A Quest for Wisdom and Balance
by Douglas “Dag” Rossman
This article first appeared in Scandinavian Press, Vancouver, B.C. (American offices in Blaine, WA),
Reproduced here with permission of the author and Scandinavian Press.
In seeking to develop a personal philosophy that is both emotionally and intellectually satisfying, many of us shallow-rooted European-Americans have been drawn to the world views expressed by Native Americans or peoples of the Far East. Appealing as this approach may be, it is very difficult for most people to become completely attuned to a cultural heritage that is not their own. While one can respect and admire “the Other,” most of us will always remain to some extent an outsider, a visitor in someone else’s culture. The sense of truly belonging that we all crave continues to elude us.
Fortunately for people of Nordic descent, there is an ancient world view that is ours to claim by right of heritage — a philosophy as noble and earth-healing as those of the Far East or Native America. And it is not dead; it has only been forgotten for a time by many of its children. To begin recovering this world view requires that we re-familiarize ourselves with Nordic mythology. The Norse myths are peopled with all sorts of fantastic beings – gods and giants, elves and dwarves and of course dragons! But wemust avoid the mistake of not taking these tales seriously. If we pay close attention to what the stories are saying, we’ll learn a great deal about what our ancestors thought wasreally important in life…and just what they felt it meant to be a human being. By exploring these myths we will come to better understand our ancestors and, hopefully, ourselves.
We must, of necessity, turn to mythology because the pre-Christian religion and religious practices did not long survive the Christianizing of northern Europe. True, some hints also have come down to us through folklore, but considering how the troll has been transformed from a terrifying monster into the cute national mascot of Norway that it is today, one has to wonder about the accuracy of the surviving folklore images. This is not to suggest that the myths came through the Christianizing process unscathed, but those that have survived were written down in the 13th century — a short enough period of timeafter the official conversion of Iceland(where most of them were recorded)thatthere was still an active poetic traditionthat lent continuity to the beliefs of the past.
One of the two Icelandic sources of Nordic myths was the Prose Edda (or Younger Edda) written by Snorri Sturluson as a textbook to instruct budding skalds in the techniques and substance of skaldic poetry, using numerous myths as examples. Snorri was a Christian, but it is evident from his treatment of the mythic material that he retained an affectionate respect for the old stories and their characters.
The Poetic Edda (or Elder Edda) is a collection of 29 poems by various poets that was believed to have been assembled by an anonymous Icelandic compiler.Although not written down until later than the Prose Edda, internal evidence suggests that some of the poems go back at least into the Viking Age. Half of the poemsdeal with the myths of the gods, the other half with the legends of such folk heroes as Sigurd the Dragon Slayer.
There is also a Danish source from the same time period, the Gesta Danorum by Saxo Grammaticus, but Saxo’s presentation of the stories is very different from those portrayed in the Eddas and today is generally not considered to be an accuraterepresentation of the traditional myths.
What do the myths tell us about the ancient Nordic peoples’ perception of their spiritual universe? That universe (or “multiverse,” the term coined by Edred Thorsson in Futhark: A Handbook of Rune Magic) is organized into Nine Worlds interconnected and boundtogether by an immense ash tree called Yggdrasil (the World Tree). The Nine Worldsappear to be situated on three levels: an upper level includes Asgard, Vanaheim, and Alfheim; a middle level comprises Midgard, Jotunheim and Muspellheim; and a lower level includes Svartalfheim, Niflheim and presumably Hel. Some scholars disagreeabout the placement of Muspellheim and question if Hel is a distinct realm or merely a part of Niflheim, but not to recognize Hel as separate raises the question as to what then would be considered the ninth world. The upper and middle levels are connected by Bifrost, the fiery rainbow bridge reaching from Asgard to Midgard.
Different beings inhabit each of the Nine Worlds: in Asgard, there are the gods known as the Aesir; in Vanaheim, the Vanir gods; in Alfheim the “light” elves; in Midgard, the humans: in Jotunheim, the frost and hillgiants; in Muspellheim, the fire giants; in Svartalfheim, the dwarves — the so-called “dark” elves; in Hel, the dead. There are few inhabitants in Niflheim, a land of cold and mist.
