Thursday, December 09, 2010

The Importance of Sooth in Heathenism

It is of primary importance that two of Odin’s names listed in the Grimnismal catalogue are Saðr and Sanngetall, “Sooth” and “Getter of Sooth”. Sooth is a word with an older Indo-European provenance, with a deeper meaning and more widespread cultural representation than “truth”, and it is found in the Hindu tradition as sat, which refers to reality itself, existence, beingness. It is not just “truth”. It is not just a kind of epistemological alignment that takes place in some abstract place in the head alone. It is an ontological alignment with the way things are, a congruence with reality itself, and particularly the deeper reality that underlies illusion. We find an example of sooth in the Anglo-Saxon Maxims, where it says that “frost shall freeze, fire shall melt wood, ice shall form a bridge, water shall cover itself, the earth shall cover itself,” and so forth. Now all of these seem rather simplistic definitions, and almost tautologies. Of course frost will freeze and fire will burn wood. But what this underlines is that attention to reality, and congruence with it was something highly valued.

In Norse parlance, sannr is connected to ideas of “proof”, of “evidence”, of things which have been proven and made certain beyond a reasonable doubt. It is connected with ideas of testimony, and therefore with court processes. In other words, something which is “sooth” is something which would convince a jury. It is therefore something which has been examined and crossexamined from multiple angles, viewpoints, and testimonies. It is also based on oathed testimony, and therefore sets the standard for us when we would determine what “sooth” is. It is our connection to reality ; that we would, standing before our most Holy Gods, declare in a court of law. Therefore, that which we would not be ready to declare under penalty of perjury, not just to a court, but to our court of our Gods, can only be expressed in the language of uncertainty and not in the language of sooth.

But because the chief God of our pantheon has as one of his names “Sooth”, it means that sooth, getting at the truth of reality, and moreover, making a living connection to it in one’s life so that one is congruent with reality, is a basic value of being a heathen, of being Asatru, of being true to the Aesir.

We have a duty to get to the truth, and specifically, by getting beyond illusions. One of the foremost opponents of the Aesir are the beings around Utgard-Loki’s court. Thor has an encounter with them, and so does Odin when he goes down into Utgard-Loki’s realm to retrieve the mead. (For those who have not yet made that connection, you can see that the Utgard-Loki episode, where Thor is in Skrymir’s glove, is referred to in Hárbarðsljóð 26, where Skrymir is there called Fjalar, and we know that Fjalar is another name for Suttung . Compare Havamal 13 – 14 with Havamal 104 -110 ; in the former, Gunnlodd is named in connection with Fjalar, and in the latter, Gunnlodd is named in connection with Suttung. Suttung-Fjalar is the giant who had taken the mead unto himself, and into whose dark, mountain realm Odin had to retrieve the mead.) We know that Utgard-Loki was a master of deception and illusion, and could make one thing seem like another. Gylfaginning 47 calls this eye-glamor or delusions of sight sjónhverfingar, literally “sight-turnings”, to turn away from seeing things as they are, a spell or trick by which the eye does not catch what is really happening. This is the stock and trade of the professional magician or illusionist, who distracts his audience’s eyes away from what he is really doing, but Utgard-Loki is the master of such craft, and with tremendous power and magic behind his turnings and twistings of vision. (We might also think here of vision in the more expansive sense : how often in life we turn away from that vision or visions which give us strength and heart, distracted by a thousand petty details which take us away from the heart of our path. A turning away from vision indeed.) The same passage also refers to these powers of illusion as velum, “wiles”, tricks and guile, the trademark of Loki, but on such a grand scale that in this episode, even Loki is completely taken in and tricked! For this quintessential trickster to be taken in by guile speaks to an almost cosmic power of illusion. Thor’s strength saved him, although he was not able to penetrate the illusion, while it was Odin’s capacity of sooth that allowed him to pass through such a realm and successfully retrieve the mead, for he was able to keep his connection to reality and penetrate through deception.

