Knowest How

To Write

 

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"Knowest How to Write, Knowest How to Read: Written Texts and Reinterpretation in the American Asatru Community"

Cara Hoglund,1999

 

For those interested in Northern mythology, the Havamal tells us how Odin One-Eye, Wanderer and Strife Stirrer, head of the Nordic pantheon, won the knowledge of the runes by sacrificing himself nine days and nine nights on the Yggdrasil World Tree. According to the rest of this myth, Odin then gave humankind these runes, thereby giving them the tools with which to divine future influences, hallow objects and ritual spaces, and channel magical energy. An important and powerful sacred narrative, the Havamal is part of a larger written collection of Nordic lore called the Poetic Edda. Though the written Poetic Edda dates back to the 13th century, and the lore on which it is based much earlier, the myths contained therein and their symbolism are still very potent today to many Neo-Pagans. Through use by Nordic religious groups such as Asatru, Norse Wicca, and various Independent Heathens, Odin, Thor, Freya and the other Gods and Goddesses of Nordic mythology have come alive again.

Before I go in-depth in this topic, I feel it would be helpful to give a brief discussion of the term Neo-Pagan and quickly summarize the differences between Asatru, Norse Wicca, and Independent Heathens. Neo-Pagan religions in general, much less Asatru or the other Nordic-based religions, are not as well understood as most Christian denominations. My own broad definition of a Neo-Pagan is of a grassroots and notably non-dogmatic or hierarchical religious tradition which often reveres nature as imbued with a spiritual force, honors numerous deities instead of one main deity, and was often created or revived within the last century. This definition has been influenced by Margot Adler, Starhawk, various academic works on the Neo-Pagan movement, and the sometimes heated discussions on the Nature Religions Scholars mailing list. It is not intended to replace older definitions but instead to present my own understanding of the subject.1 Admittedly, a great deal of dispute has raged in academic as well as religious circles over the use of the term “Neo-pagan;” however, I still find it a generally useful though admittedly still problematic term.

Following my definition, both Wicca and Asatru are Neo-Pagan religions. As non-dogmatic religions, however, the descriptions that I offer here of either of these two groups are by necessity generalizations and individual beliefs and practices within each group will vary. The religions as practiced may overlap in some areas; however, as Asatru adherents are generally very adamant that they are NOT Wiccans, I will outline some basic differences between the them. These differences are emic (in other words, from an insider’s point of view) in that they have been pointed out by both Asatru themselves and at least one Wiccan, and I tend to agree with them.2

Wicca is a fairly young religion in that its present-day roots can generally be traced back to Gerald Gardner in England in the 1950s. Wiccans usually focus on a generalized God and Goddess figure (often a Mother Goddess and a Son/Lover God) and time their holiday in tune with the Solstices and Equinoxes. Wiccan practitioners often draw on many different pre-Christian pantheons such as those of the Egyptians, Greeks, and Ancient Celts for their mythology, festivals, and deities. Asatru differs from Wicca in that it is based on a specific pantheon, the Nordic and Germanic Gods of Northern Europe. Practitioners, known among themselves as “Heathens,” will often focus within that larger culture on a specific cultural tradition, such as the Anglo-Saxon or Norwegian traditions. As a “reconstructuralist” (or “reconstructionist”) religion, Asatru adherents take as much of the specific culture and religious tradition of these countries as can be recovered from ancient texts and archaeological evidence and attempt to recreate it in varying degrees of historical “authenticity” in their beliefs and rites.

The Asatru movement, like Wicca, is still relatively young. Though Heathen anthropologist Jenny Blain states that the term “Asatru” was originally coined in the 19th century as part of the Scandinavian romantic movement to mean “belief in the AEsir” (the Nordic deities), Asatru as a present-day religious movement has the distinction of having been started fairly recently in several parts of the world at the roughly same time. As Jeffery Kaplan, a sociologist who wrote his dissertation on several different groups within Nordic Paganism, states: “...within months of each other, journals dedicated to the Northern Way began to appear.”3 In 1973, a group called “Asatruarmenn” was formed in Iceland, and the “Committee for the Restoration of the Odinic Rite” started in England that same year. Also in the early 1970s, Stephen McNallen the “Viking Brotherhood” (later named the “Asatru Free Assembly”). The creation of the “Asatru Free Assembly” (also called the AFA by insiders) marked the beginning of the Asatru movement in the United States.4 From here on in I will focus on the American Asatru movement only.

