Know’st how to write, know’st how to read
Know’st how to stain, know’st how to understand
Know’st how to ask, know’st how to offer
knows’t how to supplicate, know’st how to sacrifice?
(Havamal 146, Hollander trans.)
(Odin: He drinks and He knows things)
(Author’s Note: in this article, I’ll discuss the importance of learning the Lore. The second article in this series will discuss the importance of using the same skills when building your own personal beliefs and practices.)
It’s important to know where your ideas and beliefs come from, particularly in a reconstructed religion like modern Heathenry. Many things have influenced our opinions on Heathen practices and Heathen beliefs. Modern writers such as Diana Paxson and Edred Thorsson teach us about modern runic magic. Authors like Kevin Crossley-Holland, Neil Gaiman, and Ingrid D’Aulaire give us easy-to-understand retellings of the myths. Tumblr, Reddit, and Facebook pages give us an unlimited amount of other people’s personal opinions to draw from. Heathen organizations such as the Troth may influence toward or against a particular interpretation or practice, and local friends and family members all have opinions.
Any combination of these may have influenced your Heathen beliefs, even without you knowing it. Some of these influences may have been good, some not so much. How do you know either way? You don’t, unless you do your own research. Do not take anyone’s word for it.
My approach to the Lore can be summed up in two steps:
1) Learn the source material, and
2) Make up your own mind.
Once you have some idea what the myths and poems actually say, how you interpret the information is up to you. Once you know the rules, as I used to tell my 7th-grade students, you can break them. Until then, learn the basics. Don’t let your entire religion be based on someone else’s misinformation.
Luckily, you do not need to be an Official Scholar of Norse Lore to learn the basics in Heathenry. There are many online resources that provide translations of the source material as well videos, retellings, and images to help break down the sometimes dry academic language. For example, HHH has a page called the Library of Lore that is dedicated to online academic translations of the Poetic and Prose Eddas. Dr. Jackson Crawford, a linguist, and professor of Nordic Studies at the University of Colorado-Boulder, offers a ton of short videos focusing on different parts of Old Norse culture, religion, and language. Podcasts such as the Viking Age Podcast discuss the sagas and other pieces of Lore and history. Even Neil Price, the famed Viking Age scholar, has a series of lectures up on YouTube.
First, read/listen to/watch translations of the main sources of the Lore. The two main sources for our Lore are the Poetic Edda (also known as the “Elder Edda” or “Sæmund’s Edda”) and the Prose Edda. Basically, one is a compilation of skaldic poems (the Poetic Edda), and the other one, compiled by Snorri Sturluson, is a book about how to write skaldic poems (the Prose Edda). Though the Prose Edda is really just a how-to manual for Norse poetry, Snorri quotes quite a few our poems in it. Both of them contain the main myths that make up Norse mythology as we know it. Neither book contains all of the myths, and there a few myths that aren’t included in either of these, but if you read/listen to each of these books, you’ll have a good foundation for most of our Lore. For further reading material, check out this great annotated list hosted by the Keeper of Seasons Hall.
Academic translations are the way to go here, in my opinion, even though many Heathens have attempted to learn Old Norse so they can translate it themselves. (If you have the patience for it, though, go for it! I imagine it is highly rewarding.) Academics, particularly those whose area of study actually is Old Norse Studies, are held to high standards in their translations, and modern academic translations are usually agenda-free. If you find yourself reading a translation that tries to romanticize or vilify the Gods, or argue that some tribes of Gods are more “pure” than others, likely that translator has an agenda. Toss that translation and find a better one.
Heathens have their favorite modern translation of the Poetic Edda, with most people preferring Lee Hollander’s translation or Caroline Larrington’s translation. If the language seems too thick, Dr. Jackson Crawford has videos breaking down many of the poems and giving some explanation for each and putting them into the larger Old Norse context. For example, he discusses the Voluspa, the story of the beginning and ending of the world, here. (I cannot express how relieved I was to find a professional Old Norse scholar providing so much material in such an accessible way.) If you have a tight budget, several free translations are available online for free here. Choose any of the above and dive in.
