Tuesday, May 17, 2022

“And All the Generous Earth”: Ásatrú Ritual and Climate Change Ethics, Part One

This article presents an Ásatrú perspective on climate change ethics. It addresses ways in which a progressive Ásatrú public theology can offer new perspectives on problems of climate change ethics via examination of the modern practice of historically grounded ritual known as blót – a rite that foregrounds reciprocity with the earth, inherent value in the natural world, transtemporal human relationships, global connectedness, and the consequences of human action.

Landscape with a Wanderer by Thomas Fearnley (1830)

In addition to discussing Ásatrú textual sources and examples of ritual, the article engages with recent work in environmental ethics by Willis Jenkins, Michael S. Northcott, and J. Baird Callicott as it offers a new ethical model for responding to issues of climate change.

A New Old Norse Religion

Ásatrú is a modern religion that revives/reconstructs/reimagines pre-Christian Germanic religion with emphasis on medieval Icelandic texts. The term Ásatrú is modern Icelandic for “Æsir faith,” belief in or loyalty to the major tribe of Norse gods and goddesses; its earliest known appearance is in N.F.S. Grundtvig’s 1811 Optrin af Norners og Asers Kamp, which uses the Danish form Asatro.1 Practitioners often self-identify as Heathens.2

The term Heathenry refers to the wider world of Germanic polytheism, which includes elements of Anglo-Saxon, continental European, and Scandinavian pre-Christian religions. Lore is an emic term for the wide range of source texts, which include Roman reports, Old Norse poetry, Icelandic sagas, legal codes, medieval literature, nineteenth-century folklore, etc. Blót (“sacrificial worship”) is the central rite in both ancient and modern practice. The specifics of contemporary ritual will be discussed in detail later in this article.

The beginning of the new religious movement can be specifically dated to April 20, 1972,3 when twelve men and women met at Hotel Borg in Reykjavík to discuss a revival of Iceland’s pre-Christian religion and to found the Ásatrúarfélagið (“Ásatrú Fellowship”).4 Officially recognized by the Icelandic government as a religious organization in May 1973,5 the group held the first public blót in Iceland since pagan ritual was outlawed in 1000 CE on either the 1972 summer solstice6 or on August 5, 1973.7

The religion soon spread out from Iceland, and the number of adherents has greatly grown over the past fifty years. The Worldwide Heathen Census 2013 received responses from ninety-eight countries and estimated the total global number of adherents at 36,289.8 As of May 2022, Ásatrúarfélagið membership has increased by more than 41,000 percent since the organization’s founding.9
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1 Grundtvig, Poetiske Skrifter, 333.
2 This article uses Heathen to refer to contemporary practitioners of Germanic polytheism and pagan to refer to those of the medieval period and earlier.
3 Berg, “Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson,” 269.
4 Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, email communication.
5 Berg, 270-1.
6 Ibid., 269.
7 “Blótuðu Þór í Úrhellisrigningu,” Vísir.
8 Seigfried, “Worldwide Heathen Census 2013: Results & Analysis.”
9 Ásatrúarfélagið website, “Um Ásatrúarfélagið.”

Ethical Competency

If a progressive Ásatrú public theology is to engage with the ongoing discussion of climate change ethics, a basic first point of contact is the question of ethical competency raised by religious studies scholar Willis Jenkins in The Future of Ethics: Sustainability, Social Justice, and Religious Creativity.

Jenkins argues that “[o]ur ethical traditions seem incompetent to the trouble our powers create.”10 Rather than leaving behind “imperfect concepts and incompetent communities,” he attempts “to do ethics in the context of reform projects.”11 In his system, religious ethics of climate change should not be constructed on a ground of worldviews, cosmologies, and “grand stories of human purpose,” but should instead “begin from concrete problems, uncertain traditions, and incompetent communities.”12

Jenkins does not abandon what he views as an “incompetent” North Atlantic Christianity, which “cannot generate an adequate climate ethic,” but asserts that, when a religious tradition “finds itself incompetent to a changing context, religious traditions need reform projects capable of generating new possibilities of action that can be recognized by its members as legitimate interpretations.”13

For Jenkins, the starting point of a Christian climate ethic is therefore an analysis of “how the problem alienates the practice of Christian life from reality.”14 In his work, Jenkins seeks to “interpret the conflicts, uncertainties, and perversions that corrupt Christian ethics,” with the goal that Christian communities recognize how their corrupted ethics “renders uncertain and incompetent their practice of life” and then “may begin to create practices in which it becomes possible to give answer to God for atmospheric powers.”15

This article accepts Jenkins’ concept of necessary ethical competency and asserts that Ásatrú already addresses the specific areas in which he calls for reform. Faced with the problems of climate change, Ásatrú offers focused concepts and competent communities. Rather than working on the reform of “uncertain traditions” that “cannot generate an adequate climate ethic,” this article turns to a religious system well suited to engage with the problem – a religion with a life that already relates to reality in a way that addresses major issues raised by climate change ethicists.

This is not to deny that there are deeply problematic forms of Ásatrú in the United States. Neo-völkisch Ásatrú translates older racialist German völkisch ideology into contemporary racist American “folkish” theology that insists upon race as a deciding factor of religiosity. The core belief that DNA determines spiritual worldview is inextricably bound with the insistence that neo-völkisch Ásatrú is for white people only. The writings and actions of these practitioners have led to international public protests by other Heathens, bans from social media platforms, and inclusion in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s ongoing documentation of hate groups in the United States.16

The progressive Ásatrú public theology forwarded in this article absolutely rejects the neo-völkisch movement and insists on diversity as a fundamental strength of our nation and our religious communities. An emphasis on diversity is a central concern of Thor’s Oak Kindred, the Chicago-based religious organization I lead as goði (“priest”).17 This emphasis emerges not only in the makeup of our membership but also in our theology and practice, as will be discussed below.

In regards to climate change ethics, progressive Ásatrú is largely free of what Jenkins asserts are “the conflicts, uncertainties, and perversions that corrupt Christian ethics,” and its practitioners are both certain and competent in a life-practice that directly engages relationships within the transtemporal human community and with the wider world. Through study of lore and celebration of ritual, the practice of Ásatrú reinforces understanding of reciprocal relationships with the natural world, inherent value of living things, connections to past and future peoples, interrelatedness of all human actors, and consequences of human actions.

This article specifically examines the ritual of blót as a model for addressing multiple problems of climate change ethics.
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10 Jenkins, The Future of Ethics, 3.
11 Ibid., 4.
12 Ibid., 19-20.
13 Ibid., 21.
14 Ibid., 23.
15 Ibid.
16 Southern Poverty Law Center website, “Neo-Völkisch.”
17 Thor’s Oak Kindred website, “Kindred.”

The Ritual of Blót

The basic root of the blót ritual is a reifying of reciprocal relationships between the performer(s) of the rite and the receiver(s). A gifting cycle is established and maintained in which, as the god Odin states in the Old Icelandic poem Hávamál (“Sayings of the High One”), “mutual givers and receivers are friends for longest, if the friendship keeps going well.”18 The word blót and the paired verb blóta (“to sacrifice”) likely have an original meaning of “to strengthen (the god).”19

By making an offering to strengthen the deity, the follower hopes to receive a favor (general or particular) in return. The offering is neither payment nor bribe, but rather an instance of gifting in an ongoing and reciprocal cycle. In Hávamál, Odin emphasizes an ethic of hóf (“moderation”) and reciprocity as he warns his followers that it is “[b]etter not to pray than to sacrifice too much: one gift always calls for another.”20

In the Norse mythological poems written down in thirteenth-century Iceland and collected together in a set now known as the Poetic Edda, the deities themselves hold blót, sometimes to each other and sometimes to themselves. In the poem Hyndluljóð (“Song of Hyndla”), the goddess Freyja says that she will sacrifice (blóta) to the god Thor so that he will grant her request to be friendly to a certain giantess, despite his sworn enmity to the giants.21 In Hávamál, Odin famously sacrifices himself to himself to gain mystic knowledge of the runes.22

The medieval prose narratives (often with interpolated poetry) known as Icelandic sagas were composed after Iceland’s conversion to Christianity but offer detailed accounts of pre-conversion blóts that may have been passed down via oral tradition. Descriptions in these literary sources dovetail with accounts given by continental Christian scribes (with varying degrees of anti-pagan polemic) in their descriptions of interactions between missionaries and the northerners they aimed to convert.

As in the Vedic sacrifice of India, there seems to have been a hierarchical sense of what was to be sacrificed. At one end of the scale, the massive national sacrifice at Uppsala every nine years offered “of every living thing that is male… nine heads”; men, horses, and dogs were among the victims.23 At the other end, the Swabians are said to have made a much more modest “heathen offering” of a cask of beer “to their God Wodan.”24

Today, the great violence of the Uppsala rite is a distant relic of history, and modern blóts tend toward the second example. The most common offerings are of alcoholic beverages – usually beer or mead, often home brewed. Throughout the year, blóts are held as part of a cycle of annual rituals, to celebrate life events, and at a community’s need.
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18 Larrington, Poetic Edda, 18.
19 Simek, Dictionary of Northern Mythology, 271.
20 Larrington, 33.
21 Ibid., 246.
22 Ibid., 32.
23 Adam of Bremen, History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen, 208.
24 Jonas of Bobbio, Life of St. Columban, 31-2.

