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Usually, Heathenry is perceived (and practiced) as the least flexible of pagan religions. However, my research and reading has led me to the conclusion that historically, the Northern religions were instead often inescapably fluid and flexible in their worldview, approach and practice. I believe there is the possibility of recovering that aspect of the Heathen tradition to speak to us meaningfully in the twenty first century.
This presentation uses art, image, prose, and poems and centers upon the idea and image of Yggdrasil, the World Tree, the cosmological symbol of the Northern traditions, asking "What does it mean to have a living tree at the center of one's cosmology?"
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Presentation Slides & Transcript
Presentation Slides & Transcript
The well of WYRD and the world treePoems, Images, and Theological Reflections at the Water’s Edge
Navigational (My Faith Statement) Where/as we are everyway here, orbiting through the dark, we appearto delight in variation and surprise, the sideways, sidewiseof reference, the occasional sign to remind:where/as we where are we / going whose words do we choose and howdo they point us? Standing under and before these signswhether we read them or not: this is what it is to be human and what it is to be human is the first thing we forget. We rhyme to remember, we create to commemorate and celebrate.Because fear has never gotten us anywhere,but art drips from our fingertips,fills our eyes, fillsa cardboard dance floor, thrillsour living rooms with homemade doilies,takes us for a ride on augmented subways. Wherever where / as we are, art appearsto hold our anyhope, a map to compass without destroying: to give some part of it / of us whole to the next travelers.
In 2009, National Geographic magazine sent a team to photograph Yggdrasil, the World Tree of the Northern traditions. You can see how they did it, here (and watch the movie, it’s pretty cool): http://www.npr.org/blogs/pictureshow/2009/09/redwoods.html
Of course, they didn’t call it Yggdrasil. Or Irminsul. Or even, the World Tree. What do they know.People have been attempting to capture the idea of Yggdrasil for a very long time.
Art has its own way of saying things. Some of the tree images included here are schematic, others abstract. Some completely realistic, others fantastic. Just like the theological systems we’ve been reading. But then, what is realistic?What is too fantastic to exist?What, for that matter, is tree?
What is it to place the idea and image of a tree at the center of a cosmology? It suggests, if nothing else, that the system is alive. Growing. And change is necessary for anything living. This is something that strict reconstructionists seem not to take into account. Their narrow interpretations of lore, and the insistence that everything be taken literally and not deviate from a historical, written word, resists growth, resists change.But at the very foundation of heathenism, and at the center of its mythos, is a living tree.
The familiar Celtic (and Germanic, and Norse) interlace design technique is present in many of these depictions. The branches, the roots, the interwoven nature of the World Treeis Wyrd.It was the Water of Wyrd that the Norns (the Fates) poured over the root of Yggdrasil every day.
Wyrd is “destiny” in the clumsiest of translations. More accurately, it is the threads of fate and action and interdependence that connect us all—humans, animals, all beings, all deities, all creation—together, through all time, “an interlaced web of golden threads visible only to the wizards.” Think of it as the original String Theory.
It is the Ways of Wyrd that shamans and wizards walk. And it is these threads, these Ways of Wyrd, where spiritual and physical worlds interpenetrate, that are represented in the interlace knots so common to design through these centuries. (Paxson, 28)Tug on one, you can’t help but tug on all.
A poem also is a way of weaving together threads to create a new path into Otherworld.Poetry uses the power of images, and the rhythms of spoken language, to move us into a new place.
The World Tree Grows at Westgate Mall Parked in front of Hancock Fabrics waiting, hazards blinking, for my son to emerge from choir rehearsal this raw March evening, I sit in an acre or more of early thawand broken, rutted pavement, dingy cars, trees still bare. Yellowed, sickly lightsand neon signs falter in deepening blue.A radio tower blinks dark then red then dark. I keep the car’s engine running for the heat. Reflected in the shallow still of a puddle,a piece of tree. It catches me, I look upand down, from copy to original and back again. It’s just one anonymous young tree plunked down in a row in a parking strip. But the small segment caught in water and mirrored in every twig becomes something else again, as dusk deepens, becomes possibility. I do not understand these chemistries,why reflections hold us, or how a fragment keens and catches more than its whole.I only know how restful it is to gazeat this puddle, the shard of tree reflected, how I look long and long as cars splash through, each time scattering the surface with dirty, crud-crusted tires, and each time, each time, the water restores itself.
