The Labors of a Heathen: An Interview with Joshua Rood Part II

In the fall of 2013, Joshua Rood left the United States to enroll in the Old Norse Religion Masters program managed by Professor Terry Gunnell which is where, as stated in the first part of this interview, I met him for the first time. Although he was in many ways the most knowledgeable about the topic out of the four of us in the program, Rood recalls this time as a period of radical transformation and intellectual stimulation: “I studied obsessively, and this experience changed so much about how I saw things. When you study at this level, you slowly transform from being overconfident in your topic of predilection to realizing that you really know very little about it” he notes.

After a grueling period of challenging classes including among other things, Norse Mythology, Medieval Icelandic linguistics, and Nordic Codicology, Rood started work on his master’s thesis. The resulting product, Ascending the Steps to Hliðskjálf The Cult of Óðinn in Early Scandinavian Aristocracy was finally completed in 2017. This thesis, which I had the pleasure to help proofread, consists of a study of the development and characteristics of the cult of Óðinn among pre-Viking Age rulers of Iron-Age Scandinavia. Utilizing a variety of methodological approaches and primary sources, Ascending the Steps to Hliðskjálf presents the processes that likely were at play when Odin became the central cultic figure of ancient Scandinavian rulers and is a thoroughly fascinating read to boot.

Shortly after graduating, Rood, who had remained in Iceland the whole time decided to continue researching Heathenism, only this time, it would be as a PhD candidate in Anthropology focusing not solely on Old Norse Religion, but on contemporary Heathenism as well. Wishing to gain more knowledge about Scandinavian Ásatrú, Rood moved to Southeastern Norway early in 2020 (“just before everything shut down” he recalls), where he resides and conducts research to this day. This research, he says, focuses on the differing ways modern Heathen communities in Iceland, Norway, and the US comprehend, relate, and utilize ancient mythological sources.

“In my eyes, Ásatrú is a locally informed form of religious movement or movements. Culture and local context are very important, so the various communities evolve and change at different paces and in different directions all at once depending on where you look” Rood summarizes.

Although his doctorate project won’t be fully completed before 2026 or 2027, he estimates, Rood has already managed to delve deeply into his topic of study. In the past few years, he has, among other things, done fieldwork in Norway, Iceland, and the USA, given lectures, and published an article presenting a historiographical overview of academic research on Ásatrú

When asked about other preliminary findings of his, Joshua Rood brings up first the many similarities between Northeast American and Norwegian Ásatrú: “The two communities share a lot of similar concepts and discourses. It might not seem like it on the surface because you will find different songs and different ways of giving offerings or doing rituals, and you will definitely find different beliefs between the groups. And this makes them very different. But these differences reflect the fact that both communities are actively developing and changing their traditions. That they experiment with and discuss the ways that the source material can be used in relevant contexts” he observes.

Joshua Rood performing under the Midgardsblot festival in Norway. Courtesy of J. Rood.


“Both communities have a very egalitarian social structure as well, which I think allows for new ideas and ways of practicing to develop” he continues. But this approach to Ásatrú is not necessarily shared by all organizations or communities. Rood points out that the Icelandic Ásatrúarfélagið, where he has been a member since 2013, is more hierarchical, even when it comes to ritual. Blóts have followed a standard structure for decades and are organized and performed by Goðar, with other members acting more like observers or passive participants.

Rood also noticed how his original community in the Northeast United States has changed over the years: “There was a time when things mostly followed the protocols of Ásatrú handbooks. Then there came a time of a lot of arguing over historical accuracy. The discourse is overall more nuanced today. There is more openness for a plurality of practices. People don’t focus so much on good vs evil or “codes” of behavior anymore” he notes.

“Trickster deities are more widely accepted.” Rood adds, “But there have also been social fractions. East Coast Thing dissolved after Covid and there is less of an idea of a unified community than there was ten years ago. Time will tell if this changes again and in what way.” Joshua Rood suggests also that newer, smaller spiritual communities are very susceptible to fluctuation and turmoil due to things as simple as the personalities involved. “One of the biggest factors that will shape the future of Heathenism will be the personalities and interpersonal dynamics involved” he adds.

