Posts Tagged ‘runes’
With all the recent attention focused on Iceland and the eruption of the volcano Eyjafjalljökull, it seems fitting to devote an article to this beautiful but dangerous island nation’s pagan past.
Iceland was once a bastion of the Norse, often better known in pop culture (like the recent film How to Train Your Dragon), as the Vikings. The Norse were a culture of warriors and farmers, who controlled much of Northern Europe from approximately the 8th century to the 11th century AD. Much of what we know about these ancient people is from later medieval Icelandic texts which escaped the rising tide of Christianity that destroyed similar manuscripts on mainland Europe.
Of these, the Prose and Poetic Eddas, preserved primarily by historian and poet Snorri Sturluson or in compendium texts like the Codex Regius, reveal the most about ancient Norse religious beliefs, mythology, and ethics than any other historical sources. Whole tomes could be, and have been, written on these lovely Icelandic texts, but I would like to draw your attention here to the Hàvamàl, my particular favorite section of the Poetic Edda and one of the most understated but important ancient texts from around the world in terms of learning to live a spiritually fulfilling and magickal life.
Hàvamàl means “words of the wise one,” and given some of the text’s content is devoted to Odin and it is located within the Poetic Edda surrounded by further tales of Odin, is it assumed that this ‘wise one’ is the great god of the Norse pantheon, Odin. Within the Hàvamàl are two particularly magickal sections devoted exclusively to Odin. The first of these, comprising the 138th to 146th stanzas is entitled the Rúnatal and features, among other tales of Odin, a first person narrative of Odin’s blót (sacrifice) on the world tree Yggsdrasil, which earned him the secrets of the runes.
“I know that I hung on the windy tree
Nine whole nights, wounded with the spear,
Given to Odin, myself to myself,
On the tree that sprang from roots
No man knows of.
They gave me neither bread, nor drink from the horn.
I peered down.
I took up runes, howling I took them,
And then fell back.
Nine monstrous songs I learnt from the glorious
Son of Bolthor, Bestla’s father.
And one draught I took of the glorious mead
Poured from Odrerir.
Then I began to quicken, to become fertile,
To grow tall and to thrive.
From a word, one word led to another.
From a deed, one deed let to another.”
It is one of the most mysterious and evocative passages among Norse manuscripts. The esoteric ritual it represents may or may not have been a dramatization of an actual ritual used to initiate students into the secrets of runology, which therefore would have most likely featured more modest elements: perhaps a nine day fast while meditating beneath a sacred tree which culminated in the singing of certain songs, the drinking of mead, and an introductory first throwing of the rune stones accompanied by a howl of passion. The story and the potential ritual elements it features are both anthropologically conceivable for Norse culture but at the same time strikingly reminiscent of other religious elements, particularly the figure of the god crucified on the tree, pierced by a spear; which smacks a bit of Christian influence and may have been added to the story at a later date.
The second portion of the Hàvamàl relating to Odin, and the conclusion of the Regius Codex version of the Hàvamàl, the Ljóđatal (stanzas 147-163-5), is often referred to as “a catalogue of chants.” However it is not so much a compendium of magickal spells as it is Odin boasting of the eighteen magickal powers only he knows the spell-chants for (or only sixteen, depending on which manuscript one consults). The concluding of these is one of the most amusing bits of religious texts:
“This eighteenth I know, I shall never tell
To maid, to man’s wife-
Better it is if only one knows;
It is the last of my chants –
Except perhaps for she who holds me in her arms,
Or perchance my sister.”
Odin keeps the purpose of the eighteenth charm a secret, one he says he will only share with his own wife or his sister. However Frigg, Odin’s wife, is also an adept at divine magick like Odin so will presumably not need to be told this final secret. And Odin has no sister. So when he promises he will tell the secret only to her or his wife, he is cunningly saying he will tell no one.
