An Icelandic Perspective

The Political Pagan received some very thoughtful responses, with some agreement, some disagreement, and some very worthwhile alternative viewpoints, to the last essay posted here, "The Big Lie," and these can be found in the comments section. One particular response, however seemed worth further highlighting. Jóhanna, a godi (goði) in Iceland, wrote to share her perspective on several issues raised in that essay. Here are her remarks, edited by the Blog editor in correspondence with Johanna.

"About The Big Lie."

"Maybe I´m not suited to take part in this discussion – I don’t seem to understand the American interpretation of heathenry you are criticizing.

"I am Icelandic, a heathen person as were my forefathers and mothers, I´m a godi (Kjalnesingagodi) and all my life is dedicated to Our Way: Asatru. Here in Iceland there´s no connection between heathen people of Asatru and political movements and absolutely no connection between heathenry and weaponry.

"Heathen people in Iceland do not read the Sagas and consider the stories as a way of life to worship. Heathenry and norse mythology is one thing – Viking sagas of our forefathers is another. The sagas tell stories of hardy people that had to fight for their lives in so many ways. Iceland is a rugged place and life was (and is) not easy.

"But may I remind you all that the sagas were written in christian times in Iceland— by christian people. They hold stories about families, stories that had before been kept alive by storytelling in the home – but they were written mostly for amusement and it shows when you read them.

"The truth about our Icelandic Viking heritage is that the heathen people that settled in Iceland were peaceful people like the majority still is today. The heathen settlers of Iceland were well off, as they moved here with their families and belongings on ships that were owned by one of the settlers, and the people on board were not slaves but free farmers that also got the right to own land and be independent. You can read about that in many sagas. The settlers were political refugees, they fled from the norwegian king (the kingdom) because they wanted to live in democracy . Our Alþing was established soon after they came here, and it stood until the norwegian kingdom had taken over the country.

"The overtake of christian ways in Iceland started when the norwegian king forced Icelanders to become christian in the year 1000. That was a political take-over or coup where the king Olafur Tryggvason used all his powers (taking hostages, bribing and threatening with weapons on Alþingi) to force us to take christianity. It was a take-over achieved through arms – something that the settlers in Iceland had fled from. This military coup led to the fall of the Icelandic democracy and peace amongst the people.

"The heathen settlers of Iceland were independent farmers, inventors, craftspeople, traders (only a few of them where raiders or vikings), well educated storytellers and observers of nature (scientists of a sort). The settlers and their families were heathen people (all except 5 of them) and heathenry is NOT a worship for lovers of anarchism or weaponry. The heathen people took care of each other (a democratic, social society) and if you read Havamal and Sigurdrifumal you can see the pattern of how to behave towards other people. You are told to be polite and considerate towards others – heathenry is based on honesty, responsibility and respect towards other people.

"Heathenry is a very simple and realistic nature-wisdom, and our gods are tokens of the powers within the world and ourselves – and that is the way it has always been and will always be. The gods, like all other powers, have both their good and bad sides; so do we, and it’s our duty to make the best of them...

"The good way to use our powers is to take care of each other in a peaceful way.

"I do not totally agree with you on the subject of slaves and women. Slaves were brought to Iceland by the Vikings (the few individuals that were raiders), but most of the slaves were not badly treated as you can read both from Icelandic and British sagas. I could tell you many stories of that. Women had a better status and more power here than in most parts of the world. I wish I was there to discuss it, but it is too long a story to write in a foreign language here and now."

Johanna, Kjalnesingagodi

The Big Lie About Small Government

Hello again. I have decided to address an issue that has been annoying me for some time; or rather, two closely related issues, one Pagan, one Political.

I have noticed that many American Pagans of the Asatru/Heathen persuasion but also some following other paths and traditions seem to share a common view of the Pagan past that they then relate to modern-day society. Now, I grant you that all Pagans, and particularly reconstructionist Pagans, tend to take a more or less rosy-tinted view of the past, and to romanticize it some degree as the "good old days" or a "golden age." On the face of it,I see nothing wrong with this, as most if not all religions have some kind of idea of a "golden age" that provides a reference point to life in the present day, which is typically viewed as lacking, inferior, "fallen," in relation to the idealized world of the past. (I will confess to listening to music from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s and continuing to regret the break-up of the Beatles.) Where I do see a problem is in some Pagans making the Pagan past into their personal or collective conservative paradise of small-scale tribal communities with families living in ecstatic independence, with little or no government getting in the way of their pioneer spirit and tax-free happiness. This strikes me as a very strongly biased interpretation of the past from the political perspective of late-twentieth century, early twenty-first century American conservatism of the anti-government type.

