Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Odin in Los Angeles

Last weekend, I spent three days in Los Angeles. I was flown out by a production company to be interviewed on film for a set of upcoming television documentaries involving Norse mythology. I had free time on Saturday, and I ended up spending five hours at the amazing Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).

In anticipation of the upcoming Tim Burton exhibit, the museum has devoted a small gallery to "Burton Selects: From LACMA's Collection." The filmmaker chose pieces from the museum's permanent collection that fit with his personal aesthetic - works by German Expressionists, Mannerists, Symbolists, and artists from Japan and Mexico. The museum's description of the decidedly gothy works connects them to "the haunted interiors and emotive creatures found in Burton’s feature films."

The Tree of Life by George Grosz (1927)

Walking through the exhibit, I was stopped dead by a print of George Grosz's Der Lebensbaum ("The Tree of Life"). The curved lines of the stylized tree reminded me of art and ornament from the Viking Age, and the hanging bodies suggested two passages that are well-known to students of Norse myth.

In the poem Hávamál (“Sayings of the High One”), Odin says these famous lines, describing the self-sacrifice that led to his discovery of the runes -
I know that I hung on a windy tree
nine long nights,
wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin,
myself to myself,
on that tree of which no man knows
from where its roots run.
In the late 11th century, Adam of Bremen described the heathen temple at Uppsala that was dedicated to Thor, Wotan and Frikko.
It is customary also to solemnize in Uppsala, at nine-year intervals, a general feast of all the provinces of Sweden. From attendance at this festival no one is exempted. Kings and people all and singly send their gifts to Uppsala and, what is more distressing than any kind of punishment, those who have already adopted Christianity redeem themselves through these ceremonies. The sacrifice is of this nature: of every living thing that is male, they offer nine heads, with the blood of which it is customary to placate gods of this sort. The bodies they hang in the sacred grove that adjoins the temple. Now this grove is so sacred in the eyes of the heathen that each and every tree in it is believed divine because of the death or putrefaction of the victims.
The grim yet cartoonish design of Grosz's print seems like a perfectly poetic illustration of these mythic and historic descriptions of ritualized hanging.

Bird Girl: Sonia Gramatté by Walter Gramatté (1922)

On the same gallery wall, but separated by several works, hung Vogelmädchen: Sonia Gramatté ("Bird Girl") by Walter Gramatté. Again, this is a work that would make a perfect illustration of Norse myth. The goddess Freya is often associated with a cloak made of falcon feathers - a cloak which enables its wearer to fly through the sky.

In addition to being a goddess of fertility and love, Freya is also associated with the dead. In the poem Grímnismál ("Sayings of the Masked One"), Odin - during an ecstatic wisdom performance - describes Freya's abode in Ásgarð ("Home of the Æsir" - the Norse gods). Freya lives in Fólkvang ("Field of the host"),
and there Freya arranges
the choice of seats in the hall;
half the slain she chooses every day,
and half Odin owns.
The brooding, animalistic gaze of the girl in Gramatté's print lines up with the more frightening aspects of Freya's character, and it can serve as an antidote to the fetishistic fantasies of many male-produced portrayals of the goddess as a sort of sexed-up superhero.

To Edgar Poe by Odilon Redon (1882)

Yet a third print in the exhibition appeared like an illustration of Norse mythology. Odilon Redon's À Edgar Poe (L'oeil, comme un ballon bizarre se dirige vers l'infini) ["To Edgar Poe (The Eye, Like a Strange Balloon, Mounts toward Infinity)"] is dedicated to the American author Edgar Allan Poe, but it seems strangely like an imaginative image from Odinic lore.

In the early 13th century, the Icelandic author and poet Snorri Sturluson described the mythic well of wisdom in his Edda. He relates that Odin - as part of his endless search for knowledge of the universe and of the future - sacrifices one of his eyes in order to receive a drink from the well,
which has widsom and intelligence contained in it, and the master of the well is called Mimir. He is full of learning because he drinks of the well from the horn Giallarhorn. All-father [Odin] went there and asked for a single drink from the well, but he did not get one until he placed his eye as a pledge.
Mimir is an engimatic figure in the mythology. According to Snorri, he is a decapitated head preserved and kept alive by Odin's magic. In my (admittedly willful) reading of Redon's print, the eye of Odin carries the head of Mimir above the well of widsom as it gazes into infinity.

Winter by Jean-Honoré Fragonard (circa 1755)

Upstairs, in LACMA's European Painting collection, I found Jean-Honoré Fragonard's Winter. It portrays three frightened children gazing "off-camera" in a bleak, frozen landscape. What is it that is so scary? For a Norse mythologist wandering through the museum, the answer is obviously frost-giants.

The god Thor is regularly described as being off in the east, fighting giants. He is sometimes seen as the protector of the common people, and the jötnar of Norse myth can be interpreted as physical representations of the terrifying forces of nature. Clearly, these kids need some help from the god of thunder - and he just may be riding his chariot above the storm clouds behind them.

Fossil skeleton of dire wolf

Just down the street from LACMA are the La Brea Tar Pits, a rich source of fossils from the last Ice Age. One of the animals whose remains have been excavated is the dire wolf, a creature familiar to (full disclosure) those of us who played Dungeons & Dragons as teenagers.

Of course, "dire wolf" is also an apt description of Fenrir, the monstrous wolf of Norse myth. He is the son of Loki (with the giantess Angrboda) who bites off the right hand of the god Týr and will kill Odin in the final battle at the end of mythic time. It is strange to think that - over 16,000 years ago - large dire wolves (with massive fangs) were roaming around what is now Wilshire Boulevard.

There you have it - Odin, Freya, Fenrir and the frost-giants are alive and well and living in Los Angeles.


Anonymous said...

Nicely done Karl!

I hope to be writing a bit about the origins/meanings of Odin's day of the week sometime this week.. I'll let you know when I do!

Joshua K.

Anonymous said...

I live about an hour away from LACMA and must say I feel an overwhelming urge to visit.

I love the way you looked at these.


Anonymous said...

The article given me some good information. I wish Texas is only a few hour drive to the LACMA. Thank you - Ray E.

JamesGrantGoldin said...

Next time you're in town, try to find parking around the Hollywood Bowl and, right next to the 101 Freeway, you'll see Odin Street! I have no idea who named it or when...

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