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.

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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.

The Divisions of the Universe: Nine Worlds of the Ancient Norse

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THE Asa-gods built Asgard, the celestial city set high above the heavens. It stands upon a holy island in the midst of a dark broad river flowing from the thunder-vapours that rise through the great World-tree from Hvergelmer (“the roaring cauldron”), the mother of waters.

A dark and lofty wall protectes Asgard, and the great boiling river breaks angrily at its base. There is no entry-way apart from Odin’s mighty gate. If anyone who is unworthy cross the river unscathed by the vafer-flames and wants to open the gate of Asgard, he would be caught suddenly by a chain which which crushes him.

In the middle of Asgard is Idavoll, the Court of Judgment, in which the gods’ divine affairs are discussed and arranged. There was set the great golden throne of Odin, the chief ruler of Asgard, and around it are placed twelve golden seats for the gods who sit with him in judgment, and to whom the All-father gave power to rule and to issue decrees. Another stately structure is built as a sanctuary for the goddesses called Vingolf (“the abode of friends”).

There was also smithy which are furnished with anvils, hammers and tongs. With these the cunning elf-smiths, Ivalde’s sons and Sindre’s kinsmen, made for the gods every instrument they need. On a green place in the celestial city were found the golden tablets with which was played the Game of the Gods. This was in the Golden Age, which lasted until there came from Jotun-heim three giant maids, who brought corruption. In Midgard lived a race of dwarfs. In the deep, dark mould of Ymer’s body they swarmed , going here and there with no purpose or knowledge. All the gods gave the dwarfs human shape. There are also the the Trolls, who have power to change their shape.

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English translation of the Prose Edda from 1847, by Oluf Olufsen Bagge

The wonder of the Universe is the great ash tree, Ygdrasil, the Tree of Existence, which nourishes and sustains all spiritual and physical life. Its roots are spread through the divisions of the worlds that fill the yawning gulf, and its boughs are above the high celestial city of the gods. It grows out of the past,  lives in the present and reaches towards the future.

The World-ash has three great roots. One root reaches the realms below Midgard – it receives warmth and life in the glittering plains from the deep fountain of Urd where Hela the goddess of fate and of death, lives. Another root reaches the egg-white well of Mimer, who is Wisdom and Memory. The last root is in gloomy Nifel-heim, where it finds hardening sustenance in Hvergelmer, the fount of primeval waters, ice-cold and everlasting.

The souls of good men go to the realm of Urd. Near to it, in the underworld, is Mimer’s grove, where the race which will regenerate the world of men live. Below Nifel-heim are the nine divisions of torture in which the souls of the wicked are punished.

The roots of the great World-tree suck up the waters of the three eternal fountains which,  mixed together, give imperishable life. In the well of wise Mimer the fibres are made white with the holy mead which gives wisdom and poetry, and also is the very elixir of eternal life.

On the high branches of Ygdrasil, which overshadow Asgard, sits a wise eagle, and between its eyes is perched a hawk named Vedfolner. On the topmost bough is Goldcomb, the “cock of the north”, which awakens the gods from sleep and puts the demons to flight. From Hela then answers the red cock, whose fire purifies what is good and destroys what is evil.

The great World-tree bears a more painful burden than human beings understand. In the well of Hvergelmer, in the black realm of Nifel-heim, is the corpse-eating dragon Nidhog (“the lower one”), which chews constantly at the root. Above the tree, four giant harts are biting its buds and its leaves. Age rots its side and serpents gnaw its tender fibres in the dark underworld. Because, there is never a good which is not approached by evil, and there is never a growth that doesn’t experience decay and the passing of time.

Up and down the World-tree runs constantly the squirrel Ratatosk, which bears gossip between the eagle on the highest branches and the dragon Nidhog at the root, and is thus forever cause strife. Greatly dreaded is Nidhog, who flies to the rocks and cliffs of the lower world with the bodies of dead men beneath its wings.

