The Question of Gnosis
One often hears within the heathen community of the concept of "Unsubstantiated Personal Gnosis". This is often spoken with the implication that the gnosis (or any gnosis) is unsubstantiable, and therefore of limited value. I question whether gnoses, which are so valuable, have the quality of unsubstantiability. I would rather give gnoses more specific terms. We might explore the idea of "Untested Personal Gnoses", "Unsocialized Gnoses", and best of all, "Unmatured Gnosis". The latter term then begs us to ask the question, what would a mature gnosis look like? How does one mature a gnosis?
We can then ask questions such as, Do the gods speak directly to us as finalities, or are these hints, seeds, riddles to be worked out and developed? Are we required to be literal towards a gnosis, or can we be agnostic about the correct framework(s) with which to fully appreciate a gnosis? Is a dynamic process of A/Gnosis possible?
Let us begin with the first question, and see if in answering it, we will be able to address these other questions. How does one mature a gnosis? Through dialogical testing, through gauging it against the lore, and through a persistent process of struggle. Let us explore each of these in turn.
This is a communal process of working things out in dialogue. Ideas are tested and worked out through the process of reason and multispectral, polyvalent, polyvocal filtering : a circumpolar sifting : on the one hand, on the other hand, going back and forth, trying new angles, trying on the shoes of the opponent, etc. As you begin to look at your insight from multiple angles, and begin to imagine the idea from the perspective of many different places in the community, it takes on increased richness.
This is not a matter of conforming one's ideas or insights to others, but rather, enriching the ideas through a multiperspectival process of inquiry, in which multiple voices and questions inform the development of the insight. Sá einn veit er víða ratar ok hefr fjölð of farit, "He alone knows who has travelled widely and has experienced a lot (literally, has had many journeys)" (Havamal 18). Ósnotr maðr þykkisk allt vita, ef hann á sér í vá veru; hittki hann veit, hvat hann skal við kveða, ef hans freista firar. "The unwise man thinks he knows it all if he's been through a few storms, but he knows not what he shall answer if men test him." (Havamal 26). Margr þá fróðr þykkisk,ef hann freginn er-at ok nái hann þurrfjallr þruma. "Many thinks himself wise, if he is not questioned and he can stay behind in dry clothes." (Havamal 30.) The "loitering" or "staying at home" connotations of þruma again indicate the value put on travel, on getting out and experiencing the larger world. The reason the word heimsk, "one who stays at home", means "a fool" is because those who remain completely parochial and judge the world from the standpoint of their armchairs without getting out into the field literally do not have the breadth of experience from which wisdom arises.
We see here the value Havamal puts on farit, freista, and fregna : travel (and the different points of view one encounters while journeying), testing (putting one's ideas to the test), and questioning : knowing how to inquire, and how to answer inquiry. Odin asks, Veistu hvé freista skal? Veistu hvé biðja skal? "Do you know how to test? Do you know how to inquire?" (Havamal 144.) It is only once your idea is alive in discourse that it truly comes alive. The person who has quarantined their ideas, who has never shared them with others might think themselves wise, but they will discover otherwise when the ideas begin to circulate. Once you've entered into the process of fregna ok segja, asking and declaring, discoursing, debating, the merits of the ideas will not be able to be concealed as people begin to talk. Fróðr sá þykkisk, er fregna kann ok segja it sama, eyvitu leyna megu ýta synir, því er gengr um guma. "Wise he thinks himself who can ask questions as well as declare, yet it may not be concealed amongst the sons of men, because it travels amongst people." (Havamal 28.) Gengr um guma, word gets around. Yet it is the ability to respond to this circulation of the word that allows the intelligence of the insight to prosper.
Vits er þörf þeim er víða ratar; dælt er heima hvat; at augabragði verðr sá er ekki kann ok með snotrum sitr. "Wits are necessary for them who travel far ; anything goes at home. Flighty is he who knows nothing and sits amongst the wise." (Havamal 5.) The word I have translated here as "flighty" is augabragði, a "flash of the eye", something that only lasts for a moment and is then forgotten. It means a "laughing-stock". This is because the wise remain with the sustainable, not with that which is mere flightiness. Those who cannot hold their own through the process of freista and fregna are not to be taken seriously. Their ideas are "fly-by-night".
