Perceiving the animal nature of the other is an authentic perceptive goal for which to strive in the heathen tradition, for the Fylgia or personal guardian of each often appeared in the shape of that animal nature that has been allotted to the person by the Norns. We might take some time to reflect on the significance of this allotment, for it is more than a symbolic nature, but amounts to a positive correspondence between an individual and a given animal that implies even a kind of stewardship and reverence. When we realize that we share the same nature, the stewardship comes naturally ; we are merely advocating for self. In this way, each of us may serve our Mother Earth through fostering that kindred of hers to which we have been assigned. (Families also have kin-Fylgia who may be linked to an animal nature that unites the whole clan.)
It is also worthy of thought that each animal wards a different complex and mix of moods native to it, and the earth finds a way to accommodate all these differing and even potentially clashing moods in context. Each is allotted (and claims through deeds) it's niche. This ought be comforting. The tradition does not view us alone as rational actors, but beings with deep, thick, sinewy animal natures, who have also had implanted within us the ability to transcend our particulars into the breath of universal wind. The tension between our ond or breath-mind, which partakes of the heavenly gales, and our odr, our personality and soul which rises up from our animal nature towards the imaginative, is an inevitable tension and creative dialectic, if we will so engage it, within heathenism. Because we are not perfect rational actors, because we each have a nature which often yet has to find it's niche, we often get into squabbles and stubborn impasses. That is ok, and the Gods understand it, but they would like us as well to struggle to transcend our pettiness even as we engage and appreciate the depths of our animality ; a little grumpy squabbling and cantankerousness is no trouble, and quite to be expected from time to time, in willful and quite rightfully willful creatures such as ourselves, but it is another thing altogether to habitually perpetuate strife, for we ought, even in our affirmations of our natures, to strive towards the best possible harmony.
There is a significant Scandinavian folktale about a woman at a dance who saw the animal natures of everyone at the dance. People might see the Fylgia of the other in animal form in a dream. In Eric the Red's Saga, the prophetess Thorbiorg calls up the nattura, the nature-spirits, and through this is able to discern the shape of the season to come, as it affects the land there and it's inhabitants. In part she may have been calling up the Fylgia of those present as well as the alfar land wights. Frigga calls up the spirits of trees, metal, rocks, fire, and every bird and beast when she wished to secure oaths of grith (truce or peace-treaty) from them to spare Baldur.
Thus, there is precedent, and powerful precedent at that, for calling on animal spirits as helpers in magical work, and in perceiving the nature of another. A precedent in a tradition is a founding act, a bold deed that acts as an endowment and endorsement of other deeds akin to it. Whether there is evidence for a precedent having been prior acted on and developed amongst our ancestors is no argument against the indigenous authenticity of returning to precedent to ground our creativity. (If no precedent is extant for something new we think worthwhile, then we may act boldly, and throw down a new deed as new precedent, and this will be worthwhile and stand chance of achieving standing so long as our intent is good, meaning overall benevolent, wholesome, meaning attending to the balance of things in our efforts, and most of all, bold, meaning able to apply heroic courage and persistence against adversity. All new ideas are challenged, as they must be, so that dangerous precedents are not integrated into the tradition, but deeds that meet the before-said criteria stand a good chance of winning people's respect over time.) In the case of the prominence of the animal nature, however, the precedents in heathen tradition are strong.
There are further implications to the animal nature. Because we have natures, despite the broadness of our minds, we are not infinitely elastic. We have niches in which we thrive, and others where we are out of place and suffer. It behooves us to find our niche, and to help others to find theirs. In fact, that is the very definition of "good" in the tradition : to find what fits, to achieve congruence and proportionality. It allows us compassion for others and ourselves when we are out of our niche. (Odin encourages us to stretch by ordaining hospitality as a divine law, whereby we work to make those who are not at home feel at home. The practice of "mi casa es su casa", within appropriate customary boundaries of hospitality relationships, of course, is a means of extending empathy to the stranger (or neighbor, as the case might be), and even an inchoate forum for ecumenical dialogue.) This nichedness, which is the good itself, is different than perfection. We are not asked to be perfect, although we may strive for excellence. We are counseled to be good, meaning to find and maintain the nichedness that is optimal for our animal nature, within the larger balance.
A tradition which acknowledges and gives appropriate place and honor to the animal nature is a wise one, for the lofty spirit lodged in our ond
can itself be a danger. Breath-mind soars in the heavenly breath of the cosmic aether, and indeed, we need connection with this larger mind, but if we lose our groundedness, we may fall into the sickness of unbalanced transcendence and lose that balance which tethers us to the humility of the earth. This is the mistake that those who have achieved an experience of "enlightenment" often fall into (see, for example, the book Stripping the Gurus
, , for an enlightening expose on this) : they forget our condition as mortals on this planet, for we are animal beings capable of cosmic experiences, but animal beings we remain in this matrix, and there is nothing wrong with that. Within the pagan tradition, Plotinus says (Ennead
III.2.8), "But humanity, in reality, is poised midway between gods and beasts,
and inclines now to the one order, now to the other; some men grow like
to the divine, others to the brute, the greater number stand neutral." Or, as Kierkegaard says in The Sickness Unto Death
, "A human being is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity, in short, a synthesis." A lack of firmness is as terrifying as too much rigidity ; an abyss of reference points, however grand, is bottomless anxiety ; and too little definition is as bad as being overdefined. Inflated by infinitude and the cosmic, and forgetting our animal nature, we can get carried away and pulled into the merely fantastic.
Kierkegaard continues, "When feeling or knowing or willing has become fantastic, the entire self can become that, whether in the most active form of plunging headlong into fantasy or in the more passive form of being carried away.... The self, then, leads a fantasized existence in abstract infinitizing or in abstract isolation, continually lacking its self, from which it moves further and further away.... To lack infinitude is despairing reductionism, narrowness.... But whereas one kind of despair plunges wildly into the infinite and loses itself, another kind of despair seems to permit itself to be tricked out of its self by "the others." Surrounded by hordes of men, absorbed in all sorts of secular matters, more and more shrewd about the ways of the world—such a person forgets himself, forgets his name divinely understood, does not dare to believe in himself, finds it too hazardous to be himself, and far easier and safer to be like the others, to become a copy, a number, a mass man.... When a self becomes lost in possibility...it is not merely because of a lack of energy.... What is missing is essentially the power to obey, to submit to the necessity in one's life, to what may be called one's limitations." It is these limitations, these wonderful animal finitudes that ground and define us, that can keep us sane and healthy. These are the limits that gurus or drug addicts drunk on the infinitudes they have tasted all too easily forget. Why do you think Odin was concerned about the poetic mead being in the lair of giants? Because beings of disproportion who get too big for their britches and overstep their niche cannot handle the sheer power of the vision of the infinite. For a chilling example of this, consider Charles Manson, who was fond of talking about exploding the ego in favor of the cosmic ; cosmic contemplation alone, then, does not necessarily foster the empathy that humble groundedness in animal nature does. The transcendence of our animality is not aimed at encouraging megalomania or sociopathy, but giving our animal consciousness embedded in particular history a larger perspective with which to work ; from the juxtaposition of these comes wisdom. May the zoology of our natures fund the wisdom that creates harmony out of good niching.