and cover it up. One whisker pokes out, and Odin gives up the dwarf’s ring to cover it at their host’s demand.

Loki passes along the curse, which immediately claims Hreidmar as its first victim. Regin and Fáfnir (“embracer”) demand “a share of the compensation from Hreidmar for their brother.” When their father refuses, Fáfnir kills him in his sleep, takes all of the treasure, and guards it in the form of a dragon wearing an ægishjálmr (“helmet of terror”) that causes abject fear in all living beings.

Sacred heart

The sequel to the smith’s story appears in the poem Fáfnismál (“Sayings of Fáfnir”), in which Sigurd is led by Regin to find and kill the dragon. The youth fatally stabs Fáfnir in the heart, but the two manage to have a lengthy conversation before the monster expires.

Fáfnir passes the curse on to Sigurd, who seems completely unconcerned. The dying dragon brags of his days of terroristic rule:
The helm of terror I wore among the sons of men,
while I lay upon the neck-rings [i.e. atop the treasure hoard];
more powerful than all I thought myself to be,
I didn’t encounter many equals.
With a final imprecation that Sigurd will die at the hand of his brother Regin, the dragon expires. The smith cuts out his heart, drinks the dragon’s blood, and instructs Sigurd to roast the heart for him while he takes a nap.

Roasting the heart on a spit, Sigurd pokes it to test how done it is, burns his finger, and sticks his finger in his mouth. By tasting the little bit of Fáfnir’s hjartablóð (“heart blood”), he is immediately able to understand the speech of birds. They warn him that Regin plans to kill him, tell him to take the treasure for himself, and send him off to waken the Valkyrie Sigrdrífa (“victory driver”).

The poem Sigrdrífumál (“Sayings of Sigrdrífa”) tells of Odin sticking the Valkyrie with a svefnþorni (“sleep thorn”), declaring that she will never win again in battle, and announcing that she will be married. In other words, he casts her out of the world of the gods and withdraws her Valkyrie status.

Even yet, she retains much wisdom regarding the magical use of runes and Odinnic aphorisms for right living. She shares all of this lore in great detail with Sigurd (and us) after he asks her to teach him wisdom and “news from all the worlds.”

At this point, the thirteenth-century manuscript source of the poems has a notorious lacuna where several leaves were cut out of the codex. When the story resumes in the next poem fragment, Sigurd has become fatally embroiled in the very human world of kinship entanglements and is killed “on the south side of the Rhine” by one of his brothers-in-law.

A stone’s throw away

How can we read this hoary old tale so that it has meaningful resonance in today’s world? One way of beginning is to follow Ricœur and consider the symbols that interact in the narrative.

When Odin wanders the road with Loki as one of his companions, it is the giant who has sworn blood-brotherhood with him whose seemingly inconsequential action – throwing a rock at a sleeping otter – does indeed have deep consequences. From the beginning of the story, the danger comes from within the family.

When the trio arrives at Hreidmar’s, they come into conflict with another trio and another family: the father and his two sons, all suffering the loss of the third brother as the wanton pruning of a healthy branch on their tree of kinship.

After the wounded trio threaten death unless they are given gold, Loki passes on the same threat to the dwarf, minding his own business under the waterfall just as the otter had done beside it before being killed by Loki. In this tightly constructed narrative, everything is echoed and reflected back on itself.

Indeed, just as the dwarf had been cursed by the unnamed norn, he himself curses Loki for taking his amassed hoard of gold. As Andvari attempted to hold back the last ring from Loki, Odin attempts to hold it back from Hreidmar. As Loki was cursed for taking the gold from Andvari, Hreidmar is cursed for taking it from Loki.

This particular section of the myth ends where it began, with the killing of a member of Hreidmar’s family. Loki kills Otr and gets a pelt; Fáfnir kills his father and gets a hoard.

In the twelve verses that (with prose interpolations) make up this section, Loki passes on the curse in the exact middle. Actually, Loki is truly in the middle of this set of concentric circles that spread out like ripples in the pool under the waterfall, as the dwarf-fish turns its tail and utters its curse on the gold.

Loki instigates the action with his apparently casual throw of the stone, yet the results pass through him without affecting him. He acts as conduit and conductor for threats of death and for curses of dark magic, but he seems free enough to walk away at any point with no ill effects.

Yes, Hreidmar’s family is destroyed, but the ultimate target of Loki’s throw won’t become apparent until the next bit of the story.

