Reflections from the Edge

Today I made my very first guest contribution to The Wild Hunt in which I examine the sociopolitical realities of marginalized identities at the intersection of spirituality. I share the impact that those realities have had on my spiritual path within Paganism, up to and including the deities and spirits with whom I work. My  identity as a Black Bisexual Woman is central to my discussion. Respectful thoughts and comments on the piece are welcome.

Reflections from the Edge can be accessed here!

lightning-962789_1920

Gerdr, She of the Sacred Enclosure

condesign/ pixabay.com

condesign/ pixabay.com

Gerdr is attested in the Poetic Edda and Prose Edda, as well as the Heimskringla. She features prominently in the Skirnismal contained in the Poetic Edda. In that lay, Freyr sits upon Hlidskjalf, Odin’s High Seat, and stares into Jotunheim where he catches sight of Gerdr within her father’s hall. Gerdr’s beauty is undeniable and Freyr is immediately love struck. Determined to wed Gerdr, Freyr sends his aid, Skirnir with many gifts to woo the fair-armed etin woman. Skirnir arrives and attempts to entice Gerdr one by one with rich and shining offerings of Freyr’s love. She declines each and every treasure and does not accept Freyr’s hand until Skirnir threatens her with a dark fate wrought by Skirnir’s own powerful rune magic. Then she offers Skirnir a horn of mead and agrees to meet Freyr at Barri – a sacred grove or island – in nine nights where they will be wed.

There are a few theories about the significance of Gerdr’s change in attitude toward Freyr following Skirnir’s threats. I prefer readings of the myth that suggest Gerdr made a choice, less compelled by Skirnir’s threats than by the future she planned for herself. I am also fond of the idea that Freyr’s nine-nights of waiting are analogous to Odin’t nine-nights hanging, i.e., an initiation. In any case, Freyr and Gerdr marry. Their myth is typically understood as a metaphor for the breaking of the cold, hard winter earth with the plow in order to sow seed and make the earth fertile in spring.

Skyrnir and Gerda (1920) by Harry George Theaker

Skyrnir and Gerda (1920) by Harry George Theaker

Generally, it seems that Gerdr is most often perceived as an earth etin, which is consistent with the lore we have about her. Her name appears to be closely related to the word garth and may mean something akin to “sacred enclosure”. Drawing upon this possible meaning of Gerdr’s name, her might may be interwoven with the claiming, settling, and cultivation of land. In the lore, Freyr seems to be the force, via Skirnir, appealing to her to choose the path of fruitfulness by actively cooperating in the process of settling and cultivation. Freyr is no bandit come to rape the land and make off with her resources; I think that this can’t be stressed enough, for Freyr has never made a woman cry according to the Lokasenna. No, Freyr is come to join with the land in partnership. He has no rights to the land, only privileges that she eventually grants, and that she may rescind at any time.

In my encounters with Gerdr between the worlds, I often experience her as self-contained and content with simple pleasures. I do not perceive her as glamorous but she is undeniably beautiful. Her will and might are palpable in each interaction I’ve had with her. When I come upon her, she is often tending her garden which is filled with an array of medicinal, magical, and simply beautiful plants and flowers. When Freyr seeks rest and calm support, he comes to Gerdr’s gardens, to the enclosure of Gerdr’s arms.

Gerdr has taught me a great deal about boundaries over the years. As Lady of Sacred Enclosures, she is quite concerned with what’s in and what’s out. During my time with her, I have adopted that same concern. Gerdr’s might says that it is not only fine but down-right good and necessary to have clear borders. Hers is might that has taught me when and how to establish and enforce boundaries, and with whom to establish plain old sky-high walls. I discovered great power in choosing who to allow and who to bar, who to partner with and who to send packing: Gerdr taught me well. She teaches me still. I shudder to think of Skirnir’s fate had Gerdr been less swayed by his “argument”.

In addition, Gerdr has taught me what it means to live in my own skin and take up my own space. I have been described as many things and reserved is often near the top of the list. At times I thought I needed to be more “out there”. Of course in some ways I could benefit from that change in behavior, but my reserved nature is by no means a failing. My reserved nature is very much interwoven with my introversion among other things. With that said, I am at home within my garden, and Gerdr helped me learn how to accept that important and powerful part of my personality.

And so I say hail to you, Gerdr, Lady of the Sacred Enclosure!! May your blessings grow well in the capable hands of those willing to cultivate your mysteries.

Dream Note: The Mead of Change

Last night I went to bed with Freyr on my mind and had yet another colorful dream. In it I was attempting to facilitate a blot for Freyr for an increasingly large group of folks (first about 5 then 20 then like 60). The blot never even began. Some of those gathered were distracted and/or fairly unruly. Each time I tried to call the folk to order many would attend to the task at hand for a few precious moments and then wayward others would descend again into disarray. When I first woke up from the dream I thought that it might have been a bad omen for a future ritual in honor of Freyr but as I reflected on other parts of the dream, I realized that might not have quite been the point of the strange dream.

