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On the Usefulness of Social Technology as a Metaphor

Date: 2024-July-21
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An online friend posted an interesting piece on "real paganism" focusing mostly on what many revivalists/reconstructionists might be getting wrong. If your tastes run as mine do, you'll likely find it helpful, but in the comments, he and I got onto a bit of a tangent about "social technology" that I wanted to unpack more fully than was appropriate for a barely-on-topic comment.

First, some context. We got onto this term while discussing Fustel de Coulanges's The Ancient City and how it gets interpreted by those I've run into who have read it (to be fair, I haven't yet, so these are impressions of impressions, take at your own risk). Coulanges basically argues that much, if not most, of classical (Greek and Roman) religion began as specific family cults that were mainly ancestor worship. When one family rose to prominence, some of their cult became a public cult, and over time this accumulated into clans, tribes, cities, and beyond. Coulanges shows that these cults were passed from father to son, and that when a daughter married into another family, she literally left behind her family's Gods and ways and took up those of her husband and his kin. These practices would have included behavioral commandments and taboos, the most basic of which would be "have sons to keep our line alive!" As I said, this is a second-hand summary, and it's mostly to get us to the point of talking about "social technology," so please forgive any inaccuracies.

So far, so good. Well, as I said, I've seen threads in the discussion around this book, specifically amongst those who find it inspirational. The first of these is less relevant to this post, but for the sake of completeness, it's the notion that learning ancestor worship is the "real" basis of polytheistic religion somehow solves the trouble with authenticity. The fact that you exist is proof that you have ancestors, the fact that you have language and tools and houses and microprocessors and so forth is proof that they built things worthy of respect, and so, there ya go, rational basis of worship! Hooray! Unluckily, mark the utter lack of spiritual experience discussed here, and you can see why I don't find this compelling on its own. I believe honoring, even worshiping, forebears is an old and illustrious practice (I do so myself!), but I think it's reductive to say that the Gods are only those ancestors who were the most badass/socially relevant.

That brings us to the thread more relevant to what I want to talk about today, which is that many folks (sometimes overlapping with the first group) read Coulanges and notice that a part of his critique is that these super-tight-knit family cults with their strong behavioral drivers ("be glorious or your grandfather will wither your crops!") were the engines that drove the civilizational greatness of Greece and Rome, and that it was the breakdown of these cults that led to these folks losing the sense of destiny that allowed them to achieve what they did (if you followed along with my thoughts on Spengler, this may sound familiar. Apparently a lot of 18th and 19th century classically educated Europeans came to similar conclusions). Those who notice this often say something like "I want civilizational greatness! Maybe we should have something like family cults to drive ourselves to glory!" Depending on these folks' religious beliefs (they're often Christians, unsurprisingly), they may not exactly want "be great or grandpa will wreck your life!" but they want something with similar oomph in terms of what it can accomplish, and it was while discussing this desire to steer societal outcomes that I happened to use the words "social technology." My friend immediately responded to "social technology" as the toolset of cynical, self-interested manipulators, and in responding, I realized that while I did mean that, I didn't only mean that, hence this essay to work out what all I did want to say.

When I said "social technology," obviously I was leaning on a metaphor to give myself and others some insight into something messy and complex. It might help to talk about some of the other terms/metaphors I considered and rejected. "Praxis" is a perfectly respectable Anglicized-Latinized Greek word that comes from the same root as "practice" and "practical," and so means "the stuff that you actually do to accomplish things." Unluckily, over the 20th century, it took on explicitly Marxist connotations and now has a lot of baggage, so I set it aside. If I were to stick with my beloved Germanish roots, I might have said "craft," to draw on the metaphor of shaping something to a given end. On the good side, this brings to mind things like wood carving and weaving and other handcrafts that are both intentional and yet still somewhat organic, not cold and mechanical. On the bad side, when talking about folks interacting, "craft" very strongly implies lying, manipulation, even bewitchment. So I set that aside too. "Technique" has a similar set of connotations to "craft," but is colder and more mechanical, while still implying untruthfulness, so even worse.

What I wanted to get across was the idea of something structured, that produces certain outcomes, and maybe has some mount of intentionality associated with it. So I went with "social technology." It seems, though, that I'm not the first to arrive to this metaphor (shocking, I know), and that many of the folks who have used it have zeroed in on the "intentional" bit and its connotations of manipulation and lying when used in the human sphere. Consider the term "social engineering," which presumably is what one does to invent social technology, and the nearly universal negative cast given to it by anyone using the term (folks who believe in the kind of stuff that critics call "social engineering" tend to use different, more positive names for it). I was familiar with that and likely ought to have realized that "social technology" would be painted with the same brush unless I were careful to spell out what I meant. As such, I'm not really trying to "save" social technology as a term for more common use, but rather to explore what some more neutral meanings might show us.

Okay, so maybe it's about time we actually got down to discussing what I meant and why I think it's interesting. First off, I think the idea of consciously engineered social technology is almost always misleading. Short of a handful of more-or-less totalitarian projects or weird intentional communities, most instances of social technology don't get invented and imposed by fiat. In more complex societies, the intentionality tends to come about in fine-tuning something that arose organically, or when possible alternatives are proposed and folks advocate for one or the other of these alternatives in some kind of political process. A classic example: marriage might be seen as a social technology. It's structured and it's recognizable as a distinct "unit" of how a society runs. Given how widespread something that looks a lot like marriage is across very different cultures, the basic model almost certainly arose "of itself," organically. A man and a woman have kids, realize or are pushed by kinfolk into realizing that taking care of kids is better handled by both of them, and so live together with their kids and arrive at some rules that tend to minimize conflict between them, with their kids, and with each other's kin. As societies become more complex, edge cases arise, folks hash it out, and sometimes the ways they hash it out become more standardized (laws and courts to settle them are another example of social technology). As things get hashed out in a formal process, the originally rough, organic arrangement hardens into a more formal structure. No social engineer sat around and said "let's invent a way for couples to live together long term!" Somewhere along the way, though, it's possible that social engineer types get involved - should we even have marriage? Are some of its rules oppressive or outdated? Should it only be between a man and a woman? How does religion fit in? What about property?

Point is, these technologies will tend to evolve gradually, over time, to handle the specific circumstances faced by a given society. Some cultures have stabilized on polygamy, others on monogamy, and a very few on something more like polyandry. Evolutionary psychologists propose all sorts of interesting reasons for these arrangements and their variations, but in any given case, you have a cluster of behaviors, customs, laws, taboos, and expectations that can be identified, whether from within or without the culture, as its own "thing." Long stretches of time can pass without major changes to these bits of technology, and it's usually only when something about the situation has changed greatly that anyone bothers to fight about them.

Another example might be the whole sprawling edifice we are wont to call "capitalism." Over a long stretch of time, ways of thinking about property, means of pooling business risk, lending at interest, industrialization, and so forth have come together into a system that is very good at making and selling lots of stuff and for certain folks to accumulate a lot of money. After much of this had shaken out, some folks looked around and decided some of the systematic outcomes were not so great. Working in a factory kind of sucks (especially early factories). Being one of the folks pooling risk or lending at interest is a much better way to make a lot of money than working in a factory. Large businesses can accumulate enough money to bribe politicians and shape the political landscape in their favor. Or hire private security to go knock heads when the factory workers say they want a bigger piece of the pie. Again, over time, many of these critiques coalesced into systems that purported to fix these problems, with Marxism being the most prominent example (and having a lot more intentionality than, say, marriage). Since these systems took on political significance and became associated with societies in competition with each other, a lot of their content got much more formalized and systematized, and a lot more conscious social engineering entered the picture. Without the Cold War Capitalism and Communism (note the capitalization) might not have hardened and systematized into the formal, dogmatic systems of thought we now know with ideological advocates and technicians.

Which I suppose brings us back to Coulanges's take on classical family cults. Setting aside whatever spiritual reality may have been reflected in these practices for a moment, it sounds like Coulanges proposes a way to describe the organic development of one piece of social technology that the societies of the two major peninsulae of the Mediterranean found helpful in functioning as aggregate entities. As those societies became more complex, this technology got systematized and formalized (if I recall correctly, Justinian's law code had a lot to say about the potestas ("power," but with a lot of connotations) of the paterfamilias, which all ultimately derives from his role as the spiritual head of the family). Encounters with alternate ways of organizing things also contributed (many early Christians eschewed traditional approaches to family, but as Christianity became official, these were reconciled). At some point, much of the effectiveness of this technology to organize and motivate social activity faded away, and Coulanges argues that contributed to the decline of Rome. I think it's helpful to be able to look at social arrangements like these family cults as a coherent framework that can be analyzed on its own. But obviously this isn't the whole picture. Any analysis is, by its nature, not synthetic (as in "the product of synthesis," not meaning an android). A lot of complexity, nuance, and humanity gets lost. It fails to take into account nearbyness.

And it is for this reason that I am deeply skeptical of those who look at one of these "technologies" as if it were literally a piece of physical technology that can just be slotted into some other society as readily as building a power plant or installing a telephone network. We might be able to look at the ways other societies have solved certain problems and get ideas of what works (or maybe more readily what doesn't work), and I'm all for that. But as with my approach to religion, I think we need to go into any such attempt to learn from others knowing that it won't work "as is" - there will be false starts, missteps, and a whole hell of a lot of tweaks along the way, and what we end up with will be unlikely to look all that much like what we started from.

So maybe "technology" is the wrong metaphor after all. Maybe a better metaphor would be a model - not like a tiny plastic tank or airplane, but rather a man or woman posing for an art class. If the artists are good, they'll capture enough of the model that someone looking at their drawings spread out in front of him will say "ah yes, that is the same woman," but not "these were drawn by the same guy."

I don't know about you, but I think I'd rather strive to be a social artist than a social engineer.

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Let's Talk about LGOPs

Date: 2024-July-14
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American parachutists… devils in baggy pants… are less than 100 meters from my outpost line. I can't sleep at night; they pop up from nowhere and we never know when or how they will strike next. Seems like the black-hearted devils are everywhere…

Taken from the diary of a Wehrmacht officer killed at Anzio, and the source of my regiment's nickname.

(This post is going up a day after the assassination attempt on former president Donald Trump, but is not in response to it. I've had the rough idea for a couple months, and I spent the last couple weeks working it up. I just don't want anyone going cross-eyed looking for some esoteric association here.)

So, as I've likely shared before, I used to be a paratrooper, specifically, an airborne infantryman. For those of you less familiar with military terms, let me break this string down for you. "Airborne" means carried by aircraft, which these days only refers to paratroopers (guys who jump out of airplanes with parachutes), but in WWII also included gliderborne troops (ride a glider to a hopefully minimally bumpy landing, and then walk out of the back of it on the ground). "Infantry" means "guy with a rifle who fights on foot." If you'll allow me a brief digression, part of why I spell all this out is some lingering chauvinism. You see, those in the infantry tend to look down on everyone else in the armed forces as not being "the real thing." When talking about the far larger body of men in uniform outside of the infantry, we tend to use a less than polite term that gained currency in the Global War on Terror - POG (pronounced "pogue," like the Irish-flavored punk band), which stands for "People Other than Grunts." If I'm being honest with you, and myself, much of this haughtiness is surely born of the recognition of how much more it sucks to be one of the "poor bloody infantry," and the perverse pride that comes from justifying that suffering. Airborne infantry get the extra luxury of looking down on "legs" - folks who don't jump out of airplanes - and so we're a cocky bunch. I explain all this so you can decide how much salt to keep on hand as I talk about one of the main threads of the airborne mythos: the LGOP (Little Group of Paratroopers, pronounced "ell-gop").

I didn't see it coming as I was growing up, but now that I look back, it seems somewhat inevitable that I'd end up a paratrooper. Starship Troopers in junior high, Band of Brothers in high school, and then a classical education that emphasized excellence, exceptionalism, and physical bravery in service to your land. It was something of a joke when I was at airborne school how Band of Brothers was required viewing to get accepted. Anyway, I bring it up not only because of the shaping influence it had on me, but also because it has a great depiction of our topic for today, LGOPs (in episode 2, the D-Day one). Now, if, like me, you have a fondness for military history, the allied airborne operations on D-Day are interesting in-and-of themselves, but the reason I wanted to write a whole post about one little piece of that sprawling, fascinating mess, is that I think LGOPs have something to teach us about the complex interplay of people, culture, mission, organization, and training that can take advantage of nearbyness to thrive in a chaotic situation.

Let's define just what the heck an LGOP is before we dig into why they're interesting. Unless you've watched a lot of WWII movies or shows that feature airborne operations, chances are very good that what you picture when I say "paratrooper" is a little off. In most movies where secret agents or commandos parachute in somewhere, they leap out of a plane impossibly high up, go into a spread eagle and free fall for minutes, and then open a parachute that they steer precisely onto the roof of the installation they're breaking into, and come to a running landing, ditching the parachute, and maybe shooting immediately. Special Operations troops sometimes do stuff like this, but that's not what "regular" paratroopers do. It looks more like this. You have a plane stuffed full of as many dudes and their gear as can be crammed in, they line up and jump out one after the other with only a second or two between, a static line pulls each of their shoots open without them doing anything, so it opens in about four seconds, they fall about as fast and hard as you would jumping off a second story balcony, and then hit the ground more or less like a sack of potatoes. If you're lucky, you hit like a sack of potatoes that rolls over a few times to absorb the impact, and hopefully you were able to drop your ruck and the leg bag with your rifle in it before hitting so that you are slightly less likely to break your legs. You haul in your ruck and leg bag with the tether attached to them, get your rifle operational, and then pack your shoot up and start looking for the muster point. It's messy. The round parachutes have minimal steering, and even though you're dropped low to both minimize how far you drift and how long the enemy has to shoot at you, the chance that you land exactly where the operation planned to put you are already pretty small. Throw in the typical (huge) amount of friction that you can expect in any military endeavor, and it's better than even chances that you land with only a vague idea where you are and how it relates to where you're supposed to be to accomplish your mission.

On D-Day, there was even more than the usual helping of friction, and things got real messy. Paratroopers got scattered six ways from Sunday, behind enemy lines, in the dark, in unfamiliar country. What ended up happening is that American soldiers used various recognition calls (like little clickers that sounded like crickets or challenge-response passcodes) to identify if the guy creeping around in the underbrush nearby was friend or foe. The friend you found, though, might not be from your squad, or platoon, company, or even battalion. But everybody was there to wreck some Germans' night, so pretty quickly, ad hoc little squads formed - Little Groups of Paratroopers, LGOPs. These LGOPs went out and did the best they could to accomplish their mission and link up with other groups, and by morning, most guys had found their way into some effective military formation, even if it wasn't the one they technically belonged to.

This might be a bit of a tangent, but something that I didn't fully appreciate before joining the Army is the full importance of units and organization. In many ways, the ideal of the modern soldier is as a highly trained and disciplined interchangeable piece, a cog in a machine that can be substituted in or out for any other cog. That leads to thinking that it doesn't much matter which squad, company, battalion, or whatever a soldier is put in. To some extent, this is true, and the more standardized the training between two units, the more true it is. In practice, though, what unit you belong to not only matters a lot, it is the primary fact of your existence. Besides doing actual training together, on off days, you spend all day smoking and joking with your squad mates, and then after work you go drinking with the guys in your platoon. You talk shit about the other platoons, and if you deign to talk about other companies, it is with contempt. You learn which specific guys in your platoon are fast, slow, aggressive, hesitant, good shots, hopelessly disorganized, or whatever. You compensate where you need to and lean on strengths where you can. You come to rely on the specific, individual humans you know and trust, even if when you first met, you just "relied" on them in the sense of doing some fairly-well-specified job. I bring all of this up to emphasize how hard it is to try to get things done militarily with randos that you've never met and don't know or trust, which makes the LGOPs all that more impressive and exceptional.

So, ever since D-Day, every paratrooper is inculcated with stories about LGOPs and what they accomplished, both to honor our illustrious past, but also as a model to emulate. Since we know it's hard to work with strangers, we make it a part of our self image and training that we can work with strangers. On routine jumps, we'd get a little taste of this, even though the operational area was usually smaller, the friction less, and communications better than they would be in the real thing. You land out in DZ (drop zone) Normandy in the dark, get your parachute turned in, and link up with whatever guys you can find as you make your way to a muster point, where usually you get sorted out and sent to your actual unit. In the meantime, though, you have to act operationally - move quietly, pull security, engage with any opfor (opposing forces) that might be out there.

Alright, so that's what LGOPs are. Let's rewind a bit to talk about their prehistory, and how they came to hold an exalted place in American military mythology. The first major airborne operation in history was the Axis invasion of Crete in 1941. Though it featured amphibious elements and regular troops were brought into airfields seized by the paratroopers, the initial push was almost entirely airborne. As interesting as the battle itself is, what I want to focus on here is how the great powers responded to it. The Axis (mostly Germany) looked back on this successful operation and said "holy crap, that was a mess, way too many casualties, way too disorganized, maybe this airborne thing isn't worth it after all!" and from that point forward, fallschirmjager (German paratroopers) were deployed as regular, if especially feisty, light infantry. The Allies, on the other hand, saw a major strategic island in the Mediterranean fall in a way previously thought impossible and said "holy crap, maybe there's more to this airborne thing than we thought!" The shape of the rest of the war to come was profoundly changed.

Though the Allies were not privy to the all of the internal messiness of the mostly-German side, they learned a few lessons from observing what had happened to the carefully orchestrated German plan on contact with the enemy. They saw that paratroopers might not end up where you expected, that communications would be crappy in the early stages, and that you couldn't rely on traditional battle lines and supply from the rear. As such, as the first airborne units were stood up and trained by the British and Americans, they incorporated these learnings and readied some contingencies. They made sure that paratroopers were given a wider understanding of the terrain and commanders intent than was normal for infantry at the time. They made sure that leaders down to a very low level had more specific orders about what they were meant to accomplish with whatever guys they could round up. And the need for explicit rally points to head for in order to get better organized was recognized and briefed to all troops before D-Day. Now, sure, eventually, the Allies would learn their own lessons about the challenges of huge, entirely-airborne operations in Market Garden, but for the supporting role given to them on D-Day, American and British paratroopers proved to be exactly the right tool for the job.

What made it work? Well, for starters, they built on the already well-established, time-tested model of military organization and delegation. As we talked about before, good militaries have long recognized the worth of having leaders down to even very small levels, and to empower them with broad authority within whatever scope they're given. This meant that when paratroopers found themselves huddling in a hedgerow outside of Carentan, there was no question of "who's in charge?" It was whoever had the highest rank there, whether that be a captain, lieutenant, sergeant, or even a private first class. Even if he's not your sergeant, you still know to listen to him. This clarity and unity of command is extremely important in combat.

As mentioned, these leaders also had some idea of what to do, even in the absence of higher direction. Before they even got on the plane, they had been briefed on what the overall purpose was, what targets were high value, and what the priority was on targets of opportunity. Just as the clarity of "who's in charge?" meant that individual soldiers in an LGOP could focus on executing well, rather than on figuring out what to do, so the leaders of these groups didn't have to agonize over whether they should sit still and wait for someone higher-ranked to show up, patrol around looking for others, or engage with any enemies they felt they could take. Pretty much all of them had orders that went something like "make your way to X rendezvous point with whatever guys you can police up on your way, engage any targets of opportunity you encounter, and overall, your goal is to cut off reinforcements from reaching the beach." Knowing why they were sneaking around hostile territory with guns and explosives meant that these leaders could focus on how to solve whatever challenges came their way.

Taking a still wider view, there's a certain paradoxical freedom that comes from being dropped into a country full of your enemies: no matter what direction you go, no matter what actions you take, if it's bad for the German military, you're helping. See some random soldiers out on patrol? Ambush them. Find a cache of weapons? Take them, or blow them up. Observe a camp that wasn't on your map that's too big to take on? Note it, and report it when you link up with a bigger unit. Find some private who's scared and confused by himself? "You're with me now, son, let's go fuck up some krauts!" (apologies to my German readers, but I wanted to capture the vibe). Complexity and nuance are the enemies of dealing with chaotic situations full of friction. Simplicity is a great blessing, even if it's the "gift" of knowing that anyone you meet with a gun who doesn't answer in English can probably be shot.

Lastly, many commentators, including contemporary officers, have pointed out a key cultural difference between Americans and Germans that may have made the former especially effective as paratroopers (the Brits also had this to some degree): rugged independence. We can argue about how much this is still the case, but it's always been part of the American character to think for yourself, do your own thing, make your own way. The "gift" of clear priorities that comes from being surrounded by foes can just as readily be paralyzing as empowering if you aren't ready to make up your own damn mind and do what seems best to you with what you've got. German soldiers were extremely well-trained and motivated. They had the same strength of structure given by a clear chain of command and effective delegation, the same benefit of a clear intent (guard this ammo dump, shoot anyone who tries to cross this bridge that doesn't properly answer the challenge, and so forth), and the added strengths of operating in their real, established units (each German soldier was generally being ordered by his sergeant, with whom he had an existing relationship, and so on up the chain) and being on the defense (which always has certain advantages - knowing the terrain, being dug in, concentration of forces, and so forth). But German military culture (and arguably, the wider culture as well at this point in their history) prioritized obedience, deference to authority, and precise planning and execution to a degree that ornery Americans find wholly alien. Now, I know, the whole stereotype of Germans as robotic order-followers is overblown and mostly wrong, and the kind of flexible, delegation-heavy, commander's intent-focused tactics that I'm extolling here were invented by the Germans at the tail end of WWI. But when put to the test, apparently a dozen random Americans with guns who have never met before dropped into the woods of Normandy at night had a better time than a dozen Germans in the same situation in Crete. The Germans managed to win from such makings, barely, but the Americans thrived in such fighting.

So, why did I want to get into all of this? I think there are some interesting lessons to learn for any organization that wants to thrive in a chaotic, even hostile, environment:

  • First, you need to know your organization's mission - why does it exist? What is it trying to do? What's the overall goal, and what are the intermediate steps to get there? How does this organization solve problems and move towards its goals (very different answers for paratroopers than the staff of a high-end restaurant!)? What is it for? Clarity here will carry through all of the other pieces, but so will muddiness - if an organization doesn't know why it exists, it will soon start trying to be and do whatever it can get some control over, and that makes it harder to actually accomplish anything. A strong leader with a clear purpose is one way to get this, another is having an obvious enemy like the Wehrmacht, but anything that makes it crystal clear what outcomes you're after and how to prioritize them will do the job (note that corporate "mission statements" pretty much never live up to this).
  • Next, and perhaps even more importantly, is that you have to get the right guys - the folks who want what the organization wants, who approach problems the way best suited to the organization, and who think and act the way the organization needs them to. To some degree, you can train this, but a lot of it is likely selection. If you try to stand up an airborne regiment with a bunch of pacifists, you're gonna have a bad time. So pick good people, and then put them through their paces to make sure they're good and reinforce what they're good at and minimize what they're bad at.
  • With a goal and the right people, you're most of the way there already, but as we've seen, it's helpful to have a clear, but not overly rigid structure. Small, organic teams like startups can get away with doing this by "feel" or raw seniority, but really anything over a dozen folks or so likely needs more explicit roles and hierarchy. The more you can count on this structure being present as-is when needed, the less flexibility it needs, but even where you might not anticipate it, you might need more than you think - what happens when the manager of your quality assurance team goes on vacation or leaves for a competitor? Much easier to deal with when someone else can easily step in to take over.
  • Which brings us to the nitty gritty of training. With the right folks going after the right goals, and a clear idea of who is in charge, you need to practice handling things the way you want them handled. As mentioned above, cross-training becomes more helpful the more chaos and friction you expect, but one under-appreciated aspect of training is not just competence in tangible tasks, like marksmanship or calling in a medevac, but practice in making decisions. This becomes especially important when training bleeds over into what HR types like to call "development" - how do you cultivate the kind of leaders you want within an organization? If you want folks who are willing to take risks and think for themselves, you have to a. let them, and b. not punish them for doing so. You can tell your guys "take risks, think for yourself" all you want, but if anyone who sticks his neck out gets his head chopped off, you better believe nobody will again after that. The same principle applies to handling chaos. You can't train in perfectly expected, orderly ways and just say "okay, but when it gets messy, do the best you can." Or rather, you can, but you won't like the outcomes. Going back to our main example, even today, paratroopers get experience forming and acting in LGOPs through the simple expedient of exposing them to the conditions that create them in the wild (jumping out of airplanes in less than ideal conditions with a mission to accomplish). Whatever kind of uncertainty you think your leaders might need to handle, try to give them simulations of it, or even better, put junior leaders in positions where they'll be exposed to real chaos, but with a more limited scope of what they have to handle. Going again to the military, the most fundamental SOP (standard operating procedure) that the infantry learns is Battle Drill 1-Alpha. When bad guys start shooting at you, one fire team (half a squad) lays down and shoots back while the other fire team goes around and tries to get around to the side of the bad guys, hopefully surprising them and wiping them out. Being the leader of the flanking fire team gives you a tiny dose of uncertainty within a framework of order - how far out should I move? How quickly? Where should I tell my guys to take cover? When should I signal the other fire team to shift their fire away from the position we're approaching? Dealing with all of these sources of friction builds the muscle of dealing with the bigger kinds that a squad, platoon, or company leader will need to.

To recap one more time, if you want an organization that can handle and even thrive in chaos, give it a clear mission that is communicated all the way down, fill it with the guys who can make it happen, provide a clear structure to answer who is in charge, and then give them lots of chances to practice as realistically as you can manage. Easy, right? So go find some problems to solve and get to it!

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The Trouble with "Ideology"

Date: 2024-July-03

The other day, I was talking with an online friend about "ideology." It got kicked off by another instance of a claim you see floating around a lot these days: "ideology" is artificial, and that folks would be better off without it. My friend pointed out that everybody's got an ideology, but it's usually implicit. In sharing my thoughts on this, I realized that we might be dealing with a definition game, albeit one that gets heated precisely because it revolves around some pretty weighty issues. If I'm right about the problem, then these fights about "ideology" are onto something important, but might be talking in circles due to some unstated assumptions on all sides. So let's try to bring those assumptions out and state them and see if that gets us anywhere.

I think I first ran into a developed form of the "ideology is bad" position in talks given by (surprise) Jordan Peterson. His argument goes like this: man's thinking is inescapably religious, but in the West, religious thinking fell apart in the last few hundred years, and in the place of religion, a handful of formal belief systems (ideologies) grew up and have taken its place in steering what folks want and how they try to get it. The heart of Peterson's point, the reason he thinks it's a problem, is that he contends these ideologies are defective religions - though they draw on the same underlying religious impulse, they fail to account for key pieces of the world that traditional religions do address, and this distorted view drives warped outcomes. He conceptualize this through his boiled-down Jungian framework: full-on religions recognize order, chaos, and the interplay between them, and that each of these three elements has a good side and a bad side. These good and bad sides, and their interactions, are conveyed in myth, and sets of belief and behavior get built on top of these myths to become customs, traditions, and commandments. As far as it goes, I largely agree with this analysis, but notice something about it - it pretty narrowly defines "ideology" as the kinds of post-enlightenment, usually non-, or at least a-, religious, formal frameworks of thought, that have been adopted by intellectuals, reformers, and revolutionaries in the West for the past few hundred years.

My friend's position, though, is that the word "ideology" very often, if not most of the time, doesn't get used to mean these kinds of grand, thoroughly worked-out -isms (you the know the type). Instead, it means any kind of reasonably coherent set of beliefs and propositions about how the world works and what you should do within it. If you want to do anything in the world, you have to have goals, and to arrive at what goals to go after, you have to think about what your values are, how to rank-order them, how to resolve conflicts between them, and so forth. Folks latch onto the various -isms that Peterson attacks precisely because they are at a loss on how to resolve what they should do and how to go about doing it. Working all of that out from scratch is hard and might drive you crazy.

Let's pause for a tick here. In what we've talked about so far, we've been taking for granted what is missing, but let's spell that out a bit more. As we've touched on elsewhere on this blog, most men in most times have lived in cultures where this kind of stuff was not up in the air, it was settled. This isn't the first time folks have dealt with their certainty about how the world works falling apart around them, but in typical Faustian style, we seem to be demolishing our old certainties with an exceptional amount of gusto. In more settled times, most folks don't give much thought to what's true about the world, why it works that way, and what that says about what is best in life and how you should go after it. You learn that stuff from your kith and kin, they support you in living up to it the best you can, and everybody's more or less on the same page about who's doing well, who's not, and where we all stand in between. In such times and places, only the real weirdos stop and think about this stuff and ask whether it ought to be any different, and they can get into all kinds of exciting trouble with their neighbors. These weirdos are seen, somewhat rightly, as rocking the very bedrock that everyone else is trying to build their lives on, and so everyone else is like "can you kindly chill out and stop screwing around with what lets us lead happy, meaningful lives?"

Fast forward to our unsettled times, and you have a lot more weirdos, in part because we have more need of them. Those old certainties done been rocked already, and calls to "just stick with what works" don't hit the same when you can see with your own eyes that's it not working anymore. Yet, most folks are still not intellectual weirdos, and they don't want to come up with their own bespoke belief systems. Besides being a huge pain in the ass, thought-up, rational systems of values, goals, and practices lack the strength and flexibility of organically-evolved systems that have had ages to work out all the kinks. They're fragile. If you want to know where that fragility can lead, see the 20th century. Peterson's got a point that these solutions don't work. So, normal folks have an honestly-come-by skepticism of intellectual weirdos trying to "solve the world." Put that together with the historical record of horror that came out of putting these world-solving systems to the test, and most folks have come up with a reasonable heuristic that the products of explicit, intellectual exploration of things like fundamental values, what kinds of goals arise from them, and how to live in the world to reach them are worthy of deep suspicion at best, and outright hostility at worst. Since many of these horror-generating takes have been labeled "ideologies," the folk holding this heuristic have decided that "ideology," and anything that smells even a little like it, should be avoided at all costs.

Unluckily, there's that bit I mentioned a moment ago: the certainties are already broken. The traditions that might have better answers are cut off from us. So we find ourselves in a conundrum: the reasonable default of "do what your folk teaches you" isn't up to the job, but neither is any one thing out in the wilderness of intellectual wankery. If some kind of fairly-comprehensive worldview is the foundation that everything else is built on, we're in the position of laying new foundations, and it's going to take a long time to try things out, see what works, and build up from there. The good news for intellectual weirdos like me is that we have plenty of opportunity to put things forward, explore what other people have suggested, and feel out what might work going forward. But this takes a a lot of humility, and it's a journey without an end. We're going to screw up. We're going to put forward things that sound good on paper but don't work in the messy world of real life. We'll spin castles made of air that are lovely to look upon, but cannot bear the weight we try to put upon them. Those failures will hurt, and they'll suck, but along the way, hopefully we'll learn something. If we keep the humility we mentioned in mind, hopefully we can avoid the horrors that came from earlier, cockier experimentation. And those who come after us will keep what works, throw out what doesn't, and with some luck and some work, build a framework that's more up to the task. Maybe those who come long enough after us will someday be able to go back to the old way of just doing what their folk do. Meanwhile, it's an exciting, but rough, time to be alive and thinking and sharing our thoughts. The work is long, but life is short.

So, I'm going to keep spinning, and I hope you'll call me out when I try to make my castles bear more than they can hold up.

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A Big Thought Looking for a Small Name

Date: 2024-June-30

For a while now, I've been picking up on a thread that seems to run through many of my far-flung interests, but I've had trouble naming it. So, I reckoned the best way to do something about that would be to write out my thoughts as they stand, and hopefully get to a better answer, or at least a better starting point for further reading. For all I know, I might be rehashing something that already has a large body of work, but if so, I haven't been able to find it. Given the murky nature of what I"m trying to track down, I hope you'll bear with me as I come at it sidewise, with the goal of feeling it out bit by bit, and maybe pulling something a bit more put-together out of these gropings.

So what the hell am I on about, then? It seems to me that there is something - a quality, maybe, or a characteristic - that brings together much of what I think to be worthwhile in life. The reason I think it's worth running down is that I've mostly run into folks talking about its lack. Many thinkers seem to take it as the "way things are", and its only some set of wrong turns that have led us to de-emphasize and degrade it, but I'm starting to suspect that today's world has so turned away from this thing, that it is not, in fact, the default, not to be taken for granted anymore, and instead, defines a gaping hole in our minds and souls. This thing that I'm talking about has something to do with what is right here - literally, physically close by, available to your direct experience, and somehow immediate in a way that once noticed is utterly compelling.

Legibility Helps Us Get at the Opposite of What We Want

As I said above, most of what has gotten me thinking about this is running across talk about what this thing is not, so I feel almost as if I must start apophatically, with one of the bigger ideas that is nearly the opposite of what I want to define: James C. Scott's Legibility. Scott discusses this in Seeing Like a State, but I first found the idea in The Uruk Project series on sam[]zdat. My understanding of legibility is the desire by technocratic managerial types to render the complexities of life, especially as they regard politics and economics, understandable and standardized. It's easy to see the good side of this, especially within the prejudices of our culture. I'll give an easy example: street addresses. If you want to find a building, or to send a letter from far away, having a unique identifier makes that far easier. In the days before addresses, the way you mailed a letter was to find someone going vaguely toward where you wanted it to go, pay him some money, enough that he could pass some of it on and keep a bit for himself, ask him to find someone heading even closer to where you want it to go, and give it to that guy to take it the next leg of the trip, and so on. Eventually, when it got to the town where it was going, whoever had it would ask around until he found someone who knew whoever you were sending it to, and then go knock on the door and confirm that guy was there. Likewise, if you were in a new town and wanted to find a business, folks couldn't just say "go to 1234 West Street." They'd have to say something more like "okay, go down the main street, then when you see the Red Lion pub, not the Blue Panther, turn right, walk for 5 or 10 minutes, and when you see the big oak that was hit by lightning, you've found the place." To a typical modern guy, having an address, ideally in a logical grid, just makes sense and seems way easier and better. And maybe for addresses it is.

But let's go to another case of legibility we take for granted: last names. Back in the day, if you were talking about someone, you'd say "oh yeah, you should talk to John," and if your interlocutor was like "which one?" You could say "oh, you know, the smith's son." If there's only two or three Johns around, and only one of them has a smith for a dad, that's plenty good. But what about when you're not from around here and you don't know John or the smith or who is whose son? That's a lot less helpful. On the other hand, if you say "okay, the smith is going to be Bob Smith, and his son will keep his name, so now he's John Smith," well, it's a lot easier to find John Smith if you're from out of town, which sounds pretty helpful, right? Except, you know who comes from out of town and wants to be able to find folks easily? The taxman and the press-gang. Last names, and other legible ways to identify folks, were mostly dreamed up by the state as ways to more readily gather taxes and conscripts. If you don't want to pay your taxes or die in some faraway land, all of a sudden, legibility doesn't look so hot.

One more example that starts hitting closer to what I'm trying to work out here: laws and their application. Once again, given our modern presumptions, it's quite likely that a consistent, universal, and easily-understood application of the law strikes you as a good idea. Let's go with public drunkenness. If you have a town or neighborhood overrun by rowdy drunks breaking things, picking fights, and passing out in the street, that's obviously not good. A nice, legible public-drunkenness law that arrests anyone being drunk and disorderly, enforced to the same standard on anyone, sounds fair, right? Sure, but let's contrast with a small town with a sheriff as the only peacekeeper. One day, Old Jed is found in the street drunk and waving his gun around, shouting incoherently at anyone who so much as looks at him. Under a legible, universalist application of the law, this is an open-and-shut case. Arrest him, lock him up, and convict him with the eye witness testimony of everyone in town. On the other hand, what if Old Jed has never broken a law in his life, is a well-loved member of the community who has lent a hand putting up every building in town since his farm was the first homestead for miles, and the reason he's gone on a crazy bender is because his wife of 50 years just died and he's mad with grief? Should Old Jed get treated the same way as Mean Gus, a drunkard and brawler mixed up with the Red Bandana gang? Maybe not. Having a system where you say "hey, sheriff, keep the peace in your county, use whatever means you have and the best judgment you can" is not very legible. The steely-eyed sheriff is going to decide, based on years of experience, his own sense of fairness, and the support (or lack thereof) of the community whether he should just lock up Old Jed for the night to dry up and not press charges, or throw the book at him to show that no one is above the law.

What I'm getting at is that legibility is not an unalloyed good - yes, often, it has its upsides, but like most things in this messy world, those upsides come with trade-offs. Another example: much of modern, "evidence-based" medicine is built on legibility - look at epidemiological factors, play the odds, make the call that you can back up with studies and statistics. On the other hand, the human body and its health is incredibly complex, and what works for one guy doesn't work for another. Sometimes, the right call for most folks is exactly the wrong call for this guy right here, or the other way around, and a doctor who deeply knows his patient can make a call that "by the numbers" looks all wrong. Legibility is all about what makes sense on average, from far away, at a low level of resolution. In situations where you can't rely on deep familiarity, judgment, and caring about the folks involved, legible approaches are often very helpful, but they can erase those factors when applied crudely (spoiler alert: they're usually applied crudely). It used to be that many, if not most, of the decisions that affected our lives happened in a high-touch, high-knowledge context full of judgment calls and subject to nuance and extenuating circumstances. Of course, these kinds of judgment calls can be terrible when the folks making them are assholes or can't be bothered, which is one of the reasons legibility has caught on so much in our culture, but they can be extremely flexible and responsive when handled by reasonably decent folks. Also, though legible processes can put a floor on how badly things can go by disallowing the worst abuses, they also tend to put a ceiling on how great the outcomes can be by leaving no box to check for the exceptional.

Subsidiarity Draws on the Strength of the Thing

Okay, so if legibility is the opposite of what I have in mind for politics and economics, what's an approach to those fields that leans on the strength of the thing we're trying to discover? The first one that comes to mind is subsidiarity. As far as I know, this idea originates in the Catholic Church (happy to be corrected here), where it means that lower levels of the church hierarchy ought to handle as much as they can without stepping on the toes of other jurisdictions or ignoring the authority of higher levels. But it's a handy way to think about certain political and economic systems as well. Politically, the original intention for the United States hewed pretty closely to this, and in a very different way, so did feudalism. Decisions were made, disputes resolved, and judgments enforced at the lowest level that was able to do so effectively. In the US, that meant that the city handled what it could, the county what needed a wider scope of authority/coordination, the state whatever was bigger than that, and the federal government above that (you'll note, he said wryly, the past tense used here). In the feudal system, if two peasants had a dispute, they went to their lord, if a lord had a dispute with his reeve, they went to the next lord up, and if two mighty lords had a problem, they went to the king (this is all greatly simplified, of course). In economics, Schumacher proposed a similar devolution of decision-making in economic matters in Small is Beautiful. The core idea is that in politics and economics, there is so much local knowledge needed to make the right call that any top-down, one-size-fits all decision imposed from far away will necessarily fall short of addressing the reality on the ground. A tax that funds needed services in a busy port might be onerous to the point of stifling in a small inland town. Rules that suit orderly townspeople may be oppressive for rowdy hill folk. The strict enforcement of laws needed to keep the peace in New York City might put poor Old Jed in jail for the rest of his life. If you want to get an idea of what this might look like if done well, John Michael Greer's Retrotopia paints a rosy, but not so far-fetched, picture.

Here, the key idea is that folks are complex, each with his own drives, needs, wants, means, and so forth. Then, when you start these many-sided folks interacting with each other, you get complexity multiplied by complexity, quickly spiraling into a mess that's nearly impossible to keep track of beyond a certain scale. The legible solution is to boil down all of this complexity to a "good enough" abstraction and so work with the (apparently) simpler situation that results. Obviously, there's some merit to this approach: many great things have been discovered or enabled by incisive abstractions or simplifications. As they say, though, the map is not the territory, and any time you simplify, something is lost by definition. The more that you lose, the more likely that what you lost was important in some non-obvious way (Chesterton's Fence and all that). Farming is a good example, here. Back in the 19th century, the discovery of the macronutrients needed by plants, combined with new industrial methods of fertilizer production, led to easier, far larger crop yields. Bring in the green revolution, which combined these approaches with selective breeding of wheat and corn strains to be more pest and disease resistant, and you got huge factory farms feeding larger swaths of folks than ever thought possible. On the other hand, this highly-legible, scientific, government-backed endeavor has resulted in the long-term degradation and depletion of soils as they neglect to put back the biomass that comes in natural fertilizer (that's the polite way to say "animal shit"), to say nothing of the still-poorly understood role of soil bacteria, fungi, and other tiny, highly complex things that make and keep soils healthy and fertile for long stretches of time. Or take how the size of fields can have their own non-obvious effects - if you have acres and acres of cropland with no trees, there's nowhere for birds to hang out, and that means fewer bugs get eaten, and those bugs eat the crops. Small fields with hedgerows and patches of trees dividing them do much better at this and are more productive because of it (to say nothing of supporting other pest-hunters like foxes and wild cats and such). Or for still another example, look at the traditional fertility rites of parts of southeast Asia that include nighttime, torch-lit processions. Those torches apparently attract bugs, and the processions happen when the most destructive kinds of bugs are breeding. Whatever other spiritual benefits these processions may have for the folks participating, the land, or the plants, they also greatly reduce the population of crop-eating insects. Unluckily, though it's easy to the point of being the default to handle this kind of thing locally, that's the kind of thing that's really hard to try to plan from the capital. In part, this is because if you asked the villagers why they're having the procession, no one is going to say "to kill bugs that eat the crops." They might not have any idea that the processions have that effect. So when a central planner shows up and says "you guys are wasting valuable time and resources on your superstitious processions," it's hard for the villagers to push back in any way that the legibility-focused manager will respond to, and when that legibility-focused manager is backed up by the force of the state, well, guess who's going to get his way. The beauty of subsidiarity is that they don't have to know why they do stuff. If you just let folks decide to do things how they want at a level they mostly understand, they'll keep doing what works as long as they think it's right. If they make a wrong call by stopping doing something that works, or starting something stupid, the ill effects are close enough and relevant enough for them to notice and fix it, but that kind of experimentation is likely to get lost in the statistical noise of the central planner's office, and so the one-size-fits-all policy can't be adjusted as quickly or flexibly.

Delegation Acknowledges the Need of the Thing Amidst Friction

Let's step aside from politics and economics and into two of my other favorite fields: war and business. In both of these fields, something like subsidiarity has for a long time been the name of the game: delegation. For most of human history, if you wanted to get something hard done outside of your immediate vicinity, thanks to limits on communication and transportation, you had no choice but to tell someone else to do it. If you wanted them to do a good job of it, you had to pick folks who were smart, flexible, and highly motivated. Sure, you could do your best to align incentives to create some of those characteristics (like letting navy captains keep a portion of the prize money for seizing enemy ships), but mostly it boiled down to "pick someone good enough to handle it, and then let him handle it." The siren song of telecommunications has lured leaders in both the military and business worlds into thinking this kind of delegation is outdated. Now, we have so much data and such quick communications that folks higher up the pyramid can stick their fingers in all of the pies. This attitude is, to put it bluntly, really fucking stupid. So, of course, I've seen it all over the place in both fields. When I was in the army, we had all kinds of fancy communications - radio, satphones, Blue Force Tracker, the works. On the other hand, the minute one of these gizmos hiccuped, or once things started moving fast, all of these oh-so-shiny technologies became far too slow, and we're back to operating at the speed of one guy yelling at another and pointing at something he can see.

In the business world, I got to see the same thing with the Agile way of managing undertakings. One reason this approach came to be in the world of software development is a key difference between writing software and building traditional capital projects like skyscrapers and bridges: there is no such thing as a complete specification of what software does short of the working code itself. On the other hand, in a very real sense, if you have a blueprint of a bridge, you really do know everything that matters about what the bridge will be when its built. That blueprint is a meaningful (and very useful!) step that can be undertaken at less cost and effort than building a bridge or three and seeing how it goes. With software, though, that's not true. Architecture, requirements, specifications, features, user stories, however want to define it, nothing you come up with before writing code captures enough about what the code will do once you write it. Think about what a computer program is - a set of instructions to the computer. The whole point of writing code is to work out the instructions that will make the computer do what you want, and with just about every program more complex than "hello world," there will be so many interactions and edge cases between the pieces of the program that you can't know what it's going to do until you build it and test it. Agile embraces this. Instead of trying to specify the entire program ahead of time on paper, which is a fool's errand anyway, it says "build a bit, test it, make tweaks, test more, and repeat until you have something that works." Luckily, this is much cheaper than building and testing a bridge as you go, so it works. To do this effectively, though, you need a team that has all the skills to make the product, get it in front of users, and get feedback on the results. One reason that software startups can get so much done so fast is because this is what they are - a small team, with all the skills necessary to make the product, and ruthlessly minimal overhead. There are almost no layers intervening between those doing the building and the customers who will use what gets built. The trouble comes when big companies see this productivity and say "I want that!" without understanding, or at least accepting, what makes it work. Large enterprises will try to "go Agile," while also keeping the centralized, top-down command and control of a traditional organization. To be fair, there are advantages to centralized control - better coordination, better standardization, ability to balance the needs and benefits of one product versus another, that kind of thing. But the fundamental problem is that they don't actually let their "product owners" (the standard title for the leader of an agile team) own their product. The on-paper pitch for a product owner is that he's like a mini-CEO for that product, because that's what's actually needed to make Agile approaches work - someone who gives a shit, that knows the work in intimate detail, and has the power to make actual decisions. Instead, you usually get middle managers who are told what to do by their bosses and are pulled in so many directions they can't keep a handle on what their team is actually doing (yes, I know, shockingly different from those in charge of non-Agile teams). The very reason you created the role (up-close, detailed, nuanced knowledge, with the temperament and power to make decisions based on it) gets entirely undermined.

The need for delegation in both fields largely comes down to handling what Clausewitz called friction, which is one of my very favorite mental models since it is almost always over-looked despite its wide applicability. The way Clausewitz put it is that in war, everything you actually have to do is very simple: walk from here to there, line up next to these guys, point your gun over there and fire it, and so forth. The reality of war, though, is such that even doing such simple things is very hard. In a way, friction is both the dark side of what we've been talking about - the way that the specific, local, and concrete messes up what you're trying to do, but being willing and able to attend to the specific, local, and concrete is also the cure for friction. Let's take a hands-on example: your commander orders you to take your company, march 2 miles to this hill on the map, form up, and await engagement with the enemy. Simple enough, right? Well, what if it's been raining for the past two weeks, and the road is knee-deep mud? Oh, and your company spent the last three days force-marching 25 miles a day to get here, and everyone's shoes are busted and the blisters are out of control. Also, thanks to the force-marching, nobody's had a decent meal in four days, and the supplies you expected to find at this muster point never made it, so everyone is hungry and thirsty too. Even still, you're here to do your duty, and your men are tough, so you step out. Well, the hill isn't where the map said it was - do you push on or turn back? You decide to push on. It's also not a gentle, grassy hill, but covered in boulders, making it impossible to march up in formation. As you're about halfway up, the enemy you were supposed to await crests the hill and starts firing on you. Do you charge into his guns, uphill, with a broken formation of tired, footsore men? Or retreat?

Friction. All of it. The mud, the food, the blisters, the enemy fighters, the lack of clarity on priorities - all friction. If you are relying on explicit, highly detailed orders from higher, any one of those things might paralyze you. On the other hand, if you know why the hill needs to be taken, and have confidence that your command wants you to be aggressive (or, contrawise, to preserve your strength), you can make a call that you aren't worried will get you court martialed and shot - instead, you can respond to the inescapable unknowability and complexity of the battlefield and make the most of it. And by giving you big-picture guidance and empowering you to make decisions, your commander can have some influence on the battlefield - in fact, more influence than if he tried to micromanage you, with everything that can and will go wrong. Turns out, this principle applies all-the-way down the chain of command. You know the smallest unit in the modern infantry with someone in charge of it? A three-or-four-man fire team (including the junior NCO in charge of it). In other words, it is so hard to properly direct men in battle from afar that you want an experienced guy telling two or three others what to do from literal shouting distance (if not "I can put my arm on your shoulder" distance).

That's how far down and up close you want to delegate if you can.

Architecture and Living Space Work Best When They Nurture This Thing

Let's zoom out a bit from people and their interactions and look at the spaces in which we move and live. Wrathofgnon gives a good lead-in to this in The Human Scale and it's follow-on essays. For most of mankind's history, we have been forced to live at a certain scale, a human scale. If you needed something everyday, it had to be within walking distance. The folks you leaned on were all your kin and neighbors. Sure, there are some downsides to this - anyone who has ever liked living in a city knows the pull of new faces, new experiences, open possibilities. But what is lost in such wide-open living? Folks who know you, businesses where you know every wrinkle and nuance of day-to-day rhythms, strengths and weaknesses, when things are hopping, and when they are dead. Yeah, nosy neighbors all up in your business can be a pain, but they also can lend a helping hand before you even ask for it. Some of us may want this familiarity more than others, but some yearning for it is written deep into our blood, whoever we are. Not too long ago, in the face of larger and less personal cities, we sought to find some of this through clubs, lodges, and other associations, and lately we've looked for it in the ephemeral ether of the internet, but there's something to be said for simply being right there.

If you learn any art or composition, you'll come to know something called negative space. Call to mind a bird sitting atop a stem, with a caterpillar climbing that stem. The bird, the stem, and the caterpillar are all positive space - the objects the picture is "about." Now take a tick to think about the whitespace, the blanks around the things you're looking at. In a well-put-together drawing or painting, these negative spaces enfold and define the positive objects, focusing attention by making clear what is not the focus. Negative space is what makes a composition read as meaningful rather than busy. The well-known vase/profile optical illusion emphasizes this distinction by playing with what is positive and what is negative - look at it one way and the white part is negative, look at it another, and the black part is. I bring all this up here, because back in college, I found out that architects think about positive and negative spaces as well. Interestingly, folks respond to these spaces differently. Positive spaces pull us in, beckon for us to stay a while. Negative spaces, on the other hand, encourage us to keep on trucking, to get from one positive space to another. In a house, the rooms are positive spaces, and the hallways negative. In a city square, the big open space in the middle is negative, the nooks nestled under the surrounding overhangs are positive. If you've ever been in an airport, though, you've seen and felt these spaces getting jumbled together unpleasantly. Think about folks camped out in the hallway, bags strewn about, working on their laptops, tuning out the world with headphones, all because that's the only place where there's an outlet - using a negative space as if it were positive. Or think about the boarding "lounges." When you're sitting, waiting for your flight, it's meant to be a positive space. But the moment a flight starts boarding, you have lines of folks between the seats, bumping your leg, crowding you, because it has become a negative space for all of these folks trying to get on their plane.

Here's the thing. Due to a variety of factors, like local ordinances, weird incentives, and changes to technology, much of today's world is made up of negative spaces, far more than the delicate and organic interplay of negative and positive you'll find in a charming village. The suburbs might be this taken to 11: huge, generic boxes of positive space set amid swathes of negative roads, lawns, and parking lots. What does it do to us to spend so much of our lives in spaces that are subconsciously telling us to "get out, move on?" I think the result is a giant anomie machine. You leave your "machine for living", get in your machine for driving, zoom down the negative space of speed-optimized roads, park in the negative space of the parking lot, and go to Home Depot (a machine for buying) to get a tool you need for some project. While there, you walk down long, negative aisles, check your phone for confirmation of which tool, exactly, to get, grab it, check out at a self-serve machine, and repeat the process in reverse to go home. Contrast this with going to the hardware store in your small town. Maybe you walk there, or if you drive, it's slow, down familiar roads, full up with shops you know backwards and forwards. You get there, go inside, and you run into a few of your neighbors. You shoot the breeze for a few minutes, get a few tips on the project you're working on, and one of them helps you pick the tool you need. As you're checking out, the owner recommends something else you might need, and tells you to bring it back if you don't end up using it. Later, you have a couple of beers with the same neighbors and the owner and talk about how your afternoon of work went.

Is the latter somewhat idealized? Sure, of course. But the point is that the spaces we live and work and shop in shape not only how we spend our time and money, but how we feel about it, and who we do it with. Here, again, much of what differentiates the spaces from which interaction and connection naturally arise and those in which we have to fight to make that happen is how close we are to the things and folks we need. How often do we see them, how deep are the interactions, how much individual, specific texture is there to those interactions instead of sterile uniformity? The various "machines for living/buying/interacting" are easy, but they are poor - shallow, un-nutritious. If anything, that may be one of the highest costs of our spread-out, legible, rationalized world - everything has to be intentional. Nothing "just happens." Nothing takes care of itself. You don't just run into your friends, you have to set up a get together. You don't just know eligible young women through your friends and neighbors, you have to join clubs or sign up for an app. You don't end up in a stimulating conversation with someone with very different interests because you both go to the same coffee shop, you have to track down substack writers or Twitter spaces. And that's on top of everything that has always been conscious, rational, and intentional - work, planning for the future, getting involved in politics, whatever.

It's all exhausting.

No wonder so many of us feel simultaneously worn out and unfulfilled.

Procedural Knowledge Grows Out of This Thing

Now let's dig into something a bit more individual. I was introduced to the idea of "procedural knowledge" by Dan Wang, but it resonated because I instantly recognized a helpful name for something I had long known about, but had never pinned down without that name to give it. Wrathofgnon has another post that touches on this idea and its relationship to the "human scale" we talked about above. The heart of the idea is that there's a difference between "knowing how" and "knowing what," and that much of our know-how comes from direct, personal experience, and is difficult to learn or teach outside of a hands-on context. Even for skills you can readily teach things, procedural knowledge takes time and practice. If you've ever engaged in any kind of craft or handiwork, you've gotten this lesson full-force: you read about something like drawing, or leather-carving, or woodworking, or whatever, and you have a vision in mind of what you can craft, and conceptually, it's so simple. Let's go with leather-carving as an example I'm learning right now. Here's how you do it: find or draw a design, transfer it to a clear plastic film, get the leather pretty wet, trace a stylus over the design, making impressions on the leather, then while the leather is still wet, use a sharp knife to cut along the lines and little tools that you hammer to create beveling or stippling or the like, and voila, you have a lovely bit of decorated leather. Sounds easy, right? I just explained it in a sentence, didn't I? Well, if you decide to go out and put your new-found knowledge to work, you'll find that I left out all sorts of little things. How wet should the leather be? What kind of stylus will work? What do you do if you make a mis-cut? How hard do you press with the knife? How hard do you hit the tools for tooling? Will a plain rubber mallet do, or do you need a leatherworker's specialist tool? What do you do to make the edges of the leather neat and smooth? If you want to color it, or protect it from future dampness, what do you do? Even these few questions only hint at what you'll have to work out and internalize if you want to make stuff that looks good.

Here's the thing, though: it's not only leather-carving. Or even only handicrafts. Those just make a handy, straightforward example. It's everything. No matter what you set out to do in this messy, complicated material world, no set of written instructions will fully get you to doing it well. Heck, even if you add a great deal of information through pictures or video, or even better, in-person interactions with a teacher, you're still not going to "get it" until you actually do it, likely many times, with lots of mistakes along the way. Too much of any task is implicit, associational, embodied. In other words, too much of any task is just not suitable to being communicated rather than experienced. Now, don't get me wrong. Teaching can still play an important role, here. Having someone right there with you pointing out "oops, that's not gonna work how you think" or "ah, yeah, I see what you did there, but you need to pay more attention to this over here" can go a long way to learning this kind of implicit knowledge of doing. But if the teaching is remote, or non-interactive, it very quickly degrades in value. A big part of my job is teaching folks how to be better public speakers. I'd put good money down that I can help you more in an hour or two of in-person coaching than I could with thousands of words of blog posts, hours of video, or even a full-day remote workshop. Are there ways to mitigate these constraints? Of course. Is having a youtube video a hell of a lot better than a few sparse sentences? Absolutely (how do you think I got started with leather-carving?). But you will never master something unless you actually do it and experience all of the nuance and complexity of interacting with a bit of the world and trying to make it more the way you want it.

Our Identities are Built from This Thing and We Fall in Love Thanks to It

Even more personal than your know-how is who you are - your identity. When you look in the mirror, who looks back? When you sit with your thoughts, who is thinking them? This answer is so hard to pin down that there are entire religious traditions built on the notion that it is fundamentally illusory, that the "self" is just a grab-bag of habits and thoughts. The teachings I work with suggest that this is a partial truth, that our day-to-day personality is indeed such a collection of habits, thoughts, wants, needs, and fears, but that above that, our Individuality, or "higher self," is more real and substantial, but it takes ongoing spiritual work to get to know it. For now, though, let's look at that personality, however ephemeral or arbitrary it may turn out to be. It's shaped out of many threads - where were you born? Who were your parents? What life experiences have you had? What kind of art and literature speak to you? For most humans in most times and places, much of this was determined for you, with little to no input from you. Much of today's society tries to make as much of this voluntary as possible. For now, we'll leave aside the relative merits and drawbacks of the voluntary versus imposed aspects of identity, but whatever else we can say about these threads, there are a lot of them that come together into the piece of life's rich tapestry that is you. Something that Jordan Peterson often brings up is that when the post-modernists talk about "intersectionality," they're actually onto something important. When you put together two influences, the outcome is not merely additive: whole greater than (or at least different from) the sum of its parts, and all that. He goes on to say, however, that most post-modernists don't take this idea far enough - if you follow it to its logical conclusion, the only truly accurate unit of analysis for humanity is the individual. However much you have in common with other folks who were born where you were, came from the same ethnic stock, grew up in similar financial means, or studied the same subjects, not one of those other folks has experienced everything you have, been shaped in just the way that you were, turned into the person that you are. If I want to truly understand you, I have to go very local - not just what college did you go to, but what classes did you take. Not just what genres do you read, but what specific books. Not only what city are you from, but what neighborhood. Not just what cliques did you hang out in, but who were your actual friends. You get the idea. For "identity" to have any meaning besides the grossest approximation, it has to be very up close and personal.

When you have two identities meet and begin to intertwine, sometimes you fall in love. Sure, you're likely attracted to certain traits or personalities. Heck, you might even have a "type," but you fall in love with this woman right here, not with every single one of your type. Something about her laugh, or what she cares about deeply, or some shared experience is how you know you love her. If you've ever been in love, you know it's not the same as the attraction you feel to a lovely stranger, or the infatuation you might have for some movie star. A crush you have for someone you've come to know a bit has more in common, but love comes from up close, personal contact. And if it's just not there, it won't happen, even if she checks all the right boxes. Sometimes it comes even when you'd rather it didn't! Or won't go away when your thinking mind tells you things would be easier if it did. From the dawn of writing, we have tales of love as involuntary, even unstoppable, but always for someone, something about your interaction, not women in general, not by formula, not to be 100% predicted. Love is specific, particular, and immediate.

We Gain Gnosis when We Find This Thing

In some ways still more personal yet, we get to gnosis, something I've written about before, and which is a core part of how I go about religion these days. If you watch a cooking show or read a cookbook, you may "know" some dish, but until you eat it, you don't fully know it - that's gnosis. Gnosis is irreducible personal experience of a thing, the kind of knowing you get through experience. You can know the catechism of the Catholic Church forwards and backwards, but unless you have felt the presence of Jesus Christ, Christianity might not do much for you. Like me, you might like the idea of what a concert is/can be about - a shared, visceral experience, a live, organic performance, the interplay of energy between the crowd and the band - but, it might take actually going to a few concerts to figure out you don't like them after all (I know, weird, but I've made my peace with it). Sure, different kinds of knowing can help get you there - I don't think I ever would have had my own experience of gnosis of the Gods if not for the episteme of reading John Michael Greer's A World Full of Gods. But for most things that matter the most, without gnosis, it just doesn't really count. It's empty, unsatisfying - like watching Food Network instead of cooking, or porn instead of making love.

In a way, gnosis is one answer to what I'm trying to find with this post - what is it that makes the nearby, the immediate, the organic so vitally important to so many different fields of human experience? Well, to some degree, it's gnosis. But these strike me as related but distinct concepts. When you have some kind of first-hand experience in all of its fine-grained, nuanced glory, what you get is gnosis, but immediacy was the needed precondition. If I do, in fact, work out what this thing we're coming at sideways is, I predict that seeking that thing out would be a recipe for gaining gnosis (maybe not the whole recipe, but a big part at least).

Bringing it Together, and to a Name

So, we've fared pretty far afield, from the big picture of politics down to our most personal and private experiences, but what have we found? Well, in one sense, we've found the kind of thing that Ian McGilchrist talks about with his work on the strengths and leanings of the left and right brains. Much of what I'm talking about here is the sort of thing that comes naturally to the right brain's experience of the world, and many of my implicit recommendations map to McGilchrist's: we live in a world that way over-favors the left brain, and for sanity, health, and happiness, we need to find ways to let our right brains step into their rightful place as the fundamental experience of the world, with the left brain retreating to its proper role as a helper and tool for that mode of experience and consciousness. But I'm not really satisfied with just saying "ah, so right-brainedness is what we're talking about." It seems to me, rather, that right-brain consciousness is the way that we notice and respond to whatever it is we're trying to define here, or at least, that's a big part of it. Our right brains may very well be how we notice, appreciate, and interacte with what we're getting at here, but what we're trying to name is that which is out in the world for our right brains to pick up on. To go back to an earlier example, it's almost certainly right that tapping into your right brain is an essential step in creative work like leather-carving, but if you don't pick up a piece of leather, a pattern, and a knife, the most perfect state of consciousness in the world isn't going to get you anything.

Likewise, if you cultivate the most perfect aesthetic sensibilities, the finest sensibilities to the feeling of place, the most community-minded attitude to your fellow man, unless you go look at some art, walk around a human-scaled village, or live and work around folks you come to know, you're not experiencing what we're getting at here.

So, how are we to name this thing we've spent nearly 7,000 words warily circling? Let me say that I am fully aware of the irony of coming up with a named abstraction to talk about the quality of things that are engaged with concretely, as they are, rather than as abstractions, but, well, here we are. It's not that abstractions are bad, it's that they lose their value when they aren't grounded out in what we're talking about here. You get what Giambattista Vico called the barbarism of reflection. In a way, I hope that having a handy abstraction for what we've been getting at will be a kind of poison pill in our abstraction-obsessed day-to-day life. With it, maybe while we're flitting about from thought to thought, free from the constraints of coarse material reality, we might bump up against this reminder of what we're missing, and close the laptop and go outside to get some sun.

At this point, you might, like me, start to suspect that I am stalling and putting off naming this thing. We've been talking and talking, using some words that help get the idea across, but none have yet sprung forth as "just right." Given my quirky fondness for words of Germanish stock over Latin, Greek, or French ones, I'd like to find something there. Unluckily, for the past 1,000 years or so, which happens to be when English has grown its stock of words for abstractions and intellectual concepts, the fashion has been exactly the opposite of that. On the other hand, maybe there's some luck there, as I don't want to wrench a word already freighted with associations too far away for my ends. The best I'm able to come up with right now is "nearbyness" (that seems more straightforward, if slightly less fun, than "nearth"). What seems to hold all of these many thoughts, experiences, and so forth together is that they are in some sense near - whether literally, physically nearby, or else near in a more metaphorical sense of close to our hearts or knowledge. On the other hand, it's not a very lovely word, and it doesn't right away jump out with the full breadth of meaning we've tried to wrangle here, so I very much welcome suggestions for alternatives. Whatever we end up calling it, I very much doubt I'm through writing about this and fleshing it out.

Rather, I suspect I'm just getting started, and I hope you'll join me.

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Two Rough "All Father" Prayers

Date: 2024-June-23

The next big bit of the Heathen Rosary undertaking is the "All Father" prayer, which as you might guess, stands in the stead of the Lord's Prayer in the Catholic Rosary. Once I find a take on this prayer that works, I'll have enough for "working model" of the Heathen Rosary, with an opening blessing, a statement of belief/intention (which I now realize I haven't posted here before, so see below), a prayer for opening each set of nine prayers, the main prayer repeated nine times in each group, and a closing prayer for each group. All that will be lacking is a closing prayer for the very end, which I think the full Rosary ought to have, but which doesn't strike me as needed, as such.

Unluckily, or maybe thanks to drivers other than luck, I have struggled with getting anywhere with this prayer. With the "Hail Idun," it took a lot of time and many tries, but as far as I can call to mind now, I always felt like I was "getting somewhere." With the "All Father," though, I have felt for months, if not longer, like I was wholly stalled out. Luckily, though, after smashing my head into the first draft given below, of which I had most of the conceptual bits worked out a ways back, but couldn't wrangle into a written shape until last week, the other draft given here went much quicker, only taking three days to get down.

While I like these just fine, I'd say that I'm pretty sure that neither is "there" yet. I like the mythical references and parallel structure of the first, but it doesn't strike me as thematically filling the role I think the "All Father" needs to in the Heathen Rosary. Also, it's a bit "stiff," lacking in rhythm. The second one has a better rhythm (especially the first stanza), but I feel that my self-imposed structure of three stanzas of three Anglo-Saxon long lines may have broken a better flow that I might find by loosening my constraints a bit (but I don't think I would have even this insight without having started with those constraints, so either way, very helpful). Sticklers will mark that I've already broken a rule in the first line here ("Allfather" is only 3 syllables, and a half-line ought to be at least 4). I also think the second one "fits" with the Heathen Rosary a bit better, though it's a bit sparser on allusions to mythic tales.

At any rate, I've gotten to where I think an infusion of other folks' thoughts will do them, and me, some good (that's where you come in). So, kindly take a look at the poems/prayers below and let me know what you think.

Saying of Belief

Hallowward we have  our hearts fore-turned,
To give worship  to wealsome Gods,
Watering anew  that nut life-bearing.

Bright with holiness  our hearts become
As troth we give  to trustworthy Gods
In fair trade  upon Tree life-binding.

Shining with happiness  our hearts should be,
For steering will be given  by steadfast Gods
To bless us  with blossoms life-healing.

Draft 1 - The "Three Drinks" All Father

One drink from death  daringly gotten through
Lying three nights  with lovely maiden,
Winning songcraft  for worthy talespinners.

One mead from memory,  meetly gained by
Fearlessly plucking  plighted eye,
Earning mind-stock  for open-hearted thinkers.

One draft from doom,  dearly bought with
Three time three nights  thirsting upon the Tree,
Winning Runestaves  for rede-fast wizards.

Draft 2 - The "Father of Three" All Father

Allfather,  who art in Fallhall,
Through forefathers biding  in barrows well-laid
Fill us full with  fire well-stoked.

Galdor-father  who gifted his eye
to Bestla's brother,  bold Well-keeper,
open our minds  to awesome spell-songs.

Baldaeg's father,  who from bough was hanged,
Food for ravens,  by ravens full-taught,
Help us our wyrd  to weave with runes.

Wrap Up

So, even more so than with most posts, I eagerly ask for your thoughts on these. Hearing what others had to say on the earlier takes on the "Hail Idun" was very helpful in getting me to a prayer I was (and still am) happy with, and I don't doubt that it will be the same with the "All Father," so thank you for anything you're willing to share!

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[Book] Prayer: a History

Date: 2024-June-13

I read this book to help me along with my Heathen Rosary undertaking, and overall I found it helpful, though maybe with more padding than I'd like for what I got out of it. I also wonder a bit who it's written for: I read it since I want to understand how prayers "work," but that's what you might call a "highly specialized use-case." Anyhow, for those idiosyncratic ends, there were some helpful bits, so maybe you can find something worthwhile in here as well. Let's check it out.

Prayer is Worldwide

This book makes the point, I think well, that pretty much anywhere you go, the folks you find will pray. Today's West might be the least prayerful folk to ever live, and even still, a lot of us pray (or at least, still did when this book was published nearly 20 years ago in 2005). The book shares examples and anecdotes of prayer from Mesopotamians, American Indians, Indian Indians, Japanese, Africans, and more, but, of course, much of what it talks about is drawn from the Abrahamic tradition, most of all Christianity (more on this below). Even still, the Zaleskis do a good job of showing that most folks in most times and steads have ways of calling upon the holy, for many ends, but that most of these ways reasonably answer to the name of "prayer." There's a few places where they stretch things a bit for my taste - like including Buddhist mindfulness meditation as "prayer," but overall, they make a good case for "almost everybody prays." I say "almost," because even though they didn't touch on it here, I happen to know that the Comanche and a handful of others were deeply weird on religion compared to the rest of mankind. It's a shame they didn't mention these handful of outliers, as it seems rather relevant to making a case that prayer is (nearly) universal, and for me, the tiny number of "not religious" folks that we know about strengthens the point about how common religion is.

But Prayer is Deeply Local and Traditional

Even though the book most strongly stresses the universality of prayer, at times it also puts weight on how prayer is actually deeply rooted in the culture and religion from which it grows. Even when not making this point "out loud," many of the examples given are so evocative of their own imagery, assumptions, thews, and so forth that the point comes across nonetheless. Still, though, I think this book leans too strongly into the universality of prayer, ironing out interesting differences in its quest to reaffirm that we all pray and can all learn from each other. The modern American experience of prayer as something mainly individual, mainly spontaneous, mainly unstructured, and resulting from and subject to individual conscience and preference is very weird, historically speaking. Of course, I reckon that's our deeply local and "traditional" take on prayer (I'm half joking, but only half. How Americans can and should work out our troubled relationship with tradition is a long-term interest of mine). There's a chapter on what prayer was/is like in "traditional societies," which was one of my favorites in the book for the very interesting examples it included, but unluckily, it keeps up the book's trend of painting with too broad a brush. It treats late 19th century highland Scotland, early 20th century Hopi reservation lands, and the Classical Mediterranean all as "traditional" societies and contrasts these with "modernity." On the one hand, this is a helpful lens through which to look at the world, as today's Western outlook is indeed very unlike, well, everyone, anywhere, or anywhen else, so "modernity" is a meaningful term and useful to contrast with everything that is not it. On the other hand, though, that's a really big bucket to dump everything else into! Especially when we're talking about the most deeply local and traditional parts of those cultures, their religions. Overall, I find an approach like Spengler's more helpful, which recognizes the underlying morphological similarities between cultures and their religious feeling, but then explores the very different content of those morphologies.

Prayer and Magic Run Together

Though it can be helpful to make distinctions, the Zaleskis make a point early in the book to emphasize the similarities between prayer and magic, and how the two often bleed together, sometimes to the point of being indistinguishable. I suspect that part of the reason for the strength of their emphasis is the largely Christian audience they anticipate, who are used to magic as being something not only not religious, but anti-religious. At this point, it's a bit hard for me to remember that is a lot of people's default understanding, because I've so immersed myself in the older and more widespread view that magic is one expression of the hidden world of spirits, Gods, and forces that prayer also calls upon. Anyway, I think the Zaleskis were basically trying to say "guys, chill out, asking the divine to help you get what you want is not that weird, whether you do it on your knees with hands clasped or standing before an altar having invoked the four elements." Or something like that - their discussion of "magic" is pretty much limited to verbal formulas, which makes the distinction from prayer even fuzzier, with zero discussion of things like visualization, meditation, ritual, symbolism, or the other ways of working that the mage keeps handy. Which is a shame, because I think that much of the discussion I've seen about prayer from the magical side of things would support and deepen much of what they say here: namely that naked "gimme gimme" prayers/magic seem to do something, since they show up everywhere, but are also decried in every tradition as fundamentally a bad idea. Ah well, chalk it up to one more bit in the book that I likely would have enjoyed more as a standalone work of its own.

A Rough Way to Group Kinds of Prayer

Though the book is not quite as straightforwardly organized as my MBA-brain might crave, a good chunk of the book broke things down in an interesting way: by four "archetypes" of the kinds of folks who pray, namely "the Refugee," "the Devotee," "the Ecstatic," and "the Contemplative." Each of these chapters explores a different flavor of prayer, seeking to organize by the goals of and effect upon the one praying rather than by specific methods, formulae, or traditions, and I found this an interesting and helpful way of looking at things (though, to be fair, I've never put much time or thought into ways of analyzing prayer!). These kinds of prayer are intercessionary (asking for help), devotional (expressing love/respect/connection with the divine), ecstatic (experiencing the divine through non-ordinary states of consciousness), and contemplative (experiencing a deep bond with the divine, often to the point of "oneness"). Clearly there might be any number of other ways to chop up prayer, and these neat and fast categories bleed together (one of the most common forms of devotional prayer, the Rosary, has plenty of intercession baked in, and for advanced practitioners, may lead to ecstatic or contemplative states, for example), but I liked the emphasis on "why is someone doing this/what is he getting out of it?" for thinking about what makes different prayers different. Due to its nature, this section included the most examples of different kinds of prayer and well-known folks who have given them, so it was the part of the book I liked best and found most helpful. Lots of good stuff to follow up on here, but with the same caveats as the rest of the book, as I go into below.

Lots of Lovely Examples of Prayer

So, as I said, one of the things I liked best about this book was the way it brought together selections from different kinds of prayers from different times and steads, but given context by the wider discussion. If anything, I might have liked a whole book that was just this - a lot of prayers from widely-flung traditions brought together, compared, contrasted, and analyzed, but even still, I was glad for what they did have. Given my own weirdo interests, I especially valued when they got into a discussion of what appealed about different prayer traditions, how they shifted to meet the needs of those who took them up, and so forth. For example, even though the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous ended up as a Christian, he remembered his resistance to religion as an atheist and insisted on a more generic spirituality for the program, which has allowed it to become incredibly popular. Likewise the discussion of the various teachings and approaches tried by the broader New Thought movement - some believing that "prayer" was merely a way to direct energies within yourself, others that it attuned you to your fundamental oneness with the universe, and still others that you were praying to the Christian God in the traditional sense. Others of the examples given were just interesting, like the tidbit that some commentators have seen the postures of the Muslim Salat (the five-times daily prayer toward Mecca) as a kind of calligraphy, which, of course, brought to mind the letter mysticism I have brushed up against - might there be an influence there? Or a shared common source? Might be interesting to look into. Also interesting as springboards for further research down the line were some of the prominent pray-ers (those who pray), poets, and thinkers talked about. I, of course, knew about John Donne, and I had heard of Gerard Manly Hopkins, but seeing them discussed for the role prayer played in their lives and how their poems can be construed as prayers was interesting and helpful. George Herbert was one I don't recall hearing about before, but who apparently made quite the impression not only on those who knew him, but most English poets to come after. Even if I am working in a quirky mode, since I want to write prayers that are poems (or the other way around, as you prefer), I reckon I ought to come to know better those folks who have done that best in English.

Again, for my own narrow ends, likely the most helpful bits were those discussing specific repetitive devotional prayers, with the "Jesus Prayer" of the Orthodox Church getting the most attention. While the book gives a lot of details on who says it, when, how often, with what postures and physical aids, and so forth, once more, it was likely most helpful in giving jumping-off points to look more into, like The Way of a Pilgrim for the "Jesus Prayer." Thus far, I've mostly only had the Rosary as a point of inspiration for the Heathen Rosary, but the Jesus prayer has some different ways of doing things, with a different flavor, and this book mentioned some others that surely do as well, like the Muslim (especially Sufi) use of the list of divine names/attributes in a similar fashion. Here again, many such cases!

Some Shortcomings: Too Modern, Too Christian, and Too Muddled

So, I've saved my beefs with the book for near the end, because I didn't want to give the wrong impression or devalue the good stuff I have gotten out of it. For one, it took me nearly four months to read it, because I put it down to read a couple other books that seemed more interesting and engaging at the time. Some of this was the writing. I can't quite put my finger on it, as nothing jumped out at me as clearly "bad," and it wasn't hard to read, in the sense of needing work to understand what they're saying, but it was, for some reason, tiring to read. I just couldn't make myself get through all that much of it at a go. Some of this, I'm sure, is my internet-rotted brain craving constant distraction and stimulation, but I don't think it's just that. Anyhow, I'm not sure how much of that came from my issues with what it actually had to say, but I did have some. For starters, this book suffers from the all-too-common affliction of presentism. Despite reaching back to Gilgamesh and Inanna, everything is firmly viewed through a comfortably ecumenical, laid-back American "it's all good, man" kind of lens. Which I can't fault too much, as that's not so far from my own default sensibilities, but more damning is how much weight is given to the last century and some change, whether in what examples to share, which thinkers to discuss, or what concerns to give the most weight to. It's a bit hard to tell how much of this is an intentional strategy to make the book "relevant" to its audience, and how much is the unthinking default of the writers, but either way, for a "history" of something as old and widespread as prayer, the weakness was keenly felt.

Next, I felt that the book suffered from being too obviously written by a couple of Christians grounded in their own tradition, looking at others for inspiration and a bit of comparison - which, hey, fair enough, that's almost exactly what I'm doing from over here in my tradition. On the other hand, it weakens the book's attempts to be "universal" and comprehensive. Remember how I mentioned that touching on the handful of seemingly nearly-atheistic folks that have been written about would have strengthened the sense of universality they were going for? Well, here, I think they got the same effect unintentionally. A handful of times, they bring up prayers from traditions way outside of the Abrahamic faiths (Mesopotamian, Native American, Neoplatonic, whatever), but the sheer sparseness of these examples and the nagging feeling that they've maybe been cherry-picked to harmonize with the mostly Abrahamic, mostly mostly Christian examples and analysis takes away from their helpfulness a bit. The viewpoint of the book, which I assume reflects that of its authors (again, fair enough), seems pretty well-described by concentric circles of diminishing frequency and relevance: Christianity - Abrahimic Faiths - Monotheism - Monism - Everything Else. I would have really liked something that made more of an effort to cast a wider net, but maybe that would have been unwieldy: Mircea Eliade took three volumes to discuss big picture religious ideas across time and the world, without a lot of focus on the kind of nitty gritty details that a discussion of prayer requires. Or maybe no one else wants that, and they wisely kept their book to the kind of stuff that would be relevant and interesting to the kind of Americans who want to read about prayer (read: Christians), but this is my review, so that's what I'd want.

Lastly, the bit that I've alluded to a few times above: this book can't quite seem to make up what it wants to be, and there's the hint of at least two or three books in here, each of which I kind of wish I'd gotten instead. Is this, as the subtitle suggests, a history of prayer that gives a definition of "prayer" and then traces that thing through time and human experience? Is it, instead, a taxonomy of the kinds of prayer that men regularly engage in and how to tell them apart? Or is it instead an analysis of what it is that's going on when folks pray, what it does, and how to do it? There are elements of all of these in the book, and as I said, I think it's the weaker for it, at least at this level of depth - write two, or three, or four smaller, more focused books, or write a behemoth multi-volume definitive treatise to crush your enemies, er, I mean, set the standard for posterity. Again, I can't really blame the Zaleskis for writing the book they did, rather than the hypothetical books I'd prefer, but as with some other books, it can be frustrating to see the potential and not get it.

Should You Read this Book? Eh, Maybe

Okay, the header likely comes across as harsh, since ambivalence is very hard to express online without it coming across as dislike understated for humorous effect, but really, I ask you to believe me when I say that my feelings about this book are truly "middle of the road." If you are interested in prayer as a topic and want to go deep, this has lots of great jumping off points. Likewise, if you have a fairly narrow experience of prayer traditions or history, this will give you some idea of the breadth of what you're missing (but only an idea). If you are a fairly open-minded Christian looking for insights and parallels from other traditions, this book might be just right. On the other hand, as I was thinking over the book for this review, I was struck by the thought "who is this book for anyway?" It lacks the clear "how to" or "newly unearthed truth(!)" of a self-help book. It doesn't quite have the focus, depth, and rigor of an academic work written for specialists and researchers. It's obvious grounding in Christian assumptions makes it less helpful to folks coming from outside that religion, but it's lack of a firm theological position (besides something like "God is (probably) real and good, and prayer is a way to tap into that") makes it less helpful to Christians looking to deepen their practice or faith. It just so happened that I'm in the narrow range of folks whom I can imagine finding this book actively helpful, but I'm really scratching my head at how we got this kinda dry, academic book written and marketed like it's supposed to be pop spirituality. All of which is to say, I think this book is interesting and helpful if you have some reason to want to understand prayer, but if all you want to do is pray in a way pleasing to your Gods and helpful to you, you might be better off looking elsewhere.

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[Book] Transforming Darkness

Date: 2024-May-26

Though the full title for Colin E. Davis's book is slightly cringe (Transforming Darkness: Shadow Work for the Red-Pilled Initiate), overall, I found it fairly helpful, and best of all, it was helpful in the very way I hoped it would be: giving practical, hands-on advice on what to do about your Shadow. It's a short book (~120 pages) and a quick read (I skimmed over it and outlined it in one day, then read it with notes the next). I heard about the book from this excerpt at the Political Ponerology blog by Harrison Koehli and decided to give it a whirl. Altogether, I would say that this book won't be all that earth-shaking if you're familiar with Jung's concept of the Shadow, and if so, the general thrust of the recommendations will be things you've encountered before, but the specific exercises are helpful and were worth the price of admission to me, along with a few interesting connections with other, related concepts. So, if that sounds like something you might find helpful, read on.

The Shadow is Everything About Ourselves We Won't Own

Just to make sure we're all on the same leaf here, let's do a quick rundown of what the Shadow even is. The Shadow is any thought, feeling, drive, want, image, or other "psychic content" that we shove down into our subconscious because we refuse to acknowledge it as a part of ourselves. One distinction that Davis made that I hadn't before seen said so clearly that was helpful is that the vast majority of subconscious content if just fine down there - it's in the subconscious because your conscious mind doesn't need it, at least not right now. If and when you do, it will bubble up. Think about the memories that bubble up when you encounter a particular smell (it was years before I figured out that the smell I associated with the game and comic store that was my favorite haunt in adolescence was paper and glue, until I went into a post office and was like "why does it smell like Game Parlor in here?"). Or about the way that muscle memory comes back for a physical task you couldn't describe in words, but your hands just know what to do. All of that stuff being subconscious is just fine. The Shadow is made up of that stuff that in some sense should surface to the conscious mind to be dealt with one way or another, but instead is repressed. Since this psychic material contains insights or other stuff that would help your conscious mind, it becomes charged with "energy" that needs to find a way out, which leads to all kinds of "displacement." The most common form of displacement is projection, which has become fairly well-known these days, but basically, if a particular behavior or mannerism or belief really winds you up, there's a good chance that you refuse to acknowledge the place that behavior, mannerism, belief, or whatever is a part of your own self. This can go to some fairly nasty places, like projecting a negative trait onto someone else, and then using their guilt for that bad thing to justify doing some other bad thing - think of revenge fantasies or the wrathful violence of righteous anger and you're on the right track.

The Shadow Exists on a Personal to Archetypal Spectrum

Okay, so far so good. "The Shadow" is not just one thing, though. Jung distinguished between the "personal Shadow" and the "archetypal Shadow." The personal Shadow is everything that you, John Q. Random, do not accept about yourself and push down due to your very own rich and complicated life experience. Maybe your folks yelled at you whenever you were rude, and so now rudeness is part of your Shadow (and other rude people really piss you off - projection!). Or maybe you internalized one way or another ideas of care and compassion and you don't believe yourself to be "mean." Point is, there's variety from person to person here: one man's healthy assertiveness is another's horrifying and unacceptable aggression. The archetypal Shadow, on the other hand, is everything that humanity as a whole tends to reject as unacceptable to one degree or another - rage, hatred, selfishness, deceitfulness, lust, pride, and so forth. Obviously, your personal Shadow is going to overlap with the archetypal Shadow in certain particulars, but what makes the archetypal Shadow different is how it comes as something of a "package deal." Manifestations of the archetypal Shadow are what get called "villains" in stories - they lie, cheat, and steal for selfish, hateful ends. Typically, the more strongly you repress psychic material that overlaps with the archetypal Shadow, the more your Shadow displacement will draw on the strength and partake of the flavor of the archetypal Shadow. If you see your lust as a personal foible that causes you some trouble sometimes and you wish would leave you alone, your Shadow displacement will likely not be so strong, but if you view your lust as proof of your intractably evil, base nature, filthy, vile, and wicked, proof that you're fundamentally no good to begin with, well, your displacement is more likely to partake of what that wider-cast net brings in.

