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continues to be valuable to dig deeper into the evidence that is available, continue critically assessing potentially outdated interpretations, and looking for further evidence to help us better understand the beliefs, practices, and cosmology of pre-Christian Nordic paganism.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..

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)

Snorre_Sturluson-Christian_Krohg

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)

voluspa___the_sacrifice_of_gullveig_by_sigrulfr_dcfgule-fullview

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

Common Misunderstandings About Rökkatru

There are a lot of misconceptions and misunderstandings about Rökkatru. A lot of those misconceptions begin with one big one: the idea that Rökkatru are unfamiliar with and/or have never studied the lore.

Rökkatru is an incredibly diverse group of Norse neopagan practitioners, so it is important to remember that every individual within Rökkatru will have varying views on these things. Not every follower of the Rökkr has read the lore or studied it in depth. In fact, it has been pointed out that there are Lokeans—who are not necessarily Rökkatru, though many might also identify as Rökkatru, just as not all pagans are Wiccan—have indeed chosen to turn away from and reject the primary lore sources due to the Christianized nature of those sources. Many of the Rökkatru I spoke to for the writing of this, however, and the majority of the Rökkatru in the communities I have frequented, are quite well versed in the lore.

The_twilight_of_the_gods_by_Willy_Pogany

The Twilight of the Gods by Willy Pogany

Out of this context we can better understand the assumption that many, many Rökkatru come up against, which is that Rökkatru is the same/interchangeable with the practices of Raven Kaldera. This is despite the fact that Kaldera himself has gone out of his way to call his spiritual path something else entirely (“Northern Tradition Shamanism”) and doesn’t claim any label under the umbrella of heathenry. The assumption here is that Rökkatru use the writings of Raven Kaldera as primary sources for their practice in place of the lore.

While many Rökkatru do have a fraught relationship with the lore (that whole having been written post-conversion and by Christian authors thing is a bit of a sticking point, to put it mildly) and the writings of Kaldera and his ilk are common sources for Rökkatru, Kaldera can be just as much of a contentious figure within Rökkatru as without. Kaldera does associate with Abby Helasdottir, the woman credited with coining the term Rökkatru, and often references her writing or features it in his books. Given this background it is understandable that some would make the assumption that Rökkatru practitioners are followers of Kaldera’s, but this simply isn’t true.

Within the Rökkatru community there are those who are just as concerned about some of Kaldera’s seemingly questionable ethics as there are without the community. I’ve seen concerns within the community about the depth and breadth of the role UPG plays in Kaldera’s work just as frequently as I’ve seen people praise it. Kaldera himself never calls what he represents in his writings Rökkatru, but rather Norse Tradition Shamanism.

800px-Vidar_by_Collingwood

An illustration of Víðarr stabbing Fenrir while holding his jaws apart by W.G. Collingwood

The unfortunate truth is that there simply aren’t many people who write openly about the Rökkr like Kaldera does, and of those of us who do write openly about honoring and working with the Rökkr, even fewer of us have as wide of an audience as Kaldera does. Our developing “canon” is incredibly limited, so new practitioners don’t have a whole lot of choice in terms of pursuing further knowledge about the Rökkr and practices related to them. Far more than indicating that we’re all “fanboys” of Kaldera, this indicates rather that we need more vocal voices in the Rökkatru community, writing for and about the community and for and about our gods.

In speaking with community members for this post, that was actually something that was brought up by a couple of people: the desire for books written by people other than Kaldera and his associates that are more directly and specifically written about and for Rökkatru. There was even a desire expressed for books that aren’t turned out by Kaldera’s publishing company—more independent authors publishing through other companies or on their own. Plenty of people within Rökkatru like Kaldera’s work, but it is clear that there are also those within the community who would like something more.

