Theodish Thoughts

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

Month: June 2017

The Ten Commandments

So a few years ago, in an apparent attempt to squander hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars defending against lawsuits which will inevitably result in failure for the state, Arkansas passed a bill requiring that the ten commandments be posted in front of the statehouse. The bill was sponsored by State Sen. Jason Rapert.

Yesterday the monument was installed on the State House lawn.

Hours later, at 4:30 AM, before the ACLU even had a chance to submit its lawsuit*, an apparently mentally ill man that professes “for our salvation we must have faith in Jesus Christ”** rammed his vehicle into the monument and smashed it into a zillion pieces.

Now, naturally nobody should go around illegally smashing property; I’m very much against it, and I hope this guy gets the combination of hospitalization and jail time that he needs and deserves. But honestly, guys in the Arkansas state legislature, this was a losing proposition from the start. I find it hard to generate a lot of sympathy. Let’s take a look at a few of the reasons why.

It doesn’t serve its stated purpose

The monument during its brief period of verticality

State Sen. Jason Rapert, the Christian zealot behind this whole mess, has stated in the bill (and which was parroted by Christian commentator Todd Starnes) that the reason for putting the ten commandments on the Statehouse lawn is because:

The Ten Commandments, found in the Bible at Exodus 20:1-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21, are an important component of the moral foundation of the laws and legal system of the United States of America and of the State of Arkansas

Really?

Which commandments would those be? Is there a law in Arkansas about only worshiping Jehovah of Sinai?

Will the police arrest anyone making a graven image?***

Christ on a Stick! Is there a law against taking the name of the “lord” in vain?

Will the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (Arkansas Division) beat people who keep the Wal-Marts and fast food restaurants in Arkansas open on Sunday?

If a child tells their mother to go fuck themselves, will they end up in juvie?

Killing, yeah, and stealing, too, but both of those are hardly unique to the Ten Commandments, Christianity, or Judaism. In fact, I can’t think of a culture that didn’t prohibit those, including, especially, pagan cultures, so it hardly qualifies as an example of the ten commandments being “the moral foundation of the laws and legal system”.

Adultery? Well, it’s illegal in the UCMJ, yes, but you won’t get locked up for it normally.

False witness? Yup, we’ve got perjury laws on the books, but see above about killing and stealing.

Coveting? That might be something Oceania’s Thought Police might like to be able to arrest someone for, but in this country, it’s not against the law to think. Yet.

So no. Nothing in those precious ten commandments has anything to do especially with “the moral foundation of the laws and legal system.” In fact, if anything, our current system of law has much more to do with Germanic common law, inherited from the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings, via the English colonies. You know, juries, personal rights, due process, that sort of thing that most people would normally associated with “the foundation of … the legal system.”

It’s Inherently Sectarian

Most people don’t realize that there are a lot more than one version of the ten commandments out there. Jews, Orthodox Christians, Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, they all have their own variations on the theme. You pick one for inclusion in an officially sanctioned and endorsed display by the state, and you explicitly establish whichever denomination of Christianity you picked (and let us not even consider for a moment that Rep. Rapert chose a Jewish version, because he didn’t) over all the other ones, and all the Jewish denominations, you didn’t pick.

Unless you carved one with a zillion footnotes with alternate versions, wordings, and so forth. But That doesn’t make for a good, pithy, “my religion is what’s important, not yours” statement, which is exactly what this stupid monument was intended to do.

It says “screw you” to the non-Christians

Pretty much by definition, if there’s a monument that has been explicitly established by a state government, placed on government property, and that monument not only has the historical context of a particular religion, but actually says:

I AM the LORD thy god

Thou shalt have no other gods before me

You ain’t my “lord” Jehovah of Sinai. You’re just a jumped-up desert god from a foreign folk who somehow managed to glom onto a winning formula to lie to people and tell them you’re the only god out there (although Asherah might have a word or two to say about that). And then turn right around and contradict yourself by admitting there are other gods. You might be a fine god for the Jews, but you make a piss-poor one for everyone else.

And the legislators in Arkansas, not caring at all, of course, stuck their finger in the eye of every Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, Atheist, Shinto, Amerindian religious follower, Wiccan, neopagan, and of course Asatruar out there, among many others. But they don’t care, because there are more Christians than the rest of us put together.

For now.

Fortunately the law is on our side, and the United States provides for protections against the sort of religious triumphalism that Rep. Rapert and his supporters were trying to impose. The reason we have individual rights and limitations on the powers of government is precisely to circumvent the sort of mob-rule mentality that says “there are more of us, so we can do what we want.” It is precisely to protect the rights of the minority against the tyranny of the majority. Republicans used to be all about that sort of thing. I hope they get back to that core principle.

