Saturday, June 20, 2020

Thor at Midsummer

Midsummer is one of my favorite holidays of the Ásatrú calendar. The other is midwinter. At least in our own celebrations here in Chicago, the two balance points of the year both focus on family, friends, community, gratitude, and hope.

At midwinter, we turn to Odin, the wanderer who slips between the worlds and who inspires us with creativity. He is the most appropriate figure to preside over the dark time of the year, when midwestern winds howl outside and we celebrate life by feasting indoors and trading tales around the table.

At midsummer, we turn to Thor, the thunderer who lives life loud and proud as he challenges monsters, takes children on adventures, and enjoys as much food and drink as can be found. When we celebrate outside in the sun and heat, when we drink horns of beer beneath the green leaves of the oak tree in its full glory, we turn to the glorious son of the giving Earth.

"The oak addresses the spirits of the trees" by Frederick Cayley Robinson (1920)

In an age of academics casting the gods as power-mad oppressors of the freedom-loving giants and modern retellers portraying the Æsir as incomprehensible shadows of death opposed by the “alluring character” and “governing intelligence” of Loki, what does it mean to venerate the hammer-wielding, giant-smiting god of the Old Way? How does the figure of Thor fit into a progressive Heathen practice?

A symbol of community

For those of us who see the Norse myths as symbolic stories expressing the values of the past peoples that produced them (even if there was originally no clear distinction of “religion” as separate from life lived), Thor’s hammer can be seen not merely as a weapon of war but as a symbol of community.

In the hands of the god and of practitioners, the hammer was used to bless newborns, brides, and the dead – to hallow members of the community in the major life events in the community. As the god of the myths uses the hammer to protect the human world from the incursions of the threatening giants, archaeological finds show ancient heathens calling upon Thor to use his hammer and protect them from harm.

The hammer as a symbol of blessing and protection merges into the conceptual locus around the god himself, a god who can be seen as a positive embodiment of what we must all do for the betterment of the communities to which we belong.

I subscribe to the idea of expanding rings of relationships, of the local circle surrounded by ever-widening rounds that embrace an increasingly inclusive concept of community. From focusing on the wellness of the self (what Me Phi Me long ago called a “fraternity of one”), to working on healthy family relationships, to building a local Ásatrú community, to functioning as a welcoming member of a diverse city, to participating in the push for progressive politics at the national level, to engaging in a worldwide dialogue on climate change, the concept of community can be as small or large as the moment demands.

In this context, it makes sense to venerate Thor as the god of the community, however the community is defined. As the god who brings down the waters of the sky, he brings the refreshing rain that falls on your lonely head, the same gift that feeds the crops in America’s heartland and cools the refugees who leave their violence-wracked homes to seek better lives far away. Thor’s hammer illuminates the sky over all of us alike.

Inspiration and action

The hammer that protects the human community in the myths is the same hammer that beats in the heart of the Heathen who stands up against hate and injustice. At every level, from the personal to the political (which aren’t necessarily at all different), we can look up to Thor as a model of right action in the interests of all. This modeling is at the center of how we celebrate midsummer around these parts.

During our ritual of blót with Thor’s Oak Kindred, I thank the thunderer for inspiring us to stand up to the World Serpent of prejudice and bigotry, even when standing up puts us in danger – as the god puts himself in danger by challenging the monsters who threaten the denizens of Midgard. I thank him for setting our hammer-hearts beating with determination to do right, to resist the slide to the far right into which the nation and the Heathen community seem to constantly be pulled, to find the courage to fight hate even if it means that hate focuses its baleful glare on us.

Then I ask Thor to continue to inspire and strengthen us before offering beer from the horn at the roots of our oak tree, and we together speak our hails to the god as the reciprocal gifting cycle between deity and devotees continues. Our focus is also on the cycle of inspiration and action: the god inspires action, we honor him for doing so, and we rededicate ourselves to further action.

Inspiration can take many forms. For children, hearing the tales of Thor bravely standing up to giants and monsters can inspire them to be brave in the face of the frightening aspects of their young lives. For adults, hearing others speak at blót can inspire them to speak out themselves and to feel a sense of communal support. For all, the focused experience of standing around the tree during the ritual can reinforce internal feelings of dedication to the deity, the tradition, and their own commitment to right action.

Thor in the cultural moment

How does the god with the goats fit into this age of violence and conflict in which we live? When white police officers are gunning down black children, when hate crimes against trans people are in the national news, when anti-Semitism is on the rise, when the Air Force is briefing personnel on the real threat of violence by men who identify as “involuntary celibates,” does it make sense to celebrate a god best known for smashing folks with a hammer?

Thor and devotee by Max Friedrich Koch (c. 1905)

First of all, ancient myths are not news reports. People believe as they do, but I myself don’t subscribe to the idea that the Norse myths are true representations of historical events. That way lies literalism, fundamentalism, and the Noah’s ark theme park. I believe that mythology can encode worldviews from earlier times, that there are deeper meanings beneath the surface level of plot. Yes, the stories are exciting and can be enjoyed as great tales of adventure, but they can also be reflected on for ethical and spiritual guidance.

The fact that the myths include so many episodes of Thor smashing heads doesn’t mean that we should see him as a god of killing or that we should honor him by murdering everyone outside our neighborhood. To do so would be to privilege plot over purport, to sanction surface over spirituality. The divide between literal and symbolic readings of religious texts is an ancient one that cuts across world traditions, and we each make our own choices regarding which side of the old debate we back.

Second, we do not live in ancient times. We are not Germanic tribesmen hunting the aurochs beneath the forest canopy. We are not Vikings throwing priests overboard to placate Thor. At least around here, we’re modern people working modern jobs and living modern lives with modern families in modern communities. We don’t pretend that we can erase centuries of human history and progress – if progress is even a valid concept as this president leads us into chaos – and somehow reprogram our brains so that we see things purely from the ultimately unknowable perspective of some unrecorded northern European wanderer of the Migration Age. We embrace the positive elements of living in today’s America and do our best to push back against the negative ones.

Of all the forms of literature, mythology (and especially mythology told as poetry) is the most mutable, most malleable, and most able to move with the changing moods of Midgard. J.R.R. Tolkien long ago attacked allegory and endorsed applicability, and I believe his point is indeed applicable here. Rather than insist there is one, holy, Heathen, and unchanging meaning embedded in each myth, we can accept that there are a multitude of possible readings that can be pulled from the narrative and applied to our modern lives.

I do believe that tales of Thor can be read in a way that has meaning for us today. The folkish Ásatrúar and the universalist Heathen can have radically different readings, as can the Odinist and the Lokean, the reconstructionist and the spiritualist. Does this mean that anything goes and all opinions have equal weight? Absolutely not. One specific reading may have profound meaning for an individual or a community, but that doesn’t at all mean that anyone other than that individual and that community have to give any credence whatsoever to that interpretation. Indeed, we can and should actively oppose readings that use ancient texts to justify today’s hate and violence.

