Pets and the Divine

Like many people I found myself struggling as COVID altered the reality that I found myself living. I do not handle change well and I had friends leaving the area, a school semester that didn’t end well, the fact that transitioning from school to work is coming up, clubs not meeting in person (and I’m a person that does better getting to know people face to face), and classes going from in-person to a weird combination of online and in-person. In October however I got a reminder about how when we work with the Divine they will always make their presence known.

To simplify the story: when I was struggling the most the opportunity to get a cat came into my life. And she got me thinking about the relationships between people and Gods.

My cat in the early days when she decided under my bed was the safest space. She still thinks that but she goes other places now too.

I had been feeding a stray cat in the parking lot of my apartment complex since late summer. My hope was to eventually get them to the humane society (a no kill shelter). My apartment was not pet friendly and I had no way to afford the start up costs of a pet of any kind. One night I went outside to check on the moon (a school assignment, actually). It was also one of the hardest days for myself mentally. And there under my car was a set of yellow eyes looking at me. It had been a few weeks since I had seen the cat around and immediately went to get it food. The cat came pretty close to eat although they were skittish and not wanting me to touch them. I talked to them and felt myself feel better than I had in days. Later that week my mother mentioned that she thought an ESA animal could be beneficial and that she was willing to help me with start up costs. My therapist agreed a cat could be useful and I got the letter and things sorted with the managers. And that cat literally walked into my apartment. Something I didn’t think was possible or feasible happened. I was grateful (still am) and knew that God was involved. I could practically hear Him say “I got you”.

She spent a lot of time grooming herself when she first walked into my apartment.

I found out her gender and got her fixed and vaccinated (yay humane society). Then there was adjusting to living in a space with another living creature again. Something I have not done in over 3 years. Looking around my apartment to see what I could do to make the cat more comfortable. Moving around an apartment with a shadow of a cat that, when up, is constantly around my feet. No matter how many times I accidentally start to kick her or actually stumble over her. Figuring out why she went from eating and drinking happily to not. Turned out she prefers wide mouthed dishes (okay, not prefers- requires). Adjusting that I want far more physical contact than she would prefer.

Kitty watching me while I write this article.

But one day I found myself contemplating something. How does my cat view this relationship? Does she see us as equals? Does she understand that I want to protect her? Does she see me as a food dispenser that is generally non-functioning? Am I a weird cat to her or does she understand that I’m not a cat?

That lead to me wondering how much is this dynamic like the ones with God and myself? To clarify, I don’t see myself as a pet of God or vice versa. But how much are the emotions involved alike? Assuming deities feel emotions. My feelings of love and affection for her when she is being cute. Joy when I pull out a cat wand and her pupils immediately go wide. The wave of delight when we have a breakthrough moment (the latest one being she went back to sleep and didn’t move away when I nestled my hand next to her in her cat bed). Exasperation when she nags me for food when I just fed her and I’m making my own meal or when she hisses at me because I about fell over her AGAIN because she insists on diving ahead of me into any room. Frustration when I struggle to communicate with her, like when she gets her claw stuck, starts to panic, and just panics more when I try to help.

Hanging out on her cat perch next to my bed.

In terms of power alone I get the owner is more like a deity. Does my cat view me as having a bunch of power? I know she gets I’m larger than her and a potential danger. I’m sure she also struggles to figure out how to interpret my behavior at times. She works to communicate with me and get me do do what she wants (meowing, purring, rubbing against me at times when food is conveniently involved). She knows that much comes from me: the wand only seems to fly when I’m around, I dispense food and treats-frustratingly not on command. I want to protect her, make sure she feels safe, keep her stimulated, and I want her to be healthy. So, fairly parental in feeling. Which fits with much of my relationship with God that I do feel it is quite parental in nature. In terms of her rights and privileges I consider her to be equal in deserving of respect. This means I do not get to touch her whenever I want or how I would like to touch her. I do not get to fall asleep with a ball of fur and purrs next to me. At least not yet. When leaving the door open to air out the apartment freaked her out significantly I closed the door. I have the power to change the environment in which she lives.

But to think that she views me with the awe that people generally view deities with I think would be inaccurate. To think that she understands things like that fact that I have the ability to utterly change her environment is a bit of a stretch. I mean, I have done that. I closed the door when she walked into my apartment. And she did not like that at all. Gave me a demanding, angry, meow at the door that I’m sure would translate along the lines of “Open it back up right now!” (I resisted a pun there, you are welcome). Ironically, now she is terrified of the outdoors. I have forced and tricked her into her crate multiple times for visits to the humane society and the vets office. But I don’t think many animals have the capacity to understand how another creature may affect their environment, let alone few creatures are able to exert significant change on their environment.

