Tag Archives: Norse

Ethics and Numbers

Ethics and Numbers

One of the challenges of this class is writing these journal entries. I have spent the last year or two studying mythology, linguistics, and history for a pagan clergy program, and I am required to submit essays and analysis throughout. I apologize if my focus tends to shift to subjects or angles not as pertinent to our goals as you might like, but I am finding it difficult to read this material without analyzing the mythology in the context of my previous studies (of course, I am going to get my backside handed to me during the Celtic mythology portion of the class. I am woefully ignorant in that subject.). I have also tried to keep my own religious views out of it as much as possible, but a few of the topics covered in the Havamal and some of the things we have discussed in class are just far too tempting. This is also sort of “what I do”, analyzing mythology makes me bounce like Tigger, so forgive me for my self-indulgence.

The repeated use of the numbers three and nine in Norse mythology are fascinating to me. Three is a number humans seem obsessed with in general, and nine is three squared, or a perfect set of threes. According to people in the “woo woo” world (pagans, new agers, hippies and the like) this makes nine the perfect representation of three. The use of nine in Norse mythology is very deliberate. Rarely does a specific number occur in Norse mythology that isn’t a nine or a three. The Nine Worlds, Odin’s nine days hanging on the tree, Heimdall’s nine mothers, etc. In most modern Heathen traditions, you are expected to strive for the nine virtues. These vary depending on the specific tradition, but they typically revolve around values like courage, truth, honor, loyalty, discipline, hospitality, self-reliance, industriousness, and perseverance. While the specific values might vary slightly, they are always drawn mostly from the Hávamál. Some of us further break these down into a triad of triads, linking things like courage and honor with discipline; truth and fidelity with hospitality; self-reliance and industriousness with perseverance. This breaks down the basic values of the Havamal into how you relate to your world, how you relate to your kindred, and how yourself. Ostensibly, this is the framework for how the modern Heathen should relate to the gods. I found it interesting that the class interpreted many lines in the Havamal as saying that “ignorance is bliss”. I have always seen those lines as saying that humility of intellect is what is important. No matter how much you know, you know nothing, and that is good. You don’t want to be burdened with the kind of knowledge Odin has. To know the unavoidable future is to despair. Life should always have a spoiler alert attached. That isn’t the same as ignorance being blissful, that is an admission to the failings of your own mortal flesh. It is better to live your life with dignity, courage, and loyalty to yourself, your family, and your kindred. This isn’t a guide to how to get into “heaven” or to spiritual enlightenment, it’s a survival guide to life in Norse society. In a society where people could and would kill each other over slights and discord most of us in the modern world would consider trivial, you had to have a strong code of honor and respect.

One of my favorite parts of the Havamal is the section where Odin describes his trials on the tree. Then again, who doesn’t love a grueling shamanic journey into the abyss in search of arcane knowledge? However, what this actually means is a mystery. Was this suffering for the purpose of revealing the art of divination? Language? Writing? Sacred symbols? Different scholars say different things. Personally, I think that it’s all of the above. Language is “magic”, it weaves our world and set events in motion. Words have power, regardless of whether or not you think that power is mystical in origin. Many of the guidelines laid out in the Havamal revolve around how we use words, how we communicate with others, how we interpret their words. This section is followed by the list of charms, many of which correspond to words that are as powerful and primal today as they were then; help, healing, death, shelter, glory, and love. Humans turn to magic for the same basic needs universally. Are the runes Odin struggled to retrieve the cipher to these universal needs?

Voluspa, Where I Complain a Great Deal

Voluspa, Where I Complain a Great Deal

I have read The Poetic Edda several times, and each time I find something new that I didn’t see before. Usually, I enjoy reading it, but this version is proving to be a bit taxing. I have the Bellows version, which is nice because he breaks down which parts come from the Codex Regius and which come from the Hauksbok. He also explains the kennings and other references that we might not understand clearly in the modern world. It’s not 100% chocked full of awesome, but it is very helpful when trying to wade through some extremely dense and obscure reading. To be completely honest, the Larrington version, although probably more accurate, reads like an Ikea manual. I can appreciate the need for accuracy, that is crucial in understanding the myths, but I really wish there had been some effort put forth into preserving the loveliness of the language and cleverness of word play.

For example, the first verse of the Larrington translation is:

Attention I ask from all sacred people,

greater and lesser, the offspring of Heimdall

Father of the Slain, you wished that I should declare

the ancient histories of men and gods, those which I

remember from the first

That’s nice… for an overhead announcement at an airport. I half expected the next verse to be about how there is no parking in the white zone (Bifrost is for loading and unloading only…)

The same verse from Bellows:

Hearing I ask from the holy races,
From Heimdall’s sons, both high and low;
Thou wilt, Valfather, that well I relate
Old tales I remember of men long ago.

