Heathen Round Table: August

Not this kind of recon... (Image from Google)

Not this kind of recon… (Image from Google)

This month’s Heathen Round Table post is coming slightly late, due to life and work commitments throwing me off track a bit lately, but here it is:

The question for August is How recon are you? Is historical accuracy important to your practice? How do you strike a balance between reconstruction/practice of an ancient religion and living in a modern society?

“Recon” for those who may not have encountered the term before, is short for “reconstructionist” and refers to a type of Paganism or Heathenry that attempts, as far as is possible, to re-construct the actual beliefs, practices and religions of pre-Christian Pagan societies rather than create a “new” form of Paganism ex nihilo.

Patricia Lafayllve, in A Practical Heathen’s Guide to Asatru, says that reconstruction is:

“A method by which we interpret our primary source materials, secondary scholarship, historical documents and the archaeological record in order to piece together details about what ancestral heathens did, how they did it and why they did it. Then we bring those practices and beliefs, as we understand them, forward to the modern era and apply them to our lives”.

Thus, “recon” is a scholarly approach to Paganism: finding out what the ancients actually did, and more importantly, why they did it. ADF likewise places a great emphasis on real scholarship, stating:

“The Pagan revival has been troubled from the beginning by shoddy scholarship and indulgence in esoteric fantasy. When wishful thinking and poor science take the place of true knowledge, all of Paganism is harmed”.

Many forms of modern Paganism have their roots in 19th and 20th century Romanticism, literary forgeries and fantasies of ancient matriarchal goddess-worship, witch cults and the “burning times”. Recon provides an antidote to the spurious pseudo-history often propagated as fact among modern Pagans.

At the same time, reconstruction does not necessarily mean attempting to turn back time and live in the Iron Age. We are modern people, with modern scientific knowledge and modern morality, and I for one am grateful for that. There are practices in ancient Pagan societies that we would rightly find morally abhorrent today; human sacrifice being the most obvious example. Recon does not mean bringing back all of the past, but rather re-interpreting practices and beliefs in a “modern, scientific, ecological and holistic context” as ADF puts it.

For me, recon is important for providing a solid foundation to modern Paganism, based in real history and real knowledge, that gives us a rooted connection to the real past, not some imagined “golden age”. It keeps us grounded and serves as an anchor against new-age fantasy and delusion.

However, recon is not the be-all and end-all for me. Some practices and beliefs are simply not relevant to the modern age. Not everything ancient is better, and not everything new is suspect. I would rather have modern medicine than bloodletting and trepanning, for instance. I think that for it to be a worthwhile practice today, Paganism needs to look to the future as well as the past, and build practices and ethics that address contemporary life and the unique global challenges we face today.

It’s funny how people insist on the newest technology in so many areas of life, but insist that spirituality must be ancient to be valid. I think recon is important for making claims about the historical facts of what ancient Pagans did, but in our modern practice we should be free to re-interpret and innovate, inspired by the past but not enslaved by it.

Norse recon altar to Frey, Sweden 2010. Image from WIkimedia Commons.

Norse recon altar to Frey, Sweden 2010. Image from WIkimedia Commons.

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How Did the Ancient Norse Feel About Loki?

A fascinating look into the complexities of Loki and his role in Norse myth and religion:

Metal Gaia

loki___fenrir_by_angiechow

(Image Source. Note, it’s very hard to find non-marvel images of Loki)

The Norse trickster Loki has become a hot topic in the last few years. In addition to appearing as the bad guy in the Avengers movie, he was also the theme of the most recent Amon Amarth album, “Deceiver of The Gods” (2013).

His popularity in the media has brought up much debate about “who he was really.” Even in the pagan community (which is already fairly small), there is an even smaller number of people who consider themselves devotees of Loki (Lokeans). They honor him as a patron of change, trickery and chaos. This has been somewhat of a source of contention in the Heathen community, because many Heathens see Loki as the antithesis of everything the Ancient Norse stood for. It doesn’t help that he’s the one fated to fight the Aesir on the day of…

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Fifth High Day Recap: Lammas

Home shrine with Lammas bread and honey ale. Photo by me

Home shrine with Lammas bread and honey ale. Photo by me

As the name Lammas comes from the Anglo-Saxon feast of “Loaf-mass” and has connections to Hlafmaest, the Norse feast of loaves, it seemed appropriate to bake bread to celebrate the day. I celebrated the day with my lovely other half, and we baked a loaf of pumpkin seed bread (which was delicious).

The ritual was held at our home shrine as always, and was one I wrote myself based on the work of Michael J. Dangler, and the Solitary Druid Fellowship. I like simplicity in ritual, so I kept the essential features of the ADF Core Order of Ritual, but cut a lot of the “optional” steps. The gatekeeper was Ratatosk, the squirrel of Ygdrassil, and the three kindred were hailed with ale.

