Category Archives: Heathenry
Years and years ago, over 20 now, I went through a period where Odin completely cut His presence off from me. Everyone I dealt with could sense Him around me. I still did His work effectively; but I myself had zero sense of His presence, something that until that moment, from the time I felt claimed by Him, had been a constant in my life. This devasted me. I had no idea what was happening and no conceptual spiritual framework in which to place it. I got through it, because I tend to be duty-motivated, stubborn, and I know that feeling or not feeling His presence was no reason to stop honoring the Gods, honoring Him and doing what I knew to be my spiritual work, but it broke something in me that took a very long time to heal. In time, I was grateful for that period, sort of, the way you know that something terrible made you stronger in the long run, and after about a year or so, it was like a flood gate opened and His presence was back as strong as ever.
Now, yes, I know that the majority of people, especially lay people never experience their Gods like this. I realize that having this experience even once in my life has been a privilege. At that time, however, this was my normal and I didn’t realize it wasn’t like that for most people. The sudden absence was the worst internal pain I have ever experienced. I had read all the works of mystic literature (especially the Rhine mystics like Mechthild of Magdeburg) and I had a framework for what it was like when a God swept one up, for what a theologian of medieval Christianity might term raptus and a polytheistic theologian ekstasis. I didn’t have any model at all for what happens when that stops until last night.
While doing some reading for class prep, I stumbled across a couple of texts, one of which ironically I’d read before, a long time ago for a class (but sometimes it’s a matter of reading the right thing at the right time, which last night apparently was): Guigo the Carthusian’s Ladder of Monks. (The other texts were more relevant in putting into place things I’d been recognizing about my prayer practice and I’ll save that for a separate post later. In his exploration, which is in fact a lovely letter to a fellow monk, Guigo breaks his spiritual practice into four parts: reading, meditation (on what one has read), prayer, and direct experience of the divine or contemplation. Part of what he discusses is what happens when one is suffused with the sense of the presence of one’s God and then that presence goes away. It hit me so incredibly hard. THIS was the text I’d needed so very many years ago. Here are a few passages, (keeping in mind Western Christian mystics often conceived of Christ as the Bridegroom and the soul – whether the mystic was male or female—as the Bride after the language of the Song of Songs):
“Do not fear, oh Bride, nor despair, and do not think that you’re despised if, from time to time, the Bridegroom veils His face. All of this is for your good; His leaving is just as beneficial as His coming…He comes to console you and leaves to guard… (p. 27).
The Bridegroom comes, bringing consolation and leaving desolation. He lets us taste a bit of His ineffable sweetness; but before it can penetrate us, He hides and leaves. Now, He does this in order to teach us to fly toward the Lord. Like an eagle He extends His wings and pushes us to rise” (p. 28).
Years after this particular ordeal, this absolutely accords with what I experienced with Odin and I wish that I had been aware that this framework existed, was understood and explored somewhere. Had I read just these two passages, I would have found myself better able to more productively endure. As it was, I still feel like that time left scar tissue and now my job is to break that tissue down, excise it from my soul so that evil cannot use it, cannot cement it causing me to grow around it in a shape contrary to what my God, Odin, would have for me.
Last night, having stumbled over these passages, I was sharing them with my husband and all of this came up in a rushing flood and I realized how much deep, and deeply rooted pain I carry from that time. He put on some music and we talked for a time. I respond extremely strongly to music and it’s one of the things that can put me in an altered state pretty quickly. I chalk this up to my having been a ballet dancer. I went down hard to the feet of my God and for the first time in maybe a decade, I was able to turn to mild ordeal to open myself up. It was nothing excessive. I had first asked my husband if he could do it but he honestly told me he didn’t trust his hand (and I so respect his honesty). My housemate was asleep and I wasn’t about to wake her up so I just did the ordeal on myself and then sat with Him.
I called Him, galdred to Him, received insight and runes in return and HIM the feel of His presence moving through me and highlighting the scars, cleansing some, showing me how to tend the others but most of all there was that direct engagement, furious and open and raw and joyous and a thousand other things and it was delicious, restorative and I woke today tired, scarred, but feeling so much better than I have in months. Let evil come to test and try us. It is insignificant. Only the Gods remain and that is a union which I for one will never yield.
So many thoughts on prayer and hunting for power, spiritual power, the power to clean out blockages, to obliterate all those things that root inside us, causing us to grow twisted and out of true with that which our Gods wish for us. Tonight for the first time in years, I did a small ordeal, to clean myself out, open myself up to Odin, in devotion, in love, in adoration and it was wonderful.
Each month I send out a newsletter to my subscribers. In that newsletter, I usually give sneak peaks at new prayer cards, updates on my work, recipes, reviews, and occasionally special prayers. (Y’all can subscribe at the link provided here).
