We often think we are more knowledgeable than people of bygone times, and this is perhaps true in certain areas. A closer study of our forefathers' beliefs, however, shows a great deal that modern man overlooks, a philosophy that actually awakens profound respect for their comprehensive wisdom, a timeless knowledge of which the poet wrote "only the very ancient is perennially young," and which the Edda describes in the words: "Runes shall you find and read aright, powerful charms such as the father of wisdom incised and the gods concealed, carved by the voice of Odin." ("The High One's Song" [Havamal].) Kalevala, the Finnish national epic, calls it "the wisdom of the distant past, and deep words of the origin."
Even the casual student of theosophy cannot help but recognize the ageless wisdom in these suggestive remnants of the bards' art, for here the stream of wisdom still runs clear. Anyone who wishes to refresh himself from its flow can receive something of the indomitable primal power which is so beautifully manifest in nature. The Edda contains much wisdom for living, as does the Kalevala, and sometimes we also find profound science hidden in them. Space permits only a few examples, but let us see what these can tell us:
I know that I hung / in the windtorn tree / nine long nights / weapon-wounded, / consecrated to Odin / myself to my Self above / in the tree, whereof none knows / the root whence it sprang. — "The High One's Song"
The windtorn tree refers to the ash, Yggdrasil — the world tree as it is often called: Ygg is one of Odin's many names and means "the dread one"; drasil may come from Drasul, the name of the steed of Day which draws the chariot of the sun. Yggdrasil may thus be translated the dread one's steed." This tree of life symbolizes all creation and corresponds to the Hindu Asvattha tree and also to the sycamore tree of the Egyptians. The nine long nights refer to the length of time during which the windtorn tree has been in existence. "Weapon-wounded" reflects the suffering and its somber companion, sorrow, which are the weapons of the physical world, by means of which destiny transforms the imperfect into perfection — in brief, evolution. The expression "consecrated to Odin" implies the destination of the beings who are evolving: Odin is of course the Allfather, or indwelling divinity throughout creation. This verse is particularly applicable to the human kingdom.
"My self consecrated to my Self" expresses an extremely profound idea and implies that the road to perfection goes through the sacrifice (or making sacred) of the limited and personal to the unlimited and impersonal. Jesus expresses the same idea in the words "Whoso shall save his life shall lose it, but he who loses his life for my sake shall find it." According to the Edda Odin also sacrifices one eye at Mimer's well to gain a draught of its wisdom. The above cited verse contains a whole world philosophy. In this connection it is worth mentioning another remarkable hint by H. P. Blavatsky: "The Symbol for Sacred and Secret Knowledge was universally in antiquity, a Tree, by which a Scripture or a Record was also meant." (The Secret Doctrine, I:128-9; Hemliga Laran, I:152.)
The Kalevala also contains many similar passages. For one who has studied Hindu or any other mythology there should be no difficulty in interpreting the Kalevala's legend of creation, which relates how Ilmarinen, the divine smith, having first forged the heavenly vault, sets about forging Sampo, the magic mill which produces whatever is demanded of it and is the source of all created beings. The Kalevala's Sampo corresponds very closely with the Edda's mill, Grotte.
At the end of each day's labor the furnace yields a different product of beauty and usefulness but each one having a grave flaw, causing Ilmarinen to discard it. A crossbow, a ship, a heifer, and a plow were produced on the first four days, "fair to gaze on, but of evil disposition," and each time the smith "smashed it to fragments, cast it back into the furnace."
After these first four days of abortive creation follow three more, during which Ilmarinen did
Call the winds to work the bellows / To the utmost of their power. / Then the winds arose in fury, / Blew the east wind, blew the west wind, / And the south wind yet more strongly, / And the north wind howled and blustered. / Thus they blew one day, a second, / And upon the third day likewise. / Fire was flashing from the windows, / From the door the sparks were flying / And the dust arose to heaven; / With the clouds the smoke was mingled. / Then again smith Ilmarinen, / On the evening of the third day, / Stooped him down, and gazed intently / To the bottom of the furnace, / And he saw the Sampo forming, / With its many-colored cover. / Thereupon smith Ilmarinen, / He the great primeval craftsman, / Welded it and hammered at it, / Heaped his rapid blows upon it, / Forged with cunning art the Sampo, / And on one side was a corn mill, / On another side a salt mill, / And upon the third a coin mill. — Kalevala, Rune 10
Any one who doubts the allusions to primordial upheavals that have occurred on the earth or the legend of creation allegorized in this song, may if he wishes see it merely as a description of nature's way of working. Nature casts into the melting pot all which does not serve its purposes. If, like the ancients, we see a guiding intelligence behind the processes of nature, we draw the conclusion that evolution works consciously toward a majestic goal. That the ancients so considered it is evidenced by their custom of regarding all natural forces as divinely guided.
