Last week in the comments a reader asked for reading suggestions for those interested in learning more about Heathenry. I realized I had a lot to say about this topic, so I made a post out of it. Please know I am not a scholar and while I have been a Pagan for a long time (ten years) I have only been actively practicing Heathenry for a year and a half. This is what I’ve found to be helpful in my learning journey, and I hope other people can find these resources helpful as well.
There is not a ton of first hand information on Norse myth. The Norse during Heathen times didn’t write their myths down, therefore much of what we know was written years (even centuries) after the Old Custom had been pretty much wiped out (between the 8th and 12th Centuries, depending on where). But using a variety of sources, Heathen Reconstructionists can piece back together a culture of values, stories, and beliefs that had nearly been wiped out. And that’s pretty cool.
“Cattle die, kinsmen die, each body dies just the same. The reputation never dies of one who has done good.” – Hávamál verse 76 (my translation)
The Hávamál (Sayings of the High One) is probably the most beloved text of Heathenry. It’s about 164 verses (depending on the translation) that are mythologically attributed to Odin. Most of us don’t actually believe Odin wrote it, but it’s told from his perspective and gives great insight into the character of the All-Father. The poem has several parts. The first contains wisdom to live by (much of it very practical, like don’t get too drunk at a party or you’ll look like an idiot), then comes Odin’s first person account of how he acquired the runes, and finally there’s a list of different spell-songs he knows and what they do. The verse I quoted above is from the first part. It’s one of the most famous phrases in all of Heathen literature and succinctly captures the primary philosophy of Heathenry: our bodies are mortal, but our actions are immortal. We’re going to die no matter how we choose to live, so we should do something worthwhile and make a positive contribution that will outlast the dust we’re made from.
The Völuspá (Prophecy of the Völva*) is a 66-ish verse poem in which Odin wakes up a deceased oracle, and she summarizes Norse mythology from the beginning of the universe when fire met ice and created life, to the end of the world (as we know it, anyway**) at Ragnarök.
With these two under your belt, which you can do in an hour or two if you don’t philosophize too much over the contents, you’ll have a basic working knowledge of what we’re about (and you won’t sound like a total n00b in a Heathen discussion group).
The Fundamental “Lore”
The Lore is what we Heathens term our religious cannon, and the two most read books of The Lore are the Eddas.
The Prose Edda was composed by Snorri Sturluson in 13th century Iceland, a couple centuries after the country converted to the “New Custom” (Christianity). It has a prologue and three parts, and very few people read the whole thing (I’ll explain why as we go along). The prologue is Snorri’s euhemerism*** of Norse mythology. Read it if you want to (I did), but it’s a strange little piece that most Heathens I’ve met roll their eyes at. The first (real) part is called the Gylfaginning (the tricking of Gylfi). It includes descriptions of the gods and of Asgard and tells a few myths. The second part is the Skáldskaparmál (the language of the skald; say scald-scap-er-mall). Norse poetry is infamous for using metaphors (called heiti and kennings+) that often don’t make sense to those unfamiliar with Norse myth. The Skáldskaparmál relates myths which explain some of these metaphors and then gives lists of common heiti and kennings. The third book is the Háttatal, and it describes the various forms of skaldic verse. Unless you really want to learn about rhyme patterns and prosody in Medieval Scandinavian alliterative poetry, there is no reason to read this section. The first two sections put together are maybe 150 pages long, and you can skim large chunks of the Skáldskaparmál when he’s listing heiti and kennings, so it’s readable over a weekend or two.
The Poetic Edda is a collection of Scandinavian poetry written just before, during, and after the conversion. The Hávamál and the Völuspá come from the Poetic Edda, and the collection tells many other stories of gods and heroes. These are as “original source material” as it gets for Heathens, but it is nice to have gotten the “digest version” of the Prose Edda before diving into this one. I recommend getting something with good footnotes. (I personally have the Lee M. Hollander translation, and really like it.)
Not every Heathen reads runes, but because they are a popular part of the culture (and I think they’re fun), I figured I’d give them a mention. Rune work comes from interpretations of three poems combined with the modern UPG (unverified personal gnosis) of various people for the last several decades. One of these days I’ll write a post about my own rune work, but for now, if you’re interested, take a look at the three poems above and check out my favorite site on the topic (although there are a ton of others sites dedicated to runes on the interwebs!)
In another post (maybe next week… maybe not) I’ll talk about digging a little deeper into the Lore, websites of interest, and some fun Heathen reads. What are your favorite Heathen (or other religious) resources?
* Völva is the Heathen word for a female oracle or seer. I know what you’re thinking because I think it too every time I see the word; it’s right up there with “áss” – the word for “god.” I love Norse.
**And I feel fine.
*** Euhemerism is rewriting mythology as history by taking out the magic and making gods old kings and heroes. According to Snorri’s Edda, Thor was the grandson of King Priam of Troy, and his descendants (including Odin, a strange reversal of the normal mythology in which Thor is a son of Odin) came to Scandinavia where their technology and culture were so advanced the people declared them gods. This un-deification of history is called euhemerism because it was popularized by an atheist historian of ancient Greece named Euhemerus. Euhemerism was commonly used by Christian scholars in the Medieval Era and earlier as a way of “downgrading” the gods of Pagan faiths while still giving them some historical validity. Often, however, as in Snorri’s case, there is no historical backing for the retold stories.
+ Heiti are alternate names for gods and other items. For example, Odin is also called Hár (Hávamál actually translates to “sayings of Hár”), Grímnir, and a bunch of other names that he acquired over his travels. Kennings are poetic metaphors for things commonly talked about in poetry, like ships (sea-steeds), battle (raven’s feast), kings (ring givers), or gold (Ægir’s fire). This can lead to some serious WTFery, like “I sip from the horn of the hanged one” means “I write poetry.” Lemme break that down. The hanged one is Odin (he hanged himself on Yggdrasil for 9 days to learn the runes) which gives us “I sip from the horn of Odin.” Odin retrieved the mead of poetry from Gunnlod (in a story I related last week), so Odin’s drinking horn is full of this mead. Now we have “I sip the mead of poetic inspiration” = “I write poetry.” Translating Norse poetry doesn’t just involve learning Norse, it also involves translating convoluted metaphors into something the rest of us can read. Personally, I think this sounds like a lot of fun, but I’m an epic word-nerd.
++ For those unfamiliar with runes, these are the magical symbols that Odin, in his eternal quest for knowledge, hanged himself for nine nights on Ygdrassil to obtain. There are several versions of the runes, but the most commonly used are a set of 24 symbols called the Elder Futhark. Futhark is an acronym for the first six runes – fehu, uruz, thurisaz, ansuz, raidho, and kenaz, and they’re “Elder” because it’s the oldest known version of the runes. Each rune is associated with a letter and has both a literal and a symbolic meaning. In The Lore they are most commonly used as a form of magic – for example you could draw Jera (letter:J, literally: a year, symbol: the harvest) on a notebook containing a novel-length manuscript you’re working on, and the rune could help you maintain the endurance needed to complete a task which takes substantial time and effort to “bear fruit.” Runes are commonly used now for divination, though there’s some debate whether or not they were used for this in ancient times.