Unfortunately, ever since the Asatru Free Assembly began, it, and the Asatru movement in general, have been pressured by adherents and outside racialist, neo-Nazi, and National Socialist groups to become politically involved in promoting racism. Debate over the place of racism and racist tendencies eventually split up the movement into two groups when the AFA finally collapsed in 1986. In 1987 Michael Murry, an active former AFA member and Arizona Kindred member, started the Asatru Alliance. The AA apparently took on much of the AFA’s ritual structures and its more radical racist members. A few months later Edred Thorrson, a notoriously mercurial yet highly educated and inspirational former AFA member, “fathered” another Asatru group called A Ring of Troth. Known as The Troth, Thorsson intended this new group to focus more on academic research, independent interpretations of the religion, and explicit inclusiveness of members of all races. These two groups have been the largest organized Asatru groups in America, and as such, it seems easiest to identify other Heathens in relation to these groups.

Independent Heathens, the other “group” I mentioned earlier, tend not to belong to either Asatru Alliance Kindreds or Ring of Troth Kindreds. These individuals or even kindreds may not officially be affiliated with one group or the other but still attend public events sponsored by these groups. (For example, an Heathen Kindred may not specifically be considered a Ring of Troth kindred, but some of its members may attend Trothmoot, the annual Ring of Troth sponsored Heathen gathering.) Also, some Independent Heathens may not be affiliated with the larger Asatru network in any shape or form due to personal reasons, though they still honor the Nordic deities and consider themselves to be Heathen.

In my personal experience with the Asatru religion, I have mainly come across individuals and Asatru groups (known as Kindreds) who are either Independent Heathens or are associated in some form with The Troth. Specifically, I have worked with one Asatru group, the Hammerstead Kindred5 of Lexington, Kentucky, in both a professional and a spiritual capacity over the past year. I have observed and documented as well as participated in several of their rites. As an Independent Heathen myself as well as a folklorist, I am an accepted member of their religious community on both professional and spiritual levels. Though my experience with this particular group provides the basis for my practical knowledge of Asatru, I have corresponded with and met several Asatru and Independent Heathens from other areas of the country. Also, I have been on three Asatru-specific mailing lists for over a year, and recently sent out a survey on the largest list asking the “texts” and other sources Asatru use most often. My knowledge of Asatru Alliance and their texts comes from Jeffrey Kaplan’s works or my own more recent research on Asatru-run sites on the Web. Finally, additional Asatru information comes from Jenny Blain, another researcher whose work comes from both a scholarly and practitioner’s viewpoint. I focus here mainly on the texts of Ring of Troth Asatru and Independent Heathens.

Because Heathenism in all its forms is a reconstructed religion, adherents do not have an official book, leadership hierarchy, or a long tradition of recent practice to draw upon for their rituals and theology. (Even with one book, students of religion have found out that interpretations can still vary widely.) Instead, Heathens draw up many separate texts and attempt to piece together a better understanding of the myths and culture of their spiritual ancestors. The main ancient Nordic texts used for this are the Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda (in their various translations--an oft-debated topic on Asatru mailing lists), the Heimskringla by Snorri Sturluson (also popularly known as the “History of the Kings of Norway”), Beowulf, various and sundry other Sagas not contained in the History of the Kings of Norway, and Tacitus’ Germania. Several Asatru, both in their web sites and through survey material, list these works as “Primary Sources.”6 Many, though not all, Heathens seem to believe that some grounding in the ancient lore (and therefore, the written texts) of their religion is very important, if not absolutely necessary. As one Independent Heathen explains:

I prefer primary sources, simply because these are the best available evidence for what heathens in the past believed and did. I may not always choose to believe or act as they did, but they grew up in a world where knowledge of the Gods andwights [local land deities] was an integral part of the culture, and I feel that consulting their wisdom as it has survived is the best place to start when I’m trying to understand something.

Some of the more scholarly-oriented Heathens even read the these texts in their original language.

