Tuesday, September 22, 2020

The Fall Equinox and the Lives We Lead

Here in the northern hemisphere, the autumnal equinox occurs on Tuesday, September 22. Due to the crowded calendars of our busy modern lives not lining up exactly with the cosmic movements of celestial bodies, I and my friends in Thor’s Oak Kindred will get together via Zoom to celebrate our annual fall blót on Saturday night. The fact that we will be celebrating a modern version of ancient ritual via videoconferencing led me to reflect on what it means to celebrate this particular turning point of the year in a multicultural urban setting of non-farmers.

In 2017, I asked several Heathens in England, Germany, and the United States how they and their religious communities celebrate the fall equinox. In one way or another, each mentioned farming and fishing, harvest and hunting, rural life and regional traditions. All the answers were interesting, and there were as many differences in their responses as similarities. Reading their comments today, however, I’m struck by how much my own experiences in the Second City don’t line up with theirs.

Vintage Chicago postcard

Urban Heathen

Spending hours fighting rush-hour traffic among the hazy forms of sky-scraping towers of commerce, crowding into an L car to come back from Wrigley Field after cheering the Cubs on to a September win, pushing through the crowds of tourists at the Chicago Jazz Festival to get to the sea of smiling faces in the playgrounds at Maggie Daley Park, putting together PowerPoint presentations on the Great Migration of African-Americans from the rural south to the urban north for classrooms full of students from around the country and around the world, looking on as Little Leaguers determinedly take to fields surrounded on all sides by busy city streets to extend the softball season through September and into October, picking up a pizza for Friday night dinner from a crowded corner bar that has been serving slices in a Jewish neighborhood for sixty-six years, trying to decide between a twelve-pack of German or Mexican beer at the liquor store that had a tiny counter for foreign cheeses at the back when I was in preschool and the regular grocery stores only had Kraft Singles and Easy Cheese, trying to count how many different languages are being spoken by parents and children at the neighborhood playground after school gets out, heading out to the highway to drive up to Wisconsin for orchestra rehearsal a few days after recording a season’s worth of South Side Chicago gospel music for programs WGN-TV: these are some of the things that have happened around the fall equinox in my own life, and I’m happy with this life.

It’s simply a fact that I have no direct connection to the rural traditions cited by those other Heathens. My mom grows some little vegetables in pots on her condo porch overlooking a city thoroughfare. Aside from those tiny tomatoes and miniature carrots, everything we eat and drink is mediated by multiple levels of distribution. It’s definitely problematic how much fossil fuel is used and how much pollution is produced to get a pumpkin from country farm to city grocer, but I must admit I still get a thrill from being able to eat marzipan made in Germany and drink Bitburger “brewed according to the German Beer Purity Law of 1516.” International trade has its benefits.

It’s also a fact that I get a kick from the bright lights of the big city. It’s exciting to play with legends of gospel music while surrounded by gigantic TV cameras and to record in the same studios and on the same equipment where classic Chicago blues and jazz has been recorded for decades. It’s a blast to host a weekly FM radio show in the same part of the city where Jack Johnson, Louis Armstrong, Richard Wright, and Gwendolyn Brooks made important contributions to our nation’s history. It’s amazing to perform at Symphony Hall and Millennium Park and so many other venues and stages. It’s fantastic to stand up at Wrigley and feel the entire stadium shake with the roaring crowd when one of our Cubbies hits a ball out of the park.

It’s wonderful, also, to be able to share my love of what Heathens call “the lore” in this wild world I inhabit. My classes on the Eddas, Beowulf, Völsunga saga, and the Nibelungenlied have been full of students from China, India, Japan, Nigeria, eastern Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere around the planet. It’s one thing to discuss these texts in all-Heathen Facebook groups. It’s another to dive deeply into them with international students of all creeds and none. Coming to these texts with fresh eyes, my students have often had insights and made comments that caused me to rethink fundamental assumptions I had made about specific lines and verses. In this multicultural setting, it has also become painfully obvious that even the latest translations make word-choices that are fundamentally racist and still beholden to the old nineteenth-century colonialist ways of rendering the texts.

