Editor’s note: Today’s offering makes reference to sexual assault, genocide, and violence against children.
We are living through a time in which we are faced with fundamental questions of human rights on a daily basis.
These questions pile upon us, one on top of the next, and overwhelm our ability to form coherently meaningful answers in the age of instant and unequivocal public stances demanded by both the speed of current events and the insatiable maws of the twin wolves, news media and social media.
Some of the most pressing current questions center on immediate responses to deep injustice and to horrific violence.
In the face of long-term oppression and deadly terrorist attacks…
Is it okay to target civilians?
Is it okay to target children?
Is it okay to target public gatherings?
Is it okay to target hospitals?
Is it okay to target refugee camps?
Is it okay to target a general population when warring against a segment of that population?
Is it okay to respond to human rights violations by violating human rights?
All too often, the answer given is “no” when the target is ourselves or our perceived allies and “yes” when the target is some Other that we see as an inhuman enemy.
Do human rights really work like this? Are they situational and designed to be simply switched off when we want to wipe out our opponents?
Our political leaders aren’t providing the strongest moral guidance. “I’m sure innocents have been killed,” said President Biden this week, “and it’s the price of waging a war.”
As a practitioner of Ásatrú, a modern religion inspired by old northern European paganism, I’ve been watching members of other faiths make public statements of support for one group or another, even as they speak of the inarguable value of human lives.
And I’ve wondered how my own tradition can speak to questions of human rights.
To begin with, it’s important to have a working understanding of commonly accepted human rights.
Universal Declaration of Human Rights
In 1948, after the horrors of the Second World War, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).
Forty-eight countries voted for its adoption, and none voted against. Eight abstained – South Africa, Saudi Arabia, and six communist countries.
The UDHR was not legally binding on UN member states, but it played an important role as a universally dispersed document on human rights that avoided language bound to any particular political, cultural, or religious system.
Many nations adopted elements of it directly into their own constitutions and systems of laws, and the promulgation of the UDHR led to the drafting of the International Bill of Human Rights and other agreements between world powers.
The United States Supreme Court, however, declared in 2004 that U.S. politicians can use their own judgment when considering whether or not this nation has any obligation whatsoever to follow the precepts of the UDHR.
In fact, when reading through the original declaration, it is painfully obvious that much of it has been violated by these United States of ours in the recent past or in an ongoing fashion.
It is also clear that several of its articles are being violated right now in conflicts that have gained the world’s attention and strong international support for one side or the other.
Article 3: Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.
Violations of this article are fairly obvious, when terrorist attacks and military reprisals alike target civilians for kidnapping and killing.
Article 13: (1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state. (2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.
The rejection of this article in practice is at the heart of conflicts we currently face.
Article 15: (1) Everyone has the right to a nationality. (2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.
Today’s two most intense international conflicts both center on violations of this article.
Article 17: (1) Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others. (2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.
Whenever and wherever civilians are considered fair targets for terrorism or military attacks, their property is likewise targeted.
Article 18: Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
Raiding, attacking, or completely obliterating places of worship clearly violates this article.
Article 19: Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
Here in the United States, this is plainly discarded when people are losing their livelihoods based on supporting one side or another in foreign conflicts – or even for expressing their support for human rights in those conflicts.
Article 20: (1) Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association. (2) No one may be compelled to belong to an association.
Also in the United States, the first element of this article has been repeatedly violated by police who arrest and/or physically attack nonviolent protestors making statements about conflicts abroad.
When reading through these articles and my brief comments, it may be tempting to attempt a parsing of my statements to figure out what side I’m secretly supporting in which conflict. To make that attempt, however, would be to engage in exactly the situationally variable ethics I’m questioning in this column.
Either human rights belong to all humans – regardless of their political, cultural, and religious associations – or they are meaningless.
I believe that human rights do, in fact, belong to all of us.
The question I have at this moment is how we can speak to this fundamental issue from an Ásatrú perspective.
“You shall utterly destroy them”
Doing what practitioners of Ásatrú often do – turning to Old Norse texts for inspiration – doesn’t quite work in this particular situation.
