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.

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Art Contest – Adult Winners, Midwinter 2019

There was an amazing number of adult entries in this year's Midwinter Art Contest. We received wonderful pieces from artists in Colombia, England, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, and the USA.

It was very difficult for the judges to rank so many pieces that were all at such a high artistic level. For the first time since The Norse Mythology Blog began hosting international art contests back in 2013, both guest judges asked for extra time to rank and comment on the adult artworks. The fact that we ended up with a three-way tie for second place shows you how difficult this contest was to judge!

I'd like to thank my fellow judges Liam Sharp (comics artist for 2000 AD in the UK and a great many Marvel and DC titles in the USA) and Ragnhildur Jónsdóttir (Iceland's "friend of the elves and huldufolk"). I greatly appreciate the time that they have volunteered to rank and comment on the entries in all three age divisions. This contest would not be possible without their generosity and kindness.

The assignment was to create a piece that somehow related to the character and myths of the god Odin and the celebration of midwinter. Congratulations to the winners and to all who entered!

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

Neilma Kavanagh
Age 49
Nascot Wood, near Watford, Hertfordshire, England

Neilma describes her winning entry in detail:
As I read the words Odin at midwinter, all I could see was Sleipnir careering through the winter sky leading his wild companions on their timeless chase to bring back the failing sun. This Yule, especially, the planet seemingly poised on a dangerous ledge of shifting climate, so many are suffering destructive deluges of rain and storms, whilst others are being threatened by spreading wild fires devastating natural wilderness and the world of men alike.

I have painted Odin riding through the darkest solstice midnight, on the back of eight legged Sleipnir. I’ve alluded to the Mari Lwyd, the horse skull of Welsh tradition. The Yule Father Odin is accompanied by his ravens: Muninn, memory, the memory of Yule past followed by Huginn, thought of the unwritten future. The chase is lead by Gullinbursti (“golden bristles”), the boar that glows in the dark made by the dwarf Eitri. Odin’s wolves, Geri (“ravenous”) and Freki (“gluttonous”) lead Sleipnir over the shimmering Bifrost bridge, which I’ve depicted as a purple and green aurora borealis.

As he rides across the heavens, mighty nine-branched Yggdrasil spans the worlds. You can see the four reindeer that chew its twigs flying in the background. You can also see the shaggy Yule goat, Julbocken, which delivers midwinter gifts in Scandinavia. I’ve included some mistletoe hanging from the World Tree, both in honor of Baldr and to reference local druidic Yule tradition.

Behind Odin and his wild animal company, the ghostly giant figure of Fenrir looms in the sky, reminding us that all things are part of the cycle of renewal. Odin may feed his wolves Geri and Freki in Valhalla, but when the final day of Ragnarök comes, it will be he who is consumed.

I’ve included some Amanita muscaria, otherwise known as fly agaric, the toadstool of the woods, at the bottom of the picture. I always think they look jolly and festive, and there are quite a few of the about in the woods near me at the moment. They usually appear at the end of November. These fungi are a favorite food of the semi-wild reindeer of Scandinavia who become intoxicated from the hallucinogenic muscimol it contains. Sámi and Siberian shamans are reputed to use this fungus in their rituals. I think this is why the reindeer are flying.
I really like this depiction of Odin. He almost looks like he's winking at us! It's interesting to see a depiction of the Wild Hunt using animals instead of ghostly warriors or other undead figures. There's a real sense of movement here, and the image of Fenrir adds a spooky sense of midwinter darkness.

Ragnhildur comments, "This picture is captivatingly full of joy and life! Really well painted, seeing the difference of fur and feathers of each animal. All the animals around Odin and the color combination is so meaningful. This picture keeps calling me to look again and again."

Liam writes, "The most ambitious by far of all the entries, and a delightful composition, too. I love the ghostly Fenrir at the back and the inclusion of fly agaric toadstools. There is so much symbolism crammed into the image without it looking at all cluttered. What’s abundantly clear is the depth of knowledge here, too. Neilma certainly knows her stuff! Well done!"

First Place: Neilma Kavanagh

Carl Olsen
Age 41
Oakland, California, USA

Carl explains his painting:
I’ve always liked the image of Odin as hooded/disguised wanderer. Odin is also known for seeking knowledge among the giants, so I thought an image of Odin tramping through Giantland in deep snow might be a fun aspect of the wandering/exploring Odin to play with.

