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Norse

Category: Mystic groups and systems

Between 790 AD and 1100 AD, various Scandinavian groups collectively known as Norsemen or Vikings were one of the most culturally influential in Europe.  The Norse spiritual system was part of that culture.  It is a fascinating mixture of both shamanic and mystic, such that in some areas one might be better classifying the groups as shamanic, but in other areas as mystic.  They were magicians and healers, particularly the women, the women often having more ability than the men. They used runes, and they wrote poems and composed music; Norse music was played on harps, lyres, pipes and flutes.  Their art was original and extremely beautiful and influenced Gaelic and Celtic art.  Chess was extremely popular.

 

Christianity tainted them with an unfair brush – and it is only now that we are beginning to realise just how unfair that tainting was.  Scandinavia was one of the last places in Europe to be converted to Christianity and the conversion was not without its struggles or victims.  The sagas bestow heroic status on anyone who resisted the change.  Sigrid, for example, the daughter of a Swedish king says in one famous saga that ‘I will not part from the faith which my forefathers have kept before me’.
Some of the old stave churches are decorated with Norse symbolism and little pockets of resistance were still being found right up to the 18th century.

The Vikings/Norse peoples were a society of raiders, traders, farmers and explorers. They were innovative and resourceful.  Their longboats were masterpieces of design; - clinker built [so light], easily navigable being double ended and shallow bottomed, under favourable conditions they could travel at 15 knots.  The Norse even trained ravens as ‘land finders’.

They had no system of central control but operated under a society of inter-cooperating clans.  The Jarls were the aristocracy in their society, the Karls were free men and women and the Thralls were slaves – enslaved via war or enslaved because they had broken the law. Their principle occupation was farming, mostly animal husbandry.

There was brutality, but then these were brutal times.  Families shared and worked the same farm holding, but family support was essential in the harsh environment.  Life expectancy was short.  At least half the Viking population failed to reach 20 years of age.  As a consequence, social customs emphasised loyalty, honesty, unselfishness and fairness, and punishments were harsh for those who broke these rules.  Great shame, for example, (nior) was brought on any man that harmed a woman.

History

The Vikings/Norse peoples rose to prominence after the fall of the Roman Empire.  Their trading empire eventually spread from Greenland in the West to the Black sea in the East and from the far north of Scandinavia well south into France.  In one of the ironies of history, the Normans who subsequently conquered the Anglo-saxons in 1066, were descendants of the early conquerors of Normandy, the word Norman comes from the French for Norseman.  Throughout this growth of empire, Christianity was spreading too. 

The Vikings attacked Lindisfarne in 793 AD.  They settled in Ireland about 840 AD, York was captured in about 866 AD, Iceland was colonised in 870 AD.  By 876 AD, the Vikings had started to settle in the North and East of England.  This settlement was generally peaceful, but a battle with Alfred the Great, the Saxon king, resulted in a Treaty which established Danelaw in this territory.  York [Yorvik] became the cultural centre in Britain.

 

But in 990 AD, the Jelling stones were erected to announce the first Christian conversions in Denmark – a conversion that was quite probably political and economic as much as religious.  The Norse people survived on trading – Vikings often wore crosses or carried Christian symbols in order to be able to trade in Christian countries.  It must have been a difficult decision, giving up your beliefs in order that your livelihood was not jeopardised. From this date not only do we see a time of frantic recording to preserve the old wisdom but a steady decline in that knowledge.  The glory of the Norse mystic movement was thus very short lived comparatively speaking – it went ‘underground’, as many mystic movements had to at the time.

Sweyn Forkbeard invaded England in 1013 and his son Cnut or Canute ruled from 1016 to 1035, but the eradication of all that was essentially Norse was inexorable, by 1015 it was complete in Norway, by 1164 it was gone in Sweden and with their culture, went their cohesion.  The Normans conquered England in 1066 and that was that!

Only those in Iceland managed to hang on a little longer.  The Viking sagas were written there from about 1180 to the 1300s, but after Snorri Sturluson’s death, the Norse system died.

Where did the Norse come from?

