Column: On Hammers and Other Worlds

Eric O. Scott —  November 8, 2013 — 15 Comments
rackham pictures

Four Arthur Rackham portraits. Clockwise from top right: Donner, Freia, Loge and Wotan meeting Alberich, and Wotan the Wanderer meeting Mime.
Also pictured: my runic yoga cheat sheets. Don’t judge me.

I come from carpenters. I’m not sure I would call it a family profession – more like the results of a long line of bull-headed men who couldn’t stand more than a few years of answering to a boss. Eventually, we all quit or got fired, picked up some tools, and starting putting up fences and building porches. We’ve never been the type to get certifications. My grandfather, even now, prefers to conduct as much of his business as possible in cash, a habit developed over decades of being paid under the table.

I am not a carpenter, now; in fact, when I was a teenager, first coming to terms with the kind of person I am, I would have nightmares about it. I would dream of waking up in my forties with a ruined back and a tapestry of scars woven across my forearms, the artistry of errant nails and utility knives. Even now, ten years out from the last time I spent a summer working with my grandfather as he hung gutters and tuck pointed a house, I sometimes wonder if this PHD I’m working on is just another way of running away from carpentry.

But there’s when it comes to driving nails, there is something in my blood, something in the musical collision of metal and drywall. I don’t do it often, but when I do, it’s holy. It’s no wonder that my god’s symbol is a hammer.

Today I am driving nails into the wall of my bedroom for picture frames. I eyeball everything. I don’t mind making crooked things: it’s a reminder of the human effort involved. To look at a row of pictures that are slightly off is to know that they are the work of human hands. (Writing, with all its inescapable errors and not-quite-right words, is much the same.)

The pictures are part of my altar area, which I am rebuilding yet again, despite having only put the altar up for the first time in this house a few months ago. My roommate found a wonderfully ugly old metal desk at the university surplus auction – or, more precisely, in the pile of things more valuable as scrap metal than as furniture – and so the end-table I had been using for a desk suddenly became available for better purposes. It’s just the right size for an altar – enough room to hold a variety of tools and statues without being too cluttered. It’s much better suited for this than for being a work desk – it barely held the monitor and a keyboard, much less the stacks of papers and overdue library books an English student tends to attract.

I took the pictures from an art book of Arthur Rackham’s illustrations of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. I cut them out with an X-Acto knife and a cutting board; having no straight-edges available, I cut free hand, leaving a slightly curving edge to most of the pictures. (But then, what’s the problem with a crooked picture in a crooked frame?) I hung up four of the plates – Wotan, Donner, Freia, and Loge — to watch over my altar. I can see them from my bed when I wake up: four portraits of a mythic world, a world nobody else has ever conceived in quite the way Rackham did.

Arthur Rackham was no heathen, of course; he was mainly an illustrator of children’s books, though he felt his illustrations to the Ring cycle were “not well suited for those lucky people who haven’t yet finished the delightful adventure of growing up.” Rackham considered his Ring illustrations to be among his masterpieces, but then, he created many masterpieces. If his drawings of Wotan and Brunhilde held any special place in his heart, it was because of the reverence attached to Wagner’s operas, not because he personally believed in the Aesir.

But I do. When I look at Rackham’s Freia, or Donner, or especially Loge, I see Freyja and Thor and Loki. I feel this way even though Rackham did not. I am cognizant of the disconnect between the intentions of the artist and my use of his art; I am even more cognizant of the fact that these drawings are many steps removed from the “truth” of these deities, filtered as they are through Snorri Sturluson and the other Eddic writers, through Wagner’s appropriation and reinvention of the Eddas, through Rackham’s interpretation of Wagner.

It's a pretty steamy scene.

Loge and the Rhinemaidens, Arthur Rackham.

In one picture – perhaps my favorite in the cycle – Loge sits at the edge of a pond, listening to the lament of the maidens of the Rhine for their lost treasure. Steam issues from all over Loge’s body; the water of the pond hisses into vapor at his touch. That’s because Loge, in the Ring, is a fire god, an assumption made based on how closely the words Loki and Loge resemble one another. But as any sufficiently pedantic heathen will tell you, there’s no evidence that Loki was ever considered connected to fire; it’s an accident, a deceitful homonym. Yet Loge’s association with fire is essential to the operas, such that the two most famous scenes, the endings of Die Walkure and Gotterdammerung, rely on Loge’s flames.

I know this, but still, when I look at Rackham’s pictures, I see my gods looking back. That may not have been what Rackham intended, but it is what I find. I cannot divorce the two.

This weekend, I will be going to see Thor: The Dark World with my fiancée. It’s our seventh anniversary, and we are dorks, so this is the kind of movie we are apt to see on such an occasion. I will be going into it as someone who grew up reading Marvel Comics, who still spends an unhealthy amount of money on them every month. But I will also be going into the theater as a heathen, as someone who wears a Thor’s hammer around his neck. As someone who, when he finds an excuse to pick up a hammer, immediately thinks of Mjolnir, and the labors of the god who wields it. If Rackham’s Donner is a distorted replica of the “real” Thor, then Marvel’s Thor is that replica run through about twelve generations of Xerox. But I can’t pretend it won’t have meaning to me. We are surrounded by portraits of our myths created by artists who do not believe as we do.

I do not know what they find in their work, but I find holiness – perhaps removed, perhaps distorted, but holy, still. Perhaps that is not what Rackham intended. I am certain it is not what Chris Hemsworth intends. But when I see a Rackham illustration, or hear a Wagner theme, or even shudder under the assault of a Marvel action scene… I see my gods in them. They are my contribution to the work.

When the pictures are finally hung, I note the imperfections. The portrait of the Wanderer sits slightly higher than the others. I have to adjust the pictures several times to fake the appearance of symmetry, even though that’s a futile task. I look at them and see the gods’ work, and Wagner’s work, and Rackham’s, and mine.

Work is holy. Carpenters know this.

Eric O. Scott

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Eric O. Scott was raised by witches. He is a contributing editor at Killing the Buddha. He won the Moon Books prize for Best Pagan Fiction Writer Under 30 in 2012. His first book, The Lives of the Apostates, was published in 2013. He received his MFA in Fiction and Creative Nonfiction from the University of Missouri - Kansas City in 2010, and is currently a PHD student in Creative Nonfiction and Medieval Studies at the University of Missouri - Columbia. His middle name is not "Odin."