A guest post by Bjørn Larssen
Alex: just before you read Bjørn’s excellent post, a head’s up – his highly acclaimed novel, ‘Children’ is free on amazon this weekend only! Get it here.
A long time ago, when I was still holding on to the idea that I was agnostic, a wise man spoke to me. “Your friend’s mother believes homosexuality is a sin. Your friend, herself, doesn’t. They go to the same church and pray to the same God. Which of them is right?” I just gawked, unable to come up with an answer. “Both,” he said. “If your friend has sex with someone of the same gender, she won’t sin. If her mother does, she will.” He cleared his throat. “Religions are human constructs, elevating some humans above others. Those on top come up with lists of rules that determine whether you’re permitted to worship your Gods or not. Never let anybody tell you how to faith correctly.”
“Yes, Dad,” I said to Thor.
What you will read below are my views and beliefs, and nobody else’s.
Most people have three associations with the Norse faith. The TV series Vikings, the Marvel movies, and white supremacists. The latter is as accurate as declaring the Westboro Church (of the “God Hates Fags” fame) the face of all Christianity, but small dogs bark loudest. Any religion can be twisted to meet the actual desires of people, even when it comes with a holy book that’s supposed to explain and regulate everything. Heathens don’t have one. Our sources come from Christians, who wrote down the stories they found amusing centuries after the Old Gods became little else than just that – stories.
While the Marvel movies seem free from racism and discrimination, as much as Hollywood blockbusters can be, they’re an entertaining disaster. What the Marvel writers did, whether consciously or not, was turning a polytheistic faith into an allegory of Christianity, where the All-Father becomes the Almighty, Loki – Lokifer, and Chris Hemsworth…
Thor, Odin, Loki
Thor, mostly depicted as a warrior surrounded by lightning, his hammer raised and probably bloodied, is also the God of farmers and blacksmiths. He doesn’t just bring the thunder, but also summer rains that make the crops grow. He hallows important ceremonies, including weddings. Thor is the God of the common folk, a fisherman, someone who can both bring a storm and calm it. He isn’t stupid or a simpleton, he just doesn’t bother with riddles and diplomacy. Thor’s solutions (and sense of humour) are as subtle as a hammer’s blow, but if you have ever tried your hand at forging you’ll know that craft and practice are much more important than brute strength.
Odin is neither the capital-G God, nor someone who spends his entire time drinking wine and watching the dead warriors continue fighting in Valhalla. He is not the God of war many would like him to be, either. Odin doesn’t enjoy war. He enjoys winning. Ragnarök, the end of everything, by definition can’t have any winners. Odin is determined to prove that definition false and he will do anything to achieve his goal. There is nothing and nobody he won’t sacrifice to achieve that. (Those declaring themselves the followers, specifically, of Odin, should remember that those he chooses die when he decides they achieved their physical and mental peak. Unless your goal is to be remembered posthumously, I’d avoid poking this particular bear.)
Loki is chaos that ends stagnation; disruption of the status quo; a forest fire that clears the land for farming and contributes to the climate crisis. The natural state of mankind is inertia – some of us like some sorts of changes, but the majority only wants good enough for themselves. Conservatives insist that things are perfectly fine as they are, or even pulling back – things used to be fine as they were. Loki’s fingerprints appear on the remains of the Berlin Wall. He was the companion of Fidel Castro on the day Batista was overthrown – but left long before the words “central planning” were uttered.
Loki’s whispers inspire the best of art, because creation is the opposite of status quo. The works we remember today are the ones that previous generation deemed deviant, dangerous, disgusting. Not without a reason does every grandparent angrily declare that back in their day they had real music (like, for me, Paula Abdul) and not this noise (whatever it is that the youth of today listens to instead of Paula Abdul).
Loki is a prankster. Pranks are funny to most, but they come at someone’s expense. They also keep escalating, because chaos can’t be stopped, it can only be resisted, and the stronger the barrier against it, the bigger the counter-force that will eventually break them. This is why revolutions are never followed by devolutions.
During Ragnarök, Loki dies together with the others, battling Heimdall. Loki represents the fire that burns forests; Heimdall – the fire of the hearth. Regardless of which flame is which, everything must burn. Yet fire isn’t evil. Fire just is.
As Völuspa (badly guarded spoiler alert: the prophecy Maya carries in Children is Völuspa) foretells in stanza 52:
Surtr fares from the south | with the scourge of branches, [kenning for fire]
The sun of the battle-gods | shone from his sword;
The crags are sundered, | the giant-women sink,
The dead throng Hel-way, | and heaven is cloven.
Surtr is the ruler of Müspelheim. Müspelheim is the realm of fire, smoke, lava. When the fires of Müspelheim originally met the ice of Niflheim, chaos meeting the stillness, life was created. Everything that happened later was the result of the constant wrestling between chaos and inertia. At the end the two separate again, devouring fires on one side, endless frost on the other. Odin fights Fenrir wolf and both die. Loki fights Heimdall and both die. Thor fights Jörmungandr, the Midgard Serpent, and both die. Surtr doesn’t have an enemy – Surtr just is. Once there is nothing left to burn, ice will cover the remains.
Earlier, when tweeting with Alex, I shared my opinion that Baldr was a Christian addition to Völuspa. Once Ragnarök ends, Baldr, the “shining” God described by Snorri Sturluson as “the wisest of the Ases [Æsir] and most beautifully spoken and most gentle” will return from the dead to lead a new world, humankind reborn from a man and a woman… doesn’t that sound familiar?
My belief, which some share and some don’t, is that what Snorri wrote was meant to suggest that Ragnarök already happened and the fake heathen Gods were replaced by the real one. I believe Ragnarök to be The Age of Fire. In their greed, humans keep contributing to global heating, denying science and reality, because in order to survive humanity would have to introduce changes bigger than ever before. The ice of inertia – things are fine as they are – pushes to separate itself from the fire, which is, well, the fire. But life appeared when the two met in the middle.
