Thursday, November 2, 2023

On a Viking Ship: Interview with Stephanie Smith Pasculli

In 2010, construction of the ship known as the Draken Harald Hårfagre began under the curation of Norwegian businessman Sigurd Aase. Scandinavian historians, ship builders, craftspeople, and artists collaborated to build the Draken on the model of the greatest long ships of the Viking Age, basing their work on archaeological finds, traditional techniques, written descriptions from the Icelandic sagas, and a range of other historical material.

Stephanie blows the horn aboard the Draken Harald Hårfagre (Photo: Stephanie Smith Pasculli)

Named for Harald Fairhair, the first king of Norway, the oak ship is 115 feet long and 26 feet wide, with a 3,200-square-foot silk sail and a 79-foot mast of Douglas fir. It has an 8-foot 2-inch draft, displaces 80 tons, can reach a top speed of 14 knots, and took more than 10,000 nails to build. It is the largest Viking ship built in modern times, with room for one hundred oarsmen on twenty-five pairs of oars.

Trial sailing of the Draken took place off the Norwegian coast in 2012 and 2013. In 2014, the ship sailed between Haugesund, Norway and Liverpool, England.

In 2016, the ship sailed from Haugesund across the North Atlantic Ocean to the United States, with stops in the Shetland Islands, Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland, and Canada. The goal was to reproduce the travels of Leif Eiríksson around the year 1000 CE.

In 2018, the ship made a tour of the East Coast of the United States, with stopovers from Mystic Seaport, Connecticut through Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Washington DC.

Last year, the Draken was docked at the Mystic Seaport Museum as it underwent maintenance and repairs. Stephanie Smith Pasculli was one member of the volunteer crew doing that work.

I first met Stephanie many years ago, when she was an adult student in two of my continuing education courses – one on Norse mythology and one on the mythic sources of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. We’ve been friends ever since. She’s a founding member of Thor’s Oak Kindred, the diverse Ásatrú organization I lead in Chicago, and she’s been an absolute inspiration in many areas of this life we live.

Now living in Norwalk, Connecticut, Stephanie was raised in the northwest Seattle area and the surrounding Cascade and Olympic Mountain ranges, where she spent time camping, snowboarding, and motorcycling.

She’s lived and worked in Oregon, California, Illinois, Massachusetts, and New York. She’s been a visual manager in retail for over twenty years with a twelve-year break in the middle for more education and to run her own business designing and building small structures (treehouses, cabins, barns) and theatrical works (sets, props, parade floats, costumes).

She earned her BA at Smith College while in her thirties, minoring in Medieval Studies with a focus on Old English and runes while majoring in Studio Art with a digital media focus. As a year-round rower, she jokes that she actually majored in crew.

When I asked Stephanie if she wanted to add anything to this amazing list of interesting things about herself, she answered, “I am a mother, and it is amazing.”

Stephanie working on the Draken (Photo: Erik Petersen)

KS – When did you first set foot on the Draken?

Stephanie Smith Pasculli – The Draken came to Chicago’s waterfront in July of 2016 on their Expedition America 2016 – departing from Norway in April – and I was exuberantly in line on the very first day, after following her construction for years. I remember being so excited that it was raining, as it held off the droves and bought my family and I more time onboard.

KS – How did you get selected to join the volunteer crew?

SSP – On Draken Harald Hårfagre’s Facebook page there was a post seeking applicants for a volunteer maintenance crew needed at Mystic Seaport last March. That post was shared 593 times, with hundreds of applicants resulting.

I was not chosen at first, and though I was not surprised, I admit to some graceful open weeping. But I did write back with my promise that if any spot were to open up, I would be there immediately. A spot did open up, and I was there.

KS – What were your duties on the ship?

SSP – Every day, what was needed was different. We hauled out twelve tons of ballast stones one by one. We scraped the dirt and grit out of the tar inside the 115-foot ship. We scrubbed every inch and went back to scrape and scrub some more.

We filled any possible cracks with Boracol [a mixture of borax and glycol], we repainted under the waterline, retarred everywhere and everything remaining – including the 79-foot Douglas fir mast, the rigging, and the smaller sailboat kept on the Draken, charmingly referred to as Baby Draken.

