Standard Set 1: Basic Myths
- Describe and compare how the cosmos is created through sacrifice in two different IE cultures. (150 words min. each culture)
The Germanic cultures have a very good example of how the cosmos is created through sacrifice. In the Prose Edda, the story is told how out of Ginnungagap, the space between the lands of Muspelheim (fire) and Nilfeim (ice) we had a being, Ymir, form from melting ice. Out of Ymir, from his armpits and leg, were created man and woman, the first frost giants. Eventually, a man called Bor had three sons, Odin, Vili, and Ve. These sons then killed Ymir and out of his body they created the world. His skull became the sky, his bones the rocks, the flesh the earth, the blood became the sea (Sturluson 10-12).
The Roman culture has their myth in the form of their civic history. The creation myth for the Romans then will be the founding of Rome (Puhvel 146-7). In this story, we also see a sacrifice. Romulus and Remus were twins that were abandoned at birth and raised by a she-wolf. Eventually, as adults, they came to the point of having to found a city. They couldn’t agree on where to build it. They took auspices and while Remus saw birds first, Romulus saw twice as many, and they still couldn’t agree on which site was where they were to build. So, they both built their own city, and when Remus came to Romulus’ city, he mocked the walls and was killed for it thus deciding on which city was actually founded (Romulus and Remus).
These myths are actually not as different as they sound. The overall story being told is how “twin” is killed to form the world. Ymir can be taken back language wise to the Proto-German *Yumiyáz or twin (Puhvel 285). Similarly for the Roman myth, Remus can be traced back to *Yem which also means twin (Puhvel 289). The twin is killed by “man” which in the Germanic case is Odin, a god, or in the Roman case, by Romulus, the twin’s brother. This theme of man killing twin is a common theme for Indo-European creation myths.
- Describe the image of the Otherworld and/or afterlife in three different IE cultures. How may these images impact your understanding of your own afterlife beliefs and those of Neo-Pagans in general? (400 words min.)
For the Germanic cultures, there were multiple ideas of what would happen when you die. The ideal death for someone in this culture was to die in battle. If one died in battle, they would then go to either Valhal where they would be his adoptive sons (Sturluson 21) or to Fólkvangr which was under Freya’s rule (Sturluson 24). The Prose Edda also states that the wicked go to Hel (Sturluson 9) and later states that Hel is where those who do not die from battle go (Sturluson 27). Overall, there is really not much as far as descriptions for these places as they are only a minor mention in the Prose or Poetic Edda. The best description we have is for Valhal and that is described in Grímnismál where a large hall with 540 doors, and ever flowing mead from a goat (Larington 53, 55).
The Greek culture likewise had multiple ideas of where the dead go. The most common one that people think of would be Hades. This is a physical underworld ruled by Hades, similar to the Germanic Hel which was ruled by Hel. Hades was bleak, but it must have had some kind of fields as it was referred to as klutópōlos or “famous for colts” throughout the Iliad (Puhvel 138). We also have mention of the “Isles of the Blessed” for the happy heroes or righteous dead, along with the “Elysian Field.” These places were paradises for the dead. Overall, it was similar to the Norse in that you either went to paradise based on how you lived your life and died, or you went to someplace else (Puhvel 138-40).
The Indo-Iranians also have a similar construct. Here you find Yama, who is the “twin” that is sacrificed to create the cosmos, set with the task of setting up the otherworld by Ahura Mazdāh. This is again an underworld in its location, but it also is full of fields and trees (Puhvel 108-9). It is essentially an idyllic recreation of this world, with all the plants and animals, and none of the disease or disfigurements of this world (Darmesteter 2.20-43).
Overall, there appears to have been a general belief among the Indo-Europeans that there was an afterlife. There also seems to be a general belief in there being different place where one went when they died based off of either how they lived, or the circumstances of their death.
The modern Neo-Pagan beliefs on this are varied. The idea of reincarnation and karma are very common themes when talking about death and the afterlife. Reincarnation is not really supported much by the Indo-European myths, and karma is not really supported at all, but instead how you lived your life, and more importantly, how you died determines where you end up.
I personally am still not sure about what happens with the afterlife. Some days, I will agree with the idea of reincarnation. Other days I will believe in going to some place and never returning. The latter idea is supported more by the Indo-European lore than the former. In the end, I don’t believe it truly matters where I will end up, or if I come back. All that matters is that I do the best I can with my (current) life.
- Describe the raiding of cattle by warriors (or divine reflexes of this action) in two cultures. How does this theme reflect the culture of the ancient Indo-European peoples, and is this theme relevant to modern Pagans? (300 words min.)
