An Icelandic Perspective

It is very easy to get caught up in interpretations and ‘my way is better than your way’ conversations here in America. It is part of our nation’s wyrd to be revolutionary, daring, take risks even when we shouldn’t.

I have been introduced to some scholarship about Heathenry from other countries. And the questions they are asking and the answers they are getting are much different than what we are asking and answering here.

Probably one of the most interesting perspectives I’ve read in a long time is from a three part interview with Johanna Haradottir, a priestess in Iceland.

Part 1

Part 2, Runes

Part 3

There were two interesting differences from my thought and practice in these interviews.

To Haradottir, the gods are not distinct entities/people. They are representations of powers in nature and in ourselves.

I’m a hard polytheist. That is based on a combination of UPG(encounters and conversations with my deities of choice) and a degree of literalism when it comes to mythology that is birthview residue from Christianity.

To Haradottir, her faith is very environmentally conscious.

I have seen this in the Heathen community, but I have not seen it organized on the same level as it is in Iceland.

One thing I thought was funny; she insists Sturlson had to be pagan. Most Heathens I know here insist he was Christian.

It’s an interesting perspective from the land of the sagas.

Your mileage will most certainly vary.

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Boundaries, Part III: Speaking for the Gods

In my first essay on Boundaries I talked about the emotional boundaries between people. My second essay on Boundaries talked about how to react when someone comes up to you claiming to have a message from a deity, or even your personal deity.

In this article I intend to go deeper into the topic of how one delivers a message from divine sources.

It has happened to numerous people I know on several occasions: they will be journeying, or talking to a god or spirit of some form about a (potentially unrelated) topic, and a message will come up intended for a particular individual (or group of individuals) who weren’t originally the topic of discussion. Or they will be standing in front of you and suddenly get a message for you from someone or something that has been trying to get in touch or that would like to comment.

These messages may range from benign to severe in their implications, and there may be a variety of reasons a third party may be chosen to deliver the message. Sometimes, that third party may not even be aware that they delivered a message or what its contents were. The reasons and forces involved may not always be clear, but there are always reasons for it.

On the other hand, it is very easy when doing this to allow one’s own perceptions to interfere, to cast individual desires inadvertently as messages from the gods, or to otherwise allow the filter of your mind to interfere with your own signal on this matter. No matter how certain one is, there is always a chance–no matter how small–that they are wrong.

There are also problems in interpretation. Several people I work with have received messages either directly or through an intermediary where the giving of the message was more important than that they follow the message’s contents. Further, the message may take a meaning to the listener that the speaker is not aware of.

The long and short of it is: You as the speaker and deliverer of the message really have no idea what the intended recipient is supposed to do with it or how they are supposed to hear it. There is no reason for you to be informed of that information, and ultimately whether they choose to follow it or what they choose to do with it is up to the person you are delivering the message to.

Knowing exactly what is going on with such a message is nontrivial even if you are 100% certain of it’s origins and content. That’s assuming the message is actually from the gods.

But what if it isn’t?

It is also very easy to take a message to the effect of If you feel that X should do Y, why don’t you tell them that yourself? and translate it to Odin said to tell you that you should do Y. Especially if you feel that it is in their best interest, know the person well, or have other feelings that complicate the clarity of the message.

Telling the difference between a message from the gods and your own subconscious is nontrivial, and while mindfulness is tremendously helpful in this discernment, it is not completely perfect. Even if the gods are completely objective entities, their representation within my own mind as I perceive them will never be. This means that while I may transmit a message believing it is from the gods, it cannot be my responsibility to ensure that the contents of the message are followed.

These are healthy boundaries. After having delivered the message, they get to check on it. Their conversation with the deities may go any one of a number of directions that you are not privy to and not responsible for. If they choose not to check or not to follow the advice, or choose not to tell you what they discovered, it is not your responsibility to make sure that they do or to remind them in any way.

Besides, if the deity in question really wants the message delivered, most are fully capable of delivering it through some other channel if confirmation is needed.

Conclusion

A lot of this is simply understanding where you end and where the other person begins, and where the division of responsibility lays. If you are told that you must deliver a message well, then, it is your responsibility to deliver it. But it is not your responsibility to ensure that it is interpreted a particular way. It is not your responsibility to ensure that the message is carried out. It is not your responsibility to remind them if they seem to be lapsing. The ultimate decision on what they do must be between them and the gods.

Just as the ultimate decision on what you do with messages given to you must be between you and the gods.

I’ll be going more into this topic when I talk in depth about the boundaries between us and the gods.

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Love on Valentine’s Day: Dedicated to Freyja

We try to tame love

With romance and marriage and Valentine’s Day

To make it treacly sweet, palatable, acceptable

To channel love to safety through love of family, love of god, love of country

But love will not be denied that way

Love is wild

The Mr. Hyde to society’s Dr. Jekyll

Men and women will kill for it, die for it

Will do anything or anyone

For that euphoria, that connection

That thrill of skin on skin, lips on lips

For love

Our ancestors knew love was fierce

Look at their goddesses of love

Aphrodite, Ishtar, Freyja

Aphrodite launched a thousand ships

Wiped out a genration of heroes

For love

Ishtar threatened her own father with violence if he did not give her the Bull of Heaven

To punish Gilgamesh for spurning her

For love

Freyja compelled men to return from the dead

To fight one another in endless battle

For love

So on this day of insipid platitudes and commercial overkill and self-esteem killing comparisons to those that are in relationships,

Let us lift a glass to real love

That savage beast that lives in the heart

That passionate madness

To Love

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When Scholarship and Practice Seem to Collide

In the Retrospective Methods Newsletter of December 2010, Rudolf Simek, a respected scholar of Norse mythology wrote an article “The Vanir: An Obituary”.  In that article, he deconstructs the meanings of the words with the vanir root. And through that etymology, Simek asserts that Snorri Sturlson made up the Vanir as a family of gods.

