Monday, March 5, 2012

Why Norse Mythology? Part Two

This post continues my portrait of people I've been lucky enough to meet since I began writing The Norse Mythology Blog – recently voted Best Religion Weblog in the international Weblog Awards – and examines the many ways in which Norse myth continues to deeply affect life in today's world.

I have had the great honor and pleasure of gaining the friendship of some truly amazing and progressive religious leaders in Iceland and America. In Summer 2010, I spent three weeks in Iceland getting to know the wonderfully open and friendly members of the Ásatrúarfélagið (“Æsir Faith Fellowship”), the pagan church founded in 1972 that is officially recognized by the Icelandic government. I had been corresponding with several of them for some time via their web forum and email, and they were incredibly welcoming from the moment I arrived in Iceland.

A living religion woven into the fabric of everyday life:
Hilmar (left) at Ásatrú name-giving ceremony - June 24, 2010

In my interviews with Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson (allsherjargoði – very roughly translated as “high priest”) and Jóhanna G. Harðardóttir (staðgengill allsherjargoða (“deputy high priestess”), the two church leaders express very different views on how contemporary individuals can experience a living religion that is based on the ancient texts of Norse myth and saga. Since my visit, I have received powerfully moving letters from Hilmar in which he describes his experiences as a spiritual leader – providing grief counseling to the family of friends who died unexpectedly young; presiding over name-giving ceremonies, weddings and funerals; dealing with the business side of building a hof (“temple”) in a country that has gone through an intense economic battering. For the members of the Icelandic church, this is a real, living religion connected to an ancient tradition that impacts their lives as strongly as any other faith – it has nothing to do with wearing a horned helmet and running around the forest with a wooden sword.

Here in Chicago, I have gotten to know Reverend Kurt Esslinger, the Presbyterian minister who runs Agape House at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His dedication to working for positive change is truly inspiring, and his efforts to reach out across cultural, ethnic and religious lines provide a standard for the rest of us. He surprised me recently when he unveiled a massive new tattoo of Yggdrasil, the World Tree of Norse myth.

Reverend Kurt Esslinger's Yggdrasil tattoo

For Kurt, the World Tree “denotes the permeation of the divine throughout all existence.” I completely agree, and I am happy to know a Christian minister who is open enough to other traditions to be able to embrace the power of this ancient symbol from another faith. I just wish that people with Kurt’s progressive attitude were in charge of more of America’s interfaith organizations – which mostly seem to define “interfaith” as dialogue between various Christian denominations or between Christians and Jews (and sometimes Muslims). There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in only those philosophies.

One of the ways that Norse myth has inspired contemporary social dialogue is through the progressive political actions of many involved in this international community. For those who espouse an allegiance to the various forms of modern religion that are based (in whole or in part) on the Old Norse faiths, progressive political action is often at the core of their public lives.

On the other hand, the power of the myths to inspire activism also shows up in purely academic settings; Scott Mellor and several of his students from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Scandinavian Studies were very active participants in the protests against Governor Scott Walker. According to Hárbarðsljóð ("Harbard's Song"),
Odin has the nobles who fall in battle
and Thor has the breed of serfs.
This political season, Odin may or may not be throwing his runes for the aristocratic Romney; only the Allfather knows what the Allfather knows. Thor, on the other hand, is clearly aligned with the 99%.

Protests in Madison: partially Thor-inspired?
\Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson told me that “for some of us, the gods are personifications of natural forces,” and it is this spiritual connection to the natural world that seems to be at the root of actions such as Hilmar’s raising of a traditional níðstöng (“scorn-pole”) against the Kárahnjúkar Hydropower Project in an effort to protect a place of great natural beauty from the destructive actions of modern industry. As he told me in our interview,
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.
For some time, I have corresponded with members of Germany’s Nornirs Ætt (“Norn’s Family”), another contemporary religious group – particularly the members who belong to the rock band Singvøgel. Along with the organization called Rabenclan, they have been prominent in publicly denouncing right-wing groups. Recently, Singvøgel performed at a German demonstration against ACTA (Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement), which is the international equivalent of the American SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) that caused such an outcry in January. It’s easy to see how these German activists can find inspiration in Norse myth and legend, with its emphasis on individual freedom and responsibility.

Singvøgel performs at anti-ACTA demonstration

One of the most interesting connections I have made is with Suhag Shukla, Managing Director of the Hindu American Foundation. I heard her speak with Reverend C. Welton Gaddy on his wonderful State of Belief radio show, and her criticism of President Obama’s advisory council on faith-based programs lined up perfectly with my own. When I contacted her through her Facebook page, she was gracious and kind. I look forward to meeting her in person in the near future and discussing her powerful advocacy for enlarging the scope of respectful interfaith dialogue in the United States.

For those with only a passing acquaintance with Norse mythology, it may come as something of a surprise to read that I have met several members of the LGBT community who are truly passionate about this material. I have met and exchanged letters with gay and lesbian individuals in America and abroad who feel that they can find themselves in Norse myth in a way that they cannot in Christian myth.

