Articles by Galina Krasskova

Galina Krasskova

Galina Krasskova is a Heathen priest, vitki, and Northern Tradition shaman. A devout polytheist and devotee of Odin she is the author of over a dozen books on the Northern Tradition, devotional work, and more. She is the editor of "Walking the Worlds," a bi-annual journal of polytheism and spirit-work () and maintains a rather active personal blog at Galina holds a Masters in Religious Studies, a diploma in interfaith ministry, and is currently pursuing her PhD in Classics.

Toward a Heathen Theology

When I think of the various contemporary Polytheisms actively engaged in reconstruction and restoration today, religions like Hellenismos, Kemetic Orthodoxy, Canaanite Polytheism, Romuva, and the like, it always seems to me as though contemporary Heathenry is a thing aside. I rarely see Heathen voices participating in pan-polytheistic dialogue, and by and large the mainstream Heathen community seems to hold itself aloof from engaging with other types of Polytheism. At times, for all that we have a multitude of Gods, I even question whether Heathenry is actually polytheistic or … theistic at all.

In no other polytheism are atheistic voices quite so loud or so accepted.1 In no other polytheism do we have a religion where one may gain accolades by reciting medieval literature i.e. the lore, but condemnation for expressing active piety.2 I long ago noted within Heathenry a deeply ingrained insularity, a desire to close the tradition off from external influences, cleaving instead to some imagined golden age of Viking prosperity. I also noted a deep discomfort with the idea of theological investigation. This came up as I was talking about my thesis recently, written in 2009, in which I examine various ideological currents within American Heathenry specifically with respect to ritual praxis, and I found myself contemplating over twenty years as a Heathen in a very divisive and divided Heathen community.3 For everything I say here (and admittedly I am speaking broadly based on my own experience and observed interactions), I’m sure there are Heathens who will staunchly argue that I am wrong and yet I maintain that thorough theological investigation is largely absent within this religion.4

Part of that is a deep discomfort with the Gods as Gods rather than fictional, literary, or cultural constructs.5 Over the years I have heard several reasons to avoid devotional practice or anything that prioritizes the Gods:

  • The Gods weren’t an important part of pre-Christian Heathen worship. It was all about ancestors and then only at the holy days.
  • The Gods exist but are far too immense to have anything to do with us.
  • The Gods only interacted with Heroes from the Saga period. They don’t do that anymore.
  • They don’t want us bothering them.
  • It’s not a religion it’s a “folk-way.”
  • Heathenry is all about the family and community. Only religious specialists bothered with the Gods (followed up by damning contemporary religious specialists I might add as being non-Heathen, perverted, insane, or all of the above. Really, make up your mind, folks).
  • Devotion and prayer and piety are all just examples of Christian nonsense and a good Heathen doesn’t ever bow his head or bend his knee to the Powers (this, despite having clear examples from antiquity of our “Elder” Heathens doing just that. Again, make up your mind, folks. Is lore only relevant when you can cherry pick?).

What I see really being said here is “the Gods make me uncomfortable and I don’t want to have to deal with Them.”6 Well, if we are actually a religion, at some point we need to deal with actual Gods, in theory, in practice, and positioned as an essential part of the religious experience. Religion is a container for the sacred. It’s an expression of a mutual contract between a society, a culture, a tribe, a people, a community and their Gods. At some point, we need to stop being embarrassed to believe and we need to talk openly about what that means for the development of our traditions. In other words, how would we choose to engage in a Yule rite if, for instance, we made the choice to believe that Odin was real – not as a metaphor, not as a psychological construct, not as a force of nature, but as an immortal, terrifying, sentient Holy Power, and that the Hunt was afoot, that magic things, dangerous things, moved in the chilly darkness? What if we put aside our modern skepticism that finds lack of faith more rational than devotion, that in fact pathologizes devotion and instead chose to approach Heathenry with a desire for reverence?7 What would that change about our rituals? How would our community priorities change? If we acknowledged that the Gods were real and that They did in fact express Themselves to Their devotees what would that do to the construct that we now call “Heathenry?”

And if you dismiss the idea of that even being possible, why are you calling what you do religion?

We need to begin discussing Heathen theology, and not in the “oh look how much lore I can quote” way. Theological inquiry is a process that allows for pondering the presence of the Gods and Their impact on actual doctrine and practice. It takes the crumbs of religious insight scattered throughout the lore and synthesizes them into a framework upon which we are then able to build.8 Some will no doubt argue that this has been done, but it is not something that ever stops, not with a tradition that is living and growing and vitally engaged with the world. It is also not a process that should be done with a goal to exclude the Gods from the result.9

For the future of our religion, we need to start engaging with Heathenry as religion and by that, I don’t mean religion as a social construct, but religion as a language and protocol for maintaining right relationships with the Gods. We need to start stepping off the bank of lore into the abyss of the unknown and finding the courage to wrestle with ideas that may take us out of the clear-cut boundaries of inangarđ. We also really need to stop assuming that our ancestors were stupid. This is an idea born of colonization and conquest: first by Christianity and then by a rampantly white, middle class, Protestant pseudo-rational modernity. It’s something called a hierarchy of religions and one can find it in abundance in certain areas of the Humanities, namely the unspoken idea very deeply ingrained, that the most evolved and rational religions are those most like mainstream Protestant Christianity (or now sometimes agnosticism or atheism) and the more polytheistic one becomes on this scale, the more primitive and ignorant a society is. (I mean let’s face it, when engaging in colonization and conquest, as the European powers were during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries which saw the rise of certain academic disciplines like religious studies, anthropology, and later sociology, one must give oneself a certain justification for erasing indigenous culture and religion. Adoration of modernity, progress, and the fairy tale that such cultures are primitive and can only benefit from Western interference are as good a mythology as any upon which to build an empire).

Until we deal directly with our discomfort with the very idea of faith, of Gods, of multiple Gods, and of being a minority religion with all that entails, we are going to get nowhere in the process of building an intergenerationally sustainable tradition. We need to stop assuming that religion didn’t play a vital role in the lives of our ancestors simply because it doesn’t play a vital role for us. If we do not see the traditions that we are attempting to salvage and restore as priceless, living treasures, as beyond price, as worth sacrificing for, and our Gods all the more so, we will never move beyond the embarrassment when the question of actual Gods arises.

Essentially, we can choose to look at religion from a modernist, Durkheimian perspective: it’s just culture, an expression of the cohesiveness of a people, a folk way to which the Gods are tangential metaphors and social constructs or we can look at it the way our ancestors actually did: as a necessary, god inspired protocol for engaging with the sacred and illuminating our daily lives. To do the latter requires theology and it requires stepping outside the box of our precious, precious ‘lore.’

Inevitably the question will arise: “how?” Well, firstly, I think we need to confront our own ingrained disbelief. Think of what we have been exposed to from the time we were children: Christians have God, the ancient pagans had “Idols”. That right there alone, for those raised in practicing Christian households has tremendous impact on our psyches and this is the narrative that academia has largely also followed, at least until recently.10 Language is important and we can’t escape the influence of ongoing micro-aggressions like this, attempts to erase an entire religious history. I think we need to acknowledge and address any shame or discomfort with the idea of having living Gods. It’s one thing to say that we are polytheist after all and quite another to be completely comfortable pouring out offerings and ordering our lives around that statement. Apples and proverbial oranges, I would warrant. We need to work to get to the point where that’s not the case11

Secondly, making a concerted effort to move from a position of belief doesn’t hurt. I think all too often we set up this false dichotomy between praxis and belief (the “ancient Polytheists didn’t really believe, it was all about praxis” argument). Praxis is meaningless without belief. To say that our ancestors had no belief is to say that they had no theology, which is to imply a shallowness of understanding and comprehension on their part that is, at best, hubristic on ours.12 Let us work from the assumption that praxis flowed as a logical extension from belief.

Then, I think it’s necessary to really think about what this changes. Perhaps we can indulge in a thought experiment of sorts. How would we engage with and conceptualize our religions if it really did revolve around and flow from our Gods? What would it mean? How would we then behave if we knew without a shadow of a doubt that the Gods were at the heart and soul of what we call religion and that all the praxis was a dialect, a language by which we could communicate with Them? What would that change?