The three Fates, who are called Norns, are Urd and her two sisters–Urd, (“present”), Verdande (“past”) and Skuld (“future”). The Norns sprinkle the great ash-tree each morning with precious mead from Urd’s fount of life, so that its leaves forever be green. From there comes the honey-dew, which drips upon the world and is stored by the bees. And in Urd’s fountain are the two mystic swans which are the ancestors of the swan race in Midgard. The Norns are spun  the fates of men and women. There are also Dises, who are maids of Urd, unto whom various duties are assigned. The Hamingjes are those Dises who are guardians of men through their lives, and appear to them in dreams to give warnings and noble counsel. There are also the sweet elf-maids who have care of babes unborn in the fair realms of Urd, and find them kindly mothers in the world of men; and there are maids who conduct the souls of the dead to Hela’s glittering plain.

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Doepler, Emil. ca. 1905. Walhall, die Götterwelt der Germanen. Martin Oldenbourg, Berlin

The souls of the dead are judged in Helaand rewards and punishments are meted out by Odin. There is only one road therer from Asgard for all the gods save Thor, and that is over the curved bridge Bif-rost (“the rainbow”) which has its foundation beyond the edge of the world of men. The southern span reaches to the fount of Urd in the realms of green verdure that never. know decay. Bif-rost is built of air and water, and is protected by red fire flaming on its edge. Frost giants and mountain giants always seek to capture the bridge, so that they may ascend to Asgard and overcome the gods; but its sentinel, Heimdal, is constantly on guard against them. The gods set Heimdal, son of the waves, to protect the bridge forever against the enemy. He is clad in silvern armour, and he wears a  burnished helmet with ram’s horns. His sight is so keen that he can see by night as well as by day the length of a hundred leagues, and he listens so keenly that he can hear the grass growing. He sleeps as little and as lightly as a bird. When the giants and monsters come to assail the gods at Ragnarok, Heimdal shall blow a thunderblast on Gjallar-horn which is hidden in the deepest shade of the World-tree.

Every day the horses of the gods thunder over Bif-rost as they descend to and return from the lower-world. Except for Thor, the thunder god – he cannot travel this way because the fire of his thunder chariot might set the bridge aflame and destroy it. He has to wade across the four great girdling rivers in the underworld to reach Hela’s glittering plains.

 When the gods come unto Hela they descend from their horses and take their seats in the Thingstead. The dead are then brought before them. Down the valley of thorns the dead came – the feet of the wicked were torn and bleeding. When they walked over on boards, the unjust amongst them were sorely wounded and covered with scars, so that their bodies dripped blood.

Those who are justified pass to the eternal realms of Hela, where joy prevails, because they have lived upright lives, brave and also because they worshipped the gods and gave offerings in the temples. But those who are condemned are sent to Nifel-hel, the region of torture. They are judged to be unworthy if they injured others by falsehoods or wicked deeds, if they were adulterers, or murderers, or despoilers of graves, or cowards, or were traitors, and profaners of the temples. Those who are to share eternal joy are given to drink from the horn of Urd, which imparts to them enduring strength. The doomed are given a draught of burning venom which changes them to monsters. Their tongues are then for ever bereft of speech and they can only moan.

The happy dead then meet lost friends and ancestors from the earliest years of the world while the doomed are driven towards Nifel-hel by elves, who carry thorny rods with which they lash those who falter or seek to turn back. Their first punishment is received when they  pass through the regions of eternal bliss, and see the joy of the blessed which they can never enjoy. Then they cross the rivers which girdle Hela, and climb towards the dark mountains of Nifel-hel. Then they enter the Na-gates and die the second death. Punishment is given in the nine realms of torture according to the sins that were committed. Some are seized by the dragon and some by the birds of prey, according to their deserts. Others are tempted for ever by illusions of sinful things they sought in life, and there are those who are torn to pieces by the great wolf.

