Copyright © 1985 by Theosophical University Press. All rights reserved.
As we study mythologies in the light of the theosophic ideas we recognize that their gods are personified natural forces which are not static or perfect but represent evolving intelligences of many grades. Some are so far ahead of our condition that they surpass our loftiest imaginings, having in the past undergone the phase of rudimentary self-consciousness wherein we find ourselves at present and gained a spiritual stature we have yet to reach. Others may even be less evolved than the human kingdom. These would be on the way "down" toward matter, having not yet attained our stage of material development.
The Eddas' gods and giants are the two sides of existence, the duality from which worlds are formed. Gods are conscious energies, intelligences of many grades. They imbody in stars, planets, humans — in every form of life. This would include seemingly lifeless organizations of matter — rocks, storm clouds, ocean waves — that we do not generally think of as living but which, being organizations of atoms, possess the dynamism of the atoms that compose them, as well as their own unique characteristic structure and motion. The energies that supply this dynamism in the universe are the individually evolving consciousnesses the myths call gods.
The giants, their counterparts are inertia: cold, unmoving, unformed. They become matter only when vitalized and set in motion by the gods and they cease to exist when the gods depart. The time periods during which the organizations, organisms, are endowed with life are the giants named in the Eddas; this is to say they are the life terms of the gods as well as their bodies.
In many stories we find one or more gods traveling to the giant world, visiting some giant "to see how his hall is furnished." There is often a confrontation between a god and a giant who compete in the classic guessing game wherein the protagonists take turns posing riddles which the other must solve. The loser forfeits his life. The meaning of this contest is transparently an exchange of information for the benefit of the hearer or reader and symbolizes in a masterly manner the way in which a divine energy informs the substantial side of its nature wherein it imbodies; in return it receives experience of existence and broadening understanding. The ensuing "death" of the giant (which always loses the encounter) represents a change of state, growth, as the rudimentary material nature dies from its earlier condition by entering a more advanced stage of evolution.
Existence is apparently unending; entities are advanced or immature only in relation to other entities, never in any absolute sense either in time or in kind. Like the aions (aeons) of the Gnostics, the Norse giants are both worlds and time periods, as said; ages during which gods are imbodied in and interact with appropriate forms. Often a giant is called the "parent" of an individual, showing the properties of his age, as one might say a person is "a child of the renaissance" or "a product of his time." A shorter cycle within a greater may be referred to as a daughter of the giant, and several daughters would represent a series of cycles within a longer one.
When the gods form worlds and imbody in them they are said to be preparing the tables for their feast, for it is at the stellar, planetary, and other material "tables" that divine intelligences partake of the "mead" of experience whereby they are nourished.
In contrast to the giants, which act as vehicles or carriers of divine energies during the lifetimes of the gods, are the aions of non-life during which the gods are absent from existence, restored to their supernal spheres, leaving matter in a state of entropy. Such ages are the frost giants. They represent periods of inertia when no energies are present. During this total lack of motion there is no life or existence in the space so vacated; no atoms move, no forms are organized because no divine energy is present to give life to any beings. In Eastern philosophies such utter stillness is called pralaya (dissolution), when consciousnesses are in their appropriate nirvanas and matter is wholly dissolved. The only possible description of such a condition would be what science refers to as absolute zero (zero degrees Kelvin): total stillness, complete immobility, the absence of any kind of existence. To us it is of course a purely hypothetical state, unthinkable to living beings, but modern science approaches the idea of the frost giant very closely in recognizing that matter is the product of energies in motion — that without motion there would be no matter.
The Edda's Orgalmer (primeval sound), (1) like Brahma, the "expander" of Hindu cosmogony, is the first breakthrough of vibrant motion which initiates the formation of a cosmos; the final giant Bargalmer (sound of fruition), which is "ground on the mill" and "saved" for reuse, parallels Siva, the destroyer/regenerator. It would be difficult to devise a more effective description of the big bang and black holes of astrophysical science than these mythic names. They suggest the systole and diastole of some great cosmic heart, the former pouring forth into manifestation the energies that organize a cosmos out of chaos, the latter reabsorbing the life essences into the unknown heart of Being, leaving bodily spheres to dissolve, ground on the mills of the gods into the frozen homogeneity of the frost giant.
