Wednesday, May 1, 2013
Nature, Art and Beauty: European Inspiration
On a recent visit to Europe which took me to Iceland, Sweden and the Czech Republic, with very enjoyable stops in Reykjavík, Stockholm, Prague and Brno, I met with members of Ásatrú and other Pagan movements as well. I found that many of the people I spoke with shared my concerns about certain tendencies in the American form of Norse Paganism such that I have often elaborated on this blog. Like me, they are not at all enthusiastic about a military-oriented Paganism, have no intense attachments to guns or other instruments of death, and absolutely understand the need to completely distance any viable modern Paganism that wants to be taken seriously from anything remotely racist or Nazi or neo-Nazi. I am sad to say this, but it is only when I break bread with my European Pagan brothers and sisters that I actually feel hope for Norse Paganism as a peaceful, inspirational spiritual path that is completely free of violence and hatefulness.
Since I have found it very hard to discuss, let alone reach agreement, with American Norse Pagans about the concerns and values that my European friends seem to quite readily understand, I have concluded that my natural spiritual home is probably not in the USA, but in Europe. I see America as a society heavily burdened, if not fatally flawed with a psychologically and spiritually destructive heritage of racism and violence, and this spills over into many products of our culture. Indeed, I do at times wonder about simply relocating to Europe, where in so many ways I feel more at home, but there are other things that tie me to America and will continue to do so for a good many years to come, such as a desire to do my little part to make the country a slightly better or at least less awful and mean-spirited place through my involvement in education. Also, there are practical considerations that would not make such a relocation an easy task to execute. As things stand, I expect to remain in America as an out-of-place, internationalized American for some years to come, and to continue to develop my spirituality in consultation with my European Pagan friends.
In this essay I will focus on explaining the inspiration I received on this trip. The inspiration was in fact of two sorts, one from nature, and one from art. In Iceland, with my old friend Baldur (an actual human being who is a father, husband and teacher, not the god who dies such a tragic, youthful death in Norse mythology!), it was the power of nature that most spoke to me.
I wanted to get out of the city to see mountains and rivers, and we drove north from Reykjavík one cold but clear Sunday.
As had first happened to me during my first sojourn in Iceland in 1996, I was absolutely bowled over by the raw power of nature as it is manifested in the Icelandic landscape.
Everywhere you turn there are mountains in the distance, rivers and streams cutting through the rough countryside, waterfalls rumbling, hot springs erupting,birds wheeling and screeching in the sky.
The wind is strong, the blue in the sky seems more vivid than in other places, and rocky hills and stone outcroppings are easy to understand as the dwellings of sacred beings.
I felt revived and renewed, and remembered that it was in Iceland that I first experienced Ásatrú in a beautiful outdoor ritual in which we gathered around a roaring fire in a stone circle framed by a towering mountain decorated from above by stars twinkling in a dark autumn sky.
The artistic inspiration grew out of both talking with Pagans in Iceland, Sweden and the Czech Republic, and observing my friends and their surroundings. I reflected on how important art is to Paganism, and how the best types of Pagan religion that I have come across have always had a highly developed artistic dimension. The first Ásatrú ritual I ever participated in in Iceland was totally suffused with art, from improvised music by skilled musicians, not just amateurs banging away on acoustic guitars, to a banner on which each person attending was invited to write or draw something of significance to them.
This artistic flair carries over into the leadership, or perhaps the reverse should be said, that the greatest Pagan leaders. in Iceland at least, have often been artists. The first leader of Icelandic Ásatrú, Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson, was a poet and singer who was open-minded enough to get on the stage in front of punk bands in the 1980s and recite traditional rímur poetry, though by this time he was a white bearded old man, not someone you would expect to be hanging around with punk musicians, let alone getting on stage with them.
The current high priest of the Ásatrúarféladið (Ásatrú Fellowship) in Iceland is a professional musician and composer, Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, who has composed prize-winning film scores among other achievements, and recently released a CD with contemporary musical backing of the very rímur poetry that Sveinbjörn used to write and perform. The CD is called Stafnbúi on the 12 Tonar label, see http://www.12tonar.is/2012/21_steindor-hilmar-stafnbui.php .