Still we celebrate

So I’m happy with this urban life. I don’t have any Romantic longing for a supposedly simpler agrarian past, whether of the 1950s or the 950s. Yes, I’m thankful for the American farmers who work long hours every day to keep us fed with nutritious food, for all those who labor endlessly to make our modern lives possible. Yet I’m also thankful for the city workers who make our urban lives livable and for the scientists who bring us the medications that enable me to keep breathing. Our current American era is one of deep divisions and bitter strife, but I would rather be here in the thick of it than in any other time or place. I study the past and obsess over its mythology, poetry, religion, and ritual, but I have no desire to live in those ancient times or to somehow reconstruct an age before human rights, modern medicine, and the scientific method.

Vintage postcard of Chicago by night

Yet still we celebrate fall blót. What symbolism and meaning can such an event have for those of us who have no direct connection to agrarian life, who are happy with the diverse urban world we inhabit, and who have no longing for the long ago time? What does the cycle of the year mean to those of us who gladly live in urban America in 2020 and consciously practice a New Religious Movement with no pretense of reconstructing a supposed ancient tradition? Do we need to shame ourselves for shopping at the grocery store, or can we celebrate the lives we lead and still find celebration of the turning points of the year to be deeply meaningful in our religious practice?

The wheel of the year turns as much for us as it does for our friends who live closer to fields of Monsanto-branded corn and soy. Although the changing of the seasons have shifted on the calendar from where they were when I was growing up, we still experience the glory of fall colors, the thrill of chilly nights, and the steady creep of lengthening darkness. The air feels and smells different now than it did just a few weeks ago. The skies are changing above and clothing is changing on the street. There’s a sense of both holding on and looking forward. Personally, I’m reluctant to acknowledge summer is really over until the final out of the World Series, but the world turns whether we will or no.

For all of my life, I’ve gone hiking in the large forest preserves near us, in the state parks up in Wisconsin, and in the national parks to the west. Long before I learned about modern Heathenry, I was deeply in love with the quiet mysteries of the forest, in awe of the changes that came over the woods as the sun set, and in touch with the way life ebbed and flowed from season to season, each with its own special sights, sounds, and smells. Listening to dry leaves crunch underfoot and gazing up at the glorious explosions of red, yellow, and orange has been a fall ritual as long as I can remember. But the forest preserves here are bound by multi-lane highways and giant expressways, and the roar of traffic creeps into the woody quiet when you least expect it.

This encroachment of our machined life upon the natural world is one of the things foremost on my mind during this time of seasonal change. There are nearly three billion fewer birds in North America now than when I was a child chasing sparrows in the front yard. As biodiversity declines around the world, urban areas are facing real negative effects that disproportionately affect poorer areas and communities of color. If Heathens and other Pagans really do believe that we are our deeds and that we practice world-affirming and earth-based traditions, do we have a special responsibility to lead the way on climate change issues?

From words to deeds

I believe that we do, and I believe that practitioners of modern religions should spend at least as much time on looking to the future as they do gazing at the past. Aside from our personal choices regarding plastics and petroleum, aside from making toasts to the gods of the earth in ritual settings, we need to be making our voices heard in the public sphere and openly joining those like Greta Thunberg who are brave enough to echo Thor’s stand against the World Serpent by challenging governments and corporations to make real change. If we are going to venerate our ancestors, we would do well to remember that we will also someday be ancestors. How will our descendants judge our actions and inaction at this crucial turning point?

Vintage postcard of Chicago night scene

Issues of access, diversity, and equality are intimately tied up with issues of ecology. This deep connection between human society and the natural world has long been at the core of paganisms past and present. As we work for change in the ecological sphere, let’s also work for change in the social sphere. As federal payouts to farmers in 2019 reach double the amount paid to the automobile industry in 2009, let’s fight the enormous cuts to education funding that disproportionately affect students of color in urban areas. As we face the reality of a third Supreme Court justice being appointed by this Republican president who lost the popular vote, let’s fight to end the electoral college system that gives greater weight to the votes of rural white people than to those of urban people of color. As more Pagans publicly declare their commitment to inclusivity, let’s make sure that our deeds reflect our words.

