Odin, Breath, and Wyrd

So this morning I was reading through my own book “Neolithic Shamanism,” which I co-wrote with Raven Kaldera, looking up some random information on the Norse Wind spirits and Gods which I’d forgotten and I came across this line:

‘In Northern legends, the shaman-god Odin gave humanity that final wyrd-giving and life-giving breath.” (p. 271)

After the initial “oh shit, I wrote that?” lol, I just sat back a bit floored. Now I’m an Odin’s woman; I know that Odin gave us breath. After the creation of the first mortals (Ask and Embla) from drift wood, at the beginning of the worlds, the three Brother Gods, Ođinn, Lođur, and Hoenir bestowed the gifts of breath, warmth and hue, and intellect/sentience respectively on them. Odin came last, (and yes I alternate between the Norse and Anglicized spelling of His name for convenience and out of habit) breathing that first life-giving breath into their bodies and this is what began the unfolding of their wyrd. I know that, but I don’t think I ever stopped to really think about what that means.

In my article “In the Beginning,” I start parsing out the deeper theological meaning inherent in our cosmological tales. I think all such stories are encoded means of narrating and conveying the worldview of a particular tradition. They help elucidate the lens through which devotees of that tradition engage with every part of their world. These stories structure our world so there can be a lot to unpack in each of them.
In looking at the creation of humanity, we are given a moment out of time, a moment in the narration of the creation of being, wherein the Gods bestow particular gifts. Each gift given fetters us to both temporality and materiality – corporeal being. These gifts likewise make the unfolding of wyrd possible. The gift giving is a process of animating corporeality and attaching it to wyrd – the gift not just of tangible gifts of breath, blood, and sentience, but of fate and the means to change and be changed by it. With temporality (and wyrd) comes the gift of evolution, of transformation, of death, and of the ancestors. Time becomes conceptual.

What caught me this time in contemplating Odin’s initial gift to us, is the direct link between that primal breath and life, and then life and wyrd. I’ve always assumed that the Gods were subject to Their own wyrd, but reading this makes me wonder. If active wyrd is tied to corporeal life, if it comes into play, if it begins to take effect on/for a person at the moment that person draws breath then it is a thing tied specifically to both corporeality and temporality – to neither of which are the Gods subject. Creation, which includes most specifically the creation of matter is a process, which in and of itself implies that linkage to temporality. In and of Themselves, the Gods have no need of that. They precede its creation. I know we have stories of the Gods being born, but I think what we’re really dealing with, at least with the Norse creation stories, is the moment a Holy Power takes on certain names and forms, parses out a portion of its own, independent being, narrows itself for communication and interaction with us, a necessary concession to beings fettered by temporality and corporeality i.e. humans. That…that is hugely profound. There is so much, after all, of what every Deity is that is beyond our capacity as corporeal creatures to comprehend.

To say that Odin breathed life into the first humans, and to equate that as binding them to wyrd (which I do and it does – a child’s wyrd begins the moment it draws breath. Until then, there is no point of connection. Until then, there is only potential and abstraction. Birth mirrors the initial moment of the creation of materiality and its yoking to time. Our ancestors can work off their wyrd, correct it, strengthen it, and help us to do the same, but there is no new wyrd being generated, no new layers being created. We can inherit wyrd from those who have gone before us, but they are not still creating further wyrd. There does seem to be a correlation between life and the beginning of active wyrd vs. death and its ending or tying off).

So if that is the case (and I believe it is), then all the stories we have hinting that Odin and the other Gods cannot escape wyrd, must of necessity be interpreted differently. The question must then be asked: whose wyrd?

If wyrd is the one force to which even the Gods must bow (as our lore teaches) and if wyrd is also tied specifically to temporality then we are dealing with cosmic law. We are dealing with a force that is not bound to the Gods, but rather us. We are dealing with a framework of causality and consequence generated by us, our choices, the choices of our ancestors, and descendants (and overseen by the Nornir). It’s the inherent infrastructure of creation. We’re also dealing with the loop-hole of free will. I posit that it’s not so much that the Gods are bound by Their own wyrd, but that they’re bound by the law of ours. They cannot undo that which we create for ourselves because to do so would completely undermine free will and one chip in the edifice of the structured order of creation would risk undoing the whole thing.

