Poets and Priests
The poets use the ceremonies to reach the heart of things, and then see clearly. The priests use the ceremonies to bind people to parochial particularities.
The poet uses the lore as symbol to go beyond into essence ; the priest literalizes and fashions idolatry.
But were our Gothis these kinds of priests? Or were they poets?
Germani ... neque druides habent, qui rebus divinis praesint, neque sacrificiis student. (Caesar, de Bello Gallico, VI, 21.) "The Germani ... have neither druids, who are in charge of divine affairs, nor are they fanatical about sacrifices." Caesar has just spent several pages in exposition about the powers of the druids in Gallic culture. Nam plebes paene servorum habetur loco, quae nihil audet per se, nullo adhibetur consilio ... [D]ruidum ... rebus divinis intersunt, sacrificia publica ac privata procurant, religiones interpretantur ... Natio est omnis Gallorum admodum dedita religionibus ... que ad ea sacrificia druidibus utuntur... "For the common folk have almost the position of slaves, who no one risks anything for, nor are they summoned to the assembly ... Druids ... attend to divine affairs, taking care of public and private sacrifices, interpretations of religious scruples ... All of the Gallic nation are extremely devoted to religious matters ... and they use Druids for these sacrifices..."
It is not that the Germani have no priests per se, for Tacitus speaks of sacerdoti, and we know there were Gothis. But what Caesar is here saying is that they had no druids, no priests of fanatical religion excessively attended to in minutely scrupulous ritual detail. Havamal 145 : Betra er óbeðit en sé ofblótit, "Better not to offer at all than to over-sacrifice". Keep it simple and profound. The priests are not to treat the common folk like slaves. Þveginn ok mettr ríði maðr þingi at, þótt hann sé-t væddr til vel; Skúa ok bróka skammisk engi maðr né hests in heldr, þátt hann hafi-t góðan (Havamal 61), "Washed and well-fed shall a man ride to the assembly, even though his clothes may not be too good ; of shoes and breeches no man shall be ashamed, nor the horse he has, even if he hasn't a good one." It is one's wisdom and not one's station that are tested at the assembly.
So what does the lore say about the Germanic Gothis?
Þá er Ása-Óðinn kom á Norðurlönd og með honum díar er það sagt með sannindum að þeir hófu og kenndu íþróttir þær er menn hafa lengi síðan með farið. Óðinn var göfgastur af öllum og af honum námu þeir allar íþróttirnar því að hann kunni fyrst allar og þó flestar. ...Óðinn... talaði svo snjallt og slétt að öllum er á heyrðu þótti það eina satt. Mælti hann allt hendingum svo sem nú er það kveðið er skáldskapur heitir. Hann og hofgoðar hans heita ljóðasmiðir því að sú íþrótt hófst af þeim í Norðurlöndum. ...Allar þessar íþróttir kenndi hann með rúnum og ljóðum þeim er galdrar heita. Fyrir því eru Æsir kallaðir galdrasmiðir. ...En hann kenndi flestar íþróttir sínar blótgoðunum. Voru þeir næst honum um allan fróðleik og fjölkynngi. Margir aðrir námu þó mikið af og hefir þaðan af dreifst fjölkynngin víða og haldist lengi. (Ynglingasaga 6 - 7.)
"When Odin of the Aesir came into the Northern lands and with him the priests who after that, to tell the truth, carried there and taught those skills that men have long since practised. Odin was the most worshipful and noble of all, and from him they learned all those skills because he learned all of them first and best. ...Odin... spoke with such sophistication and smoothness that all who heard him thought that alone was sooth. He spoke formally all in rhyme and assonance such as that poetry we now call skaldship. He and his temple-gothis were called song-smiths, because from them that accomplished art was carried into Northern lands. ...All these skills he taught with runes and songs that were called galdur. Because of this the Aesir are called galdur-smiths. ... And he taught most of his arts to the blot-gothis. They were nearest to him in all ripened wisdom and full-cunning [magic]. Many others studied it extensively, however, and from thence full-cunning has spread out wide and held for a long time."
Odin taught his arts to the Gothis, and these were arts of kveðið, of poetry, verse, rhythmic chanting. The temple-gothis were called ljóðasmiðir, verse-smiths, crafters of poetry, shapers of song. Through this song, the Gothis became næst honum um allan fróðleik og fjölkynngi, nearest to Odin in all wisdom and magic.
