Icelandic Gods

There’s a lot to like about Iceland.  It has geothermal heat.  The people are literate and proud of it.  They don’t have an army.  Viking heritage and northern lights—what an interesting place!  A friend recently sent me a satirical piece on Patheos titled “Iceland Declares All Religions Are Mental Disorders,” by Andrew Hall.  I may not be as naive as I once was, but I have to admit I was nearly taken in on the fly.  Maybe because the idea seems so much better than what we have over here in our warmer, but less educated world.  Clearly, however, religion is extremely important to people, and if it is a mental disorder it’s an essential one.  Hall mades the astute point that Iceland didn’t want to become like the United States.  Who would, at this point?

Although this is a satirical piece, like most satire it works because it has chunks of truth in it.  Countries run by religions do seem to get into quite a lot of trouble.  I often think this is primarily a monotheistic problem.  If a nation accepts many gods, then adding those of other peoples is hardly an issue.  With a single deity, however, there is a single truth.  Anyone different is, by default, wrong.  When entire nations self-identify with a religion, it is only too easy to begin seeing those who believe differently just across the border as a threat.  Faith becomes fight.  As if a deity who always claims to value peace is only satisfied when we’re killing those who don’t share our same peaceful outlook.  Irony and satire have met together, it seems.

I’ve never been to Iceland.  It’s on my bucket list.  As a rockhound, the volcanic nature of the place calls to me.  I do wonder, however, how a vegan might fare on a far northern island.  My times in Orkney are among my mental treasures.  Those northern Scottish isles were places of wonder.  Not the most options regarding comestibles, however.  What they lacked in food they made up for in magic.  Iceland, despite the satire’s bite, has a considerable population that believes in the little people.  Anyone who’s too quick to dismiss such things ought to spend some time in the far north.  Driving to the ancient sites of Orkney certainly shifted my perspective a bit.  There’s great value in listening to the wisdom of those relatively isolated from the rest of the world.  You might, however, have to bring your own beans.

Quiet Night

Reading challenges are a good way to expose yourself to books you might not otherwise find.  This is my fifth time through the Modern Mrs. Darcy’s annual challenge and she tends to favor books in translation.  That’s fine by me, because we could all use a bit more cross-cultural understanding.  My latest book in this challenge was my third novel by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, Hotel Silence.  Ólafsdóttir, although a professor of art history, is quite a gifted novelist and her stories probe what it is to be human, and also reflect life on a somewhat small island.  Icelanders are known for their love of reading as well as for their geothermal power.  This novel deals with darker subjects that some of Ólafsdóttir’s previous work, but one thing becomes clear—the Bible is an influence.

With a writing style that is poetic and descriptive, she acknowledges that the Good Book plays a role in forming her story here.  I don’t want to give too much away, but it swirls around the difficult topics of suicide and war, and, ultimately, a kind of redemption.  As I’ve come to expect from her writing, the characters are quirky and have foibles.  There’s a matter-of-factness to them.  They go about following singular ideas and all of her work that I’ve read is based on the concept of a journey.  Maybe that’s something of a given for those who live on an island.  Taking her characters to far lands is a way of reaching understanding, not xenophobia.  That’s one of the reasons for reading the literature of other people.

In academia I was taught that exoticizing other cultures was a kind of evil.  I can see the point in that, although, like most academic things it takes the fun out of imagining far-away places.  Human beings need sources of wonder, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to afford a trip to Iceland, so reading stories written by a native feels, well, exotic.  Academics have a point, though.  For people of an exotic locale, their life is pretty much a daily struggle just like our lives are.  The backdrop is different and the specific circumstances are unfamiliar, but at the end, people are people.  That’s why I like Ólafsdóttir’s novels.  At the end we find them facing the same kinds of problems the rest of us face.  And we come to realize that our world is an isolated place in space.  And if there are aliens out there watching us, they must think we’re fairly exotic.  Let’s hope they’ll read us in translation.  We can all use a good challenge.

