Attending the American Academy of Religion conference in Chicago last week, I was treated to the usual amazing buffet of scholarly research and perspectives on all manner of religious traditions, including a number of fine panels dealing with contemporary forms of Paganism. Conversing with some American scholar-friends who have also been involved in various ways and to differing degrees with Norse Paganism, I was inspired to again consider something I have toyed with in the past. This is the prospect of experimenting with creating a new form of modern Norse Paganism that would consciously de-emphasize, if not altogether discard, certain aspects of Asatru-Heathenry as this has developed in America. It will be no surprise to long-time readers of this blog that I am talking about rejecting overmuch concern with military heroism and warrior machismo, on the one hand, and with ethnic identity on the other, which, as has often been discussed, has an unfortunate tendency to mutate or degenerate into racist sentiment, or provide support or cover for such.
If we took out the macho celebration of weapons and war, the old notion of the ultra-violent Viking, and the appeal to Northern European white identity, would there be anything left, or do these two elements really contain the essence of American Asatru and Heathenry? (Notice how I use the word "American" as a qualifier--I think Scandinavian Asatru is actually on a different track and is not constructed on the same foundations and appeals as the American variety). I have no doubt that there are lots of young men who are drawn to Asatru because of the appeal of warrior machismo, who like to imagine themselves mighty Viking warriors, swinging big swords and axes against the enemies of their tribe and then celebrating their heroic victories with big horns of beer. Certainly there are men in prison coping with daily threats of violence and men away in the military or who come back from Iraq, Afghanistan or other battle zones who find it very meaningful to imagine themselves the heirs of the warrior traditions of old.
However, the prison and the battlefield are not the main reality of life for most people in this country or looking further, on this planet, even though the rapid growth of both the US prison system and the US military might make it seem so to many. The prison and the battlefield are dramatic and painful aspects of our world, to be sure, but should we take them as the template for life in general, requiring a recourse to a religion that rationalizes and celebrates war and violence? Is this how we wish to choose to imagine the world for ourselves and generations to come? To use a scholarly term, is this the "imaginary" that we wish to define our hopes and horizons? Crime, punishment, and war? Survival of the most brutal in a land of endless brutality? Is this all we believe that human beings are capable of? Sometimes it seems our popular culture wishes it so, and we, by purchasing and participating in that popular culture with its endless repackaging of warrior-against-the-world scenarios, from Rambo to World of Warcraft, to Grand Theft Auto to The Hunger Games to The Walking Dead, we add to the strength of that imaginary. It starts to seem normal to think that life is nothing but a violent, manly struggle to survive; there is nothing else. We need gods who will help us fight. 24/7 Ragnarok, we're all gonna die, let's go down fighting. Right?
I say, away with that. Done with that. Close the book on that. Anyone who wants to is free to go play those games and watch those movies and shows, but please don't come to our religion and ask us to sanctify your love of violence or work out your personal PTSD for you. (That is a serious problem, no joke by any means, and if you are suffering from that, there is therapy for that and I sincerely hope you take the step to go get it). We want to imagine the world in a different way. A society that struggles for peace and acceptance, not conquest and punishment, that tries to help people deal with their real problems and not offer them phony, fantasy solutions built around bombs and weapons.
Likewise with a focus on "ancestral tradition" that often sounds an awful lot like a plea for white privilege dressed up in medieval drag. You want White Power? Please, go join the Aryan Nations or the Ku Klux Klan. There are also some really basic problems with Americans claiming to be the heir of "Northern European spiritual tradition." America is a land of mixture and diversity. Most "white" people in America are a mixture of assorted European backgrounds that they have largely forgotten. To cling to "Northern European" and hence Asatru or Heathenry as your ancestral tradition is a bit silly when your most immediate ancestors may have had little knowledge of or interest in any particular country or culture of Northern Europe. If you are an American Heathen or Asatruar, you probably became interested in that region and its traditions as a teen or a young adult, and this is fine, but to say this comes from your ancestors speaking through your genes and not from the books or web sites that you recently encountered is not the most direct or straightforward statement of the course of events, but would seem instead to involve a projection into the past of interests that you just recently hit upon. And honestly, how many truly Pagan ancestors do you actually have knowledge of, rather than just imagination of? Is it possible that most of your ancestors, at least the last thousand years' worth, were Christian? Do you really think they are waiting for you in Valhalla? Doing what, chopping up their Bibles and crucifixes with swords and axes?