Essentially, what would it mean for us as polytheists if none of this were conceptual? What would it mean to wake up one day with eyes and ears and senses attuned to the sacred? That’s what we’re working toward, at least in part and that shift in consciousness is not going to be found solely or even primarily in lore, not the way we use it. In the New Testament, Gospel of John, God is the word.13 The written form of the Bible may then be viewed as the actual embodiment of their divinity and thus authoritative if not consciously reified. Our Gods aren’t yoked to scripture. Odin for instance, is the breath, vital, living, flowing, ever-changing. I believe it was the Stoics who believed we all exist and unfold in the belly of Zeus, that we are actually inside our Gods. What does that mean for our religious lives and our praxis?

Ultimately, a good first start would involve ceasing to fixate on the praxis instead of on the Holy Powers behind or at the heart of that praxis. As Heathens, let us consider that once our religious forebears had so vital a religious culture that Tacitus used it as a model against which to compare Rome.14 The Gods were never an afterthought until we began picking up scraps of lore recorded by Christians with the misguided attitude that this represented the apex of our faith instead of its katabasis. There is a need for complete reorientation in our very conception of what our religion is. Over the next few articles, interspersed with updates on my analysis of our creation story, I will be exploring just this: how to accomplish it, and what it might mean if we do.

“You are not expected to complete the work, but neither are you permitted to abandon it”

This isn’t the column that I intended to write today. I wanted to continue my theology series but for weeks now I have been doubled over with grief and anger and a tremendous feeling of helplessness as I watch the future of our world crumbling away. I suppose it’s the downside of being a diviner: I am capable of seeing all the various possibilities and potentialities when I watch the news; I can see multiple futures unfolding and none of them good and sometimes it’s very, very difficult to turn that awareness off. Since August 18 when Daesh slaughtered the custodian of Palmyra Khaled al Asaad, and then shortly after bombed the temple of Ba’al Shamin, I’ve been fixated on this, sickened. Yesterday I learned that this filth had likewise bombed the Temple of Bel and…Palmyra is effectively gone.

The editor of has been doing a series #ThisIsWhyWeNeedPolytheism and that is the thing that most inspired this article, because we do, desperately. We as polytheists represent pretty much everything these pig-fuckers are against, so much so that the very memory of cultus is a threat to their desired state of being. Why? Because as long as one temple is left standing, as long as these sacred places remain alive in living memory there is a physical testament to the fact that things were not always as they are now. We did not always live under the yoke and threatened domination of monotheism. The people of the lands Daesh has conquered, did not always bow their heads to Allah alone, and did not live in fear of torture, slavery, and worse. Once, things were very, very different for their ancestors and so long as even one temple stands, there exists a signifier that in the future, things can be different again.

These spaces that they so diligently destroy, after plundering and mining them for treasure, represent the potential for a very different, better future and stand as stark reminders that the legitimacy of their claim to the lands they inhabit is tenuous at best. We are horrified, and rightly so, by the human rights violations this filth commits, but we should be equally horrified, if not more so, by the destruction of ancient spaces and places of worship. The destruction of a place like Palmyra, isn’t just the destruction of an ancient building, it’s an attack on the future and what it might be, what it can become. It’s a severing of any link with a pre-Islamic past, and likewise a severing of possibilities for the future. In blowing up the Temple of Ba’al Shamin and the Temple of Bel, they’re damning future generations and that is an attack far more long lasting in its impact, than simply the loss, however grievous it might be, of an antique site.

I made the mistake last night of reading a number of different news articles about this, something that left me unfit for human contact for a few hours. My partner had to pretty much order me off the computer (he set me to watching cat videos for a half hour, because I was shaking and so upset). You know what I fear the most? We’re in WWIII and it’s a war unlike any that we’ve fought before. In WWII we got very, very lucky. We had the leaders we needed to protect and defend: Churchill, Roosevelt, Eisenhower, …even Stalin (he was worse than Hitler in some ways, but he was able to hold the line against the Germans in a way that Nicholas II never, ever would have been able to do), and of course generals like Patton. This time, we’re not so lucky. Across the board we have petty, untried leaders seemingly incapable of taking the long term view. None of them seem to be able to see the long term consequences of their actions and in-actions…except perhaps (horrifyingly) Putin.

Daesh is moving north and they have already made threats against Egypt and India. How long until they start attacking Europe? What then? We can hope that our governments have strategic plans for halting their progress, and maybe they do, but exactly how effective have they been up to now? Actually, attacks on Europe have already happened–by individual gunmen “inspired” by this group but attacks nonetheless–and we seem incapable of rooting potential perpetrators out. What exactly are we going to do when it’s our ossuaries and our sacred places, and the land worked by our ancestors under attack? Will we then perhaps take it a bit more seriously?

I salute the work of fighter Abu Azrael in what may well become a ‘by any means necessary’ war. It does not answer my own feelings of impotence however. What can we as polytheists here do? This is a polytheist problem as much as it is a human rights problem. The most recent article at The Wild Hunt should have brought that powerfully home. Polytheists today are dying, and worse.

For those of us positioned in ways that do not allow for the taking up of arms, for the wading into fighting, for the shedding of the blood of our enemies, what can we do? I don’t have any answers there. I have no doubt that in time the Gods will have their vengeance. It is the way of things and it is good and holy. But that does nothing to alleviate our helplessness now in the face of political incompetence (personally I think our government needs to stop kissing the collective asses of Riyadh and Jerusalem for starters). What can we as polytheists do?

Well, I’m going to throw out some ideas here, because Daesh isn’t our only threat. I very firmly believe that the fundamentalism and inherent lack of intellect, dignity, and respect that drives the atrocities of a group of Daesh, is not in any way inherently different from what drives our own, homegrown, Christian evangelical/fundamentalists. The latter group may not be militarized….yet…but it is not an inconceivable future, particularly given the insidious infiltration of fundamentalist Christianity into our armed forces. While we struggle to cope with horror after horror in the Middle East, I think it very important that we not turn a blind, forgetful eye to the potential danger right here at home.

This is one of the reasons why it’s so important to be politically aware. Read – and not just American papers/news sites. Any country that considers Fox News a reliable news source is not a country that can be trusted with the educational welfare of its citizens. Educate yourself. Read as much as you can, from as many sources as you can (perhaps most especially those with whom you disagree. It’s always good to gain insight into the opposing position).

Vote. This is especially important for women – our foremothers were tortured, beaten, imprisoned, and worse to gain for us the right to vote. Use it and not just in presidential elections. The real power isn’t at the top. Those local elections matter. This is something that Christian fundamentalists have understood for a very long time: local elections, especially school board elections matter in ways that I think few of us realize. Get involved up to and including running for office yourself, (if you have the temperament, education, and aren’t a total asshole).

Know who your senators and congressmen are and what their positions on various issues are as well. Know who our ambassador to the United Nations is. Don’t be afraid to contact these people. They work, whether they realize it or not, for us. Write your letters, sign your petitions, and show up at rallies. Make your voice heard. Take it to the streets if you need to and definitely take it to the polls. Challenge everything. We can’t afford to blind ourselves to what’s going on around us. I often grow very irritated when I will post something on facebook about Palmyra or the abuse of women or Christian abuse and someone will say “that makes me sad.” Does it? So what? What are you going to DO about it? That’s what it comes down to: What are you going to do?

Then there is the religious response. What can we do there? We can pray, which seems like such a passive response. It isn’t, but it seems so all too often. We can curse and hope that the Gods lend Their power to our workings. But there’s a third thing we can do as well: we can show our devotion to the Gods whose places were plundered. In this, it doesn’t matter what type of polytheist one is, whether one is a Heathen or Canaanite, Greek, or Kemetic polytheist. For every sacred place razed, we can pour out visible devotion to those Gods. For Ba’al Shamin, for Bel, and many more (a list of many of the places vandalized and destroyed by Daesh may be found here) let us set up personal shrines, create art (thank you, Tess Dawson for this idea), write prayers, pour out offerings. We can choose to allow this blind destruction to spur the rebirth of Their cultus. We can choose to allow this to bring active veneration by the hundreds and thousands back into our world, renewed, refreshed, and fierce. These are no longer just the Gods of Canaan; They are the Gods of every polytheist living today. Their own people may have abandoned Them. Usurpers may be destroying Their sacred sites, but They are still great and good immortal Gods and we can still pay Them cultus.

