Friday, March 07, 2008

Reflections on Mannaz

Recently, I had the pleasure of reading the book Stripping the Gurus ( by Geoffrey D. Falk, in which he exposes the inanity of various religious figures who got too big for their britches, and this gave me pause to reflect on the meaning of the rune Mannaz, "mankind."

Human beings are beautifully flawed, fallible creatures of the earth with the gifts of breath that allows their mind to float on the wind, and the gift of poetic inspiration (odr) that is also madness, meaning their ideas, potentially brilliant and beautiful, often take them on crazy trips and bouts of foolish fury. The fallible nature of humans, if accepted with a deep and critical tolerance, can be something beautiful. There is a poignancy to their daring and stumbling nature. The flawed fallibility of human beings provokes an attitude of humility, which is not false modesty, abnegation, or self-abasement, which would violate heathen values of pride and boldness, but rather understanding the essential connection between the hum-an and the hum-us, man and earth. Heathen humility keeps us grounded. We all have our flaws, and therefore we must be careful in how far we venerate any man, even our heroes. They too are human. It also means that we must temper our trust with a careful dose of salt and common sense, for "men switcheth", they change their minds, they betray, their loyalty is not always certain.

Hoenir's gift to humankind (odr) is double-edged, giving us the capacity to generate inspired thoughts that can connect us to the gods, but also providing hooks through which Loki can, to his glee, lead us into paths of terrible folly and illusion, all while seeming perfectly sound and reasonable.

The poetic mind-of-madness (odr) given to humans means that besides being able to create elegant and noble philosophies, beautiful poetry, and brilliant, grounded, and attuned strategy, that same mind is also capable of the greatest foolishness, self-delusion, and production of bovine excreta. For this reason, one of the greatest tools a heathen can have is that of freista, of questioning and testing, of critical inquisition, for it is freista that generates that most useful of instruments that Hemingway recommended for all good writers, a bovine excreta detector. Follow your nose, it always knows. If it looks like, smells like, stinks like ... it probably is. As Mr. T might say, "Don't be a sucker."

This combination of heathen humility and freista gives the average heathen a very grounded and healthy anti-authoritarian attitude that does not conflict with loyalty to a good leader. This is true for many reasons ; first, that a good leader is one who does not lose his connection to the folk nor to her or his own fallibility, secondly, that a heathen is not looking for perfection in a leader, but a "good bargain", something that will not solve all problems but will improve things palpably, thirdly, that both folk and leaders do not expect leaders to be perfectly enlightened or to engage in self-sacrifice, but rather are prone to good guesses and flashes of insight that in the pragmatic prove good more often than not (accompanied by a willingness to admit mistakes with frankness), and leaders are entitled to their own share of human selfishness that every human shares, which is ok, so long as it does not surpass the proportions of natural satiety. So long as it knows how to say "enough", selfishness is not a bad thing, and so therefore heathen leaders do not have to hide behind facades of hypocrisy in satisfying their urges, while at the same time, if these become outrageous, they will be called on their outrages --- and they know it. Finally, loyalty to a leader always takes place within a web of oaths, none of which can be violated ; therefore, loyalty to a leader cannot interfere with or violate one's loyalty to family, to the earth, to the gods, and to oneself. This is why Germanic oaths of loyalty were always couched in so many clauses of exception : to map out the web in the midst of the vow. Leaders understood these limitations on loyalty, and respected them : when Dietrich's retainers found themselves in a conflict with loyalty towards him due to obligations of kinship, Dietrich demonstrated understanding in letting them go. All of these constitute important checks and balances within the unwritten heathen folk-constitution, which seldom had to be written down because they were lived and so obvious, but which would profit through articulation in the present precisely because of their modern dearth.

