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The Gifts of Ódhinn & his Brothers

Odin Stone, Gotland, Sweden

9,597 words

Swedish translation here

1. Overview of the Germanic Anthropogeny

What is human nature? This is arguably the most important philosophical question, because philosophy itself is uniquely human, and philosophical “problems” only present themselves to human beings. All the great philosophers have either explicit or implicit answers to this question.

But philosophers were not the first to raise and answer it. The question is first addressed in mythic anthropogenies: accounts of the origin of humanity. Virtually every ancient mythological system that has come down to us includes a story about the creation of human beings. Embedded within these stories are sometimes obvious, sometimes not so obvious commentaries on the human condition. However, these commentaries differ in certain respects, reflecting inherent differences between human sub-groups and how they view themselves.

There are two principal sources for the ancient Northern European (i.e., Germanic) anthropogeny: the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda. The Poetic Edda is preserved in the Codex Regius, which is thought to have been written in the latter half of the thirteenth century. The Prose Edda is thought to have been written by Snorri Sturluson in the first half of the same century. The anthropogenies offered in each differ in some interesting ways, but they nonetheless tell a common tale — one that offers us a priceless tool with which we can understand the nature of Western man. The tale told by the Eddas, I shall argue, reveals that nature to be at once glorious and tragic. And so without further ado, let us turn to the tale itself.

We will begin in medias res, after the coming into being of the world itself from fire and ice, and after Ódhinn and his two brothers slew the giant Ymir and created from his remains a new world of their own design. Strolling along the sea-shore, Ódhinn and his companions encountered two trees, Ask (ash) and Embla (which may mean elm; Hollander translates it as “vine”[1]). They transform the first into a man, the second into a woman. But just how they do this — and who does the doing — is given differently in the two Eddas.

First, let us consider the relevant passages in the Poetic Edda:

17. Unz þrír kvámu
ór því liði
öflgir ok ástkir
æsir at húsi,
fundu á landi
lítt megandi
Ask ok Emblu
örlöglausa.

To the coast then came,
kind and mighty,
from the gathered gods
three great Aesir;
on the land they found,
of little strength,
Ask and Embla
unfated yet.

18. Önd þau ne áttu,
óð þau ne höfðu,
lá né læti
né litu góða;
önd gaf Óðinn,
óð gaf Hœnir,
lá gaf Lóðurr,
ok litu góða.

Vital breath they possessed not,
spirit they had not,
hair nor bearing,
nor blooming hue;
vital breath gave Ódhinn,
spirit gave Hoenir,
hair gave Lódhurr,
and blooming hue.[2]

In the Prose Edda, not only do the gifts of the gods to Ask and Embla differ, so do the gods’ names. In this account, Ódhinn is joined not by Hoenir and Lódhurr but by Vili and Vé, who are explicitly identified as his brothers. Just as before, Ódhinn gives önd (vital breath) but also líf (life). (These are related, as we will see.) Vili confers vit (wit or understanding) and hræring (emotion[3]). Finally, Vé gives ásjónu (form), mál (speech or language), heyrn (hearing), and sjón (sight). It should furthermore be noted that in the Prose Edda the gods also generously provide these newly-made humans with clothing and names.[4] All the races of mankind that live on Midhgardhr are said to spring from these two beings.

The following chart summarizes the differences between the two texts:

POETIC EDDA               

Ódhinn gives önd
Hoenir gives óðr
Lódhurr gives lá and litu góða

PROSE EDDA

Ódhinn gives önd and líf
Vili gives vit and hræring
Vé gives ásjónu, mál, heyrn, and sjón

My impression is that even those who adhere to Ásatrú often tend to regard the story of Ask and Embla as “quaint”: an antiquated, false theory of human origins. But myth is not intended to be literal truth, and I’m assuming that my readers don’t need me to make the oft-heard argument that myth is not primarily a device for “explaining” the physical universe (not, in other words, “pre-scientific”).[5] Our primary interest in the story of Ask and Embla is what it conveys about human nature in general, and specifically about Western man.

Since I was small people have told me that I am descended from apes. I don’t particularly like this, as I think apes are rather vile creatures. What was it like for our ancestors to grow up thinking they were descended from trees? What is it like to feel a kinship with the trees? To begin with, trees are much nobler creatures than apes. They are often of great antiquity. They are rooted to the earth, and chthonic — yet they stretch themselves to the sky, as if trying to escape the earth. As we will see, this is a small but significant point. Immediately after telling us the story of how an ash tree was made into a man, the Poetic Edda tells us of Yggdrasil, the world ash tree. This irresistibly suggests a microcosm-macrocosm correspondence (at least in the case of males!). Is my backbone the column of the world-tree, and vice versa? Are there nine worlds along me, as there are along Yggdrasil? One cannot help but think here of the chakras of kundalini yoga — which Edred Thorsson (in Futhark, Runelore and elsewhere) alludes to in a veiled way, just as Evola does when he writes of alchemy in The Hermetic Tradition. But that is a subject for another essay . . .

Now, however, we must turn to a closer examination of the names and natures of the gods who confer these gifts on Ask and Embla, and the nature of those gifts. And we will begin with the material from the Poetic Edda.

2. The Anthropogeny of the Poetic Edda

The name Ódhinn is related to óðr (ódhr) — which, oddly enough, is the gift of Hoenir, not of Ódhinn (more on that in a moment). Ódhinn’s gift to Ask and Embla is önd, which means “breath.” “Vital breath,” however, might be a better rendering, since önd seems to mean a great deal more than simple respiration. It connotes — in this context, at least — a principle of life and motion very close to the Greek concept of ψυχή (psuchē or psyche). It certainly makes sense that Ódhinn would confer önd on Ask and Embla. As the sovereign god, life itself would be his prerogative to give or to take away. Furthermore, the name *Wōðanaz is ultimately derived from the Indo-European root *wet-, which means “blow” or “inspire.”