In last week’s newsletter, I included the following prayer and I decided to share it here for everyone, because I think prayer is important, and this particular type of prayer incredibly helpful.
We are living in some very troubled times, and above all else, we’re living in spiritually troubled times. Evil exists and as people devoted to our Gods, we are called upon to stand against it. What that means is that we co-create. We stand with our Gods in maintaining right order and alignment in our world, in the cosmic architecture the Gods have created. How we do that may vary – some of you are parents committed to raising devout children, some have intense prayer practices, some love the Gods and carry that into everything you do – and everything we do can be infused with that consciousness whether you’re a mechanic or artist, homemaker, teacher or doctor, or anything else.
Each of us has the power to transform our world for the better and whatever we may be doing day to day, a key component of that is prayer. It has the potential to change the world. It also nourishes us and keeps us from being beaten down and crushed by the vitriol and hate, by the pollution and poison, by the misery and sheer wickedness that all too often seems to shape the modern world. I want to share a prayer that we use in my House and home to maintain balance, to restore harmony, to help (along with other prayers and cleansings) banish pollution. This prayer was written by H. Jeremiah Lewis (Sannion).
We have an entire panoply of prayers that we do to consciously align ourselves with that sacred architectural order. This is the first in that assembly and one that anyone, layperson or specialist, may do. I share it with you now because Heimdallr is a God of purification and consecration, a God Whose presence drives back pollution and evil in a very special way. He will restore harmony to a person, place, or thing that has experienced spiritual attack or disorder. I urge you to use this prayer as needed (though please don’t share it without attribution) and call upon Heimdallr and our other Gods regularly for blessings, for care, and for protection.
If you are feeling shaky and uncertain and scared, you’re not alone. Don’t give in though, because I firmly believe that there is evil that will feed on these things, amp them up, in an attempt to drive a wedge between us and all that’s holy. The thing is, whatever evil is out there can only do this if we give it the opening. Prayer helps us prevent that. Prayer is our guard, our armor, the weapon in our hand, and our guide. So I urge you all to pray regularly and know that our Gods are there and They are bigger and more powerful than anything that might attempt to stand against Them. There is no need to ever fear.
To Heimdallr Heimdallr who hears all, hear my prayer from the turrets of Himinbjörg where shimmering Bifröst meets the sky and leads to numerous other realms like a second mighty World Tree. You see all that transpires in these far-off places, scanning the horizon for signs of Ragnarök’s arrival when you will sound Gjallarhorn and rouse the Gods to battle against that which would threaten the divine order established by the three brothers from the remnants of their Giant ancestor long, long ago. You hold in your mind an image of how things should be, and act to bring things into alignment with their ideal pattern, creating order and harmony, hale and concord where there was chaos, violent disagreement, defect and disease. I beseech you, Heimdallr, drive out these negative influences and anything else that might cause me to stray from my destined path of devotion to the Holy Powers, and restore what is missing or damaged within me so that I might better fulfill the will of my Gods and Spirits. This I ask, Heimdallr, you who traveled about in secret, propagating the lines of humanity, and all their distinct crafts and customs, and so know what it is for us to strive and through great focus and direction of will attain our particular glory. Hail to you, most radiant God, strong and stubborn as a ram on his mountain, whether it pleases you to be called Heimdallr, Rig, Hallinskiði, Gullintanni, Vindhlér or any of the many other names you have adopted during your travels with Loki, Þórr and the Alföðr; may your praises always be upon my lips and your shrine piled with plentiful offerings. (prayer by H. Jeremiah Lewis)
I always have to begin these posts with reminders that lore alone is too easy, a low bar. When I began in Heathenry in the early nineties, the only thing that people valued—even over integrity in one’s devotional relationship with the Gods or indeed any devotional relationship at all – was how much lore one could quote. No one really cared to interrogate how mediated that lore was by Christian authors either. Coming predominantly from Protestantism as the majority of converts of that time did, all most Heathens cared about was replicating the relationship with the Bible with which they’d grown up (and despite the fact that pre-Christian Heathens were living in a predominantly oral culture – no one wanted to examine the implications of that very much either). To that end, anything devotional, anything mystical, anything that might accidentally take the Gods off the pages of a book and allow for actual, complicated, inconvenient engagement was strongly and doggedly edited out. Can’t have pesky piety or actual gnosis now can we? Unless that piety is bound between the pages of a book. Fortunately, we’re growing past this bullshit (which really, was just an excuse for unwarranted vanity and bullying, and had very little to do with actual piety at all in way too many cases) and it can’t happen quickly enough (1).
