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.
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.
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(I had to read Beowulf for a class recently and I had this moment where I realized that as a Heathen, I had a surprising understanding of many of the practices represented in the text. The piece below encapsulates some of my initial thoughts upon reading through Seamus Heaney’s masterful translation (I had read his translation before, but not for many years, so I was able to approach it fresh). To be honest, I never cared for Beowulf before, but reading it this time has completely changed my mind. It finally hit me how important a text it is for us, and how Heathen and the whole thing just opened up. So, I share a few of my thoughts with you now. By the way, read Headley’s new translation. It’s absolutely brilliant and if I ever teach this text to undergrads, that’s the text I’d use).
In Chapter five of The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought, John Friedman offers (in part) a brief analysis of Grendel and Grendel’s Mother in Beowulf, suggesting that their “heritage from Cain and Ham” is of particular significance in explaining both their monstrosity and their hatred for the “men in the mead-hall”(1). For Friedman, this biblical and cursed ancestry, adds a “moral dimension” to the story, one lacking even –as Friedman opines – in Beowulf and his allies (2). While not disputing the dramatic effect of such a lineage, this paper examines the way that lineage was likewise utilized by the author of Beowulf as a gloss for Heathen elements, religiously, morally, and culturally still extant, at the time of Beowulf’s composition, in English society (3).
What precisely makes Grendel and his mother monstrous? It cannot be their violence, because throughout Beowulf the reader is given multiple examples of equal violence and indeed treachery perpetrated by or against the Danes. After Beowulf’s victory, for instance, at the celebratory feast, the minstrel performs the story of Hildeburgh, Finn, and his sons. Truce is offered between Finn and the Danes but clearly only due to circumstances, not actual desire for lasting peace, and the feud is renewed at earliest opportunity with much attendant bloodshed (4). Another feud is detailed in the story of Freawaru’s wedding (5) and feud with violation of hospitality in the death of Heardred (6). Clearly, violence and bloodshed are not a determining factor in what constitutes a being’s monstrosity. Nor would inhuman appearance alone be enough to summon a group of heroic warriors. I argue that the monsters in Beowulf serve as the embodiment of the cultural anxieties inherent in society-wide conversion (7). In his book Monster Theory, Cohen positions “monsters” in part, as “harbingers of category crisis” and cultural difference (8). It is my assertion that the transition from indigenous Polytheisms to Christianity created just such a crisis of identity and category, manifested in a community that was neither fully Christian nor fully Heathen any longer. This religious (and cultural) ambiguity is reflected in the text of Beowulf itself (9).
The words used for Grendel are not necessarily reflective of this culture crises – with the exception of eotenas, a word whose etymology is connected to beings venerated in the Pagan world (10). Words like ellen-gaest(powerful spirit) andgrimma gaest (grim spirit) are colorful, but not specifically Pagan (though Heaney translates them most frequently as ‘demon,’ which has a much more specifically Christian and negative context than the original Old English terms). More significant is the note that such creatures, including eotenas ond ylfe ond orcneas, swylce gigantas (ogres and elves and orcs and giants) strove with God (Þa wið Gode wunnon), indicating that they are part of an order set against the will of the Christian God, though whether this is by their nature, their ancestry, or their own will is left unspecified (11). Only in line 137 are the readers told that Grendel is “malignant by nature.” This in turn leads to a violation on the part of the men of Heorot: they sacrifice at Heathen temples, making offerings and oaths to Heathen Gods while praying for someone to save them from Grendel (12). To Whom are they praying? It is only after these prayers that Beowulf, their hero and savior arrives. Heathen cultusis momentarily foregrounded. Furthering this metaphor, in line 431, killing Grendel is described as “purifying Heorot” (Heorot faelsian) (13).
