Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Ásatrú and Heathenry, Belief and Beards, Racists and Reporters


A little while ago, Boing Boing writer Seamus Bellamy contacted me for an article he was writing for the “award-winning zine, blog and directory of mostly wonderful things.” He asked me a series of questions about the modern religions of Ásatrú and Heathenry as he worked on a follow-up to an earlier article of his on Heathens in the American military.

As I’ve done in the past after being interviewed by journalists, I’m publishing the questions asked and my full answers here. Mr. Bellamy’s questions are in large bold type, with my answers following each one.

I would like to thank Mr. Bellamy for his thought-provoking questions and for providing this opportunity. I hope that my answers are interesting to some of you.

You can read the article on the Boing Boing website by clicking here.

How would you define Heathenism to someone unfamiliar with the term?

The set of definitions I wrote for the Religion Newswriters Association’s Religion Stylebook are at https://www.norsemyth.org/2013/09/asatru-definition-for-journalists.html.

Ásatrú is a modern religion that revives, reconstructs, and reimagines pre-Christian Germanic polytheistic religion with emphasis on medieval Icelandic texts. The term Ásatrú itself is modern Icelandic for “Æsir faith” and means belief in or loyalty to the major tribe of Norse gods and goddesses. Practitioners usually refer to themselves as Heathens.

More generally, the term Heathenry refers to the wider world of contemporary Germanic polytheism, which includes not only modern traditions based on older Icelandic and Norse beliefs and practices, but also on those of the Anglo-Saxons, Franks, and other ancient groups that spoke Germanic languages.

Depending where in the world you are, today’s practitioners may use the terms Ásatrú and Heathenry interchangeably, or they may insist that the first one refers specifically to beliefs and practices centered on Icelandic sources.

When we self-identify as Heathens, it doesn’t mean we’re calling ourselves “heathens” in the popular or derogatory sense. There doesn’t seem to have been a native word for the various systems of polytheistic religious beliefs and practices in any Germanic language before the clash with Christianity. After the new religion came to the north, the term Heathen (Old Norse heiðinn, Old English haéðen, Old High German heidan) was used for those who believed in what was also called the Old Way, and it’s used in this sense by modern practitioners.

Most Heathens around the world are deeply familiar with a wide range of source texts on various aspects of historical belief and practice. In order to understand the origins and development of our tradition, we study Roman reports, Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon poetry, Icelandic sagas, medieval legal codes, early German literature, nineteenth century folklore collections, and many other types of written sources – along with academic works on archaeology, history, and so on.

Rock carving from Bohuslän, Sweden (c1800 BCE)

Although it’s a modern religion, Ásatrú has a four-thousand-year history. Its gods, symbols, and rituals have roots in Northern Europe that date to approximately 2000 BCE. From shadowy beginnings in the Bronze Age through a late flowering in the Viking Age, local variants developed throughout continental Europe, the Nordic countries, and the British Isles. Large-scale public practice ended with Christian conversion, but there is documentation of private practice continuing for several centuries. Some beliefs and rituals survived into the twentieth century as elements of folk religion throughout the Northern European diaspora, including North America.

Ásatrú is what sociologists call a new religious movement (NRM). In Iceland, the old faith of Odin, Thor, Freya, and the other Norse gods and goddesses was officially abandoned for Christianity at the national assembly in the year 1000 CE. Although private practice continued for some time afterward – and folk practices continued much longer still – it wasn’t until after a group of twelve men and women adopted the term Ásatrú and formed the Ásatrúarfélagið (“Ásatrú Fellowship”) as a new religious organization in 1972 that the old gods were once more openly worshiped in the country.

The Ásatrúarfélagið was officially recognized by the Icelandic government in 1973, and its members performed the first public blót (Heathen ritual) held in Iceland since the rite was outlawed almost a thousand years earlier. The religion soon spread out internationally, and the number of adherents has greatly grown over the past forty-five years. Ásatrú is now the largest non-Christian religion in Iceland, and the construction of a major hof (Heathen temple) is nearing completion.

According to the 2013 Worldwide Heathen Census, some form of the religion can be found in ninety-eight countries, with the United States having by far the largest number of practitioners. That’s an amazing spread of what remains a largely unrecognized and misunderstood religion in less than half of a century.

What beliefs, if you are comfortable speaking about them, do you personally hold?