The ability to practice no-nonsense loyalty, with admiration for good deeds, that never forgets the fallibility of all mankind, is an important heathen ability. All of Heimdall's sons, high as well as low, are men, and are subject to the foibles and flaws of the human condition. This includes those with the highest levels of inspiration and the greatest luck, those with the most subtle insights, and even the most kind. Even the wise may be foolish at times. One of Odin's greatest strengths is to admit his flaws and foolishness : that was a good king!

A good leader gets "on the jazz", as was said of Colonel John "Hannibal" Smith of the A-Team, and thus gains excellent grasp of the situation and how to handle it. This often works. Yet it is not infallible. Even the A-Team often ended up tied up in a garage having to figure out how to get out. Sometimes a plan comes together and sometimes it doesn't. When it does, it has a marvelous quality that speaks of the gods touching the leader, and that can be an exalted place of victory, of sig, but this wonderful luck, so admired and so envied, still has nothing to do with miracle-working or levels of perfection. Rather, mundane miracles of mannaz.

Heathen humility comes natural. The Icelandic and Old Norse Rune Poems describe "mannaz" by saying that Maðr es moldar auki, "Man is the seed of the earth", or the "progeny of the ground". There is soil in us, holy aurr- clay coming up through our roots as we stretch our arms towards the heavens. The Old Norse Rune Poem follows by saying mikil es greip a hauki, "mighty is the grip of the hawk". Skaldskaparmal 18 mentions the valsham Friggjar "hawk-shape of Frigg" with which she soars in ham-faring. If Frigg is Jord, as some scholars have suggested, and I believe, then as children of the earth, her grip upon us is indeed mighty. We are always in her grasp. The Anglo Saxon Rune Poem reminds us that we shall return to earth when it says, Man byþ on myrgþe his magan leof: sceal þeah anra gehwylc oðrum swican, forðum drihten wyle dome sine þæt earme flæsc eorþan betæcan. "Man is mirth to his beloved kin, but each one shall depart from the other ; indeed, the lord shall doom this poor flesh to be delivered into the earth". The verb "swican", here contextually translated as "depart from", generally has a connotation of wandering, not necessarily in the adventurous sense, but more like the wavering from one's true place, or wandering-astray, because other meanings of the term include "deceive" and "betray". The poet surely chose this word to remind us all of our capacity to "switch", to turn even on the ones we love, and to this end, to remind us that someday we too shall be committed to the earth, and thus to value our kin while we are alive and with them.

The Icelandic Rune Poem reminds us that we are meant to be joys to each other : Maðr er manns gaman, "Man is the joy of man". The word "gaman", from which we get our modern word "game", denotes fun, amusement, glee, but it is essentially a combination of "mann", "man" and the combining prefix "ge" : ge-mann, meaning people together. The Gothic inflection, gaman, means "participation" or even "communion". The optimism and humanism of our ancestors come out in these words, for when people gather together, there can be a communion characterized by a spirit of joy, fun, and amusement. For this reason, we should stay true to each other and not "switcheth". We need not wander astray from each other, for we were meant to travel together. The Icelandic Rune Poem says that we are skipa skreytir, the adornment of ships ; in other words, we are all on this boat together, and so it behooves us to remember that we are all human, for everyone of us will one day be the adornment of that ship which sails for the great world beneath. We can celebrate our humanity, with all its foibles, knowing that to be human is a good thing, despite our flaws, for when we come together in a spirit of participation, there is fun to be had that makes short shrift of all the mischief pompous pretentiousness would invite Loki to provoke. So don't get too big for your britches, but stand tall, and laugh! If you stand back and let go, the tragicomedy has its merits of mirth.


Blogger Brainwise said...

Excellent post! This shows a true difference between the Heathen seeker and that of a typical New Age seeker -- an understanding of both the glory and the muck to which humans can aspire.

"There is soil in us, holy aurr- clay coming up through our roots as we stretch our arms towards the heavens."

Pure poetry. I hope you don't mind if I borrow this for a future ritual or celebration.

11:20 AM  
Blogger SiegfriedGoodfellow said...

I'd be honored!

4:06 PM  

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