The Night before Reading

Like many people bound to their circumstances by work (and now a mortgage) I see travel to far-off places is a dream.  On my personal bucket-list is Iceland.  Perhaps that’s a strange place to yearn for in winter, but it’s on my mind today because of Jolabokaflod.  I’ve posted on Jolabokaflod before, but in case the concept is unfamiliar I’d summarize it by saying Icelanders, who are exceptionally literate, give each other books on Christmas Eve and spend the dark hours reading.  For the past three years I’ve taken part in a reading challenge that lists a book in translation, and invariably I choose one by an Icelandic author.  Publishers in Iceland, being less corporate than our native species, accept books for publication somewhat more readily—I’ve been shopping a novel around for nearly a decade now and I’ve read worse.  If it doesn’t jack up the dollar signs, so nobody around here’s interested.

I’m sure it’s not all sweetness and light in Iceland.  I suspect, for one thing, it’s hard to be vegan there.  Then there’d be the need to learn Icelandic.  The nights would be even longer in winter, but then, those long nights would be filled with books.  I sometimes imagine how different America would be if we loved books that much.  I remember well—as you may also—the classmates who grumbled about “having to read” as part of their school curriculum.  And this began well before high school.  Young people’s bodies are full of energy and they want action (which can be found in books, I might add) and new experiences (ditto).  Our culture feeds them the myth that such things lead to happiness.  Instead, they find sitting still tedious.  When life leads them to commute, they fill bus time with devices.

The other day I had an electrician in our house—the previous occupants had some strange ideas about power distribution.  He, as most visitors do, commented that we have a lot of books.  I’m beginning to feel less apologetic about it than I used to.  We have books not only because it’s been part of my job to read, but because we like books.  One of the painful memories of 2018 was the loss of many volumes due to a rainstorm that flooded our garage right after our move.  It still makes me sad to go out there, remembering the friends I lost.  Nevertheless, it’s Christmas Eve, at least in my tradition, and the thought of books combined with the long hours of darkness brings a joy that I’d almost characterize as being Icelandic.  At least in my mind.  Jolabokaflod might well be translated, “silent night, holy night.”

Winter Blossoms

Audur Ava Olafsdottir is a remarkable novelist. Iceland, of course, is held to be the most literate country in the world. I began reading Icelandic fiction of a considerably earlier period while living in Scotland. There was still a trace of Scandinavian heritage from Viking days discernible there, particularly in the Orkney Islands. I started taking on reading challenges three years ago. Given that I spend many hours a week sitting on a bus, it seemed natural enough to put my time toward a specific goal. The Modern Mrs. Darcy’s reading challenge encourages me to move beyond the bounds of my usual fare. One of the categories for this year’s challenge is a translated book. I enjoyed Olafsdottir’s Butterflies in November so much last year that I selected The Greenhouse for this year’s translated offering.

The story of two young people who accidentally have a child together, the tale makes effective use of religious imagery in reflective ways. The young man takes a job in a monastery rose garden in a remote country. When his one-night stand visits him to have him watch his daughter while she finishes her thesis, everyone notices how miraculous the child is. She even bears a striking resemblance to baby Jesus in the painting in the chapel. The narrative is gentle and reflective. The monks are drawn out of their scriptorium by the beauty of the roses and the child that is so intimately tied up with them. There’s nothing preachy, or even overtly religious here. It’s a simple reflection that religion pervades life, even in secular Europe.

One of the saddest realities of the present is that religion has made itself so odious to so many. Human beings are naturally inclined toward religious thoughts and behaviors. When any form of orthodoxy enters the picture, though, it begins to fall apart. The young couple, unmarried—not even girlfriend and boyfriend really—transform the town they’re in, making it a more habitable and humane place. They’re not condemned for “living in sin.” Even a priest admits things can get pretty complicated where relationships are concerned. A coming of age novel, The Greenhouse has Icelandic magic that comes through even in translation. Olafsdottir is a novelist who doesn’t feel the need to apologize for describing what is plainly obvious to those who pay attention: religion is all around us, and it need not be something to condemn. In fact, if cultivated without the acidic soil of orthodoxy it might even make the world a better place.