He ends the article with “No Viking Age heathen Scandinavian, apart from a handful of skalds interested in arcane terminology, would have known what is meant by vanir, and even these would not have known which gods to ascribe to a group of them called Vanir. Whatever the connecting link between the important gods Njǫrðr, Freyr and Freyja was, it was not the name Vanir. The Vanir were not alive in heathen days, and as a figment of imagination from the 13th to the 20th centuries, it is high time to bury them now: May they rest in peace.”

My first reaction to this was negative. Freyja is the first and most intimate of my deities of choice.  To disregard her entire family… monstrous!

So I went back through and read the article again. The article is brilliant, with a depth of scholarship one would expect from a highly respected professor and authority on Norse mythology. It doesn’t diminish the importance of my deity of choice. It just redefines the framework of how Njordr, Freyja and Freyr are related. With some really cool implications about the River Don, Hungarians and their relationship to the Finns.

So I went to the practical question: how does this change my practice?

It doesn’t.

My practice has evolved over the past 20+ years based in what my deities of choice have asked of me. Not what I read in a  book, although the lore and  several books based in or discussing the lore have given me insight into how my practice could be more useful or more effective.

Any religious practice has to be a living, changing thing. We don’t live the same lives our medieval ancestors did. We don’t have the same priorities, social structure or economic base. Our religious practice has to change to reflect those changes.

Read the article, read the entire newsletter, it’s extremely interesting and informative from a scholarly standpoint. But before you decide to make changes to your practice based on scholarship, ask your deities of choice first.

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Ethics Part Three: Did I see it with my own eyes?

Cattle die, kinsmen die, one dies himself in the same way, but a reputation never dies for the one who has acquired a good one Havamal 76

Or a reputation never dies for the one who has acquired a bad one.

It is very easy in today’s world of e-lists and Live Journal and Face Book to mar someone’s reputation with gossip. And I do mean gossip, that insidious, “Well, I heard from my mother’s sister’s daughter’s best friend’s boyfriend’s cousin’s wife that so and so does(insert unsavory, unpleasant, strange practice here)….”

That statement can not be traced back to any actual person, it’s just air in the wind.

According to the lore, specifically the Gragas Laws from Iceland, one of the most extensively codified series of laws in the medieval world,  in court cases, witnesses could testify only to what they saw and heard themselves. Hearsay was not allowed and perjury was gravely punished.

In today’s society, based in Middle English words and concepts and English common law, which is based in a combination of Saxon(Germanic) and Norman(Germanic with some Roman law thrown in for spice) we have libel and slander.Both of these terms are related to defamation, which is false or unjustified injury of the good reputation of another.

Libel is defamation by written or printed words, pictures, or in any form other than by spoken words or gestures.

Slander is defamation by spoken words or gestures.

To have a legal case against someone that has defamed you, you have to prove what they said was false and hurtful. To trace a rumor back to its source is a very difficult and time consuming practice. Sometimes you can’t track it down.

But more important than the legality of the issue is the ethics of the issue.

If you didn’t see it with your own eyes, how do you know if the air in the wind that you are passing is true?

And remember your own bias. Everyone has bias, those land mines of personal prejudice usually based in  psychological pain buried in their psyches. When you hear that air on the wind, does it play to your bias? If it does, do some research before you let that air on the wind move through your mouth into someone else’s ear.

I have quit e-lists because the conversation about Heathen/Pagan/Northern Tradition belief systems have gotten rumor driven, or where obnoxious people have taken over the conversation about our relationship to gods and men to aggressively push their own limited view.

I’ve written my opinion of slavish devotion to the lore elsewhere and my coworker Hrafn wrote a very insightful essay on UPG and lore.

I personally don’t like to compare Christianity with NT. I think they are too widely separated in intent to use as examples, but there is one thing that they should share in this limited context; do unto others.

Is your reputation important to you? If it is, don’t pass on rumors of practices and beliefs that you haven’t verified for yourself. Don’t help ruin someone else’s reputation if you haven’t seen it with your own eyes.

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CFS: Northern Tradition Healing Devotional

From Galina Krasskova by way of Elizabeth Vongvisith:

Two years ago when a friend was gravely ill, I asked for aid from several of our Healing Goddesses. I promised that in return, I would compile a devotional to Them all. So this is, in part, fulfillment of that vow.

I am putting together a devotional to the following Deities:

Eir
Mengloth and Her maidens (Hlif, Hlifthrasa, Thjodvara, Bleik, Bjort, Blith, Frith, Aurboda)
Early Germanic Goddesses: Alateivia, Arvolecia, Sulis

I will consider material for other Norse/Germanic Deities provided that the material focuses around healing.

I don’t have a working title yet and I’m setting the deadline for September 30, 2011.