Despite that common misconception, it is from the perspective of having studied the lore that most Rökkatru will push back against perhaps an even more prominent misunderstanding: that the jötnar are inherently evil. This is something that I will go into further depth with in a later post, but suffice to say that there is very little (if any at all) textual evidence to suggest that the jötnar are anymore amoral or “bad” than the Æsir. Many Rökkatru (myself included) will be quick to point out that for every “wicked” deed committed by a jötunn in the lore, there is an example of the Æsir behaving duplicitously: committing a murder that so offended the Vanir as to initiate a war between the two tribes, using trickery, dishonesty, and thievery to make off with artifacts from the jötnar, etc. One of the many examples that could be offered up to illustrate this point is the framing within the lore of Ymir as evil—without offering any examples of what the primordial jötunn who was sacrificed to create the world might have done to warrant such a label. Rather, deeming him “evil” seems to primarily serve as a means to justify his murder.

800px-Ymir_gets_killed_by_Froelich

Ymir is attacked by the brothers Odin, Vili, and Vé in an illustration by Lorenz Frølich

Many Rökkatru will further point out that there are many characteristics of the jötnar which mirror the Titans of Greek mythology—which have been speculated to be primordial nature deities. This is another subject I’ll dive deeper into at a later date, but the characteristics of the jötnar more closely align to animistic nature deities or spirits than they do with demons. Regardless, it is sadly common within other branches of heathenry to talk about the jötnar like the “demons” or “devils” of Norse paganism, a sentiment clearly rooted in the highly Christianized nature both of the lore and of modern western cultures. Many neopagans additionally come from a Christian background, so this outlook also seems like to be a carried over bias from that Christian background. It is through study not only of our own lore, but of other pagan and animism practices which leads Rökkatru to honor the jötnar and step up to defend them.

More commonly than seeing the jötnar as forces of darkness and chaos, Rökkatru tend to see the jötnar as embodying the power and divinity of nature—entities to be revered with respectful fear. One person used fire as an example of her meaning: fire can both keep us warm at night, heat our food, boil our water, but it can also consume whole forests and leave houses ravaged. Any natural power is a double edged sword, coming with certain benefits while also posing threats. This, most Rökkatru will argue, is the nature of the jötnar.

One might point to Ragnarök as evidence of the evil of the jötnar—and a Rökkatru practitioner might quickly respond that the story of Ragnarök is written to favor the perspective of the Æsir over the jötnar. They might also point out that the framing of the Ragnarök story within the primary source, Völuspá, indicates it is likely heavily Christianized if not an outright Christian fabrication that doesn’t fit into a broader pagan narratives from a values standpoint. (1) They might also note that, having been compiled with the other poems in the Poetic Edda in the 13th century, the story itself could easily have functioned as propaganda during the conversion of Northern Europe. Most Rökkatru will not completely disavow Ragnarök, however, so they might also point to the cyclical nature of the universe and the suggestions within Völuspá of Ragnarök being part of a cycle of destruction and creation. (2)

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Loki breaks free at the onset of Ragnarök by Ernst H. Walther

Whatever one’s individual takeaway on the subject of Ragnarök, most Rökkatru are likely to argue that it is not a clear cut indicator of the evilness of the jötnar. As with all things religious or spiritual, it remains up to interpretation.

As a result of many of these misconceptions about Rökkatru, there is a general impression that the core of Rökkatru is chaos for the sake of chaos or darkness for the sake of darkness; that revering chaos and darkness is an excuse to act in bad faith or in a way which is harmful to others. Far from this, Rökkatru is rather much more about the balance between light and darkness.

As has been pointed out, the etymology of the word Rökkatru is connected not just with the darkness of night, but rather with twilight—that cool, shadowed point between night and day, the pivot-point upon which light and darkness balances. “The night is dark and full of terrors,” but that doesn’t mean that we turn fully away from the darkness to seek comfort in the light, and conversely we do not turn fully away from the light to seek the oblivion of the darkness. Rather, Rökkatru is about recognizing the value and necessity of both poles, and seeking to honor both the light and dark aspects of nature, of the universe, and of our gods—as well as all the gray area in between.

 

Skål

How do Norse neopagans typically view Rökkatru?

This is a slightly edited version of an essay originally posted on Huginn’s Heathen Hoff.

In Snorri Sturulson’s Prose Edda, the jötnar are often portrayed as amoral, dangerous, and destructive. In texts which are more blatantly Christianized, they may be more depicted as outright evil.

