Is It Any Wonder?
These are my gods—my scorned gods, my shunned gods, my forgotten gods, gods whose continued breath pulsates in my own lungs and courses through my own veins, gods whose myths are like fires in my belly and my head.From Tahni J. Nikitins, first published in A Beautiful Resistance: The Crossing
Fenrir today is a shapeshifter: once a furious hurricane drowning a city, then the unchecked wrath of an entitled boy with an arsenal in his father’s closet, next the rage of a long overdue earthquake, and closely following, the hungry tsunami consuming coastal village after village. He knows all the shapes destruction takes, from the balled-up fist and the clenched jaw of a horrible husband to open fire in a tightly packed club to the howling tornado.
He is everywhere fear is bred: on reservations where people are fenced like cattle, where white men come to rape and murder and walk away free; where untold anger simmers under the surface of burning alcohol, numbing opioids, and therapeutic overdoses. He is the one who’s had too much but has nowhere to unleash. He is the woman in tears in her room with a pistol in her lap waiting for the police to crash like bullets through the door—who knows the color of her skin and the presence of her legally obtained weapon will be enough to ensure white cops kill her so she doesn’t have to pull the trigger herself. He is the last straw that snaps and breaks and leaves a widow in black—he is the breath that hisses, “You shouldn’t have fucked with us first,” with fists pumping like hearts behind bars.
Down where Katrina tore through—he’s there, too, bunking in the moldering ruins of buildings the city has no interest in repairing. It’s on the wrong side of the bridge, brother, and that’s where the wolf lives—the wolf in pants sagging on hips made narrow by hunger, by resentment, by hate. He watches shimmering skyscrapers rise on the skyline from a district where the pavement cracks and gives way to dandelions and grass and he knows, he knows that high up there is a man looking down and smirking at the people like ants below. He is the fury that is born from the loins of slaves—from the genetic rage imprinted deep in the marrow. He is the gunpowder that ignites in the weekly firefight on the corner where the cops clash again with the hood—he is the rush of adrenaline in the child’s brain as her mother wrestles her from the window. “Don’t look! Close your eyes, sweetie—don’t look.”
In the hearts of men whose fear overruns them with red—that’s where he thrives, in the hearts of cops who think they’re the last line of defense; in the hearts of white men who think they’re the only ones with the balls to lay down the law; in the hearts of those who are ready to lay waste to a family unlike their own. He grows strong when crucial protocol is skipped—warning shot, shoot to incapacitate—nah, straight for the kill. That’s where he’s at. In despising eyes who see the other as less than human and bare their teeth like ravening hounds thirsting for arterial blood—
He’s the heat that will wipe it all out. He’s the oil spill and the carbon emission and the rising tide—he’ll swallow the coasts and lick his lips and hunger for more. He’ll kick up another tantrum—a hurricane, a blizzard, a tsunami and more—he’ll tear it all down, with fire, with fangs, with blood.
Below Yellowstone he rumbles and yawns. Someday when the shores have been gobbled up and humanity has rushed inland, he’ll have them there, too—with a plunging earth, a gaping maw. He’ll be in the eruption, in the roar that will split the sky. He’ll be in the chaotic magma, in the stone and the ash—he’ll turn the skies black and circle the earth a dozen times more—hungry, always hungry. He’ll drown those the seas did not claim, in an instant—it’ll be gone, and in that moment, he will shine brighter than he’s ever shone before.
It will be his own glorious Ragnarok—the moment of destruction when his flame and his ash and his soot swallow moon and sun; when his magma blood drowns worlds and worlds and those who are left to cower in cracks and crevasses to wait out the storm.
In the chaos of it—in the midst of divine destruction—he’ll leave them one thing: from his slavering jaws runs red the river called Ván, the river named hope. But oh—oh what ruin there must be to make way for such a pretty thing.
Is it any wonder they turn away from him in terror?
