Wolf Time, Part III

I wanted to discuss the nature of Odin. The character in the book is not, exactly, Odin; he is manifesting some of Odin's qualities. I'll put this discussion beyond the jump so that you can avoid it if you are going to read the book and haven't yet.

In the meantime, those of you who have enjoyed Wolf Time may want to look at more of Lars Walker's work. If you also enjoyed the discussion, you might want to look at some of the previous discussions we've had of some of his pieces, either now or after you've read the works.

Hailstone Mountain is reviewed, and discussed, here.

Troll Valley is discussed here. It also occasioned a number of other moments of comment, including here, here, and here where it was mentioned because I found a house that reminded me of it while on a motorcycle ride near the Savannah river.

Now, for the mythology discussion.  I don't think it'll be as interesting to most of you as the other two discussion sections, but who knows?
So the part about Odin's treatment in Wolf Time that interests me is the way he is pictured as a part of what Chesterton described as circular paganism. It's most obvious when Oski gives this speech:
"Ah! The tales are many!... You cannot know -- you cannot guess -- how it was in those days. And yet you shall know, and soon. For the great Truth -- the truth which has been lost, but cannot be forgotten -- is that Time is a wheel. Birth, death, spring, winter, good fortune and bad -- they come and come again, in small circles or large, like the comet above us.

"The Christians say not so. The Christians say Time is a straight road, starting here and ending there.... But that circle turns over too. Soon all of you will learn the true wisdom born of earth -- Earth, our common Mother. She is a mighty goddess, wiser and kinder and crueller than you can conceive. She teaches in rhythms and cycles, with no law but the law of life and death and rebirth.
That, I think, is roughly what the Vanir were about. Freyr and Freya were doing that. It's a mode of thought that Chesterton criticizes as basically hostile to humanity because it entraps and stifles. There is no progress, and no real potential for progress, and thus the point of life -- Chesterton speaks especially of Buddhists here -- is simply to learn to endure the cycles, in the hope of eventually escaping them into oblivion. For Chesterton, the only thing that breaks the circle is the cross:
The mind of Asia can really be represented by a round 0. if not in the sense of a cypher at least of a circle. The great Asiatic symbol of a serpent with its tail in its mouth is really a very perfect image of a certain idea of unity and recurrence that does indeed belong to the Eastern philosophies and religions. It really is a curve that in one sense includes everything, and in another sense comes to nothing. In that sense it does confess, or rather boast, that all argument is an argument in a circle. And though the figure is but a symbol, we can see how sound is the symbolic sense that produces it, the parallel symbol of the Wheel of Buddha generally called the Swastika. The cross is a thing at right angles pointing boldly in opposite directions; but the Swastika is the same thing in the very act of returning to the recurrent curve. That crooked cross is in fact a cross turning into a wheel.

Before we dismiss even these symbols as if they were arbitrary symbols, we must remember how intense was the imaginative instinct that produced them or selected them both in the cast and the west. The cross has become something more than a historical memory; it does convey, almost as by a mathematical diagram, the truth about the real point at issue; the idea of a conflict stretching outwards into eternity. It is true, and even tautological, to say that the cross is the crux of the whole matter.

In other words the cross, in fact as well as figure, does really stand for the idea of breaking out of the circle that is everything and nothing. It does escape from the circular argument by which everything begins and ends in the mind. Since we are still dealing in symbols, it might be put in a parable in the form of that story about St. Francis, which says that the birds departing with his benediction could wing their way into the infinities of the four winds of heaven, their tracks making a vast cross upon the sky; for compared with the freedom of that flight of birds, the very shape of the Swastika is like a kitten chasing its tail.

In a more popular allegory, we might say that when St. George thrust his spear into the monster's jaws, he broke in upon the solitude of the self-devouring serpent and gave it something to bite besides its own tail.
Odin also at least equipped dragonslayers, and perhaps did more than that. I will return to the idea of Odin as monster-killer in a moment. What I want to say here is that Odin also breaks circles: not with the cross, but with the arrow.

