Gods and River Monsters

I like it when I see polytheism and animism sneaking into places where you don’t expect, and especially when those beliefs are treated with respect. It reminds people that Christianity or monotheism aren’t the only options out there.

And sometimes I run across an author, television personality, or other celebrity and think, “You would make a good pagan.”

Jeremy Wade, the host of River Monsters, is one of those people.

River Monsters is one of the few shows left on Animal Planet that’s actually about animals (I knew when that tagline, “Surprising Human,” came out it was a bad sign). Basically it’s about a biologist trying to catch large, dangerous freshwater fish, but it’s also a show about the people who live with these fish, and treats indigenous, animistic, and polytheistic beliefs with a lot of respect. Coming from a western society where those sorts of beliefs are usually derided as primitive and superstitious, Jeremy takes them surprisingly seriously.

When I’ve mentioned this before to people, they’ve said, “Oh, it just makes good television” to have Jeremy talking to shamans and medicine men and taking part in rituals, but even so, he could have that “Oh, these savages are so silly!” type of attitude I would expect from most westerners.

But he doesn’t, and I think that if treating indigenous people and their beliefs with respect gets him better ratings than treating them like superstitious savages, then that’s a good sign for our society.

I think it was in the first season when he tried to catch a large catfish in India that was eating partially cremated remains people would throw into the river. The fish was seen as being an agent of the gods who would carry the person’s soul to the afterlife. A guru warned Jeremy not to try to catch this fish, but he ignored the advice and tried anyway.

After trying for weeks to catch the fish, he got one of the catfish on his line, almost reeled it in, and then the line broke. It was one of the few fish he never successfully caught.

In a later episode Jeremy went to Mongolia to try to catch a giant species of trout that lives in the rivers there. It’s also taboo for the Mongolians to catch that fish. They say it belongs to the river god. Jeremy learned his lesson from what happened in India, and got a shaman to talk to the river god and ask permission to catch the fish.

That was one of my favorite episodes. In Mongolia, like in pre-Christian Scandinavia, being a shaman is a woman’s job. The shaman became possessed by the river god and talked to Jeremy directly with this deep voice, and then gave him permission to catch the fish as long as the fish is not harmed. It was amazing to watch.

Jeremy Wade with his Nyaminyami pendant and the giant Vundu catfish from the Zambezi River

Jeremy Wade with his Nyaminyami pendant and the giant Vundu catfish from the Zambezi River

In another episode he’s trying to catch another giant catfish in the Zambezi River, which is ruled by the god Nyaminyami. Fisherman wear amulets that look like a cross between a fish and a snake as a sign of respect to the god, though they all know it doesn’t guarantee that he won’t still pull them to their deaths one day. Jeremy got one of those amulets to wear, and once Jeremy caught the catfish, he remarks that it looks very similar to the amulet, but is Nyaminyami really just a giant catfish the silly natives have mistaken for a god? Jeremy doesn’t quite say that, like I expected him to. It’s left up to interpretation.

I think the last episode I saw was in Canada or maybe the northern United States. Jeremy was trying to catch a giant pike called a “muskie” and was having no luck. He gave an offering of tobacco to a rock that the Native Americans of the area thought was sacred, and then switched to light gear to try to catch some small fish to boost his confidence. He immediately got a muskie on the line.

Jeremy keeps saying that he’s a scientist and he has to think “rationally” about all this, but he also says that “all fishermen are superstitious”. So he’ll do the ritual, he’ll give the offerings, he’ll put on the amulets, and maybe it’s all a coincidence that he catches the fish when he does those things and doesn’t catch anything when he doesn’t, but that’s how it goes in episode after episode.

It’s a tension that I can relate to all too well. I think anybody who works out in nature has that feeling that you’re interacting with things that are beyond your control. It’s easy to start to think that something like whether or not a fish bites your hook depends on the whims of a river god.

And maybe you think that because there actually is a river god.