However, what written works that Heathens do have come mainly from non-Heathen sources, ancient and otherwise. All of the above-mentioned “Primary Sources” were written by Christians. The Nordic cultures themselves, though they had the runic alphabets, used them mainly for divination or stone carving (often dates and memorials) and not for writing down sacred narratives. With Christianity came the Roman alphabet and the tradition of writing, proving a mixed blessing to Heathens today. The texts were mainly written down in the 13th century, and the last Northern country to be Christianized was Iceland in 1000 CE. Heathens realize this and attempt to work around the Christian interpretation within these myths. As one informant, an Independent Heathen, states, “I look at everything, and attempt to cull out the influences of Christianity and New Age or Wicca in the writing.” An Independent Heathen website offers stronger critique:

No writer who approaches this subject from the view of a Christian or who lacks the pagan attitudes to religion and magic can hope to produce anything other than distorted literary stereotypes, interesting perhaps for a student of comparative religion but meaningless for anyone who seeks to achieve real communication with real spiritual beings.7

Interestingly enough, this same website utilizes a great deal of Wiccan theology in its interpretations of the mythology. In general, opinions vary, but most are aware of the Christianization of the ancient texts and the topic will occasionally come up for discussion of the various mailing lists. Christianization is often cited as the cause for most of the lost information about ancient Nordic religion, such as the dearth of information on certain Goddesses such as Freya..

Along with ancient texts, many Heathen reading lists also include academic worksby non-Heathens on Nordic archaeology and history. The most often mentioned of these texts are Grimm’s Teutonic Mythology; R. I. Page’s Norse Myths; H.R. Ellis-Davidson’s Gods and Myths of the Viking Age; Simek’s Dictionary of Norse Mythology; Turville-Petre’s Myth and Religion of the North and The Norse Myths by Kevin Crossley-Holland. These books help to put the religious lore from the ancient texts into some kind of coherent cultural context, and therefore provide a fuller understanding of both the ancient beliefs and the people who practiced them.. The emphasis on the ancient texts and scholarly works in my research seems to be tilted more toward the Ring of Troth associated Heathens rather than the Independent Heathens, though this difference does not seem to be that great.

As with any other religion with texts, the text itself is relatively insignificant compared to how it is interpreted and used in actual practice. And Heathens of all groups have been very productive in filling in the gaps in time and in interpretation of the deities, the runes, the symbols, the festivals, and the spiritual worldview that honoring the Nordic Gods and Goddess entails. At least three Ring of Troth members or former members are popular Llewellyn Publications authors--Edred Thorsson, KveldulfR Gundarsson, and Freya Aswynn (Llewellyn being the main producer of popular Neo-Pagan and New Age literature.) Most of the books they have written for Llewellyn are basic books on runes, Asatru, and seidth (Nordic shamanism.)8 Regarding these books, Kaplan suggests that:

With the work of Gundarsson of Thorsson, Asatru/Odinism made a decisive break from the rest of the Wicca and much of the rest of the occult/magical community, as the ritual content of the religion became increasingly tied to a historical tradition rather than to the florid imaginations of its adherents, as is invariably the case in the Wiccan world (1997, 70.)

Most Independent Heathens and Asatru cite at least one of these authors on their website or survey results, though a few (often the scholars) disregard them as being of little importance. The Ring of Troth itself also wrote and published a book called Our Troth, edited by Gundarsson. Produced by the most visible members of the religion in one limited-release edition9, Our Troth contains a massive compilation of essays devoted to almost every aspect of the Heathen religion. The Ring of Troth website10 contains most of its contents as well, so it is accessible to all online Heathens. The articles on the Gods run between eight to ten pages in length, discussing and sometimes debating each deity’s characteristics, myths, and items (for example, Thor’s Hammer, Odin’s Spear, and Freya’s Necklace.) The book also contains advice and instructions about crafts such and wood carving and mead making, and tells one how to form a Ring of Troth kindred. Our Troth also includes an extensive annotated “Bookhoard” in the back as well as a “Wordhoard,” which defines many of the archaeological and Old Icelandic/Old Norse terms used in the articles. Though Thorsson did not participate in Our Troth (having left The Troth before it was published in 1993), other Asatru scholars and historical fiction authors such as Stephen Grundy, Diane Paxton, and Lewis Stead also contributed. To further cement The Troth’s image as a scholarly religious group, Gundarsson, as editor, states that one “should” also have a few ancient texts in the original language plus their respective dictionaries, giving a thorough description of these as well. Building on this stereotype, one Heathen has even coined the saying : “Asatru: The Religion with Homework.”

