Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Another Sixth Grader Asks About Norse Mythology and Norse Religion, Part Three

Click here for Part One; click here for Part Two.

7. What importance did Odin's spear have?

Rock carving of large figure with spear
(Sweden, Bronze Age)
Many sources suggest that what we know as Odin’s spear Gungnir (“the swaying one”) has a long history as a symbol of dedication to the god.

As we saw with the hammer, the spear appears in very old rock carvings from long before the Viking Age. Some carvings show a huge spear carried by a large number of men. Others show a spear carried by an enormous figure that is much bigger than the other figures depicted – similar to the scene of the large hammer god and the tiny male/female couple. Does this image represent an early god who will eventually develop into Odin?

The poem Völuspá (“Prophecy of the Seeress”) describes “the first war in the world” beginning with a symbolic act: “Odin shot a spear, hurled it over the host.” This idea of throwing a spear over the enemy forces before a battle occurs repeatedly in the myths and sagas.

In one story, the Swedish king Eirík makes a bargain with Odin for victory. Odin gives him a reed, telling him to throw it over the enemy army and shout, “Odin take you all!” When Eirík does so, the reed turns into a spear as it flies through the air, the enemies are suddenly struck blind, and a mountain falls on them. Wow! You don’t want to mess with Odin.

In one of the sagas, a chieftain throws a spear over the enemy host and the narrator says he does it “following an ancient custom.” Sometimes this old practice even shows up in literary sources that were written in a Christian context: in the German epic poem the Nibelungenlied (from around 1200), a character named Volker “lifted a sharp spear and hard from the ground… and hurled it strongly across the courtyard, over the heads of the folk.” The description of the ritual act survives, even though the poet himself doesn’t seem to understand its ancient religious function.

But what is its religious function? The meaning of the spear-symbol may appear in the poem Hávamál (“Sayings of the High One”), which supposedly records the words of Odin himself. In a very famous verse, Odin says:
I know that I was hanging
on a windswept tree
nine whole nights,
gashed with a spear
and given to Odin
– myself to myself –
on that tree
of which no one knows
from roots of what it originates.
This is part of the well-known story of Odin gaining mystic knowledge of the runes, the ancient Germanic letters that (in the mythology, anyway) have magic powers. Let’s leave aside the strange idea of sacrificing yourself to yourself (!) for now. The important part is that the spear is used in a sacrifice to Odin. Ynglinga Saga, also written by our friend Snorri Sturluson, seconds this idea and suggests that followers of Odin marked themselves with a spear before death to dedicate themselves to the god.

Statue of Odin (Wotan) in Hannover, Germany (1888)
by Wilhelm Engelhard
In light of this information, it seems that throwing the spear over an enemy army was a way of dedicating them to Odin. The suggestion of the symbolic act was that any enemies killed in battle were actually sacrifices to the god. This was a very serious way of calling on Odin for support in battle; the spear-thrower was offering a mass sacrifice in exchange for Odin’s help in the conflict. Odin’s spear-throwing in “the first war in the world” is – like his hanging and stabbing of himself on the tree – really an act of sacrificing to himself.

I think it’s very interesting that both Thor’s hammer and Odin’s spear have symbolic religious significance far beyond their use as literal weapons. This is not so unusual, really.

Think about the use of the cross by Christians. Historically, crucifixion was used as a horrible means of torture and execution. Christians, however, see the cross as a sign of Jesus Christ’s self-sacrifice in order to bring salvation to humanity. [Wait, you mean like Odin’s self-sacrifice in order to bring the runes to humanity? Hmm.] The cross has a meaningful reality for believers as a symbol that goes far beyond its historical use as a means of execution.

The same goes for the hammer and the spear. The hammer is a sign of Thor’s blessing and protection. The spear is a sign of dedication to Odin – either your dedication of yourself as a follower of the god or your dedication of others as sacrifices. Make sense?

8. Did Frey have any special objects?

In the same story that tells of the dwarves forging Thor’s hammer and Odin’s spear, Snorri tells of the magic golden boar that they make for Frey:
To Frey [Loki] gave the boar and said that it could run across sky and sea by night and day faster than any horse, and it never got so dark from night or in worlds of darkness that it was not bright enough wherever it went, there was so much light shed from its bristles.
The name of the boar is Gullinborsti (“the one with the golden bristles”) or Slidrugtanni (“the one with the dangerously sharp tusks”). It pulls Frey’s chariot, like goats pull Thor’s chariot and cats pull Freya’s.

Some of the Icelandic sagas mention the sacrifice of a sonargöltr (“sacrificial boar”) at the Yule celebrations in the middle of winter. The German scholar Rudolf Simek writes that “the sacrifice of the boar was originally unquestionably a sacrifice to the fertility god Frey, whose attribute was a boar.” The use of the boar as the sacrificial animal associated with Frey does not, however, explain the boar of gold that shines with bright light through the night.

