Theodish Thoughts

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

Month: February 2017

Reconstructionism and social change

Going Viking is frowned upon in modern society

One of the problems with practicing a “reconstructed” religion like Ásatrú is that its beliefs and practices, by definition, have been kept in a fossilized state until relatively recently. Because of this, they have not undergone the sort of slow, society-driven changes that religions with an unbroken history of practice, such as Christianity and Judaism, have. Thus, many of the beliefs and practices of Ásatrú are considered not only antiquated, but in some cases downright unacceptable or even illegal.

As such, we as Ásatrúar are faced with the problem of what to do when we find our religious beliefs and practices conflict with the expectations and requirements of modern society. There are three possible courses of action in such cases: 1) abandon the questionable item, 2) modify the questionable item, and 3) retain the questionable item and face the consequences and pressures that may result.

The practice of animal sacrifice is a prime example of this conflict between tradition and modernity. That animal sacrifice was a central part of the religious life of the pre-Christian peoples of northern and western Europe cannot be denied; archaeology, history, and linguistics all agree. But in the modern world, slaughtering a pig in one’s suburban backyard, especially in a religious context is a highly dubious prospect (although I’ve personally been present at precisely such an event).

Not only are most modern people ill-equipped to perform the ritual (unlike in ancient days, when more rural lifestyles meant many more people were familiar with the basics of killing and dressing livestock), but social pressure against doing so is enormous. In some jurisdictions there are also legal obstacles that need to be overcome (although the US Supreme Court has ruled in Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. Hialeah (1993) that animal sacrifice is a protected form of religious expression under the First Amendment to the Constitution).

In this example, most Heathens opt to simply not perform animal sacrifices (option 1). Indeed, the form of blót performed by most Ásatrú groups today can be seen as a sort of faux sacrifice, with mead being used instead of the blood of the animal to “redden” the participants by sprinkling them. Some few, who have the benefit of training and/or private land where such rites can be conducted in relative privacy, continue to do so (option 3). Ásatrú as a whole is a large enough tent to accommodate all three strategies for dealing with these sorts of issues.

For myself, I tend to want to lean in favor of reconstructing the elder practices, and the desires of modern society be damned. Unless there are clear-cut legal prohibitions (such as the case of human sacrifice), I am of the school that holds that part of Ásatrú is the attempt to recreate the ancient pre-Christian Heathen mindset. And part of that effort means that modern mores (whether they be neo-liberal “social justice” or neo-Victorian social conservatism) must take a back seat to the ancient beliefs of our ancestors. This doesn’t mean I am against all innovation or change, but I think to immediately jump to change, without even giving the elder practices a chance to work in practical terms, is a mistake. Those ancient practices and beliefs were born of hundreds of generations of trial-and-error, and to turn our backs on that source of collected experience and wisdom seems unwise at best.

Hávamál 71

The lame can ride horse, the handless drive cattle, 
the deaf one can fight and prevail,
’tis happier for the blind than for him on the bale-fire,
but no man hath care for a corpse.
(Hávamál 71, Olive Bray translation)

I’m sure there are some who would look at this passage and see it as “ableism” or some such crap. But I see it as a celebration of people with disabilities.

Doesn’t let anything get in his way.
Even his own twisted legs.

This is an exhortation to anyone with a disability to stop focusing on what they cannot do, and focus instead on they can do. Make the most of what you have right now, rather than wallowing in self-pity and (in a modern context) trying to lower everyone else’s standards in order to meet your own abilities. Better to be alive and not fully able than dead!

This is the ultimate Harrison Bergeron sentiment, encapsulated in four lines of poetry.

Can’t walk? Fine. Ride a horse. But don’t demand that everyone else accommodate your limitation, and certainly don’t insist that people can’t have a blót out in a field because you can’t get your wheelchair out there.

Born without hands, or lost them in an accident? Fine. Do something that doesn’t require fine motor skills. But don’t try to say that printing runes on an inkjet printer is “just as good” as carving them into wood and staining them with your blood.

Deaf? Fine. Do something that’s visual, or kinetic, or literary. Don’t try to make the case that runic chanting or singing songs is somehow discriminatory, because you can’t participate.