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* Which would win because, unlike the Texas monument it attempts to emulate, this hunk of granite isn’t in the context of a whole bunch of similar displays from a variety of religions and sources.

** Insert you-must-be-mentally-ill-to-be-Christian joke here.

*** Consider here the irony of making a graven image of the Ten Commandments. Ahem.

Our post-x world

It may seem obvious, but it is worth pointing out that we live in a modern world that is “post” quite a few things. But as with most such “post-” designations, that doesn’t mean that the thing that the world is post- is necessarily completely gone. Going back to a Germanic (Heathen) mindset requires the shedding of many different layers that have accumulated over the centuries.

We live in a post-pagan world. Christianity, either of the Catholic variety in the west and north, or Orthodox variety in the east, took care of that in Europe with great gusto, attempting to replace not only pagan religious forms but social ones as well. But elements of the pagan folk-religious memeplexes* remained, whether in folklore and folk customs, covered with a Christian veneer, or even recorded in written form by pagan or Christian authors.

But we also live in a post-Catholic world. Thanks in large part to the Church’s own failings, the Protestant Reformation and the emergence of the Church of England profoundly shook European culture, and many of those pagan customs that had survived as folklore, folk custom, or which had been Christianized, were lost. Much written lore was also lost (as in the dissolution of the monasteries in Henry VIII’s England).

But then came the Enlightenment, and now Europe found itself in a post-Christian world. Radical concepts like democracy, the scientific method, and evolution set the stage for a fundamental undermining of mass confidence in religion to order society and provide personal meaning. Ironically, this brought with it a renewed interest in pre-Christian (pagan) art forms, writings, and philosophy.

But then came the Industrial Revolution, and now we were in a post-Enlightenment world. Mass production overwhelmed individual craftsmen, and utilitarianism and ruthless efficiency trumped aesthetic value. The last vestiges of the pagan customs that had endured all these centuries were nearly wiped out as the masses moved from agrarian communities where these practices and beliefs were maintained, into large cities to work in factories, which left no time or place for such frivolities. It was at this time, just as folklore and folk customs were disappearing, they were preserved by enthusiastic folklorists across Europe, such as Jakob Grimm. Two world wars served to sever those last links to the deep past, except in self-conscious revivals, with but few exceptions.

And now, of course, we are living in an Information Society post-Industrial world. One in which information is key, and available to anyone on a global scale instantaneously. The bywords for Western society (and increasingly much of the rest of the world) are radical individualism and relativism. There is a near-infinite choice of options literally at one’s fingertips, so tradition, whether 50 or 5,000 years old, is rendered devoid of meaning.

So where does that leave us? How do we “radical traditionalists” respond? We peel back the layers, one by one.

It starts by returning to a pre-Information Society mindset. Rediscover the value in tribe and family, and recognize that there is value in tradition for its own sake, precisely because it is tradition. We tune out the vapid mass culture blather and rediscover things like reading and conversation.

It continues by looking to a pre-Industrial world-view. Regaining an appreciation for craftsmanship, and honing our own skills. Homemade, slow food rather than processed fast food. Hand-made furniture and art. We should try to choose the hand-made over the mass-produced, even though we realize it might cost more. We gain other intangible benefits in return.

We then look for the pre-Enlightenment world-view. Open our hearts and our minds to a world filled with magic; a world of land-wights and gods, where rights brought with them responsibilities, and where it was recognized that science should not drive society, but serve it.

And the process continues on and on til we finally get to a pre-Christian mindset. Where tribe and clan matter. Where honor replaces blind obedience and shame replaces sin. Where sex is not a source of embarrassment or shame but is embraced. Where we are one with the world, not seeking to separate ourselves from it, whether spiritually or technologically. A world where we can fulfill our natures with the gods, and with ourselves.

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* A memeplex is a collection of interdependent and intertwined memes (core idea concepts). Christianity, for example, is a memeplex that consists of many different memes.

The Asatru Option?

Several months ago, conservative commentator and author Rod Dreher released his latest book, The Benedict Option, subtitled A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, and it made quite a splash in the conservative Christian community. I read it, and I have to wonder if there isn’t some kernel at the core of the idea that Asatruar could use as well.

Now, obviously, this is a book aimed at a traditionalist Christian audience, primarily Evangelical, Catholic, or Orthodox. And there’s certainly nothing theological in the book that lends itself to any sort of Asatru application. But there’s some social, educational, political, and economic ideas that warrant a closer look.

