By Reva Sherrard
I know that I hung
the windswept tree upon,
nights full nine,
and given to Óðinn,
self to myself
on that tree
that no one knows
whence its roots run.
With loaf they heartened me not
nor with horn,
I peered down,
I took up the runes,
screaming took them,
I fell back from there.
On the brink of a terrible battle that would pit him against cherished friends and relatives, the Indian Prince Arjuna quailed in painful moral turmoil and threw down his bow, refusing to fight. His charioteer Krishna — the god Vishnu in flesh — counseled him to embrace his destiny as a warrior and to recognize the path fate had laid before him as something far greater than his own limited understanding. Transfigured by Krishna’s teaching, which comprises the “Bhagavad Gita” segment of the epic poem “Mahabharata,” Arjuna led his army to victory.
When Harald Wartooth, a great eighth-century Scandinavian king, felt the shadow of death from old age fall over him he challenged his friend Sigurd Ring to an almighty battle. Harald in his youth had vowed to dedicate all those he slew in war to Óðinn (Odin), and in return the god granted him untold military success and dominion over lands from Northumbria, to western Norway, to Estonia. In the blinding heat of his last battle the king forgot that his purpose was to die in it. Odin did not. As Harald drove in his chariot to meet Sigurd Ring he saw suddenly that his charioteer was the god himself, and was stricken to the heart with the knowledge that divine favor had deserted him. He pleaded for one final victory, in vain. Odin cast the king down from the chariot to his death.
Odin the shaman, discoverer of the runes, keeper of the blood-mead of pure poetry, is the Germanic god associated with war and death. His steed is eight-legged Sleipnir, “slipper,” the four two-legged pallbearers who give the dead a last ride as the soul “slips” to the next world. He is called Flaming Eye, Blind, Hanged, Gaping Frenzy, Shouter. In exchange for a drink from the well of primordial universal memory he gave one of his eyes. Wednesday is his particular day, from Wodan (Wodan’s-day), the Anglo-Saxon version of his name, which means “one possessed with transcendent fury.”
Krishna and Arjuna’s conversation in the “Bhagavad Gita“ centers on dharma, the duties and standards of conduct from which social order on a grand scale is built. The principle of furor that Odin exemplifies is by contrast an intensely personal force likelier to destroy rather than build, not because it is destructive per se but because as raw, undiluted divine urge it has absolutely nothing to do with the gentler intermediaries humanity conceives to help itself come to terms with life. Social structure, morality, even individual loss or gain are meaningless in the paradigm of Odinic fury: óðr in Old Norse, ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European root *wet-, meaning to blow or breathe into, to infuse with divine essence. This is not fury in the sense of anger. Rather it is a state of inspiration (Latin inspirare, to breathe into) so complete that in the blink of an eye it establishes itself in the consciousness of the inspired as the overriding context of existence. Like dharma it transcends the mundane self and its concerns. But dharma is a tool for civilization-building, dependent on concepts of good and evil, right and wrong; óðr is the shattering touch of unpolarized Life Itself.
Hence Odin’s medieval reputation for treachery as the giver of fortune in battle. “Surely we have deserved victory of the gods,” protests the fallen Norwegian king Hákon in a 10th-century poem composed in his honor, but “Odin has shown great enmity towards us.” A line in the Icelandic “Saga of King Hrolf Kraki” asserts that “it is Odin who comes against us here, the foul and untrue.” (Translations by H. R. Ellis Davidson in her classic “Gods and Myths of Northern Europe.”) To expect comfort and security from a god who hanged himself from the World Tree to gain knowledge is a prime piece of human foolishness. The embittered kings of yore would have done better to entrust themselves to gods of growth like Freyja and Freyr, or the original battle god Tyr if they wanted victory and prosperity.
Odin’s gifts are not so quantifiable. Armed with Krishna’s advice, Arjuna won his war and came to be at peace with himself. Yet the day would inevitably come when he must again feel strife within his soul, and when, like Harald Wartooth, he had to die. Odin is an uncanny and uncomfortable god because he embodies a state not indeed of calm but of overwhelming spiritual stimulation so profoundly altering that the tensions between life and death, pleasure and agony, are subsumed in the ecstasy of experience. It is not a happy ecstasy; it is certainly not bliss. It is more: the simple communion with Life.
Reva Sherrard works at Peregrine Book Company, studies Old Norse religion, and is writing a novel.
Tags: Arjuna, Bhagavad Gita, Freyja, Freyr, fury, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, H. R. Ellis Davidson, Hákon, Harald Wartooth, Krishna, Myth & Mind, Odin, Óðinn, óðr, Reva Sherrard, Rúnatal, Saga of King Hrolf Kraki, Sigurd Ring, Sleipnir, Tyr, Vishnu, Wodan