Performing with the ensemble Kertoa Kalevala, Ilana Hamilton retells the Old Norse poem Vǫluspá. Litha Cascadia, Washington State, 2018. Image: Fjara Dawn McNally

Six Questions XXIII

Ilana Hamilton

Interview conducted by Joseph S. Hopkins over the course of August 2019 via email.

Ilana Hamilton is a writer, artist, and heathen. Hamilton lives in Portland, Oregon with her family, where she performs spoken word retellings of material from Northern European myth as part of the ensemble Kertoa Kalevala, including material from the North Germanic and Finnish records. Retellings play a crucial role in tradition: It is by way of retellings that most readers are first introduced to topics such as Norse mythology, whether by recent textual works such as Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology (W. W. Norton and Company, 2017) or by way of retellings via other mediums (such as Thor’s loss of his hammer in the film Thor, Marvel Studios, 2011). Yet rarely do audiences have a chance to encounter retellings from the Old Norse corpus performed live, making Hamilton’s efforts a rarity, and also part of a tradition reaching far back, perhaps to the days of the initial composition of the material Hamilton herself performs. This includes poems such as Vǫluspá, some version of which was no doubt performed orally prior to being set to Latin characters. Readers can follow Kertoa Kalevala’s activities here.

1. Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Portland, Oregon, where I still live. My relationship with the city, and, indeed, with the notion of cities as a whole, has changed greatly over the years. As a young adult, I felt a strong sense of connection to Portland and to its cultural atmosphere. However, on one hand, Portland itself has changed to the point that I can almost no longer recognize the city I grew up in, and, on the other, I myself have changed in my orientation towards urban life. I’d miss the easy access to my family and friends, and to Portland’s music and arts scene, were I to relocate to a less populated setting, but the older I get, the less I am able to comfortably tolerate close proximity to hundreds of thousands of other humans on a daily basis. Nonetheless, despite the fact that I no longer feel the same sense of—the same pride in—being a Portlander, the Pacific Northwest biome is absolutely still my home, my center. In other landscapes—especially in arid places, without tall evergreens or lush undergrowth, without wild berries and abundant fungus, without the sea close enough to send its rains my way, without Cascadia’s distinct seasonal rhythms—I can feel intrigued, I can feel a sense of appreciation and even of awe, but I never do feel quite at ease.

2. Can you remember when you first encountered Norse mythology or, more generally, Germanic mythology? And what was the context?

As a child, I read mythology, folk tales, and fairy tales voraciously, but I don’t recall much Norse or Germanic mythology coming my way at that time. (I must take a moment here to thank my mother, an English professor, for supplying me with much of my reading material.) I read the Grimms’ Märchen, certainly, and pored over many wonderful anthologies of folktales that often included some Nordic material, including one (Ethel Johnston Phelps’s The Maid of the North [Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1981]) that made a great impression on me with its beautiful, humorous, and dynamic retelling of stories from the Kalevala.

Perhaps the Norse material was less in vogue at the time, or perhaps, as a child and as a younger adult, I was too wrapped up in my Greeks and Victorians, but it took me until about ten years ago, around the time of the birth of my second child, to truly encounter Norse mythology for the first time. When I did come upon it, or it came upon me, the meeting was firmly within the context of Heathenry, so it was a nearly instantaneous step from reading the Eddas to learning about contemporary Heathen practice. Having spent years drifting around the edges of the neopagan world and always feeling let down and put off by its slipshod scholarship, I felt a shockingly sudden sense of homecoming and promptly launched myself into Heathenism headfirst. As someone who tends to dive deep, hyperfocus, and go into hardcore research mode when I discover something that excites me, I began immediately to read everything I could, and soon came upon Hex Magazine, an especially fortuitous discovery that ultimately led me to some of my closest friends and to a community that has had a central place in my life for years now. [Readers can find a Six Questions interview from 2015 with Hex Magazine founder Arrowyn Craban Lauer here — Editor] All of these things are entwined—Norse mythology, Heathen religious practice, my particular community—and they all hurtled into my life ferociously, en masse, as I was in the throes of the intense initiatory ordeal of becoming a parent of two. 

3. How would you describe your religious beliefs (or lack thereof)?

I do think of myself as religious generally, and Heathen specifically, but I have a tenuous relationship with the notion of belief, and even more so with the notion of faith. In the words of one of my favorite Heathen thinkers, Heimlich A. Laguz, I “de-emphasize orthodoxy and operationalize orthopraxy” (http://www.elhazablaze.com/2018/03/heathen-community-sans-belief/). [Readers can find an interview with Heimlich A. Laguz from 2017 here — Editor] I don’t feel I need to believe in anything supernatural in order to have a satisfying and meaningful religious or spiritual life. I feel very fortunate that I was raised in a religious environment that tends to value orthopraxy over orthodoxy. Growing up Jewish, I have always found entirely natural the idea that religion is less about belief in sentient, intercessional divinity and more about concrete daily practices; weekly, monthly, and yearly rhythms and rituals; study; good deeds; and community.

