The Author's Corner
TWPT Talks to Kveldulfr
TWPT: You follow the Nordic Traditions of the Old Gods in the form of Asatru?
KG: Rather than using the word "Nordic", we normally use "Germanic". Nordic implies specifically Scandinavian, while the Germanic people covered all of Europe over to the Black Sea and down to North Africa. We use names and information drawn from all the different Germanic groups.
TWPT: Could you go over some of the basic history and those Gods and Goddesses in this particular Pantheon for those of us not familiar with Asatru?
KG: There are two major tribes of the Gods, the Aesir and the Vanir. These tribes were originally separate. They had a war that ended up with hostages being sent from each group to the other, which is when the god Frey and his father Njord were sent to the Aesir as hostages. Freya, Frey's sister, went along for whatever purpose she had in mind. The Aesir sent Odin's brother Hoenir and Odin's uncle, the giant Mimir (Odin's mother was one of the Jotnar) over to the Vanir and that didn't go quite as well. Hoenir looked very good but didn't talk well. The Vanir couldn't do anything to Hoenir so they chopped off Mimir's head and sent it back to the Aesir. Odin kept the head and went to it for advice.
So there were two main Pantheons and there has been a long discussion about the difference between them. The Vanir might be the pre-IndoEuropean deities and there is certainly some Vanic imagery going back to the early Stone Age. On the other hand, there is also a lot of Thor imagery going back to the early Stone Age. Thor's hammer seems to be a direct descendent of the Stone Age votive ax. We don't really know the exoteric history of deities. It's very difficult to read.
The Vanir seem to be associated somewhat more with the cthonic elements, with earth and water. Aegir is very specifically identified as God of the Sea. These are the Gods who most often are called on for good harvest, although not necessarily exclusively. One of the common faults in explaining a Pantheon is over-simplifying them - Odin is the God of Battle and Frey is the God of Fertility and so forth. It is not a good idea because it gives the indication that the Gods are limited to these functions. In fact, if you look carefully at the Pantheon, the major deities that we know more about appear as having a number of functions.
You will see that Odin has a very, very strong fertility aspect in regards to human beings and the land. However, he expresses this differently than Frey. Frey is the God you ask to bring good weather, rain and sun at their proper times so that your crops will grow and thrive. Odin is the God you call to open the way to the ghosts and ancestors so that they will come and bring the blessings of the Dead to the field in the riding of what most people know as the Wild Hunt, more accurately called the "Furious Host". So it is very much that the nature of the God is expressed through all the functions. An Odinist will call on Odin for fertility, he or she will call on Odin for success in battle, she or he will call on Odin for inspiration. A Frey's man (or woman) will call on Frey for the same purposes.
TWPT: This seems to be a preference for a particular God or Goddess then, not a specific God or Goddess with a specific function. Does this, in any way, reflect the type of worship that was practiced at that time, it being more of a tribal or family choice to worship a particular God or Goddess as protector rather than a whole Pantheon?
KG: To some degree. Both tribes and individual families would often tend to focus most strongly on a specific deity, but would give some worship to the others as well. For instance, Frey was the primary patron of the Swedes, but Odin's oracle is also mentioned at Uppsala, and Adam of Bremen's description of the great temple there has the statues of Frey, Thor, and Odin together. But I think the emphasis on a particular deity would usually be quite strong.
TWPT: How does Asatru fit into this? What is the association with this Pantheon and how does it blend?
KG: The name Asatru means "Trust in the Gods" or "Belief in the Gods". The Ring of Troth uses the English word "Troth" which means the same thing, "a trust, a pledge" to "plight ones troth". It's an expression of both belief and loyalty and shows that people have a very close relationship with the Gods. Often the phrase that would be roughly translated as patron deity is "astvinr", beloved friend - Odin is my beloved friend, Thor is my beloved friend.
