Omens: The Otherworldly And Odin

An Opening of Omens

If you’ve ever watched Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, you may remember an episode that begins with a few seemingly inconsequential happenings. These are subtle things that range from the way a loaf of bread splits while being baked in the oven, to a broken mirror in an empty room.

Omens can be tricky things, especially when they’re subtle. How to know whether that flock of birds fighting in the parking lot is an omen or just some avian drama? Or what about the vultures that scream at each other so loudly you can’t help but look outside? (Double points if they fall silent as soon as you “get the message”.) Are those crows really sent by the Morrigan or those ravens of Odin? And what’s with that sudden, unseasonal influx of black insects in the home?

“Speak rede, birb!”

These things tend to be subtle—until they’re not.

“Human Omens”

So far, the omens I’ve described are quite traditional. People have been reading the movements of birds and insects (among other things) for a long time. But one thing we don’t seem to read as much when it comes to omens, is the behavior of other humans.

We humans often make plans and telegraph what we’re about to do next. That’s not the kind of thing I’m talking about here though—as always, we deal with subtleties. The kinds of human behaviors that interest me are those that aren’t quite so consciously realized.

So, what do I mean by that?

Inspiration, Creativity, and Prophecy

When I get the sense that something is stirring on a subtle level, one of the first places I look for omens is our collective “fruits of inspiration.” So, in other words, I look to what our writers and artists are putting out, both in our communities, as well as in larger media productions. I’ve discussed this before on this blog and will talk about it in more depth in my upcoming class, but inspiration is a deeply strange and other thing. In its purest form, it originates from outside the human (as least in the traditions I practice). And out of the three different sources of “human omens” I will detail in this post, this is the one that can also serve as a heads-up that something is brewing long before anything even begins.

Take this passage from the commentary in Jung’s Red Book, for example:

“In the years directly preceding the outbreak of war, apocalyptic imagery was widespread in European arts and literature. For example, in 1912, Wassily Kandinsky wrote of a coming universal catastrophe. From 1912 to 1914, Ludwig Meidner painted a series of works known as the apocalyptic landscapes, with scenes of destroyed cities, corpses, and turmoil.” (Jung Carl and Shamdasani Sonu, Pp 18-19)


World War I, a conflict that would claim around 40 million lives, broke out in July 1914. Yet artists and writers were examining those themes—sometimes with eerie accuracy— years before the first shots were even fired.

Dreams, Intuition, and Divination

The second source of “omens” I look to is my friends. Usually, by the time I get the sense that something is stirring, it’s not long before people start hitting me up if I don’t get in touch with them first. Whenever this happens, I ask about dreams and intuitive hits, as well as any divinatory themes they may be getting. When it comes to prophecy, the image of the seer prophesizing from a high seat is a powerful; it’s what we tend to imagine when we think of prophecy. But if you look back at some of the disasters that have plagued human history, there are often examples where multiple people have begun to dream about the same kind of horrific themes right before something awful happens.

My preference is to view these things in aggregate, with an eye to spotting patterns or themes. And when you get down to it, this is not so different from the process that comparativist scholars engage in when working to trace early Indo-European beliefs and practices through multiple descendant cultures. One a very basic level, you’re looking for frequency as well as cross-cultural examples—especially in cultures that aren’t known to have interacted with each other. Here, I’m looking for frequency as well as cross-tradition examples, and especially in groups of people who don’t know each other. Those are the patterns and themes that interest me the most—even if they run counter to my own experiences and impressions.

Strange Behavior

Finally, the third source I look to, is strange behavior (albeit with some caveats).

In Germania, the Roman writer, Tacitus, wrote about a form of omen-taking from observing the behavior of sacred horses. Unfortunately, I don’t have any horses, sacred or otherwise. But over the years, I have found the observation of my fellow humans to be similarly effective.

Again, we’re talking about subtleties here. But we humans are no less affected by subtle energies and the stirrings of the unseen layers of our world than our fellow inhabitants of Middle Earth. We are no less a part of nature and no less animals for all our plastic and technology. And I’ve found that many of us will subconsciously react to changes in energy as well as whatever-the-hell our gut instincts are telling us at the time. Unsurprisingly, our behavior will often show it too.

