National Heritage Board, Stockholm
In fact I can see one other family whose story might qualify as being part of this genre, though it is very fragmentary, and that is the story of Melampous and his descendants. We can trace the ancestors of Melampous back to Aioles, son of Hellen founder of the Hellenic nation, but the real story begins with Melampous. He was living in the Western Peloponnese and near his home was a hollow oak, and a great many snakes used the oak as a den. His servants discovered the snakes and killed them, he however, cremated the dead snakes honorably and reared those of their children who had survived. One day when these young snakes had grown, they crawled onto his shoulders while he slept, and they cleaned the inside of his ears with their tongues. As he slept, he suddenly became terribly frightened for no reason that he could understand. He started awake, still terrified, but in the midst of his fear he found he could understand the language of the birds, and from then on the birds told him what would come to pass.312 Does this sound familiar? Sigurd has intimate contact with a serpent and suddenly he understands the birds.313 Apparently quite a few Greeks acquired foresight this way,314 and we will recall that Apollon became the Oracle at Delphi only after merging with a serpent. Further, there is an alternative version for the Melampous story wherein Melampous kills a huge serpent that has just killed his servants, just as Kadmos did. Melampous then honors the serpent by burying it and rears its young, who lick his ears, etc.315 Either way, Apollon appeared soon after Melampous' encounter with the serpents, he met Melampous by a river and added to the power of prophecy that the serpents had given him.316
In Germany it was in fact fairly common to acquire knowledge by eating serpent's flesh; it was also common in Greece, one either ate or had one's ears cleaned. The association between the eating of serpent's flesh and the acquiring of wisdom was known in various cultures, we can see something like it in Genesis, but it seems to be especially characteristic of both Greece and Germany.317
Melampous did a number of things, but his most notable achievement was to cure the mad daughters of Proitos, king of Tiryes. For this service, he demanded and got a third of Proitos' kingdom in the Argolid and an additional third for his brother. The daughters were driven mad by either Dionysos or Hera.318 Hera was a characteristic source of madness, and there seems to be much about her that we don't understand. Melampous cured the daughters by chasing them many miles over the countryside, shouting and dancing "a fearful dance, full of God,"319 one daughter died and the other two were cured. Melampous, who "became a friend of Apollon," was said to be the first Greek to cure with drugs and purification (katharmos).320 Herodotos credited Melampous with the introduction of Dionysian rite, Dionysian rite not Dionysian madness,321 and Melampous was said to have invented the practice of mixing water with one's wine.322 Melampous was "best loved"323 by Apollon, and he founded a Sacred precinct and an altar to Apollon.324 Note the usual connection between Dionysos and Apollon.
We have only a few bits of information about a few of the people in the generations after Melampous, I won't list these people since there are contradictory statements about who is descended from whom and even about the number of generations. More than one is stated to be a prophet with foresight,325 others have names that would suggest it,326 others do purifications, one establishes a shrine to Dionysos,327 and the latest of the obscure figures, Oikles, was killed on Herakles' expedition to Troy. If he had foresight he would have known that he would not return if he went, and he must have had a very compelling reason to go.328 That pattern will be repeated in the next generation.
312 Apollodoros, I, 9, 12.
313 Volsungasaga, 19 & 20.
314 See Frazer's note in Loeb Library edition of Apollodoros, Vol. I, pp. 86-87.
315 Scholiast on Apollonius Rhodius, Hesiod, the Homeric Hymns and Homerica, pp. 262-263.
316 Apollodoros, I, 9, 12.
317 James Frazer, The Golden Bough, Vol. VIII, Spirits of the Corn and the Wild, Vol. II, pp. 146-147. See also Blecher & Blecher, Swedish Folktales and Legends, pp. 354-355.
318 Apollodoros, II, 2, 2, and Pausanias, II, 18, 4.
319 Apollodoros, II, 2, 2.
320 Diodorus Siculus, VI, 8, 9.
321 Herodotos, II, 49.
322 Athenaeus, II, 45, C-D.
323 Scholiast on Apollonius Rhodius, Hesiod, the Homeric Hymns and Homerica, 260-261.
324 Bakchylides, Lyra Graeca, Vol. III, pp. 214-215.
325 Odyssey, XV, 252, and Apollodoros, III, 6, 2.
326 Odyssey, XV, 242.
327 Pausanias, I, 43, 4.
328 Apollodoros, II, 6, 4.
The son of Oikles was Amphiaraos, "loved by Zeus and Apollon."329 Amphiaraos was king of the Argolid territory that Melampous had won several generations earlier. And it was to the Argolid that Oidipous' son Polynakes went to seek help to gain the kingship of Thebes, applying to the Argive king, Adrastos. Adrastos said he would help, but he felt that the expedition must also include Amphiaraos and tried to enlist Amphiaraos' support. Amphiaraos was a prophet like his ancestors, and he knew that he and most of the others who agreed to go on the expedition would never return and he would have nothing to do with it.
