|Scalloway Fire Festival (2014). Source: ft.com|
Something that has long puzzled me about Germanic polytheism is the apparent absence of the worship of a God or Goddess of fire. Fire must have been an integral aspect of ancient and medieval Germanic life and is, in many other Pagan religions, accorded due reverence. That ancient Germanic Heathenry shared this characteristic is suggested by Julius Caesar who, in one of the earliest historical descriptions of the Germanic people, specifically mentions that fire was, along with the sun and the moon, highly revered by the Germanic tribesmen he came into contact with. So why is this great Germanic God of fire so seemingly elusive to us now?
What has survived from the myths of the Norsemen puts forth three of the more obvious candidates:
- Surt – a powerful and destructive giant from Muspellsheim, the realm of fire; it is prophesised that he will ride out as leader against the Gods at Ragnarok with a weapon that shines like the sun and, after defeating the foremost God of fertility (Freyr), he will burn the world; this final act of destruction is necessary in order for the renewed earth, renewed men and renewed Gods to emerge from the ashes of the old.
- Logi – a giant whose name literally means “fire”; he is most famous for outdoing Loki in an eating contest; for fire consumes more swiftly than man or God. Snorri Sturluson tells us that “the one called Logi was wildfire itself” (The Prose Edda). Arguably, Logi could be considered to be Surt by another name, or as one who manifests from the same destructive fiery realm.
- Loki – a powerful deity associated with deceit and dishonour. The belief that he is a fire deity is popular among some contemporary Heathens. He is prominent in Norse mythology even though there is no evidence of his worship among Norse people. Cambridge scholar H R Ellis Davidson aptly describes him as “a kind of semi-comic shaman, half way between God and hero, yet with a strong dash of the jester element” (Gods and Myths of Northern Europe). Sometimes his wiles are amusing, other times they are malevolent. He is strongly associated with the events of Ragnarok, for he is the father of the Fenriswolf (destined to kill Odin), the Midgard serpent (destined to kill Thor) and Hel, who rules over the realm where those who have died of disease or old age go (but from where the beloved God Baldr will emerge after Ragnarok). Loki himself is destined to kill and be killed by Heimdall, who watches over and guards the Gods. Loki is thus like Surt in the sense that he is, despite his oftentimes sinister and destructive nature, an integral player in the life-death-rebrith process signified by the events of Ragnarok. It is said that a “ship journeys from the east, Muspell's people are coming over the waves, and Loki steers” (The Poetic Edda). Whether or not these things are enough to establish him as a fire deity is ambiguous. Relatedly, in the nineteenth century the notion that Loki and Logi are in fact the same deity arose, partly due to the similarities in the pronunciation in their names. However the very facts of the myth surrounding Logi seem to contradict this notion, for how could Logi defeat Loki if they are but the same being? While Loki's destructive affinity with Surt and perhaps Logi may hint at confirming his nature as a fire God it is nowhere made explicit that Loki has a fiery nature, despite the extensive number of references to him in medieval Germanic literature. Davidson notes that “Loki does not behave like a fire spirit, and indeed seems to be as much at home in the water as on the earth, so that some scholars have even tried to see him as a water spirit” (ibid). Loki is a fascinating deity, but there just isn't enough compelling evidence to establish him as a fire God. In any case, even if he is a fire deity, he can be of little assistance to mankind, for according to myth Loki is currently undergoing torment in that cave where the Gods are said to have tied him down as retributive punishment for his role in bringing about the death of Baldr. It is said that Loki is bound with the entrails of one of his children, and his face rests immediately below a venomous snake who continually drops poison onto his face – most of the time his wife holds out a bowl to catch the venom, but when the venom falls on him he convulses so violently that the earth shakes.
The deities above are principally associated with destruction; none sounds like a God to give comfort, such as fire must of done, when it warmed the home and cooked the family meal. Much less so can we imagine Surt, Logi or Loki as Gods of ritual and sacrificial fire. At best Surt and Logi (and possibly Loki) are forces of nature to be propitiated as representations of fire in its most violent form. Is there not a more benevolent Germanic God of fire?