The etymology of the name Hoenir is very uncertain, so for now let us speak solely of his gift. Ódhr, like Ódhinn, derives from the Germanic root *wōþ-, which in turn has its origin in the aforementioned Indo-European root *wet-. There are two words in Old Norse spelled óðr. One is an adjective meaning “mad,” “furious,” or “violent”; the other a noun meaning, depending on the context, “wit,” “mind,” “spirit,” “soul,” and also “song” or “poetry.” There is also a god named Ódhr, about whom we know little. He is the often-absent husband of Freya, for whom she weeps bitterly. (Unsurprisingly, there have been attempts to argue that Ódhr = Ódhinn, but there are problems with this: among other things, why does Snorri clearly treat them as separate gods?)

I will have a great deal more to say about ódhr in a later essay. Scholars differ in exactly how it should be translated. “Inspiration” or “inspired mental activity” are often used. These certainly do an adequate job of conveying the nature of the gift Hoenir gives to man (and the key feature of Ódhinn as well). Kris Kershaw uses the term “ecstasy” to translate ódhr[6] and this is, in fact, the approach I will adopt — only (for reasons I will give much later) I prefer the original Greek term ekstasis.

So why is it Hoenir who gives the gift of ódhr to Ask and Embla, rather than Ódhinn? The most significant myth about Hoenir (aside from the one in Völuspá) occurs in Ynglinga saga 4. There, the aftermath of the war between the Aesir and Vanir is said to involve an exchange of hostages. Hoenir (one of the Aesir) is given to the Vanir as a hostage. Surprisingly, they make him a chieftain but are soon disappointed with his job performance. You see, Hoenir is accompanied by the wise Mímir and proves himself, in fact, incapable of making any decisions without Mímir’s counsel. (Rather remarkably, the Vanir respond to this situation by decapitating Mímir!) Polomé draws from this the very reasonable conclusion that Hoenir is a god dependent upon ódhr– upon inspiration, in other words. This interpretation is strengthened by the fact that after Ragnarök he “will handle the lot twigs” (i.e., cast the runes; Völuspá 63) — a function also obviously dependent upon ódhr. Thus, it seems that ódhr is the gift of Hoenir because he is entirely dependent upon it, entirely possessed by it (whereas Ódhinn, in fact, appears to be the master of it: the *-an- suffix in *Wōdanaz may suggest “lordship” or “mastery”).

Things get more complicated with Lódhurr and his gifts. There is not much controversy surrounding litu góða, which means something like “good color.” is trickier, however. Polomé says that it might be rendered “appearance” or “mien.” But he also argues persuasively that may mean “hair,” noting that “The hair was sacred for the ancient Germans; freely growing hair hanging on the shoulders was characteristic of priests, kings, and women; hair was the vehicle of the hamingja, of the soul, of happiness.”[7]

The etymology of the name Lódhurr is uncertain. Some have suggested that Lódhurr should be identified with Freyr, the Vanic god of virility and prosperity.[8] Polomé does not necessarily endorse the idea that Lódhurr = Freyr, but he does seem persuaded that Lódhurr might be Vanic. He notes the link between the name Lódhurr and Gothic liudan, “to grow,” and Old Norse lóð meaning “fruit” or “yield.” Polomé also links Lódhurr with Old Norse ljóðr, meaning “people” or, more specifically “full-fledged members of the ethnic community.” If these linkages mean anything, they seem to suggest that Lódhurr is a god of fertility, prosperity, and communal blood-ties. Rudolf Simek seems to find this a plausible argument.[9] (Both Polomé and Simek emphatically reject the many attempts to argue that Lódhurr is Loki.) This seems to at least make some sense out of the fact that Lódhurr’s gifts are purely physical, purely external features.

3. The Anthropogeny of the Prose Edda and its relation to the Poetic Edda

Turning to the Prose Edda, many questions arise when the text is examined more closely — and in the light of what we have learned about the passages in the Poetic Edda. In addition to önd, Ódhinn gives líf (life). Now, the odd thing here is that trees are already alive! The pairing of önd (breath) and líf strengthens the idea that we are essentially talking about what the Greeks called ψυχή: a vital breath that animated the body (what Aristotle would call a “source of motion”). The new “aliveness” granted to the trees by Ódhinn thus would seem to refer, at least in part, to the capacity for locomotion — which, as Aristotle recognized, characterizes all animal life.

Vili’s gifts of vit and hræring seem functionally equivalent to the ódhr granted by Hoenir in the Poetic Edda, if vit and hræring are understood respectively as wit/understanding and emotion/feeling. (Certainly these are exhibited by those possessed by ódhr, especially if ódhr is understood — as I think it should be — as having a conceptual kinship with Greek θυμόςthumos, “spiritedness.”)

Now, Vili means “will.” It derives from Germanic *wiljōn, “desire” or “willpower,” which in turn derives from the Indo-European stem *wel-, “wish” or “will.” As I will discuss later, I believe we can learn just as much about the nature of humanity from the gods who conferred gifts on Ask and Embla as we can from the gifts themselves. And this is particularly true in the case of the Prose Edda, where the functions of Ódhinn’s brothers, which we can discern from the meanings of their names, are arguably clearer.

An argument can be made that Hoenir and Vili are equivalent, or at least that there is a similarity between the two. This follows not just from the rough equivalence of the gifts they give, but it makes philosophical sense as well. As we have seen, Hoenir is unable to act decisively without the inspiration of Mímir. Philosophically, what this seems to express is the dependence of will on ódhr. What is will? Quite simply, it is our capacity to alter or change what is to bring it into accord with a conception of what ought to be. Examples would include all sorts of human acts: taking a lump of clay and sculpting something out of it, building a house out of wood or stone, curing a disease, finding the winning strategy in a war, composing a song or a poem (taking sounds or words and creating bringing some ideal form out of them), etc. But “will” depends upon our capacity to stand outside of ourselves (the literal meaning of ek-stasis) and outside of the immediate moment and receive or register both the Being of things, and be seized by a glimpse of their possible Being, what “ought” to be.[10] This is ódhr.

The source of this “inspiration” is, and has always been, mysterious. One of the things that is significant about the Germanic anthropogeny is that “reason,” “rationality,” or “logic” is not one of the gifts of the gods to man.[11] This is at least initially surprising because ever since Aristotle we have thought of rationality as perhaps the central or key characteristic of man. However, if we understand this as the capacity for analytical thought — for analyzing or constructing arguments in support of conclusions — it is important to understand that rationality is fundamentally uncreative. This is a subject that requires a much longer discussion, but putting things briefly: reason can help us to figure out how to support an idea with argument. But the ideas themselves do not come from logical inference.