Joyfully, I also took turns making coffee for fika [Swedish coffee break custom], scrubbing the bathroom at Mystic Seaport’s staff lounge area, and jumped into a live classroom video tour for grade school children without notice. Whatever, whenever!

KS – How have your experiences onboard deepened your understanding of the Viking Era?

SSP – Two weeks on the Draken brought subtle openings of understanding, as did being around members of the crew who sailed across the Atlantic.

The ship showed me how hair blown loose in coastal winds embeds into the tar, the pure quantity of strikes it takes to replace one nail, the stiff and surprisingly intense weight of tarred hemp rope.

The crew’s stories of breaking masts, wild storms and racing through icy waters at night forced on by a single, mammoth sail brought another level of understanding. Their comradery, stout spirits, perpetual humor, and absolute commitment to doing what needs to be done easily illuminated for me the quality of character quintessential of earlier times.

Stephanie and friends next to the Draken (Photo: Stephanie Smith Pasculli)

KS – How do you identify in terms of spiritual identity and practice?

SSP – I feel like a nature-based spiritual person who is in the current of an ancient Pagan pulse, as it were. I was raised meditating with an understanding of an essential connectedness and all the ways it lives through the people of the world.

On a trip to the British Isles in my mid-twenties, however, I felt a startlingly physical reaction to a site I learned later was used for Pagan rituals. After returning to the US, I immediately began to research this experience and Paganism for the first time. I ended up attracting beautiful friends and teachers to delve into the earth’s rhythms and magic with, and this experience became my tuning fork for recreating connectedness and personal potentiality.

Decades passed with new friends and teachers weaving into my world, all deepening an ever-widening spiral. California brought time with Starhawk in her Earth Activist permaculture training, Massachusetts revealed the incredibly special Earth Spirit community, and Chicago brought my dear friend, Dr. Karl Seigfried and the Thor’s Oak Kindred blóts and community. All of these continue to be a gift to my soul.

KS – Where do you find yourself spiritually today in relation to where you were when you first came to Paganism?

SSP – When I first came to Paganism, it was 1995 and I didn’t have the internet! It was a while ago!

I only had a feeling in my body and the term druid to research at the library, dictionary, even the phone book, as I had nowhere else to search. I eventually found two books at the University of Washington’s library, and soon after, my people found me. It was the perfect beginning.

We were a small, diligent, magical group who worked together, lovingly and powerfully. Through subsequent years of moving and widening webs, I’ve come to feel much looser and yet stronger spiritually. I see so many ways to connect naturally and globally now, and as years pass with each season absorbed and treasured, my own seasons have a richness and humor too.

Through it all though, my connection to my parents’ Scandinavian roots is raising its head, I must say. I am able to identify more and more that note in my core, and it is awesome.

Stephanie gets into it aboard the Draken (Photo: Erik Petersen)

KS – In a video for fifth grade schoolchildren, you described the Draken as “a sacred site” and “a sacred vessel.” Can you expand on that?

SSP – I can only say what is sacred to me, of course, and what I believe that means. We are all different, but to me, the amount of energy that is imbued in and emanates from the Draken is visceral.

There is the honest intention of all the sweat, soul, and spirit poured for years into its creation. There is the vibrancy of the world’s imagination set loose upon the dark waves. There is the ancestral heartbeat that has found a new hull to ring through for the first time in a thousand years.

The Draken literally hums with power, and you can see it a mile away. To step aboard sings in your feet, and if you are able to sit on the deck with your back nestled into the hull, you feel as if a wild and powerful goddess is smiling down at you specifically.

KS –Were there other Pagans working on the ship?

SSP – There were other Pagans on the ship, for sure. Conversations were natural and simple, as Ásatrú blended in with everyday comments and banter. References to Odin or little jokes involving the Norse pantheon in a sweet and knowing way felt like a type of shorthand for sharing glimpses of the sacred together, while also getting our work done before the rains came.

KS –Since 2018, the Draken crew has collaborated with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography by taking microplastic samples to help measure oceanic distribution of microplastics. Do you see a connection between your spirituality and this sort of environmental work?

