Theodish Thoughts

Musings on Theodism, religion, mythology, history, and contemporary Heathenry

Month: May 2015

On scholarship and mysticism, part one

When the same issue shows up in three different places that I read regularly, there’s something definitely afoot. So it was with the question of what I call mysticism (alternately called UPG or “polytheism” by its proponents) being perceived to be in opposition to scholarship when it comes to Asatru specifically (although the argument would work just as well with other forms of Heathenry or Paganism such as the Religio Romana or Celtic Reconstructionism).

There’s a lot to unpack in those posts (and it should be noted this is an issue that is not new by any stretch of the imagination; indeed, it’s been kicking around in one form or another since the 1980’s at least), but I’m willing to give it the old Collegium Augurum try…

First and foremost, I’m not a fan of the strict delineation between “UPG” and scholarship, which I think is implied in the very term UPG as it is used today. UPG today is most often used for some sort of direct inspiration from a deity or spirit, often lumping scholarly insights that don’t rely on direct evidence in the same category as “revelations” from the gods, and ignoring the vast spectrum of scholarly possibilities into the bargain. That’s one reason I prefer the term “mysticism” to specifically refer to those insights which are the result of direct revelation from some god or spirit, to differentiate them from more mundane insights or outright inventions.

Secondly, I am not a fan of the way that certain individuals use the term “polytheist” with such an emphasis specifically those people who are superstitious (to use the term in the Roman sense*) when it comes to religion. They are the god-spouses, the ones who hear the gods and land-spirits talking to them on a daily basis, and (most relevant) the ones who in the last couple of years have indulged in a campaign of claimed persecution, believing themselves to be somehow sidelined or ostracized by the greater Pagan and Heathen communities. As such, they have begun to set up parallel institutions, such as the website, sponsor conferences, and so forth.

Those are good and worthy things, but personally, I think their claims of persecution (to the point where they characterize their movement as a “human rights” campaign) are vastly overblown, and I resist their increasingly exclusive claim on the term “polytheist”; they are at least paying lip-service to the idea that there are polytheists who aren’t god-touched, which is a good thing. But a polytheist is anyone who believes in multiple gods, period, whether they be constantly chattering in one’s ear or relatively removed from one’s daily life. Again, this is one reason I like the word mystic, or mysticism, in this context; it serves to differentiate the one from the other, which I think is the ultimate goal. (Modern Icelandic dulhyggja is a great word, by the way; the literal translation could be “secret understanding”.)

Next up: I will address the actual issues brought up in those posts; specifically, whether the mystical/magical and scholarly aspects of Asatru (etc.) are necessarily in conflict. I just wanted to get these framing issues out of the way, so any discussion around them might not distract from the main point.

Read part two here.

* The Romans applied the term superstitio to all those who took religion too seriously, to the point where it would interfere with making practical decisions in daily life. As the Oxford Classical Dictionary (3rd Ed.) puts it: “Superstition meant a free citizen’s forgetting his dignity by throwing himself into the servitude of deities conceived as tyrants. The civic ideal of piety (see PIETAS) envisioned above all honoring the gods while preserving one’s freedom – that is, with restraint and measure. Thus the superstitious were supposed to submit themselves to exaggerated rituals, to adhere in credulous fashion to prophecies, and to allow themselves to be abused by charlatans.”

Thoughts on Midsummer

Midsummer is a holiday I choose to celebrate as an Asatruar. I do this not because, but despite, the fact that it is regularly included in the neopagan “wheel of the year” which places holidays at the solstices, equinoxes, and cross-quarter days. I also place it not on the actual date of the solstice, but on June 24th, St. John’s Day, which is the traditional day of celebration in Scandinavia (and, it seems, throughout the Germanic world).

While it is quite true that Midsummer is not one of the three sacrifices mentioned in Snorri’s Heimskringla and Óláfs saga helga (Winternights, Yule, and Summer Meal), the date was most certainly not unknown as significant to the people of the North. We see it mentioned in several places in the Icelandic sagas and other Old Norse sources, such as Grettir’s Saga, Grágas (the old Icelandic law code), the Rymbegla (where it is noted as a feast day), and the Saga of the Norwegian king Magnúss Erlíngssonar, wherein we find the word miðsumarskeið, which means “midsummer time”, in the same sense that people today still use the word “Yuletide” to mean a span of days relating to Yule:

When King Sigurd came south in Denmark in Schleswig, he found Eilíf Earl, and celebrated him well, giving him a banquet fit for a hero. That was at midsummertime.

Still, only Rymbegla specifically speaks of any sort of celebration specifically associated with the day (or the span of days), although King Erlíngssonar’s banquet for Eilíf Earl could certainly have been coincident with such a celebration.

If we move but a little southward, however, we begin to see a more definite pattern emerge. In the Vita S. Eligius (who lived in the 7th century in France, which at that time was well-entrenched in Germanic Frankish culture), we see the following admonition given to the people of northwestern Gaul:

No Christian on the feast of Saint John or the solemnity of any other saint performs solestitia [solstice rites?] or dancing or leaping or diabolical chants.

Here we see a clear linkage between the Germanic Midsummer (centuries of domination by the Franks had lent the land a decidedly Germanic cast, although a Celtic or even Roman origin for the tradition cannot be ruled out) and the performance of non-Christian celebrations. (As an aside, I will also note the reference to dancing and chanting/singing, which is a theme I’m developing as part of my own contemporary Asatru practice.) So, it is most certainly not a Christian invention to celebrate on the date, else Eligius wouldn’t have admonished against it.

I would also note that just because the holiday was not mentioned by Snorri does not mean it was not practiced, as his was not an exhaustive list, since we know of other attested celebrations such as Alfablót, Dísablót, DísþingÞorrablót, etc., not to mention the Anglo-Saxon celebrations mentioned by Bede.

That Midsummer is an important holiday in Scandinavia today should be news to no one. Celebrated with fires and drinking, it is a tradition going back at least centuries. I would argue it goes back considerably farther, based on the evidence in Rymbegla and Eligius. A quick glance at the Wikipedia page on Midsummer (never a good source for hard evidence, but illustrative nonetheless) shows traditions of bonfires and other celebrations associated with the day across the Germanic world and beyond.

In Sweden, the midsommarstång (“Midsummer pole”) functions much like a May Pole elsewhere, just moved back a month and a half (possibly explained by the differences in climate between Scandinavia and the Continent), and even in Elizabethan England the association of Midsummer with magic and the fey survived strongly enough for Shakespeare to write A Midsummer Night’s Dream around those themes.

It’s entirely possible that the celebration of Midsummer with fire, and its association with fertility, is something that isn’t completely Germanic in origin. However, I think the fact that it was noted and celebrated is pretty difficult to deny, and the form in which it is celebrated today in the Germanic and Scandinavian nations is as good as any, in the absence of any definitive evidence to the contrary.

And finally, a guide to Midsummer from the folks who do it best:

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