Saturday, July 18, 2020

Modern Heathens and the Poetic Edda

Forty-nine years ago, one of the most important textual sources of Norse mythology was returned to its original home in Iceland.

The thirteenth-century Icelandic manuscript known as the Codex Regius (“royal manuscript”) contains poems about gods, heroes, dragons, dwarfs, and giants from Iceland’s pagan past.

Illustration of Thor's fishing trip by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939)

Scholars disagree about the composition dates of the various poems, but they generally agree that the written texts preserve elements of oral tradition preexisting Iceland’s public conversion from paganism to Christianity in 1000 CE. After an Icelandic bishop presented the manuscript as a gift to the Danish king in 1662, it became known as the “royal manuscript.”

Iceland’s great collection of mythological poems remained in Denmark for over three hundred years, until the conclusion of process of negotiation that began with the 1961 passing of a Danish law regarding the return of Icelandic manuscripts, continued through legal proceedings, and culminated in the 1971 ratifaction of a bilateral treaty.

Icelanders didn’t trust the safety of air travel for the long-awaited return of the irreplaceable mythological manuscript, so a military escort guarded its journey via ship to Reykjavík, where a large crowd joyfully awaited its arrival on April 21, 1971.

Today, the poems are known and loved around the world as the core of the Poetic Edda, a book that has been repeatedly translated into many languages in various forms since the mid-1600s. The collection tells of the prophecy of Ragnarök, the wise sayings of Odin, the adventures of Thor, the slanderous accusations by Loki, the tragedy of Sigurd the dragon-slayer, and much more.

An insight into a life that was

Pagan poems written down in thirteenth-century Iceland have a vibrant life in today’s Ásatrú, a contemporary iteration of Old Norse religion whose practitioners refer to themselves as Heathens. The name of the new religious movement is a modern Icelandic term that translates as “Æsir Faith,” referring to belief in or loyalty to the main tribe of Norse gods.

In the twenty-first century, the Poetic Edda is treasured by Heathens in Iceland as a vital connection to voices from the pagan past.

“The poems of the Eddas are a source of wisdom of humanity,” says Jóhanna G. Harðardóttir, goði (“priest”) of the Ásatrúarfélagið (“Ásatrú Fellowship”), the religious organization that began the revival of pre-Christian Heathen religion in Iceland in 1972.

According to Jóhanna, Hávamál (“Sayings of the High One”), a poem narrated by the Norse god Odin, contains “the best lessons you can learn about getting along with other people in life. The world has changed, but people are still the same.”

Haukur Bragason, another Icelandic Ásatrú goði, sees the poems as sources of both knowledge and entertainment. “They are a treasure, an insight into a life that was,” he says. “They are man-made fantasy explanations to questions that could not be answered. They contain serious philosophical questions and teachings, as well as being the TV series of that time.”

Worldwide Heathens

Although it may be impossible to truly translate poetry, the Poetic Edda is known and loved in many languages.

Since the 1972 founding of Ásatrú in Iceland, modern versions of ancient Norse and Germanic religions have spread widely. The Worldwide Heathen Census 2013 found followers in 98 countries. Iceland has the largest number of Heathens per capita, while the United States has the greatest total number.

The poems resonate with Heathens in many lands, and the myths they contain have an influence that transcends national borders.

“In Germany, we have a long and very rich tradition in translating the Poetic Edda,” says Andreas Zautner of the German Ásatrú organization known as the Eldaring. “There are more than a dozen translations highlighting different aspects. The Poetic Edda is still influencing our daily culture. For example, if you visit Thale in the Harz Mountains, you find wooden statues of Eddic figures all over the town.”

Other Heathens were lured to Iceland by the Poetic Edda.

Statue of Thor and his goats by Haukur Halldórsson in Straumur, Iceland

“I knew the poems before I came to Iceland, because I came mainly to learn more about them,” says Lenka Kovárová, a former member of the Ásatrúarfélagið’s lögretta (board of directors) who came to Reykjavík from the Czech Republic to earn a Master’s degree in Old Norse religion at the University of Iceland. “I see them in wider context as a part of European heritage, as a sort of pattern of wisdom.”

For others, like Eric Scott, an American Heathen who writes for The Wild Hunt and who came to Reykjavík to study Icelandic language, the Poetic Edda is no less important.

“The Edda is like an heirloom – a reminder of where I, as a Heathen, have come from, and an inspiration for the future,” Eric says. “The voice of the poems is a grandfather’s voice, describing a foreign world in a foreign time, but a world less different from my own than it would seem at first. The poetry isn’t a set of fixed laws or inarguable truths, but rather a store of tales and maxims to meditate on.”