My way has always been more scholarly than mystical, and, while I have gone through periods in my life when I have passionately envied those people who seem to naturally have some wonderful and—to me—incomprehensible and unattainable access to numinous experience, I have come to feel at peace with who I am and what my path is in a religious context. I acknowledge that I’m just not cut out to be a mystic. What I am is a researcher, a lore-keeper, and an interpreter. I don’t talk to gods and spirits, or at least they don’t talk to me. And yet…

And yet… there’s this thing I do. After countless hours of research, after laboriously honing my retellings of folktales and myths, I get up and I tell these ancient stories to people who are so hungry to hear them, and, when I do, something seems to come through me, and people see it, and hear it, and it means something to them. So, I suppose I believe in that, in the intrinsic significance of the act of story.

I don’t need to hear the voices of the gods to have a religious life. I feel reverence and awe when in nature, or when studying or performing. I cook the food of my ancestors, listen to their music, tell their stories and sing their songs. I am also lucky to have a partner who is far more mystical than I am, who helps me recognize and experience the magic of strange synchronicities and sudden intuitions, and with whom I share a life that is interwoven with small daily religious practices and punctuated by profound moments of mystery and meaning. And that is enough, more than enough.

4. How would you describe your political beliefs (or lack thereof)?

My time and energy are severely limited, and I feel I can put very little of either towards political action. This is not to say that I have no convictions. I lean left pretty hard as a rule, and I do vote, but I try my best to avoid high-conflict arenas of human experience, of which politics is perhaps the most egregious.

5. Do you have a formal academic background in Germanic studies? If not, where do you do your research on the topic?

I do not; my educational background is in English. I feel that that training, as well as the outlook I absorbed growing up in an academic family, support what I do as an writer, storyteller, and researcher. However, as a student of Germanic studies, or of other disciplines that interest me, I am only a passionate amateur. That being said, having devoted most of my post-collegiate life to the project of parenthood, I do hope some day to return to academia and pursue an advanced degree in folklore, but life is complicated, the path is not straightforward, and if I must remain self-taught, at least I have a solid background in academic method to guide me. Fortunately, since what I do as a performer, even though it is grounded in extensive research, is ultimately art rather than scholarship, I have a lot of leeway in my approach, a lot of room for inspiration, improvisation, and personal interpretation. I can play significantly more loosely with my source material if I’m preparing it for a performance than I could if I were writing a paper on it.

I use my local public library and interlibrary loan, as well as Academia.edu, JSTOR, and other databases to find secondary sources, and I very much appreciate the expertise of friends who often point me towards (and, themselves, produce!) insightful readings. For primary sources, I am generally working with translations, so I try to find and compare as many different English versions of a given text as I can. I frequently consult various online iterations of the Aarne-Thompson index. Wikipedia, I hate to admit, is actually surprisingly useful. It’s no good for anything substantive, but, if I am studying, say, a particular folktale, it makes it very easy to identify cross-cultural examples of comparable tales, and to find alternate titles for the same story which I might not have known to look for, allowing me to locate more variants. 

Image: Remembrance Photography, 2013.

6. How does Norse mythology or, more generally, Germanic mythology influence your creative output?

Norse/Germanic mythology influences me profoundly, and forms one of the wellsprings from which I draw the most inspiration. As the name of the story-and-music project I perform with, Kertoa Kalevala, indicates, a great deal of the material we work with comes from Finland, and generally from the Finno-Ugric cultures, but I’ve also told some stories from the Grimms, and one of the pieces we’ve worked on that I am most proud of is our adaptation of Völuspá. It’s an absolutely thrilling piece to perform. Kertoa Kalevala’s début performance of Völuspá apparently earned me the nickname “Stormbringer”, which makes me laugh a little, but I can’t deny that it’s pretty flattering. Immediately upon our finishing the performance, which took place by the bonfire at an outdoor festival, a huge mass of storm clouds gathered quite suddenly and unleashed a dramatic thunderstorm, absolutely drenching everyone. Naturally, I don’t assume that there was any connection, but if people want to believe that there was, and bestow on me such a fierce honorific, I can’t complain.

Joseph S. Hopkins thanks Ilana Hamilton for her participation.