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.

Roman Polytheism and Spiritual Pollution

Mention “miasma,” “pollution,” or “purity” in regards to Polytheism, and many Pagans will take umbrage with these terms. Impurity is usually equated with sin and evil. Impurity carries a sense of a demonic quality. Therefore purity becomes a part of a cosmic struggle between good and evil. One reason is that Christianity has redefined these Polytheistic terms to match its theology. Since many Pagans are converts from Christianity, they will often think of these concepts in those terms. However, “miasma,” “pollution,” and “purity” have different meanings in Polytheism.

Paganism does have its version of “pollution” and “purity.” Pagans discuss “positive” and “negative” energies. People will cleanse themselves and their spaces routinely to clear out negative energy. For example, crystals are often cleansed before using them. Also, before rituals, many Pagans will smudge themselves to purify themselves and to clean out their ritual spaces.

Miasma and spiritual pollution are different from both negative energy and Christian sin. Negative energy powers destruction, sickness, and other such things. It can be removed by laughter or positive thinking. Sin is removed by baptism and confession. Miasma, which is specific to Greek Polytheism, is a “spiritual pollution that prevails over all, it is not an ‘evil thing.’” Continuing in his essay, Markos Gage says “Miasma is therefore something we incur in life, everyday life.” (Note 1) Public cleansing of communities is a regular part of the Hellenic and Roman calendars.

In Roman Polytheism, castus (the adjective) means being morally pure, pious, or ritually pure. Piety (pietas) is maintaining the right relations between people, their Gods, their families, and their communities. Castitas (the noun) is the purity of the ritual and the participants. (Note 2) That means everyone must be physically and mentally cleansed before conducting a ritual. Before a ritual, people perform ablutions by washing their hands and asking that the water purify them.

An error conducted in a ritual is a spiritual pollutant. It negates the ritual and risks the anger of the Gods. It is not that a God will smite someone, but is to maintain the Pax Deorum, the Peace of the Gods. Religious negligence leads to divine disharmony and the turning away of the Gods. This leads to the loss of protection for the family, community, and the individual.

The closest thing that Roman Polytheism has to Christian sin is nefas. This can be defined as anything which is contrary to divine law. Nefas is a failure to fulfill a religious duty. Nefas is a willful act of religious violation. In that case, the person is separated from the community.

Impurity can be thought of in terms to avoid contamination. This can include gossip, body fluids and disease. The most common is disease and corpse contamination. However, impurity is a state that can be remedied. A wide variety of purifications rituals were available, the simplest was bathing with water.

Polytheists regard the world to be neutral, which differs from Christian theology. St. Augustine stated that the world is both corrupt and corrupting. Therefore, humanity lives in a Fallen World. To Polytheists, the world is both clean and dirty. Kenaz Filan explains, “The world is a clean flowing stream, and miasma the sewage dumped into the water. We clean the stream by filtering that sewage or by redirecting it…to where it can be properly contained.” (Note 3)

Why focus on purity and pollution? When a person prays, divine, or perform any other sacred act, they are engaging with the Holy Powers. There is a doctrine in U.S. law called, “Clean Hands” (also called “Dirty Hands”). (Note 4) The plaintiff cannot have the judge participate in an illegal act. One example is a drug dealer cannot sue to have his stolen drugs be returned. Another is suing the hit man you hired to kill someone for failure to do their job. As Judge Judy says on her TV show, “the courts will not help anyone with dirty hands.” I believe that in our relations with the Gods, we can think of purity and pollution in those terms. By being “pure,” we continue to have the protection of the Gods.

Notes:
Note 1. Markos Gage, “Answers About Miasma,” from “With Clean Minds and Clean Hands,” Galina Krasskova, ed. P. 51. Markos Gage is a devotee of Dionysius and an artist.

Note 2. The Romans have a Goddess – Lua – who protects all things purified by rituals and for rituals.

Note 3. Kenez Filan, “Miasma” from “With Clean Minds and Clean Hands,” Galina Krasskova, ed. P. 69. Filan is the author of several books including “Drawing Down the Spirits (with Raven Kaldera)”. He is an initiated Houngan Si Pwen.

