Archives For Eric O. Scott

Column: North

Eric O. Scott —  February 13, 2015 — 16 Comments
Photo by the author.

Photo by the author.

[Warning: contains carnivorous behavior.]

The voice begins buried in the undertones of the voice before it, slowly rising through the sonic gradient until their roles switch and it becomes dominant. It is a man’s voice, recognizably Canadian, and even though we are only a few seconds into the presentation, his words already express doubt at the theme:

Let me say this, though – I don’t go for this ‘northmanship’ thing at all… I’m not one of those people who do claim that they’ve been farther north or so on, but I see it as kind of a game, this ‘northmanship’ thing. People say well, you know, ‘have you ever been up at the north pole on a dogsled trip for twenty-two days?’ and the other fella will say, ‘well, I did one for thirty days…’

But just as that voice rose from the depths of the mix, so does another, this one with more romance in its words:

I can’t conceive of anyone being in close touch with the north, whether he lived there all the time, or simply traveled there month after month and year after year – I can’t conceive of such a person being really untouched by the north…

These are two of the first voices heard in Glenn Gould’s experimental radio documentary, The Idea of North, part of his so-called “Solitude Trilogy.” In the beginning of the documentary, several voices – a woman describing her voyage north on a train, a man grousing about how ‘northmanship’ has become just another test of machismo, another man waxing poetically about the spiritual power of the northern landscape, a woman talking about walking out onto frozen lakes and feeling at one with the setting – are overlaid on one another, the music of their voices intermingling to bring at once a sense of the multitude of reactions these travelers have to the subject of the production – the concept of “north” as landscape and ethos, home and pilgrimage: the idea of “north,” whatever that might be.

Gould’s work was specifically about the north of Canada, but I found myself thinking about the subject too, especially after a member of my writing group – an Alaskan who writes about the environment and is invested in the idea of north – made a comment about one of my essays. (I believe it was the work that eventually became Njord, one of the first of my Iceland columns here at The Wild Hunt.)

“This character has that distinct Northern voice,” she said, referring to the Icelander’s clipped yet expressive demeanor. “Anyone who has been around that part of the world would know it.” It struck me that my friend’s “north” and my “north” were very different places — Alaska and Iceland – but she still observed some kindred nature between them. I suspect Glenn Gould might have seen it too.

I was thinking about this the other day while making a dish – marinated salmon and baked apples with rosemary – from Andreas Viestad’s Kitchen of Lighta Norwegian cookbook I recently bought. I’m not a “kitchen witch” by any means, nor honestly do I know what it would mean to be one[1], but I have been working through cooking as a kind of sacred practice since last summer, when I returned from Iceland. Before then, I belonged to the stereotype of young men who barely know how to boil pasta; I occasionally mustered up the will to commit an act of chili, but that was as far as I went.

But prepared food was expensive in Iceland, and I had to learn how to cook or starve (or perhaps live exclusively on hot dogs, as several of my classmates did.) I don’t mean to make this sound overly important, since, after all, cooking isn’t an extraordinary skill – but, probably because it was something I learned how to do while in Iceland, I’ve attached this special significance to it. It’s something I’ve brought back into my regular life from the heady experience of pilgrimage.

Viestad is no Heathen to the best of my knowledge, but part of what I have loved in working through his book is the connection he draws between the recipes and the landscape and history of Scandinavia. When I make this food, it too draws on the idea of north. Sometimes, especially in very tactile moments of preparation – slicing away the hard skin of a rutabaga, patting down chicken with spices, shaking the pan to make a bed of onions jump and sizzle – I find myself slipping into a light trance, meditating on the connection between food and religion.

I have never achieved a state of emptiness in my meditation, I’m afraid. My thoughts are ever-present. In my daily life, my job is to critically examine literature, texts, ideas of all sorts, and that’s just as true of my own thoughts. So it is in my meditation: what is ‘north,’ anyway, and why should you bother to romanticize it? It’s a question I have pondered often. It is easy to romanticize a place, especially a place so far away. I was raised in a city, and so I long for the wilderness; I was raised in the middle of a continent, and so I long for an island; I was raised in the middle, and so I long for the north. That doesn’t necessarily make that a worthy desire, though, and runs the risk of turning the idea – and more importantly, the people who actually inhabit that idea – into some kind of spiritual Disneyland than an actual place that exists independently of one’s desires for it.

The voices of both of the men from Glenn Gould’s documentary run through my head at once, the pessimist and the romantic, the one who puts no stock in this “northmanship” business and the one who feels no one could resist being touched by the place. I try to keep them both there, with all their static and their crosstalk, to keep myself in balance.

I am running a side of bright pink salmon under cold tap water. My station at the sink looks out through a window onto my back yard, which is bounded by a shallow creek and a barren collection of spindly trees. While the icy water flows over our skins, mine and the fish’s, the gray February sky begins to turn dark. I stop for a moment and meditate on the winter, on how the silence and the cold of the season remind me of places far away. I take the fish from under the stream and pat it down with paper towels until it dries again. The process contradicts itself: soak the fish in water, then pat it dry. I wonder why I am asked to handle the salmon this way.

This is a new recipe; I have never cooked a side of salmon before, with this method or any other. But I trust in it, in the physicality of the meat and the chill of the water and the texture of the dry paper becoming wet. I trust it because, in its small way, preparing this fish connects me to my gods; I trust it because, in its small way, this fish, too, connects me to the north.

[1] I have some explicitly Pagan cookbooks, but I never made it past the psychic pasta.

perlan in the distance

A view of Öskjuhlíð from the University of Iceland. The domed building is Perlan; the Heathen temple will be built on the hill’s south side. Photo by the author.

Outside of my dormitory room at the University of Iceland stretched a long and mostly empty expanse of land. Directly across the street, construction crews were erecting new campus buildings, but beyond that, I saw mostly empty ground: the pond called Vatnsmýri, the lawns surrounding the Reykjavik airport’s landing strip. In the distance there was a hill with a shining dome resting at its peak.

The dome is called Perlan, a revolving restaurant and tourist hub; the hill itself is called Öskjuhlíð. I never had reason to visit Perlan during my visit, but I came to the base of Öskjuhlíð several times –a trail leading to the beach at Nauthólsvík runs alongside it, and I often went there to swim. I got caught in a rainstorm while walking there one day, a heavy, cold rain that pierced through every piece of clothing I wore. I felt wretched. I looked up through my water-spattered eyeglasses and saw the hill before me on one side, the ocean before me on the other, and I started to laugh uncontrollably – a mystical vision from Thor himself, or perhaps just the first signs of exposure.

The site of Ásatrúarfélagið’s new temple, news of which has swiftly wended its way through the Pagan internet since Iceland Magazine published an article about it earlier this month, is only a few hundred meters away from the site of my rain-drenched epiphany. The temple, which is scheduled to be opened in autumn 2016, will be the first Heathen temple built in the Nordic countries in a millennium, and has been rightly seen as a milestone for modern Heathenry and Paganism.

