I was fortunate to meet Tony a few years ago and I must say his deep wisdom has had a huge influence on my heathenism. Hammer Forged, along with its companion essay Asatru/Asafalse by Sweyn Plowright, represents a shining clarion for heathens and Asatruar worldwide.
– Heimlich A. Loki
Hammer Forged: Fabricating a Tradition
© Copyright Anthony Looker, March 2001
It is presumed that many of the readers are concerned with the revival and restoration of Odinism, also known as Asatru, or the northern tradition. This refers to the practice of the religious and magical system of beliefs found in Northern Europe and Scandinavia before the onset of Christianity. Clearly, some feel that they have a vocation or mission to fulfil in this respect. Undoubtedly, it is a deeply challenging exercise, which is occasionally rewarding, but is it worthwhile too? All those who are genuinely and honestly engaged in this endeavour deserve our wholehearted support and appreciation. However, it is a task that is doomed to uncertainty at best and contains numerous pitfalls for the unwary at worst. For most this will probably amount to no more than wasted time and effort. However, for a few it may lead to psychological problems, or recruitment into New Age cults masquerading as Odinist organizations, or possibly both.
The Underlying Problem
There is considerable uncertainty involved with recovering our ancestral beliefs and wisdom, assuming it is viable at all. It is not how far we can go in our efforts, nor even should we attempt to do so. Quite simply, it is knowing if we have succeeded to any extent. The underlying problem, facing those striving to reconstruct the lost pagan religion of the North, is that it disappeared long ago and no comprehensive record of it remains. There is, of course, a wealth of material in the form of the Eddas and Sagas, as well as contemporary accounts by Christian clerics and so forth, which provide us with a glimpse into the lost world of the North. Unfortunately, regardless of how much we may be able to glean from these sources we cannot know for certain that we have arrived at an accurate understanding of the tradition, as it once was. The reason for this is that none of them represent personal accounts or testimonies by actual exponents of the elder faith; they were all written up either by rank outsiders or else hundreds of years after the people and events which they describe. For example, no matter how sympathetic and sincere Snorri Sturlusson may have been with his rendering and melding of oral tradition we cannot be certain of its accuracy; indeed, we may wonder if Snorri himself was entirely sure of his facts. Even runestones, although primary source material in some cases, turn out to be of limited help to us here. The vast majority of these inscriptions are either very simple or banal statements, such as: “So and so put up this stone in memory of his father”, or else they contain information so obfuscated and cryptic as to be quite unfathomable or meaningless. This may all be very fascinating and certainly helps to fuel our imagination but is useless as far as providing us with any clear information.
The Living Dead
Supposedly, a careful examination and interpretation of runic inscriptions and early texts underpins the present-day northern tradition. The impression conveyed is that Odinism is authentic and historically accurate; when it has in fact been cobbled together from a variety of sources, both ancient and modem. History is after all more of an art than a science, no matter how well crafted. It is subjective by nature and in the absence of a transcendent, overarching, objective viewpoint that we can refer to – with the possible exception of that contained within the allegory of myth – there is only the version according to individual historians. And, unless you happen to be Adolf Hitler standing on trial, there is no eternal court of history we can make an appeal to, either. Incidentally, it is worth recalling that the German messiah considered the ancient Germanic gods unsuitable objects of worship for the modem age, as related by Hermann Rauschning. The wonderful tapestry of make-believe history conjured up by the image-makers of the Third Reich was, it seems, intended to herald the advent of a new spiritual order and not the triumphant return of the old heathen gods. Essentially, all history is reconstruction no matter how truthfully it may relate the story of past events. History cannot bring back the past, it can only convey an impression of it for us. Just as marshalling the facts in sequential order, alone, does not constitute history; so, methodically exhuming elements of past practice is not enough to reanimate a dead tradition. Unfortunately, some Odinists’ own forensic analysis has come to resemble pathology: more concerned with the fate of the dead than that of the living. They may learn a lot about the nature and world of the deceased but that does not necessarily help us to gain an understanding and mastery over our own lives. In answer to those who might say that the dead are worth more than the living – on the basis that most of the living are worthless – that may be so but alas for us their tradition died with them.
We may well ask why anyone would want to revive a dead religion, in the same way we might question the merit of restoring an old car. Drawing on this analogy, the response might be that just as mass-produced vehicles do not appeal to everyone, so established religion has failed to satisfy all spiritual needs. Accordingly, many of us profoundly alienated and dissatisfied with what is available have sought solace elsewhere. A few have turned to the venerable faith of our Anglo-Saxon and Norse ancestors for inspiration. However, in the case of Asatru, there is no book of heathen common prayer, no manual of shamanistic practice, no magical grimoire even – at least not until several centuries later – to guide the modem adherent. Likewise, for anyone attempting to forge a ‘Philosophy of the Hammer’ there is no ‘Treatise or Reflections on the Nature of Asatru’ to provide them with a lead. Unlike ancient Greece, the northern world never made the transition from mythology to philosophy. Anyway, who is qualified to lead such a project and what authorization have they to do so?
