Theodish Thoughts

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

Category: Book Reviews Page 1 of 2

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.

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.

Review: Encyclopedia of Norse and Germanic Folklore, Mythology, and Magic

I’ve always been a big fan of Claude Lecouteux’s work, and when I heard he was publishing a reference work relating to Germanic lore, I pre-ordered it at once. It finally arrived, and I’ve had a chance to look through it. And it is everything I had hoped it would be.

The obvious comparisons are going to be made between this work and other reference works on Germanic religion and mythology, such as Rudolf Simek’s Dictionary of Norse Mythology (probably the standard in the field, at least in English), Andy Orchard’s Dictionary of Norse Myth and Legend, John Lindow’s Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs, and to a lesser extent John Haywood’s Encyclopaedia of the Viking Age.

Where Lecouteux’s book distinguishes itself from those titles is both in its lack of focus on the Norse material and the Viking era (although it does not distance itself from either), as well as its inclusion of tons of folkloric references, rather than sticking to the same old themes found in Norse and/or Germanic mythology. And that in particular is where this work shines, since this is a focus that all too few such works, let alone Asatruar who endeavor to recreate the Germanic mindset, have.

That the book was originally written in French (and, I presume, published in that language) gives the entries an international appeal that is so often denied to those of us without fluency in a variety of European languages. The sources span the gamut from Germany, France, Poland, Scandinavia, and even further afield. Just having access to condensed entries based on that broad range of material is a reason to get this book.

But to take a few of the more interesting entries as examples of the breadth and depth of the coverage, we have subjects as varied as Hernoss, a sort of idol that was still to be found in Norway in the 19th century, a brief discussion of changelings (children who are stolen from their parents and substituted with supernatural children), a lengthy discussion of Perchta, and Ourk, said to be the name of the leader of the Wild Hunt in a district in the Tyrol. This in addition to the standard entries on Norse gods and mythological themes that one would expect in a book of this type.

All in all, this is a fantastic book, and well worth it for the wealth of folkloric sources, as well as the conventional entries informed by folklore, that it brings to the table. I don’t think it replaces Simek’s Dictionary, but rather it accompanies it well, filling in all manner of gaps. It definitely stands as a worthy addition to any Asatruar’s library. Five stars out of five.

You can buy the book here.

Review: A Book of Troth (2016)

The 1989 edition

When Edred Thorsson’s A Book of Troth was first published in 1989, it was a watershed moment for American Heathenry. Here was a well-written, comprehensive book on Asatru, written by someone with a relevant PhD, published by the largest Pagan book publisher in the country, Llewellyn. In fact, the book kicked off a whole “Llewellyn Teutonic Magick Series” in the 1990’s (including Kveldulf Gunarsson’s “Teutonic Magic” and “Teutonic Religion”). Anyone who wanted to could buy books on Asatru in any chain or Pagan bookstore.

But, sadly, it was not to last. The Teutonic Magick series was cancelled in favor of more Goddess- and Wiccan oriented works, and A Book of Troth went out of print.

The 2003 edition

In 2003, there was a new edition of the book, updated to reflect certain organizational realities (Edred was no longer head of the Ring of Troth, after a bitter and public dispute) and published by Runa-Raven Press. Alas, it was plagued by few people knowing about the reprint, and then the dissolution of Runa-Raven in 2012. Once again, the first mainstream book on Asatru was unavailable, except second-hand at exorbitant prices.

Now, however, a new edition has been published by Runestone Press, and it certainly does the work justice. The work has been completely re-edited and laid out anew in a refreshingly modern typeface (it’s a somewhat smaller typeface than the original edition, and the book is physically larger, which accounts for the difference in page counts between them). All of the illustrations have been redone in a more professional manner, or replaced with b&w photographs (as in the case of altar layouts).

