Saturday, February 20, 2010

Review : The Asatru Edda

Norroena Society, The Asatru Edda : Sacred Lore of the North, iUniverse, Bloomington, IN, 2009.

This is a work of tremendous care, and labour of love. Its meticulous compilation of source-texts into a coherent epic form has been accomplished, for the most part, with grace and with dignity. There is a rhythm and a pulse to the work that slows down the mind and lends a meditative quality to the verses and rich language quoted and flowed in to the well-laid pathways and grooves. These pathways are evidently the result of many great summonings of rede.

There are positively beautiful moments, and interpretations. Take the stunning yet instantly evident interpretation that the Llosalfar are in fact that tribe of elves in Dagr's line who prepare and accompany the daily pageant of Sol across the skies. "At each horizon of Jormungrund there are horse-doors, which the Ljosalfar ride through on their journey to and from the sky. Near the eastern horse-door lies Dellingr's hall, in Alfheimr, where he gives aid to Natt and her kinsmen. Near the western horse-door is Billingr's domain, who does the same. Dellingr is the jarl of the Ljosalfar and lord of the dawn. Billingr rules over twilight." (p. 18) This explains Snorri's positioning of the Ljosalfar in the various heavens as Sol parades across the skies.

There are little gems like these sprinkled throughout the book, making it a treasure trove. It's important to emphasize that these interpretations are not the result of random "Unsubstantiated Personal Gnosis", as it is sometimes called in the heathen community, in which individuals, often without much grounding in the lore at all, and without making the effort to piece together what remains in fragmentary form, simply pull out of their hat the first thing that sounds good to them, and assert it as some kind of truth. The UPGs, as they are often abbreviated, ought not only be called "unsubstantiated", but more importantly, undigested. Intuition was very important to our ancestors, and developing personal feelings and theories about the lore was certainly seen as valuable. When the gap between one's personal feelings, and the larger community was bridged, however, one was expected to present fully digested information that related to the experiences of others in a way that enhanced them.

Here we may receive edification at the toolshed of some Havamal verses. Havamal 26 : 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 unsophisticated man thinks he knows everything, if he stays to himself in a corner [or, in his cabin ; can mean both] ; he knows not that which he shall answer, if he is tested by the folk." Freista, "tested", here means "examined", "scrutinized", and even (although not a technical legal term) "cross-examined". It means being subjected to critical thinking from multiple points of view. Anyone can think themselves smart when they stay at home. But do their thoughts stand up to scrutiny when they are in the company of the sophisticated? Havamal 30 : margr þá fróðr þykkisk, ef hann freginn er-at, "many seem wise, if they are not asked questions." It's the answering of questions over time that deepens our insights. Havamal 5 : at augabragði verðr sá er ekki kann ok með snotrum sitr, "he who has nothing to teach becomes a twinkle of the eyes when he sits amongst the sophisticated." Ekki kann may also be translated as "knows nothing", or "does not search or explore". The latter suggests that a person has taken the time to search something out and really investigate it. That, after all, is the basis for teaching something. Someone who has nothing substantial to offer, or whose speech remains puerile, undeveloped, undigested, and unsophisticated, is going to be taken as insignificant, because truly what they have to offer is simply a flash in the dark or a twinkle of the eyes. It has developed no depth, no root, and thus is taken as the passing fancy of a child, rather than something which ought to be taken seriously. The Norroena Society, under the tutelage of Mark Puryear, has something substantial and sophisticated to teach, and it is the result of careful investigations.

What differentiates lore from unsubstantiated, undigested personal gnosis, as these Havamal strophes illustrate, is gnoses that have passed from hand to hand over time, and become refined. They are like gems that have become polished in the tumblers of time. Lore is the result of the folk. It may be brought together by those with special skill and poetic talent, but it is not "made up" by untested, unreflective flashes of momentary insight. Many times the brilliance of a moment becomes a flash in the pan. What perseveres?

Puryear's structure is based upon a careful and lengthy study of Viktor Rydberg, one of Sweden's most talented poets, and a gifted folk-scholar who devoted over ten years of in-depth study scrutinizing every surviving remnant of lore. Beginning with no preconceived notions, over time, Rydberg began to sort certain patterns that began to emerge in his studies. He noticed a rough story arc in the Poetic Edda that was greatly enhanced when it was filled in with a careful study of the mythological elements to be found in Saxo's Gesta Danorum. It is commonly, and quite erroneously assumed that Rydberg simply equated separate divine persona according to his personal whimsy. On the contrary, his analysis was quite akin to the practice of modern scholars who study types in folk stories, and gather together variations. Rydberg's in-depth studies brought together variants of the same story that commented upon each other in mutual ways, and when enough elements converged to constitute structural and functional identity, then, and only then, did he recognize the different names in the variants as polynyms for the same figure. Polynymity is a recognized feature of mythic traditions that stem in part from poets' love of devising new praise-titles for their beloved deities and heroes, and in part from name-divergence in communities as they differentiate geographically over time.

