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.
While our House does not practice Rodnovery (1), given that two of us have strong Slavic backgrounds (the author of today’s piece actually having been born and raised in the Ukraine), it was perhaps inevitable that the occasional Slavic Deity would creep into individual devotional practices (2). For instance, our guest writer today, T. Vitta, has a deep devotion to Moist Mother Earth and when a mutual friend asked about the relationship between this ancient Power and the Goddess Mokosh, it provided an opportunity for T.V. to explore her understanding of these two Deities. I found her words inspiring and asked permission to share them here. She agreed with the caveat that this reflects her understanding and practice. One should always note that there is the possibility for distinctive regional cultus to develop in many different ways (and such most certainly happened as a matter of course in the pre-Christian world), and as part of that, syncretism may also happen. This is always a given point of understanding undergirding her approach. There is obviously a deep working relationship between these two Deities, at the very least, and she acknowledges that this can take forms for other devotees of which she herself is heretofore unaware.
Mokosh and Moist Mother Earth
By T. Vitta
Moist Mother Earth is much much older than Makosh (3). She is ever present, in Russian fairy tales, embedded in Russian language so strongly. She is a matter of course a part of Russian swears, Russian promises, and an inescapable part of Russian speech. I sometimes listen to my parents and their friends, but more often Russian movies and Russian documentaries and smile at how expressions are littered with Her, in ways that tell you plainly who She is – very often without people giving full credence to what they are saying.
If there has ever been a human bodily representation of Her, I have never seen one or found one, not in writings and not in archaeological findings. I don’t believe She has ever taken human form, not from what I have seen, read, or experienced (but I can only speak from my point of view and my experience.) I just don’t think She ever had a need to do so. She is the Land, the living spirit of the Slavic lands. She is the progenitor of health, wealth of the land, fertility, death and the afterlife. She nourishes when those of Her land are ill, She picks up those who are tired and hurt, and when people of Her land are near death, She collects them, She is the One in whose arms we fall for the last time. She is so ingrained into the very make-up of the Slavic people, Her names are still embedded in the language. Today, I hear Her invoked more when people are dying or are dead, probably because people live in cities. You can’t separate Her from the language, it’s a part of it. Last year I did a translation of an old Russian fairytale for one of Galina’s publications, and at her encouragement I made a very detailed footnote on Her (4). One of the oddities about the US to me is how people here, compared to those I grew up with, don’t have this attachment to the land whatsoever (5). All the nationalistic songs in Russia and Ukraine, the very way that the people there fight wars, fight for their land – it all goes back to Her. When you read all those old stories you see it staring you in the face – heroes who are far away from home saying how their aching bones need to go back to their land, to feel Moist Mother Earth under their feet, how when they fall on the field of battle, they lay themselves on the Moist Mother Earth, asking for Her peace, for Her to embrace them at the moment of their death. What has been amazing is that this past year, when faced with illness or lack of vitality, I instinctively prayed to Her for strength and healing, and She heard me, immediately coming to my rescue time after time. I think it’s the bloodline, She recognized the bloodline and reached out to Her people. I suspect that there is an unbreakable contract between the Slavs and Moist Mother Earth, and that this contract is so strong and they still uphold it, still ask for Her help, and She still comes to us all. She is the seeded field. She is the health of the soil. She is who gives us power and gives us the right to the land. She is the fertility of our land. She feeds us with Her strength when we are weak and sick. Her cold embrace takes us in when we must transition.
Makosh on the other hand is a weaving Goddess. She is the Goddess of the hearth, the Goddess of fate, Goddess of the “women’s” crafts. In the days these deities were prayed to, things were strictly gendered between the two sexes, and She is pretty much as close as you can come to a Goddess of female mysteries, if you forgive the expression. I think this is why people conflate them – they are both Goddesses that bring plentifulness. The thing is, it’s a very different kind of plentifulness. Makosh, being the Goddess of Fate and Hearth, brings good luck into the home, helps the bread rise, and weaves the futures of all men (humans, I mean by that). Moist Mother Earth is the fertility of the earth itself, life coursing and pumping itself through the earth to all the animals and plants. Close – but not the same. Moist Mother Earth does not distinguish us from every other living creature living on Her. Makosh – I suspect those who are Hers will learn to weave, learn to spin, learn to work magic into their cooking and learn the magic of the crafts that were considered traditionally female. If you pray for- let’s say pregnancy,– you would pray to Moist Mother Earth for fertility. You could pray to Makosh – but because She will weave fate to bring you a child, because She will bring joy into the home.
