Archives For Eric O. Scott

This year’s Heartland Pagan Festival, held over Memorial Day weekend in McClouth, Kansas, faced severe weather, including extensive thunderstorms and tornado warnings. Although there were some difficulties, including damage to Gaea Retreat‘s roads, a sudden squall that threatened to damage the festival’s PA speakers and audio equipment, and the inability of several speakers to attend due to travel hazards, the incredible efforts of the festival staff allowed Heartland to continue successfully.

The altar beside Forn Halr at Gaea Retreat. Photo by Eric Scott.

The altar beside Forn Halr at Gaea Retreat. [Photo Credit: Eric Scott]

1.

At the far end of First Field, all that is is mud. Every footfall sinks an inch or two into the muck. We vary the paths we take across the grass, as though we hope to find a secret trail from our tents across the field to the gravel road that links the field with the rest of Gaea, but no such route exists. Where human feet tread, sodden footprints follow; there is no escape from the mud.

It is Thursday afternoon, just before the Heartland Pagan Festival is set to officially begin. My wife and I have been at Gaea for a day already. We had arrived early with the intent of helping the festival get set up, but the rain has never abated for more than an hour since we set up our tent. We laid inside until late in the morning, listening to the rain, running our worried hands through the ever-deepening water trapped on the floor. By the time the rain let up enough for us to make an assessment, the only dry thing left was my wooden chest of ritual tools, a showing perhaps too obvious to be taken for providence.

Now we are sitting in our camp’s kitchen area under a shadefly; the ground beneath our chairs appears to be the place where all mud must someday return. My wife and I munch on trail mix and watch the endless rain. Mark is rummaging through his tent across the way. His girlfriend, my old friend Sarah, is on the far side of the campground, cutting tullies (we call them cattails where I come from) for use in the sweat lodge later in the weekend, meaning that she is standing waist-deep in a lake during a thunderstorm. Peals of thunder rip through the air, some close enough to set off car alarms.

A tornado siren goes off. Neither Mark nor I knew tornado sirens could be heard from Gaea, despite both of us having visited the place regularly for decades.

Should we go down to the main hall? I ask. It’s a long walk from the back of First Field, and I’m not eager to make it in bog-ridden shoes if I don’t have to.

Supposed to, says Mark.

I think about it for a minute. If our friends go down there and we don’t, they’ll be worried that we got hurt or trapped.

The sirens stop, so we decide to stay put. But then a few minutes later they start again, and all three of us decide that means it’s time to go. We trek down to the main hall. None of our friends are there; I worry that they got hurt or trapped.

We find them, eventually. Sarah tells us she didn’t see any point in rushing across the dam to the main hall, even with the tornado sirens. She ran to her brother’s truck and hunkered down there with him. If I’m going to die, she said, I might as well die here.

2.

We sleep, or don’t sleep, in the car that night. I wake up in time to help with the Sunrise Ritual, though not entirely on purpose, but nobody else shows up besides Lorelei, the priestess; I suspect the rest of camp is also trying to recover from the long night.

I wander down to main gate and find that Gaea’s gravel road has been replaced by a whitewater rapid. The lake has spilled over the dam, and the water now rushes over the road in a torrent before falling into a ravine on the other side. I hopscotch across the bare chunks of foundation to the other side, where my friend Bill is trying to put a fuse back into his car without setting off the car alarm. (Unfortunately for all the sleepy Pagans, he does not immediately succeed.)

A long line of cars sits in the grass outside the gates; they had to pull off the road to let an ambulance in the night before, as a person had fallen and injured her knee. Nobody can bring their cars in; the road is closed by virtue of there being no road to speak of. Everyone has to drag their gear -– their tents and clothes and pans and food and bright blue plastic water jugs –- up to the campsites by way of a steep hill. None of us want to do it, but we know we have to. We procrastinate by talking about the rain.

See, the water’s already gone down a lot while we’ve been standing here, we say, pointing to water streaming over the dam. It’s true. In the past twenty minutes, it has degraded from a small river to merely a large creek. It’ll be clear in an hour or two.

And then what? The road is gone.

I guess we’ll have to get some gravel out here.

When is it supposed to rain again?

Afternoon. So if we’re lucky, they can lay down the gravel and get these cars up the hill before the rain washes the road away again.

We fall silent and watch the water recede for a little while longer, then look up again to the steel wool sky.

3.

I steal a few minutes for myself later that morning while it’s still clear and after we have dragged our camp to higher ground. I come to Heartland as much to visit Gaea’s hidden corners as anything else, and in the past few years, I have found myself drawn more and more to one particular spot, an oak tree a local Heathen group has given the name Forn Halr, that is, “Old Man.” Forn Halr grows out of the edge of a cliff, a huge old oak whose roots appear anchored in pure stone. The Heathens draped a hammer around his trunk with a necklace made of chain-links, and erected a stone altar before him. The dirt path leading up to Forn Halr is as soaked in mud as anywhere else at Gaea this weekend, but the ground around the tree itself is remarkably dry.

I always come to Forn Halr with a slight sense of unease. I know, of course, that Gaea’s innumerable ritual grounds were all thought of and built by other people for their own purposes. But Forn Halr feels like it belongs specifically to the people who named it in a way the others don’t. I feel as though I am trespassing, that I have entered the one part of Gaea that does not belong to me. But Forn Halr is also the most beautiful spot on the land, and the tree himself the most majestic denizen of these woods. And the magick I work here quickens like it does nowhere else on earth. I don’t belong here, and yet I wholly belong here. It is someone else’s, and it is entirely mine. And in this, I have much the same relationship to this grove as I do to all things named Heathen.

I pour a bottle of apple cider into a horn and share the drink with the Old Man’s roots, and then I lift my hammer from the rock altar and make a circle around the clearing. I whisper a prayer to Thor. We’re tired and wet, I say. Let us have a rest.

Sun dapples in through the canopy and plays upon the altar. It doesn’t rain for the rest of Heartland.

Column: Godsend

Eric O. Scott —  May 13, 2016 — 2 Comments

Last year saw the release of Apotheon, a computer game set in the milieu of Greek myth. The game’s striking visuals mimic the black-figure pottery of the 7th through 5th centuries BCE, which has the effect of making the game feel more distinctively identified with its source material than any of its predecessors. We look at the ancient vases and feel an aura of myth that cannot be replicated by modern illustrations; Apotheon plays on that aura to deliver a sense of wonder that could not be matched by more sophisticated, “realistic” graphics.

