A Few Thoughts Theological…
I make my students and apprentices study the lore and this sometimes seems rather ironic given how I feel about the way ‘the lore’ is utilized in mainstream Heathenry. Here is the thing though: the lore is not in and of itself holy. It contains clues and keys to that which is holy. It’s a bit more than a map, but far, far less than revelation. I think this is an important distinction. Those texts that we consider ‘lore’ were never intended to be used in any religious capacity. They were not, for the most part, written by polytheists. They were not intended to be used as scripture and many of them, having been recorded by Christians, are in fact, somewhat problematic. However, they contain keys to the holy. We study lore to learn about our cosmology, to learn how our ancestors ordered their world, to gain a glimpse into the paths that lead to mystery. it’s a tool, nothing more.
All of this has made me ponder the damage that having a reified ‘scripture’ can do to a tradition. I think it turns “god” into an idea instead of a living, terrifying Presence. It makes religion an intellectual exercise, especially if one culls out the experiential, mystical, or embodied devotional practices as the Protestant Reformation did to Christianity. Religion isn’t an intellectual exercise. There are protocols and practices to be learned because it is necessary to meet the Holy on properly prepared ground, especially the ‘ground’ of our hearts and minds. At its core though, religion encompasses all those things, those structures and practices, patterns that pattern and infuse us with the experience of our Gods. It is a thing that reaches into our guts, tears open our hearts, brings us to our knees before the Powers and changes everything. It is not neat and sanitized. It is dark and bloody, terrifying, and glorious. It is not a thing of civilization, it is a thing that connects us back to our earliest ancestors and the Gods that brought them the gifts to create civilization. It is a thing the practice of which reaffirms and recreates our cosmology every single time we engage. It is that through which our world and experiences are properly filtered.
When ‘god’ is an idea and not an experienced, shattering Presence, the mystery is stripped from one’s religion and it becomes a game, an intellectual exercise, it becomes a brittle carapace. With so many of us having converted from monotheisms, from religions centered around a deeply reified sacred text or texts, it’s important to challenge and push ourselves out of our comfort zones. We prioritize the written word in a way that our ancestors never, ever did. We look to the written word to define our experiences instead of allowing our experiences to inspire our written word.
Moreover, we should be getting the interpretation of our lore not from scholars but from our shamans, spirit workers, clergy, and specialists, from those stepped in the deepest mysteries of our traditions, not from those who would analyze the holy out of those traditions. Doing the latter damages not only the community and those devoted to their Gods, but sterilizes the tradition as a whole. If one is properly stepped in one’s tradition, there are numerous illusions that the lore can lead one to. For instance the story of Thor killing his goats so a peasant family that was offering the gods hospitality might eat well, and then restoring those goats the next day provides a trail that can be followed when one is contemplating how to do proper sacrifice. The story of Odin hanging on the tree and winning the runes provides a blueprint for one of our esoteric traditions. The story of Freya winning brisingamen points to connections, deep and powerful, between the Duergar and the Vanir and the connection between creativity and abundance only otherwise hinted at in our stories. It’s not enough to read the lore or to memorize it. One must steep oneself deeply and fully in the cosmology so that one has the necessary keys to decode and interpret. General lore thumping is all the more frustrating because it’s a further corruption of the holy. To be blunt, these people don’t know what the fuck those stories are about. Yes, the stories are fundamental but *not* the text itself, rather what is important is what the text alludes to.
Story is always alive. Reifying lore is no different than Christians mistaking the Bible for the Word. It’s the Word that creates not the book. Of course, this is also a symptom of our converts having been raised in a monotheistic, modern culture that wants quick, carefully organized, boxed in, rigid answers. Mystery is never, ever easy and simple. It’s painful, often bloody, confusing, messy and bigger than we can ever imagine. Most importantly of all, it has to be experienced to be understood, otherwise it’s just useless trivia. I think there’s a difficulty in Heathenry, and in our world in general with mistaking the knowledge of the lore for experience. I also think wanting those rigid categories becomes a dangerous crutch. It further conditions the mind to keep the holy terror at bay but the holy terror is what mystery is made of. It is the essential conduit to our Gods. Keeping it at bay, sanitizing it as I wrote above, keeps Them at bay too. Essentially, the lore are accounts of the holy so they contain the holy even if in imperfect form. They’re doors into that world that underlies this one. Truly comprehending our sacred stories prepares one for being dropped into Mystery.
As an example of how important that mental lens is, a spirit-working colleague told me he has a new taboo: he can’t talk about mystery stuff in his tradition, not even with initiates unless he is in the proper headspace. This trumps even being in clean, unpolluted space for him. Now I don’t have that, but it’s an interesting example for me at least, of why understanding cosmology and headspace is so important and so, as much as I shake my head to say it, because I never thought I would, all of us need to be steeped in our cosmology, starting with he Poetic Edda. This means, not just having read them, but having meditated upon, discussed, and analyzed them. That cosmology needs to shape the fabric of our minds.
Now, to reiterate, the Eddas were written down two hundred years after conversion by a Christian. They’re not in themselves sacred writ, but they are what we have of the stories of our Gods and they invite us into the cosmology and contain within themselves even such as they are, hints at our mysteries. This all came up when I was teaching my apprentices the basics of our fire mysteries. In my tradition (and this much I can say publicly), that starts with learning how to make fire from flint and steel. Part of this connects us to our ancestors, but part of being a good fire worker isn’t just being able to pull off the technique, but rather consciously reenacting the cosmological moment of creation, when the world of fire and ice met. One reaffirms and recreates that via the headspace the one is in while doing the technique. Everything started with fire and ice.
Everything before everything came from the interplay of the world of fire and the world of ice. Then there is the breath of Odin that brought us to life, the fire given by Lodur (Loki), the spark of intelligence by Hoenir. everything resolves back to fire, ice, breath, and force. When you’re making fire with flint and steel, you’re bringing together opposing forces. It perfectly recreates that moment of creation. Flint hits steel and sparks and BOOM it’s the action not either of the tools themselves. It is what you are doing and the headspace and mindfulness in which you do it. In Anfang wer der tot…I think of the beginning of Goethe’s Faust : in the beginning was the deed.” (if I have my German right) So much repeated in our cosmology as a theme is the interplay of opposing forces. This in turn is a necessary consequence of polytheism: multiple Forces with different desires,, agendas, preferences and They’re going to be in conflict and crash into each other and that’s not a bad thing but on the contrary, a tremendously, terrifyingly creative thing. These are in many ways, mysteries. Our whole cosmology is contained in starting a fire, which is why it’s the first mystery.
Going into our spiritual work, our devotion, our practices with an awareness that unites the stories we have read, with an understanding of the sacral interplay of forces (and Forces) in our world, is the point of the lore. I always suggest to my students that they think of the “lore” as Cliff notes, bullet points, truncated thoughts but that they never, ever mistake it for experience of the Mysteries, nor for the Gods Themselves.