There are further interesting pieces of information in the mythology of our forefathers (Edda):
Five hundred doors / and forty more / I believe to be in Valhall, / Eight hundred heroes / emerge abreast from each / when they sally forth against the wolf. — "The Song of Grimner" (Grimnismal)
540 x 800 = 432,000. This figure agrees with both the Hindu and Babylonian accounts concerning the length of the current age or cycle. Further, the figure 432 is basic in the calculation of all such ages. This precise accord can hardly be a coincidence; rather it confirms the Edda's identity with the ancient wisdom.
In Kalevala we find the word marja (berry) from which comes Marjatta, the name of the virgin mother, who became with child from eating a berry. The infant disappeared immediately after birth in a mysterious way, and Marjatta set forth to ask of all creation who had tidings of her child. The first she met was the moon, who replied to her plea:
"If I knew I would not tell it. / He it was who me created,
Next she meets the sun and poses the same question.
And the sun made answer wisely: / "Well indeed I know your infant, / He it was who me created, / In these days of finest weather, / Golden rays to shed about me, / Silver rays to scatter round me." — Kalevala, Rune 50
Herein lies concealed another universal idea, the same that is found in the Christian tale of Mary and in the Egyptian legend of Isis and her son Horus. The father is the eternal, immutable; the mother the chaste heavenly virgin, and the son is the manifested worlds in infinite variety.
Viktor Rydberg pointed out man's composite nature in accordance with Norse mythology in his comprehensive work Germansk Mitologi (Teutonic Mythology):
One died "to Hel" and "to the grave" at the same time. That of which earthly man consisted, in addition to his corporal garb, was not the simple being, "the soul," which cannot be divided, but there was a combination of factors, which in death could be separated.
This has its explanation in the components of human nature. As long as a human being is living on earth these components are six in number: spirit — the gift of Odin; soul — the gift of Hönir; and the inner body fashioned in a godlike image — the gift of Lodur — and comprising also its growing power and its earthly form. Lit is the old word used for the inner form. On the appearance of the lit depends the appearance of the body. If lit is beautiful, the body is too and, as the lit changes, so does the body.
In the folk tales of Afzelius it is related how the thor-dyvel ("beetle") was held sacred in our land. If you found one lying on its back and turned it over, this act of kindness was believed to atone for your sins.
Whence came this idea? The beetle was sacred to Thor, who was in one guise the interceder before Odin, Allfather, but it is not only in Norse mythology that the beetle is sacred, for both Egyptians and Hindus regarded it as holy. In Egypt the scarab symbolized the sun, Ra. The word scarab means literally "the self-becoming." Scarab or Kheperu (from the root kheper, to become, to be reborn) refers both to man's rebirth on earth and to his spiritual rebirth.
On the subject of Thor, H. P. Blavatsky says:
Thor, the euhemerization of electricity, handles his peculiar element only when protected by gloves of iron, which is its natural conductor. His belt of strength is a closed circuit, around which the isolated current is compelled to run instead of diffusing itself through space. When he rushes with his car through the clouds, he is electricity in its active condition, as the sparks scattering from his wheels and the rumbling thunder of the clouds testify. The pointed iron pole of the chariot is suggestive of the lightning rod; the two rams which serve as his coursers are the familiar ancient symbols of the male or generative power; their silver bridles typify the female principle, for silver is the metal of Luna, Astarte, Diana. Therefore in the ram and his bridle we see combined the active and passive principles of nature in opposition, one rushing forward, and the other restraining, while both are in subordination to the world-permeating, electrical principle, which gives them their impulse. With the electricity supplying the impulse, and the male and female principles combining and recombining in endless correlation, the result is — evolution of visible nature, the crown-glory of which is the planetary system, which in the mythic Thor is allegorized by the circlet of glittering orbs which bedeck his brow. — Isis Unveiled, I:161
The above is intended to give a few glimpses of the profound knowledge and wisdom which is to be found in our Nordic cultural heritage. Much has had to be omitted but the interested reader can find more for himself. There is no dearth of material.
(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 1982. Copyright © 1982 by Theosophical University Press. From Teosofiskt Forum, 2:1, 1982. Translated from the Swedish by E.-B. T.)