I received a really good question about devotion and the Gods a few days ago but this is the first opportunity that I’ve had to respond. This is a really good, basic theological question about why and how we view our Gods and I thought it deserved its own post so here y’all go.
P. asks: I’m wondering how, as a devotional Heathen, you envision/understand the gods especially because all we have of the Northern deities is the myths and like the Greek and Roman myths, they’re not very flattering sometimes. I was listening to a podcast you did like 3 years ago and you mention this as well, that the Greeks for example, have other material like the Neo-Platonists, or the Romans the Stoics, where the gods are discussed philosophically. Of course deities are not bound by human confines and I know what is meant by, say, siblings mating/marrying (that They are equals, etc) and a nature goddess being promiscuous but, perhaps I never had a new-age, free love mindset EVER, the lack of morality sometimes gets to me whilst reading the material. This is true for most myths of course, not just the Northern tradition. But AFAIK, those are the only material we have. And, on a similar note, the gods are usually so…mean, it’s difficult to like them (not all, obviously!) I’m not being frivolous, and I hope you don’t get this the wrong way, gods are gods and not besties obviously but to have a devotional relationship I feel like there needs to be some sort of affection?”
There are actually several good questions here so let me try to take them one by one and I’ll do my best.
I don’t believe the myths were ever meant to be taken either literally or as exempla of how to behave as human beings. I also detest the new age, free love crap fwiw. I find it morally and spiritually repugnant on every possible level, and there were Deities that I really struggled to honor for precisely that reason. Either the devotees that I had met were gross or Their stories presented a morality with which I simply could not accord. It took me many, many years of devotion and study to realize that the Deity is not confined nor even particularly well represented necessarily in His or Her stories (or by Their devotees!). The myths are not revealed scripture and they do not function as the unerring Word of God ™.
How we approach the myths and center them in our minds matters. It matters because it sets the framework for engagement both devotionally and liturgically. These stories contain windows to the sacred but they aren’t sacred in and of themselves in the same way that a Christian might hold the New Testament sacred or a Muslim the Qu’ran (and we are primed in our culture to not only give precedence to the written word over other forms of tradition transmission but also to expect all sacred stories to function like such “scripture.”). The myths that we have are more pliable and I think they may point to different facets of our Gods’ personalities, or certain immutable lessons (like the danger of putting oneself above the Gods) but often storytellers wanted to tell a good story about human events that were shaped in part by their understanding of the power of the Gods to impact our lives (I’m thinking of the Iliad here). The same story can serve many different purposes. That doesn’t mean they aren’t doorways to the sacred, but they aren’t holy in and of themselves. Many story tellers including the poet or poets otherwise known as Homer, were soundly criticized by later philosophers for the way in which they presented the Gods in their writing. It was considered impious. I tend to think that in such cases it was more a nod to the ways in which the Gods are able to inspire us and act in the world. Also, Norse culture particularly was an oral culture. What we have written down, what we consider “lore,” i.e. the Eddas, Sagas, etc. is but a bare fraction of what actually existed. There are some serious lacunae. One can get glimpses in art and material culture of stories that we simply no longer have. In oral cultures like these, sacred things were not the types of things that would’ve been transmitted via the written word because to write it down traps and closes the circle of the narrative. It removes the possibility for future revelation.
When I read a myth about one of my Gods that rubs me the wrong way, I sit with it and look for the greater cosmological lesson (1). What does this say about the nature of my God? What does it say about how that God is able to act in the world, but most importantly, how does it reflect creation and the impetus and actions of our Gods therein. Quite often, there is something in these stories and their presentation of the Gods that hearkens back to the creation narrative. I’ve written about that here.
Are there any patterns that recur in the story? Where do things start to go awry? All of these are important textual markers for places that may serve as windows for something holy or for a mystery belonging to the Deity in question. Stories are never just stories if we’re reading theologically (2).
I think the highest form of interpretation is through the lens of devotion (not philosophy and certainly not recitation of lore) but one text that might be helpful is Sallustius’s “On the Gods and the World.” Sallustius was a friend of Emperor Julian, and this was written, if I’m not mistaken as sort of a primer of how to read poly-theologically. It’s not a bad place to begin. As he notes, the myths never happened and are always happening. That is the essence of Mystery.
I love the Gods. I believe that They are eternal creators of all the worlds, that They are good, essentially, ontologically *good*. I was thinking of this when my assistant Tove played this song for me and we had a long discussion about how *no one* is unloved by the Gods. That is the profundity of Their nature. They imagined us, willed us, crafted us into being. We are Theirs in ways we can barely imagine.
Tove, when I asked her, because we are sitting here discussing this, added, “Our Gods are ineffable and limitless, and the scariest thing is that They see the fullness of our potentiality and the closer we come to Them, the more we see that potentiality juxtaposed against the reality of who we are now. They love us in our whole form, including who we CAN Be and there’s a challenge there: how far can we stretch, how far can we grow. I believe They want, like all good parents, want us very much to grow. This is probably why people say it is a scary thing to be loved by a God. It forces one to be bigger, to be more.”
I have rarely if ever experienced a Deity being “mean.” At least, I’ve never experienced it as being mean just to be mean. Sometimes I have had a God or Goddess push me in some way beyond my limits, push me to the point of challenge and then one step farther. That is a good thing. It is only by pushing against our limits that we grow stronger. I have seen very wounded human souls incapable of experiencing the power of the Holy Ones save through the lens of their own terrible abuse. That is not something that the Gods did. That was a damaged soul unable to see divine love as anything other than terrible…and still something to be longed for jealously. Of course, I belong to Odin, the personification of ecstatic frenzy. His love is the tip of a spear penetrating the heart and it is glorious.
In devotion, the relationships we develop with our Holy Ones may start out in fumbling awkwardness but they grow. Like any relationship they grow in intimacy, in trust. That’s what is really key: trust. We learn to trust our Gods, to let Them in a little more, to go a few more faltering steps forward in devotion. “Affection” is too small, too weak a word for what the Gods are capable of evoking in our hearts. Their love is like the blood beating in our veins. It is like breath forcing itself into and out of our lungs again and again. It is all that sustains us, and all that challenges us to be more.