Equally important is the geography surrounding Grendel and his mother. They are outliers, in fen, moor, bog and other liminal places outside the community and specifically outside Heorot (14). Giving them a heritage descended from men who violated divine order, first Cain in the killing of his brother (already a child of Adam and Eve who violated the direct prohibition of their God), and then Ham who showed disrespect and impiety in his treatment of his father Noah, highlights that they have no place in a society defined by its Christianity. If Grendel and his Mother are in truth representative of indigenous polytheistic religions, then what is “malignant by nature” to the men of Heorot is not the beings themselves, but the larger Polytheism/Heathenry that they represent, a body of traditions that by the eighth-century had been relegated to the periphery of accepted society. In line 851, Grendel is even referred to as having a “heathen soul” (haeþene sawle).
This contrast between pre-Christian religion and Christianity is only one of many pairs juxtaposed within the text. After Beowulf kills Grendel, Hrothgar offers praises for Beowulf’s mother (15). This is then followed by the introduction of Grendel’s monstrous mother. In line 942, Hrothgar calls Beowulf the “flower of manhood,” in contrast to Grendel who was “demonic” (line 730) (16). The Danish queen Hildeburgh (17) who’s story presages bloodshed and feud, is contrasted with the appearance of Wealhtheow, who brings peace and hospitality to Hrothgar’s hall (18). Later in the text, Wealhtheow is contracted with Grendel’s mother specifically in the horror she shows when Beowulf returns to Heorot with Grendel’s head (19). Finally, Hygelac’s queen Hygd is contrasted with the terrible queen Modthryth (20).
Finally, in the end, despite Beowulf’s valor and Grendel’s mother’s savagery, it was “holy God” (witig Drihten) who unambiguously decided the outcome of the battle (21). When Beowulf dies, however in line 2574, it is fate (wyrd), not God who denies him victory. In his book, Friedman notes a powerful contrast between the classical view of monsters, one of curiosity and tolerance for “ethnic diversity” versus a later Christian view of “monsters” that is “hostile and harmful,” and that positions monsters as not only outside the accepted order of the world, but as cursed, corrupted, morally degenerate, and even evil (22). This reflects the shift from indigenous religions, largely polytheistic to monotheistic Christianity, which is in many respects a shift from a diversity of divine beings, to a worldview in which there is only one God, and one acceptable religious perspective. It should come as no surprise then that differing worldviews, those who embrace them, and those whose appearances violate the norm should be viewed as monstrous. Such a shift in perspective might well be considered inevitable.
1Friedman, 106. It should be noted that this descent from Ham would also make these “monsters” black. See Friedman, 101.
2Not having read Friedman’s entire book, I am not certain if he is implying that there was a lack of that aforesaid moral dimension in the cultures, communities, and community norms represented by Heorot and its men, one that could only be supplied by Christianity or not, but I do wish that he had defined what, precisely, he meant by ‘moral’ somewhere in this chapter and how or if he was tying it to religion.
3I know the date of Beowulf is contested, but if, like the Greek epic the Iliad, the text has oral antecedents, and if one takes into account that scholars like J. R.R. Tolkien argued for dating the written poem to the 8th, century, then that would place it within a generation (or two) of Christianization. Conversion is never a clean process and it is almost inevitable that holdovers and syncretization would have occurred. See R.A. Markus, Gregory the Great and His World. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1970, 182-3 and J. R. R. Tolkien, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary. Boston, MA: Mariner Books, 2015, p. 328.
4See from line 1080.
5 See from line 2030.
6See from 2380.
7See Cohen, p. 4 for a discussion of the monster as a cultural body.
9While it is well beyond the scope of this brief response paper, religion and culture are deeply intertwined. This can be clearly demonstrated, for example, in a later Icelandic Saga, the 13thcentury Njal’s Saga, which contrasts the Pagan social code and legal mores with the newfound Christian ones. The action in this saga takes place during the conversion of Iceland (which actually occurs during the action depicted in the multi-decade story). The same type of agonistic tension echoes (or maybe lurks since we are dealing with a monster text) behind the monsters in Beowulf. I know I need to examine this more closely, especially since I’m much more familiar with later Icelandic literature (Iceland converted in 1000 C.E.) but I found the many of the echoes of indigenous Pagan religions in the language of Beowulf, which shared largely the same cosmology as Pagan Iceland, striking, particularly the dogged presence of Wyrd throughout the text.
