And What About Loki?

While there is minimal and non-conclusive evidence of the historical worship of most of the Rökkr, it is good to once again remember that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. While we may never find the conclusive smoking-gun evidence that many of us would enjoy, it continues to be valuable to dig deeper into the evidence that is available, continue critically assessing potentially outdated interpretations, and looking for further evidence to help us better understand the beliefs, practices, and cosmology of pre-Christian Nordic paganism. In the meantime, lack of historical evidence does not undermine the validity of worshiping the Rökkr within the new religious movement that is Norse neo-paganism and Rökkatru specifically.

There is one Rökkr for whom we have more evidence, however: the much-loved, much-hated, and always contentious Loki Laufeyson.

For those who love Loki, the love is fierce and passionate. For many LGBTQIA+ Heathens, Loki is embraced as representing genderqueerness, genderfluidity, or nonbinary gender due to his tendency for shifting not only form but gender. For those who have experienced degrees of abuse and trauma in their lifetimes, Loki as a deity of change is empowering, a source of strength and an assurance that while the good may not be forever, neither is the bad. Many who work with and honor Loki find a great degree of love and comfort in his lessons of self-honesty, speaking truth to power, and growing and learning through trial and ordeal.

Many who worship Loki see him as the vital instigator of change which prevents the entropy of stagnation, but just as many fear Loki for the chaos he is associated with and his role in Ragnarok. Those who fear, dislike, or mistrust Loki will point out the sheer number of times Loki creates trouble and mischief for the gods, while those who love him are quick to point out that Loki is the heart and spirit of much of the surviving lore and won the gods their treasures, including Thor’s hammer, through those same shenanigans.

To put it bluntly, Loki is a divisive deity—and he is one of the primary gods among the Rökkr. Just as Angrboda can be called the mother of the Rökkr, so too can Loki be called their father: of the primary Rökkr, Loki and Angrboda are parents to Hel, Jörmungandr, and Fenrir. A very contentious family within Heathenry to be certain, but also a very important one.

So let’s look at what evidence there is, starting with a ship burial uncovered in Bitterstad, Norway. A 2016 report from The Arctic University of Norway describes two pendants discovered in association with the burial. The pendants are nearly identical faces cast in silver depicting a man with a mustache, rounded eyes, and mouth that had been set with garnet, though most of the stone inlay no longer remains. “On the back of the two pieces of jewelry were a few remnants of preserved textiles, probably from the deceased’s clothing,” (1) suggesting that these pendants may have been worn as part of the finery in which the deceased was buried.

Bitterstad Pendants

What is particularly interesting about this, is that the authors of the report put forward the theory that these pendants represent Loki, drawing a comparison to the Snaptun Stone:

“I will present here the not un-problematic idea that these face pendants from Bitterstad can represent Loki. There are two primary things that can point to this. First, the garnets themselves. These have, as we have mentioned several times, historically often related to fire. Fire is something that Loki is often connected with…The other interesting detail is the wrought stone from Snaptun Jutland which depicts Loki after he had his mouth sewn by the dwarf Brokk (Jørgensen 2010, pp. 149-150). Again, we find the relationship between fire and Loki to be interconnected…the images that are on the stone and on the jewelry from Bitterstad are relatively similar. Both figures have a strong mustache, round eyes, sharp marked nose and image of hair. This idea can of course not be proven but may be left as a speculative interpretation of the jewelry from Bitterstad.” (2)

This is only one of several pendants that have been purported to feature Loki, including one found among gravegoods near Härad, Sweden and another found in Vejen, Denmark. The Vejen artifact was originally reported in a press release from Denmark’s National Museet, but the link no longer works, and I’ve struggled to track down information on the Härad piece as well. Nonetheless, photos of both exist, and it can been seen that both images bear a striking resemblance to the Snaptun Stone and Bitterstad pendant, with a mustache and lines across the mouth that have been frequently interpreted as the stitches from the Brokk myth. And of course there is the Snaptun Stone itself, commonly identified as Loki due to the presentation of the mouth, which appears to be stitched. (3)

Härad, Sweden Pendant

These and other similar depictions dating to the pre-Christian and conversion era would disprove the claims of some scholars and laypersons that Loki is little more than a literary figment created during pr shortly after the conversion. Furthermore there is evidence, albeit limited, of people and at least one place being named for Loki—something we wouldn’t expect to see if Loki were either a post-Christian figment or reviled in the pagan days of Scandinavia.

Let’s start with the people whose names appear to include Loki’s name. Axel Olrik, in his essay Loke in Younger Tradition, writes this:

“There is one thing that might surprise people who bear Loke from the ancient myths in mind…people actually have been named Loke or Lokke: Among the Norsemen in Northumberland in the 12th century, there was a man called Locchi. In Scandia, Lokkethorp (now Lockarp) was named after a man with a similar name. In Småland, Locke has been preserved as a hereditary surname. On a rune stone in Uppland, the name “Luki” (Loki?, Lokki?) appears…From Norway we know a settler called Þórbjørn loki, and a birkjebein called Þórðr loki.” (4)

Generally speaking Olrik makes the argument that regionally there may have been elemental or other supernatural spirits referred to with names deriving from Loki. Despite expressing the belief that these names likely refer to these spirits rather than the god, he does offer some thought to the contrary:

“In favour of the regard of the personal name as naming after the god Loke, we can mention, that contemporary with the birkjebein Þórðr loki, there lived a man called Auðunn býleistr (named after Loke’s brother). But if there is any connection between the two names (the form Loki isn’t quite certain here), it could be due to the fact that the nickname býleistr (he who is similar to or worse than Loke) was given to an opponent, just because the birkjebeins didn’t know the origin of the name.” (5)

In addition to this, the most common alternate name for Loki, Lopt, appears to show up in a very interesting place: the surname of Snorri Sturluson’s own foster-father. Jón Loptsson (6) was the son of Loptr Sæmundsson, who was born in the twelfth century. (7)

Vejen, Denmark Pendant

Due to the lateness of this name it cannot, in itself, be cited as evidence of naming conventions honoring Loki (this was more than a hundred years after the conversion of Norway, where he appears to have been born) it may well indicate that Lopt or Loptr may have had some history of use in Norwegian naming conventions. This is noteworthy given the name’s relative proximity to the official conversion of Scandinavia, as this would have been only about two generations removed from the official conversion and within a reasonable time span that we might expect to still find pockets of old worship.

Olrik also notes several place names that appear to be associated with Loki, in particular Lockbol or Lukabol, and Lockesta or Locastum. Unfortunately I’ve been unable to locate further information about these locations outside of Olrik’s references, but if anyone has any leads on these places I would love to hear them. There is one location I’ve been able to identify with more certainty, however, whose name bears a striking resemblance to Loki: Lokkafelli.

Lokkafelli is described as a point on Eysturoy, or “East Island,” in the Faroe Islands. It sits at an elevation of 281 meters above sea level and…that’s about all the information there is to be found about Lokkafelli. Even pictures are hard to come by. Nonetheless, paired with the fact that Loka Táttur, one of the most favorable of the tales about Loki, originates from the Faroe Islands, the apparent inclusion of Loki in a place-name is intriguing. Unfortunately the Loka Táttur is thought to date to the late middle ages, at least 300 years after the Islands were officially and forcibly Christianized. This does not, of course, mean that the ballad is not a remnant of an older tradition, but if that tradition existed we have no further information about it.

Location of Lokkafelli in the Faroe Islands from Google Earth

On that note, let’s turn to the written sources. Despite the heavy Christian influence of many of these sources, it is possible to glean information about old pagan beliefs from them with critical analysis, and there is no figure in Norse mythology more closely scrutinized than Loki.

One interesting piece of textual evidence to consider is Lóðurr. Lóðurr is an interesting figure who is identified in Völuspá as playing a role in the creation of man alongside Odin and Hœnir. He is said to have given the first men either blood or flesh (the translation is a bit troublesome) along with the color or hues of their skin. Aside from this, however, Lóðurr is only mentioned in original sources two other times: in Háleygjatal and Íslendingadrápa Odin is referred to as “Lóðurr’s friend.” The inscription logaþore / wodan / wigiþonar has been brought into discussions of Lóðurr as well, for while the second two names in this inscription have been cleanly identified as Odin and Thor, the first remain is elusive, and both Lóðurr and Loki have been proposed as possible translations. (8)

The reason this is important and intriguing is because, as some readers may already know, Lóðurr is sometimes identified as Loki. Cawley addresses this in his essay The Figure of Loki in Germanic Folklore, where he highlights an apparent “parallel with Loki and Lóðurr, which seems to be a byname of Loki in some Old Norse sources. This is corroborated by evidence from Germany in the name Logaþore on the Nordendrof brooch.” (9)

The identification of Loki with Lóðurr was proposed by Ursula Dronke in The Poetic Edda: Volume II: Mythological Poems. She argued that the occurrence of Odin, Hœnir, and Loki as a trio in the skaldic poem Haustlöng, the introduction of Reginsmál, and Loka Táttur establishes a sound basis for identifying Lóðurr, also paired with Odin and Hœnir, as Loki, and that the kenning “ Lóðurr’s friend” for Odin reinforces this interpretation. (10)

This is particularly important for those who work with and honor Loki, as his positive contribution to this creation myth flies in stark contrast to the depiction of Loki as a devilish or malicious figure. Here, under the name Lóðurr, he is credited for making a direct and vital contribution to the origin of man. This aligns him just as clearly with the forces of creation as his involvement in Ragnarok align him with forces of destruction.