Ascent and descent

After receiving his death blow from Sigurd, the dragon passes on the curse to the young hero. The long arm of Loki begins to reveal itself, as the curse moves from Hreidmar’s family to that of Odin.

Sigurd is of the Völsung line and is the great-great-great-grandson of Odin the Allfather. He carries the reforged sword originally awarded to his father Sigmund by the god, but the gift of Odin is canceled out by the gift Loki gives – the dwarf’s fatal curse.

Death of Sigurd/Siegfried in Der Nibelungen Noth (1843) edited by Gustav Pfizer

Before the curse can take effect, Sigurd tastes the blood of his vanquished enemy and gains something of the dragon’s deeper powers of understanding. Listening to the advice of the birds he can suddenly understand, he sets off to climb the mountain and learn the lore of the mystic woman strong enough to disobey the orders of Odin, face his divine wrath, and live to tell her tale.

Sigrdrífa inverts Loki’s role: where the giant served as a conduit to pass on the dwarf’s curse to Hreidmar – and ultimately to Sigurd and beyond – the Valkyrie serves as a conductor of Odin’s divine wisdom, passing it along to the young hero. Even further distinguished from Loki, she effectively filters the knowledge presented to Sigurd by absorbing the dark denunciations of her that Odin had made without passing them along as Loki did by giving Hreidmar both treasure and curse.

When Sigurd makes his Zarathustrian descent from the mountain, he leaves the world of mystic beings and enters the world of humanity. Despite the wisdom gained from the dragon, the birds, and the Valkyrie, he succumbs to the smothering web of jealousy, lust, hatred, and greed. But among these lowest of human drives, the hand of mythology reaches into the more mundane world of heroic legend, and the curse tips the emotional scales towards darkness and death.

Loki’s simple toss of a stone has resulted in the death of the greatest of Odin’s human descendant, and – according to the Old Norse material – the greatest hero of the northern world. Although some today still tie Loki to the tradition of the culture hero, here he spectacularly fails to meet the criteria of bringing direct help to humanity and instead seems to revel in passing on the curse to generations “not yet born.”

No decoder ring needed

Parsing the events of the myth in this fashion is a necessary first step, but it only provides one possible interpretation of the symbolic interactions within the world of mythology.

The simple act of choosing and enunciating an interpretation is dangerous enough in itself, as it runs the risk of offending those who hold other and differing interpretations close to their hearts. Taking the next step of forming new and modern meanings leaves one open to denunciations of blasphemy, an ancient concept that – like so much from the past that perhaps should have stayed there – has gained new life in this strange era we are all traveling through together.

There is a great deal in the old tales that resonates today, so there is nothing for it but to jump in with both feet.

The myth is saturated with betrayal from inside the family, from inside the community that has been bound together by oath and deed. We merely have to look around ourselves today to see that those who swear to protect and to serve are instead gunning down the unarmed and beating down the peaceful. Those who take oaths to preserve, protect, and defend our highest laws are instead openly breaking them. Those who claim to be defending their communities are instead eagerly seeking to harm their neighbors. We in the United States of America are a family, and we are hurting each other.

As the prophecies of the Old Norse Völuspá (“Prophecy of the Seeress”) and the Sanskrit Mahābhārata (“Great Epic of the Bhārata Dynasty”) both warn, the important relationships that sustain our societies break down in the darkest times of our history. A cursed hoard is the vehicle for the drive into disaster in the mythic world; in our modern world, we only needed an infinitesimal virus to enter our bodily systems for our social systems to begin crumbling around us.

Whether through manipulation of the curse or through his own flawed character, Fáfnir first commits patricide and then turns into a dragon to guard his ill-gotten wealth and snort poison around himself. The meaning of the dragon transformation becomes clearer when stood next to Regin being “a dwarf in height” when he first meets Sigurd. The overwhelming greed of Fáfnir – what J.R.R. Tolkien called “the dragon-sickness” – has made him into an actual monster, as the intense jealousy of his brother Regin has shrunk him down as it eats at him from the inside.

When the emoluments clause of the U.S. Constitution disappears in a puff of burning smoke before one man’s determined self-dealing, when consuming envy of the undeniably great African-American contributions to our culture leads fully grown adults to cheer on a teenage boy who crossed state lines to kill his fellow citizens, we don’t need a secret decoder ring to explain the symbolism of the mythic figures.

Who will tell the tale?

