Interview with an American Pagan Studies Scholar in Latvia

Long-time Pagan studies scholar Michael Strimska has been in Latvia the last few months on a Fulbright, teaching at Riga Stradiiš University. He edited the volume Modern Paganism in World Cultures: Comparative Perspectives  and guest-edited a recent  issue of The Pomegranate devoted to Paganism and politics.

The university has published an interview with him — here is a sample:

What would you say are the main differences between Swedish, or Nordic, and Latvian and Lithuanian paganism?

That’s interesting. The biggest differences are in the source materials they have to work with. In the Scandinavian countries, what they have left over from the old pagan days, from the original pagan times, is literature. They have a lot of texts that were primarily written down in Iceland (mainly by Christian monks, strangely enough). These texts give a lot of information about the gods and tell stories about people who practiced the religion, but they don’t have any music. Old styles of music were forbidden by the authorities, particularly by Christian authorities. In the Baltic case it’s almost the opposite. Here you don’t have so much rich mythological literature, or rather, you don’t have it put into a form that’s very attractive and accessible. The Scandinavian written materials are very attractive, enjoyable, accessible, and obviously have worldwide appeal. In the Baltic case, while there’s not that kind of rich literary foundation, what you have here is the music, the folk songs, and that tradition is obviously very, very strong and appealing here.

Read the whole interview here.

You can also visit the entry on Dievturi, the revived ( since 1925) Latvian old religion, at the World Religions and Spirituality database.

It is quite detailed, with a chronology, bios of important figures, and a bibliography. It ends on this note:

The contemporary neo-pagan movement in Latvia is characterized by conflicting aspects. On the one hand, in pagan activities, a desire is expressed to juxtapose oneself and one’s national views against globalization trends, which do not conform to the unhurried and contemplative lifestyle of traditional cultures. On the other hand, the latest trends reveal that in Latvia too, paganism is following a similar trajectory to Anglo-American paganism. Respectively, it is gaining New Age features: scientific terminology and a self-reflexive character is entering pagan discourse. In the near future, paganism in Latvia is dependent on its capacity to respond to the challenges of the era. However, looking further into the future, there is some doubt about the existence of “traditional” Dievturiba as something that is capable of survival. This is because Dievturi currently exist on the periphery of social life in Latvia and are providing vitally important answers only to members of the movement. They have never exceeded a thousand members, and there are currently only a few hundred.

From Viking Re-enactor to Practitioner

A still from the BBC video, linked below.

At the BBC, a short video with a man who started doing re-enactments and ended up adopting Norse religion.

Fighting with the Wuffa Viking and Saxon Re-enactment Society, he did not expect that his hobby of more than three years would help him find his own belief through Norse mythology.

“What it is about the Norse gods is they teach you to respect nature and the world and that’s how the world should be run, not like in the modern day,” said Mr Mehmed, who is also known as Magnus Shield-Breaker.

It is a different sort of re-enactment, but in America, Wicca is more or less the “house religion” of the Renaissance Faire circuit, or so says Rachel Lee Rubin in her history of Renn Faires, Well Met: Renaissance Faires and the American Counterculture.

Fimbul Winter and the Plague: The Horrible Mid-6th Century

The mid-6th century must have been a terrible time in the Mediterranean world, in Western Europe, and probably other places as well.

Raids on Britain following end of Roman ruleIf you look up “the plague of Justinian,” you will find that much has been written on a bubonic plague outbreak during the rule of the Eastern Roman emperor Justinian, peaking around 540–541 CE. Apparently that is part of a larger disaster that started around 536.

David Keys, author of Catastrophe: An Investigation into the Origins of Modern Civilization, speculated that this plague, which spread from the Middle East to Britain (if not farther), might have contributed to the collapse of Romano-Celtic Britain in the face of Anglo-Saxon invasion, despite the best efforts of King Arthur (whoever he was). 1)Roman forces had been withdrawn from Britannia in the early 400s and that colony more or less written off, although Britain retained a lot of Roman culture for a time. That hypothesis is based on assuming that the Romanized Britons had more trade contact with the Mediterranean world, which exposed them to the plague, whereas the English were more isolated. But who can say for sure?

I was introduced to Catastrophe by my friend and mentor, the English witch Evan John Jones, who had bought it shortly before I visited him in Brighton, and I stayed up late a couple nights speed-reading it after he and Val, his wife, had long gone to bed.

All that concatenation of volcanic eruption-plague-and climate change was brought back to mind by this article, “The Long, Harsh Fimbul Winter is not a Myth,” subtitled, “Probably half of Norway and Sweden’s population died. Researchers now know more and more about the catastrophic year of 536.”

Reconstructed Bronze Age house in Norway, typical of houses built up until 536 CE (Wikimedia Commons).

In essence, massive short-term climate changes slammed Scandinavia, northern Germany, and the Baltic region in the 530s, leading to abandonment of farms and settlements and the projected deaths of up to half of the peoples there.

“First came the Fimbul winter that lasted three years. This was a warning of the coming of Ragnarok, when everything living on Earth came to an end.”

