Review: Treasure Behind a Hundred Doors in the New Volume of “Our Troth”

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(Editor’s note: Two of The Wild Hunt’s columnists, Lyonel Perabo and Luke Babb, provided feedback on the new edition of Our Troth and appear in its acknowledgments section. Neither received any compensation for their contributions.)

Assiduous readers of The Wild Hunt might remember that, in the summer of last year, I wrote a review of Heathen Garb and Gear, authored by Ben Waggoner and Kveldulf Gunnarson from the Heathen organization The Troth. This volume, which mostly dealt with the material culture of pre-Christian Norse-Germanic people as well as the symbolism found therein, made for a fascinating read, and I highly recommended it to anyone interested in Norse and Norse-adjacent topics.

Now, after less than a year and uncountable calamities later, I once again make myself the bearer of good news, as yet another book from The Troth is on the way, the third edition of The Troth’s foundational work: Our Troth.

As I learned in this newest edition, Our Troth was originally published (and mostly authored) by Kveldulf Gunnarson back in 1993, in a period characterized by the flourishing of Heathen organizations, kindreds, newsletters, and online mailing lists. The book quickly became a cornerstone of the English-speaking Heathen community, and consequently went out of print, until a second, revised edition, spearheaded by Diana Paxson, was published in 2006 and 2007. This second edition, which so greatly expanded on the first one that it had to be released in two volumes instead of one, included new contributions by a great many Heathens, including Ben Waggoner.

Waggoner, who was strongly influenced by reading the first edition of the book back in 1995, now stands at the helm of a third edition of this foundational work, whose first volume of three focuses on the history of Heathenry, both ancient and modern. Starting with the Stone Age and concluding with modern Heathen organizations, “Heathen History” clocks in at almost 300 pages and heralds the coming two volumes, one dedicated to the gods and another to Heathen rituals. While these won’t be published for another year or two, the present volume can certainly stand on its own as a near-flawless introduction to where Heathenry comes from and how it has become what it is today.

From its first lines, the reader of Our Troth is met with a clear and concise style, notably free of obscure jargon and cryptic tangents. The book is organized chronologically, with one chapter each for the Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Viking Age, modern Heathenry, and more besides. Each chapter is then subdivided into short thematic sections that are neatly peppered with illustrations, citations, and foot notes. This structure makes for a very easy read, suitable both for those who would wish to read the volume cover to cover, and those who are only interested in specific topics and periods.

Another praiseworthy aspect of this book is the way in which every chapter spends quite a lot of time setting up the processes, and the people that are talked about, in their environment. Reading about the Indo-Europeans does not feel like looking at a random list of facts, but rather as a more holistic presentation of the way of life, material culture, history, and beliefs of this enigmatic people. Conversely, when the topic shifts to the more modern era of contemporary Heathenism and Paganism, quite a few pages are spent explaining exactly the lineage of various individuals and groups, as well as describing the context in which whatever event under discussion took place.

Truly, if there is one thing the authors of this volume excel at, it must be contextualization. As opposed to less ambitious works and more agenda-pushing authors, Our Troth does not simply consist of a list of primary sources presented alongside some low-brow commentary. Every subject is instead skillfully introduced and covered from various angles, all the while naturally leading to the next one. “Heathen History” does not contain the exhaustive review of sources and facts a volume dedicated to a specific topic, like Heathen Garb and Gear, is able to contain, but the citations that are included nevertheless exemplify the general discourse at hand and pick at the curiosity of the avid reader.

Everyone reading this book will end up coming home with quite a few new pieces of information. My personal favorite sections of the book might very well be those that make use of philological evidence to attempt to decipher the mentality of peoples of ages past, such as the following passage about the Indo-European origin of the word “god”:

whoever worshipped in Proto-Indo-European society did so in familiar ways: we can reconstruct roots […] *gheuə- “to invoke”;[…] and *gheu- “to libate; to make an offering” (Dowden, European Paganism, pp. 250-251). The root *gheu-, “to pour,” is especially interesting, because it is probably the source of our word “god”; etymologically, a “god” is “one who receives what is poured out” (Watkins, The American Heritage Dictionary, pp. 30-31).