Angrboda today is dressed in faded blue jeans—faded not by aesthetic washings and acids but by the sheer wear of the things; years of wear that has loosed the dye from the thread and pulled loose the fabric so it doesn’t cling to her thighs like it once did. They are patched at the knees and torn around the ankles, stained with the mud of a million marches and protests and riots. She is wearing a black leather jacket cropped above her waist and zipping at an angle, stitched across the back with a roughly hewn tree with branches and roots that expand into an encompassing circle. Patches that read “Protect the Sacred” and “No War But Class War” mark her shoulders like a soldier’s rank. The leather, zippers, and thread were bought with labor from friends of friends in gatherings across the nations and stitched together with her own coarse, callused paws. The patches were gifts offered up to her by drifters gassed out of protests in DC and Flint and in return she blessed them with the strength and fortitude to keep fighting through the tears and burnout and abuse.
She hides her ambiguous face, scarred by the battles she’s fought through the millennium, behind a bandana painted with gleaming sharp fangs. None will capture her face as she marches in solidarity behind the leaders of Black Lives Matter protestors, or as she hauls wheelbarrows full of canned food and clean water into sacred camps erected on stolen land where war will be waged against snaking oil pipelines and the warriors must be fed. Her auburn hair is a tangle of pseudo-curls and braids knotted along her scalp like a crest, a stray wisp tickling her high cheekbones as she works, as she lunges into the dog-lines of paramilitary contractors hired by corporations to protect their interests against the will of the people, taking the fangs of the dogs before the children and their mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers—not to take, but to shield. Her eyes above the toothed bandana glimmer a fierce auburn to match her hair, sitting at a gentle slant above those pocked cheekbones, one of her thick eyebrows sliced through with two, thick white scars.
Under the bandana her skin is ruddy in a way that suggests her foremothers loved and danced and dreamed with the akka of the Saami. Perhaps they traded in magick and ritual and with it came a trading of blood and alliances and culture—a sometimes turbulent but often fruitful flow between the people of the icy tundra and reindeer and the people of the Ironwood. But who’s to say? Their stories lost to the ravages of time and the shredding wrath of the Christian empire—so much has become dust, but Angrboda of the Ironwood, Chief of Chieftains, völva of the trees and of the bones of giants, refuses to be lost to such dust and decay. She wears steel-toed boots for breaking the shins of imperial soldiers in riot-gear who take a stab at knocking her to the ground with bullet-proof shields or putting her in her place with rubber bullets and batons.
“I know my place well,” snarl her broken teeth as her refusal to yield strikes that vital primal cord in the bellies of hungry warriors and the hearts of overpowered police. “Know you your place so well as I know mine?”
For she fights beside the downtrodden, the weary who will not be broken, and she marches among the queer folks whose spirits push at the boundaries of their flesh, with the ones who love outside conventions and the ones waging war for the right to an identity. She who has birthed magick mystery and holy destruction and sacred death—she who will not settle with the dust, she comes out with tape on her knuckles and tattoos of the magick of the ancient gods engraved into her flesh and a battleax inked into her arm.
Is it any wonder they spit her name and reject her?
Sigyn today wears gray shades of blue with purple flowers braided in her ebony-brown curls. Her favorite jacket is a woven sweater bought for two silver coins from a young man and his mother at a flea market in Uppsala, Sweden—a young man and his mother with thick, dark hair, eyes deep and brown, skin dark and soft, and voices rich and heavily accented by their torn homeland of Syria. She touched the coins to the two small runes tattooed like tears on her cheekbone before offering them a smile and the money. They had lost like she has lost, and she blessed them that their grief might be eased, for she recalls the rending horror of holding her child’s mangled corpse in her arms—how she screamed into the ice-laden forest, screamed to shake the very walls of Asgard, to crumble the very halls that housed the privileged who dropped bombs without feeling the havoc they wreaked. After she handed them the coins, she extended her lithe pale hand to them. She took the mother’s weathered hand and leaned into her, to kiss her cheek and hug her tight, and she offered the same to the grateful son.
The jacket trails her like the robe of a priestess of grief, pulled over a loose-fitting gown of pale blue cinched the waist. She wanders bare-footed through the grass—through parks and the forest, through orchards and fields. Wherever she goes it is common to find her at the food pantry helping visitors collect what they need, or at the soup kitchen serving the hungry and the homeless. She rolls the sleeves of her knitted jacket up to her elbows so the inked, pre-Vikings Vendel key on the inside of her forearm is bared for all to see. She delicately fits a hairnet over her hair braided into a crown—flowers and all—and snaps on the blue latex gloves before serving up heaps of dinner to the unfortunate and the downtrodden. For those who reach out to her she removes her gloves to hold their hands while she speaks to them, to offer them smiles and sweet words.