This is how the story of the long harsh winter, called the Fimbul winter in Norwegian, begins, both in Norse mythology and in the Finnish national work of epic poetry, the Kalevala.

But why are stories that warn of a frozen end-time found in Nordic mythologies?

* * *

[Swedish archaeologist Bo] Gräslund was first to suggest that the Fimbul winter was a real event, and that it took place in the years after 536. He also pointed out that the 13th century Icelandic historian Snorre in his book Edda was not only concerned that it was very cold and the winters were snowy — Snorre was also concerned because there were no summers for several years in a row.

Whereas David Keys looks toward a volcano in Indonesia as the culprit, the Scandinavians are suspecting an eruption in Central America or Mexico:

“This must have happened somewhere near the Equator. Maybe it was El Chichón volcano in southern Mexico,” [climate scientist Fredrik Charpentier Ljungqvist] said.

The tiny particles from the two volcanic eruptions remained in the atmosphere for several years, leading to strong cooling in the northern hemisphere. Ljungqvist points out that there are now a number of studies of annual rings in old trees that confirm this.

He points out that the cumulative effect of two huge volcanic eruptions in the years 536 and 540 was what made this cooling quite exceptional and very long lasting.

The archaeological evidence is chilling, no pun intended:

In Denmark, archaeologist Morten Axboe found that large quantities of gold and other precious metal jewellery were sacrificed right after the climate shock.

Axboe’s theory is that these sacrifices were actions of desperate people. They sought to mollify higher powers and asked them to bring the sun back into the sky.

* * *

In Rogaland and the surrounding areas, until the disaster 1500 years ago, there were many skilled goldsmiths.

Both they and their craft disappeared.

The same thing happened to the many talented potters who had lived in western Norway before the Merovingian Period, from Jæren in the south to Sogn in the north.

It would take another thousand years before equally fine pottery was made in Norway.

You can’t blame people for thinking that this was The End, or at least a good preview of what The End would look like.

And one more item: The inscription on this 6th-century runestone from south-central Sweden appears to have been influenced by the horrible winters.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Roman forces had been withdrawn from Britannia in the early 400s and that colony more or less written off, although Britain retained a lot of Roman culture for a time.

Scottish Academic: Runes are Hate Symbols, also Anti-Celtic

A free download from the journal Temenos: “Pagans, Nazis, Gaels, and the Algiz Rune: Addressing Questions of Historical Inaccuracy, Cultural Appropriation, and the Arguable Use of Hate Symbols at the Festivals of Edinburgh’s Beltane Fire Society”

The abstract:

Although Beltaners – members of Edinburgh’s Beltane Fire Society (BFS) – can trace the immediate origins of their society’s festivals to the collaborative efforts of anarchist performance artists and folklorists reacting against the Thatcherite government policies of the late 1980s, the ritual celebrations they routinely re-enact in the present ultimately derive from much older traditions associated with Scotland’s highly minoritised Gaelic-speaking population, a cohort to which few modern Beltaners belong. Performers at today’s festivals often incorporate runes into their regalia – a practice which does not reflect Gaelic tradition, but which is not unknown among ideologues of the far right. This paper interrogates rune use at BFS festivals, asking whether the employment of Germanic cultural elements in Celtic festivals by non-Celtic-speakers represents a distortion of history and debasement of an embattled ethnic minority, and whether it is ethically acceptable for an explicitly anti-racist organisation to share a symbolic repertoire with representatives of known hate groups.

Based on data derived from fieldwork consisting chiefly of participant observation and on the consultation of relevant academic literature, this paper evaluates the potentially problematic nature of BFS ritual performers’ rune use and related behaviours by analysing the intentions that underlie their actions, the consequences that have resulted from them, and the historical interaction of runes, ethnonationalism, and the occult that has shaped perceptions of runic meaning among those who use runes in modern times.

The runes may be part of your spiritual practice, or maybe you enjoy their literary history, but watch out: Adam Dahmer thinks that they are “problematic.”

Swedish Social Democrat Politician Wants to Ban Runes?

From Sputnik News

Back in the late 1990s, I had a young Swedish student in my English 102 (second-semester composition) class. I noticed that he wore a small silver Thor’s hammer (Mjölnir) around his neck on a chain, under his shirt.

Was he a Norse Pagan or just making a cultural statement, I wondered. So I complimented him on it a neutral way.

I don’t think he was Pagan as such. But he was interested in the Viking Age and all that.

Nevertheless, he told me, he was afraid to wear the hammer at home, “because people would say that I am a Nazi.”

Now it’s twenty years later, and at least one Swedish government minister is worried about “Nazi associations” with runes. Never mind that they are many centuries old,

A partisan Swedish website reports:

The government is currently investigating the possibility of banning the use of Norse runes. It is reported that the Minister of Justice, Morgan Johansson (S) [Social Democrat], is behind the initiative. In the Asa community, which organizes asa troops and people with an interest in the Norse cultural heritage, the outrage is great about what one thinks is a restriction on, among other things, religious freedom. A collection of names has been started and on Friday [May 24, presumably] a manifestation [demonstration] is arranged outside the Parliament House in protest against the proposal. (Machine-translated by Google Translate).

