This issue, we sit down with author Erin Lale to discuss her new book, Asatru for Beginners (available through Amazon and B&N). Lale, a contributor to Idunna and former editor of Berserkrgangr Magazine, takes on Heathen morality, the place of science in modern Heathery, and what it’s like to run for public office. Also, be sure to check out her recent post where she takes the mainstream media to task for its collective response to Christine O’Donnell’s admission that she “dabbled” in witchcraft.
Eternal Haunted Summer: If you could correct one common misconception about modern Heathenry, what would it be?
Erin Lale: That people wearing Germanic cultural symbols such as runes or Thorshammars must be racists and Nazis. A warmongering empire hijacked popular folk symbols to justify its imperialism. Blaming heathens for the Nazis because of the symbols [they wear] is exactly like blaming Native Americans for the war in Iraq because you see depictions of eagles on powwow dancers’ attire.
EHS: What brought you to Heathenry? And how has your Native American ancestry influenced your path?
EL: The runes brought me to this path. On my 17th birthday, my older brother’s girlfriend, a Wiccan, gave me Edred Thorsson’s book Futhark: A Handbook of Rune Magic. When I read it, I felt like I was not learning new things, but remembering things I already knew. I knew I had found my path. It took me several more years to find out the word Asatru, and even longer to find other heathens. This was before the age of the internet.
My Native American ancestry gave me many great gifts. One was that my family encouraged me to find my own spiritual path. When I asked my father about religion, he told me, “Listen to the wind. Listen to the corn. Listen to your heart.” So I always looked to the land spirits and to my inner connection with spirituality rather than to churches and social institutions to show me my way. My relationship with the land spirits has always been one of the primary ways I relate to spirituality in daily life since early childhood, and it still is. Since I live in America, a lot of the land spirits I encounter are Native spirits, so being heathen hasn’t really changed much of the way I relate to them. When I first contacted the land spirit of the home where I live now in Nevada, I offered him corn, just as I would have if I had never heard of the gods.
Another gift of my Native ancestry was my need to belong to a tribal community. I searched for my Native roots in my youth, but found that the tribe from which my father descended had become Christians and we did not share a cultural outlook, so I looked for that sense of belonging among my mother’s people, and heathenism fulfills that need for me.
EHS: What kind of research went into Asatru for Beginners? A mountain of books, searching online, discussions with other Asatru, personal experience?
EL: I had already been a gythia for many years before I wrote this book, so I didn’t have to start from scratch when I began writing it. I already had the mountain of books. In fact, I had already published a couple of papers in Idunna Magazine, and had been the publisher and editor of Berserkrgangr Magazine in the 1990s. When I started writing it, I asked the members of the MSN Asatru Group, which I managed, what sorts of questions they would like to see answered in a beginner’s book, and I also kept a list of things that beginners asked me personally. The first chapter is actually the FAQ file I developed for that online community. I didn’t really do a lot of online searching until I revised the book for the new print edition, because when I first wrote it, they didn’t actually have search engines like they do now.
EHS: Why a book for beginners?
EL: At the time, the only beginner’s books available were either too sectarian, too advanced, or too focused on magic. This was the time period when Wicca was really starting to blossom by appealing to the teen market, which they had previously intentionally excluded. I thought Asatru could benefit from a book that one did not need a college education to understand. My original title was Asatru For Teens, but I decided to go withBeginners, because a lot of the information in it would appeal to adults, too.
EHS: Did you uncover any neat, unexpected historical nugget that you just had to share?
EL: Yes, but not doing research for the book. While I was revising it for the print edition, I happened on a reference to Vikings in America in the book Reaching Paradise Through Intercourse: American Towns with Unique Nicknames. It turns out there is a place on the eastern seaboard that is called Avon, because that’s what the local Native Americans called it, in memory of a lost Viking settlement named for another lost Viking settlement in England. Until I read about that, I thought the Vikings had not gotten any farther south in their American settlements than Canada, which they called Vinland.
EHS: Asatru for Beginners includes a lengthy section on morality. How do Heathen conceptions of “good” and “evil” differ from those of the (generally Christian) public?
EL: In two ways. Firstly, heathen notions of good and evil revolve around what benefits the community and the family, rather than proscriptions from on high carven in stone. Secondly, modern Asatru looks to the culture, customs, and the historical law codes of heathen cultures of history, rather than the culture and law codes of middle eastern cultures of history. There is actually a really strong element of heathen culture in the way that nominally Christian Americans think today, and many American laws can be traced to English common law, which is an expression of heathen culture. Look for any way in which common attitudes toward morality differ from what it says in the Bible, and there you will find folk custom.
EHS: You include a Rite of Passage in Asatru for Beginners. How did you go about designing that ritual?
