Friday, October 9, 2015

Putting Heathenry "On the Map"

Recently, both the Troth and the Asatru Folk Assembly have been trying to "put Heathenry on the map" in their own way. Both needed crowdfunding to achieve their goals. The similarities pretty much end there.

The Asatru Folk Assembly purchased land, and a building, and has spent the last few weeks fixing up the place, getting people to paint, carve, forge, wire, hammer, and otherwise get the place up to snuff for Saturday's grand opening. And the results have been pretty spectacular:

NewGrange Hall in progress. Note the actual runes on the gable.
That has, quite literally, "Put Heathenry on the Map". It's visible on Google Maps, and you can see the property and the building on Google Earth. The AFA raised over $50,000 in a month to make it happen, and the Folk came together. Because physicality is important, even if you're a continent or more away, and may never actually visit it yourself. Knowing its there gives it a sort of visceral feel, especially if you helped in some small way (disclosure: I donated towards it twice).

Because apparently two-thirds of Heathens aren't white.
But at least they have a rainbow and faux runes.
The Troth, on the other hand, has also put together a crowdfunding effort recently. They've raised $1,250 in three months to send four of their members to the Parliament of the World's Religions in Salt Lake City next weekend (with the tag line "Help put Heathenry on the Map", hence the title of my own post).

There, they will sit on panels, and talk with representatives of other religions about global warming (one of the big things for the conference is a statement on climate change). The four intrepid representatives will give two lectures:

  • “Rebuilding the Altars: Reconstructing Indigenous Pagan Faiths for Today”
  • "Staving off Ragnarök: A Heathen Response to Climate Change”

Of course, this isn't an official Troth project (although it's been promoted in the various Troth venues, and the folks going are mostly Troth big-wigs). The four people have come up with a new organization specifically for this event: the "Alliance for Inclusive Heathenry". Because both of those gay black Asatruar in the world need an organization made up of white people to represent them, I suppose.

Now, I've been admittedly a little snarky, but I'm just having fun to make a point. When people are given something real, something concrete, something that actually shows up on a map, they'll pitch in, even if it doesn't directly impact them. When people are given the opportunity to let someone else play at being a "parliamentary representative" for a week, and attend some lectures that mean little or nothing to them, the response will be rather... tepid. That's not "putting Heathenry on the Map". That's "let us hang around trading useless lectures with other self-important people nobody's heard of, and please pay for our plane fare."

Get stuff done. Stop talking. Do stuff. It's not that hard.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Why I am no longer a member of the Troth

The current High Rede of the Troth, from this year's Trothmoot
For the past several years, I have been a member of both the Troth and the Asatru Folk Assembly. I joined each organization for particular reasons, but I find I can no longer straddle the fence. To understand why I am no longer in the Troth requires an understanding of why I was a member in the first place.

I joined the Troth because of its emphasis on the scholarly side of Heathenry. I am academically inclined by nature, and that greatly appealed to me. I was in the Troth's Lore Program, and was in my third and final section prior to my resignation.

But despite its academic pretensions, the Warder of the Lore of the Troth has, in my opinion, shown himself to be completely willing to set aside academic integrity in order to pursue a particular agenda. When the titular "chief scholar" of a group can so easily put aside scholarship in pursuit of a particular agenda, remaining a member because of its academic credibility is not something that can be sustained. I speak of his most recent book defending Loki-worship, which has already moved official Troth policy in a more Loki-accepting direction, and which will doubtless continue to do so.

In addition, while folkish Heathens are, as a matter of policy, welcome within the Troth, on a de facto level there is a large amount of anti-folkish sentiment to be had within the organization. This is expressed nowhere as much as in the official policy that forbids folkish kindreds from joining the Troth's kindred affiliation program. Too, the Troth as an organization seems to go out of its way to stick a finger in the eye of folkish Heathenry at every turn, even though its current Steersman (a man whom I have met and happen to like personally) does an admirable job of wanting to maintain a dialogue between the folkish and non-folkish camps.

