I was shocked this morning to learn that Heathen elder Stephen Grundy (June 28, 1967 – Sept 29, 2021) passed away on September 29 of a sudden heart attack. Some of you may know him from his works “Teutonic Religion” and “Teutonic Magic” as well as his long-standing involvement in The Troth. A full bio/obit may be found here.
May his journey to his ancestors be swift. May he be met with joy and celebration. May he eat honey out of their hands. Hail to him and my deepest condolences to his family.
I’ve been trying to deepen my prayer practice lately. I feel like somewhere in the rush of grad school, I fell away from some of my regular practices and that’s not where I’d like to be. I plan on writing more about how and when I pray, sharing prayers, quotes, and other ideas that have helped me and maybe might help my readers.
I don’t think there’s anything more important than prayer. It’s one of *the* most basic, most foundational practices we have in building a solid, personally sustainable spiritual life. It can be difficult to know where to begin, especially if one wasn’t raised in a devout household (I realize more and more that I was so incredibly lucky to have good devotional models growing up). There are formal, “set” prayers, extempore praying, and quiet contemplation, the type of daily engagement that roots one deeply in awareness that we are surrounded by Gods and spirits and this is good and holy. We move through a world graced with the sacred. Having grown up praying (which doesn’t mean I have a good prayer practice. I don’t think I do.), I never thought of this as a potential problem, but more and more, folks have been asking me about prayer, how to do it, and what is right or wrong in the process. I’m happy to answer questions to the best of my ability to send your questions along and I’ll do my best. In the meantime, I’m going to talk about my Thursday routine.
Firstly, the moment I open my eyes, I usually try to mutter out Sigdrifa’s prayer (from the Sigdrifumal, the translation I use reads: Hail to the Day, and Day’s sons; Hail to Night and Her daughters. With loving eyes look upon us here and bring victory. Hail to the Gods! Hail to the Goddesses! Hail to the mighty fecund earth! Eloquence and native wit bestow upon us here, and healing hands while we live.). Because this prayer really sort of reifies our entire cosmology (I read “Hail to the mighty fecund earth” as including our ancestors, whose bones rest in the earth. Also, we are formed in part from the minerals our parents and their parents, and so forth back generation by generation have eaten courtesy of the food and water taken from the land) I usually say it multiple times a day as the mood strikes.
I’m not a morning person, but once I’m mobile, I start the Mundilfari adorations, which you can find here. These are brief prayers for waking, noon, sundown, midnight. I usually manage them all and what I miss, my assistant catches.
I have a huge set of prayer beads that I use and I often find myself going through these when I exercise. I don’t use the beads themselves at the gym, but keep count in my head – I try to get to the gym a couple times a week. Often I will dedicate the workout to Hermes, Thor, or one of our Healing Deities.
I try to pray before meals. This is the one I forget quite often because with my work schedule, I tend to graze rather than have sit-down meals at a set time. I’m working on this one though, to be more mindful. I think it’s important and I’ve gotten into a bad habit of not being mindful about this here that’s proving harder than I’d like to break.
I also offer a prayer to various Gods (usually Odin, Mani, Loki, et Al) before I begin my work. Sometimes I’ll pray to other Deities (Hermes, Apollo) if I’m feeling more pulled to the Roman part of m practice that day. It depends on what I’m doing, what I’m teaching, etc. I also read quite a bit of early Christian material for (academic) work and there is quite a bit of good information there, so I parse that out when I find it and tuck it away. Why reinvent the wheel? So I’ll try to also read something polytheistic to cleanse my mind just in case, and center myself in our Gods. When I find a good piece of Christian writing though, I will add it to the florilegia I typically keep. Likewise any other writing including secular. If it helps, it helps. I try to read or meditate on something like this a little each day. I ask myself what this can teach me about my own practice. What can I learn? How will this deepen my relationship devotionally to my Gods? Lately, also, I’ve been spending a great deal of time contemplating our [Norse] creation story. I think this is maybe the most important part of our lore and every time I meditate on it, I go more deeply into it and come up with greater insight. It refreshes my practice and it’s this that taught me that when we do ritual or prayer, we’re reifying the moment the Gods came together and set the architecture of the worlds in motion. It taught me the deep need to align our wills and our hearts and our souls with our Gods too in every possible way (even if we have to keep plugging away at it for the rest of our lives to get it right).