An un-heimsk idea, on the other hand, is one that isn't merely one moment of flightiness, nor the parochial standstill of one limited perspective, but one that has dared to go out and get wet (as opposed to sitting behind in dry clothes). You only know people if you've seen their wide variations, Sá einn veit ... hverju geði stýrir gumna hverr ... er víða ratar (Havamal 18 : "He only knows ... what kind of character steers each man ... who has travelled widely"), but then again, you only know anything if you've travelled widely (Sá einn veit er víða ratar ok hefr fjölð of farit) and have gauged your ideas against those wide variations.
Leoran : Tracking Back To Source
Carla and I work extensively with insights, intuitions, gnoses --- but we test them against the lore.
Learning, etymologically speaking, is a process of following the tracks back to source. One is literally on a kind of hunt or quest. Travel, at the very least of the mind, is involved in learning. Lore, "that which is learned", is at its best, that which has been tracked back to source ; or, one might think of lore as the pathways one travels to knowledge, the roads. In this regard, it is interesting that Ansuz, Raidho, and Kenaz follow each other in sequence, suggesting a connection of Inspired Speech, Finding the Track or Pathway, and the Torch of Knowledge that Lights the Darkness. As I point out in Wyrd Megin Thew, it makes sense to explore the etymological play of ken/kin, which presents a genealogical kind of knowledge, an exploring of relationship. This runic sequence may give us some clues as to the process involved here. Ansuz is that gift of the gods, and of Odin specifically, that we might call the mercuric or better yet, even, the hermetic (referring to Hermes, to whom Odin was compared) gift, that gift of Logos, of "the Word", inspired speech, insight, the eureka-moment referred to in Havamal where one idea leads to another in an unfolding and almost-manic blossoming, where the sense of things in the midst of the flurry comes to one in one giant moment of knowing, of gnosis. (Þá nam ek frævask ok fróðr vera ok vaxa ok vel hafask, orð mér af orði orðs leitaði, verk mér af verki verks leitaði, "Then I began to fertilize, grow, and thrive, word by word, searching and examining judgements, deed by deed, examining verses." (Havamal 141.)) This is an important moment. But, according to this tri-runic sequence, it is but the beginning of a process. In fact, any good gnosis is far too big to be immediately understood or encompassed within the pre-gnostic framework, and so of its very nature, the hermetic gift of ansuz requires us to go out and seek the open road in order to find answers. As we begin to travel, as we begin to compare and contrast, as we begin to ask questions of varied people in different walks of life, we begin to gain a context in which to understand the unfolding of the gnosis.
A gnosis may be looked at from multiple angles and multiple frameworks. Sometimes the framework that fits a gnosis only works itself out in time, through fjölð of farit, a lot of experience and travels. This suggests that ansuz usually comes in the form of a riddle, even and especially if it seems perfectly clear and obvious. We can't be certain if we are dealing with etynyms (etymologically related meanings) or homonyms (words with different genealogies but similar sounds), but nevertheless, it may be significant that "riddle" does have a homonym, "hraeddel", which refers to a kind of sieve with which one filters out wheat from the chaff. Again, whether these two words are in fact etymologically related remains uncertain, but the concantenation is significant regardless, because riddles do require a process of filtering and separation. On the one hand, on the other hand, on the one hand, on the other hand, back and forth, back and forth, passing the riddle around the circle.
Part of this process of taking the idea to the road is literal consultation and debate with others, but as indicated, part of it as well involves exploring the loric background of the idea. Lore here represents the congealed learning of the ancestors, and thus represents a way to engage the community not only of the living, but of the ancestors as well. One has to know how to read lore, of course. One reads lore as one does a dream, with attention to multiple layers of significance, with openness to unlikely or unanticipated connections, with an ability to suspend literal constructions in order to allow the motifs to speak for themselves and link autonomously (effecting, at times, a kind of de-syntax-ing of the imagery, in order to allow it fluidity), and yet always with great attention to how it is expressed. One reads neither lore nor dreams flippantly, even though there is a deep play to both. It is a deep play that requires a sense of rigor, and the appropriate respect for the congealed learning of the ancestors. Lore represents in part their attempt to explore the tracks and follow them back to source. One ought to have a certain respect for these expressions.