In our decidedly Christianized modern society, these things feel very bad and frightening. The knee-jerk reaction is to recoil from and demonize them. This is what has happened with the jötnar, despite their integral role in the Norse pantheon—including the lineage of most of the gods including jötnar, and their frequent romantic interludes with the Vanir and Æsir.

The Æsir, in particular, frequently include jötnar among their ranks; like Mímir or Skaði. The effect in the community of demonizing an entire tribe of spirits or deities in the Norse pantheon is palpable: people who honor or worship the jötunn are often just as demonized as the entities they work with. Often this results in outright dismissing them as either evil or stupid and barring them from certain Norse pagan events and spaces.

Unfortunately, due to the widespread destruction and suppression of pagan religions and traditions by the Christian conversion, modern paganism is by its nature separated from its roots. No evidence exists of a continuous line of Norse pagan practice, and if there does exist today someone who is practicing a version of Norse paganism which was handed down to them in an unbroken chain, they are quite good at hiding. What this means is that Norse neopaganism is largely an effort to reconstruct an old religion lifted from its context, based on texts which were written well after the conversion by Christians who grew up in a Christian culture. The subsequent effect of Christianity on those texts is often overlooked. Furthermore, Scandinavia had long-standing religious traditions prior to the much-glorified Viking age, which culminated in the religious practices of the Viking age, and with which most of us are entirely unfamiliar.

Lacking in that context and desperate for source material upon which to rebuild the old Norse religion, many modern pagans latch onto the Eddas and Sagas, treating them as though they are absolute: the last word on the gods and their stories. This is understandable, but the result of clinging to a text without also thinking critically about it is, at its base, a lack of academic accountability. Such a lack of academic accountability has not only failed to offer anything productive to neopaganism as a movement, it has very real, very negative effects on the Norse neopagan community.

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I recently came across a forum thread where, amid a very legitimate discussion of troubling things some neopagan leaders have done and said, another note was struck which somewhat undermined otherwise very real concerns: dislike for those who honor the jötnar. One commenter quoted the following from Goði Rod Landreth:

“She [Galina Krasskova] and her Etin-lover1 kin want to muddy the waters on all sorts of theological point in and around heathenry…I do not advise any Tru heathen to read her or her Etin-lover kin.”(1) It should be noted that I was unable to track down this quote to corroborate.

The quote shows clear derision for “Etin-lovers,” or those who honor/worship the jötnar, and seems to focus on their desire to “muddy the waters,” presumably by introducing jötunn worship into their practice and promoting this. The quote was presented in the context of evidence that Kaldera, Krasskova, and others are niþing, defined in the same quote as a person who “nobody is allowed to protect, house, or feed…The outlaw is not only expelled from the kinship, he is also regarded henceforth as an enemy to mankind.”
Ehsha Apple of Witchcraft from Scratch notes:

“According to Bosworth-Toller’s Anglo-Saxon Dictionary: ‘a villain, one who commits a vile action.’ Contemporary use translates to ‘a coward, a villain; a person who breaks the law or a code of honour; an outlaw.’ …A nīþing or nīþgæst (denoting the ‘spirit’ of the person) is perpetually considered lower (as in ‘’neath’—beneath) than those around him.”(2)

Its citation in a discussion grounded very much in the real-world harm done by cultural appropriation and malpractice seems very out of place—though very much in line with more common criticisms leveled at public figures like Kaldera and Krasskova. In many other respects I actually agreed with the criticisms being laid against these authors, who I have have increasingly moved away from over the years due both to the very valid ethical concerns brought up in relation to Kaldera and the outing of Krasskova as a xenophobe.