I’m reminded here, of my epileptic brother’s behavior in a famously haunted house that stopped as soon as he was removed from the premises. Before my mother wrestled him out the door though, his behavior had become animalistic; he’d taken to the floor on all fours, barking and growling at the tour guide and fellow (ghost) adventurers.

Now, people do strange things all the time. But when you’re finding a lot of unrelated people behaving similarly, it’s time to pay attention, especially if you cannot discern a common cause. And again, in my opinion, this kind of thing is best observed in aggregate and with an eye to spotting patterns. Speaking of patterns: my brother apparently wasn’t the only person to have behaved like that in that space.

In other words, if the tour guide were to be believed, there was a pattern of some people exhibiting animalistic behavior at that site.

That was an extreme example, and I clearly cannot prove that my brother behaved like that due to the unseen of that place. But I do hope you understand what I’m getting at here.

The One-Eyed God on the Road

This all brings me to some of the possible omens I’ve noticed recently. On the one hand, there have been multiple strange conversations with neighbors about an increase in shadow people that “don’t move like shadow people” in the street. (Think less “dart-y” and more “people-y”.) Friends have told me about incidents where they have an experience of “pareidolia” that sounds more like glamour, and that leaves them in doubt of what is actually “real”. Other friends have told me about seeing critters that aren’t there. And a bunch of people are telling me about the disturbing dreams and messages they’ve received of late. Some of these things I’ve also experienced for myself.

These, to me, all have something of an otherworldly feel to them. As does the recent killing of the white stag by armed police in Bootle, UK. (Side note: probably a bad move to kill beings associated with the otherworld when your country is looking at food and fuel shortages.)

But I’ve also noticed that a certain one-eyed god seems to be getting around a lot more nowadays too. More people (some of whom have never interacted with him before) are now telling me about their interactions with him and asking for advice. I’ve felt driven to write about him in great depth. An entire Heathen community performed a days-long ritual in his honor, erecting a 20ft god post. And for two Wednesdays in a row now, there’s been news that’s felt pointed in either its direct association with him (such as the announcement of this hoard of bracteates), or associated symbolism (such as the suspected electrical fire at this “Midgard’s” church on the island of Grímsey). Then today (as of the time of writing), this video of a Spiritualist who allegedly channeled Odin was shared in a group chat I’m on.

 

The bread has split, the ink has spilled, the mirror in the empty room is broken. But what could it mean?

Winter is Coming, Winter is Here, Winter is Coming Back for Another Go

I’ve followed the Old Man for over a decade and a half now. But even though I am very much “Team Odin”, I also know he has a tendency to become more prolific during “interesting” times.

Take the Migration Period, for example.

The Migration Period was not an easy time to live in. Peoples migrated and fought over resources. A volcanic eruption in 535-536 caused a dust veil thick enough to darken the sun enough that crops failed for at least two years in a row. And in those days of death and desperation, the warband religion of a certain one-eyed god of spears seems to have made its way north and into the elite centers of power.

Before that (in another time of death and desperation), his hands were probably guiding the spears of the Germans and Celtiberians led by a couple of one-eyed leaders who fought against Rome (Enright 217-240).

And before that, who knows?

Something tells me though, that it was probably another time of death and desperation. With this in mind, this new rise of the Spear God doesn’t exactly fill me with comfort in our time of plague, climate crisis, and burgeoning far right movements.

Death Will Make a Door

The final point I want to make today, is that times in which there is a lot of death, are times in which the dead and otherworldly tend to draw closer. If you’ve ever read about times of mass death in human history, you may have noticed that there are usually a lot of strange goings on reported during those times, as well as humans getting involved in strange cults and practices. If that kind of thing interests you, here are some folktales from the time of the bubonic plague. Pay attention to the kinds of beings sighted in conjunction with the plague, as well as the plants and days mentioned in the purported cures. Some of them are downright other.

They really shouldn’t have killed that stag.

Until the next time, good humans!

Be well.

