Gnosis Diary: Life as a Heathen

My personal experiences, including religious and spiritual experiences, community interaction, general heathenry, and modern life on my heathen path, which is Asatru.

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Writing and Writers

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

Tolkien once wrote in a letter to his son that he was "a Hwiccian (of Wychwood) on both sides."*

Curious words, are they not? My mind generated an entire alternate universe in which Tolkien was the granddaddy of Fam-Trad Witches, and all the things in our culture that would be different if it were so.

These days I don't have to wonder very long about such hypotheses because I can look things up on the internet. Search engines are breaking under SEO and AI and for other reasons but I still got useful results on the second try. My first try was "what is a Hwiccian?" and of course as you might expect the entire page of results was answers to "what is Wicca?" Frustrating. I was looking up the real answer BECAUSE I had already made that connection. 

My second try was "English history Hwiccian," a keyword-only search of the old style that is not supposed to work anymore, what with the tech companies saying we're supposed to be using natural language questions these days. It gave me much better results though. This time it confirmed what I suspected: The Hwicca aka Hwiccians were an actual ethnicity. 

And Wychwood? I skipped the search engine and looked it up on Google Maps. There were photos, both satellite and ground level. Wychwood is a real place. 

Tolkien is one of the most studied and documented writers so it would be pretty silly to think Tolkien scholars could have all missed something as huge as Tolkien being a hereditary witch. It was a fun thought while it lasted, though. At least a half dozen examples of Tolkien's fictional depictions of magic went through my mind in the few minutes before I got to my desk and pulled up Google Maps. Even after I grounded my flight of fancy in reality, as I think of the photo of an overgrown pine forest, I can picture Aragorn gathering athelas there to perform his miraculous healings. Wychwood is still an imagination-fueling name, even though it's real. Hwiccian is still a thought-provoking name, even knowing it referred to a historical people.

*Carpenter, 1981, p. 108.

I've loved Tolkien's Middle-Earth since childhood, and read a whole lot about him, and by him, over the years, including some of his academic works. I grew up with the idea that a writer and the writer's work are inseparable, and the symbolism in a poem or work of fiction must reference something the author knew about or experienced. This was such a norm in literary analysis that no one even bothered to say it out loud. It was just a basic assumption I picked up as I read things about various authors and their works. One of my formative influences in literary analysis was my mother's master's thesis on The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, which I think I read at about age 12. 

That might sound impressive but let me just remind you that I'm 50ish and from farm country; no one in my entire town had internet access, not even at the public library. I read whatever was on the bookshelf in my house. By the time I was desperate enough for something to read to pick up an academic paper, I had already chewed through the Time-Life Science books, the entire Encyclopedia Britannica straight through, and more than one dictionary, more than once. I don't know if young people today will ever experience this kind of limited availability of knowledge and reading material, but it was pretty common back then.


So, I take it as a given that writers are influenced by their personal experiences. If I didn't know that abstractly from studying, I would surely have realized it when I wrote Some Say Fire. In writing that novel, I saw how retelling Heathen mythology became a healing journey for me. I saw how that distorted the god characters who took on aspects necessary for my journey. 

Therefore, Snorri must also have been influenced by his personal experiences, his opinions, and biases, even if he was trying to record heathen material faithfully-- which he probably was not. He was a political partisan in the contest between Norway and Iceland, in addition to being a Christian convert with something to prove. I've already mentioned elsewhere how playing up things Norwegian for favor with the King of Norway could result in making things from Sweden, Denmark, and other rivals dark or bad. This was one of the things he had against Loki. Also his father in law's last name was Loptson, meaning son of Loki, a name of affiliation-- and Snorri didn't like his father in law. So, we establish that Snorri has a reason to choose the worst of the possible story snippets about the tale of Baldr, other versions of which did not even include Loki as a character. But where did that odd embellishment come from, the one about the mistletoe being left out of oaths to do not harm to Baldur? In other versions of the story, Mistletoe was just the name of a sword, it wasn't a literal mistletoe plant. So, what other story might Snorri have been familiar with that also included an oath by all plants except one not to harm the hero of the story?

In "The French Connection, or Thor versus the Golem" by Richard Cole* the author proposes that Snorri was influenced by medieval era stories written in Hebrew, although Snorri did not read that language. Snorri would have been in contact with scholars in Norway. One of the most influential centers of scholarship in Norway was the Abbey of St. Victor, which taught Hebrew in addition to other languages, had a repository of texts in that language, and had language and literature teaching by Hebrew experts. p. 249 "Sophus Bugge, Gabriel Turville-Petre, and Heathen O'Donoghue all pointed out some arresting similarities between Jewish material and certain aspects of Snorri's Baldr tale." The Hebrew language story Sefer Toledot Yeshu is a story about Jesus and Satan. It dates to the 10th century or slightly later. The story features oaths by all plants not to harm Jesus-- all plants except the carob. (The word could be read as cabbage; either is unsuitable as a weapon, but carob makes more sense in context.) Like mistletoe, a carob is a parasite on another plant. Thus, it is a liminal being, with no roots in the earth and no leaves following the sun.

*Medieval Encounters 20, brill. com/ me. Richard Cole is with Harvard.


 Watch for Writing and Writers Part 2 coming soon


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Erin Lale is the author of Asatru For Beginners, and the updated, longer version of her book, Asatru: A Beginner's Guide to the Heathen Path. Erin has been a gythia since 1989. She was the editor and publisher of Berserkrgangr Magazine, and is admin/ owner of the Asatru Facebook Forum. She also writes science fiction and poetry, ran for public office, is a dyer and fiber artist, was acquisitions editor at a small press, and founded the Heathen Visibility Project.


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