Sometimes in the morning there is a small ritual I do as a spirit worker, but that is a simple greeting to all the Powers with some minor offerings. I also tend our household Lararium and make offerings (usually candles, water, coffee, or liquor) to our ancestors.
In the evening, on most days (we miss here and there), we gather as a household and pray. There’s no set time for this: we pray as long as we feel like praying and often conclude with prayers for those in our families and household who are sick or struggling, or the well-being of those we love. There are also certain prayers of protection we do regularly.
Lately, and I’ve just gone back to this after a fairly long absence, I’ve been trying to make special offerings and prayers to whatever Deity rules the day. For Heathens, Monday is Mani’s Day, Tuesday Tyr’s, Wednesday Woden’s, Thursday Thor’s, Friday Freya or Frigga’s (we honor Them both), Saturday a day for cleansing. Originally in Latin it was Saturn’s day. Personally, I tend to give special offerings to Loki and Sigyn on this day, and then Sunday of course, is Sunna’s.
Thor is just amazing. I’ve written about Him before here here.
Because today is His day, I intend to pay special focus to Him all day, turning my mind to His stories, His nature, the feel of His presence when He is invoked, and the incredible way that He cleanses away pollution and evil as though it were nothing at all. He truly is the great Protector of humankind. I want to center my day, each day, around gratitude to the Powers remembering always how deeply blessed I have been in my life. It changes the way we move in the world to think of these things, to consciously choose devotion, faith, and gratitude, to choose to cultivate that which most benefits our devotion to cultivate. I pray to this God of strength and fortitude, that I shall always have the strength to make the appropriate choices in these things, especially when it is most difficult. Here is a prayer that I have written for Him today:
Today, I want to call You by Your English Name: Thunor, God of Thunder, Mighty Hammer Wielder, Friend of Humanity, and Protector of all the worlds. You protect our sacred places, our groves and sanctuaries and most of all the shrines and holy spaces of our hearts that we may lay ourselves down before our Gods in adoration, in love, in deepest gratitude without fear, without hesitation knowing that You, Great-Hearted Husband of Sif, Generous beyond measure, will always guard our comings and goings. You are a loving Father to three joyful children and just as You would no more allow Them to come to harm, so we too may rest securely in Your watchful care. Oh God of the oak, God of holy places, God of the mound, I shall never for sake You. Please, I pray, watch over my ancestors, those of blood and those of spirit. Grant that our dead may rest in peace, strengthened by Your care, the vitality only You, son of Odin bring. That is my prayer for today. I am so grateful for the chance to honor You, so grateful for the chance to pay You homage. Hail Thunor, Thor, Thunder-riding God of Asgard.
From my household prayer book, a prayer for those who feel the strain of the times, who feel the weight of spiritual pollution, or who feel themselves under spiritual attack.
Prayer against Malefica
Odin, You Who are known as Bolverk, Galdrfaðr, Runatyr, and many other names; You Who are expert at working every type of woe and weal, every type of sorcery or magic, Whose whispered will alone can shatter any malefica launched into the worlds, I call to You now. I petition You, Mighty One, Sigtyr, Whose ferocious and unyielding will created the very architecture of the worlds within which we live, Who hung for power, sacrificed to Himself on the boughs of the Ancient Tree, to win the power of creation, hear my plea I pray.
You are the best of healers, the best of magicians, and the best preservation of our souls. You are the restoration of all those devotees who turn to You in prayer, devotion, and ecstatic adoration. I beseech You now, Goðjaðarr, (God-Protector), to render powerless the evil arrayed against me. Banish and drive out every diabolic power, presence, and machination. Crush and dismiss every evil influence, every servant of the enemy – whether they realize their infernal alliance or not. Oh, Ítreker (Splendid Ruler), drive back and destroy all malefica, all envy, and all evil aimed against me and those of my household. Where there is envy, malefica, and degeneracy, grant that my soul may be sustained and infused by an abundance of Your oðr, Your blessings, Your ferocious joy. Grant me victory in the face of my enemies. Grant me victory in the face of infernal assault. May Your cloak and spear shield me and mine, Your hungry, ravening wolves rend and tear that which assaults us, Your ravens show us the way forward in faith, piety, and devotion. Oh Sigmundr (Victory-Protection), Sigrhöfundr (Victory-author), Siggautr (Victory-Lord), from the glorious heights of Asgard, reach out Your powerful will, extend over me, Your unyielding beneficence, and come, Great God, to my aid.