A large part of the dream involved explaining the process of toasting the gods, drinking from the horn, and passing the mead onto others gathered. As a prop for my explanation I had a very large, very heavy, wooden horn. The horn was not properly shaped to be a drinking vessel. It looked more like a large and awkward version of an early trumpet-style hearing aid. Despite it being a hearing horn rather than a drinking horn I had filled it with golden mead from a bottle marked Svipal. As you may know, Svipal is actually one of Odin’s heiti meaning Changeable One. I have read through Odin’s praise names in the past but I have not studied and worked with Odin in even 80% of his aspects so the name Svipal meant little to me in the dream; I had not recognized it as a byname for Odin at the time, but I knew that it was important. It was after Googling it this morning that I situated its significance.

The horn was overflowing with the Svipal-mead I had poured in. Not only was the bottom dripping but the wide end of the horn was spilling a narrow steady stream of mead as well. I quickly tried to catch the spilling liquid with my mouth. I drank some in but I ended up with mead all over me as well. I remember feeling like I had something meaningful and valuable to share and that a subset of those gathered wanted to receive that gift, but others were not their for that purpose. During the dream the Svipal-Mead pouring everywhere just seemed like a big mess, but this morning I think I understand the nature of the mess. I think the mead was a loud indication that it is time for something to change in my ritual practice in general or perhaps in my blot facilitation in particular. In the dream while my attention was on Freyr the background clamor seemed to stress that I needed to change my perspective and change my approach in some way. Some were indeed there to honor Freyr and some were there for maybe unrelated reasons. Actually I recall two major groups of distracting elements. One was a group of women talking, laughing, and reading divination, and the other was a sprinkling of men beyond the main circle whispering to others within the main circle.

Maybe the rogue ones need to be addressed and specifically asked to join or at the very least not trouble the blot and its attendees. I have participated in rituals in the past (about three or four years ago) that attend to this sort of politicking but I have not integrated such a practice into my own work. Perhaps this dream connects with my previous reflections on the Jotnar. I am reminded of a common verse from Apple Branch Protogrove ADF rituals that I attended before the protogrove disbanded some years ago:

“All you of the Primal Dark,
Outsiders, Nightmare spirits, banes –
This tithe is yours, this offering yours.
Leave us be, pass by in peace, and trouble us not in our working!”

Perhaps with some minor modification to make it a bit more congenial it could fit snugly into my blots as a way to acknowledge the Jotnar and their might, show respect for their Work, but also invite them to pass by (or join in) in peace!! Thinking of it that way the gods’ presence in the dream makes sense, with Freyr the God of Frith, and Heimdallr as he who hears and sees all stirrings in the Primal Dark and border places, and of course Odin Svipal who adapts in all ways that are needed to stay The End.

The Jotnar: Primordial Powers at the Edge of Forever

In Norse cosmology and lore the Jotnar are typically envisioned as a motley race of powerful nature and elemental forces who stand in opposition to humanity and the gods, especially the Aesir clan of holy powers. Most people, especially those who consider themselves True to the Aesir clan of gods, cast the Jotun folk as devils in the holy war for human survival and continued godclan-hegemony. It is believed that by the might of the gods and the faith of their human kin the vile and destructive tide of Jotun power is held back.

Thor is often the poster child for the human struggle against the denizens of Etin-Home. The Red Haired Friend of Man with Mjollnir in his grip smashes the heads of any unruly power that rises to thwart human and/or divine agendas. Odin is the wise All-Father who gathers knowledge and know-how to better craft inner and outer institutions and systems to stem the onslaught of chaotic natural might. Not the least of his creations toward this end is an unrelenting sense of identity and community that appears as a solid line between any given “us” and any given “them” while also reserving for himself and a select few others the right to cross that very same “solid” line and/or redraw it in order to obtain more knowledge and know-how….because he knows that closed systems don’t yield much of generative worth. [Just to be clear, Odin owns a hefty portion of my heart. I love him. But I see him as a whole being and I refuse to resound his mighty names leaving out Bölverkr and others of his more difficult titles, or to pretend that the wyrd he weaves is all Bifrost and butterflies.]

Modern Heathenry in general is filled to the brim with a burning hatred for the very powers whose bones hold up human life (*coughs* Ymir) and whose myths show them to be plenty helpful and quite essential at key times. From my perspective the Jotunfolk are more than just chaotic natural elemental forces that need to be violently checked. The Jotnar are nothing less than the generative/destructive, evolving/chaotic potential of the worlds. The Jotnar are the primordial and primeval substrate, the seething cauldron at the beginning of time and they are the seething of transformative putrefaction at the end of days. They are the stuff of being and unbeing, doing and undoing. To pretend that the giants are simply an unruly race of chaotic elementals to be thwarted is to minimize their role in the Wyrd of the Worlds and deny their might. I would not be surprised if minimization, invalidation, and denial of their place as conscious, invested, and formidable powers doesn’t work more Ragnarok-level Doom than it stays.

