The famous sociologist Emile Durkheim put forward the hypothesis that every society worships itself as a god, and that its official religion is essentially a front symbolizing the social relations of that society. It's an intriguing hypothesis, especially inasmuch as it critiques religion as not only a form of idolatry, but a form of narcissism as well.
It's important to ask what people really worship. Regardless of what they claim to worship, what do they really worship?
This is an easy question for heathens to assess, because we know the root of the word "worship" is "worth-ship", to demonstrate worth, to show the value of something, and we know that people show the value of things mainly through their deeds, not their words.
When we look at modern society, who are the gods who most people worship, with their deeds and their mindsets?
I've said it before and I'll say it again. It would seem as if predominantly, most people worship Loki and Gullveig. It doesn't matter whether they claim to worship Jesus or Jehovah or Allah or what have you. It doesn't matter if they tell you that they're atheist and worship no one. Look at their actions and see what they worship. Look at the values this society puts forward.
Material success. Keeping up with the Joneses. How you look in the eyes of others. Take, take, take. Look out for #1. Givers are suckers. Everyone wants to cheat you. Disposable culture. When it doesn't work anymore, throw it away. Get a new one. Upgrade. Trade up, trade up, trade up. New automobile, sexy new trophy wife, ability to brag to your friends. Be "selfish", but not in any real self-affirming way, but in an empty way that keeps you completely enthralled to the approval of your friends, neighbors, and even acquaintances. Make sure that you care what your acquaintances think of you.
Gold-greed, gold-greed, gold-greed. Envy. Tricks. Selfishness. Resentment. Showing value to the most superficial things.
Loki and Gullveig. They are the Gods of American society, with predictable results.
Instead of choosing a home that is livable, you have to fill it with expensive trinkets and hardwood floors and special features and more square feet than you could ever use, so that you are constantly in debt, but hey, your friends are really impressed. I mean, you almost never really invite anyone over, but just in case you did entertain, it's important that people walk away envying you.
Envy is the basis of the whole system. No one really desires anything for its own sake, but only for its ability to produce envy. As long as other people envy you, you are real. As long as other people covet your position and your things, you're doing well. It's amazing that people cannot see how empty and vapid this all is.
But more than empty and vapid. Setting oneself up as lambs for slaughter, practically inviting the wolves in. Now most of the blame for this idiotic housing crisis and the credit crisis it's spawned belongs with the super-greedy credit companies who lied to people and gave them loans they knew most of them would never be able to carry. But while we demonstrate absolutely understandable indignation at those greedy scumbags, let's not forget our own greed which inspired us to live way beyond our own means in the first place, and not because it was something we really needed, but because we were so weak that we couldn't truly investigate what is of value to us and stick to it, and to hell with anyone who's concerned about inspiring the envy of others.
People don't share or protect each other and so the State has the perfect excuse to step in and say, if you're too immature to take care of yourselves and each other, then we have to take care of you. And with good reason --- if people are too greedy to take care of each other, without taxation, they'd just get richer and richer and watch others get poorer and poorer.
If you're one of the people who's completely selfish, unwilling to contribute to charity or to give to others when they are in need, who's living completely to augment yourself without any concern for the needs of others, then you have absolutely no right to complain about taxation, because the government absolutely has the justification to take away your money to make sure that there is some equity of some kind. Not that they can be trusted as a good father, either. But Parens Patria : the State is the "Father of the Country", and if you don't want to be treated like an immature child who needs to be a ward of the state, you'd better start acting like a freeperson. If you look like you're Loki and Gullveig's thrall, and you act like you're Loki and Gullveig's thrall, well, the people at the top of the pyramid who many times themselves worship Loki and Gullveig are going to take you as their servants, and are you really going to blame them?
Are you going to look at Thor and Tyr and Odin and Freyr and Freya and whine, "How could you let this happen? I went to a couple rituals each year, I bought some mead and drank it with others while praising you."
Do you really think that Gods like these listen to such bullshit? Do you really think that Gods this grounded and earthy are going to have the wool pulled over their eyes? They're going to take one look at you and assess who you are really worshipping, and who you have enthralled yourself to, and then they are going to respect the choices you have made, and if you have given yourself over in voluntary servitude, then you can either stay there where you want to be, or you can do the work to buy your way out of that servitude.
"But I didn't know any better! That's how everyone else was living!" Really? There was no one else who set a different example? There was no one else who was strong enough to be themselves and show you how you don't have to be cravenly begging after the approval of every idiot who walks by? There was no one who was trying to discuss alternatives? Or did these people exist, and you were one of the people making fun of them? You were one of the people ridiculing them and calling them unrealistic? You were one of the people who refused to open your mind and think outside the box? Because Odin slams down an evolutionary imperative : it's a learning-curve where if you can think outside the box in time, and set up alternatives with your fellows, you can freely create all kinds of free institutions.
