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What an International Environmentalist Movement Misunderstands

(Forest in Bergen, Norway by Jules Verne Times Two)

Scientific progress has the potential to be more salutory than legal regulation. To return to Odin’s advice in the Hávamál once more, the power of the human mind is mankind’s most reliable ally.”

Environmentalist attitudes are nearly ubiquitous within the community of modern-day Germanic and Norse pagans Literature professor Stefanie von Schnurbein notes the ascendant community’s “widespread self-understanding” as adherents of a “religion of nature.” Britain’s Pagan Federation has long considered reverence toward nature central to its worldview, and ecological anxiety has fueled the rise of Norse and other pagan religions in recent years, notably in Iceland. The number of specifically Germanic pagans was estimated at just over 36,000 worldwide in 2014, but this subgroup is a microcosm of a much larger collection of movements with similar beliefs. Journalist Liel Leibovitz writes that there are roughly 1.5 million pagan Americans belonging to a nexus of groups which constitute “one of the nation’s fastest-growing persuasions.” By one estimate, about 10% of American pagans belong to the Germanic variety. This would amount to 150,000 people, a huge increase over the 2014 figure. As of 2022, 1.4% of Iceland’s population profess Norse paganism; this is allegedly “the country’s fastest growing religion.”

Those Germanic pagans who who defy the prevailing pattern of environmentalism have come under fire from the majority in the movement. Thus, in a passionate essay, paganism expert Michael F. Strmiska astonishingly argues that the American Ásatrú (Norse pagan) community is not nearly conservationist enough. However, closer examination reveals that the step from Germanic paganism to environmentalism is far more tenuous than commonly assumed.

Even passionately conservationist heathens themselves seem confused about how their environmentalism can be traced back to their religion. For instance, John Halstead, a pagan environmentalist activist, disputes fellow pagan Jes Minah’s contention that polytheists should view their gods as entities distinct from themselves. Minah argues that if one views, say, a river as inhabited by a spirit separate from oneself, one must restrain oneself from polluting said river: “When we are in a relationship”—in this case, with a river spirit—“we must consider the other.” Halstead rightly objects that this reasoning does not establish a logical path to conservationism. “[W]ho determines whose needs take precedence when (inevitably) there is a conflict between the needs of the river spirit and the needs of human beings?” he sensibly asks.

The problem is that Halstead’s own view—that pagans should regard the gods as connected to themselves—also cannot get one to environmentalism in a satisfactory way. “Pagan theology, as I understand it, takes the interconnectedness of all life as axiomatic. It recognizes…that our breathing bodies are a part of the exuberant flesh of the Earth,” he writes. Yet this notion can hardly be left unqualified. In the case of Germanic paganism, the World Tree can certainly be taken as a symbol of worldwide interconnectedness. However, Norse cosmology also contains much more distinctness and separation than the worldviews of other religious traditions. It features more differentiated realms than does Judeo-Christian one: The Prose Edda famously speaks, in Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur’s translation, of “nine worlds.” Linguist Jaan Puhvel even credits “Germanic myth” with being the only body of “ancient European traditions [to] preserve…comprehensive cosmogony, cosmography, anthropogony, and eschatology,” as though the Germanic tribes had exercised some special ordering and systematizing fervor. Additionally, instead of a single, omnipresent deity, there is a multiplicity of gods representing different aspects of the world—another element of separation rather than unity. Indeed, the Vanir, a group of deities often representing natural phenomena, are subordinate to the Aesir, who tend to embody more human concepts.

Nor do the recorded stories about the Germanic gods make a case for any particularly strong environmentalism. Throughout the relevant myths and legends, the natural environment—especially animals—is depicted as dangerous and threatening, which is hardly surprising given the perils the Scandinavians of old would have regularly faced. Sigurd’s (or Siegfried’s) iconic feat is to slay a dragon. One of Loki’s sons, transformed into a wolf, kills his brother, whereupon a snake’s venom is used to torture Loki himself for eternity. In a curiously parallel fashion, the Fenris-wolf and the Midgard Serpent will be two of the principal antagonists during the apocalypse called Ragnarök, killing Odin and Thor respectively. Lastly, in the Hávamál, plants and animals make up nearly a third of the things which Odin warns all people to distrust.

Pagan conservationists and scholars of Norse religion have drawn on the concept of Ragnarök as a symbol for environmental degradation. Yet such a connection is dubious. Firstly, to Norse society, Ragnarök was the destined, eschatological end point of the world as we know it and not a preventable consequence of human action. The Völuspá makes this view apparent through its very structure as a smooth, continuous narrative from the world’s creation to its apocalypse. Secondly, if there can be said to be any proximate cause of Ragnarök, surely it is the epoch of strife which the prophesy describes as a kind of end times (verse 46). However, environmental degradation is not a named feature of this period, which is instead characterized as an age of “great whoredom, an axe age, a sword age, shields shall be cloven, a wind age, a wolf age” (Benjamin Thorpe’s translation). Therefore, the elements heralding the apocalypse are, on one hand, a deterioration of humans’ treatment of each other and, on the other, not aggression against the natural environment but aggression by it, represented by winds and wolves. Thirdly, unlike typical views of “environmental crisis,” Ragnarök is followed, it seems, by the dawn of a new golden age (verses 57-65).