Books Cited
Enright, Michael J. Lady with a Mead Cup: Ritual, Prophecy, and Lordship in the European Warband from La Tène to the Viking Age.
Jung, Carl and Shamdasani Sonu, The Red Book/Liber Novus: A Reader’s Edition

A Furious God and Father of Charms

Furious Witch is Furious

The first time I cursed someone by accident I was angry. No, scrub that – I was furious. It was the kind of rage that heats the blood and causes the body to shake, to drive that pre-fight shot of adrenaline up the spine. And before I knew it the words had taken flight from my tongue, fully formed before I had even realized they’d been marshalled and ready to depart.

I’d felt it too at the time. There was the sensation of something leaving, something being unleashed into the world, and I knew then and there that what I had spoken into the world would come to pass; that my victim would fall from his ladder at work.

I remember then rushing to work protective magic on the person I’d cursed. You see, I didn’t really hate them, and I really didn’t want them to be hurt either. I was still young in my craft back then and my fury had been the one in the driving seat.

The next day the target of my wrath experienced the effects of both my curse and protection. He fell from his ladder at work while cleaning the top floor windows of a house and walked away completely unharmed. His boss was so shook up by the entire thing he gave him the rest of the day off anyway and sent him home.

This isn’t a boast. If anything, I’m not particularly proud of this moment. There is no ‘win’ here, just a loss of control that could have potentially seriously hurt someone I didn’t actually want to hurt. But it is a memory that has been coming up of late as I’ve been digging into the relationship between inspiration, fury/frenzy, and charms.

Furious Gods, Inspired Gods

As both a writer and magic worker, inspiration forms an integral part of my practice. In my fiction I birth new characters, and commit to word the speech of beings who I am fairly sure existed long before my birth and who will still exist long after I am gone. In magic…well, maybe in another post (this one is super long).

I’ve written about Óðinn/Woden here before, of his wisdom and relationship to breath. Without a doubt he is the god who has had the greatest influence over my life, answering my prayers and gifting to me in return in every land I’ve ever lived. But there is one element of this god that hasn’t really made sense to me until relatively recently, and that is the collocation between fury/frenzy and inspiration.

Óðinn’s connection with the poetic (and by extension, the inspiration that makes poetry possible) is quite well established in the lore. In Skáldskaparmál, it is Óðinn – or as he is also known, Fimbulþulr (Mighty Poet/Mighty Speaker) – who steals Óðroerir, or the ‘mead of inspiration/poetry’ from the giant Suttung (Price 63). It is because of him (at least according to the Prose Edda), that any of us even have any poetic ability at all (even the bad poets, who apparently are the recipients of the mead Óðinn shat out while escaping Suttung – seriously, look it up!). Yet as the myth makes clear, he is not the source of inspiration but its liberator – he too had to acquire it.

Egill – the man, the legend.

Óðinn’s association with the poetic and inspired seems to have persisted outside the mythical realm as well. In the sagas we find the famous Viking Age poet Egill Skallagrímsson, the protagonist of Egils Saga. Egill was a quintessentially Odinic figure, a warrior-poet who had knowledge of runes, was possessed of a berserker’s wrath, and carried one of Óðinn’s heiti as a compound in his name (Grímr).

Further possible support for a connection between Óðinn and poets comes from more modern criticism of the Eddas and the worldview they present (that of Óðinn as the head god who presides over a Norse pantheon). For these critics, this is a skewed perspective that was likely unknown to people who lived away from the centers of power that arose during the migration period, the ruling elites that inhabited them, and the poets they patronized. After all, what was a ruler back then without a poet to provide PR?

This is the core of the argument that scholar Terry Gunnell makes in Pantheon? What Pantheon? and From One High One to Another: The Acceptance of Óðinn as Preparation for God. For Gunnell, it is potentially thanks to the poets – those purveyors of Óðinn-centric religion – that the Eddas and the skáldic corpus survived in later years. The art of poetry was valued by both Heathen and Christian alike, and these sources may have been used as skáldic teaching texts therefore justifying their preservation.

