If I Like Science So Much, Why Am I Still Religious?

The idea that science and religion are incompatible concepts has almost always bugged me.

It doesn’t seem to me like a particularly accurate assumption in practice, given that most of the people educated enough to pursue science in its early stages were people of faith or outright clergy. Hans Christian Lyngbye, for example, was studying pilot whales and other marine life in the Faroe Islands when he recorded Lokka Tattur.

It is still absolutely true that Tycho Brahe fudged the numbers in the name of Geocentrism, and modern fundamentalists rail against simple biology and geology. And, speaking for myself, I absolutely detest plastic shamans who believe herbal medicine is inherently safe compared to pharmacological medicine.

Raw apricot kernels aren’t gonna cure cancer.

But I think, ultimately, that behavior comes down to a failure to understand the source material of their spirituality, rather than a failure inherent to the spirituality itself.

And I’ve written before about how science (specifically, astrobiology) got me even more fired up about my faith. When you learn that gold on Earth is the remnants of supernovae, it’s a little hard not to have intense feelings about firey regenerative patterns and Gullveig. And when you learn that the earliest life on Earth emerged from a literal union of volcanic heat and frigid moisture, the Voluspa suddenly has a lot more gravity.

That was not a physics pun, but we can pretend it is.

Science is about figuring out how and why things work. So too, before science as we know it existed, was religion. To me, it makes perfect sense that those who admire and seek to glorify their gods would want to understand the underlying patterns, which are complex and astoundingly interdependent.

It is difficult, as is, to go investigate the stars. We now know what many of them are made of, how hot they are, how old they are now and how old they will get to be; because we have spectrometers, probes and satellite cameras. Earlier humans didn’t have this luxury. They didn’t know what hydrogen was (it wasn’t properly identified until the late 1700s), or that it is the most abundant gas in the universe, or possibly that there was a universe–not as we now know it, at least; that designation emerged in 1925.

But what they did know was that there were firey orbs in the sky, and they had to get there somewhere.

A Norseman looking for an explanation would look at the two brightest stars in the constellation Gemini, and reach the very logical conclusion that the gods put them there. Specifically, they were Thjazi’s eyes, and their placement in the sky was weregild paid to his infuriated daughter Skaði. Even knowing these stars are a good deal farther apart than they look, and their categorization emerges from a simple human need for pattern-matching, there is no loss of wonder staring into them. If anything, knowing the vastness of space adds to the fear and wonder of staring into Thjazi’s eyes. He would have had to be terribly mighty.

These people weren’t being stupid. And I don’t think an assertion of ignorance is particularly fair, either, because it’s not like Vikings could have gone to space. (Not until the late 1970s, of course. Hachacha.)

Our stories were best guesses–and very logical guesses!–in their time. New information does not invalidate religion, so long as you have the right approach. And this is why fundamentalist and literal approaches are the problem. Clinging fiercely to literal interpretations allows for the whole thing to be picked apart, disproven and eventually destroyed.

And people of faith generally don’t want that. I sure don’t.

While I believe the gods literally exist (maybe not physically, and to be honest I’ve never really laid the whole thing out in detail), these stories are still viable metaphorical explanations. Mythology was already heavily metaphorical, even in a context where it was understood literally. These people believing in this kind of thing weren’t being stupid, they were using a specific model to approach the objective and observable.

I’ve joked in a few Heathen-geared comment sections that I don’t have the “personality” for godlessness. And it’s true. The set of personality traits that are common among the faithful occur in me as well. Science explains phenomena in a way that I find perfectly accurate and satisfactory (like why people might perceive and strive to interact with the divine in the first place), but I need a strongly emotional outlet to experiencing and processing the world. Science gets me very enthusiastic about dirt, and birds, and trees, but it doesn’t leave a lot of room to tell the trees I love them.

Further, science–at least hard science–doesn’t contribute to our personal growth. Our comparative intelligence as humans complicates our lives. Rather than just a struggle to keep our place in the ecosystem and survive, our lives are filled with purpose-seeking and contemplation. That is a solely emotional process, even though science is eager to explain how it came about. Which is absolutely fair, because the same laws that govern anything else allowed for it to happen.

But the laws of physics, chemistry and biology are indifferent to us. They are not invested in us. They explain our existence in the context of lawful chance. They are neutral baselines for how the observable universe works, and they don’t care about us.