On the other hand, I joined the AFA because I am a folkish Heathen. That should be obvious from my writings here and elsewhere. The AFA is explicitly folkish, and understands that Asatru is a religion in which ancestry is a vital component. It is not interested in diversity for the sake of diversity, political correctness, or anything like that. It presents a consistently positive message for people of European descent that there is indeed an alternative to both the cloying and soul-crushing Christianity that most white people grew up with, as well as the sterile and soul-denying secularism and multi-culturalism that has come to dominate western culture in the last half-century.

Review: God in Flames, God in Fetters

Stephan Grundy's latest work, God in Flames, God in Fetters: Loki's Role in the Northern Religions, is a compilation of four articles that appeared in Idunna, the official magazine of the Troth. It was written explicitly as a defense of Loki-worship, and the author has twisted the original source material in such a way as to compromise his academic impartiality, in the blind pursuit of what might be termed a political goal within the Asatru community in general, and the Troth in particular.

For those who aren't familiar with him, Grundy is the real name of  Kveldulf Gundarsson, who is the Warder of the Lore of the Troth, holds a PhD in Norse Studies, and author of numerous books popular in certain quarters of the Asatru community.

The genesis of the book is the Troth's annual gathering, where the question of Loki-worship was, and remains, a hotly debated subject. At first totally banned, then quietly tolerated in an unofficial capacity, the honoring of Loki at official Troth events has resulted in compromises that have, in general, not pleased either side of the debate. The series of articles in Idunna, and this book, were Grundy's attempt to offer an academic argument in favor of allowing the honoring of Loki in official Troth rituals and ceremonies, including Trothmoot:
An “unofficial” after-hours rite to Loki that was held at that Trothmoot [2013] also stirred up considerable controversy, with some members feeling that their experience had been polluted, and a few opting to leave the organization. In the aftermath, long-term Troth member and scholar, Dr. Stephan Grundy, was asked to write a series of articles in The Troth’s journal Idunna reviewing the position of Loki in ancient and modern Heathenry. This book is a compilation of these articles as they were published, except for minimal editing for the sake of continuity. Dr. Grundy drew on his formidable scholarship to write them, and we hope that they are useful to the wider scholarly community— but they were written in response to a long-standing controversy within the Heathen community, and should be read in that light. (from the Preface to the book, written by Ben Waggoner, Shope of the Troth)
In fairness, it should also be noted that the book does not represent official Troth policy. Nonetheless, it cannot be denied that the academic opinion of the man who holds the official position of Warder of the Lore of the Troth will certainly hold sway with many of those who do make official Troth policy. Indeed, the 2014 Trothmoot made it official policy that Loki could be honored on-site, but not in the official main ritual or sumble. The 2015 Trothmoot saw officially sanctioned Loki shrines on the site (in the same locale as those dedicated to Odin, so it was impossible to visit the latter without also being in proximity to the former). Clearly, official policy is moving towards inclusion of Loki and Lokeans, and equally clearly Grundy's book (and earlier articles) are at least partially responsible for this move in policy.

With the necessary context, background, and purpose in place, we may now proceed to the book itself.

From the outset, it is clear that any interpretation of the sources that is even slightly in favor of, or even neutral towards, Loki is the interpretation that will be used. This is, of course, a standard tactic of the Lokeans, who downplay the negatives and trumpet any positives they possibly can as far as they can:
...some have assumed that Loki’s binding in Locasenna came directly from his involvement in Baldr’s death; but that factor is neither ignored nor given any more significance than his sleeping with Sif, Týr’s wife, etc. in the poem, just as it is not even mentioned in the prose binding-account at the end.
Which misses the point entirely. There does not have to be a specific reason for Loki being bound. Getting into the whys and wherefores do nothing but confuse the issue. The point is that the Aesir did bind him, specifically as a punishment, in the most agonizing form of torment they could devise. Whether they did so "merely" because of his role in Balder's death, or in sleeping with Sif, or whatever is immaterial. The Aesir, the Gods and Goddesses that are at the heart of the Asatru religion, felt justified in exiling him from their midst, imprisoning him, and subjecting him to torture until the end of the world.

Indeed, the amount of space that Grundy devotes to attacking the death of Balder as justification for Loki's banishment and imprisonment (perhaps a quarter of the whole book) could have been avoided entirely. He seems rather obsessed with the point, even though the reason is not important. The fact that it was done is what is significant. Not why.

