Tuesday, March 1, 2011
Life, Suffering, and Asatru
Available in German, translated by Erin Banks
Regardless of belief system suffering is an issue we all face every day. Whether it is personal or the suffering of other people the question of why is a universal one. Every system has its own way of explaining the cause of human suffering. In the Vedic cosmology karma, the results of deeds in this or a previous life, are the cause of human suffering. In the Abrahamic religions all suffering is attributed in one way or another to the Will of God. Even the presence of an adversarial figure in these systems is ultimately God's Will. Asatru has its own take on human suffering and life's challenges as unique as any other.
To understand the nature of suffering in Asatru one must first understand the basics of Heathen cosmology. In Germanic lore the Gods, unlike the Abrahamic traditions, do not hold absolute power over the universe. The Aesir and the Vanir are only two of the tribes of mighty beings that live on the realms of the World Tree. The most powerful and nearest to the Gods in stature are the Giants, known in Old Norse as the Jotuun. The Jotuun are the age-old adversaries of the Gods. Their rivalry and conflicts go as far back as the slaying of Ymir by Odin, Vili, and Ve as described in the Voluspo. At Ragnarok they will be the principal opponents of the Gods with the Fire-Giant Surtr leading the charge. In spite of the long-standing rivalry the Gods and Giants mutually respect the sanctity of hospitality and many of the Gods have married and had children with their Giant spouses. Spiritually they are responsible for the worst tragedies to befall humans such as earthquakes, hurricanes, famine, and other natural disasters .
Dwelling at the roots of Yggdrasil are the mysterious Norns. The Norns are the only ones in the universe who know all the secrets of the past, present, and future. While They are Jotuun themselves the Norns are a group apart. Like the Three Fates in Hellenic lore the Norns are the final say on anything's doom. They water the World Tree and tend to the Well of the Wyrd. They remain distant only involving Themselves in the affairs of others for reasons known only to Them.
There are more in the universe than just the mighty powers. Asatru is very animistic in its understanding of the natural world. A myriad of alfar, landsvaettir, dwarves, wights, and other powers walk in Midgard. In the old days these land spirits were the most common recipients of offerings by the pre-Christian Germanic tribes. These spirits have less might but more immediate impact in day to day life. Similar to these spirits are the thurses more commonly known as trolls. These are malevolent spirits as far as humans are concerned. Like other animistic spirits the vaettir the thurses are usually associated with nature and make their homes in Midgard.
Along with the Wyrd and one's personal Orlog you have a lot going on in Germanic cosmology. The Gods are the most powerful as far as humanity are concerned but the vaettir and thurses are nothing to sneer at. Asatru's cosmology is one that is very active with the powers great and small influencing daily life. How they influence daily life depends on who is doing what. This does not exempt humanity's actions as a cause. In none of the lore are individuals or groups ever absolved of responsibility for their actions. One's deeds are one's own. Human action drives the action of many of the later heroic sagas with feuds, struggle over inheritance, and land disputes leading to war and strife. When you have a world as busy and complex as this it's not hard to see why there is hardship in the world. With so many forces and personalities ranging from Godly or Gigantic action to the deeds of other people any number of things can happen for good or ill.
This is not to say the universe is a cold, uncaring place where humanity is at the mercy of greater powers. The Gods, particularly Thor, fight the Giants to keep them out of Midgard. There are many ways humans can fight, charm, or bribe the powers of Midgard such as using iron or a Thor's hammer to repel thurses. In the Heathen understanding of life there are many ways tragedy can strike. Ironically enough for a world with so much going on the Heathen answer to the question of struggle is beautiful in its simplicity: confront and solve the problem. Regardless of whether it is unemployment, a hurricane, or injustice the lore consistently shows heroes and Gods confronting the sources of their problems. Thor regularly does battle with Giants to keep them away from Asgard and Midgard. Beowulf did not shy away from the monsters he faced, even in old age he does not hesitate to face the dragon rampaging in Geatland. The actions of our ancestors are very much the same. In the boldness of Hermann of the Chercusci destroying three Roman legions, Leif Erikson's expedition to Newfoundland, and the wars with the Roman Empire the pre-Christian Germanics did not shy away from struggle. That said they did not always do so by force. Just as Sigurd had the good sense to ambush Fafnir from a trench and Odin charmed His way to the mead of poetry a direct approach does not always mean using force or doing the obvious. Gods, heroes and humans do not avoid struggle or turn the other cheek; they face it directly and pragmatically no matter what the cause.