Chilling and grooming on the cat perch.

Basically the longer I contemplated it the more I saw some overlap between that of God/devotee and owner/pet. They are not the same in many ways of course. But there are some similarities. A connection formed with varying amounts of choice and enthusiasm. A connection between two different beings. A power dynamic that is not equal. A good relationship involves the development of trust and respect between both parties. This is done by the actions of both sides. Attempts from both sides to communicate clearly. Events that seem scary or possibly harmful but that have larger picture implications (having to repeat classes, vet visits, unhooking stuck claws, COVID). Implications which may never be comprehensible by one party (me with God or the cat with me).

The Abundance of Misinformation

When it comes to spiritwork and magic, there is a lot of misinformation. Misinformation on both spiritwork and magic abounds in both published books and online platforms. It takes experienced spiritworkers and magic workers to discern what is good and bad information within books, which is really unfortunate for those starting down spiritworking and magical paths.

Spiritwork and magic both adhere to certain rules, just like the physical world adheres to certain rules. The fact that many authors and online influencers promote methods of spiritwork and magic that often ignore the rules of the spirit world and magical workings is problematic on many levels and has a range of harmful effects.

At the least harmful level, ignoring those rules leads to a failure to connect to spirit or prevents magic from working altogether. In situations where some rules are followed but others ignored, there may be limited results that then unfortunately encourage the practitioner to continue using methods that leave holes that spirits may eventually notice and take advantage of. At the most harmful level, it is possible for someone to do spiritwork or magic using techniques that draw the attention of malignant spirits or work in ways other than those intended by the practitioner.

There is danger in assuming that any/every approach to spiritwork and magic will work perfectly. Even chaos magicians use a system that adheres to certain rules, and the two fundamental rules of magic applies to all magicians. The laws of sympathetic magic – that of contagion and similarity – are in operation at all levels of magic.

The law of contagion, simply expressed, is “once connected, always connected,” while the law of similarity is “the image equals the object.” Taken together, these are the unbreakable laws of magic; they are as unyielding as the physical reality of gravity. At a deeper level, these two laws of magic explain why magical correspondences are vital to magical workings.

It is easy for a beginner to pick up a book or go to a website that discusses magical correspondences and assume that the author knows what they are talking about – we live in a world that privileges the written word and there is an unspoken assumption that books with bad information won’t be published. The reality is that misinformation abounds both in published books and on online platforms within all spheres of life, magical and mundane.

That is why discernment is such a critical tool to develop, and to develop discernment requires a commitment to critical analysis. With my background as a historian, I can say with confidence that there are even published history books that are factually inaccurate and misleading. Assessing books for accuracy requires a commitment to fact-checking information across several sources, and it can be a time-consuming process.

The same is true when it comes to fact-checking information found in books about spiritwork and magic. There are tons of books on spiritwork that ignore the importance of developing relationships with spirits, which is critical in spiritwork. There are a handful of books on spiritwork that are incredibly well-researched and accurate, but finding them can be like looking for a needle in a haystack.

The same is true for work on magic. It is well-known by experienced practitioners that books published by Llewellyn are hit-and-miss, with the majority of books being huge misses. There are authors like Silver Ravenwolf who still have huge following, even though any experienced practitioner worth their weight will tell you that none of her magical techniques make much sense.

Just like there are authors like Ravenwolf whose works are full of inaccuracies, there are online platforms that cause misinformation to circulate. There are people who use TikTok as a platform whose magical teachings confuse basic correspondences, and confusing those correspondences is a blatant disregard of the two fundamental rules of sympathetic magic.

As an example, there are many TikTok performers who suggest adding salt to any type of bottle spell, regardless of the intention behind the spell. This is an example of a harmless type of misinformation because the worst thing that adding salt to a spell is going to do is neutralize the spell. Salt is a purifying and protective substance – there is documentation for this that goes back centuries, and it is a well-known fact in the larger magical community.

Adding salt to protection or purification spells makes sense. Adding salt to spells for love or attracting wealth does not. Salt purifies and protects. It does not attract. To use it in a spell that has attraction as its core purpose makes no logical sense. Magic is unfailingly logical, and the correspondences of the components used in any spell or ritual is incredibly important.