We have before us the story of a child who is sent off to be fostered in the smithy and develops into the greatest hero of the cultures that told these tales. That in itself should resonate with any who still believe in the fading memory of the so-called American dream. It surely resonates with those among us who face a daily struggle to make a better life for themselves and their families, whether the world is against them or no.

Armed with nothing but his own youthful courage, Sigurd defeats an amoral monster who is willing to kill his own father for money, to do anything to anyone to protect his stolen wealth, and who – in his final moments – wants nothing more than to hold onto to his terroristic power.

To each their own beliefs, but I believe in the young people in the streets right now who are taking incredible personal risks as they stand up to tyranny and terror, as they oppose lawless officers of the law, as they declare that black lives do indeed matter, as they insist that hate has no place here – and I believe that these brave youth are the heroes of our own story.

By tasting the heart-blood of the dragon he has vanquished, Sigurd is able to understand the speech of birds who fly far and know much. Aside from mystical interpretations, it is obvious that overcoming seemingly overwhelming difficulties brings us new insight into the world. We have to earn the wisdom we have, and it is acquired with difficulty as we struggle through our lived lives. The birds can be read as representing the promptings of the spirit to take action in the world, with “spirit” read in whatever way is most meaningful to the reader. There is definitely a need for meaningful action in this world of ours today.

The story of ascending the mountain to awaken the Valkyrie and seek her wisdom can understandably lead to mystical interpretations, but it can also be read as a reflection on the struggle to become enlightened in the “Age of Enlightenment” sense. Whether or not wisdom is hidden behind a ring of fire, it is never easily gained. In our time when even common sense is uncommon, when people take the random rantings of self-absorbed politicos over the considered advice of medical professionals, true wisdom is rarer than gold and worth more than any gem.

Sigurd descends the mountain, however, and is brought down by the failings of the human world. Both the curse and the inherent vices of human society are inexorable, and this too is a hard lesson for us to learn. Whatever our political persuasions, whatever our backgrounds and allegiances, all of us who call ourselves Americans are living under the curse of racism that reaches out from the year 1619 and strangles our nation still today. This curse is as powerful and as transgenerational as any called down by a righteously furious dwarf-fish.

Yet there is hope in myth, as there is in life. Before the curse can take effect and take his breath, Sigurd was able to slay a mighty monster and sit at the feet of divinity. What will we each of us do in the years that we are fated to live? Will we rise up from apprentice to hero, face down the monsters of our time, and welcome the wisdom of wise women? Or will we shrivel up in jealousy and grow monstrous in greed? Our stories are yet unwritten, and we ourselves will tell our own tales.

Quotations from the Old Norse poems are from The Poetic Edda, translated by Carolyne Larrington (Oxford World’s Classics, 2014). An earlier version of this article appeared at The Wild Hunt.

Friday, July 2, 2021

Following the Wanderer

We’re living through an era in these United States in which wisdom seems a scarce commodity.

Vísdómr, the Old Norse analogue to our modern English wisdom, has not only the meaning “knowledge, intelligence,” but also “foreboding” and “to know for certain.” These secondary meanings weigh heavy on the mind during these tumultuous times and years of plague.

Here in Chicago, the skies are filled with shadows. Dark clouds loom overhead. The natural world seems to express the national mood, as America’s nineteenth century landscape painters surely believed it did.

A Coming Storm (1863) by Sanford Gifford (1823-1880)

For practitioners of Ásatrú, the words of the god Odin on wisdom carry particular weight. Right now, they are even more weighty than usual.

“A wise-man’s heart is seldom glad”


One of the strongest impulses for my own turning to the Old Way as a modern religious practice was reading the twenty-third verse of the medieval Icelandic Hávamál (“Sayings of the High One”). In a section of the poem focused on the foolish man, Odin says (in Andy Orchard’s translation):
23. An unwise man lies awake all night,
brooding on everything;
he’s quite worn out, when morning comes,
and it’s all just as bad as before.
I did not experience a mystical revelation that a manifest deity was sharing esoteric teachings or a sacred epiphany that an ancient text contained the ultimate answers of our supposedly glorious Viking forefathers. Instead, I realized that living human poets over a thousand years ago had asked the same questions as I have, myself.

I felt a connection to that long-ago time – not a cultural, ethnic, or racial kinship, but a communion of mind and spirit.

Since I first learned what death was as a child, I’ve spent countless nights staring at the ceiling in the dark, trying not to think about the eternal cessation of consciousness at life’s end. The Hávamál poet is clearly correct; spending the night broodingly awake changes nothing about the ultimate fate of the self, but it does leave you exhausted the next day.

