Thursday, July 7, 2022

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

Click here for Part One of the article.

Transtemporal care

In addition to thinking with the planet, to focusing on a landvættir ethic and a Jörð ethic, Heathen ritual addresses issues of scale raised by American philosopher J. Baird Callicott in Thinking Like a Planet: The Land Ethic and the Earth Ethic. In the conclusion to his book, Callicott discusses questions of relationships between generations near and distant in connection to the climatic consequences of current actions. His own personal emotional investment of care is centered on his son, grandson, and possible great-grandchildren – those individuals with whom he has or is likely to have intimate relationships. “After about a century,” however, his “personal stake in the state of the world begins to fade and its demographic composition is presently indeterminate.”46 He asserts that “[e]thics is scale sensitive” and that “[t]here is a temporal limit to care.”47

Souvenir of the Kanawha, Western Virginia by William Sheridan Young (c. 1860)

Taking this position leads Callicott to ask, “Can one really care that in about a million years the human species will, one way or another, become extinct?”48 To address the problem of individual disconnectedness of interest from possible peoples in the far future – the difficulty of “car[ing] for something so abstract as indeterminate distant future generations considered holistically or collectively”49 – he suggests “global human civilization” as the object of care, setting a future temporal limit of five thousand years based on a past cultural history of the same time length.50 “Global civilization,” he concludes, “can serve as a surrogate for Unknown Future generations because it is scaled proportionately to the effects of our present actions on the global climate.”51

The Norse mythology that constitutes an important part of the conceptual background for modern Ásatrú provides a tripartite concept of temporality that undergirds modern blót practice and an embedded Heathen response to Callicott’s questions of transtemporal care. The Old Icelandic poem Völuspá (“Prophecy of the Seeress”) tells of three maidens who come from the water beneath the World Tree:
From there come girls, knowing a great deal,
three from the lake standing under the tree;
Urd one is called, Verdandi another—
they carved on a wooden slip—Skuld the third;

they laid down laws, they chose lives
for the sons of men, the fates of men.52
Paraphrasing these lines, Snorri Sturluson writes, “These maidens shape men’s lives. We call them norns.”53 Connected to both water and trees, sources of life in the myths and important carbon sinks in the environment, the three norns have individual names derived from verbs related to the act of becoming. Urðr and Verðandi are both connected to the verb verða (“to become”) and so can be interpreted as, respectively, “what has become” and “what is becoming.” Skuld parallels the verb skulu (“shall, must”) and, taken together with the other two, can be read as “what must become.” It is an oversimplification to translate these names as “past, present, and future,” since their implicit temporality is paired with implications of both emergent action and necessary causality. These significations are echoed in the modern blót rite as practitioners speak over the ritual drinking horn.

The Ásatrú practice of blót builds a concept of care in three temporal directions: sideways, backward, and forward. The ritual life of the religion nurtures a sense of both intra- and intergenerational solidarity, answering a need articulated by Pope Benedict XVI in his popular 2015 encyclical on the environment:
Beginning in the middle of the last century and overcoming many difficulties, there has been a growing conviction that our planet is a homeland and that humanity is one people living in a common home. An interdependent world not only makes us more conscious of the negative effects of certain lifestyles and models of production and consumption which affect us all; more importantly, it motivates us to ensure that solutions are proposed from a global perspective, and not simply to defend the interests of a few countries. Interdependence obliges us to think of one world with a common plan.54
As detailed above, the blót ritual reinforces a conception of the earth not only as a homeland or physical field but also as an anthropomorphic goddess with whom the human community has an interdependent reciprocal relationship. Despite the racist proclamations of neo-völkisch Ásatrú, the lore studied by modern practitioners does not suggest that the earth was gifted by the gods to any specific group of any particular race, ethnicity, or nationality. A progressive Ásatrú worldview is built upon a mythology that tells of a World Tree spreading its branches over all lands and a World Serpent threatening all peoples. The “global perspective” for which Pope Francis argues is already built into Ásatrú, and it is expanded within blót to embrace interdependency across time as well as space.

