Column: Doing the Gods’ Work – a Conversation with Ben Waggoner

The Wild Hunt is exclusively supported by readers like you. No advertising. No corporate sponsors. Your support helps us pay our writers and editors, as well as cover the bills the keep the lights on. We cover the community because of your generosity. Consider making a one-time donation – or become a monthly sustainer. Every amount helps. Thank you for reading The Wild Hunt!

Pagan Perspectives

Back in 2013 and 2014, when I was getting ready to start gathering sources for my masters’ thesis in Old Norse Religion, I realized something: while the vast majority of medieval Norse-Icelandic sagas were readily accessible in Old Icelandic, quite a few of them were hard to get a hold of in translation. Sure, I could have soldiered on, armed with only my trusty Old Icelandic-English dictionary and go through every single saga in the original language, but it would have taken such a long time that, had I done so, I’d probably still be at it today. What I needed were more general editions and translations, with enough notes and index-entries to quickly find relevant information.

When it came to the more popular sagas, such as the so-called “family-sagas” (Íslendingasögur), I had little problem finding good versions. In my excessive exhaustiveness, however, I found a severe lack of material related to the more obscure sagas. In particular, the “Sagas of the Hrafnista Men” (Hrafnistumannasögur), a series of four Medieval sagas following the lives of powerful North-Norwegian chieftains, were very hard to find. These could only be found in very rare books or questionable amateur translations. After a little researching, I was able to find a recently-released translated anthology of all four of the sagas, complete with a great introduction, an impressive number of notes and, thank the gods, an index.

Surprisingly, the translator and editor for this impressive (and nearly life-saving) work wasn’t a weathered philologist or literature scholar from Oxford, but an assistant professor in biology at the University of Central Arkansas by the name of Ben Waggoner. As I later learned, Waggoner, a native of Louisiana and a member of the Troth, wasn’t a novice when it came to translating sagas. By the time his sagas of the Hrafnista men had come out, he had already published half a dozen other texts, including other “legendary sagas” (fornaldarsögur) and a number of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts. As opposed to most amateur authors, translators, and editors writing about Paganism and Heathenry, his work managed to uphold high standards of scholarship, to the point that I ended up mentioning his work in my now thankfully completed MA thesis.

Ben Waggoner at the Ring of Brodgar [courtesy].

Since then, I have had the occasion to talk to Waggoner a couple of times online and read some of his books. As time went by, I became increasingly curious about how a biologist from the American south ended up as possibly the most prolific and talented translator and editor in contemporary Heathenry. As someone who has been involved in Norse scholarship and academia, I was also interested to hear  his perspective on a number of issues related to the sagas, the Eddas, and translating in general. The following is based on a series of questions I sent in September and which Ben Waggoner had the courtesy to answer to the best of his abilities in, I quote, a “modestly witty” fashion.

“1988 was the first time I met anyone who was openly Pagan of any sort, and the first time I heard about Ásatrú. I was a freshman at Tulane University in New Orleans and I used to spend weekend days on Jackson Square in the center of the French Quarter. Eventually, I was introduced to one of the tarot card readers on the square, an engaging and witty fellow named Jerik Daenarson who was leading a large neopagan group called Southshire.”

While the group was an eclectic one, Daenarson himself identified as Ásatrú and lived with a group of like-minded Heathens, the House of Scorpio, in New Orleans. This is where Waggoner got his first glimpse of his future path, with the help of another wondrously-named fortune-teller.

“Gutterrhyme Bambibreeches read runes for me once and predicted that my spirituality would be taking a very Norse path. As I was still a card-carrying Methodist at the time, I thought this sounded a little goofy—but eventually, he was right.”

While it was biology that had been Waggoner’s main interest since his childhood (“I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to do anything else when I grew up”), his first encounter with Heathenry had planted in him something that would blossom a few years later. Waggoner had been accepted as a graduate student at the University of California – Berkeley, far from his native Louisiana, and this is where he met Heathenry anew.

“I picked up a used copy of Edred Thorsson’s A Book of Troth and the Poetic Edda in a Berkeley bookstore circa 1995. Edred’s description of what was then called The Ring of Troth sounded intriguing.”

As the internet became more widely available to the general public, the Troth ended up posting most of another one of their foundational books, Our Troth, online.

“I read it over and over, and was very impressed. I could tell that the work tried to meet high scholarly standards. At the same time, these people were clearly using the lore as a foundation and as a stepping stone to lived religious experience in the present day—not just as an end in itself.”

