Whenever I pick up our House prayer book, my personal devotional florilegia, or a copy of the Eddas to read for devotional purposes, several things run through my mind at once, almost as soon as my hand touches the book. Foremost is that I often feel like I’m slacking when it comes to cultivating my own devotional world. Devotion can be the easiest and most natural thing in one’s life and at the same time it can be hard, hard work. Sometimes it’s frustrating and confusing – not because of the devotion part of it, but because of my own faltering, fumbling awkwardness with the process. So many questions come up:
- How do we properly pray? How do I pray? Am I just phoning it in? How do I make sure that I remain engaged?
- What the hell is contemplation and how am I supposed to do it?
- How do we read? What and how do we read and how does this bring us to our Gods?
- What is devotion and how can I go more deeply into it?
I used to take all these things for granted but as I teach students and apprentices within our tradition, as I reevaluate my own spiritual work, as I engage with clients who come to me with all sorts of questions about their devotional lives, I realize that nothing here should ever be taken for granted. I also realize I had really, really good devotional models within my family. It’s only been the past couple of years that I’ve truly come to understand how precious a gift (and maybe even a grace) that has been. Of course, the downside to all that is that I tend to be very action oriented: “what do You need me to do, oh my Gods” which often leaves me feeling in retrospect as though I got the work part down but somehow am giving perilously short shrift to the devotional/contemplative (they’re not always the same, mind you) part of things. The more frenetic my life becomes, especially with school, the more I find myself examining these lacuna and wanting to ground myself more securely in solid veneration of the Holy Powers.
It’s odd too because I don’t think a text is necessary. Ours prior to Christianity, was an oral tradition. One learned by experience, by growing up in pious households, seeing the community engaging in rituals and seasonal festivals, and being surrounded by examples of this living tradition. Our ancestors had stories yes, but they didn’t depend on the written word, nor did we ever have anything like “scripture.” Still, we today live in a world that privileges the written word perhaps excessively. I once had a fellow theology student ask me about our “scriptures” and when I said we don’t have anything like your bible, he was floored. He kept asking, “but how do you teach your children your religion?” um…we live it. But I get what he was saying. We depend far more in proper inter-generational transmission of the tradition, directly and via devotional, ritual, and venerative experience. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Still, I like my books and there is value in being able to extract insight from a text. I think so long as we remember that our Eddas and other parts of the lore are not “scripture” as monotheistic traditions would comprehend, but maps to the holy (and maps with gaping holes, tatters, and graffiti sometimes too!), we’ll be ok. So, enough of my blather. Let’s get into the stanzas that I chose for today.
The Voluspa contains part of our creation narrative and I think that creation narratives are particularly important for any religious tradition. They contain all the themes and patterns that we will see repeated again and again throughout our cosmology and in this way provide key insights into how our tradition views the world. Here are the passages, first in English and then Old Norse.
6. Then sought the gods | their assembly-seats, The holy ones, | and council held; Names then gave they | to noon and twilight, Morning they named, | and the waning moon, Night and evening, | the years to number. 7. At Ithavoll met | the mighty gods, Shrines and temples | they timbered high; Forges they set, and | they smithed ore, Tongs they wrought, | and tools they fashioned. 6. Þá gengu regin öll á rökstóla, ginnheilug goð, ok um þat gættusk; nátt ok niðjum nöfn um gáfu, morgin hétu ok miðjan dag, undorn ok aptan, árum at telja. 7. Hittusk æsir á Iðavelli, þeir er hörg ok hof hátimbruðu, afla lögðu, auð smíðuðu, tangir skópu ok tól görðu. Immediately in the Old Norse the words Regin and Ginnheilug goð jump out at me. I usually translate Regin as “holy Powers,” but it may also be rendered as “the Rulers,” “the Gods” and may even refer to Their decrees. This word turns up in the lore at various points always referring in some way to the Gods, thus we have regin-braut – the way of the Gods, regin-dórmr – the judgement of the Gods, regin-kuðr/kunnr – descended from the Gods, and regin-þing – holy thing-place to name but a few of its iterations. Because it is so associated with judgement and holy decretals, it reads as a much more formal term for the collective Gods and when I see it, I perk up and pay special attention. It brings me back to the story of the creation of the worlds, and the ways in which the Gods set everything in its proper place, balance, and order. Goð, obviously also a word for Gods, is nearly always collective and inclusive of both Gods and Goddesses. It turns up in compound words having to do with things and people belonging to the Gods and its cognate góð carries the moral force of ‘good,’ or ‘worthy’ such as góðr maðr (good man). One can be goð-borinn, descended from the Gods, goð-málugr, knowledgeable in the lore of the Gods, or goð-árr, messenger of the Gods, for instance (1). The most significant term there, however, is Ginnheilug: most sacred. Combinations with the prefix ginn—almost always imply great holiness or sanctity. Sometimes Regin will occur as Gin-regin, which I would translate as „the most holy Gods.“ It is not one-hundred-percent clear if this is related to Ginnungagap, the great and yawning void from which all creation came into being with the collision of the Niflheim and Muspelheim, but theologically I would (and do) certainly draw this parallel (2). It is the most holy chasm from which this process of creation began; and They are the most-holy Gods Who oversaw this process. All of this runs through my mind and is the background against which I read this text (or at least against which I was reading the text when I wrote this!). Were I teaching this text, the first question I would ask my students (and this is likewise what I myself zero in on for contemplation) is „what did the Gods do first?