Review: Setting Sails toward new horizons with “Heathenry and the Sea”

By all accounts, Dan Coultas is a busy man. Not only is this Yorkshire-based naval officer one of the most active Heathens in the United Kingdom, involved with Asatru UK, Paganaid, and Heathens of Yorkshire (which he co-founded), just to name a few, he also is a rather productive writer. With four books already under his belt, he has recently released yet another one, titled Heathenry and the Sea, which tackles the at times under-discussed topic of the ocean and other waterways in the lives and worldview of Heathens of yore and of today.

Even before opening the book, this unique perspective is bound to intrigue any potential reader. Distinguishing itself from the slew of guides, how-tos and other introductory works about the faith, Heathenry and the Sea is less concerned about explaining the ins and outs of the Heathen religion and more about shining a light unto one of its lesser-discussed aspects. Self-published through Amazon and already available in hardback and paperback (with an ebook version coming sometime this month), this 200 or so page book is best understood as an essay of sorts – or rather, a series of essays, each focusing on a different sub-subject.

As to how this book came into being, the author, speaking to The Wild Hunt in late September, reveals that it originates from his very own life experience and religious practice. An avid traveler and Heathen since his teens, Coultas first got involved with the Royal Navy as a student through the University Royal Naval Units reserve program, before formally joining upon the completion of his studies in 2011. After a grueling year of training, he ended up as a qualified submariner, and spent huge swaths of the past decade literally submerged in the depths of the ocean, sometimes for more than four months at a time.

Author Dan Coultas in royal Navy uniform. [Courtesy]

As his career within the Navy went on, so did his involvement with Heathenry, and after writing three books consisting mostly of poetry and prayers, as well as a children’s book, he felt the need to read more about the relationship between Heathens and the ocean. Unfortunately for him, no such book could be found, so he eventually set out to write one himself.

Building upon various notes, blog posts and snippets from previous works, Coultas proposes, in Heathenry and the Sea, a patchwork made up of personal reflection, passages from the sagas and Eddas, quotes from fellow Heathens, as well as plenty of historical and folkloric material. Presented through thematic chapters, each about ten to 40 pages long, Coultas’ writing is fairly easy to read and makes good use of primary sources and modern practices, as well as folk tales and historical anecdotes, to drive its main point across: that the sea was of paramount importance to the historical Scandinavian Heathens.

Coultas is convincing in this argument, especially in the early chapters of the book, where he carefully selects, and presents, sources pertaining to the relationship of ancient Norse and Germanic people with the sea, sea-life, and water in general. Still, for the well-read Heathen or academic, these first few chapters are less likely to unveil some particularly unknown knowledge than to remind them of some previously-researched work. It must also be said that, while these chapters contain an awful lot of credible sources, these are routinely presented “raw,” with little in-depth commentary or analysis to accompany them. While not every book should aim at producing academic-level criticism, the presentation of heaps and heaps of lengthy quotes from Old Norse-Icelandic sources (among others) can make for an at times laborious read, especially in the 44-pages long chapter about the Deities of the Sea.

The cover of Heathenry and the Sea, illustrated by a work of Arthur Rackham [courtesy]

Still, there is no denying that, for someone curious on the topic, Heathenry and the Sea delivers the goods. The amount of information found within is significant, and is bound to be both inspiring, and useful, no less thanks to a workable and comprehensible bibliographical system including long-form footnotes as well as a solid reference list (in which, I must confess, I am included, through an article of mine about shape shifting in saga narratives)

On the other side of the spectrum, there are a number of passages which do feel lacking, and way too short. The chapters “Seabirds, Superstitions & Nautical Customs” and “Water-Wights & Other Beings” for example, while containing some curious tidbits – I was particularly fascinated by the section of rituals for renaming vessels – might at times frustrate those wishing for more than a morsel of information. The subchapter on sea sprites, for example, is barely 7 lines long and feels like a bit of a compromise between ignoring something worth looking at and not being willing to overburden a book that is already covering a lot of ground.

Among the tidbits of lore and stories found within the book, I myself was particularly enthralled by the numerous folkloric figures and local supernatural entities, many of which stem from English folklore, like the Sarkless kitty from North Yorkshire, or the selkies from the Orkneys. These somewhat later stories fit very well with the previously-mentioned Eddic and saga material, and they contribute to the very “British” aspect of this book. Considering that Heathenry and the Sea first and foremost stems from the personal insights and experience of an avowed Britisher, this is unsurprising, yet it guides the work in singular directions.

The Icelandic Múshveli or mouse whale [Adriann Dunn]

One might for instance, be somewhat confused by the Heathen Naval Prayer included toward the end of the book. The poem, based on the official Navy Christian prayer, has been reworked by Coultas to fit both Heathen practice and the standards of the Royal Navy, and therefore includes, besides an address to the gods and ancestors, an appeal to be of aid of “Queen Elizabeth, and her dominions.” Another quite British chapter is “Seafaring Ancestors,” in which the author not only sensibly commiserates about ancestor worship in general, but also tells the harrowing tale of his own great-grandfather Ernest, a decorated Naval captain who served in the second World War.

This section is representative of the biggest strength of this book, namely the very personal perspective and points of view of the author, which routinely spice up some sections that otherwise could be experienced as monotonous. To be perfectly honest, I felt that had the book included more anecdotes and stories about Coultas’s time in the Navy, it would have made for a much more harrowing read. However, according to the author himself, talking too much about life onboard a nuclear submarine might risk spilling secret-defense info, which would likely end up with a court martial and a hefty prison sentence.

Even with these limitations in place, there is no denying that this book oozes personality. Not only that of its author, as mentioned, but also that of the various other individuals involved, including a number of other Britain-based Heathens in the book’s very first chapter, or the highly entertaining section penned by Alda Björk Ólafsdóttir about Icelandic sea monsters. The later passage also includes some enthralling black and white artwork by Adrian Dunn which complements neatly the numerous other illustrations found within the book, among which one can find a few choice pieces by popular illustrator the Saxon Storyteller.

All in all, if Heathenry and the Sea can be a bit of an uneven read at times, it certainly manages to convincingly bring forth its central thesis: that the sea and the other waters of the world played a critical role in the religion, worldview, practices and way of life of Heathens of yore, and that Heathens of today have much to learn and experience from the watery depths that encircle the land. Had I had a say in how this book was written, I would not have changed much. I might have wanted some more in-depth discussion of saga and Eddic material, including of course, more source criticism (something that too often is glossed over in modern Heathen literature), and a considerably expanded section on folk tales, superstitions, and supernatural creatures.

Still, Heathenry and the Sea, in the state it is in right now, remains a worthy read, and will provide the avid reader with quite a lot of food for thought, and who knows, it might even inspire some to set sail towards new adventures? I am sure the author would not mind if that were the case.

Heathenry and the Sea is currently available via Amazon.


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