Theodish Thoughts

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

Month: October 2015

Paganism’s Comeback

Over at The Week online magazine, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry frets that “paganism” could make a comeback in our post-Christian society. While it’s nice to see that he feels the teeth of the wolf at his throat (Gobry is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, which is a Christian organization “dedicated to applying the Judeo-Christian moral tradition to critical issues of public policy”), the sheer amount of incorrect assumptions and facts in his article invites rebuttal.

He starts off very well:

So, could we go back to paganism? This is more than an idle question. Our era is still — much more than we care to admit — very much defined by Christian ideals, which — much more than we care to admit — were very much defined in opposition to pagan ideals. Looking at the pagan worldviews that once ruled Europe should give us some insight into the West today, and, perhaps, its future.

After then (correctly) asserting that the Pagan world-view fills the world with “agency” (associating natural phenomena with intelligent agents who can, in theory, be treated with), he quickly descends into typical Catholic hysteria and misinformation about what Paganism (and Heathenry*) was and is, when he states that Paganism is inherently amoral:

A more accurate description is that paganism was amoral. Paganism, as such, had no explicit moral teachings. It certainly had no teachings against slavery, including sexual slavery, or against adultery, oppression, poverty, or anything else, for that matter. This is not to say that paganism was immoral, or that pagans were more immoral than any other sort of person. It was just that people saw religion and morality as two completely different things.

It is the height of presumption and irony that Gobry’s definition of amorality is a lack of teachings against slavery (the Bible not only condones slavery, but actually requires it in some circumstances), sexual slavery (the Bible also condones such, specifically selling one’s own daughter into sexual slavery), adultery (the Bible prescribes the death penalty for adultery; if that’s his idea of “morality” then he’s welcome to it), oppression (witness the Hebrew conquest of Canaan, which resulted not only in great oppression, but genocide), and poverty (Jesus himself says it is impossible to obliterate poverty).

So don’t presume to lecture me on Paganism’s lack of morality, thank you very much. By his own definition Christianity is equally (I would argue moreso) amoral.

But is it true that Paganism “has no teachings… against anything else”? Hardly! Bearing in mind that Paganism is mostly orthopraxic, rather than orthodoxic (that is, more concerned with right behavior rather than purity of ideology), it could hardly be otherwise. Culture and religion were inseparable in Pagan times, and so it’s impossible to tease apart cultural mores from religious dictates. The Pagan Norsemen valued honor and courage. But they also valued loyalty to family, tribe, and lord; the importance of oaths; and hospitality. The Pagan Romans had their Virtues; clementia (mercy), frugalitas (frugality), salubritas (personal health and cleanliness), severitas (self control), firmitas (tenacity), and many others. To say that the Greeks had no morality would come as a shock to people like Aristotle.

Just because Pagan morals are not his preferred morals does not make them any less real.

But then he turns down a very bizarre road when he states that Paganism was based on sacrifice:

The entire cosmos was a chain of sacrifice, life feeding on itself. The gods, then, were something like cosmic mobsters — a semblance of order, a respite from the powers of fate, could be bought by propitiating the gods through sacrifice, like cosmic protection money. Like mobsters, the gods had a sociopathic streak and might not follow through on their end of the deal even if you held up your own, but it was too risky not to try.

The temptation to guffaw at his assertion that Pagan gods are sociopathic is strong, given the many genocides his own god has not only directed his followers to undertake, but which he himself has undertaken (his body count stands at an estimated 25 million people, based on what’s in the Bible).

But then he goes on to use scapegoating as an example of why Paganism is lacking:

While the myth of Oedipus tells us that Oedipus was guilty and this is why his punishment was just, the Biblical story of Joseph has Joseph being wrongly accused of another sexual crime — trying to rape pharaoh’s wife — and good things happening to the nation only when Joseph is recognized as innocent and vindicated. This anti-scapegoating narrative, of course, reaches its apex in the figure of Jesus, who is scapegoated by every legitimate authority, political and religious, yet vindicated by God through his Resurrection.

But in doing so he seems to have forgotten that the very term “scapegoat” COMES FROM THE BIBLE ITSELF:

He is to cast sacred lots to determine which goat will be reserved as an offering to the LORD and which will carry the sins of the people to the wilderness of Azazel. Aaron shall bring the goat whose lot falls to the LORD and sacrifice it for a sin offering.