Remember the wedding of Kadmos and Harmonia? All the Gods had attended and it had been perhaps the most splendid and beautiful event the world had seen. And Harmonia had received as wedding presents Aphrodite's necklace, made by the craftsman God Hephaistos, and the robe of Athena, arguably the most precious objects owned by anyone on earth. Kadmos and Harmonia would have a wonderful life and would change into serpents and live forever in the Blessed Isles, but we have already seen what would happen to the generations that were the result of this beauty and harmony.
Amphiaraos and Adrastos had formerly warred and as a peace settlement they had vowed that Eriphyle, Amphiaraos' wife and Adrastos' sister, would decide any future dispute between them. Polynakes had gotten possession of the Necklace and the Robe, and he had brought them with him from Thebes. He gave the Necklace of Aphrodite, crafted by a God, to Eriphyle and she took it, and she decreed that Amphiaraos had to go and fight.330 Amphiaraos commanded his sons to war on Thebes when they grew up, as it would still be unconquered and he would need to be avenged, and to kill their mother then as well. And then he rode to his death.331
A single God permeates the lives of a family for several generations, then objects charged with power enter their lives, overrule the God and knock the God and the family completely off course. Sound familiar?
Ten years passed and the sons of the seven leaders of the first Theban expedition mounted an expedition of their own to avenge their fathers. They were told by an oracle that the expedition would succeed if Amphiaraos' son Alkmaeon led it.332 He did, and it did.
He had not taken his father's commands to heart and was reluctant to go to Thebes, but Eriphyle herself had persuaded him and his brother to go.333 Now that he was home he learned that Thersandros, son of Polynakes, had given his mother the Robe334 and that this was why she was so eager to have him fight. He did not take this calmly. Then Apollon at Delphi told him he should kill his mother, and he did.335 The Furies play a relatively small part here. He had not been minded to avenge his father on his mother or on the Thebans, it was his mother's greed that had driven him to murder.
329 Odyssey, XV, 245-246.
330 Apollodoros, III, 6, 2.
331 Apollodoros, III, 6, 7. A historical descendant of Melampous named Megistias was present at Thermopylae. He foresaw, in his capacity as a mantis, what was about to happen, yet he chose to stay and die with the Spartans. (Herodotos, VII, 221.)
332 Apollodoros, III, 7, 2.
333 Apollodoros, III, 7, 2.
334 Apollodoros, III, 7, 5.
335 Apollodoros, III, 7, 5.
336 Apollodoros, III, 7, 5.
337 Apollodoros, III, 7, 5.
338 Apollodoros, III, 7, 5.
339 Pausanias, VIII, 24, 8.
Kallirroe was greedy for the Necklace and the Robe, and she said she would leave him if he did not get them for her. Against his will, he went off on the adventure. He tried to get the Necklace and Robe back from Phegeus by a ruse, but he was detected and killed.340
In some versions of the story, Alkmaeon's sons kill Phegeus and so the Necklace and the Robe kill yet again.341 In other versions Alkmaion remains unavenged,342 we will recall that he had not been enthusiastic about avenging his own father. In either case Aphrodite's Necklace and Athena's Robe were dedicated to Apollon at Delphi, and they could do no more harm.343
The story is dominated by a single Deity/Concept, he is scrambled by an alien force, but he ultimately prevails over it. As in the case of the Ring and the Hoard, this force is one of unmitigated goodness; it is the very desirability of the Necklace and the Robe that give them their power to destroy. The story as a whole is about this Deity and so is the story of each generation within it, insofar as we know anything about these generations. The story is tragic all the way through, and there is plenty of generational plot repetition. The principal character of the cycle would be Alkmaeon, he is the second to last of the generations as are Oidipous and Orestes and Sigurd, and he makes a decision—he decides to kill his mother. We don't have enough information to say what that decision has to do with Apollon or the final resting of the Necklace and the Robe, but if we had Sophokles' tragedy Alkmaeon we might well have such information. Also, notice that the story involves Apollon, Fateful objects and the Furies, rather than any of the multitude of other concepts Greek stories are about. There is only one way in which the Melampous Cycle differs from the three other examples of the ancient Family Cycle. All of the latter involve a family founded by a foreigner from a distant land, the closest we come to that in the Melampous Cycle is in Melampous' father, Amythaon,who migrated to the Western Peloponnese from Thessaly.344 I would say that the Melampous Cycle is another of the ancient type of Family Cycles, and that nothing keeps us from its full effect but our lack of Sophokles' Alkmaeon. The Alkmaeon would show Alkmaeon's decision as being something along the line of Melampous' "fearful dance, full of God."
