Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Odin and the Runes, Part Five

The best-known of Odin’s mystic discussions with the deceased occurs in the Eddic poem Völuspá. He raises a dead prophetess to gain knowledge of the world as it was, is, and will be. Her answers range from an explication of the world's beginning to a prophecy of the end of the gods. At the conclusion of her wisdom performance, she says, “now she must sink down” as she returns to her grave.

Odin and the Prophetess by Emil Doepler (1900)

In another Eddic poem, Baldrs draumar (“Balder’s Dreams”), Odin rides down into the world of the dead, again raising a deceased prophetess in his effort to gain knowledge of the end-times. It is from this poem that the name Vegtam originates; Odin is “way-tame” – accustomed to travelling the roads, the Wanderer of Wagner’s Ring and Gandalf the Grey of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. According to the Edda of Snorri, Odin also sends his son (or possibly his servant) Hermód on a journey into Hel, the land of the dead, loaning him his mystical eight-legged horse Sleipnir so that he can travel there to seek the release of Baldur, the murdered god of light.

Odin is also known as Gizurr (“riddler”), since he not only questions the dead, but also engages in wisdom contests with giants and the god Thor, who himself has a battle of wits with a dwarf. In the Eddic poem Vafþrúðnismál (“Vafthrudnir’s Sayings”), the eponymous giant tells Odin,
Wise you are, guest, come to the giant’s bench,
and we will speak together in the seat;
we shall wager our heads in the hall, guest, on our wisdom.
The giant loses the contest when he is unable to answer Odin’s final question.

In Harbardsljód (“The Song of Grey-Beard”), Odin matches wits with Thor in a flyting – a verbal battle that occurs often in the Germanic literature of this period. Their pairing is analogous to that of the World’s Finest in DC Comics, the pairing of Batman and Superman. One is brilliant and devious, the other is really just kind of strong. This poem is clearly written from the perspective of a poet in service to a societal group of lords and warriors dedicated to Odin, as opposed to the farmer class that usually elevated Thor to the central position.

Odin's "ecstatic wisdom peformance" by Emil Doepler (1900)

In addition to these verbal contests, Odin expresses himself as Fjölnir (“Much-wise”) and engages in “ecstatic wisdom performances.” Most notable of these occurs in Grímnismál, in which the god, disguised in human form, is bound and set on fire by his backstabbing host. As the flames climb higher, he gives a recital of Norse cosmogony and cosmology very similar to that given by the prophetess of Völuspá. Again, this can be seen as a mythic representation of human ritual practice, in which the poet, bard, or skald of the Nordic world recites the religious knowledge of the tribe. In light of Odin’s association with the lordly caste, it is notable that Odin is passing on his wisdom to a young protégé who goes on to become a king.

Two paired names for Wotan, Haptaguð and Haptsœnir (“Fetter-god” and “Fetter-loosener”) seem at first contradictory, but actually together form an important aspect of the Norse conception of the god. In Hávamál, Odin describes more of his runic abilities:
I know a third one which is very useful to me,
which fetters my enemy;
the edges of my foes I can blunt,
neither weapon nor club will bite for them.

I know a fourth one if men put
chains upon my limbs;
I can chant so that I can walk away,
fetters spring from my feet,
and bonds from my hands.
Odin is able to “bind” the minds of his enemies. This is a metaphorical construct for the war-terror that grips soldiers on the field of battle, the same paralyzing fear that was described by boxers who faced Mike Tyson in the ring. As the god of war, Wotan can bind the minds of his enemies so that they are incapable of fighting.

As the god of poetic inspiration (more on this later), he can “unbind” the minds of poets so that they can create freely. Through his gift of mead and other alcoholic beverages, he can also unbind the mind so that one is unencumbered by the fetters of conscious thought. These two senses of fetter – positive and negative – are united in the god, and are reflected in Tacitus’s description of the religious practices of the Germanic Semnones, a subset of the Suebi tribe. They would ritualistically bind themselves with cords before entering a sacred grove for their rites – a practice that brings together imagery of both Wotan’s binding powers and his relationship to the World Tree. In this context, it is noteworthy that Adam of Bremen's description of the pagan temple at Uppsala states that "a golden chain encircles that temple and hangs over the gables of the building." Given the Odinnic sacrifices that occurred at the temple, it is possible that this chain was symbolic of the god's binding powers.

Hammars Stone in Sweden (8th century)

In several ancient carvings from England, Norway, and Sweden, representations of Odin are paired with the symbol now known as the Valknut (“knot of the slain”). This pictogram of three interlocking triangles has been interepreted by Hilda Ellis Davidson as a symbolic representation of the binding power of Odin. It may also be a "cousin" to the so-called Celtic knot. Today, the Swedish pulp and paper manufacturer Svenska Cellulosa Aktiebolaget uses the symbol as its logo, the three interlocking triangles pointing up over the letters SCA.

Odin captures the Mead of Poetry by Emil Doepler (1900)

As Fimbulþulr (“mighty poet”), Odin is the source of poetic inspiration and creative frenzy. Note that he is not the god of poetry; that distinction goes to Bragi, whose name literally means “poetry,” and who may or may not have been an actual poet of the 9th century who was later elevated to godly status. Odin, instead, is the prime mover of the poetic impulse. Several Eddic sources refer to the tale of how he captured the Mead of Poetry and shared it with human poets; the mead is a metaphor for the inspiration that "possesses" creative artists. As with the “ecstatic wisdom performances” mentioned earlier, not just poetry, but religious frenzy can be seen as emanating from the god – a sort of Nordic speaking in tongues.

Odin is also known as Skollvaldr (“treachery ruler”). He is undependable; he’s on your side until he’s not. This is understandable when we view him as many of his followers did – as a god of war. The unpredictability of the god reflects the uncertainty of life in a violent age. He protects those whom he destines to succeed in battle, and they survive war and strife. Then, one day, and for no apparent reason, he switches sides and his hero falls. Where a modern Christian may ask, “Why does God do bad things to good people?” an ancient pagan may have merely shrugged and said, “We can’t predict or understand what the powers do.” I say “powers” because that is how they were conceived. A truer translation from the Old Norse “Ragnarök” than “Twilight of the Gods” is “Doom of the Powers.” Snorri seems to have confused Ragnarök (“the doom of the powers”) with Ragnarøkkr (“the twilight of the gods”). What a difference a letter makes.

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