In response to this destruction, we can foment a polytheist renaissance for these Gods and all of our own. That’s the way that I choose to respond though a large part of me would very much like to be locked to my gun wading through bodies in Syria. That is not possible but this type of response is. Moreover, we can commit ourselves to the restoration of all of our traditions again and again and again. To quote Tess Dawson:

“We need to nourish, hold, and maintain our polytheist spaces, our holy places, our sacred discourses, our necessary conversations, our holidays, our rites, our offerings, our blessed gatherings. We need to nourish, hold, and maintain these things on behalf of our deities, our ancestors, and each other. And we need to do this far more than any curse or call for vengeance. Indeed, these very acts themselves are revolutionary and the very things that Daesh and others would try to blot out. Do these things first, and then, only then, contemplate curses because vengeance is nothing when there is nothing left to avenge.”

I would only add that it is not something to be done instead of cursing, but in addition to and perhaps first. Let us be like the hydra of ancient Greek lore: every time one of our sacred sites is destroyed, a dozen more avenues and places of devotion spring up. That is particularly fitting response, in my opinion.

We need polytheism today, more than most people realize. Why? Because the underlying cause of so much of the inequalities and aggressions that we see and fight every day are rooted in monotheistic hegemonic insanity. This is what gave us the Doctrine of Discovery (look it up!), colonialism, misogyny and these things bred racism and classism and so many of the other evils that eat away at humanity and hope. We had conquest in the polytheist world, but not the peculiar type of fundamentalism that so defines our religious world today. Freud speculated that such religious intolerance had its birth with monotheism and I concur, and we were all raised surrounded and inculcated with that poison. Until that changes, we’re pissing in the wind because our minds and motivations will still be poisoned. The solution: change ourselves. Work to clean out our own minds and spirits, to root ourselves anew every day in our traditions, to know that there are some lines that we should never, ever allow to be crossed.

The terrible soul-wrenching destruction that almost daily we can read Daesh is causing can inspire us to do this work more fully, starting with ourselves. It can make us better polytheists more deeply, passionately engaged with our Gods and with our world. We can dedicate ourselves to an accumulation of small acts, to changing the world around us day by day, minute by minute. I do not know of many other tools available to us, than a stubborn determination not to give up on our world.

There’s a wonderful quote from the Talmud that a friend of mine shared with me years and years ago. I saw it again recently making the rounds on social media. It was a timely coincidence. This quote holds wisdom that has sustained me through very difficult years and deep exhaustion with the Work. I share it with you now, because with all the horror that we read about day by day, it’s painfully easy to fall into compassion fatigue, depression, and despair:

“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not expected to complete the work, but neither are you permitted to abandon it.”

So we persevere, and maybe, just maybe, in the end it will be enough.

A few good links:

Temple of Bel

On the destruction of Palmyra

Crimes of Palmyra

Razing Palmyra: Mass Murder

Iraq ISIL Heritage

ISIL Blows Up Temple in Syria

Slaughter of Al Asaad

Save the Yezidis




July 31, 2015


In remembrance of the over three hundred ancient and in many cases holy sites destroyed by Daesh. In grief and terror over the damage to and potential destruction of the UNESCO city of Palmyra, and the Temple of Ba’al Shamin. In silent protest against the attack and forced eradication of even the vestiges of polytheism across the world.

This is not a Syrian issue. This is not a Muslim issue. This is a world issue. It is a human issue. Daesh is purposely targeting memory. They’re targeting their history, and their own physical connection with their polytheistic ancestors. It is done to demoralize, terrorize, and desecrate.

We Polytheists who have the freedom to practice our religions without fear of our lives (regardless of how much Christian hatred we may experience) have the opportunity to unite ritually, magically, spiritually in mind and will, with hearts and spirits in a cross-community day of ancestral reverence and remembrance.

Over sixty Deities were venerated at Palmyra alone, from multiple traditions: Canaanite, Mesopotamian, Arab, Greek, Phoenician, and Roman, as well as local and ancestral gods. Deities given cultus there included Bol/Bel, Yarhibol (god of justice), Malakbel (god of the Sun), Aglibol (god of the moon), Astarte (Phoenician Goddess of love and power), Ba’al Hamon, Ba’al Shamin, Ba’al Hadad, Atargatis, the Sumerian Nabu and Nirgal, the Arab Azizos, Shams, and Al – Allat, the native Gods Gad Taimi and Arsu, and even Dionysos.

What to do? :

1. Print out this graphic or copy it onto a piece of paper.

2. Meditate for a few moments, focusing on all the destruction,
desecration, and damage, on the sacred places that have
been destroyed, on the erasure of these ancient
polytheistic spaces, and all the other horrors Daesh
have committed.

3. Offer this prayer:

“May the holy places of the Many Gods remain inviolate for all time.
May the hands of the enemies of the Many Gods of be smashed and their efforts come to naught.
May the worship of the Many Gods flourish in many lands once again.
May those who hold true to the Many Gods be preserved and strengthened.”

4. Burn the paper in offering.

5. Make whatever other offerings you wish.

If possible, do this NINE times throughout the Day.

Feel free to share about this experience on facebook, blogs, twitter – this is an act of evocation of all those Gods Whose sacred places have been destroyed and Whose people are being violated. The internet is a perfect way to keep this evocation going.

This is a way of holding space for polytheism, ancient and modern, it is a way of drawing a line in the sand and declaring to the world that we stand in solidarity with those whose voices once rang out in praise to a plenitude of Gods and Goddesses. It is a statement that for every stone of every temple destroyed, we will restore that cultus a thousand fold. It is an act of evocation, execration, and magic. We’re still here.

(art by M. Gage. The logo is one of the symbols of Ba’al, heavily stylized. It seems particularly appropriate with Palmyra. Divination was done to ensure that it was ok to use the image for this purpose).

In the Beginning…

So I was having lunch with Edward Butler the day I wrote the first draft of this article and we were discussing cosmogony, the nascent wisdom given via theophany by the Gods to Their individual people. Each cosmological theophany holds within it the wisdom and knowledge to allow the world, its sciences, arts, philosophies, its beauty, and our understanding and engagement with it to unfold. I think it is quite profound the way that the Gods took into account the geography of where our various peoples evolved. You see it reflected in the ritual cycle, in the way the cosmic order, structure, and unfolding is translated into cultural comprehension.  I’ve never written much about cosmogony, the order and structuring of the cosmos from the Norse perspective. I think about it, sit sometimes and lose my self in it, but i’ve never actually thought to articulate it in writing. That’s going to be changing because Heathen cosmogony is so richly textured, so beautifully profound, and has so much to offer those of us who practice within its structures that i think it deserves more time and attention.

Our cosmogony begins with a Big Bang. This is a very modern term, and perhaps a bit too prosaic to describe the type of collision conveyed through our mythos. (1) Well before the Gods became, there is violence, a grinding together, there is noise and sound, there is excitement, there is confusion, there is change and exchange — a maelstrom, but a maelstrom with purpose. There is a coming together that resulted in a change of potentiality into matter, and matter into the seed of unnumbered possibilities. Does it happen slowly or all at once in a huge crash? We have no way of knowing for sure, though if we look at the Gylfaginning, and examine the fragments of cosmogonic lore left to us, it would seem to point to a slow interaction over an extensive period of “time.” (Even so, certainly there would be that one micro-second, that tipping point where interaction or collision gave birth to something new). What we do know is that something happens that forever changes the very fabric, the space, and materiality of Being. (It brings potentiality of being into temporality of being).  Something happens and it is irreversible. The world of ice and the world of fire collide and from that explosion of oppositional forces the cosmos begins to unfold. This is our starting point. What existed before this? Where did Muspelheim and Niflheim originate? What prompted this collision?–it’s not important. It’s not relevant to the discussion. Our starting point is the engagement of oppositional forces. It’s that tension and what comes from it: its fruitfulness, not where it happened or what preceded it that we are meant to focus on. Our starting point instead is the blinding explosion of force: fire and ice, action and stillness, movement and stasis, heat and cold, expansion and contraction, light and shadow, projection and retraction…and everything in between.