Too, Grundy concocts some sort of long-term scheme by which it was all a part of some master plan by which Balder would survive Ragnarok in Hel, despite the fact that nothing of the sort is ever intimated anywhere in the written sources. This argument doesn't hold any water, as Balder's survival isn't ever presented as something vital to the post-Ragnarok world. Several of the Gods survive the burning of the world, and they don't need to be in Hel to do so. If Balder has some special role after Ragnarok, it's never mentioned, and thus presents no particular motive.

Chapter three presents the heart of the matter, although it sidesteps a crucial point which I'll come to. It deals specifically with the question of whether or not Loki was actually worshiped by the pre-Christian Germanic peoples.

Grundy relies primarily on the phenomenon of ritual drama, which is certainly a phenomenon whose existence can be strongly inferred. This is understandable, given the lack of evidence in place-names, literature, archaeology, or most other standard indicators of objects of cult (although it's interesting to note that he undercuts his own arguments in favor of Odin's worship (as given in his book on the subject) in his zeal to emphasize how tenuous such evidence is when used to justify cultic worship). But Grundy makes an enormous leap when he suggests that inclusion in a sacral drama is, in and of itself, evidence of worship. Indeed, he even raises a straw man argument in this regard:
To deny his importance to the practice of Norse religion in this regard, in fact, one would have to successfully present a counter-argument to Gunnell’s work on Norse ritual drama. I myself find that highly unlikely, given the huge quantity of evidence in its favour Gunnell offers.
But of course no one says, let alone Gunnell, that inclusion of a particular figure in ritual drama leads to the conclusion that that figure must have been the recipient of cult. It's entirely possible to have characters, necessary to the plot and conclusion of a ritual drama, who are not otherwise included as recipients of blot, or who are not honored during sumbel. Thus, Grundy's conclusion, which appears to be grasping at straws, does not seem supported:
We can therefore say without question that he was worshipped (sic) at least in this manner.
Appearing as a character in ritual drama is not the same as being worshiped. While the performance of ritual drama is, in and of itself, an act of worship, it is not the same as saying that each and every character in the drama is being worshiped. If so, then the same argument can be made for the worship of Fenrir, or Skirnir, or Thrym, or any other character who appears in the poems/dramas. The case becomes even more absurd when it is extended to the so-called heroic poems; are Atli and Fafnir and the birds who spoke to Sigurd also the objects of worship? If one takes Grundy's argument, the answer must be yes. It is (to use his own phrasing) "without question", an absurd argument.

Grundy makes a much stronger argument when it comes to post-Christian folk practices, specifically around the notion of Loki as a diminutized spirit of the hearth-fire:
It seems highly unlikely that a Norse wight generally seen as “evil” in the Heathen period would begin to receive offerings, even— perhaps especially!— simple household offerings, after the conversion.
While true enough as far as it goes, it relies on two elements in the context of supporting Loki-worship; first, that the hearth-fire spirit "received offerings", and second that Loki was indeed a fire-spirit.

As to the first point, Grundy gives no evidence whatsoever, relying solely on inference. While it is true that there are folkloric references to the spirit of the hearth-fire, nowhere does he present examples of that spirit being given offerings, as would be expected if there was a practice of blot being remembered in a post-Conversion setting. Grundy couches everything in "weasel-words":
...if Loki were indeed seen as a god of hearth- and forge-fire in the Viking Age, he might have played a role in communal rituals where fires were lit. ... While this specific suggestion is no more than speculation, it seems fairly likely to me ... Loki was extremely likely to have been called on... he ... very likely [had a place] in the practice of Scandinavian worship.
Everything is if, and might, and suggestion, and seems fairly likely. Nothing definitive. Just leaps to conclusions that happen to support the desired end.

