In The Poetic Edda, Odin narrates his discovery of the runes:
I wot that I hung on the wind-tossed tree
All of nights nine,
Wounded by the spear, bespoken to Odin,
Bespoken myself to myself,
Upon that tree of which none telleth
From what roots it doth rise.
Neither horn they upheld nor handed me bread;
I looked below me –
Aloud I cried –
Caught up the runes, caught them up wailing,
Thence to the ground fell again.
This is one of the most famous passages in the Edda, and one of the most mysterious. It seems to represent an act of self-sacrifice, through which Odin acquires the runes. But how can Odin sacrifice himself to himself? What can this mean? Of course, if Odin is the supreme God, the Allfather, then there is no greater god to whom he could sacrifice himself. But this hardly removes the mystery. If Odin is the supreme god, why does he need to do anything at all to acquire the runes? Why doesn’t he already possess them, simply in virtue of being Odin? And yet he does do something: he sacrifices himself to himself. This act (which gives the term “self-sacrifice” a whole new meaning) irresistibly suggests that there is a duality in Odin; that there are two “Odins”: one who has the secret of the runes, and one who wants to acquire it. In this essay — which is a highly speculative exercise in the interpretation of myth — I will suggest that the Odin who speaks in this passage, and in general the Odin familiar to us, represents one half of a complex deity: the half that appears. Odin is the “face” of this god, who transcends appearances and never appears to us in his totality.
In making my argument, I will be drawing extensively upon the Indian tradition. It is a long-standing practice in the field of Indo-European studies to use one Indo-European tradition to shed light on another, and to help us fill in the blanks. This is always a speculative procedure, especially in the area of myth. No certainty is possible here. Further, my interest is not that of the detached scholar (though I certainly think that solid scholarship, and scholarly principles must guide us); my interest is that of someone who seeks to recover and reanimate aspects of his own tradition. In the absence of firm, historical confirmation it is permissible, therefore, to be guided by imagination, by intuition, by the “feel” of certain conceptual possibilities (and necessities), and by something that can only be described as “feeling for tradition.”
2. Odin as Rudra/Shiva
Rudra is the Vedic equivalent of Shiva, who was a pre-Aryan god: a god of the native peoples of India, worshiped prior to the Aryan invasion (second millennium B.C.). (In what follows, I will use the term “Aryan” to refer exclusively to those Caucasian peoples who invaded India, and their culture.) Shiva is, in fact, the oldest continually-worshiped divinity in the world, and the Indologist Alain Danielou (himself a convert to the Shaivite religion) has argued for the identity of Shiva and Dionysus, and for Shaivism as a kind of Ur-religion which once dominated Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, and Crete. In time, the Aryan tradition of the Vedas came to absorb the native Shaivite and Tantric traditions, so that Shiva eventually became one of the major gods of Hinduism.
There are two ways to understand this amalgamation of Aryan and non-Aryan elements. One is to see it as the result of social and political necessities. Just as the Aryan peoples intermarried over time and mingled their blood, so the two traditions intermarried, and the result is the Hinduism we know today. This account is obviously true, but it misses the deeper, more interesting truth. The dominant Aryan tradition would not have absorbed – could not have absorbed – the pre-Aryan unless there were elements in that indigenous tradition that were not only compatible with the Aryan, but complemented it in important ways. My own view is that Shaivism and Tantra were amalgamated with the Aryan tradition because they were seen as keys that could unlock the deeper meaning of the Vedic religion. Further, within Shaivism and Tantra were beliefs and spiritual practices which promised mastery over the body and mind – and through them mastery over the world itself. This had to have been enormously appealing to the thumotic Aryans.
The name “Shiva” (meaning “auspicious one”) originates in the Rigveda as an epithet of Rudra. This epithet was eventually used more commonly than “Rudra,” which came to be understood as another name for the god Shiva. However, this was no mere linguistic accident. The sages of India have long understood that the study of language is a means to discover great truths, and a complex philosophy arose from the identification of Shiva and Rudra. Danielou writes: “In the later Hindu philosophy Shiva is the name given to the transcendent peaceful aspect of the disintegrating tendency, while Rudra represents the fierce, active, manifest personification of destruction.” Let us look at the contrast between these two gods – or, rather, two aspects of one god – in greater detail.
