Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Wotan in Chicago: Interview with Eric Owens

Two years ago, Lyric Opera of Chicago debuted its new production of Das Rheingold, the first opera in Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. Last year saw the premiere of Lyric’s Die Walküre, the second part of the fifteen-hour cycle inspired by Norse and Germanic mythology and legend.

On November 3, the third part of Wagner’s epic will be staged with the debut of the new Siegfried production. The series will conclude with Götterdämmerung in the 2019-2020 season, followed by a presentation of three complete Ring cycles beginning in April 2020.

As in the first two operas performed in Chicago, bass-baritone Eric Owens will be playing the part of Wotan, Wagner’s re-imagining of Odin, the patriarch of the Norse gods. Before joining the Lyric cast, he notably played the part of Alberich the dwarf in the Metropolitan Opera’s Ring Cycle.

Shortly before Das Rheingold premiered, I conducted interviews with both Owens and David Pountney, director of Lyric’s Ring. I also attended the opening night gala performance and wrote a review. The Pountney interview and the review were published in 2016, but the Owens interview appears here for the first time.

Eric Owens, Lyric Opera Chicago's Wotan

Owens is incredibly candid as he discusses a wide range of issues: performing Wagnerian roles, playing the part of Grendel, working with elaborate staging in Met and Lyric versions of the Ring, portraying anti-Semitic stereotypes in Wagner’s mythological operas, examining problems with Porgy and Bess, embodying the father of the Norse gods as an African-American, examining then-candidate Donald Trump’s relationship to American racism, and addressing inequality in public education.

The contrast between the responses of Pountney and Owens to questions of anti-Semitism and racism is striking.

In a combative interview, the director strongly denied the presence of any anti-Semitism in Wagner’s work, called the refusal of some Jewish performers to perform Wagner’s operas “ridiculous,” and suggested that casting a black man as “Zeus” was enough to answer any questions of racial prejudice in the opera world.

Owens, on the other hand, offers detailed and thoughtful answers on these and other complex issues. Of all the interviews I have conducted with religious leaders, political figures, academics, authors, artists, musicians, and archaeologists, this one arguably features the most erudite and reflective interviewee.

You can read the David Pountney interview by clicking here and the Rheingold review by clicking here.

“The process is an odd one”

KS – How do you memorize the vast amount of text and music required for Wagner’s lead roles?

EO – Just like any other [opera role]. Marrying those two together is what makes it click more; the music guides the text memorization. There are times when we’ll stop and they’ll just say the line, and then I’ll think, “Ah, I don’t know where that is without the music.” It’s so woven together.

It took a lot longer to learn Alberich than it did to learn the Rheingold Wotan, because he doesn’t really have all that much to say, compared to Walküre and even as the Wanderer in Siegfried.

Ideally, any one of these roles shouldn’t take more than four or five works to learn. Years ago, a professor of mine told me, “Ah, three weeks!” Not that you’re going to do it in three weeks, but let’s say you were under the gun and somebody wanted you to learn something really quickly. We should be able to do it in three weeks. He’s pretty right.

I can tell you what’s harder is when Wagner starts getting really creative with the language to a point where I ask Germans, “What does this mean?” and they say, “I don’t know.” That stuff is hard to memorize, when it’s not conversational German. That sort of gets me, and that takes a while.

There are a couple of lines in the Rheingold where it just took me a while to wrap my head around it, because it wasn’t especially conversational. Sometimes he’ll even make up new words, so he can have alliteration.

KS – Do you learn the text first, or do you learn it together with the music?

Ideally, I’ll try to learn [the text] first. The music helps.

When it’s straightforward German, that’s easier to memorize. The verb’s in the second spot, and the infinitive’s at the end. When it starts getting really poetic and really esoteric, it’s hard to commit that to memory.

Eric Owens as General Leslie Groves in John Adams' Doctor Atomic

KS – You played Achilla in Handel’s Giulio Cesare at Wolf Trap in 1995. You created the role of General Groves in the world premiere of John Adams’ Doctor Atomic with Los Angeles Opera in 2006. You were Porgy in Porgy and Bess here at Lyric in 2014. Now you’re rehearsing as Wotan.

That’s an incredibly wide range of music! As a bass player, when I move between classical, jazz, rock, and other styles, each one has a very different physical relationship to the instrument and a very different mental process and spiritual psychology.

How do you change your preparation and performance process as you move between these different worlds?

EO – That’s actually a great question.

When I think about Handel and Baroque music, there’s even more emphasis placed on the drama to be convincing – especially when you have the ABA form where you have da capo arias, and you have to really find out why this character needs to say these words again.

I remember certain people saying, “People don’t talk like this.” I beg to differ. People do talk like this. I kind of joke and say, “When you go home for Thanksgiving, people repeat themselves.” Ha! You can have a discussion, and then it goes to something else, and it comes back. We just talked about this!

It’s not all that much of a suspension of disbelief. It’s less text to learn, but I think there’s more of a responsibility to convey it in a way that it’s not contrived or goofy, even.

I find, especially when it’s not just the music, but when you’re staging a Handel piece – and actually, even in concert – you have to deliver it in such a way that… All music has to feel like jazz. Even though we have the printed page, it all should feel like this music is being birthed into the world for the very first time, that feeling of improvisation.

There’s an extra special thing you have to pay attention to. It’s got to be, when that comes back around, it’s got to be like the blues. Yeah, there are these twelve counts, but each time, something else is happening, But yet we’re married to something that’s printed and definite.

Baroque music is actually my favorite style of music in the classical world to listen to, but I find it the most difficult for me to perform. The process is an odd one, this balancing act of being true to what’s on the page, but trying to make it sound like you’re riffing. Ha! That goes with any style, as of course you know. You actually get to riff. Ha!

The Porgy… The first time I looked at that score, I thought, “This music’s a lot harder than it sounds,” because there’s a lot of influence of those early twentieth century composers – of Stravinsky and Ravel.

When Crown gets killed, in the orchestra, he’s actually quoting the Rite of Spring chord. I went to the piano one time – I think there’s an extra note, but it’s the Rite of Spring chord, as Gerswhin was sort of straddling the whole classical and jazz thing.

Learning it was a lot of fun. There’s nothing like singing in your own language. There’s an immediacy there. There’s no filter or barrier. You instantly know not just the words, but the social meaning of it. There’s something really special when I get to perform in English – and, ideally, in the other languages I sing in, it should feel like this – it’s got to feel as if you could start improvising, if the director says, “Okay, finish that sentence, but put it in your own words.” There’s something really amazing about that, that immediacy.

Something else – this doesn’t have to do with learning – there’s something really nice. I only noticed it the last time I did Porgy. There’s something really cool about not being the only black face in the room. Which, on most occasions, I am – just given the career that I have and what I’m doing.

I remember having this a-ha moment in a rehearsal once, where something was said, and then I made this cultural reference, and everybody got it. Ha!

“You have to definitely read the original source material”

KS – You created the title role in the world premiere of Elliot Goldenthal’s Grendel: Transcendence of the Great Big Bad with Los Angeles Opera in 2006. Based on the 1971 novel by John Gardner, it retells Beowulf from the monster’s perspective. Julie Taymor’s production included a giant revolving wall, puppets, and costumes looking like they came from Doctor Who.

How did wearing such an intense costume affect your performance as a singer?

EO – It’s funny, because that costume looked a lot more severe than it was. The way that they made it, the coat wasn’t all that heavy, and I was in sort of a unitard out of really light material. Thankfully, it was not all that cumbersome and draining.