But when dealing with Ásatrú, Joshua Rood will never simply be an observer, even an emic one. Although the topic and tone of his research might seem dry to the uninitiated, his scholarly ambitions and activities are intrinsically interwoven with his spiritual aspirations.

The band Nexion performing live in Iceland. Courtesy of J. Rood.


“I believe that Old Norse Religion can form the basis of a way of being in the world that is centered around the same forms of connectedness and relating that we still see in traditional and indigenous communities around the world” he declares.

“I believe that it was that type of system prior to Christianity. And I believe it can be used in that way again. But the source material itself cannot teach people about these things, because people subconsciously interpret that material to fit ideas they already have” he states. “If we want Nordic myth and ritual to uphold certain ways of being, then we need to be conscious of how we engage with it. My spirituality, my practices, and how I try to be is shaped by this, and it is how I try to teach about Old Norse religion and its relevance today” he adds.

According to Joshua Rood, one must also take into consideration that “we live in an age of crisis, where we are disconnected from nature, from ourselves, from the way the world works,” and that “we are constantly exposed to consumerism propaganda, misinformation, and increasingly impersonal and divisive social media.”

For him, one way to address this spiritual impoverishment, as well as the many global crises that currently affect our material world would be to research, uphold, and adopt some of the religious practices and worldviews stemming from traditional and indigenous faiths-systems. “I believe that these types of belief systems are more important than they have ever been,” he declares. “I personally ‘picked’ Old Norse Religion, first because of personal affinity and now more importantly because I live in Scandinavia.”

“How we experience the material world is subjective, it is informed by our group cultures and practices” he adds. “Therefore, when trying to teach others, and myself, to reconnect with the earth, It makes the most sense to use the local myths, which are the ways nature, the landscape, and the climate speak to us.”

“Ultimately, the end goal is to reestablish ways of being in this world that are healthy and sustainable” he muses. “If people see a river as a mere waterway, they will have no issue dumping their trash into it or overfishing it. However, if there are stories that talk about her as a Goddess, and maybe an annual festival celebrating her river, for example, people will treat the river differently. Not out of superstition, but because stories help us to relate. In many ways, old myths are vessels that uphold knowledge about how to keep the links that unite one another together” he concludes.

Although it is during blots, festivals, and other spiritual gatherings that Rood shares his spiritual visions most ostensibly, those also feed another creative vehicle of his: music.

Having discovered Heavy Metal as a kid in the nineties, the subgenre soon became Rood’s other obsession alongside Old Norse Religion. This led him, in 2009, to get together with a couple of fellow Upstate NY musicians and start the Death Metal band Fenrismaw where Joshua acted as (guttural) vocalist and lyricist. Upon leaving the United States, the activities of the band were put on ice, but not before releasing a full-length album of exquisite old-school Death Metal.

Once in Iceland, Joshua Rood soon joined local musicians to start another outfit, this time one somewhat closer to Black Metal sound and aesthetics: Nexion. The band soon released an EP, a full-length, and played at a number of festivals in both Norway and Iceland. When asked how his musical activities fit with his spiritual pursuit, Rood takes on a decidedly more somber stance than earlier:

“Nexion is wrath. It’s where the frustration, the disgust, the hopelessness manifests. If everything we’ve talked about today is about the world I want to see. Nexion is the other side of that coin. It is the firestorm. The maelstrom. The yawning jaws of a wolf that humanity has allowed around our own throats. Nexion is the sound of the gods turning their backs on a world that screams while it devours itself.”

“Still, it is a very spiritual music,” Rood proclaims, “not destructive, rather healing and cathartic. Like a dark exorcism” he continues, before adding: “there is something like black magic in it though.”

