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.

hel_by_nicowanderer_damx24h-fullview

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.

Cultural Context, and Why It’s Helpful

For many followers of minority religions in America, we are converts who likely didn’t grow up in a similar culture to that from which these religions originated. For this reason, when desiring to have an effective and smooth relationship with a spirit from another part of the world (and often another time), it is going to be very helpful to study the culture they’re originating from and the practices they are accustomed to for communicating with their devotees.

This topic came to my attention again recently when I was looking for a better statue to use for Dà Yé, only to find that many people were confusing him with Tù’er Yé. You see, “Dà Yé” is an endearing title modernly given to the spirit often known as Tù’er Shén, a name that translates as “Rabbit God”. As you can guess, the name Tù’er Yé translates similarly. Now, this is where cultural and historical knowledge would have made the difference between these two spirits glaringly obvious. Tù’er Yé is named such because he is actually a rabbit; he lives on the moon with the goddess Cháng’é and is often depicted as a somewhat anthropomorphic rabbit riding a tiger or other mount. Tù’er Shén is not literally a rabbit god, god of rabbits, or anything like that; “rabbit” was once a slang term in China for a gay man, and this is what Tù’er Shén truly refers to. Because this slang term means that “Tù’er Shén” would be comparable to saying “Fag God” in America, he is often more respectfully addressed as Dà Yé instead. Accordingly, he is also represented as a man.

And this is what cultural context is, and how it’s applied.

Iconography usually cannot be taken at face value; imagery found in Hinduism or Buddhism are great examples, as the representations and items/symbols present often tell a spirit’s entire story or relate their area of focus, if you know how to read it. More importantly, if a potential devotee can be thrown off this easily with just a glance, then reading myths or trying to understand practices is of course going to seem nonsensical without any cultural understanding for all the things written between the lines. For instance, if you come across common hoodoo practices involving using gator paws for luck or holding onto your money, but you personally come from a place where gators are just a foreign danger, you may be wondering what gators have to do with money; part of this is because, in the cultures where these practices (and the gators in question) can commonly be found, a gator is good eating and leather.

In short, do your homework. It’ll come in handy.

On Taking Things One Step at a Time

Want to have all of the fun, with none of the work? Then magic likely isn’t for you. If you do interact with other magical practitioners, you’ve probably seen someone try to do something that left you with many questions–foremost among them often being, probably on multiple levels, “Why?”

Across magical traditions, I’ve watched people attempt feats for which they were ill-prepared. It seems to elude some practitioners, especially newer ones, that magic is a skill like any other and requires practice to progress. I’ve played Operation a few times, but I highly doubt you’d want me rummaging around in your giblets with that as my only practicing qualification. Perhaps the tendency of many modern authors to water down practices or draw rocky cross-culture parallels is partially to blame. After all, you don’t go to a pediatrician for neurosurgery just because it’s “technically all medicine, so it’s close enough”.

My preferred illustration of all-enthusiasm, no-preparation endeavors is many peoples’ use of the spirit board, if only for its sheer frequency and modern infamy. Now ubiquitously recognized as the ouija board (“ouija” originally having been a particularly successful brand of the board), this tool is understood by many modern spiritualists to work by channeling the energy of spirits. (Skeptics insist the spirit board and similar divinatory methods work via the ideomotor phenomenon, but that is irrelevant to our discussion.) Due to their modern notoriety, I doubt I need to list any examples of possible problems that can arise when the uninformed use them, and I’ve met plenty of practitioners who refuse to touch a spirit board out of fear, despite the fact that they can be used just as safely as any other divinatory device, should you take the time to learn how. Yet, while many tools have consequences associated with misuse, it seems that these consequences are overlooked entirely in most cases; for example, almost any method of divination opens spiritual contact, which means that even tarot cards likewise have a small chance of welcoming an undesirable spirit.

There also seems to be a notion that everything should just be available to everyone, all the time. This makes for a dangerous mindset, for what should be obvious reasons; similar reasons for which we wouldn’t want dangerous weapons to be constantly and freely available to all. In some traditions, the serving of certain spirits or participation in certain practices is withheld until necessary or a certain level of training/initiation has been reached, not for the purpose of being exclusionary (as often seems to be the assumption), but for the purpose of protecting people from attempting to handle spirits or practices that they are unprepared for and that could backfire badly on themselves or others. I know a metaphysical shop owner who, when asked by a customer what Goofer Dust even was, simply advised against the woman buying it; this is because, if not used carefully, Goofer Dust can have more severe effects than intended on the target or cross the practitioner using it. (Also, I’ve seen a few people online talk about using Goofer Dust for protection; this is decidedly inadvisable, and not the purpose of it.)