It must be considered that before this big bang, there was the void Ginnungagap. The void is not and was not empty space. It was not unseeing. It was instead potentiality for all being. It contained the spark, the scintilla, the fuel, the awesome, raw, thundering potentiality of being that allowed for the worlds of ice and fire to begin their inevitable collision. The void contained the possibility of what was to occur. I always make it a point to check the etymology of my Norse words and Ginnungagap has a particularly fruitful etymology. The prefix “Ginn-” occurs in several places and refers to holy might. It’s elsewhere appended to ‘regin’ meaning Holy Powers, and “runa” meaning runes. It implies something filled with potentiality, creativity, and power, something sacred and ancient. We almost always translate ‘Ginnungagap’  as ‘Yawning Void,’ but that’s not quite correct. I think a better translation might be chasm or space full of holy wonder, creativity, and potentiality. Of course that’s a bit more of a mouthful. The important thing is to understand that it is not empty and it IS holy, sacred, and eminently creative. There is power in that moment before oppositional forces meet, power and possibility. The gap was the womb of the universe, the alchemist’s cauldron from which the cosmos sprang in its infancy. It is a place of power and of secrets. From the container of the holy, this thing happened that spewed forth being and matter into existence. It spewed forth the raw material from which everything else was formed. It spewed it forth in a way that it *could* be formed.

Another thing to consider with the Gap: in spewing forth into this act of creation, it gave of itself into the process. There was a transmutation occurring in this collision: an essence of one place (the Gap) being breathed, sparked, crashed into different manifestation in another (creation). That moment is a doorway, the initiation of Being and Materiality. Materiality simply wasn’t before this point in our narrative. Materiality had to become before creation could happen. With materiality came the laws of physics. This process is all about laying out the architecture of the cosmos, of existence. As an aside it also gives one pertinent information for the nature of any and all true initiations: it is the crossing of a threshold. It creates irreversible change. There is death, transmutation/dismemberment of being, and restoration into new being. Such a pattern is locked into the fabric of existence from the beginning. Later, throughout our cosmological narrative, when the Gods take form and function and begin moving and acting in Their worlds and ours, we will see this same pattern play out again and again and again (cross-culturally, I might add), but the paradigm is given to us right here, at that very moment the potentiality and cognition of the Gap is forced through primordial collision into transmutation into a new kind of Being: raw matter. Its very nature and substance has been changed. It’s the same with initiation and its effect on the substance of the soul and our awareness.   Before this clash there was potentiality; afterwards there are the building blocks of being and materiality.

Now the Gap is a place full of activity but all in potentiality. There was nowhere for that contemplation of pre-creation to morph into result. Without materiality there was no progress. The Gap wasn’t necessarily a place of stasis, but it wasn’t a place of manifestation into actual being, fact, and material substance either. Something had to happen first before that could occur. The architecture had to be set in place for that transmutation. Potentiality had to be urged into transformative action. As an aside, in my work with Odin, in deep contemplation, in journey work, i’ve seen the Gap. It is neither still nor silent. there is awareness, many awarenesses there, and the snapping of synapses (at least that’s sort of how my mind analogized it), lightening cognition going on all around me in the Gap, from the Gap, that which was the Gap itself. There was a fierce delight in this process of cognition and a whirling dance of concepts and colors that I cannot hope to untangle and commit to the flatness of comprehension. It was too fast and dense for me to process. It had a rhythm, a rumbling percussion beat of shifting harmony. It was, as I would conceive of the term, alive. (Though I rather think terms such as “life” and “alive” are far less relevant or meaningful in a place where temporality and materiality do not exist. I don’t know if i’d previously thought of Ginnungagap as silent and still, but after seeing it, after being brought to it by Odin, never again will I have that misapprehension. There is a lot going on there! There was constant cognitive rumbling. In Platonic terms, I think we’d call it the intelligible-intellective plane of Divine activity (thank you, Edward).

Thinking about the Gap and its nature, questions inevitably arise. Was the Holy undifferentiated within the Gap? I would say no since within the Gap from the moment our narrative starts we already have two Worlds moving in tandem. We already have Muspelheim and Niflheim. Nor are those worlds singularities, something I’ll discuss a little further forward in this article. There was already differentiation, a plurality of the Holy. What is Holy? That is a question that philosophers and theologians have been wrestling with since the time of our most ancient ancestors, probably since before we had writing to record the question. I’m no philosopher but I think it’s important to note that within or perhaps encompassing this plurality of the Holy, we do then have holy as an undifferentiated category. I think for the purposes of this writing, I am going to be using that term as what I would like to call a ‘sense category.’ I don’t think that any static definition of “holy” can quite encompass what we’re dealing with here, especially at the Beginning, especially before our Gods took name, and shape, and form.

Basically we have a plurality of Holy Beings within the sense category ‘holy’. What do I mean by ‘sense category?’ Rather like one of the circles in a Venn diagram, a sense category is the space within which a thing functions. For instance, if we consider Muspelheim a sense category as well as being one of the cosmological “worlds,” we must first parse out all the things that Muspelheim contains and *means*. What role does it play in our narrative? Once that has been determined it becomes clear that when we refer to Muspelheim in this creation story, we’re not just referring to the “world of fire,” but to the fullness of meaning that can be found in this entire category. Here, we have the category of “holy” and that begs the question of what is holy? what does it mean to be holy? what are the essential elements of ‘holiness’ particularly when there is nothing of humanity nor even yet named Gods by which to determine such differentiation. We might also ask why is the Gap holy? Is it holy in and of itself or simply a container for that which is holy? What does it mean to be holy? Is it holy in itself or rendered holy by what it contains and by its function? Is there a difference? Is the holy with substance or without? Does it matter?

I don’t have answers to most of those questions. I do know that the word ‘holy’ comes from the Old English ‘halig’ which means hale, whole, and complete, entire unto itself. by that rubric alone, Ginnungagap may be consciously construed in a semantic sense as ‘holy.’ It is the ultimate entirety of everything, before differentiation into materiality, before the articulation of the universe, before…everything. I think, however, that is only one aspect of what it means to be ‘holy,’ perhaps a fundamental one, but still only part of the picture. We say a thing is holy when it is filled with or touched by the Gods. Are the Gods holy? Or do They rather render that which They touch, use, and with which They interact holy by contamination? Are things reserved for the Gods holy as opposed to sacred (reserved for divine use)? I will be discussing the difference between ‘holy’ and ‘sacred’ in a later article, but for now, know that as we contemplate the Gap, this is one of the questions that logically might arise.

Part of what we must parse out in this narrative is the effective difference between substance and materiality. All things conceived of have substance but not all things have active materiality. I would posit that substance contains the potential for materiality but is unfettered by temporality whereas materiality is connected by its very nature to temporality. It is raw substance — the Idea—given form. The question then arises of whether a fundamental change in nature occurs in the transmutation of substance into materiality. If we accept the Gap as holy, as a fundamental and largely unchanging axiom, then the equation shifts ever so slightly:  there’s potentiality and then there’s the creation of matter. The integral nature of the substance is changed through the act of creation and the holiness that was an unconditional and accepted theorem then translates into that which was created, i.e. matter as potentiality. The potentiality for holiness exists then in created matter.

Furthermore, what does it mean that life began as an explosion of oppositional forces? Complementary forces might be a better way of putting it (and you see it echoed throughout our theological narrative).  It’s not just opposites that we see in Niflheim and Muspelheim, but complement. These two worlds balance each other out. Before I continue, I want to pause for a moment to note that while we are dealing with oppositional and complementary forces, we are not working within a binary system. I’m going to say that again because with the influence of almost two thousand years of mental colonization by monotheism, and working as we are within a diasporic religion made up primarily of converts from monotheisms, it bears repeating: we are NOT working within a binary system. Binary systems are simply not sustainable, not in a cosmically sound, well ordered, organic theology. (To give you a very prosaic analogy: try sitting on a stool with two legs). We have so much more here than just simple binaries. There is so much more nuance and richness of structure. While it may seem that we have only two players and the Gap itself at this point in our narrative, each of those places contains a multitude.