340 Apollodoros, III, 7, 5, and Pausanias, VIII, 24, 10.
341 Apollodoros, III, 7, 6.
342 Pausanias, VI, 17, 6.
343 Apollodoros, III, 7, 6-7, and Pausanias, VIII, 24, 10.
344 Apollodoros, I, 9, 11.
* * *
The Family Cycle is an ancient form of literature which lasted at least until the 13th century AD, the Volsungasaga is probably the last legitimate example of it.345 The Nibelungenlied uses several of the Volsung Cycle's characters and part of its plot to make a Medieval courtly romance; it is a very different thing and part of a very different world. The Icelandic "Family Cycles" written from the 12th through the 14th centuries AD may have been consciously derived from the ancient Family Cycle form, though it must be remembered that much of Old European literature tended to be genealogical. The more recent type of Icelandic "Family Cycles" were written when Iceland had been Christian for over two hundred years, and they contain no Deity and usually no unifying concept of any kind. There's something like a Deity in the two best ones. In Njal's Saga Fate plays the central role that deities play in the Tantaloid, Kadmian and Volsung Cycles, and it is Fate's role that gives Njal's Saga its power. It is also worth noting that the plot patterns of the various generations tend to be repetitious; Njal's Saga is in fact very close to the old form.
But it is not of the old form. By the end of the Volsungasaga we know something about who Odin is, and the Tantaloid and Kadmian Cycles say something about Apollo. But though Fate is present all through Njal's Saga, we learn nothing about Fate except that it is inevitable. Fate is a character but it''s just there, it doesn't do anything. In the old form the central concepts always do something, in the form of a Hoard and a Ring or a Necklace and a Robe perhaps.
The other saga with a Deity in it is Egil's Saga. Egil is a deeply religious man, and his life, with all its imperfections, is one possible example of a life permeated by Odin. But this is only true in a vague half-conscious way, and we only see Odin directly at work once. That once is quite important, and we will get to it later. We have said that one can find the same literary tradition in the Germanic countries of Northern Europe as late as the thirteenth century AD that we find, already very ancient, in the classic age of Greece. We have identified two literary forms within that tradition. The first, the Shield Poem, is minor and is important only because it is indeed found in both ancient Greece and early medieval Scandinavia. The second, the ancient Family Cycle, is also found in both cultures, it has basically the same content in both Greece and Germany and it is always a specific form, sharply and fairly minutely defined.
Its characteristics are these: (1) It follows a family through several generations. (2) All or some of these generations will repeat certain behavior patterns. (3) Both the cycle as a whole and its various parts are about a Deity or Deities or some undefined Sacred Entity. (4) This Deity, etc., is an active participant in the cycle, it completely permeates the story, and each part of the story, especially the generational plot repetitions, tells us something of what one or more of these Deities etc., are all about. (5) The cycle has a principal character, always in the second-to-last generation included in the story, and this principle character makes a decision that is the center of the whole cycle and that tells us something about the Deity or Entity that the story is about, and the decision seems to be always roughly the same. (6) The tone of the cycle is tragic, and whatever else the cycle is about, it is about the concept called Odin in the North and Apollon in Greece. As we shall see in the next section Apollon and Odin are different in some ways, but in their most important aspect they are identical. It is this aspect that is the essential content of all the ancient Family Cycles whether in Greece or Germany. This aspect goes back to the time when the proto-Greeks and the proto-Germans were part of the same cultural entity. The boundaries of that entity are uncertain, but it is clear that this aspect was a central part of people''s lives as far back as the Indo-European cultures of the "Copper Age," about 3000 BC.
345 Or at least the last example outside the Faeroe Islands. But the Faeroese language was isolated and limited to four or five thousand speakers, and Faeroese literature was purely oral, unintelligible to anyone outside the Islands and had nothing to do with the rest of post-Medieval European literature.
* * *
Although the Volsungasaga was written in Iceland during the 13th century AD, it was obviously a genuine attempt to produce something in the old tradition, in the old form and expressing the old ideas and values. It is basically successful in all this, but it is naturally an expression of the old ideas as they were remembered two hundred and fifty years after Christianity had become the official religion of Iceland and that hurts the literary quality of the Volsungasaga. The Volsungasaga writer had to rely almost exclusively on the warfare and violence in his cycle to express its content, when he needs to be really penetrating he can't do it. For example when he needs to show us Sigurd's crucial decision, he can only quote an archaic poem that gives us that decision, but in its barest outline. It is not in the same league with Sophokles' portrayal of the decision of Oidipous.346 The classic Greek poets are expressing something that is an immediate living reality to them and they have much less trouble doing so, Sophokles could have done an incredible job with Sigurd. When a classic age passes and people become more shallow, the sword fights and conflicts are remembered and the subtleties tend to be forgotten. Notice what happens when somebody tries to talk about the sixties.