Like an immense jigsaw puzzle, Rydberg began collecting together the pieces and variants that obviously fit together, until he had discerned a basic structure that tied the various story-arcs together. Because of the fragmentary nature of some of the sources, and the corruption inherent in some of the texts due to distortion under Christian recording, there were gaps in the assembled jigsaw puzzle. But even with gaps, so long as they are not too large, one may get the entire picture of a jigsaw puzzle, and sometimes, it is even easy to fill in the blanks based on inference, and connecting the dots from known Point A to known Point C. Rydberg was always very deliberate in annotating his inferences and speculations regarding hypothetical Points B, and differentiated them from that which had solid grounding in the sources.

In the process, Rydberg came to some conclusions that startled him, yet which became confirmed again and again upon further investigation. Some of these conclusions have continued to startle or baffle modern heathens who haven't taken the time to really investigate Rydberg. Rydberg took over ten years to do his investigations, and they do represent really solid research based on meticulous examination and synthesis of the original sources in the lore, but I'd estimate that in order to fully examine and confirm their validity, an open-minded but reasonably skeptical mind would have to take several years to closely study his investigations and confirm his sources, which is precisely what Carla O'Harris and myself have been doing, along with the folk-scholar and translator William Reaves, for many years now. I can report that although Rydberg is not correct 100% of the time (who is?), his hit-rate definitely ranks in the 90th percentile, which is pretty damn impressive.

Puryear has taken the time to both understand this epic structure Rydberg uncovered, and to meditate upon it, and then he has allowed the ancestral voices themselves to tell the saga, through often seamless compilation and dexterous, light-handed editing of the ancient sources, to create a whole that is impressive, and functions as a veritable tome. My only suggestion in this regard is that it ought be available in a regular sized format --- Bible-sized would be excellent, actually --- and in hardcover, leather-bound, rather than its paperback 8 by 11 format, because a work of this sort truly merits a form that is as lasting as its content. Even if that substantially increased the cost of the book, given its value, it would still be worth the extra cost.

Some minor critiques : Puryear occasionally flows in elements from the Oera Linda Book, a book he feels contains some genuine elements of lore amongst its obvious corruptions and modernisms. I am not so convinced. Oera Linda seems far more convincingly a nationalist forgery of the 19th century than it does any genuine compilation of lore, and the consensus of scholars agree on that. (Such consensus, in and of itself, says little, because knowledge is hardly a democracy, but it matches my intuition when I read this book.) It is not impossible that in this work of fiction, seemingly composed by one man, there might have been integrated some folk-elements, but that is far from conclusive. Nevertheless, whether fiction or no, there are some beautiful passages that Puryear quotes to benefit, and certainly no harm, as for the most part they in no way impede, and occasionally enhance, the more well-founded surrouding structure. Indeed some have a charm of their own. My only complaint here is their flimsy (in my honest opinion) grounding in anything approaching genuine lore. But Puryear is quite conscientious about footnoting precisely which elements come from Oera Linda (as indeed he sources all of the material), thus allowing the reader to decide which elements of charm and meditation to take as authentic. They do not make up a substantial part of the book, which sticks to the more commonly acknowledged sources of genuine lore.

Nevertheless, this is not contradictory to Puryear's stated aim. I quote from the enjoyable, rede-filled introduction : "The purpose of such a massive undertaking, which is the culmination of over ten years of work, and thirty years of combined research between several scholars, is not to develop a strict authority on what Asatru lore should and should not be. Although it was put together to be a sacred text, rather than just another "mythology" book, the sanctity of the work is in re-establishing holy storytelling traditions in the form of the Teutonic epic. Like a great puzzle, the fragments of lore have been pieced together, cleansed of Christian elements, and presented as a source for Asatruar to enjoy as part of our legacy. Before the age of Bibles and Korans, tales of the worlds' religions were shared over hearths or near children's beds. The lore was not a concrete rule of divine law that had to be maintained, word for word, at all costs. Rather, it was a vibrant, fluid development that constantly changed and evolved, while keeping in life with what had come before. Although the stories themselves are sacred, what's more important are the lessons one walks away with, the true inspirations of the Gods and Goddesses. The inspiration is the holy experience in reading or hearing the lore, and remains so to this day." (p. xiv)

Indeed, so long as the skeletal structure and sinews which are founded in studious linkage and investigation of the original sources are adhered to, there is no reason why minor flourishes cannot be taken from artful, modern sources that stay true to the internal spirit of the lore. Puryear here selects from Oera Linda ; there are passages from Tolkien, for example, especially in The Silmarillion, that are so true to the Northern spirit, and so stunningly beautiful and lyrical, that they might well be flowed in to passages where they fit. As Puryear points out, the lore did not have "to be maintained, word for word, at all costs". Whatever the retelling, what matters is the way it keeps the integrity of the tradition alive through the generations. And it is certain that once a substantial segment of heathenry has assimilated the structural integrity of this work, lore will be regenerated from the heart and the living, poetic imagination (odr) into a new renaissance of lore that will be as old and as new as that which springs from the Well of Wyrd itself.