The sideways temporal relationship exists between current Ásatrú practitioners as they relate to each other. The small-group kindred structure of American Ásatrú is centered on the concept that members are “kindred by choice,” that they willfully join together in constructed kinship. This creates relations of “elective affinities” as practitioners – largely adults and young adults who come to Ásatrú as a consciously chosen religion, rather than an inherited family one – “embrace a sense of kinship… that stem[s] from affinities ‘of mind and soul.’”55 Standing together in blót, kindred members share intimate accounts of their lives and concerns, particularly in the portion of the rite dedicated to ancestor veneration (see below).

American practitioners largely come to Ásatrú after being raised in other, most often Christian, religious traditions. The kindred setting empowers them to speak openly about relationships and issues that may be verboten within their own families and familial religious structures. The membership of Thor’s Oak Kindred has included trans, gay, and adopted individuals, as well as individuals either estranged from parents or with parents who have never been present in their lives. The kindred’s ritual setting creates a supportive space in which members can speak more openly than they may be able to in family situations. By embracing elective kinship, practitioners forcefully reject the theology Pope Francis injects into his environmental encyclical to attack transgender people and those making feminist arguments56 as he apparently connects them with the “negative effects of certain lifestyles” mentioned above.

Participants in blót regularly share deeply emotional and private information when they speak during the ancestral portion of the ritual. Doing so serves to build a wider circle of the “intimate relationships” that Callicott speaks of exclusively in connection to blood relations and strengthens the sideways temporal relationship among the members who stand together during the rite. This expands a strong feeling of reciprocal responsibility beyond merely one’s own original family and opens the individual to a broader concept of care and connection, as will be discussed below. In addition, this segment of blót stresses more than only the sideways connections.

The backward temporal relationship is clearly foregrounded during the section of blót focused on the veneration of ancestors. Concepts of ancestry vary greatly, but American practitioners generally take a broad view of who can be honored as an ancestor. In Thor’s Oak Kindred, the category of ancestor includes deceased family members with whom one has a personal connection (parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, etc.), more distant family relations (such as unknown family members who immigrated to the United States), larger ancestral groups (in one case, a particular kin group in Ireland), aspirational ancestors (including Germanic tribes of the Roman Era), and those who are kindred by choice (close family friends, for example).

In addition to addressing such individuals and groups from across a wide racial and ethnic spectrum, participants have hailed as ancestors a diverse range of figures who are not directly related to the speakers, including African-American victims of police brutality, Asian-Americans killed in hate crimes, LGBTQ+ activists who founded social movements, casualties of HIV/AIDS and COVID-19, journalists who stood up to powerful political forces, and early environmental activists. In each instance, the speaker expressed a strong sense of connection to the deceased person or people, often evoking similar feelings in the other participants.

This expansive conception of the ancestor category serves to further develop the participants’ concept of care, to broaden the embrace of connectedness in ever-expanding temporal and spatial circles. Such communal growth is strengthened by the fact that this portion of the blót is more participatory than the opening hailing of the Powers. The ritual drinking horn is passed around the circle, and each kindred member addresses their chosen figure(s) like this:
Participant: I raise this horn to all the Syrian refugees who have died while seeking better lives for themselves and their loved ones, from two-year-old Alan Kurdi lying on the sand to the elders lost in the waters. As the son of a refugee, I understand the horrors that drive people from their homes and the necessity that sends them onto dangerous paths. We have failed you, and we must work together to help those who even now have embarked on attempts to escape terrifying situations. Hail to the fallen refugees from Syria!

Other kindred members: Hail!

Participant drinks from the horn, then pours a draft for the Syrian refugees into the soil at the base of the tree.
Given the diversity of the individual participants and the openness of the ancestral concept, the turn to the ancestors crosses all constructed lines of race, ethnicity, and class as it moves beyond both Callicott’s allegiance to close blood relations and his care for faceless “global human civilization.”

Several years ago, an African-American Heathen member of Thor’s Oak Kindred hailed Thorhall the Huntsman, a member of Eirik the Red’s crew who sailed to North America around the year 1000. A resolute pagan in the age of Nordic Christian conversion, Thorhall “had paid scant heed to the faith [of Christianity] since it had come to Greenland. Thorhall was not popular with most people.”57 As a black man practicing Ásatrú in mostly white and mostly Christian southeast Wisconsin, the kindred member felt a deep kinship with the stubborn pagan who clashed with Eirik’s Christian crew. For this modern practitioner, an engagement with the lore led to a personal connection with an individual distant in time and place that was subsequently celebrated in the multicultural (African-American, Mexican-American, Guyanese-American, German-American, etc.) and intergenerational (toddler to middle-aged) setting of the group blót.