I just appreciate that the show leaves the possibility open. This show could have easily been about “debunking” these myths about water monsters, and showing how they’re really just giant fish the silly natives have mistaken for water monsters, but it doesn’t have that kind of tone at all. It’s about looking at how there are still wild places in the world where giant freshwater fish lurk that are capable of killing a person (and how maybe, just maybe, some of them are agents of the gods). It shows that there are still places in the world where human beings aren’t in total control.

And even if you look at this in a completely “rational” way, Jeremy still draws attention to the fact that a lot of the large fish are becoming rare and endangered and even extinct, and losing them would be a huge shame. What’s going to happen when creatures like these no longer exist?

If only more shows on Animal Planet were like this.

The God of Satire

One of the fights that never seems to go away in American Heathenry is the fight over whether it’s OK to worship Loki or not. It puts me in a weird position since Loki’s just not a god I ever really clicked with, which puts him in the same category as Tyr, Heimdall, Skadhi, and many other gods that I think are perfectly respectable. That he gets singled out as a god that’s especially problematic seems really odd to me as an Odin’s woman. In a lot of ways he seems nicer than Odin, but Odin is universally seen as a god that’s OK to worship.

Even though I don’t know Loki very well, certainly not as well as someone who considers him their main patron god, there is one area in my life where I think I “get” Loki, or at least one aspect of him. I’ve always been a huge fan of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and its spinoffs, and I think Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Jon Oliver, Larry Wilmore, and the rest of them are doing Loki’s work in the world. Yes, I know that Jon Stewart is Jewish and Stephen Colbert is Catholic, but I still think of them as honorary Lokeans. Hey, if people can consider Jim Morrison and other rock stars as being avatars of Dionysus, then why not satirists as avatars of Loki?

I don’t know what I’m going to do now that The Colbert Report is over and Jon Stewart has left The Daily Show. I know that Stephen Colbert is taking over for Letterman, but I just don’t know if it will be the same. The Late Show is a completely different kind of show. I know they’ve got a new guy that’s taking over The Daily Show, but he won’t be the same as Jon Stewart.


I had trouble keeping my eyes dry watching Jon Stewart’s last episode Thursday night. That show has been on almost half my life. It helped get me through the long nightmare that was the Bush Administration. While Bush was in office I could hardly bring myself to watch any other news show besides The Daily Show, because at least The Daily Show made me laugh. Watching the “real” news was just too depressing to handle. And I’m sure my experience is not unique among those of us who came of age during the post-9/11 era and were at the start of our careers during the 2008 financial crisis. Shucks, the 2000 Bush vs. Gore election was the first presidential election I was old enough to vote in, and immediately I learned that my vote doesn’t matter, and that the Supreme Court can just appoint the president regardless of who got the most votes. That was also when The Daily Show first rose to prominence, and when I first started watching it.

Lokeans say that Loki does have a compassionate side, and maybe that’s part of it. He can use laughter to help people deal with the horrible things in the world. I’ve also noticed that Loki seems to be more popular with marginalized communities, like LBGT folks and people with mental health issues and disabilities. To me, that makes a lot of sense. A good satirist should always “punch up” after all. Loki is going to be a lot more comforting to the people at the bottom of the social hierarchy than those on top.

I associate Loki with political satire mainly because of Lokasenna. People say that shows how awful he is because he insulted the gods. To me, it looks a lot like what Stephen Colbert did to George W. Bush during the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2006, which I thought was one of Stephen’s finest moments.

People call Loki “The Father of Lies.” The irony is that, as far as I know, Loki never lies. Everything he accused the gods of in Lokasenna was true. They didn’t dispute any of it, even though it was embarrassing. Jon Stewart was also known to be very truthful. Most of his show, besides the interviews, was just him showing clips of what politicians actually said. He said it was because making stuff up isn’t as funny as being truthful, but of course powerful people hate that, since they rely on people forgetting what they said years ago (or maybe even weeks ago).

