A Conversation with Rudolf Simek

As an expert in the field of Older German Philology Prof. Rudolf Simek has contributed many valuable publications on Germanic and Old Norse topics. Among his most well-known works is the ‘Dictionary of Northern Mythology’ (First published 1984 as ‘Lexikon der germanischen Mythologie’). In the second edition of his 2014 book ‘Religion und Mythologie der Germanen’ he made critical comments on modern Germanic Neopaganism in Germany which attracted the attention of the heathen community. Sonja and Sven from the Red Geyser took the chance for an interview:

Mr. Simek, apart from German studies and philosophy you also studied Catholic theology. What fascinates you about the relationship between people and religion?

Unfortunately, I’m interested in virtually everything (Laughs). Coming from a theological background I am a religious scholar with a phenomenological perspective. I’m simply interested in how different forms of religion or magic work or could work. What I’m after is the how and what; I’m not so interested in the psychological side of things.

Why the interest in early Germanic culture? Are you still interested in the same topics that inspired you at the beginning of your career?

I came across this whole ‘Norse’ thing through the Viking ships, because I was fascinated by them from an early age. When I got the offer to author the ‘Lexikon der germanischen Mythologie’ (English translation: ‘Dictionary of Northern Mythology’) in 1982, curiosity grabbed me. At that time there wasn’t much to read about it, there was basically only the ‘De Vries’ (Editor’s note: Jan de Vries: Altgermanische Religionsgeschichte I-II, 2nd edition 1935-6) and the really old stuff. Unlike today, there were hardly any papers published or conferences held. Furthermore, I always had an interest in the neglected topics, that’s why I’m currently studying the medieval belief in monsters and demons, because there is surprisingly little research in this field.

In the preface of ‘Religion und Mythologie der Germanen’ you made some critical points on the efforts to reanimate and reinterpret the old heathen traditions. Did you actively follow these developments? How did you become aware of them?

I did become aware of the topic relatively early, because there was a publication from Friedrich-Wilhelm Haak titled ‘Wotans Wiederkehr’ on that matter. Besides that, my students also played a part. In 1995 I gave my first lecture at the University of Bonn about the history of Germanic religion. When I explained that I examine the topic from a scientific point of view as a catholic theologian and not as someone devoted to the Æsir, some people in the last rows stood up and left. A very interested senior student always criticized me, arguing that I didn’t look at the subject with my heart and I said yes, ‘cause I’m doing it with my head (Laughs). That’s my business as a scientist. And then there are my ‘black’n’silvery’. That’s how I call my students dressed in black with Viking age silver jewelry and Thor’s hammer amulets. When I explained that most Thor’s hammer amulets have been found in woman’s graves, many of the amulets disappeared at the end of the lesson (Laughs).

So you did notice these developments, but not in a primary negative sense?

No. Religion is a cultural thing and when you are acculturated as a catholic Austrian, like I am, everything else appears a bit strange at first. I also find English ‘low churches’ quite odd. But from a phenomenological point of view this is all very interesting.

On Iceland there is a flourishing and growing Ásatrú community nowadays, which declares oneself in favor of a modern interpretation of the old heathen traditions. In contrast to the German-speaking area, the Icelanders have a relatively comprehensive folkloristic tradition.

About 15 years ago a colleague of mine, François Dillmann, got married on Iceland the Ásatrú way. I always asked myself: how did he do this? We know virtually nothing about the old heathen marriage rituals. From ethnology we know that most ‘ancient’ folkloristic traditions, like for example the festival of Yule or Midsummer, are about two hundred years old.

But these traditions do have an ancient core, right?

Yes, I don’t think that they are recent inventions entirely. What’s new is the choice of cultural elements and the way they are formed into a folkloristic tradition. These developments all are rather recent, at most a hundred years old. In his book ‘Both One and Many’ John McKinnell showed that it is highly unlikely that there ever was such a thing as a standardized rite in polytheistic pre-Christian Scandinavia and England, because neither did the conditions for long distance communication exist, nor was there even a need to do it the same way in Tromsø as in Winchester.

In the end, one cannot properly speak of the Germanic heathenism, for in reality there were many different strands of traditions on different local and regional levels.

Exactly, that’s why it’s better to speak of Germanic religions or polytheisms, if you want to be perfectly precise. Eventually we’re discussing a time frame of one and a half thousand years in an area from the Gothic Balkans to Iceland. It’s obvious that this cannot be standardized without having a written canon of some sort, which of course didn’t exist.

In your paper ‘The Vanir: An Obituary’ (freely available online: RMN Newsletter Dec. 2010 you refer to the extremely problematic sources concerning the term ‘vanir’. You plead for rejecting the notion of the ‘vanir’ as a separate and independent family of gods besides the Æsir, for this is most likely a misconception or even a construction of Snorri. What is left of the ‘vanir’?