The gods do.


Prestige and Puppy Love

Paganism is exciting when it’s new. There are gods! A whole bunch! Gods you can talk to! Sometimes they talk back and leave you cryptic notes!

And then you get used to it. Discernment gets better. You realize there is vastly less godphone going on than you thought–if you even have godphone, because sometimes your brain is giving you a helping hand by reinterpreting a very potent urge to do the thing. Your brain is supposed to pattern-match and fill in the blanks. You’re experiencing a feature, not a bug.

It is tempting (as I have regrettably done) to try and get more attention. Be it through harder work, expanding your skillset or just straight up pleading. After all, your gods love you, right?

Well, yeah. But not the way we love them. They’re bigger than us, and given the fact that we don’t interact with them like other beings, I imagine they keep a certain distance. Even in a framework where the gods are everywhere, and in everything, we don’t often get to carry a conversation with them like we do with humans. They function differently. And I think this distance is maintained out of love and respect for their willing servants.

Getting close, really close, to a deity is kind of (extremely) terrifying. They’re big compared to us. Not physically, per se. I don’t know how one can measure that by any acceptable metric. But it stands to reason among spiritual types that any entity that can tweak circumstances in your favor, when you can’t, must be more powerful than you. I can remember what I consider the first time I properly met Loki, where I said “prove it” and suddenly realized I could not breathe. I cried uncle and stopped trying to be sassy. I was not harmed, but I was definitely spooked.

I mention this because, while ecstatic experiences definitely give you a high better than drugs, they have an equal and opposite comedown. That drop will happen no matter what you do, and the further you prolong the inevitable, the worse it will get. It’s a balance thing. Balance isn’t constantly remaining in one state, it’s the fluctuation necessary to maintain the average. And you can soften where you fall through taking the steps to prepare for those experiences, but the fall itself is non-negotiable.

It sucks, but we’re physical creatures and tightly bound by the laws of physics. Managing an abnormal experience, which religious experiences are, sucks up our energy. That energy comes from the matter in our bodies and we suffer when it disturbs our equilibrium. Again, gods don’t function the way we do.

Sometimes our gods will wound us. Sometimes it’s discipline. Sometimes it’s by accident. Sometimes, for the very unlucky, it’s cruelty. But our gods will wound us if we get close enough. So will our community members, for all of the same reasons.

I’m sure it’s exciting to have the attention (from god and human alike) and subsequent community prestige that being able to claim these kinds of experiences brings. But I think it’s important for people to understand that this doesn’t inherently make something worthwhile. There is a lot of pageantry, braggadocio and just plain bullshit in the online pagan community. (Case in point, ain’t them some sparkly five-dollar words?) And because humans are social creatures, and social approval is such a vital part of our survival, we are going to feel terrible if we don’t measure up. We’re going to feel compelled to try and keep up with the neighbors. It’s a compulsion better not followed.

Because if your paganism doesn’t serve your higher powers, who is it actually for?

Quick housekeeping note: As of today, the blog is switching to a fortnightly schedule. In other words, posts will be every other Thursday until further notice.

Lokabrenna: the Historical, the Modern…and the Boring Math.

While I don’t participate in #JulyForLoki as originally intended–that of a daily blogging project–I did choose to turn the focus of the blog more on Loki than usual. My other project, when I asked, seemed to throw a lot of harvest-y stuff at me. Apparently I am supposed to lovingly stare at my pumpkins…devotionally? Or give Loki a pumpkin? Who knows.

Frey and Thor are getting pumpkins. Loki can have one too. Especially since I made fish emulsion for the pumpkins out of freebie lox that got nasty. Symbolism.


The Historical

Lokabrenna as a holiday is a thoroughly modern invention, popular among Lokeans for the fact that Loki doesn’t really get any feast days, days of the week, (no, Saturday is not Lokadagr) or any special mention at known rituals from the historical record. But irrespective of whether he was worshipped then, he’s worshipped now. I am a fussy jerk about many things, and get more recon as time goes by, but honoring Loki is…well, honoring Loki.

