"All were endangered; young and oldwere hunted down by that dark death-shadowwho lurked and swooped in the long nightson the misty moors; nobody knowswhere these reavers from hell roam on their errands."(5)
Monday, January 16, 2012
Modern Heathens take great pride in personal independence, refusing to bow before distant authorities or divine masters. This is not surprising, many who follow Heathen practices do so out of personal choice full well knowing their decision will push them to the fringes of modern Western society. The choice to follow any polytheistic practice, in an age when monotheism is the norm, is a small yet fundamental act of rebellion. For whatever reason the initial decision is made those who continue on a path that guarantees social marginalization at best do so because their existential needs are not served by modern, conventional spirituality. This same spirit of defiance sounds out strongly in Heathen lore. The duty to resist oppressive circumstances is a powerful theme in Germanic Lore.
To first understand the importance of resistance and rebellion one must first examine the cyclical nature of Germanic cosmology as presented in the Eddas. In the beginning of the sagas there was nothing but fire, ice, and a great void. One day the fire and ice boiled out into the gap, collided, and from the primordial void and chaos a new order emerged centered on Ymir. When Odin and His two brothers, Vili and Ve, struck down Ymir They used his body to create a new order where the Gods and humanity would flourish. Throughout the sagas They do battle with destructive giants and monsters like Fenris and the Midgard Serpent to keep Midgard and the Nine Worlds safe. In the Final Battle of Ragnarok the Gods take the field against their old foes one last time in spite of their pre-ordained doom. From the destruction of Ragnarok, as it was when fire and ice collided and Ymir fell, a new bright world will come from the ashes of the old.
In each cycle of destruction and rebirth new, more prosperous worlds are built from the bones of the old ended in chaos and destruction. The new worlds are born because of an upset of the existing status quo. The great yawning void, which had existed for time unknown between the realms of fire and ice, had been the center of the existing order until the great elemental forces poured in and filled it. Ymir and the frost giants had lived in relative prosperity unchallenged until Buri's grandsons Odin, Vili, and Ve struck him down and used the body to create a new world(1). Ragnarok begins with a three year ice age ending with Surtr's immolation of the World Tree. Every great cosmic change is catalyzed by disruption of the existing order. These changes are used as the means to initiate greater, more meaningful transformation.
Cosmic change does not come about for its own sake in the lore. While the lore is silent on the Gods' motives for slaying Ymir we can make some inferences from the lore. The primordial world in which the sons of Buri lived is described as extremely bleak. All that existed was Ymir, the cow Audumla who fed the giant, and a lot of salty ice(2). The new order built from Ymir's body is lush, fertile, and full of promise for the Gods, humans, and wights(3). Whatever the motive the end result was replacing the old, stagnant order with a new, more beneficial one for the Gods and the inhabitants of the Nine Worlds.
Beowulf's saga shows the same theme of liberation from oppressive circumstances. Following Grendel's first attack on the hall of Hereot the Ring-Danes did whatever they could to fight back and repel new attacks4. Conditions became quite grim:
In spite of all this they never stopped their war with Grendel, who "ruled in defiance of right"(6). When Beowulf left Geatland he did not come seeking wealth or riches but to volunteer for the battle with Grendel(7). He came with the blessing of the Geats(8) only requesting of Hrothgar that he do it himself with his men(9). The same theme re-asserts itself at the end of the saga when Beowulf, in the twilight of his years, personally seeks out and slays a dangerous dragon menacing his people at the cost of his own life.
The history of the people of the Old North is rich with stories of resistance and defiance of the mighty. The first and best examples come from the days when Rome ruled the world. In the first century AD Hermann of the Cherusci organized a coalition of tribes in defiance of Roman colonization of their lands. At Teutoburg Forest they destroyed the Roman army ending the first and only serious attempt by the Empire to conquer Germania. In the centuries that followed the Germanic tribes refused to let Rome rest fighting a series of bloody wars with the Empire. These were wars fought not by wealthy warrior-aristocrats or professional mercenaries but farmers, artisans, and merchants defending their homes and families. It is doubtful they had any serious hopes of destroying the Empire, a monolithic entity that cast a long shadow over the Rhine and Danube for centuries. What is clear is the fallout of the Empire's presence in the form of forced tribute, slave raids, punitive expeditions, and Rome's proxy wars reached a point where they could not be tolerated. In the face of deprivation, war, and slavery the Germanics consistently chose the risks of resistance over the certainty of submission.
The same defiance of oppression stands strong from the Empire's fall to the final Christianization of Scandinavia. Germanic tribes, facing conversion by force and coercion, refused to give up the old ways. With the exception of Iceland's conversion in 1000 AD every attempt to impose the Cross on the people was met with dogged, bloody resistance. From the Saxons' defiance of Charlemagne's invasion to Svolder when a coalition of Danes, Swedes, and Norse brought down the Christian tyrant Olaf Tryggvason and Stiklestad when an army of free common folk ambushed and slew the Christian king Olaf II the folk never gave up without a fight. When "conquered" they rebelled fiercely and often.
The message of resistance and rebellion is a powerful theme in the lore of the Northern world. When faced with oppressive conditions heroes, Gods, and ancestors alike pushed back, refusing to submit in the face of near-certain defeat. Many times when they made this fateful choice it was not with the certainty of victory behind them but as a challenge of impossible odds. Whether it is the Gods at Ragnarok, Beowulf facing the dragon, or the Cherusci at Teutoberg they chose defiance over submission and surrender.
Also published at Occupy-PNC
1. Gylfaginning V, trans. by Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur
2. Gylfaginning VI
3. Gylfaginning VIII-IX
4. Beowulf 170-178, trans. by Seamus Heaney
5. Beowulf 159-163
6. Beowulf 144
7. Beowful 194-201
8. Beowulf 415-418
9. Beowulf 431-432