All of which demands reinterpretation of the forces surrounding Baldr’s death, usually presented as a matter of it being impossible for Baldr to escape His wyrd. (This may be another forthcoming article. I’m not going to dwell on it right now). It also demands reevaluation of exactly what Odin was doing when He gave us that animating breath. I can’t help but find it even more powerfully significant that one of the defining moments of the Odinnic canon occurred on Yggdrasil, when He hung for the runes. Yggdrasil is where Urda’s well lies, and where the Nornir lay and order the threads of wyrd we pattern. There is a deeper connection to Odin as shaman-god, creator-god, murderer of His ancestor Ymir, and bringer of fate and destiny to humanity. To be bound to wyrd, after all, is to be bound to that against which we may both measure and challenge ourselves. Be our wyrd good or bad, we are defined by how we meet it.

tenebr

About ganglerisgrove

Galina Krasskova has been a Heathen priest since 1995. She holds a Masters in Religious Studies (2009), a Masters in Medieval Studies (2019), has done extensive graduate work in Classics including teaching Latin, Roman History, and Greek and Roman Literature for the better part of a decade, and is currently pursuing a PhD in Theology. She is the managing editor of Walking the Worlds journal and has written over thirty books on Heathenry and Polytheism including "A Modern Guide to Heathenry" and "He is Frenzy: Collected Writings about Odin." In addition to her religious work, she is an accomplished artist who has shown all over the world and she currently runs a prayer card project available at wyrdcuriosities.etsy.com.

Posted on June 29, 2015, in Heathenry, Polytheism, theology and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 19 Comments.

  1. I suspect this is why some Wiccans I’ve heard (though very few and very exceptional ones at that) have said that the Gods are superior to humans in power/wisdom, etc., but humans are superior to the Gods in agency.

    It’s probably also why there are many people within polytheism these days who are emphasizing the importance of consent rather than coerced assent when it comes to dealing with divine beings.

    I don’t disagree with either; and based on what you’ve reasoned through above, I think Northern traditions might agree, too.

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    • ganglerisgrove

      I disagree very much with the consent crowd. I think they mistake “consent” for “choice.” We always have choices, it’s just there are consequences that I think many would rather avoid for our choices.

      and anything that puts us above the Gods, is, imo, impiety. I think that our free agency is a tremendous gift the Gods gave us in their creation. I don’t think it was necessarily a given….

      Liked by 1 person

    • ganglerisgrove

      Although i see where they’re coming from in terms of agency/superiority….precisely because of Their power, there are more constraints in a way on the Gods. I think it’s important however, to realize that in the structuring of being-ness, the free will was given by the Gods first. That’s how i look at it at any rate.

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    • Did you mean to say “anything that puts the Gods above us,” or should that have been “below”? (If you did mean “above,” that would be an intriguing suggestion!) Anyway…

      I don’t think it’s an either-or matter; and given that many Deities with whom I regularly have dealings are former humans, that considerably changes the perspective that I have coming to these matters.

      That we may, as humans, have something that the Gods don’t, or at least may have less of or less freedom with, doesn’t diminish the Gods, in any case–or, to put it more pointedly, it doesn’t have to be understood that way. You’re notably lacking in multiple sclerosis, for example, as well as having a noticeable lack of private Caribbean islands, and you’re not diminished by those sorts of lack. (And, I’m not saying free will, agency, and the ability to consent are “bad things,” by any stretch of the imagination; it’s may be, instead, that the Gods just don’t have as much use for it in their own functioning as deities, and that humans do need it to function as humans, which is why having access to it might be useful for the Gods, perhaps.)

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      • ganglerisgrove

        fuuuck yes, that was a typo. I meant to say ‘anything that puts us above the gods is impiety”. and i deeply mourn my lack of private caribbean islands…and olympic bobsled team. 😛

        Liked by 1 person

      • Oh, the bobsled team…!?! 😉

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      • ganglerisgrove

        seriously now, I am very interested in how venerating Gods that began as humans impacts your cosmology…*that* is fascinating.