 

Although the migrations out of Scandinavia into Iceland, Russia, the North of England, Denmark and so on are well documented, what is less well documented is how those people arrived in Scandinavia in the first place. 

One of the fullest narrative developments of this is to be found in the fragment Upphaf allra frasagna which is thought to be derived from the Skjodunga saga.  It tells the story of the migration of the Aesir from the ‘South East’, somewhat supporting the current DNA based analyses which show the same physical migration. 

This is what a DNA map looks like and shows this physical movement from the south east to the north east.  This is the map of an actual person. Even though U5 is descended from an ancestor in haplogroup U, it is also ancient, estimated to be around 50,000 years old. U5 is quite restricted in its variation to Scandinavia, and particularly to Finland.


 

Spiritual or physical?

But the problem with all accounts of this type is knowing whether the account is physical or spiritual.

  The world map used in many of the accounts is a spiritual map.  The Norse used the T-O map, and the concept of The Three Worlds.  Thus South East may simply relate to the Cardinal directions  - a spiritual migration not a physical migration.  The terms Asia and Africa and so on then have completely different meanings spiritually.

Even the mention of Troy in some Norse works is a red herring. The idea of Troy or Asgardr is similar to the idea of a ‘New Jerusalem’, it implies a new system based on mystic lines, in effect the founding of a new mystic culture, not a place.

The Descent from the gods – Professor Anthony Faulkes
What is rather surprising about the account of the origin of Troy in the prologue to the Prose Edda, especially as the author used Trojumanna saga, is that it gives such a curious picture of the Trojan background, which lacks all details about the Trojan war and mentions none of the well known Trojan or Greek heroes.  Those names that do appear have no authority in any of the traditional accounts of the Trojan war…. There is not even any mention of the fall of Troy itself or the Greek invaders.

 

And this is because Troj is not Troy. 

Troj simply means ‘new beginning’.  In the story that describes this new beginning, Porr ‘kills’ his foster father. 

Here we are definitely verging on entirely symbolic and spiritual territory, the explanation of which can be found in the symbolism of ‘castration’. 

Simply put, one of the Intelligences agrees to forgo any chance of becoming physical by creating a new class of ‘Son’ who will found the new mystic culture we know of as the Norse culture.  It just happens that this culture is based in Scandinavia.

 So in reality we don’t actually know where the Norse peoples physically came from unless of course we follow the mystic thinking and say, they too were survivors of Atlantis, like the Celts.

Cosmology

the-great-sacrifice-1910

In order to understand the cosmology of the Norse pantheon one needs to understand that so deeply spiritual were the peoples of the north – Celt, Norse and Saami, Inuit and so on, that they made no distinction between the spirit entity without form and the human being with form.  Anglo-Saxon genealogies included the names of gods just as the Norse ones did.  

There was an Intelligence hierarchy and human beings were at the very bottom of that hierarchy.  Some human beings as a result of their progress along the spiritual path or their lines of descent and inheritance, were gods.  A god was thus, in a sense a spirit being who, rather inconveniently, had to lug around a body. 

 

The concepts and symbols of the hanged man and suspension were reflections of this understanding.  A god was half way between spirit and non spirit – an intermediary that acted both on behalf of humans and also as a messenger from the Intelligences and spirit beings.

All the spirit beings were recognised in this Norse pantheon – elves, gnomes, dwarves, goblins, fairies [white elves], and the Intelligences.

In Eddic poems adjectives such as reginkunnigr and godborinn are used of some heroes to distinguish them as gods.  Divine ancestry was taken literally, some people were divine.  Odin was divine.  He hung from a tree in the legend – thus he was symbolically a ‘hanged man’.  In the Norse poem Rigspula, there is an account of how the three classes of men – slaves, freemen and noblemen - were descended from the god Rigr.  As in Greek mythology, it is often difficult to know whether the figure has a form or not – has human existence or not.  Certainly, most of the stories are about the spirit realm not the physical realm.

 

The family of the Ynglingar, for example, who appear to have given their name to the place Jelling in Denmark, trace their ancestry to the god Ing or Yngvi, but we have no idea whether this god was a god or an Intelligence!