Poetry as ritual

Throughout the international Ásatrú community, the Icelandic poems are used in spiritual contexts. “I use the poems to remind me of who I am,” says Jóhanna, “and to teach children who they are and what they can become, if they want to.”

Ryan Denison, member of Atlanta’s Hearthfire Kindred and founder of Polytheist and Pagan Educational Symposium (PAPER), has a complex relationship with the poems. “My group always includes poetry from the Eddas or sagas in our rituals,” he says. “We find it adds beauty and meaning to our rites. Some of the ideas in those works should and need to be left in the past, but there is much wisdom there, as well.”

The poems are spoken or sung in Ásatrú celebrations around the world.

“Ásatrúarfélagið uses the poems in all their rituals and ceremonies,” says Haukur. “You can always find something relevant to the occasion at hand or the milestone in people’s lives. We use verses from Hávamál, Völuspá (“Prophecy of the Seeress”), and Sigrdrífumál (“Sayings of the Victory-Driver”), for example, in everything from a name-giving ceremony to a wedding and funeral, and also in common rituals.”

Sigrdrífumál is one of the poems most widely used in modern religious contexts. Two verses used by the Ásatrúarfélagið in ceremonies and celebrations are also used by American groups to begin rituals. In Henry Adams Bellows’ classic translation, they read:
Hail, day! Hail, sons of day!
And night and her daughter now!
Look on us here with loving eyes,
That waiting we victory win.

Hail to the gods! Ye goddesses, hail,
And all the generous earth!
Give to us wisdom and goodly speech,
And healing hands, life-long.
Other poems are often recited or chanted on special occasions. In Germany, a verse spoken or sung by the god Odin is used for funerals and the remembrance of lost loved ones:
Cattle die, and kinsmen die,
And so one dies one’s self;
One thing now that never dies,
The fame of a dead man’s deeds.
The poems are sometimes given dramatic performance as part of religious rituals. Eric has performed Völuspá as part of a midwinter Yule ceremony.

“We walked our group through the mythic history of the poem,” he says, “reenacting its events, especially the tale of Baldr’s death. Stepping into the poem, and embodying it, gave Völuspá even greater depth for me. I had not only read the text, but – in a sense – I had lived it, as well.”

In many ways, in many lands, these ancient Icelandic poems continue to resonate deeply in hearts and minds. Eight centuries after they were first written down, and nearly five decades after the Codex Regius manuscript was returned to Iceland, the poems of the Poetic Edda have a vibrant life as part of the worldwide religious tradition of Ásatrú.

An earlier version of this article was published in The Reykjavík Grapevine.

Monday, July 6, 2020

Interview with Angela Walker, Green Party Vice-Presidential Candidate

Angela Walker is the Green Party vice-presidential candidate for 2020. She and presidential candidate Howie Hawkins clinched the party’s nomination on June 21 after winning enough primary contests to secure the nod on the first ballot.

Angela Walker, Green Party candidate for vice-president

On June 24, I met with Ms. Walker via Zoom for an in-depth interview on topics including her family and religious background, the coronavirus pandemic, healthcare, labor unions, policing, prisons, the Black Lives Matter movement, the Democratic Party, and what it means to vote Green.

What follows is the full text of our interview, which I transcribed from the Zoom recording. I’ve included background information on the questions in the questions themselves, but if you want learn more, Ms. Walker’s candidate profile and the campaign platform are good places to start.

“I believe that there is divinity”

KS – I found a passing reference to the influence that your grandmother’s political radicalism and activism has had on your public life but couldn’t find any details. Can you tell me about her and how she inspired you?

AW – She continues to inspire me. My grandmother is a devout Christian, which I am not. She is someone who has always practiced socialism without calling it socialism – centering kindness, compassion, cooperation, and fairness.

Everybody has a say. Everyone should be respected. Money is not the end-all, be-all. Our ideas of success are what we choose them to be. Moving in the world as a person of integrity and kindness is more important than being someone who has a lot of material success.

KS – How else has your family history shaped your political worldview?

AW – It’s the same thing. My mom was a hippie. She was! She never would have defined herself that way, but she was a hippie. You share what you have, if others need it. There was never a question.

There were children that we were playing with, kids around the house. At dinner time, everybody got fed, regardless of whether the kids were going home late or not. If there’s a child there at Christmas time, everybody gets something, even if you weren’t prepared for that child to be there. I was always taught, you take care of everybody around you.

KS – Growing up in Milwaukee, were you involved in a local religious community? Were you brought up in a tradition?

AW – As a child, yes. I was raised in the Church of God in Christ, which a lot of people understand as Holiness or Pentecostal.

KS – Do you feel that your religious experiences helped shape your political outlook?

AW – I know that they did, and not always in a positive way. Ha!