10Eotenas is cognate to the Old Norse Jotun. The Jotnar were a tribe of divine beings in Germanic Paganisms, often associated with chaos, elemental power, and natural phenomenon. Their veneration in contemporary Norse polytheism today (Asatru, Heathenry) is a point of denominational conflict. See my own work on the subject A Modern Guide to Heathenry, Newburyport, MA: Red Wheel/Weiser, 2019. There is, despite modern theological controversies in the religion, ample evidence for their veneration in pre-Christian Scandinavia (particularly the deities Skadhi, Gerda, the moon God Mani, Sun Goddess Sunna, and Loki) and to some degree England. See Stephen Pollington, The Elder Gods: The Otherworld of Early England, Norfolk, UK: Anglo-Saxon Books, 2017.
11Heaney, lines 112-113.
12See lines 170-178.
13The word faelsian is particularly connected to liturgical purification of sacred space. Nathan Ristuccia, in his article (available here: https://www.academia.edu/4129419/Fælsian_and_the_Purification_of_Sacred_Space_in_the_Advent_Lyrics)notes that it is a relatively rare term, with over half its known uses occurring in either Beowulf or the Advent Lyrics. See Ristuccia, 6. The text likely existed for generations as an oral epic before being committed to text. It can therefore be viewed as an initially Pagan text later Christianized as the society changed. The Christian elements are marginal and it would be interesting to
14I think an argument could be made that Heorot itself represents the sacred enclosure of a fully Christian community, with outliers to that community also outliers to that creed.
15See from line 940.
16Heaney translates this line as “and his glee was demonic” but þa his mod ahlog actually means “then his heart laughed.” Regardless, Grendel is laughing over the slaughter of Heorot’s men.
17See from 1070.
18See from 1161. There seems to be a subtle connection between women and vengeance, both with stories like that of Hildeburgh but also Grendel’s mother and her quest for vengeance. I’m strongly reminded of a brutal line from Njal’s Saga, occurring when one of the main female characters demands vengeance for a kinsman: og eru köld kvenna ráð (cold is the counsel of women). Is the anonymous author implying that women are potentially monstrous because of this inherent desire for vengeance?
19See line 1649.
20See from line 1932. Many of the obvious contrasts are between the female characters. I cannot help but wonder if women were a point of particular anxiety when it came to Christianization. They would, as mothers, grandmothers, nursemaids, be in a very influential position when it came to inculcating religious values in children. Inter-generational transmission of religious traditions is crucial to creating a sustainable religious community. Might this point to anxiety over potential Pagan influences in women? Or is it simply that women were traditionally frith or peace weavers in the mead-hall, and brutality and violence are a violation of that traditional role?
21See line 1593.
22Friedman, 90 and 107. Moreover, monsters are now evil, not through any moral choice of their own, but through something completely outside of their control: their lineage, connected now, as in Beowulf,to Cain and Ham.
Cohen, Jeffrey, ed. Monster Theory: Reading Culture. Minneapolis, MH: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.
Friedman, John. The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2000.
Heaney, Seamus, trans. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000.
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.
One of my publishers, Red Wheel / Weiser Books is having a sale of 30% off their entire inventory, plus free shipping for those in the continental United States. So for those who like a deal and who have been waiting to pick up Living Runes, or a Modern Guide to Heathenry, now is your time to act and increase your book hoard. Better act fast if you’re interested, the deal expires on April 14, 2020.
An accessible yet in-depth guide to this increasingly popular pre-Christian religious tradition of Northern Europe
Heathenry, is one of the fastest growing polytheistic religious movements in the United States today. This book explores the cosmology, values, ethics, and rituals practiced by modern heathens.
In A Modern Guide to Heathenry readers will have the opportunity to explore the sacred stories of the various heathen gods like Odin, Frigga, Freya, and Thor and will be granted a look into the devotional practices of modern votaries. Blóts, the most common devotional rites, are examined in rich detail with examples given for personal use. Additionally, readers are introduced to the concept of wyrd, or fate, so integral to the heathen worldview.