The name of that celebration, and therefore the reason for the season, comes from the Old Icelandic name for the star Sirius. I’ve seen translations of the name run from the matter-of-fact and charming “Loki’s Torch” to the more severe “Conflagration of [as in “made by”] Loki,” which seems to reference Ragnarok. There doesn’t seem to be any surviving lore contemporaneous with the original heathen practice that totally clarifies this, beyond the implication of Ragnarok.

For more thorough overviews of the history of Sirius’s association with Loki, I’d recommend Lokavinr’s post on the subject, and the Lokabrenna tag on GrumpyLokeanElder’s WordPress archive.

The Modern

Because Lokabrenna is named for Loki, and there was a precedent for celebrating the heliacal rising of Sirius in a few other cultures (the Egyptians, for example–though other cultures have other heliacal risings of note), a modern celebration was put together to honor Sirius’s supposed contribution to the heat of the dog days. The idea being, allegedly, that Sirius being out during the day in the summer would enhance the daytime heat. Its rising just before the sun signals the beginning of its reappearance in the night sky–and therefore the return of cooler weather.

Personally, I’m down for this, as someone who likes to pick out the clusters of stars that would have been constellations known to the Vikings. (The VikingAnswerLady page on that is worth a look.) And it would have almost exclusively been stars visible in winter, given that summer means near-constant sunlight.

Because the dog days are variable, but do tend to take up most of July, devoting the entire month to Loki in anticipation of Sirius/Lokabrenna’s rising is a simplification for practicality’s sake. Not everyone has the time, patience, or even just the spoons to calculate the exact time, and then have a ritual on top of that.

If you happen to be one of those people who does like to figure out exact times, though…

The Boring Math

The Heliacal Rising of a star is (as previously mentioned) the event in which it rises just prior to the sun after having been absent from the night sky. Heliacal risings mark the transition from the star’s invisibility during daytime hours, to its resumed visibility in the night sky.

There’s a handful of tools available that will vastly simplify the process for you. The one I am most familiar with is the Heliacal Rising Simulator, which allows you to punch in your latitude, choose from marking twilight (astronomical) or sunrise as a frame of reference, and fiddle with a date slider to figure out which date most closely aligns with Sirius’s heliacal rising. I would recommend dawn as your frame of reference, though nautical or civil dawn may be more practical than astronomical dawn.

There will be many, many tabs open while you research this.


It will be worth it. I promise. There is nothing quite like witnessing a star’s return for yourself. And then you have the added benefit of having a whole bunch of free time, because you got up before the sun.

So when you’ve picked your date and you’re ready to head out, brew yourself a big pot of coffee. Pour Loki a cup while you’re at it.

A Random Theory About Útgarða-Loki

Disclaimers are important! So here’s mine. I am not an expert on Norse mythology. I am just a Heathen who moonlights as a big old nerd, and tries to read very old pieces of text until I am very mad about everything and start chugging mead in frustration. (I am inflicting this suffering on myself right now with scans of Computus Runicus.)

ALSO, because I am not an expert, with a robust scholarly background, and I am also not anywhere near old enough to have been around for when Haustlong and the chunk of the Prose Edda about it was written, this should be regarded as a curiosity. I have a post on that, too.


In the post about the Snaptun stone I took a guess that the story of Loki/Logi/Útgarða-Loki was originally a poem. Not just because the Prose Edda is Snorri transcribing linear narratives from poems, but because of the sheer amount of alliteration in the use of these names.

We don’t seem to have any traces of this poem beyond the narrative, if it exists. Snorri does not quote stanzas from wherever he is getting this story. So the claim that this is a poem is a logical–but technically unprovable–guess.

I’m going out on a limb that I desperately hope will hold my weight, is what I’m saying.

Útgarða-Loki might not be a name. In fact, I strongly suspect it’s a kenning. It even follows the standard format of genitiveY-nominativeX used in kennings (“Loki of the outer yards,” in this case) to obliquely refer to something that wouldn’t have otherwise fit the style a poet was using.

The thought occurred to me when I was skimming something for another post and noticed kennings such as “ale-Gefjon.” But Ale-Gefjon isn’t literally Gefjon doling out alcohol. It’s Groa. There is no room in this narrative for Gefjon’s actual presence, let alone her doling out ale.

Gefjon’s name is used here as a general placeholder for “woman.”

So I imagine it’s well within the realm of possibility that Loki’s name could have been used similarly. Maybe, just maybe, “Loki” in the potential kenning “Útgarða-Loki” is being used as a placeholder for a Jotunn in general, or a deceiver in general.

