Title: Day Star & Whirling Wheel: A Devotional to Sunna, Goddess of the Sun, and Mani, God of the Moon[alternate subtitle: Honoring the Sun and Moon in the Northern Tradition]
Publisher: Asphodel Press
Editor: Galina Krasskova
Pages: 111 pp
Price: $18.00 US
Over the past few years, two small pagan publishers have produced devotional volumes dedicated to various deities on a fairly regular basis: Bibliotheca Alexandrina and Asphodel Press. The present volume is the latest in Asphodel Press’ series, of which the majority have been edited by Galina Krasskova, who is also at the helm of the present volume. Of the other Asphodel Press devotionals, the only one I’ve personally seen is Thista Minai’s single-authored Dancing in Moonlight: Understanding Artemis Through Celebration (2008), but many in the series are anthologies, and several others which are currently being organized are also anthologies.
Having had some experience editing anthologies, as well as having contributed to many (both academic and not), I can state categorically that it is much more difficult than it may at first appear. Editors go through a painstaking process in producing these volumes, which is often rather thankless and frustrating; but, in the context of a devotional anthology, all of this is a literal labor of love, and the results are always well worth the effort. Invariably, some pieces will be better than others, and quality may vary greatly between authors, or even between pieces by the same author — whether a difference in genre (poem, experiential essay, research essay, fiction, other prose, etc.) or in subject and treatment within each piece may account for the difference is anyone’s guess. That having been said, there is a great deal in the present volume that is enjoyable and useful, even for those (like myself) who are not overly familiar with the deities involved or the tradition represented.
A few pieces that were particularly enjoyable include Andrew Gyll’s “Nine Songs for Mani” (pp. 14-18), which has some very creative syncretism. Raven Kaldera’s essay “My Native Earth: A Vampire In the Sunlight” (pp. 68-74) is a fascinating personal rumination in light of a variety of other topics which Kaldera has written about elsewhere, but also contains the important reminder (p. 72) that Northern paganism does not divide the divine world into eternally opposed dualistic forces of good and evil, and that both of these moral qualities can reside in the same deity. Several pieces in the collection discuss Skoll and Hati, the wolves who respectively chase Sunna and Mani across the sky. One of these, Rebecca Buchanan’s “Hymn to Sunna II” (p. 99) is a beautiful piece, although very unusual in that it names Hati as the wolf who chases Sunna rather than the usual identification as Skoll. In the “Evening Rite of the Five Elements” by Krasskova and Sophie Oberländer (pp. 43-48), there is an interesting line in the prayer to Loki, referring to him as the “Sweet salmon of knowledge” (p. 45), which is an unusual further syncretism of the Norse figure with well-known Irish divine animals, but an interesting and potentially powerful one. A further fascinating intercultural adaptation is Seawalker’s “Yoga Sun Salutation for Sunna” (pp. 90-91) a practice which could likely be adapted for use with any polytheistic pantheon’s solar deity, which in the present instance includes focusing on a particular rune for each asana adopted in the practice.
However, for the same reason, Seawalker’s effort seemed to the present reviewer a bit less creative than it could potentially have been, because the names of the various positions were given as they are traditionally known in many forms of yoga, rather than being adapted to the cultural context in which they are being used in the volume for the deity concerned. These types of names, the asanas themselves, and the ideas which prompted them are ultimately theological in nature, and are deeply rooted within the tradition in which they originated. While many of the asana names could be seen to be equally applicable to Norse culture as the original Indian context (e.g. Mountain, Warrior, etc.), some might not have as much relevance (e.g. Cobra — though this one does have the alternate name of “Upward-Facing Dog” as well). There are always opportunities when examining one tradition’s spiritual practices (the “source culture”) and adapting them to another (the “target culture”) to make them more appropriate to the target culture concerned. Seawalker prefaces the entire excursus with the statement that “Yes, this is a modern mixing of cultural traditions, but Sunna cares not a whit.” The issue isn’t so much that it is a mixing (as such synthesis is often very rewarding and effective, and indeed essential in much modern reconstructionist polytheist methodology, not to mention quite widespread in the history of religious interactions throughout time), or whether or not the deity receiving the devotion cares (for very few deities seem eager to quash any devotion shown to them), but perhaps instead what Surya (the Indian sun god) thinks. These types of synthesis should be opportunities for greater innovation and a more thoroughgoing adaptation, rather than partial efforts, no matter how effective those efforts might end up being.
