Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Three Ásatrú Worldviews, Part One

Bob Smietana, religion journalist and current president of the Religion Newswriters Association, recently asked me for help with a story he was writing for OnFaith, the online publication about religion that formerly belonged to The Washington Post but is now part of the FaithStreet website.

Bob's article was inspired by the announcement by Rick Riordan (author of Percy Jackson & the Olympians) that his new series for middle school students will focus on Norse mythology. The first volume of Magnus Chase & the Gods of Asgard will be released in October 2015. "Gods of Asgard" can't really by copyrighted, so Riordan was free to borrow the title of Erik Evensen's classic graphic novel.

Bob was interested in talking to parents who follow Ásatrú (the modern version of Norse religion) to learn about ways in which they speak to their children about representations of their religion in popular culture. He wanted to ask my thoughts on raising my young daughter and to get in touch with other Heathen parents. I recommended a diverse sample of parents from the Ásatrú community:
Jennifer Lohr, author of Baltic Mist (a series based on Icelandic sagas) 
Magni Thorsson, goði of Colorado's Mjölnir Kindred for over twenty years 
Haukur Bragason, goði (priest) of Iceland's Ásatrúarfélagið (“Æsir Faith Fellowship”), the organization that began the Heathen revival in Iceland in 1972 
Steven T. Abell, author of Days in Midgard (a collection of original short stories based on Norse mythology) and Steersman (Executive Director) of The Troth, a Heathen organization based in the USA
All of them gave wonderful and thoughtful answers to Bob's questions. You can read the full article by clicking here. As you can see, the questions and answers ranged far afield from the original impetus of the Riordan books. This is a good thing.

I've been engaged in an ongoing conversation with Bob on the mainstream media's inclusion of minority faith voices when reporting on religion. I'm very happy to see that our discussion has led to his engagement with a variety of Heathen voices. "The Spiritual Power of Thor" is the first article focused on Ásatrú that Bob has written, and it's the first to be featured by OnFaith.

Click here to read the OnFaith story about Heathen parents

You may notice that Bob was unable to use the answers provided by Haukur and Steven in his relatively brief piece. My own answers were much too long to be used in full in the final article. I knew that going in, but I used this as an opportunity to think through some of the issues Bob raised and to try to articulate my ideas in a coherent manner.

I'm a bit embarrassed now by how outrageously long my answers are, compared to the concise and to-the-point replies by Haukur and Steven. As always, I blame Loki.

Because they were not included in the OnFaith piece, and with the permission of all involved, I am posting Bob's questions (in red) and the full answers written by Haukur, Steven and myself. I hope that this documentation of our three different Ásatrú worldviews will be useful to those of you who are interested in Norse mythology and modern Heathenry.

1. What is your age and occupation? Where do you live? How long have you identified as Heathen and a follower of Ásatrú? How many kids you have?

Haukur Bragason
I'm thirty-one, the youngest goði of the Ásatrúarfélagið in Iceland. I've been a part of the Ásatrúarfélagið for nine years, but I'd say I've been Heathen for about ten to twelve years.

Haukur Bragason

I was an active member from the beginning, served on the board, etc., and was asked to become a goði a few years back. The title is Lundarmannagoði and I'm the Suðurlandsgoði (goði of South Iceland). I have the license to marry people and conduct many ceremonies.

I'm also a teacher. I teach biology and other fun stuff to teenagers, and I also teach Icelandic language to grown-ups. I've got a six year old daughter. She lives with me and my wife in Reykjavík, Iceland. She also lives with her mother, sometimes, in North Iceland.

Steven T. Abell
Fifty-eight. Software engineer. Silicon Valley, California. About twenty years out in the open, a lot longer to myself. One grown daughter.

Karl E. H. Seigfried
I'm forty-one years old. In addition to my work as a professional musician, I teach Norse mythology courses for the Continuing Education Program of the Newberry Library and write The Norse Mythology Blog. I have degrees in literature and music, and I'm currently working on an MA in Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School. I live in Chicago with my wife and daughter.

2. How do you describe your faith? What's the term you like to use?

Haukur Bragason
I'm an Ásatrúarmaður (what I believe Americans call Ásatrúar), but I usally say I'm heiðinn (heathen) or heiðingi (noun of the same word).

I believe in Mother Earth, first and foremost. Nature, the cycle of nature, the powers around us. I follow the old gods and the old ways, but I do so living a completely modern life.

Steven T. Abell
The fancy word is Ásatrú (that's pronounced OW-sa-troo), but most of us call ourselves Heathens these days.