Note 4. Clean hands: “Under the clean hands doctrine, a person who has acted wrongly, either morally or legally – that is, who has ‘unclean hands’ – will not be helped by a court when complaining about the actions of someone else.” From The ‘Lectric Law Library, http://www.lectlaw.com/def/c202.htm

Works Used:
Thomas Kazen, “Purification” from “Ritual in the Ancient Mediterranean World.
Galina Krasskova, “With Clean Minds and Clean Hands”
Martin Lang, “On Purity — Private and Public (in Polytheism).” Academic paper.
L. Vitellius Triarius, “Religio Romana Handbook.”

Ascendant II: Theology for Modern Polytheists

The newest title from Bibliotheca Alexandrina is Ascendant II, edited by Michael Hardy. It contains essays from several different authors, including John Beckett, Wayne Keysor, John Michael Greer, Brandon Hensley, and myself.

My article “Applying Cross-Cultural Methods of Myth Interpretation to the Myth of Baldr’s Death” is featured about halfway through the book. For anyone curious about why Loki’s involvement in Baldr’s death is actually essential to the maintenance of the cosmological order, I highly suggest reading that essay.

I actually highly suggest buying a copy of Ascendant II (and its precursor, Ascendant I) because it features polytheists discussing theology in the modern world. Theology is not often something discussed in Pagan and Polytheist circles, despite all the work we do with and for the gods.

You can learn more about the contents of Ascendant II here and you can purchase your own copy of Amazon for $11 here. 

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

Interpreting Sallustius: Part I

Sallustius wrote one of the oldest known treatises on the Greek gods, “On the Gods and the World” in the 4th century. In this treatise, he discusses the characteristics of the gods and myths in dense detail. The treatise itself is under 15 pages, but it contains a wealth of wisdom for any polytheist interested in theology.

In the second chapter, Sallustius discusses the nature of the gods. He starts by saying that:

A god is immutable, without Generation, incorporeal, and has no Subsistence in Place.

This is the first argument about the gods that he puts forth, and he  explains it thusly:

The essences of the gods are neither generated; for eternal natures are without generation; and those beings are eternal who possess a first power, and are naturally void of passivity. Nor are their essences composed from bodies; for even the powers of bodies are incorporeal; nor are they comprehended in place; for this is the property of bodies; nor are they separated from the first cause, or from each other; in the same manner as intellections are not separated from intellect, nor sciences from the soul.

In the modern era, this is not an easy passage to interpret, especially as it concerns the nature of the gods themselves.

Even the first line can be difficult to wrap your mind around because how do the gods exist if they were not first generated? But Sallustius explains that the gods cannot have been generated, as the gods possess eternal natures and eternity itself cannot be generated – it simply exists.

His next statement holds some fairly interesting connotations since he states that eternal beings cannot be passive simply because they exist. That definitely implies that the gods are constantly in motion, constantly acting. They may be doing so in ways we cannot understand, but the lack of passivity definitely indicates that the gods are always in motion – that eternity itself is not a passive existence but a very involved one.

Sallustius then states that the gods do not possess bodies due to the fact that bodies hold powers that are incorporeal. By this, he means that the powers of a body do not impact the eternal existence of the material universe. In converse, the powers of the gods do impact and shape that existence, thus their powers cannot be found in something that holds a physical form. Essentially, if a god was bound to a body as physical beings are, they could not be gods, as the powers of the body would prevent the gods from acting upon the eternal existence of the material universe.

For a similar reason, the gods are not bound to place because only bodies hold the property of being bound to place. The gods are not restricted to where they are or are not – they simply exist. In some ways, this implies that the gods are both everywhere and nowhere because place means nothing – they are not bound to existence; they are existence.

Finally, Sallustitus states that the gods are never separated from the first cause or from each other, which is where this gets very metaphysical. Essentially, the gods are always existence, and, because they are always existence, they can never be separate from it. Since the gods are all always existence, and existence cannot be separated from itself, the gods themselves are always connected to each other.

This does not mean that all the gods are one god or that all existence is singular – it rather suggests that the gods each are a very particular type of existence that resides nested in all the other potentialities of existence. The gods are all in each, rather than all in one, which is the central component of the doctrine of polycentric polytheism.

Sallustius essentially establishes this principle within the second chapter of his treatise, where he lays out his basic understanding of the nature of the gods. In his third chapter, which I will examine in Part II, he discusses the divine nature of myths.

 

Sources:

Sallustius “On the God and the World”

©Kyaza 2019