In the Venom-dale is a river called Slid, and it is full of daggers and sharp spears. Through it must wade the perjurers and murderers and adulterers, who are continually suffering new and fierce wounds. Others sit together on benches of iron, while venom drips on them, within a hall which is full of unberarable stench. Traitors are hung on trees and cowards are drowned in pools of foulness.

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Doepler, Emil. ca. 1905. Walhall, die Götterwelt der Germanen. Martin Oldenbourg, Berlin.

Naglefar, the “ship of death”, lies in the Gulf of Black Grief, in the outer regions of Nifel-hel, fastened to a dark island with chains that shall not sever until Ragnarok (“the dusk of the gods”). The warriors who are slain in battle, or drowned at sea, are brought  to Valhal in Asgard by the maids of Urd, who are called Valkyries. They are horsed on swift steeds, and first they pass to Hela, where the gods give judgment and reject the unworthy. Then they are carried by the Valkyries over Bif-rost, and the hoofs of their steeds resound in Asgard. In great Valhal the heroes feast with Odin in eternal triumph and happiness.

Now these are the divisions of the Universe. In the midst is the earth, Midgard, which is encircled by the ocean. On high, and above all else, is Asgard, and below it is the realm of white elves, who flit between the branches of the great World-tree. Then Vana-heim, the home of the Vana-gods, is in the air and in the sea; and in the depths of the western sea is the hall of Æger, god of Ocean. Alf-heim, the home of elves, is to the east. In the lower world, below Nifel-heim, are the Nifel-hel regions of torture, and under Midgard are the Hela realms of Mimer and of Urd. Far below the path of the gods towards Hela’s fields of bliss are Surtur’s deep dales on the borders of Muspel-heim, where the great giant Surtur, the swarthy sentinel, keeps watch with his flaming sword. Jotun-heim is to the north and the east, beyond the world’s edge.

From the Body of a Giant: Ancient Norse Story of Creation

At the very beginning there was nothing. Then a vast and empty gulf opened in space. The  length and breadth of this gulf was immesurable and its depth was beyond any of our comprehension. That gulf contained the beginning of everything.

Then, one by one, our homes were formed. On the north was Nifel-heim, the home of misty darkness and freezing cold. On the south was Muspel-heim, the luminous home of warmth and of light. In middle was Nifel-heim, the great fountain from which all waters flow. The great fountain was named Hvergelmer (“the roaring cauldron”) from which surged twelve tremendous rivers called Elivagar which washed southward towards the gulf. These rivers flew from their source to great distances before the venom that was swept with them began to harden until they congealed and became ice. The rivers grew silent and gigantic blocks of ice formed.

That part of the gulf laying northward was a region of horror and of strife. Heavy masses of black vapour enveloped the ice, and within were screaming whirlwinds that never ceased, and dismal banks of fleeting mist. But southward, Muspel-heim glowed with intense radiance, and sprayed forth beautiful flakes and sparks of shining fire. The intervening space between the region of tempest and gloom and the region of warmth and light was a peaceful twilight, serene and still.

When the sparks from Muspel-heim fell through the frozen vapour, completed by the heat was sent there by the might of the All-father, drops of moisture began to fall from the ice. It was then that life began. The drops were quickened and a formless mass took human shape. Thus came into being the great lumbering clay-giant named Ymer. Ymer was rough and ungainly. As he stretched himself and began to move about, Ymer was tortured by the pangs of immense hunger. He searched for food, but there was nothing he could eat. The whirlwinds went past him and the dark mists enveloped him like a shroud.

More drops fell through the gloomy vapours and formed a gigantic cow, which was named Audhumla (“void darkness”). Ymer saw the cow standing in the gloom beside blocks of ice and groped weakly towards it. He found that milk ran from its teats in four white streams. He drank and drank until he was filled with the seeds of life. Then a great heaviness came over him and he lay down into deep sleep. In his sleep, sweat gathered in the pit of his left arm, from which a son named Mimer and a daughter named Bestla were formed. From Mimer the Vana-gods were descended. A monstrous six-headed son, who was the ancestor of the evil frost giants, the dreaded Hrimthursar, was born from under the feet of Ymer.

