Column: Wyrd Science – Viking Equity in the Coronavirus Age

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The national disaster of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States has shown us that wyrd really does weave us together.

Old Norse urðr, Old English wyrd, and Modern English weird have a range of definitions, but together they give a sense that the actions we have taken of our own free will in the past determine the fate that will await us in the future.

Rather than an ideology of individualism, this is a concept concentrated on connection. Actions taken by others before we were born, actions taken by those close to us during our lives, and actions taken by faraway people we will never meet all color the thread of  life that connects a person’s past to that person’s future.

We are now seeing how these interconnections near and far are shaping our wyrd, whether we will them to or not.

From one city in central China, the COVID-19 pandemic has spread to over 180 countries around the world. In six months, the United States went from one case to well over four million. There have now been more than sixteen million cases worldwide. Less than half that number have recovered.

From the baby infected in the womb to the doctors, nurses, and other health care workers whose personal protective equipment did not protect them from dying of this accursed disease, we are being affected by the deeds of others both close by and incredibly distant.

Macbeth and the Weird Sisters in an engraving by Robert Thew based on a painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1803) [Public Domain]

For those of us who practice the modern religions of Ásatrú and Heathenry, there are also threads that connect our perceptions and portrayals of the past to our deeds that impact the lives of others.

Vikings and berserkers

Two of the most popular images of the Viking Age in both popular culture and within Heathenry are those of the Viking raider and the berserker. In movies, television, comic books, video games, costumed reenactment, religious imagery, and texts by and for practitioners, the attacking Viking and the furious berserker appear with regularity.

What is behind these popular archetypes?

Whether the term Viking has roots in words for fjords, rowers, or something else entirely, the portrayal today centers on the raider, the bearded pirate who sails across the seas to brutally raid and rape, capture and kill, poach and plunder. He buries his axe willy-nilly not only in the skulls of enemy warriors, but of any villagers or clergy who happen to cross his bloody path.

The berserker of legend takes this bloody-mindedness one step further. As the Icelander Snorri Sturluson put it in his Saga of the Ynglings of c. 1225:

Odin knew how to make it such that in battle his enemies became blind and deaf and fearful and their weapons bit not more than wands, but his own men went without coats of mail and were mad as hounds or wolves, bit into their shields, were strong as bears or bulls. They killed the menfolk, but neither fire nor iron worked on them. That is called the way of the berserker.

Fueled by the holy madness of divine inspiration, or driven wholly mad by enraging ritual and the ingestion of mind-altering substances, the berserker was oblivious to the damage inflicted on enemies, comrades, and even himself. Between the onset of the excited mental state and the exhaustion that followed it, he gave no thought to the consequences of his actions.

There are shades of Vikings and berserkers around us, even now.

Parents who want their children to go back to school insist that all children must go back to school. Pundits calculate the number of dead students Americans would accept as the cost of getting the kids out of the house. Adults who choose to disobey public health recommendations and government orders on self-quarantining and the wearing of masks attack those who choose to follow them. Elected officials tell us that our parents dying alone in overcrowded hospitals is a small price to pay for businesses to reopen.

This combination of self-centeredness and willful disregard for the well-being of others shows those who make these selfish choices to be far closer to the grinning raiders of popular imagination than any earnest internet denizen who posts about their mail-order DNA test supposedly proving that they have the blood of Vikings flowing in their veins.

Others insist that visiting a hair salon or binge drinking in a crowded bar is an inherent human right that no governmental instruction or medical necessity can contravene. They think it’s nothing but a hilarious prank to cough on $35,000 worth of new food that must then be destroyed. They angrily threaten employees at medical offices who quietly tell them masks are required to receive treatment. They post online threats to lynch, beat, shoot, hang, and behead a governor who dared to issue social-distancing orders to slow the spread of the virus.

Like the berserkers, their disregard for the suffering of strangers extends to their friends, family, and themselves. They don’t care whether the imprisonment, sickness, and death that result from their deeds is that of others or their own. All that matters is the satisfaction of their desires and the expression of rage at any who stand in their way.

Is this selfish wallowing in desire and anger really the foundation of the Viking Age?

Moderation and equity

The Old Norse word hof is quite familiar to American Heathens, who use it to refer to temples and other roofed religious sanctuaries. Arguably less familiar is the term hóf, which has a range of meanings that encompass moderation, measure, proportion, equity, fairness, reasonableness, temperance, and justness.