There are two new pieces of additional material added to this edition; a forward by Asatru Folk Assembly Allsherjargodi Stephen McNallen, and an appendix with an essay by Thorsson; “The Idea of Integral Culture: a Model for Revolt Against the Modern World” that originally appeared in the journal Tyr in 2002. While the new edition differs drastically from the original 1989 edition, it takes its cue in this direction from the 2003 edition, which excised references to the Ring of Troth (now known simply as “The Troth”) and replaced them in a few instances with rather unflattering references, or changed the Troth-as-an-organization-specific text to a more general application. But even then, the new edition has gone through a complete cycle of editing, and minor tweaks to the text to improve readability are evident throughout.

The 2016 edition

This is a book intended for newcomers to Asatru, and as such it covers all the basics one could ask for. There are chapters on the nature of the soul, the gods, holy tides and rites of passage, wyrd and ethics, including the Sixfold Goal and Nine Noble Virtues, as well as ritual scripts that can be used by groups or individuals. Naturally, there is much more here as well, but suffice to say that this book provides the beginner (or even an old-timer) with all they would need on a practical level. It is of course a product of its times, and the author’s antipathy towards Christianity is evident throughout, as is his adherence to Dumézilian theory. I personally don’t consider those to be flaws, per se, but they should be noted.

In this way, the choice of this book for Runestone Press’ second outing is clear. It serves as a perfect complementary work to McNallen’s Asatru: A Native European Spirituality (reviewed here), which was published last year. Where McNallen’s book serves as a philosophical justification of, and even demand for, Asatru in the modern world, Thorsson’s book serves as the toolkit by which that call can be fully implemented on a practical level, from ethics to metaphysical understanding to ritual work, and sets the stage for those who wish to undertake an even more intense investigation into the lore of the Germanic peoples.

Having this book back in print is something that has been sorely lacking in modern Asatru. It’s wonderful to see it returned in such a well-produced way, that still manages, despite being a third edition, to bring substantive improvements to the work in such a way that those who own one or both of the previous versions will still find this one to be of great value. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

Chapter List: Troth; The Way; Elder History; The Newer History; The Shape of the World; Lore; The Way of Doing; Giving; The Holy Year; The Folk; The Gods and Goddesses; The Ladder of Being; The Truth of the Gods; The Earth and the World; In the Nights of Yore; The Edge of the Sword; The Soul; Rebirth; Wyrd; Holy Tokens; The Right Way; Into the Unknown; True Work; Tools and Setting; Ways of Working; Nightly Workings; Workings of the Life Tides; Kindred Workings; the Great, Greater, and Greatest Blessings of Troth; On Affiliating with a True Organization; On Becoming an Elder in the Lore; Glossary; Bibliography; and Appendix (as noted above).

Review: Staubs and Ditchwater

H. Byron Ballard is billed as “Ashville’s village witch“, and her first book, Staubs and Ditchwater, is a short but wonderful entry into the world of Appalachian hoodoo and folk magic.

The book is structured in topical chapters, each of which is separated by a relevant homey reminiscence about life in rural North Carolina. Her style is wonderfully easy to read, and she really makes it feel like you’re sitting on a porch on a mountain cabin, listening to her talk while the birds and bugs sing into the waning afternoon. She really has a gift for language, and her writing “in dialect” is done rarely enough as to not be annoying or a hindrance to understanding.

Chapter one sets the scene, giving a brief history of the region and its magical and religious history. Chapter two covers magical tools, chapter three materials, chapter four divination, chapter five provides some techniques and spells (or “receipts” as they are called), while chapter six wraps up the whole thing nicely.

What drew my specific attention, in my studies of Germanic folklore and folk-magic, were the similarities between what Ms. Ballard describes and sources from Trolldomr (Scandinavian folk-magic), Braucherei (Amish folk-magic, itself derived from west-German sources), and pre-Christian practices described in penitentials, sermons, Saints’ lives, and similar sources. After all, Appalachia was settled by Anglo-Scottish border country folk (right in the thick of the ancient Danelaw and Norse influence, not to mention the Anglo-Saxons) and Germans.