Anyhow, that's all pretty typical Jungian stuff you'll find in any book on the Shadow. Davis proposes a slight modification that I think is helpful and makes good sense. Rather than treating the personal Shadow and the archetypal Shadow as two distinct things, he puts forward treating them as two ends of a spectrum, with intermediate steps in between. Yeah, you have your own weird foibles, but everyone in your family might share hangups about politeness, and everyone in your Puritan culture has the same hangups about sex, and everyone in your country is a bit weird about unchosen bonds, and all of humanity is kind of weird about anger and lying. Not a super hard idea to come up with, and maybe others have talked about it, but this is where I found it, and I thought it was a good one, and I plan to incorporate it into my own thinking.

Autonomous Complexes are Like Mini-Personalities with Their Own Agenda

"Complexes" will again be familiar to anyone who has spent any time with Jung's thought - they are like "organs" of the psyche, sub-processes with a certain amount of separateness and coherence to them. In and of themselves, complexes are neutral - they can be healthy or unhealthy depending on what they do and what they're like. Davis highlights "autonomous complexes," which tend to be on the unhealthier side of things, because by definition they "do their own thing" separate from what the conscious mind wants or tries for. I am not sure if autonomous complexes are by definition Shadow phenomena, but I'm having trouble coming up with counter-examples. At any rate, it is specifically Shadow autonomous complexes that the book deals with and which we care about here. These are chunks of psychic processes and material that get repressed into the Shadow and then glom together into something with internal coherence and distinctness and proceed to steer thought and behavior, usually in subtle ways that the conscious Ego might not pick up on. Typically these autonomous complexes come about from either a traumatic experience or some kind of moral quandry where you want mutually incompatible things, especially if one of the things you want is prone to getting Shadow-boxed anyway: you really want to get into medical school, but you strongly doubt your capability, so do you cheat on the exam or not? You want to be an upstanding and honorable public servant, but you also want to take care of your family, so do you take the kickback? You want to be a loyal spouse, but you also really want to have sex with this beautiful stranger, so do you do it?

I was familiar with this idea, though I'm not sure I had the terminology "autonomous complex" before this, but the insight that I found most helpful was that these complexes tend to exert their control mostly through emotional means: feelings of fear, excitement, anger, or whatever else "nudge" you toward whatever behavior the complex thinks is the solution to the problem. One of the most dramatic and hardest-to-deal-with examples of an autonomous complex is an addiction. The sneaky thing about addictions is that they present to the conscious mind exactly the same as any other preference - you just "want" the thing. Even if you know that the thing you want would be harmful or dangerous, the autonomous complex can get very sneaky. The reason AA recommends "if you don't want to slip, don't go where it's slippery" is because the autonomous complex behind your addiction to drinking is very likely to convince you that the bar would be a wonderful, fun place to go, not to drink, of course, who said anything about drinking? Let's just go be around people and good cheer. Once there, though, a drink starts to sound like a better and better idea, and if any circumstance conspires to give you a "good" excuse, well, there ya go, you didn't decide to go get drunk, it just happened. From the outside, this sounds like obviously self-serving ridiculousness, but from the inside, it really does feel like that, because the part of the self driving you to go have that drink (or 7) operated on harder-to-be-conscious-of drives and impressions. So, once a behavior or cluster of behaviors is recognized, the trick becomes looking for what subtle feelings and impressions steer you toward those behaviors.

Eckhart Tolle's "Pain-Body" as Another Way of Thinking of the Shadow

I've heard some mixed things about Tolle, but some folks that I respect have found some useful stuff in his work, so I don't dismiss him outright. Here, Davis talks about a concept of Tolle's called the "pain-body," which Davis equates with the Shadow. I'm not so sure it's the same thing as the Shadow, but I've spent a lot less time and mental energy on this than he has, so maybe I'm mistaken. Anyhow, Tolle says that when we refuse to acknowledge or engage with negative feelings like pain, grief, anger, and so forth, we shove them down somewhere into our psyche/subtle body, and there they join up like the world's crappiest Voltron and form a semi-autonomous thing (so far, so consistent with autonomous Shadow complexes, though Tolle seems to group together all negative emotions, rather than those associated with particular triggering events). Well, since this pain-body is made up of negative emotion, it needs fresh infusions of such emotions to maintain itself, and it exerts an animal-like cunning to feed itself - this plays out as behaviors like picking fights, choosing crappy partners, indulging in addictions, and other things the point of which is to make you suffer, because suffering is what the pain-body is looking for. Tolle's answer for this is to practice mindfulness so that you can be aware of when this is happening, and then to consciously choose positive thoughts and feelings, so as to stop feeding the pain-body. Davis instead recommends the "emotional processing" technique (see below), which is a slight variation that strikes me as useful and more in keeping with Shadow psychology. Tolle's method seems like it would just lead to more ingenious and circuitous repression, as it still seems to fundamentally reject "negative" feeling as not appropriate and not truly a part of yourself, which is where these problems came from in the first place. I can't claim that I fully understand this concept, though, as I'm getting it second-hand via Davis (though he does quote Tolle extensively in the bit describing this), but it struck me as a potentially useful model for dealing with challenging stuff.

Evil is a Field, Network, or Infectious Phenomenon

This was a bit that I had to come back to and think about and where writing my thoughts out for my slipbox helped me get a better handle on what Davis was talking about (I think). So far, I've been fairly neutral in describing the kind of stuff that ends up in the Shadow, whether closer to the personal or archetypal end, but one of the reasons a lot of this stuff gets repressed is because it actually is bad - your lizard brain may want to kill and eat the guy that cut you off in traffic, but that would be bad for you, bad for society, and especially bad for that guy. So, it's not unhealthy to refrain from that behavior or even to consciously try to change how you feel about such things (was cutting you off really that bad?). What's unhealthy is when you deny that the anger you felt was there at all or a part of you. At any rate, this means that the Shadow is inextricably linked with evil, because things that are evil are very near the top of the list of what will get shoved into the Shadow by just about everyone, and they will be encouraged to do so by their societies. This means that the more archetypal end of the Shadow spectrum especially tends to be nearly synonymous with the concept of evil. Again, no one's arguing that lying, cheating, stealing, killing, and otherwise hurting others for your own ends is good, or that there's no reality to evil, just that denying your own capacity for evil is likely to go to some bad places. Jordan Peterson has done a lot to explore and talk about this.

Anyhow, that all sets us up for what I think is a fairly useful mental model that is less personally focused than most of what I was looking for from this book, but still helpful nonetheless. Davis argues that evil can best be understood as a "field or network phenomenon," and in other places he compares it to a contagious virus. The underlying idea for all of these is that evil exists "out there," but each individual also has a certain susceptibility to evil, and that these things interact. Evil is contagious in the sense that someone doing evil is likely to push others towards doing their own evil in return, but contagion is a helpful metaphor, because individuals also have a moral immune system - if some psycho murders the family of another psycho, you can expect the beginning of endless blood feud, but if he does it to the family of a saint, maybe that saint fill find a better way to respond to this evil act than creating more evil. The "field" bit didn't help me much, as that's not a mode of thinking I engage in much over here in humanities land, but the idea of radiation struck me: if you're exposed to enough radiation, you become radioactive and can put others at risk, but how much you're exposed to, what precautions you take, and so forth can affect that. The network metaphor emphasizes that the number of links to evil might be as important as the intensity of any one link - having one shady friend is less likely to push you towards as much evil as becoming a made man in the mob.

The link with the rest of the material in the book is that doing "Shadow work," getting to know your personal Shadow and finding ways to healthily access the energies in it that you need (without turning those energies in the unhealthy directions they're likely to go if they come out unconsciously) improves your moral immune system. If you recognize that sometimes you get angry, and one of the things that anger can lead to is a desire to do violence, you'll be a lot more on the lookout for the signs that you're heading that way, and whether your conscious mind accepts that violence might be necessary, or if de-escalating might be the better strategy. If you acknowledge that you are an incarnate being with a sex drive, you can either seek out a healthy sexual relationship or find somewhere else to put that energy and take the necessary steps to acknowledge that's what you're doing, rather than finding yourself turned on by and seeking out hidden, darker ways to gratify those impulses. Even still, you might have the best moral immune system possible, but you still shouldn't go around licking metaphorical door handles or using metaphorical dirty needles - some people, movements, behaviors, places, and so forth might overwhelm your carefully-cultivated relationship with your darker self and push you to do bad things. So learn to recognize and stay away from those things, and try not to be a node/carrier/emitter of evil yourself, as far as you can.

The "Golden Shadow" Is the Good Stuff You Won't Own

A quick aside on a concept that Davis mentioned and resonated with some of my own prior explorations in this space: the "Golden Shadow." We've been focusing on bad stuff as most of what goes into the Shadow, which is true as far as it goes - nobody wants to be "bad" and so everybody tends to repress bad things, so most of what ends up in the Shadow is, in fact, bad. On the other hand, for a variety of twisty reasons, folks can end up repressing good stuff too - maybe your family or your peers thought that creativity was a waste of time and so you shoved down your desire to make art. Or maybe you grew up in a culture that prizes conformity and you've squashed your desire to stand out and do great things. Davis calls these hidden potentials for genius your "Golden Shadow," as getting in touch with them can be more straightforwardly rewarding than working out how to redirect the bad stuff to productive ends. Of course, some stuff is a little bit on the border - aggression is something that does need to be controlled, but you need some of it to be effective, and you if you repress the aggression that you don't directly use, it will end up in the Shadow. So, if you've been repressing your aggression, some of it will be straightforwardly useful to introduce into your life (we call that "assertiveness"), but some of it will need to be channeled in less straightforward, non-repressive ways (see the exercises below).

Some Exercises to Get to Know and Healthily Deal with Your Shadow

Most of the advice I've encountered for engaging in Shadow work basically just says either "pay attention to your projections" or "do active imagination where you talk to your Shadow," which are both very helpful, and maybe all your really need, but I still have found myself wishing for more options, so I was glad to find some here. The list below is not exhaustive, but these are the ones that jumped out at me as most immediately useful to my circumstances, or where I found an insight I hadn't encountered before, so I took note of them. If none of these resonate with you, check out the book for a fuller list (seriously, a full 1/6 of the book is these practices).

Active Imagination

Okay, this one was mostly just mentioned in the book, as any Jungian you bump into on the street is going to tell you about active imagination. But just in case your streets are deficient in Jungians, I figured I'd give a very brief introduction to the idea, as it is super flexible and super useful. Active imagination is just what it sounds like: using your imagination in an active, directed way. The trick is not to be too directed, the way you would be if you were simply trying to come up with a story or work of art or something (though that process likely has messages from your unconscious embedded in it, we'll set that aside for now). The basic framework is to come up with some part of yourself you want to learn about/from and then find a way to engage with it imaginatively - let's use the Shadow as an example, since that's what this post is about. One of the most straightforward ways is to journal with questions to this part of yourself. So, for the Shadow, you might open up to a fresh page of your journal, and then write something like "Shadow, what's your deal? What do you want me to know?" (or something less casual or more directed, as seems appropriate to you), then just write down whatever comes to mind, no filtering, no editing. When you come to a break, ask another question, either prompted by what answer you got, or going in a new direction. If you've never done this, you might be surprised at what might come up just "talking to yourself" (the writing seems to help most people, myself included, get more of the "unexpected" answers than if you just sit and think to yourself). If you're more visually inclined, you might instead try to draw or paint something on a subject related to your Shadow - maybe a scene of anger or grief or lust or whatever. A progression of images can be especially useful here.

One more technique of active imagination is what occultists call "Scrying in the Spirit Vision." Here, you settle in like you're going to meditate, but then instead of focusing on a theme or your breath, you imagine yourself going places and talking to beings. If you undertake any kind of magical training, this will almost certainly be an important component, and it will include symbols to engage with, protections to keep out harmful spiritual influences, and so forth. If you try it, you might be surprised at some of the insights you get and/or the strength of some of the emotional reactions you have to some of what you encounter. At a minimum, I'd recommend you spend some time centering yourself before and after and say a prayer to whatever God(s) you worship to watch over you as you engage with this, especially for material as potentially icky as what's in your Shadow. After a scrying session, it's advisable to meditate on what you encountered for at least 3 sessions, more if you feel like you need it.

Examine Your Projections

The other bog-standard Shadow work technique is to pay attention to your projections, which I think I first learned from Jordan Peterson. As briefly discussed above, projection is where you have some quality that you repress, because it is inconsistent with your image of who you are or want to be, and then you become hyper-sensitive to its presence in others. I'll give a humorous example from my own life that is only minimally embarrassing compared to other stuff I could mention. I (mostly used to) find Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert infuriating. Oh, it's not that they aren't funny (or at least, used to be), I could tell when they were being clever and making awfully good jokes. Instead, what pissed me off was the smug way they assumed the utter self-evident obviousness of how correct their positions were, and how amusingly idiotic any disagreements with them must have been. Now, they don't piss me off as much as they used to, because I learned about projection and realized "oh, crap, I have a healthy dose of that self-satisfied smugness myself, but it's important to my self-image that I'm open-minded and fair," and I've worked to process those feelings and do more useful things with them than yelling at the TV.

Anyhow, one insight that Davis offered that may not have been totally new, but hadn't really registered with me before is to look not only at what behavior from others triggers strong negative feelings, but what people trigger those feelings. Sometimes, it's not specific people but "roles" or "types" - authority figures, cocky blowhards, wussy simps, sluts, prudes, politicians, whatever. In my example above, maybe something about Stewart and Colbert being comedians, or "news" providers, or cultural influencers, or some combination of the above had as much to do with setting me off as their specific political views and jokes. The point is that it might be less about the specific behavior and more about the archetypal energies being embodied. Very likely, if one kind of person regularly gets your goat, there's something about that kind of person that you have a complicated relationship to within yourself (the respect of authority figures, the confidence of the cocky, the admiration of the simp, the sexuality of the slut, the self-control of the prude, the power/influence of the politician, and so forth). Since I just read this book this week, I haven't had much opportunity to apply this one in my own life, but it strikes me as likely rather helpful (that Stewart/Colbert comparison above was "live" - I had thought of them as targets of Shadow projection before, but not in the context of their roles, just the stuff they said/did).

The "Open Focus" Technique

This is a meditative technique developed by Dr. Les Fehmi, who was a researcher into meditation and mindfulness at Princeton. I don't usually much truck with mindfulness meditation these days, but Davis described the "Open Focus" technique as especially good for the kind of physical relaxation that makes you more open to feeling and handling the kind of emotions that might come up in Shadow work, and learning to pay more attention to my body is definitely one fo the things on my self-development curriculum. The introductions I could find online were somewhat disappointingly brief, but this Medium article was concrete enough to give something to get started with, and I was pleasantly surprised by how strong of a reaction even a few minutes of messing around with it seemed to provide. The short version is that you go through the parts of your body one by one, as in progressive relaxation, but rather than physically tensing them or visualizing filling them with soothing energy or the like, you instead try to sense the part of your body as space, and to sense the space that it fills. Moving the part slightly and trying to pay attention to the space it moves through can be helpful. The concrete starting technique given in the linked article is to pay attention to your index finger and thumb, as your brain is wired to pay exquisite attention to those digits, including precisely where they are in space (which is why you can do stuff like catch a ball), so it's an easy on-ramp. Pay attention to those fingers on one hand, move them around, pay attention to the space between them, the space they move through, and try to feel them as a "volume" rather than as an "object." As I said, I found reading descriptions of this wholly unsatisfying, but when I tried it, it worked better than I expected. I haven't incorporated it into any sort of regular practice yet, but I might see about using it in place of/in addition to my regular progressive relaxation before discursive meditation.

The Emotional Processing Technique

This technique is straightforward enough that your initial reaction might be "well, duh," but actually doing it with intent is easier said than done, and it requires a certain amount of baseline self-awareness. You try to notice when you feel a strong emotion, especially a strong negative emotion, and then you give yourself some privacy where you won't be disturbed (your room, your car, whatever is handy), and you try to let yourself feel the feeling as fully as you can for as long as it wants to be felt, without engaging in some kind of displacing action, other than crying, which is not only fine, but often helpful. So, for example, you find yourself getting angry, excuse yourself to somewhere private, and then just feel that anger, but don't "let it out" through yelling, smashing your steering wheel, or whatever else. Just sit with it and feel it. Often, there will be some other emotion behind it, like grief or hurt or confusion, and once you've felt angry for a bit, you might start feeling that. If sadness of some kind is one of the feelings, let yourself cry, as hard as you need to, but again, try to avoid rending clothes or gnashing of teeth or other physical outbursts. It differs from the more common and arguably straightforward "venting" in this way. If when you find yourself feeling the strong feeling you're not in a situation where you can excuse yourself, you can come back to that feeling later, but the sooner the better. Ideally, you want to give yourself as much time as you need, but Davis says it typically won't take more than 15 minutes to an hour except for the strongest of emotional triggers. Again, I know this might sound obvious, but for some of us this can be hard, most of all for those feelings you are least inclined to own - if you're a happy, go lucky kind of guy, it might be really hard to not only acknowledge that you're sad, but to cry deeply for half an hour because of it, without shunting yourself into some kind of coping or practical behavior. I've tried this a couple of times in the past few days, and I've been surprised at the intensity of some of what has come up just by letting it.

Art as Shadow Work

Jung was a big fan of using art to explore the subconscious (most famously his whole deal with mandalas, which I'll admit, doesn't resonate much with me, but I haven't really tried it, so who knows). Art can be a good way to explore the Shadow as well. As I mentioned above, you can pick an image, a scene, or a progression of images that express some thought, feeling, or idea that feels especially "charged" to you, and chances are good that the act of working out how to depict it will put you in touch with parts of yourself that are less obvious or usually accessible. One idea that Davis mentioned, almost in passing, but struck me as possibly important is to not only depict the charged material statically, but its progression and in particular its resolution. What does/could this strong feeling lead to? How might it end? I don't think you have to consciously aim for turning bad stuff into good, but rather, follow up on any threads that feel like they're going somewhere. Maybe you feel vaguely uncomfortable about a situation in your life, so you start drawing it (or a symbol of it, or whatever), and then you feel compelled to draw something harsh, or even violent - go with that, maybe there's some anger there you're not acknowledging. After the harshness, though, what comes next? More violence? Grief? Desolation? You might not get to such things in one piece of art, and it may even take years for any art to lead to some kind of resolution, but I think knowing that "resolving" what the art depicts is a goal might be a helpful guidepost, at least one that's been missing from some of my own attempts to explore through art less pleasant stuff. Without that, it seems possible to end up wallowing in the negative without figuring out either why you repressed it or what healthy expression it might have.

One warning here for more generally creative types, though - from my own experience, it seems like some of this self-awareness might dissolve some of the energy behind the creative act. A quick example: I have a homebrew setting for D&D called Fellhold. I'd love to turn it into a finished product I can sell at some point, but I've been dragging my feet on it for an embarrassingly long time (though I have managed to run some games in it). There are some aspects of the world-building, like that all the Gods are dead, and the closest thing the city has to rulers are undead wizard kings, and the banks are run by literal demons who use souls the basis for currency, that were outgrowths of the grief and nihilism I was dealing with a few years ago. Now that I'm in a better place psychologically and spiritually, some of that stuff has a lot less "oomph" in pushing me to flesh it out (or "desiccated-skin it out" in the case of the Lich Kings).

Bonus: A Great Resource Section

As with the exercises, another great bit of this book is the "Resources" section at the end. I always appreciate a good further reading bit, most of all when the writer goes to the work of telling you why he's recommending the stuff in it, and Davis does that, with lots of further works on the topics hit on in the book with brief descriptions of what their relation to the topic is and what you might get from them. This is another thing that makes this book more helpful than its short page count might suggest.

Final Word: A Worthwhile Little Book on the Shadow

Overall, I found this book helpful, and if you're interested in Shadow work, you might as well. I was less interested in its ostensible purpose of connecting Shadow work with larger social and political questions (hence the "Red-Pilled Initiate" bit of the subtitle), but I didn't find that those detracted at all, and that is likely why the bit about evil as a network effect was included at all, which was a helpful concept. I'm thinking about getting Davis's prior book Shadow Tech: Cracking the Codes of Personal and Collective Darkness, since it seems to be more directly focused on personal work, but I'm also wondering if I got most of what I'd want out of that from Transforming Darkness. If you've read that one, I'd very much appreciate hearing your thoughts. Otherwise, let me know if you check this out and what you think of it.

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[Book] Paths to Immortality

Date: 2024-May-19

I've done this one a bit out of order with my review of The Rebirth, which was written by a student of Johann Baptist Krebs, the writer of Paths to Immortality. Where Kolb's vibe was that of the enthusiastic convert who just can't believe everyone hasn't seen the light that has been shared with him, Krebs comes across as a bit more mellow - more like the quiet insistence of the mystic who is utterly sure of the worth of what he has to offer, but knows and accepts that most folks just won't get it, and it's sad, but what can you do? In some ways, this made Paths to Immortality slightly less fun to read than The Rebirth, but on the other hand, Krebs was clearly the more talented writer and storyteller (he sang in and directed operas for a living, after all), and more of Paths is presented in a narrative form that makes for quick, ready reading, so in that sense, it's the more pleasurable read. What teacher and student share, however, is an aversion to giving much in the way of detailed practical instruction in writing. As I mentioned last time, this was fairly common at the time, when the writings of esotericists and occultists were more advertisements to whet the appetite, while the "good stuff" was held back for in-person initiates who passed various "flake filters."

So, in other words, as the translator of the work KA Nitz suggested in a comment on the dreamwidth thread for the last post, I'm not getting the clarity on practical application I was hoping for after reading Kolb's book. Oh sure, there's more on how to approach this path to spirituality, but much of it is allusive, implied, or just vague. Oh well, there was still some interesting stuff here, and the overall feeling or 19th century German Letter Mysticism is becoming clearer to me, which may yet help give me some insights into "Rune Yoga" and the like.

Oh, and before we get too much into the book and what's in it, I should say that I received this book in the same package so open-handedly sent by Nitz as The Rebirth (and The Puzzle of Humanity by Carl du Prel, but that's apparently from a slightly different tradition) - as such, I am almost certainly better disposed to it than I would be otherwise, so take these thoughts with as much salt as seems appropriate to you under those circumstances.

With all that out of the way, let's talk about the book itself. As I said, Krebs was (among other things) someone who put on operas, so he had a feel for stories, and it is by stories that he chooses to get most of what he has to say across. The last chapter is a handy "Overview" that spells out what the stories throughout were doing, which I read first, and I think that was the right call, as otherwise, I might have been like "what are you getting at with these stories?" and not heeded some of the subtler points being made. Still, by the end, I felt a little bad for this approach, as the whole reason the book is mostly stories is the contention that analytical, skeptical thought has overwhelmed our age (if so in 1855, I shudder to think what Krebs would say about 2024), and that the inner spirit cannot be reached by thinking your way to it, instead you must feel. In this, I see echoes of the best of The German Soul, in the same vein as all of the glories and embarrassments of the Romantic movement. As with his student Kolb, Krebs holds that the true goal of spiritual work is to get in touch with the spirit, which is at once universal (one might even say pantheistic, at least if one's last name were Kvilhaug), and yet also deeply personal and felt within somewhere that is not the "mind." You get a few hints throughout as to the shape of a course of study meant to help you get in touch with your/the spirit, and I might take a look at these in more depth at some point, but right now, I've got a good track to follow in John Michael Greer's works as it is.

Instead, though, what I found most compelling about this book was the way it grappled with overcoming skepticism. The main narrative of the book (though it is itself something of a frame story, with the protagonist spending a few chapters reading other stories that are presented to us, the readers) concerns an accomplished and cosmopolitan lawyer with all of the best learning and an intellectual interest in spiritual matters, but no feeling of their weight or truth, finding it impossible to take them seriously. Too bad that's not a relevant character for our own time. Oh wait, all of Western intelligentsia has been grappling with this very thing for a long time. So, even though the goal of the spiritual path presented here may differ from mine, and the tools suggested to walk it might not be those I use, the fact that this deals squarely with the path from "that stuff sounds great, but I can't buy it" to "I've had some experiences I have trouble explaining, and doing this stuff seems worthwhile, but am I just faffing about?" to "aaggghh, nothing is real, everything is shit!" to "wow, it's all so simple, how could I have doubted?" is a trajectory of great interest to me, and I suspect to many other seekers these days. So, what path does our bourgeois lawyer take on the advice of his spiritually accomplished friend? Perhaps unsurprisingly to anyone who has started his own spiritual work, in a nutshell, his path involves reading and thinking about stories that stir the feelings and grab the imagination, undertaking daily exercises that don't seem to do much on their own but require discipline to stick with, and being guided to experiences that are weird and unlooked-for enough to chip away at the certainties of his starting worldview. I say this may sound familiar, because as I was breaking it down, I realized "whoah, this is exactly what the schools of magical/spiritual practice I know about have you do." One thing that's interesting about this particular rendition of that path, though, is that each of the handful of stories given meant to stir the feelings and grab the imagination is also a tale of spiritual initiation, but each differs in the exact means by which its protagonist comes to an awakened inner life. All at once, we are shown "different strokes for different folks," a triangulation of what is in common between what these different folks found differently, very different feelings stirred about things that have "spirituality" in common, and raw material for rumination and meditation, if you want it. Not a bad trick.

Anyhow, I found this short book more interesting and helpful than I expected, but not at all in the way I thought it would be, so I feel a blend of disappointment and gladness - I didn't get the hands-on, easy-to-translate-to-runes rundown of letter mysticism practice I might have been looking for, but instead I found a surprisingly insightful walk through the journey from materialist skeptic to confident believer. So, if that sounds like something you might also find helpful, do please head over to the store to pick up a copy!

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Three Drinks Prayer

Date: 2024-May-12

I'm trying to put together a prayer to Woden for the Heathen Rosary, but I've been struggling a bit, so I decided to just put something together with what I had so far to loosen up a bit. Below is what I came up with. I don't see the final poem in my Rosary having much resemblance to this one, other than the format of three stanzas of three Anglo-Saxon long lines, but I'd still welcome any thoughts you might have on this one.

One drink from death, daringly gotten through
Lying three nights with lovely maiden,
Winning songcraft for worthy talespinners.

One mead from memory, meetly gained by
Fearlessly plucking plighted eye,
Earning mind-stock for open-hearted thinkers.

One draft from doom, dearly bought with
Three times three nights thirsting upon the Tree,
Winning Runestaves for rede-fast wizards.

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[Book] The Rebirth

Date: 2024-May-01

Fellow Ecosophia regular k_a_nitz was kind enough to send me a few translations of 18th-19th century German and Czech occult works, and I promised I would write up my thoughts when I read them. The first book I took on was The Rebirth by Karl Kolb, but I now realize I maybe ought to have started with Paths to Immortality by Johann Baptist Krebs, as Kolb was a student of Krebs's, and this work is clearly building on his teacher's thinking. I'll likely be reading that and sharing my thoughts on it next, as Kolb's little book intrigued me. If any of what I say about it below strikes you as interesting, please head to the store and pick up a copy!

The Thought at the Heart of the Book - Letter Mysticism

The big thought that gives life to the whole work is that of "thinking letters into your body," which Kolb seems to have learned from Krebs. I'll get more into how Kolb justifies this and what benefits he claims, but what was striking to me was that this seems to be the whole thing when it comes to "practical exercise recommended by the book." Specifically, Kolb asks, nay, implores you to "think the letters into your feet," by which he seems to mean something like hearing the sound the letters make in your mind's ear (in German, naturally, as the only tongue fully suited to teaching the world this holy and transformative secret) while trying to put your consciousness "in your feet." I use scare quotes here because I've read about (and tried) several exercises that tell you to put your consciousness "in" this or that part of your body, and this is something I find very hard to do, and I'm not totally sure what folks even mean when they say it. I suspect this is yet another case of my poor proprioception/somatization getting in the way of things that are perfectly straightforward and obvious to others. As I said, though, this seems to be the whole secret - spend as much time as you can (either while you work, or for a dedicated hour a day, if you do work that involves words or counting) "thinking the letters into your feet," and then let whatever happens to unfold from that happen. But don't worry - to do it right, you only need to start when you are seven years old and keep at it for thirty years straight to see the benefits! Now, yes, I'm being a bit unkind here, but if I set aside the snark, I have to admire the purity of the recommendation - Kolb has his one weird trick, and he wants you to understand how much good it could do you, and he really wants you to get practicing. In fact, almost all of the book is grounding why he believes this works and what good might come of it. He spends literally only a sentence or three on explaining how to do it.

Why I Wanted to Learn About Letter Mysticism - Runes are Letters!

So, why am I reading the occult advice of obscure 19th century German Freemasons? Well, as you likely know if you're reading this, I'm rather interested in the Germanish Runes. In the late 19th and early 20th century, the Runes underwent one of their revivals (I say "one of," since depending on how you want to count, you might consider the early modern work of the Dane Ole Worm the first Rune revival). Guido List was a major figure in this romantic revival, who created/adapted the "Armanen" Runes after an 11 month period of blindness and the visions he reported having during it. List and his Armanen framework were then a likely major influence on Edred Thorsson, who is arguably the most influential figure in the latest revival of interest in the Runes in the late 20th-early 21st centuries. So what does all this have to do with Kolb? Well, one of the practices of the Armanen Rune folks was "Runic Yoga," where you bent your body into the shape of the Runes, along with practices like singing the sound the Rune represents, visualizing it, and so forth. All of these practices look suspiciously like some of the "Letter Mysticism" practices of Krebs and his followers, which happen to have been in the same country and language as the Armanen revival a generation earlier or so. In other words, it looks rather likely that the earlier Christian letter mystics influenced the Romantic Wotanists that came after them, and KA pointed out that I might find it interesting to look into this likely influence, and so far, I have!

Crazy, Brilliant, or Both? I'm Not Sure

So, if you haven't gathered from the cast of my words above, Kolb comes across as… enthusiastic. I, of course, can't say how much of this was in the original German and how much is imparted by the translation, but it seems pretty baked into what he's saying. It reminds me of a man I met the other week. We were at a birthday party for one of my daughter's friends at a splash pad at a public park. An older Vietnamese gentleman walked up to me and asked if I was a parent. I figured he was one of the other kids' grandfathers and said "yes." Well, instead, he very much wanted to impress upon me the need to support a 28th amendment to the United States Constitution spelling out certain educational reforms that he proceeded to give in painstaking detail. Though it was a bit hard to tell through his accent and over the shrieks of kids running through fountains, it didn't seem like anything he was recommending was nuts - sure, reasonable folks might differ on whether it's the right policy or not, or whether it should be enacted at the federal level or not, but none of it was stuff that I'd be shocked to hear someone saying would improve educational outcomes. And yet, it was obvious that this guy was not normal - he was accosting strangers at a park about this. He had a pitch. He was determined to ignore my panicky looking this way and that for an excuse to exit the conversation (which my daughter eventually provided). There was a fixedness in his affect that was off-putting. Given all of this, it was surprising that what he was actually saying seemed to be fairly reasonable. Usually this whole behavioral package comes with more out-there claims - underground mind-control devices, secret messages in the order of advertisements aired, that sort of thing.

As I said, Kolb reminds me of this guy, and I don't think it's just because of recency (though, as I said, this just happened, so maybe). Now, the actual content of what he's espousing is easier to dismiss as coming from la-la land if you don't share his spiritual presuppositions (this work is Christian, if a very idiosyncratic flavor of Christianity), but as I said above, what he's actually asking you to do is to adopt a fairly straightforward and unstrenuous spiritual practice and give it some time to see if it enriches you spiritually. That's not so unreasonable. Instead, it's his conviction that this is the only way to salvation, that the benefits are tremendous, the costs of missing out catastrophic, and that so much scripture must actually mean do this practice (rather than what centuries of interpreters have thought it meant) that comes across as a little nutty.

The main reason I wanted to bring this up is because I've spent enough time with alternative spirituality at this point that I've developed a much more nuanced relationship with my "this guy's nuts" reaction than I had as a materialist. I now accept a lot of propositions about the world as likely true that I used to think were patently false. There are folks and even specific arguments that I used to dismiss as clearly out of touch with reality that I now take seriously. That experience has taught me to be suspicious of an initial reaction to someone or something as "clearly nuts." Of course, some folks and arguments are, in fact, nuts. I've just come to have much lower confidence in my initial assessment, and this book brought that to the fore again through a combination of Kolb's enthusiasm and the actual content of what he's putting forward being so outside of my own religious worldview. The response I've learned for such things is something like "don't knock it till you try it," at least if "trying it" doesn't have some other strong reason against it. The trouble with Kolb's approach is that "trying it" to his specifications is rather steep - an hour a day for 30 years! On the one hand, okay, maybe that's truly what it takes to reach the kind of enlightenment he's pitching - sometimes specific result require specific, hard practice. On the other, that's a steep enough cost for the direct method of "try it and see" that you get right back into territory where you have to rely on some heuristics to decide whether or not to start this course of practice.

What I Found Useful for My Own Ends

So, spoiler alert, reading this book did not convince me that I should take up letter mysticism as presented, and if Kolb is right, I've made a very costly mistake, as he says that is the only way for Christian resurrection and heavenly life (hence the title). That being said, I did find a number of interesting ideas that I'd like to follow up on more, starting by going back to his teacher and reading Krebs's book to see if there are other interesting threads to follow. I'll share the others that grabbed me in roughly the order I wrote them down.

First, Kolb has a lovely metaphor to describe his conception of the relationship of spirit, ego, and body. He sees "spirit" as basically identical with God, and God in fairly Platonic terms - indivisible, immeasurable, the ultimate uncaused cause of all things, and so forth. Anyway, he sees the "ego," which I think he uses to mean the entire consciously felt sense of self, rather than the narrower meaning assigned by later thinkers like Freud, as arising from spirit interacting with the body. The metaphor he uses is that the body is like a recorder (the musical instrument), the spirit is like breath, and the ego is like the music that is produced. I would likely introduce some layers between the ultimate uncaused cause and whatever it is "playing" my body to produce my current personality, but I liked the musical metaphor quite a bit.

Kolb spends some time breaking down why things traditionally seen as important, or even essential, to religious practice and success are instead merely helpful, like morals and prayer. His argument is that living morally and praying can help to make you more receptive to the awakening of inner life that is the true goal of religion, but that they won't get you there by themselves.

The entire premise of letter mysticism is that words are somehow intrinsic to thought, which is identical to, or at least importantly similar to, the power of God, and so letters are quite literally the fundamental building blocks of divine power. That makes them the appropriate target of contemplation for coming to feel and understand the divine. This is fascinating! On the one hand, it's childishly simple to dismiss: letters are arbitrary symbols for the sounds of particular languages, which are themselves merely systems of arbitrary symbols useful for abstracting experience to a level that it can be conveniently conveyed to others, and furthermore are culturally and historically contingent, and besides, lots of cognition isn't mediated by words at all. On the other hand, the idea that the Word is somehow importantly linked to the higher/deeper truths of the cosmos pops up in more than one spiritual tradition and is certainly important to Kolb's (he takes discussions of the Logos rather literally, as you might expect). And on the gripping hand, for anyone who speaks a language, that language is an important facet of his consciousness, and focusing on its constituent parts might be a potent tool for manipulating said consciousness, which is, after all, the entire work of the mage. There's a lot of good food for bethinking here.

As I mentioned above, the main exercise advocated here is to stand up, think the sounds of the letters (aside: it seems that by "letters," Kolb might have meant something more like "the phonemes represented by the letters") and try to put your consciousness into your feet while you do so. If, in the process of doing this, you start noticing things rising up through your body, so much the better, but keep the focus on your feet. If you can more readily "place" your consciousness than I can, you might find this a more congenial exercise, but the bones of it seem simple enough, and might be reasonably adapted to another set of auditory symbols (like the Runes).

Another thing I liked in this book was his general attitude that the path to spiritual progress is not cleverness or deep learning, but rather doing the work - in this case, thinking letters into your feet, but it seems rather likely the lesson applies whatever the spiritual work might be. Paired with this is a general focus on receptivity, with the spiritual work being a tool of increasing receptivity. I've encountered this idea enough lately that I suspect synchronicity is drawing my attention to something I need to heed more. One example of how this pairs up with the earlier metaphor of spirit interacting with the body to produce the ego: Kolb sees "thinking" as asking questions and listening for what the spirit says in response. Good thinking, then, involves 1. being open enough to hear the spirit's answer, and 2. posing the right questions and going on asking new, different questions until you have heard everything your spirit has to offer. I rather like that.

Altogether, this book had rather a few good nuggets of insight or practical wisdom wrapped up in propositions I don't necessarily buy, delivered with an enthusiasm that could be off-putting if you didn't sense the author's sincere wish for the best for you. Very likely not for everyone, but if you're looking for some quirky takes on how to pursue the spiritual life, and especially if you would like some non-standard interpretation of Gospel verses (I didn't get much into that, since it's not especially interesting for me), you just might like it.

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On Spiritual Dryness

Date: 2024-April-21

If you read anything by or about serious spiritual practitioners beyond the very basics, you'll run into the idea of "spiritual dryness," though it sometimes comes under different names. In case you are not familiar, the basic idea is that sometimes you don't get the same positive feedback from spiritual practice that you usually do, and sometimes this lack of positive feedback can last for some time (in my He Is Frenzy, Krasskova talks about a particularly dry spell lasting over a year). I have had my bouts of such dryness, but lately I've had a particularly strong one, and I thought it would help me settle my own thinking to share a bit of what it's been like, and just might help someone else get through their own such time.

First off, what the heck am I even talking about? Talking about things like "spiritual dryness" almost always comes across as nearly purely metaphorical, and it can sound awfully vague from the outside. Some of this is inescapable: spiritual experience is subjective by its nature, and the lack of satisfaction with such experience is a subjective judgment of a subjective experience! Another challenge is that the kind of experience a Brother Lawrence or Saint Teresa might consider "dry" could just be "what it feels like when I try to pray" to a beginner - even noticing that spiritual practice is "working" takes some amount of spiritual development and perception, so the lack is both more readily noticed and more keenly felt by the experienced than the novice. Further, periods of dryness seem to come on kind of gradually. You have an off meditation here, a distracted prayer there, a lack of relief after a ritual the next day, and before you know it, you're like "what am I even doing here? Am I just talking to myself?"

So, having laid out some of the hardships in pinning it down, let's take a stab at describing spiritual dryness anyhow. The short version is that it is the lack of whatever it is you usually get out of your spiritual practice. Sounds straightforward enough, but what kind of lack are we talking about here? For one thing, "what you get" out of your spiritual practice is unlikely to be uniform. I felt very differently in my first experience of the presence of a Goddess than I feel during most daily prayers. Some bethinking (meditation) sessions bring startling clarity to a concept I've been wrestling with, while others bring vivid, but hard-to-describe imagery to my mind's eye, and still others leave me with an emotional and physical sensation that is hard to describe, but which lacks much in the way of conceptual or imaginal content. All of these felt like "successful" bethinking practice, even at the high end of what I'm hoping to get, and yet were rather unalike. Most days are more ambiguous: I feel distracted while meditating or doing my banishing ritual, there's not much immediate feedback, and yet afterward, sure enough, I feel better and can handle hardship more readily, so apparently I got something.

I was purposely vague about what it is that's lacking in a state of dryness because it is fleeting, changeful, and hard to put into words. The best I can get to, at least for myself, is that when my spiritual practices are "working," and I am not experiencing dryness, I feel a certain amount of comfort and calm - I may not get what I want, but in some sense, whatever's happening is what I need. I feel some meaning and purpose, even if I can't really say exactly what they are. Phenomenologically, what I tend to experience, when prayer/meditation/ritual go right is some combination of imagery consistent with the iconography of my Gods, a "tingly" feeling in parts of my body (usually my heart/upper chest), and an intellectual/mental sense of questions answered and uncertainty lessened. Sometimes this can be more obvious, like I ask a question and I get a whispy mental image of the God I'm asking saying "no," but other times it can be more cryptic, like thinking about something I saw earlier in the day and having it undertake a symbolic action in my mind's eye while feeling tingly all over my chest. I tend to notice physical feelings more strongly during rituals and mental impressions more during prayer, with bethinking falling somewhere in between, varying somewhat depending on what I'm thinking about.

So, dryness is the lack of all or most of this stuff. I pray and feel just as uncertain about the questions I asked. I do a ritual and feel like I'm just waving my arms around and walking in circles by myself. I do a Runecasting and all I see are disconnected symbols with surface-level meanings, no synthesis or insight. Sometimes only in one of these areas, and sometimes briefly, but other times most or all of them, and sometimes for a while. Lately, it's been fairly across the board, but perhaps most strongly affecting my prayer and the feelings of reassurance I've come to rely on for answering tough questions and making hard decisions. I've been facing some big challenges and trying to work out what to do about them (sorry to vaguepost, but Levi's fourth virtue and all that), and prayer has not been as much help as I would have liked or had come to expect.

And I think that right there might be why devout folks experience spiritual dryness - it is an antidote to complacency. It forces you to figure out if you only do these things because of whatever feelings or assurances they give you, or if you really mean it. It makes you realize what you've come to take for granted. It forces you to confront whatever the comfort of your God(s) has allowed you to set aside or ease through. In other words, for me at least, spiritual dryness seems best approached as a test - a chance to really find out what you believe and how seriously you take it. Because if you have to be positively reinforced every time, maybe you're not really that committed.

So, though it (thankfully!) seems to be starting to pass, I'm treating this period of dryness as a time to learn more about myself, my faith, and what it really means to me, and writing this post has been a further exercise in that. If (when) you find yourself facing something similar, I hope you'll accept my best wishes for finding your way through, and finding the lessons hidden within the hardship.

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[Book] He Is Frenzy

Date: 2024-March-19

I found He Is Frenzy by Galina Krasskova challenging.

First off, I've spoken with Ms. Krasskova online, and she's been lovely in all of our interactions. So, though this should go with out saying, since we're on the internet, I will say it anyhow: anything critical about the book is not meant as an attack on her. Such a warning might be more warranted here than usual, since He Is Frenzy is a deeply personal book. Krasskova shares some of her most challenging interactions with an already challenging God, and so it would be even easier than usual to take what I say as being about her - so let's set all that aside, shall we?

As I said, this book challenged me. It did so in many ways, but there were two main ones: 1. Krasskova is a woman and her relationship with Odin includes erotic elements, and 2. Krasskova spends much of the book describing and relating back to ordeals. For the first point, obviously there's nothing wrong with that, it's just very different from how I relate to Odin, and at times, I found it a touch uncomfortable - you know, like finding boudoir photos your mom had done for your dad or something. Something you can understand, even respect and appreciate, but not relate to directly or enjoy.

The second one takes a bit more unpacking. Ordeals are found in religions around the world and throughout time, whether shamanic illness, sweat lodges, hair shirts, fasting, or any of the other ways folks have subjected themselves to suffering of some kind to get their minds and/or souls to a very different place. While we don't have much in the way of historical attestation for what the elder heathens did, Odin gives one hell of a mythological model for ordeal in more than one tale, but most famously in hanging upon Yggdrasil, given to Himself by Himself. So, Krasskova's use of ordeal for spiritual work, especially Odinic spiritual work, makes perfect sense, but at times, I found it hard to read about.

I suspect this is mostly just squeamishness. One wellspring of which is that I seem to be more inclined to what William James called in his Varieties of Religious Experience the "healthy-minded" flavor of religious experience. Fasting, exposure, facing harsh emotional truths - none of these bother me (and all of which Krasskova describes in some of her ordeals). For me, it's when it comes to damaging the body that I start to feel "ick" - cutting or branding religious marks, whips, barbs, hooks, and so forth. They just make me go "yeesh." I don't know if there's anything deeper here than your garden variety human fear of hurt, but I also don't know if it's only that. I'm not all that sensitive to damage in the course of going about your business. I once walked until I broke my feet and then kept walking a few more days and many more miles. I've shrugged off various cuts, scrapes, and other injuries due to varying levels of stupidity and carelessness with blades, flame, and other risky tools. So, I don't think it's the injury/damage per se that bugs me. I think it's doing it on purpose. Accepting that an activity might hurt you, maybe even will hurt you, is one thing, but deciding to hurt yourself is another. At the extreme end, I think of the difference between volunteering for a mission that will almost certainly end in your death versus actively killing yourself. These things feel at least aesthetically different to me, and maybe even morally and spiritually different too.

All that being said, I have to admit that ordeal seems rather fitting for the book's subject matter. Odin is, after all, the God of pushing boundaries, paying costs, and breaking laws, all for knowledge. So, who am I to say it is wrong to come closer to Him by breaking taboos and pushing limits and doing things most of us balk at? That's why I described the book as challenging rather than something I have a problem with. If nothing else, forcing me to think about these approaches and why some folks might find them helpful has been worthwhile. Am I going to go get myself whipped and have bindrunes carved in my flesh? It doesn't seem likely, and certainly not any time soon! That doesn't seem to be where my path is taking me. But thinking through what that might mean and why some would seek it out can certainly do me some good.

So, should you read this book? Likely only if you have a particular devotion to Odin. The book is very much focused on worship, praise, and devotional acts, and very little on mythology, history, or archaeology. So it doesn't have much to offer folks interested in Odin in a non-devotional sense. Also, since it is so very focused on the kinds of devotion suitable to this often harsh God, it also might not be all that helpful for worshipers of other Gods looking for ideas. If you do worship Odin, though, there is much here to enrich your understanding and perception of your God, even if it comes filtered through Krasskova's idiosyncratic take and relationship with Him (or maybe that is precisely what makes it most useful to other worshipers!). I know that I'll be thinking about her experiences and descriptions for a long time to come, and for that, I'm thankful.

As I said, challenging, but what better thing for a book on Odin to be?

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Further Thoughts on Religious Authenticity

Date: 2024-March-03

Over on the last Magic Monday AMA hosted by John Michael Greer, a friendly online acquaintance asked some questions about how to go about worshiping Gods from past cultures without being a part of those cultures, and the common thread running between them that I picked up was "how do I do this without being fake?" I replied briefly in the linked thread, but I've been thinking about it some over the past week, and I'd like to share some slightly more developed thoughts, but I'd put this post firmly in the "thinking things through" category, so please take it in the spirit it's offered.

The Problem - Broken Traditions

So, first off, let's try to elaborate a little on what the challenge is. For most humans, in most times, "religion" wasn't really a thing. Your folk had beliefs and practices about the Gods, and that's just the way things were. It was only when cultures started bumping into each other and seeing that they did these things differently that the idea of "religion" as a category got hashed out, and only in fairly cosmopolitan cultures, like the Roman empire or today's West, that the idea of choosing your religion based on what seemed best to you was even remotely conceivable. So, the default for religious practice and belief is to learn what your folks and everyone around you does bit-by-bit, mostly absorbing it by osmosis as you celebrate holy days, bless your food before eating, and get told bedtime stories.

Today, though, we live in a very different world. Sure, many of us take on the religion of our fathers and mothers, and many of us find that wholly satisfying. On the other hand, if you are someone living today whose experiences draw you to the belief that there are many Gods, your options for worship are somewhat limited, and all have their issues. The only living polytheistic traditions still around are, unsurprisingly, deeply embedded within the cultures in which they grew. If you want to become a practicing Hindu and didn't grow up as one, that comes with a lot of cultural assumptions that you can pretty much only get by going and living in India for a while (I dunno, maybe living with a Hindu family in another country might do it too - I haven't tried). If you are instead drawn to the polytheistic beliefs of cultures that have since become Christian, you have a similar, but even more severe problem: those beliefs are also deeply embedded in their home cultures, but you can't go live in them, because they are either gone or transformed utterly (I was in Stockholm a couple months ago, and it wasn't exactly full of Vikings). All of which means, if you choose to worship multiple Gods from a culture without a living tradition of doing so, you're going to have to make some decisions, and almost certainly, you're going to have to make some stuff up/work things out by experimentation. So, how do you go about that without just playing pretend?

Personal Authenticity against Traditional Authenticity

First off, this discussion brought up a distinction I didn't make in my earlier thoughts on authenticity between what we might call "personal" and "traditional" authenticity. Traditional authenticity is what I talked about in that post: does a tradition, belief, or practice come from where it says it does, and does that source have legitimacy. Personal authenticity is more like "to thine own self be true" - are your outer actions and statements consistent with your inner beliefs and perceptions. Almost by definition, if you're the kind of person who is seeking out an alternative spiritual practice, you're likely concerned with personal authenticity - if your inner experiences didn't conflict with what was obvious and readily available, you wouldn't be looking for something else. So, how does it affect building a modern spiritual practice?

Well, first off, I can only really speak for myself here, and I am, of course, still pretty new to this - I've only been worshiping seriously for about three years, maybe six if you count my earlier "it's all archetypes" experience. All of which is to say, salt the following appropriately. First off, my own practice greatly favors gnosis over either episteme or doxa. That's pretty heavily weighted toward personal authenticity already. Partly this is because I am almost perversely individualistic, but it's also part of how I deal with the problem of broken traditions laid out above. While it might be wonderful to have grown up in a culture with a strong and intact religious tradition that recognizes the power and beauty of the land, the many spirits that seem to inhabit it, and distinctly different divine presences, I didn't. So, since my own gnosis suggests that these things are religiously significant, I have to find something that embraces them.

Other than my own explicitly religious experiences, I have found one of my chief guides to be an aesthetic sense. Long before I was lighting candles and offering ale to the Germanish Gods, I found their stories extremely compelling. I couldn't really tell you why, they just grabbed me far more than the Greek and Roman myths of the Classics I studied in college (much as I love them, they never resonated the same). So, when I decided to give serious worship a try, the choice was obvious. Having grounded myself in what little we have of that religious tradition, certain things associated with it have also seemed aesthetically consistent - decorative knotwork for religious items, following Germanish rules for poetry in today's English, using as many words as I can that come from Germanish roots rather than Latin or Greek, that kind of thing. For this stuff, I don't have any kind of "logical" or authority-based argument - I don't go "if you read this verse of Voluspa, it clearly implies religious garb must have knotwork!" Sometimes, we have clues in the lore or historical record, but often, the best I can really do is "this feels right." Of course, I try to check such feelings with prayer and divination, and if I try something for awhile and it doesn't work, I change it up, but truly, "is it beautiful/interesting/compelling?" is often the best guide I have.

On the other hand, for some reasons I'll go into more below, I also don't come at things as a complete choose-your-own-adventure smorgasbord, the way some "eclectic neopagans" might. As a polytheist, I have no problem believing that the Gods from every culture are real and that worship of them is appropriate. On the other hand, specific pantheons have a certain coherence to them, their own "flavor" if that's not skirting too close to blasphemy. The view of the world embodied in the Germanish Gods and their myths is not the same as that of the Greeks, and those two are more alike than either is to that of the Chinese. At least for me, there is worth in mostly sticking to a single "religious idiom," rather than treating every God, myth, or practice as a potential component of my Rube Goldberg religion. Now, sure, I do use Revival Druidry as a framework for much of my practice and religious philosophy, and I have established some relationships with Gods and spirits that seem not to present themselves in the Germanish idiom, but mostly, when faced with a specific religious challenge or question, I first look to heathen lore, Gods, and practices, and that consistency gives a worthwhile counterweight to my individualist, eclectic tendencies.

Organic against Artificial

I touched on this thread a bit in my thoughts on Stories of the Rose, but another source of tension in solving the problem of broken traditions is the robustness of organically evolved tradition versus the fragility of newly-made-up practices. No matter how careful you are, no matter how sensitive to spiritual matters, no matter how skilled at the relevant crafts, any prayer or ritual you make up just plain doesn't have hundreds or thousands of years and thousands or millions of practitioners working out the kinks and tweaking it until it really works. I gather from more experienced folks that someone with well-developed spiritual senses can come up with things that work a lot more reliably than someone who simply understands things intellectually, but even there, most "new" rituals or prayers draw heavily from things that have come before, because those things have a proven track record. To a degree, this gets into wider questions about rationality against experience, left brain against right brain, and legibility against procedural knowledge - all things I want to dive into more, but mostly out of scope for this post. The main point is just that nothing newly made up will have the same richness, depth, and track record of working as something that has been done by lots of people for a long time.

For me, this is the single best argument in favor of stricter reconstructionist approaches to ancient polytheistic practice. If you're not familiar, strict reconstructionists (usually if someone says they are "a reconstructionist" they mean they're pretty strict about it - I introduce the qualifier because I think the practice can be helpful, but shouldn't be pursued to excess) do everything they can to learn about how rituals and other practices were done in historical times, and then try to recreate them as precisely as possible. At it's extreme, this results in things like the Theodish dressing in period-accurate clothing, combing ancient texts and the latest archaeology for clues on how to perform rituals, and then speaking those rituals in Old English. The logic goes something like this: "our forebears had a living, intact tradition that we do not, so we should try to get back to that tradition as much as we can." Which is pretty compelling, as far as it goes, but obviously I don't find it quite as convincing as the good men and women of Ealdrice Theod and their ilk. While it's true that those practices were part of a whole, organic culture with a long background, they were part of a very different whole, organic culture from the one we find ourselves living in. Now, when it comes to Germanish belief (and, arguably, to some extent to Greek or Roman), you might say that we still have the same cultural DNA, and so it's not wholly outlandish, but as they say, the past is a foreign country, and our forebears lived very different lives than we do. Back then, sacrificing a pig or a cow was how you ate meat, not an occasional performance. If they spoke their rituals in Old English, they spoke in their mother tongue, with full and deep understanding of the meaning and nuance of every word. In other words, even if you get every single detail right, you're still not doing the same ritual in the same way - because you are not the same.

Which leaves us with the conundrum we stated up top: I have no organic tradition to practice, and yet I must practice. So, we have to be a bit artificial, by which I more mean "of artifice/conscious craft" than "fake" - we have to consciously make things the best we can, see how they work for us, and slowly, bit by bit, compare notes with other practitioners and see what works. Maybe one day, hundreds of years from now, there will be an organic, authentic heathenry (or whatever else) that the folk of North America practice unselfconsciously in the manner of their forebears. But we're not there yet, so in the meantime, if we want to honor the Gods and come to know them, we have to accept a bit of artificiality. For my part, I try to use the traditions of the past as a source of inspiration and guidance, an example of "this works/worked" so that I have a good starting point from which to craft my own idiosyncratic stuff. See my whole Heathen Rosary undertaking, for one example. Still, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't sometimes jealous of the deep, organic traditions of practice that Hindus, Shintoists, Buddhists, and Orthodox and Catholic Christians have.

Personal against Communal

One more tension that comes up for folks trying to find their way through alternative spirituality is the push-pull between doing what works for you and doing what a community asks of you. Here again, if you grow up in a living tradition that works for you, you're likely good: a Shintoist that is spiritually satisfied with the Kami can attend his local festivals, pray at the local shrine, and pray at his home kamidana ("Godshelf," which is a delightful word for a home altar). Doing all of these things will simultaneously feed his own soul and strengthen his bonds within the community that shares these practices. After emerging from a bracing misogi under a waterfall, he can chat about the experience with his neighbors over a cup of sake, strengthening both his religious feeling and his social connection. Not quite so for most polytheists in the West. If you want religion to be a strong part of building a community (or vice versa, for that matter), you have plenty of Christian options available, but many fewer for polytheism at all, much less specific traditions.

Besides the already considerable challenge of finding co-religionists at all, there's the further wrinkle that most folks called down these sorts of paths have their own, often highly idiosyncratic, ways of answering the kinds of questions we've been discussing thus far, meaning it is extremely unlikely you'll find a religious group that makes sense of the tradition you follow in just the way you do. Do you want to engage in reconstruction as strictly as the Theodish, but find yourself called to continental Saxon names, language, and forms? Too bad, the only still-living group you can find is all about Old English! Prefer a more personalized, gnosis-guided experience? Well, there's this kindred over here, but they're so inclusive about beliefs that they include folks who worship beings and engage in practices you don't want anything to do with. If you thought the fractiousness of protestantism with its "every man his own priest" was bad, buddy, wait until you meet modern Western polytheists!

Of course, the thought that you even should have a boutique set of religious beliefs and practices that is just how you like them is maybe a bit, hmmm, precious. If there's any weight to the organic side of things we talked about above, then maybe we ought to be a little more humble about our own notions and preferences and a little more willing to adopt what has worked for so many people for so much time. Maybe one of the points of religion is to iron out some of your idiosyncrasies that you'd be better off without. Community is not only about you feeling welcome and supported and content - it's about making yourself part of something bigger than yourself, supporting it, fitting yourself to it, rather than the other way around. These kind of thoughts do not come naturally to my highly individualistic self, but looking at what centuries of unfettered individualism has brought us to spiritually, I have to give some weight to the idea that some counterchecks on "expressing yourself" and "being true to yourself" might, in fact, be necessary.

Truly, out of the things we've talked over in this post, this is likely the one I struggle with the most. Trying to follow my own inner aesthetic sense and experiences of what has been spiritually meaningful tends to pull me in some very weird, very individual directions. On the other hand, I recognize the gap in my life left by a lack of religious community, and I know that if I want to fill that, I'll have to shape some of my beliefs and practices to what works for others, rather than only what works for myself. Maybe that's why I've yet to get in touch in person with any other heathens - I'm not (yet) ready to give up the freedom to do things my own way. That's actually a large part of why I have been following the path of Revival Druidry - I'm working my way through John Michael Greer's Druid Magic Handbook and The Dolmen Arch exactly as given, in order, and taking as long as it takes to do it right. It may not give me the in-person community that joining a religious group would, but it is helping me to learn the value in shaping myself to a tradition, rather than shaping a tradition to myself. So, I don't yet have a good answer here, but I'm exploring, and I'll share what I find as I find it.

Even if You're by Yourself, You are Not Alone

All of this may sound a bit dire, but there's some good news: you're not actually alone in this. As you try to make sense of how to pray, what rituals to do, what myths to focus on, and so forth, even if you don't have any other humans to talk to about it, remember the point of all of this: the Gods. Ultimately, all of religion is about how to have the best possible relationship with your God(s), so whatever else you are drawing on, however else you are working things out, you can always just, ya know, ask. Now, admittedly, learning to tell the difference between your own whims and desires and what the Gods are trying to tell you when you pray can be hard, but I have found some advice from John Michael Greer very helpful: does the "answer" to your prayer challenge you in some way, especially in a way that on some level you know to be better? Or does it invite you to do more of what you wanted to do anyway or otherwise reinforce your preconceptions? If the former, it's likely a true answer. If the latter, chances are you're just talking to yourself. In the longer run, you can extrapolate this to "by their fruits ye shall know them" - do your practices leave you kinder, more patient, less neurotic, and more focused on "higher" things? Then you're likely on the right track. On the other hand, if you find yourself falling into the same patterns of behavior, or worse, spiraling into ever more self-destructive habits, well, maybe you need to make some changes.

Which brings us to a virtue that doesn't often get much weight in polytheistic circles: faith. In our culture, "faith" in a religious sense is most often taken to mean your earnest belief in the truth of certain assertions about things that have happened and/or the nature of reality ("he was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried, and the third day he rose again"). I have come to find "faith" important in my relationship to religion, but in a slightly different way (which, to be fair, is also included by most Christians in what they mean by "faith"). Instead of belief in certain fact claims, I have come to have faith in the validity of my own religious experiences, within certain guidelines. I could believe that my first religious experience was merely a weird hiccup of my neurochemistry brought about by a certain combination of behaviors, all confined to the material world, and I don't really fault anyone who interprets it in that light, but I have chosen to have faith that what seemed to happen really did happen: non-physical consciousnesses greater than me reached out and made contact that I might turn my life a better way. Since then, I have had to have faith that when I call upon a God or Goddess and ask for steering, the advice I get is good and wise, and not merely random chatter from my deep mind. It can be sometimes, and as someone as deeply embedded in our rational, materialistic age as anyone else, I sometimes have my doubts, but thus far, it seems very much to be worth it. It brings a wholeness that wasn't there before, reassurance about the deepest, hardest questions, and a firm answer when I go looking for meaning.

So, as hard as it may be, as many tensions as there definitely are, know that there are treasures down the path of religious belief, even if none of the obvious paths work for you, and even if your own path has to be hacked out of the jungle with a machete. And even if it feels lonely at times, remember the deepest promise of such a path: you are not alone.

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[Book] Stories of the Rose

Date: 2024-February-14

After spending so long getting through The Seed of Yggdrasill, I wanted to read (and post about) something a bit quicker, and so I pulled out Stories of the Rose: The Making of the Rosary in the Middle Ages by Anne Winston-Allen. This book does exactly what it says on the tin: it tells you how the Rosary as we know it came to be, with an emphasis on how the meditations know accepted as official developed. It's fairly well-written and pretty readable, if a bit dry at times, but it is (mostly) mercifully free of the kind of theory-heavy jargon you sometimes find in anything doing "textual analysis" after the 70s or so.

If that sounds like it's up your alley, you can find it reasonably priced from used book sellers as of the time of this writing, but weirdly, new paperback copies are rather pricey (I expect it's the usual price inflation on books that get listed as textbooks for college courses). Of course, my copy, bought used off alibris for a reasonable cost nevertheless insists on mocking me with the "50 cents" sticker that was no doubt applied to it when some tiny Catholic bookstore decided to make room for new stock.

I came to this book for my own ends, so what I found notable and worthwhile might be a bit idiosyncratic, and some stuff the book gets into was outside of those interests - for example, it spends a while exploring how the promise of indulgences helped make the Rosary more popular, and how reformers like Martin Luther responded to that, all of which is quite interesting historically, but less useful for shaping a set of prayers for today. All that being said, here's some of what I thought was best from this book.

The Rosary Evolved Bit by Bit

The first thing that this book makes very clear is that the Rosary as we have it evolved. It grew as bits and pieces were added, taken away, substituted, and otherwise experimented upon. You could say that it is emergent if you go in for that kind of language. Basically, a few threads that were important in European Christianity of the middle ages came together, and a way of weaving them together was found that worked for a large number of people. First, you had the practice of reciting the Psalter, all 150 psalms in a row. This was a devotional practice mainly among monks, because it required a lot of time and dedication, and either years of practice to memorize a whole book of hymns, or else being literate and having said book in front of you - either approach basically boiled down to "be a monk" in the middle ages. Another thread was the growing prominence of Marian devotions at this time. Bits and pieces of what would become the Ave Maria had been said for a long time, but they came to more prominence in Europe in the middle ages than in other parts of Christendom at other times (me, I suspect this is because Europeans were feeling the lack of Goddesses in their religion, but that's a whole other thing). A third thread was the developing practice of contemplative meditation and prayer of various kinds. Lastly, you had the use of prayer beads to keep track of prayers that were meant to be said in a specific number, which was apparently very old and very widespread (this book doesn't go into this thread as much as I wish it did, but the author is a historian, not an archaeologist or anthropologist, so it makes sense, her focus is on documents).

All of these threads likely originated among monastic communities, but the overall trend that wove these threads together was a thirst among lay worshipers for ways of practicing their religion outside of weekly mass. Naturally enough, they looked to what the religious professionals were doing, and began to draw inspiration from them, which brings us to the first thread that kicked all of this off - saying the psalter. As I mentioned, this would have presented some big challenges to a devout layman: the whole point of saying all 150 psalms in a row is that it takes a long time - it's meant to demonstrate devotion by being hard! That's well and good when demonstrating your devotion is your whole life, as a monk, but can be challenging when you need to bring the crops in or your family will starve. Also, as I said, if you aren't a monk, you likely can't say the psalms, because you can't read them and you can't memorize them. So, monks started recommending "lay psalters" of saying 150 of either the Pater Noster or the Ave Maria. The prayers are shorter and you only have to memorize the one (which you should have done as a good Christian already anyway). The prayer beads came in as a handy way to keep track of which of 150 repetitions you were on.

So far, so reasonable. The trouble is, saying 150 of the same prayer in a row is boring. Again, you might say that the hardship is part of the devotional act, but the market for religious practices that intentionally suck is fairly small. So folks started looking for ways to enliven the practice. One way was to break it up into chunks and to create some variation, such as into three groups of 50, and to say a different prayer in between each group. Another was where the contemplative meditation thread comes in. Various priests, mostly monks, began recommending that the "lay psalter" be paired with thinking about certain ideas, characteristics, or images from Christian teachings. One early approach that gained some popularity was to recite/think about a quality of Mary with each repetition of an Ave Maria. These qualities were originally keyed to the first line of each psalm, maintaining the link with the actual psalter, but the trouble was that the lay folks who were learning this didn't know the psalms to begin with, so it felt like a list of 150 arbitrary characteristics of Mary, in no particular order, with no particular sense. So folks went looking for other ideas that worked. One was to focus on three things, one for each third of the prayers: Mary's joys in Jesus's life, Mary's sorrows at his death, and Mary's triumph in his glorious resurrection. Another was to think about the events of Christ's life. What turned out to be the winning combination was to group the events of Christ's life into three groups of five, each with the themes above, and thus the Joyous Mysteries, the Sorrowful Mysteries, and the Glorious Mysteries.

All of which gets us to the Rosary as we have it today: you say some prayers at the beginning, and some at the end, but mostly you say 150 Ave Marias, with one Pater Noster in between each group of 10. For each 10 Aves, you think about one of five scenes from Jesus or Mary's life from each category of the mysteries, and after you get all the way around your beads, you move on to the next group of mysteries. One thing that made breaking it up this way helpful is that it created natural stopping points for folks who couldn't say the whole thing at once. It has become normal practice to work your way through one groups of mysteries a day. It's a practice that takes some time and dedication, thus helping to show devotion, but is flexible and engaging enough that normal humans can work it into their lives around all of their other responsibilities.

What helped all of this get figured out is that until the Rosary received papal sanction in its modern form much later, different folks tried different things and shared how it went. There were groups called confraternities that would teach you, books you could buy, popular songs you could hear, and so forth. All of which created a bubbling cauldron of experimentation where stuff that worked better for more folks spread, and what didn't died out. In other words, you had distinct traits with variation that were subjected to selective pressures. So, when I say the Rosary evolved, I'm not being metaphorical, it literally did.

For me, all of this is a bit discouraging, as I am trying to do the opposite - put together a whole practice from scratch on my own that is as compelling as the Christian Rosary. Very likely my task is impossible and the best I can hope for is to provide a few threads for a similar evolutionary process. What I am doing, though, is trying to keep as much of the shape of the Christian Rosary as I can, since something that seems incidental might have actually been important. Also, I'm doing analysis like this so that I understand as much as I can what makes the Christian Rosary work and apply the same principles to the heathen concepts and images I am bringing into the practice I'm crafting. We'll have to see how it goes.

Memory Imposed Constraints on What Worked and What Did Not

Maybe the most interesting insight from the book is one of those that feels obvious in hindsight, but was interesting precisely because I hadn't thought of it: one of the major drivers for what variations stuck over those that didn't was the constraint of human memory. As we talked about above, monks are specialists who could devote a lot of time and effort to complex devotional practices, and if they couldn't memorize them, they could follow along with a book. Lay folks couldn't do this, and so variations that are easier to remember did better than those that are harder. For example, instead of presenting 15 mysteries as independent things, they are grouped into three thematic groups. This takes advantage of the well-known memory-strengthening technique of chunking - you take elements that have something in common and "chunk" them together under a label, and then you remember the label (this even works with non-thematically linked things, see phone and credit card numbers being in groups of 3-5 digits). Another way that part of the rosary got selected for what folks can remember was the shift from disconnected traits, characteristics, or events to narrative - instead of 150 characteristics of Mary, you have the life of Jesus. We are wired to remember stories, and especially stories about people. The three groups of five mysteries we have now combine these factors: the five mysteries in each group are chronological, the three groups are chronological, and the each group has a thematic coherence that makes it easier to remember which scenes from Jesus's life are in which group, and thus which comes next.

So, that's pretty cool. Luckily, this is something that I can much more readily copy, as heathen myths have just as much capacity for narrative coherence and memorable vividness, and I know enough about chunking and other ways to make things memorable to build those into what I'm working on. I don't have the life of one man/God to anchor things, which might make it more challenging, but here again, we'll see.

Interplay Between Contrasting Elements - Jesus and Mary, Repetition and Variety

One of the things that first struck me about the Rosary was the way that it weaves together several lines of contrast: happiness against sorrow, manly against womanly, repetitive against various, and so forth. Way of the Rose goes into a lot of this rather well, I think, highlighting especially the interplay of life and death, mother and father, sin and mercy. Winston-Allen adds a new insight by pointing out that such interplay was a common appreciated motif in other bits of folkways at the time: song, poetry, and religious plays were all characterized by a "theme" and "counterpoint," and so it's not shocking that such a stylistic element would find it's way into the Rosary. What I do find striking, though, is how many of these "themes" and "counterpoints" we get crammed into one fairly small, seemingly simple practice, at every level. Small beads and large beads, Aves and Paternosters, joyful mysteries and sorrowful, and more. I strongly suspect that this dense interweaving of push-pull or back-and-forth elements is one of the keys to the strength of the Rosary, and I am seeking ways to embed the same in the practice I am putting together. Another finer point that Winston-Allen points out is that the Rosary's meditations ended up as 2/3 uplifting, and 1/3 sorrowful, and significantly, ends on one of the most uplifting scenes. So, while the contrast between joy and sorry provides a strong emotional punch, the overall practice is clearly weighted toward the good, which I think is likely another one of the reasons for the Rosary's sticking power: most of us aren't made for hairshirts, and we need to not only balance the happy and the sad, but to seek out enough happiness to compensate for the sad.

The Importance of "Picture Texts," Confraternities, and Physical Beads as Advertisements

At times, Winston-Allen pointed out some things that weren't huge, but were interesting and surprising to me. One of those was the likely role played things besides the prayer itself in spreading the Rosary. The first of these was the printing of "picture texts," which had illustrations of scenes of Jesus's life. Specifically, these picture texts had three groups of five pictures, and those pictures are very close to what became the standard Rosary meditation themes - about 100 years before we have written evidence of these themes! I'm pretty sure this was Winston-Allen's main scholarly contribution in this text: she argues that the picture texts might well be the source of what are today known as the mysteries (well, other than the five "Luminous Mysteries" added by Pope John Paul II), and this has been overlooked because historians deal primarily in written texts. Whether or not the picture texts are where the 15 mysteries came from, we can say pretty confidently that they played a huge role in popularizing the Rosary. As the Rosary was coalescing from the various bits that went into it, the printing press was becoming more widespread, but literacy lagged behind. That meant that for a long time, there was a market for printed material that was mainly pictorial in nature, and if that pictorial pamphlet said it could save you from decades or centuries in purgatory, well, that was gonna be popular! Songs played a similar role, talking about the Rosary and how great it was in a way that many normal people could access.

Besides "texts" (in the widest literary critique sense), another factor that greatly contributed to the Rosary's spread and success was the confraternity created to promote it. If you're not familiar, confraternities are Christian (most often Catholic) voluntary organizations dedicated to some specific act or charity, usually with some kind of official church approval. Many became rather important in the late middle ages and Renaissance, and some remain important today (like the Confraternity of the Rosary). What made the Rosary Confraternity special and interesting was that 1. membership was free, 2. membership was open to anyone, and 3. at least early on, local chapters had a lot of flexibility. One further thing that I think must have loomed large at the time, but seems less interesting today, is that the confraternity prayed on behalf of all of its members, living or dead - which meant joining was a kind of "spiritual insurance" against suffering in purgatory. The flexibility I mentioned is especially interesting: early on, the confraternity did not tell all of its members that there was only one way to pray the Rosary - instead, different chapters offered different options, some more wide-open than others, and things like participation in public festivals were tweaked to suit local needs. It seems to me that having a coherent organization with a clear charter, leadership, and membership, that was nevertheless flexible and open-ended must have been a really powerful combination for spreading knowledge about and practice of the Rosary.

The last thing contributing to the Rosary's spread and popularity outside of the prayers and meditations and their spiritual effects might have been the beads themselves. Folks who prayed the Rosary regularly had a set of beads, sometimes very attractively made, that they might wear looped through a belt, wrapper around the wrist/arm, or even as a necklace. These beads would form an advertisement of their own to anyone who saw that did not already know about the Rosary. Further, given the spiritual significance of the beads, folks came to believe that the beads worked as a protective amulet against hostile spiritual forces (I'm inclined to believe they were mostly right). Whatever the reason, a set of Rosary beads served as an advertisement to those not yet praying it, and a reminder and strengthener to faith.

Marian Devotion as Making Up for Lack of Goddesses in Christianity

I had always wondered where all of the "Rose" imagery came from for the Rosary, and this book gives a fair amount of detail on that, so I was grateful. It seems there were two main threads, though these might have influenced one another, and so cleanly separating them may be foolish. First, the Song of Songs from the Old Testament was the most commented upon and referenced book of the Bible in the Middle Ages, which I found somewhat surprising. In it, the narrator (Solomon, presumably), compares his betrothed to a walled garden, emphasizing both the delights within, and the keeping out of anyone else - a obvious metaphor for chastity and sexual fulfillment afterward, in the appropriate context. On the other hand, non-religious poetry of the time also made great use of the "rose garden" as a metaphor for the erotic delights women held within their power to grant to their suitors. All of which means that language about roses and rose gardens was laden with all kinds of symbolic weight for virginity, sexuality, the feminine virtue of selectively withholding sexuality, and so forth. Further complicating things is the fact that erotic imagery was often used in medieval religious writing, especially by mystics, to describe the intensity and intimacy of certain spiritual states, and the line between "secular" and "religious" poetry was very, very blurry - which means you can have a song that makes a lot of erotic references and might mean in a symbolic religious way, a frankly sexual secular way, or even worse, both, or "whichever one gets it printed" - it was a messy and complicated time for symbolism. Obviously, sex has a lot of power and resonance in the human psyche, as does the refraining from it and the outcomes of it, and Mary somehow combines all three (well, not explicitly the "sex" part, but the boatloads of erotic or quasi-erotic imagery applied in songs and poems about her imply that it was in there somewhere).

One of the main things I think was going on here was medieval Christianity struggling with the facts of life and aspects of the world that polytheist societies have always made the purview of Goddesses. Virginity, sexuality, and maternity are very important and powerful forces in the lives of anyone who isn't an ascetic, and most societies find steering and meaning in these weighty topics among Goddesses, but that option is closed to Christianity. And so, I get the impression that medieval Christians felt the lack of feminine divinity in their official theology, and found it in Mary. Please note that I'm not saying that Mary was worshiped as a Goddess, nor that prayers about these feminine divine energies were misdirected when sent to the saint Mary, nor that this was all material hairless apes coping with their psychology with no spiritual component. Instead, I believe that feminine divine energies are a real part of life and the world, and that the first few centuries of Christianity didn't have a very good way of handling and incorporating those energies, and Marian devotion was a way to meet that mostly unfilled need.

One of the important strands of this feminine divine energy was mercy, as opposed to the harsher, more masculine virtue of justice, and it seems that the Rosary leaned into this whole heartedly. Other than the above-mentioned emphasis on the Joyful and Glorious mysteries, over the sorrowful, there was one specific tweak that really showed that the Rosary was being prayed by those seeking mercy more than those glorifying justice. Specifically, early version of the picture texts and related works of art had the last of the 15 mysteries as the last judgment: Christ returning to earth and setting apart the saved and the damned. Obviously, this is a slightly important event in Christian theology, and a logical end-point to a narrative that is otherwise primarily about the life of Christ. And yet, in most of the picture texts, and in the other texts that seem to have continued that tradition, including what became the official Rosary, the last mystery became not the last judgment, but instead Mary's ascension into heaven and crowning there. All of which suggests that those praying the Rosary found it spiritually fulfilling not as a tool for keeping strict score of punishments deserved, but rather as an earnest asking for and celebration of divine mercy for sins committed.

For my own work, it's easy to tap into the divine energy that Goddesses bring to the table, because I do worship Goddesses. I can pray to them explicitly, so that makes some things easier in setting up the prayer practice. Even so, the very contrast between the Rosary and what you usually see from Catholic worship is perhaps instructive, and my own inspiration to pursue this path has been driven by a Goddess, so for me, if anything, the challenge will be in finding the right balance between masculine and feminine, rather than in giving weight to the feminine at all.

Much of the Early Development of the Rosary was in German-Speaking Lands

This one is likely not that important, but I hadn't realized that most of the early development of the bits that got assembled into the Rosary took place in German-speaking lands, and much of that early development was in the vernacular. Partly I'm sure this was Faustian religion asserting itself in its heartland, but given that I am developing a "rosary" meant to be compatible with the beliefs that come from those lands before Christianity, I wonder if there were not cultural and/or folkloric reasons for a spiritual practice like this to resonate so strongly and to find itself birthed there. On the other hand, given its quick spread and ongoing popularity in non-Germanic tongues and cultures, maybe it was just something about Catholic belief that made it resonate so much. Of course, part of that might be that Mary really did and does love and promote this particular devotion, which might render any material explanations moot, and make analogies with prayers to other divine beings less relevant. At any rate, I feel called to work out this practice, and so I'll keep at it until I have something that works.

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[Book] The Seed of Yggdrasill - Overall Rundown

Date: 2024-January-27

Edit 30 January 2024: After some comments from a reader, I've added a bit up front to make this review more friendly to those lacking a background in Norse myth or religion.

Going through Maria Kvilhaug's hefty ~600 leaf book chapter by chapter has helped me to better understand it and get the most out of it, but reading through all of that may be more than you're looking for, so I thought I'd write up my thoughts on the book as a whole as a short(ish) guide for those who would like to know what the book's about and it what it has to offer, but may not want an in-depth commentary. If you'd like to dive deeper on any of this, but still aren't sold on reading the book yourself, you can always check out the relevant post(s).

What This Book Is - A Thoroughgoing Look Into the Spiritual Meaning of Norse Myths

Before I dive into what this book says, it might help to ground what kind of book it is at all. Looking back over the chapter-by-chapter posts, I see that I never really said that clearly: I just kind of reckoned if you were reading my blog or reading these reviews, you had some idea of what you were in for.

So, what is The Seed of Yggdrasill by Maria Kvilhaug? It is her attempt to explore the spiritual and even esoteric meanings behind the Old Norse myths, with the main sources being the Poetic Edda and Prose Edda, but also pulling in bits and scraps from other works, like the Heimskringla, the works of Saxo Grammaticus, and The Sagas of the Icelanders. The bulk of the book focuses not on relating the stories found in these works or plotting out the relationships of the figures in those stories, but instead on what these stories and figures might represent psychologically and spiritually and what esoteric insights someone might gain by considering the stories in such an allegorical light.

Though Kvilhaug spends some time laying out what the sources are and what can be found in them, this book is not very well-suited to those new to the Norse myths: it is long, dense, and wide-ranging. Both it and this review use specialist vocabulary like kenning and heiti assuming you know they mean, and throw around Old Norse words without especially good translations, like jotun, which is usually translated "giant," but seems to mean something more like "semi-divine being associated with the forces of nature that often has hostile interactions with the Gods," or wight, which is an Old English word for "alive being," which used to be used as broadly as we might "being" today, but these days tends to get used to mean something like a spirit: a non-physical conscious being, usually one of less power than the Gods, but not always. So, if you don't have a baseline understanding of the Norse myths and the language folks tend to use when discussing it, this book is unlikely to be a good starting point, and my discussion of it below might sail right over your head, as it assumes an audience who might be interested in and find useful Kvilhaug's book.

Where to Start Instead if You are New to Norse Myth - A Good Short Overview Book

If you are instead looking for a good introduction to Norse myth and religion, I've got a few recommendations: Gods and Myths of Northern Europe by Hilda Ellis-Davidson, Norse Mythology by John Lindow, and Myths of the Pagan North by Christopher Abram are all fairly short, fairly clear books written by solid scholars in the field in the 20th century. E.O.G. Turville-Petre's Myth and Religion of the North is widely hailed as the best synthesis of current-ish scholarship, but it's a bit longer and tends to be a bit pricey (since it is often used as a textbook, it's priced assuming that you're paying for it with financial aid). If you want to go for "the real thing," Snorri Sturlusson's Prose Edda was his attempt to write just such an "introduction to myths" text, to help folks learn how to write Old Norse poetry, and it represents the very best in 13th century scholarship. Once you're comfortable with any one or two of these, you would know what you need to know to dig into Kvilhaug's book, but I would only really recommend it if your interest is spiritual or religious: if you are only interested in the myths as stories, or as a way to understand the historical culture of northern Europe, this book is likely not your best bet.

The Overall Thread Holding the Book Together - Myths are Metaphors for Pantheistic Mysteries

Kvilhaug has a pretty idiosyncratic take on the Norse myths that informs everything she has to say about them. She believes that the Eddic and skaldic poems from heathen times were consciously crafted metaphorical allegories meant to get across mostly-ineffable pantheistic spiritual truths. That's a lot of sometimes-fuzzy words, so let's break down what we mean, here.

The groundmost thing to understand about Kvilhaug's understanding and analysis is that she believes in the truth of a kind of "pantheism," and she thinks that the heathen poets did too. Her flavor of pantheism holds that everything in all of creation is truly a manifestation of an single underlying divine substance/soul/being - Odhinn, you, me, your dog, this table I'm typing on, all of it is just as much a "part of the divine" as anything else. She says the she is agnostic about how much weight to give to the distinctness of "different" Gods and Goddesses, but it seems clear to me that she sees them as masks or roles for the same underlying Godhead/divinity/soul.

Since she sees the distinctness of the Gods as basically an illusion, she believes that it is less important which God plays a role in a myth than what characteristics that God has. She thinks that those roles were chosen consciously by the skalds that put these poems together, as a metaphor to express a spiritual truth that is hard to put into words. In other words, it's not that the skalds "really" believed that a large fellow named Thjazi turned into an eagle and grabbed a magical, youthful lady named Idhunn, nor even that they grew up hearing that story from their grandmas, and so told it in their own way, but rather that they sat down and did something like "I want to craft a poem about how the immortal soul we all share is cut off from us by mortality and the fear thereof, ah, yes, Idhunn and Thjazi would be a good way to get that across." We know that metaphor, allusion, disguise, and alternate names were all vital parts of Old Norse poetics, and Kvilhaug believes that this thread runs to the very identities of the Gods and the plots of the stories told about Them.

The upshot of all of this is that Kvilhaug looks for similarities between stories and particular mythic figures to find ways that they are "the same," and then treats the different names and situations as ways of getting at the same underlying truth from different angles. To use one of the less controversial examples, in some tales Odhinn is called "the All Father," and in others he is called "Frenzy." Kvilhaug would argue that both of these are pieces of the truth about "spirit," which is more fundamentally what Odhinn represents in these myths. More controversially, she would also say that Skadhi, Hel, Ran, and a few other Goddesses/Giantesses all represent death, and are thus "the same Goddess," but which name and characteristics the poet uses will be based on what he wants to emphasize: Ran for drowning, Skadhi for a death in the wilds, and Hel for plain, old death at home. One perhaps surprising outgrowth of her approach is that she is rather unconcerned with the timing and provenance of the poems. She has no problem analyzing Solarliodh (pretty confidently attributed to a Christian writer ~1200 CE) or Hrafnagaldur Odhins (suspected of also being done by an antiquarian, but there's more debate) in the exact same manner she does the unquestionably old and authentically heathen poems.

How you react to this, and how much weight you give it, will likely have much to do with your own understanding of the nature of the Gods. If you believe that the different God are distinct in some meaningful way besides the effect they have on us in the stories told about us, you will likely find her interpretations thought-provoking at best, and muddled at worst. If you share her pantheistic views, or for any other reason see the myths as primarily metaphors for the inner workings of the soul, then you might find her approach deeply insightful and useful.

Not a Starter Book - Read if You Want to Go Deep

Given Kvilhaug's goals and approach, this book doesn't seem well suited to someone just starting with the Norse myths. Luckily, there are several good options there (Ellis-Davidson, Lindow, Abram, Turville-Peters if you can afford it). Instead, this book is pretty much only helpful if you want to think deeply about the myths and the kinds of symbolic or even esoteric meanings they might have. It is a wonderful book if you plan to bethink (meditate) on the myths. Whether you believe her conclusions are "right" or not, they are always thought-provoking and will invite you to explore some aspects of the Gods and their tales that you might otherwise not have thought about, so I can strongly recommend it for anyone who uses the heathen lore as a part of esoteric spiritual lore, with a few caveats (see the rest of this rundown for those).

The Best Bits of this Book

Notwithstanding some of my issues with this book, it does have a lot of great insights and interesting takes. Here are a few of my favorites.

