WARP SPASM!

WARP SPASM!

I think I have figured out my problem with writing the journal entries, especially for the Celtic portion of the class. I am so accustom to writing in this very formal, dry tone for my clergy classes, and I am really wanting to just let loose and blather on here. So, I’ma gonna blather, mmm kay?

I am still feeling a love/hate thing with The Tain. When it is good, it is brilliant. This is one of the most amazingly quotable books ever written. Seriously, these are better comebacks than you will find at a Dean Martin roast. There is this deadpan humor that absolutely floors me. The things people say when they are dying are bizarre, I can’t even tell if they are supposed to be humorous or not. When he kills Ferdia, Ferdia actually says, “That is enough now. I’ll die of that”. I wasn’t sure if I should laugh or not. On the one hand, the scene is very serious and poignant, as Cuchulainn is killing his foster brother by Scathach. On the other hand, what a weird and wonderful thing to to say. The death of Etarcomol is gruesome, but so extreme and outrageous it’s hard to see it as less than extremely gory slapstick. It’s like a Monty Python skit. The sheer volume of effortlessly brutal slayings in this book is absurd, even by mythological standards. I find the non-stop onslaught of hyperbolic narrative of Cuchulainn’s deeds extraordinary. In almost every hero myth I have ever encountered we are reminded how exceptional and superhuman the hero is, but Cuchulainn edges into the realm of the Tall Tale. He doesn’t just kill men, he obliterates them. In the words of my husband, “I’ma gonna kill ya, swim across the River Styx, and kill ya again! All without mah water wings!” (My husband does the best redneck battle taunts you have ever heard. Of course, he also once chased a friend’s abusive boyfriend through the soft North Carolina night while brandishing a trident, so yeah, he is no stranger to the warp spasm. I have no idea where he got a trident, however, if nothing else it. worked as a psychological deterrent and the guy stopped hurting his girlfriend). He is the ultimate in swagger, capable of “feats” and stunts that aren’t even superhuman, they defy all laws of natural reason.

I wanted to add that I was a bit befuddled at his encounter with The Morrigan. I am wondering if there will be more on that later, but it was a bit of a head scratcher for me. What does she want? Why? The only way we know it is specifically her is the fact that the title of the chapter mentions her. I know from outside reading that she is associated with cattle as well as war, but I guess I am stuck in the Norse paradigm of fate being something already determined, so her attempts to change the course of battle are hard for me to understand. I do find the overlap between her and the valkyries fascinating. She is a chooser of the slain in her own right, and associated with crows and ravens. I also find it telling that the Celts, who were a pastoral culture prone to cattle raids, would combine their Cattle Goddess (usually the Cow Goddess is a nurturing, life affirming figure) with their War Goddess. She’s like a mythical Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, two great tastes that taste great together. I must learn more about this…

I feel like I really need a stronger background in this subject matter to fully appreciate it. I should have spent this past week studying this, but I was wrapped up in working on my research paper, practicing the ukulele, catching up on housework, and getting ready for Yule. Now I just feel like a chump, since we are almost done with the book and I don’t have nearly the depth of understanding I would like to have. Of course, it’s taken years to have the modest level of understanding I have of Norse mythology, so I am probably expecting way too much of myself. It’s more than just knowing the stories, it’s knowing what the stories are about, what they most likely meant to the people who told them. I just don’t have the broad spectrum of knowledge behind it to feel confident in how I am interpreting the story.

Meh

Meh

So, I am trying to wade through this book. I have to be honest, so far this story is less than scintillating for me. There is a great deal of detail to the stories, and sometimes that makes for magnificant yarn spinning, other times it’s like painting a small room hot pink. The tale gets weighed down with the utter hyperbole and over-abundance of names and places. I think this story stars every single living human in Ireland at the time it was written. I am desperately trying to see it as more than just a really flowerey story about cattle rustling, but I have fallen asleep twice now while reading it. The thing that makes this really lame is that not all of it is bad, the parts that are good are BRILLIANT. I am trying to flesh out my knowledge of the mythoilogy outside of the Tain, but it’s a lot to read in a short amount of time.