Of course, an easy counterargument to this theory would be that the god of poets in the Eddas was Bragi and that the Óðinnic focus of the skálds could be easily explained by the necessity of pleasing their Óðinn-worshipping patrons. However, we should also note the inclusion of poetic meters such as galdralag (magic spell meter), and as Magnus Olsen argued, even dróttkvætt in magical charms – an area with which Óðinn is far more securely associated (Simek 98; Olsen 1916, “On Magical Runes”).

But we’ll get to that later. First, we need to embrace the fury.

Woden id est Furor

Writing in Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae Pontificum IV, the German chronicler Adam of Bremen wrote of Woden, Woden id est furor, or “Woden, that is to say fury” (Simek 1993, 242). This is probably the most well known reference to Woden or Óðinn’s furious tendencies, but it isn’t by any means the only one. We’re going to return to this phrase and the other possible translations of the Latin word fūror later, but a translation of “fury” or “frenzy” is sufficiently complete for now.

Although best known as Óðinn (a name which may be translated as “Frenzied/Furious One”), the deity we mostly call “Óðinn” is a god of many names or heiti. In The Viking Way: Magic and Mind in Late Iron Age Scandinavia, Neil Price lists roughly 180 different heiti for the One Eyed God (depending on how you count them), which he divides thematically into 17 different categories. In the ‘Frenzy-, trance- and anger’ category, Price counts no fewer than 22 heiti or 10.5% of all heiti listed (including the name Óðinn itself) (Price 63 – 68).

Woden id est furor indeed!

What’s in a Name?

One of the most amusing things to me as a long-time worshipper of Óðinn is the tendency for those (usually on the far right) to see him as some unyielding, hypermasculine force. And as I’ve argued before, often the associations they place upon Óðinn are far more reflective of their own ideas about leadership and masculinity as opposed to what we find in the source material.

The etymology of Óðinn/Woden/Wodan/Wuotan/Wuodan (as they are all phonetic variants of the same name), is another area I believe further disproves this idea of the One Eyed God (Liberman, “Wednesday’s Father”). Not that that’s the point of this essay, but I may as well mention it while I’m here.

The name Óðinn is related to the ON adjective óðr, a word that translates as “frantic” or “furious”. In turn, óðr is believed to derive from the Proto-Germanic *wōda, a word meaning “delirious”. Also derived from *wōda and related to the ON óðr are the Gothic wods (“possessed”), OE wod (“insane”), and the now obsolete Dutch word woed meaning “frantic”, “wild”, or “crazy”.

Generally speaking, the further you trace an etymology back, the less secure and more theoretical that etymology becomes. If you notice, I used the term “believed to derive from” when referring to the Proto-Germanic root of óðr. This is because etymology at this time depth largely relies on words that are reconstructed using a series of educated guesses about things like sound changes. Words that are reconstructed in this way are written with an asterisk (*) at the beginning so as to clearly delineate them as linguistic reconstructions.

When you do trace that etymology back further to the WEUR (Germanic/Italo-Celtic) root *uoh2-tó though, you also arrive at the root of a number of Celtic language terms related to prophecy and soothsaying such as the OIr fáith (“soothsayer, prophet”), fáth (“prophesy”), and the Welsh word gwawd (“poem, satire”).

Interestingly, despite the degrees of linguistic separation that stand between the Celtic descendants of that WEUR root and ON óðr, the meanings of the noun óðr occupy a surprisingly similar semantic field as their Celtic counterparts on the other side of the language tree. As a noun, óðr may be translated as “mind”, “feeling”, “song”, and “poetry”. This is the óðr that is the third of the life-giving gifts to Askr and Embla.

All words for mutable, intangible qualities bobbing around in the shifting sands of etymology, but a remarkably consistent picture all the same.

Furor?

Which brings us quite neatly back to the Latin word fūror. Because although you only ever usually see it translated as “fury” or “frenzy” within the context of Woden, the word fūror carries a number of other meanings that make Adam’s choice of descriptor really quite accurate.

According to Cassell’s Latin & English Dictionary (1987, 98), the word fūror may be translated in the following way:

Fūror:  madness, raving, insanity, furious anger, martial rage; passionate love; inspiration, poetic or prophetic frenzy…

Once again, even with a word most commonly translated as “fury”, when we dig down further, we find that same collocation of fury, frenzy, poetry and prophecy as we saw in the etymology of óðr and its various linguistic relatives given in the section above.