Whatever weight a given reading has within a particular community, everything is up for grabs as the circle expands and the application of the myth to modern life reaches a wider audience in the world. Inevitably, the interpretation enters the realm of battling theologies and, more often than not, internet flame wars. Just because some group over there believes that Odin hates refugees or Loki is a god of love doesn’t mean that anyone else has to agree. The plurality of Heathenries means that there is, by definition, no universal Heathen dogma and there can be no worldwide blasphemy. We can argue strongly for our own perspectives, and we should argue against those that promote prejudice, but I personally won’t climb aboard any ship that flies the flag of universal truth.

Many meanings

To me, Thor represents the love between family and friends, the gratitude for inspiration to do right, the hope that our overlapping communities can move forward together, and the focus on a future that is better than yesterday.

Thor inspires me to work on bettering myself in all the facets of my life, to strive to always be a good father and husband and son, to support those who participate in our local Ásatrú community, to engage with all the members of our incredibly diverse city, to speak out against the atrocities perpetrated by our government in our name, and to think globally while acting locally.

The tales of Thor’s mythic battles with giants and monsters inspire me to stay determined in the fight against hate, including the racism in Ásatrú and Heathenry that either boldly shouts its name from the rooftops or hides its dark light under the guise of declared inclusiveness. Thor’s great enmity towards the World Serpent inspires me to stay aware of the jealous monster that surrounds the world today, whether it takes the form of anti-Semitism, homophobia, misogyny, or any other such horror.

Thor means much more to me than this, but these are some of the things I think about when I gather with family and friends at midsummer to look back on the past year, to celebrate the moment together, and to look forward to the future.

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

Friday, June 19, 2020

Art Contest – Adult Winners, Midsummer 2020

Here are the adult winners! The Midsummer Art Contest 2020 had many truly fantastic entries from around the world in both the teen and adult divisions. You can view all the winning works in the teen division, read what the young artists say about their work, and check out comments from the judges by clicking here.

I'd again like to thank my fellow judges Dom Reardon (UK artist for 2000 AD, Judge Dredd Megazine, and other great comics) and Utkarsh Patel (comparative mythologist, educator, and novelist in India). This contest would not have been possible without their kind donation of time and insight.

The assignment was to create a piece that somehow relates to the myths of the World Tree and the celebration of midsummer. There was a really wide range of conceptual and technical approaches in the adult group this year, and it was very hard for each of us to rank them. Congratulations to all who entered! We are very thankful for all the artists who shared their creativity with us.

Note: You can click on the art to see a larger version.

FIRST PLACE
Levi Simpson
Age 39
Bow, Washington, USA

Levi explains his winning entry:
Yggdrasil, the tree of life, can be seen standing tall in the distance as these Norsemen set sail this midsummer. Seeds have been sown, celebration has been had, and now it's time for the summer raids to see what treasures they might "persuade" the locals to give up.

My hope was to convey a scene where a longboat with a raiding party has set sail, now that summer has come and the weather is favorable for sailing. Just over the far bank, high above the trees, is a representation of Yggdrasil's massive trunk jutting upward far in the distance.
Levi tied for first place in the Midwinter Art Contest 2014 and tied for second place in the Midsummer Art Contest 2015. This year, he won first place outright by a wide margin. All of his entries have been fantastic, but this one is truly special. It has the feel of a classic pen and ink illustration from a dusty volume of tales from the Icelandic sagas, and it pulls the viewer in to imagine what lies beyond the white borders of the image. This is a well-deserved win. Congratulations, Levi!

Dom writes, "I love everything about this one – the light, the distancing, the reflections. Totally professional and really atmospheric."

Utkarsh comments, "The enormity of the tree has been depicted well."

First Place: Levi Simpson

SECOND PLACE (TIE)
Douglas Lange
Age 41
Huntsville, Alabama, USA

Douglas writes this about his entry:
At the very beginning of the Prose Edda, Snorri Sturluson goes to great length to relate how matter is defined in Norse cosmology. He does this by way of analogy on three points: (1) blood is close to the skin's surface just as water is to the earth's surface; (2) grass and flowers bloom and die off in cycles just as hair and feathers do in animals and birds; and (3) rocks and stones are comparable to teeth and bones in all creatures.

Where Snorri classifies the earth as a living thing, my goal was to render the sun in the form of a bonfire as Yggdrasil. The color scheme represents the building blocks of light (red-green-blue) and color theory (cyan-magenta-yellow-black).

I wanted to show that, if all matter has shape and form, then color is how the electromagnetic spectrum (the visible and invisible parts of light) interacts with matter. To me, if the Earth and all matter in the cosmos are alive, then light is its support and nourishment – ergo, Yggdrasil is the electromagnetic spectrum.

But, since this is a midsummer bonfire and not a TEDx Talk, I also wanted it to look fun and not take itself so seriously. The cosmos perpetuates itself by way of a party on an infinite scale – emphasis on party.
This entry is really in a class by itself and is unique in both concept and technique. I really love new takes on the old mythology, new ways of being inspired by the ancient tales. Douglas created a work that (rainbow) bridges the past and present in a truly striking way. I would love to have a print of this wonderful work on my wall!

Dom comments, "Totally different to all the other entries. I love this one. It's a more graphic approach, and it's really eye-catching."

Utkarsh adds, "The colors have been used very well."

Second Place (Tie): Douglas Lange

SECOND PLACE (TIE)
Neilma Kavanagh
Age 50
Nascot Wood, near Watford, Hertfordshire, England

Neilma wrote an incredibly detailed essay on all the elements of the work and her interpretation of their meaning in Norse mythology. Here's an edited version of her statement that introduces the central motifs:
Imagining Yggdrasil, the World Tree, at midsummer, with the sun is at its zenith, night never quite falling, I see a celebration of light and life. I picture a shimmering Bifröst bridge framing the tree, a rainbow in its branches becoming an aurora at the depths of the tree’s roots.

Midsummer bees are seeking the dew that falls from Yggdrasil’s leaves and boughs. The midsummer branches of the World Ash tree stretch up towards the full strength of the solstice sun. Its leaves and twigs in the canopy are eaten by four stags. Its roots are devoured by a dragon. However, to counteract this, the three Norns pour life giving sacred water from the Well of Urð onto Yggdrasil’s roots, sustaining the life-giving waters flowing through the tree.

The nine worlds of Norse cosmology are housed in the branches and roots of Yggdrasil. I imagine that hidden in the branches is Ljósálfheim, home of the light elves, sometimes called Álfheim, land of the elves. Maybe Vanaheim, home of the Vanir, the seer fertility gods, are also found here.

