Tuesday, May 17, 2022

“And All the Generous Earth”: Ásatrú Ritual and Climate Change Ethics, Part One

This article presents an Ásatrú perspective on climate change ethics. It addresses ways in which a progressive Ásatrú public theology can offer new perspectives on problems of climate change ethics via examination of the modern practice of historically grounded ritual known as blót – a rite that foregrounds reciprocity with the earth, inherent value in the natural world, transtemporal human relationships, global connectedness, and the consequences of human action.

Landscape with a Wanderer by Thomas Fearnley (1830)

In addition to discussing Ásatrú textual sources and examples of ritual, the article engages with recent work in environmental ethics by Willis Jenkins, Michael S. Northcott, and J. Baird Callicott as it offers a new ethical model for responding to issues of climate change.

A new Old Norse religion

Ásatrú is a modern religion that revives/reconstructs/reimagines pre-Christian Germanic religion with emphasis on medieval Icelandic texts. The term Ásatrú is modern Icelandic for “Æsir faith,” belief in or loyalty to the major tribe of Norse gods and goddesses; its earliest known appearance is in N.F.S. Grundtvig’s 1811 Optrin af Norners og Asers Kamp, which uses the Danish form Asatro.1 Practitioners often self-identify as Heathens.2

The term Heathenry refers to the wider world of Germanic polytheism, which includes elements of Anglo-Saxon, continental European, and Scandinavian pre-Christian religions. Lore is an emic term for the wide range of source texts, which include Roman reports, Old Norse poetry, Icelandic sagas, legal codes, medieval literature, nineteenth-century folklore, etc. Blót (“sacrificial worship”) is the central rite in both ancient and modern practice. The specifics of contemporary ritual will be discussed in detail later in this article.

The beginning of the new religious movement can be specifically dated to April 20, 1972,3 when twelve men and women met at Hotel Borg in Reykjavík to discuss a revival of Iceland’s pre-Christian religion and to found the Ásatrúarfélagið (“Ásatrú Fellowship”).4 Officially recognized by the Icelandic government as a religious organization in May 1973,5 the group held the first public blót in Iceland since pagan ritual was outlawed in 1000 CE on either the 1972 summer solstice6 or on August 5, 1973.7

The religion soon spread out from Iceland, and the number of adherents has greatly grown over the past fifty years. The Worldwide Heathen Census 2013 received responses from ninety-eight countries and estimated the total global number of adherents at 36,289.8 As of May 2022, Ásatrúarfélagið membership has increased by more than 41,000 percent since the organization’s founding.9
1 Grundtvig, Poetiske Skrifter, 333.
2 This article uses Heathen to refer to contemporary practitioners of Germanic polytheism and pagan to refer to those of the medieval period and earlier.
3 Berg, “Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson,” 269.
4 Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, email communication.
5 Berg, 270-1.
6 Ibid., 269.
7 “Blótuðu Þór í Úrhellisrigningu,” Vísir.
8 Seigfried, “Worldwide Heathen Census 2013: Results & Analysis.”
9 Ásatrúarfélagið website, “Um Ásatrúarfélagið.”

Ethical competency

If a progressive Ásatrú public theology is to engage with the ongoing discussion of climate change ethics, a basic first point of contact is the question of ethical competency raised by religious studies scholar Willis Jenkins in The Future of Ethics: Sustainability, Social Justice, and Religious Creativity.

Jenkins argues that “[o]ur ethical traditions seem incompetent to the trouble our powers create.”10 Rather than leaving behind “imperfect concepts and incompetent communities,” he attempts “to do ethics in the context of reform projects.”11 In his system, religious ethics of climate change should not be constructed on a ground of worldviews, cosmologies, and “grand stories of human purpose,” but should instead “begin from concrete problems, uncertain traditions, and incompetent communities.”12

Jenkins does not abandon what he views as an “incompetent” North Atlantic Christianity, which “cannot generate an adequate climate ethic,” but asserts that, when a religious tradition “finds itself incompetent to a changing context, religious traditions need reform projects capable of generating new possibilities of action that can be recognized by its members as legitimate interpretations.”13