This isn’t the only mention of the subject in the Odin poem. Three later verses come at the topic from a slightly different angle (Orchard’s translation):
54. Middling-wise should each man be,
never over-wise;
for he lives the fairest life of folks
who knows not over-much.

55. Middling-wise should each man be
never over-wise;
for a wise-man’s heart is seldom glad,
if he is truly wise.

56. Middling-wise should each man be,
never over-wise;
he never knows his fate before,
whose spirit is freest from sorrow.
Again, the words of the ancient poets resonated within me. The scribe who compiled the written version of the poem in the thirteenth-century Icelandic manuscript known as the Codex Regius (“King’s Book”) may simply be preserving three oral variations of the same basic verse, but there may also be a logical and poetic buildup to the third verse.

The first verse says life is better for the one who doesn’t know too much. But why? The second verse says that the one who knows much isn’t often happy. But why? The third verse says that knowing one’s fate burdens the soul with sadness.

This progression supports reading the “awake all night” verse as being about more than simply fretting over day-to-day cares. Taken together, the verses suggest that knowing one’s fate – that realizing that there really is a final ending to life – is the subject of the midnight meditation.

“Oneself dies just the same”

But didn’t Vikings go to Valhalla? Didn’t half of those killed each day go to Freyja’s hall?

Yes, there are definitely verses in the old poetry that support the idea of an afterlife of the soul in the divine realms. There is also evidence for northern European pagan belief in an afterlife within the burial mound and for continued life after death in the company of ancestors. There is also evidence for a belief in reincarnation.

The arguably most famous verse in Hávamál offers another possibility. Like the “middling-wise” verses, it comes with a variant. In Andy Orchard’s translation, it reads:
76. Cattle die, kinsmen die,
oneself dies just the same.
But words of glory never die
for the one who gets a good name.

77. Cattle die, kinsmen die,
oneself dies just the same.
I know one thing that never dies:
the judgment on each one dead.
In these verses, the Old Norse sjálfr is translated as “oneself” by both Orchard and Ursula Dronke. Carolyne Larrington, however, translates it as “the self,” and this choice is the one that sets my mind to wandering.

With this translation of that single word, the verse can be read as saying that what we own is impermanent ( means both “cattle” and “property”), the ones we love are impermanent, and even the self – the soul – is impermanent. There is support for this reading in Völuspá (“Prophecy of the Seeress”), another foundational Old Norse poem.

Illustration of Fenrir and Odin at Ragnarök (1928) by Louis Moe (1857-1945)

At Ragnarök (“doom of the powers”), the final battle of Norse mythology, “warriors tread Hel-roads.” In his Edda, Snorri Sturluson explains this as referring to Loki leading allir Heljarsinnar (“all of Hel’s companions”) to fight against the side of the gods. Not only do the glorious undead warriors of Odin’s Valhalla join the battle, but the inglorious inhabitants of Hel’s Hel also return from the dead to enter the fray.

Maybe the poetic image of treading the road to Hel simply means “to die,” and the warriors are going into Hel after being killed in the final fighting. But Snorri’s explanation makes theological sense: the dead return from both the underworld and world above to fight and die on either side of the battle.

And there’s the rub: at the end of this time cycle, even the dead shall die. The afterlife is not eternal. Within Norse mythology, it’s clear that nothing living lives forever, in this world or any other. The great gods fall at Ragnarök, and all humans are wiped out except for the single couple hiding from the final fire by seeking refuge in the wood.

Through those two, life goes on – but not individual lives. Combining this idea with the “cattle die” verses, there is optimism to be found. There is a small light that shines in the immeasurable darkness. We will indeed die – body, mind, and soul – but we will live on both in the memories of future generations and in the very fact that future generations will indeed come to be.

Yet even in this light, there is shadow. Yes, it is comforting to think that life will go on, even if our lives won’t. But these days – amidst plague, violence, and catastrophic climate change – it is often difficult to sustain faith that the long line of future generations will actually continue far into the future. The more we read, the more we learn, the darker it all seems.

On this, too, the poet of Odin again has something to say.

Seeker of doom wisdom

Immediately before the “middling-wise” verses comes this observation on human nature (Larrintgon’s translation):

53. Of small sands, of small seas,
small are the minds of men;
thus all men aren’t equally wise:
half wise, half not, everywhere.
This verse seems a bit on the nose in these days of an equally divided U.S. Senate and a split citizenry with diametrically opposed views of fact and reality.