I think that having that grounding in an understanding of how to relate to the divine has been very helpful throughout my life, and it is definitely helpful now.

KS – Since so much of what you have said publicly seems parallel to what has long been discussed in womanist and liberation theologies, I’m curious if you’ve ever engaged with writing or writers in those areas.

AW – As far as womanism – Toni Cade Bambara, Alice Walker, of course. Kimberlé Crenshaw, bell hooks, Audre Lorde. I could go on, but yes.

KS – I’ve seen some language of yours that seems very much like liberation theology.

AW – The last church that I attended regularly, they practice liberation theology, which is why I went.

KS – Your candidate profile states that you fiercely advocate for the rights of “the Earth itself.” What forms does this work take?

AW – In my own personal life, I don’t eat meat. I don’t eat dairy. I’m phasing honey out. I’ve always used honey as a medicine, until I realized that this really does… bees make honey because they need it, not because they want us to have it. So, reworking the way that I do that.

I am actually practicing a furniture-free minimalism. I believe that moving through the world with less things frees you up to – and this is just for me. It was something that I like. I’m already a minimalist. I don’t believe in having a lot of stuff. I feel like it weighs you down, and it changes what your priorities in life are.

Making sure that I recycle. Making sure that I am mindful of the amount of packaging that the things I buy come in. How they’re manufactured. Are they ethical? Making sure that I'm not using things that are tested on animals or have animal ingredients in them.

Treading this Earth as lightly as possible. I believe that she is very much a sentient entity and deserves our respect and our care.

KS – Have you interacted with members of Earth-centered religions such as the various modern forms of Paganism, Druidry, Wicca, and Heathenry?

AW – Yes! I used to think of myself as an Earth Witch. I mean, I am a Capricorn, so there’s that. I do follow… if you were to ask me, I’m a Heathen.

I do believe in Source. I believe that there is divinity that had a hand in creation, and I believe that that divinity lives in all living things, including non-human life and most definitely in the planet herself. I do believe that.

And I believe also that it is a responsibility of being someone who is granted time on this planet. We are supposed to truly be good stewards of her.

KS – We’re now several months into the coronavirus pandemic, and things are getting worse in the United States. Last Wednesday, we saw the highest daily total of new cases with over 36,000 recorded nationally on that one day alone. On Friday, Florida reported a new record of nearly 9,000 new cases in a single day.

What do we need to change to make real progress and save lives?

AW – This country has to take this pandemic seriously. People have to understand that this virus is unpredictable. It is long-lasting, and it is not hard to share it.

I think that for so long we’ve had this idea of I’m free to do what I want, and it’s not incumbent on me to worry about my neighbor. Well, it actually is. This is something that is airborne. Something as simple as covering your face – it’s not that complicated. Keep your hands clean. Keep a distance.

I understand that – particularly with it being summer – people want to feel like they’re having some sort of normalcy and that the ground under their feet is not unstable. But we have to be comfortable with the fact that this is exactly what it is. There is no stable. There is no normal.

Everything that we thought we understood – those things are shifting, and we’re going to have to ride with that, but being safe and being mindful and genuinely caring enough about our neighbor to make sure we’re not infecting them with something horrible.

KS – As the pandemic rages on, the Trump administration has asked the Supreme Court to strike down all of the Affordable Care Act – a.k.a. Obamacare – including protections for people with preexisting conditions. How do we make health care equitable in the U.S.?

AW – Do you want my honest opinion? Under capitalism, we’re not going to do that. It is not going to happen under the current system, because they have no incentive to do that.

The fact that the front-runner for the Democratic Party, their front-runner for the presidency, has said that he does not support the very measure that people most want to have, which is Medicare for All – I think that’s extremely telling. For a whole lot of people, this is the one big demand that they’re making: this is what we need, and we needed it decades ago.

The concept of a Medicare for All as a community controlled national health service – which is in our platform – these things are being done in other countries. This is not new to them. It’s only impossible to us.

I would like to be optimistic, that no matter who is occupying the White House, folks in government, that this would be something that they would do, but they have no incentive to do it and are showing no inclination to do it. So I don’t have any faith in them.

KS – You majored in history at University of North Florida. Do you think that the United States is at a critical inflection point in its history right now?

AW – Oh, yes. Oh, yes! And I also believe in the law of karma. We, as human beings moving through the journey that’s life, your soul is presented with lessons that you need to learn and, if you do not do that, you’ll see that lesson again. Maybe it won’t show up the same way, but it’s going to come back. I think we’re having that sort of moment as a country.

We had an opportunity during Reconstruction, post-enslavement, where we could have treated everyone equitably – formerly enslaved people, indigenous people, and poor white folks. We could have leveled the playing field and said everyone living in this country deserves a chance to thrive and be okay and made decisions and legislation that supported that. We didn't do it.