For Jenkins, the starting point of a Christian climate ethic is therefore an analysis of “how the problem alienates the practice of Christian life from reality.”14 In his work, Jenkins seeks to “interpret the conflicts, uncertainties, and perversions that corrupt Christian ethics,” with the goal that Christian communities recognize how their corrupted ethics “renders uncertain and incompetent their practice of life” and then “may begin to create practices in which it becomes possible to give answer to God for atmospheric powers.”15

This article accepts Jenkins’ concept of necessary ethical competency and asserts that Ásatrú already addresses the specific areas in which he calls for reform. Faced with the problems of climate change, Ásatrú offers focused concepts and competent communities. Rather than working on the reform of “uncertain traditions” that “cannot generate an adequate climate ethic,” this article turns to a religious system well suited to engage with the problem – a religion with a life that already relates to reality in a way that addresses major issues raised by climate change ethicists.

This is not to deny that there are deeply problematic forms of Ásatrú in the United States. Neo-völkisch Ásatrú translates older racialist German völkisch ideology into contemporary racist American “folkish” theology that insists upon race as a deciding factor of religiosity. The core belief that DNA determines spiritual worldview is inextricably bound with the insistence that neo-völkisch Ásatrú is for white people only. The writings and actions of these practitioners have led to international public protests by other Heathens, bans from social media platforms, and inclusion in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s ongoing documentation of hate groups in the United States.16

The progressive Ásatrú public theology forwarded in this article absolutely rejects the neo-völkisch movement and insists on diversity as a fundamental strength of our nation and our religious communities. An emphasis on diversity is a central concern of Thor’s Oak Kindred, the Chicago-based religious organization I lead as goði (“priest”).17 This emphasis emerges not only in the makeup of our membership but also in our theology and practice, as will be discussed below.

In regards to climate change ethics, progressive Ásatrú is largely free of what Jenkins asserts are “the conflicts, uncertainties, and perversions that corrupt Christian ethics,” and its practitioners are both certain and competent in a life-practice that directly engages relationships within the transtemporal human community and with the wider world. Through study of lore and celebration of ritual, the practice of Ásatrú reinforces understanding of reciprocal relationships with the natural world, inherent value of living things, connections to past and future peoples, interrelatedness of all human actors, and consequences of human actions.

This article specifically examines the ritual of blót as a model for addressing multiple problems of climate change ethics.
10 Jenkins, The Future of Ethics, 3.
11 Ibid., 4.
12 Ibid., 19-20.
13 Ibid., 21.
14 Ibid., 23.
15 Ibid.
16 Southern Poverty Law Center website, “Neo-Völkisch.”
17 Thor’s Oak Kindred website, “Kindred.”

The ritual of blót

The basic root of the blót ritual is a reifying of reciprocal relationships between the performer(s) of the rite and the receiver(s). A gifting cycle is established and maintained in which, as the god Odin states in the Old Icelandic poem Hávamál (“Sayings of the High One”), “mutual givers and receivers are friends for longest, if the friendship keeps going well.”18 The word blót and the paired verb blóta (“to sacrifice”) likely have an original meaning of “to strengthen (the god).”19

By making an offering to strengthen the deity, the follower hopes to receive a favor (general or particular) in return. The offering is neither payment nor bribe, but rather an instance of gifting in an ongoing and reciprocal cycle. In Hávamál, Odin emphasizes an ethic of hóf (“moderation”) and reciprocity as he warns his followers that it is “[b]etter not to pray than to sacrifice too much: one gift always calls for another.”20

In the Norse mythological poems written down in thirteenth-century Iceland and collected together in a set now known as the Poetic Edda, the deities themselves hold blót, sometimes to each other and sometimes to themselves. In the poem Hyndluljóð (“Song of Hyndla”), the goddess Freyja says that she will sacrifice (blóta) to the god Thor so that he will grant her request to be friendly to a certain giantess, despite his sworn enmity to the giants.21 In Hávamál, Odin famously sacrifices himself to himself to gain mystic knowledge of the runes.22

The medieval prose narratives (often with interpolated poetry) known as Icelandic sagas were composed after Iceland’s conversion to Christianity but offer detailed accounts of pre-conversion blóts that may have been passed down via oral tradition. Descriptions in these literary sources dovetail with accounts given by continental Christian scribes (with varying degrees of anti-pagan polemic) in their descriptions of interactions between missionaries and the northerners they aimed to convert.