Ideas arrive on the wings of inspiration, in odd moments, through all sorts of unlikely means and in unlikely situations. They come through dreams, in sudden flashes of thought that arrive as we are bathing or shaving, changing a tire, etc. The case of the chemist Friedrich August Kekulé von Stradonitz (1829–1896) provides us with a celebrated example of the sort of thing I am referring to. Kekulé arrived at his theory of the ring shape of the benzene molecule after having a daydream in which he saw a vision of an Ouroboros, a snake biting its own tale. Another discovery of Kekulé’s was inspired by a vision of dancing atoms and molecules experienced while riding on a horse-drawn omnibus in London. Inspiration occurs to everyone, but some are more gifted by Hoenir/Vili than others.[12]

The important point to take away from the discussion so far is the dependence of will on ódhr, and the nature of ódhr as ek-static registration of the Being of things, and reception (inspiration) of their possible Being. I will have much more to say about this in the concluding section, and in a later essay.

As to Vé, recall that his gifts to Ask and Embla are ásjónu (“form,” presumably physical form), mál (“speech” or “language”), heyrn (“hearing”), and sjón (“sight”). It will be seen that these are not dissimilar to the gifts of Lódhurr in the Poetic Edda, in that they have to do entirely with physical qualities or aspects (ásjónu in particular suggests this, reminding us of and litu góða). Beyond this, is there any basis for linking Lódhurr to Vé, as I tried to link Hoenir to Vili?

4. Vé and Openness to the Sacred

The etymology of Vé is certainly interesting. In addition to being the name of a god, among other things also means “shrine” in Old Norse. (We know from Tacitus that often the “shrines” of the ancient Germans were simply sacred spaces or enclosures within nature — an important point, as we shall see.) Vé derives from Germanic *wīhaz, which derives from Indo-European *vīk-, which has to do with things that are “separated,” or acts of separation.

Edred Thorsson offers the following list of nouns all directly derived from the Germanic root *wīh-:

1. Old Norse , “shrine”; cognate with Old High German wīh and Old English wīh, also meaning “shrine.”

2. Old Norse , “grave mound” (in the runic inscriptions of Glavensdrup, Vedelspang, Gottorp and Vordingborg).

3. Old Norse vébönd — the boundaries of the shrine; also used for the enclosure erected around Thing sites.

4. Old English wêoh — “idol,” “sacred image”

5. Old Norse — “standard/flag/banner”[13]

Other examples of *wīh- words include Old Norse véar, “the gods,” and Old English wicca, “(male) witch.”[14] Of particular interest, however, is a verb derived from *wīh-: *wīhjan, from which are in turn derived Old Saxon wīhian, Gothic weihan, Old High German wīhen, and modern German weihen. Weihen is normally translated “consecrate,” and all the derivatives of *wīhjan basically suggest this. “To consecrate” means to take together with (con) the sacred (as opposed to the profane: from the Latin profanum, literally “before the sanctuary”[15]). The consecrated is that which has been put with the sacred.

One of the fundamental things that characterizes human beings is our ability to separate things from the everyday and to invest them with what Thorsson (drawing on Rudolf Otto) sometimes calls a “numinous” quality. This shows itself most clearly in cases where we make a religious object, such as an idol, or designate something a religious object, such as a holy relic (e.g., objects that belonged to the saints, or objects thought to have been touched by persons regarded as special or holy). But the list given above includes other sorts of things as well.

A grave mound, for example, is a . What is a grave? It is a plot of earth that has taken on a special, super-natural (above or beyond the natural) significance because a human body is buried in it. can also mean flag, banner, or standard — as in battle standard. This is a piece of cloth that has been invested with special significance because it symbolizes an army or a people. Perhaps also because it has been carried into a number of battles. Perhaps also because it has been touched by personages of great importance, or even stained with their blood.

As noted above, the term vébönd was used for the boundaries around a shrine, or around the place of the Thing. In the former case, an area of earth is separated or marked out and invested with special meaning because it is a space in which human beings enter into contact with the divine. The case of the Thing is similar: an area of earth is marked out and made meaningful because it is a place where the laws of the people are invoked, amplified, or applied. Tacitus tells us that a priest opened the Thing with a command for silence (Germania 11). This silence is also a separation: in the Thing enclosure, marked out from the rest of the earth, we are removed from idle chatter, and in the sounds that are heard there the people confronts its own spirit (for the laws are a projection of its spirit). Both cases are super-natural. In both cases an area of the earth, of the natural, is marked off and made into a space in which something above the natural is made manifest: the gods or the laws (and, of course, for our ancestors there was a connection between these).

The runes also provide us with an example of what is *wīhaz. “Rune” is from a root run- meaning “secret,” or “whisper.” The runes are not “letters.” The written signs that we typically think of as “runes” merely symbolize the runes, which constitute esoteric ideas that provide a key to understanding the fundamental aspects of reality. But consider the different rune names (in translation): Cattle, Ox, Thorn, Wagon, Torch, Gift, Joy, Hail, Need, Ice, Harvest, Yew Tree, Elk, Sun, Birch, Horse, Day, etc. Each is something “natural.” But each has been imaginatively “separated out” of the natural and made to “stand for” something of which the natural may be an expression, but which transcends the natural itself. So, for example, “cattle” (*fehu) as a rune means cattle, but also something more than cattle: something cattle symbolizes, or something of which cattle is only one, paradigmatic expression. (See my essay “What is a Rune?”)

The rune *fehu, again, is not a written sign. To understand the rune “cattle” is literally to see how cattle point us toward a fundamental mystery. This ability to “read” the natural world as an “emblem book” is a fundamental feature of the mytho-poetic mind (now largely lost to us). It is founded on a more basic human ability: our power to be arrested by the Being of things, to be seized by it, and to be carried away in fascination with it, opening to new connections, new layers of meaning and significance. But obviously I am now speaking about ódhr. Now we realize that there is a deep tie between *wīhjan, which makes things *wīhaz, and ódhr.

