Before walking through any doorway,
One should look about;
One should peer around keenly:
Because one may never be certain where a foe
Sits within the hall before you.
–Havamal 1, Translation by Connla Freyjason
At face value, this may seem like an extraordinarily paranoid way of living one’s life. It calls to mind those warnings which now run at the beginning of a movie everytime we visit a theater: “Look around you and find the nearest exit; if someone behaves oddly, make your way to the nearest exit and move far, far away.” It’s a sad, scared world that we live in, and apparently, it was also a sad, scared world for our Ancestors.
But there’s far more to this passage than apparent paranoia:
It is also a reminder to take the time to pause in life, and take a look around.
How often do we rush through life, never taking a moment even to pause to look over the threshold of a doorway before walking through it? I mean, when was the last time you paused, say, before your own front door, and took a moment to look at the door itself, or the wreath or besom you may have hanging upon it? Maybe even took those few extra moments to turn around and look back at your yard, and perhaps notice a blue jay or a squirrel who has likewise taken the time to pause, and look at you?
It is a reminder to look before we leap.
How often have you gotten yourself in too far over your head because you simply jumped in with both feet before looking at all the angles of a situation? If you’re like me, this happens to you quite often! An important part of mindfulness is actually taking the time to “roll something around” in your mind and “peer at it keenly”. There may be pitfalls ahead that you might otherwise have overlooked.
And, yes, it is a reminder to always have an exit strategy!
Taking those extra moments to be mindful of the situations in our lives can also help us to “find the exits”, and form valuable strategies for when we need to “bow out gracefully” (or even not-so-gracefully). On occasion, situations arise where we need to disentangle ourselves–maybe even flee–in order to live to fight another day. Such behavior is neither cowardice nor giving up, but instead, saving face and surviving: sometimes, having an exit strategy is the only way to keep our hamingja (our reputation and legacy) intact. It might be what is necessary to prevent you yourself from becoming the enemy.
“Not bound to swear allegiance to any master, wherever the wind takes me I travel as a visitor.
Drop the question what tomorrow may bring, and count as profit every day that Fate allows you.” —Horace, Roman Poet (65-8 BC)
I’ve officially decided to become a Viking. Not in some culturally inappropriate “Brosatru” kind of way, but in the very real sense of what that word actually means. You see, to those uninitiated in Norse Culture, the term Viking has come to mean an entire cultural period and the Norse people who lived during it, when, in fact, it was originally a job title, from the Old Norse vikingr based off of the root word vik (creek, or river). The word could be used as a noun or a verb: as a noun, it meant a person who lived near a bay or harbor who sailed up rivers seeking adventure; as a verb, it meant literally to sail up a river seeking such an adventure. When I say I’ve decided to become a Viking, I don’t mean that I’m preparing to run out and buy myself a seax and the oft-misrepresented horned helmet and take up sailing! No, when I say I’ve decided to become a Viking I mean that I have finally realized that I am a man living by a bay (Boston or Salem, MA; take your pick!) who has decided to live every day, not in the toil of flogging a day-job, but instead sailing upriver towards whatever new adventure awaits!
Ragnar Lodbrok gives excellent advice for the modern would-be Viking in the History Channel show of the same name:
Don’t waste your time looking back; you’re not going that way!
Last week, as I watched my social media numbers slip while I took some much-needed time away to settle things here in “unplugged life land”, a rather catastrophic realization dawned: I have spent most of the past twenty four years looking backwards. Even at times when my afterlife has been its happiest, I have steadily cast a longing eye back on the “life I had before”, whether that backward glance was to remember money, fame, fortune, or the legacy-that-only-halfway-was. Meanwhile, I’ve been gifted, literally against all odds, with the second chance at life that I have right now, right here, today. Now, if that seems stupid to you–maybe even a little bit selfish–let me be the idiot who tells you you’re not wrong! Those backward glances have only gotten more frequent, as I have attempted to whip Iaconagraphy into shape as an actual business. With every single newsletter unsubscribe, every single newsletter unsubscriber who labels us as spam without ever even opening the damn email in the first place, every item that never sells, and the daily lack of any Patreon subscribers whatsoever, I look backwards, and contemplate how things might be different if I was still the me that I was before. But I’m not that me, and I can never be that me again, and honestly, I don’t want to be him again. I like the me I am right now, right here, today.