The expansiveness of this view of ancestry nurtures the ability of participants to deeply empathize with ethnically and spatially “other” people, including those who are often on the front lines of the extreme weather events generated by climate change. The wider the concept of community becomes, the more one feels connected to and responsible for distant peoples.

The backward temporal relationship leads to a forward one. Radcliffe-Brown’s analysis of this turn in “primitive society” can also be applied to modern Ásatrú practice:
For in the rites of commemoration of the ancestors it is sufficient that the participants should express their reverential gratitude to those from whom they have received their life, and their sense of duty towards those not yet born, to whom they in due course will stand in the position of revered ancestors. There still remains the sense of dependence. The living depend on those of the past; they have duties to those living in the present and to those of the future who will depend on them.58
By regularly focusing on the dependency of the present on the past, Heathens internalize a sense of kinship (literal and symbolic) with a deep past that simultaneously builds a sense of responsibility for the deep future. Studying a lore that includes rock carvings from approximately 2000 BCE connects modern Heathens to an ancient tradition across time; studying scholarship that places Germanic languages in the context of a wider Indo-European “family tree” connects them to a cross-cultural network across space.

This process of expanding understanding of dependency and responsibility moves far beyond Callicott’s “personal stake in the state of the world” based on relationships of blood and his abstract concept of deculturated “global human civilization.” By foregrounding connections to a broad and deep past in group ritual, Ásatrú praxis inculcates a conception of connection to a broad and deep future.

As practitioners peer ever farther into the prehistory of their religion – whether in study of reconstructed Proto-Indo-European linguistic roots, examination of the oldest human art objects, or consideration of the earth's origins through the lens of Norse mythology – they come to see themselves as nodes in a branching network that extends into distant pasts and futures that are equally unknowable yet feel equally connected. In this context, Callicott's setting of the temporal limit of care at five thousand years seems somewhat myopic.
46Callicott, Thinking Like a Planet, 297.
47Ibid., 298.
49Ibid., 302.
50Ibid., 298-9.
51Ibid., 302.
52Larrington, 6.
53Snorri Sturluson, 18.
54Pope Francis and McDonagh, On Care for Our Common Home, 225. Emphasis in the original.
55Penny, Kindred by Choice, xi-xii. The subjects are Germans and their relationships with Native Americans, but the concept maps well onto American Ásatrú.
56Ibid., 221-222.
57The Sagas of Icelanders, 666.
58Radcliffe-Brown, Structure and Function in Primitive Society, 176.

From lore to ritual

Theological readings of the lore reinforce this concept of community with both past and future. The Vita Vulframmi on the life of the missionary Wulfram of Sens tells of the pagan Frisian ruler Radbod pulling back on the verge of being baptized. When Radbod asks Wulfram if his forefathers await him in the Christian heaven and is told that, as pagans, they are surely damned, he replies, “I cannot abandon my ancestors and the fellowship of all the greatest men of the Frisian people… I would rather remain in the places that have been reserved for me and all the Frisian nation from time immemorial.”59 Radbod’s sense of connection to those who came before him overrides any desire for a promised afterlife of heavenly bliss.

A similar dismissal of newly arrived afterlife ideas appears in the voice of the god Odin in the medieval Icelandic Hávamál, likely composed during the years of pagan interaction with Christian missionaries and converts:
Cattle die, kinsmen die, the self dies the same, but the glory of reputation never dies for the one who gets himself a good one.60
This suggests that the judgment of future generations on those now living mattered deeply to early pagans. As Radbod’s feeling of dependence on past generations trumps desire for individual access to paradise, Odin’s feeling of responsibility to future generations trumps desire for the survival of an individual soul.

The contrast between pagan and Christian conceptions of the future is made explicit in the Anglo-Saxon Christian poem The Wanderer, which contains a verse parallel to the one attributed to Odin (the connections are even clearer in the original languages) with a theologically significant change to the punch line:
Here wealth is temporary, here a friend is temporary, here oneself is temporary, here a kinsman is temporary; all this foundation of the earth will become worthless!61
Where the focus of the pagan poet is on the time-transcending importance of one’s deeds for later generations, the Christian poet brushes aside all earthly things as “worthless.” The pagan worldview presented stresses the relationship between current and future generations, while the Christian worldview expressed denigrates any relationship whatsoever with the world itself.

