A Question of Theology - Can We Worship the Giants?
Welcome to the inaugural blog-post at Of Silver Fountains. This was initially meant to be a short response to the question of Jotnar-worship in the Heathen community, but it ended up going into so much more than I intended. My first post was meant to be on theology, but this is definitely on topic, so this will serve as a good start. As this was unintentional, I hope that my points are coherent and track well, and I hope that I actually address the question that I was responding to originally, but either way, here we are. On the topic of worshipping Loki, Fenrir, Jormungandr, Hel, and other Giants, there are many in polytheistic and Heathen circles who view these gods and their worshippers as evil or harmful. I find that view to be substantially narrowminded and lacking nuance. I will be covering good and evil in a Heathen concept at length in a separate post. So there are four points that I need to touch on here. 1. The classification of gods, as a taxonomy. 2. Multifarious interpretations of the myths. 3. The distinction between destruction and uncreation. 4. The inclusion of gnosis.
1. This first point is perhaps was one the most glaring issues in this debate, primarily, that of a taxonomy. 1a. Questions of whether x is a god, when y is not, often seem to be based incorrectly on some notion of taxonomy. This is particularly visible in the discussion of ancestor and wight worship. If we must classify what it means to be a god, without playing into a monotheistic understanding of divinity, then we must take a larger approach. As an entry into understanding polytheism, John Michael Greer gives a suitable definition of a god as “an entity who is a proper object of human worship.”1 This certainly seems to fit what we typically call gods, as well as wights and ancestors. This speaks nothing to their presumed “powers,” or other characteristics, and indeed it should not. Is this entity worthy of human worship? (An additional question follows, “Is this entity capable of reciprocity?” I will address that in section 4.) If they are worthy of human worship, then they are a god. That should be where the conversation ends, but it often proceeds into taxonomy. 1b. Many people, polytheists overall and in this server, try to assign taxonomic classes to the gods. By a taxonomy, I am referring to the systematic classification of objects or entities based on their properties. This is fairly common, as there are many people who view the deities as being more x than the wights, when x can be stronger, bigger, more powerful, more influential, more prescient, more immanent, more aware, more interested, and so on. There is a superlative quality here. The same is often said that gods/wights are more y than ancestors, whatever that trait may be. This is not usually done to clarify the characteristics of a unique entity for the sake of a practice, but instead to set apart the different levels of divinity. I’m not going to address whether or not that is misguided, as it may not be, however it is an erroneous methodology. The divine, as they exist, are either physical beings, or they are not. [∃x (D∧P) ∨ ∃x (D∧~P)]. To be clear, there are no other possibilities here, logically. Taxonomies are scientific categorizations on knowable traits. If the divine are physical, then they exist physically beyond our scientific understanding, and any attempt at classification is wholly inaccurate, at best. If they are not physical, and instead are metaphysically or logically located, or supervene existence in some way, then they are beyond the scope of taxonomy, and any attempt at classification is wholly inaccurate, at best. The only accurate descriptor is Greer’s definition above. This is relevant to the discussion of Norse theology, in that many practitioners try to classify the Æsir, Vanir, Jötunn, Elves, and Dwarves according to some taxonomy that does not exist. If there are actual taxonomic differences between these entities, we cannot know them. Referring to Hel, Fenrir, and Jormungandr, or any of the Giants, as monsters based on essential properties is both misguided and inaccurate. We can only know their traits through reconstruction and comparative methodologies that involve the myth, and through gnosis.
