Dear Witches & Pagans,
Your “Heathens & Northern Traditions” (#24) issue is a delight! What an enormous amount of editorial work it must have been, pulling together all the disparate strains of modern Heathenry into so coherent a whole. I’m still working my way through it, and so far I’ve learned something new on nearly every page.
I found the final article, “Why I’m Not Heathen,” by (the intrepid and audacious) Raven Kaldera, especially interesting. It got me thinking about how much we can learn about different cultures — past and present — from the way they regard the gods of their native pantheons, especially those deities known for their cunning and craftiness.
Neal Stephenson, the author of Cryptonomicon (1999), The Baroque Cycle (2003-04), and Anathem (2008), has observed that cunning people have an almost universal tendency to attain power that non-cunning people do not. Cultures find this disparity fascinating, but react to it in different ways. For example, many Native American peoples basically admired their trickster gods, like Coyote and Raven, but regard them with some hesitancy and suspicion; cf. Tony Hillerman’s novel Coyote Waits (1990). In Norse mythology, as Kaldera notes, the trickster god Loki was the closest thing they had to the Christian Devil, and this is one source of his discomfort with modern Heathenry.
Both these examples may depend on these cultures’ attitude toward technology. This is especially obvious in contrast to the high value that Classical Greek culture placed on its own deity of cunning and craftiness, the goddess Athena. As the goddess who supported and advised successful warriors like Heracles and Odysseus (he’s the guy who came up with the idea of the Trojan Horse), she’s the goddess of warfare won by tactical cunning. Today we think of Athena as the goddess of scholarship and technology. In our modern world you might consider her the patron deity of academics — as well as hackers, techies, nerds, and geeks.
Since our own culture is made up of strains of belief from all these diverse sources, this may help explain our conflicted love-hate relationship with scholars and techies.
Pre-contact Native Americans liked their trickster gods, but they’d never coupled this notion with the idea of technological development. And to judge from their mythology, the Vikings would have instinctively hated academics and geeks. But the Greeks were different - they loved their techies. The Norse identified their own trickster god as a kind of Devil, but the capital city of ancient Greece was named for their deity of cunning, and the temple of Athena still dominates the landscape of modern Athens.
This is one important reason why I, as both a scholar and a geek, am so much more comfortable with those strains of Contemporary Paganism that are inspired by the art and the literature of the Classical Graeco-Romans. Likewise, I'm not surprised that some of modern Paganism's more popular varieties, especially the Norse and the Celtic, bear toward their clever and cunning deities an attitude quite similar to that of the Christians. Since everything we believe we know about Northern European religions has been filtered through the expectations of those Christian monks who wrote down virtually all the source material on which our understanding of these cultures depend.
— Fritz Muntean