Worldview might be a better term than belief. In both modern Ásatrú and the ancient Germanic traditions that inform it, the focus is less on subscribing to a dogmatic set of beliefs than to experiencing and living life in a way that engages with the numinous as an intrinsic part of the world, not as an external force that stands outside time and space.

I sometimes think of Ásatrú as a poetic gloss on life that is informed by the poems, myths, sagas, legends, and histories that we turn to for information and inspiration. We don’t have sacred texts that parallel those of the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. We don’t have commandments handed down from the heavens and preserved in infallible texts. Instead, our lore provides a guide to forming ways of seeing and acting.

For just one example, a quiet walk in a forest can be a deeply meaningful experience enriched by both conscious and subconscious internal connections of the present moment to past engagement with lore of elves, myths of Odin, legends of Siegfried, and history of the early Germanic tribes. The nonverbal connection of elements can be more meaningful as a religious experience than any verbal discourse about beliefs.

This way of seeing the world leads to a way of living in the world. The past is an active a force that affects the present as the present continually becomes the past. Heathens often say that “we are our deeds,” meaning that the actions we take in the now become part of the past that determines what can happen in the future. One way of conceiving of this process is as weaving a web of wyrd, of being part of a vast network of deeds and consequences. This naturally leads to the honoring – not the worship, as it’s often misunderstood – of those who came before us and whose deeds made our own lives possible.

The Norns weaving wyrd by Charles E. Brock (1930)

In this worldview, death is the final action of an individual’s life story, but it isn’t at all the end of that life's effect on the future present. In the poem Hávamál (“Sayings of the High One”), the god Odin famously says,

Cattle die, kinsmen die,
The self dies the same,
But the glory of reputation never dies
For the one who gets himself a good one.
The focus here isn’t on a mystical afterlife, despite the pop culture emphasis on the warrior’s paradise of Valhalla. There’s an acceptance of the finality of death, but it isn’t part of some cartoonish Germanic doom and gloom. The realization of the reality of death for the individual doesn’t lead to existential paralysis. Instead, it leads to a wholehearted embrace of living life to the fullest, so that one's deeds can continue to live positively in the minds of future generations and affect the life of the living beyond the death of the individual.

The emphasis on the importance of deeds leads to a refocusing on life choices. What will you do to make a positive impact in your own lifetime? How will you work to make life better for future generations? Will you allow harm to come to your community through inaction? How will you preserve the lore of the past so that it continues to live on and have real effect in the present? Of course, other religions also ask these questions. Maybe the difference is that they are at the core of the Ásatrú tradition and not secondary to questions of salvation of the soul.

I think the Norse gods are absolutely real, but I don’t think that they are walking, talking characters as portrayed in Norse mythology. This distinction seems to hang up a lot of people. Given the prominence of evangelical and fundamentalist voices in American public discourse on religion, we tend to equate literal belief in ancient religious texts with religiosity. If you don’t believe literally that your deity is exactly as described in the texts, you must be an atheist. I disagree.

There’s a very wide range of relationships with the divine in Ásatrú and Heathenry. Depending whom you ask, the deities are conceived of as natural forces, psychological drives, poetic constructs, cultural figures, immanent material beings, or something else entirely.

I think that the gods and goddesses are all around us. I feel the might of Thor in midwestern summer thunderstorms. I feel the inspiration of Odin in moments of musical improvisation. I feel the presence of the elves in quiet places of the forest. The Old Norse texts sometimes refer to the gods as powers. That conception makes complete sense to me.

I think the Norse myths portray the gods in understandable ways, as symbols that interact with each other in narrative forms. Reading a story about Thor’s adventure can be a spiritual experience that is both related to and very different from experiencing his power in the thunderstorm. Taking myths literally as history does violence to the depth of their symbolic, religious, and cultural meaning. That violence can spill out into our interactions with others, because a fundamentalist approach to the word all too easily leads to a fundamentalist approach to the world.

How did you come to find your beliefs?

Find is a good word to use. There was no conversion process, as there often is in the Abrahamic faith traditions. Instead, there was a realization and recognition that this modern religion with ancient roots was the right thing for me. As with many Heathens, it was less a sense of coming into a new belief system than a having a sensation that this is what I already was.