Snaptun Stone

Though in and of itself, this piece of evidence isn’t proof positive of historic cultic worship, it undercuts the narrative which poses Loki as a definitive enemy of the gods and of humanity. Loki has never been a definitive enemy of the gods, as is proved time and again in the Eddas, and here he is not only not an enemy of humanity, but part of the divine trio which gave humanity life. Historically and in religious traditions worldwide, such myths are typically associated with deities who are recipients of cultic worship. Even Prometheus, the Titan credited for creating humanity in Greek mythology and bound for giving humans fire—a figure Loki as often compared to and identified with—had some degree of cultic worship in Athens. (11)(12)

Another interesting piece of textual evidence comes from Saxo Grammaticus, who was writing in the same time period as Sturluson. In the eighth book of his Gesta Danorum, he records the story of a king named Gorm who worships a giant by the name of Útgarða-Loki. Though this name should in theory identify a giant known from Gylfaginning, in which he challenges Loki, Thjalfi, and Thor to a series of impossible challenges. However, the description of Útgarða-Loki’s “dwelling” in Gesta Danorum bears a striking resemblance not to the Útgarða-Loki of Gylfaginning, but rather to Loki after his binding by the Æsir:

“Then he made others bear a light before him, and stooped his body through the narrow jaws of the cavern, where he beheld a number of iron seats among a swarm of gliding serpents…a foul and gloomy room was disclosed to the visitors, wherein they saw Utgarda-Loki, laden hand and foot with enormous chains. Each of his reeking hairs was as large and stiff as a spear of cornel. Thorkill (his companions lending a hand), in order that his deeds might gain more credit, plucked one of these from the chin of Utgarda-Loki, who suffered it.” (13)

Útgarða-Loki is here depicted chained in a cave, paralleling Loki’s binding, and there are described to be venomous snakes nearby, evoking the image of the serpent fastened by Skadi above Loki’s head. The only detail here that doesn’t parallel Loki’s imprisonment is the attachment of “Útgarða,” a word meaning means “outside” or “outyard.” This means Útgarða-Loki is “Outsider Loki.” This distinguishes the giant of Gylfaginning from Loki, who is counted among the Æsir and therefor is an “insider,” while the other giant is an “outsider.” In Gesta Danorum, Útgarða-Loki could be interpreted be a Loki post-binding, who has been cast out from Asgard and thus rendered outsider or Útgarða.

If this is indeed Loki, it is important because this tale describes him receiving worship in the form of devotion, offerings, and prayers. The king Gorm is depicted making offerings and praying to Útgarða-Loki to smooth a disastrous passage by sea, and this succeeds. When the character of Thorkill brings him news of Útgarða-Loki and the chin hair he plucked from the giant’s chin, Útgarða-Loki is referred to as the king’s “own god” for whom he was “zealous” in his worship.

Gesta Danorum is generally considered as depicting, to some degree, Scandinavian history, and in particular the history of Denmark. Given that archaeological artifacts potentially pointing to the worship of Loki have predominantly been found in Denmark and southern Norway, this is notable. These items taken together could indicate that there was localized cultic worship centered around Loki in the pre-Christian era.

With the archaeological evidence and literary evidence taken together, what we have in favor of the worship of Loki is significant, if not definitive. On this front, Loki has confounded historians and scholars just as much as he has confounded them with regards to his basic nature and role in the Nordic pantheon and cosmology.

If I’ve taken anything from this portion of my studies, I find it unlikely that Loki received no worship in pagan Scandinavia, though perhaps it was limited and localized. What I do find likely is that Loki has always been and always will be an enigmatic figure, ever eluding definition. This seems just as much an aspect of Loki himself as his trickster aspect, his connection to fire, his gender-fluidity and pansexuality—it seems a vital core of Loki’s essence and being, and is certainly one of the things that draw so many people to his altar.

(1)Cerbing, M., Lend, K., & Niemi, A. R. (2016). Arkeologiska urgrävningar av båtgravnar och gravhögar, Bitterstad, Hadsel kommune, Nordland [PDF]. Trosmø: Norges Arktiske Universitet. p.p.72

(2)Cerbing. p.p. 86

(3)Madsen, Hans Jørgen (1990). “The god Loki from Snaptun”. Oldtidens Ansigt: Faces of the Past. Det kongelige Nordiske Oldskriftselskab.

(4) Olrik, A. (1908). Loke i Nyere Folkeoverlevering (917288899 720864290 A. Eli, Trans.). Danmarks Folkeminder. p.p 15.

(5) Olrik. p.p 15.

(6) Wills, T. (n.d.). C. Jón Loptsson. Retrieved September 06, 2020, from https://skaldic.abdn.ac.uk/m.php?p=doc

(7) Sturlungasagans släktregister (Ættartölur), 1, Oddaverjar.

(8)MacLeod, Mindy; Bernard, Mees (2006). Runic Amulets and Magic Objects. Woodbridge: Boydell Press. pp. 17–19.

(9)Crawley, F. S. (1939). The Figure of Loki in Germanic Mythology. The Harvard Theological Review, 31(4), 309-326. Retrieved 2017, from jstor.org/stable/1508020

(10)Dronke, Ursula (1997). The Poetic Edda : Volume II : Mythological Poems. Oxford: Clarendon Press. In particular p. 18 and pp. 124–5.

(11)Lewis Richard Farnell, The Cults of the Greek States (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1896), vol. 1, pp. 36, 49, 75, 277, 285, 314, 346.

(12) Carol Dougherty, Prometheus (Routledge, 2006), p. 42ff..

Kemetic Body Positivity: Beautiful Bellies

Today’s self love reminder: Ancient Egyptian’s thought rolls were lovely and painstakingly drew and carved them.

In some ancient cultures being heavier was a symbol of power because it meant you could afford to eat.

Egypt was a little unusual in that regard. Being well fed was definitely a status symbol for higher class people. The pharaoh Akhenaten had a very large stomach and he flaunted it as a sign of the prosperity his reign would bring to Egypt. We know from physical remains that a large number of pharaohs were quite heavy.

That being said, the relative calm and predictable nature of the Nile’s flood meant that agriculture was fairly easy compared to what other cultures had to go through. We even have surviving art that shows farmers just chucking seeds behind them in a field.

Droughts and famine did happen and could be severe but they were the exception rather than the rule. Egyptians ate a diet mostly consisting of bread, beer, root vegetables, fish and fruit. They loved to drink and party and ate lots of red meat and waterfowl during festivals. They also made junk food sweetened with honey. Pharaohs ate lots of candy.

Because food and drink was plentiful compared to other societies you didn’t have to be upper class to eat well. We actually have art of heavyset peasants.

It’s fascinating because they would be so confused by our culture’s obsession with thinness. To them, rolls and plump stomachs were good things. There’s a reason that in hymns to Hapi He’s referred to as “fattening the land of Egypt” and that “every belly is made glad”.

What about the Rökkr?

Though there is much interest in the Rökkatru community in historical evidence of the worship of the Rökkr specifically, the evidence is scant. For those who count Gerd and Skadi among the Rökkr, there is more readily available and more well-known evidence, but even this is somewhat minimal.

For some this lack of evidence has caused some degree of despair: we know so much to have been lost to the wear and tear of time as well as the conversion of the Nordic regions, and the textual evidence we have was largely written by Christian clergy rather than pagan believers. Many idols were likely made of wood, and the environment of Nordic regions isn’t a great one for preserving wood through the ages. Only a handful of bronze and iron idols have been recovered, the rarity of these likely due to the relative expensive nature of producing such an item at the time. Though some stone carvings depicting the gods or their myths have been found, most rune stones are memorials or records of important events, not religious practices. Older stone carvings are often difficult to interpret, and it is generally understood that most interpretations can never be truly confirmed or denied.

The result is that we really know very little about religious practices prior to encounters with literate Christian clergy. This can be frustrating to say the least, as we are often piecing together a religious practice based on incredibly fragmentary information.

Because of this, there’s not a lot of evidence of cultic practices dedicated to any of the gods, let alone those we today call the Rökkr. What evidence exists for gods such as Odin, Thor, and Freyr is more clear cut and readily validated by what remains of the lore, but it is worth noting that, as is so often the case in matters of gods, absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence.

By the Viking era it is unlikely that the Jötnar generally were major recipients of worship, though we have identified a few for whom we have evidence of a cultic practice. As society evolved, so too did the religious practices. It is likely that as the people of Scandinavia moved away from hunter-gatherer lifestyles to increasingly settled and “developed” lifestyles including large settlements and communities, relationships to the natural world inevitably changed. It is likely that as the need to appeal directly to the forces of nature waned with the advent of agriculture and increasingly developed technology, so too did the cultic practices centered around those natural forces.

That the jötnar may have been more widely worshiped in a deeper history does not make the current resurgence of worship less valid. That we do not have clear-cut evidence indicating when figures such as Loki, Angrboda, Fenrir, Jörmungandr, and Hel entered the collective consciousness of the pre-Christian people of Scandinavia does not invalidate their worship today.