Yes, that’s right. He’s complaining about the Pagan tradition of making sacrifices to the Gods, while in the very same breath using the term for Biblical animal sacrifice to do so. It boggles the mind. His other complaints about human sacrifice are similarly ironic, given the Biblical story about Abraham and Isaac.

He then ends with the obligatory attempt to link Paganism with the Nazis, which is so perfunctory it almost seems like it was done reflexively. This, despite the fact that the Nazis rounded up their own Pagans and put them in concentration camps.

Gobry forgets one important element to the definition of a “scapegoat”. The scapegoat is, itself, blameless, and is used nonetheless as a receptacle for sin, and is sacrificed accordingly. The Pagan concept of sacrifice is far different. The offering is used to reinforce what is known in the Norse tradition as the “gift cycle”. It’s a gift, given in friendship to help reinforce a relationship of friendship between ourselves and our gods. It’s not something that’s done in quivering terror, trying to propitiate some capricious deity, like Jehovah of Sinai, who sets up all sorts of random rules that run counter to human experience and need and calls it “morality”, claiming that he loves us despite what miserable failures we are at following his arbitrary rules.

Yes, Mr. Gobry. We Pagans are coming. The construction of the temple in Iceland is but a small part of the process. Your foreign desert god is being cast out of Europe, and cast out of the souls of those of us whose ancestors hailed from Europe, like removing heavy iron chains. Ours are Gods of joy and war, hot sweaty sex and the cool rains of spring, the power of the thunderbolt and the ripening of the grain.

And the reason we will triumph is that your god claims to love us despite who we are. But our Gods love us because of who we are.

__________
* Because Gobry does not make any distinction between the two, for purposes of this article I’ll treat Pagan and Heathen as interchangeable. He’s obviously unaware of the intricacies of such nomenclature.

Book-hoard porn

Over in my gaming circles, every once in a while people will take pictures of their game collections and post them as “game porn”. I thought it might be fun to do the same with my book-hoard. This isn’t everything Asatru-related (my Norrœna collection is boxed up, for instance, and my photocopies are not shown, along with some other bits and bobs), but it’s most of my Asatru-related collection. Not pictured are science fiction and fantasy, science, Roman history and religion, writing, gardening, games, world war II and related topic, my wife’s collection of Celtic and eclectic pagan and witchcraft topics, and miscellany. Click to embiggen.

Magic

More magic

Language and religion

History

Religion

Lore and magic

Lore and history

Lore

Lore

Overflow, waiting to be properly shelved

History

Later magic, history

Puttin’ ’em all together

How about you? Got any pictures of your book hoard?

St. Thomas the Brewer

A few months ago I posted about the likely connections between the god Freyr and the Scandinavian incarnation of Saint Stephen, who had markedly different lore and customs attached to him in the North that was found elsewhere. The same thing seems to apply to another Christian saint who is venerated around the Yuletide in Norway – Saint Thomas.

In mainstream Christianity, Thomas is known as one of the apostles, famously the one who doubted that Jesus had been resurrected, and who had to put his fingers in the wounds to be convinced (hence “doubting Thomas”). His feast day is December 21st, the day of the Winter Solstice.

On St. Thomas’ day, English tradition includes begging for alms or cakes, sweets, or fruit, whence comes the ditty, “Christmas is coming / the goose is getting fat / go and throw a penny in the old man’s hat / if you haven’t got a penny, a ha’penny will do / if you haven’t got a ha’penny then god bless you.” In Germany, this sort of charity was practiced by employers towards their employees. Also in Germany, there is a custom of “spinning night”, wherein spinners would stay at their tasks all night in order to be able to enjoy the upcoming holiday (which is somewhat related to the Scandinavian custom, below).

But in Norway (and in a more limited sense Sweden), he is also known as “Thomas the Brewer”, by whose day all work in preparation for the Christmas season must be completed, lest some accident befall the person who was behind their time, including the baking, butchering, wood chopping, and of course the brewing. On this day neighbors and friends would visit one another to sample the Yule ale that had been brewed.