We had an opportunity post-World War II where we could have said let’s treat people equitably. Let’s make sure that everyone has access to living-wage work. Let’s make sure that there is a health system in place for people. Let’s make sure that everybody’s okay. We didn’t do that.

We’re here again. We have an opportunity right now when a whole lot of people are waking up. I really believe that it is because this pandemic is happening, and because it has been mishandled, and the death toll has been so absolutely unbelievable, and the suffering coming from the fact that this has been mishandled.

I think that a lot of people’s hearts have been softened to a lot of other issues because of this. Things that they were able to just kind of shrug off or ignore previously, they’re feeling it now.

So I think right now at the intersection of pandemic, of the resulting economic hardships that are coming from that, with people being very aware of climate change, with the Arctic being a hundred degrees the other day, and also continuing state violence against black, brown, and indigenous people – I think that a lot of folks are awake to things they weren’t before, and I will be interested in seeing how we go forward.

“We take care of each other”

KS – You’ve described yourself as “a Fred Hampton, Assata Shakur socialist,” citing two figures who loom large in the history of the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army in the 1960s and 1970s. What about the intersection of Hampton and Shakur with socialism speaks loudest to our current cultural moment?

AW – When this pandemic first hit and people were not able to go buy PPE [personal protective equipment], people were freaking out. There were unhoused people who weren’t being taking care of. Who were the people that got in the streets and did that, and started up mutual aid, and said the government is not handling this, is not taking care of the people? The people took care of the people.

I believe that, at the end of the day, that is the thing that will always save us. We take care of each other. We take care of ourselves. As long as we have a government that is insensitive to the needs of the people, we’re going to have to.

The [Black] Panthers, of course, have a tradition of feeding babies, making sure babies had breakfast, and providing medical testing and things in the community that people needed, because we weren’t receiving those services from the people who really are supposed to… are supported by our tax dollars. We’re entitled to these things. It’s a very direct way of taking care of one another, and that is the tradition that I draw from.

Angela Walker of the Green Party

KS – You’ve been employed as a full-time school bus driver and have worked as a dump truck driver since 2017. How has your work life given you a different perspective on the American condition than the candidates from the Democratic and Republican parties?

AW – I think it’s because – and I can speak for Howie [Hawkins] with this, too – we both are workers. I think that being someone who has to be concerned about the fact that your healthcare is linked or your access to healthcare is linked to your employment. I’ve gone long periods with no health insurance, where I had to fall back, and I was grateful that Planned Parenthood exists, because that’s where I went. Those things are very real for me.

Also having to mind how you spend and things like that. With my work, climate change – with this these shifts where we’re having a lot more rain in times when we don’t normally see it – that means I don’t work, and so I have to I have to figure that out.

In a nutshell, it just boils down to being a working class person and knowing what working class people go through, because this is your life. It’s not someplace where you’re slumming, and then you’re just going to move up. This is my life.

KS – You were part of protests demanding a Florida ballot recount in the 2000 election. In his role as president of the Senate, Al Gore famously gaveled into silence multiple African-American members of the House of Representatives who objected to the disenfranchisement of black voters in Florida, and he was fully willing to step aside and let George W. Bush take the presidency.

Looking back, what do you think was going on there?

AW – There was a lot of chicanery there. You remember that, at the time, Jeb Bush was the governor of the state, and Katherine Harris was the campaign manager for W.’s campaign, and she also had a position with the state that she should have stepped down from, because there was a clear conflict of interest.

When Gore conceded, I was so insulted and so angry. There were thousands and thousands and thousands of people who went to Tallahassee to simply say recount our votes. I remember when I voted, they used those punch cards. I punched my ballot so hard, I was afraid that I ripped it. I was! You know, you pull the little chad off the back of it.

You [Gore] stepped aside and basically told the opposition that… You sold us out! It made me wonder about the way that the system works and what we're really dealing with.

KS – When Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker began his assault on unions in 2011, you joined the protestors in Madison as a member of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 998 and were afterward appointed the local’s Legislative Director.

During his first campaign for president, Barack Obama said, “If American workers are being denied their right to organize when I’m in the White House, I will put on a comfortable pair of shoes, and I will walk that picket line with you as President of the United States.” As president, he did not join the union members in Wisconsin when they were under direct assault by the governor.

How would you evaluate the Democratic Party’s relationship with labor unions in the United States?

AW – Just thinking about the fact that most unions funnel their membership – and the unions I'm thinking of, the ones that I worked with, transit, teachers, the nurses, public service workers – they all funnel their efforts, their money, and their energy into the Democratic Party and getting Democratic people elected, and we don’t hold them accountable.