Forbidden Words

800px-Norsemen_Landing_in_Iceland

In keeping with the spirit of freedom, just before July 4 the BBC broke the story of Iceland’s blasphemy laws having been struck down. Although the state Church of Iceland (Lutheran by denomination) supported the move, other churches have been grumbling. It’s an odd notion, that blasphemy should be illegal. Part of the oddity revolves around disagreement of what blasphemy is. Even if taking the name of God in vain is used to define it, several questions remain. Which name of God? Certainly “God” is not a name, but a title. Is taking the title of God in vain blasphemy? What does it mean to take a name in vain? If you don’t mean it? I’ve surely heard many invoking the divine in curses that were most certainly sincere. Were they blaspheming? Does blasphemy really mean failing to believe in God? And, pertinent to Iceland, which god is protected under such laws?

Religious pluralism is the clearest threat to those supporting blasphemy laws. Underlying to very proposition is the idea that there is only one true God and that is the God of Christianity. Judaism might be tacked on there, as might a reluctant Islam, but the notion of blasphemy does not seem to bother the deities of other cultures as much. Honoring and respecting belief in deities is fine and good. In fact, it is the decorous way to behave. Still, privileging one deity as the “true god” protected by state statutes is to bring politics into theology. Since when have elected officials really ever understood what hoi polloi believe? In Iceland the old Norse gods have recently come back into favor. Should they be respected to? Why not as much as the Christian God?

It is perhaps ironic that the Pirate Party put forward the successful bid to strike down the law on blasphemy. According to the BBC, the Pirate Party began in Sweden and has now established itself in 60 countries. Since it’s fight for accountability and transparency in government, it’s sure to have a hard time in the United States where bullies can run for President unashamed. What is clear is that although governments make and enforce laws, the will of the people seldom makes itself heard. We may have won some victories in recent days, but there are many entrenched ideas that benefit those in power and not their underlings. Sounds like the Pirate Party may become the Democratic Party of tomorrow. If it does, however, when it loses sight of the ideals that launched it, we may need a new party to board the ship and ask for the people to be heard. Politely, and without swearing, of course.

Thor’s Return

Once as I sat in the office of an Ivy League professor of Greek religion, I asked about the myths of the Classical gods. The professor (who knew that I had taught religion as well, but at more like a Noxious Weed League school) appeared genuinely insulted and told me in no uncertain terms that scholars of religion didn’t take that nonsense seriously. The study of “myths” was left to Classicists, not actual scholars of religion. Is it any wonder, then, that we don’t really have a grasp on what the average person believes? Being a blue-collar scholar, I always took seriously what students told me about their beliefs. It wasn’t really a great surprise, then, when my wife pointed me to a story in The Guardian about a temple to the Nordic gods being built in Iceland. According to the story, the modern adherents of Ásatrúarfélagið (thank you unicode) don’t really believe in a literal Odin or Thor or Frigg, but see them as metaphors to help them face the way life is. A millennium after becoming Christian, some Icelanders are apparently getting back to their roots.

There has always been, to me, a fascination with the Nordic gods. These rough-and-tumble deities inhabited the harsh and snowy regions where daily life was often a struggle to survive against the elements. Frost giants were enemies and nobody really emerges as the winner after Ragnarok. In the Bible Yahweh does sometimes come out swinging, but for the most part he seems a deity content to sit on his throne and issue commands. The Scandinavian gods were characters of action. In some sense they seemed to struggle just like the rest of us do. They are, of course, more powerful and as the movie makes clear, Thor has a charisma that more self-righteous deities appear to lack. Lest anyone be ready to run to their priest at this point, please be aware that this too is a metaphor.

