Monday, July 6, 2015

Review: Asatru: A Native European Spirituality

I've been meaning to start a series of reviews of "beginner's Asatru" books, since one question that keeps coming up in online (and face-to-face) conversations is, "what's a good book I can start with?" So when Stephen McNallen's Asatru: A Native American Spirituality arrived a couple of weeks ago, it seemed like a perfect opportunity.

I'm not going to go into Stephen McNallen's history or that of his organization, the Asatru Folk Assembly (full disclosure, I'm a member of the AFA). There are some people who are biased against him, and nothing anyone says will change their minds. This review is not for those people.

The book's twenty-five chapters are divided into two parts; "A New-Old Religion", which covers a lot of the history and underlying philosophy of Asatru, and "Practicing Asatru", which, as might be guessed, offers somewhat more practical advice in terms of ritual, calendars, etc.

But even so, what distinguishes this book from many others is that it is both more philosophical and more practical at the same time. Even the chapters that describe the philosophical underpinings of Asatru go out of their way to explain how that philosophy can be expressed in the everyday world. I found this grounding of the history and philosophy in practical application to be refreshing and it turned the book up a notch or two in terms of applicability.

To be sure, the book has the usual descriptions of the Gods and Goddesses, ritual calendars, and outlines of the two main rituals of Asatru; blot and sumbel. But it deliberately does not include sample ritual scripts, or a Yule ritual, then an Ostara ritual, then a Midsummer ritual, and so on. He covers soul-lore and the afterlife, as well. There is a brief obligatory chapter on the runes, and the book closes with thoughts on the future of Asatru, including an intriguing suggestion regarding intentional communities.

While the book is definitely written from a folkish perspective, it is by no means obsessed with the subject. It explains the concept that the Gods are our ultimate ancestors, but there are no lengthy and tedious ramblings on metagenetics and the White Race and so forth; those expecting the stereotypes of who McNallen is will be sorely disappointed. The book simply takes for granted that Asatru is, as the subtitle says, a native European spirituality, and then moves on from there. There is definitely a lot of worth in these pages that even a non-folkish Asatruar will be able to use, if they can just get past the author's name.

On the whole, this is a wonderful book for Asatruar from all ends of the spectrum. It's certainly not perfect; there are a few things in there that I might quibble with, such as "days of remembrance" for Heathen heroes and martyrs and such, which I find both ahistorical and unnecessary. But the pluses outweigh the minuses by a huge margin, and the book is easily worth the modest price.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Happy Birthday, America

No apologies. No soul-searching. We're the best nation on the planet, and I'm not ashamed of it.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Midsummer 2015

We (Skylands Asatru Fellowship) don't do a blót for Midsummer, as we follow Snorri's calendar from Heimskringla. The tribe and friends got together very informally, feasted on hot dogs, hamburgers, and sausages, and spent the night around the fire drinking mead and talking. One person read a prepared poem about the day, but mostly it was just good conversation. A few of us did jump the fire, for luck.

All in all, I can't imagine a more pleasant way to spend the day.

Here are some pics from around the fire. Unfortunately, I didn't think to take one that included everyone; we had about a dozen people, all told.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Kennewick Man Update

No, this is not a repost from 2005.

ScienceNordic has an update on the two-decade-old Kennewick Man case:
A 2004 court ruling decided that no one had ownership over the remains of Kennewick Man, but that his remains should be safeguarded by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who owns the land where the remains were excavated. It also granted scientists the rights to study the remains.
Native Americans nonetheless took him to be an ancestor and called him the Ancient One. But initial investigations suggested Kennewick Man was not a Native American, and scientists believed he was more similar to an ancient group of people who went on to populate Polynesia. In fact, the Ainu people in Japan are thought to be the closest living relatives to this ancient group of people.
So was Kennewick man more closely related to the Ainu people or Native Americans? The debate continued for 19 years, until today.
Now an international team of scientists have sequenced Kennewick Man’s genome and found that Native Americans have the strongest ancestral claim.
The study is published this week in Nature.
The Asatru Folk Assembly also had a stake in the Kennewick Man case, claiming that the physiological features of the skeleton marked him as being related to ancient Europeans. That claim seems to be put to rest definitively, with the DNA sequencing results.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Forged in Fire - New TV Show on History Channel

Next Monday, the History Channel will debut a new show, Forged in Fire. Each week, a group of master swordsmiths will have to produce a weapon in a very short amount of time, with one getting eliminated each week until there's a champion. So it's arranged sort of like those cooking contest shows on Food Network. This shot from the commercial did happen to catch my eye, though (click to embiggen):

That's clearly a Thor's Hammer he's wearing. Anyone know who he is? The show's website doesn't list the names of the contestants.

Looks like an interesting show; I've already set my DVR.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

On scholarship and mysticism, part two

In part one of this essay, I laid out some definitions and tried to frame the argument between those who value scholarship and those who value direct mystical experiences, and who themselves practice magic within a Heathen context.

In this part, I'm going to examine some of the friction between those who practice magic, and those who do not.

I should preface this by saying that I myself am a practitioner of various sorts of Germanic magic; seiðr, galdr, trolldomr, and others. But I do admit to running hot and cold with it. Sometimes the rational part of me says "there's no way this is real", but then eventually experience brings me back.

Now, in my experience, a lot of resistance to the practice of magic in an Asatru context comes from two places. First, the people doing it are just importing it from modern neopaganism, or just making it up, and that (naturally) offends the sensibilities of those who tend towards the reconstructionist end of the spectrum.

Where those in this first category get into trouble, however, is that in their zeal to toss out the non-Germanic bathwater, they are also throwing out the Germanic magical baby. The written sources, and archaeological record, are replete with examples of rune magic, seiðr, spá, and so forth. Just because most people are doing it wrong is no reason to reflexively condemn those who are doing it right.