Names are Literally Translated

So, why do I find this book so helpful for coming at the myths as a source of esoteric insight? First and most importantly, the key of Kvilhaug's analytical method is to assume that every single name is meaningful. In most modern cultures, we have grown used to thinking of names as arbitrary sounds that act as a label for a particular person or thing, and nothing else. "Jeffrey" is just some guy who writes about odd topics online, and your understanding of him and his writing has nothing to do with "The God's/Goth's Peace." Many (most? nearly all?) translations of Old Norse myth follow along with this assumption and just give names as-is, maybe lightly localized to English (for example, Odin for Odhinn). The cornerstone of all of Kvilhaug's work is that this approach is deeply flawed and makes opaque much of what would have been obvious, or at least accessible with some thought, to a native-speaking audience. As such, Kvilhaug makes an effort to give the literal meaning of every name she references in the book, and when she renders translations, she translates the names to their literal meanings in-line. So, for example, rather than saying "Thjazi the jotun stole Idhunn" she will say "Slave-binder the devourer stole Water-that-returns-to-its-source." This alone is worth the price of admission and is an incredible source of fodder for bethinking. Sure, some of her translations differ from the scholarly consensus, and I lack the knowledge to evaluate who's right, but as spurs to thinking, even speculative translations are very worthwhile.

Kennings, Metaphors, and Allusions are Assumed and Explored

Kvilhaug is keenly aware that one of the key elements of the Old Norse poetry was finding puzzle-like ways to call the Gods, Goddesses, wights, steads, and other things that show up in the poems. Kennings, heiti, and other approaches were used to create dense, inter-woven fields of meaning in as few words as possible. It seems that both the poets and their audience saw the crafting of such dense, non-obvious constellations of meaning as one of the chief marks of skill in crafting poetry, as well as one of the main sources of enjoyment for those listening. Many writers will acknowledge this, but then not go as far with it as they might. Kvilhaug's entire analysis is based on the idea that the name is meaningful, and so which name gets used (or name substitute, in the case of some kennings) is a further source of potential meaning. Another thing Kvilhaug acknowledges that I think is bit lacking in much of the scholarly writing is the, well, poetic considerations of poetry - things like choosing words due to how they sound, making puns by picking a "sound-alike" world, and the possibility that words might get used due to folk etymologies believed at the time that we now know "better" to ignore because they are not the true etymology. A famous example is that modern scholarship rejects the etymology of "Loki" that comes from the same root that created logi ("fire") - which either goes back to Jacob Grimm or the 19th century "natural school," I can't remember. I don't know enough to call the modern conclusion about the etymology into doubt, even if I didn't think they were likely right - "Loki" very likely does not mean "fire," nor did His name derive from a word that did. But we do see Him pitted against Logi in the court of Utgardhsloki, and Kvilhaug points out that whether or not Loki "really" has a historical semantic link with fire, such a juxtaposition implies that the poet wanted you to make an association. Sure, it's hard to be rigorous about such potential associations (poetry is by its nature ambiguous, that's part of the point), but that doesn't mean they can't be a fruitful source of speculation and themes for meditation.

Extensive Exploration of Similarities Between Myths

Thanks to Kvilhaug's pantheism we talked about above, she is extremely keyed into parallels and similarities between myths, which can often grant some interesting insights, especially when you combine this with the weight she puts on kennings that we just discussed. Let me break that down a bit more. One challenge created by the Old Norse poets' proclivity for using metaphors, references, and alternate names for Gods, giants, and others is that these poems are often the only source we have for these names, and so what might have been a well known nickname or reference in the culture might leave us totally baffled. Imagine a future culture that has one, small snippet of text that refers to "The Big Apple," and from context, they can tell it's a nickname for a culturally important city on the east coast. From other sources, they've heard of Boston, New York, Washington, and Miami, but they know there were lots of other cities, the records for which have been lost. You'd likely have folks that assigned "The Big Apple" to each of those cities as well as some who said it was a different city we don't have any other name for. That's roughly the situation we're in with some of the names of beings in the lore. Kvilhaug's penchant for finding similarities makes her very good at finding evidence that two seemingly disparate figures might just be different names or references to the same thing. Many of these are not new or even that controversial (equating Odhinn, Vili, and Ve with Odhinn, Hoenir, and Lodhur, for example), but one that was new to me that I found and stuck out as fairly compelling was saying that the eagle that sits at the top of Yggdrasill, the eagle at the "end of the world" from whom all winds flow, and Thjazi, the jotun who turns into an eagle to kidnap Idhunn might all be the same figure. Even where she takes the equation game farther than I am comfortable with or find credible (like that all Goddesses are really just masks for Freyja), she often is good at digging up the points of similarity that led her to that conclusion, which can lead to some interesting thinking along the lines of "so, how are these two Gods similar?" Where this approach is the strongest is when she has a clear, central idea (like the "maiden with the mead" from her Master's thesis) and then she combs through the lore for every scrap that might possibly show evidence of that central idea. Her work is great for finding the common threads that run through multiple myths.

The Poetic Edda Presented as a Path of Initiation

Kvilhaug also makes a bold claim about the Poetic Edda as a work: it is a complete, coherent tale of initiation into spiritual mysteries, meant to work as a whole, not just a random grab bag of poems that some medieval scribe happened to know and like. I'm not sure if I had encountered this idea anywhere else before, but I don't think I had ever seen it put so straightforwardly and then tied into so much stuff in the lore. Whether her assertion about the author(s)'s intent is right, she presents enough compelling details to make the thought of treating the Edda as if it's an initiatory framework an enticing one. I haven't had the chance to do so myself yet, but I suspect that bethinking (meditating) your way through the whole Poetic Edda with the idea that it is a tale about/guide to initiation would be very productive spiritually. This notion also comes with a fun bonus idea: if the whole Edda is a path of initiation, the Voluspa is a summary of that path: the microcosm to the Edda's macrocosm, which I thought was a pretty neat idea.

Some Poems are Given Very Close Readings

A few times throughout the book, Kvilhaug gives poems, or at least large excerpts of them, very close readings with interleaved commentary, which I think is another approach where she shines. The structure of the poem forces a certain amount of organization on the commentary, translations of names are given in their context, and any far flung links or associations have to be tied back into specific passages in the poem to make any sense. All of which serves to mitigate many of my complaints about her approach while highlighting her strengths. Much of the first chapter is such a reading of Voluspa, but she departs from the close reading for other thoughts and doesn't go through the whole poem, which was what made me realize how worthwhile it was when she took this approach. Some of her other works do more with this: The Goddess Idhunn in Myth and Poetry does this the two poems that explicitly reference Idhunn, and Six Old Norse Cosmology Poems has her translations, but only very limited commentary. A fully annotated translation of the complete Poetic Edda by her would almost certainly be a multi-volume door-holding, mouse-crushing, foot-breaking affair, but I think it might be awfully good.

Evidence for Links with Long Ago and Neighboring Folks

In a few places, Kvilhaug goes into some of the evidence that beliefs or tales or narrative elements can be traced in historically interesting ways, though the historical development is never her main focus in the book. The two of these threads I found most interesting are those that go back a long, long, long time to the Nordic Bronze Age, and those that lead to the circumpolar folk who were neighbors to the Old Norse. The first shows a remarkable continuity in certain concepts and images and the second demonstrates that the hints and traces of "shamanism" found in the lore and archaeology may point to some important links. As I'll get to below, the historical context to the myths and its development isn't always her strong point, but on these two areas, she includes some interesting stuff that might be worth tracking down more.

Coherent and Reasonable Rebuttal of Christian Influence on Key Myths

I went into this in more detail in the post on chapter 10, but there is a lot of debate, both among scholars and practicing heathens, how much Christian influence there is in various bits of the lore as we have it (to say nothing of what that influence means or how we should handle it). Answers range from "practically none" to "all of this is basically just the gospels with horned helmets on." I tend to fall somewhere in between, maybe more toward the "little" end of the spectrum, so I might be a bit biased when it comes to such arguments, but Kvilhaug presents one of the better and more detailed arguments I've seen against significant Christian influence in some of the poems where it is thought by some to be strongest: Odhin's self sacrifice and the renewal after Ragnarok. Again, see the chapter review for more details, but Kvilhaug lays out that all of the major elements of these stories are consistent with pre-Christian beliefs and practices, and sometimes beliefs and practices that go waaaay back, even to the Bronze Age, so it's perfectly reasonable to assume continuity rather than borrowing.

The Heroic Poems are Treated as Part of the Same Whole as the Mythic Poems

For a long time, scholars have broken the Poetic Edda into the "mythological" poems of the first ~half and the "heroic" poems of the back ~half. Reading them, there's a pretty clear difference in subject matter and tone - mythic time, cosmic events, and Gods versus a specific number of generations ago, historical events, and men, so the division makes sense. In part thanks to this distinction, modern works for practicing heathens often focus far more on the mythological poems for religious guidance and tend to see the heroic poems as sources of inspiration on how to live, at most. Kvilhaug argues, instead, that the heroic poems show human initiates navigating their way to grasping the cosmic, spiritual truths embodied and established by the Gods in the mythological poems, and so actually make for a logical and coherent progression from the mythological poems, instead of the somewhat abrupt jump in topic and significance they're usually treated as making. As I said above, I'm not sure if the collection of poems we have was meant that way by those who composed them and those who wrote them down, but it makes the heroic poems more helpful and significant, which seems like a good thing.

Many of the Proposed Metaphorical Meanings are Thought-Sparking

Because Kvilhaug sees the tales in the lore as metaphor-laden parables, she is at pains to find a metaphorical meaning behind, well, everything, and often, her proposed interpretations are at least interesting, if not downright compelling. This is one of the hardest sections to talk about in a general way, not least because much of what makes these interpretations grabby is that they drawn on what I've outlined above: they take literal name meanings, similarities from other tales, and the allusions made by the kennings used to weave together ways of understanding the stories that are often not obvious at all, but once you hear them, seem worth taking seriously. A couple of my favorite examples are how Kvilhaug finds evidence (especially in Voluspa) for the idea that our creation is one after many earlier creations (8 before, ours being the 9th, according to her most common interpretation along these lines), which paints some interesting light on the Hindu belief in cosmic days and nights and creation beginning and ending cyclically. Another is all of the evidence for and stories about reincarnation Kvilhaug believes she has found in the lore. I often found myself thinking that her interpretations were not the best or what I would settle on as the "right" way to interpret a poem, but they always expanded what I considered about the tales and what they might mean, and that's pretty worthwhile all by itself.

The Worst Bits of this Book

"Worst" is maybe an overly strong word, as overall I found a lot to like about the book, but if you haven't gathered by now, there was also a lot that I was none too thrilled by.

The Book is Long, Badly Organized, and Repetitive

This book is pretty darn long - over 600 pages, and I'm not talking digest format or large print. I'm not one to be against books based on their length alone (I mean, look at how long my blog posts are), but in this case, the length struck me as unneeded. The trouble is that the length seems to stem more from poor editing and organization and repetition than it does from flat out having that much to say. I really think with better organization and editing, this book could have been at least half the length, maybe even shorter, without missing many, if any, of it's best points. Call it maybe three quarters of the length and likely not missing anything. This point is basically why this series of reviews exists - I was so frustrated that these interesting insights were trapped inside a tangled mess of a book that I wanted to pull them out and organize them, for myself if no one else.

Sometimes Kvilhaug Comes Off as Smug, Condescending, or Hostile

From what I've seen in videos, Kvilhaug seems like a perfectly pleasant, enthusiastic person, but there's a few places in this book where I got a less favorable impression. She seems to have some beef with Christianity, getting weirdly hostile and exaggerating the negative events in its history and the bad influences it has had on modern culture. Other than Christianity, her ire also comes out for stodgy scholars and the patriarchy. Besides the anger, Kvilhaug also sometimes struck me as condescending about the /real/ meaning of the lore, which she has found out, and anyone who doesn't see that it's all metaphorical parables about pantheism is welcome to keep on with his poor, meager understanding, but is obviously wrong. Even when not looking down on ways of understanding the myths that she finds lacking, she is /very/ confident that her understanding is right, and that if it contradicts what every scholar in the field has said for 100 years, it is clearly the children scholars who are wrong. Perhaps all of this is the price we have to pay to get the kind of insights she has to offer, as someone less sure of herself and her interpretative framework might balk contradicting orthodoxy, but it would be nice if the token humility felt a bit less like lip service.

Some of the Analysis Leans on Shaky Scholarship

There's a few places in the book where Kvilhaug brings in some scholarship to support a point that I find very shaky, if not outright wrong. For example, Marija Gimbutas was a brilliant scholar who figured out what I believe to be the true origins of the speakers of Indo-European languages decades before the field got there, but who also believed that the folks who lived in Europe before various Indo-European-speaking groups moved in lived in peaceful matriarchies, which now appears to have been very, very wrong (at least the peaceful part - proving/disproving "matriarchy" is hard, even if you can define it in the first place). Kvilhaug leans on Gimbutas's theories of pre-Indo-European Europe in a few places in the book, and I found that weakened the arguments where she brought it in, rather than strengthened them. There's a few other cases I picked up on, but even worse than my specific disagreements is that it makes me suspect the other historical "evidence" she brings in that I'm less familiar with. If she cites such widely-discredited theories without any acknowledgment or defense of why she's bucking the trend, why should I trust her other equally confident assertions about historical facts elsewhere? Luckily, most of her analysis doesn't depend on history all that much, so it's not as debilitating as it might seem.

Everyone is Everyone Else, Everything is Everything Else

Okay, I've already brought this up multiple times in the series and even in this review, but my biggest complaint about the book is actually not a problem with execution, but a fundamental disagreement on premise. Kvilhaug's pantheism leads her to interpret all of the Gods, jotnar, elves, dwarves, men, and other wights in the myths as "the same" in some important sense. All of the myths are just metaphors for understanding the universal divinity. This leads to a vagueness or mushiness in saying what the myths are "about" - they're all "about" the same thing, the seeming differences are just different angles to come at the same underlying truth, which renders the seeming differences between the myths shallow, uninteresting, and unimportant. Given Kvilhaug's premises, her analysis makes perfect sense. I just suspect those premises are importantly flawed, which takes the whole work in some directions I find less helpful.

Lingering Wellsprings of Confusion

I didn't put this as one of the "worst bits," since I'm truly not sure if it's on me or on her, but I still don't know what she means by calling Idhunn the "soul of the Gods." I mean, I kinda-sorta have a better idea now that I get that she uses "soul" to mean "the unifying divine force/substance/reality that all things share" and that she sees all characters in the myths as fundamentally metaphors rather than "people" with some kind of ontological, objective reality. Maybe that truly is all she means: the story of Idhunn is a story of how we as incarnated beings have lost touch with the reality of our connection to the underlying and unifying divinity of the cosmos, and to make understanding that easier, that divinity is represented as a Goddess, rather than a "force" or "substance" or whatever else. I somewhat balk at this, as it seems fundamentally unsatisfying to me, but then, that might just once again be my lack of agreement with Kvilhaug's metaphysics. That being said, I'm not even sure that's what she means, despite having read a chapter in this book and a whole 'nother book by her on this very topic, and that's frustrating, because Idun is very important to my own beliefs and practices. Once again, if you have thoughts on how to sort this out, I'd love to hear from you.

What I Wish Kvilhaug Would Make - A New Dictionary of Northern Mythology and Commentaries on Specific Works

Altogether, I left this book perhaps even more frustrated than when I started it - it truly has some wonderful insights and great scholarship. Kvilhaug's core mission to translate names to their literal meanings should be the default in studying these myths, and the fact that name meanings are treated as an etymological curiosity that, at best, might shed some light on when/how a figure came to be worshiped, is, frankly, ridiculous. Not translating the names leaves so much meaning on the table. So, truly, my deep thanks to Ms. Kvilhaug for the work she has put into this analysis. What makes this frustrating is that these wonderful insights are buried in a sprawling, rambly book without an index. And the very fact that she defaults to translating names means that you can't always look up a God or hero or object by his/its name using a search function, if you have an electronic copy (which I bought to supplement my paperback because the lack of an index was making me pull out my hair).

In an ideal world, I would love to see something like Rudolf Simek's foundational Dictionary of Northern Mythology, but with Kvilhaug's translations of names and fanatical eye for parallels between figures and tales. If I could look up Gunnlodh, see Kvilhaug's translation of the name, and a list of everywhere She appears in the myths, along with a "See Also" section that points to other entries, that would be worth its weight in gold. Especially helpful would be if she discussed where she differs from other scholars in translating the name, and why she favors her take. All that's a pretty tall order, but I'd still be thrilled with just a compiled list of names with her translations, in alpahbetical order for easy look-up. Maybe not the sexiest work of scholarship, but dang would that be helpful.

Other than a reference work of that sort, the thing I'd next most like to see from Kvilhaug would be one or more poems, translated by her, with interleaved commentary, stanza-by-stanza. Maybe asking for the whole Poetic Edda would be a bit much, but hey, a guy can dream. She regularly makes use of this approach with snippets from poems, where she embeds the poem, her translation, and her commentary in a wider analysis, both in this book and in her others, but again, it would be really helpful to a serious student of the lore to be able to read, say, Voluspa, with her name meanings and commentary, rather than having to hunt through her books for every place she brings up the poem. One of the reasons I'd love to see this is that following the poem closely provides the kind of structure and focus that Kvilhaug benefits from and seems to have trouble imposing on herself.

Closing - There's Gold, but You'll Have to Sift It Out

Altogether, there are some truly surprising and, I think, worthwhile insights in this book for any serious student of the Germanish lore, but it's not as easy to find as I'd like. This book is not well suited to pulling off the shelf, flipping to a section, and reading a paragraph or three to get a key idea. Even most of the sections are hard to read as stand-alone bits, unless you're already familiar with much else of what Kvilhaug is up to. As it is, I'd say the chapter is the smallest unit of the work you can read on its own and hope to walk away from with some understanding. Hopefully my chapter guides and this rundown help with that somewhat as well. Unluckily, if you truly want to get most of the insights out of this book, you'll likely have to read it for yourself, especially since much of its worth lies in the links it makes between disparate Gods, tales, and works, and your own associations and knowledge will shape which of those you find most interesting and helpful. If you do dive in, I'd love to hear your thoughts, most of all where they differ from mine.

Happy mining!

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[Book] The Seed of Yggdrasill 12 - The One and the Many and Epilogue

Date: 2024-January-20

Posts about Seed of Yggdrasill

We've made it! I know I've harped a bit much about the length of this book and how it's been a slog at times, but in my defense, I started reading this book in July of last year, so that's about half a year of working my way through this book. All of which is to say, I'm glad to have made it through. I'll write up the last chapter and Epilogue here, and I'm thinking about doing one more post with overall thoughts on the book as a kind of capstone to the series. Let's take a look at how Kvilhaug closes out her book.

At Last, a Clear Meaning for "Pantheism"

All throughout the book, Kvilhaug has been talked about "pantheism," but she's been a bit murky about what she exactly means by that, which has been frustrating, because "pantheism" comes in a lot of unalike flavors that can have some very different theological implications. At last, here at the end, though, Kvilhaug lays out what she means:

Pantheism is a concept that may be understood in different ways, so to clarify what I mean by the term. It is basically the idea that one unifying deity or universal soul lays at the core of all deities, a one within the many, or a many within the one. The concept also includes divine immanence, the idea that the divine unity is immanent in "creation," "nature," or "the universe," not outside of and apart from it. In many Pantheist traditions, the divine is the soul of existence itself, as a whole, and thus we are all aspects of the ultimate divine soul.
- Kvilhaug, M. (2020). p. 551

In the rest of the chapter, she expands further on this. Though she says that she acknowledges the reality of difference between different people and different Gods, it becomes pretty clear that she thinks it's more true in some important sense that we are parts of "the same thing," the universal soul/Godhead/pantheistic root stuff. This has a few implications, some of which we'll talk about in a tick, but maybe the biggest one is that she believes any and every path to contemplation of or searching for the divine will end up leading to the same place, and some paths seem to be more direct routes than others, so if you figure all this out, you can skip tedious steps like worshiping the Gods as separate beings rather than as particular manifestations of something you already have within yourself. As early on in the book, Kvilhaug again gives some lip service to the idea that different religious approaches are all valid, but manages to give off the impression that anyone who doesn't take her approach is less sophisticated or hasn't gotten as close to the truth, so that's fun. To be clear, I don't think Kvilhaug's beliefs or approach are untenable or preposterous, I just think that her certainty that her way is the right way is kind of annoying.

More On Mystery Cults

Kvilhaug gets back into the idea of Germanish "mystery cults" like those known from the classical world and goes further with the idea than when she talked about it before. One of the main jumping off points she uses for her discussion is a curious remark by Tacitus: he says that the Suebi, one of the Germanish confederations of tribes around in his time (1st century CE), worship "Isis." Kvilhaug does a pretty good job of talking about the various things this might mean, assuming he's not just wrong, which seems unlikely for an otherwise rather credible observer. First, she goes through the likelihood that some of the Germans back then literally worshiped an Egyptian Goddess. This is not as crazy a possibility as it might at first glance seem: by the 1st century CE, a mystery cult devoted to the Hellenistic version of Isis was one of the most popular forms of religious devotion in the Roman Empire. Even at this early date, the Germans must have had plenty of cultural contact with the Romans - it wasn't all cattle raids and obliterated legions - so, some of them might have picked up some religious practices from their more civilized neighbors to the south.

Though not implausible, Kvilhaug asserts, and I agree, that it is even more likely that when Tacitus said "Isis," he very likely meant a Goddess that seemed enough like what an educated Roman knew about Isis that he figured the Goddess the Germans were worshiping was the same one. This was, in fact, the norm for Roman writers: to use the familiar name of a Roman God or Goddess for whichever of the local Gods or Goddesses seemed most alike: for example, it seems very likely that when the Romans talked about German worship of "Mercury," they meant an earlier version of Odhinn, most likely because they heard something like "he is the God of poetry, speaking well, and magic, and he travels around a lot" and thought "sounds like Mercury to us." Kvilhaug goes on to argue that Tacitus's choice of Isis rather than, say, Juno or Venus or Minerva, or another more homegrown Roman Goddess, is an indirect indicator that the Goddess worshiped by the Germans was a "Great Goddess" (more on that in the next bit), or at least a Goddess with many areas of influence, including sovereignty of some kind. She also finds it significant that Tacitus chose the Goddess worshiped in a mystery cult - one reason he might have picked her is that he recognized something in the worship of the Suebi that looked like a mystery cult.

Kvilhaug goes on to argue that the famous cult center at Uppsala might have functioned as the site of mystery initiations like Eluesis in Greece. I don't think the case is decisive, but it is certainly an intriguing possibility. We know that Uppsala was famous throughout the Old Norse world and drew worshipers from all over, much as Eleusis was and did in the Mediterranean. We know that Uppsala was richly endowed with gold and other ornaments, as was Eleusis. Uppsala held a regular festival (every nine years) as did Eluesis (yearly). There's even a hint in Saxo Grammaticus that there was some kind of stage performance at Uppsala, and Eleusis likely staged plays as part of the Lesser Mysteries. There are also some interesting mythological parallels between some of the tales of the Gods we know to have been worshiped at Uppsala (Odhinn, Freyr, and Thorr) and some of the mystery cults we know about from the classical world, but those were a bigger focus in the earlier section of the book.

As I said, I think Kvilhaug makes some interesting points here, and perhaps offers some avenues for further exploration. I'm not quite as sure that there was a "Mystery Cult" of the Nordic world in heathen times as it seems Kvilhaug is, but that may be a bit of playing around with definitions. I think it is nearly beyond doubt that there existed some kind of esoteric religious practice, very likely including some kind of initiation, during most, or more likely all, of heathen times. If nothing else, it seems very likely that religious specialists of various kinds, like the volur, must have had some kind of practice, training, and initiation to become recognized in their roles. It would also be consistent with what we know of other polytheistic religions for their to be some amount of more involved practice or special rituals for more enthusiastic members of the laity (such as the mysteries that are the main topic of this section, but also things like pilgrimages to significant shrines for purification in Shinto or meditative and prayer practices in Buddhism). Should we consider such initiatory and/or esoteric practices "mystery cults?" That's harder to say. To me, that implies a level of regularity, continuity, and organization that it's a lot harder to prove, especially for a mystery cult. So, I'm not saying Kvilhaug is wrong that there was an Old Norse mystery school of some sort, just that I'm less confident than she is that it's a slam dunk.

The Great Goddess (or God)

Earlier in the book, Kvilhaug talked about Freyja as a "Great Goddess," a theory put forth by some scholars (some that she named: Britt Mari Nasstrom, Folke Strom, and Anne Holtsmark). Basically, the theory goes that in some religions, and most especially in those of a pantheistic bent, you tend to see one deity revered as the best representation of the universal immanent soul/divinity/godhead, and that often that deity is a Goddess. Further, in the Nordic countries, that Goddess was Freyja, and all of the other Goddesses are just hypostases or other aspects of Her. Here, Kvilhaug revisits this argument, but takes it a bit farther given the explicit pantheism that is the focus of this chapter. She says that if all Gods and Goddesses are just manifestations of the same universal soul, then of course all Goddesses are one Goddesses, but also, they're all one God, depending on the myth. She further elaborates on the point she has made before that Heimdallr is the "Great World," or the embodiment of all of the cosmos, and in some of His myths serves as the universal divine that all other Gods (And Goddesses and Men and Women and everything else) are just emanations of. Odhinn also seems to sometimes fill the role of "all divinity present in all things." I think mostly you'll be nodding along with this if you buy Kvilhaug's assertions about pantheism, and you'll find it speculative or hand-wavey or otherwise useless if you don't.

Eagles: An Unlooked-For Comparison

Okay, this far into the book, I've gotten used to some pretty out-there comparisons and tie-ins and the like: dwarves as space aliens, Thorr as the literal magnetosphere, Cybele and Ishtar as influences on Norse Goddesses, but I was still not expecting to see the Norse myths compared to Carlos Castaneda at all. If you're not familiar, Castaneda wrote a series of books while studying for his anthropology Ph.D. that became rather popular. In these, he describes learning about spiritual matters from a Yaqui (a Mexican Indian tribe) "man of knowledge" named don Juan Matus. Apparently, in one of these books, The Fire from Within, Castaneda tells about don Juan describing the visions of the "Old Toltec seers" involving a huge spiritual force/entity that is "like an eagle" that is the source of all consciousness, and from which "streams" or "emanations" of force or awareness flow, but which also eats the awareness of souls when they die, enhancing it's own knowledge and consciousness through the experience thus consumed. Kvilhaug compares this with the prominent role played by eagles and Gods/jotnar in eagle shape in the Norse myths, especially Hraesvelgr, "Corpse Swallower," the eagle who sits at the top of the World Tree, from whose flapping wings come all winds, and who eats the dead (and might be the same as Thjazi and/or Suttung). I'm not gonna lie: the parallels are at least interesting, if not downright striking, not least because they seem to come from such disparate sources.

There's something to know when considering this comparison, though. After Castaneda's books became very popular, some folks came out expressing doubts that his accounts were accurate, or even that don Juan was a real person. The works feature very little that is verifiably Yaqui in language or culture, there's no outside corroboration of don Juan or Castaneda's interactions with him, and there are certain inconsistencies in the stories as given that would be odd for careful ethnographic work. All of which is to say that some folks think Castaneda's a stone-cold fake. John Michael Greer, whom I respect greatly on all matters occult and esoteric, agrees that Castaneda's works are likely best thought of as fiction, but fiction that nevertheless includes some very deep spiritual insights. If such allegations are true, or close to true, it also renders the "proof" of Old Norse and indigenous Mexican beliefs describing similar spiritual realities far less impressive. Even still, I've never encountered any mention of Castaneda having any familiarity with Norse myth, so it'd be pretty strange if he had consciously incorporated anything from it as part of making something up. If Kvilhaug is wrong that these are truly uncrossed parallel visions of a deeper spiritual reality, the most likely explanation to me is that Castaneda was exposed to enough "adjacent" cultural material to Old Norse myth that a vision he had himself featured an eagle in a similar role. But it's also possible that she's onto something here, and it certainly makes for great food for bethinking.

The Norse Myths are Intentional, Symbolic Fiction

I mentioned above that Kvilhaug's belief that the pantheistic truth of the universe can be approached multiple ways has further implications in the chapter, and the biggest one might be that she sees the myths as merely metaphorical expressions of the ineffable truth of pantheism. Specifically, she believes that the poems of the Edda were works of "fiction" crafted by their writers with conscious metaphorical intent. In other words, she thinks the Eddic poems bear a similar relationship to pantheistic truth as The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe bears to the gospel. She sees the Eddic and Skaldic poets as initiates into the pantheist-flavored mysteries she discusses who used the raw material of their culture's folkways and lore to consciously try to convey the deep truths they had experienced in metaphorical language. On the one hand, this helps make sense of Kvilhaug's tendency to equate darn-near everything (more on that in the next bit) - she feels like they're all just intentionally chosen symbols anyway, so it doesn't much matter which one is used, except as it is affected by things like poetic, narrative, or aesthetic considerations. Since all religious insights end up pointing to the same end eventually, it's helpful to compare notes between two different paths to triangulate where it seems they're both pointing to. Hell, this interpretative framework being asserted is even consistent with Kvilhaug's pantheistic chauvinism - if the pantheistic unity of all spiritual insights is true, and if these poets were folks who had deeply grasped this, what else could they write besides conscious metaphors of ineffable truths?

My main beef here is that this isn't really how myths work, and Kvilhaug has shown a lot of the evidence that they don't throughout this book. Multiple times, she gives examples of the surprising longevity of mythic themes and figures - the Bronze Age carvings showing a sun Goddess and what looks like a God with a hammer, Tacitus's account of a Goddess of plenty paraded in a cart, just like Frey's statue in late heathen times, and others. One of the reasons myths are so long-lasting is because they are important to their culture: there's a right way to tell one and a wrong way. Different storytellers might try out different variations, but only within certain bounds. You might be able to get away with changing how Thor killed a particular jotun, but if you said He didn't, or that He was a coward, or a pacifist, everyone would just say "that's not how the story goes!" My point is that within a culture where myths are still a vital part of its religious life, and not just one piece of cultural heritage among others, the elements of those myths are not simple raw materials that can be repurposed to whatever end an individual author wants.

To be fair, I don't think Kvilhaug is saying that the skalds were picking Gods or Goddesses willy-nilly, with no regard for what They were known to be like. I think, instead, that she was saying the old stories had always had hints of the pantheism she believes the skalds wanted to convey, and those skalds picked stories and emphasized elements from them that highlighted those hints. Sure, at times in the ancient world, we had self-conscious works using mythological elements like Ovid's Metamorphoses, or more earnest, but still clearly very intentional, works like The Golden Ass by Apuleius, but these came in societies at a very different place in their development than the Iron Age and early Medieval Nordic countries. Even if Kvilhaug is right that there were explicit mystery cults in the north back then, I am skeptical that their adherents would be crafting explicitly allegorical works out of the raw material of organic myths.

Everything is the Same as Everything Else

It is maybe fitting that once Kvilhaug (finally) reveals the full shape of her interpretative framework of the myths she makes it clearer than ever before why she has been so ready to find similarities between different Gods, Goddesses, jotnar, stories, places, and things: she literally believes they are all "really" the same thing. Urdhr is Brynhild is Idhunn is Frigg is Freyja is Odhinn is Heimdall is Ymir is Mimir is Thjazi is… You get the idea. And no, I'm not exaggerating for comedic effect here. When making the comparison between different eagle myths we talked about above, she goes on to say that the myth of an eagle that is the source of all winds and is the "corpse devourer" is the same myth as the roaring mill (Hvergelmir) in the underworld that receives all souls but is also the source of all streams. And both of those are the same as Urdharbrunnar, the Well of Origin/Fate. If Freyja is the "Great Goddess" that is the "true" nature behind the many masks of the other Goddesses, Norns, Valkyries, and others, well, then, Odhinn the Great God is the same thing, only seen for its masculine attributes rather than feminine. Since all of these figures are just symbols pointing at one, single thing behind them, any differences are wholly arbitrary, or at best, aesthetic or contingent on what aspect of that single thing the storyteller wants to emphasize today, in this one story. I have to give Kvilhaug credit for being consistent on this matter, and following the implications of her beliefs through to their logical conclusions, but if you don't share her starting premise, it's a frustrating experience to see the rich and exciting world of manifold Gods, Goddesses, elves, dwarves, jotnar, trolls, and so forth all thrown into a blender and turned into homogeneous slop.

The systems of spiritual teaching I am currently exploring teach that, yes, all of reality is a manifestation of a single source, and so, in some sense, we are all made of the same "stuff" and are parts of the same "whole," as Kvilhaug asserts. The systems I follow, though, lay far more emphasis than Kvilhaug seems to on how different manifestations truly do differ in meaningful ways. You and I and Odhinn may all be emanations of "the One," but to say that it is "more true" or "more important" that we are "the same" than that we are "different" seems reductive to the point that it might as well be false. Now, might it be an important part of spiritual insight and growth to see that we are "the same" in ways that are not immediately obvious? Quite possibly, yes! But to take that and say "therefore, differences are an unimportant illusion that can be dispensed with" strikes me as springing from a desire to make a big, complicated world easier to understand.

Look at how utterly confusing and messy the natural world is. On the one hand, you could just say "well, all of life is just an assortment of arrangements of carbon atoms with a few others brought along." Okay, sure, technically right, I guess, but hell, look at how utterly messy and confusing those arrangements of carbon are. Look at just your own gut - we have such a poor understanding of how digestion works, how it interacts with everything else going on in our body, how it interacts with the billions of other critters that live inside our body, and so forth. That's one piece of the natural world that is right here! We haven't even touched the fungal and microbial ecosystems in the soil under forests. Or the undiscovered species of insects in the rainforests. Or what the hell is going on at the vents at the bottom of the ocean. If the world that is available to our bodily senses is made out of such fractal complexity, why would we expect the world beyond those senses, which is supposed to be inhabited by beings greater, smarter, and far older than us, to be any simpler? Or for attractive simplifying assumptions like "they're all really just emanations of the same universal soul" to be any more helpful than "those are all really just arrangements of carbon atoms"?

Maybe I'll change my mind on this as I go further in my spiritual exploration, but for now, I am deeply suspicious of any metaphysical scheme that tries to wrap things up in a nice, neat, easy-for-humans-to-understand package. We're clever apes with moderately developed sparks of something divine within us, and there's a whole lot more of Being than there is of us.

Not Really a Mystery, and Not Really a Thesis

Given that in other parts of the book, Kvilhaug has talked about how working out the deeper meanings of the myths is like a detective story, I think one reason she might have held off until the last chapter to lay her metaphysical/theological cards on the table was to "make her case." Now, there's a place for narrative non-fiction, where the thing being explored is treated kind of like a mystery that is gradually uncovered chapter by chapter as new evidence is brought in and the implications are gradually, tantalizingly made clear. From what I remember about reading Fingerprints of the Gods back in college, it did an excellent job of this, hinting and teasing at the final "reveal" while making its case, but not entirely giving the game away until the end. If something like that is what Kvilhaug was going for, well, the poor organization I've lamented in almost all of these reviews has betrayed her, because she spoiled herself throughout the whole book, repeatedly. I think the book would have been much stronger if she had just come out at the beginning and said "I think the Old Norse myths are works of metaphorical literature intentionally crafted to convey the pantheistic spiritual insights of a mystery religion similar to those found in the classical world and elsewhere, I'll spend the rest of the book proving it." Which is, you know, the standard approach in academic writing, which you might expect someone who holds a Masters degree to gravitate toward. Finally having her put these things so explicitly made a lot of the rest of the book click into place more clearly. Maybe it wouldn't have done so without reading the rest of the book, I dunno - if you happen to read all of these reviews before reading the book and decide to start with the last chapter and then read the rest, please let me know how that works out.

For me, this is a much stronger criticism than "it's a bit repetitive at times" or "wow, I wish you had gone to the trouble to make an index" or even "you scatter important insights about the same topic across multiple chapters." All of those are structural issues, but this is a foundational issue - the rest of the structure is built on shaky groundwork, so no wonder it's harder to follow than it ought to be. Kvilhaug ends the book with a description of another personal spiritual experience (and again, it's pretty well done for that kind of thing), one that granted her a key insight into the pantheism she has come to believe is at the core of Norse Myth, and together with the Epilogue, it seems clear that she thinks this provides a nice, inspirational send-off, encouraging the reader to begin his own exploration of the pantheistic truth hidden within the myths, with her insights as his guide. Instead, it just felt like another idiosyncratic take consistent with what has been said over-and-over throughout the book, but never all that clearly, and presented as the authoritative truth, despite some token protestations of intellectual humility. It was a somewhat disappointing, but not all that surprising, ending to a very uneven book - genuinely worthwhile insights mired in a confused, repetitive structure, and crammed into one true framework of interpretation.

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[Book] Spellcraft

Date: 2024-January-14

I took a bit of a break from The Seed of Yggdrasill to read a book that I thought might help me with my Heathen Rosary project: Spellcraft by Robin Skelton. It's not a particularly long book, and it's one of the few books on any sort of magic written by someone who was also a talented (and published) poet and student of poetry (his The Shapes of Our Singing is a far more conventional book of poetics that explains a number of different traditional poetic structures drawn from cultures and languages around the world). The book was recommended to me by John Michael Greer when I asked whether crafting magical intentions and/or affirmations as poems made them more effective, and if so, if he had any recommendations on the subject.

It turns out that Skelton might take slight issue with the use JMG recommended and that I turned to the book for - in it, he argues that while "spells" (more on what he means by that in a moment) can be poetic, if you get too caught up in crafting a poem, you're actually doing something different than making a spell. So, what does he mean by a spell, then? For Skelton, a spell is a spoken utterance of words meant to bring about a desired intent. He distinguishes spells from other types of magic, which might rely on ritual (ceremonial magic), specific herbs or stones (natural magic), or symbolic association of the target or intent with items or actions meant to represent them (sympathetic magic). Throughout the book, he touches on these other kinds of magic, because in practice, all of these have almost always blended together and supported one another, but he always focuses on the spoken formulae and their characteristics.

Since he was a professional crafter of words, this focus is both reasonable and appreciated. It keeps the book pretty tight, and he has insights that someone focused on the other bits, or trying for a holistic description, might miss. For example, the way that many spells will try to "pattern" the entire thing being discussed (whether called upon or being acted on) by sequentially naming enough specific parts of it to represent it as a whole. A silly example: the children's song "Head, shoulders, knees, and toes" is clearly meant to represent the whole body with it's fairly sparse cataloging of body parts from top to bottom. Also, many spells make use of the "rule of threes," naming the same thing to be done three times, or naming three things in sequence of increasing significance, or naming something twice and introducing a variation on the third (like in a joke). Many of these insights come across as a bit obvious when explained in plain language, but the value comes in the fact that he inferred these plain language rules from masses of examples, and then phrased them simply enough to be easily made use of. A classic example of where the end product looks far easier than it really was to arrive at.

To explain spells, Skelton relies on a more-or-less materialist explanation, but a distinctly late 70s alternative materialist explanation. If you weren't familiar, back in the 70s, parapsychology (the study of psychic phenomena) was still fairly respectable. It was fringe, yes, but professors at big name universities could get funding to conduct experiments on things like predicting what card would be drawn, reading the thoughts of a subject, remote viewing, or telekinesis. The findings were debated, but the belief that psychic phenomena of some kind or another might be real, and that they likely had some kind of physical explanation amenable to discovery by scientific experiment was one you could hold without being banished to the outer darkness. So, Spellcraft asserts that spells are accomplished by the spellmaker summoning a sufficiently strong "psychic feeling," and then directing it with focus and a clear intent. By this explanation, the spell itself (by which I mean the words spoken) is simply a tool for concentration and communication with the subconscious - likewise with the other flavors of magic discussed above. This explanatory framework has a few practical implications. First, it suggests that the spell and any accompanying ritual, herbs, timing, ceremony, or other considerations are only cues to your subconscious, and as such, might vary person to person and might be able to be altered or dispensed with if you can arrive at the proper frame of mind otherwise. Secondly, it places distinct limits on what you can expect a spell to accomplish - specifically, whatever can be accomplished through the power of suggestion (over yourself or someone else, or both). The systems of magic I am in the process of learning have different explanatory frameworks, and so might disagree with these implications to a degree, but they also teach that these implications are mostly right - you might be able to dispense with the ritual or alter the symbols once you get very good, but there's a reason they are as they are, and affecting your own consciousness or those of other folks are the most readily accomplished aims of magic, but maybe not literally the only ones achievable.

Anyhow, as for the book itself, Skelton opens with two chapters on over-arching forms found throughout spells of different intents: invocations and incantations. An invocation is a pattern for calling up power to be used in the spell, often from an "outside" power (I use scare quotes because Skelton expresses agnosticism throughout on the literal external reality of Gods, spirits, and other non-corporeal beings, and implies that they might simply be processes and symbols in the deep mind), but not necessarily - an invocation can be to yourself, an inner quality, or something else. Incantations are a tool for focusing any power called up through some amount of repetition and enumeration, often using the "patterning" mentioned above to represent a whole through the addressing of its most significant parts. As you might guess, very many spells open with an invocation and then move into an incantation. As Skelton points out many times, the line between a prayer asking for an outcome and a spell can be awfully blurry, with the main difference being that an outcome-focused prayer asks a deity to use His power to make it happen, whereas a spell has the spell maker at least channeling the power, if not generating it himself. After these two, he steps through spells by categories of intent: blessing, binding & bidding, love, and healing. In each, he gives several examples from around the world (though very many from the Hebrides and Ireland, whether because we have good documentation there or it was of especial interest to him, I don't know) and then breaks down what's going on in these examples. I found the combination of explaining underlying principles and analyzing examples to show those principles to be very useful. He closes out with a chapter on "Ways and Means" that I was hoping would be more nitty-gritty language-use advice, but turned out to have more to do with achieving the proper state of concentration, and so veered the most into the areas Skelton left out of the book - ritual, timing, props, and so forth. Again, all of this is treated as ways to get yourself into the proper headspace, but throughout he does a good job of acknowledging that what will work well with your deep mind is likely not obvious to your conscious mind, and you'd do well to err on the side of using traditional symbols and associations.

My chief complaint about the book (besides it not being as literally "how to write prayers and spells as poetry" as I originally hoped) was that Skelton's approach to the ethics of magic is not wholly consistent with the approach I have learned, and I think to its detriment. He's careful to point out that spells that aim at power and self-aggrandizement and harming others will have negative effects on the person who casts them, and warns against such things frequently. He even warns that often, you might think your spell has a pure and good-hearted intention, but if it's really about fluffing your ego or dominating others or something, it will not only likely be less effective, it will also be harmful to you. So, that's appreciated. On the other hand, as the inclusion of a "Binding & Bidding" chapter might have tipped you off to, he doesn't place that great a weight on consent, which I've been taught is one of the most important magical ethical rules. When discussing those spells where consent is lacking (such as a spell to bid a lover to come to you and make him or herself known), he's careful to point out that these are the spells most at risk of having hidden, uglier motives, and that they should be phrased in a way that they are to the benefit of the other person (for example, don't force a specific person to burn with inescapable passion for you, but instead invite someone who would be happy with you to show up and feel well disposed toward you). Reading through these examples, though, has only made me better appreciate the primacy given to consent in the systems I'm learning: it's precisely because it's nearly impossible to self-police your deep-down intentions about highly charged things that you shouldn't even try it - you should only attempt magic where anyone directly affected by it is on board with it, as a check that you're not fooling yourself about what you're trying to accomplish.

Overall, though, I enjoyed this book and got some good tips from it, and I look forward to trying to incorporate them into my practice, even if "spellmaking" as defined by the book is not the focus of most of what I'm learning (ritual and ceremony are, instead). It wasn't as directly relevant to my prayer-crafting as I hoped it would be, but some of the concepts behind invocations and incantations are helpful for informing how I might structure the more explicitly poetic prayers I'm trying to put together. Unfortunately, it's been out of print for a long while, and it looks like it can be tough to come by at a decent price (cheapest copy on alibris at the time of writing is $97(!), I got it for less than $30 a little over a year ago), but if you get the chance to check it out, it's got a lot of interesting thinking on the power of words to speak to and shape our deep mind for the ends of magic.

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[Book] The Seed of Yggdrasill 11 - The Trials of Thorr

Date: 2024-January-07

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This chapter might be one of the best in the book. Not because it has the deepest insights or the newest ways of thinking about the myths - it's all pretty much in line with what she's been saying throughout. Rather, this chapter might suffer the least from the complaints I've had for most of the rest of the book - it's straightforward, not particularly repetitive (while still appropriately referring back to points already discussed), and weaves together evidence from multiple poems into a coherent message. The chapter also has a core point, explores that point, but doesn't wander off on too many tangents, so hooray! Once again, glimpses like this of what this whole book could have been, say if Kvilhaug had hired an editor, are frustrating, but I'll take good stuff where I can get it.

The Chapter's Thesis - Thor Stands for the Human Initiate in Eddic Poems

Kvilhaug's main point for this chapter is, as I said, pretty straightforward: in (at least most) Eddic poems, Thor stands in as a human initiate being confronted by spiritual challenges. Specifically, Thor stands for a strong, materially successful man, someone on top of the world in this life, who may have less insight into the spiritual world. What's immediately appealing about this theory is that it explains why one of the most respected, widely worshiped Gods of the elder heathens would be shown as such a buffoon in so many of the myths about him. One of the preferred scholarly explanations has never been very satisfying to me, at least not as the whole explanation: Thor was the God of the common man, whereas Odin was the God of poets and lords, so the poetry we have, which was composed by poets for lords, favors the high class God over the low class God. Now, clearly, there's likely something to this. Odin is the God of kings and poets, magicians and wanderers. His myths don't feature much in the way of being a good, solid family man or a pillar of the community. Thor on the other hand, is a devoted husband and father, utterly reliable in warding Asgard from jotuns and trolls, and unfailingly brave. There's a lot here for more "down to earth" folks to find admirable.

Still, the thought that different groups of society each had "their own" God and treated the others with ridicule and contempt doesn't really jive with what we know about polytheistic societies. Yes, groups and individuals often have one or more Gods that they are closer to and give more worship to than others, but the idea of putting down Gods with whom you don't have much of a relationship seems like a projection from monotheistic norms. Sure, you got the occasional denigration of the Gods of enemies, but by far the norm was to treat all Gods, foreign and domestic, with at least distant cordiality and respect. These are, after all, powerful eternal beings that know and can do far more than you, so why risk it?

The other favored explanation for Thor's embarrassment in many of the Eddic poems is some combination of Christian influence and/or more common folktales shaping the poems, rather than some presumed older, more serious "religious" mythology. Again, while not impossible (remember, even the very oldest Eddic poems were written down, and likely composed, rather late in heathen times), and possibly part of the picture, this strikes me as not the best explanation either. Whatever else they are, the Eddic poems are works of highly-crafted poetry. The "it's just folktales" argument also goes directly against the idea that these were composed by the high class poets opposed to the common folk in the earlier theory. As for the Christian influence argument, I think Kvilhaug's arguments from the past chapter on the decidedly heathen initiatory elements in many of the poems is pretty strong. We also have tales of later Christian poets explicitly mocking the Gods (like one guy calling Freyja "a bitch," for which he was banished), and the Eddic poems don't seem to do this (except maybe Lokasenna).

Anyhow, since I've never found these explanations very convincing, Kvilhaug's comes as a welcome alternative. Thor's seeming "bumbling" and the various humiliations he suffers are not attacks, rather they are instruction in his initiation, meant to impart lessons to the audience. This is a far more satisfying answer. So, how do these often comical scenes work as steps of an initiation? Let's explore.

Humiliation and Gender Role Reversal as Spiritual Growth

Kvilhaug points out that the Thor we see in the Eddic poetry is in many ways the stereotypical viking warrior: macho, proud, strong, brave, and ready to solve all problems with violence, to the point of being hot-headed. Notice that often, this is exactly what the Gods need to get out of one scrape or another - Thor shows up to run off Loki or the jotun who's causing trouble, or just kill him. In a few poems, though, like Harbardhsljodh, Thrymskvidha, and Hymiskvidha, Thor is made fun of, shown up, or forced to engage in shameful behavior. Harbardhsljodh is basically an extended ridiculing of Thor by Odin in disguise, meeting every boast of Thor's about His strength and prowess in battle with put downs and counter-brags about handiness with women. Besides Lokasenna, this is one of the harder poems to square with devout, worshiping heathens that revered both Gods. Again in Thrymskvidha, Thor has His hammer stolen out from under His nose and ends up having to dress as a bride and all but consummate a wedding to a jotun. In Hymiskvidha, Thor isn't humiliated quite so much, but He does have to heed the crafty advice of His/Tyr's mother (I've seen both interpretations) rather than take His preferred direct approach, and Hymir thwarts Him catching the Midgard Serpent. In all of these, Thor's default of "smash it with Mjolnir and sort it out afterward!" is somehow shown not to be the way, and in all cases, the right path somehow involved women.

Kvilhaug makes good use of a more-or-less Jungian scheme of what masculine/feminine beings and traits are doing in myth that she introduced way back in chapter 1 when talking through this stuff. She also makes some interesting comparisons to the trope from martial arts movies of the young, talented hot head who has to discover that being an arrogant jerk that can kick everybody's ass isn't the path to true wisdom or power (she does an extended run down of Fearless, starring Jet Li, to make this point). I thought her analysis of what's going on in Harbardhsljodh made especially good use of her paradigm, pointing out that Odin's bragging about getting with the ladies might have been less about His being all-time greatest player and more about His achievement of the spiritual accomplishments that bring about union with the "Lady with the Mead," as described in earlier chapters. Likewise, His making fun of Thor for fighting women is likely less about Him being a chickpuncher and more about Him failing the test to confront the ugly ogress appropriately so that she transforms into the shining maiden, again, as a path to spiritual enlightenment.

Similarly, Thor dressing up as a bride in Thrymskvidha may be more than a funny story about the mighty God being made a fool of. It might represent the need to embrace the feminine parts of His personality to overcome certain obstacles and reach greater wisdom and power. Kvilhaug argues that both of these stories (and arguably, also the story of Utgardhsloki given by Snorri) are about humiliation as a tool for breaking down the pride of the ego, and I think she's likely onto something. In Hymiskvidha, Thor has finally learned His lesson and readily acquiesces to the wisdom of His/Tyr's mother and so achieves His goals with minimal fuss (and when the jotnar decide to attack Him anyway, He gets to flex His still mighty fighting skills). The idea that we all have both masculine and feminine parts within us, but that many of us have trouble getting in touch with the part that doesn't match our bodily sex will be familiar to anyone who has read much Jung at all, and again, I think Kvilhaug makes good use of this framework for thinking here. She goes a bit overboard with bringing in modern gender theory and politics, but that's not really necessary to her wider point, which I think is pretty sound.

Kvilhaug's Personal Experience with Thor

Kvilhaug closes the chapter with something a bit on the odd side, but that I appreciated: an account of one of her own spiritual experiences that has informed how she understands Thor. These kinds of things can easily veer either into "too personal to mean anything to anyone else" or else "grandiose claims about unique insight into the nature of reality." Kvilhaug dodges both of these pitfalls admirably. She is careful to stress the subjective nature of what occurred, acknowledges that she can make no claims as to whether it was "all in her head" or in contact with something outside of herself, and all of the mundane factors that may have contributed to it. For my part, I'm grateful for a writer to share this kind of very personal experience, as it helps cast some light on the arguments she makes elsewhere, but again, she's careful not to be weirdly dogmatic or proselytizing about it or the like.

As I said, this was a very solid chapter, and I wish we had gotten more like this. So, as we come to the final step in our journey, let's see how the last chapter goes!

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A Boast for 2024

Date: 2023-December-31

One of the core rituals of Heathenry is the symbel (pronounced "soom-bull"), a round of communal toasts given in honor of the Gods, the community, and the forebears. You can find a detailed write-up of how to do one right by Galina Krasskova here. In the course of giving toasts, some of them may appropriately take the form of "boasts" about deeds accomplished or promised. Now, this deserves a little unpacking. Usually, the word "boast" has connotations of empty, swaggering words, but if done right, a symbel boast should be nothing of the sort. Instead, it is a commitment in front of Gods and men that you will do this thing, or an acknowledgment that accomplishing the thing relied on the strength and support you gained from them, if it has already been done. It's a way of asking your community to bind their will and wyrd (destiny, roughly) to yours. If you do the thing, you bring good luck and strength to everyone who shared in the toast with you. On the other hand, if you fail, you weaken them and bring bad luck. So, boasts should not be entered into lightly, and should be given in a sense of earnest commitment, not as an attention-getting brag.

With all that out of the way, for the past two years I have made a boast for the coming year to my online community, and this year, I want to do so again. I already mentioned the nature of this year's boast, but I like to craft a poem to be given with the actual "toast."

Hail Gods
Great and mighty,
welcome world-crafters!
Ale I lift
to Ese* shining,
beloved life-shapers.
Hail Forebears
Far-spread about,
and full-told through time!
To you I toast
with tumbler high,
wellsprings of widespread kin.
May coming year
kindly yield
blissful blessings to all
Boldly will I
a book full-write
on prayers of fair praise.
\* Ese is a proposed Anglo-Saxon version of Aesir, the chief tribe of the Gods, and which can be used to refer to all Gods, even the Wen/Vanir

So, if you are reading this and are willing to bond your strength and will with mine, I invite you to share a toast of your favorite beverage with me (virtually, of course), and to mark some accomplishment of the past year or a firm intention for the coming year. May our bound strength of purpose help both of us along to our goals.

Hail reader and friend!

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Looking Back on 2023 and Forward to 2024

Date: 2023-December-24

My Boast - A Blog Post a Week All Year

To meet this boast, I gave myself 5 "misses," where I didn't get anything up on time, as long as I made it up within the next week, and 5 "placeholder" posts, where I posted something without much substantive content, but on time. Here's how that worked out. For the sake of this rule, I am counting "after midnight but before I went to bed" as being "still Sunday."

Missed the Deadline: 3 (but never by more than 1 day, if that means anything!)
Placeholder Posted: 2
Missed the Deadline, and Made Up For It With a Placeholder: 0

Overall, this suggests I was a bit generous with the wiggle room I allowed myself. Also, looking at where I used placeholders, as well as where I was late, it was mostly holidays of one kind or another. This wouldn't have been a problem if not for my "Just In Time" writing and posting, where almost every post was written over the weekend that it got posted. Overall, I think the placeholders were a better option than flat-out missing a week, and I should have fallen back to that more often (which was the whole point of having it as an option). Instead, I found myself with a post 1/2 or 2/3 written and then not being able to wrap it up by Sunday evening. I had hoped for a getting into a better rhythm, especially one with more of a break between writing and editing, so that I could give editing more of the attention it deserves. It's tough finding the right balance between "just focus on getting something finished and out there every week" and "edit your posts for lasting value and quality." The good news is that I've gotten to the point where writing a blog post feels like a normal part of my workload and life on a weekly basis, so I think I'll try to keep that up.


After last year's boast, I did not put any particular constraint on my reading this year, but I did try to make it a priority. One way I did that was to write book reviews, bringing together my weekly blogging and my desire to spend time reading. Another way was to recommit to reading fiction regularly (ideally, at least about ten minutes before bed every night). Part of how I made that more likely was to let myself read whatever fiction I was interested in or excited about, whereas in the past I've sometimes tried to alternate between "lighter" and "weightier" fiction. I also didn't read as many comics this year, though that was less out of some intention, and more that I didn't discover as many comics as I have in years past. One thing that continued to pull against reading more books was continuing to read a lot of blogs. There's a lot of good stuff on substack, and I've been keeping up with more of it than I did in the past, but I'm wondering if I ought to put some stricter limits on what or how much stuff from blogs I read - not because I think it's "bad," but simply the cruel implacability of opportunity cost - an hour spent reading a long-form article is an hour not spent reading a chapter in a book.

Though it's a vanity metric, "number of books read" is at least helpful to me for spotting major trends in how I spend my time on the input side of things. A huge spike in "books read" might mean I read a lot of graphic novels, which I can finish in an evening. A big dip might be because I was reading big, fat doorstops like Spengler or reading a crap ton of blog posts instead, or maybe both. So, how did this year stack up? Unless I tear through a novella or some graphic novels, it looks like I'm finishing the year with 42 (heh) books, 32 of which were not graphic novels. This is way higher than last year's 17 books, but much closer to 2022's 46, some of which I discussed in my lookback on reading only books by the dead I linked a moment ago. I should also point out that I have a handful of books, maybe 3-5 that are "in process" - I've been reading them, am actively planning on continuing to do so, but I've only been reading in bits and pieces, or at certain times, like The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James, which I bring with me when I need to wait on an appointment, or for my daughter to do her dance class. This habit is likely unhelpful, and I should unify my will on one reading project at a time. You'll find proponents for both "only one book at a time, always" as well as "dip in and out of as many books as you want, it's great!" with the latter being seen in its most extreme form as incremental reading. Given how strongly I am drawn by "ooh, shiny new ideas!" as well as the amount of variety I'm already getting from my hyper-customized magazine that is substack, I likely need to lean more heavily toward the focus end of things.


At some point last year, I started keeping an analog zettelkasten, and by some measures, I've kept up with that. I say "by some measures," because I haven't been as consistent with it as I'd like. I've done a very good job of taking notes on what I'm reading on "bib cards" (you make a card with bibliographic information on the book or article, then take reading notes on the back of it), an okay job on writing cards to go into my zettelkasten, but a kind of terrible job on "filing" or "installing" those cards - giving them an index number and writing it down in my key. The little use I have made of this set up keeps me convinced I ought to stick with it, but I've yet to develop the core habit of writing and installing "main cards" as I go. By all accounts, this gets easier as your key/index gets more robust, as adding key entries is one of the hurdles, but I haven't pushed past that just yet. We'll see how things go in 2024.

Spiritual Work

I've been pretty consistent with my spiritual work, doing a daily banishing ritual, discursive meditation, and divination of one kind or another. There's been a handful of days where I had to do a placeholder (like only doing 5 minutes of breathing for my meditation, or a shorter ritual), and another handful where I missed one or more of the practices all together. Even still, I scryed each of the stations of the Wheel of Life and each of the fews of the Ogham and have worked my way into the fourth grade of the Dolmen Arch, nearing the end of the "Lesser Mysteries." I also worked my way up to the master level of the Modern Order of Essenes and began work in the Universal Gnostic Church seminary on my way to ordination in that rather quirky religious body. I plan on keeping up with the same going into next year - I can't do any advanced ceremonial magic until my younger daughter is three, so I won't be exploring that end of the Druid Magic Handbook in the coming year, but I have plenty to keep me busy with study, meditation, and a weekly scrying.

What's Next?

If you haven't seen at the top of the page or bottom each new post, I'm starting a mailing list for updates to the blog. Personally, I like getting email updates for new blog posts (I subscribe to a bunch of substacks), so I decided I ought to extend the same courtesy to you, gentle reader. I've been holding off on doing this for not wanting to use a corporate tool like mailchimp and not knowing an open source option, but I decided to stop using that as an excuse and just go low tech. For now, that means that to get on the mailing list, you just send me an email saying so, and I put your email address on a list. Each week, when a post goes out, I'll copy and paste it into an email and send it to everyone on the list. Presumably I'll find a better way of handling it as we go, but for now, I wanted to get a minimally viable product going.

The other thing for the year is I'm setting myself an ambitious goal: I'm going to finish crafting the Heathen Rosary and write a book about it. I don't yet know what all will go into that book, besides the prayers and how to say them, but this feels like an important step for me: my boasts for the last two years have been very "process" oriented - only read books by dead guys, crank out a blog post weekly. I think it will do me some good to have something more concrete to go after, and I've been meaning to write a book for years, so here we go.

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[Book] The Seed of Yggdrasill 10 - The Wise Man's Path

Date: 2023-December-17

Posts about Seed of Yggdrasill

Still another short one, before a medium penultimate chapter and a long final chapter. Still, the end of the tunnel is in sight! I know I keep harping on the same things, but they all seem linked together, and as I go through the book, they become more of a problem. Better organization and editing would have meant less redundancy, as well as shorter length. The good insights (which, again, are definitely here) could shine out all the more clearly were that the case. Ah well, let's talk about the male path of initiation now that we've talked about the female path and the sacred marriage.

Odhin's Self-Giving Upon the Tree

If you have spent any time with the Heathen lore at all, you have come across the tale of Odhinn hanging himself upon the World Tree, Yggdrasill, a sacrifice of himself to himself, by which he won the runes and maybe even his very godhood, as relayed in Havamal. One thing that's curious about this tale, though, is that it is not told of Odhinn in Snorri's Prose Edda. Maybe the defining story of the king of the Gods, and Snorri just left it out? Curious. Kvilhaug has made this point before, but she makes it more fully here - maybe Snorri left it out because that story was too radioactive to 13th century Icelandic Christians. Too Heathen. Too magical. Too much stepping on Christ's exclusive claim to resurrection. It's always difficult to argue that the absence of evidence is evidence, but given how many clues we have that Snorri was familiar with most of the specific poems of the Poetic Edda, the idea that he just flat didn't know Havamal seems odd. As happens often, I find Kvilhaug's confidence in her theory a bit much, but in this case, I think she's very likely on to something. At any rate, the reason she puts so much weight on this myth in this chapter is to make the claim that it provides the pattern for a possibly real-life initiation ritual, at least for high-status, spiritually important folks like kings, shamans, and esoteric seekers. Ordeal is a well-known path to altered states of consciousness, and is well-attested among the circumpolar folks who had shamans. Specifically, ordeal by some kind of hanging is known in some of these groups, so that's, at a minimum, suggestive. And fasting is a human universal. Now, nine days and nine nights with no food and water? I tend to suspect that's a length of time to prove His godly superiority, as the rule of thumb I learned in the Army is "three minutes without air, three hours without heat, three days without water, three weeks without food." Still, the core idea that some combination of fasting and ordeal was used by actual spiritual specialists in the Viking world seems quite likely to me, and the idea that Havamal reflects that seems just about as likely.

Yeah, But Isn't a Self-Sacrificing God Just a Copycat of Christ?

How much Christian influence there is in the versions of the myths we have is hotly debated, both among scholars and practicing Heathens. The written versions we have were written down by Christians, and in some cases, transmitted through Christians before being written down. Some of our sources, like Saxo Grammaticus, hated the old Heathen ways and went out of their way to put them down and make them look bad (Saxo's main approach was to euhemerize the old Gods into kings and wizards of elder times and then tell the most unflattering stories about them as proof of how wicked they were). Some, like the unknown scribes who copied down the poems of the Poetic Edda and added a few prose bits to introduce and stitch together the poems seem to have been happy to just say "here's the old stuff, they believed different things back then, because they didn't know any better." Others, like Snorri, walked some kind of middle ground, retelling the stories in his own words, and in a way calculated not to alarm Church authorities, but that made it clear he did not believe any of this unChristian nonsense. Further complicating matters is the policy that the Church used at the time of co-opting local holy sites, practices, and even (to some degree) beliefs, but with updated, Christian meanings, as a method of conversion - so we know that pre-Christian stuff in Germanish-speaking lands and elsewhere got re-painted by Christians (the Celtic lands got this good and hard, as a reading of the Mabinogion or any Irish legends will show pretty quickly). All of which is to say that it's not crazy at all for modern folks to ask "okay, how much Christian influence might there be in the lore as we have it now?" and it's not easy to answer that non-crazy question.

The two tales that might get the most debate about Christian influence, though, are of Odhin's self-sacrifice upon Yggdrasill, and the "final" battle of Ragnarok. We'll leave aside Ragnarok for now, as this chapter focuses on Odhin's self-sacrifice. If you haven't heard it before, or if it's not clear to you, here's the argument for Christian influence: Odhinn hangs himself upon a tree, willingly, wounded by a spear, where he dies and comes back to life with a spiritual gift for all of mankind (the Runes). A "tree" was one of the preferred ways to talk about the Cross at the time in the Germanish-speaking world (see the Old English Dream of the Rood). "Hanging" isn't exactly being crucified, but it's not that different either (especially because the Old Norse leaves it a bit ambiguous whether Odhinn was hanged or hung - a noose around the neck, or suspended in some other way?). The spear wound mirrors that said to have been given to Christ by Longinus. In the Heliand, a continental Saxon retelling of the Gospels, used as a conversion text, the spiritual truths that Christ teaches are called Runes. All of which is to say that the pro-Christian influence argument is not baselessly making stuff up - it's a plausible inference to make.

Kvilhaug, though, lays out one of the best takedowns of the Christian-influence theory (for this myth, anyway) that I've seen. This is one of those places where her contrariness and apparent lack of sympathy for (if not to say possible hostility toward) Christianity come in handy. She goes through each element of the myth and identifies its Heathen precedent and long pedigree. Hanging and strangulation as forms of sacrifice are attested archaeologically from before the time of Christ. The idea of a World Tree, and an ordeal upon it, has very strong and deep shamanic and/or Indo-European roots. The spear was Odhin's signature weapon, and again, that seems to be very old. And while the Havamal is a bit ambivalent about whether the Runes it speaks of are the system of writing, the association of writing, magic, and spiritual truths/secrets ("Rune" comes from a word that means "secret") is also very old. All of which is to say, everything in the Havamal tale is at least plausibly drawn from pre-Christian tradition. Kvilhaug goes so far as to basically say this is a slam dunk that it was not influenced by Christianity, but I think that's going a bit far on the evidence. I'd say she makes an excellent case that the Christian influence is not obvious or necessary for the tales to be the way they are. On the other hand, there's almost no way to say "yep, no Christian influence here" absent some kind of pre-Christian written evidence. This whole area is one where I'd really like to see a deep, well-informed analysis by someone without any axes to grind. Christian influence doesn't leave Heathen material lacking spiritual significance, and the persistence of Heathen elements doesn't imply a lack of piety on the part of Germanish-speaking Christians.

The Steps of Initiation Clearly Laid Out

Though it's a bit repetitive from what Kvilhaug told us back in chapter 3 about "The Maiden with the Mead," we get the most clearly-spelled-out analysis of the initiation myth structure that she relies on that I've yet seen here in this chapter. Would I prefer she had just laid this out back in chapter 3? Yes. Am I happy to have it anyway? Of course. This kind of explicit "here are the steps, each step has a name, here's an example of each step happening" stuff is exactly what I want more of from Kvilhaug. This is helpful! She has a clear analytical framework that has done her a lot of good in understanding a wide range of tales - why not share that tool with us as well? Again, here, she does, so I'm grateful for that, but it's after she has spent chapters and chapters talking about stories with this framework obviously influencing what she's saying, but without making it as clear and explicit as she dos here. I just want some better organization! I'll likely have more to say on this when I write up my thoughts on the book as a whole, but once again, it's clear to me that what I really want from Kvilhaug is a well-organized and impeccably-cited reference work - something like Simek's Dictionary of Northern Mythology, but with her fanatical emphasis on the raw, plain meaning of names and conviction that most myths are blueprints for real-life rituals of one kind or another. That would be so useful. And rad. Alas, that does not seem to be where her strengths or energy lie, so I'll have to settle for her sharing very useful insights in long, rambly, repetitive prose. Le sigh.

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[Book] The Seed of Yggdrasill 9 - The Priestess and the King

Date: 2023-December-10

Sacred Marriage as a Middle Eastern Import

This whole chapter suffers somewhat from Kvilhaug's (I believe) mistaken take on history. For one, she comes back to the "pre-Indo-European culture was a bunch of peaceful matriarchs" Maria Gimbujtas-inspired stuff which is almost certainly very wrong. What's frustrating is that she makes some claims to support this interpretation that might be very interesting to investigate, but doesn't give any sources: for example, she claims that ancient DNA samples show that the women in this pre-Bronze Age culture stayed local, while it was the men who came from elsewhere, based on burials. This very well could indicate matrilineal traditions, without necessarily being a "matriarchy," but given how fast and loose she's played with historical/archaeological evidence elsewhere, I'm not wholly convinced. Secondly, she seeks to redeem some of Snorri's euhemerized history of the Aesir - namely, that they came from Troy in Asia (Minor), which is where their name comes from. As I've said before, I'm all for giving ancient writers the benefit of the doubt when they describe things that seem to go against our current understanding of historiography, but Kvilhaug draws on an Anatolian-origin and cultural diffusion model of the spread of Indo-European folk and tongues in Europe, both of which I believe to be badly flawed. There's a great overview of the evidence for the origin and spread of the Indo-Europeans here, and to be fair, the Anatolian origin theory seems like the second most likely one to me. On the other hand "cultural diffusion" is right out - the Indo-Europeans replaced most of the "First Farmers" and Hunter Gatherers in a big way, as the ancient and modern DNA evidence shows.

Anyway, Kvilhaug asserts that maybe the Nordic Bronze Age (likely the archaeological culture associated with the Proto-Germanic tongue and folk) came from Turkey, which suggests contact with Mesopotamia, which means the archaeological and mythological evidence for "sacred marriages" in Nordic lands may have been a direct transmission from the very well-attested tradition of sacred marriage in Mesopotamia. As I've implied, I'm not so convinced of this. Instead, one of two options seems more likely to me: 1. the concept of a "sacred marriage" is just baked into human psychology, it's a deep enough archetype that it'll pop up independently around the world, or 2. if there is a common origin for this mythic/ritual complex, it's way old, and is a common ancestor to Mesopotamian and Norse sources. There's also the interesting, but highly speculative, theory that early contact with Proto-Indo-Europeans influenced Mesopotamian myth, not the other way around (I had a source for this, and I can't find it right now, which is immensely frustrating. Short version is that the "cut up a proto-God to make the world" myth is well-attested in comparative Indo-European myth, and then shows up in the Babylonian Enuma Elish for some reason). Anyhow, I find Kvilhaug's speculations that the Norse were somehow literally continuing the Ishtar/Inanna cult not very convincing at all.

Odhin's Winning of the Mead in the Havamal against Snorri's Telling

What I found more interesting in this chapter is Kvilhaug's pointing out that the version of Odhinn winning the Mead of Poetry given in Havamal differs quite a bit from Snorri's prose version. Snorri's more familiar version (presumably because it's spelled out in more detail) has Odhinn sneak into the mountain where Suttungr has hidden the Mead under the guardianship of his daughter, Gunnlodh. Odhinn spends three nights with her in exchange for three drinks of the mead, which he uses to drink up all of it and then escapes in the shape of an eagle. The version in Havamal, though, has Odhinn demonstrate his eloquence and power via spell-songs to Suttungr and then swear a ring-oath, presumably of marriage to Gunnlodh. It's told in the allusive form of poetry, so it's hard to know everything for certain, but the two versions definitely have different vibes. Kvilhaug connects the Havamal version with the "sacred marriage" theme of the chapter, which is potentially interesting, even if her speculations about where that theme came from prove to be wrong. Kvilhaug thinks that the Havamal version, being older and written by Heathens, is the "correct" version, but I suspect it's more complicated than that, as it usually is with mythology. I suspect that both versions have something to teach us about Odhinn, Gunnlodh, and the Mead. One consistent element, though, is that Odhinn leaves, which is interesting. Kvilhaug believes that this symbolizes how the spirit of mankind has become separated from the source of divine inspiration and so has to seek it. That seems reasonable, at least as an interpretation, if not the interpretation, but it's not exactly consistent with how else she's interpreted this myth elsewhere. Again, though, consistency isn't exactly a requirement in getting meaning out of myths, so maybe the point's moot.

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[Book] The Seed of Yggdrasill 8 - The Way of the Wand Witch

Date: 2023-December-01

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This was one of the shortest chapters yet, which worked out nicely, as I'm typing this on an unexpectedly long layover for international travel, and I'm not sure how much more time I'll be able to devote to a post this weekend. Also, much like the last chapter, this one deals with material that Kvilhaug has gone into earlier in the book, but I'd say she does a better job here of not repeating herself and referring you back to those earlier chapters. In this case, Kvilhaug expands on the role played by magical tutelary women by focusing on their depictions as seidhr workers - witches.

The "Witches" of Elder Times were Respected, Not Outcasts

We start off with a bit of an overview of both the mythological instances of Goddesses and other (semi) divine beings being shown as seidhr women, as well as some of the history of real-life prophetesses. Overall, this bit is pretty good, especially for providing references of where volur (plural of volva) show up, but some of Kvilhaug's chip-on-the shoulder about Christian persecution of pagans and women comes in, a bit stronger than I think is necessarily warranted (again, it's not that she's totally wrong, it's just that she bangs on it a bit more than I think is needed). She makes the argument, I think credibly, that for the most part, "witches" (a term she uses in a way I infer is meant to "reclaim" the term, as Wiccans have tried to do) were not seen as dangerous outcasts, but rather as honored and important members not only of society, but its ruling elite. One of the more interesting parts was the exception she uses to prove the rule. The Goths expelled their "witches" not long after moving to the area around the Black Sea on accusations of "dark magic" of some kind (I was not clear from her text if this happened before or after their conversion to Christianity). Centuries later, though, when the Goths were driven west by the invading Huns, they said that the Huns were descended from those exiled women, who had bred a race of devils - so this was not some minor footnote of a historical event, it was something remembered for centuries and associated with the greatest calamity to befall their folk.

The Edda as a Path of Initiation, and Voluspa as Its Summary

Kvilhaug has argued earlier in the book that the Poetic Edda is a coherent whole, not a random collection of unrelated poems, but in this chapter, she says that the thread that gives them coherence is precisely that they trace a path of initiation, the Old Norse mystery religion she talked about in the last chapter. The idea that the heroic poems had such a unifying thread was interesting and exciting enough, but the thought that the whole Poetic Edda can be read in such a way is very interesting and exciting, if it turns out to work. I'll have to do a lot more reading and bethinking of my own to really make my own call. Of smaller implication, but even more interesting for being something I don't think I've encountered before, Kvilhaug also argues that the Voluspa stands as a summary of the entire rest of the Poetic Edda (and, by the argument in this chapter, thus of the entire Old Norse Mystery Religion). Now, there's no doubt that the Voluspa is the most central work of Heathen cosmology, but casting it as a microcosm of the Poetic Edda's macrocosm is very intriguing - again, I'll have to give some real time to bethinking on this.

Viking Warriors' Magical Girlfriends Teach Them the Ropes

Forgive me for being a bit flippant with the header here, I couldn't resist the reference to the silly anime genre, but this bit was actually really interesting and useful. Besides the examples we've already seen of Valkyries and Goddesses taking care of their favored male followers/consorts/initiates in the Poetic Edda, Kvilhaug takes us through a lot of examples of warriors getting trained by "otherworldly" women of various stripes from the fornaldarsogur, the subset of the Icelandic sagas that is less dramatized history and more folklore and fairy tales. In these tales, the woman sometimes "merely" knows how to do magic, but other times is a valkyrie or giantess, but in all of them that Kvilhaug surveys, a young warrior spends some amount of time with one of these women, sometimes as a prisoner, sometimes as a lover, sometimes as both (there's a very Odyssey vibe to some of these), and during this time is taught some kind of secret wisdom - spells, the special way to defeat an otherwise invulnerable foe, or how to avoid a deadly or inglorious fate. In almost all cases, the warrior must demonstrate courage and steadfastness, and is rewarded with some combination of magical and temporal power and the favors of the woman or her daughter. As I said, there are apparently a lot of examples of these in the stories, and it seems worth tracking down and reading these references for more insight and bethinking material.

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[Book] The Seed of Yggdrasill 7 - Death and Resurrection

Date: 2023-November-24

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This chapter mostly covered topics that have come up before, so my thoughts might be briefer than they otherwise would be, especially given the weighty nature of what this chapter covers: death and rebirth. The very short version is that Kvilhaug argues that the Old Norse believed that at least some souls reincarnated, and that souls faced different fates after death depending on what wisdom they did (or didn't) develop during life, and that wisdom comes from encounters with one or more Gods or Goddesses, which are manifestations of an underlying unified divinity. Want to dig in more? Let's get to it.

Maybe Elves are Just Folks Who Won at Spirituality

I've long been curious what to make of Elves in the Germanic lore, and Kvilhaug helps shed some more light on them, but not so much for me to be fully satisfied. Where does this confusion come from? We have lots of references to "elves" as some kind of group of conscious beings, but the kind of conscious being referred to seems to vary rather a lot. A dead king buried in a mound became known as "The Elf of Geirstad." A Christian traveler was barred from entering a farm because they were giving sacrifice to "elves." The God Frey is said to live in Alfheim, the home/land/world of Elves, is called a Lord of Elves, and sometimes seems to be called an Elf himself. And that's without even getting into the fact that Snorri talks about both "light" and "dark" elves, and that "dark elves" may or may not be the same thing as the dvergr, dwarves. Further complicating things, as with everywhere else, later Germanic folklore is full of beings that get up to mischief and have various interactions with humans, like the fae of Celtic lands, and some of the names of these beings are etymologically linked with Elves (like, you know, the word "elf").

Kvilhaug's interpretation is, as you might imagine, a bit dependent on her metaphysical/theological presuppositions, my reservations about which I've shared, but I think it has some merit. She sees "elf" as a label for a soul that has transcended reincarnation to live eternally outside of materiality. As such, Gods are elves, enlightened dead humans are elves, and presumably, any other conscious spirit sufficiently in touch with the divine is an elf. This does a good job of sidestepping the Gygaxian desire to divide all beings into neat mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive categories based on different names. Kvilhaug plays to her strengths here, being willing to see overlap and fluid borders where others look to make them as firm as possible. That being said, this also brings up the downside of her approach: the utility of "elf" as a label depends on her interpretation of souls reincarnating, reaching spiritual enlightenment, and moving on to some other kind of existence being the view of the afterlife the Old Norse had. If you don't buy that theory, then her solution to the elf puzzle isn't so helpful.

Synchronistically enough, as I was about to start writing this post, I read this short post by readoldthings over on Dreamwidth. He includes a short passage from the Odyssey about the Naiads and nymphs and references an analysis of it by Plotinus. His interpretation is that the nymphs are nature spirits and seem to be the same kind of being as the Fae in Celtic lands. What's most interesting for this discussion is that Plotinus argues that Homer is saying that these nature spirits are, in fact, souls between human incarnations. I had never encountered this idea before, and it's a remarkable piece of comparative evidence to set next to beliefs in the Fae, Elves, and other ambiguous (to us) spiritual beings.

Kvilhaug Argues the Old Norse Believed in Reincarnation

By this point in the book, Kvilhaug has made no secret of her interpretation of the lore as indicating that the heathens of elder times believed in reincarnation, at least sometimes, at least for some folks. When I first encountered the idea that there might be reincarnation in the Germanish lore, I was pretty skeptical - I had only ever heard of reincarnation as a Hindu and Buddhist belief, or as a modern New Agey one that got it from those older sources. Since then, though, I've encountered a lot of evidence that has caused me to change those beliefs. I now suspect that a belief in reincarnation likely goes back at least to the Proto-Indo-Europeans, and that some elements of those beliefs likely lingered in the various folks whose religions and tongues came from them well into historical times - sometimes very obviously, as in India, sometimes in ways that were obvious to ancients but aren't well known today (Pythagoras and his followers taught the transmigration of souls, multiple Roman writers commented that the Celts believed in reincarnation, and so forth), and sometimes in tiny little snippets like we find in the Germanish lore.

In the Germanish lore, one of the most direct pieces of evidence is unfortunately also one of the less credible: in the Codex Regius, the first-found and still most important manuscript of most of what we today call the Poetic Edda, there's a prose snippet between two poems, given by the Christians who wrote it down, saying that "back then before they knew about Christ, they believed that folks can be reborn." Mark that I said less credible, and not "not credible at all." Those Christian monks were much closer to the beliefs of elder times than we are today, and my general starting place is to assume that the writers of long ago actually knew what they were talking about unless we have strong reason to believe otherwise - a kind of historiographic Chesterton's fence, if you will. But it's not as direct as Socrates/Plato saying "okay, here's exactly how reincarnation works, I got it from a guy who talked to a guy who died and was revived and saw it all happen" at the end of the Republic. Instead, you have scattered references that the old Norse seem to have believed that at least something from someone who died could come back later. Kvilhaug leans towards the maximalist end of interpretation here, but I think she makes a pretty good case. Specifically, she argues that many of the human heroes in the Poetic Edda, especially both Helgis, should be seen as a series of incarnations of the same soul. That being said, she goes more into that particular analysis more in earlier chapters. At any rate, since reincarnation is consistent with the teachings I currently work with, I find this approach reasonable, interesting, and useful.

What is the Underworld like, and Why Would You Go There?

Kvilhaug spends some time going through various descriptions of the underworld, most of which is pretty familiar, but she does point out two things that I think are interesting and possibly worth looking more into. The first is that the earlier descriptions of Hel's realm include more positive elements, unlike the better-known stereotype of Valhalla as a raucous good time and Hel as dreary wasteland, which is found more in later sources. Now, the idea of the underworld as dark, dreary, and generally unpleasant is very old and very widespread (at least among Indo-European folks), so it's not like Hel wasn't those things in the older sources, but it was apparently also a place with warm, inviting neighborhoods. I'm not sure what it means that the later heathens seem to have felt that any warm and inviting afterlife destinations were somehow not Hel, if earlier ones thought otherwise, but it might be worth thinking about and looking more into.

The second thing Kvilhaug points out that I think I might want to look into more deeply is that whenever someone living visits the underworld, there is a loud, "resounding" sound. Kvilhaug argues that this is a characteristic of a shamanic spiritual journey of some kind. As I've talked about in earlier posts, I've long been curious about the (maybe) shamanic elements in Germanish lore and practices, so finding more potential comparative elements always grabs my attention. But wait a tick, what the heck are living guys doing in the underworld? In just about every case, it's to learn some kind of secret wisdom. Again, Kvilhaug covered all of this in more detail in earlier chapters, such as the Maiden with the Mead, but it's interesting to mark that when the living go to the underworld for this knowledge, they're still obviously different from the souls that show up because they're dead.

Death as a Lover

This is one section where I was hoping for a bit more of Kvilhaug's gathering up of examples to make a point - she does give examples, but at times just says things like "lots of skaldic poems use this imagery." Anyway, I'll pull the same trick here and say that Kvilhaug shares that often in Old Norse poetry, death was described as a woman welcoming the dying man as a lover. This is one place where I'm not sure about the comparative mythology, whether among the Indo-Europeans or elsewhere. Given the nearly equally deep significance of love/sex and death to human life, psychology, and spirituality, finding them combined in Old Norse belief is, well, suggestive, if nothing stronger. This feels like another of those areas that warrants further reading and bethinking.

The Many Many Worlds of Norse Belief

Okay, I'm getting a bit cutesy with my header titles, but I couldn't resist. If you've spent any time with the Germanish lore at all, you've run into the thought that there is more than one "world" or heimr. The most commonly found count of those worlds is nine. What Kvilhaug lays out nice and clear is that there are actually multiple accounts given of how many worlds there are and what their names are, just among Old Norse works, without even touching other Germanish sources (such as the "seven worlds" of the Nine Herbs Charm in Old English). Grimnismal gives twelve "heavens," in nine of which "death rules," which Kvilhaug finds highly significant, especially since the three worlds where death does not rule are said to hold "elves," which she uses as evidence for her interpretation discussed above that "elves" are beings that have achieved immortality. Snorri describes ten "heavens," where, again, Kvilhaug sees the tenth as holding immortal "light elves," distinct from the beings in the other nine worlds. The variety here is interesting for a few reasons. For one, it's a good reminder not to be overly doctrinaire in how we interpret the lore and what it might mean for our beliefs and practice - many of us were raised in religious traditions that put great weight on the strict accuracy of texts, and it can be hard to shake the desire to figure out what the "real" meaning of a set of religiously-significant texts "really is." Another reason its helpful is the exact opposite of dogmatic certainty: multiple versions, with different numbers, names, and characteristics provides multiple sets of symbolism that can be meditated on, adapted to rituals, and compared with other sets of symbolism (10 worlds would be super handy if you're trying to map things to the Sephiroth, for example, or twelve could be handy if you want to have four trinities, and so forth).