For the Celtic cultures, the Táin Bó Cúailnge or Cattle Raid of Cooley, is the longest tale of the Ulster cycle. This story is about how Ailill and Medb, king and queen of Connacht raise an army and try to take the famous Brown Bull of Cualnge from Ulster to match Ailill’s White Bull. This lead ultimately to a great battle where they were fought by Cuchulain and eventually lost. In the end though, nobody won as the bulls fought and both eventually died, the white one by the horns of the brown, and the brown after killing many people of the land of Cualnge (Dunn).
For the Greeks, we can see the Cattle Raid in the tenth labor of Herakles. Here we have Herakles raiding the monster Geryon and stealing his herd of cattle, while killing him in the process. Herakles then had a terrible time of getting the cattle back to Eurystheus who gave him the labor. One bull was lost at sea, and he had to find it. At another point, the entire herd was dispersed due to an attack ordered by Hera. Ultimately though, the cattle were brought back to Eurystheus who then sacrificed them to Hera.
Overall, the general theme of the cattle raids is a story about theft. Usually the cattle is coveted and stolen. Then, the rest of the tale is about the battles for control of this cattle, and the ultimate disposition of the cattle, which in the two cases I have above, they all eventually die (Tufts University).
The stories in themselves show how important the cattle were for the people. They also gives us an insight as to how theft was seen. Theft was, much as it is today, not approved of. It was also in that time frame, something that was worth fighting over, and the raiding was not something that was approved of by the society. The stories also talk to the greed that leads to the theft. Mebd that the animal she is taking or keeping is not hers to keep. She then have to pay the price for her greed.
Overall though, these myths talk about, like many of the myths that are told, the social norms of that culture, and many of those social norms do translate into modern times. In modern times, these stories talk about, along with the morality of theft and greed, the right to defend your own property. In the Táin Bó Cúailnge this is exemplified by Cuchulain trying to protect the Brown Bull. In the tenth labor of Herakles, this is exemplified by the difficulties he has getting home, such as Eryx protecting the bull he finds and having to be killed to get it back.
- Describe instances of "freeing" or "winning" the waters in two different IE cultures. How can this theme be used to reinforce our current practices and cosmology? (300 words min.)
A good example of freeing the waters is shown with the Irish. Here Nechtan has a well that only he and his three cup bearers can approach. All others that approach suffer and are driven away presumably by some kind of heat or fire in the waters. Nechtan’s wife, Bōand, approached the well either to disprove that the well was dangerous, or more likely to cleanse herself after an affair with the Dagda. When she approached the well, she walked around it counterclockwise three times, and the waters rose up and chased her, forming the river Boyne and eventually killing her (Puhvel 279).
Winning the waters is exemplified by the Germanic story of Kvasir. Here we learn of the Æsir and Vanir coming to a truce in their war, and sealing the peace by combining their spit in a vat. So as to not waste the spit, they then create the man Kvasir out of it. Kvasir was the wisest of men, and eventually he is killed by dwarves. The dwarves then combine his blood with honey making a mead known as the mead of inspiration, and this mead is stolen from them by a giant. It is then up to Odin to win the mead back from the giant and bring it back to Asgard, and he did this through trickery (Sturluson 61-4).
Winning the waters and freeing the waters are really two different concepts. The first example is good of freeing in that it shows the waters being released out into the world, or freed from the confines of, in this case, the well. On the other hand though, the second example is about how Odin won back the waters that were in essence stolen from the gods. In this case, the waters are not released into the world, but instead are still held closely by those that won it.
Both of these examples can be used in our practice. The first story is talking about some kind of sacrifice being made to get access to the waters. To properly get the waters though, one must go through an intermediary, not just go and get them directly. This parallels what we do in ADF rather well. We are not the ones that truly own the blessing waters, but we make sacrifices and call for them from the Kindred who hopefully bestow them on us.
With the second example, this works very well when calling for inspiration and knowledge. I have used variations of the Kvasir story for calling for bardic inspiration in rituals. I can also see us using this story as a basis for calling for knowledge as Kvasir was the wisest man.
- Show two examples in one IE culture of a deity engaging in actions that are unethical or unvirtuous, and speculate on why the deities sometimes engage in this type of behavior. (min. 100 words per example)
The Germanic lore is filled with various deities doing things they should not do, and paying the price for it. One example is with the acquisition of the Necklace of Brisings by Freya. Here we find the goddess debasing herself and spending a night with each of four dwarves in order to get a necklace. When Loki tells Odin about this, he sends Loki to retrieve the necklace. Loki does this through his shape-shifting abilities while Freya sleeps. Once she awakes, she realizes what happened and confronts Odin, who gives her the task of starting a war, which incidentally will produce warriors for both of their halls, before she will get the necklace back (Crossley-Holland 65-9).