Charm Father

As mentioned above, the art of the poet could also be turned towards the sorcerer’s art – there was even an entire poetic meter for writing spells (galdralag). Unlike with poetry however, Óðinn’s position as galdrs föður, or “Father of Galdr” (as he was named in Baldrs Draumar) is both explicit and well-established, and not just in the ON sources either (Simek 242). Woden is the only Heathen god to be mentioned in the OE magico-medical manuscripts; it is he who rests at the center of the so-called “Nine Herbs Charm” found in the Lacnunga. And it is Woden who is depicted chanting a spell over an injured horse’s leg in the Second Merseburg Charm (Waggoner, xv).

In my opinion, it is noteworthy that it is Óðinn who features in two of the most well known healing charms, especially given the normally combative nature of magical healing in Germanic cultures. Sickness was often perceived as being an invading force – often personified in some way -to be driven out or defeated, rendering the healer a magical warrior of sorts (Storms 49-54).

And this is where the various pieces of information laid out in this post begin to coalesce.

Enter The Tietäjä

For the final part of our exploration of fury, inspiration, and charms, we’re going to leave behind the Old Norse world and move eastwards and forwards in time to the lands of the Finnish magical specialist, the tietäjä (“knower, one who knows”).

The first written record of a tietäjä is relatively late, dating back to the 18th century at the earliest, However there is evidence to suggest that the “technology of incantations” that form the basis of the tietäjä’s interactions with the unseen world was adapted into North Finnic traditions from Germanic cultural influences during the Iron Age (Frog. “Shamans, Christians, and Things”).

That is not to say that the tietäjä somehow belongs to the Germanic cultural

Tietäjä Pekka Ruotsalainen and his wife. Photo by Ahti Rytkönen. Source: https://www.finna.fi/Record/musketti.M012:KK1482:315

sphere though. If scholars such as Anna Leena Siikala are correct in their assertion that the ‘tietäjä institution’ took shape in the first millennium CE, then there have been at least hundreds of years of Finnish cultural adaptation of this “technology of incantations” despite its Germanic roots (Frog. “Shamans, Christians, and Things”). Rather than looking at the tietäjä’s art as a wholesale survival of Germanic charm magic, it is the potential echoes of those older Germanic “technology of incantations” that interest us.

Throughout the course of this essay we’ve focused on the figure of Óðinn and the seeming paradox of a god of charms who is associated with poets, inspiration, fury, frenzy, madness, and berserkers (remember Egill?). I believe these characteristics provide the best clue to those older Germanic echoes that survived in the tietäjä’s art. Moreover, I believe that through examining accounts of tietäjäs (some of them from the perspective of the tietäjäs themselves) – especially where behavior is concerned – can provide important insight into working with Germanic charm material in the modern day.

The Tietäjä’s Body and Behavior

According to the account of a tietäjä recorded in 1835, the tietäjä had to possess “terrible luonto (inner supernatural force)” and anger in order to perform a charm successfully. The theme of extreme anger and violence is one that is often conveyed both in the ritual actions of the tietäjä as well as embodied by the tietäjä himself while working his magic. It is not enough to just feel enraged, one must act like it too.

Of the tietäjä’s behavior, Finnish folklorist Elias Lönnrot gives the following summary:

“the tietäjä 1) becomes enraged, 2) his speech becomes loud and frenzied, 3) he foams at the mouth, 4) gnashes his teeth, 5) his hair stands on end, 6) his eyes widen, 7) he knits his brows, 8) he spits often, 9) his body contorts, 10) he stamps his feet, 11) he jumps up and down on the floor, and 12) makes many other gestures.”

-taken from Laura Stark, The Charmer’s Body and Behavior in Charms, Charmers and Charming

For the tietäjä, fury was a source of power, and as such people took great pains to avoid incurring the wrath of a tietäjä. In one story an old tietäjä becomes so angry at a farmhand who unwittingly vandalizes his bird-trap that the farmhand goes insane. And when asked if the farmhand could be spared his fate, the old sorcerer simply tells them that it’s impossible as he became “too angry” (presumably while working his magic) (Stark, 8).

