By Kveldulf Gundarsson
Llewellyn has finally released Kveldulf Gundarsson's long awaited companion to 1989s Teutonic Magic. Teutonic Religion is a complete guide to the practices and beliefs of Asatru. The volume is 405 pages long and retails for $13.00. As I saw a number of copies on the shelves at a local chain-store, I would assume it is getting reasonably wide distribution.
First, I have to say a word about the cover. On it, in somewhat garish colors, are depicted a man and woman at a Vé worshipping the Gods. They're kneeling. Generally speaking, modern Asatru don't kneel, considering it a mark of subservience which is anathema to the Gods. The author apparently did not see the cover until it was already completed. The good news is that I can assure you this is not a book to judge by its cover.
The book itself is very good. It covers pretty much the entire range of our faith, running from descriptions of the Gods and Goddesses, various wights, and heroes to general ritual formats and scripts for the major holidays. Finally there is a series of appendixes including the runes, a short study program, bibliography, etc.
All the Gods are described in a complete and accurate manner. Gundarsson, an Elder and Redesman in the Ring of Troth, knows his stuff and that's obvious. Two chapters come to mind as being particularly excellent. First, his chapter on Odin is obviously a labor of love. The author is not only an Odinsgothi, but is currently researching a doctoral dissertation on the One Eyed God. The other chapter that comes to mind as particularly good is that on Loki. Here Kveldulf draws heavily on Alice Karlsdottir's work on the God of deception, and he includes her song "Loki the fool." The chapter does well at getting across Loki's dual nature, covering both his trickster and darker aspects.
The sections on the various wights (spirits who are not mortal but not properly Gods) I wasn't as happy with, although this is a question of disagreement on some issues rather than one of quality. Gundarsson tends to place the various wights into tidy categories, something which I think is sometimes impossible. Also, in this section some of his personal insights on the various beings tend to be portrayed as the mainstream view, when they may be somewhat dissident. In particular, I took exception to his description of the Valkyrie, which he argues is part of the human soul that brings forth initiation. While I found his arguments for such a spirit to be very persuasive, I would not have associated it with the Valkyrie, who seems quite clearly to be an independent being and not something internal to humankind. (Having written to the author since the release of TR, he had abandoned this position in the interrum between the submission and publication of the book.) Despite definitional gripes such as this, Kveldulf's insights are very interesting and present one persons understanding of a group of beings that really aren't solidly defined. I simply wish his personal views were more fully explained or that he shown how he drew his conclusions from the historic and literary record.
The latter demonstrates one of the frustrations I had with this book. Currently working on his PhD dissertation on the Cult of Odin, Gundarsson knows his material inside and out. However, Teutonic Religion is being written for the popular New Age press. There are many places where the author could have explored certain topics more fully, but does not because of his publishing venue. I had similar feelings about Crafting The Art of Magic by Aidan Kelly, where his academic research was reportedly watered down for the mass market medium. This is more a comment than a criticism. An introductory book of Teutonic Religion's like was sorely needed by the Asatru community.
At the heart of any introductory book on Paganism are the rituals. These are split into two sections. First, there is a general outline of the blot and sumbel which include a step by step run down of what happens and why. This is well done and complete.
Second, a set of scripts is provided for the seasonal rituals and for life passages such as marriage. These are one of the most interesting parts of the book. Each includes some basic information on the holiday as well as a ritual script. Kveldulf uses an eight holiday model: Yule, Thorrsblot, Charming of the Plow, Eostre, Walpurgisnacht, Midsummer, Loaf-fest, and Winternights. This calendar to some extent seems to be a synthesis of various Germanic practices into a more sensible and coherent whole. For example, he moves around a few of the holidays from the usual modern Asatru dates. His version of winternights takes the place of the Winter Finding/Autumn Equinox--thus the ritual year he presents has only one harvest holiday, rather than two or three. I personally think this makes much more sense to modern non-agricultural folk Also, in terms of synthesis, he draws freely from English and German sources as well as the Norse. In many ways this means one gets the "best" version of each of the holidays. For example, his description of May Day includes a great deal from English countryside celebrations, while others concentrate on other sources. An appendix covers other holidays, such as the Asatru Free Assembly's "days of remembrance" that are not part of his eight-fold year.
The ritual scripts are very good. Rather than simply inserting the appropriate names and invocations into a stock blot format, he has included detailed scripts not just for the rituals, but for ritual dramas which are integrated into the various blots. For example, rather than merely talking of Frey's wooing of Gerd, the entire drama is played out before us. Even in the less dramatic rituals, you are usually cutting the throat of a beast made from baked dough. There are also suggestions on how to adapt the rituals to individual or smaller group use. Integrated into the rituals are also practices such as all night vigils. Gundarsson concentrates on a worship that is holistically integrated with folk practice. This is one of the few books that puts forth clearly the notion that a ritual is not something with a short and specific duration, but rather part of greater festival all of which is holy.
Usually in an introductory book, one has the descriptions of the Gods and holidays and not much else, but there is much more in Teutonic Religion. There's solid advice on how to get a kindred together, including some of the usual pitfalls such as trusting people to kick in money after the feast is served. Personally, I was glad to see someone deal with this realistically instead of dealing the reader some platitude about trust. Another chapter describes various holy places in Asatru such as Thingvellir in Iceland. This section includes theoretical information about the ancient Germanic conception of a Holy place, as well as practical advice for tourists seeking to visit historic sites. There's an excellent chapter on Asatru poetry, including detailed instructions on the proper scheme of rhythm and alliteration. He also gives profiles of several heroes of the folk--either exemplars of the Asatru way of life or those who resisted the coming of Christianity.
There's a lot for any Heathen in this book. My few quibbles are mostly from wanting more information out of it. He presents an enormous amount of information that would take years to assemble from academic sources. For those disappointed by people not of our faith trying to make a buck off of us, you'll be pleased to know that Teutonic Religion is solidly Asatru. Gundarsson has offered many new directions for our faith, but unlike others, he's stayed within our tradition and not sought to adapt other religions to our own. He also obviously believes in a Heathen future. This book does not cater to spiritual dilettantes. Someone who wants to do a bit of Norse for a few weeks and then go on to something else will be disappointed. It's obvious from his writing that Asatru is not meant to be a "New-Age practice," but a religion and way of life. It's is a book I can solidly recommend to any Heathen. Even if you seldom buy from the New Age presses, this is much more than another bunch of fill in the blank ritual scripts. Even if you never use any of his rituals and disagree with some of his interpretations, this is a solid sourcebook and well worth having.
Review by Lewis Stead