Neque sacrificiis student, "Nor are they fanatical about priestly functions."
Saxo tells a story of a time when Odin was exiled, and Loki, who receives a kenning here of Mith-Othin ("Companion of Odin"), deceived people by tricking them into thinking he had seized divine power, and taught them that the prior custom of offering to all the Gods was insufficient, but they must multiply their ritual obligations. When Odin returned, this was over-turned.
Mitothyn ... ipse fingendae divinitatis arripuit barbarasque mentes novis erroris tenebris circumfusas praestigiarum fama ad caerimonias suo nomini persolvendas adduxit.  Hic deorum iram aut numinum violationem confusis permixtisque sacrificiis expiari negabat ideoque iis vota communiter nuncupari prohibebat, discreta superum cuique libamenta constituens.
"Mitothyn... himself made out to the barbarians that he had seized divine status, and surrounded their minds with dark ignorance, and new, extraordinary errors, persuading them through his infamous tricks to pay for ceremonies in his name, and taught that they must expiate these gods who were angry at the violation of their divine will through the blending and mixing of sacrifices, and therefore he prohibited and forbade them to call on them in common, establishing separate offerings to each of the Gods."
But Qui cum Othino redeunte, relicta praestigiarum ope, "when Odin returned, he forsook the power of these deceptions." He relinquished them. They were left behind. Had Loki been successful, the religion of the Germani may well have ended up much like the Gauls, requiring the scrupulous attention of druids to take care of all that sacrifice, but Odin veluti tenebras quasdam superveniente numinis sui fulgore discussit, "struck that down through his divine will just as the darkness is dissipated by the arrival of light". Betra er ósent en sé ofsóit (Havamal 145), "Better to not give than to over-sacrifice and squander." Svá Þundr of reist fyr þjóða rök, þar hann upp of reis, er hann aftr of kom, "So the Thundering One (Odin) carved this judgement for the nations, where he rose up, after he had returned." That Odin is here called a "Thundering One" indicates how angry he was ; anyone connected with this defrauding of the folk through tactics of fear and extortion he tamquam alienos deponere coegit, "gathered up and deported like foreigners".
Odin doesn't want priests who multiply obligations and religious tributes through the threat of divine wrath, nor needlessly complicate sacred rites with overmeticulous and redundant priestcraft, and he certainly doesn't want priests who behave like a magorum coetus, "gang of sorcerers" who confundo, "confuse and upset" people with the praestigiarum, "fraudulent claim" of the deus ira, "wrath of the Gods". He wants galdrasmiðir, crafters of magical and enchanting verse. En hann kenndi flestar íþróttir sínar blótgoðunum, "And he taught most of these arts to his ceremonial priests." Which were the arts he therefore taught? Since hofgoðar hans heita ljóðasmiðir , "his temple priests were called song-smiths", he must therefore have taught them those eighteen fimbulljóð, mighty songs, in the Rúnatal. These songs are allþörf ýta sonum, óþörf jötna sonum (Havamal 164), "all useful for the sons of men, but useless for the sons of giants". In other words, they will not work for ill wights who act like a magorum coetus, gang of sorcerors who follow in the footsteps of Loki and Heid, and for such, they are not intended. They are intended to meet all the needs of humanity, and of these mighty songs, the very first and foremost is called "Help", þér hjalpa mun við sökum ok sorgum ok sútum görvöllum (Havamal 146), "whose function is to help against harm and sorrow, and to prepare you against grief and sickness".
Odin's poet-priests are to use their songs to help people in their sorrows and troubles, and prepare them to deal with the inevitable griefs that come in life. When one listens to the songs that poets speak, Heill sá, er kvað, heill sá, er kann, njóti sá, er nam, heilir, þeirs hlýddu (Havamal 164), "Blessed are those who recite them, blessed are those who know them, of benefit to those who learn them, blessed are those who hearken."
The true priests of the Northern path are not those who frighten with their sorcery, but poets whose deep songs bring them closest to Odin's wisdom and magic, which blesses all of the folk with luck, wholeness, and health.
all translations copyright 2009 by Siegfried Goodfellow