There May Have Been a Norse Mystery Religion

In one of the more interesting things from this chapter for me, Kvilhaug does bring in some comparative material and talks about classical mystery cults, specifically the Eleusinian Mysteries and the cult of Isis. (Quick Aside: "cult" here has none of the modern negative connotation. In academic literature, "cult" is used to mean any specific body of practice and belief, often to stress the fact that participation in a specific cult was not necessarily exclusive - going and doing the Eleusinian mysteries didn't make you an "Eleusinian" who couldn't do "regular" Greek religion anymore.) She talks about how Apuleius's Golden Ass, an allegorical tale of initiation dressed up as a fantastic, even slightly silly, fable, has many striking parallels with the path of initiation she's described being held in Norse poems in earlier chapters. I found this comparison fascinating, not least because I want to do a deeper dive on the Eleusinian Mysteries and their central myth of Hades carrying away Persephone to make Her His bride and compare it to Thjazi carrying away Idhunn for unspecified reasons (but I suspect they're the same). Where this section fell a bit short for me, though, was another greatest hit from this book: Kvilhaug goes further than I would like in identification of divine beings, stating that Isis was the Goddess behind all Goddesses, and making the argument that Freyja played a similar role for the Norse. Despite that, what's most interesting here is her contention that maybe the Norse, or at least some of them, had literal mystery cults where folks went, had a spiritually significant experience, and came away with a different view on life and the afterlife, and this might be hinted at in the poetry that has survived. This is another of those places where I think what we can explicitly prove by the records is far, far tinier than what we can reasonably infer by knowing about humans, history, culture, and religion, so I think she's very likely right.

Valhalla as a Metaphor for Reincarnation Gets a Bit Muddled

Toward the end of the chapter, Kvilhaug has one of her weaker sections, despite a potentially interesting idea. The potentially interesting idea is that the image of Valhalla as a place where warriors fight every day, feast every night, and heal/resurrect to do it all over again the next day might be a metaphor for reincarnation, which is an endlessly repeated struggle until you figure out what you need to to move past it. What makes it weak is that it's fairly muddled, and in many places it contradicts things she's said, like giving Valhalla as an example of the eternal afterlife achieved by souls that have learned what they need to get away from reincarnation and claim their spiritual bride. It's also tainted by a bit of the snobbery we've talked about elsewhere, though here I think it's a bit more forgivable. Basically, Kvilhaug recognizes that most folks who have even heard of Valhalla picture something fairly cartoonish: burly manly men fighting all day and then drinking, feasting, and swiving all night. Is that a bit simplistic and focused on the bodily appetites for a profound spiritual reward? Very likely so, yes. On the other hand, I don't think Valhalla is described that way on accident, nor do I think it was a cynical psyop by Viking kings to get their men to fight harder. There is something deeply appealing about that cartoonish afterlife for the kind of man who wants to go do dangerous things and cares more about living gloriously than living for a long time. The reason I'm fairly sympathetic to Kvilhaug is that I think her dismissal of that image mostly comes from taking the myths seriously and wanting others to do so, and she figures that if folks think "Viking religion was all about fighting and getting drunk, hell yeah!" then they might not notice the deeper stuff she has spent her adult life digging into and sharing with others. So, that's admirable enough, right? On the other hand, I think there's something there that Kvilhaug is missing in her haste to defend the spiritual profundity of these myths and maintain her self-image as a good, modern feminist - some reason that these profound myths painted a very vivid, appealing image of fighting for real, but without hatred or consequence, eating and drinking without cost, and being welcomed by women who were as fierce and formidable as they were welcoming and attractive. My own guess, at this point, is that it's meant to point to the attractions behind the attraction, the goal behind the goal - whatever it is we should truly want cannot be described, for it is beyond the experience of this life. The closest we can come is to imagine what we most intensely want in this life, but then make it even better by removing the drawbacks that are inherent in whatever we want in this material existence. But I dunno, I need to bethink on it more.

A Chapter with Good Points, but Getting Leaner

Overall, there were several things I found interesting and helpful in this chapter, but the amount of meat on the bone is getting a little light compared to earlier chapters. Much of what was most relevant or interesting had already been said in more detail in earlier chapters, but was also not simply a reference saying "go back and read chapter 3 for more on this." In other words, this chapter once again drove home how badly I wish Kvilhaug had made the effort, or secured the effort of someone else, to better organize and streamline the material in this book. It keeps on making good points and finding worthwhile links between things, but it does so in a scattered, sometimes repetitive way. By this point, I've mostly come to accept this, but I also am feeling more and more acutely "wait, I'm not done with this book yet?"

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Maximizing, Satisficing, and Strategy

Date: 2023-November-18

Tree of Woe has been writing a great series on strategy lately. The second post describes the "OODA Loop," and the implication it has for strategic thinking that quick, decisive action is almost always a strategic advantage in-and-of itself. Despite being long familiar with both the OODA loop and maxims like Patton's "a good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week," I had never put the two together to realize that the OODA loop implies that attitude, so that was a great insight. Still, it reminded me of an insight of my own that came to me moving from the Army into consulting, which is that Patton's preference for violence of action is a heuristic that is situationally, but not universally, helpful. So far, so obvious, right? But it was a little later, when I began reading more about mental models and decision-making that I encountered the key to unlocking when to use that heuristic and when not to: the difference between satisficing and maximizing.

My Definition of Strategy - Coordinating Efforts to Get Outcomes Under Uncertainty

In the first article linked above, Tree of Woe has a wonderfully elegant definition of strategy that I really like: "The art of decision-making in conditions of uncertainty." It's short, to the point, and captures the most important bits: making decisions and uncertainty. Many definitions of strategy are crafted for one field (military, political, business, and so forth), and fall down a bit when taken out of that field. This one has the advantage of working well across all fields where you might think of things as "strategic."

Even so, this is a topic near and dear to my heart, so a few years ago, I came up with my own definition. I take its similarity to Tree of Woe's as an indication that I got something right, but I wanted to share it to highlight the differences and why I think they're worth thinking about. So, here's my definition of strategy: "coordinating the efforts of lower-order means to achieve higher-order ends in the face of uncertainty." Notice the common focus on uncertainty (Tree of Woe's first article has a great framework for thinking about different sources of uncertainty) - if you know exactly how things are going to go, it might be hard, but it's planning, not strategy. On the other hand, my definition specifies a little more what kind of decisions are being made, making it a bit narrower, but I think focusing a bit more on "strategic" decision-making versus other kinds.

For starters, let's look at the first word: "coordinating." The word "strategy" comes from the ancient Greek Strategos, which means "general [of an army]," and so means "doing the stuff that generals do." Notice it is not doing the stuff that a fire team leader does, or a lieutenant - from the beginning, the word strategy has been applied when a certain amount of complexity is involved in the thing you are making decisions for. I may face uncertainty about what will happen with my finances in the next year, but is it "strategic" to save money? I'd argue not by itself, because it's just me making a decision about my actions. Now, if I'm the CFO of a corporation trying to improve its financial situation for the next year, that is strategic, because I'm coordinating efforts across a large organization.

Okay, so strategy is about coordinating, but what are we coordinating? That brings us to our next point: "the efforts of lower-order means to achieve higher-order ends." I'm not thrilled with how wordy this is, but for now, that's the best I can do to get the idea across succinctly. Remember the bit about "doing what a general does?" Not only does that imply a large/complex organization to be coordinated, it also implies a certain "level" of outcome intended. When I decide what route to take to get to work in the morning, I face all kinds of uncertainty, but it would be a bit silly to call that decision "strategic," because the outcome is just whether I'm a few minutes late to work. On the other hand, if I'm deciding what route a patrol should take through enemy territory to successfully blow up a bridge before a crucial supply convoy can get over it, that's strategic, because the outcome has a wider effect than its immediate surroundings. I put this piece into my definition because I wanted a way to meaningfully distinguish between tactics and strategy, which this gives us: tactics are what you do to ensure effects at the same level, strategy is what you do to affect higher-order things. Good tactics will often be informed by the strategic context, like when Lieutenant Winters of Band of Brothers fame took out that German artillery emplacement at Brecour Manor - he knew that the artillery hindered units landing at Utah beach from coming inland and establishing a more secure beachhead, and so understood the significance of what he was doing, but all of his decisions that June morning were focused on the immediate goal of defeating the German artillery emplacement.

Satisficing against Maximizing - Good Enough or As Good as Possible

So, I thought up the above definition while I was a consultant, and I've been pretty happy with it since. At the same time, I observed that the preference for "violence of action" the Army had drilled into me wasn't always appropriate in the business world. This was maybe easier for me to notice than some others because the preference for violence of action doesn't come especially naturally to me: in strategy games, my favorite tactic is to "turtle" behind a wall of impenetrable defenses until I have overwhelming force. In real life, I like to gather information, ponder, and "wait and see" as much as I can. That being said, I was an airborne infantryman, and there, violence of action is not only expected, it's who you are, so I internalized it pretty well, despite it not coming naturally. This combo allowed me to notice both how useful violence of action can be, but also that there are times where it's not the best way to go. For a long time, this was vague and intuitive - I could recognize when to be aggressive and when to be contemplative, but I couldn't tell you in a general way what was different about those situations.

And then I encountered the idea of satisficing versus maximizing. We're all familiar with maximizing: it's getting the most of out of a situation that you possibly can. If you want to be an olympic athlete or a rock star, you likely are doing everything to maximize your craft - every extra rep, every tweak to your psychology, every opportunity to test and prove your talent, you're going to take. If you find a good investment, you want to put as much money into that as you can afford, because the more you put in, the more the payoff. Peter Thiel doesn't want to have just a bit of a monopoly, he wants the whole thing.

Satisficing, on the other hand, is when there is a certain threshold with which you will have satisfaction (see the link there?), and beyond that doesn't make a big difference. If you want to have a fancy dinner, once you're in Michelin Star territory, you're likely getting something fancy and delicious, and finding a place with a second Star isn't going to be as big a jump up as finding a place with a Star at all. Or if you find a job in a place you want to live that pays enough for your lifestyle and goals, you might just take it instead of spending weeks or months looking for a job that pays a bit more. Many, many situations in life work like this, and once you're consciously aware of it, you can apply it to save time and effort where you might otherwise spin your wheels. My favorite go-to example: have you ever been with a group of friends trying to decide where to order dinner from? Have you ever spent way too long trying to figure this out? Well, satisficing to the rescue: in this situation, your goal is not to maximize food enjoyment, your goal is to satisfy your group's need for a decent meal while you enjoy spending time together. That means that any restaurant that everyone is at least fine with will work. So, when you get into the start of what looks likely to be an endless round of "I dunno, what do you want?" just jump in with "let's get pizza!" If anyone objects, they'll say so, and you can throw out another suggestion. But often, just having a definite choice put out there will get everyone else to say "okay, works for me."

The technical difference between when you want to maximize and when you want to satisfice comes down to the expected payoff of the action. Not everything is amenable to being quantified and graphed, of course, but for the sake of clarity, it's helpful to go there for these examples. In situations where there is a linear payoff (I sell one more widget, I get $5 more dollars) or an exponential payoff (going from 3rd to 2nd in marketshare makes me 50% richer, going from 2nd to 1st makes me 150% richer), you want to maximize if you can - more effort brings more payoff, so it makes sense to put in as much effort as you can that isn't held back by other constraints. On the other hand, very many situations have diminishing marginal returns: the first one gives you a huge payoff, the second a decent payoff, the third meh, and so on. Imagine you're starving. The first cheeseburger will literally save your life and likely be the most delicious meal you've ever had. The second cheeseburger might get you to feeling stuffed, which might be a nice contrast. The third will make you sick. These are situations where you want to satisfice - maybe just eat that first cheeseburger and move on with your life.

Applying to the OODA Loop - How Quickly Can You Orient?

Now we know that some situations call for maximizing, and some for satisficing. It turns out that's the key to what produces the preference for violence of action in the military - almost every military situation has a threshold that must be reached and diminishing marginal returns for doing better than that threshold. If the enemy stops fighting, it doesn't really matter how many more soldiers you kill (okay, it might in the long run, but you see my point). If you take a solid defensible position, it doesn't really matter if it's the best defensible position. Not only are most military situations ones where a satisficing approach brings about good results, much of the uncertainty in military situations is brought about by the enemy's choice. If the opposing general would just stop deciding things, you could easily work out the best approach. But alas, he won't. This means that not only will you get diminishing returns from figuring out the best plan once you've come up with a fine plan, but in the time you spend evaluating options and coming up with the best approach, the other side is changing the game. So, your perfect plan might end up applying to a situation that no longer holds. This is the other reason the military has such a strong preference for violence of action - taking the initiative literally shapes the situation both sides are making decisions about, and it shapes it in a way that is hopefully to your advantage. Put these things together, and it's clear why do something that makes sense has so strongly dominated "figure out the best thing to do."

What's interesting is that Boyd's OODA loop provides a way of thinking about this. Briefly, OODA stands for "Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act." Boyd recognized that each phase was dynamic and involved taking in information from the situation and other side, but as it's presented usually, folks way over-simplify. So, observe is about understanding what's happening around you. Orient is judging the significance of those things. Decide is picking a course of action, and Act is taking that course of action. The phase with the most relevance for our discussion is Orient. Working out whether a situation takes maximizing or satisficing is an orienting decision. Likewise, the reason taking the initiative is generally preferred in military situations is that it allows you to shape what's happening, which forces your opponent to orient. So, once again, understanding when "getting the gist of things" orients you well enough versus when you should know all of the ins and outs tells you when to maximize and when to satisfice. Point being, in many situations, going with the satisfice option makes good sense, but overall, it's helpful to notice when you ought to shoot for maximizing.

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[Book] The Secret of the Five Rites

Date: 2023-November-12

I've been looking forward to this book by John Michael Greer coming out for a while, so I'm excited to give it a quick write up. I say quick because it's not really all that long, but it is chock full of good information. Obviously, this book will be most helpful if you're interested in the exercise program of "The Five Rites," but it's also an exceptional introduction to the wild world of late 19th to early 20th century American occultism (and its antecedents elsewhere).

The Five "Tibetan" Rites - Neither Tibetan, nor Rites, Discuss Amongst Yourselves

The heart of the book is a set of five calisthenic exercises known as "The Five Rites," though originally billed as the "Five Tibetan Rites." These were published by Peter Kelder in 1939 as a path to youthful vitality and long life brought over from the mysterious Orient (Tibet, obviously). As you might have guessed, this appears to be entirely made up, and Tibet was selected because it at the time it was even harder to verify what came from there than it was to verify what came from India, or China, or other fashionable centers of ancient wisdom. Sure, two of the Rites very likely made their way into American practice via Hatha Yoga and Sun Salutations (these were different schools at the time), so there was some Eastern origin to some of the exercises, but Greer does a good job of laying out the immediate predecessors to this form of the exercises, and where those likely came from. The short version is that European and American occultists of the late 19th and early 20th century were gleefully experimenting with all kinds of physical and breathing exercises, and at the same time, the little shreds of lore and practice that were coming over from India and the rest of Asia held a lot of cachet. Put these together and American practitioners slapped one Asian label or another on anything that they could. The prolific William Walker Atkinson was an especial fan of this, and it looks like he first published versions of four of the rites in one of his "Indian" branded books (under the pen name "Yogi Ramacharaka"). Kelder's little pamphlet, with the clear fingerprints of its publisher, Harry J. Gardener, all over its writing, took these four exercises, added another exercise likely derived from the spiritualist movement, and packaged them as a sequence - something like an American sun salutation. Along the way, via tweaking, experimentation, and variation, these developed into a respectable workout that can be done quickly, taught through the written word (important to the booming occult correspondence course industry at the time), and is compatible with other alternative spiritual pursuits (like doing magic). If you are interested in trying this yourself, see the last section below.

But They Are Actually a Coherent System of American Internal Alchemy

So, as someone who's been doing the Five Rites off and on for a year or two, the background on where the exercises came from was interesting, but not really earthshaking. On the other hand, the strands Greer traces on the internal/energetic/"woo" side of the Five Rites are utterly fascinating. The investigation serves as an introduction/overview of the occult scene of the late 19th and early 20th century, focusing on America, but with necessary forays into Europe and Asia. So, if you'd like a quick tour of the weird world of alternative spirituality at the turn of the last century, you can do worse than this book.

A Quick Aside on Subtle Bodies

Traditional western alternative spirituality (occultism) teaches that we are more than just our material bodies made of atoms, electricity, and so forth. Different schools of thought split these "subtle" bodies up in different ways, or give a different number of them, but John Michael Greer, whose teachings I currently work with, gives four: material, etheric, astral, and mental. The material body is the one we all know so well - meat, fluids, nerves, headaches, hunger, and so forth. The etheric body is the body of "life force" - a concept that just about every culture except the industrialized West believes in. The etheric body is thought to animate and charge the material body, the difference between a living body and a corpse. When you have lots of energy and feel "alive," your etheric body is healthy and full of etheric "energy." When you feel drained, mopey, hopeless, and lethargic, your etheric body is not in great shape. Sunlight, fresh air, physical exercise, and eating well all help to keep your etheric body in good shape. The astral body is what you experience the imaginary with: day dreams, regular dreams, mental images, sounds, and scents, emotions, and desires. Most the stuff that we have been trained to think of as "in our head" is what our Astral body experiences. Last, we have a "mental sheath," which is our way of experiencing the mental plane, and it is the least developed of our bodies, because humans are the only material animals we know about that experience the mental plane at all. This is how we experience meaning, significance, and understanding. It's hard to describe, because again, we're not very good at it. If you can ever think of a concept you were trying to learn that suddenly "clicked" - it went from a memorized definition to something that actually impacts how you understand the world, that was an experience of your mental body.

Obviously, all of these bodies affect each other all the time. To use a crude example, say you imagine someone you find attractive doing sexy things with you (astral). You begin to feel excited and energetic (etheric), and your body responds by becoming aroused (material). If you follow this to where it's likely going, you'll have actively engaged all three of those bodies (far less likely that you'll be using the mental body much to get yourself off). Point is, much of what the Five Rites were aiming to do was not merely to affect the material body, but also the etheric (and to a far lesser extent, the astral).

Spiritualism and Rosicrucianism Shaped Most of the Background for the Five Rites

The two main threads of the "internal" side of things seem to come from Anton Mesmer on the one hand and Rosicrucian teachings on the other. Anton Mesmer is immortalized in the word "mesmerize," but hypnosis wasn't really his thing, but that of one of his followers. Instead, Mesmer's main focus was on what he called "animal magnetism," which was his name for Qi/Life Force/Prana/Spiritus/etc (see below on the subtle bodies). His teachings were highly influential on the homegrown American movement of Spiritualism mentioned above, and Harry Gardener, the editor/co-writer of The Eye of Revelation had a Spiritualist father and learned their ways early. The most obvious influence on the Five Rites as we have them is the First Rite, which seems clearly descended from Abby Judson's etheric cleansing exercise. The Rosicrucian teachings seem to have had a more substantial impact on the Five Rites and the body of practices they grew out of. These included the seven "vortices" the Eye of Revelation talks about (centers in the etheric body), the energy thought to be stimulated by the exercises, and the purported physical and spiritual benefits of doing them. If you're not familiar with either of these traditions, this book will give you a great starting place, along with a good feel for what the occult "scene" was like back in the day.

The Secret Greer Discovered is a Complete Program of Spiritual Development

The titular "secret" is a set of practices that Greer has reconstructed from the various strands that he discovered went into producing the Five Rites. The Rites themselves form one part of that practice, but it also includes visualization, meditation, and behavioral recommendations (for example, make sure to bathe once daily with tepid water, neither hot nor cold). This seems to be potentially compatible with other spiritual practices, but is best practiced at a different time of day from any others, and might conflict if the other spiritual practices feature a lot of visualization of movement of energy in the subtle bodies. Following these practices is meant to provide a safe, fairly certain path to a similar spiritual awakening to what certain schools of Yoga can produce (like the modern, Westernized flavor of Kundalini Yoga). I just read the book and haven't given it a try, and I'm not sure that I will with my other spiritual practices, so I can't comment on the efficacy, but I trust Greer on such things. The procedure outlined seems more rigorous than a very basic spiritual practice, but not so rigorous as a full-on course of magical study - at its maximum, it seems like you could complete all of the recommended practices in roughly half an hour. So, if that's appealing, consider checking it out!

My Own Experience with the Five Rites

I learned about the Five Rites from JMG on one of his sites, likely in a "Magic Monday" thread, something like, oh, a year and a half, two years ago? For some time I did this daily, but also supplemented with weight lifting and Indian Clubs. When I started noticing numbness in my forearms and hands (and when I started getting busier, if we're being wholly honest here), I cut back on much I was doing from 21 reps every day to 9 reps of each exercise twice a week. Later, I dropped even that very easy standard of practice and did a whole lot of nothing for awhile, the Daily Dozen (which share some William Walker Atkinson DNA with the Five Rites, it turns out!) for a bit, and more nothing for a while. For the last few months, I've gotten back to more-or-less consistently doing the Five Rites, but I'm very slowly working my number of reps back up (I'm at 11, as of today). I say all this so that you can calibrate your reaction to my comments below appropriately.

I've never been what you'd call an "enthusiastic exerciser." I like how I feel when I work out regularly, but I have never really gotten to the point that other folks tell me they experience where I actually like working out, or they actively miss it when they skip it. I believe them that this is a thing normal humans experience, but not really me, at least so far. Anyway, one of the things I most like about the Five Rites it that even from this decidedly lazy starting point, the Five Rites are pretty easy to build into a habit. They're quick, they don't require a massive, painful effort like lifting heavy, and they don't get you sucking wind the way a hard run or bike does. In other words, all of the immediately unpleasant things that will leave you feeling better later and in the long run, it minimizes. Instead, the usual state for me to finish a session of the Five Rites is with a slightly elevated heart rate, breathing a bit heavier than usual, and feeling slightly amped, ready for more. This is far more motivating for me than kicking my ass on a Tabata ride on my 80s Aerodyne bike or picking up as much weight as I can without throwing my back out. Also, I tend to feel "energized," in a non-woo, totally physical way after the Five Rites - if I'm tired, it's a pick me up, if I'm unmotivated, I'm ready to tackle some stuff afterward. Physically, I've lost some stubborn weight without trying that hard about my diet, so I'm not complaining there either.

I also have not felt as fit and strong from just the Five Rites as I have when I've had a more comprehensive fitness plan. I suspect that to be where I want to be, I do need to have some hard runs or bike rides and some heavy weight lifting, which is too bad for a lazy jerk like me. On the other hand, if I'm trying to maintain, or if I want something I can do every day, even days where I can't "really" work out, the Five Rites are really good, at least for me. At maximum, it takes about 10 minutes to do it, and you end feeling jazzed rather than wiped. You can even do them in formal-ish clothes in the office, if you have some fairly private space. So, setting aside completely any esoteric benefits, I'm a pretty big fan of the Five Rites as daily "baseline" exercise routine, but as always, what works for me might not be so hot for you.

How to Get Started

Alright, so maybe now you're saying "I want to give this a shot!" Below I give my description of the five exercises. You can also follow the link above to the original pamphlet with its full instructions. The book recommends starting with three repetitions of each, and adding 2 more repetitions once that becomes easy (after about a week, minimum). Once you get to 21 reps, that's it, don't add any more. If you've been doing 21 reps of each exercise for awhile and feel good, you can add a second session (say, one in the morning, and another in the evening). If you do this, start over again at 3 reps for the second session, and build up 2 reps at a time, week by week, until you get to 21. Add repetitions at the rate of your worst exercise - if you can do 9 of four of the rites easily, but one of them is still a struggle, don't add any more repetitions yet - wait until that last rite is easy too. Do each repetition slow and steady, don't rush or try to "bang it out." I do three long, slow breaths between each exercise.

If you're a generally fit person, this may sound way too easy, but trust me, it's worth taking it slow. For one, these exercises make a lot of use of fiddly little stabilizer muscles, especially in your core. If you go hard to start with, you're asking to pull or strain one of those, which is not only no fun, it will also keep you from doing these or other exercises for a while. Secondly, remember that bit about internal alchemy above? Well, that means that these exercises are meant to stimulate systems in your body, including your endocrine glands (and that's not even touching the possible effects on your non-physical subtle bodies, if you go in for that stuff). If you do too much too fast, you can over-stimulate these glands and end up with some weird and unpleasant results.

Basically, if you start doing the Five Rites and you feel like you're not getting enough of a workout, instead of pushing your progress with the Rites, go do something else in addition - pull ups, lifting weights, going for a run, whatever works.

The First Rite

Stand with your arms held out to your sides, parallel to the ground (forming a 'T' with your body). Spin in a circle, going clockwise (imagine a clock on the floor under you, spin in the direction the hands would turn). No need to do this too quickly - if you find yourself more than a little dizzy, slow it down.

The Second Rite

Lay on the floor (preferably on something like a mat or rug that gives a bit of cushion and insulation) with your hands flat on the floor next to your hips. For each repetition, keeping your legs straight, raise both feet together until they are straight up in the air, simultaneously lifting your head and shoulders to compress your belly. Lower your legs and head back to the floor to complete one repetition.

The Third Rite

If you do any yoga, this is basically Camel Pose. Kneel on your knees, but with your thighs straight up an down (your butt should not be resting on anything), the tops of your feet on the floor, with your hands at your sides, and let your chin dip slightly, to relax your neck and upper back, but otherwise keep a fairly upright posture. To do a repetition, lean your head back and let your spine bend backwards, with your arms hanging back free. I find I get the best results if I focus less on bending my back and more on opening my chest. To complete a repetition, come back up to upright, and again, let your chin hand down a bit to relax your neck and upper back.

The Fourth Rite

Sit with your legs together and extended in front of you, with your hands on the floor to either side of your hips. Again, it seems to be helpful to let your chin dip a bit to relax the neck and upper back in this position. Lift up your hips, letting your feet go flat on the floor, forming a "table" out of your trunk and thighs, with hands and feet flat on the floor. Don't arch your back like a gymnastic bridge, and don't throw your head too far back. I find it helpful to do this slowly and deliberately, minimizing any "pop" into position. Return to the seated position and remember to relax the neck/upper back before the next repetition. I also find it helpful to "unload" my arms in this position - let the elbows and shoulders relax and stop putting any weight on the hands.

If you do a lot of repetitive work with your hands (like typing), you might find yourself getting some weird numbness on the under/outside of your forearms and hands once you start doing a lot of repetitions of this. Taking it slow in introducing repetitions and relaxing the neck and arms in the starting positions as I've recommended will help, but you might also want to introduce some shoulder extension stretches before/after the Five Rites. To do these, sit on the floor with legs relaxed (feet on floor, knees bent) and put your arms behind you, palms flat, fingers pointing away from your body. Move your hands until your pinkies touch and crawl them as far away from you as you can. Then, pick up your butt and move it away from your hands before putting it back on the floor. Repeat until you feel a strong, but not painful, stretch in the inside of your elbows. Hold for 30 seconds or a minute, or as long as feels good to you. You can also stretch your wrists by getting on your hands and knees, fingers facing forward, then lean as far forward as you can, until you feel a stretch in your wrist. Hold for 30 seconds to a minute. Then, rotate your hands so your fingers are facing in toward you, heels of your hand facing out, thumbs on the outside. Then sit back on your heels as far as you can comfortably, and feel the stretch in your wrists. Hold for 30 seconds to a minute. When I've added these stretches, I've gotten rid of any numbness in my forearms and hands that I might have been feeling from some combination of work and the Five Rites.

The Fifth Rite

Again, if you do Yoga, this will be familiar. It's basically a Downward Dog into an Upward Dog, or what you might have heard called a "Hindu Push Up" in certain workout spaces. Start on your hands and knees and then lift up your hips and straighten your legs, leaving yourself with hands and toes flat on the ground and your butt as your highest point. Try to keep your spine straight, feeling the stretch in your legs. To begin, you likely won't be able to flatten your feet, but as you do more of this, you might be able to get your heels down to the floor without compromising your spinal posture. From this position, lower your hips and lift up your head, now arching your back and looking as far up/back as you can, keeping your arms straight. Allow your feet to roll over to where the top of your foot is on the floor instead of the bottoms of your toes.

Optional - Grounding and Follow Up

You can do the five exercises above with no "woo" whatsoever and get good results. You won't get super jacked or anything, but you'll develop decent core strength and flexibility, and it tends to have a great effect on energy. I've also shed the last 5 or 10 pounds that have been dogging me for years since I've started doing these at least semi-regularly (your mileage may, of course, vary). All that being said, one simple addition I have found helpful was suggested by another commenter over on JMG's dreamwidth: "grounding," which apparently comes from Qi Gong practice. After completing your full set, stand with your feet hip-to-shoulder width apart, knees slightly bent, comfortably settled and solid. Place your hands on your belly, an inch or two under your belly button, with your elbows out at your sides (I form a little diamond with my thumbs and forefingers). Breath in deeply through your nose then slowly out of pursed lips. While you do this, put as much of your attention on your belly and trunk as you can, trying to center your awareness there. Do this for a couple of minutes or until you feel "settled" or "grounded." I also find it helpful to follow Kelder's advice and avoid cold drinks, showers, or other exposure to strong cold for a while after finishing the Rites. Given the endocrine stimulation, you might also want to avoid strong caffeine drinks immediately after, or you might feel a bit jitterry.

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[Book] The Seed of Yggdrasill 6 - Ragnarok and the New Age

Date: 2023-October-29

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This chapter was not quite as coherent as I might have hoped. As you might expect, this chapter draws together a lot of the threads Kvilhaug has talked about in previous chapters, but unfortunately, it's not as much of a culmination of those threads as I'd like to see. That's long been one of the most interesting things about the Norse lore - there's a clear narrative arc to it, even in the raw form of the poems given in the Poetic Edda. Loki's tricks grow more and more spiteful, more often hurting than helping the other gods. Baldr is killed, Loki is bound, and we pass into tales of human heroes and valkyries rather than gods and goddesses. Things are building, and what they are building to is Ragnarok. Folks argue about whether Ragnarok is just a re-skinned Christian apocalypse, or to what degree Abrahamic eschatology influenced whatever tales might have been there, but to me, it seems integral to the heathen worldview - it's baked in right there at Voluspa, it's referenced throughout the Eddic poems, and it presents neither a satisfying "good guys win, bad guys lose" narrative, nor a true "ending" at all, but rather a complicated, nuanced destruction and rebirth. I think there's much to learn here, and Kvilhaug helps us to suss out some of what that might be.

Do You Want an Apocalypse? Because This Is How We Get Apocalypses

One of the most interesting parts of the narrative that leads up to Ragnarok is how the Gods seemingly lay the foundation for this doom of Their own doing. To get the wall built around Asgard, They break Their oath to the giant craftsman. To avenge Baldr's death, kin kills kin. At one time or another, the Tods break all of the inviolable rules that They are the very guarantors of - oathbreaking, kinslaying, rape, murder, and so forth. In each case, it seems to be needed, it seems to be justified, and yet, it is still, in some sense, crooked. Maybe the only way to chain Fenris was for Tyr to pledge His hand as collateral that They weren't really tying Him up. Maybe the only way to make things right after Baldr was killed was for Hodhr to be killed, and maybe only another son of Odhinn could do it. The point is that whatever the reason, however good it was, breaking the fundamental laws of the cosmos makes the cosmos less stable. Those laws are meant to be inviolable for a reason - violating them makes them harder to uphold, and they're load-bearing elements of reality. Kvilhaug makes the good point that it is likely overly simplistic to read the tales of Ragnarok literally as "this is what's going to happen to the physical sphere of rock and sea and magma that you live on," and that it is more likely mostly about a/the spiritual apocalypse - whether on an individual level or societal. I agree that this is likely a far more productive way of looking at things, and gives a nice lens for the less-than-admirable deeds of the Gods that help lead to Ragnarok: we each of us do the best we can, but compromises and tradeoffs are made, and maybe even for the best, but they lay the groundwork for what will get us down the line.

Kvilhaug's Main Trinity: Mind, Passion, and Spirit

So, as we've heard before, Kvilhaug sees many of the male god trinities that show up in Norse myth as variations of the trio of "Mind, Passion, and Spirit." No surprise, she sees this all over the Ragnarok myth as well. Her basic idea is that a lot of myths are about how Mind and Passion, if left to their own devices, are dangerous and liable to abuse, but that they can be harmoniously managed when Spirit is present and put in charge. Two insights I found especially helpful here: 1. These trinities often also have a key interaction with a goddess of fate and/or a dark ogress, with the right relation being a harmonious marriage of Spirit to that goddess, and 2. in stories where two brothers or friends are given, it can be helpful to see them as Mind and Passion, and the third figure who reconciles or otherwise makes them harmonious as Spirit.

Initiation as the Cure for the End Times

Building on the insight that Ragnarok might best be understood in a spiritual, rather than documentary, sense is the thought that the "answer" to Ragnarok is initiation. This comes across most clearly in Hynluljodh, where Freyja's favorite Ottar has his seeking and gaining of initiatory knowledge marred by repeated references to these fiery and chaotic end times. Freyja stands firm in asserting that the precious mead and the help of the gods will see him through all of that. If Ragnarok is as much about a spiritual or personal dissolution and descent into chaos as it is about the physical world literally coming to an end, it makes sense that having found the kind of knowledge that will allow you to transcend greed and fear and death will let you ride out that catastrophe. In some sense, this is even more hopeful than the "mere" promise that initiation will allow someone to overcome the cycle of oblivion in death and rebirth into the non-heroic human condition.

The World After the End

Though much weight is often put on the finality of Ragnarok, every mention of it we have also talks about the renewal that will come after. Some folks have said this is a Christian softening of the harsh end of all things, even the gods, that the dour northmen foresaw, but I don't find this argument all that compelling. The renewal after Ragnarok is not presented as the advent of some singular messianic figure, nor is it inconsistent with a cyclical view of the cosmos. In fact, one of the most interesting things about the renewal after Ragnarok is the idea that some of the awfulness that led to Ragnarok, most of all the killing of Baldr and the vengeance on Hodhr for doing so, might have somehow been necessary for the rebirth that follows. If the myths leading up to Ragnarok spell out the inevitable compromises and corruptions that lead to things falling apart, these myths tell of the promise that things could be better, but only with the right changes in human consciousness and conditions. Kvilhaug brings in her idea of trinities by saying that Baldr is the new representative of Spirit, whereas His brothers Vali and Hodhr, now cleansed of their negative feelings and short-sightedness, are Mind and Passion. She also introduces some interesting numerological speculation that I'll have to look into more closely as I dive deeper into these myths.

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[Book] The Seed of Yggdrasill 5 - The Loss of the Golden Age in Old Norse Myth

Date: 2023-October-23

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This chapter shows Kvilhaug going along with some of her best and worst tendencies. On the downside, she tries to tie some of the myths to historical events, but does so on the basis of shallow and outdated understandings. More positively, this chapter has a clear theme, and all of her analysis is through that lens and comes back to it, such that even when I think some of the myths cited are a bit of a stretch to bring up when discussing golden ages and their loss, they are at least clearly related to the other things she discusses in the chapter, and the far-flung references to other works has a focus that makes them more comprehensible. I'm also glad to be writing up this chapter because it's our last really long chapter before the final one, clocking in at 74 pages. From here on out, other than the last chapter, none are longer than about half that, which makes getting these reviews out on a regular basis much easier!

Historical Golden Ages (Didn't Really Happen)

Kvilhaug opens the chapter with some more speculation about what historical events might be reflected in the myths, and again, it comes across as some of her weaker stuff. As I might have mentioned in a previous chapter, at the time of writing, Kvilhaug seems to have fully bought Marija Gimbutas's theory that Europe had a mostly-peaceful matriarchal culture before the mean patriarchal Indo-Europeans rolled up and took over. For an excellent discussion of how Gimbutas was light years ahead of her field in working out where the Indo-Europeans came from, but totally wrong about what they displaced, check out this great post. For a very thorough take on what we know about Europe for the past 12,000 years or so, this makes a great overview. Anyway, the point is, the folks who settled Europe before the Indo-Europeans likely weren't all that peaceful or all that matriarchal either. It's possible their religion(s) gave greater weight to female deities than the Indo-European ones, based on the amount of female statuary, but we really don't know. There likely are some echoes of this and/or earlier meetings between the Indo-Europeans and neighboring peoples found in mythology and historicized mythology of the various Indo-European peoples (like the Aesir-Vanir War, the Rape of the Sabine Women, and so forth), but note that none of these stories are associated with a golden age that got wrecked - they're all associated with different groups of people and/or divine beings having a war and eventually settling it with a truce that united them and established much of how society was ordered. Anyway, the point of all this is that I think it's generally not that helpful to try to find the "real" golden age behind a golden age myth. The idea that things used to be better, and now we live in a crappier world is very common mythologically, and likely has as much to do with individuals aging and normal civilizational decay as it does with accurate historical memories.

Those Nasty Christians Ruined Everything with their Prudery

Kvilhaug also engages in one of her other less-than-helpful tendencies in this chapter when she starts talking about the influence of Christianity and its own story of a lost "golden age" in Eden (spoiler alert - it's all bad). Did you realize that it's standard Christian teaching that the Fall was only about sex? Me neither, because no one serious actually thinks or teaches that. Maybe that's the version that gets trotted out by lukewarm Norwegian mostly-secular Christians trying to check a few religious boxes or something, but it was yet another occasion where Kvilhaug seems to attack a caricature of Christianity rather than engaging with the very many ways you can respect what the religion is doing without agreeing with it. It's also a bit muddled why she even brings up Eden here - she doesn't make a very strong case that the "lost golden age" Norse myths are late, Christian-influenced stories that are just retelling the Eden myth, nor does she especially say that the Golden Age myths were cast in a grossly deceptive light by being written down by Christians shaped by ideas of Eden and original sin. There's a lot of complicated and potentially useful stuff to sort through in the role of Christianity in shaping or influencing the lore that we have, since all of the written versions passed through Christian hands to get to us, even if they were composed in a heathen age. Instead, she just seems to sort of vaguely be talking about how different religions and cultures have "golden age" myths, but the Norse ones are better than the Christian one, because Christianity is bad and hates sex. Or something. It's not a great look, and it doesn't add much to the chapter.

Frodhi and His Millstone is Definitely A Golden Age Myth

Okay, the first Norse myth discussed is definitely a golden age myth. King Frodhi ("Wise") presided over an age so peaceful and prosperous that a maiden could walk unescorted the breadth of the country without being troubled and a gold ring could lie right there out in the open without anyone picking it up. He achieved this through a wondrous mill that could grind out whatever you wanted, turned by two giantesses - Fenja (usually translated as "of the heath," but Kvilhaug prefers "the Achiever") and Menja (usually translated as "of the Necklace," maybe associated with Freyja's famous Brisingamen, but again, Kvilhaug has her own preference, here for "the Rememberer"). From her preferred translations, and the fact that turning this mill cranks out what happens in the world, Kvilhaug equates the giantesses with Urdhr and Verdhandi. At any rate, at some point, Frodhi grows greedy and has the giantesses grind out gold, and he goes to sleep and orders them to keep going without rest. As they grow resentful at their mistreatment, they grind out all kinds of bad stuff, and the golden age ends. Kvilhaug argues, and I think with good support, that the point here is that as long as wisdom is in charge, primal forces can be turned to good ends, but if we lose wisdom, those primal forces cause all kinds of hardship and bad news. This is a clear myth of "you had a good thing going and screwed it up, and now everything sucks," so it's a good place to start a discussion of golden ages and their loss.

Chaining Fenris is a Bit Shakier as 'Golden Age' Myth

Okay, so next up Kvilhaug talks about the myth of chaining Fenris. While much of her analysis is helpful, I think including this myth in a chapter on "golden ages" is a bit shaky. Her standpoint is that up to this point, things seem to have gone pretty well for the Aesir, but then Loki's kids show up and seem to introduce/embody problems. Fenris's name most likely means "greed," which is not shocking, as wolves are often associated with greed/hunger in Norse myth, so the wolf very likely is as well. Kvilhaug's take is that Tyr represents war, and that he loses his hand to Greed, because war too easily escalates due to greed, at great cost. I think there's some merit to this, but my own meditations have led me to believe that Tyr, as the God of organized, societally-sanctioned war, losing his hand to the wolf is the cost of war - you feed some of your young to the wolf, and they never become men, householders, because the tribe/city/society needed to pay that cost, or at least thought it did. Anyhow, there's lots more here to meditate on - the wolf is bound by seemingly insubstantial things, Tyr is the God of keeping oaths and he essentially offers a false guarantee, Fenris is not dangerous yet, but we know He kills Odhinn at Ragnarok - there's a lot of useful, interesting stuff happening here, but I'm not sure how much of it is usefully analyzed as "right after" the presumably idyllic age described in other poems.

Kvasir's Readily Available Wisdom is Another Clear Golden Age

When we get to Kvasir, though, we're again clearly dealing with a time when things were good and then someone went and messed it up by getting greedy. We have two different versions of where Kvasir came from, oddly enough both from sources written by Snorri - in the Ynglinga Saga, he is simply one of the Vanir hostages given to the Aesir as part of the peace deal to end their war. The version given in the Prose Edda is more interesting, though. At the end of the Aesir-Vanir war, both sides came together to seal the peace deal in various ways including the hostage exchange given in the other version (though with slightly different hostages), but one of those ways is a bit funky. All of the Aesir and Vanir spit into the same vat, mix that spit with some berries, and from this divine mush form Kvasir, who proves to be the wisest man in the whole world (presumably because he partakes of the wisdom of all of the other divine beings). Kvasir wanders the world, giving out his wisdom to anyone who wants it, for free even! But then a couple of dwarves, Fjalar and Galar, whose names probably have something to do with noise and/or yelling (like many of the primeval giants we've encountered before), have the bright idea that instead of just having Kvasir over for a beer and asking him whatever they want to know, they should instead kill him, drain his blood, and use it to brew some mead that will grant eloquence and wisdom to whoever drinks it. Cool plan, guys. So, they do it, and they put the mead in three containers: Son (maybe "blood," or maybe "reconciliation"), Bodhn ("Vessel/Container"), and Odhroerir ("Stirrer of Odhr," odhr is something like inspiration or the ecstatic state, it's the root of Odhin's name, he is "The odhr master.") Continuing to be complete psychos, these dwarves next invite over a giant, Gilling, and his wife, take Gilling on a nice boat ride, and then tip over the boat to drown him. Coming back on shore, his wife is understandably upset, starts wailing, and these guys are apparently less of a fan of lamentations than Conan, so they kill her too. Unfortunately for them, their son Suttung ("Heavy with Drink") hears about this, rolls up on the murderous dwarves, and puts them out on a reef that gets covered at high tide. With the water creeping higher and higher, the dwarves offer him something, anything to save their lives, and he's all "well, whatcha got?" Water up to their necks, they offer him the mead in a panic, and he's like, "yeah, okay, that'll work." Snorri says that they were thus reconciled, but I like to think of Suttung as just letting them drown anyway.

Anyway, Suttung hides the mead in Hnitbjorg ("The Clashing Mountain" is the usual translation, maybe like the cliffs that smash together that the Argonauts had to get through), and sets his daughter Gunnlodh ("Invitation to Battle") to watch over the mead. At this point, we're pretty clearly out of the golden age of Kvasir going around being a bro to all and sundry, as his wisdom is now locked up under a magic mountain and guarded by a giant family. What's interesting about this myth, though, is that it's not only about the golden age and its loss, but also about its (partial) restitution. Odhin decides to go get the Mead, and so he spends a summer mowing hay for Suttung's brother (after tricking his previous thralls into killing themselves with a whetstone), and then the brother agrees to help him get the mead, first by asking Suttung (no go), then by drilling a hole in the mountain for Odin to literally snake his way in, but I guess he feels bad about screwing over his brother or something, because he tries to trick Odin, first by not drilling all the way through, and then by straight up trying to go all Saw on him with the drill, but Odin gets into the mountain anyway. Gunnlodh likes the looks of Odin and agrees to give him a taste of the mead if he'll spend three nights with her (in the version referenced in Havamal, there's an implication that Odin swore an oath to her, maybe a marriage oath, but that's not in the Prose Edda version). When she goes to give him three sips, he uses one big sip per container and ends up with all of the mead inside him! He turns into an eagle and hightails it back to Asgard, but Suttung spots him, turns into an eagle himself and takes off in hot pursuit (hmmm, another giant-turned-eagle chase). We don't hear what happened to Suttung, or if Odin just lost him, or what, but along the way, Odin leaked out some of the mead (from which end it came out will depend on how you interpret the passage), and this nasty, second-rate mead is where crappy poetry comes from. The good stuff, though, Odin spits out into three containers in Asgard, and it becomes available to those he chooses to grace with it, granting poetic fluency, which is also wisdom and memory and inspiration and all that.

Kvilhaug's take on this myth sequence is, surprise, that some of the figures are actually the same as Gods/Giants from other stories! She equates Suttung with her favorite giant, Aegir (which is slightly weird, as the primary source for most of this story is a section of Skalkskaparmal being told to Aegir, but hey). She points to the association with mead, being the father of the Maiden with the Mead, and so forth. More interesting to me is her assertion that Kvasir might be another name for Heimdall, which at first struck me as totally out of left field, but she presents some interesting evidence. First, in Thrymskvidha, stanza 15, Heimdall is called one of the Vanir and said to possess great wisdom, and though He isn't mentioned in any of the stories about the hostage exchange, He is seen living and acting amongst the Aesir, implying he might have been one of the hostages. Secondly, and more interestingly, in Gudhrunarkvidha onnur, stanza 23, the "precious mead" is said to be imbued with/made to grow by "the power of earth," "the cool cold sea," and "the Blood of Reconciliation/Atonement," and in Hyndluljodh, stanza 38, Heimdall is said to be imbued with/made to grow by "the power of earth," "the cool cold sea," and "the blood of reconciliation/atonement" - now isn't that something? I wouldn't say it's open and shut, especially since Kvilhaug reads a lot into Heimdall that others don't (she translates His name "Great World," and sees Him as the personification of all of Being), but at a minimum, it's awfully rich food for bethinking (meditating) on.

Baldr's Murder Mystery is a Compelling Way to Read the Myth

Though it might be a bit cutesy, Kvilhaug approaches the myth of Baldr's death as a murder mystery, which turns out to actually be pretty compelling. Now, this is another myth where the "golden age" is not so much spelled out as implied - since Baldr is so extraordinarily great, things must have been great when he was around. It seems bit shaky to me, but again, it doesn't much take away from the analysis of this myth, just the broader theme Kvilhaug is trying to demonstrate with a bunch of "Golden Age" stories (this is the last time I'm going to hammer on this, because I think that the myths of Kvasir and Frodhi are likely the only ones that are really golden age myths). Anyhow, so the point is, the story of Baldr seems fairly straightforward: Baldr has some bad dreams about dying, everyone freaks out, his mom, the queen of the gods, goes around and gets everything^* to swear an oath not to harm Him, so everything's good. The gods, being rowdy viking gods, celebrate this by hurling weapons at Baldr and finding it awesomely hilarious when nothing happens. Loki sees all this and hates it, and wonders if it's really as foolproof as it seems. So He turns into a woman, goes to visit Frigg, and asks her if she really got an oath from everything, and she admits, well, no, the mistletoe seemed too small and harmless, so I didn't ask it. Meanwhile, blind Hodh doesn't get to play the reindeer games, and Loki finds him sitting sadly on the sidelines. Loki says he'll be a pal and help Hodh shoot a dart, and he has just the one. Well, surprise, the dart is mistletoe, and now Hodh has killed the most beloved god, and Loki has bounced.

Even from this short telling, you can see that whose "fault" it might be is a bit tangled. Loki had the intent, secured the murder weapon, and even guided Hodh's hand. On the other hand, Hodh is the one who let the dart fly. Where things start getting even weirder, though, is when you consider that Odhin, the god who has sought out the most hidden wisdom, went and consulted a ghost volva about Baldr's dreams, and then as Baldr lies dead on his funeral pyre, Odhin whispers a secret in his ear. And, oh, also, later, after Ragnarok, you know, that thing that Odhin is more concerned about than anything and that will kill Him? Yeah, after that, Baldr comes back to the reborn world. So maybe the Crafty One knew what was coming and had some role in it. But wait, it gets even trickier! Frigg, the (extremely) protective mother can even be considered a suspect! In the Lokasenna (basically Loki trash-talking all of the other gods), Loki brags to Frigg that he got Her beloved son killed. Another Goddess, trying to calm things down (everybody tries, Loki keeps escalating, until eventually Thor shows up and threatens Him enough that He leaves), responds by saying that Frigg sometimes sits on Odhin's high throne, the Hlidhskjalf, and can see just as far and clearly as Him, and further, that She knows all fate, but speaks it not. What a strange juxtaposition! And remember, it was Frigg who so "carelessly" revealed the only thing that could kill Baldr, after going to all of that work to protect him. All of this points to the idea that Baldr's death might not have been (only) the awful tragedy it is usually presented as, but a necessary step in the eventual preservation and rejuvenation of the world.

Where Kvilhaug mostly gets the "golden age" vibe from this myth is in translating the names. She gives Baldr's name as "Bold" (one of a few credible etymologies that many other scholars also buy), and so sees Him as the embodiment of courage. His wife Nanna Neprsdottir's name she translates as "Understanding, daughter of the Ring," and for this story at least, she translates the odhr in Odhin's name as "Spirit" and Frigg's name as "Love" (it is definitely related to the word "Love," but it's a title that came to mean "Lady," and most translations render it "Beloved"). His home, Breidablik, she translates as "Broad Vision." In other words, Baldr is the kind of courage you get from deep understanding and broad vision, and as long as that courage is nurtured and respected, it is a source of happiness, and is in fact quite resilient. Kvilhaug translates Hodhr as "Strife" or "Aggression," which is apparently a bit more speculative than some of the other names. If we go with it, though, that means that this understanding, loving, fair courage can be disrupted by "blind strife" or "blind aggression" - just as we see hatred and greed as negative qualities that heroes have to surpass to earn a valkyrie bride. As usual, I think that Kvilhaug comes off as a little too sure she has the one and only answer to the "puzzle" of the myth, but I do think that this particular proposed "solution" is incredibly fruitful and will help cast light on a lot of other linked myths.

Baldr, the Sequel: Vali's Ugly Conception

This is not quite its own tale, and it certainly isn't about the loss of a golden age, but more what is done after it. It's also weird because it's a rather ugly tale, and our most complete version of it comes from Saxo Grammaticus, who had a far more hostile take on his heathen ancestors than Snorri did, and whose euhemerized tellings of mythic stories often show the god-substitute characters in very poor lights. We can't totally toss these stories out, though, because there are hints and snippets in the authentically heathen lore, like the Eddic and Skaldic poems, that point to some of these same stories. All of which is to say that this myth is on even shakier ground as something that was known and believed by heathens back in the day, and so any religious thinking informed by it should take that into account.

Okay, so Baldr has been killed, technically by Hodh, so now Hodh owes a blood debt to Baldr's kin, and Baldr's kin have an obligation to hunt down Hodh until and unless he comes up with a suitable wergild ("man-gold" - the price paid to the kin of someone killed, which was the civilized answer to endless tit-for-tat blood feuds, Hatfield and McCoy style). When Odhin consulted with the dead seeress about Baldr's seemingly unavoidable death, he asked about vengeance, and he was told he would have to father a new son on a woman/giantess named Rind (Kvilhaug translates as "The Rejecter"). That son will be named Vali, which Kvilhaug links with the same word in Valholl ("Hall of the Chosen"), and so translates as "The Choice." We know that Rind was Vali's mother, and that Vali succeeds in avenging Baldr, and that He is another of the Gods who will survive Ragnarok and be a part of the new order afterward. But pretty much all we know about Rind, or the circumstances of Odhin fathering Vali on her, come from Saxo's telling, which is, well, not very nice. Odhin heads to Rind's folk (here given as Ruthenians, roughly Ukrainian/Polish, which might stand for "foreign, but known to us," which might indicate giants in the non-euhemerized version of the myth Saxo was building on), and he makes his suit, offering first his own greatness, and then when that fails, money. Rind turns him down and says he's too old. He then strikes her with a thorn that makes her fall ill and mad/confused. Odhin changes himself into a healer woman and comes to help. He tells her attendants that she'll have to take some medicine that is so bitter, she'll try to toss it away, so they have to tie her down. And, uh, leave them alone to administer the medicine, of course. With the poor girl tied down, Odhin rapes her and impregnates her with Vali.

As I said, an ugly story with a weirdly mixed provenance. Kvilhaug does a good job of laying out some reasons that this distasteful detail may have been part of actual heathen myths and not just a slander thought up by Saxo, and then proceeds to interpret it in the way she has been doing with all the other myths so far. Her take is that "Spirit" (remember, a tricky, fuzzy concept, odhr, that has connotations of altered states of consciousness, ecstasis, and frenzy) can come upon even the most arduous rejecter of things spiritual and create the choice to act bravely and wisely in the world. I'm not sure I wholly buy her take, but it's not unreasonable, and if we accept that in myth, one way of looking at sexual union and its products is as a metaphor for forces/concepts/archetypes coming together and creating an outcome, then whether that coming together was consensual or one-sided might have further metaphoric import. I'm reminded of the myth of the conception of Erechtheus, the first king of the Athenians. Hephaestus tried to force Himself on Athena, but by the time He caught Her, He was too worked up and spilled His seed on Her thigh. She wiped this off, and threw it on the ground, and from the ground sprung the baby Erechtheus. I'll save getting into the specifics (though Neal Stephenson does a nice job in a scene in Cryptonomicon), but the point is that it was important mythically for Erechtheus to, in some sense, be the son of Hephaestus and Athena and the Earth (at the site of Athens, specifically). It was also important, mythically, for Athena to remain a virgin, and for Hephaestus's unlooked-for yearning to be the driving force. The myth rather neatly conveys all of this in a vivid, easy-to-understand way. So maybe the story of Odhin and Rind is pulling some similar conceptual freight - but I haven't worked it out yet.

Volund's Teeny Tiny Golden Age

Okay, I said I wouldn't hammer on "was it really a golden age?" anymore, so I'll just point out that what Kvilhaug identifies as a golden age in the story of Volund is nine years of three couples being happily married - so a fairly short, and fairly domestic golden age, but perhaps there's some useful wisdom in contemplating "golden ages" from such a standpoint, after all. Volund is the figure known throughout the Germanic world by various names: Velent, Wieland, Veland, and in English, Wayland the Smith. This section was actually one of the most useful for me in the chapter, as Kvilhaug brings in sources from outside the Eddas and makes some comparisons/equations that are very thought-provoking, if nothing else. For example, in a late Danish medieval version of the story, Velent goes to learn smithing from Mimir, who is a "Hun." As we saw with the Ruthenians above, foreign folks, especially to the east, often seem to stand in for giants in later versions of tales that were de-mythologized. Kvilhaug's etymology for Volund looks straightforward as she presents it, and it has interesting implications if right, but apparently most scholars regard the etymology of the name as obscure and hard to figure out, so her very straightforward reading might be missing something (or maybe the scholars are looking for too complicated an answer!). Anyhow, she takes the first part from Ve, meaning "sacred enclosure," which is not as crazy as it might look at first from my writing, because the "o" in Volund has an umlaut, and so is closer to an "e" than it first appears, and she says the second is just lundr meaning "Grove."

There's a lot of interesting stuff going on in the various versions of the Germanic smith legends, often involving dwarves, betrayal, intentional laming, child murder, and worse (yes, worse). I'm not going to give a pithy summary, because this is one of the tales I don't even know as well in the Edda version as others we've covered, and I certainly don't know the other versions and references and such. Instead, I'll focus on what I think are the potentially most interesting, but also most speculative, parts of Kvilhaug's analysis. First, Volund is presented with two brothers. She equates this triad with Odhin-Vili-Ve (there's that "Ve" again!), the three brothers who killed Ymir and made the world, and/or with Odhin, Hoenir, Lodhur, who made the first men, and since she's all about the fluid identity of gods, she sees all of these triads as three-part manifestations of Odhin (which is not such a crazy interpretation - even staid, non-pantheist harder polytheist types often see at least the first three as all manifestations of Odhin). She compares their actions setting up a nice, cozy homestead in a valley by a lake with the acts of primal creation described in earlier myths. Now, here's where it gets even more interesting, potentially. The three brothers find three valkyries bathing at the lake and make them their wives (from how the story goes, it seems like They were into it, just not as much as the dudes). The live together happily for nine years, and then the women are like "valkyries gotta valkyrie," and go off to fight battles and choose warriors and stuff. Two of the brothers go after them, but Volund stays and just starts making gold rings every day. Anyway, what's interesting about Kvilhaug's analysis here is that she equates the three valkyries with the three Norns - Urdhr, Verdhandi, and Skuld. She then proceeds to match each valkyrie (based on the name) with each Norn. Now that each of the brothers has been identified with an aspect of Odhin/one of His brothers and each of the valkyries identified with one of the Norns, we see Odhin and his brothers/aspects married to the Norns, and we know which aspect is married to which Norn! Now, I don't know that I buy that these identifications are "true" in some objective sense, but the potential insights that come from these sorts of interlocking associations is precisely where Kvilhaug's approach shines.

Wandering Husbands Disperse Illusions

For this bit, Kvilhaug brings together the story, told in Ynglinga Saga, where Odhin left the Aesir for some time, and so his brothers Vili and Ve both married Frigg while He was away, with the story of Freyja looking for Her lost husband Odh. She uses this to layout the case for seeing Odhin and Odh as the same god (remember, Odhinn is just "Master of Odh" and Odhr is "Odh," so this one's pretty straightforward) and Frigg and Freyja as the same Goddess (less straightforward, but not crazy - Frigg and Freyja both derive from the same proto-Germanic root, a title that just means "Lady.") This is actually the case of "these different gods are actually the same" I think is one of the intellectually strongest - I was thoroughly convinced of it back when I was a materialist heathen, and I still find the arguments compelling. That being said, at least for my practical religious life, I got clear instructions to worship Freyja and Frigg separately, as two distinct goddesses, so that's what I do. Anyway, Kvilhaug says both of these are stories about what happens when you lose touch with spirit/the divine, which seems fine as far as it goes. What I found most helpful is her suggestion about where the heck did Odhin/Odh go anyway? I don't think I've ever run into anyone speculating on that before, just accepting that the Wanderer's gonna wander. She links this with his visit to Vafthrudhnir for a wisdom competition (as told in Vafthrudhnismal). Kvilhaug sees Vafthrudhnir ("Powerful Head Veil," she says, but again, other scholars differ) as representing the forces of illusion that hide the true nature of Being from us (think Buddhist maya), and so as long as your spirit is caught up contending with illusion, it's not doing it's job of running your soul. If nothing else, an interesting way to approach these myths, with lots to think about.

Sleeping Brides Await True Initiates

We've seen lots of related discussion on these tales in the chapter on the Maiden with the Mead, so there's not a ton of new stuff here. The emphasis is on how there are multiple stories where a valkyrie (who, remember, Kvilhaug sees as a personalized fate goddess of a warrior/initiate, who is Herself a manifestation of Fate Herself) is put to sleep by Odhinn, seemingly as some kind of punishment for something She has done, but perhaps for sneakier reasons, like for Her to be the proper motivation for a hero to achieve what he needs to achieve to become worthy of Valholl, and thus of Odhin's plans for him. As always, there's some good discussion of names and references to other tales and gods, sometimes unexpected ones, but this is one of those sections that's a bit repetitive.

Is All of This Yet Another Left Brain, Right Brain Thing?

Kvilhaug seems to have been ahead of the curve here a bit. In the last few years, since Iain McGilchrist has finished his two-volume magnum opus The Matter with Things (see here for a great intro for such a big, gnarly topic, though be warned it is through the lens of political implications, which may not be to your taste), Left-Brain/Right-Brain stuff has been all over the place (at least, all over the kind of stuff I read online and in books). Kvilhaug speculates that what gets coded as "feminine" in Norse myth might be representative of right-brain thinking, whereas "masculine" is left-brain. I think there might be something to this, but I also think gender is its own whole thing, deeply embedded in our thought and experience in a different way than our two ways of processing things with our brain. Where I'm left is thinking it might be very interesting to systematically go through various myths and analyze them as if this is true, and see what pops out. Especially after I've had a chance to read more McGilchrist.

There Is a Common Thread Here, but It Might Be Thinner than Kvilhaug Says

Altogether, I think that bringing these myths together and looking for their parallels was a helpful exercise, and there are some real parallels to them. That being said, as I made abundantly clear throughout, I think the idea of a "golden age" and its loss is not necessarily the thread that holds all of these together, but instead, something a bit more abstract and general, which is the theme of losing, seeking, and/or finding something vital. All of these myths truly do point to aspects of the human condition that are/can be lost, and to the great spiritual rewards that come from living in proper relationship with them, but not all of them paint this desirable thing as something that was once universally known and is now universally missing unless we actively seek it. Instead, these stories run the gamut from true, universal golden age of the past that has been lost (like Frodhi's age of peace) to highly individual paths of seeking and initiation, like the heroes with their valkyries.

Once again, we run into my chief complaint with Kvilhaug and her particular perennialist/pantheist take on things: her overly strong tendency to see everything as the same, one thing. Rather than several stories about seeking something felt as a deep yearning for something lost, all of these stories must be about the golden age, and all of the characters must really be the same character. It strikes me as overly neat for a world as big, complex, and messy as we know this one to be - why would spiritual matters be much simpler? Maybe I ought to stop even pointing this out, since it's pretty well established by this point how Kvilhaug sees these things, and that I don't agree, but I thought I'd bring it up here, because it's not only a case of "all of these Goddesses are really just one Goddess," it's also "all of these stories are really just one story," which, weirdly, strikes me as even more reductive than melting every character together. Even if every God is one God, there can still be different stories about Him, right? If you dissolve the differences between all of the stories too, what are you left with? One undifferentiated Being doing one, undifferentiated thing, always? In the Neoplatonic Druid philosophy I've read, that's literally the state of Being between creations, the "cosmic night" that comes between the "cosmic days" of manifest Becoming that are everything we have known and can know in our present states.

Anyhow, as I've said before, Kvilhaug's instinct to look for similarities, look for connections, look for hidden parallels is a good and useful one, but here, as elsewhere, she takes it past the point where I find it helpful.

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Seeking Stillness

Date: 2023-October-15

Things have been a bit… harried lately, and I think not only for me, but for many. I find myself constantly feeling like there's something I have to do, something unfinished, something pressing. Often, this is because, you know, I do have unfinished work to do (job, kids, hobbies, spiritual practice, you know the drill). But I also think that it is often a stronger feeling than is warranted by the actual tasks on my plate, and that it comes more from the morass of popular culture and online interaction we all wade through, with its relentless novelty, variable interval reward schedules, and graphic depictions of every which extremity. All of that has left me craving moments of stillness, which is the only way I know how to put it - time where I feel truly at rest, like I'm not doing anything, but I'm also not wasting my time.

This is one of the few things I miss about a regular mindfulness/mantra meditation practice. When I was actually regular about doing 15-20 minutes of vipassana focused on the breath or Transcendental Meditation-style mantra meditation, I would pretty regularly find these states of stillness, and much of the calm followed me around throughout my day. An hour-long float tank session also produced similar results, for a day or two anyway. But the trouble was, if I took even a day or two off of meditation, many of these benefits went away, and then it took another 1.5 - 2 weeks to really get back to where I was getting what I was after. And keeping up a mindfulness meditation habit that consistently was really hard for me, for whatever reason.

Which is one of the reasons I've been so keen on discursive meditation - for me, anyway, it is way easier to keep up a regular practice. I've done at least a 5 minute placeholder meditation, and most days a full 15-20 minute meditation, darn near every day for about two and a half years now, a streak I got nowehere close to with mindfulness meditation. Discursive meditation has many of the same benefits of building good habits, getting you to notice what it feels like to become distracted, and just plain taking some time every day to sit still with good posture and breathe deeply, which has its own benefits. Unlike mindfulness meditation, discursive meditation also lets you think deeply and figure stuff out and hit upon unlooked-for insights into philosophical or spiritual material, at least on a good day. On the other hand, at least for me, and your mileage may vary, discursive meditation pretty much always feels like work - it is another of the obligations that has to be met, there is a difference between doing it right and not, and so forth. Also, though it helps practice willpower and concentration and other good things, again, at least for me, discursive meditation doesn't bring about those moments of stillness that seem to be an antidote to the busy-ness modern life so often immerses us in.

So, I have found myself craving such stillness and not getting it through the core of my daily spiritual practice (ritual, meditation, divination). Instead I have found two ways to reach that stillness, and they have been helping me cope with all of the… everything going on in the world right now, including my own very mundane concerns about getting stuff done for my job, around the house, and so forth.

The first practice I can recommend comes from John Michael Greer's Druidry Handbook, and that is to take 10-15 minutes and just go "be in nature." Now, that by itself is sufficient, but a few comments that might help. First off, many of us have an inflated sense of what counts as "in nature" - to be "in nature," you don't have to go ride a horse out from the farthest trailhead in Yellowstone to the least-accessible part of the park, so that you have nothing but trees and mountains and bears as your companions. Sure, all of that is nice (well, maybe not so much the bears as companions), but you know where else you can find "nature"? The squirrels getting frisky in the tree in your backyard. The planter full of flowers in your window. The weeds pushing through the cracks of a parking lot. Heck, in your own body, because you are yourself a part of nature. The point being that all of us can find some nature to focus on, even if there's no panoramic view or charismatic megafauna around. Once you find some "nature" to engage with, you have two options: laser focus or splatter vision. For laser focus, pick something tiny, like a few square inches of lawn or the veins on the back of your hand or the structure of the one dandelion poking between two chunks of sidewalk. Then, spend your 10-15 minutes really, really paying attention to that tiny thing. I promise there's way more detail there than you can actually process in that amount of time, or ever. Pushing through the boredom of "I've now seen everything there is to see here" and becoming again interested is part of the work. For splatter vision, you do the opposite - open up your awareness to anything and everything "natural" that happens within your field of senses in the next 10-15 minutes. Watch the clouds sail across the sky, listen to the songbirds get into a fight and run each other off, feel the temperature and humidity change as the sun creeps upward. As you do this, let your thoughts muse on what you see ("are those squirrels fighting or courting, or maybe both?" "What kind of weather system is making the clouds do that? Gosh, I don't know much about the weather at all, do I?" "What do roly-polies even eat, anyway?"), but try to return it to just paying attention to what you're attending to (whether with laser focus or with splatter vision). I try to do this at least once a week, and I notice my anxiety and stress are way lower when I do.

The second practice I've been finding helpful lately is part of my daily prayer. As I've talked about before, I try to build prayer into my life throughout my day, but I try to have one daily "main" prayer, usually in the evening right after we get the girls down for bed. I have an altar ("stall" in heathen-speak), I light an oil lamp and some candles, and I make a couple of drink offerings. I have a handful of set prayers I say the same way each time, a different prayer each day of the week (for example, to Sunne on Sunday, Mone on Monday, and so forth), and then some free-form prayers as well. One of those freeform prayers is the last that I do before wrapping up. I call upon all of the Gods, Goddesses, well wights (spirits), and holy forebears I have prayed to, and I tell them that I'm opening myself to whatever they might want to send me - sight, sound, words, rede (advice), or whatever else. I then take a short time, usually something like 9 slow, deliberate breaths, where I try to quiet my mind and be receptive. Most days I don't "get" anything like a message or direct guidance, but I do get a few moments of calm, intentional stillness, with my attention turned toward the holy, and that seems to be quite helpful all by itself.

I'm sure there's much more I could be doing, if I were truly trying to minimize the amount of hassle I feel in my life, and all of the basics apply, of course - get enough sleep, eat healthy food, work out, get sun, and so forth. All that being said, these two practices are ones where I definitely notice when I let them slip, and I definitely feel better when I get them back to being a habit. If you have any ways you find moments of stillness, healing, and beauty amongst the hassle and hurly-burly, I'd love to hear about it.

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Remembering My Mom

Date: 2023-October-08

Five years ago tomorrow (Monday, October 9th), I knew what the call was about as soon as I saw it was from my dad. It wasn't a surprise, but it was a blow - after watching her waste away for the past couple of years, she was gone. She was ready to go, and she had told me so not a week before. It was hard watching someone so kind, so giving, hurting so badly, losing interest in everything that brought her joy, literally welcoming death as a relief from pointless, unending suffering.

At the time, I was an atheist and a materialist - I had never felt religion all that deeply, and it had come to seem like nothing more than a comforting illusion to make the crushing truths of a huge, uncaring universe more palatable. I was working on a being a good Rationalist - always seek the truth, even when it hurts, even when you wish it weren't so. There was some value in that ethos, but now, looking back, I remember that when my dad was talking about the difference between someone sleeping and a dead body made it clear that something that had been there was gone, something like a soul, and then when he and my sister were talking about her being in Heaven, I made myself acknowledge that no, she wasn't, she was gone. Only our memories of her remained. Sure, there was a certain amount of strength in this, but looking back, it was to no good end - I was just hurting myself.

Throughout her entire illness, I had been trying to practice what I preach and live and think as a good stoic. When I caught myself thinking about how unfair it was that a healthy, active, non-smoking woman in her 60s had lung cancer, I reminded myself of the little kids I had seen when I took her to appointments at one of the nation's top cancer hospitals. Fair had nothing to do with it. When I found myself wishing her primary care physician had read the chest x-ray for her persistent cough better a year earlier, when maybe we could have done something, I told myself that I could only do the best with what I had now, and couldn't change the past at all. Again, there was likely some merit in practicing such virtues in one of the hardest tests real life can throw you, but in my rush to "deal with" the hurt in a stoic and reasonable way, I don't think I gave myself enough room to, you know, feel bad that my mom was dying.

I had protected myself by retreating into my head (and into more whiskey than was good for me). I intellectually "understood" what had happened, and I assumed that was the end of it, because that's how most of my life works - work something out intellectually, and you've got it. I knew the facts, I had a philosophy of how to explain it, and I knew what the end state should look like, so what else could I need? Weirdly, though, I'd have experiences like finishing When Breath Becomes Air and weeping uncontrollably. Or my wife would point out that I was sleeping too much. Or I'd let timelines slip at work. But I was fine, right?

So, things were rough for awhile, but I didn't realize how rough. I muddled along, and then I had a rather singular experience. Without going too much into it, let's say that I found myself in a not-exactly-ordinary state of consciousness. While experiencing this, I felt a deep, deep grief for my mom, and I began crying freely. What was unusual, though, was that this didn't feel like a bad thing - of course I was sad that my mom had died - what kind of monster would I be if I weren't? Of course it was a deep, strong, feeling - hadn't I loved her deeply, and wasn't her loss a deep wound? This is likely old news to everyone else, but the experience of 1. feeling a "negative" emotion not as a bad thing or failure, 2. feeling the emotion and realized that was distinct from thinking about it or understanding it, and 3. linking the negative feelings I was having with the positive feelings I had had from my whole life with her all led to a pretty profound shift in how I understood myself and my grief.

Since then, I've found religion, and I have a much more hopeful outlook on where she is, what's she's doing, and what it means for the spiritual life of myself and my family, and that certainly helps as well, but it was that shift that really mad ea difference. I named this post "remembering my mom," and I've spent it almost entirely talking about myself. In part, what else can I say? It's far from rare to find someone singing his mother's praises, and often, those praises are remarkably similar: kindness, care, comfort - all the stereotypically "maternal" things. Well, I'd be adding to that chorus. My mom was a wonderful mother, in every way you could hope for a mother to be - kind, interested, nurturing, funny, supportive, understanding. So, take all of that as given, please. Instead, I'd like to share a few things about her that are less ubiquitous, all the while realizing that in many ways, it's a hopeless task: she was my mom, and no matter how many cute or funny anecdotes I share, she'll never have wiped your forehead when you were sick, helped you turn squiggles on a page into words, or pleaded with you not to join the army. All that being said, she deserves to be remembered, and putting a bit of that memory into writing helps me crystallize it and get ready to share it with my daughters, when they're ready to hear them.

My mom's father died when she was in high school, and that put her in a hard spot. He had been born to be a pilot. His father gave him money to go to college, and he took it and went to flight school instead. He loved it. By all accounts, he was a natural. Too old for fighter duty, he flew Catalinas to South American bases in WWII, and after the war, flew for a time. But in the 40s and 50s, the piloting profession was not kind to aging eyesight, and so he spent my mom's life bouncing between jobs that could pay the bills, but just - apartment manager, driving instructor, that kind of thing. When he died, my grandmother began working, and my mom stepped up to help take care of her little sister. She got into a minor regional state school and took advantage of the generous scholarship opportunities for folks pursuing a teaching certificate. Not long after graduation, she met a young engineer with his heart set on the automotive industry, and they fell in love and stayed there for the next 45 years. She followed him to the suburbs of Detroit, then back to Dallas when the auto industry got smacked in the 70s, and a few more places after that as my dad found his career in the oil industry. On their first few stops, she taught middle and high school, mostly history and English. When my sister was born, she stopped working and focused on us, until, that is, I went to pre-school, which gave her the opportunity to discover her true calling - pre-school teacher. The ridiculous sweaters. The inability to pass up talking to small children encountered in stores or on the street. Deep, loving, kind patience with the utterly ridiculous, but honestly felt, titanic feelings of four-year-olds. Whatever challenges my mom had had with the teenagers she taught before my sister and me, she was a natural with the little kids.

When my dad's work moved us to northern Virginia, he was doing well enough she didn't need to work, and her mother had moved in with us, so she didn't look for any teaching jobs, pre-school or otherwise. She never had to work again. Things were a bit rough at times with her mom, a strong-willed woman losing her wits to strokes and regular aging, but overall, we were happy and comfortable as my sister went through high school and I started it. Then my dad's work moved him again, this time to Houston, and my grandmother ended up in a nursing home near my mom's younger sister, rather than with us - I wasn't privy to everything that went into those conversations, but I'm pretty sure a part of it was my mom saying something like "I've done my part, it's your turn now" (after over 40 years of being the dutiful one to her sister's rebelliousness). Once in Houston, my sister was in college, I was in high school, and financially, we were doing better than ever, so my mom found herself having a grand old time. The one very weird exception, is that is my senior year of high school, my mom was clingy for the only time in her life that I saw. Now, once I went to college, she realized how great it was not having kids to take care of any more, especially with my dad still working and them making plenty of money, but for a few months there, she was a little funny.

When I met a beautiful and smart young woman who I wanted to build my life with, my mom welcomed her into the family with open arms. When she found out we had a kid on the way, she was excited enough to overcome the lack of energy that had begun to infect everything in her life once the chemo started. Besides throwing baby showers from her literal death bed, she took advantage of the temporary relief brought by the chemo to take some wonderful trips to Europe with my dad, including a cruise on a smallish sailing yacht through the Cyclades. As she lost taste for the weekly dinners we brought over, as she lost interest in the soap operas she had followed for longer than I had been alive, as she even lost interest in the science fiction and fantasy books she had read since she was a child, not once did she lose sight of the lives of her children, the comfort of her pregnant daughter-in-law, or the needs of the husband who had had to suddenly reverse from "totally taken care of" to caregiver in less than a year.

These days, I've accepted that she's gone in the way I knew her, but I believe that in more important ways, she's still around. It's still tough. We went to her grave today and I gave a toast over one of her favorite wines (J. Lohr Cabernet Sauvingon - as she and my dad had more money, she came to appreciate fancy things, but she never lost the ability to appreciate something good that was also a deal). While we stood there, my almost-5-year-old whose baby showers my mom organized alternated between the earnest, but ridiculous questions of a four year old ("do the men who bury people wait until they die to do it?") to the truly heartbreaking insights of unfiltered innocence ("how does grandma Jenny know we brought her flowers?"), my almost-one-year-old bucked and cooed and screamed and wondered why she couldn't crawl around, and meanwhile, my dad was holding back tears. As awkward as it was, it seemed fitting. No one would have better understood the finnicky behavior of little kids than her. No one would have been more thrilled to see their happy, beautiful faces. No one would have felt more deeply my father's sadness, or the gladness that my wife and I or my sister and her boyfriend share. In its chunky, organic, unstaged life, it was the perfect tribute.

I had a few anecdotes I thought I'd share, about how funny, or supportive, or unexpectedly firm she was, but I think those might be for me and mine. So, instead, I'll make a small ask: if anything above has moved you, or touched anything in you, then please raise whatever it is you might be drinking in a toast to my mother Jenny. So much of who I am is thanks to you, and I hope this small tribute gives some honor to that.

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[Book] The Seed of Yggdrasill 4 - Retrieving the Soul of the Gods

Date: 2023-September-30

Posts about Seed of Yggdrasill

This chapter has a fair amount of overlap with Kvilhaug's book The Goddess Idhunn in Poetry and Myth, which I read and took extensive notes on, so I was able to go through this one a bit quicker. It's also much shorter than most of the earlier chapters, so this will likely be a quicker write-up than some in the series so far. Right up front, I have to say that I don't really understand Kvilhaug's central conclusion: that Idhunn is the "Soul of the Gods." I'll get into that as we go, but I thought I should highlight that whatever else follows might be tainted by an overall sense of confusion.

We Find Idhunn in Three Works - the Haustlong, the Prose Edda, and Hrafnagaldr Odhins

Kvilhaug relies on three works (the first two more than the third) for her analysis of the Idhunn myth, with good reason: these are the only texts we have that talk about Idhunn! I'll start with the middle text, which is Snorri's Prose Edda. As discussed before, Snorri's masterwork is both a (literal?) Godssend as well as somewhat complicated to deal with thanks to the religious landscape when he wrote. On the one hand, he gives us the most straightforward telling of the Idhunn myth, one without which interpretation of the Haustlong would be rather murky at best, and the Hrafnagaldr Odhins would be utterly opaque. In fact, so readily interpretable is Snorri, that some scholars have accused him of making up much of the myth and modeling it more along classical lines (like the apples of the Hesperides, and so forth). Kvilhaug argues, and I agree, that the rather old (early 10th century) skaldic poem Haustlong shows enough detail that much of what Snorri relates about the tale must be at least as old as that poem. Importantly, that poem was composed by an actually heathen skald, known for his learning and wisdom, for an actually heathen audience, in an act that was fundamentally religious in a heathen way.

Quick aside: here's what I mean. The well-known skald, Thodholfr or Hvinir was given a princely gift: a shield painted with scenes from two myths: Loki's betrayal of Idhunn and her abduction by Thjazi (more below), and Thor's fight against the strongest of tall the jotnar, Hrungnir. Back then, amongst the nordic folk, giving a gift was a fundamentally religious act. You took some of your stored up luck, wealth, and good name, and you put it into a physical object, and then you gave that physical object to someone else, thus giving them that portion of your luck, wealth, and good name, because it was a grand and noble thing to do, and the Gods smiled upon it, and sometimes added some of their own luck, wealth, and good name to those of gift-giver and/or receiver. Now, if you were given such a wonderful gift and were yourself religious (as we have no reason to believe someone so skilled in the holy art of skaldship would not be), your immediate response is "I am in this man's debt! How do I give him some of my luck, wealth, good name, and so forth, hopefully with some of the Gods' to boot, to demonstrate that I am just as awesome and sensitive to the ways of Gods and men as he is?" Well, if your name is Thodholfr of Hvinir, the way you do that is by busting out your top-notch skald skills to compose a poem about your sweet gift as its own sweet gift in return. This is an A+ heathen move, by the way. Thodholfr 1. honored and magnified the gift he was given, and thus the name and reputation of the man who gave it to him, by telling everyone, even folks over a thousand years later what a great gift it was, 2. gave back a gift of comparable (or maybe even better?) artistry, by setting his well-skilled hand to crafting a poem, and 3. did all of this in the divine art of poetry about the Gods Themselves, making everything appropriate religiously.

Anyway, the point here is that we have a very old (by written Germanish standards) poem, a medium-old prose retelling by a known scholarly badass, but with his Christian conflicts, and a poem of indeterminate age that is all kinds of weird and mixed up. As we talked about back in the first post in this series, Hrafnagaldr Odhins is a poem that was included in the Poetic Edda for a long time, eventually got kicked out for being "not authentic enough," and now enjoys a mixed status, where some scholars believe it to be from the same time as other Eddic poems, others seeing it as the later recreation of an antiquarian. I'm with Kvilhaug in seeing it as useful enough from a heathen religious perspective to give it serious attention. One interesting (but likely impossible to answer) question is: does the Hrafnagaldr Odhins have nowhere-else seen kennings for Idhunn given by Snorri because the author read Snorri and forced them in there, or because Snorri knew this poem and used it to compile his list of kennings?

The overall takeaway is that Snorri's prose telling of the myth of the abduction of Idhunn is our clearest understanding of the story, the version told in fits and starts of allusive verse in the Haustlong is very compatible with that, which suggest the story was genuinely old, and then the Hrafnagaldr Odhins adds some further wrinkles that you may or may not take seriously depending on when you date that poem and how committed to reconstructionism you are.

The Myth - A Descent into Death and Return

Okay, so, let's take a moment to tell the story at the heart of these different versions discussed above. Odhinn, Hoenir, and Loki are traveling around, and they get hungry, and they find a herd of oxen, so they kill one of the oxen and start cooking it in a big "earth oven" (likely picture a pit-barbecue type situation, like at a luau). They keep checking, though, and the ox won't cook. They look up, and there's a "not small" (typical Norse understatement for "frickin' huge") eagle sitting in a tree looking down at them intently. Loki starts to think the eagle has something to do with it and is like "what's up, bird? Why are you messing with our dinner?!" So, the eagle is like "well, I'm hungry too. Promise me my choice of the finished meat and I'll let it cook." The three Gods agree, and sure enough, finally the ox cooks reasonably quickly. When it's time to let the eagle take his share, yoink! He takes the whole dang ox! Loki is starving and won't have none of this, so he starts wailing on the eagle with a stick. Unfortunately for him, the stick "sticks" to the eagle, who starts flying off with the ox in its claws, and Loki hanging on to the stick, unable to let go. The eagle flies low, smashing Loki into stuff along the way, and Loki, fearing for his life, begs the eagle to tell what will make him stop. The eagle says that Loki must bring him the goddess Idhunn, keeper of the apples that keep the Gods young. Loki agrees, and after he gets back to Asgard, proceeds to trick Idhunn outside the walls by saying he found some new apples that remind him or her special ones, and the eagle, revealed to be the jotun Thjazi, snatches up Idhunn and takes her back to his hall in Thrymheim. The Gods begin to grow old, and knowing where to look when trouble shows up, they confront Loki. He admits what He did, and promises to get Her back, but to do so, He'll need to borrow Freyja's falcon-shape, which she agrees to. So He turns into a falcon, flies to Thrymheim, finds Idhunn there and Thjazi out, turns her into a nut, and then flies home with Her in His falcon claws. However, Thjazi gets back just as they're leaving, again turns into an eagle, and chases after. Back in Asgard, the Gods are keeping up a sharp watch, and they see this chase coming their way, so they pile up a bunch of wood and prepare to light a huge bonfire. Right as Loki gets back, Thjazi hot on his tail, they fire up the wood, and roast Thjazi to death. Well, it turns out Thjazi has a daughter, Skadhi, and she comes seeking restitution for her murdered father. The Aesir and Vanir are a bit ashamed of the whole business, and offer to let Her marry one of the Aesir. She agrees, but only if She gets to pick which one, and if someone amongst Them can make Her laugh (with the smell of her roasted father still lingering in the air, that's a tall order). The Aesir agree, but stipulate that she must pick her husband by his feet, and She says "fine, whatever." Seeing the most handsome feet, she thinks that must be Baldr, who she wants to marry (handsomest and kindest of all the Gods, primo husband material), but it turns out that's Njordhr, whose feet are so nice because He is (among other things) the God of the sea, and stands with his feet in the waves all day, which I guess is a hell of an exfoliant or something. As for the laughing, Loki tries everything, until finally, in desperation, he ties a rope to a goat's horns, and the other end to his, ahem, manhood, and when the goat yanks him off his feet yelping, he falls into Skadhi's lap and she bursts out laughing to see him humiliated so.

Great story, right? Admittedly a bit different than the version in D'aulaires' Norse Myth that I read my daughter earlier today, but even that version was interesting. Well, let's dive into some of what we can take from it besides the entertainment value.

