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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

book review - The Nature of Asatru

 Time for another book review. This time I decided to update and share a review I did 5 years ago in the journal Idunna for a book by Mark Puryear called "The Nature of Asatru". If you have read and liked this book don't even bother reading this review, because I can summarize it concisely by saying that I feel this is the Asatru equivalent of the 21 Lessons of Merlin.
   Looking at the back of the book it seems like it should be an ideal beginner's book; Puryear has almost 20 years experience in Asatru and is a member of a group, the Asatru Nation, which is an American offshoot of Australia's Odinic Rite. The book is touted as an  introduction to the core values of Asatru, yet it quickly becomes apparent when reading the text that instead of describing widely held universal beliefs of Asatru the book is actually focused exclusively on the beliefs of Puryear's particular group, which are not in any way universal. Exactly the opposite in fact - the book is full of controversial theories, misinformation, and foreign elements. The author is also insistent that Asatru has no subgroups or denominations, despite the wide range of modern practices, and lumps all Asatruar in with the Asatru Nation/Odinic Rite. This by itself is a serious problem.
   The book's tone is both racist and homophobic, reinforcing the stereotype that Asatruar are all like this. Puryear blends a bizarre sort of political correctness in with his bigotry, encouraging tolerance of other people's choices while strongly condemning miscegeny and homosexuality. He describes children with mixed heritage as having no ancestral roots and miscegeny as genocide and stops just short of encouraging people of Northern European descent to breed together to save their "race". He does flatly state that the "white race" is failing due to being outbred and not keeping the bloodlines pure. The attempts to make this more palatable with politically correct buzz words fails, at least with me. Personally as someone of mixed heritage I found it repugnant and offensive, and his wife's essay in the appendices about a woman's place compounded it by adding misogyny into the mix, albeit cleverly disguised.
   The book includes many elements that seem to me to be foreign to Asatru, although I profess a very minimal knowledge of the Odinic Rite; it is possible that this is the norm for that group. Puryear says that the gods meet daily to judge the souls of the dead and assign them a place in the afterlife; not something I've heard anyone else supporting. He also very strongly divides Norse magic into "good" galdr and "evil" seidhr, going so far as to say that Gullveg was burned by the Aesir as a punishment for teaching evil seidhr to humanity. (Apperantly he ignores Freya teaching seidhr to Odin). He describes Helheim as a land of bliss. He adds nine vices to the accepted 9 noble virtues and these vices appear to be an odd mix of the Christian 10 commandments and deadly sins. He describes the Aesir and Vanir as nearly-archetypal deities of goodness, with Loki as the opposing force of pure evil He also inaccurately claims that there are no modern followers or cults to Loki. The author's ideas about orlag seem to me to be closer to the Wiccan concept of the law of 3 than the common heathen views, with his belief that orlag is about what we put out coming back to us. He also divides offerings into four catagories based on the four classical elements of earth, air, fire, and water, which struck me as being very odd.
   The book's mythology was heavily influenced by the writings of Viktor Rydburg, who attempted to homogenize all Norse and Germanic mythology into a single system, with predictable results. Rydburg is not widely accepted in mainstream heathenry, yet the book presents his theories as facts without any explanation of the source material or normal views. Puryear describes Frigga as the sister of Njordh and mother of Freya, Frey, and 8 others with him, for example, which is not a widely held belief in heathenry. He equates Gullveg to Angrboda and lists Gullveg as the mother of Loki's children; in turn he says that Hel is not Loki's daughter but rather that Urd rules Helheim with Loki's daughter, named Leiken, as a minor servant. He describes Baldr as the most popular heathen god and relegates Tyr to the role of warrior and son of Odin, while denying his role as god of justice and god of the Thing which are the widely accepted views of Tyr. He describes Skadi, who is normally viewed as giantess who married into the Aesir, as the daughter of Volund (the smith) and Idunna. In his book Sunna and Mani are alfs and their mother is Nott (or Nat) who he claims is actually Ostara. I could go on, but hopefully that is enough to demonstrate the odd material presented on the gods, the majority of which is not widely accepted by the larger community. I think presenting it as if it were fact or accepted lore does a great disservice to beginners who will not realize that these are not popular beliefs.
    Facts that should have been easily checked are wrong, such as the authors assertion that the most common modern and ancient method of humane animal sacrifice is beheading the animal - this statement is followed by a rambling discussion of the guillotine. The book itself is inly 127 pages long, follwed by an equally long appendices which include an essay by the author's wife about a heathen woman's place (in the home caring for her family) and a cobbled-together version of the Havamal.
    In short this book is the last thing a beginner should read as it is often off-putting, offensive, confusing, and factually incorrect. While it is always best to start with the myths themselves - the poetic and prose Eddas are generally recommended - both volumes of Our Troth and Diana Paxson's book Essential Asatru would also be good for those just developing an interest in Asatru.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Book Review: The World of the Druids

  I haven't done a book review since last month so I thought it was about time to do another. This review will look at Miranda Green's book The World of the Druids, which was published in 1997. The book is divided into 10 sections that cover everything from what we know about ancient Druids to the Druidic revival and modern Druids. Of particular interest may be the sections on Celtic cosmology and theology, female Druids, and evidence of ritual sacrifice. At 192 pages the book is fairly short and very easy to read, with an impressive selection of images (291 to be exact) that support the text.
    Green's strength is archeology so it should come as no surprise that she spends more time discussing archeological evidence than many other similar books do. This is something of a catch-22 in a book on Druidism as there is very little definitvely "Druidic" material that can be identified from ancient sites, leaving much up to guess and supposition. The advantage to the reader however is the material covered that relates more broadly to Celtic culture and can provide insight into dress, jewelry, and lifestyle as well as religion (broadly) while remaining in an easily accessible format. Unlike books that are intended to focus on archeological evidence this book largely avoids being dry or overly complicated, and is fairly easy to read and follow.
     I also liked that Green is very clear about the difficulty with many of the sources, including archeology, before offering that material. She doesn't downplay the issues that we have with the sources available to us that provide the only real information we have about the Druids. She is also clear that even defining who was and wasn't "Celtic" historically is complicated, saying, "...defining the world of the ancient Celts depends upon three categories of evidence, all of which need to be used cautiously because they are incomplete and sometimes ambiguous." (Green, p 11, 1997). She does provide a solid amount of literary references from Greek and Roman writers, as well as native Celtic myth.
     Green approaches defining the historic Druids by establishing who the Celts were at that time and what their beliefs were, and then uses that context to describe the Druids and their role in soceity. She uses archeology, Greek and Roman writings, and Welsh and Irish myths to do this. I can appreciate the value of this approach as context is vital to understanding any group functioning within a larger society, such as the Druids. The book is honestly worth reading just for the insight into Celtic culture that Green provides, but she does do a fair job of explaining the Druids' place as well.
    The book finishes up with chapters on the Druid revivial and modern Druidism, both of which are fascinating. Although not nearly as in depth as other works, of course, it does provide a good overview of more recent Druidic history and would serve as a good introduction to the topic. The focus here is on Druids in England specifically, so anyone looking for information about the Druid revivals in other areas will have to look elsewhere.
     I think that as a book on Druids this one is of moderate value, but is a better resource on Celtic culture. I can think of other books on historical and modern Druids that I would recommend first, but this one is nice in its brevity and inclusion of both historic and modern practices. I would, however, recommend it more highly as an introduction to ancient Celtic culture and religion, which is more of the book's strength than strictly Druidism. For someone just venturing into this area of study this book is a good place to start.