Norse Gods bear famous symbolic wounds: an eye traded for wisdom, an ear given to hear the approach of danger, a hand to bind and slow the dire wolf of ultimate destruction. Each sacrifice is an emblem of their power: mighty Odin, who sees all in his high seat, is half-blinded; Heimdall the guardian of Asgard, the Gods’ realm, left half-deaf; Tyr the God of justice unable, forevermore, to swear by his severed right hand in court.
While humans certainly benefit, the scars that Heathen Gods and Goddesses bear are not necessarily made for humans, but for the Gods to become more themselves. They excel or prove themselves worthy of their Godhood in the act of sacrifice, inexorably transforming in the act of giving of themselves. They are what they are because they’ve toiled and suffered and earned it, becoming more holy in the process.
Like Nobel-prize winning scientists, artists par excellence and Olympic athletes, they understand hard work, and they fully know the worth, the ecstasy and the awe-inspiring beauty of greatness achieved through it. They are their own salvation and that of their community. That salvation isn’t free. The Gods give their all to gain, be and work wonders.
It’s an important distinction from the idea of grace. And it carries a wonderful, empowering dignity to it.
The Norse ethos functions on a strong concept of reciprocity: in a fair and just world, good should never be taken for granted, but repaid, allowing the peace, health and bounty of a community to keep flowing.
It runs on deeds. Deeds require work and the time to develop the accompanying reputation.
In a world of transient sound-bites devouring our mental space and rampant over-consumption raging through the environment, it’s important to remember the longevity of certain concepts– like the lasting worth of our actions and reciprocity. For nothing in the universe is free. Whether taken, earned, found or given, someone has always worked for what we have. Everything comes from somewhere or was made by someone— whether that’s in the slow, inexorable tectonic grind and molten heart of the earth’s core yielding mineral deposits, or the labor of our ancestors who founded the civilizations we live in, to the factory workers and farmers who provide our goods and food. We take from the earth in our modern societies, but rarely do we give back to it. We take, and in taking and taking and taking again, instead of giving, we weaken ourselves and leave a broken legacy for our civilizations’ inheritors.
Norse Gods do not grant grace, nor ask your personal gratitude for their sufferings, but in their preserved tales provide models of working with limited resources and overcoming the bad cards you’ve been dealt through grit, wit, and spirit. Sometimes that requires sacrifice.
Sacrifice is often seen, in modern times, as hardship endured for the greater good, while ancient sacrifices are stereotyped as some kind of Gods-mollifying bribe or payment. It’s rarely thought of as an exchange between your present self and your potential for greatness. Odin’s sacrifice “of himself, to himself” during a nine-night ordeal while hanging on the world tree brought forth insight in the form of runes. Runes are not only a magical system in which incantations were inscribed, but the Norse system of writing! (Using all the letters of the alphabet for charms, rather than a few of special significance, or certain magical words and names or pictographic symbols, seems to be fairly unique to Heathenry). As Odin is both a God of magic and communication, this tale shows his worthiness, through deeds to hold that honor– and a connection to the value of preserving the stories and records of deeds through writing.
I’m glad I didn’t have to invent writing. I’m grateful to the ancient humans who gave of their time to create a form of communication which never before existed. It can’t have been easy to either formulate the first systems that weren’t purely mathematical or to teach them. (“Look, this picture stands for this!” “Say what? That looks like— wait, is that squiggle an ibis?” “Yes! You know, ’cause ibis sounds like [insert fancy word concept]!” “Girl, have you been huffing the temple incense again?! How do you get [fancywordconcept] from IBIS?”)
I stand in awe of those first writers and teachers, and I honor their toil by the joys of reading and writing. I’m also glad that generations after them sacrificed their time to preserve that wisdom and pass it on. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be reading this.
Images by the talented Mary Evans and John Bauer. I highly suggest you search for more illustrations by both of them. Also, I like the idea that Odin was not always the old man, and much younger when he won the runes. Gods change and have lives, too! And I love Bauer’s line work!
For an in-depth essay on the God Freyr’s sacrifice for love, see Love & vulnerability in Norse myth: Freyr and the wooing of Gerda in Skirnismal.