The temple, or hof, has been a long time coming. “When Ásatrúarfélagið was founded in 1972, that was the first thing we said – that we wanted to build our own hof,” said the fellowship’s alsherjargoði, or high priest, Hilmar Örm Hilmarsson. Ásatrúarfélagið has been close to achieving that goal in the past; Reykjavík authorities offered the fellowship a building in the late 1980s, but the costs of renovation were too high for it to be practical.

The idea of building the temple at Öskjuhlíð has been planned since 2003, but the 2008 financial crisis in Iceland set the project back. “We lost one-third of our savings,” said Hilmar[1]. “We had been caught up in the spirit of the times, when everything seemed to be possible.”

The fellowship was forced to scale back from their original ideas for the hof in order to build within their means. Part of the the solution they arrived at was to build the hof complex in two parts: the main temple, which will be opened in 2016, and a communal housing building, which will be constructed over the next ten years. This second building will eventually contain Ásatrúarfélagið’s offices, housing, and a small apartment for visiting scholars. In the interim, the fellowship’s offices will be located inside the main temple itself. There will also be a ritual area set up outside of the main building for outdoor ceremonies, although Ásatrúarfélagið has already been conducting rituals in the location for years without a specifically prepared space.

A diagram of the temple complex, including a ritual area (Blótveislusvæði), a playground (Barnaleiksvæði) and a footpath leading to the beach. Image courtesy of Magnús Jensson.

A diagram of the temple complex, including a ritual area (Blótveislusvæði), a playground (Barnaleiksvæði), and a footpath leading to the beach. [Image courtesy of Magnús Jensson.]

Ásatrúarfélagið has been in existence for over four decades without a temple, using natural spaces like Thingvellir National Park, or rented buildings, like Reykjavik’s Aerospace Society Hall, as sites for its gatherings. A dedicated hof will open up new avenues for Ásatrúarfélagið’s practices, as they will no longer be so tied to seasonal conditions. “Up until the last few years,” said Hilmar, “weddings took place in the summertime, because people usually want them to be outside, but in the past two years there have been a lot of requests for weddings during winter. And of course, children are born without thinking of the seasons, so we have a lot of name-giving ceremonies in the winter, spring, and autumn. These will be moving to the temple.”

The new hof will also allow Ásatrúarfélagið to hold funerals in a dedicated space; Ásatrúarfélagið has a graveyard plot, which was established by a previous alsherjargoði, Jörmundur Ingi Hansen, but has not had its own location to hold funeral services. “It will, in a way, dignify it a bit more, so it’s not like a borrowed place,” said Hilmar.

The new temple has been designed by Magnús Jensson, an architect and member of Ásatrúarfélagið who has been interested in temple design for many years; one of his projects as an architecture student at Arkitektskolen Aarhus was a Heathen hof. “That hof was designed to be a microcosm,” said Magnús. “So is the new hof, but a different kind of microcosm.”

Magnús now teaches a university course that explores the relationship between architecture, sacred geometry, and religion, and his plans for the Ásatrúarfélagið hof put many of those theories into practice. His plans for the temple take into account the local landscape and attempts to build with as much on-site material as possible. The temple will bore into the hill itself, leaving an interior wall of bare rock; water will trickle down that wall and collect in streams and pools built into the floor. These features are meant to tie together the indoors and outdoors, the constructed and the natural. “The first wrong turn in architecture,” says Magnús, “was the invention of ‘indoors.'”

The wooden walls and ceiling will slope up into a dome. According to Magnús, the shape of the dome is meant to evoke the female form, in contrast to the phallic associations of other religious buildings in Reykjavik. Much thought has been put into the interplay of light and darkness throughout the hof; a skylight will let in shadows that change their shapes according to the position of the sun throughout the year, with different effects on the solstices and equinoxes. There are also plans for a large fireplace near the altar, as well as electric lighting, to illuminate the hof during Iceland’s long winter nights.

Inside the hof, specially-designed windows will create lighting effects that change with the seasons. Image courtesy of Magnús Jensson.

Inside the hof, specially-designed windows will create lighting effects that change with the seasons. [Image courtesy of Magnús Jensson.]

Perhaps surprisingly, Magnús had no interest in creating a building that attempted to replicate the designs of ancient Heathen temples. “A lot of people think that Ásatrú is something only from the past, but Ásatrúarfélagið believes it is something timeless,” he explained to me. As a result, he was more interested in designing a building to meet the specific needs of the fellowship as it exists in the modern day. His plans center around modern ideas of green buildings and the classical formulae of sacred geometry, but the greatest inspiration for the hof was the Öskjuhlíð site itself. “The hof was designed so that it could not exist anywhere else,” said Magnús. “If you were to build the exact same plans somewhere else, it would not be the same building, because it would not be the same environment.”

Magnús has hopes that his hof will bring more attention to Ásatrúarfélagið from within Iceland. “I think more people will become interested in Ásatrú when they realize it isn’t all about Vikings,” he explained. In his eyes, many Icelanders who technically registered with the state Lutheran church, but don’t really believe in it, or in anything at all; he thinks the hof may lead them to explore Ásatrú.

hof cutaway 2

A cutaway diagram of the hof. Image courtesy of Magnús Jensson.

Hilmar also has high hopes for the new building. He said that Iceland’s tourist authorities have mentioned a huge increase in interest from visitors about Icelandic Paganism, and he expects that, when the hof is completed, it will become a destination for many of those tourists. “I’ve never thought about it before, to be honest,” he said. “I was getting letters of warning from friends abroad, saying we should impose a code of conduct. I was, in a way, so naive that I assumed everyone would show respect, but that’s a bit optimistic. I think we will have a great influx of people coming in, and I hope they will respect that this is our building, and it’s serving our community.”

Despite these misgivings, Hilmar believes that the hof will come to be seen as an integral part of Iceland’s national character. “Hallgrimskirkja has long since become a Reykjavik landmark,” he said, referring to the massive Lutheran state church that sits near the center of the city, the design of which is meant to evoke the basalt columns of Iceland’s landscape. “We do not want anything less for our hof. We really see it as an emblem of Reykjavik in the years to come.”

 

[1] As Icelandic last names are patronymic, it is customary to refer to Icelanders by their given names.

The cover of The Magical Confluence #19. Image by Penny Ochs.

The cover of The Magical Confluence #19. Image by Penny Ochs.

I have a box of papers in my office that I like to look at every now and then; it’s an archive of sorts, a collection of artifacts from what seems to me like an entirely different era of Paganism. The box contains old rituals, festival invitations, newspapers, zines, and even a few decades-old picnic leases for public parks, the sites of sabbats that were held when I was only a few months old. I am a child of the internet, and it can be hard for me to think of what “Pagan community” meant, exactly, in the time before it. But my box gives me a glimmer, sometimes.

One of my favorite items in the box is a run of a zine, The Magical Confluence, which was published by the Earth Church of Amargi quarterly in the late 80s into the early 90s. The average issue runs about 16 pages, all black and white, most of the text obviously produced on a typewriter rather than a word processor. Clippings from local newspapers and national publications like Green Egg tend to make up about half of the content, with the rest submitted by Pagans in the St. Louis community. There are occasionally Far Side cartoons for which I am not entirely convinced Gary Larsen received royalties.