Of course, the "giants" (jötnar) are not necessarily represented as "gigantic" in the myths and are treated more like a rival tribe/family with occasional markers of monstrousness (multiple limbs or heads, etc.) as needed by the story, but since we have the primordial frost giant Ymir (certainly gigantic) as well as not explicitly "giant" characters like Utgard-Loki (who is explicitly gigantic), I thought it would be nice to have someone of excessive stature peeking over the hill as a way of marking that this is an otherworldly journey, not just a normal stroll.
I'm a big fan of Carl's artwork. He won first place back in the 2014 Midsummer Art Contest with a beautiful image of Norse gods quietly and secretly observing a human celebration of the longest day of the year. Here, he has created a mysterious image of Odin that seems like the first verse of a longer mythological tale. There's a wonderful weight to the snow that the Wanderer pushes through and a fantastic sense of wariness on his face as he scans for signs of danger. Does he know the giant is there? I really want to know what happens next!

Liam comments, "I just love the atmosphere of dread here, and I feel cold just looking at it! Some journeys are hard but worth making. Odin cutting his way through the snow here – which would be nothing, of course, to the giants! – makes for a fine allegory for the quest for knowledge!"

Ragnhildur adds, "The beautifully painted snow has the real wonderful violet color of northern winter. One can feel how cold Odin must be wading through the deep snow, and with the huge dark jötunn lurking in the background, it really gives chills into the bones."

Second Place (Tie): Carl Olsen

Rebecca C.
Age 21
Gambolò, Pavia, Italy

Rebecca writes, "This was made in a series of three artworks, each representing a different aspect of Yule. In this particular one, I've presented Odin as Huginn and Muninn, his ravens. The hats are the symbol for Yule and they are inspired by the Tomtenisse."

This image shows great skill at creating textural detail, and the intertwining caps are reminiscent of the intricate and intertwining designs of ancient rock carvings. Fantastic!

Ragnhildur writes, "The ever-powerful two ravens of Odin with the fun 'tomtenisse' hats in old Celtic style. I really like this humor. Beautifully drawn."

Liam says, "I absolutely love this. The clever design of the hats is brilliant, and the whole piece speaks to an abundance of good cheer! Very charming, indeed. I would like a card with this design on to give out at this time of year. Great work!"

Second Place (Tie): Rebecca C.

Naoma Stiltner
Age 28
Huntington, West Virginia, USA

Naoma writes, "The painting portrays Muninn holding Odin's eye as a reminder that, even in the depths of winter, Odin watches."

I love the mood projected by this piece. It really gives a powerful feeling of the mystical dark of the midwinter season.

Liam comments, "So much atmosphere! The raven looks extremely pleased with himself. The glint in Odin’s eye is the final perfect touch! I love the suggestion of old man Odin also looking on as the moon in the background."

Ragnhildur writes, "The raven really stands out and shows that, even though we call the color of ravens black, they certainly do have many colors, depicting their many attributes."

Second Place (Tie): Naoma Stiltner

Dawn Reynolds
Age 40
Franklin, Tennessee, USA

Dawn explains her work: "This is an idea of Odin that I painted after learning tidbits of Norse mythology. It is winter, and the animals travel at night by the moonlight, but it actually Odin guiding their way. The moon highlights a natural blonde that may be left in his hair."

The composition and color work here are excellent. Dawn really captures the magic of Odin glowing in the midwinter moonlight.

Liam writes, "Charming, festive, and lovely colors! I love Odin’s hair and beard. The wolf looks glad of his help!"

Ragnhildur adds, "Love the use of color, especially in the sky and snow. So much life."

Third Place: Dawn Reynolds

Colin O'Dwyer
Age 51
Kenmare, County Kerry, Ireland

Colin explains the symbolism of his piece:
The spirals represent male and female, and the spinning of the planet and the path of the Sun as it changes direction, the straight line being solstice. The earth, stone, and grass represent solidity, timelessness, and the oldest roofed building on the planet: Newgrange, County Meath, Ireland. Also, it looks like a shield and our planet.