I just googled “Moist Mother Earth” in Russian and the 4th link on google says “ensemble, Jesus the Savior and Moist Mother Earth”… People don’t even think about it there, it just is (6).
Notes (added by GK):
- Slavic Polytheism, from the word Rodina or motherland.
- In my case, it’s more the occasional Baltic Deity. I have no particular devotion to either of the Goddesses discussed today, save simple respect.
- I have also seen this name spelled Mokosh. We are translating a divine name of a Holy Power honored throughout Slavic lands at one point so there will be linguistic differences in pronunciation and spelling, not to mention all of this is being transliterated into English. If you see it spelled differently elsewhere, relax.
- See Issue 12 of Walking the Worlds, The Bewitched Queen, translated by T. Vitta. The footnote (footnote 7) reads as follows:
“The expression “moist earth” has a special significance in Slavic language and Slavic culture. This is a diminutive of the full expression “Moist Mother Earth”, often heard when heroes are expressing their love for the land in which they were born. It is an intimate prayer to the soil of their land itself. This is because the language itself has been permanently marked by 1,000s of years of prayer to Moist Mother Earth and is now inseparable from the language and its people, a practice long before Christianity came to the Slavic lands. She is the progenitor of health, wealth, fertility, and death and afterlife alike. Moist Mother Earth is the original primordial Goddess the Slavic people prayed to when they seeded the earth and watched the crops grow, when they were suffering and in pain, and when they were far away from the very soil of their homeland. This expression stayed in the language, an ancient prayer recalling the connection between the land and its people. Even in cursory sentences like this it is evoked to remind the reader of the fertility of the land, and how we all eventually and rightfully are put into it to take up our journeys after we die.
This expression is evoked especially in the older written texts such as fairytales when people lived closer to the land, survived and died via the land. It appears both when the character talks about the fertility of the earth, such as in the above passage, but also in how it is the inevitable place we all must go to when we die. This appears in such expressions as “he laid his head on the moist earth” that often appear in fairytales to note the hero as close to death. While this is a tragic point in the tale, a time when the hero is dying, this is also a powerful reminder of our ties to the land. Moist Mother Earth is not the enemy that forcibly takes you, rather She is ever loving and loyal and takes you in when life is too much to bear. Dying and coming into her is like coming home. This is a particular connection between the Slavic people and the Slavic land, a promise, a covenant that the people know so instinctively that long after Christianization erased all memory of the prayers to a deity, they still pray to Her and She still knows them. She hears their prayers, and She comforts and protects and eventually takes you in. “
5. Since taking a course last year in the History of Jerusalem, I have often pondered the lack of connection to a specific land that I see in modern polytheists and pagans. Is it because our sacred sites were destroyed so thoroughly? Is it because at least in America, we are working in diasporic traditions? Is it something in the attitudes of modernity? I don’t know but I wonder what we have lost by this.
6. Tatyana told me after she sent me this that there are numerous examples of Moist Mother Earth being syncretized with the Virgin Mary.
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.
Royal School of Needlework has an ongoing project that allows individuals to “sponsor” a stitch for their “stitchbank.” It’s a fantastic resource for historians and of course, for those who are learning to embroider. RSN correctly points out that embroiderers throughout history have rarely signed their work. We have many, many examples of this beautiful art from antiquity all the way up to the present, but rarely, very, very rarely do we know the names of the (mostly) women who created them (1). This stitchbank is preserving these stitches with the names of either those who sponsored them or those for whom a stitch has been sponsored. I think that is pretty cool.
There are lots of things that we can do to honor our ancestors. I think it’s important to remember though that until the 20th century, a huge portion of our female ancestors’ time would have been taken up with textile production: spinning, in some cases weaving, sewing, knitting or crochet, and for those who had the time, embroidery – adornment. Depending on the period of history about which we’re speaking, one couldn’t just go to the store and purchase thread. Thread started with sheep. You had sheep, you cut off the wool, carded and spun that into thread and then that thread could be dyed, woven, etc. etc. One could trade for these goods, I suppose, but in the end, anything one wore began with an animal or a plant and a terrifying amount of work. Whenever I embroidery, mend, or select clothing, I think of my female dead and the valence such things must, of necessity had for them (2).
So, and my point to all of this, is that I decided to sponsor a stitch for my maternal grandmother Linnie Shoff Hanna (1909-1987). She got assigned the cloud stitch (not posted yet that I saw) and I am delighted. She was the one who first taught me to embroider. I remember how hard it was to learn French knots. She took a piece of nice linen, drew a rabbit holding a carrot and had me make his eye out of a French knot. That was my reward for learning how to do it and when I’d outlined the whole thing and satin stitched the carrot, she made it into a pin cushion for me. Whenever I embroider now, I am inevitably beginning and ending the process with prayers to my maternal dead. It is a way to feel closer to them, to keep them in living memory, as I go about my daily work. May the names of our dead always be remembered.
