Sunday, December 31, 2023

Art Contest – Adult Winners, Midwinter 2023

Here are the adult winners! This year's Midwinter Art Contest celebrates the tenth anniversary of our international Norse Mythology Art Contest here at The Norse Mythology Blog. We received many amazing entries from around the world in the adult division this year, and it was very difficult to choose between them.

You can view the winning work in the teen division and check out comments from the judges by clicking here.

I'd again like to thank my fellow judge Lee Carter (UK artist for 2000 AD, Judge Dredd Megazine, and many other great comics). This contest would not have been possible without his kind donation of time and insight.

The assignment was to create a piece that somehow relates to the character and legends of the Norse gods and goddesses and the celebration of midwinter. There was a really wide range of conceptual and technical approaches in the adult group this year, and it was very hard for us to rank them. Congratulations to all who entered! We are very thankful for all the artists who shared their creativity with us.

Note: You can click on the art to see a larger version.

FIRST PLACE (TIE)
Nordhild Siglinde Wetzler
Age 25
Småland, Sweden

Nordhild explains her winning entry:
When the days get to their darkest point, we brighten them by spending time with the ones who are closest to us. That doesn't just mean family and friends but also the ones who deserve our time and attention the most – our pet companions. I imagine this is the same even for gods and goddesses, who surely have even more busy schedules than us.

It was hard to find straightforward information connecting Freyja to Yule, but – having two cats myself – I felt most drawn to her. With her being the goddess of love and fertility, I feel those are two things closely related to Yule, which is about the love we have for the ones around us as well as the rebirth that midwinter stands for.

I imagined her sitting in her hall Fólkvangr, surrounded by her pets, enjoying an apple and perhaps waiting for the first guests to arrive to celebrate midwinter.
Nordhild won second place in the teen division of the Midwinter 2013 Art Contest, way back in the contest's very first year. She won second place again in the teen division of the Midsummer 2014 Art Contest. In the Midsummer 2015 Art Contest, she won first place in the teen division.

This year, she moved up to the adult division and tied for first place. I love the calm power emanating from Freyja and her cats. The whiteness of Freyja's wonderfully rendered dress, of the cats, and of the snow outside contrasts beautifully with the warmth of the candlelight and the food and drink of the midwinter celebration. Nordhild really captures the warm spirit of the holiday.

Lee writes, "The perspective works great and draws you in towards the character, then you're gifted with a mountain range that lets your imagination wander."

Congratulations, Nordhild! It's been wonderful to see your art grow in depth and maturity.

First Place (Tie): Nordhild Siglinde Wetzler

FIRST PLACE (TIE)
Eleanor Rose James
Age 22
United Kingdom

Eleanor writes this about her entry:
I was inspired by the imagery and tales associated with Skaði, the jötunn and goddess who embodies the winter's spirit. Residing at the top of the tallest of frozen mountains, I aimed to depict Skaði as an ethereal elemental and natural force, a sharp frost that sweeps across the land in a graceful and deadly dance.
Lee comments, "A wonderful palette of cool winter colors with a well thought out composition. You can feel the movement and the cold winds."

The colors in Eleanor's entry really are wonderfully chilly. I love the quietly determined look on Skaði's face as she glides across the snow and ice. This is a work of art that really inspires the viewer to imagine the stories that hover behind it.

First Place (Tie): Eleanor Rose James

SECOND PLACE
Dawn Reynolds
Age 44
Columbia, Tennessee, USA

Dawn wrote a very detailed essay on all the elements of her artwork and their connections to Norse mythology. Here's an edited version of her lengthy statement about her image of Kvasir:
Kvasir is a god created from either the saliva of the gods or chewed-up berries spit together as a pledge of peace after the war between the Aesir and the Vanir.

According to lore, the dwafs Fjalarr and Galarr didn't like him, so they killed him and drained his blood. They mixed it with honey to make mead. Anyone who drank it could become prolific in poetry.

In the United States, we could celebrate with beer (hops) or a beverage possibly made from cranberries to represent the berries chewed up and spat out that manifested his creation.

Midwinter where I live is often represented with the colors red and green. We have evergreen trees and holly berries. However, I chose to use gigantic green hops and red cranberries. The snow is all around. What's in the cup? Is it his blood and honey? Is it an intoxicating drink of chewed up, spat out berries?