Each form of *wīhaz is a case of something natural being removed — either literally or imaginatively — from nature and being invested with some special super-natural meaning or significance. Wood or stone is carved into an idol or inscribed with special symbols; a plot of land is marked off and made into a space where the divine or the spirit of the people is encountered; a piece of cloth is made to stand for a people or an ideal; a natural object or natural kind is made to stand for some fundamental aspect of Being (a rune), etc.

In each case, the ability to do this is founded on something deeper or more basic: the ability of the human mind, through selective attention, to “separate out” something from its background, to register the Being of this thing, and to invest it with some added Being, some added significance or meaning. But where does this meaning come from? How do we arrive at awareness of it? To repeat what I said earlier about the connection between will and ódhr: making something *wīhaz depends upon our capacity to stand outside of ourselves (the literal meaning of ek-stasis) and outside of the immediate moment and receive or register both the Being of things, and their possible Being, what “ought” to be.

We can now see that there are deep conceptual connections between what Ódhinn and his two brothers represent, a point about which I will have more to say in the concluding section of this essay.

But let us return, first, to an issue that seems to have fallen by the wayside. Is there any kind of connection that can be made between Lódhurr and Vé? We saw earlier that there is some reason to think that Lódhurr might be a Vanic god: a chthonic god, or god of the earth. Based on the foregoing reflections, what we might say about Vé, with some caution, is that he is a god of the hallowed earth. The common denominator in all the instances of *wīhjan we have discussed is that through certain human acts the natural, that which is of the earth or comes forth from the earth, is made to yield the sacred. We act on the natural in such a way that the super-natural, the sacred or numinous, shines through it.

Separating or marking off a plot of land and cultivating plants or livestock on it is also an instance of *wīhjan — or at least it was to our ancestors. Such places were not profane to them. They were consecrated space, and they were understood to yield sustenance to us only when human beings affirmed their relationship to the gods of abundance within the sacred enclosure of cultivated soil. And so a crop or a corral also becomes a shrine, a .[16] We can understand a village (or even a larger territory) along the same lines. In fact, a number of words dealing with clan or extended family are derived from the Indo-European root *vīk-.[17] A village is a space that we have marked off from surrounding terrain. It is the space in which our people “happen” and may have “happened” for generations (just as the shrine or sacred grove is the space within which the human-divine connection happens). In so far as this is the case, it has a special sacredness for us. It is not profane land.[18]

5. Conclusion: Ekstasis, Will, and Hallowing

On the whole, the gods in these stories reveal as much to us about human nature as the gifts that they give. One has to remember that these are stories, not philosophical commentaries, and that a story has a certain internal logic to it. This means that if one intends to tell a tale about how human beings were created out of trees, a number of things must be said — and not all of them are going to be pregnant with philosophical significance.

As Aristotle recognized, human beings are two steps away from plant life. Humans possess certain “vegetative” characteristics, such as growth, reproduction, and nutrition — and they possess animal characteristics as well, such as the capacity for locomotion (moving from place to place), hearing, sight, and the capacity to make sounds. In telling the tale of how human beings were made out of trees, therefore, the poet must make mention of how the trees acquired animal properties — as well as mentioning those that are uniquely human. And so we are told that the trees acquired vital breath (which I’ve interpreted as conceptually bound up with the capacity for movement), hair, speech, hearing, and sight. And, of course, mention must be made of a new form or shape (ásjónu), since we certainly don’t look like trees anymore. And this form or outward appearance is pleasing (it has litu góða, “good color”).

Ódhr, of course, is the distinctly or uniquely human property that is conferred on the trees: the property that makes us fundamentally different from animal life. I will discuss ódhr much more extensively in a later essay, but I have already linked it (as others have) with Greek ekstasis. To repeat: fundamentally, it is our capacity to “leave ourselves” (stand outside ourselves: ek-stasis) and the immediate moment, and to be arrested or seized by the Being of things. When this occurs we become the vehicle for Being’s expression, we become inspired, and we are moved to give voice to it and to new possibilities that we glimpse when we are so captivated. Ódhr is at the root of poetic and artistic inspiration of all kinds, myth-making, philosophy, and even scientific discovery. Ódhr takes a variety of forms and comes to us in a variety of ways. It can come, for example, in the form of frenzied physical activity — in fighting, dancing, or sex, to name just a few.

A moment ago I said that ódhr moves us to “give voice” to Being and to new possibilities it inspires in us. It should be mentioned, therefore, that Old Norse mál can mean “speech,” but can also mean “language.” Here we must leave behind everything we have heard about birds, whales, and Koko the gorilla: only human beings have language in the true sense. Language is not primarily a means of communication (this is all the aforementioned beasts have, if they have anything). Language, Heidegger said, is “the house of Being.”[19] What distinguishes us from the beasts is that we are open to the experience of wonder in the face of the sheer fact that things are. And it is in language that we capture and express this experience — the experience of the Being of beings.[20] Heidegger also tells us “Man is the shepherd of Being.”[21] These are difficult ideas, which I will discuss at greater length in my subsequent essay on ódhr.

In the trio of gods in the Prose Edda — Ódhinn, Vili, and Vé — we can learn more about man’s nature. Though ódhr is the gift of Vili, let us set that aside for the moment and recognize that it is, in fact, Ódhinn who embodies that property. Earlier in this essay I argued for the interdependence of ódhr and the powers represented by Vili and Vé. Understanding anything unfamiliar requires translating it into the familiar, or the more familiar. And so I will now render these gods and the powers they represent by a new set of terms:

Ódhinn — Ekstasis (ecstasy)[22]
Vili — Will
Vé — Hallowing

It should be noted that I am choosing to use these terms in a special, technical sense: I am stipulating that they mean certain things, whereas their ordinary usage does not always convey what I intend.

I have chosen to speak of Vé as representing a “hallowing,” as a way of capturing, in a familiar word, the human power to mark things off as *wīhaz (the verb that expresses this act, of course, is *wīhjan but this is an unfamiliar word which has no English derivatives appropriate for my purposes here).[23] It can be argued that in this triad of powers we have a summation of all that makes us human. These powers are not separable, independent parts of our nature: they involve and found one another. Our task now is to understand them in fundamental terms.