A gigantic root of the World Tree extends into each of the three levels, and a great well or spring lies beneath each root — Hvergelmir in Niflheim, Mimir’s Well in Jotunheim, and Urd’s Well in Asgard. As we shall see later, Hvergelmir contains the water of creation, Mimir’s Well the waterof wisdom, and Urd’s Well the water of healing for the World Tree.
How did these complex and marvelous worlds come into being? Two of them, Muspellheim (the land of fire) and Niflheim (the land of ice), apparently always existed and between them lay a silent void called Ginnungagap. Poisonous, slushy rime ice formed on the rivers pouring forth from the great spring Hvergelmir in Niflheim, flowed out into Ginnungagap and came in contact with sparks and embers hurled into space by the volcanoes of Muspellheim. Soon the ice began to melt. From that dripping meltwater formed the enormous sleeping giant Ymir. While he slept, the sweat gathering beneath his left armpit took the form ofa male and a female and, at the same time, his feet mated with each other – in some totally unexplainable manner — to produce a son. Thus, the race of frost giants was created.
During this time — if time even existed then – the giant Ymir was sustained by milk dripping from the teats of the cosmic cow, Audumla,who also had formed from the melting ice. She in turn found nourishment by licking the salty blocks of ice. In so doing, she revealed a male figure who, after three days,stepped forth from the ice. He was called Buri and later became the grandfather of the first Aesir gods. His son Borr married the giantess Bestla and fathered three sons:Odin, Vili, and Ve — the first Aesir.
The three brothers fell upon the sleeping Ymir and killed him. So much blood flowed from his wounds that all of the frost giants drowned except for one family that managed to float to safety, thus saving their race from extinction. Odin and his brothers proceeded to dismember Ymir’s body and create from it most of the rest of the Nine Worlds. From his flesh they made the land, from his bones the mountains, from his teeth the rocks and pebbles, from his blood the sea and lakes, from his hair the trees, from his skull the vault of the sky (held up by four dwarves, created from the maggots feeding on Ymir’scorpse), from his brains the clouds, and fromhis eyebrows a barrier to separate Midgard from the lands of the giants. Then the three Aesir took the sparks from Muspellheim and cast them into the sky to form the sun, moon and stars. At some point, four charioteerswere appointed to ride across the sky, guiding the night, the day, the moon and the sun.
Odin and his brothers then paused to survey their handiwork. Strolling along the shore one day, they came upon two trees, an ash and an elm, which they caused to take on the forms of a man and woman, respectively. The gods breathed life into Ask and Embla, gave them wits and spirit, and granted them Midgard for themselves and their descendants, the human race. Then, high above it all, theAesir created their own homeland, the magnificent realm of Asgard. It is interesting to note that in the Nordic world view, theuniverse represents more of a transformation of previously existing matter than a creation from nothing — and that the gods themselves are early products of that transformation rather than its prime initiators. Moreover, as we shall see, while Odin is regarded as the King of the Gods,unlike the Christian deity he is neither all-knowing nor all-powerful.
But all is not well in the Nine Worlds. The seeds of destruction seem to have been present in their creation from Ymir’s corpse. One of those seeds is the constant hostility between the gods and their allies, on the one hand, and the giants and trolls, on the other. The giants are determined to eventually overthrow and destroy the gods — a task in which they will be aided by the treacherous Loki and his monster sons, Fenrir (or Fenris) Wolf and Jormungand, the Midgard (or World) Serpent. Much of what takes place in the myths reflects this menace and the sense of a slow, unavoidable movement toward the final, universe-shattering confrontation (called Ragnarok, the Doom of the Gods) from which there will emerge no victor and few, if any, survivors.
