Review: A Cauldron Overflowing with Sacred Knowledge – “Our Troth” vol. 2

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Following the publication of Heathen Garb and Gear in 2019 and Our Troth volume one last year, Ben Waggoner is back at it with the second volume of Our Troth, which is dedicated to the deities and other sacred figures of the Norse and Germanic world. As with the previous volume, the present work is part of a grand project of rewriting and republication of the Troth’s religious handbook, originally conceived almost 30 years ago by Kveldulf Gundarsson and republished in the form of an augmented edition in 2006. While that second edition was expanded and published in two volumes, the current editorial enterprise has seen the book being divided into four parts, the second of which was released in late June in connection with Trothmoot 2021 .

While the previous volume focused on the history of Norse and Germanic Paganism from the Bronze Age of Scandinavia to 21st century America, this second volume focuses instead on gods, goddesses and other mythological and supernatural figures. This topical change is reflected not only in the nature of the information presented but also in the very structure of the book: while the previous volume was arranged in a broadly chronological fashion, with each time period discussed within a single chapter, volume two instead presents lengthy self-contained chapters focusing on a single god or a family of gods.

Starting with Odin, most of the major deities of the Norse pantheon are thus dealt with within the first half of the book, with the second half dedicated to lesser-known deities and figures of what some dub “lower mythology,” such as dwarves, valkyries, elves and so on. While this organization makes sense from an editorial point of view, it nevertheless results in making the book feel more like a collection of free-standing essays rather than a volume to be read cover to cover like the previous volume. Another obstacle standing in the way of any reader aiming to consume this book from start to finish would be its length. While volume one was a reasonable 300 pages in length, the present one more than doubles that. This leads to maybe the defining aspect of the book, namely the near-overwhelming quantity of information seeping from its pages.

As soon as the reader leaves the confines of the book’s introductory chapter to (figuratively) leap into the arms of Odin, to whom the following chapter is dedicated, it will become apparent that this book is not messing around. Building upon the work of dozens of individual writers, editors, and other contributors, the second volume of this edition of Our Troth is absolutely jam-packed with information. Ranging from simple (but necessary) retellings of the basic myths of the Edda to complex near-academic discussion of obscure archeological artifacts in context, the facts presented within its pages will make certain that everyone will get something for their money.

One only needs to go back to the chapter dedicated to Odin to get a good impression about the intricate fashion in which the deities are presented and analyzed in this book. Following an etymological discussion of the meaning of several of Odin’s names, the reader is met with half a dozen pages analyzing the various ways the God has been described in literature and pictured in the arts, before spending most of the remainder of the chapter taking on his various roles and attributes. What is likely to impress the curious reader the most during their first reading is probably the near-endless fascinating philological tidbits taken from reputable academic sources which help gain insight into the way the old Norse and Germanic peoples understand the gods.

These passages range from the somewhat mundane, like the translation of the Latin names of the Roman-era Germanic Matronae to the complex linguistic theories surrounding the link, or lack thereof, between Frigg and Freyja. But the writers and editors of this second volume of Our Troth do not need to systematically resort to bringing advanced academic considerations to convey noteworthy pieces of information. More often than not, each god, goddess, or spirit discussed within these pages is presented through numerous primary sources, both written and archeological, and just about anyone is guaranteed to find new sources in which their favorite deity appears. (I, for example, had no idea that Odin was mentioned in the Böglunga sögur, set in 13th century Norway.)

In more academic works, these kinds of small details are usually used solely to prove a point or advance an argument. In the present volume, however, one could almost say that it is these short pieces of information that form the core of the book. Talking about Freyr’s connection to fertility, for example? Here’s a quote from Beowulf, and a couple of Eddic verses and saga accounts – but let’s not forget a tidbit of runelore as well, and an account of 19th century folk practices to tie things all up.

Basically, every single chapter, nay, subchapter, or even mere paragraph, is filled to the brim with information fished from a dazzlingly wide array of primary sources. In addition, even if the authors and editors take much heed to academic commentaries and analysis of these sources, they do not burden themselves with the task of establishing rigid methodologies or theories.