In any kind of existence, whether it be the life of a galaxy, a human being, or an atom, there is constant interplay between energy and inertia, consciousness and substance, spirit and matter, gods and giants. The pairs of opposites are forever linked, mutually indispensable. There could be no giant without its corresponding god, for it takes energy to organize the structure of atoms; on the other hand, gods need vehicles in order to acquire the experience whereby consciousness is nourished. Without material worlds of some sort, consciousness has no way of growing or of expressing itself. Hence gods and giants are forever mutually dependent on and relative to each other. So the mead of the gods is brewed in the giant Ager's brewhall (space) and served at the tables of solar and planetary systems. This is the Norse version of the Hindu thought that the universe exists for the soul's experience and emancipation.
In the course of ages the gods of the myths came to be regarded as humanoid personages; the Greek deities seem to have suffered most from this indignity, though the Eddas' too have been degraded with cheap ridicule in popular stories and commentaries. Their overlapping dynamic force fields and the gravitational effects they cause were depicted in popular stories as marital, extramarital, and incestuous relationships which have been judged as the misconduct of highly improbable deities by generations of laymen and scholars alike. The Edda itself gives an amusingly exaggerated example of this attitude in "Loki's Flyting."
Chief among the Aesir is of course Odin. As Allfather he is the divine root of every being in all the worlds, the essence of divinity present in all life forms, in the smallest particle as well as in the cosmos itself. When Odin visits the giant worlds, he rides an eight-legged steed named Sleipnir (glider), fathered by Loki, and he uses numerous names and epithets signifying in each case his specific mission. He possesses a magic ring which dispenses eight more like itself every ninth night. This evidently refers to proliferating cycles wherein each curl, comprising a number of smaller curls, represents recurrent motion in both time and space: the wheels within wheels of biblical symbology. This spiral design can be found among plants and animals throughout nature, from the atomic worlds to the great sweeping movements of stars and galaxies in space.
The primary and most comprehensive lay of the Elder Edda, Voluspa, is addressed to Odin, the divine pilgrim, who traverses the worlds, searching the depths of matter for experience, runes of truth. For Odin is individual as well as universal. On the planetary level he is the guiding spirit of the planet Mercury; he is at once the inner god of every being on earth and the divine messenger, Hermod, who is also his son and corresponds to the Greek Hermes.
Odin's consort is Frigga, the wise mother of the gods, a model of benevolence and custodian of the secret wisdom. In Norse myths she corresponds to the Egyptian Isis and also in other systems to the universal immaculate mother from whom all the energic causes of life (gods) emerge, or descend. Frigga is referred to as the one who "knows every being's fate, though she herself says naught" (Lokasenna, p. 217). Her power is equivalent to that of Odin and, though her influence is all-pervasive, it is never forcibly intrusive. We observe too that Frigga is not recorded as occupying a mansion (cf. Grimnismal) though, as Saga, she shares one of Odin's. We may therefore infer that while Frigga is the unmanifest, passive aspect of Odin, the wisdom of her eternal past in the form of Saga (cf. p. 87n), represents her on the stage of life.
As Odin occurs on many levels — as a creative power in all the worlds, the Logos of classic Greek philosophy, and also as the informer of human spirit — he is omnipresent and is to be found at all stages of existence, sometimes disguised, often under different names, but always recognizable. This reinforces the idea that the divine essence is present in all forms of life as well as being the only self-existent ideal in nonlife when the cosmos is dissolved into nothingness. It is therefore not surprising to find Odin referred to as Allfather and to discover him under one mask or another in every tale and poem. The most prominent example is in Voluspa where Odin is addressed as "all ye holy kindred" — referring to all life forms in a universe. In Havamal he is "The High One," in Vaftrudnismal he is Gagnrad (gainful counsel), in Grimnismal he is Grimner (hooded or disguised), in Vagtamskvadet he is Vagtam (way-wont: accustomed to roads). In Valhalla he greets his heroes as Ropt (maligned, misunderstood) and Nikar (ladler of misfortune) for reasons which will be explained (p. 79).