On the upper roots are Ásgarð, the enclosure of the gods, the Æsir, and Miðgarð, the realm we humans inhabit. The roots descend into the mysterious deeper realms: Jötunheim, the home of the giants; Muspellheim, hot and glowing land of fire, home to the fire giants; Svartálfheim, the dark subterranean realm of the dark elves; Niðavellir, the dark "down fields" of the dark dwarves; and Niflheim, home of mist, where Loki’s daughter Hel lodges those who have died of illness or old age.

Beneath the sun, shining white with energy and light, is the mighty eagle that sits bathed in golden sunlight in the heart of Yggdrasil’s branches. Veðrfölnir, the "wind pale" hawk, is in silhouette, soaring from the brow of the eagle, ascending high above the midsummer sun. Upon the boughs of Yggdrasil, beneath the eagle, are the four stags feeding from the ash leaves and shoots. Further down Yggdrasil’s trunk scampers Ratatosk, the sun-kissed, glittering red squirrel.

Beneath the roots of Miðgarð, our realm, I have placed Jötunheim, the realm of the giants, where Mimir, the rememberer, guards his well of remembrance, the fount of wisdom and knowledge. I have reunited his head with his body in this picture, and you can see the horn, the loud Gjallarhorn. Inside the pool of water is Odin’s eye, which he exchanged for a single drink of enlightenment from Mimir’s well.

The roots of the tree are ringed first with the twin rivers that encircle the world, and beyond them is the mighty world serpent Jörmungandr, or huge monster, bound to eat its own tail, an eternal ouroboros, caught between death and rebirth until the coming of Ragnarök, the twilight of the gods, when its tail will be released, and the seas will violently rage, then the monster will thrash onto land.

I see Yggdrasil, the mighty World Tree, as the pivot of Norse mythology, both literally and cosmologically. Yggdrasil has so much more to teach us as a concept of stability, unity, and balance, especially in the strange world in which we find ourselves today.
Neilma won first place in the Midwinter Art Contest 2019 with an image of Odin that Wonder Woman and Green Lantern artist Liam Sharp called "the most ambitious by far of all the entries." Her latest entry makes another deep dive into the Icelandic sources. The full circle of the rainbow really sets this piece in a special way, and I appreciate the depth of Neilma's engagement with so many elements of Norse mythology.

Dom writes, "Beautiful symmetry and gorgeous green roots. The circular rainbow works great here."

Utkarsh comments, "Has used every aspect of the tree and all that's related to it, with a splash of vivid colors, which goes well with the concept of midsummer."

Second Place (Tie): Neilma Kavanagh

THIRD PLACE (TIE)
Regina Withington
Age 38
Denver, Colorado, USA

Regina writes about her artwork:
When I envision Tthe World Tree during the summer, I see it topped with a rich green canopy, surrounded by colorful wildflowers, Bifröst emerging from one of the tree's roots, waving its way to the top of the canopy.

Midsummer is a time of celebration, a time to enjoy the outdoors, bonfires, and barbeques. Nature has come back to life and is in full bloom.
This work shows yet another approach to the theme and really captures the feeling of midsummer celebrations. The fact that Regina places the threatening serpent below the joyous scene reminds us – as the Norse myths do – that darkness follows light, and death follows life. But we also know that light will come again, and life will continue. Regina should be very proud of this thoughtful artwork.

Dom comments, "The quality of the light shining through the leaves here is wonderful."

Utkarsh writes, "A good usage of all the right motifs and color."

Third Place (Tie): Regina Withington

THIRD PLACE (TIE)
Anaïs Salgado
Age 30
Tours, France

Anaïs describes here work:
My drawing represents Yggdrasil, the World Tree in Norse mythology, at midsummer. I decided to not draw a bonfire, one of the universal symbols of the summer solstice’s celebrations. I wanted to do something sweeter. For me, midsummer especially celebrates the return of the greenery in the trees, the sweetness and the perfume of the flowers.

Different characters are represented on my tree. At the top, you can see the eagle. Tangled at the roots of Yggdrasil, the dragon Niðhögg is peacefully asleep. Ratatosk the squirrel sneaks discreetly along the trunk to annoy the dragon. By dint of running through its branches, two deer have merged with the tree; they become one with it.
This work is very sneaky! At first glance, it seems just a simple tree. When looking more closely, the otherworldliness and mythic quality of the tree become apparent. Anaïs has done a fantastic job of creating a work that rewards the viewer who really pays attention.

Dom writes, "I love the quality of line and the minimal use of color here. Great tree design!"

Utkarsh adds, "Minimal, but has a pleasing appeal. Especially the overall green is interesting."

Third Place (Tie): Anaïs Salgado

RUNNER-UP
Dawn Reynolds
Age 40
Franklin, Tennessee, USA

Dawn writes about her entry:
Midsummer on my side of the planet is a very green time. Our family recognizes the Oak King's place. However, where I live is losing all of its forests.

I decided to replace the leaves with pink dots covering the tree. We can see our world of earth behind it. All of the pink dots represent the vibration, how busy this year has been.

The spirits of Dáin, Dvalin, Duneyr, and Duraþrór hover over the waters below their beloved tree, curiously trying to understand the pink dots. Why are things so crazy in 2020? I related to how they must be feeling.

The tree's sacred bees are represented: (1) the yellow dots across and interacting with the tree top represent Æsir; (2) the magical void of Ginnungagap can be seen behind the trunk of the tree, and (3) Hvergelmir and Niðhögg are nestled below, in the crook of the crescent moon.
Dawn won third place in the Midwinter Art Contest 2019. This time around, her entry shows great thoughtfulness and projects a feeling of unity and connectedness. I really like the meanings attached to the dots and the depiction of the deer as spirits. This would make a great poster for the next Earth Day!

Dom comments, "Nice design here, with the lower section echoing the upper. The lighting and color on the corner leaves is very pleasing in this one."

Utkarsh writes, "Interesting representation."

Runner-Up: Dawn Reynolds

Thank you to all the teens and adults who entered this summer. We really enjoyed everyone's work. See you when the next contest rolls around!

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Art Contest – Teen Winners, Midsummer 2020

This year's Midsummer Art Contest didn't receive any entries in the kids division, but there was an amazing number of entries from around the world in the teen and adult groups. Given the high level of art and the depth of thought behind them, it was very difficult for each of us to rank them all.

I'd like to thank my fellow judges Dom Reardon (UK artist for 2000 AD, Judge Dredd Megazine, and other great comics) and Utkarsh Patel (comparative mythologist, educator, and novelist in India). I really appreciate the time that they have volunteered to rank and comment on all the entries. This contest would not be possible without their generosity and kindness.

The assignment was to create a piece that somehow relates to the myths of the World Tree and the celebration of midsummer. There was a great variety of concept between the works of each of these young artists. We send a big thank you to everyone who submitted a piece. We really enjoyed all of them!

Note: You can click on the art to see a larger version.