Thjazi - The Eagle of Death

Maybe the single biggest contribution Kvilhaug made to my understanding of this myth is the idea that Thjazi very likely is death personified. "Jotun," the word usually translated "giant," likely means something like "devourer," and many/most jotnar are associated with primal worldly or cosmic powers, rawer and more dangerous than those wielded by the Gods, but sources of wisdom and strength nonetheless. "Thjazi," means something like "Slave-Binder," which is a pretty great name for Death (especially if you happen to be an Iron Maiden fan). But where does she get this? Well, for one thing, though eagles sometimes carry the symbolic meaning of "majestic, proud bird, royalty of the air" that you see in other cultures, in Norse culture, the eagle is also seen as another eater of the dead, like crows and ravens. Also, eagles are often associated with "winds," such as the eagle Hraesvelgr ("Corpse Swallower"), who is the source of all winds in the cosmos, and Kvilhaug argues that wind is a symbol for death, and "windless" or "wind-shielded" are used to indicate deathlessness. I find all of this plausible, but on the wind = death bit, I really wish she was more clear if that's her own interpretation, commonly accepted among scholars, one guy's theory from way back, or what. Anyway, this is a place where I think Kvilhaug's penchant for equating figures actually helps a great deal - she believes that Hraesvelgr, the otherwise unnamed eagle who sits in Yggdrasill, and Thjazi are all one and the same, and all of them are manifestations of Death. One really interesting thread I have not yet been able to satisfactorily track down, though, is that if you go with the theory that Thjazi is Death, then what you have is Death kidnapping a Goddess and the divine order being thrown into disarray because of it until She is brought back - which makes me think of Hades and Persephone. What's really interesting about this potential parallel is that the Hades-Persephone myth was the central myth of the Eleusinian Mysteries, which purportedly granted its initiates some kind of relief from the typically not-great fate after death, and in this Norse myth, the Goddess taken is explicitly linked with immortality. That gets my comparative myth knickers all in a twist with implications, but again, I haven't been able to follow this up in the depth I'd like to one day.

Two Goddesses - Shining Maiden and Fierce Ogress

One of Kvilhaug's recurring points, discussed in the previous chapter, is the frequent appearance of a pair made up of a shining, beautiful Goddess and an Ogress. The shining Goddess is always beautiful, linked with knowledge and initiation and immortality, whereas the ogress is often (but not always) hideous, knows great and terrible secrets, and is linked with death and obliteration. The most dramatic example is Hel, where the two halves are literally united in one person. Kvilhaug, rolling the way she does, believes all of these examples are just manifestations of the same pair of light and dark divine femininity, and thinks Hel is maybe the "truest" expression. I don't know if I go that far, but it is certainly an important pattern, and Kvilhaug points to Idhunn and Skadhi as one such pair. Skadhi's name means something like "injury," and She is a fierce Goddess of skiing and hunting and the like, so she likely can be seen as the death that's waiting for you out in the wilderness when you push a little too hard and end up with a broken ankle at the bottom of a ravine. Kvilhaug points out how Idhunn basically stops being part of the story the moment Skadhi comes on, and says this indicates they were two sides of the same coin. I'm not totally convinced, but I think it's a very interesting line of thinking, especially when you look at everything else that happens with Skadhi - she marries into the Aesir, her marriage to Njordh is not great, as He's a beach guy and She's a mountain chick (to over simplify), and according to some traditions, She ends up having a baby with Odhinn who becomes the start of the Norwegian royal line.

One idea of Kvilhaug's I found especially intriguing in this regard is that the ogress has the great and powerful secret knowledge, but it is the maiden's job to help the seeker remember it, with the mead and all that that we talked about last time. As I said there, a thought that has been stuck in my head is putting together Kvilhaug's interpretation with my current understanding of how the spiritual path works. I am working my way through traditions that hold that we reincarnate countless times, and that most of what we think of as our "identity" can be called the "personality" - the set of habits of thought, behavior, emotion, and so forth that make you the exact person you are in this incarnation. These traditions teach, though, that our personality is temporary and not that important. Rather, what persists from life to life is our individuality - this is our truest and highest self, it carries the character developed by karma from life to life, and the main goal of spiritual practice is to get more in touch with it and less enthralled to our personality. Between lives, all of this is clear, as we process what just happened in our last life and incorporate its lessons into our individuality, but then as we sink back into incarnation, it's a bit like drifting off to sleep. One metaphor from these traditions is that your personality is the dream your individuality is having for the length of this incarnation.

Okay, so let's put these two ideas together. As we've seen, the Norse myths place a great emphasis on "memory," and especially memory of divine wisdom, often gained through an initiatory act, dangerous quest, or with the help of a spiritual helper. Our current example is the pattern of a seeker asking a dangerous and scary ogress for knowledge about the world, which She has, and which is useful, but just knowing it seems not to be enough. The maiden who helps him to "remember" is a key part of the process. I wonder if what might be happening here is a description of a spiritual process by which useful divine wisdom is learned, and then made a part of the individuality, and the person is prepared to "come back to" the individuality more and more readily. I certainly don't have anything other than intellectual, bookish speculation, but it strikes me as worth meditating on more!

Shamanic Soul Retrieval

Another interesting wrinkle to the story of Idhunn's abduction as we have it is the amount of "shamanic" stuff that turns up in it. As I think I mentioned in an earlier post, this is an area of inquiry into Norse myth and religion that I think is very much worth looking into, but has some issues. First off, the reason for promise. The folks who lived or live on the fringes of the arctic circle (sometimes called "circumpolar") have certain broad cultural similarities. How much of that is due to similar environment, borrowing from each other, or common ancestry is a topic of much debate, so for now, let's just take as a premise "their cultures have certain similarities." One of those widely-seen similarities is the practice of something that got labeled in the late 19th or early 20th century "shamanism," due to the word for it in the tongue of one of these folk groups in Siberia, as filtered through Russian. Without going too much into what these practices are, various ethnologists of the 19th and 20th century noticed that they were not only similar among the circumpolar group, but that many practices of indigenous folks around the world (especially North and South America) looked pretty similar. The recognition of those similarities led in the late 20th century and the 21st century so far to a lot of alternative spirituality types talking about "shamanism" as a hip and trendy set of practices, sometimes with psychedelics, sometimes without. All of this is to say that any digging into hints of "shamanic" practices or beliefs in the Norse lore could be a lot of different things.

With all of that out of the way, I think it is almost certain that the beliefs and practices of the circumpolar peoples influenced the Norse and their lore - they were close neighbors for thousands of years, and in the historical period, we have stories of indigenous folks being sought out for their particular wisdom or magic. Anyhow, the relevance for this myth is that Kvilhaug claims that it follows the overall pattern of a shamanic "soul retrieval." One of the beliefs/practices common among the circumpolar folks is that someone's soul (or one of their souls, or part of their soul) can be lost or taken by hostile spiritual forces. This causes a slow, wasting sickness. The shaman is brought in to make a journey through spiritual realms to find the soul and bring it back, healing the patient. There are some elements in the story that suggest Idhunn plays the role of "soul" and the wasting sickness is obviously the aging felt by the Gods. The first maybe-clue is the stick that Loki tries to hit Thjazi with - a staff or stick was often used by shamans to create a repetitive beat to induce altered states of consciousness for spiritual journeys. Loki is then taken on a journey of a kind, one that he can't seem to stop (a bad trip?). Thjazi's realm Thrymheim might mean something like "the land of drumming" - again, drums were a common tool of circumpolar shamans. The shape shifting into animals is another trait of how shamans described what happened on spiritual journeys. All of which is to say, it's an interesting hypothesis, and at least plausible, but I'm not sure where else to go with it.

Remember the "Formulae" - Here's a Refresher on Gender as Metaphor for the Known and the Unknown

In this chapter, Kvilhaug also gives a quick refresher on her idea of "formulae" that we talked about back in the introduction, and she is helpfully specific. Kvilhaug argues that when you see a pair of figures in a myth, one masculine, the other feminine, the masculine figure represents the obvious, clear, outward expression or cause of something, whereas the feminine figure embodies the obscure, hidden, inner expression or cause. Further, the nature of the relationship between the masculine and feminine figure tells you something: if it's a husband and wife, then it's usually a pair of different, but complementary concepts or forces. If a brother and sister, concepts or forces that are seen as two sides of the same coin. If a one-time liaison, then it implies they are somewhat complementary, but maybe not wholly balanced. Significantly here, a daughter represents the hidden, non-obvious results of the father's obvious actions. You could also look at Loki's obvious, outward actions (stealing Idhunn) and Idhunn as the hidden cost (the aging). None of this is that shocking to anyone who's ever read any Jung, but Kvilhaug states it in a helpful and straightforward way here, and for all the ragging I do on her, I try to give full credit where she truly is helpful and insightful.

"The Soul of the Gods" - What Does Kvilhaug Actually Mean Here?

Okay, as I mentioned above, this is the bit of this chapter that has me thrown off. Kvilhaug argues that Idhunn should be seen as the shared, collective "soul of the Gods," Her loss as equivalent to a man losing his soul, and Her retrieval akin to a shamanic soul retrieval, as discussed above. I think she makes a compelling enough case, I don't have a problem with this interpretation, I just don't really understand it.

First off, let's take this at face value: the Gods are distinct beings, but they share "a soul" in the shape of Idhunn. What the heck does that mean? What is a shared soul? Is it but one soul among many, one part of the soul, or what? Whatever it is, what do we mean to say She is a "soul" that is "shared" by all of the Gods, other than that to lose Her will make Them grow old?

Secondly, and maybe even harder to understand, is how does this interpretation interact with her pantheistic beliefs? My understanding of Kvilhaug's pantheism is that she believes there is a vast, undifferentiated divinity that touches (or is?) all things. The various Gods, Goddesses, and other beings are aspects, manifestations of that unified godhead - maybe more akin to masks or costumes than to "separate" beings. This is why she sees "the same" God or Goddess in different tales with different names - she thinks they are merely functionally similar manifestations of the same less-personal divinity. At least, that's my understanding so far. Well, if that's the case, then what does it mean for these masks to "have a soul?" Wouldn't the soul just be another aspect of the same pantheistic godhead? Here, it's less weird for the masks to share something (they're all manifestations of the same underlying divinity, right?), but I don't get what calling that something a "soul" even means.

Really, this is not rhetorical - I'm scratching my head here. If you have some thoughts on how to get this through my thick head, I'd be much obliged.

Loki as the "Mover of the Stories"

Kvilhaug uses one section to talk about one of Loki's rather interesting titles: the "Mover of Stories." She points out that this implies that the skalds of yore fully understood what he was doing in the tales where he was involved - turning them into interesting stories, making "something" happen. To that point, I agree with her. Where she maybe goes a bit far, is to put this together with the lack of evidence for historical worship of Loki (no place names with his name, no inscriptions, no statues or amulets, written accounts, and so forth) to argue that Loki was purely a literary invention of the skalds to make for some interesting stories. As we've talked about, I'm generally skeptical of her tendency to see any "characters" in the lore as "purely literary invention," and she's perfectly willing to make that assumption, because she sees all of the Gods and Goddesses as just aspects of a pantheistic godhead anyway. I'm not so sure. Worship of Loki is a controversial topic in modern heathenry. Many cite the lack of evidence for worship along with the seemingly clear arc from "friend of the Gods" to "harbinger of the end times" to say that He is clearly an evil figure and not fit for worship. Others say that's just reading too much of the Christian devil into Him. Still others say hey, that's a good point, maybe He was a later addition by Christian-influenced folks, and so you shouldn't worship Him for that reason either. On the other hand, folks who do worship Loki point out that the absence of evidence is not necessarily the evidence of absence. They also point to his central role in some very important myths and draw comparisons with "trickster" figures in the beliefs of other cultures. For myself, worship of Loki is not currently part of my practice, mostly because I've heard that folks who do worship Him often end up acting like jerks, and because I haven't sorted out what to make of Him and His role in the lore. That being said, I think treating Him with disrespect is likely unwise, and I remain open to seeing where my practice takes me. If nothing else, I think the thought that He is "just" a literary figure is likely wrong.

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Did this post spark any thoughts? Have anything to ask or share? Feel free to send me an email at jeff DOT powell DOT russell AT, and I'll add your thoughts below. You can also comment on the dreamwidth post.

A Few Thoughts on Slack

Date: 2023-September-24

I just finished reading the Book of the Subgenius this week. It only took me two and a half years. I read it in bits and pieces, a little at a time. If you've read the Book of the Subgenius, you might have a pretty good guess as to what activity the reading accompanied, but it also took me a while since I took all of 2022 off from it, since the authors are still alive. If you're not familiar, the Church of the Subgenius is… very weird, to say the least. I first heard about them in high school reading the jargon file and then heard some vague things about them over the years by hanging around nerdy subcultures, but I never really got beyond recognizing "Bob" and references to "Slack." You don't really need to know too much about them for this post, but if you want to get a feel, this documentary was excellent and hilarious, and helped me to put several things together before I dived into the book. The short version is that the Church of the Subgenius is entirely a joke and parody of religion while also being a real religion that meets spiritual needs for its followers. If you don't like paradoxes like this, you should stay away from their "holy book," The Book of the Subgenius. What I want to talk about more than the religion itself is its chief goal: slack.

Slack Means You Do What You Want

Two of my favorite, but very different takes on slack come from John Michael Greer and Zvi Mowshowitz. One thing I like about these two, is they both do a pretty good job of defining what is inherently a nebulous topic, usually better illustrated through examples than crisp definitions, but they both get pretty close. To smash together a few points Greer made in his post, slack is the condition of not going all out all the time, which means it is resilience, which means it is the opposite of efficiency. What I especially like about Greer's definition is the way it points out that two "good" things can still be at odds, even be literal opposites of each other. Mowshowitz, being a Rationalist, gets even further in a crisp, verbal, declarative-knowledge definition of something that might be better explored through allusion, metaphor, and gnosis. His definition is: "The absence of binding constraints on behavior." Now, despite the ribbing in my last sentence, this is a very good definition that has more to it than it might first appear. For, after all, "constraints on behavior" can take the form of resources, relationships, obligations, or even moral codes. In a twisted way, you might say the psychopath has a certain amount of slack not available to the psychologically normal.

I bring up this rather distasteful example to make a wider point - doing what you want has several variables that go into it: can you do what you want? will you do what you want? what do you actually want? All of these variables can be tweaked to get more slack - increase your capabilities, increase your willpower, and get clearer on what you want and spend more time on that than on other stuff. If you have a job that you feel is stealing your slack, well, you can 1. quit your job, 2. try to figure out what about your job could make slack rather than steal it, 3. quit trying so hard and see if you find slack that way, or any other number of other options. That's part of what makes slack such a valuable thought - it's specific enough to guide behavior, but open-ended enough to allow some flexibility (fittingly enough). What is perhaps most important to think about is how slack is personal. What gives you slack might stress me out, and even worse, what gives me slack in one situation might not in another.

Hassle is What Steals Your Slack

Now, this is a bit of terminology I came up with on my own. If we can think of slack, then it makes sense to think about the opposite: hassle. Anything that takes your slack is hassle. So, anything that puts a constraint on your behavior, anything that stops you from doing what you want, that's hassle. Again, notice that hassle is very personal - work that I find stultifying might be enriching for you. Work that at one time I might not sweat, at another time might stop me from doing what I truly need to do. What's even worse is that work that might be good for you could be hassle if you have already said "yes" to too much work - helping at the food bank, or teaching at a local school, or working a shift at a business you care about might individually be good for you, even supportive of slack, but maybe all three would be hassle. Again, moral or cultural or conventional views of what you should do and not do could also be hassle, if you don't really agree with them.

Slack is Not Only Physical, but Metaphysical

Now, if you've been following along, you might be asking "isn't 'slack' just the same kinda thing as Nassim Taleb's 'antifragility?'" There are some definite overlaps, and in Skin in the Game, Taleb dives into some of the more moral aspects of his view of uncertainty, which gets a little closer to what slack is doing. But altogether, one of the things the Book of the Subgenius nails, that is hard to get from outside descriptions of slack, is that this is an actual, desirable, metaphysical quality. Now sure, the Book of the Subgenius conveys this through ridiculous jokes and exaggerations and short-of-breath monologues, but it does do a very good job of getting the point across. I mentioned above that the Church of the Subgenius is a very weird example of something that is at once satire and something serious. I think the main way they pull this off is by gleefully ignoring logical coherency in favor of aesthetic coherency. The fact that part of the aesthetic is contradiction and madness somehow paradoxically adds to the coherency. It's wild. The point is that slack is not merely the ability to rationally do what you want to achieve concrete ends in the real world. It is the feeling that what you want matters, whatever else the society around you says. It is the willingness to cast aside very serious obligations because they do not actually serve what you want or need. Heck, slack is both working you keister off on your own start up idea or checking out at your corporate job and doing the bare minimum not to get fired. At its heart, slack is a joyful embrace of the worth, sacredness, and autonomy of the individual, expressed in the crassest and most ridiculous ways available.

The Link with Capacity for Violence

I have one more thought on slack that's even more out-there than what I've shared so far. At one point after getting out of the Army, my wife asked me what it was like and what I missed. She knew that I had been mostly miserable for the last few years of my term of service, and that I was no fan of the Army generally speaking, but she also knew that I had expressed some positive thoughts every once in a while. One way I tried putting it was that I "liked being a soldier" but "hated being in the Army," which was my attempt to explain that I liked the skills capabilities I was required to learn, but not so much the career bureaucracy that came with them. But one night, on a walk through her mom's neighborhood on a pleasant San Antonio evening, I had an insight. What I truly missed was a sense of ease. I tried to explain to her what I meant by ease - I felt reassured that whatever I did, I'd be okay, that whatever trouble I got into, someone had my back, that whatever I put my mind to, I'd have some kind of good outcome. In spelling this out, I realized that what had given me this feeling was a combination of being in the best shape of my life, being as competent as I've ever been in shooting and hand-to-hand fighting, and perhaps most importantly, being a part of an extremely tight-knit gang called a platoon. If you're not familiar with the military, a platoon is a formation about 30-50 soldiers strong, led by a Platoon Leader (2nd Lieutenant, the most-junior rank of Commissioned officer in the Army) and advised by his Platoon Sergeant (an enlisted soldier with 15-20 years of experience, usually). The point is, day-to-day, your platoon is the group of guys you do everything with - going to the range? You shoot with your platoon. Doing exercises? You maneuver with your platoon. Cleaning bathrooms? You clean with your platoon. Sitting around smoking and joking? You sit around with your platoon. The point is that as a soldier, you have a multiply-reinforced relationship with your platoon. Now, I don't know about other specialties or units, but in an infantry platoon in the 82nd Airborne circa 2010-2012, there was certain, how do you say, character, to this grouping. Paratrooper are raised on a mythology of scrappy self-reliance, fighting spirit, and individual initiative. When you find yourself surrounded by 30-40 guys who have all drank deeply from this well, you discover that you are more than yourself. Sure, you might be fit, and dangerous, and willing to fight, but you're just some guy. A few dozen of your best friends, though, and now you've got something to reckon with. Now, it's not like I was ever in a bar fight with my platoon buddies backing me up. But I always knew that if it happened, they were there.

So what does this have to do with slack, which seems so peaceful? Well, being afraid of the violence someone might do to you is a constraint on your behavior, right? And removing that fear would remove a constraint, wouldn't it? The thing is, if you don't want to be delusional, to remove your fear of someone else's violence, you need to be able to offer your own violence, and group violence is waaay more effective than individual. What all of this means is that hardass military discipline is, paradoxically, a route to slack. Maybe not the only way, and maybe not the most effective way (remember circumstances!), but it's an aspect that I think often gets left out, since violence is distasteful and somewhat antithetical to what slack seems to be about. But if our goal is to truly have the most slack we might, we care naught for what slack 'seems' to be, and instead look to cultivate what will truly bring the most slack - even if that means finding a few dozen of your closest friends and getting good at hurting folks.

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[Book] The Seed of Yggdrasill 3 - The Maiden with the Mead

Date: 2023-September-16

Posts about Seed of Yggdrasill

In this chapter, Kvilhaug shows that when she has a fairly well-defined topic, her tendency to draw in far-flung comparisons and links proves itself insightful and helpful, rather than confusingly scattered. It might also be that she comes off as more coherent here since she's building on the work she did for her master's thesis, so this is already a well-developed body of thought for her, and one which was subject to the supervision of an advisor. At any rate, though I still found plenty to write down here (for those keeping score at home, the backs of ten 4x6 notecards), it was a lot easier to keep the main thread of what this chapter was about in mind. It likely also helped that it was half the length of the last chapter. All that being said, let's see what Kvilhaug has to tell us about the Maiden and her Mead.

The Heart of It - Tales about Mead-Serving Maidens are About Initiation

This was the topic of Kvilhaug's Master's Thesis, and it's the core idea in this chapter. In fact, most of the chapter is just giving examples of the pattern to point out variations and show how widespread it is. Maria's framework for this initiatory pattern has five stages: 1. Vision Quest, 2. Vision, 3. Descent, 4. Trials, and 5. Consecration. The vision quest typically involves engaging in some ecstatic techniques like fasting and ordeal, the vision brings some kind of knowledge or insight, the descent is into an otherworld, usually the land of the dead, the trials often involve proving eloquence and knowledge to a male giant related to the mead woman, and lastly, consecration is when the woman serves the hero mead and usually "embraces" him (if you catch my meaning). Not every example follows this pattern exactly, but it seems like a reasonable analysis to me. If nothing else, you can say that there's a recurring motif of a hero journeying somewhere, facing some challenges, and then being served magical mead of some kind by a maiden. Kvilhaug argues that this pattern represents the mythic grounding for real-life initiation rituals seeking esoteric knowledge.

It's True Because We Dug It Up - A Foray into Archaeology

Kvilhaug spends a chunk of this chapter discussing the archaeological and historical evidence for women serving mead in ritual contexts, which I found somewhat perplexing at first. Once I read through that bit, though, it became clear to me that what she was doing was trying to prove the plausibility of her theory that the myths give some kind of insight into real-life Heathen religious practice. The reason I found that surprising is because I find that claim fairly obvious, but then, I've been using myths as the basis for religious practice for the past few years, so maybe it's not as obvious to others as it is to me. Anyhow, the short version is that there were definitely important social and cultural rituals that featured women serving an alcoholic beverage to men. What the religious dimension of these rituals was is harder to say for certain, but it seems pretty clear that something was there. At any rate, Kvilhaug briefly references Michael Enright's excellent Lady with a Mead Cup, which goes into great depth on the role of first divinatory priestesses and later the Lord's wife in the Celtic and Germanic warband culture that arose as the Roman empire collapsed and eventually grew into the medieval social organization.

Kvilhaug's Initiatory Formula Seems Mostly to Hold True

Okay, so we're all on board with the idea that myths can tell us about religious practice, and that a recurring pattern is likely something important? So, what does Kvilhaug's pattern help us see? Well, first off, that there are a lot of these stories. Most folks who know anything about Norse lore at all have heard of Odin giving an eye to drink from the Well of Wisdom, and he brought back the mead of poetry, but it turns out those are far from the only stories about a magical drink. Apparently, Kvilhaug's thesis does more to step through the five stages identified above and demonstrate where they can be found in various myths, whereas this chapter focuses on the woman herself. In these tales, the woman is almost invariably described as some variation of "shining," is usually beautiful, and often rules some lands or folk. On the other hand, there is also often a counterpart, an ugly, fearful "ogress" associated with death, fetters, and darkness. Kvilhaug argues that these two female figures are like two sides of the same coin, the most extreme example being Hel, Goddess of the land of the dead, who is literally half bright and beautiful and half dark and dead. Interestingly, the esoteric knowledge sought by the hero is often given by the ogress, but it is the bright maiden who allows him to remember it.

Memory seems to be an extremely important thread in Germanish lore. Mimir, whose name likely means "memory" owns one of the wells from which the world tree draws its sustenance. That very tree is sometimes called "Mimir's Tree." When Mimir's head is cut off by the Vanir, Odin preserves it and consults it for wisdom. Speaking of Odin, His two ravens are named "Thought" and "Memory," and He says that though He fears losing both of them, He fears losing Memory more. Throughout the tales that Kvilhaug goes through in this chapter, the element of memory comes up again and again. The crucial moment in Svipdagsmal is when the titular character remembers his true name and past relationship with the maiden he seeks. This is an aspect of the lore that I want to dive more deeply into, but the ability to remember seems to be a key spiritual power sought by Gods and men alike.

It's All the Same Woman - Parallels and Equation

I know I've harped on this before, but in this chapter, Kvilhaug explicitly argues for equating many (all?) of the "mead women" from these tales. In some cases, she gives interesting arguments for why two (or more) characters might be interpreted as the same Being called by different names, and obviously there is some of that going on in nickname and metaphor-heavy Norse poetry. Still, Kvilhaug seems to use a fairly monist view on things where ideas like "separate identities" for different deities are "more fluid" than we're used to these days, and the distinctions don't really matter, because they're all emanations of the same divinity anyway. Personally, I find this a little too neat for the messy world we actually live in. As I've said before, I'm working my way through a course of study that posits an essentially Neoplatonist view of Being, where there is a "One" that is the source of all life and consciousness, and in some important sense, everything that is is just a manifestation or aspect of that One. On the other hand, the course I'm working through says over and over again "these views are meant to train you to think about the world in certain ways, and not to be taken as infallible statements of how the world works on faith." I've come to be suspicious of any theories or ways of understanding that too readily fit into what humans find convenient. The thought that "you know, all of these similar, but slightly different ladies must actually be different takes on the same underlying divine power" strikes me as the kind of simplification that is appealing to human reasoning - it removes the messiness of individual experience, minor variations, idiosyncratic details, and so forth, and replaces all of that with a nice, easy to understand and explain abstraction. And that's not even touching the pragmatic side of things. Let's suppose that Gerdhr, and Freyja, and Frigg, and Jordh, and Ran, and Hel truly are, in some important sense, "the same" - there is a single divine "person" that answers to all of those names. Even if that is true, then why do we have tales about the different names? And why were there different religious practices for them? Maybe it is important to use the right name for the right situation. The reason for my scare quotes and tentative language is that these are ideas that I don't know if we can properly conceptualize, and even if we can, can we ever truly know the answers? It seems like an empirical approach is all we can hope for - say the prayers, do the rituals, and see what happens. And how are we to know whether many individual, highly finnicky rituals are the right way to go, or one unified, rationalized ritual? By trying them out and seeing what happens, I suppose.

Anyhow, for what it's worth, Kvilhaug is very good at spotting parallels between myths that might suggest the same God or Goddess is being called by a different name, or alluded to obscurely. This is great! It provides wonderful fodder for bethinking (meditation). I'm just not quite ready to accept that this is the "right" interpretation, and Kvilhaug seems pretty convinced. My other complaint is that she sometimes seems so ready to spot parallels that she doesn't carefully spell out why one exists. For example, there's a passage where she's drawing a comparison between Aegir's nine daughters and a list of "nine" valkyries - except there are 13 names in the list. She doesn't address this. At all. She just says "look at this list of nine valkyries," and then talks about the significances of the names (all 13 of them). Now, am I saying she's wrong? Not necessarily - maybe some of those names are referring to the same person, and it's clear from the Old Norse grammar in a way that the translation doesn't make clear. But if so, it'd be darn helpful if she shared that. Point being, I take all of Kvilhaug's analysis as interesting and potentially helpful possibilities to ponder, and not as "this is the one true way to understand this myth."

Just Kidding, We Will Do Some Comparative Myth After All

Remember back in chapter 1, when I complained that Kvilhaug's section headers were misleading, and it seemed like comparative mythology was going to be one of her pillars, but then she said she wouldn't be using it much? Well, in this chapter, she does decide to bring it in, which I personally find interesting and helpful, even if some of it is in service of her extreme willingness to equate different characters that I find frustrating. I suspect that she brought in the comparative myth here for the same reason she got into the archaeology we talked about above - she wants to counter skepticism about her core thesis, that seeking out a maiden with a magic drink was a very important element of at least esoteric heathen religion, and that the clues to it are in the myths. Again, I don't feel as much need for evidence, as I don't find that claim that hard to swallow. Anyway, whatever her reason for including it, the comparative material is quite interesting. For my druidly leanings, her discussion of Cerridwen and Taliesen is especially interesting. From an Indo-Europeanist standpoint, her comparisons of the mead with Haoma (Zoroastrian) and Soma (Hindu), and the disir of Norse myth (a word for "female spiritual beings" that seems to have fairly wide applicability) and the dhisanas of Hindu myth are all rather interesting. This is one place where Kvilhaug does more to back up her tendency to see the unity between figures. According to her, in the Vedic texts, there are many dhisanas, female spiritual figures who help and guide people, but they are all aspects of Dhisana, the unified feminine tutelary deity. Kvilhaug points out the etymological relationship of dis and dhisana and the shared characteristics (including an association with mead/soma) and argues that all of that suggests a common proto-Indo-European source. If they had a common source, then it's not that far-fetched to posit that the Vedic motif of "manifestations of a unified divinity" might not have been an innovation, but rather retained from that ancient common source. If so, then it's not nuts to think the Germanish folk had similar beliefs about the related deities. Again, I'm not totally sure I buy it, but it's at least plausible.

A Word on Reincarnation

Kvilhaug takes it as given that at least some of the Eddic poems, including the so-called "heroic" poems, clearly and frankly discuss reincarnation. My own understanding is that it's a bit muddier than that, especially since it seems the clearest references to reincarnation are in prose notes that stitch together poem fragments and were written by Christian compilers - stuff like "back then, they had a superstition that the dead could be reborn into a new body, but we know better now." This is one of those areas where I wish for some more careful and fully-cited scholarship from Kvilhaug - what passages are you referring to? What are the arguments for and against your interpretation? Is this commonly accepted, or a fringe view? For all the problems with modern academia, the norm of trying to give a state of the field for contentious questions is an admirable one. Anyhow, let's set aside for a moment the strength of the textual or archaeological/historical evidence that the elder Germanish folk believed that a soul could come back into a new life (we'll also set aside which souls we're talking about, since the elder heathens believed that each of us had many). If we do that, two questions come to mind: 1. why might we suppose a belief in reincarnation is a reasonable hypothesis? and 2. if we accept that hypothesis, what do the texts then say to us?

For the first question, I would point out that some flavor of metempsychosis seems to have been very widespread across many different ancient cultures. Sometimes only part of the "self" was believed to come back, and in others only some folks reincarnated, while others did not. I was shocked that when I finally (ahem, 2022) read all of Plato's Republic, I discovered that it ends with a detailed description of the process of reincarnation, told as if it's an eyewitness account. When I went looking for articles on the subject, it was funny, but also a bit sad, that all of these scholars were tying themselves in knots over "what could Plato have possibly meant by this weird section?" and not a one of them stopped to consider "maybe Plato/Socrates thought this was actually how things worked and it would be good to know." Pythagoras, the druids, certain Egyptians - lots of ancient folks outside of the Hindu/Buddhist sphere believed that after death, something of the self came back into new life, here in this world.

For the second, things start to get really interesting. Kvilhaug reads the sequence of heroic poems as the tale of a single reincarnating person learning what he needs to in order to reach enlightenment. The contrast between shades in Hell and bright, hearty warriors in Valhalla. The meaning of being born with your own norn and orlaeg (karma?). All of these take on very interesting implications if paired with a belief in reincarnation. Perhaps most interesting to me is the emphasis on "memory." Might it be that the reason memory was so valued in the myths was that a memory of your persistent individuality, rather than your transient personality, was the goal of esoteric spiritual work? To me, this seems to give a whole host of helpful bethinking threads, but whether it's "really how things are" is a question I'll have to stay quiet on for now.

Closing - Wide-Ranging References around a Central Idea Works Well for Kvilhaug

As I mentioned in the opening, I think that the fairly constrained topic of this chapter was a boon for Kvilhaug. She got to fare far and wide with her references and comparisons, but they always came back to this central idea of a maiden with magical mead, which gave everything a coherence and relevance that it has, at times, been harder to find in Kvilhaug's work. If the rest of the book works more like this - a fairly tight, coherent topic, with a lot of speculation around it - then I'll be quite happy. If not, well, I'm sure it will still be helpful nonetheless.

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Date: 2023-September-10

The Librarian of Celaeno wrote a paean (?) to his home state of Florida, and it got me thinking about my own home, Texas. I was born here, I have lived here most of my life, and I've always assumed it's where I want to stay for good, but I've been thinking about this assumption a bit lately. I thought writing out some of my thoughts might help me make things a bit clearer, to myself, at least. So, I've poured myself a Balcones Texas Rye, and we'll see where it takes me.

Obviously, the Lone Star State has a certain mystique, or at least a certain reputation. Cowboys, horses, cattle, the Alamo, all of that. When we moved to Virginia when I was nine, I actually had kids ask me if I rode a horse to school (they were mostly making fun of me, but you could tell they weren't really sure I didn't). I don't have much of an accent, but they also made fun of me for saying "nekkid" and not making any distinction between "ten" and "tin" or "pen" and "pin." Teasing from the other kids aside, there wasn't much difference between the Dallas suburbs of my early childhood, the DC suburbs of northern Virginia, and the Houston suburbs we moved to in high school. Even still, at the University of Texas, I started wearing cowboy boots and a big belt buckle with a Texas star on it as I leaned into "Texan" as part of my identity, and I kept it up when I headed out to the Army (I was mildly disappointed no one ever called me "Tex" in the Army, but then, in the Army, everybody's from Texas). I didn't grow up in the country, I haven't ridden horses nearly as much as I'd like, and I'm not even in the oil industry, so I may not be the "archetypal Texan," but it's still my culture, and it's shaped who I am.

So, what even is "Texan culture" besides stereotypes about rodeos and barbecue? Don't get me wrong, those are part of it, especially here in Houston, but I do think there's such a thing as Texan culture, a way of approaching things, a way of seeing the world, that's not just "American" or "Southern" or some other bigger grouping. But how to describe it? Consider the mockingbird, the state bird of Texas. I once watched a squadron of mockingbirds drive off a cat with relentless dive-bombing. Likewise with ravens, hawks, and other big, dangerous critters. Mockingbirds are mean as hell. Now, I'm not saying Texans are mean. Most of us are pretty darn friendly. But we admire a certain cussed hardness, especially if it's for a good cause, like protecting your nest from predators that want to eat your kids. From time to time, I've run into folks who make fun of Texans for lionizing the Alamo and its defenders. Hahah, don't you dumb hicks know you lost? You didn't even achieve anything strategic! The folks who say these things are small-souled weasels. They likely sneer at Leonidas and his three hundred Spartans as well. The Alamo has been a legend for Texans ever since it happened, because a handful of scrappy men chose certain death over abandoning the sacred cause they had pledged themselves to.

Being Texan isn't all about grim self-sacrifice, though. We also value humor and open-handed generosity. For this one, I don't have so well-known a story, but instead, I want to tell you about Kyle. First off, you're likely reading that as "Kai-yull," but that was not his name. It was more like "Kahl," with just a hint of that "y" in there. I mentioned that I don't have much of a Texas accent, but when I was around Kyle, I did. It wasn't a matter of faking it or trying to put something on, rather, Kyle was such a presence that you couldn't help but be drawn in by his hyper-Texan gravitational field. Any Texanness you had in you would be brought out and strengthened. You know the stereotype of the larger-than-life Texas oilman? Well, then you know something about Kyle. First off, he really was large - he was at least six and a half feet tall and followed many a high school and college football player into putting on some weight once he stopped with the two-a-days but kept up a hearty appetite. He made his not inconsiderable fortune when he noticed a quirk of Texas law meant that pipelines under a certain length were not subject to the same tariff restrictions as most pipelines. He also noticed that some of the new off-shore rigs were within that distance, and he was Johnny on the spot to build the pipeline to get the oil from these rigs to refineries, a privilege for which he charged handsomely. All of which allowed him to own a working ranch, a private jet he loaned to the University of Texas football program for recruiting purposes, and much else besides. Now, all of this might leave you thinking he was somehow grasping or even greedy, but nothing could be farther from the truth. I don't know that I've ever met a more generous man. He wrote a recommendation letter for my sister to get into university and for me to get into business school. He gave regularly to his church and other charities. When I was home on leave before deploying to Iraq, he let me and my then-fiance stay at his lakehouse, drink his wine, ride his jet skis, and visit his country club's pool. From what close relationship did he feel called to do all this? He and my dad shared a cabin at a business development retreat. I've been focusing on the generosity, but it was the humor that this bond was built on - Kyle had my dad in stitches from day one. They almost missed breakfast multiple times because my dad was laughing too hard to get ready. In my dad's defense, Kyle also always found him hilarious and valued his insight. They hit it off and became good friends, but he was like this with everyone. Sure he made a lot of money, but it was never anything other than a way to make other people happy. Tragically, he was killed when someone side-swiped his predictably enormous Ford Expedition on the highway. Texas, and the world, are less without him.

These two examples I've gone through may seem unlinked, maybe even utterly at odds, but I think that understanding what holds them together gives an insight into the Texan soul. Unsurprisingly given our history, Texans have a very borderer notion of liberty - "liberty" means something like "leave me alone to handle my own business." Sure, we've had many of the same ups and downs here as much of the rest of the country, but for a surprisingly long time, Texas has remained a place where folks can look out on wide vistas and say "if I can't have what I want here, maybe I can have it out there somewhere." That cussedness I mentioned isn't in service of God or country or some other big abstraction - or if it is, it's because I chose to serve that abstraction, and it's none of your damned business why. But likewise with the humor - I share what I think is funny about the world, and if it makes you laugh, well, hell, maybe we can be friends, but if not? No skin off my back. And even more so the generosity - what speaks to the autonomy that wealth can bring more than the ability and willingness to give it away however you damn well please. The beating heart of Texas culture is a respect for and a ferocious defense of a man's right to go his own way, and damn the consequences, because however it works out, it'll be a hell of a ride.

I've been singing the praises of Texan culture here, so whence my uncertainty? Well, I want to put down roots, and there's a few things that give me pause. First off, Texas is big, and most of it is pretty wide open. Combine that with the fact that most of Texas's growth has been after cars were introduced, and what you get is a lot of cities that are not walkable at all. Houston practically reviles its pedestrians. This is a town for cars. A big part of what makes much of Texas so very unwalkable is how very hot it is here. Yeah, yeah, we're Texans, we can take it, tough talk, and so forth, but man. This year, we had as many days with highs over 100 as have ever been recorded (tied with 2011), and that plain sucks. If folks are right that we have more of this on the way for the back half of my life, and for all of my girls' lives, is this really where we want to root ourselves? That's to say nothing of the worse predictions about sea levels - if much of the polar ice melts, a lot of Texas will be right back to the shallow sea that got us all of our oil, most definitely including Houston (my house is 75 feet above sea level and less than a mile from a bayou, so it wouldn't take much). Oh yeah, and that oil? That's a huge part of our economy. When the fracking boom drys up, and other bits of the oil industry begin to struggle, where will that leave our currently prosperous state? As I've mentioned before, I'm not exactly sanguine on what will happen to energy-intensive industrial economies, and much of current Texas life and economy depends heavily on that - Houston without air conditioning is a very different prospect than what we have now. I'd like to live somewhere that I can walk most places I need to go, use minimal energy to keep my home comfortable, and keep as much of my business local as I can. Right now, I don't know if anywhere in Texas fits that bill, and even if it does, I don't know whether it will stay that way for the next 40-80 years. And all of that's to say nothing about what might happen politically, geopolitically, and so forth - is it a plus or a minus that folks have "Secede" bumper stickers that are not entirely jokes? If the port of Houston stops shipping so much oil, how important does it remain? What happens if the Mexican drug cartels push more aggressively north of the border? I don't have good answers to any of this, and that's why I haven't made up my mind.

I started this piece hoping that writing things out would help me get clearer on what I ought to do. I'm not sure that I've done that, though I have remembered some of what I love about Texas and its folk. For now, my wife and I have good jobs within "reasonable" commutes (about half an hour of bumper-to-bumper driving to go less than 10 miles), my dad's a comparable distance away out in the further suburbs, and most of the rest of our family is within a three-hour drive, so I can't complain too much. My girls go to a daycare with teachers they like, we have good friends here in the city, and we have a nice house with a big yard, way more than we could afford in many places (including here if we bought now instead of ten years ago). We didn't come anywhere near flooding in Hurricane Harvey, and we've never had any wind damage from storms. All of which is to say, there's nothing pressing, and much that makes staying put the easier choice, so that's where I am right now. Still and all, once I've thought about it some more, talked it over with the family and such, we'll make a call. And when a Texan fancies he'll take his chances, chances will be taken.

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Opening and Closing Prayer with Gestures

Date: 2023-September-03

A ways back, I posted the Mark of the Wells. Since then, I've been using it pretty much every day in a handful of ways: going to or leaving from my stall (altar), before and after saying one or more longer prayers, and before and after rituals, like the Sphere of Protection or Grove ceremony from the Druid Magic Handbook. I think it has worked pretty well, and I like the ritual of having a common opening and closing before and after every prayer - it adds a feeling of unity and continuity. That being said, after a few months, I noticed that the "Mark of the Wells" felt better as a closing than an opening - something about the length and the last line "Mighty tree unmatched." It feels like a blossoming of sorts, a nice outcome of the work done before. And so I found myself wondering what might make for a good opening prayer/self-blessing/gesture along similar lines.

Meanwhile, over the past few months, I've been working on bettering my bond with Thunor (Thor). Among other things, He hallows things - drinks to give to the Gods, steads to worship, and so forth. I wear a Thunor's Hammer necklace, and every time I put it on, I say a short prayer to "re-hallow" it. I see this as a way of reinforcing that my hammer is a holy symbol, and that it holds Thunor's power within it. At one point in that prayer, I say "thanks I give for mighty hallowing hammer," and I trace out the sign of the hammer over the hammer charm as I say it: I start at the top of the hammer, draw my hand down and say "mighty," go to the left and say "hallowing," and then to the right and say "hammer." All of this, combined with some experience meditating and praying led me to think "maybe I can do something with this."

The other main influence is a "Sign of the Hammer" given in The Nine Doors of Midgard by Edred Thorsson. There, he provides a way of making the Sign of the Hammer on the body, where you touch the forehead (third eye), down to the top of the sternum, then down to the solar plexus, up to the left shoulder, and across to the right shoulder, with either a different God/Goddess at each point, or else a different name of Odhinn. When I was playing around before starting using the "Mark of the Wells", I gave this prayer/self-blessing/gesture a try.

Anyhow, thanks to all of this, along with some things I saw while scrying, I came up with a new opening gesture to use: the "Mark of the Hammer" (I spell this out below). What I've been doing for the past two or three weeks is opening with the "Mark of the Hammer", and then closing with the "Mark of the Wells". I like this, as the feeling of "completion" that comes with the "Mark of the Wells," feels great for closing out, and the "not quite complete" feeling of the "Mark of the Hammer" feels right for the opening. I think I'm on to something, at least for me. So, if these prayers are amenable to your practice, I encourage you to give them a try, and I look forward to hearing how they're going. For the gestures below, I use my index and middle finger, and I touch before saying each line.

Mark of the Hammer

By Thunor's (touch forehead)
Mighty (touch solar plexus)
Hallowing (touch left shoulder)
Hammer (touch right shoulder)

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[Book] The Seed of Yggdrasill 2 - Creation, Cosmos, and the Ruling Powers

Date: 2023-August-27


A quick word on spelling: since I am a lazy typist, I will not be using vowels with any diacritics in this post, nor will I use the letters eth and thorn. Instead, I will use plain vowels, for thorn I will write "th" and for eth I will write "dh." I will also try to write the Old Norse nominative form, even when the word is technically genitive in the sentence (like "Odhinn's"), since it doesn't make sense to me to partially decline nouns in a language I don't know! However, I maybe a bit inconsistent about this, so please bear with me.

Whoo boy, this was a looong chapter - 145 pages. This chapter was as long as her whole book Idhunn in Myth and Poetry. So that's why it's taken me a while to get this posted after our nice, bite-sized chapter 1. Looking forward, the next-longest chapter is about half that. I filled up 16 4x6 index cards (one side) with notes! At any rate, I think the reason this one is so long is that it lays a lot of groundwork she'll be referring back to as the book goes on. As you might guess from the name, it focuses on the creation of the cosmos, mostly as told in Voluspa, but it ranges fairly widely from there. As I mentioned in my last post on this book, organization and structure are not exactly Kvilhaug's strong suit, which was somewhat frustrating. While reading this chapter, I often found myself wishing it had instead been written as a stanza-by-stanza commentary on Voluspa, since that would have given it a firm skeleton to flesh out. As it is, the chapter very roughly proceeds from "In the beginning" to the world as it is/was for the audience of Voluspa. On the other hand, Kvilhaug takes the lore seriously and does a lot to highlight what is deep and spiritually significant in it, so it was worth it to wade through.

The First Deeds of Making

So, if you didn't already know, Voluspa is arguably the single most important Eddic poem, certainly the one that gives the clearest understanding of elder take on cosmology. Its name means "The speech of the volva ('witch/seeress')." Odhinn calls this volva back from the dead to learn what she has to say, and most of the poem is her telling what she knows.

Kvilhaug dives right into things by giving a detailed analysis of the first words of her speech: Ár var alda. This is apparently a stock phrase that came to mean more or less "once upon a time." It's usually translated as something like "Of old was the age" or "it was at the very beginning" or "in earliest times." Kvilhaug argues that these are misunderstandings and lays out her case that it actually says "before was wave," and thus he preferred translation is "In the beginning was the wave." She connects this idea with the sea giant Aegir and his daughters the waves (more on this in a minute). She believes that Aegir and his wife Ran represent the mother and father of the cosmos. This is also one of the places where she brings up potentially intriguing parallels with modern science, in this case something about the big bang and vortices. Mostly I find such discussions somewhere between unhelpful and annoying amongst spiritual matters - to me it smacks of trying to borrow legitimacy from science for something that ought to be given legitimacy on its own merits.

Anyhow, remember how I mentioned that this cosmological poem is the speech of the seeress? Well, who is this seeress anyway? We don't truly know, but she says that she "remembers" all of the things from the beginning that she tells of. Kvilhaug offers several possibilities: Freyja, Ran, Jordh, maybe even Audhumbla, the cosmic cow that freed Odhinn's grandfather Buri from the ice. This gets us to one of my critiques of Kvilhaug's approach that I touched on in the first post of this series: she tends to look at figures in the poems mostly as metaphors and symbols meant to convey esoteric spiritual insights. Now, that alone I don't have a problem with - in fact, I find it very helpful. Rather, when you put that together with her pantheist viewpoint, that all of these figures are manifestations of the same underlying spiritual unity, you get a tendency to speculate that two (or three, or more) figures from the lore are "the same." She has a point that the Old Norse lore is full of roundabout ways of talking about things - again, as we said last time, that was one of the main points of that kind of poetry. That means that sometimes, yes, one figure is the same as another (for example, I find the equation of Gullveig and Freyja convincing), but I think Kvilhaug is a bit too cavalier about it.

This tendency to equate figures gets into some wider issues in heathenry. The first is what is sometimes called "soft vs hard polytheism." I found this discussion by Ocean Keltoi helpful for laying out this debate. Basically, at the extreme ends, "hard" polytheists treat each distinct divine name as a different Being - Odhinn is not the same as Woden is not the same as Wotan. "Soft" polytheists (well, using the definition from the video) believe the opposite: Odhinn, Woden, and Wotan are in some sense "the same." Different soft polytheists take this to different extremes - some say that Mars is the same as Tiw, due to the intepretatio Romana of the German Gods (see the days of the week). At the extreme end, you have pantheists who believe that all of the names refer to different experiences of the same, single divine reality. Now, heathens decide how soft or hard to make their polytheism based on some combination of gnosis and episteme. On the episteme side of things, you have folks study the lore, look for commonalities and distinctions between Gods and decide logically whether they're the same or different. Often, this is informed by archaeological evidence, comparative mythology, and other sources. Broadly, this is called "reconstruction," and all modern revivals of pre-Christian religions engages in it to some degree, but some folks put much more emphasis on "getting it the way it was back then." This gets into the contrast between authenticity and validity we talked about. In the heathen community, broadly speaking, the stricter the reconstructionist, the harder the polytheism. Gnosis, on the other hand, is all about personal experience, and by its nature can't be verified or confirmed by others. Again, everyone who takes religion seriously uses gnosis to some degree - what feels right, which Gods to pray to more or less, how to word those prayers, and so forth. Again, to speak very broadly, the more folks lean on gnosis, the more likely their beliefs and practices are quirkier. Since pantheism doesn't seem to be attested in the surviving lore, at least not straightforwardly, its looked at as quirkier by many heathens.

I guess a word about my own beliefs is in order to give some context for my comments. As I learned from Revival Druidry, I try to focus more on what I do than on what I believe. That being said, I have some working hypotheses based on the spiritual traditions I have found helpful and nourishing so far. The Druid tradition I am working with currently teaches what is basically a flavor of Neoplatonist metaphysics - everything that exists is a manifestation of a unified ground of being. In some sense this is "pantheist," but the key distinction is that this "One" is not personified - personhood shows up at lower levels of manifestation. Those distinct manifestations matter - in some sense, every river, lake, and sea is "the same water" - but if you think it doesn't make a difference whether you're on Lake Erie, going over Niagara Falls, or in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence during a storm, you're gonna have a bad time. I think manifestation is something like this - in some sense, the unity of all things is a deep and important truth, but the different manifestations are an essential part of being here and now, and ignoring or denying them is a mistake. All of which is to say that I think in some sense Odhinn and Freyja and Ymir and all the rest are manifestations of a spiritual unity, but they are also genuinely different Beings. Again, some different names apply to the same Being (Odhinn, Vili, and Ve are likely the same as at least one of the other groups of three Gods - most likely Odhinn, Hoenir, and Lodhurr), but due to my own tendency to rationalize things and some of my own gnosis, I have adopted a rule to assume that Gods, wights, and other spiritual beings with distinct names, traditions, and so forth are different until proven the same. For example, back when I thought all this stuff was "just archetypes," I was intellectually convinced by the argument that Frigg and Freyja were once the same Goddess and at some fairly late point they had diverged into being treated as two Goddesses. Since there was no evidence of this divergence in the Anglo-Saxon tradition, when I started worshiping for real, I assumed that what the Norse call "Freyja" and "Frigg" were just different aspects of the same Goddess, and I prayed as such. Well, before too long, I got a pretty distinct feeling that I was doing it wrong and I should instead pray to two different Goddesses, and that has seemed to go better for me. So, are They "really" different Goddesses? Have They always been? I don't know! I just know what works for my practice. Anyway, all of that is to say that I think Kvilhaug is a little too ready to assert that two Gods are "the same" and pays more attention to possible similarities, shared identities, and parallels than to distinctions.

Now, let's get back to how the cosmos came to be. The first Being to arise in this cosmos is Ymir. Kvilhaug gives his name as "shout" or "noise," which wiktionary says is a folk etymology - it seems the accepted scholarly etymology takes it back to the Proto-Indo-European word for "twin," which is at least a little bit based on comparative mythology, as it seems the myth of a being getting killed having its body used to make the world seems to go way back, and the earliest version might have involved a twin getting killed by his brother. Anyway, Kvilhaug makes much of Ymir as sound, and the idea of "cutting up" sound into small bits as an act of creation is intriguing - what do you think words are? Even if that etymology is not right, Kvilhaug would likely counter that Norse poetry is full of puns, not always for comedic effect, so Ymir "sounding like" it should mean something to do with sound might very well have been the poet's intent, even if that's not truly where the name came from.

The other first Being spoken of is Audhumbla, a cow. She licks the ice of Niflheim for her sustenance and makes milk that Ymir lives on. There's some indication that Ymir was hermaphroditic (he begets the race of frost giants all by himself), but we have here the first pair of a masculine Being and a feminine one, which you'll remember from part 1 is an important symbolic dimension in Kvilhaug's analysis. Women seem to represent the hidden causes of things, that which acts but can't be seen. Men represent the obvious, overt causes of things. This is also the first instance where we see a feminine figure associated with a life-giving liquid, which is what you might call a recurring theme in the poetry (in case you missed it, that's wry understatement, folks). One bit of Kvilhaug's analysis I very much appreciate is how she points out recurrent themes or motifs, and the central role such recurrence plays in the creation story. One way of reading the Voluspa, which Kvilhaug makes use of and I agree is helpful, is as a series of iterations playing out at different scales. You have the first, primal interaction of hot, alive, moving and cold, dead, still where Niflheim and Muspelheim interact, but then you have the same dynamic seen in the first Beings, the first Gods, the first man and woman, and so forth. Oh, and besides the milk that she makes, Kvilhaug also translates Audhumbla's name as "Abundant Brew Ingredient" - another link with holy and/or life-giving drink.

Kvilhaug even takes this iteration a step further, in a concept almost certainly inspired by her study of Hindu myth, where she states that our cosmos is not the first, but rather follows on the heels of many (nine, according to some of the poems). When I first heard her make this claim, I thought it was interesting but likely highly speculative. Having read more of her arguments, I'm finding it a lot more plausible than I did at first. While she brings in many bits and pieces of evidence scattered around various myths, let me share what I think are the most compelling ones. First, the volva herself was around, but possibly already dead, when the first deeds of creation happened. Maybe she was a spirit from the previous world? Speaking of which, one of the first two worlds, Niflheim, is also the realm of the dead. Kvilhaug asserts that it is the realm of the dead left over from the previous cosmos - and so brings with it at least one of its spirits (the volva). Also intriguing is Buri, the ancestor of the Aesir, who is uncovered within the ice by Audhumbla's licking. Kvilhaug translates his name as "storage chest" and posits that he is the surviving but dormant seed of consciousness from the previous cosmos. This is not so crazy when we look forward to the description of Ragnarok, which tells of a rebirth under new Gods after the end of this world as we know it. Lastly, a major focus for Kvilhaug is Heimdall, and here she points to his 9 mothers. She believes that Heimdall means "Great World" and that he is the personification of this iteration of the cosmos, and his 9 mothers are feminine spirit of the 9 previous cosmoi. I'm not wholly convinced this for sure, but as I say, it's thought-stirring.

Another thought-stirring concept of Kvilhaug's that I'm still sitting with is the role she sees for dwarves (thou shalt spell the plural "dwarves," not "dwarfs," regardless of what the Oxford English Dictionary tells you). She sees the dwarves of the Voluspa as distinct from the smiths, craftsmen, and similar characters from other tales. Those more familiar dwarves have some link (might be the same as) the dark elves, and like elves, likely have some link with the spirits of the dead and the mounds where they are buried. The Voluspa dwarves, though, don't seem to have much to do with all that. Instead, they are introduced right before the creation of man and are linked both with men and with the Gods. The list of dwarves, the dvergatal has long confused scholars, many seeing it is a later insertion, basically a scribal error by folks who didn't understand what they were copying. Maybe. But Kvilhaug says instead that the list of dwarves is saying something through the names (there they are again!). The dwarves are said to have made "the images of men," and some of the "dwarves" referred to seem like they might be other names for figures we've met elsewhere, like Ymir and Odhinn. So, what are they? Kvilhaug says that the dwarves are shapes or forms that are taken on by the infinite spiritual powers that made the cosmos so that they might act within it. The etymology of Norse dvergr (and English dwarf, for that matter) has something to do with injury or mutilation or being twisted. Kvilhaug thinks that this speaks to the limitation taken on by things like souls or pure consciousness in order to manifest in the cosmos. As I said, I'm still chewing on this one, but it's a heck of an interesting take.

Okay, I mentioned Kvilhaug's belief that Aegir and Ran, as the Giant and Giantess of the sea are somehow the mother and father of all of creation. Her thought is that they are the Gods of the "cosmic sea," the liquidy unmanifest potential in which the "waves" of creation act. She pulls in a lot of cross-references here, and again, I'm going to have to think some more on it. What's intriguing is that she suggests that Njordhr might be the same as Aegir, and thus Ran would be the same as Nerthus. Njordhr is also associated with the sea, the name of his divine abode has much in common with how Aegir's home is described, and Nerthus was also associated both with plenty and feasting as well as with drowning. Also, Aegir is said to have 9 daughters, usually thought to be the waves of the sea, and in Solarliodh, Njordhr is said to have nine daughters. Also, in Lokasenna, Loki taunts Njordhr for having the nine "Maidens of Hymir" use his mouth as a piss pot (yuck), but Njordhr responds "that's how I got my son that everybody loves (Freyr)." Given the strong associations with incestuous relationships in this family (Freyr and Freyja are sometimes said to be lovers, in Ynglinga Saga, Njordhr was said to leave his sister-wife behind when he came to live with the Aesir, and so forth), the idea that those nine maidens are his daughters and the mothers of their brother is not that far-fetched, but for me, this is still firmly in the "interesting speculation" category.

One last thought for this bit is that I wish Kvilhaug showed some familiarity with Paul Bauschatz's The Well and the Tree. She has a lot to say about fate, the Norns, and the conception of the World Tree, and it would be nice to see how she agreed or differed from him on such things. This is one of the many places where I'm realizing that the synthesis I wish I had to read likely doesn't exist, and I'm going to have to do the work myself. Hence these posts!

As Above, So Below - Creation Models Initiation

One of Kvilhaug's main threads, maybe the main thread, is that the Eddic poems convey esoteric, initiatory knowledge about the soul and its development. As such, she sees the creation of the cosmos as laying certain foundations and providing the earliest archetypes of certain spiritual models. First is the framing of Voluspa: a speech by a volva, someone who does the kind of magic called seidhr. Seidhr seems mostly to have been divinatory in nature, but might also have had other powers. Kvilhaug lays it out like this: seidhr is about knowing (and thus being able to change) fate. The fate of all humans is death. Therefore, the goal of seidhr must be to overcome death (in some sense, at least). Sounds easy, right? Well, Kvilhaug says that basically all of the Eddic poems are trying to get across different aspects of these secrets, along with different approaches (seidhr is not right for everyone). The very first user of seidhr was the witch Gullveig. Interestingly, Gullveig is not mentioned by Snorri, and neither is Odhinn's self-sacrifice in Havamal. Kvilhaug thinks it is because these were clearly magical, heathen initiations, and were thus more likely to draw the ire of the Church. In any case, Gullveig's name is usually translated as "Gold Thirst/Lust," and is taken to mean greed. She comes to the Aesir from the Vanir, does some magic, and then they try to kill her by stabbing and burning her. Three times they try it, and three times she comes back. Most interpretations say that she showed up, started causing strife through greed, stirred things up with her wicked magic, and otherwise instigated the Aesir-Vanir war.

Kvilhaug says this is all wrong. All that about causing trouble? Not in the poem. It's inferred from the name, which Kvilhaug thinks most scholars get wrong. Gull is clearly "gold," but the "veig" bit that is usually translated as "thirst" seems to more commonly mean "(powerful) drink." Given the very widespread association of wise, magical women with "golden drinks" in the lore, Kvilhaug thinks her name more likely means "Gold Power Drink." Most of the time that gold shows up in the poems, Kvilhaug claims, it's not associated with greed or strife (with the notable exception of the Rhine Gold, I would point out), but instead seems to be a metaphor for divine wisdom, the prize you get for following your initiatory journey. This all seems even more likely if we accept that Gullveig is likely another name for Freyja, who is said elsewhere to have brought seidhr to the Aesir, is a prominent figure in the Vanir, and comes to dwell with the Aesir, as well as being associated with magic, drinks, and initiation.

The necessary precondition for all of this initiation is, of course, consciousness, and much of Voluspa seems to be about how consciousness came into the world and found its way into different beings there. First off, the first glimmer of divine consciousness (if you don't assign it to Ymir or Audhumbla) is a remnant from the earlier cosmos - Buri being unearthed from the ice. Here, and elsewhere, whenever we come across personified consciousness, it has three qualities - Spirit, Mind/Poetry/Awe, and Passion/Frenzy/Intent. As personified by Odhinn, Vili, Ve, these shaped the whole cosmos. As personified by Odhinn, Hoenir, and Lodhurr, they created the first man and woman. So, these are somehow fundamental to what it is to be a conscious being, and we see them show up a lot - the three Gods, usually representing these three characteristics, are one of the "formulae" Kvilhaug uses as a key to her analysis. One that she pointed out that I found interesting, and assume we'll hear more about when we get to Ragnarok is how the trinity of Odhinn, Thorr, and Freyr is opposed by a male trio of monsters: Fenrir, Jormungandr, and Surtr.

Another bit that I have found interesting to consider and comes straight out of Kvilhaug's focus on translating names. Hoenir shows up in a few places that would seem to suggest he's rather important, but then he doesn't do a lot. He might be the same as Ve, in which case he helped kill Ymir and make the world. He gives one of the gifts to the first man and woman that make them more than lumps of driftwood. In Ynglinga saga, he is said to be one of the hostages sent by the Aesir to the Vanir, along with Mimir, and they're so impressed by him, they make him their king. After a time, though, they notice he needs to talk to Mimir ("memory") to decide anything and becomes indecisive without Him around. Thinking he's a fake, they kill Mimir, but Odhinn saves his head and preserves it to whisper wisdom to Him. Anyway, what does the name Hoenir mean? Kvilhaug says it's pretty clearly "chickens," but that this has seemed so undignified and nonsensical for one of the creators of the universe that scholars have tried to find all kinds of other meanings. She says, hold on, maybe it's exactly what it looks like. the gift that Hoenir gives to mankind is thought, and Kvilhaug compares the chattering, shuffling, mess of thinking with a flock of chickens - what Buddhists might call "monkey mind." If we accept that Hoenir is/is associated with "thought," then the fact that he is paired with Mimir ("memory") suggests a comparison with Odhinn's ravens Huginn ("thought") and Muninn ("Memory") - which I was embarrassed not to have thought of on my own.

Speaking of Mimir, he is sometimes said to be a giant, and there's a reasonable case to be made that he's Odhinn's maternal uncle. From Snorri and Havamal, we know that Odhinn gave an eye to get a drink of the Mead of Memory from Mimir's Well. There are a lot of places where giants or giantesses act as the gatekeeper for initiatory experiences, which seems a bit odd, since the giants are usually characterized as enemies of the Gods, and Snorri says flat out they're evil. Kvilhaug thinks this is a Christian misinterpretation, and says instead giants (and often, giantesses) are best thought of as challenges or obstacles to be overcome, and in the overcoming, you become worthy. Shani Oates puts a characteristically antagonistic spin on this in The Hanged God, where she sees Odhinn's initiation by Mimir culminating in defeating him in combat and cutting his head off himself, rather than saving it from the Vanir. I think there is definitely something here, but I also think there's something to "giants = enemies of the Gods," given how every Indo-European religion we know about has a race of (semi?) divine beings that the Gods fight (but also marry and otherwise interact with). I don't have a good answer here, but I wonder if a very close reading of the different terms that usually get translated as "giant" might reveal some patterns. Oh, and Kvilhaug says "we know that giantesses were worshiped," but she doesn't say how we know that - written records? archaeology? place names? I believe her, but I'd like to know the nature of the evidence.

I mentioned earlier how Kvilhaug sometimes tries to link the myths to science, and how mostly I think that's a waste. She does that with Thorr as the protector of his mother, Jordhr ("Earth"), which she speculates could be a reflection of knowledge of the Earth's magnetic field. She also points out his metal belt and gloves and how they could have something to do with electrical circuits. All of which didn't do much for me, but in that bit, she gave a potential interpretation for Thorr's wife Sif that I hadn't seen before. Her name just means "kinswoman" (same root as English "sib" as in "sibling"), and with her golden hair, she is often seen as the grain (especially with the story of Loki cutting it off). Kvilhaug suggests that another golden thing closely associated with thunder is, you know, lightning. I'm not sure if I buy it, or if I do, what that means, but interesting!

One area where I had enough knowledge to see some misunderstanding/sloppiness was when she talks about Runes. Now, she gets the main idea right: "Rune" means "secret," and in the lore it doesn't only mean Runestaves - letters. For example, the list of "Runes" Odhinn gives in Havamal is clearly not the letters of the Elder or Younger Futhark. But there are places where Runes are "carved," (including in Havamal), and so Runestaves are also clearly relevant. The Runes are an especial interest of mine, the first thing that drew me to magical practice of any kind, actually, so I've done a fair amount of reading, meditating, and my own work here (though there's far more to go!). So, when Kvilhaug says "folks ask me about divining with runes and I don't know anything about that," but then also goes on to quote Tacitus's description of Germans of the 1st century CE doing some kind of sortilege as if it definitely describes divining with Runes, it's a bit frustrating, and makes me wary about other places where she just asserts something is so and doesn't say what her back up for it is. If you're not familiar, Tacticus says that Germans cast lots to decide whether to pursue a course of action all the time. He describes the process in some detail: cut a branch from a fruit-bearing tree, cut that into lots, and then carve "marks" into the lots (Kvilhaug translates "marks" as "Runes," which is definitely not what the Latin said!). Were those marks Runestaves or proto-Runestaves? Maybe. Did the elder Heathens use Runestaves for some kind of divination by the Viking Age? Seems fairly likely, but we can't say for sure. Are modern methods of divination with Runestaves what folks did back then? Almost certainly not. But they work! Once again, validity versus authenticity.

The World Tree

The World Tree is a topic of no small interest to me, as it is central to the work I'm doing on a Heathen Rosary. I think it is one of the deepest and most important esoteric symbols in the lore, so I'm always eager to learn new ways of thinking about it. Kvilhaug especially stresses the World Tree as a macrocosm that is clearly linked with the microcosm of the human body - trees are frequent kennings for men and women, the first man and woman are made from wood, and the first man is named Askr, which means "ash (tree)." Humans are linked with and depicted as trees all over the place, so Kvilhaug thinks that characterizing the cosmos as a tree is meant to draw attention to the similarities between the individual human and the cosmos (as we said in the last bit - "as above, so below"). If you're familiar with the lore, you might have noticed that I mentioned the first man has the name of a tree, but I didn't say anything about the first woman, Embla. Her name has given folks a lot of trouble - some try to render it as an unfamiliar form of "Elm," since a matched pair of trees makes sense for all the reasons I mentioned above. On the other hand, that's apparently not altogether satisfying. Neither is trying to derive it from the Greek ampelos ("vine"). Neither, really is eim + la for "firemakeress" or amr meaning "hard work." Can you guess where Kvilhaug goes with it? That's right, she sees it as a modification of Humbla "Brew Ingredient," which we found in her translation for Audhumbla above. This fits into he general pattern of seeing masculine as the outward, shaping, organizing influence, and feminine as inner, liquid, enlivening influence. This is one (of many) cases where I wish I had the kind of deep knowledge of Old Norse and Proto-Germanic that would let me tell the difference between reasonable etymology proposals and fanciful ones. As it is, I just have to read the arguments put forth by the folks who try to work it out and see what makes most sense.

To get to the World Tree itself, Kvilhaug translates is usual name, Yggdrasill, as "Old Steed," and stresses that in some sense, the world is the "steed" of souls who enter it, carrying them along their path of incarnation and, possibly, initiation. That name is more often translated as "The Steed of the Terrible One," where Yggr "The Terrible" is taken as a heiti for Odhinn (another case where I wish I could evaluate the plausibility more on my own). It is also called the Miodhvidhr ("Mead Tree") and Mimameidhr ("Memory Tree"). Snorri gives it three roots, each drawing from a different well - Urdharbrunnr ("The Well of Wyrd/Origin"), Hvergelmir ("Yelling/Churning Boiler"), and Mimisbrunnr ("Mimir's Well"). So, from the names and the roots, we know that the Tree is linked to the magic liquid(s) important from multiple myths, as well as at least some of the qualities of mind (memory). The creatures that live in the tree give more clues to what the World Tree is about - near the top sits a huge eagle, Hraesvelgr ("Corpse Swallower"), with Falcon on his brow, Vethrfolnir ("Wind Diminisher"). Kvilhaug says over and over again that "winds" are usually a metaphor for mortality and death in the Eddic poems. I'm not sure if that's widely accepted, or a piece of her own analysis, but it seems to make good sense (a lot of divine dwelling places are called "wind-shielded" or "windless," places full of death are "windy," and stuff like this eagle-falcon pair), Niddhoggr ("Malice(?) Striker") chews on the roots, Ratatoskr (usually given as "Drill Tooth," but Kvilhaug says "moving container") carriers messages from the snake to the eagle, the stag Eikthrynir ("Oak Antlers"), and the goat Heidhrun ("Bright Rune") chew on the leaves. Kvilhaug proposes a parallel to the chakras of Tantric practice, seeing Niddhoggr as the kundalini, Hraesvelgr as the spirit, and Vethrfolnir as the third eye. I'm not sure about the tantric comparison, but the other explanations are certainly compelling. One element she stressed that I think will be worth more careful thought is that Eikthrynir and Heidhrun both chew on the leaves of the World Tree, which might represent human souls, and then release a liquid - the stag drips liquid from his antlers down into Hvergelmir, the well of the land of the dead, whereas Heidhrun makes mead for milk, which becomes the drink of Odhinn's chosen in Valholl. Kvilhaug proposes that this symbolizes how un-initiated souls fall back down into Hel (for reincarnation later), whereas those that achieve divine knowledge escape from this cycle to the immortality of Valholl. I trust there will be much more on these topics when she gets more explicitly into discussing reincarnation in later chapters.

The Soul

Okay, one of the ares of Kvilhaug's thought that I struggle with the most is when she starts talking about "the soul." For example, her conclusion to The Goddess Idhunn in Myth and Poetry is that Idhunn is "the soul of all the Gods." I don't really know what that means, but maybe it's because I'm not grokking her flavor of pantheism. There are similarly confusing things when she gets to discussing individual human souls. This is further complicated by the fact that the Old Germanish folks seem to not have believed in one soul per person. Instead, each person had many souls, each of which handled different bits of we today are used to thinking of as a unity. This is an area I need to study more, as I think it's very weird, very interesting, and potentially very spiritually fruitful. Complicating things still further is Kvilhaug's tendency we noted earlier to highlight similarities and try to equate things - so are Norns, Valkyries, Swanmays, Fylgur, and Hamingjur all different things? The same thing? Distinct but related? Honestly, I came away still confused on what exactly Kvilhaug is saying about these Beings, other than that they have some things in common and might sometimes (always?) be "the same" - for example, maybe Valkyries are just the personal Norns of those found worthy by Odhinn. Personal Norns? That's right, besides the three "main" Norns, Urdhr ("Origin"), Verdhandi ("Becoming"), and Skuld ("Debt, Obligation"), it seems each individual had a personal Norn (or maybe a whole set of them?). Snorri tells us that these could be of different kinds - As-Kind, Elf-Kind, and Dwarf-Kind, and that the kind of Norn determined what would happen in life. Folks were also thought to have a fylgja, which is usually translated "follower," which was a helpful feminine spirit that might also (sometimes) be an animal. Clan leaders were said to have a Clan Fylgja. These were sometimes believed to be/be associated with female ancestors. Hamingjur are another (usually feminine) being/part of the soul that seem to be associated with luck and magical power and might be the same spiritual entity as the fylgja but described differently due to what its doing functionally. Again, all kind of hard to say, and I didn't find this as helpful in sorting this out as I would have liked. Oh, and if all of these beings are feminine, what of the masculine side of the soul? Well, that's (maybe) what elves are - masculine spirits/bits of the soul that have something to do with ancestors. Anyhow, I suspect we'll be coming back to all of this more as we go, but I'm not sure whether my confusion about what Kvilhaug is trying to convey will clear up or not - but I suppose finding out is the adventure we're on.

Shamanic Parallels

One area I found very interesting was when Kvilhaug talked about some of the similarities between the beliefs of various circumpolar peoples with shamanic traditions, such as the Sami and some folks of Siberia, with Germanish beliefs. That's another work on my wishlist for someone to do so I can read it: a thorough, wide-ranging comparison of what we know about historical shamanic beliefs and practices and those Germanish beliefs and practices that seem similar. You see bits and pieces of it here and there, but I've yet to see something thorough and all in one place. Kvilhaug shares how the Sami and some Siberian folks believed that the Sun lived in a blessed realm in the south, next to a rejuvenating source of water at the foot of the world tree, and that the souls of humans fly from there at birth and back there at death in the shape of water birds like swans or ducks. To say that these characteristics are strikingly similar to much of what we find in the Old Norse poems is a bit of an understatement. Whence the similarities? Well, the more obvious (and likely the more likely) origin is the fact that the Germanish folk were neighbors with these circumpolar folks for a very long time - from what we can tell, it seems like the Proto-Germanish language came to be in what are now the Nordic countries during the Nordic Bronze Age of ~2000 - 500 BCE. The Sami and the Finns are very likely descended from the folk who lived in those lands before the ancestors of the Proto-Germanish folks showed up. We know there was a lot of contact and a lot of exchange - for example, the ancient Finns seem to have started worshiping a hammer-wielding sky God not long after the Proto-Germans showed up. On the other hand, there's a more far-fetched, but thus more potentially exciting theory, laid out pretty clearly in The World's Oldest Myth? Now, Tom Rowsell expresses it with fewer qualifications and cautions than I might prefer, but that's likely mostly to make for compelling film. Anyhow, the main consensus view of "who were the Proto-Indo-Europeans" these days is the Yamnaya archaeological culture (see here for a good, even-handed discussion of the top three theories). From ancient DNA samples, we know that the folks of the Yamnaya archaeological culture came from a merger of three main populations: the Eastern Hunter Gatherers (EHG), Early European Farmers (EEF), and Ancient Northern Eurasians (ANE). Here's where the story gets interesting. You know who else is partially descended from the ANE group (which originated in modern Siberia)? Many of the circumpolar folks and American Indians. Now, the DNA by itself doesn't prove anything, but amongst folks with this shared ancestry, you often find beliefs about the world and the afterlife that are weirdly similar. The land of the dead has some kind of body of water, is guarded by (a) dog(s), has a tree that is the world growing out of it, and is ruled by woman who is both scary and beneficial. Not all of those elements show up together in every case, but often at least two of them cluster together and are very widely dispersed with no intervening contact since a very, very long time ago. That suggests that some of these beliefs might be insanely old - like, 24,000 years old, at least. Almost impossible to say for sure, of course, but it's like catnip to someone like me who is fascinated by the hazy borders of what we can know about the past.


So, whoo, here we are. The next chapter is, as I said, mercifully shorter, and focuses on "The Maiden with the Mead," the subject of Kvilhaug's master's thesis, but apparently new work on the same topic here. So, expect lots more on feminine spiritual Beings and/or bits of the soul, magic drinks, and initiation. As always, I welcome any thoughts, recommendations, or corrections.

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[Book] Thoughts on The Book of the New Sun

Date: 2023-August-20

I just wrapped up reading the four-part Book of the New Sun and its sequel, The Urth of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe. These were my first Wolfe books, and I hadn't heard much about the series, so I didn't really know what to look for going in. Having read it, I can now safely say both say it's very good and rather weird. I'll have to get into spoilers to talk about much of what makes these books interesting and worthwhile, but I'll give a shorter rundown without any spoilers first.

A Quick Word on the Books and What I'll Be Calling Them

The series The Book of the New Sun was first published as four books: The Shadow of the Torturer, The Claw of the Conciliator, The Sword of the Lictor, and The Citadel of the Autarch. Later, Wolfe wrote a follow-up called The Urth of the New Sun, but pretty much everyone was like "okay, what we have now is just a five-book series." What might also trip you up if you go to buy these books is that these days, you're most likely to find them in three volumes: Shadow and Claw, Sword and Citadel, and The Urth of the New Sun. Even though technically, "The Book of the New Sun" only means the first four books, I'm going to use it to mean all five, and for this post, I'll be shortening that to BNS. Also worth marking, while we're talking about these books is that Wolfe wrote another series set in the same future called The Book of the [ahem] Long Sun, but I haven't read that one, so any thoughts on that will have to wait. Michael Andre-Driussi, a (wonderfully) obsessive fan, also compiled, with Wolfe's blessing and sometimes help, The Lexicon Urthus, which is a dictionary of many of the strange words and characters of all of these books, but beware: thar be spoilers aplenty in that thar book. Andre-Driussi came up with "The Urth Cycle" for all of the books and stories set in this future, but I won't be using that name, since it casts a wider net than I'll be talking about today.

Spoiler-Free Rundown

I can say without spoilers that what stood out to me the most about these books was the epic scope. It reminded me of Dune in the best way - the story touches on many of the bits of a big, wide world, and hints at even more that you get only the barest glimpses of. There's a rich culture that is very unlike ours, but filled with the same kind of men and women with the same kinds of hopes, dreams, and flaws we have always known. Further, in the BNS, not only does that scope extend across the world and beyond, but also through time. It starts, as many tales do, with a a promising young man thrust out of the familiar by circumstance, and he meets many challenges with varying degrees of success, learns about himself and the world, and as he comes to know and shape more and more of the world around him, we the readers come to learn of it. Along the way, he meets many characters, some endearing, some hateful, but all very human, even if only encountered for a moment. Wolfe has a knack for clearly describing what is happening in terms of the action, while slowly revealing how much more was going on around the action - the thoughts of the characters, the stakes, the ramifications, and so forth. He lulls you into thinking you're just reading a dry account of some things that happened, and only when he hits you with the reveal do you realize what was going on for the past several pages (or chapters, or books). It's a remarkable technique. At once it makes the book extremely readable, while also giving it great depth that's easy to miss if you treat it as casually as it seems to invite you to. Another structural trick Wolfe pulls is that the later you get into each book, the more that happens in shorter and shorter chapters. So, fair warning: if you're reading these before bed, as I was, when you get to what you think will be the last two or three days worth of reading, you might find yourself staying up far later than planned.

I know this has been some weird stuff to highlight in a "review," but truly, getting much more into specifics will start spoiling things pretty quick. So, if you enjoy thoughtful, deep speculative fiction with a wide world rendered in all of its bizarre opulence, that is nevertheless briskly plotted and full of plenty of action, you'll like these books - give them a read. If you've already read them, or if for some reason you don't care about spoilers or this doesn't sound like your cup of tea and you won't ever read them, then I have more substantive thoughts on what's in the books below.

SPOILERS AHEAD - What Makes The Book of the New Sun So Interesting?

Alright, so, I went into reading BNS with very little notion of what I was getting into, with one exception (discussed below). All I really knew was that Wolfe was supposed to be very good, and this was maybe his greatest work. So why not start there? As it begins, you quickly settle into "okay, this is a fantasy world," with its castles and sword fights and a guild of torturers. But fairly early on, little bits of detail thrown out as just part of the description start catching you - did he just call the floor of the tower a "deck?" Do those soldiers have guns? Wait, and energy shields? In other words, you start to work out that this seemingly faux-medieval society has some very advanced technology, just in very limited hands. Further, you also start to gather clues that this isn't just some technological world fallen into a new middle ages, it is our world, and somewhere in South America to judge by the geographical clues you get as the story goes on. This kind of "slow reveal" plays out in multiple ways throughout the books - the details of the world and its technology, the nature of its relationship to other worlds in the universe, the nature of the narrator Severian, and even its moral/philosophical theme. Here is where I was "spoiled" a bit by David McGrogan over at Monsters and Manuals, a D&D blog I've been reading for years. He made a comment in some post (can't find it just now) about the "slowly revealed Christianity" of BNS, and having now read it, I think he's right. Sure, it's a very weird scifi version of Christianity, but much of the moral development and growth of the story is along these lines. Luckily, like Lewis at his best, this doesn't degrade into cheap moralizing or "message fiction," but instead is played out in the thoughts, actions, and reflections of the characters entirely organically. As such, the overall story has a lot of growth, weight, and moral depth. Maybe the biggest, weirdest slow reveal, for which you need to read The Urth of the New Sun for full effect, is the mind-bending approach to time, space, and the universe(s). Characters live backward in time, others find their own graves, and more. All of it, Wolfe is keen to point out, is consistent with current (as of the 80s) scientific theories of how the universe might work, but told to evoke a sense of magic and wonder.

Further, Wolfe weaves in a lot of religious, occult, and esoteric references and themes. Many of the characters are named after saints, symbolism from the Tarot shows up, and the mind-bending time and universe stuff is framed in Cabalistic terms. Here's where the Lexicon Urthus I mentioned comes in handy - I waited until I finished to take a look at it, and so I've only glanced at a few entries. I also reckon that re-reading with more of these associations in mind would enrich the story where they show up (much like how The Wasteland is at least as much about its allusions as everything else it's doing). All that being said - the story works all by itself, so it's not like it's boring or confusing without this knowledge. There's also a recurring element in the form of a book of stories, some of which are given in full, others of which are summarized or mentioned by characters. The stories combine elements from familiar references, like The Jungle Book, but as filtered through thousands of years of re-telling and mutation. Again, Wolfe does a really good job of making what he presents interesting and relevant to the story, while any references or allusions are more Easter eggs than keys needed to unlock what's happening.

Altogether, BNS hits a lot of notes that much scifi, hell, much fiction of any sort, fails to pull off: a story that moves briskly and builds to a satisfying conclusion, deep characters that grow over time, numerous deep allusions, and a well-developed moral point of view that doesn't hammer you over the head. I can see what all the fuss is about, and if you got this far despite not reading it, I strongly recommend you check it out.

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A Few Daily Prayers

Date: 2023-August-13

I'm still plugging away at The Seed of Yggdrasill, but 1. chapter 2 is really long, and 2. I spent the weekend out of town with some friends. So, this post is a bit short, but I'm counting it as substantive enough not to be a "placeholder" for purposes of this year's oath. These are a handful of prayers that I say almost everyday. I find it helpful to bring the Gods into more bits of my day-to-day life than only my "main" prayer or daily spiritual practice. I hope you find it helpful, or at least interesting.

On Waking

I got this short stave from Eirik Westcoat's Eagle's Mead, and I try to remember to say it as soon as I wake up and get out of bed. It's a half stanza of Ljodhahatt followed by a half stanza of Galdralag. I also say my Hail Idun after this.

This dawning day
Brings deeds of might
For us the brave and the bold.

Awake today,
aware I'll live
and find a rune to rown,
and find a rune to write.

("Rown" is an archaic word for "to whisper," with connotations of knowing and sharing a secret. "Alu" is the word that became "ale," but it seems to originally have meant the sacred quality inherent in alcoholic drinks, and only later came to mean the drink itself. I use it as pretty-much equivalent to "amen" when I pray.)

For Putting on Thunor's Hammer

This is a quick little prayer that I say every time I put on my Thunor's Hammer necklace. My own practice is that I hold it in my left hand as I say the prayer, facing north, and as I say the words "Mighty Hallowing Hammer," I make the sign of the hammer over the hammer charm. I carved the charm itself from oak, put it on a leather thong, and put some beads on that to stand for the Gods, Goddesss, and Wights (spirits) that I have a relationship with. For a long time, I didn't wear a hammer, as I didn't have a particularly strong relationship with Thunor, but after some prayer and meditation, I realized one of the ways I could build that relationship was to wear the hammer and say a prayer every time I put it on, so here it is.

As for the poem itself, it's two half stanzas, one slightly defective, of Ljodhahatt (the last line has 4 stressed syllables, with two pairs of alliteration, rather than 2 out of 3 stressed syllables alliterating as would be strictly correct. I felt the meaning was more important than sticking strictly to the shape.):

O Thund'rous Thunor
Thanks I give
For mighty hallowing hammer.

Worthy may I wear
This warding mark
To banish bale and welcome weal.

("Bale" is an archaic word for "harm, injury, evil" and "weal" is an archaic word for "well-being," which is the root of "wealth.")

Before Bethinking

I say this one after a few minutes of "Color Breathing" (doing the Four-Fold Breath while visualizing a color entering my body through my solar plexus on the inhale, filling me while I hold air in my lungs, then leaving through my solar plexus as I breathe out, and filling the air around me while I hold the air outside. I do a different color for each day of the week, given in The Dolmen Arch, Volume 1, but Yellow is a good general-purpose color) and before settling into the theme of my bethinking (discursive meditation). This one is two half stanzas of Galdralag. The "kindly" in the second half stanza is unstressed, which is kinda cheating, but it felt more important to be respectful than strictly meet the meter.

Oh spellweavers,
Wounded by spears,
Lost lives for wisdom,
Wakened well for lore!

Hail Woden!
Hail Frige too!
Kindly weaken bonds on my wits
And unfetter my heart to hear!

