Interviewed by Mythologist Dr. Sharon Blackie
Author Dr. Sharon Blackie - she wrote the acclaimed: “If Women Rose Rooted,” we discuss gender, myths, and the search for inspiration.
Sharon: – You are Swedish; how big a part did Scandinavian myth & folklore play in your early life, if at all?
The greatest part. The personification of Sweden is the Valkyrie, Svea, a powerful female warrior. To be a Swede, means to “be of Svea.” You are already part of a myth by being born there. When she is not wielding a sword or filling a horn with brimming-inspiring ale, she is also a forest and a Mother, filled with endless glimmering lakes. Each person has the right to roam in her forests, the State, or a rich man’s ownership is always secondary. To roam and to be able to build a small fire at dusk is a human right and it is as important to a person’s life as the access to a library or school. We share this ancient law with both Norway and Finland. When you are free to camp, run and explore, the old forest transforms into a living miracle, filled with possibility. For children, this is a gift from the Goddess. Today when I bring my daughters there, we see elves, river sprites, knuckers, Gods and trolls; the winds of the trees tell stories under every arched leaf and limb. All the stories that I carry are from that forest. The forest knows the correct pronunciation of every rune in the book, especially when the wind blows high in the leaves - all sacred texts and books come from Yggdrasil’s pulp.
Sharon: – What led you to a revived interest in these old stories as an adult?
As I grew older, I recognised that the old stories were not there to merely entertain; instead, these stories contained codes and revelations of what it is like to live as a human being, they teach what it means to grapple with issues that we have to confront as adults, such as grief, love, illness, betrayal, innocence, conflict or fatherhood/motherhood, to name a few.
Sharon: Could you offer an example?
We humans, we were brought into being from inside trees. Odin exhaled his spirit-breath towards an elm tree and a beautiful creature was revealed walking out of its trunk; her eyes animated and alive, and in the shape of a chalice. Inside of her, new life was to sprout. She was the first woman, named Embla. Then from the ash tree was revealed another creature: the first man, named Asc. The ash and elm are humankind’s ancestors. Both trees hold our deepest memories of who we are and we share their fate. We would do well to remember them and care for them. This origin story is a poignant reminder to the current predicament of the ash and the elm.
Sharon: Why do you think myths are useful/ relevant/ necessary today?
There seems to be very little evidence to indicate that we have evolved psychologically: whether we have a rocket or a primitive club in our hands, our psychology and motive is still the same. Which means that the old stories do not become redundant. In fact they seem to be getting more contemporary than ever. For example, Scandinavia owes a lot to the myths for its top gender-egalitarian society. Goddess Freyja is a feminist icon and respected in battle and in decision making, she receives half the share of the dead, the one-eyed takes the other. When the dead only go to a father, you know that’s when we have a patriarchal problem. But Freyja was mistreated, she was burnt and speared, but came back to life each time - it led to war between the Sky Gods and the Spirits of Nature, Freya was a nature spirit. A reconciliation ritual had to be prepared. I know of no more poignant contemporary story at the moment and I am developing this ritual of reconciliation with a dance choreographer. We learn that out of this ritual comes a very holy name from the Norse pantheon: Kvasir, which means, wisdom. This wisdom can only be gained when the Sky Gods and the Nature Spirits reconcile.
Sharon: Tell me something about the Forn Sed?
Forn Sed simply means “ancient custom.” I think that there are a few thousand of us that work in different areas of the pre-Christian Northern Tradition, we research and practice ceremonies, dances, handicrafts, clothing, languages, folklore and spirituality. People bring their creativity, inspiration and educated guesses whenever customs or traditions have been fractured or broken throughout history. The combination of an inquisitive mind, with some inspiration and will-power and magic does happen. For example, the Forn Sed community brought back an ancient spring-blessing ceremony (A Blot Ritual) that happens in Uppsala now every year. It is a massive ritual, and it is right next to the graves of old pagan Kings; everyone is invited regardless of background or belief.
Through its work and respect for what it does, Forn Sed has become a society which is recognised by the Government to conduct marriages and celebrations honouring the old Gods and ancient customs. This is not re-enactment, but a continuation of an ancestral tradition that goes back for thousands of years. I know such words are always met with suspicion, but we use the allegory of the old knife story: “my knife is four thousand years old and it has passed down the generations.” The person listening would be skeptical at first. “But over time, this knife may have needed some adjustment, a change of the handle, or a replaced blade when it had gone rusty, but it’s still the same knife” Yes, the customs have changed over history, but we still give offerings, we still dance, we still sing, we still remember parts of the old languages and the names of the Gods - it's an unbroken tradition.
One thing that stands out from Forn Sed, is that it’s not something you have to believe in - always the main question is: Do you know your old languages? Do you remember the dances? Can you spin the felt? Can you read the runes? Do you know how to give a blessing?
I went to see the San peoples in Namibia a few years ago and they asked me the same questions. They didn’t want to know whether I believed in my Gods or in theirs, that is a infantile notion; instead they wanted to know which dance I remembered from my culture? Which song? I was happy to show them the frog dance, which is a powerful fertility dance around the midsummer solstice pole. You have to jump around and quack like a frog. Although our cultures were vast in our differences, suddenly at that moment we were joined by our shared natural soul. They understood the dance instantly. We also traded beads.
Sharon: Tell me about a story/ character that particularly resonates with you.
I am currently translating a story where a troll born thousands of years ago, who still lives in the world of humankind, befriends one sunbeam. This little sunbeam danced through a hole in his dark cave and he had never seen anything so beautiful or alluring. When she goes away, he searches all over the nine worlds, he even builds a magical sickle full of runes that can attach itself to the moon, and swings himself towards the moon for hundred of years. He finds the entire sun, which almost kills him.
I am also working on another romantic story, a story that is located somewhere between grief, and what the Greeks call, philautia, self-love.
Sharon: How do you use myth and story in your own work?
On a day to day I am an ecologist as I direct an environmental restoration charity here in the UK. I am often invited to speak at schools about woodlands and the ecosystem around us. It was through this that storytelling revealed itself to me as a more professional practice. Now when I go to schools or colleges I tell Norse myths or folkloric “tree” stories. I have begun to use mythos in my approach to teaching. I had such a positive response, its exhausting but nourishing work. Trickster Loki is always the favourite with the kids, I tried to coax them out of their screen obsessions by telling them that Loki lives in their iPhones - but it went the other way - they loved him even more! What a trickster indeed.
Storytelling or myth-telling has now become part of my ecological work, they are joined together. I am also working with a teacher in old English and old Norse and both languages have been revelations to me in my studies of the mythic material. Due to the work with ancient languages, I have been invited to Universities to speak about the various theories that exist when we look at runic talismans or rune-stones.
I am currently translating the works of Professor Sigurd Argell, who I regard as the world’s most exciting runologist. He was also a symbolist poet who lived in the 1930’s. He spent his life uncovering the occult notions of the runes and his findings are staggering, much of which has never seen the light in the English language, translating it feels like a sacred undertaking.