Looking backwards is just a waste of time and energy. So, why have I continued to do it? Well, there is, of course, that old saying: “Hindsight is 20/20“. But is it, really? For it to really be 20/20 (crystal clear; a perfect vision), it would have to not be tainted by our own perceptions. It would have to not be colored by our own baggage. And face it: neither of those two things is ever the case with us humans. As we go through life, very few of us “pack light”. Instead, we build up perceptions, and memories (both true and false) of how things once were, and amass more baggage than Rose in the movie Titanic! And then we look backwards while life is screaming “Iceberg! Right ahead!”, and wonder why we keep hitting the damn thing!
A Viking doesn’t do that; a Viking “packs light”. You cannot sail to the points on the map where it says “Here Be Dragons” while continually looking backwards. If you do, you will summarily be eaten by said dragons! I’m sure your average, every day real Viking had plenty of regrets, memories, and mental baggage, just like the rest of us humans, but the overriding and very real to them concepts of the Norns, Orlog, and Wyrd kept them looking forward, instead of backwards. In the mindset of the pre-Christian Norsemen, the past, present, and future were “ruled over” by the Norns: Urd (“What Once Was”), Verdandi (“What Is Coming Into Being”), and Skuld (“What Shall Be”). Now, their understanding of past, present, and future was not fixed in a linear conception of time like ours; instead, they held a cyclical view of time that included things that had already happened (and, therefore, could not be changed), things that are happening (which can change “on the fly”, as it were), and things that needed to happen (which might change or might not, depending on a combination of past, present, and what we moderns might call “fate”). Don’t get me wrong here: the past was definitely important to the pre-Christian Norsemen. Urd (“What Once Was”) served to define who they were in the present moment, and nothing and no one could change that definition, which was based on past actions, past occurrences, past battles, both won and lost (on the battlefield as well as in life). But they understood wholeheartedly that the past could not be changed, so why focus on continually looking backwards and fondly wishing for a change that could never come? Urd was (and still is) Orlog: the layers of that which has become, and those layers are set in stone. Orlog cannot be changed anymore than the modern laws of physics. Wyrd, however, can change. Paul Bauschatz explains in The Well and The Tree: World and Time in Early Germanic Culture that wyrd “governs the working out of the past into the present (or, more accurately, the working in of the present into the past)”. In other words, the past doesn’t just influence the present, as we understand things within our modern concept of linear time, the present can also influence the past. Since the very definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again, while expecting a different result, it therefore makes zero sense to constantly focus on the things that cannot change–by looking backwards, into the past–but much more sense to focus on what can change–by looking at now and looking forwards, into the future.
That does not mean worrying about the future, however! It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the difference between the expressions “I dread (fill in the blank)” versus “I am looking forward to (fill in the blank)” , but just in case you need a little extra help with those two concepts, here are their definitions:
dread: anticipate with great anticipation and fear; a strong feeling of fear about something that will or might happen.
look forward to: anticipate eagerly; to expect something with pleasure
Looking forward means going forth in life with exuberant curiosity about what might lay around the next proverbial curve of the river or bend in the proverbial road, as did the Vikings (the “job description”, not the culture, remember!). The Havamal, the “sayings of the High One” (i.e., Odin All-Father) given to us in the Codex Regius (13th century AD) has this to say about worrying vs. looking forward to:
The witless man is awake all night,
Thinking of many things;
Care-worn he is when the morning comes,
And his woe is just as it was. –Stanza 23
In other words: worrying is stupid (“the witless man”) and a waste of energy that only makes you tired (“care-worn he is when morning comes”), and accomplishes nothing else (“and his woe is just as it was”). Instead of lying around dreading what’s ahead, or even looking backwards at what’s come before, we should be activelyparticipating in our present, in order to shape our future:
Cattle die, and kinsmen die,
And so one dies one’s self;
But a noble name will never die,
If good renown one gets.
Cattle die, and kinsmen die,
And so one dies one’s self;
One thing now that never dies,
The fame of a dead man’s deeds.–Havamal, Stanzas 77 and 78
Orlog is fixed, that much we’ve already established. Up til now, however, we’ve focused on how that relates to the past. It also relates to the future: it is certain and unchangable that every man will die. (Take it from somebody who knows that a little too well!) It is what happens between those two fixed points (or, in my case, even after the latter) that matters! In order to gain a noble name, one must get renown, which requires active participation–getting out there and viking in the verb sense of the term. In order to be remembered for one’s “famous deeds”, those deeds actually require doing! Over time (and, I’ll confess, in a lot of ways, I am still learning this), I have come to finally understand that the point of death is not when your physical heart stops beating; it’s when you stop doing things in this world. When you are no longer actively participating in life, whether through constantly looking backwards, or through worrying about forwards, then you are truly dead, whether you’re clinically alive or not.
