Friday, May 29, 2015

Odin lives!: heathenism today

At the beginning of Odin’s Child, Odd Tangle-Hair, the story’s narrator, tells us how Iceland adopted Christianity in the year one thousand. To avoid civil war between believers in the old religion and the new Christian converts, it was decided at the Althing that  year that one respected old chieftain would decide for all, and his decision would be binding on all.

The story goes  that he lay for a night and a day in his tent, his face covered with a cloak, while outside the people waited. When, at last, he came out, he gave his verdict. Let there be one law and one belief for all, he pronounced--and let it be the religion of the White Christ!

Odd’s father, Black Thorvald, alone of the chieftains, scoffed at the new faith and withdrew in fury to his distant farm, where, as time went by, he was consumed by anger and melancholy. Odd, whose mother was Christian, grew up torn between the two faiths. His mad father would lead him on night-long rambles up the slopes of Mt. Hekla, declaiming the ancient myths—and especially the myth of Ragnarok, the doom of the gods—in a howling torrent of words.
In the mornings [Odd tells us] I would reason with myself, for I am a reasoner by nature. If the gods were dead, or doomed, then why not let them go? Why not accept the Christian god as nearly everyone did and let life be simple? My mother believed in him, and she was a good woman.

No. Almost..., but, no. My father's hold on me was too great for that…For his sake, then, I thought, let these doomed gods have my prayers, for what little good it may do them. The White Christ has all the rest.

But does the “White Christ” (as Jesus is always called in the Icelandic sagas) still have all the rest?

Not quite, it seems—neither in Iceland nor elsewhere. The Norse gods live on in the hearts of a growing number of devotees. Nowadays they call the old religion “Ásatrú”—faith in the Aesir—a term invented in the nineteenth century at the beginning of the neo-pagan revival. Now in Reykjavik construction has begun on the first new temple to Odin, Thor and Frigg to be built in Iceland in a thousand  years. It will be a huge, cavernous space excavated into a hillside above the city and, when finished, will be available for weddings, naming ceremonies, and heathen holiday celebrations. Below, is the architect's plan for the temple and a group of contemporary heathens in Iceland. 



I am not a pagan myself, but as one who has studied and written about ancient polytheism, both Greco-Roman and Norse, I wanted to understand what motivates moderns who, like Odd Tangle-Hair, reject Christianity in favor of an older belief. Browsing Google Plus and Facebook, I discovered more than a dozen groups that advocate Ásatrú, totaling nearly 20,000 members if you add them all up (although I’m sure there is a good deal of overlap).

I posted a query to all of them, beginning “What drew you to paganism?” I received quite a few replies. Many of them began by first pointing out my error in terminology: the preferred term for believers in the Germanic gods is “heathen”, not “pagan.”

To quote briefly from some of the respondents:

“Myself, I grew up in an LDS (aka Mormon) house.  That never really
worked for me…I finally came to the conclusion that the Norse Gods and
Goddesses were calling me…”

“I feel the spirit of the world, the universe, coursing with energy through my spirit and soul.”

“I was drawn to it following my awakening out of Christianity and historical study with references from my Northern European ancestry.”

“…it's much more insightful [than Christianity] on how one should live and treat others.”

“…we can once again live as our ancestors did and continue a path of existence that will very well take us into a higher state of being…”

“I have always loved nature and adventure since I was a kid and this has been key in my embracing of old Nordic thought.”

“I get more of a personal connection to it than I ever did with Christianity, with Norse heathenry/ paganism I get a feeling of being connected to the past…”

“It wasn't until I felt safe enough to break away from the Church that I realized I was right all along and the Mary persona was created to conceal the worship of a very real goddess.”

“When I found Ásatrú, that's when the biggest puzzle pieces started popping up everywhere and even fit.”

“I was being groomed to be a Pentecostal pastor. I left because everyone was a hypocrite and wouldn’t hear it if you called them out.”

“Basically, it was a feeling of being connected to the past and feeling closer to my Celtic and German ancestry.”

 “The Gods are real. That's why.”

The themes that stand out are that heathenism is natural, ancient, ancestral, and more personally fulfilling than whatever faith the convert was brought up in. What is actually believed varies, as with any religion, from a literal belief in One-Eyed Odin and Red-Bearded Thor, to something  just vaguely ‘spiritual’. (There can be, of course, an unpleasant side to this too, where mystical “folkishness” shades into Aryan racism. But this is decried by almost all.)