Why is this wrong? Well, it is obviously anyone's right to interpret or construct their mythical "golden age" anyway they like, in accordance with their own current-day political leanings, and to apply it to today's society as they feel the need or desire. It is also very true that our knowledge of the past social and government structures of much of Pagan Europe is incomplete and fragmentary and thus all the more open to interpretation. The thing I object to is the insistence or assumption by conservative Norse Pagans that their way of idealizing the past is the only legitimate view, AND, I object to their denial that their interpretation of Norse paganism is NOT informed by a political viewpoint. It seems to me that when they look at the Pagan past, they are definitely looking at it through highly politicized lenses, and I want to call them on this, not to say that they shouldn't do it, but that they should own up to it.

My conservative friends and loyal adversaries in the Asatru universe look back to the early centuries of Iceland, the period from 870- 1262 when Iceland was a kingless Republic or Commonwealth, as a golden age of small, limited government and wonderful personal freedom. Iceland then was divided into a number of districts, each presided over by a "godi" who was both the head priest and local magistrate. He would typically be the most powerful person in the area, often the largest landowner and richest person, with power of life and death over his family and even his clan, not to mention his slaves. Disputes would be settled and punishments meted out at a regional council called the Thing, with an all-Iceland annual version called the Althing. Various matters would be voted on, but only male landowners could vote, and the richest and most powerful Godar would dominate.

If this was a Golden Age of tribal democracy, as some seem to think, there are some aspects that might be less than golden if we actually had to live with them, and not just fantasize about them from the safety or our armchairs. The godis (godar)could be wise grandfather leaders looking out for the welfare of their communities or something like mafia godfathers, selfish, corrupt and cruel. The Icelandic sagas tell of legal wrangling that would often lead to the wealthy and powerful getting their way at the expense of the weak. Though there was customary law, the wealthy and powerful could often bribe and intimidate their way around the law. This small-government system lent itself to endless feuding between powerful godar and their clans, which finally exhausted the country and left it ripe for takeover by Norway in 1263. Factor in also second class status for women and close to zero rights for slaves, and you have something less than paradise. We can certainly look at this as a rough, early version of modern democracy, or at least an oligarchy with some elements of democracy, but it was far from ideal.

It was a "free" society insofar as there was no king, but the lack of a strong central government made it unable to control clan rivalries and feuds which became worse and worse through the 13th century, giving us a situation more like violence-torn regions of modern-day Africa or the Philippines than any modern industrial state with constitutional government and representative democracy. It was not a "free" society for slaves, and the poor had to watch their step to avoid falling afoul of those who had wealth and power. This is how I understand it, anyway, from reading scholars like Jesse Byock and Helga Kress, and from living one year in Iceland and hearing many discussions about Icelandic society in the days of old.

So why do many American Norse Pagans look back on this so fondly as some kind of "golden age"? Though I can not claim to be able to look inside the minds of my Asatruar and Heathen friends and know exactly what each and every one of them thinks and feels, I do have a hypothesis based on my past conversations and experiences with American Norse Pagans. I believe that for many American Norse Pagans who come to Paganism with a politically conservative mindset, early Iceland offers a kind of "tabula rasa" onto which they project their own idealized, libertarian-to-conservative vision of small-town, small government, family-centered, rugged-individual America, a world of manly men swinging axes and swords to defend their honor, an essentially mono-ethnic society devoid of all the complexities of modern multi-cultural America. Also, the isolation of medieval Iceland as a distant outpost of European civilization would seem to resonate with the desire of many American conservatives to be unrelated to the rest of the world and to assume that America need learn nothing from what other countries are doing in matters such as health care or environmental policies.

All of which is to say that I think that American Norse Pagans mix a lot of purely American myth into their visions of Viking-era Iceland, so that life in a medieval turf house on an Icelandic farm of the Middle Ages becomes something like a mash-up of the old TV programs "Little House on the Prairie" and "Gunsmoke" with Icelandic texts like "Njals Saga" and the "Havamal," the Old North re-imagined as the Old West, so to speak. And so, the American romanticized image of the tough pioneer who lives independently through his own wits, efforts and trusty six-shooter is merged with the image of the independent Icelandic settler cleaving skulls with a sword as gleaned from the Sagas and other medieval literature.

