This issue, we sit down with Heathen author and musician Robert Sass. With a passion for linguistics and history, Sass has made available primary sources which were once unknown or unaccessible to English-language audiences. Here, he discusses his books on Saxon Paganism and language, the beginnings of religious intolerance in Europe, and the perils and rewards of publishing an ebook.
Eternal Haunted Summer: If you could correct one misconception about modern Heathenry, what would it be?
Robert Sass: Not sure if this is a misconception, but most pagans work hard at educating themselves. Since history books in general view historical heathen conversions as “civilization” and “progress”, this doesn’t mean that historical heathens were uncivilized or were not advanced. Most monotheists just assume we modern heathens are no different from the heathens they read about in the history books, especially the history books that focus on say Greek and Roman Pagans — which Christians study to better understand the Pagans in Paul’s letters. We are educated, and we are smart. And we actually “think”. We do not just believe in our gods and goddesses to be rebels or different for the sake of being rebels. We are all not Wiccans either …. (Nothing against Wicca at all, but many think of only Wiccans when they think of pagans…)
EHS: How would you describe your spiritual path?
RS: I follow my Saxon ancestors, their Gods and Goddesses, and their traditions as best I can. I try to honor my ancestors through my daily actions.
EHS: From the outside, Heathenry appears to be a fairly coherent tradition. So, what distinguishes the Saxon path from the rest of Heathenry? Deities? Festivals?
RS: Sahsnot is the God our ancestors descend from. Sahsnot is not in the Eddas, though a few in number feel he is Tir or Fro. Sahsnot is a son of Uuoden and Fri, and brother of Thunaer. (If you accept the folklore as fact, like if you believe Thor really went fishing for example. I do not believe ancient pagans were that way.) Our tradition is in the Northern Tradition. Some of us rely heavily on Norse, Anglo-Saxon, and Danish sources, since there are not many Saxon sources. I personally rely on the Heliand, St. Lebuin, the Vita Stunni, Widukind of Corvey, amongst others. There was a Sassen (Saxon Wheel of the Year), twelve moons, yet a lunar-solar cycle (sometimes 13). Mother’s Night was December 25th, and the night of our New Year. We believe there are two seasons, Winter and Summer. Uurd (Fate) is as important as Sahsnot, Thunaer, and Uuoden. I do not believe the Saxons knew of Loki or any of the Vanir. The Saxons also worshipped Ostara and Hretha, not known to the Vikings, and like Sahsnot, not in the Eddaic lore. I believe that Hretha was Ertha or Nerthus on the Continent.
EHS: What is the Heliand?
RS: It is an Old Saxon Gospel written at the beginning of the Ninth Century in Old Saxon. The Heliand is larger than Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John put together. The largest biblical gospel is Luke at 1,179 verses. The Heliand is just shy of 6000 verses. By studying the additions to the Gospel story, we see Saxon Heathenry. I’ll give you a short excerpt here from my book which transliterates the Heliand. Transliteration is basically Old Saxon on top, English on the bottom. It keeps the original Saxon word order, whereas a translation puts the words into our English word order, ignoring the original language word order.
The pagan thought behind the passage is in notes at the bottom in blue and red font. I could have discussed further about “the Measurer” and the “Norns”, how when our chord is cut, our time is cut off, and the Measurer measures the length of our days. How the Fates in Saxon thought carve runes on wood measuring our “Fate.” Problem is Fate occurs so often in the Heliand, that I cover those topics in other verses. As all of us heathens know, there are not an abundance of texts to glean what historical heathenry was about. Thus, I am not afraid to use a Gospel (I am a polytheist though) to learn about my own Gods and Goddesses.
That ni scal an is liƀa gio
That not should in his life forever
lîðes anbîtan, uuînes an is uueroldi,
apple-wine eat (drink), wine in his world,
sô haƀed im uurdgiscapu, metod gimarcod endi maht
as has his fate, the measurer* determines and might
godes. Hêt that ic thi thoh sagdi,
God’s. Told to me, you yet (must) say,
that it scoldi gisîð uuesanheƀancuninges, hêt
that he should a war companion of Heaven’s king, told
* ‘uurdgiscapu’ and ‘metod’. Fate and the Measurer. Fate and Time (along with the The Irminsul) are greatly important in Saxon religion. The existence of Fate is not denied by the author of the Heliand. As a matter of fact, in this verse, it is compared as an equal to “God’s Might.” While ‘uurdgiscapu’ is a common word in the Heliand, ‘metod’ another word for “measurer” occurs only here. See Murphy.
EHS: You recently published The Old Saxon Language and Paganism. What kind of research went into the text? Were you surrounded by stacks of books?
