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.
Our elders are the backbone of our traditions. Without elders, there is no tradition and certainly no clean, sustainable transmission of our traditions. There’s a trend now, largely from the Pagan left (no surprise there) to dismiss, erase, eradicate the contributions of our traditions’ elders, all the while reaping the benefits of the learning, traditions, and Mysteries those elders carry. People who spent and spend their lives pouring themselves out for their Gods are being excoriated and slowly pushed out of their traditions by those with little learning, less sense, and no humility at all. It’s really rather disgusting. It’s not surprising – I’ve seen the attitude before—but it is disgusting.
It also betrays a deeply flawed understanding of what tradition and lineage are and why they’re important. It speaks to modern discomfort with hierarchy and authority. It speaks to the quality of person modern Paganisms way too often draw, but it also speaks to a dearth of competent elders in some cases. An elder, however, can be “troublesome” without being wrong. A good elder knows better than to allow him or herself to move with the wind. Rather an elder stands strong and committed to service to the Holy Powers and Their traditions.
Should we have elders, prophets, diviners, etc.? Well that’s really up to the Gods isn’t it? And the Gods have, from time immemorial resounded with a clear and present YES. (This is particularly true in the case of prophets – the community has zero part to play in making a prophet. That is something the Gods alone do).
I am grateful to the elders in my world, living and dead. I am grateful for the doors they’ve opened, for their struggles, their hard work, their sacrifices.
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.
My housemate was watching the new series “The Stand” this afternoon on her lunch break, and I sat down to watch with her. Without giving away plot points for people who may not have read the book but are watching the series, the story is about a confrontation between good and evil, the latter embodied in a terrible being that wears the shape of a man. At one point, four characters aligned with good are journeying to make their stand against this creature and there is a moment where they have to decide whether to continue as a divinely inspired prophet told them to do, or whether to stay with an injured comrade. The fallen comrade invokes the 23rd Psalm and watching this scene, I had a moment of such intense clarity that it was painful.
There is evil and pollution out there, everywhere we walk in this world. Sometimes it is small but sometimes it is massive and terrifying. Sometimes we are called to step up and come face to face with that evil. Do not fear. Wherever we go, our Gods are with us. Our ancestors walk at our backs sustaining us. The land itself reflects the power of the Holy. Why the hell should I fear anything when my God stands at my back, surrounds me with His protection, when He fills me with His glory as I stand encircled by enemies. None of the evil which rises against us matters. It is nothing in comparison to the Power of our Gods and when we choose, really choose to align ourselves with the Holy, we no longer have any need to fear. What is there in this world, what force, what wickedness that is as great as those Gods that we love and serve?
So yes, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death – places polluted and filled with wickedness, places of foulness and danger, and though I am forced to sometimes engage with people who are also filled with pollution, I will never fear. I will not give evil that to feed upon. I am surrounded by my Gods. They have poured Themselves out around me, through me, through every pore, every molecule of my being. They stand between me and every unholy thing that I must face down. They are with me, filling me with Their protection and Their glory. What is the banality of wickedness in the face of such might? What is evil in the face of such power? I will be a conduit for my Gods until my soul itself is dust glittering in Their hands. Why the hell should I EVER fear that which stands against Them?
I was also thinking about what actors do when they tell these stories of evil. Those stories are important. They aren’t just stories of evil, but stories of human courage and virtue and valor in the most unexpected of places. Just as those that are the most evil are often boring and banal, the man or woman next door, so too are those who might rise up against that evil. We need those stories. We need to see that we too can have courage. At the same time, actors are vessels for forces far greater than they themselves. I was a performer for the first part of my life, granted a ballet dancer not an actor but the same thing holds: those who take up that work empty themselves out and take on the mask of other beings. That is dangerous. I know if I were playing a role now that was supposed to be the embodiment of evil, I would be bracketing every actual performance with offerings and prayers, cleansings and there would be a shrine to my Gods and probably also to Dionysos especially – even if I weren’t devoted to Him, because is the patron of the theatre, in my dressing room. This is why, I firmly believe, that in the ancient world, theatre wasn’t just a good time. It was bracketed by days of rituals and prayers and offerings to Dionysos. The stage is a liminal place and those who work upon it open themselves up in ways that can be very dangerous to the self. The stories told on the stage are important. They have the power to make us better, to elevate us to virtue and help us cultivate the best parts of ourselves. They give us a language to understand what is happening when evil comes calling. Evil feeds on fear. The power of Story, a Power in and of itself, shows us how to move beyond that fear.
May those who do this sacred work remain clean. May they be protected as they open themselves up on stage, before a camera, to forces beyond themselves. May they feel the grace of Dionysos and their own Gods too. May they be safe and nourished in their work. May we ourselves rest secure in the knowledge that the Gods are with us always, That we need not fear. That we are Theirs and They are ours, and in the alchemy of that equation evil is nothing at all.