The point is, don’t expect other people to change their own lives because of your condition. It’s up to you, regardless of the specific circumstance, to adjust yourself and your expectations to your own condition. Whether it’s psychological or physical, financial or educational, it’s up to you to step up and do whatever you are able to do. Don’t expect the world to fall on its knees and accommodate you; a steep mountainside isn’t aware of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

The key is to be clever enough to not have to climb that mountain in the first place. Set things up so your strengths are important, and your deficiencies are minimized. And never ignore or hide them. Embrace them. Turn them to advantages.

But never expect that the world owes you an easy time. Because the world is going to laugh in your face.

Book Review: Myths of the Pagan North

When I first saw Christopher Abram’s Myths of the Pagan North, I figured it was yet another retelling of the myths, maybe with a little analysis thrown in. Boy, was I wrong. This is a wonderful textual analysis of the various sources of northern lore, from runic inscriptions to skaldic poetry to the more familiar Eddaic poetry and Snorri’s Prose Edda. In it, he discusses the pros and cons of each source, giving valuable insights into the timing and motivations for each, and uses specific myths as case studies to demonstrate how different sources treat the same material and how the myths themselves morphed over time in response to changing social conditions.

The chapter on the mythological value of skaldic poetry alone would be worth the price of the book, but his insights into how the stories changed as Christianity became more dominant, and his thoughts on the relevance of the myths to the practice of religion are wonderfully interesting as well.

Highly recommended.

Beyond the Eddas and Sagas

One of the things that I lament most about the state of current Asatru is the seemingly self-imposed limitation to look at written sources such as the Sagas of Icelanders, the Poetic Edda and Prose Edda, and a handful of other sources (Beowulf, usually, and maybe Saxo and a few others), and then stop. This is usually supplemented by a little bit of information from archaeology, inscriptions, and the like.

I think this is an enormous shame and missed opportunity. There’s so much other material out there of interest and relevance to our recreation of the religion of our pre-Christian ancestors*.

First, of course, there’s medieval Saint’s feasts. I’m finding this a very fruitful avenue of exploration, as has been seen with my investigations into Yule and other holidays on the calendar. Sure, most of it was documented way past the conversion period, but when we see Christian saints with uniquely Scandinavian, English, or German attributes mapped onto dates that coincidentally happened to be close to or on holidays celebrating the Aesir, it’s worth looking into.

I mean, Christ on a stick! Can you look at Krampusnacht and think there’s not a pagan undertone there??? And there’s tons more where that came from.

Then there’s post-Conversion folklore. This comes from several different sources; Scandinavia, Germany, Iceland, and England. All of which were centers of Germanic activity, either during the Migration Era or the Viking Age. There are princesses and trolls, and a ton of lore on how to deal with the huldufolk/elves, tomten/nissen, and the like. It’s here that we see a lot of the day-to-day practices captured; how to deal with the landwights of stone, stream, lake, and tree, and the housewights as well.

It’s worth digressing for a moment into a particular avenue of research that I think has incredible potential. That’s the lore of the Pennsylvania Germans and especially the Amish. Two historical events did more than anything else to obliterate traces of paganism in modern culture; the Protestant Reformation and the Industrial Revolution.

With the coming of Protestantism (and its Anglican analogue in England), came a gut-instinctual revolt against anything that was perceived as “Popish” or Catholic. The problem from our point of view is that the Catholic Church, in its zeal to put an “official” church stamp on the whole of Europe, was more than happy to incorporate all sorts of local customs, many (most?) of which were pagan in origin, into their own customs. Thus, we see previously-pagan holidays completely co-opted by Saints’ feasts, but the customs that accompanied them — the songs, the practices, the games, the myths, and the food — endured. With the coming of the so-called reformers, all that was swept away by an austere, even Puritanical in some places, stripped-down Christianity that lost almost all of that pre-Christian practice.

What the Protestant Revolution couldn’t destroy, the social disruptions of the Industrial Revolution did short work of. Primarily by encouraging the old peasant class, in whose quaint customs and celebrations, handed down from time immemorial, a lot of potentially pagan custom survived, to move into the cities and take factory jobs. With the rhythm of the peasant-farming life disrupted, there was no reason to pass down the old customs that went along with it. Indeed, the energetic actions of the Victorian folklorists, both in Britain and on the Continent, were an attempt to at least catalog and capture some of this lore before it was lost forever by this process that was recognized at the time as destructive to these complex memeplexes.