Then Ymer was awoken by Audhumla, the great cow, because she could not find anything to eat. She had been surviving by licking the huge boulders that were encrusted by salt and rime. In one day, hair of a great head appeared in the boulders. On the second day, when Audhumla returned to the boulder, a head of human semblance was laid bare. On the third day a form leapt forth. He was beautiful, nimble and powerful. He was Bure, the first of the Asa-gods.

In time, more beings followed. Mimer, who is Mind and Memory, had daughters, the chief of whom was Urd, Goddess of Fate and Queen of Life and Death. Bure had a son named Bor, who took for his wife Bestla, the sister of Mimer. They had three sons: the first was called Odin, the second Ve – also known as Honer, and the third Vile – also known as Lodur and Loke. Odin became the chief ruler of the Asa-gods, and Honer was chief of the Vans until Loke, the usurper, became their ruler.

Ymer and his sons were moved with wrath and enmity against the family of gods, and soon warfare broke out between them. The fierce conflicts were waged through the long ages as the earth was formed until the sons of Bure prevailed. When Ymer was stricken down, the victors leapt upon him and slit open the bulging veins of his neck. A great deluge of blood gushed forth, and the whole race of giants was drowned except Bergelmer (“The Mountain-old”) who took refuge on the timbers of the great World-mill with his wife and remained there. From these are descended the Jotuns, who for ever harboured enmity against the gods.

When Ymer was dead, the gods set forth to frame the world. They laid Ymer’s body on the mill and ground it. The stones were smeared with blood and the dark flesh came out as mould producing the earth and the gods shaped it to their desire. Rocks and the mountains were made from Ymer’s bones. His teeth and jaws were broken and flung the fragments forming pebbles and boulders. The ice-cold blood of Ymer became the waters of the vast engulfing sea.

The gods then set Ymer’s skull over the earth to be the heavens. At each of the four corners they put as strong dwarfs East and West and North and South as guardians. The skull of Ymer rests upon their broad shoulders.

Mundilfore, who cared for the World-mill, aspired to rival Odin. He had two beautiful children, Mani (moon)  and Sol (sun). Mundilfore’s presumption angered the gods and, to punish him, they took his two children away from him to drive the heavenly chariots and count the Years for men.  They sent Sol to drive the sun-chariot. Her steeds are Arvak, which is “Early Dawn”, and Alsvid, which signifies “scorching heat”.  They enter the eastern heaven at Hela-gate, through which the souls of dead men pass to the world beneath.

Then the gods set Mani, the handsome youth, to drive the chariot of the moon. With him are two fair children whom he carried away from earth – a boy Hyuki, and a girl named Bil. They had been sent out in the darkness of night by Vidfinner, their father, to draw song-mead from the mountain spring Byrger, “the hidden”, which broke forth from the source of Mimer’s fount. They filled their pail Saegr to the brink, so that the precious mead spilled over as they raised it on the pole Simul. When they began to descend the mountain, Mani seized them and took them away. The spots seen on the fair-faced moon are Hyuki and Bil.

The sun and the moon are pursued by gigantic wolves. Skoll, “the adherer”, chases the sunand Hati, “the hater”, who races in front of “the bright maiden of heaven”, in ceaseless pursuit of the moon.

Skoll and Hati are giants in wolf-guise. They were sent forth by the Mother of Evil, the dark and fearsome Hag, Gulveig-Hoder. She lived in the Iarnvid, the black forest of iron trees, on the world’s edge, which is the habitation of a witch family dreaded both by gods and by men. Hati, who is also called Managarm, “the moon devourer”, feeds on the blood of dying men. The seers have foretold that when he comes to swallow the moon, the heavens and the earth shall turn red with blood.