Nonetheless, with the aforementioned criticisms that come from other parts of the Heathen community often being levied against Rökkatru, there is a desire to be able to root that honoring of these deities in a historical foundation. The unfortunate truth of the matter is that, unless a review of existing archaeological evidence discovers something which could reliably be argued to be physical evidence of a cultic practice centered around Angrboda, Fenrir, Jörmungandr, or Hel, all we have to go on for these deities are the textual sources.

I don’t want to harp on the point too hard, but it remains very important to remember that the textual recordings of the lore were written by Christian clergy. The Poetic Edda is the only exception to this, primarily because we do not know who the authors of these poems were. We don’t even know where the poems were composed. Common estimates claim the dates of the poems range from 800-1100 CE, and these poems are believed to have represented centuries old oral traditions prior to being recorded. As a result of this, the arrival of certain names in text can be roughly dated, but it can’t be known how long those names and their corresponding identities may have circulated in oral traditions.

To take a relevant example, Andy Orchard claims in Dictionary of Norse Myth and Legend that, regardless the age of the belief that Loki and a giantess produced between them three monstrous offspring, “the name Angrboda seems to date from no earlier than the twelfth century.” (1) Though the poem he cites, Hyndluljóð, doesn’t seem to have a particular estimate for when it was written, it cannot truly be known how long the name Angrboda was passed through poetic recitations, minstrel song, or other means of oral storytelling.

For Fenrir, at least, there is much evidence of his role in Nordic cosmology in the form of runestones and other carvings. A Viking age hogback (sculptures that lay against the ground and are commonly accepted to be grave markers) in Northeast England is believed to depict Tyr and Fenrir,(2) as is a gold bracteate from Sweden dating to the Migration Period.(3) The Ledberg Stone in Sweden is believed to depict Fenrir’s consumption of Odin, and though the stone otherwise generally appears to serve as your typical runestone memorial it does include an inscription in Younger Futhark that has been interpreted as a magical charm.(4) No connection between the charm and the depiction of Odin and Fenrir appears to have been made, however.

Ledberg Stone

The Ledberg Stone was discovered in Ledberg, Östergötland, Sweden

Thorwald’s Cross and the Gosforth Cross both depict Fenrir, but are also both examples of a mixture of Norse pagan and Christian belief. These stones, which blend images of Rangarök and the Christian Judgment Day, therefore may be important evidence of the gods that were recognized by the eleventh century and the way they were seen or understood at that time, but it can’t be known how accurate of a representation they provide for pre-Christian contact Nordic beliefs.

These pieces of evidence don’t provide much insight as to whether there was any historic cultuc practice centered around Fenrir. The surviving textual evidence doesn’t provide much either, though this isn’t surprising. What the text does provide is a certain amount of contradiction and confusion: Scholar John Lindow points out that there isn’t a clear reason why the gods cast out Fenrir’s siblings but chose to raise Fenrir himself, aside from, perhaps, that Odin has a clear-cut connection to wolves.(5)

Odin’s connection to wolves indicates that wolves were not wholly demonized in Nordic society, though they might have posed a threat to livestock and, occasion, typically due to starvation or sickness, humans. This coupled with the choice of the gods to raise Fenrir prior to binding him indicates a deeper and more complex nature to Fenrir’s relationship to the gods, though what that may have been or how it may have been taken at the time is uncertain. Many Rökkatru will additionally point out that according to the lore itself, Fenrir had done nothing to illicit the binding to which the gods subjected him, save for to feature in a prophecy about Ragnarok. In this way, Fenrir’s binding could just as easily serve as a parable about self-fulfilling prophecies as a true condemnation of the wolf.

Nonetheless, there remains no clear cut evidence of historic worship, thought I would argue that none of this necessarily precludes worship. The historical worship of deities considered “dark,” with associations to death, destruction, and chaos is not unheard of, and nearly every god has their dark side, after all. Regardless, we must acknowledge that the hunt for evidence of the historical worship of Fenrir runs cold.

His siblings may fare better, however. Jörmungandr is also featured on the Gosforth Cross, as well as the Altuna Runestone is Sweden and the The Hørdum stone in Denmark. Many runestones feature serpentine figures, but it is often difficult to discern whether any given serpent is Jörmungandr or a simple knot-work embellishment.

atla

The Atla Runestone was found in Atla, Uppland, Sweden

Of the textual evidence regarding Jörmgandr, we again don’t have clear-cut evidence of worship of the Midgard Serpent. Nonetheless, the treatment of the serpent has been, at least from some scholars, much kinder. In his essay “Thor’s Fishing Expedition,” Preben Meulengracht Sørensen argues that textual evidence suggests pre-Christian beliefs about Jörmgandr may have been drastically different from modern-day, Christian influenced beliefs. “[The Midgard Serpent] is part of the cosmic order which will be destroyed if the monster does not stay in place,”(6) he argues, citing variations on the myth of Thor’s fishing trip which see him thwarted in reeling in Jörmgandr by his giant companion, who cuts the line. In the course of the essay Sørensen calls this giant “an involuntary helper” who guides Thor from the realm of civilization, as represented by farmland, to an untamed world of otherness, as represented by the sea. He describes the violent struggle between Thor, attempting to catch the serpent, and Jörmgandr attempting to escape to freedom, as a struggle between up and down, between the tamed and the tame. This is ultimately, he concludes, a tale of the struggle for balance.

Sørensen argues in this essay that the encounter between Thor and Jörmgandr as one reaffirming the balance of the cosmic order as understood by the pagans of Scandinavia. In this argument, Jörmgandr is a vital part of the cosmos which cannot be removed or destroyed without disrupting the balance of, well, everything else. Sørensen additionally claims that as the story was handed down it may have been changed and re-formed by people who were recording it without the original context or understanding of the symbolism inherent in the story, so that it eventually became a story about Thor defeating a monster rather than a parable about the vital cosmic order.

If this interpretation is true, it validates the understanding of rmungandr that some Rökkatru have as the serpent being a protector of Midgard, a guardian patrolling the liminal spaces at the world’s edges rather than a threat or enemy. Not all Rökkatru hold this belief of course, but regardless this interpretation of the myth, despite lack of physical evidence of historical reverence for the serpent, might support modern-day reverence.

Finally we have Hel, or Hela. This goddess of the underworld is often referred to in sayings throughout The Poetic Edda, both in mentions of her halls and their locations as well as in phrases such as “Hel can take him” in Fáfnismál and “Hel has half of us” or “sent off to Hel” in Atlamál. Most famously she’s attested in Snorri’s recounting of the death of Baldr and Frigg’s journey to try to get him back.

There are many more attestations of Hel in the written sources, but perhaps most interesting is the archaeological evidence. Several bracteates from the Migration Period have been proposed to depict Hel as a woman at the bottom of a slope, holding either a scepter or a staff. It is theorized that the downward slope along which travelers are walking, toward the woman posed at the bottom of the slope, indicates the downward journey to the underworld. Bracteates IK 14 and IK 124 are those primarily highlighted as possible depictions of the goddess Hel.(7) Other bracteates that are theorized to depict the death of Baldur show three figures, two typically identified as Odin and Baldur while the third is usually identified as either Hel or her father (and oftentimes killer of Baldr) Loki.(8)

116_Niaer2_Fredrikstad_IK244_OHM

Bracteates are finely hammered discs such as the one pictured above, IK 244. Unfortunately photographs or sketches of IK 14 and IK 124 are proving quite elusive.

If the interpretations of these bracteates are correct, it would fly in the face of scholarly interpretations that demote Hel to a mere literary figure of late and likely Christian creation. Furthermore, arguments that Hel would have received no cultic worship by virtue of being a goddess of death seem to assume that our pagan ancestors would never honor deities associated with death and darkness. This would be to ignore plenty of evidence of cultic worship given to deities like Hekate, Hades-Plouton or Hades-Klymenos, Ereshkigal, Kali, and more. Though these gods may have been feared just as much if not more than they were revered, we know they were recipients of cultic worship. We know that our ancestors did not withhold worship from “dark” deities just because they feared them.

Herein lies the core of Rökkatru: an understanding that simply because something is frightening or difficult to understand, this does not mean that thing is evil or unworthy. A snake may be venomous, but that does not mean that it doesn’t play a vital role in the balance of the ecosystem. A wolf may be frightening and it may occasionally take livestock, but that doesn’t mean that wolves are not absolutely necessary in the ecosystem. A flower may be poisonous, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t beautiful and doesn’t contribute to the fertility of its environment.

Rökkatru is the understanding that a balance between light and dark is the key to life, that death and fertility are linked and interdependent, and that to remove one negates and nullifies the other. It is the understanding that just because we fear the dark or do not understand that which lingers in the dark, that does not mean that dismissing it as evil or unworthy is either wise or correct. It is the value of the twilight—that delicate balance between the dark and the light—as beautiful, necessary, and sacred.

(1) Orchard, Andy. Dictionary of Norse Myth and Legend. 1997. pp 7.

(2) McKinnell, John. 2005. Meeting the Other in Norse Myth and Legend.

(3) Davidson, Hilda Ellis. 1993. The Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe. Routledge.

(4) MacLeod, Mindy; Mees, Bernard (2006). Runic Amulets and Magic Objects. Boydell Press. pp. 145–148.

(5) Lindow, John (2001). Norse Mythology: A Guide to Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs. Oxford University Press. Pp 111-114.

