High religion: War gods and Wyrd

As I explained in the last post, I am dividing pagan beliefs into “low” and “high” religion. Low religion is the daily stuff of getting along with the earth and raising children. High religion is the philosophy and mythos of the afterlife, values, and unusual situations. Low, daily religion often turns out to be practiced more by women, who are deeply engaged in growing food and giving birth. High religion is more readily associated with men, and especially with fighting.

As I also explained before, we know relatively little about the pre-Christian beliefs of either the Celts or the Germanic invaders who formed the majority of medieval Europe. We tend to know more about the myths of the high religion from literature, and more about the rites of low religion from customs that persisted. The Northern Germans left us many legends and myths about past heroes, creation, the doings of the gods, and the predicted end of the world.

I’m breaking them into two generalizations: the war gods, and the Three Sisters of Fate. We hear most about the male gods of war in traditional Norse myths. Our usual idea of Germanic religion starts with Thor and Odin, quickly moving to Loki and Siegfried.

Odin, Thor and Tiw (the namesake of Tuesday) were the gods of fighting. Thor’s thunder hammer is a common charm found in archeological sites. One site in Sweden even found a full-size replica of the hammer, called Mjolnir, in 2013. Tiw was the god of spears and swords. His rune was a spear-head, and he was honored by sword dances.

Odin’s story is interesting because of parallels to Jesus. That is, I don’t mean there are serious parallels, but I think that the surface similarities allowed some of Odin’s legend to seem consonant with Christian times. Odin knew that key secrets were hidden in the world’s well, so he hung himself from a tree that grew at the rim of the well. He hung on Yggdrasil, nailed to it by a spear, for nine days and nights. With this sacrifice of himself, he obtained the runic secrets.

Runes were a combination of alphabet and magic. They could be used to spell out something ordinary, but originally they were probably only used for charms and other powerful words. Each rune had a magical meaning and its own power, as partially explained in the Rune Poems. To use them together for writing a word meant capturing its essence and controlling it. Runes were not used to write down stories; they wrote names and charms on sword blades or standing stones. This attitude toward writing may have continued into the Christian period, especially among the less literate.

The deities from whom Odin wrested the runic secrets were the Fates. The Three Sisters appear in many Indo-European traditions, so they appear to be among the original beliefs in prehistory. They are always imagined as spinning and weaving like other women, but their yarn is made of men’s lives, and they spin and weave our fates. Their names in German tradition mean “Was, Being and Will Be,” and in Anglo-Saxon, the first name comes to us as “Wyrd.” Wyrd also means fate or destiny, and it was the name of the well where the runes were found. It is the origin of our word “weird,” but its original meaning of “fate” persisted in some outlying places, such as Scotland, into modern times. (In Scott’s novel Rob Roy, the title character says that every man must “dree his ain weird,” that is, endure his own destiny.)

The story of Beowulf makes a number of references to fate, Wyrd. Beowulf himself says that “Wyrd often spares an undoomed man, when his courage does not fail.” He implies that a man who might have survived can fail himself, by being a coward, and thus bring about his death. So the man isn’t entirely dependent on fate. But when Wyrd dooms him to die, he will die. This was an important concept in Germanic pagan religion, serving as an explanation for failure. A brave man could still be doomed, though a hero-god like Odin could wrestle Wyrd to take its secrets. But that was extraordinary. In general, Wyrd was a power above all others and fate could not be changed.

So the high religion, as I’m calling it, believed that magic and fate were higher than all other forces. The war gods demanded courage to stand up to fate, but in the end, fate won. However, the gods of spear and sword, thunder and magic, would reward heroes for their courage. Odin’s cult had another, less appealing, side: blood sacrifice. War captives were sometimes sacrificed to Odin, either “blood-eagled” or hung. The bog bodies mentioned in the last essay may also have been hung to honor Odin; we don’t know. The cult of Odin was centered in northern Sweden at Uppsala, while the cult of Ing/Frey may have centered in Denmark. Odin’s worship was still active when Adam of Bremen, around 1075, wrote an account of the Norse that included a detailed description of the Uppsala temple.

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