It is, however, the opening two sections of the Hàvamàl, which I find particularly appealing and useful in the day to day art of living. The latter, the Loddfáfnismál (stanzas 111-137) is directed to the “stray singer,” perhaps a wandering bard type figure; and gives him a series of moral and ethical advice as to how he specifically should react in rather specialized circumstances. The former section, that which in fact opens the Hàvamàl is the Gestapáttr or “Guest’s section” (stanzas 1-79). It too offers moral advice to the reader. What is important to realize is that the ancient Norse religion was not a dogmatic one. It did not have organized priesthoods watching over the people, dictating how they should live. It was a more personal experience than that. Each man, was, to a certain extent, his own priest. And as such believed not only in a shared knowledge of the stories of the gods, but in a way of living: a way of conducting their daily lives and their interactions with their fellow man.As a collection of proverbs, these sections advocate both the need to live well and wise in order to be fulfilled and the need for conducting oneself using common sense. It emphasizes a spiritual awareness of one’s own practical wisdom in order to succeed in the world. It also uniquely stresses the notion that man is ultimately a social creature, and in order to achieve fulfillment within one’s culture, one must acknowledge that and be aware of the rules of engagement between friends, enemies, and strangers. It specifically offers sage words of wisdom on how to treat guests, how to be a guest (hence the section’s title as ‘the guest’s section’), how to treat friends and enemies, and contains admittedly outdated advice on how to interact with members of the opposite sex. It advises its Vikings not to overeat and get fat, to gain as much wisdom as possible in all matters of the world, and to appreciate what you have rather than lust after what you don’t. The moral codes emphasized in the Hàvamàl went on to form the basis of Icelandic law, a system which included the first parliamentary system and has been a model for most other democratic nations in the world.
Just as it is still referenced in modern Iceland on a day to day basis, many of its creeds are still applicable today in your personal life.
The first example from this section I am offering up to you is my personal favorite. I actually have it written on a card I keep tucked away in my passport case:
“He is truly wise
Who’s travelled far
And knows the ways of the
He who has travelled
Can tell the spirit which
Governs the men he meets.“
This next exemplifies the good natured but battle hardened warriors Norse culture is often represented as.
“A King’s son should be
Thorough and silent
Brave in battle.
A man should be happy
And in good humor
To his dying day.“
And here is a bit of ancient psychoanalysis which very much holds true today.
“He is unhappy
Who meets all with mockery.
What he doesn’t know,
But needs to,
Are his own familiar faults.”
Almost Hallmark in its message, copy this next antique platitude into cards to your friends to let them know you care: trod the proverbial postal “road” to them. Nothing says you love them like a pretty bit of stationary with a heartfelt message. And I’m very serious about that. I absolutely adore getting cards in the post.
“A bad friend
Is far away
Though his cottage is close.
To a true friend
Lies a trodden road
Though his farm lies far away.“
And finally, some rather harsh ancient dieting advice:
“The glutton does not
Eats till he’s ill.
A fool’s fat belly.“
Although seemingly a collection of platitudes and maxims, it is actually much more, in that it reveals the deep running moral and spiritual mode of conduct and ethos of the Norse people, a facet of philosophical and anthropological study not often available for ancient cultures. Analysis of the moral philosophy represented in these two sections of the Hàvamàl has revealed that it was not borrowed from afar, but was rather a home grown moral common sense developed on the farms, forests, and battlefields of the North. Despite the indigenous origin of the code, it is not, however, exclusive to the Norse. Several components of the philosophies of the Hàvamàl, such as its emphasis on the need for understanding human nature and living life to your own moral compass rather than an easier path lesser company might accept from you, are quite similar to the ideas put forth by the Greek philosopher Aristotle, and to some extent his predecessors, Socrates and Plato. What was philosophy to the Greeks was applied common sense to the Norse. It is indicative of earlier men’s spot-on understanding of themselves, their fellow men, and how best to live a spiritually fulfilling and happy life.
Johnson, B., (1992). Hàvamàl: The Sayings of the Vikings. Oslo: Gudrun. (translations featured above)
Johnson, S., (1938). Old Norse and Ancient Greek Ideals. Ethics 49(1) 18-36. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Jones, G., (1998). The Vikings. London: The Folio Society.
Page, R.I., (2000). Chronicles of the Vikings: Records, Memorials, Myths. London: The British Museum Press. (translations featured above)