I’m a firm believer that we grow spiritually by allowing the Gods into our lives, developing a devotional praxis, allowing Them to crack us open spiritually, forcing our souls to expand and evolve into that which allows us to become better retainers to Them. While I think the lore may be useful as a scaffolding for that process, it’s a map, one of many. It’s not the territory. It’s especially not territory when one’s worldview is still that of a modern Protestant (all respect to my Protestant friends. Rock on in your own sandboxes. It’s a problem though when someone converts but stays religion X, Y, or Z in their minds. One can’t just replace one God with Many in theory and assume nothing else has to change).
As I said to a good friend yesterday, when we were discussing the Sonnatorek (part of Egil’s Saga): yeah sure, it might be useful under certain circumstances, but what is really useful is having a devotional relationship with the Gods. That is what truly sustains, and if someone is against that, or hostile to it, then why waste time with them? Nothing will help them or assuage them in a lasting way, because their souls are empty. I don’t think we should fill that space with lore (2) when doing so only reinforces lack of devotion and impiety. It’s a simple rubric: don’t do that which nurtures impiety. Of course one could argue that using the lore like that is a steppingstone, except I’ve not seen many Heathens stepping past that point so I guess I’m less than sanguine about the whole thing (3). I suppose I digress…
Either way, it’s odd to find myself returning to the lore for lectio divina. It is useful though, when it’s kept to its place and we don’t, as a Victorian mater or pater familias might say, allow it to rise above its station. One of the things that I like about the lore is that it gives us hints about the core competencies or what the Greeks would term τιμαι of our Gods. Since I’ve been slowly cultivating a devotion to Heimdallr over the last couple of months, I thought I would focus on a verse about Him for this post.
27. Veit hon Heimdallar hljóð um fólgit undir heiðvönum helgum baðmi; á sér hon ausask aurgum forsi af veði Valföðrs. Vituð ér enn eða hvat?´ 27. I know of the horn | of Heimdall, hidden Under the high-reaching | holy tree; On it there pours | from Valfather's pledge A mighty stream: | would you know yet more?
Right away, this stanza makes a connection between Heimdallr and Yggdrasil, the World Tree that sustains and supports the nine worlds, a key point of the sacred architecture of creation. If the Tree sustains, and Heimdallr’s key attribute (His horn- hljóð – and more on this word in a bit) is hidden beneath the Tree, then does He play some role in protecting and sustaining it and by extension all creation as well? Further, in this passage, while we already know the Tree is holy, that is emphasized here again. It’s not just that the horn is hidden under the high-reaching Tree (a spatial terminology that should already have our mental bells ringing), but it is specifically “holy” (helgum). This word isn’t just holy, but it may also imply that a place is appropriate for sacred rites and even inviolable (see Zoega).
This makes me think about Heimdallr’s heiti or epithets/by-names. I haven’t found many:
- Rígr : ‘king’
- Hallinskiði: ‘the one with the lop-sided horns’ or ‘the inclining rod (which may mean ‘beam of sunlight’)’ or ‘axis of the world’ (4). If we take this latter meaning, then we have yet another reference to Yggdrasil.
- Gullintanni : ‘golden tooth’
- Hvitastr Ása -the whitest God (though in this sense it’s not white skin but white in the sense of brilliant, blinding light).
He’s associated to some degree with the Ram, which might account for the second by-name. I have no idea what “Golden Tooth” refers to – perhaps a story that hasn’t come down to us, perhaps one of His mysteries? Rígr of course, refers to His actions in the Rigsthula, where He establishes social order across Midgard (generally with his penis, but sometimes that’s just the way our Gods roll).
Hljóð raises some questions. It’s a slippery word and might not refer to Heimdallr’s horn at all. It could be a poetic gloss for his hearing or even (and probably more likely of the two) His ear/s). This latter would make sense, given that a strong parallel is being drawn in this passage between Heimdallr and Odin, one of Whose bynames is Valfather. Odin’s eye, which He ripped out in exchange for a draught from the Well of Mimir is His pledge, and lies in Mimir’s Well, which itself is situated at the foot of the Tree. The spatiality of this passage seems to imply that Heimdallr made a similar sacrifice.
When I first learned about Heimdallr, I was taught that He had sacrificed an ear in much the same fashion that Odin sacrificed an eye, and that the Gjallarhorn was representative of both that sacrifice and His power. Once I got to the point where I had enough familiarity with Old Norse to look at the original passages myself, I realized it’s not quite so concrete and while I still lean in that direction, the word hljóð here is ambiguous and, I think, points to something far larger than just a concrete ear or horn. A sacrifice was made and where for Odin, that sacrifice involved sight, for Heimdallr, it was a different sense, hearing. What that means on an esoteric level, I don’t know (yes, yes, writer of the Voluspa, I would know more).