- The exception, I think, are samplers. Young girls would sometimes sign their samplers. Also, in colonial America, very little boys were sometimes given samplers to do as punishment (the annoying thing is that some of these samplers are better than anything I can do today lol).
- This is one of the reasons that I try to wear clothes made only of natural fibers (wool, cotton, linen, silk, etc.) and, when I can afford it, handmade. I don’t sew well enough to make my own clothes, but I’ve been outsourcing a few things to a terrifyingly gifted seamstress and it is so much better, better made, and longer lasting than clothing purchased off the rack. It’s expensive and I acknowledge that this isn’t something everyone can do (and I can’t afford it for everything) but if you can sew, give making your own clothes a shot. If you can afford it, try getting a bespoke suit once in your life. It changes one’s relationship to one’s clothing, to production, craft, and it really, really makes one aware of the attitude of disposability and planned obsolescence that so define our modern purchasing experience.
In a recent patheos article, John Beckett opined that he wasn’t seeing much devotion from polytheists online. Well, John, maybe we got sick and tired of anti-theistic, humanist and/or Marxist trash coming into our online spaces attempting to pollute them (1). Maybe, sweetheart, we took the bulk of our devotion offline, where that contamination isn’t happening. Maybe we’re just not sharing it with you. No one, after all, is entitled to a bird’s eye view of our devotional lives. Some of us are still blogging, because it’s part of our spiritual Work, but you won’t mention that, will you?
For years now, I’ve taken the high road when it comes to the bullshit thrown my way in the community, thrown not just at me, but at devotional polytheists across the board who won’t bend the knee to the current pollution du jour. Expect that to stop as of now. There is not a single Pagan news outlet that accurately reports Heathen and/or polytheistic news (2). There are only scared, weak, pathetic people who can’t stand the fact that some communities are doing just fine without them.
I am frankly tired of the arrogance of people like Beckett, who assume just because they aren’t seeing something or haven’t been invited in, that “something” isn’t happening. Just because you’re not seeing people discussing their devotion on twitter or facebook, don’t assume it’s not happening. Maybe they’re on different social media sites (I personally have been using slack-chat quite a bit), or maybe, as I said above, some have just stopped publicly blogging.
Moreover, our traditions aren’t trends or fads. Fuck you, Beckett. We aren’t here to entertain or validate you and we are under no obligation to put our relationships with the Holy Powers out there for assholes like you to gawk and mock.
- I have no problem with atheists. Rock on. I have a tremendous problem with anti-theists who come into our community demanding leadership positions.
- And by the way, John, well before I came along, the majority of Heathens did not generally like the “Pagan” label. I really don’t think that has changed, unless you’re only counting as Heathen those who agree with your politics. We, after all have both Gods and ethics, something I see very little of in the generic Pagan community.
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.
This is a valknot. It is recognized and sacred across all denominations of Heathenry as a significator to all who see that the bearer is devoted to the God Odin. Odin is a God of prophets and shamans, poets and bards, warriors and kings. He is a creator God Who wrought the architecture of creation with His brothers Loður and Hoenir, weaving from the bones of His own ancestor, the scaffolding upon which the worlds were hung. He is a God of wisdom, knowledge, and sacrifice and the valknot signifies His victory over Himself in that quest for knowledge. He is a God of magic and shapeshifting, of runes and sorcery, of power and passion. Those who love and serve Him are fervent in their devotion because we recognize what a privilege it is to have the opportunity to pour ourselves out in adoration before this fiercest of Gods.
These are the ways in which we mark our flesh, ourselves, our souls as belonging to Them. These are the symbols by which we declare our devotion to the Holy Powers far and wide to all who see and most of all to ourselves in the deepest, most secret places of our hearts. These symbols are our shield and vambrace as we fare forth in a world hostile to our Gods and struggle to find our way therein. We will not give them up.
This is the hammer of Thor, Mjolnir. It is a sacred symbol across all denominations of Heathenry. It represents this God’s love and care for humankind, His willingness to protect us against chaos and evil, His ability to gird the world against dissolution and destruction. It means one venerates Gods Whose cultic practices predate Christianity by thousands of years.
