What Can Our Creation Story Tell Us – Part II
Picking up where we left off in Part I, this is the conclusion of my initial inquiry into our creation story. After the Prose Edda, the story is recounted in the Voluspa, stanzas 17-18 (in some versions, the pagination gives this as 18-19):
fundu á landi lítt megandi
Ask ok Emblu örlöglausa.
Ǫnd þau né átto, óð þau né hǫfðo,
lá né læti né lito góða.
Ǫnd gaf Óðinn, óð gaf Hœnir,
lá gaf Lóðurr ok lito góða
…[They] found on land ash and elm,(7)
with little strength, empty of fate.
Soul they had not, sense they had not,
Life-warmth nor proper bearing, nor worthy appearance.
Soul gave Odin, sense gave Hoenir,
Life-warmth gave Loður and worthy appearance.
The Gods – and here, they are not the more primordial Odin, Vili (will), and Ve (holiness), but Odin, Hoenir, an Loður again transform bits of wood into functioning human beings. Epithets matter in reading our sacred stories. They tell us something about the traits and nature of that Deity, they show us what to infer from the Deity’s actions, guiding us through the text as surely as any translator. So, here, the Gods again give gifts and the first gift given is Ǫnd (my apologies to Icelandic readers. I’m having a horrible time with my very old laptop in making the appropriate diacritical marks.), breath or essence of life. Without this gift, the exhalation of a God, the other gifts would not matter, nor in fact would they be capable of being animated and utilized. The word Ǫnd actually translates as soul, not just breath. This word, especially read against its Indo-European cousins is complicated and would lend itself to this interpretation: Odin gave these proto-humans their souls. That is certainly my reading, and it’s backed up by Anthony Faulkes and Michael Barnes in their glossary for A New Introduction to Old Norse (8). I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it translated as ‘soul’ in any Heathen discussion, nor indeed, in most translations. Why do we resist that translation so much? Did Odin really breath into us breath and with that breath soul? Yes, He did. What is a soul? What does it mean that the first gift given by the Gods, before anything else, was the gift of the human soul? What effect did this have?
Only after receiving soul carried on the breath of a God (Odin), were they given sense. They were given functioning intellects, the ability to process and articulate their experiences. Then they received life-warmth and a worthy appearance. They are given a sensorium – life-warmth endows these first humans with the capacity to experience the world through the senses. They are no longer inert. A worthy appearance (lito góða) has a certain moral dimension to it (góða). What does it mean to have a goodly or worthy appearance? Is it an appearance blessed by the Gods? Is it an appearance that reflects the touch/Presence of the Gods? Is it an upright appearance reflective of the capacity to cultivate virtue? What does “worthy” mean in this context? What does it mean to have worth? This phrasing implies an ontological change occurred via the blessing of the Gods, not just in form and function but from one type of being to another, inherently (8).
The order of the divine gifts is also different from the Prose Edda where they receive 1. Breath and life, 2. Wit and movement, 3. Appearance, speech, hearing, and eyesight. In the Poetic Edda, Ask and Embla receive souls, which are the essence of life (9) first as in the Prose Edda, but then the Voluspa simply notes “sense” being given by Hoenir. The word óð is probably better translated as ‘movement’ than as ‘sense.’ It comes from the verb vaða, which actually means to ‘wade ashore.’ I haven’t really considered the meaning behind the Gods presence on a sea shore when They discovered the trees that became man and woman, but this would imply there’s something quite significant there (don’t worry. I’ll tackle it in another article when I’ve had a chance to consider it more fully). It’s movement in the sense of movement out of the murk, movement from unknowing to knowing, unbeing, to individual consciousness. The above passage is followed immediately by :
19. Ask veit ek standa, heitir Yggdrasill
hár baðmr, ausinn hvíta auri;
þaðan koma döggvar þærs í dala falla;
stendr æ yfir grœnn Urðar brunni.
I know an ash tree standing, it is called Yggdrasil
Grey tree, wet with white water poured out;
Then comes glistening dew that falls in the dales;
It stands green over Urda’s well.