(This prayer calls upon Woden and Frige (my take on the Old English name for Old Norse Freyja. This is slightly controversial, as we don't have clear attestation of whether the Anglo-Saxons worshipped equivalents of Freyja and Frigg as separate Goddesses, and if so, what Their names would have been. My own gnosis has me worship Them as Frigg and Frige (pronounced "Free-yuh")). It references two mythic events: Woden stabbing himself with his spear and then hanging himself upon Yggdrasill and Gullveig the first witch being killed by spears and burned by the Aesir. I accept the interpretation that Gullveig is Freyja, and that both of these deaths-and-rebirths are magical initiations, and so I invoke them in my own seeking initiation.)

Before Eating

This one does not follow a poetic shape, but I based it on a poem found in Northern Practice for the Solitary Practitioner by Galina Krasskova and Raven Kaldera. Blessing your food is a good idea for all kinds of reasons, and I also like to use the chance to remind myself how much work goes into putting food on my plate, and my thankfulness for all of the beings that helped that happen.

I thank the Wen of land and sea for this food.
I put forth my blessings to the souls of the beings that went into it,
The lands it came from,
The wights of those lands,
Those who got it from there to here,
Those who made it,
And those who share it.
May all of their might and main feed our hearts, as well as our bodies.

("Wen" is one way to wend (translate) Old Norse Vanir into English. It's not actually attested in Old English, but using what we know of how Old Norse and English both changed from Proto-Germanic, the singular would be "Wan," and this reconstruction assumes it would have fit into the same class of nouns as "Man/Men." I've also seen reconstructions that assume a standard plural and instead go for "Wan/Wanes." I don't have the linguistic chops to know which is a more plausible reconstruction, Wen "feels right" to me.)

For Blessing

I say this one whenever I bless a drink for prayer or the oil for the lamp I light on my stall (altar). It doesn't quite fit any of the meters, as I haven't been able to come up with something I'm happy with yet. As such, I might change this if I can work something out.

Hail Thunor,
Hallow kindly
And bless this drink/oil,
With my thanks.

On Going to Bed

This one is also from Eirik Westcoat's Eagle's Mead, and follows the same mixed Ljodhahatt/Galdralag shape as the waking stave. Again, I say my Hail Idun as well.

Now I wend my way
Into the well of sleep
To thee oh wynnful Woden.

To learn thy ways,
I'll listen well,
Seeking runes to rown,
and finding wode to win.

("Wynnful" is an archaic word for "delight, pleasure" with connotations of folks getting along and being happy in each other's company. "Wode" is the spirit/substance of inspiration/poetry/ecstasy that forms the root of "Woden." In Old Norse it is Oðr.)


Whether you find these prayers helpful for your own spiritual work, as always, I welcome any and all feedback!

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[Books] Military Fiction

Date: 2023-August-06

Well, thanks both to the second chapter of The Seed of Yggdrasill being very long and to my daughters being a bit of a handful this weekend, I'm going to take the recommendation of Justin Patrick Moore and work over a comment I made over on a recent Ecosophia post as this week's post. JPM asked for some "Military Fiction" to consider reading, and I went over to my bookshelves (both physical and virtual) and marked any books that seemed like they fit that ask. Below, I've taken those and cleaned them up a bit, so if you're looking for some fiction to read that scratches a military itch, here goes.

The Carrera Series - Tom Kratman

When I heard "military fiction," these were some of the first books that came to mind. Kratman is a former Army officer who finished his career as a JAG working on rules of engagement, but before that was an enlisted guy and a combat arms officer who served in the invasion of Panama. The conceit of the series is that there's another planet that is very much like Earth, has been settled by mankind, but for some reason I can't remember, it's technology level is basically that of the early 21st century. I say "conceit," because this is clearly an excuse to set up conflicts between analogues of real-world nations, but with the narrative flexibility to change things that might be inconvenient in a straight "alternate history" piece of writing. These books are very focused on the technology, tactics, and strategy of war, but also with more philosophical musing on the subject than you might expect. Kratman also writes from an unabashedly right wing place, and some of what's in the books is definitely meant to troll left wing folks - the "Not EU" of this world is a frequent punching bag. Stay away if you don't want lots of blood-and-guts action scenes or if the political thing bugs you.

Gates of Fire - Steven Pressfield

This book is a fictional telling of the well-known Battle of Thermopylae, where a Greek coalition led by the Spartan King Leonidas and his 300 Spartiates fought the oncoming Persian army. It's way more historically accurate than Frank Miller's 300, but it still takes some liberties, as it is mostly a vehicle for showcasing the kinds of virtues that make men fight against impossible odds. As such, the Spartiates come across as very admirable, which might not be that accurate. That being said, it's very popular in the military today, especially among elite units, as a model for what camaraderie and discipline can look like. Pressfield was a Marine, and he gets the grunts-eye-view of small unit dynamics very clearly.

Galaxy's Edge Series - Jason Anspach & Nick Cole

I haven't actually read any of this yet, but I've heard good things. One online friend said it's like "Star Wars, but written by hardass vets." I've been a bit turned off of space-oriented scifi for a bit now, but I'll likely check this out at some point.

Cryptonomicon, Baroque Cycle, and Reamde - Neal Stephenson

Okay, these aren't exactly "military fiction," as there's a lot of other stuff going on, but Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Cycle have significant portions that follow soldiers around on wacky missions and through huge battles. Reamde is a techno-thriller, but one of its main characters is an ex-Spetsnaz guy, and there are a lot of gunfights. Stephenson doesn't have any military experience, but from his writing, it's clear that he knows vets and has listened to them, as his depictions of military guys land right.

Chronicles of the Black Company - Glen Cook

These are well-known "dark fantasy" short stories that follow an amoral mercenary company that is fighting in a stereotypical fantasy war, complete with an evil sorceress queen. The thing is, they're fighting for her, not against. Cook was in the Navy during Vietnam, and was apparently attached to a Marine Force Recon unit, but he never deployed. For me, this walks the fine line of "interestingly edgy" and "annoyingly cynical" rather well (unlike, say The Blade Itself which was everything I was afraid a "dark fantasy" book would be, and worse). I've only read the first collection of these stories, so I don't know if they keep up the quality as they go.

The Aubrey-Maturin Series - Patrick O'Brian

These are best known for the movie adaptation Master and Commander, starring Russell Crowe. These books go deep on what it was like living and fighting on a ship in the British Navy in the Napoleonic wars, kind of like Moby Dick, but with warships. Even if that's not your thing, the action scenes are engaging, you get occasional forays into Jane Austen-style high society, and the relationship between the two main characters is dynamic and interesting. If you'd like to go deeper on the real life impacts of naval war, A.T. Mahan's classic of military history The Influence of Sea Power Upon History makes for a fascinating and well-written complement.

Arabella of Mars - David D. Levine

Speaking of Napoleonic naval matters, Arabella of Mars gives a taste of that, but IIIINNNNN SPPPPAAAACCCEEE. This book uses the archaic idea that the sky just kept going, and that all of the planets just spin around in it. So, you can float a ship up high enough, and then sail the solar winds to Mars or Venus or the like, which are of course populated by the kind of denizens 19th century authors put there. The first book is a fun swashbuckle with a dash of romance consciously written in the style of 19th century adventure stories by the likes of Haggard or Burroughs. Apparently, though, this upset some folks for glorifying colonialism or something of the sort, and to try to make up for this, Levine wrote the next two books with much more of a political chip on his shoulder, which rather squashed the light-hearted adventure, so I can't really recommend them, but the first one is fun and a complete-enough story to satisfy.

Starship Troopers - Robert Heinlein

Maybe the most famous work of military scifi ever written, this is a classic for a reason. If your only exposure to the name is the Paul Verhoeven movie, set all that aside. It turns out the screenplay for the movie wasn't initially based on the book at all - it was retrofitted after they got the rights. Now, I love the movie in all of its cheesy glory, but the book is way, way better in every way. Mostly a coming-of-age story about a young man who finds meaning and purpose in the military, it's also got some political philosophy and cool technology. Significant contributor to why I enlisted rather than taking a commission when I joined the Army (hell, likely a significant contributor to my joining the Army at all, if we're being honest here).

Old Man's War - John Scalzi

This book is a clear homage to Starship Troopers. It's not really amazing or anything, but it's pretty fun. Once again, the first book in this series hews close to the form it's an homage to, to its benefit, and the later books in the series go in some different directions that I found less interesting. Also, as far as I know, Scalzi has no military experience, and he doesn't quite get the "military mindset" as well as many of these other authors, but this book is not as hurt by that as it could be, as the main character is a new recruit finding his way in an unfamiliar world. One thing that makes me appreciate this book more than it deserves is that while it leans into "humans are kinda weak and squishy compared to the aliens we've run into," it doesn't treat humans as helpless babes in the woods - instead, thanks to being mean as piss and ready to take anything that works from other species, humans are definitely contenders.

The Man-Kzin Wars - Larry Niven and Others

Speaking of mankind being dangerous to aliens, The Man-Kzin Wars was a project created by Larry Niven to bring many scifi writers together around a loose theme (the eponymous wars), I've only read the first collection, which features Poul Anderson. These wars are a prequel to Niven's Ringworld, which has some really interesting alien psychology, but is not so much military. If you don't know the world, the Kzin are a cat-like species that is very aggressive and warlike, and is one of the first (maybe the very first?) species of aliens mankind runs into. As with Old Man's War, one of my favorite bits is how seriously it takes the thought that mankind is dangerous. In this future, we had finally learned how to get along with each other, then we met these warlike cats who want to fight, and we’re like “guys, do you have any idea what our whole deal is? You sure you want to go down this road?” The stories themselves are of somewhat variable quality, and not all are really “military scifi,” but there were a few that I liked quite a bit.

The Mongoliad Cycle - Greg Bear, Neal Stephenson, Mark Teppo, and Others

Another one that isn't exactly military, but certainly is martial, is The Mongoliad, which was a joint writing effort by a few authors, including Neal Stephenson, that was an attempt to launch a multimedia franchise around western martial arts, using a fictional warrior monastery as its focal point (think Shaolin monks, but in plate with longswords). I enjoyed the initial cycle of books, but the short stories and spinoffs did less and less for me, so I ended up putting them down. Strongly recommended if you have an interest in historical European martial arts (the authors all know each other from their HEMA group, and so the fight scenes are loaded with realistic details).

The Furies of Calderon Series - Jim Butcher

The Furies of Calderon series has some strong military elements as it goes on, though again, I might not call it "military fantasy". Apparently, someone challenged Butcher to write a series based on a prompt something like "Pokemon meets the four elements." He took up the challenge and managed to make that not cheesy, as the "Pokemon" are elemental nature spirits, and are how folks do magic in this world. Speaking of folks, they're basically Romans facing barbarian invaders, hence the military element that comes up more and more. I don't think they're quite as good as The Dresden Files, but it's got likable characters with good growth, it's very readable and well-paced, and explores the implications of the world-building.

Musashi - Eiji Yoshikawa

Lastly, another “martial”, but not “military” book – Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa is a big sprawling epic about the most famous swordsman of Japanese history, and it does a good job of exploring a warrior mindset, even if most of the book is not about battles. Also, when the battles do happen, they tend to be smaller fights, rather than clashes of armies. Even still, it's got a lot of tension and action and it does a really good job of exploring the conflict between the martial virtues and the softer virtues of everyday life.

Closing Out

Hopefully there's something that grabs you in the above, and if so, I'd love to hear your thoughts. Also, if you have any good military fiction to share, it's a sub-genre I often come back to, so I welcome any recommendations.

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[Book] The Seed of Yggdrasill 1 - Introduction and the Books of Old

Date: 2023-July-27

Lead-In: My Mixed Feelings Coming into this Book

Earlier this year, as research for my Hail Idun, I read The Goddess Idhunn in Poetry and Myth by Maria Kvilhaug (for which I could have sworn I had a write-up, but I must have made that up). I heard about Kvilhaug when folks pointed me to her Master's thesis Maiden and the Mead Cup and her main book, The Seed of Yggdrasill, and what I found when I dipped my toes in both of those intrigued me greatly, but this was during my year with the dead, and so I had to hold off. Then, in the same year (2022), she put out The Goddess Idhunn, and I knew I had to read that as soon as I could. It was the first non-fiction book I read of the year, and I was almost hopping up and down for a book-length treatment of a Goddess that is very important to me.

On the one hand, the book gave me exactly what I was looking for: wonderful, in-depth analysis of every stanza of the two Eddic poems that feature Idhunn. Translations of every proper name in those poems, so that the potential symbolic meanings of characters, places, and things can be understood. A thorough run-down of possible archaeological evidence for related (or the same?) Goddesses. A full list of every kenning given for Idhunn, with translations of included proper names. A discussion of what Her own name might mean, and alternative possible etymologies. It was very nearly the perfect country and western song, err, I mean, perfect book on one of the non-star Norse Goddesses.

But on the other hand, whooooo boy, some things about that book were infuriating. There's no index. There's no footnotes. There are annoying typos and formatting errors that occasionally introduce confusion about meaning (like not ending italics after a quote is finished, or leaving out the verb). Worst of all, it's a collection of transcripts of video lectures originally put out on YouTube. And it appears to be barely edited at all. This means that missteps in speech are part of the text, as is an amount of repetition that can be useful from one video to the next, but not so much within a lone 200 leaf book. It also uses the kind of fluid "mostly organized" approach that can sound conversational and thus fine in a spoken context, but a tighter organization would be much, much better.

All of which means that I found The Goddess Idhunn terribly frustrating: it has some truly worthwhile stuff in it, helpful to any student of Norse myth, and invaluable to someone for whom Idhunn plays an important role in religion, but it could be shared in ways that were so much easier to understand, reference, and so forth. So why am I telling you so much about this little book in a post about a whole 'nother book? Because it's 600-leaf big sister of a book, The Seed of Yggdrasill shows many of the same strengths and weaknesses, and that's much of what's kept me from getting to it for the last few months. That being said, I have now more than once had the distinctly hair-pulling experience of pulling The Seed of Yggdrasill out to get Kvilhaug's take on something, or her translation of a name, finding hints at something that feels deeply meaningful and worthwhile to add to my understanding of the Lore, but not being able to find the specific thing I was looking for, or else only finding it after 3 or 4 tangents. I realized I was going to have to tackle the whole thing, get a good idea of what's in there, and organize my own damn notes as a reference, since this book isn't going to do it for me. That being said, the book is a bear - not only 600 pages, but 600 textbook-sized pages, and though there are a fair number of pictures and single column poetry translations, it's still pretty much as long you'd think, so it's gonna take some doing to get through this, and I'm going to post on it as I go. Let's get to it!

The Book Itself

First, a handful of thoughts on the physical book. I have the 2020 edition, which is the one currently available, but it was first printed in 2012 as a hardcover. These days, you can only get paperback, which seems to be POD via Amazon. Kvilhaug's "publisher" is Three Little Sisters, which has links to all of her books, but as I said, these days, I think they're just ebooks or POD through Amazon. To be fair, it does seem to be at the higher end of resolution and print quality, as far as POD goes, at least the full-color version I have. As I said above, some of the formatting leaves some things to be desired - the title page is on the left page of the very first spread in the book, with the copyright page on the right side, and the title on the spine is backwards from what I would expect (is this a European/Scandinavian thing? I think I saw it on another book put out by someone from there). The typography is unobtrusively attractive, set in Georgia, and with distinct-enough headers and such to stand out. As I mentioned, there's a decent number of pictures, but not a ton, and they're usually pretty small. Most of these are black and white and/or line-work, such as the sketches archaeologists make of carvings or reconstructed artifacts, but some of the pictures benefit from the color. It might also be that the pretty crisp resolution of the printing only comes with the color version. Altogether, this is neither slapdash nor anything to write home about, but a perfectly serviceable medium for delivering the information it has. I just wish there were still a hardcover version available with better binding, for the sake of longevity.

Upfront Stuff

This bit is very short, but has a few handy things in it. Kvilhaug begins by telling the tale of how she came to care about Norse Myth, after being taught as a kid in Norwegian school that these were basically "the silly stories folks believed before they got Christianity, and then even better, science" (which just hurts my heart to hear). She then talks about how the translations of the poems are her own, some spelling conventions, and some basics on how letters in Old Norse words are pronounced. Lastly for these quick 8 pages, the best bits: a list of Old Norse magical/religious terms, a list of Old Norse terms for religious professions of different kinds, and a list of the kinds of divine beings talked about in Norse myth, broken up into the masculine and feminine powers. This last one especially is helpful for giving not only a translation of the name for the group, but also a few thoughts on how/when different terms were used. Altogether, most of this stuff is likely not needed for anyone who's going to read this particular book (this is emphatically not "My First Book on Norse Myth"), much of it helpful nonetheless.

Chapter 1: The Books of Old

Okay, I gotta admit, looking through the table of contents, I assumed this chapter would be a mostly-skippable overview of the content and history of our sources for Norse myth that I mostly already know. There is some of that, but I was pleasantly surprised to find there's actually more here as well - in 56 pages, I filled up three 4x6 notecards (one side only) with notes. Don't worry, I'm not going to try to squeeze all of that into this post, but there was a lot that seemed interesting, insightful, or a useful thread to follow up on.

The Eddic Poem Rundowns are Great

First, Kvilhaug lists each of the Eddic poems with a brief summary. She includes two poems that are not always included in published version of The Poetic Edda, Odhins Hrafnagaldur (Odin's Ravenspell) and Solarliodh (The Song of the Sun). The reason these poems are not always included is that their date of composition is controversial, and many scholars believe them to be later compositions by antiquarians. Kvilhaug argues that they show enough understanding of the fundamentally heathen structure of the other poems that even if they are not as old, they were nonetheless written by someone with heathen sensibilities. In my own work, I've found Odhins Hrafnagaldur very worthwhile as a source for imagery and threads for bethinking (meditation). I haven't checked out Solarliodh yet, though. At any rate, the real gold in this bit is the summaries. Kvilhaug does a great job of briefly relating what happens in the poems, plot-wise, but also what the poem is doing spiritually/religiously, according to her method of interpretation (more on that below). These really are great. You might not wholly buy her take on these poems, but if you plan on bethinking on them, her take is worth adding to your list of ways to consider what they mean. I am so glad I didn't skip this bit.

One example of what these add: the later poems in the Poetic Edda are often called the "heroic poems," as they deal less with the Gods and how the world came to be or where it is going, but instead with the adventures of human heroes (though these often cross paths with the Gods, of course). Kvilhaug's interpretation is that these are initiatory tales, and that the sequence of tales shows a soul getting part of the way there, dying, reincarnating, and then getting further along each time, turning what can feel like a loosely-linked anthology into a coherent spiritually relevant cycle. I'm not sure that she's right, but wow! What a different and more interesting way to look at these than only "some cool adventure stories with some perplexing elements."

What was Snorri Up to with the Prose Edda?

Okay, real quick, in case you don't know, what's up with this "Edda" business, one "Prose" and one "Poetic"? Snorri Sturlusson was an Icelandic statesman/poet/badass of the 13th century. He wrote a book that he called Edda, and by sometime between the late medieval and early modern era, nobody remembered what the hell that was supposed to mean, but since it was a book about how to compose poetry, they figured it was something like "book of poetry/poetics." He also keeps talking about all of these famous old heathen poems, but nobody had ever seen them, so there was speculation that there must have been an "Elder Edda" that he was quoting. Lo and behold, in 1643, Bishop Brynjolfur Sveinsson is handed this old manuscript a family has handed down for who knows how long, and it's got all (most) of those famous old poems! Here was the hypothesized "Elder Edda!" Over the years, one way of distinguishing these besides the "Elder" and "Younger" (which you'll still find occasionally, especially in older writing), was to call one "Prose" and the other "Poetic," since Snorri's work was a work of prose full of quotes of poetry, whereas the mysterious manuscript (known today as the Codex Regius) was almost entirely poems, except for a few prose introductions. Well, later scholarship has found no sign that anything was ever called "Edda" before Snorri's work, and the Codex Regius doesn't have any title on it, and later finds of other manuscripts have found other versions of the same poems, along with a few that were not in the Codex Regius but seem to be from the same time and/or in the same title. All of these poems sometimes get collected by scholars and translators and published, and the name everyone has agreed upon for this body of work is "The Poetic Edda," despite it's goofy history. As I mentioned, which manuscripts to favor when there are differences between them, even which poems to include or leave out, are matters of some debate, and different scholars come to different conclusions. The most important poems will be in any version of the Poetic Edda you get, and Kvilhaug takes a maximalist approach, so she summarizes everything that has ever been considered a part of the Poetic Edda. If you really want to get more into it, there's lots of books and articles on the subject to dive into.

Whew, okay. So back to Snorri. Snorri loved the poetry of his folk, and he saw that fewer and fewer Icelanders were learning how to do it, and he set out to write a guide that would help folks learn the craft. Doing this was more complex than just explaining the rules of alliteration, meter, and so forth, though. You see, right at the heart of Old Norse poetry is something called the kenning, which means "that by which someone or something is known," and is basically a metaphor. A famous kenning from Beowulf is the "whale way/road" as a name for the sea. Another common one is "flame of battle" to mean "sword." So far, so good, but very many traditional kennings were based on mythological stories. If you think about it long enough, you might work out what a "flame of battle" is from context and imagination, but unless you know the story, it's much harder to work out that "Otter's Ransom" means "gold." In other words, the Old Norse heathen tales were baked right in to the very way they made poetry. And it gets even harder: kennings can go fractal. Instead of just "flame of battle," I might decide to substitute in a kenning for one or more of the ideas in there - like "Gullveig's Welcome of Odhin's Delight." As we'll get more into later, Old Norse poets and audiences ate this stuff up - they saw poems as puzzles, and decoding the nested metaphors and allusions was at least half the fun. All of which was well and good when everyone grew up hearing these tales from their grandmas and having them reinforced by seasonal rites, but was way harder for Christians who had never heard these tales, or only knew bits and scraps about "the old superstitions."

So, in his Edda, Snorri set out not only to lay out the rules of meter, nor only to explain the plain meaning of mythological kennings, but also to explain enough about the mythology that new composers could write poetry with their own mythologically-grounded kennings. To make this happen, he did his best to bring together what was then still known about the old tales, try to resolve a few things that seemed like contradictions to him, and put it all in an easy-to-understand package. There was a catch, though. By Snorri's life, Iceland was a firmly Christian country and the Christian church has not always been keen on the spread of stories about other Gods. So Snorri had to thread a very careful path: tell as much of the tales as he could, but in a way that didn't get him branded a secret heathen. He rather cleverly managed this through a combination of euhemerization and frame stories. If you don't spend a lot of time reading about old religions, you might not have met the word "euhemerization." It comes from a Greek scholar named Euhemerus who tried to find logical explanations for myths. These days, the term is mostly used to refer to the process of recasting/interpreting mythical figures like Gods as merely remarkable humans. Thus, Odhinn was not the king of the Gods, but a long-ago king with mighty magic who became so feared and respected that folks started worshiping him as a God. Sometimes this process goes very far, as with most Irish and Welsh "myth" that we have left, which is usually presented as history, but which various clues indicate were derived from myths about the Gods. Anyway, so Snorri claimed that the Gods were warriors and magicians of long ago who made a big impression, but that's not the only thing he did. He also included the Gylfaginning, usually rendered as something like "The Deluding of Gylfi," but Kvilhaug prefers "The Revelation/Vision of Gylfi." In this story, Gylfi, himself a king and wizard, disguises himself and seeks out the wizard king Odhinn to find out what all the fuss is about. He is taken before three Beings, "High," "Just as High," and "The Third," all of whom are presented as disguises for Odhinn. There, Gylfi asks questions about how the world was made, who rules it, and so forth, and the Three answer him with material from Norse myth and cosmology.

This was really rather clever. The framing allows Snorri to say "I didn't say this stuff was true, I said some crazy wizard told some lies to another crazy wizard and folks believed it before we got Jesus." He can present all of the details of the heathen cosmology and Gods because they are cast as beguiling lies. I haven't ever encountered anyone else who managed to so artfully preserve non-Christian teachings in a hostile Christian context, so well-done, Snorri!

Speaking of which, let's take a moment to appreciate how strangely lucky we are to have so much preserved. Thanks to one family on a windswept island in the North Atlantic, we have most of the poems of the Poetic Edda. Thanks to one guy on that same island, and his sharp thinking, we have a textbook describing what was going on in what might otherwise have been entirely opaque poems. If you haven't ever read much about ancient knowledge, you might not realize how great this is. You know the Iliad and the Odyssey? While those two were always regarded as the best, there was a whole cycle of other epics that covered the entire Trojan War, and they're all lost. Lost from one of the most literate and continuously-inhabited bits of Europe/Asia/Africa since folks have been writing anything down. We don't even have everything by Plato or Aristotle! It's darn near miraculous - given my own beliefs, I'm inclined to think that the Hooded One had a hand in keeping His stories alive and ready for an age once again ready for them.

At any rate, there are two remarkable exceptions to what Snorri included under the guise of "wrong things our ancestors believed" - despite quoting the Voluspa and Havamal extensively, showing he knew those poems, he never once mentions the attempted killing of Gullveig the sorceress in Voluspa or Odhin's giving of himself to himself upon the Tree to gain the Runes in Havamal. Kvilhaug finds these conspicuous absences too conspicuous, and thinks that Snorri left them out because they were so obviously models of heathen magical initiation. I'm not sure, but it does seem odd when he was so careful about everything else.

Kvilhaug's Method of Interpretation Leans Heavily on Kennings, Name Meanings, and Structural Elements

Kvilhaug helpfully lays out her approach to interpreting Old Norse myths and poems, which she breaks into four main bits, and three supplementary ones. The first of her main tools is to look at the kennings being used. Of course, you need to figure out "who or what is this kenning referring to?" to have any idea what's going on in the poem, but there's an additional layer here - which kenning gets used tells you what kind of associations the poet was shooting for. If you refer to Odhinn as "Frenzy of Battle," you are calling to mind a very different side of Him than if you refer to Him as "Wandering Learner." If you bring in the fractal nature of kennings we mentioned above, you can get multi-layered references going on. The "giver of Baldr's funeral gift" as a way to call Odhinn would 1. emphasize Odhinn as Baldr's father, 2. bring up Baldr's death, 3. bring up Draupnir, Odhin's ring-making magic ring, forged by the dwarves, along with the whole tale of its making, and so forth.

The second bit that Kvilhaug makes much use of, and here is where her work truly shines, is in looking at the meanings of the names given to folks, things, and steads in the myths. Most translators leave names untranslated or lightly localize them (such as turning "Odhinn" into "Odin"). Occasionally, if it's really obvious the name is important to the poem, like a pun revolves around it, or there's some irony around a character's name, or what have you, other translators will give the name's meaning in a footnote. But most translators treat names as merely arbitrary tokens that mean nothing other than the being, thing, or stead referred to. Maybe the key insight of Kvilhaug is that this leaves huge amounts of meaning on the table when it comes to understanding what these poems are doing. That was what actually led me to check out Kvilhaug in the first place - hearing that she translated every name. So far, I've got to say I'm with her on this. There is often a ton of meaning baked into only the names being used in a poem or myth.

Let's run through an example, with the story of how the jotun Thjazi kidnaps Idhunn and takes her back to his home in Thrymsheim, before Loki borrows Freyja's falcon-shape to steal Her back in the shape of a nut, barely escaping as Thjazi chases in the shape of an eagle, before Thjazi is caught in a fire set by the Gods in Asgard. Well, this thumbnail sketch of the myth comes across very differently than if we talk about how the devourer Slave-Binder kidnapped the Goddess of Water that Returns to Its Source and took her back to his home in the Land of Drumming, before Loki (even Kvilhaug can't figure his name out) borrows the Lady's falcon-shape to steal Her back in the shape of a nut, barely escaping as Slave-Binder chases in the shape of an eagle, before Slave-Binder is caught in a fire set by the Gods in the Divine Ancestor Enclosure. See how much is going on there, just from translating the names? As I said, this is what brought me to Kvilhaug's work, and so far, it hasn't disappointed in terms of opening up many new paths to explore.

Kvilhaug also emphasizes the structural element, which she calls "interpreting the myth as parable." I'm not exactly sure why the scholars she's inspired by use the word "parable," since it doesn't seem to have much in common with the kind of stories told by Jesus for moral edification, but rather looking at the narrative structure of the myth and identifying how it holds together the different elements. One of those elements that Kvilhaug has identified are repeating "formulae." These are things like "three Gods traveling together" or "two complementary Beings get married." So, if you wanted to take this approach to Odhinn winning the Mead of Poetry, you'd focus on how Odhinn changes shape, goes underground, meets a female figure, they have sex, he takes a precious liquid, and then changes shape to escape again, chased by a giant who has also changed shape. Now, clearly, the details of each of these steps likely have meaning (why does he change into a snake at first and an eagle at the end? Which female figure gives him what precious liquid?), but boiling it down like this also can help us find parallels with other stories, the formulae Kvilhaug talks about, and sometimes get a clearer picture of what is being said about the different elements interacting.

Now, to supplement these core elements (kennings, name meanings, and structure), Kvilhaug has a few other notes. First, she points out that she does not lean very heavily on comparative mythology in this book. If you're not familiar, comparative mythology is when you do something like looking at Celtic or Roman or Indian myths to find parallels with Norse myths and see if that can help you understand things better. Kvilhaug says she is a fan of comparative mythology, has learned a lot from it, but that she thinks it takes away from her core message of "look what you can find out just by paying attention to the kennings, name meanings, and structures." The other thing she does is to point out how her understanding is that the myths can be understood, enjoyed, and found meaningful at multiple levels, whether as magical tales, clues to religious ritual, or representations of deeper spiritual realities. She compares this to how the myths can function for laity, priests, and esotericists. Kvilhaug describes herself as a "pantheist," which can mean different things to different folks, but for her means that every Being, including spirits, Gods, and so forth, are truly manifestations of one universal spiritual reality. As such, her preferred meaning for these myths is as symbolic explanations of how different forces/tendencies/characteristics interact with each other, both within the individual, and in the wider cosmos ("as above, so below").

I get the impression she is trying to be even-handed and broadminded here, allowing for different folks to get different things from the myths, but there's a distinct feeling that she finds the more symbolic/esoteric interpretations "better," like the other ways of understanding the myths are mere stepping stones to getting to the "real" meaning. I might be reading more in than she actually feels, but I got a strong whiff of snobbery for those poor, benighted souls who are so foolish as to think that the "Gods" have any of Their "own" meaning besides what They can help you know about the whole behind them. My own beliefs right now aren't so far off from Kvilhaug on this, but I put more weight on the distinctness and importance of the different manifestations of the holy. Sure, maybe in some sense Woden and Thunor and me and my cat are all "just" manifestations of one cosmic creative principle, but at least right here and right now, we're also different and separate in important ways, and I think that matters. So, that leads me to look at the very many ways myths can be understood and think that all of them have worth, and that all of them are true at the same time. Any given myth is an exciting magical tale, an reenactment of an initiatory ritual, a symbolic representation of the forces of consciousness, and much else besides. That's what makes true myth so rich. All that being said, it's a minor gripe.

Gender is One of the Building Blocks for Understanding Myth

Kvilhaug makes a few points about how one of the groundmost ways of organizing/understanding the symbols in the myths is by their gender, and if we want to understand that, we need to understand what we can about the gender roles of folks in the lands that crafted these tales at the times they did so. All of which makes good sense to me. In laying out what Iron/Viking-Age northern European gender roles were like, Kvilhaug is mostly pretty even-handed, though at times she seems to have a bit of a rose-colored tint to how she thinks women were thought of, treated, and so forth. She also gets weirdly harsh about the effect of the Christian church. She makes the good point that most of us tend to think of views on gender as either "modern" or "old-fashioned," and what we think of as "old-fashioned" was heavily influenced by the church, so when we come across non-Christian societies, we run the risk of making a category error. Again, all true, but then she hauls off and blames everything bad about past beliefs about sex and gender on the church, which strikes me as, well, un-nuanced, at the very least. At any rate, despite all of that, what she boils down about what things that are masculine or feminine are doing in myths is basically the same stuff that Jung worked out, as popularized and somewhat simplified by Jordan Peterson, which is unsurprising, as the deepest mythological associations with sex and gender are likely due to physical realities that don't change all that much among different human groups.

A Few Stray Insights - Creation is a Story and the Red Gold of Initiation

I couldn't find another place to weave these in, but Kvilhaug makes a couple of points that I suspect she'll develop further in the book that I liked well enough to call out. The first is that she points out how the creation of the cosmos is always narrated, and in at least one place, is explicitly described as weaving a tale. As such, she raises the thought that all of that which is might be thought of as a story or a poem being told by Whatever or Whomever the creator might be. This is a lovely and interesting thought, and it might not be so far fetched, considering that Tolkien presented the act of creation as a great symphony, and he was deeply shaped by the Old Norse myths. The other insight I didn't have anywhere better to put is the thought that the "Red Gold" often mentioned in the myths is best thought of as the kind of wisdom gained through initiatory experience, which is itself the ultimate treasure. Obviously as someone pursuing initiatory paths to wisdom, this is greatly appealing to me! I'll have to read on to see how she develops it past that, though.

The Organization is Bad

Okay, after my crabby opening, I've spent most of this post talking about what's good in this book's first chapter, and by the word count, you can tell there was a lot! But the bad is real, and it mostly comes down to organization. Now, before I dive into this, I should likely point out that I'm an explainer. As this post itself shows, along with those on Spengler, and the Peterson post linked above, I like to take the thoughts from others that I've found worthwhile and try to work out how they might more readily be shared and understood. On top of that, my day job is explaining how to communicate in a business context. For business writing, the goal is to get your information across in as few words as you can manage, and with an organization that makes understanding them as easy as possible. Now, is that the end-all, be-all of writing? Of course not. But it's what I default to, and it means that when I see something I think would benefit from even just a bit of that structure and clarity, it's like nails on a chalkboard.

Let me give an example of what I mean. You look at the table of contents, and it seems like this is exactly the kind of well-organized book I'm looking for. Here's chapter 1: 1: The Books of Old 1.1: The Forgotten Manuscript (Poetic Edda) List of Edda Poems 1.2: Snorri Sturluson's Prose Edda and Ynglinga Saga 1.3: Gylfaginning The Revelation of the Sorcerer 1.4: Skaldskaparmal - Hidden Meanings in Poetical Metaphors 1.5: Hidden in Plain Sight - What Snorri Could Not Say 1.6: Other Sources to Old Norse Mythology 1.7: My Methods of Interpretation 1.8: Gender as a Mythical Formula and Some Other Observations 1.9: That Which is Disguised in Runes

Looks straightforward enough, right? There's even numbered sub-sections, just like in a technical manual! As I have discovered over the past several months of trying to dip into this book here and there based on just that table of contents, though, it is misleading. Key points that you think ought to be covered under a heading aren't there. The section isn't always really about what the heading implies it is. The stuff under the heading is meandering and hits on a lot of kind-of-related things. I mentioned above that Kvilhaug's use of gender as an interpretive framework matches Peterson's pretty well, and there's another way she reminds me of Peterson: both have chosen to tackle big, messy, densely interlinked fields, where every one thing relates to many other things, and there's no easy way to define a clear start, middle, and end. So, I can feel for the lack of organization, I really can. Peterson, though, is only that way in his talks. For his books, he has disciplined himself to edit ruthlessly and structure robustly. Kvilhaug has apparently not learned this particular trick, as much of her writing reads like an "off the top of my head" talk, with the same quality of finding and following tangents where they might lead. Luckily, as I've stressed above, most of these are interesting and worthwhile tangents, but tangents nonetheless.

So, for this chapter, one section in particular stood out as a good example of what I mean. "1.7 My Methods of Interpretation" is itself divided into the sub-sub-headers "Comparative Mythology," "That By Which A Thing Is Known," "The Meaning of Names," "Reading Myth as a Parable," "The Formula is the Key," "Truth or Fiction? The Eyes that See," "Do the Myths Represent Common Beliefs or the Beliefs of Spiritual Elites?" Each of these is at the same level of hierarchy. You'll notice above that I took the liberty of re-organizing these when I presented them, because I found this actively hindered my understanding. Skimming through, I assumed her interpretative method had seven components, and that comparative mythology was one of them. Instead, what I found was that "Comparative Mythology" was a section explaining how she won't be using that in this book, "Reading Myth as a Parable" was really an introduction to the concept in "The Formula is the Key," and that both "Truth or Fiction? The Eyes that See" and "Do the Myths Represent Common Beliefs or the Beliefs of the Spiritual Elite?" were talking about the different layers of meaning and Kvilhaug's preference for the estoeric symbolism level of meaning. All of this confusion could have been solved by some formatting, some different header names, and some shuffling around. And that's not even touching a more fundamental edit to the writing itself, which almost certainly would have helped even more. This doorstop of a book could likely have been 1/2 - 3/4 the length and still absolutely brimming with worthwhile insights. This alternate reality book I have in mind could have been one of the absolute best ever written on understanding Norse myth. Hence my hair-pulling in the lead-in.

Lastly, the chapter ends with three sections that don't just read like transcripts of off-the-cuff talks, they are transcripts of off-the-cuff talks. I'm not totally sure why they were here. They give some examples of what Kvilhaug spelled out in the interpretation section, but they don't add much that is new, and just dropping in barely-edited transcripts of Youtube talks is not how you write well (again, the Idhunn book is all that, and it's maddening). I think either weaving some examples into her explanations of her methods, or else just having a section called "an example of applying these methods" that she wrote for the book, would have been much more helpful.


Altogether, this book has a lot to recommend it, but it takes a certain amount of energy to grapple with in anything but the most casual way. I sincerely wish Kvilhaug had some kind of partner of the organizational, attention-to-detail variety who shared her passion for these myths. Then we could have things like a list of all of the major Gods, Goddesses, and steads with their names translated, to be used as a reference when reading. We could have chapters and sections that can be looked up as needed, rather than having to be sifted out of the entire 600-page web. We could have lists of the formulas she's identified with pointers to what myths you can find them in. Such glorious possibilities! Alas, for now, I'll have to settle for making my own sense of what she has to offer and sharing what I find with you.

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Did this post spark any thoughts? Have anything to ask or share? Feel free to send me an email at jeff DOT powell DOT russell AT, and I'll add your thoughts below. You can also comment on the dreamwidth post.

[Book] The Wealth of Nature

Date: 2023-July-23

Lead In

Though I only read this book the year before last, it's done a lot to shape my thinking since. I'll likely need to look back on it later, but for now I'd like to write this out to help set its ideas in my mind more strongly. This book did two main worthwhile things for me: 1. It gave me a helpful framework for thinking about economics that all my earlier reading lacked, and 2. it laid out in enough depth for me to feel like I understand the challenges we are likely to face with energy going forward. So, if those sound like something you might also find helpful, let's dig into The Wealth of Nature: Economics as If Survival Mattered.

Economics as an Intellectual "Swiss Army Knife"

First off, let's take a tick to talk about "why economics?" In a comment on a post, ESR called microeconomics an intellectual "swiss-army knife". I think this is an apt metaphor in more ways than one. For one, economic thinking is made up of a handful of principles that you apply in different situations: the law of supply and demand, costs vs price, marginal utility, and so forth. For another, that handful of principles can be used in many situations for many different purposes, sometimes where you wouldn't expect it, like how Game Theory was built out of hyper-simplified models of what folks do and don't want and how they might act, and yet those models give some valuable insight into decision-making in situations of uncertainty. Lastly, though, like a Swiss Army knife, economic thinking pays for its versatility and broad usefulness by very firmly being not the right specialized tool for really any specific situation. Even in it's notional field of expertise, buying and selling, if you set out to run a business with only microeconomics as your guide, you're gonna have a bad time. I say all of this to put much of the below in a bit of context, and to explain why the second half of the review isn't really about economics at all, but physics.

Outsider Views of Specialized Fields

Next, you might be saying to yourself "hold on, John Michael Greer? Isn't he that druid guy you were talking about? What does he know about economics?" And yes, it's true - Greer is by no means an economist, which has some drawbacks for a book on economics, but also some upsides.

There's a good reason experts are skeptical of outsider opinions on their field

First off, the drawbacks. Folks who are knowledgeable in a field are often wary of outsiders coming around and telling them their business. Professional economists have spent years learning ways to think about what they study, reading the articles and books that have been published, doing their own research, and so forth. There's a whole lot of background knowledge that you can only really pick up by years of being up to your eyeballs in a field. Outsiders are likely to lack this kind of background knowledge, to put forward as new ideas that have long since been talked over in the field, and to make the kind of mistakes that the experts have learned to avoid.

But experts can become blind to the assumptions and paradigms that hold them

On the other hand, outsiders can bring a worthwhile way of looking at things to a field. All that background knowledge we just talked about also leads to folks in a field trying to work things out the same way. Those ideas that have been talked over and thrown out might not have been because they are wrong, but because they don't draw research grants, or are politically unacceptable, or because the guy who first put it forward was a jerk. Lastly, for economics specifically, let's remember that most of the seminal works of economics were not written by "professional economists" - back when it was still called "political economy" (likely a more useful term, see below for more on this), philosophers and gentleman felt quite up to sharing their thoughts on how goods and services work, and we're all better off for it. So maybe Greer's wider, non-expert view has something we'd be better off with as well.

The Three Economies

The framework I spoke of above is the "Three Economies." This is an expansion of E.F. Schumacher's work in Small is Beautiful: Economics as If People Mattered (the title of Greer's book is, of course, a nod to this) - Schumacher talked about the primary and secondary economies, and Greer found it helpful to add the third.

A Quick Aside on "Political Economy"

If I had worked out how to sidebars with my current blog settings, that's likely what this would be, but we'll just have to settle for an awkwardly set heading here. In this book, Greer talks about the older term for what we now call "economics," which was "political economy." If you'd like to get a preview of his thinking on this, check out this post, and for some examples of less well-known ways of thinking about political economy, check out this one. At any rate, Greer prefers "political economy" to "economics" for the field at large, because the allocation of scarce resources is always a political question. Many modern economists act like there are "objective" or "scientific" ways to structure economies, but that only holds under certain value assumptions - the current one being something like "the currency-denominated value of assets should be maximized," often with a flavoring of "the most people should have as much money as possible." These value assumptions would look very strange to a daimyo under the Tokugawa Shogunate. The point is that wealth is for the benefit of folks, and which folks get how much wealth in what ways are weighty questions, questions that get settled by power. Which makes them political questions. So even the most "objective" economic assessment can only be treated as such within a particular political and value framework - taking a moment to be aware of that framework can help clarify some seemingly "economic" questions.

What Do We Mean by "Wealth" Anyway?

Before we launch into talking about the three economies Greer proposes in his framework, it's helpful to think about the word "wealth" and what we mean when we use it. These days, if we don't think about it much, we tend to say "wealth" and mean "money" or "things valued in money." But the word actually goes back to weal, which you sometimes will hear in old timey writing put against its opposite woe. If you go even further back, it's from the same PIE root as "will." So, "wealth" grew out of a meaning something like "to have the things you need for the well-being you would will for yourself." Money is a useful economic tool, but it also can hide this ground truth: that true "wealth" is that which lets folks live happy, healthy lives. This wider meaning will be helpful to keep in mind as we go through the framework below.

The Secondary Economy - Goods and Services

Okay, now that we are on the same leaf about "wealth," I'm gonna start in the middle and talk about the Secondary Economy first. This is what's most familiar to us when we talk about "economics" - the economy of goods and services. The traditional tools of economics are pretty good at analyzing this kind of thing - supply and demand curves, marginal utility, all that jazz. For reasons that will become clear as we go, I'd like to bring in the example of a farmer. He plants his grain in the spring, tends to it over the summer as it grows, and harvests it in the fall, before taking it to market to sell. All of this work makes wealth as we've defined it - with his work, folks get to eat, without it, they don't. Economic tools will do a good job helping us understand things like the effects of importing foreign grain, if he switched to a different crop, the impacts of fuel costs on his profits, and so forth. This is the stuff economics was developed to handle, and it handles it rather well. The main wellsprings of trouble here are that 1. wealth ends up getting abstracted into dollars, even where it is hard to pin down exact amounts, and because of this, 2. stuff that is harder to measure in dollars tends to get ignored or abstracted, and lastly 3. the very success of these tools in this field ends up tempting us to think they work just as well in other fields.

The Tertiary Economy - Financial Instruments

Speaking of wielding economic tools in other fields, let's talk about the Tertiary Economy. This is Greer's addition to Schumacher's model, and I think it's a helpful one. The Tertiary Economy is made up of all financial instruments, tokens that notionally refer to something that makes, gives, or holds wealth. Take our farmer. Let's say he has a mortgage on the farm. That mortgage is a financial instrument. To buy the farm to grow food (that is, turn his work into wealth), he needed more money than he had at one time, and so the bank loaned it to him in return for him paying it back with interest. There's a piece of paper (or at least a computer record) of this deal that specifies how much he has to pay by when, and what the bank is allowed to do if he fails to do so (like foreclose and take the farm). So far, so good, right? If everyone had to save up enough money to buy land with cash, a lot fewer folks would be able to afford it. And this particular token is pretty tightly linked to the on-the-ground wealth-making: if the farmer doesn't make money growing and selling food, he can't pay the mortgage, but if he does, he can. Assuming he makes more than that, this is a good deal for everyone, and 30 years later, he owns the farm free and clear and the bank has more money than what it loaned him. The mortgage (token) helped make all this more likely to happen than without it.

Okay, but you no doubt are looking for the "but" here, so here it is. Such financial instruments almost always start out as tokens representing some underlying wealth-making thing, and so long as they stay that, there's not too much trouble. Let's go through a bit of history to see what can happen with such tokens, though. Before the invention in the west of modern Joint Stock Companies around 1600, the main way that folks invested in commercial ventures was to put up some money before a voyage, and then at the end of the voyage take a proportional share the profits (hence the word "share" for one unit of stock in a company). Well, some bright folks started saying "hey, instead of cashing out after every voyage, want to roll your profits over into a share in the next trip?" and from there it wasn't that much of a jump to make the entity undertaking the voyages persistent, and the "shares" were in that company, rather than in any one of its voyages. Still, the assumption was that those shares entitled you to a payout at some point (dividends). So far, this is just a way to formalize multiple folks putting up the capital needed to start and run a business and getting paid their fair share for their contributions. Here's where it gets interesting, though. At some point, these shares started being treated as a piece of property. Meaning something you could buy and sell. Which folks started doing. Maybe you need a few thousand bucks now instead of a few hundred every year, so you sell your share to someone who wants the cashflow more than the chunk of cash now. At some point, somebody bought a share and a little later got an offer from someone else wanting to buy it for more than he paid. After a while, more and more people noticed that if you bought shares in a thriving business, a little later you could sell it for more than you bought it for, earning a profit without having to wait for all of those tedious dividend payments to add up.

You can probably see where this is going, but let's step back to understand what's going on here formally. Feedback loops are a handy bit of systems theory to have in your head if you don't already. Some systems make outputs that then change the system's behavior. These come in two flavors: positive and negative. Positive feedback loops take their output and then do more of what they were doing before, getting stronger and stronger. This is not necessarily a good thing, as the classic example shows: feedback between a microphone and speaker (as a former high school sound tech, I tend to take that sound personally). Negative feedback loops, on the other hand, do less of what they're doing as they pick up on their outputs. Here the classic example is your thermostat: once it gets hot or cold enough, it stops putting out hot or cold air. Negative feedback loops are self-terminating by definition, but it turns out positive feedback loops can't keep going forever, either. Instead, they do more and more of what they're doing until the system breaks. If you let a microphone sit in front of a speaker, unless there's a failsafe built in, it will get higher and higher pitched until the speaker blows out.

Now we have all the pieces we need to understand why it's helpful to call out the Tertiary economy as its own thing. In the secondary economy, systems are almost always negative feedback loops. Good ol' supply and demand works this way: if I am making a killing selling widgets, you might want to get in on that action, and five other folks, and soon, there's too many widgets and nobody's making any money on them, so a handful drop out of the business, and those left are making decent money, but the price for the buyers isn't insane. Remember how I said that formal economic tools get used where they're less well-suited? This is a big part of why. Those tools were developed to analyze and understand negative feedback loops. But guess what? That dynamic we sketched out for financial instruments is a positive feedback loop. You know what we call positive feedback loops in finance?


The perception that you can buy these instruments and sell them for more later creates demand for the instruments, which drives up their price, which makes more people think they can get rich by buying now and selling later, which further drives up the price, and so forth. Until enough folks look around and think "okay, this is good enough, I'm gonna sell" - which then drives another positive feedback loop in the other direction. Now, the instruments are getting sold, which ups their supply, which drives down the price, which makes more folks want to get out before the price falls further, and so on, and the bubble pops.

As it happens, this is how the 2008 financial crisis happened. You can skip this paragraph if you know the story. Mortgages had traditionally been given by local banks to folks who actually wanted to live in the house they bought, and the banks were careful about taking on a loan with such a long term, so they vetted applicants pretty thoroughly. This led to mortgages being seen as rock-solid financial instruments well-tied to the secondary economy, and therefore not subject to becoming a bubble. Unfortunately, this very perception led some folks to create new financial instruments that were tokens of bundles of mortgages, and then sell these as "super safe." As you might imagine, "guaranteed safe returns" is something that everyone wants, and so those new bundles became a hot commodity. This drove up demand for the underlying mortgages. Which meant banks started looking for ways to give more people mortgages. What most of them hit on was making it way easier to get a mortgage, loaning to folks who wouldn't have been considered credit-worthy before. At first, this was subtle, but over time, it got to where banks were issuing loans with zero verification of the applicant's claims about things like income and assets. The easy availability of mortgages meant more folks started buying homes, which drove up their price. Folks started noticing that they could sell their house for more than they got it for, and so folks started buying houses expressly to sell them, not to live in them. Through financial sorcery, the safest, most mundane bit of the secondary economy got turned into a bubble. And then it popped.

So, economists look at things like the stock market or derivatives trading or the like, and they see that you have pieces of property traded in a market that are valued in dollars, and they think traditional secondary economy tools will work to understand them. And they do - to a point. But it is precisely the insanity of a full-throttle bubble that those tools are not made to handle, and that's arguably the most important thing about financial instruments. So, it's helpful to know that this bit of the economy works differently, and to have the tools to think about it. The tertiary economy is capable of "creating" vast amounts of money, whether or not it represents wealth, and that's the trouble.

The Primary Economy - Natural Processes

Alright, why have I saved the Primary Economy for last? Because talking about the other two economies has helped give us the grounding we need to understand something a little counter-intuitive. You see, the Primary Economy is both the most important of the three, and also the one economic tools are the least well-suited to analyze. The Primary Economy is all of the wealth given to us by nature. Our farmer? Yes, he needs to work to plant, care for, and harvest his crops, but the sun shines for free. The dirt holds nutrients and microbes that help the plants grow. The rain waters the crops. The air gives the carbon the plants need to build themselves. Every economic activity we do is embedded in this wider world of free wealth. The way I like to drive this home is to bring up the show Naked and Afraid. If you're not familiar, it's a reality show where a guy and a girl are dumped somewhere in the wilderness literally naked, and they have to fend for themselves for a couple days. Sounds like a pretty bad time, right? Now, imagine an episode on Mars. It'd be pretty short.

All of this stuff is obviously a big part of wealth as we've defined it, but it's almost impossible to measure in dollars. It's also so ubiquitous that we take it for granted. And yet we can affect this economy - composting and other methods can enhance the wealth the soil can bring forth. Forestry can make sure we have healthy forests and timber. Paying attention to ecosystems and taking care of them can have ripple effects literally up and downstream. Planting mangroves can ward off the worst hurts brought by hurricanes. Also, unluckily, we can screw it up by not doing these things.

Energy and Concentration

One of the biggest gifts of the Primary Economy has been fossil fuels. Plants used the energy in sunlight to pull carbon out of the air and into their bodies. Some of those got eaten by animals, and some of both ended up at the bottoms of seas or swamps or the like, and for millions of years, the pressure of titanic slabs of rock squashed them into oil, coal, and so forth. It is not an overstatement to say that the Industrial Revolution and everything it brought could not have happened without fossil fuels. I've linked it before, but Wait But Why has a pretty good break down of the mind-blowing amounts of energy fossil fuels have let humans harness. I'm less sanguine on what alternative energy technologies will let us do than Tim, but I'll get into that below. The point is that fairly readily available fossil fuels have let mankind spend the last ~300 years seeing what we can accomplish when we use huge amounts of outside energy to make things easier for humans, and a lot of the outcomes are pretty darn impressive. But mark that premise, as it turns out to be a doozy.

Energy as the Ur-Resource

It turns out if you look at societies throughout time and around the world, energy is the master resource that sets the bounds on how much an economy can produce. For most of history, that energy has been human and animal muscle, burning wood, and a smattering of wind/water power. The real turning point of the Industrial Revolution was that it allowed energy to become versatile. All of a sudden, you could turn burning into movement. Take a tick and think about how weird that really is - burning some long-dead plankton can get you a few hundred miles in a few hours. Burning more of that dead plankton can sew your clothes, cool your house (coolth from fire!), put up a skyscraper, and now even write (bad) poems. Every economy has been limited by how much energy it could muster and what kinds of work it could be put to, but the industrial world's economy has let us muster a lot and put it to very many uses, and so it has grown very, very big.

Amount of Energy vs Concentration of Energy

There's a catch, though. It's not just amount of energy that matters. Fans of solar are fond of pointing out how very much energy hits the planet in the form of sunlight every day, which is absolutely true. Unluckily, that energy is very diffuse. It turns out that most of the really interesting stuff you can do with energy needs that energy to be concentrated. On its own, sunlight can do a lot of helpful things - make plants grow, heat things up slowly, help us see (duh). With a little more work, you can do some neat stuff like turn wine into brandy. But to make sunlight do all the tricks we've grown used to making energy do, it has to be concentrated. Right now, the best ways we know how to do that are by growing plants and photovoltaics. Plants barely concentrate energy, as charcoal doesn't get you as far as fossil coal, and photovoltaics take a lot of energy-intensive inputs to make. To put that in plain speech, right now, the only way photovoltaics get made is in factories running on burning fossil fuels. If you were required to make photovoltaic panels using only energy concentrated by photovoltaic panels, you would be spending more energy than you're making - it's a net energy sink. And that's to say nothing of the problem of storing the energy so generated, and as everyone who has ever owned a laptop or a cellphone knows all too well, batteries suck. What made fossil fuels a wonder was not at first how much energy there was, but rather how concentrated it was.

Concentrating Energy takes More Energy than is Concentrated

Okay, so we need concentrated energy to run an industrial economy - if we have super abundant diffuse energy in the form of sunlight or wind, why don't we just concentrate it? Well, putting energy into a physical form that can hold energy is a process that itself takes energy. Thanks to physics's biggest downer, the Third Law of Thermodynamics, any such process will be subject to entropy and lose some of the energy being concentrated in some kind of waste - light, heat, or whatever. That means that any process that can concentrate energy takes more of an energy input than it produces as an output. In the case of fossil fuels, the energy input for concentrating them was given by the combination of gravity and trillions of tons of rock sitting on top of them for millenia. All of that was actually way more energy than ended up stored in oil, coal, and the rest, but since it happened very long ago and needed no help from humans (we weren't even around yet), it seems like all that energy was "free." And we've been living high on the hog off that bounty for the last few hundred years, building stupendous wonders, birthing more humans than have ever been on the Earth at one time, and making many of those folks richer and healthier than anyone had been for at least hundreds of years before, maybe ever.

Where Does All This Leave Us?

Here's where I may lose those of y'all who are techno-optimists. So far, we haven't found any concentrated energy sources as useful as fossil fuels. Fission power has been tried in a wide variety of states with very different regulatory regimes, and yet has never worked without a lot of subsidies. Fusion power has been coming "any day now" for longer than I've been alive. And we're getting to the point where fossil fuels are harder and harder to get to, because we already dug up the easy stuff. Technologies like fracking take far more energy input than conventional wells, which means more of the energy we're pulling out of the ground is being used to, you know, pull energy out of the ground. At some point, that becomes a losing proposition. All of which means that I've come to the distinctly uncomfortable conclusion that the exponential growth in technology we've been enjoying in the modern era is likely to come to an end, and the future will be something very different than most folks imagine. Of course, I could be wrong - maybe fusion really is right around the corner this time, or maybe every government that has tried fission has handicapped it in similar ways. I don't know, but I hope whether you agree with this last bit or not that you find the Three Economies framework and the model of thinking about energy in both amount and concentration as helpful in making sense of the world as I have.

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Did this post spark any thoughts? Have anything to ask or share? Feel free to send me an email at jeff DOT powell DOT russell AT, and I'll add your thoughts below. You can also comment on the dreamwidth post.

What Might We Learn From Revival Druidry?

Date: 2023-July-15

Now that I've laid out what Revival Druidry is, I reckon that sets us up to talk about what we might learn from it as a religion. Specifically, I'd like to take a look at how such a small, weird set of beliefs has been able to keep chugging along for three hundred years. If you read that last post before I had a chance to update it, I was mistaken on one key point: I said that the Druid Revival got where it is today without ever being a fad the way Wicca and Neopaganism were for the past few decades. It turns out that Druidry has, in fact, had its own booms and busts, the biggest of which was in the first half of the nineteenth century. Even still, I think Druidry makes for a good case study because those fads didn't kill it the way Theosophy's or Spiritualism's did.

One reason I'm interested is that I got into alternative spirituality right smack in the Twilight of the Neopagan Era. Greer's essay linked there spells it all out, but the short version is that starting in 1979, Neopaganism ballooned in popularity, attracted a bunch of folks because it was popular for a while, and now that all the sexy young folks have become boring old folks, it is fading. In other words, the same trend that Spiritualism and Theosophy followed. Now, there are still a handful of Theosophical reading rooms and Spiritualist mediums running around, but by-and-large, these movements did not do a great job surfing their wave of popularity into a smooth landing as a stable minority religion. Druidry did. Since I would like my own fringe beliefs to have a shot at helping folks out in the long run, I thought it would be worthwhile to take a look at Druidry and try to pull out what characteristics allowed it to do so. Like Ringo, I get by with a little help from my friends, so my list has some inputs from John Michael Greer and others.

Meeting an Unmet Spiritual Need

First and most importantly, for any religion to do well in the long run, it needs to, you know, be a religion. By which I mean it needs to give a solid way for its followers to interact with the divine and find meaning through that interaction. One thing that tends to help a fringe religion find a niche is to reach the divine in a way that the mainstream religions around it lack. As you might guess, Druidry's way to the divine is through the natural world. When the Druid Revival got going in early 18th century Britain, the two main systems of belief on offer were orthodox Anglican Christianity or the burgeoning Scientific Materialism. Neither had much use for nature as a path to seek transcendence. If you're anything like me, you've stood somewhere filled with beauty, like Muir Woods, or looked up at a stunning sunset, and felt the touch of something greater. Druidry celebrates such moments and invites us to seek them out, even to notice them more often. Watching a roly-poly trundle over tiny rocks, sticks, and leaf litter can hold as much wonder as the mightiest settings, if you let it. There's nothing new about finding the divine in nature - most every religion throughout time has had hallowed groves, blessed waterfalls, and other steads of undeniable beauty and power. But in the land where the Industrial Revolution was about to be born, neither of the main streams of belief at hand had much use for such things, and many Englishmen felt that lack keenly and went looking for a way to fill it.

Taking Shape Around a Key Image

What these men found to fill that lack were the very few traces of elder Druidry found in classical writing - a time or two in Caesar, another handful in Tacitus, some wondering-out-loud in Posidonius, and that was about it. Take a tick to put yourself in the shoes of an English gentleman, learning the classics, and just think of the thrill whenever far-off and mist-shrouded Britannia comes up. If that same gentleman also felt the divine most keenly while walking through the woods or seeing the sun rise over the moor, then how much more bewitching the glimpses of wise druids gathered in their sacred groves, must have been. These days, what we have since learned about the elder Celts and their druids makes clear that the image of druids conjured by the revivalists was rather unlike the true elder druids, but as we've said before, maybe that's not such a big deal. For however off the mark their rebuilding of the past might have been, what they did find was a set of beliefs, practices, concepts, and imagery that spoke to the need for nature spirituality in the British (and later, English-speaking) world. Something about being a druid, rather than just a chap that likes to sit out in the woods, spoke to something deep within these folks, and it still has the power to stir strong feelings today.

Having Leeway Around a Set Core

While druids rallied around the core image of the ancient druids, the very scantness of what was known left a lot of room for filling in the gaps. Also, many folks over time and throughout Britain, at least somewhat independently, seem to have landed on becoming a "druid." Lots of far-flung folks putting these scraps together meant that many unalike takes on druidry got cooked up and only later brought together. Lastly, these folks were pretty much all weirdos and self-willed thinkers who deeply felt the need for going your own way and doing your own thing. Take all of these things together and what you get is that for as long as there have been revival druids, there has been a lot of variation in what they believe. Many (maybe even most?) druids have been Christians, though, of course, the not-so-orthodox kind. Some leaned into their classical schooling and worshiped the Greek Gods. Still others dug into the Welsh or Irish writings to find the pre-Christian Gods of those lands and began worshiping them. Heck, some druids in the 20th century even made up some Gods and were shocked when they seemed to get an answer! A joke I've heard Greer tell many times is "ask three druids, get five answers." The point is that around a shared heart of finding the divine through nature, druids have welcomed a broad range of beliefs.

Walking the Walk

As I've said before, though, Druidry is far less about what you believe and much more about what you do, and has been since pretty much the beginning. Maybe this came about through give-and-take between folks with unalike beliefs trying to come together. Maybe it's a natural outgrowth of the emphasis on individual experience and understanding. Wherever it springs from, druids have always put more weight on practice than on dogma. Sure, druids have developed philosophies and teachings about the world, how it came to be, and what kind of divine forces shape it. Many of these teachings have even come close to being held among all druids, such as the belief in Awen (pronounced roughly "Ah-oh-en"): a spark of the groundmost wellspring of Being held within each of us that drives how we think and feel and make. But reading about Awen, talking about Awen, even understanding Awen, pales next to living in a way that is shaped by your own Awen. Reading Iolo Morganwg's Barddas doesn't make you a druid, but bethinking on the threads you find there might. Drawing up and labeling an ecosystem doesn't make you a druid, but using your understanding of how ecosystems work to steer cleanup work in the nearby woods or wetlands might. Knowing the dates of the solstices and equinoxes doesn't make you a druid, but coming together with a handful of other druids to welcome each turn of the wheel of the year might.

Worshiping Right Out in the Open

Speaking of rituals, from very early days, druids have often made sure to do their rituals out where everyone can see them. Now, sure, some of this is thanks to the outdoors being the best place to worship and feel bonded with nature. But it was also a way to show folks what they were up to. Worshiping in the open had a couple of helpful outcomes. For one, seeing rituals helped folks learn that there even was such a thing as druidry. Those who might want to give it a shot could readily get in touch with the druids they had seen in the park at midsummer, making public rituals a way to bring aboard new druids. Maybe even weightier, though, was that public rituals showed folks what druids were not up to. No animal sacrifice. No naughty sex stuff. No devil worship. Just some odd fellows in robes chanting about peace and the sun and excalibur and so forth. This second reason may have been key to druidry's keeping alive - fringe spiritual movements start out under a cloud and have to show themselves not to be shady. We all know the stereotype of a scary cult, and with good reason. Without the weight of tradition to help, new religions have to go to greater lengths to show they're on the up-and-up, and truthfully, maybe that's for the best. For a very long time, druids have made sure to make it clear what they're up to and what they're not up to. The upshot? When was the last time you heard someone put forth that a wicked cabal of druids is pulling the strings of the mighty to evil ends? That's right, never.

Using Frumpery as a Shield

Above, you might have thought I was being silly to bring up "naughty sex stuff," but truthfully, for some time there was quite a lot of overlap between alternative spirituality and sex. If you don't check out the linked post (again by Greer), the short take is that for a long time in Christian lands, men could get away with sleeping around so long as they were fairly discreet, but women could not. During Victorian times, a new answer was hit upon: if you wrapped up the shady sex in shady magic, both man and woman now had dirt on each other - mutually assured social destruction. The man would be just as harmed by it coming out that he was doing spells as the woman would be by it coming out that she was doing sex. This blend of magic and alternative spirituality slowly lost importance as sexual mores loosened, and was killed off pretty thoroughly after the sexual revolution. Druidry got going before this innovation and seems never to have had much to do with it.

When Neopaganism hurtled into high gear after Halloween 1979 (the date that both Drawing Down the Moon and The Spiral Dance were published), it had more than a little sex baked into its scene. Drawing on both the alternative spirituality scene with its background of magically-themed sex clubs as well as on the counterculture movement and its close alignment with the sexual revolution, one of the things that helped Neopaganism get and keep its popularity was a culture of fairly widespread casual sex. Druidry wasn't really catering to those yearnings, and so it was seen by most folks flocking to the Neopagan scene as old-fashioned, stodgy, and boring. So far fewer newly-minted spiritual explorers found their way into (Revival) Druidry than other ways of belief like Wicca.

It turns out that this might have been a blessing. When any kind of movement or scene becomes a fad, the folks who flock to it are mostly looking for a good time. The folks who shaped that movement or scene are then faced with a strong pull to tweak things to give these new seekers the good time they're looking for. The more folks who show up, the less they'll have in common besides wanting to find a good time, and so the movement finds itself more-and-more pulled to put forth whatever has the widest draw. Even worse, if folks in the scene heed that it has become hip, they may start shooting for growth for its own sake. The trouble is that these outsiders found themselves drawn to the scene because it was unlike the mainstream or other scenes they might have gone to. If the scene goes too hard for being all things to all folks, well, it wipes out what made it stand out in the first stead, and it starts to lose those who showed up for a new, different good time, and maybe even those folks who made it special to begin with. On the other hand, if you can hold off the siren call of popularity, if you don't make the most of being a fad, and instead you keep up "flake filters" that gently send on their way folks who don't want to do the work, you might see a slight bump from becoming better known, but you also won't be left with nobody when the fad rolls back.

Learning from Druidry

So, what can budding alternative spiritual movements learn from Druidry? Well, so long as their goal is not to take over the world or grow as fast as they might, but instead to meet the spiritual needs of a small group for the long haul, rather a lot. First, make sure that whatever you are putting out there meets a real spiritual need, even better if its one that no one else is meeting right now. Second, to meet that need, call upon a strong aesthetic that grabs folks and fires their imaginations. Third, set out a heart of belief and practice that meets that spiritual need, but leave everything else as bendsome as you can get away with. Fourth, make one bit of that shared core a weight on practice over belief. Fifth, do some chunk of your practices out in the open to draw in those who may want to come onboard and soothe those who look askance at what you're doing. Sixth and lastly, steer away from being too sexy, cool, or "of the moment" - shoot instead for those things that are timeless and look for ways that take some amount of work from those who would come into your movement. I'd be shocked if this list hit everything it might have, but I hope it's a good starting point for thinking about what a religious movement should (or shouldn't) look like. That being said, I'd love to hear anything you think I've missed or gotten wrong.

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A Quick Grounding in Revival Druidry

Date: 2023-June-29

Following on from my posts on authenticity and how I came to believe what I do, I wanted to talk a bit about one of the lesser known bits of the path I'm following: Revival Druidry. It's a religious movement that has not always been exactly authentic, but has somehow managed to prove valid to a number of folks for around 300 years now, all while being almost entirely unknown outside of some very niche circles. Throughout the history of the English-speaking world, there have been plenty of alternative spiritual movements, and America has leaned into that trend with gusto. Brownists, Levelers, Quakers, Puritans, Swedenborgians, Spiritualists, Fundamentalists, Neopagans and more. Some, like the Puritans and Quakers, splintered off of the mainstream religion, rose to prominence, and then either mutated into unrecognizable shapes or faded away. Others, like Spiritualism or Theosophy, rode the wave of popular enthusiasm for seemingly brand new spiritual insights and rewards, before collapsing almost as quickly. Still others, like Fundamentalist Christianity, have risen and fallen along with other trends in the wider society.

Revival Druidry, though, has walked a far different path - it's just kind of kept on going, never very big, never very popular, but quietly fulfilling the spiritual needs of a small group of weirdos for three centuries, without being noticed at all by the mainstream. Whatever else Revival Druidry is, it's remarkable for pulling this off. So let's take a look at what Revival Druidry is and has been, and maybe start to understand what has allowed it to flourish amongst the cracks and crevices of the English-speaking world, thriving in its quiet way. Edit: Embarrassingly enough, John Michael Greer informs me that Druidry has had its own booms and busts, the biggest of which was in the early 19th century. I think most of my thoughts still stand, but it is perhaps not as singular as I thought.

My Own Path with Revival Druidry - From What the Heck Is This? to Why the Heck Not?

My first exposure to druidry as anything besides a feature of D&D campaigns, ancient history, or pop culture was in Isaac Bonewits's book Real Magic, which I found through the ESR essay I linked in the post on my beliefs, or maybe a reply to a comment somewhere on his blog. I can't really recommend Bonewits's work these days (though the bibliography is still pretty good), but finding a seemingly reasonable person in the world of woo was very helpful to get started. In that book, Bonewits lays out a taxonomy of polytheists, dividing them into Paleopagans, Mesopagans, and Neopagans (I can't remember if he coined "Neopagan", but he might have). Paleopagans are folks who follow or followed polytheistic religious traditions that were wholly organic - Ancient Greeks, modern Hindus, and so forth. Most of us know these days what a "Neopagan" is - folks who have adopted a polytheistic religion of one kind or another in the recent past, separate from their wider cultural context. Mesopagans are what he called those folks who tried to bring back various polytheistic belief systems between the rise of Christianity and before the twentieth century.

Seems reasonable enough as a way to label things, right? Well, the thing is, Bonewits did not propose this framework without some self-interest. You see, he was the founder of a Neopagan religious organization that seeks to reconstruct the beliefs and practices of the ancient Druids of the Celtic world - Ar nDraiocht Fein (ADF), and so had some interest in how polytheistic believers identified themselves and others. There was just one problem - there were already folks running around calling themselves "Druids," and the alternative spirituality scene is small enough that this caused some consternation. So, Bonewits set about describing how the Mesopagans were deficient in various ways - they lacked the knowledge of ancient beliefs gained through more recent scholarship, they borrowed Christian beliefs and practices, and much else that Bonewits didn't truck with. So, you see, ADF and similar more recent reconstructionists are the real druids, not those fellows in the funny headgear.

As I set out in my post on authenticity, at that point of my journey, this made plain good sense to me, and so I pretty much dismissed these older druids without even considering them, especially since I was more interested in Germanic myth and belief anyway. Well, not too long after this is when my friend introduced me to John Michael Greer's work (that was JMG in the nemyss link, by the way). Greer is an enthusiastic and influential Revival Druid - he was the head of the Ancient Order of Druids in America for twelve years and helped build it from an almost defunct handful of old folks into a thriving organization. At first, I thought this was kind of a silly way to go about religion, but it didn't make a big difference since I thought it was all in our heads anyway. As I read more and more of his work, though, I came to respect him quite a bit as an even-handed, thoughtful man with his own deep beliefs, who nevertheless refuses to push them on anyone who doesn't want them. It was Greer's writing that got me to seriously consider the reality of spiritual beings, and then to take up a daily magical practice of a banishing ritual, meditation, and divination. I started with a Heathen variant of the Golden Dawn Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram and Middle Pillar Exercise, using the Poetic Edda for meditation threads, and the Runes for divination. After my spiritual awakening, I realized I was going to need a more complete framework to follow, and much to my surprise, divination and prayer suggested that I should do the Revival Druidry thing for awhile, while still worshiping Anglo-Saxon Gods (mostly). So I grabbed Greer's Druidry Handbook and Druid Magic Handbook and got to work.

Druidry is All About What You Do, Not What You Believe

At this point, you might be asking yourself "wait, what the heck does being a druid have to do with Woden and Thunor and their lot?" (as an aside - more than you might think. The ancient Celts and Germans were neighbors with shared cultural ancestry, and so had a lot of shared beliefs and practices). Over the years reading Greer, I had come to understand that Revival Druidry is wonderfully flexible. Revival Druidry is more about what you do than about what you believe, and even within this grounding in shared practice, there's room for a whole lot of variation. What holds all of this together are three main themes, as outlined by Greer in The Druidry Handbook: reverence for the land, personal spiritual development, and public ritual. Mark the utter lack of anything in those three threads about which Gods to worship, what kind of clothes to wear, doctrines to follow, and so forth. This has meant that over the last three hundred years there have been Druids who worship Jesus Christ, the Greek Gods, the Earth herself, and much else besides. The shape of their personal development has included prayer, meditation, fasting, asceticism, bacchanalic feasts, and more. The public rituals have held a bit less variety, as that is where Druids actually do come together and agree to do the same thing, at least for a bit. Most of these rituals somehow mark the turning of the year and the changes found in nature that come with it.

For myself, this looks like following the paths laid out in Greer's two books I mentioned above, along with the practices in another two volumes of his, The Dolmen Arch. I've been working on better getting to know the land around me and to do less to harm it (like composting as much of our food and yard waste as we can). As for ritual, I haven't done any publicly yet, but I mark the two solstices and equinoxes as well as the halfway points between them on my own out in my backyard. I wouldn't truly call myself "a druid" just yet, as I haven't finished the self-initiation given in any of these books, but I have settled in fairly comfortably walking "the druid path," at least for a time.

Three things led me to following this path that likely all would have shocked me a few years ago. First, Greer's advice that magical newbies should pick a well-defined course of practice and follow it to the letter. Secondly, the weight that Druidry puts on balance called out as something I needed to work on. Lastly, Druidry pulled in a lot of directions I didn't want to go. I know that last one especially doesn't sound like it makes much sense, but I'll unpack all three.

Though the exercises I mentioned above got me some plenty impressive outcomes, there was a problem. At the time, that was pretty much all there was to the "Heathen Golden Dawn." Greer was collaborating with one of his readers who was doing the heavy lifting, but not long after putting those up, that reader had to put the project aside and so it wasn't moving for a while. Another reader picked it up and is close to finishing a book detailing a complete beginner's course of study, which is great - but wasn't much help two years ago. The reason this mattered is that Greer very strongly recommends that folks beginning the practice of magic should pick a course of study known to be balanced, effective, and not to turn the lives of folks who follow it into smoking wreckage. Since I trusted Greer, I wanted to follow one of his courses of study, and since the traditional Golden Dawn approach didn't do much for me, that left The Celtic Golden Dawn and The Druid Magic Handbook.

It was the second thing I laid out that led me to choose the latter over the former. You see, the Golden Dawn system is all about calling upon spiritual forces from "above" - which is great, and works very well for a lot of folks (and a taste of it had worked great for me!). The system worked out by Greer in the Druid Magic Handbook, though, calls upon spiritual forces from above and below. Now, hold your horses. By below, I emphatically do not mean noxious spiritual entities (let's call a spade a spade: demons). Another good habit I have picked up from Greer is to have absolutely no truck with any demonolatry or anyone who practices it. No, by "below," I mean those spiritual forces that come from and flow through the earth - the kind of thing that makes some sites sacred, the life and power that bubbles up in springs, and the drive to live that burns deep in your belly. Many spiritual traditions historically have distrusted or even rejected this source of spirituality (I'm looking at you, Christianity). The terms I have learned for these two currents of spirituality are "Solar" and "Telluric" (telluric comes from a Latin word for Mother Earth, and so means "Earthly"). The Solar Current is very macho: disciplined, exalted, shining, bright, hard. The Telluric Current is more feminine: relaxed, welcoming, dark, warm, soft. Through the spiritual work I had already done, I had realized that I'm naturally a very Solar person, and I'm terribly out of touch with the Telluric. It became clear to me that I needed to bring these into more balance, and that meant learning a whole new ritual framework: the Sphere of Protection (which is the heart of what the Druid Magic Handbook teaches).

And the third thing that brought me to Druidry comes from putting the above two together: following a Druid course of study, by the book, start-to-finish would make me do many things that I wouldn't choose to do otherwise. Think of working out: most of us (myself very much included) don't much like picking up heavy weights or peddling on the bike or what have you. But if we want to be healthy, we do it anyway. And I needed a spiritual work out. I have two big struggles that both are at least somewhat tied up with leaning so heavily Solar - I like to skip around and I like to skip ahead. By skip around, I mean that I get grabbed by some new interest and then go deep on it for a while, but usually after a few months, it's on to some other interest. With many of these, I come back every once in a while over the years, but there are few crafts or lines of research I've kept up steadily through the years. A book that requires at a minimum a year or two to get through, and more likely 3-5, would be a good dose of stick-to-it-iveness. Linked to this, Druidry is also not the perfectly customized, just-as-I-like-it set of beliefs and practices I would design for myself if given free rein. Again, rather than skipping to some other tradition and/or borrowing the bits of it I like, I'm forced to find the worth in what's presented to me. As for skipping ahead, well, not to preen overmuch, but I'm a pretty smart guy especially about words and propositional knowledge. Book smart, you might say. In the kinds of fields where being book smart is the main thing that counts, you can often find shortcuts - work out the algorithm or the principle behind the specific examples, and you can skip over further examples. That's all well and good where it works, but the trouble is that my being good at that has led me to use that as my default approach at everything and to want to skip past the boring groundwork and get on with the advanced stuff because I "understand" it. Well, again, following a specifically laid out course with the intention of "you have to do all of it, as presented, for as much time as it takes to do it right" gives me a great chance to work on better balancing myself and my spiritual life.

Altogether, after two years of following this path, I have found a lot to like about it. There's been plenty of room for my learning about and building my worship around Germanish myth and Gods. I've come to better know and care about the living world around me. For the first time in my life, I've kept up a daily meditation habit for more than a few months. The myths, symbolism, and rituals of druidry have opened up to me and shown me both their own worth, as well as deeper insights into those of my Germanish beliefs. It is a decidedly quirky approach to the spiritual for weirdos who want to go their own way, but don't want to build everything from scratch, and it turns out that suits me very well indeed.

Druid History - a Forged Past So Good, It Worked

So, I've talked a lot about the role Druidry has played in my own spiritual growth, but not much about what Druidry is or where it came from. Up at the top, I mentioned it has not always been the most authentic religion out there. You see, while Druidry coalesced around a handful of figures throughout the 18th century, one who had an outsized impact was Iolo Morganwg (that's roughly pronounced "Yolo Morganoog"), or Edward Williams as he was known when he wasn't penning Welsh poetry. Morganwg was a Welsh antiquarian and scholar with a passion for medieval Welsh poetry. Throughout his life, he shared works he had discovered that revealed the deep wisdom of the medieval bards who had kept alive the teachings of the ancient Druids. The core philosophical concept was Awen (pronounced closer to "ah-oh-en" than "ah-when") - the single great wellspring of all of Being, that manifests in each and every living thing. This and other teachings were put forth in poetry and stories that he had in his immense collection.

The only small trouble was that it came out after he died that much of that wisdom poetry had been written not by medieval bards, but by Iolo himself. He was so good at medieval Welsh poetry that the top scholars in the field didn't work it out until some outside clues helped them piece it together. While some of the work he shared to illuminate his philosophy was actual medieval poetry, a good chunk of it was not. This was of a piece with much of the early Revival - as has been very common among alternative spiritual movements, to try to make themselves appear legitimate, most individuals and groups of early druids claimed to have some kind of real link to the druids of the pre-Christian Celtic world, somehow kept alive in hiding all these long years. Sadly, all of these claims were wholly made up. Every druid was working from the same very sparse scraps of knowledge about the ancient druids, mostly gleaned from the Greeks and Romans.

In the midst of these folks having their imaginations captured by what they knew (or thought they knew) about the druids of old, a funny thing happened. Inspired by shreds of knowledge about ancient druids, filling in the gaps with a lot of Neoplatonism, and putting on funny robes and waving their arms around as they walked around stone circles, these fellows came up with a religion that filled an unmet spiritual need - a way to reach the divine through nature. In the 18th century, many of the trends of modernism were picking up speed: folks were moving to cities, the first glimmerings of the industrial revolution were being seen, and traditional ways were being questioned or even scrapped. When it came to religion, English society was offering two choices: formal, dogmatic Christianity on the one hand, or atheistic materialism on the other. The Druid Revival was made by those odd fellows who looked at that choice and said "no thanks, I'll roll my own." Neither of the major choices available had much room for Nature as a primary touchpoint with the divine. Neither option offered much in the way of working things out for yourself and holding beliefs that went against its accepted dogma. Neither worldview had much room for quirky weirdos who want to put on funny robes and welcome the dawn with a song. Druidry did.

Which brings us back to Iolo. True, his philosophy was more likely his own work than a tradition handed down from the middle ages. Also true, he wrote the poems that evoked that philosophy in symbols and gave it its aesthetic appeal. And yes, unluckily also true, he lied about these things. But let me ask you a question I have borrowed from Greer: what, precisely, is it about a charismatic, gifted poet, sharing the inspiration he gained from divine sources in verse, with a storyteller's flair for the dramatically True over the literally factual that is not quintessentially Celtic? How much more druidical can a man get? What's more, for the past nearly 300 years, those folks who read his (forged) works, meditate on the philosophy found therein, and try to live by the insights found by doing so find wisdom, comfort, and spiritual fulfillment. In other words, for as long as they were presented as the preserved teachings of the ancient druids, they were not at all authentic. Now that we can approach them as the work of a talented and likely inspired man of the 18th century, they can become authentic. But all along they have been valid - very many folks who seek along that path find something of what they're looking for.

Okay, So Where Do I Sign Up for My Funny Robes?

A kidding header aside, if what I've shared about Druidry has at all sparked your interest, I've shared many possible starting points above. Most of them have John Michael Greer in common. I have not yet earned the right to refer to him as a "teacher" of mine, as I haven't worked all the way through one of his books, which is the standard he says he finds acceptable there, but my spiritual path has obviously been greatly shaped by him. He has another book that just came out, meant for total beginners called The Druid Path. I haven't checked it out yet, since I'm plodding along with his older books. You could also do worse than to just start reading his blog and/or less formal journal, at which he hosts a weekly "Ask Me Anything About Occultism," called Magic Monday for reasons I hope I don't have to spell out, which is a great way to jump into the deep end. There are a variety of Druid organizations available as well: I've mentioned the The Ancient Order of Druids in America already. Greer has stepped down as their Grand Archdruid, but they're still very much around and have a lot of resources online (spoiler alert: many of them were written by Greer). I've heard from some folks that at least parts of the organization have perhaps become caught up in the political turmoil of our times, so if that's a concern for you, consider yourself forewarned. Another organization which has been around for a long time, but about which I know even less, is The Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids. Lastly of course, though I'm far from an expert, being only two years into this journey, you can of course ask me any questions you have.

Even if you are not interested in learning any more about Druidry, I hope you will at least take a moment and appreciate that our world has space in it for a bunch of weirdos to draw inspiration from the well of the past, channel it into something that speaks to the deepest yearnings of those who cannot find what they're looking for in the mainstream, and water a tree of belief that has grown slowly but steadily, with many unalike branches. I don't know about you, but that gives me great hope that we just might be alright.

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How I Came to Believe What I Do

Date: 2023-July-02

A Quick Mark: I'm spending the holiday weekend with my kin, and I didn't knock out the editing ahead of time as I meant to. As such, I've put up the post to make it for the week, but I may make some fairly big changes over the next few days.

One of the things I've been working on with this blog is to put more work into getting writing posted than to carefully laying everything out from first steps. For one, that has helped me stick to getting a post out every week, and for another, I kind of didn't think anyone else would read this. At this point, though, I've written a fair amount of posts that take as given some things about what I believe that I haven't spelled out anywhere, and I thought it would be helpful to have one post to send folks to when I write more posts about small details in myths or prayers to Germanish Gods and Goddesses.

This post is also an experiment in telling more of a personal story. Most of the time I like writing about thoughts and books and beliefs and such, but maybe opening up a bit will help ground where that stuff is coming from. Or maybe this is self-indulgent - let me know what you think.

One more thing before we get to it. This post is about my religious beliefs, but I'm not trying to sell you on anything. If you find anything here helpful, or if it echos your own experience, I'd love to hear from you and talk shop, but I'm not trying to push anything on you. My spiritual path so far has taught me that belief is deeply personal, hugely varied, and often weird, so I don't expect what has worked for me to be what you need. That being said, let's take a look at where that path has taken me so far.