As in the Vedic sacrifice of India, there seems to have been a hierarchical sense of what was to be sacrificed. At one end of the scale, the massive national sacrifice at Uppsala every nine years offered “of every living thing that is male… nine heads”; men, horses, and dogs were among the victims.23 At the other end, the Swabians are said to have made a much more modest “heathen offering” of a cask of beer “to their God Wodan.”24

Today, the great violence of the Uppsala rite is a distant relic of history, and modern blóts tend toward the second example. The most common offerings are of alcoholic beverages – usually beer or mead, often home brewed. Throughout the year, blóts are held as part of a cycle of annual rituals, to celebrate life events, and at a community’s need.
18 Larrington, Poetic Edda, 18.
19 Simek, Dictionary of Northern Mythology, 271.
20 Larrington, 33.
21 Ibid., 246.
22 Ibid., 32.
23 Adam of Bremen, History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen, 208.
24 Jonas of Bobbio, Life of St. Columban, 31-2.

Earth goddess and land spirits

In contrast to the “uncertain traditions” that Jenkins insists “cannot generate an adequate climate ethic,” the central Ásatrú ritual is inherently centered on reciprocity with the world in which we live. Even when the rite is focused on a particular deity or celebratory occasion, the performative act of modern blót is built upon an understanding of human life as directly engaged with the earth and environment.

Although there is a great variety of ritual praxis throughout today’s Heathen world, it is common to open blóts with the Valkyrie’s prayer from the Old Icelandic poem Sigrdrífumál (“Sayings of the Victory-Driver”). The Icelandic Ásatrúarfélagið uses the two verses as a standard ritual element,25 as do many American Ásatrú practitioners.

In the United States, the 1923 translation by Henry Adams Bellows remains popular for ritual use:
2. Hail, day! Hail, sons of day!
And night and her daughter now!
Look on us here with loving eyes,
That waiting we victory win.

3. Hail to the gods! Ye goddesses, hail,
And all the generous earth!
Give to us wisdom and goodly speech,
And healing hands, life-long.26
The earth is addressed in each of these verses, although – as in many of the anonymous works included in the Poetic Edda – the references require a bit of mythological exegesis to uncover.

In verse 2, the second line’s reference to the daughter of night is usually read in light of Snorri Sturluson’s Edda of c. 1220, in which the Icelander states that the earth goddess Jörð (“Earth”) is the daughter of Nótt (“Night”).27 In the second line of verse 3, Bellows translates in fjölnýta fold as “the generous earth,” which could be taken to refer to Jörð. However, the word fold (cognate with English “field”) refers to earth as soil and ground rather than as a concrete deity.

So, whatever the specific occasional context, recitation of the Valkyrie’s prayer focuses the attention of the ritual participants on the earth both as an anthropomorphic goddess who brings success and as a physical field that provides sustenance. In the context of a ritual built on reciprocity of offering and asking, the bipartite grounding in the earth is a central relational component from which the remainder of the rite grows.

This double consciousness of the earth as both deity and material is paralleled by the honoring of the landvættir (“land wights,” “land spirits”) in blót. American Heathen priestess and author Patricia M. Lafayllve states that the landvættir are “spirits of the land, rocks, trees, bodies of water, and so on.”28 This modern Ásatrú conception of inspirited natural objects reflects historical evidence.

