Interpreting the Conversion I

“When Christianity arrived at Scandinavia in the middle of the Viking Age (793-1066), the pagans did not entirely reject it, recognizing in it that Ragnarok—the twilight of the gods—was on the horizon.3” (Stone)

According to Stone, Norse architects intentionally depicted Ragnarök in their stave church designs. Roofs and interiors represent the inverted ship, Naglfar.  Doors had the images of Nidhoggr and Yggdrasil carved on them to represent  a person’s passage through the devouring of their external pagan world and the rebirth into their new Christian world.

Scandinavians had knowledge of the spreading conversion across N.Europe, and it would make sense that they understood it in the language of their culture: Ragnarök.

For example, Fenrir, whose name translates to fen-dweller, swallows Odin. Fen is, of course, water, and therefore, the Wolf’s Water swallows Odin. I believe this could be in reference to Christian baptismal practices, which were forcefully and brutally performed in some cases. The serpent Jormungandr poisoned Thor, and Saint Boniface felled his oak in Hesse. Could the world serpent represent the great girdle of Catholic Rome encircling the earth?

Swallowed up and poisoned by is language reminiscent of assimilation and syncretism. Freyr (who symbolizes sacral lordship) died because he gave his sword for a wife. One of the most significant early conversions in European history was that of Clovis, warrior king of the Franks, who converted to his wife’s religion of Catholicism. Centuries later Charlemagne would continue converting Europe with brute force. The Aesir were going to fall. The world was going to change. But, like anything in nature, there is a spring after winter.

If Stone is correct in that heathen architects built their churches to depict the heathen apocalypse, with the World Tree on its doors, then he may also be correct in that the churches represented  Lif and Lifpasir taking shelter within. If heathen traditions were to survive Christianity they had to become a part of it. And to this day, the Western world has a Christian worldview that is drastically influenced by those surviving traditions. Heathenry and Christianity absorbed one another. So much so, that it’s almost impossible to separate them and go backBut… is it possible to go forward?

I’m of two minds:

A) The Edda’s contain post-conversion mythology, structured by people, to explain why Christianity had defeated their old way of life and their old gods, while still maintaining the overall spiritual worldview. Example: Why didn’t the Alfather defeat God? Because all things perish. So some day God will also perish, and the sons of our gods will return. Winter and Spring. While we wait for spring, Vidar will silently wait with us, and the gods of our gods will remain. The literary and traditional folklore is of the people.

B) The Edda’s contain mythology, structured by spiritual truths, to explain the timeless nature of life, the mysteries of the universe, and why things change but always stay the same. Example: Why did our god change but death and love did not? Because there will always be Death and Love, no matter who wears the mantle. There will always be an ‘Odin’ no matter who that ‘Odin’ is, because that is a the nature of the world. So all the literary and traditional folklore is of a timeless truth. (And I think this is compatible in allowing some to believe in either pre- or post-Ragnarok.)

More to the point, regardless of if my interpretations are right or wrong: If I believe that Ragnarök occurs when the literal universe collapses and swallows Odin than that hasn’t yet happened. If I believe Ragnarök occurs when Odin and the old gods are no longer reginn, then that happened ages ago.

The Now

In my  first post  I introduced some ideas on why I think a post-Ragnarok worldview might make more sense for me as a heathen. At the end I made the statement that, “The main focus of Ragnarok has always been the death of a world, and it’s true; the world that the old gods ruled over doesn’t exist anymore. But there is also the promise of a new world with new gods. A world known as Now.”

When I first brought up this idea on the web someone asked me if I now thought that those who still worshiped the older gods were ‘doing it wrong’.

Most of us already agree that mythic time (whether heathen or something else) is not as concrete as human time. Is Loki bound or isn’t he? The thing about myths is that they are, funnily enough, only relevant to those they are actually relevant to. The Eddas don’t mention the fall of Zeus or the conquering of the Native Americans for good reason. The good thing about Ragnarok not being a literal, global event is that its possible for my world to exist right alongside yours. The worlds of rural Russia or the Indigenous Amazonians are much closer to pre-Ragnarok then the world of New York Urbanites… and yet here we all are.

The old Nordic culture and worldview doesn’t exist for me anymore. My world is now. This is the community I chose to recognize. And the implications of a post-Ragnarok heathenry are kind of exciting. Because with recon I did sometimes feel like I was dealing with ghosts. What gods was I supposed to hear, see and feel, if Vidar is silent, Hoenir is blind, and Baldr is dead? But if I turn to Idavoll, and see a heathenry that’s new, then the potential to hear, see and feel is new. Its an adventure.

The Beginning is in the End

For several years I lived by a Reconstructed heathen philosophy. Like most Recons, I didn’t believe in having strong relationships with gods. Heathenry for me was mainly a philosophy about people, community, and right living. My ‘woo’ consisted mostly of a belief in the low-mythology; dsir, fylgja, hamingja, dream omens, and the like.   Like most Recons, while I didn’t believe much in ‘woo’, I defended my personal sense of spirituality by asserting that it was in fact that very sense of spirituality that had led me to reconstructing heathenry in the first place. This worked well for a really long time, and I was pretty content. However, last year was pretty brutal for me. I went through some very painful personal experiences that left me picking up the pieces of my life, my choices, my beliefs.

My relationship with reconstructionism changed. The specific practices of right living within the context of that pre-conversion culture had failed me, not because they were bad or wrong, but because my present culture didn’t work within a pre-conversion context. The idea of right living within your community is all well and good, as long as everyone agrees what right living consists of. This wasn’t the case. Living by a reconstructed philosophy and not an evolved one had actually changed my perceptions to a degree where I was no longer strong and stable within my own little universe. Coming out of the events of last year, I realized that I had outgrown the reconstructive philosophy. The only things left for me there were ghosts.

There was one thing that remained solid and living and that was my firm belief in the low mythology. I have always considered the folk beliefs as the true soul of heathen spirituality–truer then the Eddic gods and mythic lore. Folk wisdom exists outside of any religious framework or cultural time frame;  it exists eternal in the hearts of the people. If nothing else, this belief  alone kept me tied to the idea of heathenry, and I continued to sift for some  meaning within the heathen grand scheme of things.

It was a paper entitled, “The Twilight of the Gods: the Norwegian Stave Church as a Representation of the Pagan End of the World” (Stone) that finally spoke to me on that level. But even more surprisingly, it  opened up a door to a new understanding of the Eddic gods and lore. I won’t summarize Stone’s salient points here, rather, I’d recommend you  read his paper and come to your own conclusions. There was a line in particular, though, that stood out to me:

“When Christianity arrived at Scandinavia in the middle of the Viking Age (793-1066), the pagans did not entirely reject it, recognizing in it that Ragnarok—the twilight of the gods—was on the horizon.3” 

In the hearts of the people it was the end of their gods. The sense of loss and of letting go that I imagine they felt resonated with me and my sense of  spiritual loss. However, all may not have been completely lost. Heathen myth may not have ended during the conversion, rather the conversion may have been a natural extension of it.

The main focus of Ragnarok has always been the death of a world, and it’s true; the world that the old gods ruled over doesn’t exist anymore. But there is also the promise of a new world with new gods. A world known as Now.