Choosing to live your life in such a way that you “go where the wind takes you” is clearly not for the faint of heart, but the terms Viking and bravery have become nearly synonymous with one another in our modern world for a reason. The actual maps of our world may no longer be emblazoned with the words “Here Be Dragons” in many places, but the maps of our lives most definitely are! We can risk being eaten by said dragons, by losing focus in looking backwards at a past we cannot change or wasting our time worrying about forwards, or we can choose to loose the sails of the present and actively participate in battling those dragons (and fjording those streams!), like Sigurd battling Fafnir in the Volsunga Saga. I choose the latter.
I’ve decided to become a Viking. I’m not wasting my time looking back anymore; I’m not going that way. Nor am I going to continue to lie awake at night, like the witless man in the Havamal, worrying about forwards. I am a man living between two harbors–Salem and Boston–who is striking forth daily on an adventure: the adventure of life! And I will sail upriver bravely, no matter how strong the current; I will viking (the verb) every day, no matter the strain, or the pain. Because if there are deeds to be remembered, first I must do them; if there is renown to be gotten, first I must get it. So long as we’re all still doing–still actively participating in life–we’re not dead yet, and it is high time I stopped living like a ghost, and sailed forward as the man that I am.
In a biological symbiosis one organism typically shores up some weakness or deficiency of the other(s). As in such a symbiosis, Odin the father of all humans and gods, though in human form was imperfect by himself. As a separate entity he lacked depth perception (being one-eyed) and he was apparently also uninformed and forgetful. But his weaknesses were compensated by his ravens, Hugin (mind) and Munin (memory) who were part of him. They perched on his shoulders and reconnoitered to the ends of the earth each day to return in the evening and tell him the news. He also had two wolves at his side, and the man/god-raven-wolf association was like one single organism in which the ravens were the eyes, mind, and memory, and the wolves the providers of meat and nourishment. As god, Odin was the ethereal part—he only drank wine and spoke only in poetry. I wondered if the Odin myth was a metaphor that playfully and poetically encapsulates ancient knowledge of our prehistoric past as hunters in association with two allies to produce a powerful hunting alliance. It would reflect a past that we have long forgotten and whose meaning has been obscured and badly frayed as we abandoned our hunting cultures to become herders and agriculturists, to whom ravens act as competitors.–Bernd Heinrich
I’ll readily admit that I’m in a bit of a “unique position” when it comes to this stuff, being what I am and where I am. Crossing over violently, as I did, apparently leads to a bit of a “shattering” of the four parts of the “soul”, as we understand them as Heathens/Norse Traditionalists. For those unfamiliar with the Norse concept of the “soul”, it differs a great deal from the view with which we are traditionally raised in Christianity, or even in other World Traditions, such as Buddhism. According to Norse Tradition, the “soul”, rather than being “one simple thing” “cloaked” (or even “carried around”) in an “earthly shell” (i.e., the body) has four parts: hugr, hamingja,fylgja, and hamr. I encountered the inherent truth in this Tradition before I ever actually knew anything about this “concept”, or ever had a framework of words to put around it. In fact, I didn’t gain such a framework until about a month or so ago when I picked up the fictional novel, Fenris: The Wolf and the White Lady by L.W. Maxwell. The way this author presented the fylgja in particular set me to digging deeper: finally, I had a word for something I had personally experienced! The research-journey since has led to the writing of two entries in the Heathen/Norse Traditional Devotional on which I am presently working, two pieces of votive art, two artist journal pages, and the blog post you are about to read….
Most Western and Eastern philosophies/religions have left us with a soul/body dichotomy in which the soul is one thing–who you truly are–and the body, another (generally treated as “nothing more than” a shell that the real us “travels” around in while we’re on this earthly plane), but the ancient Norse fostered a much more holistic view, best exemplified, I feel, in the relationship between Odin (representing us, as humans), his ravens (Huginn and Muninn), and his wolves (Geri and Freki). Rather than promoting a dichotomy of one thing versus or even within another, the Norse believed in a four part soul which included the Hamr–“shape” or “skin”–as well as the fylgja (“follower”; intimately tied to a person’s character and fate), hugr (mind; thoughts), and hamingja (reputation; legacy).