The thing we know about Odin from the surviving mythology is that he was interested in the movement of time towards a conclusion. Odin's association with death comes chiefly in his claiming, through the Valkyrie, of some of the great slain for the war at the end of time. Toward this end, he brought men to the end of their lives: the poem about the death of Erik Bloodaxe is built around Odin's assertion that he had allowed Erik to lose not because he wasn't a great enough warrior to deserve victory, but because of Valhalla's need for the greatest warriors to defend it from 'the grey wolf.' Odin seeks knowledge from the dead, riding to the underworld to consult a dead seeress to try to avoid his son Balder's death. He consults with the dead at other times, especially the hanged, as he tells Lodfaffnir. He knows also of his own death.

He puts the knowledge he gains towards the task, not of ensuring the cycle of rebirth, but of preventing it. It is his business to try to delay, if he cannot stop, the coming of Ragnarok. He is not promising anyone who listens to him the Vanic cycle of death and rebirth, that you might die secure in the knowledge that you will return to light and life. Rather, Odin is offering a temporary feast in Valhalla -- a feast that will be accompanied by daily training for a great war to try to stop the end of the world.

In terms of monster-slaying, I am partially persuaded by John Grigsby's account of the Beowulf as an Odhinnic tale that has been Christianized. He proposes that Beowulf's name is another one of the kennings for Odin, "Barley-wolf," related to Odin's theft of the ritual drink of the earlier (and, Grigsby shows via archaeology, genuinely ancient) fertility cults. Grigsby paints the story of Beowulf as being a surviving tale of Odin/Wotan's replacement of fertility gods like the Vanir by surviving their murder-rituals. The old story is of a god who was king, is cut down by the goddess in a hidden place beneath the earth or water, and is then reborn; Grigsby suggests, very plausibly and with significant supporting evidence, that this story is based on the life cycle of barley or other grains; and, just as well supported, that it was associated with ritual human sacrifice in the northern European areas where the Vanir were worshipped.

If he is right about the Beowulf, the story is of a god who isn't killed during the murder-ritual -- he goes down into the cave below the lake, is mounted and strangled, but kills the goddess and returns alive. This part is more speculative, but there is a mythological sense to it. The Aesir cult seems to have been in competition with the Vanic cult, and indeed the myths themselves refer to a war between these groups of gods. The Aesir cult won, somehow, and Odin ascended to leadership over the Vanir as well. He is also credited with stealing the 'mead of poetry,' and of assuming the role of the leading mythic figure relating between the gods of the North and the dead. Grigsby's explanation may not be quite right, but it is plausible that a move of this sort happened.

As a god of the arrow rather than a god of the circle, Odin could be said to have prepared the way for the cross. The idea of breaking out of an entrapping circle is established; the idea of defying the logic of the circle is established. Why wouldn't a priest of the old faith who encountered the Christian arguments consider that here was potentially a way of conquering the circle once and for all?


Tom said...

I don't have any comment really on the main thrust of the post, but I did have some questions about the pagan aspects of the book.

First, this same passage from the book stood out to me because I didn't think the Vikings were into all that Earth Mother stuff. From what Grim writes, maybe the Vanir were, but when I have read stories of Odin, Thor, Loki, etc., I don't get any of the Gaia worship vibe I see in modern Wicca or other paganism. That said, my reading on this has been pretty limited. Was the Earth Mother a big thing with them?

(Of course, Oski may have absorbed this from modern paganism, or he may be using this rhetoric simply to appeal to the pagans he finds at WOW.)

Grim said...

Wicca is really quite modern, and it's not clear how closely they follow anything ancient (or even how closely they mean to follow it, though they talk about it sometimes). But see Tacitus' Germania for a discussion of Nerthus, the goddess Grigsby takes to be the prototype for the Vanic goddess. Even if you don't follow Grigsby, it's clear that there's a fertility goddess who demands human sacrifice as part of her rites.

douglas said...

Isn't it true that while the Eastern religions do see the circle as primary here in this realm, there is a sense of another realm? For Buddhists I suppose it would be Nirvana- which like the eternal realms of Christianity, is neither circular nor linear. The circles are about here an now in this realm, but few belief systems think this is all there is.

As for Oski, I go with Tom's suggestion he was saying what he needed to say to persuade in the moment, and that seems consistent with aspects of Odin, does it not? I would think the 'Earth mother' type stuff would be important at some level to any culture that was agrarian.