Like Loki, Útgarða-Loki weaponizes the neutral. (Fire, thought, age, the sea; whereas Loki weaponizes speech and–depending on source–mistletoe.) He deceives the gods who wander into his territory. His deceit unravels. And in this story, Útgarða-Loki is the driver of conflict and the mover of the narrative. Compare this to the “mover of stories” function that Yvonne S. Bonnetain ascribes to Loki–you can read a translation of the summary here.

He takes on the role that Loki ordinarily fulfills in his tales. But he is a total outsider from the perspective of the gods and the skalds that center their narrative. While Loki is considered somewhat of an outsider, and a transgressor, he is counted among the Aesir and is portrayed as belonging in Asgard. Útgarða-Loki is not.

And he is not Loki, himself. Just similar.

I’m not invoking the overblown and ridiculous innangard-utangard dichotomy, by the way. That concept is a wild misinterpretation of the actual concepts of whether something falls within, our outside of, a given boundary. Usually a fence. A house. A town. Útgarðr can be a little more ~woo~, but mostly just conveys an idea of something being “way over yonder.”

The actual identity of Útgarða-Loki has not been definitively solved. I am nowhere near qualified to definitively solve it–and that’s not how it works, anyway. This is just my two pieces of hacksilver.

“Loki Did It!”

For most of us, pop culture and kid-friendly reinterpretations of mythology are the very first exposure to pagan deities. With that comes a lot of oversimplifications and misinterpretations of their stories, so that they fit more comfortably into modern biases and are easier to understand.

The downside of this is that people tend to lock in on first impressions, and therefore they lock in on the oversimplifications. Speaking for myself, Loki was that weird guy who made mischief, and who forced Jim Carrey to behave like…well, Jim Carrey, but cranked to 11.

The Mask (and the majority of his other portrayals) really didn’t care to go into the complexity of the Trickster archetype, or the fact that Loki isn’t quite a trickster–he deviates strongly into and out of quite a few archetypes.

And I think it’s the oversimplification of Loki’s character that sets people up with the wrong idea about what Loki actually does to, for, and with humans.

Which leads to a lot of annoyances and bizarre incidents being chalked up to “Loki did it!”

via Myths Retold

Computer glitching? LOKI DID IT. Power went out? LOKI DID IT. Vase fell off the table when you bumped it? LOKI DID IT. It snowed and now you have to shovel your driveway? LOKI DID IT, even though that’s more of a Thorri and Skaði thing. Souffle deflated? LOKI DID IT. SHOULDA GIVEN HIM SPONGECAKE.

It saves time, I guess, but it reflects a lack of discernment and doesn’t acknowledge Loki as a complex being–despite his being defined by complexity.

There have been incidents where it was extremely obvious that Loki was doing something. I’m talking about the falcon thing, or dropping feathers in my path. Or the time he threw a turtle shell off of the bookcase where I keep my shrines, after I blew out a candle I knew he wanted lit. Or breaking my bed. (There’s a whole story on that, but since it happened on Christmas, the post is queued for December.) Or the time he responded to my constant demands that he “teach me something,” by knocking a carton of eggs out of my hands. I learned that you can’t get egg whites out of an unsealed wood floor, and to be less of a nag.

There were also less obvious incidents that snuck up on me long after the fact–like the feather thing, initially, because I was unaware of the folk tradition claiming that he “harvests” feathers from birds.

None of these things were random, daily annoyances. Most of them weren’t even inconveniences, really, except for the egg incident and the bed incident. With the sole exception of the feather thing, probably, they all happened in situations that directly and unambiguously involved him. He was either initiating or continuing a conversation. Something was being communicated.

That’s a big part of why, even with my persistently glitchy keyboard problems, my instinct isn’t “Loki must be doing this.” My laptop is a workhorse that runs resource-intensive programs on a regular basis. I spilled a large jar of water on it back in 2014. I’ve spilled the juice for my e-cig on that keyboard more times than I can count. And it wasn’t during interactions with Loki, but just me minding my own clumsy business. Of course the thing’s acting weird. It’s a miracle it still works at all. If there was somehow a hidden message in my laptop ghost-typing 8’s and +’s all the time, I wouldn’t be able to decipher it, anyway.