- While one may argue that some myths like Homer were ancient fanfiction, I think the difference between then and now lies in the fact that the culture of Homeric Greece (to give one example of “mythology”) was infused with veneration of the Gods at every level. The tradition was deep and intergenerationally embedded. That is not the case now, quite the opposite. So much in our world is hostile to devotion of any sort, esp. media which often makes a mockery of it or puts humans above the Gods.
- For pre-Christian polytheists, religion was about devotion and engaging in some way with the Gods. Soteriological concerns were handled via mystery cultus, and building character, virtue, learning how to be a decent human being both by community nomoi but also in some cases philosophy. The myths aren’t examples of virtuous living for mortals because that’s not the correct place upon which to put that weight. That’s not the purpose of religion. Religion is about engaging properly with the Gods. Now, they can teach virtue by dint of teaching what is proper behavior, but it’s through custom, upbringing, and philosophy that one really developed those things…otherwise, the purpose of religion is subtly shifted in unhelpful ways. It goes from being about the Gods to being about us, humanity. It becomes vanity.
I haven’t done one of these in awhile so I thought, since yesterday was the anniversary of my Mani devotional, that I would look at one of the few references that we have in the lore pertaining to Mani. There really aren’t many and in some respects, that’s an incredible freedom in figuring out how to venerate Him. On the other side of that, I do wish we had just a bit more, a prayer, a hymn, something for Him because given how important agriculture and farming were to our ancestors, the House of Mundilfari must have had Their share of devotion, and more so than They receive today. We forget in our urban lives how important seasonal cycles – governed by Mani and Sunna – are to a farmer.
Of course, that’s not how I personally connect to Mani (through farming or agricultural cycles) but it’s something I’ve come to recognize and respect over the years of my devotion to Him. Now, onto the reading.
The passage I chose for today is from the Vafþrúðnismál stanza 23:
"Mundilfari heitir, hann er mána faðir ok svá Sólar it sama; himin hverfa þau skulu hverjan dag öldum at ártali." (1) He is called Turner of Time, He is Moon’s father and also thusly of Sun (2); They (dutifully) journey round the canopy of heaven every day to determine for people the liturgical year (3).
I do augury in the mornings and today’s message was that today is ok, but it’s one that will require patience in many little things, especially the early part of the day. That being said, I hope y’all will be patient with me as I pick my way through this verse. Also, I’m reading devotionally and to some degree theologically, not as a literature major. Do keep that in mind too! So, once I sat and translated this passage to the best of my ability, I noticed a few things.
Firstly, the word “it” may at times imply a dual form, which means it refers to two of something. Some languages have special forms for a pair. Ancient Greek is like that, for instance. If you’re referring to a pair of something, the verb takes a special form. Modern English doesn’t have a form like this. We would just use second- or third-person plural depending on the grammatical case required. If I’ve interpreted this correctly, then it stands out for me. When I read this, that use of the dual, while absolutely grammatically correct also creates a unique connection linking Mani and Sunna. They are a pair; They work together; and devotionally, I have to say this is true. When I think of One, the Other is not usually far behind in my thoughts. When I engage devotionally with One of Them, I often sense in my soul, echoes of the Other far more so than with any of the Other Powers Whom I venerate. While the lore doesn’t say anything about it, I’ve often assumed that They are twins. Regardless, They work hand in hand and the holiness, goodness, and journey of One reinforces the same in the Other (4).
The word himin or ‘heaven’ may actually be translated as “canopy of heaven” which immediately brings to mind, not the heaven of Christian religion but the dome of Ymir’s skull, the gleaming circlet that formed the space-making division between sky and land. When the three creator Gods Oðinn, Hoenir, and Loður slew Their primordial ancestor Ymir, They skillfully formed the scaffolding, the framework of creation with his blood, bones, and viscera. From Ymir’s skull these Gods created the vault of heaven, the sky, the galaxy, the cosmos – all that is above us. The verb skulu denotes obligation and duty (it’s where the third Norn Skuld gets Her name. In the case of skulu though, Cleasby/Vigfusson notes that it carries a relatively positive connotation), so here one might read it that “they must journey everyday around the canopy of heaven.” The word “at” when connected to a verb of motion carries a sense of traveling around the borders of a space or thing (5). So, Mani and Sunna each day have the duty of traversing or circumnavigating the great vault of heaven, the canopy of Ymir’s skull. In doing so, They are reinforcing creation, reifying the moment the three Creator Gods brought the whole structure into being and set it in motion. That means that Mani and Sunna, and by extension the House of Mundilfari, are absolutely essential cosmologically to creation, the ongoing sustenance of that creation, and the fabric of being.
Moreover, the text reads that they are doing this to determine for the people —öldum (6), that is humanity, ártali, not “fate” as I have seen several translations render this passage, but the cycle of the year. I would go so far as to say the liturgical year. This word can be used poetically as a gloss for the Moon, specifically because the Heathen year was partly lunar (7). This makes sense agriculturally– and we have a lot of folklore in Germany, England, Appalachia, and amongst the PA Deutsch about planting according to the phase and/or sign of the moon. Likewise, there are names are given to each month’s moon that often tie into the month’s agricultural happenings, and while the winter and summer solstice are important liturgically, so are the autumnal and vernal equinoxes. Here is an interesting article that mentions why so many calendars are “luni-solar”. Basically, both Mani and Sunna play Their part.
Despite being something of a misanthrope, I think it’s important to note that humanity is mentioned in this cosmological equation too. It is for the good of humanity that the cosmic cycles are thus delineated. We were created, carefully crafted. Our place in the architecture of the worlds was not an accident. Of course, neither are we at the apex of that architecture and piety demands that we know our place to be one of reverence for the Powers, but we matter to our Gods. We matter to our Gods, and They continually bless us in ways large and small and have from the beginning.
The next question I ask myself when reading something like this, after looking at the words in both English and ON is this: what do I do with this? What impact will I allow this knowledge to have on my devotional practice. Every word in this passage has opened up a world and we have so little written on our Gods, especially those in the House of Mundilfari, that each word is a treasure.
- I snagged the Old Norse text from this site. The English translations are mine unless otherwise noted.