In the Old Icelandic poem Hárbarðsljóð (“Graybeard’s Song”), part of the 13th-century collection we call the Poetic Edda, Odin (disguised as Graybeard) and Thor argue over the glory of their respective deeds. Some of these deeds are extremely inglorious.
Odin/Graybeard speaks (in Carolyne Larrington’s translation) of five years in which “we fought… and wreaked slaughter, we tried out many things, had our choice of girls.”
If the verse doesn’t make perfectly clear that the rape of young women is part of the spoils of battle, the poem goes on to demonstrate that the one thing that Odin and Thor openly agree on is that it would have been nice to collaborate on a gang rape.
When Odin/Graybeard speaks of being off in the east – the realm of the giants, the enemies of the gods – he mentions that he would have welcomed Thor’s assistance with a “gold-bright” lady.
Graybeard said: “I could have done with your help, Thor, to hold the linen-white girl.”
Thor said: “I’d have helped you with that, if I could have managed it.”
Graybeard said: “I’d have trusted you then, if you didn’t betray my trust.”
Thor, as per usual, brags of his war on the giants, and explains why he particularly targets giant women.
“I was in the east, and I fought against giants,
malicious women, who roamed in the mountains;
great would be the giant race if they all survived:
there’d be no humans within Midgard.”
For some modern readers, this may bring up associations with involuntary sterilization of Black women by federally funded programs in the United States and rhetoric by various political leaders (and right-wing figures in modern Paganism) at home and abroad about supposed assaults on civilization by threatening hordes of Others who are portrayed as breeding animalistically in order to demographically swamp the group seeking to hold onto power.
The Old Icelandic poets are not, of course, alone in producing texts that show divinities celebrating rape, eugenics, and genocide. Deuteronomy 20 provides God’s instructions regarding vanquished enemies:
But if [a city] makes no peace with you, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it;
and when the Lord your God gives it into your hand you shall put all its males to the sword,
but the women and the little ones, the cattle, and everything else in the city, all its spoil, you shall take as booty for yourselves; and you shall enjoy the spoil of your enemies, which the Lord your God has given you.
Thus you shall do to all the cities which are very far from you, which are not the cities of the nations here.
But in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance, you shall save nothing alive that breathes,
but you shall utterly destroy them… as the Lord your God has commanded.
Maybe it’s not such a great idea to turn to writers from 1,000, or 2,000, or 3,000 years before the United Nations publicly published the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for teachings on the universality of human rights.
I write this as someone who definitely finds great value in turning to the religious poetry and mythology of past ages for inspiration. I’m simply saying that those long-ago writers who had no concept of human rights aren’t very good sources for insights into human rights.
There is a way forward, but it necessitates that we accept and embrace the fact that we practice a post-1972 new religious movement (NRM) that is fundamentally part of our own era, not a continuation of some hoary old tradition of the ancient past.
The goddess, the father, and the holy wall
I would argue that we need a modern theology for modern times.
Theology is not only about our relationship to the divine, but also about our relationship to each other and to the world. I would go so far as to assert that a religion predicated upon the notion that we are our deeds is already primed towards dealing with the intricate issues of our lived lives.
One possible path is to remain connected to the mythology and cosmology that we study and love, but to approach the individual elements in a way that engages more deeply with the critical issues of the 21st century (as opposed to the 13th century).
Here are three bits of the mythological corpus that may be useful as touchstones when reflecting upon issues of human rights.
Without delving into the nitty gritty of any myth from the Viking Age, we can simply face the goddess Freyja. Her name means “woman,” and the name of her daughter Hnoss means “treasure.” Even without any particular tale, this is enough to begin with.
The greatest of the goddesses is simply “woman” – the subtle and complicated ultimate form, model, and expression of womanhood in all its aspects for all who identity as women. There is no adjective inherent in her name that walls her off from diverse experiences; she is not “Icelandic woman,” “Viking woman,” “white woman,” or anything else with any limitation placed upon it. She is, as Chaka Khan sang, every woman.