Not having a concrete answer doesn’t mean that one can’t engage in fruitful speculation. After all, when it comes to our Gods, that’s pretty much what we have even where lore is extant. Our knowledge, if one can call it that, of our Gods is always tempered by and through our experience and that is limited as our human insight is limited in comparison to the Holy Powers. The two thoughts that really jump out for me came from a student, who once asked me if Heimdallr, like the Hindu Agni hears all our prayers, or like Lukumi’s Ellegua stands at the crossroads of the worlds keeping bad things at bay and allowing blessings to flow. To be honest, my own personal opinion is yes, pretty much. I think that He is a God of holiness, One Who ensures the purity and inviolability of holy spaces. I further think His nature and power is such that nothing unholy may exist in His presence. In our House we invoke Him before every ritual we do, to ensure that our ritual container (i.e. the space in which we’re celebrating the Gods) might be clean and free of all interference and pollution. We ask that He turn His attention to us and open the way across Bifrost for our prayers to reach the Gods clearly and without impediment. We entrust to Him our safety from any external pollution. We pray to Him also to restore harmony to our home and our hearts, minds, and souls, after any contact with negative spirits, malefica, or pollution.
If, as this verse hints, Heimdallr is mythically associated with Yggdrasil and also made sacrifice at Mimir’s well, then this underscores His essential role in maintaining the integrity of the worlds and their architecture. That’s no small thing. Perhaps this is why it is said in lore that He has nine mothers: each one a doorway to and root within one of the worlds.
As always, if there’s a particular stanza from the Eddas or other lore that you’d like me to discuss, just shoot me an email.
- When you have a community that would take as a priest the atheist who can quote a ton of lore over the devotee with a deep, ongoing devotional relationship to one or more of the Gods, there’s a problem. Now yes, I think clergy and other specialists should know their lore. Why? Because it instills a particular cosmology that echoes throughout our tradition and shows various doorways to mysteries of our Gods. It’s important to know Their stories but the end is never lore in and of itself and that acquisition should never be bereft of the knowledge that it is, at best, a spotty map with multiple lacunae.
- Or only with lore – if I thought Sonnatorek would be helpful, I’d recommend it to someone without hesitation.
- What I’ve seen is recitation of lore taken to mean one is a “better” Heathen and used to gain ego points. It’s pure vanity and also pure bullshit. Their devotional relationships may be absolute trash fires, or non-existent but Heathen X can quote the lore backwards and forwards so let’s all bow down. Sorry (not) but I do not think so.
- I forgot where I found these. I keep spreadsheets with any heiti I find for the Gods. I can’t recall where I came across the second by-name here.
This, to me, might be a game changer. Yesterday Wyrd Dottir sent me this article. A human skull fragment dating from the early 8th century was found during an archaeological excavation in Ribe, Denmark. The fragment was found in 1973 but apparently we’re just hearing about it now. I’m certainly just hearing about it now and it rather blows my mind.
One theory is that the bone was worn as an amulet. Scholarly opinion on the inscription differs. Either Ulfr, quite possibly Fenrir is invoked (i.e. the Wolf), Odin and Tyr, or a threefold name for Odin.
Here is the inscription, in Danish and then English (taken from the article linked above):
Ulf/ulv og Odin og Høj-Tyr. Hullet/Buri er hjælp mod dette værk (denne smerte). Og dværgen overvundet. Bourr.
Ulfr/ Wolf and Óðinn and HótiwR/High-Týr. The hole/Buri is help against this ache (pain). And the dwarf overcome. Bourr.
Bourr is most likely the name of the person the amulet is intended to help. Buri is most likely the name of Odin’s Father…
Thank you, Wyrd Dottir! I’m drowning in exam preparations and would never have seen this had you not sent it my way.
I have been meditating quite a bit on Mundilfari, our God of time. He is the Father of Mani, Sunna, and Sinthgunt. He governs the flow of time. That is pretty much all we know about Him. While the lack of concrete information is frustrating, it’s also an opportunity to throw oneself into the experience of devotion in a way we may not when there is substantial lore.
With our crazy schedules, we’ve been talking about time a lot in my house lately. Is it oppressive or is it a guard and guide? I tend to fall into the latter category – nothing makes me happier than a watch, a day planner, and a nice calendar. As we were discussing these things, I had an epiphany about Mundilfari with respect to time. What follows is my own experience of Him. There’s almost nothing surviving in the lore.
Firstly, I think a clock is a perfect reliquary for this God, likewise a pocket watch. They have something of His understated elegance and also, well, time. My impression of Mundilfari is that He rides the flow of time as though He were surfing a wave. He wraps us up in it, protecting our boundaries, allowing us space to do what we need to do–if we recognize and utilize the gift. Far from being a harsh taskmaster, His gift is one that makes Midgard habitable.
