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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