Thor's Hammer in Charlottesville
Thor's Hammer in Charlottesville

A guest writer mulls the significance of symbolism, in particular, those of meaning to him, seen in use by the abhorrent gathering in Charlottesville.

Swirl paw

San Francisco, California – Friday 18 August 2017

Around my neck hangs an ancient symbol of my pre-Christian Nordic heritage - the Mjollnir - Thor's Hammer. It was given to me as a gift from my daughter and wife after visiting a Swedish folk workshop in Lindsborg, Kansas when we went back to lay my grandfather to rest in the graveyard behind the small Lutheran Church that his father helped build in his childhood hometown of Burdick.

On a flag held by a white supremacist in Charlottesville, I saw the Mjollnir.

Over the weekend, from the safe distance of my Northern California small town, while making art, catching up on emails and being part of activities for my daughter's horse riding club, I was flipping through news and YouTube coverage connected to the events in Charlottesville. Several thoughts and feelings rose to the surface as I tried to make sense of what I was seeing in our country.

Things like:

This poor young woman... prayers and thoughts for her family and the people connected to the worst of the events through loss and trauma. Then a visceral wave, as always happens when I encounter loss, connected to vehicles as the cause. I remember a time in the Persian Gulf War when I almost crushed a fellow soldier with a semi truck in an unsafe situation we were both trying to solve. I get a nervousness in my stomach, my cheeks get warm and I feel the panic of a brief moment where I thought I had killed him.

Then... waves of anger that someone would purposely run down other people.

Then... oh my goodness. These people marching with KKK symbols and swastikas aren't even covering their faces. The full expression of the American experiment is truly on display, complete and out in the open, unmasked hate groups marching in an American city. These people aren't even afraid of being seen and called out for their involvement.

Then... a thought: this can't be a good sign.

Then... hey, was that Medea Benjamin of Code Pink (whom I had first encountered at the Green Festival back in the 2000s), standing in the middle of this stuff holding up her hand in a peace sign? Wow, this woman really is everywhere that matters when it matters. A small, aging woman clad in pink, but somehow like a great granite stone in the middle of a mighty river - powerful, immovable, courageous.

Then... how many different flags, shield symbols, color schemes, uniforms, clergy, level of protective gear, etc. are at this demonstration? It really is a cornucopia of passions and perspectives ready to clash.

Then... back into my head comes that idiot with a black and white Thor's hammer flag. I kept pushing it out as a silly thing to dwell on and it kept coming back rising to the surface. I know my mind enough to know when this happens, there is something that deserves a closer look.

As I considered this, I remembered the first time I learned that the swastika was appropriated by Hitler because he saw it as a powerful symbol that people would rally around; it fit the narrative of the young national socialist movement and it looked good on a flag. The first time I learned about this (I think I was in high school and had little real insight into the cultures from which it was taken), I learned how, in the Buddhist tradition, it was used to symbolize the footprints of the Buddha. It disturbed me that something so powerful in a peaceful teacher's footprint could be taken to rally one of the most hateful and cruel movements in modern history.

This is an obvious comparison but it was not at the depth of what was troubling me about the man with the Mjollnir on his flag. A real guy, with my skin color and likely with some Nordic ancestry, was using a symbol I am connected to everyday, but twisted as an expression of his hateful views.

I am not someone who pulls symbols close without reason. I have been a student of symbols for much of my adult life, reading about symbols from all over the world in various cultures and from various angles. Man and His Symbols by CG Jung is still one of my favorite books, and wherever I go I tend to notice the symbols people place around them. While I may not be an expert, I have studied them enough to know that symbols are powerful because they crystallize values, thoughts, and ideas. The more those are shared by a culture, the more powerful the symbols become and the more influence they have. If you place a symbol around you neck or in your place of worship, it says something about your identity.

Awareness of the history of a symbol can deepen your connection to it and if you wear it, tattoo it on yourself, or stick it on your car for the world to see, part of your deepening connection to it will come because others will see it and make their own assumptions based on what that symbol means to them. Community and conflict can be born simply by cloaking oneself in symbols of identity.

When I received the necklace, I was aware that some older symbols connected to my pre-Christian heritage have been picked up by white supremacists as a sort of lazy man's way of saying, "Look at me! I'm white and some long dead white guys I am related to were white, too." I also knew enough about some of the study of the symbol that I knew it likely meant something different to the people who originally wore it, and even more likely had nothing to do with statements about skin tones.

