Myself, I was intrigued to learn that the infamous, messy and impractical “blood eagle” murder method may just be the fruit of High Medieval writers misunderstanding one of the countless references in Viking Period poetry to carrion birds munching on the slain (p. 37). There is to my knowledge no osteological evidence for it. Also interesting to me, I can’t recall reading about the Spanish Moor Al-Tartushi’s report on life in Hedeby before (p. 197). But that may just be because I’m not an historian.
Funny thing, I had been thinking of that alleged method of torture/execution a couple of days before.
After a living room talk to a group of Anchorage Pagans about different types of nature religion, I ended up in the kitchen with a woman who was an Egyptian reconstructionist — or revivalist, as she preferred to say.
Given my concerns, my first thought was that if the ancient Egyptian sacred year was organized around the flood cycle of the Nile, what was the Alaskan equivalent? If ships of ancient Egyptians had somehow sailed into Cook Inlet, how might that landscape have changed them?
Yes, it’s true that one of my religious studies professors called me an “environmental determinist,” and he did not mean it as a compliment. But I am not the only one wondering about how one’s religious practice becomes rooted in a particular place — and how do we get back to that situation?
Dolores LaChapelle in SW Colorado
Here in Colorado, one under-appreciated writer on these topics was the mountaineer and deep ecologist Dolores LaChapelle. Earth Festivals: Seasonal celebrations for Everyone Young and Old was written in the 1970s, while her big book, Sacred Land, Sacred Sex: Rapture of the Deep — Concerning Deep Ecology and Celebrating Life came out in 19972. (Visit her Amazon page to see all her books.) Both might be called “deep green religion,” to borrow a phrase — non-theistic nature religion but still exhibiting an approach to life that I would love to see more of in contemporary Paganism.
Another writer who wrote a how-to workbook on integrating spirituality with nature is Loren Cruden, whose The Spirit of Place: A Workbook with Sacred Alignment involves study and doings through the cycle of a temperate-climate year.
The term “Neolithic” might be off-putting for some, especially those who — following some deep ecologists, philosophers like Paul Shepard, or Pagan thinkers like Fred Adams — see it as the “Fall” from the older Paleolithic life, which was dangerous but yet more leisurely.
The “Neolithic Revolution” (agriculture, domesticating livestock) also meant bigger social groups, hierarchies (the Big Man becomes the king, and you better bow down), turning women into full-time baby-makers (More sons, bigger farm!), and an overall decline in health and physique, at least in some archaeological studies, although not everyone agrees.
But perhaps the thought is of robust peasants living in somewhat more egalitarian societies on the margins of Europe.
Rather than organizing by the calendar, Neolithic Shamanism is organized by realm: Earth, Sun, Moon, Plants, Animals, Water, Fire, Craft, Air, Ancestors. Unlike the other books mentioned, this one is very much about spirit work:
We [authors] have many spirit allies; we also have plenty of experiences with spirits who weren’t interested in talking to us, or who took a firm dislike to us from the start. Remember that these are people. They aren’t human people, but they are People. Like all individuals, some will take a shine to you, and some will prefer someone else. Don’t take it personally. (Italics in the original.)
This book is densely packed, and it would take months to work through the exercises, but to do them all would change you permanently.
One question always in my mind, however, is to what extent we can impose a pantheon, so to speak, on the gods of our place. (There are at least two polytheistic theological questions in that sentence.) Do we “summon, stir, and call [them] up” or do we hang out and see who is there?
This is especially a question when in new places — new hemispheres — and there is only one piece of evidence — that I know of — in which a Pagan ancestor dealt with it.
Unfortunately for the story, almost all the Norse who visited North America during the time of the Greenland settlements (roughly 1000–1400 CE) were Christian, from Leif Erikson on down. So the episode from Erik the Red’s Saga about “Thorhall the hunter” has passed through many layers of Christian tellers and redactors, meaning that Thorhall is portrayed as an anachronism at best and a fool at worst.
To me it is a very poignant story:
They [the Norsemen] stayed there [in Vinland] that winter, which turned out to be a very severe one . . . . They ran short of food and the hunting failed . . . .Then they prayed to God to send them something to eat, but the response was not as prompt as they would have liked.
Meanwhile Thorhall the Hunter disappeared and they went out to search for him. They searched for three days; and on the fourth day Karlsefni and Bjarni found him on top of a cliff. He was staring up at the sky with eyes and mouth and nostrils agape, scratching himself and pinching himself and mumbling. They asked him what he was doing there; he replied that it was no concern of theirs, and told them not to be surprised and that he was old enough not to need them to look after him. They urged him to come back home with them, and he did.
A little later a whale was washed up and they rushed to cut it up. No one recognized what kind of a whale it was, not even Karlsefni, who was an expert on whales. The cooks boiled the meat, but when it was eaten it made them all ill.
Then Thorhall the Hunter walked over and said, “Has not Redbeard turned out to be more successful than your Christ? This was my reward for the poem I composed in honor of my patron, Thor; he has seldom failed me.”