Since modern American conservatives and libertarians hate and distrust much if not all government, the limited government and rough justice of the Icelandic Republic strikes conservative and libertarian-leaning American Norse Pagans as eminently admirable. The inequitable, slave-based nature of society bothers them not a whit, just as many American conservatives today think that it is ridiculous to worry about social, racial or economic inequality in America, believing it is right and natural that society should be a "dog-eat-dog," "survival of the fittest" affair. Therefore, conservative and libertarian Norse Pagans can find in the Icelandic society of the Sagas a direct reflection of the kind of American society they would like to see today.

Furthermore, as a good number of American Norse Pagans--in my experience--either have military background or a great love of the military, and also place high value on gun ownership rights as a political issue, the violence-prone world of perpetually feuding medieval Iceland, the lurid descriptions of murderous battles given in the sagas, and the stereotyped image of the blood-soaked Viking warrior as the ideal medieval man, always equipped with a sword or other weapons the way some conservative believe that a good American man should always carry a gun, also bolster their political viewpoint, prioritizing the military over all other possible government functions, and seeing violent self-defense as an important social policy. Thus military service in Iraq and Afghanistan is seen as on a par with medieval Viking activities. American Norse Pagan homes and shrines are adorned with weapons in a way that is much less common in Scandinavia and Northern Europe.

Let me again emphasize I see nothing wrong in anyone creating whatever idealized version of the past that they please to suit their own purposes. Personally, I would prefer a more peaceful version of the Viking past, placing more emphasis on other dimensions of past Nordic life, a preference that I find I share with many Norse Pagans in Scandinavia and Northern Europe, but I know that is a particular, chosen version, a vision that comes from my own point of view and my own political mindset. I wish that conservative Norse Pagans in America would likewise own up and admit that their version of the past is likewise just one possible version, a version that rests upon a certain political perspective, and not an innocent, straightforward reading of the past that has no connection to any political ideology.

To repeat a point I have made in earlier postings, I also find it meaningful that in my experience, most modern Norse Pagans in Iceland, in Scandinavia, and in other parts of Northern Europe do not read the past as justification for conservative political ideology in the present day. Growing up in much more left-leaning societies with much more robust and supportive public services than in the USA, they read the Sagas and related literature with their main interest in recovering the spiritual practices of the past, NOT the political institutions or social attitudes. They do not see the kind of society in the Icelandic past as something that they want to recreate or return to. They love modern life. They do not denounce "Big Government" nor seek to discard the benefits of modern government in favor of a feudal or anarchic past, but advocate for the governments of their nations to recognize Norse Paganism as a legitimate form of religion and treat it fairly. They do not feel inspired by the Sagas and other sources to take up arms, glorify weapons, or cheer for military invasions in other parts of the world. That is to say, they have a Paganism informed by a quite different political viewpoint, and NOT informed by the American conservative point of view.

I think it is natural that over time, there will be different sects or denominations within Norse Paganism, as in other forms of Paganism, and that one of the dividing factors will be political perspective. Again, I do not begrudge the right of American conservatives and libertarians to form a type of Asatru or Heathenry which resonates with their anti-government, pro-gun, pro-military sentiments. All hail the Asatru of the right! But I say to them, you should not delude yourself into thinking that yours is the ONLY possible or legitimate form of Asatru.

There can also be Norse Paganism of the left, one that is pro-government, anti-gun, critical of the military, pro-peace, and so on. For us, Odin was not primarily a god of war, but a god of wisdom and a seeker of peace. We remember that the ancient Germans removed their weapons on entering sacred space. We read the feuds in the Sagas as a sad record of a great problem in medieval society, not anything to idealize or imitate. We value the heroes and heroines of the Sagas as amazing indviduals, but not do not seek to recreate their limited, medieval society with all its problems. We take note that Scandinavia today is a very pleasant place to live in because it has turned away from violence, social inequality, and militarism, and we think that this shows not a failure of the Viking spirit, but its further development and refinement.

All hail the god of wisdom, not of war.