To hallow something — again, just as I am using the term — means to separate it from the earth (from the background of the natural or the mundane), and to invest it with some special meaning or significance. Once we do this, the object (whatever it may be) now means more than it “is.” However, it would be better to say that it now is more than it was. This special, new Being that we confer upon the thing or cause to shine through it is not something that is visible to the naked eye, or under a microscope, or detectable by a dog. We are the only species that hallows things, and the only species capable of recognizing what is hallowed.

For example, to a dog one plot of land is pretty much like another, and all have the same use value (for burying bones, defecation, etc.). But to us, one plot of land may be quite different from another because one is sacred, hallowed space and the other is not. Again, however, this is not something that can be appreciated through the senses alone. Nor is it appreciated through some mysterious psychic sense. The hallowed is grasped through participation in a culture that designates things as hallowed through various means: special acts, signs, partitions, etc. A member of that culture who recognizes something as hallowed will feel the hallowedness of the thing as if it were a physical, sensible property.

But this act of separating and hallowing things is founded on deeper or more basic mental acts or performances. Anything can be hallowed. To hallow this cup in front of me means to invest it with a new property that goes beyond the property it has “naturally.” But in order to do this, we must first register what that property is. In Heideggerean terminology, it must first disclose its Being to us. First I register that it is a cup, then, in a sense, I “overlay” a new quality on this: that it is sacred, because such and such has happened, so and so held it, etc. In other words, in order to hallow something we must first be open to the Being of that thing. And then, a further step: we must allow ourselves to be possessed, as it were, by the idea that this thing is now more than merely a cup, more than merely a plot of land.

The cup discloses itself to us in its Being as a cup — but then layered over this it discloses itself as something else. It discloses a different, sacred Being. The cup is thus a cup and not a cup: it is a sacred relic, invested with a numinous Being (because, for example, it was used by some individual for whom we have reverence). This grove is a grove and not a grove: it is a place where we meet the divine. This cloth is a cloth and not a cloth: it is a symbol of our people (a flag or standard); in a sense it is our people. These cattle are cattle and not cattle: they are a rune; they represent one of the mysteries of Being. In short, hallowing is founded on ekstasis (on ódhr): on our ability, again, to stand outside our selves and into the disclosure of Being.

Hallowing is founded on ekstasis. But ekstasis comes to expression through hallowing. Ekstasis reveals Being to us in a new way and moves us to separate and venerate certain things. Ekstasis also comes to expression through will. This is, again, our capacity to alter or change what is to bring it into accord with a conception of what could be. I gave some examples of this earlier. Taking wood or stone and building a house out of it is will. Curing a disease is an act of will, since it is taking what is and altering it (in this case, canceling it) in order to bring about a new state of affairs one wants to be: health. Routing the enemy in a surprise attack is an act of will. Creating a painting or sculpture is will — it takes what is (clay, stone, wood, paints, canvass, etc.) and brings forth from it an ideal that exists first in the mind of the artist. Writing a symphony is will. Sounds are to a composer what paints are to a painter. Building a bridge is will. A political revolution is will. Social planning is will. And so on.

Will is founded on ekstasis, just as hallowing is. Will depends upon our capacity to register the Being of things — what they are — and to be seized by a vision of what they might be or ought to be. Animals are capable of action, but not will in the sense I am using the term. They cannot conceive of counterfactuals; they cannot register what is and imagine what could to be. This is why animals have no history; fundamentally, nothing about them changes. A cat in our time is exactly the same as a cat in the time of Snorri.

Will has both positive and negative forms. It becomes negative when it is disengaged from openness to Being. I discussed this aspect of will at length in my essay “Knowing the Gods.”[24] (However, the manner in which I am conceiving will in this essay goes well beyond how I treated it in that piece, which was written more than ten years ago.) Without openness to Being, without ekstasis, will may become like Hoenir when deprived of the inspiration of Mímir: impotent and unable to act. What is worse, however, is when action happens — when will is exercised — without true openness to Being. Then will acts perversely, and attempt to force pre-conceived plans and conceptions onto things.

In its positive form, will goes hand in hand with an openness to Being: it allows beings to disclose what they are and to disclose their potentialities: new ways of ordering or conceiving them. It allows beings themselves to reveal these. It does not demand of them something that they cannot yield, or act so as to twist and pervert their nature. When true openness to Being is absent, when we merely impose schemes and conceptions onto beings, beings still disclose themselves — but they disclose themselves only partially or in ways that show a mere semblance or distortion of their true nature. This is what happens, for example, when human beings are approached as if they were machines, as in the computational model of the mind. Yes, the human mind can be seen as a computer and aspects of human nature will reveal themselves when we are seen in this light. But much else will conceal itself as well. Such a conception conceals more than it reveals, and is thus untrue to the thing in question.

One might be tempted to say at this point that only the positive form of will is founded on ekstasis, and that the negative form has become disengaged from it. But this is not the case. Both the positive and negative forms of will are founded on ekstasis. The man who envisions a monstrous, concrete superhighway cutting a giant swath through primeval forests has ecstatically “left himself” and been seized by inspiration. So too has the socialist revolutionary, the peacenik, the Puritan fanatic, the one-worlder, the atomic scientist, the multiculturalist, the radical feminist, and the neocon. Ekstasis — ódhr – does not necessarily lead to anything good, nor does the will that acts on inspiration.

In the positive form of will, however, ekstasis involves a genuine openness to Being. As I have said, it allows beings to disclose what they are and to disclose their real possibilities, rather than imposing pre-conceived notions on them. This attitude of genuine openness is similar to what Heidegger means by Gelassenheit (a term he borrows from Meister Eckhart), often translated “letting beings be.” We can thus see that there are positive and negative forms of ekstasis, which found, respectively, the positive and negative forms of will.

In the positive form of will, founded on the positive form of ekstasis, there is something that approaches hallowing. To be genuinely open and to receive the Being of things involves a kind of reverence. This reverence can lead to removing the thing from the realm of the everyday, to hallowing it — or it can lead to reverently making the thing over according to ideas we have won from inspiration, aware of our debt to the thing, and to the earth that gave rise to it. There is thus a close kinship between the positive form of will and hallowing.