Unlike many books on heathenry, this one is not denomination-specific, nor does it seek to overwhelm the reader with unfamiliar Anglo-Saxon or Norse terminology. For Pagans who wish to learn more about the Norse deities or those who are new to heathenry or who are simply interested in learning about this unique religion, A Modern Guide to Heathenry is the perfect introduction. Those who wish to deepen their own devotional practice will find this book helpful in their own work as well.
“Synir Bors drápu Ymi jötun, en er hann féll, þá hljóp svá mikit blóð ór sárum hans, at með því drekkðu þeir allri ætt hrímþursa…” (Gylfaginning, 7) (1)
Yesterday in the Hudson valley we had such a great storm that it seemed as though the end of the world were here. Trees came crashing down, property was destroyed, live electrical wires lay crackling in the streets. There are tremendous power outages and coming home, it took me five hours to go less than eight miles. One news report said it was a tornado, but I’m not sure I believe that (I think the damage would be worse). That leaves us today being the only house in the neighborhood with power (thanks to my mother and her foresight in gifting me with a generator as a housewarming present) and since it really isn’t all that safe to go out and about, it also gives me plenty of time to catch up on some of my writing. Thanks to something my husband was watching when I came downstairs this morning, I was inspired, with almost a creative frenzy, to write about our creation story. I’ve written about this before, so now I’m just going to dive in.
Oðinn with his two brothers Vili and Vé slew the first being, the proto-giant Ymir and from his corpse fashioned not only the world of man, Midgard, but the scaffolding of the cosmos. From the very beginning, the Aesir defined the boundaries of their worlds by violence. It’s a compelling moment in our mythology. These three Gods (Oðinn, Vili (Hoenir), and Vé (Loður/Loki) (2) slaughtered, violently hacking to bits, their eldest ancestor. The narrative in the Gylfaginning tells us this in only one or two lines and then moves on to the structure of the cosmos, why we have seasons, the movements of the Sun and Moon, and other cosmological structures. I think, however, that this one moment defines our cosmology and repeats itself again and again throughout the corpus of our cosmological stories. It is the defining moment, the defining act within our cosmology, itself re-enacting the dynamic of Muspelheim and Niflheim coming together in the moment of creation. It’s a synergy that is repeated again and again and again throughout our mythology, one in which we too participate as we work to restore our traditions. Likewise, given that the entire scaffolding of our world and in fact all the worlds was created from Ymir, their very being-ness partakes of the primordial potentiality.
A bit of comparison might be useful here. In Genesis, Yahweh moves over the waters, creates and sees that it is ‘good.’ Our Gods, however, look out across the primordial landscape of meta-creation and see potentiality and then They bring that potentiality into concrete being by violently smashing the old paradigm. (3) It is Ragnarok in microcosm: destruction of old structures in order to bring about renewal and restoration, to restart, reorient, re-create. (4) In Genesis, creation stops once Yahweh pronounces everything to be ‘good.’ In our creation story, it is forever ongoing and we are constantly participating in it.