Another minor critique is his inclusion, although to his credit, he brackets it off as a separate appendix, of a text called here The Hugrunar, but originally entitled The Meditative Paradigms of Seidr, a bizarre, modern prose-poem written in chunky and clunky pseudo-archaic, hardly grammatical speech. I will not say that there are not some interesting insights in the piece, although the strange grammar often makes me feel that I am following the insights of Yoda. What makes it particularly odd is its fusion (one might say "con-fusion") of separate genres and diction into one piece, at times having the voice of some cryptic, Havamal-mimicking speech, while at other times, taking on a fairly self-conscious (and to my ears, even awkward-sounding) modern voice of meditation. I am not entirely familiar with the provenance of this piece, but there are some stains in here that definitely enshrine racist thought, in ways that are both disturbing and eccentric. To wit : "Once we were all of flax and heather ; that was in grandmother's days. Then came from the east in father's time, making the half-dark. Now dark with flax and either with half-dark till neither wood duck nor goose remain." First of all, what the hell does that mean? Secondly, this contrast of hues opposed between the native and the foreign most certainly smacks of racism, and if there were any doubts, a few more quotes ought to dispel them : "Dark was the storm in the east. Dark were the riders ... Where now they trade and farm, are heads like hares, short, swart like elves -- beware. Look only to the light of us, the fair browed, whose brows do not meet ... Though some be comely too, the dark with dark belong as geese by feathers nest else all is confused." Right. Certainly one may always find mead amidst dregs and drivel, as Odin had to go down into the mountain amongst the monsters to retrieve, and Puryear does admit that "The origins of this writing as an authentic, ancient tradition are questionable at best", but if it is going to be "offered" as "a brilliant modern addition" to the lore, perhaps its most obnoxious elements might be bracketed or edited, because while remaining embarassing, if they weren't so laughable they would be downright shameful. My advice would be to eliminate this from the next edition of the book and make it available in its own book, perhaps as a critical edition with commentary, and leave it out of what remains genuine lore, even as an appendix. Such a worthy tome is undeserving of such unnecessary stains, and after the corruptions of lore bred by nationalist romanticism, especially in its more virulent racialist strains, it behooves every heathen to be on extra guard against any smuggling of a racism that never belonged to our ancestors into the lore. On this point, of respect and curiosity for the traditions of others, Puryear is quite clear and illuminating. From his introduction : "Our people were great explorers and adventurers who tread upon almost every land on earth. Their admiration and desire to learn of other cultures was a staple of their way of life, exemplified by certain rites of passage where youths would set off to see the world. Long before such tolerance and acceptance of others became a trend of modern society, Northern sailors traveled from one end of the globe to the other, without leaving any trace of imposition or disrespect towards those they encountered. Archaeological evidence shows them to have been peaceful traders among the nations they fared, though their fierce defense of their homelands was legendary." (p. xiii) Given that, let's keep a worthy, well-made tome of lore in keeping with that spirit, and not allow in modern prejudices that are quite unworthy of our Gods.

One of the beauties of the book is the way Puryear flows in elements from other Indo-European traditions, such as Avesta and Rig-Veda, when their forms are cognate and amplify our tradition in ways that do not amount to invention, but reinforcement and supplementation. This is selectively and sparsely done, only when necessary, but adds to the gravitas of the work, and is an important stimulus to that great project of reaching out to our Iranian and Hindic brothers-and-sisters-in-faith, with whom we share a common mother heritage. Puryear also tastefully sprinkles in insights from marchen and popular traditions where relevant, and not in a haphazard or structural way, but as icing on an already scrumptuously-baked cake.

Asatru Edda includes fifty pages of annotation, for those who wish to check the sources, and a very nicely-put together glossary of over seventy pages that illuminates the meaning of various Icelandic names, a necessity in getting at the meaning of various passages in the lore. This alone is a noteworthy addition to modern heathenry.

"...[T]he idea is to take the reader on a journey into the hearts of our forefathers to find greater wisdom and understanding in the lore and poetry they passed down to their descendants. We study diligently the heritage of our past and take what we will from it, learning the inspirations of the divine." (p. xv) Asatru Edda has succeeded, in my opinion, in these goals, and will become a tool of meditation, picked up again and again for further study and insight, by every heathen who takes the time to make it his or her own.

all translations copyright 2010 by Siegfried Goodfellow


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