Perhaps it’s appropriate that Loki is controversial and banned from Heathen groups. Maybe being an outsider is just part of Loki’s job. People like it when people they don’t like are laughed at, but once the joke is on you, then they don’t think it’s funny. Loki is not quite a god but not quite a giant either. You can’t really tell which side he’s on. And people don’t like that. No one was safe from Jon Stewart. If you said something stupid, he would catch you at it, no matter where you fell on the political spectrum. Some people were just better sports about it than others.

I think it’s necessary to have someone like that, and that’s why I think that Loki deserves worship. He plays a very important role. He keeps the other gods on their toes, and they’re better off in the long run having him around. Maybe that’s why Odin made him his blood-brother. Odin knows that we need him.

Ugh, what am I going to do without Jon Stewart? What about the next presidential election? What if we end up with President Trump? Oh man, we’re so screwed.

Maybe I should start including Loki in my spiritual practice a bit more. The first thing I will do is pour him a shot of tequila and ask him to watch over Jon Stewart and bless him in whatever he chooses to do next. I should probably also put in a good word for Stephen Colbert taking over The Late Show and Trevor Noah taking over The Daily Show. Maybe it won’t be so bad. And I still have Larry Wilmore an John Oliver. Thank Loki for all of them!

The God of Science

Sunday was the first episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, which is Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s update of Cosmos: A Personal Voyage with Carl Sagan.

I grew up watching Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, and it’s probably one of the reasons why I went into science as a career. The remake is good so far (despite lacking the excellent soundtrack of the original), but I was more excited about the marathon of the original series that was on the National Geographic Channel before it. I hadn’t seen some of these episodes since I was a child. It is nice to watch them all again now that I’m older and can appreciate it in more mature ways. I remembered how Carl explained to me, through the TV, all of these advanced scientific concepts like the theory of evolution, the theory of relativity, and the concept of black holes, giving me a scientific understanding way ahead of my years. I had forgotten about the biographies of scientists sprinkled throughout, and about Sagan’s ominous prophecies about what could happen if science is misused, especially in the last episode “Who Speaks for the Earth?” I’m sure those parts must have made an impression on me as well, because even by first or second grade I was known to my classmates and teachers as a science geek and environmentalist. I remember getting picked on for that.

I know Sagan was an atheist, but he still inspired a lot of pagans, including me.

It also reminds me of why Odin is my main god, even though I’m not a warrior. Odin is most often portrayed as a war god, but I interact with him more as a god of wisdom, knowledge, and curiosity. To me, Odin is the God of Science

It may seem strange to have a god of science in this era where science and religion are seen as being opposed to each other, but that attitude is a recent one, and many polytheistic cultures had gods associated with knowledge and learning, such as Ganesh, Thoth, and Athena. Even when Christianity came along, many scientists were also Christians. Gregor Mendel, the father of genetics, was a monk. He studied biology as a way to understand the Creator better.

Odin’s best myths don’t have to do with war, but with his quest for knowledge. He consults with the volva to find out the future, sacrifices his eye to drink from the Well of Wisdom, and hangs himself from Yggdrasil to discover the Runes.

Scientists, like Odin, have this thirst for knowledge, and like Odin, usually have to make great sacrifices for it. Going into this field is difficult. The three years I spent in grad school were some of the hardest years in my life. Then, despite all the hype about STEM fields and how easy it would be for anyone graduating with a science degree to find a job, I graduated right at the beginning of the Great Recession and spent 10 months unemployed. (It also probably didn’t help that I studied things like ecology, wildlife biology, and environmental science instead of something profitable like petroleum engineering.) I thought I had ruined my life.