(I want to preface this with the caveat that I am writing this pretty much stream of consciousness in between workshops and classes today. This is not a polished piece and I think there is much more intellectual and practical work to be done on this as on many topics. I’m putting this here as a place to begin articulating my thoughts on this issue).
This morning I attended a Racial Equity/diversity workshop geared toward faculty and grad students who will be teaching introductory courses in theology over the next year or so. It was an excellent course and raised a lot of really good and necessary questions about how we approach our materials, how we teach theology, and how theology has been used – past and present—to define the boundaries of what constitutes the human.
The question isn’t what constitutes human in relation to the Gods, but quite simply, what is categorized and recognized, acknowledged as human by those in power, particularly by those in theological and religious positions of power. Rightly, we are urged as theologians and teachers to push ourselves and our students to consider not only this question of power and privilege, but to look for ways to productively challenge that status quo. I don’t argue that. I think it is part and parcel of the work of being a theologian. Here is where I digress from many of my colleagues, however: I don’t think the problem began with race. I think racism is a wicked symptom of something quite different.
Because this didn’t start out as a racial question, I don’t believe that the answer toward deconstructing racism and systemic structures of racism is ever going to happen by focusing on race alone. The problem didn’t start with race. It started with a particular way of looking at the world. It started with monotheism, specifically Christianity (1). It began with the spread, at first through rhetoric and then, after 313 C.E. through imperium and often violent coercion by and to Christianity throughout the Roman Empire. It started with the destruction of temples and the extortion (2) to conversion of the devout. It started with slaughter of all those who would not abandon their indigenous polytheisms and embrace the new religion (of their conquerors). Christians were human. All others…weeeeeelll, not so much; and that “not so much” opened the door to genocide, slaughter, expansion of slavery, and the theft and torture of children (3).
I hear a lot of talk about ‘problematizing whiteness.’ Maybe. I think that ‘whiteness’ is a rather artificial construct (and one that lets monotheistic religions off the hook, I might add). If I’m looking for ancestral identity, I’m going to look to my Lithuanian, Russian, German, Swiss, Scots-Irish, Huguenot, and Appalachian forebears. I’m going to look at culture and what soils hold the bones of my dead. I’m going to look at language and customs, and most of all, I’m going to tell the stories of my dead. Not all of those dead had white skin. What does it matter? What we should be interrogating, “problematizing” if you will, is monotheism. That is where, I firmly believe the true impetus toward racializing and dehumanizing began, that moment when Christianity began to look at those non-Christians around them as less than human (4).
There is no reason that Christianity had to assume a dogmatic monotheistic stance. Had it been satisfied to be one religion amongst many, a henotheistic tradition privileging only the Trinity, I do not believe that would have led to the same blood-stained place. It’s the monotheism, a worldview that is based on exclusivity and intolerance that I think is the problem. Specifically, when that worldview twinned itself with militaristic imperium (i.e. after 313 C.E.), it transformed both imperium and Christianity into something quite vicious, quite dehumanizing, quite hungry for conquest and power. That hasn’t changed. Just ask an altar boy.
Ok. That was low but I think my point stands and it’s not just polytheists who have suffered under monotheistic hegemony but Christians too. It’s been no better a system for the Abrahamic faiths living under its dominion than it has for the rest of us. Monotheism is a brutal equation. It’s a simple equation, an uncomplicated one, which is perhaps part of its appeal. Here’s how I break it down:
You’re only human if your humanity feeds the machine. Or let’s turn that around, you don’t get to be human if your lack of humanity likewise benefits the monster, instantiating and reifying its lust for power. This is not a condemnation of Christianity. There are very good and sacred aspects of practice and thought, devotion extant across the spectrum of Christian traditions from which we could benefit greatly by studying. Likewise, I know many, many good, compassionate, and devout Christians (and Jews, and Muslims) who are well aware of their respective traditions’ failures. That is theirs to carry and many people that I know are working to rectify where they can. Moreover – there are a lot of ‘moreovers’ in this – there were early iterations of Christianity that were polytheistic, iterations that elevated women to positions of power, iterations that approached the body and sexuality very differently from what became the norm. As with every religion, the reality was never monolithic. What I am condemning is a system: the structure of monotheism, the eradication of the sacred from the world, from our minds, leaving only the smallest, narrowest channel through which we can define that which is sacred…and by extension our humanity in relation to it. Christianity was, in many respects, one of the first victims of monotheism.
