Sunday, January 09, 2011

The Four Opponents

A study of fraud, greed, brutality, and stupidity is a good way to begin spirituality. Don't start in the heights. Begin right where you are, in your community.

The Gods have set down some lessons for us. There's four big opponents in front of us : survival and the struggle to thrive, which is necessary, and then three perennial opponents who are not necessary but constant companions to us in this age and dispensation : Loki, Gullveig, and the Giants.

Let us begin with Loki. A study of the hucksters, con-men, and manipulators in a community, who learn the jargon, who twist it to justify the basest of motives, who take advantage of a community's ideals and then with often unnoticed audacity, in the very name of those ideals, is a good way to get wise. And Odin does want us to get wise.

Loki is strong in each of us, because we want to fool ourselves. We don't like to think that we can be taken advantage of, and yet our own need for delusion, and our refusal to look at things square in the face, allows us to be manipulated. And the less we are willing to see the trickster within ourselves, and simply condemn it in others, the more we are tricked by that very trickster, who punishes gullibility whether it comes in the name of innocence or judgemental and oversimplified moralism.

It's deeply disappointing to study fraud and its pervasiveness. This disappointment, and working through all the feelings that go with it, is a deep and beautiful way to nourish the wisdom within us, and is an important part of the spiritual task. To open our eyes and see flaws, and see the failure of hopes and ideals, is an important step in developing the groundedness and savvy that empowers us to further realize those hopes and ideals. Loki will teach us, if we will study him, not only what fools others are (which is often easy to spot), but what fools we ourselves are. This develops an important moral humility to which Odin points in Havamal 22 : Vesall maðr ok illa skapi hlær at hvívetna; hittki hann veit, er hann vita þyrfti, at hann er-a vamma vanr, "A man who ridicules everything is impoverished and ill-charactered ; he knows not that which he most needs to know, that he does not lack blemishes." * Which is one way of saying, "Look in the mirror."

It's not a bad place to begin by cataloguing your own flaws, your lies, your attempts to cheat others and cover it over, your deceit to yourself about your real motives in questionable situations, not to lash yourself, but to learn. To learn whom you have been worshipping in your deeds. And from that awareness, to trace consequences, and make a conscious decision whom you would really like your actions to worship.

And to acknowledge, in a hard life, in a life which is not always easy to survive, fraud and deceit are constant temptations, and often get the best of us when we're not noticing. And just as the Gods were willing to tolerate Loki up to a certain point (but not a step beyond), in reality, a little of this energy, in balance and kept in check, can be a part of the rich texture of life. But one must be very careful, because it is a slippery slope. A little white lie from time to time to gentle someone's feelings or smooth something over may really not be too terrible a sin, but if it becomes a habit, it can become problematical. Loki will pitch for the benefits of fraud and deceit, and sometimes he will be right, but the myths show that he often got himself into more trouble than he ever anticipated in his mischief and humor. He is an example to learn from, not a model to imitate. We are all still struggling with this, and frankly, our learning curve, collectively speaking, is pretty poor. Like Loki, we may be able to (up to a point) get ourselves out of the messes into which our slippery behavior has cast us, but we may in the meantime cause a great deal of collateral damage, and in a wyrd universe, all consequences, however delayed, have a way of catching up to us. Whether we are damaged in our own persons or in the consequences our beloved descendants will have to suffer is never certain, but that a "gift calls for a gift" is the primal law, and here we might remember the ambivalence of this word, particularly in German, where gift can mean not only something of worth and generosity, but also poison. Gift for gift, poison for poison, we might say.

In a world of limitations, where poverty is all too often a bone-breaking and spirit-crushing reality, where there often seems all too little of what we want, and too many people competing for it, greed is also a constant temptation in human life. We all have needs and we all have desires, and the temptation to put "me first" ahead of every other consideration and value in life, to the neglect of all else, and out of all proportion, however extreme that sounds when explicitly stated, is often very strong. We want what we want and we want what we want, and you be damned if you stand in the way. Listen close, America, you too are being called out. We have a craving, you've got it, or you stand in our way, and we'll cheat you, we'll starve you, we'll bomb you to get it. Because "that's how life is". The Mother of Wolves whispers in our ears, "It's a dog eat dog world". Traumatic fear of scarcity fuels and powers Gullveig's luring words. And let's be clear : it's not that a greedy impulse from time to time is going to condemn you. We're all human. We can be adults and understand these temptations, but also understand that from the Gods' perspective that is no excuse for laxness in our alertness and responsibility to do the work of personal, kindred, and collective growth. And we will catch ourselves from time to time having got caught up in it, and that can be ok, so long as we do catch ourselves, and so long as we are willing to take the requisite responsibility for our deeds. But greed has become so much a religion in America, developed as an ideology of mercantilist and increasingly corporatist capitalism, that the scolding that ought accompany disproportionate greed has receded to dangerously low levels. Scolding is a great tradition in heathenism. You can hear the norn Skuld's name in it. She is not called a valkyrie for nothing, because she can be a fierce warrior in calling out behavior against the loom of that which should happen, as it has been woven as potential into the weave. And if we, continuously and consistently, beyond the pale of ordinary human foibles, refuse to live up to that potential, we may by all rights be scolded, and ought to be. (Again, with the condition of moral humility expressed in Havamal 22.) The negative consequences of greed are all about us. Its disproportionate excess has inspired equally excessive antidotes, instead of seeking that healthy place in between where the intelligent mean acts as powerful fertilizer for the soil of our souls. Because of imbalanced and unaddressed greed, our relationship to money is extremely poor. We haven't even yet digested the first rune in the set!

The Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem guides us in the healthy relationship to Fehu, money.
Feoh byþ frofur fira gehwylcum; sceal ðeah manna gehwylc miclun hyt dælan gif he wile for drihtne domes hleotan. "Money is comfort for every man ; though each man should distribute it abundantly if he desires to obtain a share of honor in the judgement of his lord." Money is meant to be a comfort, and one gains honor through appropriate generosity. It is attention to appropriate generosity and the spirit of magnanimousity that keeps money within appropriate limits. But the Icelandic and Norse Rune Poems warn us against the temptation to abuse. Fé er frænda róg ... ok grafseiðs gata, the Icelandic Rune Poem warns : "Money is strife to kinsmen ... and the road to the sorcery of the grave." The Norse Rune Poem cautions : føðesk ulfr í skóge, "The wolf is raised in the woods." There's no mistaking these direct allusions to Gullveig's causing strife to the kin of Aesir and Vanir, and her raising of wolves in the Ironwoods. Greed is a real danger in life, and combined with fraud, can create monsters that threaten the balance of the world. Endeavour to keep greed in check, not only in your life, but in those around you. Call out your culture in no uncertain terms when it begins breeding wolves.

Our third perennial set of opponents are the Giants. Time and again, we see the stupid people -- however myopically clever they are -- running things, and using brute force and the monopoly on violence by the State (or otherwise) to enforce their stupidity and impose it on others. Our ancestors recognized this combination of idiocy and force that often combine with excess and disproportion. They gave this spiritual power for ill the name jotnar, and visualized them as big, dumb giants with raging appetites and tempers, and identified them as the enemy of the divine force in us which impels us to grow more intelligent and seek harmony with nature. Yet time and again, we often refuse to learn our lessons, ignore the teachings of the ancestors, accept the propaganda thrown our way, and join ourselves, either in complicity or with enthusiasm, to jotnar forces.

If we do this in heathenism, we reduce heathenism to a cargo-cult, abusing symbols to render them inert, giving lip-service to the Gods while continuing with enthusiasm our stupidities, and systematically ignoring the connections (or disconnect) between our proclamations of value and our actual actions, between word and deed. We seldom ask what it means to proclaim the worth of the intelligence and spirit of the earth (Jord), of the oceans (Njord), of organic farming (Frey), of wisdom itself (Odin), or the integrity of love (Freya), and instead go by rote, a rote now given greater sanction by our false, symbol-abused gist of sanctity.

And while it's important to call out those people and institutions which are larger than us and acting even more like giants than ourselves, still we must ask ourselves to what degree we maintain our own ignorance and stubborn prejudice, acting with brute force to stuff our mouths (and groins and whatever else), while ravaging others around us, including the smaller creatures for whom we truly are giants.

Fortunately, the Gods do not leave us without tools against these opponents, for they have given us the power of wíg, of battle and struggle against pernicious tendencies, both internal and external ; but even more important than this, in our striving for survival and thrival, they have given us the power and potential of frith, the choice to harmonize with others in a spirit of mutual aid in order to get what we want in the world. As the title of a wonderful book of black and white woodblock art says, You Don't Have To Fuck Over Other People To Survive. Heathenism extends this worthy anthropocentric spirit to the entire world.

There is a kind of bottom-line test of heathenism (or any symbolic system for relating to spirit in the world, for that matter), and that is : is it enhancing our learning curve relative to living in harmony with the world? Because that eco-evolutionary learning curve really is the bottom line. Odin wants us to sharpen our wits and get on top of this dilemma. Do we answer it? Do we dare to call upon Him if we refuse? I like religion with hard questions and clear implications that in turn derive difficult challenges, and demands that knock us off our complacency and impel us to grow. Odin's message boiled down might be : "Look around, put your thinking caps on, and stop dorking around." Wisdom is not just knowing something. It's doing something about it. "We are our deeds"? We're an activist religion, like it or not. Are you an activist?

* A more literal translation, keeping the word order, would be "An impoverished man and ill-shaped laughs at everything ; he knows not that which he needs to know, that he is not lacking blemish." I have chosen the above translation for the emphasis I read in the original.

All translations copyright 2011 by Siegfried Goodfellow


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