Earth Goddess and Land Spirits

In contrast to the “uncertain traditions” that Jenkins insists “cannot generate an adequate climate ethic,” the central Ásatrú ritual is inherently centered on reciprocity with the world in which we live. Even when the rite is focused on a particular deity or celebratory occasion, the performative act of modern blót is built upon an understanding of human life as directly engaged with the earth and environment.

Although there is a great variety of ritual praxis throughout today’s Heathen world, it is common to open blóts with the Valkyrie’s prayer from the Old Icelandic poem Sigrdrífumál (“Sayings of the Victory-Driver”). The Icelandic Ásatrúarfélagið uses the two verses as a standard ritual element,25 as do many American Ásatrú practitioners.

In the United States, the 1923 translation by Henry Adams Bellows remains popular for ritual use:
2. Hail, day! Hail, sons of day!
And night and her daughter now!
Look on us here with loving eyes,
That waiting we victory win.

3. Hail to the gods! Ye goddesses, hail,
And all the generous earth!
Give to us wisdom and goodly speech,
And healing hands, life-long.26
The earth is addressed in each of these verses, although – as in many of the anonymous works included in the Poetic Edda – the references require a bit of mythological exegesis to uncover.

In verse 2, the second line’s reference to the daughter of night is usually read in light of Snorri Sturluson’s Edda of c. 1220, in which the Icelander states that the earth goddess Jörð (“Earth”) is the daughter of Nótt (“Night”).27 In the second line of verse 3, Bellows translates in fjölnýta fold as “the generous earth,” which could be taken to refer to Jörð. However, the word fold (cognate with English “field”) refers to earth as soil and ground rather than as a concrete deity.

So, whatever the specific occasional context, recitation of the Valkyrie’s prayer focuses the attention of the ritual participants on the earth both as an anthropomorphic goddess who brings success and as a physical field that provides sustenance. In the context of a ritual built on reciprocity of offering and asking, the bipartite grounding in the earth is a central relational component from which the remainder of the rite grows.

This double consciousness of the earth as both deity and material is paralleled by the honoring of the landvættir (“land wights,” “land spirits”) in blót. American Heathen priestess and author Patricia M. Lafayllve states that the landvættir are “spirits of the land, rocks, trees, bodies of water, and so on.”28 This modern Ásatrú conception of inspirited natural objects reflects historical evidence.

The Capitulatio de partibus Saxoniæ, an ordinance issued by the Christian Charlemagne for governance of the pagan Saxons in c. 785, levies monetary fines for making (1) “a vow at springs or trees or groves” or (2) “partak[ing] of a repast in honor of the demons.”29 Reading through the condemnatory language, this seems to refer to Saxon analogues of the pre-conversion Icelandic (1) veneration of land wights and (2) human consumption of the meat offered in blót after the conclusion of the ritual.

Written sources of medieval Iceland portray land wights as living in trees and boulders, as being “closely connected to the land surrounding the farm and the cultivated soil.”30 These beings functioned as “the guardian-spirits of particular areas or localities” who “defended their territory against hostile forces and controlled the welfare of its inhabitants and those who travelled through it.”31 This sense of inspirited place appears to stand behind the outdoor pagan rites anathematized by Charlemagne’s ordinance.

Medievalist Rudolf Simek writes that “the ritual meal of the sacrificial meat can be traced back to Viking Age heathen practices”32 and that “[t]he sacrifice of food was one of the most important forms of sacrifice among Germanic peoples, in which the slaughtered animal was eaten by the sacrificing community.33 This meal as part of the pagan sacrificial rite seems to be what the Capitulatio condemns as “a repast in honor of demons.”

The veneration of land wights and the sacrificial meal both parallel the double sense of spiritual being and material object in the Valkyrie’s prayer. The land wight is paired with the natural location, and the sending of the sacrifice is paired with the eating of the meal. The spiritual world and the physical world are engaged as intrinsically interrelated, as always having been intimately intertwined.

A strong sense of reciprocal relationship with land wights continues in Iceland today, where Ásatrúarfélagið allsherjargoði (“high priest,” leader of the religious organization) Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson relates contemporary Ásatrú practice to the nation’s original settlement:
It’s part of my oath that I will fight with nature [i.e., on nature’s side] and respect the . . . how can I say it? We sincerely believe that, when we settled this country, we did it in good connection with the nature spirits and the spirits of the land. When we do our ceremonies, we are also offering our greetings and pouring out beer for the genius loci - the local spirits. I think it’s really important that we should give this country in better shape to our children and grandchildren than we receive it. If you have to take a political stand, so be it.34
Hilmar connects the history of Icelandic landnám (“settlement,” literally “land-taking”), positive relationship with land wights, ritual veneration of land wights in blót, land stewardship for future generations, and direct action in the political sphere. He makes no division between the historical, spiritual, ritual, ecological, and political. To the contrary, all are forwarded together as elements of a unified system of becoming, being, and doing that maintains an interconnection with the earth in the human past, present, and future. This engagement with tripartite temporality will be discussed in more detail below.

Modern Icelanders’ concept of the landvættir sometimes overlaps with that of the álfar (“elves”), an originally distinct type of beings who may have once represented the spirits of departed ancestors. Government road construction projects are still rerouted around boulders believed to be elf homes. In 2012, a member of parliament personally paid to move an enormous stone from the mainland to his residence in the Vestmannaeyjar (Westman Islands) after – according to elf specialist Ragnhildur Jónsdóttir – the elf family that inhabited it saved his life during his car accident in its vicinity.35 In this gratitude to the invisible elves and care for the boulder they are said to inhabit, the double understanding in the Valkyrie’s prayer of the natural world manifesting in both spiritual being and physical object appears in yet another guise.

Underlying these various conceptions of the earth and natural objects is the idea of independent life in the natural world, of conscious creatures that embody or inhabit both animate and inanimate things. The manner in which these beings are honored relates to an Ásatrú ideal of inherent value.
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25 Jóhanna G. Harðardóttir, email communication.
26 Bellows, Poetic Edda. 389-90.
27 Snorri Sturluson, Edda, 14.
28 Lafayllve, Practical Heathen’s Guide to Ásatrú, 73.
29 Munro, Translations and Reprints, 2-5.
30 Raudvere, “Popular Religion in the Viking Age,” 237.
31 Perkins, “The Gateway to Trondheim: Two Icelanders at Agdenes,” 196.
32 Simek, 272.
33 Ibid., 271.
34 Seigfried, “Interview with Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, Part Three.”
35 Seigfried, “Elf Kerfuffle in Iceland.”

Offering and Inherent Value

Lafayllve suggests a variety of items that modern Heathens can offer to land wights in their local vicinity – including milk, butter, beer, mead, cider, honey, oats, barley, fruits, herbs, and vegetables – “particularly during their respective harvesting seasons.”36 The offerings are either natural objects or traditional products made directly from them. Kirk S. Thomas, former Archdruid of Ár nDraíocht Féin: A Druid Fellowship but a pagan theologian much respected by American Heathens,37 emphasizes that offerings to nature deities should not be plucked from natural settings, but “must be something that the giver has a right to give.”38 Lafayllve’s list of offerings underscores this idea; the optimal gift is something that the giver spent time cultivating or crafting from natural ingredients. A secondary option is to purchase these items using one’s own earned income. In either case, the nature of the object offered foregrounds a reciprocal relationship with the natural world that acknowledges the cycle of cultivation, craft, consumption, and gratitude.

This recognition and reinforcement of reciprocal relationships with the natural world offers a conception of inherent value notably different from that found in Michael S. Northcott’s modern classic A Moral Climate. The ethicist and Scottish Episcopal priest argues that “the value of non-human species arises from their having been made by the divine Creator who made them in their myriad diversity as a reflection of the divine nature.”39 The Christian deity implants value into the world through “an act in which intrinsic worth is created by divine freedom and generosity.”40 “From a Christian perspective,”41 as presented by Northcott, the earth and its other-than-human inhabitants have a value that is intrinsic only insofar as it is placed within them by God and as they serve to reflect his divine glory. Respect for the natural world is – through a transitive property – veneration of the Creator, rather than a direct engagement with independent subjects with value that is truly inherent (in the basic sense of being innate to the thing itself).

In contrast, an Ásatrú worldview – as reflected in the ritual of blót – sees the earth, elements of the environment, and “non-human species” as entities with individual agency and inherent value. There is no sense of ex nihilo creation in Heathen lore; the material universe predates the birth of the gods, who themselves are craftsmen and organizers – demiurges, in the original sense – rather than all-powerful creators. Instead, the earth and elements of the natural world are addressed as enchanted and active anthropomorphic beings who have value in and of themselves and with whom we must build relationships of reciprocity. Rather than relating to the natural world as a vessel for the transmission of a creator god’s divinity, the practice of blót reinforces a sense that the earth is an active agent with value intrinsic to its own distinct being.