I have said in the past (most likely in the heat of debate) that I don’t think someone is a fully realized human being unless they are honoring their ancestors and their Gods and are engaged in some kind of devotion. I never however, said that they weren’t *human*. I never question the humanity of those who aren’t polytheists. I don’t see that in the antique texts with which I work either from the polytheistic side. You may not be one of *my* people, but obviously you’re a person, a human being. Your humanity doesn’t end where my religion begins. I’m not sure that monotheism, and by extension traditions under its domination, can say the same.
Nor is this a question of hierarchy. There will always be hierarchies and in many respects, hierarchy is good. It allows us to function effectively and well. Hierarchies occur in nature, and when they are properly organized can be extremely productive and positive — that is, when they don’t exclude from the human people on the basis of race, gender etc. So in no way do I advocate an abolition of hierarchy. The Gods after all are hierarchically above us and that is good and holy and proper. That represents the cosmic order and architecture instantiated by Their will. I do have a problem when hierarchies exist solely to diminish the humanity of others. I don’t think that’s inevitable though.
I think what I find most frustrating as a theologian is the unwillingness I see in so many circles to interrogate the structure of monotheism. It’s not that I think restoring our polytheisms will fix everything, but I think that doing so will restore a way of looking at the world that is not predicated on domination and eradication of everyone and everything that is different (5).
- Though to be fair, if one reads the bible, it’s clear that it actually started with Judaism attacking various neighboring tribes in the name of their newly minted “one God.” That didn’t last, however, and by the time Christianity began its life as a Jesus movement within Judaism, there was not the call to active, violent proselytizing found in the parent faith anymore.
- And yes, I mean extortion not exhortation. After all, often families – children, elderly would be threatened. Some people were given the choice: convert or everyone you love will be killed. One does have to question how sincere such conversions were. Of course this is still the modus operandi of Christian missions in poorer parts of Africa and India, etc.: you’re starving? Well, I’ll give you food but first you need to be baptized. Just look at how evangelicals responded to Haiti after the earthquake a few years ago.
- Not a single early Christian source that I have found condemns slavery. Not a single one and slavery was pandemic in the Roman world, (though to be accurate, one must note that it was not race based slavery. Anyone, including other Romans might become slaves. They could eventually win, buy, or be granted their freedom). The theft and torture of children began with Charlemagne forcing the conquered Saxons to send their sons to monastic schools. It continued in the Americas with Native schools where children were beaten, starved, abused, and tortured as a matter of course, but especially for speaking their native tongues and practicing their native faiths.
- Yes, ancient polytheists saw the differences between skin tones and racial identifiers but these were not problematized in the way that we see in later monotheistic cultures. They recognized them, were curious about them, but you don’t see religion being used to dehumanize the people bearing them – at least not in the part of the ancient world with which I engage. I can’t speak for others. I think the Alexandrian and Christian theologian Origen (184-253 C.E.) was the first to equate “the devil” with an Ethiopian boy, hence blackness. It’s an association that stuck well into the early modern period.
- Moreover, there is room in polytheism for all the Abrahamic traditions to exist and thrive. The opposite is most assuredly NOT the case.
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.
My household sits down together each Sunday night and does divination for the week. It gives us a guide, shows us where potential spiritual weaknesses are, where we can better focus on the Gods, where we might fall flat –which provides the opportunity to take reparative steps beforehand—and often brings up other issues that are good to know in advance. It helps us prepare and to be more functional and effective during our week. Usually, we just use a lithomancy system and then move on to various sacred sortilege systems as needed but this week, for the bulk of the divination, we were using a system devoted to Frigga. As always, we ask the God’s permission – whichever Deity Whose system we’re using –before closing out the session for the night, and we were told She had more to say. What She said, which was crystal clear through the lines that came up, was unexpectedly all about modesty.
Without going into any specific detail, we had been reading about an issue that might involve greater purity/purification taboos. So, the person in question was facing a potential uptick in their obligations and, since these can be difficult and inconvenient to navigate sometimes, there was concern (1). Frigga answered this by a discourse on modesty. I’ll recap key points here.
Like many of us, my housemate had an automatic connection in her mind between modesty, purity, and sex. I think this is part of the paucity of our language, and also the inheritance from two thousand years of Christianity that positions both modesty and purity specifically (and pretty much only) in the body and sexuality, and particularly in women’s bodies and sexual expression (2). This makes it difficult for us to discuss these things without that shadow impinging on our understanding. The first hurdle was putting aside those presumptions.
In the divination, were told that modesty and purity are essential to proper living. It’s not about sex. One could work as a prostitute and still have massive purity taboos (3). Modesty is about integrity, about reflecting our devotion to the Gods in a way that impacts everything we do in our world. To make sex alone the locus of purity or modesty puts a terrible pressure on these things, unfairly, and colors them in ways that are more damaging than not. Our job is to expand those categories again.
