Part 2 of 3
4. Interpretation of the Germanic Cosmology
According to Edred Thorsson, the Germanic cosmology is dyadic: it consists of four pairs of polar opposites.
On the vertical axis (or world axis, Irminsul):
(a) Ásgardhr and Hel
(b) Alfheimr and Svartálfheimr
On the horizontal plane:
(c) Muspellsheimr and Niflheimr
(d) Vanahemir and Jötunheimr
(Only Midgardhr has no opposite.) Let us begin with the vertical plane and the two extremes of above and below, Ásgardhr and Hel.
(a) Ásgardhr and Hel
Hel, the bottom-most point on the vertical world axis, is the place of death and total darkness. Its diametrical opposite is Ásgardhr, which is the place of life, and total light. But light and darkness must, up to a point, be understood figuratively. In “The Fourfold” I argued that the bright sky reveals, and that the dark earth conceals. We live between unhiddenness, and hiddenness, or revealing and concealing. Our nature is to draw things, in multiple ways, out of concealment and “into the light”: we seek to understand, to know what things are, to “shed light” on things.
In part, Ásgardhr represents the ideal of total revelation or unconcealment, total presence, and thus total truth (where truth is understood, along Heideggerean lines, as unconcealment or presencing; see my essay “Heidegger: An Introduction for Anti-Modernists”). This is an ideal that is sought, but never fully realized. By contrast, Hel represents the complete opposite: total concealment, total absence, and total mystery (i.e., total obscuration of the truth). “Hel” derives from the Indo-European root *kel- meaning “to cover” or “to conceal.” (The true opposite of truth is concealment or mystery: “falsehood” is merely one particular form in which the truth may be obscured, as when I tell a lie or inadvertently draw a false conclusion; but much else may conceal truth.)
The opposition of Ásgardhr and Hel may also be understood along the lines of the “form-matter” distinction, which is famously associated with Aristotle, but is simply an expression of a kind of intuitive “lifeworld physics.” All things in “the terrestrial world” (i.e., Midgardhr) have both form and matter. All things are a combination of a form or pattern discernible by the mind, and some material substance or substances. Two desks have the same form, but in one instance the form may be enmattered in wood, in another metal. Similarly, setting aside inessential differences in coloration or size, we recognize that two cats possess the same form. In both cases, however, the matter is flesh and bone (and, unlike how it is with desks, the matter of cats can be nothing else).
All forms have an ideal status, in two senses. First, we see that objects always only approach to realizing their forms, but never do so perfectly (some desks and some cats are better than others, but none is perfect). Second, the mind irresistibly conceives of forms and patterns as separable from matter, because we can separate them in thought. Hence, they are thought of as “ideal.” Again, this sounds like Platonic-Aristotelian philosophy, but that philosophy was rooted in a phenomenological description of how objects show up for human beings: always as exemplars of discernible patterns.
Ásgardhr is the place of the ideal. Note that the god Tyr is represented among the runes by a stave shape that looks like an upwards-pointing arrow or spear:
Tyr, of course, is the sky god, as well as the god of justice and right. The traditional (i.e., pre-modern) conception of justice and right is conformity to pattern or ideal type. One finds this, for example, in the traditional Indo-European view of social justice, which amounted mainly to the performance of caste duty (i.e., conformity to one’s allotted role or type). In the person of Tyr, we find the ideal linked to the heavens – as it is perennially and universally, not just in the Germanic tradition. And what is also perennial is the association of light and the ideal. Think of Plato’s analogy between the Form of the Good and the sun. In the runic stave shape that symbolizes Tyr we find ourselves being directed to “look up,” up to the heavens, and to the light of the ideal.
To “look down,” however, is to look unto the dark, solid, compact earth: realm of matter, diametrical opposite of the divine light world of the ideal. And Hel represents the nethermost “down” of all. It is the realm of pure materiality; dark matter uninformed by the ideal. Our primary activity – the thing that makes us human – involves a constant struggle between matter and form. We struggle to wrest the form from the matter, to bring the truth about things out of dark concealment and into the light in order to learn what things are. We also struggle to change the material world to bring it into accord with the ideal. And we struggle to bring ourselves, the “crooked timber of humanity,” into accord with the ideal as well.