The etymology of “Rudra” is uncertain, but the translation of “howler” is widely accepted. Rudra is a terrible god – a god of violence and destruction. Danielou writes that “Anyone who performs a function of destruction participates in the Rudra principle. Life, which can only exist by destroying life, is a manifestation of Rudra.” He is associated with storms, and with the hunt. Even the gods are frightened by his zeal for war, and the ferocity of his desire for destruction. He is lord of the animals, and can sometimes be encountered wandering the forests. He is also lord of ghosts, known to prowl about graveyards. Finally, Rudra is the father of the Maruts, “a restless, warlike troupe of flashy young men, transposition in space of the hordes of young warriors called the marya (mortals). They have been compared to a society of war-minded men with esoteric practices and formulae. They are the embodiment of moral and heroic deeds and of the exuberance of youth.”
The parallels to Odin/Wotan are fairly obvious. I should point out that many other authors have drawn the same comparison — one of the most notable being Kris Kershaw in his excellent book The One-eyed God: Odin and the (Indo-) Germanic Männerbünde. Odin is also a fierce, destructive god, associated with storms, war, and the “wild hunt.” It is his role as the spiritual leader of the Männerbünde that Kershaw makes the primary basis for comparing him to Rudra, whose Maruts constitute just such a Männerbund, as the above quote from Danielou nicely brings out.
Now, my suggestion is that the “other self” of Odin – the self to whom he sacrifices himself – is the Germanic equivalent of Shiva. But who is Shiva? To repeat, Rudra (Odin, I maintain) is “the fierce, active, manifest personification of destruction,” while Shiva is the “transcendent peaceful aspect of the disintegrating tendency.” Shiva is the dynamic source of all being – not “Brahman,” a static one beyond all opposites (as in Vedanta), but an eternally self-generating, self-perpetuating arche; a horn of plenty. While Rudra might be represented as the sun, the manifest source of life, Shiva is the black sun behind the sun. He is the deity Jung identified as Abraxas, “the eternal sucking gorge of the void.” He is the personification of what Schopenhauer called will, and Nietzsche called will to power. He is the deity of life and death rolled into one, for life arises from death; creation from destruction. All that exists is an expression of Shiva’s abundance. Shiva is the Absolute, comprising all aspects of existence, which unfold themselves in an eternal harmony of conflict, mutually supporting, and mutually canceling. The whole itself – Shiva himself – creates itself through a perpetual self-overcoming. Shiva has been represented through various sorts of images, but the most notorious is the lingam or phallus (another one-eyed god).
Now, an obvious objection will crop up at this point. Again, the Aryans absorbed Shiva, a non-Aryan god, into their religion. There is no reason, however, to believe that a religious evolution took place in northern Europe equivalent to that in India. There is no evidence that there was a “Germanic Shiva.”
This objection is problematic, however. First, a similar process could actually have taken place in northern Europe. Many scholars have thought the Germanic myth of the “absorption” of the Vanir (including the phallic god Freyr) by the Aesir refers to the conquest of indigenous, non-Indo-European folk by the Germanic tribes, and the absorption of aspects of their religion. However, the most important response to the objection is purely philosophical. Again, the Aryans of India could absorb Shaivism because they saw that it revealed a deeper truth latent within their religion. The Vedic religion of the Aryans is closely related to that of the Germanic peoples – and the same deeper truths are latent within it as well; the same compatibility with Shaivism and Tantra (seen as perennial paths or teachings) is present in the northern tradition also. And even if there may have been no indigenous “Shaivism” or “Tantra” for it to absorb, within that northern tradition we may find, now and then, certain gropings in the direction of those philosophies; certain hints that may point us toward the same path the Vedic Aryans came to tread consciously and systematically, through a happy accident of history. The passage from the Edda quoted at the beginning of this essay is one such hint.
