Some say the world will end in fire
Some say in ice
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire
— Robert Frost
At the time of writing, 22 different wildfires in Northern California have burned 217,566 acres, killed at least 40 people, and destroyed over 5,700 buildings, including entire neighborhoods in the city of Santa Rosa; an alarming departure from past wildfires, which have mostly affected rural areas. Over 100,000 people have been forced to evacuate and the smoke caused “the worst air quality ever recorded for smoke in many parts of the Bay Area.”It is common sense that California’s prolonged drought exacerbated many wildfires, but last winter’s pouring rains were no relief, for they too abetted the intensity of the current fires by encouraging the proliferation of annual grasses, which have already died and turned into a fuel source. The fires have also burned the primary wine and marijuana-producing region of California, a region indisputably ruled by the god Dionysos, blackening the skies and bloodying the sun with the ashes of grapevine and cannabis. But Frost’s poem and the current fires bring a different set of powers to mind as well.
In the old Norse poem Vǫluspá, the vǫlva prophecies to Óðinn that at Ragnarök, the forces of Múspellheimr, the world of fire, will attack the Aesir and Vanir:
51. O’er the sea from the east | there sails a ship
With the people of Múspell, | at the helm stands Loki
After the devourer | do the clown’s sons [fíflmegir] follow
And with them | the brother of Byleist goes
52. Surt fares from the south | with the scourge of branches
The sun of the battle-gods | shone from his sword
In Gylfaginning, the fire giant Surt is the guardian of Múspellheim and fights in the vanguard of the “sons of Múspell” as they cross the rainbow bridge Bifröst, causing it to shatter beneath them. While there is considerable contention about potential Christian influence in Vǫluspá and other accounts of Ragnarök, it is undeniable that the sons of Múspell and the “scourge of branches” are loose upon California right now.
Gylfaginning also contains a strange story in which Thorr and Loki travel to the castle of the giant Útgarða-Loki (“Outyard-Loki”), who challenges the travelers to a series of contests. Loki claims that no one is faster at eating than him, and his boast is contested by a being named “Logi:”
Then a trough was taken and borne in upon the hall-floor and filled with flesh; Loki sat down at the one end and Logi at the other, and each ate as fast as he could, and they met in the middle of the trough. By that time Loki had eaten all the meat from the bones, but Logi likewise had eaten all the meat, and the bones with it, and the trough too; and now it seemed to all as if Loki had lost the game.
In the morning, however, Útgarða-Loki reveals that “he who was called Logi was ‘wild-fire,’ and he burned the trough no less swiftly than the meat.” Dagulf Loptson analyzes this story as an illustration of the difference between Loki as sacred cremation fire and Logi as uncontrolled wildfire (150-151). Both are fire, but one preserves the bones for burial, and the other consumes them entirely. One is directed (though never truly tamed), the other is completely unchecked.
When Loki captains Naglfar, the ship made of dead men’s nails, against the Aesir and Vanir at Ragnarök, the distinction between Loki and Logi is effectively incinerated. All the world is cremated, all the world is consumed. Though some modern Heathens see Surt as “king” of Múspellheimr, Gylfaginning portrays him as a guardian, and Loptson theorizes that Loki may instead be seen as ruler of that land, thus explaining his blood-brotherhood with Óðinn as a pact between two kings. Furthermore, by parallel to Freyr and Njörðr, Loptson suggests that “identifying Loki as a hostage king of Múspellheimr may explain his presence in Asgard, as the Muspilli demonstrate no threat to Ásgarðr until after Loki and his children have been imprisoned, thus breaking the truce between the two nations” (139-140). According to this theory, the broken pact is the dissolution of the world.
Apocalyptic PolytheismIn Miðgarðr, it is clear that “mankind has broken the covenant with nature,” as Peter Grey writes in Apocalyptic Witchcraft (4). In California, indigenous tribes used to do controlled burns every year, and historian Mike Davis points out that in addition to climate change, relentless capitalist development of wilderness area makes it inevitable that houses will continue to burn:
This is the deadly conceit behind mainstream environmental politics in California: you say fire, I say climate change, and we both ignore the financial and real-estate juggernaut that drives the suburbanisation of our increasingly inflammable wildlands.
It is too late to restore balance between civilized mankind and nature, but that does not mean that we should not respond to the imbalance:
Apocalypse is not escapism as some suggest. It is being held in the jaws at the threshold of life and death. It is sacred confrontation and revelation. It is utopia and dystopia in eternal exchange. It sees through. In Christianity apocalypse is used by the world haters who argue for war, in the New Age as a panacea for those who long for ascension, I use it to awaken us from dream.