Karl E. H. Seigfried
I self-identify as a follower of Ásatrú. The term refers to the modern iteration of the pre-Christian Germanic religion. The word Ásatrú is Icelandic for "Æsir Faith," the belief in the Old Norse gods. You can read a more formal description of the term in the set of Ásatrú definitions that I wrote for the Religion Stylebook of the Religion Newswriters Association by clicking here.

Karl´s drinking horn (made in Iceland), Thor's hammer pendant
(made in Denmark) & oath ring (made in the United States)

Instead of faith, the term worldview would be a closer approximation of how I personally conceive of the nature of the tradition. It's arguable that there was not an indigenous Old Norse word for "religion" before the northern peoples came into contact with Christianity. Early written sources from Iceland refer to "the Old Way" and "the New Way" in reference to, respectively, the native polytheistic religion and the radical new monotheistic tradition being imported from southern lands. I think this conception captures the sense that what we now call Ásatrú was then a traditional way of experiencing life that engaged with the numinous as an intrinsic part of the world, not as an external force that stood outside time and space. This mode of experience is at the core of my own understanding of today's Ásatrú.

I sometimes explain Ásatrú as "a poetic gloss on life." I don't view Ásatrú as list of laws for living or a registry of rules for ritual. George Eliot expresses a similar idea:
Love does not say, “I ought to love” – ­it loves. Pity does not say, “It is right to be pitiful” – ­it pities. Justice does not say, “I am bound to be just” – ­it feels justly. It is only where moral emotion is comparatively weak that the contemplation of a rule or theory habitually mingles with its action; and in accordance with this; we think experience, both in literature and life, has shown that the minds which are pre-eminently didactic – which insist on a “lesson,” and despise everything that will not convey a moral, are deficient in sympathetic emotion.
Rather than serving as a rulebook for orthodoxy and orthopraxy, I believe that the poems, myths, sagas, legends and histories of Northern Europe provide a way of seeing, a means of interpretation, a philosophical orientation. For example, walking quietly through a forest can become a deeply meaningful experience that is informed by conscious and unconscious internal connections of the present moment to lore of the elves, to myths of Odin, to legends of Siegfried, to history of the Germanic tribes. The meanings of this experience are not necessarily reducible to language and narrative; they can appear in the mind in symbolic form. Sometimes symbols held in the mind can be more meaningful than intellectual ideas expressible in language.

Experiencing a sense of spiritual rootedness:
photo from a recent forest walk in Wisconsin

In light of this way of seeing, a way of living can be found – a way that focuses on living in the moment with as full a knowledge of the past as possible. The past is not an abstract conception, but a force that continually affects the present as the living moment becomes the lived moment. Your actions are of paramount importance, because they immediately become part of the past that shapes the experience of the next now. We don't have a Faustian ability to make the living moment into a frozen gem; as soon as an experience is lived, it becomes part of the past.

Death marks the final action of the individual life, but not the end of that life's effect on the future present. This is made most clear in the famous words of the god Odin in the poem Hávamál (“Sayings of the High One”):
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.
This acceptance of the finality of death has often been misunderstood by Christian thinkers to express a sense of Germanic gloominess, of depressed resignation. In a discussion of theological themes behind Greek tragedy, the French philosopher and theologian Paul Ricoeur writes that "the fatality of death and of birth haunts all our acts, which are thereby rendered impotent and irresponsible." I think he misunderstands pagan worldviews in a way that many have misinterpreted the theology behind Old Norse poetry. The realization of the reality of death for the individual does not lead to paralysis; it leads to a wholehearted embrace of living life to the fullest, so that one's deeds can continue to live in the minds of future generations. In my view, it is the religions that focus on salvation into a paradisiacal next life that minimize the experience of a life lived in this world.

Ásatrú's emphasis on the importance of deeds has real implications on the life choices one makes. What will you do to make a positive impact in your lifetime? How will you work to make a better life for the next generation? Will you allow harm to come to your community through inaction? How will you preserve the lore of the past so that it continues to live on and have real effect in the present? Of course, these questions are also asked by other religious traditions. Perhaps the difference is that they are at the core of the Ásatrú experience and are not secondary to questions of salvation of the individual soul.

3. How did you come to follow that religious tradition? How does it impact your day to day life?

Haukur Bragason
I was raised in Christianity but lost my faith when I began to read and think about religion. I was sixteen. After some years I had developed a deep respect for nature, and in the end I found my path joining with Ásatrúarfélagið.

Vor siður (the old way) is timeless and works 100% with modern life. It is not at all outdated; it breathes with the people. It impacts my day-to-day life with my every thought and action, but not consciously. It's just the way I think.