A healthy respect for the expression of lore, however, does not require anal fixation to the orthographic syntax of the expression, but rather a rigorous attention to that orthography in order to penetrate the expression inflectively. To treat the lore inflectively is to understand that this is one inflection amongst many of multi-valent root images and motifs. You allow those images and motifs to dance. It is not an unstructured dance. It is neither infinitely elastic nor totally fluidic, but flexible (note the similarity between the words inflection and flexible). First one has to "know one's stuff", to know what has been passed down and how it has been passed down, and demonstrate one's ability to quote the ancestral material as it has come to us. Then, one utilizes this rigorously-gained gestalt as the pattern within which to allow the inflections to improvise so that the root-motifs may dance. I want all of that to be encompassed and understood so that it is not misunderstood for some kind of "fly by night" "anything goes" kind of hermeneutic. The entire idea here is to engage the ancestral material, to take the gnosis on the road to the ancestors, the Helweg, the road to the ancestral halls. That Odr travelled again and again to the Underworld (in his various heiti as Svipdag, Hermodr, Skirnir, Widsith, Erikr) has allegorical surplus value here for us : inspiration must journey far and wide and seek the ancestral sources, ultimately, of course, aiming to reach the Well of Mimir itself. When we engage raidho, we should keep in mind what researchers of the so-called "ley lines" have discovered, and that is that the pathways are also often the spirit-roads, too, the way the grandfathers and grandmothers travel when they come back to visit, the elf-lanes, where the fairies travel, even the flight-paths of the goddesses identified in the Canon Episcopi and Burchard's Corrections who travel along to commune with us on various nights. One may walk the gnosis on these roads, too.
But with this, I am not merely suggesting raidho as a seidr- or spa- path, although it certainly has that connotation as well, given our invocation of the Helweg ; what I am attempting to emphasize here is lore-work itself as a kind of spa, in which we read raidho as PIE *leis-,"track." Lore is following the path of the ancestors, as our poets have set down their congealed learnings in rhythm and elegant form. We must remember that these poets were reflecting and refracting a circumpolar spectrum of voices ; voices of seidr- and spa- workings, voices of travelers, voices of kings, voices of common folk, voices of warriors, voices of inspired creativity. And not just voices in a single moment, but collective voices over extended periods of time, continually digested and reformulated in the poetic voice. So before one marches out like a heimsk and contradicts lore with one or two spa- sessions, one might remember that lore itself is the recepticle of ages and ages of continual prophetic practice, in which any one volva would feel overwhelming joy to contribute one stanza, in which additions are incremental and are mutually assimilated to the tradition. People will say, "Well, I went to Hel/Urd/Odin/etc., and s/he said ..." Oh, really? Did you freista them? Are you sure they were not freista-ing you? We'll consider the question of freista in greater depth shortly. For the moment, I just want to emphasize appropriate humility in the face of the lore, while adding that that humility does not require subjection or repression of creativity for the very reason that the lore itself, looking so flat and two-dimensional when examined superficially, is full of multiple potential inflections when one approaches it inflectively.
So, one has had the ansuz-moment, has taken it on the raidho to other halls and to the ancestral tracks of the lore itself, and one comes finally to kenaz. How is one to light this torch? Through the ken of kin, the special genealogical knowledge in the etymological root. One begins to ask how this all relates. You've had the insight, you've walked the paths, you've heard the different voices, of your fellows, of the wise, and of the ancestors, know you put it all together and ask how it all relates. You relevize (make relevant) the insight to the wisdom gained on the road. You figure out how the multiple petals of your blossoming eureka relate not only to each other, but to the other strands in the tradition. As you begin to connect, the light begins to come on. A connection has been made : a deep connection. You have clarified your ideas within yourself, with your fellows, found the "bibliographic" loric background, the referential field, and found a way to relate your gnosis to the lore with a sense of respect, humility, elegance, persistence, creativity, flexibility, and humor. The light begins to come on. The ancestors' ears begin to perk. Things are humming, the trees and stones begin to listen, if ever so slightly. One has begun to mature the knowledge, the gnosis, and one feels not only its light, but its warmth now as well.