When I was a kid, my parents insisted that I learn Greek, Jewish, and Christian mythology. They told me, “You can believe whatever you want when you grow up, but you need to know these traditions, or you'll never be able to understand art, literature, and music.” I was only familiar with Norse mythology in a general way, mostly through Marvel Comics and Dungeons & Dragons. The specific moment when things changed was when I stumbled across Children of Odin, the Irish poet Padraic Colum’s 1920 retelling of the major Norse myths.

Thor flies over a farmer by Max Koch (1900)

Reading the book, I immediately saw my Opa in Thor. My German grandfather was born in the old country as a peasant farmer – traditionally, the major constituency of the thunder god – and worked as a bricklayer in Milwaukee after World War II. He loved drinking, dancing, children, and good solid food. The myths specifically show Thor sharing these loves, except for the maybe the dancing. The god of the myths is arguably the idealized self-image of the free farmer, the ancient social class to which my Opa himself belonged. Like Thor, my Opa was quick to anger, yet equally quick to joy.

Odin reminded me of my father. As a young child, my dad not only survived anti-German extermination camps run by Marshal Tito’s Yugoslavian Communist Partisans, but he single-handedly rescued his extended family and led them to freedom in Austria’s British Zone, repeatedly crossing a vast distance of hostile territory in Eastern Europe on foot. As a philosophy professor at Loyola University Chicago, he spent his adult life questioning and seeking answers for the most profound of life's questions. Odin appears when his descendants are in seemingly hopeless situations, as my father did in his youth for the members of his family. In his Wanderer aspect, Odin roams the world, questioning all and seeking wisdom, which is also the philosopher’s task.

Neither Odin nor my father necessarily found joy in wisdom. Odin learns that all must someday die, even the gods and the world itself. More than half a century after he survived torture at the hands of brutal extermination camp guards, my father watched as the president of his adopted United States worked to enable the brutal torture of “enemy combatants” even as he was himself dying of cancer. For both Odin and my father, awareness of darkness led not to paralysis, but to determination to fight the good fight.

The more I learned about Norse mythology and religion, the more I felt connected to Thor and Odin. Thor goes alone against the giants as he fights the forces threatening the gods and humans under his protection. He cares very little for his own safety as he rushes headlong into battle with overwhelming opponents. He’s a great inspiration as we fight today’s battles against bigotry, homophobia, misogyny, racism, and injustice of all kinds. Thor can inspire us to bravely face the dangers that arise when challenging discrimination.

Odin inspires in a very different way. His endless questioning and searching for wisdom is what I find most inspiring. I’m not seeking mystical answers in the words of the god. It’s the questioning itself that I believe is important. I feel a connection to the poets of a thousand years and more ago who asked the same questions that bother me in the darkest hours of the night. I feel a similar connection to the god who still wanders the world and ponders the same questions under the same stars that shine down on me.

Do you have any recommended starting points for folks that might be interested in learning more about Heathenism?

If someone wants to learn about any living religion, the best thing to do is to get to know practitioners of that tradition. Thor’s Oak Kindred, the Ásatrú group in Chicago that I lead as goði (priest), has members from Chicago and the surrounding region. Anyone interested in learning about the tradition can contact us and ask for pointers about clergy or groups in their area that are holding public events or are interested in discussion.

If that seems like too much, reading is good. There are many approaches to learning about a religion, but I would suggest reading about the mythology, the historical tradition, and the modern religions.

For mythology, I recommend starting with the book that first got me into all of this – Padraic Colum’s Children of Odin (1920). It tells all the major myths in a coherent way, has fantastic illustrations by the Hungarian artist Willy Pogany, and is suitable for all ages.

Willy Pogany's Odin from Padraic Colum's Children of Odin (1920)

If you’re ready for something deeper, read the Edda by Snorri Sturluson (c. 1220). Much of what we know about the myths comes from Snorri, and he writes in a straightforward prose style. Be forewarned: the Christian Snorri frames the myths in a hodgepodge of medieval Latin learning and sometimes gives his own interpretations that contradict what we now know about religious beliefs and practices of the earlier pagan era.

For the most moving of the mythological texts, read the Poetic Edda. It brings together the great mythological and heroic poems of Iceland, mainly from one important manuscript of c. 1270. The poems tell of gods and goddesses, dwarves and dragons, heroes and Valkyries. These brilliant works served as sources for Snorri’s more straightforward text, and they can be very difficult to understand without reading a lot of footnotes.

All three books of the mythology books I recommend are free to download from The Norse Mythology Online Library.

