Charm of the Ancient Enchantress: The Evolution of the Dangerous Woman

Although this month I have spoken about the Ancient Greek femme fatales starting from the sirens to Aphrodite herself, the trope did not stop there. We can also find an example in the Gospel of Matthew (14:6–9), “… on Herod’s birthday, the daughter of Herodias (Salome) danced before them: and pleased Herod. Whereupon he promised with an oath, to give her whatsoever she would ask of him. But she being instructed before by her mother, said: Give me here in a dish the head of John the Baptist. And the king was struck sad: yet because of his oath, and for them that sat with him at table, he commanded it to be given. And he sent, and beheaded John in the prison.”

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“Lady Lilith”, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The independent and mysterious women that I have spoken about this month evolved to what we know as a “femme fatale” who often portrayed as a seductress, even to the point of having some sort of mystical power as an enchantress. She is a stock character of a mysterious and seductive woman whose charms ensnare her lovers, often leading them into compromising, dangerous and deadly situations. Her ability to enchant and hypnotise her victim with a spell was in the earliest stories seen as being literally supernatural as who could even imagine the all-powerful hero succumb into an embrace of a “normal” woman? Hence, the femme fatale today is still often described as having a power akin to an enchantress, vampire, witch or demon to actually have power over men.

The femme fatale achieves her hidden purpose by using feminine wiles such as beauty, charm and sexual allure. One of the most common traits of the femme fatale includes promiscuity and the “rejection of motherhood”. However, as proven by Aphrodite, a woman can be a femme fatale and a mother. It is just that motherhood does not seem to take the centre stage of her life as she goes about in her adventures and interests. This is seen as one of her most threatening qualities since “by denying his immortality and his posterity, it leads to the ultimate destruction of the male.” Again, this quality of the femme fatale that leads to the ultimate destruction of the male leaves some room for questions as, often, the femme fatale is not the one who made the first move and pursues the male. It was the male who came to her island, eat her food and erected temples in her name. So was it not the man’s desires that led to his own destruction? Another illustration of this is presented to us by the story of Shiva and Mohini.

In Hindu mythology, Mohini, a goddess who is the only female avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu, is portrayed as a femme fatale, an enchantress who maddens lovers and leads them to their doom. She is worshipped throughout Indian culture, especially in Western India where temples are devoted to her depicted as Mahalasa, the consort of Khandoba, a regional avatar of Shiva.

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“Mohini” by
Raja Ravi Varma

In the southern version of the Bhagavata Purana, after Vishnu deceives the demons by his Mohini form, Shiva sees Mohini for the first time. Shiva is overcome by Kama (love and desire), becomes “bereft of shame and robbed by her of good sense.” He runs crazily behind enchanting form, while his wife Parvati looks on.

The Tripurarahasya, a south Indian Shakta text, says that when Shiva wishes to see Vishnu’s Mohini form again, Vishnu fears that he may be burned to ashes like Kamadeva by the supreme ascetic Shiva. So, Vishnu prays to goddess Tripura, who grants half of her beauty to Vishnu, begetting the Mohini-form. As Shiva touches Mohini, his energy spills from his eyes, indicating a loss of the merit gained through of all his austerities.

In the Brahmanda Purana when the wandering sage Narada tells Shiva about Vishnu’s Mohini form that deluded the demons, Shiva dismisses him. Shiva and his wife Parvati go to Vishnu’s home. Shiva asks him to take on the Mohini form again so he can see the actual transformation for himself. Vishnu again meditates on the Goddess of Shri Lalita Mahatripurasundari and transforms himself into Mohini. Again, overcome by desire, Shiva embraces Mohini to discharge his seed from his eyes which falls on the ground leading to the birth the god Maha-Shasta (“The Great Teacher”). Mohini disappears, while Shiva returns home with Parvati. 

Although the concept of an enchantress is nothing new, the real concept started to take off during the Middle Ages. As the Middle Ages often villified female sexuality, it comes as no surprise that they would make the enchantress characters act as a warning to men. Also in the Middle Ages, Eve and the Celtic legend of Morgan La Fay became popularized as the beautiful dangerous women. It was about this time also that people started to see femme fatales as slightly paranormal in nature.