I think about what time means in our tradition and how it is the thing that makes it possible for us to be yoked to wyrd. It’s a container for the unfolding of the material world and as such, a container for the unfolding of our hopes and dreams. It guards our day, supporting us and allowing us some control over the expenditure of our energies. It also allows and even helps us in the unfolding and nurturing of our wyrd. That is a grace and a gift.
I know there are problems with time and time management, but I think those are of our making. The three creator Gods crafted Midgard and indeed all the worlds, gave us this magnificent infrastructure and the first thing that happened after that, was that Mundilfari and His children established cyclical time, allowing us to orient ourselves in our world. This flow of Their power : day into night into day again, the turning of the seasons, the cycle of years is a sacred thing, something that sustains that divinely crafted multi-world infrastructure, allowing it the flexibility it needs (to rest and refresh itself) to be self-sustaining. I am coming to think that Mundilfari’s blessings do the same for us too and hopefully, over the next couple of years, I will learn to honor Him more fully and well.
If any of my readers pay cultus to Him, I would love to hear about what y’all do.
The Astronomical Clock in Prague
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Every so often this topic rears its head again, because you know, it goes against our modern sensibilities that our religion should be occasionally inconvenient. I’ve heard people opining that “miasma” and “pollution” are Greek terms and have no purchase in Heathenry, a pathetic piece of sophistry that ignores the concept in favor of pedantically parsing terms. These are usually the same people who feel that offering so much as a teaspoon of water is so inconvenient as to be oppressive (cue hand to brow and vaporous gasping) and triggering. I could say more on that, but I’ll digress. What I will emphasize is that pollution and purification are absolutely terms of play in Old Norse.
There are numerous terms that might be translated as ‘purification,’ ‘pollution,’ or ‘miasma’ in Old Norse. This is because like most traditions, our ancestors had a sense of what was correct and safe in holy places. Any time you have a sense of sacred space (which we know just from the Sagas that the Norse had), the corollary is – whether written or not—a sense of what constitutes proper behavior within those sacred areas. This implies not only an understanding of spiritual pollution but also of the contagion of the holy. So, I’m going to get right to the point. Pollution and miasma were far, far from alien concepts to pre-Christian Heathens and the language itself bears this out.
Since Heathen Field Guide is talking about his here, and mentioned that he was having difficulty finding appropriate ON terms, I thought I would repost the ones that I have collected (and much thanks to D. Loptson for helping to compile this list). Most of the terms are laid out in footnote one of my book on miasma: “With Clean Minds and Clean Hands.”
I’ll add a final note. When we talk about pollution in this sense, it’s not a commentary on anyone’s worth. It is not equivalent to “sin.” Even with miasma, in most cases it’s a matter of certain situations having natural consequences and that’s neutral. For instance, I may go to the cemetery to put flowers on my grandmother’s grave. It is, within our traditions a moral good to care for the dead and visit graves. It also puts me in a state of miasma because of the contact with the dead. The solution is to do a cleansing when I return home before I engage with any other sacred thing. Easy enough to manage. This is all about being aware that Gods and spirits are real and that engaging with them affects us in ways we may not be able to see, but ways that nonetheless matter. Likewise, in relation to the Holy Powers, our actions matter too and we should, if we are rightly ordered in our minds, hearts, and spirits, want to be spiritually and energetically clean when we approach Them, or just in general, particularly since miasma and spiritual pollution can attract more pollution, up to and including illness and calamity depending on how much accumulates. It can also block our spiritual discernment. So do a fucking cleansing once in awhile you filthy animals. And don’t forget to wash behind your ears.
Grant H. recently sent me some lovely prayers to our Moon God and I’m delighted to share them with you today (with Grant’s permission). Mani has been so incredibly lovely of late and such a gracious and protective presence in our lives. It is right and fit to honor Him always and I love hearing from people who do. 🙂
Mani, still shining The lesser lights of man have stolen the Stars from the sky; That is what it appears to be, at least. In truth, the Star spirits are still there, simply hidden away by modern light pollution. (Modern Life pollution?) And I weep for the Star spirits I can no longer see. But I still see Mani shining bright in the night sky. And that does put a smile upon my face. So I smile and wave to Mani, And - though I cannot see it with my two mortal eyes - I do see that he smiles back. To Mani Mighty Mani, shining bright; Only celestial body I see tonight. I give you this offering in honor of your sacred light. The tides flow because of you, and I am grateful for that. Life is possible on this planet because of you, and I thank you for that. I thank you Mani I thank you Mani, shining bright; Only celestial body I see tonight. I give you an offering, as is my duty and your right; Only celestial body I see tonight. I thank you for the tides, Mani shining bright; Only celestial body I see tonight. I thank you for the glowing tides, that grant the planet flowing life; Mani shining bright; Only celestial body I see tonight. White gold moon I see Mani in the sky, shining bright; Only celestial body I see tonight. He is the white gold moon Golden and bright, shining in his fullness with the moon’s blessed light. Hail the white-gold moon! (All prayers/poems copyright Grant Hodel 2021).