Following the band’s first album, “Seven Oracles,” whose lyrical content, according to Joshua Rood, sought to strip away the assumed value of human life through existentialism and pessimism, they now have a second album completed, to be released sometime next year.

The new album again, according to him, will use a lot more Nordic material and will explore the dissolution of relationships between humans, nature, and between each other. “This album takes the same approach to the Nordic material as I do in my life. But the focus is on the horrible.”

“Let’s take the story of Fenrisúlfr as an analogy” Rood proposes, “Fenrir is a spirit of ultimate ravenous consumption. And he is bound. But when enough relationships, or bonds fall apart, he breaks free and runs rampant. But we have responsibility for that. We break the wolf’s bonds. We create the wolf age by acting like the offspring of Fenrir with our mindless consumption, and our ravenous greed. The way we cannibalize our communities. Human and non-human. This is the direction of the new material” he reveals.

Throughout his musical ventures, Joshua Rood has had the opportunity to forge, rather than break, bonds with other fellow creatives. On Fenrismaw’s album, for instance, he worked with Einar Selvik of Wardruna on the album’s introduction.

Over the years, Rood’s list of contacts who, like him, evolved at the intersection of the artistic and contemporary Nordic spirituality worlds, only grew. This is how, for instance, he knew the three core members of Heilung before the trio established the powerhouse of a band that it ended up becoming. “When I found out the three of them had joined in a band, I thought ‘Oh cool! I hope they succeed!’ And boy did they” he reminisces.

It was through his contacts with Heilung that Joshua Rood got recruited for one of the most singular performances of his life. The band had been booked for a performance in Bangkok, Thailand but the organizers were not solely after Heilung’s music, they wished for them to perform a bona fide blot for the local Thai community.

“I think that Heilung wanted to keep it professional and stay in their capacity as musicians, and eventually, my and Silje Herup Juvet’s names were brought up. We are both goðar in the Norwegian Ásatrú organization, Bifrost, and she is a really good mutual friend of mine and Maria [Franz].” Rood reveals. “So we went with them to perform the blot. It was the first blot ever performed in Thailand and several hundred people attended. That trip I think was very special for all of us and for my part I felt like I made some lifelong friends” Rood continues.

Upon returning to Norway, Joshua Rood remained in contact with members of the Thai Heathen community and was soon given yet another task: to write a book on Norse deities and about blót for the use of Heathens in Thailand. “I formulated this book as a sacred narrative,” he says. “It isn’t a ‘how to’ book. I tell some of the most important of the Norse myths, in the way that I interpret them, and I give a lot of prayers and chants that I use in my own blots,” he details.

The book, which Rood has written in English, is currently being translated into Thai and will be published in that language later this year. This work, will, to the best of any of the concerned parties’ knowledge, be the first book on Heathen belief and ritual to come out in Thai and is thus likely to become a valuable resource for Heathens, Pagans, and other seekers inside of Thailand. When asked if the book will be released in English, Rood said that he plans to revise, expand, and pour more of himself into it first, but that he would not be doing so until after his PhD was complete.

Joshua Rood and Silje Herup Juvet performing a blot in Thailand. Courtesy of J. Rood.


While this project might one day be many Heathens’ first contact with Joshua Rood, this is far from being the latter’s first pedagogical endeavor.

As mentioned in the first part of this interview, Rood has been teaching members of the various Heathen communities he has been a part of for close to twenty years. Since getting started with his PhD project, however, he has begun reaching a wider pool of people. He has given a number of talks at academic conferences, and music and culture festivals, and has even done some teaching due to entirely different sets of circumstances.

“When Covid came in 2020 I had nothing to do. I had just moved to Norway. Had no job because the country was closed and could not do fieldwork for my PhD. All the gigs with Nexion were canceled, and it was an all-around tough time, economically speaking,” Rood recalls. “I just did not want to wait for handouts, so I thought, I know stuff, I have things to teach, and by then I had already been told by various people that they would be willing to spend money for that” he continues.

