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Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Odin and Poetry

an introduction with a thesis; an essay without

Some years ago I heard William Arrowsmith deliver a paper on a poem in French by Eliot. [1] I had admired Arrowsmith’s translations but knew nothing of the rest of his work. His paper was in the form of a colloquy among a number of faculty members, each more or less representative of a recognizable type. His performance was highly entertaining, his drama was effective, and the paper in the end demonstrated its point no less logically and at least equally convincingly as most such studies.

Inspired, I later sent out a call for papers for an academic conference to be united by no theme but rather by a formal principle: each paper submitted should eschew the usual thesis/proof format and instead use any alternative form that might serve the topic. I noted that it seemed ironic, given the acceptance by critics of the significance in aesthetic texts of formal patterns and conventions, that they inevitably chose the same old pattern for discussion among themselves. [2] As it happened no one submitted an appropriate proposal. And I like all my colleagues continued writing in the manner I had learned in school.

Recalling this incident, I decided recently to try again to break the tyrannical mold with a more experimental essay on passages on Odin and poetry in Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda. This is a work which in spite of a good command of German and Old English and a year of classroom study of Old Norse I read in an English translation (the Penguin edition translated by Jesse Byock). My knowledge of Icelandic texts is broad but shallow, certainly not that of a specialist. Might I yet turn up something useful if I were to discuss the work casually, as though I were speaking to a friend over wine, not so much an innovative form in intention as no form at all? Or perhaps this piece would, without this preface, be indistinguishable from what seems to me the more conventional essay.

* * * *

My introduction above sketches what is still an unfulfilled ambition. As my monthly deadline approaches, I find the conventional form strong enough to continue to leave little room for alternatives. Noting ideas without preconception I ended with nothing finer than a list of data like that any reader might compile when beginning to study a work. Numerous theses might have potential dealing with the relation between poetry, suffering and knowledge, the roles of intoxication and of sacrifice, or the place of poetry in earlier societies and in the present day. Yet I have only a bag of notes. Is the thesis/proof model taught in English 101 inevitable?

Anyone with experience of the poetry scene either in print of live performance will be amused at the mention of “the bad poets’ portion” expelled from Odin’s rear while he is regurgitating the mead of good poetry for the use of humans. I thought of the opening of Juvenal’s first satire, describing the annoying proliferation of poets each of whom wishes to spout. Of course, I imagine we leave DNA behind on our excrement, and, like it or not, we leave a sort of genetic code of consciousness on our writing. Vomited mead is only relatively less disagreeable than anal mead. Piero Manzoni, who claimed to have himself produced the contents of the cans that constituted his 1961 work Artist’s Shit, said that his father had told him his work was shit.

Odin in the Skáldskaparmál is a culture hero. He is semi-divine and semi-historical in the Gylfaginning’s relation of his trip to the northlands, impressing the less advanced inhabitants with the splendor of his retinue, imposing law upon them, and founding the Yngling dynasty. He is said not to have created poetry but rather to be the one who delivered it to humankind. Poetry originated in a sort of dialectic, a play of opposites figured in the bowl of spit collected by the Aesir and Vanir as a ritual of peace resolving their differences just as poetry interrogates contradiction, ambivalences, and mysteries, and renders life livable for our species which often feels half-brute and half divine. Of this spittle emerges a seer, Kvasir, whose name signifies all alcoholic beverages and by extension the individual embodying by their intoxicating power with all its shamanic and convivial implications.

Of course, though old Germanic texts use the words for ale, beer, and mead inexactly, mead is made of the product of flower nectar which has been regurgitated by bees, and many people have made fermented drinks after chewing and spitting out the basic ingredient. [4] Drinking was an essential part of feasts in Old Norse society (called symbel in Old English and sumbl in Old Norse) and was particularly associated with verbal facility, and the convivial composition of toasts, taunts, brags, and verbal competitions. [3] Even in Valhalla the heroes drink daily.

The body of Kvasir is not, however, the sole source of wisdom in the Edda. Gjallarhorn, for instance, or “yelling horn,” which sounds as though it might represent poetry or music, is the source of Mimir’s learning, again inherent in mead. Odin is far from an omniscient deity. Not only must he acquire intelligence. As Odin is a seer this trade cannot fail to make one think of Homer, Tiresias, or the Graeae, and perhaps also of blues poets like Blind Blake, Blind Gary Davis, Blind Lemon Jefferson and others. To some the motif may suggest Paul de Man’s Blindness and Insight.

In addition the Hávamál relates how Odin won some wondrous mead along with runes, songs, and spells as well as a storehouse of prudential wisdom by hanging on the great tree Yggdrasil for nine days without refreshment, a sacrifice of himself to himself. Many have noticed the parallel here with the Christian crucifixion – Odin is even like Christ pierced in the side by a sword during his ordeal. [5] Surely it is relevant as well that Tacitus describes human sacrifices dedicated to Odin (whom he calls Mercury).