As far as why the story is the way it is, I think I am starting to get it. I think I have found one image to completely sum up ancient Celtic culture.

Yep. That pretty much says it all.

The Táin Bó Cúailnge is about a cattle raid. Medb decides she wants Dáire’s splendiferous bull so her wealth will be equal to her husband Ailill. Of course she does, this is a perfectly reasonable justification for war. These folks declare war at the drop of a hat. I think it’s kind of interesting that they seem to hide behind the geis and other restrictions to limit the number of casualties they have and avoid battle altogether.

The Pangs of the Ulstermen is a perfect example of this. Time to march off to battle? UGH! LABOR PAINS! No war for you today my friend (or the next 5 days and 4 nights).This isn’t cowardice (I dare you to day that to their faces), it’s casualty abatement. And seriously, how many times are they going to use this gimmick? I envision their enemies rolling their eyes and checking their watches. Another way of avoiding battle? “Oops! We can’t just go charging in, the guy we want to fight has left this hobbling device here with a message! We wouldn’t want to make him mad, now, would we?”. Why waste the lives of dozens of warriors when you can just send Cú Chulainn in to do single combat with one guy? Contrary to popular belief, life was not any cheaper then than it is today, just more fleeting if you weren’t careful. A king needed his soldiers. If you can resolve a conflict with a minimum of death and without losing face, that was a win-win situation for everyone involved.

I know I am supposed to write more, but I spent all day trying to catch up and my brain is completely fried. To the point where I am adding pictures of Bugs Bunny to my mythology homework assignments. I think I am going to do better with the class discussion with this one.

(I actually started writing this before I read your email with the pages about rituals of conflict reduction. I don’t know if these subjects are related, but it would be funny if they were!)

I will leave you with a lousy haiku:

Rolling hills of green

Cú Chulainn is a bad ass

What’s with the place names?

Derdriu

Derdriu

So, here we are again with yet another tale of unavoidable prophecy leading to death and destruction. Once again it revolves around a woman. I am really starting to wish there was a categorization scheme for mythology similar to the Aarne-Thompson classification system for folklore. Oooh! Maybe I should start one? I mean I’m no expert, but I think I could work something out. Unless there is one out there already I don’t know about.

But I digress.

Derdriu, daughter of Fedlimid mac Daill, is born under a rather bleak prophecy that she will spread misery and pain, causing kings to go to war and the exile of the greatest warriors in Ulster. Of course, the not-completely-brain-dead people in the room at the time say, “OY! (because they are Celts, you see) Let’s just kill the baby and be done with it!”. But Conchobar decides to think with his “side arm” and is seduced by her beauty. Let’s be clear: the man is willing to bet the lives of his subjects, the future of his kingdom, the exile of Ulster’s finest, EVERYTHING, on the possible beauty of a possible girl child, that he maybe might get to nail in the future. I don’t recall the text being very specific about at what age he decides Derdriu is “ready”, but let’s just say for the sake of argument, that is a lot to risk for a potential shag 16 years in the future.