Conflict was certainly a very important part of all the Family Cycles and would seem to be a necessary part of the most serious Greek- German literature.347 We say "serious" where the ancients would say "Sacred." That is because of a particular concept shared by the Greeks and Germans about where poetry comes from; the Greeks called this concept Apollon, the Germans called it Odin.
We have seen that the Old Greeks—the pre-philosophic Greeks—and the Old Germans shared a literary tradition. They shared literary forms and they shared the basic idea, in common with the Kelts and other Indo-European peoples (and I think all Northern Eurasian peoples), that literature is a Sacred thing, that poetry was Sacred not because it had a subject recognized as Sacred but because it was poetry, and that all poetry comes from a Sacred source, and that poetry and knowledge are two words for the same thing. And the two peoples shared a more specific idea about the most serious poetry, one that was more characteristic of themselves.
Apollon/Odin seems to have been prevalent in Germany and Scandinavia348 south through Greece and in Western Anatolia. There had always been a tremendous amount of cultural interaction between Greece and Western Anatolia, and many aspects of Greek culture had originated there and both Apollon and his sister Artemis were very important there. Herodotos went so far as to say that the West Anatolian Lydians were almost identical culturally with the Greeks.349
But while Apollon and Odin were obviously similar concepts they were by no means identical, and at least some of their antecedents were different. There was a Vedic Deity called Rudra who was an archer, a Deity of healing and disease, and who was as dangerous and uncertain to his worshipers as was Apollon,350 something like Apollon and Rudra may have come into Greece and Anatolia with the Indo-Europeans and merged with a native European concept that had something to do with snakes. Like Odin, Rudra led a band of violent storm-riders, these were called the Maruts.
Many hunter-gatherer cultures have a Master or Mistress of the Animals who gives or withholds the game. Artemis was one of these figures, she was also purity, she was also the patron of virgin adolescent girls as her brother Apollon was the patron of adolescent boys. Adolescence was perhaps regarded as involving purity though not necessarily innocence, and of course it is the Edge in every sense of the word. Like her brother she was an archer, and like him she was dangerous and heavy and uncertain. She was the Greek Deity most closely associated with human sacrifice.
Most of the Olympians did not have really strong animal associations, but Apollon and Artemis did. He was a wolf and she was a bear, and their mother Leto was also a wolf. The bear is the Master of Animals for a great many of the hunting peoples of the Far North, and it is held Sacred by them.351 We will recall that the forming steppe Indo-European culture incorporated a Cro-Magnon population.
The Greeks called the pre-Indo-European inhabitants of Greece Pelasgians or Arkadians, they lived mostly in Arkadia in the central Peloponnese. Their founder, Pelasgos, was held to have been born of the land itself.352 Either his son Lykaon, "Wolf,"353 or his grandsons354 performed a human sacrifice and cannibalism on Mount Lykaon, Wolf Mountain, and became werewolves.355 The Arkadians continued this human sacrifice with ritual cannibalism on Mount Lykaon through the 2nd century AD.356 This was the occasion of a Panhellenic festival, there was a racetrack there and athletes from all over Greece came to compete.357 Someone would be chosen to eat the human flesh, and he would change his shape into that of a wolf for nine years. The daughter of Lykaon was Kallisto; Kallisto was changed into a bear and shot by Artemis. Kallisto's son was Arkas, the culture hero of the Arkadians who taught them farming; Pelasgos, Lykaon and Kallisto were from a time before that.358 In Arkadia, Apollon was Lord of Wolves, he sentwolves to the flocks or he kept them away like a typical northern animal master. We have already noted the Apollonian werewolf cults in Italy. Apollon and Artemis have antecedents that go back a long way indeed.
346 Volsungasaga, 21. This is true when one compares Oidipous Rex with that one scene in the Volsungasaga, which in fairness was not intended to stand alone. The Volsungasaga’s great virtue is that it presents the whole story of Volsung’s family all at once, and its Greek counterparts have unfortunately not survived.
347 Greek tragedy incorporated actors specifically to portray conflict.
348 Linguistic evidence would indicate that Scandinavia and Germany were basically identical until after the fifth century AD.
349 Herodotos, I, 94.
350 Rigveda, I, 43, & I, 114, & II, 33, & VI, 74, & VII, 46.
351 Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology, pp. 334-446.