If the book has one failing, it’s that she doesn’t always differentiate between elements of her practice that are borrowings from Amerindian or African diaspora magic, although she does mention that such borrowings exist. Her second book, Asfidy and Mad-Stones, does seem to do a better job of making such distinctions. Still, it’s not an insurmountable problem, and doesn’t greatly detract from the overall utility, and wonderful readability, of this terrific little book.

If you’re at all interested in folk-magic, this is a great addition to your library.

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.

Book Review: Breaking the Mother Goose Code

I really wanted to like Jeri Studebaker’s Breaking the Mother Goose Code: How a Fairy-Tale Character Fooled the World for 300 Years (Moon Books, 2015). I’ve been on something of a folklore kick for the last couple of years, trying to incorporate as much Scandinavian, German, and English folk-practices into my own religious practice as I could, tracking down similarities, resonances, etc. So when I saw this book advertised as a pre-order, I leapt at it, thinking it would make some solid connections between the “Mother Goose” nursery rhymes and folklore, and possibly pre-Christian material as well. Based on the blurb on the back, that’s what it should have been:

“This book delves deeply into the surviving evidence for Mother Goose’s origins – from her nursery rhymes and fairy tales as well as from relevant historical, mythological, and anthropological data.”

Alas, it was not to be. What we get is an exercise in wishful thinking, circular logic, outright incorrect information, and discredited theories. The frustrating thing is that the author does make one excellent connection, which could have been ground-breaking, but was so intent on pursuing a defense of her ideological predilections that it is treated as a mere afterthought, and not given the development it deserves. More on that later. To begin with, this book is steeped in the feminist myth of the “Great Mother Goddess”, and the so-called matriarchal civilization that supposedly existed 6,000 years ago in an idyllic egalitarian world. The long-since discredited theories of Marija Gimbutas are prominently referenced (there are seven direct references to her in the index, and , and indeed the whole premise of the book rests on the notion that 6,000 years ago, a matriarchal civilization was overthrown by nasty patriarchal Indo-European invaders:

“Although we homo sapiens have been stomping around planet earth for at least 150,000 years, it’s only been during the last 0.04 percent of that time – i.e., the past 6,000 years – that we’ve been plagued by patriarchy.” (Studebaker, p. 90)

To say that this is not a view of history embraced by mainstream scholarship is an understatement. It is the anthropological equivalent of Flat Earth-ism. Even feminist anthropologists don’t feel she makes her case: “The story that has been presented by Goddess literature is neither the only story nor “the” story, despite its power and seduction for those who actively seek to re-imagine the past and to create a “usable” past for contemporary contexts. … It may seem more satisfying to be given the “facts” of temples, of shrines, and reverence for a deity, but as feminists we are sure that longer-term interpretive satisfaction is more complicated than that.” (Ruth Tringham and Margaret Conkey, “Rethinking Figurines”, in Ancient Goddesses: The Myths and Evidence, Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1998)

Indeed, entire books have been written (by female scholars, it must unfortunately be noted), refuting the myth of the idyllic matriarchal society destroyed by evil patriarchal invaders. Look no further than The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past Won’t Give Women a Future by Cynthia Eller (Beacon Press, 2000):

“Feminist matriarchalist interpretations of ancient myth are rather transparently driven by ideology. Mythical evidence can by its nature be given various incommensurable interpretations. In this case, it provides no real support for the proposed prehistoric patriarchal revolution, though it does offer a fertile field for imagination.” (p. 179)

Although an in-depth study of the fallacious nature of the matriarchialist view of prehistory is beyond the scope of this review, suffice to say that it is recognized as ideologically, rather than academically, based, and respected scholarship in the field finds the idea suspect at best.