SSP – I feel any movement at all towards the health of the earth is direct service to the spiritual sacred.

The crew of the Draken’s efforts and commitment to this research put more light on the term oceanic distribution of microplastics. Because they cared and acted, it is in our conversation today.

To me, environmental work is spirituality on its feet.

Stephanie on the Draken Harald Hårfagre (Photo: Stephanie Smith Pasculli)

KS – This isn’t your first experience with “living history.” Can you describe your participation in Society for Creative Anachronism battle events?

SSP – Oh, the fighting! I love the fighting. I laugh to myself at my love for the Draken. I’m not a sailor, yet! I am a builder and a rower and a fighter who just needs a boat to get her there!

So yes, the SCA is an incredible worldwide organization where folks involve themselves in all aspects of culture before 1600. We do not reenact or pretend to be others; we embody and engage in the activities as closely as possible, and everyone is a participant.

My focus is “heavy list fighting,” specifically sword and shield as my primary weapon form for tournaments and small melees. For larger melees or all-out wars – hundreds against hundreds – I also fight with a spear. The weapons are rattan and are not padded, so all combatants must wear very extensive armor and be officially authorized to participate.

There are no divisions of gender, weight or age in combat, and the diversity of character and weapon type is astounding. I’ve been fighting for fifteen years, and it is soul fire.

KS – Is there a relationship between your fighting in these battles and your spiritual practice?

SSP – Absolutely! But how to describe it? It is an intoxicating mix of complete focus due to the danger at hand, the celebration of survival, and the deep awareness of my ancestors’ engagement with aggression as both sacrifice and conqueror.

There breathes my male and female, my Týr losing my hand into the mouth of Fenrir for others, my strategy striding into a swirl of chaos, my conversation with the violent aggression in me that has a place to shine.

So many fighters call it “stick therapy.” Maybe those are the best words.

KS – I’ve long thought that you personally exude a deeply spiritual presence during the blót rites of Thor’s Oak Kindred, and you always have wonderfully moving things to say around the oak tree and over the drinking horn. Outside of ritual, are there other moments in your life where you feel similar a connection to the divine?

SSP – Ritual keeps finding her way in!

One exercise in Starhawk’s Earth Activist Training I took away and kept close was a four-part grounding technique. We visualized a location where we felt naturally grounded, we said a grounding word aloud, we touched a place on our bodies that centered us, we breathed it all in to root ourselves. The purpose was to build tools to center ourselves amidst the chaos that can happen in activist work. I also found it useful in the family!

The goal was that repeated use of these tools would abbreviate them to provide the same level of grounding with just one quick word or touch. All that is to say that, fifteen years later, a yummy smell from an uprooted tree may prompt a moment to connect and go deeper as I’m walking down the sidewalk.

But the moon though, she stops me in my tracks almost every time. The moon probably lives as my most fluid conduit. That is why she is tattooed on my arms. I have my heart on my sleeve! Along with two Viking ships.

KS – In academic study of religions, the concept of “lived religion” focuses on a dynamic understanding of religiosity that “reconsider[s] American religious history in terms of practices that are linked to specific social contexts.” How has your religious practice intersected with your understanding of yourself as a participant in contemporary American culture?

SSP – I honestly wrestle with how my religious beliefs intersect with my participation in modern America.

I make choices for the environment and spirit – like our family’s vegetarianism, home-based food production, lack of screen time, and political actions ­– but I have work to do here.

Professionally, I work in an environment which drives the perpetual spring modality. It values new growth on top of new growth. Youth is the goal. Maiden is the only goddess.

In my heart and home, we observe and value all seasons, the waning and the waxing, the Mother and Crone. We value the decline, the death, and the rest as much as life itself. This full cycle is sustainable.

So there is tension and yet some progress. We didn’t have free-range chickens three years ago, and they are now the comedy and pride of our typical suburban neighborhood.

KS – Thank you for sharing your experiences and insights with us!

SSP – I am truly deeply humbled and honored to talk with you. Thank you.

An earlier version of this article appeared at The Wild Hunt.

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