In his 1793 book Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant writes of the power of group ritual to affect change within the individual participants and, by extension, in the larger society.
The oft-repeated ceremony (communion) of a renewal, continuation, and propagation of this churchly community under laws of equality, a ceremony which indeed can be performed, after the example of the Founder of such a church (and, at the same time, in memory of him), through the formality of a common partaking at the same table, 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.
Kant’s language obviously refers to the Christian rite, but can, mutatis mutandis, be applied to the Ásatrú ritual of blót. By standing together under the autumn sky and speaking over the communal drinking horn, we can expand our inward individual gaze outward to embrace our religious communities, our cities, our states, our countries, and the world itself. The ritual act of speaking and listening can be an agent of change that expands our narrow inward focus to encompass a far larger and more diverse world. As we speak of this changing of the seasons and the turn towards winter, we can send our thoughts out like Odin’s ravens to look out over all the world and to deepen our connections to all the life that it holds. Our words can spur on the deeds needed in these dark times.

For the 1973 song “Spiral Architect,” Black Sabbath lyricist and bassist Geezer Butler wrote these lines:
Of all the things I value most of all
I look inside myself
and see my world
and know that it is good.

Of all the things I value most of all
I look upon my earth
and feel the warmth
and know that it is good.
Like Kant, Butler connects the inner experience of the individual with the outer life of the world and moves from one into the other. As shown in the parallel structure of the verses and the equal declarations of worth, to connect oneself to the wider world’s story is not to negate one’s personal narrative. While participating in blót, we share our own experiences and share in the experiences of those who stand beside us. For both Kant and Butler, the journey is from the inner world to the outer one. Heathens of positive intent move farther along the path of that journey each time we perform the rite of blót, each time we join the living community of practice to send out our words and direct our sight outwards.

As the light of the summer fades, may we more clearly hear the voices of others and more resolutely focus on right action that leads to a better world for all of us.An earlier version of this article appeared at The Wild Hunt.

Friday, September 11, 2020

Innangard and Utangard: Problematic Roots of Heathen Dualism

The paired concepts of “innangard” and “utangard” regularly appear in discussions within the various Ásatrú and Heathen communities in the United States. Supposedly, they together form a key structural element of worldview for ancient Germanic polytheism and the modern reconstruction, recreation, and reimagining of the Old Way.

In reaction to the popularity of these terms on the American Heathen scenes, a recent YouTube video by the Old Norse translator Jackson Crawford forwards an argument that innangard and utangard are “two non-words in Old Norse.”

Like so much having to do with the intersection of ancient paganism and modern Paganism, however, the situation is complicated.

The Siege of Antioch in a medieval miniature (c. 1475)

Mundane terminology

The Old Norse innangarðs does indeed exist, but it has the simple meaning “within doors” and lacks any deeper resonance. The related word innangarða also exists – with the plain meaning “within the ‘yard,’ inside the fence” – but it appears in church histories, not in texts connected to pagan myth, belief, or practice.

Likewise, the noun útangarða simply means “outside the yard (house)” and appears in Icelandic law codes that were not committed to writing until over a century after Iceland’s official conversion to Christianity in the year 1000. The earliest surviving manuscripts of these codes are from nearly three centuries after the conversion.

A form of the term appears in the mythological poem Fjölsvinnsmál as útan garða and simply means “outside the walls”; the earliest record of the poem is in paper manuscripts of the 1600s. The related term útangarðs means “outside the fence” and again has no profound sense attached.

The plural noun útgarðar means “the outer building” but appears in Old Icelandic mythology with the meaning “the lands outside the fences” as part of the name or title Útgarða-Loki. In the Edda of Snorri Sturluson, composed around 1220 – over two centuries after conversion – the god Thor travels eastward and crosses the ocean and a large forest before reaching the castle of the giant king called Útgarða-Loki (“Loki of Útgarðar”). In Snorri’s text, the name Útgarðr is used specifically to refer to the castle, not to any wider area.