At that moment when the three Brothers destroy Ymir, we have a moment of chaotic potential (a world filled with Ymir and hrímþursar and not much else) reshaped, brought into order by means of tri-partite divine will, that will made manifest through violent action. Oðinn with His brothers becomes an ‘agent of choice confronting an infinite landscape of potential’ and by this act of conscious will, They elevate Themselves, separate Themselves from the other þursar and become Aesir.(5) They become divinity, lifting Themselves out of the primordial chaos of undifferentiated being. They make Themselves something more through the conscious enacting of their will yoked to mindful forethought, yoked to an awareness of the inherent potential in chaos (and a ruthlessness to bring it into being).(6) This means, by extension, that chaos is important. Order cannot exist save in relationship with something. It must, by its very nature, be defined by its purpose: transforming chaos into something else. Quite often in contemporary Heathenry, we find chaos being viewed as something inherently negative, and moreover, ranked in opposition to divine order. In reality, divine order is formed from chaos and cannot exist without it. That chaos is a necessary building block for all the work that the Gods then do. It is Their primary tool that allows itself to be transformed into anything that can be imagined and willed. It is the chaos that gives order meaning.(7)
Likewise, we see frenzy, will, and holiness (the etymological meanings of Oðinn, Vili, and Vé respectively) working together. The capacity to transform chaos into meaning is a sacred act, but will or frenzy unyoked to holiness (which for humans includes devotion, humility before the Gods, piety) is dangerous and damaging. The three must work together for something ‘Good’ to result. It’s a type of divine homeostasis and where that balance is lacking, ultimately destructive chaos ensues.(8)
Oðinn is the driving force behind this creation through destruction. Immediately before the slaughter of Ymir is discussed, the Gylfaginning notes that “ok þat er mín trúa, at sá Óðinn ok hans bræðr munu vera stýrandi himins ok jarðar.”(9) [And this is my belief, that he Oðinn and his brothers must be ruler/controller of heaven and earth]. Oðinn mentioned first and specifically is given sovereignty over everything that is created. His will to order holds the parsed bits of chaos together in a complex, functioning whole. This is why He cannot afford entropy and is constantly, throughout the mythic cycle, pursuing greater knowledge, greater power, greater ability to transform and transmute reality.
Our creation story contains within itself the underlying telos of our entire mythology. It is a complex and coherent system, re-enacted again and again by our Gods and heroes. I’ll be revisiting this again over the next few months, because not only does this provide insight into our creation story, but also into Oðinn’s nature as well. We can learn a lot about our Gods, Their natures, and the cohesive nature of our cosmology through ongoing examination of these stories.
1. “The sons of Bor slew Ymir the jotun; and where he fell there spurted forth so much blood from out of his wounds, that by means of it they drowned all the tribe of the Rim-thurs…”(translations mine unless otherwise noted).
2. While the identification of Loki as Loður is not universally accepted, there is skaldic evidence for this attribution both in Völuspá 18 and Þrymlur I-III 21. See this site and his article on “Loki’s Roads” for more information.
3. I’m quoting a phrase from Jordan Peterson’s interview (my husband was watching this interview when I came downstairs this morning and agree or disagree with him, Peterson is brilliant and I rather admire the way he can think through an idea or argument, even when I seriously disagree with some of his conclusions).
4. Perhaps this is one of the real cosmological meanings behind Ragnarok before Christians got their hands on it. This conception of Ragnarok also allows for the Gods to recreate and restore Themselves.
5. Again, I am taking a phrase from Peterson here, for my own purposes. His video actually annoyed me a bit. In it, Peterson talks about working toward the Good, and ascribes this to Christianity when in reality what he was saying was very basic Platonism. Let’s give credit where credit is due. This idea of the Gods as Good and reaching/returning to the Good was not something invented by Christians. Polytheistic philosophers developed it long before Jesus was a blip on the historical map.
6. Of course, the question of the difference between a Jotun and a God is a curious one. The Jötnar were the primal divine race. Until the moment Odin and His brothers decided to create the worlds, the beings that sprang from Ymir’s body were Jötnar. At no point in the surviving creation story is there a single moment where suddenly some of them are transformed from Jotun to Ás,’ unless it be the moment that Odin and His brothers decided to slaughter Their ancient kinsman Ymir to create the worlds. That is the only defining period in the creation epic where differentiation occurs. Suddenly these three Gods Odin (frenzy), Vili (conscious will or desire) and Vé (the numinous, the holy) decide to act in a way that transforms everything that comes after. If ‘Aesir’ refers specifically to a clan of Powers focused in some way on creating and maintaining cosmic order, and there is enough in the surviving myths that scholars like Dumézil certainly thought so, then membership into this clan might be somewhat mutable, all Aesir having begun as Jötnar perhaps? We likewise know that there are other clans of Gods like the Vanir, whose cosmological focus is different. Perhaps it is such cosmological foci, however enduring or transitory, that ultimately determine membership in these divine clans.(quoted from my forthcoming paper “The Demonization of Loki in Modern Norse Paganism” which will be appearing in the Summer 2018 issue of Walking the Worlds).
