Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Images of Norse Gods

Heather Greene, Managing Editor of The Wild Hunt, recently asked me a couple of interesting questions about Ásatrú and images of the Norse gods as background while writing her fascinating piece on the religion-inspired art of Dina Goldstein. Since her article only used a small part of my answers, she's kindly given me permission to post her questions and my answers here.

You can read Ms. Greene's full piece on "Art, Religion and the 'Gods of Suburbia'" by clicking here.

What is the general opinion of Heathenry on the visual representation of Gods? Are they used? Are their religious limitations to this?

Visual depictions of divinity in Northern Europe go back as far as we have archeological records. Rock carvings in Sweden from around 1800 BCE show figures that may be earlier versions of concepts of godhood that eventually evolve in to what we think of as Thor, Odin, Frey and other Germanic gods. The carvings show axe- and spear-wielding figures that are larger than the other people represented, suggesting analogues to Thor and Odin. However, we have to be careful about drawing too direct a line of descent; these congruencies probably reflect more a continuity of thought-patterns than a linear development of specific divinities.

Bronze Age carving of axe-wielding figure blessing couple (Sweden)

Physical objects representing gods and supernatural beings can be found throughout the rest of the history of Heathenry, whether through descriptions in written records or actual archeological finds. Examining the illustrations in books like H.R. Ellis Davidson's Pagan Scandinavia and James Campbell's The Anglo-Saxons will give you a good sense for the continuity of imagery over great distances of space and time.

Modern-day Heathens often physically realize descriptions of sacred objects in written sources like the sagas of Icelandic settlement. There are some wonderfully wrought god-poles, idols and other figures being made today, either for local use by the creator with his or her group of practitioners or for commercial sale. Some are direct and detailed recreations of archeological finds, others are new creations inspired by the past or made from individual impulse.

The most common representations today are probably small figures (like a seated Thor) and god-poles with features of a specific deity carved into the wood. Non-anthorpomorphic objects can include things like, for instance, the Thor's Oak in my backyard. There's a wide range of representations, just as there is a wide variety of belief and practice in the Heathen community.

How do you feel personally about the use of Heathen deity imagery for worship purposes, reverent expression or inspiration (a painting on the living room wall, etc.), non-reverent expression (such as in commentary on religion or politics), and for commerical purposes (movies, books, posters, games, costumes)?

Speaking only for myself, I think that the use of deity imagery is an integral part of the tradition. Records from archeology, history and literature show its use in worship and ritual settings over the past 4,000 years. Some depictions were actually integral parts of the living space, like the carved high-seat pillars. Others were portable, like the small metal figurines thought to represent Thor or Freyr. When today's Heathens incorporate these objects into their rituals or living spaces, they're following in a the steps of a grand tradition.

Usually thought to represent Thor, this figure is from Iceland c1000 CE

The use of god-images as part of religious or political commentary will usually anger the person who disagrees with the statement being made and be supported by the one who agrees. I don't think Heathens are usually the type to fly into a tizzy and make accusations of sacrilege. Thinking some goofy usage of the gods and symbols is moronic, yes. Saying so, yes. Pearl-clutching, not so much.

Personally, I dig Marvel's Thor comics. As a wise sage once said, "I'm a grown-ass man, dawg." I'm old enough to be able to tell the difference between entertainment and religion. Marvel's Thor has built up its own internal mythology over more than half of a century. In terms of pop culture, I think that's great, just as I think Tolkien's Middle-earth mythos is fantastic. It doesn't mean that I blót to Frodo of the Nine Fingers. If someone wants to sacrifice a Grape Nehi to a pile of Loki comics, more power to them. It's not for me, but it does me no harm. Every tub must sit on its own bottom.

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