The hops represented are obnoxiously large. There are two to represent Fjalarr and Galarr. The symbols on Kvasir's cloak fasteners are bees to represent honey. The runes around the border and along the cloak seams are the ones that stood out to me the most in relation to this god of peace and how he became so.

These runes in the painting are meant as an offering from me to Kvasir. They are for protection, harmony, friendship, home, and peace, as well as knowing the hard times that created the wisdom to seek peace.

Kvasir is not alone in this painting. He is observing those who have gathered and is prepared if conflict breaks out. But it shouldn't.

Peace, as we gather at midwinter – isn't it all anybody wants? Not everyone can have that. The challenges may come and even conflict. But we all have mysteries and magical abilities to overcome.

I personally write songs and lyrics to overcome difficulties. The poem on my painting is actually lyrics to a song I wrote called "Dark is Closer" that can be found on YouTube. Without poetry, we wouldn't have lyrics for songs.

There is great peacemaking magic in music and lyrics. This is why Kvasir inspires me.
Dawn was the third-place winner in the adult division of the Midwinter 2019 Art Contest and runner-up in the adult division of the Midsummer 2020 Art Contest. It's great to see her back again with an entry that won her highest ranking yet.

Lee writes, "An intricate piece with your attention being draw towards his eyes, trusting and inviting. Wonderful work with a range of colous that fit really well together."

There's a wonderful sense of welcome and peace in this work with an emanating warmth that truly expresses the thoughtful joy of the midwinter season. I greatly appreciate all the thought that Dawn always puts into her work – thought that brings depth and emotional resonance her art.

Second Place: Dawn Reynolds

THIRD PLACE
Abigail Epplett
Age 28
Uxbridge, Massachusetts, USA

Abigail writes about her artwork:
In this quiet winter scene, bright Baldr and blind Höðr walk together, perhaps on their way to a midwinter gathering. The mistletoe along the path foreshadows their fates.

The body positions of the gods are deliberately anachronistic, as they demonstrate the best way to act as a sighted guide and to navigate with a blind cane.
This entry shows a very different technical approach from the others and – even while being set outside – has a unique wary of communicating a deep feeling of warmth and togetherness. The moment within the mythological timeline in which the artwork is set is interesting in a way that sparks reflection. Abigail shows both artistic skill and a creative imagination. Congratulations on a wonderful work!

Lee comments, "What a wonderul picture! A real sense of friendship and ease, happy and content with each other's company as they wander down the avenue of trees. Great costume design."

Third Place: Abigail Epplett

RUNNER-UP
Jissey Raye L. Rafanan
Age 32
Zamboanga City, Philippines

Jissey's explanation of this wonderful piece:
The artwork depicts some members of the Asgardian pantheon – Freyja, Odin, Thor, and Tyr – around the Yule log. I opted to have them stand in a circle around a Yule log being burned while at the base of Yggdrasil.

Odin, with his back to the viewer, presides over the ceremony, in keeping with his station as the head of the Norse pantheon. Freyja is at his left, due to her role in the partition of the Einherjar for those to attend to her in Fólkvangr. Thor is at his right, since Mjölnir is used in consecration rites.
It's always amazing to see entries come in from all over the world, to learn how far Norse mythology has traveled, and to enjoy wonderful artistic interpretations like this beautiful artwork by Jissey – the piece that most closely sticks to this year's contest theme. Somehow, Jissey manages to draw us into the warm moment even without any of the main characters full facing the viewer. I also greatly appreciate the attention to mythological detail in the portrayal of the Norse deities.

Lee comments, "Really nice rendering of the costumes and armor. The blue shadow across the snow puts a coolness in the air but with the fire keeping a really nice ambience."

Runner-Up: Jissey Raye L. Rafanan

Thank you to all who entered this winter. We really enjoyed everyone's work. See you when the next contest rolls around!

Saturday, December 30, 2023

Art Contest – Teen Winners, Midwinter 2023

This year's Midwinter Art Contest didn't receive any entries in the kids division. The same thing happened back in our Midsummer 2020 Art Contest. It's a shame, because we know there are plenty of children age twelve and under who love learning about mythology and creating their own interpretations of it. Please keep an eye out (like Odin) for our next art contest and share it with any artistic kids you know!