On the other side of the equation there are sure to be critics who argue that building a temple to fake gods in this day and age is obviously a waste of human talent and resources. Such are people with no imagination. Religious belief, metaphor or not, has been part of the human psyche from the very beginning. Elsewhere I have suggested that animals show the same behaviors as what we Homo sapiens would declare rudimentary religion. Rationalism has not provided a reasonable alternative to religious expression. Even a Stoic knows to appreciate art, although beauty provides no essential element to simple survival. Simply put, humans enjoy the finer things of life. Perhaps unappreciated since long sublimated, among those finer things are the old Nordic gods. And their return is a kind of resurrection.

The Battle of the Doomed Gods

The Battle of the Doomed Gods

Are You Fey?

SeeingFairies‘Tis is the time of year that one might make inquiry into elves and the wee folk without being thought too strange. Santa has his cadre of mythic diminutive helpers and even the shepherds have their angels. The two, it seems, are not unrelated. Marjorie T. Johnson’s Seeing Fairies is, in many respects, a charming book. Compiled by the author during a lifetime of corresponding with people who claim to have seen fairies, elves, pixies, sprites, brownies, gnomes, and even angels, the stories—as parsimonious as any sermon—do create an aura of mystery. It is clear that Johnson believed (the book is posthumous) sincerely in the unseen world. As the preface makes clear, she was influenced by Theosophy, and the majority of the material dates from the 1950s and earlier. There is an almost childlike credulousness to the accounts, with Johnson not questioning psychic dreams or astral projection, placing them side-by-side with eyewitness accounts. This is a good example of what an editor might have done for the book.

Many people assume a doctorate in the humanities is a soft thing—pliable in a way that the hard sciences are not. The point of advanced study, however, is to ingrain habits of critical thinking. Nothing is taken at face value. For those of us who study folklore’s first cousin, religion, the task is often to set aside belief in the light of evidence. What can we know about the unknowable? Of course, psychologists and sociologists and anthropologists are now supposed to be better equipped to answer religious questions. Religion, after all, is something people think and do, and what can we really learn from studying it per se? We need an interpretative device—an hermeneutic filter (or pneumatic hammer)—to guide us toward the reality of the thing. And yet science itself is based on observation. Accounting for what our senses reveal about the world around us.

Some people, it is clear, find the world around them filled with wee people. Recently a major road construction was halted in Iceland out of fear of disturbing the elfin habitat. And Icelanders are some of the most literate people on the planet. Johnson’s accounts (some clearly hard to swallow) range across the earth, but center in the British Isles and Celtic lands. Perhaps the light is somewhat different there. Perhaps nearing the North Pole things really do change. What becomes clear from Seeing Fairies is that some highly credible and educated people see, from time to time, what they allow their eyes to see. Believing is, after all, seeing. Johnson ends her book with a chapter on angels, beings she clearly views in continuity with fairies. The difference is that the monotheistic religions allow for, and perhaps even demand, angels. When they become travel-sized, however, the only evidence is that of those with very keen eyesight.

The Truth about Elves

We are nothing if not certain. We know that there are no such things as intelligent non-human entities anywhere in the natural realm. We may reluctantly nod toward some animal intelligence, but that’s as far as the head inclines. Humans are the acknowledged and absolute top of the chain of command. Until you try to build a road in Iceland.

The story of how the road crews were called to a halt because of fear of infringing on elf territory hit the internet months ago. An article in the BBC News recently revised the scene. Emma Jane Kirby traveled to Iceland to see just how seriously this was being taken. I, for one, am glad that mythology survives on the surface in at least a few small places in the world. According to Kirby, surveys suggest about half of all rational adults in Iceland at least hold open the possibility that Huldufolk exist. The Huldufolk, or “hidden folk” are not diminutive, but human-sized and invisible. Who’s to say that invisible people don’t exist? Show me.

