Archives For Eric O. Scott

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#odinselfie

#odinselfie

Column: Mise en scène

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oddi

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Candle

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

Tjörnin at midnight.
Photo by the author.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Notes:

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

Njord

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

,” I replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oxararfoss

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

Oxarafoss, Thingvellir, Iceland. Photo by the author.

The waterfall, I was told, was called Oxararfoss.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They cut off his leg just above the knee.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heathen Tongues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Divinations

Eric O. Scott —  May 9, 2014 — 9 Comments
The Hooded Man, from the Wildwood Tarot. Deck by Mark Ryan and John Matthews. Art by Wil Worthington.

The Hooded Man, from the Wildwood Tarot.
Deck by Mark Ryan and John Matthews.
Art by Wil Worthington.

“I feel like doing Tarot readings,” says Jeff.

It’s about 8:45 and on most nights we would be packing up to leave the Freebirds Burritos restaurant by now, but tonight Jeff decides he wants to run out to his car and grab his deck. There are only three of us – Jeff, Sielach, and me – at this week’s meeting of Hearthfires, a local Columbia Pagan Forum that I have been attending for a few months. I’m thinking about how much work I have to do before the end of the semester and how spending an hour here doing divination is an hour I can’t spend writing my seminar paper on Giambattista Vico and the completely arbitrary relationship I am drawing between his philology and the Icelandic Sagas.

But Jeff wants to do a reading, so we do a reading.

He sorts out the deck onto the wooden table. His deck is called The Wildwood Tarot; I have not seen it before. The artwork is full of nature imagery and fairy-tale settings; in the world of these cards, there is little evidence of human civilization at all, outside of a few human characters and the tools they carry. I search through Jeff’s deck and look at the major arcana. I don’t recognize the names of most of the cards. I only own three Tarot decks, and they all tend towards the traditional – Rider-Waite-Smith, Thoth, Tree of Life. (Tree of Life is my favorite, even though it has no illustrations except for diagrams of the relationship between the cards and the sephira. I am a sucker for diagrams.) I’m accustomed to the seventh card being the Chariot, for example; in this deck, it is the Archer. I don’t know its meaning.

I mention all this to Jeff, and he shrugs. He has looked at the Rider deck before, he says. “But I never got anything from those cards. There’s something in the rigidity of the artwork.”

Jeff begins to draw cards from the deck for me. I don’t mention any specific question for him to look into, in part because I’m interested to see what he pulls together and in part because I don’t have any questions that I want to voice aloud. I have two main concerns in my life right now – in a few weeks, I will be going to Iceland, and in a few months, I will be getting married. Sielach had given me a reading the week before about Iceland, so that seemed covered, and frankly, the wedding seems too distant and overwhelming to worry about now.

Jeff places nine cards down in a pattern – center, cross, left, below, right, above, and then four cards along the side. He describes this pattern to me: the card in the center represents me as I am now. The cross card can be thought of as either my obstacle or my guide. To the left is the recent past; to the right is the near future. The card above is the Sky, or an ideal outcome. The card below is the Root, or the source of my question. The cards along the side give a rough timeline of events, beginning at the bottom and proceeding into the future as we move to the top.

I watch Jeff with curiosity as he lays the cards out on the table. I have never taken to divination of any kind, despite being raised in a Pagan household where I had plenty of opportunity to study it. I’ve never done a Tarot reading for anyone, though I have, in the past few months, begun to do rune readings. I’ve always been more interested in looking at these tools in terms of systems than in terms of oracular use. After I read Alan Moore and JH Williams III’s Promethea, I spent a lot of time thinking about the connections between Tarot and Kabballah, but it never occurred to me to actually shuffle up the cards; I couldn’t get my mind past the inherent randomness of the process.

“I see a lot of Air in the center of the table,” he says as he looks over the tableau. The center card is a Knight of Arrows, or the Hawk. The cross is the Nine of Arrows, which is glossed as Dedication. In the traditional decks that I am familiar with, Air would be associated with the suit of Swords, but the Wildwood Tarot changed the suits. Here, Swords are Arrows, Cups are Vessels, Wands are Bows, and Pentacles are Stones.