We also only received only one entry in the teen division, which includes artists between the ages of thirteen and nineteen. The same thing happened in Midsummer 2015 and Midwinter 2019, so we can't simply blame the rise of A.I. for it! Stuff happens.

We did receive many amazing entries in the adult division for artists age twenty and up, so be sure to come back tomorrow and check them out.

Just because the teen entry this year is so absolutely fantastic, we've decided to feature it and give our congratulations to the artist for creating such amazing work.

I'd like to thank my fellow judge Lee Carter (UK artist for 2000 AD, Judge Dredd Megazine, and other great comics from Boom! Studies, DK, Top Cow, and many more). I really appreciate the time that he volunteered to rank and comment on all the entries. This contest would not be possible without his generosity and kindness.

The assignment was to create a piece that somehow relates to the character and legends of the Norse gods and goddesses and the celebration of midwinter. Big congratulations to our teen artist for creating such a wonderful work of art!

Note: You can click on the art to see a larger version.

FIRST PLACE
Oskari Korkkonen
Age 17
Lapinlahti, Finland

Oskari provides a short description of the work titled Yule Father, simply stating that it's "an acrylic painting depicting Odin in a red cloak wandering around Midgard at midwinter."

Lee writes, "Oskari's painting is really beautifully drawn. There's a great depth of tone on the character's red robe, with the fur collar rendered perfectly with rough brush strokes. There's a real feeling of travel as Odin makes his way via the directions of the stars."

I agee with Lee, and I really like the combination of Odin's dark red with the pale blue of the snow and the deep blue-black of the sky. There's also a fascinating contrast between the joyfulness of Odin's somewhat Santa-like outfit on one hand and the mystery of his shadowy face and implied threat of his enormous spear on the other. Oskari has really captured the complicated nature of Odin's character in a very special way.

First Place: Oskari Korkkonen

Adult winners will be announced tomorrow!

Sunday, November 19, 2023

Art Contest – Midwinter 2023

Art by Ayu Putri Kenyo Jati (Indonesia), Teen First Place Winner, Midwinter Art Contest 2014

CONTEST

Ten years after The Norse Mythology Blog's first art contest, the theme for our tenth art contest is different than it has been in the past. Be sure to carefully read the entire Contest Theme section so that you understand the assignment.

During the winter solstice on December 21, those of us in the northern hemisphere will experience the shortest day and longest night of the year. This may seem early in the season, but it’s really the middle. From this point on, days will get longer as we slowly move back towards summer.

Throughout Northern Europe, there are local traditions that celebrate midwinter. Some of these practices preserve very old rituals. Your original piece of visual art should capture the midwinter spirit.

I strongly suggest doing some reading and research on myth and folklore before you begin your artwork. What characters and concepts can you discover? Can you think of a way to relate them to the contest theme?

If you need some ideas about mythology, browse The Norse Mythology Blog Archive. You can also click here to check out the past Midwinter Art Contest winners in the three categories: kid, teen, and adult. Most importantly – be creative!

CONTEST THEME: GODS AND GODDESSES GATHER AT MIDWINTER

Your artwork entry must somehow relate to the character and legends of the Norse gods and goddesses and the celebration of midwinter.

There are many gods and goddesses in Norse mythology, and most have complex characteristics. Your job is to find something about some of them that speaks to you and inspires you, then combine it with some aspect of midwinter and create your own original work of art.

Art by Levi Simpson (USA), Adult First Place Winner (Tie), Midwinter Art Contest 2014

Norse gods and goddesses have connections to magic, prophecy, runes, wisdom, poetry, song, inspiration, creativity, performance, travel, hospitality, gifting, community, parenthood, childhood, friendship, relationships, religion, ritual, nature, culture, teaching, learning, ravens, wolves, goats, falcons, trees, peace, war, life, prosperity, death, standing against evil, and much more. There certainly is a lot to draw on for your entry!

There are many tales of Norse gods and goddeesses hat you can read to inspire your entry. A good place to start is by reading Children of Odin by Padraic Colum, which retells the major Norse myths and legends in family-friendly form. You can download the book for free from The Norse Mythology Online Library; it can be found in the Retellings and Reinterpretations section.

You can do any of these things:

1. Illustrate some versions of some Norse gods and goddesses and some aspect of midwinter
2. Illustrate the feeling of Norse gods and goddesses and midwinter
4. Create something inspired by Norse gods and goddesses and midwinter
5. Draw something connecting Norse gods and goddesses and midwinter to other characters or concepts from Norse myth and Germanic folklore

You must do this one thing:

Include a short explanation with your entry detailing how your work relates to Norse god and goddesses and midwinter

Beware!

