Monday, November 18, 2019

Art Contest – Midwinter 2019

Art by Hynek Šnajdr (Czech Republic), Teen First Place Winner, Midwinter Art Contest 2013

CONTEST

The theme for The Norse Mythology Blog's eighth art contest is different than it has been in the past. Be sure to carefully read the entire Contest Theme section so that you understand the assignment.

During the winter solstice on December 21, those of us in the northern hemisphere will experience the shortest day and longest night of the year. This may seem early in the season, but it’s really the middle. From this point on, days will get longer as we slowly move back towards summer.

Throughout Northern Europe, there are local traditions that celebrate midwinter. Some of these practices preserve very old rituals. Your original piece of visual art should capture the midwinter spirit.

I strongly suggest doing some reading and research on myth and folklore before you begin your artwork. What characters and concepts can you discover? Can you think of a way to relate them to the contest theme?

If you need some ideas about mythology, browse The Norse Mythology Blog Archive. You can also click here to check out the past Midwinter Art Contest winners in the three categories: kid, teen, and adult. Most importantly – be creative!

CONTEST THEME: ODIN AT MIDWINTER

Your artwork entry must somehow relate to the character and legends of the god Odin and the celebration of midwinter.

This complex god has many aspects. Your job is to find something about Odin that speaks to you and inspires you, then combine it with some aspect of midwinter and create your own original work of art.

Art by Kamil Jadczak (Poland), Adult First Place Winner, Midwinter Art Contest 2013

Odin has connections to magic, runes, wisdom, poetry, song, creativity, performance, travel, hospitality, gifting, community, fatherhood, relationships, religion, ritual, ravens, wolves, trees, battle, life, death, and standing against evil. There certainly is a lot to draw on for your entry!

To get you started on your art project, here is how the Icelandic author Snorri Sturluson describes Odin in his Edda (c1220).

Odin is highest and most ancient of the Æsir [gods]. He is called All-father, for he is father of all gods. He is also called Val-father [father of the slain], since all those who fall in battle are his adopted sons. He assigns them places in Valhalla [hall of the slain] and Vingolf [hall of friends], and they are then known as Einheriar [lone fighters].

He is also called Hanga-god [god of the hanged], Hapta-god [god of prisoners], Farma-god [god of cargoes], and he called himself by various other names.

Most names have been given to him as a result of the fact that with all the branches of languages in the world, each nation finds it necessary to adapt his name to their language for invocation and prayers for themselves, but some events giving rise to these names have taken place in his travels and have been made the subject of stories, and you cannot claim to be a wise man if you are unable to tell of these important happenings.

[adapted from translation by Anthony Faulkes]

Snorri also writes about Odin in Saga of the Ynglings and describes his appearance, abilities, and attributes.

When Odin of the Æsir came to the Northlands, and with him the gods, it is said with truth that they created and taught those skills which men have long afterwards practiced. Odin was the foremost of all, and from him they learned all the skills, because he first knew them all and more besides.

And it is to be said, for what sake he was so much honored, these things bear on it: he was so fair and glorious of aspect, that when he sat with his friends, all laughed heartily. But when he was in battle, then he appeared fearsome to his foes. And it was due to this, that he knew those skills by which he changed hue and form in every manner which he willed.

Another was that he talked so well smoothly that all who heard thought it alone true. He spoke all in verses, such as now that is recited which is named skaldskap [poetry]. He and his temple priests were named ljodasmidir ([song smiths] because that skill arose from them in the Northlands.

Odin changed shapes. Then the body lay as if asleep or dead, and he was then bird or beast, fish or serpent and traveled in a moment to faraway lands on his errands or another man’s.

He also knew to do that with words alone, to extinguish fire and calm the sea and turn winds every way that he willed, and he had a ship, which was named Skidbladnir [split-wood bladed], in which he traveled over great seas, but it could be folded together like cloth.

Odin had with him Mimir’s head, and it said to him many tidings from other worlds, and sometimes he woke up dead men from the earth or sat himself under hanged men. Because of this he was called draugadrottinn [the lord of ghosts] or hangadrottinn [the lord of the hanged].

He owned two ravens which he had trained with speech. They flew widely around the lands and said many tidings to him. From these things he became immensely wise.

He taught all of these skills with runes and those songs which are named galdrar. Because of this, the Æsir were called galdrasmidir [spell-smiths].

Odin knew and himself performed that skill from which most strength followed, which is named seidr [sorcery], and from it he was able to know the fates of men and things not yet happened, and also to cause death to men or bad luck or lack of health, and also to take wit or strength from men and give it to others.

Odin knew all treasure in the earth, where it was hidden, and he knew those songs which opened up before him the earth and boulders and stones and the burial mounds, and he bound with words alone those who dwelt within, and went in and took there such as he willed.

From these powers he became very famous. His enemies feared him, but his friends trusted him and believed in his power and in him.


[translated by Karl E. H. Seigfried]

In the anonymous Saga of the Volsungs, Odin takes his favorite disguised form of an old wanderer and enters the hall of King Volsung, his own grandson.

It is now told that when people were sitting by the fires in the evening, a man came into the hall. He was not known to the men by sight.

He was dressed in this way: he wore a mottled cape that was hooded, he was barefoot, and he had linen breeches tied around his legs. As he walked up to Barnstock [child-trunk, the tree in the middle of the hall], he held a sword in his hand, while over his head was a low-hanging hood. He was very tall and gray with age, and he had only one eye.

He brandished the sword and thrust it into the trunk so that it sank up to the hilt. Words of welcome failed everyone. Then the man began to speak: "He who draws this sword out of the trunk shall receive it from me as a gift, and he himself shall prove that he has never carried a better sword than this one."

Then this old man walked out of the hall, and nobody knew who he was or where he was going.