While I am not certain about how other devotional volumes edited by Krasskova for Asphodel Press have handled the issue, there is a matter of some concern that I would suggest needs attention in future volumes. The front cover of this book only has the title (and the subtitle on the cover as opposed to the front end-page and title page is different! — these are given above with the cover subtitle first and the interior subtitle second), with no indication of the editor’s name, while the back cover gives a short bio of the editor after the back cover blurb. The front end-page and title page both simply state the editor’s name, without “edited by” indicated anywhere, and the listings for the other anthologies on the Asphodel Press website also say “by Galina Krasskova” rather than “edited by.” There is a further “About the Editor” page at the very back of the volume (but none for the contributors), and this lists the various volumes that Krasskova has also edited; but, then the list of suggested reading preceding this also gives full references to all of these books, which seems rather repetitive. Yes, the lion’s share of work done on an anthology is by the editor; however, as a professional and customary courtesy to the essential contributions of all those involved, adding that one small word at important points (like the title page and front cover) would make a lot of difference.
There are some proofreading and typographical errors in the book (though none which inhibit comprehension), but a more assiduous, consistent, and professional treatment of and format for footnotes and references would be the larger concern to look after in the future, when possible. More footnotes or references (which is to say, any at all!) would have been useful; for example, on page 6 in relation to the Merseburg charm, and on page 30 with the Slavic wolf-coat charm.
I also offer the following suggestion in terms of an issue that has often been a matter of critique when discussing the issue of “horsing” in Northern tradition paganism, whether for oracular or other ritual purposes. The term “horsing” is taken by most modern spiritworkers from Afro-Caribbean religions, and on page 3, Krasskova explains that “We utilize these words not in an attempt to bring Afro-Caribbean practices into the Northern Tradition, but because they are apt descriptions and we simply lack the Norse or Anglo-Saxon equivalents.” This is actually not necessarily the case. There is an Old English metrical charm, “Against a Dwarf,” which contains exactly this type of equine imagery for how a malevolent dwarf — not unlike the literal nightmare that rides its victims in their dreams — likewise does so to its victim: “Spider creature came right in here — / had his hames in hand: you’re his horse, he claimed! / and to your neck tied reins!” (translated by Stephen Glosecki, “Stranded Narrative: Myth, Metaphor, and the Metrical Charm,” in Glosecki [ed.], Myth in Early Northwest Europe [Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2007], pp. 47-70 at 65 note 36.) Granted, this situation is somewhat different, since being made the unwilling horse of a dwarf is meant to be demeaning and negative, whereas horsing a deity in modern practice is something difficult, but generally viewed as positive; yet, knowing there is precedent for this in some extant medieval texts (and ones that are most certainly magical and meant to be employed) would be very useful for future development, study, and theology for Northern Tradition practitioners, as well as other Germanic reconstructionist pagans.
The Norse culture is one of few in which the traditional gender associations of the sun and the moon in mythology are reversed, with a male moon and a female sun. One of the other such religious cultures, which is still going strong in its spiritual devotion, is the Shinto practices of Japan, where Amaterasu-Omikami (female) is the kami of the sun and Tsukiyomi-no-Mikoto (male) is the kami of the moon. Simply for this reason, the volume under review here is fascinating and appealing, and demonstrates the true diversity amongst the inhabitants of the divine worlds as well as amongst the modern practices and theologies of many polytheists. Gender essentialism in the divine realms is no more accurate than it is in the human world, and to honor these particular deities and learn more about their associations and particularities (many of which are quite unique in European tradition), I cannot recommend reading this volume highly enough to those interested.
[Phillip A. Bernhardt-House is a guest professor in the history department of the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. Phillip’s academic publications include articles in Béascna, Foilsiú,Cosmos: The Yearbook of the Traditional Cosmology Society, Journal for the Academic Study of Magic, and the Celtic Studies Association of North America Yearbook, as well as several anthologies and conference proceedings volumes, and articles in Parabola and Thorn. He is also the author of Werewolves, Magical Hounds, and Dog-headed Men in Celtic Literature: A Typological Study of Shape-Shifting, published in 2010 by The Edwin Mellen Press.]