Thursday, June 20, 2024

Wheel in the Sky

Here in the northern hemisphere, the 2021 summer solstice fell on a Sunday. In Chicago, it was at exactly 10:32 p.m. on a Sunday night.

At 10:43 p.m. on that Sunday, the National Weather Service issued a tornado warning for the Chicagoland area. It was followed by a “Large Severe Thunderstorm Warning” at 10:56 p.m.

Rather than burning a midsummer bonfire or raising a drinking horn around the old oak tree, we marked the turning point of the year while sitting in the basement until 11:30 p.m., when the tornado warning expired.

Oak fractured by lightning, Maxim Vorobiev (1787–1855)

The lightning flashes came so close together, one after another, that the night sky seemed to be continually illuminated by a white light brighter than any spotlight. The thunder was so close and so loud that we could hear glasses rattling in the dishwasher upstairs from the powerful vibrations.

When I snuck upstairs to peek out the window, the heavy rain was pouring down at a steep angle, and the branches of all the neighborhood trees were waving wildly in the powerful wind.

Midsummer thunder

Eight years ago, Thor’s Oak Kindred met for the first time to celebrate midsummer together. Since then, our annual blót celebrating the longest day of the year has been focused on and dedicated to Thor.

Our schedules don’t always work out so that we can meet on the solstice itself. Back in 2021, we planned to gather on the following Saturday for our first in-person blót since the original coronavirus lockdown back in March of the previous year.

Preparing for that year’s event, Thor had been on my mind. The crashing lightning and rolling thunder at the very hour of solstice seemed special.

During that hour, the flashes of light lit up the sky as if Thor were wielding his lightning-hammer to drive the frost giants from Chicago and preserve the summer season. The rolling thunder sounded like the wheels of his enormous goat-drawn wagon rolling across the ground of the clouds.

Do I believe that there was literally an enormous figure in a enormous wagon pulled by enormous goats throwing an enormous hammer at enormous frost giants in the stormy skies over the Second City?

I do not, but there’s more to religion than literal belief in myth as documentary.

Anyone who went through the lower grades of the American public school system (such as it is) has at least a basic and general understanding of the physical workings of storm, lightning, and thunder.

Very loud and very online New Atheists are fond of attacking any who profess the practice of any religion as anti-scientific naïfs who deny the most basic logic and blindly worship invisible sky gods with power over every aspect of existence.

Such strawmannery doesn’t portray my own relationship to the gods of old, and it doesn’t reflect the religious experiences of an uncountable number of practicing people who live in the modern world today.

We didn’t go down to the basement out of a mindless fear that giants were coming to stomp our home to bits and eat us for a late-night snack. We went because our online devices were blaring out urgent warnings from the National Weather Service about tornado activity in the area.

Minds, however, are complicated things. They are eminently capable of simultaneously holding both a scientific understanding and a mythopoetic one.

Myth as metaphor

Children in grade school can eagerly follow their teachers’ presentations about lightning and still be comforted during intense storms by picturing the great protecting thunder god defending their neighborhoods. They seem to have little difficulty holding simultaneous explanations in their heads and can freely move back and forth between them in the space of a single conversation.

Myth and poetry can offer comfort and deepen understanding without being read literally. Embracing religious imagery as metaphor can be a profoundly moving act and one that enriches our fundamental experience of life without any appeal to fundamentalist literalism.

When the thunder shakes the walls of the house, my mind is filled with associations from the Old Icelandic poems, Snorri’s telling of the myths, Grimm’s reporting of folkloric beliefs, Blinkenberg’s analysis of thunder-weapon lore, Davidson’s decoding of poetic metaphor, and a host of more recent retellings, interpretations, theological works, and academic studies.

Experiencing the world through this set of multiple lenses is, for me, at the core of religious life.

We each have a complicated way of framing our personal experience through the intersection of our various identities and varied life events.

An Icelandic myth of Thor shows him impotently smacking a flooding river and commanding it to stop rising. He eventually notices the upstream giantess causing the flood and, as per usual, smites her.

It’s only when the threatening force of nature takes an anthropomorphic form that the god is able to recognize the root cause of the natural event and take meaningful action.

Here is one lesson of the myth: when we feel overwhelmed or frightened by forces beyond our control, thinking of them in metaphorical ways can enable us to engage them more successfully.

The child frightened of the violent thunderstorm is comforted by the idea that the terrifying sounds are made by a protective deity, as reported in the myths and stories they read and hear.

The adult worried about the damage to life and property a tornado may bring is comforted by the idea that humans have had these fears as long as there have been humans, as evidenced by the tapestry of mythology.

Joni and Charles

As we sat in the basement and told tales of Thor, as he thundered overhead at the exact moment of the solstice we celebrate by honoring him, I was reminded of some of my favorite words penned by Joni Mitchell.

They occur not in a song lyric, but in the liner notes to Mingus, her 1979 collaboration with the great bassist, pianist, vocalist, and composer Charles Mingus.

She writes:
Charles Mingus, a musical mystic, died in Mexico, January 5, 1979, at the age of 56. He was cremated the next day. That same day 56 sperm whales beached themselves on the Mexican coastline and were removed by fire. These are the coincidences that thrill my imagination.
I think about that last line a lot.

“These are the coincidences that thrill my imagination.”

Letting our imaginations run free to thrill in the coincidences of life, giving ourselves permission to be both believers in science and followers of dreams, feeling a jump in our hearts when we hear Thor in the summer solstice storm – these things, too, are part of religion.

These things, too.

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

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