352 Apollodoros, III, 8, 1.
353 Pausanias VIII, 2, 3.
354 Apollodoros, III, 8, 1.
355 Pausanias, VIII, 2, 3-4.
356 Pausanias, VIII, 38, 7.
357 Pausanias, VIII, 2, 1, and Pindar, Nemean X, 47-48, and Frazer’s note on pages 392-393, Vol. I of the Loeb Library edition of Apollodoros.
358 Walter Burkert goes into all this in great detail in Homo Necans, pp. 84- 134, and specifically into Arkas and Kallisto on pp. 84-87.
Apollon, Odin and Artemis were all concepts to express something terribly important. Like all poetry, they or their subject is found within ourselves, but like all poetry they are not part of our egos, our wills, our intentions. They are more important than that, they feel more important than that, and since they are outside our egos and our control we perceive them, look at them as separate. That's how they become Gods. But they are also concepts, and like all concepts, all words, they can mean the same thing essentially but with different nuances, arrive at the same point but by different routes. Odin and Apollon are the same balance, the same basic response, but they approach this balance from somewhat different angles. Apollon is among other things, Purity; there is an uncompromising purity on the Edge that hardly needs an explanation. Odin obviously shares that purity if you want to think of him that way, but the point is nobody did, and for sound reasons. Odin was a "trickster," Apollon had nothing to do with that. more on Apollon
There are mythological trickster characters from all over the world. They tend to be smart and quick and manipulative, untrustworthy and morally ambiguous. Some, like Coyote of the Western North American Indians, are also clowns whose self-indulgence is just as likely to get them into trouble as their sharpness is to get them out of it. Others like Raven, from the coast of Washington State through Alaska, are dangerous and untrustworthy but never clownish. The animal names do not imply that these tricksters were simply animals. Human form and animal form were regarded as basically interchangeable, and the more magical a being was the more interchangeable he was likely to be. We will recall that the raven was the animal most closely associated with Odin; the raven is the most intelligent of all northern birds.
Greek mythology is full of tricksters. They would include Hermes, God of businessmen and thieves, Prometheus, “Foresight,” who matched wits with God and won, Autolykos son of Hermes, the greatest of all mortal thieves, Sisyphos, the greatest mortal con artist who fooled Death twice, and the most famous of all: when the greatest con artist lay with the daughter of the greatest thief, the result was Odysseus.359 The Greeks had plenty of tricksters but Apollon was not one of them, he was consciousness and not manipulative intelligence. Other tricksters from European culture are the modern Bugs Bunny and the more traditional Fox, called Reynard in his medieval incarnation, and also Loki and Odin.
Not uncommonly, tricksters are also the creators of mankind and the source of all mankind’s knowledge. Coyote is one example, Prometheus is another. Zeus, God, did not create mankind, Prometheus did. Zeus, God, is not always on our side. His interest in our welfare is not as strong as it might be, and he is a judge before whom we need an advocate. Prometheus the thief, the liar and the swindler, is with us and behind us and for us, completely and without question. Odin too is the creator of mankind and the source of all the knowledge that mankind needs to survive. And though Odin might be unreliable with individuals, he is without any doubt on the side of mankind. It would be unthinkable for Odin to cause a flood or to have anything but a completely adversarial relationship with Hell, he certainly never sent anybody there. If you have to sit before God’s judgment throne with your eternal damnation at stake, you might say a number of things about God but you can’t say he is on your side. Christ is your advocate there if you submit to his cult, but that comes down to the same situation. Odin is a very different matter, in the Lay of Grimnir Odin kills someone who has insulted him. But though he ends the man’s life at his displeasure, it is specified that the man will still feast with the Gods in Valhalla.360 Civilized people worship power and authority, but for the northern barbarians God was intelligence. Odin was not authority but knowledge and intelligence, and he had the character of knowledge and intelligence. And though he may or may not be reliable in a given situation, he is always ultimately on our side. And knowledge and poetry were two words for the same thing.
359 The daughter was then married to Laertes, Odysseus' father in the Odyssey, but it is attested in other places that Sisyphos was Odysseus' real father. (Sophokles, Aias, 190, and Sophokles, Philoketes, 417, and Euripides, Iphigenia at Aulis, 524, and Euripides, Cyclopes, 104.)
360 Poetic Edda, Lay of Grimnir, 54 in Hollander translation, 53 in cited text.
Here is how Odin obtained poetry: There was a man named Kvasir who was made of the spit the Gods made when they took an oath, he was the wisest man who ever lived. But in time he was murdered by some dwarves who took his blood and mixed it with honey. The result was the mead that makes whoever drinks it a poet and a scholar. For the Old Germans as for the pre-philosophic Old Greeks, poetry and scholarship were pretty much the same thing, it was difficult to be one without being at least something of the other.
