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.

Reporting on Heathenry, Responsibly

This would probably be considered a companion post to the role we can play in improving the image of Heathenry.

We know Heathenry has a racism problem. Anti-racist Heathens, myself included, consider this a significant problem that needs to be addressed. Our religion continuing to be hijacked by extremists, violent gangs and white supremacists is a really big deal.

But I am conflicted about the way journalism portrays Heathens. Racism seems to be all anyone wants to focus on, even though there’s a whole lot more going on. Most of the time I find a news article about a Heathen that’s not from a specifically pagan-geared source, it seems the writers go out of their way to mention–or talk to–the racist Heathen contingent.

Take Dylan Sprouse, who may very well be the most visible celebrity Heathen. Here’s an interview about when he started a mead brewery.

Somehow the writer thought it was necessary to drag in a mention of Stephen MacNallen, even though Stephen MacNallen has nothing to do with brewing mead. The writer openly admits that Sprouse satisfactorily addressed their concerns, and still brings it up anyway.

And sure, Sprouse citing his ancestry as what drew him to the faith can signal a cause for concern. It’s certainly one of the doors where racists get in, and we should be mindful of that.

But there are plenty of decent, inclusive and perfectly safe Heathens who are drawn to Heathenry by that, or who discover it after the fact–including Heathens that are as anti-racist as you can get. That is a very different phenomenon from saying only people with the “right” ancestry are allowed to participate. The former is an interesting coincidence, the latter is blatant racism.

These things warrant further investigation, not leaping to formulaic conclusions.

In the spirit of investigation, I scoured Dylan Sprouse’s social media for this post, using the same metrics I use for evaluating whether any other heathen is “safe.” I like to think I’m pretty good at picking up on signs of danger like that, and I turned up absolutely nothing. The only troubling thing I found was that he loves Hidden Valley Ranch dressing way too much.

And that’s not even harmful, it’s just…odd. Like, I checked. Ranch dressing isn’t a known dogwhistle for anything. He just really, honest to gods, loves ranch dressing.

Journalists approaching Heathenry also seem to give more text and time to folkists and white supremacists. That one recent New York Times article (“Who Owns the Vikings?”) was a particularly infuriating example. It failed to even answer its own question about who Heathenry belongs to (though I recognize that it is usually editors, not writers, who choose the headline), and spent most of the article length talking about the nationalist Heathen group. Somehow the article had room for an unfinished tangent about recruitment in farmer’s markets (?), but not enough for more than a few token paragraphs about Forn Sed–the vastly more progressive group of the two mentioned in the article.

I am angry about it.

Inclusivist and anti-racist Heathens exist. Often loudly. We go out of our way to educate people on why racism has no place in our faith, and to drive the point home that Heathenry is wide open for anyone willing to do the work. We have exhaustively explained, time and time again, exactly why Heathenry is open. The bolder among us take it upon themselves to confront racist Heathens more directly.

We don’t do this for our health, and we sure as Hel don’t do it for fun. We do it because it’s important, and it’s unfortunately necessary.

So why aren’t they talking to us?

The things that scare us also tend to fascinate us. I suspect that is what drives that tendency to bring up or focus on extremists, no matter how irrelevant they are to the actual subject matter. Journalists are human, and racism is frightening. Rightly so. Nobody should be comfortable about something that is objectively dangerous.

But journalists are also professionals with a responsibility to tell the truth, or at least be sincere about their biases, and to be fair and balanced in their coverage.

When journalists fixate on interviewing nationalists and supremacists, they amplify those voices. They help that agenda spread, and they do this at the expense of progressive voices actively working against it. This is in spite of inclusivist Heathens actively reaching out to journalists to provide fact-checks and guidance. When journalists mention racist Heathen organizations and gang activity apropos of nothing, they actively participate in conflating our religion with violence and destruction.

Heathens do not have the benefit of widespread social acceptance. Nor do we have strength in numbers, with a diffuse worldwide total in the lower tens-of-thousands.