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      • It’s a HUGE, and most certainly very good and important set of questions…so thank you for inquiring! 😉

        Among many other things it forces one to consider, a very basic one is this: are human deifications “fated” by the Gods, or are they “accidental” and either the Gods or humans are responsible for them? (For good or ill–though, based on history, mostly the latter, unfortunately–early Christians had to ask some of the same questions regarding Christology, and were thus very threatened by the existence of divinities like Antinous.) People who go for the “it was fated by the Gods” approach then often go one step further, and pretty much assert that Antinous was an incarnate deity of some sort, and thus his life and fate was settled before his conception and birth. (I’m not in that camp, personally.) If it is accidental–in the kind of philosophical sense as well as the “we really didn’t know that was going to happen” sense–then it prompts further questions: are we all just a Nile-drowning away from becoming divine? (The pre-monotheist hegemony Egyptians certainly thought so!) What many don’t quite realize is that in regular Egyptian cosmology and eschatology, the fate of anyone who lived their life right was to become divine after death–not a god as existentially important as Ptah, for example, but most certainly “___-Osiris,” the perfected form of that person’s self that would then live eternally and was the recipient of offerings and so forth (and not necessarily exclusively from their descendants in an ancestor-worship fashion).

        We know humans become ancestors, if everything goes well; we also know humans become heroes under particular circumstances. What makes the occasions where they become Gods instead of heroes or ancestors special? So, that’s one dimension of the question…

        But another matter that emerges is this: if the Gods, as generally understood, are pre-existent universal forces and are not dependent upon human intervention for anything other than realizing they’re there, and then giving them names and cultus and iconography (etc.), that’s fine; but what about the various deities who are intimately connected to specifically human activities (e.g. would warfare and weaving’s lack of existence diminish Athena?), or which are deified abstractions (e.g. Eirene/Pax/Peace, Iustitia, etc.), which are very most certainly not natural forces and are very specifically defined by the boundaries of the cultures and languages that recognized them…how are these to be understood outside of human ability to recognize them? Sure, a Platonic view might see that inherent in the Big Bang was the eventual potential for warfare, weaving, justice, and so forth, but if that is the case, then how close of a dependence does an indigenous culture and the deities it worships based on its cultural practices and understandings it practices have? If Deities are understood as the meeting-place of primal indescribable forces and human needs, interests, and (cultural-lingustic based) understandings, then it is easy to see why the Egyptians don’t have Odin, but the Indians do have Hanuman–and, further, that Hanuman wasn’t a god in the Vedic period, but is one of the most popular deities now, as miniscule example amongst literal millions. The emergence of new Gods, the promotion of heroes to fully-divine status, and human apotheosis then all speak for process theology, and an understanding of deities that (despite people thinking this can be construed as a demotion rather than an elevation) expands the possibility of them being strictly identified as primal cosmic forces pre-existent and never changing.

        This is all just the most surface-level, barely-scratching-at-it implications that one must consider if one’s deities are not *big* and *cosmic* and entirely independent of human existence. If it prompts the question of humans being as acorns in the presence of the ancient Oak Trees of the Gods, then not only does it re-orient one’s priorities (and not, as some would argue, in favor of honoring Gods less, or of having excessive hubris and so forth, but in positive directions), but also prompts further questions–e.g., why doesn’t this happen more often any longer, how and why would the Gods allow it if it wasn’t, first of all, possible, and second, not within their will; and, as I was discussing with Heathen Chinese recently, why do certain times and places seem to proliferate with human apotheosis and heroization, while others don’t? What are all of the Eleusinian, Orphic, and other mystery traditions about from the ancient world other than this very thing–to escape the common human fate after death and instead to become, as some Orphic texts have it (slightly paraphrased), “of your [the Gods’] divine race”? What are we being prepared for in terms of the potential of human apotheosis (or even “mere heroization,” which isn’t mere at all!)?

        So, yeah…light afternoon thoughts to consider over a cream tea. 😉

        Liked by 1 person

  2. ganglerisgrove

    of course what i didn’t touch on in the article is for those who believe in Ragnarok (i don’t, I think it’s a very christianized interpretation of things, perhaps too much so to parse out the original sense of the thing), then this would likewise mean that the impetus and potential inevitability of Ragnarok rests on us and not the Gods. a rather horrifying thought…

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    • Ragnarok is such an interesting bit of the lore–whether heavily Christianized or not–to think with. I don’t think, personally, that Christian influence in how it was portrayed can be avoided; and yet, there are many different eschatological and cosmic cyclical ideas out there in diverse polytheist systems that don’t necessitate or remotely depend upon Christian influence, too.

