Religion and Reverie
One kind of profound experience that landscape can invoke is reverie, which I would characterize as a kind of impressionistic state of the imagination, where a flow of imagery has a vague impression of memory, accompanied by feelings of great significance. Reveries often happen on the edge of awareness, like daydreams, and are often vague to the recollecting mind, and yet seem to hold in inchoate form many, many truths which the rational mind, if one is an intellect, may scour the archives in order to find some kind of correlate.
I can smell hay in early summer time, and with that scent alone, a profound sense of religiosity washes over me, that is really only spoken to in religions which keep touch with their rural base, especially heathenism. I have had reveries in oak meadow landscapes that hold secret keys to the soul, which drive me on in a religious quest to find expression and communication with others, to develop the feelings and ideas emerging out of even a single reverie, let alone the many that I have had in my lifetime.
In the lexicon of traditional, autochthonic religions, there are a couple rubrics for expressing this sort of thing. One would be the expression that this an "ancestral memory", a memory of the ancestors, that we are contacting some older experience. Another would be that this is a vision shared by the experiences of the fair folk, the land wights that ward over that land. Either one of these expressions is acceptable ; what matters is that the expression gives a traditional place with which to value and give worth to the reverie. It allows us to take what amounts in the world's experience to fantasy and develop it into a real experience of spirituality.
There is really one story of a mortal who while still alive was able to ascend into the heavens to commune with the gods, and was able to go down into the underworld to question Mimir, and this was Svipdag-Odr. The imagination is what allows us to contact the Gods. Now, to scoffers and corrosive skeptics, this may seem a laughable proposition that we would say that the part of our soul that may connect with the Gods is our imagination. They would remind us that even children can imagine all kinds of things and have profound experience from it, and we would agree with them. We would just place good faith on this capacity and function instead of a ridiculing stance, and state that what the child has, that capacity for pretend and play, is what religion is meant to develop. It is meant to develop it in us until it stretches our capacities. In other words, the imagination of a child is the seed that can fruit into the religiosity of the adult.
Our culture carries extremely bad faith towards the poetic spirit, towards the imagination, towards inspiration, all of which are wrapped up in this concept of odr. We belittle it, we keep it confined, it is almost entirely considered a source of error without having a capacity for reaching truth, and its confinement means that it stays shadow and does not find its true power. Part of heathen religiosity is developing that power so that it can find its own, and as its own, it is a powerful capacity for connecting with the world.
To the romantic writers and poets of modern times, most especially Goethe, we owe the seeds of the rehabilitation of this concept. Goethe suggested that there is the possibility of a disciplined imagination that is able to stay attuned to the world. This concept of the disciplined versus the undisciplined imagination is very important to the development of heathen religiosity. The scoffers are those who unintentionally conspire to keep imagination as a shallow capacity, confusing the concept of a "wild" imagination with an "untested" imagination. But certainly we know ever since Darwin that a wild environment is not an untested environment. Selection is working on all levels in a wild environment. As heathens, we will the imagination to go wild, but that means it will be subject to a selection or testing process. As we continue to attune to the world, our fantasies also develop and become more refined, becoming more fidelitous to phenomena, but also show us a reality of the phenomena that our eyes alone -- empiricism -- cannot see. This is not a repudiation of empiricism, but a finding of its proper place. If empiricism is the microscope that looks at the world, the imagination is the eye that is looking into that microscope.
But in heathenism there are some additional qualifications to the imagination that are important. The shallow imagination is not just shallow ; it is rootless and placeless. The heathen imagination is deeply situated. It is an imagination that happens in response to place and situations, and that implies our intentional efforts to commune with the world. The imagination occurs in response to history and world, just as much as it is one of the prime capacities with which we construct and understand a picture of the world and history.
There is almost a Sufi element to the story of Svipdag's bridewinning of Freya. Some might even skeptically wonder whether it was an authentically heathen story, were it not for the fact that bridewinning was an authentically heathen genre, and that the Courtly Love genre of Andalusia, derived from Sufi poets, found such fertile and ready soil in Northern Europe, whence soon German poets were openly calling it minnesang, which is simply the German inflection of the Norse mansöngr, which Freya is said to love so dearly. Some have pointed out that Courtly Love poems stayed surprisingly secular in tone for poetry which in Islamic countries and even further out amongst the Bhakti and Tantric movements in India were more religious, but why this is a surprise in an environment where only Christianity was allowed is baffling. Of course it overwhelmingly had to skirt free of a religiosity that was foreign to Christianity! And yet for all this, Walther von der Vogelweide was not refer to the figure Minne (often translated as love or amore, giving away her identity) in terms clearly reminiscent of a goddess. "Her name is known ; her self, however, ungrasped. Yet nobody from her apart / Merits the blessing of God's grace." (Joseph Campbell, Creative Mythology, Penguin Books, New York, 1970/1991, pp. 181 - 182.) In the tradition of Courtly Love, a man loved a real woman, but as if she were a goddess. We have perhaps here a hint into the religiosity of immanence that may very well have permeated the Vanic cult of Freya, surfacing again, interestingly enough, in the Gardnerian Wiccan rite of "Drawing Down the Moon" whereby the chief priestess is hailed and revered as a goddess. The cross-connections of a witchcraft cult which emerged in the very area that the Troubadours, the Cathars, the Kabbalists, and Holyroller-Folkloric Waldensians also inhabited have been vastly underexplored, although there is no doubt that this stew of medieval counterculture was widely interinfluential.
In any case, the apt comparison with Sufic poetry should serve as ample amplification of the spiritual profundity to be found in these stories, and the erudite and penetrating work of the Islamist Henri Corbin underlined the critical importance of the imagination to Islamic mysticism as well, and this could be an important comparative set of texts with which to wrestle. I would imagine that it would differ, however, in the emphasis on landscape, which to my knowledge (which to be frank, is very limited here, so I welcome correction) is very limited in this Sufic register.
But with Odr seeking Freya, on the other hand, we have a clear connection with fertility and landscapes full of vegetation, and so on one level, there is a clear allegory here of the imagination falling in love with the landscape that affirms our deep feelings as heathens.