Derdriu is born, and Conchobor the Horny locks her up, presumable in a tall tower, as kings usually do with fair maidens. Derdriu, shockingly, is not interested in the lecherous old creep that is holding her captive, and instead decides she wants a guy who resembles a slaughtered calf. What do you expect? The girl has been locked in a tower her whole life, she probably doesn’t know that a man shouldn’t look like the inside of an animal carcass. She is clued in that her dream carcass is named Noisiu. She lies in wait for him, and in the first instance of what I hope will be many in this section of this class, tells him it’s time for a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T, so he’d best get to work. Noisiu, like just about any man would, eventually complies. She runs off with him, stuff happens, the prophecy comes true, Noisiu is killed. Conchobar retakes Derdriu, who is now completely defeated. For a year, he keeps her like a miserable house pet (or worse). When he is finally fed up with her resistance (seriously, what did he expect?) he asks her who she hates the most. She says Eogan, the man who killed her beloved Noisiu. As a punishment, Conchobar takes her to live with Eogan for a year. On the way, he mocks her, basically pointing out her role as little more than a book to be loaned to a neighbor, not to mention the implication she is a sex toy (he calls her an ewe between two rams). In his opinion, she is completely powerless. Rather than be defeated. Derdriu takes the only option left to her, and dashes her head against a rock and dies. Fuck you very much, Conchobar. I found her story completely frustrating and rage inducing. My moral outrage at this poor woman being enslaved and treated like a trinket was nauseating. I think perhaps part of the reason it was so upsetting was because Celtic woman did have more power than other woman of the time. She knew what she was missing, she knew that this situation wasn’t just a woman’s lot in life, this was HER lot in life, she had been singled out for this living hell. Maybe it just hit a bit close to home for me on a personal level, or maybe it was the fact that when she finally breaks free her happiness is so short lived. I tend to be very annoyed at the way women are portrayed in the media, either as the shrewish, castrating wife, the perpetual victim, the “boobs”, the useless sidekick, and all of them only if she is appropriately “hot”. I think part of my problem with this story was how she was being cast in the role of The Vagina Men Will Die For (my husband and I call it the “golden vagina”, because she is usually a character who is completely uninteresting but every man wants her and is willing to die for her) and as The Perpetual Victim, but her actions show that she isn’t any of those things. She is trying to take control of her life, and in the end, all she can do is take control of her death.

Brynhild and Gudrun: The Mirror Has Two Faces

Brynhild and Gudrun: The Mirror Has Two Faces

Brynhild and Gudrun are two women who are, for all intents and purposes, diametric polarities on the scale of Norse women. Brynhild represents a strong, feminine warrior, a valkyrie, a woman of conviction. Gudrun’s character leans toward a more passive role, a woman who is a perpetual bride and the passive victim of the circumstances that surround her. In spite of these pronounced differences, both their stories end with the same basic outcome: death and sorrow.

Brynhild’s story begins when we are introduced to her on a fiery mountain top. She reveals to Sigurd that she is either a valkyrie or a shield maiden (depending on which version you accept), and that she is there as a punishment from Odin. The Sigrdrifumol in the Poetic Eddas says:

“Odin pricked her with the sleep-thorn in punishment for this, and said that she should never thereafter win victory in battle, but that she should be wedded. “And I said to him that I had made a vow in my turn, that I would never marry a man who knew the meaning of fear.”

Immediately we know that this is not a woman to be trifled with. She is a warrior, she is a chooser of the slain, and she is self-possessed enough to go against a god. She is also a woman who lives by her convictions. Odin imposes a condition on her future, that she will be forced to lay down her sword and get married. Brynhild counters with a near impossible condition of her own, that he will be a man who knows no fear. Even in the face of divine castigation, she is defiant and insists on calling the shots. It is only through subterfuge and trickery that she is forced into breaking her vow. When the deception is revealed to her by Gudrun, she takes action, and has Sigurd killed. In the end, Brynhild chooses to take her own life, making the final decision about her destiny herself. She is even burned on the funeral pyre of another woman’s husband at her request. It takes a great deal of chutzpa to have a man killed and then ask to have your body burned along with his in front of his widow.

Conversely, all of Gudrun’s actions and decisions are made for her by others. When we first meet Gudrun in the Volsungasaga, she is introduced thusly:

There was a king hight Giuki, who ruled a realm south of the Rhine; three sons he had, thus named: Gunnar, Hogni, and Guttorm, and Gudrun was the name of his daughter, the fairest of maidens; and all these children were far before all other king’s children in all prowess, and in goodliness and growth withal; ever were his sons at the wars and wrought many a deed of fame.

She is defined as someone’s daughter, an object of beauty. She is there to be strategically married. Gudrun desires Sigurd, but he only has eyes for Brynhild. It is Grimhild who takes action by poisoning Sigurd and making him forget his love for Brynhild. Then it is Gudrun’s brother Gunnar’s desire for Brynhild that takes Brynhild out of the equation once and for all for Sigurd. Gudrun gets to marry Sigurd not because of any action she has taken or decisions she has made, but by default. When she reveals Gunnar and Sigurd’s deception to Brynhild, it is in response to Brynhild’s boasting and snubbing at the river while washing their hair. Again, she does not act, she reacts. Her character is summarized completely by her response to her husband’s death, which is literally to do nothing. She becomes dormant, inactive, almost catatonic. Gudrun is incapable of independent, unfacilitated action throughout the story.