Jeff goes through the rest of the cards: the Mother Bear is my Sky, my near future is Healing. (What would I need to heal?, I wonder.) He details a timeline that seems like it might correspond to my time in Iceland – The Pole Star, The Ancestor, The Wheel, The Great Bear – but I am barely paying attention. I am too busy being struck – terrified, actually – by the card in the Root position.

The card is marked number 9. Normally, I would know it as the Hermit; here, it is the Hooded Man. He says that here it has an association with death, which is, of course, not necessarily a bad thing; death can simply mean change. Jeff reads this card as being about living through the winter. But that is not the association I carry.

“I wish I had brought my book with me,” he says, referring to a handbook that provides a list of interpretations and correspondences for each card. “I feel like some of my interpretations are off tonight.”

I nod. “I know I feel differently about the Hooded Man,” I say. “I don’t think that’s about death at all. Especially not at the Root. I think that’s a different Hooded Man altogether.”

Sielach nods as she comes to understand what I mean. Jeff doesn’t, though. “Oh. So you’re dealing with some other hooded person?”

“Maybe not a person,” says Sielach. “A hooded personage.”

I have trouble expressing just how spooked this Tarot reading made me. I had a moment of strong cognitive dissonance. My rational mind pushed strongly against any kind of deep meaning to a particular reading; it’s a random deal of the deck, after all. Which card ends up in which place is just a matter of chance.

And yet I read everything about the tableau in relation to Iceland, and it fit. Including the Root. Especially the Root. The Hooded Man. Card number nine. (Nine. Another spooky coincidence.) Of course he would be at the heart of the question.

I remembered pacing back and forth in my advisor’s office two months ago. I had just found out that I had been accepted into a summer Icelandic program through the University of Minnesota, but I hadn’t been offered any money; it would have cost me thousands of dollars that I just didn’t have. We called every university we were in contact with, every Scandinavian educational association, even the Icelandic embassy, looking for grants. Nothing. Too late to apply. We accepted that I probably couldn’t afford to go this year; our best hope was to defer the admission until next summer, when perhaps I could get a better jump on the grants.

The next day I started a fundraising drive, just to see. Within 24 hours, people – mostly my friends and family, but some people I barely knew, and even some people who I can only assume just knew me through my work – had pledged two thousand dollars. The total climbed to over three thousand by the end of the two month drive. I was dumbfounded. I really had not expected it to work. But it did.

As Florence says, “This is a gift. It comes with a price.”

I leave for Minneapolis, and from there Reykjavik, in a little over two weeks. As that day approaches, I find myself thinking more and more about the bargains I have struck. I made a bargain with myself to quit my job and return to academia; now I have made a bargain with everyone who donated to make sure this endeavor is worthwhile.

And of course, I wrote here not that long ago about the bargain I struck with the Hooded Man himself. And there he is, card number nine, staring at me from the root of the world, exactly where I knew he would be when I began this journey last year.

I have been thinking a lot about divination since last night; what to make of it, how to approach it. How any of this applies to changes I have made in my life, and the changes yet to come. What I might believe about what goes into a Tarot reading.

I believe that the cards in any given tableau are random, arbitrary. I believe they have only the meanings we attach to them.

I believe the cards are fated, fixed. I believe each reading tells us exactly what we need to know at that moment in time.

I believe in all and none of these things.

Eric’s note: This post has been updated to feature the actual Hooded Man card from the Wildwood Tarot. Many thanks to the creators for letting us use the image.

We Know Time

Eric O. Scott —  April 11, 2014 — 8 Comments
"Prosperine," Dante Gabriel Rosetti, 1874.

“Prosperine,” Dante Gabriel Rosetti, 1874.

I woke up this morning – one of the first mornings where I was able to sleep with the window open, the surest sign that Spring has finally arrived – and found it was still dark. I rarely wake up so early, and I took a moment – well, more like fifteen minutes – to lay there in the darkness, still beneath the covers, and listen to the birds calling in the dawn. After a few minutes in which my universe consisted only of birdsong and darkness, a sentence came into my head and began swirling around, like a song with an inescapable tune. “We know time.” It’s a koan that Dean Moriarty, Jack Kerouac’s trickster saint, repeats again and again throughout On the Road. “Everything is fine,” says Dean. “God exists, we know time.”

