World-Renewal Ceremonies in Norse Tradition
Þat ræð ek þér it níunda, at þú náum bjargir, hvars þú á foldu finnr, hvárts eru sóttdauðir eða eru sædauðir eða eru vápndauðir verar. Laug skal gera, þeim er liðnir eru, þváa hendr ok höfuð, kemba ok þerra, áðr í kistu fari, ok biðja sælan sofa. (Sigrdrifumal 35, 36.)
"Ninthly, I advise thee, help the dead (by giving them last services), wherever you find them on the earth, whereever they are dead from sickness or the sea or from weapons. A bath shall be made [some read "Haug" instead of "Laug", making this, a mound or tomb shall be prepared] and they shall be laid therein, their hands and head washed, combed and dried, before they fare into the coffin, and pray they sleep in happiness."
Þá verðr ok þat, at Naglfar losnar, skip þat, er svá heitr. Þat er gert af nöglum dauðra manna, ok er þat fyrir því varnanar vert, ef maðr deyr með óskornum nöglum, at sá maðr eykr mikit efni til skipsins Naglfars, er goðin ok menn vildi seint, at gert yrði. (Gylfaginning 51.)
"Then it happens that Naglfar loosens, that ship which is so called. That is made from the nails of dead men, and because of this it is worth guarding against, for if a man die with unshorn nails, such a man carries much material for the ship Naglfar, which Gods and men want long-delayed before it is said to be made."
Whenever the dead are found, no matter where they are found on earth, men are to help them by bathing them, combing their hair, cutting their nails, placing them in a coffin, and wishing them a blessed sleep.
Whenever this is not done, whereever men are so evil that they show no reverence for the dead, foe or friend, material is laid for that great ship which will carry Muspell's Sons across the waters to Ragnarok.
En þegar eftir snýst fram Víðarr ok stígr öðrum fæti í neðri kjöft úlfsins. Á þeim fæti hefir hann þann skó, er allan aldr hefir verit til samnat. Þat eru bjórar þeir, er menn sníða ór skóm sínum fyrir tám eða hæli. Því skal þeim bjórum braut kasta sá maðr, er at því vill hyggja at koma ásunum at liði. (Gylfaginning 51.)
"But immediately after Vidarr turns forward and trods his other foot onto the lower jaw of the wolf. On this foot he has that shoe, which all men/ages has gathered together. Those are the triangular cut-off pieces of skin which men cut out of their shoes from the toes and heels. Because of this, any man who wants in his heart to come to the aid of the Aesir shall cast off these cut-off pieces of hide."
As many know, castoff leather can be made into a decent material for shoes or clothing, and the term "castoff" or "castaway" has long been a name for second-hand clothing. So apparently here we realize that those who give away their scraps of leather to the less fortunate strengthen and thicken the shoe that Vidarr will place in the mouth of the wolf.
Here we have two practices whose prevalence or negligence directly affects the outcome of Ragnarok. Were people to always treat the dead with respect, Naglfar would never be completed, and either would not be able to set sail, or would sink midway. Were people to always be charitable to those less fortunate, and Vidarr's shoe would be so thick he would never suffer injury, and who knows? perhaps be able to actually pull his father out of the belly of the beast.
In my last post I spoke of "hints" in the lore that illuminate it and open up new windows that have become dusted over. These are such hints. These hints directly speak of practices which preserve the world from destruction. The word siðr encompasses both practices and ceremonies, tradition and religious customs.
Thus, there was a tradition of world-renewing practices within old Norse faith, and thus the category is not the null-set. Because the set has more members than zero, and at least two, our eyes should be open to other hints that may whisper at us about renewal and world-renewal inherent to our ancient ceremonies.
Vilhelm Gronbech has suggested that the sacrifice at blot recapitulated the original sacrifice of Ymir that began the creation of the world, and thus replicated its hael. As he puts it, "The sacrifice brought about a rebirth of life; the worshippers renewed their hamingja or luck, and this renewal implied that the world was created afresh, that the “usefulness' – benevolence, fertility of nature – was called into new life. Through the blot this fair earth with its leaping and flying and growing beings and the heavens with sun and moon, light and heat were saved from falling into the hands of the demons and turning unheore; in the language of myth: the world is won from the giants, rising fresh and strong out of their death." More specifically, he points out, "Ymir's death is an ancient sacrificial myth that reads like the programme of a creation play; the wording of the legend still bears the impress of its dramatic setting: the gods carried Ymir to Ginnungagap and placed him in the middle of the vast abyss....a general statement of a symbolical creation ceremony implicit in the cutting up of the victim and its preparation for being cooked."
Lo and behold, truths begin to blossom out from their enfolded place within the lore, implicate but ready to emerge. When we hear other indigenous folk speak of world-renewing ceremonies, we can nod our head and know of what they speak, for our good deeds also make the difference, and the cheer we share with the Gods at our feasts cheers them as well and gives them strength to knock down and keep bound the monsters who would tumble this world back down into the abyss. And with frequent cheer and celebration, solemn and mirthful, we must come.