“ What was the first collective priority after the three Brothers created the scaffolding and architecture of the worlds? First having come together in counsel, They ordered day and night, the course of the planets, and by extension the seasons. This is all temporal. Materiality has already happened when the two primal worlds ground together, but here we have temporal and one may assume spatial ordering. They gave materiality structure, partitioned it out into a healthy and harmonious rhythm. They created seasons and put planets in rotation. Day and night are the most important divisions for us as human beings, particularly when our lives were – like so many of our ancestors—predominantly agricultural. This division of time was meant as a guide and to nourish us: when do we work? When do we rest? When do we plant? When do we harvest? How does the world work? Moreover, such binary division (day/night, light/dark) reflects the productive exchange of opposites embedded in Niflheim and Muspelheim – ice and fire. I also think this emphasizes how cosmologically important the House of Mundilfari is. Farmers would have looked to the sun and the moon, and the Gods thereof to ensure their wellbeing. It‘s easy for those of us living more urban lifestyles to forget how crucial Mani and Sunna‘s blessings would have been for our ancestors. They literally insured continued sustenance and life. Plus, one could gaze up into the sky and see a symbol of Their presence. So after celestial cycles were established, the next thing the Gods did was build temples – for Themselves or for each Other the text does not say. We know though that Freya has the epithet of blotgyðja for the Gods, and there is precedent in other IE traditions for Gods recognizing and participating in each Other’s divine process. Even in what remains of our sacred stories, what has been filtered down to us through Christian voices and hands, we have a sharing of attributes: Thor borrows Brisingamen, Loki borrows Freya’s falcon cloak, and so forth. When this is done licitly it adds power to the Gods in question (3). So the Gods acknowledged the divinity of each other and by extension we can assume, Their individual spheres of influence and power. After this, the third thing They do is to create art. Craft is sacred, it’s a conduit for the holy. Here, smithcraft is particularly mentioned and in many IE cultures including the Norse, smiths were considered magical figures, magicians, shamans, and such. This is because they wielded the elemental powers of creation, especially fire, and drew from the earth that which was later transformed into objects of beauty. Beauty and art empower the worlds and in good Platonic fashion lift us up to the Gods, in awareness, in understanding, and in devotional longing. This is a process that didn’t just happen once. In setting up the temporal division of night and day, we are opened up to the possibility of change. You can’t have change unless you have time. So each new day is a reification anew of that initial creation. Each day we can remake and restore ourselves within that holy architecture. At this point in my reading, I would most likely take stock of what I have done throughout the day (or if I’m reading in the morning, what I wish to do), always keeping the Gods in mind – how am I affecting that ongoing reification in my world?—and then I”d make offerings and prayers. I’m going to stop at this point. I still have a few things to do for the semester’s end, but if there’s a particular passage from the Eddas that you’d like me to discuss, shoot me a comment and let me know. Notes: 1. See “A Glossary to the Poetic Edda” translated from Hans Kuhn’s Kurzes Wörterbuch by Students at the University of Victoria, 1987. 2. You’ll notice that unlike the previous Lectio Divina article that I posted, this time I did not employ any significant level of philological engagement. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t and it depends what first strikes me in a reading. It’s different every time I meet a text anew. 3. When it is done illicitly it’s more complicated. I’m thinking specifically of Freyr sneaking into Odin’s high seat and spying Gerda…it ended well but it was…complicated.
For the better part of thirty years, many of us have celebrated April 1 as a feast-day for the God Loki. This is the day wherein we honor Him as trickster, troublemaker, the eternal loophole-finder, and the chaos that keeps the architecture of creation vibrant and alive. All of these things of course, are reasons why some denominations of Heathens pale at the very mention of His name. Loki was one of the first Gods to really take me in hand (not the first, but close) and in many respects He prepared me for Odin. He’s been a good friend to me and my House and I can honestly say that in some way, shape, or form, every single good thing in my life has come through His hands. I am grateful, deeply grateful to Him. One of the first fights that I encountered in Heathenry was over whether or not His veneration was licit and I’m very proud to say that thanks to my work and that of Raven Kaldera, Fuensanta Plaza, and Elizabeth Vongvisith that is no longer the universal question it once was in the US. Others picked up that fight but we moved the center. There are still denominations that refuse to even say Loki’s name, but there are as many if not more in which His veneration is welcomed, embraced, or at worst at least tolerated. So today, I honor not just Loki but all those who fought for decades that His name might be spoken with pride. Those today who take it for granted, should remember the fight and those who waged it.
Hail to You, God Who breathes fire into the synapses,
Whose hands crackle with warmth and life,
Who whispered runes and carved sigils
along the wood-darkened flesh of Askr and Embla
and brought that flesh to living life.
God Who gave us our ability to feel,
Whose laughter can be heard as His numen overwhelms us,
Whose joy is palpable as His Presence steals our speech,
and His primal force purifies our souls,
may there always be those who flock to Your veneration.
Hail to You, Who evokes love and hate
in equal measure, Whose devotees
lose themselves so easily in You, generation after generation.
Hail to You, Who will not be silenced, Who loves as He loves,
and Who works His wiles throughout the worlds fearlessly.
Hail to the Husband of Sigyn, Father of marvelous Children.
Hail to the Friend of Thor and Brother to Odin.
Hail to the unquiet thought, Who challenges God and mortal alike
to greater integrity and courage.
May those who carry His mysteries be blessed.
May His cultus never cease.
Hail to You, ferocious God. Hail, Loki.
(from my Loki in the West playlist):
I woke up thinking today that I should start doing more exegesis of our lore – sort of like what I do in my approach to the creation narrative. I asked my assistant to randomly pick a bit of lore, and she suggested the Runatal section of the Havamal. This is the part that talks about Odin’s sacrifice on Yggdrasil by which He won the runes. I will preface this by noting that this is not an academic reading of this text. It is lectio divina, sacred reading for the purpose of devotion.
(Taking up the first stanza, here is the Bellows English translation, followed by the Old Norse, followed by my own translation)
- I ween that I hung | on the windy tree,
Hung there for nights full nine;
With the spear I was wounded, | and offered I was
To Othin, myself to myself,
On the tree that none | may ever know
What root beneath it runs.
- Veit ek, at ek hekk vindga meiði á
nætr allar níu, geiri undaðr
ok gefinn Óðni,
sjalfr sjalfum mér,
á þeim meiði, er manngi veit
hvers af rótum renn.
- I know, that I hung upon the wind-twisted tree,
Nine full nights, wounded by spear,
And given to Odin
Self given for me myself,
Upon that tree, which no one knows
where each root runs (1).