You might say, borrowing Hindu terminology, and lightly, without taking on all of its connotations, that it is valid to a degree to compare Utgard-Loki’s magic of illusion to the Hindu notion of maya, and sat, sooth, goes beyond and underneath maya in Hindu cosmology, and sooth, likewise, goes beyond the illusion of Utgard-Loki. Maya variously refers to delusion, deception, a misleading or false interpretation of nature or the purpose of being, in which we are no longer connected to the deeper truths of what are. So in a sense, we are surrounded by webs of deception, half-truths, and lies. Everyone has an agenda, and we need to penetrate beyond that, and we need, in this regard, to utilize the court method of getting as many voices as we can, from testimonies of people who are willing to testify on the basis of sound sources, where they really put their reputation on the line for what they assert. When we face the internet, for example, the primary media through which modern people search for the truth, we are often facing a web of half-truths. It has become a repository for fakelore, generated by a hundred dozen groups with agenda, each of which may present a very convincing story on its own, isolated from the other stories and facts, but we ought suspend being sold on any one story until we’ve heard the gamut of multiple viewpoints. That’s how a court works, and Odin himself says that a person doesn’t know anything until they’ve traveled widely, and that’s because you have to travel widely in order to get at many different viewpoints. It behooves us to observe this when getting at sooth ourselves, because it is very easy to become superficially convinced of anything, and to act on such conviction, when one’s exposure to the various arguments out there is shallow and inexperienced. Havamal indicates that only when we’ve been around the block and beyond a few times can we discern what sorts of things tend to steer the minds of men, and having seen them, we will not be taken in ourselves. [1]

Odin’s other name which is pared up with Saðr is Sanngetall, which simply means “He Who Gets Sooth”. Odin gets at sooth. It can also mean that he “begets” sooth, as in engendering it, implying that he is the source from which sooth is birthed. It can also mean he who guesses at sooth, and achieves sooth by riddling through to sooth, and indeed, Odin does riddle through to sooth.

There’s another important aspect of sooth that contrasts with “pipe dreams”. Sooth is about congruence with reality, and specifically, the reality of the world we live in, the reality of nature, and the reality of what it means to live on Mother Earth. There are many different ways of living on Mother Earth, but there are also ways that violate nature’s laws, and therefore we end up paying for them. If we pollute and poison the earth, we will pay the price. Here is where Odin is somewhat impatient with those who dream delusions against the texture of reality. We need to stay true to the texture of reality. Sooth implies fidelity to the phenomena, and through that fidelity, finding the truth that underlies and lies within that phenomena, and this certainly includes the phenomena of nature and of life. Because Odin has these names, we do not only follow saga. We do not only follow myth and epic, which are enormously important aspects of connecting to the worldview of our ancestors, and richly metaphorical keys to deeper truths that allow us to see through illusion ; but, we must also follow science, not in any narrow ideological sense of that term, but as the systematic search for the truth of reality beyond our wishes and delusions. Such science, as a personal and interpersonal practice of search for the truth, and systematic attempts to remain congruent with reality, by questioning and cross-examining our own assumptions, opinions, and premade conclusions, must come into account as well. Ecology as the science of natural interconnections is therefore a valid truth-form within heathenism, as other sciences can be as well.

There is a fascinating scholar, Thomas Sefton, the author of The Gods Remain : Old European Religion as found in Greece, the Germanic Countries, and Elsewhere (, who has taken a somewhat partial, but quite fascinating take on Germanic cosmology, and has compared, specifically, aspects of the Sigurd saga to aspects of certain Greek tragedies in the Oidipous cycle, and claims that the function of a hero is not necessarily to win, for good does not necessarily and always win over evil, but to come at the truth however difficult that truth might be, for the ability to come to terms with the truth of reality, however unsatisfying, however painful, is one of the true signs that marks a hero, and marks them out as courageous and deserving of glory. He suggests that we contract with Odin when we wish know the truth, even the uncomfortable truth, the difficult truth, and a truth which may work crosswise to our desires, including our desires for good to always win out over evil, and our desires for the Golden Age. It’s an interesting narrative, and I suggest that people check it out for what it is worth. So long as it is not taken out of proportion, it can be an important contribution to our understanding, particularly of the notion of sooth, suggesting that we have a duty to be in touch with the uncomfortable facts and the difficult realities.

