Strange and Curious Sects: Asatru
I once wrote an essay for Ebon Musings, "Parting the Parthenon", that was a semi-serious debunking of the ancient Greek gods. I wrote this as a reply to Christian apologists who accuse atheists of singling out Christianity for criticism, but also to show how many similarities there are between these ancient myths and the modern religions still believed by millions, and to implicitly ask what makes one more worthy of belief than another.
So far, I haven't received any outraged letters from believers in Zeus or Poseidon. If there are any still around, I haven't heard of them. But surprisingly, even in the 21st century, not all the ancient paganisms are dead and gone. One of them that's made a fairly respectable comeback is Asatru - the worship of the Germanic deities, such as Odin and Thor.
Asatru in its modern form began in the 1970s, principally in Iceland (as one might have expected), although there were significant early advocates in the U.S., Australia and England. It's still a small fringe movement, even in Iceland and the Scandinavian countries where it's officially recognized - few estimates would put the number of followers even as high as 50,000 worldwide, although the number is larger if Asatru followers are grouped with other self-identified pagans in surveys of religious affiliation.
Asatru beliefs are polytheist, even close to animist. In addition to the traditional Norse gods and goddesses - the primary ones are Odin, Thor, Freyr, Frigga, Freyja, Skadi, Ostara, and Loki, although there are many others - it also includes a whole pantheon (see also) of lesser supernatural beings from myth and folklore, including nature spirits (Landvaettir) and elves (Alfr).
Whether followers of Asatru literally believe in these beings seems to be a point of some contention. As one devotee's FAQ explains:
Yes, [the gods] are real. However, just as most Christians do not think their God is really an old bearded figure sitting on a golden chair in heaven, we do not believe Thor (for example) is actually a muscular, man-shaped entity carrying a big hammer. There is a real Thor, but we approach an understanding of him through this particular mental picture.
But a different site says:
There are those of us who nearly atheists, believing the Gods and Goddesses to be manifestations of pure Nature, and preferring to trust in their own might and judgment entirely. For these folks, Asatru provides a context for their culture and it's continuity. Others are literalists, believing the Eddas and Sagas to be divinely inspired, and believing the gods and goddesses to be literal physical entities.
Aside from Norse gods, Asatru, like many modern paganisms, includes a grab-bag of other beliefs and principles. Belief in magic, supposedly accomplished through runes, is a recurring element. The Asatru afterlife is less clearly defined than in most religions, although there seems to be a general consensus that everyone will be in some way punished or rewarded as their deeds merit (and this FAQ reassures us that it's not necessary to die in battle to get to Valhalla, so you can take comfort in that). They also have their own holidays and traditions, some of which - like the blót - sound genuinely fun. How could you not enjoy an outdoor barbeque with home-brewed mead?
But even cheerful pagan religions have their darker side, and in Asatru's case, it's that the religion has also been adopted by some prominent neo-Nazis and other white supremacists (this strain is often called "Odinism" or "Wotanism"). These tend to be people for whom racist movements like Christian Identity aren't radical enough; for the most part, they view Christianity as hopelessly tainted by Judaism, and consider their version of Asatru to be a more pure, more "Aryan" faith. White supremacists associated with these groups have even been convicted of attempted domestic terrorism.
Unfortunately, none of the websites I consulted, whether racist or egalitarian, answered the question I was most curious about: What persuades one of the truth of Asatru? How do you genuinely become convinced that Odin and Thor are real?
I suspect the answer has to do with the demonstrable antiquity of these beliefs. It does seem to be true that in religion, it helps to be old and venerable; it lends the beliefs a gloss of respectability (Judaism was tolerated in the Roman Empire for just that reason). The allure of reconnecting with the past, carrying on heritage and tradition, is an attractive prospect that few cultures can ignore. That this tendency leads to renewed belief in Odin and Thor is one of the stranger contingencies of human society.
Other posts in this series:
Black Magic for Fun and Profit
A few months ago, I signed up for the mailing list of a site that has the chutzpah to call itself "Real Magic Spells". Practically every single day since, I've gotten a highly entertaining e-mail from the site's proprietor, one Frank Stevens, who endlessly boasts about how he's the real deal, how his voodoo spells really work (unlike all the other fraudulent sites out there), how much labor and danger he had to go through to learn this, how the powerful elders of voodoo magic are furious with him for revealing their deepest secrets, and so on. His offer to teach the world to cast genuine black magic spells is complete nonsense, of course, and I'm sure he knows that quite well. But if he ever wants to consider an alternative career, I'd bet he could make a good living as a screenwriter or a fantasy novelist.
Here's an excerpt from one of his letters, which begins with the subject: "Lift a Car with One Arm!"
Question: Can we human beings tap into this type of super-human strength on command?
Answer: Yes and no.