While certain types of magicians, particularly chaos magicians, are able to develop their own systems of magic replete with their own correspondences, they do so most adeptly by learning the traditional systems and adapting what works for them into their own approaches. Chaos magicians operate on a “use what works, discard what doesn’t,” basis, and I have met only a handful of truly capable chaos magicians. Those few always operate within systems that acknowledge and use the two fundamental laws of sympathetic magic.

A lot of people on online platforms, especially TikTok, YouTube, and Twitter, are beginners attempting to teach other beginners. That is why so much of the information on those platforms tends to be misinformation. Most experienced practitioners will not teach through social media platforms. Some magical and spiritworking information is inherently dangerous, and online platforms do not allow experienced practitioners to determine who views/uses their teachings.

The misuse of magic and the abuse of spirits are difficult problems that circulate within the magical community at large, and few experienced practitioners are going to engage in any action that may potentially increase those problems.

I have seen these problems both online and in-person. I have read stories about people working with spirits who do so in abusive and exploitative ways. I have seen people form relationships with malignant spirits out of ignorance and pay a heavy price for their mistakes. Spirits have their own agency; they are capable of being both benign and malignant. Even benign spirits can turn malignant if they are abused or exploited. Attempting to coerce or control spirits can easily backfire. Approaching spirits carelessly, especially gods, can lead to deadly phenomena.

The spirit world is diverse, full of a plethora of beings. Many are benign but many are malignant. There are certain spirits that all traditions and religions have agreed are malignant towards humans, such as the succubi, incubi, and nightmare spirits. Some spirits are assumed to be malignant but may not be depending on the tradition followed. The entities considered to be demonic and malignant by Abrahamic religions may be benign spirits to those who work in the Goetic or demonaltry traditions. How spirits are approached and whether they act in a benign or malignant manner often depends on a specific tradition’s approach to those spirits. Traditions create spiritual patterns that echo throughout generations; rituals tap into collective remembering.

That is why so many experienced practitioners tell newcomers to find a magical or spiritual tradition and steep themselves in it for at least a year. Learn the patterns, the rituals, the approaches taken by one specific tradition. Magical approaches differ depending on the tradition. Ceremonial magicians do rituals differently than Druids who do rituals differently than Wiccans who do rituals differently than Conjure workers. Each system is complete in itself, and mixing/matching magical techniques is not something that can be done with ease.

Perhaps the most pressing issue caused by the proliferation of misinformation is the growing impression newcomers seem to have that magic and spiritwork is easy, when that is far from the truth. The people who are strongest in magic and spiritwork draw their strength from the years – usually in terms of decades – of experience they have working in their respective fields.

While I work closely with spirits today, that did not happen overnight. I did not wake up one day and decide to become a spiritworker and have everything immediately go well. I spent the first decade of my magical journey wishing I could communicate with spirits because I couldn’t easily connect with them. I had to reshape my entire way of thinking about the world, let go of patterns of monotheistic thought shaped by the environment I grew up in, and learn to sit and listen with intent. It took a decade of work for me to even get started on my path as a spiritworker, despite being raised in a tradition that acknowledged the existence and prevalence of spirits.

Spirit work is not easy. Neither is magic. Magic is willpower made manifest. A person must learn to understand themselves and their own will to create strong magic. They must also make the commitment to learn magic at a serious level and dedicate themselves to the process.

Unfortunately, social media platforms have beginners posing as experts and spreading misinformation about magic, and the younger generations are so used to getting information through social media that they rarely stop to question the validity of the information they are receiving.

It isn’t easy to find experienced teachers, since the majority of us only teach in person for reasons I’ve already explained, so many people have to become self-taught practitioners. That is possible to do, but taking that path requires more dedication because it requires more experimentation and more guesswork than learning from someone directly entails.

There are good resources out there, but most of them aren’t going to be found on social media. Some of the best resources may be hidden in local or university libraries. Often, popular books contain the least accurate information (though that is not always true). There are certain authors that can be trusted and others that can be ignored. It takes dedication to discernment and critical analysis to determine which books are good resources and which ones aren’t, and learning to do that is in and of itself a way to create a solid foundation for discernment in both magic and spiritwork.

My Take On ChristoPaganism

ChristoPaganism is a word sometimes used to describe the blending of Christian and Pagan beliefs. I myself blend the two in my understanding of God. Get comfortable because this is going to be a long one.