Around the same time that the Icelandic antiquarian Snorri composed his Edda, the Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus wrote his monumental History of the Danes. It features several mythological tales of the Norse gods rewritten as semi-historical legends of human and superhuman heroes with Latinized names.

In one of these tales, the hero Thorkillus embarks on adventures that parallel those of Thor in the Icelandic texts. He sails over the ocean to a land of eternal night before crossing a dark land without grass to find an enormous cliff and enter a cave in which he finds a giant named Vgarthilocus. Modern editors have changed the giant’s name as recorded in the first printed edition to Utgarthilocus or even Utgartha-Loki to make it line up with the character in the Icelandic Edda.

The various versions of innangarða and útangarða that appear in the source texts seem fairly mundane, yet the Americanized terms “innangard” and “utangard” are invested with heavy meaning by Heathens in the United States.

The Americanization of Early Medieval Paganism

In the second volume of Our Troth, published by the U.S.-based organization founded by members of the Ásatrú Free Assembly and now known as the Troth, innangard is defined as “the enclosed world of the human community, within which order, law and security are found, and which must be protected from the outside (by defense against intruders) and from the inside (by maintaining frith [Old Norse “peace”]).”

Gravity is given to the term by an assertion that “[t]he opposition between the innangard and utangard is fundamental to the way the Teutonic peoples saw themselves in the world.” The corresponding utangard is defined as “the wild and chaotic world, home of outlaws, strangers, giants and monsters.”

In Asatru: A Native European Spirituality, written by the neo-völkisch American Stephen McNallen who founded both the Ásatrú Free Assembly and Ásatrú Folk Assembly, innangarth is made synonymous to “Folk Within.” This term is defined as “[c]ollectively, the people descended from the European tribes, wherever they may live or whatever their religious belief.”

The term utangarth is not in the book’s glossary, but it used in other Ásatrú Folk Assembly publications with the meaning “all forces gathered against the Folk.”

As with so much of Heathenry in the United States, a rather plain Icelandic concept is seen through a lens of prototypically American worldview and recast in a form that touches upon conservative American concepts of law and order, defense from intruders, paranoia about outsiders, and a concept of ancestry grounded in racialist ideas of Europeanness.

Like many modern Heathen concepts in this country, the source seems to be a Danish scholar named Vilhelm Grønbech.

“Our folk is Middle-garth”

In 1909, Grønbech published the first part of Vor Folkeætt i Oldtiden (“Our People in Ancient Times”), translated into English as The Culture of the Teutons in 1931. PDFs of the translated text continue to be circulated among American Heathens, and the book is regularly listed in Heathen bibliographies and recommended reading lists. Over the years, several Grønbechian concepts have become hardwired into modern Heathenry in the United States.

Vilhelm Grønbech (1873-1948)

Unfortunately, the book channels racialist völkisch concepts through Grønbech’s idiosyncratic readings of the Icelandic sagas. It forwards a supposed reconstruction of the inner workings of the souls of various ancient northern European peoples that are mashed together as Grøbech’s primeval Teutons, unquestioningly accepted to be “our forefathers.”

The work is saturated with nineteenth-century Romantic and pseudo-Nietzschean ideals of the Germanic “central will,” the transformative spiritual effects of physical violence, and a pan-Germanic identity shared across time by readers and subjects. Core to this ideology is Grønbech’s portrayal of “Middle-garth” and “Utgard.”

The Old Icelandic miðgarðr means “middle yard” or “central enclosure” and has cognates throughout the old Germanic languages. It refers to the world of humans, as distinct from those of gods, giants, and other mythological tribes.

In Grønbech’s work, the word takes on a völkisch meaning and is directly opposed to his conception of Utgard. “Our folk,” he writes, “is Middle-garth, and that which lies beyond is Utgard.”

