Thursday, April 18, 2013

Cause the Sagas Tell Me So---Nah!

Sven and I are a couple of professional people who live in an urban part of Southern California.  It seems kind of crazy that we’d adhere to a religion practiced in the coldest parts of northern Europe until no later than the 11th century.  Granted, Sven is Danish, and his soul has been sound since he rediscovered the religion of his people.  I married into it, and as with everything I do, I have to think about it deeply and develop it. 

Two things strike me as I read the lore, the Sagas, and the archaeology.  1. Asatru is a religion whose values are terribly needed in the United States right now.  2.  The Sagas are nothing on which we could build a modern religious society.

While Asatru was practiced from Germany to Greenland at various times through the centuries, most of what we have written down about it is from Iceland.  The Icelanders have a particularly interesting take, because they were essentially a bunch of anarchists and outlaws who found kings and Christianity too restrictive and struck out on their own.  For that reason alone, Asatru should have appeal to Americans and Australians in particular.  It is a religion that sustained rebellious outcasts in the wilderness.

Personal responsibility and self-sufficiency are the Asatru values par excellence.     Honesty and reliability define what a good person is.  One does not have to be “nice” or religiously devout.  One does need to be generous and aware of his or her place in the ancestral line.  There is nothing wrong with being rich.  There is nothing wrong with being proud of what one has achieved.  These are sentiments I think we desperately need right now.

The rules for living are laid out for us in the Havamal.  We honour the gods and ancestors through our deeds.  They aren’t interested in how often we pray; in fact, since prayers are accompanied by sacrifices, they would prefer we pray too little than too much.  A gift demands a gift, and there is a difference between giving in thanks and giving in order to create an obligation.  The best offering to them is through what we do with our lives.

A good Asatru is a hero.  They are someone whose descendants will want to talk about them for years to come.  A good Asatru is free; they have something to call their own, preferably real estate and livestock.  “One’s own home is best…even if it is only a roof and two goats, it is better than begging.” (Verse 36)  Their clothes are clean and neat, even if they are old and worn. (Verse 61)  They face challenges with courage.  In the face of physical adversity, they find something, anything, that they can still do.  “The handless can drive cattle, the lame ride a horse, the deaf be brave in battle.” (Verse 71)

This was true in 1000 C.E. and it’s true today.  I’m not going to go on a rant about the sense of entitlement a lot of people have, and the widespread sentiment that we need government to protect us from ourselves.  Make a stand!  Refuse to be a victim!

Still, there are safeguards to keep this from becoming an Ayn Rand-esque, dog-eat-dog world.  Generosity is mandatory, although within the limits of reason and not creating obligations unless obligations are needed.  A generous person of worth is referred to as a ring-giver.  Memorable heroes and heroines have excellent feasts and take care of their household and anyone assigned to it.  Being wealthy was praiseworthy as long as the wealth was accompanied by proportionate generosity.  No one approved of a miser.

A praiseworthy man (and this was the purview of men exclusively) would be a regular attendee and participant at the Thing, sometimes referred to in translation as the Assembly.  This took place a couple of times a year, and it was when lawsuits would be decided and different transactions were conducted.  The kind of man who was admired would be knowledgeable about the law and willing to stand up for people in their lawsuits.  Engagement in the community was encouraged, and to not attend the Thing regularly was seen as a kind of selfishness.

In the modern world, we tend to be involved in the community around us whether we like it or not.  The internet and dense centers of population have forced that on us.  An Asatru who isn’t involved with any religious group would do well to get involved in something around them in the local community.  Being around other people and forming friendships is an essential part of the Asatru experience.  On the day of this writing, several heathens we know are fighting a fire in West, Texas, caused by an explosion in a fertilizer plant.  For this, I hail them.

After all this, it feels anticlimactic to point out where examples of a heathen lifestyles fail in terms of ethics.  Very simply, we cannot live the way the medieval Scandinavians did.  The Icelanders were rural, living in extended households a good distance from the next farmstead.  It was an unbelievably hostile environment, where to not take in strangers could easily mean their death from the elements.  Over and over we read about people taking in travelers who they would rather not have in their home, but the laws of hospitality demand it.  We modern Asatru live in cities and towns usually, and a traveler can check themselves into whatever motel or hotel is most convenient for them. 

There was also a much larger danger from each other.  We read about how man X would kill man Y as they both walked down the road because Y insulted or offended X in some way.  The correct thing to do would be to go to the nearest farm, tell the occupants of the killing, the sentence being agreed upon at the Thing.  To tell the nearest people of the death made it manslaughter; if the death were concealed, only then was it murder.  Even with the intervention of the Thing, a killing like this could lead to a long feud, with the body count rising when warm weather allowed people to move around where they might encounter each other.

Obviously, these cultural norms do not work for us at all.  I’d want to say to anyone who might romanticize the Icelander’s lives that I’ve seen where this can lead.  Pastunwali is the social code of Afghanistan, and it’s very similar to that of the Icelanders.  Again, most people live rurally in either farms or small villages.  The normal dwelling is called a qalat, a walled compound with several buildings and an extended family with retainers living inside.  One building with always be the guest house, and a person who arrives in a village with no place to stay will remain at the mosque until the end of evening services, whereupon someone will invite them to stay in their guest house.  At Ramazan, an admirable man will set up a large tent outside the walls of his compound to feed anyone who comes to him, even if they are just passing by on the road.