In ancient Rome, there was a Goddess Pudicitia, Who goes hand in hand with the Goddess Pietas. Both of these Holy Powers were so important that Their temples were central to Rome. Their names mean “Modesty” and “Piety” respectively. From Them we learn that purity is integrity of action and behavior. It may include the body, but it’s not about the body alone. Integrity is how we follow our Gods, allowing Their guidance to seep into our lives. Tying purity to the body, to sex alone renders any other outlet for it illicit. It is then granted no purchase in any other sphere. By putting too much weight on sexual purity alone, we go to one extreme or the other because we’re overburdening this one thing. Because of Christianity, purity weighs everything towards reifying sex and then denigrating it. That is not correct, certainly not for us.
Now, of course our body, our dress, our conduct will likely be impacted by our awareness of proper modesty (which will be different for everyone based on their sacred work, their Gods, their tradition, etc.), because it is through the body that we engage with our world. It’s the most obvious and apparent marker of our individuality, our physical presence, our agency. We’re corporeal beings, so of course our corporeality will come into play as we contemplate modesty and purity. It’s important, however, to remember that just because our sense of modesty may be demonstrated through the body, that the body is one of many ways this can be enacted, it’s not solely about the body nor even primarily so. The body is just one physical marker of many in which this virtue might play out. It deserves no more weight than any of the others.
In fact, putting too much emphasis on appearance and dress as markers of modesty or purity is problematic in another way too. It can lead to one appearing to be modest but not actually being so. When we focus on trifles, as a friend of mine once said, we become trifling. It is far better to actually be virtuous (however one defines that) than to seem to be so. Authenticity is crucial in our spiritual endeavors.
We had a lively discussion about these things after the divination concluded, the results of which you see here in this post. One thing I haven’t done here is clearly define either ‘modesty’ or ‘purity.’ This is, in part, because those things will always be shaded by our Gods and traditions and those devotional worlds are different for each of us. For instance, the very things that help me to maintain spiritual purity within my devotions to Odin pollute my friend who is a Freya’s woman. Likewise, the very things that help her to maintain purity, pollute me. This is one of the main reasons why it’s so important – at least I think it is—to understand these concepts broadly, leaving room for the Gods to move, act upon, and inspire us in our understanding.
If I had to define it, I’d say that modesty is right conduct, living in a way that best reflects our commitments to the Gods and ancestors. Dictionary definitions often define this as ‘decency of behavior’ and I think that is correct. For us as polytheists, what is ‘decent’ is shaped by our tradition and its values, and the Gods we venerate (4). Purity is remaining free of miasma and keeping ourselves properly receptive to the Holy Powers and Their inspiration. Dictionary definitions include “careful correctness,” “freedom from evil,” and “freedom from anything that debases, contaminates, pollutes” (5). Maintaining these things, modesty and purity, means keeping ourselves as closely aligned as possible with the architecture of creation our Gods have crafted and of which we are a part, and as cleanly and closely entrained as is possible for a human to be, in devotion to our Holy Powers.
I really like the idea of “careful correctness,” in part because there is nothing nebulous about that. It puts the locus of agency on the individual both for determining what is correct and then doing it. I think there’s also something about ‘modesty’ that speaks to one’s interior life, interiority of practice but I haven’t yet parsed that out fully. I do know that it starts not with external seeming but with deep, internal compunction to do and be that which is most pleasing to our Gods – whatever that is – and that within our traditions, we have remnants of ways in which to figure that out.
This to the best of my ability, was what we received from Frigga, Sunday evening, October 25, 2020.
- Taboos happen naturally sometimes. One is told by a Deity or simply gets a powerfully strong sense that is later confirmed via divination that an action should be done or not done from here on out. These things are given by the Gods and spirits and I think part of the reason is to help us to cultivate specific aspects of our practice, or as a logical outgrowth of such cultivation. They’re not things to seek out or obsess over. When they happen, they happen. If they don’t, great.
- To be fair, at least as far as the sixth century where I tend to live academically, men are also exhorted to be modest and sexually chaste almost as much as women are. I think problems arose in places where Christian identity came into conflict with Roman identity, the latter of which put a great deal of emphasis on the generative and procreative power of the man. It’s a complicated issue beyond the scope of this brief post, and it got significantly more complicated once Christianity achieved political power with the Edict of Milan.
- I would point out that prostitution can be considered sacred and healing work and in a proper society it would be openly positioned and respected as such.
- It is likely also impacted by whether we are laity or called to specific specialist jobs like priest, diviner, or spirit-worker, etc.
