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Scholarship, Loki, and that Controversy We’ve All Been Hearing About

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Loki, Arthur Rackham

Recently The Wild Hunt published an op-ed piece called Loki in the White House by Karl E.H. Seigfried, and the collective online response was swift and vicious. Understandably many Lokeans and others who hail Loki felt as though the piece did little more than to offer insult to a community already marginalized in the broader American Heathen community. Many Lokeans voiced discomfort at the implication in the piece’s final paragraphs that their community, a Heathen community with some of the highest numbers of LGBTQI+ members (something Seigfried is clearly aware of, acknowledging it in his piece) is a dangerous and unstable one. For many, the fact that those who hail Loki are more likely to be members of marginalized communities directly endangered by the Trump administration made the comparison between Loki and Trump all the more bizarre, disconnected, and even surreal.

I don’t identify as a Lokean exactly, but I do hail Loki and I do credit Loki for bringing me into the fold of Norse paganism. I also don’t sport such credentials like Seigfried’s, though I think some of the criticisms that have been leveled at those credentials are worth considering before we go further. Primarily, the Lokean blogger Kyaza pointed out that obtaining a degree in divinity in a program with no Asatruar practitioners or history of teaching Asatruar practitioners means that there couldn’t have been much in the way of appropriate or well-informed guidance with regards to Seigfried’s research. (1) I find this especially relevant because it was Seigfried’s apparent scorn for scholarship and academic analysis of the surviving lore which threw up the first red flag during my reading.

In his article Seigfried states that he is “bothered by approaches to myth that brush aside any elements of ancient sources that readers don’t like or find problematic as ‘Christian influenced,’” calling the extensive scholarship and study of the surviving lore that has been conducted for many, many years a “rhetorical turn.” Reducing legitimate academic work as nothing more than rhetoric or a simple brushing aside of elements the readers don’t like itself indicates either a disdain for the academic process or a misunderstanding of what academia actually is and how it functions and why. It is a very strange stance to take for someone who claims to want to understand the myths in their original context.

The fact of the matter is that what lore does survive is widely acknowledged by true scholars of the Eddas and sagas to be only a fraction of the mythology our ancestors enjoyed. We have been handed down a tattered ruin of a lore, and that tattered ruin has been overtly, explicitly influenced by the Christian societies in which they were recorded. Hell, Snorri Sturlusson explicitly references the Christian god and the Abrahmic creation story on the first page of his prologue to The Prose Edda. It is generally accepted that The Poetic Edda was an important influence on Snorri’s Prose Edda, but even this is widely considered to have been tainted by Christian influence. Take, for example, scholarship on the Völuspá:

Snorri accepted Völuspá as a valid source of information about the old faith in the Æsir, but modern scholars have long since recognized that much in the poem must be of Christian origin. The idea that the final doom is a punishment for the gods’ oath-breaking and for the moral decay of gods and men alike is not known in any other reliable pre-Christian Nordic source. The description of the torments of wrongdoers and of the terrible times that precede ragnarök are suspiciously consonant with Christian eschatology and the paradise enjoyed by the saved after the universal conflagration is reminiscent of Christian thinking…Völupsá is the revelation experienced by the sibyl, and is more of a piece with visionary literature of the Christian middle ages than with anything we know from Nordic paganism. (2)

This is an excerpt from Eddas and Sagas: Iceland’s Medieval Literature by Icelandic scholar Jónas Kristjánsson. In Eddas and Sagas, Kristjánsson analyzes several other poems from The Poetic Edda in a similar manner, looking for tells of Christian influence and comparing the Eddas to other, more reliably pagan, pre-conversion literature, as well as drawing from many dozens of other scholarly works. Such thorough and extensive work is not a “rhetorical turn,” it is a deeply invested effort to better understand what we have inherited from those who came before, and practitioners who rely on this kind of scholarship to better understand the lore and develop a relationship to it are not “guilty” of anything other than seeking a valid and worthwhile education that helps them build relationships to the lore and their gods. Seigfried’s seeming sneering at this process because it doesn’t align with his own interpretations (which have been criticized by many as shallow and all-too-literal at best) seems at odds both with the goals of an academic and with the goals of spiritual leadership.

At least Seigfried repeats several times that he doesn’t “deny the personal meaning that many find in Loki,” but he follows this sentiment up with an abject dismissal of that deep personal meaning by stating that interpretations of the lore which takes into account the Christian influences on the authors and texts is tantamount to actual conspiracy theory: “I simply can’t follow them to a place where the sources of our knowledge are read in ways that sometimes seem parallel to conspiracy theorist readings of today’s news stories.”

