Easter / Merlin

On Ostara, Easter, Beowulf, Odin, Merlin, and Coifi:

This Easter, I would offer a lengthy meditation on some powerful legends, and how they have intertwined.

I watched the Beowulf movie recently. The story is wholly unlike that of the poem, but not in the usual Hollywood rewrite. It is, I have to say, inspired -- but inspired by what, we shall have to discuss.

Beowulf confronts Hrothgar, who tells Beowulf that Grendel's mother is indeed the last of the monsters. Unferth apologizes to Beowulf for having doubted him, and offers his sword Hrunting for use against Grendel's mother.

Beowulf and Wiglaf seek out the flooded cave of Grendel's mother. Beowulf enters the cave alone to find it filled to the ceiling with treasure. Grendel's mother appears to him in the form of a beautiful woman, offering him fame and power if he will give her another son. She also asks for the Dragon Horn of Hrothgar, with the promise that Heorot will be safe as long as it is in her possession. Beowulf gives in to her temptations.

Beowulf returns to Heorot, claiming to have slain Grendel's mother. He brings back Grendel's head as proof of his deeds. He says that he lost Unferth's sword and Hrothgar's horn during the battle. In private, Hrothgar points out inconsistencies in Beowulf's story and asks if he did indeed slay Grendel's Mother. When Beowulf doesn't give a straight answer, Hrothgar knowingly says that with Grendel's death, he is no longer the cursed one. King Hrothgar names Beowulf heir to the throne. Hrothgar then leaps from the balcony to his death to the surprised horror of everyone. Beowulf is crowned king, and takes Wealtheow as his wife....

Wiglaf prepares a Viking funeral for Beowulf. As Wiglaf watches the burning boat that serves as Beowulf's funeral pyre, he sees Grendel's mother kissing the corpse. Grendel's mother then appears in the water in human form and beckons to Wiglaf.
Whether they know it or not, the filmmakers have restored the original water/earth goddess ritual to nearly its precise form. I will yield to John Grigsby's Beowulf and Grendel for a full description of the archeological and historic evidence on the point -- including hundreds of recovered bodies of high-born victims of the human sacrifice. The short version is that the ritual was a way of joining the seed of the corn god, who was symbolized in the king, with the earth/water goddess, who brought forth prosperity (as symbolized by the female capacity for childbirth). The corn god was, at the proper point in the cycle, cut down and replaced by another, who joined with the goddess in his place. This was how "good kingship" was established in the land: the king became one with the "land," symbolized by a priestess, giving his "seed" (in the movie, Grendel's mother strokes Beowulf's sword, and it dissolves to nothing -- how's that for symbolism?); and when it was time for him to be replaced, he gave his blood instead, as the land must be fertilized.

Grigsby thinks, and there is strong evidence to suggest, that the ritual existed symbolically from Egypt to ancient England and Greece; but that it was acted out physically, including the actual sex and actual murder, in Denmark. He believes the Beowulf story is the story of the end of that cult -- not by Christianity, however, which was yet to come to that land.

So who, then, went into the earth to win the secret of creation? Well, what does "Beowulf" mean?

According to Grigsby, it means "barley-wolf" -- one of the beserkers of the cult of Odin, who stole the old "mead of inspiration" that could drive men mad, and make them poets. According to Tolkien, it means "bee-wolf," that is, "bear," a raider of the bees' flocks: an animal also connected to the beserker, whose name means "bear-shirt."

How did an Odhinnic beserker become a symbol of the Christian success over pagan human sacrifice? Easily enough: for the cult of Odin, like Odin himself, prefers to go masked. Odin has over two hundred kennings for his name, most of which imply disguise: "broad-hat," "masked," "hooded," and so forth. He went about, according to legends, wearing a broad-brimmed hat, and a beard, and a spear.

Remember the man who called himself Coifi, mentioned a few days ago? He presented himself to King Edwin of Northumbria as a heathen priest, one who could not use weapons or ride horses -- that is, a priest of Freyr. When he took the cross, though, he rode forth to Freyr's temple and cast a spear into it -- and then burned it to the ground.

