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.

Monday, March 5, 2018

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

I regularly receive emails from students of various ages asking to interview me about Norse mythology and Norse religion for their class projects. These requests come too often for me to answer them all, but I have answered the questions of five inquisitive young people over the last seven years. Today, I’m posting my answers to a sixth student.

In 2011, I answered a series of questions from a high school student. In 2012, I wrote replies to a middle school student. I was interviewed by one sixth grader in 2013 and another in 2014. My answers for a college student were written in 2016. This new pair of posts features my answers to the first high school student since the very first entry in this series. You can find all of the previous interviews in the For Students section of The Norse Mythology Blog Archive.

Heritage High School in Vancouver, Washington

Rachel Carpenter is a junior at Heritage High School in Vancouver, Washington. She’s currently taking the Advanced Placement Language and Composition course taught by Mr. Nathaniel Messer, who writes:
Students in my class are currently researching topics that they are passionate about in order to write a lengthy research paper. One of their requirements is to interview somebody who is an expert in the field of their interest. This is a rich learning experience for my students, and it is much more meaningful when it extends beyond the high school walls.
Rachel read my past student interviews and then sent me nine questions. Rather than write superficial answers to all of them, I decided to answer five in detail. There’s so much more to say on all the topics that Rachel broached in her interview questions, and I hope that the answers I’m able to provide will be interesting to her and will encourage others to explore this enormous and fascinating subject.

What is your area of specialty?

Studying, teaching, and writing about Norse mythology are the roots of what I do, but the tree has many branches. Myths are the traditional stories that give narrative form to the symbols, beliefs, values, practices, and understandings of the world that are important to the community that tells them, and they are therefore an integral part of the religious culture that gave rise to them. So I also study Norse religion, the wider world of Germanic polytheism, and the even broader area of Indo-European religions.

Germanic doesn’t mean German, but refers to the various peoples that speak Germanic languages such as German, English, Icelandic, Norwegian, and so on. Before Northern Europe’s conversion to Christianity, there were multiple forms of polytheistic religion throughout this large region over a great expanse of time. There seem to have been mythological and religious concepts that were common over parts of this area and era, but there was also a very wide variety of beliefs and practices. There was a Thor in Iceland, a Thunor in England, and a Donar in Germany. Part of the fun of this field is trying to figure out what these figures had in common and how they differed.

The term Indo-European refers to a wider set of languages and peoples of which Germanic is just one branch. The Indo-European family tree also includes language groups such as Celtic, Hellenic, Indic, Iranian, Romance, and Slavic. Along with the connections in language, there are connections in cultural and religious ideas. Similar myths, concepts, and rituals appear in Norse, Greek, and Hindu religious systems. There are amazing parallels between the myths of medieval Iceland and those of ancient India, for example. The field of comparative mythology can wander into some strange alleys, but here is much to be learned by studying these related traditions.

Family tree of Indo-European and Uralic languages by Minna Sundberg

Although I am fascinated and entranced by these other traditions, I always come back to my roots in Norse mythology. These are the myths that speak most deeply to me at a personal and spiritual level. I didn’t make a conscious choice to center on this mythology. The first time I read the Norse myths retold by the Irish poet Padraic Colum in his book Children of Odin, I immediately felt that I knew the gods, goddesses, and other figures of the tales. I saw my father in Odin and my grandfather in Thor. The myths seemed much more than merely grand tales of adventure – although they are that! From my perspective, they expressed a worldview that I already held.

So, whether I am composing columns about current events, authoring academic articles on Hinduism, teaching classes about J.R.R. Tolkien, lecturing on the operas of Richard Wagner, or training high school teachers how to teach Beowulf, the Norse myths are never far from my mind. I’m lucky enough to be able to have a specialty that I truly love.

Why do you think Norse mythology may be popular today?

I think there are as many reasons as there are people who are attracted to the myths. Mythology is a malleable and multiform thing. Myths are retold and reinterpreted across the generations and throughout the world. Three people can tell the same story and emphasize three different meanings. Nine people can read a single tale and give it nine different interpretations. I think we have to resist a fundamentalist tendency that leads some people to insist that they know what a given myth “really means.”

