Meanwhile

Nearly two weeks ago I attended the Southern New Hampshire Pagan Pride Day, which was run by the lovely Fred Bower of Frithstead. It’s not what it once was; previously the event occupied the commons, but it is now sequestered away to a UU church many blocks away. Normally I would not care about such an event, but there was quite the prize: Ceisiwr Serith was giving two short lectures.

Ultimately the lectures were things that I already largely knew, but that’s quite okay. Serith is a kind person and has about him the kind of scattered eccentricity with which I grew up.

At the time I didn’t have the cash to purchase any of his books, but I rectified that a few days later. I’ve since become the owner of Deep Ancestors: Practicing the Religion of the Proto-Indo-Europeans. His website has long contained lengthy excerpts of that book, so I figured that I was in for a treat.

I was unfortunately wrong. Here’s a litany of issues:

  • The excerpts are, like so many movie trailers out there, simply the best parts of the book.
  • Citation is almost entirely lacking throughout. When it does exist, it’s only inline citation, which I find to be wholly inappropriate.
  • The table of contents doesn’t even have chapter names.
  • There’s no index.
  • Serith doesn’t use standard Proto-Indo-European forms. (I shouldn’t have been so surprised by this, considering that his website does precisely the same thing, but I’m nonetheless irked.)
  • A huge portion of the book is made up of rituals of the author’s own creation. They’re interesting enough in their own ways, but they shouldn’t have been included in the book at such length. I feel like more work was put into the rituals than the rest of the book.
  • There’s too much assumption and not enough acknowledgement  that we have major gaps in our sources.
  • Germanic sources are ignored for the first half of the book. Even after this there isn’t much inclusion. My biggest sadness is the ignoring of the Æcerbōt, which happens to include several of the very elements that Serith found so important.
  • In fact, pretty much anything that isn’t Roman or Indian gets ignored much of the time. Slavic and Baltic sources are ignored fairly thoroughly, for example. While there are issues of preservation, of course, I know that there’s useful content for comparative purposes.
  • Serith loves changing things to reflect modern dogmas regarding so-called equality. He does not mark these changes very well, if at all. This is, however, a one way street, which is in tune with the current dogma. While women are suddenly permitted access to things that were likely male-only in the past, men are not permitted access to female-only things. Such equality.
  • Clearly no copyeditor was employed. There are so many issues in grammar, pacing, punctuation, and repetitiveness.

Probably one of my favourite failures comes on page 103:

Another servant of the members is the Rḗḱs. *Rḗḱs is the root of Irish ri, Sanskrit rajan, and Latin rex. It is sometimes translated “king”, but “chieftain”, or perhaps just “someone with special power” would be more accurate.

Six paragraphs later on the next page:

If you are disturbed by the monarchical overtones of Rḗḱs, choose a Chieftain (or simply an Executive) to fulfill the temporal duties. […] A wíḱs can have a Rḗḱs for the ritual side of things, with the Chieftain having the real authority[.]

Oops. That’s a bit contradictory.

While I’ve been rather saddened by the quality of Ceisiwr Serith’s work, other people have been putting out content that is similar to his in terms of prayers and how to write them properly.

Marc wrote “‘Prayer’ in a Heathen Context” (archive 1, archive 2), which was later reposted to Lārhūs Fyrnsida.1I feel that Marc’s work was, however, hurt a bit by the inclusion of John Lindow’s “Addressing Thor“. I find that its obsession with differences in the male and female enemies of Þórr to be misplaced and ultimately fruitless due to a lack of useable sources on the topic, from which poor conclusions are drawn by Lindow. This, in turn, caused Wodgar’s “‘Prayer’ in a Fyrnsidu Context” (archive 1, archive 2). This has been an interesting topic to me for a few years now. Back in April 2014 I tried my hand at a historically inaccurate offering in some bumbling Old English. Since then I’ve improved somewhat, but I’ve never posted the results of that work. I should get on that.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. I feel that Marc’s work was, however, hurt a bit by the inclusion of John Lindow’s “Addressing Thor“. I find that its obsession with differences in the male and female enemies of Þórr to be misplaced and ultimately fruitless due to a lack of useable sources on the topic, from which poor conclusions are drawn by Lindow.