In that tale we see Freya behaving badly by putting her desires for property above the social norm. It is not acceptable for her, one of the most beautiful goddesses, to be sleeping with dwarves. She then has to pay the price of breaking this norm. Of course, we also have Loki behaving badly in that he was spying on Freya, and then telling Odin about it.
Another example from the Germanic lore is the Lokasenna. This is the tale where Loki crashes a party of the gods that he was not invited to attend. When he gets there, a confrontation occurs and Loki, who is obviously drunk, starts going on and telling all the dirty secrets of the gods until he is forced to leave when Thor returns (Larington 85-96).
This tale is an excellent example of how all the Germanic deities behave badly. First is the poor social etiquette by not inviting Loki, who obviously feels he should have been invited. Next, we have Loki barging into the dinner and breaking all the social norms for attending a party, specifically all the rules of *Ghosti. Finally, we have Loki exposing examples of how all the deities have behaved badly themselves.
Why do the deities behave like this? It is tough to say. I think that it is partly to do with the deities are not omniscient and act like humans, or maybe it is that humans act like deities. In either case, one mimics the other, and these are socially incorrect things that happen in all societies. The telling of the stories themselves though serve the purpose of teaching the social norms for that society.
- Explain the monomyth (aka "hero cycle") and show how it applies to a single hero from the IE culture of your choice. (150 words min.)
In The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell introduced the idea of the monomyth or hero cycle. This idea is that when one compares the various hero myths, they all fall into a similar pattern, or the hero cycle. The overall cycle that is generally followed is a three part departure, trials and victories of initiation, and the return and reintegration with society. These three parts can be broken down further, but not all hero myths follow every single part. The parts as he laid them out are the following:
- Call to Adventure
- Refusal of Call
- Supernatural Aid
- The Crossing of the First Threshold
- The Belly of the Whale
- The Trials and Victories of Initiation
- The Road of Trials
- The Meeting with the Goddess
- Woman as the Temptress
- Atonement with the Father
- The Ultimate Boon
- The Return and Reintegration with Society
- The Refusal of Return
- The Magic Flight
- Rescue from Without
- The Crossing of the Return Threshold
- Master of the Two Worlds
- Freedom to Live
The Volsungsaga of the Germanic people is a good story to look at the hero cycle in. All that follows is a summary of the various points above.
Sigurd learns of the wealth of the king and is goaded into trying to get a horse from the king. He is aided by Odin on the way but succeeds in getting an offspring of Sleipnir. He then hears of how is father died, and the story of Otter. He starts his adventure and first avenges his father’s death before going on the adventure to get the treasures of Fafnir.
The Trials and Victories of Initiation:
Sigurd meets and kills Fafnir. In the process he gains the ability to understand the language of birds and as a result of this learns that Reign was going to kill him, so he kills Reign first. He also meets the Valkyrie Brynhild and get engaged. Things don’t go as planned though, and he drinks an ale of forgetfulness and gets tempted by another woman, Gudrun, and marries her. He then goes on and makes a pact of brotherhood with Gudrun’s brother.
With the Ale having done what it was intended to do, everyone except Brynhild lives happily. At this point all the prophesies of the Volsongs have been fulfilled.
The Return and Reintegration with Society:
Finally, Sigurd helps out Gunnar and tries to get Brynhild for him, but she refuses. Sigurd then gets betrayed by Guttrom, causing Sigurd to return to reality. Of course this means that Guttrom has to attack Sigurd and they both kill each other. As Sigurd dies, he says that he has upheld his promises and oaths as best as he could. Finally the story goes on to tell the rest of the lives of the other main personalities until their eventual deaths (Byock).
The overall cycle fits the story, but it does become a slight stretch towards the end. The general cycle of separation, initiation, and return though is fulfilled in this story, and overall is found in most of the hero myths of Indo-European cultures.
Standard Set 2: Applications
- Using your answer to question 1 above (cosmos creation), create a piece for use in ritual that describes the process of cosmos creation through sacrifice. (no min. word count)
In the beginning, to the north was Nilfeim, the land of ice, and to the south was Muspelheim, the land of fire. Between the two was Ginnungagap, the void.