Send Your wolves, send Your ravens, send Your valiant and vicious Valkyries to protect my body and soul. May they vanquish every evil power, every poison or malice invoked against me by wicked, degenerate, shallow, corrupt, and envious people.
Oh Vakr, Ever Vigilant, I place myself under Your authority and Your protection, confident in Your power, and ever shall I proclaim, gratefully that YOU are my protection, YOU my restoration. Odin, whom should I fear? My God is mighty, Hagvirkr, Hangaguð, more powerful than any wickedness that dares to stand against me. You are more powerful than any opponent. I have zero cause for fear. Ever shall I praise You, Aldaföðr, my strength, every hour in every age. ALU.
I promised that after the Solstice, I’d share a picture of our household shrine to Ask and Embla. Here it is. It’s small — we have numerous household shrines and we’re running out of room!–but potent. We started seriously paying cultus to them during this past year’s Sunwait and realized what a powerful thing it was, and how it added a foundation to our practice hitherto lacking. I had initially thought to put their shrine with the rest of our ancestors, but that didn’t seem right. They are the first and thus special. So, they have their own place as you see. It will grow as our understanding of and devotion to them also grows.
Whenever I pick up our House prayer book, my personal devotional florilegia, or a copy of the Eddas to read for devotional purposes, several things run through my mind at once, almost as soon as my hand touches the book. Foremost is that I often feel like I’m slacking when it comes to cultivating my own devotional world. Devotion can be the easiest and most natural thing in one’s life and at the same time it can be hard, hard work. Sometimes it’s frustrating and confusing – not because of the devotion part of it, but because of my own faltering, fumbling awkwardness with the process. So many questions come up:
- How do we properly pray? How do I pray? Am I just phoning it in? How do I make sure that I remain engaged?
- What the hell is contemplation and how am I supposed to do it?
- How do we read? What and how do we read and how does this bring us to our Gods?
- What is devotion and how can I go more deeply into it?
I used to take all these things for granted but as I teach students and apprentices within our tradition, as I reevaluate my own spiritual work, as I engage with clients who come to me with all sorts of questions about their devotional lives, I realize that nothing here should ever be taken for granted. I also realize I had really, really good devotional models within my family. It’s only been the past couple of years that I’ve truly come to understand how precious a gift (and maybe even a grace) that has been. Of course, the downside to all that is that I tend to be very action oriented: “what do You need me to do, oh my Gods” which often leaves me feeling in retrospect as though I got the work part down but somehow am giving perilously short shrift to the devotional/contemplative (they’re not always the same, mind you) part of things. The more frenetic my life becomes, especially with school, the more I find myself examining these lacuna and wanting to ground myself more securely in solid veneration of the Holy Powers.
It’s odd too because I don’t think a text is necessary. Ours prior to Christianity, was an oral tradition. One learned by experience, by growing up in pious households, seeing the community engaging in rituals and seasonal festivals, and being surrounded by examples of this living tradition. Our ancestors had stories yes, but they didn’t depend on the written word, nor did we ever have anything like “scripture.” Still, we today live in a world that privileges the written word perhaps excessively. I once had a fellow theology student ask me about our “scriptures” and when I said we don’t have anything like your bible, he was floored. He kept asking, “but how do you teach your children your religion?” um…we live it. But I get what he was saying. We depend far more in proper inter-generational transmission of the tradition, directly and via devotional, ritual, and venerative experience. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Still, I like my books and there is value in being able to extract insight from a text. I think so long as we remember that our Eddas and other parts of the lore are not “scripture” as monotheistic traditions would comprehend, but maps to the holy (and maps with gaping holes, tatters, and graffiti sometimes too!), we’ll be ok. So, enough of my blather. Let’s get into the stanzas that I chose for today.