Looking through Magical Confluence #19, published in Spring 1990, I found an article by none other than my father – “AMER: AN OPPOSITION VIEW,” an open letter published in a forum that reached, I’m guessing, maybe a couple of dozen people. He was weighing in on his general distaste for the Alliance for Magical and Earth Religions, an organization that tried to counter anti-Pagan misinformation through pamphlets, press statements, community meetings, and so on. AMER was founded in 1986 and lasted for twelve years before being disbanded. Despite his role as high priest of a long-standing coven in the St. Louis area, my father had little patience for community organizations; he compared AMER’s attempts to bring him and his into their fold as being “bludgeoned with a club.”

Much of my father’s article is inside baseball to a local controversy that happened almost 30 years ago, and even after I asked him for context, I’m still baffled. (It was something to do with Satanists.) But there’s a one section that I have been chewing over since I read it:

If true that AMER’s purpose is “to insure the individual’s right to privacy” then why do you seem to be so hell-bent to convince me that I am wrong to abridge my right of free association. Free association, you understand, is not only the ability TO associate, but also the ability NOT TO associate. It seems inconceivable to some of you that there are individuals and groups who simply ARE NOT JOINERS.[1]

Just that turn of phrase: “some people are not joiners.” My father certainly isn’t one – not just in terms of religion, but everywhere in his civic life. He has never claimed affiliation with any political party, never joined the PTO when I was younger, never been a part of an Elks Lodge or the sort. He is part of a union, but his career compelled him to join it. Even in his magical life, he eventually left the OTO exactly because it was too much of a “joiner” institution for him. If my father bowled, he would bowl alone. That inclination seems common in his generation of Pagans – and perhaps for many Pagans across the board. Our religions, after all, are made up primarily of converts – people who, for the most part, had a reason to reject the institutions of their parents. It’s not really surprising that people who turned away from organized religion might prefer not to join organizations – especially those which try to organize their new, previously unorganized religions.

But – and I realize this is something of a refrain for me – I am not a convert; I didn’t turn away from anything. And just like it can be hard for me to understand how publications like The Magical Confluence connected the Pagan community before we all had the internet, it can be equally as hard for me to understand the way that those who turned away see the world. I struggle with this. Some people are not joiners. Am I?

The covers to both volumes of Our Troth, from The Troth's website.

The covers to both volumes of Our Troth, from The Troth’s website.

For Yule, my parents got me a copy of Our Troth, the handbook published by the Heathen organization The Troth.  I haven’t had the chance yet to read through it, as I’m in the middle of preparing to teach the entire history of British literature[2], but just flipping through the book has made me think again about joining the organization. It was a thought I had when I first started thinking of myself as a Heathen in addition to a Wiccan, and had only been reinforced by getting to know some of its members a few years ago at Pantheacon.

But I have never actually gone through with it, even though I see the obvious upsides – a connection to a larger community, the support of an organization that more or less aligns with my beliefs, and a pretty, pretty journal. I suppose part of the reason for my prevarication is that it could end up being an empty gesture – would it mean anything other than a stamp of approval, a sign that I am a Certified Heathen? The other part is the general philosophical stance I have inherited from my parents: some people are not joiners. “Some people,” of course, means “us.” We keep to ourselves; we do our own thing. We keep to the edges, because the edges are free.

I see a debate in the Pagan community – at least the one I can see from my tiny window onto the internet – about what direction we are moving in, whether it’s towards more robust and public infrastructure or a move to remain with the largely decentralized nature of the movement as it currently is. I find myself, as ever, hedging about the middle. I grew up in the relative isolation of a handful of covens, and I know and love that environment; I also remember being a 13 year old kid who wished he could have just gone to a normal kind of church, except with Horus instead of Jesus.

My questioning over whether or not I want to join some organization is, I admit, a rather inconsequential element of that debate. But it’s those little decisions that, ultimately, pull us all in one direction, towards one definition of progress or the other.

 

 

[1] Sic.

[2] My department’s British Literature seminar is one semester, Beowulf to present. We go from John Donne to Oscar Wilde in about five weeks. I may keel over at some point.

Óðinsgata street sign, Reykjavík, Iceland. Photo by the author.

Óðinsgata street sign, Reykjavík, Iceland. Photo by the author.

Hallgrímskirkja sits at the center of downtown Reykjavík, a massive gray slab of church that has, to me, about the same level of architectural charm as the Potosi Correctional Center. It rises up from the street in a concrete wave meant to look like the basalt pillars found elsewhere in Iceland; it has no color to it, and given the cloudiness of Iceland’s skies, often it forms a gray wall against a gray curtain. Although Hallgrímskirkja is probably the most famous building in Reykjavík, I found few reasons to visit it. I am told that for a handful of krónur one can go up into the spire and enjoy a wonderful view of the city, assuming that the fog isn’t too dense. Some of my classmates did this, and reported having a lovely experience, but I never made the trip myself. This was, in part, because my Heathen character found the idea distasteful – I mean, I didn’t come to Iceland to spend time in churches. The other part is that I didn’t have any handfuls of krónur to spare.

But I spent quite a lot of time in the neighborhood around Hallgrímskirkja, all the same. The neighborhood around the church is called Goðahverfið, or, as a handy placard notes, “The Neighborhood of the Gods.” The streets to the west of the church are all named for the Norse gods. Not 500 feet from the doors of the most impressive Christian edifice on the island sit streets named for Thor and Freyja. The metaphor almost seems too obvious. I remember something that my friend Kári, a member of Ásatrúarfélagið, said: I think the reason Ásatrú comes so easily to us is because we were never very good Christians in the first place.

I made an afternoon of walking the Neighborhood of the Gods one day after my morning Icelandic class let out, taking pictures of every street sign that bore some relation to the myths. (I justified this as a way of studying noun declensions. Freyjugata – weak feminine noun; you can tell by the way Freyja becomes Freyju. Njarðargata – the ö in Njörður becomes an a in the genitive.) The selection of deities seemed to me odd and fragmentary. Most of the major deities have streets – Óðinsgata, Þórsgata, and so on – and so do many of the more obscure figures – Fjölnisvegur, named for Fjölnir, a son of Freyr named in Ynglinga Saga, and Sjafnargata, for Sjöfn, a goddess mentioned a few times in Snorri’s Edda. But some others are looked over. Freyr himself, for instance, has no street. Neither does Frigg. Urður gets one, but not Skuld or Verðandi. I don’t pretend to have an explanation for this, except that perhaps having Freyjugata, Freysgata, and Friggjargata within a three-block area would have made giving directions to foreigners a nightmare.

Other than the signs, there’s nothing especially significant in the Neighborhood of the Gods to draw the eye of a mythology buff. Even the signs themselves are mostly just fun to look in a scavenger-hunt kind of way, though there were a few intersections and parallels that caught my attention – the intersection of Baldursgata and Nönnugata is sweet in a sad way, and, as Karl Siegfried at the Norse Mythology blog has pointed out, it’s amusing that Lokastígur is hidden behind Þórsgata, just as Loki always seems to be working at something behind Thor’s back. But I never found any hidden statues or secret shrines there; it is, for the most part, just another neighborhood in Reykjavík.