Let's look at the alternative housing movement, that for years has been demonstrating how people can build their own homes out of straw bales, or lumps of mud and straw (cob), out of bamboo, out of all kinds of materials, and build humble but worthy and reliable homes for a fraction of the cost of a modern industrial home. Why haven't they received more support? Why aren't more people calling their local assessors and telling them they want them to make available the proper permits to allow these buildings to go up? (Or even more to the point, why don't more people organize county wide to eliminate zoning?) It doesn't matter if you already have your own industrial home --- don't you want these alternatives to be available? We admit that many people wouldn't want to build their own homes. Still, a whole alternative construction business could raise itself up creating all kinds of new jobs to build these alternative homes. You could live with a little less square footage, a little less hard woodage, a little less consumer goodage, and still be living the good life.
We've forgotten the concept of "the good life". It's all about the "better and better life". Now don't get me wrong. I am a strong advocate of progress. I have to be, because the myths demonstrate how far things have corroded from the golden age, and so we've got a lot of restorative work to do. But there is a difference between making something better on an inherent value scale, and just trying to "upgrade" because you want to impress people. How about impressing people by demonstrating a little integrity? Because I can tell you that one thing people appreciate is persistence. As a person who has lived somewhat of a different lifestyle, I can tell you through long and hard experience that at first, people make fun of you, but once they realize that you have the balls to actually go the long haul, many of them will respect you, because they wish they had those cojones. In general, people respect those willing to go the long haul, regardless of what it is, because that demonstrates determination.
So I ask you, which Gods are you worshipping? Are you the kind of pagan or heathen who wants your paganism to reflect Durkheim? Do you want to worship your society and just have a few dress-up characters who you tip a few good toasts to every now and again, or do you want to actually embark on a quest to discover what is of real value in life, guided by Gods who actually take a stand for something?
Because these Gods are about freedom. Are you free? Really free? Are you a thrall to other people's opinions? To their envy?
Let's be reasonable and pragmatic here ; we're heathens, after all. As humans we are a tribal species. We do care about others and what they think of us to some degree. So I'm not suggesting that we all be mavericks who could care less about our reputation. But if we care more about our reputation than we do our integrity, it's disputable that we even understand what honor is. Do you want your tribe to be strong? Then demonstrate strength. Do you want your tribe to have a firm foundation? Then be firm and not blowing every which way the winds of trends blow. Do you want your tribe to have stamina and endurance? Then be willing to endure a little when you're not getting instant admiration from others. It takes some hard work to be free, but it's more worthwhile than just doing everything the easy way and staying enthralled. Once you're free, things do become easier, but you have to want to get out of your servitude. Remember that the thirteenth amendment to the Constitution prohibits involuntary servitude. If you just sign every document that comes your way, if you hand over the plastic every time you see a shiny new thing that'll make the neighbors notice, if you don't take the time to educate yourself about the real alternatives that are available, well, even Tacitus observed that many iactu de libertate ac de corpore contendant. Victus voluntariam servitutem adit, "threw away their liberty and staked their very body, with the defeated undertaking voluntary servitude." Servos condicionis huius per commercia tradunt, "They surrender themselves over to this contract of servitude through commerce;" in other words, it is their greed which inspires them to sign over all of their rights.
And if you're that greedy, why shouldn't Gullveig and Loki have you? Loki loves the gullible ; and what are you going to complain to Odin? That you didn't use the intelligence that he planted inside you? That you trusted neither spirit (ond) nor soul (odr) and listened entirely to lá, laeti, and litu góða --- good looks, gossip, and the going-forth of the tides*? The Gods don't have a problem with your attending somewhat to the latter ; they did give them as gifts, but when you impoverish yourself by refusing to use your mind and spirit, you can't exactly complain about not being rich.
Where is our notion of human culture, and the responsibility to raise people with real values? A friend tells me, "Well, it's human nature to be selfish, look out for number one, and take, take, take." That may be, but it is the job of human culture to teach "give-and-take", not just take-take-take.
Loki's right in the short-run. It's easier to cheat, lie, steal, look out for number one, get everything you can and the devil take the hindmost, and our society is in many ways proof that such assholes often "win". But in the long run, honor and honesty have less to do with being "idealistic" and "unrealistic" than being realistic about what happens when all credibility crumbles to nothing because no one can trust each other. Dog-eat-dog becomes Wolf-eat-dog becomes Wolf-eat-all. Isn't that precisely what we're facing right now in our economy? Loki and Gullveig have had their heyday, it's all about cheating and lying and making shit up and laughing while uttering caveat emptor, and raising up ridiculously inflated imaginary numbers and buying your yachts and twenty mansions? But then the entire thing threatens to collapse.