Snorri Sturluson cites Odinn as the first in the line of ancestors, who is succeeded by Njordr, and on to Freyr also known as Yngvi or Yngvi-Freyr.  Ingo, a shortening of the name is now a popular name in Denmark.  In places like Peterborough in the UK, a significant number of families had the surnames Jelling [or Jellings] and Kenning at one time, indicating a sizable migration from Denmark – probably up the Nene river, Peterborough at one time was much closer to the sea. I don’t suppose any of them realised they could trace their ancestry back to Odinn!

 

All three ruling houses of Scandinavia – the Ynglings, the Skjoldungs and the Hladajarlar -  together with the Volsungs, trace their ancestry to gods.  The Codex Wormianus [a version of the Prose Edda] extends the line further back and specifically mentions IntelligencesPlanets in this case and Saturn specifically.

There is an interesting adjunct to this.  Even though quite extended genealogies were kept, and some dynasties traced their origins to gods, not all did.  Some founders of nations – the Danr and the Norr, for example, were not given divine ancestry.

The final source of all the subsequent gods is thus the Planets and the Planets or Intelligences had different names in the Norse cosmology.  Thus the thunder God Thor is an Intelligence and he is the same as Jupiter, or Zeus.  Freya is Venus.  Woden is Mercury.  Tiw is Mars.  There appears to be great confusion in academic circles about the apparent use of Greek names in Norse cosmologies.  But in a spiritual cosmology where the physical location of an Intelligence has no meaning, it is perfectly possible for gods and spirit beings, Intelligences and so on to be shared.  Multiple names for the same spirit entity.

The Vikings believed in both Fate and Destiny and like the Greeks had personifications in the form of the three Nornir – women of Destiny, who decided when a baby was to be born and the moment of death.  The spirit realm was Asgard, divided into levels and layers.  The Elements were recognised and the bridge between the elements and the aether level and its pantheon of Intelligences.  It was depicted as a rainbow bridge – the Bilrost.  Just as the Greeks had a ‘palace’ for their Intelligences, the Norse did too known as Valhalla.  And just like the Greeks, the Norse had the equivalent of the asphodel fields called the Folkvangr.  The Valkyrie were permanent psychopomps.

 

When there is a thunder storm and I call out ‘All Hail Papa Zeus’, I could equally well call out ‘All Hail Papa Thor’ – he is the same Entity.

The introductory chapter to Trojumanna saga in Hausbok gives an account in which ‘classical’ gods are identified with their Norse counterparts.

The final part of this picture is the Aesirs.  There were twelve houses to the Aesir and without being too lengthy about the explanations, the Aesir were the Signs of the Zodiac – and the constellations which were subsequently named after these signs.

Twelve has subsequently become a very important number in Norse mythology and in the early days the whole of Norse society was organised around the Great Work and its twelve stages.  Thus in Snorri’s Olafs saga Helga, for example, twelve advisors to the king are appointed at Uppsala, and there are twelve spekingar in Heidreks saga.

Seiðr and magic

Seid or seiðr is an Old Norse term for the use of spells in order to exercise environmental control – in effect it is the word for magic and the magician. Magic played a very very prominent part in the Norse system, thus Seidr is key to understanding.  Occasionally the word is also used to include the ability to prophesy.  Seidr involved the incantation of spells – in Norse galðrar; sing. galðr. Old English terms similar to seiðr are siden and sidsa, “both of which are attested only in contexts which suggest that they were used by elves (ælfe)”. 

 

In the Norse system, the practitioners of seid were mostly women called völva, or seiðkona, lit. "seid woman", although there were male practitioners called seiðmaðr, lit. "seid man" as well.

The goddess Freyja is identified in the Ynglinga saga as an adept of the mysteries of seid, and it is said that it was she who taught it to Odin:

  One of the most well known Seidman was in fact Odin.

'Dóttir Njarðar var Freyja. Hon var blótgyðja. Hon kenndi fyrst með Ásum seið, sem Vönum var títt' 
'Njörðr’s daughter was Freyja. She presided over the sacrifice. It was she who first acquainted the Æsir with seiðr, which was customary among the Vanir'. 

