Archives For Eric O. Scott

Column: Sonatorrek

Eric O. Scott —  November 12, 2016 — Leave a comment

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In a matter of weeks, I will be getting on a plane to England. It is a part of my good fortune that I occasionally get to go searching for my ghosts; in this case, I will be looking for the ashes of one of my dead forbears, Deryck Alldriht, who founded what would become my coven and then promptly disappeared from the lives of everyone who knew him in America. I don’t know what I will find once I start digging.[1] I hope to learn something more of who Deryck was – what led him into the Craft, to America, to his grave – but I could just as easily find myself staring at an anonymous graveyard in a few weeks as ignorant as before. This is a problem with quests, and questions: we never really know where they end.

As I prepare for this new spectral investigation, I think back to Iceland, two years ago now, the last time I went hunting for the dead who have shaped my faith: in that case, Egill Skallagrimsson, a far older shade than Deryck Alldriht.

This is a dream, or a memory, or a dream of a memory.

Sonatorrek, Ásmundur Sveinsson, Borg á Mýrum, Iceland. This monument, named for Egill Skallagrímsson's poem, stands on Egill's farm. (Photo by Eric Scott.)

Sonatorrek, Ásmundur Sveinsson, Borg á Mýrum, Iceland. This monument, named for Egill Skallagrímsson’s poem, stands on Egill’s farm. [Photo Credit: E. Scott.]

My tongue is sluggish for me to move,

my poem’s scales ponderous to raise.

The god’s prize is beyond my grasp,

tough to drag out from my mind’s haunts.[2]

I can hear Egill digging. His spade sounds like Seamus Heaney’s grandfather’s spade, the one that cut turf on Toner’s Bog: that clean, rasping sound. I hear him clear his throat. He is an old man, and his body is starting to fail him. Soon he will have to leave his home, going away to his daughter’s house at Mosfell. But today, at least, he is digging, planting what little will grow in Iceland. His sons are off watching the sheep. His wife is spinning the wool that is the lifeblood of Iceland. The sun catches the gleaming edge of his spade, and it makes him think of the gleam of a silver coin, one of the thousands he keeps hidden in two big chests. He would be one of the richest men in Iceland if he ever brought it out from his hiding place, which he never will.

Egill is dead, and has been for a thousand years. But I hear him, all the same.

The place where we stand, Egill and I, is called Borg. Egill’s father, Skalla-Grím, settled it when men first came to Iceland; he built the farm where his dead father’s casket washed ashore. There isn’t much here: a church and a house for its priest, a graveyard, and a monument. Both the church and the house have red tin roofs; neither building is especially old, and I do not take the time to look at them very closely. Nor do I have much to say about the graveyard; it is pretty, green, and in places overgrown. My Icelandic is not good enough to read most of the tombstones.

The only tombstone I find notable is a block of stone about the width of an American lightpole, which has a name inscribed in runic characters. The guide tells us that the stone is for Kjartan Ólafsson, one of Egill’s grandsons. I know his story – I had read it only a few months before. Kjartan had been in love with a woman named Guðrún, but he went off adventuring and would not take her with him. Kjartan’s best friend, Bolli, married Guðrún instead, and this led to a bitter feud. Bolli killed Kjartan, but Bolli held him as he died, realizing the tragedy of what he had done. Eventually Bolli himself was killed by Kjartan’s brothers, who were then killed by Bolli and Guðrún’s son. The sagas often go like that. They are tragedies of errors that begin with one small mistake – a poor marriage, or an argument over whose sheep get to graze on a given patch of earth – and end only when so many are dead that vengeance no longer seems practical.

Since heavy sobbing is the cause –

how hard to pour forth from the mind’s root

the prize that Frigg’s progeny found,

borne of old  from the world of giants,

unflawed, which Bragi inspired with life

on the craft of the watcher-dwarf.

Blood surges from the giant’s wounded neck,

crashes on the death-dwarf’s boathouse door.