The Capitulatio de partibus Saxoniæ, an ordinance issued by the Christian Charlemagne for governance of the pagan Saxons in c. 785, levies monetary fines for making (1) “a vow at springs or trees or groves” or (2) “partak[ing] of a repast in honor of the demons.”29 Reading through the condemnatory language, this seems to refer to Saxon analogues of the pre-conversion Icelandic (1) veneration of land wights and (2) human consumption of the meat offered in blót after the conclusion of the ritual.

Written sources of medieval Iceland portray land wights as living in trees and boulders, as being “closely connected to the land surrounding the farm and the cultivated soil.”30 These beings functioned as “the guardian-spirits of particular areas or localities” who “defended their territory against hostile forces and controlled the welfare of its inhabitants and those who travelled through it.”31 This sense of inspirited place appears to stand behind the outdoor pagan rites anathematized by Charlemagne’s ordinance.

Medievalist Rudolf Simek writes that “the ritual meal of the sacrificial meat can be traced back to Viking Age heathen practices”32 and that “[t]he sacrifice of food was one of the most important forms of sacrifice among Germanic peoples, in which the slaughtered animal was eaten by the sacrificing community.33 This meal as part of the pagan sacrificial rite seems to be what the Capitulatio condemns as “a repast in honor of demons.”

The veneration of land wights and the sacrificial meal both parallel the double sense of spiritual being and material object in the Valkyrie’s prayer. The land wight is paired with the natural location, and the sending of the sacrifice is paired with the eating of the meal. The spiritual world and the physical world are engaged as intrinsically interrelated, as always having been intimately intertwined.

A strong sense of reciprocal relationship with land wights continues in Iceland today, where Ásatrúarfélagið allsherjargoði (“high priest,” leader of the religious organization) Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson relates contemporary Ásatrú practice to the nation’s original settlement:
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.34
Hilmar connects the history of Icelandic landnám (“settlement,” literally “land-taking”), positive relationship with land wights, ritual veneration of land wights in blót, land stewardship for future generations, and direct action in the political sphere. He makes no division between the historical, spiritual, ritual, ecological, and political. To the contrary, all are forwarded together as elements of a unified system of becoming, being, and doing that maintains an interconnection with the earth in the human past, present, and future. This engagement with tripartite temporality will be discussed in more detail below.

Modern Icelanders’ concept of the landvættir sometimes overlaps with that of the álfar (“elves”), an originally distinct type of beings who may have once represented the spirits of departed ancestors. Government road construction projects are still rerouted around boulders believed to be elf homes. In 2012, a member of parliament personally paid to move an enormous stone from the mainland to his residence in the Vestmannaeyjar (Westman Islands) after – according to elf specialist Ragnhildur Jónsdóttir – the elf family that inhabited it saved his life during his car accident in its vicinity.35 In this gratitude to the invisible elves and care for the boulder they are said to inhabit, the double understanding in the Valkyrie’s prayer of the natural world manifesting in both spiritual being and physical object appears in yet another guise.

Underlying these various conceptions of the earth and natural objects is the idea of independent life in the natural world, of conscious creatures that embody or inhabit both animate and inanimate things. The manner in which these beings are honored relates to an Ásatrú ideal of inherent value.
25 Jóhanna G. Harðardóttir, email communication.
26 Bellows, Poetic Edda. 389-90.
27 Snorri Sturluson, Edda, 14.
28 Lafayllve, Practical Heathen’s Guide to Ásatrú, 73.
29 Munro, Translations and Reprints, 2-5.
30 Raudvere, “Popular Religion in the Viking Age,” 237.
31 Perkins, “The Gateway to Trondheim: Two Icelanders at Agdenes,” 196.
32 Simek, 272.
33 Ibid., 271.
34 Seigfried, “Interview with Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, Part Three.”
35 Seigfried, “Elf Kerfuffle in Iceland.”