I’m looking for articles, essays, poems, prayers, recipes, even black and white images. Whatever folks feel moved to contribute.

All proceeds from this book will be donated to a charity. I’m torn between several and will probably divine on it before the book goes to press (Doctors without Borders is very high on the list).

All contributors will receive a copy of the finished devotional as payment.

Anyone interested in contributing should contact me at tamyris at earthlink.net.

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Swamped…

As mentioned on facebook, the authors are all right now swamped with issues that take us away from the internet, so we haven’t had a lot of time or energy to devote to writing articles. I’m hoping that will change soon and that we’ll have some new content up in the next couple of weeks. Thanks for reading!

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Boundaries II: “I have a message from God…”

This is a revised version of an essay that I put together previously. It is part of a series of essays on proper boundaries between yourself and the world around you and within you.

In my last essay on Boundaries I discussed emotional boundaries between people. In Part II, I plan to take this concept one step farther and discuss Spiritual Boundaries between people and how to deal with it when you hear a medium convey a message from a god, or even your god.

Religions have long struggled with the question of how to handle people who say I have a message from the Divine… Kaldera states of such a position that:

This is the voice of the mystic, and it is secretly or not-so-secretly hated by both the other sides. One reason for that hatred is that it seems dangerous to trust the word of someone who has no credentials except a claim to talk to God, or the Gods, or the spirits, or whatever. […] Who are you, anyway, that they should believe what you say? You could be delusional, or lying in order to manipulate people, or just earnestly mistranslating the puppets in your head. And, to be fair, those are rational fears; any of those things could be true.

The other reason is that in order to believe in the slim chance that you’re telling the truth, they must confront their feelings about the fact that Jesus or Freyja or the ghost of the dead guy is not talking to them.

The question for most of us–including those of us who are spirit workers ourselves–is what to do when someone else conveys a message on the behalf of some entity supposedly outside of ourselves. Should we believe them? Should we automatically reject what they say? Should we go to that deity ourselves and ask? If our own UPG or established Lore™ contradicts what we are being told, does that mean they are wrong or that we are? How should we respond if that’s the case?

I will talk about proper boundaries when delivering these messages in a future essay, but for the moment the focus will be on receiving that information.

No matter what the status of your UPG is or the state of the message, you should probably respond to the deliverer the same way and then performing the same sanity check, as Danielle Higgins puts it:

I think the best way to respond to this is with a “Thank you for your concern, I’ll think on that,” and then check with your gods yourself.

Telling them “no, you are wrong!” even if you have radically differing gnosis is generally not a good tactic: it won’t go over well with them, and they may earnestly believe what they are conveying to you. They may even be right, no matter how strongly you think “that can’t be right” or respond negatively to it. On the other hand: Blindly following the advice, no matter what it is, also is a good way to get badly burned, even if you are 100% confident in the deliverer and that the message is itself genuine.

Thus, regardless of what the message is or who it is coming from–a well respected Shaman of your path, a newbie spirit worker, or a crazy man on the street–the first response should always be the same: Thank your for concern, I’ll think on that, Thank you, I’ll ask Him further about that, or some other variation on the theme. Even if the information was delivered via someone acting as a medium or a Horse, the best response is to courteously say Thank you for your concern, I’ll think on that.

The next step is to check with the gods/spirits/universe yourself. Even if you have poor signal clarity or are not a spirit worker, performing this check is essential. Even if “all” you do is sit down and meditate or pray for a while and never receive a definitive “answer,” this process allows you some space to let your mind process the message properly, and to help separate yourself from it and understand it. It will give you a gut reaction, and–more importantly–give you a chance to understand where that gut reaction is coming from. It gives you a chance to run through a sanity checklist on your own, asking questions along these lines:

What is my gut reaction to what was said and to who delivered it?

Your gut reaction is very important, because it is part of one of your judgement processes. To quote Nathaniel Branden: A clash between mind and emotions is a clash between two assessments, one of which is conscious, the other might not be. It is not invariably the case that the conscious assessment is superior to the subconscious one; that needs to be checked out. So, first question, what is your gut, emotional reaction to the message and to who delivered it.

It is also important to distinguish between these two reactions. To quote Raven Kaldera, in his essay Defining the Conundrum of Academic Research Into Spirit-Work: I know from experience that the Gods and spirits do not choose their targets on the basis of intelligence, competence, sanity, morals, life history, or general goodness. Actually, most spirit-workers (including myself) are completely bewildered as to what criteria the Gods and spirits do base their choices on.

You may love or not be able to stand the person delivering the message. You may find their behaviors vile and revolting, or you may find them to be a paragon of virtue. Either way, you will need to separate out your response to the message from your response to the messenger.

Why is my gut reaction what it is?

Having established what your reaction is to both the message and to who delivered it, the next question becomes why. Why do you react that way?

This is where Mindfulness becomes extremely important. We need to dispassionately examine our emotions and our reactions to and determine what is causing them. Is a past bad experience, a schema, some latent doubt coloring my reaction, or just my subconscious putting together something I can’t quite put into words? Regardless, I need to think about it and analyze that subconscious assessment.

No one’s gut reaction is perfect. Frequently that reaction is colored by schemata, past experiences which may-or-may-not apply, and current circumstances which may have nothing to do with the advice given.