I wrote the runes for Odin opposite a vague set of interlocking triangles in the thunder under the lightning. Then you have the universe, Asgard, infinity. The white at the bottom represents nothingness.
This is a fascinating piece that takes a completely different approach from all the other entries we received this year. It has a timeless spiritual quality that sets it apart and draws the viewer in to contemplate the meanings behind the myths. Well done!

Ragnhildur comments, "Complex symbolism with so much detail gives much to think about."

Liam writes, "Very clever design-work! This is the most purely symbolic of all the entrants and would certainly speak to those that know their mythology!"

Runner-Up: Colin O'Dwyer

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

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Art Contest – Teen Winners, Midwinter 2019

The teenagers are missing! Back in the 2015 Midsummer Art Contest, we only received one teen entry and awarded her first place. Despite receiving a very large number of adult entries in this year's Midwinter Art Contest, we again had only one entry from an artist between the ages of thirteen and nineteen.

With respect for all the thought and work she put into it, this year's three judges have decided to again feature the painting submitted by our lone teenage artist.

I'd like to thank my fellow judges Liam Sharp (comics artist for 2000 AD in the UK and a great many Marvel and DC titles in the USA) and Ragnhildur Jónsdóttir (Iceland's "friend of the elves and huldufolk"). I greatly appreciate the time that they have volunteered to rank and comment on the entries in all three age divisions. This contest would not be possible without their generosity and kindness.

The assignment was to create a piece that somehow related to the character and myths of the god Odin and the celebration of midwinter. This teenage artist created a wonderfully evocative work that expresses the feeling of both the deity and the season. Congratulations!

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

Gwendolyn Reynolds
Age 13
Franklin, Tennessee, USA

Gwendolyn describes her painting: "This is Odin. He is sad, and it is in the winter. I'm sure you recognize him and his friends. It is snowing, and his crown sparkles. His skin shows that it is cold outside."

The darkness of Odin's eyes is truly hypnotic. The symmetrical structure of the piece is quite striking, and I love how Gwendolyn made the snow really pop out from the painting's surface. Fantastic work!

Liam writes, "What a charming painting! I love the colors and Odin's expression. He does look cold!"

Ragnhildur comments, "One can sense the cold and loneliness in the dark northern wintertime in this picture. Even though Odin has his two raven companions, it is easy to feel the cold and darkness. The two ravens give a good sense of comfort, though, sitting there with the god to help him endure winter. Now the sun will shine a bit more every day, and life becomes easier."

First Place: Gwendolyn Reynolds

Adult winners will be announced tomorrow!

Monday, December 23, 2019

Art Contest – Kid Winners, Midwinter 2019

In this year's Midwinter Art Contest – the first competition run by The Norse Mythology Blog since 2016 – we received plenty of adult entries from around the world. So many grown-ups submitted artworks that the two guest judges have both asked for more time to rank them.

However, we didn't have so many entries this time around in the kid and teen categories. We've decided to feature two of the kid entries to honor the thought, creativity, and effort they put into their work. These two young artists each created something special, and we salute them both for what they did. Skál!

I'd like to thank my fellow judges Liam Sharp (comics artist for 2000 AD in the UK and a great many Marvel and DC titles in the USA) and Ragnhildur Jónsdóttir (Iceland's "friend of the elves and huldufolk"). I greatly appreciate the time that they have volunteered to rank and comment on the entries in all three age divisions. This contest would not be possible without their generosity and kindness.

The assignment was to create a piece that somehow related to the character and myths of the god Odin and the celebration of midwinter. These two young artists both created uniquely creative works of art, and all three of us wish them the best as they continue their artistic journeys.

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

Zywia Wilkowska
Age 10
Ballinlough, Kells, County Meath, Ireland

Zywia describes her artwork:
My picture is based on the story of Odin giving away his eye to drink from Mimir’s well of wisdom. It also is associated with the winter solstice.

