Copyright © 1985 by Theosophical University Press. All rights reserved.
Among the most intriguing things about myths is the air they have of being more permanent than life. Anonymous and timeless, they seem to exist uncreated in some universal limbo, waiting to be discovered. Their message is as eternal as boundless space, as pervasive as the energies that swirl cosmic dust into spirals and spin atomic worlds into the organized formations that are larger worlds.
There can exist but one truth, one all-embracing reality, which is the common property of all mankind. It has always existed and it exists today. Out of the white light of that primordial truth radiate the mythologies and scriptures of the world and, though the light still remains, it is diffracted through innumerable human minds into the prismatic colors of partial knowledge and diverse beliefs. Nevertheless, by comparing the different mythologies we may still discern in them the truth which gave them rise.
Among the many expressions of ancient lore in various parts of the globe we find that the Norse Eddas contain science and philosophy of a high order, a rounded knowledge which also constituted religion to some long forgotten people who must have preceded the Viking age by no one knows how long. Judging by the thoughts they incorporated in their tales they included in their world picture an awareness of many of the forces and potencies we know by different names and which have been rediscovered by science during the past century or so. Considering that the Norse tradition, though dating back in essentials to an unknown prehistory, has had to pass through the rough-and-tumble world of the Viking warriors and has no doubt had to draw on a more vivid palette in depicting the adventures of gods and giants than originally used, it is remarkable how much profound philosophy is recognizable to us today.
Many generations which told and retold the tales probably lacked understanding of their import; for them the tales served merely to while away the long dark nights and people the skies and earth with gods and heroes. If they incidentally preserved the ancient lore for later, more receptive generations, who is to say this was not an objective of the mythographers? It truly is a miracle that these songs and stories continue to exist at all, when you consider how few of our bestselling books survive even the year of their publication. If myths recorded merely commonplace events, real or imaginary, they would have been forgotten long ago. Their longevity must be due to a built-in permanence which rests on a substratum of reality, quite independent of climatic and regional traits which lend their coloration to the stories. Most people are familiar with a wealth of classic tales, epics, and the mythologies of several groups of people; we learn them as children and, as parents, pass them on without questioning whence they have come, simply because they are interesting and we enjoy them. And yet in our languages the very word "myth" has come to mean something spurious without any basis in fact. Transmitted for ages by word of mouth, sung by rememberers who had to learn by rote incredible quantities of verse, it is a moot question whether those bards were less exact than the written word. We all know how vehemently children object to any change in the wording of the classic fairy tales. Perhaps they instinctively recognize that these stories are sacred and must be protected from adulteration.
Not all myths are of course equally meaningful. Some are merely entertaining; others strongly suggest factual science, albeit worded in an unfamiliar dialect, while subjects which we regard as discrete and separate — astronomy, biology, anthropology, psychology, physics — are treated as an integrated whole. Allusions to long forgotten history are meaningless to us; however, myths dealing with themes having timeless and universal application — the creation of worlds, astronomical events, natural history — preserve for ages science, philosophy, and religion, and emerge from obscurity whenever a generation is receptive to their message.
As every mythology descended from the oldest traditions echoes the same grand cosmogony and imparts similar instructions for ethical living in its own distinctive code, we can partly decipher that code by comparing various systems. Without such decoding many a fairy tale, archaeological find, legend, opera, and myth, remains empty of significance, a cover without a book, a frame surrounding a blank canvas. But if we look for the inner message in the myths we may indeed find them a valuable time capsule — not full of things, but compact of wisdom which in the guise of stories keeps intact our heritage of all that has lasting value.
Mythology is not just a collection of stories; it is a language. Like other languages it uses symbols to convey ideas according to standard associations: symbols such as "up," "high," "lofty" denote things that are noble and elevating, and "down," "low," "base" things that are ignoble and undesirable.
A kind of symbol often found in the Eddas is the "kenning." It used to be believed that to give your real name to a stranger was to give him power over you, and so a descriptive epithet, a kenning, was preferred. To understand the Eddas we must therefore examine the etymology of names, for more often than not this will supply a key to the part played by a character in a particular situation. We have tried to translate the kennings as they occur, so as to give the reader an opportunity to discern their meanings for himself. Often a kenning is used also to draw attention to the particular aspect of a person or object which is relevant at the time.