FIRST PLACE
Kimberly Roy
Age 15
Mumbai, Maharashtra, India

Kimberly provides a detailed description of her painting:
The World Tree has been depicted as an artist’s interpretation of a traditional ash tree. Miðgarð in the center is represented by Jörmungandr (the Miðgarð Serpent) and the solar cross. The solar cross is a modern astronomical symbol for earth and the Nordic symbol for the sun. This adds to the spirit of midsummer. The other eight worlds have been represented by their Nordic symbols, projecting outwards from the tree.

Entangled within the roots of the tree, we have Níðhögg, the serpent gnawing at the roots of Yggdrasil (the World Tree). Perched at the apex of the tree we have the eagle and the hawk, Vedrfölnir, sitting between its eyes. We have the squirrel Ratatosk carrying messages between the eagle and Níðhögg. Amongst the branches of the tree are four pairs of antlers that represent the stags of the tree. At the tip of each of the three main roots of the tree is a blue flower. Each flower represents the sources of nourishment of the tree: Spring of Hvergelmir, Well of Urð, and Spring of Mímir.

Midsummer is the longest day of the year, the day when the sun shines the longest. The goddess of the sun is Sól. One of her symbols is the sunflower. Therefore, the petals around the tree are those of a sunflower. Bonfires are a symbol of midsummer. Therefore, I have chosen to depict a fire sunflower (Helianthus annuus) around the tree. The shaded petals show the flickering blaze of glory of the midsummer bonfires. The wreath of flowers separating the tree and the petals is another symbol of midsummer.

In summary, I have tried to incorporate Yggdrasil and the spirit of midsummer in a single flower. Flowers not only represent midsummer but also the beauty of nature: one of the pillars of Norse mythology.
Dom, Utkarsh, and I had very different rankings of the other entries, but all three of us ranked Kimberly's picture in the number one spot. I really love the design of this work and the way that physical objects are used in symbolic ways. Congratulations on this powerful artwork, Kimberly!

Dom writes, "This one is so intricate and beautiful. I can't find any faults with it, so it has to be my winner."

Utkarsh comments, "Very good combination of color and the motifs of the tree. Good symmetry."

First Place: Kimberly Roy

SECOND PLACE
Sindhuja S.
Age 17
Mumbai, Mararashtra, India

Sindhuja writes this about her entry:
A girl reads a book on Norse mythology, painting portraits of the nine realms using the brush of her fertile imagination. She breathes life into this world and all those within, partaking in the celebration of midsummer eve from a distance. The girl imagines the sterling forests and luscious sky of Vanaheim, the fiery lava and ashen rocks of Muspelheim and the snowy peaks and icy mist of Niflheim. She notices a tree in the distance, and the infinitesmal tail of a squirrel, all too familiar to forget.

The child is there, in Miðgarð, where all the beings of the nine realms have arrived to celebrate the eve of midsummer. Gathered around a joyous bonfire are a dwarf from Niðavellir, a soul from Hel, a human from Miðgarð, and an elf from Álfheim. A maypole hangs from the tree, providing further cause to engage in revelry. Sköll, the wolf chasing the sun, rests in the lap of the World Tree, as his prey is furthest away from him on this day. The World Serpent, Jörmungandr, slithers below, in attendance of this great festivity. The night sky is lit by the incandescent candles of the galaxy, as the gods look upon the faces of each present. Every heart beats the same, every mind thinks the same, every soul feels the same: ecstasy.
This is a fantastic and thoughtful work. The colors are so brilliant, and the idea that reading the Norse myths can transport us into another world of the imagination is really wonderful. Cheers!

Dom comments, "I really like the concept of the book making up part of this image, like a portal to the other realms."

Utkarsh adds, "Very imaginative and deft strokes."

Second Place: Sindhuja S.

THIRD PLACE
Shamika Ail
Age 18
Mumbai, Maharashtra, India

Shamika describes her work:
For the contest, I decided to create a representation of the World Tree and the nine worlds in my own creative manner. I have also portrayed three of the animals, including the serpent, the eagle, and the squirrel. I have tried to integrate the two topics by showing the midsummer celebrations in Miðgarð.

To bring in the aspect of midsummer, I showed women preparing for midsummer celebrations before sunrise. It shows women making the maypole and a bonfire. One can also see a woman with flowers in her hair, waiting for the sun to rise. The sunrise is symbolic of happiness, fertility, and enlightenment, which she looks forward to. Like the World Tree connects the worlds together with its roots, the midsummer celebrations help people connect with each other and nature with their common spirit of solidarity and love for each other.
This is such a joyous piece! I really love the sense of depth and the way that Shamika makes the different worlds feel both comfortingly close and majestically distant.

Dom writes, "Incredibly vibrant colors in this one. Very strong indeed. I particularly like the way the clouds have been handled here."

Utkarsh comments, "The symbols of midsummer have been blended very well with the tree and the animals."

Third Place: Shamika Ail

RUNNER-UP
Stuti Mehta
Age 17
McKinney, Texas, USA

Stuti writes about her artwork:
In my piece, the sun goddess Sól is looking over a midsummer celebration. The ring around Sól’s head shows the progression of the sun throughout the year. At midsummer, it has reached its highest point and now shines over the people dancing around a symbolic maypole.

Yggdrasil, the World Tree, is representative of the midsummer maypole and, being the axis mundi, it connects the people to Sól and the gods. Among the many branches of Yggdrasil, Ratatosk and an eagle watch the celebration that is occurring down below. Sól blesses the people honoring her with warmth and joy. She radiates positivity and gives the hope and strength required to survive the gradually approaching bitter winter.

In the spirit of Litha, people are wearing traditional clothes and are celebrating among a lush garden with fireflies and flowers. The marigolds and daisies are in full bloom, indicating that it is peak warm summer and the power of Sól is its highest.

In uncertain times like now, I believe Sól will be the positive light guiding us through darkness. Goddess Sól’s blessings will get us through all difficulties we are facing and give us the hope and strength we need to keep moving forward.
This is such a mature work with such thoughtfulness behind it. Stuti should be very proud of what she has accomplished and communicated here.

Dom comments, "Great composition on this one. I particularly like the pattern work in Sól's hair."

Utkarsh writes, "A pleasing look and a good usage of the main motifs of midsummer."


Adult winners will be announced tomorrow!

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Art Contest – Midsummer 2020

Art by Eric Matzner (Canada), Adult First Place Winner, Midsummer Art Contest 2015

CONTEST

Welcome to The Norse Mythology Blog's ninth worldwide art contest! Although there was a Midwinter Art Contest in 2019, there hasn't been a Midsummer Art Contest since 2015. If you decide to enter, please be sure to carefully read the entire Contest Theme section so that you understand the assignment.

During the summer solstice on June 20, those of us in the northern hemisphere will experience the longest day and shortest night of the year. This may seem early in the season, but it’s really the middle. From this point on, days will get shorter as we slowly move back towards winter.

