Saturday, August 10, 2013

Branches of the World Tree

The Yggdrasil, the great World Tree of Scandinavian lore, is a very powerful concept in modern Heathen practice.  While some may deride the imagery of the world held up by the branches of a vast, cosmic tree as nothing more than primitive anthropomorphism.  To the modern, materialistic mind such an idea is just as laughable as claiming the Earth revolves around the sun.  Yet the dismissal of this concept is based on a very superficial understanding of what the Yggdrasil means.  Far from a primitive grasp at attempting to explain the universe the concept of the World Tree is a clear demonstration of the animistic mindset and its acceptance of an intimately interconnected universe.

The best source on the World Tree we have from the sagas is from the stanzas of the famous Voluspo.  Where exactly it comes from or what created it is never made clear.  Unlike the creation of Midgard which is described in considerable detail in the saga with the Gods making decisions by council(1) the Yggdrasil seems to emerge from the depths of time of space on its own.  Some have suggested it is possible the World Tree predates Ymir and the collision of fire and ice in the Ginnungagap.  As is described in Voluspo 19:

An ash I know, Yggdrasil its name,
With water white is the great tree wet;
Thence come the dews that fall in the dales,
Green by Urth's well does it ever grow.(2) 
The World Tree is said to hold up all of the Nine Worlds, from Niflheim and Jotunheim in the depths to Midgard at the art rising to the towering heights of Asgard, Vanaheim, and Alfheim.  Even though the inhabitants of some of these worlds are at odds with one another, with the most famous conflict being the one between the Jotnar of Jotunheim and the Aesir, this does not change that their worlds are equally supported by the same foundation.  Without the World Tree these worlds would have nothing to anchor or support them.  Watered by the Well of Urd, which is often associated with fate and wyrd, the Yggdrasil grows on pure possibility sustaining all the worlds on its branches.

When the World Tree meets its end in Ragnarok the great fire which consumes it does not discriminate what it burns.  As it says in the Voluspo:

The sun turns black, earth sinks in the sea,
The hot stars down from heaven are whirled;
Fierce grows the steam and the life-feeding flame,
Till fire leaps high about heaven itself.(3)
Nothing is spared.  Jotunheim, Muspelheim, Midgard, and Asgard all burn.  While grim and bleak this is understandable in an animistic, polytheistic context.  Unlike Abrahamic monotheism where everything is the product, whim, and creation of a single all-powerful creator who exists above and beyond their creation the Powers of Scandinavian cosmology operate on very different rules.  Like the Gods and Powers of other animistic, polytheistic cultures the Aesir, Vanir, and Jotnar exist within a greater universe which is governed by greater laws than their desires.  This makes them as intimately bound to the fate, workings, and health of the universe as everything else that walks, swims, crawls, flies, grows, and breathes.  If the World Tree, which is essential for holding up the Nine Worlds, were to burn then logically the worlds it supports cannot endure on their own.

This kind of understanding of the universe, rather than being at odds with the theories and arguments of modern science, is very synergistic with the discoveries of ecology and environmental science.  When an ecosystem is dealt great harm all living things which are a part of the threatened habitat suffer, even human beings.  Beyond this the concept of greater universal laws, principles, and axioms which impact everything in the universe is one which gels perfectly with physics and broader scientific principles. 

Just as the Nine Worlds are spiritually shaped by forces like wyrd and orlog we in Midgard are molded by the forces of gravity, electro-magnetism, entropy, and many others. Electro-magnetic forces, for example, bind together the universe through the charges which keep the atoms, elements, and molecules which make up all material things together.  Gravity holds all of it together in an elegant dance of heavenly bodies without which life on earth as we know it would not be possible.  As the Gods are bound by greater forces in the universe so to is physical bound by forces we are only just beginning to understand. 

In many ways the concept of the World Tree is a very powerful one.  Quite contrary to the assumption of primitive speculation the Yggdrasil is a beautiful expression of a holistic, interconnected view of the world which modern scientific discoveries have recently validated.  It is a very practical approach to reality which stands in stark contrast to the external creator-god narrative or the conception of a spirit-free universe.  If anything the World Tree, wyrd, orlog, and the concept of the nature of the Powers expresses a universe where all the things that live within it are free to find their own way.  Nothing lives under a giant microscope, scrutinized by a judgmental yet distant tyrannical father, or in an empty, uncaring cosmos.  Our universe is alive and always growing, changing, and becoming a greater expression of itself through the mutual interdependence of its constituent parts.