Among the many texts presented by The Troth as worthy of note is The Official Boy Scout Handbook. Gundarsson’s explanation for the inclusion of the Handbook reads: “This book is a must for any person or group who plans to do any sort of outdoor ritual, teaching both practical techniques for fire starting, camping, and so forth and a responsible, aware attitude towards the environment and one’s own actions” (693.) I feel that this selection and explanation ties in with the general Heathen emphasis on independence and self-sufficiency, which may also spring out of the stereotype of the ancient Viking warrior and the often harsh conditions of Northern Europe. On a related note, an Asatru Alliance kindred’s members applied for and was granted official Boy Scout recognition and responsibilities.11

A few books are specifically pointed out to be avoided: Ed Fitch’s The Rites of Odin, D. J. Conway’s Norse Magic, and Ralph Blum’s Book of Runes. They are “filled with gross misinformation, and have nothing whatsoever to recommend them expect that there are real nice pictures in Rites of Odin” (694.) This topic has recently come up again on the main mailing list that I am on, and Conway was denounced right and left as being a formulaic Wiccan who basically rearranged Nordic mythology into a generic Wiccan format. (Heathens cite similar books written by her on Celtic mythology and magic.) Both Asatru and Independent Heathens avoid her, and newcomers quickly learn to avoid her writing as well. Blum’s and Fitch’s book receive similar treatments--Fitch for being too Wiccan, and Blum for essentially making up most of his interpretations of the Runes.

Ring of Troth scholars are not the only ones producing accepted Heathen texts, however. At least one Independent Heathen couple runs their own publishing company and produces an entire line of practical, down-to-earth texts dealing with rune lore, the deities, Heathenism, mythology, and how to apply the ancient lore to today’s world.12 Also, both Asatru and Independent Heathens produce a myriad of articles for their websites bent on interpreting the lore for their particular Kindreds and other interested individuals. Several Heathens, in response to my survey, pointed me to the texts linked from their websites. Generally, Independents seem to produce more non-published website material or smaller publisher materials. One Independent Heathen explains, “Also, you can get your articles to folks a lot faster and more effectively than the print media.”

All this emphasis on the written text may lead one to believe that Heathenism is a not an lived and experienced religion. On the contrary, many if not most practitioners view their deities as very hands-on and tangibly active in their lives. Interaction with deities, as well as personal insights into the written lore, has lead to a plethora of what one mailing list calls “UPGs”--Unusual (or sometimes Unsubstantiated) Personal Gnosis. (Folklorists label these types of narratives as Personal Experience Narratives.) UPGs help fill in the space between the ancient lore and modern experience with the deities on both an individual and group level. Some would even consider UPGs to be as important , if not more so, than written lore. As one Heathen says, when asked what sources he refers to most often:

UPGs first, then people’s opinions about UPGs. These I treasure more than lore, because this is what heathenry IS about, not what it WAS about. Whatever Sven Halfbeard did 1500 years ago is certainly interesting, but it has not as much importance to me as what [the other] list members think....

Another explains the way she connects written text and UPGs in this way:

I haven’t put UPGs on the list, because I can’t separate them from the way I read the physical texts. I feel that reading the lore is like tending the soil so that a crop of spiritual understanding will have the right environment in which to grow, flourish, and bear. Lore-work prepares me for UPG, opens me up to spiritual insight, and is a form of spiritual discipline for me. I also thoroughly enjoy it.

Perhaps it is in the use of UPGs that the practice of Heathenism is differentiated from pure “homework.”

UPGs live and flourish on the Heathen mailing lists. These lists provide forums for Heathens across the country and the world to discuss the validity of UPGs and translations of the Lore, and in doing so deepen the personal and modern-day link to the ancient beliefs. Without the lists, it is doubtful that such extremely important transmissions and evaluations of ideas about the religion could exist. One member of the largest list says, “This list is like gold. You can get all sorts of responses from anything....from skeptical to agreeable, from academic to emotional, from adversarial to supportive.”