Whenever I encounter this particular text, the first question that comes to my mind is what would you do in order to fulfill the fate the Gods have laid out for you? What would you do to do all that They asked of you, to rise up and become better in your living? There is a conscious choice embedded in this opening line, a conscious decision and irrevocable choice. This was not immutable law, but a God choosing that which led to all He later became. On the human level, this brings home to me that life is made of small choices. Atrocities happen by small, seemingly insignificant choices. The best of humanity is also revealed by the smallest of choices. Those choices are what define a life and more importantly, a character. We are, however, called to choose every day the type of person we want to become, and in this context, we have the capacity to choose devotion every day (and it is a choice). The little choices matter. That is not to say that I think Odin choosing to hang Himself on Yggdrasil was a “little” choice, rather that we are faced with choices large and small throughout each day of our lives and they matter. This is especially the case when we’re faced with the choice to make time for prayer or not, to make time for devotion or not, to center our lives around the Holy Powers …or not. How do we do that, how do we inspire ourselves to do that, and how do we do that consistently well?
That is the first thing that I think of when I read the opening line: I ween (know) that I hung on the windy tree… This verse also highlights the importance of Yggdrasil, the world tree, “steed of the terrible One,” within our cosmology. The Tree supports the architecture of the worlds and at the same time is indisputably tied to Odin. It is central to His deepest and darkest mystery. The Nornir, the Fates, tend the Tree and we can support it too. We can tend the Tree through our piety, our devotion, through cultivating an awareness of the sacrality of our world, of our duties to the Holy Powers, and our ongoing, transformative awareness of how Their presence infuses every atom of creation. Veit ek (I know) tells the reader that there is volition involved in this, conscious knowledge of what one is doing and why. Again, this goes back to conscious choice to do what needs to be done, what is correct to do, what will gain in Odin’s case power (2) and in our case greater devotional awareness, even with the knowledge that it will change everything, that it will hurt, that it will transform in uncontrollable, unplanned ways.
At the same time, when I read this verse, I visualize it, sometimes projecting myself into it as an observer in the hall of my soul’s memory. The Tree is wind-twisted (vindga), so what is that place wherein it rises like? Do the winds howl, drowning out Odin’s later shrieking (there is a later verse that mentions his shriek as He took up the runes)? What abrasive force must those winds have to bend and twist and shape a Tree as mighty as Yggdrasil? This echoes for me the breath by which Odin implanted our souls, starting with the creation of Askr and Embla, taking up wood and remaking it on an ontological level by the power of His breath.
Odin hung nætr allar níu (nine full nights). What is time to a God? With our sacred stories we enter not into human temporality but mythic time. Nine nights, nine eons – there is an incomprehensibility to the question of length of time here. It is always occurring. Part of Odin is always on the Tree. It has not yet occurred. It happened the last age and all of these temporalities are contained inside these three seemingly insignificant words.
He hung wounded by a spear and tradition tells us that it was His own spear (3). When I read this, I think of several things: the need for sacrifice (blood sacrifice) for some mysteries, the sacrality of sacrifice, the power of ordeal and the way pain can be used to open certain spiritual doors, and then, on a more visceral level, what it felt like to have the steel edge of a spear ripping into one’s flesh, driving deep into one’s viscera. Why a spear? It was not enough to hang and suffer. The blood and pain was a necessary part of this ordeal, a necessary key to open up the worlds to the runes and to bring (or perhaps lure) those runes through. Moreover, we have a God associated with the sword (Tyr) but the spear is particularly Odin’s. It’s a long-range weapon, one that takes keen aim and strong arm to use effectively. The sword may require those things as well, but the sword is not a long-range weapon. Is there something in the use of a long-range weapon here, something that hints at Odin fore seeing the long-range implications of His quest for power? I also consider the physical mechanics of aiming a long-range weapon successfully. I shoot fairly regularly and one of the things I really appreciate about using a gun is the focus required for a good, tight grouping. Is this a sign of His focused hunt for power? He later gives an eye for wisdom, so the visual, the power of sight and hard, ruthless focus is all embedded in His story.
To Whom was that blood sacrifice given? The answer of course is to Himself. Odin offered Himself to Himself for Himself (ok gefinn Óðni, sjalfr sjalfum mér). No one else is present in this retelling leaving the reader to conclude that Odin made this sacrifice of Himself to and for Himself and by Himself (4). Sacrifice is a powerful sacrament. Here, a God was sacrificed by a God. The implication of course is that Odin died on the Tree, became Yggr, the Terrible One. The epithets and heiti or by-names of Gods are important. They show facets of a God’s nature, allow us to conceptualize that which is too vast to ever be completely grasped. They also tap, each and every one, into particularly Mysteries of the God in question. Yggr occurs in the name of the Tree: Yggdrasil (drasill means steed). The adjectival form of this by-name, Ýgr, means ‘terrible,’ which of course can have two meanings. A thing can be terrible because it is terrifying, dreadful, and capable of inspiring terror, but something might also be terrible because it inspires awe. This latter usage is the older sense of the word. Something terrible is something that disturbs. It is something of power. I think both senses of the word apply here to Odin, especially if in using the name Yggr (5) we are invoking the corpse God Who died on Yggdrasil and then walked through death to claim to the runes, rising from the Tree full of power. There is another word etymologically related to Ýgr: ýggiungr: one who causes fear. This certainly applies to Odin (and in fact, my glossary notes that it’s used in the Voluspa for Odin (6)). Whatever other mask Odin may wear, however civilized He may seem, at His core, His time on the Tree effected an ontological change in this being, marked by the acquisition of this heiti, and at His core, He is Yggr.