It shouldn’t be a big surprise that I am a devotee of Jack Kerouac – like many writers, my first encounter with On the Road filled me with shock and liberation, awakened me to possibilities of language and structure that I would not have thought possible. Over the years, I’ve come to think of The Dharma Bums as the better work in Kerouac’s oeuvre, the Apollonian remedy to the Dionysian morass of On the Road, but On the Road is the one everybody remembers best, including me. The peculiar draw of that book is Dean, who is charming and fickle, loving but selfish, and the spots of wisdom to be found among the chaos of his existence. “We know time.” An exhortation to remember how quickly life slips past, perhaps; or a reminder of how human existence depends on the progression towards its own end; or just a bit of truthful-sounding nonsense from a man who, viewed objectively, was an irresponsible, callous exile.

“We know time.”

I came into St. Louis a few weeks ago for my family’s Ostara. It was still cold here in Missouri, and snow flurries continued to fall until the 25th of March; it did not feel much like Spring had begun. Before the ritual, we mostly sat around the fire pit and tried to keep warm; after the ritual, most of us went inside and stayed there for the rest of the evening.

The ritual itself contained a passion play, as many of my family’s rituals do – Kore and Demeter, that foundational myth of the seasons. I called a quarter – West, which is the one I always choose – but otherwise had no special role in this ritual. Instead, I watched as my friend Megan bounced on her toes in anticipation of her cue to speak with the voice of Persephone. But before Persephone can return, Demeter must mourn; the mother must speak before the daughter. And in that moment, I saw one of the more powerful things I’ve ever seen in ritual.

I watched as Therese invoked Demeter. Therese is the high priestess of Watershade, the sister coven to my family’s Pleiades coven; I have known her my entire life. One of my earliest memories is of a sabbat held at her house – one of the Spring festivals, I think, maybe Beltane – where a food fight broke out. My friend Joe and I, only three or four years old at that point, didn’t understand the implicit rules, and started throwing apples. (My dad claims we started asking for canned goods.) When we talk about Therese, we talk about her as a mischief maker, a prankster, a trickster saint in her own right. That is our collective vision of her.

But she was not that person at Ostara. Her son had passed away between Candlemas and the equinox. I don’t want to get into it any more than that – I know how raw that feeling is for me, and cannot imagine how it must be for her. Demeter is a goddess who grieves for a lost child; Therese was a woman who had just lost a child. In the ritual, I saw the duality of the invocation – how Therese was not just a woman, nor even “just” a goddess. In that moment, I saw her, and I understood Demeter in a way I never had before. I was about to write that, in her, I saw the grief made flesh, but that isn’t right; the grief is the flesh. The myth is life.

The only difference is that, in the myth, Kore comes back.

“We know time,” I found myself whispering, still listening to the sound of the birds. I wondered how Therese had felt about playing that role in the ritual, whether she had identified consciously with the myth, whether it brought her any catharsis. I hadn’t thought to ask at the festival; I wished that I had.

My bedroom began to lighten, the black turning slowly to blue. I dug out clothes from the closet and dressed in the dark.

Time in Wicca, as I’ve explained over the years, is about circles, not lines; the wheel of the year turns, but in turning, it comes back around. It’s different than the linear progression of events inherent in the march from creation to fall to salvation to Armageddon. But there is no escaping the linear nature of the individual experience, either, even to one who believes in that cycle. A human life does proceed from birth to death with no backwards steps. Perhaps there are children who follow and continue the cycle – but not always. Sometimes, there’s just the line.

I got upstairs, made breakfast, sat down at my writing desk. Daylight had come, and the birds of the dawn had been replaced by the birds of the morning. I saw them dart from branch to branch in the trees outside my window. New green leaves had formed on branches that were barren a week before. Spring, here at last.

I found myself thinking of the nervous Kore, waiting to say her lines. I found myself wondering if even mighty Persephone truly knows time.

Author’s note: Some names have been changed.

Cheap plug note: Many thanks to my readers for helping to fund my research visit to Iceland! I’m really looking forward the columns that will come out of the experience. There’s still 22 days left in the campaign, so if you want to get your hot little hands on an ebook of my Iceland writings, and maybe a postcard from Reykjavik or other swag, head over to my Indiegogo page and donate a buck or three.