But despite Apotheon’s enchanting presentation, its plot engages in a common pattern not at all faithful to the mythology. The game begins by announcing that the gods have abandoned humanity and seek to punish mortals by denying divine gifts, up to and including the light of Helios, shrouding the world in darkness. A young hero named Nikandreos receives the blessing of Hera to fight back against the gods, climbing Mount Olympus and challenging them to battle. By the end of the game, Nikandreos has slain more than half of the Olympian deities, culminating in a final battle against Zeus. In the process of killing the gods, Nikandreos acquires their special tools – -Apollo’s lyre, Zeus’s thunderbolt, and so on -– and thus their powers. By the end of the game, Nikandreos has effectively become a single omnipotent god, commanding the might of every Olympian at once.

This plot bears a strong resemblance to that of the earlier God of War series, in which the protagonist, Kratos, similarly slays and replaces Ares as the titular god of war, and then goes on to slay other deities, culminating, just as in Apotheon, in a battle against Zeus. The pattern continues in other media as well: by the end of Wrath of the Titans (2012), the gods have perished, as much at the hands of mortal indifference as monsters. Even in the Greek mythology-inspired Theros set of the card game Magic: The Gathering, the plot revolves around a mortal hero, the planeswalker Elspeth, slaying a rogue deity with the ambiguously-named magical weapon Godsend.

One would think the gods only exist to die.

Elspeth slays Xenagos, God of Revels. (Art from the Magic: The Gathering card "Deicide" by Jason Chan.)

Elspeth slays Xenagos, God of Revels [Art from the Magic: The Gathering card “Deicide” by Jason Chan]

What’s puzzling is that all of these stories take as their basis Greek mythology, in particular; a mythology which makes a point of the immortality of its gods, in contrast to other myth-systems in which gods can and do die. The trope of mortals doing battle with the Olympians occurs very infrequently in the myths; Diomedes’ battle with Aphrodite, Apollo, and Ares in the Iliad is a rare example. Diomedes just manages to wound the gods, and even then only with the aid of Athena. The idea of a mortal actually slaying a god -– much less the “kill and absorb” motif found in Apotheon and God of War –- is unthinkable within the mythic worldview.

Now, it could be argued that this recurring plot line merely reflects the genre: namely, all the works mentioned have belonged to the action genre. This is especially true for video games; the notion that games must employ combat as a core mechanic remains entrenched in the medium, and games that eschew combat altogether are few and far between. In Apotheon and God of War, the vast majority of “characters” Nikandreos and Kratos interact with are merely targets for their weapons. The argument goes that a combat game requires enemies to fight, so in a game inspired by Greek mythology, one might as well fight against the Olympians. But that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny: Greek myth hardly lacks for fantastic monsters that players could battle, monsters with much more visual appeal and potential for interesting mechanics than the gods (who, in the end, tend to just resemble large humans).

I suspect there is more to it than a simple need for game mechanics. Notably, these works tend to also feature a story wherein the bond between the gods and humanity ruptures. In Apotheon, the gods turn against mortals as punishment for human arrogance; in God of War, Zeus betrays and attempts to murder Kratos; in Theros, the Zeus stand-in, Heliod, similarly betrays his follower Elspeth after she discharges her duty to him. (The Titans films, breaking with this pattern, have the bond severed on the other end: humans stop believing in the gods, and thus the gods become mortal and die.) The pattern is not just one of mortals fighting against gods: it is specifically the revelation that the Father God is a liar, hypocrite, and oath-breaker, who unjustly attacks his human subjects and must be deposed in response.

In other words, it seems to me that Greek mythology is being used in its traditional post-classical role as a stalking horse for Christianity, a version of religion that can be invoked and critiqued without exposing an author to the dangers of openly discussing the dominant religion. Gods -– mainly Zeus, a proxy for the monotheistic God -– act as open antagonists to humanity, and can be used metaphorically to condemn the perceived corruption of religion as a concept. The mortal human grows to have more power and agency than the gods themselves, and in their destruction, rises to a mastery of the cosmos; in the case of Apotheon, ultimately recreating human life as a new, singular deity.

The narrative parallels the decrease in religiosity in western societies. As the nones increase in number, this narrative becomes more and more attractive, for it allows a generation of nonreligious gamers to role-play their resistance to religion within the safe confines of a “dead” mythos. (A God of War where the hero kills Zeus is a fun action game; a God of War where the hero kills Yahweh is grounds for international controversy.) The Titans storyline, if anything, displays this atheistic motif more obviously: the rise of nones in their film universe is directly responsible for their demise.

It’s fascinating, if I’m sure disheartening to those who worship them, that the Greek gods get chosen for this duty. For the most part, gods of other mythologies get more sympathetic treatment in popular culture, even though their stories contain just as many incidents of jerking around their followers. But then, it’s nothing new for the classical gods to be used in this way: when King Lear laments that humans are as flies to the gods, he’s also referring to the Olympians.

The message arrives in Uppland, news from Theodric’s lands far to the south: the Irminsul has been destroyed, burned to ashes by the demon Charlemagne. The implications become clear – this latest pillaging of one of the Heathen faith’s sacred sites foretells the fall of Saxony into King Karl’s burgeoning empire, and a crippling blow to the power and influence of the gods of the north. I look to to my own lands, to the grand temple at Uppsala within my capital; like the Irminsul, this temple represents one of the faith’s strongholds. Could Charlemagne’s armies strike so far into Scandinavia? Could Sviþjod withstand that which Saxony could not? Is there any way to forestall the coming of Charlemagne and his White Christ?

Charlemagne destroys the Irminsul in a special event from Crusader Kings 2.

Charlemagne destroys the Irminsul in a special event from Crusader Kings 2.

This scenario races through the mind of the Jarl of Sviþjod, Sigurðr “Ring,” otherwise known as, well, me. I am playing a computer game, Crusader Kings 2. Despite the name, the game is less about the Crusades themselves and more about simulating the history of medieval Europe (and, as time goes on, many other parts of the world) during the period from the late 8th century to the middle of the 15th century.

The game is not so much to look at – graphically, it consists of a map and some pop-up windows detailing character traits and geographic features – but despite this, I have logged more than 300 hours playing it in the past 14 months. Although it features no voice acting, no elaborate plot beyond the inevitable march of history towards the modern era, and one of the steepest learning curves I have ever encountered in a computer game, Crusader Kings remains a compelling, immersive experience for me.

In Crusader Kings, the player takes on the role of a ruler in the Middle Ages – anything from a count, in control of only one province, up to the rulers of the continent-spanning empires of Byzantium and the Abbasid Caliphate. These rulers are mostly the historical figures known to have been in place at the time; at the start of the game, the map reflects an attempt at mirroring the actual geopolitical makeup as well as it can mirrored. But as soon as the player unpauses the game, history begins to change, as the AI immediately starts to take its characters in directions never borne out by the record. The player, of course, shapes the course of events to an even greater extent, given that the player can pursue a more elaborate strategy than the AI.