That said, it would still be possible to find value in The Mother Goose Code, were it to engage in a study of the rhymes themselves, making attempts to link them to pre-Christian beliefs and practices. Unfortunately, the book places such a focus on the myth of some matriarchal Goddess culture that it largely ignores much of what we do know about pre-Christian society. And where it does try to make associations, it gets even the most basic facts wrong.

To take but one example, the author asserts that the Norse mythological figure “Angr-boda” (ON Angrboða) is “of the Vanir” (p. 59). This is untrue; Angrboða is, in fact, a Jötunn, and there is nothing whatsoever to link her to the Vanir in Norse mythology. That is but one of many instances of sloppy research.

The author makes similar leaps in trying to tie the figure of Mother Goose to pre-Christian religion to the 16th-century figure. As the number of examples of goose-related goddesses is extremely limited, the author makes the completely unwarranted assumption that anything to do with animals in the family anatidae (which includes ducks, swans, etc.) should also be swept up in the net, and later brings anything even vaguely bird-related in to make her case. It is perhaps understandable, since examples of actual swan-related myths are few and far between (which would seem to be a strike against the thesis; if Mother Goose were truly the vehicle for the survival of some Goddess-culture lore, surely geese would figure more prominently).

Here we also see the first of many instances of circular logic; birds are related to the Goddess, and thus Mother Goose is the Goddess, because she has the word “goose” in her name, so thus all birds are related to the Goddess…

The author also seems to be confused as to what, exactly, constitutes her pre-patriarchal society. When it suits her purpose, her Mother Goose/Goddess stretches back 6,000 years (before the invasion of the Indo-European peoples), but at other points in the text she doesn’t scruple to use examples from Indo-European religion and myth to make her case. Which is it? Is Indo-European Paganism the evil patriarchal destroyer, or is Christianity the evil patriarchal destroyer? Depending on the circumstance, either it seems will suffice. We see this most strongly in her use of the Frau Holle myths in Germany; Frau Holle is linked to either the Germanic goddess Freya or Frigg (the evidence is inconclusive), but either way both goddesses were part of the Indo-European cultus.

There is also a sudden divergence into folklore and folktales, which are, strictly speaking, outside the purview of a book on Mother Goose. For a book that is ostensibly concerned with a specific corpus of literature (the Mother Goose rhymes), to bring in a discussion of Grimm’s fairy tales seems somewhat extraneous. It does nothing to advance the central thesis that Mother Goose’s rhymes are a survival of a 6,000 year old social/magical/religious tradition.

The author also fails to make any sort of convincing case for why the figure of Mother Goose, specifically, would be a vehicle for retaining pre-Christian (or is it pre-Indo-European?) lore. As the author herself admits, the figure of Mother Goose is no older than the 16th century, well after the demise of Paganism in Europe.

Unfortunately, the author brings in yet another well-debunked myth; the “burning times”. In her conception, Europe was thick with tens of thousands of Goddess-worshippers (how they survived through five thousand years of patriarchal Indo-European oppression is left unexplained), who were put through a deliberate campaign of genocide (although it might more properly be termed memocide) akin to the Final Solution. And lest this seem like an exaggeration:

“Is there evidence that European foundling homes were designed to serve as re-education and death camps for the offspring of non-Christians? I believe there is. First, the timing is suspect. Foundling homes began when the witch trials began – in the 1300s. They quickly swelled in size and almost immediately began showing incredible death rates.” (p. 240)

Setting aside the fact that the whole myth of the “burning times” has also been thoroughly debunked, the section of the book that diverts into this discussion is not only completely non-sequitur, but verges on paranoia. It smacks of someone desperate to establish themselves as the victim of some enormous tragedy, and unfortunately it once again is completely without historical merit.

The author does not, however, make any sort of argument as to why Mother Goose would be the embodiment of the surviving Goddess Culture. There is a 6,000 year gap (or perhaps 500 years; she doesn’t make clear whether the villain in her piece are the Indo-Europeans or the Christians) that remains completely unaccounted-for. All of a sudden we’re supposed to think that a figure evolved out of nothing, to encapsulate all of that secret knowledge.