Another universally recognized deity is Thor, who corresponds to Jove or Jupiter of the Romans and in certain respects to the Greek Zeus. The source of all vitality and power, he too has many names suggestive of the different phenomena to which electromagnetic force applies. Thor is not only the Thunderer controlling the weather (paralleled by Jupiter the jovial and Jupiter Pluvius), he is also the regent of the planet Jupiter. When Thor goes by the name Vior he represents vitality, the life force that animates every being. As Lorride he is the electricity we know on earth and he visits us from the surrounding sky in lightning and thunder.
In the vastness of space Thor is Trudgalmer (sound of Thor), the sustaining energy (Fohat of Oriental philosophy) that organizes cosmos out of chaos and sets the galactic pinwheels churning. Trud or Thor is the impelling force which keeps atoms in motion and, like the Hindu Vishnu, maintains all things in action during their lifetimes. The hammer of Thor is Mjolnir (miller), the pulverizing force that destroys as well as creates. It is the electric circuit which always returns to the hand that sent it forth. Symbolized by the svastika, either three- or four-armed, it represents whirling motion, the ever moving power which never ceases while anything lives in time and space.
Trudgalmer has two sons: Mode (force) and Magne (strength), which suggest the two poles of electricity or magnetism on the cosmic level. Everything connected with Thor repeats the duality of bipolar power. His sons, centrifugal and centripetal action, manifest as radiation and gravitation in all forms of life. In the human arena we know these forces as hate and love, repulsion and attraction. Thor's iron belt forms the circuit for electrical current; his two steel gloves imply the duality of positive and negative polarity. His chariot wheels send sparks of lightning through the skies; for this reason, when traveling abroad he is unable to use the rainbow bridge of the gods, Bifrost, (2) as his lightnings would set the bridge on fire; he must therefore ford the waters (of space) that separate the worlds from one another. This apparently poses no problem to the god, so it is perplexing to find one lay devoted entirely to a rather monotonous exchange of braggadocio between Thor and the ferryman Harbard whom Thor is trying to persuade to convey him across a river. It is evidently a ploy to demonstrate the need of a conductor to convey electric power. (The lay is not included here.) On the planet earth Thor's action is served by his two adopted children, Tjalfe (speed) and Roskva (work), familiar servants of our power-hungry civilization.
Thor's beautiful wife is named Sif. She has long golden hair which is the pride of all the gods. It represents the vitality of growth as well as the harvest which results from it and, analogically, the evolutionary power and urge to progress that maintains the course of existence for all beings.
The solar deity of our world is Balder. He dies and is reborn daily, yearly, and represents the lifetime of the sun. This is a way of describing the ever new aspects presented with each cycle, major or minor, as the sun-god "dies" and is "reborn" with every rotation and revolution of the planet earth. The soul of the sun is named Alfrodul, the "radiant elf-wheel," while the visible orb is nicknamed "Dvalin's toy." As the physical sun supports our life on earth, so its vital essence sustains our spiritual life.
When the sun-god is killed by his blind brother Hoder (ignorance and darkness) — a moving tale related in Vagtamskvadet — Balder's devoted wife Nanna dies of a broken heart. She is succeeded by her half sister Idun who inherits her task of keeping the gods supplied with the apples of immortality. From the context it may be gathered that Idun represents our earth, while Nanna stands for the body of the moon which died a long time ago. In the theosophic pattern also the moon is the predecessor of our present living planet.
The planet Mars is represented in the Edda by the god Tyr — a word which means "animal," that is, an animate being, an energy, hence a god. Tyr is a heroic figure among his brother deities for having sacrificed his right hand to help bind Fenris, the wolf who, when set free, is destined to devour the sun.
The god of our planet earth, Frey, is the brother of Freya, the Norse Venus-Aphrodite. They are the children of Njord who is represented by the planet Saturn and who also (like the Greek Chronos) stands for Time. Freya is the patron and protectress of the human race which she wears on her breast in the form of a gem — the Brisingamen: the spiritual intelligence in humankind (brising fire, specifically the fire of enlightened mind; men jewel). Frey's wife is Gerd, daughter of the giant Gymer.