There is no doubt that this first volume of Our Troth was produced by people who are well-schooled in the arts of academic research. Though the general tone and style of this work remains surprisingly simple and easy to read, references to some of the leading contemporary experts in the field of Old Norse studies can be found throughout. When the names of Gunnell, Price, Andrén, Gardell, Nordvig, Brink, and Tulunius (among others) are included, you can be sure that you’re dealing with serious research.

Stone Age Rock art at Alta, North Norway [Hans A. Rosbach, Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0]

Now, while my general impression of reading this book has clearly been a positive one, there are a few aspects that could be put into question. As Our Troth aims at being a book that everyone who is interested in Heathenry should be able to pick up and read, many subjects are unfortunately only superficially addressed. While on a few occasions a contested research topic is fairly presented with arguments from both sides, this is often not the case. As such, some passages of Our Troth feel like they oversimplify certain facts and situations. Ironically, as the book is generally very good at providing sources and citations for most of its claims, some readers might end up believing that there is little to no academic debate about subjects that are, more often than not, fiercely debated.

That said, even as an academic myself, I cannot completely blame the authors and editors of Our Troth. This work, while punching above its weight in terms of scholarship, was never intended as an academic document. If it were, each and every chapter of this book would be a separate book of its own and would be read by about twelve and a half people at best. Overall, Our Troth fairly presents at least the significant mainstream aspects of the subjects it showcases, and indeed, on some occasions, opposite viewpoints are also entertained. I just hope that the readers of this volume won’t have their curiosity completely fulfilled and will instead use this book as it is intended, as a springboard toward even more refined and exact knowledge.

Beside that rather minor point of contention, there is little to criticize about Our Troth. Small things such as writing “the Ukraine” instead of just “Ukraine” as it is now customary to do are, in the grand scheme of things, trivial issues, just like the lack of a comprehensive punctuation system (an issue that was also present in Heathen Garb and Gear).

If I were to criticize the content of the book itself, I would probably point out how little space is spent discussing the Finns and the Sámi, who were, for centuries, the Norsemen’s main neighbors, especially in northern Scandinavia. For that matter, nothing about northern Norway can be found in this volume, besides a quick mention of the Alta Stone Age carvings site. This is a bit of a pity when one knows about the rather unique history of culture that existed in the region during the Viking and Middle Ages, a culture characterized by inter-cultural contacts and influence – a topic which is otherwise one of the core focuses of this volume.

As mentioned earlier, the first volume of Our Troth does a good job of highlighting the contacts various peoples and nations might have had in ages past, and how the religion we know today as Heathenry is as much the result of those connections as anything else. Yet as the chronology of the book shifts from the golden days of ancient Heathenry (“the time of serpent-patterned swords and swine-crested helms, ring-giving rulers and rich hoards of gold, tragic betrayals and trusty heroes”) to that of the Christian and Post-Christian times, the book’s focus changes somewhat as well.

Although the reader can still read about the formerly Heathen nations they have come to know and love in the course of reading this book, Our Troth dedicates much of its second half to the various individuals and organizations that paved the way for the modern Heathen movement. This process starts in chapter seven (“Medieval to Modern”) and is introduced by a discussion on the origin of Old Norse-Icelandic saga literature which manages to aptly clear up a few popular misconceptions on the subject. The paragraphs on the Prose Edda are especially important with passages such as the following going straight to the heart of the issue: “[Snorri] also smoothed out” various versions of the myths into a single story, and some aspects of his work, like depicting Odin as the ruler of the gods, may not reflect pre-Christian thought.”

A proposal of what the Iron Age temple in Uppåkra, Sweden might have looked like [Sven Rosborn, Wikimedia
Commons, CC BY-SA 2.5]

While one could bemoan the relative lack of folk material in this part of the book (more space is dedicated to the history of Germanic folklore studies than to the folklore itself), this chapter nevertheless gives a good summary of the way Norse myths entered the modern world through scholarship, and the various ways this knowledge was used in, and influenced, the modern era. Few popular works about Heathenry can boast presenting the political intricacies of 17th century Swedish Gothicism or even include more than a few lines about German national romanticism, but the authors of Our Troth somehow managed to pull it off.

