Saturday, April 10, 2010

Sacrifice in Norse Lore

The central idea behind Christianity is the sacrifice of Jesus Christ by crucifixion in Jerusalem. The idea behind this sacrifice was that by dying He was washing away the sins of all mankind and saving them from the retribution of His Father. This is held up as an example of pure selflessness by an act of willing sacrifice; of a God who became a man to die for humanity. Yet Christianity is not the only place where sacrifice plays an essential role to the beliefs and practices of a people. In Asatru and Germanic Lore sacrifice plays an equally vital role. Willing sacrifice and accepting of loss and death for a greater purpose is as much a part of Heathen cosmology as the Wyrd. For some examples of the role of sacrifice by the Gods we will be examining the sacrifices of Odin and Tyr as well as the heroic example of Beowulf.

The most well-known sacrifices among the Aesir are those of Odin, the One-Eyed Allfather. He gave His left eye for the wisdom of the future from the Well of Mimir and hung Himself from the World Tree as a sacrifice of Himself to Himself for the wisdom of the runes. What we see in the examples of Odin are sacrifice for the sake of improving one's self. The example of Odin is one where we have to consider the lesson that to improve ourselves sometimes we have to leave something behind. In essence His sacrifices, willingly given and at great price, were sacrifices to Himself to elevate Himself to a higher level of understanding and skill. The price of both was great but in both cases the price was willingly paid. Without being ready to give up something of ourselves, those things that hold us back or the effort needed to truly go beyond what we are capable of, we can only go so far. Odin's example is one of giving what it takes of yourself to go above and beyond yourself to another level. It may not be as dramatic as a nine-day hanging or as graphic as plucking one's eye from your head but the example remains the same. Is it not a sacrifice to instead of seeking wealth go on to higher education and spend years in what is effectively an enforced vow of poverty sacrifice for knowledge or spending every day of the week engaging in serious physical exercise to grow stronger a sacrifice for strength?

Next in fame is the sacrifice of Tyr the One-Handed to Fenris so it could be bound and all the Nine Worlds kept safe from the great wolf's ravening jaws. The crux of this sacrifice, like Odin's, is that it is both willing and one that was of great value. Tyr gave His word of honor to the wolf that if Fenris should be bound by the Gods then he could take Tyr's right hand which rested in Fenris' maw. Now Tyr is a mighty and powerful warrior. If He truly wanted He could have plucked His right hand from the wolf's jaws in a moment and cheated the loss. Instead He willingly kept His word of honor and let Fenris have His hand. In this case Tyr is giving up of Himself to stay true to Himself. By letting the wolf take His hand to stand by His oath Tyr was placing His honor above the price of a hand. The sacrifice of Tyr is one that is a sacrifice of yourself to others to stay true to who you really are. There are many times in our lives where we are faced with hard choices to either stand true to what we believe and suffer loss or make the easy choice and leave behind who we really are. The example of Tyr is to willingly accept the losses and tough decisions we must face to stay true to what our conscience tells us is the right thing to do. While we may not be facing literal wolves we all have our wolves to face and times when we must place our hand in the jaws of hardship to remain true to ourselves.

Another example of sacrifice is not that of a God but of a man, albeit a mighty and heroic one. In the sage of Beowulf our hero at the end of his life, old and waning in strength, must face a dragon that is ravaging his kingdom and threatening his people. He knows that he goes to his death, at his advanced age there is little doubt that he will not be able to walk away from this fight as he did from the battles of his younger years against sea serpents, Grendel, and Grendel's mother. Yet he goes off to war personally to defend his people and realm from the ravening monster in spite of the knowledge of certain death. In doing so Beowulf is putting the good of his people and land above personal good willingly and accepting the inevitable nature of death. He knows that either way he is going to die, either from a slow death of age or a swift one in battle. He chooses battle instead because it is a sacrifice that as king he must make for the sake of his people. Beowulf's sacrifice is one of a person in a position of responsibility putting the good of the people ahead of himself. Either way he knows he will die, by going into battle he is choosing to both make his death be one that matters and live up to the life he had led. Beowulf going out to challenge the dragon is a sacrifice of the self for the sake of kin and folk. While not as dramatic as Odin's hanging or Tyr's maiming Beowulf shows to us the simple courage of giving up of ourselves for the needs of the many.

Sacrifice is as much an element of the Norse lore as Christianity but as I have shown is different in its essential nature. Sacrifice by the heroes and Gods is not of the grand sweep on the cosmic level but the sacrifices necessary for the sake of the here and now. Odin gave of Himself to Himself for wisdom that He could apply practically and immediately. Tyr let His hand be taken to stand true to His honor and to keep the wolf at bay. Beowulf went gladly to his death in battle to defend his folk from immediate danger. The sacrifices asked for and given willingly were ones of the sort of the here and now, of life in the immediate sense. This is not to say they were not grand in scale or purpose, but rather the purpose is concrete and practical in nature. By sacrificing of ourselves to go beyond what we can do, to stay true to who we are, or for the sake of others in the hour of greatest need we look to better our lives in the living world. Unlike the sacrifice of Christ to transcend the suffering of the world the sacrifices of Odin, Tyr, and Beowulf were ones to better themselves and the world around them.