The dwarves got into further trouble, and in the end a giant named Suttung took their mead and kept it. A giant was a being of immense strength and perhaps miraculous powers but who had nothing to do with creation and who had no regard for the welfare of mankind. Odin went to the farm of Suttung's brother Baugi, and saw Baugi's workers in a field mowing hay with their scythes. Odin showed the workers a marvelous new thing called a hone, it could keep their scythes sharp, would they like to have it? The workers gathered around and said, certainly. Odin threw the hone up into the air into their midst, they all wanted to catch the hone and they cut each other's throats with their scythes while they were flailing around trying to do it. That is when Odin got the name, Bolverk, "Worker of Evil." Then Odin visited Baugi, well disguised, and it seemed Baugi was in a bad way, his workers were dead and he could get no others. Odin volunteered to do the work of the whole crew if Baugi would help him get Suttung's mead.
The season's end came, and Baugi had to fulfill his promise. He tried talking to Suttung and that didn't work, but it turned out that Baugi's guest just happened to have an auger with him that was just the righ size for boring through the mountain that Suttung's hall was built on. Baugi would do the boring, and Odin would take the shape of a snake and slither through. Baugi did what he had to do, and he told Odin to crawl on through now. But Odin blew into the hole and got a face full of stone chips, so he knew that the hole didn't go all the way through and Baugi was trying to trick him. Baugi then had to bore all the way through. Odin tested again, and then he slipped through. Baugi tried to stab him with the auger, but Odin was quick as light and arrived at Suttung's hall.
Odin promised Gunnlod, Suttung's daughter, that he would sleep with her for three nights in return for just three drinks of the mead. There were further adventures before she got him back out of the hall,361 but he got out, swallowed all the mead in three drinks, changed into an eagle and headed home. Suttung discovered what was happening and changed into a bigger eagle and took off after him. Odin was smaller and less powerful than his opponent but Odin was also quicker and smarter, and that is why Odin still has the mead of poetry and why he can give it to those whom he chooses. Some of the mead spilled however, and that is available to anyone who finds it and has nothing to do with the choice of Odin.362
Whatever else Odin is he is always a trickster. Apollon is consciousness, so he automatically knows everything just by being who he is. Odin always obtains knowledge through intelligence and spirituality, he always has to do something to learn. He listens to his ravens who tell him everything that is happening in the world,363 or he visits the place called Hlidskjalf from whence all things are visible.364 He forces a dead seeress to rise again and tell him what he needs to know,365 he questions dead mortals in their graves.366 He drinks a special mead, obviously with more in it than alcohol, to find "a pathway" or "an opening," "gat," he also acquires nine power songs from "the famous vision of Bolthorn."367 He acquires spiritual wisdom by hanging by the neck for nine days368 and by sacrificing one of his eyes,369 we will recall that Oidipous acquired wisdom in the same way. Such wisdom comes only from the Edge.
361 Poetic Edda, Sayings of Har, 13 & 105-110.
362 Prose Edda, (Young trans), pp. 101-103, Skáldskaparmál, V-VI.
363 Poetic Edda, Lay of Grimnir, 20, and Prose Edda, (Young trans), pp. 63-64, Gylfaginning, XXXVIII.
364 Prose Edda, (Young trans.), pg. 37, Gylfaginning, IX.
365 Poetic Edda, Bladr's Dream, 4.
366 Poetic Edda, Lay of Harbarth, 44.
367 Poetic Edda, Sayings of Har, 140. If these songs involved effective magic, then they would have counterparts in the magical songs that one finds in the Finnish epic Kalevala and in the mantras of the Ayaran Vedic tradition.
368 Poetic Edda, Sayings of Har, 138-142.
369 Prose Edda, (Young trans.), 43, Gylfaginning, XV.
Odin is a very special sort of trickster. Tricksters are naturally concerned with knowledge, and Odin is concerned with knowledge of every possible kind. Coyote and Raven and Prometheus are also concerned with information and technique, but no one ever accused them of being poets. Odin however, is completely an Old European trickster, and in Old Europe knowledge and poetry are basically the same.
You know something by creating it, that is by perceiving it and by bringing it into form. This applies to all knowledge of every type. This is how everyone knows things on a day-to-day basis—if one does in fact know things, it is quite possible to fill one's head with other things besides knowledge. Poetry is simply an intensification of this process of knowing.