Among the gods a unique place is held by Loki. Having attained godhood, though of giant stock, he represents a most mysterious and sacred quality in human nature. On one hand he is the divine intelligence aroused in early humanity (the gem of Freya with which he is associated), and also the free will whereby mankind may choose its course for good or ill; on the other, he is the trickster, the renegade, who brings misfortune to the gods and is constantly being taken to task for his mischievous behavior, whereupon he is also the agent who remedies the situation he has caused. All in all, he typifies the human mind, clever, foolish, immature. When regarded in its most redeeming character, Loki is named Lopt (lofty) and applies to the elevating, aspiring traits in human intelligence.
There are many more gods in the pantheon, two of which require special mention: Forsete, justice, whose function in the Norse universe corresponds closely to that of karma in Oriental philosophies. Another is Brage, the personification of poetic inspiration, the wisdom of the skalds and divine illumination in the soul — of the universe and of man.
It is evident from the tales that Vaner are gods superior to the Aesir in a universe of many layers of perception, apperception, insight, and comprehension, where the greater inspires the less which are contained within it, in unending successions of hierarchic lives. The two classes of gods, Vaner and Aesir, (3) apparently correspond to the Hindu asuras and suras (not-gods and gods, the former having a double meaning: either beyond gods or beneath gods). The Vaner are almost always referred to as "the wise Vaner," and seem to play no direct part in the spheres of life. The Aesir, on the other hand, inspire living celestial bodies, the planets in space. Dwellers in Asgard (court of the Aesir), they visit the giant worlds, usually in disguise, or send emissaries to represent them. A clear example of this is the avatara Skirner — a "ray" of the god Frey — who is sent to woo the giant maiden Gerd on the god's behalf. Pure divinity can have no direct contact with matter but must be "disguised" or, to use a common electrical term, "stepped down" through a transformer or what the Norse myths term an alf (elf), meaning a "channel," a soul. The "disguises" of the gods are souls in every case appropriate to and characteristic of the mission in which they are engaged at the time.
In any mythology some of the most mysterious and difficult passages to understand are those dealing with the war of the gods. In the biblical Revelation it is Michael and the angels who battle the celestial dragon with his cohorts; in the Rig Veda the battle is between suras and asuras, and in the Edda the same cosmic forces struggle in opposition as the Vaner and Aesir. Because Western thought has been long accustomed to viewing deity as a single divine personage, the only level of life above man in the cosmos, the Aesir are popularly believed to represent a more ancient and the Vaner a more recent class of deities respectively. There are, however, strong indications that these two types of powers belong to different levels of existence, one superior to the other; they may also parallel the Hindu kumaras (Sanskrit virgins) and agnisvattas (those who have tasted of fire), respectively gods who remain unmanifest and those who have imbodied in material worlds. This is supported by the verse (25) in Voluspa which tells of the Aesir being ousted from their celestial stronghold, leaving the Vaner "victorious" in the divine realms. The fray, which triggers the cosmic force of Thor and a new creation, appears to be the result of the burning of Gullveig (thirst for gold) which, like the enigmatic Phoenix, arises more beautiful after each cleansing by fire, "hoisted on the spears" of the gods. Like the alchemists' transmutation of base metal into gold, this mythic theme finds ready response in the human soul. We recognize its application to the hunger for enlightenment in man, which in the gods results in the creation of a universe; it is the urge that impels them to manifest. Paradoxically, the thirst for gold has also the opposite applicability in our human sphere where it may become greed for possessions.
At the council of the gods Odin put an end to the deliberations: should all the gods atone or solely the Aesir? The Aesir, "defeated," leave the field to the Vana-gods who remain in their heavens while the Aesir, ousted, undertake to enliven and enlighten worlds. This seems to identify the Aesir with the agnisvattas because they energize worlds in the cosmos. It is their presence in living beings that arouses the nostalgia of the soul for its spiritual home. For the gods it is a sublime sacrifice instigated by Odin, Allfather, the divine presence in the heart urging to growth of wisdom.