Yet I must point out, contrary in some ways to his narrative, that this kind of realism and attention to the texture of existence, need not lead us away from the Golden Age archetype of Baldur, for they can work hand-in-hand. After all, Baldur is the son of Sooth (Odin). We have here an important notion. If Baldur is the child of Odin as Sooth, then that means that the way to reach towards Baldur is through facing reality as it actually is, and not as we would wish it to be. This doesn’t mean putting aside our ideals. It means being realistic about the prevalence of our ideals in the world, and to what degree people actually value the things they say they value, and what they are actually valuing through their actions. When have a grip on this, then we can begin, however humbly, to shape reality and infuse it with the strength of our ideals, rather than becoming deceived by our own pipe-dreams. This is both a realistic idealism and an idealistic realism. Odin and Baldur are father and son.

All of this is part and parcel of coming into devotion to Odin as Sooth. I would argue that it is Odin’s devotion to sooth that brings him his great wisdom. In fact, this may be a key to understanding the runes, which are presented as universal mysteries, and yet which on first examination appear to be almost quotidian banalities of existence : cows, ice, gifts, roads, lake ... Very simple things. There may be a truth here that is worth examining : that it is through these simple things, it is through contact with the profound that lies within the simple, within the simple realities around us, that we discover the great mysteries. Indeed, to suggest something perhaps a little radical, it could very well be that we could construct our own rune-set in the present, by taking common, everyday realities, and finding their profundity, just as in the Iron Age, their rune-set reflected the common things around them. The idea that through honest perception and connection reality we can find profundity is something worth serious thought and consideration.

We need contact with reality. By that, I don’t mean someone else’s idea of reality. I mean real things, like stones, and rocks, and leaves, and metal. We need contact with real things, because those real things lend us their qualities. Over time, by being in contact with reality, with sensuous reality, the things share their qualities with us. We can become like steel ; we can become like rocks ; we can become like the leaves. They share their essence with us, and it is only through contact with nature and the realities of nature and the heill-infused material world about us that we learn how to be fully human. This is perhaps one of the most significant and overlooked aspects of sooth, of maintaining contact with reality through the phenomena, for through sensuousness there is a sharing, and not just a communication of qualities, but a genuine communion of qualities, through which we can discover the stoneness, the leafness, the metalness, the waterness within ourselves, and become everything we were meant to be.

We cannot become everything we were meant to be if we do not allow the qualities of reality to midwife those qualities of soul within us, so everything around us reminds us of who we are. This is akin to Plato’s notion of anamnesis, the idea that we have had former lives and are simply remembering what we already knew but have forgotten. Even if we do not buy into Plato’s notion on a literal level of reincarnation, the idea that we were once fruits on the World Tree means that something of the All lives in us, that is potent in our potential, of which the things of the world remind us. The wonderful thing about the root metaphor of the World Tree is that everything has circulated through it. It is a constantly recycling process of everything, and since we have been fruits on the World Tree, there are elements of everything which have indeed passed through us, for they circulated through our embryos, our soul-embryos when we hung on the Tree. Our soul-embryos were fed on the sap, through which all forms have flown into. The intelligence, and more importantly, the significance, of all things have flowed into that sap which circulates throughout the Tree, throughout the unseen but profoundly real body of the Living Cosmos. Cormac’s medieval Irish Glossary includes a curious term, tuirgen, the idea that one becomes everything, from the lowest form to the highest form, which is mirrored in Iolo Morganwg’s Barddas, as well as in Rumi’s idea that we have been mineral, vegetable, and animal. From a Norse perspective, we can affirm that all of this is true, not necessarily in a literal sense, but in the sense that we have been on the World Tree ourselves, and have thus experienced the traces of the interflow of everything, and that therefore, it lives within us, waiting to be awakened, through remembrance, through contact with the sensory materials about us. There’s no need for us to be weak : we have the strength of stones and mountains and steel, the flexibility of the willow tree, the freshness of the green grass, and the ability to let go, like the falling leaves, all within us. We just need contact with reality in order to awaken those qualities within us. This is the power that sooth offers.