(7) Meulengracht Sørensen, P. (1986). Thor’s Fishing Expedition. In G. Steinsland (Ed.), Words and objects: Towards a dialogue between archaeology and history of religion (p. 67). Oslo: Norwegian Univ. Pr. Pp 67

(8) Pesch, Alexandra. (2002). “Frauen und Brakteaten – eine Skizze” in Mythological Women’, edited by Rudolf Simek and Wilhelm Heizmann, pp. 33–80. Verlag Fassbaender, Wien.

8Simek, Rudolf (1996). Dictionary of Northern Mythology. D.S. Brewer. Pp 44.

An Argument for the Historical Worship of the Jötnar

We’ve explored archaeological evidence and analyzed surviving popular texts about the pre-Christian religions in Scandinavia. It’s now time to turn toward scholarship which analyzes the role of the jötnar in Norse mythology and pre-Christian pagan practice.

One essay by scholar Gro Steinsland looks at textual evidence that the jötnar were recipients of honor or worship among the people of Scandinavia. “The Eddaic poetry and Snorri’s testimony,” Steinsland states in “Giants as Recipients of Cult in the Viking Age?”, “demand that both the jǫtunn character of the figures and the combination of giantesses and shrines are to be taken seriously.”

Skadi is one of the most well-known examples of jötnar for whom some evidence of cultic worship may exist. John Lindow in his 2002 book Norse Mythology: A Guide to Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Belief hypothesizes that a scene in which Loki ties his testicles to the horns of a goat might have associations with cultic ritual and castration in honor of Skadi. (1) With relation to Skadi, Steinsland highlights toponomical studies which show there are many sites whose names appear to be derived from combinations of words with cultic connotations and Skadi’s name. This implies the possibility of physical sites of Skadi worship. (2) She furthermore asserts that “[t]he mythical dwelling of a god has its counterpart in the physical shrine,” claiming the description of Skadi’s home among the homes of the other gods further implies the real-world worship of Skadi in pre-Christian Norse religion. (3)

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Another giantess whose goddess status Steinsland considers is Gerdr. She points out an early twentieth century interpretation of the myth of Freyr and Gerdr which has become widely renowned: Freyr as a sky god and Gerdr as an earth goddess, their union representing the fertility of the crops, something which may have been ritually reenacted every year. Nonetheless, she points out, the man who pioneered this now roundly accepted interpretation of the myth, Magnus Olsen, avoided the issue of Gerdr’s jötunn nature altogether. (4) She notes that, despite the clarity of the Eddas in identifying Gerdr as a giantess, scholars have often dismissed or overlooked Gerdr’s nature rather than grapple with the notion that a jötunn may have been recognized in cultic ritual—in other words, a recipient of worship.

In addition to looking at individual jötnar as examples, Steinsland highlights the story of the horse’s phallus contained in Vǫlsa þáttr, in which a horse phallus is used as a focal point of offering and worship. The word which would indicate the receiver of the offering, mǫrnir, is often translated as the singular masculine word for “sword” despite being in the plural form, which would indicate that it ought to be translated as the plural feminine word for “giantesses.” (5) Despite the fact that grammatically and linguistically the translation “giantess” ought to be preferred, it is often rejected, seemingly as a result of implicit biases within the scholarly community that assume that no jötnar ever received worship.

Scholar Lotte Motz notes that in post-conversation folklore, giant figures were often replaced with demons or devil figures. (6) Through the projection of Christian morality onto pre-Christian figures of myth and folklore, the idea of the giant as demon or devil was perpetuated and solidified. It is possible that this has effected the scholarly treatment of the jötnar, which in any case are treated with similar hesitancy if not outright disdain in some modern heathen circles.

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Let us now turn to Lotte Motz, who touches upon the intimate relationship of the jötnar which I explored previously. She highlights the fact that the jötnar are not only personifications of natural forces and the natural world, but that Norse mythology depicts the entirety of Midgard to have been created with the sacrifice of the flesh, blood, and bone of a jötunn whereas the Æsir are held apart from the natural world: “Gods do not give of themselves to become part of nature around us, whereas the blood of a giant formed the sea, and his skull the sky. Gods are thus apart and distinct from the world which they have founded and which they rule.” (7)

In many ways such a description of the Æsir as opposed to the Jötunn mirrors human society in the modern era: despite being animals at the core, the vast majority of humanity consider themselves distinct and separate from “nature.” Nature is, in many ways, “othered” in the modern world, much as we see the jötunn “othered” in the Eddas and in many if not most interpretations of the Eddas.

The potential link between the jötnar and the power of nature extends to the nature of kingship in the pre-Christian Norse world. It is not unheard of in cultures around the world for kings and tribal leaders to claim divine right via divine lineage, and the Norse were no exception to this—except, it seems, that many claimed jötunn heritage. This potentially positions the jötunn in pre-Christian Scandinavia as having been recognized as divine powers—that is, as having been a class of gods. In her essay “Kingship and the Giants,” Lotte Motz explores the connection between the jötunn and Nordic kingship more thoroughly.

Motz notes that in some skaldic poems the king’s “conquest of land was visualized in erotic terms, as an embrace and conquest of a woman.” This is, of course, not surprising or unusual. The conquest of land by explorers and colonizers has often been related in erotic terms (the phrase “virgin land” comes to mind) so it seems unsurprising that there might be a similar tradition with regards to the kings of Scandinavia. Motz looks at an example from the poems Hálegjatal and Hákonardrápa, saying that the erotic imagery used in these poems to describe the king’s relationship to the land “is based on the myth in which the earth—jörd— is Óðinn’s wife.” She isn’t the only scholar who has noticed this trend. Though Motz isn’t ultimately sold on Folke Ström’s take on this, she cites Ström as a scholar who has believes this to be in reference to the concept of a sacred marriage between the king and the land.(8)

Jord is not only a word meaning earth in the Scandinavian languages. She is a jötunn closely associated with earth and soil, who also happens to be Thor’s mother. According to Motz this example is neither an exceptional one nor an accident. She goes on to say:

“[Scholars] have not noted, surprisingly, that the ‘divine’ ancestor or bride is frequently not a godhead but a member of the race of giants…This fact is never hidden. Gerðr, ancestress of Yngling kings, is the daughter of Aurboða and Gymir, both giants. Skaði, ‘the shining bride of the gods’, was fathered by the giant Þjazi…The descent of Norwegian princes is traced to the giant Fornjtr and his family in some accounts.” (9)

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Motz lists a number of examples of royal Scandinavian lineages that either traced their line to giants, or claimed relationship to the giants via marriage, fosterage, or friendship. Given the possibility that the giants are anthropomorphized natural elements, Ström’s theory about a sacred relationship to the land may not be entirely off base: the Yngling kings claiming to be descended from Gerdr and Freyr, for example, could be seen to be claiming descent from the earth itself. Gerdr represents the soil of gardens or perhaps even farms, while Freyr may represent the earth’s fertility. Relationships with other jötnar of varying heritage might be seen as a symbolic claim to the untamed power of the natural forces with which that particular jötunn is associated.

But would these claims have been made if the jötnar were considered by the people of the time to be evil and antithetical to the gods? It’s highly doubtful, as such claims might implicitly place the claimants in conflict with the gods and perhaps even weaken their claim to power—if, of course, the jötnar were viewed with the same derision with which many view them today. What seems more likely is that the jötnar were seen as divine, that some jötnar were worshiped, making it a logical move to claim descent or relationship to them as a movement for consolidation of power.

Ultimately Motz says that it remains unknown “why members of a hostile and savage group, intent on destroying the order of the gods, should assist in creating a sacred institution.” (10) Setting aside the possibility that the claim to jötnar heritage might be associated with a sacred relationship to the land and nature, I want to return to something which Motz herself pointed out: that post-conversion, giants and devils become interchangeable. She of course goes on to note that the giants are set in a position of hostility to the ruling faith and suggests this may be cause for the substitution. We know, however, the hostility between the classes could represent a historical appropriation of an older religious paradigm by a newer one, something which Motz takes into consideration in “Giants in Folklore and Mythology”:

“It is true that many waves of immigration washed onto the shores of Northern Europe, each group bringing its tradition of warfare and faith into the new land and accepting also much of what it found…If the giants had, in fact, been the gods of the native population who then became part of the faith of the invaders, we would find an answer to their dual nature: that they were wise as well as monstrous, that they built sanctuaries even though they were the enemy…And as such they were remembered in the tales of simple folk: as those who had constructed the world in its splendour.” (11)

So little writing by pagan believers in pre-Christian Scandinavia about the mythology and beliefs of the time exists, making it nearly impossible to be certain what their attitudes might have been about the jötnar. We must rely on clues in the stories that are left to us.

The clues are hidden in the nooks and crannies of obscure and common texts alike. Though they, just like the archaeological evidence we looked at, may be interpreted in a variety ways, the suggestion they seem to point to—that the jötnar were not viewed as evil forces and that some probably did receive worship—cannot be absolutely dismissed without also dismissing the works in which those clues are found. As we have seen in previously, we don’t have enough textual evidence of the original beliefs and practices to be roundly dismissing these texts.