Both Gudrun and Brynhild share a common thread in the tapestry of fate. They both, at different times, are wed or betrothed to Sigurd, both dream of their shared destiny before it happens, and both end up widowed (Brynhild posthumously). There the similarities end. These women are opposite sides of the same coin of how Norse life was for a woman. While there were opportunities for a woman to fight alongside men, to stand up for herself, and to have an independent personality, far too often they were used as bullet points on a trade agreement, a peace offering, or currency. Brynhild demonstrates the perils of life as an independent woman. She is punished repeatedly for pursuing things that she desires. She is forced to give up the only thing she ever wanted, being a shield maiden, and her anger over this is palpable. Gudrun, on the other hand, demonstrates how a life without self-advocacy leaves an individual at the mercy of the maelstrom of world around her. Both women end up victims of their own actions (or inactions), and in the end neither way seems to be the right way in this story.

The Nature of Níðhöggr

The Nature of Níðhöggr

Serpents are everywhere in Norse mythology. Jörmungandr, Fafnir, and the myriad of snakes at the base of Yggdrasil to name a few. Níðhöggr is one of the most intriguing serpents, as his symbolic presence can be interpreted in very flexible ways. The potential for outside influence (particularly Christianity) in the interpretation of its story is large, but the figure of the malevolent death wyrm has a widespread appeal in global mythology, and some natural cross-over is possible. The vicious and destructive nature of Níðhöggr is the only thing we are certain about.

Níðhöggr, whose name variably translates as “Malice Striker” or “Curse Striker”, lives entwined in the roots of Yggdrasil. It spends its days chewing on the roots, causing the tree great suffering and agony. Are the roots of Yggdrasil Níðhöggr’s prison and it is trying to chew its way out? Is it deliberately trying to torment the World Tree? Its intentions are clearly malicious, as its name states its foul nature. The fact that once it is free of the roots of Yggdrasil it will fly to the aid of the giant armies during Ragnarök proves that this thing is a rancorous honey badger of doom. According to Snorri’s Edda (Gylfaginning), Níðhöggr trades insults and spreads discord with the eagle at the top of Yggdrasil via the squirrel Ratatöskr. It is clearly not a benevolent creature, as its daily “to do” list is filled with “make the world a more miserable place”.

Níðhöggr is also represented as almost being an “Eater of the Sinful Dead”. Its chthonic origins and propensity to gnaw or chew on the very roots of the tree that gives the universe life invokes the image of a dark and cruel creature with vile motives. In the Völuspá of the Poetic Edda, it is described:

A hall I saw, far from the sun,
On Náströnd it stands, and the doors face north,
Venom drops through the smoke-vent down,
For around the walls do serpents wind.

I saw there wading through rivers wild
Treacherous men and murderers too,
And workers of ill with the wives of men;
There Níðhöggr sucked the blood of the slain,
And the wolf tore men; would you know yet more?

Náströnd is the “Shore of Corpses” where oathbreakers and murders go after they die. The implication is that part of Níðhöggr’s role is to torment the “sinful” dead, but it is possible this is a reinterpretation of the myth through a Christianized filter. The role of the snake or serpent of Genesis in Christian mythology is to sit in a tree in Eden and sow discontent and sorrow for the world. This serpent is associated with Satan. Satan is also the considered to be the ruler of Hell, where Christian sinners are tormented eternally. However, contrary to popular belief, this is a contemporary literary view, not a biblical one, and it was probably not particularly popular during the time the Eddas were being written down. This does lead one to wonder if the influence went the other direction, with the Norse mythology flavoring the Christian viewpoint through oral tradition.

That Níðhöggr is a dragon raises questions about the physical origins of the myth. It has long been theorized that tales of dragons had their origins in the discovery of dinosaur fossils in ancient times. There are many modern dig sites in Northern Europe to attest to an abundance of fossils to choose from as a possible proto-Níðhöggr (including the charmingly named Grendelius, an ichthyosaur found in Great Britain). The discovery of a large, toothy, lethal looking skull that resembles no other known living creature buried deep in the ground is bound to start people talking.