And yet there is something in it that pulls at me. It’s the magic of the names. Óðinsgata is Óðinsgata; it’s a street named for the god I spend the most time thinking about. I wanted to see that street sign with my own eyes almost as much as I wanted to see Þingvellir or Skógafoss. It’s just the name of the street. But that name was enough to lure me to it.

The name was also enough to make me visit Odin, Minnesota, a postage-stamp of a town about 35 miles north of the Iowa border. Odin was about two and a half hours out of my way on the drive from Minneapolis to Missouri, which was otherwise a straight shot down I-35. I took the country highways out past St. Peter and Mankato and found myself approaching Odin a little after noon.

Nothing in Odin drew a connection between the town and its namesake, except perhaps for a yellow “NORWEGIAN X-ING” sign hanging on one of the electric poles. The Neighborhood of the Gods at least had a plaque and the Guesthouse Odinn; Odin, MN, just had a cheery red-on-white sign that read “WELCOME TO ODIN.” I wandered around for a few minutes, taking pictures of the Odin Community Center and Fire Hall, the Odin State Bank, the Odin Post Office. (Alas, no First Church of Odin, which was of course my real desire.) The town seemed empty – nobody on the streets at all.

I walked over to the Odin General Store and Bait Shop. I opened the door and found that apparently everybody in the city was there too, standing around folding tables; it looked like they had just finished lunch. Perhaps it was a regular Sunday gathering. The room was dark, and even though it seemed like it was the closest thing to a grocery store around, there were only a couple of shelves holding dry goods and a freezer with sodas and Hot Pockets. I drew stares. I don’t think they saw many tourists there. I paid for a Cherry Coke and left.

It’s been six months now since I returned home from my trip to the north, and I still think about that seemingly uneventful visit to Odin, MN, nearly every day. We give things names to connect ourselves to them, because the name has meanings beyond what it appears to signify. Odin is a one-eyed god, and Odin is a town of 100 people in southern Minnesota, and Odin is a street in downtown Reykjavík. And Odin is the space in my mind where these three things, and three thousand other things, intersect, meld, and are sent forth again.

I remember driving away from Odin, a few moments after I took an obligatory selfie next to the welcome sign. I watched that sign recede into the distance in my rearview mirror as I began my journey southward, signaling the end of one pilgrimage, marking the beginning of whatever came next.

#odinselfie

#odinselfie

Column: Mise en scène

Eric O. Scott —  November 7, 2014 — 3 Comments
Deryk and Carrie Alldrit, the founders of the coven that would eventually become my coven.

Deryk and Carrie Alldrit, the founders of the coven that would eventually become my coven – my great grandparents, in a sense.

It begins with a woman holding a candle. She is walking around the room, a guide for the priestess, who is casting the circle for Samhain. But don’t look at the priestess just yet; hear her, yes, hear the words that begin every circle in our tradition, but watch the woman with the candle. The first bit of magick walks with her – for she is not only a woman with a candle, but an Evening Star, a psychopomp, the leader on a path down into the underworld. In the double-sight of ritual, she is both physical and mythical, both our friend and an unfamiliar star. Long before we make an open invocation to a god or a spirit, the magick has already begun.

A few months ago, I had a discussion about one of my essays with my doctoral committee chair. In the essay, I talked briefly about writing rituals – the choices we make in what to include, what to leave out, and what to invent anew. My advisor was surprised and delighted by this passage, because she had never heard of such a thing: the idea of writing a ritual struck her as a novel concept. She had never thought that a religious practice could also be a creative act.

I’ve thought a lot about that conversation, because it had never struck me that religion could be anything else. Ritual writing has always been at the heart of Paganism for me, so much so that I had always assumed that was just how Paganism worked everywhere. You might keep certain touchstones from year to year – the kings of Oak and Holly, the burning of John Barleycorn, the Maypole, and so on – but the actual form of the ritual changes every time, and even those touchstones find new shades of meaning as the ritual surrounding them changes. Now I know that there are actually many Pagans who dislike the idea of “new rituals,” and prefer that the word ritual be taken more literally: a ceremony repeated year-in and year-out, a constant in the turbulence of the rest of our lives. I understand that sentiment, and even sympathize with it, but I still reject it – at least for my own purposes. For me, much of the point is to be found in adding something new that still fits into the tradition. The hard, joyful work for me is in writing a ritual for, say, Samhain, that is not the same as any Samhain ceremony my coven has ever done before, but still feels right for the occasion.

In this case, the ritual started with one image: take a dark room – a basement, somewhere literally under the earth – and turn it into the underworld. Light it with a single candle; make that candle the center of the universe. Whenever something important happens, the candle moves to that actor; when the candle moves, the circle moves with it. That idea – the candle, and the darkness surrounding it – was the first thought I had when I began thinking about a Samhain ritual a year and a half ago. Even at that remove, everything in the ritual revolved around that single point of light.

I wanted to do this in deliberate contrast to the last sabbat my friends and I had performed at last year’s Beltane. That ritual was very much about light and color. We held it outside during the day, wore bright, ostentatious costumes, and danced a Maypole covered in a spectrum of pastel ribbons. We never brought up the way we used these visual tools to reinforce the message of our ritual deliberately – there was no point at which Sarah, my friend and priestess, announced that we were wearing bright colors to subconsciously reinforce the themes of creativity and hope found in the words of the ritual. She didn’t have to; the light did that work in silence, the way the cinematography shapes a film. Our Samhain would try to do the same with darkness.

I have written elsewhere about the project Sarah, I, and the other second-generation Pagans in my family set before ourselves: a grand cycle of sabbats, one a year for eight full spins of the Wheel. I suppose I have never worked on one thing for such a long time; eight years is long enough ago that, between here and there, I’ve finished two degrees, moved to three different cities, written two books, and gotten married. To say that I’ve changed in that time is such an obvious statement as to be absurd; every cell in my body has been shed and replaced since I first drew a pentagram into salt and water at Lughnasadh. This Samhain was the final ritual in our cycle; everything else had been leading up to it.

I wanted our ritual to be thoughtful, and, if possible, kind. Samhain is, necessarily, about death. While we could have made our ceremony a hard and unflinching one – the kind where you’re reminded that death comes to everyone, that there’s no escaping it and no ameliorating it – that felt cruel to me. We have had a lot of death in our family in the past few years, and I didn’t want to hurt the grieving any more than necessary. So instead, we focused on the memory of the dead. We always walk in their footsteps, I said at one point in the ritual, but only at Samhain do the dead stand next to us in the circle. As the ritual began, I tried to visualize those members of our family who had passed on into the next world standing among us: Deryk and Carrie, Ailene, Stephen, Image, Deborah, Kelson, Tom, others whom I knew I would inevitably fail to recall. They felt closer in the darkness, in the flickering candlelight.

I don’t know what other people do at Samhain. At ours, we call the names of the dead, just before the Great Rite. It’s one of the touchstones I mentioned earlier, like the Maypole or the Holly King; it’s the moment when we give voice to our memories. I like to think of it as the holiest moment in our Wicca: the time when we remember those who have walked before us, the time when others will someday remember us. In the darkness, we call to the past. Go if you must, but stay if you will, we tell the ones who have gone before. Hail and farewell, until the next time we call their names at Samhain.