[adapted from translation by Jesse L. Byock]

There are many tales of Odin that you can read to inspire your entry. A good place to start is by reading Children of Odin by Padraic Colum, which retells the major Norse myths and legends in family-friendly form. You can download the book for free from The Norse Mythology Online Library; it can be found in the Retellings and Reinterpretations section.

You can do any of these things:

1. Illustrate some version of Odin and some aspect of midwinter
2. Illustrate the feeling of Odin and midwinter
4. Create something inspired by Odin and midwinter
5. Draw something connecting Odin and midwinter to other characters or concepts from Norse myth and Germanic folklore

You must do this one thing:

Include a short explanation with your entry detailing how your work relates to Odin and midwinter

Beware!

In this contest, Marvel Comics characters are NOT considered part of Norse mythology or folklore. Art with imagery from comic books or movies will NOT be accepted. Do some reading and research on myth and folklore, then base your imagery on what you learn.

JUDGES

I am extremely proud to announce the judges for this year's Midwinter Art Contest. I greatly respect both of these incredibly talented people, and I'm very happy that they agreed to participate this year. The three of us will judge the entries together.

Liam Sharp
I've loved Liam Sharp's art for decades. From his 1980s series for the legendary UK weekly comic 2000 AD (with writer John Wagner) to his latest work on DC's The Green Lantern (with writer Grant Morrison), Liam manages the impressive feat of being both uniquely innovative and deeply engaged with the tradition of comics greats from around the world.

Liam Sharp's mythic art for The Brave and the Bold: Batman and Wonder Woman

Expanding on the legacy of artists like Moebius, Philippe Druillet, and Richard Corben, Liam slows time for his audience by packing immense amounts of urban, natural, and cosmic detail into each page. You can't simply flip through a comic illustrated by Liam; you have to immerse yourself in his universe and absorb everything he's sending.

For 2000 AD, he's drawn many adventures of future lawman Judge Dredd, including several with the great chinny one facing off against the notorious PJ Maybe. In the early 1990s, he co-created the character Death's Head II for Marvel UK.

Over here in the United States, Liam's dizzying amount of work for Marvel has included stints drawing Venom, X-Men, Hulk, Spider-Man, Man-Thing, and Magik. For DC, he's drawn Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Firestorm, Justice League, and many others.

Liam dove deep into Celtic mythology for his series The Brave and the Bold: Batman and Wonder Woman, which he both wrote and illustrated. His ongoing Green Lantern series with the brilliant writer Grant Morrison has had a cosmic focus that famously included Hal Jordan arresting God.

Liam has already established himself as a living legend, and I'm very happy that he's agreed to judge the contest this year.

You can learn more about Liam by visiting his official website, liking his public Facebook page, and following him on Twitter.

Ragnhildur Jónsdóttir
Longtime readers of The Norse Mythology Blog will remember Ragnhildur Jónsdóttir from her appearances in the articles "Elf Kerfuffle in Iceland" and "Letters from the Elf Church."

Poster for the new documentary about Ragnhildur Jónsdóttir

The Álfagarðurinn (elf garden) website describes Icelander Ragnhildur as "a seer, artist and a friend of the elves and huldufolk [hidden people]. She has since childhood been in contact with the elves and spirits of other dimensions. The elves and huldufolk asked her to be their spokesperson, and she has been called the Elf Whisperer and the Elf Lady. She does lectures and workshops about the elves where she emphasizes how important it is for the sake of Mother Earth that man and nature beings like elves and huldufolk work together to stop the forces of greed and disruption that endanger life on Earth."

The Seer and the Unseen, a new documentary about Ragnhildur, is currently being screened around the world. The film follows Ragnhildur for two years as she and Friends of the Lava Conservation stand against bulldozers and police while a new road is built over a lava field outside Reykjaviík that she says will harm the homes of the elves who live there. The documentary has received rave reviews from Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.

I'm very thankful that Ragnhildur has agreed to serve as one of the judges, and I'm really looking forward to her comments on the entries.

You can learn more about Ragnhildur by reading these articles on her relationship with the elves or visiting the Álfagarðurinn website and Facebook page. You can learn more about The Seer and the Unseen by visiting the film's website.

AGE CATEGORIES

There will be three winners in each of the following categories:

Kids: Age 12 and under
Teens: Age 13-19
Adults: Age 20 and up

RULES

1. Art must be done with crayon, marker, paint, pen, pencil, or digital materials.
2. Original art only; no photos or collage.
3. Art must be kid-friendly; no nudity or violence.
4. No copyrighted characters. Let’s leave the Marvel Comics to the professionals!
5. One entry per person, please.

HOW TO ENTER

Send an email to mythcontest@live.com that includes the following:

1. Your full name (kids can give first name and last initial)
2. Your age (as of December 20, 2019)
3. Your location (city, state/province, country)
4. A short description of your artwork explaining how it relates to Odin and midwinter
5. Your scanned artwork (as an attachment)

Seriously, don’t forget to include your art as an attachment!

ENTRY DEADLINE

11:59 p.m. (Chicago time) on December 20, 2019

ANNOUNCEMENT OF WINNERS

Liam, Ragnhildur. and I will be judging the entries based on creativity and relation to Norse mythology. Do some reading, do some thinking, and make something original!

Contest winners will be featured on sites and pages of Norse Mythology Online

The three winners in each age group will be featured on the many sites and pages of Norse Mythology Online:

The Norse Mythology Blog

The Norse Mythology Facebook Page

The Norse Mythology Twitter Page

The Norse Mythology Pinterest Page

Your art and your description of it will be posted on all of the above outlets and will remain permanently in the The Norse Mythology Blog Archive.