Ultimately, many of the creatures that call Yggdrasil home have meaning that is lost to us in the modern age. They no longer represent to us what they represented to our ancestors, the stories behind their births are shrouded in time. They have become the victims of conflation, confusion, revision, and filtration, and Níðhöggr is no exception. Instead, the best we can offer is an attempt to understand the world of the ancient Norse and try to project the implications of a figure like Níðhöggr for a man or woman living in that age.

Loki vs. the Kinsey Scale

Loki vs. the Kinsey Scale

In recent comic book news, it was announced that the character of Loki in the Thor comics is going to be portrayed as being both bisexual and being able to switch genders. This has become a polarizing subject for people on both sides of the fence. Some people are pleased to see more LGBTQ characters being introduced into the world of comics, some are offended. Some LGBTQ people are irritated that Loki is a villain in the books and consider this to be negative stereotyping, others applaud the historical accuracy of the character’s portrayal. It’s interesting to see Loki’s sexual activity still has the same ability to churn up chaos and discord even in the 21st century. Loki’s sexuality and fluid gender identity generates change within the universe on an epic scale, creating mythical beasts and monsters, while altering the course of mythic events.
The first of Loki’s unions of note is his relationship with female jötnar Angrboða (Snorri’s Edda, Gylfaginning XXXIV).  Although the nature of his relations with the Angrboða  is never made entirely clear, we do know that they had procreated on more than one occasion, producing the monsters Fenrir, Jörmungandr, and Hel. Whereas most fertility gods/goddesses will have offspring that are natural phenomena or gifts from the gods, Loki’s offspring are literal agents of chaos and death. Loki is capable of sowing the actual seed of discontent. Fenrir is an instrument of Ragnarök, destined to kill Odin and be destroyed by Odin’s son Víðarr. He is a harbinger of the death of the gods. Jörmungandr, the Midgard Serpent, is a fearsome beast, destined to poison the sky and slay (and be slain by) Thor during the last battle. Hel is the embodiment of death with out great honor. Those not worthy of the pleasures of Valhalla go to Hel. All three of these offspring are death incarnate. Because Loki represents a reversal of expectation, the results of his sexual union are the antithesis of life.Loki’s fluid gender identity comes into play so frequently and at such important moments in the timeline of the gods, that it can’t be seen as anything but his “specialty”. His role as a trickster includes episodes of cross dressing, feminized behavior and appearance, and outright gender-swapping, and this is almost exclusively his domain (Thor’s adventures in drag and Odin’s predilection for seiðr not withstanding). Lokasenna is rife with accusations of his intrinsic feminine nature. Njord says of Loki:

“Small ill does it work, though a woman may have
A lord or a lover or both;
But a wonder it is, that this womanish god
Comes hither, though babes he has borne.”

and more than once Thor states, “Unmanly one, cease, or the mighty hammer, Mjollnir, shall close thy mouth.” (Poetic Edda, Lokasenna 57). Loki changes gender to betray the gods on several occasions; when he fools Frigg into revealing Baldr’s one vulnerability is mistletoe (Snorri’s Edda Gylfaginning) and again when Hel states she will only release Baldr if all the creatures of the earth will weep for him. Loki, presumably in the guise of a giantess, refuses, and Baldr is consigned to Hel’s domain until Ragnarök. Conversely, Loki’s twitchy gender has been used playfully and in service to the gods, as when he assists Thor in regaining Mjollnir (which was probably stolen by Loki in the first place).
Allegedly, Loki promises the moon, the sun, and Freya to an unnamed giant in exchange for fortifications around the realm of the gods, provided he finish the job within three seasons. When it looks like the giant might actually achieve this goal and deprive the gods of Freya (not to mention the sun and the moon), Loki is basically told, “Fix it. We don’t care how.” Loki then transforms not only his gender but his species, and becomes a saucy mare to seduce the giant’s faithful stallion. After spending a lost weekend in the forest with the stallion, the deal with the giant has been nullified and Loki finds himself in a family way. Eleven months later, out pops Odin’s horse Sleipnr While this story seems to have an innocent (if not slightly deviant) ending, it is interesting to note that Sleipnr is believed by some to be more than just your average magical eight-legged horse. The eight legs of Sleipnr are thought to represent the pallbearers that carry a body to their final resting place (Ellis Davidson, H. R  Gods And Myths Of Northern Europe). Sleipnr is also the steed taken by Hermóðr to Hel to beg for  Baldr’s life. Sleipnr is the steed of the shaman, a conveyance between this world and the world of the dead. Yet again, the issue of Loki’s loins subverts the convention of procreation.
Loki’s sexuality is oddly potent, in fact more is made out of his sexual exploits than any of the gods associated with fertility and fecundity. He is prolific in his progeny, although all his children bear the stigma of death somewhere in their genetic make up. At the same time, he is perceived as being androgynous and even effeminate, and doesn’t seem to shy away from sexual partners regardless of gender or even species. Within Loki is a transgressive representation of the spectrum of human sexuality, with all of its joy, comedy, humiliation, drama, and pain.