When the others realized this they refused to use the whale meat and threw it over a cliff, and committed themselves to God’s mercy. Then a break came in the weather to allow them to go out fishing, and after that there was no scarcity of provisions.
Whether in Iceland, Greenland, or Newfoundland [?], to Thorhall it was all one realm.
¶ Ethan Doyle White reviews Ronald Hutton’s Pagan Britain and Marion Gibson’s Imagining the Pagan Past(free PDF download). The first I have, but the second might actually be more valuable to anyone studying contemporary Paganism, for it looks not at “not at paganism [sic] itself, but instead explores how pagan deities – both native and foreign – have been interpreted in British literature from the Early Medieval right through to the present day.”
After all, at least nine or ten centuries elapsed between the effective end of cultic Paganism in that area and the mid-twentieth century revival. Hutton, too, has written on how literary works kept the old gods in public consciousness (at least that of educated readers) during eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Thad Horrell, Heathen and graduate student, hurls himself against the issue of post-colonialism and reconstructed Northern religion in this article, “Heathenry as a Postcolonial Movement,” published in the online Journal of Religion, Identity and Politics, written by students in his PhD program.
His thesis is “that Heathenry is ‘postcolonial’ in complex and contradictory senses of the term. It both acknowledges and offers resistance to the imperialism of Christendom, while simultaneously trivializing colonialism and making it seem merely a thing of the past.”
I will argue that Heathenry is a postcolonial movement both in the sense that it combats and challenges elements of colonial history and the contemporary expectations derived from it (anti-colonial), and in the much more problematic sense that it serves to justify current social and racial inequalities by pushing the structures of colonialism off as a thing of the past (pro-colonial). Rather than promoting a sense of solidarity with colonized populations, Heathen critiques of colonialism and imperialism often serve to justify disregard for claims of oppression by colonized minorities. After all, if we’ve all been colonized, what is there to complain about?
The ideas of invasion, colonization, and resistance were important in the first years of Wicca too, although not so much since the 1950s.
Gerald Gardner played the nativist card as well, implicitly conflating the threatened invasion of southern England by the German army in 1940 with the “Gregorian mission” that brought Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England in the sixth century. (The earlier Celtic-speaking post-colonial-Roman Britain had been heavily Christian as well by the end.)
But the idea of resistance to “invasion” has put down deeper roots in contemporary Norse, Baltic, and Slavic Paganism than in the Anglosphere, I think.
This might be one of those “But we already knew that!” deals, but French archaeologists think that they have an actual example in hand of a “sunstone,” said to be used by the Norse to navigate in cloudy weather.
Aside from these literary work [sagas], Professor Price suggests that the grave assemblages of the Viking Age may be used to tell stories and provide an insight into the Viking conscious. There is an “infinite diversity of Viking Age burial,” he says, and whilst certainly there are similarities, these common aspects are ‘themes’ for the burial stories to be played out. So how do these stories take place?
If you scroll to the bottom, there are links to YouTube videos of three of Price’s lectures.
The disappearance of the Norse colonies in Greenland after more than 400 years of occupation is a compelling historical mystery.
Some people have suggested that their numbers slowly diminished until there were too few left to reproduce. Others (such as Jane Smiley in her well-researched novel The Greenlanders) lay some of the blame on slave traders from the port of Bristol, carrying people away. Others wonder if conflict with the Thule Eskimos contributed to the settlements’ collapse. The bubonic plague has also been suggested as a culprit.
It also appears that epidemics were not responsible for the decline of farm life on the island. The scientists did not discover more signs of disease in the Viking bones uncovered on the island than elsewhere. “We found normal skeletons, which looked just like comparable finds from Scandinavian countries,” says [Danish anthropologist Niels] Lynnerup.
In the final phase, it was young people of child-bearing age in particular who saw no future for themselves on the island. The excavators found hardly any skeletons of young women on a cemetery from the late period.
“The situation was presumably similar to the way it is today, when young Greeks and Spaniards are leaving their countries to seek greener pastures in areas that are more promising economically,” Lynnerup says. “It’s always the young and the strong who go, leaving the old behind.”
In addition, there was a rural exodus in their Scandinavian countries at the time, and the population in the more remote regions of Iceland, Norway and Denmark was thinning out. This, in turn, freed up farms and estates for returnees from Greenland.
However, the Greenlanders didn’t leave their houses in a precipitous fashion. Aside from a gold signet ring in the grave of a bishop, valuable items, such as silver and gold crucifixes, have not been discovered anywhere on the island. The archeologists interpret this as a sign that the departure from the colony proceeded in an orderly manner, and that the residents took any valuable objects along. “If they had died out as a result of diseases or natural disasters, we would certainly have found such precious items long ago,” says Lynnerup.
The settlements’ abandonment may have been planned. It is known that the Western Settlement was abandoned first, but even it appears to have been evacuated rather than wiped out by catastrophe.
Read the rest. I suppose that it is far too late to remind editors that “Viking” is an occupation, not an ethnicity.