Firstly, there is all that is contained in Muspelheim — this sense category of “Muspelheim,” and all that is contained in the sense category of “Niflheim.” That right there gives you a plethora of beings and forces and concepts and powers to contemplate and we’re going to be doing that in just a moment. But over and above these two basic units (which are themselves divergent worlds full of life and being and potentiality), we have the space in which they dance, the place where they meet, that moment in the fabric of becoming. We have what happens at the microsecond they meet and what the two of them together produce. We have the rhythm and sound, movement and dance. We have the denizens and raw matter within each world. We have that which is creating, that with which they create, and the things, events, and spaces that are created. There is no stopping point to it. Perhaps the two worlds are still in conversation, still in union, still colliding and vying and fighting for dominance, push-pull of creation unfolding, even now as I write this. We always think of creation as something that happened a long time ago, because we ourselves are tied to temporality, to the here and now, we experience time as a limitation when the Gods themselves are beyond temporality, and rhythm of the cosmic unfolding even more so than that. But creation isn’t a one time event. It’s a process that began and continues to unfold therefore in some way, shape, or form, fire and ice are still engaging. So while the worlds each partake of place and order on the Tree, so too do they continually continue the work of that Big Bang. What this means, one of the many things that it means, is that we are part of that process too.  That sizzling fermentation of the Big Bang, the moment of creation is still happening right now. It has never stopped happening. It propels and fuels creation again and again and again.

We have within Ginnungagap these two worlds or sense categories: Muspelheim and Niflheim. They are called worlds and that means they contain an interlocking network of ecology and environment, of culture, society, and nations. Niflheim seems to be the older of the two worlds and exists in the “north” of the Gap (though without temporality and materiality, spacial location is relative and open to conjecture). The etymology of “Niflheim” simply means (in Old Norse—all my etymology is old Norse unless otherwise specified) ‘the dark world.” The primary denizen of this world that we know of is the great dragon “Nidhogg” which means “the one striking full of hatred.” The Voluspa 39 (2) describes Nidhogg as one who drinks the blood of the dead and eats corpses. Later, when the Nine worlds are formed, Nidhogg takes on a slightly more active role in harassing the denizens of the World Tree but for now we should focus on its connotations of death and decay. Death is both ending and beginning. It is transformation. Decay, so necessary to our world (imagine if nothing ever decayed, including our bodies, including compost, including road kill) and its cousin fermentation are all types of transformative destruction. This is what Nidhogg personifies as a holy Being: transformative destruction, wasting nothing, maintaining the whole. In the poetic forms of the creation account that we have via the Edda, there is much talk about poison and venom within Niflheim and I interpret this as fermentation, decay, and transformation. It all breaks down the substance of what is and then transmutes it into something else.

In the South of the Gap (again, metaphorically speaking — spacial location would of necessity be relative), there is the world of fire, Muspelheim. The etymology here is more vexed. It most likely refers to the ‘end of the world,’ which it was, just as it was the beginning of the new. It ended the stasis that existed before the worlds met. It was the hot sparks of Muspelheim that ignited the fermentation that led to the clash, that led to the moment of creation. These two sense categories, which everything they each contain within themselves met and through that synergy something new, something different was brought into being.  The primary Being associated with Muspelhiem is the Lord of Fire: Surtr. His name means “the Black One,” ostensibly a reference to the soot, and smoke, and ash that comes as a byproduct of fire. Some of the sources (3) associate Him with volcanic activity and this makes good sense: lava is the lifeblood of the earth. (It is unclear whether Surtr is synonymous with the Being Muspel, or whether this is yet another Holy Being existing in Muspelheim. I tend to think they are synonymous). Fjolsvinnsmal (4) also references a female Fire Being named Sinmara. The etymology of Her name is vexed. Right away, it’s interesting that we have a pair of Beings in Muspelheim but only a dragon (Nidhogg) mentioned in Niflheim. The gendered pairing of one makes good sense in thinking about the elements inherent in reproduction. I choose to  look at Nidhogg as the balance to that binary pairing, as transformative, non-binary gender that also breaths its magic into creation. Dragons are serpents after all, serpents reptiles, and many reptiles can shift gender. I’m not going to belabor this here, but I look at these Beings as carrying the potential for creative expression by Their very nature and order in these worlds. There is also the fact that fire here represents the creative, active force driving this transformation and ice represents the cold, still, unmoving force resistant to change, but very focused on maintaining ordered space.

Fire symbolically represents synergy, pushing forward, evolution, expansion, adventure, heat, destruction, explosion, creativity, with Ice representing stability, integrity, solidity, ordered space, cold, lack of movement,  stasis, structure, and silence. If you think about this pairing of worlds, one may continue this list of complements almost exhaustively. Creation is always, always a matter of the push and pull between these two forces. You see this mirrored in religious traditions too: there is almost always tension between those who want the tradition to be unchanging and those who want to radicalize and push and bring forth change. It’s from this grinding synergy that traditions organically evolve. This necessary synergy is worked right into our creation story. Fire is the one constantly changing constant in the cosmos. In some ways it echoes the theories of Heraclitus. To sum it up very, very simply, Heraclitus conceived of the world as everliving fire. He gave us the phrase “war is the father of all,” meaning that “opposites are necessary for life, but they are unified in a system of balanced exchanges. The world itself consists of a law-like interchange of elements, symbolized by fire.” (5) In order to maintain active, and productive order, there must be some measure of discord, something to strive against. This is the nature of growth and evolution.

In the sense category or world of Niflheim, there is the river Hvergelmir, which means “bubbling cauldron.” Here our story becomes a bit more complicated. It will continue to become so as we introduce more variables, more moving parts, more players in this primordial drama…and we’re going to be doing just that. This is the primordial spring, the source of all the ancient rivers of the worlds, a collection of waters called “Elivagar”. Simek notes that these rivers are he proto-sea surrounding the world. (6). That makes a certain sense to me. Water provides nourishment necessary to life materially and symbolically. Fire expands the boundaries of creation, water from Niflheim nourishes it. It nourishes it by means of eleven rivers: Svol (cool one), Gunnthro (thirst for blood/battle groove), Form (I couldn’t find any etymology for this), Finbulthul (mighty wind/speaker), Thul (murmur/roaring one), Slid (dangerously sharp), Hrid (stormy weather/tempest), Sylg (Devourer), Ylg (She-wolf), Vid (Broad one), Leipt (lightening), Gjoll (loud noise). Note that the names for the most part do nothing to conceal the potential danger inherent in such primordial powers. The raw forces of creation must be mediated, first by the transition from idea and substance into material and temporal being, and then by the Gods Themselves as they craft and transform the material building blocks into our cosmos. By themselves, they can be poison—too much, too fierce for mortality to hold. There must be mediation. (7).

I’m not going to delve into the eleven rivers right now. I’ll likely come back to this in a future article. I do want to note that in a way, the spatial orientation given for these two worlds within the Gap makes a certain kind of sense: fire leaps up, devouring and transforming, opening up all it touches, purifying it, consecrating it while rivers rush downward, not up (usually). I think the spatial divisions of Niflheim being located in the North and Muspelheim in the south reflect the inherent nature of what these worlds represent.

Now, we have the Gap. In it, Niflheim and Muspelheim are interacting. This is where things get really interesting. All of these rivers flowed far from their source (where they flowed is not clear, perhaps into the Gap itself). The venom in them hardened to ice. There was already transformation occurring, preliminary transmutation. Because the rivers didn’t stop their flow to accommodate the ice, there was a constant flood of drizzle carrying more venom. This venom froze into rime and more ice and rain and roaring winds, the latter perhaps created by the moving musculature of the rivers. The longer this process continued, the more of this brine was created. This brine is important. This primordial substance, this primordial ooze gives rise, gives birth, to the first Beings of creation.  As Muspelheim and Niflheim moved closer (and perhaps this creeping ice was the cause of that spatial shift), sparks and heat from the world of fire, leapt out into the world of ice. The synergy of this contact melted the ice, transformed the rime, added something heretofore unseen. There was a moment of alchemy, a moment’s collision of complementary forces, and substance and idea, potentiality moved from the Gap, through the threshold of fire and ice interacting, into the material world. Materiality came into being in the form of the first Being, the hermaphroditic, proto-giant, Ymir. But that is a tale for another day.