Yes, we can do seemingly incredible things at will. Yes, we can improve whatever we are doing - and do so instantly.
Yes, we can make what appear to be quantum leaps forward.
But no, we cannot make these leaps unless we learn how to harness the power of mental pictures and ....
Harness the power of magic.
And if you sign up right now, there's more:
* Bonus 1: Beginners Love Spell.
You can successfully perform this love spell after you only been studying for about 1 hour!!!
* Bonus 2: Financial Improvement Spell
You can get rid of your money worries TODAY.
* Bonus 3: Voodoo on Non-Believers Special Report.
You can easily do spells on people who do NOT believe in Voodoo.
* Bonus 4: Some of the best sources for Information on Voodoo in the world.
* Bonus 5: Voodoo Defense.
Learn exactly how to defend your self from other peoples attack magic.
* Bonus 6: Revenge Spell.
I am still considering taking this one out of the course because it is too powerful.
* Bonus 7: Horse's Healing Spell.
This healing spell regularly performs miracles.
Another e-mail along the same lines claims that, if "you want $500 for that new air conditioner," you can perform the "Financial Spell" and "proceed to find $500 in 3 minutes flat". I have to admit I'm curious. Plenty of magic believers claim they can acquire wealth supernaturally, but even so, the claim is usually that it arrives through mundane means in due time. But in three minutes? How does this work? Do bags of money just materialize next to you, or do they drop from the sky on command? (Also, do "Voodoo Defense" and the "Revenge Spell" cancel each other out? What happens if one person performs one and the target performs the other?)
As usual, there are dismissive words for the skeptics:
The main reason people do not test their belief in magic is because they are afraid that it is NOT real. OR...
They are afraid that it is real and that they will have to give up their excuses for failure.
Are you brave enough to take the power of real magic and make it your own?
One might think Mr. Stevens is going out on a limb by making such specific and testable claims about his supposed magical powers, but I assume the risk is small. There will always be those who think that the confidence with which a claim is advanced is a reliable guide to its truth. And those who deeply invest their identity in any kind of supernaturalism will always find excuses and rationalizations for the method's failure - "it was my fault for not believing enough" is a perenially common one. To take advantage of a promised refund in the event of failure would be admitting to themselves that what they trusted and believed in is not real. Most fervent believers would rather give up a few dollars than face that upsetting truth. No surprise, there are plenty of con artists who make a handsome living by skimming off the top of that tendency.
Throughout history, groups such as the Puritans have railed against what they see as the overly elaborate and ostentatious ceremony and ritual surrounding religious events. But despite the fulminations of religious reformers, ceremony and ritual are not superfluous add-ons to faith, but very much at the core of it. Belief in the supernatural is usually intended to give the believer a sense of control over events, and a highly elaborate, ritualized ceremony is often more effective at this than a simple, unadorned prayer. The ritual gives the practitioner a sense that they are doing something to bring their will to fruition, rather than leaving it all up to the whims of an inscrutable deity.
This tendency perpetually recurs in Christianity, but it can be seen most clearly in modern New Age religions such as Wicca. As opposed to prayer, Wiccans believe that performing certain rituals can give them direct influence over the workings of the universe. Practitioners of these rituals often call them "magick", rather than "magic", presumably to differentiate themselves from Harry Potter or the professional conjurers on TV. This is a frivolous and ridiculous coinage, and I will not go along with it. Magic is magic, and this post will refer to it as such.
Many so-called magical practices lend themselves to mockery even more easily than most religious practices, especially when the intent behind them is so obviously to fleece the gullible. Consider this apparently serious site, whose creators soberly inform us that they are "an Elfin tribe" and "nature spirits in human form". Among the pieces of magical paraphernalia they're hawking is the following:
The Merlin Flipper : An Instant Decision Maker
When you are having trouble with a Yes-No answer, this very special spell disc from Merlin's Cave can help you find the answer that is right for you. All you have to do is to voice the question whilst flipping the disc into the air like a coin. As this disc has been impregnated with a special spell, you will find that 'Fate' will take a hand and cause it to fall with the answer is 'Right For You', uppermost.
"Like" a coin - because, take note, this is most emphatically not an ordinary coin. If it was, there would be no way to justify selling it for twenty-five American dollars. I hear this site's next product will be that miracle of divination, the "Gandalf Octo-Sphere", which is guided by the invisible hand of Fate to show the humble seeker the true answer to his entreaties, but only after being vigorously shaken.
Or take this "Negative Energy Shield":
At a mere £65.(each) it will render you, invincible to all forms of Psychic Attack: giving you full defence without you feeling a thing. By reflecting the energy back at the sender, your assailant soon begins to realise that they are hurting nobody but themselves and so they desist leaving you to enjoy your freedom. It will ward off the stress and strain of modern life and help you to cope with all of the frustrations and irritations that can build up into up - tight situations which result in a high level of Anxiety and Nervous Tension.