- My translation. Dutifully is implied in the use of the it. My Old Norse is pretty basic, but I have to disagree with many of the translations I have read. The translation is usually given “flaming sun” and to the best I can determine, there is just nothing in this sentence to indicate that there is any attribute of Sunna mentioned, other than that of being Mundilfari’s daughter.
- “Sol” is another name for Sunna. Sunna seems to be the more poetic form of Her name. I personally prefer “Sunna”. See entry here. There’s a very interesting note in the Cleasby/Vifusson definition that in Iceland children would greet the sun every morning. If this is a hold-over from Heathen times, which it reads as though it is, then it further reinforces the cosmological importance of the House of Mundilfari in our tradition.
- I never connected Sunna to holiness in quite the way that I do now until I watched an historical special with historian Ruth Goodman. I think it was either her Tudor Farm series or Edwardian Farm series. I can’t recall. What I do recall is that she was showing how a traditional dairy worked and noted that the wife or dairy maids would not only scrub out the churns and other vessels but would let them dry in the sun because it sanitized them. The sun brings wholeness and healing, but also purification. It opened up an entire avenue of exploration for me in how I honor Her, in meditations, and even offerings.
- See Cleasby/Vigfusson here.
- From the noun alda, which in poetry can mean “people.”
- See Cleasby/Vigfusson here.
In response to my last post, Xenophon asked two very good and practical questions, and I’m going to take a stab answering them here.
QUESTION: “How do you go about worshiping Gods that are antagonistic to each other without getting on the other’s bad side?” IE: Loki and Skadi, or Loki and Heimdall, Thor and Jormundgand or Odin and Fenris (still trying to wrap my brain around the notion of veneration for him or Surt ), Or even the Aesir and Jotnar. Oh…and one I just thought of….what would be the most basic way of worshiping the Gods as a stepping stone?” — Xenophon
I think you actually have a third question squeezed sneakily in there with your comment about Fenris and Surt. I’ll give you my thoughts on that one too in a moment. I think how one treats the Jotnar, whether or not one venerates Them, and which Jotnar one venerates (most mainstream Heathen denominations would say there is a difference between honoring Gerda or Skadhi versus Surt and Fenris, for instance) is really one of the key denominational divisions. This question right here, almost more than any other (what I sometimes call, in a rather tongue in cheek manner, the “Got Loki?” question) is a key identifier within Heathenry and the various Northern tradition denominations. See, I’m digressing already. Let me hit your first question first, before I wander too far out into the weeds.
Re. worshipping Gods that are cosmologically antagonistic to each other, specifically Loki and Skadhi, Loki and Heimdallr, Thor and Jormundgand, and Odin and Fenris (good exampla all) there are a couple of things I keep in mind.
Firstly, how do we interpret the lore? Most scholars, I think would agree that there has been a certain Christianization of the lore. This isn’t unexpected given that so much of what was written down was recorded by a Christian politician and poet and various of his peers at least two centuries after conversion. Such muddying of the waters is inevitable, and we can learn a lot from it, from what was shaded in that way, and what wasn’t. As I learned in divination: what isn’t present is every bit as important as what is. Also, we should always keep in mind that we have but a fragment of the sacred stories our Heathen ancestors enjoyed. There is so much more to our cosmology than what we have enshrined in written record, even if one takes into account folklore.
When reading a sacred text, there are numerous ways that one can approach the text: literally, allegorically, anagogically, tropologically. I would add onto that mystically. What does all that mean? Well, while we don’t have something holding the authority of “scripture” in the way that the bible might be positioned for Jews and Christians, we have texts that are maps to the holy. Not holy in themselves, they provide keys, windows, and doorways to Mystery. Mysteries seem to be wellsprings of unending depth and we can return to a story again and again finding new meaning, new ways to construct our world, new insights into our Gods, our cosmology, and our devotion. That’s why these stories are so powerful. That’s why any religious text is so powerful: it teaches us how to navigate our world.
One can read a text literally, taking everything as a literal, even historical account (I don’t recommend this. It flattens out the texts, the religion, and the mysteries therein and often leads to very black and white morality). In an allegorical interpretation, we look for hidden meanings, for mystery. Likewise with a mystical interpretation, we filter our understanding of a particular story through the lens of the God we are venerating. Anagogical interpretations tend to utilize a text to refer to or interpret future events (often there is a sense of foreboding, foreseeing, prophesy, or eschatology here). A tropological reading looks for the lesson, the moral of the text and seeks to apply that to our current behavior. I tend to be hesitant about indulging in this type of reading too much with polytheistic texts because religion – however much devotion may have shaped our ancestors’ morality—was not the proper locus of morality and virtue development for ancient polytheists, not generally. Rather, they would have looked to philosophy, to their culture, their family, civic awareness, and their laws and customs for this. At least, they didn’t enshrine a moral code into their cosmological stories in the way that the Bible seeks to do (and really, either one is ok but it’s important to realize the work that these texts are doing within the religious communities that use them. We have a lot of converts still who may instinctively want the lore to do the work that the bible does, but, at least where morality is concerned, it just doesn’t and was never meant to do so).
On top of that we have the three worlds of any text (1): there’s the world behind the text. This would be the social, cultural, and historical context in which the text was written. There’s the world in front of the text. That’s our world and all the things we bring to it from our own experience and understanding today as we sit down to read. Then there’s the world *in* the text. This is where one can find the little doorways to the Gods and to Mystery. It’s the world the text creates, the story that unfolds therein. On top of that, I layer a healthy dose of philology. I want to see the original text, not a translation (or the original text and a couple of translations in most cases) and I will meditate upon individual words sometimes for a very long time.
All of this has to be taken into account when one takes up a section of the lore. On top of that, the whole process should, in my opinion, be framed with prayer, offerings, and devotion. What can the Gods tell us, where will They lead us, what inspiration or insight might we be given? It all gets woven together into the filter through which we can do what I’d call a polytheistic lectio divina.