It occurs to me that any conversation about God is going to run into problems unless we explain exactly what we mean. God has gotten a bad rep because of some of the truly atrocious things done by organized religions. So many have been taught to believe that God is an angry, vengeful old man with a beard Who chooses favorites and punishes those He doesn’t like. The thing is though, this could not possibly be further from the truth.

Since time immemorial mankind has looked to the heavens and wondered. Wondered why we are here, how did this world come to exist and how we came to live upon it. In answer to these questions humans have invariably come to a consensus, there is some higher power at work. A conscious intelligence that creates, maintains and destroys. 

This higher power has been conceived of as spirits, a plethora of deities or one deity depending on the individual belief system yet one thing remains almost universally consistent: humanity recognizes a Creator and feels the need to know said Creator. Religion came to exist out of this need, the word describes a system of beliefs and practices invented by humans in order to honor and seek the higher power.

Throughout time people have adapted their beliefs based on personal experiences, contact with the beliefs of others, progression of thought and direct experience with the Divine. It was only with more recent thought that religion and spirituality were considered rigid, the ancient peoples blended whatever beliefs made sense to them with no fear that their Creator would punish them for it.

Even among the early Christians there was blending of beliefs and practices. The Bible even seems to suggest the existence of multiple gods. Genesis 1:26 states: “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness”(KJV).  Jesus Himself spoke out against the rigid and intolerant views of religious authorities of the time. Furthermore the prophet Micah proclaimed a time when all people would be at peace, worshiping their gods in a brilliant example of religious freedom. “Micah 4:3-5 “…they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid: for the mouth of the LORD of hosts hat spoken it. For all people will walk every one in the name of his god, and we will walk in the name of the LORD our God for ever and ever.” (KJV)

So too did the Pagans show tolerance and respect to the early Christians: “Acts 28:30-31 “And Paul dwelt two whole years in his own hired house, and received all that came in unto him, Preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching those things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ, with all confidence, no man forbidding him.” Also, according to the Bible many early Christians taught that you didn’t need to be a Christian in order to enter Heaven: “Romans 2:14-16: For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another; In the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ according to my gospel.” In other words, The apostle Paul wrote that Jesus taught His disciples to be good people and if you are a good person (regardless of your religious beliefs) you will go to Heaven. Lastly the Bible warns that we should take care not to be offensive to other religions but to treat them with respect: “1 Corinthians 10:31-32 “Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, orwhatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God. Give none offence, neither to the Jews, nor to the Gentiles, nor to the church of God:”.

Not only this but the Roman governor Pilate’s own wife (who in later tradition is named Claudia Procula) was said to receive a dream from her gods that Jesus was a good man.  If Jesus and the Pagans were so at odds then why this acceptance of Jesus on the part of Pagan deities? The maligned but simple answer seems to be that there is no contention between Christianity and Paganism other than what later religious leaders with an axe to grind created.

God isn’t purely masculine either. Remember, Genesis told us that God made us male and female in God’s image. Hosea 13:8 compares God to a mother bear: “Like a bear robbed of her cubs, I will attack them and tear them asunder…”. Deuteronomy 32:18 refers to God “giving birth” and Isaiah 49:15 has God asking: “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.” In Isaiah 42:14 God says: ““For a long time I have held my peace, I have kept myself still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant”. Again in Isaiah 66:13 God proclaims: “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem”.

These are but a handful of the occasions in which God is described as feminine in the Bible. Other times God is considered masculine. In the Bible John explains that God is a spiritual being and does not literally possess gender. Instead, God has the ability to appear to us as masculine or feminine (or genderless) depending on what will bring us comfort and understanding.

Throughout history deities have been male, female or any combination of gender or sex. That this concept continued into early Christian belief is a testament to the fact that Christianity was inspired in large part by other spiritualities. This is not a criticism of the belief but rather evidence of a living, thriving spirituality that is capable of growing over time. Without some growth and change it would become stagnant and lifeless.

The Bible is not an ineffable source, we know as a historical fact that it was written by human beings over a long period of time. However it is useful as are all spiritual writings because it helps us to understand the thoughts, feelings and beliefs of the people who wrote it. When we look to the world today we see violence, cruelty and death. In the face of this it can be difficult to see the good in the world. I would argue though that there is still more good than bad. Every single day new advances in medicine allow people to live longer and healthier lives. Every moment of every day there are good people engaging in acts of kindness and new love blossoming upon the earth. We are so used to these things that we tune them out, only paying attention to the ills of this world. I am in no way attempting to make light of the problems facing our planet but instead to point out that we are capable of greatness and goodness if we set our minds to it. God is love, pure and simple. When you read the Bible or any other account of our Creator read it through the lens of love. If it makes our God out to be some cruel and manipulative being then you can be assured what you are reading is purely of human origin. Only humans are capable of such mindless cruelty.