The importance of the mailing lists is particularly seen in discussion of aspects of the religion which have little lore written about them. For example, one of the three lists that I am on is devoted entirely to discussion of the Nordic Goddesses, also called asynjur. This list currently (October 1999) contains 95 people. Each discussion of a Goddess begins with a Heathen scholar posting all of the lore written about the Goddess that she can find. From there, list members are encouraged to related any and all experiences, dreams, meditations--all of which would be considered UPG--to the list and then list members compare experiences to try to collectively come up with a better understanding of that particular Goddess. Still, given UPG information, list members have to decided whether or not it fits in with the way they view the deities. As one Independent Heathen explains, “Everything, including UPGs, is checked against the Edda’s and other sagas, sometimes including dictionaries for word lineage.”

These groups and individuals are a classic example of what Leonard Primiano would term “vernacular religions,” though he most likely did not have any Neo-Pagan religions as such in mind while creating his definition. The mailing lists in particular reveal a great deal, in Primano’s terms, about “the complex linkage of the acquisition and formation of beliefs which is always accomplished by the conscious and unconscious negotiations of and between believers”(1995.) Though scholarly works and ancient texts are appreciated and used, and the scholars among the Heathen community are given great weight, in the end one’s own interpretations of their experiences and research are what matter most. There is no semblance of “top-down” interpretations of the religion, nor can any “folk” vs “official” interpretation dichotomy be set up within the religion itself.13 Heathens believe strongly in their right to accept or disregard any interpretation that they don’t believe “fits” their understanding of the Lore.

Interpretation, reinterpretation, and creation happens on a very dynamic level within these groups. Neo-Pagan groups as a whole have this quality, and this paper, unfortunately, merely scratches the surface. More in-depth research on how specific Kindreds form and grow and how individuals negotiate communal belief structures within groups still needs to be done. Another important aspect of this religion which could offer substantial fodder for future researchers is a more detailed look at the role of the Internet and web lists in creating and sustaining this religion--another “modern” interpretation of what a religious community even is.

One other area of particular interest to academics is the role of education in this religion. The lines between researcher and the group researched is in this case extremely fuzzy, and not only due to the fact that I am both a Heathen and a scholar. Many Heathens are well-educated and often are scholars of some sort, and adherents range from anthropologists, classics scholars, and germanists, to psychologists, lawyers, and even engineers. Their formal educational level often sometimes equals or exceeds my own. (For example, my main informant from the Hammerstead Kindred is currently finishing his Master’s Thesis in Library Science and already has a Master’s in French as well as an ABD in Spanish.) Many are thoughtful and very articulate in relating their views and keep up with scholarly literature written about them. After conducting my survey, at least five Heathens requested a copy of this paper, one also requested that I let the list know how the paper went. I have to wonder, at this point, whether it is I who has “gone native” or whether it is the “natives” who have instead “gone academic.”14

Notes

1. See Bibliography

2. See especially “The Hammer and the Pentagram” by Devyn Gilette and Lewis Stead, 1994. Linked from: www.webcom.com/~lstead/wicatr.html.

3. Kaplan in Lewis, 1996, 198.

4. Kaplan, 1996, 199-200

5. Unfortunately, this Kindred recently “went into hibernation” due to the fact that one of the main driving forces in that Kindred will soon be finishing up his Master’s degree and moving out of town. Several other Kindreds have since sprung up in and around Lexington to fill in the gap left by the Hammerstead Kindred, and former members of that Kindred reserve the right to start the group up again should the

need arise.

6. See “Groa’s List of Recommended Heathen Reading,”

www.clark.net/~oldsma/groabook.htm; and “A Heathen Reading List for Beginners,”

www.unm.edu/~asaerich/asanew/bblist.htm.

7. See the “The Aesir,” Circle of Ostara’s website: www.lrbcg.com/heathens/gods/aesir.html

8. Thorrson has produced several books popular among the Heathen community, specifically Futhark: A Handbook of Rune Magic and At the Well of Wyrd: A Handbook of Runic Divination. Gundarsson’s work Teutonic Religion (which is now out of print) is also a favorite. Along those same lines, Freya Aswynn authored the Leaves of Yggdrasil, of which a second revised edition has just come out, including a CD of some of her runic chants.

9. The Troth may be putting out another edition in the future; date as of yet uncertain.

10. http://asatru.knotwork.com/troth.

11. www.jcave.com/~eagle/scouts.htm.

12. see Thorr Sheil’s homepage: http://members.aol.com/OnkelThorr/index.htm.