Once again the gods take counsel: Who had mingled the air with evil and given Od's maid to the giant race? This may be paraphrased: "Who had given to a race of humanity the power of free will to choose good or evil, and the intelligence (the Freya principle, Odin's daughter and manhood's bride — the higher human soul) with which to learn and grow through these decisions?"
Who indeed? No answer is explicitly given but, bearing in mind the divine "renegade," it is evident that an aspect of Gullveig is Loki — the lower nature evolved to self-awareness and thence to divine stature from a former material condition. His impish tricks are characteristic of human nature, undisciplined and imperfect, yet potentially godlike. Loki nearly always accompanies the Aesir on their travels through giant worlds and functions as intermediary there. He represents the bridge between god and dwarf (the spiritual soul and the animal nature) in man and evinces a marked duality, torn between noble and base impulses. When Loki stole Freya's Brisinga-jewel, human intelligence was diverted from its proper goal and misused for base purposes.
A pact made between the Vaner and Aesir resulted in an exchange of hostages. (4) The titans Mimer and Honer were sent by the Aesir to the Vaner, who in return sent the gods Njord and his son Frey down to the Aesir. The Vaner soon found that Honer (intelligence on the cosmic scale) was useless unless Mimer (the protean basis of matter) was at hand to advise him (mind with no material field of action), so they cut off Mimer's head and sent it to Odin, who consults it daily and learns from it the secrets of existence.
To us the multilevel universe of mythic tales is an unaccustomed way of looking at things but it is implicit in most of the world's ancient cosmologies. Mimer alone has nine names on nine levels of life with nine skies and worlds. Other systems may use seven or twelve. Our western culture has limited the universe to three stories, with God upstairs, man in the middle, and the devil in the basement. This allows of no purpose for any form of life other than the human. All creation is beneath our own exalted state and evolving toward it and there everything apparently comes to a dead end. As for evolving consciousness and understanding, there is no provision for improvement or growth beyond the human stage, which gives us very little to look forward to and makes the concepts infinity and eternity irrelevant. In contrast, traditional lore postulates endless vistas of time and space, with life forms ranging through countless combinations of spirituality and materiality, where our world is a slim cross section on its own level. In such a universe one cannot automatically equate good with spirit and evil with matter; there is always a sliding scale of relativity where "good" is rightness, harmony in its own context, "evil" disharmony. The perplexing biblical reference to "spiritual wickedness in high places" can be explained as denoting imperfection in a spiritual condition or as evil relative to a superior state. Throughout the myths gods, and giants, energy and inertia, consciousness and substance, are inextricably linked, always relative, and not to be judged by our limited standards of good and ill. Yet they are constantly changing, growing from the less to the greater as the restricted expands its limitations, the self-centered becomes increasingly universal.
In Brahmanical literature gods and giants are also found under the guise of lokas and talas, among others. These represent the many worlds of manifestation, including the material world we inhabit. A loka is the upward-tending consciousness on any plane, the tala its corresponding downward-tending matter the terms "up" and "down" being of course symbolic. This interrelatedness of gods and giants in eternal opposition is well depicted in the Grimnismal which attempts to describe the "shelves" of substance that build the "halls" or "mansions" of their respective dwellers, the gods.
The explanation of the war in heaven must be left to each one's intuition. One discerns a progression of divine intelligences inspiriting material worlds, veritable hells to these benign influences, so that lesser beings may receive some measure of their enlightenment. This undercurrent of the participation of the gods in inferior realms for the sake of their denizens is strongly felt in all the god stories of the Norsemen (or their predecessors in time) and may well be the real reason these tales appeal to us and continue to be honored and retold.
1. Or (Iceland) or ur (Swedish) is a prepositional prefix for which there exists no adequate English equivalent. It means "out of" and connotes an emanation from some primeval root or beginningless beginning. (return to text)
2. Also called Bafrast, Bilrast. (return to text)
3. Singular: van and ass (Swedish as); r preceded by a vowel is a plural ending (vaner, asar or aesir). As also means the highest roofbeam of a house. May be anglicized as Vans and Ases. (return to text)
4. From the Ynglingasaga of the Younger Edda. (return to text)