Second, the people who object simply do not hold a "magical worldview" and think that those who do practice magic, in whatever form, are either delusional, or misguided, or deliberately gulling others. As John T Mainer recently put it on the Troth's Facebook page:
Heathenry is so rooted in rationality that sometimes it is hard to tell whether you are in an archaeology class, a literature study group or ethics class. ... The things I have gained from my esoteric practice, from mystical experience, initiation and journey have prevented me from being a danger to those that I love, as using drugs to control pain and spasm had made me. They restored my ability to sleep, to learn, to love, to laugh. I had gained all these things by the same mystical practice that we, as respected heathens, especially strong male heathens, are expected to distance ourselves from or even ridicule.
And this is an attitude I simply cannot understand, especially from Heathens claiming to be on the reconstructionist end of the Heathen spectrum.

These people, for whom the go-to text is Vilhelm Grönbech's Culture of the Teutons, and who state that one of the most important goals of modern Asatru is to "recreate the Heathen mindset" seem to draw the line at tribalism, or honor, or even Luck, but who refuse to see that the "Heathen mindset" included the realization that the world is infused with magic, and that those with the knowledge could affect the real world through those arts.

This truth is seeded throughout the literature and the archaeological record, and not just limited to the workings of the Gods. Egil Skallagrimson was a runester as well as a warrior and poet. In the Saga of Erik the Red, we hear of Thorbjorg, who traveled from farm to farm as a seiðkona. There are inscriptions with obviously magical runic inscriptions that not only do not make any sense linguistically, but some of which would actually have been hidden from view. The reality of magic was a part of the experience and expectation of our Heathen forebears, and any attempt to recover the "Heathen mindset" must perforce include it.

There can be no Heathen mindset without a Magical mindset. To try to have the one without the other is as doomed to failure as an attempt to have Heathenry without Thor. You're missing an essential piece.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Trothmoot 2015

The High Rede of the Troth at dinner Saturday night
I spent Thursday, Friday, and most of Saturday at this year's Trothmoot gathering, the annual get-together for members and friends of The Troth, held at Camp Netimus in Pennsylvania, which seems to be the hub for Asatru camping events in the northeast (there are at least four such events scheduled for this year, and the camp has proven itself to be quite accepting and friendly towards Asatruar of all types). Since I live less than an hour from the camp, I commuted most of the time, but was there Friday night so I would be sure to be there for some early-morning Saturday stuff I wanted to attend.

There were workshops and rituals, a concert (which I missed), a tafl tournament (I tied for second place in the first round, but didn't make the coin toss to go to the second round), vendors (including the Troth itself, which publishes a bunch of very well-regarded books), and the Annual Meeting of the Troth, where the status of the organization is presented to the members, oaths for officers and stewards are taken and witnessed, and other business conducted. And of course the chance to hang out and talk face-to-face with folks who you usually only know via email or Facebook, which is one of the main reasons to attend these sorts of things, from my perspective.

The Heathen Ritual Music workshop
I really enjoyed the workshops I attended, but three stood out as being particularly excellent. Elf-Mill, Elf-Shot, Hot Milk, and Cold Ale by Ristandi explored the historical use of juxtapositions of sensory experiences in ritual (sound, use of contrasting temperature, hills and wells, etc.), and gave me some good ideas for my own rituals. Germanic Love Magic and Erotic Sorcery, also by Ristandi, explored love spells from the Viking and later eras as seen in runic inscriptions and the later grimoire tradition, but it was near the end, when the discussion turned into a broader discussion of whether we, as modern Heathens, should embrace or distance ourselves from those sorts of coercive practices, that I found the most value. I might write another article on that topic specifically, in fact. Lastly, but certainly not least, was the Heathen Ritual Music workshop by Lynn and Will Rowan of the Chase Hill Community. The group was led through a number of ritual songs, accompanied by Will on the drum, that were nothing short of amazing. Some were based on existing folk-song music with new lyrics, most were original compositions (Lynn and Will are professional musicians). There were straight songs, rounds, call-and-response; they were all very powerful and I think everyone came out of the workshop enthused and energized to begin employing more music in our rituals.

Oath-taking by new Rede members
As for the rituals at Trothmoot, I attended four; the land-taking and Tyr blot, the Thor blot, an "oracular seiðr" session by some of the Hrafnar folks, and the Idunna blot. I have to say these were the biggest let-down of the weekend (which is not to single out Trothmoot in particular; I've been similarly disappointed by large group rituals done by a number of different groups). I think there should be more to a blot than simply passing a horn from one person to another and hailing a god (what I call a "bumbel"; half blot/half sumbel); on the other hand, when there are three separate things that have to go around a huge circle of people, one at a time, then I don't see the need for the horn-passing at all, especially when there's a sumbel later on in the day. Watching sixty people be sprinkled with water one at a time, then watching sixty people drinking from a horn one at a time, then watching sixty people being handed an apple slice, was... tedious.

I should point out that I did not attend any of the Urglaawe rituals, which I regret. The scheduling just didn't work out. From a distance, they did look a lot more intimate and interesting, though.

I've been present at Hrafnar "oracular seiðr" sessions before, and the one at Trothmoot was much the same as the others. While the ritual itself was powerful and engaging, my academic side was constantly distracted by making comparison with what the Hrafnar people were doing, compared to what we know about historical seiðr and spá. Again, that might warrant an article of its own.

On the whole, I had a really good time at Trothmoot. The workshops and conversation were the highlight, and when it comes around next time (probably three years hence) I'll probably skip most of the rituals.