After some more years of reading and soul-searching, Waggoner came to the conclusion that this path was his to take. By then, he had graduated from Berkeley with a thesis on integrative biology, and he had started teaching at the University of Central Arkansas and publishing scholarly papers. While it is safe to say that his earlier works, such as Biogeographic Analyses of the Ediacara Biota: A Conflict with Paleotectonic Reconstructions, or Testing the Evolutionary Relationships of Ediacaran and Paleozoic Problematic Fossils Using Molecular Divergence Dates, had little to do with his newfound spiritual path, Waggoner would eventually find a way to successfully combine it with his advanced academic skills.

In 2007, while researching the enigmatic god Hœnir, Waggoner dug up the no-less obscure document called the “Saga-fragment of Some Ancient Kings” (Sögubrot af nokkrum fornkonungum), a short text set in the legendary pre-viking times. As with a number of lesser-known medieval Norse-Icelandic documents, the Sögubrot had never been translated to English. Waggoner, being a polyglot – for example, he knew a considerable amount of Russian from time spent living in Moscow in the early 90s – did not let this detail get in the way of knowledge, and he set out to translate the short part of the text where Hœnir is mentioned. As it turned out, Waggoner ended up significantly expanding his original project.

“Once I got that done I didn’t have any context for what the heck was going on in the saga, so I started working on fleshing out the whole text, and then found that the Sögubrot leads into the story of Ragnar Lodbrok,” he says. “As the old man says, one word led to another word.”

In this case, it all lead to much more than just another word. Waggoner eventually published The Sagas of Ragnar Lodbrok through The Troth in 2009. In addition to the self-titled saga on Ragnar Lodbrok, Waggoner also included translations of the “Tale of Ragnar’s Sons” (Ragnarssona þáttr), the Sögubrot, the “Death Song of Ragnar Lodbrok” (Krákumál), as well as a Latin list of Swedish kings. In its scope, thoroughness, and exactitude, The Sagas of Ragnar Lodbrok was an impressive witness of things to come for Waggoner.

Since publishing that first volume, Waggoner has published no less than twelve more books of translated and edited Norse and Anglo-Saxon texts, with a thirteenth in the works, a collection of tales from the fourteenth-century Flateyárbók manuscript. Through this body of work, Waggoner has developed a style, a method, and an overall vision about what it means to translate the tales of Scandinavian antiquity.

Heathenry has often been referred to as “the religion with homework.” One could easily make a comparison between Waggoner’s effort of translating myths and legends about the old gods with that of a Christian scholar delving deep into Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic texts to produce a faithful translation of the words of Yahweh. Yet Waggoner does not see his work in such a light. “I think it’s important that Heathens today not take ‘The Lore’ as ‘gospel.’ We can’t treat it as something handed down to us unaltered from some utopian happy time before the coming of Christianity.” Being aware of the complex academic discourse surrounding the authenticity, nature, and origin of Norse-Icelandic sagas and Eddas, Waggoner strongly insists that the ancient texts – including the Eddas – have to be understood not only in the context of pre-Christian Scandinavia, but as the product of a post-Pagan society was well.

“When Iceland adopted Christianity in the year 1000,” says Waggoner, “that not only brought a change of religion, it brought what scholars call manuscript culture.” This monumental evolution of a previously orally-dominated culture (Waggoner calls it “an information revolution”) brought new ideas, interpretations, attitudes and even narrative elements to the ancient oral corpus, which should be treated as such. “What we call ‘The Lore’ isn’t holy writ; it went through long stages of oral transmission, and then it changed more as it was written, copied, recopied, interpreted, reinterpreted, mixed, remixed, sliced, diced, chopped, and screwed. That’s just what writers and compilers and storytellers do.”

Loki, Höðr and Baldr, from the XVIIIth century Icelandic manuscript NKS 1867 4to [public domain]

To illustrate the dynamic nature of Old Norse literature and myth, Waggoner uses the ever-controversial figure of Loki as an example. While most Heathens know the story about the death of Baldr and how his resurrection was thwarted by Loki’s refusal to weep for the beloved god, few have ever considered that this part of the story might have had Christian origins. “Richard Cole has pointed out that the idea of everything weeping for the slain god, except for ‘one bad guy’ who just has to ruin everything, is almost exactly like medieval Christian thinking about Jews,” Waggoner explains. “According to Gregory the Great in the sixth century, all creation had acknowledged Jesus’s divinity and mourned his death – except for those wicked, blind, hard-hearted Jews. This part of Snorri’s account is almost a straight steal from Gregory the Great, whose sermons were translated and widely circulated in Scandinavia at the time. Snorri wasn’t necessarily being ‘anti-Semitic’ — at least not more so than most medieval Christians, not that that’s saying a lot — but he almost certainly borrowed that detail for his account of the death of Baldr, with Loki depicted in some of the same terms as Jews in medieval literature: ‘kin’ to the Aesir / Christians, but still a scheming malevolent ‘other,’ not ‘one of us.'”

