Theodish Thoughts

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

Category: scholarship

Asatru Study Resources, Part One

Time to put that library of mine to work! A friend and tribe-mate of mine recently asked, in my capacity as goði, to recommend some resources, as she would like to start studying Heathenry again. She’s got a good grasp of the basics in my opinion, but she specifically asked me to treat her like a newcomer, so this is what I’ve come up with. I’m sharing it here, as I think others might find this sort of thing useful as well. Everything listed below is going to be in English; if you’re fortunate enough to know Old Norse, Anglo-Saxon, or modern Icelandic, you’ll have a leg up on those of us who aren’t fluent in those languages.

This is just a first pass at the fundamentals, and only scratches the surface of what’s available. More to come for more advanced and specialized information.

1. Mythology

A good grounding in the mythology of the folk is essential. My suggestion for those starting out is to begin with a modern, readable, retelling, and then go back and read the originals. You’re much more likely to retain and understand what you’re reading, if you’re broadly familiar with the story and characters to begin with.

The Norse Myths by Kevin Crossley-Holland. An excellent modern retelling of the myths. He doesn’t take too many liberties, and will leave the student with a solid understanding which will serve them well as they tackle the originals. Available in hard copy. A far inferior retelling from 1859 by George Dasent is available for free online.

The Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson. This is one of the foundational works that describe the mythology and our gods, and most of what is known as “the Norse myths” comes from this work. It was written a few hundred years after the conversion of Iceland to Christianity, but suffers from an attempt to systematize and rationalize the material, and an occasional misunderstanding by Snorri of what he was recording. Still, it’s essential, and you want to try to find a translation that includes the whole thing; most versions today omit certain sections. Available in hard copy or free online.

The Poetic Edda. Finding a decent translation can be a trial, but there are some out there. Generally speaking, the more modern the translation the more accurate, but you’ll also find a bunch of 19th century translations on the web for free. Be aware that almost all translations shuffle around some of the strophes to make them make more sense, which along with variations in the various original manuscripts, accounts for many of the discrepancies you might notice if you compare versions. Available in hard copy (Larrington has an excellent translation) or free online (not so great a translation, but has the advantage of being free; there are others out there, too).

History of the Danes by Saxo Grammaticus. Originally written in Latin, the first nine books of this work are generally viewed as being myths that have been euheremized (i.e., they treat the gods as if they were regular mortals). There are some great variations of the “regular” myths, including a completely different account of the death of Balder. Keep reading the rest of the work if you want to venture into more historical accounts. Available in hard copy (I like the Ellis-Davidson translation, even though she only covers the first nine books) or free online.

The Nibelungunleid. A continental German version of the story of Sigurd the dragon-slayer. While it is also found in the later poems of the Poetic Edda, it is not only useful to compare variations, but is also enjoyable in itself. Available in hard copy or free online.

Beowulf. Famous for torturing middle school English students across the western world, it gives great insight into Anglo-Saxon views of Germanic customs and beliefs. Available in hard copy (a terrific facing-page translation) or free online.

2. History

As an historian by training, it’s easy to go crazy suggesting a ton of modern books on the history of the Migration Era and the Viking Age. I have disciplined myself to only choose two of the most readable. I’m also including a few other primary works, which give a wonderful view of a fully-formed Heathen society at its height, through its conversion to Christianity.

The Early Germans by Malcolm Todd. A great survey of the Germanic tribes during the Migration Era, who caused the end of the western Roman Empire. Available in hard copy (used).

The Vikings: A History by Robert Ferguson. There are literally dozens of surveys of Viking-era history, but this is a particularly readable and comprehensive one. Available in hard copy.

The Sagas of Icelanders. Rather than list out a bunch of individual sagas, I’m going to point to this excellent collection. It’s not every saga, but it’s all the major ones and a good number of minor ones, and the translations are first-rate. Available in hard copy, but you can find a number of individual sagas online for free, but they’re mostly 19th century translations.