On the other hand, no one’s conscious rational process is perfect. Frequently the rational process–which is conscious–ignores subconscious data that may be lingering just beyond our conscious perception. It may also factor in data that is relevant, but not directly enough so to be included in our conscious process. Either way, they both can be strengthened by applying one to the other.

Regardless of the quality of your own UPG, those are the first things to ask.

Next, you can check out the message itself: check on your own and/or (preferably and) check with someone else to get a “second opinion.” If it is really important, the gods have ways of making sure you get the message even if your signal clarity is down, and certainly won’t mind you asking. You don’t have to follow it–especially without checking it out on your own first–but you also shouldn’t dismiss it out of hand simply because it came from an outside source.

There are three basic cases that need to be addressed:

  • You have no UPG on the matter and cannot get any
  • You have agreeing UPG on the matter
  • You have contradictory UPG on the matter

Some thoughts on this topic and all three of these cases will be part of a future essay on boundaries. For the moment, the key questions are: What is my reaction, why am I having that reaction?

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Review: Northern Tradition for the Solitary Practitioner

This is a revised version of a previously published review.

✭✭✭✬✩ (3.5/5, to quote Daven’s rating system: “Good, there should be more books like this”)

Northern Tradition for the Solitary Practitioner: A Book of Prayer, Devotional Practice, and the Nine Worlds of Spirit by Galina Krasskova and Raven Kaldera is a difficult book to review. One the one hand, the book has excellent content and the author’s aims in writing the book were laudable: we really do need more books like this. However, I feel that what it claims to accomplish (and what my expectations might have been, though they aren’t precisely fair), what it feels like it is aiming to accomplish, and what it actually accomplishes are three different things.

Claims and Expectations

The title, reminiscent of Cunningham’s famous Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner, evokes an image that this book is about practicing the Northern Tradition alone, and that this is a very basic book for beginners. Containing things, perhaps, along the lines of ritual outlines, ceremonies throughout the year, solid groundings in the cosmology, or a discussion on topics such as Heathen ethics.

This position is encouraged by the back of the book, which says that the book “features an in-depth exploration of altar work, prayer, prayer beads, ritual work, sacred images, and lore, and a thorough examination of the common cosmology that forms the foundation of belief of Northern Tradition communities.” Reading that, one expects a that all of these areas will be covered in enough depth that a beginner could easily find what they are looking for in this book. It also looks like there should be an emphasis on practicing strictly as an individual, which raises its own set of issues independent of group practice.

The back of the book also claims that it is a “look at devotional work in religions from Theodism to Asatru to Norse Paganism, all of which encompass the umbrella of the Northern Tradition.” This leads one to expect that these religions will be given more than a superficial treatment, and to see information on a variety of different branches of Germanic Neo/Mesopaganism.

What the Book Aims To Accomplish

The book is divided into nine chapters, plus an introduction and a set of appendices:

  • Introduction: Solitary Spirit

  • Chapter 1: Tribe and Tradition

  • Chapter 2: Defining Devotion: The Evolution of Practice

  • Chapter 3: Nine Worlds of Spirit: Core Cosmology

  • Chapter 4: In Reverence: Meditation and Prayer

  • Chapter 5: Counting on Faith: Prayer Beads

  • Chapter 6: Footsteps to the Gods: Solitary Rites

  • Chatper 7: Sacred Images: Altar Work and God-Posts

  • Chapter 8: Right Action: Doing the Work

  • Chapter 9: Sacred Inquiry: The Conundrum of Words

The appendices contain an Epilogue, a table of deity altars, offerings, and associations, footnotes, a bibliography, further reading, an index, and a section touching very briefly on the authors. From an initial glance, the topics seem reasonable and hit the major points for a book on spiritual development in a Northern Tradition.

The Introduction helps to clarify the purpose of this book a great deal: this is a book about devotional practice. It talks about how in some branches of Neopaganism books of this nature focus “partly on opersonal ritual, and partly on magic and spellwork.” It explains that they will be avoiding the latter topic, not because it isn’t valuable, but because they want to “stress that this is a religion, and devotional work is a good place to start in any theistic faith.” Excellent, we get a clear picture that this is a work of devotion, not of magic and that this book is talking about devotional practice in the context of that religion. This doesn’t contradict the claims and expectations, and reinforces what this is all about.

It further explains some of what is addressed in each of the chapters, mapping some of them loosely to Dale Cannon’s Six Ways of Being Religious.

Despite the title of the introduction being “Solitary Spirit” and the title “Northern Tradition for the Solitary Practitioner,” the issue of being a solitary Heathen is not really addressed. We get the impression that this is not a book for the solitary practitioner, but for developing one’s own spirituality, which is a very different thing from what is implied by the phrase “solitary practitioner.” The latter conjures the image of the individual working alone without any firm connections to the surrounding Heathen communities; the former would seem to imply that it is a book about growing oneself and one’s relationship with the gods independent of whether you are in a true group.

This impression is reinforced when we look at the chapter on Solitary Rites, where we see devotional rites and rites honoring various deities, but nothing about seasonal rituals, “holidays,” celebrations, or things of that nature. At no point that I could find do we really see a discussion on finding or starting a group. This is fine, but it emphasizes that this is a book about developing one’s own spirituality, and not about being a “Solitary Practitioner” who has no real tribe, kindred, coven, or similar structure (what “solitary practitioner” meant in Cunningham’s work).