Two warriors wearing boar-helmets appear on this die
used for making helmet-plates (Sweden, Vendel Period)
So how do we explain it? The Swedish kings believed that they were descended from Frey himself, and they took the boar as their royal symbol. Images showing helmets crowned with boars have been found in Sweden and dated to the Vendel Period (the era just before the Viking Age). The boar-helmet, however, is not found only in Sweden.

The Old English Beowulf text mentions boar-helmets several times. The poem even includes a reference to a swīn ofer helm (“swine over the helmet”). Most interestingly, Beowulf also mentions a swȳn eal-gylden, eofer īren-heard (“swine all golden, a boar iron-hard”). Although the text does not explicitly say this second object is a helmet, if it is a helmet, it would sure help to make sense of Frey’s mythic boar!

Luckily, the Beowulf poem does have this:
Boar-images gleamed, covered with gold, over cheek-guards, patterned and fire-hardened; the warlike, helmeted man accorded them safe conduct.
This clearly describes a boar-helmet. Did such fantastic things really exist? Actually, yes!

The Anglo-Saxon helmet found at Benty Grange
In 1848, a helmet was unearthed at the Benty Grange farm in Derbyshire, England. It dates from the sixth or seventh century – not too far distant in time from the historical events that are mentioned in Beowulf. The so-called Benty Grange helmet was in pretty sad shape when found, but clearly has an iron boar on top with a slot on its back, probably for bristles (as seen in the reconstruction). The boar has copper spots and tusks, its shoulders and buttocks are covered with silver, and its eyes are made of garnets in gold mountings. The boar stands on a plate of bronze atop the helmet.

Here we have an example of a gleaming metal boar with bright eyes and shining spots. Maybe the reference to Frey’s golden boar in Snorri’s Edda really refers to a magic helmet and not an actual animal. This would make sense, since the boar in question is created in the forge of the dwarves; a helmet would line up with the weapons given to Odin and Thor in the same story. The idea of the boar pulling the chariot may simply be Snorri’s attempt to provide a parallel for Thor’s goat-drawn wagon.

Reconstruction of the Benty Grange helmet
In addition to writing The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien was a scholar who studied, taught and wrote about all the literature that I’ve been discussing. In his lectures, he pointed out that two old poems – the German Nibelungenlied and the English The Fight at Finnsburg – both have scenes where characters are warned of nighttime attacks by the gleam of helmets in the darkness.

In the Nibelungenlied, the fiddler-fighter Volker is warned of impending assault in the middle of the night when he “saw a helmet shining from a window far off.” In the surviving fragment of The Fight at Finnsburg, “the battle-young king” Hnæf likewise sees a gleam in the darkness that signals approaching enemies, and he says:
This is not the dawn rising from the east, neither is this a dragon flying, nor is this the gables of this hall burning, but they [i.e., the enemy warriors] are approaching.
Note that all the things mentioned give off light of their own accord: the sun shines as it rises, the dragon breathes fire, and the burning wood of the hall lights up the night with its flames. The helmets may only reflect, but they gleam brightly enough to have been mistaken for these other sources of light.

Close-up of the boar on the Benty Grange helmet replica
This literary idea of helmets that shine even in the dark can connect the actual boar-helmets with the mythical glowing boar of Frey. This connection is strengthened by a common image in Old Norse literature of weapons so highly polished that they seem to give off their own light. In the Edda, Snorri describes a drinking party in Odin’s hall:
And in the evening when they were about to start the drinking, Odin had swords brought into the hall, and they were so bright that light shone from them, and no other light was used while they set drinking.
The idea seems to be that the weapons are so shiny that they reflect the fire, so no other illumination is necessary. The same idea appears in the introduction to the poem Sigrdrífumál ("Lay of Sigrdrifa"):
On the mountain [Sigurd] saw a great light as if fire were burning and gleaming up against the sky. And when he came there, there stood a shield-wall with a banner flying over it.
The metal of the shields reflects the sun so brightly that the hero Sigurd at first thinks he is looking at a fire. In this context, the idea of Frey’s golden boar glowing in the darkness really does seem to be part of a literary tradition of describing shiny metal war-gear.

Beowulf wears a fantastic boar-helmet while fighting his dragon
Illustration by Laszlo Matulay (1947)
Why would a warrior want a boar on his helmet at all? Beowulf again offers an explanation. Before the hero dives into a pool full of water-monsters to fight Grendel’s mother (yet another long story), he puts on an object that should be familiar to you by now:
The bright helmet… preserved the head distinguished by jewels, encompassed by a fringe of chain mail, just as the armorer had constructed it in days long gone, formed it amazingly, studded it with boar-images, so that afterward no blade or battle sword could bite into it.
The idea of a helmet with boar images suggests something resembling the Vendel Period helmet I mentioned earlier. Notice that the Beowulf poet mentions the brightness of the helmet (like Frey’s boar) and that the result of having boar imagery on the helmet is that “no blade or battle sword could bite into it.” The boar-helmet, then, seems to bring the protection of the god Frey to the warrior who wears it. Pretty cool, right?