Egill is singing to himself as he works. He is an old hand at poetry; he comes up with new verses the way other people come up with simple sentences. He is an old devotee of Óðinn, and skilled in all the things that Óðinn represents: verse, magic, love-making, warfare. This is a man who once conducted a bloody feud of his own against the king of Norway himself, Eirik Bloodaxe. He has traveled everywhere a man from the Northlands could travel, fighting and raiding, repaying insults with blood and aid with a peculiar loyalty. He would have been the perfect Viking hero, if only he hadn’t grown old.

My stock stands on the brink,

pounded as plane-trees on the forest’s rim.

No man is glad who carries the bones

of his dead kinsman out of the bed.

Egill’s curse is that he lives. His brother had died as a young man; his brother, who had better composure, better manners, who was handsome, tall, and strong, unlike Egill, who is dark, ugly, has a skull as thick as a troll’s. His brother died; Egill lives to see old age, to become blind and infirm, to become beholden to the serving-women who take care of him. He lives to bury his sons.

I cannot hold my head upright,

the ground of my face, my thoughts’ steed

ever since the raging surf of heat

snatched from the world that son of mine

whom I knew to shun disgrace,

avoid words of ill repute.

I remember still when the Gauts’ friend

raised high to the gods’ world

the ash that grew from my stock,

the tree bearing my wife’s kin.

The song he is singing is called Sonatorrek – “On the Loss of My Sons.” His son Bodvar had gone out to sea and drowned in a storm. Egill had gone out to collect the body and laid it in the family tomb; then he shut himself in his room and waited to die. His daughter convinced him to live long enough to write a poem in memory of his fallen child. This is the song he is singing now.

I was in league with the lord of spears,

pledged myself loyal to believe in him,

before he broke off his friendship with me,

the guardian of chariots, the architect of victory.

I do not worship Villir’s brother,

guardian of the gods, through my own longing,

though in good ways too the friend of wisdom

has granted me redress for affliction.

A chill runs through me as I listen to his ancient poem, for I too have thrown my lot in with the Lord of Spears, and I wonder if one day I will have the same lament. Egill asks Óðinn the question we all ask in our moments of pain: My god, my god, why hast thou forsaken me? And like all of us, he gets no answer.

We are standing in the wet grass of the meadow. Black stone pavement leads to the highway behind us, but before us is the sea. I don’t know how to describe this feeling, this opposite of otherworldliness. Egill is not nearly so sentimental. This land provides too little food to stand around philosophizing on a summer’s day. Save it for cold winter nights, huddled around the hearth. Egill knows he does not have many winters left.

Now my course is tough:

Death, close sister of Óðinn‘s enemy, stands on the ness:

with resolution and without remorse

I will gladly await my own.

Egill reaches the end of his chant. I want to stay here with him forever, staring out into the mist and the sea. But the tour bus is leaving, and we have many stops yet. He nods to me as I walk past, and then stoops low again, sinking his spade into the earth.

Notes:
[1] That’s only a metaphor. Probably.
[2] All of the stanzas of Sonatorrek quoted here are from Bernard Scudder’s translation of Egils saga in The Sagas of Icelanders, Viking-Penguin, 1997.

[Eric O. Scott is one of our talented monthly columnists. Each month he brings you insight and analysis about issues coming from within or affecting our collective communities. If you enjoy his work, consider donating to our fall fund drive today. You make it possible for The Wild Hunt to continue featuring great writers, unique voices, and news reports every day. Every dollar counts. Please donate today and share the campaignThank you.]

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To get to the labyrinth, first I have to get through the maze.

The directions seem straightforward: take one main artery to another, cross a bridge over the highway, turn right, and drive. Kalamazoo’s Unitarian Universalist church is supposedly half a mile down the road, easy to find. But big orange signs warn that the way is blocked -– road closed, no thru traffic –– and indeed, not long after turning onto 10th Street, where the People’s Church is located, the road disintegrates from asphalt into huge mounds of dirt and gravel, the natural habitat of Caterpillars and other forms of industrial machinery, rather than my trusty Chevy Cobalt.

