CU Boulder researcher Mathias Nordvig joins The Ampersand podcast to discuss animism, Norse mythology and what it means to live on Earth
It’s not hard to imagine Mathias Nordvig waking up under a thatched roof that doesn’t quite block the light of early morning stars. It’s easy to envision him waking in a Viking camp and taking his place in a snekkja longship, pulling hard on the oars as waves and the old gods roar all around him.
However, Nordvig, a teaching assistant professor in the Nordic Program of the University of Colorado Boulder Department of Germanic and Slavic Languages and Literature, is not just the Viking guy who knows a lot about swords. He carries the past and present inside him as he treads softly on the Earth, feeling a soul-deep connection to the rocks and the plants and the animals with which we share this planet. He revels in the wild around and within him.
He's also the man who can teach you about witchcraft and magic in Scandinavia, though not, to the disappointment of some students, how to cast actual spells.
He recently joined host Erika Randall, associate dean for student success in the College of Arts and Sciences, on "The Ampersand,” the college podcast. Randall—who also is a dancer, professor, mother, filmmaker and writer—joins guests in exploring stories about “ANDing” as a “full sensory verb” that describes experience and possibility.
In a broad-ranging discussion involving dragons, Pearl Street, Viking camps and eyes of newt, to name a few, Nordvig and Randall discussed growing up in Greenland, alt-right appropriation of Viking lore and what it means to one part of the living, universal whole. Click the link above to hear the entire conversation.
Nordvig: I did an article on this alt-right manosphere personality called Jack Donovan, and I told him that I was doing research on his material, and then I wrote an article about him, and that article has been positively received by everyone including him.
From what he's said to me, he feels that it's the most fair, scholarly assessment of what he's doing and who he is, so.
Randall: Wow, that's actually incredibly beautiful,
Norvig: I think so.
Randall: Yeah. 'Cause when do we ever all agree?
Randall: Especially about hard things.
Nordvig: Yeah, and then I had very liberal, academic colleagues and friends who were like, "Oh, wow, you're really calling him out on this and this and this," and I'm like, "Well, yeah."
Randall: (laughs) That's my job. And he still felt like he was present in the conversation and not being attacked.
Nordvig: Yeah, he felt that it was a reasonable presentation of how he's thinking. There are things that he was like, "Oh, I didn't actually realize that that's something that I was doing or incorporating," but otherwise, yeah.
Randall: What is the primary language that you would use that gets usurped by alt-right when talking about your area of research?
Nordvig: Well, what we have is this set of texts, literature telling us about Nordic mythology, primarily written in Iceland, but otherwise, some of it is also written in Denmark in the medieval period. And this is a retrospective type of literature, looking back on what existed in the Viking age and before that.
Randall: Yeah, because it's badass? Is this why people are looking back all the time, not just people who are hailing from this land, but... (laughing) I love the stance that you’re doing.
Nordvig: (laughs) There's definitely a lot of people who are like, "Oh, this is badass” nowadays. Back then, in the medieval period, it was still cultural currency, even though people had converted to Christianity. It was still really important cultural material that told these people in Scandinavia something about who they were.
Randall: But then, the appropriation into the alt-right world.
Nordvig: Yeah, so what happens next is that we have a lot of historical interest at different times after the medieval period from the 1200s and onwards. In the 1600s, we have a lot of scholars in Sweden and Denmark who are very interested in this, and this has everything to do with propaganda and the emergence of nationalism in Scandinavia, where Denmark is one empire.
It's a conglomerate empire with Norway, Iceland, and then you have Sweden, that's another empire, a conglomerate empire with Finland, sometimes Estonia, parts of Poland, and even parts of Germany, and they're rivaling.
And so, the scholars are trying to come up with explanations for why they're the coolest... Then, what you have from that moment on is this link between national identity and the Viking age, Nordic mythology and all that stuff, and that then becomes useful in different groups that have very distinct political aims. And this is where you also see it coming into the alt-right, just like you do with the Greek history and Roman history as well.
I think with the alt-right, they're very focused on what it means to be a man, and that's the connecting point. So, they look to these old…
Randall: Kind of hyper-masculine.
Nordvig: Well, they are hyper-masculine-ing it…
Randall: Yeah, they're verbing it into hyper-masculinity.
Nordvig: Yeah, but then back then, it was a mode of existing.
Randall: It's just how you had to show up.
Nordvig: Yeah, especially like, I would say warrior ideals and not necessarily something that any man would consider being a man, really.
So, that's also important to consider that a lot of the material that we have from that past has something to do with elite culture, with warrior culture, not with everyday culture. So, we have 10% and the rest, like the 90% of the population, we don't know much about what they did and how they thought.
Randall: But you do.
Nordvig: I try to figure it out, at least.
Randall: Yeah, yeah, so you don't just stay in that realm of the warrior.
I love when we're sitting in a room face-to-face with one another, and I'm hearing these stories of these myths. And then you're kind of a larger-than-life human. Like, when you stand up, you would hit the ceiling maybe a little bit. Your tattoos make you look bigger. You are fitting in this room, like this incredible giant who cares about the 90%, not just the big Viking story, and about the land as we walk on it.
So, you're doing this beautiful translation of, you show up like someone who I might think is gonna just tell me about swords. But you know things that are a lot more delicate about the heritage of heathenism, of living on the land with care, of showing up with old-way traditions in this contemporary world. Can you talk about that? I mean, it's like a living, walking paradox from my vantage, and maybe it's not so paradoxical. Maybe it's exactly who you are and exactly just right.