Odin is the Fickle Finger of Fate

Odin is the Fickle Finger of Fate

To bring the Norse Mythology portion of this class to an end, let’s talk about Odin and his strangely fickle nature. Odin gives his favor as easily as he takes it away again. I don’t know that many people notice that in the Norse tales, Odin tends to be the only god who actually intercedes in mortal affairs (sometimes it’s Frigg, but she seems to do so with Odin’s involvement). If you want a baby, want to win in battle, whatever, ask Odin. I also love how Odin usually doesn’t show up with great pomp and circumstance. I almost picture a bunch of guys arguing and yelling, when this old dude just sort of saunters in, stabs a sword in a tree, nonchalantly says “pull this out and it’s yours” and then meanders off into the night. The scene where he shows up as Sigurd is preparing to kill Fafnir cracks me up. It’s like that slightly annoying elderly neighbor who shows up anytime you are working on a project in the garage. John Deere hat (with an eight legged deer) over the crew cut he’s had since “dubya dubya two”, plaid shirt, red suspenders, eyepatch, chewing on a toothpick, rocking back on his heels, hands (with one missing finger) shoved in his pockets and squinting up at the sky, “Hullo der! Sooo… whatcha got going on der? I remember back in tha’ day when we’d kill a dragon, we’d dig TWO trenches. But dat’s just me…. I hear da fishin’s good up at da lake dis year…” (My grandparents were old school rural Washingtonians, I couldn’t help casting my grandfather as Odin. As a completely tangential side note, many of my grandparents friends were loggers, farmers, etc and were missing body parts either from the war or hazardous work. When I was a little girl I thought that as you got older parts of you fell off like leaves on a tree.).

Odin’s favor is fleeting. I firmly believe that this is due to his knowledge of future events. He manipulates events like Bobby Fischer with a chess board. He stacks the deck by filling his hall with the best einherjar he can, but not before he has ensured they have done as much to further the plot here on earth. Odin doesn’t take away his favor because you have failed him, he does so because it’s time to do so.

I am still convinced that Brynhild’s continued sorrows are due to her defiance of Odin. She chooses to kill the king that Odin has promised victory to, and he puts her in a state of suspended animation on a mountain top surrounded by flame. This seems like an odd punishment, aside from the fact that inactivity would be hell for a shieldmaiden. In reality, I believe he is punishing her by setting up a lifetime of having break to every oath she has ever made to herself. She broke her oath to Odin, there for all her oaths will be broken. He has taken her free will from her, and forced her to give up the one thing that means anything to her; being a shieldmaiden. Brynhild/Brunhilde has always been my favorite character, and one that I can personally relate to. As someone who was, in a very literal way, raised by my mother to be a “sheildmaiden” (she made sure I knew how to fight, that I was tough, that I was unafraid to compete with men, that I had a sense of honor, etc. She was like the Great Santini in a Maidenform bra), I know how hard it is to lay down your arms. I always joked that I married my husband because he was the first man I ever met who could best me in a fair fight, not to mention he really did ride through the fire for me early in our courtship (the first year we were dating I ended up unemployed, both my grandparents died, and I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. The fact that he didn’t run for the hills still amazes me.). She is a woman who trusted her own judgment over Odin’s and paid by always having her heart’s desire dangled just out of reach. This may seem like a particularly cruel act on Odin’s part, but when you think about it the message is that you don NOT mess with Odin’s plans. Because Odin’s plans are Fate’s plans, and you can not change fate in the world of the Norse. The warp is set, the weft must follow. If Odin were to go easy on someone who meddled with the order, there would be chaos. Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies, rivers and seas boiling, forty years of darkness, earthquakes, volcanoes, the dead rising from the grave, human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria! (I have now quoted Ghostbusters in my English class. Good night, Bellingham!)