Meanwhile, the World Tree, which binds together the fabric of the Nine Worlds and on whose survival their very existence depends, is under constant attack from all sides.A twining of serpents (or dragons, the ancient Norse made little distinction between them) lurks in Hvergelmir and gnaws at theroot that lies in Niflheim; four deer and a goat live on the limbs of Yggdrasil and eat its leaves; and the trunk of the Tree is infected with some sort of rot. Fortunately, however, each day healing water from Urd’s Well is applied to the trunk of Yggdrasil by the three Norns, wise women (possibly of giant stock) who live near the Well. Thus is maintained theeternal balance between growth and decay.
Who are these Norns — these caretakers of the created order – and what is the symbolic significance of the Well and the Tree? Much of the following discussion is based on the thought-provoking ideas presented by Paul Bauschatz in The Well and the Tree, a bookdeserving careful exploration by the interested reader.
The three Norns are called Urd, Verdandi and Skuld, names that usually have been translated as Past, Present and Future.Currently, however, most mythologists believe that Urd means Fate, referring to those actions that have already taken place; Verdandi means Becoming, referring to those actions in the process of taking place; and Skuld means Necessity, referring to those necessary actions that drive the whole process.
Each day as the Norns apply the healing water to Yggdrasil’s trunk, they speak (or chant) the Orlog — the essential and unchanging laws of the universe that both drive andlimit the events presently taking place in our world. Nowhere are we told precisely what the Orlog contains,but after much reading andmeditation, I would like tooffer the following poem as an educated guess as to what lies at the heart of the Orlog: [blockquote class=purple]Orlog (The Norns’ Chant)
In the midst of darkness, light; In the midst of death, life;
In the midst of chaos, order.
In the midst of order, chaos;
In the midst of life, death;
In the midst of light, darkness.
Thus has it ever been,
Thus is it now, and
Thus shall it always be. [/blockquote] The Norns’ action is not merely a symbolic acknowledgment of significant past events; it is meant to create and empower the present…in a manner comparable, perhaps, to the restoration and revitalization of theDreamtime by Australian Aborigine elders when they chant the Songlines. The past is not seen as something remote, inaccessible, and fading away — rather it is growing ever larger and more powerful as more events occur and more knowledge is accumulated.
If the Well is seen as a repository of the past, the Tree represents the present, depending upon the water of the Well both for growth and healing. Thus the present is constantly influenced by all that has gone before. This active “power of the past upon the present” is sometimes referred to as wyrd. And, of course, the relationship between the Well and the Tree is reciprocal: once present events have taken place, their effects and implications drip like dew from the tree back into the Well to enlarge the past andfurther complicate and/or clarify it.
Just to survive in this world, let alone live in such a way as to be favorably remembered after death, the wise person must learn as much as possible about the realms of the Well and the Tree and thus come to glimpse,however dimly, the nature of wyrd itself,and to align himself with it. In doing so, he will also contribute to maintaining the universal balance embodied in the Orlog.
This myth-driven quest for knowledge of world and self may well have contributed to the significant involvement of the Nordic peoples in exploration, natural history, physical science, philosophy, and psychology. Such a quest demands great personal sacrifice, however, and is doomed to fall short of total enlightenment. After all, neither Odin’s nine nights of suffering on the World Tree (hanging, spear-wounded, as a sacrifice to himself) — which won him the secrets of the runes — nor his sacrifice of an eye at Mimir’s Well (to gain a drink of the water of wisdom) brought fullknowledge and understanding of the Nine Worlds to him who was the wisest of the gods.
No treatment of ancient Nordic spirituality would be complete without at least a mention of the runes, letters carved on wood, bone, stone or metal that not only served as part of a functional alphabet, but also symbolizedkey mythical-psychological concepts in the Nordic world view. Their importance cannot be overemphasized, as evidenced by Odin’s aforementioned ordeal to learn their secrets. His self-sacrifice on the Tree was nothing less than a shamanic experience — a sort of Nordic vision quest in which he obtained the power inherent in the magical letters rather than the guidance of spirit guardians, as Native American shamans might have done. Still, our Viking Age ancestors didbelieve in the existence of a personal fylgja (literally a “follower”) that took the form of an animal or perhaps a human-like spirit of theopposite gender. The fylgja usually couldbe seen only in dreams, by someone giftedwith “second sight,” or near the moment of death. Some mythologists have argued that Odin’s ravens, Hugin and Munin (Thoughtand Memory), who bring him news about the Nine Worlds each day, are actually his fylgjur.