It should be noted that Mother Goose wasn’t the only figure that occupies that role. There’s also Old Mother Hubbard and Tom Thumb, who are both also credited with being the source of these fairy tales and rhymes as well. (Something that is mentioned only in passing in the current work.) Clearly it is not the specific figure that is significant, but the content of the knowledge.

This is all on top of the author’s other failings, she seems to take the view that any book published before she was born must somehow have some deep significance. That 1950 was the year in which the True Nature of Mother Goose was lost, until she rediscovered it in 2015. How else to explain her bizarre notion that commercial images of Mother Goose on the cover of books published well into the modern era has some hidden significance? Some commercial artist commissioned to do a drawing of Mother Goose in 1950 is not encoding any deep truths. He is making an image that will sell the most books, period.

With all these failings, it would be easy to set aside the book as a complete loss, but there is one idea that it raises that I find completely inspired, but which is lamentably not developed to any degree. That is the linkage between the nursery rhymes of Mother Goose (et al) and the Germanic tradition of charms and charming.

Simply put, in the Germanic tradition, folk charms take on the form of a story that is told, with the story itself being the magic spell that will achieve the desired result. We see this in the First and Second Merseburg Charms, which are a spell of release and a spell of healing, respectively. As the story is told, the desired result comes about. The use of the fairy stories and nursery rhymes in the same capacity is frankly an inspired one, but one which enjoys but a single paragraph in the book. Chapter thirteen is even entitled “Fair Tales as Magic Spells and Incantations”, but the rest of the chapter is given over to a flight of fancy wherein they are said to be representations of shamanic journeys.

This is perhaps the most wasted potential of the book. Imagine if you would a book that gave the original Mother Goose rhymes, with perhaps a chapter of background, and then spent the rest of the work explaining how each could be used in specific magical contexts. Assuming that at least some of them were surviving charms, what use was “Cock Robin” (#109 in the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes)? Which ones were based on 17th or 18th century events, and thus could be excluded? Which could be traced back to pre-Christian practices and beliefs (gods as well as goddesses)? All this potential for real analysis of the existing folklore, squandered in a single paragraph in favor of speculation on shamanic journeys. It’s both sad and infuriating.

It’s all the worse because when she does attempt to fit some ancient lore into the context of magic spells, it’s not the Mother Goose rhymes at all. It’s more conventional folk tales such as those found in the Brothers Grimm. Given the non-lyrical format of those tales, to try to shoehorn them into a European-type charm, and not the Mother Goose rhymes (which I thought were supposed to be the focus of the book)? The rhymes would seem to have been a much better fit, but they seem to have been forgotten as the author goes off on a fairy tale tangent.

There are some more prosaic failings with the book as well. The author spends a lot of time discussing various images of Mother Goose (and related images), but there’s not a single illustration in the whole book. While she does an admirable job of attempting to describe the images, the book would be much better served with a series of plates containing the images. This is a failing to be laid squarely on the shoulders of the publisher, rather than the author, however.

All in all, this book is a complete waste. It is based on an anthropological theory that has been debunked, invokes historical events that never occurred, indulges in circular logic, gets basic facts wrong, and buries the one flash of insight it contains in a stew of conjecture and wishful thinking. Some people who are already invested in the myth of a utopian Goddess-based matriarchy will doubtless eat this drivel up. Anyone who is actually interested in real scholarship and its possible application to modern-day religion will need to go elsewhere.

Book Review: Path to the Ancestors

I recently had the pleasure of ordering Swain Wodening’s book Path to the Ancestors: Exploring Ancestor Worship within Modern Germanic Heathenry from At 62 pages (not counting the glossary and bibliography) it’s a quick read, but that should not be mistaken for being light on information. Rather, it is succinct and narrowly focused.