We can now see why in addition to being the realms of light and darkness (or revealing and concealing) Ásgardhr and Hel are also the realms of life and death. Life, as Aristotle taught us, is a continual, dynamic striving of matter after form. Every living thing is a composite of matter and form, but what its living consists in is a process of realizing its form: striving to act and function as the type of thing it is. Thus, to take an example, through all their characteristic activities cats and dogs are constantly “striving” to embody their form or nature. The form-matter relation in living things is a dynamic process; living things must “do something” (something self-generated) in order to be what they are. In the case of non-living things like desks, on the other hand, the relation of matter and form is static. The desk does not generate action to maintain itself as a desk.
Hel, as the realm of absolute matter, is also the realm of death – of complete separation from form. It is pure stillness, as still as a corpse. Ásgardhr, on the other hand, as the realm of pure form, is the realm of pure life – of pure realization of the ideal. A realization of the ideal that is so pure, in fact, that matter has dropped away. We tend to think of God or the gods as something above life. In fact, the gods are the ideal of life itself; the paradigm and perfection of life.
(b) Alfheimr and Svartálfheimr
The word “elf” derives from a Proto-Germanic term meaning “shining-white one.” Here again we see that the upper portion of the Irminsul is associated with light. Alfheimr (or Ljóssálfheimr – again, “home of the light elves”) lies midway between our world Midgardhr, and the abode of the gods. Ásgardhr, as we have seen, is the place of the ideal, of total presence, total revelation, total truth. These are objects of consciousness – or ideals consciousness aims for. The elves represent the consciousness that strives to possess all of this. Whereas in Ásgardhr and Hel we saw the opposition between form and matter, in Alfheimr and Svartálfheimr we find the opposition between “spirit” and mere material “mechanism.”
The Elves are creatures of the upper, light realm. They are not gods, but neither are they bound to the earth as we are. Of course, my discussion in “The Fourfold” emphasized how we have the ability to “separate ourselves” in thought (and only in thought) from the earth, and from the earthly within us; from time and from space:
Within me there is, first of all, the “biological” or “natural” ground . . . the bedrock of unchosen and fixed identity. But then there is that other part of me that emerges at a certain point from this bedrock and soars above it. This is the part that seeks to understand – to bring what is concealed into the light. This part that seeks to understand goes by many names, but one of them is spirit. And since it is our spirit that strives to bring things out of the earth, out of concealment, and into the light of the sky, we identify our spirit with the sky as well. The spirit too is “up there,” kin to the idea and the ideal. It too rises above earth, which – unlike awakened spirit – slumbers in darkness.
What the elves represent is this very spirit – which, like the ideal, we also intuitively locate “up there.” The elves are the embodiment of mind (ON hugr). That the elves are separate and distinct from us reflects the perennial tendency to think of mind or intellect as indeed something separate or separable from the body. Why do we have this tendency? Because the mind has the ability to commune with the abstract and ideal which, again, we intuitively believe to be distinct (in fact) from the concrete and real. (In the Germanic tradition, some parts of the soul are not all neatly locatable inside our skin.) The elves embody the white, pristine, light-filled and light-bestowing quality of the human intellect. This is the best within us – yet it is without us as well: an ideal we strive to realize; an ideal that seeks to reveal the ideal.
The elves are the “light elves,” whereas the dwarfs are svartálfar, “dark elves.” The dwarfs live beneath the earth’s surface, far from the light. This contrast between “light” and “dark” elves supports my earlier claim that the two poles of the Irminsul are to be understood as “light” and “dark.” The etymology of “dwarf” is uncertain, but one theory is that it derives from the Indo-European root *dhreugh, meaning “to deceive,” from which are derived German Traum, “dream,” and Trug, “deception.” This adds some weight to my interpretation of the “dark” end of the Irminsul as the realm of concealing, absence, mystery, untruth (all that, in other words, is the opposite of revealing and truth).
The dwarfs represent mysterious, hidden processes of formation within the earth, within the things of the earth, and within us. As we have seen, the lower end of the Irminsul is the realm of the “purely material,” whereas the upper end is the realm of form, pattern, and ideal. However, there is no such thing as matter devoid of any organization whatsoever. There is no such thing, in other words, as a “prime matter” that has no identity and no organization. The dwarfs represent undirected, indeliberate, mechanistic processes of formation within the earth and all material bodies.
