This month, we sit down with Vanatru author Nicanthiel Hrafnhild. A devotee of Nerthus, Hrafnhild recently released Boar, Birch and Bog, a devotional in honor of the Northern Tradition’s Earth Mother. In this interview, he discusses the place of Nerthus in 21st century spirituality, the revival of Vanic practices, and the pleasures of self-publishing.
Eternal Haunted Summer: If you could correct one common misconception about contemporary Paganism, what would it be?
Nicanthiel Hrafnhild: Such a broad topic for the first question! Indeed, I think I would have to say that the biggest common misconception about “contemporary Paganism” would be the idea that we’re all one big happy family of religious expression, when in fact, the umbrella has gotten almost too big to be significant anymore, with the massive influx of new and revived traditions since the middle of the last century. I would like to see more folks claiming the various subdivisions as legitimate labels, and reserving the generic “Pagan” for those who follow their own path. But then, of course, we run into the problem of labels that are entirely too long to be comfortable – for instance, the most accurate description of my personal religion would be “syncretic Saxon/Celtic/Feri witch, tribalist and revivalist with a focus on the Northern European gods of life, death and mystery.” Thankfully, all of that can be condensed into Vanatru, without any real glaring contradictions.
EHS: How did you find your way to Heathenry, specifically Vanatru? Was your path fairly direct, or did you take a lot of side trips?
NH: Since I began my forays into paganism, I’d always been drawn to two things – the beauty and wonder of nature, and the cultural and mythological elements of north-western Europe (specifically Celtic at the time) So, in a sense, I’ve always been Vanic, though I wouldn’t have known what it meant. My first real exposure to Heathenry was somewhat of a strange experience:
A couple of years ago, I was deep in the currents of Celtic Reconstructionism, courting a couple of the Irish gods and one Welsh. At the same time, I was also working fairly heavily with sortilege divinations systems, specifically runes and ogam. While walking a labyrinth one afternoon, contemplating some spiritual thing or other, I had an encounter with several of the Germanic gods – Thor, Frey, Loki and who I believe was Eostre. We chatted for a little while, and they left. As time went on, things in my life started shifting towards Heathenry and other Northern Tradition paradigms, and the Celtic gods faded away. Then, in the summer, I kept having conversations with the Old Man, talking about various things. Near the end of the year, I fell sick rather severely, and had a clear encounter with Freya and Eir, in which Freya said to me that they take care of their own. Finally, it all culminated in a display of power and awe by Nerthus the night of the winter solstice, where she told me that this was my path from now on.
So, I would say the path has been rather fairly direct, and almost obviously orchestrated by Someone, though the end destination was hardly obvious at the beginning.
EHS: Boar, Birch and Bog is subtitled Prayers to Nerthus. Why a book for/about Nerthus?
NH: First, because there was no other modern expression of Nerthus. The Troth did a couple of decent articles on the Vanir, and Nerthus, in Iðunna, but they were mostly factual rather than experiential. I felt that it was important to bring what is arguably the most important Germanic goddess, the Earth Mother herself, into the modern heathen and pagan arena in ways that weren’t just dusty and academic, but also able to point out the sheer wonder and terror of the Earth as She is today.
EHS: What role does the Northern European Earth Mother play today? What can she teach us, now, in the 21st century?
NH: Really, what role doesn’t She play? Unlike many modern religions, we who pursue what some call the “Earth religions” are intimately connected with the Earth Mother, not only in myth, but in practice. We’ve seen what blind greed and dominance does to the world, does to Her, and we should be the first line of defense against that.
As for what lessons She has to teach, well, they certainly won’t be the “tying your shoes” type. In the old days, we fed her blood – of animals, of plants, even of ourselves. And we’ve certainly not stopped in the time since – just in the last one hundred years, at least a billion bodies have soaked their lives into her mouth through our own greed for resources and power. And as our quest for abundance keeps threatening to bleed Her dry, it’s more than likely that number will only increase. I’m not a “doomer”, per se, but you can’t exactly work with the great Mother and be an optimist these days, particularly when a massive reminder of just how dangerous our actions can be is spewing like a great artery down in the Gulf with no sign of relief.
I suppose, in the end, the lesson is to be mindful. Actions always have consequences that will hurt someone somewhere. The point is to lessen that hurt as much as possible. And, being a liminal figure of the marshes, She also tells us to look into our boxes and see how they limit us, and how freeing the blurred lines can be.
EHS: What kind of research went into Boar, Birch and Bog? Lots of trips to the library? Discussions with other devotees? Personal experience?