The land wights, while lesser powers than the earth goddess, are also given veneration in a way that focuses the community’s attention on its multiple levels of connection with its surroundings. The anthropomorphic conceptualization of trees, rivers, and other aspects of the environment necessarily fosters a sense of relationship with active partners that deserve respect. Approaching elements of the world not as things serving as conduits to an outside divinity but rather as beings of inherent worth with which we can interact in the here and now strengthens a relational sense that situates blót participants within a living system of valued agents.

In the blóts of Thor’s Oak Kindred, we regularly honor and offer to the earth goddess Jörð and to the land wights. Our standard ritual form includes addressing an individual power (from Old Norse regin, “[higher] powers”), citing meaningful bynames (secondary names or titles of divine figures), thanking her for her gifts, asking her to continue giving, offering a group hail (a wish for heill, Old Norse “[good] luck, [good] health”), and making an offering of sanctified beer from the ritual drinking horn. As the participants stand around the oak tree dedicated to the god Thor, one of these addresses is performed like this:
Goði: Jörð, earth goddess, giver of plenty, we thank you for the gifts of sustenance you give us, despite our mistreatment of you. We ask that you continue to share your bounty with us as we work to protect you from our own misdeeds. Hail Jörð!

Kindred members: Hail!

Goði drinks from the horn, then pours a draft for Jörð into the soil at the base of the tree.
For Thor’s Oak Kindred, a standard blót includes such individual addresses to an array of figures, including the divine trio Odin, Thor, and Freyja; the cosmic trio Jörð, Sól (“Sun”), and Máni (“Moon”); and the land wights. Given the fact that the Valkyrie’s prayer is recited to begin the blót, the earth is specifically addressed three times – two more times than any other power.

The land wights of the areas inhabited and traveled through by the kindred are specifically honored at blót. In this ritual performance, the community reminds itself of its relationship to the earth and the environment through engagement with the anthropomorphic Jörð and landvættir. Well over two centuries ago, Immanuel Kant wrote that the repeated ritual act of communion
contains within itself something great, expanding the narrow, selfish, and unsociable cast of mind among men, especially in matters of religion, toward the idea of a cosmopolitan moral community; and it is a good means of enlivening a community to the moral disposition of brotherly love which it represents.42
Similarly, by regularly standing together at blót and reaffirming commitment to a reciprocal relationship with Jörð and landvættir, Heathens move beyond solo rituals of devotion – which can tend towards a focus on the desires of the individual – and engage in a group rite promoting the growth of a Kantian moral community that engages with the planet and non-human species in a deeply emotional way. The act of participating in blót promotes a mindset of mindfulness specifically oriented towards respect for the environment. Such direct address obviates the need for Jenkins’ religious reform project; the reorientation of worldview he calls for has always already been hardwired into Heathen ritual.

Parallel processes are evident in Iceland, where the Ásatrúarfélagið’s annual calendar of five major blóts includes Landvættablót, a ritual specifically dedicated to the land wights. Goði Haukur Bragason states that the ceremony’s two central functions are “to keep the land strong and remind the people that we are guests here”.43 The ritual faces both outward (toward a positive relationship with the land) and inward (toward the “moral disposition” of the religious community). Staðgengill Allsherjargoða (“Deputy High Priestess”) Jóhanna G. Harðardóttir underscores the reciprocity of the relationship celebrated at Landvættablót:
We made a contract when the settlers came to Iceland; they [the landvættir] would let us pass and live here, and we would take care of the land and treat it well. The story is told in Landnámabók [“Book of Settlement,” literally “land-taking”]. The landvættir have kept their part of the bargain. It’s a question if we are doing the same. This blót is for them, remembering our deal, thanking them. The blót is for reminding us to do our best, too.44
Jóhanna’s statement on recognition of a reciprocal relationship with the land and a Kantian direction of community attention to moral issues of environmental engagement reflects the dual focus of Landvættablót mentioned by Haukur and the dual function of blót in general discussed above. The reification of reciprocity is grounded in the conception of land wights as distinct entities of agency and value with whom a transgenerational “contract” can be made and regularly reaffirmed. Engagement with the environment emerges from ritual, which itself emerges from worldview; the very identification of land wights as valued agents leads through ritual engagement as covenanted partners to a communal sense of responsibility to the land.

Some Ásatrú practitioners in the United States follow an annual ritual calendar that includes several rites based on the traditional agrarian year of northern Europe, including various versions of Charming of the Plow (“a turning point into the end of winter”), Harvest (“when the final preparations are made for the coming winter”), and Winternights (“at the end of autumn and after all the harvests have been brought in”).45 There is little to suggest that a significant number of American Heathens are full-time farmers, yet the rites are celebrated even by urban practitioners in order to maintain a connection to the earth as a source of sustenance – “the generous earth” of the Valkyrie’s prayer – and to reaffirm respect for those who work with the earth to provide for the needs of others. By incorporating an awareness of regional farming cycles into their scheduling of celebrations, practitioners ritually endorse the emphasis on locally sourced food that has been embraced by environmental activists.
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36 Lafayllve, 80.
37 Although written by a Druid, Thomas’ Sacred Gifts is one of only five texts included in the “Suggested Reading List” of Seigfried et al., “Heathen Resource Guide for Chaplains,” written at the request of the United States Department of Defense.
38 Thomas, Sacred Gifts, 74.
39 Northcott, A Moral Climate, 60-1.
40 Ibid., 77-8.
41 Ibid., 60.
42 Kant, Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, 187-8. Emphasis is in the original.
43 Haukur Bragason, personal communication.
44 Jóhanna G. Harðardóttir, email communication.
45 Lafayllve, 193, 199, 203.

Sincere thanks to Prof. Sarah E. Fredericks of the University of Chicago Divinity School for her constructive comments on this article when I was a graduate student in her Climate Change Ethics course. A full bibliography will be posted in Part Two.

Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Like Rain on the Mountain

The last two years felt much longer than they really were.

In some ways, it was like being a child again. Back in those long-ago days of the 1970s, it seemed like a week was a mighty length, a month an eternity, and a summer unending. More recently, I blink, and a decade has passed me by.

Since Friday, March 13, 2020 – the first day after my school told us all to go home and stay home – time has slithered along, as the normal markers have all changed or disappeared.

Night Rain at Ōyama by Utagawa Toyokuni II (c. 1830)

I know that I’ve been extremely lucky that much of my work was able to be done remotely. I’ve taught eleven college courses online, written multiple articles at home, done interviews and given lectures on Zoom, and remotely recorded my bits for various music projects.

But I’ve also seen a big percentage of my income evaporate as orchestras shut down and music venues closed. Even now, some performance spaces are bumping scheduled performances into the future.

For others, the toll has been much higher. Loved ones have been lost to this pernicious disease. Lives have been derailed by long COVID. Jobs have evaporated. Careers have crashed. Businesses have been permanently closed.

Through the worst of it, many of those with jobs that couldn’t go virtual have soldiered through. Not only doctors, nurses, and other first responders, but also the dedicated people who make our lives possible by maintaining roads, sewers, farms, and food distribution. We owe them much more than this selfish society will ever give them.

Lament

As I scan tables of dark statistics, read testimonies of suffering and loss, and drive by empty storefronts, the words of J.R.R. Tolkien echo in my mind.
Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?
Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?
Where is the hand on the harpstring, and the red fire glowing?
Where is the spring and the harvest and the tall corn growing?
They have passed like rain on the mountain, like a wind in the meadow;
The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow.
Who shall gather the smoke of the dead wood burning,
Or behold the flowing years from the Sea returning?
In The Two Towers, Tolkien set these words into the mouth of Aragorn as “Lament for the Rohirrim,” but they are based on and inspired by the anonymous Old English poem known as The Wanderer – a compiled work with several parallels to the aphorisms of Odin compiled in the Old Norse Hávamál (“Sayings of the High One”).

We have made such a great number of mistakes in our response to this gross pandemic. Even as time has seemed to slow down, it hasn’t been slow enough for our elected leaders and appointed officials to get a grip on the right thing to do, the efficient thing to do, the moral thing to do. Stuck between bad actors and those incapable of acting, it often feels like our nation is careening onward like a horse without a rider as we chase after it and attempt to grab its reins.

Have we ever had true leadership? The very idea seems like a dream or a memory on the edge of sense. The last year or five have often demonstrated that we exist in a strange netherworld between anarchy and police state, and they have repeatedly revealed loopholes that the so-called founding fathers left in the system they started. Many among us have long known these things, and now hard reality has begun to dawn on many more as naïve hopes pass away like rain.

In the United States, we’ve nearly reached 79 million cases of COVID-19. We’re now closing in on one million deaths. There are incredibly awful rates of hunger, housing problems, and unemployment. For far too large a number of those in our communities, the days have indeed gone down behind the hills into shadow.