At some point during this class, I looked up from my reading and realized how much of the art in my house features trees. Abstract, realistic, partial or completely representational, trees have been with me a long time, I guess.In my parents’ house, the walls are covered with birds.
Wyrd suggests everything is mutable. The nine worlds of Yggdrasil overlay each other. They are, for the shaman, interconnected and interpenetrating. By understanding this, we can move between them. With practice.
Wyrd corresponds very closely to the way of knowing that Constance Wise outlines from process theology, causal efficacy. Causal efficacy is a deep “non-rational” and “non-sensory” awareness of connectivity which all beings in the universe participate in, whether they are aware of it or not. Foundational to the other two modes of knowing (sensory and symbolic), this mode is marked by “complexity, vagueness, and compulsive intensity.” That sounds a lot like…
“the flowing of life’s complexities beyond the ability of words to comprehend….a natural outcome of the forces of life as they are presently flowing, Wyrd was the inexorable, deeply embedded evolution of the world, within which human affairs ebbed and flowed. It was an intelligence beyond human ken but integral to everything…” (Bates) The Northern traditions had process theology two thousand years ago.
We are learning to think of trees, too, as interdependent systems of living organisms, rather than individual , discrete entities standing alone. A tree is not only its bark, leaves, phloem, xylem, and root systems…it’s also the water that condenses in its upper stories and drips to the ground below. It’s the fungi and spider webs on its bark, the bugs that burrow in and the birds that burrow after them, the hummus layer of leaf rot and spongy earth…and all living things that are fed and sustained by the tree being.
We’re beginning to realize a human being is also host to other communities of living organisms, which we both support and rely upon. We are Yggdrasil.
The more I read about the Northern traditions, the more I find room for flexibility woven into their thought. They practice a virtue-based ethics.And while they believe most of us will go either to the halls of Hel (no very bad place) or to live with the gods in Asgard upon death, they acknowledge some choose to “die into the hill” becoming essentially land wights, spirits of their place. Particularly strong souls may want to reincarnate. As they value individual choice and freedom in life, so too in death.
But it isn’t only the interconnectedness of Being, a linking of Fates, the flexibility of ethical practice or the afterlife… Mutability, growth and change, in the Northern Traditions extended to their pantheon too.
There were the Aesir, the gods…but there was another, older family of gods, the Vanir. Some of the deities living at Asgard were Vanir. Or maybe the Vanir were elves. There is also that possibility, in the lore. Frey, god of fertility and plenty and the harvest, was Vanir. He was often titled, “Lord of the Elves.” Then again…no one is entirely sure just who or what the elves are, either.
On the other hand the gods also had dealings with the Jotun, the giants—ancient beings (the first and oldest) who had to do with the primal forces of the earth: fire, earthquake, flood, mountain, ice, ocean. Sometimes the gods fought the giants. Particularly Thor, who is the bearer of Mjolnir, the magic hammer. Not surprising. When all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like… (Thor is not my favorite deity in Asgard…but I don’t say that out loud.)
But the gods didn’t just fight the giants. Sometimes they married them. Sometimes they were descended from them, too. Tyr, the god of justice and battle (the closest parallel to Zeus in the Northern pantheon), had many dealings with giants and may have been the son of giants. Skadhi, the goddess of winter, ice, mountains, is a Jotun herself. And Eir, the goddess of healing, one of Frigga’s handmaidens, also has many dealings with the Jotun and is listed in at least one catalogue of Jotun beings as well…
And then there is at least one theory that Odin, the All-Father himself, was originally a human shaman who attained such wisdom and skill that he became deified, assuming the role of “All-Father.” (And no one, ever, then or now, really knows who or what Loki is. )
Odin gave up an eye for a taste of Mimir’s well, so gained great wisdom… …and foresaw the end of his own times, in Ragnarok, a vision of the gods’ destruction. (It’s interesting to note, in passing, that there is no “Return of the Hero” or “Return to Paradise” in this theology. The gods are vanquished, and life must start again, from scratch, a diminished thing.)