Doing research on the worship of jötnar can unearth many similar attitudes. One such example is a short piece titled “Why I’m Opposed to Jotun Worship” by Hauk Heimdallsman. In this, Heimdallsman states that he is “violently opposed to the concept” of worshiping or honoring jötnar. Many of the comments that follow fall in line with the expressed sentiment that jötnar are not worthy of worship, but that they are explicitly and solely “destructive” forces, and the question abounds why anyone might worship forces of destruction. Heimdallsman states: “Jotnar are not our Kin. They have shown time and again they are not aligned with us, have attacked the Gods, and show no concern for the lives of us here on Midgard.” In the comments, he does acknowledge the jötunn blood of many Aesir gods and others do acknowledge the lineage of gods being drawn back to the primordial jötunn Ymir, but this is largely dismissed as inconsequential. Heimdallsman goes as far as to say that those worshiping or honoring the jötunn “May as well be a Christian if you want to worship massive destructive forces.”3

This neglects the history of the surviving lore as modern practitioners know it today—lore that was recorded after the conversion of Scandinavia by Christians. Furthermore, the attitude of a good vs. evil paradigm—in this instance framed as a “destructive vs. beneficial”—is itself emblematic of Abrahamic religions, and is likely a holdover of such, considering the extreme Christianization of modern western societies, especially the United States.

One commenter, whose screen-name is Wyrd Dottir, highlighted some of the historical and literary oversights in the original post, saying:

“The Lokasenna doesn’t appear to be derived from a pre-Christian tale, but rather appears to be an example of contemporary Christian Medieval Literature that mimics Lucian’s Assembly of the Gods, in much the way that Snorri uses other elements common of Chrisitian Europe’s Medieval Literature by alluding to other great works (those Western “classics” from Greece and Rome), this is afterall [sic] why he attests that the God Thor is descended from the Greek Agamemnon featured in Homer’s Iliad & Odyssey, and later mentioned in Virgil’s The Aeneid. It appears that the Lokasenna followed the formula set by Lucian, and just dropped in Norse Gods instead… Let us not forget that the lore as we know it was penned almost exclusively of Christian scholars, and it’s not some sacred holy text written by believers, but rather is a text written as ‘entertainment’. If everything was rainbow and sparkles, the stories would be boring. The sheer amount of feud you see in Icelandic literature I think screams of the fact this was entertainment. War and blood makes for a far better story than ‘the crops grew, the people were blessed with abudance, [sic] and the Gods were honored’ to the original audience of the lore, Medieval Christians.” (4)

The fact of the matter is that the history of Scandinavia itself is being roundly overlooked and disregarded when it comes to the discussion of jötunn worship, meaning that the birthplace of Norse paganism is being overlooked, or worse, cherry-picked. To begin with, the religion of the Vikings was not born in a vacuum—it, like many other religions, evolved with the people and culture which practiced it, and there is a plethora of evidence of religious practice across Scandinavia long before the time identifiable as the Viking period or even their immediate predecessor, the Vendals. Shortly, we’ll dive into this historical and cultural context, but first we’ll look at some of the most common misconceptions/misunderstandings about Rökkatru.

Until next time

Skål

(1) Re: Raven Kaldera “Northern Tradition Shaman.” Reply #5. Phillip63. http://www.newagefraud.org/smf/index.php?topic=3819.0
(2) Ehsha Apple (A. “Niþing and Holmgang.” Witchcraft From Scratch, WordPress.com, 4 July 2013, ehshaapple.wordpress.com/2013/07/04/nithing-and-holmgang/.
(3) Heimdallsman, Hauk. “Why I’m Opposed to Jotun Worship.” Post shared to Temple of Our Heathen Gods by Mark, September 14, 2010.
(4) Wyrd Dottir. Facebook Comment, Re: “Why I’m Opposed to Jotun Worship.” Temple of Our Heathen Gods. September 14, 2010.

Litha — With a Rökkatru Twist

Recently a friend of mine, a devotee of Lilith and Dionysus, was inspired by a Hekatean adaptation of the Year Wheel to adapt the Year Wheel to their own worship and devotion practice. The idea behind this is that the Year Wheel most commonly accepted in pagan circles broadly is heavily based on Celtic paganism—in many ways it is applicable all over the world and in a wide variety of pantheons, as every part of the world experiences the changing of the seasons. The year, after all, keeps on turning no matter where you’re standing and no matter what gods you’re dealing with.