As my girlfriend said upon reading this description: "I already have one of those. It's called a tinfoil hat."
Or, consider the much-touted "magic pebble":
If this very special pebble is placed in a container of clear spring water it will after ten minutes or so, have a profound effect on the energy level of the water, turning it into a very powerful Healing Elixir.
...This, is because it raises the Angstrom Energy Level of the water and thereby increases its potency by an amount that has a very beneficial effect on all living things. For the good of your health, we unreservedly recommend that you drink this water, every day. According to Prof. Angstrom, the average healthy person has an energy level of 6.5Å to 7.0Å. In order to stay healthy, we should eat food and drink that has an energy level of seven of more Angstroms.
(Combine this product with some homeopathically prepared water for twice the pseudoscience in every glass!)
Apparently, the creators of this marvel are banking on their customers not knowing that an angstrom is a unit of length, equal to one ten-billionth of a meter. Claiming to raise the "angstrom energy level" of a glass of water makes about as much sense as promising to increase a person's intelligence by ten miles per hour. As far as the illustrious "Prof. Angstrom", he was a real person (his full name was Anders Jonas Angstrom), but he also died in 1874, so I find it highly unlikely that he first took the time to endorse a crackpot New Age website selling pebbles its proprietors picked up off the sidewalk.
And, of course, no magic vendor would be complete without some good old-fashioned love spells:
This formless flint with a highly erotic shape, has been impregnated with a very potent magic spell or thought form and for many centuries has been known affectionately as 'Old Nick's Finger'. This very powerful virility charm for men has the effect of making your body more sensitive and your mind more relaxed, whilst also increasing your libido and fecundity. For best results, keep beside your bed.
Seriously, why on earth would anyone buy this? If it's sexual potency you want, there are plenty of spammers who will be only too happy to sell you the latest pharmaceutical innovation - which, however much it says about the misguided priorities of drug companies, at least has the advantage of scientifically verified efficacy.
But so I'm not accused of picking on easy targets, let's consider a slightly more serious perspective on magic. The following is a love spell excerpted from The Wicca Bible, by Ann-Marie Gallagher, which discusses magic without quite so many irresponsible claims:
Cast this spell on a waxing moon, preferably on a Friday, ruled by lovely Venus.
...Leave the water for this spell out in the moonlight prior to closing the circle. In magic the Moon is a patron of the tides and this spell asks that a lover comes to the supplicant at the right time.
...1. Light the red candle, saying: "Passion burn bright like the Moon above me that I will meet with one who will love me."
2. Hold the rose quartz in one hand and the clear quartz in the other and visualize yourself walking on a seashore. A new love walks out of the waves toward you. As you walk toward each other, bring your hands together and transfer the clear stone to the hand holding the rose quartz.
3. Place the stones in the chalice and pour in the water, saying: "May the light of the Moon bring the gift I desire. Washed in by the tide and blessed by the fire."
4. This fire is the candle flame which should be allowed to burn down completely.
5. Leave the stones in the chalice for three days, remove them and place together in the red cloth which should be tied tightly into a pouch with the cord and worn about your neck for one moon cycle.
One wonders, how were the methods and ingredients of this spell and others determined? Are there records of past Wiccan researchers who tried different colors of candles or cast the spell on different days of the week? Or do these practitioners simply claim to have acquired their knowledge through oracles?
Unlike the site discussed before, The Wicca Bible does not make extravagant claims about the efficacy of magic to control the external world. In fact, it offers so many provisos and disclaimers that it is sometimes difficult to tell if it is claiming magic rituals have any supernatural effect at all. Its discussion of healing spells, for example, says that "healing magic is not about curing terminal diseases..." (indeed not - you need science for that) - but rather, "if those suffering with terminal or chronic illnesses feel that they will benefit from having strength, calm and tranquillity sent to them, then this is the healing that we can send." (Then again, it does say that "Sometimes spells do have remarkable results").
These elaborate disclaimers are the theological equivalent of the fine print at the bottom of used-car ads. They inform overeager believers that their supernatural ritual usually will not have dramatic effects, lest the practitioner become disillusioned - but on the other hand, they hold out an implicit, wink-and-nudge "But hey, you never know..." In this respect it's similar to Christian apologetics which counsel the believer not to expect blatant answers to prayer, but coyly mention the amazing miracles which they claim happened in the past. The goal is to get believers to live in a state of constant expectation and excitement, but never to expect anything actually verifiable, so they do not lose hope and deconvert.