Her daughter is “treasure.” Again, there is no adjectival limit placed upon her. She is every daughter that has been, is, or ever will be. The Icelander Snorri Sturluson, in his Prose Edda of c. 1220, writes (in Anthony Faulkes’ translation) that Hnoss “is so beautiful that from her name whatever is beautiful and precious is called hnossir [treasures].” Thus think loving parents, and all such parents will weep over the dead bodies of their murdered children, regardless of which side of the political barrier they stand.
So, as practitioners of Ásatrú, we have a starting point for developing a theology of human rights that addresses the inherent value of every woman and every child. We stand upon a theological ground from which we can push back against the notion that, as President Biden asserted, the killing of civilians is “the price of waging a war.”
It is not. It is a choice made by those willing to accept the corpses of dead children as having less value than whatever political or military objective they order their fighters to carry out. We do not have to accept that concept.
Heimdall, the god whose name can be translated as “world tree,” is portrayed in the Poetic Edda as the progenitor of the three classes of humanity.
For our present purposes, it doesn’t really matter exactly how the Icelanders of yore conceived of those three classes, what gradations of valuation early medieval pagans placed upon the lives of various individuals via their wergild system, and whether or not we accept Georges Dumézil’s tripartite theory as mapping well onto the Old Norse cosmology.
What matters right now is the big idea that all the classes of humanity – rich and poor, privileged and powerless – share the same divine ancestor.
If we find value in that mythological concept, if we accept it as part of our core cosmology, then we have another starting point for building a theology of human rights.
If we read the opening of the Old Icelandic poem Völuspá (“Prophecy of the Seeress”) as referring to all of us as “all the tribes, greater and lesser, the offspring of Heimdall,” then all of our lives have inherent value that exists irrespective of what side of the border wall we were born.
If we accept that proposition, then it is just as much a sin, shame, Schande, wrong act, and gross deed to kill a child in revenge as it is to kill a child in furtherance of whatever cause is claimed in the first place.
If we follow this Heimdallian line of theological reasoning, then we will necessarily reject the propaganda that purposes to persuade us that the life of one of this group is somehow worth more than the life of one of that group, that seeks to justify killing kids as “the price of waging a war,” that uses dehumanizing language to portray the Other as less than human – as animals, as beasts, as níðingar – in order to justify their extermination.
Old Norse Miðgarðr means “middle yard” or (as Rudolf Simek translates it) “dwelling place in the middle,” and is the name used in the Old Icelandic poems and myths to refer to the world of humans.
In the poem Grímnismál (“Sayings of the Masked One”), Odin tells how the gods made Midgard from the eyelashes of the primeval giant, implying that the deities set up a defensive wall with humanity in the middle.
Here is a third starting point. We are, all of us, here together behind the wall of the world. It is not a wall that divides us according to the arbitrary borders that we draw, but a divine wall that surrounds our shared world.
The gods did not create the world to separate us from each other, but rather to join us together. Whether we consider each other friends or foes, clowns or jokers, we are all stuck in the middle.
So maybe we can focus not on building walls between ourselves but instead work on the defensive wall that protects us all. We can prioritize building a communal wall made of economic, educational, legal, and social solutions instead of bearing down on bombing those outside our dividing walls and turning our bright and beautiful world into a barren barrow.
There is a way to move forward and build a progressive Ásatrú theology that engages with questions of human rights, but we must be willing to do the work.
We must face the issues of our times and accept that we practice a new religion that is of our era, not some supposed reconstruction of reputed religions that responded to the needs of practitioners a thousand and more years ago.
Rather than cosplay as Scandinavian pirates and pretend that our 21st century American apartments are 10th century Icelandic estates, we must accept who we are, when we are, and where we are.
Instead of looking for answers to today’s questions in ancient texts, we can construct our own answers upon the concepts and symbols contained in those works that we love so much.
By doing so, we can begin to honestly address the most important questions of our own lifetimes.