In this contest, Marvel Comics characters are NOT considered part of Norse mythology or folklore. Art with imagery from comic books or movies will NOT be accepted. Do some reading and research on myth and folklore, then base your imagery on what you learn.

This year, we're also taking a stand for the inspired creativity of human artists and NOT accepting any entries created using AI (artificial intelligence). Please embrace your individuality and do your own work.

GUEST JUDGE

I am extremely proud to announce the guest judge for this year's Midwinter Art Contest. I really love his work, and I'm very happy that he agreed to participate this year. The two of us will judge the entries together.

Lee Carter

I became a fan of illustrator, comics artist, and concept artist Lee Carter through his amazing work for the legendary UK weekly comic 2000 AD and the associated monthly Judge Dredd Megazine. His work is often terrifying and always makes a powerful impact through his cinematic design and detailed linework.

In-process art for cover of Judge Dredd Megazine issue 439 by Lee Carter

For 2000 AD, he's drawn both iconic series and new titles, including Dead Eyes, Durham Red, Grey Area, Indigo Prime, Judge Dredd, Necrophim, Rogue Trooper, Tharg's Terror Tales, and Tharg's Time Twisters. Whether the genre is science fiction or fantastic horror, Lee's artistic vision and brilliant craftsmanship pulls you into the weird worlds his work inhabits.

Over at the Judge Dredd Megazine, Lee and legendary Scottish writer Gordon Rennie's Angelic tells a disturbing tale that may or may not be the backstory of the notorious Angel Gang that Judge Dredd first tangled with way back in 1980. It's innovative and intense.

Lee has also done art for 451's Sunflower, Top Cow's The Darkness, and Boom! Studio's Mr. Stuffins. He's contributed to The Dead Roots Comic Anthology, DK's The Most Important Comic Book on Earth, Mam Tor's Event Horizon, Ahoy Comics' Edgar Allan Poe's Snifter of Terror, and Boom! Studios' Cthulhu Tales and Pirate Tales.

I've long followed Lee's social media posts detailing the in-depth process he goes through to create his work, and I think's he's the perfect person to judge the contest this year.

You can learn more about Lee by visiting his official website and following him on Twitter.

AGE CATEGORIES

There will be three winners in each of the following categories:

Kids: Age 12 and under
Teens: Age 13-19
Adults: Age 20 and up

RULES

1. Art must be done with crayon, marker, paint, pen, pencil, or digital materials.
2. Original art only; no photos, collage, or work created using AI (artificial intelligence).
3. Art must be kid-friendly; no nudity or violence.
4. No copyrighted characters. Let’s leave the Marvel Comics to the professionals!
5. One entry per person, please.

HOW TO ENTER

Send an email to mythcontest@live.com that includes the following:

1. Your full name (kids can give first name and last initial)
2. Your age (as of December 23, 2023)
3. Your location (city, state/province, country)
4. A short description of your artwork explaining how it relates to Norse gods, goddesses, and midwinter
5. Your scanned artwork (as an attachment)

Seriously, don’t forget to include your art as an attachment!

ENTRY DEADLINE

11:59 p.m. (Chicago time) on December 23, 2023

ANNOUNCEMENT OF WINNERS

Lee and I will be judging the entries based on creativity and relation to Norse mythology. Do some reading, do some thinking, and make something original!

Contest winners will be featured on sites and pages of Norse Mythology Online

The three winners in each age group will be featured on the many sites and pages of Norse Mythology Online:

The Norse Mythology Blog

The Norse Mythology Facebook Page

The Norse Mythology Twitter Page

The Norse Mythology Pinterest Page

Your art and your description of it will be posted on all of the above outlets and will remain permanently in the The Norse Mythology Blog Archive.

December 29: Kid winners announced
December 30: Teen winners announced
December 31: Adult winners announced

Good luck to everyone!

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.

Monday, May 15, 2023

Heimdall, the World Tree, and All of Us

A voice from long ago sounds in my head, colored blue with memory and longing.
Laying on my back
In the newly mown grass
Rain is coming down
But I know the clouds will pass
The clouds will indeed pass. The sun will fall below the horizon and cede the darkening sky to night and to its own cousin stars across the cosmos.

