Wednesday, June 27, 2012

A bit of theology

This was something I posted on the Troth mailing list about the nature of the gods.

The biggest reason I left Catholicism was that I ceased to believe in
an almighty, all-powerful, all-knowing God.  Not only do I not believe
in one, I don't even want one to exist.  That would be horrible.  To
have such a Being with the personality of the Xtian God is even worse.
 ("I created you to love me and I love you unconditionally, but don't
question My will.  If you survive the unexamined life I demand of you,
you get to spend eternity praising Me forever!  Won't that be nice?")

I spent a few months as a hard atheist in 2008, but I couldn't keep it
up.  I eventually took the nontheistic fallback of there being a
divine Sacred, but it's like water: we are made up of it, it surrounds
us, we need it to live, but worshiping it would be not only crazy, but

Against the backdrop of this eternal Sacred are the gods.  The gods
are persons who embody the Sacred more than we do.  They have
different bodies and live in a different reality than we do.  They can
hear prayers and in some cases grant them, but they are far from
all-powerful and we know they are mortal.  Odin knows a lot, but He'll
be the first to admit He doesn't know everything, hence His travels.

Like anyone else, the gods like having friends and enjoy spending time
with their friends.  As the sagas make it clear, the medieval Norse
saw themselves as friends of the gods.  So we can pray to them if we
like, but the gods certainly will be more present and happier with
people who are generous to Them in return, and welcome them into their
lives as more than just spiritual sugar-daddies.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

All about Loki

There’s a (thoughtful, well-mannered) kerfluffle going on in the Troth about whether or not Loki should be hailed in official Troth sumbels.  As I’ve said before, my husband Sven is a Lokisman, so we’re supporting any effort to include the Red-Haired Stepchild.  We’ve been called on this, once with outright hostility, so it’s time for me to put words to digits as to what Loki means to us and why we hail him.

At the Ragnarok, Loki is going to lead the forces of chaos against the Gods, riding in on his ship built of drowned men’s nails.  (N.B. It will sail from the cruise ship terminal in San Diego Bay.  Full bar.)  He and Heimdall will kill each other, Loki’s son Fenrir will kill and be killed by Odin and Loki’s child Jormungandr will kill and be killed by Thor.

It’s hard for me to wrap my head around the Ragnarok.  I was raised Catholic, but in the southern United States, so anything that smells like the Book of Revelations gets my hackles up.  Sven has no problems with the idea of Ragnarok except that he and I would be on opposite sides since my Norse deities are Thor and Frigga.  Be that as it may, I prefer to see Ragnarok as a “worst case scenario” which will occur if Odin does not reason out a way to prevent it. 

Sven disagrees, saying, “The way I feel about Ragnarok is that it is going to happen, as it is wyrd for all of us. Whether I *want* it to happen or not is irrelevant. It will happen, and we know how it is going to play out. As such, there necessarily has to be at least two sides to the war. Knowing this, this removes the whole "battle of good and evil" that is portrayed out in Revelation and the Christian faith.”  The phrase “battle of good and evil” is rather key.  There seems to be an inadvertent tendency in some heathens to frame Ragnarok this way.  If Baldr is good and Loki kills him, Loki must be evil.  These are things that need to be carefully considered.  Sven’s solution is to hand out Bibles and tell such heathens to go to church, but he’s a Lokean through and through.

Anyway, assuming Ragnarok as “worst case scenario”, the death of Baldr, if caused by Loki, is going to be necessary for the new world to come.  Baldr is in the one place that is safe for a god during Ragnarok, and ironically it’s with Loki’s daughter Hel.  Furthermore, as cold and frightening as Hel’s domain is, she has decorated her hall and brewed the mead for Baldr, making it as pleasant as she can. 

In his thought-provoking novel American Gods, Neil Gaiman reveals Ragnarok as being the result of Odin and Loki perpetrating a two-man con on the world.  This scenario feels so “right” to me it gives me chills.  Baldr must be kept safe, and the only way to do that is to entrust him to Hel.  Frigga won’t hear of it; even the queen of the gods is a mother, loathe to see harm come to her boy.  Odin and Loki work out the scheme:  Frigga will do her best to avoid the inevitable and Loki will make sure that Baldr meets his wyrd.