These are not the only places she can be found: Sometimes she might be found tending to the elderly who have outlived their families, serving them hot tea and listening to their stories in the homes they’ve been confined to, her long legs crossed and her bare foot bobbing to the rhythm of their voices. Quite often she can be found playing with children without families, the wards of the state in orphanages waiting for a home—reading them stories, playing tag and hide-and-go-seek and whatever games the minds of children dream up; showing them the gentle kindness they’ve been so deprived of with hugs and snuggles and praise upon praise for every small goodness, every little accomplishment. She lets them adorn her hair with flowers and clovers and grasses and beads and when they’ve done her up she takes smiling selfies with them before teaching them to paint and draw and write out their feelings, their memories, their traumas. She brings to them worn soft toys and clothes from thrift stores so they always have enough to call their own.
Her neck is long and slender, her arms loose. She walks like a breeze through the door, down the street, past the store—a silver chain about her throat the binding to her husband and her sacrifice, the pitcher dangling from it collecting the venom of humanity’s fear, cruelty, and hatred as she goes. She is oh-so familiar with such venom.
And how much venom there is, these days—running freely in the streets, coursing through the veins of subways and trains. Racing like razors, shedding blood as it goes.
She, the gentlest—the lady of the staying power—has seen and tasted and been stung by too much venom to recall. She works it out through her breath, finds herself in the quietest corner of the forest she can and stretches to work out the pain of such venom in her muscles—tosses her knitted jacket over the branch of a thin tree and, in her white tank top and blue harem pants, does a salute to the sun at the tree’s base.
Her resistance is her active choice of gentleness, of kindness, and of charity. It is quiet and unassuming. It does not wage wars or pick fights or light Molotov cocktails or break windows with bricks. It cares for the self, too, so the flame does not dwindle and die.
Is it any wonder they have forgotten her?
Loki today wears his flaming red hair shaved on the right side and sweeping to the left. He keeps his shapely eyebrows thick but carefully plucked and he applies a sharp black wing to his eyes and blackens his long, long eyelashes with mascara. He brushes hot red lipstick onto his cat-curl lips, but doesn’t hide his galaxy of freckles under any foundation or blush. His clean-shaven jaw is strong, his nose hooked, his chin cleft, but his throat is slender, his Adam’s apple sharp.
The street is his own personal catwalk and all eyes follow him as he saunters past, a destroyer of monarchies in a delicate six-feet with his head held high and his body slender and waiflike. He is fond of tank tops that show off the tattoos of gleaming chains and binding runes that wrap his wrists and coil like serpents up his leanly muscled arms. He prefers a plunging V-neck to show off the serpent coiled around a heart on his chest, its fangs prominent and dripping. He wears skinny jeans and laced-up black boots, and he paints his fingernails the color of bruises.
His stride is a challenge to all he passes: try to bind me. When he catches the eyes of uncomfortably suited men with square jaws and traditional gold wedding bands he holds their gaze and bites his lip as he passes. The self-hatred their arousal ignites in them feed him like slow cooked pork loin and he goes on, proudly defiant in the face of this world’s lack of hospitality.
He issues all challenges equally: try to erase me. Those too fabulous for their own good cannot be erased and he seeks to prove it with his every move—his every glance a provocation of the unbound ethereal, a check in no box but his own, unmovable, untouchable by the mere hands of Man who seeks to contort and to control. No, any contorting he does will be on his own terms, and for his own pleasure.
Try to box me, he says with the sway of his hips and the toss of his hair as he smooths his lipstick with a tenderly manicured finger: any box anyone tried to fit him into he would tear through with his talons and teeth. Shredded cardboard—he’d burn it, he’d swallow it, he’d paint it and make it confetti and rain it down on his would-be jailers.