As the night moves, one star will not. It will remain fixed, showing the way northward. Between dusk and dawn, the other stars will spin around it in concentric circles of light. In long-exposure photographs, these circles around the pole star look like rings of an ancient tree.

“Photograph of the Stars in their Diurnal Motion round the Pole”
from In the High Heavens by Sir Robert S. Ball (1910)

The earth rotates around an axis drawn from the south pole, through the planet, out the north pole, and up to the pole star. With a bit of imagination, diagrams of this world axis show a trunk with roots in the earth and the pole star at the top of the leader.

Old Icelandic poetry tells us of the mighty measuring tree. The growth and life of this tree parallel the growth and life of this world, and none know where to find the beginning point of its roots.

The poetry’s great unnamed prophetess tells the god Odin of her ancient memories of nine giant women of the tree under the ground. The giant prophetess Hyndla tells the goddess Freyja of a mighty one born long ago to nine giant women at the edge of the earth. The god Heimdall himself speaks of being born of nine sisters who are his nine mothers.

Heimdall makes his home atop Himinbjörg, the “mountain of heaven.” From that vantage point, he sees and hears all that happens on the earth. As the great watchman of the world, he needs less sleep than a bird does.

One way to translate Heimdall’s name is “world tree.” It’s a translation that makes sense of these multiple elusive allusions.

The connection of trees to personhood is fundamental in Norse mythology. The gods create the first humans from two trees and name them Ash and Elm. At the other end of the time cycle, two humans named Life and Life-Eager survive the cataclysm of Ragnarök by hiding within the World Tree. Both at the beginning and at the end of mythic time, human life emerges from trees.

If the nine giant women of the tree under the ground are the nine mothers of Heimdall, then they are the roots from which the tree grows at the edge of the earth and stands atop the mountain of heaven. This poetic imagery is reflected in the scientific diagram of the axis that begins at the south pole, runs through the earth, then bursts out of the top of the world to grow up to the pole star in the heavens.

The World Tree branches out over our world, the world watched over by Heimdall as guardian. In this way, he-as-tree functions as the world’s warden tree, echoing on a cosmic scale the northern European belief in a homestead’s greatest tree as watcher over the generations of inhabitants. As the earthly tree sees far and wide from its high vantage point, as the earthly tree never sleeps in its unceasing watchfulness, so does Heimdall as the World Tree.

If we accept that the Old Icelandic poem Rígsþula (“List of Ríg”) is indeed about Heimdall and follow tradition by linking it to the opening of the great prophecy, then he is the father of all the tribes and all the classes of humanity. Not just Icelanders. Not just northern Europeans. All of us.

The World Tree isn’t the Scandinavia Tree or the White People Tree. It’s the tree of the entire world with roots deep inside the planet and branches that spread over and connect all living beings.

Under growing branches, not set in stone

In the second episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, Neil deGrasse Tyson presents a powerful vision of the Tree of Life that illustrates the interconnectedness of all that live on earth. As if to underscore the imagery of the Norse myths, he makes a particular point of showing the similarities of an oak tree’s DNA with his own. “This tree and me,” he says, “we’re long-lost cousins.”

“The Oak and the Reed” by Gustave Doré from The Fables of La Fountaine (1867)

The film Dark Universe, also narrated by Tyson, presents visualizations of the dark matter flowing throughout the universe that look like the cells of a tree or of a human being. Everything that is, is intrinsically connected. The macroscopic mirrors the microscopic, as the World Tree is an enlargement of the warden tree and Heimdall-as-tree magnifies humans-as-trees.

In the third decade of the twenty-first century, when we’re still weighted down with translations of the Eddas by baby boomer academics who resolutely translate terms for families, kindreds, and generations as “race,” it’s good to remember that the poems and myths tell us of all humanity being descended from and watched over by Heimdall-as-World-Tree. We can counter the racialist baggage that living scholars still carry forward from 19th-century scholarship by refreshing ourselves in the well of myth.

No, the corpus of Norse mythology is not some pure and beautiful lore of warm hugs. It is also not the corpus of “white religion” that so many practitioners of modern paganism today make it out to be, whether they overtly promote racist ideology or more carefully couch their language in terms of ancestry, heritage, and rhetoric referring to Vikings and Germanic tribes as “our glorious forefathers.”