As for Loki's role as a god of fire, Jan de Vries, in his comprehensive treatment of the subject of Loki, all but dismisses the possibility:
...the hypothesis of his being a fire-demon gained the greatest number of adherents. Still the evidence for this character of the god is extremely slight and the old texts are at any rate not quite explicit. (Jan de Vries, The Problem of Loki, p. 151)
The myths, where the fire-nature of Loki is accepted by the majority of scholars, are but a very frail base for such a hypothesis. (ibid, p. 161)
The final part of the book deals with Loki in contemporary Heathenry, and here the knives really come out. First and foremost, yet another straw man is trotted out:
Unfortunately, to Satanize Loki and/ or to attempt to delete him from the practice and good understanding of Heathenry is to cripple our troth as a whole, both on a group level and the individual.
Even the staunchest opponents of Loki-worship do not want to "delete him from the good understanding of Heathenry". Indeed, quite the opposite. A good understanding of Heathenry is one in which the ultimately negative characterization of Loki by our pre-Christian ancestors is understood and embraced, rather than modern attempts to rehabilitate him into some sort of harmless trickster or "agent of positive change through chaos". The use of the term "Satanization" is of course yet another slam at those who disagree with his position, a transparent attempt to link opposition to worship of Loki with Christianity, which understandably has a rather negative connotation within Heathen circles.

But the insults don't end there. Grundy even goes so far as to say that a Thorsman who doesn't wish to include Loki in his own worship "was either wilfully ignorant of his friend-god’s tales to a spectacular degree, or in his heart thought that his fulltrúi was an idiot."

So, disagree with Grundy and you are willfully ignorant. Charming.

Grundy makes much of the fact that many of the myths of the Gods and Goddesses for which we do have evidence of cultic activity are sometimes ambiguous. So, since Odin is a morally ambiguous figure who was nonetheless the recipient of worship, other morally ambiguous figures should also be worthy of such worship:
It seems clear to me, therefore, that Loki’s position in modern worship is, and most likely in historical worship was, similar to that of the other gods and goddesses: honoured for his help in the manners most fitting to his being; either feared or accepted for his dangers (which every deity has, from the obvious perils of Óðinn and Frigg’s impressive capacity for dirty tricks, to the terrible glaring eyes that Thórr shares with the undead and the worst seiðr-workers, to the many unnatural/ sacrificial deaths that Freyr and Freyja visited on the Yngling line); but seldom reviled.
Once again, he overlooks the fact that none of those other figures are presented as being completely repudiated, exiled, and doomed to torment by the entirety of the Aesir. None of those other figures are explicitly said to aid the enemies of the Aesir at Ragnarok (as Loki is, by steering the ship Nagalfar, filled with the enemies of the Gods). As usual in this particular work, Grundy ignores sources when they speak against the point he is inexorably pushing, and holds those same sources up on high when he can twist their words to support him.

In conclusion, Grundy's book does not make the case it claims to. It is biased towards a particular outcome from the very start, takes the most advantageous interpretation of evidence it possibly can at every turn, ignores plain evidence in favor of tortured interpretations, personally smears those who disagree with the premise of the book, and relies mostly on the author's position, rather than his arguments, to make the case.

This is not a work of academic exploration. It is a hit-piece designed to promote a specific agenda, perpetrated by the Warder of the Lore to move the official policy of the Troth as an organization. As such, it has succeeded incrementally since the original articles were published in Idunna, and I have every confidence that the Troth will continue to do so, and this shabby work will be cited as justification.

If you're a Lokean, you'll enjoy this book because it supports your preconceptions. If you're interested in an academic treatment of Heathenry, this is a book that is sure to disappoint on just about every level.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Never forget

Never forget. 
Never forgive.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

A question for John Halstead

Well, to be honest, I'd welcome some answers from anyone who identifies as a pagan atheist, or humanistic pagan, or religious humanism, or whatever the heck they call themselves.

Why do you include the word "pagan" in your self-identification?

The reason I ask is that Mr. Halstead has been on a bit of a crusade lately, both on Patheos and Pagansquare, beating the drum that Pagans (and, presumably, Heathens) who actually believe in Pagan gods are misguided at best, and actively harmful to his favored causes (which he conflates with his own definition of atheistic paganism) at worst.

So it begs the question, why does he, and why do they, bother to call themselves Pagan in the first place? Why not just call themselves atheists, or humanists, or whatever? What additional value is there in the hyphenated identity for them? I've had my own bouts of denial of the divine, and never once was I tempted to undertake some sort of hybrid approach. It's a mindset outside of my experience.