The general term "Asatru" is, I believe, a fairly modern invention. The earliest use of it I heard in Grieg's Opera "Olaf Tryggvason" in which the "eternal Asatru" is mentioned. To the best of my knowledge it is a term that was not used historically. The general phrase "The Gods in whom I trust" was. The Heathen phrase offered or the immediately post-Heathen phrase was "Old Customs" or "according to the old ways".
A lot of the information that we have regarding the ways of the Old Gods has been passed down via oral tradition, via the Saga and the grand story telling. We have the oral traditions in many different Pantheons. From the sagas and other surviving written sources in which the tales of the gods have been preserved, we can extrapolate certain things about the ways in which they work in the modern era.
TWPT: I see you are very well versed in a lot of the Sagas. Today, where we have the written word, how is the oral tradition being passed on? Do we still see these stories being passed on orally, or is this a dead art?
KG: With the Norse we have the preservation of our stories through a very particular set of circumstances. We have the Eddic poems, which were passed orally till the late 13th century when they were finally written down. The oldest of them was probably composed perhaps as early at the 8th or 9th century. The later ones were actually composed after the Heathen period was largely over. The Icelandic family sagas recount things that happened as early as the 800s and 900s. Even earlier than that you can get into Heroic Sagas where the historical basis has been largely lost, but some elements of it and recognizable persons remain. For instance, the saga of the Volsungs tells the story of the Gibichungs (German) or Gjukings (Norse), whatever you want to call them. They were the Burgundian dynasty that were in fact wiped out by Attila the Hun in 436-437 CE.
But there is not a lot of the historical basis left in the story of Siegfried and Gunther. The names have been preserved, the memory that Attila did kill the Bugundian royal family is preserved, the details entered myth.
The Saga tradition also continues up to the 14th century. Some of the Sagas were written contemporaneously with the events they describe. The Sturlinga Saga, for instance, tells the story of the family Sturling, including Snorri Sturlason, who wrote down the Prose Edda; this saga was written while some of its protagonists were still alive. Now Snorri Sturlason, about the year 1220 - 220 years after the official Conversion of Iceland -realized the art of the skaldic poetry was about to be lost. Skaldic is a very, very complex poetic system which depends completely on a knowledge of mythological trivia. Snorri realized that stories were being lost, as young poets no longer knew all the elaborate families of the Gods. They did not know things like why gold is called the fire of the dragon's bed - which refers to the story of the Volsungs: the dragon Fafnir nested on his hoard. Snori wrote down the Prose Edda for the specific purpose of it being an instruction in poetic craft. Snori had a classical education and he had a lot of raw material, which he tried to make into a coherent whole. He quotes some of the Eddic poems as we know them as they were written down in full later. He quotes some that we don't have at all. There is a hymn "The Magical Song of Heimdallr" which would have told us many fascinating things about this God, whose history is largely unknown to us now. We only know that little bit that Snorri gave us.
Iceland was an interesting case because in the year 1000 CE it was converted peacefully. There was strife between the Heathens and the Christians. Thorgeir Lawspeaker, who was a Heathen himself, went what they called "under the cloak". He sat with his cloak over his head for a day and a night, possibly communing with the Gods, and came out and decided that Iceland should be united under one God. They would become Christian, but Heathens would be allowed to practice in private.
Because he decided this, there was no bloodshed, there was no difficulty, and there was none of the violent persecutions such as took place in Norway and later Sweden, which wiped out a tremendous amount of the lore in Continental Scandinavia. The lore was preserved in Iceland.
There was also a tremendous Irish population, mostly slaves who had been taken to be married in. They brought with them, I think, some of their literary traditions. So what you had was a perfect combination to allow all the material to be written down and preserved. Without that we wouldn't know any more about Asatru than we know about religion in Celtic Gaul. There, we have only bits of Roman references, we have a lot of iconography, and we have a few names. There is a huge amount we will never know.
TWPT: The research that people like yourself have done has brought a resurgence of the religion of the Old Gods. Do you see this as a natural evolution as people look for their cultural heritage?