I actually find the last two lines of this stanza the most perplexing and it may simply be that my Old Norse is piecemeal at best. These lines refer to Yggdrasil and note that no one knows to where its roots run…I have always taken this to refer to the Mystery of Odin’s hanging on the Tree. We know from later stanzas that when, as a result of His ordeal and sacrifice, the runes were opened up to Him, that He reached down to grasp them. Did He see the origin point of the Tree? This stanza for me likewise reminds the reader that there are Mysteries we will never plumb and that is part of the sacred order of things. The preposition af annoys me here though. It generally just means the place from or two which something may run or flow, but according to Zoega’s dictionary, it can have the meaning of “among” or even a temporal meaning: past or beyond a particular period of time. It may also have causal implications. I don’t know how to render that adequately in English. I say that in part because I want all of those meanings to be clearly represented in an English rendering. Why? Because this story is connected to our creation story, Odin being one of our primary creator Gods. Also, this is mythic time. If something has valence beyond the here and now, if the roots tell us that the origins of the Tree are prior to the creation of the worlds or even prior to the emergence of materiality and temporality itself, that the Tree is perhaps the pivot point upon which all of this turns, then I want to reflect that in my translation and I haven’t yet figured out a graceful way in which to do so. We don’t know, cannot know where the roots of the tree are, that is where it came from and when. It, like so much of what unfolds in this story is a mystery, a central mystery within our tradition.
Yggdrasil is also traditionally conceived of not just as a Tree but as a gallows (for Odin), so does something of its unknowability refer to the unknowability of death, or perhaps to the power of this God to traverse the path between death and life again – though then that raises the question of whether the Gods are alive in the same sense that we are (the answer to which I think is a ‘no’…they are more. The category of βιός may come from Them, and the vitality of existence but They are more than simply alive or dead or in between). We have mentions of Yggdrasil in the lore (7) but nothing about its point of origin. We do know that the Tree is holy though, not just from its place in the lore, but it is actually accorded this sobriquet in Stanza 27 of the Voluspa. The word here is helgum, which not only means ‘holy’ but more literally having been consecrated or made holy, rendered a fit place for the performance of sacred rites (Zoega). Coming from the word heilagr, there is a sense here not only of holiness but of inviolability.
The Tree is inviolable, yet it is hungry (as any rune master knows). The Tree is inviolable, yet it suffers (this is noted in several places. See note 6). It must be renewed by the work of the Nornir. The Tree is inviolable yet that is not an unchanging condition and does that mutability have something to do with why the blood of a God was required for the runes, with why it was upon Yggdrasil specifically Odin chose to hang?
These are not questions to which I ever expect a clear, cut and dried answer. That’s not how a μύθος works. They are, however, questions that drive me more deeply into contemplation of my God, and tangentially of my own relationship in service and devotion to Him. I look for key words here and for me, reading this stanza now, they are holy, sacrifice, suffering, power. The result: Yggr, the One who Brings Terror; or one might translate it I suppose as “the One Who evokes Awe.” I like both translations because Odin’s nature, as is the nature of any Deity, is more than can ever be fully known through one epithet or story. We are sensate creatures, and we process the world through our sensoria. Can we define our experiences with our Gods any other way than through the visceral experiences Their numen evokes in us?
I’ll stop here save only to note that as the spirit moves me, I’ll be doing regular exegesis of brief passages of our lore. Again, this is not an academic study of these passages, but lectio divina. If you have a particular verse or passage you would like me to cover, shoot me an email. I’ll get to it eventually (in the order they are received). Happy Tyr’s Day, folks.
- The preposition af seems to have multiple meanings, not just implications of place from which, but also of time – of moving past, beyond. My Old Norse is very basic, but looking at this, I almost want to translate it as “what from the root runs…” Looking at other translations, I know this is incorrect, but I can’t help but think there is more beneath the surface of this line than I’ve heretofore tapped.
- He clearly demonstrates in His stories that power, knowledge and wisdom are not the same. He doesn’t gain wisdom on the Tree. He gains power (and knowledge). Wisdom comes with another sacrifice, that of His eye to Mimir for a draught of the water of wisdom.
- The spear is a weapon particularly associated with Odin Who bears one duergar forged: Gungnir.
- I have, though, had UPG that at least for part of the time, Loki accompanied Him and drummed at the base of the Tree, keeping vigil while Odin hung.
- Yes, I anglicize His names promiscuously and inconsistently.
- Stanza 28 wherein Odin is referred to as “terror of the Gods” uses the word ýggiungr for “Terror of the Gods”.
- See Stanzas 19-20, 27, 45 of the Voluspa, stanzas 29, 31-34, and 44 of the Grimnismal , chapters 15 -16 of the Gylfaginning, and chapter 64 of the Skaldskaparmal, in addition to the Havamal stanza elaborated upon here.
In addition to Ostara (Eostre), there is another Goddess once honored at the beginning of spring: Hreðe. She is mentioned once by the chronicler Bede and Her name likely means “fierce.” There’s also an Old English adverb hraðe that means quickly. Because of this, I tend to think of Her as ‘fast and furious!’ After all, of those who honor Her, many see Her as a warrior Goddess and I certainly don’t dispute that. She has a Presence at once joyful and ferocious. For me, She really is the quintessential March Goddess – Her nature that of an Aries all the way. The Anglo-Saxon Hreðmonath – basically March/April—was named after Her.
I wish we knew more than that, but having so very little yet tantalizing information allows us the freedom to build Her cultus anew. Just this year, devotion to Her is really starting to become part of my personal practice. I look forward to deepening that practice as we move into Spring.
Here are three prayers that I’ve written to Her over the years. I’m sure more shall come.
I say hail to Hreðe, Mighty Goddess!
With explosive force, You banish winter.
With enervating drive, You push us
into the rejuvenating arms of Spring.
Cleanse me, Glorious Goddess,
of all those things that hold me back.
Unfetter my mind, heart, and will,
that I might set my feet unswervingly
on the road to victory.
Hail, Hreðe, ever-victorious in every struggle!
You come feral and joyous,
laughing and dancing with the winds,
playing tag with Mani
under the sweetness of a sugar moon.
Herald of Eostre, unfettered, unbound,
You roar across our world,
with the lion winds of march.
Our flags and chimes whip and sound
with the force of Your passing.
You surround us as we move,
our offerings in hand,
across our rightful land.
Make the fields flourish.
Make the earth fertile,
The delight of Your voice
urges us on;
and we cry Your name
driven forward by the irresistible gusts
of Your whirling exhilaration.
Hail, Hrethe, now and always,
ebullient, fierce, unmatched in exuberance.
(By G. Krasskova)
My Adorations to Hreðe may be found here.