The philosopher Paul Ricœur wrote about myths as spaces in which symbols interact in narrative form. What does Thor represent? What does Odin represent? What does it mean when they face each other across a river and trade detailed insults, as they do in the poem Hárbarðsljóð (“Song of Graybeard”)? The most respected academics in the field of Old Norse studies have long disagreed about the meanings that underlie this and other mythological poems of medieval Iceland. If you include the views of non-academic readers, there is an even larger number of interpretations.

W.G. Collingwood's 1908 illustration of Thor and Odin in Hárbarðsljóð

I am not saying that anything goes, that myths can mean absolutely anything. I believe that the person who really wants to dig into Norse mythology (or any mythology) should learn as much as she can about the myths – who likely composed them, why they may have been composed, who wrote them down, why they were written down, what the historical and cultural situations were in which they were told and preserved, how they relate to religious beliefs and rituals, and so on. Part of both the problem and the fun of this field is that the evidence can be interpreted in different ways. I’m arguing for informed interpretation, for being able to read the myths in a way that makes sense within their long and complicated histories.

But we are not all academics, and we are not all scholars. The world would be a boring place if we were! There have been generations of brilliant retellings and reinterpretations of the myths by poets, painters, authors, and artists. Some, like Padraic Colum and Neil Gaiman, stay very close to the recorded sources from Iceland and basically repackage the existing tales in modern language. Others, like Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, place the figures of myth in radically different narrative settings. Still others, like J.R.R. Tolkien and the fantasy writers that followed him, use elements of the mythology in such transformed form that much of their audience is completely unaware of the sources.

I suppose my answer to your question is that Norse mythology continues to be so popular today because it can be endlessly retold and reshaped to fit an enormous variety of settings and situations. This is true of mythology in general. There is a current fascination with Vikings in popular culture that already seems to be on the wane. Twenty years ago the obsession was with all things Celtic. I’m willing to bet that the Norse and Viking trends will soon give way to another ancient mythology being the center of popular culture. Maybe it will be middle-eastern myth. It’s been nearly eighty years since The Thief of Baghdad played in movie theaters. There are many other tales in One Thousand and One Nights waiting to be retold for new audiences.

To be continued in Part Two.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Remember the Shield-maidens

Last June, Jade Pichette started the #HavamalWitches hashtag on Facebook. Her explanatory post referenced the Old Norse poem Hávamál (“Sayings of the High One”) and was addressed to women who practice Ásatrú and Heathenry, modern iterations of Germanic polytheism. She called upon her audience to share their experiences of sexism within their religious communities:
So a hashtag #HavamalWitches has started to critique sexism in the Heathen community. Overall the women and femmes in the Heathen community have put up with a lot of sexism and this is basically us letting off steam and making transparent what we experience. It references the fact in the Havamal there are some really sexist stanzas so we are the Witches the Havamal warns you about. If you have posts to make please do, and if you are comfortable feel free to do so publicly.
As so often happens, the hashtag was quickly hijacked by straight white men who questioned the women’s knowledge of poetry, mythology, and history; who challenged the veracity of their testimonials of personal experience; who denied that misogyny and sexism exist within their own communities; and/or who insisted that men are the ones who are really discriminated against.

Of course, #NotAllMen acted like this. Some jumped in to support the women and argue with the trollish types. I followed one long Facebook thread that was completely swamped by men fighting each other. Despite the good intentions of the anti-troll brigade, the fact remains that men on both sides took over a hashtag asking women to share their experiences with sexism.

Man vs. Woman by Clauss Pflieger (1459)

This was not a unique happening. Over and over again, we see public online dialogue between women interrupted and dominated by men. This happens whether the initial posts are critical or celebratory.

Last May, men’s rights activist types were furious when the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin announced women-only screenings of the new Wonder Woman film “for one special night.” As with the #HavamalWitches thread, the nastiness of the reaction proved exactly the point being made – in this case, that women just maybe might enjoy one single evening of their lives celebrating and enjoying a female hero for a couple of hours without a chorus of condescension from male companions. For the men’s online chorus, this was absolutely and utterly unacceptable.

Last July, the announcement by the BBC that Jodie Whittaker would be the thirteenth actor to play the lead role on Doctor Who (not counting John Hurt and other special cases) caused such a flurry of fury from men with opinions about women that some people began playing “13th Doctor Casting Comments Bingo,” collecting the completely predictable predictions of disaster and outraged declarations of wounded male pride that flooded social media.