In terms of the above discussion, this verse’s assertion that only half of us are wise means that only half of us are wise enough to seriously ponder the ultimate death of the soul. But wait! It’s the “unwise man” who loses sleep over pondering this dark subject. Is this whole poem just a jumble of incoherent and internally contradictory verses?

I don’t believe that it is, and I would organize the ideas like this:
1. Only half of us spend our time pondering the ultimate fate of individual consciousness.

2. The one who is truly wise does ponder it, and she realizes that individual life is finite.

3. This realization is not a happy one and leads to late-night existential crises and sleepy workdays.

4. By becoming too wise, the wise one becomes the unwise one.

5. The one who wants to be happy is better served by being middling-wise – half wise, half not.
Who wants to be happy? It’s a key question of our times.

We now know that President Donald Trump knew just how easily transmissible and just how deadly this coronavirus is all the way back in February 2020 but decided to actively hide the fact from the American people because he didn’t want “to create a panic.”

To be fair, I spent long nights early in the pandemic doom-scrolling through Twitter and reading threads and articles about the horrors of the virus and the mass death around us and ahead of us. Would I have slept better not knowing any of this and simply watching WKRP in Cincinnati reruns before bed? Yes, absolutely. Would I prefer not to know about the virus? Absolutely not.

Odin himself, as we know him through the Icelandic texts, is determined to be wisely unhappy. He takes on starvation and torture to gain mystic insight, he enters dangerous situations to gather intelligence, and he painfully gives of himself to acquire wisdom. His particular obsession is to learn as much as possible about exactly that subject that keeps half of us awake at night: the ultimate fate of all things, including himself.

He is a seeker of doom wisdom, and that is not a happy path.

The Wanderer’s path

As a child, my father survived, escaped from, and helped his relatives escape from anti-German extermination camps run by Marshall Tito’s Yugoslavian Partisans. In the camps, he saw death up close and the worst human evil eye-to-eye.

He later entered the monastery in an attempt to answer the question of how good Christian people could do such horrific deeds. Even later, he left the monastery and turned to the study of philosophy. He spent the rest of his life teaching about facing death, celebrating life, and fighting for human rights for all.

Was he happy? Yes, there was much joy in his life. But there was also deep sadness and powerful anger. I expect the children of Holocaust survivors understand exactly what I mean.

As Odin goes down the path that leads to dark answers regarding existence and non-existence, confirming and reconfirming the realness of death, he does not give up and turn to self-pity, suicide, or the hard comforts of self-induced obliviousness. He rededicates himself to the fight for the survival of all, even knowing that the quest is destined to ultimately fail for all – including himself.

My father followed a similar path. Having faced the pit of human cruelty and death as a child, he did not give up hope or seek to blot out his understanding. He craved more learning, more understanding, more wisdom. Like Odin, he shared that wisdom. He argued unstoppably for human dignity and civil rights, for openness to new ideas and welcoming of diversity. Like Odin, he never gave up.

We each decide on a daily basis whether or not to follow Odin’s path of troubling wisdom. As Neil Peart once wrote, “if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” It’s only by actively setting our feet on the Wanderer’s path, by consciously embracing the disorientation of deep knowledge that we follow that thorny way. It’s all too easy to slide down the other path of blissfully unaware happiness, and that’s where we slip whenever we choose to turn away from Odin’s way.

The path of study, of learning, of doggedly pursuing information even when it makes you more wise but less happy – it’s not for everyone. Maybe it’s only for half of us. Or maybe that estimate in the old poem is wildly off.

Whatever the percentage really is, I do think that Odin and his poet are fundamentally correct in their understanding of the dangers of knowing too much. What we do with their advice is for each of us to decide.

We would all do well to remember that sleep is a good thing! It probably is best just to be middling-wise, but I’ve chosen to follow the Wanderer.

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

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

The Left Eye of Odin (or Right)

Every so often, one of the college students in my Norse mythology classes raises a hand and asks, “Which eye did Odin give up to drink from Mimir’s well?”

Related questions include which side of Hel’s face is the corpse side, what the size measurements of Freyja’s cats are, and what the design specifications of Loki’s mistletoe missile are.

Odin, Sleipnir, Huginn, and Muninn by Gerhard Munthe (1849-1929)

My first, gut reaction to this type of question was to reply that mythology functions differently from fantasy.