Reclining Pan

Eric O. Scott —  March 7, 2014 — 6 Comments
Reclining Pan, c. 1535, attributed to Francesco da Sangallo. Photo by Preston Page.

Reclining Pan, c. 1535, attributed to Francesco da Sangallo. Photo by Preston Page.

Pan lies at the end of a hallway on the first floor of the St. Louis Art Museum, stretched out on his back on a bed of stone. In his right hand, he holds his pipes, ready to bring them to his lips for a song; he rests his head against his other arm, his left hand toying with the head of a goat whose skin the god wears as a cloak. Bunches of grapes rest between his shaggy feet. A tiny salamander crawls near his right hoof. I cannot read his absent gaze; while he would seem to be reclining in leisure, something in the way the god’s lips hang just slightly agape makes me think he is in some sort of sublime state, either pain or rapture.

This Pan is a statue, of course – Reclining Pancarved from a discarded chunk of marble, and once used as a fountain. (Water would have poured from the bag under Pan’s back, which seems highly impractical.) He was carved in the Renaissance, probably by an artist named Francesco da Sangallo, sometime around 1535, and spent most of his half a millennium of life in the collection of the Barberini family, whose members were princes and cardinals. He came to America, and to St. Louis, two years after World War II, where he has been ever since.

So far as I know, Reclining Pan is not considered one of the great works of Renaissance sculpture – not bad, but not one of the masterpieces. But you would not know that from the way my family treated it whenever we visited the Art Museum while I was growing up. We did not always go immediately to Pan, but inevitably, our labyrinthine paths through the museum would lead us to the hallway where he lays. My parents love art, and would happily observe and discuss nearly anything in the museum collections, but Reclining Pan merited a special reverence. He was our icon, our site of devotion.

But he was not alone. In the rest of the European art, there were other works that featured the gods of antiquity: Bartolomeo Manfredi’s Apollo and Marsyas was always a favorite, with its vivid colors and the wonderfully expressive faces of its subjects. If we wandered downstairs to the Ancient Art section, we found other pieces that usually caught my eye: small statues of Horus, Osiris, Ma’at and Thoth in the Egyptian cases, two headless statues of Artemis, an amphora showing the meeting between Heracles and Apollo at Delphi. A young Pagan could spend all day scouring the collections, looking for traces of the gods, and I often did.

When I was perhaps eleven or twelve – just beginning to understand what my religion was, and how it was different from what most of my peers at school practiced – I remember looking at the scenes painted on the case of Amen-Nestawy-Nakht’s mummy, detailing the path his soul would take in the afterlife. I looked at the gods – Osiris, Isis, Anubis, and many more – painted on the casket, and I recognized some of the scenes from the Book of the Dead. Then I looked at the information placard; it said that Amen-Nestawy-Nakht had lived during the 22nd Dynasty, sometime around 900 BC. I paused, and read the placard again. I don’t have the proper metaphor for how this revelation hit me: this person had lived a thousand years before Jesus. A thousand years! I was closer to the Renaissance than this priest of Amun had been to the birth of Christ. And yet we had statues of these gods on our family altar; I may have even had my own statue of Horus in my bedroom by that point. I can’t tell you how comforting it was to know that, in some way, I was connected to something so ancient.

I look at certain things in the Art Museum more critically now than I did as a child. I can’t help but be aware of the colonial stigma attached to the mummy of Amen-Nestawy-Nakht, for example, who had once been interred in the Theban necropolis and would, I am sure, have preferred to stay there, rather than passing into the hands of French collectors and eventually a museum on the other side of the Earth. I notice that the two statues of Artemis on display are both missing their heads, and I wonder what happened to them, whether some patriarchal malefactor destroyed the face of the goddess in an attempt to show his domination of her. And I can’t help but note the irony that Reclining Pan was carved for the family of a Catholic cardinal, the very embodiment of the religion that displaced the worship of gods like Pan.

But still, when I am home and have the time, I make this tiny pilgrimage. Part of growing up Pagan was learning to take comfort in the little reminders of my faith that infiltrated the world around me. I kept my chapels hidden in plain sight. Other visitors to the Art Museum might only have seen a statue of a strange-faced faun reclining on a comfortless bed of stone. I saw a god, and something more than a god.

I saw the face of an old friend.