One of Shiva’s many names is Maheshvara, the lord of knowledge. He is the possessor of a supreme wisdom: a knowledge of all things human and divine. As Danielou notes, there are four main approaches to wisdom in the Indian tradition: through yoga, through philosophy (Vedanta), through the study of language, and through music (for the Western equivalent of this last, which may puzzle some readers, think of the Pythagoreans). Each is one avenue through which wisdom can be approached – but like any set of paths, each has its inherent limitations. The totality of the wisdom obtainable by these four can be gotten, however, from the Maheshvara Sutra: a strange formula that, quoting Danielou once more, “contains all the possible articulate sounds arranged in a symbolic order said to be the key to the structure and significance of all language. It represents one of the esoteric word-formulae in which the ancient Shaiva wisdom was condensed and which are believed to constitute the earliest revelation.” Danielou continues with this tantalizing observation: “According to some strict followers of Shaivism, the transfer of symbolic value attributed to word-symbols to the magic incantations and poetic descriptions of the Vedic hymns could only be a new re-velation (i.e., unveiling) of the ancient wisdom following the Aryan conquest.”
The Germanic parallel to the Maheshvara Sutra is runa: the secret wisdom encoded within the formula that is the futhark, the “runic alphabet.” It is to win the secret of runa that Odin hangs on that windy tree, all of nine nights. He wins that secret by sacrificing himself to himself: the manifest Odin must sacrifice himself, must “die” into the unmanifest mystery that is his “true self.” He must die into the “Shiva” to his “Rudra,” and “return” with the secret of runa, now made manifest in the world through the spoken and written sign.
Let us now look more closely at Odin’s “sacrifice” – which can clearly also be described as a self-initiation into the runic mysteries. In The Hermetic Tradition: Symbols and Teachings of the Royal Art, Julius Evola argues for the existence of a Traditional secret science of initiation, involving reintegration with a “primordial power.” Evola argues for the essential identity of Kundalini yoga and alchemy; both, he believes, express the very same teaching. This “primordial power” is often rendered symbolically as a serpent. In Tantra, the serpent represents the Kundalini energy coiled up at the base of the spine. Initiation in the Tantric tradition involves raising this energy up the spine and, in a fashion, mastering it rather than being overcome by it. (A frightening example of what happens when one raises the energy prematurely, without having learned how to control and direct it, is to be found in the story of Gopi Krishna’s struggles with Kundalini.)
This energy, this “primordial power” is really the power or energy of Shiva – and Evola tells us that it is also rendered symbolically as the “world tree.”
In the Germanic tradition, both symbols occur. The world tree is, of course, Yggdrasil, which literally means “horse of Ygg.” Ygg was another name for Odin, but why is the world tree his horse? The reason, so scholars believe, is that the gallows on which men were hanged were referred to as the “horse of the hanged.” And as we have seen, Odin hangs himself on Yggdrasil in order to secure the secret of the runes. Hence, the very name of the world tree refers to the episode of Odin’s runic initiation. Further, there is a serpent at the base of this tree: Nidhoggr, who gnaws at one of its roots. At the top of the tree is an eagle, with a hawk sitting between its eyes. A squirrel, Ratatoskr, scurries up and down the tree, conveying “words of abuse” between the eagle and the serpent. We find the serpent image elsewhere in Germanic mythology. Sigurd, of course, slays the dragon Fafnir and bathes in and drinks his blood, thus making himself invulnerable (in all but one spot) and able to understand “the language of birds.”
According to Tradition, the trunk of the World Tree corresponds to the spinal column – a correspondence one finds even in the Jewish Kabbalah, where the diagram of the “tree of life” simultaneously represents the primordial man, Adam Kadmon. In Kundalini, the chakra system, stretching up the spinal column, is understood to correspond to the “world axis.” We are thus faced with the tantalizing prospect that buried in the Germanic doctrine of Yggdrasil and the story of Odin’s self-sacrifice may be an esoteric philosophy equivalent to that of Kundalini/Alchemy, as treated by Evola. Does Nighoggr correspond to the Kundalini serpent? Is the hawk sitting between the eyes of the eagle at the top of the tree equivalent to the “third eye,” the Ajna chakra? Does the squirrel Ratatoskr represent one of the “channels” running up and down the column of the chakras? Could Sigurd’s slaying of the dragon, and acquisition of “dragon powers,” represent the raising and conquest of the Kundalini/Shiva energy? (The “solar” hero’s overcoming of a beast, representing mastery of a primordial power, is another Traditional theme– Mithras’s slaying of the bull presents us with an excellent example of this.) These are all fascinating questions for those who find Evola’s theory of a Traditional, initiatory “super science” plausible. But how can any of this help us to understand Odin’s sacrifice of himself to himself?