Myth is vague where modern fantasy novels give page after page of specific details. Myth is elusive and allusive where tabletop role-playing games qualify and quantify every characteristic feature in overwhelming detail. Myth compresses action into stark imagery where video games expand conflict into endless hyperreal performances.

Students raised on Harry Potter, Dungeons & Dragons, and World of Warcraft may find mythology disappointingly diffuse. So many myths lack direct speech or dialogue in the modern sense. There is often no sense of the characters having inner lives, and motivations can range from totally banal to utterly incomprehensible.

In Norse mythology, physical descriptions of mythological figures are few. Some of the details we are sure we have read are actually akin to mass hallucinations, as in the widespread idea that Thor has a red beard in the Eddas. He does not.

The image of the red-bearded Viking Thor comes from the Icelandic sagas, historical and fantastic prose fiction composed two centuries and more after the nation’s public conversion to Christianity and written in imitation of new forms of literature filtering up from the Christian continent.

Red Thor appears in strikingly Christian contexts, as a threatening figure of the pagan past who seeks to flip new converts back to the Old Way. Any similarities to the red devil are purely non-coincidental.

Yet the meme of the red-bearded Eddic Thor has long been embedded into the writing of even the scholarly giants of Scandinavian studies, in their standard dictionaries and public publications.

Christian accretions and pagan cores

There seems to be something in the modern mind that craves specificity, that imposes concrete imagery onto textual traditions where that type of descriptive writing does not exist.

Or perhaps it’s not so much an issue of the modern mind but of the post-pagan, post-polytheistic perspective. Snorri Sturluson, thirteenth-century author or compiler of what we now call the Prose Edda, determinedly included or invented small descriptive details that are not present in the poetic sources he prosified.

The closer we get to the present, the more people seem to crave these sorts of details. From the retellings by William Morris in the nineteenth century to the transformations by J.R.R. Tolkien in the twentieth to the repackagings by Neil Gaiman in the twenty-first, the Snorrian impulse to muddle about with the texts and fill in the gaps seems irresistible.

So much of modern reading of ancient myth views it as literature, as something that sits on the same shelf as the fairy tale and the fantasy novel. There is indeed a hostility in some parts of academia and some branches of postmodern Ásatrú and Heathenry to viewing the surviving Norse myths as at all religious, condemning them instead as products of medieval Christian authors that present hopelessly muddled and willfully distorted versions of what may never have been pagan tales in the first place.

In a nutshell, the counterargument (of which I am a determined proponent) acknowledges the general scope of this criticism but counteroffers the mountain range of corroborating evidence and explicative theory from archaeology, linguistics, history of religions, and neighboring fields to argue that what Christian accretions have been sprinkled over the myths do not nullify the pagan mythological core at the heart of the surviving texts.

It is the very turning away from reading the myths as literature to reading them in the wider context of specifically religious texts of related world religions that leads to a better answer for those students asking about eyes and faces, cats and mistletoe.

India and Iceland

“Wodan,” wrote Adam of Bremen in the eleventh century, “id est furor.” Wodan is fury, as his Icelandic counterpart Odin is furious (etymologically speaking). There are many historical accounts and semi-historical saga descriptions of bloody sacrifices to the bloodthirsty god who is often connected to the causes, manifestations, and consequences of killing and war.

Yet the image of Odin as the wandering wizard endures, shaped into the Wanderer by Richard Wagner and morphed into Gandalf by J.R.R. Tolkien. How do we reconcile the furious figure who hovers over the battlefield with the wise walker along ancient paths?

Thousands of miles span the distance from India to Iceland, and thousands of years passed between the composition of the Mahābhārata and the transcription of the Norse myths, yet the parallels between the Vedic and Eddic mythologies have been known, studied, and disputed since Sir William Jones laid out the connections between Germanic, Indic, and other surprisingly related language groups in 1787 as the Indo-European theory was first formulated.

Jones was part of the British colonial administration in India, and his theories were filtered through the Romantic nationalism of the nineteenth century to provide theoretical, rhetorical, and propagandistic fodder for the Nazi horrors of the twentieth.

The old ideas of blond Aryan hordes riding out of the Caucasus to conquer the world have rightfully and righteously been dragged into the trash icon of academia’s shared desktop, but the fact of linguistic, cultural, ethical, mythical, and religious connections between members of the wider Indo-European family remain.