- These are based on definitions proffered by each entry here.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Thor lately. In the Himiskviða and, I believe the Voluspa, He is given the epithet Vèurr, which means “Hallower,” i.e. One who hallows, One who makes something holy. A variant of this epithet, with roughly the same meaning is Víurðr (Defender of the shrine).Thor is also the Defender (or by some translations, Keeper or Protector – all are correct) of Midgard. He girds our world against destruction and dissolution. I’ve been pondering these particular heiti since someone asked me a couple of weeks ago, which of our Gods I would invoke should I ever need to perform an exorcism. Since then, I’ve also been working prayers to Thor specifically calling upon Him as Vèurr into our near-nightly prayer regimen. It’s been enlightening.
I will speak first to the way my sensorium interprets His presence when He is called thusly. When He comes there is a force, a fullness, a weight, a Power, a Presence. At the same time, if there was pollution and/or miasma present, it dissipates and the room visually lightens (it seems to grow cleaner and above all else brighter and sharper). In tandem with this, His presence is a comfort and while there is an enormity and sometimes even a ferocity to it, that is never – that I have yet encountered—directed toward us, but toward that which threatens, toward malignancy and pollution. Like all our Gods, His Presence carries with it its own rhythm and vibrancy too and a in Thor’s case, a sense of deep groundedness.
Thor has a number of heiti, and I’m sure that modern devotees have added even more to the traditional list. When Thor comes as Vèurr though, what specifically does that mean? I mentioned in my creation article part 2 that epithets are important. They are lenses through which the Gods reveal something of Themselves, lenses through which They may act in our lives and in the world. To use a particular epithet is to petition the Deity in question to reveal Him or Herself in a particular way, to petition Them to act by means of a particular role – to come wielding this type of power and not that type (to come as one Who hallows for instance with all that may entail, and not as God of fertility or storm God or God of X.). It’s never meant to limit a Deity – we do not have that power nor should we seek it – but it allows us a cognitive lens by which we are better able to connect devotionally, to seek understanding, and to engage in effective veneration.
What does it mean for something to be holy? Our modern English word comes from the Old English word halig– to be whole. It’s also related to the Old norse heilagr (1). This word has a rich meaning not only of holy, but of ‘invulnerable, belonging or destined for the Gods (and therefore treated with proper reverence), sacred (2). So for our ancestors, holiness was directly connected to health, well-being, good luck, and integrity (in the sense of wholeness, proper integrity of a being or thing) (3).
To be holy is to be, again according to its etymology, godly (4). What does this mean? I interpret this as a call to reify and align ourselves with the divine order of creation. To be holy is about integrity of the spirit, heart, and mind, and in this context, that integrity means being properly aligned with the architecture the Gods have created, an architecture of which we are a part. To be “godly” for us as human beings (who have been carefully crafted by our Gods and imbued with certain inherent gifts that enable us to move in, experience, and effect the world), is to behave in a way that reflects our connection to the Gods, to reflect to the best of our ability, the connection via Their creation of us and the gifts given therein. Moreover, and more importantly: the Gods created the scaffolding of creation. They set it in order and continually work to maintain it (5). If we are “godly,” then recognizing that order and doing our own part to maintain it (through our devotion, through the way we move in the world, through piety, through cultivating formation of our spirits, through cultivating virtue congruent with how our Gods would have us move in the world) is part of that too.
To hallow then, means to restore a person, place, or thing to a state of holiness, i.e. to drive out any pollution and restore the ontological integrity of the person/place/thing vis-à-vis the unfolding of that divinely crafted architecture. With these specific praise names for Thor, (Vèurr and Víurðr), what is this work of hallowing? It is the work of rendering something congruent with that original, primordial order that our creator Gods established, bringing it into the attention of a God, and determining its proper place (6). I think this ties in, partly, to all the stories we have of Thor fighting forces of chaos, or various Jötnar because this highlights that it’s not always engaging with something because it is malignant or evil – I don’t believe the Jötnar are evil – but rather preventing disruption of divine order. Thor restores that order by restoring the proper place of things. He rebalances. Of course with what is malignant or evil, well, then He may choose to eradicate and cleanse, rendering holiness by removing its opposite (7).
I think it’s worth asking too when He is hailed as “Guardian of the shrine,” what does that specifically entail? What is a shrine and what happens there? It is the heart of community or personal worship. A shrine is a doorway for the Gods, a place to honor Them, a place to experience Them. It is a seat of honor, property, real-estate belonging to the God or Gods in question for Whom the shrine has been made. It is a visual representation not only of devotion and veneration but also of liturgy and tradition, especially tradition. Just as one consciously aligns oneself with divine order to become holy (deepening that ever as we are able), so too a shrine makes that statement externally, visually. It becomes a place of full sensory experience of that from which holiness comes: i.e. the Reginn (8). It becomes a mediator for our experience and for the history, the present experience, and the future of our traditions, particularly the individual cultic traditions of a particular God or Goddess. Thor preserves that. This tells us that these things are crucial and worth preserving.