There is no monopoly on the truth and no individual or group is the fount of all wisdom where the (northern) tradition is concerned. Although some seem to suggest just that and others appear to be gullible enough to believe it. Anyone conceited enough to argue that his is the definitive version of Odinism will soon find that he has made a rod for his own back. This will invariably tend to be controversial and divisive, especially amongst the Odinist community which is notorious for its endless feuds, rifts and schisms. Ironically, those same hierophants who have forged ahead with reinstating the northern tradition, scornful of Christian dogma, have ended up propounding an equally hidebound and dirigiste creed of their own. A few vainglorious characters have added insult to injury by arbitrarily arrogating authority to themselves. But, they face a constant struggle to convince even their own followers, let alone anyone else, of the legitimacy of their usurpation. Further, their claim looks hollow and threadbare in the absence of the sanction that an unbroken, living, tradition could confer upon them. In any case, the self-appointed prophets and cult leaders of neo-Germanic paganism do not know, any more than the rest of us, exactly what constituted this lost faith.
A Hidden Agenda
Some might say that it does not matter if certain people have appropriated the tradition for their own ends and that it is not really suitable for modem man anyway. Further, does it really matter if we don’t relate to the runes in exactly the same way as the runemasters of old? After all, people consult the I Ching quite happily without having to abide strictly by the method used during the Sung dynasty. Ralph Blum has managed to do very nicely indeed out of (mis)casting the runes, having tossed aside the time-honoured fashion of doing so! We may regard him, in our own opinion, as a charlatan and his system as being completely bogus but – unlike certain others – he has never made any pretence to authenticity. Since traditions constantly mutate and renew themselves anyway, a conscious reconstruction may turn out to be little different from the product of spontaneous and natural evolution. The concern is not that certain individuals have hatched up Odinism but that they have exploited their knowledge and skills in order to establish something akin to a personality cult, with all the dubious qualities which that term implies. It seems that no matter how much they try to deny it, those who take on the trappings and status of a guru or grand master – either by accident or design – almost inevitably will come to be regarded, and come to regard themselves, as such. The more that people claim they are specially gifted with some unique spiritual insight and occult powers, the greater the suspicion grows that they are merely false claimants operating a hidden agenda. They can end up as complete characatures of themselves, negating any genuine abilities and spiritual qualities they may have once possessed.
Reconstruction or Fiction?
A number of so-called revivals of Odinism have been started in recent years. Undoubtedly some of them have been carefully and tirelessly researched with apparent skill and dedication but no matter how great the effort expended and the resources deployed, they are all flawed in one important and fundamental sense. In order to reconstruct something, anything in fact, there has to be an accurate model or original design to work with. For instance, to enable an engineer, architect or archaeologist to effect a valid reconstruction of something they must have a clear and complete example of the original artifact, blueprint or plan, ideally. Failing this there can be no accurate reconstruction, an exact replica true in every detail. What there will be in its place is either an approximation or else an artist’s impression – in other words a construct or fiction. This also applies to any reworking of Odinism. Whatever else they may have left to us, what we do not possess is a full and complete exposition – a mission statement – with regard to our forebears’ worldview.
There is a distinction between dreaming the myths onward and attempting to duplicate a vanished tradition. The key to unlocking the secrets of our pagan past rests with our mythopoeic imagination, where the archetypal currents, which generate the myths are constantly at work deep within the psyche. The myths ebb and flow through individual lives and the lifetime of nations like the changing seasons. Traditions follow the same pattern, sometimes undergoing a dormant phase whilst at other times enjoying a high summer after a prolonged absence and winter hibernation. However, their mysterious reappearance is seldom if ever in quite the same form as before. As with any organic system, a degree of metamorphosis accompanies their life cycle. The outer trappings may have faded beyond immediate recognition but the framework remains the same, embedded in the northern psyche like the molecular structure of a crystal. In this uncertain and haphazard way a tradition may survive indefinitely with greater or lesser degrees of continuity. The challenge for us is to find a way to integrate these potent archetypal elements and symbols, without being psychologically overwhelmed by them in the process. This paradigm has been outlined before: Jung’s essay on Wotan likens the Odinic stream to a dry riverbed awaiting the waters of irrigation; a century earlier the poet Heinrich Heine alluded to the old stone gods slumbering in the dust of history, awaiting their moment to reawaken and cast off the slough of a millennium of Christianity.
An Insurmountable Obstacle
Despite these various seemingly insurmountable obstacles one or two pioneers have forged ahead with a revamped northern tradition based upon a vague and speculative notion of the past. It is a heroic attempt to satisfy a deepseated desire; as clearly there is considerable nostalgia for the old Germanic faith and a yearning to regain a symbolic cosmos based on the Norse myths. Curiously, the absence of the restraint and check that a prevailing, extant tradition might otherwise impose affords us boundless freedom of opportunity: the scope to innovate and experiment to our hearts’ content. In this way, we may arrive at something close to the lost tradition; equally, we may end up inventing an entirely new one. We will never know. In the end, short of abandoning this particular path altogether, we are left with no choice other than to follow something that is largely unsubstantiated and of questionable validity.