Affiliate Advertising Disclosure
One of the key mysteries of our tradition is that of the runes. The word itself, rún, rúnar (1) means just that: ‘secret’ or ‘mystery.’ Our high God Odin (Oðinn) hung on Yggdrasil for nine nights and nine days in agony, pierced by His own spear, a sacrifice to Himself. The result of this ordeal was acquisition of the runes and the knowledge and ability to wield them. There is much the story doesn’t tell us, starting with where the runes originate, what they are, and what their connection to the fabric of creation might be.
I talk about all of these things in my book Living Runes, so I won’t focus on that too much in this post. In short, I think they originate in the Ginnungagap, are a family of living, sentient spirits, and are worked into the architecture of existence in numerous ways, creating loopholes through which the holy can seep (or work) again and again. When I think about this, they’re so often in motion, coursing through creation the way platelets, plasma, and blood cells course through our veins. They may rivet the more liminal parts of creation in place, or they may whirl and dance through the world working His will and their own. I think it varies and it’s something I’m still exploring in my own practice.
What I wanted to discuss today is one of the techniques that I employed when I was first learning how to really engage with the runes. This is also something that I give to my apprentices when they are learning the runes for themselves. Usually, this is done after one has initially met the runes through offerings and galdr – a round 1 of ‘getting to know you,’ shall we say. Once a student has passing familiarity with the runes, knows what they are, has maybe galdred a bit, or meditated with them, once he or she has his or her own devotional relationships to Gods and ancestors securely established (2), when that student is ready for the second round of in-depth engagement, this is what I have each of my apprentices do (and no, this isn’t in my book). I do this myself every now and again myself. One never stop learning after all!
Before I describe this, I want to offer one caveat. If you are going to do this, begin with Odin. He is Master of the Runes (Rúnatýr – God of the runes) and they are first and foremost His mysteries. Afterwards, next approach the Deity or Deities in turn to whom you are dedicated, Whom you would consider your fulltrui, Who hold the most significant place in your personal devotions. This is simply a matter of both protocol, and courtesy and respect.
Now, onto the exercise.
A). Make a list of the various Deities that you venerate or Whose insight you might be interested in gaining with respect to the runes. For instance, Odin, Frigga, Freya, Loki, Sigyn, Thor, Sif, Heimdall, Mani, Sunna, Sinthgunt, Eir. (Make your own list, starting with Odin. This is just an example, though it’s close to the list one of my apprentices recently employed).
B). Each night, meditate upon and galdr the same rune, first making offerings to one of these Deities, and then to the rune itself. So, start with Fehu. Set up a working altar or shrine, some place where you can make offerings to the rune of the night and to whatever Deity you’re approaching. If you have a personal household shrine (and if you’re doing this, you should (3)), you can go ahead and use that. The first night, make an offering to Odin. Offer prayers to Him and ask Him if He would be willing to teach you something about fehu. Make an offering to fehu itself, asking it if it would work with Odin and teach you something about itself. Then galdr the rune, meditate on it, write down your insights. Thank the two powers, Deity and rune invoked, and you are done for the night. Work through your list of Deities meditating on the *same* rune. When you’re done, move on to the next rune and go through the list again in the same order.
What you’re essentially doing is building your own book of correspondences as you engage in this process. I would also repeat this, either approaching the same Deities or perhaps with a new list (though always begin with Odin. He is the doorway to the runes in many respects), every few months. Be polite when you approach both Powers. You are not after all, entitled to Their wisdom. As with anything, the more polite you are, the more productive this is likely to be. Even having worked with the runes for close to thirty years, I still keep this in mind every time I approach them. At the end of your list, or even somewhere in the middle of it, do one night where you do NOT approach a Deity, but work only through the rune itself.
I stumbled on this process of approaching various Deities like this accidentally. I was having a bit of trouble with something and struggling to figure out how to work the rune I had decided to call upon. Completely unexpectedly, Sigyn sorted it out giving me an unexpected bit of insight. I thought, ‘wait. You know runes?’ Now, I shouldn’t have been surprised – She is a Deity after all –but when we have deeply personal devotional relationships with our individual Gods, it can be easy to forget that They are well, Gods. It can be easy to think that we know Them as we might know a friend down the way. We may indeed know a little given that relationships are mutual processes, but no matter how much experience we have in devotion to a Deity, THEY are always so much more.
One of the things that I really like about this particular exercise also, is that it allows the one doing it the opportunity to approach Deities he or she may not have previously considered approaching. It allows for a potential devotional relationship to bloom. It gets one out of one’s comfort zone, away from the regular way of doing things and allows room for unexpected insights to occur.
There are things to consider when you are engaging in this process: how does the rune feel? When you galdr, do you get any images running through your mind, any words popping up wanting to be worked into the galdr, any other sensory expressions of its presence (and that may include taste and smell too)? How do you feel before, during, and after? Has your impression of the rune changed at all? Do your best to keep a good record of this. It is helpful when you’re going back to check your progress. Be sure to stay hydrated and maybe eat a little protein after your nightly sessions. I would also be sure to center and ground well afterwards.
Finally, the futhark tells a story. Each Aett (4) contains its own mysteries. It is normal that some runes will prove harder and more difficult to access than others. That’s ok, and the reverse is also true. Most will have one or two runes stepping forward as a guide through the futhark and through one’s work therein. When you encounter a rune that just won’t open, that’s ok. Be respectful, do your best, make your offerings and come back to it later. There are runes (for me, mostly in the third aett) that have taken years before they allowed me to so much as dip a toe into their mysteries. Again, as with so much spirit-work, you’re building a relationship. Part of the process of learning to work with runes is that they are learning your mental patterns, internal language, internal symbol set and you are learning something of theirs and the two of you are building this pidgin (is that the correct linguistic term?) by which you can communicate. You’re learning each other’s language and building a shared syllabary through which you can productively communicate. That’s going to take time. Some things cannot be rushed.