People did ask individually, “Yo, President Obama! You said you’d put on your comfortable shoes and come walk with us. Where you at?” There were people that questioned that, but overwhelmingly, I think we take it as a given that, okay, yeah, these folks say this, but we really don’t have to hold them to account. And that’s problematic.

I think that it points to the larger problem of the Democrats taking the votes of certain sectors of the population for granted – being union workers, being black people, being women, and being Latinx folks – that they take us for granted. It happens because we’ve allowed it.

We are going to have to really think, or folks who are supportive of the Democratic Party are going to have to think about how they’re going to hold them accountable. I have some questions for big labor myself.

KS – How are you working to strengthen communication between labor unions and the Green Party?

AW – I am a pro-labor person, and living in South Carolina, you already know what my situation is, as far as that goes. This is a right-to-work state, it’s an at-will state. I think their former governor, Nikki Haley, made the statement that “even the word union is unwelcome here.” Ha! So you know what the lay of the land is.

I personally am building with the Green Party… I want us to have a good, strong relationship with labor, and I also want labor to step back – and I’ve said this for years – step back and take a look at itself and how it is working.

When you and I were talking a little bit earlier about opportunities in our history in this country where things could have pivoted, labor is one of those situations. Labor formed out of socialists and communists and folks that [were saying] everybody deserves a living wage, and an eight-hour workday, and good working conditions, and things like that.

And then they became gatekeepers. Certain people aren’t entitled to that. This is only for this group of people. This group of people gets excluded.

It’s time for labor to go back to its socialist, communist roots – and, this time, every worker gets in, and no one gets left out. There’s this hierarchy of what you do, and fast food workers, because of what they do, don’t deserve a union. No, they absolutely do.

My intention with the Green Party is that we are embracing labor, and also calling labor on its gatekeeping, and making sure that’s something that does not continue.

KS – In 2014, you ran for Milwaukee County Sheriff against Democratic incumbent and notorious Trump booster David Clarke and won twenty percent of the vote. Given the massive nationwide problems with violence from city police departments, what changes do you think need to be made around the nation at the county level?

AW – The whole point of my platform – and it also is reflected in our platform for our campaign – if you want to look at crime, let’s start addressing poverty and the way that systemic racism has deprived communities of access to the things that they basically need.

How can we shift that? Are we providing wrap-around services for communities and for families and not locking people up for things that they don’t need to be locked up for? I think that goes into the bigger discussion that's happening around the country of what it means to defund the police, and that's exactly what we’re calling for.

KS – Back in 2006, the FBI issued a bulletin titled “White Supremacist Infiltration of Law Enforcement.” Fourteen years later, we’re watching one video after another of white police officers spouting racist rhetoric and murdering black people, even when they clearly know they’re being recorded.

With law enforcement so deeply compromised nationwide, how do we turn this around?

AW – You’re going to have to root them out. That’s part of the community-controlled piece. There are provisions with police forces, once you downsize police forces, that they are only called to – what is it, five percent of the things that police are called to are violent crimes?

So you’re not sending police in a situation like with Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta. You don’t send a cop to pull somebody who’s asleep in the line at Wendy’s. You don’t send a police officer for that.

Once you downsize police budgets, you can start looking at who’s doing the policing based on what your needs are, what we’re asking them to do. They have to understand that it’s not a free-for-all and that people who have made racist statements, are part of racist organizations – this is not a job you can have. It’s just not. And they need to understand that.

KS – You’ve called for restorative justice as an alternative to mass incarceration. I’ve argued the issue from a theological standpoint, for example when the religion editor of The Atlantic asked if I feel that it’s my “job” to directly engage with white nationalists on the extreme-right fringe of my religion. I said to her:
I don’t believe in Christian forgiveness. I believe that we are our deeds and that evil deeds must be set right. If someone was a practicing member of a racist and anti-Semitic hate group for twenty-five years, it’s not enough to go to prison. Incarceration is something forced upon the individual by secular authority. Let that person work to make good for their hate by spending the next quarter-century volunteering for the Southern Poverty Law Center and the NAACP. Then, and only then, we can start a discussion about raising a horn to the gods together.
So I’m interested in how you envision the workings of a restorative justice system that is more positively impactful than the punitive and deeply racist one that we have now.

AW – It’s going to take a very long time to get to that point. What you just said about your view on it – that's exactly how I feel.

Of course, there are some things that you cannot do transformatively. If someone causes a certain level of harm, and we have to accept it that there are people in our society that hunt other people as prey and are not safe around people. There are some things you can’t fix.

We would have to be able to address that, but in situations where… I’m thinking of certain types of assault and things like that, without retraumatizing the survivor of that, how we would make that happen. I think that it's possible. I think we’d have to go into that and really go case by case.

