Updated: Aug 22, 2022
How we use the past in developing modern-day spiritual practice is a key question all Pagans must wrestle with. In the Way of Fire & Ice the answer is to adapt the examples of the days before Christianity in ways that honor their spirit while also being effective for meeting the challenges of the present. There may be some who would object to this approach, arguing this is a greenlight to simply making things up as it suits people today with no regard for their pre-conversion significance. What such a position misses is adaptation requires a foundation to build on. The roots of inspired adaptation rest in the past but these roots are not the sum total of practice or what is possible. They are what feeds growth in new, relevant that serve people in the present and build potential for a stronger, enduring future.
The place where inspired adaptation starts is understanding the history, society, culture and spirituality of the ancient Norse peoples. When researching these topics you must never forget several key hard limits. There is a lot of information that has been lost whether due to the ravages of time, a lack of existing written sources in the first place or even possibly the deliberate destruction of sources or artifacts. When it comes to written sources only a handful were produced by the Norse peoples and the rest are products of outside observers, limiting their utility for a modern practitioner.
Even so there is quite a bit that can be gleaned from these sources and cross-referencing them with surviving bits of folklore. Scholars like Neil Price have delved deep into the existing evidence to reach some powerful, persuasive conclusions regarding what the practices of the ancient Norse may have been like. It is important when reviewing such research to remember this field, contrary to what many might assume, is constantly changing. Everything from new interpretations to new evidence can upend age-old assumptions.
One example is the case of the famous shield-maidens, warrior-women who took to the battlefield in ancient days. For decades many scholars dismissed these literary fabrications. Recently, however, the re-examination of existing archaeological finds in England and Sweden have uncovered warriors’ graves who were, based on genetic and skeletal analysis, biologically women. This has inspired fresh debate as to whether the earlier argument that shield-maidens were simply a figure of folklore and song was correct or the result of a lack of evidence combined with the pre-existing biases of the scholars making that claim.
You may be wondering what the point then is to inspired adaptation if the facts surrounding the Norse peoples are somewhat murky and subject to change. The goal of inspired adaption is not to use this body of knowledge as the ultimate arbiter on what modern practice is and means. Though the information you are working with is incomplete and may sometimes change there are deeper, more common themes that resonate throughout all the evidence. These greater ideas of hospitality, a world filled with many Powers, the importance of Fate and deeds as the weight of a person’s character along with many others remain true both in the past and the present.
This is the place where the process of inspired adaptation truly begins. Now equipped with a baseline understanding you can then ask the central question of inspired adaptation, “What about these ideas or practices are relevant to life in the present and how can I best apply them now?” A good example of this is developing relationships with the different Powers. We know, to some extent, that ancient worshipers interacted with the Gods, spirits of place and the dead in a variety of ways whether through offerings and ceremony. We do not know how, specifically, this relationship was built but based on records of sacrifices in several places in Scandinavia, discussion of practices like sitting on grave mounds and the discovery of Thor’s hammer pendants all over Scandinavia that there probably were a lot of ways people built these relationships.
From these examples you can then make an informed, inspired choice of how to adapt this broader concept of relationships with the Gods to the modern day. The fact that we don’t know, specifically, if the individual in that story engaged in regular meditation or daily devotionals to build this relationship doesn’t mean those possibilities are off-limits. If those methods are what you think works best for establishing a relationship with Thor or any of the other Powers then use them. Filling in the blanks in ways that works for you now is the essence of inspired adaptation.
Inspired adaptation doesn’t just apply to spiritual practices. It also can influence how we understand the Powers and how the example of the ancients should influence us in the present day. One example of this comes from modern digital culture that many are familiar with: internet trolls and internet moderation. The term trolling originally comes from industrial fishing and refers to deliberately provoking people, through controversial or inflammatory posts in forums and discussion spaces, into giving strong emotional responses. The main check against such activities are usually forum and chat moderators with the power to ban users from the space, a power that is sometimes referred to as the banhammer.
To be clear all of the terms and behaviour around these ideas are totally modern in origin. That said it is rather striking, for a Norse Pagan, how closely this all parallels both the folklore surrounding Scandinavian Trolls and the role played by Thor. Mythological trolls are known for actions running the gamut from mischievous and potentially annoying to actively malicious, much like how internet trolls run the gamut from being relatedly harmless pranksters to vicious bullies and AltRight provocateurs. Both groups of trolls are also banished by a hammer-wielding guardian of boundaries and borders of a given space. Even though this is a totally organic, unrelated development for a modern Norse Pagan it’s rather interesting how the Internet, something with no precedent in the ancient world, managed to develop a set of symbols, language and activities that closely mirror an aspect of pre-Christian Norse myth. There’s even examples of this overlap being explicitly invoked by Internet users.
This isn’t to say that Thor is definitely the God of Internet Moderators or that online trolls are the same thing as their folkloric cousins. The point is these totally organic parallels show how ancient ideas, practices and symbolism can be adapted for explaining modern day phenomena along with understanding the Powers’ relevance in the present day. Thor’s role as guardian and protector has clear parallels to other present-day jobs or roles for keeping spaces safe, ejecting those who abuse hospitality and confronting threats to a community.
Similar arguments or adaptations could be made for any of the other Powers in many ways, making space for them in the present that the ancients could never have foreseen. Odin, based on his ancient role as patron of the skaldic poets and world-weary wanderer, could also be associated in the present with investigative journalism. Skadi, as the protector of the mountains and snow, could also be associated with environmental conservation while Frigga, known for her patient labors and deep knowledge of many secret arts, could be just as at home in a research lab as she is by the hearth. When you consider how truly vast the Powers are and the broad concepts they are associated with there is plenty of room for seeing their presence in society in ways the ancients could never have foreseen.
The goal of inspired adaptation is to apply the knowledge, examples and practices of the past in ways that reflect and address the challenges of the present. Sometimes this means filling in gaps in what we know about ancient practices with new methods. In other cases this could mean developing new interpretations and perspectives on the ancient Powers so you can better understand them and the world around you. Though some may see this as nothing more than a lot of mental gymnastics justifying making things up that would belittle inspired adaptation and other similar methods while failing to honestly engage with the concept. Inspired adaptation is only possible through knowing the core concepts, values and ideas that run through ancient Norse society and myth. It is a process that challenges you to constantly re-evaluate how you live your spirituality, practices and interpretations to ensure you are effectively meeting your needs and the needs of the people around you. Its roots are firmly planted in the soil of the past while the trunk and branches reach through the present and into the future.