Before I close, I want to take a moment’s focus on the first aett. As with our sacred texts, there are numerous ways that one can approach and interpret the narratives that we’re given. Since there are numerous patterns in the way the runes relate to each other, one can tell many stories. While these stories are not direct engagement with the runic powers, they are a means of conceptualizing and learning from them. They are doorways into each rune’s power. Here is a very brief way of reading through the first aett connectively. Fehu is the luck that flows through our blood (ancestral luck, hamingja), vitality, wealth, abundance, power. Like a sap through a tree or chlorophyll through a leaf, it flows through our veins and the veins of our soul body giving it life – just like Loður gave us sense-awareness and color, and the roaring pulse of our heart’s blood when the Gods created humanity. Uruz is raw power, maegen, the ability to tap into, access, and use one’s luck. It is initiation that awakens us to the Powers, challenge by which we earn the right to use what we have been given. Thurisaz is a challenge to focus, to discipline, to hone and temper our power. It’s the hard work we do to strengthen our spiritual and ethical muscles. It is the force that shatters our illusions, clears us out, devours what no longer serves, frees one – sometimes violently – from constraints, burns like napalm in the soul until we order ourselves rightly and leave our bullshit behind. (Edited 3/7 to include ansuz, as I was writing with a migraine and accidentally left one of my favorite runes out). Ansuz is divine inspiration, ecstasy (in the classical religious sense), surety and confidence in the Work. It is the touch of the Gods, grace that allows us to persevere in our spiritual becoming even when it is hard. It is the opener of the way, that, if we are working to become rightly ordered, will show us the way forward. Raido is movement, momentum, overcoming of obstacles, the progress made when we accomplish the first three runic lessons and are rightly ordered with the Powers, and the power by which we may find our way through any obstacles in the way of that. Kenaz is the torch, the hearth fire, the offering fire, a candle on a shrine, the light of knowledge, piety, and devotion. It is that which we have been given to tend, to keep fed and bright and warm (our devotion, our traditions). Gebo is the process of exchange between us and the Holy powers, the law by which we are called to live our lives, the pious sensibility underlying every positively ordered engagement with the Powers, and with each other. Wunjo is the fulfillment of fehu, pleasure and ecstatic awareness of the powers, perfection and glory, joy and transformative power. It is the sum total of the other seven runes in this aett. One cannot access the fullness of wunjo, without first accessing and understanding these preceding runes. Wunjo is also the mead of inspiration, of frenzy, of magic, of inspiration on every possible level. How will you drink of it, how will it shape itself to your mind and talents? It will enliven you for the work to come with the next aett, which takes us down immediately into the place of the dead. This is the foundational work one must do in order to access the Mysteries, in order to be of use to our Gods, in order to become functionally realized human beings. It is ongoing work, and the runes can reflect that, though they are also so much more (5). I would also stress that this is only one way of lightly tapping into their insights.
I’ll wrap this up for now. As all rune work begins with Odin, so too should it end with praises to this God Who had the will to win them.
Hail to the God of the gallows,
Terrible and unrelenting.
Hail to the Wyrd-riven Wonder-worker,
Who leaves ecstasy in His wake.
Hail to the Bale-eyed Beguiler,
with His whispered charms
and savage conjurings.
Hail to the Lord of Asgard,
Architect of the Worlds
Who breathed us into Being,
Eternally let us praise Him.
- These are the nominative and genitive singular forms respectively.
- It goes without saying that the runes are a specialty, as well as being a Mystery all their own, and not only does one not have to work with the runes to be a good Heathen, but those who don’t already have their spiritual houses, i.e. their devotional world, in some semblance of order, should not work with them. They are tools of magic and divination and it becomes very complicated, very quickly.
- Really, if you don’t have the most basic devotional space set up and active in your home, you’re not ready to work with the runes no matter how far along you think you are.
- This word just refers to a set of eight. There are three sets of eight that make up the elder futhark.
- They are sentient, amoral, non-human spirits. They have their own agendas and are allied to the All-Father Who also has His agenda. It’s healthy to never forget that.
I offer this prayer to Thor and to the Goddess Sif.
Hail to You, Holy Ones.
Hail to You, Protectors of Midgard,
Hail to You, Son of Odin and Hail to You,
His gleaming Bride.
You hallow and drive out all pollution.
You are mighty. There is no malignant force
that You cannot banish. There is no threat,
You cannot overcome.
You are magnificent and Your grace
protects me in the face of evil.
Mighty Thor, wise, compassionate Friend of humanity,
look upon us and wield Your hammer for our protection.
Gracious Sif, You Whose gentle touch causes the grain to grow,
please nourish us, restore us, and grant us the fortitude
to walk in alignment with the Holy Powers always.
Through Your blessings, may we grow strong in faith.
through Your blessings may we grow strong in devotion.
Through Your blessings, may we always resist impiety,
may we be nourished as the grain is nourished
under Your caring hands.
In times of peril, come to our aid, I pray.
In times of desperation, I place myself under Your care.
Hail Thor, Son of Odin.
Hail Sif, His Gracious Bride.
My household had a really enlightening discussion of frith last night and I want to recap some of the key points here. Frith is a very important theological term and so, it is especially important to translate it accurately. The common translation of ‘peace’ just doesn’t do the job, partly because our modern conceptions of peace do not adequately reflect the understanding of our ancestors or, more importantly, the nature of our cosmology. A better translation (and my understanding here was first shaped by Gronbech, then W. Hodge and later by my own work and understanding of this term) would be ‘right order.’ Right order is something that must be maintained, worked for, sustained – sometimes by violence (1). It must be consistently cultivated. That is far, far closer to the meaning of the word ‘frith’ than modern conceptions of ‘peace,’ which often involve ignoring imbalance and wrongdoing, even turning a blind eye to lack of virtue (2) in order to avoid disturbing the status quo. Frith is not the status quo.
I think that frith is more analogous to the Roman Pax Deorum, peace of the Gods. This was not passive or static in any way. It laid tremendous responsibility on the part of the people for maintaining their part of this sacred contract. Frith, therefore, is the active and correct maintenance of a contract between the community and the Holy Powers, one the onus of which is on the community to uphold (3). It’s so important that we have a now little-known healing Goddess named Frith. That says something about the power of Frith for maintaining right order because health like frith is something that must be worked for, cultivated, and maintained. It’s about finding that inner balance, which is never static, and adhering to it. When you veer from that, you become sick. In a society when you veer from frith, that society becomes sick. Meanings of frith that translate it as security or safety are not incorrect, rather they tap into this necessary right-order and on-going course correction.