One thing to keep in mind when reading the original source material is that the transcribers were Christian. Though these stories predate Christianity in Scandinavia, the monks and poets who wrote them down were drawing from their own beliefs. They likely romanticized or edited much of the material. Read any of the source material with a grain of salt.
As it’s been 800 years or so since the Lore was written down, much of our Lore is in fragmentary, and some of it is completely inexplicable, even to scholars. Translators still disagree over passages or turns of phrase or the etymology of specific words. (A really eye-opening experience is to sit down with two or three translations and see how they compare.) So once you at least take a decent shot at reading translations of the surviving Lore, a good next step is to read educated retellings of it.
It’s important to keep in mind that retellings are just that—re-tellings, full of personal interpretations by the author. That said, there are many solid retellings available. Kevin Crossley-Holland’s The Norse Myth is a classic. It contains clear footnotes and useful context even for the non-academic-minded ones among us.R. I. Page’s Norse Myths is another classic retelling to these tales. Neil Gaiman does a great, very approachable retelling in his new Norse Mythology. As he states in his introduction, he himself went back to the translations so he could create his own retelling. It reads like it might have felt sitting around the campfire, hearing this stories back in the day. The audiobook is available on YouTube. Jackson Crawford’s translation of the Poetic Edda is also a “retelling”, in a way; his aim was to translate the myths into modern language, so as to be more accessible to more readers. Speaking of translating old Lore for modern readers, Crawford is also the author of the brilliant “The Cowboy Havamal”.
III. History and Archaeology
To help put all this information into context, it’s a great idea to read/watch/listen to information about the history and culture of the Viking Age. Good books to check out are pretty much anything by H.R. Ellis-Davidson, such as her Gods and Myths of the Viking Age; Rudolf Simek’s Dictionary of Norse Mythology; and Turville-Petre’s Myth and Religion of the North, and Thomas DuBois’ Nordic Religions in the Viking Age (I have an academic review of this last book available on our website.) For information on women in Norse culture, specifically, these two books are invaluable: Jenny Jochens’s Women in Old Norse Society and Judith Jesch’s Women in the Viking Age. HHH authors have written many useful articles as well, such as Xander’s “The Rocky Road to Hel” & “Reconstructing Pre-Christian Runic Magic” as well as pieces like Heather O’Brien’s “The Lore and Tradition of Mistletoe”. And, by all that is good and holy, please avoid any documentaries on the Vikings or Norse Mythology from the History Channel. They are full of errors and apparently try to sensationalize the myths, as if Vikings needed anything extra! The Troth’s quarterly Idunna magazine and ADF’s quarterly publication Oak Leaves usually has academic articles as well.
Finally (or concurrently) talk to other Heathens, either online or in person. Some of us learn better form talking with an actual person rather than reading a book. (I know I’ve fallen more into that category as I’ve gotten older.) It’s just as important to vet the people and groups who provide you with information as it is to vet the translations you read, however, particularly online. Just because someone has a famous name or uses sharp Viking-looking artwork on their website doesn’t mean they actually have any idea what they are talking about. Again, that’s why it’s important to look at the original sources first; that way you’re armed for the fight. Things to consider when learning from other Heathens: Where do they get their information? Do they know anything about the culture this mythology came from? Is their knowledge based primarily on the Vikings show, Tumblr threads, Marvel movies, or AFA propaganda? If so, maybe they’re not the greatest resource for legitimate information.
There are plenty of online groups and communities; if you don’t feel right in one, try another. As we all know, however, it is harder to find healthy in-person groups and communities. If there are no sane groups near you, stay online. Or reach out to other pagan communities and organizations, such as ADF (a group somewhat similar to the Troth that focuses on many different Indo-European Hearth cultures), or Hellenic or Kemetic reconstruction groups. You may even find compatriots at local Wiccan or CUUPS groups, or the Society for Creative Anachronism (one of my first kindreds had an SCA Viking-Age household; true story). You never know where you’ll run into solid Heathens walking their paths; keep an open mind.
Above all, remember: Good Heathens think critically. What Would Odin Do?
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