Yet there is reason for optimism and for mature hope.

Baldr will come

The numbers of fully vaccinated Americans continue to climb. Children as young as five have been getting the vaccine. Elementary schools, high schools, and colleges have been providing shots to their students, faculty, and staff.

We’re slowly moving back to a place where we can have some version of a regular life again. We won’t get back to the way things were. There have been too many losses. There has been too much change. Going backwards isn’t a great direction for a society to go, anyway.

The world we’re heading into will be different. I believe it will be better.

The prophetess who narrates the Old Norse poem Völuspá (“Prophecy of the Seeress”) speaks of new life after the cataclysmic and epoch-ending events of Ragnarök (“doom of the powers”).
She sees, coming up for a second time,
earth from the ocean, eternally green;
the waterfalls plunge, the eagle soars above them,
over the mountain hunting fish.

The Æsir find one another on the Renewing Field,
and they converse about the mighty Earth Girdler,
and the Mighty God’s ancient runes.

There will be found again in the grass
the wonderful golden game pieces,
those which they possessed in the bygone days.

Without sowing, the fields will grow,
all evil will be healed, Baldr will come…
Our world will come up a second time, and life will again thrive. We will get through this, and we are closer to the end than we are to the beginning. The world we’re heading into will be different from the one we left behind, but new green will grow, and new lives will be led.

As the Æsir gods will do after Ragnarök, we will find one another again. Relationships that were suspended in what used to be commonly called the world-wide web will break free, and we will step back into the eternally renewing fields of conversation and community.

We will discuss the mighty monster that surrounded the earth, but it will be an airborne virus rather than a serpent of the seas. Some of us will indeed discuss the symbols and secrets of Odin, hopefully over a horn of ale or a glass of wine.

We will return to the games we love. I will take my magnetic backgammon set to the coffee shop to destroy all challengers, and I will jump up from my seat at Wrigley Field to cheer the Cubs on to another World Series triumph. At least, these are things of which I dream.

I also dream of new growth, new life, new joys. I dream of the effects of evil and hatred being healed. I dream of a time when Baldr, bright and beautiful god of peace, will loom larger in our lives than gods of chaos, conflict, and destruction.

Shadows

After her glorious vision of the future, the prophetess of Völuspá issues a final warning.
There comes the shadow-dark dragon flying,
the gleaming serpent, up from the Dark Mountains,
the Hateful Striker flies over the plain, in his pinions
he carries corpses; now she will sink down.
Before she returns from her vision to everyday existence, the prophetess warns that there will still be darkness in the beautiful new world after Ragnarök.

Autumn Mood at Ishiyama by Utagawa Hiroshige (c. 1835)

Despite the continuing roll-out of the vaccine to those five years old and older, the shadow of the pandemic still falls upon our youngest children. Those who are age four or below are as vulnerable now as they have been all along.

There are some signs that a form of the vaccine for the youngest children will be approved in April, but there are also signs that the safety data collection and review may take even longer to complete.

Despite this news, elementary schools nationwide are determined to return to fully unmasked instruction this spring. Only a prophetess can tell us whether we’ll look back at this decision as a massive disaster or no big deal.

Even after a safe vaccine for young children has been approved, produced, and distributed, there will be yet other shadows lingering over us.

The problems that were here before the pandemic have not magically evaporated over the last fourteen months. We continue to be a nation of mass shootings, police violence, resurgent white nationalism, racist disenfranchisement, gross income inequality, and willful turning away from the very real climate crisis.

Whenever the post-pandemic world arrives, whatever form it takes, the fundamental problems that we have refused to truly address together will still be deeply woven into it.

Will we continue to fuss over the effects instead of focusing on the causes? Will we meekly point to the written rules while the hateful strikers around us trample on the very structures they claim to value most?

As we dream of the future, we must also work to make it better. The old ways of engaging with the serpent aren’t working, and they haven’t worked for many, many years.

It’s long past time for people of positive intent to join together and stand against the dragon of hate.

Whether we force out compromised incumbents by electing new progressive voices, leave the corporate political parties and support the alternatives, work to repeal the Second Amendment and design a sane replacement, join massive boycotts of corporate polluters and strikes against billionaires who pay starvation wages, demand federal prosecution of killer cops and violent nationalists, or refuse to accept the racist gerrymandering of our communities, we must do more than quietly complain.

Is it so scary to say these things? Must we forever be a nation of snipes who stick to our decayed political banners, link arms in shield-walls against each other and against any real progress, and merely nibble at the edges of the real issues we continue to face while shouting slogans at each other?

Yes, a better era is coming, but it will not come quietly. We must brave our fear of the dark mountains and work together to illuminate the shadows.

An earlier version of this article appeared at The Wild Hunt. Verses from Völuspá have been adapted from Carolyne Larrington’s 2014 translation.

Monday, September 6, 2021

"Articles of Faith": American Heathenry and Cultural Appropriation

After photographs and video from the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol showed one of the participants – the individual formerly known as “QAnon Shaman” – having tattoos of Thor’s hammer, the World Tree, and the so-called Valknut, American practitioners of Ásatrú and Heathenry who publicly self-identify as “not racist” issued public statements or communicated their responses to members of the media.

"QAnon Shaman" during the Capitol attack on January 6, 2021 (Manuel Balce Ceneta photo)

A common theme in reporting on the event and the American Heathen reaction was the assertion that “the Heathen community” is standing against “appropriation of their symbols by white supremacists and extremists.” Heathens themselves accused the Capitol attackers of taking “our symbols” and described them as “extremists on the lunatic fringe of the far right.”

In interviews and comments, American Heathens stated that “white supremacy is the antithesis of [their] beliefs.” They denounced “fringe right wingers appropriating Heathen iconography” and placing their “articles of faith at the center of the violence.” Reports referred to “the reactions of REAL HEATHENS on the appropriation of their symbols,” and reporters stated that the “appropriation infuriates contemporary pagans and Heathens.”

The attack on the Capitol was indeed a shameful assault on this nation’s democratic process and democratically elected officials. Racist iterations of Ásatrú and Heathenry are indeed abominations that have documented connections to hate speech and hate crimes. There is no question that Heathens who stand against racism and racist violence are right to speak out and clearly voice their strong opposition.

There are fundamental issues, however, with the repeated claims of appropriation.

Basic definitions

James O. Young, Professor of Philosophy at University of Victoria, defines “cultural appropriation” as an act “that occurs across the boundaries of cultures. Members of one culture (I will call them outsiders) take for their own, or for their own use, items produced by a member or members of another culture (call them insiders).” The in-group creates cultural goods both material and immaterial, and the out-group breaches the separation between the two groups to take these goods and use them – or even claim that they themselves are the true creators and owners.

Issues of power differential are key to cultural appropriation. Raymond Yang, a visual art teacher in Seattle who writes about approaches to teaching the concept to students, defines the term as “the adoption of the elements of another culture (often a minority group) by members of the dominant culture. It is an unequal exchange in that the appropriators often use these stolen elements for monetary gain or prestige, without regard for the value, respect, or importance paid to these images and traditions in the original culture.” It is the inequality between different cultures that spurs and enables the appropriative act, as the larger, more powerful group takes and claims ownership of the cultural material belonging to the smaller, less powerful group.

Ann Rosalind Jones and Peter Stallybrass, both professors of comparative literature, connect cultural appropriation to European colonialism. They write of unequal exchanges in which “the colonizing powers” take “appropriated goods” from Africa, America, and Asia while valorizing the “supposed heroism” of the takers and erasing the labor of the producers. Again, the stress is on the crossing of cultural boundaries, as the powerful outsider not only removes the cultural materials, but claims them as their own and negates the creative act of the insider.

Reviewing the Heathen claims of cultural appropriation in light of these definitions and explanations, it quickly becomes clear that there are some basic contradictions.

Creation

The designation of an act as “cultural appropriation” presupposes that the in-group whose cultural goods are being appropriated created those goods. In the case at hand, this presupposition has no basis in historical fact.

As portrayed on the lower torso of the tattooed Capitol rioter, Thor’s hammer is in the general shape of the small pendants that saw a surge of popularity in Scandinavia during the era of Christian conversion a millennium and more ago. Simpler versions of the hammer appear on memorial stones and in depictions of Thor from the Viking Age. In Sweden, primeval predecessors of the god’s hammer in the form of an axe wielded by a godlike figure are found in carvings dating to approximately 1800 BCE.

The three interlocking triangles sometimes called Valknut today are clearly represented on a finger-ring dating to the 700s or 800s and found in Cambridgeshire, England. They also appear on a handful of Scandinavian items of the Viking Age, most notably a stone carving from the 700s in Gotland, Sweden. The association of the symbol with the Norse god Odin, writes Christopher Abram of University of Notre Dame Medieval Institute, is simply down to the fact that “it tends to accompany pictures of warriors.”