There is fire in the well, as the winter solstice is celebrated because of the days starting to get longer with more sunlight, and fire represents the sun. The eye is falling into the well as Odin gave it away. The snow on the ground and edges of the well was another reason for celebration when the sun came back; it blocked Earth from the people, Earth the mother of all life.
There is pine in the top right-hand corner, as it represents hope in the long winter months, that there is still life. The holly represents the Holly King, or Winter itself. Mistletoe, in the bottom left-hand corner, is a magical plant and represents peacemaking. And, most important of all, the ash in the upper left-hand corner is there as there was an ash tree over the well, and the ash is also the Tree of Life in Norse mythology, and the winter solstice is about celebrating life come back as well as the sun.
This wonderful work of art was the unanimous first-place winner in the rankings of all three judges. It has a wonderful structure and shows a great deal of thought. I really love the symbolism of the four different branches in the corners, and I'm especially impressed by the way the gaze of the viewer is pulled down into the well.

Raghnildur says, "A really interesting picture. It is so full of symbolism – the composition is so meaningful with the circle and the four magical branches. Really interesting and a bit scary with the eye there by the fire! But so powerful. The soft use of color gives a meaningful feeling of balance in the midst of a powerful, magical transformation of the god. Looks really promising for your future artistic work. Keep at it!

Liam adds, "Not only has Zywia shown great knowledge of Norse mythology, but this is also exceptional art from a ten-year-old and probably my favourite composition in the entire competition! Shooting the scene from above the well makes for a great shot that echoes Odin’s eye itself. Very well done indeed!"

First Place: Zywia Wilkowska

Greta Karlson
Age 9
Madison, Wisconsin, USA

Greta's father writes, "Greta became passionate about Norse mythology after reading Rick Riordan's Magnus Chase series. She has included her description of her piece as text in the piece itself."

I love a lot about this piece, including the fact that Greta spells her name with an exclamation point! It's interesting that she integrates the text of a scene in Asgard and a map of the mythological worlds as part of her artwork. I really like that she depicts Odin in a modern aspect instead of some sort of stereotypical Viking. It's a wonderfully unique and engaging creation.

Liam writes, "So delightful to see a nine-year-old this fascinated with Norse mythology. I love the clever drawing. Odin talking to his raven is particularly charming. Well done, Greta!"

Ragnhildur comments, "Your story is beautiful. It gives a personal feeling to Odin, with his wife and his ravens and the feeling of loneliness during the darkest time of the year – alone except for his dear friends, the ravens. The picture is so full of life on many levels. I love the bird. You can sense the wings flapping. Please keep practicing, Greta, both on your drawings and writing skills. It looks like you have a vivid storyteller inside of you, eager to come out. Allow them to fly free as a raven!

Second Place: Greta Karlson

Teen winners will be announced tomorrow!

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Northern Zombies and Heathen Worldviews

This article originally appeared in On Religion, the quarterly print magazine published in the United Kingdom.

On Religion's mission statement is "to provide in-depth, informed and impartial commentary on religion, to defend the role of religion in the public sphere, and to provide a forum to discuss the social, moral, philosophical and theological issues of the modern world."

The magazine's editors state, "Our writers consist of academics, faith leaders and opinion makers and our audience is all those with an interest – professional or lay – in religion, theology and its impact in society."

This piece was announced as the most popular On Religion article of 2015, and it is reprinted here with permission. It has been lightly edited for clarity.

On Religion Issue 9, Winter 2015

Northern Zombies and Heathen Worldviews

In a previous edition of On Religion, Karen Willows explored the origins of the modern zombie stories in Haitian Vodou religion and culture. But there is another ancient myth of the undead that is perhaps even less familiar to most – the Old Norse draugr.

Although the Haitian zombie may have inspired depictions of the undead in twentieth-century popular culture, the Old Norse draugr more closely resembles the zombie of the popular imagination as he bursts from his barrow and lurches through the long midwinter nights of the northern world, haunting the halls of medieval Icelandic saga.

While the ancient literature of northern Europe contains instances of necromancy, the Icelandic draugr is fundamentally distinguished from the Haitian zombie by the absence of a controlling human agent. The undead of the North are self-motivated creatures; no sorcerer is required.

The idea that the deceased claw their way out of the grave to prey on the living provides one of the primary points of contact between the Nordic conception and our own. The near-mindless, monstrous corpse that attacks during the dark nights of the Old Norse sagas would be completely comfortable in a contemporary horror production.