Throughout Northern Europe, there are local traditions that celebrate midsummer. Some of these practices preserve very old rituals. Your original piece of visual art should capture the midsummer 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 Midsummer Art Contest winners in the three categories: kid, teen, and adult. Most importantly – be creative!

CONTEST THEME: THE WORLD TREE AT MIDSUMMER

Your artwork entry must somehow relate to the myths of the World Tree and the celebration of midsummer.

During this difficult time under the shadow of the coronavirus, community is more important than ever. With so many schools and businesses shut down, with parks and beaches closed, and with baseball and other sports in limbo, it's all too easy for people to drift out of touch. It's vitally important for us to spend time reaching out to each other, to put in the work necessary to maintain our unfortunately divided communities.

In Norse mythology, the roots and branches of the World Tree connect the nine worlds. It's a powerful symbol of interconnectedness, of the many ways that all of us are in this together. The Norse myths portray the World Tree connecting not only humans but also gods, giants, dwarfs, elves, animals, water, earth, sky, the living, and the dead.

Your job in this contest is to find something about the World Tree that speaks to you and inspires you, then combine it with some aspect of midsummer as you create your own original work of art.

Art by Sheoaka F. (Australia), Kid First Place Winner, Midsummer Art Contest 2014

To get you started on your art project, here is how the Icelandic author Snorri Sturluson describes the World Tree, the cosmic ash tree, in his Edda (c. 1220).

The ash is of all trees the biggest and best. Its branches spread out over all the world and extend across the sky. Three of the tree's roots support it and extend very, very far. One is among the Æsir [gods], the second among the frost-giants, where Ginnungagap ["magical void"] once was. The third extends over Niflheim ["dark world"], and under that root is Hvergelmir ["bubbling cauldron," a spring], and Nidhogg ["hateful striking one," a dragon] gnaws at the bottom of the root.

Beneath the Roots

But under the root that reaches towards the frost-giants, there is where Mimir's well is, which has wisdom and intelligence contained in it, and the master of the well is called Mimir ["rememberer"]. He is full of learning because he drinks of the well from the horn Gjallarhorn ["loud horn"]. All-father [Odin] went there and asked for a single drink from the well, but he did not get one until he placed his eye as a pledge.

The third root of the ash extends to heaven, and beneath that root is a well which is very holy, called the well of Urd ["what has happened," but also "fate"]. There the gods have their court. Every day the Æsir ride there up over Bifrost ["shimmering path," the rainbow bridge].

Animals of the Tree

There is an eagle sitting in the branches of the ash, and it has knowledge of many things, and between its eyes sits a hawk called Vedrfolnir ["wind pale"]. A squirrel called Ratatosk ["drill tooth"] runs up and down through the ash and carries malicious messages between the eagle and Nidhogg. Four stags run in the branches of the ash and feed on the foliage. Their names are Dain ["dead"], Dvalin ["delayer"], Duneyr ["downy ears"], and Durathror ["nap thriver"].

And there are so many snakes in Hvergelmir with Nidhogg that no tongue can enumerate them.

Caring for the Tree

It is also said that the norns that dwell by the well of Urd take water from the well each day and with it the mud that lies round the well and pour it up over the ash so that its branches may not rot and decay. And this water is so holy that all things that come into that well go as white as the membrane called the skin that lies round the inside of an eggshell.

The dew that falls from the tree on to the earth, this is what people call honeydew, and from it bees feed. Two birds feed in the well of Urd. They are called swans, and from these birds has come that species of bird that has that name.

[adapted from translation by Anthony Faulkes]

Three of the Old Icelandic mythological poems in the Poetic Edda mention the World Tree. You many notice that these excerpts are a bit difficult to understand without referring to Snorri's explanations.

Völuspá ["prophecy of the seeress"]

An ash I know there stands, Yggdrasil ["steed of the terrible one," of Odin] is its name, a tall tree, showered with shining loam. From there come the dews that from in the valleys. It stands forever green over the well of Urd.


Grímnismál ["sayings of the masked one"]

Three roots rest on three roads from under Yggrasil's ash. Hel [ruler of realm of the dead] dwells under one, under the second the frost ogres, under the third the men of mankind. Yggdrasil's ash endures adversity more than men know. A stag nibbles it above, yet at its side it is rotting – Nidhogg undermines it from beneath.

Hávamál ["sayings of the high one," of Odin]

I know that I was hanging on a windswept tree nine whole nights, wounded with a spear and given to Odin – myself to myself – on that tree of which no one one knows from roots of what it originates.

[adapted from translation by Ursula Dronke]

There are many tales of Norse mythology 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 the World Tree and some aspect of midsummer
2. Illustrate the feeling of the World Tree and midsummer
4. Create something inspired by the World Tree and midsummer
5. Draw something connecting the World Tree and midsummer 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 the World Tree and midsummer

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 very proud to announce the judges for this year's Midsummer Art Contest. These two are both extremely creative and insightful people, and I'm really glad that they agreed to participate this year. The three of us will judge the entries together.

Dom Reardon
I've been a big fan of Dom's artwork since it first appeared in the UK's legendary weekly comic 2000 AD back in 2002 and in its monthly companion the Judge Dredd Megazine in 2006. Dom has a truly unique and instantly recognizable style of black and white illustration that can be lyrically beautiful, deeply creepy, and shockingly horrific.

Dom Reardon's cover art for 2000 AD Prog 1447 (9 November 2009)

With writer Gordon Rennie, he is co-creator of Caballistics, Inc., a long-running series in the pages of 2000 AD that was introduced with this memorable blurb:
During the Second World War a department was formed within the Ministry of Defence to combat Nazi occult warfare. In the 21st century, however, it has long outlived its usefulness and its funding is scrapped. Enter reclusive millionaire rock star Ethan Kostabi, who has brought up its employees and, together with a handful of freelance ghosthunters, constructed a brand new outfit – Caballistics, Inc.

But the forces of the supernatural are not the only enemies that this disparate group have to tackle, for within the heart of Caballistics, Inc. are dangerous secrets that threaten to tear the organization apart...
I have to confess that, at one time, I had a deep and painful crush on the character known as Miss Hannah Chapter. The brilliant series was full of twists and turns, horror and heartbreak.

With writer Rob Williams, Dom co-created the spooky supernatural western series with the impressive title The Grievous Journey of Ichabod Azrael (and the Dead Left in his Wake) that began in 2000 AD back in 2010. It told the twisted tale of a dead gunslinger determined to get back to the land of the living in order to be reunited with his true love. Along the way, the series intersected with Greek and Christian mythologies, along with many other strange developments.

In addition to other work in 2000 AD and the Judge Dredd Megazine, Dom has illustrated Vachss: Underground for Dark Horse and The Power of Five: Raven's Gate for Walker Books. He's also done artwork for the Wizards of the Coast games BattleTech and Magic: The Gathering. Back in 2004, he was named "Best New Talent" in the British Comics Awards.