Heimskringla by Snorri Sturluson. A collection of many different sagas of Norwegian kings, the first (Ynglingasaga) could legitimately be listed under the mythology section for the same reason that Saxo’s work is; it describes a number of mythological events and beings as if they were mortal. Available in hard copy or free online.

3. Religion

Why have separate sections on mythology and religion? The former is the mythological base, while the latter is the practical application.

Asatru: A Native European Spirituality by Stephen McNallen. This provides the philosophical foundation for modern Asatru, answering the question, “why be Asatru?” Also see my review for a lot more commentary. Available in hard copy.

A Book of Troth by Edred Thorsson. A re-edition of the classic work from 1989, you can read my review for details. Where McNallen’s book answers the question “why?”, this book gives the “how?” (although it is a little dated, it’s still very valuable). Available in hard copy.

The Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe by H.R. Ellis-Davidson. I recommend anything by H.R. Ellis-Davidson, but unfortunately many of her books are out of print. The good news is they can often be found in used bookstores very reasonably.  This is one of the best. Available in hard copy (used).

4. Folklore

I firmly believe that folklore from Scandinavia, Germany, England, and Iceland is key to understanding the various wights of the land and home, which formed the basis of the everyday religion of our ancestors. They’ve been Christianized in many cases, but they are still invaluable in trying to recreate the beliefs and practices of our folk from pre-Christian days.

Scandinavian Folk-Lore by William Craigie. One of the better collections of folklore from the 19th century, when it was all the rage. Available in hard copy or free online.

Scandinavian Folk Belief and Legend by Reimund Kvideland. A more modern version, available in most large bookstores, and a great introduction. Available in hard copy.

5. Reference

Some books aren’t meant to be read straight through, but are still recommended to supplement your studies.

Dictionary of Northern Mythology by Rudolf Simek. Terrific book with concise but informative entries on a variety of different subjects. Available in hard copy.

On scholarship and mysticism, part two

In part one of this essay, I laid out some definitions and tried to frame the argument between those who value scholarship and those who value direct mystical experiences, and who themselves practice magic within a Heathen context.

In this part, I’m going to examine some of the friction between those who practice magic, and those who do not.

I should preface this by saying that I myself am a practitioner of various sorts of Germanic magic; seiðr, galdr, trolldomr, and others. But I do admit to running hot and cold with it. Sometimes the rational part of me says “there’s no way this is real”, but then eventually experience brings me back.

Now, in my experience, a lot of resistance to the practice of magic in an Asatru context comes from two places. First, the people doing it are just importing it from modern neopaganism, or just making it up, and that (naturally) offends the sensibilities of those who tend towards the reconstructionist end of the spectrum.

Where those in this first category get into trouble, however, is that in their zeal to toss out the non-Germanic bathwater, they are also throwing out the Germanic magical baby. The written sources, and archaeological record, are replete with examples of rune magic, seiðr, spá, and so forth. Just because most people are doing it wrong is no reason to reflexively condemn those who are doing it right.

Second, the people who object simply do not hold a “magical worldview” and think that those who do practice magic, in whatever form, are either delusional, or misguided, or deliberately gulling others. As John T Mainer recently put it on the Troth’s Facebook page:

Heathenry is so rooted in rationality that sometimes it is hard to tell whether you are in an archaeology class, a literature study group or ethics class. … The things I have gained from my esoteric practice, from mystical experience, initiation and journey have prevented me from being a danger to those that I love, as using drugs to control pain and spasm had made me. They restored my ability to sleep, to learn, to love, to laugh. I had gained all these things by the same mystical practice that we, as respected heathens, especially strong male heathens, are expected to distance ourselves from or even ridicule.

And this is an attitude I simply cannot understand, especially from Heathens claiming to be on the reconstructionist end of the Heathen spectrum.