You would be totally justified in asking why a god associated with fertility would be called upon to protect a warrior. As I’ve mentioned a couple of times, the roles of the gods are not so clear-cut. Frey may be considered a fertility god, but he is also the glorious forefather of the Swedish kings, the god associated with the terrifying wild boar, and one who can protect warriors in the heat of battle. You really can’t put the Norse gods and goddesses into neat little boxes.

P.S. The Benty Grange helmet also has a silver cross on the nose-guard. It appears that the wearer was hedging his bets by calling on both Frey and Jesus for protection – sort of like wearing both a belt and suspenders!

9. Did all the gods have magical objects associated with them?

Frey, Odin & Thor in an 1843 illustration by Wilhelm Kaulbach
No, not all of them did. As I mentioned earlier, there are many gods and goddesses in addition to the famous ones like Odin, Thor, Frey and Freya. Some of them survive today as little more than names. However, there are a few other magical objects that we know about in addition to the ones I’ve already discussed – the hammer, spear and helmet. To find out about them, we have to return again to the story about the treasures that the dwarves forged for the gods.

By the way, you really should read the original story! The Edda has many wonderful myths in it. You can skip over the parts that get technical about poetry until you’re older, but you can jump in right now and start reading the myths themselves. Some of them are pretty hilarious. There are also many retellings of the myths that have been written over the last several decades that would be great to read.

If you’re able to read eBooks on your computer or other device, you can download a free version of Snorri’s Edda from the “Medieval Sources” section of The Norse Mythology Online Library. If the language is too difficult right now (it’s sometimes too difficult for adults, too), I highly recommend a retelling of the myths by Padraic Colum called The Children of Odin. It’s the first book of Norse myths that I read myself, it’s easy to understand, it has all the classic stories, and it has great illustrations. You can download it as a free eBook in the “Retellings & Reinterpretations” section.

In the story of the gods’ treasures, the dwarves create several items in addition to Thor’s hammer, Odin’s spear and Frey’s boar. Here are brief descriptions of the items, and some suggestions of how we might interpret their symbolism:

Loki cuts off Sif's golden hair
Illustration by Katharine Pyle (1930)
Golden hair: This is attached to Sif’s head after Loki cruelly cuts all her hair off. It attaches itself and grows like real hair. One way to interpret this is that Sif’s golden hair is like the yellow fields of grain that are cut to stubble at harvest time in the fall, only to grow anew in the spring.

Skidbladnir (“made from thin pieces of wood”): This magic ship given to Frey “had a fair wind as soon as its sail was hoisted, wherever it was intended to go, and could be folded up like a cloth and put in one’s pocket if so desired.” This seems pretty strange, until you learn that the ship has ancient meanings in Norse religion. All the way back to the Bronze Age rock carvings that I’ve mentioned, the ship appears in contexts that suggest a connection to fertility. Several scholars have suggested that Frey’s magic ship is really a mythic version of a model wooden ship used in religious rituals – one that could be folded up and put away when not needed for the festivals.

Draupnir (“dripper”): Snorri writes of Odin’s ring that “every ninth night there would drip from it eight rings equal to it in weight.” Written sources from Iceland, England and even Italy mention rings used by northern people in religious rituals. These rings are also shown in visual art that, as Rudolf Simek writes, “show the ring in a function of legitimizing the sacred right of the king to power.” These ritual objects may have been arm-rings, not finger-rings. The large Pietrossa rune ring, for example, dates to before the year 380 and has an inscription in runes that says “Inheritance of the Goths. I am holy.” Taken together, the evidence suggests that the so-called “temple ring” was an object used in religious rituals and associated with the swearing of oaths to the gods – like people today swear on the Bible in court.

The Pietrossa ring and its inscription in runes
It’s amazing that all the objects discussed above (including Thor’s hammer and Odin’s spear) have a religious or cultural role in real life in addition to their magical role in the myths. Interestingly, Snorri writes of Thor’s hammer that, when the god didn’t need it, it could be made “so small that it could be kept inside his shirt.” Remember the Thor’s hammer pendants I mentioned earlier, the ones that have been found in grave sites? Here again is a connection between a mythical object and an archeological one; Thor wears a Thor’s hammer pendant – a reflexive act that is reminiscent of Odin sacrificing himself to himself.

All of the answers that I’ve given should suggest a very important idea: myths are more than just make-believe fantasy adventure superhero stories. Sure, they can be read as exciting tales – because they are! However, they also contain deep meanings that you can only discover by doing what you’re doing: reading, researching, asking questions and thinking deeply about the material. You’re on the right track!

Thank you for asking all of these wonderful questions. I hope that what I’ve written makes sense to you. Please keep me posted on your further studies!

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