Oddi

Eric O. Scott —  October 10, 2014 — 13 Comments

 

The church at Oddi, Iceland.  Photo by the author.

The church and graveyard at Oddi, Iceland. In the foreground, a statue of Sæmund the Wise hitting the devil with a Bible. The devil is in the form of a seal. I swear this is true.
Photo by the author.

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Part four of my columns on Iceland. Previously: Oxararfoss, Njord, and The Candle.

Imagine that the old lies are true – that the world is flat, that the bounds of creation are marked by mountains, that with enough light and pure air you truly can see to the end of eternity. Imagine that you are sitting at the exact center of that world; imagine that, for a moment, the universe spins around neither the sun nor the earth, but instead only around you. Imagine that, and you may have a sense of how it felt for me one Saturday afternoon at a place in southern Iceland called Oddi.

There was very little on the property itself. The farmers lived in a white house beside the graveyard. There were a handful of landmarks – a silver compass that gave names to the mountains, a statue of Sæmund the Wise, a folk hero who once lived at Oddi – but beyond that, there was very little to indicate that this farm had been one of the most important sites in Iceland’s history, home to some of the country’s most famous sons. The others on our bus tour had gone to look at Oddi’s church, a white building with a red roof, like seemingly every other little church in Iceland. It was ninety years old, and, we were told, quite beautiful inside, an example of a lovely rustic style of Icelandic church. But I did not want to look at it. Perhaps if I had the freedom to pick how long I could stay at a given place, I would have toured it, but we could have been ordered to get back on the bus at any moment. My time was too precious to waste inside a church.

Instead I sat on a hill with two other apostates, Danni and Robbi – these were the names our Icelandic instructor had given to them. (They knew me as Eiki.) They were both still in college, the same age as the students I taught in my daily life. I doubt we would have been friends in other circumstances, but we had been living together for five weeks, struggling with a language that nobody in America seemed to know existed, much less spoke. At that moment, at least, they were the best friends I had in the world.

Danni had lain down in the unkempt grass with the hood of his purple jacket drawn up around his head, leaving Robbi and I alone. Robbi had black hair, parted on the right, plastic gauge earrings, and a thick beard that he kept better groomed than I have ever managed. That day he wore a lopapeysa, a special kind of Icelandic sweater. It was the sort of thing other students planned to bring home to their mothers, but Robbi wore his without irony. We sat in the grass together, looking out over the farm; miles and miles of grass surrounded us, an eternity of green interrupted only by the occasional farmhouse or barn. In all directions we saw mountains, or hills that might have been mountains; they looked like walls built to protect a sanctuary. Rocks to ring the world.

The ring of the world – Heimskringla – is the name scholars gave to a collection of sagas about the kings of Norway written in the 13th century. The manuscript itself bears no name; Heimskringla comes from the first words written in the oldest surviving copy, Kringla heimsins, “the Earth’s circle.” The manuscript itself also bears no author, like most Old Norse texts, but it has been attributed for most of its history to the writer Snorri Sturluson, who also wrote the Prose Edda and, perhaps, Egil’s Saga, one of the greatest Icelander sagas. Snorri spent his childhood here at Oddi; he might have sat in the very same spot as me, eight hundred years before. Even though I know that the title of his masterpiece is an accident of history – the manuscript that begins with kringla heimsins was incomplete, and those were not, in fact, the first words of the book as a whole – my mind cannot help but draw associations between the ring of earth named in the book and the ring of earth that surrounds the place Snorri spent his boyhood. It is an accident of history, unless one believes that there are no such things as accidents; and I find myself wondering, sometimes.

I have a difficult relationship with Snorri; every Heathen does, I suspect. The first thing the Edda tells us – Heimskringla, too – is that the old gods were not true gods, but only the kings of ignorant men. From the first, Snorri disavows the idea that there might be truth in the myths he tells; from the first, he invents, he adds, he almost certainly subtracts, in order to present a version of the past in accordance with his own needs. He wrote the Edda for poets, not for devotees; because Old Norse poetry relied so much on kennings, which were unintelligible without the old mythology, an ignorance of myth meant an ignorance of art. He did not write the Edda in an attempt to revitalize belief in Odin or Freyja – he wrote it because he decided contemporary poets had forgotten how to make a good poem.

I am only in Iceland – only a Heathen at all – because eight hundred years ago, Snorri Sturluson decided that all the poets he knew sucked. No Edda, no Ásatrú. Another accident of history, or not, depending on one’s relationship to destiny.

I couldn’t help myself; as much as I wanted to empty my mind of everything but the gorgeous landscape, I kept drifting back to these academic ruminations. I wanted to be happy with the sentimental notion of a young Snorri sitting in the same spot where I sat; instead, I found myself thinking about the manuscript history of Heimskringla, trying to remember an article that traced it back to the first source to claim that Snorri had written it all.

I complained of this to Robbi. I had never found a more perfect stretch of earth than Oddi, and yet any time I tried to surrender myself to the dirt and the sky, I found myself worrying instead about Snorri Sturluson and the precarious nature of my religion. Some pilgrimage.

Robbi shrugged. “What was it St. Paul said?” He scratched his face and looked off into the distance. “‘I’d rather be in the mountains thinking about God than be in church thinking about the mountains?'”

Did Paul actually write that? I don’t know. I am a little afraid to find out. I didn’t come all the way to Iceland just to start agreeing with saints.

The Candle

Eric O. Scott —  September 5, 2014 — 27 Comments
Tjörnin at midnight. Photo by the author.

Tjörnin at midnight.
Photo by the author.

Part three of my columns on Iceland. Previously: Oxararfoss and Njord.

This candle has traveled further in its short life than I traveled in the first twenty-two years of mine. I bought it at my favorite metaphysical shoppe back home.1 It came with me from Missouri to Minneapolis, and from there, to Reykjavík, where it sat on the hard plastic desk bolted to the wall of my dorm room for the first week of my stay. Now we are sitting at a picnic table hidden in a copse of trees next to Tjörnin, a lake in downtown Reykjavík, my candle and I. I am looking at it in the half-light, running my fingers along its surface. It is ten inches tall, with a white wick. Anywhere else in the world, I would describe it as midnight blue, but “midnight” is such a variable color in Iceland.

This boot knife came from a dealer’s booth at the Heartland Pagan Festival near Kansas City, long enough ago that I do not remember the exact year it came into my life. Its handle and sheath might have been gold, once, but that color has faded, in parts to silver and in parts to rust. Its blade has never been sharp. The unsheathed knife now rests in my right hand; I press its dull blade into the blue wax of the candle, cutting deep, straight lines into its surface.

This cup came from a ceramics department sale held in 2006 at the university I attended then. Its bare clay is the color of wet sand, the glaze closer to brick. There is a runic message drawn around the stem of the cup in blue acrylic paint: ODRAIZ. I found the formula in an Edred Thorsson book years ago and copied it without bothering to take notes; I have no idea what it is actually supposed to mean. The cup sits before me on the picnic table, full of a pilsner named for Egill Skallagrimsson, the priciest beverage sold at the 1011 convenience store near the dormitory. I believe the sculptor intended for it to be used as a flower vase.