2. The multifarious interpretation of the myths is a common source of debate and conflict here. I will not get into the literal vs. metaphorical debate, as that has been covered enough that I should not need to. The myths cannot, and should not, be used as the grounding device for our theologies. Religious practice and belief are founded on religious experience. I could get into this here, but honestly Greer covers this exceptionally well in A World Full of Gods, so I will leave it to that. Myth cannot found our practices, but it can inform them. These myths exist for a reason, and were certainly created by people who had distinct gnosis and doxa about these entities. The myths also helped inform their worldview, which would have been central to their belief systems. Myth contains instruction, as it has in every society that has developed grand mythologies, and the Norse are no different. More than that though, the myths speak to the understanding of the particular deities in question. That is hugely important in developing a theology. Before we can unpack the significance of the myths, there are two subpoints that need to be covered: the Christian bias and the fallibility of storytelling. 2a. This should need no explanation, but the Norse myths are not in an accurately preserved state to the original conceptions held by the Iron-Age peoples of Scandinavia. The Prose Edda was created by Snorri Sturluson in Iceland in the 13th Century, long after the Norse were gone. The Christian bias here is overwhelming, and it would be foolish to ignore it. The Poetic Edda are the myths and tales, assembled from the Codex Regius which was written sometime in the 13th Century as well, though it was lost until the early 17th Century. While the author remains unknown, due to its age, it was written in Christian Iceland. Further, collections of myths written by Christians have been propagated and dissected in the Christian West. While there are many scholars who are doing their utmost to be analytical and free from bias, the texts themselves are biased. Our modern understanding is biased. Our concept of divinity is biased. Even our languages are biased. While we can work back and unburden ourselves of the Christian baggage, we can never view these stories in an unbiased state (Though one always hopes for some Rosetta Stone-esque discovery). So if these stories are God-centric, but are being relayed through and translated by Christians, the important question to ask is: which god? 2b. Moving aside from the Christian bias, we must address the fallibility of storytelling, or more accurately, the fallibility of storytellers. It might be helpful, in this instance, to look at a set of myths that are freer of this bias, at least in their penning. We have Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey as well Hesiod’s Theogony and Works and Days that sketch out the Hellenistic beliefs and conceptions. The Ancient Greeks placed a large emphasis on hero worship, but their piety and devotion to the gods is well supported, both in the myths and outside of it. As such, we should see a well understood vision of the gods, but instead we get competing views on the nature and characteristics of the gods. Homer presents one vision, to which Hesiod vehemently disagrees. The philosophers that followed disagreed with both. The myths were useful for informing individual cults and practices, but they ultimately failed at creating a cohesive narrative, and at creating a substantive cosmology. If the myths are so valuable as to be foundational, how does one address having competing myths? The easy answer here is to place those stories into “mythic time,” but that does not solve the issue at hand: these competing myths were written by humans with different conceptions and opinions. Those conceptions, like one’s own opinions, can be valid, but soundness is not determined by a difference of opinion, it is determined by reason. As myths are necessarily God-centric, one of the largest issues at hand in the Greek myths is the portrayal of the gods. Xenophanes of Colophon, in the 6th Century BCE says that “Homer and Hesiod have attributed to the gods . . . Everything that men find shameful and reprehensible–– Stealing, adultery, and deceiving one another.” (Sextus Empiricus, Against the Professors 9.193.3–5 Bury)2. These myths are some of the most well preserved, and they still faced criticism in their own time for their anthropomorphic painting of the gods. Following from this, one can see the issue of assigning human characteristics to non-human entities, something that happens often in human affairs. It would seem improper, and indeed impious, to take an anthropomorphized view of these entities into our theologies. To far into the approach and we begin to worship caricatures of the immense being that we call gods, which can only ever be limiting. Certainly, we use these comparisons and literary devices to better understand the nature of the gods, and our own relationships with them, but these descriptions should serve as an aid, not as a dogma. I will not venture farther into this anthropomorphizing here, though that will be a point of discussion in my next theological post. To summarize this section, the characteristics of the gods can be partially understood through religious experience as well as through reading the myths. They, however, cannot be fully or accurately comprehended through the myths, as the myths were composed by fallible humans who put too much emphasis on the gods being human but bigger, and then in the case of the Norse, vis-à-vis Europe, the myths are overladen with Christian theology, as well as concepts of good and evil. These biases must be addressed and the removed.