Nordvig: Well first of all, thank you for this description of me. It's very flattering. I think, like so many other people, I've been through different kinds of transformations in life, figuring out who I am and what I am and how I am. And I'd say that one thing that's always been with me is love and care for nature and the natural world. If nothing else, just in appreciation of it being there and being a space I can enter.
And that comes all the way from my childhood when I lived in Greenland where there was a lot of nature around you, a space that is, even if you're living in an urban space in Greenland, you're living in what we would classify as a wild place, because there's so much happening that we're not exposed to when we live in urban spaces.
Randall: And as a child… you had free rein; you could just go into the world.
Nordvig: Yeah, yeah, we grew up with hunting and fishing and camping out there in what we classify as the wilderness. And the reason I use these roundabout ways of talking about it is because I don't consider it wilderness in that sense. I don't wanna make that distinction between civilization and nature or civilization and wilderness. I don't like that distinction, because it alienates that world from us, and I think that's really generally problematic.
Randall: So, the term “wilderness” for you is...
Nordvig: It's either something that gives us an idea that it's dangerous or allows us to romanticize it to an extent that I would say is not appropriate. And that comes from my perspective, that, well, everything in existence belongs to a kinship with us. So, we are related to all existing entities out there. I think the best way to describe it is that if I walk out there in my world, I can encounter a rock and realize that it's a person.
That’s how it works for me, and so that means that going on a hike in the Rockies is similar to taking a walk down the street. I don't feel like a guest. I feel like, generally, I would say that I feel like I belong.
In what I classify as the animist perspective on the world, relationality that you're established with these different entities out there doesn't necessarily preclude that you can be mean to them or you kill them, right? And what it really comes down to is to maintaining balance between yourself and that community of other-than-human-beings out there. That's something that I also feel that we have generally lost in our world. And this is at the root of the climate crisis that we are experiencing, that we're seeing.
I think if we had approached the world with that perspective of relationality, which does not necessarily exclude using resources, but it does require that using resources comes with a high level of responsibility. If we had approached the world like that, then I think that we would probably be in a better place.
Randall: Yes, and you have found the vehicle for your caring is going back into the roots of yourself, your life, your family, even though it sounds like you could be an environmental scientist, you could be an urban architect, you could be, and you do, write children's books, that there are so many ways to get at this kind of care, but did you find yours in the classroom or through this particular study because of the going into the self or into your history? Or are you looking at it from a psychological perspective or from this historical, where anger has been held in the stories of...
Nordvig: Social, cultural, historical, psychological, mythological… the whole. And what I'm familiar with when it comes to going to the roots, what I'm familiar with as an alternative way of thinking about the world, and an alternative way of understanding your place as a human in the world, is this thing we call Nordic mythology. I like to call it the Nordic Story Worlds.
Randall: Great, that's what I wanted from you. That's the umbrella, the Nordic Story Worlds.
Nordvig: Yes, and the reason I like to call it that is because mythology nowadays has been merged with fantasy. And these story worlds were not fantasy to the peoples who used them in their everyday lives. I don't want to say believed in them, because that's really inessential. What is essential is that back in the day, people walked around on a piece of land and told stories like these, because they were meaningful to their existence in that plot of land.
Randall: They served the moment.
Nordvig: They served the moment, but this also served a relationship to the land. The relationship to the rock, to the tree, to the bird, to the fish, to whatever animal would come there, and of course, also to the family.
So, in that sense, these stories are expressions of our human kinship with the world.
Randall: That pulls me into that question about how you use these traditions in your life now.
Nordvig: So, the thing is that, a story can be loaded up with, I don't know, swords and horses and carts and thatched roofs, and I dunno, whatever else existed in a space way back when. But that doesn't mean that that story doesn't have what are essentially, eternal truths in a way.
Randall: Thatched roofs are not eternal truths.
Nordvig: No, they're a result of the technological level that they were at, and that's why I wouldn't wanna go back to anything, because I could probably do quite well in a hut like that, but-
Randall: Not so much.
Nordvig: No, see, that's the thing. There's some people out here that wouldn't be able to do that well in a hut like that. And also, although I've spent a lot of time in my teenage years doing Viking age reenactment and actually stayed in huts like that-
Randall: You did?
Nordvig: Yes, and tents.
Randall: And were there dragons?
Nordvig: There were no dragons, at least none that materialized…
Randall: That others could see.
Nordvig: (laughs) Yes.
Randall: But you fought them, nonetheless.
Nordvig: Yes, (laughs) and I've sailed on Viking ships and that kind of stuff, it was a lot of fun. But I don't know what that life actually was like. I have an idea, but I don't know what it was like, and that's why I wouldn't wanna go back. So, what I would like to do instead is I would like to take the wisdom that these people had back then, and then bring it into our present, because our present, when you look at it very broadly, it seems like is lacking a lot of wisdom.
Randall: Yes, so living in a modern world with traditions is not a, there's no odds there. You're not at odds with that. You just find different ways and the different things that you need. And so, I see that, like you were saying earlier, as separate and that to pull them together and to realize that you don't have to just be hardcore in a hut to be connected to things that will then change your care for the world that you live in.
Click the button below to hear the entire episode.
Top image: Viking boat by Daniel Oxford