To Hel with the Devil?
Why Heathenry and Satanism Don't Mix
©2004 Ingeborg S. Nordén
This may well apply to Wicca and of other neo-pagan faiths which borrow heavily from ceremonial magic (such as the Feri tradition)--but rarely applies to Asatru. Although a few self-styled Heathen authors have written CM-style rituals that focus on Germanic deities and spirits, most reject those rituals as foreign corruptions with no basis in pre-Christian texts or folklore. Furthermore, most Heathens avoid the symbols, trappings and ritual practices popularly associated with "Satanic witchcraft": except for those who specifically combine Asatru with another faith, its followers do not use pentagrams, celebrate sabbats, or believe in a "horned/dark god" of any kind.
Few Heathens accept the idea that spirits can/should be ritually commanded to serve them, either: the gods, ancestors and landwights are powerful allies who deserve people's respect, not minions or thought-forms to be manipulated on a whim. This attitude towards the supernatural hardly resembles the ones common in ceremonial magic, nor is there any evidence that the Germanic peoples originally thought otherwise.
Although the Eddas and sagas certainly depict Heathen gods as having human-like bodies, desires and emotions, those "dark" traits do not completely define our idea of what divinity is. Odin's search for wisdom, Tyr's sacrifice of a hand to protect his fellow gods, Baldr's future resurrection and rulership over a newly created universe: those elements of the lore suggest that Norsemen valued some ideals beyond the purely animalistic. Moreover, earthy and spiritual aspects of the gods were never seen as conflicting with each other: it's no accident, in my opinion, that the World Tree in our religion is depicted with an eagle perched in its crown and a dragon gnawing at its roots. Neither light nor darkness, neither flesh nor spirit, neither selfishness nor self-sacrifice could sustain the universe alone: both extremes have legitimate places, and complete identification with either one is unhealthy in the end.
Generally speaking, Heathens do not equate their gods with the members of any foreign pantheon: the fact that Indra and Thor have some aspects/traits in common does not make them regional variants of the same universal "Storm God", for example. Calling any Norse deity a name for (or aspect of) Satan would be like calling the Swedish prime minister a Nordic name for the US president, or a Nordic aspect of a nonexistent one-world government. If human leaders are treated as individuals with distinct followers in various parts of the world, then why would divine leaders tolerate being lumped together in a way that insults their people's history and culture?
As for how "Satan-like" some Norse deities are, that description usually derives from misunderstanding or Christian distortion of traditional Germanic lore. All three of the usual candidates have some traits in common with the Biblical Satan, but others which make them very different from him:
· Loki: The lore often describes him as a trickster, a smooth-talking liar, a defamer of and traitor to the gods. Still, Loki does sometimes use his quick wits to the gods' advantage: he tricks a giant into failing to keep his agreement with the gods and gets the wall around Asgard almost completely built for free. He convinces Thor to dress as a woman (a humiliating experience, but better than endangering Asgard!) in order to get Mjollnir back. Mjollnir itself was created as one of many gifts for the gods, which Loki talked the dwarves into crafting; he repaid Thor for the loss of Sif's hair, and even convinced the dwarves to make special items for Odin and for Freyr (who wasn't involved in the dispute, not being part of Thor's family originally). Furthermore, at least one Faroese source describes Loki as able to save a peasant boy from being killed by an ogre when two other deities' attempts to protect the boy had failed. Do these actions sound like anything a purely evil deity would do? Hardly; at worst, Loki seems like a double agent, siding with whoever gives him the best treatment and bending over backwards to keep allies he considers valuable.
Furthermore, Loki lacks one obvious Satan-like role in the lore: he shows no apparent interest in turning humanity against the Æsir, or in tempting them to do wrong. The victims of Loki's deception are always fellow "otherworld" beings: dwarves, giants, and occasionally other deities. He is never blamed for human beings' dishonorable actions; the idea of an external source causing evil (in people or in the world) is foreign to Norse thought.
· Hel: Of course, people in most cultures fear whichever local spirit is associated with death and/or the underworld. However, Snorri Sturluson's claim that Hel is Loki's daughter may be an attempt to demonize her for a Christian audience; this might also apply to his gruesome description of the underworld itself. Descriptions such as calling Hel's bed "Sickbed", her doorstep "Precipice" and her knife "Hunger" probably don't refer to tortures awaiting the dead, but rather to causes of death: pagan Norsemen who died of diseases, starvation, or accidents (such as falling off a cliff) expected to end up in Hel's kingdom by default! Even Odin's son Baldr goes there after being murdered; the goddess treats him as an honored guest, serving a grand feast for which Odin had already seen preparations being made. Christian missionaries in ancient Scandinavia actually had to coin a new word helviti or "Hel-punishment" to convey the idea that the land of the dead was a bad place; and the modern Scandinavian languages still use Hel-related compounds to express the idea of (starving, freezing, etc.) "to death".
Despite the gruesome imagery linked with Hel (and some Norwegian folklore which actually blames her for spreading plagues), she is not a torturer or deceiver of humans. Nor does she tempt them with sensuality or forbidden knowledge, as devils in both Christian and Satanic theology are said to do. The only traits Hel seems to have in common with Satan are an underworld residence and an unpleasant job--hardly enough to make her into a Nordic equivalent of the Middle Eastern devil.
· Odin: Odin is such a complex, multi-faceted being that trying to equate him with anyone else's deity or devil causes real difficulties. On one hand, he is a co-creator of the world (along with his brothers) and a source of poetic inspiration. He makes many sacrifices to gain new knowledge: hanging himself on the World Tree for the runes, offering one eye to drink from a well of wisdom, risking his life among the giants to take the mead of poetry home. Odin's obsession with learning, and the cunning strategies he uses to gain knowledge, superficially remind some Satanists of Lucifer's "Light-Bringer" aspect.