Understanding “the lore” as a dynamic and evolving corpus of texts, at times influenced by, and always transmitted through, Christian learning might have some long-lasting implications for today’s Heathens. Yet, most Heathens are neither directly aware of the modern academic debate surrounding that myth, nor do they read Old Norse-Icelandic.

With access to the foundational texts of most of what comprises today’s Heathen belief and a more-than-respectable knowledge of academic theory and discourse, some individuals in Waggoner’s position likely would be tempted to present themselves as meaningful authoritative figures, but not Waggoner. “Reading the Eddas in Norse doesn’t really give you access to deep ancient mysteries, unless you consider ‘How the f— does the dative case work, again?´ to be a deep ancient mystery. Just knowing the dictionary definitions of every word doesn’t mean you can catch all the allusions, all the inside jokes and obscure meanings and connotations. You’re still not receiving the text in the same way, with the same mental background, that our ancient Heathen forebears would have, just as learning Greek and Aramaic and Hebrew doesn’t make you a better Christian than people who just stick with the King James Version. In addition, I figure the gods are smart enough to speak and understand English. They haven’t complained when I’ve done it, anyway.”

Waggoner’s open-mindedness also appears in stark contrast to the view some Heathens might hold regarding modern interpretations and development of Heathenry. “I think our gods can change and develop and grow—or at least our perceptions of them and understandings of them can change. I don’t think they have ever revealed, or ever will reveal, everything we’ll ever need to know about them. Yet, we’ll always need some people who can try to bring the best modern scholarship into the Heathen community, we can’t keep on endlessly rehashing Grönbech and Turville-Petre.”

As for the issue of innovation within Heathenry, Waggoner takes a similarly understanding stance. “An authoritative Heathen authority will distinguish between what is based in old lore or folk custom and what is personal or community insight and let the reader decide what’s worthy of trust. There’s room in our faith for both the nerd with overflowing bookshelves – that would be me – and the guy who may not have the time or desire to dig into academic lore, but who honors the gods and ancestors and land and tries to live a worthy life.”

While he has produced a number of high-quality translations of the sagas and the Eddas, Waggoner remains modest about his approach to translation as well. “You never get translation exactly right. In a way, it’s like knitting, every word tugs on other words. If one knitting stitch is too tight or too loose or otherwise poorly done, it puts tension, or fails to put enough tension, on the stitches that it touches, and the whole sweater can end up with awkward bulges. It’s the same with words; the choice of a particular word sets up allusions and shades of meaning that may or may not go well with other words you might use. I can’t say that I’m perfect at it—some of my verbal sweaters still bulge or pinch in unfortunate places.”

Some of Waggoner’s more recent works [L. Perabo.]

Inspired by the works of Herman Pálsson, Paul Edwards, John McKinnell, and Stephen Mitchell among others, Waggoner has translated and edited no less than two-thirds of the entire legendary saga corpus and plans to eventually finish it. Lately, though, he has focused his attention on other projects, namely his translation of what he dubs the Sagas of Imagination and translations of both the Hávamál and the Rígsþúla.

While the main goal of the Sagas of Imagination is to familiarize Heathens and saga-enthusiasts with some of the least talked-about texts, including some more of the legendary sagas, and sagas of bishops, saints, and knights, his translations of the Eddic poems are likely to find a wider audience. While attempting to balance the stylistic mastery of Hollander with the accuracy of Orchard and Larrington, Waggoner’s translation of the Hávamál and the Rígsþúla comes with a great number of useful notes. The Troth plans to use them for outreach programs such as in the military and prisons.

Waggoner does not forget to remind us that, while they are important, there is more in life than books, even in the life of footnote-hungry Heathens. His advice for Heathens involves just as much contact with the natural world and the community as scholarship. “Try talking to the gods and making some offerings and see what happens,” he says. “Get away from your glowing screens for a while. Grow or hunt some of your own food if you can. Be nice to kitty-cats. Learn the stars and constellations and weather patterns. Find like-minded folk and try to live your religion as part of a community, if possible. Eat together when you can. Make mistakes and learn from them. Keep trying.”


Editor’s note: This column has been updated to include a more substantial quote from Dr. Waggoner on the topic of the relationship between Gregory the Great’s sermons and the account of Baldr’s death in the Prose Edda.

*   *   *
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.