Archives For Eric O. Scott

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.

Bilden http://www.historiska.se/data/?bild=341354 som visar objektet http://www.historiska.se/data/?foremal=109043

Oden från Lindby. Bronze. Historiska Museum, Sweden.
Gabriel Hildebrand SHMM

The figure stands, unsteady and misshapen, only a few centimeters tall. It lacks its left arm, and its bronze form has become so weathered that I cannot easily read its face; the head rises to a point like an arrowhead, and two curving lines beneath the nose suggest a mustache. Its right eye is just a slit in the metal; a protruding oval marks the wide left eye. A nearby sign lists the figure’s provenance: Lindby, Skåne, Sweden, created sometime during the Iron Age – there’s no more definite date given than that.

Because the figure is missing an eye, it is usually interpreted as the god Odin.

I had not known this figure, Oden från Lindby, was in the Field Museum’s Vikings exhibit before I came face to face with it. It sits in a round glass case that formed one-third of a circle near the far end of the exhibit’s opening hall. In the hollow at the center of the cases, a projector displays a computer model of the Nine Worlds of Norse mythology, controlled by a touch screen on the outside of the circle. For those seeking the vikings’ myths, this display is the heart of the exposition; beyond this, it’s all ship’s nails and broadswords, blacksmith’s tools and relics of the White Christ. But here, in this case, Odin Allfather stands, incarnated in an inch of bronze.

The Oden was not the only manifestation of the gods in this circle. The Vanir, Freyja and Freyr, appeared as well, and the exhibition featured several Thor’s Hammer pendants. But the figure of Odin catches my attention more than the others. Despite the throng of museum attendees circling the cases, I have to stop and kneel in front of the case for a better look. The fragility of the piece strikes me – the phantom arm, the worn-away feet. I wonder how it had even been found. Had the shovel gone into the dirt three inches in either direction, it could have been missed entirely.

The strangeness of seeing this statue before me, just a few inches away behind the glass shield, increased because I knew this statue intimately, after a fashion. A replica of it – made of clay from the sacred Ganges River, the manufacturers were always keen to say – has sat on my altar since I’ve had an altar. It’s not an exact copy. The replica has both of its arms, and instead of the original’s dilapidated feet has clay filled in to make a sturdy base. (Although the replica shares the original’s arrowhead skull, for some reason, the sculptor chose not to copy the original’s prominent nose, instead leaving Odin with eyebrows that seem to slope directly down into his mustache, giving his face a somewhat squid-like character.)

I can’t say when I came by this statue; perhaps as a Yule present, long ago, along with a heftier bronze statue of Thor. It began at the outer edges of my altar and slowly worked its way into its present central position, mirroring my own relationship to Odin and to Heathenry in general. I have carried it with me to Pantheacon and Reykjavík, a companion on my pilgrimages. The most powerful vision of my mystical career came while sitting in front of this little statue. If you were to ask me for the image that comes to me when you say the name Odin, it would be the face of this replica by firelight.

I kneel there by the case, struck by this figure which I both see every night before I sleep and have never seen before in my life, still caught by the size of it, the delicacy. A person could put all three of these figures, Odin, Freyja, and Freyr, into their cupped hands and still have room for the Thor statuette sitting in the National Museum of Iceland. These little fragments of the past, so unlike the monuments that have survived from Greece and Egypt. A few months ago, I found myself staring up with awe into the impassive face of a plaster cast of Athena Velletri, who stands ten feet tall. This Odin is not so tall as that Athena’s little finger. The feeling it inspires for me is not awe, but astonishment, the wonder that such a thing still exists to be seen at all.

When Christian preachers spoke against the ancient pagan religions, idol worship was invariably one of the greatest targets of their scorn. Augustine wrote in his commentary on Psalm 115, “For they have mouths, and speak not: eyes have they, and see not. They have ears, and hear not: noses have they, and smell not. They have hands, and handle not; feet have they, and walk not; neither cry they through their throat. Even their artist therefore surpasseth them, since he had the faculty of moudling them by the motion and functions of his limbs, though thou wouldest be ashamed to worship that artist. Even thou surpassest them, thought they has not made these things, since thou doest what they cannot do.” The heathen worships idols, but they are deaf, dumb, and dead; they worship rocks and mistake them for gods. Apparently such preaching was effective; I’m reminded of the legend of Thorgeir the Lawspeaker, who, after making the decision for Iceland to become Christian, threw his statuary into the waterfall Goðafoss, many centuries after Augustine.

