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Myth vs. Culture: Ragnarok

The existence of what is popularly regarded as the, ahem, “Germanic Heaven”, namely Valhalla (Hall of the Slain), is intimately linked in the late Norse-Icelandic Eddas to the great cosmological event of “Ragnarok” (the Dimming of the Gods); in which, as the story goes, the enemies of the Tivar — the shining ones, gods, heroes, sages; cognate to Sanskrit Deva, related to the Latin divus and hence Modern English divine, deity, etc. —  whelm against the divine order, overthrow it and destroy the gods themselves in one last epic battle.

It is a thing peculiar to Germanic myth … the notion that the gods die. Mind you, we are not really talking about *Germanic* myth. Very little of our native mythology/s survives … though Germanic myth most certainly does exist outside of the Eddas. And this is what we ARE talking about regarding the Ragnarok myth, and most specifically of the notion that our gods are mortal; the Norse-Icelandic Eddas, which are themselves representative of one branch of late Viking Age North Germanic culture … born out of the very age in which our native beliefs were under assault by the Church and coming to the end of (that phase of) their historical existence. It betrays a deep pessimism, specifically regarding the nature of the divine, that is uncharacteristic of Indo-European culture in general, and general attitudes found within the elder Germanic culture in specific.

As early as Cornelius Tacitus (1st century C.E.) we read, “The Germans, however, do not consider it consistent with the grandeur of celestial beings to confine the gods within walls, or to liken them to the form of any human countenance. They consecrate woods and groves, and they apply the names of deities to the abstraction which they see only in spiritual worship.” (Germania)

While we have due cause to take the observations Tacitus recorded in his Germania with a dose of salt, we would be foolish to dismiss them all together. In the above Tacitus relates in clear terms the fundamental Germanic view of the divine, as express in the Old English word wih (Old Norse – ve, Gothic – weihs), which stems from a root meaning “separate, set apart”. In it’s various forms, the ancestors used it to denote the altar, sacred idols, the hallowing power of the gods, and even the nature of the gods themselves.

As a reference to the (fundamental) nature of the divine, the word wih denotes that they are something beyond human categories and thought and conception … as ineffable to us as our own human nature is to our canine companions. Rudolph Otto’s terms “numinous” and most especially “mysterium tremendum et fascinans” (the great/humbling yet fascinating mystery (of the divine)) strike right to the heart of the sense of wih.

And so, in a culture where it was believed that once you stripped the layers of culture away from a god, you encountered a being that was “wholly other”, by what pretension could a mortal human determine such a being’s fate, ie. it dies at Ragnarok?

Indeed, the most damning evidence of Germanic “ignorance” (honesty?) regarding the fate of the gods, is found within the Ragnarok myth itself, in the opening act of which the Bifrost Bridge, that links Heaven and Earth, God and Man, is destroyed. And of course, with the destruction of that link, all of the cultural forms of the gods, deprived of their “wih-essence” begin to wither and droop, to dim in the minds of men, until they have been emptied of the very force of divine awe that originally inspired them. And while this is indeed a fairly accurate description of what has happened in the history of Germanicism, it is indeed the heights of hubris to make any assumptions about the fate of the Vear themselves; which, really, is tantamount to losing one’s connection on a phone call and then declaring that whoever was on the other end must, as a result, be dead!

This is where we get into that other pan-Germanic quality of divinity; namely holiness … which is a word that is firmly rooted in the Germanic languages, and is even found in tandem with the word wih … for all that they are dichotomous in meaning. In fact, holiness (whole, healthy, integrated) is the temporal product of wih. In the context that I am using it here, it is that part of the gods that has “come down” to exist in a relationship with us and find expression in human culture and our beliefs regarding the nature of the divine. Remember, the Tremendous Mystery is not only terrifying, but also irresistibly fascinating, and thus inevitably prone to expression within culture. Hence, the divine origins of culture itself.

Here one might note the early Germanic idols that Tacitus reported didn’t exist, but which archaeology has indeed found evidence of; they are indeed not rendered in any kind of sharply human likeness after the manner of the Graeco-Romans, and not for a lack of technical skill in wood-carving. Such figures, where bogs have wondrously preserved them, are always at best only vaguely human, and deal more in accentuating natural detail in the medium rather than imposing detail upon it. Wih-holy.

braakidols

If any part of the divine is subject to destruction it is this “holy aspect”, the human aspect. But that much and no more. The Vear shall always remain, to re-assert and express themselves within the manifold forms of human culture, time and again, eternally … which I suppose is the ultimate message of the Ragnarok myth itself with it’s “generation of new gods”; though I would imagine that Hinduism has a more accurate notion of how that all works, with it’s eternal cosmological cycle of coming into being/going out of being with an Indra, et al. present and accounted for in each cycle.