Etymologically, frith means to reconcile, to make peace, to protect what is one’s own, to protect peace (4). While the definition ‘peace’ is again given here, there is nothing passive about it in this context. It must be actively protected and that vigilance is enshrined in the very etymology of the word. One makes frith, one reconciles and this implies not only ongoing vigilance but ongoing action. It doesn’t must mean “peace” but “guarding” that peace as well. (5) It’s not a one-time thing but an ongoing process.
Because of this connection with right order, frith has a certain connection with ON/OE law, to the point that the term occasionally turns up in legal contexts (though grið, posited on the distinction between one’s inangarð and everyone else tends to be used more frequently, usually in the sense of „safe passage“ or „detente“). As an aside, a friend of mine who is a Russian translator and who is currently working on properly rendering the heiti of Frey into Russian told me that the concept of ‘frith’ as ‘right-order’ is actually so enshrined in her language, that the word for ‘right-order’ now carries a meaning more analogous to ‘law and order.’ (6). It was, in this culture, a logical evolution of the concept of frith.
Cosmologically to maintain frith is to maintain right order with the Holy Powers. This means that we are consciously charged with doing what we can to reify and restore the architecture the Gods have created. We are charged with the power of veneration and devotion, of pouring out our prayers to the Gods, and in so doing nourishing the Tree, laying new laws in Urða’s well that further support creation. For pre-Christian Heathens, frith may have been an ideal state of harmony within the tribe but the unspoken corollary to that was always “in relation to the Holy Powers” and the corollary to that, involves a reflection of the divine and cosmic architecture which those Powers have carefully created, in which we live as every living thing does, and which our lives and devotional actions have the power to nourish…or not. It’s something like the Pax Deorum that everyone played a part in maintaining.
Basically, if Frith is peace, it is a very active peace, an active maintaining of peace up to and including violent actions taken in order to restore it once sundered. What is at stake is the integrity of the worlds’ architecture itself. Our tribes and villages, communities, our respective inangarður are meant to mirror that greater structure. Frith is that process by which that unification with divine order is achieved and hopefully maintained.
- For instance, while this is not meant at all to encourage violent action, theoretically vengeance is sacred in our tradition. We see this again and again in the sagas: there is no frith until loss of luck has been restored. That is a very difficult idea for modern Heathens to fully comprehend. Frith is about the wholeness and integrity of a contract between the community and the Gods and that means there are times when, if frith is broken, debt will be accrued by the community and an obligation for restoration. Every individual has to do his or her part because every individual is part of the community upholding that contract. This is why in a properly ordered community law should serve frith – right order—and why it is so important to cultivate an active, aware piety in all one’s people. The restoration of peace, of right order, when frith is broken, must occur not only on a physical, communal level, but on a spiritual one as well which is why vengeance is sometimes sacred and in fact good and necessary.
- By this, I mean virtue in the classical sense.
- The Gods after all, already pour blessings into our hands every day that we draw breath. Were they never to give anything else, we would still owe Them everything. That They DO give more is a tremendous grace.
- See Altnordisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch, by J. de Vries, p. 142.
- Ibid. de Vries gives Frieden, schutz, and versöhnen as definitions of this term. The etymology is full not only of the idea that frith is a treasure to be guarded, that it brings peace and goodness to a community but more importantly that it must be actively protected.
- The word in Russian is Правопорядок. There are elements in the way the word frith was used in both ON and OE that point to the idea of fealty, legal protection, and specific legal rights as well. This led to T.V. following my own translation of ‘frith’ into English as ‘right order’ to the Russian term above, which now just has a meaning of ‘law and order’ but originally meant something much more akin to frith.
Today I discovered that if you go to google and type in “Thor’s Mother” google will tell you that it’s Frigga – at least it did for me and my household. This is not correct. Thor’s Mother is the Earth Goddess Jörd. We have Marvel to thank for Google’s inaccuracy and oh does it piss me off (1). Pop culture, amusing though it may be, is all too often so polluting. It also inevitably caters to the lowest common denominator. It’s bad enough that one can’t do a search for “Odin” or “Loki” without Marvel images coming up. It makes me wish that our pop culture had just a little more piety, or even accuracy (2). Granted, this was a problem even in the ancient world. Even the Homeric corpus came under fire by certain philosophers for the impious way it treated the Gods. I think the difference is that then the dominant worldview was polytheistic and so piety was reinforced elsewhere. In our world, it’s attacked on every side (3). This makes the influence of pop culture far more significant than it otherwise would be.
I’ll admit, I like some aspects of pop culture. I just don’t base my personality and reason for being around it and I certainly don’t put it ahead of my devotion. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with enjoying a movie or game though. I think we just have to consider carefully what we want to give space to in our minds. What are we going to allow to take up mental and emotional space? What furthers our respect and reverence for the Gods and what doesn’t? What makes us better people and better devotees, and what chips away little by little at our piety? Every person has to make those determinations for him or herself and individuals will find that these things affect them each differently. The important point is to consider the media we take in, and to make conscious choices about it, because these things have long term consequences. They build habits of mind.
One of the problems with Marvel Thor is that we’re getting people coming into our traditions thinking that this nonsense is canon (and they are usually unwilling to self-correct) (4). There are Mysteries inherent in the relationships between our Gods, and that is all muddled and lost if one has the nature of those relationships awry. Secondly, it’s a matter of proper devotional respect. I don’t think we should encourage the erasure of any of our Holy Powers, which is what errata like this do, especially when we have people taking this as truth. Finally, how long until Marvel/Disney attempts to copyright or impose royalties on any use of “Thor,” even when that usage is devotional and not part of their shit franchise? Think I’m overexaggerating? I know several polytheistic artists who are also devotees of the God Hermes who have had to fight various professional art/sales platforms because the handbag company Hermes has laid exclusionary claim to the term, that term being the name of one of our Gods. This is when I start wanting to burn it all down.