But that particular line of attack feels like the worst kind of simplistic literalism to me. Of course the idol is not the god. Has anyone ever really thought that? Even in the most grandiose legends of statues with hidden levers and contraptions supposedly meant to gull the naive into believing false miracles, they were only manifestations of deity. Of course the idol is made of metal or stone; of course it is made by human hands. That’s the point. They form a bridge between the human and the numinous; they give us a focus for the invisible, a face for something that is, at its core, faceless.

This little statue of Odin – this little thing – is not Odin himself. But it is a link between me and the ancient heathen who once held it. Perhaps he or she carried it in a pocket, a reminder of their devotion, as I carry the replica in my suitcase. It is worn, a little broken, a little decrepit. But it survives.

I quickly kiss the glass, like an Orthodox Christian before an icon, and rise to let the little girl next to me have her time with the Allfather.

(The Vikings exhibit runs until October 4th at Chicago’s Field Museum.)

Ásatrúarfélagið, the Icelandic Ásatrú organization, has attracted widespread international attention since announcing plans to build a temple in downtown Reykajavík last February. Although much of that attention has been positive, it was reported earlier this week by the Icelandic news service Vísir that Ásatrúarfélagið had received hate mail and threats of vandalism from foreign Pagans. These threats have, in turn, forced Ásatrúarfélagið to consider the security of its temple and the relationship of its organization to the rest of the world.

asatruarfelagid logo

According to the alsherjargoði, or high priest, of Ásatrúarfélagið, Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, the society began to receive large amounts of hate-mail in February, just after a widely-circulated article about the temple was published in Iceland Magazine. Although the society has always attracted the occasional letter of this sort throughout its four-decade history, this surge of messages was unprecedented.

Even more troubling, however, are alleged plans by several Heathen groups in Germany and the United States to “re-consecrate” the Icelandic temple once it has been completed. “At least three groups have been talking about going to Iceland,” Hilmar told The Wild Hunt. “They say, ‘it’s our temple, it’s our heritage, and these Icelandic idiots are doing it all wrong.'”

These re-consecration ceremonies reportedly would involve scattering blood throughout the temple, which goes against Ásatrúarfélagið’s condemnation of animal sacrifice in their religious practice. The rituals, should they be attempted, would be intended to suggest the illegitimacy of Ásatrúarfélagið, while at the same time acknowledging the importance of the temple.

From Ásatrúarfélagið’s point of view, many of the recent attacks stem from a perception that the organization wants to dictate the rules of Ásatrú for everyone. “The thing is, because we have made a point of being the Icelandic Ásatrú society, we don’t do outreach,” says Hilmar. “We never really have never had any interest whatsoever in guiding anyone outside of Iceland in their beliefs. Everyone is free to do what they want on their own turf. We are working in Iceland to serve Icelandic needs.” Hilmar does not believe his duties involve being a Heathen missionary: “We are not looking for lost sheep from the house of Ingvar Ragnarsson.”

Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, alsherjargoði of Ásatrúarfélagið. From his Wikipedia page.

Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, alsherjargoði of Ásatrúarfélagið. [via Wikimedia]

In particular, there is a clash between Ásatrúarfélagið’s long-held support for same-sex marriages and some anti-LGBTQ Heathens. Ásatrúarfélagið advocated for the legal authority to perform same-sex marriages as early as 2003, years before Iceland passed its 2010 gender-neutral marriage law. Ásatrú weddings are increasingly popular among same-sex couples in Iceland today. Although Heathenry at large does not discriminate against homosexuality, there are some segments of the religion that consider homosexuality to be inherently dishonorable, and an extreme fringe that sees any support for LGBTQ issues as equivalent to “spiritual terrorism.” This fringe seems to be responsible for the majority of the messages being delivered to Ásatrúarfélagið since February.