Using language disturbingly similar to that of Third Reich propaganda and today’s white nationalism, he discusses killing foreigners as an act free of moral consequence shortly before asserting the mystic sacredness of the clan. Biological mysticism and anti-modernism appear as he writes that “the brethren of the clan are not only one soul but one bone, one flesh, in a literal sense that escapes modern brains.” Middle-garth, according to Grønbech, “belongs to men, and belongs to them because they are the strongest, the conquerors” who are fundamentally opposed to “the rabble of Utgard.”

More than recalling the infighting protagonists of the Icelandic sagas, this rhetoric is reminiscent of the Nazi appropriation and manipulation of Friedrich Nietzsche. The philosopher’s image of “the splendid blond beast, prowling about avidly in search of spoil and victory” was transformed by Nazi propagandists into a symbol of the conquering Aryan hero as part of their twisted justification for the mass murder of the Jewish population and the invasion of neighboring nations.

In Grønbech’s hands, the diverse polytheism and wide-ranging cultural exchange of the ancient world is transformed into a Romantic nationalist dualism of the unified Teutonic clan versus the Others who deserve no ethical consideration.

Unsurprisingly, the audiences for Grønbech’s public lectures skyrocketed during the Nazi occupation of Denmark. The Culture of the Teutons was translated into German by the National Socialist academic Otto Höfler, printed by a völkisch publisher under Nazi control, and included in the library of the Institute for Research of the Jewish Question, a planned Third Reich university system for research and indoctrination focused on anti-Semitic ideology.

Grønbech as guru

It is popular in American Heathenry to dismiss facts such as these by asking “should we throw away the runes because the Nazis used them?”

The counter-question I would ask is, “what in Grønbech appealed so powerfully to Nazi officers and ideologues?” As a follow-up, I would ask, “what are the implications of American Heathens being attracted to the same twentieth-century text that so captivated the leaders of the Third Reich?”

Although some Heathens view Grønbech as a neutral chronicler of ancient worldview who bases his conclusions on solid academic research, the mode of this work is much closer to the rhapsodic imaginings of Romantics waxing lyrical on the rough virtues of noble savages ancient and distant than it is to the focused, critical, and relentlessly sourced work of scholars in the 111 years since the work first appeared.

I have repeatedly read material by and had discussions with American Heathens who consider Grønbech’s theories to be not theories at all, but rather the factual and undeniable core beliefs of actual Heathens of the long-ago time, be they first-century continental Germanic tribesmen, sixth-century English pagans, or ninth-century Icelandic heathens.

Grønbech’s theoretical distinction between the supposed spiritual meanings of Middle-garth and Utgard has morphed into the general acceptance of the innangard-utangard dualism in much of modern American Heathenry of various flavors, with Middle-garth being replaced by innangard due to the regular use of Midgard for the earth (without spiritual or mystical connotations) and the more obvious in-out opposition of the adopted pair of terms.

An objection can be made that, aside from the purely linguistic issues, Norse mythology does indeed show a distinction between inner and outer worlds.

As described above, Thor must travel over some form of natural boundary in order to reach the land of the giants, the territory of the tribe of anti-gods that competes with the gods. This idea of crossing a boundary – river, sea, forest, wasteland, or mountain range – in order to move from the familiar inner world to the strange outer world appears throughout Indo-European mythologies, from Sanskrit to Norse, from ancient Indian epics to 19th-century German fairy tales.

Yet it is a narrative trope, not necessarily a spiritual teaching. The hero of the tale must leave home to have the transformative adventure, whether it is Rama going into Dandakaranya, Beowulf sailing to Heorot, or Thor traveling to Jötunheim. The journey is required by the demands of story, not the callings of spirit.

There’s still time to change the road you’re on

When American Heathens scoff at the idea of having basic empathy for anyone except their inner circle by saying “not my innangard, not my problem” or write social media posts describing people outside their insular Heathen community as subhuman denizens of the utangard, they are channeling the ideology of the early 1900s völkisch milieu, not any demonstrably real religious worldview of long-ago pagans.

When they speak of a unified and ultimately mono-racial modern Heathen in-group that stands in opposition to their African-American, Latinx, Muslim, Jewish, and LGBTQ+ neighbors, and when they speak of those fellow Americans as “stranger peoples,” they are reconstructing Third Reich ideology, not ancient heathen spirituality.

