Archives For Eric O. Scott

A statue of the god Pan, found somewhere in MacLouth, Kansas. Photo by the author.

A statue of the god Pan, found somewhere in MacLouth, Kansas.
Photo by the author.

Some things remain constant despite life’s tumult. Though we may find ourselves in the midst of many changes, still some things remain: the sun doth rise, the moon doth wax and wane, and the rain doth obliterate everyone’s campsite at least once every Heartland Pagan Festival. I have been attending Heartland off and on since I was a little boy, and every year, there is a wash-out thunderstorm. In my memories, it’s usually on Sunday afternoon, just before the end of the festival. I remember once standing in the open field where the merchants set up, looking up at a roiling sky and realizing that, even if I ran as fast as I could back to camp, I’d never make it before the rain hit. Some kind soul pulled me into their shelter and fed me rabbit stew, and we waited, eight or nine of us crammed beneath a 10×10 pavilion, for the storm to pass.

The storm at this year’s festival hit on Saturday evening, just as the Vision Quest ritual was supposed to begin, and it kept going for twelve hours. The Vision Quest asks its participants to walk alone through a trail in Camp Gaea’s woods, and along the trail the walkers encounter figures who advise, challenge, and bewilder them. I was scheduled to be one of those aspects that evening, and had already put on my costume and set up my station when the rain hit. Most years, aspects spend seven or eight hours out on the trail, seeing more than a hundred visitors. But the trail is largely unimproved, and it can be a challenging hike even in good weather. The ground had already absorbed all the water it could from preliminary storms earlier in the week, such that even after several sunny days some parts of the trail had become shoe-eating soup; once the rain began, it became clear that somebody was going to break an ankle if we proceeded with the ritual.

So instead we sat beneath the pop-up back at camp, our rain-soaked costumes left hanging, if not exactly to dry, then at least to drip, on a line, and we watched the storm. My wife built a fire in our Smokey Joe barbecue for warmth, while I tried to comb the biscuit dough out of my hair. (My aspect was an old man, see, and I thought, well, I can make my hair gray by rubbing some flour into it…) Sarah, one of my oldest friends, was also there, as was her boyfriend. It was far too early to consider going to bed, and far too wet to consider leaving camp.

Somehow this led to us discussing Weird Al Yankovich, who, I must admit, is my standard proof that we do not live in the best of all possible worlds. But I was the only one who held that opinion among the four of us.

Eric has very particular tastes in music, my wife said. He has his music that he likes, and anyone who likes anything else is wrong. I found this statement to be both totally unfair and reasonably accurate.

He gets that from his dad, said Sarah. He’s the exact same way.

I have been turning that thought over in my mind ever since.

There’s a gag from the Three Stooges where Moe, the bossy one with the soupbowl haircut, receives a bill and does a double-take, snapping the paper between his fingers as he comes to a realization about the difference behind the figure on the paper and the figure in his wallet. My father has revived this gag every time we have gone out to dinner; it is part of the ritual of the meal. Every time my wife and I go to a restaurant, I perform it too. It’s automatic, unthinking, a reflex. As soon as the waiter hands us the bill, my wife knows to expect it, and smiles anyway.

I have a lot of tics like that one – little gestures, sayings, tones of voice. The way I flirt, the topics I choose for small talk, the voice I use when talking to animals and small children. Ways of acting that I fall into automatically, only realizing afterwards that they come from my parents. I would guess that everyone has things like that – it’s how we’re socialized, and, I suppose, part of what it means to be someone’s child. We don’t get to choose them; they come with the package.

My Paganism, I come to realize, is full of these unnoticed assumptions and inherited behaviors. It has always been an issue I’ve struggled with in writing about Paganism, actually – because I grew up within a coven, I unconsciously assume that the ways we practiced Paganism are the backdrop everyone else has as well. I often feel as though I am a poor authority on these matters, because so much of what I know I received through the slow course of maturation. I absorbed ways to enter a circle, chants to sing, formulae to invoke; but I also learned ways to conceive of the divine, ways to format a ritual, ways to lie about who I am to bosses and in-laws. Nobody ever sat me down and taught me any of this, but I know it just the same – just as I never made an agreement with my parents to mimic their other behaviors, and yet I do so anyway.