Given these threats of vandalism, Ásatrúarfélagið now must consider how to handle foreign visitors to its temple. One idea being considered is to only allow visitors into the temple as part of guided tours. “When it was first suggested to me, I just laughed it off and said, ‘no, no, that won’t be necessary,'” said Hilmar. “To me, the idea of a religious building is that it should be open for worship. The last two or three months have really made me reconsider. We are used to people coming to us – in the summer time, there are more foreigners in our open house meetings in our office in Síðmúla than there are Icelanders. We’re used to those people being really polite and really nice and thanking us for the hospitality… So it’s a shock that we’re suddenly being put into this spot.”

After the publication of the article in Vísir, a number of Pagans have posted notices supporting Ásatrúarfélagið and calls for equality throughout Paganism. At the time of this writing, a Facebook event, “Ásatrúarfélagið – we are at your side!,” created by has attracted nearly 2000 supporters. There have also been petitions created by Pagan writer Yvonne Aburrow and open letters posted by Heathens United Against Racism and Kindred Irminsul, the Costa Rican kindred previously covered by The Wild Hunt. For the Kindred, Esteban Sevilla said:

All the way from Costa Rica, we stand with you and your right to marry LGBT couples. What you have done is admirable and an example to follow, you have stood against racism and homophobia, you believe anyone can practice Ásatrú regardless of their ethnicity or sexuality. To me this deserves an applause and I explicitly request others to send you support in your mission.

Hilmar has expressed his gratitude for the support. “It’s surprised me in a pleasant way,” he said, “because I’m used to nice people not being as vocal as the obnoxious ones.” The outpouring of support has dwarfed the amount of malicious messages, but the attention garnered by the negative statements has worn on the society, especially when they appear in public spaces like Ásatrúarfélagið’s Facebook page.

The temple announcement has attracted more attention than Ásatrúarfélagið was prepared to handle. Just having the staff available to mind the temple full-time may prove to be a challenge, regardless of any threats of vandalism. “Most of the people who work for the society are just doing it as voluntary work,” said Hilmar. “We’re being accused of doing this as a tourist trap. You’ll find that in some of the commentaries – that this is all just a clever ploy to sell things and charge admission, which was never the intention. I don’t know how, during weekdays, we could man the temple as it is. In a way, it’s caught us totally by surprise. The practical issues are totally unresolved.”

Ásatrúarfélagið currently employs only one part-time office clerk. Hilmar added, “If we only had to think about us, then everything would be in place, but now the whole picture seems to have changed.”

Members of Ásatrúarfélagið 2009 [Photo Credit: Lenka Kovářová]

Members of Ásatrúarfélagið 2009 [Photo Credit: Lenka Kovářová]

But in the era of the viral article, it is becoming less and less possible for any organization to only think of its own constituents. Due to its history, both modern and ancient, Iceland continues to have an outsized influence on Ásatrú, despite Ásatrúarfélagið’s insistence on its organization only being interested in the local community. Its temple project has drawn the eyes of many admiring supporters, but also vocal detractors, some of whom may be planning physical or metaphysical vandalism against Ásatrúarfélagið.

“When I lived in the center of Reykjavík, on the road of Freyjugata, people would be pissing in my gardens on the weekends,” Hilmar said. The weariness in his voice is impossible to mistake. “This feels a bit the same. I didn’t like people pissing in my garden, and I don’t like this.”

Sometimes you only walk away with scratches.

A photo posted by Eric Scott (@lofrothepirate) on

[Warning: The following column involves a description of a serious car accident.]

Two sounds in quick succession, so close together that, as I remember them now, I cannot tell which came first – the sound of the front right tire digging into the mud and gravel shoulder of the two-lane highway, or the sound of my wife seizing up in anticipation. I am driving, for the next few seconds, anyway. I turn the wheel, only thinking to escape the shoulder, but my turn is too hard. I try another. Too hard, but in the other direction. We leave the road; our ascent is brief, but dramatic. We land in the grass hard on the driver’s side, and the momentum carries us tumbling, onto the side, onto the roof, onto the side, onto the roof again.

And there we stop. The fury of the ten seconds past rises out of us, like mist against the dawn. We unbuckle our seatbelts, drop onto the floor that was so recently a ceiling, and crawl out through the windows of the set-piece that was our car. Air hisses from a tire. My wife’s duffel bag sits out on the wet turf right side up, as though she had set it there on purpose. Her forehead is bloody – a gash, right on her hairline. Neither of us have our glasses – they were thrown off while we spun against the earth, and we never do find them again.

So we wait, bloody and half-blind, until an ambulance and an Appanoose County sheriff’s deputy appear. They fit my wife with a backboard and a neck brace; me, they leave alone. We ride to a tiny hospital that’s little more than a garage for the ambulance to pull into. They put us in separate rooms – they want to run a CT scan on her, to make sure she hasn’t injured her spine or skull. They insist I stay in the room next door, able to hear but not see her, so that they can occasionally check on my blood pressure. The deputy comes by. Where were you going?, he asks.

To a wedding, I tell him. Up in Chaska, Minnesota.

Are you still planning to get up there today? he asks, and I wonder if that question sounds as insane to him as it does to me.

He writes me a ticket for failure to maintain control, then hands me a bag of soggy documents from the glove compartment and a note saying where we can pick through the car. He leaves, and again I am alone in the room with the blood pressure cuff and the sound of doctors talking to my wife in the other room. The adrenaline has mostly worn off; in the ongoing critique of consciousness that is my inner monologue, I note how quickly shock and fear has turned into irritated boredom.

The CT scan eventually comes back: clean. My wife has a pulled muscle in her neck and some bruises, but is otherwise unharmed. I have some scrapes on my hands from the broken glass where I crawled through the window, and, as I will discover two days later, a half-dozen wicked patches of poison ivy – but that’s all. We walk out of the ER with our friends and, after making three complete passes through the town of Centerville, Iowa, we locate the lot where our car was towed. It’s more like an eight-slot driveway than anything; the cars sit out in front of a garage next to the tow driver’s home, only a few dozen yards away from his flower garden.

I stop for a moment while we are picking through the husk. The car’s roof folds down into a sharp crease that runs the entire length of it, an indented line in the metal that marks the point of collapse. The sharp edge of that point is about three inches away from where my skull would have been. I run my fingers across the bent angle, caked with mud. Three inches.

We eat sandwiches pulled from the wreck for dinner. My wife finds a forgotten set of glasses hidden in the car. We report it to the insurance, and we sleep in our own bed that night.

That was on Sunday. It’s three days later now – Wednesday, prayer night – and I am sitting on the sheepskin prayer rug set out in front of my altar and wondering what to say. When I think back to the moment of the crash – what I remember feeling as the tidal forces in my gut jerked against the pitch and yaw of the rolling car – I do not remember any thought of religion. I didn’t see the face of Odin, nor did I hear any Valkyrie songs. I didn’t see my life flash before my eyes. I remember distance, and annoyance, and no real fear of death. Mostly, I remember rolling, and crawling out, and wishing that I had my glasses. It was only later, lying in bed next to wife, my wife, with nothing but a pulled muscle in her neck, that the enormity of it came to me.

What does a person say to the gods – these personal saviors, these mythic undercurrents, these names we give to the wind and the sea and the rolls of the dice that make up reality – what does one say to them in a moment like this?

I pour a glass of aquavit for myself and for them. I feel it burn its way down my throat, into my stomach. I think of my uncle, who died in a car accident not much different from mine. I think of the three inches between my head and the bend in the steel. I think of my wife, with whom I was angry the night before the wreck, who was strapped to a backboard out of my sight in the hospital. I think – I think of fear, hope, gratitude, wonder, the troubling revelation of life, life, life.

But I don’t say anything. If the gods can understand our tongues, they can understand their inadequacy; if the gods can hear at all, they can hear the breadth of our silence.

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.