Nat (Night), is the daughter of the Vana-giant Narve (“the Binder”). Her hair is dark and her eyes are soft and benevolent. She brings rest and refreshment to the weary, and sleep and dreams unto all. To the warrior she gives strength so that he may win victory, care and sorrow she loves to take away. Nat is the beneficent mother of gods. She married three times. Her first husband was Nagelfare of the stars, and their son was Aud of bounteous riches. Her second husband was Annar, “Water”, and their daughter, Jörd, the earth-goddess, was Odin’s wife and the mother of Thor. Her third husband was Delling, the red elf of dawn, and their son was Dagr, which is Day.

Vindsval, son of gloomy Vasud, “the ice wind”, was father of Winter, and the mild and beneficent Svasud was the sire of Summer.

Finally, the sons of Bure saw two logs of wood. One log was from an ash tree, and from it the gods shaped a man named Ask. The other, which was an alder tree, was shaped into a woman named Embla. The gods gave them mind and will and desire, and from them the entire human race descended. They live in Midgard, “middle ward”, and Mana-heim, “home of men”.

Hero Born in Sorrow: the Birth, Love and Death of Tristan

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A fragment of Tristrant, by Eilhart von Oberg. Parchment manuscript written in East Alemannian with Middle German-Lower German Elements in the early 13th century

In an expedition to the court of Mark, king of Cornwall and England, Riwalin, king in the land of the Parmenians, had become acquainted and subsequently passionately in love with Mark’s beautiful sister, Blancheflure. Later, as he was assisting Mark in a campaign, Riwalin became mortally wounded and was carried to Tintajole. Blancheflure, disguised as a beggar maid, hastened to his sickbed and saved Mark’s life through her devoted love. The lovers then fled together to his native land and Blancheflure was proclaimed as his consort. However, Morgan attacked Riwalin’s country and, the king entrusted the pregnant Blancheflure to his faithful retainer Rual. Rual placed the queen for safekeeping in the castle of Kaneel. Here she gave birth to a son and died as her husband fell in the battle against Morgan.

In order to protect the king’s son from Morgan’s pursuits, Rual spread the rumor that the infant had been born dead. The boy was named Tristan because he had been conceived and born in sorrow. Under the care of Rual and his wife, Tristan grew up strong in body and mind until his fourteenth year, when he was kidnapped by Norwegian merchants, who then put him ashore in Cornwall because they feared the wrath of the gods. Here the boy was found by the soldiers of King Mark, who was so pleased with the brave and handsome youth that he made him his master of the chase.

Meanwhile, the faithful Rual set forth to look for his abducted foster son. Disguising himself as a beggar, Rual found Tristan in found at last in Cornwall. Rual revealed the story of Tristan’s birth to the king who was delighted to see in him the son of his beloved sister and raised him to the rank of knight. To avenge his father, Tristan proceeded with Rual to Parmenia, vanquished Morgan the usurper, and gave the country to Rual as the liege while he himself returned to his uncle Mark. 

In the service of Mark, Tristan killed Morald, the bridegroom of Isolde. Being severly wounded, Tristan was saved by Isolde herself. Tristan then asked her hand in marriage on behalf of his uncle Mark. When he fulfilled the condition of killing a dragon, Isolde reluctantly accompanied Tristan to Cornwall. On the journey they unwittingly drank a disastrous love potion which bound them together in frenzied passion. 

File:Dante Gabriel Rossetti - Tristram and Isolde Drinking the Love Potion.jpg

“Sir Tristram and La Belle Yseult Drinking the Love Potion”,
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828 – 1882)

On Isolde’s wedding night with Mark, Isolde had her faithful maid Brangäne represent her and sacrifices her virginity to the king. Next followed the banishment of Tristan, Tristan’s attempts to regain his beloved, although he had meanwhile married another Isolde (“Isolde the White Hand,” of Brittany) who resembled his beloved “Isolde the Fair.” At last Tristan was again severely wounded. Only this time his beloved Isolde arrived too late to save him. 