So countless deities or one almighty God, which is it? That ultimately depends on your own personal beliefs. I have been taught through my own experiences that there is one God and that all of the gods and goddesses throughout the world are aspects of this God while also being individual personalities. This belief is known as Monolatry and will be covered in detail later on this book. Your mileage however will vary and it is not my place to tell you what to believe. I can only hope that this book provides helpful guidance and validation for all of us who walk a blended path. May God bless you.

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Christian Witchcraft 

Many (though not all) of us who practice some from of Christian Wicca or Christian Paganism also practice witchcraft. There is no single definition of witchcraft but in modern spiritual circles a witch is typically seen as a person who works with natural spiritual energies to manifest change in their physical reality. This can be as simple as lighting a pink candle with the intention to promote self love and acceptance or as complex as a long and elaborate ritual designed to protect one’s home. Witchcraft is ancient and has been practiced in nearly all societies before and alongside religion.

Witchcraft can be secular or religious, It is entirely dependent upon the practitioner. Christian Wiccans often practice Christian Witchcraft, essentially witchcraft performed within a Christian inspired framework. Some people question how Christian witchcraft can be practiced since the Bible forbids any form of witchcraft. Or does it?

If you are at all familiar with the argument against Christian Witchcraft then you’ve likely read the passage from Exodus (22:18) that reads: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” Now, there’s some serious debate about the translation here with some suggesting the word is actually “poisoner” and not witch. Others claim that it is truly the word witch in this translation. Personally I am of the stance that it doesn’t matter either way. Here me out for just a moment. Over the course of history words change their meaning. What a witch was to people in biblical times is most definitely not what the word witchcraft means to modern witches. 

The people of those times had every reason to be wary of those who practiced magic “tricks”, consorted with malicious spirits and used their knowledge of the natural world to inflict suffering upon people. While it’s true that the Bible warns against the use of such “witchcraft” we must remember two things. First, we have already covered how the Bible was written by humans who lived in a certain point in history and in a certain culture. Due to this it is only rational that their writing be influenced by the society they lived in. Secondly, Jesus was quite explicit in saying that He came to Earth to form a new covenant between mankind and God. In the same way the old Jewish laws do not apply to Christians it is reasonable to say that the prohibition against witchcraft no longer applies as long as we practice in the name of God and the highest good. This is more clear in the cases of those Bible verses in Leviticus that condemn witchcraft. These same verses contain the lists of old Jewish laws, laws that Christians are free from having to follow because of Christ. Not only that but if you begin reading these verses condemning “witchcraft” you will notice a common theme, the lack of God in the act. Typically these “magic users” were petty thieves and frauds who preyed on people’s emotions to con them out of their money. There is nothing wrong with using our own innate, God given spiritual power in order to better our lives and to help those around us.

The charge of witch was levied against people In order to discredit their magic by claiming it had an impure source. The same tactic was even used against Jesus as His miracles were labeled “witchcraft” by His enemies. The idea was to at best paint him as a quack and at worst a wicked man who spoke with impure spirits. 

That makes sense until you think about what Source Jesus was drawing His magic from. God is the purest source of magic from which anyone could draw. Modern witchcraft is often used for healing and we see Jesus doing just that in the stories of His life. He made the lame to walk and healed people from various physical and mental disabilities. He spoke with angels, turned water into wine, performed weather magic, provided an otherwise impossible amount of food to feed the hungry, restored a severed body part and more. 

Many early church leaders took great pains to state that what Jesus did were miracles and not magic. However, with our modern understanding of witchcraft as a potential force for good and, if we take the source of our magic to be God then my stance on “miracles vs. magic is this: tomatoes, tamahtos. What it all basically comes down to is this: the “witchcraft” described in the Bible refers to one specific culture’s idea of what witchcraft was at one point in history. That “witchcraft” has nothing to do with the witchcraft practiced by modern witches. 

Obviously as the son of God, Christ’s magic is on a more grand level then ours but we too have the ability to use magic. Think about it, God made us in God’s image, God is a creator. Doesn’t it make sense then that we have some power to create? Some Christian Witches have gone so far as to refer to Jesus as the greatest witch Who ever lived.