We test something so that it comes to us freely, as freemen, and so that it will not thrall us. Powerful ideas can become authoritarian ideas if they are not fully put to trial. Gnosis has such a powerful force that it easily overwhelms and begins to monopolize one's sense of significance. In a sense, freista, testing, tames the gnosis, but not in order to domesticate or emasculate it, but rather to naturalize it by admitting it to the Thing, to the trial-space. It faces an assembly of free people not ready to bow down. In this manner, the folk demonstrate their resistance to the dangers of the revelation-mindstate, the idea that a gnosis has a once-and-for-all correctness that all must submit to. The gods speaking to us does not mean megalomania, nor prophetic fanaticism. The concept of a "personal gnosis" acknowledges that a revelation may have only a personal relevance. A gnosis that is "unsubstantiated" is a gnosis whose relevance to the larger community and to the accumulated body of lore has yet to be demonstrated. One might call it "yet-to-be-relevant".
It is important that we do not emasculate and cripple the flow of ansuz into the community. As anyone who is creative knows, far too often this happens. There is a reason that ansuz is visualized in the rune poems as the mouth of the gods. It is a way for important voices to speak, and these voices should be heard. But they are not "The voice", or "The Voice For All Time". The eureka-moment of gnosis is both incredibly powerful, and yet at the same time, even at its best represents the gods' best guess, and their best guess for that moment. As it turns out, however, the "best guesses" (or giets) of the gods are very good. But anything that is good is good within a proper context into which it fits, and has a snug proportionality ; on the other hand, all that is yfil goes beyond bounds and breaks any proportionality whatsoever. (And, as I have argued in Wyrd Megin Thew, the baed represents that ambiguity that tests the fitness (in a Darwinian sense) of our good proportions.) Finding the proportionality of the gnosis is what makes the gnosis good.
But the gnosis may be baed and still end up good, too. This must be kept in mind. It is baed if it confuses, challenges, upsets the ordinary understanding, or in essence, is "weird" according to our modern connotations, wreaking havoc with our modes of classification and categorization. Baed can be good because of the turbulent spirit (wod) at the heart of the Teutonic ethos that resists stagnation or torpor in any mode, including intellectual modes of classification. That which shakes up our thought stimulates our thought. Gnosis is often baed, and it is intended to be baed by the gods, for the very reason that our normal modes of thinking so easily become stagnant. Can you have an odr without a wod?
The Christian mindstate has tended to collapse the baed into the yfil, so we think that everything that is baed is bad (in the usual sense of the term). We therefore have a tendency to reject the baed. In so doing, we impoverish our good. At the same time, it is not good per se for the baed to remain baed. Rather, the baed must become good, not through a one-sided assimilation (which would merely be a kind of colonizing of the gnosis), but by reformulating our categories in order to find the proportions in which the baed makes sense and finds its proper place, its "home" as it were whereby it can come into its full worth, its blossoming of potentiality whereby it becomes a blessing to itself and others.
Freista is part of that process of finding the good for the baed. In a sense, it is a diplomatic procedure between the gnosis and the tradition, albeit at times a kind of rough and off-the-cuff kind of diplomacy. We might call it hashing out the guess, and here we will extend good faith towards the word guess and find its deeper potential, a potential that people who valued the gamble that was wyrd would give appropriate weight to. We are bringing gnosis and guess into close proximity, so they can both rub off on each other. There is an ongiet, deep-and-rich, almost spa-enriched understanding, in "guess", but there is also hypothesis. Freista is hashing out the guess, putting questions to the gnosis.