It was also the time in my life when Odin was the most present. This was the time for me to hang from the Tree, and Odin reminded me how difficult that was for him, how he wasn’t sure if it was going to survive the ordeal either, or if he was even going to discover anything useful from it. It was a comfort to me to think that Odin thought I could get through this, and I just had to trust him that everything will be OK in the end. Even though I don’t fully believe in the gods (I still often think they really are just all in my head), Odin reminded me that he believes in me, and that’s the important thing.

odin hanging

Despite the stereotype of being a bunch of stiffs, scientists are actually quite a passionate lot, and Odin is a passionate god. If you’re going to dedicate so much of your life to the study of something, you had better be passionate about it. One of the problems I had in graduate school was that I got into a program I wasn’t passionate about. It was all about ecological modeling and population genetics. I spent my days in front of a computer working out simulations of ecosystems, rather than outside in the real thing. After about a year and a half of this with no thesis even started, I was changed to the non-thesis option, so I could still get some kind of degree. Except then I was free to take any classes I wanted (and I now had to take more classes to make up for not doing a thesis), and I started taking some of the field biology classes that were not part of the “population biology” program I had signed up for, but the “wildlife biology” program (the biology department did little to explain to me what the difference was between those two, which seemed to me like splitting hairs, and it was only after being in grad school for a couple of years that I realized the latter was what I really should have enrolled in). Finally I could be outdoors with my beloved plants and animals, and I was reminded of why I went into biology in the first place.

The great thing about Carl Sagan is that he could express his passion and wonder about the universe to a lay audience. He did this without condescension or dumbing things down. He’d just chat with you through your television, and by the end of it, you understood not only the scientific concepts, but why they are so amazing. He could pass his passion on to you. I want that job.

Odin is often considered to be a dangerous god. How does that fit in to his role as the God of Science? Even though Sagan portrays science as mostly a force for good, throughout Cosmos he brings up how technology can also lead us to destroying ourselves, perhaps through nuclear war (a big concern during the Cold War era), or perhaps through climate change (which he hints at in the original Cosmos, but that show was produced before climate change was well understood). I am reminded of Prometheus who gave fire to mankind and was punished for that. This is generally considered to be a myth about technology, and I believe that Odin and Loki together play this role in the Norse pantheon. (There may have even been a more obviously Prometheus-like myth that’s been lost to us, as I’m sure many myths known to our ancestors have been.) In Voluspa, Odin, Hoenir, and Lodhurr (who may be the same as Loki) created the first humans. Since we now know how humans were “really” created, thanks to Darwin, perhaps this can be seen as a myth about when humans were set apart from the rest of nature, when we ceased being just another animal wandering the savannas of Africa, and became capable of understanding the wonders of the universe. Yet this intelligence also gives us the capacity to destroy ourselves and take a lot of our fellow species along with us.

Scientific knowledge itself can also cause discomfort. Science deals with how the universe is, not how we would like it to be. In the first episode of the new Cosmos, Neil DeGrasse Tyson tells the story of Giordano Bruno, who believed in an infinite universe, going against the geocentric view of the universe that most people believed at the time. He wasn’t the first scientist to propose something like that, but it took a long time for the idea to catch on that the universe is unimaginably vast. Tyson illustrates this right at the beginning of the episode, showing our cosmic “address” in the context of the known universe.

Later in that episode, Tyson illustrates how the universe is not only vast in space, but in time, borrowing Sagan’s “Cosmic Calendar”, where all of human history happens in only the last 14 seconds of the last hour of December 31. I see parallels between the Young Earth Creationists of today with the geocentric view of Bruno’s time. Back then they believed in a universe small in space, and today they believe in a universe young in time, but I think the motivation is the same. It’s just hard to believe that humanity is so tiny. We want ourselves to be big and important. If we’re not the center of the universe in physical space, then at least the universe should be young, and not have had those many billions of years with no humans around. I admit that sometimes even I can fall into despair and nihilism when contemplating Deep Time, or how far away the stars really are, and remembering how tiny and insignificant I am, but just because people may not like an idea doesn’t make it untrue.

Tyson acknowledges that this view of the universe makes us feel small, but then attempts to cheer us up by reminding us how neat it is that we have the ability to even understand these things at all. I say this is the Gift of Odin that he and his brothers gave humanity, or perhaps the Curse of Odin, depending on how you look at it. They say ignorance is bliss, and that can be true. My cats don’t have to be burdened by the knowledge of how short their lives are or how insignificant they are in the grand scheme of things. They can just enjoy their little lives blissfully ignorant of all that.