Stones outline the path of the People's Church labyrinth in Kalamazoo, MI. (Photo by Eric Scott.)

Stones outline the path of the People’s Church labyrinth in Kalamazoo, MI. (Photo by Eric Scott.)

Having no choice, I turn left, hoping that with a few right turns I can find a place to cross over into the church’s parking lot. Instead, I find myself lost in a web of wide suburban curves, subdivision streets with no guideposts or markers, roads that wind and twist in ways that defy my city-boy instincts. (While I can’t claim the streets of St. Louis are perfectly logical, most of the time they at least proceed in straight lines, and the avenues go one direction and the streets go another; I have never really learned how to cope with subdivisions, the layouts of which seem practically non-Euclidean.) I find three different opportunities to exit back onto 10th Street, but each time I find the road still obliterated. Eventually I give up and turn back towards the main roads, heading back to my dorm room at Western Michigan University, where I am staying for the summer.

This is the difference between a maze and a labyrinth: though the path of the labyrinth winds and weaves, there is only one route, and with enough steps, one comes to the center and then the exit. There’s no guarantee of escaping a maze.

The center of the labyrinth. (Photo by Eric Scott.)

The center of the labyrinth. (Photo by Eric Scott.)

I have never been so good at meditation – not the seated, peaceful kind, anyway. I never developed the posture for it, much less the discipline to clear my mind of all its worries and distractions at will. But walking meditation does the trick well enough. When I still lived in St. Louis, I liked to stop by the botanical gardens and walk the perimeter, chanting the elements -– air I am, fire I am -– under my breath. With my mind taken up by the rhythm of the chant, and my body engaged in the walk, and my senses suffused with the trees and flowers, I could find my way to peace. I needed to be so embodied to become bodiless.

And that was why I sought the labyrinth: in its journey to a center, the labyrinth serves as a pilgrimage in miniature. Though its footprint is only a few meters in diameter, the path of a labyrinth is an order of magnitude longer. As we follow its contours, its sharp angles and snake-backs, we see landmarks again and again, but changed again and again by the new vantage. And when we come to the center, we can stop, survey the space around us again, and realize that the destination is only halfway through the journey. Much of my interest in the subject comes from my friend Travis Scholl, a Lutheran preacher and a fantastic writer, who has written a book on his experiences with labyrinths; I was thinking of him when I started looking for one in Kalamazoo.

After my other attempts at finding a labyrinth went bust (I’m looking for the labyrinth, I told the clerk outside a Catholic retirement community; The what? he replied; I later found the spot on the map bulldozed and waterlogged), I came back to 10th Street. It was still ripped apart, and I had no business driving on it, but I cut across a flat part of the construction into the church parking lot. The place was completely empty, unusual for a weekday afternoon. It doesn’t look like many people from the congregation manage to get out to the church thanks to the construction, nor even the staff; from what I can tell of the maps, there’s no other way into the parking lot except from 10th Street, so even the groundskeepers are shut out.

As a consequence, the labyrinth itself is overgrown, weeds poking up through the dirt. So many vines cover a trellis at the edge of the circle that at first I can’t tell that it is the entrance. Not wanting to damage anything, I press gently against the green leaves and tendrils and push them aside, stooping down low to pass into the circle of stones.

It has been a tumultuous year, for me and for the world, and though it’s a hot summer day as I’m walking this path, my mind is already turning toward the autumn, toward the winter. The things that are on my mind aren’t so different from what’s on everybody’s mind, I think: I’m worried about politics and justice, about my family and my job, about my coven and my future. And often it’s good to worry: sometimes it’s paralyzing, but it’s often the impetus for action.

Still, you can’t worry all the time: sometimes you need a long walk through the pale stones, feeling the wet afternoon heat on your skin, making your way to the center of the labyrinth. There is nothing special about that center point: here there are stones and lovely flowers, but there are stones and lovely flowers all along the path. Reaching the center is not the point, really. It’s the motion, the journey; the stillness in the movement. I can’t find the gods by sitting still. I need to walk.