They also have feuds, which are mediated by councils of elders.  As in Iceland, just because a case is settled doesn’t necessarily mean it’s over.  Disputes over land and water can go on for decades, with man X killing man Y because man Y’s uncle killed man X’s father.  No one ever forgets a wrong, and certainly no one ever stops the feud because a wrong was generations ago.  These are things that happen in the Sagas, and it’s no way to run a society.

In the developed world, we have laws, law enforcement, and courts with a judicial system derived from Scandinavian law.  While often heathens will dispute how far criminal law should extend into peoples’ lives, the court system is a massive improvement over a code that leads to endless blood feuds.  Since the laws are of Scandinavian origin (granted, by way of England), they aren’t even foreign for heathens.  These have proven effective in keeping men from killing each other as they walk down the road.

If anyone wants to put up a tent in front of their house to feed passerbys on the holidays, though, I think that that too would be an improvement to their community. 

Hail to the givers!  Hail the High One!

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

In which I get all universal and sycretistic

So, yesterday I was sitting in my kitchen, drinking a glass of wine and reading the Kabbalah—

Why are you looking at me like that?

Anyway, I’m reading Daniel Matt’s “The Essential Kabbalah”, because I want to read it from an actual Kabbalah scholar before I tackle Dion Fortune’s take on it.  I’m Asatru, but my first mature investigations into “other religions” were through British occultism.  (Starhawk’s “The Spiral Dance” when I was a teenager doesn’t count.)  It’s really reminding me of something that’s been bugging me for a while.

Asatru’s theology is really underdeveloped.

This is difficult for me, because I’m a theologian from a religion with a highly developed theology.  I could chew up texts for breakfast and spit out exegeses that would make you weep at their complexity.  Now I have texts written by detractors, or people who just wanted to preserve stories, and not a lot of what believers actually believed.  We know more and more about how they practiced, at least in the upper classes, but not what was going on in their minds and spirits when they engaged with the gods.  The Kabbalah is giving me some insight into what could be or might have been if Asatru theology hadn’t been stomped out by Christianity before the Scandinavians could write down any of their own thoughts.

I’m heavily influenced by Jung, so I believe very much in archetypes that are universal.  Some of these archetypes are inevitable; if you speak an Indo-European language, the common concepts are going to occur and recur.  I’ve had a joke for a long time that when we uncover the human ur-religion, it’s going to involve a mandala and a dying god.  To that I would now add a sun goddess and a World Tree.

Above my desk at work, I have a small prayer rug that I bought in Kuwait.  I was looking for a nice one as a souvenir, much as non-Catholics buy rosaries as souvenirs when in Mexico.  I found a design that intrigued me and the shop owner, a fixture at the PX complex who I thought of as Tragic Rug Merchant because of his hangdog demeanor, told me, “It’s the Tree of Life.”

“I’ll take it,” I said, and didn’t haggle about the price.

As anyone who’s been reading my blog for any length of time knows, I am very into Yggdrasil.  As the World Tree, Yggdrasil carries in her branches the Nine Worlds.  I saw on my rug that the Tree had ten flowers on it:


The Kabbalistic Tree of Life has ten Sephiroth, and SHUT UP THAT FINAL FANTASY COMMENT BEFORE I SHUT IT FOR YOU.  Note, however, that one of them, “Tipharet”, is the trunk of the Tree.  The trunk of the Tree is Beauty.  So there are nine others.

Now I have to back this truck up to 2008.  I had just spent three months at paralegal school in Ft. Jackson, South Carolina.  My barracks had been old and literally rotting around us, full of black mold and roaches the size of my thumb.  We were crowded in like cattle and I got pneumonia.  During my time there, I had been trying to balance my Catholicism and my Asatru, knowing that Icelanders did it for a couple of centuries before Christianity fully took hold.  As I got sicker, I started leaning harder on the Catholicism because, well, I knew how to engage with it in times of difficulty. 

I got out of Ft. Jackson by the skin of my teeth.  I graduated with honours, but I firmly believe that if I hadn’t gotten out the night I did, I would have died. 

Fast forward a couple of weeks.  I had found a little part-time work with a company that was making calls on behalf of the Democrats.  I was ready to go, until the script they handed me was one urging voters to vote for a candidate because he supported funding abortion clinics.  That was against my religion and I believe in doing the right thing, so I was fired.

As I walked out, I thought to myself, “It’s all right.  My reward will be great in Heaven.”

Then I thought, “No it won’t.  There’s no reward, and there isn’t any Heaven.

“There isn’t any Heaven because there is no God.”

I went home, boxed up my prayer books and statues and put them away.  I felt a weird liberation, because the Big Sky Daddy of my childhood had just disappeared in a puff of nothingness. 