Get it : these myths are not about imaginary events in the past, nor are they nice make-believe to tell children. They are patterns of Wyrd. They were written into the orlog, the primeval layers, and until Ragnarok, the patterns these myths speak to will repeat themselves again and again until we finally learn. The things Loki did back in the gardagum, in the yore-days, are still happening. They are happening right now. And Bragi's gift to you is this --- if you will listen to these myths -- yes, "just" stories on one level -- and really learn from them, you might just be able to avoid the pitfalls, traps, and snares that Loki and Gullveig have set for you, and gain an actual foothold of freedom where you are not enthralled to the giants. Giants want to eat up everything. Giant corporations, giant nation-states, giant consumer demand. This isn't just a cute, quaint equation I'm making up here. Look around. Who's acting like whom?
I, like most people, used to read the prophets of the Old Testament with some confusion and disdain. Who were these uptight freaks going on about fire and brimstone? What was their problem? And why were they called "prophets"? What does this have to do with any heathen level of prophecy? Well, it's not that far off. Because although they just look like critics, they were pointing out to their Israelite audience what would be the ultimate consequences of continuing down the route they were going. It didn't take a huge genius to figure that out, but even ordinary people were so self-deluding themselves that it took courage for someone to point out the obvious. If you continue to collectively behave in such a way that your tribe or nation is weakened, the ultimate result is that you're going to --- well, how did Thomas Jefferson allegedly** put it? --- "wake up homeless on the continent [your] fathers conquered".
Prophecy isn't about "fortune-telling the future". It's about seeing clearly, and seeing how verdandi fits into wyrd. It's about looking at events from the backdrop of orlog, and then just projecting this forward. That this is often a critique follows from the nature of the corruption of humankind from the best patterns set forth by the Gods in the beginning of time, under the influence of the tricksters. That is why one of the purposes of religion is to remind us about the high and noble patterns the Gods have set down for us to follow if we will. Ráðumk þér, Loddfáfnir, en þú ráð nemir, -njóta mundu, ef þú nemr,þér munu góð, ef þú getr, "I advise you, Loddfafnir, if thou wilt take counsel, you will derive benefit if you take it, you will receive good if you can get it." If you can get it. Ráðumk þér can also mean "I have laid out for you", "I have settled pathways for you". If you're willing to listen, if you'll take counsel, if you'll try to understand, there are pathways laid out for us, pathways to genuine freedom, wealth, and happiness. They may not always be the "easy route" or the "short-cut", but they are often far faster than doing things the dumb way, or playing the sucker to the first guy who comes around claiming a short-cut, or just continuing to bang your head upon the wall. The Gods don't force you down these pathways. They aren't even obvious pathways. But they're there nevertheless if you'll develop the understanding and begin to listen to the counsel they give. That's what religion is all about : to attune us to those pathways their good counsel has laid down.
And prophets are supposed to deeply read ( = raed) the myths, so that they "get" the patterns of orlog, and then through this light, read ( = raed) the present, and from this, easily project the pathway things are headed down. And if a prophet rebukes you, it's only because it's obvious from the place of orlog that your steps are headed towards disaster, and you have the opportunity to correct your course. Isn't that a gift?
If you can "get" it.
If you can "get" it in time.
* Lá means the line of water along the shore edged by the surf, and therefore the tides, and thus, poetically, refers to blood ; laeti means "voice" and thus refers to our ability to vocalize, which I have here rendered by "gossip", the voices that pass around ; and litu góða really does mean "good looks", although on a deeper level it may actually mean giving a likeness of the appearance of the Gods, akin to Genesis 1:27, "So God created man in his own image". But rather than being interested in the image of the Gods that are lodged in us, many are just concerned with "good looks". Now, there's nothing wrong with good looks, but if there's neither soul nor spirit there, what a waste.
** There is some doubt by some scholars as to whether Thomas Jefferson actually ever said this, since the larger quote uses words like "inflation" and "deflation" that may not have been in usage during Jefferson's time, but even if the quote has been put in his mouth (a practice very widespread in folklore around the world), it's still a cogent point, and arguably one that Jefferson could have made. I listen when skeptics call into question attributions like this, but I also maintain some skepticism towards the skeptics. Jefferson might have said it, but, as it says in Chapter 41 of Njal's Saga, "His hands are clean who warns another", and so I have passed on the caveat.
All translations are, per usual, my own, and copyright 2008.