Although it’s written from an Anglo-Saxon Theodish perspective, Asatruar and other Heathens will be able to make full use of this book. There are five chapters:

  • Why worship the ancestors?
  • Ancestor worship in the lore
  • Our ancestors
  • The ancestral altar
  • Rites to the ancestors
Perhaps the biggest departure from “standard” Asatru practice will be Swain’s argument in the first chapter that, since offerings to the Gods are best made on a family or group level, it makes more sense for individuals to focus their own personal practice on their ancestors. This is a defining attitude of Theodish Belief (and is held by some Asatru groups as well), and while many Asatruar may disagree with the premise, doing so in no way invalidates the concept of incorporating ancestor-worship into one’s routine of personal practices.
The second chapter necessarily concentrates (although not exclusively, of course) on the cult of the Matronae (“mothers”) that flourished during the Migration Age in those lands where Roman and Germanic cultures intermingled. There is ample archaeological evidence, and no small amount of textual evidence, for this sub-cult, and he (in my opinion properly) argues that it represents, if not cast-iron evidence, at least a model, for historical ancestor worship.
Matronae altars

If anything, I think this represents the weakest chapter in the book, as he misses an excellent opportunity to delve into the evidence around the cult of the Matronae, that could have provided a much-needed historical framework upon which to build the rest of the book. The evidence from inscriptions on Matronae altars alone would be enormously helpful in this regard. Alex Garman’s The Cult of the Matronae in the Roman Rhineland: An Historical Evaluation of the Archaeological Evidence is notably missing from the bibliography (although to its credit, the bibliography does include Philip Shaw’s excellent Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic World: Eostre, Hreda and the Cult of Matrons).

Swain does supplement his information from Germanic-based sources with practices from other Indo-European sources such as the Roman cult of the Lares and Hindu ancestor-worship practices.

The remaining two chapters deal with the practical side of ancestor worship, and leans heavily on Swain’s own practice developed over the course of many years. This is good stuff, but a few more examples of variations on the themes presented would doubtless have been helpful for some readers.

There is one question that the book does not address that I wish it had, as to my mind it is central to the question of ancestor worship, and its omission is a serious enough lacuna for me to take a star away from my review. This is the question of Christian ancestors.

Especially in the modern world, it is entirely likely that the overwhelming majority of our ancestors, going back many generations, were Christian (or at the very least, non-Heathen). A discussion of the appropriateness of offering what are essentially Heathen rites to non-Heathen ancestors would have been welcome. There are serious questions, both philosophical and theological, that are raised by the idea. Is your devoutly Catholic great-grandmother going to appreciate being the center of pagan worship? Is she even capable of responding, or is she removed from the world in a Christian Heaven (or Hell)? Is doing so disrespectful?

But noting this omission shouldn’t be taken as knocking the content that is there. Path to the Ancestors is a wonderful book, and explores a side of Heathen worship that in my opinion is largely overlooked in contemporary Heathen practice. I heartily recommend this book for any Heathen who’s interested in adding this forgotten, but vital, aspect of pre-Christian religion to their regular worship. I give it four out of five stars. 

Book Review: Baldr’s Magic

Baldr’s Magic: The Power of Norse Shamanism and Ecstatic Trance by Nicholas E. Brink, published by Bear & Co., 2014, was an enormous disappointment. As a Germanic Heathen myself, and a fan of Felicitas Goodman’s work using ancient images as guides for postures to be used in trance work, I was expecting a book dedicated to exploring the technique in the context of purely Germanic imagery.

What I got instead was a tedious recitation of outdated and discredited academic theories, used to bolster a clear radically feminist and New Age/Goddess worship-focused agenda. There is a single chapter (17 out of 306 pages in the book) that uses Scandinavian and other Germanic art as the basis of trance-postures, detailing eight postures in all.

