Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Updating the Viking Hero

The author of this blog is receiving interesting responses to his proposal to explore developing a more liberal-leftist oriented form of Asatru-Nordic Paganism. Some people seem to like the idea; some seem to think it is absurd, even laughable. The father of a Norwegian-American friend opined, "I read the blog. Isn't the Norse ethos one of masculine strength and heroism rather than of concern for the weak? Somehow, I never thought of Odin as a liberal. Those virtues certainly imply a heroic ideal." I think this reaction honestly reflects the fact that beginning with Richard Wagner in the 19th century, we have all been fed a steady diet of Viking warrior imagery that leaves little space for consideration of more peaceful and non-macho aspects of Norse Pagan tradition. The author's attempt to swim against this tide would seem to be a distinctly minority position, but that does not mean it is hopeless. The author invites those with interest in this to submit their own selections and interpretations of Norse lore that suggest a kinder, gentler form of Asatru spirituality.

As a contribution to that enterprise, the author wishes to return to the topic of the earlier entry, "Would the Vikings Use the Euro?," to suggest that we need to update the concept of the Viking warrior hero to suit our modern world and conditions, rather than pretend that we can return to a medieval "paradise" where each man, armed with axe, sword and spear, would fight to the bloody death to defend and provide for his family on their lonely Norwegian farm, cold winds blowing through the fjord. Once more, I take inspiration from the modern Scandinavians, who have turned away from war and concentrated on peace and prosperity for a good many years, with excellent results that I would argue show the approval of the gods.

Whither the Viking warrior? The hero of the Scandinavians today is not swinging an axe to bash in his enemies' skulls, but wielding the force of education, knowledge and artistic sophistication. The battles of today's Scandinavia are fought not on a blood-soaked field of combat with ravens hovering overhead for a taste of fallen Viking flesh, but in the boardroom, the research laboratory, the university, the exhibition hall, and the arena of international respect and cooperation. Instead of focusing on narrow tribal concerns, modern-day Scandinavia awards its highest honors to those who further the cause of world peace. The austere beauty of Scandinavian design is respected around the world. Nokia cell phones and Ikea furniture have sailed to all corners of the world and peacefully conquered many hearts, minds and markets, bringing home bounty to the people of Scandinavia as surely as the Viking raiders and traders of a thousand years ago, and providing peace and security in a way that the original Vikings could not. Unless someone wants to assert that the Norse spirituality that we treasure in such texts as the Eddas and the Sagas is completely absent from modern-day Scandinavia, and that, in effect, "the only good Viking is a dead Viking," fossilized and frozen with matching sword, shield and axe, the author would argue that we need to take account of the peaceful evolution of Scandinavia and factor this into our interpretations of Norse tradition, and find the threads that connect past to present.

So the author urges those of like mind to take heart and not be timid. Let us not be mesmerized or intimidated by the stereotyped image of the Viking warrior. The heroic ideal has evolved, like Scandinavia itself. The author would argue that providing peace, security and plenty were always the primary aims of the Scandinavians, from the Vikings to the present. Certainly, the Middle Ages were times when war and violence may have been necessary to achieve those goals, and the stories of those blood-soaked days are naturally gripping and engrossing and always will be, but let's not forget, we are not living in those times. Furthermore, it would be highly ironic if we modern-day Norse pagans were to in any way endorse the stereotype of bloodthirsty, macho thugs created by medieval Christian clerics to forever vilify the Vikings. The medieval Scandinavians were people who valued art, poetry and intelligence to high degree, as their rich medieval literature demonstrates, and spent most of their time farming and fishing, not rampaging on Viking raids.

Odin is above all the god who searches for knowledge, who travels far and wide. He sacrifices his eye for wisdom, not for weapons. In the view of this blog's author, it is Odin the god of knowledge, poetry and wisdom who speaks most clearly to today's world, not the Odin who leads the doomed forces of Ragnarok.


kauko said...