But Odin believes that knowing is always better than not knowing, even if that knowledge is uncomfortable. Knowledge is especially important now that we have the capacity to destroy ourselves and a lot of our fellow creatures along with us.

In the Autumn 2013 edition of Idunna, I was delighted to find an article by Diana Paxson titled “Staving off Ragnarok: A Heathen Response to Climate Change.” I had never seen anyone else make these connections before, so it’s nice to have that external validation from another Odinswoman that Odin is concerned about climate change. My early exposure to Asatru was mostly through very conservative Heathens who would never support environmental causes (or anything else supported by the political left except for freedom of religion). Some of them might have tolerated that sort of thing from a follower of Frey or one of the other Vanir, but certainly not from Odin’s people, who are supposed to be hawkish about war and gun enthusiasts, not environmentalists. (A Book of Troth by Edred Thorrson even has an entire chapter titled “The Earth and the World” explaining why Heathens are not “nature-worshippers”, and in fact, the gods are in rebellion against nature, personified by the etins.)

I think that people forget that Odin is a god with a specific mission. His battles are not just for the sake of killing and destruction, but for a greater purpose. He’s not gathering warriors together in Valhalla just for fun. Even though he knows that Ragnarok is inevitable (just as scientists know that extinctions and endings are inevitable), he tries to put it off as long as possible, and prepare for it as best he can.

In my Environmental Biology class I teach my students about mitigating climate change. Few people understand climate change, and fewer still realize that it’s already too late to stop or reverse it. Yes, we have now released enough greenhouse gases that even if all emissions stopped tomorrow, the Earth would continue to warm over the next several decades. And we’re not going to stop all emissions tomorrow.

Now the task is to mitigate it. We can only slow it down, put it off, make it not as bad as it would be if we did nothing. If we do nothing, it will be a total catastrophe for the human species. If we work hard, something may be able to survive. Sounds a lot like Ragnarok. The best Odin can do is to make sure something survives after Ragnarok to rebuild the world.

In “Staving off Ragnarok”, Paxson writes, “Because I am known as an Odinswoman, other people who have had close encounters of the Thridhi kind tend to talk to me. Far from being special, I am only one of many who have unexpectedly found themselves in a relationship with this god. Several people at a workshop I gave at Sirius Rising this summer introduced themselves by saying, ‘I’m a Christian, but when I was at this Reiki workshop I found myself working with Odin.”

Sounds familiar, except in my case I was an atheist-turned-Wiccan at a meditation workshop when Odin unexpectedly arrived. This was in 2003, when he was supposedly (according to the Heathens I soon encountered online) busy drumming up support for the Iraq War in order to send thousands more warriors to Valhalla. So why was he wasting his time with a tree-hugging environmentalist like me? Surely I must have been mistaken.

Here I am today, over ten years later, teaching Environmental Biology at a community college in a poor section of a large city in the American Southwest. Many of my students have never even heard of fracking or know that our water supplies are in danger. It’s not exactly the position I expected to have when I chose to major in biology in college, nor is it the position you’d expect a follower of the Norse God of War to have. I just hope I’m on the right track and Odin is pleased with my progress so far.

When I was a kid watching Carl Sagan back in the 1980’s, I already knew I wanted to be a scientist when I grew up. I didn’t feel like I had a choice. It was my destiny, my wyrd. I never felt like I wanted to do anything else. I wonder if Odin was already working in my life back then without my knowledge (besides showing up as Santa Claus once a year), or if my interest in science is what made him take notice of me later.

Either way, this is how I do Odin’s work, not as a warrior or even as a priestess, but as a science teacher. I’m no Carl Sagan, not even close, but I hope I can at least inspire interest in science in a few of my students, perhaps starting them on a path where they can find greater teachers than me and one day become greater scientists that I’ll ever be. Only the gods know if that will ever happen, but at least it’s possible.