This makes the book slightly more advanced than the initial impression would indicate, and a careful reading of the back of the book doesn’t give any indication that it is for a “Solitary” beyond the title.

It seems that this was an intentional design decision, and we as Heathens (or just Neopagans in general) definitely need books on developing our spirituality. Books on the practice of centering prayer and developing our own spirituality are an extremely welcome addition, even if it isn’t quite the same thing–in my mind–as what the title or some of the chapter headings would indicate.

What the Book Accomplishes, A Review on Content

Having established that this is a book about spiritual development, the rest of this review will be on how it accomplishes that goal. Overall it does well and the content is well laid out and informative, and all of the basics are covered. Getting into more detail by chapter:

Chapter 1: Tribe and Tradition, The Northern Tradition Landscape

This chapter is the only place in the book that we get a glimpse of the various traditions that form what can be loosely described as the “Northern Tradition Religions.” They get into the difference between Reconstructionist and Reconstructionist-derived religions and describe a few of the major paths:

  • Asatru, with a brief reference to Vanatru, Odinism, and Rokkatru.

  • Theodism

  • Culturally-based denominations, such as the Urglaawe

  • Norse Wicca

  • Northern Tradition Paganism

They get heavily into terminology here, and use the definition of “Heathen” to be “Reconstructionist” but include quotes indicating that not everyone sees it this way. Beyond that, the coverage of the various religions is fairly superficial. Forn Siðr–which forms the largest Danish pagan society–gets a single mention inside of a quote which doesn’t reveal much about it. Most of the others receive between one sentence and one paragraph describing them, with a lot more text discussing terminology about the difference between Reconstructionist and Reconstructionist-derived, Pagan vs. Heathen, and the difference between Tribalist, Folkish, and Universalist.

This is all good content, and we need to be having a discussion about these differences, but it doesn’t quite fit what I expected given that the book purports to “look at … religions from Theodism to Asatru to Norse Paganism.” I wanted more meat talking about what each of these religions is, what it means, and what someone who is looking at each religion in turn would find in the various Northern Tradition paths. That said, what is presented tends to be presented fairly, and while the author’s have biases they refrain from “bashing” those who disagree. It at no point indicates that any path is inferior, and does a good job of “stepping back” to look at the different approaches reasonably and rationally.

Chapter 2: Defining Devotion, the Evolution of Practice

This chapter talks about how there is a growing movement toward devotional practice among modern German Neopagans. More than any other, this chapter talks about being a solitary vs. being in a group. It also talks about how devotional practice works in these settings. It talks in a great deal of depth about the reactions to devotional practice, and how the Path of Devotion. All-in-all excellent stuff.

Chapter 3: Nine Worlds of Spirit, Core Cosmology

This chapter would be difficult to write for a book of this nature in the best of circumstances, and shows where the stress of finding a good “level” for this book comes in. The readers of this book likely range from people just of the door and who are somewhat lost, to people who have read everything from The Saga of Grettir the Strong and several translations of the The Poetic Edda, to The Road to Hel.

In order to narrow this, the authors chose to focus on just the cosmology and the nine worlds. It talks about how the cosmology involves three key components: the gods, the nine worlds, and wyrd. It then goes on to present a creation myth with some analysis, a prayer to the elements, and how ultimately the nine worlds were created.

It then goes on to talk about the three “tribes” of gods:

  • Aesir

  • Vanir

  • Rokkr

It gives a brief explanation about each of these, and talks about how each of them tend to be viewed by Northern Tradition religions. It at no point says that you must “worship Rokkr,” which is some of the propaganda I’ve seen about those who follow certain NT paths.

It also talks about the nature of Wyrd, giving one of the clearer examples I’ve seen for this.

This chapter definitely hits its mark: it doesn’t get bogged down in mythology, while presenting a clear overview of the Nine Worlds.

Chapter 4: In Reverence, Meditation and Prayer

The chapter starts off with the elegant Sigdrifa’s Prayer, which is one of my favorite prayers in any tradition. It then goes on to talk about the nature of prayer and the question of “why we pray.” It talks about a few basic prayers that are nearly universal in nature:

  • Thank you

  • Please

  • I love you

  • I am sorry

This reminded me of something a Christian minister once told me: That the two most authentic, most heartfelt, and most common prayers were:

  • Help me Help me Help me!

  • Thank you Thank you Thank you!

After this it gets in to the topic of meditation. Here it doesn’t ever really discuss the how or even the why of meditation, but mostly keeps itself to the what along with some mild diagnostics for common complaints. While it might have been useful to include at least one simple breathing exercise–or at least some more comprehensive references on the subject–I can understand not putting it in there. This does, however, elevate the level of the book to include someone who is already set off down this path, rather than evaluating it.

The final section of the chapter involve some “Prayers for Personal Devotions.” It includes a reference to Be Thou My Hearth and Shield: A Northern Tradition Book of Prayer by Elizabeth Vongvisith which, while it looks excellent, isn’t out yet and doesn’t have an “approximate publish date” listed in this book (since this review, the book has been published over at lulu). The prayers included are:

  • In Praise of the Vanadis by Gudrun of Mimirsbrunnr

  • Vanir Meal Blessing by Sigrún Freyskona

  • A Parent’s Prayer for Patience by Raven Kaldera

  • A Prayer for Faith by Elizabeth Vongvisith

  • Prayer of the Lone Worshipper by Elizabeth Vongvisith

Overall I have no serious issue with this list. It is a reasonable selection without distracting from the purpose of the book. It would be nice if there were a morning or an evening prayer of some variety just for the sake of coverage (and devotional work of this nature is found in Chapter 7), but most of the major areas are covered.