  1. Lindow, John. Norse Mythology: A Guide to Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Belief. Oxford University Press, New York. pp. 269
  2. Steinsland, G. 1986: ”Giants as Recipients of Cult in the Viking Age?” Words and Objects; Towards a Dialogue between Archaeology and History of Religion. G. Steinsland, ed. Oslo, pp. 213-4
  3. Steinsland. 213
  4. Steinsland. 214-5
  5. Steinsland. 216
  6. Motz, Lotte. “Giants in Folklore and Mythology: A New Approach.” Folklore, Vol. 93 No. 1. Taylore & Francis, LTD. 1982.
  7. Motz. 77
  8. Motz, Lotte. “Kingship and the Giants,” Arkiv för nordisk filologi. 1996. pp. 74
  9. Motz. 75
  10. Motz. 82
  11. Motz, Lotte. “Giants in Folklore and Mythology: A New Approach.” Folklore, Vol. 93 No. 1. Taylore & Francis, LTD. 1982. pp 81

The Evolution of Pre-Christian Nordic Religion

Compared to many cultures around the globe, very little evidence remains of pre-Christian religious beliefs and practices in Scandinavia. By far the best known pre-Christian temple in Scandinavia was the temple in Uppsala, having been attested to in the writings of Adam of Bremen. However, evidence remains scant. Some archaeological evidence of a hall near to the burial mounds of Gamla Uppsala has been uncovered but, because of the decay of building materials, very little evidence remains to be interpreted. These remains have largely been read as being evidence of a hall where both political and cultic practices may have occurred, including sacrificial feasts (1) though some have suggested that this may have been the temple, or served both functions.(2) Even the best known religious sites offer us little evidence to interpret or develop an understanding of Scandinavian religions prior to the conversion era.

Considering the minimal nature of archaeological evidence of pre-Christian religions in Scandinavia, how do we know what we know about those religions? “Apart from the rune stones, contemporary written information about the Viking homelands is almost exclusively the work of foreign clerics,” Else Roesdahl notes in The Vikings, “few of whom had visited Scandinavia. Nearly all these texts are in Latin and they were usually written following political or military confrontations on Denmark’s southern border, or attempts to convert the pagan northmen to the true Christian faith.” (3)

Most of what we think we know about Scandinavian religion before the arrival of Christianity is, in fact, based on writings from contemporary Christian clergy. Yet the history of complex religious beliefs in Scandinavia was established long before the onset of the best-known and best-evidenced eras of Scandinavian history, the Vendal and the Viking eras, let alone before the arrival of Christianity.

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Sample of pictographs from Atla, Norway

Evidence of religious beliefs in Scandinavia dates to as early as the Stone Age. “The Stone Age archaeological record paints a surprisingly complex picture,” writes Bryon J. Nordstrom. “Artifacts of bone or amber and petroglyphs and pictographs, such as those in Alta in Norway or the somewhat later ones at Nämforsen in southern Sweden, depict reindeer, moose, bear, birds, fish, whales and humans. These depictions indicate the presence of animist religious beliefs from very ancient times.” (4) Based exclusively on the archaeological evidence we can see an evolution in these animist beliefs (defined primarily by a belief that all things in nature contain a spirit, not just humans). In the late Mesolithic, for instance, occurs new “systematic burial practices that may indicate a belief in an afterlife or veneration of family members.” (5)

This late-era shift in religious practices and beliefs lead to the new practices of the Neolithic age, shifting toward a religious outlook which favored ancestor veneration and practices regarding death and belief in the afterlife. This is evidenced by megalithic graves, dolemens and passage graves. (6) Because of the obvious amount of labor and time expended upon the construction of these graves and because they were used repeatedly, there is a strong likelihood that such grave sites doubled as cult sites.(7)

We come next to the Bronze Age. The tradition of petroglyphs had certainly survived through the ages, the changes in climate, and invasions. By this point in history “the most common images are of ships, circles and wheels, men with weapons, men with exaggerated phalluses, plows, footprints, and occasionally women…they may be sacred images, including the sun, the ships that carried the sun across the sky, and gods and goddesses of the hunt, the field, and fertility.” (8)

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Sample of pictographs in Nämforsen, Sweden

Moving into the Migration and Vendal eras, we continue to have a wealth of archaeological evidence up for interpretation. This evidence continues to come from places of burial and sacrifice and, just as the cultures of these ages “may also be seen as direct antecedents to the Viking Age,” (9) it seems reasonable that the religious beliefs of these ages were also direct antecedents to Viking Age religion. This is especially true when we consider that the only thing directly separating the Vendal and Viking ages are the written records of the Viking invasions of Lindisfarne in 793. (10)

At long last, the beginning of the written record regarding Scandinavia has begun. Because of the great wealth of churches, which housed the aforementioned literate clergymen, Vikings often targeted them. Though they had not yet begun to write about the religion of the Vikings, this marks the point at which the written record can be used to corroborate theories about the archaeological evidence which, in regard to religion, continues to remain inconclusive. Stone carvings continue to be an important source of evidence, such as the picture stones in Gotland dating between 400 and 800 A.D., which depict “sailing ships, costumes, processions, battles, sacrifices, and Norse gods such as Odin.” (11) Though these are among our primary sources of evidence, in addition to grave goods and sites of sacrifice, it is worth noting that “pictures can rarely be interpreted precisely, but they give an impression of ceremonies and rituals and also confirm some of the stories about the gods…” (12)

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Hunninge picture stone from Gotland

Though it is far simpler, it is neither wise nor advisable to entirely separate these different periods of religious belief from one another. The evolution of religious practices and beliefs is just that—an evolution. These beliefs and practices evolved in tandem with the society out of which they arose. We can see in the Stone Age that animist religions underwent a change as the people themselves shifted from the nomadic lifestyle of the Megalithic age to the settlement lifestyle of the Neolithic. I would argue that the more familiar beliefs of the Viking age could not and would not have taken the shape they did if it weren’t for the shape these earlier religions took and the effect changes in society had on their development and evolution, much like modern people could not exist in their current form without their ape ancestors.

Some disturbances naturally occur which induce or alter this process. These included changes not only in climate but also invasions which brought new people with new weapons, technologies, and cultures, as well as new religions and new gods:

“Some researchers believe Sweden, along with much of the south Baltic, Denmark and Finland, were invaded by nomads whose origins lay along the western slopes of the Ural Mountains…some archaeologists think they brought with them the prototype of the later Germanic languages, including Swedish, and a new set of gods. According to this interpretation, these invaders descended on the peasant farmers of the north, conquered them, became a new elite, and erased the old cultures. Good evidence supports these views: The beautifully crafted boat-shaped ceremonial axes, crudely decorated pottery, and simple individual chamber graves become common and were strikingly different from their counterparts in either of the older Neolithic cultures.”(13) 

Though it is true that these invading forces re-shaped the existing culture, it is drastic to say that they could or would have utterly eradicated it, as is suggested when Nordstrom writes that the invaders “erased the old cultures.” While significant damage to existing cultures can and is often done when a foreign force invades an area, historically this often involves some degree of assimilation rather than total annihilation. We can see this in other instances of invaded peoples straining to retain their culture and new rulers making certain cultural concessions to keep their newly conquered people in the fold.

With specific regard to religious practice and belief, there are plenty of examples of religions meeting wherein the conquering religion assimilated rather than destroyed the other. Take, for example, the Greek Titans: some scholarship suggests that these formidable beings in Greek mythology represent deities from an older religious tradition. This argues that the depiction of the Titans as having been conquered and imprisoned by a younger generation of gods represents a newer religious tradition supplanting the elder. This is a mythological form very closely mirrored in other cultures, including the Babylonians, Hittites, and Phoenicians.(14) Lotte Motz highlights specific examples: “The Giants and the Titans of the Greeks were ultimately defeated by Olympic Zeus; the great god Marduk of the Babylonians opposed those from whom he was descended, who were fighting under the leadership of Kingu.” (15)

I propose that we can see echoes of this myth-form in the war between the Nordic Aesir and the Vanir, as well as the ongoing struggles between the Aesir and the Jötnar. Multiple waves of migration into Scandinavia followed closely by discernible shifts in religious orientation, values, and structures may very well indicate that a series of invading and supplanting cultures introduced a series of supplanting religions. This is in addition, of course, to other environmental factors that were prompting changes in religious focus and values, such as the switch from nomadic lifestyles to settlement lifestyles, often corresponding with a switch between hunter-gatherer cultures and agricultural cultures.

Ultimately while it is hard to definitively interpret the archaeological evidence without textual evidence to fill in the gaps, we can make reasoned assessments based on the evidence we do have. We can additionally study the evolution of other, better documented religions around the world to fill in our understanding of the kinds of patterns and changes that are common in religious evolution. Taking the evidence we do have and comparative studies of comparable myth-forms and religious developments from the around the world, it’s not such a stretch to interpret the primal, often clearly nature-associated jötnar as survivors of an older, primordial animistic religion that set the stage for later Nordic religions.

(1) Gamla Uppsala. “Kungsgårdsterrasserna.” Gamla Uppsala Museet: Gamla Uppsala, 2000. Plaque.
(2) Roesdahl. pp 154
(3) Roesdahl. pp 15
(4) Nordtsrom, Bryon J. Scandinavia since the 1500s. University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis, 2000. pp 4
(5) Nordstrom, Byron J. The History of Sweden. Greenwood Press: Westport, 2002. pp 14
(6) Nordstrom, Byron J. The History of Sweden. Greenwood Press: Westport, 2002. pp 15
(7) Nordstrom. pp 15
(8) Nordstrom. The History of Sweden, pg 17
(9) Nordstrom. History of Sweden. Pg 19
(10) Pearson. pp 337-353
(11) Nordstrom. The History of Sweden. 21
(12) Roesdahl. The Vikings. pp 128
(13) Nordstrom. pp 15
(14) Burkert, Walter. The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture in the Early Archaic Age (Revealing Antiquity). Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 1995. Pgs 94-95.
(15) Motz, Lotte. “Giants in Folklore and Mythology: A New Approach.” Folklore, Vol. 93 No. 1. Taylore & Francis, LTD. 1982.