Being a wannabe academic myself, I can certainly understand this approach: it can be maddening at times to be unable to make pretty much any positive statement about anything without referring first to austere theoretical constructs designed by long-dead scholars. Sometimes, one just wants to gather, to hoard knowledge and spread it far and wide, without spending aeons crafting intricate theories or producing cryptically-written analyses. In this sense, the present volume manages to do a great job at making reputable information available to lay folks, unconstrained from the shackles of convoluted and near-unapproachable academic frameworks.

Still, such an approach, while freeing in some aspects, can nevertheless be limiting. Even though it can be extremely enjoyable to be presented fact after fact about a topic that is close to one’s heart, after a while, it can start to feel somewhat overwhelming. When, for example, the authors discuss Thor’s role as a giant killer, they take their task seriously, and, in the span of less than two and a half pages, present the reader with no less than eleven different sources used to detail Thor’s murderous anti-giant activities. While each and every of these sources absolutely deserve to be brought up, the way they are presented nevertheless leaves something to be desired.

Each source is named, presented, and described so quickly that the reader gets very little time to ponder its content before another one is brought up, followed by another one, and another one. In some ways, it feels like a conference presentation in which a speaker  brings on point after point, argument after argument, without leaving time for the audience to properly take in what was said. This makes going through parts of this work sometimes more akin to watching a Youtube video on 1.5 speed than discerning the subtle nuances of a carefully-constructed text.

At the end of the day, even if the core of what is presented is solid, relevant, and compelling, an info-dump is still an info-dump, and such an approach unfortunately tends to engineer passivity even within the shrewdest reader.

Zisa, an ancient goddess, might have survived through the figure of Maria, Untier of Knots, seen in this 18th century painting by Johann Georg Schmidtner [public domain]

Yet, even faced with this somewhat disorienting structure, the second volume of Our Troth still manages to cover a lot of ground, and thoroughly presents some often-overlooked aspects of certain deities and myths alike. I, for example, only had the faintest notions that Tyr might have had a female counterpart at some point in the past. I was therefore in for quite a treat when, in just a dozen pages, gathering evidence from saga-literature, Roman-era inscriptions and medieval legends among others, I saw the goddess Zisa reveal herself to me. In that regard, most of the chapters focusing on gods and goddesses are altogether well structured and not too hard to read.

The book’s issue with structure and pacing is, however, much more apparent in its second half, which deals with spirits and figures from the “lower mythology.” There, the reader will find an absurd amount of information crammed into small subchapters, in which so many different creatures appear that they almost feel like they start merging with each other.

Every page is figuratively crawling with goblins, nixes, elves, valkyries, and other mesmerizing fae folks, gathered together as if taking part in a wild dance. Other minor mythological figures discussed throughout the book also suffer from being treated in a somewhat more surface-level way. While some are genuinely so obscure that very little can be factually asserted about them, others, like for example Frau Holle, would maybe have deserved a little bit more attention.

Even though discussions of primary sources, archeological data, and philological theories are what form the core of the second volume of Our Troth, one is periodically reminded throughout that the book is a work written by, and for, Heathens. While I still stand by my assertion that, at times, the overabundance of information can feel a bit aimless, on many occasions, the authors do try to find ways to apply the knowledge they gathered in ways that would be useful for the modern practitioner.

As I understand it, a lot more information about how to conduct rituals and practically engage with the deities is to be found in the upcoming third volume of Our Troth (tentatively slated to come out next year.) The tidbits found within this volume, however, feel right at home. A lot of those, often concentrated at the end chapters and subchapters, read almost like the supplemental notes or anecdotes one can find in family cookbooks. They tend to be succinct, to the point, and practical. These would probably not disrupt the flow of reading for someone (such as a non-religious amateur reader of Norse myths) not interested in these sorts of things, all the while making the reading experience feel more down to earth and close to home for those of the faith.