December 23: Kid winners announced
December 24: Teen winners announced
December 25: Adult winners announced

Good luck to everyone!

Monday, September 2, 2019

Ragnarök and Odin, Death and Memory

The version of Norse mythology we see projected in popular culture tends to focus on overly macho Viking warriors longing for bloody, heroic deaths to earn their place in Valhalla and on the great cataclysmic massacre that will occur in the future battle of Ragnarök.

For evidence of the doom and gloom supposedly inherent to the myths, the character of Odin is presented as obsessed with fighting what he knows to be a lost cause. Wise giants and far-seeing prophetesses reveal the future to him, yet he continues to sow strife in the world to build his undead army for a battle he knows cannot be won.

Odin and his wolves depicted by Hans Thoma (1839-1924)

This interpretation of the emotional core of the Norse myths and legends found its ultimate form in the Third Reich’s leadership distributing copies of the Nibelungenlied to German troops, intending the grisly eradication of the Burgundians in the medieval poem as an inspiration for soldiers to continue fighting unto death, even when there was no hope of victory.

Is this dark fatalism the only way to read the trajectory of the material? Is the core of the lore built on an embrace of violence and a valorization of mass suicide?

The self dies the same

One of the most well-known verses from the Old Icelandic poem Hávamál (“Sayings of the High One”) features the narrator – generally understood to be Odin himself – reflecting on the transitory nature of life:
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.
This can – and has been – read as a celebration of a heroic Nordic ethos celebrating glorious deeds that resound in ringing praise from other manly men, yet there is also a theological nugget that can be found here.

The nouns of the verse are presented in ascending order of importance for the individual being addressed: one’s farm animals, fellow men, self, and reputation. They are also presented in order of increasing immateriality, from the animal whose meat sustains the body to the other humans of both material and spiritual composition to the soul on its own to the incorporeal concept of reputation.

These things are also presented with a divide between them; the first three will fade away, but the last will not. Interestingly, it is the most immaterial thing – the idea that those living after a person’s death will have of them – that survives.

For the subject at hand, the important idea here is that “the self dies the same.” The soul is grouped with cattle and kin as something subject to death. This idea of a non-immortal soul seems to have confirmation elsewhere in the mythological poetry.

According to Völuspá (“Prophecy of the Seeress”), it is not only the gods and giants who will battle at Ragnarök. Enormous monsters will take part, such as the wolf Fenrir and the Midgard Serpent. But men will also join the fray, as “warriors tread the path from Hel” once the guard-dog of the domain has left his post. Snorri Sturluson calls these warriors “Hel’s people,” and they seem to be the dead set free to do battle.

If they are, there is a suggestion that the dead can also die. Like the gods who must be sustained by Idunn’s apples or decay unto death, the souls of men are not permanent and immortal. They can be struck down on the field of battle between the various powers with dominion over the worlds.

To understand why this is not a depressive outlook, compare the pagan worldview of the Hávamál verse to its famous parallel in The Wanderer, an Old English poem with a clear Christian worldview. The anonymous Wanderer poet writes:
Here wealth is temporary, here a friend is temporary, here oneself is temporary, here a kinsman is temporary; all this foundation of the earth will become worthless!
While acknowledging the transitory nature of life, the pagan poet emphasizes that right action matters because of its effect on future reputation. The Christian poet likewise remarks upon the fleeting nature of life, but concludes that nothing matters but the eternal afterlife in the Kingdom of God.

The difference between the two conclusions highlights an important pagan idea. Yes, the soul itself shall die, but life in the world goes on. Not one’s individual life, but new life. New members of the community will be born, and – if a person has lived well – they shall speak of the good deeds and right actions of the one departed.

This idea is likewise supported by the poem Völuspá. After Ragnarök, after a new world has arisen from the ruins of the old, the children and grandchildren of Odin and Thor will gather and reflect on the legacy of those now gone. The new gods of the new world will tell tales of the old gods who have gone down into memory.

And here is the crux of it all.

The long line of human memory

Many myths of Odin show him traveling the world, disguised as on old wanderer in order to gather knowledge of the future. Everything he learns confirms the coming catastrophe. Despite his determined efforts to save Baldr and his gathering together an army of undead heroes, Ragnarök shall come and the world shall fall.

The Nazis read the determination of the old gods and heroes in the face of disaster through the lens of German Romanticism, understanding the ancient worldview as one of dedication to the grand lost cause, no matter the consequences or end results. There is, however, another way to read these tales.

Yes, our loved ones will die. Yes, we will die. Following my reading above, even our souls will die. But life will go on, and the long line of human memory will continue to spin out from the past into the future.

In the poem Grímnismál (“Sayings of the Masked One”), Odin speaks of his two ravens, saying that he fears that Hugin (“thought”) will not return from his daily flight over the world, but that he fears even more that Munin (“memory”) will not come back. Greater than the very human fear of the dissipation of consciousness is the fear of the end of memory. This idea brings together the strands from Hávamál and Völuspá and makes a different reading of Odin’s wandering possible.

First, there is the assertion in Hávamál that even the soul of the individual will die, and only memory in the minds of others will live on. Second, there is the image in Völuspá of children in a distant future age celebrating memories of those who have been lost. Third, there is Odin’s fear in Grímnismál of the loss of memory being greater than the loss of consciousness.

All of this leads to the conclusion that Odin is not determinedly fighting against the doom that he knows must occur out of some sort of bloody “lost cause” ideology, but because he knows that ensuring the life of future generations is intimately tied to the continuation of the human story. Odin works toward the lengthening of the line of memory from one generation to the next in a Fortspinnung that can transcend even the end of our time-cycle at Ragnarök and continue into the next age.

