Book Review 

A New Look at Ancient Norse Myths

By Ingrid Van Mater

Why do myths persist and continue to enchant us even though we have long since forgotten their inner intent? A new book, The Masks of Odin: Wisdom of the Ancient Norse, [By Elsa-Brita Titchenell, Theosophical University Press, 1985; 316 pp., glossary, bibliography, index.] addresses this and many other questions. It reminds us that myths are old, yet forever young: "anonymous and timeless," their message is "as eternal as boundless space," compact of wisdom which in the guise of stories keeps unbroken our heritage of all that has enduring value. Elsa-Brita Titchenell has produced a noteworthy contribution to this field of study, both in the intuitive decoding of the mythic symbolism and in the integrity of her translation. Her fluent style and occasional light touches make this penetrating work highly readable. As a longtime student of theosophic philosophy, she acknowledges that in seeking to find the "core of inspired meaning" concealed in the Edda -- her primary purpose in writing this book -- she is indebted particularly to H. P. Blavatsky's The Secret Doctrine, which shows the majestic pattern underlying the world's cultures and myths and gives valuable keys to understanding them. The discoveries in Western science in this century have also alerted her to allusions in the stories which otherwise might have passed unnoticed, such as the winged wagons mentioned in the Edda, and the solstitial connections with some of the ancient stone circles and henges.

The book, divided into two parts, begins with commentaries on a wide range of mythological themes which provide a groundwork for interpreting cosmogonies in general, as well as prepare the reader for the lays in Part II. The introductory chapter describes myths as a time-capsule containing the wisdom of a distant past. Then follow significant topics such as cosmic, terrestrial, and human evolution; the continuum of births, deaths, and rebirths of worlds and humanities; Yggdrasil, the Tree of Life; the awakenment of mind; initiation and the meaning of Valhalla. The interaction of gods and giants as "complementary poles of spirit and matter" forms the basic structure of the sagas.

Part II comprises the principal lays of the Poetic or Elder Edda with brief excursions into other sources, each preceded by an explanatory note. Familiar with the Scandinavian languages, the author has compared the Swedish and Icelandic texts to produce a fresh translation as faithful as possible to the original, selecting those tales that have particular relevance and meaning in our time. For added interest the Voluspa, best known and most comprehensive of the lays of the Elder Edda of Saemund the Wise, is photographically reproduced from the original manuscript, the Codex Regius. There are no other illustrations as the author aims to de-personify the gods and giants, preferring them to reveal themselves as the vast range of forces and substances they represent.

Considerable emphasis is given to the fact that myths are not mere fanciful tales, but a mystery-language, understood by those prepared to see in them what they really are. The names and the host of "kennings" of the old Norse gods and giants are part of the symbolism, and it is essential to know their connotations and etymology in order to grasp the deeper thrust of the verses.

The very name "Edda" tells its own story. Its meaning, great-grandmother, suggests its antiquity and can be extended to imply matrix or source. It is undoubtedly a treasury of universal wisdom ranking with the world's greatest scriptures, having remained in a purer form than many other traditions. The spiritually enlightened bards or skalds of long ago -- descendants of the mythmakers -- recited the epic sagas of the history and destiny of worlds and men with captivating imagery, alliteration, and rhythm ages before they were written down.

Odin, chief among the Edda's gods, Allfather, divine root of all, appears in some disguised form in almost every lay. Hence the title, The Masks of Odin. His many functions are explained in the text, but he is primarily the "divine pilgrim" searching the world of matter for experience or "runes of truth." Everything is ensouled by Odin-Allfather, from the elemental world of trolls and tomtes, through the mineral, vegetable, and animal kingdoms, to human beings and the various levels of gods, as one of his names, "all ye holy kindred," implies.

One of the most dynamic gods in the Norse pantheon is Thor. He represents the entire electromagnetic spectrum of energy and keeps all things in motion during their life cycle. His mighty hammer, Mjolnir (mill), "both creates matter and mills it to extinction"; its svastika form symbolizes "whirling motion."

The verses relating to the various stages of closing and opening cycles of worlds are dramatic, primeval, and filled with poetic suggestion, as in Voluspa (48, 49):

Mimer's sons arise. The dying world tree flares
At the sound of the shrill trump of doom.
Loud blows Heimdal, the horn held high.
Odin confers with Mimer's head.
With a roaring in the ancient tree
The giant is loosened.
The ash, Yggdrasil,
Quakes where it stands.

Each of the lays has a distinct character. For example, The Lay of Odin's Corpse, one of the most mystical, tells of the deep stillness of a world in suspension, waiting to be reborn, while in the last verse Heimdal appears again and blows his horn as "Up rose the gods. Forth shone the sun/Northward to Niflheim night drew away" and a new world comes into being.

The Lay of Rig describes the awakening of mind, a decisive step forward in our human evolution when a ray of the sun-god Heimdal, calling himself Rig, imbodied in humanity in three stages. This event is symbolized by a doorway which was first closed, then ajar, and finally wide open. Gradually we grow in self-awareness and discernment as we pursue a long pilgrimage as godmakers (asmegir). These stories of our human struggles sharpen our awareness of the god-giant influences that contend within us, in that Loki more often represents his mischievous, trickster aspect (lower mind) than the inspirational higher mind, when he is called Lopt. Many are the levels of consciousness, and grades of worlds, material and spiritual, through and in which we have gained and will continue to gain experience. The Lay of Grimnismal tells of twelve levels of worlds called "shelves," from Gianthome to Lidskjalf, the Shelf of Compassion.

In her chapter on Initiation, the author interprets the many significant features of Valhalla. It is here, in Odin's realm, where his One-harriers, warriors who have triumphed over the barriers surrounding Valhalla, earn the right to enter. It is a strong and beautiful allegory of the pathway to the gods; the soul is stirred, and we identify with Odin's warriors who are the true heroes in the Norse myths. They are the self-conquered who, under the tuition of the Valkyries (their higher selves), choosing to engage in compassionate service to all, have joined the ranks of the gods where "the Hall of the Chosen glows golden." Giving up their weaponry to help build Valhalla, they have relinquished all that is personal, having transmuted their desires into qualities befitting a god. In this sense, says the author, Valhalla can be understood as the Hall of Death and also the Hall of the Chosen, the Elect.

Far from claiming to have exhausted the wealth of material in the Edda, Elsa-Brita Titchenell hopes other scholars will be able to penetrate further the mists surrounding the Norse and other mythologies. Always there is more to be discovered. After reading The Masks of Odin there is no question but that myths contain an "indestructible core of truth," which has inspired humankind through all ages. The illuminating ideas in these pages answer a need in our present world "to restore spiritual reverence and reason to human endeavor."

(From Sunrise magazine, October/November 1985; copyright © 1985 Theosophical University Press)

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