This hammer came from a hardware store in south St. Louis; it has no further story, and is clearly the least sentimental of the tools arrayed in front of me.

It is the middle of the shortest night of the year, and I am sitting in a public park with a lit candle, a dull knife, a cup, and a sledgehammer. Clearly, the time is right for magick2.

MIDSUMMER, I carve into the wax. If I were more clever, I would have thought to look up phrases in Icelandic for this purpose before I left for Tjörnin, but it was too late for that now. I had to settle for English words, in letters that predated either of the languages that currently make up my world, the language of my birth (the language of power, comfort, ignorance, colonialism) and the language of this land (the language of frustration, error, isolation, faith.) ICELAND, MIDSUMMER 2014 I carve, along with three other words, and I set the candle to burning, to release my spell into the night.

I lean back on my elbows and watch people – mostly young, mostly drunk – pass by on the sidewalk that rings the lake. If any of them noticed me, the large, bearded man in a cloak burning candles at midnight, none of them said anything. I feel invisible and safe in that invisibility. I go back to my ritual – eating bread I had consecrated earlier, along with another draught of Egil’s Gull – and see someone approaching, walking down the path into the woods. It is an old woman with white hair and a lavender tracksuit.

(Even as I write this memory, I remember it in darkness: a deeper night, denser trees, and no light except for my little candle. I remember the woman entering into the light cast by my candle. But that is absurd; the lack of true darkness was my impetus for doing my Midsummer ritual at midnight in the first place.)

The woman comes over to my table and says goða kvöldið, good evening. I respond: Gott kvöld. She sits down at the picnic table, not seeming to notice all of the ritual paraphernalia that I had laid out in front of me, except for the candle, which she warns me I need to be careful about. She had been afraid that I was vandalizing the picnic table; I am not sure where I could have done so, since carvings and words written in thick black Sharpie already covered the entire surface of the table.

We talk for an hour or more, about language (the declension of Icelandic numbers), travel (the years she spent abroad in France and the other Nordic countries), and tourists (they had completely ruined Gullfoss, she claimed.) After we had been talking for a while, she eyed the table, taking in the knife and the hammer and the cup. “Are you practicing Ásatrú?” she asks. I nod and explain that I had come here in part because of Ásatrú. “I think that it is very beautiful,” she says. English words came slowly to her; she had to consider every sentence before she spoke.3 But when she got the words put together, they came out in a pleasant, musical rhythm. “They have such respect for nature. It is very beautiful.”

We do not go to parks in the middle of the night where I come from; the only people to find there are drug users and drug pushers, and I would have been taking my life in my hands to do this. (Or so I had been told all my life, anyway – whether experience would bear that out is another question.) Here, old women in tracksuits were perfectly happy to go jogging at one AM and stop for long talks with cloaked Americans when the opportunity presented itself. While I had several moments where I encountered the sublime in Iceland, this might have been the most genuinely otherworldly point of my visit.

The old woman leaves eventually, with no more explanation than she gave when she sat down, and I am still bemused by the encounter. I begin the process of closing up my ritual. It is, by now, three AM; I had, at one point, considered going to a nightclub after the ritual with some of my twenty-year-old classmates, but the bars had long since closed by now. I gather up my tools and stuff them into my pack, ready to go home.

The candle is the last to go. I run my thumb across the grooves of the three words I had carved earlier in the night. I will return.

 

Notes:

1. Pathways New Age Books and Music, in lovely South County, St. Louis. Tell ‘em they owe me twenty bucks.
2. Yes, I use a k. Spell it however you want.
3. Though of course, her English was better than my Icelandic. In English, we had a long and engaging conversation about life, language, and religion; in Icelandic, I might have managed to ask her for directions to the post office.

Njord

Eric O. Scott —  August 8, 2014 — 23 Comments
Njord

Idol of Njord in the assembly hall of Ásatrúarfélagið, Reykjavík, Iceland.
Photo by the author.

“Did you know that this idol once received a blood sacrifice?”

The Icelander and I were standing in the assembly hall of Ásatrúarfélagið1, the Icelandic Ásatrú church, waiting for our companion, Tandri, to finish putting some supplies away in the back room. We were standing in front of a carved wooden idol, six feet tall, made of pale, honey-colored wood. Dozens of runic inscriptions had been carved into the idol and marked with red paint; I might have been able to work out their meanings, assuming I had an Icelandic dictionary and about twelve hours of spare time. I only knew that the idol represented Njord2, the sea-god, because the Icelander told me so.

The Icelander looked to be around my father’s age, mid-fifties; he was short, gray, and scruffy, and his English had a heavy Nordic tinge. We had been at Ásatrúarfélagið´s blót in Thingvellir3 earlier that day, and on the car ride back to Reykjavík, the Icelander had only spoken Icelandic, of which I understood just a little. He seemed to be the only man in the country who didn’t understand English, which pleased me – it’s disheartening to hear everyone in the country speak your language flawlessly when you are incapable of even ordering coffee in theirs. But then he realized I was a foreigner and switched to English. (His advice for learning Icelandic? “Read comics.”)

I shook my head; obviously I had never heard about any “blood sacrifice,” since this was the first time I had ever visited the assembly hall.

“Would you like to hear the story?” he asked.

,” I said. Although I had only been studying Icelandic for a month, “” had completely overwritten my vocabulary; even in English, I never said “yes” or “yeah” anymore, but instead “,” with its curving diphthong like the sound in the English “hour.”

He smiled and started to tell a story I could tell he had told many times before. “Oh yes,” he said, “The god picked the sacrifice himself. She was a beautiful young girl. Only seven years old, too.” He grew wistful and turned away from the idol. “That is the short version of the story. Would you like to hear the long version?”

,” I replied.

“Bah,” said the Icelander, who grimaced and waved me off. “You just say to whatever anybody says to you.”

No other Icelander ever called me out for this, but he was absolutely right.

Tandri finally came out of the back room. I marveled at the clash of expectations when I saw him. Usually, when I tell people that I am a Heathen, and especially when I mention that I went to Iceland in large part to meet members of the Icelandic Heathen community, their minds rush to visions of viking raids and valkyries, blood-soaked battlefields and mead-drowned nights in some dank drinking hall. In reality, Ásatrúarfélagið´s offices are modest and clean, located in an unassuming part of Reykjavík. There are tables and chairs set up for meetings, along with a bookcase and a table with toys for children. In the back room, they store two iron firepits, some flagpoles, and a coffee pot. Hand-knit sweaters hang on the walls with prices marked next to them, with the proceeds going to support the church. The only obvious signs of Heathenry are the two large wooden statues, namely the idol of Njord and a seated Thor next to the entrance. The setup reminded me of nothing so much as a typical Lutheran Church basement.

And yet there was Tandri, standing just outside the men´s room in full viking drag. (He had missed the blót because he had a gig pretending to be a viking for the benefit of tourists.) His chainmail rustled in time to his footsteps. “I think we’re all good to go here,” he said – in English, for my benefit.