Huginn and Muninn are the ravens of Odin. Their names translate loosely as “Thought” and “Memory”, and it was said by Odin that he feared the loss of Huginn (“Thought”), but he feared the loss of Muninn (“Memory”) far more. Modern scholars have theorized that the two birds symbolize the shamanic aspects of Odin, and I find it hard to disagree: certainly, thought and memory are two things which become more vital (and perhaps more dangerously fleeting) with each trance-state journey. Some scholars have even drawn a correlation between Huginn and Muninn and the fylgja and hamingja, and while I can definitely understand the correlation between Muninn and the hamingja, I find it a bit odd that scholars have linked Huginn to the fylgja, rather than to the much more obvious Hugr. The Hugr would best be understood by us moderns as the “inner self”: a person’s personality as reflected in their conscious thought processes; very much in line with the oft-misquoted Buddhist ideal of “what you think, you become”. Meanwhile, the hamingja, represented by Muninn, is often loosely translated as “luck”, but might be better understood as “fame” or “reputation”: how one is remembered; their legacy. Therefore, Odin’s feelings towards the birds, as told to us in the Grimnismal of the Poetic Edda, might then be understood on an entirely different level:
“I fear the loss of my inner self and my individuality, yet the loss of my reputation and to be remembered ill, I fear far more.”
Odin also has two wolves: Geri and Freki. Their names translate loosely as “Greedy” and “Ravenous”, and are basically synonyms of each other. When we consider the theory of Huginn and Muninn as hugr and hamingja, together with Bernd Heinrich’s theory of these four animals together with Odin as a shamanic microcosm of the symbiosis between humans, ravens, and wolves, Geri and Freki may then be understood as correlating with the two remaining parts of the Norse “soul”: the Fylgja and the Hamr. The fylgja (literally: follower) is an attendant spirit which enters life at the same time as a human being, and often takes the form of an animal. This relationship goes somewhat deeper than what we normally think of when considering the concept of Spirit Animals or Totems: the fylgja is literally a part of a person’s “soul”; not something separate from them which they call upon, but something deep “within” them, or, more accurately “alongside” them throughout their lives. Its well-being is intimately tied to that of its owner—if the fylgja dies, its owner does also. Its character and form are also closely tied to the character of its owner: for example, a person with a very primal nature (and possible anger-management issues!) might have a wolf (Note: personal gnosis has also suggested wolf as the fylgja of extremely loyal, family-oriented people) as their fylgja, while a person who is extremely sensual might have a cat. The Hamr (literally: skin or shape) is a person’s form or appearance. Generally in both Eastern and Western Traditions, the physical shape of a person is viewed as something that is more of a “vessel” carrying the soul, rather than a part of it, but the Norse have a different view (and, by my experience, a much more accurate one): your physical appearance in the physical world is part of what makes you you, therefore, it’s as much a part of your “soul” as your mind (Hugr), your character (and the fate that is tied to it) (Fylgja), or your legacy (Hamingja). Those who are deeply in touch with their Hamr are also those most likely to be gifted with the art of shapeshifting. The process of doing so is called skipta homum (“changing hamr”) and those who are so-gifted are said to be hamramr (“of strong hamr”). So beyond the obvious associations of shapeshifting (face it, most of us immediately think “werewolf” when we hear that word!), why should Geri and Freki be associated with the Fylgja and the Hamr? Because Fylgja and Hamr are the two physical aspects of the Norse “soul”, while Hugr and Hamingja are the mental aspects; earthly animals, such as wolves, are most often associated with the element of Earth, and, therefore with physicality, while birds, such as ravens, are most often associated with the element of Air and with the mind.
So how do all of these disparate parts fit together in the microcosm of a human being, or even in the shamanic microcosm of Odin? Let us begin with Grimnismal in the Poetic Edda, before discussing my own personal gnosis as it relates to this topic:
Freki and Geri does Heerfather feed,
The far-famed fighter of old:
But on wine alone does the weapon-decked god,
Othin, forever live.
O’er Mithgarth Hugin and Munin both
Each day set forth to fly;
For Hugin I fear lest he come not home,
But for Munin my care is more.
First, in these passages we are told explicitly that Odin’s relationship to both the wolves and the ravens is symbiotic: he feeds the wolves with physical food, but does not eat it himself; he sends his ravens forth to fly, but then fears for their return. The wolves do not eat of their own accord, nor do the ravens just “go off flying” without first being “set forth to fly”. Odin–the central “identity”, which can be understood as a person who is whole, or “in their own totality” (to put it in a rather Buddhist/Taoist fashion)–is responsible for both. Each “part” builds on the other in order to form a whole; a microcosm, if you will. Fylgja and Hamr are fed by the central “identity”, rather than feeding it; Hugr and Hamingja do not “go off flying” of their own accord, but rather are “set forth to fly” by the central “identity”.