When I read a story where two Gods are antagonistic to each other, the first thing I do is ask how this ties into the creation story. Creation stories are key to any tradition. They set up the scaffolding upon which the tradition will be built. So much of what happens in the creation narrative is reified again and again throughout other parts of the cosmology, other stories, etc. So, when I see antagonism, I immediately think of the grinding together of the world of fire and the world of ice, a process from which all being and materiality evolved. It reifies and makes new again that moment of creation. It is a point of vitality and re-enactment of something very, very sacred, *the* mystery that all the Gods protect. What is the work this story is doing when placed against our creation narrative? That’s the first question I’ll ask. (Well, ok. I’m a spirit worker. I’m going to ask the Gods for insight and then let my mind open to Their inspiration but that’s not helpful if one hasn’t been taught to do that! It’s cleaner, and leads to better discernment for the majority of people, I think, to learn this process of reading and engaging with a text first, so long as one understands that at its core, are the Holy Powers and all the Mysteries They carry, and the text is but a vehicle for engagement, not engagement itself).
I also keep in mind my place in the cosmological hierarchy. In the grand scheme of things, any politicking between Gods is well above my pay grade. My job is to be respectful, make offerings, pray, and otherwise engage in cultus. This is where one’s religious protocols come in, and lacking that, the guidance of teachers and elders. Protocol is a good thing. It is all the courtesies and etiquette by which we can safely and respectfully engage with the Gods. Each God has His or Her own protocol – all the things that make up the cultus of that Deity. We can sus this out through a close reading of the lore, or the God in question may inspire us directly. Regardless, protocol is important and often that will be a great help in how to manage the practicalities of cultus to opposing Deities.
On a purely practical level – and I probably could have started here – keep Their shrines separate. Do not honor Them closely in the same ritual (as in don’t do a rite dedicated to Both. Individuals may offer prayers to Whomever they choose when the horn is being passed, if it is that style of rite). Respect the antagonism as something sacred, as pointing to something crucially important and vital embedded in the very structure of our cosmology. Such antagonisms often point to powerful Mysteries and in such, each God is holding space for that Mystery to unfold. It’s not actually antagonism I would warrant, but something much, much more primal and primally important. It’s also a tension that as a devotee you most likely won’t resolve (or won’t resolve for a very, very long time) in your devotion. It’s up to you whether that becomes a fruitful tension or not (and I’m not being bitchy here. It really, really is and sometimes those points of unresolved tension can lead to the most fruitful of places). But understand that the perceived antagonism is key to maintaining the structure of creation. It does something, performs an important task within our cosmology and in the end, I have often suspected that when we move away from the more personal manifestations of our Gods to Their more cosmic and overarching emanations (2) – I don’t like that word emanation so consider it a placeholder until I find something more appropriate—we may find that it’s not antagonism so much as partnership and performance of a cosmic reality.
So, that being said. Go with it. Honor Them separately. Be respectful to both. Meditate upon Their stories; and pray with the fervor of a Christina mirabilis (3) doing medieval parkour.
I’m going to stop there, because I’ve pretty much just given you a primer on how to read theologically and it’s a lot, and I just want to let it sit for a bit before continuing. Over the weekend, I’ll discuss your other two questions too. Right now, I’m off to prep for Sunwait.
- This way of reading is something I learned from Contextualizing Gender in Early Christian Discourse: Reading Beyond Thecla by Caroline Stichele and Todd Penner.
- One of my colleagues Raven Kaldera offered a model for the way Gods show themselves to us. If I remember correctly, he used the model of a stalactite, positing that the Gods narrow Themselves down becoming more anthropomorphically “human” to allow for intimate and mystical contact with us. But then, at the other end of that spectrum, they are immense, far, far too enormous for any human intellect to comprehend. I’m not sure how fully I agree or disagree with this, but I do find it tremendously useful for conceptualizing the sheer complexity of our Gods. I think he wrote about it in this book, but I’m not 100% sure.
- See the wiki article on Christina Mirabilis here. She is awesome. Nick Cave wrote a song about her too, which you can listen to here.
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I always have to begin these posts with reminders that lore alone is too easy, a low bar. When I began in Heathenry in the early nineties, the only thing that people valued—even over integrity in one’s devotional relationship with the Gods or indeed any devotional relationship at all – was how much lore one could quote. No one really cared to interrogate how mediated that lore was by Christian authors either. Coming predominantly from Protestantism as the majority of converts of that time did, all most Heathens cared about was replicating the relationship with the Bible with which they’d grown up (and despite the fact that pre-Christian Heathens were living in a predominantly oral culture – no one wanted to examine the implications of that very much either). To that end, anything devotional, anything mystical, anything that might accidentally take the Gods off the pages of a book and allow for actual, complicated, inconvenient engagement was strongly and doggedly edited out. Can’t have pesky piety or actual gnosis now can we? Unless that piety is bound between the pages of a book. Fortunately, we’re growing past this bullshit (which really, was just an excuse for unwarranted vanity and bullying, and had very little to do with actual piety at all in way too many cases) and it can’t happen quickly enough (1).
I’m a firm believer that we grow spiritually by allowing the Gods into our lives, developing a devotional praxis, allowing Them to crack us open spiritually, forcing our souls to expand and evolve into that which allows us to become better retainers to Them. While I think the lore may be useful as a scaffolding for that process, it’s a map, one of many. It’s not the territory. It’s especially not territory when one’s worldview is still that of a modern Protestant (all respect to my Protestant friends. Rock on in your own sandboxes. It’s a problem though when someone converts but stays religion X, Y, or Z in their minds. One can’t just replace one God with Many in theory and assume nothing else has to change).
As I said to a good friend yesterday, when we were discussing the Sonnatorek (part of Egil’s Saga): yeah sure, it might be useful under certain circumstances, but what is really useful is having a devotional relationship with the Gods. That is what truly sustains, and if someone is against that, or hostile to it, then why waste time with them? Nothing will help them or assuage them in a lasting way, because their souls are empty. I don’t think we should fill that space with lore (2) when doing so only reinforces lack of devotion and impiety. It’s a simple rubric: don’t do that which nurtures impiety. Of course one could argue that using the lore like that is a steppingstone, except I’ve not seen many Heathens stepping past that point so I guess I’m less than sanguine about the whole thing (3). I suppose I digress…
Either way, it’s odd to find myself returning to the lore for lectio divina. It is useful though, when it’s kept to its place and we don’t, as a Victorian mater or pater familias might say, allow it to rise above its station. One of the things that I like about the lore is that it gives us hints about the core competencies or what the Greeks would term τιμαι of our Gods. Since I’ve been slowly cultivating a devotion to Heimdallr over the last couple of months, I thought I would focus on a verse about Him for this post.
