Theosophical University Press Online Edition

The Masks of Odin:

Wisdom of the Ancient Norse

By Elsa-Brita Titchenell


Copyright © 1985 by Theosophical University Press (print version also available). Electronic version ISBN 1-55700-137-5. All rights reserved. This edition may be downloaded for off-line viewing without charge. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted for commercial or other use in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior permission of Theosophical University Press. For ease of searching, no diacritical marks appear in the electronic version of the text.


Contents

Foreword
Preface
Acknowledgments
Pronunciation Guide
Bibliography

Glossary
PART I: COMMENTARY

1 Myths — A Time Capsule
2 The Tree of Life — Yggdrasil
3 Gods and Giants
4 Cosmic Creation
5 Terrestrial Creation
6 Nature's Kingdoms
7 Rig, Loki, and the Mind
8 Human Death and Rebirth
9 Initiation

PART II: NOTES, TRANSLATED LAYS, AND STORIES

10 Voluspa (The Sibyl's Prophecy)
11 Gylfaginning (The Apotheosis of Gylfe)
12 Havamal (The High One's Words)
13 Vaftrudnismal (The Lay of Illusion)
14 Thor and Loki in Jotunheim (Gianthome)
15 Hymiskvadet (Hymer's Lay)
16 Grimnismal (Grimner's Lay)
17 Trymskvadet (The Theft of Thor's Hammer)
18 Kvadet om Rig (The Lay of Rig)
19 Loki Steals the Brisinga-Gem
20 Grottasongr (The Song of the Mill)
21 Volundskvadet (The Lay of Volund)
22 Lokasenna (Loki's Flyting)
23 Allvismal (The Lay of Allwise)
24 Grogaldern and Fjolsvinn's Ordskifte (The Spells of Groa and Verywise's Exchange)
25 Skirnismal (The Lay of Skirner)
26 Vagtamskvadet (The Lay of Waywont)
27 Odens Korpgalder (The Lay of Odin's Corpse or The Lay of Odin's Ravens)
28 A Summing Up


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Foreword

A good many people hearing of the Edda or of the Norse myths think mainly of Balder, the sun-god, who was slain by a twig of mistletoe; or they may conjure up mighty Thor, hurler of thunderbolts and lightning, whose footsteps make the earth quake. Or perhaps they remember Loki, trickster, mischief-maker without malice, who seems constantly to stir up trouble, yet as often by imaginative wit and intelligence resolves the difficulties he has caused.

The Masks of Odin is a provocative study of "the wisdom of the ancient Norse." While it portrays the various aspects and forms that Odin assumes in order to gain knowledge of the nine worlds inhabited by gods and giants, humans, elves, and dwarfs, Elsa-Brita Titchenell has a larger purpose in view. As a serious student of both Edda and Theosophy her loom is cosmic in reach, its warp representing the theosophia perennis or enduring god-wisdom and its woof the Edda, whose many-colored threads she weaves into colorful and often inspiring patterns of interpretation.

The world's oldest traditions hold that long ago all peoples, however widely separated, were the common inheritors of a body of sacred truths initially imparted to the earliest humanities by divine beings from higher regions; and, further, that myth-makers of every land were in greater or less degree transmitters of this archaic wisdom/science. Against this backdrop the author undertakes to interpret some of the more important sagas of the Norse Edda, retranslating them from the Swedish text and comparing it with the original Icelandic. Her aim is not to hammer out just another version of the Edda when already several in English are available both in prose and verse, but rather "to penetrate to the core of inspired meaning" hidden within the world's mythic lore. To attempt this would have been out of the question, she believes, but for two radical changes in the general thought life: first, the disclosure about a century ago of a significant portion of the universal theosophic philosophy by H. P. Blavatsky and its emancipating effect on the human spirit, and second, the new developments in Western science.

In Part I Elsa Titchenell outlines the broad features of the principal characters involved in the drama of cosmic and terrestrial creation as recorded in the Edda, including the gifts to early mankind of spirit, mind, and vitality by three Aesir (gods) so that we humans in time might become "godmakers." Relating theosophic teachings and current findings of astrophysics and physics to traditional mythic symbols she depicts the ancient mythographers as philosophers and scientists of stature. To the Norse bards or skalds, the interplay between gods and giants represented the continuous interaction of spirit and matter on a series of "shelves" or planes as "rivers of lives" moved, each after its own manner, through mansion after mansion of planetary and solar spheres within Allfather-Odin's domain.

In Part II, the author's Notes preceding the translated lays provide the reader with an invaluable guide through the often bewildering maze of metaphor and symbolic allusion. The opening saga is the well-known Voluspa or Sibyl's Prophecy, that tells of the formation of worlds, of Odin's search for wisdom in the spheres of matter, and of the "toppling of the world tree" when the gods withdraw and earth is no more — until the Vala (Sibyl) sees another earth rising from the sea as old ills are resolved and the Aesir return. In the High One's Song, we read of Odin's consummate experience when for nine whole nights he "hung in the windtorn tree," the Tree of Life, so that he might "raise the runes" and drink the mead of omniscience.