I think the most low-hanging fruit for transformative justice are things like theft, something where somebody was not physically harmed. You can make amends, if you were a young person who was poor and hungry, and you robbed someone, but you didn’t kill them. You didn’t beat them up. I think there’s ways to make amends for that. We can bring those parties together and figure things out.

I think it gets a little dicier and a lot more painful when you’re talking about something where somebody is deeply, deeply harmed. We’re talking murder, assault, sexual assault, things like that. I think we would have to work out a whole other way, because you don’t want retraumatize the people who are survivors of that, just to make sure that someone else is getting a chance to receive absolution. So we’d have to figure that out.

“The first time in my entire life that I felt completely free”

KS – While working as Community Campaigns Coordinator for Wisconsin Jobs Now in 2015 and 2016, you focused on fighting the privatization of public schools. What do you consider the core problems caused by privatization?

AW – The defunding of our public schools. The fact that young people don’t have access to art teachers. They don’t have access to music programs. They can’t even have their own school buildings to themselves with this whole idea of co-location, where you’re putting two schools in one, which is something we’ve had happen in Milwaukee, and we fought it. You’re literally sucking the bone marrow out of the school system, and it isn’t fair.

The innovation that charter schools are looked towards… this is something we’re capable of doing in our own public schools. You don’t have to privatize the school. Something happens when you take a public entity out of public hands, and then these folks – what we’ve seen in Milwaukee – they don’t have to answer to anybody, and they don’t.

It’s pulling hen’s teeth, and you have to… There was a school that me and a couple of other members of an organization that we were working with snuck into the building and photographed what the conditions were. The fact that there were no teachers, that these students who were seniors were looking at not getting the tests that they need to graduate, and they were angry. They were breaking windows. It was bad.

It’s inherently unfair to do that to young people. You’re kneecapping, basically, the school system, and then saying look at how you’re underperforming. You’re defunding them. Of course, they can’t do what they need to do.

KS – Separate is inherently unequal.

AW – Yes.

Angela Walker in 2015, while working for Wisconsin Jobs Now

KS – On a related subject, how has privatization of prisons affected the justice system?

AW – There is no justice. You and I both know that for-profit prisons are only profitable when they’re full, so you see things that used to be misdemeanors, things that people… I don’t want to say nonviolent or victimless. I think we mess up a lot with that.

Certain levels of crime are not things that people need to be incarcerated for. You don’t need to lock people up because they had a quarter ounce of weed on them. You don’t need to be locking people up for sex work. You don’t need to be locking people up because they stole bread from the store because they were hungry, or they were houseless. We need to not criminalize houselessness.

Those things, but they’re all things that you can get locked up for, because prisons are making money off of you. They’re also farming your labor out to big corporations who are also making money off of you, and you’re not seeing any of it. It’s obscene, at the very least.

For-profit prisons are something that, in our campaign, absolutely would be done away with. You’re literally using people as chattel. It’s a loophole in the Thirteenth Amendment.

KS – While running for Milwaukee County Sheriff, you promised to invoke a local ordinance allowing the Sheriff’s Office to refuse participation in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) sweeps against immigrants and undocumented workers. What can be done now at the national level to make immigration policy equitable and humane?

AW – For us, as far as our campaign, we believe in open borders. What that would look like for us… I’m thinking about what we would do versus what is currently happening.

I know that a judge just decided that children who are being held need to be released by ICE, but my question to them is released to whom? Where are their families? Do you have their families? Are there people that you’re farming them out to? I want them released. They never should have been detained. But at the same time, what are the safeguards to make sure these young people are safe and with the people that they’re supposed to be with?

We believe in open borders and immediate family reunification, wherever possible, and the provision of wraparound services to people who have been detained – a lot of people in ICE facilities are looking at COVID infection – and making sure that they would be treated under Medicare for All, and things like that.

As far as the current government, there is… cruelty wins the day with them. I want them to declare open borders. I want them to end all ICE detentions, and do immediate family reunification, and make sure that people who have been detained are safe and are healthy, and that we’re not sending people back to the situations that they fled from. I want those things to happen, but I do not have any faith that the current government will do those things.

KS – You were a leader in the Occupy movement, both in Occupy Milwaukee and Occupy the Hood. What do you think the Black Lives Matter movement can learn from how Occupy played out?

AW – I think the major thing that the movement for black lives has got – and they’ve got it down – is that it’s decentralized. They understand implicitly that there is no figurehead. We all know the three women who founded the movement, but as far as the movement for black lives itself, you can’t point at any one person and say that’s this leader. They discourage people from being demagogues. I think that’s one thing that they’ve learned, that this is decentralized and that the power is in the hands of the people.