In sum, we can now see that these three qualities — ekstasis, will, and hallowing — found one another; they require one another, and each is what it is only through the other two.[25] Hallowing and will are both founded on ekstasis. And ekstasis only comes to expression through hallowing and will. Will in its positive form is founded on the positive form of ekstasis, which involves a genuine openness to the Being of beings. This openness is, in a sense, reverential — and thus there is something in the positive form of will that is akin to hallowing. In the negative form of will, founded on the negative form of ekstasis (which lacks genuine openness to the Being of beings), there is nothing reverent at all and thus no kinship with hallowing. (Which is why the negative form of will is profane, irreverent, nihilistic, and barren; it is at the root of all modern ills.)

Finally, we must note a further special kinship between hallowing and will. It is possible to understand every act of hallowing as an act of will, where will simply means (very broadly) changing what is so that the ideal, or what ought to be, shines through it. A simple example will make this clear. Taking wood or stone and carving a representation of a god out of it is will — and hallowing. First we must be ecstatically open to the disclosure of the Being of the wood or stone — and to its disclosure of itself as a suitable vehicle to bring forth the god. Then we go to work on that material, literally altering it to bring out the god that slumbers within. All such acts of shaping the natural to reveal the sacred are acts of hallowing and of will. The “shaping” here, by the way, may take place only in the mind, as when we “see” that a grove is a place for meeting the gods. The grove is now “changed,” but it has not been physically altered at all. In a sense, therefore, all acts of hallowing are acts of will — but not all acts of will are acts of hallowing, as the example of building a house shows.

In sum, each of the three is closely bound up with the other two. And it is the three together that offer us an account of the fundamental aspects of human nature. This is the wisdom that the Germanic anthropogeny bequeaths to us. Only human beings have ekstasis, will, and hallowing. Only human beings can open reverently, or irreverently, to the Being of beings. Only humans reshape the world, for good or for ill, according to ideas of what could be. Only human beings perceive the dimension of the sacred; only human beings hallow things. To be human means to have these three in dynamic interplay.

However, to be human is fraught with danger, and it is an inherently tragic condition. At least this is true — or especially true — of Western man. As I said earlier, both the positive and negative forms of will are founded on ekstasis. All inspiration seems good at the time, but we are often tricked and deceived by ekstasis. Ódhinn, the god of ekstasis, is not an entirely benevolent god. There is within us, and within him, the capacity to err: to go too far, to pervert and corrupt in the name of “the good,” to rebel against all limits to will or to knowledge. Ódhinn is both Ginnarr (Deceiver) and Sanngetall (Finder of Truth). He is both Sváfnir (Sleep Bringer) and Vakr (Awakener). He is both Bölverkr (Evil Worker) and Fjölnir (Wise One). We have the same oppositions within us. We have the capacity to open to Being — and to close to it. We want to receive the mystery — and to cancel it; to penetrate everything and obliterate all mystery. This is what I will call, drawing on Oswald Spengler, the Faustian element in us — in Western man — and in Ódhinn, our god.[26]

Ódhinn sometimes helps men and guides them to the true and the good, and sometimes tricks them and leads them to their doom. He is wonderful and terrible. He switches sides without warning and breaks covenants. He seeks total knowledge, torturing his body on Yggdrasil for nine nights to win the runes, and sacrificing an eye to drink from Mímir’s well. Ódhinn gains timeless wisdom from Mímir’s well — but sacrifices part of his ability to perceive the present and immediate. Western man has made a similar sacrifice, losing the present in anticipation of the future, the ideal; losing the earth in anticipation of what the earth might be shaped into.

In his essay “The Question Concerning Technology” (published in 1954), Heidegger argues that technology is a certain kind of “revealing”: it reveals beings to us in a particular way. Essentially, it reveals nature as raw material for human use; as what Heidegger calls der Bestand, a term that has been translated “the standing reserve.” But what is it that is involved in our propensity to take the earth as standing reserve? Heidegger answers this question through his famous characterization of modernity as das Gestell, which is often translated “the enframing.” What characterizes modern, Western people is a tendency not just to want to order or re-order nature, to impose some system upon it, but also to delve into nature with theories and assumptions, always expecting nature in a sense to order itself according to our “rational” ideas.

But this mindset is not merely “modern”: it is there from the beginning, in the founding of the world itself, and Ódhinn is its embodiment. According to the Germanic cosmogony, the world as we know it was preceded by a time when titanic beings arose haphazardly: fire and ice came together to produce the frost giant Ymir, whom the Prose Edda describes as “evil” (illr). A man and a woman grew out of his armpit. One of his legs mated with the other and produced a son. The cosmic cow Auðhumla licked an ice-block until a man was formed from it. And so on. In short, this first period is a time of monstrous beings and monstrous births, without any real cosmic order or regularity.

Then along come the sons of Bor: Ódhinn, Vili, and Vé. They possess a new kind of consciousness. They have the ability to envision how this chaotic universe might be. Carried away by this inspiration, they slaughter the “evil” Ymir, dismember him, and create the universe familiar to us from out of his remains. The new universe is one where there are still monsters (the thurses still exist), but beauty as well. And like gives birth to like. There is order and regularity.

The first act of Ódhinn is to reject the world as it is, and to impose a new vision of a cosmos upon it. Ymir presents himself as the “standing reserve”; Ódhinn and his brothers “enframe” him. They slaughter him and reshape what is into what, for better or worse, he could be. The world we live in thus originates in a murder, and we live on the corpse of the victim. We, the sons of Ódhinn, have been murdering what is and transforming it according to our visions of what could be ever since. We embody his spirit, and that spirit is our great virtue and our great vice. It is the source of all that is glorious in us, and all that is terrible.

A final consideration: why did Ódhinn and his companions choose trees as the basis for creating human beings? Perhaps in changing trees into human beings the gods saw themselves as granting the trees what they seemed to desire. Trees are rooted in the soil, but stretch themselves toward the sky, as if trying to escape the earth. Ódhinn himself was, from the very beginning, a creature of the physical universe, and not of that universe; one who turned on that which had given birth to him and imposed his will upon it, always going beyond the given and seeking the ultimate. Humans, similarly, are stretched between earth and sky, chthonic and uranic, real and ideal, present and future.[27]

Notes

[1] The Poetic Edda, trans. Lee M. Hollander (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1962), p. 3.