Eric Owens as Grendel at Los Angeles Opera

The makeup was a huge process, though. It was pretty incredible, but it was intense, because I don’t really leave the stage. I was on stage all night. They were worried about it coming off. They couldn’t do anything to touch it up, so they came up with this concoction where they mixed the makeup with this special kind of glue. The makeup was basically glued to my face. It took longer to get it off than it did to put it on. Ha!

That whole experience was an eye-opener to me. I found out that I could do things that I didn’t know I was capable of. Up until that point, I was doing all the very fatherly, avuncular bass roles – either the priest or some bad guy or the king or whatever.

This was the first time where I was running all over the place and having to sing. I knew how physical it was going to be. During that whole process, I was seeing a trainer pretty much every day. I’d train in the morning and then go to rehearsal, because I knew it was going to be this demanding thing.

It ended up being this amazing experience, where all of a sudden other things in my mind started to open up to me. I thought, “Ah, I can do this. I can do that.” It was amazing. I learned and grew so much from that whole experience.

This year, it’s been ten years since the premiere. I don’t know if I could do it now. Ha! They keep saying, “We’re going to do this [again],” and I say, “You better hurry up, because that’s a young person’s role.” Ha!

KS – From many of your interviews, it’s clear that you’re an artist who reflects deeply on the thoughts and motivations of the characters you perform as an actor.

Did you read either the Gardner novel or the original Beowulf to prepare to play the monster?

EO – Yeah, I did both. I actually went and got the Gardner between auditions, before the callback, so I could know what was going on. I knew it was that kind of situation, where you need to fill in those blanks. As the process has been tapered down to what ends up on the stage, it’s not going to be all of Beowulf, it’s not going to be the whole Gardner.

There are instances where you might have questions about a character, and there are answers to them. They just don’t end up in the final product. When someone does an adaptation [of a book], they’ve got to whittle away at it.

I think all theatrical performers – opera singers, theater people – you have to definitely read the original source material and try to find out what’s what.

KS – You’ve played two frightening inhumans of northern mythology – Grendel and Alberich. I’m waiting for you to record “Erlkönig” to complete the trilogy of monsters.

EO – Ha!

KS – Were there points of contact between your approaches to the two characters?

EO – It’s funny. Yeah, and Grendel’s the whole reason why I got Alberich in the first place. [Metropolitan Opera General Manager] Peter Gelb came and saw Grendel, and this was right around the time when they were planning to do this new Ring. It was his idea for me to possibly do Alberich in his new Ring based on what he saw in the Grendel.

It’s an amazing series of events that led up to me becoming a Wagnerian at all. This all didn’t happen because of some master plan. It just kind of unfolded.

Eric Owens as Alberich in Das Rheingold at the Metropolitan Opera

KS – Both when you were Alberich in the Ring Cycle at the Metropolitan Opera in 2010 and here as Wotan, you’ve been surrounded by oversized and experimental stage machinery.

How does such elaborate staging and complicated direction affect your ability to focus on such difficult and lengthy music?

EO – The rehearsal process takes care of that. What might look and feel insurmountable on day one, on day ten it’s an old hat. The whole process of weeks of rehearsal is necessary so that these things become second nature. If you know they’ve taken care of your safety, then you can – with practice – do things with a certain element of ease.

There, I never felt fearful of anything, because I knew that people had my back, and also that we had done it enough times that things would be fine. Here, it’s a lot different, because it’s all manual. There’s not a computer controlling anything. There are some similarities, but some huge differences.

This is all wonderfully low-tech. Ha! And purposefully low-tech. We’re not hiding the mechanics of it, and there’s no mystery. You see the people who are actually [moving the equipment]. We’re just a troop of storytellers.

If there’s anything that is concerning me in any production that I’ve done, I don’t bring it up until I’ve tried it a certain number of times. If it hasn’t worked or it’s not working for me, then I have to ask the directors, “Let us find a way to still tell the story, but with something that is within my wheelhouse to be able to deliver.”

You never want it to look like, “Oh, my god, Eric’s struggling up there.” It has to look like the character doing whatever it is that character’s doing in their day-to-day business. If something’s encumbering that, then we have to come up with something else.

All the directors I’ve ever worked with, they’ve never said, “No, it’s got to be this,” because they all know better. If your performers are uncomfortable, they’re not going to deliver a performance. They’re not going to be able to realize the vision that the director has.

“All the Nordic parallels”

KS – Over the four years of this new Ring production, your character will evolve from Wotan to the Wanderer, from the powerful god who stares down giants to the gray pilgrim who exchanges riddles with dwarves, to the faded wizard whose spear is snapped by his young grandson. Then you’ll have to start over and make the transition in quickstep when you perform complete cycles as discrete units in 2020.

Have you begun thinking about how you’ll approach the different aspects of the Allfather and his character development?

EO – Yeah, it’s funny, because I have the luxury of knowing what the character doesn’t. I know how this is going to end. Wotan, right now, doesn’t. But with that, I have to be mindful of my portrayal, that I don’t get ahead of myself. I’m not the Walküre Wotan, who’s a very different Wotan. He’s got all these children. Ha! That changes one. He’s much older, and so I need to be mindful of an arc.

As you were saying, by the time I do Walküre, it’s going to be another year. I need to be mindful of just how I physicalize the role now. Yes, he’s majestic and stately, but there’s a usefulness to it. I’m not going to know how I’m going to embody that until we have the other cast members, too.

Christine Goerke’s Brünnhilde is going to be different from anyone else’s Brünnhilde. It’s got to be within the context of reacting to what’s going on around him. Not just what’s in a book, but how people are portraying it. My cast mates are going to influence how that arc takes shape. And that’s really exciting. You’re never going to have the same experience each time.

There’s so much that goes into it. He is one of the characters, I think – he, along with Brünnhilde – that can actually have this evolution.

Eric Owens as Wotan in Lyric Opera Chicago's Rheingold

KS – You’ve said that, after being raised a Christian, you have a “tug-of-war with faith now and then.”

EO – Yeah. Well, because of the lifestyle of this career. Just the road will do it to you. Ha! Sometimes, you just think, “What’s going on?” You spend a lot of time away from people that you would love to… family and friends.

There are friends that I don’t see for years at a time, and that can start to wear on you a bit and just sort of test the boundaries of, “Am I doing the right thing? Is this something that I can continue to do?” Then you end up questioning a whole bunch of stuff when you’re left to your own resources in the middle of Europe somewhere with a time difference that’s not conducive to calling someone up and talking to them.

KS – You’re spending the next four years playing the great one-eyed god of pre-Christian Germanic religion as filtered through Wagner’s creative spirit.

Have you engaged in any way with Wagner’s source materials from the pagan north – the Eddas or the sagas or anything?

EO – I haven’t, really. It’s been mostly through Wagner’s filter.

Then when you think of all the Nordic parallels, between Odin and Wotan and Thor and Donner and all those guys. But I haven’t gone farther back with that research. There’s so much. Ha!

With the music and also with Wagner having been a guy who filtered all of it – the text and the music – which is really unusual, to varying degrees of success in the minds of many people.

KS – There have been at least two other black Wotans, but are you the first African-American to play Alberich?

EO – Oh, I don’t know. Maybe. I doubt it, though. I really do. There has to have been somebody.

KS – Have there been other baritones of any background who have performed both Alberich and Wotan, the two grand opposing forces of the Ring?