Last October, the #MeToo hashtag on social media began as a platform for women to share experiences of sexual harassment and assault in order to show how common these acts are. Since then, a social movement has grown and outed many high-profile men for (often serial) sexual misconduct. Predictably, there has been a strong backlash from powerful figures in politics and the media, and denunciations of a supposed “witch hunt” have been forwarded to defend men accused and to discredit victims of their assaults. Given that new revelations appear almost daily and that not one of the prominent men accused (including the president of the United States) has yet gone to jail for sexual assault, it seems absurd to claim that #MeToo has gone too far.

Ásatrú and Heathenry have long struggled with a very vocal minority of practitioners who espouse racist beliefs. There is an incredibly strong stance in the mainstream of the religious communities against such extremism. Sexism, however, is a more insidious force. Heathen women have shared their experiences with sexist attitudes, behaviors, and statements even in organizations that are outspoken on issues of inclusion.

“On a Whirling Wheel”

When faced with divisive issues, Heathens often turn to their hoard of inherited mythology, poetry, saga, and historical accounts, supplemented by academic works both fresh and dusty. What insights into sexism, misogyny, and the social roles of women can we gain from such a turn to the past?

Hávamál, the medieval Icelandic poem cited in the #HavamalWitches hashtag, purports to be in the voice of Odin. It does have some strikingly sexist stanzas:
84. A maiden’s words must no man trust,
nor what a woman says,
for on a whirling wheel
were hearts fashioned for them
and fickleness fixed in their breast.

90. So the loving of women –
those who think in lies –
is just like driving a horse smooth-shod
over skidding ice
– a lively two-year-old,
and badly trained –
or in a mad wind maneuvering a rudderless boat –
or like a lame man having to reach
a reindeer on a thawing hillside on skis.
The poem’s presentation of gender roles isn’t all one way, however. The speaker is also critical of male behavior towards women:
91. I now state a bare fact
– for I know both sexes –
men’s devotion to women is not dependable.
We speak fairest words
when we foster slyest thoughts –
that deceives a delicate mind.
This multivalence of views also appears elsewhere in the Poetic Edda, the collection of Icelandic poems largely found in the Codex Regius (“Royal Book”) manuscript of c. 1270 that includes Hávamál.

In Lokasenna (“Loki’s Quarrel”), many of the goddesses speak out against the belligerently sexist verbal assaults of Loki. Nearly as many women as men speak in the poem, and their responses are equally proud and powerful.

In Völuspá (“Prophecy of the Seeress”), it is a female voice (or set of voices) that speaks of what has been, is, and will be. The audience is all of humankind – “the offspring of Heimdall” – and even the wisdom-drinking patriarch Odin himself must bring gifts and plead with the wise woman to share some of her vast store of knowledge.

The Seeress and Odin by Emil Doepler (1905)

However, side by side with these portrayals of powerful women, the Poetic Edda presents pictures of stark sexual violence. The poem Skírnismál ("Sayings of the Shining One") provides a notorious example. After the giantess Gerd (“Yard”) repeatedly refuses to leave her home and marry the god Frey (“Lord”) – who may have killed her brother – his messenger threatens her with beheading, killing her father, magical domination, starvation, social ostracism, and a host of other horrors culminating in sexual slavery:
35. Hrímgrímnir [“Frost-Masked”] the ogre is called
who will have you
down below the corpse pens:
let serfs there
at the tree’s roots
serve you goats’ urine.
Grander drink
you will never get,
girl – to meet your wishes,
girl – to meet my wishes!
In Hárbarðsljóð (“Song of Graybeard”), the one thing that the quarreling Thor and Odin (in disguise as Harbard, “Graybeard”) agree upon is how enjoyable it would be to commit rape together:
Thor: You had good dealings with the girl there.

Harbard: I could have done with your help, Thor,
to hold the linen-white girl.

Thor: I’d have helped you with that, if I could have managed it.

Harbard: I’d have trusted you then, if you didn’t betray my trust.
The same balance between inspiring portrayals of powerful women and sickening celebrations of sexual assault appear in prose sources. For every brave heroine, there is a violated victim of violence.