Encyclopedia of Norse and Germanic Folklore, Mythology, and Magic

I first heard about Claude Lecouteux’s Encyclopedia of Norse and Germanic Folklore, Mythology, and Magic through Joseph Bloch’s review of it. I’ve purchased several of Lecouteux’s books before and always enjoyed them, though I often feel that his writing could use some reorganisation and better citation of primary and secondary sources.

One part of Bloch’s review especially caught my attention:

Where Lecouteux’s book distinguishes itself from those titles is both in its lack of focus on the Norse material and the Viking era (although it does not distance itself from either), as well as its inclusion of tons of folkloric references, rather than sticking to the same old themes found in Norse and/or Germanic mythology. And that in particular is where this work shines, since this is a focus that all too few such works, let alone Asatruar who endeavor to recreate the Germanic mindset, have.

That certainly tickles me in all the right ways, so I ordered the book forthwith.

I’m not impressed, I must admit. This is in my eyes the weakest of Lecouteux’s books that are in my possession. My very first issue is that Norse and Germanic are treated as separate categories, rather than the former being a subset of the latter. That’s been a pet peeve of mine for years now.

The handling of language is lacklustre. The book hops between languages often and inconsistently. Headwords are often in Old Norse, but are also in Anglicised Old Norse, Modern English, the occasional Old English, and German, even when the topic may be better served with a different language. For example, there’s no headword for Ēastre, which is attested well enough in Old English (and obviously later) as a word in itself, but there is one for Ostara, which is made up entirely of English sources.

Many things, such as epithets, are haphazardly translated. Some are dumped into the paragraph without translation, some are presented in English without the original, and some are correctly given in both the original and translation. It’s a bit frustrating.

The book is guilty of very poor citation. A fair number of entries is given a note underneath for further reading, often French or German tertiary sources, but this doesn’t help much. There isn’t a single footnote in the entire book. There is only the rarest of inline citations; this is often reserved for texts that come well after conversion occurred. More commonly known names, such as those from the Eddas, seem to be entirely uncited.

There are several times that non-Germanic topics are brought up without reason, such as Baltic deities. I am quite uncertain why this happens.

On far too many occasions assumptions are presented as facts, such as on page 224 regarding Phol:

A link has been sought between him and Volla with the idea that there could be a pair of gods, the masculine Phol/Fol and the feminine Folla/Volla, which would thus correspond to Freyr/Freyja.

Two sentences in particular ruined the book for me, both in regards to Óðinn. The very first thing said of him on page 213:

The principal deity of the Norse and Germanic pantheon is a cruel and spiteful god, a cynical and misogynistic double-dealer whom the Romans equated as being similar to Mercury.

I was so angry with that description that I put the book down for several minutes. It’s so painfully inaccurate, an issue that is seemingly only done to Óðinn.

On page 215 he writes:

Odin is omniscient[.]

This seems to be some misunderstanding of Hliðskjálf, which may mean something akin to “observation point, guard tower”, upon which Óðinn may see the entire world. Oddly, though, this very seat is mentioned only two paragraphs earlier and is accurately, if succinctly, described.

If there is one thing that this book does right, it’s the folkloric figures that are rarely mentioned anywhere. This is a delight in itself, but these are better handled in Lecouteux’s other books with greater detail.

I do not feel that this is a worthwhile book for the most part, especially if you own the author’s other works. If you’re just looking for an encyclopedia, I would recommend Rudolf Simek’s Dictionary of Northern Mythology. It contains most of the same content, but with excellent citation and more information.

Þórbeorht Línléah’s “Of Ghosts and Godpoles”

In November 2014 Þórbeorht Línléah published Of Ghosts and Godpoles through Lulu. The reviews were immediately glowing and it was well received in various corners of Heathendom. For example:

It is a fabulous work with great insight and wisdom regarding our Elder traditions. Challenging and thought provoking and destined to be a Classic, if not already.

Or another:

This is the best book to come out of modern Heathenry in a long time, possibly ever. Rather than another “101” book or dense academic wankery with no practical value to Heathen praxis, “Ghosts and Godpoles” presents obscure (to many) information in a learned yet enjoyably readable manner. It may be open to criticism on academic grounds, as other reviewers have said, and everyone should read everything critically, but Linleah makes it clear that his objective is not the elusive ghost of “academic objectivity;” he clearly states he is writing from a Heathen position for Heathen readers. I believe this book is not only important for the information it represents, some of which dispels many of the uncritically accepted modern myths of Heathenry, but as a challenge to Heathen writers to step out of the paradigm of Neo-Pagan publishing and focus on output that furthers the growth of Heathenry past simple rehashing of beginner’s instructional materials. With extensive annotation, bibliography, appendices, and the author’s own translations of hard-to-find texts, “Of Ghosts and Godpoles” belongs one very serious Heathen’s bookshelf, regardless of culture or focus.