Finger-ring from 8th-9th century found in Cambridgeshire, England (British Museum)

Yggdrasill, the World Tree of Norse mythology, appears in the Old Icelandic mythological poems and Snorri Sturluson’s Edda of c. 1220. There have long been theories forwarded that attempt to connect various medieval descriptions and representations of trees and other objects to Yggdrasill as described in the literary sources, but images of the tree used by Heathens today – and in the tattoos of the Capitol attacker – seem to be based on either illustrations from the 1800s and 1900s or on original art from the wider modern Pagan sphere.

Aside from copyright issues relating to specific modern interpretations by individual living artists, there can be no claim of creation by American Heathens of the symbols of hammer, triangles, and tree that are historically related to Old Norse mythology and religion in one form or another. Even the most casual perusal of archaeological and literary attestations shows the ancient nature of these symbols, as it does of religious symbols from around the world.

The American Heathens now speaking out are not claiming creation, but the act of creation is fundamental to the very notion of cultural appropriation. Without it, the claim is built on quicksand.

Ownership

A group can claim legitimate ownership of a cultural good even when it was anonymously created long ago, if it was subsequently reproduced and used over many centuries. This continued reproduction and usage over the long term – especially when intrinsically connected to religio-cultural practices – can form the rightful basis for righteous claims of appropriation.

Unlike the claim of creation, the claim of ownership of the hammer, triangle, and tree symbols is specifically being claimed by the American Heathens and clearly attributed to them by reporters. Like creation, this has no basis in historical fact.

When I asked Uppsala University Professor of Scandinavian Languages Henrik Williams who owns these three symbols, he simply replied, “Nobody and everyone.”

Helga Hlaðgerður Lúthersdóttir, Lecturer (Teaching) in Icelandic at University College London, likewise said that the symbols are owned by “no one,” and explained some of the elements in play:
This is a cultural heritage, but even so something that is very much a thing of the past and in no way alive in Nordic cultures today. Where these symbols have gained new lives is in congregations and kindreds of neo-Pagans, and there, symbols such as the Thor’s hammer have absolutely new importance, a religious importance, similar to the Christian cross. But this is not a cultural heritage, and I have never been able to accept arguments to that direction.
She specifically addressed the enormity of the gulf between the Old Norse religion and American Heathenry.
With the massive gap we have between the source culture, the Norse, and the target culture, the contemporary white American, there is absolutely no way anyone can claim an unbroken line and, thereby, “ownership” of any of those cultural components. Whether we are looking at claims to Viking heritage or pagan heritage, we are looking at a recreation or reestablishment of a culture that not only firmly and squarely belongs in the past, but which came to an end. Certainly, certain cultural elements survived the conversion to Christianity and the shift to (near) feudal agricultural society under church and king, but they did not do so as remnants or beacons of glorious past, but rather as folkloristic reactions to work and environment.

An item like the Thor’s hammer found in Denmark is likely to have meaning to a Dane as something that refers to their ancient history. But the meaning of it as a religious item has been broken long since, and any such meaning attached has been recreated. This meaning can absolutely be true to the believer, but it is not a meaning the culture has carried on, but a culture that has been re-established through scholarly and cultural work.
Illustration of Thor's hammer pendant from Östergötland Sweden
Kulturgeschichte Schwedens von den ältesten Zeiten bis zum elften Jahrhundert nach Christus
by Oscar Montelius (1906)


The leaders of Iceland’s Ásatrúarfélagið (“Ásatrú Fellowship”) have long taken a strong stand against racism, including in a 2014 statement particularly rejecting “the use of Ásatrú as a justification for supremacy ideology.” The statement also recommitted to welcoming foreign visitors “with an interest in our cultural heritage and spiritual traditions.” But any American Heathens – even the self-declared “not racist” ones – claiming the symbols as their own and accusing others of appropriating their cultural property gets a strong reaction in Iceland.

Jóhanna G. Harðardóttir, currently serving as the Icelandic organization’s allsherjargoði (roughly “high priest”) while Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson is on leave, resolutely rejected any American Heathen claim to ownership of the symbols. “In my eyes, these ‘non-racist groups’ are in their own minds some kind of mentors of a culture they don’t know and is not their own – something they just don’t understand and never will,” she told me. “For me, this is like looking at children in the playground fighting over whose sand it is they are throwing into each other’s eyes.”

Separate and unequal

In addition to issues of creation and ownership, the concept of cultural appropriation foregrounds (a) unequal exchange between separate cultural groups in which (b) the larger and more powerful group takes cultural goods from the smaller and less powerful group and (c) claims the goods as their own while erasing the claim of the first owners. Statements on appropriation from American Heathens in media accounts after January 6th fail on all three counts.

Overtly racist American Heathens do not belong to a culture that is separate from that of those making the claims of appropriation against them. American Heathenry today encompasses a range from white supremacist to antifascist activist, with practitioners found at multiple stops between the two extremes on right and left. Since the beginning of American Ásatrú in the 1970s – and especially after its splintering in the 1980s – there has been a porous border between the overtly racist and not-overtly-racist factions, with practitioners, clergy, authors, and leaders moving from one side to the other at various points.

This lateral movement within the subcultural milieu of American Heathenry has been long documented by academics such as Jeffrey Kaplan in religious studies and Mattias Gardell in comparative religion. It can be seen as an ongoing process in expulsions of elders, exchanges of authors, and swaps of publishing rights. Scholars tracing the history of the various warring factions over time find those who lead one side writing articles and rituals for the other. With such intertwined roots and growth, the element of unequal exchange between separate cultural groups is simply absent.

The point regarding the larger and more powerful group taking cultural goods from the smaller and less powerful group is also vexed in this case. If those accused of appropriating the symbols belonging to “not racist” American Heathens are “extremists on the lunatic fringe of the far right” and “fringe right wingers appropriating Heathen iconography,” as is claimed in the media reports cited above, the racists are then a smaller, less powerful group taking the symbols of a larger, more powerful American Heathen group that opposes them. This claim that the appropriators are members of a small “fringe” puts the concept of cultural appropriation as a power imbalance on its head and knocks out this element of the term’s definitions.

The claim doesn’t work even when reversed. If the racists are a smaller group, then the claim of appropriation doesn’t work; if the racists are a larger group, then the claims that they are merely a fringe is false. It has been quite difficult to find out where the largest numbers of American Heathens actually do fall on the left-right spectrum, with numbers of active participants in various organizations difficult to verify, with an unknown number of solitary practitioners, with the high amount of turnover in this relatively small new religious movement, and with the general problem of taking claims of “I’m not racist” from white Americans at face value. In any case, it doesn’t really work to simultaneously claim to be both the righteous majority and the victimized minority.

The element of the dominant group claiming given cultural goods as their own while erasing claims of the first owners not only bumps up against unfounded assertions of ownership but also inverts the history of American Heathenry. The overtly racist, neo-völkisch version of Heathenry was here in the United States growing its numbers for nearly two decades before any significant “not racist” form appeared. Indeed, the branch of American Heathenry that declared itself to not be solely centered on völkisch ideology split off from the racist version during the mid-1980s schism mentioned above.

Glass rune pendants issued in Germany by the Nazi Deutsche Jugendherbergswerk (1940)

After the split, not only were individuals and writings able to move freely between the various branches that grew from a common racist trunk, but “not racist” practitioners did and do use concepts either created by the first, völkisch American Heathens or imported by them from 19th century Romantic nationalists, German völkisch mytics who influenced the Nazis, and actual Third Reich occultists. There remains to be written a detailed academic study of today’s American Heathen theology and practice that carefully parses the origins of each individual strand.

Perhaps this part of the argument is off-topic, and the American Heathens making claims of cultural appropriation are only and specifically talking about non-Heathen racists. The problem with this idea is that we have seen denunciations and accusations using the same language whenever a racist or neo-völkisch Heathen individual or organization makes an offensive statement or is in the news for hate speech or hate crimes. In those cases, the racist Heathens are often said to be “not actually Heathens” – as echoed in the statement about “real Heathens” cited at the beginning of this article.

In addition to veering into a “no true Scotsman” fallacy, this idea of “not actually Heathens” also touches on the fallacy of equivocation. When the social media accounts of someone like the tattooed Capitol rioter use images and texts from non-Norse mythologies and religions in addition to ones associated with Heathenry, American Heathens says this means he is “not Heathen.” Yet it is not uncommon for American Heathens to include veneration of deities and mythological figures outside of the “Norse pantheon” in their practice, nor is it uncommon to incorporate elements of worship taken from other traditions. Generally, these individuals are not publicly branded “not Heathen,” but are instead described with terms such as “dual trad[ition]” or “honoring the gods of their ancestors.”

Making the claim

When American Heathens make claims of appropriation, are they themselves engaging in appropriation of a term used to elucidate ways in which white Americans have appropriated cultural goods from BIPOC (black, indigenous, and people of color) communities here and around the world? I asked a variety of scholars what they thought of this complicated situation.