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Jesus and Mary

I would be remiss if I didn’t take the opportunity to write about both of the famous Marys In the Bible and their relationship with Jesus Christ. I’d like to talk about the Virgin Mary first simply because as His mother She was chronologically first in His life. She has been known by many titles and honorifics including: St. Mary the Virgin, the Blessed Virgin Mary, Saint Mary, and Mary Mother of God. She is considered by some Christians to be the greatest of the saints and it is said that after Her Son She is exalted by divine grace above all angels and men.

Tradition holds that She is the daughter of Sts. Joachim and Anne and that She was born in Jerusalem. After taking a vow of virginity at the Temple She was visited by Archangel Gabriel with  the news that She would become the Mother of Jesus. She was then betrothed to Saint Joseph and went to visit her cousin Elizabeth who was giving birth to John the Baptist. Saint Joseph’s lineage was through the house of David, a wealthy and powerful family.

After giving birth to Jesus, Mary presented Him in the Temple. After receiving a warning of King Herod’s fury from an angel the family escaped to Egypt. While we don’t get much information on the Holy Family during this time There are various traditions regarding what happened. The Church of St Sergius in Cairo is held by many believers to mark the spot where They resided. Coptic Christians believe that the Holy Family visited many places in Egypt including: Al Adaweya (a church in a suburb of Cairo, believed to be the spot where the Holy Family began their journey up the Nile River) and Deir al-Adrah (a sacred place for Coptic Christians, it is built near a cave the Holy Family was thought to have stayed in. Eventually They returned to Jerusalem after learning that Herod had died.

The Bible is essentially silent about Mary’s life during the next few years except for a visit to the Temple in Jerusalem where Jesus learned from the Temple elders. This is another important thing to note. Again according to “The mystical life of Jesus” this is more compelling evidence of the prestige associated with Jesus’s lineage. Jesus was still a child at the time, to not only let Him into the Temple but to allow Him to speak with the Elders illustrates that He was not a poor man.

Mary played an important role in Christ’s first recorded miracle. During a wedding in Cana She explained to Jesus that there was no wine. It was at this point that Jesus magically transformed the water into wine. While this seems like a simple act we must note that having wine at a wedding was seen as a vital part of being a good host. In her book “The mystical life of Jesus Christ” gnostic Christian Sylvia Browne points out that the seemingly simple act of Mary telling Jesus that there was no wine suggests that Christ Himself may very well have been the host. Otherwise why point it out to Him and not whoever was hosting the wedding? This of course brings up the further question: If Jesus was hosting a wedding then who’s wedding was it? I’ll get back to this in a moment but keep it in mind.

Mary, Mother of Jesus was deemed pure enough to bear God’s Son. It’s amazing how often we forget this but it’s not surprising. The early church was extremely patriarchal and did it’s best to minimize or even completely cover up the place of the feminine in spirituality. Jesus Christ, Son of God and the Divine made flesh was born of a woman. That is a deeply powerful revelation because it tells us something profound about women in particular and humanity in general: while God wants us to become the best version of ourselves we are already good enough. Good enough for God to love us and include us in His/Her plans. Countless years of telling women that they are impure in the eyes of God is rendered absolute nonsense.

Mother Mary is loved the world over as an overflowing fount of mercy, compassion and love. Various traditions hold that She appears to humanity to comfort and issue prophecy. For many Christian Wiccans She is not simply a blessed human but a goddess. This may seem odd to some but it actually makes a great deal of sense. From the very beginning of belief humans have instinctively known that the higher power is both a father and a mother. There has always been sacred feminine in balance with sacred masculine.

According to tradition Mother Mary was living just outside of Ephesus, Turkey with John and Mary Magdalene in order to escape persecution. Ephesus has a long history of being especially sacred to the feminine Divine. It was a worship center for the goddess Artemis. It is no Coincidence that this center of goddess worship became an important hub for Mary veneration. The concept of a mother goddess is almost universal in the ancient world I and many others believe that God/dess ordained Mother Mary come into this world as a representative of God as Heavenly Mother.