 

There are hints here and there that the ability to make spells was looked down on by men as being 'woman's work' and not for real men.  But the main reason why this occurred was because men were useless at it.  If you can't do it disparage it.  Men did this about cooking too [woman's work] until they found a new term to use  - 'chef',  - worked out how to make money from it, and found there was a way to do it where you didn't have to use difficult things like measuring spoons and scales [sorry, my little joke]

In The Saga of Eric the Red, the seiðkona or völva in Greenland wore a blue cloak and a headpiece of black lamb trimmed with white cat skin; she carried the symbolic distaff (seiðstafr), which was often buried with her; and would sit on a high platform. In Örvar-Odd's Saga, however, the cloak is black, yet the seiðkona also carries the distaff “which allegedly has the power of causing forgetfulness in one who is tapped three times on the cheek by it”.

Another noted mythological practitioner of seiðr was the witch Groa, who attempted to assist Thor, and who is summoned from beyond the grave in the Svipdagsmál.

Almost the entire set of mystic movements and northern shamanic peoples from the Celtic to the Sami, from the Inuit to the Siberian shamans knew about spells, as such it is possible to link seid to the practices of, for example, the noajdde, the patrilineal shamans of the Sami people.

It has been suggested that during seances the seiðkona would enter a state of trance in which her soul was supposed to "become discorporeal", "take the likeness of an animal", "travel through space", and so on. [Wikipedia!]

Methods of gaining spiritual experience

Given that almost the entire population of the Norse were spiritually inclined, although levels of ability varied, what practises were used to gain this close association with the spirit world?

 

Adam of Bremen is often turned to as one of the oldest sources on religious practises.  In his Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum he claimed that men were 'sacrificed' every nine years at the magnificent Temple of Uppsala.  He never witnessed this event and assumed it meant literal sacrifice, but in this we have proof that the Norse did indeed have a Mystery religion.  The Temple was entirely decorated in gold, and contained statues of Thor, Wotan and Freyr, all seated in the style of the gods in the Egyptian Mysteries.  Freyr was regarded as one of the most important of the Norse gods being the god of fertility, his sister Freya was the goddess of love – Venus.  If we go to Adam of Bremen’s description we then have the ultimate clue:

“The third god is Frikko [sic] who bestows peace and pleasure on mortals.  His likeness they fashion with an immense phallus”.

So the Mystery religion was based on Sex magick and kundalini energy.  It may also have been based on Peaking.

The shamanic part of the religion may have been based on mushrooms [Amanita and psilocybe] and extreme emotion [the method possibly used by the berserkers].  They may also have used sensory deprivation – their burial barrows having a dual purpose.  They did not use mistletoe as some pseudo-shamanic books claim [which is poisonous], mistletoe was important for its symbolic association.  The Christmas tree is likewise symbolic,  although the Scots pine might have helped the Mystery ceremonies, for reasons that may become apparent if you read this entry.  A pint of Alba scots pine ale before the ceremony [I'm joking - or maybe I'm not].  

Poetry and sagas

 

The Norse heritage is very rich in poetry and sagas.  Although many sagas are now in prose form, there is some reason to believe that at least some were also once poems.  Before the Norse people became literate, poetry as a means of recording history was more effective than prose, being more memorable.  Of the two, the poems seem to have been far more important as a form of expression than the sagas.  The sagas were written down [or written] over a period of only about a century and a half , whereas skaldic poetry was cultivated in Iceland in particular, for nearly four centuries.

 

The immersion in spiritual values and the connection with the spirit world was so strong that virtually everyone in Norse society was a poet of sorts. 

In Iceland, if one wanted to imply that someone was extremely stupid, you said that he could not string even a verse together.  Poetry was regarded as a normal and universal ability, with different levels of skill.

Anthony Faulkes – Professor of Old Icelandic, Birmingham university
Poetry was regarded as a gift of the god Odin and conveyed by the drinking of a draught of the magical mead that Odin had rescued from the giants…. The origin myth means that poetry was seen as an inspirational activity and having divine characteristics …. Poetry and reason are complementary functions, the divine mead is, according to Snorri, given to both poets and sages.