EL: All the rituals included in the book are stripped-down versions of rituals that various modern Asatru groups actually practice. I’ve tried to reduce them to the elements common to most groups, so that they would apply equally well as to what to expect of such a ritual in different geographic locations and different points on the spectrum of heathen philosophies.
EHS: What is stadhr?
EL: Stadhr is a magical practice, popularized by Edred Thorsson. Many of the heathens — and the pagans — of my generation came to religion through occultism. Nearly everyone calling themselves priest or priestess in the twentieth century called themselves witch first. Magic is still practiced much more widely in modern Asatru than it was in historical times by our heathen ancestors.
EHS: Several years ago, there was a court battle over the Kennewick Man. How and why were Asatruar involved in that case?
EL: Asatruars heard about this ancient body that appeared on first examination to be Caucasian, at least to a county coroner, who was the first person to study the body; it had been so well preserved that the people who found it thought it was a modern crime victim. When its age became known, local Native Americans claimed it as an ancestor and wanted to rebury it, which would stop all scientific research on it. The scientists naturally wanted to keep studying it until they could tell why this ancient being had Caucasian features. Asatruars stepped forward and claimed Kennewick Man was their ancestor, and argued that the body should be given to them. While the court case went on, the scientists managed to collect enough research material to continue their investigation. The anthropologists’ conclusion was that Kennewick Man was pre-racial, meaning that he did not belong to any of the modern races. Among people alive today, his closest genetic relatives were the Ainu of Japan. Asatruars were happy to help advance science, because heathens are in favor of continuous learning in emulation of Odin.
EHS: What resources (websites, journals, texts, et cetera) would you recommend to someone interested in Asatru?
EL: That’s actually the subject of an entire chapter of my book. But generally, if your interests run to finding other heathens for community and ritual, the internet is where you’ll find them. If your interests are more in learning about the mythology and history, the books and other material that were written or made in historical times are the best sources: in the most ancient times, archeological sites and the writings of Romans and Arabs in what was prehistory in the North; in the Viking Age, the Sagas, The Eddas, poetic magical charms, runestones and other artifacts; in later times, fairy tales, agriculture-related village festival customs, and the ways that European Christianity came to differ from its Middle Eastern origins as evidenced by historical Christian writings.
EHS: Where can people find your book?
EL: Besides speaking engagements where I appear in person, you can find the print edition on the net and in any local bookstore that deals with the major distributor Baker & Taylor. You can also buy the Kindle version in the Amazon Kindle Store.
EHS: What advice can you offer other authors who are considering the self-publishing route? Steps they must take, and mistakes they must avoid?
EL: Firstly, know that most bookstores will not be interested in stocking a self-published book. In my case, I was already going to speaking engagements where I gave lectures on Asatru, and had been handing out cards encouraging people to buy the book online, and I was thinking of how convenient it would be if I had physical books with me to sell while the potential customer was right in front of me. That’s a business plan that’s far different from trying to get bookstores to buy your book on spec. What I do on my book tour is like when a band sells its CDs after a concert. I encourage authors thinking of self-publishing to start the way I started, with an ebook version, and work towards a print edition later.
EHS: Which conventions, book fairs, festivals, et cetera will you be attending in the foreseeable future?
EL: By the time you read this, my 2010 book tour through the middle of the country to Pagan Spirit Gathering and back will be over, but I plan to continue giving my Asatru speech at Pagan Pride Day events and such, as I have in the past. I’ll be at the Las Vegas Renaissance Festivalwith Hammarheim Kindred in the Viking living history village this October, as I was last year. For the latest information on my future public appearances, check out my MySpace blog.
EHS: What other projects are you working on?
EL: I’m running for Nevada State Assembly. I hope to become the second (after NY City Councilman Dan Halloran) openly heathen American elected to public office.
I’m writing a series of science fiction novels that I hope to place with a traditional mass market publisher. I used to own The Science Fiction Store in Las Vegas, and my long list of publishing credits includes some science fiction short stories, so I think I have a good chance.
I’m producing a fourth in my series of instructional videos. The ones I already have out are “How to Make a Sunprint,” “How to Dye Silk,” and “Rune Seminar.” I’m now filming “Bersarkrgangr: The Viking Martial Art.”
Despite the hectic schedule, Lale was able to maintain her sense of humor both during and after her book tour. She says, “I sold a number of books, plus my Rune Seminar DVDs and back issues of Berserkrgangr Magazine, but I also met a tremendous number of great heathens and pagans, who will hopefully recommend my book to beginners who ask them for a recommendation in the future. This year’s book tour will be driving sales of my book for years and decades to come. Helping new potential heathens find their way home is a service to the gods and to the community, so my book tour was worthwhile even though I didn’t make a profit once I paid for all the repairs to my truck along the way.”