A Berserker and a Tietäjä Walked into a Bar…

There are also some interesting parallels between the tietäjä and ON berserkr here as well. Though the behavior is more extreme in the following account (a depiction of the berserker’s famous imperviousness to fire and iron), there are still notable parallels between this account and the list of behaviors compiled by Lönnrot.

“These men asked Halfdan to attack Hardbeen and his champions man by man; and he not only promised to fight, but assured himself the victory with most confident words. When Hardbeen heard this, a demoniacal frenzy suddenly took him; he furiously bit and devoured the edges of his shield; he kept gulping down fiery coals; he snatched live embers in his mouth and let them pass down into his entrails; he rushed through the perils of crackling fires; and at last, when he had raved through every sort of madness, he turned his sword with raging hand against the hearts of six of his champions. It is doubtful whether this madness came from thirst for battle or natural ferocity.”

-Saxo Grammaticus, Gesta Danorum Book VII.

Like the berserker, the tietäjä was also said to be impervious to fire and iron ( Stark, 9). There was a belief that the tietäjä had to “harden” his body, making it impervious to both magical and physical damage.This “hardness” was not only dependent on the tietäjä’s inherent qualities (such as a “hard” or “strong” luonto), but could also be achieved through incantation and ritual as well.

Hardening the Body

Much like ourselves, tietäjäs also seem to have made use of magical shielding. But whereas modern practitioners might set themselves inside a magical bubble, the tietäjä seems to have called down protection from holy powers in the form of magical iron clothing or armor.

Give to me an iron coat,
Iron coat, iron cap,
Iron mantle for my shoulders,
Iron mittens for my hands,
Iron boots for my feet,
With which I shall enter the Hiisi’s lands,
Move about in Evil’s realm,
So that the sorcerer’s arrows will not penetrate,
Nor the wizard’s knives,
Nor the shooter’s weapons,
Nor the tietäjä’s blades

(Stark, 8)

The tietäjä who was summoned to war was said to be bulletproof – “hardened” by wearing a shirt in which a corpse had been buried, or by holding a bullet that had killed someone in the mouth. One former soldier by the name of Alatt claims to have “brushed handfuls of bullets off his chest when they didn’t penetrate his skin” (Stark, 9).

Conversely, we do not know what rituals (if any) were performed by berserkers (though there have been plenty of theories suggested over the years).

Conclusions and a Question

At the beginning of this essay I began with a story of rage and magic. Of what rage can do, and what can (almost) happen when it’s allowed to burn out of control. Over the course of this study, we’ve looked at Óðinn’s seemingly disparate associations with poets, poetry, charms, frenzy and fury. We’ve dug into his heiti as well as the etymology of his name, and a surprisingly consistent collection of characteristics have emerged. From there, we shifted focus to the tietäjä and the ways in which they embodied many of those characteristics while working their charms and incantations (themselves a form of poetry). Finally, we looked at the similarities between tietäjäs and berserkers and methods used by tietäjäs to “harden” their bodies against physical and magical attack.

Though the tietäjä institution is undoubtedly Finnish, there seem to be some distinctly Óðinnic echoes here. It’s my opinion that the tietäjä’s use of fury as a source of magical power may be seen as a model for not only understanding Óðinn’s fury, but also the potential role of that kind of weaponized fury in galdr.
However, despite the meaning of his name or the 10.5% of heiti pertaining to frenzy, we never actually see Óðinn in the kind of berserker rage that is so associated with him (at least not in any sources that I can think of).

Rage is powerful – it is a source of power when chanting spells – yet without control it is just as easily our undoing as our success. The berserker wielded rage without control, becoming a danger to not only his enemies but his allies too, and was often outcast for it. The tietäjä wielded rage with control, but still often fell into the trap of becoming petty and punitive, and in some cases dooming entire families with their incantations (Stark, 11). Yet the “furious” god of many names does not seem to rage but remains the “Father of Charms”.

Now why do you think that is?