 In American early 20th century films, femme fatale characters were referred to as ”vamps”. This is thanks to actor Robert Vignola who created the first “vamp” movie based on a Rudyard Kipling poem by the same name. The “vamp,” in this case was about a femme fatale who acted almost like a sexual vampire.

Despite Circe and Calypso being descrbed as “braided haired” goddesses, there was no real “dress code” for femme fatales until after the beginning of the 20th century where femme fatales embraced the look of women who are dressed all in black, with striking red lipstick. The standard red lipstick likely began with ancient Roman prostitutes who were required by law to wear blonde wigs and red pipsticks in public to advertise the fact that they were prostitutes and, therefore not looking for a husand. Around the same time in ancient Egypt, the red lipstick was a symbol of status and power for both men and women. .

The red lipstick resurfaced in America in the 1900s, as the women’s suffrage movement advanced and women embraced lipstick as a symbol of feminine identity and defiant empowerment.

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Charm of the Ancient Enchantress: Aphrodite and the Mystery of Passion

“Aphrodite” by ROOSDY

The thing about Aphrodite is that she is passionate. Ancient mythology gives us numerous instances where Aphrodite punished those who neglected her worship or resented her power, as well as others in which she favoured and protected those who did homage to her and recognized her sway. As Aphrodite is the goddess of love, we take it for granted that her “passion” will not stray far from her brand. We imagine her passing her passions along her many lovers. Without a lover, she became “jealous” and her passion is used as a reason for her anger and punishments to those who disrespected her. Aphrodite knows what she wants and she expects recognition.

Aphrodite embodies love and passion because she manages to successfully balance the two concepts. In fact, can we argue that in her depictions, Aphrodite is never that much more gorgeous than other goddesses such as Athena, Hera or Artemis? She must have had something extra that made people utterly charmed by her. That something extra was her passion.

We often misunderstand the word “passion” and associate it with love and desire. But passion goes beyond one’s feelings for another person. In fact, passion is anything that arouses enthusiasm. Aphrodite’s charm is her enthusiasm to those which arouses her interest. The reason why “bad boys” or the “manic pixie dream girls” are so popular is usually because they have a variety of other passions apart from their love-interests. One gets the feeling that there are more to them than meets the eye and they are never completely yours.

In a more unromantic sphere, a group of magistrates worshiping Aphrodite called gynaikonomoi (magistrates in charge of women) actually existed at Sparta. This magistracy was first attested at Sparta in an inscription from early first-century CE. In 230 BCE, the Athenian Council dedicated an inscription to Aphrodite Pandemos (Aphrodite who is Common to all the People). Worshipers sought her blessings not for passionate love or a good marriage but for uniting the people of Athens in both personal relationships and the political realm. Other government bodies devoted to Aphrodite included agoranomoi (magistrates in charge of the marketplace), police officials, supervisors and registrars. Among many other names, Aphrodite is also called Nauarchis (guardian of the naval commanders).

Why did all these powerful people worship the seemingly man-hungry goddess? Simple. Because she was not man-hungry (or women-hungry, for that matter). She was life-hungry. She had a wide variety of interests and she was eager to get involved in making life more harmonious for everyone. Her epithets tell us of her involvement in social causes. These involvement is also on-brand for the goddess of love. Aphrodite carved out a role for herself as the keeper of  harmony of the groups in doing their business. Import-officers of Samos dedicated offerings to Aphrodite to “maintain their camaraderie and work together.” As if those were not ambitious enough, Orphic Hymn to Aphrodite also praises Aphrodite as ruling over all creations. If Aphrodite was a modern woman, she may well be one of those women who have it all.

Charm of the Ancient Enchantress: Circe and the Glamour of Independence

“Circe and Her Guests”, by ROOSDY

“There was a time when divine Calypso kept me within her arching caverns and would have had me to be her husband, and another time subtle Circe confined me in her palace and would have had me for husband also. Yet neither of them could win the heart within me.” Odysseus says to King Alcinous.

The thing that I like about Circe is how self-sufficient she is. She has her own house which she manages to her liking, she is surrounded by her books and potions and she turns rude guests into animals. She manages this while still letting Odysseus believe that he was the one who dumps her and that she is the one who is not good enough to win his heart – thus keeping his heroic ego intact.

Like Calypso, Circe is also “a goddess with braided hair, with human speech and with strange powers”. She is the daughter of Helios, the sun-god and Perse, Oceanus’ daughter. Odysseus and his men brings the ship to the shore of her island, disembark and for two days and nights lay there “eating out our hearts with sorrow and weariness,” Odysseus says.