In time, the player’s character will grow old and die (or die in any number of other ways – it is the Middle Ages, after all), and the player takes on the role of their heir. Over the course of the centuries, the player will experience many generations of their rulers’ family line, guiding them to fame or ruin. There is no “goal,” so to speak, beyond a perfunctory points counter; the game relies on the player to develop their own goals, whether that be conquest, dynastic prestige, or serving as a loyal vassal to a more powerful ruler.

Now, a confession that should not surprise many: I almost always play pagan characters. By the time periods found in the game, Christianity and Islam have entirely eclipsed the classical pagan religions of the former Roman Empire, but the Germanic, Malian, Sámi, and Slavic peoples, among others, retain their historical pagan religions. And for me as a modern Pagan player of Crusader Kings, the option to play as a historical pagan draws me deep into the game.

Mechanically, Crusader Kings 2 simulates religion in a fairly deep way, certainly in comparison to other strategy games like the Civilization series. Religions have unique characteristics that result in distinctive play styles – Catholics, for example, must deal with the Pope and the church hierarchy. Unfortunately, most of the pagan religions in the game are fairly generic and interchangeable, with the exception of the Germanic religion, which has a number of special features. (Vikings get to have all the fun, as usual.) Pagans are also more susceptible to conversion by other religions, with the intention that, ultimately, the game will follow history and see the domination of the map by Christian religions. The only way to forestall this fate is for the pagan religions to “reform” themselves, adopting some of the features of the revealed religions and setting up a centralized hierarchy. Reformation is not an easy task to accomplish: a single ruler has to control a number of holy sites, many of which may be in the hands of other religions, and the religion itself must have a certain amount of “moral authority,” representing how well it stacks up against the challenges presented by other, competing religions.

A ruler reforms the Germanic faith, installing himself as a Pope-like Fylkr, in Crusader Kings 2.

A ruler reforms the Germanic faith, installing himself as a Pope-like Fylkr, in Crusader Kings 2.

Obviously, there is much to critique about this game system from a historical perspective. In the example with which I began, the Germanic holy site of Paderborn, site of the Irminsul, was lost to Charlemagne, an event which causes the Germanic faith to lose a large amount of its moral authority, making Germanic pagans more liable to convert to Christianity and making it more difficult to reform the religion. But it’s hard to imagine that Sigurðr up in Sweden would have even known the Irminsul existed, much less that its destruction would have such colossal consequences for the Germanic religion as a whole. The mechanics for reforming the faith demand an empire that would have been logistically impossible in the 9th century, as well. The game can also be critiqued for its assumption that the only way for a religion to thrive is to have a hierarchy and a central text; all successful religions, in other words, must mimic the Abrahamic faiths just to survive.

But in playing, I happily adjust to these mechanical demands. I build my unreasonable Viking empires and declare myself the Fylkir, head of a paganism that will not succumb to Charlemagne or his successors. The beauty of Crusader Kings is less that it accurately models history and more that it allows us to reimagine history as it might have been. We can sublimate ourselves into other identities and build a world that is different to ours. Some of the features of that world irk me; the Germanic religion, for example, focuses too much on the warrior-cult image of Norse society, and the Great Blot event focuses far too much on human sacrifice for comfort. But still. Think of it. A world without Olaf Tryggvason or St. Olaf. A world without Thorgeir Thorkellson’s fateful decision at the Althing. A world where ancient paganism survives the demon Charlemagne and his progeny. Even being aware of its flaws -– and there are many -– it’s an appealing idea, and in the game, it’s a world the player can achieve.

As a teenager, I spent a lot of energy worrying about the question of history: why did they win? “They,” of course, being the non-Pagan world, the conquerors, the crusaders, the inquisition. It was not a very sophisticated way of thinking about history, looking back on it, but it still rattled around in my head for many years. The answer, in the end, is “lots of reasons, and maybe they didn’t ‘win’ at all.” Playing this computer game doesn’t answer that question, of course. But playing in the guise of a historical pagan and working to create a different world from the one we have is cathartic, in its way, and the allure of this world-that-could-have-been is enough to keep me staring at the map on my screen for many hours to come.

When you die a pagan, roll +versed or +3 if you died in a fight or battle. On a hit your name lives on, affecting those that come after you. Create a token through which your memory survives: a poem, a story, a family heirloom, a runic inscription or something similar. On 10+ you gain 3 bonds, on 7-9 gain one. Spend these bonds at any time to influence those that know your memory.

-Gregor Vuga, Sagas of the Icelanders

Your author is always willing to Throw the Rune-Carved Bones.

Your author is always willing to throw the rune-carved bones.

I have played roleplaying games since I was a child, my activities peaking in college, where, alas, at one point I scheduled myself to play a different campaign every day of the week – and literally twice on Sundays. Although my time to play has diminished over the years, I retain a deep fondness for the art form and all its fascinating twists. No other form, for my money, gets deeper into ideas of identity and performance than a roleplaying game conducted purposefully: in a film we may see a character and sympathize with their actions, and in a novel we may listen in on a character’s interior monologue and discover how that character’s mind works. But in a roleplaying game, the player, who is also actor and author, actually shifts her conscious thought into a different mode of being and makes her decisions according to the preferences and abilities of a character who may have almost no resemblance to her usual personality. As the game designer Robin Laws said, “A roleplaying game is the only genre where the audience and the author are the same person.” So too is it the only genre where the audience identifies so closely with the protagonist, one becomes entirely subsumed by the other.

Because of this, roleplaying games also allow for fascinating experiments in religion. I have attended (for instance) Catholic church services before; I find them uncomfortable, because I am Pagan and everything about those services reminds me of the gulf between me and the congregation. Despite their frequent beauty I can only stand to be in those spaces for so long. But within the context of a roleplaying game I can assume a Catholic persona and attempt to act as that character would act; I am presented with the opportunity first to develop a theory of mind that matches the fictional biography of the character, and then to think according to the precepts of that theory. I understand that this theory must necessarily be incomplete, for I lack the lifetime of experience that informs an actual Catholic’s life and belief. But within the game, I can try my best to act according to the theory of the character I have developed – and from experience, I can say this: when it works, it can lead to what I can only call an epiphany of empathy.

Recently I have become interested in games that model, more or less realistically, other historical periods, and especially periods where old pagan religions were dominant. (This is a niche within a niche, of course: most roleplaying games encourage the play of sorcerers, vampires[1], and space marines, rather than historical personae.) This interests me for two reasons: one, because of the opportunity to inhabit a historical mindset and attempt to act within the bounds of what we know of historical pagan religions; and two, because I am fascinated by how games encourage these personae through their rules. Since actions in roleplaying games are mediated through rules (and, usually, through the game masters who interpret those rules), the rules themselves provide a document of the author’s own interpretation of history and attempts to incentivize players to act in accordance with that interpretation.