The pagan emphasis on the importance of the deep future’s view of the actions of today’s individuals appears in statements such as the Saga of the Volsungs aside that the hero Sigurð’s “name is known in all tongues north of the Greek Ocean, and so it must remain while the world endures.”62 It also appears in the Old Norse doomsday myth of Ragnarök, which includes a postscript about the inhabitants of the far future time cycle after the earth has been renewed following the massive cosmic cataclysm:
Then they will all sit down together and talk and discuss their mysteries and speak of the things that happened in former times, of the Midgard serpent and Fenriswolf. Then they will find in the grass the golden playing pieces that had belonged to the Æsir.63
In this melancholy passage, there is an emotional sense of longing (at least for Heathen readers) for a connection with our far distant and unknowable descendants, a hope that they will think of us with kindness and forgive the poor choices we continue to make. As in the saga statement about Sigurð, the scope of that hope extends to the farthest future of humanity.

This heartfelt bond with future people also appears in the oath-poem performed as part of the Icelandic Ásatrú ritual of the Landvættablót, as described by Jóhanna G. Harðardóttir:
One special thing we always chant at these blóts is Tryggðamál [“Peace Guarantee Speech,” a medieval Icelandic “ode… about [how] you will keep your word as long as the earth revolves, snow falls, a ship sails, and a Finn skis”64] – a very holy and beautiful text.

While fire burns,
Earth is fertile,
A child (which can speak) calls upon its mother
And mother gives birth to her offspring,
Men light fires,
A ship glides,
Shields flash,
Sun shines,
Snow falls,
The Finn skis,
Fir grows,
The falcon flies
On a spring day,
The breeze carries him
Under both wings,
The heavens revolve,
The world is settled,
Wind blows,
Waters fall into the ocean,
Men sow their seeds (of corn).65
Including a performance of this particular text in this particular blót – the ritual dedicated to remembering and thanking the land spirits and to “reminding us to do our best” – focuses the attention of the participants on the far future while simultaneously (via the poetry) celebrating the continuity and connectedness of life across vast stretches of time and (via the oath) emphasizing and sacralizing the responsibility of the present generation to those yet to come. In addition, the recitation of the text connects human and natural worlds in a tapestry of “the eternal things,” or at least those things hoped to be eternal.

Callicott asks, “Can one really care that in about a million years the human species will, one way or another, become extinct?” Heathen ritual and use of texts suggests that we can, and that we can share and encourage that care with others in our person-to-person communities. The care thus generated and strengthened can be deeply moving in a way that an intellectual commitment to “global human civilization” may not be.
59Caciola, Afterlives, 11-12.
60Seigfried, “The Wanderer: An Old English Poem.”
62Byock, Saga of the Volsungs, 72.
63Snorri Sturluson, 56.
64Seigfried, “Interview with Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, Part Two.”
65Jóhanna G. Harðardóttir, email communication.

The web of wyrd

The above discussion shows that a broad spatial conception is accompanied by a broad temporal conception in Ásatrú as a lived religion. Callicott has suggested that the “protracted global scale” of climate change provides a challenge to ethics that is poorly addressed by a turn to moral paradigms of the past:
Giving equal consideration to the equal interests of billions of spatially and temporally distant moral patients appears to be absurd to all but a few moral philosophers willing to embrace the implications, carried to their logical extremes, of a moral paradigm, constructed in a time when people lived in actual villages, not a global village.66
Perhaps Callicott simply is looking to the wrong past. Germanic tribes of the Migration Age and Nordic peoples of the Viking Age – two broad historical groups that provide much of the cultural background of modern Ásatrú and Heathenry – are notable for their far-ranging travels, their contacts with many other societies, and their cultural exchange of everything from art styles to religious concepts. The idea of a global village existed long before Marshall McLuhan popularized it, and it has a modern life within the rite of blót.

The tripartite temporal connections in Ásatrú ritual intersect with planet-wide spatial connections through the concept of wyrd, a theological construction built on Old English and Old Norse models. Wyrd encompasses ideas of action and fate, and it centers on the belief that actions taken in the past determine what destiny awaits in the future.67 There are linguistic and conceptual connections to the norns discussed above; in Old Icelandic sources, the same word appears as the name of the norn whose name can be interpreted as “what has become” (Urðr) and as a term for "fate" (urðr). Together, these two usages reinforce the idea that past deeds set the parameters for future possibilities.