27. Veit hon Heimdallar hljóð um fólgit undir heiðvönum helgum baðmi; á sér hon ausask aurgum forsi af veði Valföðrs. Vituð ér enn eða hvat?´ 27. I know of the horn | of Heimdall, hidden Under the high-reaching | holy tree; On it there pours | from Valfather's pledge A mighty stream: | would you know yet more?
Right away, this stanza makes a connection between Heimdallr and Yggdrasil, the World Tree that sustains and supports the nine worlds, a key point of the sacred architecture of creation. If the Tree sustains, and Heimdallr’s key attribute (His horn- hljóð – and more on this word in a bit) is hidden beneath the Tree, then does He play some role in protecting and sustaining it and by extension all creation as well? Further, in this passage, while we already know the Tree is holy, that is emphasized here again. It’s not just that the horn is hidden under the high-reaching Tree (a spatial terminology that should already have our mental bells ringing), but it is specifically “holy” (helgum). This word isn’t just holy, but it may also imply that a place is appropriate for sacred rites and even inviolable (see Zoega).
This makes me think about Heimdallr’s heiti or epithets/by-names. I haven’t found many:
- Rígr : ‘king’
- Hallinskiði: ‘the one with the lop-sided horns’ or ‘the inclining rod (which may mean ‘beam of sunlight’)’ or ‘axis of the world’ (4). If we take this latter meaning, then we have yet another reference to Yggdrasil.
- Gullintanni : ‘golden tooth’
- Hvitastr Ása -the whitest God (though in this sense it’s not white skin but white in the sense of brilliant, blinding light).
He’s associated to some degree with the Ram, which might account for the second by-name. I have no idea what “Golden Tooth” refers to – perhaps a story that hasn’t come down to us, perhaps one of His mysteries? Rígr of course, refers to His actions in the Rigsthula, where He establishes social order across Midgard (generally with his penis, but sometimes that’s just the way our Gods roll).
Hljóð raises some questions. It’s a slippery word and might not refer to Heimdallr’s horn at all. It could be a poetic gloss for his hearing or even (and probably more likely of the two) His ear/s). This latter would make sense, given that a strong parallel is being drawn in this passage between Heimdallr and Odin, one of Whose bynames is Valfather. Odin’s eye, which He ripped out in exchange for a draught from the Well of Mimir is His pledge, and lies in Mimir’s Well, which itself is situated at the foot of the Tree. The spatiality of this passage seems to imply that Heimdallr made a similar sacrifice.
When I first learned about Heimdallr, I was taught that He had sacrificed an ear in much the same fashion that Odin sacrificed an eye, and that the Gjallarhorn was representative of both that sacrifice and His power. Once I got to the point where I had enough familiarity with Old Norse to look at the original passages myself, I realized it’s not quite so concrete and while I still lean in that direction, the word hljóð here is ambiguous and, I think, points to something far larger than just a concrete ear or horn. A sacrifice was made and where for Odin, that sacrifice involved sight, for Heimdallr, it was a different sense, hearing. What that means on an esoteric level, I don’t know (yes, yes, writer of the Voluspa, I would know more).
Not having a concrete answer doesn’t mean that one can’t engage in fruitful speculation. After all, when it comes to our Gods, that’s pretty much what we have even where lore is extant. Our knowledge, if one can call it that, of our Gods is always tempered by and through our experience and that is limited as our human insight is limited in comparison to the Holy Powers. The two thoughts that really jump out for me came from a student, who once asked me if Heimdallr, like the Hindu Agni hears all our prayers, or like Lukumi’s Ellegua stands at the crossroads of the worlds keeping bad things at bay and allowing blessings to flow. To be honest, my own personal opinion is yes, pretty much. I think that He is a God of holiness, One Who ensures the purity and inviolability of holy spaces. I further think His nature and power is such that nothing unholy may exist in His presence. In our House we invoke Him before every ritual we do, to ensure that our ritual container (i.e. the space in which we’re celebrating the Gods) might be clean and free of all interference and pollution. We ask that He turn His attention to us and open the way across Bifrost for our prayers to reach the Gods clearly and without impediment. We entrust to Him our safety from any external pollution. We pray to Him also to restore harmony to our home and our hearts, minds, and souls, after any contact with negative spirits, malefica, or pollution.
If, as this verse hints, Heimdallr is mythically associated with Yggdrasil and also made sacrifice at Mimir’s well, then this underscores His essential role in maintaining the integrity of the worlds and their architecture. That’s no small thing. Perhaps this is why it is said in lore that He has nine mothers: each one a doorway to and root within one of the worlds.
As always, if there’s a particular stanza from the Eddas or other lore that you’d like me to discuss, just shoot me an email.
- When you have a community that would take as a priest the atheist who can quote a ton of lore over the devotee with a deep, ongoing devotional relationship to one or more of the Gods, there’s a problem. Now yes, I think clergy and other specialists should know their lore. Why? Because it instills a particular cosmology that echoes throughout our tradition and shows various doorways to mysteries of our Gods. It’s important to know Their stories but the end is never lore in and of itself and that acquisition should never be bereft of the knowledge that it is, at best, a spotty map with multiple lacunae.
- Or only with lore – if I thought Sonnatorek would be helpful, I’d recommend it to someone without hesitation.
- What I’ve seen is recitation of lore taken to mean one is a “better” Heathen and used to gain ego points. It’s pure vanity and also pure bullshit. Their devotional relationships may be absolute trash fires, or non-existent but Heathen X can quote the lore backwards and forwards so let’s all bow down. Sorry (not) but I do not think so.
- I forgot where I found these. I keep spreadsheets with any heiti I find for the Gods. I can’t recall where I came across the second by-name here.
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.
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.
Trolling around the web the other day (one link leading to another link), I saw a question from a new Heathen: why don’t we treat the Eddas like sacred scripture. Surely, this person opined, it would give us added legitimacy amongst other religions as we worked to position ourselves as equal to the big three monotheisms. Yes, that was literally what this person was saying. It’s actually a good question on several fronts and one I want to take the time to answer here as part of my practicum series.