He is the one bound by his slaughtered love, forced to bear witness to the withering of his beloved in sacrifice to their union. He is the one who felt the burn of a thousand years of human putrefaction gnawing away at his flesh until he could no longer sense the pain—chewing away at his eyes until he could no longer see the horror. He is the one who was bound tight in a cave, in a prison fashioned by his once-allies, his once-brothers. He is the one who remembers the crime for which he was chained was not a murder, but wounding the egos of the ruling class.
Chained, he will not remain bound. Imprisoned, he will not remain confined. Shunned, he will not remain unseen: he bursts gloriously into the world, a flame too hot to simmer.
In a world that would see him erased, he will be all the bolder. In the face of those that would see him submit, he will bring his own whip. When those who would see him rigidly defined come for him, he will be as elusive as smoke—as slippery as water, a shapeshifting trickster laughing in the face of the prison of patriarchy, of capital, of empire, of dominion. In the face of it all, he’ll wield his own self as his greatest weapon.
Is it any wonder they shy away from him?
Gerdr today is wearing flowing pants of thin linen sourced from friends who grow flax and weave their own fabrics. She wears these with a green tank top of the same make. It lets through the calming breeze which carries with it the scent of the fields, farms, and the mill beyond her garden—a small patch of lovingly tended earth enclosed by a wooden fence she herself built. The wood she refused to pay for, but scavenged by the out-of-use railroad tracks by the mill for planks discarded for being misshapen. What waste, she thought, as she collected the wood and built with it a fence made multi-colored by the mill’s orderly marks.
Never does she wear shoes within the confines of her garden. Her feet, all callused and stained by the earth, are freely connected to the soil as she goes about her business—pruning her strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries; collecting their fruits. Plucking pests from her tomatoes and chilis, she takes leaves from her herbs to hang to dry in the kitchen window. There are cucumbers for salads and pickling, lettuce and kale, sweet peppers, and more. She even has a fig tree which she climbs every other day during its fruiting season, collecting what she can.
She erects a small fence around her garden beds to keep the chickens from scraping up the roots. When the chickens are unleashed they peck up every little insect and slug and snail they can find—pest control which turns the pests into fertilizer. It is a hazard when wearing bare feet, but a hazard she gladly accepts, for the chickens also turn out eggs, and when they cease to do so they make a hearty soup.
Out back where she hopes to expand her garden she has goats clearing the worst of the brush and the weeds. These will give her milk. She has almost all the necessities to sustain her household and what she doesn’t have readily available in her own garden she purchases from the farms down the way: lamb, steak, pork. She has her fishing license available for when the craving strikes.
Every year for the vårblot she and her husband Freyr bless and consecrate the garden, not caring how much the neighbors see: they fuck on the blessed soil, stripped naked so the sun can kiss them, so the inked panthers that prowl her arms and legs can bask in it. Her hair the color of the turned soil spreads out on the ground, long and immense, while his shines golden and curling in the sun. When they are done, he spills his seed on the earth for the blessing, and besides, theirs is an infertile home—what purpose is there in bringing forth a child that will only die in one of a thousand endless wars?
Knowing what she knows about the slavery behind the food in the store, she does well to keep her distance. Rather than turn her pockets out for capitalistic greed she turns her pockets out for friends and when the coins come up short, she patches the gap with a barter or two. Better to feed the community than to feed the hungry monsters squatting over them, masturbating over the squalor of poverty with their filthy dollar bills.
She knows the value of a good garden and a few chickens. She knows the value of commerce between individuals and friends. Oh, how she loves the farmer’s market—where she can often be found when not in the garden or volunteering to support victims of stalking and to educate young men and women on the very real dangers thereof. At the farmer’s market she tests the fruits, leaves, stalks, and roots of the various kinds which she doesn’t have in her own garden. She lovingly selects her items, breathing them in and touching them gently to her cheek before making her purchases. Because she knows the power of a simple garden, of a simple farm—of a simple vote with a dollar.
Is it any wonder she is so overlooked?
Jörmungandr today is wearing snake leather boots and pearls, simmering cigarette perched on naturally fair lips, existing on the fringes of society—the liminal and the unknown. The serpent is unseen only insofar as society has allowed its erasure—from the reaches of 1420 to Chatīsgaṛh, those unseemly women, children, men, and others lingering on the edges, those impoverished, disabled, mad, and simple outcasts are called witches and punished. Those hanged, burned, decapitated, drowned, stoned, flayed, flogged, raped, and beaten for the indiscretion of failing to fall in line—every injury done to them, the serpent today bears. Oh how its tail has been whittled down to the finest strands—but still the serpent swims.