There’s a policy document that they have that is absolutely magnificent, and one of the beautiful things about it is that it is something that can be customized to whatever town, city, village, what have you, that it’s applied to without changing the integrity of what it is you’re trying to do with it. I think that that’s something that they definitely did, they’re doing extremely well with.

KS – Where do you see the Black Lives Matter movement headed in terms of goals and impact?

AW – I think we’re just seeing the beginning. In 2016, we saw the formation of the movement for black lives and getting together with them… I was at the first convening that they held in Cleveland in 2015, and I can honestly say that that experience was the first time in my entire life that I felt completely free, just like a free person. Those three days, I was just simply a free person, and it was beautiful.

[In 2015 and 2016,] we saw formation, people getting an idea of where they wanted to go with things and getting people together to envision what a future for black people on this stolen land that we live on, how that could be. I think now where the movement is heading is building power in a very concrete way for black folks in this country to make ourselves safe and healthy, and thrive instead of survive.

“We’re exercising our agency”

KS – In the 2016 election, you were the vice-presidential candidate of the Socialist Party USA. Why are you running as a Green this time?

AW – I think there’s a natural… before I even get into that, I was the running mate of Emidio “Mimi” Soltysik. He transitioned today, and I want to lift him up as a comrade and a dear friend. My heart is broken, so I want to lift that up.

There is a natural synergy between the understanding that the Socialists have that we need democratic control and community-based control of the entities that touch our lives the most and the understanding that the resources that we are drawing from are Earth-based, and we need to respect her, and we need to not abuse her resources, not exploit her resources, and not exploit the non-human life on this planet.

So for me there’s a natural synergy there, and so, when Howie approached me about being his running mate, it just made sense to me.

Angela Walker in a recent YouTube video

KS – How did the experience of observing Jill Stein’s presidential run in 2016 inform your approach to running for vice president this year?

AW – I admire Dr. Stein’s courage and Ajamu Baraka’s courage in standing up. We take a lot of criticism on the left and as third party, because there is so much really justified fear. People don’t want to retain the individual who is currently occupying the Oval Office. There’s a lot of fear around that administration. People are ready to speak up, and they don’t want to entertain anyone that they think is going to be a threat to what they're trying to accomplish.

But, at the same time, they have to admit that their needs and the things that they’re asking for are not being offered by the people that are supposed to be representing them. I think that it takes a lot of bravery to throw yourself out here, which I was never planning to do again.

It takes a lot of bravery to stand up and say, “You know what? This is what we believe in. Maybe you weren’t ready to hear it in 2016, but y’all are definitely ready to hear it now, and we are here to have that discussion and to push that narrative.”

KS – Green Party candidates are not included in televised presidential debates, and mainstream media doesn’t cover their campaigns in any meaningful way. How can you get around this wall of indifference and hostility to reach a broad base of voters?

AW – We've been doing a lot of things on social media and speaking to non-mainstream folks who want to get the message out. Yes, we need the mainstream coverage, and I think Howie is doing a lot to break through to that. But for me, the demographic that I want most to reach are the people who are not necessarily watching MSNBC, who may read your website, or who may listen to a smaller black or Latinx podcast. Those are the people that I want to hear about us.

Howie has been talking to Australian, international media, and whatnot. If you won’t cover us here, somebody is going to cover us until you wake up and cover us. We’ll talk to anybody who is genuinely interested in finding out what we're doing and wants to share the information about us.

KS – I’ll admit that I got a bit teary when Sharice Davids, Deb Haaland, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib were all elected to the House of Representatives together. Do you think that generational turnover and increased inclusiveness can fundamentally change the Democratic Party and move it meaningfully leftward, or is the ship too big to be turned from its course?

AW – That’s a really good question. The folks that you named are people that, as a person, I have a lot of respect for. But I also understand that, as long as the Democratic Party’s aims are capitalist – which they are – no, we’re not going to see any fundamental systemic change, because it is not in the Democratic Party’s interests to do that.

We could have had Medicare for All decades ago. They chose not to embrace that. There’s a whole list of things that I could name off that the Democratic Party could have pushed, that people were asking for, and that they chose not to embrace.

The very fact that you had a Democratic front-runner like Bernie Sanders, who was someone a lot of people were very enthusiastic about. Why would you not run him? It made no sense to me. Just thinking strategically, why would you do that? And then you give people Biden? Joe Biden, really? This is the best y’all can come up with? I mean, it’s insulting. It makes no logical sense.

Just thinking of the Democratic Party itself and its goals, the Democratic Party is not about systemic change. It is not about true representation of the people. As much as I love the Squad, I also know that, at the end of the day, the only things that they will be able to do are make token reforms. They will not make systemic changes, because they won’t be allowed to do it.