Of those postures, one (the Tanum Lower World posture) is based on a petroglyph whose subject matter is obtuse at best, and which doesn’t seem to be in any actual posture other than simply lying flat (many of the Tanum figures lack arms). This is particularly odd, since there are numerous other petroglyphs to be found at Tanum which are indisputably human beings in various poses. (It might well be that the quite warlike activities of the other figures, holding axes and spears and the like, was the cause for their omission, since such activities would contradict the pacifist agenda of the book.)

The choice of the Hallstatt Warrior is also quite puzzling. The image of the statue in the book doesn’t look anything like the actual famous Hirshlanden Warrior statue; the author seems to have chosen some other piece from the site that happens to be missing the lower part of the right arm (unless the omission was deliberate – see below). And what is by the right hand of the Halstatt Warrior? A dagger. A pattern seems to be emerging in the choice of models for the eight postures. (And it also begs the question of how the author can establish that the right hand is supposed to be placed across the belly, if his model is missing the entire right forearm, and no trace of a hand on the stomach appears in his accompanying illustration.)

The other illustrations are also problematic. His “Nyborg Man” illustration clearly has two eyes, but the text says it is “…thought to be Odin because it has only one eye…”. Too, the posture doesn’t match the illustration – the one has the arms bent at the elbows, while the other has straight arms. Elsewhere he mentions that the bending of a knee can have a profound impact on the result of a particular posture, so it would seem a significant anomaly. The fact that no clear identification of the figure he is using is given is also troubling.

Finally, his choice of the Cernunnos figure as the model for a posture is baffling, as he even admits that the Gundestrop Cauldron whence it comes is of Celtic origin. His sole justification seems to be that the cauldron was discovered in Denmark. Various statues of Buddha have been found in Scandinavia as well, the result of trade; by that logic, one would be able to use those as insights into Germanic trance postures as well.

Even more disappointing than his actual treatment of the sources and postures is the rest of the book, which seems to be an advertisement for a Goddess-centered agenda that posits that the peaceful Goddess-worshiping people of Europe were conquered by nasty Gods-worshipping invaders, takes baffling but purely political shots at talk radio (?), and urges that a return to a life of pacifism, egalitarianism, deep ecology, connecting with the “ascended masters” and the “Akashic records”, and promoting femininity is not only sorely needed but imminent, heralded by such things as the end of the Mayan calendar (!) and the rebirth of the Norse god Baldr.

Mixed into this, of course, are the theories of Frazier (Baldr is described as a sun god throughout the book, which is a now-thoroughly-discredited theory from the 19th century, which sought to plug every myth possible into either that of a dying-and-reborn vegetative god or a solar deity and Christ-analog) and Gimbutas, who originally posited the existence of a peaceful pre-Indo-European culture that serious archaeologists and historians have thoroughly debunked.

The rest of the book is filled with what amounts to a new Edda. Supposedly revealed to Dr. Brink (his degree is in psychology) during his trance work, it tells the tale of the Vanir gods and goddesses, in the process rewriting numerous legends and giving everything a pacifist “oh, it is so horrible that Odin and the Aesir came along with their violent man-like ways” spin. In so doing, he finds it not only necessary to invent a goddess from whole cloth – the unlikely-named Moðir, the lost Great Mother of prehistoric Scandinavia – but also to move gods and goddesses from the Aesir to the Vanir to suit his needs. Ullr, for example, is now of Vanic stock, as are Idunn and others.

Somewhat more troubling is the fact that Dr. Brink seems completely unaware of the story of the death of Balder as recounted in the Gesta Danorum of Saxo Grammaticus. His characterization of Balder as the peaceful, innocent martyr who will return, Christ-like, to lead the world into a New Age of peace and harmony is completely at odds with the Balder of Saxo. In the Danish version (incredibly, the author claims to be of Danish descent but ignores the native Danish version of the story) Balder goes to war with Hother to force Nanna, who was previously promised to Hother, to marry him. Hundreds if not thousands are slain in the process, and Balder ends up fleeing from one battle and finally is slain by Hother in single combat. The Balder in Saxo is an aggressive, Viking-like warrior, depicted as one would expect of a son of Odin, and that is not the image that would fit Dr. Brink’s narrative. Given the centrality of Baldr to Dr. Brink’s book (just look at the title), a discussion of the alternative story would have been warranted.