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The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.

Column: True North

Eric O. Scott —  September 30, 2016 — 3 Comments

[Eric O. Scott is one of our talented monthly columnists. Each month he brings you insight and analysis about issues coming from within or affecting our collective communities. If you enjoy his work, consider donating to our fall fund drive today. You make it possible for The Wild Hunt to continue featuring great writers, unique voices, and news reports every day. Every dollar counts. Please donate today and share the campaignThank you.]

befunky-design2I have been thinking about pilgrimage lately, and what that word might mean to Pagan ears. Like so much else in our religions, it’s a concept that we have had to define for ourselves. Paganism, after all, does not have a long tradition of religious travel on the order of Catholicism or Islam; we have no Mecca or Santiago de Compostela. But we have created our own holy places: campgrounds and groves and bookshops, festivals and moots, and we have imbued the ancient places, the relics of the old pagan religions, with a new sense of significance.

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Overlooking Thingvallavatn, the lake on the shores of Thingvellir National Park, Iceland. [Photo by Eric Scott.]

It’s the latter, especially, that interests me; the way we interact with ancient sites, laying claim to their histories. In their 2009 article in The Pomegranate, Beyond Sacred: Recent Pagan Engagements with Archaeological Monuments,” scholars Jenny Blain and Robert Wallis see the Pagan romance with these sites as ways to relieve our anxieties about the present, and to a degree that seems accurate: much of Paganism, to my mind, addresses the alienation many of us feels in the modern world. (This is what all that “reenchantment” business is about, after all.)

Less comforting is Blain and Wallis’s reading that Pagans, at least the British Pagans whom they studied at a variety of sites throughout the United Kingdom, have found ways to make themselves “neo-indigenous,” using language similar to those of Australian Aborigines or American First Nations peoples to lay claim to the landscape: “In Britain,” they write, “Pagans have adopted ‘sacred sites’ and ‘ancestors’ rather than ‘archaeological site’ or ‘monument’ or ‘remains,’ suggesting both a spiritual element to visiting and (particularly through ‘ancestors’) an implication of direct engagement with landscape rather than a more voyeuristic relationship with a closed past.” While this has led to some positive results –- Blain and Wallis mention that several ancient sites have been saved from the bulldozer thanks in part to Pagan efforts –- there is something obviously troubling about the mostly white Pagan population laying claim to indigeneity.

While Blain and Wallis are describing British subjects interacting with British sites, the situation makes me think of my own fascination with places abroad –- mostly Iceland, for me –- and my own sense of connection to a place with which I have no material connection. I have had a desire for “the north” for most of my life, a desire deeply intertwined with my practice of Asatru. Iceland, after all, is Saga-Land, home to the literature that informs so much of modern Heathenry. When I visited a few years ago, I took incredible pleasure in visiting the sites from my favorite old Norse stories: the farm at Borg where Egill Skallagrimsson spent his days, the hill where Gunnar slipped from his horse. But I was also aware that my love for Iceland was almost entirely concentrated on its past; until I actually met my Icelandic friends in person, they seemed less substantial than the ghosts of saga-time.

I suppose I come by it honestly: outsiders visiting Iceland have inherited a long tradition of writing, the fountainhead of which is William Morris’s account from the 1870s. Although he predates what we could call modern Paganism by decades, Morris was drawn to Iceland out of love for the sagas, and came to the island with a preoccupation for reading the modern landscape in terms of the Saga Age. The nation was his “true north,” the land by which he guided the compass of his soul, and much of his literary work references Iceland and its history. But he found the reality of the island and its inhabitants lacking in the passion and intensity of the past. His journals constantly reference the discrepancy between his romantic vision of the place and the benighted reality of it:

Just think, though, what a mournful place this is – Iceland I mean – setting aside the pleasure of one’s animal life there: the fresh air, the riding and rough life, and feeling of adventure – how every place and name marks the death of its short-lived eagerness and glory… Lord! what littleness and helplessness has taken the place of the old passion and violence that had place here once.