Suppose that Odin’s hanging on the tree represents an act of magical asceticism, with the acquisition of occult power as its purpose. Suppose further that in this ritual one does not literally “hang” on the tree, one identifies with it. In literal terms, the central column of oneself becomes the central column of the world. This is an act of “self-sacrifice” in that one puts off one’s personality, and identifies with the universal. Suppose further that the purpose of this act is the raising of a primordial energy in oneself, an energy that lies “at the base” of the world itself, as that from which everything flows. This energy is, again, identical to the Shiva principle described earlier. What we find in the Poetic Edda is the outward, manifest, “Rudra” aspect of Odin reintegrating with the unmanifest, “Shiva” aspect – which is the repository of all mysteries.
What is given in the Edda, it bears remembering, is a myth. It is not a report of an actual event. It is a mythic description of a magical act of initiation. One of the central tenets of Edred Thorsson’s Odinism is the claim that Odin is an exemplar of the Left Hand Path – the path precisely of Evola’s Kundalini/Alchemy (or Raja Yoga/Royal Art). One does not “worship” Odin, one identifies with him. What is described in the Edda is a path of initiation we ourselves may follow, into the runic mysteries. It is a path of asceticism, and of self-overcoming, in which we awaken within us a dormant power than can confer knowledge of mysteries.
One of the functions of the figure of Odin is thus to serve as a model for the seeker. In truth, we are all Odin, all the external expression of a transcendent power. To find the secret of runa we must re-integrate with that transcendent power, which is our innermost self. Just like Odin, we must sacrifice ourselves to ourselves. But how to do this? Again, Evola provides us with a few hints.
4. Chaos and Egg
Though it appears that Rudra/Odin is one god, and Shiva another, as I have argued they are actually a unity – two aspects of one god. In The Hermetic Tradition, Evola writes of two aspects of the supreme One: Chaos and Egg. The One, the source of all, according to Evola is actually a one-ing. In other words, it is not a static “unity” beyond all opposites but a dynamic process of self-differentiation and integration. (In short, it is equivalent to the “Shiva principle”). The Egg is that aspect of the one that represents harmony, integratedness, and also fecundity. Chaos is the aspect of the one that represents dynamism, cancellation, overcoming. The One, the Whole of being itself, is a unity through opposites, or a unity through strife and overcoming. As Heraclitus said, “Changing, it rests.” In the Shiva/Rudra complex Shiva, again, is “the transcendent peaceful aspect of the disintegrating tendency,” and thus he is the “Egg principle.” Rudra is “the fierce, active, manifest personification of destruction,” and is thus the “Chaos principle.” The One as Chaos and Egg is an image of the whole of reality – and each thing in reality participates in the One as Chaos and Egg; each is an image of the whole. Each individual thing, in one fashion or another, maintains itself as individual through holding itself together, healing itself, reintegrating itself on a constant basis. Every individual, just insofar as it is individual, is a continual cancellation of multiplicity and the turning of multiplicity into one – whether this is a multiplicity of atoms, or organs, or moments in time. This deepest of all metaphysical truths is represented traditionally by the image of the Ouroboros: the serpent coiled around and devouring itself.
Following the path of Odin and replicating his self-sacrifice involves an identification with the primordial duality of the One. This involves, first of all, a process of “mortification” in which external, waking consciousness has been “reduced” (these are Evola’s words). This stage is equivalent to the alchemical nigredo. It is one of the meanings of the “Hanged Man” Tarot card, and, of course, what is represented by Odin’s hanging himself on the wind-swept tree. What must be achieved is a state of profound detachment from waking consciousness, and from desire.
In the UR material edited by Evola (and published as Introduction to Magic), “Abraxas” writes that
the secret . . . consists in creating in yourself a dual being. You must generate – first by imagining and then by realizing it – a superior principle confronting everything you usually are (e.g., and instinctive life, thoughts, feelings). This principle must be able to, contemplate, and measure what you are, in a clear knowledge, moment by moment. There will be two of you: yourself standing before “the other.”. . . All in all, the work consists of a “reversal”: you have to turn the “other” into “me” and the “me” into the “other.