The inspirational element of Odin’s quest and of the progression of the myths is not that one must fight to the death in order to achieve Viking greatness, but that one must not give up hope in the face of the permanent death that we all must face as individuals. Instead, we each must fight to make a better future world and continue the struggle against the destructive forces in our lives in order to help move the pieces on the board into a better position for the next generation and all the generations that follow.

We don’t have to accept the Romantic reading of Norse and Germanic mythology and legend as validation for an ideology of either rugged individualism or blind loyalty to a lost cause. We can read the lore as showing that an eternal afterlife of the soul is not the focus. Glorious death in battle is not the focus.

Doing everything we can to provide a better foundation for future generations is of prime importance. The continuation of the human story is what really matters. The wider world is more important than the inner one, and we would do well by turning away from our spiritual self-absorption and into the bigger narrative.

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

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Science and Religion

Last October, Pagan Forum at Illinois Institute of Technology hosted an event titled “Religion + Science.” I moderated a discussion by a sizable group of diverse, passionate, and thoughtful undergraduate and graduate students as they addressed these questions:
What place is there for mythology and religion at an institution centered on science? Do religion and science conflict, or can they strengthen and reinforce each other?

Where do scientists find moral guidance? How should morality be included in scientific projects?

Why do you attend religious events or celebrate religious holidays? How much is literal belief in the supernatural part of your religious practice?

How do religion and science overlap?

How does science help you understand religion? How does religion help you understand science?
The attendees had a lot to say.

Detail from Paul Alexander's cover art for Frank Herbert's Whipping Star (1977)

One student stated that she was not religious but saw the value of spirituality in helping people with mental health in day-to-day life and asserted that religion becomes an issue when it goes directly against scientific teaching.

Others spoke of the mental, physical, social, and spiritual benefits of religion but warned of in-group versus out-group divisions in religious organizations.

Another student addressed what he called the problem of atheist systems, arguing that a lack of a religious deity is replaced by the deification of a political dictator. He stated that it is better to have a god with strictly defined parameters than a ruler with unbridled power.

A graduate student took a strong stand for pure science and against ethical reviews of scientific research, insisting that his own personal code made his work free of moral implications and that he had no responsibility for how his work was used after leaving his desk.

The discussion ran well past the time allotted. Even after we officially ended, many students stayed to continue talking about the issues.

In November, I was invited to be a guest on Curiosity Unplugged, “the talk show where Illinois Tech faculty members leave no topic unexplored, no challenge unconsidered, and no query unanswered.” Associate Director of Editorial Services Marcia Faye wrote that she wanted to include me in an episode “on the intersection of science and religion” since I had “hosted a student discussion on a similar topic.”


The discussion panel put together for the broadcast featured faculty from several areas:
Colleen M. Humer, Studio Assistant Professor of Architecture

Andrew J. Howard, Associate Professor of Biology and Physics

Karl E. H. Seigfried, Adjunct Professor of Humanities and Pagan Chaplain

Jack Snapper, Associate Professor of Humanities

Chris White, Professor of Physics and Vice Provost for Academic Affairs
The episode was titled “In Our Search for Truth, Do Science and Religion Collide?” and described on the show’s website like this:
How did we get here? Where did we come from? Where are we going? As humans we have turned to both religion and science for answers to these infinitely daunting questions. Although religion and science have butted heads over topics such as genetics, medicine, and evolution, studies show that arguments between the two are overblown. According to a 2014 Pew Research Center report, while 59 percent of Americans believe that science and religion conflict, most Americans think that science aligns with their own beliefs, and most people who identify themselves as highly religious are less likely to see conflict. When it comes to God or science, whose side are we willing to take, and when?
I have long argued that including practitioners of minority religious traditions in public conversations leads to the discussion of issues that are regularly ignored or erased. In this case, paganism and polytheism became part of a conversation that almost always defaults to the monotheistic Abrahamic faiths as the be-all and end-all of “religion.”

By being present and speaking out, today’s Pagans and Heathens can be a force for positive change. I strongly encourage all practitioners of minority religions to engage academics and journalists. There is no better way to change the narrative than by being included in its construction.

You can listen to a recording of the broadcast – edited down from our longer discussion in the studio and first broadcast on January 3 – by clicking the ► button in the player below.



You can learn more about Pagan Forum at Illinois Institute of Technology by clicking here.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Thor’s Hammer in Iceland: Interview with Ragnheiður Gló Gylfadóttir

A farmstead from the Viking Age was found last October by a local resident in Þjórsárdalur, a valley in the southern highlands of Iceland.

Bergur Þór Björnsson is the great-grandson of the man who discovered the region’s most recently found Viking-era farm back in 1920. With his new find, the total number of known farms stands at twenty-one.

Archaeologists from Fornleifastofnun Ísland (Institute of Archaeology in Iceland) were called to the scene and soon found several small objects. Among them was a Thor’s hammer amulet, only the second ever found in Iceland. Adolf Friðriksson, director of the Institute, told me that record searches so far suggest that this is the first Mjölnir pendant made of stone found anywhere.

Stone Thor's hammer found in Þjórsárdalur, Iceland

I spoke with Ragnheiður Gló Gylfadóttir – the archaeologist from Fornleifastofnun Ísland who investigated the find – about the site, the discovery, and the newly-unearthed objects.

KS – How did the explosion of the Hekla volcano in 1104 affect farms in the Þjórsárdalur area?

RG – This is not an easy question to answer. The valley wasn’t deserted all at the same time.

The tephra [fragments of dust and rock propelled into the air by volcanic eruption] layer from 1104 likely covered the valley, but there is evidence of habitation in the valley until the twelfth century. One of the farms, for example, fell out of use in the late sixteenth century, and two farms are still in habitation.

KS – Have any other farms in this area been excavated?