For the better part of thirty years, many of us have celebrated April 1 as a feast-day for the God Loki. This is the day wherein we honor Him as trickster, troublemaker, the eternal loophole-finder, and the chaos that keeps the architecture of creation vibrant and alive. All of these things of course, are reasons why some denominations of Heathens pale at the very mention of His name. Loki was one of the first Gods to really take me in hand (not the first, but close) and in many respects He prepared me for Odin. He’s been a good friend to me and my House and I can honestly say that in some way, shape, or form, every single good thing in my life has come through His hands. I am grateful, deeply grateful to Him. One of the first fights that I encountered in Heathenry was over whether or not His veneration was licit and I’m very proud to say that thanks to my work and that of Raven Kaldera, Fuensanta Plaza, and Elizabeth Vongvisith that is no longer the universal question it once was in the US. Others picked up that fight but we moved the center. There are still denominations that refuse to even say Loki’s name, but there are as many if not more in which His veneration is welcomed, embraced, or at worst at least tolerated. So today, I honor not just Loki but all those who fought for decades that His name might be spoken with pride. Those today who take it for granted, should remember the fight and those who waged it.
Hail to You, God Who breathes fire into the synapses,
Whose hands crackle with warmth and life,
Who whispered runes and carved sigils
along the wood-darkened flesh of Askr and Embla
and brought that flesh to living life.
God Who gave us our ability to feel,
Whose laughter can be heard as His numen overwhelms us,
Whose joy is palpable as His Presence steals our speech,
and His primal force purifies our souls,
may there always be those who flock to Your veneration.
Hail to You, Who evokes love and hate
in equal measure, Whose devotees
lose themselves so easily in You, generation after generation.
Hail to You, Who will not be silenced, Who loves as He loves,
and Who works His wiles throughout the worlds fearlessly.
Hail to the Husband of Sigyn, Father of marvelous Children.
Hail to the Friend of Thor and Brother to Odin.
Hail to the unquiet thought, Who challenges God and mortal alike
to greater integrity and courage.
May those who carry His mysteries be blessed.
May His cultus never cease.
Hail to You, ferocious God. Hail, Loki.
(from my Loki in the West playlist):
I woke up thinking today that I should start doing more exegesis of our lore – sort of like what I do in my approach to the creation narrative. I asked my assistant to randomly pick a bit of lore, and she suggested the Runatal section of the Havamal. This is the part that talks about Odin’s sacrifice on Yggdrasil by which He won the runes. I will preface this by noting that this is not an academic reading of this text. It is lectio divina, sacred reading for the purpose of devotion.
(Taking up the first stanza, here is the Bellows English translation, followed by the Old Norse, followed by my own translation)
- I ween that I hung | on the windy tree,
Hung there for nights full nine;
With the spear I was wounded, | and offered I was
To Othin, myself to myself,
On the tree that none | may ever know
What root beneath it runs.
- Veit ek, at ek hekk vindga meiði á
nætr allar níu, geiri undaðr
ok gefinn Óðni,
sjalfr sjalfum mér,
á þeim meiði, er manngi veit
hvers af rótum renn.
- I know, that I hung upon the wind-twisted tree,
Nine full nights, wounded by spear,
And given to Odin
Self given for me myself,
Upon that tree, which no one knows
where each root runs (1).
Whenever I encounter this particular text, the first question that comes to my mind is what would you do in order to fulfill the fate the Gods have laid out for you? What would you do to do all that They asked of you, to rise up and become better in your living? There is a conscious choice embedded in this opening line, a conscious decision and irrevocable choice. This was not immutable law, but a God choosing that which led to all He later became. On the human level, this brings home to me that life is made of small choices. Atrocities happen by small, seemingly insignificant choices. The best of humanity is also revealed by the smallest of choices. Those choices are what define a life and more importantly, a character. We are, however, called to choose every day the type of person we want to become, and in this context, we have the capacity to choose devotion every day (and it is a choice). The little choices matter. That is not to say that I think Odin choosing to hang Himself on Yggdrasil was a “little” choice, rather that we are faced with choices large and small throughout each day of our lives and they matter. This is especially the case when we’re faced with the choice to make time for prayer or not, to make time for devotion or not, to center our lives around the Holy Powers …or not. How do we do that, how do we inspire ourselves to do that, and how do we do that consistently well?
