The Northern Way

The Cult of Othin

Note 3

Page 2

“Some of its fruit is to be taken out and burnt for the sake of women who are in travail” (5) is identical with that popularly assigned to the 'Vårdträd' (cf. Mannhardt, p. 56). So also the position occupied by the Vårdträd in close proximity to the family house corresponds not only to that of the Upsala tree beside the temple, but also to that of Læraðr (and Olasir) beside Valhöll. Even Bugge (p. 499) admits that these holy ashes have influenced the doctrine of Yggdrasill. But I fail to see what elements in the conception of Yggdrasill could not have been developed out of the Vårdträd. Just as Valhöll, the warrior-paradise, is a copy of an earthly court, so Yggdrasill may be copied from the Vårdträd which stood beside the court. Yggdrasill is by no means consistently represented as including all things; besides the passage quoted above (p. 76) from Skáldskaparmšl, mention may also be made of Grimn. 29, which represents the gods as coming to exercise justice under the ash Yggdrasill---a picture which may very well be drawn. from real life. There are indeed only two poetic passages in which the ash Yggdrasill is definitely represented as a 'world-tree,' namely Fiölsv. 19 (cf. p. 74) and Grimn. 31. In the latter case it is stated that Hel, the Hrímþursar and the human race dwell under the three roots of the tree. In all other passages Yggdrasill may be interpreted as a heavenly Vårdträd. It is true that much is obscure in the representation of Yggdrasill, e.g. the use of the words miötviðr in Völ. R. 2 and miötuðr in Fiölsv. 20 (and Völ. B. 46 §). Yet I can see no great difficulty involved in the transition from the conception of Yggdrasill as a tree whose life is bound up with the fate of the world to its conception as an all-comprehending world-tree. The association of Yggdrasill with the fate of the world comes naturally enough from its character as the Vårdträd of the gods. The different stages in the growth of the conception may briefly be indicated as follows: [1] Each community has a (material) Vårdträd, the life of which is bound up with the fate of the community; the tree at Upsala would seem to have been the Vårdträd of the Swedish nation (though originally it was no doubt the Vårdträd of the local community). [2] When Valhöll became depicted after the likeness of a human community, it had necessarily to be provided with a Vårdträd of its own. [3] When the conceptions of Valhöll and Asgarðr became confused and a complex theological system resulted; and when at the same time speculation began to pass beyond the ideas of family and tribe, and to take the whole human race into account, there arose the idea of 'the world,' a community embracing all beings, human, divine and demonic. This community was then provided with its Vårdträd, Yggdrasill, the life of which was bound up with the fate of the world.
       The properties of the heavenly immaterial Yggdrasill seem to have been transferred thereto from its earthly material prototype. This applies not merely to its size, its position and its medicinal properties, but also to the uncertainty felt as to its origin, at least if the words cuius illa generis sit nemo scit have anything to do with mangi veit af hverium rótum renn. These words need not denote the immaterial character of the tree, but rather may mean simply that the seed from which it sprang was unknown. Therefore, though in Fiölsvinnsmál the expression af hverium rótum renn is applied to the heavenly Yggdraaill, this need not be the case with the parallel hvers hann af rótum renn in Hávamál. These words may be nothing more than a poetical circumlocution for Vårdträd. So also with regard to the name Yggdrasill, it has been shown (p. 74) that, even if this means 'Othin's horse,' it does not necessarily imply that it was the horse (i.e. gallows) which Othin himself rode; it might also denote the gallows on which Othin's victims were made to ride. There is indeed no explicit statement to the effect that Othin's victims were hanged on the Vårdträd but there is nothing improbable in the idea. Adam of Bremen (IV. 27) states in his account of the Upsala sacrifice: corpora (i.e. of the victims) autem suspenduntur in lucum qui proximus est templo is enim lucus tam sacer est gentilibus ut singulae arbores eius ex morte uel tabo immolatorum divinae credantur. What relation the 'tree' in Schol. 134 bears to the 'grove' in the text is not clear, but there is nothing improbable in supposing that it formed part thereof. Hence I can not see that there is any valid reason for disbelieving that the name Yggdrasill may have been applied to the earthly Vårdträd, and transferred together with the conception of the tree to its heavenly copy. It is perhaps worth calling to mind that the name Sleipnir is used for a gallows in Ynglingatál (Yngl. s. 28).

