Info-gathering Tips for Heathens

Getting your hands on good information for Heathenry is difficult, for a few reasons.

The problem with a lot of easily-accessible sources is that they are heavily peppered with subjective interpretations and put together by people who aren’t, at minimum, well-read. You don’t need a doctorate to know what you’re talking about, but you do need to know how to collect, sort and interpret information. (Which, incidentally, are the skills that get you degrees.) Anyone who doesn’t have those skills is a questionable source.

But resources put together by people with these skills tend to be locked behind paywalls or out of print. So what are your options?

Continue reading Info-gathering Tips for Heathens

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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.

Anyway.

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.

SO MANY TABS
UuuuuUUUUUUUUGUHGGHGHHG

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.

How I Study the Poetic Edda

Translations of the mythology can be dense and a little bit dry. Personally, I like dense sources. But they do require more effort to pick apart, so I have a note-taking system in place. This allows me to not only absorb the information better, but also provides a compact source I can quickly refer to later.

When I took a poetry class, with a professor who specialized in Medieval literature and was kind enough to cover Lokasenna, she would have us do a quick skim to start. After that, she would ask us what we thought the Narrative Situation of the poem was. In other words, what it means, but without worrying about what it means. What is the event or story? What is the most obvious idea?

For example, in Völuspá, the Narrative Situation is the creation and destruction of the universe. In Rígsþula, it’s the origin of the social classes and the first king. Many of these poems are not able to be summarized in a single sentence, especially because the strength of poetry is its ability to transfer a vast amount of information in very few words.

So with that as my influence, I give it a quick read through and I take my first guess at the Narrative Situation. Then, I read the poem through again, while paraphrasing it in prose form. This can be a very serious and faithful paraphrasing, or a humorous one if it helps you. Half of my paraphrasing from studying Lokasenna is “and then Loki calls her a hoe.” Which, I mean…that’s not wrong. Simplistic, yes, but not inaccurate.

The next step is background research to improve your understanding. This is easy with Dronke’s translations, because she follows up each poem with several pages of notes. With her translation, I make note of anything that:

  • Corrects a mistaken assumption I made on the first read through
  • Provides a better understanding of the language, like explanations of kennings and wordplay
  • Provides useful historical or cultural context, like folk customs and events that may have influenced the poet’s portrayal of the story
  • Provides broader mythological context, like comparing archetypes and common narratives

Plus, I take notes on anything that’s just plain interesting or any other connections I make while doing the background research. As a Heathen, you’re studying this for spiritual use, so you can have fun with it.

Also, Dronke’s translations are hard to get a hold of. Carolyne Larrington, who was a student of Dronke, also has a translation available with many of the same merits–with the added benefit of still being in print, and therefore far less expensive.

When making notes on your background research or translator’s commentary, cite or make a note (like a page number or site name) to locate your source later. This way, you can go back and compare if new information comes along.

Something I haven’t included before, but that I’d like to start doing, is taking note of which poems and stories reference each other. Part of this is because intertextuality simply interests me. Poems like Völuspá and Lokasenna, for example, are very intertextual. But it’s also because I have a hypothesis that stories which reference one another more may potentially reflect a more reliable group of narratives. There is no guarantee of that, obviously, but this is just an idea I’d like to explore further.

Intertextuality is worth noting, either way, because it will help you understand certain flourishes used in a poem and the broader context.

I’d also like to start further exploring the symbolic meanings of a story when I study it. The symbolism of a poem is something that is useful in a religious context, because our gods have an abstract link to many concrete things in our world. Additionally, with stories like Baldrs Draumr, that helps us separate the distinctly heathen elements from later influences on the texts.

Yet another thing I’d like to start doing is writing down any questions I still have after studying the poem and taking explanatory notes, so I know what to keep in mind while doing other research.

I knew most of the stories long before I started this system, but I’m pleasantly surprised by how much more I’m getting out of it this way, and how much more sense things make this time around. Hopefully, this helps anyone starting to study the Eddas, or who wants to take a fresh look at them.