As amazing and wonderful as Mother Mary is we must now move on to discuss Mary Magdalene. Sometimes She is simply referred to as The Magdalene. The first thing to point out about Mary Magdalene is that there is absolutely no evidence that she was ever a prostitute. This common but inaccurate idea arises from the fact that Mary was an extremely popular name in Biblical times. Mary was occasionally but unfortunately identified with various other women by that same name. It was only later and through careful scholarly work did people realize their error. The Catholic Church issued a public apology but even so the idea stuck.

Mary did however suffer from an unknown affliction which was cured by Jesus. After this She went on to have a special place among the disciples and was one of the few to remain with Jesus during his crucifixion. She was an incredibly intelligent and spirited woman who often traveled with Jesus, even preaching which in those days was not something women did. She was basically a one woman gender barrier smashing work of nature. Mary was also the first person to witness the resurrected Christ.

We don’t know that much about Mary’s early life except that she left her home in Magdala to follow Jesus. We do however know that She enjoyed an intimate relationship with Jesus. In some accounts this relationship included a physical aspect and kissing. It is due to this that some disciples actually expressed jealousy over the relationship. They believed that Jesus loved Mary more than them and even asked Him about it. Their concerns make sense in the light of how women were usually treated in the ancient world as opposed to the high status granted to Mary and Jesus’s other female disciples. Rather than treating them as “simple women” He treated them as equals to His male disciples.

The Magdalene and Mother Mary often traveled together with other female disciples. The fact that they were women allowed them to have special perspective when speaking with other women. Again, having such powerful women amongst Christ’s followers demonstrated the equality between men and women in God’s eyes. By having women remain at the crucifixion of Jesus and witnessing Christ’s resurrection the point is explicitly made that women are just as capable of participating in spiritual matters as men. 

Just as with Mother Mary, The Magdalene is also considered by many Christian Wiccans to be a goddess. She too embodies an aspect of the feminine Divine. Often compared to the goddesses Isis and Venus She is considered by many to have been ordained by God/ess to demonstrate God’s aspect of strong and independent woman to Christians. She also embodies loyalty and dedication, having stayed at Christ’s side no matter what.

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The Trinity 

The trinity is a Christian concept which expresses the Divine as one God in three persons. Essentially it describes God as having three main forms. This is very similar to the Wiccan belief that Goddess is triple (Maiden, Mother and Crone). The three aspects of the Trinity are: The Father, The Son and The Holy Ghost. Some Wiccan thought holds that God has three forms as well though they are typically not as well defined.

The Father of course represents the masculine and Fatherly side of God. The Son represents God as Jesus Christ, the sacred mixture of human and Divine. The Holy Spirit (or Holy Ghost) is the feminine side of God, Goddess Herself. If that surprises you then you’ll be even more surprised to know that the Bible actually bears this out. Jesus used the term “Ruach” to describe the Spirit, Ruach is a feminine Aramaic term that is translated as Holy Spirit or Holy Ghost in English. It wasn’t until the later Romanization of Christianity that Ruach was changed to be masculine.

In an early collection of Gnostic Christian writings known as the Nag Hammadi gospels The Holy Spirit is specifically referred to as female. The Phillip Text reads: “Some said, “Mary conceived by the Holy Spirit.” They are in error. They do not know what they are saying. Whenever has a female been impregnated by a female”? Revelation speaks of a woman in heaven “clothed with the sun, standing on the moon and crowned with twelve stars”. In the vision she is described as having bore a son who had taken up the throne of God. Furthermore this child was said to have been attacked by a red dragon but had escaped. Archangel Michael and his Warriors attacked the dragon and drove it from heaven. The dragon tried to revenge itself upon the woman but she was winged and flew from him into the desert. In it’s anger it attacked her other children. These other children were defined by John as those who bear testimony to Jesus (Revelation 12).

Now, Revelation is an extremely confusing book of the Bible and is highly metaphorical. If we take a moment to consider this mother in heaven who gave birth to a king (Jesus), was attacked by a dragon (a metaphor for the devil), was defended by angels and whose other children were Christians we can only arrive at one conclusion: She is The Holy Spirit, Queen of Heaven, The Goddess.  Within a metaphysical context we can view Mother Mary and The Magdalene as embodying two of the three forms of Goddess. The Magdalene represents the Maiden, Mother Mary is of course the Mother and The Holy Spirit is the Crone. 

If all of this sounds overly complicated then just keep in mind that these “aspects” or “phases” simply exist to help us to try and understand our Creator. No one system will ever have “the whole picture” but by putting them together we can benefit from the collective wisdom they provide. This I suspect, is the main reason most people have come to follow this blended path in the first place.