3. On to the topic at hand: the destructive entities and their place within the Norse worldview. Before I begin, I would like to briefly go over the entities in question, sans interpretation, from the Norse myths. Primarily, we have the Jotnar, the Giants, who frequently serve as the adversaries of the Æsir. They are typically portrayed as an Other, with many exceptions. Through alliances, truces, marriages, and offspring, the lines between the gods and the Giants are blurred, such as the cases of Skaði and Gerðr. Then we have Loki and his children. I will not discuss Loki here, as that will put us severely off track, but the divide surrounding Loki-worship is well known and contested, though it has moved favorably for the Lokeans. Loki and his Jötunn-wife Angrboða have three children. Hel, the half-living half-dead child of Loki, was assigned to lord over Hel, the land of the dead, wherein she receives a portion of the dead. Fenrir, a massive wolf, is fated to kill Odin. The Æsir successfully trick and bind Fenrir in an unbreakable bond, during which Tyr loses his hand. The last child to mention is Jormungandr, the enormous serpent that is tossed into the sea. It eventually grows so large as to encircle the world and holds its tail in its mouth. Releasing its tail signals Ragnarök. 3a. These entities in question, particularly Fenrir and Jormungandr, are held as evil being to whom worship is not permitted. The basis for that is lacking sound support. The line that is often brought up is that they are primarily harmful forces, either through consumption or destruction. They are talked about as adversarial type figures, and in so doing share similarities with Christian theology concerning Armageddon. They are not, however, actually presented as the Adversary. 3b. As we are operating under a Christian bias, it might be helpful to refer to that framework here. To be an adversary, such as the Devil (I am not solely referring to the Christian concept of Satan/Lucifer when I say ‘Devil’), an entity must be opposed to the moral standards of the worldview. In European folklore, the Devil often presents as an outlet for our darker tendencies, an opportunity for intentional harm, or as a temptation for personal gain at the expense of others. To paint in broad strokes, in Christian myth, Satan is an Adversary, who seeks the destruction of human souls, through the encouragement and proliferation of sin. He is diametrically opposed to the Father and goes against the Christian god’s will for human salvation. In the Christian myth, the Father/Creator is the source of all good, thus he is also the universal moral standard. Lucifer’s rebellion against god is itself a rebellion against goodness, and is seen as the first evil. Lucifer is conflated with the Serpent in the Garden (though there is fascinating dispute as to that interpretation), and it is he who tempts Eve and Adam to directly disobey the Creator, with the promise of something special, either the knowledge or the power that is kept hidden from them. As if often seen with diabolic encounters, the two humans gain what they want, but in return they lose their life in the Garden, as they have committed the “First Sin.” Following the commands and will of the Creator is a deontic structure, in that it is based on obligation and prohibition. It is important to see here that the Adversary did not control them, but instead showed them an opportunity to do evil, and in so doing, to contradict the universal standard. Eve and Adam went against their duty, and anything contrary to that duty is heresy. That contradiction is key, as it is not destructive, but rather uncreative. If all of existence was made under this moral standard, to go against that standard is to go against the totality of existence. To supplant the Creator as god is to undo creation. 3c. Let us move on to a more apt example. As is brought up somewhat often when discussing the children of Loki, the issue of A/pep in Kemeticism. I want to make it clear that my knowledge here is academic and not practical, so I do not want to stray farther than I must. To understand the importance of this Adversary, we must first look at the accompanying universal standard, Ma’at. Ma’at is the moral and ethical framework that embodies balance, order, justice, truth, and goodness, and is itself a deontic structure. Followers of this religion are expected to uphold Ma’at with their daily actions, as it is the cosmic equilibrium. The lord of upholding that equilibrium is Ra, who’s greatest enemy is A/pep. A/pep is not a primordial or cosmogonic force but came about later. This relates to the concept of evil in Isfet, in that evil is not some natural occurrence, but is actually a product of one’s free will. One can choose to uphold Ma’at or one can choose to bring evil into the world. This is crucial; evil is an intentional absence or a departure from the natural order. A/pep embodies that evil choice, and as such is in a continual state of conflict with Ra, Ma’at, and the totality of existence. Ra’s journey across the sky ended everyday with a battle in the underworld against A/pep, and proper worship and action can help Ra be victorious. As with other mythologies and theologies, human souls still exist after death. Here, they go to the underworld, to be measured against the universal standard. A/pep is often called the Eater of Souls, and in the underworld, consumes human souls that are not protected. These souls are not held in some purgatorial state, nor is the act of consumption destructive to them, but rather they are unmade. They cease to be, and that is the ultimate end of A/pep. Worshipping A/pep is heretical, as it goes against all of existence. It is not an equal but opposing force, it is the cosmic negative, which renders all null and void. There are many of examples beyond these two but let us return to Loki’s children. 