For these reasons, I think the claim of ancestral tradition is not legitimate for most Americans interested in Norse Paganism, including myself. I know I came to it through books, later through travels and studies, and I am not ashamed of it. I do not feel I have to dress it up into something more grandiose and impressive by saying "my ancestors are calling me...my Czech and Lithuanian (are they Northern European? hmmm... some would say Eastern or East-Central European) ancestors are calling me to become a Northern European Heathen and worship Odin." Like hell they are! Some of my recent Czech ancestors were Catholic priests and my Lithuanian grandmother was a particularly anti-semitic Catholic, but I can find no record of any Pagans, and certainly no Norse Pagans,among any ancestors that I have information about. If anything, it is the Thor comics of my youth and the Hilda Ellis Davidson books on Norse Paganism that I encountered in college that nudged me in this direction. What I am doing now with my own spirituality is my own choice and responsibility, with nothing to do with my ancestors. If I were to really follow ancestral tradition, I would have to go back to the Church,as that is the only "ancestral" spiritual path I have any real evidence about. And if I found out that I had some Jewish ancestors, which is possible, would I have to then become Jewish on alternate Saturdays?
I am sorry if what I am writing may be annoying or offensive to those American Asatruar or Heathens who have invested a lot of themselves in the claim of ancestral Northern European identity. You have to determine for yourself if that claim really stands up logically against what you actually know of your ancestry. I encourage you to take the test, and if you come out the other end realizing as I have that you cannot honestly or logically attribute your own spiritual inclinations to anything that was bequeathed to you by any ancestors that you actually have knowledge of ....RELAX. It's not so bad. You have now become an independent agent who can think for him or herself about what you want to do or be in matters of religion and spirituality, and of course in regards to life in general.
Returning to the main theme of this essay, if we jettison warrior machismo, weapon fetishes, and claims of Northern European ancestry, is there anything left of Asatru that we can still make use of and build upon? Yes. In fact, there is plenty.
There is still Scandinavia. We can still look to this region as a special, sacred place that we can visit in pilgrimage, like others visit Jerusalem, Varanasi and Mecca. And, no longer being weapon-bearers, we can more easily appreciate what Scandinavia has become since the Viking age: a region with the greatest shared prosperity of any place on earth, and the least militarism. A society that has turned away from making war to making a good life for its people, which was always the goal of the Vikings, in fact. Violent they were, at times, but never for its own sake. They went in search of plunder and economic opportunity. Scandinavians today have proven you can have a good society without overmuch reliance on violence or warfare.
There is still the Scandinavian literature and mythology. We can still study Old Norse and also modern Scandinavian languages, but with our eyes opened to new possibilities. We will pay more attention to the multiple functions of the gods, and not only focus on warrior aspects. We will see new meaning in how Frey gave up his sword, and how Odin was in most of his myths not a warrior king but a seeker of magical wisdom. We will reflect on the myth of Ragnarok as an epitaph for a "world of warcraft" that could not forestall destruction. We will note that after all the madness of war, nature regenerates, the world is restored, and nature proves mightier than war.
We can still enjoy the Saga tales of warrior heroes as a bit of violent entertainment, but without taking their violence as something paradigmatic or sacred. The Sagas were written first and foremost to entertain, and we have to think more about that. Furthermore, when we take a closer look at a figure like Egil Skallagrimsson, we will be more inclined to note that his main occupation was poet, not warrior. With a de-militarized perspective, other more peaceful elements of the old writings will become more clear to us. We will note for example that the Old Norse sagas describe a failed struggle to create a society of laws, not weapons, with a great deal of space devoted to legal proceedings at the regional Thing councils and the annual Althing. We will ponder the extent to which the tragedy of Icelandic history was that endless feuding,the primacy of weapons over law, crippled the early Republic and left it ripe for colonization, first by Norway then Denmark.