I hesitate to say that Heathens are oppressed. In the US, there are no laws that meaningfully restrict my religious practice. My neighbors know of my faith, and don’t feel compelled to cause me trouble. Nobody has physically assaulted me because of Heathenry’s association with racial terrorism. My family and friends have not disowned me. Your mileage may vary on that last one, because it’s a surface-level form of aggression, and very easy to do.

We are, however, definitely marginalized on the basis of numbers, and the lack of awareness and acceptance that go with it. Actively perpetuating a stereotype does nothing for us, and works against us.

Failing to do the research and make the effort is irresponsible.

Let’s Talk About Incarcerated Heathens

The general population does not have a very high opinion of people who are, or have been, in prison. I remember being as young as 12 and hearing rumors about plastic surgery, niche therapy and otherwise non-essential care being provided to people on death row. These were all told with the heavy implication that these people are worthless and have it “too good.”

The reality is very different. There’s hoops to jump through just to get a tooth pulled, no matter what your conviction was about.

This perception doesn’t improve once people are released. Employers often refuse to hire convicted felons, but having a steady job is a requirement of parole in most areas. Being in prison leaves large gaps in your life that are, at best, awkward to explain. There is a huge social stigma attached to it, which creates a serious barrier to resuming a normal life. Incarceration often traumatizes people, creating yet another barrier to reintegrating with society because trauma is a profoundly alienating and lonely experience. It’s really not surprising in these circumstances that over half of all people released from prison eventually go back, often for a parole violation. Personality and habit alone do not explain this.

The prison system theoretically isn’t supposed to make people magically disappear. But a lot of people behave as if they assume or wish this were the case.

One would hope, as members of a religious minority that is often either invisible or stigmatized, we’d be a little more charitable to people paddling up the same creek in a different boat. This is not often the case. Obsessive Tru Warrior types are all too glad to slap these people with the label of níðing, proclaim them oath-breakers and discard them as dishonorable.

I hate this approach.

The vast majority of people sent to prison are eventually released. Approximately 90% of all people currently in prison in the US will eventually leave it. That means that many Heathens in prison right now, statistically speaking, will eventually be back in our communities. We can choose to make that our problem, or make it an opportunity. Either way, it is of our concern.

There is also a strong tendency among the prison population to become religious. It is vital for people in prison to have some kind of support structure, and anyone involved in Heathenry (on the inside or outside) can attest that the gods and a good community do wonders for our well-being. Remember how I said over half of all people released from prison eventually go back? The rate of recidivism is lower for inmates who receive competent religious or spiritual care. Religious organizations have an incredibly important role in the reintegration process, and society directly benefits from ensuring that incarcerated Heathens have these needs met.

This is true of all faiths, but Heathens in particular are under-served.

There’s a few complications with resolving this, as with anything. A declaration of faith often dictates your social circle in prison, and there’s a definite correlation between white supremacy and putting some form of Heathenry on your paperwork as a result. This is made worse by the fact that various racist organizations both in and outside of prison feed off of this. And then the DOC shuts down Heathen volunteer programs out of (unfortunately, justified) concerns for gang activity.

For sincere Heathens who aren’t seeking community for a social life or an ego trip, but out of devotion for the gods, this sucks. Prison is not a pleasant place to be. It’s not meant to be, but these Heathens are denied a very necessary service that would drastically improve their experience and behavior on the inside, and their chances upon release.

Because, yes, on top of reducing recidivism rates, competent spiritual care reduces the number of infractions while in prison.

Universalist/Inclusive Heathens have an important job to do when it comes to reducing the amount of racism in our religion. Tactics may differ, but they all require work. Prison ministry is a valuable opportunity to redirect people in a bad situation to a healing and progressive framework. Even if we can’t make people stop being racist, supporting inclusive Heathen prison ministry at least means we have a better chance of preventing further indoctrination from Heathen organizations with a malicious, racist agenda.

Robert L. Schreiwer tackles this in the In-Reach Charter (all emphasis mine):

*Whether inmates have access to positive Heathen influences is part of a larger issue that has an impact on the whole of the Heathen community.* In many cases, the perception of Heathenry is defined by radical racist elements from the prison population.