One might, however, not always be so welcoming of the more long-form commentaries attributed in text to named Heathens. While those do indeed provide the reader with noteworthy perspectives modern Heathens have concerning their gods and goddesses, it is not always made clear who these people are to begin with, and why their contributions have been included in the first place. Most of these lengthier commentaries feel somewhat more haphazardly patched together and the content therein could have often been better integrated than by being simply pasted at the end of a subchapter.

One last aspect of the book that is deserving of some more criticism is the way primary sources are approached and contextualized. As previously-stated, accounts taken from primary sources represent the backbone of this second volume of Our Troth, and while those are generally taken from reputable editions and translations, the issue of reliability of these sources is not consistently addressed. This can often be seen when the authors include archeological material in their discourse, at times making positive statements in the vein of claiming a given bronze-age figure is absolutely a representation of this or that deity, while in actuality, many competing theories about how to interpret that figure exist.

However, it is when referring to Old Norse-Icelandic sources, and especially sagas and Eddic poems, that the issue of reliability is the most pressing. While in some cases the authors do discuss the age and context of their sources, and whether they might or might not reflect the beliefs and worldview of pre-Christian heathens, in too many occasions, such a caution is not taken at all. The Eddic poem Hyndluljóð is, for example, extensively used, as are several legendary sagas, such as Egils saga einhenda ok Ásmundar berserkjabana, without any notice of the scholarly consensus that these are generally thought to be rather late works. In their quest for gathering as much knowledge as possible, it is as if the authors and editors of the present book might have overlooked scrutinizing and assessing the values of many individual sources, something that would have benefited their readers immensely.

One can read a lot about Freyr, Gerdr, and the Skirnísmál poem in this second volume of Our Troth. Woodcut by W. G. Collingwood – 1908 [public domain]

These regrettable omissions are all the more baffling when, on numerous occasions, specific sources become the subject of near forensic-level analysis. I think of how, in the chapter dedicated to Freyr, the Eddic poem Skirnismal sees several of its stanzas thoroughly investigated, before making way for an informative summary of the academic debate surrounding its interpretation and implications.

Such a minute attention to detail is also apparent in the way some really obscure sources are brought up to help uncover little-known aspects of myth and worship. One can, for instance, read about Anglo-Saxon Christian sermons that mention Pagan worship of the moon and stars, or old Scandinavian folk sayings that link deities with animals and plants.

If such small details are undoubtedly bound to stimulate the mind of the avid reader, they pale in comparison to the at times lengthy sections dedicated to addressing contested and controversial aspects of specific gods and myths. This starts already in the book’s very first chapters, where topics such as the darker and more dangerous sides of Odin, the truthfulness of the Eddic retelling of Balder’s death, or the ways gender was understood in Norse society and religion are discussed. Similarly, the chapter on Loki and Sigyn is likely to make even the most ardent opponent of the trickster god think twice about the assumptions they previously made about him. Such passages, which benefit from being easy to read, and which take time to present the components of the issues at hand, are probably the most enjoyable of the whole book, and will surely inspire, enlighten, and stimulate the mind of the avid reader.

At the end of the day, it is this impression of mental invigoration that I associate most closely with my experience reading this second volume of Our Troth. Reading it cover-to-cover was, in many ways, an ordeal, not because its content was unappealing, but because it incorporates so much more than any other similar books. For the unprepared mind, this work might look like an impregnable fortress, closely guarding its secrets within long mazes of text overflowing with more knowledge than any individual could hope to fathom.

On the other hand, if read with an open mind, and with plenty of time to ponder its content, this volume would be more akin to a cauldron, a cauldron filled to the brim with an otherworldly elixir, a drink infused with the distilled wisdom and knowledge of gods and mortals alike. Such a beverage can be exhilarating, intoxicating, and even a bit distressful at times, but just about anyone could find something worthy of inquiry within. But as a final word of friendly advice, don’t gulp down the whole thing in one go – savor the drink, and revel in the ever-bountiful riches of the old ways.