There are two wonderful and accessible books for learning about learn about historical Germanic polytheism. H.R. Ellis Davidson’s Gods and Myths of Northern Europe (1964) is my favorite introduction to Norse mythology, religion, and culture. The book introduces us to each of the major deities in detail and discusses not only literature but archaeology, theology, history, place-name analysis, visual arts, and more in a virtuosic work that my high school, college, and adult students love to read.

Rudolf Simek’s A Dictionary of Northern Mythology (1992) is a wonderful work that’s really more of an encyclopedia than a dictionary. As the preface explains, “the mythology and religion of all Germanic tribes – Scandinavians as well as Goths or Angles and Saxons – have been dealt with [in this book] insofar as they are Germanic in origin; hence, of the English mythology of heathen times, the religion imported by the Germanic tribes is included.” Modern Heathens tend to have an expansive sense of the historical background of the modern religions. We study sources from Iceland, England, Denmark, Germany, and elsewhere. Simek’s work is beloved by many of us both for its inclusion of a wide range of material and for its insightful drawing of connections between diverse sources.

To learn about modern Ásatrú and Heathenry, I think it’s important to read works by practitioners rather than by the academics who study them. Patricia M. Lafayllve’s A Practical Heathen’s Guide to Asatru (2013) and Diana Paxson’s Essential Asatru: Walking the Path of Norse Paganism (2006) are both introductory books that give a brief overview of Heathen history and mythology, introduce deities and land-spirits, explain theological constructs, and describe rituals and celebrations performed today.

For a more in-depth work, the two-volume Our Troth is a massive collaborative work divided into History and Lore (2006) and Living the Troth (2007). This is the standard text I recommend to scholars who want a detailed work on beliefs and practices written from a variety of perspectives within these religions. The fact that some of the authors featured and perspectives forwarded are deeply problematic itself provides a sense of the complicated issues and deep conflicts within modern Heathenry.

There was a recent story in the Army Times about a soldier who has been allowed to maintain a beard as doing so is a tenet of his heathen faith. However, the Open Halls Project stated that there is no requirement in Heathenism to sport facial hair. In your experience as a scholar and practitioner, is this the case?

There has been a long struggle for recognition of the rights of Ásatrú and Heathen members of the U.S. Armed Forces, and there has been some notable progress in the last few years.

In 2013, the Department of Veterans Affairs responded to a petition by American Heathens and approved Mjölnir (Thor’s hammer) as an available emblem of belief for government grave markers. The U.S. Air Force added Ásatrú and Heathenry as options on its religious preference list in 2014 , and – after an email campaign and the submission of the Heathen Resource Guide for Chaplains to the Department of Defense in 2016 – the religions were finally recognized across all branches of the U.S. Military Services in 2017.

However, there are still no Ásatrú or Heathen chaplains, and there are reports from practitioners that recognition hasn’t been fully implemented at ground level.

These are serious issues of religious rights that have wide support across many subsets of the wider Heathen community. They concern access to appropriate counseling, keeping of texts and objects, time and space for ritual celebration, and last rites of memorial and burial. No such consensus supports the lone soldier who insists wearing a full beard is a requirement of Heathenry.

My drinking horn, Thor's hammer pendant, and oath ring

First, there’s no theological or historical basis for such a claim. There are texts that mention some pagans of the long ago time having beards, but there are also texts that mention others that are clean shaven and still others that have moustaches only. There is no written commandment from Odin declaring that growing a beard is a prerequisite of being an adult male practitioner, and the evidence shows that fashions in facial hair changed over time and across space during the many centuries of pre-Christian Germanic polytheism.

Second, none of the major Heathen organizations in the U.S. or abroad list having a beard as a requirement for practicing the religion. To the contrary, they have mostly criticized and ridiculed this idea in public and private. There are definitely modern Heathen men who wear full beards, just as there are modern hipsters, metalheads, liberals, conservatives, truckers, and professors who wear full beards. There are also Heathens with moustaches, goatees, long hair, short hair, no hair, and every possible combination of grooming choices.

Third, there seems to be something else going on here. I’ve been contacted by soldiers and police officers asking me to provide them with evidence that beards were required in ancient Heathenry so that they can fight official regulations as discriminating against them. That’s the nub of the issue – the idea that they are victims of discrimination.

They usually open by stating that Muslim and Sikh men are allowed to wear beards, so they must have the same right because of their Heathen beliefs. They then claim ancestral connections to proud Germanic pagans and claim that they are the inheritors of an ancient tradition of sacred grooming that is somehow bound to both ancestry and religion.