The administrators are not blindly or randomly inventing their perceptions; the perceptions have formed from the presence of race-based books, tattoos, and gang behaviors that have been found among the Heathen prison population. A radicalization based on race and/or ethnicity is taking place in some facilities. When these radical racists are released into the general population, the history of their experience and influence will become an even bigger problem for us than it is now. Thus, *prison outreach efforts are a frithful move to protect the folk from this destructive radicalization.* This program meets a need that supersedes the unpaid debt of individual prisoners.

Programs like In-Reach have stepped up to the plate, now armed with this knowledge, and with the goal of ensuring that incarcerated Heathens have competent spiritual advisors. Appalachian Pagan Ministry is doing the same.

This is a big part of why pursuing ordination is one of my major life goals. This kind of work is immensely important.

Old Gods, New Tricks

Recently, as I was stuffing pork bones into a ziplock to make soup later, my dad said “you’ve become such a homesteader!”

Since I don’t have an actual backyard farm or a little house on the prairie, I asked “how so?” To which he replied “well, trying to grow food, cooking everything from scratch, making bone broth, whittling and chopping wood, this Old Norse thing.”

And…he’s not wrong. I did end up Googling the money and space required for having a small flock of sheep later that day, since my absurd backup life goal is becoming a shepherd. As it turns out, it’s roughly 1,000 USD before fencing and maintenance costs, and five ewes would fit comfortably in the front yard. So I have the space, but not the budget.

In talking to other Heathens, I’ve noticed there’s a definite trend to become a little old fashioned. But in a wholesome and self-sufficient way by picking up forgotten skills, as opposed to nostalgia for an age that never existed. We have a high proportion of artisans, brewers, fiber workers, accomplished home cooks and backyard farmers. Some of us end up being bushcrafters and preppers. And this usually kicks in after being scooped up by the gods, with surprising regularity and frequency.

It’s happened to me, as well. I had been cooking from scratch and playing with yarn for a while, but the desire to make my own Sauerkraut, naalbind, work with wood and contemplate spinning my own yarn (while possibly raising sheep for the fiber) came after Heathenry.

While I wholeheartedly believe the gods are willing to adapt a bit to our modern life (especially considering the internet is the best recruiting and networking tool for Heathenry), they seem keen on us being as handy as possible.

I doubt this is doomsday prep. Odin’s concept of that is wandering around and picking up esoteric wisdom, not stockpiling non-perishables. Considering the survivors of Ragnarok are already pre-assigned, I’m not sure how much good rice and chocolate bars would do you, anyhow. And I doubt that our gods would nudge such creatures of habit as humans to alter our lifestyles for the aesthetic. It’s not a compelling reason and doesn’t add a whole lot to our personal development. Ask any former mallgoth.

Some of this can also be easily explained by a stronger tendency among pagans for environmentalism, frugality and being more mindful about our use of resources–which all lead to a lot of the same behaviors.

We also, for many of the same reasons we gravitate towards otherwise forgotten faiths and gods, have a fondness for history. Depending on your path, you’re likely to be doing a lot of research anyway, so it stands to reason that you’d come across a lot of older skillsets in that process.

Are we just trying to get in touch with something archaic on our own, because we find it interesting? Because the land is frequently part of our spirituality? Because we think it gives us better insight to how the people who originally honored our gods lived?

Better insight to the gods themselves, even? Skills like fiber spinning, animal husbandry, farming and brewing were utterly vital to human survival before mass-production. And the same mentality applied to the gods. It makes sense, then, that it would have been considered laudable and sacred work. Hence, the importance of Frigg, Thor, Frey and Aegir as participants in, and representations of, that work.

Perhaps our gods nudge us towards it, as part of a larger scheme to develop us as humans. To make us more capable, more productive, more contemplative. To connect us with history, for the sake of a better understanding of our place in the big picture.

I don’t know for certain. And to an extent, I suspect that is particular to the god and devotee, as well.

All I know is, the gods have kind of ruined modern life for me, in the best possible way.

Further reading (and watching):

The “Modern Life is Rubbish” series, from Heathen Embers

Spin Like a Viking,” by Lois Swales on YouTube

Vikings Didn’t Knit! (Nalbinding)” by Good and Basic on YouTube