If its presence on the Internet is any indication, Ásatrú is thriving and growing. A website called The Wild Hunt, is one of the most active voices in disseminating heathen news and advocating for heathen causes. A recent article highlighted a pagan lawyer who is fighting the Keystone XL pipeline in the name of “protecting the earth and its creatures”.  Another piece discusses the campaign to get paganism recognized as a religion by the U. S. Army.

How would Odd Tangle-Hair have felt about all this if we could bring him back to life? I like to think he would be pleased.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Saddle Sores: my day on an Icelandic horse

In Odin’s Child (chapter one) Odd Tangle-Hair and his brother bring their black stallion to a horse fight—a popular entertainment among Viking-age Icelanders.

Ahead of us a crowd was gathered for the horse fights. We worked our way to the front until the clearing lay before us, a haze of dust hanging over the trampled grass. At the edge of it the mares were tethered, while in the center two farmers, stripped to the waist and backed by a knot of shouting friends, shoved and goaded their snorting stallions into battle. It was a good match and we watched, shouting with the rest, until the loser, foam-flecked and streaked with blood, charged into the crowd, scattering spectators to right and left. Winning horse and master both threw back their heads and cried victory.

In the days before the White Christ came to Iceland, the winning horse would have been sacrificed to Frey, whose horse's prick fertilizes the fields, and the meat cut up and sold to the folk to eat. Christian priests had soon put a stop to that, but they were too shrewd to make us give up our sport entirely.

But if, reading this, you visualized a pair of huge animals such as Medieval knights rode to battle on, you would be quite wrong. The Icelandic horse is a short-legged, sturdy animal that stands only about 13 hands—that is, fifty-two inches—high. Technically, it’s a pony, although no Icelander would dream of calling it that.

Icelanders love their horses and go to extraordinary lengths to protect them. No other breed of horse can be imported into the country and, if an Icelandic horse is exported, it can never come back, for fear of bringing disease with it. The Icelandic language, it is said, has over a hundred words for the varieties of color and pattern of their coats. The horse plays a part in Norse mythology. Odin rode an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir and the hero Sigurd rode one named Grani, after whom Odd names his horse.

When I visited Iceland, I convinced myself that if a writer is setting his story in a period where people traveled on horseback, then you have to do that in order to get a realistic feel for how long it takes, and how hard it is, to get anywhere. Riding in a car just gives you no sense of that at all. I hadn’t been on horse since I was probably twelve years old but I was sure it would all come back to me. There are a number of stables in the Reykjavik area that organize horseback treks; I signed up at Ishestar for the all-day trek—a morning and afternoon session, punctuated by a delicious lunch (price included) of all the roast lamb you could eat. By the time I was through with lunch I would have happily called it a day. But no, I was committed, so I mounted up again.

Riding one of these horses is a bit different from what I remembered from my boyhood. For one thing, you don’t neck-rein them, as I was taught to do. Also, an Icelandic horse uniquely has two extra gaits besides the usual three (sort of like having two extra gears on a car), although I’m not sure I really found them. And we did it all: we saddled and unsaddled the horses twice, rode uphill and down, crossed streams, galloped along winding tracks through the spectacular scenery of south-western Iceland. Did I fall off? No. Did I almost fall off? Yes, two or three times. Could I walk when it was over? Barely.

But did I experience the contours and texture of the land as one of those hard-bitten warriors of a thousand years ago would have? Absolutely. And it was worth it.

Words and Pictures: reviving the illustrated novel

Once upon a time—long  before the term “graphic novel” was coined—novels written for adults and young adults came with pictures. It began with Dickens’ Pickwick Papers (1836), whose illustrations did much to popularize the book. Thereafter, all of Dickens’ novels were illustrated, as were those of Sir Walter Scott, Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson,  H. Rider Haggard, Victor Hugo, and Jules Verne, just to name a few. A novel—at least, an adventure novel—without pictures was something incomplete. Artists used engraving, etching, lithography, mezzotint, and a variety of other processes to create illustrations that complemented the text.

This golden age lasted for about a hundred years. Toward the end of it, two great American illustrators dominated the field: Howard Pyle (d. 1911), who illustrated  The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood and Men of Iron, and his student, N. C. Wyeth (d. 1945), whose illustrations for Treasure Island must still be impressed on every boy’s imagination.

 What put an end to this grand tradition? Possibly competition from the movies, or the invention of the modern comic book; certainly, the economics of the publishing industry.

Time, we say, to bring it back! “We” being me, and my illustrator, Anthony Macbain, and our very enlightened publisher, Kristina Blank Makansi of Blank Slate Press. Odin’s Child has five full-page illustrations, and we are planning for more of them in The Ice Queen and The Guardsman.

We hope readers will approve. And—who knows?—we may be helping to bring back an old and honored custom.