Is it to mark their belief in the importance of nature? That doesn't work, because there are plenty of environmentalist atheists. I'd be willing to bet the intersection between those two groups was pretty significant, actually.

Is it a cultural thing? Do they feel an affinity for the neo-Pagan subculture that has evolved since the 1960's? If so, there are plenty of hippy wannabes who don't use the Pagan label.

Is it about the rituals? Well, here he might have something, if he's just looking at rituals as psychodrama (although I'm sure he won't enjoy being reminded that Anton LaVey got there first in his Satanic Bible and Satanic Rituals). But if it's about the plain efficacy of ritual, it still doesn't explain why he doesn't take the final step and just start his own religion, with its own rituals that hit the psychological buttons he feels are their purpose, but which doesn't rely on any supernatural agency for its undergirding premise, and thus distance himself from those Gods-believers he seems to despise so much.

So I ask; John Halstead if he happens to read this (which I doubt), or any atheist Pagan who happens across this; why retain the "Pagan" label when all it does is link you with a bunch of people who do (at least on some level), in fact, believe in the existence of our Gods and Goddesses, who believe in the efficacy of our prayers and rituals beyond mere psychological impact, and condemns you to what will surely be a lifetime of writing and talking about the differences between you and us, despite your conscious use of the term, when all that fuss and confusion (and, to be honest, implicit attempts to "convert" Pagans to your purely materialistic point of view) could be avoided by simply dropping the moniker?

Or is that the whole point, on some level? To use the hyphenated term as the camel's nose to try to bring some self-identified Pagans around to your point of view? Again, I don't claim to know. And thus I ask.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Religious liberty and civil obligations

There have been a couple of stories in the news lately that directly impact the ongoing discussion of religious liberty in this country, and I thought I'd offer an opinion or two.

The first is the case of Kim Davis, elected County Clerk of Rowan County, KY, who is (as of this writing) in jail for contempt of court after refusing a judge's order to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. She appealed all the way to the US Supreme Court, who declined to hear her case.

In Ms. Davis' case, she can't simply be fired or reassigned, because she was elected to the office of County Clerk (a position that pays $80,000 a year, which in that area of the country is quite a sum). To take office, however, she did swear an oath to fulfill her duties, as is also required by Kentucky state law (interestingly, not all states have such laws!).

Setting aside the specific issue of same-sex marriage, the simple fact of the matter is that, while Ms. Davis absolutely has a right under the First Amendment to the Constitution to practice her religion, the Rowan County Clerk has an obligation, under that very same First Amendment, not to "establish religion" through public policy.

In short, when Ms. Davis swore that oath, she placed those two elements of the First Amendment - the right of the individual to freedom of religion vs. the obligation of the government to not enforce a particular religious point of view - in conflict. On her free time, outside of her job responsibilities, Ms. Davis still enjoys all of the protections of that First Amendment liberty. However, as soon as she steps into that office, and is acting as an agent of the government, she must abide by the government's obligation not to enforce a particular religion.

If she can't, or won't, do that, she must resign as being unable to fulfill her duties. Period. The oath she swore requires it. And that would be just as true if her Muslim religious sensibilities prevented her from issuing marriage licenses that are legal under Kentucky law, as it does because of her Christian faith.

Note that this is a very, very different thing than a private citizen or business doing the same thing. In that case, there is no obligation not to play religious favorites (in fact, quite the opposite, as the First Amendment's freedom of religion clause remains in effect), and I am firmly of the belief that a sincerely held religious belief should allow a private business owner to refuse to undertake whatever custom he or she wishes to refuse. That's an argument for another day, however, and one that has not yet been tested to completion in the courts.

The other case, which is actually very similar to the first, is the Villa Rica (Georgia) high school football coach who instigated a mass baptism before a football practice, which included 18 players and one assistant coach. The Freedom from Religion Foundation found out about it when someone posted the video on YouTube, crowing about "how God is still in our schools!", and sent a C&D letter to the school, asking that the coach be punished and the practice stopped.

