Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Norse Mythology's Endless Appeal

I was contacted in July by Phil Pegum, Senior Producer for BBC Religion and Ethics. He was working on a project for Radio 3, “the BBC’s art, classical music and new ideas station.” Slated for broadcast at midwinter was “a festival of programmes celebrating the life and culture of the countries of the north.” The Religion and Ethics department had been asked to produce a series of “talks for the festival around the areas of belief, religion, mythology and history.” Mr. Pegum, in turn, asked me to write and record a radio essay on the continuing popularity of Norse mythology, its broader cultural significance, and the resurgence of Heathen religion in recent decades.

What follows is the full script that I wrote and recorded for the series Religion in the North, broadcast as part of The Essay, a regular program which features “leading writers on arts, history, philosophy, science, religion and beyond, themed across a week – insight, opinion and intellectual surprise.” I feel greatly honored to have been included as one of the authors chosen for this prestigious series, and I am very thankful to Mr. Pegum for the time he spent and the wisdom he shared with me, both during the writing phase and during the recording of the audio for broadcast.

My radio essay was broadcast by the BBC on December 23. You can listen to the complete recording via the audio player at the bottom of this post.


Hail to the gods!
Hail to the goddesses!
Hail to the bounteous earth!
Speech and wit
Give to us famous ones
And healing hands, while we live!

The Dark Gods by Max Ernst (1957)

A white-bearded Icelandic gentleman, a Heathen priest, bundled up against Reykjavík’s midwinter cold, recites these verses of medieval pagan poetry before an attentive gathering. They stand closely together beneath a clear night sky, holding candles, gathered in a circle around a roaring fire. So begins the Yule celebration of Icelanders who practice a modern iteration of Norse religion, a contemporary practice that considers the poems and legends of Norse mythology to be core texts for ritual and reflection.


Far from Iceland, my parents were philosophers in Chicago. When I was a child, they made sure I read Greek, Jewish and Christian mythology, telling me I could believe whatever I wanted as an adult, but that I needed to know these three traditions, so I could understand the art, literature and music of the western world.

My father, from a German farming village in eastern Europe, told me stories of Siegfried the dragon-slayer and introduced me to Grimms’ Fairy Tales and fabulous folklore from the Rhine River region. The one thing I didn’t learn about was Norse mythology. As a kid, Norse myths seemed like the exclusive property of far-away Scandinavia.

Willy Pogany's illustration of the Norse god Odin
from Padraic Colum's Children of Odin (1920)

After my dad died, I read Children of Odin, a retelling of Norse myths by Irish poet Padraic Colum. The god Odin, wandering the world in a quest for wisdom – a quest confirming his existential concerns about the future – reminded me of my father’s decades of work in philosophy after escaping from anti-German extermination camps run by Marshall Tito’s Communist Partisans. The god Thor, world-traveler, lover of children and ale, quick to anger and quick to forgiveness, reminded me of my Opa, my grandfather who went from family farm to Soviet prisoner-of-war camp to new life in America, yet never lost his passion for living. Sigurð, wooing the Valkyrie in a ring of fire, was the Norse version of Siegfried, the dragon-slayer my father had told me tales about when I was a child.

It suddenly seemed as if I had always known the Norse gods and heroes. I began to read the mythic material written down in medieval Iceland and Denmark, to study the poems preserved in what we now call the Poetic Edda, to learn about the literature, religion and history of the ancient northern world. Along the way, I found that many other people have been bitten by the same bug that bit me.


There have been repeated revivals of international interest in Norse mythology as people around the world continue to find connections to the gods, goddesses, heroes, and heroines. The Eddas – the thirteenth-century Icelandic sources for the majority of surviving myths – were first published in modern translation three-hundred-and-fifty years ago in Denmark. Further translations and studies followed in England, France, Germany, Austria, Sweden, Russia, and elsewhere.

18th-century Icelandic manuscript of Snorri's Edda

Nineteenth-century Romantics plunged into Norse mythology. William Morris worked with Eiríkur Magnússon to translate selections from the Eddas and sagas – Iceland’s great prose precursors to the novel – then wrote original poetry and prose inspired by them. Jacob Grimm’s massive treatise on what he called “German mythology” arguably launched the repeated appropriations of medieval Icelandic literature for nationalist projects throughout the century. The greatest flowering of this Romantic fascination (or its lowest ebb, depending on your perspective) is Wagner’s seventeen-hour Ring of the Nibelung, which – despite Germanization of character and place names – is almost completely based on Icelandic sources.