Yolanda Martinez-San Miguel, Professor in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures and Chair of Latin American Studies at University of Miami, addressed this question in the context of the term’s roots in resistance. “When I learned the notion of appropriation,” she told me, “it was a strategy of resistance – I learned about it in feminist scholarship – and it was good. This new understanding of the term seems to be a co-optation of the term. [I’m] thinking about it as a notion that had subversive potential and was co-opted by straight, white, Christian men and like-thinking people to whitewash cultural referents.”

Utkarsh Patel, who teaches comparative mythology at University of Mumbai in India, suggested that the claim of ownership embedded within the accusation of appropriation is itself an act of appropriation:

I would think that when there is a cultural vacuum, there is a greater need for appropriation. Historically, there are no original white Americans, and the natives were driven away or marginalized. In such a scenario, they have a vacuum, and there is a greater need to appropriate, and it is this vulnerability that drives them to do what they do. Often, the communities who move in carry their cultural symbols/rituals with them, which makes the earlier ones further vulnerable. And then, they appropriate what suits them or works for them, often without understanding the nuances of the symbols.
Cristián Roa, Associate Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies at University of Illinois Chicago’s Latin American and Latino studies program, was sympathetic to the motivation but not to the method. “I basically understand the desire for those groups to distance themselves from that,” he said, referencing the appearance of Norse symbols at the Capitol raid, “but I believe the accusation of appropriation is misplaced. ‘That is not who we are or what we stand for’ sounds more accurate. White supremacists, fascists, etc. have their own kind of spirituality, however dark or misplaced it may be.”

"QAnon Shaman" with U.S. flag at the January 6 Capitol attack (Manuel Balce Ceneta photo)

Helga Hlaðgerður Lúthersdóttir of University College London, already quoted above, was also sympathetic, but highlighted the racialized nature of these appropriation claims.
It is extremely difficult to see how any group made up of white Americans can possibly claim Nordic symbols as their own through heritage, and any claims for appropriation based on “ownership” through heritage are very difficult (I want to say impossible) to honor due to overt racial undertones. At the same time, the Pagan side of this argument, i.e. the religious side, has a point – to have a symbol that is sacred to you used (often quite casually) in racist/white-supremacist context must be absolutely infuriating and extremely hurtful – IF you have no such tendencies yourself. And that’s where the water gets murky and where we need a much more open discussion.
Joseph Pierce, Associate Professor in the Department of Hispanic Languages and Literature at Stony Brook University, was not sympathetic to the appropriation claims at all. After reading the “disavowal” published in The Wild Hunt, he said:
But the idea that there is a “not racist” version of contemporary Paganism, is, to my mind, lacking in historical depth. The question of belonging is at the heart of the revival of Norse mythology, it seems to me, but this revival is always already inflected with an understanding of place that is inseparable from settler colonialism in the U.S. So, the rioting, and the wildness that it invokes, that is an expression of some sort of deep and almost mystical connection to land, is in my mind, just another version of “playing Indian” that is a foundational gesture in the U.S. Or, as I put it, a desire for indigeneity without Indigenous people.

The inherent violence of whiteness in the settler colonial regime cannot be overlooked in our discussions of Norse revivalism because it takes place in the context of waning white supremacy (thus MAGA) and a reinvigorated search for white belonging in a land that cannot ever be truly “theirs.” At least from the perspective of a Native American person, this is how I read it.
Given all of the above, I hope that American Heathens and those who write about them will reconsider the casual use of the appropriation accusation when the next such story hits the news – and there will be many such stories.

The appropriation claim is an easy thing to say and a tempting thing to write about, because it has a feel of truthiness about it to some white Americans who practice some form of Paganism. It adds what seems to be a deeper resonance to the right and proper denunciations of heinous acts and actors. But it’s simply false on its face.

Worse, it forwards a notion – intentionally or not – that white Americans who choose to practice some form of this new religious movement and resent the symbols they find meaningful being used in tattoos and on flags of admittedly awful insurrectionists are somehow equivalent to Native Americans and other indigenous peoples who speak out against centuries of cultural appropriation, horrific violence, and genocide perpetrated against them by white Americans.

And that is racist.

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

Thursday, August 19, 2021

It's Up to You

The United States of America is not at a turning point. We took the wrong step years ago. We’re now having breakfast in the ruins of the American promise and watching the chickens coming home to roost.

Illustration from In an Enchanted Island (1889) by W. H. Mallock

For those of us who still believe that this ship can be forced back on course toward a better future, there is work to be done. For those of positive intent who still believe in hope and change, there are tasks to take up.

The path to progress is both simple and difficult, but it takes clear vision and determined will to see it and to follow it. Here are three simple signposts to mark the way.

1. Choose diversity over inclusion

Within Ásatrú and Heathenry and throughout the wider modern Pagan world, the buzzword “inclusion” has led to much complacency and little fundamental change.

From the outset, focusing on inclusion has simply allowed the same old arguments to continue with new terminology and allowed the same cancers to spread and fester in new mutations.

What does it mean to be inclusive? It means to include people. Should we include people with different opinions? Of course. Should we include people with different politics? Yes. Should we include racists? Gosh, it’s so hard to say if someone is really racist or not.

There’s the trouble. Almost immediately, we’re mired in the same old muck of arguing over the definition of racism. Is belonging to an all-white religious organization racist? Is electing all-white leadership racist? Is programming an event with only white speakers racist? Is ancestor veneration racist?

When people start answering “no” to these sorts of questions, they’re playing on a field with goal posts controlled by racists – goal posts that are moved a bit farther back every time a question is answered in the negative.

The result is a community with racists in it. The result is a community where accusations of racism and denunciations of racists are considered far worse than promoting racism and being racist. If the definition of racism is always debated, the racists retain their seat at the table indefinitely.

The clearest way forward is to dump inclusion and embrace diversity.

Before a single positive step forward can be taken, though, we must be willing to question the assertion that all-white organizations are already diverse enough if they have white people with a plurality of abilities, identities, orientations, and relationship structures.

Yes, bless, this is fantastic! So many good people have been excluded from so many religious communities because of outright and/or sublimated bigotry over these issues for so many long years. It is only to be celebrated that we can all welcome each other in loving communion. This is positive and beautiful, full stop.

However, the cancer at the heart of these United States is, has been, and seemingly will always be racism. Diverting the issue of racial diversity to other avenues of identity again allows the racists to move the goal posts.

It’s far past time to make a stand and take action.

If our communities and our organizations are all white, we must ask what we have done in the past and are doing now that only attracts white people. If our community events are all white, we must ask what choices we have made in the past and are making now that exclude everyone but white people. We must answer honestly, and we must make immediate and radical changes of intent, direction, and action.

Diversity is not a box to be checked. It is not a meaningless catchphrase of political correctness. It is a value in and of itself. It is part of what really makes America truly great. It strengthens us all and opens doors to new ways of seeing, new vectors of relating, and new paths toward a better future.

When we build diverse communities, there will be no place for racists. When the discussion finally moves past debating racists over the definition of racism; when we accept that racism is the blistered disease of white America; when our communities, organizations, leaderships, events, festivals, rituals, and rites actually reflect the beautiful rainbow coalition that is America’s fundamental strength; then we will finally have built a space in which racists will truly be unwelcome.

2. Stop making violent threats

White America has an obsession with making violent threats. Not just the far right, not just the conservatives, but white Americans generally. In a time when there’s so much discussion of finding common ground, here is one thing with wide acceptance.

Don’t like how the governor is instituting lockdowns? Make a threat to kidnap her.

Don’t like how the legislature is handling the coronavirus crisis? Make a threat to storm the state capitol.

Don’t like how a business requires masks? Make a threat to torch the place.

Don’t like how the election turned out? Make a threat to assassinate the winner.

Don’t like how a journalist covered an issue? Make a threat to stab them.

Don’t like how a columnist wrote about your deity? Make a threat to smash their head in.

Don’t like how someone wrote a comment on social media? Make a threat to cut off their hands.

We have to resist the urge to deflect from this, to insist that it’s not just white people, to shout that it’s really the other side, to claim that it’s serious when they do it but just a figure of speech when we do it. That way of thinking is intellectually dishonest and morally bankrupt.

American Pagans have unfollowed, unfriended, and unliked me over the slightest suggestion that maybe, perhaps, somewhere within the infinite realm of possibilities lies the smallest chance that there is even the most miniscule of connections between this nation’s obsession with (1) ultraviolent first-person shooter video games, super gory action and horror films, insanely macho misrepresentations of historical groups (Vikings, Germanic tribes, Greek warriors, American vigilantes, various militaries), and feverishly emotional attachment to private ownership of firearms as a determinant of white male identity and (2) the prevalence of violent threats by white Americans.

I’ve been told that violent threats are “just how my generation expresses itself online.” I’ve been told that extremely specific threats of extremely specific acts of violence directed extremely specifically at a specifically identified person are “just being metaphorical.”

This is patent nonsense.