In the ancient poetry and mythology, the World Tree grows from roots deep in the earth and watches over the entire world, and we humans are made from trees. In modern scientific theory, the world axis sprouts from roots in the earth below to reach up to the stars above, the cell-like structures of dark matter hold the cosmos together, and we are related to trees at a genetic level. There is no fundamental conflict between embracing the myths in our hearts and following the science with our minds.

There is also no fundamental conflict between loving Norse mythology and celebrating the diversity of the human family. We are all related to each other, and we all live together beneath the branches of the World Tree – whether conceived as spiritual symbol, mystical manifestation, or astronomical actuality.

It is indeed possible to have a theology of today that seeks inspiration from the old tales. There’s a lot of work to be done, but we can embrace the poetry and mythology without falling into the quicksand of fundamentalism or promoting the tired old racialism of outdated scholarship.

Ásatrú and Heathenry are extremely young new religious movements. There’s no reason to assume that our theology is so set in stone that it cannot engage with the complex lives we lead now, or that it’s impossible to both honor the old worldviews and be true to our own diverse experiences and the scientific teachings of today. A lot of work is still to be done by those open to possibility and growth.

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

Monday, January 23, 2023

A 4th Grader Asks About Norse Mythology and Norse Religion

It’s been a minute since I posted a set of answers, but I’ve long received emails from students in a wide range of levels who want to interview me about Norse mythology and Norse religion for their school projects.

I first answered questions that were sent by a high school student in 2011, followed by ones from a middle school student in 2012. One sixth grader interviewed me in 2013, then another one did in 2014. A college student sent a series of questions in 2016, and a second high school student sent more in 2018. All my sets of answers can be found in the For Students section of this website’s Archive of Articles and Interviews.

Hawthorne Elementary School in Salt Lake City, Utah

Eliza L. is a fourth-grade student in Ms. Amanda Ladia’s class at Hawthorne Elementary School in Salt Lake City, Utah. Her father explains the “Passion Project” assignment:
Each student is allowed to pick any topic they want that they are interested in and passionate about to explore throughout the year and deepen their knowledge on, and then present their research and knowledge on the topic at the end of the year.

Eliza selected Norse mythology. She has been reading and learning a lot over the past four months and is getting more and more excited about the subject. We have read some of your blog posts and other interviews, and we love the way you explain everything about Norse mythology.
The questions Eliza sent are excellent and actually cover topics that I discuss with my students who are a decade older. Most impressive! Everyone involved gave their permission for her questions and my answers to be posted here, and I hope that what I wrote will be helpful to those of any age who are interested in learning more about the Norse myths.

What is a myth and why does Norse mythology exist?


We discuss this very complicated issue in the college course that I teach on Norse mythology and religion. One way to break it down simply is to define mythology as “a set of stories that is connected to a religion” and religion as “a set of beliefs and practices.” There’s much more to these things, but those two mini-definitions are a good place to start.

Myths can be told in many ways. Long ago, they were often performed in the form of poems or songs. They can be self-contained (like a movie) or linked together in a cycle of stories (like a chapter book). They can be understood in many ways, and you may understand a given myth very differently when you read it now and when you return to it at different stages of your life.

Norse myths are linked to the old religion that existed in various forms at various times and in various places in northern Europe. Before the new religion of Christianity spread throughout these lands, there was a variety of beliefs and practices (remember the religion definition) that included things like exchanging gifts with many gods, goddesses, ancestors, and land spirits.

As in other religions, stories were told about the figures that people who practiced these religions considered important. The stories explain ideas about how the world began, why it is the way it is now, and how it will end. The Norse myths are sometimes funny, sometimes sad, sometimes exciting, and sometimes scary – just like our own lives are.

What is unique about Norse mythology compared to other mythology from different parts of the world?


One thing is the characters of the characters – how the personalities of each of the main figures is shown through their words and deeds. There are other thundering gods who charge through the sky and throw lightning in other mythologies, but there is only one Thor. When you read about him in the myths, you feel that you really get to know him as a special and unique fellow.

Another thing is the imagery of the myths. They tell of mystical women warriors who ride onto battlefields to choose who will fall. They tell of wise giants and dwarfs who get involved in deadly riddle contests with gods. They tell of mystical weapons that can pass on a god’s blessing or a dwarf’s curse. The unique characters and objects can inspire you to imagine fantastic scenes – no illustrations needed!