The symbol of Thor's hammer, clouded more so by comic books and movies than white supremacy, from what we can see from old stone carvings or early literature talking about the cosmology of my far distant ancestors, was used to bless weddings, births, and deaths. While it is also an instrument of war, it can most easily be seen as a symbol of bringing something into divine order to from temporal chaos. Thor and his hammer are the thunder and lightning that defended the divine and the humans who lived godly lives from the chaos the villainous giants would bring to the world.

It was also used by my ancestors to differentiate and protect them from the strange new religion that was entering their world. The Christian church had begun to apply pressure to abandon old rituals and subdue an ever wandering and exploring (and often invasive) culture.

I take the good with the bad in symbols. Most times, there is enough bad in a symbol that I set it aside as something I might collect and consider as opposed to wear. It's the complexity of the bad in a symbol that causes me not to wear it, not wanting to attach myself to something that would cause another person to suffer simply so I could carry a talisman with me. For the most part I have been content to carry symbols of identity or belief in my own mind a deeply personal internal spiritual adornment. My words and actions are my best outward symbols of identity, my paintings or my works show me in all my lackluster and glory.

In recent years, I decided to round out my formal college and grad school theological studies and my continued informal study of the world's religions and philosophies with a deeper dive into older earth-based wisdom traditions often described as animism. These early practices and ideas about the world and our place in it had been passed over quickly in my formal studies, and I had always felt that I had a significant gap in my understanding of human spiritual and moral development because of that gap. We are fortunate to still have some active animistic traditions that can be examined and held next to what we know of some of the all but lost cosmologies of ancient European cultures like my own.

In particular, the practices and worldviews of shaman from animistic traditions has held my attention - first a curiosity in the 90s when I came across Carlos Castaneda and later the work of Michael Harner, who established the comparative study of shamanic practices and worldviews that are still present amidst First Nation and Indigenous People. Recently, I was fortunate enough to come across a woman who had run one of Harner's centers and had studied with indigenous shaman from two living eastern animistic traditions that had never been broken by newer evangelistic religions. I have had the good fortune to study with her and significantly fill the gap with someone from my own European American culture who had authentic experience and understanding of animistic and shamanic worldviews and practices.

What I have come to appreciate from this examination, is that for much of our human history our sense of divinity came from experiences and relationships in the natural world we are a part of. Long ago, my ancestors had an elaborate, fantastical, and storied understanding of divinity and cosmology that was born of thunder and lightening, seasons, cycles of life and death, and a desire to notice and relate to something much larger and powerful than they were. They wore or marked these symbols to relate and to contextualize their own mortality and give stories to what might come when their brief lives ended.

Between that time where my nameless ancestors walked or sailed through life's adventures and now, a story of chaos emerging into order has been told on micro and macro levels across many lives and many geographical settings. Enough so, that this value of having the courage to make an orderly life amongst fellow travelers has been taught to me, and in this passing from my grandparents and parents to me, I see the center of the disturbance I feel when looking at the image of the white supremacist with the Mjollnir on his flag.

In each of our lives, at every turn we shape our thoughts or allow our thoughts to be shaped.

In each of our lives, at every turn we shape our thoughts or allow our thoughts to be shaped. It is our greatest liberty to make in our mind the framework and adornment of our identity and interpretation of our life and world. We see a symbol or a story and, based on what we have to work with, we align our hearts and minds with the pieces of reality we contribute. The disturbing thought is that while I sit here safe, knowing this, and filled with the urge to bring love and orderly connectedness with others, the man in Charlottesville casts his form into an expression of hate in order to create chaos.

But if he spent time and had the sense that it was his responsibility to look deeply at the symbols he adorned himself with, he would learn from Thor and his hammer. He would see that the giants (better translated as devourers) that Thor battled with Mjollnir were always seeking to unbalance or destroy divine order. Thor and Odin never sought to destroy the giants completely, as they themselves were part giant, but to keep them at bay and maintain a balance between order and chaos. In this balance, human beings could thrive and grow and adventure and learn what they could make of themselves.

If I choose, I might see that man in Charlottesville as a giant - a devourer - reaching into the world of order and divinity and trying to pull them into chaos. I might see this hammer I wear around my neck as a symbol of protection or defense against the chaos he seems to want to create in the world, but then he and I would be standing like fools shouting "You're the chaos," followed by "No, you're the chaos!"

Instead, with no shortage of sadness for the losses around us, I gaze into the chaos of another day and know that I am grateful that more of my days have been spent bringing order and caring about the connections we all have to what is special, lovely, or divine in life. I sit in gratitude that enough of the good, true, and beautiful that others have set beside me or that I picked up along the way has stuck, so that I know the liberty of seeking a life well lived, and an awareness that keeps stretching towards the light, even when it is just distant flashes of lightning in a stormy, tumultuous night.

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