Compare American Ásatrú, where two of the founding figures were both military men, Stephen McNallen and Valgard Murray. The apple doesn't fall far from the tree, and Icelandic Ásatrú accordingly took an artistic direction, and American Ásatrú a martial one. This is not to say that American Ásatrú is lacking in art, as there is a lot of poetry and music that can be found at such sites as http://www.odins-gift.com/index.html , but my own experience is that the artistic impulse is overshadowed by war-related elements. I would be curious if readers know of other examples of artistic contributions playing a major role in Paganism.
In Sweden, two of the leaders of the Swedish Ásatrú group that I know in Stockholm are artists, one a musician and photographer, the other a sculptor.
I am not aware of any of the Pagans I know in the Czech Republic being artists,per se, but one of the places we met, a lovely teahouse in the Castle district in Prague called Čajový klub „Duhovka.“
The Duhovka had a very artistic, bohemian atmosphere. And why shouldn't it be bohemian? The Czechs were the original Bohemians, you see, and Bohemia is the name of one of the Czech regions.
In Lithuania and Latvia, folk musicians have led the way in the most vibrant modern Pagan movements there, such as Lithuanian Romuva, led by the skilled folk singers Jonas and Inija Trinkūnas and their folk ensemble Kūlgrinda.
See http://www.last.fm/music/Kūlgrinda .
Most of the artistic Pagans I know in Iceland and Europe have little interest in war and weapons. Their eyes and art look toward nature and beauty, not anger and death. However, here I must contradict myself. There is another branch of Norse Paganism-inspired music in Europe that does celebrate weapons, war, anger and aggression, this being Pagan-related "death metal" heavy metal music. It is not to my taste, but it certainly has its fans. Taking this into account complicates the nice binary opposition I was speaking of earlier. It requires me to say that yes, there are also things in European Paganism that I do not like! However, I tend to think that this kind of music appeals mainly to young people, and I would speculate that as they mature in both life and spirituality, they will not look at this music the same way anymore. If some grizzled death metal fan in their sixties wants to write in and tell me I am wrong, that they still start and end the day headbanging and chanting angry death lyrics like they did when they were 16 or 22, that is fine!
Age, that is, a person's position in the unstoppable life-cycle, is indeed something to consider. I am 53, closer to old age than to youth, and perhaps some of my preferences and perspectives are rooted in my own aging process. I seek beauty, calm and inspiration in nature, and hope for a form of Paganism that is in tune with those needs and aspirations. Perhaps younger men and women need different things, more angry, energetic and expressive of the stormy passions of youth.
Be that as it may, I also think of this in a broader frame, beyond a strictly Pagan context. Look at any great religious tradition, from Christianity to Judaism to Buddhism to any other, and you will find that art has played a key role in the development, propagation and perpetuation of that religion. In Prague, I stopped into a former medieval convent, now a museum, displaying Czech Christian art. See http://www.avantgarde-prague.com/prague-guide/things-to-see-in-prague/museums/convent-of-st-agnes/ The artwork was overwhelming in its concentrated force of expression. I have had the same experience contemplating ancient Hindu or Buddhist or Greek art. The articulation of religious themes and sensibilities through art is one of the secrets of success to any of the world's most well-known and respected religions. In contrast, there has never been a religion that ever became great or long-lasting simply by celebrating war and martial valor. That makes good patriotic propaganda, but its artistic merit may be limited. I believe the same will apply to Paganism, whether Ásatrú or other types. In the end, whoever comes up with the most profound, powerful and enticing religious art, in whatever media, will also be the ones to create the most enduring and important forms of modern Paganism. So, while some might call for warriors to take up arms, I call on poets to take up their lexicons, painters, their brushes, and sculptors, their clay. Express your spirituality through the most beautiful art you can muster, and we will all be the richer for it!