Having foreseen Ragnarok, Odin gave up eating, so great was his depression. He still drinks plenty of alcohol, however. A depressive, alcoholic, anti-social and at times psychotic god…makes unexpected sense to me in 2014.
In my creative essay, I focus on one particular Being in the lore: Wayland the Smith. While ten minutes isn’t enough time to do him justice, in brief: he appears in some of the oldest lore. When the Arthurian legends were first coalescing, when Beowulf was being composed, Wayland’s story and name were already common cultural reference points. A smith of fabulous skill and reputation, he is at different times portrayed as a human, an elf, a dwarf, a shape-shifter, a spirit, and a god.Interestingly, in the twenty-first century, he is once again entering the pantheon as a deity, and is particularly important in Anglo-Saxon heathen circles.
In other words…Wayland may be a contemporary example of what Raven Kaldera speculates about in his book Dealing With Deities“Lesser spirits may evolve towards Gods, and Gods may evolve toward higher impersonal transcendence (perhaps over a period of time that our minds are unable to grasp with any meaning) …We don’t know exactly how that works for them, but perhaps it is because we…haven’t actually been looking. P. 17-18.
What is this bone china teacupI did not pay or ask for? We all carry a grail just under the face,that softest enameling. No matterhow carefully handled, alreadythe surface flinches around the eyes,the mouthcorners turning, contentsspilling over, sloshed into a lap. Or am I a thousand piece puzzle, a mapthat will never fold up, once opened?Will you open me, like a page? Like a page, I was crumpled and tossed,bad draft, small boat thrownon the wide skin of ocean. Whatcan I tell you of ocean. Retrieve me.Weather me homeward. Shivermy earthquake self, pitchedon a faultline. Sir, I would liketo be smoothed by your hand.
So, elves, giants, humans… in the end what are the gods at all, in a system built on threads of interconnection and a fluid mobility between and among worlds, realms, states of being?
Maybe we don’t have to worry too much about pegging down a definition. The gods are the gods.
It’s how we experience them that matters. To them, and to us. We are held in the branches of the World Tree, and we in turn, hold others. We are watered by the deep well of Wyrd. To believe this is to live with reverence.
Pumpkin Muffins The kids and the gods all wait for me to wake up to myself. One set wants pumpkin muffins, the other for me to realize I’ve been insisting on the wrong trajectory for years. Then the coffee kicks in and I learn that’s not true. The gods would be happy with muffins, they say, and the kids want me to be happy, to remember how to play. There are some important questions mixed in here with the nutmeg, the baking powder: Why are we here? What are we supposed to be doing? Why must we kill to eat and what will happen when we die? That eating one seems pretty crucial as I open the can of pumpkin and oil the muffin tins.What kind of world is this, anyway? The first one tasted bitter with too much spice and not enough sugar, I worried,but the kids said they were fine and smiling boarded the bus, so it was probably just the muffin I chose.
Acknowledgements and CreditsBooks and SourcesBOOKSAlbertsson, Alaric. 2013. To Walk a Pagan Path: Practical Spirtuality for Every Day. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications. Albertsson, Alaric. 2011. Wyrdworking. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications. Bates, Brian. 2002. The Real Middle Earth. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.. Fox, Matthew. 2002. Creativity. New York: Penguin Putnam.Hieatt, Constance B. 1983. Beowulf and Other Old English Poems. New York: Bantam Books.Kaldera, Raven. 2012. Dealing with Deities. Paxson, Diana. 2006. Essential Asatru: Walking the Path of Norse Paganism. New York: Citadel Press Books.Pinkola Estes, Clarissa. 1992. Women Who Run With Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archtype. New York: Ballantine Books.Wise, constance. ChapterImage Creditswww.dreamstime.comswordartonline.wikia.comaerin-kayne.deviantart.comfulgurer.deviantart.comwww.mokshaproductions.comfiligreephantasms.deviantart.comjjcanvas.deviantart.comleliumoj.deviantart.comladyblacksword.deviantart.comjjcanvas.deviantart.compolasko.deviantart.comfafnirsheart.deviantart.comdarkrosefairy77.deviantart.comleliumoj.deviantart.comEvolvefish.comstory-games.comwww.deviantart.comaerin-kayne.deviantart.comsoag.orgrealmsofthemortalgods.tumblr.comvalsgarde.tumblr.com