The Voluspa contains part of our creation narrative and I think that creation narratives are particularly important for any religious tradition. They contain all the themes and patterns that we will see repeated again and again throughout our cosmology and in this way provide key insights into how our tradition views the world. Here are the passages, first in English and then Old Norse.
6. Then sought the gods | their assembly-seats, The holy ones, | and council held; Names then gave they | to noon and twilight, Morning they named, | and the waning moon, Night and evening, | the years to number. 7. At Ithavoll met | the mighty gods, Shrines and temples | they timbered high; Forges they set, and | they smithed ore, Tongs they wrought, | and tools they fashioned. 6. Þá gengu regin öll á rökstóla, ginnheilug goð, ok um þat gættusk; nátt ok niðjum nöfn um gáfu, morgin hétu ok miðjan dag, undorn ok aptan, árum at telja. 7. Hittusk æsir á Iðavelli, þeir er hörg ok hof hátimbruðu, afla lögðu, auð smíðuðu, tangir skópu ok tól görðu. Immediately in the Old Norse the words Regin and Ginnheilug goð jump out at me. I usually translate Regin as “holy Powers,” but it may also be rendered as “the Rulers,” “the Gods” and may even refer to Their decrees. This word turns up in the lore at various points always referring in some way to the Gods, thus we have regin-braut – the way of the Gods, regin-dórmr – the judgement of the Gods, regin-kuðr/kunnr – descended from the Gods, and regin-þing – holy thing-place to name but a few of its iterations. Because it is so associated with judgement and holy decretals, it reads as a much more formal term for the collective Gods and when I see it, I perk up and pay special attention. It brings me back to the story of the creation of the worlds, and the ways in which the Gods set everything in its proper place, balance, and order. Goð, obviously also a word for Gods, is nearly always collective and inclusive of both Gods and Goddesses. It turns up in compound words having to do with things and people belonging to the Gods and its cognate góð carries the moral force of ‘good,’ or ‘worthy’ such as góðr maðr (good man). One can be goð-borinn, descended from the Gods, goð-málugr, knowledgeable in the lore of the Gods, or goð-árr, messenger of the Gods, for instance (1). The most significant term there, however, is Ginnheilug: most sacred. Combinations with the prefix ginn—almost always imply great holiness or sanctity. Sometimes Regin will occur as Gin-regin, which I would translate as „the most holy Gods.“ It is not one-hundred-percent clear if this is related to Ginnungagap, the great and yawning void from which all creation came into being with the collision of the Niflheim and Muspelheim, but theologically I would (and do) certainly draw this parallel (2). It is the most holy chasm from which this process of creation began; and They are the most-holy Gods Who oversaw this process. All of this runs through my mind and is the background against which I read this text (or at least against which I was reading the text when I wrote this!). Were I teaching this text, the first question I would ask my students (and this is likewise what I myself zero in on for contemplation) is „what did the Gods do first?“ What was the first collective priority after the three Brothers created the scaffolding and architecture of the worlds? First having come together in counsel, They ordered day and night, the course of the planets, and by extension the seasons. This is all temporal. Materiality has already happened when the two primal worlds ground together, but here we have temporal and one may assume spatial ordering. They gave materiality structure, partitioned it out into a healthy and harmonious rhythm. They created seasons and put planets in rotation. Day and night are the most important divisions for us as human beings, particularly when our lives were – like so many of our ancestors—predominantly agricultural. This division of time was meant as a guide and to nourish us: when do we work? When do we rest? When do we plant? When do we harvest? How does the world work? Moreover, such binary division (day/night, light/dark) reflects the productive exchange of opposites embedded in Niflheim and Muspelheim – ice and fire. I also think this emphasizes how cosmologically important the House of Mundilfari is. Farmers would have looked to the sun and the moon, and the Gods thereof to ensure their wellbeing. It‘s easy for those of us living more urban lifestyles to forget how crucial Mani and Sunna‘s blessings would have been for our ancestors. They literally insured continued sustenance and life. Plus, one could gaze up into the sky and see a symbol of Their presence. So after celestial cycles were established, the next thing the Gods did was build temples – for Themselves or for each Other the text does not say. We know though that Freya has the epithet of blotgyðja for the Gods, and there is precedent in other IE traditions for Gods recognizing and participating in each Other’s divine