Firstly, we are not trying to position ourselves as equal to the big three monotheisms. Frankly, I think we’re far better than they because we’re polytheistic and we are in the process of restoring the ancient contracts with Gods, ancestors, and land that those religions shattered. Also, it’s not a competition. Some people will be legitimately called by those Deities. That’s fine. We need to do us, and worry about restoring our traditions with integrity instead of competing with religions that have almost zero resemblance to our worldview and way of doing things. Those religions are utterly irrelevant to us and to our praxis.
Secondly, why assume that we need scriptures? That’s not the way our tradition works. Our ethical code is drawn from our community and culture. We don’t need it ensconced in a religious text. That’s not, in most polytheisms, what religion is for (1). Nor is such a text necessary for transmission of our traditions. That happens inter-generationally through being surrounded by reverent people and seeing right relationship with the Powers demonstrated and encouraged every day (2).
Heathenry was an oral tradition. It was passed from mother to child, father to child, community to child through active practice and household cultus. Writing something down, relying on written texts as the main archive of one’s tradition creates a very different environment than the fluidity of orality. A tradition dependent on written texts is one that has closed the door to revelation and theophany. Oral traditions, because change and transition is ensconced in the very process of orality, have loopholes that render them flexible, vibrant, living.
Finally, the Eddas are not religious texts. They were not written to be religious texts. They were not even written by Heathens. The Poetic and Prose Edda and anything else written by Snorri Sturluson, were written by a Christian poet and politician to help younger writers comprehend the pre-Christian stories and kennings that filled their literature. Apparently, poets of Snorri’s time were forgetting these things because those poets were largely Christian. They are not sacred texts. They may contain windows to the holy, but they themselves are not holy. That’s an important distinction (3). These texts are highly mediated. They’re filled with elements that better reflect Christianity than Heathenry. We can draw inspiration from the stories therein but to enshrine such a text as scripture is to allow that text to limit and define one’s religious life.
I think new converts have to be careful not to cling to worldviews and ways of doing things that do not reflect our ancestral traditions. We get a lot of converts from Protestant religions and Protestantism is very focused around lectio divina and the study of sacred scriptures. There’s nothing wrong with that (and knowing how to engage with a close reading of our sacred stories is very useful but taking it to the extreme of elevating those texts as ‘scripture’ twists the Heathen worldview far out of true) but it doesn’t reflect Heathenry and leads, when such a thing is given normative power within a tradition, to a very different place than where our ancestral Worldview would rightly lead.
The Eddas are useful tools, but let’s not make them more than that. We’re not reinventing Protestantism after all; we’re returning to and restoring our ancestral traditions and our ancestors did not need scripture to venerate the Gods and see Their works throughout the world. We need to be smart enough not to cut ourselves off that way.
- In most polytheistic cultures, religion is a set of protocols for engaging with the Holy, philosophy is where one learns to cultivate virtue and become a decent human being, also civics, and then soteriological questions are answered by mystery cultus.
- I remember a couple of years ago talking with a theology colleague who was stunned when I said we don’t have scripture (not like the Abrahamic traditions). He couldn’t grasp it and asked, ‘how do you pass your religion on to your children?’ It was a good question and I’m glad he asked and I explained how polytheisms work, about hearth cultus, the role of a pious community and tribe, etc.
- I think the stories of our Gods are sacred but they’re not ‘scripture.’ They are not unchanging revelation upon which a tradition is based. Quite the opposite given that there were multiple regional differences in cosmology, stories, and approach.
Those of you who are familiar with Heathenry will assuredly be familiar with the fixation some (most) Heathens have on lore. With a demographic drawn largely from Protestant Christianity, and working in an over-culture that is doggedly Protestant Christian in its attitudes, it is perhaps not surprising that there is deep suspicion and even hostility toward anything not immediately and apparently mediated by the written word. Given that the majority Heathen demographic is also largely working class, there is also a noticeable insecurity and ambivalence toward mysticism (i.e. direct experience often dismissed in Heathen circles as “U.P.G” or the dreaded unverified personal gnosis) and you have, well, a mess.
Before going further, let me clarify what passes for ‘lore’ in Heathenry. When one of us speaks of “lore,” we’re referring to written texts. That includes the Prose and Poetic Eddas, the Icelandic Sagas, Anglo-Saxon texts, and contemporary historical, archaeological, linguistic, as well as any other relevant scholarly work. None of these texts may be considered ‘revealed’ texts, nor were they ever intended to serve the purpose of “scripture’ in the way we are accustomed to think of that term. This is the context in which most Heathens frame their religion, and in many cases, it’s also the context by which their experiences is consciously limited. I find that unfortunate. It is not however to be unexpected.
Let’s unpack that a bit. One of the dominant features of Protestant Christianity is a liturgical focus on Scripture. This was, historically, one of its criticisms of Catholicism: that the latter’s praxis and liturgy veered too far away from Scripture. Bible study, memorizing and quoting scripture, the emphasis (here shared with Catholicism) on reading and of Christ as the embodiment of the “Word” are all key facets of this approach to faith. This is one of the reasons why Christianity is referred to as a ‘religion of the book.’ Even before the Protestant Reformation, in the medieval period with the early Christian fathers, there was this emphasis on text.
Essentially for religions of the book, there is holy writ, and it has tremendous authority in guiding practice and approach to faith. Since Vatican II, unfortunately, Catholicism has also been — all in the spirit of “modernism” and “ecumenism” of course –doing its best to cull its more mystical elements, including devotion to Mary on the grounds that it’s not textually authentic. I find it depressing and sad that a rich, complex, mystical theology would be exchanged for a pseudo-rational, unemotional, modern, scripture based approach. But that’s just me. When this was restricted to the Christians, it wouldn’t be something I felt the need to address, but it’s been a struggle over the past twenty years to avoid having this same reductionist approach dominate Heathenry. We are raised surrounded by the cultural and social trappings of Protestant Christianity. That is the dominant voice of American culture, even amongst our intellectual “elite” — even if one is not Christian. One of the unspoken facets of this is that we assume religious experience to have a textual base. We look for “Scripture” to tell us what to do, what to believe, and whether or not we’re doing our religion right. This is one of the reasons why it’s so important to examine our religious expectations, to drag all our unspoken, ingrained assumptions about how a tradition works and how we ought to engage out into the light. There will be parts useful and parts not, but it’s important to see it all clearly. (1)
So with Heathenry, we have a contemporary religion trying to restore what is a conglomeration of ancestral traditions. That’s awesome. What we need to take into account, however, is the influence of our over-culture, birth religion, and the fetish we seem to have for “progress,” and “modernity.” Sometimes it isn’t and sometimes, what we are expected to trade for the trappings of “modernity,” is too high a price to pay for what we get. I don’t think we’ve quite all figured that out yet. It’s so much easier after all when humanity is at the top of the hierarchy, the center of the world, the apex of experience and we don’t have to worry about pesky Gods. It’s so much easier when engaging with the Gods as individual Powers is viewed as déclassé. It’s so much easier when our only obligations are social ones, oh, and reading an authorized text of course.