These people, for whom the go-to text is Vilhelm Grönbech’s Culture of the Teutons, and who state that one of the most important goals of modern Asatru is to “recreate the Heathen mindset” seem to draw the line at tribalism, or honor, or even Luck, but who refuse to see that the “Heathen mindset” included the realization that the world is infused with magic, and that those with the knowledge could affect the real world through those arts.

This truth is seeded throughout the literature and the archaeological record, and not just limited to the workings of the Gods. Egil Skallagrimson was a runester as well as a warrior and poet. In the Saga of Erik the Red, we hear of Thorbjorg, who traveled from farm to farm as a seiðkona. There are inscriptions with obviously magical runic inscriptions that not only do not make any sense linguistically, but some of which would actually have been hidden from view. The reality of magic was a part of the experience and expectation of our Heathen forebears, and any attempt to recover the “Heathen mindset” must perforce include it.

There can be no Heathen mindset without a Magical mindset. To try to have the one without the other is as doomed to failure as an attempt to have Heathenry without Thor. You’re missing an essential piece.

On scholarship and mysticism, part one

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read part two here.

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

The Religion with Homework

“Asatru is the religion with homework” is a common enough saying in the broader contemporary Asatru community. The expectation is that every Asatruar should be at least conversant in Old Norse, have read the Eddas and as many Icelandic Sagas as possible, and be constantly reading scholarly works on archaeology, philology, history, linguistics, anthropology, and the like. Comparisons of dusty treatises from the 19th century with the latest scholarship are to be regarded as de rigeur. It is thought that it’s not enough to simply live as an Asatruar and worship the Gods, and those who are not constantly acting like a PhD student are somehow shirking their obligation.

Speaking as someone who does love that level of scholarly work, I have come to the opinion that this is bunk.

To be sure, there is a place for scholarship, and for those who are so inclined, such scholarly pursuits are worthwhile and admirable. However, for the vast majority of Asatruar, it is simply not necessary to engage in that level of scholarship. As long as there are reputable contemporary works that distill down all the high-end scholarship into easy-to-digest books, that should be enough for the vast majority of Asatruar out there.

Think of it this way – are Christians expected to learn Aramaic, Greek, and Hebrew? Do they really pick and choose a church based on its adherence to the 1913 Kansas City Statement of Faith vs. its adherence to the 1927 Evangelical Catechism? Would they even know the difference? Or do they choose a church based on the people that belong to it? Do they study books of religious philosophy from the 19th century? A few do, sure. But the vast majority don’t. They have their Bible, which they might read, and they have what they learn from sermons when they go to church, and maybe a couple of popularly-written books that explain Christian thought on a particular topic from a particular point of view.

And that’s okay. Everyone doesn’t have to be a scholar.

No real Asatruar would skip this book…

That’s not to say there cannot be discernment in sources, even when they’re written in a popular style that doesn’t have a list of sources and footnotes half again as long as the book itself. Even if not everyone is a scholar, those who do prefer a scholarly approach will have opinions about such books, and will write reviews, which others can then use to form their own opinions about whether such-and-such is a book worth reading.

The scholarly ideas within Heathenry wouldn’t go away — far from it. But they wouldn’t be expected to be at the forefront of every discussion about practicalities in Asatru, and those who didn’t have a relevant quote in Old High German on every subject wouldn’t be implicitly looked down on in some circles. There would still be scholarly books published for those who were so inclined, but popular ones too, that wouldn’t be looked down on for a paucity of footnotes.

For myself, I’m writing my own “Beginner’s Book” for Asatru. What I think I’ll do is actually release it in two editions; a Popular Version, which just has the essence of the beliefs and practice of Asatru laid out, with a very small and easily-approachable list of further reading for those who are so inclined. There will also be an Annotated Version, with exactly the same material, except with all the footnotes, citations from the original languages, list of scholarly works cited and so forth. I have a shrewd idea which one will sell better…

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