Essentially, two types of “formation” exist, one located conceptually on the upper portion of the Irminsul, the other on the lower. Formation on the upper end of the Irminsul takes place “in the light”: in the light of ideas. This is formation undertaken by human beings possessing conscious spirits able to perceive patterns in nature, and to conceive of new patterns. And once we have devised new patterns or plans, we proceed to re-arrange (in one fashion or other) the material world at our feet according to those patterns or plans. This is one of the fundamental things that makes us human, which I have elsewhere termed will:
[Will] is our capacity to alter or change what is to bring it into accord with a conception of what ought to be. Will depends upon our capacity to register the Being of things [Ekstasis: see “The Fourfold”] 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 ought 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.
On the lower portion of the Irminsul, in the realm of the dwarfs, formation is fundamentally unconscious, automatic, indeliberate. Though Snorri says the gods endowed the dwarfs with “human understanding” they appear to be creatures of labor and routine, with little individuality. But they are clever craftsmen, particularly in their ability to fashion things from metal (i.e., from materials found deep within the earth). The dwarfs represent processes interior to the earth and to material things, that take place without conscious direction. Where processes such as solidification, crystallization, metamorphism, and chemical change occur, the dwarfs are at work. These all take place within earth’s “dark interior.”
But there is, in effect, an “earth aspect” within all things. And we are no exception to this. Far “beneath” my conscious mind and will, with its ideas and intentions, is the part of myself I call “the biological.” This encompasses, as I put it in “The Fourfold,” “the terrifying facticity of our genetic makeup, our inexplicable drives and urges, the irresistible call of the nature within us.” My biological nature, the substrate to my conscious mind, is the “earth” within me. And there is an “earth” within all things, mysterious and hidden. (The primary activity of science is to bring the things of this earth up from hiddenness and into the light, and then to place these unconscious processes under the direction of conscious will.)
Svartálfheim is thus both a “place” and an aspect of all terrestrial things. It also represents the subconscious mind, the deep, dark interior of my selfhood, in which my own personal dwarfs toil: forging connections between ideas, establishing “complexes” and patterns of behavior, burying some experiences deep (i.e., repressing), digging others up (i.e., recollecting), and sending me signals in the form of slips of the tongue, dreams, or what have you. (Sometimes, we are told, the dwarfs are “wise.”)
We have seen that Ásgardhr and Hel represent one type of fundamental polarity: truth and untruth (or, revealing and concealing), and form and matter (which are just a specification of revealing and concealing). Alfheimr and Svartálfheimr represent a polarity of a different kind: conscious spirit, which is one kind of causal agent in this world, and unconscious process (which is another). All these worlds lie along the Irminsul (with Midgardhr in the center). What we can say about them in general is that those on the upper end of the Irminsul represent mind and its objects and all that relates to them: truth, the ideal, intelligible form, and conscious will. Those on the lower end are the diametrical opposite of these: hiddenness or concealing, matter, and unconscious process.
This is one of the fundamental oppositions that makes our world. And recall from “The Fourfold” that “the world” means what is when taken in relation to ourselves. For us, the world divides into the true and the untrue; the present and the absent; intelligible form or pattern, and material; conscious will and unconscious mechanism. All of this is true of Midgardhr, which lies at the center of the vertical axis.
(c) Muspellsheimr and Niflheimr
There is a qualitative difference between the worlds that lie along the vertical Irminsul axis, and those that exist on the horizontal plane. The oppositions along the vertical plane are all framed from the standpoint of self-conscious humanity seeing itself, and its conscious possessions, in opposition to the unconscious, the hidden, the ungraspable. On the other hand, the oppositions on the horizontal plane represent the most fundamental polarities in all of nature, considered as independent of human consciousness. (Though, of course, the understanding of these polarities is still an accomplishment of human consciousness.)