KG: Very much so. Particularly, it doesn't surprise me that it was first in Iceland, which has always had the very antiquarian tradition, and in America, where white people grow up thinking of themselves as not having an ethnic identity, that Asatru took off first. It is now starting to take off in Sweden and Norway because they are becoming part of the EEU and they are starting to think, "Well, if we are becoming economically and more and more politically part of the greater Europe, what is our heritage and what make us unique?" It has been an inevitable process. Asatru has gone through this evolution from very rough beginnings starting 25 years ago, with people going from the stories in the Prose Edda and exploring the most basic mysteries, and from Hollywood's idea of what it is to be a Viking, to Edred Thorsson (who has a doctoral degree in the subject of Germanic magic/religion) and eventually myself, Diana Paxson and the other people who have taken both the academia and spirituality to a much more developed plane. In fact, people are going to be attracted to Asatru for a lot of reasons, ranging from the very simple to the deeply spiritual.
Maybe because they want to find out about their ancestry, maybe because they saw Kirk Douglas in "The Vikings", maybe for any number of reasons most people start on a path. I think if it is the right way for them, the Gods will come to them and say "It's time to go further". Maybe 25 years ago what was available didn't go very far at the time; the people picked up their walking sticks and moved along, and as the individuals moved along they brought the religion along with them.
TWPT: We have had Between the Worlds, a grand meeting of minds, and we have examined here the different belief systems. Do you see these meetings as places where there is an open exchange of ideas and a finding of common threads to each path?
KG: I think so. There was a considerable degree of exchange, especially with the plenary panels. That is exactly what we did. I believe Pat Scheu had said that her tradition has these mono-myths, these great sources of worldwide archetypes. Our tradition is very specific. I think by seeing different perspectives, seeing the way in which similar deities operate in different cultural contexts, I think we come to a much better understanding of what is going on with our own. I think, certainly, listening to Russ House was particularly valuable to me, because I mentioned I started in Ceremonial before moving seriously into Asatru. I had done some alchemy and he reminded me of some fundamental principals which had been present in my own spiritual process to some degree and inevitably in the way that I think about spiritual progress. That was tremendously exciting to me.
We also learn more about what our own tradition is by contrasting it with differing ones. Under the name Stephan Grundy, I have just had a novelistic retelling of *Gilgamesh* republished. To write that, I had to learn a lot about Mesopotamian religion and religious attitudes, which are startlingly different from the Norse. Mesopotamian religion is very characteristically Middle Eastern in that the gods are seen as different from men in kind as well as degree - the central theme of *Gilgamesh* is that there is only so far humans can go and no farther, ever, whereas we have several examples of humans being accepted among the gods in Norse religion. Perhaps for that reason, the overpowering Sumerian fear of death just doesn't exist in the Germanic culture: for a Sumerian, this world seems to be the best it gets, while for a Germanic Heathen, at least one who has lived and died bravely, death is the gateway to a new and mightier form of being, whether as a mound-alf or as a guest in the halls of the gods. On the other hand, the Mesopotamians were much more open about sexuality than the Germanic peoples, rather startlingly so in many ways. It was fascinating learning about a religion which in some respects was clearly part of the general world-view which formed Judeo-Christianity, as I was able to see the roots of some of the fundamental ideological conflicts between the Christian and Heathen religions. Mesopotamian spirituality is not for me - there is a Sumerian text which appears to be a proto-Book of Job, working on the theme that the gods have all the power and humans are fundamentally a lesser form of being, which is really the antithesis of the Germanic view of the relationship between humans and deities - but while writing *Gilgamesh* I did learn to understand and respect the Sumerians on their own terms. At the very least, that kind of understanding and respect is something that we can all gain from working together, even if we don't agree with each other on any specific points of spiritual interpretation.
TWPT: Thank you for your time and effort and we wish you the greatest of success with your new book Gilgamesh.