There is no other way to talk about apocalypse. I do not choke the inspiration in my throat. I will not simply watch the last dance or describe the dancers without losing myself amongst them. We must be brought to an awareness of the moment. (6)
The eternal exchange between utopia and dystopia is exemplified in the twin prophecies of Badb (here identified with the Morrígan, who in other texts is described as her sister along with Macha) at the end of the Second Battle of Maige Tuired, one full of blessings—”Strength in each/A cup very full/Full of honey”—and the other much bleaker: “False judgements of old men/False precedents of lawyers/Every man a betrayer/Every son a reaver.”
Like Badb Catha, the battle crow dancing on the points of spears, we must lose ourselves in the last dance, which is also the final battle. Our awareness of the moment demands action, even — especially — in the greatest moment of despair. As Grey writes in “A Manifesto of Apocalyptic Witchcraft:”
13. The War is upon us.
14. Choose then to become a Mask.
15. Those with nothing left to lose will dare all.
Constant disaster (from the Latin roots dis + aster, “an unfavorable star”) is the new normal in these times of violent climate change, but it is the old normal as well. As was written on the Mutual Aid Disaster Relief page on so-called Columbus Day, “we must remember that for some communities, disasters have been unfolding for centuries, depriving people of life and liberty every single day.” In the wake of disaster, the state prioritizes maintaining its control above all else. Officials of the city of Santa Rosa imposed a curfew within evacuation zones to prevent looting. In Puerto Rico, police and military personnel stay “in luxury hotels with power, clean water, dedicated catered buffets, air conditioning and internet service while elderly residents with cardiac conditions lie sweltering in structurally damaged homes without access to any of the above.” And on October 16th, SWAT teams tellingly decided to spend their resources raiding Mutual Aid Disaster Relief’s base of operations in Puerto Rico.
Mutual Aid Disaster Relief is a network founded on the principles of solidarity, mutual aid, and autonomous direct action. Their mission statement frames their project as “solidarity not charity,” explaining that they believe that “disaster survivors themselves are the first responders to crisis; the role of outside aid is to support survivors to support each other.”
They write in their guiding principles that they understand their relationships to be reciprocal: “We seek as much as possible to break down the barriers between givers and receivers of aid. Everyone has something to teach and something to share. And we all need assistance at times.” The ancient Greek word ξένος (xenos) meant both “host” and “guest,” for there was an understanding that the hospitality of the host would be reciprocated if they ever traveled to the home of their guest, a relationship divinely protected by Zeus under his epithet Xenios. In the Bay Area, mutual aid for wildfire survivors has already begun, both organized by people in the North Bay and with people driving up from other parts of the Bay Area to distribute supplies and volunteer medical skills.
Disasters also bring social tensions to the fore: “We recognize that disasters are times of localized upheaval and suffering, but are also opportunities for the rich and powerful to consolidate power.” In California, as elsewhere, one of the major tensions and consolidations of power is prison.The wildfires are being fought by prisoners: “The inmates, who roughly equal the state’s civilian firefighting forces . . . . receive $2 per day for their time spent in any of the state’s 43 inmate firefighter camps, and an extra dollar per hour while on a fire line.” The state has proven extremely unwilling to relinquish any part of its slave labor force. In 2016, when the state of California was considering reducing its prison population of 115,000 prisoners, “lawyers in the office of then-Attorney General Kamala Harris said that releasing too many prisoners ‘at this time would severely impact fire camp participation—a dangerous outcome while California is in the middle of a difficult fire season and severe drought.’” The state is literally keeping people in prison longer in order to be able to send them to fight fires.In North Carolina, however, fire provided an opportunity for liberation, the latest in a wave of prison revolts across the country. On Oct. 12 at the Pasquotank Correctional Institution, “inmates started a fire around 3 p.m. at the prison’s specialty sewing plant, where about 30 inmates work. After the fire was started, several inmates tried unsuccessfully to escape.” Dionysos, destroyer of the dungeons and palace of Pentheus, inciter of slave revolts, possesses the epithet Eleutherios: Liberator. Even as his vineyards and marijuana grows burn, a chthonic sacrifice by fire, the use of prisoner firefighters does not escape his notice. Nor should it escape ours.
When I was still a little child, I admired the hardened convict on whom the prison door will always close; I used to visit the bars and the rented rooms his presence had consecrated; I saw with his eyes the blue sky and the flower-filled work of the fields; I followed his fatal scent through city streets. He had more strength than the saints, more sense than any explorer – and he, he alone! was witness to his glory and his rightness.
Along the open road on winter nights, homeless, cold, and hungry, one voice gripped my frozen heart: “Weakness or strength: you exist, that is strength.” You don’t know where you are going or why you are going, go in everywhere, answer everyone. No one will kill you, any more than if you were a corpse.” In the morning my eyes were so vacant and my face so dead, that the people I met may not even have seen me.
In cities, mud went suddenly red and black, like a mirror when a lamp in the next room moves, like treasure in the forest! Good luck, I cried, and I saw a sea of flames and smoke rise to heaven; and left and right, all wealth exploded like a billion thunderbolts.
-Arthur Rimbaud, A Season in Hell
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