RS: Stacks of books? Like I just said above, there are not a lot of sources. Not to mention, most books by scholars have to be pitches, or at least sifted through, as most are written from monotheistic historical perspectives and are biased. It took me four years of research, mainly with the help of some in Modern Germany and my own patience, going through historical documents (like the Heliand), like St. Lebuin, and others that I mentioned earlier. The more ancient a source the better, but this of course doesn’t make it right. For one example, Garden Stone is one scholar who rejects the notion that when the Romans referred to the German Mercury, it was Odin. Sure, sometimes we have to guess. But when I guess, I tell everyone it is my guess, and that I do not know for sure, or that too many writings were destroyed and lost for us to prove without doubt. We need to keep studying, digging, and learning, and re-evaluate. I have changed my mind several times on some issues. It is a long process, and anyone must question everything, and then prove it (so to speak), when we can prove it. I personally, do not rely on UPG as many heathens do. I study first, UPG is second. But this is for me, maybe not everyone else. I would say I used about two dozen sources for my book, and I do note them in my work.
EHS: How much of the Saxon language has survived into modern English? Are any of our words Saxon in origin?
RS: Lots of Saxon words survived. Words like “Then” and “When” and “Who” and “How”, etc. There are many other words, like “Naht” for “night” and “seo” for “sea” (just two examples), which are similar and obvious. English is a descendent of Old Saxon, Modern German is not. Old Saxon evolved into Middle Saxon, which evolved into Modern Platt Deutch, which is a despised language in Germany today, one going moribund. Old High German became Modern German, and my grandparents were forced to learn Hoch Deutch like a foreign language. Language does evolve though, and there are lots of Old Saxon words that sound nothing like their Angle-ish counter parts. Remember, modern English has this past: Angles, Saxons, Britons, Jutes, and others; the Anglo Saxons had several languages become Old English, which was based on the West Saxon Dialect in Angle-Land (England.) Thus, Old English is mainly Saxon and Angle-ish, mixed together (with others), and then add twelve centuries. While there are many Old Saxon words that are easily recognized, Old Saxon and modern English I would not call mutually intelligible by any stretch.
Old Saxon is called “low German” by those who are kind of racist (or ignorant) in Germany. “High German” or “Hoch Deucth” is where the modern German language comes from. Most Saxons were not jumping for joy to be swallowed by Bismark’s Prussian “German” state. Northern and Southern “Germans” were ethnically different, and did not always get along. My family, in Hanover, wanted to remain Saxons, not Germans. Thus, there are political issues Americans are not familiar with, another problem in my research (in the stack of books question above.) Modern German history books are pro Frankish (High German) and anti-Saxon, which makes their pagan disdain worse. This makes sifting through (especially German books) very difficult. Those in Germany would want to shoot me for writing this, ’cause the racism still exists there, even through two world wars ….
EHS: You also recently released Saxon Paganism. During your research for the book, what was the most interesting, unusual historical tidbit that you uncovered?
RS: I released two books, one called The Old Saxon Language and Paganism and the other Saxon Paganism. The second book is just a shortened form of the first book. Some people want to be heathen, or follow a saxon heathen path, without studying the Old Saxon language. Some don’t even want to touch the Heliand due to it being “Christian.” Thus, Saxon Paganism is basically the The Old Saxon Language and Paganism with my studies on the Heliand and Old Saxon removed.
If you don’t mind, let me discuss why the hard cover, full-color book is $63.00. Well, full color 8.5 by 11 inch pages are expensive to print. Also, my four years of translating the Heliand is invaluable. Even the Berkley Language professors have not released such a book. My book is the only book out with the Old Saxon text with English in it. Period. Plus, I only make three bucks for each hard copy sale. Considering I am the only source available (in English), and my book is 209 pages with multiple languages (and fonts), that is a steal. Otherwise, you need to know or learn German, to get what I just published, and as I already discussed, if your family is/was from Northern Germany, and spoke Platt, you may not have had modern German passed down to you. So, you have to learn two languages. With my book, not the case, just one, Old Saxon…
I would recommend the PDF from Lulu. I did put the eBook of Saxon Paganism on Amazon, Nook, Barnes & Noble, etc. However, I could not do an eBook with the Old Saxon font. The eBook screwed it up majorly, and I tried a number of methods. I did not want to pay professionals to fix it, to even increase my fee more. Most tablets can take PDF files (actually, all.) Thus, the PDF works anywhere, but you can only get it from me directly or from Lulu.
EHS: How does the Saxon wheel of the year differ from the more Celtic-based wheel used by many modern Pagans?