In other words, the first step of the work consists in bifurcating consciousness into an active, watching self, and a passive, experiencing self. The aim is to identify with this superior, detached, watching self. This is much more difficult than it sounds. The path to it consists in a complete emptying of self. It is the moment of complete self-abnegation (hanging on the tree, stuck by the spear, thirsty and hungry). This state, once achieved, becomes a dim reflection of the One, which, as we have seen, is itself and the overcoming of itself. The identification with the superior, watching self is the first step in the identification with the “Shiva principle”: the Egg, the Serpent, the Bull. The greatest obstacle on this path is fear.
Evola writes: “But in this desert of death and darkness [of nigredo] a splendor announces itself. It is the beginning of the second kingdom, that of Jupiter who dethrones Black Saturn and is the prelude to the White Moon. . . . This is the ‘White Opus,’ the albedo.” Once the state of total self-abnegation and identification with the watching self is truly achieved, we begin to experience ourselves as an expression of the transcendent source. This occurs in the region of the heart. At this point, Evola tells us that we realize that all books, all philosophies are no longer of any use to us.
In rubedo, the final stage, we no longer experience ourselves as a reflection of the transcendent source (“Shiva,” or whatever it may be called), for in this there is still duality. Instead, we rise to a complete identification with that source. We are it. The watching self becomes the eternal self, the soul of the world. This is not the same experience as feeling “absorbed” into the source. That is what Evola calls the “wet way” or “mystical” path, which is fundamentally feminine and passive. This is, instead, an initiatory, magical path: the “dry way.” Identification does not mean that the self disappears into the source. Instead, we realize we are the source, we are Shiva. What begins in albedo with self-abnegation ends in rubedo with self-elevation and radical self-assertion: the realization that we are the source of creation itself. In this state, mysteries – including the mysteries of the runes – unfold themselves before us, and we find ourselves endowed with unusual powers.
Rubedo is the attainment of gold, the achievement of the Magnum Opus. The alchemical symbol for Gold is a circle with a dot at the center. This is also the symbol of the Monad, of the One: the dot in the center represents stability, the Egg, whereas the circle that surrounds it, looping round and round like the Ouroboros, represents the dynamism of Chaos. But there is more: this is also the symbol for the sun. And it can be understood as an “aerial view” of the lingam inserted into the yoni. (The equivalent of rubedo in Tantra is the raising of the Kundalini to the crown of the head, the Sahasrara Chakra, in which the subject-object distinction is transcended.)
The above, of course, merely hints at the elements involved in the process of magical self-initiation into the mystery of runa. It is important to keep in mind that the runes are not physical marks or spoken sounds. The runes are objective ideas: aspects of the eternal logos of creation. This logos is grasped all at once when the objective of the Magnum Opus is obtained. In the traditional futharks, in the physical shapes that express the runes and their spoken names, clues to the aspects of this mystery are encoded. But the mystery may not be fully conveyed in language; it must be experienced. It is this mystery that Odin is initiated into. He “cried” and then “catches” the runes, “wailing.” This is his experience of the final, transformative stage of the work – a stage that would overwhelm most. But Odin returns from this adventure, having made transcendent truth his own.
1. The Poetic Edda, trans. Lee M. Hollander (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1962), 36.
2. Alain Danielou, Gods of Love and Ecstasy: The Traditions of Shiva and Dionysus (Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions, 1992).
3. Alain Danielou, The Myths and Gods of India (Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions, 1991),192
4. Danielou, The Myths and Gods of India, 193.
5. Danielou, The Myths and Gods of India, 104.
6. Danielou, The Myths and Gods of India, 200.
7. See Julius Evola, The Hermetic Tradition: Symbols and Teachings of the Royal Art, trans. E. E. Rehmus (Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions, 1995), 21.
8. Julius Evola and the UR Group, Introduction to Magic: Rituals and Practical Techniques for the Magus, trans. Guido Stucco (Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions, 2001), 48.
9. Evola, The Hermetic Tradition, 114.