Christian Bias in the Surviving Lore 2

Last time we looked at what Adam of Bremen had to say about the temple in Uppsala. Today, I would like to turn toward a more familiar name whose writings are more commonly relied upon by modern heathens: Snorri Sturluson.

Sturluson’s Edda is heavily reliant upon select poems from The Elder Edda, otherwise known as The Poetic Edda, a source of unknown authorship which is likely the work of multiple authors. Both are incredibly valuable resources in terms of uncovering what kinds of things the pagan people of Scandinavia believed in, though both come with their own set of complications.

It is from writings such as Sturluson’s Prose Edda, for which his chief resources were likely Völupsá and Grimnismal of the The Poetic Edda, (1) that we know about characteristics of the gods, cosmology, beliefs about the origin of the world, and humans, as well as beliefs about different afterlives. Though these writings were written in Iceland post-conversion, like the sagas they “probably tell us a great deal about traditions, beliefs, practices, customs, and values in early medieval Iceland…”(2)

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Snorri Sturluson by Christian Krohg

Roesdahl asserts that Snorri’s Edda, being a detailed record of Norse myths and stories about the gods, “is as reliable as it could be, given that it was written some 200 years after the introduction of Christianity; Christian influence can often be discerned in these sources, however.”(3) For all its reliability, we must continue proceeding with caution as we interpret these written sources. Snorri’s own Edda, after all, opens with the lines, “In the beginning God created Heaven and Earth and all those things which are in them; and last of all, two human kind, Adam and Eve, from whom all races are descended.” (4) While this Christian influence is most blatant in the earliest portions of Snorri’s Edda, it must be taken into consideration even in areas of the work where it may be less obvious. To complicate matters, Sturluson’s source material may already have been corrupted by Christian influence:

Snorri accepted Völuspá as a valid source of information about the old faith in the Æsir, but modern scholars have long since recognized that much in the poem must be of Christian origin. The idea that the final doom is a punishment for the gods’ oath-breaking and for the moral decay of gods and men alike is not known in any other reliable pre-Christian Nordic source. The description of the torments of wrongdoers and of the terrible times that precede ragnarök are suspiciously consonant with Christian eschatology and the paradise enjoyed by the saved after the universal conflagration is reminiscent of Christian thinking…Völupsá is the revelation experienced by the sibyl, and is more of a piece with visionary literature of the Christian middle ages than with anything we know from Nordic paganism. (5)

This isn’t of course, to say that there is no knowledge about pre-Christian Scandinavian beliefs to be found in Völupsá. Once aware of the heavy Christian influence present in Völupsá and texts like it, and even Snorri’s text which drew from it, we are better able to discern that which may more closely represent pre-Christian beliefs. For instance, Ragnarök is not the only war among the gods that Völupsá records:

On the host his spear | did Othin hurl

Then in the world | did first war come;

The wall that girdled | the gods was broken.

And the field by the warlike | Wanes was trodden.

Then sought the gods | their assembly seats

The holy ones | the council held

Whether the gods | should tribute give.

Or to all alike | should worship belong. (6)

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This war between the Æsir and the Vanir or “Wanes” was, the Völupsá tells, the result of the Æsir’s attack Gollveig, presumably an important Vanic goddess herself, considering the described reaction of the Vanir. The outcome of this war, after the Vanir have utterly destroyed the Æsir’s defenses, was a council held by the gods to determine whether worship should belong “to all alike.” As a result of this council, the Vanic gods Njörd, Frey and Freya took a place among the Æsir, presumably as war hostages but also to partake in the worship of men, while other Vanic deities fall into seeming or near obscurity.

This story is an example of one which seems less influenced by Christianity despite evidence of the poem containing it being a largely Christian construct. It is very likely rooted in old pagan mythology, as the notion of two warring tribes of gods sitting down to discuss the division of human worship clearly clashes with Christian monotheism.

Of course, Christian influence hardly wiped the polytheism of old pagan religions from the myths which were preserved, but one might also point to the muddy morality which the story presents. Many Christianized Norse myths align their point of view almost exclusively with the Æsir, especially when it comes to Odin and his son Baldr. Here it’s important to note that Odin’s position and title of “All-Father” mirrors the “Father” aspect of the Christian trinity, while Baldr’s death and resurrection after Ragnarök mirrors Christ’s death and resurrection. This is one of the more subtle effects Christianization has had on the mythology, but the story of the war between the Æsir and the Vanir  doesn’t fall in line with this trend or generalization. It depicts the Æsir as aggressors and the Vanir not only responding in kind, but apparently winning the war before the council was called. The degree to which the Æsir are overpowered by the Vanir (consider how their defensive wall was broken by the Vanir) would seem to make Odin’s decision to attack Gollveig quite a lot more foolish than other Christianized myths tend to portray him and his actions.

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Much as Odin’s decision to act aggressively toward the Vanir in the recollection of the wise-woman in Völupsá reads as a foolish blundering when considering the evident might of the Vanir, some other poems appearing in The Poetic Edda depict the gods in a humorous, almost satirical way. Among the most noteworthy of these are Lokasenna and Trymskvida:

Some scholars have argued that both these poems are late compositions, even the work of thirteenth century poets. They point to the satirical treatment of the gods. But this is to think that heathens regarded their gods in the same way as Christians regard their Trinity. A much more fitting approach is to consider what genuine religious sentiment of the pagan period may have inspired these poems. (7)

This is particularly important to note in large part because it is important to remember that the way modern, largely Christian people think and feel about the divine does not necessarily reflect how the pagan people who traded these stories and believed in these gods thought and felt about their deities. It is as important to be aware of what we ourselves project onto these myths as it is to be aware of what the Christian clergy who wrote most of these records projected onto the stories and people they were writing about.

Here I have only closely analysed one poem, but it is important to remember that we can all analyze the myths through this lens, and we all ought to engage in such critical study of our lore. When we forget to check our own assumptions we may easily miss telling clues about the beliefs of pre-Christian peoples such as the gods’ distinctly human characteristics, something which is common in polytheistic mythologies and belief systems. They struggle with themselves and with each other. They make mistakes which they must then correct. This certainly would have led to people of the time having a different relationship to their gods than people in religious traditions sporting one all-knowing and all-powerful god. Rather than dismiss this interesting detail because it does not correspond to more modern concepts of how people do and should relate to the divine, it is far better to note the distinct possibility that the people of pre-Christian Scandinavia may well have a relationship with their gods which included an ability to laugh at them and perhaps take and teach lessons through the stories told about their gods.

 

(1) Kristjánsson, Jónas. Eddas and Sagas: Iceland’s Medieval Literature. Trans. Peter Foote. Hið íslenksa bókmenntafélag: Reykjavík, 1988. Pp 38

(2) Nordstrom History of Sweden. Pp 22

(3) Roesdahl, Else. The Vikings. Penguin Books: London, 1998. Pg 148.

(4) The Prose Edda. Tr. Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur. 1916.

(5) Kristjánsson. pp 43

(6) The Poetic Edda. Trans. Henry Adam Bellows. Princeton University Press: Princeton. 1936.

(7) Kristjánsson. pp 39

Christian Bias in the Surviving Lore 1

I’ve touched on the fact that the surviving lore is heavily influenced by Christian forces that had already began to shape the Nordic world and the world at large by the time the lore was recorded. There is much to be said on this topic, but it is worth acknowledging first and foremost that many if not most of those practicing Rökkatru were raised in a dominantly Judeo-Christian culture. Much of the “western” world (read: Europe and the Americas) have been heavily shaped by Christian imperialism, be that Protestant or Catholic (or both at different points in history).

However much many American and European pagans seek to distance themselves from their own Christian pasts and the Christian legacy of their national identities, it is not possible for anyone to completely divorce themselves from the effects of the culture that they were raised and socialized in. It is for this reason that many neopagan practices mirror Christian and Catholic practices, especially with regards to theologies hinging on the idea of “good” and “evil.”

It is worth noting that there is nothing inherently wrong in having been subject to this influence—again, we all have to some extent. Just as it is impossible to grow up in an inherently white supremacist culture without internalizing some degree of racial bias, so it is similarly impossible to grow up in a culture so shaped by Christian theology and not internalize that values system to some degree. The best anyone can do is educate themselves about those influences and reflect on the way those cultural and societal pressures are effecting their own patterns of thought, belief, and practice.

The purpose of the following sections is to provide some rudimentary historical education on the Christianization of the lore. With that educational basis it becomes a lot easier to reflect on the way these forces have shaped our own belief structures and worldviews, but that work (and whatever conclusions you come to in that process) will be yours alone.

Adam of Bremen

adam-of-bremen

There are two major players in the way Christianity shaped our knowledge of old Nordic religious beliefs and practices. I’m going to start with an analysis of the writings of Adam of Bremen, whose writings predate Snorri Sturluson’s by approximately 125 years. His are among the most important writings regarding the religion of the Vikings and includes an account of the temple in Uppsala written c. 1075 A.D.