From everything I’ve seen, this is mostly about the anger of these men at Muslims and Sikhs receiving what they see as unfairly preferential treatment. It’s a small part of a much larger cultural moment in which a subset of straight white men loudly proclaim that rights and recognition won by women, immigrants, people of color, members of minority religions, and members of the LGBTQ+ community are really attacks on them.

I fully admit there’s a strong counterargument to all of this which insists that Ásatrú and Heathenry are not dogmatic religions with centralized power structures, that local communities of practitioners decide the parameters of their own beliefs and practices, and that individuals can have direct experiences of the divine. What if you made a sacred oath not to cut your beard until a specific task had been accomplished – a grooming view that does have precedent in ancient texts? What if your local Heathen community believes that beards are required as a mark of belonging? What if you had a vision of Thor in which he told you to grow a beard as a sign of devotion?

These are issues between you, your religious community, and your deities. I don’t think it would be advisable or even possible for the U.S. Armed Forces to accommodate every religious oath, local community practice, and personal experience of revelation that contradicts some standard regulation. How would that even work?

As I said earlier, there are serious issues for Heathens in the military that a large proportion of practitioners have taken stands on, and there has been real progress in some of these areas. If an individual soldier can convince his commander that Thor wants him to have a beard, more power to him. It’s just not something that will get a wide base of support from a large number of practitioners in the wider world.

There’s been talk in the news, on and off, about white nationalists and other racist groups taking an interest in "Odinism." What’s the attraction, and is their aggression and hate the norm, in your experience, with other practitioners of the faith?

Despite media and academic fixation on this issue to the near-exclusion of any other aspect of Ásatrú and Heathenry, racist extremism is definitely not the norm among practitioners in the U.S. and worldwide. An impressive number of Heathen organizations worldwide have publicly signed Declaration 127, which includes this statement:
“We hereby declare that we do not condone hatred or discrimination carried out in the name of our religion, and will no longer associate with those who do. We will not grant the tacit approval of silence in the name of frið [peace], to those who would use our traditions to justify prejudice on the basis of race, nationality, orientation, or gender identity.”
The document specifically denounces the Asatru Folk Assembly, an American group that had its Facebook page taken down last year for posting racist material and which is now listed by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group promoting “neo-Völkisch” ideology inspired by German racist nationalism from the late 1800s through the Nazi years.

Asatru Folk Assembly is listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center

There are other Heathen groups and individuals that hold and promote racist views, and their loudness on the internet gives an exaggerated impression their actual numbers. They have been emboldened in the U.S. by the alt-right-adjacent public statements of Donald Trump as candidate and president and by mainstream media coverage that continues to scold non-Republicans and insist they have to listen to the concerns of the right-wing extremists regularly portrayed as “the folks next door.” Members of Heathenry’s racist fringe in the U.K., continental Europe, and the Nordic countries have been likewise emboldened by the rise of far-right politicians and the hateful rhetoric against immigrants and refugees.

The attraction of white nationalists to Heathenry today seems largely centered on an association of Germanic pagan literature and symbols with the Third Reich. Runic symbols pop up fairly regularly on flags and banners carried by neo-Confederates and alt-right activists, almost always in the distinctive forms used by the Nazis.

There’s also a fixation of many young straight white male extremists on the Viking Age as some sort of model for a pure white ethnostate. Scholars in Scandinavian and medieval studies have done a good job of pushing back on these racist fantasies of the era, despite problematic race issues in their own academic fields.

When religion is a factor in these hateful groups, it seems to be a secondary one. The Asatru Folk Assembly itself began as the Viking Brotherhood, a group that founder Stephen McNallen described as “a miniscule organization” that was “focused on the image of the warrior, and on the assertion of individual will and freedom that the warrior epitomizes.” He has also openly stated, “I think many people first get involved in racial politics, and then later decide that maybe Odinism or Asatrú [sic] attracts them.”

There is a subset of the far-right subculture that decided relatively recently that the evangelical Christianity they were raised in was “tainted” by its connections to Judaism and then moved over to Odinism or some other racist form of Heathenry. The negative aspects that they carry over from the worldview of their pre-conversion faith are usually fairly obvious and manifest as fundamentalism, sectarianism, overt homophobia, and an extremely conservative ideology regarding roles of women.