13. For the non-folklorists out there, Primiano states that “official” religion doesn’t actually exist because everything will be interpreted by the individual, though some groups (read: Christian denominations and earlier religious scholars) may think that the idealized form of a religion actually exists in real life. Primiano argues that even the Pope does not practice pure, “official Catholicism”--even he will have at least one quirk or idiosyncratic interpretation that he incorporates into his practice of Catholicism. Oddly enough the only Neo-Pagan “group” he mentions in his article are solitary Wiccans--one assumes that he must have had little knowledge of other forms of Neo-Paganism when formulating his ideas.

14. Alludes to a paper that I gave at an earlier conference based on my experience as a Heathen folklorist. “Going native” is an old anthropological term indicating that the researcher has become, or has attached themselves too closely to, the group that they are studying. It is more accepted now to discuss one’s personal connections with a group though many academics are still very uncomfortable having the distinct “us/them” duality muddied up, and the topic is still very controversial.

Works Cited

Books/articles:

Adler, Margot. Drawing Down the Moon. Penguin Group, New York: 1986.

Aswynn, Freya. Leaves of Yggdrasil. Llewellyn Publications, St. Paul: 1994.

Conway, D. J. Norse Magic. Llewellyn Publications, St. Paul: 1997.

Fitch, Ed. The Rites of Odin. Llewellyn Publications, St. Paul: 1994 (first published 1990.)

Gillette, Devyn, and Lewis Stead. “The Hammer and the Pentagram”. 1994; Link from

Raven Online web site. Title of page: “Wicca and Asatru,”

http://www.webcom.com/~lstead/wicatr.html.

Gundarsson, KveldulfR, ed. Our Troth. The Ring of Troth, 1993.

---.Teutonic Religion. Llewellyn Publications, St. Paul: 1993.

Kaplan, Jeffrey. Radical Religion in America. Syracuse University Press, Syracuse: 1997.

Kaplan, Jeffery, in James R. Lewis, ed. Magical Religion and Modern Witchcraft, SUNY

Press, New York: 1996, pp.193-236.

Lewis, James R. and J. Gordon Melton. Perspectives on the New Age. SUNY Press, New

York: 1992.

Primiano, Leonard. “Vernacular Religion and the Search for Method in Religious

Folklife.” Western Folklore 51 (January, 1995): 37-56.

Starhawk. The Spiral Dance. HarperCollins Publishers: 1989.

Thorsson, Edred. At the Well of Wyrd: A Handbook of Runic Divination. Samuel Weiser,

1988.

---.Futhark: A Handbook of Rune Magic. Samuel Weiser Publications,

1988.

York, Michael. The Emerging Network. Rowan and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., Lanham:

1995.

Web sites/Misc.:

“Ann Groa’s List of Recommended Heathen Reading.” http://www.clark.net/~oldsma/groabook.htm. Link from Vingolf Kindred home page, New Jersey: http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Academy/5595.

Asatru Quick List http://www.nycpagan.com/quick.html (c) 1995-99 K.A. Steinberg from the Reginleif Asatru Fellowship website located at http://www.nycpagan.com Affiliated with the Reginleif Kindred, New York.

“Hammerstead Kindred.” http://users.aol.com/jordsvin/kindred/kindred.htm. Run by the Hammerstead Kindred, Lexington, KY.

“Heathen--The Gods and Goddesses of Odinism.” http://www.lrbcg.com/heathen/gods/index.html. Run by the Circle of Ostara.

“Panasonic’s Home Page.” http//www.geocities.com/Athens/Acropolis/1043. Web site for The Odinist Brotherhood.

“Raven Online.” http://www.webcom.com/~lstead/welcome.html. Run by the Raven Kindred.

“Squirrel.com Asatru Page.” http://www.squirrel.com/Asatru. Affiliation unknown.

“The Troth Official Web Site: Asatru and Heathen Events, Gods and Goddesses, philosophy, cosmology.” http://asatru.knotwork.com/troth. Run by The Ring of Troth.

“WELCOME TO ASATRU ALLIANCE.” http://www.jcave.com/~eagle. Asatru Alliance home page, run by the Eagle Kindred of Utah.

 

Cara Hoglund

Created by Chandonn and Jordsvin

all works used by permission of the authors

last modified 07/20/2003