Man's Destiny in Myth

By Elsa-Brita Titchenell

Long, long ago, in the dim ages that elapsed before our history began, the members of the human race seem to have charted a singularly unanimous course. Every mythology descended from the oldest traditions echoes the same regard for nature as the garment of divine powers and for man as its replica, though each encapsules its cosmogony and instructions for living in a distinctive allegorical code. By comparing various systems we can recognize and partly decipher their symbology and the directives they give for the conduct of life, the pursuit of wisdom, and the growth of soul; without such decoding, many a fairy tale and opera based on the myths remains empty of significance, a cover without a book, a frame surrounding a blank canvas.

One of the best known but least understood of the Norse allegories that portend the destiny of humankind is the legend of Valhalla. Popularized in the Wagner operas, this has become superciliously regarded as a slightly humorous parody of heaven, where rough-and-tumble Vikings go to carouse after death. Briefly outlined, it is the realm of the warrior-god Odin, whose heroes are slain daily in battle and at eventide carried from the field by Odin's warrior-maids, the Valkyries, to Valhalla, where they are regaled with pork and mead, and whence they return each morning to the fray where they are again slain. Valhalla is protected by many barriers: it is surrounded by a moat, Tund, wherein a werewolf, Tjodvitner, fishes for men. Its gate is secured by magic, and on the door of the hall a wolf hangs transfixed, surmounted by a blood-dripping eagle. In addition it is guarded by Odin's two wolfhounds.

To understand the system, we must define the terms. In the Norse Edda, Odin occurs on every level of life. On the highest plane of cosmic ideation it is the essence of creative universal consciousness, the Allfather. The name is a form of oðr, universal intelligence (Greek nous), whereof the spiritual soul of man is an intrinsic part. (Oðroerir, "container of oðr," which held the mead of wisdom from which Odin himself drank in a far past aeon, is one of the holy vessels which contain the "blood of Kvasir" — a "hostage" sent by the unmanifest superior divinities (Vanir) to the lesser, creative deities (Aesir). This suggests the continuity of divine inspiration: a transmission or avatar from inconceivably sublime cosmic powers descending to a god world still far superior to our own. It also suggests the continuous evolutionary growth of Odin, now Allfather of our worlds and divine root of every living being in our sphere, from a formerly lesser condition.) While in a general sense Allfather is implicit in all forms of manifestation, Odin also has his specific domain: a "shelf" or plane of substance superior to our physical matter, named "Gladhome" (Gladsheim), where is located Val-hall, the "hall of the elect." Val means "choice"; it also has the meaning "death" when it applies to Odin's warriors, the "One-victors" (einherjar). As the word implies, each has achieved victory over one — himself. Each has elected to die as a personal, limited egoity and gained a transcendency of consciousness into the realm of the gods or, to put it another way, has overcome the lesser, human propensities and united with the cosmic purpose of life. This is a continuous process of growth, hence of change, each daily "death" being a transformation from a less to a more perfect condition. The heroes are brought to Odin's sacred hall by the "crowners of the elect" (Valkyries) who are closely related to man's hamingja, his "guardian angel" or spiritual soul. They are therefore our protectors and tutors.

Each barrier to the Hall of the Elect is symbolic of some human weakness that must be conquered. The warrior who would cross the river of time (Tund), also called the river of doubt (Ifing), must maintain inflexible purpose and self-direction if he is not to be swept away by the turbulent currents of temporal existence. He must evade the bestial cravings of his animal nature (the lures of Tjodvitner) and gain "the other shore." Many scriptures use the same allegory. Buddhism, for example, speaks of four distinct stages of progress: those who have entered the stream, those who are in the stream, those who have almost crossed the stream, and those who have successfully reached the other shore. All nature is said to rejoice when an aspirant gains his goal.

Next, the candidate seeking Valhalla must overcome the hounds "Greed" (Gere) and "Gluttony" (Freke), and find the secret of the magic gate, which will open only to him who has the needed strength of aspiration, purity of motive, and inflexible resolve, whereupon the wolf and the eagle must be vanquished. These are self-seeking propensities which arise in new forms to challenge those who approach the kingdom of the gods; they must be transfixed over the entrance to the hall to insure against their intrusion. Odin's ravens, Hugin and Munin, which daily fly forth to survey the battlefield, earth, represent roughly "mind" and "memory," but much more than these words imply. Hugin (from hugr) means "mind," but includes such attributes as tendencies, mental attitudes, desires, feeling, intention, motive; while Munin (from munr), "memory," is the accumulation of all the past in a consequently inevitable present, what may be called karma, which brings about all possible conditions for the soul to surmount. Of their daily surveillance of the field of battle Odin comments: "I am anxious for Hugin lest he not return, but I fear even more for Munin." This cryptic remark seems to suggest that, by giving Odin a bird's-eye view of the world's collective karma, they play a critical role.