RG – This deserted valley has held a central place in Icelandic archaeology for nearly one and a half centuries. It’s often referred to as “Iceland’s Pompeii.” There are about fifteen to twenty known Viking Age sites and farms in the valley, and the first excavations there took place in the late 1890s.

In 1939, a team of Nordic archaeologists came to Iceland to investigate Viking Age and medieval house structures as the key to understanding the development of Nordic building custom. At the time, six farms were excavated in Þjórsárdalur, Stöng the most famous of them.

Since then, there has been lively – and sometimes vicious – debate on the dating of the abandonment of the valley. A number of “follow-up” excavations have been carried out, the last one in 2000-2001.

In total, about two thousand artifacts from the farms have been found, dating mostly from the ninth to twelfth century.

Whetstone found in Þjórsárdalur, Iceland

KS – Have Icelandic Forestry Service soil-reclamation and reforestation projects in the area affected archaeological discoveries and excavations?

RG – Yes, they have. Some parts of the valley are now covered in forest, and some sites are “gone” as the result.

KS – How did Bergur Þór Björnsson discover the Bergstaðir farm site?

RG – He was born and raised in a farm in Þjórsárdalur, one of the two that is in habitation in the valley. He felt there was “a gap” in the distribution of the Viking age farms and decided to try to find some evidence of habitation there.

KS – What is the protocol for investigation and collection when you receive information about a new find like that from Bergur?

RG – The Cultural Heritage Agency of Iceland should be informed about any archaeological sites, finds, or artifacts as soon as possible. If some artifacts are found they should be turned over to the National Museum of Iceland.

The Institute of Archaeology, where I work, has no role when people find new things or archaeological sites in Iceland. The Institute is privately owned, and we do both research and commercial work.

We were working in Þjórsárdalur for the local municipality when we talked to Bergur, and he informed us about the site. The project involved measuring up and surveying all known archaeological sites in the municipality, also outside Þjórsárdalur.

Of course, we followed the laws and reported the farm and the finds to the Cultural Heritage Agency. The finds go to the National Museum.

All the finds were measured in situ with a total station [electronic device which simultaneously measures horizontal and vertical position of an object], and the midden [refuse pile] as well. We hope to do more research in the area later. No excavation has been done there yet.

Buckle found in Þjórsárdalur, Iceland

KS – What living and work structures were visible at the site?

RG – The site is eroded and no structures are visible on the surface. We found a midden. A big part is likely eroded away. There is also evidence of a smithy. Slag is lying on the surface there.

KS – Iceland Magazine reports that “[w]hen archeologists arrived at the scene they could immediately see that Bergur was right: The foundation of a Viking Age longhouse were clearly visible in the ground, as well as various other remains” (sic). Can you clarify what you saw at the site?

RG – There were no structures, only a few stones and the midden, and slag where the smithy probably was.

KS – Can you explain what objects have been found so far?

RG – The objects were found in the midden and the smithy, lying on the surface. We found a Thor’s hammer amulet, whetstones, part of a soapstone pot, and iron buckles. I can’t explain why these items were there at this time.

KS – In the photograph I’ve seen, the Thor’s hammer amulet appears to have runes carved into it. Do you think that’s what they are?

RG – These are not runes, or so we believe at this time. The amulet is made of sandstone and therefore scratches easily. It’s been lying in the ground for about 1100 years, among sharp pumice stones from eruptions in Hekla.

KS – Does the Thor’s hammer have a hole in the shaft to be strung as an amulet?

RG – No, the hole or the shaft is broken and missing from the amulet.

Awl found in Þjórsárdalur, Iceland

KS – If the farm was abandoned in 1104 and the Thor’s hammer was found in the surface soil, do you suppose at this stage of research that this object was in use a century after the official Christian conversion of Iceland?

RG – We don´t know when the farm was deserted. Tephra from different eruptions is on the surface, and no excavations have been done. The farm, like big parts of Þjórsárdalur, is eroded and the soil moves around easily.

KS – What happens to the objects now?

RG – They will go to the National Museum of Iceland, Þjóðminjasafn Íslands.

KS – What are the institute’s plans for further excavation?

RG – We hope to excavate the site and do further research there. The site is very interesting, and no other midden is known in Þjórsárdalur.

Thanks to Ragnheiður Gló Gylfadóttir for being so generous with her time and to Adolf Friðriksson, Director of Fornleifastofnun Íslands, for his kind help and permission to use the official photographs of the objects.

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

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

On Inclusive Heathenry

Over the past year and a half, and especially since the Frith Forge conference in Germany, I’ve noticed increasing use and discussion of the term “inclusive Heathenry.”

It often seems more of a rebranding than a revolutionary concept. Practitioners of Ásatrú and Heathenry have long taken sides over issues of inclusion, with some staking out clear positions on either end of the spectrum and many situating themselves in a complicated middle ground.

The battles that have raged for so long have been between standpoints that were often defined by the other side. The universalist position supposedly said that anyone could be Heathen – no questions asked. The folkish position supposedly said that only straight white people could be Heathen – with many questions asked.

Whether these two poles were really so clearly defined for all who identified with or were identified with them in past decades can be debated. What seems to be happening now is a real hardening of positions that parallels the current hardening of sociopolitical positions more generally.

On one hand, members of multiple marginalized groups have become much more vocal in their demands for visibility, self-determination, and voice in the larger national and international discussion. Members of the LGBTQ+ community, of religious minorities, and of refugee populations have used social media to force traditional media to cover their stories. Populations most affected by police brutality have used the omnipresence of mobile phones to document their abuse and make it public. Those who have traditionally been the subject of political debates have taken political action to force politicians to address their own concerns, and they have themselves run for political office across the United States. From Colin Kaepernick to Laverne Cox to Rana Abdelhamid, younger people are resolutely fighting for positive change.