I think I’ve been misunderstood a little in both of my papers. My primary concern was the term ‘vanir’ itself. Snorri applied it onto Freyr, Freyja and Njörðr, because he knew from his sources that they were related to each other and Freyr is called ‘Vaningi’ (Editor’s note: ‘member of the vanir’). He worked associatively and concluded that they had to be the ‘vanir’ then. But that doesn’t mean that this group, this trinity didn’t exist. Only the conclusion, that there is another family of gods, who waged war against the Æsir, is false and I think Snorri invented it.

So, does this mean, there was only one kind of such entities in pre-Christian times?

With regard to the real gods: yes! But we don’t really know what the Álfar were for instance and if the ‘vanir’ were perhaps more envisioned as some sort of demigoddesses like the Dísir. I think there was a much wider range of designations and concepts of otherworldly beings than we know from the Christian or Greco-Roman mythology. The Dísir, these protecting women and Matronae, were probably of greater significance than the ‘vanir’, but this is hard to prove of course.

Another problematic aspect of this issue, I suppose, are the strict requirements of the alliterative verse, the stave rhyme, which forced the poets to use different words for the same thing (for example the alternative names for Æsir like ‘goð’ and ‘regin’). If such a term only occurs one or two times in the sources, it is often impossible for us to decipher it with certainty.

Yes, right. Moreover we should bear in mind that the use of the alliterative as well as the internal rhyme and the need to count the syllables were very mandatory in skaldic poetry. That’s why they were sometimes forced to use rather quirky expressions to convey their message. Also, I find it very fascinating that whenever we come upon pre-Christian poetry like the Húsdrápa or the Ragnarsdrápa, where mythological scenes are described, they differ so much from Christian poetry, which is worshiping, praising and exalting. Heathen poetry is on the contrary very descriptive; it plainly describes mythological scenes. In my book ‘Mythos Odin’ I collected poems from people who wrote odes to Odin. But that is in fact not the style of the medieval heathens. Even in the surviving Scandinavian and German magic spells there always is a mythological scene which is described the way it is in skaldic poetry. Except in the incantations it is said: This happened in ‘illo tempore’ (in those mythical days), and ‘so it should be now!’ I think heathenism very much worked that way. This is of course something you’ll find in every religion up to the aborigines: the repetition of an archetypical act that happened sometime in the past. Maybe we shouldn’t separate ritual and mythology as much as we do it today in our study of polytheism. I think those things were much closer intertwined.

Beside your research and teaching activity, you also wrote several books in a popular scientific way and kept a close connection to interested non-professionals, for example through your collaboration with Tommy Krappweis (Editor’s note: German author and director).

Did you read his ‘Mara und der Feuerbringer’ books? Especially the third volume is very comical. There the professor meets his ex-wife and Ratatoskr, the express-squirrel. He wrote it in such a witty way, you will be laughing your head off. Read the books! (Laughs)

How would you rate the importance of conveying academic research to the interested public? You seem to be an advocate of intellectual exchange.

I learned this from my Icelandic mentor Hermann Pálsson, who is – more or less single-handedly – responsible for spreading the Sagas in England due to his work. I think this is important. Of course we had our own boom of our faculty, but this was in the Nazi period unfortunately. If we want to keep our field alive, we have to take our research out in to the public. Otherwise nobody will know about these things.

Many old and long outdated books with an antiquated state of research (even from the 19th century) are still in reprint.

Yes, they’re even reprinting the ‘Golther-Mythologie’ which is over a hundred years old. Releasing obsolete findings doesn’t help us at all. It’s better to go to Cons (Conventions) and explain these things in an entertaining way other than just publishing academic literature, which will only be read by my some twenty-four colleges who are scattered around the world. This does not lead us further. As of now I’ve done my nineteenth TV documentary, I believe, and after every broadcast I receive many e-mails with further inquiries.

How many of those e-mails do you actually respond to? Are there any that make you shake your head?

With the exception of e-mails which attempt to introduce me into world conspiracy theories, I really try to answer every one of them, because there are no dumb questions. Recently I received a bunch of questions from Switzerland, presumably because they aired a few documentaries about Germanic history and the Vikings there. It’s good that people who are interested contact the university. Sure, answering all of them can sometimes take up a good portion of my time, but after all I’m getting paid by tax payers’ money, so this is perfectly legit.

If a vivid and modern paradigm based on the old heathen tradition would establish itself in the mid-term, what would please you and what would bother you?

I don’t want the whole thing to drift anymore to the right than it already has. That’s my biggest concern with it. What anyone does within their four walls or out in the woods is not the topic right now, but the ideologisation from far right worries me. It’s a balancing act my colleague Ute Drew from Haithabu has been doing for decades: to attract Viking reenactors and craftsmen on the one hand (because that is something very exciting), whilst excluding right-wing extremist groups on the other.

Understandable. Especially in the 80’s and 90’s right-wing groups misusing the heathen heritage were much more dominant in the German-speaking countries. Fortunately today there is a much more critical perception and a stronger delimitation towards such groups inside the heathen hemisphere.

It’s good to hear that in the meantime there have been countermovements and clear dissociation from heathen groups. I was quite concerned with the reviews and reader’s letters I received when I started my academic career in the 80’s.

Mr. Simek, thank you very much for taking the time for this conversation!

Yes, no problem. I hope I could help you!