On the third day, Odysseus takes his weapons and hastens up to a vantage-point, hoping to see some human handiwork or to catch the sound of some human speech. “I climbed a commanding crag, and from where I stood had a glimpse of smoke rising from the ground. There were gleams of fire through the smoke, and at sight of this I wondered inwardly whether to go and look. But as I pondered, it seemed a wiser thing to return first to my vessel on the beach, give my men a meal and then send them out to spy.”
Later, Odysseus divides his crew into two companies, and gives each its own leader. He captains one and Eurylochus the other. Then they shake the lots in a bronze helmet, and the lot that leaps out was that of Eurylochus. So he goes on his way with twenty-two men with him. In the glades they found the palace of Circe, built of smooth stones on open ground. Outside, there were lions and mountain wolves that she had bewitched by giving them magic drugs.

From the outer doors, the men can hear Circe singing with her beautiful voice “delicate, gleaming, delectable, as a goddess’ handiwork needs must be – a goddess or a woman, moving to and fro at her wide web and singing a lovely song that the whole floor re-echoes with.”

Then the peeping men made themselves heard and Circe invites them in. The all enter except for Eurylochus. After playing the role of a good hostes, Circe turns the men into pigs. “And now the men had the form of swine – the snout and grunt and bristles; only their minds were left unchanged. They shed tears as they were shut in.” However, Circe is not going to let them starve. She still feeds them.

Eurylochus comes back to tell the others what happened. Odysseus gets his sword and bow, and asks him to guide him back by the same path. But Eurylochus is too scared. So Odysseus allows him to stay on the ship while he goes to see the woman.

“And with that,” Odysseus says, “I left the ship and shore and took the path upward; but as I traversed those haunted glades, as I came close to Circe’s house and neared the palace of the enchantress, I was met by golden-wanded Hermes; … He seized my hand and spoke thus to me : ‘Luckless man, why are you walking thus alone over these hills, in country you do not know?” Hermes helps Odysseus by giving him a magic herb. “She will brew a potion for you, but with good things she will mingle drugs as well. Yet even so, she will not be able to enchant you; my gift of the magic herb will thwart her. I will tell you the rest, point by point. When Circe strikes you with the long wand she has, draw the keen sword from beside your thigh, rush upon her and make as if to kill her. She will shrink, back, and then ask you to lie with her. At this you must let her have her way; she is a goddess; accept her bed, so that she may release your comrades and make you her cherished guest.” In short: trick her, threaten her and sleep with her.

Later, after Odysseus follows all Hermes’ advice, he is treated by Circe’s hospitality. “She bade me eat, but my heart was not on eating, and I sat with my thoughts elsewhere and my mind unquiet.” Odysseus says, because “what man of righteous thoughts could bring himself to taste food or drink before winning liberty for his friends and seeing the men before his eyes?”

Circe then releases Odysseus’ men and send them all off on their way. Perhaps noticing that since they arrive they have done nothing but eating her food and demand things from her.

I will leave the story there. But this is what we can learn from Circe. She lives alone happily and makes herself a wonderful home. Of course, men comes and go and she could have had them as her husband/companion. But she has standards. Odysseus’ men are noisy and greedy so she turns them into swines. Even then she still treats them kindly by giving them food and letting them live. Odysseus only manages to get close to her with Hermes’ help, but even then she quickly realises that she is giving Odysseus much more than what he could ever offer her in return. So she says “… is your mind then set on further perils, fresh feats of war?” and sends him on his way.

Charm of the Ancient Enchantress: Calypso and the Magic of Good Housekeeping

“Calypso” by ROOSDY

From Calypso, the solitary enchantress of the Odyssey, we learn the power of creating a beautiful environment. Calypso was the goddess-nymph of the mythical island of Ogygia and a daughter of the Titan Atlas. She “detained” Odysseus for many years in the course of his wanderings after the fall of Troy but was eventually commanded by Zeus to release him.

Odysseus’ ship was destroyed by the whirlpool of Charybdis and he escaped on floating wreckage. Odysseus drifted for nine days until the gods led him to the island of Ogygja where Calypso lives. Odysseus describes her as “the goddess of braided hair and of strange powers and of human speech; she welcomed me and tended me.”