That is the first thing that I think of when I read the opening line: I ween (know) that I hung on the windy tree… This verse also highlights the importance of Yggdrasil, the world tree, “steed of the terrible One,” within our cosmology. The Tree supports the architecture of the worlds and at the same time is indisputably tied to Odin. It is central to His deepest and darkest mystery. The Nornir, the Fates, tend the Tree and we can support it too. We can tend the Tree through our piety, our devotion, through cultivating an awareness of the sacrality of our world, of our duties to the Holy Powers, and our ongoing, transformative awareness of how Their presence infuses every atom of creation. Veit ek (I know) tells the reader that there is volition involved in this, conscious knowledge of what one is doing and why. Again, this goes back to conscious choice to do what needs to be done, what is correct to do, what will gain in Odin’s case power (2) and in our case greater devotional awareness, even with the knowledge that it will change everything, that it will hurt, that it will transform in uncontrollable, unplanned ways.
At the same time, when I read this verse, I visualize it, sometimes projecting myself into it as an observer in the hall of my soul’s memory. The Tree is wind-twisted (vindga), so what is that place wherein it rises like? Do the winds howl, drowning out Odin’s later shrieking (there is a later verse that mentions his shriek as He took up the runes)? What abrasive force must those winds have to bend and twist and shape a Tree as mighty as Yggdrasil? This echoes for me the breath by which Odin implanted our souls, starting with the creation of Askr and Embla, taking up wood and remaking it on an ontological level by the power of His breath.
Odin hung nætr allar níu (nine full nights). What is time to a God? With our sacred stories we enter not into human temporality but mythic time. Nine nights, nine eons – there is an incomprehensibility to the question of length of time here. It is always occurring. Part of Odin is always on the Tree. It has not yet occurred. It happened the last age and all of these temporalities are contained inside these three seemingly insignificant words.
He hung wounded by a spear and tradition tells us that it was His own spear (3). When I read this, I think of several things: the need for sacrifice (blood sacrifice) for some mysteries, the sacrality of sacrifice, the power of ordeal and the way pain can be used to open certain spiritual doors, and then, on a more visceral level, what it felt like to have the steel edge of a spear ripping into one’s flesh, driving deep into one’s viscera. Why a spear? It was not enough to hang and suffer. The blood and pain was a necessary part of this ordeal, a necessary key to open up the worlds to the runes and to bring (or perhaps lure) those runes through. Moreover, we have a God associated with the sword (Tyr) but the spear is particularly Odin’s. It’s a long-range weapon, one that takes keen aim and strong arm to use effectively. The sword may require those things as well, but the sword is not a long-range weapon. Is there something in the use of a long-range weapon here, something that hints at Odin fore seeing the long-range implications of His quest for power? I also consider the physical mechanics of aiming a long-range weapon successfully. I shoot fairly regularly and one of the things I really appreciate about using a gun is the focus required for a good, tight grouping. Is this a sign of His focused hunt for power? He later gives an eye for wisdom, so the visual, the power of sight and hard, ruthless focus is all embedded in His story.
To Whom was that blood sacrifice given? The answer of course is to Himself. Odin offered Himself to Himself for Himself (ok gefinn Óðni, sjalfr sjalfum mér). No one else is present in this retelling leaving the reader to conclude that Odin made this sacrifice of Himself to and for Himself and by Himself (4). Sacrifice is a powerful sacrament. Here, a God was sacrificed by a God. The implication of course is that Odin died on the Tree, became Yggr, the Terrible One. The epithets and heiti or by-names of Gods are important. They show facets of a God’s nature, allow us to conceptualize that which is too vast to ever be completely grasped. They also tap, each and every one, into particularly Mysteries of the God in question. Yggr occurs in the name of the Tree: Yggdrasil (drasill means steed). The adjectival form of this by-name, Ýgr, means ‘terrible,’ which of course can have two meanings. A thing can be terrible because it is terrifying, dreadful, and capable of inspiring terror, but something might also be terrible because it inspires awe. This latter usage is the older sense of the word. Something terrible is something that disturbs. It is something of power. I think both senses of the word apply here to Odin, especially if in using the name Yggr (5) we are invoking the corpse God Who died on Yggdrasil and then walked through death to claim to the runes, rising from the Tree full of power. There is another word etymologically related to Ýgr: ýggiungr: one who causes fear. This certainly applies to Odin (and in fact, my glossary notes that it’s used in the Voluspa for Odin (6)). Whatever other mask Odin may wear, however civilized He may seem, at His core, His time on the Tree effected an ontological change in this being, marked by the acquisition of this heiti, and at His core, He is Yggr.