The immediate mention of Urda’s well ties the state of being human directly into the flow of wyrd. Prior to the creation of materiality and temporality, especially the latter, wyrd was not in play. It is only with the movement from unbeing to being that wyrd becomes active and we’re told this by the specific mention of Urda, the Norn associated with memory. Without temporality there is no memory. Memory automatically implies the flow of time. This also implies that human beings are yoked to temporality – we’re mortal. This sounds obvious to say but nowhere in the text until this particular point is there anything clearly articulating human mortality.
There is also an implied connection with Yggdrasil. Now, this could simply be that all trees are in some way part of Yggdrasil (this is how a northern tradition spirit-worker would interpret it) but I think there is more here. Water pours out from the tree, white and clear (white- hvíta– is often used in medieval writing to indicate not skin color, but pure and shining brilliance. Heimdallr, for instance is sometimes called the “white God” but this is not a reference to skin color so much as to His shining, brilliant, blinding countenance). This water, we know from other passages, nourishes Yggdrasil. It is the water of Urda’s well, the water of memory. Memory is a gift of temporality, its passage held and ordered by a Norn Who is, by Her nature, above the passage of time (10). If the well is filled with the water of memory, then what is that water that flows from the Tree? If it is memory and it is pure (we know this by the use of the word hvíta) then one can posit a connection with both the Gods and human beings. We are defined by our memory. Our character, our personality, our drive are all impacted by our experiences, which are held in our own internal well of memory. In the Grimnismal, we read that Odin has two ravens named Thought and Memory and while both fly free daily to do His bidding, He always fears for their return, but – as the Edda tells us – He fears the loss of memory the most. Why is memory more important than thought? I posit that it is because it is the sum total of our collected experience, the totality of who we are, who we have formed ourselves to be, good and bad, victory and failure, it is the tapestry of our life. In some way this transforms into the gleaming and pure water that nourishes the Tree and fills the well of Urda. What has once occurred after all, always rests in the wyrd and can be read and discovered by canny diviners.
I think this says something crucial about the state of being human though; namely, that we nourish the tree by our experiences, by the quality of our experiences. We come from the Tree, having been crafted first and foremost from ash and elm (all trees being part of Yggdrasil), so there is that ontological connection already. More than that though, we nourish Yggdrasil through our deeds that become enshrined, transformed into memory and because there is this double emphasis on character (first with the word worthy –goðaand then with pure and shining white – hvíta), I posit that we specifically nourish the Tree by perfecting our piety. The proper state then of being human is that of pious reverence because we are always connected to both the Well and the Tree, and how we live matters. Not only do we come from the Tree in this way, but some part of us – memory, also a soul part in the Northern Tradition – returns to nourish it. That is brilliantly interlocking design.
I will take this a step further. Those proto-humans only become fully and properly human when the Gods interact with them. Up until that point, they are inert pieces of wood. It takes interaction with the Gods, proper and fruitful interaction (which only happens on our end, when we approach Them in a pious and reverential head and heart space) to make us fully human. I would further posit that this devotional equation continues to hold throughout our lives. We make choices every day that have the potential to reify that moment of creation, that initial moment of creative engagement with the Gods. Now in our creation story, that moment is initiated by the Gods, but then the human beings are given the trappings of civilization (which I note in Part I): names, clothing, homes. They’re given identity, craft and creativity, beauty, security. Then the choice becomes what to do with those things and how to live rightly (later stories have the God Rig coming to walk and sleep amongst mortals, teaching us how to live and infusing our bloodlines with that of the Gods (11)). Clearly – for me at least!- it is continued interaction with our Gods that teaches us how to live rightly and well. We need that continued, repeated infusion of the divine Presence to truly cultivate our humanity in ways that elevate us above the inert.