For example, as the sorrowing Idun lies weeping, fallen from the Tree of Life, the lay recounts how "tears fell from her brain's shields." To translate this "from her eyes" would of course be permissible but would rob the poem of its distinctive flavor. Similarly the Tree of Life, Yggdrasil, is seldom designated twice in the same way. It may be called the "life supporter," "the shade giver," "the soil mulcher," "the noble ash tree," "Odin's horse," or "Odin's gallows" (whereon he is crucified).
The Norse myths also make use of puns, which can be a most effective and intricate method of teaching. One outstanding example is the tale of Cinderella, whose very title holds a wealth of wisdom. She is the French Cendrillon, and the English Little Polly Flinders (who sat among the cinders). It is a tale too well known to need repeating, and the symbology is quite clear. Briefly, the orphaned child is enslaved by the wicked stepmother and her brood of evils: the human soul that has lost touch with its father in heaven comes under the sway of the lower side of nature with which it is not truly kin. Note that it is a stepmother, not a true parent, who plays the villain. Alienated from its proper place, the soul labors to regain its rightful condition. By purity and virtue it earns the help of its fairy godmother, the spiritual soul. Many tales use this theme of a mysterious godmother and giver of gifts, which latter represent a soul's finer qualities unfolded through merit. This elven power uniting the human soul with its divine source is the channel (elf) which confers on its child all earned spiritual endowments.
The Norse Cinderella is named Askungen — (ask ash + unge child), "the ash child." She is a scion of the "noble ash tree," Yggdrasil, the Tree of Life, which bears the worlds with all their life forms on its branches. All living beings are children of the cosmic Ash Tree from the minutest particle to the largest. What is more, each of us is not only a member of the cosmic tree, but a tree of life in his own right.
The ash child is also cyclically reborn from the ashes of its former self, like the phoenix. There is also a connection with Gullveig, "the thirst for gold," which urges the conscious mind to seek the "gold" of the mystical alchemists — wisdom. Gullveig is said to be "thrice burned and thrice reborn, yet still she lives" (Voluspa 22).
If Askungen is written as-kunnigr, there are revealed further meanings of this versatile term: first, "god-kin" — i.e., of divine lineage; and again, "god-knowing" — having knowledge of divinity; and "knowing as a god" — possessing divine wisdom; and yet again "known to the gods." Any one of these could describe the rare soul who has attained human perfection. A further meaning emerges if we divide the word as-kungen: this means "the king of aesir," implying that the ruler of the gods is inherent in the story's orphaned waif. Thus an ingenious play on words makes the title of this fairy tale convey a rich philosophy.
Many interpreters have emphasized the part played by racial migrations in the mythic histories, and doubtless the Odin whose exploits and leadership live on in story form did represent an early people, possibly from one of the deeper strata of Troy, as has been suggested by more than one mythologist. Nevertheless, this in no way disallows other applications of the sagas — astronomical, psychological, and spiritual. The same applies to others of the divine cast of characters. The entire pantheon represents properties existing in nature — and in ourselves — and they evidently have a vital importance not only for us terrestrial kingdoms, but they also affect the quality of life throughout the solar realm.
The effective imparting of ideas demands three factors: first, the message to be imparted; second, the means of expression used to convey the message; third, an understanding mind prepared to receive it. It follows that mythic scriptures must draw on perennial common knowledge and recurring events to illustrate their truths. Therefore things that figure in the public mind are in evidence throughout the myths: war and battles are prominently featured, because these have all too frequently been a familiar part of the human scene; moreover they vividly portray the conflict that takes place in the soul of an individual who has embarked on the pursuit of inner goals and high ideals. This furtherance of human progress toward a nobler stature is in large part what the epics aim to encourage.
The hero tales of the Eddas have a markedly dual character. They are both quasi-historical and legendary, and they deal with a profusion of events which interlink large numbers of characters in a web of plots and counterplots, feuds and subterfuge. Many of the incidents related are so involved and their protagonists so numerous that tracing the thread of the stories poses a challenge to the most dedicated genealogist. However, with some background of mythic methodology we may discern a glimmer of light pointing to a pattern that fits the progression of the earliest human races, their characteristics, and their methods of living and means of propagation.