His characterizations of some of the other gods and goddesses is similarly tilted. Any mention of Freyja’s violent temper and warlike nature (amply demonstrated in the Poetic and Prose Eddas) is omitted, for instance.

One of the hallmarks and requirements of this sort of journey and spirit work is that the results that one receives must be weighed against what is already known about the lore and the world around us. If a spirit journey tells us that the sun is actually a large ruby, then we must perforce discount that insight in a literal sense, as it is contradicted by what science tells us about the nature of the sun. Similarly, if a spirit journey flatly contradicts what we actually know about the nature and history not only of the gods and goddesses, but the prehistory of our ancestors, that information should be taken with enormous grains of salt, especially if it conveniently validates our political and religious preconceptions.

Unfortunately, it seems that Dr. Brink has forgotten, or failed to apply, that particular break on his own process. The result is a book that is at best fanciful, and at worst actively misleading, as newcomers to Heathenry are doubtless going to find this book and take what it says as accurate, without applying the necessary academic diligence to sort fact from fiction.

As I said at the top, this book was an enormous disappointment. If the author had stuck to a pure handbook, based on the actual figures from the archaeological record, illustrated with his own specific experiences as a guide for what one could expect from any given posture, it could have been a wonderful addition to the corpus of the modern Heathen revival. As it is, it is a bit of fluffy New Age tripe unfortunately associated with the Norse gods, and brings little to the table that someone with a copy of Felicitas Goodman’s book and a selection of historical Scandinavian and Germanic imagery couldn’t get for themselves.

Book Review: “The Tradition of Household Spirits”

I am a huge fan of scholar Claude Lecouteux’s work. A professor of medieval literature and civilization at the Sorbonne, his knowledge of European folk-customs, particularly those of the Germanic peoples, is simply encyclopedic, and every one of his books is a treasure-trove of knowledge both obscure and well-known, all put into a single coherent context that supports his narrative.

The Tradition of Household Spirits (Inner Traditions, 2013) continues this trend, this time focusing on the various house-gods, brownies, tomten, and other spirits of the house and hearth that populated (and, in places, still populate) Europe.

He begins with a study of the architecture of pre-modern European homes and other buildings, exploring how the physicality of one’s living spaces accommodates, and in many cases is influenced by, one’s beliefs about the spirits of place and home. The placement of corners, hearths, doors, and windows are all examined, setting the scene for an in-depth discussion of the spirits which inhabit those places.

There follows information on the nature of these spirits, how they differ from, and in many cases are related to, the various “spirits of place” which are more normally found outside and in more wild or agrarian settings. The origins of these spirits (often related to departed ancestors and the aforementioned spirits of place) is covered in depth, as well as how they were (and, incidentally, may be) approached, and finally how they relate to the spirits of the dead and their possible connection to the notion of the dead returning to haunt or otherwise interact with the living. The latter is a particularly important theme in Lecouteux’s work, and he has actually devoted entire books to the subject of ghosts, vampires, and the Wild Hunt.

The whole is rounded out with a collection of nuggets of folklore relating to house-spirits, the Alfar (Norse elves), and a thorough selection of recommended reading (often in French, of course, but with many works in other languages including English) and extensive end notes.

This book is invaluable to modern Ásatrúar who wish to develop more of an understanding of, and begin a practice of honoring, their house-spirits. All too often contemporary Ásatrúar focus on the Gods to the exclusion of those spirits who are “closer to home”, so to speak, which is a great shame and which robs us of a great deal of texture and nuance in our beliefs and practice. After all, what could be more “close to home” than a house-spirit dwelling in one’s own home?

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