EO – Not to my knowledge, because that’s not an obvious… like Leporello and Don Giovanni.

The young man who’s playing Alberich here – when we did this at Berlin – I was Alberich, and he played Wotan. It was a single cycle, maybe three years ago at the Deutsche Oper.

KS – So, after the Met.

EO – Yes, definitely after the Met. The production there was not new, and in German-speaking opera houses, when the production is not new, there’s not a lot of rehearsal time.

There was one cycle we did, from the first day of rehearsal to the performance of Götterdämmerung was nine days. You’re doing them all at the same time. When I say you don’t get much rehearsal… You don’t want to do a role for the first time under those circumstances. Ha!

They’ll put up a Rosenkavalier in three days and a heartbeat. People don’t know this. It’s hilarious. Ha! Now, if the production is new, they’ll rehearse it for ten weeks – the polar opposite. It’s hilarious.

Eric Owens as Wotan in Lyric Opera Chicago's Die Walküre

“He would be none too pleased to see me performing Wotan”

KS – On the portrayal of African-Americans in Porgy and Bess, you said, “It's a work of its period… so we don't want to airbrush out all the unpleasantries.” There are definitely unpleasantries in Wagner. You might even say deplorables.

We know that he was a raving anti-Semite absolutely beyond the pale.

EO – Right.

KS – The monthly Bayreuth newsletter featured his articles forwarding bizarre racist pseudo-science of vegetarian Canadian tigers, Jewish cannibals, African ape-men, and German demigods, as well as the idea that blood of an Aryan Christ would wash away the sin of race-mixing.

EO – Living in Jerusalem, an Aryan Christ. That’s hilarious.

KS – The immediate problem is that his theories creep into his art. His biographers tend to say they don’t.

EO – Oh, no, they do. Alberich is a Jewish character. The miser, gold-grubbing… Come on, that’s pretty obvious. He’s Shylock. Ha!

KS – Both Rheingold and Siegfried begin with base humiliations of evil dwarves who embody the worst nineteenth-century anti-Semitic stereotypes and are portrayed with imagery and terminology straight out of Wagner’s notorious essay on “Jewishness in Music,” which he wrote just before the Siegfried libretto. Anyone reading the essay and the libretto together must realize that the opening of Siegfried is a dramatization of its principles.

EO – Right. There’s definitely a correlation.

KS – So, in the age of Ferguson and Trump, of militarized police and border walls, of racist rhetoric in the mainstream of political discussion, how do you address the horrifying elements that Wagner himself considered of prime importance to his work? As Alberich and Wotan, you’re playing both victim and victimizer.

EO – I, as the performer, have to not really concern myself that much with it, because – if I were – I’d be up there telegraphing that all night long. Ultimately, that’s not my job.

When I get up there, having been slave and slave-master – if you will – I have to play those characters. If I make a decision to play those characters, it does a disservice to the audience for them to know what my baggage is vis-à-vis these characters, because – when they go sit down in a theater to watch that – I have to disappear. It’s got to be the character.

No matter what I’m feeling or thinking about it, they should not even know. There shouldn’t be a hint of, “Oh, here comes the part…” It’s got to be left up to them, just like it’s got to be left up to me as a theatergoer to take in, “What does this mean?”

Yeah, I agree with you with a lot of those things, but the less I say about it in a public capacity… It’s like a lot of these actors who don’t do much interviews because, “Well, if I tell them all about me, they’re going to see me up on the screen, no matter what I do.” It’s a funny thing.

The whole question of to play or to not play Wagner, to perform or to not perform Wagner. There is obvious genius at work there. You have to come to terms with what… Are you willing to take the baby and then throw the bathwater out? But throwing the bathwater out is not really the whole thing. I mean, it’s baby soup. Ha! And all that it implies.

Cover to 14-CD set of Daniel Barenboim's Ring Cycle at Bayreuth

The whole idea of Jewish people performing Wagner’s music… It’s interesting to hear people like Stephen Fry and Daniel Barenboim and [James] Levine – people who have actually conducted at Bayreuth. There’s something in their musicianship and artistry that’s willing to compartmentalize it. It’s something that I do, too.

In a lot of ways, [Wagner] was quite a detestable person, and he would be none too pleased to see me performing Wotan. Ha! I’m pretty sure.

I recognize the genius in it. I don’t know, if these pieces were just plays that he had written, if it would get the same play. Probably not. They would probably be tucked away somewhere and be a research oddity.

But there’s something about music that can make people forgive a lot of crap, if something sublime is coming from a ridiculous source. There’s something about this music that has the ability to blend the cerebral and the… You break his music down, and it’s very mathematical and ingenious, and it moves you at the same time – the same way that Johann Sebastian Bach can do the same thing.

If you analyze it and you look at it… There’s this one piece that’s the same thing forward as it is backwards and upside down. But at the same time, it’s something that’s not sanitized and clinical. It’s making you feel something, and then only later you realize that, “Oh, my god. This is a piece of… It’s not just art. It’s science at the same time.”

Wagner has this way of doing that. I think, if we were to put this away, and not experience it, I think we’re missing out on something. Even though, as my mom used to say, “The devil brought it, but the Lord sent it.” Ha! When something wonderful comes from the most unexpected place. Ha!

KS – When I discuss the anti-Semitic stereotypes in the works of both Wagner and J.R.R. Tolkien, their fans don’t want to hear it. They say that I’m imagining it, or that I must be an anti-Semite for pointing it out.

EO – Right. But that’s what’s going on in this country right now. Oh, I’m the racist because I’m calling you out on your [racism].

KS – How would feel playing Porgy in Harlem to an all-black audience? How would you feel playing Alberich in Israel to a Jewish audience? Even if you disappear, the characters don’t disappear. Those audiences would see all these things.

EO – Yeah. You look at Porgy, and Porgy isn’t embraced with open arms by the entire black community. At its premiere, and then even later – during the civil rights movement – you think about Harry Belafonte and people who asked, “Why are we doing something like this?”

I’ve been asked this a lot of times. I can understand the reluctance to embrace it, because whenever a group of people can’t be self-defining in their art and their culture, there’s something that’s sort of a weird taste in your mouth. You’re going to have these two gentlemen – these two white gentlemen – tell us what that experience is all about. And yet, it wouldn’t get played if it weren’t for [them]. If two black guys wrote Porgy, we would have never heard of it.

KS – Like Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha.

EO – Right. Exactly. And so it’s this weird thing where I’m sure – when you say if I did it in front of an all-black audience in Harlem and an all-Jewish audience in Israel – that audience is going to be not the entire populace.

The fact that they’re there at the performance anyway says something about their willingness to look past certain things. It’s going to be a different sort of demographic that’s sort of scooped out of all Jewish people and all black people. In a way, you’re preaching to the semi-converted. All of that’s in the eyes of the beholder. It’s up to them.

Eric Owens and Pretty Yende as Porgy and Bess at the Metropolitan Opera

Of course, I look at Porgy and how… I didn’t do it for a long time. I didn’t do Porgy until I had established a career apart from that, so that I felt like I had a certain level of bona fides that would speak to me as an artist portraying this role versus, “Ah, they gave Eric that because he’s black. They put a casting net out there, and he was the black guy that was available during that period.” Something that belittles that.

It’s funny, because I consciously made the decision not to do it earlier than I did, and I also made the decision to not have it be a [opera] house debut. I would not do that role at a house where I haven’t sung other things before. It was a decision, because I didn’t want to say that, “Oh, he’s making his debut at wherever, but it’s a lesser debut,” because people think in these terms. And I know that people think in these terms.