Chapter 5: Counting on Faith, Prayer Beads

This chapter talks about the use of prayer beads in the Northern Tradition. It starts by talking about the nature of prayer beads and the “why” of their use, along with some basics of their construction, and then gets in to six different sets of bead prayers covering 24 pages (this is as long as all of Chapter 4, excluding the prayers at the end). These are presented with no real introduction, just one after the other. While the book claims in the previous chapter that “There isn’t room in this book for prayers for every Deity and occasion,” they seem to take a stab at including bead prayers for as many situations as they could reasonably fit.

Let me say that I like the prayers, and like the nature of bead prayers for devotional practice. That said, I feel that this chapter doesn’t really belong: It would have been better to include one bead prayer, a link to a few others online, and to have then merged it with the previous chapter’s section on prayer.

Chapter 6: Footsteps to the Gods, Solitary Rites

This is one of the best organized chapters in the book. It has clear section headings for it’s various subsections, which break down the subject matter in a clear, logical fashion. The material is well organized and presented, covering benefits and hazards, along with the basic components for constructing a ritual. The selected rites for demonstration provide good coverage, and each one has introductory text talking about the rite, what it means, and how it relates to what has been covered so far. Despite the chapter’s title, nothing in here requires a solitary practice, except in the choices of example rites.

This leads me to my one complaint with the chapter: Its choice of rites:

  • Devotional Ritual for Sigyn

  • Devotional Ritual for Njord

  • Solitary Rite for the Ancestors

  • Rite for the Land-Wight

  • Rite for Tyr (asking his aid)

All of these rites are good, powerful rites, but it again goes back to the “developing one’s personal spiritual independent of being a solitary practitioner.” These are rites to be performed alone, not rites for what I think of as a solitary practitioner. The choice of coverage here is also interesting: we lack a devotional rite to Thor, Frey, or Odin: three of the most popular deities both in modern times and historically. There are no seasonal rites, rites of passage, or mention of rites such as ordeals. While this is clearly not supposed to be a “book of rites,” it would be nice if there were more comprehensive coverage in this area.

That there is no discussion of seasonal rites at all really feels like a missing component of this book, since there isn’t even a calendar, “wheel of the year,” or list of holidays. Particularly for a solitary practitioner, but even in a group setting, these can form an important core of practice.

Beyond that, however, this chapter is probably the strongest in the entire book.

Chapter 7: Altar Work and God Posts

This chapter is divided into two major sections: Altars and God Posts.

The section on altars is excellent. The authors talk about the nature of sacred images, what goes on an altar, and how to set up your first altar. A photo of an altar to Hel is presented, along with one to Frey and several daily prayers that can be performed at that altar.

The section on God Posts is informative and interesting, but I do not feel it belongs in anything resembling an introductory book for solitary practitioners. What it takes to pull off a God Post–in terms of skill, time, resources, and land–is fairly nontrivial for most people, especially those who are “solitary practitioners.” It isn’t the kind of thing you can erect in an apartment building all that effectively, or put up in a public park. While they are very powerful devotional acts, I would have liked it if we had more on devotional altars, and maybe a side note and a few photographs to cover God Posts.

Chapter 8: Right Action, Doing the Work

This is the closest thing we have to a section on ethics. It talks about the various ethical systems, the challenges of ethical systems in reconstructionist religions (e.g., it is no longer acceptable to hang people in sacrifice to Odin), and on the few universal constants in Heathen religions. It talks about the idea of exchange and some very important key principles, and gives some examples of applying those principles.

I like this chapter a lot. One thing that we need is to have a comprehensive discussion of ethics, and this isn’t nearly as well summarized in any other book I’ve seen as it is here.

Chapter 9: Sacred Inquiry, The Conundrum of Words

This chapter is about written lore. Not so much the actual contents of that lore, but how it is approached. It discusses the challenges, the issue of UPG vs. lore.

To someone who has been around the community for a while, there isn’t much new in this chapter: it provides a bird’s-eye survey of the landscape on how written lore is treated, along with it’s use. Still, this coverage is extremely valuable and is presented in a fairly balanced–if somewhat Reconstructionist-derived–view.

Further Notes on Content

There were two issues regarding information presentation that I feel need to be brought up. These points may seem minor, but I feel like they are important because we are starting to see them come up more frequently in instructional books by Pagan authors.

The first is that the authors avoided lists. In numerous cases throughout the book, three or more items are presented in a series of paragraphs, each paragraph covering one option. While this is fine for exposition, I kept thinking back to my training in technical writing: people remember bulleted lists better. They also help break up the mass of words on a page, thus making the entire page easier to read. Instead we see a reference to the Six Ways of Being Religious, followed by eight individual paragraphs about them. I feel that it would have been better to prefix that by listing the “Six Ways” in a bulleted list, and then followed them with the paragraphs explaining them.