process. Even in what remains of our sacred stories, what has been filtered down to us through Christian voices and hands, we have a sharing of attributes: Thor borrows Brisingamen, Loki borrows Freya’s falcon cloak, and so forth. When this is done licitly it adds power to the Gods in question (3). So the Gods acknowledged the divinity of each other and by extension we can assume, Their individual spheres of influence and power. After this, the third thing They do is to create art. Craft is sacred, it’s a conduit for the holy. Here, smithcraft is particularly mentioned and in many IE cultures including the Norse, smiths were considered magical figures, magicians, shamans, and such. This is because they wielded the elemental powers of creation, especially fire, and drew from the earth that which was later transformed into objects of beauty. Beauty and art empower the worlds and in good Platonic fashion lift us up to the Gods, in awareness, in understanding, and in devotional longing. This is a process that didn’t just happen once. In setting up the temporal division of night and day, we are opened up to the possibility of change. You can’t have change unless you have time. So each new day is a reification anew of that initial creation. Each day we can remake and restore ourselves within that holy architecture. At this point in my reading, I would most likely take stock of what I have done throughout the day (or if I’m reading in the morning, what I wish to do), always keeping the Gods in mind – how am I affecting that ongoing reification in my world?—and then I”d make offerings and prayers. I’m going to stop at this point. I still have a few things to do for the semester’s end, but if there’s a particular passage from the Eddas that you’d like me to discuss, shoot me a comment and let me know. Notes: 1. See “A Glossary to the Poetic Edda” translated from Hans Kuhn’s Kurzes Wörterbuch by Students at the University of Victoria, 1987. 2. You’ll notice that unlike the previous Lectio Divina article that I posted, this time I did not employ any significant level of philological engagement. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t and it depends what first strikes me in a reading. It’s different every time I meet a text anew. 3. When it is done illicitly it’s more complicated. I’m thinking specifically of Freyr sneaking into Odin’s high seat and spying Gerda…it ended well but it was…complicated.
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.
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One of the key mysteries of our tradition is that of the runes. The word itself, rún, rúnar (1) means just that: ‘secret’ or ‘mystery.’ Our high God Odin (Oðinn) hung on Yggdrasil for nine nights and nine days in agony, pierced by His own spear, a sacrifice to Himself. The result of this ordeal was acquisition of the runes and the knowledge and ability to wield them. There is much the story doesn’t tell us, starting with where the runes originate, what they are, and what their connection to the fabric of creation might be.
I talk about all of these things in my book Living Runes, so I won’t focus on that too much in this post. In short, I think they originate in the Ginnungagap, are a family of living, sentient spirits, and are worked into the architecture of existence in numerous ways, creating loopholes through which the holy can seep (or work) again and again. When I think about this, they’re so often in motion, coursing through creation the way platelets, plasma, and blood cells course through our veins. They may rivet the more liminal parts of creation in place, or they may whirl and dance through the world working His will and their own. I think it varies and it’s something I’m still exploring in my own practice.
What I wanted to discuss today is one of the techniques that I employed when I was first learning how to really engage with the runes. This is also something that I give to my apprentices when they are learning the runes for themselves. Usually, this is done after one has initially met the runes through offerings and galdr – a round 1 of ‘getting to know you,’ shall we say. Once a student has passing familiarity with the runes, knows what they are, has maybe galdred a bit, or meditated with them, once he or she has his or her own devotional relationships to Gods and ancestors securely established (2), when that student is ready for the second round of in-depth engagement, this is what I have each of my apprentices do (and no, this isn’t in my book). I do this myself every now and again myself. One never stop learning after all!
Before I describe this, I want to offer one caveat. If you are going to do this, begin with Odin. He is Master of the Runes (Rúnatýr – God of the runes) and they are first and foremost His mysteries. Afterwards, next approach the Deity or Deities in turn to whom you are dedicated, Whom you would consider your fulltrui, Who hold the most significant place in your personal devotions. This is simply a matter of both protocol, and courtesy and respect.