The thumbnail argument in the book is that the West is “post-Christian”, and thus Christians need a new strategy to be able to maintain their unique identity in the face of a secular-liberal culture that not only has social values at odds with a lot of Christian values, but which insists on actively forcing those values on everyone, including those whose religion increasingly finds those values odious or even directly against its tenets.

The strategy he endorses is based on the Benedictine monastic tradition; physical and cultural separation from “the world” (in other worlds, from the greater non-Christian culture in which we live), with the formation of explicitly Christian communities being highly recommended, and a rigorous application of Benedictine religious principles in the form of prayer, hospitality, the work ethic, and more.

In terms of cultural separation, he provides the following advice:

Secede culturally from the mainstream. Turn off the television. Put the smartphones away. Read books. Play games. Make music. Feast with your neighbors. It is not enough to avoid that which is bad; you must also embrace what is good. Start a church, or a group within your church. Open a classical Christian school, or join and strengthen one that exists. Plant a garden, and participate in a local farmer’s market. Teach kids how to play music, and start a band. Join the volunteer fire department. (p. 98)

If some of that sounds a bit odd coming from someone who is very much a champion of Christian conservatism, bear in mind this is the same guy who wrote Crunchy Cons, subtitled How Birkenstocked Burkeans, gun-loving organic gardeners, evangelical free-range farmers, hip homeschooling mamas, right-wing nature lovers, and their diverse tribe of countercultural revolutionaries plan to save America (or at least the Republican Party). I have only skimmed that one as of this writing, but it’s at the top of my to read list, for obvious reasons. It seems to check a lot of boxes for people I know in Asatru (again, looking past the Christian emphasis and focusing on the cultural ideals).

He also considers this sort of cultural separation as a tool for what he calls evangelization in and of itself:

As times get tougher, the church will become brighter and brighter, drawing people to its light. As this happens, we Christians should not be afraid to consider beauty and goodness our best evangelistic tools. (p. 117)

That should sound pretty familiar to those Asatru who embrace the idea of outreach by example. That is, by living honorable, joyous, simpler lives along the same patterns of our ancestors, and not being afraid to let our friends, co-workers, and neighbors know that we are Asatru, and that’s what informs our life choices, we might encourage more of those people to come home to Asatru.

His solution isn’t necessarily to pick up stakes and settle in the woods with a dozen people who think like you do, although I would daresay he wouldn’t rule that out. Rather, the preferred strategy seems to be to create pockets of culture-within-culture. Deliberately moving within walking distance of your church, for instance. Once you do that, your everyday life starts to be filled with people who think, and worship, the way you do. Doing so allows you to reinforce those cultural and religious values you want to embrace, and to limit the necessity of dealing with the secular-liberal culture that is so intent on spreading its memes to every host through mass media and cultural peer pressure.

Imagine that scenario, adopted for Asatru. Here in New Jersey, the tribe to which I belong has a bunch of members, but we’re scattered around New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York. Some live as much as three hours away from one another (we tend to meet in more central places, so it’s not quite as onerous for the outliers). But imagine we all decided, “hey, let’s all pick a small rural town and buy or rent houses there.” Would it be initially disruptive? You betcha. Jobs would be lost, new ones would have to be found. But in the meantime, we’d have a whole support network of people we know, and love, and consider kith and kin to help us through the rough times.

And imagine how easy it would be to decide where to open that hof!

There’s a lot in Dreher’s book that a non-Christian would need to jettison, and no mistake. Much of it is in the details of his recommendations; his obsession with sex, homosexuality, and related things is pretty awkward, but par for the course when one considers control of sex is one of the principle instruments of cultural control the Church has used over the centuries, precisely because it is such a fundamental biological urge. I’m certainly not arguing Asatru should embrace that sort of theological baggage.

But the core concept, minimizing the influence of the modern culture, and maximizing the formation of face-to-face communities which foment the creation of real bonds, I think is a perfectly valid one, especially for a religion like Asatru which finds itself also at odds with the modern secular, liberal, industrialized, corporatized, homogenizing, culture in which we live.

Let us not forget that we are not only living in a post-Christian culture, but we are also living in a post-Pagan culture. The Christians are looking at a loss of the dominance of their world-view in the West that has only taken place over the span of a few decades. We as Asatruar are dealing with a culture that saw many inherently pre-Christian aspects systematically destroyed and replaced. We’re dealing with a modern culture that has not replaced our own, but is in the process of replacing the one that replaced ours! Now, as part of the historical process, Christianity not only self-injected itself with Germanic religious and cultural concepts, but specific ritual and celebratory practices managed to survive under a thin Christian veneer for nearly a millennium, only to be finally almost obliterated by the Industrial Revolution and the flight of the agrarian folk who maintained those customs into the cities, where the rigid demands of industrial life made it impossible to retain them.