The rite was held in honour of Thor and his wife Sif. Some myths suggest that Thor and Sif were married at this time of year, which was the time of the great Thing (part civil meeting, part harvest festival). Sif has associations with being a grain/fertility goddess due to her hair, “golden as the fields of wheat”, and Thor can be seen in his Thunderer role as bringing the late summer rains that ripen the crops, so together they fit a harvest festival well.

The main offerings were honey-ale for Thor and the first slice of our home-baked bread for Sif. The bread was later taken and scattered outside around the four corners of the home, a traditional Anglo-Saxon custom of blessing for good harvests ahead.

The omen was taken by Ogham (since I don’t yet have a rune set), and the general overview was one of new beginnings, strength and movement, which I took to be a very positive outcome.

Heathens Against Hate

Image by Karl E.H. Seigfired from norsemyth.org

Image by Karl E.H. Seigfired from norsemyth.org

Iceland Magazine recently published a great interview with Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, the leader of Ásatrúarfélagid, the Icelandic Asatru association, described as “the fastest-growing religion in Iceland”. Asatru is now the sixth largest religion in Iceland, and the largest non-Christian religion. It has grown by over 600% since 2000, and is currently building the first pagan temple in Scandinavia for over a thousand years.

I’ve mentioned my admiration of Ásatrúarfélagid , and Hilmar, before, especially in relation to their openness to non-literal approaches to heathenry and their stalwart support of the LGBT community and marriage equality.

The Iceland Magazine interview goes into more detail, especially about Hilmar’s reaction and the global response to the recent hate-mail Ásatrúarfélagid received from conservative right-wing heathens in the US and other countries, who threatened to come to Iceland and “reconsecrate” the temple with blood rituals (Asatruarfelagid, like ADF, explicitly forbid animal sacrifice in their rites).

Icelandic Asatru seems not to be all about the “viking warrior” bravado that one sometimes sees online. Hilmar said:

Ásatrú is not a religion which celebrates machismo, militarism, or bloodshed, contrary to what many seem to believe…This misreading of Ásatrú comes from the fact that many seem to view it through the lens of 19th-century German nationalism.

He also spoke about the non-literal interpretation of the myths espoused by Ásatrúarfélagid :

I have said I do not believe in a one-eyed man, riding an eight-legged horse, and some consider this blasphemy. There are always people who want things to be set in stone. But the Poetic Edda is fundamentally about how life changes, and how you must be prepared to respond to the changes it brings.

It’s a short little piece, but a very nice and well-balanced article that shows Asatru in a very positive light. As always when I read about these guys, I wish I lived in Iceland!

Book Review: The Gospel of Loki

the-gospel-of-loki-joanne-harris-gollancz-628x953Joanne Harris’ Gospel of Loki is a more-or-less faithful account of the major Norse myths, from the frankly weird creation story involving a primal cow called Audhumbla, to the last battle of Ragnarok. The difference is that here, the stories are all seen through a being usually viewed as the villain of the piece: the Trickster God Loki.

Referring to himself as “Yours truly, your humble narrator, otherwise known as the Trickster, the Father of Lies, Loki, Lucky, Wildfire, Dogstar and various other epithets, not all of them flattering”, Loki declares himself fed up with how he’s portrayed in Odin’s “Authorised Version” of the myths, which cast him in a “rather unflattering light”.

So he sets out to tell his own story: the Lokabrenna, the Gospel of Loki, the moral of which basically boils down to “don’t trust anybody”.

Loki is at turns sarcastic, arrogant, selfish, conniving and full of morose self-pity and emotions even he cannot understand as he spins his yarn, portraying himself as a tragic hero and the real catalyst behind practically every event of importance at Asgard. Harris creates a brilliantly witty and dryly comic figure in her Loki, the ultimate unreliable narrator.

Pulled from Chaos by Odin and used as Asgard’s special agent (with plausible deniability built in), Loki goes from a wild-eyed and ultimately well-intentioned mischief-maker to an angry, bitter enemy of the Aesir, with a “ball of barbed wire” in his heart.

Loki is not a likeable character, by any means. His schemes often hurt innocent people and he seems indifferent to anyone’s suffering but his own. Yet Harris somehow manages to make the reader like him despite (or because of) his utter amorality.

To be fair, none of the other gods are shown as being particularly likeable either. Odin is just as scheming as Loki, Thor is brash and boorish, Freya is vain and so on. In fact, this is one of the things I love about this book: the Aesir and Vanir, and all the supporting cast of frost giants, dwarves, humans and others are flawed characters. There is no clear “good” or “evil” and by the time you get to Ragnarok at the end of the book, I honestly had no idea whose side I was meant to be on, if anyone’s.

I don’t want to give much away, but I definitely recommend The Gospel of Loki to anyone with even a passing interest in Norse mythology. Darkly comic, it speeds along at a brisk pace and really engages the reader in Loki’s version of events.

For Norse pagans and Heathens, this book can be seen as another version of the myths from the Eddas, a modern take on the old tales which makes them vivid and vital once again, and brings them to life for a new audience. And whatever your views on Loki himself, that’s got to be a good thing!