For now, let it suffice to say that the universe is a symphony unfolding. I cannot help but think of music when I think of the Gap. There is rhythm there. The first time I was in Zermatt, and I heard the glaciers singing, (they do sing and groan and chant if you listen with your heart and gut), I was reminded of the crackling sounds, the roar of the Gap. That interplay of oppositional/complementary forces gives us a point and counterpoint in a grand cosmic fugue. The initial big bang may be likened to a symphony warming up, playing the first somewhat dissonant note as all the musicians tune and align their instruments and then the music begins. Creation is not a quiet thing, it is not a meek, well-ordered event. It is a rush of power loosed into being. And then power having taken form becomes subject to wyrd, power having taking form becomes potentially erratic and subject to chance. Wyrd becomes an active force with the birth of materiality and temporality.  It too, begins its unfolding. Power having taken form takes on a life of its own. and soon comes temporality and spacial structure and matter begins to take shape. The next article in this series will discuss the first primordial being Ymir, the eldest being of whose essence all things in the created worlds partake, and the sacred cow Audhumla, both of whom evolved out of that primordial brine.


1. Right away we’re confronted with the issue of cosmogonic time. Essentially, at this point in our narrative, we’re dealing with timeless moments. Temporality as such is not yet a player in our tale. It doesn’t exist. It’s not a factor in these first initial unfoldings of creation. To quote Edward Butler (who had the dubious pleasure of reading my initial draft), “Platonists were of the opinion that the sequence of events in a mythic narrative should be understood as a kind of stacking of timeless moments upon one another, so that instead of a linear unfolding of events, we get a kind of layer cake effect in each moment, which is a cross section. Part of what a cosmogony is doing is founding and grounding time itself. The first moments have to be timeless because time isn’t yet. But things that happen when time isn’t can’t have happened “then,” “before,” or “now.” They have to be happening now. ” (Private mail with E. Butler on March 8, 2015). It’s crucial to understand, really understand that while we may be forced by the constraints of language to use qualifying adverbs, to position our narrative temporally, in reality temporality did not yet exist, was not yet a factor in the discussion.

2.Poetic Edda

3. Simek, p. 303

4. Stanzas 26, 30


6. Simek p. 73

7. This comes up again in the story of Odhroerhir as well. This powerful, incantational, creative force is lethal until it has been purified through the act of creation. Here we have a poisonous mead of inspiration that essentially carries a body count. It was created from the crushed body and soul of Kvasir, and brought death and misery to anyone it touched. Only through the alchemy of Odin and Gunnlod’s union could it be purified through the bodies of two shamans, and rendered safe for graced consumption.


* Poetic Edda

* Prose Edda

* Edward’s Butler, (2014), Essays on the Metaphysics of Polytheism in Proclus. NY, NY: Lulu Press.

* Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Heraclitus page:

* Rudolf Simek, 1993), Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Cambridge, MA: D.S. Brewer.

Lectio Divina Heathen Style

Those of you who are familiar with Heathenry will assuredly be familiar with the fixation some (most) Heathens have on lore. With a demographic drawn largely from Protestant Christianity, and working in an over-culture that is doggedly Protestant Christian in its attitudes, it is perhaps not surprising that there is deep suspicion and even hostility toward anything not immediately and apparently mediated by the written word. Given that the majority Heathen demographic is also largely working class, there is also a noticeable insecurity and ambivalence toward mysticism (i.e. direct experience often dismissed in Heathen circles as “U.P.G” or the dreaded unverified personal gnosis) and you have, well, a mess.

Before going further, let me clarify what passes for ‘lore’ in Heathenry. When one of us speaks of “lore,” we’re referring to written texts. That includes the Prose and Poetic Eddas, the Icelandic Sagas, Anglo-Saxon texts, and contemporary historical, archaeological, linguistic, as well as any other relevant scholarly work. None of these texts may be considered ‘revealed’ texts, nor were they ever intended to serve the purpose of “scripture’ in the way we are accustomed to think of that term. This is the context in which most Heathens frame their religion, and in many cases, it’s also the context by which their experiences is consciously limited. I find that unfortunate. It is not however to be unexpected.

Let’s unpack that a bit. One of the dominant features of Protestant Christianity is a liturgical focus on Scripture. This was, historically, one of its criticisms of Catholicism: that the latter’s praxis and liturgy veered too far away from Scripture. Bible study, memorizing and quoting scripture, the emphasis (here shared with Catholicism) on reading and of Christ as the embodiment of the “Word” are all key facets of this approach to faith. This is one of the reasons why Christianity is referred to as a ‘religion of the book.’ Even before the Protestant Reformation, in the medieval period with the early Christian fathers, there was this emphasis on text.

Essentially for religions of the book, there is holy writ, and it has tremendous authority in guiding practice and approach to faith. Since Vatican II, unfortunately, Catholicism has also been — all in the spirit of “modernism” and “ecumenism” of course –doing its best to cull its more mystical elements, including devotion to Mary on the grounds that it’s not textually authentic. I find it depressing and sad that a rich, complex, mystical theology would be exchanged for a pseudo-rational, unemotional, modern, scripture based approach. But that’s just me. When this was restricted to the Christians, it wouldn’t be something I felt the need to address, but it’s been a struggle over the past twenty years to avoid having this same reductionist approach dominate Heathenry. We are raised surrounded by the cultural and social trappings of Protestant Christianity. That is the dominant voice of American culture, even amongst our intellectual “elite” — even if one is not Christian. One of the unspoken facets of this is that we assume religious experience to have a textual base. We look for “Scripture” to tell us what to do, what to believe, and whether or not we’re doing our religion right. This is one of the reasons why it’s so important to examine our religious expectations, to drag all our unspoken, ingrained assumptions about how a tradition works and how we ought to engage out into the light. There will be parts useful and parts not, but it’s important to see it all clearly. (1)

So with Heathenry, we have a contemporary religion trying to restore what is a conglomeration of ancestral traditions. That’s awesome. What we need to take into account, however, is the influence of our over-culture, birth religion, and the fetish we seem to have for “progress,” and “modernity.” Sometimes it isn’t and sometimes, what we are expected to trade for the trappings of “modernity,” is too high a price to pay for what we get. I don’t think we’ve quite all figured that out yet. It’s so much easier after all when humanity is at the top of the hierarchy, the center of the world, the apex of experience and we don’t have to worry about pesky Gods. It’s so much easier when engaging with the Gods as individual Powers is viewed as déclassé. It’s so much easier when our only obligations are social ones, oh, and reading an authorized text of course.

I’m being more sarcastic with the above statements than I initially intended, but this is the lay of the land in Heathenry. It’s ironic, given that such an attitude would have been utterly incomprehensible to our Heathen ancestors, who knew the wisdom of piety and reverence, and when to go on their knees in the dirt before their Gods out of awe, and when to sacrifice without bitching about giving too much, and that the Gods were Powers capable of impacting our world and us.

In a way, we’re having to do now, what the very early Christians had to do in order to grow their faith. It’s ironic, this role reversal, but it struck me during my reading the other day: early Christians developed their monastic traditions and powerful traditions of interiority and prayer because they had to worship in secret, or at best in small groups away from the public eye. It wasn’t until later, once they’d gained political power that they were able to effect large churches and public spheres of worship (and oppression). First, there were small groups, and individual prayer. This made the hunger for texts, I would think, all the more powerful. If i can’t be celebrating my God with a group of my co-religionists, then allow me to summon that community, and the presence of my God to my memory by reading stories and accounts that we all share in common. Let the absence be filled by memory evoked by engagement with the text. Let me engage with my community –spread out and hidden–in a unity through that very absence as it were. Now, Christians are everywhere (everywhere *sigh*) and it is the polytheist contingent that meets in small groups, often quite spread out, and perhaps — i’m speculating here–we also find ourselves deferring to written texts for prayer and meditation more than our polytheistic ancestors may have done, ancestors for whom the core beliefs of religion were contained and transmitted via intergenerational household and social practice. They could see their religion and veneration for the Gods reinforced all around them. We who don’t have that, depend much more on written media. It’s an interesting juxtaposition.