In Chapter 4, it lists the prayers “Thank you,” “Please,” “I Love You,” and “I am sorry” and delving in to them, yet at no point are all four listed together, put into a list at all, or attached to a subject. There’s nothing to indicate where each one might be, or where it’s discussion might really begin or end. You are simply reading along and then come across “The fourth prayer is ‘I am Sorry.'”

Another example where this comes up is in the first chapter, where there are no section headings or lists indicating what exactly I am looking at. This all makes finding specific information difficult, and diminishes the book as a reference text after it has been read through.

The second point is something I’ve noticed about Kaldera’s style. He likes to present a point of view, and then provide a set of quotes “of interest” which provide other points of view. This works well in fairly conversational works or works where one’s building a shared PCPG, e.g., in Kaldera’s Pathwalker’s Guide to the Nine Worlds. I don’t feel that it worked nearly as well in this book, which is more instructional and informative in nature. It would have been better to integrate these in to the content–with a sentence introducing or explaining it (even as little as a “As X has said…”). The use of back-to-back block quotes or a multi-page quotes with no paragraphs, in particular, with no lead-in or following explanations can be very jarring.

Conclusion

The overall content of the book is excellent, and I recommend it highly. We need more books like this one, which provide a good and up-to-date coverage of the Northern Tradition path itself, rather than the mythology or individual practices associated with such.

The major issue I have is that it is suffers from a lack of good editing, e.g., gap analysis, focusing and clarifying of the scope, and a lack of structure and flow in several of the chapters. There are also smaller issues, such as words being presented both with and without the accent mark (e.g, “Sigrún” on page 96 vs. “Sigrun” on page 122).

The material that is included is excellent and if it could fix these issues, and address how the book is billed in terms of it’s name and focus. It’s just that the book is marred heavily by these and I feel that it detracts from the focus of the material.

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Urdummheit: Primeval Stupidity

This is an adapted and expanded version of an essay I wrote in a personal blog.

Recently I learned a new word thanks to the book Exploring the Northern Tradition by Krasskova and Kaldera. Urdummheit: A German word that means–basically–that those who came before us are stupid. That there is a primeval stupidity. People who believe this theory believe that we–in our enlightened, rational society–are somehow smarter than those who have come before. They believe that they made up myths and legends out of whole cloth and believed those legends literally and exactly, the way modern fundamentalists take the bible literally. It was believed literally by the people–not to be taken as symbol or allegory–because they were wholly ignorant and largely incapable of understanding the world around them.

Some of these people are militant atheists who view that religious superstition as a primitive way of explaining what they didn’t understand before the enlightenment of modern science. Others are militantly religious, sometimes insisting that it was their principles of their religion which saved us from the darkness. They conflate either Christianity, Modern Science, or Western Culture with Civilization and intelligence. As I saw one person comment in a debate:

Judaeo [sic]/Christian beliefs lead the way to modern science by the mere fact that they taught that there was an order to the Universe and many of the greatest minds of the arts and science such as Galileo, Newton, Michelangelo, and Darwin were devout Christians

The truth is we know more, our processes have gotten better, and our lives give us a different focus than those who have come before, but none of that makes us smarter. It is demeaning to both our ancestors and to ourselves. We should know better than to accept such a proposal at face-value and be able to actually ask “did they really think that way,” rather than just assuming they were stupid because they didn’t know as much as we (as a society, not necessarily as individuals) do.

Unfortunately we lose sight of the words of Dion Fortune:

Unsympathetic observers would probably conclude that [Christians] worshipped a sheep, and the Holy Ghost would yield some spectacular interpretations. Let us credit other people with using metaphors if we do not expect to be taken literally ourselves. The outer form of the ancient pagan faiths is no cruder than Christianity in backward Latin countries, where Jesus Christ is represented in topper and tails and the Virgin Mary in lace-edged pantaloons. The inner form of the ancient faiths can compare very favourably with the best of our modern metaphysicians. After all, they produced Plato and Plotinus. The human mind does not change, and what is true of ourselves is probably true of the pagans.

H. R. Ellis-Davidson commented at one point that:

The mythology of a people is far more than a collection of pretty or terrifying fables to be retold in carefully bowdlerized form to our schoolchildren. It is the comment of the men of one particular age or civilization on the mysteries of human existence and the human mind, their model for social behaviour, and their attempt to define in stories of gods and demons ther perception of the inner realities.

For example, the other day some friends and I were discussing flood stories and I brought up the Navajo myth. In the third world Coyote stole the water-monster’s children and hid them under his cloak, and so the water monster flooded the world in an attempt to find them. An atheist in the group snorted, marveling at the ignorance of previous people to believe such primitive nonsense (urdummheit).

But let’s extend the story ever so slightly and look at what happens next. The People and the animals dig their way into the fourth world, figure out that Coyote is to blame (and still hiding the children under his coat) and throw the children back to the water-monster before the fourth world floods as well. First Man takes a stick and says to The People if this stick floats, we will survive. If it sinks, we perish. He throws the stick into the water and floats on the surface. Coyote then takes a rock and says If this rock floats, we survive, if it sinks, we perish and throws the rock into the water.

The rock sinks, well, like a stone.

The People are angry with Coyote, and so Coyote explains: He tells The People that if they do not die, then eventually they will overwhelm the land and there will be no room for their children. That, in order to save themselves, they must also die.