Offering and inherent value

Lafayllve suggests a variety of items that modern Heathens can offer to land wights in their local vicinity – including milk, butter, beer, mead, cider, honey, oats, barley, fruits, herbs, and vegetables – “particularly during their respective harvesting seasons.”36 The offerings are either natural objects or traditional products made directly from them. Kirk S. Thomas, former Archdruid of Ár nDraíocht Féin: A Druid Fellowship but a pagan theologian much respected by American Heathens,37 emphasizes that offerings to nature deities should not be plucked from natural settings, but “must be something that the giver has a right to give.”38 Lafayllve’s list of offerings underscores this idea; the optimal gift is something that the giver spent time cultivating or crafting from natural ingredients. A secondary option is to purchase these items using one’s own earned income. In either case, the nature of the object offered foregrounds a reciprocal relationship with the natural world that acknowledges the cycle of cultivation, craft, consumption, and gratitude.

This recognition and reinforcement of reciprocal relationships with the natural world offers a conception of inherent value notably different from that found in Michael S. Northcott’s modern classic A Moral Climate. The ethicist and Scottish Episcopal priest argues that “the value of non-human species arises from their having been made by the divine Creator who made them in their myriad diversity as a reflection of the divine nature.”39 The Christian deity implants value into the world through “an act in which intrinsic worth is created by divine freedom and generosity.”40 “From a Christian perspective,”41 as presented by Northcott, the earth and its other-than-human inhabitants have a value that is intrinsic only insofar as it is placed within them by God and as they serve to reflect his divine glory. Respect for the natural world is – through a transitive property – veneration of the Creator, rather than a direct engagement with independent subjects with value that is truly inherent (in the basic sense of being innate to the thing itself).

In contrast, an Ásatrú worldview – as reflected in the ritual of blót – sees the earth, elements of the environment, and “non-human species” as entities with individual agency and inherent value. There is no sense of ex nihilo creation in Heathen lore; the material universe predates the birth of the gods, who themselves are craftsmen and organizers – demiurges, in the original sense – rather than all-powerful creators. Instead, the earth and elements of the natural world are addressed as enchanted and active anthropomorphic beings who have value in and of themselves and with whom we must build relationships of reciprocity. Rather than relating to the natural world as a vessel for the transmission of a creator god’s divinity, the practice of blót reinforces a sense that the earth is an active agent with value intrinsic to its own distinct being.

The land wights, while lesser powers than the earth goddess, are also given veneration in a way that focuses the community’s attention on its multiple levels of connection with its surroundings. The anthropomorphic conceptualization of trees, rivers, and other aspects of the environment necessarily fosters a sense of relationship with active partners that deserve respect. Approaching elements of the world not as things serving as conduits to an outside divinity but rather as beings of inherent worth with which we can interact in the here and now strengthens a relational sense that situates blót participants within a living system of valued agents.

In the blóts of Thor’s Oak Kindred, we regularly honor and offer to the earth goddess Jörð and to the land wights. Our standard ritual form includes addressing an individual power (from Old Norse regin, “[higher] powers”), citing meaningful bynames (secondary names or titles of divine figures), thanking her for her gifts, asking her to continue giving, offering a group hail (a wish for heill, Old Norse “[good] luck, [good] health”), and making an offering of sanctified beer from the ritual drinking horn. As the participants stand around the oak tree dedicated to the god Thor, one of these addresses is performed like this:
Goði: Jörð, earth goddess, giver of plenty, we thank you for the gifts of sustenance you give us, despite our mistreatment of you. We ask that you continue to share your bounty with us as we work to protect you from our own misdeeds. Hail Jörð!

Kindred members: Hail!

Goði drinks from the horn, then pours a draft for Jörð into the soil at the base of the tree.
For Thor’s Oak Kindred, a standard blót includes such individual addresses to an array of figures, including the divine trio Odin, Thor, and Freyja; the cosmic trio Jörð, Sól (“Sun”), and Máni (“Moon”); and the land wights. Given the fact that the Valkyrie’s prayer is recited to begin the blót, the earth is specifically addressed three times – two more times than any other power.