Now, onto the exercise.
A). Make a list of the various Deities that you venerate or Whose insight you might be interested in gaining with respect to the runes. For instance, Odin, Frigga, Freya, Loki, Sigyn, Thor, Sif, Heimdall, Mani, Sunna, Sinthgunt, Eir. (Make your own list, starting with Odin. This is just an example, though it’s close to the list one of my apprentices recently employed).
B). Each night, meditate upon and galdr the same rune, first making offerings to one of these Deities, and then to the rune itself. So, start with Fehu. Set up a working altar or shrine, some place where you can make offerings to the rune of the night and to whatever Deity you’re approaching. If you have a personal household shrine (and if you’re doing this, you should (3)), you can go ahead and use that. The first night, make an offering to Odin. Offer prayers to Him and ask Him if He would be willing to teach you something about fehu. Make an offering to fehu itself, asking it if it would work with Odin and teach you something about itself. Then galdr the rune, meditate on it, write down your insights. Thank the two powers, Deity and rune invoked, and you are done for the night. Work through your list of Deities meditating on the *same* rune. When you’re done, move on to the next rune and go through the list again in the same order.
What you’re essentially doing is building your own book of correspondences as you engage in this process. I would also repeat this, either approaching the same Deities or perhaps with a new list (though always begin with Odin. He is the doorway to the runes in many respects), every few months. Be polite when you approach both Powers. You are not after all, entitled to Their wisdom. As with anything, the more polite you are, the more productive this is likely to be. Even having worked with the runes for close to thirty years, I still keep this in mind every time I approach them. At the end of your list, or even somewhere in the middle of it, do one night where you do NOT approach a Deity, but work only through the rune itself.
I stumbled on this process of approaching various Deities like this accidentally. I was having a bit of trouble with something and struggling to figure out how to work the rune I had decided to call upon. Completely unexpectedly, Sigyn sorted it out giving me an unexpected bit of insight. I thought, ‘wait. You know runes?’ Now, I shouldn’t have been surprised – She is a Deity after all –but when we have deeply personal devotional relationships with our individual Gods, it can be easy to forget that They are well, Gods. It can be easy to think that we know Them as we might know a friend down the way. We may indeed know a little given that relationships are mutual processes, but no matter how much experience we have in devotion to a Deity, THEY are always so much more.
One of the things that I really like about this particular exercise also, is that it allows the one doing it the opportunity to approach Deities he or she may not have previously considered approaching. It allows for a potential devotional relationship to bloom. It gets one out of one’s comfort zone, away from the regular way of doing things and allows room for unexpected insights to occur.
There are things to consider when you are engaging in this process: how does the rune feel? When you galdr, do you get any images running through your mind, any words popping up wanting to be worked into the galdr, any other sensory expressions of its presence (and that may include taste and smell too)? How do you feel before, during, and after? Has your impression of the rune changed at all? Do your best to keep a good record of this. It is helpful when you’re going back to check your progress. Be sure to stay hydrated and maybe eat a little protein after your nightly sessions. I would also be sure to center and ground well afterwards.
Finally, the futhark tells a story. Each Aett (4) contains its own mysteries. It is normal that some runes will prove harder and more difficult to access than others. That’s ok, and the reverse is also true. Most will have one or two runes stepping forward as a guide through the futhark and through one’s work therein. When you encounter a rune that just won’t open, that’s ok. Be respectful, do your best, make your offerings and come back to it later. There are runes (for me, mostly in the third aett) that have taken years before they allowed me to so much as dip a toe into their mysteries. Again, as with so much spirit-work, you’re building a relationship. Part of the process of learning to work with runes is that they are learning your mental patterns, internal language, internal symbol set and you are learning something of theirs and the two of you are building this pidgin (is that the correct linguistic term?) by which you can communicate. You’re learning each other’s language and building a shared syllabary through which you can productively communicate. That’s going to take time. Some things cannot be rushed.