If you find yourself taken with the idea that you should do something for which you’ve lacking or nonexistent training, think carefully about why you’re doing it and the potential ramifications if there’s a problem that you lack the knowledge to remedy. Why do you want to perform this practice? If it’s just to feel cool, then it may not be worth the potential consequences of the practice backfiring. Do you really need to perform this practice, and do you need to perform it now? There are situations for which you might have an urgent need of magical assistance, perhaps in the case of a health crisis, wherein you would simply be left to make a sincere try using your best judgment. Do you need to be the one to perform this practice, rather than seeking a trained professional? I understand that, for many within pagan and other minority faiths, finding a local clergy member or such is simply impossible. However, thanks to the internet, you may be able to find an online contact who could at least advise you on the matter; even finding a good literary source to review will help.

Keep in mind, none of this is in any way an attempt to discourage any particular person or practice, but simply an appeal to practicality. There are many useful magical skills that can be acquired and shared, but they take time to master. Everything in life is a process. There’s no race in magic, or need to compare to others. Take your time. Understand the tools and practices, and understand how they work and how to spot a problem, before diving into the deep end.

In the ever-wise words of Professor Oak, “There’s a time and place for everything.”

To Book or Not To Book…

One thing I’ve noticed about spiritual paths today is the huge focus on studying. There are dozens, sometimes even hundreds, of books about almost every topic imaginable now. If you want information about something, chances are, someone else has written about it.

If you want to follow a path, you HAVE to read about it….  Right???

Wait, what? What happened to experiencing a faith? To actually doing the work? Did I miss something?

In a world that is increasingly about knowledge, we’ve found ourselves at a crossroads. Do we read, read, read, absorbing as much information as we can, hoping that one day we might know enough that we can actually do something in our practice?

Don’t get me wrong, I have zero issues with book learning. I’ve just noticed a trend in modern practices where a person is expected to know their respective myths and lore inside and out. It makes it super intimidating to newbies coming in, who are expected to have at least read them well enough to have memorized the basics before announcing themselves as (insert practice name here).

Have we really come so far that the emphasis is on the written word, rather than experiencing the joy of a faith? The devotion? The very experiences that give us our faith in the first place?

I’m saying this as a writer. As someone who consumes every word put in front of me, and never forgets anything I read. Oh, I may mess up a few details here and there, just like anyone, but that’s not the point. I’m supposed to come into a practice with this ingrained knowledge before I announce to the world that I follow X gods…  Why?

Why can we not get to know our gods in a personal way first? Why can we not experience them and hear their call first, leading us to want to learn more? I find it insulting that there are some faiths now that expect you to study like your life depends on it, simply because you “can’t be a true believer in X if you don’t know all their stories…” Yeah, I’ve heard it before.

Not only is it intimidating, but it drives people away from pagan paths. Yes, I agree that the newbies need to learn, but isn’t that what elders are for? Not to direct you to this book, and then that one, and then that one, ad nauseum, but rather to pass on the teachings? To embrace new followers of our Gods and lead them? Why does it all have to be so based on independent learning?

I’m not condemning independent learning, but I think we need to focus more on building a true community as well. One where those who have been around for a while might take a newbie under their wing, so to speak. Mentor each other. Everyone brings value to us as a group.

Instead of answering a question with “go read so-and-so,” we need to be taking the time to answer personally. To really get in there. Who cares if it starts a debate? Why do we fear that? Debate can be healthy and lead to growth. It prevents us from becoming stagnant.

I’m not thinking of, or directing this to any one path or practice. As a multi-tradition practitioner, I’ve seen it way too many times. It seems to be endemic at this point. By sending the newbies to books to learn, we miss the opportunity to teach, to share, to learn ourselves, and to build strong communities. We miss the chance to pass on our faith in the Old Ways. Many of the paths we follow as pagans are based upon ancient practices…  Oral practices…  Why do we not value that as a way of teaching now?

I don’t know, maybe it’s just me…  I don’t think so though. I don’t believe I am the only person who thinks we’re missing the point here. Our faiths are living, almost breathing. By constantly sending people to study, we suffocate it. The debates become about the validity of a source, instead of taking what we can from it and discarding the rest…

So I beg you, the next time someone asks a question of you, try to answer it. give them your opinion, or your experience. Then, if you still feel it’s necessary, then you can send them to the library stacks…

 

©Lauren Michelle 2019