At the edge of the mud pit that was our camp’s kitchen, underneath an evergreen, there is an old statue of the god Pan. The statue has seen better days. If I remember correctly, it used to be displayed in the yard of the house where Sarah and her brothers grew up; I remember seeing it through my child’s eyes, but it is always hard to tell where that kind of memory ends and photographs begin. These days, Pan is chipped and broken, the holes in his side and torso revealing the hollow cavity of his belly. In the thundering darkness of the storm, his image is lost to me – our lights don’t stretch that far. But in the morning, when the rain has begun to clear, I walk over to his tree and find him just as we left him before – dry, even, barely touched by the rain.

I look at this statue of the little goat-footed god, this artifact brought to Gaea from my childhood dreams. My parents have a statue just like it at their home. I look at Pan, and I wonder about the things that remain constant.

St. Guthlac and a bunch of demons.  From the 13th century Guthlac Scroll, housed in the British Library.

St. Guthlac and a bunch of demons.
From the 13th century Guthlac Scroll, housed in the British Library.

[Author’s Note: Before we get into the column: this summer I am looking for second-generation Pagans of all stripes for a series of profiles. Much of my material comes from thinking through my own life as someone who was raised by witches, but I’m interested in getting the stories and perspectives of other children of Pagans. The profiles will, of course, respect the wishes of anyone who chooses to remain anonymous or only known by a craft name. Interested parties should send an email to eric.o.scott@gmail.com or on my Facebook page. Now, on with the column.]

I have never known much about saints, nor have I worried about my ignorance of them. They belonged to a religion that was foreign to my own and were bound up in traditions that meant nothing to me, so I had little incentive to study them. Although I grew up in a Catholic city and had many Catholic friends, I never had reason to engage with Catholicism itself. But I do study Old English, and the way my university is set up, there would only one graduate seminar in Old English literature offered during the two years of my PhD coursework – and that seminar was about the lives of saints. In particular, the course studied a group of obscure Old English texts with no authors, simply called the anonymous saints’ lives (as opposed to the body of saints’ lives written by Ælfric, one of the best-attested authors in the literature.) It sounded painful. I signed up anyway.

My apprehensions weren’t assuaged by the class’s first readings. “Certainly Ælfric regarded himself as the apologist of the universal church,” says Michael LaPidge, an expert on these texts, “and it would have been no compliment to tell him that his hagiography imparted individual characteristics to individual saints. On the contrary, Ælfric would wish his saints to be seen merely as vessels of God’s divine design on earth, indistinguishable as such one from the other… hence it did not matter whether the saint was tall or short, fair or bald, fat or thin, blonde or brunette. In a sense it did not matter whether he was named Cletus or Clement, Narcissus or Nicasius.”

No wonder nobody wants to read these stories, I remember thinking. They’ve stripped out everything interesting for the sake of uniformity. Come to think of it, this has been my critique about everything involving monotheism.

Thankfully the texts weren’t quite as boring as I anticipated – the anonymous saints’ lives actually feature a variety of strange goings-on, perhaps because their authors did not share Ælfric’s love for universality. We read of time-traveling saints, cowardly and lazy saints, transvestite (and perhaps transgender) saints, even one saint who literally exploded out of the belly of a dragon named Rufus. 

That said, although there was novelty to be found, most of the saints’ lives tended to follow a formula: the saint, born to noble pagans, rejects paganism and turns to Christianity. There the stories divide into two broad camps. In the passio genre, the saints are brought before a cruel pagan ruler, who offers them the choice to renounce their Christian faith or die; inevitably they choose to die, because that is what makes them saints. In the confessio genre, instead of martyring themselves for their faith, the saints go into solitude, denying themselves the temptations of this world. They earn their sainthood through asceticism, which is often represented as an attack by demonic forces which are repelled through their faith, in imitation of the first saint of this type, St. Anthony.

