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When we explore a certain belief or spirituality, there comes the point where we want to bring its characteristics and basic principles into a terminology. We could call this theology. However, Germanic paganism will be hardly understood by describing it with terms that were adopted from a christian worldview. Words from the Latin or Greek world must be handled carefully too, since our way of thinking is reflected in our way of speaking. But we cannot presume that the world of the Germanic mind matches that of the Roman or Greek. A belief is, as a part of a folk-lore, always connected with its language in an organic manner.
Especially in the area of belief not everything can always be fastened down in a term, because a belief should not be only understood, but also experienced. Even though a certain reservation applies to this article, will still try to sketch out a basic framework.
So let us enter the dragon’s cave and lay hands on the treasure of Germanic words! Here it it less crucial that we reconstruct the exact way of speaking of ancient Germanic people, but the crucial task is to find a language that comes close to the pre-Christian wisdoms and matches a native understanding of spirituality. Transfers into nowadays language are downright necessary here, since what might sound exotic and riddlesome to us today was in ancient times often immediately understandable.
The Worlds and the Whole
Difficulties already start with the word nature, which we often use for all kinds of things that seem natural, familiar, or on the other hand general to us; be it for the trees, animals, or landscapes, as a word for the whole universe, but then in opposition to the unnatural, or the human and cultural realm – by which man sees himself as either as the opposite of nature, or as its highest expression, depending on the respective understanding of the word.
But when putting the word nature in the center of pagan belief, as is often done, there should be a thorough understanding about what this term even means. How do humans and gods relate to nature, when the latter is unclear?
In the Germanic pagan sources we don’t find the word nature, and neither do we find a real equivalent for it in the Germanic vocabulary. We then have to translate and speak of either the wilderness, the universe, or the not man-made, and yet we only hit one of the several meanings incorporated in the word nature over time. The same applies to foreign words like physics and metaphysics, which mean the same as nature in the one instance and the opposite in the other.
But what is then the Germanic name of the all-encompassing thing that is amongst others referred to by the Latin natura?
Here we have the word world, which is comprised of the Germanic words for man (wera, compare werewolf) and age (alda), thus meaning man-age. This is however a translation from the church Latin term saeculum mundus and refers to the worldly age, the sinful life. We can see that the word world depicts the opposition between heathen affirmation of the world and christian negation of the world in its very becoming. So we could see it as, if not a heathen word, then at least a word for a heathen thing, which we can appropriate. Still, on our search for the all-encompassing it doesn’t lead us ahead very far.
Old Norse uses the word heimr for world, but we find several of these too: Álfheimr, Vanaheimr, Jötunheimr etc. The word rather refers to different spots and homes within the whole. The realm of the living is called Middlegard (Old Norse miðgarðr, but also middelgard in the Old Saxon Heliand, and mitilgard in the Old High German Muspilli). Hel (Germanic *haljō) is the realm of the dead, the underworld, but also the name of the goddess that rules therein. The Old English word hel became the nowadays mostly christian word hell. The name of the German fairytale character Frau Holle on the other hand will mean as much as gracious or benevolent (German hold). This is confirmed by an equivalent epithet in the north: another name of the Norse mother goddess Frigg is Hulla, the benevolent one. Asgardr then is the upper spirit world of the gods, whom we will get back to later.
The entirety of being however seems to be adressed better by the word all (German noun All: universe). We don’t know if it is related to the mysterious word alu (ᚨᛚᚢ), which so often is found in runic inscriptions, because there are conflicting interpretations, some linking it to the ale drink (see ale-runes in the Edda), or to the magical being-outside-of-oneself (ecstasis).
The Indogermanic origin of the word all is explained as being related to the verb alter, ultimately meaning „to grow“ (and also the aforementioned alda = age, see English old). Indeed, everything comes into being by growing out from its not-being or other-being and expanding into space and time. In this regard it corresponds with the worldtree, which extends into everywhere in Germanic lore.