This association of Saint Thomas with brewing (and charity) is not found in other Christian contexts, nor is his feast day near the Winter Solstice in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, and it was moved from December 21 (where it was placed in the 9th century, just as Christianity was coming up into northern Europe) to July 3 (in 1969, so it wouldn’t “interfere” with the other Advent activities) in the Catholic tradition. It’s still celebrated on the 21st by Anglicans and Episcopalians, and some others.

That leads one to the conclusion that there was some pre-existing association with brewing and the Winter Solstice, and/or the figure of St. Thomas was conflated with some pre-Christian figure, as we saw with St. Stephen and Freyr.

Naturally, the figure in Norse mythology chiefly associated with brewing is the giant Aegir (aka Gymer). However, there is no evidence for any cult associated with Aegir, unlike his counterpart Njord, who is also associated with the sea, but not particularly with brewing. It is interesting, however, that his children, Freyja and Freyr, are also associated with the Yule holiday. Could it be some sort of transposition of one of Aegir’s attributes to Njord? Could there be some long-lost correspondence between the two? Or is it simply a practical matter, wherein brewing ale for the Yule feast is something that needs to be done prior to the feast?

There aren’t any definitive answers to these questions, but the association of the day of the Winter Solstice with finishing up work prior to the Yule holiday, the start of the season, charity towards the young and elderly so they too might be able to enjoy the holiday, and the sampling of the ale that has been brewed in a spirit of friendship and camaraderie, seem like traditions that fit in perfectly with Asatru celebrations.

Review: God in Flames, God in Fetters

Stephan Grundy’s latest work, God in Flames, God in Fetters: Loki’s Role in the Northern Religions, is a compilation of four articles that appeared in Idunna, the official magazine of the Troth. It was written explicitly as a defense of Loki-worship, and the author has twisted the original source material in such a way as to compromise his academic impartiality, in the blind pursuit of what might be termed a political goal within the Asatru community in general, and the Troth in particular.

For those who aren’t familiar with him, Grundy is the real name of  Kveldulf Gundarsson, who is the Warder of the Lore of the Troth, holds a PhD in Norse Studies, and author of numerous books popular in certain quarters of the Asatru community.

The genesis of the book is the Troth’s annual gathering, where the question of Loki-worship was, and remains, a hotly debated subject. At first totally banned, then quietly tolerated in an unofficial capacity, the honoring of Loki at official Troth events has resulted in compromises that have, in general, not pleased either side of the debate. The series of articles in Idunna, and this book, were Grundy’s attempt to offer an academic argument in favor of allowing the honoring of Loki in official Troth rituals and ceremonies, including Trothmoot:

An “unofficial” after-hours rite to Loki that was held at that Trothmoot [2013] also stirred up considerable controversy, with some members feeling that their experience had been polluted, and a few opting to leave the organization. In the aftermath, long-term Troth member and scholar, Dr. Stephan Grundy, was asked to write a series of articles in The Troth’s journal Idunna reviewing the position of Loki in ancient and modern Heathenry. This book is a compilation of these articles as they were published, except for minimal editing for the sake of continuity. Dr. Grundy drew on his formidable scholarship to write them, and we hope that they are useful to the wider scholarly community— but they were written in response to a long-standing controversy within the Heathen community, and should be read in that light. (from the Preface to the book, written by Ben Waggoner, Shope of the Troth)

In fairness, it should also be noted that the book does not represent official Troth policy. Nonetheless, it cannot be denied that the academic opinion of the man who holds the official position of Warder of the Lore of the Troth will certainly hold sway with many of those who do make official Troth policy. Indeed, the 2014 Trothmoot made it official policy that Loki could be honored on-site, but not in the official main ritual or sumble. The 2015 Trothmoot saw officially sanctioned Loki shrines on the site (in the same locale as those dedicated to Odin, so it was impossible to visit the latter without also being in proximity to the former). Clearly, official policy is moving towards inclusion of Loki and Lokeans, and equally clearly Grundy’s book (and earlier articles) are at least partially responsible for this move in policy.

With the necessary context, background, and purpose in place, we may now proceed to the book itself.

From the outset, it is clear that any interpretation of the sources that is even slightly in favor of, or even neutral towards, Loki is the interpretation that will be used. This is, of course, a standard tactic of the Lokeans, who downplay the negatives and trumpet any positives they possibly can as far as they can:

…some have assumed that Loki’s binding in Locasenna came directly from his involvement in Baldr’s death; but that factor is neither ignored nor given any more significance than his sleeping with Sif, Týr’s wife, etc. in the poem, just as it is not even mentioned in the prose binding-account at the end.