NH: The problem with doing research for a book like this is that there is so little of it. Starting out, I only knew of the Tacitus references and the mentions of the earth-giantesses in theEddas. A real breakthrough was when a friend of mine showed me the bit in Temmen’s Volkssagen aus Pomern und Rügenabout the castle and lake in the Baltic, which was almost an exact match to the account of Nerthus in Germania. The full extent of the source compilation, however, was mostly the result of UPG [unverified personal gnosis] concerning the nature and manner of the Northern earth goddess – that was the main reason I went against a good deal of mainstream Heathen thought and conflated the Vanic goddess Nerthus with the (supposed) Jötun goddess Jörð/Fjorgyn.
EHS: What’s one odd and fascinating fact that you uncovered that you just had to share?
NH: There is a name in the Þulr (a list of names for various beings and objects found at the end of the Prose Edda which isn’t included in most translations) which has linguistic correlation to both the North Germanic form of Nerthus (Njörð-) and the pre-Roman goddess Nerio who was worshipped in northern Italy. The name itself, Njörun, likely means “high lady, goddess”, a fitting description for Nerthus. The connection to Nerio, a goddess of valor and combat, also brings to mind the quote from Germania about the “Mother of the Gods”, whose symbol was worn by warriors on their helms, ostensibly to promote courage and incite fear in enemies. It was these correlations that led me to the conclusion that Njörun is likely the original North Germanic name or title for Nerthus, but that it was replaced by Jörð and Fjorgyn by the time the Eddas were recorded.
EHS: Boar, Birch and Bog is filled with rituals, such as the Warrior Ritual, the Memorial Day Sumble, and Charming of the Plow. How did you design these rituals?
NH: A combination of inspiration, personal aesthetics, folkloric remnants (particularly in the English-based holidays such as Charming and Lammas), and reconstructed traditional format. I tried to keep the rituals as streamlined as possible, with clearly marked sections; hopefully, I succeeded! My favorite ritual in terms of layout and theme would probably be the Midwinter Kingship Ritual, a rite for enacting sacral leadership – the format is entirely my own, with inspiration from the Frazer-esque kingship motifs that are sometimes found in modern neopaganism filtered through my own experience and research into traditional Celtic and Germanic coronation ceremonies.
EHS: What other resources can you recommend to someone interested in Nerthus specifically, or Vanatru or Heathenry in general?
NH: Honestly, being a niche bit of an already fragmented tradition, the best complete resource for getting to know and understand the Vanir, and Nerthus specifically, is one’s own experience. However, there are a couple of online resources that people could check out. The previously mentioned Idunna issues would be a good place to start for all of the lore and available “history” on the Vanir; for more personal experience, theVanaheim Fellowship has several articles and other info on modern Vanic religion. If you are interested in books, there is a wonderful anthology out entitled Visions of Vanaheim, featuring work from a number of Vanic folks, and it is currently the only major Vanatru work on the market; there is also a follow-up volume of tales and retold myths entitled Vanirbok: Tales of the Vanagods. Both are available through the Gullinbursti Press website.
EHS: You published Boar, Birch and Bog through Gullinbursti Press. Why that publisher, and would you recommend them to other authors?
NH: First, because it was free. Gullinbursti Press works in cooperation with the authors and Lulu, Inc. to produce their work without publishing fees. The founder is also a very good friend of mine, and asked to take the manuscript when she found out I was working on it.
As for why I would recommend the publisher to other authors, I believe in what Gullinbursti does – producing quality Heathen and Pagan material on subjects that might not otherwise see the light of day, due to mainstream publishing circumstances. They allow the freedom of self-publishing with the professionalism of having edited and proofed manuscripts.
EHS: Which festivals, book fairs or other events will you be attending in the foreseeable future?
NH: Unfortunately, due to financial circumstances, it is unlikely that I’ll be going anywhere special for quite a while.
EHS: What other projects are you working on?
NH: Currently, I’m in the process of putting together a trilogy of (hopefully) comprehensive materials for the revival of Vanic practice and belief. Obviously, at this stage, they will only be one voice among many possible ways, but I believe that people may find my work helpful in understanding their own approaches to the Vanir.
My partner and I also started up the first entirely Vanic-oriented Heathen group (that I know of), the Hræfnesseld Inhíred (Ravens’ Hall Hearth) this past Midsummer. We are hoping to put a lot of the things for the trilogy into testing with this group, particularly any rituals that end up in one of the books.