Reading literature like this is always difficult for me – it reminds me of my own otherness. The point of a saint’s life is to imagine oneself as the saint, who is in turn an emulation of God, a winding chain of models to base one’s own existence around. But I do not find connections with the saints; I know too well that they don’t belong to me. When I read these stories, I find myself thinking only of the fallen world surrounding the saint and seeing myself in that image: my face on the head of the saint’s noble-yet-damned father, my hands holding the pagan executioner’s tools. Saint’s lives are supposed to invite the reader into their moral universe, but instead, I find myself reluctantly siding with the saint’s enemies, no matter how cruelly they are described. I can’t help it. They – the fiends, the heathens – are my people.

Intellectually, I know that the “paganism” represented by Christian literature is at best a distortion of actual ancient paganism, and more often just slander – and that, in any case, the paganism of the ancient world is not the Paganism I have grown up within. I can counterfeit dispassionate analysis of these subjects in conversation and writing. But the truth is that the whole process is tremendously alienating. Perhaps this is the danger of investing so heavily in a single world to describe oneself: I can’t help but associate with the villains of these stories, even if they are vicious caricatures. They still remind me of myself.

As I write this, morning birds are singing in my back yard, which makes me think of an episode from a poem about St. Guthlac, one of Anglo-Saxon England’s home-grown saints. Guthlac, like St. Anthony, wanted to deny the world of man and goes off to live in seclusion on a hill in the wastes, so that he can better contemplate God. He is, like the other hermit-saints, assaulted by hordes of demons who hope to tempt him away from the righteous path, and failing that, to assail, torture, and distract him from his holy purpose.

Guthlac, being a saint, endures their attacks, and with the help of another saint, Bartholomew, he expels the demons from his land. Once the demons are gone, his only companions are birds, many kinds of them, who bless Guthlac with their songs. One of the poem’s final images is of Guthlac feeding the birds, perhaps anticipating St. Francis, who would preach to those same creatures some centuries later. “So that gentle spirit detached himself from the joys of mankind,” the poem says, “served the Lord, and took pleasure in the wild animals, after he had rejected this world.” Guthlac the Saint lives in a world populated by demons and songbirds; and I suspect I must be one of these things myself, but I cannot say which.

The Rider-Waite Four of Wands, by Pamela Colman Smith.

The Rider-Waite Four of Wands [Public Domain U.S.]

The infant sleeps in her mother’s arms; she is brown of hair, tiny, only six weeks old. Her father sits next to me on the floor, beating out a rhythm on a hand drum. I am kneeling next to him, matching his beat by slapping my knees and stomach. The baby’s brother, three years old, walks in and out of the circle, anxiously waiting for all the chanting to be over so he can blow out the lone candle sitting on the altar. My heartbeat rises to match the drumming of animal hide and human flesh. I am on the edge of ecstasy, induced by the kind of breathing I only do during ritual. Lorelei stands above us, leading the invocation: she lifts a ceramic liquid incense burner, passing its sweet scent over us, and calls out to the elements. Powers of the south, spirits of fire, she says in a dream-like whisper, we ask you for your blessings…

The term for the ritual, I suppose, is a Wiccaning. I don’t know, really. As far as I know, my coven has never had such a thing. If I had a Wiccaning as an infant, nobody has told me about it. For me, this is uncharted territory. We are calling in the elements to give their blessings to the baby, the invocations beginning with Lorelei and then passing around the circle to the child. Our words are all improvised. When it is my turn to speak, I do so in a slightly archaic, elevated way – We call to thee, spirits of the south, guardians of the watchtower of staves, the powers of fire – language stolen from the hundreds of rituals I have seen in my life, repurposed to this occasion. Others speak in words closer to their normal registers, or in streaming sentences, in phrases full of air and weight.

Again – we are making this up as we go along. The meaning we create is created in the moment; it appears and then vanishes, like smoke from the incense.