Not to belittle someone who decides to do all those things that I just said I wouldn’t do. It’s a funny tightrope act that you have to walk to make sure that you’re not… You can get sort of get lost and then you find yourself doing… I mean, maybe there are people who want to be Porgy all the time. But it can be a trap, though, too, where you need work and you need income and you want to build up a resume, then all of a sudden you look and see, “This is all I’m doing, and so this is how they’re going to see me.”

It’s a weird thing, the whole idea of Porgy and what it means and where a segment of the black population has just, “You know what? We’re just going to co-opt this and make it our own.” It’s Gershwin, and let’s be real. He was responsible for a lot of people working on Broadway because of it.

Is there a line to be drawn?

“The glorification of ignorance is at an all-time high”

KS – When the first Marvel Thor movie came out in 2011, the casting of Idris Elba as the Norse god Heimdall was protested by the Council of Conservative Citizens, a modern offshoot of the old White Citizens Councils.

EO – Not a surprise.

KS – Widespread media coverage drew out further nastiness directed at Elba. Scholars of Scandinavian studies are still writing and teaching about the incident to show students how race and religion continue to create cultural flashpoints.

What would you say to old school racists who may rattle their Confederate sabres over you embodying the father of the Norse gods?

EO – “Whatever. Get a life.”

It’s all fiction. We’re talking about myths. It’s a performance.

People get riled up, while black culture is co-opted all the fricking time, and then claim to be... There would be no Elvis without a whole string of black artists before him.

Unless confronted face to face, I’d just… this is trash bin material. As long as people like this keep having children, we’re going to have people like this on the planet. It’s just steeped in ignorance.

Like when Jamie Foxx did a reworking of Annie, and a little black girl was Annie, Little Orphan Annie. They don’t even want black people to be a little poor white kid, a little orphan from the ’20s. Ha!

I’m fortunate enough that most of the people that I’m around, they don’t espouse this crap. It’s just…

Sometimes, I just sort of pull an ostrich where I just, you know what? I’m going to shut myself out to all the media and stuff, so I don’t even have to hear about this. For a while there, we didn’t have to hear about this, because we didn’t have the internet bringing a bunch of people together on this issue.

And now we have a candidate who’s legitimizing a lot of these thought processes while at the same time, “Oh, I never said that!” All of this, and talk about revisionist histories. “Oh, that unpleasantness, that didn’t exist.” How they want to airbrush slavery out of American history classes in high schools and in these states where the school boards and districts are controlled by these people. They want to say that Moses was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States.

Oh, my god. The glorification of ignorance is at an all-time high, and it’s really sad. It’s really sad.

Eric Owens in a photo from his IMG Artists website

I try not to be angry. I don’t want to be a people-hater, but sometimes, people make it really easy. Just live and let live. Why is what somebody else is doing… Just like this thing with gay marriage. How is that affecting your marriage? Where people argue, “It’s sullying the sanctity of marriage.” Well, why aren’t you picketing outside divorce lawyers’ offices all the time?

People do what they want to do, and they cherry-pick what they want to do, and meanwhile they’re guilty of sinning on a larger scale. It’s just this rampant ignorance coupled with hypocrisy and malice. It’s really sad.

It’s funny, because it really hasn’t gone anywhere, but everybody’s a publisher now. They can spew all their stuff, and then legitimate news outlets pick it up, and then they blow it up to make it sound like it’s legitimate. News has become so monetized that a train wreck is going to sell. If it bleeds, it leads. With the media fanning these flames and trying to normalize this candidate right now, it’s really sad. The whole thing’s really sad.

If music can bring a little joy into anybody’s life…

It’s funny. I’ve actually rehearsed and planned what I would say and how I would act if I ever got stopped by a police officer, because I don’t want to leave the scene in a body bag. But the fact that somebody feels that they need to do that, and then having other people say, “But you just do what they say, and then…” How many times when people don’t do what they say, and they don’t expect the Constitution to be trampled all over.

People love the parts of the Bible they love, and they love the parts of the Constitution that they love, and then want to throw all the other stuff away. I don’t know.

But here I am, doing Wotan in a major American opera house, and if people have a problem with that, don’t come. Ha!

At this point Magda Krance, then Manager of Media Relations at Lyric Opera of Chicago, entered the room.

Magda Krance – You are having far too much fun!

EO – Ha! Oh, no. Not really. We’re laughing off the absurdity of life on this planet right now.

MK – Well, there’s a lot of that, for sure. Wrapping? Rolling? Continuing?

KS – Last one. Thank you.

Krance then left the room.

KS – You’ve become deeply involved in teaching, conducting, and philanthropy. You moved to Chicago in 2014 after the Lyric appointed you as one of their first community ambassadors for arts outreach. In Chicago, unequal access to education across the city has been a major issue for a very long time.

Given your experiences engaging with Chicago students and teachers in public schools, have you been inspired with a vision of a way to address the inequality and find solutions?

EO – I don’t know what the solutions might be. This is something that’s really complex, and there are smarter people than I who disagree as to how to address these issues.

But what I’m encouraged by is that, when I go into these schools, I meet the people – in huge numbers, the people – students and educators who don’t make the news, that are doing wonderful things. There are some really bright kids out there coming from really, really difficult conditions, and there are teachers who are making do, and they’re showing up every day, and they’re doing all they can.

To be able to see that first-hand, without the filter of the media editing and choosing what they think I should see vis-à-vis the education system in any given city. I’m really encouraged by what it is I see that is not newsworthy, because the clickbait is not as strong as something really horrible.

When I go out there, it encourages me, and it gives me hope, because it’s not all bad. But the good stuff, as far as being able to broadcast it out there, it’s… I don’t know if it’s human nature that we want to watch a house fire or a train wreck.

The ultimate solution is for the people who are giving their all and their best to not give up hope.

But how does one fix something that’s so politicized, that’s so incredibly politicized? And how can we see images in the media, when the media is so incredibly monetized? They’re looking to make a profit, whereas before they were looking for the truth.

At this point, the formal interview ended, but we continued to discuss related issues for a while afterwards. Thanks to Magda Krance and the Lyric Opera for setting up this interview, the interview with David Pountney, and the tickets that led to my review of Das Rheingold.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

A New Hope

We live in strange times. They promise to become even stranger. Although it sometimes seems that the dark is rising and will overwhelm us all, there are steps we all can take to fight for the light.

A Dark Time

We now find ourselves living in an era when fundamental rules and relationships in the social order have begun to break down, sometimes in spectacular fashion. The general public is finally being forced to face the fact that men in power are emboldened by that power to sexually harass, abuse, and assault women and young girls. More than five years after twenty small children were fatally shot at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the United States continues to be rocked by gun violence even as Congress chips away at safety measures. Seventy-three years after the defeat of the Third Reich, followers of extreme-right agendas are openly flying Nazi flags as they march in the streets of the western world and chant slogans against Jews and Muslims.

On nearly a daily basis, a president accused of sexual misconduct by nineteen women continues to blame his ongoing troubles on the woman who beat him by nearly three million votes when he became president via the electoral college and the votes of nineteen percent of the national population. In Alabama, a former judge accused by nine women of sexual misconduct (including sexual assault of a 14-year-old) refused to acknowledge that he lost an election for U.S. Senate weeks after the votes were counted and the result certified. In the U.S. Congress, male members of both parties have been accused of long-term sexual harassment, and prominent figures have resigned. Supporters of each of the two major political parties continue to denounce the accused on the other side as degenerates while defending, excusing, and minimizing those on their side.