I’m sure I’ll have more to say about Thor in the future but in the meantime, here are two briefer pieces that I’ve written over the last couple of years on this wondrous God. You can read those here and here. They mostly discuss the meaning behind His most well-known attribute: Mjölnir.
- See entry for ‘holy’ here https://www.etymonline.com/word/holy
- See p. 92 and the definition of heilagr in A Glossary to the Poetic Edda (translated from Hans Kuhn’s Kurzes Worterburch by students at the University of Victoria), 1987. Personally, I think that a difference could and maybe even should be parsed out between ‘holy’ and ‘sacred,’ but that is a bit beyond the scope of this post.
- We could, of course, argue that this would include being properly ordered ethically and morally in a way that articulates and advances the divine order and architecture that the Gods have set into motion, in addition of course to physical and perhaps even cognitive integrity.
- See footnote 1.
- Hence Odin’s constant search for knowledge, or Thor and Loki’s various journeys throughout the worlds. Hence, Their engagement with us via the conduit of ongoing devotion. By engaging with us, They are engaging with the world, and that engagement presupposes to my mind, the obligation for us to reflect in our own lives, work, interiority of faith, and exteriority of praxis, what the Gods Themselves give, reveal, and pour forth into our world through our cognition of and veneration of Them and moreover, how we can assist in Their project.
- Of course, when we are talking about sacred things or holy things, there is also an element of imbuing spaces, places, people, and things with the positive contagion of divine awareness…though as I write this, more and more, I think making something holy is really about restoring its full place in the divine architecture, waking it up to its place and everything that naturally flows from that. It’s a shift in awareness, and in the construction of being.
- Part of this process is also making a person, place, or thing inhospitable to the unholy, the malignant, the wicked. What is imbued with the force of a God, what is in proper ordered alignment with the divine architecture is not a place where evil can be present. That is not to say it will not try to find purchase, or to induce us to move out of that holy alignment. I think evil in whatever capacity it presents itself will do all those things and more. Here’s the thing though, and it’s a crucial thing. As John Cassian said in his Conferences, particularly in Conference VII, evil spirits, wicked spirits, and other malignant things have only the access we give them. The necessary component to devotional integrity is learning how to avoid providing that access.
- Reginn is an Old Norse term for Holy Powers.
Picking up where we left off in Part I, this is the conclusion of my initial inquiry into our creation story. After the Prose Edda, the story is recounted in the Voluspa, stanzas 17-18 (in some versions, the pagination gives this as 18-19):
fundu á landi lítt megandi
Ask ok Emblu örlöglausa.
Ǫnd þau né átto, óð þau né hǫfðo,
lá né læti né lito góða.
Ǫnd gaf Óðinn, óð gaf Hœnir,
lá gaf Lóðurr ok lito góða
…[They] found on land ash and elm,(7)
with little strength, empty of fate.
Soul they had not, sense they had not,
Life-warmth nor proper bearing, nor worthy appearance.
Soul gave Odin, sense gave Hoenir,
Life-warmth gave Loður and worthy appearance.
The Gods – and here, they are not the more primordial Odin, Vili (will), and Ve (holiness), but Odin, Hoenir, an Loður again transform bits of wood into functioning human beings. Epithets matter in reading our sacred stories. They tell us something about the traits and nature of that Deity, they show us what to infer from the Deity’s actions, guiding us through the text as surely as any translator. So, here, the Gods again give gifts and the first gift given is Ǫnd (my apologies to Icelandic readers. I’m having a horrible time with my very old laptop in making the appropriate diacritical marks.), breath or essence of life. Without this gift, the exhalation of a God, the other gifts would not matter, nor in fact would they be capable of being animated and utilized. The word Ǫnd actually translates as soul, not just breath. This word, especially read against its Indo-European cousins is complicated and would lend itself to this interpretation: Odin gave these proto-humans their souls. That is certainly my reading, and it’s backed up by Anthony Faulkes and Michael Barnes in their glossary for A New Introduction to Old Norse (8). I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it translated as ‘soul’ in any Heathen discussion, nor indeed, in most translations. Why do we resist that translation so much? Did Odin really breath into us breath and with that breath soul? Yes, He did. What is a soul? What does it mean that the first gift given by the Gods, before anything else, was the gift of the human soul? What effect did this have?