Wearing this hammer is a sign that the wearer has aligned him or herself with the holy order of the Gods, that we live our lives in a way that cultivates reverence and piety, respect, and veneration. We honor the Gods Who made our world, we honor our ancestors – all of our ancestors regardless of ethnicity or race—because we are, quite literally, our ancestral lines walking. We are here because of them. We honor the land, because it is alive with spirits, because it nourishes us, because it is right and good to do so. We honor our families, striving to live ethically, sustainably, and in a way that pours riches and wisdom into the hands of the next generation and beyond. We work hard to build community and to contribute to the communities in which we live, cultivating civic awareness, engagement, and patriotism because that it what it means to be a pious, right-living adult.
Thor is a God Who protects the world. He is the God of everyman, everywoman. He hallows. That is His blessing: He hallows all He touches driving out that which is evil, wicked, or polluted. He is a God that nourishes and with the Goddess Sif, brings abundance to our world. How could we not praise Him? It is an honor, no, a privilege to wear His hammer. It is an honor to root oneself in reverence for this Holy Power and all His kin.
I feel like we’re getting into a nice rhythm with our Sunwait rituals. I’m really loving this gentle and ritualized progression toward Yule, and as I said the other night to a friend, I’m really, really glad that we decided to incorporate Sunwait into our hearth cultus this year. Since we decided to do our rites on Fridays, it’s also a lovely way to cap off the week (a particularly significant transition since we tend to immerse ourselves in ritual and devotional work over the weekends).
So, last night, as is our norm, we began by bearing fire around our space, chanting the fire cleansing song that I learned more than twenty years ago, and asking Thor to cleanse, purify, and bless our space. I wrote about Thor before here. He may specifically be invoked as “Guardian of the Shrine” before rituals to consecrate the space and rite. Thor is awesome. Then, I explained the purpose of the ritual – we all knew, as we’d agreed as a household to do this, but stating that intention was one more way to center our minds and allow for a smooth transition into the appropriate headspace for reverent veneration. After that, I offered the following prayer to Sunna and lit the three candles (the candles for weeks one and two are only about half way burned down):
Prayer to Sunna Force and fire, that is what You are, Swift precision as You plough across the sky, Driving back pollution, and cleansing the path that Day must tread. Force and fire, bringing the light that restores our souls, bringing Your glorious brightness to our world. You are force and fire, gleaming and fierce. Battle ready, You are indomitable. There is no obstacle You cannot surmount, No enemy You cannot conquer. You drive forward the rhythms of the world. You smite malefica, wickedness, evil, and all that stands against the order created by our Gods. These things You obliterate with the force and fire of Your passing. That order is Your order, blessed and structured by Your holy hands, and always will You defend it. Teach us, oh Sunna, to stand courageously no matter how afraid we might be, in defense of that order too. Hail to You, Glorious Goddess of the Sun, May You grant us bravery in our devotions, as You move across our world leading us to Yule.
After this, I galdred thurisaz which came so joyously (there’s really no other word for it). It was like the force of a storm wind hitting the house. That’s how it felt to galdr this rune. He came immediately and with such a tremendous kinetic energy that it left me wired for hours afterwards. We passed a horn filled with sparkling apple cider and hailed Sunna, Her family, Thor, Odin and the runes, our ancestors, and more. After this, we sat down in sacred space, in holy space, and brought out our divination materials. We had been talking earlier about the small asteroid orbiting the moon, and had wondered if it was a physical representation that Mani had had a child. We meant no impiety by divining, but if He had, we wanted to know how or even if we should include that child in our veneration of the House of Mundilfari. We stumbled into epiphany and mystery and I am still shaken by it.
Sunna wanted this story told or I would not speak it. The holy order of the heavens will not fall. She and Mani were joyous and the rune that fell was wunjo: Joy, perfection, a blessed gift. They had a child, star of heaven, Himinstjarna,* A glorious daughter (fehu tells us how to honor Her: Song and beauty, art that elevates the soul, Land and life and glory, freeing the world of its disorder). I thought it lovely and we were moved to tears, Then I realized what a terrible omen it was, but what a powerful hope too. The sun and moon will not fall: Their continuity is ensured by Their child. She will bring Them back from the darkness. A magical gift, hope for our world. Mani prepares to go to war. Taking up His scimitars again, For He was a warrior in days of old. But the holy order of the Gods will endure. Himinstjarna: praise Her.
We closed the div session and then sang Sigdrifa’s Prayer, which is our way of closing almost every ritual. After that, we staggered off to get food, because after the spiritual work that was done, we were ravenous. So, that’s where we are and I think the House of Mundilfari will play a far larger role in our devotions from here on out.
*this is Her name to the best that we could translate with divination, and an ON grammar.