Both of those disruptive forces are why the Pennsylvania Germans, and in particular the Amish and related folk, are so important to the work of reconstructionism. They represent a sort of crystallized “time capsule” into 16th century southwestern Germany. Because the society of the Pennsylvania Germans (especially the Amish) is so conservative**, it is incredibly resistant to change. It is precisely this sort of religiously-inspired agricultural life that has enabled certain pre-Christian beliefs and practices to endure, and that’s what makes them such a treasure-trove of potential lore. If one is interested in continental German lore in relation to Asatru, one cannot ignore the Pennsylvania Germans.

And that includes the practices of Hexerei and Braucherei among them, which has very specific parallels to Scandinavian Trōlldomr magic.

And that brings in a whole other level of source material; the still-living traditions in Scandinavia (which seems to have gone through the Protestant Reformation somewhat less vehemently than their southern neighbors; a number of Saints still endure despite the general aversion of Protestantism to the whole idea). Don’t forget that runes were still used in some of the more remote regions of Scandinavia into the 20th century, and there remains a whole body of lore (not to mention a large number of actual practitioners) who still practice the art.

Plus the whole grimoire tradition in Scandinavia. There are Black Books, Cipriania, and more. Did you know there’s a spell in one of the books that mentions Odin and Satan drinking together in a hall? ‘Struth!

Then there’s nursery rhymes. The vast majority seem to refer to historical events or political happenings from the 16th and 17th centuries, but there are a few bits and pieces that seem to go back way further. It’s a potentially great resource that, as far as I’m aware, hasn’t been systematically studied. And there are a ton more nursery rhymes than I ever knew existed. I’ve been starting to collect some sources…

I could go on, but I think you get the idea. There is of course the field of comparative mythology; the Vedic Hindu Indra has a lot in common with Thor, as of course do gods like the Slavic Perun. And oh my gods is there a lot of Slavic material, the surface of which has barely been scratched in an Asatru context. And of course I’m a huge fan of drawing inspiration and details from the old Christian penetentials, sermons, and Saints’ lives; a lot of it comes from the Conversion era, but they often go into exacting detail as to what good Christians are not supposed to do. Absolute gold.

So for you, my dear readers, I implore you; don’t stop with the Eddas and Egil’s Saga. Never stop seeking out potential avenues for research, but also be wary of being too optimistic. Sometimes there really are coincidences, and sometimes something that looked like a good idea at the time pans out badly. Never be afraid to discard an idea that doesn’t work out, no matter how cool it seemed at first.

* I say “religion” here, but it’s probably more accurate to say religions, as there wasn’t one single unified pan-Germanic pagan faith, but a complex of closely related practices, myths, and beliefs that varied quite consistently from tribe to tribe and geographical region to geographical region. Look, for example, at the use of the name “Holde/Holle”, “Perchta”, and then “Frigga” for what appears to be the same, or at least a closely related, goddess as one moves north from the Alps to Scandinavia.

** To this day there are Groundhog Lodges at whose meetings English is not spoken. And that’s not just the Amish; that’s the “ordinary” Pennsylvania German folk.

Gods and Giants / Æsir ok Jötnar

Over at Son of Hel, one of his correspondents quoted something which I’d like to riff off of (but by all means, please read Helsson’s response as well; he replies to the whole email, and I’m going to focus on a single sentence). The line is thus:

Hela is not a Goddess at all because she has Jotun genealogy and noted in sources always as a giantess.

First off, it should be noted that “having Jotun genealogy” is by no means a disqualifier to being a god. In fact, the Aesir have exactly the same sort of ancestry:

He is named Búri: he was fair of feature, great and mighty. He begat a son called Borr, who wedded the woman named Bestla, daughter of Bölthorn the giant; and they had three sons: one was Odin, the second Vili, the third Vé.

So we have Odin, son of the jotun Bestla. We also have Hel, daughter of the jotun Angrboda. Not to mention Vidar, who travels with Thor and who will avenge Odin at Ragnarok, who is said to be the son of the giantess Gríðr. And Tyr is said to be the son of the giant Hymir.