“What about the gods?” Sven asked.  I told him that he and I existed and that our cat existed, so I had no problem believing that the gods exist too.  After all, the Norse gods are not omnipotent, omniscient, or omnipresent.  They are mortal.  They get hungry, thirsty, cold, sleepy, etc.  I could completely grasp that.

But what was it that made them gods?  I’ve read everything from ancient aliens to deified ancestors.  Since Asatru is so intensely about the Ancestors, I can deal with that second possibility.  Still, what made them deity?  What is the sacred?

I’m going to jump over a lot of writings by the Dalai Lama and Mircea Eliade here, right back to the Tree of Life.  In the Eddas, it says that no one knows the roots of the World Tree.  In Kabbalah, the Tree has its roots in Ayin Sof, the unknowable.

My theological hypothesis, drawing from everything I’ve read in my lifetime, which is a lot, is this.  “God”, or “The Sacred” or “The Numinous” is like water.  We are made of water, we are surrounded by the water in the air.  If we do not have water, we will die.  That which has a concentration of this Numinous manifests the Sacred.  In his book The Sacred and the Profane, Mircea Eliade described the feeling one gets in the presence of such an item as “mysterium tremendum”.  He gave the image of a “primitive man” looking up at a mighty oak tree that’s been struck by lightning and getting a feeling of this mysterium.    The Ayin Sof is the Hebrew for this unknowable, ungraspable, Sacred.  The Tree is the emanation of the Sacred, the part that can be knowable.  The oak tree of the “primitive man” is a further expression of the Tree.  As above, so below.

The gods are, to me, beings that are more fully permeated in the Sacred than we humans are.  When a human is deified, like many of the Ancestors or heroes (the Romans were particularly interested in deified humans), that human has come to be more fully permeated in the Sacred as well.

This leaves room for lots more theologizing.  What does it mean when Odin is speared to the Tree, offering Himself to Himself?  What are the roles of the nissemen we find in nature?   Do non-Norse gods exist, and if so, what is Their relationship with the Aesir and Vanir?  What about the Runes?  I’m working on this, and when I think of more, I’ll share it. 

Hail to the Gods!  Hail to the Goddesses!
Hail to the bounteous Earth!
With wit and wisdom grant us,
And healing hands, besides!
Hail the Tree!

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Words mean something

I’ve been reading and hearing about the proper word for people who worship the Norse gods and/or espouse a Norse-influenced worldview should call themselves.  This isn’t a pointless activity to my thinking.  Words have meanings and implications.  There’s a very good reason why Americans of African descent have defined and redefined themselves and why there’s an ongoing debate about “Latino/a” vs “Hispanic.  (For the record, I use “Latino/a”.)  So I’m not surprised or dismayed to come across a discussion in the Norse religious community.

Sven and I use the Danish pronunciation of the word that means “true to the gods”, which is close to “OW-sah-tro”.  Sven will shorten it to just “’tro”, but that’s a thing of his own.  Other people like “heathens”, but in the modern world that too often implies not having a religion at all.  It doesn’t help that I’m constantly reminded of “Sanford and Son” with Fred Sanford’s churchgoing sister-in-law Esther constantly calling him, “You old heathen!”  The idea of Fred Sanford discovering Asatru would have made a great episode, especially since I think he’d make a good one with his territorial nature and savage (though comic) independence.

“Pagan” seems to have become a problematic word lately among individuals who worship ancient gods, practice magic, are involved in a nature religion or any combination of the above.  My colleague P. Sufenas Virius Lupus has given an example of how, when he was a doctoral student in Ireland, he was denied use of the university chapel because, “paganism is a nature religion”.  Sufenas is a devotee of Antinous, a young man who became a god by way of drowning in the Nile.  Antinous was worshiped in temples.  In this case, the label “pagan” was used in order to keep Sufenas and his fellow worshipers from using a ritual space.

“Heathen” and “pagan” have something in common in that they both suggest that the people who use those words to describe their religions are country bumpkins.  “Pagan” is derived from “paganus” which means a rural person.  Similarly, a heathen is someone who lives out in the open country.  Christianity was an urban religion in its early days, and somehow worshiping gods other than the Christian ones became associated with being a hick.  I admit that I find this kind of puzzling since the really popular pagan religions had large houses of worship in cities.  I also find it ironic that now pagans are urban for the most part and country folks are identified with having a fundamentalist and backwards Christian faith.

The word “pagan” has also become synonymous with “Wiccan”.  There’s nothing wrong with Wicca of course—but we’re not Wiccans and tend to have a very different way of looking at and reacting to the world.  So it can be more than a little frustrating to have people immediately assume that because you’re a pagan, that your religious practice involves invoking the Goddess in a circle. 

Currently, my dog tags read “Norse Pagan”.  I know this term sounds kind of non-committal, but I decided on it strategically.  I decided against having my tags to say “Asatru” because I didn’t think most people would know what that word meant.  I didn’t want my tags to say “Pagan” because of the common assumption that pagan means Wiccan.  I decided that if I added the word “Norse” whoever was over my unconscious body might think to call upon Thor or Odin, which is really all I want, under those circumstances.