Given all of that, let’s consider for a moment what this tells us about the average person who isn’t either Odin or a shaman, and their “soul”, from a Norse perspective. Considering yourself–the you that is “in their own totality” as a whole being; what might be best defined as your True Self–as the central “identity”, as Odin is in the previous passages from Grimnismal, do you feed your fylgja and hamr, or do they feed you? How can you tell which is the case? The person who goes through life constantly worrying about their fate, as though it is something they can actually control, constantly changing their behavior, and perhaps even their overall character, according to what society dictates, and, therefore, spending most of their lives with a highly detached feeling of “who the heck am I?” is being fed by their fylgja, rather than being the feeder of it. The person struggling with issues such as body dysmorphia, or who somehow feels that their physical form is the complete definition of who they are is likewise being fed by the hamr, instead of being the feeder of it. Again, considering yourself as the central “identity”, as Odin in the previous passages from the Grimnismal, do your hugr and hamingja just “go off flying” of their own accord, or do you “set them forth to fly”? Listening to “negative self talk” (or even external negative opinions) to the point that you “believe the hype” and let that dictate your actions is an example of letting your hugr “fly off on its own”, rather than you “setting it forth to fly”. Not believing in your own legacy-to-the-world, and or getting so caught up in attempting to build a reputation that doing so curtails the normal living of life is likewise an example of your hamingja “flying off on its own”, rather than you “setting it forth to fly”.
One part of this microcosm cannot survive without the other three: fylgja, hamr, hugr, or hamingja on its own throws the “totality” of a person completely off-balance, to the point that they are no longer truly themselves, in life, or even in death. This is the point where my own personal gnosis enters the discussion, so if you are put off by such things, consider yourself duly warned! I began my introduction to “life on the other side” violently (and, no, I will not give details), and at first, I found myself completely expressed as fylgja, in the form of a Raven. Coming from a Buddhist/Taoist and sometimes Christian perspective at that time, I had absolutely zero clue what the heck was happening to me. It was frightening, as I guess death is supposed to be, but on an even deeper level than what one might expect because I had no spiritual framework in which to place what I was experiencing. I knew there was more to me than “just a bird”, but try as I might, I couldn’t seem to get a handle on my physical shape (hamr), or even on the thoughts that had previously defined me as a person (hugr) or the legacy that I deeply knew I was leaving behind in the wake of my “untimely demise” (hamingja). I was in a place where my fate–as a “newly dead guy”–overrode every other aspect of my identity as who I am “in my own totality”. Thankfully, I was able to find some assistance with all of that, through contact with a young woman who had no clue at that time that she might even be a shamanic medium. Through attempting to explain to her who the heck I was (and why part of the time I appeared to her as a bird, and part of the time in my physical shape), I was able to regain a handle on my hugr–the thoughts that define me as, well, me–and also my hamr–my “normal” physical shape, who she could recognize. But it has taken me twenty-four years to get a handle on the final piece of that puzzle: my hamingja. A lot of that struggle has had to do with the hard-to-put-down belief that my legacy–my reputation–was the one I had left behind, rather than the one I am building every day right now, thanks to her, and to the work that I do here at Iaconagraphy. Of all the four pieces of the Norse “soul”, the hamingja might be the one that can come to confuse us the most, because we tend to think of being remembered in the past tense, but the truth of the matter is, our legacies are living things, and so long as we are still building one, no matter which “side” we’re on–physically clinically living or physically clinically dead–we are still alive.
I am well aware that not all of you reading this are Heathen/Norse Traditionalists; I am even more well aware that, for some of you, the very fact and nature of my personal existence may require more than just a simple “suspension of disbelief”, but I hope that this discussion–however brief–of the Norse concept of a four part “soul” can perhaps inspire even those of you for whom that is the case to start an inner dialogue about whether it is better to go through life with a view of the soul that promotes a drastic dichotomy (soul/body; soul vs. body; body vs. soul; spiritual vs. physical; physical vs. spiritual), or with a view that is decidedly more holistic. For the Norse view of the “soul” draws no such separations between the physical and the spiritual, but instead invites us into a much larger world: the same larger world to which we strive to open a door with everything we do here at Iaconagraphy.