The game on my mind at the moment is Gregor Vuga’s Sagas of the Icelanders, a game meant to adapt, well, the sagas of the Icelanders, and more broadly the mid-9th century Icelandic society. Iceland has just finished its initial settlement period, and the Icelanders confront a number of drastic evolutions in their culture. Vuga’s Sagas tackles, through its mechanics, gender roles, societal in- and out-groups, legal affairs, and even family legacies – and, of course, it handles religion, as well.

The first page of the Goði rolebook. Art by Eva Mlinar.

The first page of the Goði rolebook. Art by Eva Mlinar.

In the course of play, players develop a character from a selection of archetypes, including the baseline characters of The Man and The Woman, who represent the common free farmers of the island; The Goði, a powerful (male) lawyer-priest; The Seiðkona, a wise woman with gifts of divination and sorcery; The Huscarl, a man-at-arms in service to a goði; and many others. These characters have access to a variety of “moves” that trigger at certain points in the narrative.[2] The quote at the beginning of this piece, when you die a pagan, is one such move. Some are basic narrative elements: when you tempt fate, when you look into someone’s heart, when you goad a man to action. Others, however, are more specific, and some specifically model the characters’ religious lives. Here is a move from The Goði playbook:

Rites: You can convert your and other people’s possessions into sacrifice. Hold sacrifice equal to their level in silver. While conducting a rite you can spend sacrifice, 1-for-1 to:

  • gain a bond with the gods
  • give the gods a bond with you
  • make it disappear and fill your coffers with an equal level of silver

Here the move presents the player with options about how their character interacts with the religious ceremony. The Goði’s sacrifice can potentially create a legitimate connection between himself and his gods: a “bond” is a kind of relationship currency that the parties can “spend” to influence one another, so a Goði who has a bond with (say) Óðinn can spend that bond to ask Óðinn for a favor. But a Goði is just as capable of ignoring the connection to the divine altogether and using the “sacrifices” provided by his followers to line his own wallet. The character’s religiosity can be either sincere or for show, depending on how the player conceives of the character’s attitude.

Historically, of course, Iceland adopted Christianity (supposedly after a meditative vision by the Lawspeaker Þorgeir Þorkellson at the Alþing in the year 1000). The game models this as well, with the moves when you accept the gospel of the White Christ and when you preach the gospel of the White Christ to an audience, a move which allows the player to convert other characters to Christianity. The mechanics end up emphasizing the inevitability of Christianity – there is no counter-move to encourage the Icelanders to remain with their Heathen gods – though the book also says that part of the point of the game is to work through whether the players’ Iceland turns out like the historical Iceland, or if they end up following a different path.

As a Heathen, the premise of Vuga’s Sagas of the Icelanders is immensely intriguing. The question of how well we can truly know the mindset of the ancient forbears of Ásatrú remains a prominent one in Heathen circles. While Vuga’s game is not perfect (some moves will raise the hackles of the stickler for historical accuracy), I appreciate the offers it makes to me as both a player and a Pagan: the chance to wander for a while in the mind of a medieval Heathen, and the chance to consider my own attitudes towards the past while playing.

 *   *   *

[1] Perhaps I should have mentioned my that the Catholic character above was a vampire? My apologies to Anne Rice.

[2] Sagas of the Icelanders is based off a game engine, conceptually similar to a video game engine, called Powered by the Apocalypse; all games in this family use the “triggered move” system.

The primordial level of the author's home altar, featuring a clay skull from the Voodoo Spiritual Temple. [Photo by author.]

The primordial level of the author’s home altar, featuring a clay skull from the Voodoo Spiritual Temple. [Photo by author.]

I hold in my hands a skull. It has the same terra cotta color as a flower pot, and the same kind of weight. White paint has been flecked across its surface; sigils have been painted. The lines rise up from the surface of the skull such that with closed eyes I can still run my fingers across the surface and know whose vévé I am tracing. Start at the base of the skull, the cross flanked by coffins: that’s Baron Samedi. Up now to the crown of the skull, to the crossroads marked out in green lines: Papa Legba. And further on, to the forehead, the most complex of the lot, drawn in purples and reds that almost fade into the skull’s natural color. Follow the lines: they form a heart with three crosses. Maman Brigitte. The base of her vévé sits on the ridge of the eye sockets; those dark cavities reveal nothing, no matter how long one looks.

Although I do not actively practice Vodun – nor would I want to without substantial training, given the obvious perils of a white Midwesterner trying to pick up religious practices from the African diaspora – I have kept this skull on my altar for many years. Today it sits on the bottom shelf of my shrine to various gods, in my conception the base from which the rest grows. It reminds me of death and history, and most of all, it reminds me of the place from which it came to me: the Voodoo Spiritual Temple in New Orleans.

Only two religious buildings have really excited a sense of the sublime in me. Neither belongs to a religion I practice, which maybe isn’t so surprising. One is the church on the grounds of the castle in Prague, St. Vitus Cathedral, which, like all the great Gothic masterpieces, overwhelms the viewer with its size and grandiose detail. The Voodoo Spiritual Temple, by contrast, has none of that obvious grandeur: from the outside it looks like just another storefront in the French Quarter, a squat, pale building with dark shingles and two gabled windows. But step inside, past the shop from whence my painted skull came. Follow the hallway down to an open door that looks out on a garden, and turn around: walk past shelves crammed with books on religion and history. The hallway opens up, and there before us rests the room that has held my imagination for a decade.

Priestess Miriam in the New Orleans Voodoo Spiritual Temple [Photo Credit: Sandy Wholuvsya]

Priestess Miriam in the New Orleans Voodoo Spiritual Temple [Photo Credit: Sandy Wholuvsya]

On a floor plan, I doubt the altar rooms seem much bigger than an average living room, but the space becomes so much bigger in person. Except for a few places where human feet can stand, icons and offerings fill every centimeter of those rooms. Tapestries and statues and votive candles, furniture and altars and drums. And everywhere offerings: sweets for the twins, the Marassa Jumeuax, cigarettes for the Ghede, dollar bills slipped into every available crevice. The light comes in through the windows, or the starry radiance of Christmas bulbs. In a meshed-in basket along the wall, the sacred serpent lies sleeping. Not otherworldly, but superworldly, a surfeit of human devotion. Was this planned? I hope not; the magick lies in the accumulation, the continual layering of object and sacrifice, a wave that builds until it crashes into the senses and drowns them.

Since that first visit, I have thought that the Voodoo Spiritual Temple represented the finest way to approach the Divine in a physical space. In my dreams I think sometimes of starting my own storefront shrine, not a copy of the Temple but kin to it. A religious space should welcome both the spirits and the flesh; too many invoke one but have no time for the other. The Temple, to my mind, melded the two more perfectly than any other church I had known.