The theosophic philosophy places man among the creators of our world from the very beginning, when he and the globe itself were still not of physical substance as we now know it, but condensing very slowly from a primordial nebula. The names of the earliest heroes give us interesting confirmation of this, if they indeed represent distinct groups of humanity during that stage of formation. If their exploits are a way of symbolizing the progress of these early races, we can trace our ancestry from amorphous wisps of cloud to gelatinous and finally fleshy beings; from sexless to androgynous to bisexual organisms; and from unthinking, dreamy, non-conscious movers into gradually awakening intelligences. By the more experienced kingdom of the lowest gods the protohumans were guided and taught to plan, to cultivate and to harvest, to fashion objects, temper tools, and in the course of time to become self-sufficient and independent. In the hero tales we may see, by the manner in which the characters interact, how life forms altered over immense lengths of time and thereby also changed the composition of the globe. Successive phyla, human and nonhuman, followed one another, competing for habitat and viability, with antagonists and relatives conquering and superseding one another and with multiple marriages bringing radically different offspring into the picture. Some were neither human nor bestial but curiously malleable creatures, performing unexpected and uncritically accepted acts.
To relate the epics to humanity's prehistory would demand the untangling of the many intertwined threads of narrative — a monumental undertaking with no surety of correct interpretation or sequence. The lengthy saga of Sigurd Fafnesbane (bane of Fafnir) is suggestive of those remote aeons. The Germanic version is well known as part of the Nibelungen cycle.
The name Nibelungen, or Niflungar in the Norse, means "children of the mist" (nifl nebula). Strongly reminiscent of the "Sons of the Fire Mist" in The Secret Doctrine, these too appear to be forces which were instrumental in bringing into being the primordial world. The Niflungar were followed by the Volsungar, which means "children of volsi (phallus)," a much later humanity which by then had begun to propagate by sexual means — a development which theosophy places in the third and subsequent humanities.
Interspersed with the saga are numerous feuds which evidently have reference to a succession of races, branch races, and lesser tribes, as well as to various types of rudimentary consciousness characteristic of peoples in the early stages of our planet's life. The story contains a welter of deception and revenge, blood feuds carried on through generations, all told in the dispassionate, unjudging narrative style which is one of the hallmarks of genuine mythology. Appraisals are the province of fiction and reflect the passing mores of an age; mythic accounts record events without praise or blame.
Hidden within the symbolism of these tales with their many digressions we may detect, by the very abundance of anecdotes, the ages-long sweep of the early development of our planet, when its matter was still condensing and all the kingdoms of nature were in process of formation. Increasing substantiality and variety of form afforded the means for physical evolution, while it also set in motion the momentum which would tend to retard the development of spirituality. Before the turning point this was mercifully counteracted by the event recorded as the coming of Rig, when a ray of the god Heimdal, "the whitest Ase," entered humanity in three successive stages. (The Lay of Rig, ch. 18) Our lineage is therefore thrice divine. Also, like Sigurd (Fafnesbane), we are god-taught and, like him, deluded by the wiles of matter, we must repair and reconstitute the sword we have inherited: the will by which to overcome illusion and awaken the sleeping Valkyrie in the soul.
In order to recognize references to facts and artifacts in legends and mythic tradition we ourselves must be familiar with the things they refer to. It takes a technologist of the same kind to recognize a description of another's technological invention, and it takes knowledge of a natural phenomenon to recognize a description of it in myth. References in the myths to electricity, magnetism, or conductivity passed unnoticed by scholars of earlier centuries who knew little or nothing of such things; that the Edda's "winged wagons" and "featherblades" — like the Sanskrit "celestial cars" of the Hindu Mahabharata and Ramayana (1) — may have, described instruments of flight, escaped recognition before we had recourse to aviation. Now that we use airplanes routinely, we can, if we will, find strong indications that not only air travel, but also the Van Allen belts, the earth's magnetic field, black holes, and QSOs (2) were known to the makers of the myths. We have yet to learn what prodigious forces were used by some builders of cyclopean monuments and pyramids, and how they moved boulders weighing tons and shaped them with jewel-like precision in places as widely separated as Egypt, Peru, Britain, and Cambodia.