One can look at this as an explanation of why we must die, but it is also a message about living within your means and conservation of resources. There’s also a message in there about dealing with hard circumstances in our life. Why do we assume that they must have taken the entire story literally, when it could have been meant no more literally than Plato meant The Allegory of the Cave.

It is like holding Benjamin Franklin up on a pedestal for the statement three can keep a secret if two of them are dead, but decrying the phrase If you would keep a secret tell no one, or else one other. If three know, thousands will because it is is in Hávamál and thus attributed to Odin.

Sometimes myths and legends have other, more functional, purposes. Take the story of the Trolltindanes in Norway:

There was once a troll wedding and trolls came from all over to attend. At the wedding they drank and they partied and lost track of the time. They joked and laughed, and drank, and sang throughout the night, not paying attention to the approach of dawn. Night became day and the sun crossed the horizon and turned them to stone. The formations from which stand there still today.

The full text of the story, of course, is substantially longer and more involved, but that’s the gist of it. Now, we can sit here and chuckle to ourselves about those ignorant pagans who would believing anything, believing that those were actually trolls turned into stone on those mountains. But let’s think about it for a moment: the mountains in question are very distinctive and the Norse were a seafaring culture. There is a theory that many of those old folk legends were a way of remembering landmarks, allowing for sailors to navigate.

So perhaps they did believe it or perhaps not, and it is hard to say which came first, but it seems likely that such folk legends had a functional nature regardless of any deeper truths about inner realities. The name Troll Mountains in Romsdal is more likely to stick in my head as a navigational feature when I’ve grown up on those stories than if I am simply told and those mountains–the ones over there–indicate you are approaching Romsdal.

Reading interviews with Native American Shamans, its pretty clear that they did not necessarily take the stories as literally true and that they knew a great deal about the nature of the world around them. Farmers didn’t just rely on superstition to know whether a storm was coming, but could sense subtle changes in the air. Thor is the god of Thunder, yes, but he is also associated with crops in such a way that it makes one wonder if they knew something about the specific relation between thunderstorms and crops.

We’ll leave this point with another story about Coyote:

It used to be that there was a city divided by a road down the middle and the people on the two sides refused to speak to one another. They would scarce acknowledge that the other side existed, and each would try and sway travelers on the road to come to their side while completely ignoring their neighbors.

One day Coyote came into town wearing a hat that was red on one side and white on the other. Since the people knew the reputation of Coyote they came out to see what he was up to. Coyote walked to the end of town, turned his hat around, and walked back to the other side. By the time he had reached the end of town on his trip back, everyone had come out to see what was happening. He exited the town on the other side and threw away his hat.

Coming back–without his hat–to the center of town he asks one side which color it was “Red!” they say. When he asks the other side of the village they reply “white!” Turning back to the side that said “Red” he asked them if they were sure, and then when they affirmed he turned back to the side that said “White.” This continued back and forth, until he managed to provoke the two sides into a fist fight over what color his hat really was.

Does anyone really think for a half a second that, sitting around a camp fire, anyone would believe that it is important to think that such a story is literally true and not an allegory or even just a story told for amusement?

History

There also seems to be a latent ignorance of the history of mathematics, science, and philosophy in these statements about previous cultures. Chong Wang wrote before the 1st century CE that:

As to this coming of rain from the mountains, some hold that the clouds carry the rain with them, dispersing as it is precipitated (and they are right). Clouds and rain are really the same thing. Water evaporating upwards becomes clouds, which condense into rain, or still further into dew.

The Islamic people wrote what would become the foundation of medicine for the next thousand years. The theory of contagious disease and the invention of quarantine came from Avicenna ( ابوعلی سینا بلخى, late 10th to early 11th century). George Sarton commented that:

If it is regarded as symbolic that the most spectacular achievement of the mid-twentieth century is atomic fission and the nuclear bomb, likewise it would not seem fortuitous that the early Muslim’s medical endeavor should have led to a discovery that was quite as revolutionary though possibly more beneficent.

What we call Gaussian Elimination— a tremendously important advance in linear algebra–was invented by Gauss in the early 19th century. It was also, previously, invented by the Chinese before 179 CE. The first forms of calculus, used by Newton and Leibniz in the development of the fundamental theorem, came from Hindu mathematicians.

While there have been advancements on various fronts, the concept of crop rotation is found throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa. The seafaring technology of the Norse was evidently a sight to behold, leading one individual to comment that Plato may have denied the existence of ideal forms in this world, but Plato never saw a Viking ship.

Conclusion

It is easy when examining our ancestors superficially to come to the conclusion that they were ignorant, that their rituals held no purpose or were “merely superstition.” It is dangerous to hold the theory of Urdummheit without at least scratching the surface ever so slightly and figuring out what might lie beneath, and giving our ancestors the same benefit of the doubt that we might give modern humans.

I saw one militant atheist ask why would you do a sumbel–sitting around, saying what you will make yourself, and drinking from a horn–and not a dinner party, when in truth a dinner party is just as much of a ritual as a sumbel. He boggled about the use of a horn, when in truth it was just a drinking instrument and not substantially different from using a wine glass at a dinner party. With social taboos we tend to like to think of them as those things other people do, when the most important taboos are the ones that we find in our own society and don’t even realize are there.

Further Reading

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