While Odysseus was being mended, the gods assembled in divine council, and Athena began to recount to them the many distresses of Odysseus that again had come before her mind, “He is pent up in an island now,” she says, “overwhelmed with misery; he is in the domains of the Nymph Calypso, who is keeping him with her there perforce and thwarting return to his own country.” Thus to escape from a lone woman, the hero needs the gods to step in.

Zeus send Hermes over to Calypso’s place, and from Homer’s description of her home one can see why it takes Odysseus so long to leave. One may imagine Calypso to have some sort of supernatural power, but she is a nymph. Her powers, although she has some, are limited. So what could have stopped the powerful Odysseus from leaving? “… when he (Hermes) had reached that far-off island he left the violet ocean and took to the land until he came to a great cavern; in this the Nymph of the braided tresses had made her home, and inside this he found her now. On the hearth a great fire was burning, and far and wide over the island was wafted the smell of burning wood, cloven cedar and juniper.” Cozy, isn’t it? If one has a choice between a really long, tedious, uncomfortable and dangerous journey by sea or stay in a warm cavern smelling of burning wood, cloven cedar and juniper, what option would one take?

The vision continues, “In the space within was the goddess herself, singing with a lovely voice, moving to and fro at her loom and weaving with a shuttle of gold. Around the entrance a wood rose up in abundant growth–alder and aspen and fragrant cypress. Birds with long wings roosted there, owls and falcons and long-tongued sea-crows that have their business upon the waters. Trailing over the cavern’s arch was a garden vine that throve and clustered; and here four springs began near each other, then in due order ran four ways with their crystal waters. Grassy meadows on either side stood thick with violet and wild parsley.” – Calypso the enchantress is a fabulous homemaker. She makes sure that her environment is as beautiful as she is. This is important as a person’s home reflects them. By stepping into someone’s house, room or apartment, one can get some general idea of what kind of person is the master or mistress of the house.

And it is not just the home. We can do this with the simple things. We tend to associate certain pleasant feelings with people – from perfumes, flowers to good food. My family associate me with the smell of brownies as I would make a big batch of them every weekend and, to this day, I cannot walk past a landscape painting without thinking of my grandfather as he himself was a painter. You own your space not by “manspreading” as young people call it, but by understanding your own taste and what makes you special – this inspires confidence and confidence is irresistable even for the most virtuous heroes. So even by bringing a bit of sense of warmth and pleasant feeling with you when you walk into a room will make people feel that something is missing when you are gone. This has nothing to do with “catching” a man or a woman. It is about making you comfortable in your own world before sharing it with other people.

Now back to the brave hero. Where is he in Calypso’s magnificent home? In Homer’s words “bold Odysseus was not to be found within; as his custom was, he was sitting on the shore and weeping, breaking his heart with tears and sighs and sorrows.” So Odysseus, after days of drifting aimlessly at sea, almost dying with no food or shelter, is “forced” to stay in this heaven. And now he is crying because he doesn’t want food, shelter and a gentle woman caring for him. Of course, Odysseus sleeps with Calypo at night but, Homer assures us, “this was against his will; she was loving and he unloving.” How awful it must be to have to sleep with a beautiful woman every night to wake up in a lovely home and delicious food.

Odysseus’ reasons for crying is, I’m sure, heroic. However, by owning her space, Calypso also put herself in charge of the narrative. She’s the queen of the castle, Odysseus is just a guest – and a rather tedious guest at that. From Calypso’s point of view, she is a catch. She is beautiful, powerful and capable of giving Odysseus anything he asks. Clearly, she has a lot to give a man. But Odysseus is no match for her as he can do very little but cry and be miserable until he has to ask his friends (the gods) to break up with her on his behalf.

As it turns out, this is exactly what Calypso does. When Hermes tells her the purpose of his visit is to free Odysseus from her clutches, Calypso is understandably offended. “I saved him when he was all alone and astride his keel, when Zeus with his flashing thunderbolt had shattered and shivered his rapid vessel in the midst of wine-dark ocean. All his brave comrades perished then; he alone was borne on to this place by wind and wave. I welcomed him and tended him; I offered him immortality and eternal youth.” In short, Odysseus almost died in the ocean because of Zeus’ thunderbolt only to be saved and tended to by Calypso who was doing just fine living in her own little heaven until he comes along.