People More Interesting Than Sigurd (Just About Everyone)

People More Interesting Than Sigurd (Just About Everyone)

OK, this is where things start getting confused for me. Because the story of Sigurd the Dragonslyer is basically the “ur-myth” for Northern Europeans, I always get it confused with millions of similar stories. Even rereading it now I am confused, and I keep having to refer back to it to remember what happened. I am going to try and stick with the saga version for this, but please be forgiving if I wander a bit.

The interesting thing about Sigurd is how completely uninteresting he is. The heroes of Norse mythology tend to be extremely flat and one-dimensional. They are large, brave, strong, and great warriors… and that’s about it. It’s the ancillary characters that are truly fascinating. Take Fafnir, for example. Fafnir starts out as your average dull Norse warrior, brave, strong, blah blah blah. Then Loki kills his brother, his father takes Odin and Hoenir captive, and Loki has to pay to get them back. Suddenly, Fafnir becomes greedy, kills his father, steals the gold, and becomes a horrific poisonous serpent and J.R.R. Tolkien’s personal poster boy. I’m not really sure why he suddenly goes from honorable warrior to fire-breathing patricidal douche, but he’s at least more interesting as a dragon. Sigurd, on the other hand, seems to drift from life event to life event. “Go kill the dragon, Sigurd.” “Switch bodies with me, Sigurd.” “Drink this magic potion, Sigurd.” Dude is either bone stupid or just really eager to please. We never really get a sense of how he feels about what he is doing, what is driving him. All of his actions are punctuated with “raaaaaahhhhrrr!” and a mighty charge towards the danger, or which ever direction someone has pointed him in.

The women of these stories are far more often the real stars. Brynhild is complex, driven, and tormented. She has stated values and a very specific world view. She has motives for her actions, she interacts with her world, Sigurd only reacts to his. In the Poetic Edda version of his fight with Fafnir, Fafnir warns him repeatedly that the gold will be his undoing and that Regin will betray him. Sigurd’s response is to continue on his single-minded path to ruin. Snicker-snack, the deed is done. In many of these stories, the concept of the concrete tapestry of “urd” (or wyrd, fate or destiny) is demonstrated by the actions of bull-headed heroes who blindly ignore all warnings and forge ahead with their mission. They are pathologically incapable of veering off course. Sadly, this does not lead to very sympathetic or relatable characters for modern readers. Sigurd has no inner conflict, in fact the one place where he could have had inner conflict, his betrothal to Brynhild being obliterated by Grimhild’s memory wipe potion, is taken away from him.

Another important thing to note, Brynhild’s oaths are to herself, she is not beholden to anyone else. The men tend to take oaths to one another. Gunnar and Hogni can’t kill Sigurd because they have sworn oaths to him, but Guttorm can. As restrictive as a woman’s world was in that time, men were bound by equally stringent and confining social rules. Of course, this doesn’t make them any less impulsive. When Brynhild is told of Sigurd and Gunnar’s deception, she outright accuses Sigurd of impropriety. Her husband Gunnar then reacts by devising a plan to kill Sigurd, confirming that it was not Gunnar who rescued her from her bower (he would have know if things had gotten extra friendly on the mountain if it had been). Brynhild has confirmation, but Gunnar just assumes she is being truthful. Just like Sigurd assumes the birds are being truthful when they tell him Regin means to do him harm. Time and time again, the men of Norse myth burst forth with swords drawn at the slightest provocation, whereas the women are more than happy to bide their time before getting their revenge. Just know that the longer that revenge festers, the more painful it will be in the end. Not to mention the more dead children she will leave in her wake. Seriously, I am going to start a dead baby body count for these stories. There is this attitude of “I brought you into this world, and I can take you out again for the simple reason I don’t like your daddy”.