Ängsälvor_-_Nils_Blommér_1850

Rationalists are quick to jump out with the accusation that witch trials and other superstition will soon follow should we allow that perhaps the angelic, demonic, or folkloristic beings exist. Of course, it was the rational authorities of the day—often the church—that made those trials possible. Without religion, though, we never would have had science. I don’t think the invisible beings had anything to do with it. Human, all too human, hatred was the real culprit. Fear can lead even the most well-adjusted to the precipice on a dark and stormy night (with apologies to Edward Bulwer-Lytton). People are inclined to mythology to give meaning to a world that, no matter whether scientifically described or not, must make sense to us. Sometimes the elves seem to be the most likely explanation.

The only thing really lost by catering to the belief in elves is money. It might take a little more time and a bit more effort, and empty the coffers just a bit more, but in the end both elves and humans are happier. This worldview has a sense of wonder that a money-padded saunter through Manhattan simply lacks. When faced with the choice between mean money or disgruntled elves, I know the path I would rather take.

Wee People

Whence we come influences our outlook. Sometimes invisibly, at other time quite consciously. I remember as a child, wanting to be honest about the wearing of the green on St Patrick’s Day, asking whether we were Irish or not. Of course, for many Americans being Irish, German, or Swedish really means having ancestors long ago from a different country. Most of my ancestors had been in America for some time—a couple hundred years at least. In New Jersey, where many people are literally from elsewhere, that can seem exotic. Great-great-grandparents in one of my lines can be traced to another country, but most of my ancestry is already settled in the United States long before that. Unknown to my mother at the time of that question, one of my ancestors was indeed from Ireland, a stowaway, as I understand it, and thus I could wear green without being dishonest. (Children can be so parsimonious.) When I saw the locals walking away from yesterday’s St. Patrick’s Day parade in my local town it was obvious that not all of them were Irish (or American with an Irish ancestor), but they nevertheless came out on a cheerless, chilly day to join in the Celtic spirit of celebration. St Patrick’s Day is all about belonging.

Photo credit: Andreas F. Borchert, Wikicommons

Photo credit: Andreas F. Borchert, Wikicommons

The rich mythology of Ireland was never supplanted completely by the Catholic influence that became synonymous with many parts of the country. Leprechauns, the little people with their pots of gold, have been fused into a mythology of St Patrick and his magical clover that somehow explained the Trinity, while it is the four-leaved variety that brings good luck. And Ireland’s snake-free evolution was attributed to sacred innovation rather than the Ice Age, the true culprit. It is our myths who make us who we are, however. Where would Ireland be with a massive chunk of ice preventing snakes from evolving in a land where a genetic variation sometimes leads to a fourth leaf on a common grass of the field? And where is that pot of gold anyway?

And yet, within the last year construction on a highway was halted in Iceland (I know I’ve island-hopped here, despite the difference of a single consonant) because locals protested that it would disturb the habitat of the little people. While a post-graduate representative to the Faculty of Divinity in Edinburgh (switching islands yet again), one of the faculty admitted to a fascination with Celtic folklore. A more rational theologian challenged him saying, “what about the farmer who loses valuable space in his field because he leaves a ‘magical’ tree standing—isn’t that tragic?” The renegade faculty member allowed that this too was especially wonderful. A world enchanted is swiftly disappearing beneath the unrelenting tires and blades of scraper and cold planer, or the axe-bearing lord of ultimate efficiency. The soul is just another casualty on the road to enlightenment. And yet yesterday, those with ancestry from Africa, India, China, Italy, and even England, gathered to watch the parade where the mythology of an island that never had an empire nevertheless draws together people of all ancestries to wear a bit of green and to celebrate whence we came. St Patrick’s is a day to celebrate whoever we are. And to leave the door ajar for the wee folk that might still be around.

