Six Questions XXII

Nathan Zilka (Zilka Forgewerks)

Image: Ilana Hamilton for Blackthorn Photography, 2018.

Interview conducted by Joseph S. Hopkins via email, March and April 2019.

One of the best attested figures in Germanic folklore is a clever and skilled metalworker, Weland the Smith. Weland represents a rare case in which we may discern a common narrative from both North Germanic (Old Norse) and West Germanic (Old English) sources. Concepts and narratives about the entity continue into modern folklore at locations such as Wayland’s Smithy in England, where association with the figure—or smithing, generally—may go back as far as pre-Germanic Britain. In all instances, Weland is an enigmatic entity who seems to exist between worlds, perhaps a deity, perhaps something else, but, as scholar Hilda Ellis Davidson puts it, “when Weland appears in both courtly heroic poetry and in local folkbeliefs, it leads us to believe that at one time men’s interest in him and his kind was both wide and deep, leaving long memories behind” (Davidson 1958: 159).

The god Thor, too, was once popularly beloved, and due to popular culture, his hammer, Mjöllnir, has once again become famous. His name ultimately meaning thunder, the god bludgeons enemies with the hammer and protects mankind. The North Germanic archaeological record famously contains numerous examples of these objects, generally recovered from graves. While these items tend to have similar shapes, some examples are extremely ornate, whereas others represent a more minimalist approach. A narrative about the hammer’s creation occurs in the Prose Edda. There, Mjöllnir’s manufacture is attributed to the skills of dwarfs, entities associated with the earth (an appropriate foundation for the production of metal). (On this topic, see for example Lindow 1994.)

With the swell of popular interest in topics such as the Viking Age and the development of Germanic Heathenry in locations such as the United States, Europe, and South America, it’s not uncommon to see people wearing Mjöllnir pendants once again. While some of these hammers are mass-produced alongside other trinkets in distant locations by unknown hands, others are produced by craftspeople who derive spiritual value from their production, much as their ancient precursors. An example of the latter, American metalworker and heathen Nathan Zilka of Zilka Forgewerks practices his craft in Portland, Oregon today. Readers can discover more about Zilka’s work at the Zilka Forgewerks website.

Pieces by Nathan Zilka: Clockwise, large and small Mjöllnir pendants, a troll cross, a crescent moon, a small sun cross pendant, and a large sun cross. Image: Ilana Hamilton for Blackthorn Photography, 2018.

1. Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Portland, Oregon. Lived here off and on my whole life.

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

I suppose that depends on what counts. My dad had these vinyl records of Tolkien reading The Hobbit that he put on tape. When I was eight or nine, we drove to California and would listen all the way there and back. It's what got me interested. I read The Lord of the Rings the next year. I know Tolkien doesn't really count, but I feel he drew so heavily from Norse and Germanic sources, it kinda does. I also read Beowulf when I was 12. When I was in my teens, I joined the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) and that is where I really started to learn Norse/Germanic mythology.

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

I guess the first thing I would say is I have them. It's a deep subject for me, and tied to some very serious experiences in my life. I feel like the cultural context of belief is strongly presented as a duality of logic/science/reason (and that leading to atheism) vs belief in anything that can be scribed into a spiritual lens. I simply don't buy that dichotomy. My experience of belief is outside of that. I am a squishy re-constructionist of heathen traditions. But I simply don't think we have enough available from the historic record for strict reconstructionism to work.

Belief for me is holding two completely contradictory ideas at the same time, and it not being an issue.

I keep troth with the goddesses and gods of my ancestors. Do I believe the gods take physical form, and actually appear and walk around? Of course not. I believe strongly in science and the rational world. Except I do believe the gods take physical form at times. And I do believe science, provable, hard science can get it totally wrong. Belief for me is holding two completely contradictory ideas at the same time, and it not being an issue. Because they are not true or untrue in the strictest sense, but rather they each have their places of truth, and falsehood. Belief for me is trying to connect to the mindset of our ancestors, which is where I think I got all this, and was much different from the cultural restraints that we deal with today.

My deepest connection is to Nature itself. To the essence of being alive, and being part of everything. All the stories, the runes, the myths, everything from every indigenous culture for me is filtered through that. Belief is a feeling. It is a connection. And it is a knowing that is beyond the mind. I also understand and own how much of what I believe is my own unverified personal gnosis.

I feel like it would take me writing essays on each of these points to make any sense.

Image: Ilana Hamilton for Blackthorn Photography, 2018.

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

I'd say I'm a pretty radical far left person. Or I guess that is where people would put me. In a practical, real world sense, I would say that I believe in things like universal heath care, anti-capitalism, massively taxing the massively rich, humans do better working in community, putting the earth’s ecological needs above just about everything, that gender isn't binary, that life is messy, etc.

At the same time, I'm a pretty avid gun owner, I think governance should rise from the small and local, I'm anti-globalist. On a more general/utopian basis, I fall into the anti-civilization camp. I think the best thing that could happen for the earth would be a massive depopulation and a return to simple and traditional ways of life, while retaining what we can of what we have learned.

Anything that leads to humans seeing themselves as anything other than an extension of the land, of Nature, I think is a mistake. Again, it would probably take many essays to convey my thoughts here, but that is the simple answer.

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

Nope. My studies are wide and varied, and ongoing. I read the Eddas, the myths, I read books on runes and the Northern Occult traditions. I do what I can to research the archeological record, and I talk to, and listen to, as many people smarter and more educated than myself that I can.

I make offerings to Thor before each forging, and place the pendants on my alter to Thor in the shop for his blessing when finished

6. How does Norse mythology and/or general Germanic mythology influence your creative output?

It’s a huge factor in what I do. Parts of what I make are directly taken from the archeological record. As an example, my Mjolnir designs are based on what I see was worn traditionally before and during the Viking Age. Sticking with the Mjolnir pendants, I rune chant into them when the metal is hot and the crystals are in solution. My thought/hope is that the vibration is carried into the pendant, and is locked in as it cools. I only forge Mjolnirs on Thursdays. I make offerings to Thor before each forging, and place the pendants on my alter to Thor in the shop for his blessing when finished. That is just one example. Not all of my work is that involved, but most of it is.

Joseph S. Hopkins would like to thank Nathan Zilka for his participation.

References

  • Ellis Davidson, H. R. 1958. “Weland the Smith”. Folklore, Vol. 69, No. 3 (Sep., 1958), pp. 145-149.

  • Lindow, John. 1994. “Thor’s ‘Hammarr’”. The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 93, No. 4 (Oct., 1994), pp. 485-503.