There is much to delight and instruct in the retelling of lay after lay, each with its own story and truth to impart. Admittedly only a portion of the available material is treated, and this is drawn chiefly from the Poetic or Elder Edda of Saemund the Wise. Cognizant, moreover, of the challenge posed by the mystery-language of symbolism in use by the poet-philosophers of old, the author is hopeful that others will find in this "fragment of runic wisdom" the stimulus to pursue further and more complete studies of the ancient Norse records.

Whether writing as Eddist or theosophist, amateur scientist, mythographer, or translator, Elsa-Brita Titchenell by lucid and perceptive scholarship has earned for The Masks of Odin an honored place among Edda literature.

GRACE F. KNOCHE


Preface

It was in the early 1950s when the writer picked up a book at random in the Theosophical University Library in Altadena — a beautifully bound volume of the Edda in Swedish. Though familiar since childhood with at least some portions of the Norse "god-stories" this was the first time I had read the poetic lays of the Elder Edda. Browsing through the verses and delighting in their picturesque "kennings," I was enjoying the quaint turns of phrase when suddenly, as by a lightning bolt, I was struck by a dazzling flash of meaning, a hint of basic truth. Skeptical at first, I began to read with greater attention and soon became convinced that the Edda ranks among the world's sacred traditions as a genuine scripture, a goldmine of natural history and spiritual treasure. This is connoted also by its Swedish name: gudasaga — a divine story or god-spell — the archaic form of the word "gospel."

Many years later, after much scrutiny and comparison with other myths, enough evidence of the Edda's scriptural content had accumulated to warrant collating at least a few fragments that seem to have secreted in them a discernible esoteric meaning. Among the great wealth of material in the Norse myths it has been necessary to be selective, partly because there are several versions of many of the tales, partly because the purpose of this book is to bring out and suggest interpretations of those myths which are of particular relevance in our time.

Most of the lays and stories herein are translated from the Codex Regius — the "royal codex" — which was written down by Saemund the Wise a thousand years ago, though their content has doubtless been known much longer than that. Today they are luminous with meaning due to two seemingly independent circumstances: first, the disclosure of a generous portion of the universal theosophic philosophy in the late nineteenth century and the broadening influence this has exerted; and second, following closely thereafter, the development of a more enlightened science in the West.

The story of Codex Regius is itself a fascinating one. King Frederik III of Denmark sent Thormod Torfaeus to Iceland with an open letter dated 27 May 1662 which empowered him to purchase ancient manuscripts and other material containing information on Icelandic history. He delivered it to Bishop Brynjolv Sveinsson, an ardent collector of memorabilia since his accession to the bishopric of Skalholt in 1639. Soon afterward the bishop sent the king a gift of several manuscripts; Torfaeus made a catalogue of these which Gudbrand Vigfusson lists in his Prolegomena to the Sturlunga Saga. In this collection the manuscript cited as No. 6 is titled "Edda Saemundi; quarto." It was a treasure of the Royal Library at Copenhagen until a few years ago when it was returned to Iceland, where it is now housed in the Arna Magnussonar collection. No one knows how Bishop Brynjolv came in possession of it, but he must have acquired it some twenty years before Torfaeus' arrival as he had inscribed the first page with his own name in Latin, Lupus Loricatus (contracted to [[symbol]] — cf. plate 1 of the photographic reproduction of Voluspa from the Codex Regius manuscript), with the date 1643; he also had a copy made on white parchment.

Several versions of the Edda are extant in part. One collection of handwritten texts is that of Arne Magnusson, believed to emanate from the same source as Saemund's; another is the Codex Wormianus (from which are taken the Songs of Rig and Waywont), and Flatoboken. The Spells of Groa, Verywise's Exchange, and the Lay of Odin's Corpse are from Swedish translations of paper copies; these do not occur in Codex Regius. The Song of the Mill is from Snorri's Edda.

The lays, rendered here were first translated into English from the two Swedish versions of Godecke and Sander, with frequent reference to the commentaries of the Swedish scholar Viktor Rydberg; thereafter the result was compared with the Wimmer and Jonsson Saemundar Eddu, a photographic facsimile of the old Icelandic Codex Regius manuscript with a printed transliteration facing each page. It is a continuous text with no divisions and only an inserted title to mark the beginning of each lay. Most translations break it into verses of six or eight lines as indicated by the rhythm, but we have chosen in many cases to write the verses as quatrains. There is no rhyming, but an alliterative pattern which with the distinctive tetrameter used in many very early epics gives the lays a peculiar charm.

The Edda consists of two main divisions, as do most scriptures that deal with the creation of cosmos and the evolution of mankind. The first applies to the surrounding world, the second to the "heroes": races of humanity and their development through stages of immaturity into the thinking, self-conscious men and women we have become. The latter tales sometimes make use of geographic features and of actual historic events to illustrate the much larger picture they disguise. This work concentrates mainly on the earlier portion, which deals with grand principles and universal events, searching out the basic philosophy of divine nature which is valid throughout the vicissitudes of the human venture.