Again—if in fact one performs the act of knowing. All over the civilized ancient Mideast,370 most obviously in Egypt, and for that matter in post-classic antiquity beginning with Plato and continuing in Christian and Islamic civilization, the basic idea was to eliminate knowledge by passing down as "culture," forms that had already been created at some point and that were to be copied rather than re-created in the sense that we have been discussing, and by filling one's mind as completely as possible with such forms and blocking out and ignoring perception. These traditional forms were considered correct ( maat ), or submissive and therefore a strengthening of the bond between oneself and one's Divine Patron, or Good as opposed to evil or badness, or eternal as opposed to lower class and unpleasant or whatever. The idea is to eliminate everything uncertain, unpredictable, unknown and beyond the control of one's will and ego, the idea is to eliminate the serpent's wisdom.
When the Sioux trickster, Iktome, Spiderman, warned his people of the coming of the civilized White Man, he said, "He will try to give you his own new Great Spirit instead of your own, making you exchange your own Wakan Tanka for this new one, so that you will lose the world," (italics mine).371 This had happened in Europe some time before, it happened in Northern and Central Europe with the introduction of Roman civilization and Christianity.
In Old Europe knowledge was valued, and culture was not static forms but poetry.372 Poetry constituted culture, as it still did in fifth century Athens. Knowledge was continued through poetry and passed down through poetry, knowledge was preserved and passed down not by eliminating creation but specifically through creation, by the recreation of something that had been and was, perceived. That which was perceived was regarded as eternal, was in fact eternal, and was passed down through the generations, taking a somewhat different form at each re-creation. We have already seen that such a perception, such a particular moment, was passed down in the form of the Iliad. This thing that is perceived, is perceived, and it lies outside the self, outside the limits of one's ego, one's will and one's control. In short, knowledge lies not in a correct form (maat ) but on the Edge. Knowledge therefore requires a particular response to the loss of that which we would cling to.
370 Joseph Campbell has identified this process as beginning with the first cities of Mesopotamia and spreading out from there. See Primitive Mythology, chapters 3, IV, & 4, I, pp. 144-169. See especially the story on pp. 152-161.
371 Leonard Crow Dog in American Indian Myths and Legends, Richard Erdoes & Alfonso Ortiz, pg. 495.
372 This emphasis on poetry was common to China and to all of Northern Eurasia. It was characteristic of the steppe culture that was originated by the Indo- Europeans, that is still continued by Turks and Mongols, and that arrived in Europe as the formation of the Chorded Ware/Battle Ax culture about 3000 BC. It was the steppe culture that prevented Europe from becoming as static and disassociated as were Egypt and Mesopotamia. Come to think of it, the nomad Semites made Mesopotamian civilization less static though perhaps more disassociated. Egypt was as static as it was probably because it was the only one of the first civilizations that was not conquered by nomads.
This all sounds very heavy, but the result of the creative process need not be anything of great significance, it could be a catalogue of the ships that went to Troy for example. But regardless of how the results of creation look to an outsider, they always have a great value to the creator. First, the creator must be willing to interact with something which as yet has no form and is unknown and outside his control, and to do that he must respond to uncertainty in a particular way. Second, he does in fact interact, in the most profound way possible, with something that is completely real and that is outside his ego. The result, I assume, could be a television commercial, an academic paper of the driest and most limited kind or a landscape design for one's backyard. The result is secondary, all creative work, to the extent that it is creative work, has the same value to the creator—and that value would be difficult to exaggerate. We are not fully human except insofar as we interact with that which lies beyond our ego, our will and our control.
Again, this applies to that which is actually creative work. It does not necessarily imply that anything "arty" involves such interaction or such value to the person who does it, in fact as far as I can see, much arty activity is mere doodling and only has whatever value pretentious or unpretentious doodling has to the doodler. It is apparent that that which can meaningfully be called creative is not necessarily arty, and that which is arty is not necessarily creative. This does imply that true creation may or may not result in something impressive or spectacular or in something that would be commonly recognized as "art." The impressiveness of the result would depend, I suppose, on what the creator is interacting with and how vividly he sees it, on what is being said. I am not really interested in objectively judging other people's creativity, and I don't think that a good criterion that always applies is possible. I am interested in the value creation has for the creator, and that value seems to be basically the same whether the creation has resulted in anything earthshaking or not. Whatever else the creator is doing, he is in contact with something Real.
If one is in contact with something that is not a dream, then one is in touch with the source of creation and one will express that contact in a somewhat different way each time it is expressed. This is fundamental to the religion of the pre-philosophic Greeks and, as we have mentioned, we may regard it as a religious principle. Such contact is Sacred and feels that way, yet it is by no means a big deal and there is nothing in it to inflate the ego. That is inflated by our illusions and our attempts to avoid such contact, to avoid the lack of comfort and lack of egotism that are the hallmarks of being awake.