7. This of course makes the Jötnar in general and Loki (whom scholar Dumézil, in his work Loki, describes as the ‘unquiet thought,’) in particular absolutely essential to the proper functioning of divine order. And if we accept, as the skalds did, that Loki and Loður are the same being, then it is Loki who forms the bridge between these two states of being: undifferentiated potentiality/chaos and divinely crafted order. Perhaps this is why it is Loður who gives good hue…which implies a healthy circulatory system, the pumping of the heart, the flow of blood, warmth, and what the Greeks would call βίος. It is from the God who is able to move between both states that we are invested with potentiality (i.e. chaos), carefully contained in ordered flesh. Unordered bodily chaos for us, brings death. Like Ymir, we bleed out, but contained within the order the Gods have decreed, it brings health and ongoing life and the potential to affect our world and to remake it at times according to our will.
8. Just as excluding Loki may lead to entropy and rigidity.
9. Gylfaginning, 6.
Not too long ago, a reader contacted me with the following:
I have a friend who honors Odin and was part of a group where it came up about the story of the rape of Rindr. This friend of mine merely mentioned that the story existed and that gods aren’t all about sweetness and light and to love Them is to understand that.
This friend was then shamed in every way. She was called brosatru; she was called pro rape and pro rape culture – and her intelligence and knowledge were insulted in the process. She was told even mentioning this was unacceptable and that clearly, she has no real connection to Odin whatsoever. As you can probably imagine, she was disgusted, deeply hurt and ended up leaving the group and understandably, is quite shaken by the whole affair.
I was just hoping on your insight with how to best respond to such people in a way that might actually get them to stop and think, or is it better to just stay as far away as possible?
Well, I think getting our communities to actually think is a greater task than even the Gods can manage. As Schiller said, “Gegen Dummheit Kämpfen die Götter selbst vorgebens.”(1) Moreover, our communities will look for any excuse to drag our Gods down to the worst human level.
That being said, I think that on a human level, the issue of rape is so brutal and horrifying that it’s difficult to sit with such an act being ascribed to our Gods. It’s difficult to get into the headspace where we can look further. It’s crucial, however, that we DO look beyond our immediate sense of betrayal and disgust.
There are several issues at hand here, the first being how exactly are we meant to interpret the stories of our Gods that have come down to us? Are we meant to take them literally, allegorically, philosophically, or some other way? Should we consider cultural factors, language, and the shifting meaning of words? (2) Do we assume our Gods are unchanging, as static as characters in a story, or do we – as the ancient philosophers did – look for hidden meanings in these tales? Do we see the tales as mystery plays in which our Gods perform specific parts to impart something of Their Mystery, or some other way of equal significance?
I look at the story of Rindr and Odin as showing us something quite innate and important to Odin’s character: He is ruthless and will do anything necessary to achieve His goals. In this case, the goal involved turning the tide of Ragnarok. Odin is as brutal and demanding of Himself most of all and it is exactly that level of brutality depicted in the story of Rindr to which He exposes Himself to as well.
Secondly, your friend is correct: our Gods are not always sweetness and light. They will not always adhere to our sense of situational ethics. They are quite often not ‘nice’ and if we are devout, we deal with that. I am often asked if I “trust” Odin and my answer is this: I trust Odin to be Odin. To expect anything less or more of a Deity is to elevate our human frailty above the Gods. The stories that we have, however imperfect their transmission may be (and with the Eddas it is quite problematic), exist in part to give us insight into the nature of our Gods. What can we learn from Them about the stories in which They take part? Now some may say “well, we learn that Odin is a bastard.” Yep. And why is that? What is His function, His timai, His sphere of influence within our cosmology? Why is He willing to be so incredibly brutal? What is at stake. That’s the real question: what is at stake if He wavers? We know from the stories we have, that the stakes are incredibly high: the order of the cosmos and all creation that the Gods have wrought, its sustainability and ongoing existence. For that, yes, He will violate any boundary and count it an easy price to pay. Those who don’t understand that, don’t understand Him.