We Got the American Jesus

As a kid, my folks took me and my sister to a United Methodist church most every week. I don't remember if we went every Sunday, but it was close enough, along with Sunday School. Mostly I remember doing arts and crafts about Biblical stories, and church was just one of those boring things my folks took me along to, like when my dad went to look at home theater equipment or my mom and sister went clothes shopping. But at least sometimes there were donuts.

The first somewhat serious engagement with Christianity I remember was thanks to a summer camp I attended twice. I had a friend come back from a camp called Sky Ranch and tell me how awesome it was - water slides, horseback riding, even a "Blob" like in the movie Heavyweights (to be fair - when I saw Heavyweights, I was like "just like at Sky Ranch!"). I begged my parents to let me go and they reluctantly agreed, since at age eight, this would be my first sleepaway camp. I didn't know it was a Bible camp until I got there and every meal had the teen counselors singing psalms set to guitar. Also, we talked about Biblical stories after meals and said prayers before bed. Still, I was more drawn to the zipline and the rodeo at the end of the week, but some of those psalm-songs were pretty cool, and when I went back the next year, I took a bit more interest in the Bible study sessions, but still, it was mostly about the summer camp stuff.

Not too much later, my dad's work moved us, and when we got there, we just never found a church. It was thanks to a few things: my grandmother moved in with us, my dad's job got busier, and frankly, Christianity was not all that central to our family. Looking back, I bet my folks thought that taking your kids to church was something you were supposed to do if you didn't want them to turn out screwed up.

Anyhow, the next time I bumped up against religion with any seriousness was when a friend of mine from back in Dallas was in town. He's about 6 years older than me, and I had always looked up to him as "the cool older kid." To be fair, he never blew off the hero-worshipping little kid down the alley. When I saw him in Virginia, he had gone to college, and I was in junior high, and I found out he had gotten pretty deeply into Christianity, which was a bit of a shocker. See, this is the guy who introduced me to Magic: the Gathering. He was a nerdy, smart guy into the nerdiest sorts of gaming. The other gamers I hung out with and looked up to were all some flavor of skeptical or hostile to traditional religion. My friend showed me a model of a smart person who nevertheless believed, and that made an impression on me.

Raven Hair and Ruby Lips, Sparks Fly from Her Fingertips

Well, not too long after that, as you might not be shocked to hear, there was a girl. My first girlfriend was a Wiccan - not just adolescent rebellion, since her mom and stepdad were Wiccans, but it was still a bit shocking/weird back then. She loaned me some of the books, which spoke to my fantasy-loving heart, but I didn't get that much into them. As teenagers are wont to do, I copped some poses about the crushing weight of Christianity, but never really went anywhere past that.

We moved again, and as you might expect for a couple of 15 year olds, our vows of undying long-distance love didn't last all that long. For the rest of high school, religion wasn't that big of a deal for me. My new girlfriend had a similar bland, respectable Methodist background. One of my friends was the son of a Methodist preacher and himself a youth pastor, but mostly we quizzed each other on obscure Tolkien trivia. I had set aside the Wiccan stuff and fallen back on "Christian, I guess", if not just vaguely agnostic. It wasn't that big a deal in my life, but I didn't truly ask much about it.

Your Own Personal Jesus

My freshman year of college, I became friends with a senior. We hit it off immediately, found that we had rather a lot in common, and we're still good friends eighteen years later despite his career taking him all over Asia with visits home to the states, few, far between, and mostly dedicated to family. This friend was my second example of someone intelligent, nerdy, and thoughtful who took Christianity seriously. He organized a Religious Studies reading group that I participated in, and I joined him in laughing at some of the excesses of the Neopagan scene described in Drawing Down the Moon, debating some of the metaphysical shortcomings of hardcore dualism, but most importantly for my own development, engaging seriously with C.S. Lewis's arguments in Mere Christianity. Here was a rationale for Christianity that was even stronger than the two positive models in my own life: an atheist who had come by it the hard way, intelligent, thoughtful, extremely knowledgeable, and making arguments that were not some variation of "because this infallible book says so". I found it very compelling and launched into a briefly strong interest and belief in Christianity that slowly faded into something I consciously believed, but did not have much bearing on my day to day life.

During my time in the Army, religion didn't play much of a role in my life (oddly enough, it tended to pop up at times like right before jumping out of an airplane - "no atheists in foxholes" and all that). I wore a medallion of St. Michael the Archangel that some organization gave me (he's the patron saint of paratroopers - he descends from the sky and kicks ass, you see), but it was mostly a good luck charm and not much more.

That's Me in the Corner, Losing My Religion

From there, I got out and went to business school and then started working as a management consultant. Somewhere amidst the travel, the attempts to analyze and optimize everything, and struggling to work out whether what I was doing "actually meant anything, really" my belief in anything transcendent collapsed. I became more and more attracted to hardcore rationalists who were unapologetically scientific materialists (to borrow a jokey distinction from Neal Stephenson, not meaning that they were really into BMWs and fancy watches, but that they believe that the material world of the senses is the only one there is). For a time, this was exhilirating and liberating: if I'm not constrained by some arbitrary rules handed down from iron age tribesmen and the Hellenistic prophet who made a few changes, then morality, meaning, purpose, they can all be whatever I want, right?

Obviously I was retreading the same ground that Nietzche, the existentialists, and others had attempted, and you might not be too surprised to learn that it ended up leading to aimlessness and depression. That approach was also just terrible at dealing with some of the actually bad shit that came down the road, like my healthy, non-smoking mom being diagnosed with Stage IV Lung Cancer and my wife suffering a miscarriage. So, I had been convinced that this world and life was all there was, but trying to work out belief and meaning from scratch wasn't going so hot.

Building a Mystery

For dramatic purposes, I've held off introducing some influences that I really encountered earlier, but this is where they truly became significant. I began to take far more seriously Jung's contention that mythology contained deep psychological truth and meaning encoded in symbols and "beings". I thought something like "well, 'gods' may not actually be magical dudes and ladies floating out there in the sky or an alternate dimension, but they might actually be useful, nuanced personifications of inter-related concepts, impressions, and feelings, and religious ritual might be an empirically-proven technique for interacting with these aspects of the subconscious". This essay by the old-school hacker and polymath Eric S. Raymond is a pretty good explanation of the concept, and might be the first place I encountered the idea. It will also come as no surprise that this led me to find rather a lot of value in Jordan Peterson's material (at least, if you've engaged with him at any level beyond "is this guy the devil?"). His work really helped me get a more intuitive grasp of the archetypes and how to recognize them in stories and mythologies, along with what they're doing in our subconscious (for example, using archetypal analysis helped me figure out some of the weirder ends of my sexual fantasizing over the years. No I won't tell you what it was).

As you might have guessed from my interest in fantasy fiction and games, I've always been fascinated by mythology. I first encountered the idea that myths could encode sophisticated understandings of the world in a chapter of Stephenson's Cryptonomicon where a character explains how the story of the conception of Erechtheus actually says a lot about the nature of money. I've since come to figure out that that whole section was a rehashing of Jung, but hey, it succeeded in making the point very clear. Through much of the time I considered myself a Christian, I would say things like "if I got to pick what I believed, I'd believe in the Norse Gods. Valhalla sounds like a pretty rad afterlife." Now I was in the position of actually believing that I could choose what to believe, since I figured that any system of practice reasonably grounded in what we knew about actual ancient polytheist religion would work as an interface with my subconscious. So I started saying prayers to the Norse Gods. Again, I basically believed I was talking to subconscious processes put in place by evolution, but I also believed that might turn out to be useful.

Well, for a while I kept going through the motions, waiting for the results I expected. While an intellectual understanding of the archetypes was proving very useful in extracting significance from literature and mythology, my prayers and rituals (practiced alone, and though with regularity, not particular energy) were not really doing much for me. So, when my mom died and we had our first daughter not long after, I tried to keep up with these practices for a while, but they fell by the wayside, which was okay, because I was fine. I had whiskey.

According to my wife and family, I was not fine. Sure, I was mostly keeping up with my job and being a new dad, but I didn't seem myself, and I didn't seem okay. I responded as many folks do: no, you're wrong, I am okay, and I'm going to go back to my whiskey. I eventually agreed to see a therapist, mostly to placate my wife, and that has been helpful, but didn't have as much to do with my spiritual development as some other things (if your friends or family tell you they think you should talk to a therapist, consider giving it a try - you don't have to go back if you don't like it!)

Magical Mystery Tour

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the "other things" were drugs. Likely not exactly how you think, though. A few months after my first daughter was born, I went to a friend's bachelor party. While there, I tried LSD for the first time. I had been reading and listening a lot about psychedelics and their potential for psychological growth and healing, and I wasn't especially interested in it as a "party drug", so I was a bit surprised that my first encounter was pretty much that. Part of what convinced me was that the fellow who brought it is knowledgeable, careful, interested in the spiritual/psychological uses of the drug, and a medical professional to boot. So I started out with a half dose, didn't feel much of anything and took another half dose, and ended up having a pleasant, but fairly minor experience, with some bendy wood grain and my face looking odd in the mirror, followed by a complete inability to sleep.

What the hell does that have to do with my spiritual development? Well, not much. If anything, I was a bit disillusioned with the transformative promise I had built up in my mind for psychedelics. But it was enjoyable and I hadn't experienced anything remotely approaching the negatives people warn about, so when a few months later some friends of mine invited me to take some mushrooms on a camping trip, I said "that sounds great". This time, I was more comfortable with taking a bigger dose, we were in beautiful natural surroundings, and I was entirely with some of my closest friends, rather than a mixed group of folks I know well and not so well. Well, again, no ground-shaking insights, but I had an extremely pleasant afternoon where I enjoyed the sights, sounds, and feelings of a cold stream on a hot afternoon in the woods with my friends. I did have a small insight, as I was "coming down", though. For those of you who have never experienced it, one of the weirder things about psychedelics (apparently mushrooms even more than LSD) is that as they start to wear off, it comes in waves - you feel euphoric and things are moving that you know aren't really moving, and then a moment later everything is normal, and you think "oh, okay, I guess that was a fun ride that's over, now", but then you start noticing some weird stuff again. They're like waves that gradually reduce and go back out to sea. Well, this effect was far more noticeable than on my prior trip, and so I found myself wondering "how will I really know when it's over for good?" Oh, I should have mentioned - these drugs also reeeaaallly mess with your sense of time. But in the midst of "is this it? Whoah, guess not. Wait, is this it now?" I came to the realization that it didn't really matter when it ended, because the value of the experience had been independent of its finitude. A concept I had encountered plenty of times in Taoist and Buddhist philosophy, but not one that I had really "grokked" without some chemical help.

Okay, okay, I know, that starts to hint at something vaguely spiritual, but it doesn't really have to do with religion, does it? I had to lay out the first two experiences for the third (and so far, last) to make sense as a crucial step in my journey. As I mentioned, I had had some hopes about psychedelics before trying them, and so far, my experiences had veered far more to "a good time with my friends" than "mind-expanding insight that shakes your beliefs to their core". So when the next opportunity presented itself at another campout, I pursued the straightforward strategy of "more dakka". I took a medium size dose of mushrooms, and an hour or two into that, I took a dose of LSD, and within an hour of that, I took another. Well, much of the experience was as before: me discoursing at greater than necessary length on the military history of the Roman empire, giggling uncontrollably at fart jokes, staring transfixedly at natural beauty. At some point, though, I laid down and looked up at the stars, and as they began to dance and swirl and resolve themselves into crystalline patterns, three major things happened: 1. I felt overwhelming, but ultimately positive, grief about my mother, 2. I had an insight about thinking versus feeling, and 3. for a moment, I lost my usual sense of "self" without being unconscious.

Point number 2 was largely brought about by point number 1, and is the main one I want to focus on here, though point 3 might have some interesting implications to dive into at some point. My whole life I've been a "smart guy" - I started talking early, I read above my age level, I got put in gifted and talented classes as soon they were an option, and so on and so forth. Most of the problems in my life had been the kind that smarts make easier: once you understand how something works, you can often "skip to the end" without doing the intermediate steps. If someone is trying to illuminate a concept through examples and the first two make it clear, you don't need the next five. If I can toot my own horn, I'm especially good at this kind of inferential thinking, so I've sought out situations in life where I can excel by being good at it. Well, the powerful grief I felt for my mom on this trip made me realize that this was a trick I had learned to over-apply throughout my life. I thought that because I "understood" my grief, I was done. I could skip right to the end of moving on, with occasional sadness. That realization made me realize I do this all the time - "oh, I understand that working out is important for being happy and healthy, that's the same as actually doing it everyday, right?" That's an intentionally ridiculous example when put explicitly, but some part of me more or less thinks this about anything where the experience, the doing of it is more important than understanding it in principle.

I Know I'm Searching for Something, Something So Undefined

Okay, so thank you for bearing with me for that brief foray into psychedelic "trip reports", which are always less compelling to literally everyone else than the one who experienced them. Back to your regularly-scheduled examination of intellectual influences. So, here I was doing better psychologically and personally - I wasn't drinking so much anymore, I was doing even better as a dad, taking care of more things around the house, seeming more myself, all that good stuff. So I wasn't any more interested in spiritual topics like philosophy, mythology, religion, and so forth than I always had been when I read a book called World Full of Gods by John Michael Greer.

My best friend from the Army introduced me to Greer a few years back, and some of his writings had been interesting and useful to me from the standpoint of approaching religion as an exercise in archetypes, which at this point in our narrative, was still what I believed, but I wasn't very actively practicing. World Full of Gods sets out to make a case for polytheism, and to greatly boil down a well-written and argued book, it rests on two main arguments against atheism: 1. most atheist arguments against religion are hopelessly tangled up in its history of arguing against culturally dominant monotheism (mostly Christianity, with a side helping of Islam in more recent years), 2. the scientific materialist worldview underlying most atheism rests on a key premise that is not self-evident. I found 1. interesting, but less important, as I was already largely comfortable with the idea that "religion" need not necessarily mean "Christianity" and most of the arguments that had brought me along to atheism had relied less on "the argument from evil" ("how could an ominibenevolent, omnipotent, omniscient God allow evil to exist in the world?") and more on "things that don't cash out to verifiable predictions about the material world aren't falsifiable and so can't be usefully reasoned about".

It was the second argument that got me thinking. Greer argues that the worldview of scientific materialism is based on a fairly simple premise: the only things that count as "real" are those things sensed by the five senses. This sounds pretty uncontroversial at first glance, especially in our modern society, where the scientific materialist worldview is so much the default. Notice a few things that are left out, though: imagination. The experience of feeling something. Thoughts. Now, sure, you can arrive at approximations of these things that are sensible to the five senses: I can think words in my thoughts and then type them into my laptop, put them somewhere that you can see them with your eyeballs, and if you and someone else read this, you can both be pretty confident that I thought these words, and since words and letters have a pretty tight correlation, that's likely pretty good. But what about less clear cut cases? If I describe to you (to borrow another image from Stephenson, this time from Anathem) a "purple nerve-gas farting dragon", it seems rather likely that an image pops into your head of what this creature might look like. Does it look the same as the one I'm imagining? Much harder to say. Maybe if you and I are both accomplished artists, we might draw what we see in our minds eye and compare those drawings, but that wouldn't capture the emotional associations you have with the image (funny? scary? a blend?). Even if we hooked both of us up to the most advanced neuroscanners ever invented and had both of us imagine the dragon, the sameness or differentness of the shapes or lines on the screen wouldn't tell you what it was like to imagine the dragon.

Okay, I've treated the argument fairly briefly here, and maybe not to your satisfaction, but basically as Greer presented it was enough for me to go "huh, okay, some parts of human experience that seem wildly important and self-evident aren't actually adequately grounded out in what is traditionally considered falsifiable." You may or may not be with me on this point, but for now, we'll proceed with the narrative as if I found it convincing at the time, because I did (and still do). Greer then points out that almost every human culture for all of human history has had experiences in this non-sensory realm (or at least, partially in this realm) that they regard as self-evident and obviously real, and these experiences are of various beings that have various levels of personhood, power, and knowledge, and may or may not be tied to material things like trees, rocks, animals, and so forth. Basically, it boils down to this: the claim that religious experiences are "just in your head" ignores the crucial importance of "just". It is weighted with tremendous metaphysical load - if something happens in your imagination it is not "really real".

Then I Saw Her Face, Now I'm a Believer

So, I now had a profound personal insight I am bad at things that are not intellectually, linguistically describable, and an intellectual argument that this blind spot might be exactly where religious experience happens to live. I decided to conduct an experiment: I would resume prayer and religious ritual, along with a new practice called "discursive meditation", and as far as I was able, I would try to believe the Gods to whom I was praying and about whom I was thinking were "really real" even if my only experience of them would be "in my head", and I'd see how it went for a while. The short answer is that about two weeks after starting this experiment, I had a profoundly strong religious experience of being visited by a Goddess and briefly hosting a God. It was amazing, wonderful, and utterly recognizable to anyone who has read about religious experiences. It was at once one of the most singular experiences I've had and also completely mundane to most humans for most of human history.

Hold on to What You Believe

Okay, so if you wanted to pin me down, what do I truly believe now, today, as of this writing? Well, first and most importantly, I believe that what you do is far weightier than what you believe. By which I mean that I don't put a lot of weight on what thoughts you (or I) hold in your (or my) head about how Life, the Universe, and Everything tick. Letting myself be open to the ontological reality of non-physical consciousnesses outside of my body might have been a necessary step to getting where I am, or it might not have been. Sitting my ass down and bethinking on the myths was definitely needed to get me where I am. So while I am going to try to give as short a run down of what I believe as I can, I want to put the warning ahead of it that it is subject to change and far less important to me than keeping up with prayer, ritual, meditation, and divination.

That first point stems from the next biggest chunk of my belief, which I've also gotten mostly from Greer: the cosmos is way bigger and way weirder than our social primate brains can ever hope to understand with any great fidelity. Even the bare fact of how big all the stuff outside of the Earth is, how truly far away it is, is literally unthinkable - we can't know it, the best we can do is approximate. So if physical reality is that hard to understand, the spiritual realities that underlie and go beyond it must be even more unfathomable. Once again, the best we can do is get the rough shape of it.

Speaking of "getting the rough shape of it," despite the inadequacy of our current state of development for truly understanding Being, I also think that we can get glimpses of what's going on under the hood of material reality through a variety of spiritual practices. I think that every long-lasting spiritual tradition has had some insight into the eternal truths of the universe, but nothing so simplistic as "all religions are basically the same." Instead, since all of Being (including its spiritual elements) is big, weird, and complex, I think that different spiritual traditions get glimpses of different bits of the unfathomably complex big picture. Think the wise men and the elephant, and that's pretty close.

For my own practice, gnosis is far weightier than episteme - as I said above, I can't truly ground my religious experiences, including the first big one, in any kind of "proof" that would mean anything to anyone else, or even to myself, intellectually. I have to rely on the experience itself. If I've had a meaningful experience that makes me and my life better, well, what else do I truly need to know about it? The flip side of this, of course, is that these experiences have been mine, and I don't presume to put them on anyone else. By the same token, if other folks have their own, wildly different, spiritual beliefs/practices/experiences, who am I to tell them how to think/feel about those?

Okay, okay, I hear you asking "yeah, but what do you believe?" Again, with the caveats above in mind, let me try to do the best I can. I think that all of the cosmos is a manifestation of something divine, and that consciousness is in some sense primary to matter. I think all consciousness is a part of that fundamental divine, but it is importantly differentiated. Something like how Niagra Falls, Lake Erie, the Niagra River, and Lake Ontario are all a part of the same system of water, but each has its own differentiated reality. I think some of these differentiated manifestations of consciousness sometimes embody themselves here in the material plane as sundry beings, and that some manifestations of consciousness don't need material bodies. The former would be "lifeforms" and the latter would be "Gods, spirits, and so forth."

I find old school occult philosophy a helpful way of making sense of the world if you accept the reality of non-physical things and of certain weird phenomena that folks have been saying happened to them for hundreds, or even thousands of years, but that the modern materialist worldview says are just plain wrong (see ghosts, for one). This provides a framework for making sense of some of the above. Gods, Goddesses, spirits, and so forth are beings that exist on non-material planes and mostly interact with us through our presence on non-material planes. Maybe the most important of these for religious practice is the astral plane - the realm of imagination, desire, and visualization. The short version is that I think Gods, Goddesses, and Spirits mostly take up shapes/sounds/emotional impressions on the astral plane as a way to interact with us on a level we can all access. Do Gods sometimes take on material forms? Maybe, I've never met one! But I find the idea of astral imagery and it sometimes being "inhabited" a useful one.

Let's do an example. Do me a favor and picture a burly, red-haired, thick-bearded man with a big heart. He loves his wife and his kids, he has a great thirst for ale and hunger for meat, and his temper is a bit short. He's good at fighting, and mostly he's not angry about it, he finds it joyful. But his wrath is terrible when awakened, even if it passes quickly. As you might suspect if you've been reading me for any amount of time, I just described (some of) how Thunor/Thor is usually imagined. Now, if I say "picture this feisty red-haired warrior smashing some trolls with his hammer," you likely don't have a very strong religious response - you don't feel the presence of the divine/numinous, even though you can clearly see in your mind's eye Thunor smashing some trolls. Certain occult traditions would call this mental image an "astral vehicle," and as this example likely makes clear, it's at least somewhat generated individually - I may have described some features to you, which means I shaped the image, but you did the actual imagining, and if we could somehow print out your mental picture and mine, they would almost certainly differ, even though a third person might look at them and think "they were going for the same guy." Well, I think that when you pray, do rituals, or otherwise seriously engage with religious practice, you bring your own imaginings, likely informed by a tradition of what to imagine, to the table, but then to the degree it is a true religious experience, someone else breaths life into that imagining. So if I just ask you to imagine Thunor with the above characteristics smashing trolls, likely nobody's home but your own imagination. On the other hand, if you earnestly pray to Thunor, light a candle, give a drink offering, and quiet your mind waiting for a response, when a mental image pops up of Thunor giving you some advice, that might be your imagined image ("astral vehicle") being animated by an actual outside-of-you non-physical consciousness.

Since I believe in benevolent non-physical consciousnesses, I have to admit to the possibility of malevolent ones too, and everything in between. While I think there are very powerful non-physical beings on our side (Gods, angels, spirits and such), I also think there are a lot of more middling ones that surpass us in some ways and are less than us in others who are more ambiguous, and then there must be some very bad beings that again, surpass us in some ways, but are less than us in others. The word you may be stopping yourself from thinking for this last group is "demon." I don't know that I've ever met a full-on demon, but it seems naive to suppose that every serious religious tradition on the planet is just wrong that there are some non-physical beings out there who are bad news and best avoided.

Anyhow, the benevolent non-physical beings that I feel the greatest kinship to are the Germanish Gods and Goddesses, most of all as seen through an Anglo-Saxon lens. I can't really explain this, except that they speak to me aesthetically, and I've come to believe that that's an under-appreciated aspect of religious feeling: what do you find beautiful/gripping/moving? I've come to have great respect for the Jewish and Christian religions, their teachings, and ceremonies, but imaginatively they leave me cold. I think that's a reasonably good sign they're not for me - at least not right here and right now. But that in no way means I think they're invalid for everyone (see above about gnosis) - if anything, I'm far more sympathetic to religious Christians, Jews, and Muslims (and every other major religion) than I was when I was a materialist.

I also suspect that reincarnation is a big part of how the world works. I don't have any past-life memories or anything, but thinkers and writers I respect say they do, and spiritual traditions that include reincarnation have proven worthwhile to me, and there are a lot of traditions that feature reincarnation. I was shocked when I finally got around to reading Plato's Republic last year to find near the end a detailed description of reincarnation. Somehow, the fact that literally the most famous work in all of western philosophy talked in depth about reincarnation was unknown to me - not only an educated person, not only a liberal arts major, but a Classics major - I studied Greek and Latin history, culture, and literature! Obviously I did a crap job if I got through college without reading Republic, but still, I hadn't even heard of the "Myth of Er". Once I did read it, though, I was like "holy shit, how did I have no idea that the West's most famous work of philosophy talks about reincarnation? It must just be me." And so I went online to see what scholars thought. And you know what I found? A bunch of folks trying to work out what Plato/Socrates meant allegorically, metaphorically, and so forth (that link above continues in this vein). Basically no one took seriously the idea that Plato/Socrates was trying to relate something about how the world actually works. So anyway, I don't have strong evidence for reincarnation or anything, but once you start poking around, the belief in it is way more widespread than you might think if you've grown up with an American protestant worldview.

So, what falls out of all of the above? I believe that there is more to me and to you than our bodies. We have an everlasting soul that was around before we were born and will be around after we die. Other non-bodily Beings are trying to either help or hurt these souls on our way. Those souls come down in the material world to learn its lessons life after life, and all of us will eventually learn every lesson we need, moving on to some new way of being. There are some practices, like religion, magic, and so forth, that can help you learn some of those lessons faster and less painfully. Pretty much all religious folks are onto at least a portion of this, but none of us have the whole picture - as such it pays to be open-minded and welcoming to religious folks, but also not to be too shaken by meeting folks whose practices are very different from your own.

Part of why I've gone into all of this is because these days, most folks either have no religious belief at all or very superficial beliefs. There are very clearly a lot of problems that stem from that, and some folks look at those problems and conclude that the way forward can only be a return to traditional (meaning Christian, at least in America) beliefs. Since those traditional beliefs don't especially resonate with me, I've wanted to share that there are at least a handful of weirdos with strong, sincere religious beliefs that might have more in common with traditional beliefs than most old school Christians would initially grant. I like having the freedom to practice my own very idiosyncratic religious pursuits rather than having that baby tossed out with the bathwater of materialist agnosticism and atheism. In other words, theists of all stripes: I am your friend! There's a bunch of weird stuff out there, and while some of it is very bad, not all of it is.

Don't Stop Believin'

Since then I've kept up the prayer, ritual, and meditation, and it has continued to be hugely beneficial to me. I don't feel like I have all the answers, far from it, but I do feel like there's something meaningful and worthwhile beyond myself and my day-to-day concerns. So I consider myself a believing polytheist these days, which would have been pretty shocking to me even a couple of years ago. The experience of things so flatly denied by the worldview I held then has been rather a shake-up: I have to rethink my views on rather a wide range of topics, since my nuts-and-bolts ideas about what's "really real" have taken a substantial adjustment.

Of course, I'm also left with the lingering doubts you might expect. Hell, that you might be feeling as more forcefully than "doubts" right at the moment: isn't it more plausible this is some kind of wish fulfillment? Just because it's common throughout history and across cultures doesn't mean it's accurate - it could just mean our brains are all fundamentally flawed the same way. Even if you're convinced of something religious, isn't polytheism primitive or unsophisticated? If you start taking unverifiable thoughts too seriously, isn't that called being crazy?

To all of which I can only respond that some part of me acknowledges the possibility of any of those being true. The whole reason scientific materialism grounds out in the five senses and is suspicious of what can't be verified by them is because you can arrive at much more definite, easier-to-agree-upon conclusions. And the stuff that you can figure out with those more definite conclusions is pretty damn impressive. See: twentieth century physics. It's a useful way of thinking that has done a lot of good for the world, and I'm by no means saying that anyone should abandon the methods or hard-won insights of such careful thinking. What I am saying is that since I have allowed myself to take more seriously those parts of my experience that are not fully describable/verifiable by such thinking, I have been happier and more fulfilled, with a greater sense of meaning than I've ever experienced before. So, if it is a delusion, it's an awfully useful one.

I'll leave you with the ancient wisdom of otherworldly gurus, wise sages, and elder hackers alike: YMMV.

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Did this post spark any thoughts? Have anything to ask or share? Feel free to send me an email at jeff DOT powell DOT russell AT, and I'll add your thoughts below. You can also comment on the dreamwidth post.

How the Cost of Freight Has Shaped the World

Date: 2023-June-25

Ever since I read this post about what the cost of freight says about your sci-fi setting, I've been thinking about what it means for the real world. If you don't care about sci-fi world building, don't worry, that's not where I'm going with this, but here's what the post does: it spells out what the world would be like with cheaper or costlier shipping . If you have very cheap freight, you move all kinds of things between worlds. If freight is dear, though, you only ship the fanciest things - if you're gonna bring food, it might as well be steak and lobster. Interesting enough if you're a writer or building an RPG setting, but what does that have to do with the this world right here? Well, it seems to me that when folks talk about the industrial revolution, they always talk about production and almost not at all about distribution. This might be a mistake - I'm starting to think that cheaper shipping has had at least as much to do with making the industrial world as mass production. Maybe somebody else has already done this to death, so if you happen to know of any books that talk about this, kindly let me know, as I'd love to read them.

This is a big, hairy topic, and one I'm likely to come back to, but I wanted to think out loud a bit and see if that gets me anywhere. First off, let me lay out an important premise underlying what follows: whatever else the industrial revolution has been, it is mostly the story of energy becoming insanely cheap (Tim Urban is rather more sanguine on future energy than I am, but he does a good breakdown on the history). For most of human history, the most energy we could harness was putting a mill near a waterfall, but over the course of the 19th and 20th century, we found fossil fuels and worked out how to burn them to make stuff happen, and we're still burning them like crazy.

Okay, so I bring up energy and the industrial revolution - what's the first thing that comes to mind? Factories, right? True, steam power, and later electricity, allowed for cranking out a lot of stuff with a lot less human input. Undoubtedly, this is a big part of the story, but I think we all know it pretty well. What we think about less is how did all of this factory-made stuff get to where it was going?

Let's do a little thought experiment. Imagine you live in a town ringed by impassable mountains. Everything the folks of the town need gets made here, all business stays within these mountains. If you were to build a factory that can make 100 widgets for every one the storied widget master craftsman can turn out, who is going to buy them? Now imagine a pass gets blasted and there are dozens of towns now within a day's ride. All of a sudden, the factory seems like a better deal, right? This is basic supply and demand stuff, but the heart of the idea is that productive capacity is only as useful as the size of the market that can/will buy what it makes.

You can likely see where I'm going with this. With steam ships, rail, and later trucking, the whole world became the market for things made anywhere. Economies of scale do more for you when you can sell to such a large market. It used to be that most folks could afford to have all of their furniture hand made out of real wood - since every village had a woodworker. Nowadays, mass production plus long-distance shipping means one factory in China can spit out furniture for millions of people. Thanks to fossil fuels, that's way cheaper than having some dude down the street do it, so the only handmade furniture is super high-end Amish stuff that you have to take out a second mortgage to buy.

Take pretty much any craft that used to be done in the neighborhood and cheap shipping has wrecked it.

But it's not only about shipping stuff. As the writer of the sci-fi post points out, above a given shipping price, you don't get space truckers, you get astronauts: if mass is expensive, you want the chunks of mass you have to have (read: the crew) to be as useful and worthwhile as can be. It turns out that shipping workers, or at least their work, has all kinds of knock-on outcomes. I first came across the bearing of transportation and communication on work in this post by Dror Poleg. As with Tim Urban, let's set aside where Poleg thinks things are going and zoom in on some of the history he shares instead. Late in the 1800s, some economists began to mark some changes to some jobs, but not others. For one thing, most musicians and other performers began making less money, but a handful started making way more - for the first time, there were "stars". What had happened was that performers could now cheaply and quickly get around the country. Those who were very good started drawing crowds wherever they went. So, if you were the best singer in New York, now you could also be the best singer in Philadelphia and Washington and so forth. Great news for the star! But what about the best singer in Washington? Maybe she's not as good as the New York one, so whenever New York comes down to sing, that lady is no longer the best singer in Washington. Before trains, every town needed singers, and all of them could do okay. But with trains, fewer singers could give a bigger market what it wanted, and that heated up the competition between all singers, with a few winners and lots of losers. And that was just from trains. Once we got recordings and broadcast, that competition got taken to 11 - since it became even cheaper to "ship" the "product."

For me, that story unlocked the thought that making it cheaper to reach a wider market can lead to a lot of unforeseen outcomes. Once I found that lens, I have found it helpful to look at all kinds of things with it.

For example, take suburbia. You can talk about all kinds of things that added to the trend for a bunch of folks to start living in a way no one else has for all of human history, but you can say one thing for sure: you can't have suburbs without a cheap way to get into the city. Sure, some early suburbs came about once trains became common, but it was the widespread adoption of cars that made suburbia mushroom through such a wide swath of the US. As the performer example above showed, though, it's not only moving the person doing the work, it's moving the product as well - and these days, most knowledge work can be done remotely, which is even cheaper than commuting. We know what knowledge work looks like when the worker can't zoom into the city from miles away in a car or Zoom into the meeting from his laptop - you get a bunch of scribes and clerks. Read some Dickens to get the idea.

It's not just work, either.

It used to be that if you wanted to talk to folks, you had to go to the bar or the Loyal Order of Water Buffalo lodge or wherever. These days, you can just get out your laptop and hop on Discord or Slack. Not only do you have more folks you can talk to, you can talk about whatever you want - you can get down into some very weird, very tiny little niches and find folks that care about your weird thing as much as you do instead of struggling through listening to your neighbor talk about whatever dumb thing he cares about. As I hinted when I talked about cows, it might be that all of this unfettered choice has some downsides. Maybe the dwindling of our sundry clubs, lodges, and groups is not as much about the weakening worth of our folk as it is that doing something else is just too easy.

I don't really know what could or should be done about some of the downsides of cheap freight, most of all since it seems like the more I look at it, the more things it touches. As I said above, this might all be well-trodden ground, so maybe others have already come up with thoughts on how to handle all of this (again, if so, kindly let me know). For now, this is more of a thread I'm picking up on when I come across it than something I'm going to buckle down and dig deep on - so, look for more thoughts on this, but I don't know when.

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Did this post spark any thoughts? Have anything to ask or share? Feel free to send me an email at jeff DOT powell DOT russell AT, and I'll add your thoughts below. You can also comment on the dreamwidth post.

The Trouble with Authenticity

Date: 2023-June-18

I've been letting my thoughts about authenticity and how we should think about it when it comes to belief simmer for a while now. I've gone from giving authenticity nearly the top spot for working out what to believe and how to worship to now giving it a much narrower job. I think a lot of us grapple with authenticity in belief, but I've yet to see anyone go over it as thoroughly as I might wish. Luckily, I read something the other day that helped untangle what had been holding me back. To get there, though, let's lay some groundwork.

Authentic Things Come From Where They Say They Do

First off, what are we even talking about when I say "authenticity?" A lot of folks have meant a lot of things by this word, so I'm going to borrow a way of pinning it down from one of the works that has shaped my thinking, this post from John Michael Greer:

Authenticity is a matter of whether something has the source it claims to have; validity is a matter of whether it works.

See that word "validity?" Keep it in mind for later, as it's the supporting actor to our star. For now, though, you can see this meaning of "authenticity" rests on where did something come from, and a bit less so on whether the wellspring from which it comes has the right to bestow the name it calls itself. Here's a couple of somewhat silly examples: Greg Graffin starts a new band, and it doesn't sound much like Bad Religion, but he says "this is punk rock." Most folks would go "okay, yeah, I can hear that." On the other hand, some unknown 15 year old gets together four of his best friends, they learn to sing in lovely harmony, and they put together some stunning dance moves that dazzle all the girls in their high school, but since their oh-so-harmonized and carefully-choreographed lyrics are about anarchy, they say that what they're doing is "punk" - we might not be as likely to go along with that.

Or take something near and dear to my Texan heart: chili. If your Texan grandmother learned how to make chili from her range cook daddy, even if she does something most folks don't with chili, we're not gonna fight her when she says "this is real chili." If a hip Paris chef dreams up a brand new spicy vegan soup and calls it chili, we might feel a little otherwise.

What I'm getting at here is to build on Greer's meaning a bit: our high school friends could say "we're punk because our friend Bill said we are," which might be wholly true. Their punk brand comes from Bill, so they have the source they say they do, but for us to work out whether we buy it, we have to know who Bill is and what makes him a rightful giver of the much-sought mark of "punk."

Okay, so are we on the same leaf about what we mean by "authenticity" for today's talk? Good. Now that we know what we're talking about, we get to an even weightier asking: why do we care? Isn't it kinda open-and-shut that it's a good thing for something to come from where it says it does, and for that somewhere to be somehow rightful? As you may have gathered from the name of this post, I don't think it's open-and-shut, but authenticity can be very helpful, so let's take a moment to talk about what authenticity can do for us.

Folks Use Authenticity as a Shortcut for Validity

At its heart, authenticity is a rule of thumb for working out whether we can trust someone or something - is he who he says he is? Did folks truly believe this stuff back in the day? If a work tells you what to do or how to be, by what right does it do so? Put bluntly, things that are not authentic are often lying somehow. If a set of teachings doesn't truly come from where it says it does, how do you know whether anything else in those teachings is true? If the wellspring of a belief is somehow not rightful (legitimate), then maybe that belief isn't either. And if a belief is new, how do we know what effects it will have on those who adopt it in the long run? I've stated all these as problems with the inauthentic, but lets put them positively for the authentic: ideally, a tradition or set of beliefs that is authentic should come from where it says it does, that source should have some claim to validity with regard to its teachings, and ideally, the tradition holding these teachings going back to this source should have been around for a good, long time to see how it responds to the world as it actually is, rather than as its imagined.

This is all rather airy, so let's come down to ground a bit. Take Catholicism. Catholicism says that it is the body of beliefs, practices, and teachings that began with Jesus Christ, as built on by the Church for the last 2,000 years. Now, as for the wellspring, of course some folks don't think there was a living, breathing man named Jesus, much less that he was the son of God and God Himself in the flesh. But we do know that at least that in the first hundred years CE, a new set of beliefs and worship got started in Judea and began to spread around the Roman Empire, and that all of today's Christians, including the Catholic Church, can follow an a unbroken path back to that set of beliefs and worship. How about rightfulness? Well, clearly not everyone acknowledges the rightfulness of the Catholic Church to settle things about Godlore (exhibit A: Martin Luther), but the Church does have a long-running and fairly readily grasped way of working out who gets to say authoritative things about the Church, understanding of holy writing, and changes to ways of doing things. And again, there's a clear throughline for this way of doing things going back 2,000 years. Therefore, most folks would have very little trouble acknowledging mainstream Catholicism as an "authentic" set of beliefs. Even if you don't think they are right, you also likely don't think they are fake.

On the other hand, let's take Scientology. The wellspring was a fairly, but by no means wildly, well-known and well-liked mid-twentieth century science fiction author who said that he gained insight into the make-up of Being while working with folks through a kind of therapy he had worked up. Said author was heard by friends and family talking about how religion was the way to make money. Sometime later, after a bankruptcy, he shifted from calling his therapy a scientific way to a spiritual one, and was hit with a handful of criminal charges as his new church grew. Said church was officially incorporated as a religious organization in 1953. The way the church works out who gets to settle what is religiously true, how those settlements get made, and even what those settlements are is well-known for its murkiness and kept to a narrow group of folks high up in the church. From all this, many folks (myself included) do not see Scientology as all that authentic, whatever else it may or may not be. I'll leave it up to you whether the rule of thumb "don't trust Scientology since they seem not to be authentic" is worth following here, but I know where I land.

I want to talk more about why we are so keen to look at authenticity as if it were validity, but first I want to talk a bit about some of the turns my own spiritual path has taken thus far and what it has taught me about authenticity and validity.

But Authenticity Doesn't Wholly Get At Validity

Okay, so we've laid out how authenticity can be a helpful shortcut for thinking about some of the things we care about in weighing a religious or spiritual belief. To get at why I think authenticity is not enough by itself, and sometimes needs to give way to some other ways of judging a set of teachings, though, I think it will be helpful to talk a bit about what I've done and where authenticity has fit in with that.

As you may remember, not so long ago, I was pretty won over by atheistic materialism. If you pushed me, I'd say that I didn't know for sure, and there wasn't really any way to do so, but it was smarter to start out needing to be talked out of the thought that there was nothing but the material world, rather than the other way around. Even though (because of?) this, I still found myself drawn to myth, magic, and other spiritual things, most of all the weirder stuff. Then, an essay by a thinker I had long looked up to, Eric S. Raymond, helped bring together some fuzzy hunches I had into a way of looking at the world that hung together. Namely, that religious or magical practices might do something, whether or not the metaphysics behind the ritual were what they said they were. For one materialist take on how magic might "work," even if not in the way or for the reasons thought by those doing the magic, check out this tale of invulnerability potions against bullets in Africa. Anyhow, I reckoned that if magic was good enough for arch-materialist Raymond, it was good enough for me, and so I had "permission" to check out magic and weirdo religion while keeping my rational materialist way of seeing myself and the world.

So, the frame through which I looked at this stuff was something like this: 1. almost all humans in all steads for all time have had some kind of magical/religious ritual, 2. ritual seems to do some good things that you can't get without it, and 3. ritual seems to reach the nethermind (subconscious) in ways that don't always make sense to the speaking, wakeful (conscious) mind. In this frame, it seemed straightforward that I needed a set of practices that 1. spoke to me aesthetically, as that would shape how strongly my nethermind would answer to it, 2. that fit with Jungian psychology, which seemed to have the best grasp on the very deep, dark places of the mind, and 3. came from a time and stead in the past that took it seriously, since that ought to mean it works. Well, listing these benchmarks make it sound like I went through some thoroughgoing search, poking and testing myth and magic from around the world, but no. Instead, it was always clearly Germanish myth. Even when I was Christian back in college, I would "joke" that if Christianity weren't true, I'd want to go to Valhalla. Luckily, all elder polytheistic sets of beliefs fit with Jungian psychology and had been held by large groups of folks, any of them would have met those benchmarks. That being said, as you might have gathered from what I said about Raymond's work above, I had landed on what some folks mean when they say "soft polytheism" - I thought that the sundry Gods, Goddesses, and other beings were sub-processes of my nethermind shared with the rest of mankind. Powerful? Yes. Maybe scary sometimes? Yes. "Real" in any way other than "all of mankind evolved these same personified shapes of thought?" Not so much.

On that footing, I started doing a lot of reading - learning the myths, reading about what today's worshippers did, and a lot about the Runes. Whenever a writer grounded what he was talking with the Gods as "really real," I'd say to myself "yeah, sure thing, buddy," but even though I didn't think their way of understanding the world was right, I worked to keep a fairly open mind to the thought that they might know a thing or two about how to get the outcomes I wanted. So, I started saying prayers. I started giving beer to the Gods and wights (spirits). At some point, I read this set of essays by John Michael Greer about what's needed for a well-rounded daily magical practice. Once again, I thought his thoughts on what to do would be helpful, but I didn't buy why he thought it worked. One bit of rede (advice) he gave was to "pick a course of magical study and do it 'by the book' start to end," rather than making changes or cobbling together your own thing. This seemed fair to me, so I started in on the The Nine Doors of Midgard from the Rune Gild. I bethought (meditated). I prayed. I cast the Runes. I did daily Hammer Rituals. I followed everything the book said to do.

All along the way, when it came to weighing what to bring into my understanding of the myths or into my practice, authenticity seemed like the only way to work out what was worthwhile or not that made sense. What do the writings from the middle ages say? What does archaeology tell us about the practices of Iron Age Germanish folks? Was this practice a later borrowing from Christianity, or a heathen practice that kept going into Christianity? Anything that smacked of being lately made up, borrowing from other folkways or sets of teachings, or lacking tokens that it was thought or done in the Iron Age or early middle ages was at best a patch to fill in the unlucky gaps of a wondrous, fully authentic reconstruction of the beliefs of elder times.

There was just one problem.

It felt wholly like talking to myself. I'd say prayers and get no answer, not even a feeling or hunch I could put down to my nethermind. I'd do rituals that didn't seem to do anything and I didn't feel anything while doing them. The one bit that did seem to be working was Runecasting. I would get some insights on the things I asked, but it felt more like seeing something more clearly that I already knew than like tapping into a spring of timeless wisdom. I kept on with the practices for a while, hoping I'd get to where they did something, but between my mom dying and my first daughter being born, it got harder and harder to spend 30-45 minutes of my day talking to myself, until I just stopped.

In the meantime, I had kept on reading Greer's blog, Ecosophia. Here was this guy following a rather inauthentic religion*, Revival Druidry, seemingly in full earnest, calmly and unruffably putting forth the literal, non-metaphorical reality of non-bodily thinking beings like Gods, and yet on everything else, he kept on making sense. His takes on what happened in the past and why it came about were insightful and even-handed. On politics, he was good at spotting what was wrong with every side of a given issue. On spiritual matters, his rede was always down-to-earth, principled, and clearly wise. So, I thought "why not read his book on many-godded (polytheistic) godlore, World Full of Gods." As I've talked about elsewhere, this book shook my atheistic materialist worldview and made me wonder if maybe the trouble with all the practices I had tried was that I knew I was faking it the whole time.

*(Speaking on behalf of Greer, he has never said that his religion goes back to pre-Christian druids of Celtic lands, and as the leader of the Ancient Order of Druids in America, he made that straightforwardness the official policy of the organization. So he has always spoken of his religion authentically, but for many years, Revival Druids did say that they were the holders of a set of teachings from elder times.)

So, I told myself I'd do an experiment. I'd spend a few weeks, maybe a few months, being at least open to the thought that the Gods were really real, not just archetypes, not just tides of the nethermind, but Beings outside of me with Their own goals, ends, and so forth. I once again took up JMG's "magical tripod," this time with his Heathen Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram plus Heathen Middle Pillar for my ritual, some guided threads on the Runes from The Teutonic Way: Magic for bethinking, and a daily Runecasting for divination. The practices weren't that unlike what I had tried to do with the Nine Doors of Midgard, but the mindset very much was.

Think on my shock when, after two weeks of this, I have a very strong religious experience, with shaking and tingling all over my body and leaving me with an unshakable ecstatic feeling. I won't share the details, as it was very personal, but it's enough to say that I had set myself an experiment to see if "openness to the existence of the Gods" shaped the outcomes I got from religious and magical practice, and this was a screaming, blinding "YES!" that I couldn't overlook.

I said the practices weren't that unalike, but did you heed something I slipped in there? These practices were much less authentic - The Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram is a Golden Dawn ritual, which drew heavily fromn Eliphas Levi's rituals in The Doctrine and Ritual of High Magic, which was itself a re-working of Renaissance magical practices, which mostly derived from Late Hellenistic practices, which said they came from Egypt, who got them from the God Thoth-Hermes. The Middle Pillar exercise is built on the Tree of Life of the Cabala, which again, the Golden Dawn made heavy use of thanks to Levi bringing it back, after it had been used widely by Renaissance Christian occultists, who got it from High Medieval/Renaissance Jewish occultists, who re-worked it from earlier Hellenistic Neoplatonic models, who got it from who knows where/came up with it.

Notice what's missing? Anything at all to do with Iron Age or early middle ages Germanish practices. The only link was that in these rituals, I called upon the names of Germanish Gods, brought to mind things from Germanish myths, and visualized the Runes at some steps. And yet these practices led to a life-changing happening and a seemingly-abiding shift in metaphysical outlook.

So, clearly, authenticity wasn't the end-all, be-all I had thought it to be.

We Put a Lot of Worth on Authenticity as a Terminal Value Since It Feels Grounded

So how did I, along with many others, end up seeing authenticity as the way to weigh the worth of spiritual teachings and practices? Well, one thing is that if you aren't following the religion that you grew up with (and at some point, maybe even if you are), you have to work out "why do I believe this and not one of the zillions of other religions out there?" This is a struggle that most folks in most times have not had to deal with - you believed whatever your folk believed, the end. Today's world gives us the freedom to do otherwise, but with the high cost of working out what to believe, why to believe it, and what to do with it. Authenticity is one way to go through the beliefs out there and clump them together or pull them apart. As such, authenticity can work as a benchmark for categorization.

Now, categorization is very helpful - it's one of mankind's key thinking skills, and a lot of what we have done is built on it. So I'm not crapping on categorization. The trouble is that there is not, and never can be, a way of categorizing that is not grounded in some sense of what is more (and what is less) worthwhile - in other words, in values. Scott Alexander has a classic post on this called The Categories Were Made for Man, Not Man for the Categories. You should read it, but one of the long-running examples in the post is the made-up struggle of a Biblical-times Judean working out what category to put a whale in. Folks today see a whale called a "fish" in the Bible and think "hahah, how stupid, a whale is so clearly a mammal! Those backwards dopes!" Alexander, though, talks us through why that seems so clear to us and wouldn't even have occurred to some of the folks in Judea. Bring to mind, if you will, a Judean functionary given the task of gathering taxes and tariffs on seafood brought in by fishermen. When one of these fishermen brings in the biggest damned flippered thing ever dragged out of the ocean and is ready to make his riches by carving nearly endless filets off of its bulk, do you think our tax collector friend is going to find it very funny when the fisherman says "that's no fish, it's a mammal!"? Likely not, right? If you mainly care about understanding which animals share their forebears with whales, maybe because you are an evolutionary scientist, then a cladistic understanding that Whales are mammals that went in the water and turned all funny is helpful. On the other hand, if you want to make sure that the king gets taxes on every swimming thing that folks haul out of the water to eat, and the law says to tax "fish," you better believe it's more helpful to think of the whale as a fish (to you, in that stead, in that time).

What makes this still tougher, though, is that authenticity works both as a benchmark for "does belief A belong in this category or not?" as well as a grounding for worth (authentic is better than inauthentic). If it's only one such weight of worth, then okay, no trouble. But what about when you give it the last say on what is worthwhile and what is not? What if it becomes your terminal value? Working out how to think about terminal values is hard - you can't see if it brings about some other good, you can't weigh it like something with a body - everything else you deem worthwhile grounds out in your terminal value. If you want more of a feeling for how hard this is, see all of Western philosophy. Really. It's that hard. But authenticity makes for a welcoming terminal value, most of all to Americans of this day and age, and so many of us find ourselves building our other values off of it, without knowing that's what we're up to. How come?

I think there are three main things that lead us to turn to authenticity as a terminal value, most of all for spiritual things. Going roughly from what we are most aware of to what we're least aware of. First, authenticity feels like a terminal value you can get behind pretty strongly, even with a wholly materialist outlook. Did this set of teachings come from where it said it did? If yes, huzzah! It's worthwhile. If not, great! Into the bin with you! Either way, no need for metaphysical hoo-hah. Now, of course, if you have two teachings that both come from where they say they do, how do you pick between them? What makes one better than the other? Are the teachings from Tibet in 1400 CE better than the ones I came up with last week? How come? Both come from where they said they do, so how do we tell them apart? Whoops, looks like you have to use some values besides authenticity. Oh well.

Next, authenticity is deeply interwoven with how the West has always dealt with spiritual validity. I hope I'm not shocking anyone when I let slip that for a little more than a thousand years, if you were in the West, and you wanted to know "is this spiritually valid?" the answer was mostly "well, what does the Bible say about it?" Yeah, yeah, I know, there was a lot more to it than that, most of all before the Reformation, and most Christians did not take the Bible as literally as some fundamentalists do today, but even still, all valid spiritual truth was seen as coming from God, and the Bible was seen as the word of God, so almost all askings about spiritual validity came down to whether they were backed up in the one authentic wellspring of truth, the Bible. I think that this habit of thought and belief has become very deeply impressed in our psyches and ways of thinking about things. If I can bring up another Greer work, we greatly prefer episteme over gnosis. Many "free thinking" pagans, New Agers, and whatever else have traded one "only well-spring of all truth" for another.

And the last that I'd bring up, the one of which we're least aware, is that I think authenticity soothes our roaring insecurity. Thanks to modernity, and globalization and what not, everyone has somewhat had to deal with feeling cut off from deep, true beliefs and folkways. As I said above, most of mankind to ever live just believed what their folk believed, their folk had believed it since before anyone could remember, and what they believed was linked with the lands where they lived. There was a weight and a depth there, such that a lot of practices kept on well past when anyone knew what they meant or why they did them, but that was just how it had always been, and so they held onto some strength. But modernity has messed with all that, and in America, it's hard to say that anyone other than the American Indians ever had that. We're a new country full of folks who just got here, if you take a wide enough outlook, and deep down, we all know this. So I think we seek what feels grounded, and authenticity does, at least sometimes.

In hindsight, what has dawned on me is that the harder someone leans on authenticity to prop up his religion, the more likely he is LARPing. Now, I've been looking down my nose at LARPers for a good, long time, so I'm not using this because it's become a more common phrase lately, I'm putting forth a true likeness. Both LARPers and hardcore reconstructionists might like what they're doing, they might get great gladness from it, it might be a big and weighty bit of their life that furthers some of their closest bonds - but deep down, both know they're pretending to be something they're not. Kidding aside, playing pretend is a deeply human thing to do, and I'm not crapping on it, but it is not what everyone is looking for from a religion, and I bet that many folks either hope that it will work notwithstanding misgivings, or else tell themselves that's not what's happening and act like everything's okay.

Instead Authenticity Should Shape and Hold Up Validity - But Not Stand In For It

And yet… Didn't folks in elder times have understanding about things we don't? Didn't they grow up Heathen (or Pagan, or truly Orthodox, or whatever), take it as given, live and breath it? Didn't they live before modernity choked the life and enchantment out of everything? Didn't I say that authenticity helped us avoid fake, bad stuff? So, why should we strive for authenticity as a way to learn from them and do what works? Maybe LARPing something authentic is better than earnestly believing something fake?

Now we have at last gotten to the insight that let me write this work. I was reading a book review by Charles Haywood of Augustus: First Emperor of Rome, which went some ways I wasn't exactly looking for in a classical history book review. Towards the end, he works out his own meaning for "reaction" as its own thing that isn't "conservatism." Don't worry, I'm not getting political here, just bear with me a tick! He sees conservatism as trying to hold onto what we already have that's good - straightforward enough. "Reaction," on the other hand, he sees as seeking some kind of big change, grounded not in theory or ideology, but rather in what has worked in the past to get the kind of outcomes wanted. Something new built out of bits of the past, you might say. This struck me as rather like how I have come to look at cobbling together a meaningful religious practice outside of a settled set of ways, teachings, and beliefs. I had started with "stick with what worked in the past!" (That is, always go for authenticity.) A time came when I saw that wasn't working and I needed something new. I could tell, though, that making something up from whole cloth was very unlikely to work that great, and might instead go terribly wrong (think "Heaven's Gate" or "Jonestown"). So, rather than go with something wholly old, or wholly new, I found a way to look to what had worked in the past, pick the bits that fit in with my overall aesthetic, ethical, and religious outlook, and give them a try. Maybe the weightiest change, though, was I now had seen and felt what it means for a religious practice to have validity with or without authenticity - I knew what it felt like when it worked. This has been a game changer, when put next to the stumbling around pretending I was doing as a materialist.

(By the way, I found Haywood and his book reviews when I was looking for podcasts with/about JMG and found the audio version of his review of Retrotopia, so synchronicity, mayhaps?)

If I might say so, I think my work on a Heathen Rosary fits this way of doing things pretty well. I have looked to the past for templates, like the Rosary itself, the Germanish poetic meters, the imagery and symbolism from the myths, and so forth. But I'm tweaking and putting together and cutting based on prayer, intuition, and seeing what works and what doesn't. I have no illusions that anyone in 5th century England prayed anything like this, nor do I think it will look much like the Catholic Rosary when I'm through, either.

The thing is, though, I don't care that it's not what was done in the past. I care whether I find the heart of what has made these myths echo through the ages and this way of praying have such deep spiritual outcomes for so many. Gods willing, and with help from you reading this, I'll find a way to make something that partakes of the deep worth of these models and brings them to some folks who wouldn't have found it otherwise.

That's the goal anyway: not to be authentic, but to be true.

Did this post spark any thoughts? Have anything to ask or share? Feel free to send me an email at jeff DOT powell DOT russell AT, and I'll add your thoughts below. You can also comment on the dreamwidth post.

Thoughts on The Hanged God

Date: 2023-June-09

Oates, Shani. (2022). The Hanged God: Odhinn Grimnir. Anathema

If I had to put how this book made me feel into one word, that word would be maddening. Not since it has nothing of worth - oh no, that would be far less wrathsome. Instead, the book is very uneven, some ways shallow, but some fairly deep. I now have deeply mixed feelings about buying in one go all of the "Odhinn Trilogy" of which this is the first volume. Even still, I think if I come at these books like an archaeologist, brushing aside the midden and the sherds to find the riches buried within, I might find them worthwhile nonetheless. So! This rundown of the book is my first step in shaking out the wheat from the chaff, but also I just had to get some of this off my chest, so I am sorry if I get a bit heated at times.

The Writer

Here's how Shani Oates tells you who she is:

Occultist, Mystic, Luciferian Pilgrim of the Forbidden Arts, Traditional Craft Practitioner, researcher, lecturer, historian, and writer of the Craft, Magic, Ancestral Tradition, particularly the Robert Cochrane Tradition, and the cultural Folk-lore and Folk-magicks of the Uk and its Northern Heritage. Spae-wife and Matriarch of The People of Goda, The Clan of Tubal Cain. Student of Anthropology, Tantra, Philosophy, and the arcane ‘Other.’

Author of several books that write informatively on the myths, gods, and archetypes that imbue and inform the Cults and Crafts of Witchcraft and Folk-Traditions, shifting through the arcane to modern times.

The word that really jumped out at me, and gave me some pause in ordering this book at all, is "Luciferian." Now, in case you don't know, we're not dealing with "literal Devil worship" here, necessarily. "Luciferian" is one of many titles that folks in the Western Esoteric Tradition use to describe themselves if they are on the "Left Hand Path" (not to be confused with the "Left Hand Path" of Tantric Yoga/Buddhism, but there are some similarities). I'm not that knowledgable on this stuff, but I've gathered a bit. The most sympathetic way to put what the "LHP" is about is seeking knowledge and enlightenment whatever the cost - schools of thought within the LHP argue that social norms, taboos, rules, strictures, and so forth, are all obstacles to true, cosmic knowledge, and that such things must be set aside to learn the deepest secrets. This tends to come bundled with radical individualism and an ethos of seizing things through might and daring. The better sort of LHP folks carefully wall-off all of this taboo-breaking, seizing-by-might stuff in ritual contexts and acknowledge that rules, restrictions, and norms are mostly very helpful, even if the path to enlightenment sometimes involves breaking them. This better end of things often looks rather like "shadow work" in a Jungian framework - acknowledging the darker bits of yourself and working to make them a bit of the whole self. One author I still draw on a lot who has been an avowed member of LHP organizations is Edred Thorsson (Dr. Stephen Flowers) - many Heathens found out about these associations and grew suspicious that his work was "tainted," but for myself, I've learned to recognize when he starts veering into more LHP stuff and to quietly set that aside, then get back to the good stuff.

Anyhow, that's the ideal, but I have picked up from John Michael Greer a general policy of not associating with LHP folks and to cast a suspicious eye on their thinking and works. All that stuff about radical individualism and breaking norms to attain the highest kinds of enlightenment? That sounds pretty good for the person doing it (or at least it might, to some kinds of folks, and I'll admit, I have some of those tastes). But what about everyone around that person? What tends to happen almost every time is that folks who enthusiastically embrace an LHP ethos end up as world class jerks. At a minimum, they want to be seen as the rebels they long to be, so they will push and push until the folks around them get sick of it and push back, at which point they get to say something like "I knew you guys were just part of the Man!" and storm out in a rebellious huff. I don't personally have any experience with magical groups, but I've met folks like this, and it's a pattern I recognize, so I'm happy to borrow JMG's experience here and assume his rule is a sensible one.

Now, all that being said, I get the impression that Ms. Oates is at the better end of things, and that her LHP lens doesn't change everything in the book. But there are some times where it jumps out, and it's a bit tiresome. Here's some chapter titles that give you a taste: "Gold Mead: Elixir of Forbidden Enchantments," or "Yggdrassill: Dread Steed of the Damned." Now, as we'll cover below, she does have some reason to refer to what Odhinn is doing as "forbidden" and him as "damned," at least in her interpretive framework. But still, don't these strike you as just a bit "Hot Topic"? Throughout the book, there are hints of this wallowing in the grisly and shocking, which is maybe sometimes helpful for such a challenging God as Odhinn, but mostly strikes me as childish.

Another bit of her background that seemed relevant to me is her Wiccan grounding (that's what "Traditional Craft Practitioner" means). Wiccans believe that all Gods are one God, and that all Goddesses are one Goddess, and the God and the Goddess coming together in a sacred marriage is one of their core symbolic images. This means that 1. Wiccans can be a bit quick to equate one God with another, if they happen to both be men (or women), and 2. They can tend to see any contact between a God and a Goddess as "truly" being a hieros gamos, a sacred wedding - yes, this is truly a widespread and weighty mythic element, but it's not literally everywhere.

Lastly, I hate to say this, as this work (and the others) show a great deal of time and sweat put into them, and clearly Ms. Oates is more widely-read in the lore than I am, but some of her writing style and way of doing/sharing research had me literally yelling foul words at the book, and I'm not proud to say, at her. First off, she way over-uses the passive voice. This would be annoying to me, as I teach Business Writing, and pretty much the main commandment there is "Thou shalt not write in passive voice." What makes it far worse here, though, is sometimes it actually makes things substantively harder to understand - "it is regarded" - by whom? By you? By most scholars in the field today? By worshiping heathens? By the sock puppets you talk to? Also, footnotes are sometimes sloppy - like putting a foot note at the end of a quote that doesn't give the source of the quote, but rather a thought about it. Or, putting the abbreviated citation in a footnote, and then leaving that work out of the bibliography (such as "See Kiessey (2005)," and then there's no "Kiessey" in the bibliography!). Or, gesturing at an entire book after giving a direct quote, rather than giving a page number. What made this especially maddening is that often I wanted to follow up more, because it was an interesting point that seemed to come from an interesting work. Also, though I talk about this below in the bit about editing, there were many times where Ms. Oates used words in ways that are just wrong, like "exorcise his authority." She also uses academicese less than perfectly. The overall impression I got was of someone trying too hard to impress the reader, which is a shame, since there's plenty of worthwhile stuff in this book that would be impressive enough if written straightforwardly. Here's a bit from the conclusion that shows many of the above points:

All conclusions grow out [of] a subjective experience. It is our contention, therefore, that this body of work can only be drawn together by the threads woven in life as it is known, and therefore bound within the parameters of understanding.

What does that even mean? Is she trying to say you can only make sense of this work by relating it to your own life and experience? I guess.

The Main Thrust

Okay, with all that out of the way, let's talk about what Oates has to share. This is the first book of three that Oates has written about Odhinn, and she plans on writing even more about the "Northern Otherworld." The focus of this one is on Odhinn's links with death and what seemingly unalike bits of myth have to do with one another. She puts forth that Odhinn's "hanging" is best understood not as hanging from the neck until dead, but rather a kind of ordeal by suspension with sacrifices of men and animals (that are hanging from the neck until dead) in the trees/on poles all around him. Hanged men are somewhat identified with Odhinn, as they become "his," but she does not believe his "hanging form a windy tree" was literally a sacrificial hanging - instead, Odhinn's true self-sacrifice is at Ragnarok, when he is eaten by Fenris. One of the more interesting claims in the book, and one that I don't know that I buy, is that Odhinn's Einherjar (chosen slain warriors) were understood as the bodily undead draugr, and that Vallholl is best understood as inside grave mounds, filled by these draugr. The myths of Odhinn gaining various kinds of knowledge (which she insists on identifying as "taboo" and "forbidden") are given their meaning by Odhinn's sacrifice at Ragnarok - getting eaten by Fenris is the payment for his forbidden magics and knowledge, and it's a price he pays willingly to make sure that Gods and Men make it through to the other side.

Some Other Things I Found Interesting

Now I'd like to share some of the things I found interesting or maybe worth looking more into, but these are not all that organized. In the long run, I think these bits are more likely to be what sticks with me from the book and for me to build on with later reading.

For one, her discussion of grave mounds and draugar brought in a lot of references to widely-spread sources, so I'm thankful for that road to go down for further research. What was also interesting to me about these bits was how they called to mind John Michael Greer's book Monsters, which gives a thumbnail history of a practice spread across all of Eurasia of building mounds so that the spirit of a dead ruler could stick around to help out, and how this practice devolved into vampirism. Digging in there might be worthwhile whether or not the conclusions she draws about the draugar's links with Odhinn pan out. I think she is slightly off in emphasizing the corporeality of the draugar, as Greer's work offers what I find a more satisfying explanation: the beings that once haunted grave mounds are etheric mainly. This is one of many steads where old school occult philosophy helps make sense of things that are otherwise puzzling. Very briefly, the etheric plane is the plane of "life energy," and it is the "closest" to the material plane. Etheric material is usually unseen and freely interpenetrates physical matter, but certain practices and conditions can render it able to interact with matter. This is why ghosts can sometime affect physical objects but also can go through walls. The various things draugar are said to do all make sense if they're etheric, rather than material, and grave mounds were one way elder folks kept the etheric body alive after material death. One more fun thing: in the same book, Greer argues that dragons are likely best understood as ethereal beings, and links modern lake monsters like Nessie with the dragon tradition. Oates talks about how some mound-dwellers became dragons in Norse stories - so, that'd be a cool link, if right.

Okay, the next thing I found interesting actually does come out of her overly-left-hand-path framing that I mostly don't buy, but I think it can still make sense outside of that frame. As I said above, she says that some of the magic and knowledge Odhinn gains truly are forbidden, even to the king of the Gods, and that nobody gets to use them without paying a price, and Odhinn's death at Ragnarok is that price. What she links this with, though, is the thought that Baldr's death was his way of getting around that - since Baldr would ride out Ragnarok in Hel, he would be around to lead the Gods in the new world to come after. I'd seen the idea that Baldr's death was somehow needed, so that he'd be around after Ragnarok, but not that Odhinn made it happen to ensure the preservation of the Godly order of the world.

Of especial interest to me given my ongoing work on the Heathen Rosary was Oates's discussion of the three times Odhinn gained knowledge, and what links them thematically. I've been looking into these three myths a lot lately as I'm getting started working on a new version of the All Father. The three myths I mean are when Odhinn gets the Mead of Poetry from Gunnlodh, when he drinks from Mimir's Well of Memory, and when he gains the Runes by hanging upon "the tree." Oates puts these into a progression of sorts - the Mead of Poetry is the raw inspiration, Mimir's Well gives the memory and skills needed to best use that inspiration, and the Runes allow it to be shaped to magical ends. I was groping toward a similar understanding, but this gave me some good stuff to work with.

Speaking of Mimir, there was a lot of interesting stuff about him in this book. For one, remember how I said that Oates links Odhinn with the mound-dwelling draugar? Well, something that happens in more than one saga is that someone, usually a descendant of the lord buried in the mound, goes in there, fights the draugr, cuts his head off, and then takes his sword. She argues that this was a way of "claiming an ancestral birthright," but it had to be earned through the combat. Building on this, she makes the case that Odhinn beheaded Mimir (rather than the Vanir after they learned Hoenir was dependent on his counsel), and that this was a way of taking ownership of Mimir's gifts, knowledge, and power. She also clearly laid out something I have run into before, but didn't know it's grounding: why folks say that Mimir might have been Odhinn's mother's brother. It's Havamal stanza 140:

Nine mighty songs
I learned from the great son of
Bale-thorn, Bestla's sire;
I drank a measure of the wondrous Mead,
With the Soul-stirrer's drops I was showered.

I'm a bit embarrassed I hadn't caught that one myself before, but thank goodness I know now.

She gives the meaning of Idhunna as "Oldest/First of all mothers," which is very interesting for my own thoughts about Her, but this is one of those maddening times that she doesn't explain herself or cite anyone at all. Maria Kvilhaug gives a very different meaning to her name, as "Goddess of the Field of Water Sources," and she is kind enough to spell out why and how she got to that meaning. Altogether, I felt like her handling of Idhunna was fairly disappointing. As my work on the Heathen Rosary makes clear, I have found a bond between Idun and Woden that rings true to me, so I'm always interested when other folks talk about that. Here, though, I think that Oates maybe goes too far, as she states that Idhunna is all of: The Well of Wyrd, the World Tree, the Sun, Mother Earth, and Fate. I think she has important links with all of these concepts (and I'll admit, I may not have been giving her turning into a wolf in Hrafnagaldur Oðins enough weight), but to say that she is all of these things at once seems like too much conflation to me.

Speaking of Fenris, one bit that I still don't know how to feel about, but I find interesting, is that Oates argues that Odhinn's steed is not a horse, but a wolf, and that that wolf is, wait for it, Fenris. Now, there is definitely something interesting going on with Odhinn and wolves, but this one seems to flat out go against what it says in our best sources, where we have the tale of Fenris's binding and the siring of Sleipnir by a horse explicitly.

She also has a nice take on poetry and why it is so centrally important to Odhinn and his followers: as a tool of memory, it preserves stories, it carries forward the deeds of the past and stops them from being forgotten. As such, it is a tool of Order in the never-ending fight against Chaos. I don't think she explicitly made the same claim for Runes, but it seems like they would have a similar weight, as a way of writing down what has happened. We tend to take records of the past for granted these days, but the fact that folks could know what had happened before the memory of anyone alive, or even their grandparents, must have been more clearly seen as the deep magic it truly is by those who had not been numbed by familiarity.

Oh, and on the Runes, one of the few mentions the Futhark gets (as opposed to the Rune songs spoken of in Havamal) is to link each of the three Aetts with one of the three drinks Odhinn took (she assumes, as do I, that some kind of drink must have been involved in the winning of the Runes, though it's not spelled out as clearly as with Gunnlodh and Mimir). I haven't put much thought into this one yet, but I bet it will be good fodder for bethinking (meditation).

The Book Itself

This is not usually something I would talk about when going over a book, but here I think it's warranted, both good and bad. First off, the good stuff: Anathema Publishing specializes in limited runs of very nice hardcovers, but they have branched out a bit to also offer merely "nice" hardcovers and even paperbacks of some titles, though a recent news post has me thinking they might be pulling back from that strategy. At any rate, I got the "Standard Edition" hard cover of this book, and you can tell that they take the craft of book binding seriously. It is a lovely book - nice, thick paper, exquisitely printed text, quality binding, understated but classy cloth covering with an embossed bindrune. I'm a bit of a typograpy and printing nerd, and so I appreciate this stuff, even if I'm not much of a book "collector." So that's all great!

Unluckily, that's not all there is to say about how the book was made. It seems that in their focus on book bindery, Anathema is not quite as obsessive about some of the other services publishers offer their authors and readers. Like copy editing. There are a lot of typos, and some of them render the meaning ambiguous - like no "not" where you're pretty sure it should be there, but the sentence kinda makes sense without it. Also, Ms. Oates has several instances where she uses a homophone or nearly soundalike word where something else is clearly meant - such as "exorcise his authority." (Lit nerd time: these are known as "malapropisms" after a character, Mrs. Malaprop, in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's 1775 play The Rivals). A good editor would have caught at least most of these. I was all ready to decry Oates's use of "self-immolation" for Odhinn's hanging himself as "a gift of myself, to myself," since I always thought immolation implied the burning up part of Classical sacrifices, but it seems I was wrong on that count - immolation is just a synonym for "sacrifice," and in fact etymologically derives from the Roman custom of giving flour, not the burnt meat offerings I always assumed. But the really jarring thing, one that I don't know whether to lay at the feet of Ms. Oates or of Anathema Publishing is the constant misuse of the letter Eth (Ð,ð). This letter is used in modern Scandinavian tongues, and in the transcription of Old Norse and Old English, to represent the "voiced dental fricative" (the "th" sound in "that" rather than in "thing"). It appears that somewhere in the production of this book, whether in the original manuscript, the typesetting process, or something, Eth got used as a "fancy d." Now, this is not a crazy thing to do, as historically, Old Norse words with an Eth have been rendered in modern English with a "d" (most famous, and relevant example: Old Norse Oðinn to Modern English "Odin"). What sucks is that someone over-zealously flipped this rule around, such that words which really did have a "d" in Old Norse are instead printed with an "ð". Like ðvergr ("dwarf") or ðraugr ("restless dead"), or even skalð ("skald" - a Viking-age poet, like a bard). All of these should have "d" instead of "ð" - and it turns up in lots of other, less-familiar words, which makes it harder to know what it's supposed to be for someone like me who is passingly familiar with a lot of Old Norse words, but lacks the thorough grounding to just "know" where there should be a "d" and where an "ð". When I worked out this was happening, I almost threw the book across the room, because I had spent a good deal of it "relearning" how to pronounce some less familiar words. Oh, and one last complaint - there is no index! Every non-fiction book ought to have an index, but most of all works of a scholarly bent. Harumph. It was a real downer for such a lovely book to have screw ups like this.

Is It Worth Reading?

As you may have gathered, I found this book a very mixed bag. It had some worthwhile insights and linked some dots I hadn't thought to put together and brought to my heed some works I'm looking forward to digging into more (like Zinner's translation and commentary on Hrafnagaldr Odhins). On the other hand, it had an overall viewpoint that I think got in the way of it being as helpful as it could be, the writing and editing were actively distracting, and I think some of the core assumptions and conclusions are mistaken. So, should you read it? I think if you are deeply interested in Odhinn, there's some worthwhile perspective and thoughts in here. If He is not an especial focus of yours, you might just give this one a pass.

(To not do what I condemned Oates for doing, here's the full reference to Zinner's work: Zinner, Samuel. (2016). Oðinn's Ravens' Song - Translation and Commentary of Hrafnagaldur Oðins: An Old Norse Eddic Poem.

Did this post spark any thoughts? Have anything to ask or share? Feel free to send me an email at jeff DOT powell DOT russell AT, and I'll add your thoughts below. You can also comment on the dreamwidth post.

Understanding Spengler's Decline of the West, Bit 6: Odds and Ends

Date: 2023-June-05

Posts on Spengler's Decline of the West

As I said before, The Decline of the West packs a lot into its two hefty volumes, much of it worth thinking about, reacting to, and linking to other works, but not all of which is as directly linked to the main ideas as what we've talked about so far in the series. So, I thought I'd go through the thoughts I wrote down while reading the book, the sayings I marked as well-said or thought-sparking, and any stray remarks from the earlier posts and start pulling out anything I wanted to share. So let's get to it!