If one is disqualified as being a “god,” then the others must be as well.

The quote also says that Hel is “noted in sources always as a giantess.” But you know what? I checked the existing references that mention Hel by name, and can’t find a single one that refer to her as a jotun* (neither, for that matter, are her brothers Fenrir and Jormundgandr so called). Gylfaginning, In fact, Grimnismal implies that she’s not a frost giant, because it specifically separates them:

Three roots there are | that three ways run
‘Neath the ash-tree Yggdrasil;
‘Neath the first lives Hel, | ‘neath the second the frost-giants [hrímþursar],
‘Neath the last are the lands of men.

So what makes a jotun, or ás, or van? Obviously it’s not a simple matter of descent; if it was, Odin, Tyr, and Vidar would be jotuns, rather than Aesir. It’s also important to note that the jotun or aesir group identity can be transferred; we see this repeatedly throughout the sources. First, Freyr, Freyja, and Njord move from being Vanir to Aesir. Then Skadi, daughter of the giant Thjazi, moves from being a jotun to being one of the Aesir after marrying Njord.

The best way to think of these categories — Aesir, Jotunar, Vanir, Alfar — is not as separate “races” or even family lineages. They are tribes, and just as human tribes can see members go from one tribe to another by marriage, so too can one move from jotun to asyngjar through marriage. Just as one can be born into the tribe of the Svear and join the tribe of the Geats by swearing an oath to their leader, so too can be born a jotun and later join the Aesir through oaths of loyalty. And so forth.

But the key here is that nobody is actually going outside their family boundaries. All of the players here can trace their lineage back through to Ymir at the very least, and often much further down in the ranks of the jotuns than that. So this whole issue isn’t at all relevant to human races and ethnicities; these are groupings that in very real terms are social constructs, because they rely on a malleable identification that can be changed through recognized, and ritualized, mechanisms.

All this is why I’m very skeptical of the use of the term “god” in relation to these beings; it’s too generic. In one sense, it’s used to describe anything that is extraordinarily powerful, which would encompass both Aesir and jotunar. But it can also be used as a substitute for ás specifically, to differentiate them from the jotunar. But that brings into question whether beings who started in one category and moved to another can still count (which is what started this discussion in the first place).

So, much like the word “magic” is a clumsy generic substitution for dozens of words with very specific meanings and connotations, and carries with it a load of baggage that doesn’t necessarily apply, so too do I try not to use the word “god” any more, preferring to use the more specific terms Aesir, Jotunar, Vanir, etc.

So where does leave us with Hel? She’s definitely the daughter of a jotun and an ás who used to be a jotun. But she was raised into a position of authority by the chief of the Aesir, and was powerful enough to defy his wishes (refusing to release Balder from Hel). Nowhere that I’m aware of is she directly referred to as either an asyngjur or a jotun, leaving her precise categorization in doubt. Certainly not enough to justify the sort of sweeping generalization found in the quote.

UPDATE (3/26/2017): Updated to correct the reference, at the request of the correspondent.

* If I’ve missed one, please let me know in the comments.

Easter Woes

Easter/ Paschal/ Eostre/etc. etc. etc. is proving a tough nut to crack. The problem is that it’s not tied to any specific date; it can occur anytime between March 22 and April 25. When one adds Lent into the calculation, the start potentially goes back as far as February 10. Add Carnival/ Cwarmê/ Fastelavn/ Shrovetide/ Fasching/ Fastnacht/ Vastenavond/ etc., which happens before Lent, and the period is extended even longer. Usually another week. And then the transition from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar complicates things yet more.

As such, the whole thing tends to “sweep up” pre-Christian practices and beliefs during that three month time period like a deep sea fishing net. Parsing them all out is a bitch and a half. But still the work continues!

A Swedish custom for February 2

In parts of Sweden, February 2nd is called “moving day” because it was traditionally the day when contracts for domestic servants were up, and they could move to another situation (there was a similar day six months later in October).

In addition to the obvious weather-magic divination traditions associated with today, there’s also a wonderful tradition in which one toasts to the health of the house-wight who dwells in the hearth.

Tonight I drink the health of “Eldsborg,” the name traditionally used. Ours lives in a special stone we keep on the fireplace hearthstone.

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