The statistics on the ongoing gun violence in the United States are staggering. In the first half of 2018, there were over 15,000 injuries and 7,000 deaths, including more than 1,500 teens and 300 children. There were over 150 mass shootings and approximately the same number of police officers shot or killed in the line of duty. The numbers of incidents of defensive and unintentional shootings are nearly equal to each other. Even as these numbers continue to grow, the House of Representatives passed a bill that requires all states to recognize concealed-carry permits from every other state, aiming to gut the ability of local jurisdictions to enforce their own gun safety laws.

In several U.S. cities, white nationalists whose parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents died fighting the Third Reich have held rallies featuring anti-Semitic chants and the flying of Nazi flags. In Germany itself, a far-right party has won seats in parliament for the first time in nearly 60 years. In Poland, an estimated 60,000 people marched with neo-Nazi banners and chanted “Sieg Heil” in a city that actual Nazis in World War II bombed, occupied, and then used as the site of an extermination camp. The U.S. president defended the American white nationalists as including “some very fine people,” and Poland’s interior minister referred to the march in Warsaw as “a beautiful sight.”

Ragnarök by Johannes Gehrts (1855-1921)

Powerful men brazenly flout any limits on their sexual appetites. A society brushes aside mass murder and the killing of children. The descendants of those killed by Nazis embrace the creed of the Third Reich and turn on members of their own communities.

Whenever another news story on these subjects appears, I am reminded of the words of the prophecy of the coming of Ragnarök (“doom of the powers”) in the Icelandic poem Völuspá (“Prophecy of the Seeress”):
Brothers shall fight and fell each other,
And sisters’ sons shall kinship stain;
Hard is it on earth, with mighty whoredom;
Axe-time, sword-time, shields are sundered,
Wind-time, wolf-time, ere the world falls;
Nor ever shall men each other spare.
I don’t cite this verse for mystical, militant, or millennial ends, but because it seems to describe this point in history. Across the years and centuries, these words always seem apropos of the present moment. We are always approaching Ragnarök. We are always living in Kali Yuga. Society is always breaking down. Things are always falling apart. What can we do?

Affirming the World

Those who practice some form of Ásatrú or Heathenry can declare again that we belong to world-affirming religious traditions, and we can embrace the knowledge that past and present forms of these religions focused on right action in this moment rather than pompous promises of the distant future. We can allow our study and love of the long-ago Heathen ages to inspire our lives now in a way that drives us to engage with the great conflicts of our times rather than turn our backs on them.

Many Heathens readily declare themselves ready for action. Over the years, I have often seen social media posts by male Heathens who post memes and comments with some variation of, “If you lay an unwelcome hand on my daughter, I will hunt you down and brutally murder you in revenge.” However, these Vikings of theoretical future scenarios rarely take equally strong stands regarding the revealed epidemic of sexual misconduct that women have always known of but that is only now receiving widespread media coverage.

Women who speak of harassment and assault within Heathen communities are disbelieved or denounced as troublemakers. Women who go public with their testimonies of public figures are dismissed as “trying to cash in,” while the politicians accused endlessly receive the benefit of the doubt.

If a man is willing to commit murder — and therefore either be shot down by police, face government execution, or spend his life behind bars — on the hypothetical future word of his daughter, maybe he should also be willing to believe and support other brave women who have already come forward. If he can support vigilante execution of a theoretical future attacker, it doesn’t seem too extreme for him to support calls for those abusers currently in power to step down from office and face legal consequences, regardless of party affiliation.

"Walkyries leading the warriors on to battle" by F.W. Heine (1845-1921)

There are also many Heathens in North America who collect guns and vociferously defend the right of the private citizen to bear arms not just to execute rapists, but to resist government tyranny, to hunt, for sport, and a host of other reasons. Of these, there is a subset that supports the NRA line that any approach to curbing gun violence — including the smallest of common-sense restrictions on the purchase of guns and ammunition — is the worst form of leftist tyranny.

Defense of the community and standing up to anyone or anything that would harm it is at the core of Heathen mythology, theology, and practice. The concept of doing what needs to be done to save others — even when it means great harm to oneself — appears in texts revered by Heathens, from history to saga to myth. We don’t live in ancient times. We don’t swing axes at each other when we disagree. Our conflicts are settled in the ballot box, in the legislative chamber, and in the courtroom. At least, that is the ideal fought for by those who came before us and who built the societies in which we live.

Maybe we should be more open to the idea of voluntarily giving up some elements of the current set of privileges regarding gun and ammunition purchase and ownership, so that we can protect our communities at a more fundamental level than carrying pistols on our hips. Maybe protecting those around us from all the mass shootings and even unintentional deaths requires manly men to give up something that matters to them in order to encourage a positive change in the wider world.

I am fortunate to know many Heathens around the world who say that they have no tolerance for racism in their religion, who publicly declare that there is no place for white nationalism in their faith system or religious organization. Unfortunately, some of these same practitioners who announce themselves against racism in general will also strongly denounce other Heathens who stand against racists in particular. The common assertion states that Nazis are always bad, but that those who discuss specific white nationalist actions, publications, individuals, and organizations are the ones truly harming the community.

What community? White nationalist Heathens have mocked inclusive Heathens for decades. The derogatory terms have become more vulgar with the times — from universalist and liberal to snowflake and cuck — but the disdain has remained constant. The racist Heathens see themselves as wolves and the inclusive Heathens as sheep. Common sense would dictate that sheep don’t try to hug a hungry wolf pack.

Instead of designing flyers and writing declarations, maybe it is time for today’s Heathens to do as the practitioners of the Old Way did long ago, to venture out into the world, build alliances, and truly stand against the monstrous. Maybe the time has come to hold interfaith events with local Muslims, join public protests against anti-immigrant government action, work with organizations that challenge police violence against African-Americans, and otherwise put down the smartphone and take specific positive actions.

A New Hope

Are there Heathens already doing what has been suggested here? Yes, there are. That’s why there is hope.

We are constantly bombarded with a stream of bad news, horror stories, negative comments, and open hostility. Yet there are so many people in the world working for good, people whose efforts go unnoticed at best and ridiculed at worst.

Those of us who work in the media have a responsibility to shine a light on injustice and to hold public figures accountable. All of us have a responsibility to speak out against bigotry and injustice wherever we see it, especially within our own communities. As Odin advises in the poem Hávamál (“Sayings of the High One”),
Profit thou hast if thou hearest,
Great thy gain if thou learnest:
If evil thou knowest, as evil proclaim it,
And make no friendship with foes.
On the other hand — and Odin is always ready with the other hand — he also advises this:
If a friend thou hast whom thou fully wilt trust,
And good from him wouldst get,
Thy thoughts with his mingle, and gifts shalt thou make,
And fare to find him oft.
In addition to calling out what is wrong, we should also celebrate what is right. The media must include stories of special kindness as well as tales of particular evil. We must call out our friends when they act falsely, but we should also praise them publicly when they perform bravely.

Share your good deeds. Promote the good done by others. Take positive steps and encourage others both by example and by invitation. Work to engage with the wider world with whatever talents you have: writing, conversation, teaching, art, organizing, working with the government, joining with good people of other faith traditions. Whatever your forte is, there is need for you.

If you are already doing these things – and many of you are – spread the word! Contact me and let me know what you are doing to work for positive change. Create a Facebook page or website. Get in touch with local newspapers and radio stations. Let the world know.