That is creation in general, that would have been thought of in the form of the Muses or any one of a number of European poetry deities. Knowledge and creation are inseparable, and they are furthermore inseparable from a certain response and a certain moral choice. The kind of knowledge and creation particular to Apollon and Odin is fundamentally the same as that of the Muses, but here the response is much more emphatic and the process comes much more obviously from the Edge. The Muses are creation in general, with Apollon and Odin a more specific thing is being said. I have already mentioned that the center of Hellenic culture during the high classic age was not rationality or form but a song—not song in general but a particular song.
Odin sought his knowledge by hanging himself and sacrificing his eye. But he was a God, we mortals never seek such knowledge and if we do we are probably confused and thinking about something else. If such knowledge indeed comes to us, it comes regardless of our intentions, brushing them aside. There is no profit in such knowledge, it is irrelevant to one's ego and to what one wants, and as creativity intensifies that becomes quite apparent. It chooses you, your job is to build your life around it, which you gladly do.
The dynamics are the same as with all creation. We find ourselves at the Edge, we perceive something there and we bring it into form, the last song we sing before we die. We are there, we have no choice. But we can choose not to know what we find there, and we can choose within our own minds to rebel, to deny—or to affirm and to interact with what we find there. That was the choice of Orestes, Oidipous and Sigurd. To choose what we find there, the Greeks called that Apollon and the Germans called it Odin. It feels like a song. It's on my side, and it makes me human.
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I promised we would get to that one time that Odin showed up in Egil's Saga. 373
Egil was somewhat on in years. One of his sons had already died and now his other son, the favorite of all his children, drowned in a boating accident. He saw to his son's funeral, rode home and locked himself into a four-walled closet bed. Old European halls were basicallyone big room, and so well-off people had these big wooden beds with four walls enclosing them. He locked himself in one of these.
He would not eat or drink or speak or let anyone in. He had not moved for three days and three nights, and his daughter saw that he would die. She said through the wall that her brother was dead and it was clear that he would die too, and that she wanted to go wherever he went. He let her in, and he was willing to talk to her. After a time she tricked him into drinking some milk, but he became angry, broke the drinking horn and would drink no more. She finally told him that his son would need a funeral poem and no one was capable of writing one but him—he was a well-known poet. He said that he was no longer able to write anything but of course he would have to try, and the result was the greatest poem he ever wrote. It is fairly long, it ends like this:374
I had good,
with Spear-lord Odin.
What we did together,
was true and beyond question.
I trusted him then,
more than a friend.
Odin, Vehicle to Wisdom
Odin, Judge of Victory,
has now betrayed me.
I do not sacrifice to Odin,
the Edge of God,
that I willingly see.
Yet wise Odin,
Has given me,
redemption from evil,
if the better of what he has done,
is to be counted.
Odin, Enemy of the Doom-wolf,
at home in Battle,
gave me poetry without blemish,
and that sense which I myself made,
to see through enemies,
by means of trickery.
Now is a difficult time.
The hard-sister, Death,
sister of the Doom-wolf and the Doom-dragon,
stands on the high shore.
I will fall with a glad heart,
with goodwill and without sadness.
I await her.
"Bolva baetr" literally means "redemption from evils." This redemption consists of what can stand as the two aspects of Odin, poetry and intelligence—which at bottom are one thing. Notice that Odin is not "Lord" except of spears, he is a companion walking the same path that Egil walks. "That I willingly see," is the translation of "at ek gjarn sja'." To Egil Odin is clearly "God" in the sense that we use the term since Egil blames Odin for his son's death. But at the same time and without contradiction, Odin is something very immediate and very real. Odin gave Egil the sense that he himself made, there is no contradiction. We have noted that, like the Greeks, the Norse poets use the word "God," and that they assume the reader will know what is meant. Like Homeros Egil sees God/the Gods in different ways at the same time. Odin as an individual God has broken Egil's heart, and will no longer be honored but Egil will not turn away from poetry and intelligence and vision, the immediate reality of Odin. He will not shut his eyes to the reality of Odin or of anything else. "The Edge of God" is the translation of "Gods jadar." We can look at the Edge from any angle we like, but there is only one Edge and that is what is being referred to.
373 Egil's Saga, 78.
371 Egil's Saga, 78. These are the last four stanzas of the first poem in section 78.
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The following is from Aeschylos, Agamemnon, 1178-1183. Kassandra has been brought to the palace at Mycenae. At first she will not speak, because she has a vision of her own and Agamemnon's imminent murder. The vision is indescribably painful and nothing mitigates that pain, but like poetry the vision comes from God and like poetry it is Sacred. Again, the vision is of her own murder. Then the silence breaks. She says:
"And indeed the prophesy will no longer shine forth from behind a veil like a new-wed bride, but as a brightness that is like the rising sun in the East, like a great spirit-wind, breaking like a swelling wave towards the light, greater by far than all this suffering."