And so, it seems pretty plain to me that whatever the true value of the Ragnarok myth, this notion of the “death of the gods” simply doesn’t stand up and is next to entirely unsupportable within the context of Germanic culture; though admittedly there is room for discussion on fine points (eg. wih vs. halig).

It should always be remembered that the myths of old arose within a certain cultural paradigm that informed the meaning of those myths. They cannot be studied in exclusion to the culture they existed in without losing their native value as an expression of that culture. And ultimately, culture has far more to teach us about the worldview and ways of worship of our Germanic ancestors than does myth … which, taken at face value, is just “old stories”.

The “Germanic Heaven”

It is often said by those not “in the know” — and indeed even among some who should know better — that Valhalla is the “Germanic Heaven”.  And this is usually accompanied by a belief that all one has to do is die in a fight, in “battle”, to get there.

In fact, the term Heaven is a word firmly rooted in the Germanic languages, stemming from the Anglo-Saxon heofen and cognate to the Old Norse himin, with various other cognates in the various Germanic languages all stemming from a proto-Germanic root, ie. it’s NOT a borrowing from Latin or Greek or Aramaic or Hebrew, or any other language. Some scholars have said that the word “merely” indicated the sky, but indeed in the Anglo-Saxon poetry we find such deific titles as “Heaven’s Warder”, while in the later Norse-Icelandic Eddas we find, not only Himinbjorg (Heavens Mountain) as the name of the hall of the deity Heimdall, but the term is also used by Snorri Sturluson (writer of the Prose Edda) to describe levels of what is more commonly known as Esegeard (Asgard, yard of the Ese= Gods) or Godheim (Home of the Gods), ie. the deific realms.

So, there really is no need to qualify the term Heaven with the term Germanic, as though they are things foreign to one another. The Germanic folk coined the term. It would thus be more appropriate, technically speaking, to speak of “Christian Heaven”, as the Germanic is implicit in the word.

In the Eddas, Esegeard (ON. AsgardhR) is the “kingdom” in which Valhalla stands. But there is also a Valaskjalf, which carries essentially the same meaning as Valhalla, and also the hall of the goddess Freo (ON. Freyja), who is said to share half of the battle-slain with Woden (ON. Odhinn). Moreover, there are also the many other halls of the many other Tivar (deities), to be found in Esegeard. And in fact, in one of the Eddaic poems, Woden (in disguise as Harbard) mocks Thunor (ON. ThorR) from across a great river, stating that he receives thralls in his hall, whereas Woden receives warrior-princes. A dubious comment to be sure, but here we are told outright by the Lord of Valhalla Himself that other deities receive the so-called “straw-dead”, ie. not slain in battle/ritual sacrifice, into their halls. And indeed, we also know from the Eddas that one of Frige’s (ON. Frigg) handmaidens receives the souls of young children that have died.

So, it is a moot point that Heaven, by preChristian Germanic belief, wasn’t merely reserved for warriors that had died in battle. It wasn’t SO exclusive on the one hand, or so indiscriminate on the other.

In fact, as we read elsewhere in the Eddas, troops of dead warriors can also be found engaged in “eternal struggle” on the fields of Hell, among the “straw-dead”.

So, not all warriors that died in battle go to Heaven. And chances are that not all thralls go to Heaven either. Children are of course children and are not governed by the same rules as adults.

So what was the diff between this or that warrior, or this or that thrall?

Here we go back to the term Heaven and it’s direct association with the sky, and particularly with the radiance of the heavens; namely, the stars. Much like our distant Indo-European brethren, the Greeks, our ancestors had an “astrological mythology” — or so the surviving lore and general I-E cultural reflex hints — in which the various stars and heavenly bodies had deep associations with figures from our myths and history, eg. Fjolnir’s Pledge, Andvarii’s Toe, Iring’s Way. Going to Heaven quite literally means to ascend into “the sky” to become a “star” alongside the deities and heroes of one’s people; one becomes a legend. Hence the term Tivar, which stems from the same root that gave us the god-name Tiw/Tyr and the generic name for deity in Old Norse, and which means “gods, heroes”. The same root also gave us the word for glory/splendour in Old High German (ziori), and extends back to an Indo-European root that references the heavens and their radiance adn which is bound up with the “halo” motif as found in Indo-European cultures (and adopted belief systems such as Christianity, ie. saints). The basic thought pattern and language is still with us today, frivolously though it may be, in our reference to various well known personalities as “stars”.