We alluded to this earlier with our discussions of visitations by the gods. One should not approach the gods with a spirit of naive realism, in which one takes literally the encounter. That is superficial and even mildly insulting. The gods communicate through runes, through mysteries, and that means that gnoses, or as we are calling them guesses, are riddles. They must be riddled through. When the gods communicate, they are engaged per se in freista, in testing on multiple levels. That is how they encourage us to evolve. (And one might remember that the more gullible one is, the more prone to naive literalizations, the more one is openly (even if unconsciously) declaring oneself within the jurisdiction of Loki, who, it will be remembered, is an excellent shape-shifter, and whose forms of "testing the mind or character" (geðreynir) are "not so trustworthy" (vilgi tryggr). When you yourself declare yourself within the jurisdiction of a particular court, you are agreeing to whatever their procedural law is. In this case, Laufeysson will have a fun time.) They are testing our levels of insight. They are testing how we will gauge their communications against our background of learning and lore. They are seeing how much we will question. They are testing our testing.
An idea matures through being tested. If someone comes and reveals what has been revealed to them through a visitation by the gods (or to the gods), it would be insulting and inappropriate to approach the encounter with naive realism. Simply, there is learning that can happen here. Through the moment of ansuz, one can hear the whispers of the gods' runes, and the riddle may bring insights. But there is no place for either the ostracism of the shamanic insight nor, we might add, for the often and unfortunate authoritarianism of the shaman.
Another level of testing is making sure that your thinking is ambidextrous. Whether the paradigm of "right brain" and "left brain" explored in the scientific community in the 1980's ends up proving itself on a literal level, the concepts of intuitive, wholistic, symbolic thinking (the "right brain") and linear, logical, verbal thinking (the "left brain") remain useful if we remember that in order to fly, a bird must use both wings, and likewise, in order for an idea to fly, it must be passed from hand to hand. "On the one hand, on the other hand." It must pass from right to left and back again. We approach the insight intuitively, then we approach it logically. We approach it with passion, and then we approach it with skepticism, and then we go back again. In so doing, we generate movement. Both wings to fly.
The testing process also adjusts odr to wyrd. A revelation is a relevation. It has its appropriate venue, moment, audience, time, era. It has a context to which it speaks. We humanize the insight by finding this context. To what wyrd is the odr speaking?
In the process of testing, some things are going to drop out, and some things are going to stay. This is the selection process that determines the fitness of the idea as well as its bearer. The persistence of both will be tested. Many of the ideas that one has about the gnosis will be frustrated and pass away, while others will persist, but shifted in meaning subtly or more dramatically, and others yet will stay the course. The ideas that you keep coming back to, even in the face of opposition and resistance, are the ideas with continued value. Sometimes ideas will come back even when it seems they have been completely demolished. In fact, I would say that some ideas have only a "post-resurrective" value : they only come into their own after they have been demolished, have died, rotted, completely composted, and then refertilized the soil, allowing the seeds to regrow again. These are often some of the best ideas. A "Green Man" lesson Frodi-Freyr can teach us here is that the life of ideas can live beyond their death ; nay, sometimes the seed must die in order for the grain to grow. Other times, a path (raidho) which seemed perfectly legitimate and promising to develop the gnosis will reach a dead end, and while this is frustrating, the dead end is often purposive, as it often leads to a much better solution to the problem of how the insight fits into the existing lore.
Carla and I have continually had our ideas fully tested, and sometimes through quite unworthy, jotunnish opponents, and we have demonstrated, both of us, that we stand by our insights. What is the point of an insight if one doesn't stand by it? This involves struggling with opposition, struggling with riddles and puzzles in the lore that don't seem to fit the insight, and often remaining baffled and frustrated by the lack-of-fit (baedness, as it were) at times. Yet I have found that the more I return to the lore and wrestle it with my insight, my good guess in mind, the richer the encounter becomes, and the more the lore yields up, and suddenly it becomes apparent that the lore was always meant to be used in such a way. The more it is tested, the more it yields. The more passively we approach it (either through passive rejection, something we hear much of ("Oh, that person's just a lore-hog, a lore-thumper"), or through passive conformity), the less it is willing to speak. But when we begin bringing gnosis and lore into dynamic alchemy --- the wod-filled struggle we are calling freista --- the more odr or inspired insight we are privy to.
(All translations mine.)