I actually find the last two lines of this stanza the most perplexing and it may simply be that my Old Norse is piecemeal at best. These lines refer to Yggdrasil and note that no one knows to where its roots run…I have always taken this to refer to the Mystery of Odin’s hanging on the Tree. We know from later stanzas that when, as a result of His ordeal and sacrifice, the runes were opened up to Him, that He reached down to grasp them. Did He see the origin point of the Tree? This stanza for me likewise reminds the reader that there are Mysteries we will never plumb and that is part of the sacred order of things. The preposition af annoys me here though. It generally just means the place from or two which something may run or flow, but according to Zoega’s dictionary, it can have the meaning of “among” or even a temporal meaning: past or beyond a particular period of time. It may also have causal implications. I don’t know how to render that adequately in English. I say that in part because I want all of those meanings to be clearly represented in an English rendering. Why? Because this story is connected to our creation story, Odin being one of our primary creator Gods. Also, this is mythic time. If something has valence beyond the here and now, if the roots tell us that the origins of the Tree are prior to the creation of the worlds or even prior to the emergence of materiality and temporality itself, that the Tree is perhaps the pivot point upon which all of this turns, then I want to reflect that in my translation and I haven’t yet figured out a graceful way in which to do so. We don’t know, cannot know where the roots of the tree are, that is where it came from and when. It, like so much of what unfolds in this story is a mystery, a central mystery within our tradition.
Yggdrasil is also traditionally conceived of not just as a Tree but as a gallows (for Odin), so does something of its unknowability refer to the unknowability of death, or perhaps to the power of this God to traverse the path between death and life again – though then that raises the question of whether the Gods are alive in the same sense that we are (the answer to which I think is a ‘no’…they are more. The category of βιός may come from Them, and the vitality of existence but They are more than simply alive or dead or in between). We have mentions of Yggdrasil in the lore (7) but nothing about its point of origin. We do know that the Tree is holy though, not just from its place in the lore, but it is actually accorded this sobriquet in Stanza 27 of the Voluspa. The word here is helgum, which not only means ‘holy’ but more literally having been consecrated or made holy, rendered a fit place for the performance of sacred rites (Zoega). Coming from the word heilagr, there is a sense here not only of holiness but of inviolability.
The Tree is inviolable, yet it is hungry (as any rune master knows). The Tree is inviolable, yet it suffers (this is noted in several places. See note 6). It must be renewed by the work of the Nornir. The Tree is inviolable yet that is not an unchanging condition and does that mutability have something to do with why the blood of a God was required for the runes, with why it was upon Yggdrasil specifically Odin chose to hang?
These are not questions to which I ever expect a clear, cut and dried answer. That’s not how a μύθος works. They are, however, questions that drive me more deeply into contemplation of my God, and tangentially of my own relationship in service and devotion to Him. I look for key words here and for me, reading this stanza now, they are holy, sacrifice, suffering, power. The result: Yggr, the One who Brings Terror; or one might translate it I suppose as “the One Who evokes Awe.” I like both translations because Odin’s nature, as is the nature of any Deity, is more than can ever be fully known through one epithet or story. We are sensate creatures, and we process the world through our sensoria. Can we define our experiences with our Gods any other way than through the visceral experiences Their numen evokes in us?
I’ll stop here save only to note that as the spirit moves me, I’ll be doing regular exegesis of brief passages of our lore. Again, this is not an academic study of these passages, but lectio divina. If you have a particular verse or passage you would like me to cover, shoot me an email. I’ll get to it eventually (in the order they are received). Happy Tyr’s Day, folks.
- The preposition af seems to have multiple meanings, not just implications of place from which, but also of time – of moving past, beyond. My Old Norse is very basic, but looking at this, I almost want to translate it as “what from the root runs…” Looking at other translations, I know this is incorrect, but I can’t help but think there is more beneath the surface of this line than I’ve heretofore tapped.
- He clearly demonstrates in His stories that power, knowledge and wisdom are not the same. He doesn’t gain wisdom on the Tree. He gains power (and knowledge). Wisdom comes with another sacrifice, that of His eye to Mimir for a draught of the water of wisdom.
- The spear is a weapon particularly associated with Odin Who bears one duergar forged: Gungnir.
- I have, though, had UPG that at least for part of the time, Loki accompanied Him and drummed at the base of the Tree, keeping vigil while Odin hung.
- Yes, I anglicize His names promiscuously and inconsistently.
- Stanza 28 wherein Odin is referred to as “terror of the Gods” uses the word ýggiungr for “Terror of the Gods”.
- See Stanzas 19-20, 27, 45 of the Voluspa, stanzas 29, 31-34, and 44 of the Grimnismal , chapters 15 -16 of the Gylfaginning, and chapter 64 of the Skaldskaparmal, in addition to the Havamal stanza elaborated upon here.