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An Example of Heathen Piety

I was thinking about the ‘Lay of Hyndla’ today. There’s a beautiful, haunting passage where Freya talks about the piety of Her servant Ottar, whom She has transformed into the boar, Hildsvini — apologies to Old Norse readers. I’m typing this directly into WordPress and can’t figure out how to do the accent marks.  In Stanza 10, She tells Hyndla about Ottar, indicating why, perhaps, She is willing to help him on his quest. She’s arguing with Hyndla, who is basically a Goddess of genealogy,(1) so that the latter will recite Ottar’s ancestry, enabling the hero to tap into his ancestral blessings. It really shows how important it is to have proper relationships with the Gods and ancestors, and that if you have one, They’ll help with the other. 

10. “For me a shrine | of stones he made,–
And now to glass | the rock has grown;–
Oft with the blood | of beasts was it red;
In the goddesses ever | did Ottar trust.

In other words, Ottar made so many sacrifices, and committed those sacrifices to immolation on Her altar, that the heat of the fires turned the stones to glass. Note that it’s his piety that wins Freya over, not some great heroic deed. May we take him as an example of good, religious behavior.(2)

Notes:

  1. Not everyone in the Northern Tradition views Hyndla as a Goddess, but my particular tradition does.
  2. * sarcasm* I guess that makes Ottar one of the original members of the Piety Posse.

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Reverence the Dead

I was looking for interesting readings to include in my upcoming Novena booklet for Eir and I came across this passage from the Sigdrifumal:

I counsel you ninth; cover the dead
Whenever on earth you find them,
Be they dead of sickness or drowned in the river,
Or warriors slain by weapons.

Dead corpses you should clean with water,
Wash their hands and heads,
Comb and dry them, in their coffins lay them,(1)
And bid them a blessed sleep.(2)

I’d forgotten about this passage and reading it today really brought me up short. We know that the Norse and Anglo-Saxons honored their ancestors, but this is taking that a step farther. It’s suggesting a level of respect and piety, of regard for the dead that supersedes kinship ties. We can look at this literally and we can also use it as a jumping off point to extrapolate what might have constituted proper behavior with the dead and ancestors.

First, let me say a little bit about the context in which this passage is found. The hero Sigurdr has just awakened the cursed/enchanted former Valkyrie Brynhilde (herein called ‘Sigdrifa’ or ‘Victory Bringer,’ who violated Her relationship and service to Odin by going against His commands. He punished her by putting her in an enchanted sleep from which she could only be awakened by a man who knew no fear).(3) He gives her blessed ale to drink and after praising the Gods and Goddesses (in the prayer we know as Sigdrifa’s Prayer, one of the only actual prayers to come down to us in the lore and a microcosm of Heathen cosmology) she asks if he would prefer her to be silent or whether he would wish her counsel. He chooses the latter and she launches into a poetic description of important dos and don’ts for the wise warrior. Among them, are the above stanzas.

So immediately the reader learns that honoring the dead – not just one’s own ancestors either—is so important that it’s placed within a list of behavioral axioms given by a holy power (sort of) to a hero. It’s been written down and worked into poetic form in a context that points to its significance. It’s presented not just as proper, pious behavior but as heroic behavior.(4) Bury the dead. Period. Not bury your dead. Not bury your allies’ dead. Bury the dead, regardless, it is implied, of their relationship to you. There are things that supersede politics and relationships and this and one of them: treat the dead with respect. Give them proper burial.

The dead are to be reverenced: cleaned and prayed over, even adorned. Sigdrifa in this lay recognizes that we have choices over how we behave and one of those is whether or not to turn a blind eye to the duties of piety, such as common respect for the dead. (If Sigurdr had no choice in the mater, what would be the point of her counsel?) She carefully counsels the hero Sigurdr not to avoid such obligations but, warrior though he be, to care for the dead regardless of how or where they died. She doesn’t note exceptions.

For me, these are two of the most powerful stanzas in the entire poem. It’s laid out in bold, stark terms the type of behavior expected toward the dead. It’s marked as important to tend the dead. I think this is important for us to realize. We don’t have reams of philosophical treatises from the Northern pre-Christian world. The shift from an oral to a literary culture occurred only after Christianization.(5) From passages like this, however, we can infer a complex awareness of one’s relationship with the Powers, and of what constituted right relationship. Sigdrifa’s name means, “Inciter to Victory” and in her inspired counsel to Sigurdr (who like Odin, sought insight from a wise woman), she is providing a clear map of instructions on how he might achieve ‘victory,’ i.e. success and abundance in life. It is given primacy of place as the ninth bit of insight offered too. In Norse cosmology nine is an incredibly charged number, associated with the holy and most especially with both the nine worlds and Odin hanging on the Tree Yggdrasil.(6)

This passage has changed the way I look at this entire lay. I think here we have, in beautiful poetic form, the Northern equivalent of the Delphic maxims: pithy guidelines for how to live a pious, successful, engaged life, guidelines for how to become the best human being in relationship with your Gods, ancestors, and the human world too, that you possibly can be; and central to these instructions is this: reverencing the dead.

Notes:

1. The Thorpe translation reads “let a mound be raised to those departed…” This is far more accurate than ‘coffins,’ but the language in the Thorpe is otherwise a bit –old-fashioned to modern ears. I grabbed a translation offline here. One day I should do my own.
2. Sigdrifumal, Stanzas 33-34. It can be found in Norse here.
3. I write a bit about alternate interpretations of Brynhilde’s story here. The name can also mean ‘inciter to Victory.’
4. Having studied and taught Classics for the better part of a decade, I can’t help but think of the Greek heroine Antigone, who thought burying her brother – even if only by symbolically sprinkling him with dirt—so important an act of piety and respect that she gave her life to do it.
5. Though it is fascinating to speculate what might have happened given Roman influences in the area, had Rome remained properly polytheistic. Would Stoicism have found its home amongst the Northern tribes? Would we today be discussing Heathen Stoicism (or some other philosophical school, though frankly, I can’t see some of them like Epicureanism gaining a foothold) or reading the Heathen equivalent of Platonic treatises on “the Good” had Christianity never polluted conquered northern Europe? What would the natural evolution have been, because we can deduce from he high, very high regard wisdom was given in our surviving texts that pre-Christian Heathens were complicated thinkers engaged in the process of parsing out their world and in theological speculation. It is fascinating to think where that might have led were it not so egregiously interrupted.
6. Though there are other instances of nine being sacred too, for instance the sorcerous Groa gives the hero Svipdag nine charms, and Hermod rides nine nights to gain entrance to Helheim, and nine days of sacrifices were held every nine years at the great temple in Uppsala. Various permutations of the numbers three and nine occur repeatedly throughout the lore.