On the other hand, followers of white nationalist and other extreme right ideologies have also become much more vocal in their demands for power, enforcement of “traditional” social structures, and silencing of voices in the wider discussion through threats of violence. Overtly white supremacist and neo-Nazi individuals and organizations have staged protest marches throughout the western world and used social media to terrorize those who speak out against hate and to manipulate major media into magnifying their voices. In California, Illinois, North Carolina, Virginia, and Wisconsin, self-proclaimed anti-Semites and white supremacists campaigned for public office last year and, in some cases, won Republican primaries.

Words, not deeds

As often happens, trends in religion reflect trends in the larger society. It has become commonplace for Heathen organizations large and small to include formal inclusive statements on their social media pages and websites. Thor’s Oak Kindred, the group I lead in Chicago, uses typical verbiage:
Our members are kindred by choice and have chosen to embrace each other as family. We are proud of our diversity, and we stand against all discrimination on the basis of race, sex, orientation, identity, origin, ancestry, age, or ability.
Truth be told, such public statements are often disclaimers designed to distance the organization from white nationalist and overtly racist elements in the wider Heathen world. Much of the increased discussion of inclusiveness among Heathens is in reaction to the fact that the far right end of the Heathen spectrum has been following the far right end of the political spectrum in its move to increased stridency and dropping of dog whistles in favor of openly racist rhetoric.

Thor standing against the World Serpent by Carl Emil Doepler, Sr. (1876)

Stephen McNallen, founder and longtime leader of the Asatru Folk Assembly, is a case in point. After decades of distancing himself from white supremacists in interviews and using euphemistic language in his essays, he has openly aligned himself with white supremacist figures such as Richard Spencer and dropped the use of terms such as “European-descended peoples” and “people descended from the European tribes” in favor of declaring “white people” to be an embattled minority in threat of imminent extinction. The turn towards undeniably white nationalist rhetoric by McNallen and the younger leaders of his organization finally led the Southern Poverty Law Center to add the Asatru Folk Assembly to its list of hate groups in 2017.

The obvious overlap between right-wing Heathenry and far-right hate groups and its coverage by mainstream media has understandably driven declarations of inclusiveness by centrist and liberal Heathens. Especially for those of us who use our real names online when posting about Heathenry – as opposed to having accounts anonymized with Viking pseudonyms – and those of us who are openly Ásatrú in our professional lives, there are real consequences for being put in the same box as racist Heathens by a general populace that has no interest in parsing internal arguments in what they usually see as a fringe religion.

A university dean once told me to my face that my religion “has no validity.” The head of a national interfaith organization barred me from working with his organization after he found anti-Semitic rhetoric on a folkish Heathen website. Two professors of medieval studies told me that my critique of racism within their field was invalid because anyone studying Norse mythology must be doing so to promote white nationalism. The list goes on.

Now, I’m doing fine, but it’s undeniable that even those who should know better are happy to lump all Heathens in with the worst elements who associate themselves with Heathenry. It’s completely understandable that Heathens of positive intent would feel the need to make public declarations against bigotry.

Yet the question must be asked: what do these announcements, pronouncements, and denouncements accomplish? What is actually changed in the world by all of these declarations, exclamations, and proclamations?

Yes, we should make these public statements. We need to be sure that those declaring that straight whiteness is a prerequisite for participating in these religions aren’t allowed to dominate the discourse about them. This is good and necessary work, but will it change the minds of non-Heathens who tar us all with the same brush? Will writing blog posts about how awful racist Heathenry is really make a meaningful difference in offline life?

We can parse names, oaths, phrasing, slogans, manifestos, and hashtags until our fingers cramp from furious typing, yet both racist Heathens and non-Heathens who consider us all crypto-racists will still attack us on principle.

The determined insistence that “we are not Nazis” can also, at times, paste over the racism and bigotry within ourselves and our communities – prejudice that doesn’t openly fly the swastika, but permeates so much of society with a more shadowy and subtle presence. When reduced to “we are not that,” the resolute insistence that we are already inclusive can be used to shut down discussion of diversity that addresses the white elephant in rooms full of white people. The whiteness of inclusive Heathenry can sometimes be blinding.

Deeds, not words

I believe that we are our deeds, and I believe that our actions matter more than our intentions.

There is great value in crafting well-written and thoughtful statements to share with the wider public in print and online, but the words should be backed up with deliberate action. If we want to really send a strong message about inclusiveness in Heathenry and about the inclusive nature of Heathenry, we must take real steps to truly realize and reify inclusivity itself.

Rather than defining inclusive Heathenry in negative terms as “not racist and not Nazi,” let’s define it in positive terms to mean “celebrating the inclusion of diverse peoples in our communities both religious and secular.” Let’s show the world that we not only oppose exclusion in principle, but that we actively promote inclusion through our actions.

In 1913, Mohandas K. Gandhi wrote:
We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.
We should keep telling the world that we are inclusive, but we should also embrace inclusivity and live lives based upon it. Only by doing so and by taking the actions that logically follow can we truly change ourselves and the societies in which we live.

Gandhi's march to challenge discriminatory laws in Volksrust, South Africa (1913)

I should clarify what I mean by taking action. I specifically mean setting aside the urge to write sternly worded online posts, to add virtual badges to profile pictures, to wear safety pins as markers of liberality, and to continue to situate ourselves in the world of symbolic gestures. I mean to take actual action, to do definite deeds, and to make our presence felt in the wider world in a way that promotes real inclusiveness.

