Thank you so much to the people who nominated me as a spiritual exemplar by the University of Southern California last year. Since then, journalist Meara Sharma followed my work and partook in ceremonies; she traced my ecological work and my Northern Heathenry tradition and how they have both converged. This article is part of the University of Southern California’s “Spiritual Exemplars” project.
This article is part of the University of Southern California’s “Spiritual Exemplars” project, with the support of the Center for Religion and Civic Culture, the John Templeton Foundation, and the Templeton Religion Trust. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of these organizations.
BRIGHTON, England — According to Norse mythology, the world is an immense tree. Known as Yggdrasil, this eternal tree stands at the center of the cosmos, and is the source of all life, all things. From Yggdrasil’s acorns sprouted Ask, the first man, born of an ash tree, and Embla, the first woman, made of an elm.
“And the gods formed man and woman in their own image of two trees, and breathed into them the breath of life,” goes the Prose Edda, the 13th century source book of Norse myths.
Ironically, today, both the ash and the elm are suffering, plagued with disease and critically endangered.
That humanity’s original ancestors are under threat is a potent metaphor for Andreas Kornevall, a Swedish-British ecologist and educator who is devoted to bringing the wisdom of Old Norse myths and rituals to bear on contemporary life — particularly in relation to current environmental crises. Through storytelling, scholarship and ceremonies, Kornevall excavates the ecological ethic inherent in the pre-Christian spirituality of northern Europe, in which — like so many ancient practices around the world — the Earth itself is the locus of the sacred, and the gods are embodiments of natural phenomena.
I met Kornevall, 52, near his home in Brighton, England, where we spent an afternoon sitting in the tree-shaded courtyard of a church turned art gallery. Blond and quietly charismatic, with a manner somewhere between passionate professor and carefree surfer, he described how his work reviving the old customs is an effort to refresh how we comprehend our increasingly precarious place on Earth — and, indeed, restore an innate, age-old sense of interconnection with and reverence for the natural world.
Within moments of meeting, he pointed out to me that the words “tree” and “truth” derive from the same Old English root — a synchrony that speaks to what we’ve long known but of late have forgotten. As he writes in his book, “Waking the Dragons: Norse Myth, Runes, and Magic”:
“The eternal tree is vulnerable to our forgetfulness. Forgetfulness causes drought and wildfires and empties the well that feeds the tree. Too much forgetting is an ecological disaster.”
The seeds of Kornevall’s three decades of work at the intersection of spirituality, environmentalism and activism were first sowed in childhood.
A path to Old Norse paganism
Born in Sweden, Kornevall spent his early years in Chile, where his father worked for the U.N.’s International Labour Organization. Shortly after his family arrived in Santiago, General Augusto Pinochet seized power from the Allende government in the 1973 military coup. As the government targeted leftists and intellectuals, Kornevall remembers soldiers coming to his house and throwing his parents against the wall. Their Swedish passports — considered neutral —saved them. “I remember a feeling of hopelessness and fear in the face of tyranny,” he recalls. As a young child, he was left with a skepticism toward authorities and governments and a sensitivity to the ways in which power often hardens around hate rather than human thriving.