The land wights of the areas inhabited and traveled through by the kindred are specifically honored at blót. In this ritual performance, the community reminds itself of its relationship to the earth and the environment through engagement with the anthropomorphic Jörð and landvættir. Well over two centuries ago, Immanuel Kant wrote that the repeated ritual act of communion
contains within itself something great, expanding the narrow, selfish, and unsociable cast of mind among men, especially in matters of religion, toward the idea of a cosmopolitan moral community; and it is a good means of enlivening a community to the moral disposition of brotherly love which it represents.42
Similarly, by regularly standing together at blót and reaffirming commitment to a reciprocal relationship with Jörð and landvættir, Heathens move beyond solo rituals of devotion – which can tend towards a focus on the desires of the individual – and engage in a group rite promoting the growth of a Kantian moral community that engages with the planet and non-human species in a deeply emotional way. The act of participating in blót promotes a mindset of mindfulness specifically oriented towards respect for the environment. Such direct address obviates the need for Jenkins’ religious reform project; the reorientation of worldview he calls for has always already been hardwired into Heathen ritual.

Parallel processes are evident in Iceland, where the Ásatrúarfélagið’s annual calendar of five major blóts includes Landvættablót, a ritual specifically dedicated to the land wights. Goði Haukur Bragason states that the ceremony’s two central functions are “to keep the land strong and remind the people that we are guests here”.43 The ritual faces both outward (toward a positive relationship with the land) and inward (toward the “moral disposition” of the religious community). Staðgengill Allsherjargoða (“Deputy High Priestess”) Jóhanna G. Harðardóttir underscores the reciprocity of the relationship celebrated at Landvættablót:
We made a contract when the settlers came to Iceland; they [the landvættir] would let us pass and live here, and we would take care of the land and treat it well. The story is told in Landnámabók [“Book of Settlement,” literally “land-taking”]. The landvættir have kept their part of the bargain. It’s a question if we are doing the same. This blót is for them, remembering our deal, thanking them. The blót is for reminding us to do our best, too.44
Jóhanna’s statement on recognition of a reciprocal relationship with the land and a Kantian direction of community attention to moral issues of environmental engagement reflects the dual focus of Landvættablót mentioned by Haukur and the dual function of blót in general discussed above. The reification of reciprocity is grounded in the conception of land wights as distinct entities of agency and value with whom a transgenerational “contract” can be made and regularly reaffirmed. Engagement with the environment emerges from ritual, which itself emerges from worldview; the very identification of land wights as valued agents leads through ritual engagement as covenanted partners to a communal sense of responsibility to the land.

Some Ásatrú practitioners in the United States follow an annual ritual calendar that includes several rites based on the traditional agrarian year of northern Europe, including various versions of Charming of the Plow (“a turning point into the end of winter”), Harvest (“when the final preparations are made for the coming winter”), and Winternights (“at the end of autumn and after all the harvests have been brought in”).45 There is little to suggest that a significant number of American Heathens are full-time farmers, yet the rites are celebrated even by urban practitioners in order to maintain a connection to the earth as a source of sustenance – “the generous earth” of the Valkyrie’s prayer – and to reaffirm respect for those who work with the earth to provide for the needs of others. By incorporating an awareness of regional farming cycles into their scheduling of celebrations, practitioners ritually endorse the emphasis on locally sourced food that has been embraced by environmental activists.
36 Lafayllve, 80.
37 Although written by a Druid, Thomas’ Sacred Gifts is one of only five texts included in the “Suggested Reading List” of Seigfried et al., “Heathen Resource Guide for Chaplains,” written at the request of the United States Department of Defense.
38 Thomas, Sacred Gifts, 74.
39 Northcott, A Moral Climate, 60-1.
40 Ibid., 77-8.
41 Ibid., 60.
42 Kant, Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, 187-8. Emphasis is in the original.
43 Haukur Bragason, personal communication.
44 Jóhanna G. Harðardóttir, email communication.
45 Lafayllve, 193, 199, 203.

Sincere thanks to Prof. Sarah E. Fredericks of the University of Chicago Divinity School for her constructive comments on this article when I was a graduate student in her Climate Change Ethics course. A full bibliography will be posted in Part Two.

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