Closely associated in the Nordic mind with the runes, the Well, and the Tree, was the dragon. It is the most frequently encountered animal figure in the art of the Viking Age, including that appearing on the runestones. There the dragon’s body usually contains the runes, not only artistically but symbolically, thus incorporating the knowledge and power that the runes themselves embody. Small wonder, then, that Sigurd could understand the language of birds after just a small taste of the dragon Fafnir’s blood.
We have already noted that dragons are present in Hvergelmir, the well of creation, where they gnaw at one of Yggdrasil’s roots. Another dragon we must consider is Jormungand, the Midgard Serpent, Thor’s greatest enemy, who encircles the world and grasps his tail in his mouth. It seems likely that he is the dragon represented on so many runestones, since that dragon often encircles a central figure that has been referred to as a “cross” but which has roots and supports eight vanes radiating from a central ring — surely a stylized representation of the World Tree supporting the Nine Worlds.
So, what is going on here? Why does a dragon, a presumably “evil” creature (after all, Jormungand is fated to slay Thor at Ragnarok, and other dragons are gnawing on Yggdrasil each day), appear so frequently in conjunction with such a powerful symbol of “good” as the World Tree? It could be that the ancient Nordic philosophers were not so much concerned with passing judgment on what is good and what is evil as they were with expressing their understanding of “the way things are.” Thus, the symbolic pairing of the Dragon (darkness, death, chaos) with the Tree (light, life, order) was in recognition – and acceptance — of the eternal balance of opposites. That acceptance is not always easy for an individual human heart to accomplish, but to seek anything other than the continuing balance of opposites would be to deny reality…and our Nordic ancestors were nothing if not clear-eyed realists, even in their myths.
Fortunately, when facing the reality that life can be awfully tough, our Nordic ancestors managed to elude the clutches of grim resignation or utter despair by aspiring to take on the attributes of the Nordic Hero, a choice availableto everyone…not just warriors. By striving for personal excellence, one need not defeat life’s foes in a physical, secular sense in order to have a meaningful existence.
It was not a philosophy of grim fatalism that our ancestors embraced (although some writers have stated that it was). The Nordic hero cherished existence and knew how to enjoy life, but he could also face death with a calm mind and a smile. No matter what happened, a hero could choose to behave with honor. “It matters not if you win or lose, but how you play the game” could well be the modern paraphrase of an old Nordic saying such as the following verse from the Havamal (Words of the High One) attributed to Odin:
Cattle die, kindred die, Every man is mortal.
But the good name will never fade
Of one who has lived honorably.
Dag’s five audiocassettes of Norse myth and legend can be ordered from Skandisk, Inc., 1-800-468-2424.
Learn more about ancient Nordic cosmology in the article "Ancient Nordic Spirituality" by Norse storyteller and scholar Dag Rossman. Also see his book The Northern Path: Norse Myths and Legends Retold…And What They Reveal, and his The Nine Worlds: A Dictionary of Norse Mythology , illustrated by Sharon Rossman, and Theft of the Sun, and Other New Norse Myths. The Rossmans' book Valhalla in America: Norse Myths in Wood at Rock Island State Park, Wisconsin is another great resource.
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Check out these other resources on our site:
Jodie Forrest’s Nordic-Celtic historical fantasy trilogy —The Rhymer and the Ravens: The Book of Fate; The Elves’ Prophecy: The Book of Being (out of print); and The Bridge: The Book of Necessity. The novels unfold in Nordic-Celtic ninth century Europe during the Viking Age, and in the mythic realms that parallel it: Elfland and Asgard. For more information about the philosophical framework of the world of these novels, see Dag Rossman’s article, Ancient Nordic Spirituality, and our site’s page about The Norse Runes.