In his famous description of the temple of Uppsala and the rituals that occurred there, Adam describes a temple which housed pagan idols where, every nine years, the kings of the land gathered to pay homage to the gods. All their people were to send gifts of offering and sacrifice. No one, he noted, was exempt from this duty.

During this time a sacrifice was made consisting of nine “of every living thing which is male…with the blood of which it is customary to placate gods of this sort. The bodies they hang in the sacred grove that adjoins the temple. Now this grove is so sacred in the eyes of the heathens that each and every tree in it is believed divine because of the death or putrefaction of the victims.” He does, however, go on to relate how this information was passed on to him second hand, namely by “a Christian seventy-two years old” who had witnessed the sacrifice, a detail which reminds us that Adam of Bremen never himself witnessed these rituals or laid eyes upon the temple. Furthermore, we are made to understand that some portion of what was related back to him was not, in fact, preserved in his writings, as he states: “…the incantations customarily chanted in the ritual of a sacrifice of this kind are manifold and unseemly; therefore, it is better to keep silence about them.” (1)

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Woodcutting print of the Temple at Uppsala from Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus by Olaus Magnus. Image based on Adam of Bremen’s descriptions.

Of course, by the time of Adam of Bremen’s writing, Christianity had a solid presence in Scandinavia. In fact, a great number of the stories he writes in regards to paganism in Scandinavia are stories about Christians fighting the evils of paganism either by attempting to convert the people, destroying idols and places of worship, or simply plotting to do so. It is reasonable to assume that “the temple, priests and statues may all have been influenced by Christian worship, for they are not known from earlier sources” (2) and evidence of the existence of temples in pagan Scandinavia remains scant to nonexistent.

Nonetheless, aside from place-names, which can point us to cult places and locations where certain gods were popular among the locals, (3) we have little evidence outside of Adam of Bremen’s account about what religious ceremonies and rituals in the Viking era looked like. This makes his account incredibly valuable though we must read it with approximately a quarter pound of salt because 1) Adam of Bremen never himself visited or laid eyes on the temple at Uppsala. His account is based on the stories of those who had. Furthermore, 2) his bias as a member of the Christian clergy undoubtedly colored his perception of these ceremonies and rituals and therefore colored his descriptions of them (as is evident where he chooses to omit details about the rituals).

What kinds of conclusions can we then draw from Adam of Bremen’s account? It seems reasonable to assume that the pagan religion of the people of Scandinavia was relatively malleable and capable of adaption if, as scholar Else Roesdahl suggests, the building of the temple and the incorporating of priests was the result of contact with Christianity. Likely because the pagan religion was a polytheistic one there was little perceived threat from the appearance of the Christian god, as the existence of this god and the fact that he was worshiped by these newcomers would not have drastically altered their view of the world in terms of religion and their own relationship to the divine—if there are a plethora of gods, after all, why should one more be so surprising?

From Adam of Bremen’s account we further know that the use of idols was practiced by the pagans of Scandinavia—something which can be corroborated by archaeological evidence—and that sacrifices of life and blood were performed in the presence of these idols to pay homage to the gods they represented. Archaeological evidence of various kinds of sacrifice in the pagan religion of Scandinavia has been found throughout the land, including the so-called “Bog People” in Denmark, which “appear to reveal…the presence of a religion devoted to fertility, in which humans were sacrificed to secure an abundant harvest.” (4) Though very little if any evidence has been found at Gamla Uppsala to support Adam of Bremen’s assertions of sacrifices which included humans, this cannot be discounted entirely given the incontrovertible evidence that human sacrifice was practiced elsewhere in pagan Scandinavia.

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One of the most famous of the “Bog Bodies” is known as Tollund Man. He is famous for the heightened degree of preservation, including preservation of his clothing and the noose around his neck.

In addition to offering up blood to the gods, we also know that practitioners offered up incantations to accompany their sacrifice, though once again what those incantations are must be relegated to the realm of theory, imagination, and possibly UPG/PVPG. Because of Adam of Bremen’s refusal to record them due to their “unseemly” nature, we know these incantations run counter to his own Christian faith. This doesn’t, however, tell us overly much as this could simply be a reflection of the unseemliness of the worship of “false gods” in his eyes, or it could allude to incantations relevant to fertility, and perhaps the sexuality inevitably involved in matters of fertility. Adam of Bremen could have chosen to exclude these “unseemly” incantations for any number of affronts to the Christian religion, and it is impossible to know which of Christianity’s laws were broken or in what way those laws were being broken in these incantations without having access to them.

Depictions on various rune stones together with Adam of Bremen’s account of the activities at the temple of Uppsala give us an idea of what religious practice may have looked like in Scandinavia both during the time of conversion and the time shortly preceding conversion. Aside from telling us that the people engaging in these practices believed that they could please the gods to achieve some worldly purpose, the practices themselves don’t shed much light on the beliefs. To learn more about the beliefs themselves, we will turn in the next post to records of the myths of pagan Scandinavia, the most important of which being Snorri Sturluson’s 13th century The Prose Edda (5) along with the works upon which Sturluson based his Edda. These are the most known and most heavily relied upon sources for the majority of modern heathen practitioners, so stay tuned for a close reading of them.

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(1) Adam of Bremen. History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen. Trans. Francis J. Tschan. Columbia University Press: New York. 2002. Pps 207-208.

(2) Roesdahl. pp 152

(3) Roesdahl, pp 18

(4) Nordstrom. Pp 9

(5) Roesdahl. Pp 148

Odin, Loki, and Elohim

I have a friend who came back into my life recently and approached me asking for advice on how to connect to the divine. Like most people in the United States, he was raised with a Christian worldview. Unlike most Christians, however, he told me that he had gotten in several arguments with other Christians about the evidence of multiplicity and plurality within the Bible. He also told me that he had never managed to really connect with the Divine because of the skepticism he has always held towards religion in a general sense.

That conversation led to introducing him to a Christian friend who does ritual work with Elohim and many angels. She did a ritual that my friend attended and he met Michael through that ritual, and he has been able to connect to the Divine ever since. He has also started to learn more about energy work and magic, and it seems that he has been called to the path of the mage. He may eventually become a Christian high magician.

Throughout all of this, I saw Loki’s touch on my life because the work that I do for Loki often consists of helping people and the gods connect to each other. I don’t always help Loki and those meant to walk his path connect with each other – it is often other gods. I’m not entirely sure why I am called to connect gods with their intended devotees, but I have no problem doing the work. Some of my greatest joy in life comes from seeing someone connect deeply with the Divine, no matter who the gods are that they form a connection with. There is something indescribably beautiful about seeing gods and their devotees come together.

To be honest, though, I found the whole series of events a little frustrating because while my friend was able to connect to Michael and Elohim, he was having trouble conceptualizing the other gods as being just as real as Elohim. He told me that because he hadn’t experienced them as real, he couldn’t really conceptualize them in the same way. I personally found that frustrating because I understood that him coming to me about wanting to connect to the Divine came from my gods pushing me to help someone connect to the Divine.

Interestingly enough, Odin helped with that. I did a midsummer ritual to Odin the other night to reaffirm my oath to him. My two Christian friends, ironically, were the only ones there to witness the oath. The night after that, both of them came over to discuss the ritual they had done and to continue with energy work lessons. When he was centered, I had him just open himself up to feel the energy in the apartment. At first, his immediate reaction was “I feel negative energy.” And then he caught himself and said, “No. Not negative. Foreign. Unfamiliar.”

Then Odin stepped forward and asked for a drink. And Loki stepped forward and asked for chocolate. I provided the drink and chocolate – the intent wasn’t to try and get him working with Norse gods! – and I basically got confirmation through his experience that Odin had heard and accepted the reaffirmation of my oath to him. I was kind of amused at Odin’s attempt to get my friend to give him an offering (that did NOT happen; I poured out the offering myself) and found myself reminded that Odin is just as much (if not more so) a trickster than Loki himself.

For me, it was just evidence that the Gods do what they need to do to connect to the devotees they choose. Odin and Loki made themselves known to a Christian practitioner to demonstrate to him that they are just as real as Elohim, and the politics of the Gods are not the politics of humans.

Body Positivity And The Gods

We’ve probably all heard the expression “So-and-so has the body of a god”. But with so many traditions and pantheons full of deities what does that mean and why does it matter? This is my take, one that has helped bring me comfort in the face of an increasingly harsh, shallow society.

Most people in the Western World are familiar with the Greek and Roman gods. At least in terms of Their names and how They are depicted. Male gods shown with muscled frames, defined abs and legs that appear to be carved from steel. Goddesses have a bit more body diversity but still tend to conform to a certain “ideal” type.

This is what most people have in mind when they think about what gods “look like”. And there’s nothing wrong with that. This isn’t a slam or argument against any particular depiction of deity but rather an appeal to explore others.

Modern artwork showing deities is often characterized by this concept that all gods are muscle bound and all goddesses are slender with big breasts and tiny waists. I remember coming across a lovely work of photo art from a modern Hellenic temple showing the smith god Hephaestus as a slightly heavyset man. The comments on the work were extremely disheartening. “Gods are supposed to look perfect!” “He wouldn’t be able to do His job like that!”