All weapons of offense and of defense must be relinquished and transformed into the constructive materials that form the sacred fane. The walls are built of the warriors' spears, the roof is of their shields. Within the hall even protective armor is discarded: "the benches are strewn with byrnies." If these myths had originated among the warlike Vikings who, by one of their codes, were required to sleep on their shields with sword in hand, this would seem a good deal out of character. Rather does it corroborate the theory that Norse myths far antedate these warriors and stem from the same archaic source as other early traditions. There is clearly much more than meets the eye in the Edda's poetic enchantment and its sometimes quite bawdy anecdotes, for the surrender of weapons is itself a hallmark of the Mystery-tradition. The candidate for universality cannot, by the very nature of his endeavor, regard himself as separate from the whole; he can have no use for divisive means of any kind, in thought, word, or deed. The first to go are weapons of offense, as harmlessness is cultivated. Thereafter all means of defense are dropped, and finally, all armor of whatever kind. The One-victor has stepped beyond the notion of separateness. His work lies not in the immediate but in the eternal; his being is no longer bounded by a self but extends unlimited; hence the hero soul has discarded all personal concern, placing complete reliance on the universal purpose he unconditionally serves as a selfless agent of divine Law.

The feast of the One-victors, far from a drunken orgy — unless it be in the sense of the original Dionvsian Mysteries, when wine represented spiritual illumination — is a partaking of universal elements. These are symbolized by the honeyed mead or nectar of the gods, as in the Greek myths (honey is gathered through the selfless efforts of bees for the common good. In the Greek Mysteries, the mystae, initiants, were called melissae [bees]), and by the three boars:

Andrimner lets Saerimner be steeped in Eldrimner:
Few know what the Einherjar eat.

"The boar of air lets the boar of water be steeped in the boar of fire." The boar represents the formative principles of earth where needed experience is gained. We find a similar metaphor in the Hindu Puranas, where the boar stands for Brahma, the creator, who supports the globe earth on its tusks. Here, the Edda's "Grimnismal" (Lay of Grimner), the One-victors are nourished by a trinity of boars, also representing creative powers, the energic aspect of nature's elements. Odin (air: spirit), Honer (water: mind), and Lodur (fire: will and desire) may be substituted in the verse, yielding

Spirit lets mind be steeped in will and desire:
Few know what nourishes the One-victors.

The higher self or spirit of man permits the human ego to be tested in the fires of the soul to prove its integrity. If successful, the man brings to birth his inner god, the mortal earns its immortality, uniting with the indwelling universal Odin.

As a revealing sidelight it may be mentioned that when Allfather welcomes his heroes to Val-hall, he is named Ropt, "the maligned": bringer of suffering and misfortune. Undoubtedly so, in this context, for he is the initiator, the hierophant who, as well as instructing and inspiring, must subject the human ego to the contending fires of its own soul and may not sway the outcome of the trial. Only the successful initiate recognizes Odin as Ropt, the maligned.

Val-hall presents another aspect which also links it with other scriptures of remote antiquity:

Five hundred doors, and forty more,
there are to the shining abode;
eight hundred warriors sally from each
when Odin emerges to war with the wolf.

540 X 800 = 432,000. In Babylonian and Indian chronologies this figure occurs in numerous ways. Multiples of it designate large cycles of astronomical events while, divided by various numbers, it applies to more frequent occurrences. It is the length in human years given to our Iron Age, kali yuga, when the forces of darkness are most challenging. Curious that this should be the number of Odin's champions (whose ranks must gain adherents as ages pass)! It certainly hints vigorously at some common universal lore from which these widely separated traditions must have descended.

The "Plain of battle" (Vigridsslatten) where Odin's warriors contend daily will readily be recognized by students of the Bhagavad-Gita as Kurukshetra, where the struggle between the forces of light and darkness takes place each day or period of life. Vigridsslatten may also be translated as the "plain of consecration." It is the battlefield of man himself, where are ranged in opposing ranks the human qualities, which themselves reflect the properties of greater nature. The outcome of this daily contest profoundly affects the evolutionary course of beings. From time to time a One-victor crosses over from the world of men to join the ranks of the gods; such rare forerunners who gain access to "the shining abode" unite their forces with nature's divine intent. The Valkyries, our own inspiring deepest self, are ever searching the field of consecration for worthy recruits who choose to aid the gods in their unending labors towards the glorious consummation of the cycle when mankind as a whole shall enter into its divine heritage and responsibility.

The cryptic accounts of the Edda may thus be interpreted in the light of other, comparable legends, and in turn aid in clarifying them. It is probable that the martial attributes of valor and strength may have been unduly emphasized by the Norsemen in the course of their transmittal at the expense of the ideals of serenity and gentle wisdom, although these latter are not entirely lacking. On the other hand, the valiant spirit in these laconic tales is well devised to bring certain concepts through the Viking era to the present age. Our time is singularly favored in having both the means and the incentive to decipher at least some portion of the traditional wisdom so ingeniously disguised. Its message of instruction and inspiration, buried under allegory in the Norse myths, has been long overlooked, neglected, and misconstrued; still, it remains remarkably intact and holds a promise of access to universal truth, deep-seated in the sacred legends of the human race.

(From Sunrise magazine, November 1978. Copyright © 1978 by Theosophical University Press.)


Sunrise Back Issues Menu