The mainstream Ásatrú and Heathen communities regularly denounce the hateful fringe. A far more widespread and pernicious problem is the fact that more subtle prejudice sneaks into even the most well-meaning groups of every religion. We all need to do a better job of questioning our own biases and challenging those around us who promote stereotypes and derogatory views of others.

Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and other major faiths are discussed openly in the media on a regular basis. With such a long-running tradition, and so many adherents, why are Pagan and Heathenistic faiths pushed to the side more often than not?

That’s an easy question to answer: the quest for clicks and the inherent biases of the journalists themselves.

On one hand, coverage of religion – like most corporate news – is driven by the profit motive. Journalists on what they themselves revealingly call “the God beat” write gushing pieces about Pope Francis as a liberal crusader because there is sizable demographic that will click on the headline. They write snarky pieces about fallen megachurch pastors because gleeful Schadenfreude also drives clicks. Writers fighting to justify their salaries in a hard market gravitate to the small cluster of topics that will get them hits and get them paid.

On the other hand, the personal beliefs of religion reporters often drive their reporting for supposedly secular news outlets. I’ve had many conversations about this issue with journalists who cover religion for major mainstream and corporate media. Publicly, they talk a good game about supporting diversity in the newsroom and in subjects covered. Privately, they say amazingly revealing things about their own religious allegiances (Christian), explain why they mostly cover Catholicism (positively) and evangelicals (critically), and respond to my calls for true diversity in hiring and writing (furiously). Unsurprisingly, they insist that the private conversations are off the record.

I have no problem with reporters reporting from a specific faith perspective. I was hired a columnist at The Wild Hunt specifically to do so. But The Wild Hunt openly announces itself as “a daily, independent news journal dedicated to serving the collective Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities worldwide.” I openly declare my religious affiliations in my articles and my bio.

Writers for The Wild Hunt are open about their religious affiliations

The problem arises when reporters for trusted secular news organizations write news reports – not opinion columns – that promote their own religious tradition while actively hiding their own connection to that tradition. I’ve seen reporters who neglect to mention in their professional bios that they’re actually ordained and practicing ministers. Again, I have no problem with a minister doubling as a reporter. I just think it’s bizarre that their editors and publishers allow them to avoid full disclosure and to cover up conflicts of interest.

I purposely used the term inherent bias earlier, because it seems thaT the prejudices of the reporters sometimes unconsciously override their own search for clicks. Mainstream religion reporters overwhelmingly cover white Christians, yet white Christians now make up only 40% of Americans. White evangelicals are now only 17% of the country’s population, and white Catholics are down to 11%, but – despite these shrinking numbers – they continue to receive the lion’s share of coverage on “the God beat.” Editors hire people they feel comfortable around, and reporters write about what they know.

As always, bleeding can push a group into leading the news. Reporting on Islam surged after 9/11. Articles featuring Jewish perspectives on violence involving Palestinians continue to be regularly produced. Ásatrú and Heathenry only get featured in regards to the racist fringe we discussed earlier. Every once in a while, there’s a flurry of articles about Icelandic Ásatrú, but they either exclaim “People still believe in elves!” (with a picture of the Keebler Elves) or “People still believe in Thor!” (with a picture of Chris Hemsworth).

For the past few years, religion reporters have been pushing a narrative of “the rise of the Nones.” It focuses on deeply problematic American religion surveys that ask “Do you believe in God or not?” Published articles regularly jump straight from discussing the Abrahamic faiths to theorizing about atheists, agnostics, and the “religiously unaffiliated.” There’s no questioning of the question asked or mention of non-Abrahamic faiths. Is the erasure driven by willful prejudice or by inherent bias so strong that it blinds reporters to common sense?

This resolute focus on Abrahamic faiths and atheism while ignoring other religious traditions plays out not just in the media but also in interfaith organizations and university offices of spiritual life. Again, one factor is financial; as American participation in legacy religions shrinks, organizations are wooing atheists in an attempt to bolster their membership and income. The other factor is, of course, bias; the atheist who agrees to discuss the existence of an Abrahamic deity is necessarily part of a conversation in which practitioners of polytheistic religions have no part.

If we want to change this dynamic, we need to apply public pressure to editors and publishers of corporate news organizations that practice exclusion, and we need to financially support news outlets that provide inclusive coverage. Waiting for positive change accomplishes nothing. We are our deeds.

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.
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