  • Volume 1, Leaf 106 - Spengler makes the common claim that a fear of death is universal, and builds from there, but in God is Read, Vine Deloria, Jr. argues that Westerners may be projecting that onto other folks more than they know.
  • V1, L. 107 - I found Spengler's contrast of "Space" versus "Time" as the foundations of perception and world-feeling especially interesting after having just read Tyson Yunkaporta's Sand Talk and Vine Deloria Jr.'s God Is Red. Both writers point out how strong a contrast there is between the folkways of their forebearers and those of Westerners, and both stress the importance of "place" to their forebearers, in a way that today's Westerners truly don't get
  • V1, L. 160 - I've talked about Spengler's snobbery in past posts, and it's in full view here as he draws lines between "primitive man" and "great Cultures" in ways that I suspect are not wholly justified. That being said, I wonder what might come of rigorously applying his "Culture as organism" metaphor here - are the societies of "Primitive Men" a "different species" or merely an early phase of the same organism as "Great Cultures"? What might we learn by assuming each?
  • V1, L. 216 - Shared symbols define cultures - fair enough. This becomes far more interesting when you apply the kind of understanding of symbols that occultists and Jungians have to the term - representations fraught with meaning, some of which is inherent, some of which is put on the thing by the observer, and some of which only comes out in their interaction. In other words, how much of a Culture is seeing some bit of the world for how it "truly is," how much is an accident of how that Culture looks at some things, and how much is from the folk of that Culture talking with each other, making art, and otherwise bouncing these symbols and their meanings off of each other?
  • V1, L. 397 - Spengler thinks that "the Will" as its own distinct "thing," a bit of the soul you can point to unlike the rest of it, is a firmly Faustian thought, and that other Cultures plain don't see it as a standalone faculty
  • V1, L. 448 - Spengler talks about "Ethical Socialism" as what he sees as the best-possible expression of Faustian Civilization (remember, a Civilization is the more materially-advanced, but spiritually frozen successor to the live Culture). Personally, I think this is one stead where he falls for the myth of Progress (mark the capital 'P') that he is mostly so good about calling out
  • V1, L. 451 - I need to get around to reading The Germanization of Christianity by James C Russell (no relation, that I know of!), as Spengler talks about how Faustian Europe greatly changed the shape of the religion that the Romans brought north and west from the Levant.
  • V1, L. 475 - A "near-religious" obsession with bodily health (diet, tee-totaling, exercise, and so forth) is evidence of turning religious instincts and sensibilities toward the material world, which is clearly a turning away from the spiritual world.
  • V1, L. 478 - Spengler spells out in painful detail how the very Faustian thought of the "right to work," which started as a way of seeing everyone as worthy of dignity, but needing to prove they can earn it, turned into the Western equivalent of "Bread and Circuses" - the thing the powerful can distribute as patronage to get voters/foot soldiers on their side. And so, the very thing fought for so hard by generations of labor representatives, seamlessly mutates into the "duty to work," the engine that drives the rat race, consumerism, and so much more
  • V1, L. 497 - The West seeks "conquest by measurement," which already struck me as weighty when I read it over a year ago, but jives rather well with John Michael Greer's post from a couple months back The Reign of Quantity.
  • V1, L. 528 - He goes into how the religious "world-feeling" of dawning Cultures happened during their "epic" phase - the Homeric Age (~1100 - 800 BCE) for the Classical and the "Teutonic" Age for Faustian (~900 - 1200 CE). I think he is too dismissive of the earlier tales that were the raw inputs for the great works of myth written down in these times, but he makes a good point that the versions that have come down to us were worked up at particular times, conveying the worldview of particular folks, and it is likely foolish to see them as "pure" expressions of the older tales from which they draw the heroes, plots, and other bits.
  • V1, L. 537 - The Classical culture saw divinity as local, embodied, and specific, whereas the Magian saw it as universal, immanent, and transcendental. If we allow that every Culture sees some bit of Being clearly that others miss, this gives us some good food for bethinking (meditation).
  • V1, L. 542 - Classical "toleration" was merely the stretching out of what they already believed - unalike steads and unalike folks have unalike Gods, and it's right to worship the right God at the right stead, at the right time, with the right folk, and not to do so elsewhere/elsewhen. Spengler claims that the Western flavor of "toleration" is only a lack of religious sensibility, due to shifting into the worldlier Civilization phase of its lifecycle. He goes so far as to say that "Megalopolitan Man" (the typical resident of the major city/cities of Culture-turned-Civilization - think someone who lives in today's New York, London, or Berlin) must be lying to himself if he thinks he's religious. I think this is overly harsh, but in broad terms, there's some truth there.
  • V2, L. 13 - Folks who like "thought" - abstract, mostly verbal, logical conceptions of things - tend to put far more weight on "thought" than it deserves. Taleb and others call out folks like this as "Intellectuals Yet Idiots" or, more commonly, "nerds".
  • V2, L. 20 - Another bit that made me think about Yunkaporta and Deloria - here, Spengler contrasts the "thought-about life" with plain old "life".
  • V2, L. 37 - Spengler is hella critical of Darwinism, which can't help but strike today's reader as hopelessly old-fashioned and ridiculous, but I found it a helpful reminder to take a hard look at those thoughts we take as given, and ask whether we believe them since they best fit or own experience of what the world is like and how it works, or since someone once told us that's how it is.
  • V2, L. 68 - I've said before that I think Spengler is too harsh on the thought that one Culture can "influence" another, but her he gives a worked-out example of what he means, and it makes pretty good sense. He says that "Buddhism" did not cross over into China from India. Instead, when Indians started coming to China and talking about this "Buddhism" thing and what you had to do everyday if you took it seriously, some Chinese folks, of certain religious sensibilities, saw things that spoke to them in Buddhism and enthusiastically took up (a subset of) Buddhist practices and beliefs, and did with them what their religious sensibilities told them was best, resulting in a very different religion than original Indian "Buddhism." Spengler uses this as an example of how "influence" can be hard to pin down and maybe meaningless to claim, while there still might be lots of "influenced" folks.
  • V2, L. 72 - Spengler claims that "Law" seems to have a lot of continuity from, say, the Romans through the civil codes of early modern continental reformers, and so on, but truly, the ideas of how to handle disputes, what deeds are okay and what not, and so forth, are wildly unalike, but using similar language and "justifications" to claim legitimacy.
  • V2, L. 98 - Maybe Faustian culture invented archaeology, anthropology, archaeogenetics, and so forth precisely because the past is far away, which makes it exciting to the Faustian mind in a way it's not to folks from other cultures.
  • V2, L. 123 - Spengler talks about the "rational planning" of megalopolitan cities, and it reminds me of the thought of "legibility" as originally talked about in Seeing Like a State by James C. Scott (still need to read this), and as slightly tweaked by Lou Keep in his posts on Uruk Machines. The short version is that states and other centralizing tendencies want everything to be rationally understandable, but in rendering them so, sometimes (almost always) things that used to work get broken
  • V2, L. 127 - A lot of takes have been put out about why "advanced societies" stop making babies, and most of them are economic or sociological, or what have you. Spengler puts forward a spiritual reason: once the question "why is life worth living, what's it all about?" is taken seriously enough by enough folks, then the thought that Life is a self-evident, bedrock principle is eroded. As Spengler says, the peasant whose family has farmed the same land for a thousand years doesn't have to ask "why should I go harvest the grain and teach my kids to do it?" That's just how it is. The man of the big city, though, has grown used to asking "what am I even doing here? does it mean anything?" and so the thought "how would a child cope with this?" is the natural next question, and the natural next answer is "he wouldn't!" and so, no kids.
  • V2, L. 128 - Summing up the above: "When reasons have to be put forward at all in a question of life, life itself has become questionable."
  • V2, L. 194 - Linguistics nerdery: day-to-day talk is for peasants and lords (holders of temporal power), philosophical, literary language is for priests (holders of spiritual power), and "koines" - simplified common tongues spoken with foreigners, is for merchants and the bourgeoisie
  • V2, L. 203 - Here, Spengler maybe most confounds those who would consign him to some boring flavor of biological or linguistic determinist - he believes that a people (I assume this a translation of the German folk) is shaped by the deeds it does, and not the other way around. The Ostrogoths are known for what they were like because they conquered Spain, not the other way around. Americans are American because they sailed across a sea and came to a new continent. Sure, geographical, accidental, and other factors may shape what deeds a folk gets up to, but Spengler came down strongly on the side that what a folk did is what defined them.
  • V2, L. 224 - Spengler links the Faustian interest in genealogy with Darwinism - rather dismissively, as you might have guessed
  • V2, L. 232 - "Lever doodt als Sklav ('better dead than slave') is an old Frisian peasant-saying. The reverse has been the choice of every late Civilization, and every late Civilization has had to experience how much that choice cost it."
  • V2, L. 242 - "A religion that has got as far as taking social problems in hand has ceased to be a religion."
  • V2, L. 249 - Spengler thinks very local cults of religious practice were only a trait of the Classical Culture/Civilization, but I think this is nuts. Every culture used to worship in a highly local fashion, and many religions have ongoing practices that are super localized. Check out Shinto Shrines in Japan for one example.
  • V2, L. 251 - "Carefully as Syncretism has been examined in recent years, the clue to its development - the transformation fo Eastern Churches into Western cults, and then the reverse process of transformation fo Western cults into Eastern Churches - has been missed."
  • V2, L. 294 - An uncharacteristically pithy way of putting how Faustian, Classical, and Magian religious feelings are unalike: "Whereas the Faustian man is an 'I' that in the last resort draws its own conclusions about the Infinite; whereas the Apollonian man, as one soma among many, represents only himself; the Magian man, with his spiritual kind of being, is only a /part of a pneumatic 'We' that, descending from above, is one and the same in all believers."
  • V2, L. 320 - "The Neoplatonist monk Sarapion went into the desert in order to devote himself entirely to studying the hymns of Orpheus." - Sounds like someone who might have some good insights into polytheistic devotional work. Poking around online, it looks like he might only be briefly mentioned in the works of Porphyry, and that his name is more commonly rendered in English these days as Serapion (with an 'e').
  • V2, L. 351 - "This youthful inwardness proceeds always out of a townless countryside, out of villages, hovels, sanctuaries, solitary cloisters, and hermitages. Here is formed the community of high awareness, of the spiritual elect, which inwardly is separated by a whole world from the great being-currents of the heroic and the knightly." John Michael Greer, from whom I first learned about Spengler, speculates that today's American culture is not truly Faustian, but rather its own thing with a Faustian pseudomorphosis. He doesn't think a North American great Culture will arise for another few hundred years, but he thinks that there are hints of the world-feeling that will enliven it to be found if you look closely enough, as he talks about here. I wrote down this saying, as it might give a hint of where to look for more of these stirrings
  • V2, L. 356 - "Out of these last surviving traces, however, an outline of the Early Classical religion emerges bright and distinct. Just as all Gothic inwardness directed itself upon Mary, Queen of Heaven and Virgin and Mother, so in tha tmoment of the Classical World there arose a garland of myths, images, and figures around Demeter, the bearing mother, around Gaia and Persephone, and also Dionysus the begetter, chthonian and phallic cults, festivals and mysteries of birth and death. All this, too, was characteristically Classical, conceived under the aspect of present corporeality. The Apollonian religion venerated body, the Orphic rejected it, that of Demeter celebrated the moments of fertilization and birth, in which body acquired being. There was a mysticisim that reverently honoured the secret of life, in doctrine, symbol, and mime, but side by side with it there was orgiasm too, for the squandering of the body is as deeply and closely akin to asceticism as sacred prostitution is to celibacy - both, all, are negations of time. It is the reverse of the Apollonian "halt!" that checks on teh threshold of Hubris; detachment is not kept, but flung away. He who has experienced these things in his soul has 'from being a mortal become a god.' In those days there must have been great saints and seers who towered as far above the figures of Heraclitus and Empedocles as the latter above the iternerant teachers of Cynicism and Stoicism - things of this order do not happen namelessly and impersonally. As the songs of Achilles and Odysseus were dying down everywhere, a grand, strict doctrine arose at the famous old cult-places, a mysticism and scholasticism with developed educational methods and a secret oral tradition, as in India. But all that is buried, and the relics of the later times barely suffice to prove that it once existed."
  • V2, L. 380 - One of the core bits of the Faustian worldview is the symbol of "the Machine," which led both to literal, physical machines of great complexity and sophistication, but also, of course, the mechanical, dynamic worldview of scientific materialism
  • V2, L. 413-414 - Here, Spengler talks about how the two sexes experience and understand the world in unalike ways. It struck me as a good supplement to Jungian views of the masculine and the feminine.
  • V2, L. 422 - "There were no castes in the Old and Middle Kingdoms of Egypt, nor in India before Buddha, nor in China before Han times." At least in India, more recent genetic evidence suggests this might not be true, as the Jatis are very genetically distinct, suggesting thousands of years of pretty strict endogamy.
  • V2, L. 423 - "In the Carolingian pre-Culture men distinguished Knechte [vassals], Freie [free men], and Edle [nobles]." Spengler brings in some other Germanic early middle ages examples and argues that these are the status distinctions of an early great Culture, which may or may not be true, but which reminded me of some other sources that suggest way older roots. Georges Dumezil was a French scholar of comparative mythology and religion who put forward the highly influential theory that Proto-Indo-European society was split up into three "functions" - the priests/judges, the warriors, and productive folks (farmers, craftsmen, maybe merchants, and so forth). Likewise, the Old Norse Rigsthula, tells how the God "Rig" (most folks read Him as Heimdall) originated the three levels of society: thralls (slaves), free men, and jarls (nobles) when he spent the night with a mortal couple that hosted him.
  • V2, L. 427 - Spengler utterly contrasts the nobility with the priesthood, in terms of their experiences of life and how they come at the world-feeling or Soul Image of their culture. It led me to wonder how much of his view was shaped by how things are in Christianity, since in many Cultures, landholding warrior nobles also have important religious duties
  • V2, L. 435 - "Honour" as the heart of the "custom-ethic" of the nobility, which called to mind Honor: A History by James Bowman, which has done a lot to shape my thinking over the years.
  • V2, L. 440, Footmark 39 - "After death the teachers of error are excluded from the eternal bliss of the textbook and cast into the purgatorial fires of footnotes, whence, purged by the intercession of the believer, they ascend into the paradise of the paragraphs." Hah! Spengler does have a sense of humor, after all.
  • V2, L. 442 - Spengler felt like those who gave their life to some craft, even if they came together in guilds, and even if those guilds became tribes, thanks to strict rules of heredity, never made up a class the way that nobles, priests, and peasants truly did, as their defining feature is and always was some tangible skill, and not some feeling for "the way the world is." I think Spengler's maybe overly harsh on craftsmen, and again, overly snobbish, but it's an interesting point to consider, especially when set next to things like The Guild State by George Robert Taylor.
  • V2, L. 451 - "For it was a creative enthusiasm in the man of the city that from the tenth century B.C. (and 'contemporaneously' in other Cultures) drew generation after generation under the spell of a new life, with which there emerges for the first time in human history the idea of freedom. This idea is not of political (Still less of abstract) origin, but is something bringing to expression the fact that within the city walls plant-like attachment to a soil has ceased, and that the threads that run through the whole life of the countryside have been snapped. And consequently the freedom-idea ever contains a negative; it looses, redeems, defends, always frees a man from something. Of this freedom the city is the expression; the city-spirit is understanding become free, and everything in the way of in the way of intellectual, social, and national movements that bursts forth in Late periods under the name of Freedom leads back to an origin in this one prime fact of detachment from the land."
  • V2, L. 453 - "As components of the Third Estate, which counts by heads and not by rank, they are all, in all Late periods of all Cultures 'liberal' in one way or another - namely, free from the inward powers of non-urban life. Economy is freed to make money, science freed to criticize. And so in all the great decisions we perceive the intellect with its books and its meetings having the word ('Democracy'), and money obtaining the advantages ('Plutocracy') - and it is never ideas, but always capital, that wins. But this again is just the opposition of truths and facts, in the form in which it develops from teh city-life. Moreover, by way of protest against the ancient symbols of the soil-bound life, the city opposes to the aristocracy of birth the notion of an aristocracy of money and an aristocracy of intellect - the one not very explicit as a claim, but all the more effective as a fact; the other a truth, but nothing more than that and, as a spectacle for the eye, not very convincing."
  • V2, L. 463 - "To 'have the right' is an expression of power. This is a historical fact that every moment confirms, but it is not acknowledged in the realm of truth, which is not of this world. In their conceptions of right, therefore, as in other things, being and waking-being, Destiny and causality, stand implacably opposed. To the priestly and idealistic moral of good and evil belongs the moral distinction of right and wrong, but in the race-moral of good and bad the distinction is between those who give and those who receive the law. An abstract idea of justice pervades the minds and writings of all whose spirit is noble and strong and whose blood is weak, pervades all religions and all philosophies - but the fact-world of history knows only the success which turns the law of the stronger into the law of all." A somewhat rough way of thinking about things that I'm still wrestling with.
  • V2, L. 469 - "But in the historical world there are no ideals, but only facts - no truths, but only facts. There is no reason, no honesty, no equity, no final aim, but only facts, and anyone who does not realize this should write books on politics - let him not try to make politics. In the real world there are no states built according to ideals, but only states that have grown, and these are nothing but living peoples 'in form.' No doubt it is 'the form impressed that living doth itself unfold,' but the impress has been that of the blood and beat of a being, wholly instinctive and involuntary; and as to the unfolding, if it is guided by the master of politics, it takes the direction inherent in teh blood; if by the idealist, that dictated by his own convictions - in other words, the way to nullity." I can't settle whether I think this is a helpfully clear-eyed splash of cold water on high-flying idealism, or hopelessly cynical nihilism.
  • V2, L. 486, FM 51 - The "Blues" and the "Greens" of Byzantium, ostensibly fans of rival chariot racing teams, are often used as examples of utterly arbitrary, ridiculous tribalism/partisanship, but Spengler says that claiming they were "only" about the Circus teams is flat out wrong, instead, these were thinly-veiled parties of class interest, more like the Ghibellines and the Guelphs or the Optimates and Populares.
  • V2, L. 487 - "And thus, at the close of the early periods of both these Cultures, we see two principles parallel and contrasted, the Faustian-genealogical and the Apollonian-oligarchic; two kinds of constitutional la, of Dike. The one is supported by an unmeasured sense of expanse, reaches back deep into the past with form-tradition, thinks forward with the same intense will-to-endure into the remotest future; but in the present, too, works for political effectiveness over broad expanses by well-considered dynastic marriages and by the truly Faustian, dynamic, and contrapuntal politics that we call diplomacy. The other, wholly corporeal and statuesque, is self-limited by its policy of autarkeia to the nearest and the most immediate present, and at every point stoutly denies that which Western being affirms." Conceptually, like Taleb, I'm a fan of City States as a model of government that seems to strike the right balance between collective will and power with limited scope and lots of variation, but Spengler thinks that the West is constitutionally unsuited to City States.
  • V2, L. 491, FM 64 - Spengler points out that today's Western law is defined by territory, whereas Classical law was defined by citizenship. To put it another way, in Italy today, Italian law applies to everyone in the country, but 2,000 years ago, Roman law applied to every Roman, wherever he was in the world, and not to anyone else in Italy (at least the rights of the law, you could still be sued, of course)
  • V2, L. 531 - Spengler believes that the West is uniquely suited to mass-printing, and therefore mass literacy, which sounds great, but also makes it uniquely suited to ideologies and other abstraction-based movements
  • V2, L. 563 - Spengler dismisses philosophizing about politics as useless and hiding from us what we might learn by observing the actual facts of politics, and as usual, I think he has a point, but also as with many of his thoughts, I think he's a bit too sweeping in claiming there's no value in applying abstract thinking to politics.
  • V2, L. 564 - Speaking of politics, here's a maybe useful way to think about it: "The being-streams of humanity are called History when we regard them as movement, and family, estate, people, nation, when we regard them as the object moved. Politics is the way in which this fluent Being maintains itself, grows, triumphs over other life-streams."
  • V2, L. 567 - "The born statesman is above all a valuer - a valuer of men, situations, and things. He has the 'eye' which unhesitatingly and inflexibly embraces the round of possibilities. The judge of horses takes in an animal with one glance ad knows what prospects it will have in a race. To do the correct thing without 'knowing' it, to have the hands that imperceptibly tighten or ease the bit - his talent is the very opposite to that of the man of theory." For me, this calls to mind Clausewitz's discussion of the "commander's eye," which is the ability for a military commander to look at and instantly comprehend a situation and what needs to be done about it.
  • V2, L. 570-571 - Spengler talks about how it's hard enough to do something great on your own, but it's way harder to build a tradition that consistently delivers men capable of great things - that is what a Culture is in its prime. The thing is, tradition, by its nature, eliminates the unique. So instead of a handful of truly great men, you get a large body or pretty good men. As Spengler put it "not a Caesar, but the Senate." This might be why you start seeing great men appear on the scene when these traditions stop so consistently producing fairly-high-excellence and become crappy. The wiggle room opened up is what naturally talented and ambitious men can use to do more than the tradition would have let them.
  • V2, L. 577 - "But always it is the Non-Estate, the unit of protest against the essence of Estate, whose leading minority - 'educated' and 'well-to-do' - comes forward as a party with a program, consisting of aims that are not felt but defined, and of the rejection of everything that cannot be rationally grasped. At bottom, therefore, there is only one party, that of the bourgeoisie, the liberal, and it is perfectly conscious of its position as such. It looks on itself as coextensive with 'the people.' Its opponents (above all, the genuine Estates - namely, 'squire and parson') are enemies and traitors to 'the people,' and its opinions are the 'voice of the people' - which is inoculated by all the expedients of party-political nursing, oratory in the Forum, press in teh West, until these opinions do fairly represent it."
  • V2, L. 580 - "An Estate has instincts, a party has a program, but a following has a master."
  • V2, L. 593 - "Today we live so cowed under the bombardment of this intellectual artillery that hardly anyone can attain to the inward detachment that is required for a clear view of the monstrous drama. The will-to-power operating under a pure democratic disguise has finished off its masterpiece so well that the object's sense of freedom is actually flatered by the most thorough-going enslavement that has ever existed. The liberal bourgeois mind is proud of the abolition of censorship, the last restraint, while the dictator of the press - Northcliffe! - keeps the slave-gang of his readers under the whip of his leading articles, telegrams, and pictures. Democracy has by its newspaper completely expelled the book from the mental life of the people. The book-world, with its profusion of standpoints that compelled thought to select and criticize, is now a real possession only for a few. The people reads the one paper, 'its' paper, which forces itself through the front doors by millions daily, spellbinds the intellect from morning to night, drives the book into oblivion by its more engaging layout, and if one or another specimen of a book does emerge into visibility, forestalls and eliminates its possible effects by 'reviewing' it." Am I a part of this process by writing these posts? Hmmm. Also, just imagine how he'd feel about social media!
  • V2, L. 594-595 - Just as widespread literacy makes folks more susceptible to abstraction-based ideologies and politics, once folks get used to getting their political thoughts from media, it's not a big jump for a single person to start sharing what he wants folks to do through that media, meaning that widespread literacy/access to information actually makes it easier for a caesar to arise. Ouch.
  • V2, L. 599 - Spengler sees the industrial economy for the historical aberration it is, which is hard enough to do today, but must have been nearly impossible in his time, when it was still on the ascendant
  • V2, L. 605 - Once again, Spengler contrasts the fields of Fact (like economics and politics) and the fields of Truth (like religion and philosophy) and how they are ultimately irreconcilable. Once again, I think he has good insight, but is overly strong. It also came to me that polytheism might help with some of these contradictions - not every "higher truth" has to be a universal higher truth - maybe some things really are transcendent realities of one kind or another, but their applicability is only to a given place, time, or folk?
  • V2, L. 607 - Spengler points out how in early Cultures, trade and war are intrinsically linked - they're both about getting stuff to bring back home, it's only the tactics that differ. This meshes with what we know about how Vikings worked - if it seemed easier/less risky/more profitable to trade, they'd trade, but if it seemed like they could just take what they wanted, they'd do that. This gave me a bit of insight into why the Romans might have identified Woden as "Mercury" - for the Germanish folks wandering into the Empire, trade and war were likely still obviously linked, and so when the Romans talked about a God of trade and exchange, they must have been like "oh yeah, we've got a God for that too"
  • V2, L. 622 - Spengler talks about how different Cultures have different flavors of "money thinking" - they literally see money in different ways and therefore seek and use it differently. I wonder if anyone else has picked up on this, as it might be rather interesting. At least to me, since I have a bit of a thing for the history and nature of money. So far, my favorite work on its history is Shelling Out by Nick Szabo, but that is pretty much the opposite to what Spengler is talking about, since he argues for the universal qualities of what makes money "money."

Did this post spark any thoughts? Have anything to ask or share? Feel free to send me an email at jeff DOT powell DOT russell AT, and I'll add your thoughts below. You can also comment on the dreamwidth post.

Understanding Spengler's Decline of the West Bit 5: Rationalism and Religiousness

Date: 2023-May-28

Posts on Spengler's Decline of the West

Looking over my notes for these two fat tomes, I think we are coming close to the end of my posts on Decline of the West. I'm thinking after this post, I'll do one more with a "grab bag" of thoughts, sayings, and other bits that jumped out at me and seem worth sharing, but that aren't drawn together by a lone thread the way posts up until this one have been. Of course, if you're hopping up and down yelling about something weighty I missed, by all means let me know, and who's to say we won't come back to Spengler sometime down the road? As I said, there's a lot in those books.

Ages of Reason - "We Will Understand Everything!"

As every Culture goes about its development, it finds that its own world-feeling brings it insights into how the world works that no other Culture has had. Drawn on by the intoxicating aroma of intellectual breakthroughs, it starts to see the patterns in the insights of its thinkers and as a group, they work out an overall framework for understanding the world based on these patterns. Early on, such work has great drive and high hopes - "we'll understand the world and how it works down to the deepest groundings!" Here in those Cultures shaped by the Faustian, we are most familiar with one flavor of this: "the Enlightenment." When the Royal Society and friends got going, they had very high hopes that hidden underpinnings of the world would be made clear, and that we would come to finally understand the world the way it "really" is. Many folks still hold out hope that the scientific method will bring this about, but the, erm, embarrassing fact that major physics breakthroughs stopped happening nearly a hundred years ago is making itself harder and harder to ignore.

The thing is, looking backward and farther afield, we can see that ours is not the first Culture to find an intellectual tool of great might, wield it against every conceivable problem, and become convinced that it is the end-all, be-all of intellectual investigation. The Apollonian Culture worked out formal reason and thought that everything worth knowing could be worked out with it. The Magian Culture came up with Algebra and linked ways of turning hard problems into numbers, as well as the thought of "variables" - numbers whose value you didn't know, but about which you could make reasonable statements. The Chinese Culture, focused as it always has been on how folks get along in the world, turned its Age of Reason on human interactions and politics, coming up with some of the most systematic understandings of human behavior ever written down. As I said above, the crowning achievement of Faustian Reason is, of course, the Scientific Method, and its bleeding edge is those fields of science that require analytical mathematics.

Now, this is one of the stronger arguments I have for why Spengler is wrong in his contention that nothing truly gets carried over from one culture to another - modern computing would never have happened without an attempt to put together formal logic with algebraic variables in an effort to more readily solve analytic math problems (check out Babbage's Difference Engine sometime). If you've learned that "if p, then q does not necessarily imply if not p, then not q," then you are an heir to the height of the Classical age of reason. Hell, if you've learned that a triangle's angles must add up to 180 degrees, then you are too. Likewise with algebra and Magian civilization. I think it very likely that the great Cultures of the years to come will make use of the scientific method and calculus, without the Faustian assumption that these ways and these alone will throw open the veils of nature's mysteries.

As I said above, all of these systems are very good at unriddling the hidden truths of the world. Unluckily, none of them can unriddle every hidden truth of the world. Each Culture has its own unique way of seeing the world, and uses that to see things that no other Culture has yet. But just as that point of view brings insight, it also brings blind spots. Systems of Reason are systems of abstraction, and no abstraction can handle every nuance. In fact, as these systems of abstraction build, they tend to turn inward upon themselves - abstractions about abstractions and so on, ad nauseam. It turns out the world is a big, weird place, and the little lumps of wet electric meat we use to make sense of it can only go so far. Which means that after a long enough time of using this shiny new hammer to treat every mystery as a nail, Cultures start to work out that their given way of understanding the world rationally doesn't deliver on its promise to replace the certainty once given by religious thought and feeling. Systems of reason tear apart the old sources of meaning with the promise that they will find greater meaning on the other side of the carnage, but then never deliver on that promise. And so, as Cultures transition into Civilizations, they find themselves needing to get back in touch with meaning. Which brings us to the "Second Religiousness."

The Second Religiousness - "Actually, We Need Meaning Again"

Spengler argues that as a Culture turns into a Civilization, one of the many threads of exhaustion and ennui that adds to the loss of Cultural vigor is that the Age of Reason fails to live up to its early high hopes. It turns out that you can't work everything out logically if you're just careful enough about premises. Nor can variables capture all of the complexity of our messy world. And, these days, it seems that not even the scientific method can unravel every last mystery - physics has stalled out since at least the 70s, and attempts at grand, unifying theories have been found… wanting. Unluckily, along the way, systems of Reason tend to wholly dismantle the faith that gave meaning before their rise. And so, when the methods of Reason start to falter, the folk of that Civilization find themselves face-to-face with the big, scary world, and every way of making it have meaning has been found wanting in one way or another. And so, the folks of the Civilization turn their hearts and minds back toward what once brought meaning - the spiritual yearnings of the original "World-Feeling" that underlies their Culture's "Soul Image" that we already talked about.

Coming back to this sense of "what the world is like" that was there at the dawn of the Culture, but now in a powerful Civilization that has interacted with, or even subjugated, very unalike cultures, this "Second Religiousness" tends to be syncretic in nature. It pieces together the images, stories, and symbolism of widely varied Cultures into a way of describing the Civilization's most deeply felt sense of the world. In other words, to use a recent pop culture reference, you get a "reboot" of the same original spiritual conception, but using the symbolic, philosophical, and literary furniture of a more cosmopolitan age. The mashup of Taoism, Buddhism, Animism, and Ancestor Worship that became "Chinese Traditional Religion," the blend of Greek philosophy, Egyptian Magic, and Middle Eastern rites that was late Classical paganism, and so forth. It's impossible to predict exactly what shape the Second Religiousness will take ahead of time, but you can guess at some of what it will be like. The first stirrings of this trend come when the Civilization is still feeling its worldly strength (such as the Augustan age in Rome), but when hindsight will show it has passed its peak.

Some say that here in the West, we're starting to see the first signs of the Second Religiousness with things like Tradcaths and the growing interest in Orthodox Christianity. It's hard to say, since these things are best identified with hindsight, but whatever shape it takes, it will likely be something that speaks to whatever Gothic Catholicism did, but in a new way, bringing in elements from around the world. Maybe it will be a Buddhism with communion and yoga, or Christianity with Orisha and Stoic Ethics. Again, we can't say ahead of time, but it's very likely that as science keeps on showing itself inadequate to answer the deepest questions of meaning, we will see more and more folks turn (back) to religion, whatever shape it takes. Given my own interests, I'm very curious to see what happens in my lifetime.

Wrapping Up

As I said at the top, right now, I'm thinking one more post on some of the grabby thoughts from the books that didn't quite have enough meat on the bone for whole posts, but there's always more to dig into here, most of all if/when I get to reading some other Cyclical History thinkers, like Vico or Toynbee. For now, though, I hope these posts have helped you understand Spengler, or at least to know what folks are on about when they bring him up. If not, do let me know, and I'll do what I can to make them better.

Did this post spark any thoughts? Have anything to ask or share? Feel free to send me an email at jeff DOT powell DOT russell AT, and I'll add your thoughts below. You can also comment on the dreamwidth post.

Understanding Spengler's Decline of the West Bit 4: Time & Destiny against Space & Motion

Date: 2023-May-19

Posts on Spengler's Decline of the West

We've now gone over what I believe to be the weightiest things to take away from Decline of the West: looking at history and cultures morphologically, thinking about cultures as if they are living thing, and the thought that each culture is defined by its "Soul Image". I thought about wrapping up this series there, but these two weighty tomes have a lot of stuff to them, and I think there's a few more things worth getting from the books. I'm working these posts out as I go, so I'm not sure how many more we'll have, but for today, at least, we've got more Spengler to dive into. This time we're going to talk about two key distinctions he makes throughout the book and the general idea that underlies both of them: time versus destiny, and space versus motion. With these, Spengler gets darn near metaphysical, so let's dig in.

Time and Destiny - What Happened against What to Do

Spengler talks often about the difference between "time" and "destiny." This is one of those steads where he speaks very emphatically and kind of assumes you know what he means, but he mostly just gestures at examples of the distinction and says "see? This what I'm talking about." The best way I can think to put it is that time is what you perceive when you look back over events and make sense of what happened when, whereas destiny is the feeling of being in the moment or looking ahead and being aware that things change. Time is the purview of the historian, the dry content of stories of what came before. Destiny is the purview of the man of action - it's the feeling that things will not last, that you can change their course, and the world might be some other way than what it is now. Spengler talks about how folks of different classes tend to feel more of one or more of the other, but also how during different phases of a Culture's lifecycle, one way or the other tends to be more widespread. Time is farthest from Destiny when it is treated as a measurable quantity, merely one more kind of distance.

In fact, Spengler argues that the very idea of "cause and effect" is an artifact of a rationalizing/systematizing way of looking at Time. You can only clearly identify cause and effect after the event, as you think about what happened as a sequence of episodes, rather than the fluid, organic flow of one thing happening into another. Now, obviously, Spengler doesn't mean that you can't take an action because you know or suspect what outcome it will bring, but this is from past experience. To the degree that it's automatic (you move your hand to where the ball will be to catch it), you're not really thinking in terms of cause and effect - you have a goal and you do what you need to do to get it. You don't have to understand the ballistics of the ball mathematically to do that. On the other hand, if you are reasoning about cause and effect consciously, in advance, you're really doing two things, both of which are backward-looking. First, you are drawing on facts about the world that you know, whether from experience, book learning, or whatever, and comparing them to this situation. Secondly, you are imagining the end state and then asking "what would it take for me to be there instead of here?" So you are looking backward in your imagination.

Let's get real weird and mix our Spengler with a little pop culture. This example is perfect, but you may or may not know it. In the surprisingly-great cartoon show Gravity Falls, one of the main characters, a 12 year old boy named Dipper, has an enormous crush on a cool older girl, Wendy. There's a party at the funky tourist trap they both work at (Dipper's uncle runs the place is why he's working as a 12 year old). Dipper, being the nerdy reasoning type comes up with a plan with literal numbered steps about how he will talk to Wendy and get her to like him. The show being what it is, this leads to hilarious paranormal hijinks, and of course this ridiculous plan doesn't work, but in the midst of it, Dipper runs into Wendy while they're both waiting to go to the bathroom, and they just talk, and it goes great. When Dipper tried to plan every step, to know what would happen in what sequence and how long it would take, he was dealing with Time. When he just got out of his own way and acted like a normal human with the flesh and blood girl in front of him, he was dealing with Destiny

So, to bring it back to Spengler, he believed that early in a Culture's lifecycle, it is more caught up with Destiny, and less worried about Time. Later, during the Civilization phases, Time comes to dominate. I should likely stress that Spengler doesn't say that either is better, though you always kind of get the impression he finds Destiny more appealing and mourns living in an age where no one can avoid thinking more about Time than Destiny. He also felt that men concerned with Life (the capital L is in the text), with shaping the world to their will, tend to feel Destiny more keenly, whereas eggheads, bean counters, and scribblers (thinkers, merchants, and writers) tend to see the world through the lens of Time.

Space and Motion - Where to Move Through against What Even Is "Moving"

Okay, I've got to come clean here - this one has been tough for me to get my head around, and I'm not wholly sure I'm there yet. Spengler believed that a Culture's Depth-Feeling, the way it experienced the physical space around it, and the fact that some things are closer and some things are farther, was one of the main drivers of their World-Feeling, which is expressed by the Soul-Image we talked about last time. He says that the Faustian obsession with far-off point on the horizon, always visible, always receding, comes from the experience of both mighty, towering trees in the forests of northern and western Europe, and also from the plains of central Europe. The obsession with what is right here that I can touch held by the Apollonian culture was born of tiny islands and a craggy peninsula, where your entire life might be lived in a physical space that you can see all of from most vantage points. The Magian "great dome" is rooted in the experience of the roof of stars in piercing brilliance stretched over the clear, desert night.

In other words, Spengler believed that different Cultures feel "space" very differently, and that the way folks in the modern West think of "space" is very much shaped by the Faustian Depth- and World-Feelings, and our understanding of "motion" even more so (more on that in a moment). The way that we think of "space" as a fixed, abstract dimension, as if we are moving around in a three-axis Cartesian plot with coordinates around an origin, is deeply rooted in how Faustian culture experiences the world around it. Scholars of the Apollonian Culture would likely have found such thoughts strange. Artistically, Western culture is the only one ever to come up with linear vanishing-point perspective, because to Renaissance artists (firmly Faustian in Spengler's mind, fooling themselves about how "Classical" they were), that was just "how the world looked", but to artists from other cultures is just did not look that way, or to whatever degree it did, that was not what was important to represent two-dimensionally.

Now, if Motion is understood as objects changing location in Space, then you can see that how a Culture sees Space can't help but shape its understanding of Motion. Newton's expression of Motion as forces acting upon mass in space obviously has a lot to recommend it - look at what the West has done with this model! But it turns out that "force" is kind of a weird, tricky idea to actually pin down, and a bunch of physicists since have tried to find ways of understanding motion that don't require it. Spengler says that Newton was expressing some pretty fundamental ideas about what the world is and how it works that were deeply rooted in the Faustian psyche. I'm not gonna lie to you, Marge: I don't wholly get what Spengler means here, so let's let the man speak for himself:

Newton, a deeply religious nature, was only bringing the Faustian world-feeling to expression when, to elucidate the words "force" and "motion," he said that masses are points of attack for force and carriers for motion. So the thirteenth-century Mystics had conceived of God and his relation to world. Newton no doubt rejected the metaphysical element in his famous saying "hypotheses non fingo [I contrive no hypotheses]," but all the same he was metaphysical through and through in the founding of his mechanics. Force is the mechanical Natures-picture of Western man; what Will is to his soul-picture and infinite Godhead in his world-picture. The primary ideas of this physics stood firm long before the first physicist was born, for they lay in the earliest religious world-consciousness of our Culture.

Spengler, O. (2020). Decline of the West, Volume I: Form and Actuality. Arktos. Page 517. Emphasis in the original.

Right now, my main takeaway is that when you are living in Destiny, rather than time, you don't really give much heed to "motion" as a thing - you just notice what the moving things around you are doing and what it means to you (grab this, dodge that, dance with her, run from him, and so forth). When you stop and try to work out what's "really" happening there, you have to have some sense of Space as a thing that can be measured, and Time as a thing that can be measured, and those are both deeply rooted in your Culture's worldview, so the science your culture invents will be shaped by those, likely at a way-down-deep level where you don't even notice it. In the same chapter that the above quote is from, Spengler argues that a Culture's "Nature-knowing" (what we call science these days) thinks that it is an objective study of what's "out there," but that it might be better understood as an extremely sophisticated way for a culture to come to understand itself.

Closing - What to Do With These Thoughts?

As you can see, these thoughts are maybe less directly helpful in making sense of the world than the big ones we've touched on in earlier posts. That being said, if you are intrigued by Spengler's way of looking at the world and you'd like to apply some of his tools, these are where we start to get specific enough to start doing some original analysis. Say you want a "Spenglerian" take on a Culture he doesn't get much into, like the pre-Columbian Mesoamericans, or China, or India. Here's where to start - what kind of Destiny called its men of action to do their great deeds? How did its natural philosophers come to think about Time? What Depth-Feeling shaped their sense of Space? How did they conceive of objects moving through that Space?

The other big thing that is helpful about these thoughts is that they make very clear that the things we take for granted, stuff that we assume are "objective facts about the universe" are, instead, models. "The Map is Not the Territory." Every understanding of the world involves some amount of abstraction - taking heed of some things about the world and leaving others out. The world is too big and weird for us to do otherwise. Spengler gives a wealth of examples to really disabuse you of the likely lingering feeling that "yeah, okay, I know, they're all models, but this one is basically how it really is, right?"

As I said many times above, I'm not wholly happy with my understanding of these thoughts, so we may come back to them, and I'd welcome any thoughts, add-ons, or fixes.

Did this post spark any thoughts? Have anything to ask or share? Feel free to send me an email at jeff DOT powell DOT russell AT, and I'll add your thoughts below. You can also comment on the dreamwidth post.

Understanding Spengler's Decline of the West, Bit 3: The Soul Image

Date: 2023-May-14

Posts on Spengler's Decline of the West

Okay, so last time I put forth that Spengler's thought that Cultures are best looked at as living beings that have a common lifecycle that can be found out by looking at many cultures morphologically was the single biggest and most helpful thought in these big, fat books. Today, I want to talk about what comes in a very close second - the "Soul Image" (though Spengler talks about the same thing in a few ways throughout the books, this is the term in the Table of Contents, and so I'm treating it as the "most official." No idea what words he uses in German for the same thought). If the thought behind Culture as Organism is to look at the ways in which Cultures across time and space are alike, the Soul Image is meant to tell us the ways that they are unalike. This might be Spengler's most touchy-feely, qualitative, hard-to-prove, easy-to-argue concept in his whole mighty tome, but it is also the beating heart of said tome. You either run into this idea and go "oh wow, yeah, that is so right!" or else you recoil from it as unprovable, judgmental hogwash. Sounds fun, right? Let's jump in.

Spengler believed that what made a Great Culture a Great Culture was that the folks who made it up had some deeply felt sense about what the world is like and what someone alive in it ought to do about that. He further believed that this sense was shaped by the lands that gave rise to these Cultures - an Egyptian tending his fields after the yearly flood of the Nile has enriched them is going to understand the world and its workings rather unlike the way that a German peasant who had to cut his field out of a deep, dark, and gnarly wood is going to, and neither of them will much see the world like a Mongolian herder rounding up his sheep on the vast steppe. The land, the turnings of the year, the weather, the plants and beasts that make up the background to life will all lead to folks thinking about the world and what it's like in ways that don't look much like each other. How do we know? Well, take a look at the art they make, the buildings they build, the music they make, and so forth. In other words, look at their culture, in the sense that the word meant before the anthropologists got a hold of it and gave it a broader and more universal meaning. Spengler had no truck with that - to him, "primitive" people didn't have "culture" - that was reserved for the folks who went out and did great things and made art. I never said the guy wasn't a snob, but he was at least a very well-trained snob.

Okay, this is all rather abstract, so let's try to look at some of the Soul Images Spengler talks about. For the Classical or Apollonian Culture (Greeks and Romans), the Soul Image was the perfect human body, right here, defined tangible, in a particular place. For the Middle Eastern or Magian (from ~200-100 BCE or so), it is sitting within a great dome, whether a cave, the roof of a tent, or the night sky in the desert, placed there by an all-powerful and personally involved creator. For the Western or Faustian Culture (European from ~500 CE), the Soul Image is the idea of chasing an ever-receding point in infinite space - the distant goal on the horizon or the point where all the trees in the forest seem to come together in the sky. Spengler speaks a bit about the Egyptian, Chinese, Indian, and Mesoamerican Soul Images, but he knew these Cultures and their histories less well and they had less direct bearing on his Europe and where it might be going. His thought is that each of these Soul Images is the deeply felt sense of something deep and weighty, something that stirs the soul, but that is ever so hard to truly say or show someone - that's why it takes a Culture over a thousand years to wear out the artistic, architectural, and philosophical possibilities of that Soul Image and settle into rehashing what has come before during the Civilization bit of the lifecycle.

Spengler believed that someone from a given Culture could not help but see the world through its Soul Image, and on the flip side, could not truly understand how folks from another Culture saw the world or what their Soul Image was all about. Oh sure, you could come to understand it intellectually, but it would never be deeply felt as "just how things are" the way it would be for a native of the culture. A crude analogy from my own experience: if you are a Millenial or a Gen Xer, chances are pretty good that you marked the coming of Anime to the United States. In the 80s, a handful of deeply weird and often very bloody films found their way into odd pockets of US popular culture, and a few more shows were carefully localized and cleaned up for American audiences and presented without their Japaneseness being highlighted (like Robotech). In the 90s, this picked up a bit, and you started finding American folks who were into "Anime" as a genre/subculture/fandom/whatever - my cool older friend showed me a fan sub of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind that his college Anime Club had put together when he was home for the summer. By the early 2000's, the makers of mainstream American animation had recognized a hot fad and wanted to get in on the action. The result was a stream of American-made cartoons that sloppily and awkwardly aped not only the visual style of Anime (which was itself a Japanese re-interpretation of Disney animation, originally), but also attempted to bring in bits of Japanese culture or tropes (like the giant sweat drop in frame to show a character's embarrassment, or a guy getting a nosebleed because he's so turned on by a girl). The worst were the attempts to copy Japanese humor. The Americans making this stuff kinda-sorta understood what anime was doing, and they recognized something appealing, but they did not grok it in fullness, and the results were often cringeworthy. By the 2010s, most folks involved in and interested in animation had worked out ways to take the stuff from anime that was most amenable to American culture and more smoothly incorporate it, and you didn't get as much stuff faking being Japanese.

Maybe this example doesn't resonate with you, but I'm sure that you can think of examples of (popular) culture where folks from one Culture have tried to imitate an artform, trope, style, or way of being from another Culture, and the results have been hilariously off. Spengler called such attempts to adopt the Soul Image of another Culture pseudomorphosis. The term comes from geology. Imagine a formation of limestone surrounded by another, harder rock. Over time, the limestone is eroded away by water, leaving a limestone-shaped and textured hollow. Then, some magma flows into this space and fills it like metal cast into a mold. You now have a formation that has the outward appearance of limestone, but the composition of an igneous rock. This is an igneous rock that has undergone a pseudomorphosis, which is Greek for "false shaping." Spengler makes much use of this metaphor in understanding history and to explain why the Cultures he sees, and the lifecycle he propounds for them, have not been more obvious to others. Spengler saw pseudomorphosis when a Culture (usually younger and with less worldly power) runs into another Culture and for one reason or another tries to adopt artistic, architectural, or intellectual styles from the other Culture, but in the process, can't help but apply its own Soul Image.

One of Spengler's more provocative assertions is that the usual understanding of "Western Culture" is mistaken, and is, in fact, a series of successive Cultures given a false sense of continuity through pseudomorphoses. You had the Classical/Apollonian Culture, which hardened into a Civilization by the Hellenistic era, meaning that most of what we remember about Rome was also in the Civilization phase, then as that Civilization was crumbling, the young, vigorous Middle Eastern/Magian Culture took on a Classical pseudomorphosis, giving us "Late Antiquity," the early Christian Church, and the Byzantine Empire. And lastly, the Magian-wearing-Classical-Clothes church then provided a pseudomorphosis for the aborning Western/Faustian culture in the late Dark Ages/Early Medieval period, with a more conscious and direct Classical pseudomorphosis in the Renaissance. In other words, the great continuity of the "Western Canon" taught in universities until rather recently, from Homer through Faulkner, was seen by Spengler as glossing over real and important transitions and changes in worldview.

As I said near the top of this post, Spengler's argument rests on a lot of subjective, qualitative judgment, which many folks immediately take as "therefore not valid." But heimjunge built those subjective, qualitative judgments on a lot of knowledge of the Culture(s) at hand, and so it's worth at least taking the assertion seriously as a point to consider. One example of what I mean that's relevant to some of the other interests I blog about: the "Neoplatonists" like Plotinus and Iamblichus were philosophers/religious figures of the 3rd Century CE. Most historians see these as straightforwardly late-Classical members of the Hellenistic world, heirs to the clearly Classical Plato that their name implies. Not so Señor Spengler. He says that if you actually read what Neoplatonists believed, it seems to have a lot more in common with the mostly-monotheistic beliefs of the Middle Eastern/Magian world, and shares their concern with spelled-out ethical systems, rather than the Classical focus on the individual and his excellence. In other words, Spengler argues that the Neoplatonists are truly Magian, but undergoing a Classical pseudomorphosis. Likewise, most folks see the Christian Church as an element of continuity between the late Roman Empire and the Middle Ages. Spengler instead points out how very unalike the faith of the Desert Fathers with its asceticism and strict monotheism was from medieval Catholicism with its panoply of saints and great focus on Mary - again, he sees European Catholicism as a Faustian religious expression under a Magian pseudomorphosis.

I find the idea of pseudomorphosis, along with the foundational idea that different cultures really are deeply different, a helpful one, but I don't take it quite as far as Spengler did. Splengler thought that folks from different cultures could never truly understand the world in the same way, and that when one Culture took something from another, it was only ever a shallow imitation. To his mind, the Hagia Sophia was truly Magian and the fact that it borrowed Classical architecture was a diminishment or misdirection of that underlying Soul Image. Likewise the cathedrals of Europe - to the degree that they used Classical or Magian models, they were obfuscating the Faustian spirit trying to express itself through them. To some degree, I'm sure that Spengler was overreacting to the default position of absolute continuity from (at least) Greece through to the modern West that was popular in his day. He also might have been overstating his case either for rhetorical effect, or from the usual attachment we form with our best-loved ideas. Whatever the case, I think Spengler took too hard of a line.

I think the true picture is more complicated (and more interesting). For one thing, there are some elements of deep cultural continuity that we know about - for example, did you know that some fairy tales go back to at least the ice age? Or how about the fact that until very recently, anywhere from Ireland to India, it was assumed that a woman would take her husband's name when they got married - that has its roots in proto-Indo-European cultural practice. So, for Spengler to argue that everything the West got from the Apollonian or Magian cultures was "false" in some sense strikes me as far fetched. The Neoplatonism mentioned above comes to mind - though surely we understand it differently today than did Plotinus, and he was likely farther from Plato than he might have thought, there's a common thread of understanding the world uniting nearly 2500 years of thinkers, and that's pretty cool.

Did this post spark any thoughts? Have anything to ask or share? Feel free to send me an email at jeff DOT powell DOT russell AT, and I'll add your thoughts below. You can also comment on the dreamwidth post.

Understanding Spengler's Decline of the West, Bit 2: Culture as Organism

Date: 2023-May-07

Lead-In: The Grounding for Spengler's Whole Work is "Culture as Living Thing with a Lifecycle"

Last time, we talked about Spengler's use of morphology to understand history and identify parallels between different Cultures at different times. Today, I'd like to talk about why he chose a biological metaphor and what he got from it. Maybe the key takeaway from The Decline of the West is the thought that Great Cultures/Civilizations are best thought of as living things that are born, grow up, show certain hallmarks, and after some time, grow old and die - just like you, me, and every other man, beast, and plant on earth. I don't know whether Spengler had the insight that Cultures are like living things and so pulled out the morphology, or if his use of the morphological way of understanding things led him to the thought that Cultures are best seen as living things. Either way, the two thoughts are very closely linked, and so I had some trouble working out which to speak to first, or even whether they ought to be two posts of their own, or put together into one. As you can clearly see, I went with two posts of their own, with "morphology" coming first, and now onto the lifecycle of Cultures. I thought that the lifecycle would be easier to talk about if we had the shared understanding of morphology that the last post hopefully brought about, and so now here we are.

"Culture" against "Civilization" - Phases in the Lifecycle

First off, a bit of terminology that might be confusing if you have bumped into Spengler's thoughts, but not read his book. He talks about Cultures and Civilizations (the capital letters are used to make it clear we're talking about a specific concept here). I have heard that the German words Kultur and Zivilisation might have connotations closer to what Spengler meant in his work, but I don't speak German, and so I can't quite say. Instead, let me explain what I understand from the translation. When Spengler speaks of a "Culture," he does not mean just some group of folks with a shared way of being in the world, the way your Cultural Anthropology professor might. Instead, he means a group of folks with a very particular insight into the world (a "World Image," which we'll talk about more next time), that are in the midst of doing great things to explore that insight and try to make it manifest through art, writing, politics, and ways of living - everything that a modern English speaker would call (note the little 'c') "culture." A "Civilization," on the other hand, is what a Culture turns into when it has exhausted itself in exploring its particular way of looking at the world and instead just uses that way of looking at the world to get material things done, like conquering other folks who don't have their stuff quite as together. In Spengler's way of looking at things, Cultures are young, vibrant, alive, messy, and creative. Civilizations, on the other hand, are old, stodgy, dead, orderly, and derivative. We're going to talk more about this lifecycle as we go, but the most helpful bit to take away is the thought that Cultures are alive and fresh and still working things out, whereas Civilizations are (spiritually) old and tired, even if they are materially on top of the world. The example that most helps me is that Spengler placed the Classical Culture from roughly the Doric period (~1100 BCE) until Alexander (~323 BCE), and pretty much all of non-mythical Roman history was in its Civilization phase. One of the most interesting, most studied periods of human history, at least in the West, nearly 600 years, was all in the "dead" phase of Civilization.

Spengler's Detailed Lifecycle Phases

In the back of Decline of the West, Volume I are a set of tables that I don't think I gave the heed they were worth when I first read the book. These lay out, step-by-step, phases of Spiritual, Cultural, and Political development over the course of a Culture's life.

Spiritual Epochs

  • Spring
    1. Birth of a Myth of the Grand Style, Expressing a New God-Feeling. World-Fear. World-Longing.
    2. Earliest Mystical-Metaphysical Shaping of the New World-Outlook Zenith of Scholasticism
  • Summer
    1. Reformation: Internal Popular Opposition to the Great Springtime Forms
    2. Beginning of a Purely Philosophical Form of the World-Feeling. Opposition of Idealistic and Realistic Systems.
    3. Formation of a New Mathematic Conception of Number as Copy and Content of World-Form
    4. Puritanism. Rationalistic-Mystic Impoverishment of Religion
  • Autumn
    1. "Enlightenment." Belief in Almightiness of Reason. Cult of "Nature." "Rational" Religion.
    2. Zenith of Mathematical Thought. Elucidation of the Form-World of Numbers
    3. The Great Conclusive Systems
  • Winter
    1. Materialistic World-Outlook. Cult of Science, Utility, and Prosperity
    2. Ethical-Social Ideals of Life. Epoch of "Unmathematical Philosophy." Skepsis.
    3. Inner Completion of the Mathematical Form-World. The Concluding Thought.
    4. Degradation of Abstract Thinking into Professional Lecture-Room Philosophy. Compendium Literature.
    5. Spread of a Final World-Sentiment

Cultural Epochs

  • Pre-Cultural Period
    1. Chaos of Primitive Expression Forms. Mystical Symbolism and Naive Imitation
  • Culture
    • Early Period
      1. Birth and Rise. Forms sprung from the Land, unconsciously shaped
      2. Completion of the early form-language. Exhaustion of possibilities. Contradiction.
    • Late Period
      1. Formation of a Mature artistry
      2. Perfection of an Intellectualized Form-Language
      3. Exhaustion of strict creativeness. Dissolution of grand form. End of the Style. "Classicism" and "Romanticism."
  • Civilization
    1. "Modern Art." "Art Problems." Attempts to portray or to excite the megapolitan consciousness. Transsformation of Music, architecture, and painting into mere craft-arts.
    2. End of form-development. Meaningless, empty, artificial, pretentious architecture and ornament. Imitation of archaic and exotic motives.
    3. Finale. Formation of a fixed stock of forms. Imperial display by means of material and mass. Provincial craft-art.

Political Epochs

  • Pre-Cultural Period - Primitive Folk. Tribes and Their Chiefs. As Yet No "Politics" and No "State"
  • Culture - National Groups of Definite Style and Particular World-Feeling. "Nations." Working of an Immanent State-Idea

    1. Early Period. Organic articulation of Political existence. The two prime classes (noble and priest). Feudal economics; purely agrarian values
      1. Feudalism. Spirit of countryside and countryman. The "City" only a market or stronghold. Chivalric-religious ideals. Struggles of vassals amongst themselves and against overlord.
      2. Crisis and dissolution of patriarchal forms. From feudalism to aristocratic State.

    II. Late Period. Actualizing of the matured State-idea. Town versus countryside. Rise of Third Estate (Bourgeoisie). Victory of money over landed property

    1. Fashioning of a world of States of strict form. Frondes.
    2. Climax of the State-form ("Absolutism") Unity of town and country ("State" and "Society." The "three estates")
    3. Break-up of the Stateform (Revolution and Napoleonism). Victory fo the city over the countryside (of the "people" over the privileged, of the intelligentisia over tradition, of money over policy)
  • Civilization - The Body of the People, Now Essentially Urban in Constitution, Dissolves into Formless Mass. Megalopolis and Provinces. The Fourth Estate ("Masses"), Inorganic, Cosmopolitan
    1. Domination of Money ("Democracy") Economic powers permeating the political forms and authorities
    2. Formation of Caesarism. Victory of force-politics over money. Increasing primitiveness of political forms. Inward decline of the nations into a formless population, and constitution thereof as an Imperium of gradually-increasing crudity of despotism
    3. Maturing of the final form. Private and family policies of individual leaders. The world as spoil. Egyptism, Mandarinism, Byzantism. History less stiffening and enfeeblement even of the imperial machinery, against young peoples eager for spoil, or alien conquerors. Primitive human conditions slowly thrust up into the highly civilized mode of living.

Putting the Above Together

As you can see, Spengler had a few different ways of comparing Cultures/Civilizations. The toughest to fit together is the Spiritual Epochs with the other two, but roughly speaking, "Spring" is the Early Period of the Culture and "Summer" is the Late Period, and then the Civilization is split between "Autumn" and "Winter." The tables in the book list examples for each segment from different Cultures/Civilizations (Indian, Egyptian, Chinese, Classical, Arabian, and Western), to give a feeling of what he means by the labels I've copied above. There's a lot of terms that might be a bit head-scratching without Spengler's spelling them out in the work, like what he means by "Form" and so forth, but the general idea comes out pretty clearly: early on in a Culture, the folk have a way of seeing/understanding things that they just have to find a way to make real. This drives them to make all kinds of art and architecture and to come together into a political unit. Eventually, this unit solidifies and has command over great material resources, but has lost its ability to tap into deeper spiritual truths.

Where are We? Early Autumn

So, according to Spengler, the West was moving into the "Early Autumn" or first phases of "Civilization" in the early 20th century, and so we're just a bit further along that curve here about 100 years later. So, we're maybe in the "Caesarism" phase politically (charismatic leaders use the love of the people to seize absolute power), we are somewhere in between rebelling against the artistic forms our Culture developed and emptily aping them, and our philosophical thinking is in the highly abstract phase. I don't know that I'd say this is obviously true, but it's hard to say it's impossible. Whether you agree with this placement or not, the thought that different Cultures/Civilizations follow different arcs, and that we might place our own by careful attention to the past is a useful one, and I hope you find the above tables fruitful in the exercise.

Did this post spark any thoughts? Have anything to ask or share? Feel free to send me an email at jeff DOT powell DOT russell AT, and I'll add your thoughts below. You can also comment on the dreamwidth post.

Understanding Spengler's Decline of the West, Bit 1: Morphology

Date: 2023-April-30

Posts on Spengler's Decline of the West

Last year, as part of my "read only books by dead authors" challenge, I read both Volumes of Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West. I found it very interesting and helpful, but it was not what you would call an easy read. So, I thought I'd spend a few posts doing my best to put forth the most helpful thoughts from the book in a way that might be a little more handy. Also, it will help me get those ways of looking at the world settled into my own head, so even if I don't succeed at the first, I'll at least have the other one going for me.

First, in case you don't know, let's go over who Oswald Spengler is and what was his magnum opus. Spengler was a German thinker and writer with rather broad knowledge who lived and wrote around the turn of the 20th century. The Decline of the West was published in 1918 (first volume) and 1922 (the second). When first published, it made a huge stir, everyone educated was talking about it, responding to it, and arguing about it, but these days, you mostly only hear about him from folks with tastes in less mainstream takes on history. The core thesis of the book is that groups of humans (Cultures) have a distinctive lifecycle, like a living thing, this cycle includes growing old and dying, and that Western civilization is starting into that old age. You might assume from the publication date that this was just a reaction to WWI, but he actually completed volume I on the eve of the Great War, and for obvious reasons couldn't get it published until it was over.

Before we talk about Spengler's view of history and the world, let's take a tick to think about why he's forgotten by most folks these days. The first reason you might have already guessed: he was a right wing German in the early 20th century, and that's not exactly a popular description these days. Spengler didn't much care for Hitler or the Nazis, but he was a German nationalist in the days before that got stamped out of the country hard. The second reason is that his theories deal with the differences between "races," another view of the world not so much in fashion these days. Interestingly, he thought that "race" had more to do with the land and culture and less to do with biology, but that's a nuance that most folks don't get to with him. The last reason I'd point out, though, might be the most interesting: massive cultural cognitive dissonance. What do I mean? Well, already in Spengler's day, but even more so today, "Progress" is the core tenet of faith in Western Culture. Everything has been getting better since as far back as we can look and will just keep getting better forever. "From the caves to the stars." Well, Spengler took a big ol' dump all over this way of looking at the world. So, his thinking was rejected by the culture as a whole, for being incompatible with its core beliefs. That's just what makes him so interesting and potentially useful, of course.

Before we can dig into why he thought the West was/would be in decline, we have to understand Spengler's whole way of looking at the world. Spengler's intellectual hero was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. He looked to Goethe as a model of how to understand the world - through science, history, literature, and best of all, through a well-rounded, holistic view that took all of these into account. This is a fundamentally qualitative way of understanding, and the West spent most of the years between Goethe's time and Spengler's working out how to understand as much of the world as possible quantitatively. Spengler respected what these approaches could do, and acknowledged a lot of discoveries that came out of them, but he felt that the mania for quantification had crowded out the qualitative approach that allows for truly understanding large, messy topics. It is due to this qualitative approach that Decline of the West is sometimes called "unscientific," but I would argue that it is instead scientific in an older way - eighteenth century philosophers would have recognized this work as plenty scientific, as it is based on a lot of careful empirical observation and drawing generalizations from those.

One method of qualitative science that Spengler relies on extensively, in fact that provides the framework for the whole work, is morphology, and this is the bit of Spengler's thinking I'd like to focus on in this post. His approach in the book is to look at the various cultures of the world and throughout history as if each is a living being and to look at the structural elements of those beings. Let's take a tick to ground this in the field Spengler borrowed the approach from: biology. Let's say that you want to look at both domestic cows and wild buffalo and find out what's alike and what's not between them. You could go out in the field and watch some of both kinds of animals and take careful note of how they behave. You'd see some likenesses, like that both animals spend a lot of time grazing, gather in herds, and so forth, but you'd also see some differences - like the cows going into a barn when it got cold, or being herded around by a dog. This would be an ethological approach. On the other hand, you might bring one of each animal into the lab and start taking measurements. You might even cut them apart and start looking at their organs and bones, seeing how they're shaped, how they fit together, and how they're linked. This would be a morphological approach. Both ways give you an understanding of the animals, and you'd learn a lot of the same stuff from both, since you are still looking at the same animals, but you'd also learn some things from one approach and not the other.

Most history might be thought of as "human ethology" - it focuses on the behavior of individuals and groups, what they did, when they did it, what kind of motivations they had, what consequences did they have to live with, and so forth. Spengler instead wanted to look at history morphologically - what are the "parts" of the history of different cultures, how are they structured, how do they fit together, and so forth. The idea is that if you see a period of history in both the ancient Mediterranean and in China where charismatic leaders ride a wave of approval from the masses into supreme leadership, well, the history of both cultures has the same "part," despite some differences, the same way you could morphologically recognize a wing in a bat and a bird and work out that they're functionally similar despite the differences.

So Spengler surveyed the vast expanse of history that he was familiar with and looked for what was happening structurally. What he found was that each Great Culture he had knowledge of had similar "parts," those parts happened in the same order, and they had similar durations. Put all this together, and you have a "lifecycle" for the "organisms" that are human cultures. You can look at when a culture came together and started doing things its own distinct way, and then match up certain parallel developments with how long after the start they happen, and you start to see a common arc - early vigorous frothing as groups within the culture jockey with each other, coming together into the full flowering of its cultural viewpoint, then things start hardening and become more focused on material gain, and then you get a Civilization with a lot of nice things, still going through the motions of its more vigorous younger self, but not truly doing anything new, and eventually that falls apart, and at best, you have folks who claim the old identity, but they are a shadow of what they once were, likely under the influence of some other Culture/Civilization with more power.

We're going to talk more about Spengler's cultural life cycle in some upcoming posts, but for now I want to focus on the method of morphology specifically. It takes some judgment - bat wings and bird wings both allow flight through the adaptation of super long "finger" bones, and so are pretty easy to rule as "morphologically similar." But what about insect wings? These are still structures that allow flight, but they are made of wholly different materials and function in a wholly different way. Whether you decide to rule them "morphologically similar" will have something to do with why you're examining these structures. If you're trying to understand how flight works at all, then identifying very different ways different living things have been able to make it happen might be useful, and counting all "wings" as "similar" might be worthwhile. On the other hand, if you're trying to identify how flight evolved in different groups, you might not even count bats and birds as "morphologically similar," because they are from such far apart branches of the tree of life and obviously evolved at different times in different ways. This brings us back to Spengler's qualitativeness - much of why he is called "unscientific" is because he makes a lot of judgments about what counts as "similar" - if you look at his theory and don't find it plausible, you might see it as him fitting facts to theory. In his defense, he was a fantastically well-educated polymath who really did know a hell of a lot about a lot of different things, and all of that was grounded in aesthetic/qualitative engagement with art, literature, philosophy, and the like, so his judgments are not naive, but they are still judgments that others might disagree with.

So, why did I want to spend a whole post just on "morphology"? Well, it's a helpful way of looking at things that has largely fallen out of favor in scientific circles, and with so many fields striving to be as "scientific" as they can, even those that morphology comes more naturally to have emphasized it less. Here's one classic example: from Aristotle onward, it's been a standard part of the study of politics to look at the structure of a government or a piece thereof - monarchy, oligarchy, or democracy. The United States Constitution was built on such morphological grounds - make the Executive branch like a monarchy, the Legislative like a democracy, and the Judicial like an oligarchy. If you held yourself to only looking at the behavior of specific politicians, you'd miss some important things about how the US government works. A less orthodox example is for creativity - for example, I took a look at one take on what defines Cyberpunk structurally and then applied those characteristics in a novel way to my D&D setting, Fellhold.

Obviously, history is another field where a morphological approach can be helpful, and we'll see more implications of this as we talk through more of Spengler's points.

Did this post spark any thoughts? Have anything to ask or share? Feel free to send me an email at jeff DOT powell DOT russell AT, and I'll add your thoughts below. You can also comment on the dreamwidth post.

Woden's Three Deals

Date: 2023-April-23

Lately, I've been giving some thought to a thread that seems to run through three of the best-known tales about Woden. The three tales I have in mind are when Woden gives up his eye for a drink of Meomer's (Mimir's) Well, when he hangs himself upon the World Tree to find the Runes, and when he brings back the Mead of Poetry to Esegeard (Asgard). These tales will already be well known to anyone familiar with Germanish lore, most of all those folks who call upon Woden. I was looking back over them as I started work on a new Lord of Fallhall's prayer. As I read back through them and thought about how I might build them into my new prayer, I found a thread of liknesses between these tales, but what grabbed me even more was that there was one spot where the thread was not clear, but instead murky. So, after bethinking (meditating) on this murky bit, I'm writing this post to try to work out what's going on there.

Alright, first off, let's do a quick run through of what happens in these tales. The most straightforward one, and the one that sets the stage for the thread I'm drawing between them, is Woden giving his eye for a drink from the Well of Memory. It is told in Voluspa 28 and in Gylfaggining 14. To gain a drink from this Well, which brings great Wisdom, Woden gives one of his eyes to its keeper, Meomer. While there are some other takes, such as that by putting his eye in the Well, Woden has ongoing insight into the memories of all beings in all the worlds, and thus ever-deepening wisdom, this tale is most often seen as Woden paying a very high price for a drink of great worth linked with the wisdom that is Woden's key attribute.

Next, we have Woden giving himself to himself as a sacrifice upon the World Tree in order to win the Runes, as told in Havamal 138-141. He hangs (likely literally hanged, as this was the most often found kind of sacrifice to Woden - hanging), wounded by a spear, for nine nights upon the World Tree. He looks "down" and comes back "up" with the Runes. So, once again, we have Woden paying a high price for something of great worth linked with wisdom, but here the Runes rather than a drink. What's interesting, though, is that the root of the World Tree is called out by name here, and we know that at least one of the roots goes to Wyrd's Well. We also know that the Wyrds are the ones who carved the Runes into the tree in the first place, and the Runes are deeply linked with the Wyrds and their Well. So I do not think it is crazy to consider that at least one part of winning the Runes was a drink from the Well of Wyrd.

By now, you can likely see where I'm going with this, most of all since the last of these three tales is so very clearly about getting a drink of great worth linked with wisdom. I'll tell this tale in bit more depth, in part since we have more depth, but also since it might help with working out the murky bit we're closing in on. The Mead of Poetry has a somewhat winding backstory, which is given most thoroughly in Skaldskaparmal 1 and is referenced in Havamal 104-110. When the Ese (Aesir) and Wen (Vanir) came together in frith (peace) after their war, they all spat into a vat (maybe after chewing some berries, more in a tick) and from the spit shaped a man called Kvasir. There is some thinking that the roots of the word Kvasir are linked with a kind of berry that was used to make a ritual heady drink in elder times. At any rate, Kvasir is the wisest of all men/Gods, and he wanders the world helping folks out and answering whatever they ask. A couple of dwarves, though, by the names of Fjalar ("Hider" or "Deceiver" most likely, but meaning is unsettled) and Galar ("Screamer") kill Kvasir and brew his blood into mead (the tellings we have don't say why). This is the Mead of Poetry, and drinking it brings great wisdom. These dwarves aren't through killing folks yet, though, and they also kill the ettin ("giant") Gilling ("The Noisy One", or again, "The Screamer") by taking him out rowing in a boat and sinking it, letting him drown, and then his mourning wife by dropping a millstone on her. Nasty bit of work, these two. Well, Gilling's son Suttung ("Heavy With Drink," but here again, meaning unsettled) does what is looked for from kinsfolk in those days and comes to get some kind of wergeld from the dwarves. He puts them on a rock that floods at the high tide and told them to give him the Mead of Poetry if they want to get off before they drown, and so he gets it. Suttung then takes the mead in three holders, Son (either "Reconcilliation" or "Blood," both of which seem linked with what happened to Kvasir), Bodhn ("Vessel"), and Odhroerir ("The One That Stimulates to Ecstasy", likely first the name of the Mead of Poetry itself, but Snorri interpreted a bit of Havamal as meaning it was the cauldron that held it), and puts it under the mountain Hnitbjorg ("Colliding Rocks") warded by his daughter, Gunnlodh ("Invitation to Battle").

All that backstory before Woden even comes into the tale! Woden sets out to get the Mead, and along the way, he comes upon nine thralls (slaves) mowing grass for hay with scythes. He pulls out a whetstone and sharpens all of their scythes. They give the newly sharpened tools a try and are very happy with how much better they work, so they all want to buy it, each putting forth what outlay he thinks will get him the stone. Woden, though, instead throws the stone up into the air, and the thralls clumsily get after it, and in the ruckus slit each other's throats. Woden goes on his way and finds their owner, who "just so happens" to be Suttung's brother Baugi ("Ring Shaped"). Baugi is grousing about losing all his thralls and wondering how he's going to get all the work on his holding done. Woden says he'll do the work of nine men all summer long, if Baugi can get him a drink of the Mead of Poetry. Baugi tells him that his brother Suttung keeps it all to himself, and so he doesn't know if he'll be able to get a drink for Woden, but he'll at least try. So, Woden spends the summer doing the work of nine thralls, and sure enough, gets it all done, so Baugi takes him to see Suttung. Surprising no one, Suttung tells them "hell no" when they ask for a taste of the mead. Thanks to the work Woden did, though, he gets Baugi to help him get into the mountain to get at the mead. Baugi pulls out the drill Rati ("Drill," cleverly enough) and begins drilling into the mountain. He stops and says the hole is good to go, but Woden blows into it and sees that the dust and rock chips fly back out toward him, which shows that the hole doesn't go all the way through, so he tells Baugi to keep going. Again, Baugi says it's good, this time the dust flies through, so Woden turns into a snake to go through the hole, and for some reason, Baugi tries to stab him with the drill, but he dodges and gets through the hole and into the mountain.

Once inside, Woden turns back into a man and finds Suttung's daughter Gunnlodh guarding the Mead. To give him a drink, she asks him to spend three nights with her, and he agrees. After the three nights, she seats him on a golden stool and offers him each of the three holders of the Mead. Woden, though, takes huge drinks and drains all three in one sip each. He then flees the mountain, holding the Mead inside himself, and turns into an eagle to fly back to Esegeard. Suttung also turns into an eagle and gives chase. Woden gets back to Esegeard and spits out the Mead into waiting holders, and so now the Ese have the Mead of Poetry. Snorri tells us that Woden made it just in time, but not what Suttung did after (was he killed like Thjazi chasing after Idun? Did he fly away in shame?). He does tell us that it was such a close call that Woden pissed out some of the Mead, and this is where bad poetry comes from.

Alright, so why have I gone into so much depth with this tale, after dealing with the others so shortly? Well, first off, we have a longer telling of this tale than the others. Through some putting together of having poems to hand we no longer have, known kennings, and his own creativity, Snorri spun this one in far more depth than the others. Anyhow, I've given all this so thoroughly since I do not know what might be weighty and what not, with the business at hand. What is that business? Well, I have the inkling that this tale follows the same framework as the other two, but maybe less markedly. There is not at first blush a Well, and it is not altogether clear what price Woden paid, but we again deal with Woden going on a quest to get a drink linked with Wisdom that becomes one of his hallmarks. For the link, I'm indebted to Maria Kvilhaug in her Maiden with the Mead and Yggdrasil's Seed. She shows many of the parallels between the many tales of a Male Seeker going through hardships to reach a Maiden, who gives Him a drink of Mead which gives some wonderful quality. Well, there's not a clear maiden in the tale of Meomer's Well, not a clear drink in the winning of the Runes, and not a clear Well in the winning of the Mead of Poetry, but there are some hinting links.

First, I think it is the "drink" that is likely the common bond between these tales. This one is fairly readily dealt with: as I said above, the Runes are very closely linked with the Well of Wyrd, maybe the foremost of "cosmological wellsprings of drink" in Germanish lore. As such, the thought that at least one bit of how Woden won the Runes was to drink from this Well is not so far-fetched. So that gets us a "drink" in all three tales. Next, we have the lack of a Maiden at the Well of Memory. This one is a bit trickier. Gunnlodh is very prominently shown in the tale of the Mead of Poetry, Wyrd (Old Norse Urdhr) is the eldest of the Three Wyrds (Wyrd, Werdhende, and Sculd), and so is implied in the Winning of the Runes, if we accept the link to the Well of Wyrd, but what of Meomer's Well? I don't have a straightforward answer here. Meomer is (maybe) an ettin, is (maybe) Woden's maternal uncle, and is (definitely) an initiatory figure. In many of these "Maiden with the Mead" tales, the Maiden has a male warder figure. The best I can do is that Meomer's Well has the warder, but not the Maiden, at least as told to us. That leaves us with the Well. This might be even more of a stretch than the bit about the Maiden, but bear with me. One of the things that struck me about the first two tales is that they have two of the three Wells given as watering the three roots of the World Tree. Meomer's Well and Wyrd's Well are both straightforward enough, but where is Hvergelmir? Well, Kvilhaug puts forward that these Mead-giving Maidens are often in the Underworld, and may or may not be figures of Death themselves. Hvergelmir is in the Underworld. One of the Maidens linked with this mythic complex in complicated ways is Idun, and one of her kennings is "The Keeper of the Sun of Hvergelmir." I'm not arguing anything as simple as "Gunnlodh is Idun," but I do think there's enough thematic overlap to make this case: Gunnlodh lives under a mountain and plays a role similar to other "Underworld Maidens," making it not crazy that she is a death/Underworld figure. If so, a link with the Well of the Underworld (Hvergelmir) would not be crazy.

Okay, so, however flimsily, we now have a link between drinks from the three Wells that feed the World Tree that Woden took. At two of them, he paid a clear price (his eye and his life), but at the third, the price is not as clear. Is it the three nights with Gunnlodh? Given that she isn't said to be ugly or terrible, and none of the latter day drawings of her felt that she should be either, this doesn't seem like much of a "cost." One thought is that the Havamal telling might hint that Woden married Gunnlodh and then skipped out on her once he got the Mead as a dowry. If this reading is right, then might the cost be giving up his word/good name/wedded life with Gunnlodh? Maybe the cost is the summer Woden spent working for Baugi. If so, was the price paid the work itself, or the giving up of status in allowing himself to be a thrall? Does the whetstone have anything to do with it? How about Kvasir's backstory? And what of all this drilling and double crossing stuff?

Right now, I'm leaning toward some combination of lowering Himself to thralldom and actually doing the work of nine men as the initiatory "price" paid by Woden for the Mead of Poetry, but I haven't wholly settled on that. I have the niggling feeling that I'm missing something in the symbolism of the tale. If you have any thoughts, I'd love to hear them.

Did this post spark any thoughts? Have anything to ask or share? Feel free to send me an email at jeff DOT powell DOT russell AT, and I'll add your thoughts below. You can also comment on the dreamwidth post.

What to Make of Whetstones in Germanish Tales?

Date: 2023-April-17

So, I was reading thinking about the three wells from which the roots of Yggdrasil, the World Tree, draw their sustenance, as one does. It struck me that Woden paid a high price and gained something from at least two of the three, giving up his eye for a drink from Meomer's Well and giving up his life to wrest the Runes from Wyrd's Well, but what, then, of Hvergelmir? I wondered if maybe Woden's other famous drink, the Mead of Poetry, might somehow be linked here. Sure enough, poking around Maria Kvilhaug's Maiden and the Mead and The Seed of Yggdrasil, she proposes just such a link. Now, that led me to wonder "what did he pay for that drink?" The ready answer is the three nights he spent with Gunnlodh, but that hardly seems to go in the same category as self-mutilation and sacrifice. Wondering this led me to look again at the rest of the myth, as told in Skaldskaparmal in the Poetic Edda, and it once again struck me that there's a bunch of little details that seem. . . odd. One of which is a scene featuring a whetstone, which reminded me that there's another myth prominently featuring a whetstone (Thor's duel with the giant Hrungnir), which led me to ask myself, Jerry Seinfeld style, "what's the deal with whetstones?"

Odin's One Weird Trick to Get a Summer Job

First off, the bit of the tale that got me started down this road: on his way to get some of the mead, Odin meets nine thralls mowing grass with scythes. (Aside: I'm switching to all Norse names for telling the tale, since that's the version we have. Maybe sometime I'll get into how I treat Old Norse vs Old English vs modern Englished names of the Gods). Odin pulls out a whetstone and offers to sharpen up their scythes. They agree, and once he does, they do a few test swings and are thrilled - the scythes work way better now. All nine of them want to buy the whetstone, each putting forth what he's willing to pay. Instead of taking any of these deals, Woden throws the whetstone up in the air, and in their clumsy haste to snatch it up, they all kill each other with their newly razor-sharp scythes. As "luck" would have it, these nine thralls belonged to the brother of the giant who has the mead, and Odin offers to do the work of nine men over the summer if Baugi can get him a taste of that mead. Baugi says "sorry, man, my brother has it and he won't even share it with me, but I'll see if I can get him to let you have some."

Stephen Mitchell to the Rescue - Whetstones Stand for Authority

So, what the heck is going on here besides a weird fairy-tale kind of excuse for Odin to get an "in" with sons of Gilling? I've long wondered this, but never strongly enough to run it down, until now. I took a look at a bunch of my books, and found some intriguing hints, but nothing really satisfying. Then through a shot-in-the-dark web search ("whetstones in Norse myth"), I found "The Whetstone as Symbol of Authority in Old English and Old Norse" by Stephen A. Mitchell, which pretty much answered the very thing I was asking myself. Mitchell argues that whetstones were a symbol for kingly might across Germanish lands and for a very long time, drawing on archaeological, linguistic, and written evidence. He believes this claim for a few linked reasons: 1. widespread metaphorical linkage between "sharpness" and wits, 2. kings were often symbolic, or even literal, "weapon givers", 3. whetstones were used by smiths, who were magic and holy, and 4. there's seems to be a Proto-Indo-European link between some kind of "stone" and the sky/it's chief God.

First, all of the Germanish tongues use words for sharp/sharpen/hone to mean both that someone is clever or witful, but also as verbs meaning to "egg on" or "incite" (the "egg" there, by the way, is a borrowing from Old Norse from a word that means to sharpen, but the English phrase comes straight from Old Norse usage). You can see how these would be key king skills, and sure enough, in the sagas, we see Kings who are good at their job doing these very things, and kings who are bad at their job either not doing them, or doing them poorly. King Canute's worthless older brother was called "Harald Hein," Hein being a cognate for "hone," in the same way that he might have been called "tiny" if he was very fat. So, we know that the way folks talked and thought in lands where Germanish tongues were spoken saw "sharpness" and "sharpening" as things that go with kingship.

Next, among such warlike folk, Kings often put swords in their followers hands, whether literally ("here's a sword - go kill that guy") or symbolically ("and where did the wealth to get such fine gear come from? Oh, that's right, the rich farmland I gave you"). Since swords were so closely linked with kings, anything to do with swords would likely be fair game for becoming a symbol of kingship. And whetstones did just that! In the well-known Sutton Hoo burial, they found a scepter with a piece of whetstone as the ball on the top of it (likely linked side thought: the scepter itself comes from hammers/clubs wielded by kings, which are themselves linked with the blunt weapon of the fighter of the Gods - Thor's Hammer, Hercules's club, and so forth). Besides the two myths I brought up, there are also two sagas where a whetstone stands for kingly might/right. In the Mead story, it might mean something that Odin uses a symbol of kingship to take out some thralls, but I haven't worked out wholly what that might be yet.

Third, and now we're getting more mythological, from a very early time, smiths were seen as having awesome and uncanny powers, very likely with religious overtones. The whetstone is one of the tools of the metalworking trade, and so it likely took on some of this religious awe and mystery. Also, whetstones often throw off sparks, which look rather like lightning - bright, fast-moving light from nowhere that can start a fire. That might help to explain why Hrungnir brings a whetstone to a magic weapon fight. This link with the holy would likely strengthen the associations we talked about above, even if in later times it was not part of day-to-day life to see smiths as magic and/or holy, symbols can linger on for a very long time after the association that led to it being a symbol is forgotten - like scepters as signs of kingly might/right and the clubs they were based on.

Lastly, Mitchell points out the comparative evidence from far-flung Indo-European tongues that some words for "stone" and "sky" have the same root. There are also some mythological parallels. What's striking about the four Germanish tales we have about whetstones, though, is that three of them show the stone somehow moving through the air - Odin throwing it up high, Hrungnir throwing his at Thor, and in Gautrek's Saga, the king throws a whetstone at his hawk to get it back to work. So, if we buy that the sparks from whetstones were linked with lightning and that the "stone" linked etymologically with "sky" could be a whetstone, then these stories of hurled whetstones likely come from a story about some kind of holy whetstone moving through the air (clouds? the sun? I dunno).

A Good Start, but More to Work Out

I haven't had time to really let this sink in yet - for one thing, I want to bethink (meditate) at least a few times on all of these tales, what they share, how they are unalike, and so forth. I still haven't worked out what the link is to Odin's payment for the mead, but I did at last unknot something that had been bugging me for years, so I call that a win.

Did this post spark any thoughts? Have anything to ask or share? Feel free to send me an email at jeff DOT powell DOT russell AT, and I'll add your thoughts below. You can also comment on the dreamwidth post.

Narcissism and Me

Date: 2023-April-09

Lead-In: What is Narcissism?

(The post's name is a joke, by the way. Lest I die of maximum irony, I don't plan on talking about myself much here.)

For the past few weeks, I spent most of my spare time going through the archives of The Last Psychiatrist, a "post-rationalist" blog written by, you guessed it, a psychiatrist. It's wide-ranging, covering everything from in-depth breakdowns of studies on psychiatric medication to write ups of pop culture. One thread, though, became maybe his main theme, and it pulled me in and wouldn't let go: Narcissism. The likeness he paints of this way of seeing the world and how rife it is in today's America seemed worryingly spot-on. Ready to become deeply worried about yourself, your friends and family, and your culture? Then climb aboard.

First off, let's lay out what he means by "narcissism," as what he's talking about is neither what most folks mean when they say the word, nor what the DSM calls "Narcissistic Personality Disorder." For The Last Psychiatrist (hereafter "TLP"), narcissism does not mean "grandiosity" or "having a wildly overblown opinion of yourself." Instead, it means having an identity that you have more-or-less made up, rather than one that has grown out of what you do, and guarding that identity keenly. Folks who do this lean toward seeing themselves as the main character in their own story and anyone else as only backup characters. So far, so irksome, but so what? Well, when a narcissist's identity is threatened, the wonted answer is rage - anger wildly out of keeping with what set it off. When we're lucky, this is only a laughable shouting fit.

When we're not, narcissists kill their whole family and then themselves.

If you'd like to get TLP's take in a (fairly) short shape, I'd steer you to this post as the clearest "summary" (it's still pretty long). If you truly want to get his full take, with lots of examples of what he means, check out every post under "Narcissism". Even there, many of his other posts not under that header still touch on it. If you're willing to settle for my take, read on for a (fairly) short rundown.


So, the root of narcissism seems to be a "constructed" identity. "I am a rebel" or "I am a sensitive artist" or "I am a no-nonsense businessman" or whatever. These tend to be at least somewhat conscious - it's how you think of yourself, whether or not you explicitly put a label on it (but you likely do). What's so bad about that, though? Well, the problem is what's behind these self-assigned identities: vast, yawning insecurity. You desperately tell yourself "I'm a sensitive artist" because deep down, you are worried that you are nothing. You feel adrift and meaningless, and you hope that if you convince everyone (but most of all yourself) that you really are a sensitive artist, that insecurity will go away. There's a catch 22 in all this, though: you know you're faking it. So, if other people really do start treating you like a sensitive artist: you get gallery showings, you're written up in snooty magazines, models and rich folks want to be seen hanging out with you, and so forth, you end up subject to Groucho Marx's famous quip: "I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as one of its members."

Let's take a far more common example. You have a young man who wants to be the kind of guy that women like. After first longing for girls that he's afraid to talk to, he eventually works up the nerve to ask a few out, and he gets rejected. Rather than turning bitter and assuming it's them that don't see his greatness (another unfortunately common narcissistic type), he decides he'll work out what he's doing wrong. So he works out, starts dressing nicer, learns how to look and act confident, and then he asks out a beautiful girl, she says yes, it goes well, and they start dating. You might think he'd be like "hooray, I have successfully become the kind of man that women want! My identity is secure!" but you would very likely be wrong. Instead, for as long as things go well, part of him is thinking "did I just fool her into liking me?" and if the answer is "yes", then she's not a good source of validation, because she's too easily tricked. If the answer is "no", then she's not a good source of validation, because she's a bad judge of character - she likes this person that is so unlikable? What's wrong with her? It gets worse, though - even if all of that remains in the background or shut down, if/when things go badly and they break up, well, now he has "proof" that women don't really like him at all, or that all his work phony, or what have you.

This will all likely either sound completely nuts or horrifyingly familiar. The problem was that our hypothetical dude was too focused on his "felt sense of identity" and not enough on "what are the things I've done and how do they compare to an external set of standards that I have internalized as truly important." Instead of asking "am I a guy girls want to be with?" it would have been better if he had learned to value for itself, being fit, being comfortable taking calculated risks, showing respect to himself and those around him by dressing well, treating romantic partners with love and respect, and so forth. That way, his sense of "who am I?" is not based on a label and is not based on "what does she think of me," but is instead based in "well, it's important to me to do certain things. Did I do them? Well, at least kinda, the best I could. Yeah, I fell down here and here, but I did a pretty good job there."

Main Character

One way that this guarding of identity shows up is that the narcissist sees himself as the lead character in his own movie or book, everyone else is only a background character. Of course, this is somewhat metaphorical, a way to talk about how a narcissist can't put himself in someone else's shoes. But also, thanks to the pop culture that raised us all, a lot of times this is very nearly literally true: a narcissist sees his life as a story, that it "must" have some deeper meaning right around the corner, and one day he'll be seen as the special hero he badly wants to be.

This shows up as everything getting linked back to the narcissist. It's not about doing what's good for the children, it's about am I be a good father? It's not about acknowledging the grief of someone at the funeral, it's about am I a supportive friend? It's not about working with someone worthy that you love to build a life together, it's am I the kind of man who would have a wife like this?

The more narcissistic someone is, the less it even crosses his mind to think of things any other way - what other ways of thinking even are there? Different ways of looking at me?

If you want to spot a narcissist in the wild, one good rule of thumb is to look for how many times he uses "I, me, my, mine." If you ask him about someone else, mark how quickly it gets linked back to what he knows or has done, or if you get a beat with puzzlement as he wraps his brain around this weird way of thinking - other people's perspectives? Who knew?

Narcissistic Injury

The worst thing that can happen to a narcissist is to be confronted with a threat to his identity. The "successful businessman" that is about to be exposed as faking it through massive debt. The "family values" politician about to be found out for having gay sex in airport bathrooms. The "promising young man" confronted with the fact that he is no longer young and he has squandered whatever promise he once had. The very worst threat to a narcissist's identity, though, is "who are you, again?" Things may be going terribly for a narcissist, but as long as he can tell himself the suffering is about him, then he's still the main character, his identity is intact as "persecuted hero" or "long-suffering stoic" or whatever. Telling your narcissistic husband than you're leaving him, getting into a screaming match about it, dragging it out through awful family court drama - all of that is, at least, still somewhat about him. If you just leave in the night and never speak to him again, just send the paperwork to be signed, no emotion, no reaction - that is a narcissistic injury.

The frightening thing about narcissistic injury is, as I mentioned in the lead-in, it leads to rage. The unbearable tension between "who I need to think of myself as" with "here's evidence you're definitely not that guy" is resolved by lashing out at whomever is felt to most strongly be causing this tension. If a man thinks he's a good husband, but his wife points out to him he's never around, he doesn't help with the chores or the kids, and he doesn't even have a good job as an excuse for any of that, he's going to be pissed and it's going to be at her, because on some level he knows she's right. Again, the vast majority of the time, narcissistic injury leads to the equivalent of a temper tantrum - screaming, insults, accusations, and so forth. Sometimes, though, it can be much worse. If you go and look at what we know about folks who have done mass killings or killed their girlfriends/spouses/families (and often themselves after), it pretty much always becomes clear that it's about some identity and a threat to it. So, if you have someone in your life that this post seems to apply to more than you'd like, think very hard and be very careful. Maybe there's a gentle way to nudge them toward a less narcissistic outlook, or maybe you need to go. Whatever the case, think twice before you threaten them with public shame, anything that would make either the folks they care about most, or lots of folks (or both), see them as not what they want to think they are.

Help! I Think this Might Be Me

First off, by this meaning, everybody is at least a little narcissistic, and you have to be. Secondly, if you're young (teens or twenties), more of this is developmentally normal. So don't give up on yourself yet.

That being said, if some of this post left you feeling unsettled (as TLP's posts did for me), the way forward is both straightforward and very hard. As much as you can, you need to think of other folks as their own beings, with their own will, not as what they are to you, and you need to take more heed of what you do than "who I am". So, don't ask yourself "how can I be a better father?", instead ask "what can I do to help my daughters?" Don't say "I want to be more secure in myself", instead say "here's how my deeds stack up to an outside, measurable standard." As I said, straightforward, but hard.

Journaling, therapy, meditation, and other ways of finding insights about yourself can help you come to know that this is something you might need need to work on, but it seems they don't do much to help you change since the point of narcissism is to ward off change. What's the way around this? Use your narcissistic leanings on behalf of something better and "fake it till you make it."

Worried you have trouble seeing your kin as anything other than outgrowths of yourself? Then make the identity that you work so hard to guard that of "steadfast husband and father." Maybe it doesn't "feel true," you know you're faking it? So what? It's not for you! It's for them. If you want to be "a writer", well, start cranking words out, most of all if it feels fake. Just keep going. One day, you'll have a body of work, and instead of saying "I'm a writer", you can say "I wrote that." Lastly, adopting a more-or-less explicit code of ethics/behavior that is grounded in what you do rather than "who you are" seems like it ought to help - religion or other spiritual practice is likely helpful here, as long as it pushes you. If you find yourself using your religion to give yourself a pass - "I know I spent a week and thousands of dollars on hookers and blow, but Jesus still loves me, so my wife will too" - then you have yoked it to the narcissism.

All of this is hard work, not least because our whole pop culture and the way we were raised pushes us toward narcissism, and if you're an adult, you've likely settled into it somewhat.

So, if you want to do better, you have to ask: "who might I be hurting, and what can I do to stop?"

Did this post spark any thoughts? Have anything to ask or share? Feel free to send me an email at jeff DOT powell DOT russell AT, and I'll add your thoughts below. You can also comment on the dreamwidth post.

Last(?) "Hail Idun"

Date: 2023-April-02

Whew, I think I have at last gotten to the shape of the "Hail Idun" that I want to use for my Heathen Rosary. Those of you that have been following along have seen that it's taken rather a lot of tinkering to get here (and I didn't show all my work!), but I'm pretty happy with what I've gotten to, and my Rune casting says this ought to go well.

A very big thanks to everyone who has shared feedback on my earlier tries at getting this right - all of your thoughts were very welcome, even if I didn't end up going with the words or thoughts you put forward, you still helped steer me toward what we have here. Of course, if you don't like it, that's all on me!

As I believe I've said before, this prayer is rather idiosyncratic and builds on what has come out of my bethinking (meditation), divination, and worship. What might strike you as odd, though, is that I didn't