Life After Death

The word draugr (plural draugar) has a root meaning of “harmful spirit,” but in the sagas of Iceland refers specifically to the deceased person who continues on in a malevolent physical afterlife after being interred in a burial mound.

Wight by David A. Trampier from Monster Manual (1977)

Draugar are most likely to leave their howes and stalk the living during the long nights of the northern winter, making Yuletide a particularly dangerous time to wander out from the warmth of the hall. As people gather inside to celebrate Yule and to make midwinter sacrifices for a fertile and peaceful year, they fear the creatures that roam the darkness outside.

Draugar were usually known to their victims, and they were often people who had been troublesome in life. In The Saga of the People of Laxardal, the unpleasant Hrapp comes back as a draugr to kill servants and torment family and neighbours. The saga author writes, with typically dry Icelandic humor, “if it had been difficult to deal with him when he was alive, he was much worse dead.”

The Saga of the People of Eyri features the wicked Þórólfr Bægifótr, who dies in a fit of pique when one of his nasty plots founders. He walks abroad after death, killing oxen and cattle, riding the roof of his house until his wife dies of madness, and slaying men who thereafter join his company of evil dead. Only when his body is dug up and buried far away from the farmstead does his night-walking cease.

The draugr is sometimes known as the haugbúi (“barrow dweller”), a name which reflects ancient ideas of life continuing inside the burial mound after death. The Saga of Egil and Asmund includes a memorable scene inside a barrow that is one of the most ghoulish moments in the saga corpus. The young heroes Aran and Asmund swear an oath in blood-brotherhood
that the one who lived the longer should raise a burial mound over the one who was dead, and place in it as much money as he thought fit; and the survivor was to sit in the mound over the dead for three nights, but after that he would be free to go away.
According to the traditions of this type of fantastic saga, any vow rashly made must go horribly wrong shortly thereafter. When Aran suddenly drops dead, Asmund props him up on a chair inside his howe, surrounded by his favourite animals. On the first night Asmund spends in the mound, Aran stands up, kills the hawk and hound, then eats them. On the second, he kills the horse and eats it raw (Asmund declines the kind offer to share the bloody feast). Asmund drifts off to sleep on the third night and is rudely awakened by his undead friend ripping off his ears and eating them.

In this case, as in many other literary examples, the way to prevent the draugr or haugbúi from continuing to walk is to cut off his head and burn his body. Sometimes, for extra insurance, the decapitated head is placed on the corpse’s upturned buttocks before immolation. Lest you think that this is all some invention of the saga writers to scare Icelandic children, archaeologists have unearthed mutilated bodies with their separated heads included in the burial.

Runic inscriptions containing invocations against draugar dating back as early as the year 700 have been found in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. They seek “corpse-protection” (protection from the corpse, that is), call upon the dead to “make good use of the monument” (by staying inside it), and, perhaps over-optimistically, ask the walking corpse to “rise and go away beneath the benevolent stars.”

Stories and Myths

Shadows of the draugr can be found in early English literature. Grendel, the great enemy of the young Beowulf, exhibits many of the classic characteristics of the Old Norse undead. He threatens a hall of feasting men, he drinks the blood of the living, his lair is an underground place of treasure and weapons, and he is beheaded after death to insure the end of his wandering.

Illustration of Beowulf's Grendel by Lynd Ward (1933)

Although it contains French, Irish, and Welsh elements, the Middle English Arthurian romance of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight includes similar details: the mysterious green man enters a feasting-hall on New Year’s Day (i.e., close to midwinter), challenges the heroes, is beheaded (admittedly at the beginning of the story, not its end), and comes from the “worn barrow” of a “Green Chapel” that sounds suspiciously like the dwelling-place of a draugr.

In the Gawain translation by J.R.R. Tolkien (who himself revived the draugr in The Lord of the Rings as the dreaded barrow-wight), the hero wonders at the “chapel”:
It had a hole at the end at either side,
and with grass in green patches was grown all over,
and was all hollow within: nought but an old cavern,
or a cleft in an old crag; he could not name it aright.