Agnar brings the disguised Odin a drink – Lorenz Frøhlich (1820-1908)

This article began with a dark verse, so I’ll end it with two positive verses that I also think about often. Both are the words of Odin. They don’t appear next to each other in Hávamál, but they work well together.
No great thing needs a man to give,
Oft little will purchase praise;
With half a loaf and a half-filled cup
A friend full fast I made.

Then began I to thrive, and wisdom to get,
I grew and well I was;
Each word led me on to another word,
Each deed to another deed.
You don’t have to accomplish some massive act to make a change in the world. Small acts of kindness can counterbalance large-scale villainy. Each positive deed weaves webs of right relationships and encourages the doing of further good. If more of us choose light, we can outshine the darkness.

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

Friday, June 22, 2018

Of Stryper and Viking Fidget Spinners

Back in high school in the late 1980s, my friend Dan really liked the band Stryper. He cut the sleeves off his jean jacket, drew the band’s logo in Elmer’s Glue on the back, then threw gold and black glitter at it to make the only Stryper vest any of us had ever seen. We teased him mercilessly.

Why? Because Stryper was a totally cheesy Christian glam metal band from Orange County that sang about Jesus while wearing mascara and yellow spandex, and that seemed the most un-metal thing possible to a bunch of teenage hippies and metalheads in 1986.

The cassette cover of Stryper's To Hell with the Devil (1986)

The band sold t-shirts that read “777, To Hell with the Devil” and sang lyrics like this:
Oh, what did you say?
Oh, Christ is the way!
Rockin’ for the One who is the Rock!

I feel His strength come into me!
Reading His word helps me to see!
I feel so new, I want to sing!
Feeling His joy in everything!
The record featuring these catchy lyrics was the first Christian metal album to go platinum. This was exactly the kind of fervently faithful (and unintentionally homoerotic) corporate Christian rock that South Park would later mercilessly lampoon in their “Christian Rock Hard” episode.

Three decades after Dan made his Stryper vest, I found myself wearing commercially-produced Amon Amarth t-shirts with pictures of Odin on the front and odes to the Norse god on the back.

Why? Because Amon Amarth is a totally badass melodic death metal band from Sweden that sings about Odin while wearing Thor’s hammers and Viking beards, and that was the most metal thing possible to a middle-aged dad-rocker in 2016.

The "limited edition box set" of Amon Amarth's Jomsviking (2016)

The band sells t-shirts that read “Thunder God, Master of War” and sings lyrics like this:
Fire! Burning in his eyes!
Fire! His hate is pure, see the lightning strike!

Lightning cracks the blackened sky! Hear the thunder chariot ride!
All brave men with hearts of war!
Ride the path of mighty Thor!
Is this really any less cheesy than what Stryper was doing in the 1980s? Is there a fundamental difference between rockin’ for Jesus and headbangin’ for Thor?

I’m not the only practitioner of Ásatrú with Amon Amarth t-shirts in his closet. There is a sizable subset of Heathens around the world that listens to metal bands that have built their lyrics and image around Norse Pagan themes, whether they are categorized as Viking metal, Pagan metal, folk metal, or something else.

Are the Heathens who dig these bands fundamentally different than Christians who thought Stryper was totally awesome?

Johan Hegg, Amon Amarth’s vocalist, told me back in 2010 that his band embracing a Norse theme was “accidental from the start.” Only one of their early songs was about Norse mythology, but they went on to write many more on the same theme to great success on the metal scene.

By the time I met him, Hegg seemed ready to move on to other lyrical topics, but said, “It’s at the point where it’s hard to change it, because people expect us to do it.” The band has released three studio albums since then, all about Ragnarök and Vikings.

Hegg also told me that, although some of his lyrics “are kind of preaching,” he is an atheist with an interest in Norse mythology as “a philosophical thing.”

Heri Joensen of the band Týr sells t-shirts with the Converse All-Star logo changed to Convert All-Pagan, yet he not only told me that he is an atheist, but – when I asked him why he had such a problem with his fans who were also Heathens – he said that their beliefs are “obviously not true. Having to explain that to adults, I think, is a waste of my good time.”

"Convert All Pagan" t-shirt sold by Týr on Paganfest America Party IV tour (2013)

If the people writing, recording, and performing songs about practicing Heathenry are atheists with no interest in the modern religions, why is their music so attractive to Heathens? Týr actually has lost some Heathen support due to Joensen’s comments to me and on other outlets, but other bands continue to be popular with the practicing crowd.

Do the beliefs of the band matter? Maybe not, given that Black Sabbath was arguably a Catholic metal band that wrote a song supporting the pope (later covered by Stryper) and released an album cover (based on illustrations given to the creative director at his confirmation) contrasting the suffering of the sinner on the front with the bliss of the good Christian on the back, yet I have never heard of a non-Christian metalhead avoiding their music because of the band members’ Catholic worldview.

Does the music produced and the image marketed matter? Hegg told me that, in rebelling against “the so-called standards and rules… made up by religion or religious people,” a band has to “take the opposite stand.” The stark opposition between Stryper singing about Christ’s “joy in everything” and Amon Amarth singing that Thor’s “hate is pure” is intentional. Ditto for Týr’s album By the Light of Northern Star, which features both the anthemic “Hold the Heathen Hammer High” and a cover image of a Viking chopping down a crucifix with his sword.

At least for these bands, Heathenry is a vehicle for promoting atheism and anti-Christian ideology.

Is this something that should be attractive to Heathens? Turning Thor into a hateful anti-Christ and glorifying in the destruction of the sacred symbols of another faith seems more heathen (in the derogatory sense used by conservative Christians for all those outside their faith) than it does Heathen (in the positive sense used by practitioners of contemporary Germanic Paganism).

If we truly are our deeds, as many Heathens believe, is saluting a hateful god and celebrating violence towards “infidels” what we want to be doing? Metal musician, convicted murderer, church-burner, and “Pagan European” Varg Vikernes is no hero of mine, and his hateful views are no part of my religious beliefs.

At least the Stryper fans were celebrating a band that stayed true to the most basic positive aspects of the faith of their fans. Should we be promoting bands that themselves promote a cartoonish view of historical and contemporary Heathen religion that is almost exclusively about the bloodshed at Ragnarök and the violence of Viking raids? For the vast majority of Heathens today, this is not what their worldview is about.

"Ragnar Norse Odin Viking Ragnarok Men's Premium T-Shirt" sold online

The issue of Heathen swag goes beyond the metal subculture. For every young Christian wearing a WWJD (“What would Jesus do?”) bracelet in the 1990s, there’s an adult Heathen wearing a valknut pendant they bought on Amazon in the 2010s. For every evangelical girl who wore a purity ring then, there’s a Heathen woman with a shield-maiden from the Vikings TV show as her online avatar.

Aside from the cheese factor, do we really want to replicate the shallowest and most corporate elements of the late-1900s surge of evangelical pop culture? It’s one thing to craft your own jewelry or support Heathen artists, designers, crafters, and businesses. It’s another to wear cheap corporate hokum designed to cash in on the Viking fad in commercial pop culture as an expression of religious adherence.

Again, I’m as guilty as the next person. My first Thor’s hammer was in the shape it takes in the Marvel comics. My second was the same cheap pewter one many newbies start out with. I love Thor comics, but I’ve felt weird for a while about wearing Marvel Thor t-shirts, since I imagine people saying, “Oh, so you do worship a comic book character!”