So, no. Let’s not blame things on Loki without checking the context first. The Norse Crisis Flowchart is not a substitute.

On the Responsibility of Harsh Truths

It is often said that Loki is a bringer of harsh truths, as shown in the Lokasenna and the personal experiences of his devotees. Hence, his title of bölva smiðr, bale-smith. One who crafts those things that hurt to hear.

I don’t doubt this. I’ve experienced it directly.

It is also said by many of these same people that it falls to us, as Lokeans, to also bring harsh truths.

This gives me pause, for several reasons.

For one, Loki, as a god, is ancient. He has been given thousands of years (at minimum) to observe the follies and vanities of his peers and of humans. He knows how we tick. Our human lifetimes are fairly long, at 80+ years in a sufficiently cushy environment. But they’re still astronomically shorter than a god’s lifespan. We have far shorter windows of opportunity for studying each other, and we have to develop ourselves simultaneously. It’s a lot to juggle at once.

By extension, while our gods are fallible, they are more experienced and more mature than we, as humans, will probably ever get to be. They can spot our dishonesty and our arrogance faster than we detect it in others, and especially in ourselves. This is what harsh truths, by necessity, destroy.

Picture someone you know who pointedly announces that they are honest. When they insult you or talk down to you, their excuse for this behavior is that they’re just so honest. They call them as they see them. Fine, I guess. But what does that achieve? Did you actually learn something useful about yourself? Does this person examine their own worldview like that?

Doubtful. These kinds of people are usually just annoying and making excuses. Also, stop befriending whale biologists.

Unlike your average “but I’m just being honest!” type, Loki is tactical. This is literally the minimum requirement for a trickster-adjacent god. (“Trickster” is a bit of an oversimplification, but that’s for another day.) You don’t get a reputation for being cunning and sly if you don’t exercise good judgement. Good judgement does not have room for arrogance, vanity and just plain being a dick.

Loki is also accountable, whether he likes it or not. When he suggests letting the giant builder use his horse, it’s him who has to go sabotage the wall to save The Sun, The Moon and Freyja when this proves to be a bad idea. When he tries to get out of surrendering his head to the dwarves who crafted Mjölnir, his mouth is stitched shut; by refusing to pay the promised fee, he opens himself up for punishment. The Lokasenna ends in his punishment, too, even as he spends several stanzas calling his peers out on their faults. (I also think it’s easy to forget, in this day and age, that Lokasenna is a comedy piece.) He tries to wiggle out of both of these, literally in the second case, but to no avail.

In short, our actions have consequences.

I don’t think we do justice by this supposed obligation to the harsh truth when we are not tactical and accountable. We are not tactical if we call them as we see them, every time we see them. There are time, place and manner considerations. Power dynamics do not magically melt away, and if we take this task seriously, we must also be ready to face the consequences of uttering these harsh truths. Reactions are not always justified, but they’re harsh truths. They will rarely, if ever, be received well.

And maybe harsh doesn’t suit the situation. Maybe it’s not even our job, because not all of us are qualified. Maybe it’s a skill that has to be developed.

We must also be similarly willing to turn this on ourselves, because if we don’t examine and work on ourselves, work on our natural impulse to stir the pot before figuring out if it really serves the greater good, we can’t trust that the message is given in good faith. We have to be ready to ask ourselves why this needs to be shared, what good it does, and if we’re ready for the consequences. How can you know you’re telling the truth to others if you’re still lying to yourself?

I don’t want to imply that I am somehow immune to this, either. The entire point is that nobody is. We will probably never ditch the instinct for arrogance, but we can at least be aware it’s there, so we’re prepared to resist it.

Further reading:

On the Responsibility of Being Lokean, by Del Tashlin.

A Few Favorite Examples of Norse Mythology and Culture in Media

The Almighty Johnsons

This is a show that takes place in modern-day New Zealand. The main premise is that there are families descended from Scandinavian immigrants, who carry on a tradition of serving as vessels for Norse gods.

The focus is on the Johnson family and their Norse god hijinks, but there are also major Māori characters whose portrayals are about on par with the Johnsons and other “Norse” characters. Every major character is well-developed and charming, even if most of them are jerks. (Except the guy who carries Loki. He’s pretty much just a jerk.) Even minor characters get to experience significant development as the series goes on.