 

Themes of love and grief

 

One branch of Norse poetry was inspired by very high emotion.  The two emotions that appear to predominate are grief and love.  Grief was not an uncommon theme given that there were frequent wars and the loss of many lives at sea and from childhood illness.  Love covered all possible aspects of love from adoration to lust, from unrequited love to spurned love.  As it is said ‘Music is the only form of ecstasy without retribution’, but the retribution generated its own form of inspiration.

Anthony Faulkes – Professor of Old Icelandic, Birmingham university
the preservation of various expressions of love – usually unfulfilled – of Viking poets both in sagas about them and elsewhere can be taken to be because it was held to be effective love poetry in itself rather than for its historical significance

 

Professor Faulkes has an interesting theory that there are definite links between the Norse poets and the Troubadors. 

He noted that the treatment of Viking poets in Icelandic sources had certain similarities to the way in which the poems and biographies of the Troubadors were celebrated in France – one mystic movement aligning with another.

Praise poetry

There was a branch of Norse poetry called ‘praise poetry’, anyone who had written praise poetry was greatly esteemed, simply because as a reciter of court poetry, he had shown he had been able to make his mark in, for example, a great foreign court. There is a political element to praise poetry too – a means by which political messages could be more palatably delivered.  “Thus an Icelandic farmer repeating Egill’s head-ransom poem in an Icelandic farmhouse could himself become Egill overcoming his ‘enemy’ and by the power of his words neutralising hostility”.  The poem was thus the equivalent of the political speech winning by the power of words and not of the sword. 

 

Poets held great power in their words, as the memorial of any king of whom they wrote lay in that poem.  Poetry could bestow or withhold immortality. Poems can tell us a great deal about the degree of power a poet had over the king’s destiny and his eternal reputation. 

King Magnus Olafsson of Norway was criticised by the Icelandic poet Sighvatr and reformed as a result. 

Egill Skallgrimsson’s verse curses of Eirikr bloodaxe were supposed to have been the cause of the king’s exile from Norway.

Mystic poetry

A third branch of poetry which has great interest is that of the mystic poem.  In many mystic poems, the poet employed two levels of dialogue, one gave the appearance of a normal poem, whilst at another level extensive symbolism was employed to express mystical and spiritual themes.  It is through this device that much spiritual knowledge was preserved.  Unfortunately as with many of these highly complex systems designed to preserve and protect, the meaning was often lost as the symbol system was not passed on.

Anthony Faulkes – Professor of Old Icelandic, Birmingham university
The verbal complexity of much skaldic verse makes it open to a charge of deliberate mystification and it is clear that poets and those who used the poetry were aware of this… indeed difficulty of interpretation seems to have been prized  … communication with their audience may not have been their prime concern.  In his description of poetic technique Snorri Sturluson more than once refers to poetic art as speaking in a hidden way, of the cloaking of meaning rather than of making it clear.  Kennings are often seen as analogous to riddles.

 

 

Given that the symbolism and the secrets were being preserved against the march of Christianity, and that already so called witches were being burned and the violins and drums of the shamans burnt, there was every reason to be cautious. 

When Snorri attempted to ingratiate himself with Earl Skuli of Norway by writing down a decoding method for the mystic poems, King Hakon ordered one of his followers to kill Snorri.  Snorri was found dead in his own cellar in 1241.

Dudo of St Quentin 11th century
An emissary of the Franks came to the Danes and asked of them ‘Under what name does your leader act?’ they replied with the statement  ‘Under none for we are all equal’, and when he asked ‘Will you bow the neck to Charles King of France and turn to his service and receive from him all possible favours’ they replied ‘We shall never submit to anyone at all, nor ever cleave to any servitude, nor accept favours from anyone.  That favour pleases us best which we gain for ourselves

 

References

 

Eddas

The two absolutely key texts that relate Norse mythology and beliefs are :

Both of these are available in translation in English.  Descriptions for these along with their observations can be found by following the links. 

Beowulf

Another key text that can be classified as Norse is Beowulf  -  the conventional title of an Old English heroic epic poem consisting of 3182 alliterative long lines, set in Scandinavia.  It describes numerous shamanic experiences from fights with demons to out of body flight.

Heimskringla 

The Heimskringla was written in Old Norse by Snorri Sturluson and is the history of the ancient Norse kings, from the mythical prehistoric age until the year 1177, with the death of the pretender Eystein Meyla. Interwoven in this narrative are a number of references to important historical events. Heimskringla contains the following sagas:

  • Ynglinga saga
  • Saga of Halfdan Svarte (Svarte: "the Black")
  • Saga of Harald Hårfagre (Hårfagre: "finehair") (died ca. 931)
  • Saga of Håkon Góði (Góði: "the Good") (died 961)
  • Saga of King Harald Grafeld (Grafeld: "Greycloak") (died 969)
  • Saga of King Olaf Tryggvason (died 1000)
  • Saga of Olaf Haraldson (died 1030), excerpt from conversion of Dale-Gudbrand
  • Saga of Magnus Góði (died 1047)
  • Saga of Harald Hardråde (Hardråde: "Hardruler") (died 1066)
  • Saga of Olaf Kyrre (Kyrre: "the Gentle") (died 1093)
  • Saga of Magnus Berfættur (Berfættur: "Barefoot") (died 1103)
  • Saga of Sigurð the Crusader (died 1130) and his brothers
  • Saga of Magnus Blindi (Blindi: "the Blind") (dethroned 1135) and of Harald Gilli (died 1136)
  • Saga of Sigurð (died 1155), Eystein (died 1157) and Inge (died 1161), the sons of Harald
  • Saga of Håkon Herðibreiðs (Herðibreiðs: "the Broadshouldered") (died 1162)
  • Saga of Magnus Erlingson (died 1184)

Ynglinga saga is part of the Heimskringla.  It was written in Old Norse in about 1225. Sturluson based his work on an earlier Ynglingatal which is attributed to the Norwegian 9th century skald Þjóðólfr of Hvinir, and which also appears in Historia Norwegiae. It tells the most ancient part of the story of the House of Ynglings (Scylfings in Beowulf). Snorri described the descent of the kings of Norway from this royal house of Sweden.

Other example texts

Of the remaining sources of information that are primary texts for Norse myth and legends there are:

  • The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki
  • The Saga of the Volsungs
  • The History of the Danes - Saxo Grammaticus
  • Seven Viking Romances
  • The Agricola and the Germania - Tacituis, publius Cornelius

Background books

Some background on the Norse and the Vikings is provided in:

  • The Eddas and the Sagas - Jonas Kristjansson
  • The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Vikings - John Haywood
  • The Viking achievement - Peter Foote and David Wilson
  • Viking Age Iceland - Jesse Byock
  • Vikings - Neil Oliver [based on the BBC series he did]

Websites and extra useful information

The Viking Society for Northern Research, is making virtually all its publications (and some other related items) from inception in 1893 to the present, freely available on its website.  Examples of the free publications available from this site include:

  • G. N. Garmonsway: Canute and his empire. 1964.
  • Sven B. F. Jansson: Swedish Vikings in England: the evidence of the rune stones. 1966
  • Gabriel Turville-Petre: Haraldr the Hard-Ruler and his poets. 1968.
  • Dag Strömbäck: The Epiphany in runic art. 1970.
  • Alistair Campbell: Skaldic verse and Anglo-Saxon history. 1971.
  • Folke Ström: Níð, ergi and Old Norse moral attitudes. 1974.
  • Ursula Dronke: The role of sexual themes in Njáls saga. 1981.
  • Anthony Faulkes: Poetical Inspiration in Old Norse and Old English Poetry. 1997.
  • Richard Perkins: The Verses in Eric the Red’s Saga. 2011.

Paintings

 

The paintings used on this page are by Nicholas Roerich (October 9, 1874 – December 13, 1947) – a Russian painter, writer, archaeologist, mystic and philosopher. 

Roerich was interested in both mysticism and mystic movements.  Born in Saint Petersburg, he travelled and lived all over the world in search of mystic movements, including places like Tibet; he died in Naggar, Himachal Pradesh, India. 

 

 

Observations

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