Archaeoastronomers are fairly sure that many if not all of the henges of Britain — Stonehenge being one among hundreds and certainly the best known — were built and used to study the movements of celestial bodies; alignments of dolmens were apparently used to calculate eclipses among other things, something which requires refined long-term observation and precise calculation. Some of these structures are thought to have harbored universities for other studies as well. Both the old and new worlds contain remains of a variety of devices: mounds, stone circles, medicine wheels, petroglyphs, and buildings, which served to align stars and planets. Scandinavia and Britain abound in mysterious stone circles, miniatures of the better known henges, formed of stelae placed in round or oval formation. My friends and I used to play in such a "stone ship" on a hillock on an island in the Baltic. We found after weeks of digging that the stones, which stood only about two feet high, were buried so deep that we never succeeded in rocking any of them. For the sod to have accumulated nearly to their tops they must have been of considerable age. (Other stone ships are probably later Viking burial sites; it was the practice to lay a dead chieftain aboard his vessel, set it alight and send it burning out to sea, a custom superseded by burial with goods, ship and all.) Older stone circles are so placed that they may well have provided sighting markers for solstices, equinoxes, sun dogs (those mysterious reflections on both sides of a rising or setting sun), and possibly more sophisticated observations as well, such as the heliacal rising of certain stars.
Many things which seem absurd or inconsistent in myths are explainable once we reverse our point of view: instead of looking down on their authors as ignoramuses and up at the universe from the material level, we can regard the cosmos as an expression of life and lives, as a vital, composite organism containing unimaginable reaches of consciousnesses and infinite grades of substances. Today increasing numbers of scientists are entering the realm of philosophy and conceding that the human race is an intrinsic part of a universal system of life. A recent textbook on astronomy contains the following:
Astronomy teaches that we are creatures of the universe, children of the stars, offspring of the interstellar clouds. We are products of cosmic evolution. We are also part of the process of cosmic evolution. Perhaps we are the universe's way of becoming aware of itself. You and I and the other living creatures in the cosmos — when we look into space, we see the source of ourselves. And to those wide-open spaces we add hope, fear, imagination, and love. (3)
The Norse myths regard sun, moon, and planets as the dwellings which "beneficent powers" have formed for their habitation. Some of these mansions, disposed on a series of "shelves" — different grades of substances — are given such names as Bredablick (Broadview), Himmelsberg (Mountains of Heaven), Lidskjalf (Shelf of Compassion), (4) Sokvaback (Deep River), and other suggestive epithets. Obviously it is not possible to describe in human terms the supernal spheres of the gods, but we may assume that the stellar and planetary spheres we see in the sky are the visible bodies of their deities, that is, of conscious energies each one with its distinct individuality. The myths that deal with these "gods" and "goddesses" and with their shelves and the halls they have built for themselves thereon give the impression of a family: a group of related individuals having pronounced characters and dispositions. They act on one another, react to one another, and generally behave as one might expect members of a family to conduct themselves.
Although the mythographers revered these "beneficent powers" as the mighty movers of the spheres, there is no hint in the earliest traditions of worship in the modern sense of the word; there is a recognition of their "worthship" as universal powers who have graduated from former "giant" worlds and who precede us on the evolutionary path, blazing the trail of human destiny for future aeons. Nor are the deities confined to the visible solar and planetary worlds which represent them. Their scope is far vaster, something we know today on physical grounds: space probes have shown that a planet is surrounded by an envelope of magnetic plasma so immense that the visible globe has been compared to a baseball in the nose of a blimp. The mighty solar wind also pours forth torrents of plasma, which mingles with the planetary magnetospheres, flattening them on the daylight side (facing the sun) and propelling them far into space on the nightside.
Despite differences in expression, modern science and ancient myths describe the solar system in very similar ways: myths as a hierarchic being wherein streams of vital energies — the Edda's rivers of lives — flow from mansion to mansion, linking the divine energies (consciousnesses) in a webwork of life and motion; physical science as a huge organization wherein gravitational effects produce tides and in unexplained ways affect growth cycles on earth. On a much larger scale galaxies in clusters and superclusters of galaxies are found to interact, being gravitationally bound. Myths seem to be true to nature in describing the solar system as a vast composite wherein seen and unseen worlds correspond to every permutation of god-giant — energy-matter — interactions, paralleling interactions of psychological and other intangible influences, such as we are familiar with in the human sphere.
In line with this view, astrophysical science has for some time been debating the relative probability of a "closed" versus an "open" universe. The answer depends on how much matter exists in space, unseen and apparently undetectable by presently available means. Whatever the outcome of this debate, for our purposes it is enough that invisible, inaudible, intangible, by physical means seemingly undetectable, matter has been accorded scientific respectability. This approaches mythic science which has always implied the existence of nonphysical substances. Not that myths need either confirmation or denial, their message can stand on its own merits.