3d. Now that we have a grasp on the significance of uncreation as an affront to the universal law, we can look at Fenrir and Jormungandr, and the myth of Ragnarök. As they are often explained, these two entities are evil, and ultimately seek the destruction of the gods, however there is a great error in viewing them this way. The gods, particularly the Æsir, are presented as the upholders of Order, and the Giants are agents of Chaos. Ultimately, those who view these deities in this manner fail to understand the nature of the Norse theology. There is indeed a universal standard, but it is not moral. There is no moral or ethical law that governs existence. The universal standard is causal, in that it relates to the causational property of existence. The Well and the Tree are the central cosmic concepts, in that the waters from the Well run up the roots of the Tree and nourish it, roots, trunks, branches all. The dew from the leaves falls back down, to return to the Well as a new stratum, that will in turn feed the Tree. It is in a state of perfect equilibrium, however the point of note here is that nothing can ever interrupt this. Every single event and action, every single choice and outcome, all of these are built upon the strata of the past. The not-past is open to change, but ultimately the possibilities are informed by the past. Likewise, the decisions of the not-past will eventually become new strata, further influencing the not-past, on and on forever. There are indeed moral standards in Heathenry, but they are entirely culturally and socially dependent. Good and evil are determined at the micro level, and concern only the benefit and harm of one’s community. This is striking in its separation from other theologies because it is not deontic. There is no obligation or prohibition of actions based on some universal standard. The ethical framework is consequentialist, in that the outcome of one’s actions are the point of focus. This aligns perfectly with the cosmology because consequentialism is concerned with causation. Our choices do not have a singular moral value, but instead are measured on their enduring effects going forward. Our actions are ours alone, but the paths we are set on are partially predetermined, by the actions we and others have made in the past. I will be discussing this consequentialist ethic at length in later posts, but for now, let us return to Fenrir and Jormungandr. Their actions in the coming of Ragnarök are foretold by the Norns. In the myth, Ragnarök will happen. The gods will fight and lose. Fenrir and Jormungandr will cause immense destruction. None of this violates the universal standard but is in fact mandated to happen by the universal standard. Jormungandr and Fenrir become hostile forces because of the actions of the gods. This does not excuse them of their unethical actions, but they were put on this path. Further, the gods themselves were unethical in treatment of Loki’s children. Those who would argue this do so under the presumption of a universal moral standard, of which there is none. The gods do what they feel is right for their community, they punish Loki for his transgressions, and the children of Loki take their own revenge for their received slights. Trying to derive moral truth from these myths is futile, as it is done through a Christian lens in which good and evil exist as cosmic forces. The Norse and their myths are more nuanced than that. What is right for one group is wrong for another, and the outcomes of one’s actions are hard to know. Viewing these entities as ultimate evil is a completely inaccurate interpretation of the myth that misses out on the context of causation. Further, those who supposedly read these myths this way seem to be very selective in their assigning of ultimate evil, as they seem to be missing one key figure: Surtr. Surtr, lord of Muspelheim, will come forward at Ragnarök to battle the gods, wherein he will kill Freyr and bathe the world in fire, destroying everything. Odin learns of the fate from a völva, and there is nothing that can stop it. Again, the destruction that is to come must happen, as it is caused by events in the past; it follows the universal causal standard. Surtr is not evil, he is simply fulfilling his destiny; he has no choice but to destroy the world. Another point from the myth that is overlooked in the simplistic search for good and evil is that the world is destroyed, but not unmade. There are many beings who survive this fight, including gods and humans. After the end, the world starts again. There are certain inspirations here from volcanic eruptions, of which the ancient Scandinavians would have been familiar. When a volcano erupts, it is an apocalyptic event, and it kills and destroys everything in its vicinity with fire and ash. After the eruption though, life returns to the rich and fertile soil that remains, and that life can grow stronger and more vibrant than before. That life will grow on the remains of the fire and death of the eruption, just as the Tree feeds from the Well. A proper reading of the myths should enforce the concept of causation and the cyclical nature of the world. Nothing, on the cosmic level, is evil, nor is it good. It simply is as it must be, as it was, and as it will be again.