What does Norse Mythology have in common with Greek mythology?


This is a good follow-up to your previous question. There are several things, including a god who throws lightning from on high, a trio of mystical female figures connected to fate, a group of gods who fights a rival group of gods, a failed attempt to bring someone beloved back from the land of the dead, and a figure who steals from the gods and is eventually bound and tortured by a single animal.

There are many more similarities, but there are also commonalities with myths from what we now call Ireland, Wales, Iran, India, and elsewhere. Why would similar characters and stories show up in so many different places? The languages from these places are related to each other as part of the Indo-European family of languages. The myths from these places are also related.

The modern understanding of the Indo-European theory of language, mythology, religion, and other cultural elements suggests that, very long ago, ideas about life and ways of living spread out over a wide geographic range. These things – all foundational to the life of a community – changed as they traveled and evolved as they were developed in different places.

It’s surprising to find similar characters and situations in myths composed around 1000 BCE in India and myths written down in Iceland around 1220 CE. That’s over 2,000 years apart, and the distance between the two nation’s capitals is nearly 5,000 miles. Amazing! Learning about Hindu mythology from India has deepened my understanding of Norse mythology and my appreciation of human connectedness.

Who is your favorite Norse god and why?


Can I choose three? When I first read the myths of Thor, he reminded me of my Opa – my grandfather on my German side who grew up a farmer in eastern Europe before becoming a bricklayer in Wisconsin. Thor is the god of the farmers and other regular people who work for a living. He’s as quick to forgiveness as he is to anger, he loves good food and drink, and he takes kids on adventures.

At age four in 1977, Star Wars was the first film I saw in a theater. I loved the space wizard Obi-Wan Kenobi. The same year, a cartoon of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit was on TV, and I loved the wandering wizard Gandalf. I read T.W. White’s The Sword in the Stone as a kid and loved the wise wizard Merlin. I was predisposed to love Odin, the wizardly god who inspired the creation of so many later characters.

Skaði by Tokubi Ka, Adult Third Place Winner, 2013 Midwinter Art Contest

I’ve always loved strong female characters like Pippi Longstocking, Eilonwy, Supergirl, Dakota North, Merida, Mirabel Madrigal, and Ms. Marvel. So, I immediately fell in love with Skadi, a frost giantess from the mountains whose father is killed by the gods. She goes alone to Asgard, challenges all the gods, and becomes goddess of skiing and hunting (like a Norse Artemis or Diana). She’s definitely cool!

What are a couple examples of the most interesting powers that the gods have, good or evil, in Norse mythology?


If you sit down and think about it, you may discover that powers in mythology aren’t always easily categorized as good or evil in and of themselves. What makes them good or evil is how they’re used. The ability to throw a lightning weapon is good when it’s used to protect us but evil if it’s used to harm us. This idea of power’s goodness or evilness via usage is also true about human power today.

You may have noticed that I wrote “ability to throw a lightning weapon,” not “ability to throw lightning.” Gods aren’t superheroes; they don’t each have a unique superpower. They have magical objects like Odin’s spear that can’t be stopped, Freyr’s glowing metal boar that runs over sky and sea, and Idunn’s apples that prevent the gods aging. If frost giants get these things, they may become gods themselves.

Why do you think gods can die in Norse mythology?


If you’re used to the God of the Bible, reading about the gods of Norse mythology can be a bit of a shock. I went the other way as a little kid. I read the Greek myths (as retold by Ingri and Edgar Parin d'Aulaire) before I read Bible stories (in various kiddie versions). Given the big family of Greek gods, I thought God must be lonely. I cracked my dad up when I asked him, “Why isn’t God married?”

In Indo-European mythologies, gods and goddesses are much more like human men and women than like sthe Biblical God. God exists outside of time and space while being everywhere all at once, but the gods are of the world around us and live in time like us. They’re born, they live, they love, they experience emotions, they have adventures, and they die – just on a much bigger scale than we do.

Wondering about the nature of death is one of the most fundamental and most difficult things about being human. You could even make an argument that thinking about death is what defines humanity (probably not for a fourth-grade assignment). Humans composed the myths, so it makes sense that this most basic of all truths – that death is part of life – is included in the stories of the gods and goddesses.