If there is one person in the 2020 world I see as the true warrior of Odin, it’s Greta Thunberg.
The belief that all the warriors who die bravely in battle will find a place in Valhalla is, awkwardly, opposed by The Lay of Grimnir, forming a part of Poetic Edda. Translations differ, but even the most generous one tells us that Valhalla has six hundred and forty doors, out of each of which nine hundred sixty einherjar (Odin’s warriors) will emerge on the final day. That’s 614,400 einherjar.
In the ninth century, when the Great Heathen Army consisted of a few thousand people, the number must have seemed near infinite (especially as there must have been very few who could count to 614,400). Odin has been collecting his warriors for many centuries. We can either interpret the sources literally and insist that every person who has ever died in a fight now dwells in Valhalla and the valkyries are really bad at counting, or agree that Odin only wants the best of the best.
Coincidentally, insisting that only white, heterosexual, bad-ass-t-shirt-wearing men of this or other genetic compositions can be heathens equals the idea that Odin would be so intellectually limited as to reject the greatest of warriors because their skin wasn’t pink.
Those who don’t make it to Valhalla end up in Helheim. Despite the first three letters of its name, Helheim has nothing to do with hell. It’s more of an infinitely large inn. Hel, Loki’s daughter, is welcoming and generous, and ensures the dead have a nice time until Loki comes to bother them in time for Ragnarök. I’m an old man with a bad back. Please don’t send me to Valhalla.
21st Century Heathen
Alex asked me, among other things, whether I believe in everything, such as the Midgard Serpent. Jörmungandr, the serpent that is so big it has no choice but to begin eating its own tail, is a wonderful allegory that appears in many mythologies – you could call him Ouroboros if you felt like it. When it comes to Yggdrasil, the full answer would require me to get into the topic of Norse shamanism and I’m not really qualified enough to do so. I’ve already spoken about Ragnarök. My views on particularities such as a hawk sitting between the eyes of an eagle which is being insulted by a squirrel sent by a serpent are expressed by Maya in Children:
“Yggdrasil is the tree, on the branches of which lie the Nine Worlds. On its top sits the eagle, and between the eagle’s eyes sits a hawk…” He paused. “Is that what you mean?”
I successfully kept the snort inside. Oh, Bragi. “A hawk,” I said, trying to sound neutral. “I wonder if the eagle likes that.”
Animals and plants are more important to the Gods, the myths, stories, and the Gods’ followers than wars. It’s easy to forget that the biggest of the wars described in the mythology, one between two clans of Gods, ends within a paragraph or two with a declaration that it became clear neither could ever win. The next big battle is Ragnarök, which ends everything. Who would want to watch a Marvel movie about how much Thor loved his goats or play a computer game in which you have to identify whether Yggdrasil is an ash tree or a yew-tree?
Heathenry is a nature-based faith. Yule, the festival that starts with the winter solstice, isn’t about celebrating the death or rebirth of a deity, but about us having survived the longest night of the year together and knowing that from now on each day will bring along more light. Freyr is not as much the God of sex as fertility, peace, prosperity, good weather, and harvest. Idunn, whose fruit keeps the Gods young and without whom all their stories would have ended long before Ragnarök, is a gardener. (There is so much research on whether it should be “Idunn’s fruit” or “Idunn’s apples”. I lean towards “fruit”.) Odin has one weapon, his spear, and five animals that accompany him. Fire is holy for us – gunfire isn’t.
I think something that’s unusual about the Norse beliefs is that our Gods simply walked around, engaging with their followers. Even Saxo Grammaticus, a Christian chronicler whose writings dripped with disapproval of the fake, not true, bigly made up “faith” inadvertently wrote about it. Some horrible presumptuous dame named Hlaðgerðr (you might know her as Lagertha) shifted into a falcon during a battle, flew over the enemy army, then attacked them from behind. Saxo wrote that in his Danish History. It’s a fact like any other. My Gods are not infallible, they bicker, make mistakes, have threesomes with mortal married couples, cross-dress, and some of them even have sense of humour.
Do my views represent the mainstream? Some do, some don’t. (Can even say that less than a hundred thousand people around the globe can be sorted into “mainstream” and “not mainstream”?) I practice religion of research that values horses above SUVs and knowledge above gold, even though I’m not willing to poke my eye out to prove that. Then I write books that are essentially fanfic of my own faith and hope that some of the information I smuggle in rubs off on some of the readers.
PS. Dad says that the story with him donning a wedding gown in order to marry King Thrymr is completely made up and not true at all, and that he didn’t eat all that much during the feast anyway, because one whole ox is a completely reasonable appetiser.
PS2. If he’s coming over, have some good stout in the fridge, and by “some” I mean “LOTS”. Just trust me on that.
Bjørn Larssen is a Norse heathen made in Poland, but mostly located in a Dutch suburb, except for his heart which he lost in Iceland. Born in 1977, he self-published his first graphic novel at the age of seven in a limited edition of one, following this achievement several decades later with his first book containing multiple sentences and winning awards he didn’t design himself. His writing is described as ‘dark’ and ‘literary’, but he remains incapable of taking anything seriously for more than 60 seconds.
Bjørn has a degree in mathematics and has worked as a graphic designer, a model, a bartender, and a blacksmith (not all at the same time). His hobbies include sitting by open fires, dressing like an extra from Vikings, installing operating systems, and dreaming about living in a log cabin in the north of Iceland. He owns one (1) husband and is owned by one (1) neighbourhood cat.
You can download his novel Children from Amazon for free this weekend here!
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