Calypso is much too secure in her own power to cry over this. She says to Hermes, handling the break up with class, “so let the man go–if such is the word and behest of Zeus–go where he will over the barren sea. I cannot help him to depart; I have no ships or oars or crew to speed him over the sea’s expanse; but gladly enough, without concealment, I will counsel him how best to reach his own land unscathed.”

Charm of the Ancient Enchantress: Sirens and the Art of Romance

sirens002 “Siren” by ROOSDY

Enchantresses of the ancient world are  commonly vilified and blamed for the hero’s misery. However, they are fascinating figures. The hero is usually a big, strong, manly man who has seen his share of war and violence. As he is perfectly capable to remove himself from the clutches of violent men, he would certainly be capable to get away from a delicate woman. The enchantress is usually depicted as a woman (the “weaker sex”) – delicate, sweet-voiced, fair. In short, she is hardly the type to force the physically strong hero to stay with her if he doesn’t want to do so. She must then attract the hero’s mind, will or heart somehow. Because we don’t want to ever think that the great Heracles, Aeneas or Odysseus are anything but virtuous, we prefer not to think of them as understandably weary warriors with a lot of demands being put on their shoulders looking for refuge from their difficult journeys. Instead, the enchantress must have had some special tricks or supernatural powers to attract these men, trapped them in her island against his will and stop them from continuing their travels. In the case of the Odyssey, the enchantresses never even leave their islands. It was Odysseus who comes to them.

Mythology is not all magic and incredible beings. There are perfectly reasonable explanations to the charms of the enchantress – most of which are still used today. The charms of the ancient enchantress is what I want to look at this month. Illustrator ROOSDY is going to help me with the visuals. For more of his work, you can find him on Instagram @roosdy01 . His paintings as well as merchandise for this series will be available on society6

 

We often hear that femme fatales such as Cleopatra, who managed to entrance not one but two Roman generals, was not beautiful. In fact, she was apparently quite homely in her appearance. However, she was powerful, intelligent and well-read – well-positioned to seduce a thinking man such as a scholar, a senator or an emperor.

The sirens in ancient Greek mythology were no supermodels either. In early Greek art, they were represented as birds with large women’s heads, bird feathers and scaly feet. Later, they were represented as female figures with the legs of birds, with or without wings, playing a variety of musical instruments. The tenth-century Byzantine encyclopedia Suda says that from their chests up, the sirens were little birds with women’s faces. 

Their reputation also doesn’t help. “They sit in a meadow; men’s corpses lie heaped up all round them, mouldering upon the bones as the skin decays.” Circe warns Odysseus. As later painters depicted sirens as beautiful naked women instead of scary singing bird ladies, we then assume that they seduce the travellers with their magnificent beauty. If they’re not physically beautiful, well then they must have really divine voices.

To put this simply, what Cleopatra and the Sirens offered the men are romance. A quick google search for the definition of Romance will give you this result: a quality or feeling of mystery, excitement, and remoteness from everyday life. Romance is synonymous with the words mystery, glamour,  excitement, mystique. The sirens do more than just sing the travellers to their deaths. They promise romance. They promise something different, an escape for the weary and, at this point, very bored travellers who have been stuck on their ship after being at war for 10 years. For a long time, the lives of these men would have been as far as they could be from anything comfortable, beautiful or artistic. They would have had to find their way home to wives who may have remarried and families who may have moved on and forgotten all about them. In short, whatever journey they experienced were far from over. The sirens provide them respite, with music and the arts. Perhaps their voices are divine, but it is their artistic intelligence that enchants the travellers. As Pausanias says, “Down to the present day men are wont to liken to a Seiren (Siren) whatever is charming in both poetry and prose.”

Reflecting on the Ancient Power of the Wolf

The wolf’s nature as a predator makes it both a symbol of the warrior and the devil. The popular trope of the ”Big Bad Wolf” is a development of this while the identification of the warrior with the wolf through totemism gave rise to the notion of lycanthropy, the mythical or ritual identification of man and wolf.

In Proto-Indo-European mythology, the wolf was presumed to be associated with the warrior class, who would “transform into wolves” upon their initiation. In some northern European and Native American cultures, wolves were sometimes associated with witchcraft. In Norse mythology the volva (witch) Hyndla and the giantess Hyrrokin are both portrayed as using wolves as mounts, while in Navajo culture, wolves were feared as witches in wolf’s clothing. The Tsilhqot’in believed that contact with wolves could cause mental illness and death.

Norse mythology has at least three prominently malevolent wolves, in particular the giant Fenrir and his children, Sköll and Hati. Fenrir is bound by the gods, but is ultimately destined to grow too large for his bonds and devour Odin during the course of Ragnarok.  Fenrir’s two offspring devour the sun and moon at Ragnarök. The wolves Geri and Freki, Odin’s faithful pets,  were alluded to in the kenning “Vidrir’s hounds” in Helgakviða Hundingsbana I, verse 13, where it is related that they roam the field “greedy for the corpses of those who have fallen in battle”.

The warriors went to the trysting place of swords,

which they had appointed at Logafiöll.

Broken was Frodi’s peace between the foes:

Vidrir’s hounds went about the isle slaughter-greedy.

In Ancient Greece, mount Lykaion is a mountain in Arcadia where an altar of Zeus was located. It was the home of Pelasgus  and his son Lycaon, who founded the ritual of Zeus practiced on its summit. This seems to have involved a human sacrifice, and a feast in which the man who received the portion of a human victim was changed to a wolf, as Lycaon had been after sacrificing a child. The sanctuary of Zeus played host to athletic games held every four years, the Lykaia.

In Rome, the she-wolf that nursed Romulus and Remus is commemorated in the last of the Cyzicene epigrams, and Ion mentions the wolf-hounds which were traditionally, responsible for the death of Euripides. Strato, on a certain disreputable occasion, compares himself to a wolf that finds a lamb standing at the door and waiting for him. As to its voracity, Diphilus, an early comic poet, calls the inhabitants of Argos wolves; Lucilius accuses one Gamus of having the appetite of five wolves.

A Baltic legend says that the establishment of the Lithuanian capital Vilnus began when the grand duke Gediminas dreamt of an iron wolf howling near the hill. Lithuanian goddess Medeina was described as a single, voluptuous and beautiful huntress who was unwilling to get married. She was depicted as a she-wolf with an escort of wolves.

The existence of a ritual that provides one with the ability to turn into a wolf. Such a transformation may be related either to lycantrhopy itself, a widespread phenomenon, but attested especially in the Balkans-Carpathian region, or a ritual imitation of the behavior and appearance of the wolf. Such a ritual was presumably a military initiation, potentially reserved to a secret brotherhood of warriors. To become formidable warriors they would assimilate behavior of the wolf, wearing wolf skins during the ritual. Traces related to wolves as a cult or as totems were found in this area since the Neolithic period, including the Vinča culture artifacts: wolf statues and fairly rudimentary figurines representing dancers with a wolf mask. The items could indicate warrior initiation rites, or ceremonies in which young people put on their seasonal wolf masks. The element of unity of beliefs about werewolves and lycanthropy exists in the magical-religious experience of mystical solidarity with the wolf by whatever means used to obtain it. But all have one original myth, a primary event.

Wolves were generally revered by Aboriginal Canadians that survived by hunting, but were thought little of by those that survived through agriculture. Some Alaska Natives including the Nunamiut of both northern and northwestern Alaska respected the wolf’s hunting skill and tried to emulate the wolf in order to hunt successfully. First Nations such as Naskapi as well as Squamish and Lil’wat view the wolf as a daytime hunting guide. The Naskapis believed that the caribou afterlife is guarded by giant wolves that kill careless hunters who venture too near. The Netsilik Inuit and Takanaluk-arnaluk believed that the sea-woman Nuliayuk’s home was guarded by wolves.

According to the Pawnee creation myth, the wolf was the first creature to experience death. The Wolf Star, enraged at not having been invited to attend a council on how the earth should be made, sent a wolf to steal the whirlwind bag of The storm that comes out of the west, which contained the first humans. Upon being freed from the bag, the humans killed the wolf, thus bringing death into the world. the “birth” and “death” of the Wolf Star (Sirius) was to them a reflection of the wolf’s coming and going down the path of the Milku Way known as Wolf Road.

The One Big Mistake: Deeds of Odin

Odin, the chief ruler of the gods, was tall and old, wise and reverend. His beard was white and long, and he seemed to be forever brooding deeply over the mysteries of life and death. He had only one eye as he sacrificed the other to obtain great wisdom.