My dissertation adviser knows a lot about nonfiction writing, but not much about Paganism. I once brought an essay to her that described a set of rituals from the late 1980s I had found in a box of old materials from the early days of my coven; I speculated as to what those rituals might have meant, the reasons why they might have been written. My adviser didn’t know what to say to my speculations. It had never occurred to her that religion could be a creative act, could be art. For my part, I don’t know that I can really understand practicing a religion without the sense of reinvention and creativity that I have grown up with. Writing about Paganism, but having that writing seen and commented on by a mostly non-Pagan audience, constantly reminds me that the differences between my childhood and many others’ are more than just the appearances of the places we called church. Some of it goes down to the bone.

In this ritual, this Wiccaning, we are weaving together a portrait of hope – everything we think important enough to beseech the numinous. It is a family conversation, a statement of what we value and what we regret. The words come from individuals, but the end result – the tapestry we weave – reflects all of us together, our history and future.

And yet it is ephemeral. It was only a week ago, but I can’t remember exactly what I asked the fire to give the baby or the exact construction of my sentences; I certainly can’t recall the specifics of my coven-mates’ requests, beyond the usual associations of fire, passion and warmth. The baby herself will never know exactly what was said on her behalf, either. Our prayers were formed from the stuff within our hearts that night; its magick is now out in the world, doing whatever it will do, invisible and untraceable.

I spend a lot of my time thinking about inheritance. It’s a concept the Pagan world isn’t really equipped for yet, at least in my estimation. Paganism mostly cares about the new: new rituals, new traditions, new names, new covens, new families, new identities. Even when we look to the past, when we pore over the histories of our founders and our gods, we look to innovate and reconstruct, hoping that whatever discoveries we turn up will add new dimensions to our practice. It feels like something borne in the blood of our enterprise. Paganism is an apostate movement, formed by and large by people spurning an old way of life. We have turned away once, hoping to find something re-enchanted and new; perhaps we are inclined to continue turning away. But what does a person who has left behind a way of life leave behind themselves?

Creativity and tradition, apostasy and inheritance; these are thoughts that swirled around me as I thought through my invocation to the powers of fire. We were giving this baby a gift that she would not understand for years, if then; I know, because it was a gift given to me as well, and if anything, the more I consider it, the less I’m sure I understand it. My religion has, for better or worse, been the cornerstone of my life, the shaper of my perceptions and the sculptor of my ethics; I have been, in turn, ashamed, dazzled, and enmeshed by it. It is a weighty gift.

The baby is sleeping in her mother’s arms, unaware of the magick that surrounds her, all the hope and fear we hold for her. The elements are called in, sweep over her in her slumber, granting whatever blessings they may. We welcome her into our family; all of this is hers now, to keep, to change, to burn away.

Athena Valletri. Plaster cast of a Roman copy of a Greek original by Kresilas or Alkamenes, ca 420 BCE. University of Missouri, Columbia, MO. Photograph by the author.

Athena Velletri.
Plaster cast of a Roman copy of a Greek original by Kresilas or Alkamenes, ca 420 BCE.
University of Missouri, Columbia, MO.
Photograph by the author.

Athena looms. She towers. She stands above me, dominating my entire field of vision. She raises her right hand into the air, as if to bring some other addressee to a pause; she stretches her left hand to me, palm upturned, as though she were offering to help me to my feet. Fabric folds around her body, bunching together at her waist and shoulder – enough fabric, it seems, to wind around the world. Her war-helm rests atop her head; on her breast sits the head of Medusa. I stare up into her eyes; they are blank, but that blankness is the opposite of empty. Every emotion is inscribed on Athena’s face.

I kneel there before the goddess for a long moment, my breathing haggard from the proximity of the sublime.

Somewhere behind me, I can hear women’s voices. I think they are talking about payroll. In front of me, behind Athena’s back, a car passes by. I see it through the mini-blinds: a black Acura. The windows face out onto the Mizzou North parking lot, which lies off of Business Loop 70 in Columbia, Missouri, the college town where I live. The building itself used to be a cancer center; other medical facilities still share the parking lot. The neighborhood is an aging commercial district, separated from the main campus by about a mile and a half. Around Mizzou North, one finds a Ford dealership, a Break Time gas station, a Payless shoe store, a Long John Silver’s. It is a strange place to go looking for gods – and yet here they are.