RS: Well, not very. Basically the wheel of the year is the same as Bede’s from his Eccleasicastical History of the English People. Bede makes clear that the Old Saxons kept that wheel as well. And I admit, some of Bede’s wheel that modern Saxons use may be more Anglo-Saxon specific. But archaeological evidence, and the writings of Lebuin and the Heliand, seem to confirm Bede’s work was true (at least mostly) for the Continental Saxons (who stayed in Old Saxony) as well.
RS: Irminsul is the Old Saxon word for “Mighty Pillar”. It is equivalent to Thor’s Oak of the Chatti (the first Tribe to the South of the Saxons) and the Norse Yggdrasil. Some argue that it was “Irmin’s Tree”. Irmin is an Old Saxon word meaning “Strong”, but it is also an adjective describing Uuoden in several sources. Widukind of Corvey, in the 11th century, wrote that the Saxons set up the Irminsul to honor Irmin/Odin after the Saxons defeated the Thuringians in battle. Of course, Widukind of Corvey also wrongly believed way too many things, and well, has been proven pretty ignorant of reality. The Saxon Irminsul was destroyed by Charlemagne in 772 CE. There was a Temple there, and it took the Franks three days to destroy the Temple at the Irminsul, and carry away its treasure horde. It was also along a sacred spring, a sacred grove. The outrage in Saxony over the Irminsul’s destruction was the same as that of the Jews losing their temple, what the outrage would be in these situations: The Muslims losing Mecca, or Americans losing the Two Towers, or the Catholics losing the Vatican. The Irminsul’s destruction was an act of terror to most people today with a clear mind, but an act of making Europe Civilized to ‘German scholars’. The Destruction of the Irminsul (in my mind) marks the rise of the First Reich in Germany, and its model of religious intolerance lived too long in Germany, with obvious consequences. May humanity learn from our mistakes, and not kill each other over religious differences ….
EHS: You self-published your books through Lulu.com. Would you recommend Lulu.com to other authors? And what advice can you offer to those who are considering self-publishing?
RS: I would highly recommend Lulu. It is the only way to go in my humble opinion. As I discussed above, though, if you want to write in Icelandic, or Old English, expect to have problems. Use your fonts in Word (or Adobe), and then just do a PDF. I think over time, eBooks will take more languages (and fonts) than just French and English.
EHS: Which books, magazines, journals, and so forth would you recommend to someone note rested in learning more about Saxon Paganism?
RS: I would recommend reading the Heliand, (and the works of Ronald G Murphy and Irmengard Raush, as well as James E Cathey) on it. I would also read the writings of St. Lebuin, the Royal Frankish Annals, Bede, and the works of Eric J. Goldberg (a Jewish American Scholar, who interestingly enough is a whiz at Saxon History, despite the fact he is Jewish. He is da man.). I also would recommend befriending Garden Stone, reading his blogs. I would stay away from some of the bickering online groups. Or if you join (as I have or have tried), don’t get annoyed if they think one is not good enough to join them. Heathens are not like Christians, and well, there is no “say the prayer and you are in” type groups. But there are good heathens. Just find a group that is friendly, and is polytheistic in thought process (i.e. one where unity is more important than orthodoxy …).
EHS: What other projects are you working?
RS: I just released my eighth CD, called Safe Sax (I play Saxophone. Yes, Adolph Sax was a Saxon, but I did not know that until I had already played for over two decades.) Me playing the Sax and being a “Sass/Saxon” is, well, coincidence. (Sass is the Old Saxon word for ‘Saxon’ “Sass” is Latinized as “Sax” or “Sachs.” Much of my original music is Pagan, but as an instrumentalist, you would not know as there are no words. But my song titles are pretty pagen. “Irminsul,” “Stone Knife,” “Marklo,” “Platt Deutch ist Sassicsh,” “Thunaer,” “Saxnote,” “Sahsnot,” “Uuoden,” and “Thunaer” are originals of mine that have very obvious pagan saxon song titles. I have two CDs on iTunes/Amazon.com. But eight total CDs, I guess I have a lot to get up online for sale. (One of my CDs is with the band “Opening Night!”) Tonight is my 102nd gig of the year 2012. I am a pretty busy musician.
EHS: Which book fairs, conventions, or other events will you be attending in the foreseeable future?
RS: I don’t really attend book fairs. I did just join my first Kindred, Linden Oak Kindred in the Chicago, Illinois Area. Everyone else is Asatru or an Odinist (non racist); well, we have one atheist actually as well. No one else is Saxon Pagan specific, but in the true spirit of polytheism, I really don’t care. I just love them and enjoy them and learn from them, and worship my gods and goddesses with them …. A everyone loves and treats the atheist with respect. It is quite a beautiful thing ….