On the other hand, the lore does associate Odin with war and death--sometimes describing him as intervening directly in a battle when he wants particular people to die. It describes him as using unethical tactics (black magic, breaking and entering, promiscuous sex) to get what he wants by any means necessary. This behavior gets Odin branded as an "evil" or "dark" god, by Heathens and non-Heathens alike. Still, high-ranking deities in many pantheons tend to show a "do as I say, not as I do" attitude: the Greek god Zeus is often described as hot-tempered and promiscuous, but only fundamentalist Christians or Muslims would typically call him an aspect of Satan.
Even though both Christians and Satanists may have a valid point about this double theological standard, the mere existence of Yahweh or Satan does not imply that Biblical descriptions of either being are accurate. First, several Bible passages which have been interpreted as referring to Satan do not mention him at all. Since this article is meant to defend Asatru (not Christianity or Satanism), I will give only chapter references and very brief summaries of the theological problems with these Bible passages:
· Genesis 2 (snake is repeatedly called a wild animal, compared to other animals when cursed; snake's finite lifespan implied; no demonic possession of the snake's body implied)
· 1 Samuel 16, 18, 19 (all three chapters have Saul tormented by an "evil spirit" sent from the Lord to do the job; the Hebrew word used for "spirit" here can mean an emotional state as well as a supernatural being, so God may have simply been driving Saul crazy)
· 1 Kings 22; 2 Chronicles 18 (a lying spirit is sent by the Lord to make prophets trick a king into dying in battle; yet no Biblical passage implies that "unfallen" angels never lie)
· Psalm 109 (David's wish for an "accuser" to frame his enemies does use the Hebrew word satan, but nothing in the psalm implies anything other than a human accuser/adversary doing the job)
· Isaiah 14 (the song against "Lucifer" clearly refers to a human king of Babylon; he is called a man by other dead kings, his tomb and corpse are mentioned, and even his delusions of godhood parallel those of other human, pagan kings at the time)
Even when the Hebrew Bible clearly refers to a superhuman Satan, he is not the proud and rebellious anti-deity that Christians, Muslims and most Satanists have in common:
· Job (too many chapter/verse references to list here; Satan is allowed into God's presence and repeatedly sent to test Job's faith rather sadistically; no mention of any rebellion against God is made, on either Satan's or Job's part)
· 1 Chronicles 21 (this verse appears to have Satan tempt David into going against God's plan, but if God otherwise sends evil/lying spirits as punishment…it seems the whole situation was rigged in the first place)
· Isaiah 45 (God admits that he "creates evil" himself, not that some anti-god in a hell is responsible for it; the Hebrew word here is used about both "bad times" and moral evil, so either meaning could apply)
· Zechariah 3 (an accusation against the High Priest made by Satan, as both stand before God and other angels; Satan makes no claims of godhood or anything similar; God only rebukes Satan but does not banish him to a place of torture)
By now, Christian readers are probably protesting that I've overlooked numerous references to Satan as an evil anti-deity in their part of the Bible. Although I have several close Christian friends and respect their freedom of religion, the Bible studies I've done (before deciding to abandon Middle Eastern theologies altogether) convinced me that if the Hebrew Bible is the truthful word of a perfect God, then the Christian Bible has distorted that word with mistranslations, contradictions, and false or unfulfilled prophecies. Verses are yanked out of context to create messianic symbolism, or hell/sin/salvation symbolism, where no such ideas existed in the Hebrew originals. (If anyone wonders why I did not convert to Judaism or the Noachide movement instead of Asatru, I have other theological problems with the Hebrew Bible which are beyond the scope of this article.)
Despite popular theology in many religions, the Christian/Muslim version of Satan has gained greater power and a radically different role from the power and role he had in the Hebrew scriptures. Furthermore, Satan's promotion to de facto anti-godhood is itself inspired by a pagan religion, Zoroastrianism--a historical fact which contradicts the popular Satanic idea that he always enjoyed the rank of a "dark lord" among ancient cultures.
This claim assumes that all people will automatically think of Yahweh as either a friend or an enemy; the choice of neutrality, of people wanting to defend their own beliefs without siding for or against a foreign god, is impossible by this logic. Just as some nations did not side with either communism or capitalism during the Cold War years…so some people choose not to side with either Yahweh or Satan, but rather to consider some other belief system that excludes both. Neutrality does not equal "denial of existence" or even "denial of side effects"; it means only the decision to choose neither alternative, a lack of allegiance to one side or rebellion against another.
Furthermore, I find it hard to believe that Satan would help the Æsir to re-establish a faith which doesn't even include him as part of the pantheon. From a Christian perspective, one would think that a being who supposedly embodies selfishness would want to take credit for the renewal of Heathenry--either through active worship or through passive alliances between Satanism and non-Abrahamic faiths. From a Satanic perspective, Satan may not want to convert the whole world to his service--though he would probably gain nothing from helping foreign gods re-establish their cults in modern times, either. Furthermore, one should consider the ethics of Heathenry itself.
The Æsir, as much as they value honor and loyalty, would probably doubt Satan's worth as an ally, as well: if the Jewish version of Satan is the correct one, then the Æsir might suspect a sting/entrapment operation run by Yahweh himself. If the Christian version is the correct one, then Satan's history as a rebel and traitor might make our gods suspect that they, too, would be betrayed in the end. And if a true "left-hand path" sect devoted to Satan describes him correctly--the Æsir still oppose some beliefs and values associated with him.