[1] Havamal is full of useful advice on how to penetrate the realm of half-truths, assumptions, and ill-investigated opinions :

Inn vari gestr, er til verðar kemr, þunnu hljóði þegir, eyrum hlýðir, en augum skoðar; svá nýsisk fróðra hverr fyrir (Havamal 7), “The wary guest, when he comes to the meal, with thin hearing keeps silent, his ears actively listening, and his eyes looking about ; so every wise man is inquisitive and carefully investigates what is before him.” In other words, one who is wary of the prevalence of sjónhverfingar and wiles in the world, holds back from speaking conclusively until he has listened to what everyone around the table has to say, observing closely, and then has enquired into the matter. One listens with “thin hearing”, in other words, not getting taken in by everything. We might imagine it as a kind of cursory skimming of people’s arguments, taking in its form and gist without committing to it or being taken in by it, so that we can review it later, comparing them with other arguments, and come to our own conclusions.

Sá einn veit er víða ratar ok hefr fjölð of farit, hverju geði stýrir gumna hverr, sá er vitandi er vits (Havamal 18), “He alone knows who has widely traveled and has journeyed much ; he who has wits knows how the mind of every man is steered.” In the master-apprentice training widespread in Europe, the one who has completed their apprenticeship and is ready to begin practicing is known as a “journeyman” (or in German, geselle), one who has journeyed from workshop to workshop to experience the different styles of various masters in the craft. This kind of journeying to complete one’s knowledge and training, and round out one’s skill, is a traditional part of heathen culture, as Odin indicates here. Once you’ve been around enough, you begin to see what kinds of things guide men’s minds, and being knowledgeable, you then have the opportunity to steer minds as well, but towards the truth, for those who keep their wits about them have a truer kind of knowledge and are thus able to guide others.

Ósnotr maðr þykkisk allt vita, ef hann á sér í vá veru; hittki hann veit, hvat hann skal við kveða, ef hans freista firar (Havamal 26), "The unwise man thinks he knows it all if he's been through a few storms, but he knows not what he shall answer if men test him." Freista means to be put on trial, not necessarily legally, but through a series of tests and questions. The notion of a trial invokes the idea of a jury, who in traditional times conducted the investigation, and thus, one has to be ready to face a panel of one’s fellows, who have many different perspectives, and are not going to question you alone within the zone of whatever ideology you’ve subjected yourself to, but rather, from various standpoints of common sense and the reasonable person standard would test what you know. Can you answer questions? It’s easy to think you know a lot if you haven’t had to face questions. Margr þá fróðr þykkisk,ef hann freginn er-at ok nái hann þurrfjallr þruma. "Many thinks himself wise, if he is not questioned and he can stay behind in dry clothes." (Havamal 30.)

Ósnotr maðr, er með aldir kemr, þat er bazt, at hann þegi; engi þat veit, at hann ekki kann, nema hann mæli til margt; veit-a maðr, hinn er vettki veit, þótt hann mæli til margt (Havamal 27), “For the unsophisticated man, when he comes amongst men, it is best if he is silent ; no one will know that he knows nothing unless he declares too much ; such a man does not know that he knows nothing although he proclaims far too much.” Shooting off your mouth before you know enough will expose you as a fool. It is listening, and not thrusting your unsophisticated opinions upon others, that will allow you to become more sophisticated.

Fróðr sá þykkisk, er fregna kann ok segja it sama (Havamal 28), “He is thought wise who knows how to question and report his conclusions fittingly.” Part of listening is asking the right questions. Knowing how to question is also knowing how to think critically, and frame one’s inquiries in such a way that one is able to outwit potential half-truths and unexamined assumptions in the other’s answers. Again, the model of a trial is perfect here : one has to know how to ask questions in the same way that a lawyer can examine and cross-examine a witness. Then it is important to frame one’s conclusions appropriately and fittingly, so they are neither exaggerated, nor disproportionate to the established facts. To report fittingly is to practice sooth ; sooth is an ideal that draws us closer to reality.

all translations copyright 2010 by Siegfried Goodfellow


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