As part of this, magic practitioners invariably apply their powers to large, complex problems not susceptible to controlled conditions - finding love, getting a promotion, telling the future - where failure can always be blamed on unpredictable factors. Can magic prove its worth in a situation where success is clearly distinguishable from failure? Is there a magic spell that will, for example, make a dice roll turn up a particular number more often than chance would dictate? Can magic practitioners use their deep and intimate connection to the intricate web of the universe to discern which of the five Zener cards an experimenter has selected, at a rate greater than the 20% average of random guessing? Have healing spells ever been compared to placebos in a double-blind scientific study? Such tests have never been done, because they would prove that claims of magical ability are nothing but futile wishful thinking.
The Reason for the Season
As the solstice holiday draws near, the annual complaints by the religious right about the alleged "War on Christmas" are ramping up in volume, as usual. Every store greeter who says "Season's Greetings" is bitterly denounced; every municipality that erects a "holiday tree" is reviled with a level of shrillness that used to be reserved for schismatics and heretics. Some religious right figures such as Jerry Falwell are actually encouraging their followers to boycott stores that do not commercialize Christmas enough.
These over-the-top attacks constitute nothing short of a war on religious tolerance. In these people's eyes, no inclusiveness, no acknowledgment of the existence of belief systems other than their own, is permitted. These Christian bigots would like us to believe that this is "their" day, "their" time of year, reserved to them and no one else to promote their message as they see fit. But the evidence shows that something very different is the case. Not only do they not have sole possession of the holiday season, they did not even invent it. Decorating Christmas trees, burning the Yule log, kissing under the mistletoe, exchanging gifts - all these holiday traditions are not inventions of Christianity, but relics of older, pagan celebrations that the Christian church coopted by deliberately scheduling its most sacred days to coincide with theirs.
For example, the Germanic pagans' celebration of Yule is the origin of our modern holiday traditions of decorating conifer trees, hanging holly, and kissing under the mistletoe. (These plants, after all, are hardly common in the Middle Eastern culture where Christianity originated, though they are abundant in the northern European cultures where Yule was observed.) The traditional Christmas ham also comes from Yule celebrations, as does the Yule log, still remembered by the name of its true holiday of origin.
Or take the festival of Saturnalia, a major and very popular Roman holiday in honor of the god Saturn that took up several days of December, which were largely given over to public feasting, dancing, and general merry-making, as well as the deliberate subversion of social customs such as the roles of slaves and slave owners. The exchange of gifts was a Saturnalia tradition, and some have suggested that the pilleus, a red felt cap traditionally worn during this holiday, is echoed by today's association of the red peaked cap with Santa Claus.
Also, shortly after Saturnalia was another Roman holiday, Sol Invictus - the "Feast of the Unconquered Sun", a winter solstice celebration created to honor any of Rome's several sun gods. Sol Invictus was set on the date of December 25, after which the days once again begin to grow longer, and even the New Advent Catholic encyclopedia says that this holiday "has a strong claim on the responsibility for our December date". Early Christians praised God's wisdom in deliberately timing Jesus' birth to symbolically coincide with the Sun's annual rebirth, apparently not realizing that the coincidence originated in political maneuvering by human beings rather than any supernatural event.
Though we have come far from our agrarian past, human society still resonates to the ancient agricultural rhythms that once determined the ebb and flow of our lives. Even today, our year is organized around two major poles: one near the winter solstice, shortest day of the year, when the harvest has finally been laid in and there is nothing else to do but feast, make merry and hunker down to await the snows of the new year; the other near the spring equinox, when winter's perilous grasp finally begins to thaw and there is a rebirth of the land and a new season of planting to look forward to. Modern Christian society designates these days as Christmas and Easter and supposes them to commemorate one-time miraculous events of the more recent past, rather than the timeless and endlessly repeated cycle of nature, but despite the thin veneer of Christianity that has been layered on top of them, the true roots of these days still clearly show through.
Through history, the church has attempted to Christianize not just the solstice season, but other major pagan holidays such as Easter and Halloween, with varying degrees of success. Christians have a long history of taking over pagan holidays and making them their own, interpreting the old symbols in a new context. We can do the same. We can retain the traditions and symbols of Christmas - many of which are indeed beautiful, and have endured for precisely that reason - without retaining the religious window dressing that has become attached to them. Instead, we can reinvent the holiday season as a more explicit celebration of what it has always fundamentally been about: a time to come together in celebration of love and friendship, and to extend a hand of compassion to the less fortunate. The difference is that rather than an unconscious battle of natural selection between memes played out in the medium of human minds, this time we can enter upon the endeavor as a conscious act of memetic engineering, in full awareness of what we are doing and why.
New on Ebon Musings: Parting the Parthenon
A new essay, "Parting the Parthenon", has been posted on Ebon Musings. The essay is a semi-serious look at the reasons to disbelieve in the Greek gods, written as a response to Christians who claim atheists focus exclusively on debunking Christianity.
This is an open thread. Comments and feedback are welcome.