My copies of the ancient Sanskrit texts from India are covered by smudgy spiderwebs of my penciled notes, such as “cf. Hávamál,” “cf. Völuspá,” “blót,” and “reciprocal gifting.” On nearly every page of every text I’ve studied, there are amazing parallels to the Norse material, from outlines of myths shared by Indra and Thor to very specific healing spells that appear in ancient India as they do in medieval Germany.

These finds can be so exciting to someone as excitable as me on these subjects that, at one point while I was in divinity school, Prof. Wendy Doniger had to limit me to a set number of “ooh, this is just like that bit in Norse myth” exclamations in each class session.

It was one of these moments in class that enabled me to provide my own students with a deeper answer to their questions about Odin’s eyes and to find for myself a more meaningful understanding of the wide disparity between the war-inciter and the wanderer.

Cold feet

By the sixth book of the Sanskrit Mahābhārata, the warring parties whose rivalry has consumed the preceding five books are finally ready to face off in their ultimate battle. In the last moments before the combat begins, the great and supremely macho hero Arjuna gets cold feet.

Looking across the battlefield, he sees that both armies are composed of his own “fathers, grandfathers, teachers, uncles, brothers, sons, grandsons, companions, fathers-in-law, and friends.” Consumed with compassion and despair, he tells his chariot driver that he will not fight against his own family members, and he throws down his bow and arrows.

His chariot driver tells him that he is behaving in an unworthy manner and warns him against becoming klība, a Sanskrit term with a range of meanings focused on “unmanliness” that is similar to the Old Norse ergi. “Shake off this miserable weakness of heart and get up,” the driver admonishes the languishing hero.

When Arjuna continues to complain of his concerns, his chariot driver begins an enormously lengthy lecture not only on the responsibilities of the warrior, but on a host of increasingly esoteric religious teachings.

In fact, the chariot driver is the god Krishna, and the teachings he recites to Arjuna are the sacred text known as the Bhagavad Gītā (“Song of the Lord”).

After Krishna finishes one section of his lessons for Arjuna by declaring that there is “no end to [his] divine manifestations,” the hero responds:
You are just as you have described yourself, great lord; but I wish to see your majestic form, supreme person. Master, if you think I will be able to see it, then show me your imperishable self, lord of yoga.
Krishna agrees to reveal his forms to Arjuna “in their hundreds and thousands: diverse, divine, and of many colors and shapes.” He tells the reluctant warrior to observe “the whole universe with its mobile and immobile aspects concentrated within [his] body.”

Because this vision is too great for human eyes, he grants divine sight to Arjuna.

It’s all too much

The narrator describes Krishna’s “supreme, majestic form” as revealed at that moment.
With many mouths and eyes and numerous wonderful aspects, with multiple divine ornaments and raised divine weapons, it bore celestial garlands and robes and was anointed with divine perfumes, composed of all marvels, godly, infinite, and facing all directions. If the light of a thousand suns rising at once were to appear in the sky, it might resemble the splendor of that great soul. [Arjuna] saw the entire universe with its various divisions concentrated there in the body of the god of gods.
Arjuna bows his head and speaks mighty words in praise of Krishna’s great cosmic beauty, but he soon begins to testify to the great panic and enormous fear he feels when he sees Krishna’s “mouths like the fire of time” into which all the “heroes of the world of men” rush into “like the many rivers running into the sea,” to be crushed and devoured. As revealed to Arjuna, the “blazing mouths” of Krishna devour “all peoples, all worlds.”

Krishna reveals his cosmic form to Arjuna in an Indian illustration from the early 1900s

Krishna responds to Arjuna’s fear by declaring, “I am Time, the world destroyer, ripened, and here I am busy crushing the worlds.”

The hero again bows, praises Krishna, finally realizing that the chariot driver he has palled around with is actually the mightiest of all deities.

Arjuna apologizes for past familiarities and begs for an end to the overwhelming cosmic vision, asking Krishna to revert to a limited form that can be comprehended with normal human senses – to conform to the common image of the god as a young man with diadem, mace, and discus. “Change into your four-armed form, thousand-armed god of universal form!”

Krishna obliges, and the lesson continues.

Fury itself

I’m not saying that Krishna is a parallel of Odin, and I’m not placing an equal sign between the Krishnavite “Song of the Lord” and the Odinic “Sayings of the High One.”

At least as regards the larger question at hand in this particular article, I’m not as interested in the specificities of the god or the teachings being promulgated as I am in this notion of a cosmic divinity too immense to be comprehended – a “god of universal form” that must shrink down into a conventional form so that we humans of merely mortal perspicacity can conceive of it without our brains melting.