Which misses the point entirely. There does not have to be a specific reason for Loki being bound. Getting into the whys and wherefores do nothing but confuse the issue. The point is that the Aesir did bind him, specifically as a punishment, in the most agonizing form of torment they could devise. Whether they did so “merely” because of his role in Balder’s death, or in sleeping with Sif, or whatever is immaterial. The Aesir, the Gods and Goddesses that are at the heart of the Asatru religion, felt justified in exiling him from their midst, imprisoning him, and subjecting him to torture until the end of the world.

Indeed, the amount of space that Grundy devotes to attacking the death of Balder as justification for Loki’s banishment and imprisonment (perhaps a quarter of the whole book) could have been avoided entirely. He seems rather obsessed with the point, even though the reason is not important. The fact that it was done is what is significant. Not why.

Too, Grundy concocts some sort of long-term scheme by which it was all a part of some master plan by which Balder would survive Ragnarok in Hel, despite the fact that nothing of the sort is ever intimated anywhere in the written sources. This argument doesn’t hold any water, as Balder’s survival isn’t ever presented as something vital to the post-Ragnarok world. Several of the Gods survive the burning of the world, and they don’t need to be in Hel to do so. If Balder has some special role after Ragnarok, it’s never mentioned, and thus presents no particular motive.

Chapter three presents the heart of the matter, although it sidesteps a crucial point which I’ll come to. It deals specifically with the question of whether or not Loki was actually worshiped by the pre-Christian Germanic peoples.

Grundy relies primarily on the phenomenon of ritual drama, which is certainly a phenomenon whose existence can be strongly inferred. This is understandable, given the lack of evidence in place-names, literature, archaeology, or most other standard indicators of objects of cult (although it’s interesting to note that he undercuts his own arguments in favor of Odin’s worship (as given in his book on the subject) in his zeal to emphasize how tenuous such evidence is when used to justify cultic worship). But Grundy makes an enormous leap when he suggests that inclusion in a sacral drama is, in and of itself, evidence of worship. Indeed, he even raises a straw man argument in this regard:

To deny his importance to the practice of Norse religion in this regard, in fact, one would have to successfully present a counter-argument to Gunnell’s work on Norse ritual drama. I myself find that highly unlikely, given the huge quantity of evidence in its favour Gunnell offers.

But of course no one says, let alone Gunnell, that inclusion of a particular figure in ritual drama leads to the conclusion that that figure must have been the recipient of cult. It’s entirely possible to have characters, necessary to the plot and conclusion of a ritual drama, who are not otherwise included as recipients of blot, or who are not honored during sumbel. Thus, Grundy’s conclusion, which appears to be grasping at straws, does not seem supported:

We can therefore say without question that he was worshipped (sic) at least in this manner.

Appearing as a character in ritual drama is not the same as being worshiped. While the performance of ritual drama is, in and of itself, an act of worship, it is not the same as saying that each and every character in the drama is being worshiped. If so, then the same argument can be made for the worship of Fenrir, or Skirnir, or Thrym, or any other character who appears in the poems/dramas. The case becomes even more absurd when it is extended to the so-called heroic poems; are Atli and Fafnir and the birds who spoke to Sigurd also the objects of worship? If one takes Grundy’s argument, the answer must be yes. It is (to use his own phrasing) “without question”, an absurd argument.

Grundy makes a much stronger argument when it comes to post-Christian folk practices, specifically around the notion of Loki as a diminutized spirit of the hearth-fire:

It seems highly unlikely that a Norse wight generally seen as “evil” in the Heathen period would begin to receive offerings, even— perhaps especially!— simple household offerings, after the conversion.

While true enough as far as it goes, it relies on two elements in the context of supporting Loki-worship; first, that the hearth-fire spirit “received offerings”, and second that Loki was indeed a fire-spirit.