So, moving along, it is the BEST warriors that Woden receives in Valhalla. Those that have become stars within the context of war. Given Thunor’s love of hard-work and feats of strength and constitution, it is the BEST thralls that Thunor receives in his hall on the “Field of Strength”. And so on with the other Tivar, each according to their own interests and inclinations. This is what the Heavens are ALL about, the home of the best, and those who best embodied our ideals about various things, be they warriors-kings or thralls … even livestock or tools, eg. swords.

Only the best.

Of course, contrary to popular pretensions, not everyone gets to be a star, who, like the Rune Poem states, will continue to shine on through even the darkest and most obscure of “nights” to inspire us to be the best we can be.

It should be borne in mind of course that even as “life on the farm” might seem like a fate worse than death to some high-energy warrior-aristocrat — which is muchly the perspective we’re getting in the surviving lore — the wise know that rulers and their servants are among the least free of all the folk. Work, work, work, and always for the interests of others, never one’s own interests. Heaven is a busy place (or so I would assume), and chances are that while most of us would love to visit there, few would like to spend eternity there. And indeed, while painted as dreary here and there in the lore, the abode/s of the “straw-dead” is much like “life on the farm”. It’s described as being quite “ordinary” or “homely”, and certainly Hell — which is as firmly rooted in the Germanic tongues as Heaven, no matter how many L’s you use — is not what Christianity has since made it over into.  It’s simply where the ancestors go, the halls of the ancestors, the grave mound. No more, no less. And undoubtedly more than just slightly appealing to most of us, as that is where our friends and kin shall be.

There is of course a place of “punishment” in Germanic belief … called Wyrmsele among the Anglo-Saxons and Wyrmgarten among the Germans. In the Eddas it is called Nastrond, but described in terms consistent with the English and German terms … as a hall standing far from the sun, and made up of poisonous wyrms all writhing and twisted together, who spray their burning venom over all of the oath-breakers and cowards within.

The topic of Germanic afterlife beliefs is actually quite complex, and encompasses shades of “reincarnation”, but the jist of the notions we retain today of an immortal soul and an otherworldly afterlife were always present in Germanic belief and other forms of Indo-European belief. Biblically, there is no Heaven or Hell, save as these words were used to gloss other more Semitic terms … which is where the Bible, et al. comes from. Biblically, there is the Day of Resurrection and Judgement, and then either destruction in a lake of fire, dubbed Gehenna, or eternal life in a recreated Eden, ie. earthly paradise.

In the end, afterlife beliefs, particularly the belief in Heaven, are more for the living than the dead. Unlike Christianity our indigenous beliefs were less concerned about where one ends up and more concerned about what one leaves behind. As the Havamal puts it, “Cattle die, kinsmen die, and so shall you yourself. But I know one thing that never dies … the good repute of each man dead.”

Introduction

Hi,

Welcome to my blog, and thanks for dropping by! My name is Jamey, I’m 42 years old, of mixed Slavo-Germanic descent (with an accent on English), and I have been a, ahem, “practicing Germanic Heathen” for some 30 years now. I like to think that I started this blog as a general sounding board for whatever might happen to cross my mind at any given point on any given day, but the reality is that when it comes to writing, I am usually inspired by things Germanic. As a result, one is assured to find that most of my musings shall concern things Germanic.

What is this “Germanic” I speak of? Indeed, what is this “Germanic Heathen” stuff all about? Well, to start, the word Germanic does not refer exclusively to the people of Germany, but rather to a broad cultural-linguistic group that includes, yes, the Germans, but also the English, the Dutch, Austrians, and the various peoples of the Scandinavias. In their early migrations they have also left their mark, to various degrees both culturally and ethnically, on the people France (who take their name from the Germanic tribes once known collectively as the Franks), Spain and Italy (the Goths), and of course on folk of Ireland and Scotland (Scandinavians). All of those tribes once spoke a common language, that has since diversified into the “Germanic” language group, and share a common history extending back to the shores of southern Scandinavia and into the homogeneous depths of “Nordic Bronze Age”. From their own even more ancient “Proto-Indo-European” origins the Germanic peoples evolved, not simply their own worldview, but their own religious beliefs and practices; as reflected most evidently in our rich “spiritual vocabulary”.

And this of course is where the “Heathen” comes in; denoting the worship of the indigenous deities of the Germanic peoples … something that today is best known as Asatru. I personally do not call myself Asatru, and tend to dislike even the term Heathen; seeming to focus too much on the deities and too little on the actual culture and worldview that these beliefs evolved within. Hence, for me, simply Germanic will (often) do, and I’ll explain from there … explanation being unavoidable in any case.

Well, as I can … and shall most certainly … ramble on about all of this and more in posts to come, I’ll tie this intro off and leave things at that for the time being.