In March of this year, Humanoids released the new original graphic novel Nicnevin and the Bloody Queen. In the tradition of British folk horror, the supernatural murder mystery features art by Dom, Jock, and Matthew Dow Smith.

You can learn more about Dom by clicking the hyperlinks above and following him on Twitter.

Utkarsh Patel
I'm very happy to have someone with Utkarsh's expertise and passion for mythology judging this contest. He teaches comparative mythology in the Department of Sanskrit at the University of Mumbai. His courses, workshops, lectures, and panel appearances have focused on Norse mythology, Greek mythology, and many aspects of Indian mythology and folklore.

What may be even more impressive than his fluency in multiple mythologies is his dedication to discussing the meanings of myth for those living now. He has spoken on the relevance of myths, how media transforms myth, ethical dilemmas in mythology, the interaction of mythology and religion, and re-envisioning ancient myth for today. He has also presented TEDx Talks on "Mythology and Feminism: A Case for Subaltern Narratives" and "Management and Mythology."

Cover of Utkarsh Patel's Shakuntala: The Woman Wronged (2015)

Utkarsh's first novel was Shakuntala: The Woman Wronged, which retells the story of a heroine from the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata from a feminist perspective. The follow-up Satyavati retold the tale of another strong woman from the Mahabharata. His latest book is Kannaki's Anklet: An Epic from the South of the Vindhyas, which retells the the story of the heroine of the Cilappatikaram ("tale of an anklet"), the oldest Tamil epic poem.

Utkarsh has a strong online presence that includes This Is Utkarsh Speaking (on myths and their analysis) and his main website. He's co-founder of The Mythology Project, which aims to "dig into this rich cultural stockpile, piecing together the puzzle of our existence through archival collections, by researching living myths and traditions and conducting public lectures, workshops and courses for adults and children." He also hosts the "Mythology Comes Alive" series on YouTube for Saregama Music.

In addition to all of these places, you can also find Utkarsh on Twitter.

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 June 13, 2020)
3. Your location (city, state/province, country)
4. A short description of your artwork explaining how it relates to the World Tree and midsummer
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, CDT) on June 13, 2020

ANNOUNCEMENT OF WINNERS

Dom, Utkarsh. 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.

June 17: Kid winners announced
June 18: Teen winners announced
June 19: Adult winners announced

Good luck to everyone!

Friday, May 8, 2020

The Forgiveness Ritual

Last year came to a close with an amazing series of performative forgiveness displays in the public sphere of North America. These ritualized performances tend to follow a basic pattern that is grounded in systems of privilege and power, of access and wealth.

The forgiveness rite usually moves through five steps.
1. Someone from a more powerful group does something morally abhorrent with negative consequences that primarily affect members of a less powerful group.

2. There’s a public outcry against the one who has committed the repugnant act.

3. The doer of the deed makes a (sometimes qualified) apology for the act and/or disappears from the public eye for a time.

4. The doer is publicly forgiven by one or more prominent members of a less powerful group.

5. Members of both more powerful and less powerful groups publicly shame any individuals who refuse to proffer forgiveness.
The public discussion over the interactions between George W. Bush and Ellen DeGeneres closely follows this form.

From war crimes to “partner in crime”

During his presidency, Bush led an American offensive after the September 11 attacks that featured torture, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and killing of prisoners in willful flaunting of international humanitarian laws. He promoted falsehoods in order to adjust the focus of military efforts away from Saudi Arabia (where fifteen of the nineteen hijackers were citizens) to Iraq (where major corporate donors to his campaign had oil interests). He supported a constitutional amendment against marriage equality, opposed the legalization of gay marriage, was against child adoption by members of the LGBTQ+ communities, and threatened to veto hate crime legislation that included attacks based on sexual orientation.

Poisonous Gases by McKee Barclay (c. 1915)

Protests against the Iraq War began in 2002 and continued throughout Bush’s time in office. The march outside the 2004 Republican National Convention was one of the largest in United States history, and the international protest in February 2003 entered the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest anti-war rally in history. Nearly one million protestors gathered in London’s Hyde Park alone. In the wake of Bush’s anti-LGBTQ+ actions and statements during his first term, even the members of the Log Cabin Republicans (“the nation’s original and largest organization representing LGBT conservatives”) abandoned him. The group’s board voted 22-2 against endorsing him for re-election.

After leaving the White House, Bush largely stayed out of the national discussion. He focused on writing his memoirs and painting portraits of people and dogs. He defended the use of torture under his leadership and said there was no need to apologize for misleading the public in order to advance a military offensive that led to 250,000 civilian deaths in Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan even as 4,200 U.S. service members gave their lives. He clearly took the disappearing option over the apology option.

Bush’s rehabilitation began when Michelle Obama began kidding around with him at public events. She called him her “partner in crime” and “a wonderful man,” saying that she “love[s] him to death.” Public forgiveness reached a tipping point when photos of Ellen DeGeneres having a great time with the former president at a football game went viral on social media in October. The comedian responded to online comments by performing a monologue on her television show stating that she and Bush are friends. She insisted that she is “friends with a lot of people who don’t share the same beliefs” and advised her audience to “be kind to everyone.”

After the first African-American First Lady and the television star who jumped over so many media hurdles set up against LGBTQ+ performers both publicly gave George W. Bush their love and kindness, how dare anyone else hold on to past grievances? My various social media feeds were flooded with posts from people across the political spectrum celebrating the healing qualities of coming together across the aisle and recognizing the inherent humanity that we all share, of setting aside differences of opinion and being friends with those who don’t subscribe to every element of our own personal belief systems, and – most importantly – forgiving mistakes of the past in the interest of building a kinder community in the present.

We all make mistakes, don’t we? How can we judge others and hold them to account for their past errors when each of us has our own trail of missteps? Comments like these are common in these discussions of forgiveness and calls for all of us just getting along.

What is the root of this distinctly American forgiveness philosophy? I believe it springs from Christian concepts of sin and forgiveness. Christ teaches that we should not judge others, lest we be ourselves judged. He insists that only the one who is without sin can condemn the sins of another. He instructs his followers to forgive any who wrong them, if the wrongdoer repents. Indeed, the idea of repenting resulting in forgiving is core to the Christian worldview.

Embracing the murderer

This worldview was on display in the courtroom after former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger (a white woman) was found guilty of murder and sentenced to ten years in prison for killing her neighbor Botham Jean (a black man) in his own apartment. The brother of the murder victim and Judge Tammy Kemp both hugged the convicted killer. The brother mentioned God’s forgiveness. The judge gave Guyger her own personal Bible and cited a passage on salvation. Both the brother and judge are African-American. As in the case of Bush, members of the group victimized by the offender made a public show of forgiveness after the appropriate apologetic speech act – in this case tearful and regretful testimony on the stand.