This was picked up by the site Sputnik News (“Pagans, History Buffs Rage as Sweden Considers Banning ‘Nazi’ Runes,”), which sounds like another Russian shit-stirring operation. Nevertheless, I think there is a kernel of truth here.  They quoted a Swedish Asatru group, which said (translated)

Our attitude is that prejudices and misunderstandings are best cured with knowledge and facts. It is not okay to try and replace the meaning of our symbols with one’s own prejudices or political meaning they completely lack. Banning them would wipe out a part of our own history, culture and beliefs — and our freedom of expression because of political interpretations that do not belong in the Asa community.”

Maybe the Swedish Social Democrats could just ban the letters N and Z. My student knew his own culture’s predilections, I can say that much.

Norse “Chess” Pieces Reveal an Ancient Whale Hunt

Researchers discovered hnefatafl game pieces made of whale bone in upper- and middle-class Vendel graves. (Rudolf Gustavsson in Smithsonian)

The ancient Norse loved the game of hnefatafl, in which a king’s faithful followers try to protect him against raiding forces, which pretty well describes so much of early medieval politics.

An article in Smithsonian, however, suggests that these game pieces “were the product of early industrial whaling. If so, the pieces would be evidence of the earliest-known cases of whaling in what is today Scandinavia, and a sign of the growing trade routes and coastal resource use that paved the way for future Viking expansion.”

Read the rest: “Viking Chess Pieces May Reveal Early Whale Hunts in Northern Europe.” The Sami are part of the story too.

Pentagram Pizza with Milky Devotion and Unlikely Polytheism

Is this a case of misplaced devotional offerings? The Tamil Nadu Milk Dealers Association says yes.

• The Live Science news site is not the place where you expect tor read about Norse (or any other) polytheism, but this article strikes a reasonable note.

Icelandic elves again, this time on the BBC. I never get tired of reading this stuff though.

Heathen Soldiers Can Wear Beards Now

This is interesting: Sikh men in the US military had gotten permission to wear beards as part of their religion. (Normally, beards are not allowed except, for instance, for special operations personnel in the Afghan back country who want to blend in, or something like that.)

Comes now a Norse Pagan soldier with the same request (I never knew they were required in Heathenry, just popular), and it looks like the Army is giving it to him.

Some Pagan-ish Advice, Offered as “Brutal Truths”

You know the most-quoted verse from Hávamál:

Cattle die, kindred die,
Every man is mortal:
But the good name never dies
Of one who has done well

. . . there is a lot more, of course.

After you read #7 in this list, you will think of it — as someone in the comments did. But were the Norse poet writing today, he might add a line:

Bandy no speech with a bad man:
Often the better is beaten
In a word fight by the worse.
Don’t read the comments.

 

Does Anyone “Own” the Vikings? The NY Times Wants to Know

Jasper Juinen for The New York Times

Some years ago — the late 1990s? — I had a Swedish freshman student in one of my classes. Looking over his shoulder as he was typing at his computer station, I noticed that he had a silver Mjöllnir (Thor’s hammer) pendant on a thin chain around his neck.

Naturally, I wondered if he was following Norse religion or just proud of his heritage. I complimented him on the pendant, and he told me that he was interested in the Viking Age.

“But if I wear this at home,” he said, “they call me a Nazi.”

I told him that I did not think he had to worry about that in Pueblo, Colorado.

Now here comes the New York Times plodding down the Nazi/Heathen trail — in Sweden.

Amid a boom in Viking-related TV shows and films — and a corresponding surge in Viking-inspired tourism and advertising campaigns — there is increasing political tension and social unease over the use of various runes, gods and rituals from the Viking era.

Watch a group of Swedish followers of the old religion deal with the usual tired questions: “Who Owns the Vikings? Pagans, Neo-Nazis and Advertisers Tussle Over Symbols.”

Here is another way of approaching such reportage from a leading establishment media voice. Maybe it’s not about “Nazis” at all, except that is the insult of the moment, a way to dismay something disturbing to the materialist world view. These elites are good at dismissing Christianity — it is all “fundamentalist crazies,” “deplorables,” and people who “cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them.”

Religion is dangerous. The people in power have always realized this. Either they must tame it — make it all about how King Zork enjoys the Will of Heaven —or keep a heavy, cast iron lid on it.

The trouble with religious people is that they are not always loyal enough — to the king, to the government, to the Party, to the corporation.

Nowadays Paganism(s) is growing. You can’t call the Pagans “deplorables” or “bitter clingers” or “fundamentalist crazies.” Those insults just don’t fit.

But you can call (some of) them “Nazis” or “racists” as a way of marginalizing them, a way of making it clear that no bien pensant, “woke” or “progressive” person would want to have anything to do with that experience that they are offering.

As a commentator on law professor Ann Althouse’s blog wrote, “[Christianity, in this case] is simply the enemy culture. It has to be disparaged and reduced in social status.

Or when they say that your Olympic ski sweaters “raise alarms” about neo-Nazis, that’s a warning shot too.