Do you believe that hospitality for the guest is a value at the core of Heathenry? If so, let’s make that value manifest outside of our insular and tribal Heathen communities and truly live the ancient ideal in the modern world. Step up and support refugees by backing politicians who forward beneficial programs for them and by standing against government officials who harass, imprison, and abuse them. Provide financial support for refugee networks and centers that help those in need. Volunteer to teach, to provide child care, or to use whatever skill set is at your disposal. Our everyday world is bigger and more diverse than the Viking hall of old. Our sense of hospitality needs to be likewise larger and more inclusive.

Do you believe that wyrd weaves its way through generations? If so, let’s do the work to address the wrongs of the past, stand against the wrongs of the present, and take action for the benefit of the future. Ask the nearest Jewish community center for events and materials about the Holocaust, then invite other Heathens to attend and to study the materials. Volunteer to work for political candidates running against the self-avowed anti-Semites now campaigning for political office. Show up to remove Nazi graffiti and to repair damage done to Jewish cemeteries and synagogues by far-right extremists. The tired excuse that “I should not be held responsible for things that happened before I was born” is incompatible with belief in the workings of wyrd across generations.

Do you believe that Ásatrú and Heathenry are world-affirming religions? If so, let’s acknowledge that bigotry, injustice, and suffering are real forces of darkness in this world that can’t be prayed away. Let’s volunteer our help in whatever capacity we are able – legal work, office work, janitorial work, donations of funds earned through our own work – for the groups that are on the front lines fighting for equality, justice, and peace: the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the American Indian College Fund, and all the other organizations that seek to raise peoples who have been pushed down by institutionalized racism throughout the centuries, who continue to be held down by the very institutions that so many of us continue to benefit from in some fashion. To truly affirm the world means to take action that affirms positive change in this world.

Do you believe that Ásatrú and Heathenry should be inclusive? If so, let’s put in the hard work to truly make them so. If your Heathen community, organization, or event is made up entirely of white people, contact the Heathen groups that include practitioners who come from Jewish, African, Hispanic, Latin American, and all other backgrounds, and ask them for advice on building a more inclusive religious community of your own. If you truly believe that the Old Gods do indeed call to good people of all backgrounds all around the world, ask yourself what is intrinsic to your own community that only attracts white people. I’m not talking about missionary work, despite the fact that many Heathen individuals and organizations actually do missionary work while calling it something else, like “public pub moots,” “inviting interested friends to blót,” or “in-reach Heathen prison services.” I’m talking about real inclusion, about putting your belief that the gods can be heard by all open persons into practice, about actually including individuals from diverse backgrounds in your community. If you ask, “Why would a black person, or a Latinx person, or a Jewish person be interested in Heathenry?” – you just might be folkish, after all.

So there it is. I believe that inclusive Heathenry should be something centered on actively promoting and embracing inclusion. I believe that actions matter and that we live in an era when right action is needful. Do I myself need to do better at all the things discussed above? As a former vice presidential candidate famously declared, you betcha! We all do. Let’s lift each other up and do good in this world. Let’s stand for something positive, not just against something negative. Let’s work towards making inclusive Heathenry a truly diverse force that can change the world for the better.

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

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Heathen South: Interview with Ryan Denison

This July, Atlanta will once again host Mystic South: Theory, Practice, and Play. According to the convention’s Facebook page, the Pagan event “highlights the Southern flair and mystic spirit of our own part of the country.”

Headliners this year include Lilith Dorsey, Jason Mankey, Sangoma Oludoye, and Tuatha Dea. The conference schedule features rituals, workshops, papers, panels, presentations, and a live podcast. Information on Mystic South 2019 can be found at the convention’s official website.

Several events last year centered on Norse material and Heathen religions. To get a sense of the conference from a Heathen perspective, I spoke with Ryan Denison of the Mystic South organizing committee.

Ryan Denison of Mystic South

Ryan is co-founder, secretary, and a member of the clergy for Berkano Hearth Union. The relatively new organization describes itself as
a community of Heathens who are working together to create an inclusive group to learn, grow, and deepen our shared spirituality. We seek this whether it be toward Norse, Anglo-Saxon, Slavic, Sami, Finnish, or other flavors of Heathenry. The organization desires to provide a safe environment where everyone has a voice and members can turn to this community and have other members there for help or someone to listen to them.
Ryan is also co-founder and administrator of Heathen Men United, a Facebook group dedicated to fostering “affirmative productive change in the Heathen community by focusing on positive, supportive examples of masculinity.”

KS – Were you the only Heathen on the Mystic South organizing committee?

RD – Actually, no. Gypsey Teague is also an Icelandic Heathen. So two out of the seven organizers are Heathen.

KS – How do Heathens function (or not) within the wider Pagan communities of the southern United States?

RD – From my experience, I feel we function and interact well with the communities in the South. Berkano Hearth Union hasn’t been around long enough to interact with other communities yet, but we would definitely be willing to do so.

KS – What makes Heathenry qualitatively different in the South than it is in other regions of the U.S.?

RD – A lot of characteristics of Heathenry – such as hospitality and honor – are also stereotypical Southern characteristics and are emphasized in Southern Heathenry.

Being from Appalachia, I grew up in the hills and playing in creeks, so the animism of Heathenry also came easily to me, although I don’t see that as being specifically Southern.

There are of course the negative stereotypes of the South – namely, racism – which I have run into in Southern Heathenry, as well, over social media. Luckily, the groups I have become involved with have been very quick to dispel any person that showed racist tendencies.

KS – I’d love to hear about the Heathen presentations at the last Mystic South. What did Birna Isleifsdottir discuss in her presentation on Norse cosmology?

RD – This was actually an amazing presentation discussing the cosmology as seen in the Eddas, with the use of Legos! Essentially telling the story of creation using the Legos.

KS – How did Gypsey Teague’s discussion of early Norse navigational tools go?