The contrast between Muspellsheimr and Niflheimr is most often depicted as fire and ice. But the polarity in question is actually more complex than this. Recall that Snorri tells us that the rivers in Niflheimr are filled with eitrkvika, “yeasty venom,” apparently because the rivers are filled with serpents. And Snorri tells us that all cold and “harsh” things have their origin in Niflheimr. This is a strange picture, made stranger by the fact that we know that the fiery world of Muspellsheimr is supposed to be its opposite. But how is fire the “opposite” of a cold world of rivers filled with venom-oozing snakes?
Things begin to fall into place when we keep in mind that snake venom is a coagulant: it closes, congeals, and contracts just as cold does. What Muspellsheimr and Niflheimr represent is the old alchemical opposition of solve and coagula. Muspellsheimr represents what dissolves, breaks down, loosens, opens, or consumes. Niflheimr represents the opposite: whatever binds or draws together, makes whole, closes, and fixes. This opposition is found throughout all of nature in myriad forms (even in the systole and diastole of the heart). Everything that happens – in nature and human events – can indeed be understand as a result of opposing forces that work to break up or dissolve, and to unify and fix.
This is a traditional idea. Empedocles termed this opposition Love and Strife. Another pre-Socratic philosopher, Heraclitus, tells us that “strife [war, polemos] is father of all and king of all.” Strife destroys – and makes possible the new. (Though this position is most famously stated by Heraclitus, it is obviously a very pagan, Germanic position – and it would be reiterated many centuries into the Christian era by G.W.F. Hegel.) Out of every dissolution comes a new unity, and out of every unity comes dissolution.
And the world itself is a harmony or unity of oppositions. Every human relationship, even a love relationship, is a harmony in strife; a harmony of opposing elements. Indeed, each individual thing, understood metaphysically, is such a harmony. Solve and coagula are each destructive unless balanced by their opposite. Solve on its own simply consumes and/or disperses. Coagula on its own means uniformity, stagnation, the cessation of motion and change (i.e., things “freeze”). All natural objects and phenomena, and all human relationships and social structures, can be analyzed in terms of the interplay or harmonization of these two fundamental principles.
The worlds of Muspellshemr and Niflheimr have a special kind of primacy in the Germanic cosmology: they pre-exist the gods, the other worlds, and indeed all else; they are both there “in the beginning.” In fact, in the beginning all that exists are Muspellsheimr, Niflheimr, and Ginnungagap, the “magically-charged void” in which all else comes into being. I take the temporal primacy of Muspellshemr and Niflheimr as a mythic way of conveying the constitutive primacy of the principles or sources represented by these two worlds: solve and coagula.
(d) Vanaheimr and Jötunheimr
Neither solve (Muspellsheimr) nor coagula (Niflheimr) is “good” or “bad,” “positive” or “negative.” As I have said, each on its own (when not balanced by its opposite) has the capacity to be purely destructive, but each is an essential aspect of existence. The situation with respect to Vanaheimr and Jötunheimr is rather different. While the opposition of Muspellsheimr and Niflheimr has to do with fundamental principles or forces that both cause change and are constitutive of the very being of things, the opposition of Vanaheimr and Jötunheimr has to do with fundamentally different types of change.
Recall that Vanaheimr is the realm of the Vanir. The Vanir are the deities of the sheltering earth, chthonic gods (see my discussion of the earth in “The Fourfold”). Like the dwarfs in Svartálfheimr, they are associated with “happenings” in the world that are not effected or controlled by human will. The Vanir govern all natural patterns of change and motion. This includes the changes of season, the motions of the planets, the cycles of life, the cycles of fertility, the cycles of the ecosystem, patterns of growth and maturation, patterns of species interdependence, the dance of life that takes place between the sexes, and much more.
Obviously, none of these phenomena is the result of conscious human action or intervention. And yet there is something about them that has led countless peoples to view them nevertheless as the products of some kind of consciousness or intelligence. This is because they exhibit order and regularity. However, we must acknowledge that not all change in this world exhibits these qualities. Sometimes the normal cycles of seasonal change seem thrown off kilter (as when winter is unseasonably warm and buds begin to blossom prematurely, or spring unseasonably cold and the budding blossoms die). Sometimes the cycles of life are thrown off by disease (as when a child fails to grow properly). Sometimes living things are born with deformities like extra digits, missing organs, or misshapen extremities. Sometimes the delicate balance between species is thrown off (as when one wipes out another, and throws the ecosystem into disarray). These are all examples of change, but of a qualitatively different sort. Jötunheimr represents this sort of change.