Orlay and Wyrd
Another word that we find in the Norse is the word ørlœg („primal law, original law“), which can still be found in the Dutch oorlog, here meaning „war“, thereby reminding us of Heraclitus’ word on war as the father of all things, as well as the riddle question of Sigurd towards the dying dragon Fafnir:
„How call they the isle | where all the gods
And Surt shall sword-sweat mingle?“
15. „Oskopnir is it, | where all the gods
Shall seek the play of swords;“
(Poetic Edda: Fafnismol, translation by Henry A. Bellows)
The name of the island Oskopnir means as much as „the uncreated“ and the questions seems to point towards the final battle Ragnarökr.
The word ørlœg itself can be found in The Edda song Lokasenna, where we hear that all ørlœg is known to Frigg, yet she can’t say it herself. So the intuition of the ansayable is ascribed to the mother goddess, as we often find women associated with foretelling and dream visions in the Germanic myths.
Ør is the origin, the primal cause from which all being springs out, and which can still be found in the English word ordeal. The second part, lœg, is related to the verb „to lay“, since the ørlœg has laid the foundation for everything from all eternity onwards. It is the same as the English word law. We could thus translate ørlœg into English as primal law, original law, or orlay. It does not refer to the fate of the individual, but a more general order in the cosmos, the greater whole, from which all being and becoming evolves. Just as futile as resisting against the primal law is the attempt of rationally grasping it in its entirety, as for this, we’d have to take a standpoint that lays outside of the primal law, which is impossible. It is like a serpent that encompasses all – and if we grab it by one part, we have to let go of another part of it. When you arrive at the head, sou see that it bites its tail, and the futile task would have to start anew. Through heroic deed and inner vision one can still bring themselves into harmony with primal law and thus avoid unnecessary misery. Living in accordance with the primal law is also what the Vedic lore strives towards, calling it by the word sanatana dharma.
From the original law there flows to everyone the individual fate, the wyrd. This noun goes back to the Old English verb weorþan, which means „to become“, just like the German verb werden, and is related to the Norse name of the second norn, Verðandi.
A German equivalent for fate or wyrd is Schicksal, of which the first syllable means „to get“ or „fall into place“, and the second syllable is related to Old English sǣlþ (Old Norse sæll), meaning luck, or wholeness.
Everyone finds their wyrd in the becoming circumstances met in life – and in some way or another will the course of events always end up aligned with the greater whole. The question is only if we accept our wyrd and if we experience its becoming as enjoyable or woesome. We find our wyrd by accepting the necessary and thus fullfill our destiny. That it is predetermined doesn’t have to mean that we are slaves to it, since we and our free will are our wyrd itself, and only due to this are we a part of the whole. Our own will is ultimately akin with the primal will of all things, and there is no contradiction between determinism and free will. And not to forget: In the end our future will necessarily remain hidden in the greater whole anyways.
God and Gods
The etymology of the originally neuter term god is associsted with Indogermanic words for „to pour“ or „to invoke“, both referring to cult practice either in the form of libation or divination. Other interpretations see it as relating to „good“, just like the goði, the Norse priest.
The word god is sometimes too used in a more general meaning as referring to an all-encompassing thing, without necessarily referring to the christian god. For example this poem by Goethe, which I roughly translate:
What were a god that just from outside pushed,
The universe in circles on his finger running rushed!
It befits him that he move the world from within,
to keep himself in nature, and keep nature in him,
So that, what in him lives and weaves and is,
Never his strength, never his spirit shall miss.
A god in the old pagan sense is however something different, even though we can’t be sure how the neuter word was used in the most ancient times.
The generic god that Goethe, or also Fahrenkrog, talk about rather corresponds to the primal law or orlay. For not even the gods have absolute power over fate and the basic law of the world. Even the orlay-knowing Frigg cannot save her son Balder from the deadly mistletoe. But first and foremost there are several gods, since the essence of being lies in the interaction of the different, be it the polarity of male and female or the dichotomy of light and dark. The gods also wage war against each other, and by no means do they always agree with each other. The good, true and beautiful springs from living in harmony with the original law, but this harmonious conection can be different for everyone, and knowledge of the orlay is ultimately an eternal search and struggle. To stand this tension, which consists in a basically unsolvable task, is what the myths about the heroes and the gods teach us, who give us an example for the fullfilling of our destiny.