Tom said...

I'm not questioning whether there were fertility goddesses, but rather the generic "Earth Mother as supreme Goddess" vibe of the speech. I hung out with Wiccans a lot at one time, and this is the way they spoke. I have a hard time imagining Vikings talking like this. Of course, how much theology can you draw out of two paragraphs?

Buddhism has a definite sense of progress. The cycle of rebirth isn't eternal. If you live well, your next life will be of a higher order, and eventually you can escape the cycle into Nirvana. In that sense, Buddhism is about breaking the circle, too.

Lars Walker said...

This is intriguing. Part of the problem is that we bring our preconceptions to the question, and you can find evidence for pretty much any position you care to take. Norse mythology was not a monolithic religion with an orthodox body of doctrine, but a varied collection of beliefs, probably quite different from one place to another. And we must always bear in mind that most of what we think we know comes by way of Snorri Sturlusson, a Christian and a literary genius who re-worked the material to make it acceptable to the church. The Eddas tell of a kind of re-birth after Ragnarok, where the world is re-born and the surviving gods create a new order, similar to the old one. Is that a reflection of heathen circularity of thought? Or a result of Christian apocalyptic influences? Who knows? I felt free to extemporize pretty much at my whim.

Grim said...

Snorri's influence cannot be discounted, you're right. One of the things I like about Grigsby's work is that he looks also at earlier sources like Tacitus, and at archaeological finds as well. The weakness of Grigsby's position is that he's too convinced of his own argument, so he sees proofs for it in everything. On the other hand, it's interesting to think about what he takes to be proofs, some of which are fairly plausible.

Even then, though, our major recorded sources for what "the Norse myths" were about come through that filter. I read a history of St. Vladimir that talked about the very different pagan gods he encountered while Christianizing Russia. This was at a time when the Vikings had long been traveling through Russia, so you'd expect to see something familiar; but really, while particular gods have familiar aspects, they're no more similar than Thor and Lugh.

I tend to think in terms of broad themes that divine figures tend to fall in on. Odin is doing something different from Hermes or -- as seems a more likely connection to me, in spite of Tacitus' linkage of Odin with Hermes -- Bacchus. But it's also not surprising to see why someone from Rome might look at the description of Woden and say, "Oh, that's their Hermes."

Grim said...


Isn't it true that while the Eastern religions do see the circle as primary here in this realm, there is a sense of another realm? For Buddhists I suppose it would be Nirvana...

Nirvana isn't another realm so much as it is the attainment of oblivion. You can experience it, in theory, here; in practice Buddhists will tell you that they can't know if they have ever attained Nirvana in their meditations, because to attain it would be to enter a state in which knowledge and even experience are impossible.

I think that's very different from the Celtic Otherworld, say, where you are born here when you die there and vice versa. In the Buddhist sense, when you die here you are born somewhere else; the only hope is to 'get off the wheel,' so to speak, by eventually not ever being born and having to experience anything ever again. There aren't two worlds in the same way.

The Norse version combines those views. The cyclical birth/death/rebirth aspect is what Odin is struggling to stop, but it is present in the world that is to come again after Ragnarok. But there are also different worlds, like the Otherworld, in Asgard or Alfheim, etc.

Tom said...

Lars, I am definitely bringing my preconceptions to this discussion! That's all I have! :-D

Lars Walker said...

I might mention that instead of saying Odin's symbol is the arrow, I'd say it is the spear. Which works in exactly the same way, but he's generally described as carrying a spear, and sacrifices to him were marked with a spear.

Grim said...

A fair point. (No pun intended!)

douglas said...

Ah, that's true Grim, Buddhism is ultimately nihilistic.
I think maybe I was more getting at the fact that I think all religions see the here and now and prescribe propriety for this world, but also see another world beyond this one- be it Olympus, or Valhalla, or Heaven- that is not 'governed by the wheel'. Buddhism does seem to be the exception in some sense with it's nihilistic goal. There are surely others that are less clear on the divisions- Shinto sees a mystical force and the physical and believes they are in the same place, but perhaps could be described as different planes in intersection. regardless, it's interesting that we see the cycles of nature and understand this physical realm in that way, but also see through that something beyond- something eternal- that we have hopes we are a part of in some way when we are no longer part of this physical universe. You mention the Celtic Otherworld, which is likewise a parallel or convergent realm which is seen as eternal and magical. I don't think any religion sees only one side of that coin.

douglas said...