Before I close, I want to take a moment’s focus on the first aett. As with our sacred texts, there are numerous ways that one can approach and interpret the narratives that we’re given. Since there are numerous patterns in the way the runes relate to each other, one can tell many stories. While these stories are not direct engagement with the runic powers, they are a means of conceptualizing and learning from them. They are doorways into each rune’s power. Here is a very brief way of reading through the first aett connectively. Fehu is the luck that flows through our blood (ancestral luck, hamingja), vitality, wealth, abundance, power. Like a sap through a tree or chlorophyll through a leaf, it flows through our veins and the veins of our soul body giving it life – just like Loður gave us sense-awareness and color, and the roaring pulse of our heart’s blood when the Gods created humanity. Uruz is raw power, maegen, the ability to tap into, access, and use one’s luck. It is initiation that awakens us to the Powers, challenge by which we earn the right to use what we have been given. Thurisaz is a challenge to focus, to discipline, to hone and temper our power. It’s the hard work we do to strengthen our spiritual and ethical muscles. It is the force that shatters our illusions, clears us out, devours what no longer serves, frees one – sometimes violently – from constraints, burns like napalm in the soul until we order ourselves rightly and leave our bullshit behind. (Edited 3/7 to include ansuz, as I was writing with a migraine and accidentally left one of my favorite runes out). Ansuz is divine inspiration, ecstasy (in the classical religious sense), surety and confidence in the Work. It is the touch of the Gods, grace that allows us to persevere in our spiritual becoming even when it is hard. It is the opener of the way, that, if we are working to become rightly ordered, will show us the way forward. Raido is movement, momentum, overcoming of obstacles, the progress made when we accomplish the first three runic lessons and are rightly ordered with the Powers, and the power by which we may find our way through any obstacles in the way of that. Kenaz is the torch, the hearth fire, the offering fire, a candle on a shrine, the light of knowledge, piety, and devotion. It is that which we have been given to tend, to keep fed and bright and warm (our devotion, our traditions). Gebo is the process of exchange between us and the Holy powers, the law by which we are called to live our lives, the pious sensibility underlying every positively ordered engagement with the Powers, and with each other. Wunjo is the fulfillment of fehu, pleasure and ecstatic awareness of the powers, perfection and glory, joy and transformative power. It is the sum total of the other seven runes in this aett. One cannot access the fullness of wunjo, without first accessing and understanding these preceding runes. Wunjo is also the mead of inspiration, of frenzy, of magic, of inspiration on every possible level. How will you drink of it, how will it shape itself to your mind and talents? It will enliven you for the work to come with the next aett, which takes us down immediately into the place of the dead. This is the foundational work one must do in order to access the Mysteries, in order to be of use to our Gods, in order to become functionally realized human beings. It is ongoing work, and the runes can reflect that, though they are also so much more (5). I would also stress that this is only one way of lightly tapping into their insights.
I’ll wrap this up for now. As all rune work begins with Odin, so too should it end with praises to this God Who had the will to win them.
Hail to the God of the gallows,
Terrible and unrelenting.
Hail to the Wyrd-riven Wonder-worker,
Who leaves ecstasy in His wake.
Hail to the Bale-eyed Beguiler,
with His whispered charms
and savage conjurings.
Hail to the Lord of Asgard,
Architect of the Worlds
Who breathed us into Being,
Eternally let us praise Him.
- These are the nominative and genitive singular forms respectively.
- It goes without saying that the runes are a specialty, as well as being a Mystery all their own, and not only does one not have to work with the runes to be a good Heathen, but those who don’t already have their spiritual houses, i.e. their devotional world, in some semblance of order, should not work with them. They are tools of magic and divination and it becomes very complicated, very quickly.
- Really, if you don’t have the most basic devotional space set up and active in your home, you’re not ready to work with the runes no matter how far along you think you are.
- This word just refers to a set of eight. There are three sets of eight that make up the elder futhark.
- They are sentient, amoral, non-human spirits. They have their own agendas and are allied to the All-Father Who also has His agenda. It’s healthy to never forget that.
I offer this prayer to Thor and to the Goddess Sif.
Hail to You, Holy Ones.
Hail to You, Protectors of Midgard,
Hail to You, Son of Odin and Hail to You,
His gleaming Bride.
You hallow and drive out all pollution.
You are mighty. There is no malignant force
that You cannot banish. There is no threat,
You cannot overcome.