Only after receiving soul carried on the breath of a God (Odin), were they given sense. They were given functioning intellects, the ability to process and articulate their experiences. Then they received life-warmth and a worthy appearance. They are given a sensorium – life-warmth endows these first humans with the capacity to experience the world through the senses. They are no longer inert. A worthy appearance (lito góða) has a certain moral dimension to it (góða). What does it mean to have a goodly or worthy appearance? Is it an appearance blessed by the Gods? Is it an appearance that reflects the touch/Presence of the Gods? Is it an upright appearance reflective of the capacity to cultivate virtue? What does “worthy” mean in this context? What does it mean to have worth? This phrasing implies an ontological change occurred via the blessing of the Gods, not just in form and function but from one type of being to another, inherently (8).
The order of the divine gifts is also different from the Prose Edda where they receive 1. Breath and life, 2. Wit and movement, 3. Appearance, speech, hearing, and eyesight. In the Poetic Edda, Ask and Embla receive souls, which are the essence of life (9) first as in the Prose Edda, but then the Voluspa simply notes “sense” being given by Hoenir. The word óð is probably better translated as ‘movement’ than as ‘sense.’ It comes from the verb vaða, which actually means to ‘wade ashore.’ I haven’t really considered the meaning behind the Gods presence on a sea shore when They discovered the trees that became man and woman, but this would imply there’s something quite significant there (don’t worry. I’ll tackle it in another article when I’ve had a chance to consider it more fully). It’s movement in the sense of movement out of the murk, movement from unknowing to knowing, unbeing, to individual consciousness. The above passage is followed immediately by :
19. Ask veit ek standa, heitir Yggdrasill
hár baðmr, ausinn hvíta auri;
þaðan koma döggvar þærs í dala falla;
stendr æ yfir grœnn Urðar brunni.
I know an ash tree standing, it is called Yggdrasil
Grey tree, wet with white water poured out;
Then comes glistening dew that falls in the dales;
It stands green over Urda’s well.
The immediate mention of Urda’s well ties the state of being human directly into the flow of wyrd. Prior to the creation of materiality and temporality, especially the latter, wyrd was not in play. It is only with the movement from unbeing to being that wyrd becomes active and we’re told this by the specific mention of Urda, the Norn associated with memory. Without temporality there is no memory. Memory automatically implies the flow of time. This also implies that human beings are yoked to temporality – we’re mortal. This sounds obvious to say but nowhere in the text until this particular point is there anything clearly articulating human mortality.
There is also an implied connection with Yggdrasil. Now, this could simply be that all trees are in some way part of Yggdrasil (this is how a northern tradition spirit-worker would interpret it) but I think there is more here. Water pours out from the tree, white and clear (white- hvíta– is often used in medieval writing to indicate not skin color, but pure and shining brilliance. Heimdallr, for instance is sometimes called the “white God” but this is not a reference to skin color so much as to His shining, brilliant, blinding countenance). This water, we know from other passages, nourishes Yggdrasil. It is the water of Urda’s well, the water of memory. Memory is a gift of temporality, its passage held and ordered by a Norn Who is, by Her nature, above the passage of time (10). If the well is filled with the water of memory, then what is that water that flows from the Tree? If it is memory and it is pure (we know this by the use of the word hvíta) then one can posit a connection with both the Gods and human beings. We are defined by our memory. Our character, our personality, our drive are all impacted by our experiences, which are held in our own internal well of memory. In the Grimnismal, we read that Odin has two ravens named Thought and Memory and while both fly free daily to do His bidding, He always fears for their return, but – as the Edda tells us – He fears the loss of memory the most. Why is memory more important than thought? I posit that it is because it is the sum total of our collected experience, the totality of who we are, who we have formed ourselves to be, good and bad, victory and failure, it is the tapestry of our life. In some way this transforms into the gleaming and pure water that nourishes the Tree and fills the well of Urda. What has once occurred after all, always rests in the wyrd and can be read and discovered by canny diviners.
I think this says something crucial about the state of being human though; namely, that we nourish the tree by our experiences, by the quality of our experiences. We come from the Tree, having been crafted first and foremost from ash and elm (all trees being part of Yggdrasil), so there is that ontological connection already. More than that though, we nourish Yggdrasil through our deeds that become enshrined, transformed into memory and because there is this double emphasis on character (first with the word worthy –goðaand then with pure and shining white – hvíta), I posit that we specifically nourish the Tree by perfecting our piety. The proper state then of being human is that of pious reverence because we are always connected to both the Well and the Tree, and how we live matters. Not only do we come from the Tree in this way, but some part of us – memory, also a soul part in the Northern Tradition – returns to nourish it. That is brilliantly interlocking design.
