Friday, January 30, 2015

Some more about that Asatru temple in Iceland

Plan for the hof building - sleek and modern
Iceland Review has a nice story about the Asatru temple that is about to be started in Iceland. Ground-breaking is set to happen in March, and early 50% of people polled in Iceland support its construction (just imagine that poll in the U.S.!). There were a couple of very interesting items in this story that I hadn't heard before, though:
The 350-square-meter building, which will house 250 people, is expected to be completed in the summer of 2016. The building will be constructed around the path of the sun and the sacred numbers of 9 and 432,000 are used in the design, mbl.is reports.
...
The City of Reykjavík donated the site to the Ásatrú Association but the building’s costs, estimated at ISK 130 million (USD 975,000, EUR 860,000), will be raised by the society itself.
It's nice to hear that they're incorporating some of the sacred numbers of ancient Germanic belief, but what I, as an American, am simply astounded by is the fact that the city donated the land for the temple!

And here's a short video about the project (in Icelandic, but you can get the gist from the images, I hope).


Sunday, January 25, 2015

Odinist Prisoner News: Planker v. Christie

From New Jersey comes Planker v. Christie, that was dismissed without prejudice on January 20, 2015. Amongst (many, many) other complaints, the plaintiff alleged that his rights as an "Organic Odian" (which, I must admit, is something I've never heard of before) were violated. Specifically, he was denied materials such as a Thor's Hammer, runes, candles, sea salt, and mushrooms (?), and was denied access to Odinist services due to scheduling issues.

But most disturbing are the alleged comments of the (Muslim) prison chaplain to the effect that the plaintiff should convert to Islam if he wanted full access to his religious rights.

Interestingly, the opinion cites DeHart v. Horn in stating that:
"[t]he mere assertion of a religious belief does not automatically trigger First Amendment protections, however. To the contrary, only those beliefs which are both sincerely held and religious in nature are entitled to constitutional protection."
On the same day that opinion was published, the US Supreme Court published Holt v. Hobbs, which in many ways turned the court's interpretation of RLUIPA (the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act) on its head. As Howard Friedman of the award-winning Religion Clause blog put it:
"Those who follow Religion Clause's weekly summary of prisoner free exercise cases know that inmates professing a wide variety of religious beliefs seek religious accommodations relating to grooming, clothing, possession of religious items, worship space, congregate religious services, religious dietary restrictions, and more.  The Supreme Court has now reaffirmed the conclusion of most courts that an inmate may invoke RLUIPA to require accommodation of a totally idiosyncratic belief-- so long as it is sincerely held. Religious visions shared by no one else apparently still qualify."
That could indeed have an implication for Planker v. Christie, not to mention many other religious-based lawsuits that rely on RLUIPA as their basis.

Book Review: Path to the Ancestors

I recently had the pleasure of ordering Swain Wodening's book Path to the Ancestors: Exploring Ancestor Worship within Modern Germanic Heathenry from Lulu.com. At 62 pages (not counting the glossary and bibliography) it's a quick read, but that should not be mistaken for being light on information. Rather, it is succinct and narrowly focused.

Although it's written from an Anglo-Saxon Theodish perspective, Asatruar and other Heathens will be able to make full use of this book. There are five chapters:
  • Why worship the ancestors?
  • Ancestor worship in the lore
  • Our ancestors
  • The ancestral altar
  • Rites to the ancestors
Perhaps the biggest departure from "standard" Asatru practice will be Swain's argument in the first chapter that, since offerings to the Gods are best made on a family or group level, it makes more sense for individuals to focus their own personal practice on their ancestors. This is a defining attitude of Theodish Belief (and is held by some Asatru groups as well), and while many Asatruar may disagree with the premise, doing so in no way invalidates the concept of incorporating ancestor-worship into one's routine of personal practices.

The second chapter necessarily concentrates (although not exclusively, of course) on the cult of the Matronae ("mothers") that flourished during the Migration Age in those lands where Roman and Germanic cultures intermingled. There is ample archaeological evidence, and no small amount of textual evidence, for this sub-cult, and he (in my opinion properly) argues that it represents, if not cast-iron evidence, at least a model, for historical ancestor worship.

Matronae altars
If anything, I think this represents the weakest chapter in the book, as he misses an excellent opportunity to delve into the evidence around the cult of the Matronae, that could have provided a much-needed historical framework upon which to build the rest of the book. The evidence from inscriptions on Matronae altars alone would be enormously helpful in this regard. Alex Garman's The Cult of the Matronae in the Roman Rhineland: An Historical Evaluation of the Archaeological Evidence is notably missing from the bibliography (although to its credit, the bibliography does include Philip Shaw's excellent Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic World: Eostre, Hreda and the Cult of Matrons).

Swain does supplement his information from Germanic-based sources with practices from other Indo-European sources such as the Roman cult of the Lares and Hindu ancestor-worship practices.

The remaining two chapters deal with the practical side of ancestor worship, and leans heavily on Swain's own practice developed over the course of many years. This is good stuff, but a few more examples of variations on the themes presented would doubtless have been helpful for some readers.

There is one question that the book does not address that I wish it had, as to my mind it is central to the question of ancestor worship, and its omission is a serious enough lacuna for me to take a star away from my review. This is the question of Christian ancestors.