A plainer version of the Tristan saga is found in the fairy tale “The True Bride,” quoted by Riklin from Rittershaus. In this story, the childless royal pair were much less affectionate. The king threatened to kill his wife unless she bears a child by the time of his return from his sea voyage. Seeing that sea voyages are long and the king was, apparently, rather stupid. The queen was secretly brought to him during his journey, by his zealous maid-servant, as the fairest of three promenading ladies, and the king took her into his tent without recognizing her. After sleeping with the king, the queen returned home without having been discovered. She then gave birth to a daughter, Isol, and died.

When she was older, Isol found a most beautiful little boy in a box by the seaside. The name of the boy was Tristram. Isol raised him and became engaged to him. The subsequent story, which contains the motif of the true bride, is noteworthy for present purposes only in so far as here again occurs the drink of oblivion, and two Isoldes. The king’s second wife gave a potion to Tristram which caused him to completely forget his Isol, leading him to marry Isota. However, he ultimately discovered the deception and became united with his Isol.

File:Tristanteppich I Gesamtansicht Wienhausen Kloster Wienhausen.jpeg


Overall view of the so-called Tristante carpet, wall hanging, circa 1300, wool. Kloster Wienhausen at Celle, Germany.

Ask For Blessings, Wake Up Early and Don’t Travel too Far: Welcome to the New Year

There are three little messages that we pass along to each other in my family. One, spend a little time to pray around midnight to be grateful for the year that has passed and ask for blessings for the coming year. Two, if possible, despite perhaps the long night of partying, get up early in the first day of the New Year to watch the sunrise. Lastly, don’t travel long distance so near the major holidays. If one does need to travel, try to travel one or two weeks before 25 December at the latest and ideally wait for one or two weeks after the holidays to return. These are all ancient advice.

Nowruz is not only an ancient holiday that is still celebrated globally, it has the distinction of being one of the longest continually celebrated holiday in the world. Although there even records of it being celebrated in 550 BCE by Cyrus the Great, versions of the same celebration were also known to be observed 2,000 years earlier in the Kingdom of Aratta. 

Nowruz is traditionally observed on the day of the vernal equinox, when the coming of spring also heralds the new year. The first five days of the ancient Nowruz celebration were very public, then followed by a more reverent observance. On the thirteenth day of the festival, people would throw wheat grass into rivers and canals to throw away bad luck and misfortune.

File:Passing lion, brick panel from the Procession Way which ran from the Marduk temple to the Ishtar Gate and the Akitu Temple. Glazed terracotta, reign of Nebuchadrezzar II (605 BC–562 BC), Babylon (Iraq).Louvre Museum (12251455183).jpg

Passing lion, brick panel from the Procession Way which ran from the Marduk temple to the Ishtar Gate and the Akitu Temple. Glazed terracotta, reign of Nebuchadrezzar II (605 BC–562 BC), Babylon 

In Babylonia, the festival of Akitu honored Marduk and marked the beginning of the growing season. For the general population, the beginning of the festival meant a week of holidays and celebrations. The king would begin the festival by going to the temple of Nabu, where the priests presented him with a royal scepter reminding him of his responsibility. He then travelled to the city of Borsippa, where he spent the night participating in religious ceremonies in this city’s temple such as the re-enactment of their creation myths to remind him of his past and the past of his people. When the king returned to Babylonia, he would go to a temple and stripped off his weapons and royal regalia to approach his god with humility befit someone given their rule by a supreme deity.


Ebony label depicting the pharaoh Den, found in his tomb in Abydos, circa 3000 BC. Top register depicts the king running in his Heb Sed festival as well as seated on a throne. Lower register depicts the destruction of enemy strongholds and the taking of captives. EA 32650.
Hieroglyphs: The Sed festival area is framed on the right with a large Renpet hieroglyph.

The hieroglyph for the Egyptian word renpet (“year”)  is a woman wearing a palm shoot, symbolizing time, over her head. She was often referred to as the Mistress of Eternity. She also personified fertility, youth and spring. The New Year, Wepet Renpet (“the opening of the year”), was based on the annual flooding of the Nile River, an earthly cycle which also coincided with a heavenly cycle. Therefore, the New Year was marked with community feasting and a mix of hope and fear. To the ancient Egyptians, every year was potentially their last, because they didn’t know how the flood would impact them. The annual flood left behind rich deposits of silt, which fertilized crops to feed the entire country. Just the right amount of flooding assured a fruitful harvest – too little means famine, too much means destruction.