In the twentieth century, the Romantic melding of myth and nation yielded a strange and bitter crop in the Third Reich’s propagandist imagery. This perversion continues to seduce the radical right of racist revivalists, despite Hitler’s repeated repudiation of those who, in his words, “keep harping on that far-off and forgotten nomenclature which belongs to the ancient Germanic times.” Tolkien, whose works include many elements taken directly from Norse mythology, famously railed against Hitler for “ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe.”

The myths recovered and were recovered. Tolkien’s friend W. H. Auden and Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges published translations of the Eddas. More recently, Norse gods have appeared in fiction by English writers including Joanne Harris. She told me, “What I’m trying to do in my way is to demonstrate how stories evolve and how heroes… cast long shadows in their wake. These shadows become part of the oral and written tradition and, as centuries pass, are embellished, rewritten and re-interpreted by successive generations.”

Hollywood has done its fair share of rewriting. Based on a superhero first appearing in comic books in 1962, Marvel’s Thor films are far removed from Norse myth. Core elements of the 1960s character were lifted from Superman and Shazam, who provided inspiration for Thor’s red cape, his ability to transform from human nebbish to powerful superhero in a flash of lightning, and the love triangle between his two identities and the co-worker to whom he longs to reveal his secret identity.

Marvel’s movie versions of the Norse gods are rewritten to fit a Judeo-Christian worldview. Instead of the wondering, wandering wizard of the myths, Odin is an angry Old Testament patriarch. Although Thor plays his mythical role as protector of the human world, the first film follows the comics in recasting him as a Viking Jesus from outer space. He is sent by his father to live as a mortal among men, win a small group of faithful followers who must be convinced of his godliness, and prove his worthiness by sacrificing himself to save us all. This is New Testament, not Norse mythology.


Whatever form it takes, there is an eternal return of interest in the myths. A thousand years after the conversion of the Nordic countries, Norse mythology still somehow speaks to people around the world. I think that this appeal works at three levels – dramatic, emotional, and spiritual.

At the first level – that of drama – these are grand adventure tales. The gods create the world from the corpse of a primeval giant and set the moon, sun and stars on their courses to begin a golden age. The dwarves are created from earth, the first humans are made from trees, and a mysterious unkillable sorceress brings strange magic.

Odin and his two brothers vanquish the giant Ymir
in Katherine Pyle's Tales from Norse Mythology (1930)

Ages pass, a dragon sucks juices from the dead by a stream full of murderers, and a giantess gives birth to the wolf that will eat the moon. A monstrous dog breaks free, signaling an age of axes, swords and shields, wind and wolves. The gods, elves, giants and dwarves prepare for war, and a figure of fire comes from the south. The sun and stars are destroyed as the world perishes in fire and flood.

Finally, a new world rises up from the waters, new gods appear, and a new golden age begins. All is joy in the halls of the gods, until the corpse-sucking dragon is seen flying over the hills under the moon.

These mysterious goings-on are enough to fill a series of fantasy novels, yet they are merely elements of the first prophetic poem of the Poetic Edda. From this snapshot of the barest beginning of the mythology, it should be clear that this is exciting stuff.

At the second level – that of emotion – the myths appeal as an expression of exuberant excitement at the experience of existence. There is a cast of colorful characters including Njörðr, the god who rules over wind and sea, and Freyr and Freyja, his beautiful children. Freyr rules the world of elves and presides over prosperity and peace, rain and sunshine. Freyja rides in a chariot pulled by cats and loves love songs and love affairs. The bright god Heimdall is, enigmatically, the son of nine mothers. His horse’s mane and his own teeth are of gold, and he lives by the Rainbow Bridge in the Castle of Heaven – from where he can hear the sound of grass growing in the fields and wool growing on sheep.

Thor most embodies the joy of life lived. Unlike Odin, he doesn’t meditate on coming darkness. Instead, he wrings every moment of life for its full flavor. Admittedly, he spends much of his time smiting giants with his heavy hammer, but he does so with his heart laughing in his breast. Otherwise, his main interests are drinking prodigious amounts, taking kids on adventures, going on long walks with friends, and feasting on the magically regenerating goats that pull his sky-chariot. This is a fellow who likes to enjoy himself.