Of course I don’t worship the superhero created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, but appearances do matter, and we’re already dealing with a lot of misconceptions about Ásatrú and Heathenry.

The most recent impetus for this doubt and questioning was a runic fidget spinner. It is literally a fidget spinner covered in runes. In the Heathen Facebook group where I saw it posted, the universal response was “shut up and take my money!” I couldn’t help thinking of 1980s evangelicals who obsessively and compulsively put crucifixes on everyday objects from key chains to conversion vans. Do we really have to have runes on everything?

"Fidget toy metal viking pirate hand spinner finger stress spinner rudder" on eBay

As with the metal music, the cheese is coupled with violent Viking stereotypes. For a while, targeted online advertising was peppering me with ads for the most tasteless tchotchkes “inspired by real Viking jewelry.” I don’t really need a pewter pimp-ring with a skull floating over a valknut or a set of dangly earrings featuring a pentagram inscribed onto Thor’s hammer, thanks.

Also, no, I would not like to purchase a baseball hat that says “ASATRU.” I would probably giggle-snort uncontrollably if I saw someone in a trucker hat that said “JUDAISM” or “MORMONISM.” Again, I humbly suggest that we all maybe consider not replicating the most cringeworthy aspects of Reagan-era Christian fundamentalism.

If you want to wear a red plastic WWTS (“What would Thor smite?”) bracelet, more power to you. Right now, I’m wearing an old t-shirt for the Texan band the Sword that has Odin’s three (!) ravens on the front, because it’s totally metal. Let’s just be honest about how cheesy this all is, and maybe reflect a bit on whether we should be out in the world promoting the idea that Heathenry, divine hate, and Viking violence are integrally connected.

Given what’s going on in the United States these days, and given that some Heathens on the extreme fringe are cheering on the Nazis, maybe wearing your Thor’s hammer over that metal shirt with a bloody Viking bludgeoning someone to death isn’t the best fashion choice.

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

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Mythology Matters

My short essay on mythology and meaning was published in October as the afterword to David Fletcher's Myth Education: A Guide to Gods, Goddesses, and Other Supernatural Beings. The author and publisher have kindly given permission to repost it here. I hope that it sparks some thought and discussion about mythology and religion in a comparative and interfaith context, and I hope that you check out David's new book by clicking here.

Myth Education by David Fletcher

Mythology Matters
by Karl E. H. Seigfried

We live in a paradoxical age. Fantastic technologies dreamed up by science fiction writers of yesteryear are now unremarkable commonplaces deeply integrated into the lives of those who can afford them. Notions of identity and self-definition have changed radically in a few short years, and once-immutable characteristics have become remarkably fluid. Cheek by jowl with this futurism, however, ancient mythologies continue to play a powerful role in all realms of human life throughout the world. The words of long-ago desert prophets are invoked by various factions in a variety of wars, and the worship of old gods continues to gain ground in the supposedly post-religious western world.

Mythology permeates our private and public discourse. When our friends, colleagues, and political leaders speak of praying for the victims of violent tragedy, of a deity granting a specific land to members of a single religion, and of the deceased going to a better place, they are forwarding ancient dialogues concerning supernatural figures that listen to our silent thoughts and grant wishes, contracts with otherworldly beings that trump political negotiations, and an invisible essence within human beings that separates from the body at death and travels to another world. In these and many other instances, the worldviews of today are not so different from those of ancient times.

Citizens of the western world are generally familiar with the mythologies of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. At least, they believe themselves to be. Followers of the Abrahamic religions – the Big Three that share belief in the god of Abraham – often have detailed knowledge of the tales of their own tradition and general familiarity with the figures of the other two. These are the faith systems that are deeply woven into the fabric of our experience. Their intertwined histories and ongoing conflicts continue to affect life today, from the smallest personal interactions to the largest global conflicts. Even those who don’t actively believe in the ultimate truth of the myths speak the language of these traditions.

Beside the Abrahamic mythologies stand those of the Greeks and Romans. As a child, my parents – who both long ago left religious orders to become philosophy professors – told me that I could believe whatever I wanted when I grew up, but that I had to know the Abrahamic and Greco-Roman myths in order to be a citizen of the world. Art, music, theater, literature, politics, and popular culture have invoked the gods and heroes of classical antiquity for millennia, and they continue to do so today. These myths are all around us, from politicians who negotiate under the shadows of marble gods to readers who thrill to the latest young adult series featuring the Greek gods interacting with modern children.

"Heimdall Brings Forth the Gifts of the Gods" by Nils Asplund (1907)

Yet there is more to mythology than this. Other myths and other gods also play important roles in our cultural and political lives. From Wagner’s operas to Marvel superheroes to Scandinavian metal to the modern religion of Ásatrú, Norse mythology has been and remains a deep well from which to draw wisdom and inspiration. Many roads lead northward, guiding generations or readers, writers, composers, and listeners to tales of Odin and Thor. The novels of J.R.R. Tolkien, the comics of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and now cable television programs centered on old Viking heroes and newly returned deities continue to generate interest in the gods, goddesses, giants, dwarves, elves, and dragons of the Norse myths. These myths are the remnants of a religion that was consciously eradicated over long centuries of Christian expansion, but a new version of the religious tradition has arisen that once again celebrates the myths in a spiritual context. Since its founding in Iceland in 1972, the Ásatrú religion has now spread to nearly one hundred countries and has approximately forty thousand followers worldwide.

Many other mythologies have similar stories of survival and revival. Like Norse mythology, the Celtic myths have experienced a notable resurgence since an explosion of interest during the Romantic Era. African mythology has long been embraced by African-Americans interested in reinforcing connections to the lands of their ancestors. Myths of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia still percolate through human consciousness and manifest in unexpected artistic and literary forms. The indigenous mythologies of the Americas continue to thrill and inspire visitors to ancient sites of celebration and sacrifice. The myths of China and Japan continue to play powerful roles in the cultural and spiritual lives of millions of people around the world.

Engagement with the ancient myths enriches our experience of living. That may seem like an outsized statement, but mythology is an outsized category. The more we learn about the mythologies of the world, the more we both recognize commonality and understand difference. All of these myths arose from human experiences that we all share, but they also developed in specific historical and cultural settings. In our troubled modern world, anything that can help us to find common ground while embracing true diversity is greatly welcome. Enjoy the myths, and be open to learning from them.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Another High School Student Asks About Norse Mythology and Norse Religion, Part Two

Click here for Part One.

Do you feel that any modern persons could sacrifice themselves to such an extent as Odin did to gain knowledge?

Yes, and they often do. In one myth, Odin gives up an eye in order to drink from the Well of Wisdom. In another myth, he stabs himself with a spear and hangs himself on the World Tree, sacrificing himself to himself. He peers into the depths of death, falling back into the world of the living but bringing the wisdom of the runes back with him for the benefit of gods and humans. In both myths, he does great violence to himself in order to gain great wisdom. What does this have to do with modern people?

Emil Doepler's illustration of Odin hanging on the World Tree (1905)

If you watched the Olympics that just finished, you heard the stories of Lindsey Vonn, Shaun White, and many others who were horrifically injured as they pursued their dreams of standing at the top of their sports – dreams that their perseverance and force of will in the face of grievous bodily harm enabled them to make real. How many boxers and football players have sustained incredible damage during competition, only to battle back and become great champions? How many of them have traded brain damage for accomplishment on the field and in the ring? The sacrificing of self is a common factor among the all-time greats of multiple sports.