Pagan scholar and erstwhile political scientist Gus diZerega, while attempting to make a case for heathen environmentalism, inadvertently supports the thesis that Germanic pagan conservationism is a rickety construction. Throughout many paragraphs, he describes how agricultural societies tend to view nature as subordinate to mankind and something to be dominated by humans, whereas the urbanized polities which emerge from them generally long for a return to closer contact with nature and, therefore, embrace environmentalist ideologies. One conclusion which suggests itself, though diZerega neglects to draw it, is that since Germanic paganism was an agricultural civilization’s religion, it should be expected to be less environmentalist in outlook than the worldview of our current, urbanized culture.

Therefore, one would expect the environmentalist strand of modern paganism to be a product of urbanization rather than a natural outgrowth of the religion’s original content. This seems, in fact, to be the case, as some believers have recognized: According to von Schnurbein, there are those who “remind their fellow Heathens…that the preservation of nature is in fact a modern phenomenon for which ‘the ancestors’ had no concept.” One even suspects that it is this dearth of ecological messaging in Germanic religion which has led to the prominence of comparisons with other religions, aimed at showing at least a relative degree of environmentalism in Norse belief. Thus, von Schnurbein also notes the “widespread…idea that Christianity or monotheism, with its mandate to ‘subdue the earth,’ is responsible for the destruction of the natural environment, whereas Paganism sees nature as animated, and thus supposedly treats it with more respect.” But wait: Does Norse paganism not also contain encouragement to “subdue the earth”? That seems at least a plausible reading of this famous passage, uttered by Odin in the Hávamál:

“Hidden runes shalt thou seek and interpreted signs,
many symbols of might and power…” (Olive Bray’s translation).

The question arises: power over what? Clearly, power over humans is meant but also over the natural world. Both kinds figure in the god’s subsequent descriptions of the magic spells he knows, the most notable example of power over nature being what amounts to weather-shaping technology:

“[W]hen need befalls me
to save my vessel afloat,
I hush the wind on the stormy wave,
and soothe all the sea to rest.”

Moreover, the poem explicitly states that Odin’s wizardly methods are described for the benefit of humans at the expense of their non-human environment—specifically, to grant them an advantage over the Jötuns (giants). Finally, in case anyone remains unconvinced by the “thou shalt” above that Odin is actually advising people on how to act, the Hávamál closes with this sentence: “Use, thou who hast learned!”

While it might be objected that Jötuns are more akin to superpowered humans than to denizens of the natural world, the degree of the giants’ anthropomorphism is highly nebulous in the preserved traditions. For example, Týr’s grandmother, apparently a Jötun judging by her connection to Hymir, is described as a nine-hundred-headed creature in the Hymiskviða. Sometimes, the giants even have clear animal associations. Thus, Loki, a half-giant, and Angrboða, a giantess, are parents to a wolf and a serpent, with Loki also giving birth to a horse while transfigured into a mare. Furthermore, in the Lay of Helgi Hjörvarðsson, the giantess Hrímgerðr remarks of herself (in Henry Adams Bellows’s translation): “See, Hrimgerth hoists her tail[.]” Bellows comments: “Apparently Hrimgerth has assumed the form of a mare.” In the Reclam edition of The Heroic Songs of the Elder Edda, Arnulf Krause’s commentary goes further: “It is unclear whether one is actually to imagine the giantess as a mare or as an animal-like being, or whether this is merely a pictorial comparison” (p. 47; translation mine).

As the above has shown, there is hardly a sound basis in Germanic paganism for a form of religious environmentalism as zealous as that advocated by Michael F. Strmiska. While I wish to avoid rhetoric as nakedly political as Strmiska’s, I do feel compelled to offer some alternative, at least as a gentle suggestion. Personally, I tend to incline toward the view espoused by Bjørn Lomborg, who holds that investment into research and development of environmentally friendly technologies represents a more effective, less costly means of reducing damage to the environment than governmental coercion like “carbon cuts,” which Strmiska presents as absolutely crucial for the aversion of catastrophe. Scientific progress has the potential to be more salutory than legal regulation. To return to Odin’s advice in the Hávamál once more, the power of the human mind is mankind’s most reliable ally.

Simon Maass is a writer living in Germany. His work has previously appeared in publications such as Providence, VoegelinView, and Cultural Revue. He holds a degree in International Relations from the University of St Andrews and writes on various topics in politics, religion, and literature. 

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