Coifi means "wearing a coif," or, "hooded." Whether the priest, or the god himself afoot, he had no problem taking the cross. In Iceland, some hundreds of years later, "the Wolf's Cross" combined Odhinnic and Christian symbols overtly, as men described themselves as "of dual faith." This was also called the Hammer Cross, as dual followers of Thor and Jesus also used it.

The question is, was the cross only another mask?

The myths that involve Odin suggest that he moves easily between worlds, more easily than the other gods. Tacitus said he was like Hermes, but Tacitus never went to Germania in person. Had he gone, I think he would have found Odin to be more like Dionysus. Like Dionysus, Odin's cult dealt in maddening drink; and like Dionysus, whose followers believed he was the greatest god though other Greeks did not, we have poems and songs that place Odin as the All Father -- yet the archaeology suggests his cult was small, even when it was most powerful. It was inspirational to poets and warriors, even if the most of the population preferred Thor.

To return to Grigsby -- he suggests that the Beowulf poem is a Christian gloss on a story celebrating Odin's victory over the old Freyr/Freya cult. The Christian monk viewed Grendel's mother as a horrible monster, because she loved blood; but the view of the movie is just as accurate. The old cult saw her as beautiful, impossibly beautiful: the sort of woman to whom a man, even a king, would willingly devote his life; the sort to whose knife or cord he would offer his throat, rather than live when she was tired of him.

The victory over that is the breaking of the cycles of the earth. Chesterton said that the pagan religions believed in the cycle of life: what was important about the cross was that it was the only thing that broke all circles. On Easter, when Christ is said to have risen from the dead, the earthly order was overturned. Ostara, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of Spring, had only represented the fertility part of the cycle of life-to-death. Easter promised the end of that cycle, and a hope of eternal life.

Odin accomplished much the same thing, offering his friends the life they loved until the end of the world -- drinking and feasting by night, fighting by day. Though they died to this life, they would be saved from hell, and brought instead to that warrior's paradise. And they were brought there for a purpose: "because the grey wolf watches the abode of the gods," that is, because the army he raised in that way was a hedge against evil forces pitted against the gods.

It would be easy to replace one of his cult with a Christian: the early Christian mystery cult involved similar themes of death and resurrection, and having suffered and survived execution by being hanged on a tree. As with Coifi, the Odinnic cult saw no need to contest for control of the outward symbols -- indeed, as mentioned, they preferred the mask.

I think this shift began to happen early in England, where "Woden" had come with the Anglo-Saxons and been braided into the legends around a certain Celtic prophet. Odin has great similarity to Merlin as we have inherited him, not only in appearance and magic. He likewise had to do with magic swords that bestowed kingship on the man who could draw them -- see the Volsung saga, versus the Sword in the Stone. Merlin also went into a cave with the Lady of the Lake: but the legends remember him losing the contest, and having his power stolen by her.

The question, I said above, was whether or not the conversion was only another mask. There is one piece of evidence to offer: the instinct of a poet, for Odin was always a special friend to poets.

J.R.R. Tolkien imagined a powerful wizard, a wanderer who went far and wide in a mission similar to the one Merlin and Odin both set upon: to raise up great kings, as a means to ward off a terrible evil. He likewise fell into the depths of the earth to battle a demon, in order to save kings. He likewise passed through death, and return stronger. Tolkien imagined him as the greatest servant of 'the light,' the most faithful one, the one who never abandoned his mission.

He called him Gandalf: "...and if you have heard one quarter of what I have heard of him, and I have heard but a little of what there is to tell, you would be prepared for any sort of remarkable tale."

Tolkien wrote much about the power of myth. Our culture has broken the Beowulf, and set Freya free in her own beautiful and terrible form. Odin, in his old hat but with another new name, speaks with eagles and raises kings.

What does that mean? I will leave you to seek that for yourselves. Easter, the day when the cycles renew and circles are broken, Easter is the day to think on these things.

No comments: