Norse/Germanic mythology as the ancient northern Europeans understood it…
We’re all familiar with the pop culture depictions of Norse mythology that are shallow and trite at best, and often downright misleading. They owe far more to puerile fantasies of being a macho superhero than they do to the ways in which the pre-Christian peoples of northern Europe actually thought of themselves and their spirituality.
Even many of the attempts to revive the practice of heathen spirituality in the modern world suffer from similar shortcomings; many of these attempted reconstructions have unfortunately only reconstructed the most superficial elements of this ancient tradition, grafted them onto an essentially Christian way of perceiving and experiencing the world, and missed the bigger picture.
The Love of Destiny: The Sacred and the Profane in Germanic Polytheism explores this bigger picture. In this relatively short book or long essay by Dan McCoy, the author of the articles on Norse-Mythology.org, many of the recurring themes in these articles are explored in much more depth. The book articulates the heart of the indigenous Germanic worldview – the unconditional affirmation of the world as the very embodiment of the gods – and shows how the rest of that worldview is structured around that central idea.
To do this, it “translates” the narratives and images that comprise the pre-Christian mythology of the Norse and other Germanic peoples into the more familiar idiom of conceptual language, and contrasts this polytheistic mythology with the mythology of four monotheistic religions: ancient Judaism, Greek rationalism, Christianity, and modern science. It argues that many of the most taken-for-granted ideas in the modern world, such as the dichotomy between “good” and “evil” and the dichotomy between the “objective” and the “subjective,” frame their topics in counterproductive, monotheistic ways, and shows how Germanic polytheism offers compelling alternatives that are truly “outside the box.” Ultimately, it evokes a way of engaging with the more-than-human world that honors our inescapable and awe-inspiring entanglement within it.
See below for the Table of Contents and a sample section.
When you purchase a copy of this book, you help keep this site up and running, and I sincerely hope you feel that you’ve gotten your money’s worth and then some. This book was the result of several years of research, experience, contemplation, and writing. I wrote and scrapped three different versions of it before finally arriving at a version that I felt satisfied with enough to offer publicly. Hopefully that effort is apparent in the quality of the text itself.
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Tables of Contents
– Polytheism and Monotheism
II. The Origins and Worldview of Monotheism
– The Hebrews
– The Greeks
– The Christians
– The Scientists
III. The Sacred and the Profane
– Spirit and Flesh
– The Turning of Being
– The Eternal Circle
Glossary of Old Norse Words
This is the section “Spirit and Flesh” from Chapter Three, “The Sacred and the Profane:”
From a polytheistic perspective, the visible world is not a negation of the invisible world of spirit, but its fulfillment. The words that William Blake chose to end The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, “Everything that lives is holy,” apply to all that we perceive and experience, no matter how grand and luminous, no matter how vile and distressing.
In his unfinished masterpiece, The Visible and the Invisible, the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote: “[Ideas] could not be given to us as ideas except in a carnal experience. It is not only that we would find in that carnal experience the occasion to think them; it is that they owe their authority, their fascinating, indestructible power, precisely to the fact that they are in transparency behind the sensible, or in its heart… [The idea] is the invisible of this world, that which inhabits this world, sustains it, and renders it visible.” The intuition and imagination, far from being “subjective” and therefore of little to no consequence where the real is concerned, have an openness upon the real that equals that of the senses. The mythical beings, realms, and events that they perceive are not false or nonexistent simply because they elude the senses, but rather dwell within an ordinarily latent – and yet ultimately deeper – modality of the world. Nor should the senses be shunned, for that which they divulge is fastened to that which is divulged by the invisible components of perception. Perception’s visible and invisible parts cannot be isolated from one another; both are integrated into a seamless whole. Such, at least, is how we are surely to understand the Roman historian Tacitus’s description of the religion of the Germanic tribes: “Their holy places are the woods and groves, and they apply the names of gods to those hidden presences seen only by the eye of reverence.”
Despite its origins in the Latin word mater, “mother,” our modern word “matter” has been invested with connotations of inertness, insensitivity, barrenness. To call it “dead” would be to impart to it too much life – it was never living in the first place. Against this Cartesian tendency, Merleau-Ponty described the visible world as flesh, within which all of us visible beings are intertwining sinews.
There is a particular resonance with Germanic mythology in his choice of words. Before the world as we today know it had emerged, there was only the primordial chaos of Ginnungagap (“Great Abyss”). Ymir (“Scream”), the animating spirit of this void of undisturbed silence and darkness, was slain by Óðinn and his brothers Vili (“Will”) and Vé (“Consecration”), who then crafted the visible world from his flesh. As it is recounted in the Eddic poem Grímnismál:
Ór Ymis holdi
Var jǫrð of skǫpuð,
En ór sveita sær,
Bjǫrg ór beinum,
Baðmr ór hári,
En ór hausi himinn.
En ór hans brám
Gerðu blíð regin
Miðgarð manna sonum,
En ór hans heila
Váru þau in harðmóðgu
Ský ǫll of skǫpuð.
[From Ymir’s hide
Was earth created,
Seas from sweat,
Peaks from bones,
Trees from hair,
And from his skull the sky.
And from his brows
Made these blithe powers
Shelters for the sons of men,
And from his brains
The dark and baleful
Clouds were all then strung.]
Ymir’s tribe, the Jǫtnar or “devourers,” are adept at shapeshifting, as are the gods and goddesses themselves. One never knows when a falcon might be an incarnation of Frigg, a wolf an incarnation of Óðinn, or an eagle an incarnation of Þjazi. Þórr’s name means “Thunder,” and Týr’s comes from an Indo-European root that meant both “god” and “the blue sky.” The elements are permeated with divinity to the point that they are truly the flesh of the gods. And when the various profane and partial manifestations of the gods in the fleshly world are perceived with the “eye of reverence,” the profane reveals itself to be a vessel of the sacred, and, to quote Blake once more, you
See a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.