When we live in a culture that labels folkishness as racism, and a magical word-view as superstition, encourages us to be as removed from the production of food as possible, encourages radical individualism and atomization, and insists that we are somehow socially inferior if we don’t buy the newest gadget, and which insists that the latest social fad is a basic human right that must be enforced with threats of prison and economic ruin, and on and on and on, that’s a culture that should rightly be shunned wherever possible.

In its place we should seek to create a culture-within-the-culture that is based on our natural tribal affinities, on the cycles of nature and agriculture, on the concept of honor rather than shame and family rather than political party, on the knowledge that ours is a magical universe at its core and science for all its wonders is not the be-all and end-all of human experience, and on and on and on. And to do these things not online in blogs and emails and Facebook threads, but in the real-world, where you can walk down the street to a local ice-cream parlor and see one or two of your fellow Asatruar as you do so.

Take away the Christian baggage, and there’s a core concept in the Benedict Option that I think Asatruar would do very well to look into.

Does the Valknut Exist?

The three-triangle symbol

It’s probably not a question very many Asatruar ever ask themselves, but Eirik Storesund, writing at Brute Norse (great name for a blog, btw), says no, The “Valknútr” Does Not Exist. It’s worth reading the whole thing over there; I’m not going to respond to everything he says, at least not verbatim. It’s a very interesting article, though, and worth the time (it’s not too long).

Basically, his article lays out several different arguments:

  • The word valknútr (“slain knot”) doesn’t exist in Old Norse; it is a modern invention using ON words
  • The Norwegian word valknute refers to a completely different symbol in Norwegian
  • Although the symbol appears on picture-stones in many situations that could be described as related to Odinic sacrifice, it appears in many more in non-Odinic contexts
  • It is possible that the three-triangle symbol is actually the ON hrungnishjarta (“Hrungnir’s Heart”) after a suggestive passage in Snorri’s Edda, which would make it associated with Thor, not Odin
  • It is possible that the three-triangle symbol is associated with a horse-cult, based on pictural inscription evidence, which would make it associated with Freyr, not Odin
His conclusion is thus:

From a source-critical viewpoint there can be no doubt that the term *valknútr/valknutis dubious and unhelpful. Evidence suggests that the symbol’s original contents go far beyond the common themes of interpretation, which are none the less fossilized in both scholarly and neopagan discussion. There seems to be more to the symbol than death and sacrifice. 

I can’t offer a good alternative name. Gungnishjarta is too tentative, but maybe I am overplaying the harm a misnomer can do. Nevertheless, I think that the terminology has done more to cloud the symbol, rather than clearing it up. This should concern anybody invested in shedding light on pre-Christian Scandinavia.

The Norwegian valknute
Now, I hadn’t given the matter of the valknut* much thought. Like 99% of the Asatruar out there, I just figured the term and the interpretation were so ubiquitous that it was a given. That’ll teach me to not check primary sources on anything I read, even in a scholarly source. Turns out that Storesund is entirely correct when he says that the term is completely made up, and especially the association of the term with the three-triangles symbol. 
I’m going to go out of order and address the Hrungnir hypothesis next, because I think it’s an easy one. Unfortunately for those who espouse the idea that the hrungnishjarta mentioned by Snorri refers to the three-triangles symbol (such as Rudolf Simek**), the notion is contradicted by a very fundamental fact. Snorri mentions that the symbol known as hrungnishjarta has three points, like the giant’s heart:

Hrungnir had the heart which is notorious, of hard stone and spiked with three corners, even as the written character is since formed, which men call Hrungnir’s Heart.