There are two further things to point out about the “Loki kills Baldr” story.  First, in the Elder Eddas Loki isn’t punished for killing Baldr.  He is chained to the rocks for airing the gods’ dirty laundry and embarrassing them, as recounted in Lokasenna.  Second, the one who is actually punished is the blind god Hodr.  This seems off until one notices that there is a second version of the story, only hinted at in Snorri but developed by Saxo Grammaticus in which Loki isn’t involved in Baldr’s death at all.  It’s all Hodr, who may not have originated as the blind god he’s usually described as.  In Saxo’s story, Baldr and Hodr are rivals for Nanna, and Hodr kills Baldr for her.  Nanna then kills herself.  The punishment of Loki may be a later gloss, although no one knows for sure.  There is reasonable doubt, as the trial lawyers say.

Loki causes crises, fixes them, and often has to live with the aftermath.  Who got the walls of Asgard built at no cost to the Gods?  Sure, he ended up giving birth to Sleipnir afterwards.  Who obtained Mjolnir, Gungnir, and the other gifts for the Gods?  Sure, he ended up with his lips sewn shut.  Who invented the fishing net?  Sure, he was captured because Kvasir saw that only Loki was clever enough to have created such a thing.  And so on.

Loki is the god of comedy.  I’m of the opinion that Loki has it in for Heimdall because Heimdall, who otherwise has no sense of humour whatsoever, came up with the idea of dressing up Thor as a bride.  Or perhaps he stole the idea.  Usually he’s out there making the gods laugh, often at his own expense.  When it was essential that Skadhi laugh, Loki was there to tie his balls to the beard of a goat and have a tug of war.  I’m sure he was the first one to say the line, “Comedy is playful pain.”  It’s hard to hate the protagonist of so many funny stories.

Sven likes to point out that Loki should be patron of attorneys.  He invented the legal loophole.  He saw to it that the gods got the better out of their contract with the giant who built the walls of Asgard.  He saved himself from decapitation with the observation that sure, they could have his head—but not his neck.  Loki adhered to a weregild judgement while ridding himself of the cursed ring Andvaranaut.  He fulfills his contracts and oaths while his blood-brother Odin often does not.  Still, he’s Odin’s blood-brother, and being Asgard’s Attorney (as opposed to Asgard’s judge, who is Forseti) is possibly why.

Loki is the “trusted traveling companion” of Thor.  Thor is a forthright guy, a working-class god who is as direct and blunt as the hammer he wields.  Together, he and Loki fight giants.  I’ve heard it said that if you have a Lokean and a Thorean, put them together and they’ll be best friends.  This does seem to work for me and Sven.  Loki does seem to have had an effect on Thor; Thor’s resolution of the battle of wits in Alvissmol is something Loki would have come up with.

Loki is a difficult god.  He’s not easy to understand and encounters with him are often painful.   This isn’t surprising when you consider that comedies are usually about themes that are decidedly unfunny. Further to this, Loki is more often than not the catalyst for making sure things happen.  He is the crisis that forces us take action, whether we want to or not.  He’s the blessing in disguise.  

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Summer Is a'Cumin' In

Summer Solstice for the northern hemisphere starts a week from today.  Here in SoCal, the sky is overcast and the temperature is in the low to mid-60s.  Being from the northeast as I am, I try to tie the seasons to hours of sunlight rather than temperature or growing seasons.

“California has four seasons,” says husband Sven.  “Flood, mudslide, earthquake and fire.”

I figure our Norse ancestors would like SoCal because despite these regularly-scheduled natural disasters, you can plant and harvest year round.  This kind of detracts from the religious significance usually assigned to the solstices and equinoxes.

Or does it?  Winter runs from December to March.  During these months, it tends to be chilly and damp; one friend of ours came to San Diego in a little sundress on January to escape the snowy Rockies in Utah.  Oh boy, was she in for an unpleasant surprise!  March is usually more of the same; our kindred ended up having its Ostara celebration indoors with sliding doors open and letting in even more rain and chill and wet. 

April delivers on the promise of Ostara until the so-called “May Gray” and “June Gloom” kick in.  July, August and September are warm, dry and sunny. 

Winter Finding is ironic because October is usually hot, and dangerous because of the threat of wildfires.  It’s also one of the times of year when produce is most available here.  November and December are cool and sunny, and Jul (Yule) tends to be bright and comfortable until the January rains come again.

So while we’re not quite as reversed as our brothers and sisters in Australia, we’re still “off” from what most people consider the seasons.

Last year I decided to get more in touch with nature.  My actions would include, but not be limited to, natural health for myself and mindfulness of what was going on in the changing flora and fauna around me.  This has been paying off.  The hours of sunlight never vary in marking out time.  This is something to be celebrated. 