"Nokia cell phones and Ikea furniture have sailed to all corners of the world and peacefully conquered many, bringing home bounty to the people of Scandinavia as surely as the Viking raiders and traders of a thousand years ago"

Just a minor point, but I can't help myself but point out (perhaps because of my Finnish heritage) that Nokia is a Finnish company and Finnish people aren't Norse, hell they aren't even Indo-European.

Maelstrom said...

Damn, you got me. I was hoping no one would catch that, but indeed you Finns are crafty! Can you suggest something I could substitute there to make the same point?

kauko said...

"Damn, you got me. I was hoping no one would catch that, but indeed you Finns are crafty! Can you suggest something I could substitute there to make the same point?"

Hehehe, well you know, I've heard that the Vikings feared the Finns, thinking they were all powerful sorcerors. I guess Finland does get grouped in with Sweden and Norway and Scandanavia in general from centuries of Swedish rule giving it a lot of influence.

Can't think of anything except the already mentioned IKEA (probably since they just opened on nearby).

Seeing Eye Chick said...

I always like the story about Thor and Sif, where Sif is accused by Loki of Sleeping with him/being unfaithful to Thor. And Thor doesn't even question her prerogatives, but just in turn kick's Loki's ass among other things. Rather than say, drowning Sif in a Bog with her hands and feet bound with shorn hair.

But then I liked it that Thor's brute strength was to me, anyow countered by a kind of innocence. Some people mistook that for being dumb but I thought it had more to do with having a good heart. Having to live a life in which you must be suspicious of everyone, Sucks.

Pitch313 said...

While I'm not sure that the "PostModern Scandanavian" will replace the "Viking Hero" in the imagery and world view of Asatru or Paganism in general, it is true that Viking forays to pillage and raid are a thing of the past.
but one theme of Paganism is to recapture the spirit of the past.

As for a "Norse" contibution to the high'tech world we live in and work through, remember OPERA from Norway. Opera is a very good and widely used web browser. Try it out. You might like it.

Matt BP said...

If we are talking about Vikings we are also talking about all their cultural machinations - so we would be talking about the Rus, who went on to found Novgorod and Moscow. Including Russia shows the vast gamut of the axe wielding Viking legacy - great achievement and great calamity in almost equal measure.

Finns of course aren't Vikings but they are usually included as Scandinavians who are not Indo-European (incidently pre-WW2 Europeans just used the word Aryan to describe Indo-European). However, not speaking an Indo-European language doesn't divorce the Finns from cultural exchange and some similarities with the surrounding Indo-European Scandinavians, Karelians, et al. I think that example of Nokia holds up!

Perhaps it is a shame that because of the cultural museum effect of the old sagas and stories that the Heathen gods tend to be seen in such old fashioned ways - if it had been a truly living and breathing religion this past 1000 years then we wouldn't need to be having a discussion of how they relate to now.

Maelstrom said...

I think your "museum" comment is very much to the point. It is enjoyable and instructive to visit the museum--but who wants to live in one?

Gwendolyn H. Barry said...

I really enjoyed the polarity and modern liberal perspectives. Good blog!

Sophie Gail said...

Maelstrom, keep leaning left! During a dark place on my Pagan path, I started asking, "If Paganism was all that great, why did our ancestors give it up?" And the answers I found surprised me.

The Celts in Asia Minor--the Galatians in the New Testament--were early converts. Christianity spread among the Celts in North Africa, Mediterranean Spain, Iberia, and Ireland. There were Christians in Ireland before Patrick. They were a long time coming around to the Roman version of Christianity.

What motivated them? As far as I can tell, they were tired of tribalism. They were tired of headhunting and vendettas, and being macho all the time. And if you were separated from your tribe, if you were sick or old or widowed or orphaned, you were wolf bait. Christianity offered a new world view that did not depend on your ancestors or the language you spoke. If you were Christian, you were supposedly entered into a community that transcended tribalism.