As to the first point, Grundy gives no evidence whatsoever, relying solely on inference. While it is true that there are folkloric references to the spirit of the hearth-fire, nowhere does he present examples of that spirit being given offerings, as would be expected if there was a practice of blot being remembered in a post-Conversion setting. Grundy couches everything in “weasel-words”:

…if Loki were indeed seen as a god of hearth- and forge-fire in the Viking Age, he might have played a role in communal rituals where fires were lit. … While this specific suggestion is no more than speculation, it seems fairly likely to me … Loki was extremely likely to have been called on… he … very likely [had a place] in the practice of Scandinavian worship.

Everything is if, and might, and suggestion, and seems fairly likely. Nothing definitive. Just leaps to conclusions that happen to support the desired end.

As for Loki’s role as a god of fire, Jan de Vries, in his comprehensive treatment of the subject of Loki, all but dismisses the possibility:

…the hypothesis of his being a fire-demon gained the greatest number of adherents. Still the evidence for this character of the god is extremely slight and the old texts are at any rate not quite explicit. (Jan de Vries, The Problem of Loki, p. 151)

The myths, where the fire-nature of Loki is accepted by the majority of scholars, are but a very frail base for such a hypothesis. (ibid, p. 161)

The final part of the book deals with Loki in contemporary Heathenry, and here the knives really come out. First and foremost, yet another straw man is trotted out:

Unfortunately, to Satanize Loki and/ or to attempt to delete him from the practice and good understanding of Heathenry is to cripple our troth as a whole, both on a group level and the individual.

Even the staunchest opponents of Loki-worship do not want to “delete him from the good understanding of Heathenry”. Indeed, quite the opposite. A good understanding of Heathenry is one in which the ultimately negative characterization of Loki by our pre-Christian ancestors is understood and embraced, rather than modern attempts to rehabilitate him into some sort of harmless trickster or “agent of positive change through chaos”. The use of the term “Satanization” is of course yet another slam at those who disagree with his position, a transparent attempt to link opposition to worship of Loki with Christianity, which understandably has a rather negative connotation within Heathen circles.

But the insults don’t end there. Grundy even goes so far as to say that a Thorsman who doesn’t wish to include Loki in his own worship “was either wilfully ignorant of his friend-god’s tales to a spectacular degree, or in his heart thought that his fulltrúi was an idiot.”

So, disagree with Grundy and you are willfully ignorant. Charming.

Grundy makes much of the fact that many of the myths of the Gods and Goddesses for which we do have evidence of cultic activity are sometimes ambiguous. So, since Odin is a morally ambiguous figure who was nonetheless the recipient of worship, other morally ambiguous figures should also be worthy of such worship:

It seems clear to me, therefore, that Loki’s position in modern worship is, and most likely in historical worship was, similar to that of the other gods and goddesses: honoured for his help in the manners most fitting to his being; either feared or accepted for his dangers (which every deity has, from the obvious perils of Óðinn and Frigg’s impressive capacity for dirty tricks, to the terrible glaring eyes that Thórr shares with the undead and the worst seiðr-workers, to the many unnatural/ sacrificial deaths that Freyr and Freyja visited on the Yngling line); but seldom reviled.

Once again, he overlooks the fact that none of those other figures are presented as being completely repudiated, exiled, and doomed to torment by the entirety of the Aesir. None of those other figures are explicitly said to aid the enemies of the Aesir at Ragnarok (as Loki is, by steering the ship Nagalfar, filled with the enemies of the Gods). As usual in this particular work, Grundy ignores sources when they speak against the point he is inexorably pushing, and holds those same sources up on high when he can twist their words to support him.

In conclusion, Grundy’s book does not make the case it claims to. It is biased towards a particular outcome from the very start, takes the most advantageous interpretation of evidence it possibly can at every turn, ignores plain evidence in favor of tortured interpretations, personally smears those who disagree with the premise of the book, and relies mostly on the author’s position, rather than his arguments, to make the case.

This is not a work of academic exploration. It is a hit-piece designed to promote a specific agenda, perpetrated by the Warder of the Lore to move the official policy of the Troth as an organization. As such, it has succeeded incrementally since the original articles were published in Idunna, and I have every confidence that the Troth will continue to do so, and this shabby work will be cited as justification.

If you’re a Lokean, you’ll enjoy this book because it supports your preconceptions. If you’re interested in an academic treatment of Heathenry, this is a book that is sure to disappoint on just about every level.

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