Most disturbingly of all, a fellow-traveler on twitter commented that he’d seen the same type of thing with pop culture and newcomers to Hellenic polytheism and noted – quite accurately, I think – that it almost always goes hand in hand with a certain misotheism, hatred of the Gods. That’s the real and pressing problem, one already found throughout our communities far, far more than it ought to be.
So what to do? Horn and Hearth had THE best answer and it’s one that I will cherish: loud piety. On our blogs, in books, in song, in offerings, in the stories we tell, in videos, in shrine making, everywhere. Loud piety. I can be loud.
- Why can’t google note the disambiguation: Thor’s Mother- Norse Myths: Jord; Marvel movies: Frigga. I wouldn’t complain about that and this is standard practice in most other cases of disambiguation on google. Why wasn’t it done here?
- I’ll stop complaining about this when Marvel includes Jesus and Mohammed in the list of sacred figures they appropriate. Oh, but that won’t happen. Christians would complain and doing this with Mohammed might get people killed. Our community doesn’t care enough about its Gods in general to recognize the disrespect and long-term disadvantages inherent in such depictions. They’d rather pollute their minds unthinkingly in the name of fun. (Have fun but recognize that these things aren’t innocent. Approaching them and engaging consciously makes it much less likely that there will be any lasting negative imprint in our minds and hearts. I personally may not choose to watch Marvel movies but I acknowledge that they can be enjoyable. Just realize that consuming anything uncritically is dangerous to the integrity of our devotion.
- This is the case not just for polytheists but for monotheistic traditions too. The modern world is very hostile to any but the most negligible of devotions.
- I cannot tell you how many hits I get on my article “Freya is NOT Queen of the Valkyries.” I’m not sure where this fallacy started, but it has endured far beyond what it ought to have done.
There is a system of divination extant in the Northern Tradition called the soul map. It’s a system of reading, usually done once a year (generally no more than twice a year) that opens up the various soul parts and allows the diviner to examine the state of each individually. Given that within our tradition the soul is divided into seventeen parts, this can be extremely useful. It provides one really good information on where one needs to work spiritually to better their lives and their devotional world. It helps one become spiritually healthy. It’s also one of the mysteries of the tradition. Because of that, there are some caveats, namely that it isn’t something one should practice unless A) one has been taught (and I really think this is something that needs to be taught face to face) and B) one is Heathen or Northern Tradition, and C) one is an experienced, very experienced diviner. I’m going to elaborate on C in just a moment. Before I do, I want to emphasize that this, even more than the runes (which will protect themselves if they’re not getting what they want) is a Mystery. This is not something to which outsiders are entitled, and it’s not something with which one should dabble. The danger in this system is one of the things you won’t know unless someone sits you down and shows you but oh boy, is it something one really needs to know.
This is a dangerous system, and it’s dangerous precisely because it takes one down hard and really, really fast into the wyrd. So the diviner will swim there for a while not realizing how deeply he or she has gone – because while one is reading, one feels fine. It’s only after one closes the reading and returns to mundane headspace that one will then realize how deeply one was plumbing the threads. If one is doing a single reading, this isn’t so bad. But, it’s easy to forget how rough this can be – because again, it doesn’t *feel* rough while one is reading – and then the diviner decides, “oh hey, sure. I can do three or four readings in one go” and then that diviner wakes up the next morning wishing he or she were dead. To be clear, nausea, massive headache, and feeling like one has been hit upside the back of the head (where there is a particular energy port) with a crowbar. Immediately after, because ancestors can come strongly during the reading, one can have chills, or fever, in addition to the blooming headache. It can lay a person out faster than any system I know.
I say this having gotten into a mood last night and done seven in one sitting. We do them every January and I’d been putting them off but I already had a minor headache and I was sort of nauseous from it so I thought, ‘what the hell? I feel like shit now, why not just go with it?’ Ironically, because I was aware of this and I’ve been a diviner for thirty years so I know how to pace myself, and most importantly, because my husband was horrified and gave me really good after care, I feel ok this morning. I should also say, I got more than 12 hours of solid sleep before sitting down to divine and I suspect it’s that which made up the difference.
My assistant, however, had not been so lucky. While I had warned her how dangerous soul map could be, she was taking notes for the readings and just peeking after I finished each reading (she’s learning how to do soul map, so this was a good opportunity to give her a chance to try her wings without the stress of being the primary diviner). She’s not doing so well right now. She thought because she wasn’t sitting directly at the mat she was safe from reaction sickness. She was wrong. To be fair, I thought the same thing. I was wrong too. The only reason she’s not praying for death right now, is that Sannion made us drink rehydration salts and eat protein immediately after the readings. We also took drugs and by drugs I mean aspirin, a lot of aspirin. I woke up very early this morning with the beginning of a migraine but managed to escape by taking the proper migraine medication (which my doctor prescribed because I get bad migraines) and hydrating again. I feel better than I have any right to after the amount of work we did last night. My assistant just described it as “someone put a pile of lead inside my head and I couldn’t get up this morning even when I really needed to and oh I hurt so bad.”
I would suggest being very well rested before starting this type of reading. As with any potential reaction headache (and I suspect part of this is that it screws up the electrolyte balance too. I always treat it as such and that helps so I’m going with it), drink hydration salts or Gatorade (hydration salts don’t have the sugar) immediately. Even if you don’t want to, do it. Same with food. I had eaten a huge plate of sushi before I did my seven readings and the protein probably helped me almost as much as the sleep. Eat afterwards, even if you don’t want to (one will generally crave sugar or protein, the latter is better). If you can stand it, have a little caffeine. Then do no other spiritual or energetic work. REST. I do this as a matter of course whenever I’m doing a lot of divination or spirit work, even if soul map isn’t involved.
Reaction headaches suck. They’re what happens when you go too deep, too quickly, when you take in more energy than your energetic channels can process, when you do too much at a given time, when you overwork your psychic channels. They can be worse than the worst migraine you can imagine.
It’s important that we have these practicum conversations. This is the real nuts and bolts of a practice, beyond the 101 stuff. So hit me with your questions. What do you, readers, want to know?
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