The Promise II by Madeline von Foerster (2012)

This forgiveness metric is not necessarily embraced by those outside the American Christian sphere. While teaching a college course on religion and social movements, I told the students about my experiences hearing a Christian gospel singer repeatedly testify in various churches about his past as a drug dealer, about finding Jesus, about repenting his wicked ways, about asking Christ for forgiveness, and about being transformed by the love of the Lord. A student from India asked why the singer wasn’t arrested after confessing his crimes in a public setting. No matter how I explained that this is a standard narrative put forward in evangelical settings, the student was shocked that openly talking about crimes that went unpunished by civil authorities was considered a positive act in a religious setting.

Given this student’s response, I’m always a bit surprised when I see American practitioners of Ásatrú and Heathenry repeating the mantra of repentance and forgiveness. So many times, I’ve witnessed proud followers of the Old Ways evince worldviews that seem grounded in American Christian teachings. The idea that those who perform speech acts declaring repentance for past sins should be forgiven and embraced appears regularly when issues of politics (or things declared to be “political”) come up in social and social media settings.

Person X was a neo-Nazi for ten years, but he says he’s not anymore; he’s welcomed into a self-declared “inclusive Heathen” community. Person Y was a prominent leader in a hate group on the SPLC watchlist, but says she regrets it; she’s given a position of authority in a supposedly non-racist Heathen organization. Person Z has repeatedly and publicly insisted that the swastika and Black Sun are true symbols of Heathen pride, but now says they’re sorry; they’re hailed for their bravery. Anyone who questions the forgiveness process is accused of “inserting politics” or being against “inclusion.” Never mind that the objects of forgiveness are always white and the actions being forgiven always have to do with whiteness.

Does the confluence of speech act and forgiveness mark any real change in the person? Less than three weeks after the orgy of explicitly Christian forgiveness that followed Amber Guyger’s tearful testimony, the killer cop’s lawyers filed paperwork to get the ball rolling on appeal of both the murder conviction and the prison sentence. Those who have experienced the benefits of privilege don’t seem willing to face any consequences of their deeds beyond the forgiveness ritual – a ritual that so often displaces and negates any actual requirements of restitution.

Deeds, wyrd, and public theology

Is there anything in Heathen theologies that applies to these situations? The American Heathen credo “we are our deeds” and the concept of wyrd can offer some guidance here. If we truly are our deeds, and if what is done in the past and present determines what must happen in the future, then harmful action must be balanced and countered by helpful action.

The Norns and the World Ash Tree by Emil Doepler (1905)

Decades of hateful action in the service of white nationalist ideology are not somehow erased by a post apologizing to an all-white Heathen Facebook group. Odin does not say, “Cattle die, kinsmen die, but the one thing that never dies is that one apologetic comment made after being accepted into an un-vetted Facebook group actively seeking to boost its membership numbers by any means necessary.” How many years has that neo-Nazi or Bush or Guyger dedicated to building up the specific communities they spent so long tearing down? How much energy have they dedicated to making restitution to those that they harmed, rather than making self-serving statements within their own social spheres?

Part of the problem here is the issue of who is simply forgiven after taking a brief time out form public life or performing a basic public apology. After being caught out for three specific instances of wearing blackface and saying he wore it so often that he can’t remember how many times he did it, Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau was re-elected as the prime minister of Canada. After multiple credible allegations of sexual abuse, Louis C.K. temporarily hid from the cameras before re-emerging in New York clubs as a performer. Do those without power and privilege receive the same forgiveness benefits?

While Trudeau brushes past the blackface issue, indigenous Canadians are imprisoned at disproportionate rates and receive incredibly harsh treatment while incarcerated. While wealthy investors move into the growing legal marijuana market in the United States, African-Americans are arrested and sentenced for marijuana use out of all proportion. While Harvey Weinstein sits in the audience at Manhattan’s Downtime bar as his team of lawyers prepare for his rape trial, comedian Kelly Bachman – a rape survivor herself – is booed for addressing the allegations against him, and actor Zoe Stuckless is escorted out of the event after confronting the Hollywood mogul. While black women are jailed for defending themselves from chronic sexual assault, wealthy athletes are protected from facing consequences for repeatedly committing domestic abuse.

There is an endless list of these examples, of the privileged being granted forgiveness while their victims are denied it. Reading the news stories, and seeing the reactions from American Heathens, I have to ask: should today’s Heathen religions be based on concepts of Christian forgiveness and on practices of punching down at the less privileged? As far as I’m concerned, the answer is no.

I believe that Old Icelandic poetry and Norse mythology are valuable as materials to be meditated upon, as records of ancient insights that can help us find our own insights into the problems of today. The texts that we spend so much time studying and reflecting upon do not provide narratives that follow the forgiveness process outlined above. To the contrary, they strongly emphasize the doing of deeds that benefit the community, the facing of consequences for harmful action, and the protection of those who are in danger from harmful forces.

My own Ásatrú worldview is grounded in a public theology* of standing up to hate as Thor stands up to the serpent that threatens the world, of facing down those who threaten our communities as Tyr faces down the growing danger of the monstrous wolf. The powerful ones who are willing to abuse the world for their own gratification do not deserve a forgiveness that is free of consequences. They do not merit an embrace without balancing their wyrd through equivalent right action and restitution to those harmed. This goes for past presidents as much as it does for the supposedly renunciant racists who seek entrance into our Heathen spaces online and off.

The next time this forgiveness narrative plays out, we would do well to reflect on our own reaction to the formula and participation in the ritual. We would benefit from asking ourselves if our religious traditions foster a fundamentally different perspective on the drama than the ones which surround us. If they do not, do our traditions really offer worldviews that are meaningfully distinct from that of the dominant culture?
__________________

* As defined by Korean theologian Sebastian Kim, public theology addresses the growing “need for theology to interact with public issues of contemporary society” and to “engage in dialogue with different academic disciplines, such as politics, economics, cultural studies and religious studies, as well as with spirituality, globalization and society in general.”

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

Friday, January 24, 2020

Pagan Worldviews in the Wider World

Twitter can be a lawless hellscape where regular use of the ban-hammer is the only way to stem the endless feed flood of political bots, anonymous stalkers, and extremist trolls. Elected officials continually violate declared community standards on targeted harassment while asserting that the platform is secretly erasing their followers. Extreme-right activists respond to posts by journalists and academics with grossly anti-Semitic and racist memes. Bizarre counterfactual conspiracy theories are promoted daily on the continually updated trends tab.

Twitter can also be a liberating forum for the free exchange of ideas and amplification of underrepresented voices that go largely unheard in mainstream media. Members of minority communities can clap back at the blue-check verified glitterati of cable news, print journalism, government, and academia. Stories that have been erased from the corporate newsfeed narrative can be shared and lifted to prominence. The wild and willful lies of politicians can be fact-checked and denounced in real time.