It is assumed both by Bugge (p. 297 ff.) and Golther (p. 350) that the sacrifice was a self-sacrifice on the part of Othin. Yet this is not stated in the text. The words gefinn Óðni sialfr sialfum mér can, so far as I can see, mean nothing more than 'given to Othin myself to myself,” i.e. Othin is both the person sacrificed and the person to whom the sacrifice is offered. There is no indication that Othin was also the sacrificer or that the sacrifice was voluntary on the part of the victim. The words of the Shetland song quoted by Bugge (p. 309), whatever may be its value, practically exclude such an interpretation; and they derive a certain amount of support from the opening lines of Háv. 139. The statement of Bugge and Golther, so far as it has any foundation at all, must be an inference from Ynglinga s. 10, where the dying Othin is represented as having himself marked with the point of a javelin (lét hann marka sik geirsoddi; of. p. 13 f.). It is of course by no means certain that the events related in the two passages (Háv. 138 and Yngl. 10) are the same. If their identity be not admitted, Bugge's (and Golther's) assumption must be rejected as baseless. The identification is however ingenious, and on the whole I am rather inclined to think it may be right. The chief difficulty is that there is no reference to hanging in Ynglinga s. 10. But in the following chapter Niörðr also is represented as having himself marked with a javelin before his death (cf. p. 14). Niörðr is identical with Saxo's Hadingus who commits suicide by hanging himself (I. p. 60; see agove, pp. 17, 35).
The acceptance of this indentification does not of course involve the adoption of Bugge's theory. A far more probable explanation of the myth is that it arose out of the desire to explain the ritual of sacrifice. Othin is above all a god of the dead, and his abode is the 'hall of the slain'; but how far the ancients in heathen times conceived of his having lived upon the earth, is not clear. So soon as this belief had arisen, and with it the idea that he passed to Valhöll by death, the conditions for the conception of the gallows-myth were at hand. Possibly also a misunderstanding of the term 'Othin's horse' (Yggdrasill, Sleipnir), as a name of the gallows-tree, may have contributed to this end. The objection urged by Golther (p. 350; cf. also Bugge, p. 304) against the view here put forward, namely that Othin would not be represented as choosing the form of death which was suffered by prisoners of war, is unfounded. This method of death was sacrificial, and though in later times the victims were no doubt usually prisoners, slaves or criminals, this appears not to have been the case in the earlier stages of the religion (cf. p. 27 f.). It is sufficient here to refer to the case of Hadingus---Niörðr.
The bearing of the story related in Gautreks s. 7 (p. 3 f.) on Háv. 138 is obvious. The nature of the connection between the two passages ought to be equally clear, namely that we have in both cases a picture of the ordinary ritual of sacrifice to Othin. I can not see the slightest ground for supposing with Bugge (p. 315) that the story in Gautreks saga has been influenced by the myth of Othin's hanging. That it should be based on the passage in Hávamál is incredible.
       Lastly some reference must be made to the interpretation of Háv. 141. According to Bugge and Golther the idea of Othin's increased vitality in this verse is consequent on his death in str. 139. Golther (p. 349) goes so far as to regard str. 140 as an interpolation, and Bugge (p. 353, n. 3) seems inclined to think it has got out of its right place. But I can see no obvious reason why str. 140 should have been inserted here, if this was not its original place. Again, I can not see why str. 141 should have any reference to str. 139. The natural interpretation is to take str. 138, 139 together as an episode complete in itself, and str. 140, 141 as another episode, Othin's increased vitality being represented as due to his acquisition of Óðrerir. The key-words to the whole passage seem to me to be the almost synonymous rún and lióð. These serve to connect the two episodes, and at the same time to link them on both to what goes before (str. 137 and the preceding strophes) and to what follows. There seems to me to be no need for any change in the order of the strophes.


5. Killisiúkar is an emendation suggested by Bugge. The MSS. have kelisiúkar ('hysterical,' according to Vigfusson). It is perhaps worth notice that among the ancient Prussians, according to Lucas David I. 137 f. (quoted by Voigt, Geschichte Preussens I. 583), the embers of the sacred fire of oak-wood were credited with medicinal properties. Back

Index  |  Previous page