Cultural significance and nuance exists, however, and so the holidays as they are represented in the Year Wheel may not translate perfectly to different paths, traditions, and pantheons. The changing of the seasons may mean different things depending on your bioregional context—Beltane likely won’t look the same if you’re living in a desert vs. if you’re living in a coastal fishing town, for example. That doesn’t even take into consideration the fact that the northern and southern hemispheres don’t experience the same seasonal changes at the same time—Beltane may happen in May in the northern hemisphere, but May is not the time for Beltane in the southern hemisphere.

My friend wrote a rough outline of what the holidays may represent or symbolize through the lens of someone who is working with Lilith and Dionysus rather than working in a Celtic framework. We’re coming up on Litha, for which their outline looks like this:

  • Litha
    • This is a love and sex holiday.
    • Festival of the Sun
    • First Day of Summer
    • If Dionysus is born in Ostara, he’s concieved during Litha.
    • Lilith who Rebels
    • Summer things (Strengthening, Protection)

What, exactly, does this have to do with Rökkatru? I did promise that this blog would be exploring Rökkatru, did I not? Why am I talking about my friend’s Lilith and Dionysus based revision of the Celtic Year Wheel?

Besides the fact that I think it’s a neat idea, I think it could serve as an example for Rökkatru to do the same: why not adapt these commonly held pagan holidays to more accurately reflect the Rökkatru perspective and worldview? Why not reinterpret the holidays to make room for specifically honoring the Rökkr on these key dates?

Litha is traditionally a holiday which focuses on the sun, often in the form of the Wiccan god or other sun deities. The holiday is heavily themed around fire, and as a celebration of the bounty of the summer months, it is closely tied to fertility.

On the other hand Rökkatru focuses primarily on the “darker” divine forces—as will be discussed in my next entry, the very etymology of the work Rökkatru stresses the darkness. Rökkatru looks toward the twilight and the nighttime. Litha doesn’t seem like a particularly great fit for Rökkatru—but that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate it.

Taking place on the first day of summer and being a sun and fire festival, there are actually some deities that fit among the Rökkr or the jötnar who can be honored at this time.

Skoll and his brother Hati chase the sun and the moon through the skies, respectively. It is their snapping slavering jaws on the Sunna and Mani’s heels that keeps them driven at even pace throughout the sky. This holiday is a wonderful time to honor the often overlooked and forgotten wolves of the sky, Skoll and Hati, perhaps with a blót, with offerings of meat and golden mead, or other light-colored beverages that resemble the light of the celestial orbs these wolves chase.

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It is generally taken that Skoll chases Sunna and Hati chases the sun because this is how Snorri Struluson recounts the myth, but Grímnismál says this of the wolves:

Skoll is the name of the wolf
Who follows the shining priest
Into the desolate forest,
And the other is Hati,
Hróðvitnir’s son,
Who chases the bright bride of the sky.”

Because of the gender associations of the words used in this passage (priest/goði being masculine, bride/brúðr being feminine) and because Mani is a masculine figure and Sunna a feminine figure, it is safe to assume that this passage implies the opposite of what Snorri had written. Regardless, both wolves are closely related, and given that the light of the moon is a reflection of the light of the sun, it seems a good idea to honor both wolves at the same time.

On the night of Litha, it would be appropriate to light fires to three other jötnar, who are little known and about whom little is known: Glöð (more commonly called “Glut” or “Glod,” and whose name means “glow”) Eisa (or Eysa) and Eimyrja (both meaning “embers”). In The Sagas of Thorstein, Viking’s Son, and Fridthjof the Bold Glod is named as the wife of King Haloge and Eisa and Einmyrja as their daughters, which is referred to by Rasmus B. Anderson in Viking Tales of the North. In Myths of the Norsemen from the Eddas and Sagas by Hélène Adeline Guerber they are recounted rather as Loki’s wife and daughters, respectively, something that some practitioners have reported in UPG as well.

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Found here

Nothing else is known about them, and what little is known is not known for sure. Whatever else may or may not be true about them, their names make it clear that they are closely associated with fire.