Why do Norse gods have kids with more than one partner?


The first answer is again that the deities of Norse myth are like us, but on a grander scale. In the days before modern medicine, childbirth could be fatal to mothers, and fathers would sometimes remarry and have more children. It’s also an unfortunate fact that people sometimes stray from their committed relationships and marriages to have children with others. Gods, like humans, can make poor decisions.

The second answer is that those who wrote down the Norse myths two hundred years or so after Iceland’s conversion to Christianity tried to turn what were sometimes contradictory myths into a logical system. If one myth says a god has kids with one goddess and another myth says he has kids with a different goddess, later writers would merge the conflicting stories and say he had kids with both.

Can all or most of the Norse gods shapeshift?


Some of what at first seems like shape-changing may really just be disguise and cross-dressing. Thor disguises himself as a young boy and as a bride (!) when he travels to the land of the giants, but that’s not quite shapeshifting. Odin also disguises himself as a woman and uses sorcery to change his appearance.

Loki actually changes into a woman and bares babies, including as a female horse. Freyja and Frigg both have falcon cloaks that Loki uses to turn into a bird, but he uses his own abilities to turn into an insect, fish, and horse. Freyja also has the power to change one of her human followers into a boar. So, there’s a mixture of disguise, sorcery, magic objects, and shape-changing powers.

“Odin the Wanderer” by Willy Pogany from The Children of Odin (1920) by Padraic Colum

One thing to remember is that the gods are not literally what they appear to be in the myths. Loki says that Odin wanders the world in the guise of a wizard, which suggests that Odin isn’t really an old man with a long beard who walks in the forest. That’s either a disguise he wears when he visits our world or a way for tellers of myths to spin stories about mystical deities in forms that we can comprehend.

Are myths still being created in Scandinavia and being added to Norse mythology?


If we accept the definition I gave earlier – mythology is “a set of stories that is connected to a religion” – then new myths would have to be written by practitioners of Norse religion. Since the beginnings of Ásatrú (modern Icelandic for “Æsir faith,” belief in or being true to the main group of Norse deities) in 1972 in Iceland, there has been an ever-increasing number of modern practitioners around the world.

Nearly a decade ago, I posted the results of my Worldwide Heathen Census. They showed practitioners of Ásatrú (and variations under names such as Heathenry and Germanic Paganism) in ninety-eight countries. I’m not sure about practitioners in Scandinavia writing new myths, but I’ve read several by Americans that seemed weirdly focused on promoting gun ownership and militarism. Such is life.

If we broaden the definition of mythology to include stories about mythological figures written by non-practitioners, then there’s an enormous amount being created around the world. So many writers of comic books, novels, cartoons, movies, TV shows, video games, role-playing games, and songs are writing new adventures of the old gods and goddesses. There’s always something new being released.

How does Norse mythology influence today’s society?


The most obvious influence is in the forms of entertainment I just mentioned. We shouldn’t brush these aside and say that they’re just for fun. The stories we engage with across forms of media can have profound effects on our lives. They can bring us comfort in dark times, they can change how we see the world, and they can hopefully be a force for positive change.

Less obvious – or at least less visible – is the fact that, as I alluded to above, Norse mythology is once again connected to living religious practice. For today’s practitioners of Ásatrú, the myths can be as deeply meaningful as stories of Christ are for Christians and tales of Muhammad are for Muslims. At some point in your life, you may meet someone devoted to the figures you know from Norse myth!

I’m very glad that you chose Norse mythology for your project subject, and I’m really impressed by the seriousness and depth of your questions. I hope my answers help your understanding and encourage you to do more reading and research. Best wishes for your future studies!

Epilogue

After reading my answers to her questions, Eliza sent me an email with this message.
Thank you for doing my interview. I am very grateful you could do this for me. I liked learning about the comparison to other mythologies throughout the world. I learned many things. One thing I learned is that not all the gods can shapeshift, which I didn't understand before. I learned and understand better what I have been studying. Thank you so much for taking time to answer my questions.
She also made this amazing postcard with illustrations of Thor’s hammer Mjölnir and Odin’s spear Gungnir plus another thank you note that she also wrote out in runes. Very cool!




The art of the thank-you note isn’t dead! There is still hope for humanity.

This has been a wonderful experience all around, and I send kudos out to Eliza, her parents, and her teachers. Hail!