When Krishna takes his guise of a human charioteer, he is a comforting figure who guides and helps. When he is in his regular religious depiction as a four-armed anthropomorphic deity with traditional weapons, he remains comprehensible. It is only when he reveals his ultimate universal form that he becomes overwhelming and terrifying.

In this light, there is an insight into the figure of Odin and the contradictions of his portrayals. It’s quite easy to follow the shape of the above paragraph and apply it to the Norse god.

When Odin takes his guise of a human wanderer, he offers advice and shares wisdom. When he is in his regular religious depiction as the far-seeing anthropomorphic deity on the high seat above, he remains comprehensible.

The final step, however, is often missing. It is only when he reveals his ultimate abstract form as fury itself that Odin becomes overwhelming and terrifying.

The surviving Old Norse texts do not contain the detailed theological discussion that is so deeply woven through the Sanskrit sources, so we are left to formulate this form for ourselves. Since it’s not clearly portrayed in the texts we have, where do we find the greater, non-anthropomorphic form of Odin?

Odin is there

Again, the “Song of the Lord” gives a hint. Krishna makes clear to Arjuna that he is in all the world and that he abides in all beings. I believe that we can find Odin within ourselves, for better or worse.

He is the fury that stirs poet, artist, dancer, and musician as they enter into a deeply creative state in which they lose track of time and mundane situation. When the guitarist is so concentrated on improvising in the moment that she doesn’t afterward remember making any conscious musical decisions, Odin is there. When the painter is so immersed in the work that she doesn’t notice the night’s passing until the beeping of her morning alarm finds her still brushing away, Odin is there.

He is also the fury that stirs runner, boxer, gymnast, and baseball player as they find the zone where conscious thought gives way to inspired action. When the boxer senses that the moment has come and explodes into a flurry of blows from all angles that brings the knockout, yet doesn’t feel or realize that his own nose is already broken, Odin is there. When the baseball player perceives the ball as floating gently over the plate in slow motion and hears no sound within an internal quietude as he slams the ball out of the park, Odin is there.

The overtaking of the conscious mind is not always so beautiful. Odin is also there when the abuser sees red and hurts without control. He is there when the police officer succumbs to fear and hate and empties his weapon into the back of a child. He is there when the soldier sees a friend fall and his mind snaps free of anything that would restrain his indiscriminate revenge. This is the truly overwhelming and terrifying Odin.

What all of these experiences have in common is the feeling that something has entered the mind and overwhelmed everyday thought. Seeing red, entering the zone, getting lost in the creative moment – all have a sense of drunkenness about them, of intoxication.

The Norse myths capture this feeling by telling us that Odin lives on wine alone and shares out the mead of poetry that inspires the mind of the one who drinks it. The tenth-century Icelander Egill Skallagrímsson famously rails against the bloodthirsty Odin for taking the lives of his sons but thanks him for the gift of poetic skill that allows him to express his grief.

Gather around the table

But this is all too abstract and has too many different individual manifestations, from the passion of the painter to the rage of the killer. It is also far too terrifying. Who among us would be able to gaze into the eyes (or even one lone eye) of the power of unrestrained fury itself?

So we shrink Odin down into a form in which he is more comprehensible, more understandable, and more relatable.

Although his eye may flash with fury from time to time, the wanderer with his beard, hat, cloak, and walking stick is someone we can look forward to meeting. How wonderful would it be to sit by a forest brook and listen to the wise wizard share his wisdom?

Finally, there is a better answer I can give to my students when they ask about Odin’s eye.

The specifics are up to the storyteller and to the one who hears the story. Imagine the gods as the tales inspire you, but always remember that Odin is not the wanderer. He is not the regal figure on his high seat. These are forms that he takes so we can comprehend him or forms in which we conceive divine powers so we can engage with them.

Enjoy the myths, but remember that – as the philosopher Paul Ricœur wrote long ago – myths are made of symbols interacting in narrative form.

Both historically and in today’s world, reading myths literally leads to a fundamentalist mindset with all of its awful outcomes. If we instead agree to gather around the table and discuss what meanings may lie behind the myths, maybe we can have a conversation about leading better lives together.

Quotations from the Bhagavad Gītā are from
Mahābhārata, Book Six: Bhīṣma, Volume One, translated by Alex Cherniak (New York University Press, 2008). An earlier version of this article appeared at The Wild Hunt.
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