I would take that a bit further: Divine politics are not for us. I also think it is a spiritual fallacy to project modern ideals and values onto these stories, which reflect the time in which they were written or received. Odin generally surrounds Himself with powerful women: Frigga, Freya, He consults the Seeress in the Voluspa, He speaks highly of the wisdom and knowledge of Gunnlod, those who work His will are the Valkyries, and in our modern world, He certainly has a penchant for claiming women as His own in one form or another. I would go so far as to say Odin likes women quite specifically and respects them. (3) He even put Himself in a female role more than once to learn seidhr. I don’t think that gender, sexuality or anything else is particularly important to Him if by ignoring it He can gain power and knowledge. This story however, has greater cosmological (and even eschatological) significance.
When I see the story of Odin and Rindr, I see two Holy Powers re-enacting the moment of cosmic creation. Contained within Them and Their antagonism is an echo of the tension of Muspelheim and Niflheim, a reordering of the worlds, and through Their very antagonism, They tap into and re-center Themselves in that moment when Being and Matter were created. The violence inherent in that story is a necessary part of that engagement. By this continual re-enactment of that moment, the fabric of Being is reset, at least a little, and our Gods given greater purchase. The antagonism that we see in the story of Odin and Rindr echoes throughout our cosmological structures. From the moment Muspelheim and Niflheim grind together in production of Being, the Northern world is structured around opposing forces and the productivity that comes from Their engagement.(4) In this, Rindr becomes an equal player, and in fact a powerful contributor to the restoration of the worlds. She can only hold that position, vis a vis the cosmological model above, by embracing continued resistance to Him.
It is right and proper to condemn rape in all its forms in our world. When we are talking about our Gods, however, I likewise think it’s important to understand that there’s more going on than the obvious.
In the end, I would urge your friend to cultivate her relationships with her Gods, and seek out those who are likewise devotionally minded. I have never found the overarching Heathen community to be much use in developing devotion or nourishing spirituality. In fact, I find they tend to do exactly the opposite. Like all things miasmic and polluted, they’re best engaged with in small doses. Bathe afterwards.
- “Against stupidity even the Gods struggle in vain.”
- In the story of the ‘rape’ of Persephone by Hades, for instance, (which inevitably comes up in discussions of Gods and rape) was not technically rape. Hades behaved quite properly according to Greek custom. He went to Zeus, received Persephone’s Father’s permission to marry and then went to collect His bride. There was no rape either linguistically or culturally (Zeus maybe should have informed Demeter that He’d arranged a marriage for Their daughter but that’s a whole other can of worms). The word in Latin usually translated as ‘rape’ is ‘raptus,’ which likewise doesn’t mean sexual violation. It means to seize or carry off, strive for, hasten, but also to be carried away with passion. Later Christian mystics used it at times to describe the direct experience of their God. So, one could interpret the story of Hades and Persephone as Hades contracting a proper and lawful marriage with Her and then hastening to take Her to His home. She becomes Queen of the Underworld and later stories show Her as a powerful and occasionally implacable figure. To assume victimization here is to elide both Her agency and power.
- While He does caution in the Havamal that women are inconstant, His very next stanza talks about the equal failures of men. As an aside, in Skaldskaparmal, Freyr’s retainer Skirnir lays some pretty heavy and vile curses on Gerda to compel Her to marry Freyr and I rarely see Heathens getting upset about that. Skirnir was acting on Freyr’s behalf therefore anything He did in that capacity can and should be laid at the feet of the Golden God. (For a very thought-provoking piece on just this story, I recommend Margaret Clunies Ross “Prolonged Echoes.” Odense University Press, 1994).
- One could look at Váli then, as re-enacting the moment Odin and His brothers slaughtered Their primal ancestor Ymir. He is stepping into Their role, birthed as was Ymir of opposing forces, it is a child of opposing forces that will journey forth to reset the worlds once again during Ragnarok. As such, His parentage had to encompass that antagonism. He had to carry within Himself the twin and violent forces of the original creation to rework and restore that original cosmic balance again.