As someone who has spent over 30 years exploring the variety of religious answers devised by humanity’s attempt to make sense of life on our planet, it got me thinking about the “Why Odin?” question. What is it about his mythological heroism that I find so compelling? Why with my own pointy-hatted chaos magickal ways do I keeping coming back to his story as an exemplar of how to manage my own existential dilemmas?
Some critics of the neo-pagan revival typify its worldview as a naive pantheism where the preoccupation with the cycle of Nature prevents us from appreciation of the evolutionary goal of transcendence (Cf. the work of Ken Wilber for more on this). In reality heathen myths are not some distant utopian vision or romantic aspiration to “be at one with nature”, rather they seem to mirror the joy and struggle of our own human experience. The stories that fill both the Eddas and Sagas represent a complex interlacing of history and pre-history as an expression of an ever shifting, ever evolving world. While we may take pleasure in the making of toasts and the wearing of skins, I personally feel that the ancestors would have a good belly laugh at attempts to recapture some imagined “golden-age”!
When we examine Heathen cosmology, unsurprisingly it seeks to mirror the experience of the people of the North as they lived their lives. In the beginning was the primal void (Ginnungagap) and from it emerged the primary polarity of Fire and Ice. From the dynamic tension between these poles came melt-water and from this emerged the primal giant Ymir. Creation is not a peaceable realm, but one that is forever caught up in a cycle of war and temporary resolution. These tensions are personified by the giants, other elemental beings and the gods themselves both Aesir and Vanir.
The mythological struggle between Aesir and Vanir (as described in Voluspa and elsewhere) seem to reflect at a macrocosmic level the human project of seeking to awaken consciousness within our bodies and the biosphere. This balancing of immanent and transcendent is also reflected in Odin’s own journey. His need to learn magic from Freya highlights the essential journey into the natural so as to comprehend his life and magic, but this is not enough. He must go deeper and seek Runa – the mysteries of Kosmos – via his ordeal on the world tree:
I know that I hung on a windy tree
nine long nights,
wounded by a spear, dedicated to Odin,
myself to myself,
on that tree of which no man knows
from where its roots run.
No bread did they give me or drink from a horn,
Downwards I peered;
I took up the runes, screaming I took them,
Then I fell back from there.
The dimensions of gnosis that he attains are both deep and transcendent (ah the limits of spatial metaphors!). The mysteries arise from the dark roots of the unconscious (both collective and individual) and they point us towards the reality that the northern Gnostic must awaken within the realm of Midgard. Whichever version of the futhark that we work with, they represent the worldview of the ancestors both in relation to their core values and day-to-day concerns. Like the “Sly Man” of the Gurdjieff Work, for those of us seeking to emulate the path of the All-Father, our awakening needs to integrate and balance the needs of body, mind and emotions. It needs to be here and now rather than in some imagined nirvana/Valhalla!
In contrast to the Gnostic explorers of the classical period, the Northern Gnostic seeks the way of awakening within the natural world rather than away from it. This is a path of integration typified by the hermetic axiom of “as above so below, as below so above”. We need to wake up from the sleep that culture and routine can lull us into, but our awakening is also a realization of connection and relationship rather than lofty isolation. This is not an easy journey to make; we need to work hard to uncover these often over-grown pathways. Awakening to Runa often brings a greater sense of being out of step with the mainstream – Odin took up the Runes of realization screaming and roaring. As we seek to dive deep into new realms of understanding, we need to understand their true cost: that they can only be accessed when we give up what we think we know to gain true insight – “sacrificing self to self”. Here we find ourselves contending with the insights of C.G. Jung and other trans-personal psychological approaches where the ego is not abolished but rather is transformed via expansion and extension to incorporate the dark roots of the unconscious (Hel) and the bright potentialities of what we might become (Asgard).
In the Zen Hearth of Odin the Wanderer this awakening within the turning of the year is the focus of our work. Via the use of Zen sitting practice, Runic Galdar and core shamanic trance technologies (i.e. drumming) we seek the wisdom of the old ways so that we might live more fully today. I’ll conclude with the statement of intent that we are currently using at our monthly blots:
We come seeking gnosis
And the wisdom to apply it.
We come seeking the Old Ways
That we might truly live now
And become the future.
We come seeking the three realms
And the three treasures
Sky, Earth and Sea
Aesir, Vanir and the Ancestors.
We seek the World Tree as the realm of practice:
Our Minds, our Bodies, our Lives.
We seek to take up the Runes
Fragments of mystery
As we see sense and nonsense
On the road we travel.
We give thanks to the heroes of practice
We give thanks for the complex Web of Truth
We give thanks to those who sit like mountains together.