“Can this be the Chapel Green,
O Lord?” said the gentle knight.
“Here the Devil might say, I ween,
his matins about midnight!”
Andy Orchard has written that, in the earliest surviving poems in Old Norse, “the term draugr is used exclusively of living pagan warriors, but this usage quickly dies out, and it may well be that after the introduction of Christianity these dead pagans in their barrows were demonized and transformed in popular myth into the dread figures who still haunt Iceland to this day.” One couldn’t write a better portrait of a Christian man trembling in fear beside the open burial mound of a dead pagan lord than that of poor Gawain next to the “Green Chapel.”

I don’t mean to create the impression that northern people of the Viking Age believed that to die was to necessarily become a terrifying creature of the night. The draugr is by no means representative of the afterlife of the average person.

In general, the idea of life continuing in the barrow seems to have been a pleasant one. For example, in The Saga of Burnt Njál, two men witness life inside the mound of the dead Gunnar:
The moon and stars were shining clear and bright, but every now and then the clouds drove over them. Then all at once they thought they saw the cairn standing open, and lo! Gunnar had turned himself in the cairn and looked at the moon. They thought they saw four lights burning in the cairn, and none of them threw a shadow. They saw that Gunnar was merry, and he wore a joyful face. He sang a song, and so loud, that it might have been heard though they had been farther off.
The contrast between this pleasant pastoral scene and the horror Gawain feels in a strikingly similar situation may tell us something of the difference between heathen and Christian attitudes toward the dead. Although frightening in extreme cases, the burial mound of the pagan was generally valued as a place where an honored ancestor lived on and watched over the living.

Despite the poetic image of the warriors’ afterlife in Odin’s Valhalla that looms large in the surviving Norse myths, the idea of physical life in the mound appears to have been widely held in the age of the sagas. Rudolf Simek writes that modern scholarship has found
that it is extremely unlikely, at least for the late heathen period, that the North Germanic peoples had a dualistic belief, i.e. a distinct division between the decomposing body of the dead person and the further existence of his soul. The extant sources suggest that the concept was rather of a living corpse.
Body and Soul?

Physical descriptions of draugar underscore the fact that they are not immaterial ghostly spirits, but fully material revenants. The aforementioned Þórólfr Bægifótr appears after death “as black as Hel and as huge as an ox.” There is no sense of a soul returning from beyond to haunt the living; the draugr is clearly a corpse swollen and discoloured by the natural processes of post-mortem decay. The dweller in the mound appears as one would expect to find a rotting body when breaking into a barrow.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by John Howe (1995)

Of all that is covered in this overview, this idea is probably the most divergent from the dualistic ideas held by members of modern monotheistic faiths. In the United States, we have a culture in which anonymous uniformed men whisk dead family members away within hours of death in order to quickly burn them to ash in commercial crematoria or to pickle and prepare them for awkward open-casket ceremonies before diesel-powered machines dig the final resting place of wood and metal coffins. The thought of our undead bodies continuing in consciousness underground seems anathema to a culture with one eye on extending life as long as possible and the other on winning an eternal afterlife in heaven.

Perhaps this is what the draugr can tell us about the ongoing fascination with zombie fiction. Maybe the monistic view of death – the idea that this physical life is the only one we have, and that there is no soul that flies to eternal paradise – is so terrifying to modern citizens of the western world that we can only deal with it by undergoing the catharsis of virtual zombie apocalypse.

Does fascination with zombie fiction reflect nagging doubt among postmodern Christians that this truly is all there is? Or, conversely, does it suggest that the many young people self-identifying as atheists are actually struggling with the same ancient questions of life after death as the old religions?

Although the terrifying draugr of the North is darkly mirrored by the horrifying zombies of Hollywood, it is the resolutely worldly worldviews of ancient heathenry that may be more fundamentally frightening for many of us to face.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Art Contest – Midwinter 2019

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[adapted from translation by Anthony Faulkes]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[translated by Karl E. H. Seigfried]

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

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

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

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

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

[adapted from translation by Jesse L. Byock]

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

You can do any of these things:

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

You must do this one thing:

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


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.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poster for the new documentary about Ragnhildur Jónsdóttir

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

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

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

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


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


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.


Send an email to that includes the following:

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

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


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


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

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

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

The Norse Mythology Blog

The Norse Mythology Facebook Page

The Norse Mythology Twitter Page

The Norse Mythology Pinterest Page

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

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

Good luck to everyone!
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