Morris’s account had a deep influence on two travelers who visited Iceland in the 1930s, W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice, who published Letters from Iceland in 1937. It’s an odd book, full of unexpected styles and forms: a poem to Lord Byron (!) in five parts, a practical list of gear, a fictional letter between young girls, and a motley survey of other authors’ opinions on Iceland, “Sheaves from Sagaland.” But a sense of Morris’ romance pervades the text, as does Auden’s discomfort with the Nazi idealization of Iceland as the land of a “pure Germanic spirit.” “If they want a community like that of the sagas they are welcome to it,” he writes. “I love the sagas, but what a rotten society they describe, a society with only the gangster virtues.” Auden says this, but it’s clear that he bemoans the loss of that society himself, and has the same dissatisfaction with the living Icelanders that Morris had.

And I find myself wondering if this is all part of what pilgrimage is: the setting of expectations on a place, setting limits. When we travel to places in search of meaning, by definition we end up circumscribing those places. For Morris and Auden — and me too, though I’d like to think that in my visit to Iceland I managed to broaden my perspectives — their pilgrimage was enclosed by the limits of the past. Similarly, for Blain and Wallis’s “neo-indigenous” Pagans, these religious sites draw their meaning, their value, from a past that can claimed. Inventing pilgrimage also means inventing — and therefore limiting — the meaning of the places we visit.

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The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.

What’s the deal with all this moss? asks the new hydroponics expert. He had heard things about the weirdos from the first Mars colony – the ones that called themselves “The Seeds” – but he figured that had all just been rumors. But now that he’s actually in their habitat, seeing thick layers of vegetation instead of sterile metal sheets lining the walls, his perceptions have begun to change. This can’t be sanitary.

Please calm down, says a voice, buried deep within the foliage. You’re making my plants feel windy.

I don’t even know what that means, says the expert, trying to figure out the source of the voice – whether it belongs to a human or, somehow, emanates from each of the plants in unison.

Of course you don’t, says the voice. A human figure rustles from deep within the web of vines. Nobody understands our language but us.

Dialect, A Game About Language and How It Dies, by Thorny Games.

Dialect, A Game About Language and How It Dies, by Thorny Games.

This scene came from near the end of an unusual roleplaying game called Dialect, which I had the chance to play at this past weekend’s GenCon. GenCon, for the uninitiated, is the premier convention for hobby gaming: there are a few video game events, but for the most part, it caters to those who love games with boards, cards, and dice. I’ve been twice, and both times I’ve spent the majority of my time chasing after new roleplaying games. While there are plenty of opportunities to play Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder at the convention, it’s also the best place I know of to learn about more arcane RPGs; at last year’s con, for instance, I picked up Gregor Vuga’s Sagas of the Icelanders, which I have written about before.

What I liked best about Sagas of the Icelanders was how it invited players to play with the social concerns of a historical moment: unlike a purely fantastic RPG, the theme of Sagas was to imagine oneself as a medieval Icelander, facing not only the stereotypical challenges of Viking warfare, but also resource scarcity, social pressures, and gender anxieties. (In D&D, one chooses her religion to determine what spells she can cast. In Sagas, one chooses her religion to make sure her neighbors won’t cause trouble for her at the Althing.)

Although Dialect has almost nothing in common with Sagas on a mechanical level, it shares a similar interest in playing with an intellectual field; in this case, language, in particular the intimate forms of language we build within various communities. The premise of Dialect is that the players portray characters within a society that has become isolated from the rest of the world; in our case, a Mars colony mission that got cut off from communications with Earth. Within that isolation, the characters invent, appropriate, and redefine words to suit their community’s needs and interests. By the end of the game, the isolation ends, and the community’s dialect comes under pressure to conform to the baseline of the larger society.

The structure of the game has a beautiful effect. As the game goes on, words that mean one thing in our daily speech come to take on very different shades of connotation. In the game I played, for example, the word windy came to mean something like “troubled, worried.” The word asset came to mean “traitor,” by means of a sarcastic comment: You’re a real asset to the mission, a character said to another who had a chance to escape the isolation without anybody else.