And without giving too much away, there’s an important plot involving the gods-as-humans dynamic with Māori deities, and a main character’s mixed (and hidden) family origins.

There are moments where this show can be insensitive at best. More eye-rolling casual misogyny than I’m usually comfortable with, for one. And there are instances of casual racism in the show coming from the Scandinavian-New Zealander characters regarding Māori characters. But that plot is an important exploration in who has the right to approach–or be, in this case–a Norse god. As it turns out, “purity” isn’t an issue and the gods pick the person after all. It’s a show that will ultimately piss folkists off, and there’s a lot to love about that.

I’m not sure where else to get it outside of New Zealand, but it’s available on Netflix here in the US.

Norsemen (Vikingane)

This one is probably best suited for people who like Vikings, but prefer slightly more historical accuracy, and humor over drama. This is a Norwegian show which takes place in the Viking age, and was simultaneously recorded in spoken Norwegian, and English. The first season of the English-language version is available on Netflix.

A lot of the humor in this show is graphic and rather edgy, with jokes that rely on death, injury or casual treatment of rape. (Which, luckily for this show, fit the setting well enough to fly–the 790s were rough.) But there are also moments with extended jokes that obviously required research, like an almost-lawyerly insistence from a character that he was totally the active partner, and therefore bottoming wasn’t ergi.

I don’t normally go for edgy humor unless it’s equal-opportunity, self-directed or expertly done in the correct context. Norsemen has managed to meet those standards, though I do still have some issues with language that uses disability as insults. No media is perfect.

Peter Madsen’s Valhalla

Given some news articles from the past few months, I feel the need to specify that this is not the Peter Madsen who did that horrible thing involving a submarine.

Valhalla is a 1986 animated film based on Peter Madsen’s comic series of the same name. The movie focuses on the Gylfaginning, specifically the passage which describes Thor gaining Thjalfi and Röskva as servants, and their contests with Útgarða-Loki.

With the exception of Quark–an original character from the series–this is one of my favorite animated movies, and especially one of my favorite movies that involves Norse mythology. It’s definitely geared towards children, but cuteness and humor don’t actually have an age limit. And while it takes a few liberties regarding characterization and plot, it does a really great job of being loyal to the source material.

Also, the soundtrack is great.

It’s hard to get hold of a copy of this film. I have yet to find a DVD available, though you can still buy Madsen’s comics. Your best bet is probably finding a stream online. Not ideal, but short of petitioning for DVDs in multiple region formats, there’s not a whole lot else to be done.

“A Kick in the Asgard,” from The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy

Once upon a time, this show was a double-feature called Grim & Evil. I actually liked the Evil con Carne half better, but I was clearly in the minority seeing as they dropped it.

In this episode, Billy is swapped with a very high-strung Einherji who decapitates topiary, and angrily mumbles in what I can only describe as the “Sesame Street” dialect of Old Norse.

Having taken his place in Asgard, Billy gets a quick tour of Valhalla. Odin introduces him to Thor (who is, I think unfortunately, really obviously based off of Marvel), and Loki, who has bright red hair and shoots rubber bands at people.

Everyone is wildly out of character, except maybe Loki, but the entire thing is absurdist anyway. Asgard doesn’t have a rootbeer fountain.

Would be cool if they did, though.

On DVD, you’d be able to get this episode with anything that has season 3 on it. But the whole thing is on YouTube, too.

Not Quite There, but an Honorable Mention: Overwatch

So…there are no actual figures from Norse mythology, or portrayals of Old Norse culture in Overwatch. But the game has a few references to Norse mythology!

For example, Torbjörn is a person of very short stature with a knack for tinkering, in an obvious reference to the duergar of Norse mythology. And his name even means “Thor-bear!”

I strongly suspect Junkrat is also inspired by Norse mythology–or at least, later interpretations of it. His character design is very similar to the way Arthur Rackham drew Loki in his illustrations for “The Ring of the Nibelung.” These images came after the misconception of Loki being a fire deity took hold and spread, so a character designer looking at fire-related imagery for a pyrotechnic (and pyromaniacal) character would be forgiven for picking up that influence.

And I’m willing to tolerate it, because it’s a pretty niche artistic shout-out, and Junkrat has some very endearing trickster traits.