Soul and Spirit
Being can thus be seen as separated into the perceivable, recognisable, and the hidden and unknowable. More promising is the word transcendence in this regard. Its meaning, „beyond experience“, corresponds much better with the Germanic understanding of the beyond. Other than in christian belief, the beyond is not defined by the dichotomy of the metaphysical and physical. Body and spirit are much rather hardly separable, and just as fruitless is the concept of the material and the immaterial. When Hermod travels into the underworld in the shape of his father Woden, in order to ask his dead brother Balder back from Hel, he does not dematerialize at a certain point, but he crosses a border, which leads him from the upperworld into the underworld (Gylfaginning 49). Nowhere is there any thought of an outside of the whole. From the highest heavens to the lowest depths do the twigs and roots of the worldtree reach. The differentiation of the two worlds lies in the factor of perception: The name of the underworld Hel is related to the German word verhehlen (Old English helan), which means „to hide“, thus pointing towards the hidden and unconscious.
The word soul is put in relation to the word sea and points to the concept that after death the soul wanders beyond the horizon, following the way of the sun into the sea and the underworld. In cult practice we can see this reflected in ship burials, the custom of sending coins for the farryman along with a dead person, and other things. The soul is understood as a drop of water that returns into the entirety of the sea water, similar to the genotype, which persists after the death of an individual and has received a certain epigenetic imprint during life. Into a similar direction goes the word elf („shining, white“, Old Norse álfr, Old English ælf), which in later folk belief still refers to a being from the otherworld or living close to bodies of water.
When a soulmate dies, our mourning heals not only the own soul, but also the one of the deceased. By grappling with the reality of the loved one’s death, we accompany the soul into the otherworld. It is another place, where we can not meet the person, but in which he nevertheless presists in some way, be it in our memory, in the genotype they left behind, or maybe there is even another way of presisting in some kind of ether or cosmic field?
When a child is born and grows up, we foster its becoming in the form of mental work that we invest into the child. By teaching the motherlanguage, walking, standards and ethics, as well as skills and arts, we bring the soul, which had forgotten all these things of common consciousness, back from the beyond. From the worldtree flow the wells of both, memory and time:
20. Thence come the maidens | mighty in wisdom,
Three from the dwelling | down ‘neath the tree;
Urth is one named, | Verthandi the next,–
On the wood they scored,– | and Skuld the third.
Laws they made there, and life allotted
To the sons of men, and set their fates.
(Poetic Edda: Voluspo, translation by Henry. A. Bellows)
The motherly norns and disir weave our wyrd and free us of the fetters of forgetfulness, because it is the degree of ancestral renewal that decides over our now beginning lifepath. One has to assume that this cultivation and learning reached a degree and agglomeration that leads far beyond the contemporary understanding of education. We have to consider the possibility of deep-reaching experiences of awakening in the course of initiation rites. Today it is almost only myths and fairytales that remind us of such.
The reawakening of the forgotten in any case happens by means of the spirit and mind. For this reason is the spirit-god and father of the gods Woden also the psychopomp of Germanic belief. He is the highest of the æsir („spirits“, singular áss, Germanic *ansuz).
The word spirit and especially the word mind is more associated with consciousness than the word soul. On the other hand, spirit and mind are also different from the mere ratio. The German word for spirit and mind, but also ghost, is Geist. The latter two are obvious cognates and go back to Indogermanic *g̑heis-, which seems to have meant as much as fright or ecstasy. It is thus very close to the berserker god Woden, the terrifier (Ygg), who rides the worldtree like a horse (drasil), until he finally finds the secret runes.
In the end Woden is also the god of the wind, aspiration, inspiration, and poetry. This article attempted to get closer to the Germanic spiritual view by contemplation of the theonymic words and the concepts behind them. It is however only the language of poetry that can fully do justice to the complexity and profundity that life poses to us. But maybe the thoughts explicated here can also shed a bit more light on the aforementioned Fafnismol: the æsir (spirits) create in the so far uncreated, from the opposition of the black fire-giant Surt and the sword-dew, i.e. the blood, the possibility of differentiation, consciousness, and thus new being.
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