I would like to be clear here: close analysis of the surviving lore by trained scholars who by and large come to the same conclusions over the course of many decades is a far cry from raving about chem trails, that 9/11 was an inside job, that climate change is a hoax, or “Pizzagate.” Are there bad interpretations of the lore? Absolutely—people can and do read texts and ascribe meaning to them without any evidence to back up those meanings. Anyone familiar with the inner workings of 101 college classrooms can tell you how frequently this happens. Does scholarly readings of texts which don’t agree with an individual’s perspective on the text necessarily constitute such a bad reading? No. Are scholars who point out the Christian influences in the texts, given that they were written at the time of or well after the conversion of Scandinavia, just wearing tinfoil hats and regurgitating fundamental misunderstandings of the historical and cultural context mixed in with some genuine paranoia? Absolutely not.

Loki, Arthur Rackham

The disdain for the scholarship many followers of Loki turn to while seeking to better understand the lore and their god’s place in it reads less like a genuine academic plea and more as an appeal to the widespread assumption that people who hail Loki are ill-informed and poorly educated. Many Lokeans have been accused of being little more than overly dedicated Marvel LARPers, or of substituting the lore for Thor comic books. Obviously Seigfried doesn’t directly refer to Marvel’s comic books, but the sentiment is very much rooted in the same place: the broad generalization and mischaracterization of Loki worshipers as uneducated dim-wits with poor reading comprehension, or perhaps who have never even bothered to thumb through the Eddas. This is not a good place to start an earnest or productive dialogue, as regardless of what the intentions are in leaning into these defamatory misconceptions, the result is demeaning to those who hail Loki.

All of this amounts to a pointed undermining not only of the legitimate scholarship that has been done on the surviving lore, but also of the spiritual paths of a relative minority in American Heathenism. I specify American Heathenism because it is worth noting that the mistrust of Loki is primarily an American phenomena—in many European countries you will find that practitioners do not shy away from this deity, and understand his role in the lore in a way many American Heathens seem reluctant to.

At the end of the day Seigfried is, of course, entitled to his opinion and to his interpretations of the text. The Wild Hunt has since published an update on the ensuing controversy which cites a death threat allegedly made over Twitter which has since been deleted. (3) Regardless whether or not Siegfried’s interpretations of the lore is in line with accepted academic work, and regardless his opinions on the worshipers of Loki, it is never okay for someone’s life to be threatened. Clearly I do believe that Siegfried’s attempt to undermine faith in scholarship on the subject and pointedly negative portrayal of Loki worshipers should be called out for what it is. It is my hope that the ensuing dialogue will culminate in greater education on the subjects at hand for everyone involved, as well as more understanding and respect between various Heathen traditions. For this to the be the case, however, we must at least attempt to conduct ourselves with dignity, not stoop to violence or threats thereof.

There is much to be said about Siegfried’s piece, and much has been said. The Wild Hunt itself has already published a piece seeking to shed light on the often misunderstood Lokean community in the wake of Siegfried’s piece, while Amy Marsh of Loki’s Wyrdlings has posted a few responses on her blog Lady of the Lake. There are others—so many others that I have lost track of them all—but in addition to this I would like to recommend some further readings to illuminate the history and cultural context out of which the Eddas came to us. Eddas and Sagas by Jónas Kristjánsson is a wonderful analytical work if you can get your hands on it. The History of Sweden by Byron J. Nordstrom as well as The Vikings by Else Roesdahl are both a little less dense, a little more accessible, and focus specifically on historical and cultural analysis. In addition to the Eddas and local museums these were some of the most useful books during my studies in Uppsala, Sweden, and I highly recommend them to anyone trying to build some better background knowledge on the origins of the faith upon which our own modern renditions of Heathenry are based.

(1) “An Analysis of Siegfried’s Comparison of Loki and Trump.” Kyaza, A Polytheistic Life. WordPress.com, November 26, 2018.

(2) Kristjánsson, Jónas. Eddas and Sagas: Iceland’s Medieval Literature. Trans. Peter Foote. Hið íslenksa bókmenntafélag: Reykjavík, 1988. Pp 43.

(3) Pagan Community Notes: Statement from Pantheacon, Many Gods West goes on hiatus, and more!. The Wild Hunt, 2018.

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