If the vast preponderance of matter is unseen, it becomes simple logic to regard the globes in the sky as parts of larger systems of worlds that we do not see but that may be analogous to and perhaps interact with corresponding unseen parts of our own nature. In theosophic tradition the visible spheres of our solar system are considered the grossest components of their respective planetary beings. They are their bodies; we may surmise or sense, but cannot see, their souls. To carry the idea one step further, they interact with one another much as human beings interact without physical contact. Certainly we share our thoughts and feelings, at times inspire and become inspired by one another; so too may the invisible components of the solar system help to build and influence other invisible, and visible, components. This would agree well with the idea that rivers of lives, comprising all kinds of characteristics (and matching substances), flow through the immense solar body along magnetic paths of attraction, each life an entity in its own right as well as a minute portion of the whole. Some of these lives imbody in mineral forms — those possessing the ponderous, earthy character we find it hard to imagine as "life"; others have progressed to the vegetable stage with its great variety of possibilities; others to animal status and still greater diversity; and we represent the human stage. All through the system interconnectedness is demonstrable as we take our places in the biological food chain, where we transform and transmute the matter of the globe; more importantly, we process properties of consciousness of vastly different kinds. All the beings that traverse the stages of existence up to the limit we have reached, inhabit their appropriate spheres of life within the greater being we all help compose. It is then not so strange to suppose that we, one of the rivers of lives, have a home for every aspect of our nature in some domain of the solar universe. This seems to be what the myths imply in their cryptic way.
The intriguing descriptions given in Grimnismal of the twelve mansions of the gods, each on its "shelf" (plane), are extremely suggestive of the pattern given in The Secret Doctrine and later elaborated by G. de Purucker in Fountain-Source of Occultism. There it is plainly intended to connect each deity and its corresponding planet with an invisible portion of our own planet's inner being, showing a relationship of each to each linking all the parts of every individual component of the solar system. Intricate correspondences connect every character of the celestial scenario with every one of the others, and these explain the complex interrelationships of the Norse deities as nothing else could; the same applies to the Greek and other pantheons. When myths give assurance of a continuum wherein worlds, exist outside our perception, both "above" and "below" the familiar range of frequencies which characterizes matter, and still form part of our universe; when they indicate that our familiar proportions continue indefinitely above and beneath our "line of sight" and that apparently empty space is a fullness of lives unperceived by us; we have no means of either proving or disproving this information until we become able to apprehend and experience the "shelves" and "mansions" of which they speak. Interpretation is therefore largely an individual matter. A myth that refers to Freya does not always specify whether the visible planet Venus is intended, or the unseen characteristic power which sponsors and has particular concern for our humanity; or, it may be the Venus-inspired portion of our planet that is intended. In any case, we cannot set limits on the versatility of nature; the limitations are in us.
One interesting possibility that presents itself as we contemplate the astrophysical universe concerns the extraordinary prevalence in space of binary stars and galaxies. They far outnumber the single ones and in many cases are paired in such a way that while one component is building its physical sphere the other is etherealizing — radiating away its substance. In certain instances the former is "cannibalizing" the latter. If we consider the theosophic pattern of solar and planetary deities imbodying, accreting substance to themselves, and forming their habitations, while other gods of the same system are in process of dying, it appears that where spheres are progressing toward more substantial imbodiment and others of the same system are relinquishing theirs, such a pair of twin globes when traversing the "shelf" of our perception may quite possibly be seen as a binary system.
Unless we claim to possess complete knowledge — which no intelligent person would presume to do — we must concede that there may well be conditions of life unknown to us. Myths imply, though they cannot describe, a universe filled with evolving consciousnesses using life forms, most of which are unknown to our senses. To the mythmakers all nature was one living whole, wherein greater and lesser systems lived and interacted, each unit being primarily a consciousness which activated and animated a suitable body. It was apparently taken for granted that worlds of other kinds of matter interpenetrated and sometimes interacted with our own though most often beyond our awareness. Their way of describing such familiar phenomena as electromagnetism gives us a clue to the manner in which myths may contain factual information. It would be interesting to speculate on how we would explain our own knowledge to survivors of a major catastrophe and how much recognizable science would remain after a few tellings. Imagine, for instance, explaining the way electricity works — something most easily illustrated by an electric storm — and how this information would be transmogrified after a few generations: inevitably it would give rise to a new Indra, Jove, or Thor hurling thunderbolts across the sky, and soon a new Olympus or Asgard of mighty and capricious deities would once more occupy the heavens.
