SaehrimnirEvery day Odin’s army of dead warriors, the Einherjar, battle, in preparation to take Odin’s side in the final conflict against the giants – at Ragnarök. They are fed each day off of the flesh of Saehrimnir (Sæhrímnir), a pig (or perhaps a boar) who is boiled each day, only to be whole again by evening. The unending feast is a motif which exists in multiple tales across multiple mythologies. There’s no question of its miraculous quality – certainly the idea of an endless supply of bacon is enticing to many people, and yet… it isn’t much of a life for the pig, is it?

My wife is a vegetarian, but for a long time, I wasn’t (now I’m a “flexitarian” – I eat chicken and fish, but not mammals). She has multiple reasons, humanitarian and environmental. Mine are mostly humanitarian: being in proximity to her kept pulling the issue to the forefront of my mind, and over time I learned a little too much about factory farming. Pigs are smart, and in fact all mammals are a lot like our cats (that I pretty much baby), and in a more meaningful way, a lot like me. Ultimately, I just saw one too many videos of pigs getting shocked in their corrals, and it started to impact my ability to enjoy a good bacon cheeseburger. Like I said, I still eat chicken and fish, while recognizing that the former especially isn’t always raised under the best circumstances. I have rules: I don’t order mammals, but if someone else has – or if I’m served it – I might eat it, as to my mind it’s dead already. I don’t think my eating one thing or another makes much difference: my world exists in shades of gray, and to me, these kinds of daily choices are personal, rather than moral absolutes.

When Thor and Loki went to Jotunheim on the journey that would ultimately take them to the realm of Utgarde-Loki, they stayed one night at the home of a farmer. Thor killed and cooked the goats who pulled his chariot, Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr, sharing the meal with the farmer’s family, telling them to throw the bones on the goats’ skin. Upon rising the next morning, Thor blessed the goats with his hammer, only to realize upon their resurrection that one of them was lame in a back leg: the farmer’s son, Thjálfi, had sliced open the bone the night before, to get at the marrow. After terrifying the farmer’s family with his rage, Thor calmed down, took Thjálfi and his sister Röskva in trade for the slight, and continued on his way (it’s hard not to imagine Röskva muttering under her breath about this, but when Thor is worked up, it’s best not to argue with him).

I’m sure the Scandinavian people had pets, or at least thought fondly of some of their animals, but they didn’t have the same choices that I do. My assumption is that they saw the animals in their lives in a similar way to the way my grandfather (a Ukrainian peasant) saw them: as utility items – to be treated kindly if possible, but ultimately of value for their use. In the cases of Saehrimnir, Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstner, their stories might also be connected with the idea of animal sacrifice (could animal sacrifice on earth have fueled the rejuvenation of Saehrimnir?), and it’s easy to see why – given the hard lives that the Norse people led – the idea of an endless supply of fresh meat would be a godly reward, indeed.

At dinner a few months ago, I talked with some friends about my “flexitarianism,” and the self-imposed rules that I see as indicative of someone who is concerned with doing the right thing, but is also a pragmatist (really, a nihilist) who questions the impact of individual choices, and resists absolutes. One of the other people at the table, addressing my eating of chicken, but not beef or pork, noted that I was doing what we all do, every day: choosing where to invest our compassion. I’m sure the Scandinavian people weren’t any more or less cruel than any other human beings; like us, they were investing their compassion where they could, based on a mixture of circumstances and personal choice. In their case, it meant that animals were a resource. It’s easier for me to make (some) other choices, so I do.

Where do you invest your compassion, and how much is it based on the circumstances that surround you? If you eat meat, are you troubled by it? Why or why not?