Every morning, Mimer drank a draught with the Gjallar-horn. The then young Odin had deep desire to receive the wisdom and strength which the mead alone can give. He entreated Mimer to give him a draught in exchange for one of his eyes which was cast into the well.He then drank the Gjallar-horn he became worthy to rule over gods and men. Thus Odin taught to all men that self-sacrifice is required to obtain wisdom and power.

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 “Odin” (1825-1827) by H. E. Freund

As Odin sat brooding in Asgard two ravens perched on his shoulder. Their names are Hugin (“reflection”) and Munin ( “memory”). When day dawned Odin sent them forth, and they returned at eve to whisper in his ears all the doings of men. Thus was he called Rafnagud (“raven-god”). He had also two wolf dogs named Gere (“the greedy”) and Freke (“the voracious”).

Odin invented secret runes, which have magical influence. For nine whole nights he hung on the high branches of Ygdrasil, pondering and searching out the secrets of the mind and of the Universe. The power of runes was before the beginning of man. They are mixed with fate and they have  power over death and the world beyond. Runes there are to ward off strife and care, to charm away sickness and disease, to blunt the foeman’s sword, to break fetters that bind, to still the storms, to ward off the attacks of demons, to make the dead to speak, to win the love of a maid, and to turn away love that is not desired, and many more.

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Odin with Hugin and Mugin.
A Norse mythology image from the 18th century Icelandic manuscript

From the moon-car in heaven, Odin also drank the song-mead which was in the pitcher that Hyuki and Bil had carried from the secret well on the mountain. Vidfinner is the sworn watchman of Hvergelmer and the Rivers Elivagar. One day,he broke his oath of fealty to the gods and fled from his post. Then raging heavenwards he attacked the moon-god, whom he killed and burned. His son Hyuki fought against him and suffered a fierce wound. For this dread crime Ivalde was condemned, but he fled towards Surtur’s deep dales and unto the dwelling of Suttung, son of Surtur, the giant sentinel of Muspelheim. For Surtur and his clan were at enmity with the gods of Asgard. To Suttung, Vidfinner gave the previous skaldic mead he was rewarded the hand of Gunlad, the giant’s daughter, in marriage.

Odin, seeing all that happened as he sat in his high throne, resolved to recapture the mead by cunning.  So he set out to visit the hall of Suttung (“the mead wolf”). The realm of Surtur is difficult to reach, and full of peril for the gods. It lies in the dark underworld which is lower than even Hela. Suttung’s hall is within a mountain to which, in a deep abyss with only one entry, and it is guarded by a fierce dwarf sentinel.

Odin secured the confidence of the dwarf, who promised to help him. He bored through the mountain a narrow tunnel through which Odin might escape in eagle-guise. Thus, having completed his designs, Odin went towards the door of the dwelling of the great fire-giant Suttung.

Odin arrived to a great feast to welcome Vidfinner , the wooer of the giant-maid Gunlad. Odin assumed the form of Vidfinner. A high seat of gold awaited the expected wedding-guest, and when Odin entered in the form of Vidfinner, he was welcomed with ardour. As he sat at the feast, Gunlad came forward and gave him a draught of the stolen mead. Meanwhile,  the real Vidfinner reached the door of Suttung’s hall and came to know that Odin was within. He was filled with wrath and sought to denounce Odin so that he might be slain by the giants. But the dwarf sentinel created an illusion, and opened a door on the side of the mountain which showed a lighted hall within and the wedding guests as they sat around Suttung’s board. Gunlad was at Odin’s side. Vidfinner leapt towards the vision of the high god of Asgard and thus dashed himself against the rock. The door was shut behind and the mountain swallowed him.

Ere the wedding feast was ended Odin had spoken words which caused the giants to suspect him. But he retired with Gunlad to the bridal chamber, and there he found the precious mead which Vidfinner had robbed from the moon-god. Then Gunlad came to know that her lover was Odin, but she helped him to make his escape in eagle-guise. So Odin flew through the tunnel which Heimdal had made, and reached Asgard in safety with the precious mead.

Although Odin conferred great good upon gods and men by retrieving the mead, he inadvertently brought forth a disaster when Surtur, issuing forth to avenge the wrong done to Gunlad, set the world aflame. Because good can never follow evil, even although it is accomplished for the sake of good.