[2] The translation is by Hollander, however I have amended it in the case of the words önd, which I’ve rendered “vital breath,” óðr, which I’ve rendered “spirit,” and , which I’ve rendered “hair.” See further on for explanations of these translations.

[3]  Hræring is often translated “movement” but Edgar C. Polomé notes that “hræring does not necessarily apply to a physical movement: in the compound hugarhræring, as well as in numerous contexts and phrases like geðs hræringar, it indicates emotion and may, therefore, better than vit, reflect the connotations of the Eddic noun óðr, which Leiv Heggstad glosses more adequately hugrørsla (movements of the mind).” See Edgar C. Polomé, “Some Thoughts on Vǫluspá Stanzas 17-18,” in Essays on Germanic Religion (Washington, D.C.: Institute for the Study of Man, 1989), p. 32.

[4] The relevant passage from the Prose Edda is as follows: “Þá er þeir gengu með sævarströndu Borssynir, fundu þeir tré tvau ok tóku upp trén ok sköpuðu af menn. Gaf inn fyrsti önd ok líf, annarr vit ok hræring, þriði ásjónu, mál ok heyrn ok sjón, gáfu þeim klæði ok nöfn. Hét karlmaðrinn Askr en konan Embla, ok ólst þaðan af mannkindin, sú er byggðin var gefinn undir Miðgarði.” It should be noted that the Poetic Edda does not state that Hoenir and Lódhurr are Ódhinn’s brothers. The three are referred to merely as “three great Aesir.” But because they perform the same (or virtually the same) functions as the brothers Vili and Vé in the Prose Edda, it seems reasonable to assume that they might be Ódhinn’s brothers differently named. (The fact that a couple of sources give as a kenning for Ódhinn “Lódhurr’s friend” – Loðurs vinr – means nothing, since a brother can certainly be a friend.) Further, the Prose Edda does not actually name the brothers in connection with the gifts they confer: the text merely says “the first gave,” “the second . . . ,” “the third . . .” But earlier in the text the three sons of Bor and Bestla are described as “the first, Ódhinn; the second, Vili; the third, Vé.”

[5] On this point see Collin Cleary, Summoning the Gods (San Francisco: Counter-Currents Publishing, 2011), pp. 21–22 (footnote 1).

[6] Kris Kershaw, The One-Eyed God: Odin and the (Indo-) Germanic Männerbünde (Washington, D.C.: Institute for the Study of Man, 2000).

[7] Polomé, pp. 39–40.

[8] F. Detter and R. Heinzel, Beiträge zur Geschichte der deutschen Literatur, XVIII (1894), p. 560.

[9] Rodolf Simek, Dictionary of Northern Mythology, trans. Angela Hall (Rochester, NY: D.S. Brewer, 2000), p. 190.

[10] My capitalization of the B in “Being” follows the practice of English translations of Heidegger in distinguishing “Being” from “a being” (or “beings”). Beings (otherwise known as “things”) are called beings because they have a mysterious something that we call “Being.” They are; they have Being. But Being is not a being; it is no thing. So what exactly is Being (or, we could say, Being-as-such)? This is one of the major questions of Heidegger’s philosophy. My own thought is heavily influenced by Heidegger, but I do not follow him in all things. I do, however, believe that his insistence on “the ontological difference” — the difference between Being and beings — is absolutely correct and necessary.

[11] A conception of analytical thought is probably implicit in the gifts of Vé. Perhaps it is embedded in the meaning of mál, “speech,” just as Greek logos could mean both “speech” and “reason.” (I hasten to admit this is a highly speculative suggestion.)

[12] Kekulé later famously said of his visions: “Lernen wir träumen, meine Herren, dann finden wir vielleicht die Wahrheit – aber hüten wir uns, unsere Träume zu veröffentlichen, ehe sie durch den wachen Verstand geprüft worden sind” (Let us learn to dream, gentlemen, then perhaps we will find the truth — but let us beware of publishing our dreams before they have been tested by the waking understanding).

[13] See Edred Thorsson, Green Runa (Smithville, Texas: Runa-Raven Press, 1996), p. 42. I have altered the list slightly.

[14] In Witchdom of the True, however, Edred Thorsson theorizes that wicca may belong to the *vīk- word group that has the sense of “turning,” because of the association of witchcraft with dancing — further illustrating how subjective and speculative many of these etymologies and word groupings can be. See Edred Thorsson, Witchdom of the True: A Study of the Vana-Troth and the Practice of Seiðr, Volume I: Lore and History (Smithville, Texas: Runa-Raven Press, 1999), p. 71.

[15] Profanum designated the ordinary ground outside the enclosure of a sacred place. Lawrence J. Hatab writes, “To the mythical mind . . . the profane is that which is meaningless, the sacred is that which is meaningful.” See Lawrence J. Hatab, Myth and Philosophy: A Contest of Truths (LaSalle, Illinois: Open Court, 1990), p. 23.

[16] I am making a philosophical point here, not asserting that the term was used for patches of cultivated soil or livestock enclosures. To my knowledge, it was not.

