Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Indie Book Review: Asatru For Beginners

A few days ago I got a new review query, this one had a book in it called Asatru For Beginners.  Asatru is a recreated version of the ancient Norse religions.  Now, I was a religious studies major in college.  I've got friends in the Pagan and Wiccan communities.  I'm pretty well versed in the various New Age magickal philosophies.  I read fantasy. I write fantasy. I'm up to date on my European mythos.  No one needed to point out to me who Wednesday was in American Gods.  So this looked like a fine addition to the vast pile of religious information in my arsenal.  I was happy to accept it for review.

Now, I'm not, by any stretch of anyone's imagination, an expert on Norse mythology.  I can identify Odin, Freya, Midgard, Thor, etc... and because of my RS background concepts like a multipartite soul was  already something I'd run into, but given all of that, I found Asatru For Beginners to be confusing.

First off, the formatting was doing nothing to make the reading easier.  The Kindle sample I downloaded had real issues.  On the most basic level, if you start the book off with a FAQ, doing something to differentiate the questions from the answers (indenting, starting them off with Q: or A:, putting the questions in bold or italic, anything) would have made the reading easier.   Maybe post FAQ the formatting improved.  But the author sent me a .doc version, so I don't know if the Kindle version improved.

Secondly, beginning with a FAQ was a bit odd.  Not just because of the questions asked (Did the Vikings wear helmets with horns on their heads?  Are all Asatuars white?) and not asked (Who are the main gods? What is Ragnarok?) but because if you really are a beginner a quick overview before getting into the FAQ would have been helpful.  Beyond a FAQ, what this book very much needed was a glossary.  For every question the FAQ answered there were at least three terms with no definition or a definition that occurred much later in the book.  Likewise, a pronunciation guide would have come in handy.  Terms like: Fjorgynn, Ljossalfheim, fylgia, have no sound in my mind.  I have no idea how to pronounce them.

Thirdly, it is very clear this was written by someone who knows absolute scads of information on the subject, and has known scads of information for so long that she's forgotten what sorts of things a beginner doesn't know.  For example: there's a section with a list of gods, in this section we learn of the god's hall and where the god has influence.  Now, while I'm sure this information is useful to someone who already knows something about the subject, if you don't really know what a hall is or where these places are supposed to be, it's confusing.  Likewise the term Ragnarok is used something like twenty times before it's defined.  In effect this book would more correctly be called Asatru For Already Conversant with Norse Mythology, or Asatru For the Low Intermediate.

Fourthly, the organization of this book left a lot to be desired.  It's laid out in sections: Frequently Asked Questions, History, The Gods, Other Beings, Beliefs and Morality, Rituals, The Three Kinds of Magic, and Resources.  Now, as a logical flow goes this didn't flow all that well.  There were often bits where I'd want more information, and that information would be in a later section.  As I understand a religion it's the beliefs that are the core.  I would have started there, moved into rituals (as we learn in the beliefs section Asatru is a religion of actions, not belief), then gods and other beings, slid from there into history, finished up with magic, and then wrapped up the book with the FAQ, Glossary, and list of resources.  

So, now that we've gotten the book as a device for the transmittal of information out of the way, how about the quality of that information?  Now, as I said earlier I'm not an expert on this subject, but from the very brief bit of independent research I did, everything in the book looked fine.  Other Asatruas might have different opinions on the subject, but to an outsider it appeared to be complete.  The writing was engaging and fairly easy to follow.  It was a quick and pleasant two hour read with a good deal of information I had never run into before.

As a religion Asatru had things I appreciated, and bits I was less than thrilled with.  I'm a fan of religions based on actions rather than beliefs, and Asatru is a religion of action.  You do not have to believe in literal land spirits to be an Asatruar, but you do have keep the folkways.  Likewise the idea that works of both men and women is of value held appeal.  And the very intense affection for freedom struck a resonant chord.  However, as a moral framework, Asatru did nothing for me.  But, as the author pointed out, it's the morality of a pirate culture.  These were not pacifistic farmers living in harmony tilling the soil.  This is a recreated version of the faith of the Vikings, and the Vikings were not known as easy neighbors. There appears to be no idea that a human is of value because he is a human.  Anything that improves the lot of the (family, clan, tribe, country, the unit gets bigger as populations grow) is good, anything that harms that is evil.  Rape, murder, theft, those are all fine and dandy, as long as not done to members of your group, meanwhile oath breaking is considered just as bad as killing a member of your group.  And, while I'm a massive fan of keeping your pledges, I'm also a fan of the idea that humans are of value, and harming outsiders for personal gain is not appropriate.       

In effect Asatru is a religion where the actions of the Nazis can be seen as honorable.  They were, after all, out conquering their neighbors to improve the lot of their own (narrowly defined) group.  The Jews, gays, politicals, mental and physical defectives were all defined as "others."  They weren't part of the master race.  Killing them and confiscating their goods to enrich the race is, by Asatru thinking, a moral good.  The great irony here being that the Asatruars were also rounded up, classified as politicals, and killed by the Nazis.  Now, the author points out that she personally considers fascism evil, but she also points out that's her own personal interpretation of their morality, and that others disagree.  Obviously, I may be missing some of the subtleties of the religion, and I'm going off of just the one book here, but I'm not seeing anything besides a sense of personal disgust that would condemn the Nazis or any other group before or since that decided to destroy the "other" to enrich itself.

At the same time, there is an elegant and unapologetic simplicity to the morality of Asatru.  The rules are exceptionally easy to follow.  There is no existential angst, no worries as to the nature of salvation or forgiveness.  Sin is a matter of breaking the law, and the laws are few and far between.  Live well, enrich you and yours, keep your word, die fighting your enemies, and you too shall dwell in the halls of your gods, feasting and practicing combat until the end times come and you once again pick up your sword and fight for your kind. 

All in all, if you really are a beginner, I'd suggest heading over to Wikipedia and searching Asatru.  Not only will you get about the same amount of information (about 20k words) but the Wiki article is easier to understand and better organized.  Then, once you've read that, go get Asatru For Beginners to start filling in the holes and rounding out the picture.

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