Joshua Rood then got to work. The process of researching, writing, making slides, and perfecting the streaming setup took weeks. Then, following his first course, which had mainly just been advertised to his direct social media contacts, he got such positive feedback that he went back and produced three more. His classes brought in several hundred cyber-attendees per session who were eager to hear about his views on subjects like the ancient heathen sacred year, ancient Odinic cult, or even communication with the dead.

When asked whether he plans on organizing another course any time soon, Rood answers, “It is a lot of work, and it has somewhat distracted me from my PhD. I also don’t want to put something out just for the likes or the money. I want to release things when I am inspired, and when I can dedicate myself to create something of quality. But I do have other ideas that I might turn into a course occasionally, but I cannot promise anything” he clarifies.

Ironically enough, Joshua Rood remains adamant that, although he is dedicated to completing his degree, he is not interested in becoming a career academic. “I don’t want to work in academia: I want to use my energy for the people who are passionate but can’t enroll in a University” he declares.

“There is a lot of very valid criticism of academia: it treats itself as a white tower and does not make knowledge readily accessible to non-academics” Rood thunders.

“Ironically,” he goes on, “nowadays, the biggest culture shapers are not academics but musicians, tattoo artists, and entertainers. Academics need to find new ways to reach out. I’m lucky to have a bit of a platform as an artist. So I am trying to find ways to blend creativity, knowledge, and spirituality. Culture lives outside of classrooms. So that’s where I want to be.”

Joshua Rood speaking at the Midgard Viking Museum in Horten, Norway. Courtesy of J. Rood.


As we come towards the end of our talk, I ask Joshua Rood whether there is any scholar, artist, or coreligionist who has influenced him and inspired his extremely productive work habits. After a minute of silence and another one of mumbling, he brings up probably the last person I would have expected: Michael Jordan.

“He has been my inspiration since I was a kid. What I liked with him was not his physical prowess, but his competitiveness. His refusal to bend until he won.” Rood declares. “I am a very competitive person. It rubs a lot of people the wrong way, and so I used to be self-conscious. I still am. But Jordan inspired me to embrace it as well. Competitiveness is a big part of what pushes me. If I’m not competing with other people, I’m competing with myself. In everything. It’s what drives me to practice vocals five days a week, even if it’s boring and repetitive, and to be a perfectionist with my lectures, my rituals, or unfortunately, whatever video game or board game I’m playing. It isn’t an ego thing. I don’t need to be the best. Competitiveness is just my fuel to keep me focused. And it has made me more successful than I otherwise would be” he reveals.

Despite this grand statement of faith, at this moment of our conversation, Rood and I had talked for over one and a half hour, so I kindly asked him to consider ending this interview at least, but not before I asked him about one more crucial topic: would he have any advice or resources to give young Heathens who, like him some twenty years back, desire to learn more about the Old Religion?

“There is no best book or resource, but I do have one plug I would like to make. Every Heathen should at least own and read the Poetic Edda, and Edward Pettit’s translation is my absolute number one recommendation. Even for people who can read the original Icelandic, and in fact, it includes the Icelandic. I don’t agree with all of his, or any other single translation’s interpretations, but unlike other popular translators, he gives footnotes explaining his interpretations as well as alternatives. He also includes a really good recommended reading list for each Eddic poem that new researchers can follow up with, so you can dive even deeper into the themes. It’s hands down the most valuable current version of the Poetic Edda. And what’s more, even though the man dedicated like, 20 years of his life to it, he made it available for free online. So you can go read it as soon as this interview is done. I bought it in hardcover.”

As for practical advice, Joshua Rood ponders for a little while before offering the following words as a parting gift:

“I guess I would say to always be open to different interpretations and new information. Don’t read one researcher or book and assume you’ve now obtained the objective truth. Be open to reevaluating what you thought you knew and changing your perspective. Both about the past, and about how modern Heathenism can be. Your spirituality is not wrong if you change how you do rituals, or change how you see a god, or the cosmos. If anything, by changing your beliefs based on new information, you have grown.”

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