Now, there are some essential differences between the two cases:

  • The baptism was held before practice, apparently
  • The baptism was said to be voluntary
Now, that said, there is one essential commonality:
  • The county clerk, and the football coach, are both agents of the government
No less than an English teacher, or a Principal, or a Judge, a football coach at a public school is an agent of the government, and as such falls under that same injunction that all agents of the government must observe; they cannot push a specific religious agenda as part of their official duties. And the courts have ruled that in a school environment, the strictures are even tougher, because children are more vulnerable to being manipulated by authority figures. 

Now, it may be quibbled that the baptism happened before the practice. But that begs the question, how did the team know to get there early? Did they all just happen to show up, or were they told (or asked) to do so? If the latter (and no one would honestly believe the former), then it was a de facto official event, and the coach was being coercive. Don't think so? Imagine what happens to the one kid who, when the coach of the football team, which is by definition supposed to be an integrated unit that is used to obeying the instructions of their authority figure, asks him to show up early for practice and he says no. 

Is he going to be treated as an outsider by the rest of the team? Is the coach going to (either overtly or otherwise) censure that kid? In a high school environment, how many kids are going to have the courage to be The Other, and how many are going to do whatever they can to fit in and be popular?

That's coercion, but it's also besides the point. Even if every single one of those kids did genuinely volunteer to be baptized by their high school football coach at a practice, it would still be illegal. Let him do it at church on Sunday, when he's not acting in his official capacity as a government agent, but in his individual capacity as a private Christian citizen who wants to get 'em while they're young.

Not good, but not illegal.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Folkish Summer Hallowing 2015

I spent most of Thursday through Saturday attending Folkish Summer Hallowing, an event sponsored by the Irminfolk, at Camp Netimus in the beautiful Poconos. It's actually the second of four Heathen events being held there this year, including Trothmoot in June, East Coast Thing next weekend (which I will be unable to attend), and AFA Winternights in October. Netimus has become quite the hotspot of Heathenry in the Northeast!

There were lectures and rituals, a concert, vendors (who accepted the Irminfolk's "trade medallions", the Futhmark), and naturally the opportunity to hang out with fellow Heathens and just talk, trade stories, discuss history and lore, and on and on. That's always the highlight of an event like this; being able to talk with people face to face really puts conversations on Facebook or email to shame.

The "Changes" concert (much more well-attended than
it looks like in this photo)
I confess that the workshops left me a little wanting, if only because there were so few of them, and most of them were on more craft things like making your own sauerkraut and so forth, whereas I usually gravitate to things more focused on lore and practice. The workshop schedule was a bit sparse, a fact that isn't really the fault of the Irminfolk, as it depends on volunteers (I did not volunteer, but have resolved to do so next year, and I know at least one other person -- my doppelgänger Cliff -- has as well). This stood somewhat in contrast to Trothmoot this past June, where I felt the classes and workshops were the highlight, deep in lore.

The offering wain is burned
But also in contrast to that earlier event, the rituals at Folkish Summer Hallowing were fantastic. I attended three; the opening ritual and offering to the landwights, a blót by the Svinfolkyn in honor of Freyr, and the main ritual, which also featured a sacrificial offering to Freyr in honor of the season (this is around the same time that the Icelandic Freyfaxi was held). I wasn't able to stay for sumbel or the closing ritual.

Last year's offering featured the burning of a ship filled with offering items, and this year's featured the burning of a wain similarly adorned. It was very moving, and absolutely spectacular to see the wain consumed by fire as the assembled folk looked on. I'm also proud to say I had a small part in it, as I was one of four who carried the wain onto the fire.

One thing that stood out for me during the Svinfolkyn ritual to Freyr was the use of antlers to sanctify the sacred space, rather than the usual hammer. I spoke with the goði about it afterwards, and he explained that they do that differently for every deity. I normally am not a fan of the whole "hammer hallowing rite" in general, as it seems to be quite ahistorical, but if you're going to go that route, clapping two deer antlers together and asking Freyr to sanctify the space was a great idea. Really worked in this instance.

On the whole, I had a terrific time at Folkish Summer Hallowing. Rituals were great, the folk were great, and the overall event was definitely a winner in my book. I'll definitely be going back next year.