In that distant dawn when humankind first became aware of itself as thinking, knowing, selective, the oldest traditions agree that this awakening occurred because higher intelligences, more experienced souls of mankinds of the past, mingled their essence with the early humans. This act of their compassion gave us the undying vision of reality which is our link with the divine ground of life.
The myths, if they hold any meaning for us at all, are a guide to that inner light, kindled when our kind was still ignorant of good and evil, when choice did not yet exist — a light which remains unquenched within our deepest consciousness. They tell us of worlds and humans undergoing the experience of life in order to consummate our perfectibility, and of the holy purpose for which we exist. Their tales are sometimes obscure, often moving, sometimes funny. They hold our attention even when we do not understand them, hinting, beckoning our dormant insight, urging us to rouse our intuitive intelligence and find the kernel of truth they conceal.
The bards who chanted the mythic sagas were past masters at suggesting majestic avenues of thought without specifically stating any doctrine that could be coagulated into set and brittle opinions. The beauty of their tales lies in the flights of wondering they prod the mind to take and in the ever-broadening vistas that are glimpsed beyond each larger understanding. Perhaps no mythology so fully turns the keys to nature's arcana as do these relics of the Norsemen's forebears. Some of the purest versions of the universal wisdom may well be those contained in the Eddas for, being somewhat less known than the Greek and Roman myths, they have been less adulterated. The myths of the Mediterranean area have been so garbled and lampooned since the closing of the Mystery schools that the public mind of later centuries has seen in their gods little more than reflections of human foibles. Exoteric and unexplained to begin with, their meanings have through Europe's Dark Ages been further misunderstood and misinterpreted. As a result people have come to regard all myths as childish fancies of those who worship whatever they fail to understand. If we had greater insight into the noble truths these tales were originally intended to convey we might enrich our own spiritual climate. The mythic heritage of the remote northern lands seems to have given a safer refuge than most to the wisdom of the ages.
Nobody knows how long the Norse stories were passed on by word of mouth before they were recorded. It may be a very long time indeed since the last civilization flourished which possessed knowledge of the spirit of man, the universe's origin and destiny, and the course of evolution. The mythmakers were doubtless the wisest among humankind; the Norse bards, like those of ancient India and other lands, couched their knowledge in rhythmic verse that could be easily memorized and so kept current through millennia, even if only as a diversion. One who learned and chanted the Norse songs was a skald, a word still used in Sweden to mean "poet." However, the connotation given it in the Eddas is that of one possessing wisdom, spiritual knowing, and it is closely bound to the idea of the mead, the sustenance of the gods. The skaldemjod (poetic mead) denotes the Mysteries, the wisdom sought by Odin, chief of the creative gods, in his quest through spheres of matter — the "giant world."
Secreted in mythology are spiritual truth, logical philosophy, and also scientific facts. Indeed, the latest discoveries in science often prove to be indispensable to an understanding of the science in the myths. We may never know how the unknown peoples of distant antiquity came by this knowledge unless we recognize that truth is innate in the intelligence-level of life represented on earth by the human race. The ancient legends relate that the gods created humans out of their own substance, "in their own image" as the Bible has it, and that for ages divine teachers walked the earth with us, training the newborn intelligences to understand and work with nature's ways. In the course of time, as the human race pursued knowledge and gained experience of good and evil, through the exercise of free will, the innocence of those days was lost. In the headlong progress toward more material interests, humanity drifted away from its divine preceptors. Thereafter, our race must earn its liberation: our human consciousness must learn to know truth from error and deliberately free itself from the lures of matter in order to assume its rightful place among the gods.
It is from that very early time, when gods and humans mingled, that many of the mythic tales take their rise. If they are often obscure to us it is not surprising, for they have doubtless passed through many phases of human, fallible remembrance; and our understanding, like our skepticism, follows from our inward attitude. With our present knowledge and the open-mindedness which is gradually prevailing over the dogmatic opinions of the past, once we recognize in any myth a reflection of a truth which has been independently discovered by science or the new scientific philosophies and religious nonsectarian thought, it becomes easier to see the same natural truth in other systems.