Now we’re cooking with Nordic gas! This version has spirit and passion. I understand not only the intent of the text more clearly, but I am already engaged (you had me at “Heimdall”). I find it hard to believe that the only way Larrington could give us a more accurate text was to strip it of any actual poetry. After researching the translator (because I do that), I was even further baffled to find that one of her areas of study is medieval emotion. When verses like:

In their dwellings at peace they played at tables,
Of gold no lack did the gods then know,–
Till thither came up giant-maids three,
Huge of might, out of Jotunheim.


They played chequers in the meadow, they were merry,

They did not lack for gold at all,

until three giant girls came,

mighty and powerful, out of Giantland.

Chequers? Chequers?? Did she really just tell me that the gods played checkers on the lawn like a bunch of bored retirees? Even if they were playing checkers, at least flower that language up a bit. That isn’t epic poetry, that sounds like a sunny afternoon at a nursing home. I do understand why this text was chosen for our class, it is the current accepted translation, but I do wish that the current accepted translation was more artfully done. Why did she replace words like “jötnar“? Jötunheimr sounds like a place where giants live, Giantland sounds like a theme park.

I suppose my point is this; The Poetic Edda is extremely important as an historical document. It is crucial we get the facts as straight as possible if we are to understand the subject matter. However, just as important to the document is the art of the words. There are layers of meaning that are lost if we strip soul from the piece. While it is entirely possible this “soul” is something that we ourselves have invested in the work after the fact, I honestly don’t feel that this in and of itself invalidates the importance of the end result. Authenticity is important, but the imagery and what the work symbolizes are important as well.



I am realizing these journal entries are going to be difficult to keep on topic, since I have already read a lot of the material, and my ideas are sort of interwoven with things we have not and may not cover in class. Please bear with me, and I apologize in advance.

The concept of Yggdrasill as axis mundi (and similarly Irminsul in Continental Europe) is complex and not easily explained. While the symbolic world tree is a near-global theme, Yggdrasil adds an absurd menagerie and has entire words hanging on it like Christmas ornaments. The translation of the name seems to be “Odin’s Horse”, which in turn is a sort of kenning for “Odin’s Gallows” (as a rider on a horse, so is the hanged man on the gallows). This points to Yggdrasil being the tree that Odin hung from when he sacrificed himself to discover the gift of the runes (Havamal). I have always wondered if this meant he discovered writing or the means of divination. I personally, have always thought that this shamanic experience implied that the revelation of the runes was much more than just the acquisition of an alphabet. The fact that this occurs on the World Tree, the center of the universe is important. Odin says he sacrificed himself to himself, but in doing so he also sacrifices himself to the cosmos. By stripping away the ego and surrendering to the universe, he is able to come back with sacred knowledge.

The reference to the tree as a gallows also gives it an element of death. It is frequently described as being a creature in a perpetual state of decay, on the brink of dying and of having to be sustained by the mud formed by the waters of Fate by the Norns. It is in constant agony, tormented by the myriad of lifeforms that call it home. It is life, and life is suffering. It is death, but it can not die, fate keeps it going. The tendency of Norse myth to incorporate bodily fluids, filth, mud, dirt, and decay into how things are formed makes Yggdrasil a potentially nasty place, yet these are the very building blocks of life in general.

The denizens of Yggdrasil are also of interest to me. Mimir’s well (and by extension, his head), the Norns, the various wells, lakes, and seas are all here, as well as many animals. Ratatosk (or Ratatoskr) is interesting, as he delivers verbal “hate mail” between Nidhogg the serpent that gnaws on the roots of Yggdrasil and the unnamed eagle at the top. I get confused with the stag that chews the leaves of the tree (part of the great agony of Yggdrasil according to Odin in the Grimnismal) and the 4 harts. I have read things that indicate that they might be one and the same, others that say they are different. If they are different, what purpose do the 4 harts serve? Similarly, are Nidhogg, the Midgard Serpent, and the various other snakes related? The significance of the serpents is curious as well, since I wasn’t aware that snakes were a big part or the environment in Northern Europe.

One of my favorite parts of the Yggdrasil myth is the (possibly post-conversion) story of the last 2 humans to survive Ragnarok. They survive by hiding in the world tree, which is a really cool full-circle for the origins of humanity (Askr and Embla pulled from trees by Odin, Vili, and Ve). From where we began, we will begin again. Even if this is a Christian alteration to the story, it is an great addition in my opinion.

On a somewhat personal note, part of my fascination with the idea of Yggdrasil is not only how widespread the World Tree mytheme is, but that it works on so many levels. The World Tree, the Tree of Knowledge, the tree-like shapes of neurons in the human brain, Odin hangs from the tree to gain knowledge: it’s all so very elegant in its synchronicity. Part of my main focus in studying the Norse myths has been analyzing the structures and elements of the Yggdrasil mythos. How does this way of seeing the universe affect the way a person actually experiences the universe? What is the significance of figures like the squirrel, the eagle, and the serpents? Is the tree meant to represent a “macrocosm within a microcosm” universe? My questions are endless, and there is so much more to learn on the subject.