While heathens don’t usually celebrate Beltane, that being a Celtic holy day, we do in many traditions celebrate May Day.  It was in May that I noticed all the symbols of spring coming up around me.  To my utter delight, the area around my office building and gymnasium is full of hares.  I’ve seen rabbits around aplenty; they don’t have to go to ground in the winter here.  But these were big, bold and brassy hares, twice the size of rabbits with longer ears, longer legs and so, so fast.  They look at human passerbys with utter disdain, knowing they can outrun even our cars.

Here in June plants are in full bloom.  The honeysuckles that grow all over our part of the county have a scent that can range from pleasant to thick and overwhelming.  I had never really noticed them before.  It’s also cherry season and strawberry season, sweetening the month even more.

I’ve resolved to hit my local library and check out some books on California plant life.  I understand there are some palm trees identical to those in the Pleistocene in the canyons to the west of the city.  The only problem with being aware of the environment around me is that I started this so late in my residence here.

Happy Solstice!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Unavoidable Book

Today’s column is on confronting the Bible.

Yes, you read that right.

I’ve spent my life as a Catholic who was largely kept there because I was terrified of God the Father.  Over the course of all these years, I collected an awful lot of theology books and Bibles.  I still have them and still collect them, because I can never have enough of the Catholic paranormal.  That’s another topic though.  The fact is that at last count I think I had seven Bibles in various translations sitting on my bookshelves.

In the American culture, it’s impossible to not be confronted with the Bible.  It’s everywhere.  At the moment I’m reading the novel Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.  Since the novel is based on Lincoln’s life, the book that most influenced the 14th president’s writings and thought was the King James Bible.  The excellent PBS documentary series God In America is laden with evidence that the KJV was the dominant force shaping American philosophy, politics, and literature.  When it came to literature, the KJV was the dragon that slew Beowulf.

As heathens, we still live in this book’s shadow, and probably will for at least another century.  If you’ve ever said, “An eye for an eye,” or made a joke during a heavy rainstorm about building an ark, or referred to a “David and Goliath” situation, you’ve shown that the Bible is present still in how you express reactions to the world.

What’s a godsfearing heathen to do?  I’ve known pagans who do their best to purge such references from their speech, but I think such self-censorship is bound to frustrate.  Instead, I would say one should pick up the Bible and read it.

As American heathens, the Bible is a foundational text.  One’s literature shelf ought to hold a copy of the King James Bible expressly for that reason.  It should sit on the shelf between Shakespeare and Jane Austen.  Be familiar with the better-known bits, like the 23rd psalm, the 91st psalm, and the second chapter of Luke, which is so movingly recited by Linus in “A Charlie Brown Christmas”.  This cursory familiarity with the King James has been a basic part of every literate person’s education since the book was first published in 1611.

In 2009-2010, I decided to read the Bible cover to cover.  I bought a copy of the New American Bible in hardcover (this is the version used in Catholic churches in the U.S.) and started at Genesis.  Since I’d been to divinity school at McGill University in Montreal, I knew about how the first five books were actually four or more texts woven together into a narrative, and that there had been different but related religions in Israel and Judah.  What I didn’t fully grasp, however, was how much the Old Testament was an enormous spin-job to cover up that the Hebrews had once been polytheists.  Ha’Shem was god over Judah, and his worship eventually overshadowed that of his Israelite counterpart, El.    El himself was a title for other gods, collectively referred to as Elohim.  At least one of these male gods was married to a goddess, Asherah, who was represented by a sacred tree.  The Old Testament is a millennia-old cry to us to “ignore that pantheon in the corner”.

The New Testament to me represented the hijacking of the Gospels by Paul and his ghost writers.  Much ink has already been spilled about that, so I won’t belabor the point. 

If you read the Bible knowing what you’re getting into, you’re more likely to have your faith as a heathen affirmed, not weakened.

I really should have realized what was happening to me when I would read passages such as Psalm 92:10, “to me he has given the wild ox’s strength” and thought, “Why, that’s Uruz!”  and immediately pictured Thor in his chariot whenever thunder and lightning was mentioned.  And if Freya is fond of love poetry, I’m sure she has the Song of Songs in her library.  I couldn’t go through the Bible without seeing the Aesir, Vanir and runes inside.  It made me get a better idea as to why there are carvings from the Eddas in Norwegian stave churches.

The final advantage of being a heathen who is familiar with the Bible (and many are, as ex-Christians) is the ability to debate would-be missionaries and, if one is very lucky, instill a grain of doubt in their minds.  I’ve defused a few conversations by saying, “Yes I have read the Bible, and that’s what made me decide not to be a Christian.”

And if all else fails, you can always draw runes and pictures of Thor in the margins.