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Monolatry

Earlier in this book I explained that I hold a belief known as monolatry. Monolatry Is a term that was coined to describe eastern religion’s conceptions of God, later it was applied to Egyptian religion (Kemeticism). Essentially it means that you believe in one all powerful being of Whom the other gods are considered aspects/manifestations as well as individuals in Their own right. To give an example of how this works one only needs to look at Hinduism. Hinduism describes an incredibly complex array of religious beliefs and practices that found their start in India. Monolatry is common in Hinduism in the sense that many consider it’s innumerable gods to be aspects of one almighty Creator. These deities still have personalities, likes and dislikes but They are all part of one God.

God is all things to all people so it only makes sense that our Creator would take on different forms in order to interact with us. People are different, we think differently and we process information and experiences differently. Perhaps to one person it makes sense for God to appear to them as Jesus and to another God appears as Anubis, Artemis, Buddha, Krishna or any other deity or deities.

However, because God is the ultimate creative source, God’s personality is infinitely complex. Think of a massive diamond, it is one stone but you’d be hard pressed to count all the facets. God is the diamond as a whole and the facets of the stone are the various gods and goddesses of the world. They all form one whole but still occupy Their own spaces and can be interacted with separately.

Sometimes monolatry is also referred to as modified polytheism or inclusive monotheism. It is often summed up by describing God as “the One and the Many”. There is a Hindu saying which explains Monolatry very well; God is huge, too indescribably complex for us to experience directly. In this way God is like the sun, we can’t look directly at the sun. Instead we experience it through it’s rays. God is the sun and all of the gods are the sun’s rays. 

While it is certainly not the only school of belief in Christian Wicca it is a popular one and the one I hold in my heart.

Egyptian Amazons

Famous(or infamous depending on who you ask) the Amazons were described as a society of fierce warrior women who lived apart from men. They fought the most famous heroes of Greek mythology and captured the imagination of writers both ancient and modern.

The Amazons have always interested me, especially after stumbling upon the work of author Adrienne Mayor and her book simply titled “The Amazons”. In the book she dives into the histories of ancient nomads from the Steppes who may have inspired ancient authors as well as the myriad of Amazon legends themselves.

There are many misconceptions regarding the Amazons, one of the biggest being that they were only to be found in the Greek world. These fascinating heroines were also to be found in tales among the Persians, Romans,Syrians, Egyptians, and other ancient cultures. As someone who primarily identifies their religious beliefs as Kemetic the stories based in Egypt are of particular interest to me.

One myth tells of the Syrian Amazon Queen Serpot (“Blue Lotus”) who fought against the Egyptian Prince Pedikhons, the conflict eventually ending in single combat between the two rulers. However the two were evenly matched and ended up joining forces.

Another tale centers around Amazonian Queen Myrina who was famous for conquering the city of Cyrenê. After conflict with the famous Heracles, Queen Myrina found herself traveling through Egypt. This was far back in mythic times when the god Heru (Horus) was directly ruling the country as Pharaoh. Queen Myrina allied with the god and went on to conquer Libya and portions of Turkey.

While we cannot be for sure on the birthplace of the Amazons, many ancient writers place it in North Africa particularly around Lake Tritonis (southern Tunisia today). The primary source of information regarding the “Libyan Amazons” seems to come from Greek historian Diodorus Siculus and places a great deal of importance upon the worship of a goddess known as Tannit among them.

Tannit was known to the Egyptians as Nit (Neith), Tanit to the Phoenicians and later identified as Athena to the Greeks (by Herodotus). The name Tannit was said to mean Ta-Nit, which translates as “the Land of Nit“, referring to North Africa as a whole. Nit’s major cult center amongst the Egyptians was the city of Tanis.

Now that I’ve established a little bit of a background and connection here it’s time to discuss the Amazons and modern Kemetics. Are these mythical warrior women relevant to modern day worshipers and if so, in what way? It’s important to note that the legends we have of Amazons in Egypt come primarily from Greek sources and not Egyptian. On the other hand, the Tannit-Amazon-Nit connection is a fascinating tidbit that could imply and older association. 

The story of Queen Myrina is interesting because it places her life and rule rule during the earliest days of Egyptian mythical history, a time when gods and mortals walked side by side in the flesh.

I still have a lot to ponder and research but I will definitely be covering more of this subject in the future.

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.

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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)

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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.

gullveig__thrice_born_by_samflegal_dd5aw8a-pre

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