KS – Democrats on social media are all atwitter over the possibility of Joe Biden picking a black woman as a running mate. The same voters discarded the Democratic Party’s historically diverse presidential primary field and rejected African-American, Mexican-American, Samoan-American, Taiwanese-American, Hindu, Jewish, female, and gay candidates in favor of the elderly, white, straight, Christian man.

On the other hand, every Green Party presidential ticket has included a woman in the president or vice-president spot, including a woman of mixed Native American and Jewish heritage, a woman of mixed Native American and Finnish ancestry, and a Jewish woman who was descended on both sides from immigrants fleeing religious persecution in Russia. The 2008 ticket had an African-American woman for president and an Afro-Puerto Rican woman for vice-president.

What can Democrats learn from Greens in terms of consolidating support for diverse candidates at the national level?

AW – They need to mean what they say. If this is what you wanted, then y’all need to stand on that. This is not who they put up to support. Why would you funnel people to Joe Biden?

Even with Bernie Sanders being who he was, and having the support that he had, and having as diverse – which I will give him – as far as his staff, to have him hand things over to someone he knows is not going to operate in that way. It didn’t make any sense to me.

If the Democratic Party were truly about diversity and inclusion, it would be reflected in the people that they are actually pushing for.

Joe Biden knew that Stacey Abrams of Georgia was somebody that a whole lot of people were very, very, very – particularly black women – and the way that black women have supported the Democratic Party in this country is legendary. When we show up, you win the election. He has to know that.

So for him to bring the very woman that people were most excited about having as his running mate on national TV, and then humiliate her, sent a message to me as a black woman, that you really feel like you can literally wipe your feet on us, and because you’re not the other gentleman – and I say that loosely, because he’s not a gentleman in any sense of the word. I’m trying to be diplomatic here.

Because you’re not him, you can take our vote for granted. You can basically tell us, we don’t matter that much. What he did with that interview, it was very painful to watch.

I don’t think the Democratic Party has any credibility, as far as running for president and vice-president. They don’t have any credibility with me, when it comes to true inclusion and true diversity.

KS – Many Democrats are still publicly furious with Jill Stein, blaming her for Donald Trump’s victory despite the fact that she won only 1% of votes nationwide and only won over 2% in Hawaii, Oregon, and Vermont. They insist that a vote for the Green candidate is a vote for Trump, that voting Green is a marker of extreme white privilege that condemns people of color to more suffering under this administration.

How do you respond to this common attitude among self-declared liberals, progressives, and allies?

AW – Ha! First off, there’s the implication that people of color don't know what's best for us. When we choose to vote third party, it’s because we feel like that’s what’s aligned with what we believe in.

“You’re going to be condemned to suffer more than in…” We've been suffering anyway. Things that we’re seeing now did not happen in a vacuum. This did not just come out of the sky and fall. This has been decades in the making.

If someone who is a person of color chooses to vote for a third party, we’re exercising our agency to do that. Or to run for a third party. We’re exercising a lot of agency in doing that.

Thinking about what you said about… that [it's] an example of white privilege. Not everybody supporting a third party is white. I’m sorry!

What I’m hearing most from, and hearing socialism being named by, are young black and brown people. They are talking about it. They are ready for another option. One of those being my twenty-seven-year-old daughter, and my sister, who’s thirtysomething.

This is not some idea that white people foisted on us. We know what we need, and we know who’s going to give it to us versus who’s not.

As far as people being angry at Jill Stein – and I’ve heard that – she didn’t cost anybody the election.

First off, the Democrats keep throwing unpalatable, unelectable candidates at people. Hillary Clinton was amazingly problematic among groups of color and young people. Very problematic! Why would you push this person who was completely out of touch with working class folks, completely out of touch with young people, definitely out of touch with black people. Why would you force this on the electorate? We didn’t ask for her! So that’s the Democrats own problem.

Number two, to say that we cost the Democrats the election implies that everybody who voted Green would have voted Democrat, and that’s not true. Most of those folks would have stayed home. And I’m hearing that about this election, this year, too – that if y’all were not running, I would not be voting.

So we’re attracting [voters among the] 10 million people who are real nebulous with whether they’re thinking about voting, or folks that are not sure. There’s a whole lot of folks that will stay home on Election Day. Because we are running, and they know that they have another option, people are ready to show up.

For people who are angry about that, I get it. But at the same time, the only people who are responsible for that individual currently occupying the White House, the fact that he’s there, are the people who elected him. No one else.

KS – Okay, that was my four pages of single-spaced questions. Thank you!

AW – Thank you! This was an absolute pleasure. It was a pleasure.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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.

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

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!
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