On one hand, there are the strong women of the Icelandic sagas such as the poet Steinvora. She confronts the Saxon missionary Thangbrand, proudly preaches paganism to him, boasts that Christ was afraid to accept Thor’s challenge of single combat, and sings verses gloating that her god demolished the priest’s ship.

On the other hand, there are reports of extremely violent sexual assault. The Arab chronicler Ibn Fạdlān tells the grisly tale of a slave girl who, after she is “befuddled” with alcohol, is raped by six men before being stabbed and strangled to death beside the decaying corpse of her dead master.

“A Decay of Her Honour”

Perhaps it is time for today’s Heathens to embrace the fact that they are part of a new religious movement (NRM) founded 45 years ago. Whatever subset of Heathenry practitioners practice, the beginnings of their praxis date to the first meeting of what would become the Ásatrúarfélagið (“Ásatrú Fellowship”) at the Hotel Borg in Reykjavík on April 20, 1972.

Although historical heathenry has roots that go back 4,000 years to shadowy origins in the Bronze Age of Northern Europe, modern practice follows in the footsteps of that fateful day when a dozen visionaries gathered in Iceland to revive the old way. What that small group began has now grown into a cluster of religions found in nearly 100 countries.

Despite declarations and denials from various subsets of Heathenry, these are not ancient religions that are practiced today but rather a set of overlapping new religious movements that revive, reconstruct, and reimagine ancient Germanic polytheism using elements gathered from a great variety of sources on long-ago beliefs and practices. We study and learn as much as we possibly can about the olden times, but we cannot escape the fact that we are citizens of modern nation-states who live in the twenty-first century and self-consciously practice post-1972 traditions.

As members of modern religions, we are not bound by holy writ. The poems of medieval Iceland are intense and inspiring, but they are not divine commandments of belief and behavior. They are religio-cultural products of a specific segment of a specific population at a specific time in a specific location, and they reflect the assumptions and prejudices of those people then and there.

Codex Regius stands behind Flateyjarbók ("Flat Island Book")

The fact that the poems contain conflicting views of women underscores their human and non-definitive nature. There was disagreement then, as there is now. No single, pure, and dogmatic heathen worldview waits to be unearthed by studious spelunking through the sources. To the contrary, the fact that there is a vast variety of views is something that can push us to accept diversity within and between our own communities.

This diversity of views can also be found in professional scholarship. For every Jenny Jochens carefully parsing medieval sagas and law codes for evidence of women’s roles in Old Norse society, there is a Vilhelm Grønbech celebrating the honorable “Germanic standard” of killing one’s own daughter for having sex outside of marriage, in order to save the family from “the danger arising from a decay of her honour.” Like all of us, academics allow their own worldviews to shape their views of the past, and the result is a set of widely divergent analyses of the same materials.

Commitment to Community

If ancient sources and modern academia alike present us with conflicting ideas about women’s roles and rights, maybe we should simply recognize that views of gender and sexuality are — like those of race and ethnicity — changeable concepts that evolve over time.

We are modern people with access to amounts of information that were unimaginable even a decade or two ago. There is nothing to prevent us from being mindful members of society rather than slavish historical re-enactors.

We shouldn’t need to recite poetic verses or cite academic sources to convince men that women are people. We should all respect women as individuals and honor their input, because they are human beings with identities and agency. Period. This shouldn’t need to be spelled out, but it apparently must.

Frey ("Lord") and Freya ("Lady") by Donn P. Crane (1920)

It is possible for positive change to occur. Straight white men have to internalize the fact that they will not always be the authoritative voices and centers of attention. They have to understand that, in some situations, they need to keep their opinions to themselves and let others speak without interruption, reply, or rebuttal.

Maybe it is beyond the emotional capacity of some men today to accept that everything isn’t for them. As time goes on, these men will become increasingly marginalized as relics of a bygone era. Hopefully, they will at least find the self-restraint to refrain from committing the violent acts that they so often threaten online.

This isn’t a Heathen problem, necessarily, but it plagues Heathen communities as it does so many others. If we are proud of our commitment to community – and many of us are – let’s lead the way and work towards making our communities positive models of respectful behavior.

Sources used for this article include The Culture of the Teutons (Grønbech, trans. Worster), “Ibn Fạdlān and the Rūsiyyah” (Montgomery), The Poetic Edda (trans. Dronke, Larrington), The Story of Burnt Njal (trans. Dasent).

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