So, 1) you could finally lay aside a load of macho BS. 2) Christianity appealed to women, especially wealthy, educated women--just as Paganism in the last thirty years has appealed to educated feminists.

And 3) Jesus said, "I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was sick and you comforted me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was homeless and you sheltered me." Just like many missionary societies today, early Christian missionaries brought a higher standard of living to many Pagan communities. So, yes, in many places Christianity was imposed with a sword, but in many other places people were handed bread and butter; and they were realistic enough to know which side of the bread should receive the butter. Amen.

I think there are harder economic times ahead. If Pagans cling to their notions of rugged self-reliance and individualism, I think Paganism will finally become a passing fancy. So hold out for a kinder, gentler Heathenism.

I recommend to you Irish Jesus, Roman Jesus by Graydon F. Snyder and The Barbarian Conversion by Richard Fletcher

Maelstrom said...

Dear Sophie, thanks for sharing your thoughts and providing some provocative points, but I am really not interested in converting to Christianity, which seems to be what you are driving at. I appreciate certain points of Christianity, but I chose a different path a long long time ago. I do not see Christianity as any kind of panacea for Paganism's woes. I know that is Richard Fletcher's point of view, but I beg to differ.

Matt BP said...

I am not sure where Sophie Gail's proffered texts got their information from, because Christianity certainly didn't stop tribalism and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Pagans, in particular the Celts, had strict policies in place to maintain peace and provide hospitality to strangers. It is interesting to posit the idea that our ancestors simply gave up the old ways because the new ways were fluffier. Christian missionaries in Ireland kept the old practices alive for longer than you might suspect - the coupling of the High King with a mare that was then ceremonially eaten was kept going for at least 300 years after the coming of Patrick. My own ancestors, the Ui Dubhda in Connacht, didn't convert to Christianity until the 1600s, some 1150 years after the coming of Patrick, yet they held land and political power.
Conversion for most of Europe was often political, and the lack of thorough conversion 'all at once' of the general populace is evident in the large amount of stories and folklore that has its roots in pre-Christian Europe, from Robin Hood to La Bufina. For both Germanic and Celtic Europeans, the conversion to Christianity has been likened to a grove of trees being hacked off at the stumps and Christianity grafted onto the top. The truth is that no-one ever entirely stoppered their Pagan past and what is happening now is a natural re-emergence to prominence of a past that never entirely went away.

Maelstrom said...

Thanks, Matt, for a very eloquent statement of a perspective that I largely share. I have argued these issues in the past, and may do so again in the future, but just wasn't in the mood today. The logic of saying that whatever came later (i.e. Christianity) and replaced or overpowered whatever existed earlier (Paganism in Europe, native traditions in other regions) is a very one-sided line of reasoning. Something I like about modern-day Paganism, not only my chosen path of Asatru but the larger family of Pagan traditions, is the ability to pick and choose from the past what works best for us today, not a sterile argument about winners and losers of world history.

Raleigh said...

What a thoughtful post.

I think the conversion of Western Europe had more going for it than just its appeal. What is often forgotten is that within a few generations of Constantine, the locals were forced to convert.

That said, what about the intrepid viking who trekked across the Steppes, founded the state of Rus (the forerunner of Russia), all on the way to trade with the Byzantine empire in glittering Constantinople? They came, they traded, they returned... they were not converted.

Matt BP said...

its possible that trade helped with the later conversion of the Scandinavians, as it would have meant there would be small numbers of Christians with trade links living there already.

Anonymous said...

For a "kinder, gentler" form of Asatru, I highly recommend Galina Krasskova's "Sigyn: Our Lady of the Staying Power." Sigyn is all about the virtues of love, loyalty and constancy; of standing by our loved ones despite their flaws. She has a quiet strength, unlike the more ... aggressive and extroverted Freyja and Thor.

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