The World Tree in an 1886 illustration by Wilhelm Wägner

My original intention was to write a somewhat hippy-dippy article about “the expanding innangard” that challenged the inherent divisiveness of the Heathen concept by discussing widening rings of human connection, by building upon what I’ve written before on wyrd weaving us all together. Then I stumbled upon a reposting of the YouTube video about “two non-words in Old Norse,” started to do some digging, and ended up with yet another element of American Heathenry that has deeply problematic ties to racialist völkisch ideology.

The situation is less one of pure and ancient Heathen ideals that were temporarily appropriated by the Third Reich than it is of today’s Heathens accepting as ancient truths what are actually interpretations and manipulations of Old Norse material by Nazis and those whose writings were adopted as dogma by them.

Just how much of today’s Heathenry in the United States is really rooted in Romanticism, völkisch ideology, and actual Nazi propaganda?

If today’s Ásatrú and Heathenry really is focused on reconstruction, recreation, and reimagining of the Old Way, we need to be clear about which old way we intend to follow. For some, the difficulty will be in pruning away beloved elements with roots in a relatively recent and decidedly dark past.

Selected Sources

Laws of Early Iceland: Grágás I. Translated by Andrew Dennis, Peter Foote, and Richard Perkins. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2006.

Lindow, John. Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs. Oxford: Oxford, 2001.

Mees, Bernard. The Science of the Swastika. Budapest: Central European University, 2008.

–––. “Völkische Altnordistik: The Politics of Nordic Studies in the German-Speaking Countries, 1926-45.” In Old Norse Myths, Literature, and Society: Proceedings of the 11th International Saga Conference, edited by Geraldine Barnes and Margaret Clunies Ross, 316-326. Sydney: Centre for Medieval Studies, University of Sydney, 2000, 319.

Mitchell, P.M. Vilhelm Grønbech. Boston: Hall-Twayne, 1978.

Poetic Edda, The. Translated by Carolyne Larrington. Oxford: Oxford, 2014.

Saxo Grammaticus. The History of the Danes, Books I-IX. Edited by Hilda Ellis Davidson, translated by Peter Fisher. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1996.

Simek, Rudolf. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1993.

Snorri Sturluson. The Prose Edda. Translated by Jesse Byock. London: Penguin, 2005.

Stork, John. “Artifacts of Fascism: Nazi Books at the University of Cincinnati Libraries.” University of Cincinnati Digital Resource Commons website.

Vigfusson, Gudbrand. An Icelandic-English Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford, 1874.

Vikstrand, Per. “Ásgarðr, Miðgarðr, and Útgarðr: A linguistic approach to a classical problem.” In Old Norse religion in long-term perspectives: Origins, changes, and interactions, edited by Anders Andrén, Kristina Jennbert, and Catharina Raudvere, 354-357. Lund, Sweden: Nordic Academic Press, 2006.

Wellendorf, Jonas. Gods and Humans in Medieval Scandinavia: Retying the Bonds. Cambridge: Cambridge, 2018.

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

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Modern Heathens and the Poetic Edda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An insight into a life that was

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

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

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

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

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

Worldwide Heathens

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

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

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

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

Other Heathens were lured to Iceland by the Poetic Edda.

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

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

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

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

Poetry as ritual

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 6, 2020

Interview with Angela Walker, Green Party Vice-Presidential Candidate

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

Angela Walker, Green Party candidate for vice-president

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

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

“I believe that there is divinity”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We take care of each other”

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

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

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

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

Angela Walker of the Green Party

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

KS – Separate is inherently unequal.

AW – Yes.

Angela Walker in 2015, while working for Wisconsin Jobs Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We’re exercising our agency”

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

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

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

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

Angela Walker in a recent YouTube video

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Thor at Midsummer

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

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

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

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

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

A symbol of community

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

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

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

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

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

Inspiration and action

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

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

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

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

Thor in the cultural moment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Many meanings

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

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

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

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

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