RD – Gypsey’s presentation was pretty amazing, discussing the historical use of Norse navigation tools, including the famed sunstone. I don’t want to go into too much detail, as I am hoping to get the papers published in an annual journal edition.

KS – I’m especially curious about Morgan Daimler’s talk on Wodan and the Wild Hunt.

RD – Morgan is an amazing presenter who is very academically oriented, which I love.

She discussed the many varied stories of the Wild Hunt over Europe and how each of those stories had their regional details – i.e., the different leaders of the hunt from various regions. She discussed the participants of the hunt also being varied a bit by region, but all are hunting for new members to join the group.

She also spoke to the fact that the hunt was a terrifying experience, and yet in some regions there are tales that if you treated the hunt with respect and hospitality, you could be rewarded greatly.

KS – What were the central issues in J. Beofeld’s talk on the multi-part soul in Anglo-Saxon paganism?

RD – Joseph talked about the fact that the idea of the singular soul is an oddity in religion and discussed the idea that each person has a multi-part soul that can also be split up on death.

KS – Were there any other Heathen presentations?

RD – There was a workshop on land wights, but it wasn’t specifically Heathen in nature.

KS – You moderated a panel called “Reconstructing a Faith.” Can you explain the subject and talk about how it went?

RD – The idea of the panel was to discuss the basics of reconstructionism within Paganism and how we bring those researched findings into the present day. The panel was well received.

We began the discussion by defining reconstructionism. The participants defined the term in their own words, but there was general consensus that the idea is to base worldview and actions on those that we can find through holistic research.

We then discussed good versus bad research. We had a long discussion on source criticism, bias, historiography, interpretatio romana, and the dangers of not being thorough in your research and/or basing too much on a few sources – for example, using a text that only uses philology, and not taking into account other findings of archaeology.

We finished the panel by discussing the fact that we don’t want to reconstruct everything from the past. There are many things that need to be left in the past and do not fit in to our modern world.

Altar for opening ceremony at Mystic South (Photo by Heather Greene)

KS – What was the thought process in designing and performing your welcome ritual?

RD – The idea was to ask the appropriate gods to help foster learning, magic, and frithful communication amongst the diverse paths represented, as well as provide a level of protection for our conference. With that in mind, we asked for the assistance of Odin (esoteric knowledge), Freya (magic), Thor (protection), and Tyr (frith, grith, and god of the Thing).

We had to take into account that there would be many paths represented that may not wish to drink alcohol or may not want to drink from the same horn. Therefore, we decided to use locally obtained spring water in lieu of mead. We also had a separate bowl from which water could be poured into paper cups. We also could not use fire – big hang up for a Heathen blót! To that end we used fake fire made from paper and pipe cleaners on a torch that had previously been burned.

As we passed the horn, we had each participant say a sentence or two about what they wanted to take away from the conference. We received many compliments that this set a fantastic tone for the nature of the conference as being one of the reception and dissemination of sacred knowledge.

KS – What’s the Polytheist and Pagan Educational Symposium (PAPER) that you started at Mystic South?

RD – PAPER was born out of the fact that I can’t afford to travel. Ha!

Seriously, I wanted to attend religious academic conferences and could never find the time nor money to attend. So I thought, why not start one in Atlanta and bring these great minds here? From that came PAPER and attaching onto Mystic South.

The idea has evolved into bringing academia to the masses – allowing thorough and original research to be presented by these fantastic minds to groups of Pagans and polytheists that have never experienced this type of setting.

The past two years have been very well received, and I hope the idea continues to grow by publishing the PAPER presentations in an annual journal.

KS – Looking back, how do you think the Heathen portions of the conference went?

RD – I believe that Heathenry was represented with honor and honesty. We will know more when we have the survey data available, but I feel the Heathen portions went incredibly well.

KS – What Heathen events, rituals, and presentations do you have planned for this year’s conference?

RD – “Connecting to the Land” by John Beckett. Although he's not Heathen, it definitely applies to Heathen practice. “Creating Modern Art from Ancient Pagan Poetry” by Sam Flegal, “Pagan Interplay: Honoring our Ancestors” by Berkano Hearth Union member Jennifer Dodson. “Reconstructionism for Dummies: An Intro and How-to Guide to the Methodology of Pagan Reconstructionism” by BHU members Ryan Denison and Joseph Beofeld.

We really don't have any Heathen specific PAPERS this year. The rituals, too, are all more Wiccan.

Berkano Hearth Union logo

KS – I’d like to talk a bit about Berkano Hearth Union. What led to the creation of the organization?

RD – The creation of Berkano Hearth Union was prompted by several Heathens in the local groups coming together to form a union of various hearths that would focus on inclusivity, research, and community.

KS – What are your goals for the group?

RD – The goal is to foster community and provide knowledge to our members. We are now incorporated as a non-profit and will seek 501(c)(3) status, which we hope to use to better our community through fundraising for groups such as veterans and volunteering in our local community. We had our first full election at Yule, and all went well, with new board and officers in place.

KS – How do you see local, regional, national, and international Heathen groups interacting? Should they interact?

RD – Yes, I think they should. From my perspective, I feel any interaction between these groups would be a huge positive with the potential to grow and learn.

KS – You spoke to The Wild Hunt last April about the Heathen Men United group. Has anything developed since then, and do you have plans for action outside social media?

RD – Heathen Men United is continuing to grow online with some very tough but positive conversations happening. Because we have members all over the world, we are encouraging those who live close to come together once a month for food, drink, and fellowship.

Here in Atlanta, we have done so for several months, with really positive responses. We have had as many as fifteen men come together for dinner, discussion, and support of each other.

KS – Thanks for agreeing to discuss all of this, and good luck with your work!

RD – Thank you for all your work with your research, blog, and writing! I truly feel that we need to be more open to show the world the great and positive impact of our faith.

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