Vengeance is a Bitch

Vengeance is a Bitch

(For some reason, this was especially hard to write about. I have taken a much more informal tone, since it was the only way I could squeeze out my journal entry this week.)

Wow. These Volsung women are absolute pros when it comes to revenge. Let’s start with Sigyn, shall we? Girlfriend is promised to a man she doesn’t want to marry (thanks, dad). Because her dad is an arrogant jerk, he slights the new husband, ignores her warnings, and ends up crow-fodder for his efforts. Meanwhile, Sigyn is sitting back rolling her eyes at the massive “dick-measuring contest” going on around her and putting her plans for revenge into motion. Her vengeance is amazing in it’s heartless indifference to every other person in the story. Bitch is a one woman juggernaut of death and destruction. She begins by throwing her brothers to the wolves- literally. She has them subjected prolonged torment and death, until only Sigmund is left. Then, in a display of extreme Viking bad-assery, dude bites the tongue out of a giant she-wolf’s head and uses her death throes to free himself.

Now comes a display of physical stamina and patience unparallelled in history. Princess Sam Peckinpah decides to start having babies. Once these boys are old enough, she tests their mettle by sewing their sleeves to their wrists and ripping them off again. And I thought my mother was bad. She then sends them to live with their dear Uncle Siggy in the forest. When the boys fail the flour sack test, her reaction is to shrug and say, “Kill the little bastard, I’ll make more”. Eventually, she ends up impregnated by her own brother through an oddly convoluted “Freaky Friday” switch with a sorceress (which is a word we should bring back in to the common vernacular. I think I want to be known as Scarlett the Sorceress. Or maybe “The Scarlett Sorceress”. Yeah, that rolls off the tongue well… but I digress). The end result of this unholy union, Sinfjotli, passes the tests and runs off with Uncle Siggy to be raised in the family tradition of murder, mayhem, and windpipe biting. Meanwhile, Sigyn is back at the ranch, popping out more royal crib lizards (just in case, ya know?) and waiting for Volsungageddon. When Siggy and Son show up to hand out ass-kickings and lollipops, her precious little darlings immediately run and narc them out to her husband. When Sigyn learns of this, her advice to her brother is to squash the little bugs and be done with them. He isn’t up to the task, but their Stockholm Syndrome victim of a son had no problem making toddler kebabs out of them, like any inbred psychopath raised in a hole in the forest would. Things happen, people die, our heroes are bested and then freed by Sigyn the Human Wrecking Ball. The story culminates in Siggy and Son lighting the castle on fire with King Fuckmuppet and his Merry Band of Morons (because, seriously, he never questioned the fact that his first three sons just disappeared? Or that his wife was constantly in the corner twirling her mustache and cackling like a silent movie villain?) inside. Sigyn, having destroyed everything that ever came out of her vagina and most things in the general vicinity of it, decides that a world without anything to kill is no world for her, and jumps into the fire.

This story is a prime example of why I love the way women are portrayed in Norse mythology. Unlike so many women of yore, they aren’t just motivated by petty jealousy or victims of the men around them. These women inherit a crapsack world where they are traded for goods and services like Monopoly money, but instead of whining about it, they sink the whole bloody ship. We get to see them fight for honor and revenge, they are fearless and sacrificing. No wonder women are viewed as duplicitous and untrustworthy. If you kick a dog enough that it bites you it becomes a bad dog. Is Sigyn a hero? Depends on how you look at it. On the one hand, she is forced into a marriage she doesn’t want and her entire family is killed, so spends 30 years of her life plotting her vengeance with a single-mindedness that is awesome in it’s tunnel vision. On the other hand, she is willing to annihilate everyone in her path to get to that goal, including her own offspring. I feel a certain amount of admiration for her dedication and cunning, but damn, bitch, you scary!

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?