Recall that Jötunheimr is the realm of the Etins, or giants. The best way to understand the “quality” of the giants and the sort of change Jötunheimr represents is to recall the details of the Germanic cosmogony. I noted earlier in this essay that in the time of Ymir, the proto-giant – prior to the arrival of the three brothers Ódhinn, Vili, and Vé – change occurs but in a kind of chaotic fashion. Order, regularity, and “design” are absent. Creatures are produced out of ice blocks, or out of armpits, or from the mating of legs, etc. This is the “Titanic” period in the Germanic creation story. All of this changes when Ódhinn and his brothers come on the scene, slay Ymir, and create the universe anew – an orderly universe built according to their own, conscious design.
Nevertheless, “Titanic,” “chaotic” change persists, as a negative counterpoint to the orderly, regular change inaugurated by the Aesir (and invested in – or entrusted to – the Vanir). This sort of change is the enemy of order and the enemy of man (really, of all of life). It is the source of calamities and deformities of all kinds. And yet it is inescapable, and ever ready to derail orderly nature. In our own lives and in the world around us (i.e., in the nature in us and the nature out there) we find the interplay between these two types of change.
I should also add that the “negative” or “irrational” change represented by the Etins and Jötunheimr is not just the source of calamities and sports of nature. The influence of the Etins is at work wherever we find nature failing, to one degree or another, to realize form (on the nature of form, see my discussion of Ásgardhr above). For example, when a boy matures and finds, to his and his parents’ disappointment, that his ears are becoming disproportionately large (not deformed, just too big to be aesthetically pleasing) this “force” is at work. When such things occur, it is irresistible for us to believe that it is as if something is working against the “right” form or order.
Vanaheimr and Jötunheimr thus represent opposing types of change. Their conflict is a perpetual source of misery for human beings. If this conflict didn’t exist, every spring and summer would be perfect, every child would be born perfectly formed, every face would be flawlessly proportioned, there would be no mutations or congenital abnormalities, everyone would effortlessly achieve perfect equanimity and even temper, there would be no disease, and everyone would die of extreme old age (while looking fabulous right up until the very end). In short, life would be hideously boring. Worse still, there would be no opportunity for individuals to develop very Germanic virtues like courage, nobility, and loyalty. For we cultivate these virtues only when we are tested: i.e., in response to hardship, misfortune, and out of a desire to compensate for deficits of various kinds.
 On the vertical and horizontal planes, and the vertical as the Irminsul see Runelore, pp. 154–55.
 My interpretation of the Germanic cosmology builds upon Thorsson’s commentaries in Runelore and elsewhere, but I do not follow him in every respect.
 Calvert Watkins, The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000), p. 38.
 In The Blank Slate, psychologist Steven Pinker gives us some reason to think that the “Aristotelian” way of perceiving things may be “hardwired” in us. See Pinker, The Blank Slate (New York: Penguin Books, 2002), pp. 220–21.
 Thorsson, Runelore, p. 188.
 Tolkien’s treatment of the elves in The Lord of the Rings clearly reflects the same idea.
 See, for example, Aristotle’s discussion in De Anima of why nous or intellect is distinct from the body.
 Simek, pp. 68–69. Watkins, p. 20.
 See my essay “The Gifts of Ódhinn and his Brothers.” “Will” has both negative and positive aspects. For the negative aspects, see my essay “Knowing the Gods.”
 See Thorsson, Runelore, p. 155: “The vertical column or axis defines the psychocosmic bisection between the conscious and unconscious, between light and dark, just as the horizontal plane defines the bisection between the expansive, electric energies of fire and the constrictive, magnetic energies of ice.”
 In Runelore, Thorsson identifies the “fire” and “ice” of Muspellsheimr and Niflheimr with “total expansion” and “total contraction” (see Runelore, pp. 150, 156). Thorsson also explores the alchemical aspects of the Germanic cosmology and cosmogony in an essay, “The Alchemy of Yggdrasil,” collected in Blue Runa (Smithville, Texas: Runa-Raven Press, 2001).