In translating, both alliteration and meter have unfortunately very often had to be sacrificed, as our purpose is to convey the philosophic and scientific import rather than merely reproduce the poetic style. There already exist several English renditions in verse and prose, many of them accompanied by detailed analyses of the verse forms used in the original. In brief, our aim is not to produce merely another translation but to attempt to penetrate to the core of inspired meaning often concealed within myths. Interpreting and clarifying that inner sense in the Edda is made possible by resorting to the foremost elucidating work of our time, The Secret Doctrine, whose author, H. P. Blavatsky juxtaposed a prodigious array of myths relating to cosmogony as well as human history and the destiny of living beings. In that work are keys showing that the same majestic pattern underlies the varied expressions of different mythic scriptures; we are given an overview of the universe, its periodicity of function and repose, and we discern how divine consciousness reflects itself periodically as a kosmos in space and time.

To find the information the Edda contains we must examine the etymology of names and their connotations, which in some cases are numerous. For this Cleasby's Icelandic Dictionary, completed by Gudbrand Vigfusson in 1869, has proved of inestimable value for it contains copious quotations from the original manuscripts and sometimes presents a strikingly intuitive perception. Undersokningar i Germansk Mitologi (Teutonic Mythology) by Viktor Rydberg also contains scrupulous examination of terms and much information.

One great problem with a book such as this is to arrange the material in a practical manner without necessitating undue repetition. The lays are reproduced in English with the flavor as nearly unchanged as may be and each one is preceded by explanatory notes. In addition certain themes are given special attention; inevitably some of these will occur more than once though each approach is somewhat different. In the notes, verse numbers are given to indicate whence an interpretation has been derived. Needless to say, many meanings are often contained in a single passage, and frequently they are mere hints requiring some personal insight on the part of the reader, for it is not always possible to elucidate each symbol adequately, nor is it necessary. The spelling of names is intentionally inconsistent, some being given in Icelandic (e.g., Aesir), others in Swedish (e.g., Ager), both to make them easier to distinguish visually by the English-speaking reader and because in many cases the root of a name has a suggestive meaning in one language but does not occur, or has a slightly different connotation, in the other. There are also many instances where the Icelandic grammatical variants, or a Swedish plural or definite form, would make an otherwise familiar word all but unrecognizable, necessitating inevitable compromises in an English rendition. When possible, names have been translated into English to enable a reader to find his own interpretation. A glossary and index have been provided.


Acknowledgments

Many thanks are due to a number of people who have helped bring this book into being: first to the late James A. Long who, during his leadership of the Theosophical Society, encouraged my study of the Edda and included eight articles on its theosophic content in Volume IV of the magazine Sunrise during 1954-5, with some half dozen more appearing later over a period of years; also to Kirby Van Mater, without whose prodding this book would never have been begun; thereafter to Sarah Belle Dougherty, who read the manuscript and proposed shuffling the material into better order, to Gertrude (Trudy) Hockinson who typed and retyped large portions of the manuscript; to Rod Casper of Millikan Library at the California Institute of Technology, who helped me procure research materials; A. Studley Hart, who performed some editorial magic; my dear friend Ingrid (Binnie) Van Mater, who not only read the work with a clear and critical eye but also checked the entries of the index and glossary and assisted with all the ticklish unavoidable tasks that must precede completion of a book. Thereafter she, Manuel Oderberg, Eloise and Studley Hart proofread it. In addition I must thank the production staff of Theosophical University Press, notably Will Thackara, Raymond Rugland, Mark Davidson, and John Van Mater, Jr., who took endless pains with the craftsmanship of the work. Above all, my grateful thanks are due to Grace F. Knoche, without whose constant support none of the above would have come about.

ELSA-BRITA TITCHENELL
May 31, 1985
Altadena, California


Pronunciation Guide

Each language really has an alphabet all its own; even though the same written symbols may be used, the sounds they represent are subtly different in each spoken tongue. Particularly is this true of the vowels, whereof English has five, Swedish nine, and Old Icelandic seventeen. Many of the names of the Edda's characters have several spellings, all equally valid, some Icelandic, others Old Norse, others Swedish, Danish, or Norwegian. We have used Swedish or Icelandic spelling, substituting for the extra Icelandic letters the closest English equivalents. Thus þ is commonly th as in Thor, while ð is given as d. The following pronunciation guide is a compromise giving merely an indication of the actual sounds. The vowels:

Vowel - Long / Short Equivalent
a as in father / sat
e as in say / set
i as in fatigue / sit
o as in move / soot
u as u minus the "ee" sound / hut
y as in French tu / Gluck
á as in corps / sot
ä as in care / set
ö as in French deux / neuf

Consonants are pronounced approximately as in English. The g is hard before hard vowels (a, o, u, a), but soft, like y, before the other (soft) vowels; r is trilled as in Scottish speech or like the French.


Bibliography

SOURCES OF THE LAYS:

Swedish versions of Godecke and Sander are taken from the above and also from

GENERAL WORKS:


Contents