The Icelander nodded, and the three of us headed out to Tandri’s car, a brick-red Honda that I’m certain has been on Earth longer than Nirvana’s In Utero. My phone’s clock read midnight, but the summer sky was only a dusky indigo. I would not see true night again until I returned to Minnesota.

The Icelander climbed into the backseat. He and Tandri exchanged a few words in Icelandic – directions to the Icelander’s house, I suspected. Tandri started the Honda and began driving west, towards the part of Reykjavík I knew. As we drove, the Icelander spoke up again.

“So,” he said, “do you want really want to hear about the child sacrifice?”

“Yes,” I said, trying not to offend his sensibilities.

He chuckled. “The statue fell over on her. She broke her arm in the accident. But you see? There was a child! There was blood! And Njord did pick her – she was the one he fell on!” He leaned forward in his seat. “This was many years ago, you know. She is grown now. I love to tell people that story when she is in the room. I say that there had been a child sacrifice, and everyone – especially foreigners – their faces get so pale and they go quiet. Oh, how awful! How barbaric! The sacrifice of a child!” As though Heathens really were living up to all of the worst fantasies of Viking degeneracy – the stained altars and babes giving over to flesh-craving gods. “And all the while, she is sitting there, not saying a word!”

The Icelander continued to talk, uninterrupted by either Tandri or me, for the rest of the drive, mostly about his distaste for the American Heathens he had met online. (“I see this on Facebook – click ‘like’ if you want a visit from Odin. Odin! You might as well say, click ‘like’ if you want a visit from Satan!”) He talked about the expectations Americans seemed to have regarding Ásatrúarfélagið, and how frequently they were disappointed by the truth – that, as Tandri told me earlier in the day, the church was “basically a big hippie organization.” As the Icelander talked, I noticed that Tandri, who was closer to my age, seemed embarrassed; he had evidently not expected the Icelander to go on such an extended rant about American Heathens in the presence of, well, an American Heathen.

I hadn’t come to Iceland hoping for blood and viking glory, as I am by nature both a pacifist and a coward. But I understood the subtext in the Icelander’s words: that people like me came to Iceland in the same way that some people go to Bangladesh or Tibet, expecting to find some kind of “authentic” encounter with the divine that they can take home and brag about. Enlightenment tourism – as though enlightenment were something that could be advertised in a tourbook next to the Golden Circle and the National Gallery. Of course, that was exactly what I had been expecting myself. I called this trip as a pilgrimage; I had never considered what it might mean for the Icelanders themselves – for their practices, their landscape, and to some degree their entire lives to be viewed as a tourist attraction for the Heathen seeker. I could tell myself that my journey was different somehow – that I was genuine in my aspirations and had the academic and literary credentials to support my project – but everyone else could make similar arguments. I wasn’t special. I began to see my visit in an altogether less pleasant light.

We arrived at the Icelander’s home, which I recall as one of the innumerable concrete and tin structures that make up Reykjavík. He got out and said goodbye by reminding me about comic books. “Andrés Önd – Donald Duck,” he said. “Best way to learn.”

Once the Icelander had shut his door, Tandri turned to me. “He can talk, can’t he?”

“Já,” I said. Then I wondered if I should have said something else.

1. It’s spelled the way it sounds! And vice versa, I suppose.
2. The Old Icelandic name for the god is Njörðr, but Njord is such a common Anglicization that I have used it throughout this essay. Same for Thor and Þorr.
3. Þingvellir.

Oxararfoss

Eric O. Scott —  July 11, 2014 — 8 Comments
Oxararfoss, Thingvellir, Iceland. Photo by the author.

Oxarafoss, Thingvellir, Iceland. Photo by the author.

The waterfall, I was told, was called Oxararfoss.

It was not the largest waterfall I saw while I was in Iceland; that was Skogafoss, down in the south of the country, where I walked along the rocky beach below the cliffs until I came to the edge of the falls and let myself be drenched in the spray. Nor was it the waterfall I got to experience most intimately – that was Seljalandsfoss, where I walked up a flight of sturdy iron steps that leading behind the waterfall and found that on the other side, the trail’s improvements ended and all that awaited me were a series of sharp, water-slick rocks that had been worn away by the weight of other human feet.

By comparison, Oxararfoss felt small and domesticated. As, I suppose, it was: Oxararfoss had been sculpted by human hands during the settling of Iceland. The settlers diverted the river Oxara sometime in the 10th century and sent it tumbling over the continental ridge that forms the edge of Thingvellir, where the Icelandic parliament was established around the year 930. The resulting river traces a path through Thingvellir before emptying in Thingvallavatn, the largest lake in Iceland.

I didn’t know any of that at the time – a woman from Ásatrúarfelagið, whose midsummer blót I had come to see, told me of the waterfall’s history after I descended the trail back to the clearing where Ásatrúarfelagið had camped. The only thing I knew about the waterfall beforehand was that it existed: I had seen it, just for a moment, from the road leading out from Thingvellir, with only the crest of the falls appearing from behind the rocks. It seemed isolated from the rest of the valley at that distance, but in reality, a well-maintained wooden path led up a hill to the waterfall from the ground, and there was even a platform built out into the stream so visitors could get closer to the waterfall itself: another place where humans have altered the landscape to better fit our needs.

Still, fabricated, manufactured, artificial: these distinctions all disappear when one is in the presence of a waterfall.

A waterfall is nothing but water, rock, and gravity – three of the most unremarkable components of life on this planet. But their admixture entrances me like nothing else; the wonder of their constant movements, the calculation of how long and how much they have flowed, the study of the ways tiny clefts within the rock manifest later as massive columns of white water before they crash into the surface. Those things are harder to see with the massive waterfalls – they are too tall to observe easily. But as I stood before Oxararfoss, I could look for the details, could contemplate them, could empty myself of myself in their presence.

I stood there for ten or fifteen minutes, perhaps. Not much more than that. I was expecting my ride back to Reykjavik to arrive, and didn’t want to be lost up in the hills when he came, so I turned back. (He didn’t arrive for another two hours, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Rain fell in a lazy drizzle as I walked upon the wooden platforms leading back down to the campsite. Although I had been in Iceland for almost two weeks, cold rain in June still felt like a novelty; I closed my eyes and moved on with a smile. Oxararfoss still roared behind me.

Out of the wordless joy inside my mind, a thought surfaced: It will be wonderful to walk this trail again someday.

Then I stopped walking and opened my eyes, saw again the black and barren rocks of the continental divide and the wide gray sky. I saw the wet planks of the trail ahead of me, where I had been walking.

My grandfather had gone into the hospital just a few days before I left for my trip – he stepped on a nail and then, despite his diabetes, never went to the doctor until he couldn’t bear it anymore. He thought he would be in the hospital for an afternoon – a dose of antibiotics to knock down the gangrene in his foot and then he would be back home.

They cut off his leg just above the knee.

My grandfather was a carpenter, the kind who never really retires; as recently as two years ago, he got in trouble with the City of St. Louis for leaving a two-story-tall ladder propped against the rear of his house, just in case he felt the urge to go tar the roof again. There would be no more of that.