The serpent is wherever empire seeks to extinguish that which might undermine it: with healers, with witches, with women who freely exercise the power of their yes’s and their no’s, with men who don’t fall in line, with those who don’t fit inside the box. The serpent is with those whose subversion is their liminality, in the way they ride the borderlands between the wild and civilization, in the free-flow of their spirituality, their sexuality, their survival.
Scarred from the many injuries done to those othered by the driving empires of patriarchy, hegemony, and authoritarian religions, the serpent keeps on keeping on—seeking out space with those who retreat quietly into the forest, to listen, to work their peace or their vengeance. The serpent cares for those learning and tending in secret to the needs of the world weary—bringing the right herbs and right dosages to deal with unwanted ailments, to throw off curses and ills.
So often the serpent has been found with those who slip and slither just out of reach of domination and repression, those living in the nooks and crannies of the world, only just slipping under the gaze of dictators and priests. These days the serpent does an ecstatic dance in bars where there are no men and women, only vibrant bodies overflowing with spirit and soul that answer to the call of music and dance and passion. The serpent thrives among those outcasts to whom society has denied existence and identity—the serpent understands. The serpent knows.
But this is only where the serpent goes to burn off steam. The serpent is also found, still in snake-skin boots, wearing a lab coat and goggles and overseeing the Large Hadron Collider—accused of playing with black holes, tempting a wink out of existence, interrupting time streams, cross-fading with alternate dimensions, universes, realities. Pastors and priests and ministers world-wide have condemned the serpent’s work here as they have condemned it elsewhere: it will open a portal to Hell, they say, or it will attract the wrath of God.
Wherever there are those that are unwanted, or work done that is scorned, the serpent will be there, diligent in snake-skin boots and smoking a hand-rolled cigarette.
And where else would one of such liminality and mystery be if not at the very heart of mystery-work? Tampering with the particles of reality—seeking them, discovering them, unlocking them. It is not play, no—the very substance of all that is, all that has been, all that can ever be is no game. The serpent takes this work seriously, calmly, and meditatively—uncovering that which strikes terror into the hearts of god-fearing men and women, spawning whispers of the death of god and the crossing of realities. Really, at the end of the day, where is there greater majesty than in the unraveling mysteries of reality? Where else could a greater sense of the mystic and deafening awe be found than here?
A very serious work indeed. Of course, the serpent must seek out those liminal places of ecstatic dance and thrash in worship of it all—a dance that could crumble all the world to ash and dust.
Is it any wonder that they close their eyes and try to wish the serpent away?
Hela today is wearing a curt white button-up blouse and smart black slacks with a crisp seam and sharp heels that click on the floor. Her makeup is as clean and crisp as her clothes, each eye—the blue one and the brown one—sporting an expert and subtle black wing, mascara making her eyelashes full and long. Though her cleft lip has never been surgically corrected, she paints her lips a red that shocks in contrast to her fair skin.
She runs a business which puts people in the ground, or burns them, though she typically recommends the former. She does not embalm, but encourages the deceased to be given directly to the earth after the funeral—which she organizes quickly and efficiently while bodies are kept cold. She advises the grieving that the funeral is not for the dead, but for them—a ritual of closure and release, and she consults with them on how to most effectively achieve this ritual.
Her consultations are surprisingly touching. She holds the hands of the bereaved while they weep, she touches their shoulders and offers words of wisdom and reassurance. She has been in the business of death for untold ages through untold lifetimes and has become quite good at this. The grieving accept her condolences and somehow manage to find comfort in her words, touch, and gestures, despite her uncanny appearance. They never notice that through it all she maintains her reserved, upright demeanor—never fully investing in these energetic and emotional exchanges.
Once the plans have been settled and offerings have been accepted, the mourners return to their homes for a period of respite while she attends to her real work: preparing the dead.