You are magnificent and Your grace
protects me in the face of evil.
Mighty Thor, wise, compassionate Friend of humanity,
look upon us and wield Your hammer for our protection.
Gracious Sif, You Whose gentle touch causes the grain to grow,
please nourish us, restore us, and grant us the fortitude
to walk in alignment with the Holy Powers always.
Through Your blessings, may we grow strong in faith.
through Your blessings may we grow strong in devotion.
Through Your blessings, may we always resist impiety,
may we be nourished as the grain is nourished
under Your caring hands.
In times of peril, come to our aid, I pray.
In times of desperation, I place myself under Your care.
Hail Thor, Son of Odin.
Hail Sif, His Gracious Bride.
Over the last two days, in addition to the valknot and the Mjolnir, I’ve seen Yggdrasil (the world tree) being discussed quite a bit. It is one of the most fundamental parts of our cosmology, and in this, we are not too different from many other Indo-European religions that have cosmologies revolving (literally) around some sort of axis mundi or world tree. We don’t know from our lore when the World Tree came into being, or how, or why. We do know that it sustains and supports the nine worlds, including the human world of Midgard. It is the scaffolding upon which all creation is arranged and ordered. It has mysteries that not even the Gods fully know, something hinted at strongly in the Runatal section of the Havamal.
The Tree is a terrifying place too, a liminal place of initiation, magic, and transformation. Its name means steed of the Terrible One, i.e. Odin because Odin chose to hang Himself for nine nights and days in personal ordeal, seeking power. That is one of the His most sacred mysteries, and indeed, one of the deepest mysteries of our tradition. Yggdrasil is connected to wyrd – causality and consequence, fate, ancestral debt, and the sacred law of memory-being-choice and obligation that governs our lives. There is nothing more sacred, more holy in Heathenry than Yggdrasil, the Well of memory, and the wyrd that is laid by the Nornir therein.
For me as an Odin’s woman, the Tree is a place of deep, deep reverence and mystery. It’s the site of my God’s most self-defining moment, the place of His most significant sacrifice. I often feel as though everything I have been taught by the Gods and spirits, everything that I need to know, every tool or technique that I have been given, every mystery I hold in some way rests in its gnarled and knotted boughs. There is no escaping the World Tree for me, nor, I think, for any Heathen. It is quite literally at the heart of our cosmology, our tradition, and the work we do as devotees of the Gods. As the Tree sustains all creation, we are called through our devotion and piety, to sustain and nourish the Tree. In doing so, we instantiate the sacred order of all the worlds, we reify the very act of creation that brought us all into being and we do that again and again with each prayer spoken, each offering given, each moment of contemplation wherein we reach out to our Gods. That is the heart and soul of our traditions. It is from those acts of devotion, from devotion cultivated deep in the heart, mind, and spirit of every Heathen, that our traditions grow. It is devotion and mindfulness that nourishes the Tree and we in turn are sustained by it – a very simple equation with far, far reaching consequences.
The Tree echoes throughout our cosmology in our anthropology too. The first human beings were created from trees found on the shore – a liminal place, a threshold, a place of possibility and magic. An elm was crafted into the shape and likeness of a woman, an ash into that of a man. Then our three creator Gods, Odin, Hoenir, and Loður gave soul, cognition, sense and warmth and color. The Gods bestowed names on these beings and taught them the arts of civilization. We are not, therefore, separate from the natural world, but created from it, part of it, because at our core, we are part of Yggdrasil too.
That is a profound yet humbling thing. So the Tree remains for us a touchstone of what it means to move in a world designed, created, and carefully brought into being by our Gods, to live in the span of divine breath, to live piously and mindfully. It shapes us and is the shadow lurking behind all our lore. The Tree connects the worlds, and as such it defines our ability to communicate with our Gods, our ancestors, and numerous other Holy Powers. It is a conduit of all that is holy. It is alive and sentient as all holy things are sentient. There is a passage in part of the Lore (I forget precisely where and I am too tired to look it up) that refers to Freya as Blotgyðia of the Gods. To Whom do They pray? To Whom do the Gods make offerings? In writing this, I find myself wondering if it isn’t to the Tree, ancient and eternal, that sustains us all.