The news last week that an electrical fire had broken out in the temple, bringing with it not only the obvious danger of the flames but the more insidious troubles of water and mold, represents more than just the condemnation of the building that housed the Temple. The Rampart Street address – across from Congo Square, itself a place of weighty significance for African-Americans in New Orleans – means much, but the Temple has not always been housed there. “The most sacred and pertinent items of the temple were spared fire,” says Witchdoctor Utu, a student of the Temple, invoking the watchful eye of its original priest, Oswan Chamani, to explain this good fortune. But I worry that this means many of the smaller items – those placed with less intention, perhaps, used less often in ritual, but still of significance, have been lost. A mosaic consists only of its many stones: pry enough away, and the picture itself loses form.

I have no doubt that Priestess Miriam and her companions will rebuild, hopefully in the same location and with many of the same accouterments. Aiyda, the sacred python, made it out alive, providing reason enough to celebrate. But it should remind us of the tenuous nature of so much of what goes into our lives. We all lack insurance over the specific configuration of our existence, our history, our magick. A chance spark can be enough to turn the whole thing upside down.

So now I lay in bed, looking at the skull on my altar, remembering this place and all its mystery. I close my eyes and trace the lines of the corridors, the pathways through the holy clutter, and look again on the gifts to the loa, now perhaps turned to burnt offerings. The lines of memory rise from the surface of the floor. With my ghostly feet, I trace the vévé of time.

Rise again, Temple. Rise again on the crest of your history, and begin the process of accumulating magick again.

The Voodoo Spiritual Temple still seeks donations for their recovery fund.

My coven-mate's flooded garden, taken on December 30th, 2015. Courtesy of AG.

My coven-mate’s flooded garden in Jefferson County, Missouri. Taken from a boat on December 30th, 2015.

I’ve spent almost my entire life in river cities. Follow the Missouri River and you’ll find a trail of my old homes – Kansas City, Columbia, and my hometown, St. Louis, where the Missouri enters the Mississippi. These cities, which form the Orion’s Belt of the state of Missouri, exist because of the river: American settlers following the course of the waterways, setting up trading posts and salt licks along its course, and before them, indigenous peoples from cultures as varied in time as the Kickapoo and the Mississippians. Without the rivers, the cities and the people in them don’t exist; their courses provide shape to the geography of human life.

But most of the time, I don’t realize the river is even there.

I realized the depths of this estrangement just before the New Year. My wife and I had been in St. Louis to visit our families for the Yuletide season. and were driving back to our home in Columbia. We passed by the Chesterfield Valley Athletic Complex and found it underwater. The soccer fields and baseball diamonds lay underneath three feet of water; medians between the fields stood as new-birthed islands. The Missouri River’s overflow came nearly to the highway, and it felt as though the world had dropped away entirely except for a few streaks of grass and pavement. I hadn’t realized how close the river was, that it normally ran just a few hundred yards to the north of this spot on the highway I drive four times a month. In my head, the river was a thing bridges ran over.

Thirty miles to the south, a member of my coven, another child of witches like I had been, was crossing over his farm on a canoe. The swollen Mississippi had spread itself down the tributaries, and tiny creeks that normally barely flowed at all had risen so much that seven feet of water stood on the ground. He posted a FEMA aerial photograph of the land, with markings for the 100- and 500-year flood marks; he made some corrections with a pen, showing the 500-year mark creeping even farther out in a jagged line towards his grandmother’s house. He spent fourteen hours working to salvage as much as he could from her basement, running pumps to keep the water at bay. In the end the water only got into his grandmother’s floor joists, which were made from planks of roughcut oak – old solid wood, the kind you can’t build with anymore – and they would be alright, as long as no mold started to grow. He said they were relatively lucky – had the water crested an inch and a half higher, things could have been much worse. At least nobody died. (Nobody there, at least – more than twenty other people in the region did, though.)

The last time we had flooding like this in St. Louis was 1993, when I was seven years old. That flood came in over months of rain, such that it stretched out over the entire summer of that year – quite different from the recent floods, which came in only two days. The flood more or less destroyed the communities in southern Missouri and Illinois where my father’s parents had grown up. His mother’s hometown, Kaskaskia, had been so ruined by the flood that the 2010 census found only 14 residents. My grandfather has told me stories of the abandonment of Kaskaskia hundreds of times since then, enough that it almost feels as though I remember it firsthand. My only real memory of the Flood of ‘93 comes from a videotape my grandmother had, put out by one of the local news stations in the aftermath. I remember seeing trees sticking out of the brown river, the ripples of its current appearing at once meandering and rapid. But that picture is framed by my grandmother’s television set.

It always feels like a surprise to me, when the rivers overtake their banks, when they begin to pour into our streets and our basements, when they wash over fields and wash away houses. Because my life revolves around human structures – appointments, academic semesters, final exam weeks, deadlines, even the calendar of Sabbats – I trick myself into forgetting that the world itself does not set itself up according to those strictures. While the cities I call home would not exist without the rivers, they stay out of sight most of the time, and are forgotten. But then sometimes the El Nino currents arrive, sometimes the rains fall for two days, sometimes they fall for months. Sometimes the river just rises, closing down all those human highways and human strip malls and human lives.

It’s tempting to personify the river in these moments, and the first time I wrote this sentence, that’s exactly what I did: Sometimes the river reasserts itself, presents a testament to its presence and immensity. But even that is misguided. The river does not need to remind any human of what it is. The river exists independent of us. It does not flood to prove a point. It floods because that’s what rivers do. We’re the ones who forget.

The crest of the water has moved on from us now. Across the St. Louis area, people have begun to dig out and clean up from the damage wrought by the flood. In the news, this damage is always expressed in dollar amounts: $235 million in St. Louis County alone, for example. Not to downplay that reality, since of course money and capital are daily concerns for anyone in this society, but the fact that we cannot express this in any other way seems like another indication of our alienation from the world on which we live. I worry that, once we pay the tab on this flood’s wake, we will then simply wait to be surprised by the next one.

As for my brother with the flooded farm, he, to his credit, never said anything bitter about the river itself – at least not that I know of. (I wouldn’t be surprised if a few choice words were exchanged when an upright freezer fell on him while clearing out his grandmother’s basement.) Although I know this has been an exhausting and expensive season for him, he’s maintained his Pagan soul. When he and his wife were asked what they would do, they said they would salvage, rebuild, and plant rice in the spring.

Shrine to Astarte. Palestinian, reportedly from Jordan (Mt. Nero), Iron Age IIB-IIC, ca. 800 BCE. Terracotta. On display at the University of Missouri Museum of Art and Archeology. Photo by the author.

Shrine to Astarte.
Palestinian, reportedly from Jordan (Mt. Nero).
Iron Age IIB-IIC, ca. 800 BCE. Terracotta.
On display at the University of Missouri Museum of Art and Archeology.
Photo by the author.

For the most part, I spend the hours of my life allotted to religious devotion at my altar or outdoors, working in the spaces I have built and in the spaces provided by the Goddess herself. I do not usually need much: a table and some candles, or even just a quiet path in the woods. But every so often I feel the need for something else, and in those times, I find myself entering museums, seeking a window onto the past.