Yet this isn’t simply something that only athletes do. Musicians spend long years practicing for long hours each day, building their technical and artistic skills yet also creating joint and muscle pain that can become debilitating later in life. If you attend a professional orchestra rehearsal, you’ll see oboe players wearing gloves with the fingers cut off, violinists with wrist braces, and bass players stretching against the wall during breaks. Gaining knowledge and ability in the musical world regularly requires physical sacrifices, even though music educators and entertainers do not often discuss them.

But is the myth of Odin’s self-sacrifice actually about physical pain? Earlier, I mentioned Ricœur’s idea of myths being narratives in which symbols interact. Like any myth, this story of Odin has layers deeper than those at the superficial level of plot action. I’ve been asked several times by students and readers which of Odin’s two eyes was sacrificed, the left or the right? I honestly don’t think it matters. Myth doesn’t operate at the level of the everyday and ordinary. Odin didn’t have to go to the emergency room and get medical treatment after plucking out his own eye or after stabbing and hanging himself. Myth is about bigger things.

If we agree with Ricœur’s theory, then we have to ask what Odin symbolizes. His name is related to words for frenzy, fury, possession, poetry, and seeing. That’s already a wide range of symbolic meanings, before we even begin to examine the more than 150 other names under which he appears in the Old Norse sources. Which of these meanings are meaningful to you? What matters so much to you that you are willing to sacrifice some part of yourself in order to gain or achieve it? I don’t mean cutting out an eye or lopping off a body part. A dedicated author, engineer, or educator can dedicate their time to their profession and cut out time with her loved ones. The older I get, the more I believe that losing unrecoverable time with your loved ones can be as painful a sacrifice as that described in the myth.

What do you think we could learn from Norse culture and beliefs?

I’m not sure that I buy into the common idea that ancient religious texts are repositories of spiritual wisdom that can teach eternal truths to modern people, but I do believe that seriously engaging with older mythology and poetry can stimulate us to think about our own lives and our own world in interesting ways. One of the first meaningful moments in my own reading of the Norse material was when I first read this verse from Hávamál (“Sayings of the High One”), in which Odin talks about insomnia:
The stupid man stays awake all night
and worries about everything;
he’s tired out when the morning comes
and all’s just as bad as it was.
Although it’s not fun to be called stupid by a Norse god, I have to admit that I’ve spent many nights in my life staring at the ceiling and worrying about everything from school projects to the eternal void of non-being in death. Odin is absolutely right that nothing is accomplished by this, other than being exhausted the next day.

Odin by Eleanor Dawn Schnarr, second place in Midwinter 2013 Art Contest

Reading this verse, I didn’t think that I had discovered some mystical ancient wisdom that the old ones had passed down through the centuries to grant me enlightenment. What was meaningful to me was realizing that a poet over one thousand years ago was thinking about the same things I was, that people in the long ago time also stared into the darkness in the nighttime hours and were unable to sleep. It wasn’t a quest for answers that drew me to Norse mythology but a realization that these people had so long ago asked the same questions that some of us do today.

There are many other things in Norse mythology and poetry that modern people can find meaningful. Probably the most famous verse in the same Odin poem is this:
Cattle die, kinsmen die,
the self must also die;
but the glory of reputation never dies,
for the man who can get himself a good one.
One way to read this verse is as promoting the idea that “we are our deeds.” Everything dies eventually, even the self itself. What lives on is not an immortal soul that dances in heaven but the deeds one does in life, which live on in the memories of the living. Reading the Old Norse poem this way can be supported by comparing the verse to an incredibly similar one in the Old English poem known as The Wanderer:
Here wealth is temporary, here a friend is temporary,
here oneself is temporary, here a kinsman is temporary;
all the foundation of the earth will become worthless!
Two pairs of Old Norse and Old English words in these verses are related: /feoh (“cattle”/“wealth”) and frændr/frēond (“kinsmen”/“friend”). Even in translation, the verses are clearly parallel. The message of the endings of each verse, however, are quite different. The Old Norse poem responds to a recognition of the finite nature of life by insisting that deeds in this world are what matter, that – as in the other verse discussed earlier – you shouldn’t lay awake at night worrying about what happens after you die; your actions in this life are what truly matter to those around you. The Old English poem responds to the same realization of mortality by denigrating the worth of the world itself and suggesting that the afterlife is all that truly matters; this is made explicit in the conclusion of the poem, which is written from a medieval Christian worldview.

What is there to learn here? For one thing, if this reading is correct, it suggests that there were real and fundamental differences between the worldviews of Norse polytheism and Christian monotheism. Not just in the number of gods, but in the nature of the individual’s relationship to life and to the world. Is the meaning of life to be found in its living, or is earthly existence just a worthless sojourn before eternal bliss? Again, this isn’t so much about finding answers in these old poems, but about asking questions with them and reflecting on what answers may be meaningful.

What is something often mistaken or debated about Norse mythology?

I know that I just answered your previous question by talking about death, but I really do think that the notion that Norse mythology and religion are dark, doomy, and depressing is a mistaken one. For example, the verse from the Odin poem about an individual’s reputation living on after the person dies is, I think, a hopeful one. It suggests that living your life has meaning and value, that what you do during your years on earth is absolutely not worthless – as the Old English poet insists – but that your deeds will live on and your life really does matter. To me, that is the opposite of gloomy. It is a powerful statement of the deep value of all life and all lives.

This recognition of life’s worth runs through the Norse myths. The myth of Ragnarök (“doom of the powers”) – which tells of the gods facing off against the giants and their allies in the final battle – is often portrayed as a grim celebration of violence. When the myth is invoked by Viking metal bands and comic book artists, however, they usually leave off the ending of the story in which the earth rises a second time from the waters, green with new life, and the gods who survive the battle celebrate the lives of those who did not. As Odin says, “the glory of reputation never dies.” The gods are not defined by how they died, but how they lived.

Emil Doepler's illustration of the new world after Ragnarök (1905)

In the distant future after the cataclysm, the bright god Baldr will return from the realm of Hel and forgive the blind god Höðr, who had earlier killed him at the instigation of Loki. While remembering the deeds of the departed, the gods will live in a new golden age in which their children will prosper – including the two sons of Thor, who now carry his hammer Mjölnir. New crops will grow, new settlements will be built, and the young gods will rediscover the games played by the first gods in the earliest days at the other end of the mythic timeline. What does this all mean?

Against the idea that Norse myth all leads up to a bloody battle, I argue that what it really leads to is this, to a bright and beautiful future in some distant time. Yes, you and I will die. Our children will die. But we will also live, and our children will live, and our children’s children will live. Immortality is in the continuing line of life and memory. Some day, far in the future, maybe some distant descendant of yours will find something you left behind – a poem, a building, a cure for cancer – and will wonder about you with the same beautiful melancholy that I think is expressed in the post-Ragnarök myth.

As with any mythological system, people pick and choose the bits that reflect their own conceptions and prejudices. I’ve enjoyed listening to Amon Amarth’s songs about the final battle of gods and giants, and I loved the Thor: Ragnarok movie (which admittedly had more to do with Planet Hulk than Norse mythology). But for me, the real power of the myths is the sense within them that life is worth living, that deeds matter, and that new beauty will arise from the ashes of destruction. There is so much beauty in the myths: the goddess Freyja flying in her cloak of falcon feathers, Thor taking children with him on his epic adventures, and the gods bringing the first humans to life from the stuff of trees. I hope that you can find the wonders that I see in these tales of long ago.
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