[17] Philologists distinguish a number of different groups of words derived from *vīk-. The members of these groups all have a kind thematic similarity, but the different groups are not thought to be related, even though they all derive from the “same” root. Calvert Watkins in The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots lists five word groups deriving from *vīk-: words having to do with (1) clan; (2) consecrated or holy; (3) words expressing “to be like” (i.e., “to seem like”); (4) words expressing “to bend” or “wind”; (5) words expressing “to fight” or “conquer.” See Calvert Watkins, The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000), p. 97. In principle, we must be very cautious about assuming that words that sound alike are somehow related. For example, “virile” and “viral” sound a lot alike, and we might assume that they both stem from the same Indo-European root. In fact, they don’t. It is even possible that, as Watkins and others are well aware of, a single root may give rise to groups of words that have no meaningful connection. Nevertheless, it should be obvious that there is a subjective element to these sorts of classifications. In other words, Watkins lists five separate groups of *vīk- words because he doesn’t discern any deeper, meaningful connection between the groups. It must also be pointed out — to further establish the inherently subjective element to this subject matter — that different scholars group and describe the *vīk- words differently. For example, The Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture lists the Old English word wêoh, “idol” or “sacred image,” under its entry for the *vīk- words dealing with the sacred, and under its entry for the *vīk- words dealing with “appearance” (or “seeming”). See Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture, ed. J. P. Mallory and D. Q. Adams (London: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1997), p. 25. The same volume notes (with some skepticism) that some scholars have argued for a connection between the *vīk- group having to do with fighting or battle, and the *vīk- group having to do with the sacred (Ibid., p. 20). Some of the “clan” or “extended family” words are Gothic weihs “Village,” and also Greek oikia “house, household” (from which we get “economics”). Greek εκών (eikōn, “image”) is one of the “to be like” or “seem” words, and is close in connotation to Old English wêoh. The “bending” or “turning” words include Germanic *wikon, “a turning,” and Old Norse vikja, “to bend, turn.” Our word “wicker” derives from this root. And, as noted above, wicca (witch) may derive from it as well. Finally, the “fighting” *vīk- words include Old Norse vīgr, “able in battle,” Gothic weihan, “to fight,” and Old High German wīhan, “to fight.”

[18] It seems to me that the rune *Othala expresses the idea of the clan as sacred enclosure. The stave shape itself seems to convey this.

[19] See Heidegger’s essay “The Letter on Humanism” in Basic Writings, ed. and trans. David Farrell Krell (New York: Harper and Row, 1977), pp. 193, 213.

[20] In his essay “What are Poets For?” Heidegger quotes Rainer Maria Rilke, who states in a letter “‘We are the bees of the invisible. Nous butinons éperdument le miel du visible, pour l’accumuler dans la grande ruche d’or de l’Invisible.’ (We ceaselessly gather the honey of the visible, to store it up in the great golden beehive of the Invisible.)” Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. Albert Hofstadter (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), p. 130.

[21] Heidegger, Basic Writings, p. 210.

[22] Here I am drawing on Heidegger as well. In my forthcoming essay I will use Heidegger’s analysis of Dasein as ek-stasis to explicate what is meant by ódhr.

[23] It should be noted that “hallowing” actually derives from another Germanic word group having to do with the sacred or the holy. “Hallow” derives from Germanic *hailagōn. See Thorsson, Green Runa, p. 43, and Cleary, Summoning the Gods, pp. 48–49.

[24] The essay is included in Summoning the Gods.

[25] This lends support to the idea that Vili and Vé are hypostases of Ódhinn; i.e., that the three are aspects of one. Edred Thorsson writes: “The essential Ódhinic structure is threefold. The oldest name of this tripartite entity is Wōdhanaz-Wiljōn-Wīhaz (ON Ódhinn-Vili-Vé). The meanings of these names show us how the tripartite entity of consciousness works. Wōdh-an-az (master of inspiration [wōdh-]) is the expansive all-encompassing ecstatic and transformative force at the root of consciousness and enthusiasm. Wiljōn (the will) is the conscious application of a desired plan consciously arrived at, and Wīhaz (the sacred) is the spirit of separation in an independent sacred ‘space.’ This separation between consciousness and ‘nature’ (that outside consciousness) must be effected before any transformations or ‘work’ can take place. All three are necessary; all three should work together as a whole.” See Edred Thorsson, Runelore: A Handbook of Esoteric Runology (York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser, 1987), p. 179. As should become clear, my discussion in this section builds upon Thorsson’s.

[26] In a famous essay, C. G. Jung writes that “the god of the Germans is Wotan and not the Christian God.” Wotan (Ódhinn), Jung says, is “a fundamental attribute of the German people” and “a Germanic datum of first importance, the truest expression and unsurpassed personification of a fundamental quality that is particularly characteristic of the Germans.” Although a good deal of Jung’s essay — written in 1936 — deals with modern Germany, we must understand him in these passages to be speaking broadly of the Germanic peoples. See C. G. Jung, “Wotan” in Civilization in Transition, The Collected Works of C. G. Jung Vol. 10, trans. Gerhard Adler and R. F. C. Hull (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970), pp. 191, 186.

[27] I wish to thank Michael Moynihan for some corrections to an earlier draft of this essay.

 

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7 Comments

  1. rhondda
    Posted July 12, 2012 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this. What an excellent essay. I have been studying the Northern Mysteries and the runes and this surely has added another dimension by connecting Heidegger.

    • Collin Cleary
      Posted July 13, 2012 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

      Thank you!

  2. Mr. Sardonicus
    Posted July 12, 2012 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for posting this magnificent essay Mr. Cleary!

    :RtR:

    • Collin Cleary
      Posted July 13, 2012 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

      Thank you. :RtR: to you as well.

  3. Faustus
    Posted July 12, 2012 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

    Well done. Looking forward to more essays like this.

  4. Cagefighter
    Posted July 14, 2012 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

    Very entertaining read. I love the erudition and physiogmatic approach Mr. Clearly displays in these essays. These older myths are great to ponder, most especially the ones that are a part of one’s bio-cultural heritage.
    However, I couldn’t help having the feeling that I was reading a sorta dry analytical-based view (though highly respected and unavoidable) of a previous bad-ass ethnospiritual cosmology (clearly from the outside, looking in) — fun and all, but what of our myths? Do we even now have myths?
    One could convincingly argue that there is always myth, rather you recognized it as such or not. If that is the case, what of other building blocks are there in myth-mechanics. If one understands principles, he can create his own methodology in the construction and deconstruction of myth. Such knowledge backed-up by resolute will, could wreak havoc on the grid system that the matrix relies on.
    Any pioneers on this subject?

    • Sandy
      Posted July 15, 2012 at 11:49 am | Permalink

      If one understands principles, he can create his own methodology in the construction and deconstruction of myth. Such knowledge backed-up by resolute will, could wreak havoc on the grid system that the matrix relies on.
      Any pioneers on this subject?

      I would suggest “Madison Avenue” which uses the ancient symbols to sell their goods. The symbols were embedded from the beginning and cannot be changed, hence we always respond to advertising whether we know it or not.

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