I suppose Tom's previous mention of 'Earth Mother' beliefs is different in a critical way- any Earth Mother belief explicitly doesn't see a separation between the physical and the eternal realms- That is a significant difference.

Grim said...

Well, and even Valhalla was subject to the wheel. That's Odin's concern, in the poem about the death of Erik Bloodaxe: "The grey wolf watches the abode of the gods."

Tom said...

I need to go back and re-read the ending of the book. There are some things about the plot resolution w/ Odin and Fenris that I want to think some more about. Maybe I didn't really understand some things there.

That said, something else I wanted to bring up about the pagan aspects of the book was that, while there are angels and it seems a pro-Christian book, by including supernatural aspects of pagan belief it seems to adopt the pagan worldview.

That is, from the Christian worldview, the Norse gods never existed. When there are Norse gods as well as the Christian God, then, even though the Christian God triumphs, the worldview is that of paganism: there are many gods, some of them are in conflict, one god may defeat another.

This of course mirrors history, but then we would be talking about religions rather than gods. Still, it could be seen as metaphorical in a history book: "Christ defeated the Norse gods" would just mean the Norse people converted to Christianity; one religion replaced another.

But in "Wolf Time," Odin and Fenris seem real, if imperfectly embodied. Christianity wins, but it wins in pagan terms because its monotheism is denied.

I dunno. What do you folks think?

Grim said...

The Christians of the time didn't treat these beings as non-existent. They assumed that they had to exist, since there were so many stories about them. The question was more about the manner of their existence than the fact of it.

The Icelendings follow what was the standard Medieval Christian practice of treating the Norse gods as human beings of great stature who were mistaken for Gods. Odin is said to be a chieftain from Asia (which is offered as the reason his branch of gods are called "Aesir," a sort of folk etymology that is demonstrably wrong but plausible enough if you don't have the demonstration in front of you).

Snorri ties their lineage to the Trojans, in fact. So there's a straight line, in the way he thought about this, from the Iliad to the Aeneid to the Prose Edda.

This is similar to the way they treated the supernatural claims in the Arthurian myths. The Lady of the Lake is not, really, a lady in the ordinary sense. She's a water maid who bestows weapons on the royal in return for worship service, like Freya is. Remember in Malory she says she will grant Excalibur in return for a service to be named later, but her head gets cut off before she can ask for it. That's parallel to the Beowulf story, in which the Mother of Grendel has a fantastic sword that Beowulf takes from her home, and then kills her with before she can strangle him. The magic sword in both cases comes from a lady in a lake; in both cases the hero-king survives because she gets beheaded before she can have her will of him.

(And the water maids come for Arthur after all, as it turns out, arriving in a barge at the hour of his death to bear him to an island, Avalon; so too Beowulf, in the end, is put to sea in a boat and vanishes from human knowledge. Parallel, though different.)

The other thing that Christian writers do is to work metaphysical beings into Christian metaphysics. Sometimes faerie are taken to be demons, but not usually. In the great period of Medieval literature, 1200 AD and after, they were aware of Aristotle and Greek metaphysics. So often they are said to be daemons rather than demons, spirits of the air, a part of creation that is kind of neutral in something like the way that human beings are.

The Church did say that some things didn't exist, like witches. Belief in witches was banned during the Middle Ages, from the 700s until the collapse of church authority in the 1400s (which is when the witch-burning craze began). But they didn't doubt the existence of Odin, or Arthur, or the Lady of the Lake. They just tried to explain them in other ways.

Tom said...

There's some fascinating history there. As always, I want to read more about it. Add another thing to the list of topics ...

Here, though, Oski/Odin does display supernatural powers in the novel. I hadn't thought of it, but it's possible Oski is possessed by a demon. That would be a fascinating plot twist in a later novel. However, the book seems to imply Odin is both real and supernatural. Fenris, too, to an extent. It seems that both the Norse myths and the Christian faith are both true in the novel.

I really should re-read the last couple of chapters so I can be more specific. I'll try to do that tonight or tomorrow.