The game ties the community’s new words to the ideologies that define the community. In our case, these were statements like we are pioneers and desperate times call for desperate measures. As a result, the new language players invent in Dialect comes to personify the community as a whole. A community rises, defines itself, and falls, all with the use of just a few new phrases. I found it a remarkable experience.

This is what our game of Dialect looked like by the end - the cards are the new words we invented, and the lines represent the three eras of play. (Photo by Eric Scott.)

This is what our game of Dialect looked like by the end – the cards are the new words we invented, and the lines represent the three eras of play. (Photo by Eric Scott.)

Dialect –- or any game like it –- can only imperfectly mimic reality, a fact that the designers readily acknowledge. The actual process of a community creating its own jargon is much more complicated than can be replicated in a three-hour roleplaying game. But the beauty of such games comes in how they invite us to reflect on the real world. Despite the science fiction trappings of our particular session, the basic scenario –- a community is formed, defines itself, becomes submerged within the broader society, confronts the conflicting desires to maintain its individuality and to be accepted by the wider world –- is highly applicable in the real world. Indeed, since GenCon, I have thought a lot about how Dialect mirrors my own experiences as a Pagan.

Take some of our words; the words that have special meanings to us. Pagan, itself, or Heathen. The notion that these terms mean “a member of a Neopagan religion” or “a member of a revivalist religion based on ancient Germanic religion”[1] seems so automatic to me that I get caught off-guard when I am reminded that most of humanity does not share these definitions. (When I first explained my writing to my dissertation advisor, she couldn’t stop chuckling: the notion of Heathen as a positive term struck her as utterly novel.) We could compile a list of these specialized terms –- indeed, I once wrote a tongue-in-cheek essay doing exactly that -– and observe just how many words take on different meanings in a Pagan context.

And indeed, the end of Dialect –- the encounter with the over-culture, the incentive for a community to abandon its idiosyncrasies in favor of acceptance by the outside world –- is a problem I’ve wrestled with since I was conscious of my own Paganism. The desire to be normal can be a powerful thing. I’ve made my choice by this point, but the push-and-pull of language remains ever-present. We have seen a long programme of attempts to explain Paganism in terms that are more palatable to the over-culture; recently we have seen some strong rebukes to that programme as well.

Although this process of identity-building far exceeds the scope of Dialect, I am thankful for the game giving me the opportunity to consider the issue. This is what games can do at their best: they allow us to live through the big questions in miniature, and with luck, bring some insight back with us when we return to the world outside.

 

[1] I realize we could have endless debates over whether or not these meanings actually suffice, but really, that proves my point more than anything – these are the meanings the words developed in my personal lexicon through my interactions with Pagan communities. Yours may be different, because your experience of the “Pagan community” is different.

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The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.

I first met Beowulf on a field trip. My grade school class had a special engagement to see a stage version of the story, performed – I think – by St. Louis’ Metro Theater Company. The spare production featured only a few actors and a set of props that, like those of The Fantasticks, were few enough that they could have been brought on stage in a gunnysack. A central platform at the center of the stage doubled as all the locations of the poem – the darkened hall of Heorot, the haunted mere, the dragon’s cave. A long pole served for almost everything else; it became swords, treasure, and, most memorably, the arm of Grendel, which Beowulf tears from him in their famous wrestling match.

We all read our own Beowulf. This collection belongs to Western Michigan University’s Medieval Institute. [Photo Credit: E. Scott]

I recall feeling disappointed. Being a child, I had no real understanding of theatre or literature, and so I did not understand theatrical minimalism, or that there might be good reasons to tell the story in this way besides a lack of money. One of the actors explained that they did not want to show us Grendel as a latex-and-animatronics spectacle, and I remember thinking that was exactly what I wanted. Oh, well; children’s theater is wasted on children. I’d give anything to see that play again today, with adult eyes, if only to see their dragon again – a man perched atop the platform in cloak of red and gold, which he swirled around his body to create the image of flame.