I’m being more sarcastic with the above statements than I initially intended, but this is the lay of the land in Heathenry. It’s ironic, given that such an attitude would have been utterly incomprehensible to our Heathen ancestors, who knew the wisdom of piety and reverence, and when to go on their knees in the dirt before their Gods out of awe, and when to sacrifice without bitching about giving too much, and that the Gods were Powers capable of impacting our world and us.
In a way, we’re having to do now, what the very early Christians had to do in order to grow their faith. It’s ironic, this role reversal, but it struck me during my reading the other day: early Christians developed their monastic traditions and powerful traditions of interiority and prayer because they had to worship in secret, or at best in small groups away from the public eye. It wasn’t until later, once they’d gained political power that they were able to effect large churches and public spheres of worship (and oppression). First, there were small groups, and individual prayer. This made the hunger for texts, I would think, all the more powerful. If i can’t be celebrating my God with a group of my co-religionists, then allow me to summon that community, and the presence of my God to my memory by reading stories and accounts that we all share in common. Let the absence be filled by memory evoked by engagement with the text. Let me engage with my community –spread out and hidden–in a unity through that very absence as it were. Now, Christians are everywhere (everywhere *sigh*) and it is the polytheist contingent that meets in small groups, often quite spread out, and perhaps — i’m speculating here–we also find ourselves deferring to written texts for prayer and meditation more than our polytheistic ancestors may have done, ancestors for whom the core beliefs of religion were contained and transmitted via intergenerational household and social practice. They could see their religion and veneration for the Gods reinforced all around them. We who don’t have that, depend much more on written media. It’s an interesting juxtaposition.
Christians engaged with their texts every bit as assiduously as the best (worst — i suspect it depends on your pov) Heathen lore thumper. They didn’t just read and take pride in their ability to memorize and regurgitate (as many a Heathen lore-hound has been known to do). They engaged in a certain amount of exegesis. Each reading opened the door to meditation and prayer, and that in turn opened the door to the potential at least — with the grace of God–for direct experience. Each text, led one on a meditative journey with the goal of drawing closer to one’s God.(2)
This really came home for me when I had to read an article about how small prayer books were used for personal devotion in the medieval period (c. 11-12 Centuries) when there was a shift in focus from communal liturgical devotion to private, personal prayer. I won’t quote the description of the process one would go through when using a Christian breviary for private use, but I am going to re-contextualize that process for a Heathen audience. (3)
Firstly, and this is something Rachel Fulton notes in her article, to own a book was to participate in privilege. Now, I realize that may not be quite the same with us today, especially not with the proliferations of e-readers, but there are parts of the world where reading and writing are a gift, and a privilege. Also, there’s magic there. Think about the first of our ancestors who realized that potential in making marks on the surface of a rock or bit of bark or clay. Think about the work that went into the book you hold or read, it was first formed in the mind of its creator, brought into being, translated to text, and pushed through the publishing process, disseminated online or to bookstores and finally ended up in your hands. This process was much more laborious in the medieval period, but each book is still a miracle, still an act of creation and craft. There is something very special in text that ties us to each and every reader who may likewise be influenced and inspired. This is all the more true of religious texts where the readers share a common cosmology and devotional approach.
So drawing upon and expanding upon the description offered in Fulton’s article, here is how — were I as a Heathen to engage in lectio divina–engaging with the lore might look.
Many medieval prayer books, like prayer books today were drawn off of scriptural readings, as well as set prayers. So using that as my paradigm, I’ll choose a section from the Poetic Edda focusing on one of Odin’s mysteries, the Runatal section of the Havamal. (I should note, the same process that I shall uncover below might be used with a prayer too, to equal effect). Here’s the text for those who might be unfamiliar with it:
Veit ec at ec hecc vindga meiði a
netr allar nío,
geiri vndaþr oc gefinn Oðni,
sialfr sialfom mer,
a þeim meiþi, er mangi veit, hvers hann af rótom renn.
Við hleifi mic seldo ne viþ hornigi,
nysta ec niþr,
nam ec vp rvnar,
fell ec aptr þaðan.
I know that I hung on a windy tree
nine long nights,
wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin,
myself to myself,
on that tree of which no man knows
from where its roots run.
No bread did they give me nor a drink from a horn,
downwards I peered;
I took up the runes, screaming I took them,
then I fell back from there.(4)
First, I might read it quietly aloud in Norse and English. There is a rhythm after all, to the Norse verse that the English translation, however well done, lacks. Certain of the Norse phrases I might have (in fact personally do have) committed to memory. These I might linger over, letting the tones of my words resonate through my body. Odin is, after all, a God of empowered speech, of galdr, of poetry, of incantation. I would strive in my private prayer to make of these phrases, whichever I choose, an incantation that reverberates through the memory hall of my heart, that strikes at the core of my soul, kindling devotion, opening me up, bolstering a desire to connect, to reach outward to Him.
Perhaps I have recently read academic commentary on this section that brought some insight applicable to my spiritual life to light. I might mull that over for a time. My mind might segue to an image of a Tree that calls to mind Yggdrasil. Perhaps I’ll parse that word out: “Steed of the Terrible One.” What does that mean about this Tree. What does it mean about its agency and awareness? When I think of Odin hanging, there are a thousand images that come to my mind. Perhaps I have included one, a prayer card, or even a photocopy of the image in my Edda where I can look at it as I read and pray. Or perhaps I have an image on my altar or shrine, and I am praying and reading with this in my sight.
