Friday, May 13, 2011

World Religions: Asatru and Norse Religions

Like most teachers, I have a plan about what it is that I am going to teach and when.  What is so lovely about my situation, however, is that if I feel like I should through away the plan and do something else, I can.  And sometimes it is that sudden inspiration that turns out to be the perfect lesson.

This was my situation last week in my world religion class.  I had planned to do a lesson on Native American spirituality.  But suddenly it hit me--what big event in the lives of my students took place last weekend?  Why, the opening of the movie Thor, of course.  So why not take advantage of all the buzz of the hottest movie of the moment, and do a class on traditional Norse religions and mythology and its modern incarnation, the religions of Asatru and Northern Heathenism?

So I through out my lesson plan (or, actually, rescheduled it for next week), and plunged into Norse mythology.  And it was so much fun!  Of course, it ended up taking a lot more time and a lot more work than I had anticipated (a common problem for me!), but unlike Greek, Roman, and even Egyptian mythology, I never knew too much about the Norse gods and goddesses beyond the biggies--Odin, Thor, Frigga, and Loki.  But what a fascinating cosmology the Norse tradition created.  The Norse universe consists of nine worlds inhabited by different beings--gods and goddesses of the sky, gods and goddesses of the earth, giants, light elves, dark elves, dwarfs, and, of course, us mere mortals--all supported by a Tree of Life with a name I have no idea of how you are supposed to pronounce because it is spelled "Yggdrasil."  It is a world of balance, but instead of the usual light versus dark or good versus evil, the primordial contrast in the Norse world is cold versus dark.  As I read about the creation of life, which came from the drippings from the real of ice when it was warmed by the ball of fire, which were the only two things at the beginning of time, or the battles of the gods against the frost giants, or other great Norse tales, I couldn't help put it into my American perspective on things, perhaps best expressed by Robert Frost in his wonderful poem, Fire and Ice:

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

Anyway, it worked out really, really well.   As I expected, most of the students were excited to learn more about something so topical.  They enjoyed learning the truth about the Norse myths (from which the movie apparently departs significantly in many ways) and learning more about modern worshipers who are trying to revive the old Norse religions.  Towards the end of the class, we read the myth about how Odin gave his eye in search of wisdom, and how he suffered in order to obtain the mystic runes.  We discussed some about the runes and how they were used, and each student made a set out of air dry clay to take home for his or her own use.  All in all, I think they really enjoyed the class.

For my part, besides learning a lot about this tradition myself, I was glad to get some of this information to them before they saw the movie and thought that was how the Norse gods, goddesses, beliefs, and worlds were originally written.  Also, this was a great example of how Earth-based religions reflect the environment from which they were derived.  Of all the religions we have studied so far, this was the first to talk about the power of cold and ice.  So this ended up being a valuable addition to our studies of nature-based spiritual traditions.

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