Loki expresses his feminine side.
Art by Dylan Teague

Specifically, they feel a sort of sympathetic kinship with the complicated figure of Loki. The charismatic trickster of Norse mythology changes gender with aplomb, cross-dresses with gleeful abandon, mates with both male and female partners, makes no distinction between gods and their enemy giants in his choice of partners – he even gives birth. Although I get exhausted just thinking about all this, I can understand why members of the LGBT community find Loki so simpatico. Where in the Judeo-Christian tradition can they find such a colorful character who takes such Samantha-Jones-like delight in his all-embracing, pan-sexual nature?

The one great disappointment in all of this is the interaction I have had with America’s mainstream religion journalists – actually, the complete lack of interaction. I feel that many religion journalists have not lived up to the calling of their profession. If I had a nickel for every time I asked a writer who covers religion a question about coverage of faiths other than Christianity, Judaism and Islam – and received absolutely no response back . . . well, I sure would have a lot of nickels. This willful ghettoization of minority faiths is shameful.

Covering the religion beat for a major national news organization should not mean using your position as a bully pulpit for promoting your own religious views. It should mean digging deeper into religious matters than simply parroting the headlines in the other sections of the newspaper. To pick just one example, if Mitt Romney says that President Obama is waging a “war on religion,” don’t just ask your Christian minister friend if he thinks Obama is really a Christian or not; spend some time with Native American activists and learn about a real war on religion – what Indian Country Today’s Suzan Shown Harjo calls the “USDA’s Culture War Against Sacred Places.” We as a nation need to learn more about the perspectives of minority faiths, not just be fed an incessant stream of statements from leaders of and evangelists for the massive majority religions.

Is Justin Bieber the most important religious thinker of our times?
Many religion journalists seem to think so.

Working as a professional religion journalist should also not mean writing endless stories on the (not incredibly deep) proclamations of Christian faith by celebrities like Justin Bieber, Tim Tebow and (new flavor-of-the-month) Jeremy Lin. If you are (as Bernie Mac would say) “a grown-ass man” (or woman) and went to a fancy journalism school, you shouldn’t be writing article after article on, for example, what a eighteen-year-old Auto-Tuned pop singer says about Jesus. You’re better than this. I realize that repeating the simple faith statements of evangelical celebrities will get you more Twitter followers than taking the time to research the deep spiritual beliefs of the followers of minority religions, but I also believe that the benefits to your own spiritual journey – and that of your readers – will be worth making the effort to expand your horizons.

In order to help shine a light on this issue, I recently joined the Religion Newswriters Association. I hope that my membership in the organization will enable me to make contact with the more open-minded wing of the profession. I also hope that my work on this blog (and the other websites of Norse Mythology Online) will inspire other writers to move beyond their comfort zones and begin to investigate the deep reservoir of all the world’s religious beliefs – past, present and future.

I hope that I have been able to show that Norse mythology matters to a wide range of people around us and around the world. It continues to be a source of solace, a stirrer of inspiration, and a guide to the great mysteries – mysteries that moved the ancient northern peoples in as deep and complex a fashion as we are moved by them today. Personally, I find it somehow comforting to know that my German, Anglo-Saxon and Norse-Gael ancestors were struggling with the same Big Issues as I am today, and that their insights are still meaningful.

. . . to everyone who blogged, emailed, posted, reposted, tweeted and retweeted in support of The Norse Mythology Blog, working hard to bring out the vote. Aside from those I’ve already mentioned in the article – many of whom put a lot of time into getting the word out – I’m deeply grateful to Asatru Lore, The Icelandic Association of Chicago, Odinssons Alte Sitte, Pagan Princesses, The Silver Bough, Vikings Books Etc and The Wild Hunt.

My sincere apologies to anyone I left out of this article, but there were so many who went above and beyond. Winning Best Religion Weblog is an achievement that belongs to all of you.


Queen of Swords said...

Here's fun for you: I went to fundamentalist Christian school in the 80's. They had a class called "Christian View of Cults". Cults being Judaism, Islam, Catholicism (?!), Hinduism, & Buddhism. Then we were told to dress up as a cultural trope, & then were taken to the airport to see who the Krishnas would approach. The the credit of the Krishnas & airport authorities, we were kicked out. Way to teach 13-year olds tolerance.

Richard said...

Hey new to the blog I can't seem to find a direct link to your first post... and working backwards to find it is taking quite a while.

Do you have the link handy?

Dr. Karl E. H. Seigfried said...

Richard - Try the ARCHIVE button. It will list all articles on the blog, with direct links to each of them.

Anonymous said...

Congratulations on the award, I voted for your site! It was very nice to hear follow ups on a lot of these older posts, thanks.

GG said...

The Pagan Princesses *heart* The Norse Mythology Blog. :-)

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