Sources

Cassell’s Latin & English Dictionary (1987)

Frog – Shamans, Christians, and Things in between: From Finnic–Germanic Contacts to the Conversion of Karelia
Grammaticus, Saxo – Gesta Danorum Book VII

Gunnell, Terry – From One High One to Another: The Acceptance of Óðinn as Preparation for God

Gunnell, Terry – Pantheon? What Pantheon? 
Kroonen, Guus – Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Germanic
Liberman, Anatoly – “Wednesday’s Child”, OUP Blog
Olsen, Magnus – On Magical Runes
Price, Neil – The Viking Way: Magic and Mind in Late Iron Age Scandinavia (2nd Ed.)
Simek, Rudolf – Dictionary of Northern Mythology
Stark, Laura – “The Charmer’s Body and Behavior as a Window Onto Early Modern Selfhood”, in Roper, Jonathan (Ed.) Charms, Charmers and Charming: International Research on Verbal Magic
Storms, Godfrid – Anglo-Saxon Magic
Waggoner, Ben – Norse Magical and Herbal Healing: A Medical Book from Medieval Iceland

Heathen Magical Perspectives: Breath

Breath is sacred to me. And not just because I rely on it to stay alive.

As a Heathen, breath was the first life-bringing gift given to humans in the poem Völuspá. These first humans (at least according to this mythological account) began their existence as “trees”. In Gylfaginning, these “trees” are found on a windswept beach, I imagine them as logs possibly washed up by the sea.

So three gods happen upon these dendrous layabouts, and decide to give them life. And this is where Óðinn steps up and breathes önd into them.

Just imagine for a moment – the cold and unyielding wood somehow coming to breathe. I have to imagine those first breaths to be creaking and harsh, possibly even painful.

But then comes Loðurr with what might have been heat and color. (I say ‘might’ here because there’s some discussion about the ‘heat’ part.) I now imagine the harshness of creaking wood softening to flesh, and those harsh gasps becoming sighs of relief.

It’s probably a kindness that Hœnir’s gift came last really. Because he gave them óðr or mind, and presumably only then, an awareness of self.

There’s a lot to be said about these gifts and their relevance to magic. Today though, I’m going mostly to focus on Óðinn’s gift of önd.

Breath and ‘Soul’

You may have already inferred from the retelling above that önd is breath, and it is. But önd wasn’t just speaking to the breath that oxygenates the body. In both the Zoega and Cleasby-Vigfusson dictionaries, it is also translated as ‘soul’ too.

For me though, önd is also the steed upon which inspiration, or óðr rides. A fitting gift from the god of Skalds.

The Nature of Inspiration

But before we follow that thread any further, we first need to take a look at what inspiration may have originally been.

Unfortunately, the Norse and Germanic corpus isn’t particularly forthcoming on the nature of inspiration. We know that there are poetic meters associated with magic and necromancy. And we can infer that Skaldic craft was itself considered magical. We can also look at the story of Egill Skallagrimson covering his head with his cloak in order to compose poetry in Egill’s saga, and possibly infer certain practices related to the getting of inspiration (as Jón Hnefill Aðalsteinsson theorizes in <em> Going Under the Cloak</em>).

However, in my opinion, our best clues come from the Welsh sources.
Like the Norse, the Welsh had an advanced culture of poetry (as too did the Irish). To be a poet, was to be capable of magic, and poets possessed of awen had the ability to influence kings.

The Welsh word awen, or ‘poetic genius’ carried supernatural and magical connotations, and was associated with spiritual enlightenment and wisdom. This was not “inspiration” as we know it today. This was inspiration associated with ideas of ‘spiritual wind’ and ‘divine breath’. The words ‘awen’ and awel (a Welsh word meaning ‘wind’ or ‘breeze’) are both derived from the Indo-European *uel, or ‘breath’. (You can find out more about awen in this video by Welsh scholar, Dr Gwilym Morus-Baird here.)

But it’s when we get to the purported origin of awen that things become interesting. Because in the Welsh sources, awen comes from the Welsh Otherworld, or Annwfn, the ‘Very Deep World’, rising up as a ‘spiritual wind’ or ‘divine breath’ to fill the poet, bringing vision and other spiritual gifts.