Edda means "great-grandmother" and, by extension of meaning, "matrix," suggesting "world mother." The word is apparently derived from veda, the Hindu scriptures or sacred vidya (knowledge, from vid, to know, to perceive) from which stem the German wissen, the Swedish veta, and the old English wit — all words which mean "to know." The skalds held an honored position for they possessed knowledge and, even in Viking times, the drott (druid) was still revered as one who possessed the godly wisdom. (Later the word became used to designate a brave and noble chieftain, a warrior-king, more suited to the warlike race the Vikings had by then become.) This wisdom, or Edda, was imparted by the skalds who traveled from community to community of the farmers who dwelt along the many bays and inlets of the Scandinavian lands. Such a bay is called a vik and a dweller on their shores became known as a viking.
In all justice it should be mentioned that the Vikings who are popularly reputed to have terrorized Europe and some of whom evidently visited America long before Columbus made his famous journey, though a rough and simple people, had strong notions of honor and morality. Many of them are held to have lived by a disciplinary code few moderns would care to maintain. Among the marauding pirates on the high seas, merchantmen ran a risky gauntlet with their goods and it was the Vikings whom they enlisted for protection. These Norsemen with their reputation for strength and valor provided armed escort and became the insurance agents of the continent. (The bodyguards of all the emperors of Byzantium from the ninth to the twelfth century were Vikings.) No doubt there were some among them who succumbed to the temptation of running their own "protection racket," but this should not be held against all the Norsemen who on the whole were a civilizing influence for centuries. They instituted law and order — the famed Danelagh — wherever they settled, and Iceland was, a thousand years ago, the original home of democratic parliamentary rule and had the earliest known judicial system of trial by a jury of equals. But this is by the way.
As time went on it is doubtful whether the wisdom concealed in the songs and sagas was completely understood even by the skalds; they may also have overlaid the substance with some embellishments to suit their audience, or omitted less popular tales from their repertoire. Human fallibility in the oral transmission must also be allowed for, as we have no way of knowing how far back in the misty past these relics of wisdom were first formulated. We do know that Saemund the Wise (1057-1133 A.D.), after having studied in France, opened a school at Oddi in Iceland, where he is believed to have written down the Elder or Poetic Edda. The Younger Edda is attributed to Snorri Sturlusson (1178-1241), who attended the school at Oddi as a pupil of Saemund's grandson during which time he must have become acquainted with the lays. Most of them, including several that are no longer extant in the poetic form, he recast into prose. Many scholars find his retelling easier to understand than the rather obscure poems of the Elder Edda.
In their introduction to the Corpus Poeticum Boreale, the Poetry of the Old Northern Tongue (1883), G. Vigfusson and F. York Powell point out that much of the material mentioned in the prose commentaries on early poetic myths is either not found in the verses that have survived or is very sketchy and incomplete. They conclude from this that the prose versions, whether by Snorri Sturlusson or some commentator, must have been taken from more explicit but no longer extant originals. Indeed the two scholars refer to parts of the Voluspa cited in one prose version as "a confused, pell-mell jumble of broken, distorted verses, as if the lines of the poem had been shaken up together in a bottle" (p. xcviii); and they make the probably valid assumption that after the first formulation of wisdom into myth by any great seer or seers, the "Era of Production is closed, the Age of Commentators, Copiers, Glossators begins, and we are happy if we can get the book as it then stands before the Age of Neglect and Decay has come on and the work has partly perished" (p. xcvii).
About 1890, the Swedish scholar Fredrik Sander published his Rigveda-Edda, wherein he traces the Germanic tradition to the ancient Aryan. His study convinced him that Norse mythology came from India and preserves Hindu myths more faithfully than do the classic Greek and Roman, which are much disfigured. Max Muller considered the Edda tradition to be older than the Vedas; others, including Sven Grundtvig, regard the Eddas as originating in the early Iron Age; still others postulate an early Christian origin. Whatever their age may be, the content of the myths agrees with the oldest records in many parts of the world, which forces the conclusion either that they all stem from a single source, a prehistoric formulation of science, philosophy, and mysticism once common to all mankind or, alternatively, that each one arose independently and coincidentally — a notion too preposterous to be seriously entertained. In any case, the evidence points to a single body of lore having inspired the traditions whose relics are to be found everywhere on the face of our globe.