The festival for the annual flood celebrated the death and rebirth of Osiris and, by extension, the rejuvenation and rebirth of the land and the people. The legend behind this celebration was that the god Set and his accomplices murdered Osiris by drowning him in the river and dismembered him – scattering his limbs up and down the valley. Osiris’ death brought about the annual floods that brought life to the valley. It was then believed that Osiris arose from the dead, but needed the constant supplication of his devoted followers to strengthen his return. The priests mourned his death, prayed for his return and, at the moment of his resurrection, celebrated with dancing, singing, and feasting. Traditionally, young boys chosen for their exceptional beauty were thrown into the Nile to drown, just as Osiris had drowned, as a sacrifice for the benefit of the living. Those who drowned in the Nile were then considered to have become gods, especially if the water responded the following year with a flood.

Solemn rituals related to the death of Osiris were observed as well as singing and dancing to celebrate his rebirth. The call-and-response poem known as The Lamentations of Isis and Nephthys was recited at the beginning to call Osiris to his feast.  

The lamentation is when the two goddess-sisters call the soul of Osiris to rejoin the living. The dual entreaties of the two sisters echoed each other in their attempts to symbolically revive Osiris. The best-preserved version of this work comes from the Berlin Papyrus dating to the Ptolemaic Dynasty (323 – 30 BCE) although the work itself is much older.

Another ancient Egyptian interpretation is that the New Year’s Day itself was also regarded as the birthday of the god Ra-Horakhety. The belief was that, on New Year’s day the sun was reborn and grew increasingly frail over the year’s final few months. This is another reason why the end of the year was considered dangerous. At the end of the year, the sun god was weak and vulnerable to attack from his enemies. If he were to be defeated, the New Year might never arrive.

Therefore, it was a time of great relief when the sun rose on New Year’s day, because the end of the world had been averted. People would then make offerings to Ra-Horakhety at sunrise, pour black ink into the Nile for the goddess Nut and the god Nun as a sign of gratitude, then cleansed themselves by bathing in the Nile. Afterwards, they wore their best clothes and went off to riotous banquets to celebrate their opportunity to see another year.

Another belief is to do with the fact that the Egyptian civil calendar consisted of 360 days, with five “extra” days added to the end. These five extra days were regarded as a dangerous, transitional time, when the goddess Sekhmet controlled twelve demonic murderers who travelled the earth shooting arrows from their mouths and cause plague wherever they went. To protect themselves, the ancient Egyptians performed rituals and wore charms around their necks to pacify Sekhmet, ensuring her protection instead of her wrath. This is similar to the Aztec calendar where the passing of the old year and the coming of the new were two very different sets of days. The last five days of the year were called nemontemi, and they were considered very dangerous days where dark spirits wander the land. People mostly stayed indoors, kept to themselves, and kept quiet to avoid attracting the attention of these spirits.

Sons of the Wolf: The Birth of Romulus and Remus, Founders of Rome

The twins Romulus and Remus were borne by Ilia, daughter of king Numitor, and the war-god Mars. They were condemned by King Amulius, the ruler of Alba, to be cast into the river. The king’s servants took the children and carried them from Alba as far as the Tiber on the Palatine Hill. However, when they tried to descend the hill to the river to carry out the command, they found that the river had risen and they were unable to reach its bed. They therefore thrust the tub which the children slept into the shallow water at the shore.