The Peasant Dance by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1568) [Public Domain]

Out of the many versions of the so-called “nine noble virtues” that are promoted across the Heathen political spectrum, I can’t find any that includes this concept among its listing of what are presented as ancient Norse pagan values but which seem suspiciously close to contemporary Protestant ethics.

In the United States, Heathenry often overlaps with a celebration of Vikingness in attitude, imagery, and garb; a recent academic work on “Heathenism in Contemporary America” was titled Being Viking. Given the state of our national character, it’s unsurprising that a quiet focus on moderation and equity is less popular in the U.S. than an embrace of macho posturing, oath-making over ale, and a claim that Odin’s ancient advice to take weapons when traveling on open land and to bring a spear when out on the open road is somehow connected to collecting private caches of guns in twenty-first century America.

Vikings and berserkers are admittedly fun to read about, but do we want members of our communities to take them as role models?

The seemingly endless American fads of genealogy tracing and personal DNA testing often lead their devotees to excitedly declare that they’re the descendants of Viking heroes and medieval kings. Much less often do we hear breathless giddiness over the realization that the vast majority of our ancestors were everyday working people – farmers, craftspeople, the salt of the earth whose names and deeds weren’t considered important enough by the historiographers to include in their tales of the mighty.

In farm life and village life, hóf has always been more important than piracy and rage. In my father’s German village of Karavukovo (“the place of the black wolf”), wolves were seen as enemies who threatened the livestock at the center of rural life. What community welcomes the man who lives as a wolf?

In his book Viking Age Iceland, Jesse L. Byock writes that hóf was embraced by the mighty as well as the meek.

Success in maintaining reciprocal agreements and playing the role of advocate required conformity to a standard of moderation, termed hóf. An individual who observed this standard was called a hófsmaðr, a person of justice and temperance.

The one who refused to abide by this standard was censured by all.

The opposite of hóf was óhóf, a failure to observe restraint denoting excess or intemperance. Displays of óhóf alarmed both friend and foe. They called forth the exercise of peer pressure against an overbearing individual with the result that rarely did one leader succeed in imposing his will on other leaders for very long. The practice of óhóf was known as ójafnaðr, meaning unevenness, unfairness or injustice in dealing with others.

This self-centered behavior was recognized as harmful to the community, and the community did something about it.

Ójafnaðr, which is often translated as ‘being overbearing’ or ‘unjust’, disturbed the consensual nature of decision-making and set in motion a series of coercive responses; for example, when an individual’s greed or ambition threatened the balance of power, other leaders banded together in an effort to counter his immoderate behavior.

If we truly believe that the old poems and sagas are worth reading, that they contain wisdom that is worth remembering, here is something to embrace in today’s world. For any who are focused on learning the worldview of the long ago time, on reconstructing the Old Way, or on building a new religious movement upon the foundation of ancient Germanic paganism, here is a bedrock on which to stand.

It is profoundly Heathen to care about others, to resist our selfish desires, to moderate our behavior, to use good judgment, and to work for the good of the wider community. If we want to be truly Heathen, we must push back on the berserker individualism that says masks stifle freedom and instead do what is right for our families, our communities, our nation, and our world.

We the people

And so it comes back to wyrd.

Every action we take has consequences. Every deed has repercussions. The steps we take reverberate beyond our hearing, beyond what we can know. The web of wyrd that connects us all has never been more obvious.

When we prioritize our individual impulses over what the wider world needs now, our solipsistic narcissism does real harm. When we yank on the threads of the web and try to pull it in the direction we desire, the greater structure will snap back and pull us along with it in unintended ways.

Green Party vice-presidential candidate Angela Walker recently told me something that resonates with this idea.

I believe that, at the end of the day, that is the thing that will always save us. We take care of each other. We take care of ourselves. As long as we have a government that is insensitive to the needs of the people, we’re going to have to.

We. Each other. The people. This is the worldview that will get us through these dark times.

We the people of the United States, in order to follow the workings of wyrd, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common good, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of the Powers to ourselves and our posterity, must endorse and embrace the standard of hóf in our daily lives, our choices, and our interactions with others.

If we don’t, there is only more darkness ahead.

(Editor’s note: Quotations from Old Norse were translated by the author.)


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