1. Voluspo 6, 9, 24, 25, Poetic Edda, trans. by Henry Adams Bellows
2. Voluspo 19, ibid
3. Voluspo 57, ibid

Monday, August 5, 2013


The last few months have been a fairly tumultuous time in the Heathen community going by the storms raging across the blogosphere.  Two individuals held up as leaders in our community have both been at the center of major controversies.  While there is a lot of debate happening on the specifics of each both instances share a common thread: power and accountability.  These troubling incidents have, in a roundabout way, stirred up discussion of what should be expected of those who would seek to lead the Folk.  Unfortunately this larger issue has been obscured by partisans, deception, and the all too easy mistake of missing the forest for the trees.

The more recent of these two problem children to stir up trouble is Galina Krasskova.  Krasskova is an author, a scholar pursuing a Doctorate, the leader of the Ironwood Kindred, and a very prolific blogger.  She is also known in the Heathen community for her advocacy of more unorthodox practices such as sacred ordeals, god-spousing, and god-slavery.  All of these have been discussed, debated, and in some cases derided extensively with a lot of charges flying around in every direction.  It is not these practices which are the cause of the latest upsurge of debate but statements made by Krasskova on her personal blog and the Witches and Pagans blog on the topic of belief.

On May 31st Krasskova published a blog titled, "We Don't Need No Stinkin' Theories".  While the theoretical basis of her argument that the Gods are real is one which most Pagans likely agree with, it is where she takes it that it gets messy.  In her entry she openly dismisses any talk of theories, principles, or ideas by asserting because the Gods are real none of that is necessary and in fact is a total waste of time that could be better used on devotion.

If this sounds very similar to the rantings of some more infamous preachers like Joel Osteen, Jerry Falwell, or Ted Haggard then you're not the only one seeing the similarity.  But wait, there's more!

On June 8th she followed up with a more direct post, "Deity Centered Polytheism."  Here she eschews subtlety for the vulgarity of fire and brimstone denunciation, "We will never speak as one community so long as devotion to the Gods is being marginalized."  It is something of a newsflash that one of the most central practices of modern Heathenry, devotion to the Gods, is being marginalized.  Yet after making this bold charge Krasskova never quantifies it with evidence, concrete examples, or anything approaching empirical proof; not as surprising as one might think given her thoughts on, "fetishizing, I think, scientific empiricism" and rather ironically claims not to be anti-intellectual.  Her cries of marginalization, "an attempt to finish the assault upon our traditions that our ancestors faced", and her call for, "every devoted polytheist today" to "to stand up and draw a line in the sand" that says, "'you take your horse shit this far and no farther".

If you changed the topic only slightly it is nearly indistinguishable from the cries of Bible-thumpers bemoaning the "persecution" of Christianity in the United States.  

Quite predictably this call generated some serious blowback across social media and the blogosphere.  Many denounced Krasskova's words for their shades of Dominionist mentality.  A mere two days after issuing her proclamation of damnation she announced that she would be taking a month-long sabbatical, "in protest over the marginalization of polytheistic voices in the current community debate."

Obviously it wasn't the fault of the person who whacked the hornet's nest with a bat for getting stung.  It was all those stupid hornets' fault for daring to sting the bat-wielder for swinging their Louisville Slugger at their nest!  How dare they.

After taking the time to lick her wounds she jumped back in showing no hesitation, reflection, or anything resembling consideration of the facts, arguments, or circumstances facing our community by posting, "Warrior Medicine," on July 28th.  In it she rather casually reveals, "Do I love the community: um. no. really. no.  But I love what the community has the potential to be." 

English translation: when everyone does things and sees things the right way according to me then the community will be great.

Lost in all the sturm and drang of nonexistent persecution are two unanswered questions: what of those who are in the community and their needs?  What of the first duty of all leaders to put the needs of those who follow them ahead of their personal desires, interests, and ego?  How does distorting the facts, slander, and inciting needless strife serve the community's needs?

These same questions go untouched in the even more sordid case of Mark Ludwig Stinson, Chieftain of Jotunsbane Kindred.  On July 12 the Wild Hunt reported Stinson was suspended from his job as a police officer due to suspicion he was misappropriating funds which belonged to his mother.  At the time Stinson insisted he was innocent, claiming he would be exonerated of all charges in spite of questions regarding his mother's eviction from her nursing home due to unpaid rent.