Finally, there is a parallel between Ask and Embla in our creation story, and Lif (life) and Lifthrasir (stubborn will to live/love of life), the two humans who conceal themselves within Yggdrasil and in so doing survive Ragnarok (12). They survive by returning to the source. They are renewed as the world is renewed. I don’t put much stock in the Eddic account of Ragnarok. It is so obviously Christianized that I think picking out the Christian apocalypticism from the story is nearly impossible. Instead, I think we may interpret this allegorically. Through that conflagration Ask and Embla are reborn. They go to the Tree, to the Well, to the holy places of the Gods and find sanctuary and through that experience they are renewed in life, humanity, and their ability to thrive. In the conflagrations that consume our lives, be those times of trouble large or small, we are given a productive model of how to behave: we should go to our Gods, to the places that nourish Them and us, and seek shelter by reifying our connection to and alliance with Their holy architecture. We are part of that order and acknowledging that renews a primal connection that has the potential to nourish us on every level, when we let it; and we “let” it through cultivating piety and reverence and an awareness of our place in that architecture, our place and the rightness of our beings in the sight of the Gods. They made us, breathed soul into us, infused us with our minds, our sensoria, goodly form, goodly character. They named us, bringing us into collectively articulated being with each
I’ll stop here, because I did after all posit from the beginning of this two part series, that this was only an initial and brief examination of our human creation story. There is so much more to look at here and in the future, I hope to return to this subject in a deeper way. My sister asked me once if I believed these stories are objectively true. Yes and no. What is truth? There are different kinds of truth. A thing can be true without being scientifically true after all. These are stories our Gods have inspired, ways of explaining our world and the grace of our Gods, ways of better understanding our role in relations to Them, our obligations vis-à-vis the divine architecture. Are they true? Absolutely. Are they literal? That’s a totally different kind of truth and not really relevant in the realm of μυθος. Learning in what register to read and how to interpret after all, is just as important as learning the actual abc’s of language.
I will close as we all should close (and begin and do everything in between!), that is, with a prayer:
For the gift my soul I am grateful.
For the life that I have been given to craft,
I am grateful.
For my mind, will, and sensoria,
my goodly form, and worthy being,
I give thanks.
May I tend these treasures well,
cultivating a good and pious character
ever rooted in the soil of devotion
from which the Tree of my being
Hail to the Gods
and all the glory They have wrought,
now and always.
Notes – Continuing from Part I:
(7) Most translations give “Ask and Embla” as proper names, but it occurred to me looking at this, that it could just as easily refer to the trees as the people created from them or perhaps the audience would have heard it that way, with the double meaning embedded, particularly since they are referred to as ‘empty of fate.’ No human being is empty of fate.
(8) In the Northern Tradition, the physical body (like) and its vitality (litr) are actually considered by some to be parts of the soul. The physical body particularly is the part sloughed off after each incarnation, given back to the earth to nourish it for all that we have taken for our own sustenance. This is not articulated in the Eddas but is something spirit-workers in the Northern Tradition take on faith and it affects our practice in very specific ways (both in divination and in soul workings – practices designed to strengthen specific parts on the soul in which diagnostic divination has determined there is a weakness).
(9) The word can mean breath, essence of life, or soul. I follow Faulkes and Barnes in giving precedence to the last.
(10) I wonder if the Nornir are time, if somehow the passage of time – past, present, future – are somehow contained within Them, flowing from Them, ordered by Them. I hesitate to say They were formed by it, because Their position in the lore seems to set Them above temporality in some way, yet They are intimately connected to it (and yet have no connection that we know of with the House of Mundilfari, Deities connected to the daily passage of time). The role of the Nornir in creation has not come down to us. Like the primordial cow Auðumla, They just appear.
(11) Scholarly arguments abound over whether Rig is Odin or Heimdallr. The modus operandi fits Odin quite well, but for a number of reasons, I tend to fall into the Heimdallr camp.
(12)They hide in Hoddmimis Holt, Hoddmimir’s wood with some scholars, most notably Carolyne Larrington assert is another name for Yggdrasil.
Posted on October 16, 2020, in Heathenry, theology, Uncategorized and tagged Asatru, Creation story, Heathenry, human anthropology, Northern tradition, theological anthropology, theology. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.