Still in her crisp and professional dress, she pulls on her gloves and slides on a mask to protect her nose and mouth. She cleans the corpses with water that she has personally seen purified and sprinkled with lemon juice and grapefruit seed extract. She combs and arranges their hair beautifully, if they have any, and she meticulously trims their finger and toenails, collecting the trimmings in jars that she stores in her basement cabinets for later. She dresses them in fine, biodegradable clothing—or wraps them in thin biodegradable linens, according to the wishes of the mourners—and lays them in their simple, untreated wooden caskets or out on a table adorned with flowers. She treats all the bodies with the same reverence and duty as a priestess would treat an idol, even those that are going to be burned.
She does not inter anything in the ground that would not be a fit and suitable offering for the hungry earth. No formaldehyde, no wax, no chemicals. She is not in the business of dirtying the earth to comfort the living—and besides, such frivolities interfere with the true beauty and the true ritual of death: decay.
This is her truth, the truth of the artistic ritual that is death. For a corpse to be a suitable offering the earth must be able to reclaim it in a natural and timely fashion, without also consuming poison. She has no interest in jacking up the price of her services over something as petty as preserving a corpse for the sake of false calm in the face of death. Death, she knows, when corporatized and sanitized for consumption, is bastardized. It ought to be retained in all its grotesque glory: the consumption of the flesh, of the fluids, by brilliant fungi and bacterial cultures, by creeping insects and worms and creatures of the earth. There is an artistry in death which she hails, the wonder of desiccation which humanity has forgotten. And death, which lays even the greatest of empires low, is the highest of life’s rituals, not to be tainted by such simpering whims as Capitalism or contrived beauty standards. It is to be given over fully to the consumption of the hungry earth.
Is it any wonder they reject her?
At last there is I—simple, burning and burned out, exhausted, hoping to catch glimpses of myself in gods and knowing I should only hope to be so lucky. How I try to emulate my gods—and consistently, acutely fail.
I look for myself in them and find them nestled in me—dark gods, shunned gods, gods of the forces of nature and gods of subversion and inversion, gods that would see fit to see the world burn. I can’t help but agree—have you read the news lately? Sometimes my rage flares like a chemical burn that cannot be eased, a pain that has no direction, no outlet.
Small as I am, what can I do in the face of such a world? What can I do but resist, but offer kindness and comfort where I can and slashing fangs and swinging fists where I must? How can I not scream to burn it all to ashes, and how can I not flinch away from such violence? Every day I tend to the children of poverty and trauma and through me I feel Sigyn moving—and I come home with my vicarious trauma and toil in the garden at Gerdr’s feet and for a while I am able to let it go.
But Fenrir is carved into my flesh and my bones and my heart—I remember every fight, every rage—and I cannot or will not let him go. The rage is righteous. It is purposeful. But where does it go? Where can such a rage go—I try to fight where I can, meet my monsters with squared shoulders and clenched fists and I fight my fights with fierce Angrboda in mind. How does a warrior keep her steam? How does she not burn too quickly, or burn at both ends and become nothing more than ash and soot?
When I sleep I dream of Jormungandr, twirling and swirling in the ocean of my heart and my mind and I pray that the serpent goes out from me—out to those girls I see crushed under the weight of religious tyranny and social dogma, whittling themselves out of existence. I speak humbly and softly to them but when they look away I am pleading, screaming that they not let themselves be extinguished—and I am helpless to help them.
Then there is Hela. To take comfort, or to take fear? I do not know if she will meet me when it is my time—and the more I read the news the more I suspect all our time will come too soon—but I pray that she does. Some warrior I am, longing for rest in quiet dim Helheim, but who would wish to keep fighting after a lifetime at war?
These are my gods—my scorned gods, my shunned gods, my forgotten gods, gods whose continued breath pulsates in my own lungs and courses through my own veins, gods whose myths are like fires in my belly and my head.
Their mere continuation in the face of revulsion, of fear, of hate, is subversion. In the quiet and roaring rebellion of the universe and before it, I stand in utter, perfect, serene, and inescapable awe.
Tahni J. Nikitins
Tahni J. Nikitins is a long-time Pagan and a democratic socialist who studied in Sweden, traveled Europe, and majored in literature and creative writing.