Especially in the modern world, it is entirely likely that the overwhelming majority of our ancestors, going back many generations, were Christian (or at the very least, non-Heathen). A discussion of the appropriateness of offering what are essentially Heathen rites to non-Heathen ancestors would have been welcome. There are serious questions, both philosophical and theological, that are raised by the idea. Is your devoutly Catholic great-grandmother going to appreciate being the center of pagan worship? Is she even capable of responding, or is she removed from the world in a Christian Heaven (or Hell)? Is doing so disrespectful?

But noting this omission shouldn't be taken as knocking the content that is there. Path to the Ancestors is a wonderful book, and explores a side of Heathen worship that in my opinion is largely overlooked in contemporary Heathen practice. I heartily recommend this book for any Heathen who's interested in adding this forgotten, but vital, aspect of pre-Christian religion to their regular worship. I give it four out of five stars. 

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Thorrablot

Here's a nice tongue-in-cheek look at Thorrablot, the modern, but Heathen-inspired, Icelandic celebration in the middle of winter...


Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Asatru temple to be built in Iceland

For the first time in nearly a millennium, a temple dedicated to the Aesir will be built in Iceland. Built under the auspices of the Icelandic Ásatrúarfélag (Icelandic Asatru Fellowship), the temple will be able to accommodate some 250 people, or about 10% of the group's total membership. The temple is expected to be completed next year.

This is a terrific milestone. Asatruar everywhere should be proud of this achievement, no matter what one's stance on various issues may be. The Gods are once again being honored in the lands where they once held sway, and the fact that the Ásatrúarfélag could rally the resources to make this happen should be a model for Asatruar everywhere.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Vital Factors in the Success of the Vikings

Medievalists.Net brings us a golden oldie from the Proceedings of the Sixth Viking Congress, 1969, entitled Vital Factors in the Success of the Vikings by Bertil Almgren. The thesis seems to be that the success of the Vikings was due to the shallow draft of their ships, which allowed them to travel farther up river inlets and over a wider range than other contemporary vessels. While that's certainly true as far as it goes, I'm not sure that would be one vital factor I would choose.

Bonus; you can download the entire Proceedings book from Scribd at the link above. Lots of good stuff in there by some names that should sound familiar, including Gabriel Turville-Petre.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

This is why checking primary sources matters

Yesterday I ran across a perfect example of why it's always dangerous to rely on what people say about historical sources, rather than going back and fact-checking. Sometimes, the sources don't say what the modern scholar says they say. (In fact, I wrote a whole paper on the subject, debunking a claim about Augustines City of God in a modern scholarly book on pagan Europe, as part of my work in the Troth Loremaster program.)

But the example I have in mind is much simpler than having to slog through hundreds of pages of Augustine to prove a negative. This involves a paper written by T. C. Lethbridge in The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland Vol. 83, No. 2 (Jul. - Dec., 1953), pp. 175-181, available via JSTOR (readable with a free account), entitled Christian Saints or Pagan Gods? The Lough Erne Figures. I'm doing some research on Christian saints that had their origin in Heathen deities, so this seemed interesting.

Now, the author makes the following statement about one of the figures:
One of them, that of a male (a), is claimed to have a crozier in his hand and a bell, and to be in the attitude of cursing. He is therefore Saint Patrick. The bell, however, on inspection appears to be a typical Irish short-sword; the crozier may be a scepter or some other wand of office and the man appears to be stroking his chin in thought. There is nothing about him to suggest that he is a saint.
Fine. Fair enough. And the author has also included some illustrations to make his point clear:
In Fig. 1 I have drawn five of the figures (a-e) after a study of various photographs, omitting such signs of weathering as seem to obscure the details of the carving. I have not included the carving of a single isolated head on a flat stone slab, because it does not appear to belong to the same series as the others and may not even be of the same date. Two other fragments may be architectural.
Great! Now we can see exactly what he's talking about in his Figure a:

Copyright (c) JSTOR

And his Figure a does indeed look the way he described it; sword, wand, hand on chin. But here's where the problem comes in. Not having heard of the Lough Erne Figures (also known as the White Island Figures), I checked to see if there were any photographs of them to be found. And indeed there are. Here's a great one:

Photo by Jim Dempsey
Off to the right we see the disembodied head and an unfinished figure that could be the "architectural feature" the author mentions. But do you see a figure that "has a crozier in his hand and a bell, and to be in the attitude of cursing"? Yes; the third figure from the left (the largest one, in fact). But that's not the one the author was discussing!! His Figure a is the one next to the one with the crozier and the bell!

All of his analysis in that section I quoted was based on looking at the wrong figure.

My best guess (and it's only a guess) is that, since the author was working off of photographs, he simply didn't have a complete selection of photographs, and was trying to make the best sense he could of a written description that didn't jive with the visual evidence. Because he was missing the crucial photograph that would have let everything fall into place.

The moral of the story being, when you're reading a scholarly article or a book, never take for granted that what the author tells you something means, is accurate. Dig into the footnotes. Read the quotes in context. And if the primary sources don't agree with what the modern author says they mean, don't assume he knows better than you do, even if he's published in the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland and you're not.