The Best Gift

Standing outside the footprint of a circular chapel next to the ancient ruins of a drinking hall in Ophir, the Orkney Islands, with friends. We’re quoting from the memorable scene in the Orkneyinga Saga where Svein Asleifarson leapt out and killed Svein “Breast-Rope” as drunken vikings staggered back and forth from the Earl’s Bu to the chapel one Christmas season some nine centuries ago. The Orkneys used to belong to Norway and had a close connection with Iceland, which, all things considered, is not that far off. While working on my doctorate in ancient Syrian mythology, I experienced a fascination with Icelandic viking sagas and read several of them (in translation, of course). Traveling to the Orkney Islands was about as close to Iceland as we’d hope to get on a student’s budget, and the atmosphere of these historic islands does not disappoint. We were standing on the actual site of this historical incident one violent Christmas long ago.

VikingsImagining, however, is not the same as condoning. Nearing a millennium later, Iceland celebrates Christmas with “Jolabokaflod,” the Christmas book flood. Armed with books rather than broadswords, the folks of Iceland have built a considerable literary reputation. According to an NPR story my wife and traveling partner sent me, Iceland publishes more books per capita than any other country, and giving books at Christmas is a national tradition. Reykjavík is a UNESCO-designated City of Literature. Unlike the United States, a large proportion of the population of Iceland buys books, according to the story, and I can’t help but wonder if this isn’t related to two other Icelandic phenomena as well. Iceland has very little gun violence and it is one of the most ecofriendly countries on the planet. While it is only a feeling, I believe that widespread reading makes a better society.

I remember the experience of growing up and hearing other kids complaining bitterly about assigned reading. Here in this wild west corner of the world, we’re too full of dreams of action to spend quiet hours improving our minds. Guns are easy to acquire and too easy to use against the innocent. We could sure use a Jolabokaflod, it sounds like to me. Towards the end of each year I like to tally up an approximation of how many books I read in the previous twelve months. Although some are definitely better than others, each one is its own gift, a glimpse into someone else’s worldview. And such glimpsing aids in understanding. I may not agree with you, but I know where you’re coming from. And as we enter that long, cold stretch of January and February I feel ill-prepared if I don’t have a stockpile of books to get me through the darkness of this time of year. And one of my fantasies will be a world that can see from the blood-stained ground of Ophir all the way to Reykjavik.

Vulcan’s Anvil

Volcanoes have long been the prerogative of the gods. Saturday’s eruption in the Puyehue-Cordon Caulle volcanic complex in southern Chile joins last month’s outburst from Grimsvotn in Iceland for divine fire-storms. In the days before geology, the only explanation for these impressive explosions was the gods. The concept of Hell was fairly late in the development of ancient Near Eastern religions, otherwise volcanoes might have been labeled as Hell breaking loose, literally. Many historic eruptions have influenced the course of history, most notably Thera and Vesuvius. Ancients would have been hard pressed to see such spectacular—and obviously divine—displays as “natural.” Indeed, the concept of “natural” events was itself slow in evolving since the gods were always lurking in the dark corners of the evolving human psyche.

Fortunately, beyond disrupting some air travel, these two latest outbursts have been fairly benign from a human point of view. This too is an evolved perspective since we tend to see ourselves as the overlords of the natural world. Watching industrialists poke new orifices in the planet’s crust for personal gain even in rare and delicately balanced ecosystems, who can doubt that we are masters of our own domain? Much of the misdirected sense of such entitlement comes from interpreting the Bible as declaring the planet ours from the days of mythical Eden. Some of the more perverse applications of this principle include those who try to force the hand of God into sending the Second Coming due to their creating conditions appropriate to an apocalypse. Others declare that since said Second Coming is nigh, why not trash the environment? We won’t be needing it much longer.

Apart from the obviously failure of logic here, the anthropocentric view is also misguided. The earth was not created for us—we simply evolved on it. The corollary also stands true: long after any human intelligence is here to read these words, our planet will continue on its weary track around the sun until it blossoms into a red giant and consumes our final cinders. There are no horsemen in the clouds, but this planet is all that we have (even the space station depends upon it) and when we grow too arrogant, the planet unconsciously gives us a spectacular display to remind us that we are mere guests upon this globe. We need to treat it with respect.