Across political lines, a desperate neediness has taken hold of white Americans. An intense and unfillable quivering hole of want resolutely insists on devouring the public conversation and consuming anyone who dares suggest that we take a turn listening to non-white voices for a change. This nation is driving off a cliff at full speed, and the shaking hand of white America is clutching the steering wheel in a rictus grip.

Photograph from California Highways (1920) by Ben Blow

The knee-jerk reaction to demands for real progress – from white conservatives, white moderates, and white liberals – is to counsel patience, to advise a gentle march to slow improvement at the land-speed rate of a retreating glacial wall at the beginning of the ending of an ice age. Anything faster than that and the Right will demand the National Guard be sent in, while the Left will indignantly hashtag about it but stop well short of taking any real action to support any timely change.

To paraphrase Dr. King, I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the nation’s great stumbling block in its stride toward freedom is not the extremist or the terrorist, but the white citizen, who is more devoted to their own supposed unique specialness than to equality; who prefers the making of violent threats which promote a violent culture to the true ceding of privileged power, which is the real basis of societal progress.

If some of our neighbors, family, friends, and colleagues simply can’t refrain from making threats – whatever their twisted internal psychology may be – it’s up to the rest of us to shut them out of the public dialogue. If we care about this nation, that’s all there is to it.

3. Care about other people

Caring about other human beings sometimes seems to be an impossible ask in today’s United States.

The long line of American rhetoric about “freedom” may not always have been about personal selfishness and individual entitlement, but it sure as shooting is now.

What is freedom? Owning as many guns as income allows. What is freedom? Coughing in someone’s face during a pandemic. What is freedom? My way or the goddamned highway.

When did America go wrong in this regard? When was it ever right in this regard?

Our Founding Fathers waxed poetic about the beauty of individual liberty while they legally enshrined human slavery. As the great American historian Randy Marsh famously said, “The strength of this country is the ability to do one thing and say another.” And so our very concept of freedom was built on a quicksand foundation of lies and deceptions.

Yes, the people of this nation have risen up for good causes now and again. The Confederacy lost. The Axis lost. The Klan lost. Trump lost. But the hatred continues, on both the grand political and the small personal scale. How do we break with the hateful weight of this country’s history?

Care.

Care about other people.

That’s it. That’s the answer.

Simply acknowledging that other people are actually other people – simply allowing that they have the same claim to all the rights we demand and deserve the same privileges we expect – would go a long way toward fixing the mess in which we find ourselves mired.

Should the vote of a black woman on the South Side of Chicago be equal to the vote of a white man in rural Nebraska? Yes. Should a Latina owner of a small business receive the same amount of federal aid as a white owner of a corporation? Yes. Should a Native American teenager have the same access to higher education as the son of a real estate mogul? Yes.

We all know the answer to questions like these, though, is a quiet but firm “no” whispered in the ear of a congressman with corporate sponsorship.

We don’t really believe in freedom here in this land. We don’t really believe in equality. We believe in the self.

What does Odin – all-father, high one, bringer of victory – have to say about the self? He says the self shall also die.

Odin and Quetzalcoatl on doors to John Adams Building of Library of Congress by Lee Lawrie (1939)

Odin says a lot of interesting things. He says the wealthy man will lie dead before his door while the fire he paid for burns brightly within. He says generosity and friendship are mighty values and great responsibilities. He says the joy of the person is another person. He says that friendship is valuable and must be maintained.

Do we care anymore what an old god had to say nearly a thousand years ago? Do we care what words those old poets spoke and those younger scribes transcribed on a faraway island? Do those old verses still matter? Does anything matter?

Yes, gods damn it. It all matters. But even the one-eyed raven god can’t shake this country out of its selfish obsession.

Only we can, and we only can if we can get out of our own demented heads and accept that our neighbors are just as good, just as valuable, just as human as we are.

We need to get over ourselves and care about each other. We need to stop staring at ourselves in the mirror and start looking out the window.

Until we’re able to see each other as equally valuable, we’ll continue marching in lock step towards a darker future.

I choose diversity. I choose to reject violence. I choose to care about other people.

The rest is up to you.

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

Friday, July 23, 2021

Sigurd, the Dragon, and Our World Today

Mythology matters. The tales we tell reflect our values, even when we tell ourselves that they do not. The old stories bring with them the old worldviews, yet we are not duty-bound to accept everything that is woven into the texts to which we still return after all these long centuries.

In the formulation of French philosopher Paul Ricœur, myths are spaces where symbols interact in narrative form. Symbols are notoriously slippery, and what they may have meant to the peoples of the long ago time are not necessarily the same meanings they carry to all of us in the now.

One of the stories that now seems particularly pregnant with contemporary meaning is that of the Sigurd and the dragon.

Sigurd and the dragon in Tales from the Far North (1909) by Maria C. Klugh

The Old Norse poem Reginsmál (“Sayings of Regin [the mighty one]”) tells the tale of the famously cursed treasure hoard that plays a major role in the tragic events of the Icelandic Völsunga saga (“Saga of the Völsungs”) and the German Nibelungenlied (“Song of the Nibelungs”), both written down in the thirteenth century.

The poem begins in the mythological world of gods, giants, and dwarfs before pivoting halfway through to the legendary world of Sigurd, the Odin-descended dragon slayer distantly connected to the historical sixth-century Frankish king Sigibert. Regin the smith, who is either a dwarf or simply “a dwarf in height,” tells his mythic backstory to the young Sigurd, sent to him to be raised as a foster-son. Here are the key elements, briefly retold.

The smith’s tale

The gods Odin and Hœnir and the giant Loki arrive together at a waterfall. Loki throws a stone to kill an otter sitting on the riverbank with his eyes closed, eating a salmon. The trio makes a bag from the otter’s skin and proudly show it and the fish to Regin’s father Hreidmar, with whom they spend the night.

The animal killed by Loki was actually Otr (“otter”), another son of Hreidmar, who had the habit of fishing at the waterfall while changed into the form of an otter. The father and his other sons grab Odin, Hœnir, and Loki, then threaten the trio with death unless they fill the otter-skin bag with gold and cover it with the same.

The two gods send Loki to find the needful gold. He borrows the net of the sea-goddess (or sea-giantess) Rán (“robbery”), returns to the waterfall, and catches the dwarf Andvari (“careful”) who had been cursed by a norn “in the early days” to swim in the water as a pike.

Echoing the deadly threat of Hreidmar, Loki demands that the dwarf-turned-fish hand over all his gold, including the ring Andvaranaut (“Andvari’s gift”). As he retreats into a rock, Andvari curses the gold and declares that it will cause death and strife.

When Loki returns to Hreidmar with the treasure, the gold is used to fill the otter-skin bag and cover it up. One whisker pokes out, and Odin gives up the dwarf’s ring to cover it at their host’s demand.

Loki passes along the curse, which immediately claims Hreidmar as its first victim. Regin and Fáfnir (“embracer”) demand “a share of the compensation from Hreidmar for their brother.” When their father refuses, Fáfnir kills him in his sleep, takes all of the treasure, and guards it in the form of a dragon wearing an ægishjálmr (“helmet of terror”) that causes abject fear in all living beings.

Sacred heart

The sequel to the smith’s story appears in the poem Fáfnismál (“Sayings of Fáfnir”), in which Sigurd is led by Regin to find and kill the dragon. The youth fatally stabs Fáfnir in the heart, but the two manage to have a lengthy conversation before the monster expires.

Fáfnir passes the curse on to Sigurd, who seems completely unconcerned. The dying dragon brags of his days of terroristic rule:
The helm of terror I wore among the sons of men,
while I lay upon the neck-rings [i.e. atop the treasure hoard];
more powerful than all I thought myself to be,
I didn’t encounter many equals.
With a final imprecation that Sigurd will die at the hand of his brother Regin, the dragon expires. The smith cuts out his heart, drinks the dragon’s blood, and instructs Sigurd to roast the heart for him while he takes a nap.

Roasting the heart on a spit, Sigurd pokes it to test how done it is, burns his finger, and sticks his finger in his mouth. By tasting the little bit of Fáfnir’s hjartablóð (“heart blood”), he is immediately able to understand the speech of birds. They warn him that Regin plans to kill him, tell him to take the treasure for himself, and send him off to waken the Valkyrie Sigrdrífa (“victory driver”).

The poem Sigrdrífumál (“Sayings of Sigrdrífa”) tells of Odin sticking the Valkyrie with a svefnþorni (“sleep thorn”), declaring that she will never win again in battle, and announcing that she will be married. In other words, he casts her out of the world of the gods and withdraws her Valkyrie status.

Even yet, she retains much wisdom regarding the magical use of runes and Odinnic aphorisms for right living. She shares all of this lore in great detail with Sigurd (and us) after he asks her to teach him wisdom and “news from all the worlds.”

At this point, the thirteenth-century manuscript source of the poems has a notorious lacuna where several leaves were cut out of the codex. When the story resumes in the next poem fragment, Sigurd has become fatally embroiled in the very human world of kinship entanglements and is killed “on the south side of the Rhine” by one of his brothers-in-law.