Today I am sitting on the floor in front a glass case in the University of Missouri’s Museum of Art and Archeology. The museum building housed the university hospital a few years ago; I am told that this room, which holds the collection of materials from the ancient world, was once the surgery ward. (The gods of Egypt dwell in a case standing where an operating table once lay, I’m told, which makes a certain kind of macabre sense.) The museum is quiet, as it is a few days before Thanksgiving and most students have fled Columbia for their hometowns; the only noise I hear is my own breath and the intermittent chatter of the security guards.

The case in front of me holds a terracotta shrine, nearly three thousand years old, surrounded by miniature water vessels and clay bowls with bottoms burnt by ancient fires. The shrine comes from Jordan, around Mount Nebo. A placard notes that the shrine appears to be a miniature copy of the designs for temples to Astarte in that region. The shrine and its vessels were found buried together, along with a horse-shaped rhyton, and have been kept together to show the shrine more or less in situ. The only addition to the exhibit is a tiny icon of Astarte herself, placed in the center of the shrine where her statue would have stood in the full-sized temples of this style.

I had only known this shrine existed for a few days: a friend in the Art History and Archeology program had mentioned it during a holiday get-together the weekend before. Immediately I felt a need to see it in person, indeed, a need to venerate it, which struck me as odd. I have no standing relationship with Astarte, certainly no stronger bond than I have with some of the other gods represented by items in the museum collection. Perhaps it was that peculiar word, shrine, and the way my friend described it as likely having been some long-forgotten household’s personal devotional space. In this collection and others, I had seen many icons of deities, some of which roused feelings of the sublime in me, but I could not recall seeing the actual altar of an ancient pagan before, not in person, anyway.

An icon can mean many things, even to a non-Pagan viewer: one can look at an icon and be reminded of myths, of history, or even of the way a human body is rendered. An icon can be adored, but as a lone object, it invites the viewer to interpret it as needed. (It must be said that this interpretative freedom, at least within the space of a museum, is usually achieved precisely because these icons are no longer found in the context of the space in which they were originally viewed.)

A shrine, on the other hand, exists for the daily work of religion: pouring libations, offering sacrifices, pausing in the midst of daily chores to glance at the face of the goddess. A household shrine like this one would have belonged to the thrum of a family’s life, as essential as the hearth or the table. It had been created, in short, to be used. And while I suppose the same could be said for any number of items in the museum collection, from the black iron blades hanging behind the shrine to the assortment of clay jugs and bowls surrounding it, it seemed particularly sad to me for the shrine to lay dormant. I cannot make use of the shrine in the way its original owners did, since I suspect the museum staff would object to pouring new libations from those ancient cups, but I can meditate on it, taking a few moments to venerate the goddess within.

The question crosses my mind as I sit contemplating the shrine of the process by which it came here, how it came to be dug up, bought, sold, and transported across the world from Jordan, and whether I have any right to it; the museum trade is, perhaps unavoidably, embedded within colonialism, and while I don’t have any reason to assume that this shrine was acquired unethically, it belongs to a tradition of Europeans and Americans taking as many of the interesting bits of other cultures as we can get our hands on away from the lands where they were made and used to sit in our museums. I would never suggest an end to museums or exhibits like this, because I know how much they have enriched my life, both culturally and religiously, but the thought does give me pause.

Such thoughts remind me that we are always in communion with a sea of ghosts: the ancient Palestinians whose hands lifted these vessels in devotion to Astarte, the archeologists and historians who uncovered this shrine and brought it here, the modern Pagans who brought the name Astarte to my lips as a child, the surgeons and the patients of the surgery ward, the modern Jordanians who would look upon this shrine and perhaps see something very different than I do. These shadows crowd the floor of the museum exhibit, looking at the shrine and the icons and the collection of Roman coins, speaking to one another of the strange paths that led them here, to this shrine to Astarte. But a human voice calls from the foyer, and the phantoms vanish at the sound.

Graduate students protest at the University of Missouri. Photo courtesy of Carrie Miranda.

Graduate students protest at the University of Missouri. [Photo Courtesy of Carrie Miranda.]

Our circle clusters around an altar in a south St. Louis back yard, framed by the red brick walls of buildings in the alley and painted in the orange glow of sodium lights from the street. I am eating my piece of communion along the circle’s western edge – I always call the spirits of the west, if given the chance – and listening to the opening notes of The Doors’ song The End, playing over wireless speakers from the altar. I don’t care for recorded music in ritual, as a rule, but it works for me tonight. It’s Samhain, after all; this is the end, indeed.

An hour later, while standing in the kitchen eating a toasted cheese ravioli, I check my phone. The headline: Mizzou football players go on strike.

I may have uttered an expletive.

Let me back up. I go to school at the University of Missouri. I’m a PhD student in the English department there and, over the course of this semester, there have been large protests and demonstrations put on by a variety of student groups. I am part of the Steering Committee for one, the Forum on Graduate Rights, which has called for better conditions for graduate students.

Many of the protests have centered on racism at Mizzou, and one of the activists involved in those anti-racism protests, Jonathan Butler, began a hunger strike on Nov 2 with the aim of removing University System President Tim Wolfe from office. The football players’ announcement came six days into the hunger strike[1], a week during which there were mass demonstrations and other actions on campus. The story and the timeline are much more complicated than I have room for here; I suggest this piece by the student newspaper, The Maneater, as a good starting point.

Within 18 hours of the announcement, my organization had called for a walk-out in solidarity with the anti-racist protesters; within 48 hours, both Wolfe and University Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin had resigned their positions. The media narrative had largely shifted from the protests and their aims in general to an interrogation of the relationship between the protesters and the media.

The day after the resignations, the Forum on Graduate Rights held a rally for social justice across the street from Jesse Hall, the campus’ main administration building. I served as the emcee. We had speakers from the faculty, the graduate students, and from the group of anti-racist protesters at the core of the story, Concerned Student 1950, followed by a silent march through the administration building to the omphalos of the University of Missouri, the historic columns that stand at the center of our quadrangle. We ended our action with a chant: Mizzou, united, will never be defeated. And then we dispersed, off into interviews with newspapers and radio stations; off into figuring out how to salvage our course syllabi; off into a night of anonymous threats and wildfire rumors – off into a world we knew would be different in ways we could not fully predict.

I’m not really an activist by temperament – indeed, before August, I don’t think I had ever participated in any protests at all. Many of the people I work with now have been doing these things for years, some since they were teenagers; in that respect, I’ve had to catch up on a lot. The debates within activist circles about the best ways to organize and mobilize, the best ways to achieve our goals, and the best ways to deal with internal conflicts as well as external ones all came fresh to me. But in other ways the whole process felt quite familiar.