Now the fire and ice did meet, and the first melting of ice produced the giant Ymir, a truly evil creature. It was out of him that the frost giants came to be. A man grew out of his left arm, a woman out of his right arm, and yet another son out of his leg. These were the first frost giants of the world, and they lived and grew their numbers among themselves.
The second drippings of the melting ice brought to us Audhumla, the cosmic cow. She came and fed off of the salty rime-stones while feeding Ymir with her milk. As she licked the stones, she carved out the man Buri, the first of the race of man. Now Buri eventually begat Bor, and Bor begat the three sons we are concerned about here, Odin, Vili, and Ve.
These three sons, seeing what a creature Ymir was decided that he had to go. They fought and they fought. At last, Ymir fell. Then, the brothers seeing that there was only the lands of fire and ice to live in decided that a new land needed to be formed, and that Ymir’s body was perfect for this. So they fashioned the land out of his body. His hair became the trees, the bones became mountains, the teeth became rocks, and the blood became the rivers and oceans.
Finally, they took Ymir’s skull and created the sky, and had the dwarves Austri, Vestri, Nordri, and Sudri hold it up at the four compass points. They also directed the uncontrolled sparks from Muspelheim into the sky to become the stars.
And so was the world made by the sacrifice of Ymir by Odin, Vili, and Ve.
- Using your answer to question 4 above (winning the waters), create a piece for use in ritual that describes the winning of the waters. (no min. word count)
Give us the Waters of Inspiration
When the Æsir and the Vanir ended the war between them, they sealed the peace by mixing their spit in a vat. So as to not waste this, they fashioned a man, Kvasir, out of it, and he quickly became known as being the wisest man alive.
Kvasir would travel far and wide, answering questions. One day, he came upon the dwarves Fialar and Galar. They asked him a question and, when he was done answering, they killed him. Not wanting this kill to go to waste, they salvage his blood and collect it in two vats and a pot. The dwarves then added honey to the vessels of blood and they fermented into mead.
Now, this mead was special. It was imbued with the knowledge that Kvasir had. If someone drank the mead, they would gain this knowledge. They would become a poet or a scholar. This is why the mead has been called the mead of inspiration.
Eventually, these dwarves came across the giant Suttung. It so happened though, that the dwarves had earlier killed the giant’s father so he was out for revenge. He rowed them out into the sea at low tide and set them out on a rock that was barely above water. As they begged for their lives, Suttung was granted all of the mead.
The mead was then moved to a cave and protected by Suttung’s daughter Gunnlod. By this time, the Æsir have learned of all that has happened, and of the mead. Odin desired this mead so much that he went out in disguise to Midgard to search it out. Eventually he learned of it being with Gunnold and devised a plan to get it.
This plan started off with doing the work of nine men for the giant Baugi, brother of Suttung, in exchange for a drink of the mead. Baugi, knowing it was not his to give, promised to do what he could. When the time came, the best Baugi could do was tell him where the mead was, and aid Odin by boring a hole in the wall of the mountain so access to the cave could be gained.
Odin then turned into a snake and slithered into the cave. After turning back into a human form, he had to spend three nights at the side of Gunnlod before she would grant him three sips of mead. When he spent his time with her, he had his three sips, each one consuming a vessel of mead. Odin then high tailed it out of there by changing into eagle form and flying back to Asgard and finally spitting it back out into waiting vats.
So, to this day, the Æsir share this mead with those who are inspired in the pursuits of poetry and scholarship. We now call on the Kindred to share this mead with us. Imbue the waters we have with the inspiration and knowledge of Kvasir. Give us the waters of Inspiration!
Byock, Jesse, trans. Saga of the Volsungs. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Novato: New World Library, 2008.
Crossley-Holland, Kevin. The Norse Myths. NY: Pantheon Books, 1980.
Darmesteter, James. AVESTA: Vendidad. 15 Apr 2010 <http://www.avesta.org/vendidad/vd_tc.htm>.
Dunn, Joseph. The Cattle-Raid of Cooley. 1914. 10 Apr 2010 <http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/cool/index.htm>.
Larington, Carolyne, trans. Poetic Edda. NY: Oxford Press, 1999.
Puhvel, Jaan. Comparative Mythology. London: Johns Hopkins PRess, 1989.
Romulus and Remus. 10 Apr 2010 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romulus_and_Remus>.
Sturluson, Snorri. Edda. Trans. Anthony Faulkes. Clarendon, VT: Everyman Press, 1995.
Tufts University. The Cattle of Geryon. 10 Apr 2010 <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/Herakles/cattle.html>.