Steven T. Abell
On a whim on the way to the hospital, my parents named me Thor. That's the T in the middle. A name like this predisposes one to be interested in Norse myths. My folks had no idea what they were getting me into, but I can only thank them for it.

Steven T. Abell
They didn't know what to tell me when I asked them about Thor, but my mom went to the library and brought home an armload of books. I knew these stories were the foundation of an old, dead religion. I also knew these stories meant more to me than anything I heard in Sunday school, and they wouldn't leave me alone.

As I got older, I felt a need to honor what was in those stories on their own terms. Eventually, I realized that what I was doing was religion, and that it was important to me. It was a long time after that when I discovered there were other people who felt the same.

Makes me wonder how many Closet Heathens there have been over the last thousand years. Nice that we don't have to hide anymore.

On a day-to-day basis, this is mostly about outlook for me, which is a kind of cross between Stoicism and Life As A Grand Adventure. I am not a supernaturalist, although many Heathens are.

Karl E. H. Seigfried
When I was a child, my parents insisted that I learn the Jewish myths, the Christian myths and the Greek myths. "You can believe whatever you want when you grow up," they told me, "but you need to know these traditions, or you'll never be able to understand literature, art and music." I was familiar in a general way with Norse mythology, but the turning point was stumbling across a copy of Children of Odin, a 1920 retelling of the major Norse myths by the Irish poet Padraic Colum. The back cover stated, "The age-old legends and tales of Nordic mythology are a common heritage of German, Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon peoples." This intrigued me, as I had always thought of the Norse myths as "belonging" to the Scandinavians. My father had told me tales of Siegfried, Frau Holle and other legendary German figures from his childhood in a German farming village, but not so much of Thor, Odin and the Norse gods and goddesses. I know today that the specific myths retold in Colum's book are really taken from medieval Icelandic literature, not some proto-Germanic source – but that's another issue.

One of Willy Pogany's Children of Odin illustrations

Upon reading the book, I immediately saw my Opa – my German grandfather – in the tales of Thor. My Opa loved drinking, dancing, children and good solid food. Thor shares these loves (I can't be completely sure about the dancing) and arguably represents the idealized self-image of the free farmer, the ancient social class to which my Opa himself belonged. Both Thor and my Opa were quick to anger, yet equally quick to jollity. If I were granted three wishes from a genie, one would be to raise pint of beer with both my Opa and Thor and share a laugh around a warm fire. Until that happens, I strive to live my life as fully as they did, to cherish moments with family and to experience living in a very vital way.

Wolfingen (Karavukovo), my father's home before horrors of World War II

Odin, on the other hand, reminded me of my father. As a young child, my father not only survived the anti-German extermination camps run by Marshal Tito’s Yugoslavian Communist Partisans, but he single-handedly rescued his extended family and led them to freedom in the British Zone of Austria – repeatedly walking across a vast distance of hostile territory in Eastern Europe. As a philosopher, he spent his life questioning and seeking answers for the most profound of life's questions. Odin appears when his descendants are in seemingly hopeless situations, as my father did in his youth for the members of his family. Odin, in his guise as the Wanderer, roams far and wide, questioning all and seeking wisdom – which is also the task of the modern philosopher. Neither Odin nor my father necessarily found joy in the wisdom they gained. Odin learns that all must someday die, even the gods and the world itself. My father was greatly saddened that – more than half a century after he survived torture at the hands of brutal camp guards – the president of his adopted United States worked to enable the torture of "enemy combatants." For both Odin and my father, the heaviness of wisdom lead not to paralysis, but to determination to fight the good fight to the end. I hope that I can have the same strength in my own life.

As I dove into the study of Norse mythology and religion, I also saw myself in Thor and Odin. Thor is the great protector, the one who fights for gods and humans. He goes alone against the giants, against the forces that threaten those under his protection. He seems to have very little care for his own safety, but rushes headlong into battle with overwhelming opponents. I find this to be a great inspiration in the battles of modern life – battles against racism, sexism, homophobia and injustice of all kinds. We must be willing to risk the danger that comes with challenging bigotry and domination. Odin is also inspiring, but in a very different way. His endless questioning on the future – on life and death – is what appeals to me. I am not seeking mystical answers in the words of Odin; it is his questions that move me. It is amazing to me that poets a millennium ago were asking the same questions that keep me awake at night. This doesn't erase the darkness of the wee hours of the night, but it is comforting somehow to know that Odin is wandering in some far off land, pondering the same questions under the same stars.

To be continued in Part Two.


Unknown said...

Fantastic piece. Can't wait for part two! So helpful. I feel I'm at a point where I'm heading out of the closet as a Heathen so this is very affirming.

GSM Heathen said...

Absolutely fantastic. I look forward to more!

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