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      • ganglerisgrove

        True, but things being as they are, i think it is a very difficult thing for contemporary Heathens to come to it cleanly.

        the rest of your previous post is very, very thought provoking. i’m about to turn in for the night, but slowly, little by little, i’ll be touching on some of these ideas. I need to think and mull them over for a bit. I am glad you shared.

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      • Yes…it’s one of many reasons, I think, that any talk of eschatology is difficult at best to bring up, not only with Heathens but most polytheists, and almost all mainstream pagans (who are so reactive against the Christian afterlife focus that if any attention is paid to the soul’s post-death fate, positive or negative, then one is a “world-denying Christian imitator,” when in fact the afterlives and cosmic eschatology were superlatively important to many polytheist cultures).

        I look forward to reading your thoughts when you post them! 🙂

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    • I find Ragnarok (in its most basic form) a surprisingly apt description of the fate that likely will befall our universe- heat death. It is probable that everything will basically freeze out of existence.

      I suspect that at least some of the Powers are here to identify and preserve that which is unique and interesting (in Their eyes) from this universe before that happens.

      In dealing with us and other spiritlife from this universe, I would not be surprised that there would be constraints- imposed in all likelihood by the limitations of our nature, not Theirs.

      How profound of a sacrifice it must be for Them to operate under such hardships, perhaps even such risk… and how great must be Their power that we can know so little of it and still be as children standing in the presence of the Sun.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Well now this is starting some thoughts regarding then the relationship of Prometheus and Zeus and creators of humanity, and even though Prometheus created the body and fashioned it the importance is placed on Zeus as the one who instilled breath, literally instilling life within the human form, and Orphic considerations of existence being contained within Zeus, and the connection of Zeus to the Morai. Definitely something I will need to give more thought to this very importance of the giving of breath.

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  4. I also very much like your interpretation of the Fate and how the god are bound to fate not as directly themselves, because in Greek myth I have noticed that while the gods must bow before Fate they don’t seem all that particularly influenced by it in their own encounters and interactions…..but if seen from a human perspective in which the Fate is tied to human activity, then this makes more sense that the gods can not change Fate for favor of humans. One time we see this with Apollon in the play Aclestis he was powerless to change fate ultimately….Thanatos still had to have his due, it took the will and intervention of Herakles to rescue Aclestis. We cannot blame the gods in any fashion for the Fate that we weave by our actions and the actions of our ancestors. The gods cannot alter what we have done to ourselves and the laws that we violate and the wrongs that we do.

    Liked by 1 person

    • ganglerisgrove

      I would very much be interested in hearing more from you on the connection of Zeus to the Fates…..this is intriguing in that perhaps we’ve hit upon a thing that at its core meaning crosses traditions? I am curious.

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      • Well both Apollon (although this is particular to Delphi) and Zeus (in the majority lol) have the epithet as leader of the Fates. I will need to look into this more, because other than coming across it in Pausanias I haven’t looked much further into it 🙂

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  5. Of course I am interpreting this, given that with Apollon that is specific to Apollon, that the epithet has more to do with his relationship with the Morai as a seer and oracular god. Zeus is also a seer god but has I think a wider relationship with them than the limited relationship Apollon has as interpreter. Which I think you hit on in regards to the breath, and Orphic concepts of a universalness and all-containing nature of Zeus.

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  6. I spend a lot of time thinking about Breath, and it is one of my primary ways of connecting and an integral part of my devotions. There is something that I have heard many times that always comes to mind, “To breath in is to live; to exhale is to die.” Now, in the context of devotion, I have often looked at this as breathing in is accepting what is there before me, and exhaling is surrendering to what lies ahead.

    I have often also thought about this with the Gods. Perhaps as we make our choices, and our wyrd is created, and our tapestry woven in the choices we make, They are subject to our wyrd. Maybe this breath cycle is something that ties us and Them together. I am not sure, and I will really have to roll around this in my head a bit, but I feel very close to Odin when I sit with Him and breathe.

    Taking the breath as an active tool in crafting though would certainly fall in line nicely with galdr, as that is most certainly putting things into action with breath.

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