"Out into the Wide World" by John Bauer (1907)

A little while ago, two tweets made one week apart caught my attention and began bubbling in my brain.

“Christian mindsets” and “dangerous narcissism”

The first was posted by Soli, a Pagan in Connecticut who is Kemetic Orthodox, a practitioner of witchcraft, and an initiated hounsi in Haitian Vodou. She wrote that she had been pondering “ways pagans and polytheists can extract themselves from Christian mindsets.”

The second was part of a thread by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, who quoted bell hooks on turning “spiritual practice into a commodity.” “I am struck,” writes hooks, “by the dangerous narcissism fostered by spiritual rhetoric that pays so much attention to individual self-improvement and so little to the practice of love in the context of community.”

Both of these tweets are a bit perpendicular to my own regular paths of thought, but isn’t engaging with new points of view why we spend time on social media? Well, no. We generally go online to have our biases confirmed, tell strangers that they’re wrong, watch cat videos, and try to convince others how interesting our lives really and truly (supposedly) are. It would be great if we actually were always open to new perspectives, however, and in this case, these two tweets did get me thinking.

On one hand, accusations of “Christian mindset” in today’s Pagan communities seem to generally be leveled against anyone who has a different opinion on a given subject. Anyone who has made a statement for or against gay marriage, racial diversity, reproductive rights, relationship to deity, modes of worship, or any of a host of other topics that get argued about in online Pagan spaces has likely had the charge leveled against them. The view being shouted down is said to be “Christian baggage” and not in accordance with the supposedly unified worldview of our putatively glorious Pagan ancestors.

On the other hand, there does seem to be a common habit of porting Christian frameworks into modern Paganism in the United States. Ex-Catholics build national organizations with ritual and hierarchical structures similar to those within Roman Catholicism. Ex-Mormons gravitate towards groups with a concept of elders parallel to that within the Latter Day Saint movement. Ex-evangelicals build intense personal relationships with deities that echo the fervent devotion to Christ within fundamentalist Christianity.

In many cases, the obvious influence of Christian upbringing is brushed aside by citing specific passages in, for example, the Eddas and sagas of medieval (Christian) Iceland – an emphasis on the primary religious role of written textual sources that is itself foundational across multiple modes of American Christianity.

If it is indeed a worthwhile project for modern Pagans to “extract themselves from Christian mindsets,” if part of becoming more solidly Pagan is becoming less subconsciously Christian, how do we perform this self-intervention without falling victim to “the dangerous narcissism fostered by spiritual rhetoric that pays so much attention to individual self-improvement and so little to the practice of love in the context of community”?

I think the key is in the end of the quote from bell hooks: “in the context of community.” We can agree to disagree on whether “the practice of love” is a prime directive of whatever form of Paganism we each subscribe to; the central issue is developing religious understanding while avoiding the pitfall of navel-gazing self-absorption that is part of the heritage of American Paganism from the spiritual tourism of the 1960s, the “Me Decade” of the 1970s, and the crystal therapy of the 1980s. Maybe the best way to turn away from self-centered spirituality is to turn to the public sphere.

If Paganism today is truly distinct from Christianity today, engaging with public discourse may be a solid means of self-defining and clarifying the multiplicity of Pagan worldviews. By looking up from our texts, walking out of our circles, entering the wider world, and openly joining the flow of modern history expressly as Pagans, we can sharpen our understanding of what makes our own voices unique and necessary.

“In the context of community”

Rather than simply sniping at the privileging of Christianity in American public life and demanding diversity of representation, we can assert what positive effects the seating of Pagans at the table will have. If our local legislatures and other public spaces begin sessions or events with prayer, what do we have to say that is qualitatively different and special? What elements of our worldview can be expressed in a way that is meaningful and beneficial to the wider communities in which we live? By putting ourselves forward as willing to speak publicly at these sorts of social moments, we put ourselves in situations where we must drill down into our own beliefs and concepts and distill them into coherent and expressible forms.

Instead of only critiquing mainstream journalists from Christian backgrounds who write for corporate secular media but regularly and primarily cover Christianity as the default form of American religiosity, we can publicly lay out what Pagan writers have to offer that would improve the coverage of religious issues in the news. If journalists who come from Catholic families, Catholic high schools, and Catholic universities tend to privilege official voices from hierarchical religious organizations and mostly cover issues important to Catholics (abortion, death penalty, shrinking church attendance, whatever the pope did this week), what would journalists from Pagan backgrounds provide that would clearly improve news coverage?

If our diversity is our strength – diversity not just of practitioner heritage but also of belief, theology, practice, and organizational structure – how would that diversity positively effect what happens in newsroom meetings and what appears in print? By articulating the benefits of including Pagan voices in mainstream media, we clarify what is different and special about our worldviews.

Many of us have had negative experiences in educational settings, whether as students or teachers. A dean once told me that Ásatrú “has no validity,” a philosophy professor insisted that historical pagans were nothing but “poisoners,” and several noted scholars in medieval studies have stated that anyone studying Norse mythology is either a promoter of “whiteness” or an actual Nazi. If modern Paganism, historical paganism, and even the study of the written myths can be unashamedly slandered in educational settings, it seems obvious that Pagan representation is needed and that we can offer perspectives that are not only missing but willfully excluded.

The whetting of worldview expression in academic settings is, for those of scholarly bent, a fantastic way to clarify for ourselves what we really think about a range of issues. I know that formulating my responses to Christian writers assigned in divinity school was a great way to sharpen my ability to express my ideas coming from an Ásatrú perspective, and I have direct experience with the ways classroom discussions of multiple issues can become both broader and deeper when Pagan voices speak out and are heard.

This sort of sharpening doesn’t have to happen in an academic setting, but it does definitely help to address our ideas to a non-Pagan audience in whatever media we’re most comfortable in – written word, spoken word, video, music, or visual arts. So much of intra-Pagan discourse can take place via shorthand or with the assumption of shared conceptual understanding. By engaging in the wider public conversation, we have to fully articulate what can go unsaid within our own virtual or physical communities.

Just as the pressure of an upcoming performance or competition can drive a musician or athlete to take their skills to the next level, the spotlight of speaking out in the public sphere can push a Pagan to more clearly formulate and articulate what their worldview contains aside from so-called Christian baggage.

There are many paths forward, but I do think that Pagans who truly want to “extract themselves from Christian mindsets” would derive great benefit from addressing their own beliefs and practice “in the context of community.” It is not an easy road to travel, and there are both potholes and irate drivers on it. There is no magickal crystalline wonderland of self-actualization at the end, but instead a lifelong journey through multiple communities that can help us to understand what it is that we each mean by Paganism and what our beliefs and practices can offer to others. Your mileage may vary.

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