Because these jötunn women are specifically Maidens of Fire, and are potentially intimately linked with Loki (who holds an important role among the Rökkr) they are another set of perfect entities/deities to honor on this holiday of sun and fire. Fires can be lit in honor of Glod, Eisa, and Einmyrja, either on their own or as part of a blót.

These are just a couple of very basic ideas—the details are up to individuals to fill in as best fits their practices and preferences, but I recommend just doing whatever is most fun. This is a celebration, after all! I’m fond of having friends and loved ones over on the holidays, to collectively cook and share large meals, drink, do a couple simple loose-form ritual activities, and enjoy the company. It’s all up to you, though.

If you try any of these ideas out, feel free to share some of your experiences and thoughts, or any specific rituals you may have done—I for one would be interested to see what others are doing! If you are Rökkatru and you decided to experiment with re-framing this holiday but took it in a different direction, I would be very eager to hear about your interpretations as well!

Blessed Litha.

Skål.

©Tahni J. Nikitins 2019

Interpreting Sallustius: Part II

Continuing on with Sallustius and his treatise “On the Gods and the World,” we come to his third chapter and his second major point: fables – aka myths – are divine.

He states:

This is the first utility arisng from fables, that they excite us to inquiry, and do not suffer our cogitative power to remain in indolent rest. It will not be difficult therefore to show that fables are divine, from those by whom they are employed: for they are used by poets agitated by divinity, by the best of the philosophers, and by such as disclose initatory rites. In oracles also fables are employed by the gods; but why fables are divine is the part of philosophy to investigate.

This is fairly straight-forward, as Sallustius essentially says that myths and stories are useful because they make us think. They keep us engaged with the world, and they help to keep us alert, awake, and inquisitive.

He also states that there are three types of people who use myths in the pursuit of their arts. Specifically, he mentions poets, philosophers, and priests. Poets, he says, find their inspiration in the stories of the divine. That, to me, immediately conjures up the knowledge that the Eddas – both the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda – are fantastic examples of a poet divinely inspired to impart myth.

Because of his need to see the old poetic style preserved, Snorri composed the Prose Edda, and, in doing so, preserved many of the ancient Norse myths. Without the effort he put forth, we would have far less knowledge about the myths of the ancient Norsemen than we possess today. It may very well be that Snorri felt divinely inspired to preserve the stories of his ancestors, but that is a question only the gods can answer.

Sallustius also states that the best of philosophers use myths, and that it is the job of philosophers to determine why myths can be considered divine. That is what Sallustius, a philosopher in his own right, seeks to do in this treatise, so we can expect him to answer this question in time.

As for priests, Sallustius says that priests use myths to disclose initiatory rites. What he means by this is that a priest of a religion needs to know the complete mythos of that religion, as it is the myths themselves that reveal the secrets of that religion. The mythology of a religion is not simply a collection of stories but the stories interwoven in a composite whole. To become an initiate in a religion is to come to that understanding, and it is the duty of a priest to set a person on the path that will allow them to gain that knowledge.

Sallustius’s next point follows thusly:

Since therefore all beings rejoice in similtude, and are averse from dissimiltude, it is necessary that discourses concerning the gods should be as similar to them as possible, that they may become worthy of their essence, and that they may render the gods propitious to those who discourse concerning them; all which can only be effected by fables.

Here, Sallustius basically says that we embrace similarity and have trouble embracing difference – a truth that is, unfortunately, one that has caused our world to become far more divided than it needs to be, considering our shared humanity.

Sallustius explains that the discourse – communication – about the gods needs to be as similar to people as possible, so that people may better understand the gods and see the gods as benevolent and worthy. To accomplish this, it is necessary to employ myth.

Essentially, the myths show the gods as similar to humans because it allows us, as people, to better relate to the gods and see them as good. It is not that the gods themselves are like us, but that we need to understand them as if they were, in order to be able to relate to the gods in any productive way.