One commenter explained in detail that he was unable to connect with deities not depicted as “physically perfect”. I remember being completely taken aback not only by people’s complete disregard for the fact that the model was an actual human being but also the association between a specific body type and “perfect”. Perfect by who’s terms? Are you saying that despite His noticeably strong muscles He wouldn’t be able to perform His work because His stomach isn’t flat? Absolute absurdity.

“Physical perfection” is a demonstrably artificial concept anyone. Perfect for what? A sprinter isn’t built like a football player, a strongman doesn’t have the body of a swimmer, etc. Outside of our shallow, image obsessed media it has no actual definition. We have been collectively trained to strive for a “perfection” that simply doesn’t exist so that companies can sell more products.

Cultures across the world have carved, drawn and imagined their gods in a wide variety of different ways. The Egyptian god Hapi is shown with a large chest and big belly, representing His associations with abundance.

Another god Bes, (also Egyptian) is envisioned as short and plump. Despite these features (which would be labeled as “flaws” by our modern society) Bes was beloved in ancient times an in the modern day by Kemetics.

Fertility and mother goddesses the world over are given the image of a curved woman with a large, round body emphasizing Their creative powers. These ample goddesses are beloved and venerated in nearly every tradition. Their images adorn jewelry, altars, artwork and books.

Another much loved god Who doesn’t match the image of a deity so many have in their head is Hotei, Japanese (as well as Chinese) god of happiness and contentment. His image can be found not only in temples but also outside of bars and restaurants, of which He is considered the patron god.

Yet another of the “Seven Lucky Gods” of Japan can be included here. Ebisu, patron god of fishermen, luck and wealth. Ebisu is described as a “full-figured” man dressed as a fisherman. To this day He plays an important role in Japanese culture, appearing in many mediums.

One of the most popularly worshiped Hindu gods of all time is Ganesh or Ganesha. Considered by some branches of the Hindu faith to be the Supreme Being, Ganesha is shown in images as an elephant headed man, sometimes with multiple arms and a large protruding stomach. Depending on the tradition this can represent everything from satisfaction to the infinite number of worlds existing within Him.

These aren’t the only body types that are left out when we view gods through the lense of modern ideas of “physical perfection”. As I don’t have infinite room here however I’ll have to discuss them next time!

What does all of this mean thing? It means that the images we create of our gods reflects ourselves. There’s nothing wrong with buff gods but there is also nothing wrong with heavyset or even fat ones either. People aren’t meant to look alike or have the same builds and neither are our gods.

Rise the Wind and Rise the Waves: An Ego-Sacrifice Ritual for Jörmungandr

Note: the following is a person story about my efforts to de-center myself during a time when we all need to prioritizing community. It’s an account I share in the hopes that it might be meaningful and helpful for others who are similarly realizing that they need to engage in a sort of “ego death” to better de-center themselves and prioritize community and movements that aren’t about them, but which they can support. I don’t discuss it explicitly but this is also a story about me beginning a path toward healing from recent traumas and mental health problems. It’s not going to be perfect, and I understand that. I only hope that it might be valuable to other imperfect practitioners seeking to improve in deeply personal ways.

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This holiday post is a little bit different. For many of us time has ceased to have meaning during quarantine, and I’m no exception. If you’re interested in my take on how to celebrate Litha in a way catered to Rökkatru, check out last year’s post. Today, I want to tell you about my inadvertent solstice ritual for myself, for Jörmungandr, and for the world at large.

If you haven’t noticed, the world is in a bit of a state these days. I’ve seen and heard many Rökkatru and Lokeans discussing what they’ve been experiencing on a spiritual level, and it’s interesting to say the least. While there are communities in Africa practicing traditional religious rituals to curse American police and witches and pagans from all over America joined to do spells in support of #BlackLivesMatter (that were additionally supported by Christian prayers, nonetheless) many who work with the Norse gods are reporting a certain rumbling.

I’ve recently seen an uptick in people seeing a lot of activity from Loki and his kind in recent meditations and divinations. I recall seeing at least one person getting the distinct impression that Loki was well at work—and that the entire pantheon was behind him. It only makes sense that the Breaker of Worlds would have a hand not only in a pandemic that had shaken the entire world to its core and in the process us unveiled many ugly truths about our societies, but also in a simultaneous uprising that has laid bare a deep vein of corruption and oppression in a particularly potent system of power. This has been laid so bare that #BlackLivesMatter protests have been staged across the globe.

Now is a time for endings. Now is a time for beginnings.

It occurred to me recently that my own ego was getting in my way, preventing me from more effectively supporting the cause from the sidelines, where I’m stuck due to COVID-19 and close friends and chosen family who are immunocompromised or have loved ones who are. I had to prioritize my community and my ego was throwing a hissy fit about it.

I’m not sure why it struck me then that Jörmungandr could help me with this, but that notion struck me hard and felt right.

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I’ve not worked with Jörmungandr much, though not for lack of trying. Jörmungandr is a deity of the liminal. The concept of the ego is itself a bit of a wishy-washy thing, certainly much more in the realm of the mind and psyche than anything solid and tangible. This made sense to me—and if I wanted to shed my ego like a snake sheds its skin, then it made additional sense that it was the Midgard Serpent that I should petition.

The ritual itself was, fittingly, rather nebulous in my mind. I would go to a body of water, for greater connection with Jörmungandr, and I would enter the cold waves as a minor ordeal. I would cut off my hair—which I’ve been growing out for years and which I had a certain amount of pride in—as a physical symbol of the ego I would be sacrificing to the Great Serpent. I might try to sing, might chant, but I did not know what words.

From the day that I decided to do the ritual, I counted out nine days of preparation for the ritual, which largely took the form of working on undoing energetic blockages associated with recent trauma and mental health problems. That put me at the 21st of June—the summer solstice, though again I didn’t realize that until the day of. Additionally it ended up being the first day of my menstruation, which I wasn’t particularly stoked about but which lent an additional, um….flavor? to the ritual.

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I went to an inlet connected to the ocean. I stripped down to my underwear and walked into the water. It was late morning and the sky was overcast. The water was biting cold, and I immediately began to shake and shiver as I began casting my circle, calling on Jord of Earth, Hati and Skoll of Air, Surtr of Fire, and Ran, Aegir, and their Nine Daughters of the Sea. At last I faced west and knelt in the water and called on Jörmungandr.

“Let my blood call out to you

Great Serpent, the Circumscriber of the Seas

Let my blood call out to you as it calls to all hungry

Watery beasts.

Come find me Jörmungandr of magick and liminal spaces

Where the sea meets the soil.”

For all my attempts to sing these words, my voice was shaking and my teeth chattering as the cold settled into my flesh. My voice was weak but I gave it a try, having been told that Jörmungandr is quite fond of singing.

“Come to me you who encompass Midgard

You whose hide is emblazoned with

The constellations of the Milky Way.

Come find my sacrifice, Jörmungandr

And may it please you well.”

Putting the scissors to my hair, pulled into pigtails for the occasion, and I began to cut.

“Let me shed my ego

Like the serpent sheds its skin.

Come take this ego as offering ad sacrifice

Consume this ego and all its pride and self indulgence

Feast on this sacrifice, Jörmungandr, and feast well.”

I pinned the locks between my knee and took the scissors to the remain pigtail.

“As the snake sheds its skin

So I shed my ego.

As I shed my ego

So let this world shed all its old fetters

Of cruelty, of fear, and hatred;

Of tyranny and terror and oppression.

Let the world shed that heinous skin

And be born anew of all its cold viscera.”

While I spoke, my eyes closed and my face turned out across the water, I felt the waves rise around me. They rocked me, my whole body moving back and forth under the gentle force of their push and their pull. Along with the waves, the wind rose as well. A tree leaned out over the water beside me, and I could hear the wind whispering through the leaves just as I could feel it stirring my now cut-loose hair. For most of the ritual I was too enraptured by the cold of the water to get a good spiritual sense for what was happening around me, but in this moment I felt a great swell within me as I felt the swell of the water around me. I felt and heard my voice becoming strong, commanding, and forceful as the scissors snipped through my hair.

With my hair cut, I dug into the silt and rocks beneath the waves. “Take this sacrifice Jörmungandr,” I half prayed and half pleaded as I pressed the locks into the bottom of the hole and began to cover them with rocks and silt. “Take this sacrifice and take this ordeal—may it please you well Jörmungandr, and I plead you hear our words.”

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It struck me then that I wasn’t quite done. My hair was cut, my sacrifice was made, but something felt incomplete about the ordeal (however minor). Another swell rose up in my chest—an impulse or impression. It felt right to do, and so I dunked myself and my freshly cut hair beneath the cold waves, feeling the shock roll through my body from the top of my head and down my spine. I dunked myself nine times over my buried sacrifice in the waves that were beginning to calm.

After the ninth dunk I stood shakily up. Shivering, I put my hands together and began to thank Jörmungandr and bless their name before bidding them farewell. I thanked Ran, Aegir, and their Nine Daughters, Surtr, Hati and Skoll, and Jord for baring witness to my sacrifice, and bid them all farewell.

When I scrambled out of the water, shaking and covered in goosebumps to where my fiancee was waiting with a towel, I did feel lighter. It had been a sort of catharsis, leaving me less burdened with my own nonsense. More clear of vision, and ready to keep showing up for the fight—however I can, in whatever capacity best serves the community, regardless of my own ego or preferences.