The quest for knowledge is central to the practice of heathenism. Odin, the chief of the gods, continually travels the nine worlds seeking knowledge. The ancient heathens were traders and raiders, seeking information about other cultures and preserving their knowledge of history and other lands in the epic poetry which we still look to for information in the present day. The pursuit of knowledge is important both for spiritual and personal reasons.
In the spiritual realm, much of the magic mentioned in the lore consists of deception magic. The strongest, most powerful fighter could not stand against his opponent if that opponent could fool him into fighting the impossible or inevitable. Just think of Thor’s journey to Utgard-Loki, where he blindly attacks mountains and attempts to wrestle old age.
The fact that Odin gave an eye and was hanged for knowledge, and that the lore mentions humans braving both physical and spiritual dangers to gain knowledge and skills from the dead speaks to the value which was placed on knowledge. When Brynhild meets Sigurd, one of the first things she does is share her rune knowledge with him. It seems that her knowledge and intelligence was at least as important a factor as her beauty in their romance. Their subsequent history underlines the point of the trouble that deception magic causes….
Spiritual knowledge is generally represented by the runes, which were won by the sacrifice of Odin. These are small signs which contain meditations on all aspects of life. The process of gaining knowledge and wisdom is a worth-while process, and one which every person must undertake for themselves. Although Frigga knows all ends, she doesn’t attempt to teach Odin all that he longs to know. Instead, she supports him in his journeys, even when she fears for his safety.
Odin continually travels to other lands to gain knowledge. He goes to the homes of giants who mean him harm, and has wagered his head for knowledge. This underscores the importance of gaining knowledge, but also brings up an often-overlooked point. Knowledge cannot be gained at home, safe within the circle of our companions. Knowledge is the hard-won product of exposing oneself to the worlds of other peoples, both our allies and our enemies.
And this is the point I’m making today. In this day and age, I don’t think it is necessary to walk into a radical Islamist training camp and wager one’s head to gain knowledge. However, to sit home and condemn all Muslims (including the ones who protested ISIS in London last week) from the couch is ignorant. To grow in knowledge, we need to understand the world in a way we can’t without a bit of dedicated study and experience of different cultures.
For example, when I was a scared kid, still somewhat traumatized by the 9/11 attacks, I took some time to read up on Islam, Middle Eastern history, and to meet some Muslims. I learned a lot, and my point here isn’t to tell you what I found and my conclusions. It’s to say that I did learn a lot. I met some really great people and some raging assholes. I changed a lot of my opinions based on what I learned.
My point in telling this story is to encourage people to step outside their comfort zone. I recently read a blog post by a heathen who claimed that because someone had a degree in Middle Eastern Studies, they were “obviously” sympathetic to Muslims and couldn’t be trusted. This struck me as very stupid. What sort of person makes a virtue of ignorance and refuses to trust the knowledge of an expert on a subject for no better reason than that person’s expertise?
So I felt the need to speak out against this sort of idiocy. The Havamal has some pretty sharp things to say about those who think they are smart yet never venture out into the world. The best way to learn about various people and cultures is to spend time among them, but with the caveat that not every sub community within a community represents the whole. For example, going and spending time among Orthodox Jews won’t necessarily help you understand the atheistic commie Jews I know. (I shouldn’t have to say that, but given how many people honestly think every woman in a hijab supports ISIS, it is apparently necessary.)
Not all of us can travel the world, but most places are a lot more cosmopolitan than you would think, if you take the time to seek out diversity. It’s worth a bit of a drive to visit a mosque and meet some real Muslims and hear what they have to say about the world, considering that Islam, Islamic radicalism, and immigration from Muslim countries are issues that we should probably be paying attention to right now. There are also many resources available to anyone with an internet connection (which, if you’re reading this, I assume you do). edX.org offers courses for free from top-rated universities. Coursera is less good in my opinion, and taking a course for free takes more work, but they also have an impressive selection of courses.
There are many different communities of people acting on the world stage right now. To make informed decisions and chart the best course for our country and our families, we need at least a basic understanding of the other people who inhabit the world. It our only source of information is the news on TV and Facebook, we are very vulnerable to manipulation of our information. Manipulation of our information leads to manipulation of our opinions, often in ways which spread hatred, fear, and malice.
We can never learn what we need to know if we are constantly surrounded by those who agree with us, or if we insist that those who disagree keep quiet in our spaces. We have to go and seek out the opinions of others, and face the challenges of new ideas. This will undoubtedly be a difficult process, and if undertaken honestly, will cause permanent changes in a person’s values and personality. Giving up faith and looking at the world with reason and seeking knowledge is a painful process. Seeing the world as it is, without the protection of our collective delusions, is horrible. There’s a reason Odin drinks so much…
So this post is not meant to be an end. This post is meant as a challenge. Learn another language, speak to those who you don’t know, particularly those you hate and fear. Bring back the knowledge you win to your community and use it for the benefit of your people. Remember that it takes courage to fight people, but it takes infinitely more courage to understand them.
“If you know your enemy and you know yourself, you need not fear the result of a thousand battles.” –Sun Tzu, The Art of War.
Maybe your enemies are not those who you fear, but those who taught you to fear… and that is as political as I’m getting today. This is my challenge to fear- that I will face what I fear, I will learn from it, and I will use what I learn to benefit my community. My challenge to you is to stand with me in this.