Or this excerpt of a review from Heathen Harvest:

This book is not for beginners; there is a fairly high level of assumed knowledge, as the author freely admits. However, for those who are comfortable with the tools of historical research—linguistics, archaeology, mythology, reportage, historiography, cross-cultural comparison, and aesthetics—it represents a tour de force, and really throws down the gauntlet for contemporary Heathen authors to ground themselves deeply in the historical record and its interpretation.

Reconstructionism—the view that contemporary Heathen praxis must be grounded on historical evidence as far as practicable—is often pigeon-holed as being stodgy, unimaginative, self-righteous, or gratuitously restrictive. In contrast, Of Ghosts and Godpoles shows just how inspiring and evocative the reconstructionist approach can be, and stands as a great demonstration of reconstructionisms’ ability to enrich our understanding  of both historical and modern Heathenry. Mr. Línléah is a poet as well as an academic, and the poetic vision that guides his rigorous analyses is what makes all the difference and lifts his brand of Théodish reconstructionism into a heightened realm.

This is certainly high praise.

The book itself is 246 pages with a casewrap hardcover. It’s surprisingly sturdy and I see no issues with the binding, which is good. In theory the book should last for quite some time.

The contents are divided into an introduction, six essays (split across two sections), nine appendices, and a lengthy bibliography. The essays are largely unconnected and stand on their own; some were previously published. But it is this disconnectedness that hurts the book initially. The author rehashes arguments occasionally that were already covered in previous chapters. A thorough editing is desperately needed to bring the book together.

To be perfectly blunt, I’m not impressed. The author wanders off topic frequently and needs to reassert the essay’s subject every so often. He views this style as being thorough; I view it as being disorganised and in need of a dispassionate editor.

As is said by the Heather Harvest, he does certainly use “linguistics, archaeology, mythology, reportage, historiography, cross-cultural comparison” in his arguments. It’s important, however, that these tools be used correctly. On the linguistics front alone, he makes painfully wrong connections. He translates incorrectly, while also having a penchant for using archaic words that will themselves require translations for many readers.

Perhaps my favourite issue with words is in his mishandling of Muspilli. In the original:

doh uuanit des vilo ….. gotmanno
daz Elias in demo uuige    aruuartit uuerde
so daz Eliases pluot    in erda kitriufit

He translates this as:1Page 93

But weeneth many that [are] god-men
that Elias in the war slaineth will be.
So that Elias’ blood into the Earth dripeth

Ignoring his frequent, hilariously wrong usage of –eth, he fails to understand Old High German pluot “blood”. In his expert opinion, pluot is cognate with Old English blōt and Old Norse blót “sacrifice”. From here he builds a theory that this whole section is a reference to sacral kingship, upon which the remaining chapter rests by his own admission.2Page 94 But pluot is cognate with Old English blōd and Old Norse blóð “blood”, while the Old High German cognate of blōt and blót is plōz (or *pluoz). This mistake shows that he fails at basic dictionary usage and to understand the High German consonant shift.

A second striking issue is his essay on Seaxnēat.3Pages 29 – 44 This section alone has received more praise than anything else and was, indeed, my initial draw in buying the book. After a dry, unneeded forward for the essay, he launches into paragraph after paragraph of saying why others were wrong about Seaxnēat and why his pet theory is correct, but without the decency of even feigned neutrality.

His arguments require absolute acceptance of Dumézil’s trifunctional hypothesis, which I reject already. It is in his opinion that the statues of Þórr, Óðinn, and Freyr at Uppsala are indicative of all worship elsewhere, thus making Seaxnēat a southern byname of Freyr in the context of the Old Saxon baptismal vow. As supporting evidence, he brings up three other instances of the Norse trio being mentioned together.4Page 43 But his own, limited evidence also lists Njǫrðr twice and Freyja once. It’s hardly compelling. He could have renamed the essay “Dumézil and Turville-Petre Are Divinely Inspired and Grimm Is Wrong” and at least then you would know in advance that you were reading a hagiography instead of a supposedly scholarly work.