4. With the myths addressed and hopefully set aside for the moment, we must now discuss the final point: gnosis as the affirmation of our practices. The ritual act of Heathenry is the Gifting Cycle, in which we engage with the gods in the divine act of reciprocity, which is built on the causal nature of the world. Our gifts will be repaid with gifts from the gods, which we will in return repay with more gifts. That is the foundation of our relationships, with the gods and with our community, a cyclical nature on the macro and the micro levels. The important thing here is the act of reciprocity; one sided relationships are not relationships at all, so both agents must be willing and able to engage in the Gifting Cycle. As per Greer’s definition of a god, the way to judge the worthiness of an entity for worship as a Heathen is through reciprocity. We engage with gods, ancestors, and wights who in turn engage with us, thus creating a mutually beneficial relationship. What is usually help by opponents of Jotnar-worship is that these entities cannot engage in the Gifting Cycle, for one reason or another. That stance is unfounded. The previous premises against Jotnar-worship have to do with specific readings and interpretations of the myths, and I have tried to show that those are at best inaccurate and incomplete. The premise that these entities are incapable of reciprocity has no strong basis in the myth, as they myths are not central to the reconstruction of our religious practices. Our practices are built off of ancient beliefs and practices of ancient polytheists, off of the attested cults of specific deities, and off of comparative analyses. A part of being a revivalist religion is the continued exploration and growth of religious practice and experience, as we are trying to hold to this religion in the modern world. In looking back to the past, we can see specific cults and practices, and we can take those into our modern understanding, but ultimately, we come across gaps in our knowledge. Even in turning to non-Germanic practices, we can only recover so much. What is important to remember is that religious experience informs religious practice. One way to deny Jotnar-worship is to rely solely on historical attestations. Without those attestations, worship of these entities would seem impractical and potentially impossible. If these entities cannot engage in the Gifting Cycle, then their worship is pointless, but it is certainly not evil, as these entities do not conflict with any natural moral law. If we are to be so rigid, we must unfortunately ignore and avoid everything that is not well attested. I could list the various Norse deities and non-Norse practices that would be invalidated by this stance, but there is no need; that list would be extensive. Relying solely on attestation would limit the religion to a permanent state of incompleteness, and it would never become a modern, living religion. If I worship Odin in an attested way, and I have a religious experience, then I am doing something right. If I worship Odin in an unattested way and I experience nothing, then I must be doing something wrong. But if I worship Odin in an unattested way and have religious experiences, what should we take away from that? Unverified Personal Gnosis and Shared Personal Gnosis are both tools that can help fill in these gaps, because they are immediate instances of religious experience. It is always important to clarify when something is UPG, as it may be incorrect or improperly construed as truth, but it cannot be completely discounted. When UPG is brought up, how much validity should we assign it? When multiple people have the same UPG, it becomes SPG, and certainly gains more prominence. How much validity is guaranteed there now? We must be rational and analytical when it comes to religious experience, so as to be certain of its nature, but continued experiences carry more and more weight to them. If a practice is built from strong and consistent experiences, it is certainly valid, though its soundness can be questioned. A healthy degree of skepticism can help us remain focused and rational. That does not eliminate UPG, it just means that we must have the appropriate amount of caution and analysis. We must be introspective of our practices, attested and otherwise. This brings us to the final point; Jotnar-worship, while unattested*, has shown significant religious experience. There are many Heathens who worship Jormungandr, Fenrir, Loki, and even some who worship Surtr, and these practices carry religious experiences. These worshippers report that they have built wonderful and reciprocal relationships with these entities, and that these entities are fully willing and able to engage in the Gifting Cycle. If we are to accept the multiplicity of the divine, the grandeur of the numinous, then we must at least be open to other’s practices being as valid as our own. If the myths cannot be relied on for proper reconstruction, and if the attested sources can only go so far, and if religious experience is important to religious practice, and if these entities are more nuanced and complex than a simple reading of biased myth would say, and if these Heathens report reciprocal and satisfactory experiences, then what else is there by which to deny them? “If these entities” will now be corrected; these entities are, at least to some, deserving of human worship, so they not just entities. Loki, Fenrir, Jormungandr, Hel, and Surtr are gods. If we choose to deny these practices based on incomplete and inappropriate methodologies, or based on our own preferences, if we call these people harmful or wrong for answering the call of their gods, then we are actively harming our community. To deny these people their practices is at its heart unethical, and to assume that these gods are agents of uncreation is categorically incorrect. If we see Queer, LGBTQA+, and Neurodiverse Heathens sharing similar practices and gnoses, and we view that as unacceptable, before we ever get into a discussion of theology, perhaps we should first check our own perspectives.
The roots of the Tree run deep, and all is fed from the Well,