Wolf, Romulus And Remus, Sculpture, She-Wolf, Statue

The tub floated for a while before the water promptly receded. The tub then knocked against a stone and the screaming infants were thrown into the river mud. They were heard by a she-wolf. She  came and gave her teats to the boys to nurse them and, as they were drinking, she licked them clean with her tongue. A woodpecker flew above them to guard the children and bring them food. These were Mars’ doing as the wolf and the woodpecker are animals consecrated to him

La Louve (she-wolf) at the Grand Palace, Brussels, Belgium - Stierch.jpg

These odd happenings were seen by one of the royal herdsmen who was driving his pigs back to the pasture. Startled, he summoned his friends. They all made a loud noise to scare the wolf away, but the wolf was not afraid. Calmly ignoring the herdsmen, she disappeared into the wilderness of the forest. Meanwhile the men picked up the boys and carried them to the chief swineherd of the king, Faustulus, as they believed that the gods did not wish the children to die. But Faustulus’ wife had just given birth to a dead child and was full of sorrow. Faustulus gave her the twins to nurse and the couple raised the children. They named them them Romulus and Remus.

Evidently, the twin never forgotten the wolf. After Rome had been founded, king Romulus built himself a house not far from the place where his tub had stood. The gully in which the she-wolf had disappeared was renamed as the Lupercal (the Wolf’s Gully). The image of the she-wolf with the twins was subsequently erected at this spot and the she-wolf herself, the Lupa, was worshipped by the Romans as a divinity.

This saga later on underwent manifold transmutations, mutilations, additions, and interpretations. It is best known in the form transmitted by Livy, where we learn something about the fate of the twins: 

File:'Mars and the Vestal Virgin', oil on canvas painting by Jacques Blanchard, ca. 1630, Art Gallery of New South Wales.jpg

‘Mars and the Vestal Virgin’, oil on canvas painting by Jacques Blanchard, ca. 1630

King Proca bequeaths the royal dignity to his firstborn son, Numitor. But his younger brother, Amulius, pushes him from the throne, and becomes king himself. So that no scion from Numitor’s family may arise, as the avenger, he kills the male descendants of his brother. Rhea Silvia, the daughter, he elects as a vestal, and thus deprives her of the hope of progeny, through perpetual virginity as enjoined upon her under the semblance of a most honorable distinction. But the vestal maiden was overcome by violence, and having brought forth twins, she named Mars as the father of her illegitimate offspring, be it from conviction, or because a god appeared more creditable to her as the perpetrator of the crime. The narrative of the exposure in the Tiber goes on to relate that the floating tub, in which the boys had been exposed, was left on dry land by the receding waters, and that a thirsty wolf, attracted from the neighboring mountains by the children’s cries, offered them her teats. The boys are said to have been found by the chief royal herder, supposedly named Faustulus, who took them to the homestead of his wife, Larentia, where they were raised. Some believe that Larentia was called Lupa (“she-wolf”) by the herders because she offered her body, and that this was the origin of the wonderful saga.

Grown to manhood, the youths Romulus and Remus protect the herds against the attacks of wild animals and robbers. One day Remus is taken prisoner by the robbers, who accuse him of having stolen Numitor’s flocks. But Numitor, to whom he is surrendered for punishment, was touched by his tender age, and when he learned of the twin brothers, he suspected that they might be his exposed grandsons. While he was anxiously pondering the resemblance with the features of his daughter, and the boy’s age as corresponding to the time of the exposure, Faustulus arrived with Romulus, and a conspiracy was hatched when the descent of the boys had been learned from the herders. The youths armed themselves for vengeance, while Numitor took up weapons to defend his claim to the throne he had usurped. After Amulius had been assassinated, Numitor was reinstituted as the ruler, and the youths resolved to found a city in the region where they had been exposed and brought up. A furious dispute arose upon the question of which brother was to be the ruler of the newly erected city, for neither twin was favored by the right of primogeniture, and the outcome of the bird oracle was equally doubtful. The saga relates that Remus jumped over the new wall, to deride his twin, and Romulus became so much enraged that he slew his brother. Romulus then usurped the sole mastery, and the city was named Rome after him.

File:La lupa con Romolo e Remo di Domenico Parodi e Francesco Biggi (detail).png