My grandfather will never see this, I thought to myself, that moment on the trail.

This shouldn’t have been a shocking revelation – my grandfather hadn’t gone anywhere more than a couple of hours away from St. Louis in twenty years, even before the surgery – but it was. He would never see Thingvellir. Even if I showed him the photographs, or explained to him the history of Iceland, he still wouldn’t understand what made this place important to me: that I had come here on pilgrimage, searching for gods hiding among the rocks and water and gravity. This was a part of my life I have kept hidden from him, and probably always will.

I began to walk again, and soon came back to the campsite, where there were hot dogs and cans of Egil’s Pilsner waiting. I opened one of those green cans, named for the poet and warrior Egil Skallagrimsson, and walked out a ways into the fields. It was nearly ten o’clock in the evening, but then, there is no such thing as nighttime during the summer in Iceland.

I looked back to the ridge above the clearing. I could see the wooden trail leading up to Oxararfoss, but it turned a corner near the top of the hill and vanished behind the rocks; the waterfall itself was entirely hidden. I would only see it again from the car as we left Thingvellir, tumbling over the rocks and down into a valley whose bottom I could not see.

(Author’s note: This column is the first in a series of pieces about my time in Iceland. I have chosen to anglicize the Icelandic names of places, though with a heavy heart, since I just spent two months learning how to pronounce them. For reference, the Icelandic names for the geographical features are Öxarárfoss, Skógafoss, Öxará, Þingvellir, and Þingvallavatn.)

Heathen Tongues

Eric O. Scott —  June 13, 2014 — 48 Comments

The Minneapolis Runestone. Located outside the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis, it was a gift from the City of Uppsala. Photo by your devoted author.

The page looks like something out of The Shining: line after line of the same eight words repeating endlessly, with errors as the only variation. Hestur. Hest. Hesti. Hests. That’s the singular. Hestar. Hesta. Hestum. Hesta. That’s the plural. This is the paradigm for Icelandic masculine singular indefinite nouns. If we add the definite article, we get hesturinn, hestinn, hestinum, hestsins, hestarnir, hestana, hestunum, hestanna. Sixteen ways to say “horse.”

I am on my third consecutive page of inscribing hestur, the first of six major noun paradigms, into a yellow single-subject notebook, hoping that by the sheer force of repetition I will work these forms into memory. There may be some other way of doing this that doesn’t kill so many trees, but I haven’t found it. The only way I know how to memorize these words is to carve their names into the pulped flesh of trees, like runes, hoping their magical formula will unfold onto me given enough diligence.

This is my third week of an intensive summer course in the modern Icelandic language that I am taking at the University of Minnesota. I spent the last three weeks in Minneapolis, but the class will be flying to Reykjavik on Friday evening, just a few hours after this is published. We will spend another three weeks in Iceland practicing the language in its natural context among native speakers. I can’t help but be nervous – I never studied abroad in college, could never afford it. My feet have never left North American soil for more than five days at a time before. The prospect of learning to operate in this new language, even for just a few weeks, is intimidating; I haven’t studied a living language in almost a decade, not since I took my last semester of French in 2004 and promptly forgot everything about it. I’ve stuck to dead languages since then, Old English and Old Norse, tongues whose precise intonations are unknown and largely unimportant. I haven’t spoken a language besides English on a regular basis since I was 18 years old.

Mynd now – “picture,” the paradigm for the strong feminine nouns. With the definite article, that’s myndin, myndina, myndinni, myndarinnar…

As I lay out the paradigms in their places on the grid of lined paper, I find myself thinking back to a conversation I had with my friend Christian a few months ago. We were at a meeting for Hearthfires, the local Pagan meetup group back home in Columbia, and we were talking about languages; I believe I had just sent in my application for the Icelandic course, which may have been the genesis of the conversation. Christian, who is a Romano-Celtic polytheist, mentioned that he wished he knew Latin better. “My prayers would be better received in Latin,” he said. That sentence has stuck with me for the past few months. I suspect it’s because I can’t decide whether or not I agree with him.

The idea – as I understand it, anyway – behind the sentiment is that, since Christian’s gods were historically worshipped by speakers of Latin, Latin is the natural language with which to address those deities. I know many reconstructionist Pagans feel the same way; not long ago, I helped my family friend Alaric Albertsson – whom I still instinctively refer to as “Uncle Alaric” – proofread some sentences in Old English that an acquaintance of his was producing for his ADF training. Since they are Anglo-Saxon Heathens, Old English is the language they feel is most appropriate for their rituals.

Now, it doesn’t matter to me how any individual performs their rituals – there is something beautiful in giving new voice to a dead language in such a context, and in any case, everyone has the right to practice their religion in the way that makes the most sense to them. But I do have problems with the line of thinking that suggests the old languages are the “correct” languages with which to address the gods; to me, that romanticizes the past and discounts the legitimacy of present-day worship. After all, referring to my own Heathen inclinations, the Icelanders spoke of their gods in the same language they used for courtship, commerce, and craftwork. They didn’t restrict themselves to Proto-Germanic (or, gods help us, Proto-Indo-European), even though those were the languages in use when the Norse gods came into knowledge. The medieval Icelanders addressed Thor in their native tongue – why would it be any different for me to address him in mine?

Of course, I write this while in the middle of a difficult language course that I am taking only because of my religious yearning. Icelandic is not a very practical foreign language to study; its grammar is dense and finicky, its community of native speakers is quite small, and most Icelanders have an excellent grasp of English. Icelandic has some practical uses for me, of course – last fall, I came across an article that looked like a brilliant resource for a seminar paper I was writing, but, because it was in Icelandic, I couldn’t read it. But those are, if I am honest, secondary concerns. I am learning Icelandic because the language appeals to me as a Heathen; I am studying it, whether I want to admit it or not, because I feel like it will lead to my prayers being better received.

Borð, now. “Table.” Strong neuter paradigm. Same form in the singular and plural…

I am aware that modern Icelandic is hardly the language of the Aesir; for the past thousand years, its speakers have been overwhelmingly Christian. Even Old Norse, which Icelandic still closely resembles, was the tongue of a long-converted nation by the time the golden age of medieval Icelandic literature came about. And there’s hardly anything religious about learning how to say, “On Saturday, I will wake up at nine o’clock.” (“Á laugurdaginn ætla ég að vakna um klukkan níu,” if you were wondering – or at least that’s what my notes say.) I can’t say, really, why this language has a hold on me, any more than I can say why I have dreamed of visiting Iceland itself for years. Unlike some of my classmates, I have no Icelandic grandparents or distant cousins waiting for me in Reykjavik; I have been possessed by a nostalgia for a place my ancestors have never walked, a longing for a language nobody in my family has ever spoken.

I don’t know why these things have such a hold on me, but they do. In less than 24 hours, I will be taking my first steps into Iceland, breathing in my first breath of Reykjavik air. I will be hungry and bone-tired after the red-eye flight from Minneapolis. What will I feel in that moment?

I don’t know, but I am about to find out.

Valhalla, ég er koma. Valhalla, I am coming.