The present study is limited almost entirely to a portion of the Saemundar Edda for two reasons: first, because of the overwhelming vastness of the subject matter covered even in the relatively few lays included here coupled with the conviction that, reduced and incomplete though they may be, what has been selected is at least unadulterated. While these verses probably contain less than the once known truth we may feel reasonably sure that they have not been elaborated to contain more, i.e., very little if any spurious matter added by later authors. The other reason for our selection is the recognition in this material of truths that are currently found more fully explored in modern theosophical literature. Many of these truths, moreover, after having been overlooked for centuries in the popular religions, are now being discovered almost daily by the new scientific research, which agrees with the theosophic teachings in many and surprising ways.
Ours is a far more liberal age than any in history. When Christianity spread over Europe, the zealots of the new religion systematically destroyed the temples and shrines of earlier gods and massacred those who persisted in the pagan rituals. The heathens of the northern lands, whose custom of unlimited hospitality and absolute tolerance in religious matters left them wide open to exploitation, found themselves converted or were destroyed before they could take steps to prevent such unexpected and high-handed annexation. They fell under the control of Roman popes who instituted the use of the Latin language and orthodox gospels in the place of native tongues and scriptures. The Norse religion soon became a hybrid of partially understood Christianity grafted on a, by then, degenerate pagan root. Only distant Iceland, whose population and priesthood were relatively inaccessible and impossible for the church to supervise, escaped the methodical destruction of its shrines and traditions. Even the Christian priests there ignored the new rules — of celibacy for instance — and continued in the ways of their forebears, using the tongue of their fathers and passing on the ancient lore to their children. It was there that Saemund the Wise lived and wrote down the poetic Elder Edda, preserving the phrasing whose rhythmic meter evokes intuition in the hearer. Snorri later elaborated on the laconic verses and related the tales that deal more particularly with human races and their development. The myths have given rise to numberless folktales and fairy tales which have been adapted to various media for expression, from nursery rhymes to grand opera, by such diverse transmitters as Mother Goose and Wagner, and they include collections made by students of folklore such as the brothers Grimm in the nineteenth century.
Of the numerous promulgations of the universal wisdom in gospels, stories, teachings, and evangels, each new light that is kindled continues to burn only so long as truth remains of paramount importance to its adherents. Sooner or later attrition sets in: human institutions, founded to preserve the message, take precedence over it and obscure it; thereafter attention is focused on the mask — method and ritual — while reality is overlooked. Misinterpretations, misunderstandings, and superstitions rapidly prevail as inspiration is lost and the sacred knowledge once more forgotten. The mythic deities, from having been majestic laws of universal nature, become personified as gods and heroes whose actions appear unpredictable for lack of the wisdom once contained in the now empty rites — all that remains of a once companionable association of humans with the divine powers governing the universe.
Yet myths live on. This is the eternal mystery: the indestructible core of truth, garbed in a hundred guises, which has inspired mankind through all ages. In every land have lived some few who, by courageously venturing into the spheres where spirit dwells inviolate, have brought back with them a draught from the imperishable fount of truth. These descendants of the early mythmakers are the skalds, the poets and seers who keep unbroken the lines of communication between humanity and the gods. They bring the eternal wisdom down through the centuries while the rest of us continue to delight in the "god-spells" that rouse within the depths of us a vague remembrance of a sacred trust. The voices of the bards can never die, for they sing the pattern of eternity. Their appeal is to the undying part of us, even while the mortal self may scoff as Loki does when, uninvited and unprepared, he enters the banquet hall of the gods. (5)
1. Swedish: vingvagn, fjaderblad; Sanskrit: vimana. (return to text)
2. Quasi-stellar objects, popularly called quasars. (return to text)
3. Michael Zeilik, Astronomy: The Evolving Universe, 1979 ed., p. 501. (return to text)
4. Lida suffer or hlid side, rank, or alignment. By implication this "shelf" may suggest the gods' being aligned by our side or, more likely, "suffering" or "feeling with" — as in the Latin compassion and the Greek sympathy from pathein, to suffer, endure and, by extension of meaning, to bear the burden of. (return to text)
5. Cf. Loki's Flyting, p. 214. (return to text)