Some twenty years on, I have spent the past three weeks standing deep in the poem, working with a number of scholars in a summer institute about Beowulf and its relationship to Old Norse-Icelandic literature. Much of this has focused on some very specific textual echoes: Beowulf fights monsters in a king’s hall and a watery mere; Grettir Asmundarson, the hero of the Icelandic Grettis saga, fights a similar pair of trolls in a farmer’s hall and a waterfall cave. Bodvarr Bjarki, a character in Hrolfs saga Kraka, can be read as an Icelandic equivalent to the hero, and even serves a king whose name is cognate to a relative of Beowulf’s King Hrothgar. But beyond these textual correspondences – and the arguments for whether they are mere coincidence or represent evolutions of a common source – much of our discussions have focused on how Beowulf fits into the broader picture of the medieval north, and indeed, just what we know about those societies.

The central, seemingly inescapable question of Beowulf is the poem’s relationship to paganism. The poem, which survives in a single monastery-produced manuscript, clearly survives because of Christian literary practice; just as clearly, its story looks back to the heathen past and the heroic mode. Though every character in Beowulf is, logically, a heathen, the language itself is suffused with Christianity. Critical opinion has ranged from the notion that the poem is largely an oral heathen epic with a veneer of Christian commentary layered over it to reading it as an entirely Christian document that serves to criticize the ethical failures of the past.

The picture isn’t any clearer for other documents from the medieval north, either. The problems with Snorri Sturluson’s Edda are well known, being a prose synthesis of a pagan mythos several centuries after the official conversion to Christianity. But even a poem like Völuspá, which underpins so much of what we think we know about Norse mythology, often gets read as a Christian reflex, perhaps a systematizing of the heathen ways in the face of Christianity. Pick a feature of the literature and you can find a critic who will argue for its Christian influences.

Although I do my best to keep myself objective when I’m in a scholarly context, I admit that I struggle with this. In part I grumble because I feel that medieval studies, across the time period and the discipline, overemphasizes Christianity; while the religion clearly had more social influence than just about any other institution in the period, medievalists seem to interpret everything as though all people living in the middle ages were fanatically devoted, which simply seems unlikely to me. But these interpretations also go against my personal attractions to the literature. I read Beowulf and its Old Norse analogues, ultimately, because it’s the literature that’s shaped me, in ways obvious and not. It’s bound up with my Paganism, and therefore with my sense of self.

That means I want to see the pagan core to the poetry, and I want to see the coherent system of the cosmology. I want to read about Beowulf’s Geats pleaing to their gods for aid against Grendel and ignore the narrator’s snide commentary on their beliefs. I want to read Völuspá as a history that was complete before the Scandinavians ever heard of Christ. Above all, I suppose I want to read the texts with the comfortable sense of understanding they had when I first read them, even though I realize that is an impossibility.

Our modern Paganisms depend in large part on the institutions that study the ancient paganisms from which we draw our inspiration. While we come to our own individual understandings of our sources – and some of us even do excellent research of our own – ultimately, there are matters of expertise and access that underpin our understanding of the past that go beyond the average person’s resources. But that scholarship too is precarious, and often as not reflects assumptions and desires alien to those of the religionist.

Earlier in the Beowulf institute, I had a friendly disagreement with a religion scholar, whose position was that it was wrong, conceptually, to think of ancient Scandinavian paganism as a “religion.” To him, the word betrayed too many modern assumptions, too many Christian influences. For me, it was exactly the opposite: the idea that a “religion” can only refer to an Abrahamic-style proselytizing system seemed to demonstrate the exact kind of bias that he was trying to avoid. I absolutely wanted to think of Norse paganism as “religion,” because religion implies a degree of legitimacy that no other English word contains.

I don’t think either of us quite understood the importance of the others’ framing of the question, what is a religion. It was as if we were both children in the theater, watching the man in the cloak of flame, neither of us quite sure as to the shape of a dragon.

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.