In my case, part of my ordeal cycle was a hook suspension in imitatio of this exact experience. It is Odin’s greatest mystery and the point of most powerful (for me at any rate) connection to Him. When I read about the windy tree, I think of the november night that I underwent this ordeal. I think about how cold and damp it was, what effect that had on my skin and my muscles, how I watched the sun set with growing dread. I wonder what it was like for Odin approaching the Tree, what preparations He might have made, and what it must be like to be a God and still be afraid.
I have a chant that I use for Him that recounts His time on the Tree and perhaps that will come to mind and if I am alone, I might even offer it to Him aloud. We don’t yet have the tradition of devotional images to which medieval Christians could turn in illuminating their psalters and prayer books, but we do have some. Many, particularly older images show Him in armor on the Tree, or at least a helmet. I wonder why when it was the moment of His greatest power but also His greatest self-chosen vulnerability. What does it say about a God who would choose that? I think about all the images I’ve seen of Him on the Tree—does He have both eyes, or has the artist portrayed Him as already having made His offering to the Well? What do I think of that? What does my own experience tell me there about the variations of mythic time?
maybe I cross-reference this with articles or passages about the sacrifice of His eye. Was this presaged by His encounters with specific runes? Had He been trained for this? What about the fact that Mimir is His maternal uncle? That was a powerful role in many cultures including the early Germanic. What do I know of Mimir? What do I know of the wells that sit at the base of the Tree? Are they all one well, or many? Why are they located with the Tree? What does that mean? What came first: offering to the well or offering to the Tree and does it matter?
When I read the line about Him being wounded by His own spear, I think about sitting beneath my tree, the hooks going into my flesh: how that felt, what it did to me, where it allowed me to go. I remember the disorientation of swinging beneath the branches of the tree, watching the world fall away as I was lifted off the ground. What did He see when He rose into its boughs. I recall other experiences with Him in the woods, and the sound of His body falling sharply down through the boughs.
I remember some of His heiti, his praise names, particularly one’s having to do with the Tree. I think about how the Tree is always nourished in blood, and what such an initiation would mean. I think about the runes and why it took this type of ordeal and sacrifice to win them. I might call to mind the rune poems and see how they too are connected to the Old Man. Maybe, if I am in a mood to do so and if, in the flow of my contemplation, it feels correct, I galdr the rune itself with the goal of being given insight into that moment, that time, that experience.
I read and think on Odin, and think about all the parts that went into suspending me in my tree. How was He suspended? Did the Tree itself grasp Him up? Did the branches pierce HIs flesh and hold Him true until He was empty of screaming and could be filled by something else? Or was that process too an ordeal to be surmounted, a tactical challenge to be met?
I might turn to prayers that I have written or collected that tie to that experience in some way, that bring to my heart’s mind and senses, Odin on the Tree. I might say them, and then return to the Edda passage going over those lines again, rooting out connections to other things, all so I can find my way to Him. If emotion comes, I will sit with it and allow it its voice. That too can be a connection to Him.
The passage talks about the roots of the Tree. Images of ancient Trees with huge, gnarled, tangled roots come to mind and I let them. I think about how when I was lowered to the ground again after my ordeal, after however long I hung suspended in the tree, my feet touched the ground and there was relief, release, and pain, such pain as the muscles in my lower back went into full, several days long spasm. (The angle of the body when hanging in the type of suspension is not the best for those with bad backs. I knew this going in). I wonder if it hurt Odin just as much when He was released from the Tree as when He ascended it to be taken up. I think about all the things that can never be remotely comprehended save by initiatory experience and how it breaks one’s world into a before and an after and how there’s never any going back. I wonder what regrets He left at the Tree, or whether He didn’t have them until later, or whether He had them at all. I wonder how He contextualized the experience that of necessity must have changed Him so in its aftermath.
I pray to be opened up to understanding, to greater connection to Him knowing that it will change my life and I contemplate how far I might go in my devotions to ready myself and make this possible. I think about how far He went. I return to some of my personal prayers, that I’ve written for Him at various times as well as my extempore utterances in the moment and I offer these up to Him again, moving away from the Runatal text and back again and again and again.
I happen to have this particular text memorized, which adds another layer to the experience of engaging physically with a written text. The text is already present in my memory, but I involve my sensorium (sight, touch, sound if I choose to read aloud) when I’m looking at a book and that ads another layer of both engagement and meaning. Being a language person with more than a smattering of Old Norse, I might also ponder both meaning and syntax and grammar of the original to see what can be gleaned there. We all bring different experiences and skills to the table in our devotional life and I think it’s good to use what you have to begin these practices.
I could go on from here, line by line with the Edda, or with any other text, but I think the process is relatively clear. The important thing isn’t being well-read in lore, the important thing is to read lore — if it’s a tool you find helpful–always keeping the ultimate goal in mind: veneration of the Gods, developing a devotional relationship with the Gods, calling Them into the seat of the heart, developing greater understanding of that place in which one dances in relationship with Them. If you’re going to use lore, understand that it is not an end in itself. It’s a map and as with any map, there is a goal external to the process.
1. For more discussion of the Protestant attitudes dominant in American secular culture see “Love the Sin” by Ann Pellegrini and Janet Jacobsen and also “Secularisms” by the same authors. For information on the impact of Vatican II on the devotional life of the Church, and the absence of Mary see “”Missing Mary” by C. Spretnak, “Alone of all Her Sex” by M. Warner, and for the focus of the Protestant Reformation I highly recommend E. Duffy’s “THe Stripping of the Altars.”
2. Guigo II “Ladder of Monks and the Twelve Meditations” Cistercian Press. See also the sermons of Bernard of Clairvaux on the Song of Songs, works of John Cassian, Anselm of Canturbury, even Origen if you can stomach it.
3. Praying with Anselm at Admont: A meditation on practice by Rachel Fulton. First published in Speculum, Vol. 81, No. 3 (Jul, 2006), pp. 700-733, published by Medieval Academy of America.
4. Taken from Carolyn Larrington’s translation of the Poetic Edda.