The problem is, the three-triangles symbol commonly (and now we know mistakenly) known as a valknut has six points, not three. Geometry is not a friend to this hypothesis. Although it’s certainly possible that Snorri was being somewhat less than literal in his description, the only thing I can think of that would really fulfill the three spiked corners criteria is what is commonly known as the triquetra:
That brings us to what would seem to be the most interesting, if difficult to prove, element of the argument; that the three-triangles symbol (TTS) is found more often in a context that is not suggestive of Odinic sacrifice, but something else, possibly related to a horse-cult (which itself is suggestive of Freyr). This is really where it all comes to fruition, because even if the word valknut isn’t the correct ON term for the TTS, that doesn’t mean the symbol itself isn’t associated with Odinic sacrifice. A survey of the inscription evidence is needed to make that determination.
I confess I don’t know of any sources in English that really give a truly comprehensive study of three-triangle symbols on Norse picture-stones. There’s a book in German on the subject of the valknut, which I don’t have (and I’m not sure my German skills would be up to the task of reading), but I’m not even sure it would have the sort of comprehensive survey I’m thinking of.
That said, I will rely on the next best source available, and turn to Google image search, recognizing it is not necessarily comprehensive, and certainly not systematic. We do, however, come up with a number of examples:
Stora Hammar Stone sacrifice scene
This is perhaps the most Odinic context of a valknut on any picture-stone. We’ve got a clear sacrifice, we’ve got ravens, and we’ve got what looks like a spear. It screams “Odin” and is the chief source of the association of the three-triangles symbol with Odin. Odin is even seen in another frame of the stone, riding Sleipnir and being offered a horn of drink by a female:
Note that there’s no valknut here, but there doesn’t need to be. The identification of Odin is certain due to the eight legged horse he is riding. The identity of the figure offering drink is somewhat less certain, however; it could be a valkyrie, it could be Frigg, it could be a mortal noblewoman offering drink to a traveler whose true identity is unknown to her. I tend to think it’s one of the first two choices, however, although it’s very possible this refers to some other myth involving a cave, a dog/wolf, Odin, and the other figures in the panel. 
Tängelgårda stone from Gotland, Sweden
This one is probably a big source of Storesund’s and Hellers’ association of the TTS. There are three of them under the legs of the horse, after all, and another one behind the riding figure’s head. But look at the whole stone, and you’ll see something interesting:
Yes, that’s Odin’s horse sleipnir on the row above the horse with the valknuts between its legs. You can tell because it has eight legs, of course. And it’s worth noting the warriors that are following the figure on the horse; see what they’re carrying? Rings. And what’s a kenning for a King? “Giver of rings” (i.e., one who distributes wealth to his retainers). So here we have context for something Odinic, even if we don’t see a sacrifice per se. Odin is the god of kings, and his horse is right above the image of the leader handing out rings. 
Unless you think the stone is showing a bunch of Viking warriors wielding chakrams, of course…
Ahem
Lillbjars stone
The Lillbjars stone is an interesting one, and is doubtless also related to the possible identification of the valknut with horses. Here we see a figure on a horse. There’s nothing to really identify him as Odin, other than the presence of the TTS and what seems to be three interlocking horns (possibly representing the three droughts of mead Odin stole). As we saw above, a female figure offers the figure on the horse a drink. There’s really nothing particularly Odinic about this figure.
Broa stone
What I find interesting about this image is the fact that it is very, very close to the image we see on the Lillbjars stone, with a ship below and a female figure offering drink to a man on horseback. But here there’s no TTS. The image of a woman offering a horn as a sort of welcome to an incoming warrior, or leader, is a relatively common one. We see it possibly most famously in Beowulf, as Wealtheow offers drink to the guests in the hall. This could easily be a representation of that scene, as a matter of fact; Beowulf with his warriors arrive in Denmark by ship, and he is welcomed with drink. 
There are (many) other images of the TTS, but all the ones I’ve found are out of context; just inscriptions on box lids and the like.
So where does this leave us? 
I think there’s definitely room to question the significance of the TTS, although I think Storesund overstates his case. It’s only seen in one overtly sacrificial context (and that context pretty much can’t be questioned; it looms over the death, there are ravens and a spear, and Odin appears on the same stone in a different panel). But the other instances don’t necessarily map to anything Odinic; one is a “giver of rings” on horseback, and another is a leader of some sort, also on horseback. 
I might argue that the fact that they’re on horseback is incidental; what matters is that they are leaders. Indeed, that seems to be the only element of commonality in the picture-stones that I can tell. We have a sacrifice (which could be a jarl or other leader), we have a giver-of-rings (which is a leader), we have a figure being welcomed by a woman with drink (which is most probably a leader). 
I see a pattern here, but it’s not necessarily Odinic, and it’s not necessarily horse-related. 
Could what we today call a valknut really have been a symbol of leadership/jarldom/etc. to our ancestors? Now that Storesund (rightly) opens up the question, I think it’s worth exploring, although I don’t necessarily agree with his conclusions. It’s consistent with the examples I cited above (although it would imply that the scene on the Stora Hammar stone is a leader being sacrificed to Odin, that’s perfectly possible), but I’m not drawing any firm conclusions, and at this point it would be a hard row to hoe to change the popular conception of what the TTS means, but I think it’s worth a more detailed and comprehensive look than I’ve been able to give here.
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* Most of the time I’m going to refer to this as the “three-triangle symbol” or TTS for purposes of this article
** Rudolf Simek, Dictionary of Northern Mythology, “Hrungnir’s Heart” entry

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