In an Ásatrú conception of wyrd, the actions of an individual’s ancestors determine what paths are open to her, and her own actions modify those possible paths for good or ill; they work on her personal wyrd. Yet her wyrd is also modified by the wyrd of every person with whom she comes into contact – from family, friends, and colleagues to people she meets once on the street. Her wyrd is also affected by the wyrds of all those who interact with the people she herself engages. This complicated branching of causality is known among Heathens as “the web of wyrd.”

Reinforced by the emphasis on wide-ranging relationships in blót, the wyrd concept builds an awareness of interconnectivity between far-off actors – an acknowledgment, for example, that our consumer choice to burn fossil fuels has profound consequences for families in areas already experiencing traumatic effects of climate change. A conception of the global workings of the web of wyrd through both our personal stories and our multitudinous impacts upon the world is reflected in the common Heathen statement that “we are our deeds.”68

For practitioners of Ásatrú, there is an understanding of the relationship between action and consequence – an understanding that counters Callicott’s claim that the “protracted global scale” of climate change cannot be addressed by moral systems built upon ancient paradigms. By studying ancient lore and reifying its concepts in ritual, practitioners of Ásatrú build an understanding of the interrelatedness of all human actors.

Wyrd is often specifically invoked in blót, especially in making a connection between the drink in the ritual horn and the water where the norns meet and choose “the fates of men.” In her recommendations for designing rites, Lafayllve uses several variations of this invocation, such as in her instructions for a blót to the goddess Frigg (here called Frigga):
When the horn returns to you, offer up your own words of prayer and thanks. Then place your hand over the horn.

SAY: Wealful words have been whispered over the waters of the Well, where they will form their own layer in wyrd. Wishes offered, thanks given, we share this drink now with Frigga.69
There is a commonly held Ásatrú conception that what is said in blót alters the wyrd of the rite’s participants. The speech act in ritual is accepted as a real action, with all the implications of effect upon the individual, the practitioners present, and the more distant individuals connected via wyrd and its associated liquid. By clearly acknowledging the workings of wyrd during the blót, participants indeed use paradigms of the past as the basis for a modern moral system that addresses Callicott’s “protracted global scale.”

As I write this, we are still weighing the ramifications of the Supreme Court of the United States announcing a decision that severely hampers the ability of the Enivronmental Protection Agency to regulate climate-changing carbon emissions. The Heathen ideal of weighing the wider implications of one’s words and deeds – and considering the consequences even for those we will never meet – seems very attractive today.
66Callicott, 282.
67Seigfried, “Wyrd Will Weave Us Together.”
68Wódening, We Are Our Deeds.
69Lafayllve, 182.

Opening a space

Ásatrú lore provides guidelines and examplars, not rules or commandments. These models can suggest innovative ways of thinking about and relating to climate change. As this article has argued, the ritual of blót, recognition of reciprocity with the earth, appreciation of inherent value in the natural world, conception of transtemporal relationships, and wyrd theory of interconnectedness and consequences of human action all serve to build individual and community understanding of issues that have challenged previous ethics of climate change.

Despite coming from a minority, marginalized, and misunderstood religion, these ways of engaging in a ritual context with issues raised by climate change ethicists can provide possible paths forward for members of other faith traditions. In particular, religious leaders who are seeking additional ways to involve their communities with environmental issues may find some inspiration for their own ministerial work while changing and adapting the specific elements to fit the theology and praxis of their respective religions.

Exactly how the Ásatrú model can be modified to fit other religious traditions is up to the creativity of the adapters. In academic and interfaith settings, Heathens are regularly expected to knowledgeably discuss the core concepts of other, more populous and powerful faiths. For members of those dominant religions, it may be a fruitful exercise to engage with ideas from a progressive Ásatrú perspective.

In the field of ethics, I hope that this article will open a space in the discussion of climate change for practitioners of Ásatrú to inhabit. Jenkins begins his introduction to The Future of Ethics by writing that “[e]thics seems imperiled by unprecedented problems.”70 If this is so, any voice from a heretofore unrecognized perspective with something meaningful to say regarding the critical problems of climate change should be made welcome.
70Jenkins, 1.


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