I know I’m not the first person to draw the connection between protest and magick – I read Gods and Radicals too – but I am struck by the correspondence. Magick seems like a sudden thing, I think, to those who do not work it: burn some incense, draw some diagrams, light a candle, and poof, watch it happen. To the outside world, what happened on my campus over the past two weeks might seem the same way – Megyn Kelly, the Fox News anchor, claimed that “in a period of 72 hours, a small group of angry black protesters managed to force the resignation of the two highest-ranking officials at the school,” for example. And if all one knew about the story was that one person had gone on hunger strike and eventually a group of football players joined in solidarity with that individual, it would look that way. Work the spell, wait three days, and watch the world change.

But when I think of the actual magick I have worked in my life – the way I meditated on the bindrune that would become my wife’s wedding ring for months, or the pact I made with Óðinn for my academic studies, or the most apt comparison of all, my family coven’s ongoing ritual of maintaining itself for the past three decades – it becomes clear to me that few forces are as subtle or deliberate as magick. Magick takes time, and preparation, and most of all, patience. As it is with activism too: the “72 hours” narrative neglects months of work by thousands of students and staff members, not to mention neglect that stretches back far beyond the tenure of those two administrators. Dramatic moments of change happen only because the will of the actor – the magician, the activist, the one-and-the-same – prepared for those moments long in advance.

Thinking back now to our Samhain ritual, I remember what my friend Tom, one of the officiants, said: that although we think of Samhain as a time to remember the dead, it is also a time to begin working through the burden of the past. A time not only to remember our ghosts, but to start moving past them. I look back on these two weeks, and everything that led up to them – at all those ghosts we’ve carried – and I hope that my friend’s words prove to be right.

[1] We celebrated Samhain a week late this year.

[Columnist Eric O. Scott is one of our talented monthly columnists and the creator of the Viking Panda. If you enjoy reading his work, consider donating to our Wild Hunt Fall Fund Drive and help us to bring you daily news and commentary. We are completely reader-funded, so it is you that makes it all possible!  And, if you do contribute at the correct level, you will receive your very own Eric Scott Viking Panda drawing. Donate today and help keep The Wild Hunt going for another year. Thank You.]

Your author is supposed to get through all of these books by December. Gulp. (Photo by the author.)

Your author is supposed to get through all of these books by December. Gulp.
[Photo Credit: E. Scott]

I have a special bookcase in my office, completely filled with the books I am reading to prepare for my comprehensive examinations later this year. Comps, which a friend of mine describes as “academia’s last accepted form of hazing,” are a year-long process in my program, in which students create a long list of books on certain themes, then write and defend essays based on those books. I have, as a result, been throat-deep in reading, focusing mainly on religious memoirs, the autobiographical accounts of individuals and their relationships to whatever they conceive of as Divine. These accounts break down, at least in my schema, into two kinds of work, the placed and the unplaced – those works in which the author’s experience of being in a certain location drives the text, and those more ephemeral narratives that worry less about the world around the author and more about the world within. Among the “placed” narratives, pilgrimage narratives grab my attention the most – stories of people who have traveled to distant lands in the name of their religion.

To read these pilgrim tales, especially those from the classical and medieval periods, is to be drawn into a foreign world where such travel was rare, expensive, and dangerous. It seems that every medieval expedition to Jerusalem involved at least one pirate attack, forcing even pacifists like the Franciscan friar Niccolo da Poggionsi to take up crossbows in self-defense. The ocean and the desert constantly threaten to devour those souls who attempt to cross them; while the autobiographers obviously survive to tell their tales, one has to wonder how many failed.

One thing that these old texts seem to lack, however, is a sense of personal revelation upon reaching the destination. Niccolo’s account of his pilgrimage, for example, stops using the first person voice entirely once he reaches the Holy Land, even though he uses it to describe his voyage in moving and dramatic detail. Consider his description of the Garden of Gethsemane:

On the road that leads up to Mount Olivet, you find on the right a piece of a wall and you enter a small plain, kept like a garden with trees. This place is called the flowery garden, in which Christ was arrested, and by Judas Iscariot betrayed. And here the Apostles slept when Christ prayed to his Father. And here was raised a church, which is now in ruins, and there are two big stones; and it is said that in that place Christ will stand with all his Apostles, to judge the just and the unjust; therefore the pilgrims pass the place on the right and say: Jesus Christ, make me stand on this side, me and my relatives. In this garden there is an indulgence of VII years. 

To my modern eyes, this seems like such a strange passage. Niccolo is writing about one of the most important places in his religion – the garden in which Jesus was turned over to the Roman authorities, directly leading to the Crucifixion. Yet there is no portion of his commentary that focuses on his own emotional experience of being in the place where his god once stood, no sense of awe, or wonder, or disillusionment. And this is the case with all of these older pilgrimage accounts, too; for some reason, the Holy Land does not bring out the kind of enthusiasm one might expect from someone devoted enough to risk their life to visit. In some cases, we have nothing more gripping than a list of room measurements and the number of years one might be able to shave off of Purgatory. It’s not until quite recently – the 18th and 19th centuries, as best as I can tell – that the personal sentiments of the author begin to get expressed. Even in The Innocents Abroad, one of Mark Twain’s lesser-known books, wherein Twain goes on a “pleasure cruise” to the Holy Land with a group of other Americans (the “innocents” of the title), much of the text reads like a scoffing guidebook. Yet we begin to find passages like this one, a reflection Twain makes just after finally arriving in the Holy Land:

We do not think, in the holy places; we think in bed, afterward, when the glare, and the noise, and the confusion are gone, and in fancy we revisit alone the solemn monuments of the past, and summon the phantom pageants of an age that has passed away.

Þingvellir, Iceland. (Photo by the author.)

Þingvellir, Iceland.
[Photo Credit: E. Scott]

Because I am studying religious autobiographies from the western tradition, the majority of my authors are European or American Christians. But they remain fascinating to me, in part because they form the context for what pilgrimage might mean in modern Paganism. There has been some scholarship on this topic – Kathryn Rountree has written about Goddess worship pilgrimages to Greece, for example, and Jenny Blain’s Sacred Sites, Contested Rites/Rights project has explored British Heathenry’s relationship to place – but in many ways Pagans are still figuring out what exactly religious travel looks like, and what it means to our religious practices.