Diana Paxson offered delicious food for thought (way back in 1992) in her essay “Utgard: The Role of the Jotnar in the Religion of the North”. In that piece she does a little comparative mythology and reviews key work by Steinsland to make the point that the Jotnar are important. She shared some support for the idea that at least a subset of the Jotnar received cultus in ancient times. In my opinion human beings cannot afford to ignore them or to pretend that they are of little consequence as long as Thor has his Hammer. I would add that we cannot afford to imagine that the end of days (as we imagine it in mind and in lore) is just a Doom and Gloom tale to add dramatic glamor to the traditions of the North. Everything that begins ends in one sense or another in one way or another. That’s a truth of the worlds we live in and of the cycles of creation and evolution, destruction and transformation. And just as the Jotnar wrote a chunk of the beginning, they will write a chunk of the end. And as sure as Choice and Will and Righteous Action are still a thing, we as human beings have to decide how we want to leave this iteration of the world.

Do we want to go out fighting? ‘Course we do! So we may need to redefine what fighting means. When it comes to the Jotnar most think it means offering them nothing, giving no quarter, boasting of their demise, and raising a horn that defines innangarth as not utgarth. But maybe Diana Paxson was onto something back in 1992: “Jotun myths have to do with creation and cosmic patterning. In recreating the myths we recreate the world. Along with the land-spirits, they should therefore receive offerings and honor.”

To a degree that begs the question though, is there a line not be crossed? Probably…that is if you don’t tend to recognize lines as somewhat useful but arbitrary things that certain people at certain time bypass for certain reasons. Hmm…to the Monsters-of-the-Ironwood-line. So I am reminded of something I read in an article by Raven Kaldera, a Northern Tradition shaman (that dude you were praying to Thor that I wouldn’t mention, yes, him). In his very controversial writings he described the Ironwood, perhaps the most infamous and reviled subsection of the Giant-Home in contemporary Heathen thought, as “…a sinkhole of magic.” He went on to say that the denizens of the place describe it as though it is radioactive and that “it creates both deformed mutants and gods; the monsters come out of there, as do the Jotun deities.” This description makes total sense if we accept the growing understanding of the Jotnar that I am arguing for in this blog post. As stated above the Jotnar and also their homelands by association are seething breeding grounds for evolution, transformation, and other brands of change and, on the flip side, pyres for chaos, destruction, and endings. So back to my previous line of reasoning, a part of what it may mean to stave off our Doom (to the degree that it’s even possible) may just be to appeal to and form remotely “good” relations with the very forces who would otherwise be in a *fevered rush* to work said Doom. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: everything ends in one form or another but there’s no need to race to the apocalyse-line.

Take an expanded ecological perspective for a moment. The Jotuns (even the Monsters of the Ironwood…perhaps especially the Ironwood Monsters) are a necessary part of the spiritual and cosmic ecology. They are as important to the harmony (though not necessarily light and rainbows) of the worlds as the Aesir and the Vanir. Perhaps Odin knows this. Perhaps he seeks out their knowledge, their wisdom, and their power for this reason. Perhaps he knows that they are the beginning and the end, and he knows they will be there in one form or another when it all begins again. Perhaps he knows this even with his head in Fenrir’s maw and Baldur’s name on his lips.

Jotuns are the primordial and primeval powers, the First Agents of birth, death, and rebirth. They are depicted as “evil” or vile or monstrous because their agenda (especially in the short term and mostly in the long term) is not our agenda, but their might is very much what we have needed, currently need, and will continue to need on one level or another. I have no idea what Diana Paxson thinks or feels now…and to fairly represent her words even back in 1992 she wasn’t necessarily talking about raising a horn to the World Breakers, but I echo 1992-her here in this essay and say let’s show *at least* a companionable respect for the Jotnar, and maybe even for the World Breaking Monsters among them percolating in the liminal spaces between this world and the next.

I know, I know. No one likes to hear that they are not in complete control of their wyrd fate, or that something or someone else holds “the power”. But in reality “the power” is an illusion and though Thor’s Hammer is quite mighty it is by no means the only salient might in the worlds. The truth is that we operate within and are a part of a dynamic system of influences, and “power” per se is always distributed in some way, whether we acknowledge it or not. Our human wyrd and the wyrd of the Aesir and Vanir is already tied into the wyrd of the Primordial Jotun Powers. Turning a blind eye to our respective parts in the Ragnarok dance just ensures that we all get our toes crushed…and, full steam ahead, the end will rage on anyway.

Personally I vote we change the tune at least a little bit and watch where we step.