I will take this a step further. Those proto-humans only become fully and properly human when the Gods interact with them. Up until that point, they are inert pieces of wood. It takes interaction with the Gods, proper and fruitful interaction (which only happens on our end, when we approach Them in a pious and reverential head and heart space) to make us fully human. I would further posit that this devotional equation continues to hold throughout our lives. We make choices every day that have the potential to reify that moment of creation, that initial moment of creative engagement with the Gods. Now in our creation story, that moment is initiated by the Gods, but then the human beings are given the trappings of civilization (which I note in Part I): names, clothing, homes. They’re given identity, craft and creativity, beauty, security. Then the choice becomes what to do with those things and how to live rightly (later stories have the God Rig coming to walk and sleep amongst mortals, teaching us how to live and infusing our bloodlines with that of the Gods (11)). Clearly – for me at least!- it is continued interaction with our Gods that teaches us how to live rightly and well. We need that continued, repeated infusion of the divine Presence to truly cultivate our humanity in ways that elevate us above the inert.
Finally, there is a parallel between Ask and Embla in our creation story, and Lif (life) and Lifthrasir (stubborn will to live/love of life), the two humans who conceal themselves within Yggdrasil and in so doing survive Ragnarok (12). They survive by returning to the source. They are renewed as the world is renewed. I don’t put much stock in the Eddic account of Ragnarok. It is so obviously Christianized that I think picking out the Christian apocalypticism from the story is nearly impossible. Instead, I think we may interpret this allegorically. Through that conflagration Ask and Embla are reborn. They go to the Tree, to the Well, to the holy places of the Gods and find sanctuary and through that experience they are renewed in life, humanity, and their ability to thrive. In the conflagrations that consume our lives, be those times of trouble large or small, we are given a productive model of how to behave: we should go to our Gods, to the places that nourish Them and us, and seek shelter by reifying our connection to and alliance with Their holy architecture. We are part of that order and acknowledging that renews a primal connection that has the potential to nourish us on every level, when we let it; and we “let” it through cultivating piety and reverence and an awareness of our place in that architecture, our place and the rightness of our beings in the sight of the Gods. They made us, breathed soul into us, infused us with our minds, our sensoria, goodly form, goodly character. They named us, bringing us into collectively articulated being with each
I’ll stop here, because I did after all posit from the beginning of this two part series, that this was only an initial and brief examination of our human creation story. There is so much more to look at here and in the future, I hope to return to this subject in a deeper way. My sister asked me once if I believed these stories are objectively true. Yes and no. What is truth? There are different kinds of truth. A thing can be true without being scientifically true after all. These are stories our Gods have inspired, ways of explaining our world and the grace of our Gods, ways of better understanding our role in relations to Them, our obligations vis-à-vis the divine architecture. Are they true? Absolutely. Are they literal? That’s a totally different kind of truth and not really relevant in the realm of μυθος. Learning in what register to read and how to interpret after all, is just as important as learning the actual abc’s of language.
I will close as we all should close (and begin and do everything in between!), that is, with a prayer:
For the gift my soul I am grateful.
For the life that I have been given to craft,
I am grateful.
For my mind, will, and sensoria,
my goodly form, and worthy being,
I give thanks.
May I tend these treasures well,
cultivating a good and pious character
ever rooted in the soil of devotion
from which the Tree of my being
Hail to the Gods
and all the glory They have wrought,
now and always.
Notes – Continuing from Part I:
(7) Most translations give “Ask and Embla” as proper names, but it occurred to me looking at this, that it could just as easily refer to the trees as the people created from them or perhaps the audience would have heard it that way, with the double meaning embedded, particularly since they are referred to as ‘empty of fate.’ No human being is empty of fate.
(8) In the Northern Tradition, the physical body (like) and its vitality (litr) are actually considered by some to be parts of the soul. The physical body particularly is the part sloughed off after each incarnation, given back to the earth to nourish it for all that we have taken for our own sustenance. This is not articulated in the Eddas but is something spirit-workers in the Northern Tradition take on faith and it affects our practice in very specific ways (both in divination and in soul workings – practices designed to strengthen specific parts on the soul in which diagnostic divination has determined there is a weakness).
(9) The word can mean breath, essence of life, or soul. I follow Faulkes and Barnes in giving precedence to the last.
(10) I wonder if the Nornir are time, if somehow the passage of time – past, present, future – are somehow contained within Them, flowing from Them, ordered by Them. I hesitate to say They were formed by it, because Their position in the lore seems to set Them above temporality in some way, yet They are intimately connected to it (and yet have no connection that we know of with the House of Mundilfari, Deities connected to the daily passage of time). The role of the Nornir in creation has not come down to us. Like the primordial cow Auðumla, They just appear.
(11) Scholarly arguments abound over whether Rig is Odin or Heimdallr. The modus operandi fits Odin quite well, but for a number of reasons, I tend to fall into the Heimdallr camp.
(12)They hide in Hoddmimis Holt, Hoddmimir’s wood with some scholars, most notably Carolyne Larrington assert is another name for Yggdrasil.