The University of Missouri is moving its Museums of Art, Archeology, and Anthropology over to this building from their old homes on the central campus, and so most of the collections aren’t yet on display. One galley, however, is open – the Cast Gallery, full of plaster casts of ancient Greek and Roman statuary. The casts on display are packed together in a single L-shaped room on the first floor of the building. I found it rather cramped, but the density of the collection heightened my sense of the sublime; within only a few hundred square feet, the Venus de Milo, the headless Nike of Samothrace, and the Apollo of Olympia shared space with the tender pair of Hermes and the infant Dionysus and the mute horror of Laokoön and His Sons being killed by sea-serpents. A row of luminary busts sits against one wall: the heads of Homer, Sophocles, and Theseus all sit together, members of parliament never elsewhere convened in history.

But the piece de resistance, at least for me, was the Athena Velletri. A copy of an original housed in the Louvre, Athena Velletri dominates her section of the gallery, and I found myself drawn to her over the dozens of other masterpieces littering the room. Perhaps it was simply the size of the statue – Athena stands 10 feet tall, such that her outstretched left arm is at eye-level for the average person – or perhaps it was the intricate details of the bunched cloth in her robe. More likely, it was simply that Athena has always been one of my favorite goddesses, as far back as I knew what a goddess was. (Just now, I remember something: the first book – or long story, at least – that I ever wrote, when I was twelve. The main character worshipped Athena. Write what you know, so the saying goes.)

As I knelt before the Athena, I found my mind wandering away from the cast gallery, and even away from the milieu of the classical world in general, moving instead to Walter Benjamin’s famous essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. In that essay, Benjamin advanced a theory of “the aura” of an individual artwork – that is to say, the combination of history and physical presence that serves to instill art with the value of authenticity. For Benjamin, this aura originated in the religious functions that works like the Athena Velletri would have had in their classical origins, and which was maintained even after the end of the Pagan period: “The uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being imbedded in the fabric of tradition,” he writes. “This tradition itself is thoroughly alive and extremely changeable. An ancient statue of Venus, for example, stood in a different traditional context with the Greeks, who made it an object of veneration, than with the clerics of the Middle Ages, who viewed it as an ominous idol. Both of them, however, were equally confronted with its uniqueness, that is, its aura.” When art became separated by religion, that holy aura came to be embodied in other ways: in aesthetics, in majesty, in l’art pour l’art, all of which he theorized would find their final culmination in fascism.

Benjamin argues that reproduction cannot help but destroy the aura of the work of art, finding its most triumphant expression in the creation of modern art forms like the film, a genre of art that has no “original” to possess an aura at all, only the many copies[1]. (I’m hardly the first to ask this, but one wonders what he would have made of the internet.) In the age before mechanical reproduction – before photographs or high quality lithography, certainly before instant Google searches and Wikipedia – to experience a work of art, one had to physically travel to that work of art, had to confront its aura personally. Even if one had never worshipped Athena, had lived in a world that had, to all appearances, abandoned worship of that goddess two thousand years before, to see the Athena Velletri was to be a part of Athena’s cult.

The Athena that rises above me is made of plaster, smooth and white. Her right arm is a little out of joint, exposing a crease that reveals the many pieces of which she is made. She is, indeed, a copy of a copy, and perhaps more iterations than that. I am sure that some museum shop would happily sell me a copy of this statue, one of many anonymous thousands. And yet the aura is there – not the aura of aesthetic and authenticity, as proposed by Benjamin, nor even quite the old cultic aura he supposed was held by the Greeks. For me, it is an aura of overpowering recognition. I was raised without temples, but with the longing for them; I suppose I made the identification of the museum with the mysteries long ago. I kneel and whisper my prayers to Athena, to the Athena, to the goddess in the plaster. I am still trying to catch my breath.

 

[1] He thought these new art forms, bereft of aura, could resist the fascism from which he had fled, and was on the whole much more positive about technology than most art critics.

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.