What comes next is possibly the most captivating part of the book: a chapter entirely dedicated to discussing the development of Pagan and Heathen-inspired alternative religious and philosophical movements in the German-speaking world from the end of the 19th century until the 1940s. This chapter, “Germanic Religion and the Nazis,” manages to succinctly present the various strands of new religiosity that appeared in Austria and Germany (mostly) at that time and how these were, in many cases, interconnected with less than savory political ideologies.

This chapter is a most compelling read for anyone interested in WWII and the rise of Nazism, as it, once again, perfectly contextualizes the development of this little-known “German Faith Movement,” as some call it. In addition, it sets the record straight regarding the actual relationship these early contemporary Heathens had with the Nazi regime. In a span of a just a few pages, one can read how, while many of the individuals involved in this movement had a natural affinity with fascism and racism, their influence within the Nazi state was, at best, extremely peripheral, and many eventually ended up victims of the regime themselves.

This bold editorial choice of confronting the elephant in the room that is the connections between the contemporary Heathen revival and far-right ideologies might be a painful read to some, but it at least serves to dissipate any previous misconceptions one might have developed after watching one too many History Channel “documentaries.”

A similar transparent approach is likewise taken when discussing the roots of the contemporary Heathen movement, which, like its pre-war predecessor, also had more than one root interwoven with far-right ideologies. This closing chapter details the works and writings of such authors and leaders as Alexander Rud Mills, Else Christensen, and Stephen McNallen, and how, for them, the religious aspects of their movement often took a backseat to right-wing politics. “There wasn’t much Odin in this Odinism,” the volume says when discussing Christensen’s movement.

Yet, even as the final pages of Our Troth devolve into painting a maddeningly complex web of organizations, leaders, schisms, mergers, and controversies, the volume remains rather easy to read. Certain passages are even filled with dry, yet absurd humor, with the description of the small Runic Society of the mid-70s taking the cake:

[The] Runic Society [was] founded in 1974 by N. J. Templin of Milwaukee, whose primary activity was demanding that Denmark turn Greenland over to the Society to be an Odinist homeland […]. When Queen Margrethe of Denmark toured the midwestern US in 1976, Templin harassed her with demands for Greenland until he was banned by her security detail. He was later quoted as saying “We’re not one of those off the wall nutty organizations” (Kuyper, “Runic Society”, p. 5).

If this chapter is quite obviously rather centered on the Anglosphere, with the USA in particular focus, it nevertheless mentions a number of other modern Heathen movements across the globe. While this section could feel a tad short for some, the authors still remember to contextualize the development of the various groups and entities they mention, as exemplified by this succinct, yet well-worded passage about the Icelandic Ásatrú movement: “Icelandic Ásatrú was not a matter of rediscovering a suppressed and nearly forgotten cultural heritage, but reviving the spiritual dimension of a cherished cultural heritage.” This chapter correspondingly covers the way contemporary Heathenism has crossed path with the greater Neopagan and Wiccan movement as a whole, giving credit where credit is due.

As I came closer and closer to the last pages of this first volume of the third edition of Our Troth, I could not help but feel that I had been both intellectually enriched and spiritually stimulated. This volume makes for a great introduction to the ancient history of the Germanic people, as well as that of the contemporary Heathen movement alike, and yet it goes well beyond that. The amount of information, minute details, and downright obscure material that seems to burst out of the seams of this book make me think of this volume less as a hoard of knowledge and more like a palace, a museum with a hundred doors, all wide opened, and inviting.

Don’t fear getting lost when reading this first volume of the newest edition of Our Troth: getting lost here will only lead to greater riches, knowledge, and curiosity than before. A hundred doors, a hundred rabbit holes dot this hall of knowledge, and yet it stands, sound and strong.

The Völuspá famously asked, Vitoð ér enn, eða hvat? “Do you wish to know more, or what?” This book is for those who, to this ancient riddle, would answer: Yes.

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