Take, for example, the impact of history on the significance of a pilgrimage site. Twain’s quote takes it as a given that a “holy place” must, by definition, evoke those “phantom pageants of an age that has passed away.” And indeed, in the Abrahamic milieu in which The Innocents Abroad takes place, that statement rings true. It is also true in some cases for modern Pagans – Rountree’s Goddess worshippers visit neolithic sites in order to connect with a “deep past” that doesn’t seem to exist in their own back yards, and, in my own experience, part of the majesty of seeing Þingvellir for the first time came from how important that place was to the Heathens who settled Iceland. But the most common kind of pilgrimage undertaken by modern Pagans, at least in the United States, is to places like the Doubletree Hotel in San Jose or my own beloved Gaea Retreat in Maclouth, Kansas – sites of living, vibrant religious festivals, places where the concern is on the here and now, not the “solemn monuments of the past.” And in the place of Niccolo’s impersonal descriptions of Biblical sites, we now have a Pagan internet full of personal reactions and experiences, the emotional intimacy of which would shock the autobiographers of old.

The Forn Halr altar at Gaea Retreat. Photo by the author.

The Forn Halr altar at Gaea Retreat.
[Photo Credit: E. Scott]

As both academic and adherent, I love to ponder the ways we, still living in the young days of these religious movements, define the terms of our faith. Pilgrimage – the idea of travel motivated by religion – is one of those big ideas whose contours we’re all still feeling out. We haven’t yet thrown up the guideposts that many other religions have; as with many things in Paganism, we’re often making it up as we go along. As I read through these stacks of dead men’s travels, I can’t help but wonder how readers in the ages to come will respond to our own accounts, and what kinds of traditions we will ultimately leave behind us.

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A ceremonial offering bowl, containing Thor and Spam. Photograph courtesy Lauren Pond.

A ceremonial offering bowl, containing Thor and Spam. Photograph courtesy Lauren Pond.

Lauren Pond’s photography had me the first time I saw the Spam. In a photoessay about Heathens, one would expect to find pictures of things like wooden statuettes, leather belts, and offering bowls – the kinds of items that have an intrinsic ritual significance, which seem to automatically activate the area of the brain designated for religion. But one does not expect to find the blue cans of meat nestled in right next to these icons. Of all the things I have read about Valgard Murray, the controversial (to say the least) leader of Asatru Alliance and owner of the items in the photograph, the depths of his predilection for Spam were not among them. But Lauren Pond’s pictures focus on exactly these sorts of details – the human quirks of religious cultures that are often drowned in the seas of theology and ritual.

Pond has been photographing religious communities since 2006, when she traveled to the Indian city Vrindavan, known for being home to more than 15,000 Hindu and Hare Krishna widows. Her photos of the widows capture them attempting to survive despite their cultural stigma. They visit ashrams not only for spiritual reasons, but also for the rupees dispensed for their participation. “I didn’t think of it as a religion documentary at the time,” Pond said. “I thought of it as a humanitarian story.” But gradually Pond began to see that religion was the thread tying her work together. “I never thought that I would be documenting that,” she said, “but I decided that was what I wanted to focus on.”

Since her documentary in Vrindavan, Pond has photographed a number of religious communities. Her photoessays tend to focus on congregations on the fringes of society. Her essay Les Talibes covers the lives of Senegalese children who beg for money while studying the Qur’an. Test of Faith, The Next Generation and A Struggling Tradition examine three very different Pentecostal congregations in the southern United States. Pond takes an ethnographic approach to her work, and in some cases she has spent years developing a rapport with the people she photographs. “I’m not a member [of any of these communities] and I don’t participate in any of the rituals I photograph, but I like to develop a relationship with people,” she said. “That’s why I work on projects for long periods of time, too. That’s what helps build the trust.”

A group of Heathens march to a ritual at Christopher Creek, Arizona. Courtesy of Lauren Pond.

A group of Heathens march to a ritual at Christopher Creek, Arizona.
Photograph courtesy of Lauren Pond.

Among the religious groups Pond has worked with are American Asatruar. Pond has been photographing Heathens since 2010, working with groups in Ohio, California, and Arizona. She covers these experiences in her essay American Heathens, which focuses primarily on her visits to events held by Asatru Alliance in Arizona. The photographs in American Heathens seem to dwell on the apparent anachronisms of their subjects: the photos show Heathens in Viking tunics being photographed by smartphones, longships painted on camper trailers, beer cans scattered among waraxes. Pond says those contrasts are what intrigue her about Asatru: “It’s that blend of American culture and the religious aspects.”

“In photography especially, in our portrayals of religion, I think we tend to focus on the theology and the belief system,” says Pond, “but there is so much outside of that which would help to contextualize the actual beliefs and rituals that gets ignored entirely.” With her work on Asatru, Pond says that, unfortunately, she is more limited to photographing the ceremonial events than she is with some of her other projects, mostly due to time and travel constraints. “I wish I were able to visit on a more daily basis and spend time with them, but it just hasn’t happened so far. Of course, at the Yule Festivals and the Althing, there is a lot of hanging around, but it’s still not daily life.”

Even within the current limitations of the project, however, Pond’s interest in the mixture of the “mundane” with the “ceremonial” remains apparent. In the above photograph, for instance, Heathens in ritual clothing, led by a man holding a spear, are marching off to their rites – yet Pond’s framing of the picture makes sure to include the campground shelter and the village of nylon tents. The photo makes clear that both the “sacred” and “profane” elements of this scene are integral parts of the religious experience.

In the future, Pond hopes to expand her work on Heathenry to include more groups. In addition to the American Heathens essay, the Singles section of her website includes photographs of Heathens in her home state of Ohio, as well as members of a prison kindred in California. She has also attended a Troth Yule ceremony and hopes to soon photograph Heathen communities outside the United States as well. Pond’s American Heathens, along with Jennifer Snook’s recent book – also titled American Heathens – suggests that a turn toward ethnography in work about Heathenry is upon us. Pond thinks that this ethnographic approach is important because of how it humanizes religion. “When you study just theology, all you see is the differences between religions,” she says. “When you break it down into daily life – into moments – you begin to see the people.”

Katherine Stewart and Grant Smith try to ward off storm clouds. Photograph courtesy Lauren Pond.

Katherine Stewart and Grant Smith try to ward off storm clouds.
Photograph courtesy Lauren Pond.

When I ask Lauren Pond which photograph in her essay means the most to her, she pauses to think, then directs me to a picture of a man and a woman with their arms raised towards the sky, which glows in vivid blue and pink. “They were having a blot – I want to say it was the Odin blot,” Pond recalls of the photo, taken at a Heathen gathering she photographed at Christopher Creek, Arizona, in 2014. “There were these clouds rolling in all day, and just after the blot started, the skies opened up. That particular image was right before the downpour. They were gathered over by the edge of the campground and were asking for protection.” Pond, who also does nature photography, found this confrontation between the Heathens and the sky fascinating. “I think what was most interesting to me was that, in that moment, there was a definite connection between people and nature.” Ultimately the invocation failed – the downpour came and everyone had to run for cover, and the rest of the weekend was rained out. “I slept in my car,” says Pond. “I guess Arizona has a monsoon season.”

 

All images were used with permission from the artist and under copyright. © 2006-2015 Lauren Pond. All rights reserved.