Presumably the import of such an episode is that, as the Greeks taught, “suffering teaches.” One might read Odin’s experience as paralleling the dangers of mythic quests or the grueling psychedelic experience of shamans. It is certainly the case that the Northern deities were intrinsically vulnerable in contrast to Christ who is said to have voluntarily assumed human limitations. Not only will they ultimately face defeat in Ragnarök, but on a daily basis the Sun is followed by the wolf Skoll in hot pursuit while another wolf Hati Hrodvitnisson chases the moon. Meanwhile the dragon Níðhöggr chews constantly at the root of the world tree. Germanic mythology is considered grim for good reason.

In pointy of fact, human and animal sacrifice is attested by many sources in association with trees. According to Tacitus human sacrifices were offered to Odin (whom he calls Mercury). Similar practices are described by the Landnámabók as well as by outside observers such as Ibn Fadlan and Adam of Bremen who states that at the temple of Uppsala in Sweden the victims’ bodies are hung in a sacred grove where the corpses of horses, dogs, and humans are placed “their bodies hanging jumbled together.”

The story of Odin in the Grímnismál presents a parallel to the ordeal on the tree. Here Odin is tortured and then bound between fires for eight days before the child of his tormentor King Geirröth Agnar brings him a drink which stimulates him to prophesy. When Odin identifies himself, Geirröth seeks to free him but slips on his own sword and dies.

As in all preliterate societies the poet was the repository of all information, the sole “library” recording all that was known of history, science, engineering, theology, psychology, the past, present, and future. “No one could ask him a question that he could not answer.” The Raven Hugin (Thought) and Mumin (Mind or Memory) sit on his shoulders in Valhalla, bringing him information about the entire world.

In the Heimskringla Odin speaks only in verse. The first king of the Yngling dynasty, he is presented in many ways as a mortal king, as indeed in the Gylfaginning as well, though he is always victorious and possesses magic abilities. Apart from supernatural powers, he is called “the cleverest” and is credited as well with having brought all the arts useful to people and having established a rule of law.

Odin’s poetic role, however, was passed on to his son, the oldest next to Thor, Bragi whose very name signifies poetry. Most probably the name is cognate with the English word “brag” due to the importance of praise songs. (One might compare the old Northern practice with the Old Occitanian boasting songs called gab or the Yoruba praise songs called oriki.) In the Sigrdrífumál runes are said to be inscribed on Bragi’s tongue as well as on such surfaces as a bear’s claw, wolf’s tongue, and eagle’s beak from which they are then scraped into mead which can then, like the Kvasir mead, be distributed to Aesir, elves, Vanir, and humans. Though Bragi excels in verbal skill rather than fighting, the same text says that a warrior should “winning-runes learn, if thou longest to win,/ And the runes on thy sword-hilt write.

Old Norse models impressed English poets at the time of Romanticism. Translations were published in 1770 (Paul Mallet’s Northern Antiquities), 1797 (A. S. Cottie’s Icelandic Poetry or the Edda of Saemund) and 1804 (William Herbert’s Select Icelandic Poetry). Carlyle’s 1840 lecture “The Hero as Divinity” popularized the Northern deities in the United States, and both Emerson and Longfellow had copies of Mallet and of George Dasent’s 1842 version of The Prose or Younger Edda. Longfellow visited Scandinavia in 1835 and published numerous poems on Norse themes. To him Hiawatha was “an Indian Edda.” Celtic, Germanic, and Finnish antiquities were often not clearly distinguished.

The Nazis made us of Germanic mythology in their propaganda, one of the odder results being the use of Odin as the true form of Santa Claus. To Jung Hitler was a sort of avatar of Odin. Yet today some white supremacist groups blather about Odin.

1. I find that Arrowsmith’s piece was published in The New Criterion, October 1, 2 (October 1982) as “Eros in Terre Haute: T.S. Eliot’s ‘Lune de Miel.’” Part of its charm for me was the performative aspect through which I heard it. I have not read it since.

2. I exaggerate here. Some of the most adventurous of the post-structuralist journals were publishing essays in freer forms, but these rarely descended from the empyrean to comment on actual literary works in a useful way.

3. Though the Hávamál and other texts also include numerous references to the debilitating effects of overindulgence. Odin’s good advice was doubtless often forgotten. As far back as Tacitus’ Germania the Germanic tribes were known for their heavy drinking. In Christian times the Gulaþing Law required farmers to reserve grain for major festivals. The word öl (ale) was used itself to indicate a celebration such as gravöl (a wake, or "funeral ale"), barnöl (a christening, or "child-ale"), and taklagsöl (a barn-raising, or "roofing-ale"). In the Eddic Grímnismál Odin is said to live on wine alone. Paul Bauschatz in The Well and the Tree discusses the early Germanic ritual feast.

4. This is the traditional process for chicha in Peru. Spit is particularly useful for non-sweet bases as its enzymes make sugar of the starch. Masato made from yucca and early sake from rice are among the many other drinks made in the same fashion.

5. The benevolent Baldr associated with light and love who is killed by a weapon of mistletoe is also a Christ figure.

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