As one might expect of the ‘Very Deep World’, Annwfn is often depicted as a chthonic realm in the medieval Welsh textsan underworld, if you will. It is a realm connected with spirits, both Otherworldly and dead alike. An idyllic realm, a perfected realm. And it’s here with this idea of inspiration that comes from spirits and is breathed in (inspired) where we come crashing back into the Norse sources.

The topic of spirits entering a person for prophecy or other purposes can be quite controversial in modern Heathenism – taboo in some circles even. But as Eldar Heide demonstrates in Spirits Through Respiratory Passages , there is ample evidence of spirits entering a person through the breath. The evidence presented by Heide in the paper is primarily concerned with hostile attacking spirits who enter by forcing a yawn in their victims and enter on the in-breath. But an example given from Hrólfs saga kraka, shows that ingress by spirits may have also been a part of seiðr. In the account given in Hrólfs saga kraka, a seiðkona is depicted yawning before giving (or attempting to give) prophetic answers. Moreover, it was not uncommon This occurs multiple times in the account. Could this be a potential parallel to the awen-filled speech of the Welsh poets?

Working with Breath

In the magico-religious practices that I’ve developed over the years, breath is one of the key ways through which I connect with Óðinn. For many people who work with this god, he is called Allfather because of his role in enlivening Askr and Embla. However, for me, he is the Allfather because as the giver of breath, he is the giver of the one gift that all humans share regardless of ethnicity. We all breathe from the same air when we take our first breaths as newborn infants, and our final breaths will leave us to mingle once more with the winds. This is one of the main ways in which we are all connected, and it is with that understanding that I explore the breath in my work.

Meditation

There are many ways in which you can work with breath in Heathen magic and magic in general. But today I’m going to begin with meditation.

Many types of meditation work with the breath. Usually, it is used as a vehicle for changing one’s mental state and/or as a focus or support for meditation. But breath can also be used as a medium for exploring that sense of interconnectedness I mentioned above.

The first time I experienced this, I was stood at the side of Goðafoss waterfall in Northern Iceland. I’d just been under the cloak and was thinking about the stories surrounding the falls when I found myself wondering about Óðinn in Iceland. Suddenly, my attention was drawn to the sound of heavy wing beats that somehow sounded louder than the roar of the waterfall. Two ravens were flying across the width of the falls and their wings were all I could hear. Time became weighty and the world more ‘real’. I became intensely aware of my breath, and suddenly I was not just myself anymore but engaging in a communion of sorts with the winds, the world around, and a certain one-eyed god. I was a part of the whole rather than a singular being. The ravens turned and flew towards me until they drew level and veered away, taking the moment with them.

It is this experience I try to replicate when I meditate in this way. I begin with offerings and a prayer before taking a few moments to calm myself and fall into a light trance state. Then I focus on my breath as a connecting medium. Each time I breathe in, I do so with the awareness that I am breathing in a substance of winds, spirits and inspiration shared by everybeing else that breathes as I do. Then I release it back into the wholeness of the world completing the circle once more. Each breath is a micro-reenactment of life from birth to death. On good days, I focus so completely on the breath and what it carries that I no longer feel the separation between myself and the whole, and that is when the real magic happens.

In my experience, this exercise is the most satisfying when performed in a high place where the winds blow free, but you do not need to be on a mountaintop to do this. Your backyard or sitting indoors near an open window will work just as well.

A Story in Parts

In this post, we’ve covered a lot of ground. We began in mythological time, with three gods on a windswept beach giving life to the first humans, and followed the breath to its connections with spirit-gotten inspiration in the Welsh tradition before returning to the North and the theme of spirits through respiratory passages. Those of you who are more familiar with the ON material will have probably noticed that the more typical word for both ‘inspiration’ and possibly also ‘possession’ too. There is no doubt that there is some overlap here, but we’ll be getting into that further in the next post.
Speaking of the next post, we’re going to be taking a look at the other gifts of life, some of their most important uses in magic, and the possible connections between those gifts and the most common elements found in Old Norse magic. Well, at least as I see them.

Until we meet again, friends!

Be well.