Christians engaged with their texts every bit as assiduously as the best (worst — i suspect it depends on your pov) Heathen lore thumper. They didn’t just read and take pride in their ability to memorize and regurgitate (as many a Heathen lore-hound has been known to do). They engaged in a certain amount of exegesis. Each reading opened the door to meditation and prayer, and that in turn opened the door to the potential at least — with the grace of God–for direct experience. Each text, led one on a meditative journey with the goal of drawing closer to one’s God.(2)

This really came home for me when I had to read an article about how small prayer books were used for personal devotion in the medieval period (c. 11-12 Centuries) when there was a shift in focus from communal liturgical devotion to private, personal prayer. I won’t quote the description of the process one would go through when using a Christian breviary for private use, but I am going to re-contextualize that process for a Heathen audience. (3)

Firstly, and this is something Rachel Fulton notes in her article, to own a book was to participate in privilege. Now, I realize that may not be quite the same with us today, especially not with the proliferations of e-readers, but there are parts of the world where reading and writing are a gift, and a privilege. Also, there’s magic there. Think about the first of our ancestors who realized that potential in making marks on the surface of a rock or bit of bark or clay. Think about the work that went into the book you hold or read, it was first formed in the mind of its creator, brought into being, translated to text, and pushed through the publishing process, disseminated online or to bookstores and finally ended up in your hands. This process was much more laborious in the medieval period, but each book is still a miracle, still an act of creation and craft. There is something very special in text that ties us to each and every reader who may likewise be influenced and inspired. This is all the more true of religious texts where the readers share a common cosmology and devotional approach.

So drawing upon and expanding upon the description offered in Fulton’s article, here is how — were I as a Heathen to engage in lectio divina–engaging with the lore might look.

Many medieval prayer books, like prayer books today were drawn off of scriptural readings, as well as set prayers. So using that as my paradigm, I’ll choose a section from the Poetic Edda focusing on one of Odin’s mysteries, the Runatal section of the Havamal. (I should note, the same process that I shall uncover below might be used with a prayer too, to equal effect). Here’s the text for those who might be unfamiliar with it:

Veit ec at ec hecc vindga meiði a
netr allar nío,
geiri vndaþr oc gefinn Oðni,
sialfr sialfom mer,
a þeim meiþi, er mangi veit, hvers hann af rótom renn.
I know that I hung on a windy tree
nine long nights,
wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin,
myself to myself,
on that tree of which no man knows
from where its roots run.
Við hleifi mic seldo ne viþ hornigi,
nysta ec niþr,
nam ec vp rvnar,
opandi nam,
fell ec aptr þaðan.
No bread did they give me nor a drink from a horn,
downwards I peered;
I took up the runes, screaming I took them,
then I fell back from there.(4)

First, I might read it quietly aloud in Norse and English. There is a rhythm after all, to the Norse verse that the English translation, however well done, lacks. Certain of the Norse phrases I might have (in fact personally do have) committed to memory. These I might linger over, letting the tones of my words resonate through my body. Odin is, after all, a God of empowered speech, of galdr, of poetry, of incantation. I would strive in my private prayer to make of these phrases, whichever I choose, an incantation that reverberates through the memory hall of my heart, that strikes at the core of my soul, kindling devotion, opening me up, bolstering a desire to connect, to reach outward to Him.

Perhaps I have recently read academic commentary on this section that brought some insight applicable to my spiritual life to light. I might mull that over for a time. My mind might segue to an image of a Tree that calls to mind Yggdrasil. Perhaps I’ll parse that word out: “Steed of the Terrible One.” What does that mean about this Tree. What does it mean about its agency and awareness? When I think of Odin hanging, there are a thousand images that come to my mind. Perhaps I have included one, a prayer card, or even a photocopy of the image in my Edda where I can look at it as I read and pray. Or perhaps I have an image on my altar or shrine, and I am praying and reading with this in my sight.

In my case, part of my ordeal cycle was a hook suspension in imitatio of this exact experience. It is Odin’s greatest mystery and the point of most powerful (for me at any rate) connection to Him. When I read about the windy tree, I think of the november night that I underwent this ordeal. I think about how cold and damp it was, what effect that had on my skin and my muscles, how I watched the sun set with growing dread. I wonder what it was like for Odin approaching the Tree, what preparations He might have made, and what it must be like to be a God and still be afraid.

I have a chant that I use for Him that recounts His time on the Tree and perhaps that will come to mind and if I am alone, I might even offer it to Him aloud. We don’t yet have the tradition of devotional images to which medieval Christians could turn in illuminating their psalters and prayer books, but we do have some. Many, particularly older images show Him in armor on the Tree, or at least a helmet. I wonder why when it was the moment of His greatest power but also His greatest self-chosen vulnerability. What does it say about a God who would choose that? I think about all the images I’ve seen of Him on the Tree—does He have both eyes, or has the artist portrayed Him as already having made His offering to the Well? What do I think of that? What does my own experience tell me there about the variations of mythic time?

maybe I cross-reference this with articles or passages about the sacrifice of His eye. Was this presaged by His encounters with specific runes? Had He been trained for this? What about the fact that Mimir is His maternal uncle? That was a powerful role in many cultures including the early Germanic. What do I know of Mimir? What do I know of the wells that sit at the base of the Tree? Are they all one well, or many? Why are they located with the Tree? What does that mean? What came first: offering to the well or offering to the Tree and does it matter?

When I read the line about Him being wounded by His own spear, I think about sitting beneath my tree, the hooks going into my flesh: how that felt, what it did to me, where it allowed me to go. I remember the disorientation of swinging beneath the branches of the tree, watching the world fall away as I was lifted off the ground. What did He see when He rose into its boughs. I recall other experiences with Him in the woods, and the sound of His body falling sharply down through the boughs.

I remember some of His heiti, his praise names, particularly one’s having to do with the Tree. I think about how the Tree is always nourished in blood, and what such an initiation would mean. I think about the runes and why it took this type of ordeal and sacrifice to win them. I might call to mind the rune poems and see how they too are connected to the Old Man. Maybe, if I am in a mood to do so and if, in the flow of my contemplation, it feels correct, I galdr the rune itself with the goal of being given insight into that moment, that time, that experience.

I read and think on Odin, and think about all the parts that went into suspending me in my tree. How was He suspended? Did the Tree itself grasp Him up? Did the branches pierce HIs flesh and hold Him true until He was empty of screaming and could be filled by something else? Or was that process too an ordeal to be surmounted, a tactical challenge to be met?

I might turn to prayers that I have written or collected that tie to that experience in some way, that bring to my heart’s mind and senses, Odin on the Tree. I might say them, and then return to the Edda passage going over those lines again, rooting out connections to other things, all so I can find my way to Him. If emotion comes, I will sit with it and allow it its voice. That too can be a connection to Him.

The passage talks about the roots of the Tree. Images of ancient Trees with huge, gnarled, tangled roots come to mind and I let them. I think about how when I was lowered to the ground again after my ordeal, after however long I hung suspended in the tree, my feet touched the ground and there was relief, release, and pain, such pain as the muscles in my lower back went into full, several days long spasm. (The angle of the body when hanging in the type of suspension is not the best for those with bad backs. I knew this going in). I wonder if it hurt Odin just as much when He was released from the Tree as when He ascended it to be taken up. I think about all the things that can never be remotely comprehended save by initiatory experience and how it breaks one’s world into a before and an after and how there’s never any going back. I wonder what regrets He left at the Tree, or whether He didn’t have them until later, or whether He had them at all. I wonder how He contextualized the experience that of necessity must have changed Him so in its aftermath.

I pray to be opened up to understanding, to greater connection to Him knowing that it will change my life and I contemplate how far I might go in my devotions to ready myself and make this possible. I think about how far He went. I return to some of my personal prayers, that I’ve written for Him at various times as well as my extempore utterances in the moment and I offer these up to Him again, moving away from the Runatal text and back again and again and again.
I happen to have this particular text memorized, which adds another layer to the experience of engaging physically with a written text. The text is already present in my memory, but I involve my sensorium (sight, touch, sound if I choose to read aloud) when I’m looking at a book and that ads another layer of both engagement and meaning. Being a language person with more than a smattering of Old Norse, I might also ponder both meaning and syntax and grammar of the original to see what can be gleaned there. We all bring different experiences and skills to the table in our devotional life and I think it’s good to use what you have to begin these practices.

I could go on from here, line by line with the Edda, or with any other text, but I think the process is relatively clear. The important thing isn’t being well-read in lore, the important thing is to read lore — if it’s a tool you find helpful–always keeping the ultimate goal in mind: veneration of the Gods, developing a devotional relationship with the Gods, calling Them into the seat of the heart, developing greater understanding of that place in which one dances in relationship with Them. If you’re going to use lore, understand that it is not an end in itself. It’s a map and as with any map, there is a goal external to the process.