Irminsul as popularly depicted

The author did point out one useful thing in his essay, “Poles, Pillars, and Trees”. He showed how the common image of Irminsul is actually just a palm.5Pages 50 – 53 I had wondered where the ornate design had originated and never connected it to the Christian stonework at Externsteine. The original person to make the claim that the palm was Irminsul, Wilhelm Teudt, provided no actual evidence for the connection. It’s a pity that so many groups have taken up the imagery as a symbol for our cosmology.

Despite the useful bit on Irminsul, the book is overall a failure. It provides little of worth and is by no means a classic for the ages. The author is too willing to indulge in pan-Germanicism, even for things centuries and many kilometres apart. This issue extends into things where there isn’t the slightest bit of evidence, such as briefly mentioning the Vanir as being present outside the Norse. It goes so far that he makes up a word for them: the Uuani. For a group whose etymology is unknown and very existence as a distinct entity even among the Norse is up for debate6Simek, Rudolf. “The Vanir: An Obituary.” The Retrospective Methods Network Newsletter, December 2010, pp 10-19., I find this inexcusable.

I do not recommend this book. It is poor. Though it is rather cheap, especially with the author’s current sale and Lulu’s frequent discounts, a reader will not gain a serviceable addition to his library. If anything, it has caused people to have ahistorical reconstructions and incorrect beliefs of the past, which in turn hurts all of us in Heathendom.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Page 93
2. Page 94
3. Pages 29 – 44
4. Page 43
5. Pages 50 – 53
6. Simek, Rudolf. “The Vanir: An Obituary.” The Retrospective Methods Network Newsletter, December 2010, pp 10-19.

Commentary on Jon S. Mackley’s “The Anglo-Saxons — and their gods (still) among us”

Today Medievalists.net posted a link to Jon S. Mackley’s The Anglo-Saxons — and their gods (still) among us. I’m always excited to read what people have written about Anglo-Saxon culture, but I’m distinctly disappointed by this article. It started out well enough, but went downhill quickly after that.

My biggest complaint stems from the fact that Mr. Mackley conflates cultures and languages. Right on the fourth page he cites Lughnasadh as a Saxon holiday that became known as Hlāfmæsse, later Lammas. Not only is this just wrong, but then he worsens the situation by saying that the name became Lammas because of an association with lambs. Such a theory was advanced historically, but it’s been thoroughly disproven and only sound changes gave us Lammas, not folk etymology.

But that isn’t the only place where he doesn’t understand etymology or even spelling.

  • He says that the word for harvest is “hær[ƀ]fest”. <ƀ> does not exist in Old English and the word was simply hærfest.
  • Wōden is consistently written as Woðen.
  • He claims on the ninth page that Tīw comes from Old Norse Týr, but then immediately after says that this comes from Proto-Germanic *Tîwaz. (Even this is incorrect, as it’s *Tīwaz.) A page later Týr is now suddenly spelled Tir.
  • He proposes that Dienstag “Tuesday” may derive from an abbreviation of “O-Dienstag”, referring presumably to Óðinn then. This fails to take into account the local spelling for that god—Wodan—and is in no way attested anyway. He then says that it may be a corruption of Ziestag, which is used in other German-speaking areas. The currently accepted etymology is from a variation of ding “thing, assembly”.
  • Without proper citation, he mentions that Þunor may be from the Celtic “Jupiter Tanarus”. Such a name strikes me being purely Roman or, at best, Romano-Celtic, as the Celts wouldn’t have referred to a god by such a manner. And it ignores the thoroughly settled etymology for þunor “thunder”.
  • Marking of vowel length and accents are largely absent.

He doesn’t know when he’s mixing cultures or making very silly mistakes, like in the aforementioned Lughnasadh nonsense.

  • Yule is celebrated, yes, but then he goes on to say that the Saxons celebrated Jólnir, a byname for Óðinn, not Wōden. Wrong language and time period.
  • He says that the Saxons had Frigg, who is a Scandinavian goddess. The correct form would be Frīg, which is pronounced [fri:j].
  • Óðinn’s wife is apparently Freyja, which he spells Freya.
  • Frigg is apparently the Saxon Earth Mother. That doesn’t even make sense in any context, considering the attestation of Norse Jǫrð and possibly Anglo-Saxon Folde.
  • Only the Saxons are ever mentioned. Apparently the Angles, Jutes, and Frisians never got involved.

If I were grading this work, it would get a failing mark.