At the third, spiritual level, the myths present a powerful worldview. Although everything Odin learns about the future tells him he and the world will die, he never stops searching for knowledge and never ceases to rage against the dying of the light. The gods die, yet the ending of the prophecy is a life-affirming one. We will not live forever, but our children will survive us, and their children will survive them. The branches of the World Tree will continue to grow as new leaves appear each springtime.


The spiritual message of the myths survives, despite bloody centuries of Christian conversion. In 1972, Icelandic farmer-poet Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson led the foundation of the Ásatrúarfélagið, a fellowship for those who follow the religion of Ásatrú – an Icelandic term meaning “faith in the Norse gods.” For those raised to believe that Christianity is the natural religion of the western world, and that the structure of Christian belief is the yardstick by which to measure other faith traditions, it may come as a surprise to realize that the older religions of northern Europe were closer to Hinduism. Today, Ásatrú attracts those who feel a connection to the Old Way, and – like other religions – it provides a rich experience of ritual, celebration, and community.

Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson in 1960

In 1973, the Icelandic government officially recognized the Ásatrú religion. Forty years later, it is the largest non-Christian religion in Iceland, and the faith has spread throughout the world. Although practitioners respect the Icelanders for beginning the religion’s rebirth, the Icelandic organization is a local group and now just one aspect of a global practice. There are many branches of the tradition, yet most participants agree that Heathenry (with a capital H) is the most general term to cover all of today’s variant forms.

In 2013, I conducted the first Worldwide Heathen Census and received over sixteen thousand responses from ninety-eight countries. Iceland has the highest Heathen density – the greatest number of Heathens as a percentage of the country’s population. The United States has the highest number of Heathens; my interpretation of the data suggests that there are approximately twenty thousand American practitioners. That may not seem like a large number in a country this size, but it is impressive for a religion that is not even half a century old, has no central authority, does not engage in missionary work, and has been almost completely ignored by academia and media.


Mythology is only one part of a lived and living religion. What matters most to me is how myths can inspire us to live our lives in new ways. As a professional musician, I understand intellectually that improvisation and composition involve chemical interactions between stored memories of past experiences that interact across areas of the brain to produce new combinations. However, my experience of performing and writing music is more spiritually understandable when I consider that, over a thousand years ago, northern poets felt that their flashes of inspiration came from Odin, the god who brings creative frenzy.

Iðunn and Bragi by Nils Jakob Olssen Blommér (1846)

Like most artists, I feel my best work is done when I’m not fully in control of the creative process, when the melodies appearing in my head seem to come from somewhere else. It deepens the reality of the creative moment to realize that I share this feeling with poets of long ago, and that we also share a vocabulary and system of symbols that enable the experience to be emotionally understood at a deeper level.

Jimmy Cheatham, one of my musical mentors, often talked about “opening yourself up to the Creative Spirit.” At the time, I was young and dumb and thought he was an inscrutable mystic. Decades later, I understand what he meant about turning from our everyday lives of volunteered slavery and listening to what Odin has to tell us. At least, that’s how I choose to understand it. Norse mythology offers a poetic way of perceiving our experiences from a perspective outside our day-to-day existence. It overlays the mythical over the mundane, which is especially welcome during the long winter darkness.


At the Icelandic Yule celebration, a priestess with joyously twinkling eyes explains how the god Freyr falls in love with the beautiful maiden Gerðr. In this telling of the tale, Freyr’s desire for the girl with the shining arms is parallel to the longing of Icelanders to see the sun during the long nights of northern winter. When Gerðr finally agrees to give her love to the young god, she tells him he must wait for nine nights. His lament ends the medieval poem that preserves the myth:

Long is a night –
long are two –
how can I suffer through three?
Often a month to me
seemed shorter
than half of this nuptial night.

A Bonfire in the Moonlight by Hermann Herzog (1832-1932)

After the sharing of the story, the Yule-feast begins. Like Freyr, we all wait through the long, dark nights for the coming of the sun. The communion of companionship in celebration of our lives together makes the wait a joyous one, and the Norse myths – like the myths of any faith – give us a shared tradition that shapes the cycle of the year. That is a wonderful gift from the past that continues into the future.


Listen to the complete radio essay by clicking the ► button in the player below.

For more information on Ásatrú, check out the articles in The Norse Mythology Blog Archive by clicking here.

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