A stone’s throw away

How can we read this hoary old tale so that it has meaningful resonance in today’s world? One way of beginning is to follow Ricœur and consider the symbols that interact in the narrative.

When Odin wanders the road with Loki as one of his companions, it is the giant who has sworn blood-brotherhood with him whose seemingly inconsequential action – throwing a rock at a sleeping otter – does indeed have deep consequences. From the beginning of the story, the danger comes from within the family.

When the trio arrives at Hreidmar’s, they come into conflict with another trio and another family: the father and his two sons, all suffering the loss of the third brother as the wanton pruning of a healthy branch on their tree of kinship.

After the wounded trio threaten death unless they are given gold, Loki passes on the same threat to the dwarf, minding his own business under the waterfall just as the otter had done beside it before being killed by Loki. In this tightly constructed narrative, everything is echoed and reflected back on itself.

Indeed, just as the dwarf had been cursed by the unnamed norn, he himself curses Loki for taking his amassed hoard of gold. As Andvari attempted to hold back the last ring from Loki, Odin attempts to hold it back from Hreidmar. As Loki was cursed for taking the gold from Andvari, Hreidmar is cursed for taking it from Loki.

This particular section of the myth ends where it began, with the killing of a member of Hreidmar’s family. Loki kills Otr and gets a pelt; Fáfnir kills his father and gets a hoard.

In the twelve verses that (with prose interpolations) make up this section, Loki passes on the curse in the exact middle. Actually, Loki is truly in the middle of this set of concentric circles that spread out like ripples in the pool under the waterfall, as the dwarf-fish turns its tail and utters its curse on the gold.

Loki instigates the action with his apparently casual throw of the stone, yet the results pass through him without affecting him. He acts as conduit and conductor for threats of death and for curses of dark magic, but he seems free enough to walk away at any point with no ill effects.

Yes, Hreidmar’s family is destroyed, but the ultimate target of Loki’s throw won’t become apparent until the next bit of the story.

Ascent and descent

After receiving his death blow from Sigurd, the dragon passes on the curse to the young hero. The long arm of Loki begins to reveal itself, as the curse moves from Hreidmar’s family to that of Odin.

Sigurd is of the Völsung line and is the great-great-great-grandson of Odin the Allfather. He carries the reforged sword originally awarded to his father Sigmund by the god, but the gift of Odin is canceled out by the gift Loki gives – the dwarf’s fatal curse.

Death of Sigurd/Siegfried in Der Nibelungen Noth (1843) edited by Gustav Pfizer

Before the curse can take effect, Sigurd tastes the blood of his vanquished enemy and gains something of the dragon’s deeper powers of understanding. Listening to the advice of the birds he can suddenly understand, he sets off to climb the mountain and learn the lore of the mystic woman strong enough to disobey the orders of Odin, face his divine wrath, and live to tell her tale.

Sigrdrífa inverts Loki’s role: where the giant served as a conduit to pass on the dwarf’s curse to Hreidmar – and ultimately to Sigurd and beyond – the Valkyrie serves as a conductor of Odin’s divine wisdom, passing it along to the young hero. Even further distinguished from Loki, she effectively filters the knowledge presented to Sigurd by absorbing the dark denunciations of her that Odin had made without passing them along as Loki did by giving Hreidmar both treasure and curse.

When Sigurd makes his Zarathustrian descent from the mountain, he leaves the world of mystic beings and enters the world of humanity. Despite the wisdom gained from the dragon, the birds, and the Valkyrie, he succumbs to the smothering web of jealousy, lust, hatred, and greed. But among these lowest of human drives, the hand of mythology reaches into the more mundane world of heroic legend, and the curse tips the emotional scales towards darkness and death.

Loki’s simple toss of a stone has resulted in the death of the greatest of Odin’s human descendant, and – according to the Old Norse material – the greatest hero of the northern world. Although some today still tie Loki to the tradition of the culture hero, here he spectacularly fails to meet the criteria of bringing direct help to humanity and instead seems to revel in passing on the curse to generations “not yet born.”

No decoder ring needed

Parsing the events of the myth in this fashion is a necessary first step, but it only provides one possible interpretation of the symbolic interactions within the world of mythology.

The simple act of choosing and enunciating an interpretation is dangerous enough in itself, as it runs the risk of offending those who hold other and differing interpretations close to their hearts. Taking the next step of forming new and modern meanings leaves one open to denunciations of blasphemy, an ancient concept that – like so much from the past that perhaps should have stayed there – has gained new life in this strange era we are all traveling through together.

There is a great deal in the old tales that resonates today, so there is nothing for it but to jump in with both feet.

The myth is saturated with betrayal from inside the family, from inside the community that has been bound together by oath and deed. We merely have to look around ourselves today to see that those who swear to protect and to serve are instead gunning down the unarmed and beating down the peaceful. Those who take oaths to preserve, protect, and defend our highest laws are instead openly breaking them. Those who claim to be defending their communities are instead eagerly seeking to harm their neighbors. We in the United States of America are a family, and we are hurting each other.

As the prophecies of the Old Norse Völuspá (“Prophecy of the Seeress”) and the Sanskrit Mahābhārata (“Great Epic of the Bhārata Dynasty”) both warn, the important relationships that sustain our societies break down in the darkest times of our history. A cursed hoard is the vehicle for the drive into disaster in the mythic world; in our modern world, we only needed an infinitesimal virus to enter our bodily systems for our social systems to begin crumbling around us.

Whether through manipulation of the curse or through his own flawed character, Fáfnir first commits patricide and then turns into a dragon to guard his ill-gotten wealth and snort poison around himself. The meaning of the dragon transformation becomes clearer when stood next to Regin being “a dwarf in height” when he first meets Sigurd. The overwhelming greed of Fáfnir – what J.R.R. Tolkien called “the dragon-sickness” – has made him into an actual monster, as the intense jealousy of his brother Regin has shrunk him down as it eats at him from the inside.

When the emoluments clause of the U.S. Constitution disappears in a puff of burning smoke before one man’s determined self-dealing, when consuming envy of the undeniably great African-American contributions to our culture leads fully grown adults to cheer on a teenage boy who crossed state lines to kill his fellow citizens, we don’t need a secret decoder ring to explain the symbolism of the mythic figures.

Who will tell the tale?

We have before us the story of a child who is sent off to be fostered in the smithy and develops into the greatest hero of the cultures that told these tales. That in itself should resonate with any who still believe in the fading memory of the so-called American dream. It surely resonates with those among us who face a daily struggle to make a better life for themselves and their families, whether the world is against them or no.

Armed with nothing but his own youthful courage, Sigurd defeats an amoral monster who is willing to kill his own father for money, to do anything to anyone to protect his stolen wealth, and who – in his final moments – wants nothing more than to hold onto to his terroristic power.

To each their own beliefs, but I believe in the young people in the streets right now who are taking incredible personal risks as they stand up to tyranny and terror, as they oppose lawless officers of the law, as they declare that black lives do indeed matter, as they insist that hate has no place here – and I believe that these brave youth are the heroes of our own story.

By tasting the heart-blood of the dragon he has vanquished, Sigurd is able to understand the speech of birds who fly far and know much. Aside from mystical interpretations, it is obvious that overcoming seemingly overwhelming difficulties brings us new insight into the world. We have to earn the wisdom we have, and it is acquired with difficulty as we struggle through our lived lives. The birds can be read as representing the promptings of the spirit to take action in the world, with “spirit” read in whatever way is most meaningful to the reader. There is definitely a need for meaningful action in this world of ours today.

The story of ascending the mountain to awaken the Valkyrie and seek her wisdom can understandably lead to mystical interpretations, but it can also be read as a reflection on the struggle to become enlightened in the “Age of Enlightenment” sense. Whether or not wisdom is hidden behind a ring of fire, it is never easily gained. In our time when even common sense is uncommon, when people take the random rantings of self-absorbed politicos over the considered advice of medical professionals, true wisdom is rarer than gold and worth more than any gem.

Sigurd descends the mountain, however, and is brought down by the failings of the human world. Both the curse and the inherent vices of human society are inexorable, and this too is a hard lesson for us to learn. Whatever our political persuasions, whatever our backgrounds and allegiances, all of us who call ourselves Americans are living under the curse of racism that reaches out from the year 1619 and strangles our nation still today. This curse is as powerful and as transgenerational as any called down by a righteously furious dwarf-fish.

Yet there is hope in myth, as there is in life. Before the curse can take effect and take his breath, Sigurd was able to slay a mighty monster and sit at the feet of divinity. What will we each of us do in the years that we are fated to live? Will we rise up from apprentice to hero, face down the monsters of our time, and welcome the wisdom of wise women? Or will we shrivel up in jealousy and grow monstrous in greed? Our stories are yet unwritten, and we ourselves will tell our own tales.

Quotations from the Old Norse poems are from The Poetic Edda, translated by Carolyne Larrington (Oxford World’s Classics, 2014). An earlier version of this article appeared at The Wild Hunt.
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