Sallustius continues:

Fables therefore imitate the gods, according to effable and ineffable, apparent and unapparent, wise and ignorant; and this likewise extends to the goodness of the gods; for as the gods impart the goods of sensible natures in common to all things, but the goods resulting from the intelligibles to the wise alone, so fables assert to all men that there are gods; but who they are, and of what kind, they alone manifest to such as are capable of so exalted a knowledge.

Here, Sallustius says that the myths imitate the qualities of the gods that they possess. Since they are imitations, however, it is important to understand that imitation is nothing more but a pale echo – the myths, therefore, cannot capture the full essence of a god, no matter how poignant the myths may be.

He also says that the gods gift the shared senses to those who inhabit the world, but the gods only impart intellect to the wise. I find that this sentiment echoes in the Havamal, the Sayings of the High One (i.e. Odin):

54. Wise in measure let each man be;/ but let him not wax too wise;/ for never the happiest of men is he/ who knows much of many things.

Wisdom, after all, comes at a price. It is not a price everyone will wish to pay, and it thus makes sense that the gods would only impart it to those that seek it. It seems, after all, that only those who seek wisdom hold the capacity for it, but that is my own perception of the world I have seen.

Going back to Sallustius, he also offers a sage piece of advice. He says that while myths assert to everyone that there are gods, the meanings of the myths are not made apparent to everyone. Basically, he asserts that there are people who understand myths on a level others cannot, and this serves both as advice and warning – the myths are not simply what they seem.

Sallustius then states:

In fables, too, the energies of the gods are imitated; for the world may very properly be called a fable, since bodies and the corporeal possessions which it contains, are apparent, but souls and intellects are occult and invisible. Besides, to inform all men of the truth concerning the gods, produces contempt in the unwise, from their incapacity of learning, and negligence in the studious; but concealing truth in fables, prevents the contempt of the former, and compels the latter to philosophize.

Here, Sallustius says that the world itself can be seen as a story, as it contains corporeal existence in the form of bodies and other tangibles. The reality behind that story, however, is the eternal existence of souls and intellects, as they are intangible and noncorporeal. We are all, in the end, just stories.

He then states that it would be unwise if the gods simply informed humanity of the truth of themselves. Sallustius seems to say here that the unwise would find the gods contemptible because they would turn their inability to learn and understand that truth against the gods themselves. Similarly, those with a passion for learning, would turn away from their studies and make no attempt towards understanding the gods, as the knowledge would exist already.

This, to me, says that the world would be a place full of contempt and unease if the gods simply revealed the truth of themselves to all of humanity. It would take the fun out of the life we live for those of us who enjoy the pursuit of knowledge, and it would cause nothing but ire and ill-will to burn in the hearts of those who suddenly find themselves faced with beings they can never hope to understand.

That said, Sallustius completes this chapter thusly:

But you will ask why adulteries, thefts, paternal bonds, and other unworthy actions are celebrated in fables? Nor is this unworthy of admiration, that where there is an apparent absurdity, the soul immediately conceiving these discourses to be concealments, may understand that the truth which they contain is to be involved in profound and occult silence.

Of all the things Sallustius has to say in this chapter, this is my absolute favorite. In essence, he is saying that the myths that demonstrate unworthy actions on the part of the gods still require the admiration of the gods. He suggests that the actions are only unworthy at first glance, and that we will understand that the actions that seem bad only seem so – that, in fact, there are deeper truths to be found, if only we are willing to dig beneath the surface.

The Greeks believed that the Gods were inherently good, and we will eventually get to the part of Sallustius’s treatise that discusses that. For me, this particular section of this chapter of the treatise lightens my heart because it affirms something I have always seen as true.

The myths that paint Loki in a negative light, the ones that cause people to label him as evil or a frith-breaker or the bane of the gods – these are the myths that have the deeper layer. The ones that have more occult knowledge hidden within them than can ever truly be spoken. His stories are some of the deepest ones I know, and I am glad to find a treatise by a polytheist that explains why such seemingly cruel myths delve into sometimes unfathomable depths.

Sources:

Sallustius. “On the Gods and the World.”

Havamal Verse 54 from the Poetic Edda, Oliver Bray translation.

©Kyaza 2019