We will note too that Iceland gained its independence not through taking up arms and hying to the sea in longships but through a peaceful process of cultural renovation which helped persuade Iceland's colonial rulers in Denmark that the country did deserve respect and autonomy.
What I am writing here may seem strange to Americans who have grown up in American Asatru and Heathenry, which has been so strongly affected by the tastes and predilections of a generation of military men like Stephen McNallen and Valgard Murray. It would not seem strange however to Asatruar or Heathens in Iceland or Scandinavia, however, where war and weapons are not such a priority. When I have attended rituals in Iceland, Norway or Sweden, I felt a peaceful, spiritual mood that I find gets buried in all the militaristic trappings of the American version.
In a de-militarized, de-racialized Norse Paganism, we will still have the Pagan sacredness of nature. We can have renewed appreciation for all the mystery of nature that is upheld in the Eddas and elsewhere. All hail to the World Tree Yggdrasil, the foundation of all life and the living link between all realms of existence. All hail to the ocean, the realm of Njord! All hail to the earth, the mother of Thor!
We will still have rituals like sumbel/symbel and blot, but we will remove the weapons and warrior decorations. We can deck the halls with art that represents the sacredness of nature and the spiritual quest for higher realities. More runes, less rifles, so to speak!
We will still have the love of Norse-Germanic tradition, but without making silly or poorly grounded claims that we love this stuff because it is flowing in our veins,in our bones, our genes, our DNA. Cutting out the "blood and soil," quasi-racist crap will free us to make Asatru truly open to ANYONE who wants to participate, who finds the gods, myths, poems and other aspects of Norse-Germanic culture attractive or inspirational. It will no longer be possible to claim that Asatru-Heathenry is a cover or support for racism, and Asatru-Heathenry will have an easier time standing up against the racist thugs who like to use Norse-Germanic symbolism and folklore for Nazi-istic purposes.
Now is where YOU come in. I would like to ask readers to submit their ideas for rituals and other activities that would draw on Norse-Germanic tradition, but steer clear of racial and military overtones in order to glorify peaceful human existence and the sacredness of nature. Let's experiment. Send in your thoughts, speculations and experiences, and we can put together a rough guide to a non-racist, non-militarist Asatru.
We will probably need a new name for this, as well, to not cause confusion with existing forms of Asatru or Heathenry in America that we are trying to distinguish ourselves from. With my friends at AAR, we proposed Peaceful Tru, or more humorously, Wimp-a-tru, to underline our disinterest in military machismo. Perhaps Tree-Tru with reference to the World Tree as a symbol of nature and the interconnectedness of all life? How about The Great Northern Peace, to be symbolized by that Northern Lights?
Here are some opening suggestions. Imagine a ritual gathering around a fire. We could pass a drinking horn in the manner of a sumbel, but modify the sumbel to have one round of the horn dedicated to participants stating their concerns and intentions for social betterment, world peace, environmental preservation, and other positive goals of this sort. As a sacrifice, we could burn a mock-sword or maybe a mock-bomb made of a flammable substance like paper, cardboard or wood on which we each would have inscribed our wishes for an end to war and a turning away from violence and aggression, including our personal problems with cruelty, aggression and force.
I know there are those who will find this project ridiculous or sacrilegious. That is fine; to each their own. There is room for everyone to develop their own approaches and sensibilities. After all, there is no Asatru Pope, no central authority enforcing orthodox dogma last time I checked. If what I am proposing here doesn't suit you, feel free to ridicule or reject these ideas and stick with what works for you. Those who do see something of worth here are invited to think on these matters and participate as they see fit. As Bob Dylan sang in 1966, "Time will tell/Just who has fell/And who's been left behind/When you go your way/And I go mine." Above all, Let OUR way be a good and productive way!