Fast-forward to nearly a year later.  In a statement on his blog titled, "My Legal Situation Has Been Resolved" he announced, in spite of his claims of innocence, he had accepted a plea bargain which would involve no prison time and require full restitution of the stolen money.  He concludes by, ironically, announcing he would be writing a book, not stepping down from any position in his Kindred, and saying he hopes, "having this legal matter behind me, will allow me to be even more focused on my family, our kindred, and our efforts."

Following this statement Stinson refused to answer any question on the subject, showed no remorse, and very casually purged any dissenters from his web groups.  Rather than answer to the people who looked up to him, respected him, and in some cases follow him Stinson chose otherwise.

In both cases there is a clear lack of accountability at work.  Krasskova and Stinson were seen as major leaders in the Heathen community.  As one would expect of anyone in a leadership position they should be putting the needs of the communities they lead and inspire ahead of their greed and egos.  Instead they have done the opposite; rendering themselves accountable to none and brushing aside all who would dare question otherwise.  Through it all they stood tall, claiming to be good Heathens every step of the way while glutting themselves sick on the tainted fruits of power, glory, and adulation. 

Such behavior, in spite of their claims, runs contrary to everything our ancestors expected of their leaders.  Quite contrary to the high-handed behavior shown by their actions the ancients were very unforgiving of leaders they found to be wanting.  Commonly known as kings or chiefs these ancient leaders were very unlike the image of the medieval king decreeing life and death at a whim. As far back as the days of Rome leaders only assumed power with the consent of their people.  In the words of Tacitus, "They choose their kings by birth, their generals for merit. These kings have not unlimited or arbitrary power, and the generals do more by example than by authority"(1). 

An excellent example of the limitations on kingly power and the enduring importance of accountability to the people comes to us much later in 11th century Sweden.  In the year 1018 King Olof Skotkunung came before the Thing of All Swedes and demanded the people of Sweden lend their continued support to his war with Norway in spite of the high cost.  In reply the lawspeaker Thorgny reminded the Swedes of how they had received previous kings who went against their people, concluding his remarks by saying:

Wilt thou, however, reconquer the kingdoms in the east countries which thy relations and forefathers had there, we will all for that purpose follow thee to the war. But if thou wilt not do as we desire, we will now attack thee, and put thee to death; for we will no longer suffer law and peace to be disturbed. So our forefathers went to work when they drowned five kings in a morass at the Mula-thing, and they were filled with the same insupportable pride thou hast shown towards us. Now tell us, in all haste, what resolution thou wilt take.

Then the whole public approved, with clash of arms and shouts, the lagman's speech.(2)
This stands quite contrary to how these scandals have unfolded with many arguing their actions should be excused.  After all, say those who hold such opinions, the service they've done to the community means we should forgive and forget. 

The ancients very clearly thought otherwise.  One cannot go through any saga of kingship in the Germanic world, whether you're talking the Eddas themselves, the Heimskringla, or the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, without tripping over the regular admonishment that leaders were chosen by their people.  These leaders in turn when they proved wanting or, worse, had done irreparable harm to the needs of their community would be very directly removed from power.  No matter what one may think about the nature of Gods, wights, and giants it is abundantly clear the ancients never suffered the damage of the reckless, the abuse of the haughty, or the lash of tyrants without reply.

Many fear the tumult and strife challenging leaders would cause.  Those who fear it forget that for the harm they are avoiding there is greater harm continuing unabated so long as abuses of power remain unchecked.  As the Havamal says:

The sluggard believes he shall live forever,
If the fight he faces not;
But age shall not grant him the gift of peace,
Though spears may spare his life. (3)
As the old saying goes we get the government we deserve.  If we stand silent and do nothing when those who step up to lead do harm to their community, abuse their power, or render themselves unaccountable in any way to those who follow them then we only have ourselves to blame for failing to stand up for ourselves.  We must remember we are all free people who have every good reason to stand tall, strong, and proud.  Just as the Gods gave us life, reason, and essence so to did they refrain from imposing any limits or commands on our free will(4).  To forgo the use of such mighty gifts would be a shame and disgrace on ourselves, our community, and our Folkway. 

1. Government, Influence of Women from the Germania, Tacitus

2. Saga of Olaf Haraldson 81, Heimskringla

3. Havamal 16, Poetic Edda, trans. by Henry Adams Bellows

4. Voluspo 17-18, Poetic Edda, trans. by Henry Adams Bellows