  1. For more discussion of the Protestant attitudes dominant in American secular culture see “Love the Sin” by Ann Pellegrini and Janet Jacobsen and also “Secularisms” by the same authors. For information on the impact of Vatican II on the devotional life of the Church, and the absence of Mary see “”Missing Mary” by C. Spretnak, “Alone of all Her Sex” by M. Warner, and for the focus of the Protestant Reformation I highly recommend E. Duffy’s “THe Stripping of the Altars.”
  2. Guigo II “Ladder of Monks and the Twelve Meditations” Cistercian Press. See also the sermons of Bernard of Clairvaux on the Song of Songs, works of John Cassian, Anselm of Canturbury, even Origen if you can stomach it.
  3. Praying with Anselm at Admont: A meditation on practice by Rachel Fulton. First published in Speculum, Vol. 81, No. 3 (Jul, 2006), pp. 700-733, published by Medieval Academy of America.
  4. Taken from Carolyn Larrington’s translation of the Poetic Edda.

Compromise is not an option

On December 13, I posted an article in my personal blog in which I discussed the dangers of compromising one’s religious practice for the comfort of the majority.(1) In that article, I promised that I would discuss the theological implications of compromising on our polytheistic values, beliefs, and praxis. This column is the culmination of that promise.

More and more in the various communities at large, bubbling up every time there is a heated discussion or debate, every time a potentially “controversial” practice is mentioned,  I’ve noticed a push to cull from our traditions those things that might make the mainstream — be it mainstream Paganism, mainstream Abrahamic religions, and/or the humanist contingents — uncomfortable. Yielding to that impulse is a slippery slope into moral cowardice, a tearing at the threads of our traditions in a way that threatens the integrity of the whole of our respective religions.

As polytheists, we must, above all, guard against the impulse for homogenization. The traditions that we are struggling to restore are precious things. They are containers of Mystery, of the manifold ways in which our Holy Powers may manifest and transform Their devotees and by extension the world at large. That is not something to be dismissed lightly. I would go so far as to posit that at the heart of this push toward unification is not only an unexamined monotheistic impulse, but a deep hostility toward Mystery and thus toward the Gods Themselves.

That is all too often at the heart of cries for homogenization: a desire to cull Mystery from the religion, a desire to excise that which is authentic and true leaving only pabulum accessible to the masses, regardless of their effort or devotion. What remains is then the human part of religion and nothing of the Gods.

I suppose if one’s “religion” is a purely social endeavor, then perhaps this is acceptable. To those of us involved in restoration however it is not.  Polytheism is steeped in diversity of practice. It is not neat, homogenous, unthreatening. It is a riotous panoply of cultus and praxis. Often rooted in specific places, the regional variants that have the potential to develop now, as they did in the past, can be staggering. Acknowledging and embracing regional cultic practices, understanding that the Gods can and do request different things from different people means first and foremost A) acknowledging that the Gods exist and B) granting them pride of place in one’s hierarchy of priorities. That is all the more so when one’s cultic practices are outside of mainstream values. To those committed to this work, this seems so obvious and fundamental but the reality is, that in our current culture, it’s not.

Moreover, I’ll be honest, this is a tremendously difficult article for me to write, precisely because this is for me, in colloquial terms, a ‘no brainer.’ It begins and ends with the Gods and with doing what is honorable and right by Them. I have no comprehension whatsoever of the impulse to curb one’s devotion for the comfort of the mainstream (or for anyone’s comfort including my own for that matter). It’s been trained out of me by close to thirty years of devotional work. So much of my own theological musings never need to move beyond “that’s what the Gods want” because, by virtue of being a spirit-worker, I can ask directly and receive a comprehensible reply. When I’m not in the headspace to do that, i divine and if i can’t do that, i live with a diviner so I have the option of asking him to divine for me. I realize, however, that this isn’t the case with the majority of people. Not only that, but we live in a society that all but pathologizes devotion. We as a society prioritize the shallowest aspects of the social so it’s no wonder then that it’s almost ingrained in us to cull the authentic out of our spiritualities until what we have is a social clique in place of a religion.  If we’re not careful, we do it without thinking. Like water flowing downhill, after all, our actions and habits tend to take the path of least resistance. Not only don’t we think about it, we’ve been trained by our society to avoid doing exactly that.

In many ways, this highlights what I believe to be one of the essential splits between devotional polytheists and large swaths of the Pagan and/or humanist “pagan” majorities (and to be honest, between the minority of Gods-oriented folk and the majority of those who are not within most religions down through history. This is not in any way a Polytheist or Pagan problem alone). It raises the question of whether or not our traditions and those of us practicing those traditions are Gods-driven or human-driven; and while I would argue that the dichotomy is in fact a false one, that serving the Gods first and foremost benefits, augments, and nourishes our humanity, I’m well aware that’s not a position that everyone comprehends or with which everyone agrees.

Ironically, a similar conversation is currently happening in an interfaith community with which I tangentially associate. The idea of a ‘hierarchy of religion’ cropped up unexpectedly to the dismay of many and the obliviousness of more in a recent series of discussions. I believe this concept, unconscious or not, of a hierarchy of religion is in part, at the heart of this push to mediocritize our traditions. The “hierarchy of religions’ is the unspoken idea that certain expressions of religion are “more evolved” than others. Given that Religious Studies, Anthropology, and many related disciplines evolved and really hit their stride during the Victorian period, the most evolved form of religion was viewed as a very WASP expression of Protestant Christianity (with all the racism, classicm, and white privilege one might expect with those origins). Now days in academia, there tends to be the expectation that if you are educated you’ll of course be agnostic (or even atheist) but if not that, then a non-devout Protestant is the next best thing. Religious expressions that don’t fit that model may be viewed as corrupt, perverted, dangerous, deluded, mentally ill, or, more likely, primitive and un-evolved. They tend to be dismissed as ‘what those un-evolved primitives over there are doing” and generally those “primitives” are quite a few shades darker than the self-congratulatory white man doing the dismissing.

If you think this is something that died with the Victorian period, or that’s relegated solely to academic frustrations, think again. I’ve seen every bit of this poison in Paganisms and even Polytheisms. This, sadly, is the cultural inheritance of “modernity”  and I very much view this complex of attitudes as part and parcel of what we are all tasked with fighting as we struggle to restore our traditions in clean and sustainable ways. It’s part and parcel of those attitudes — so dismissive of the power and diversity of the sacred, and its expression—that would prevent the resacralization of our world.

I think that we must be especially wary of calls for the homogenization of our traditions, for the excising and culling (or control and othering) of the more experiential elements, and for the prioritization of our feelings. Alarm bells ought to go off in our minds, hearts, and spirits whenever anyone person or organization suggests “we shouldn’t do that, it might make us look weird.” or “”we’re so much more evolved than our ancestors. We shouldn’t do that anymore.” or “That might make people uncomfortable.” Let us instead be brave and bold in our commitment and devotion to our Gods. Let us instead choose to communicate and educate. Let us instead refuse to limit our spirituality to modern ideals, ideals and mores informed not by ancestral wisdom, but by disrespect, disregard, and contempt for direct experience of the sacred.

More than anything else, I think it’s incumbent on us to consider what it does to the Gods’ relationship with Their people when we choose to compromise in our devotion and in the expression of our traditions. I think it’s important to consider that the practices contained in our Mysteries foster relationship with our Gods in very specific and very important ways. These are all things that are or were obvious and fundamental in religions and cultures steeped in their ancestral, polytheistic, and often animistic traditions. They’re not so obvious in our culture, disconnected as it is from authentic experience. It’s the spiritual equivalent of an organic, homemade eight course gourmet meal vs. McDonalds.

When I initially decided to write this, I had planned to focus solely on the theological issues at hand, but these are fairly easily summed up: prioritize the Gods and don’t compromise on the tradition and that tradition will grow and nourish its followers. The real problem is the intersection of the social with the theological. In a world as fundamentally disconnected,  imbalanced, and hostile to the Gods as the one in which we live, sometimes those issues need to be addressed first, before the theological ones fall into place. Sometimes we need to challenge our social assumptions, examine our commitments and reorganize our priorities before we’re ready to address our theology. It’s ongoing work, challenging work, but necessary work in the scope of this restorative process.