Thursday, November 19, 2009

A Blameless Life-Time: Wisdom from Beowulf

Sæll og blessaður, Bjarnharðr!

Before I launch into the next phase of our little talks together here- a deep and meticulous study of Voluspa and Heathen Cosmology- I wanted to take a moment to talk about one of the most treasured and precious pieces of history that have come down to us from the ancestral past- that of the majestic work called "Beowulf". Most high school students have to read it or learn about it on some level- or at least, they did when I was in high school- but nearly everyone's heard of it now thanks to the popularity of movies that have been made showcasing various versions of this great work.

You and I and Thorgrimmr have already seen the finest film adaption of Beowulf ever done: "Beowulf and Grendel" starring Gerard Butler. The fact that it was filmed in Iceland, with the storytellers and director deciding to set it in Pagan times (and showcasing a Blot and a Symbel, among other things) was excellent.

For those former Dungeons and Dragons fans, the Ray Winston version (with a delicious computerized Angelina Jolie as Grendel's mother) was good, mostly eye-candy, but I didn't prefer it to the grittier, earthier version with Butler. I remember the good times we had watching these things. Up here in the rafters of the world, with our long, cold days and pitch dark nights, I think about those good times often.

Even though the version of Beowulf we have in written form was written down in Christian times, it has been pointed out in dozens of places how the pre-Christian values and beliefs of the original tellers of the tale come out easily and clearly. And we have much to learn from it. Chiefly, I think, we can all learn about living in a noble way, following an ancestral example that never loses its power to make us good men and women, to make us brave and worthwhile examples of what humanity is capable of.

You Get A Life-Time

Some Heathens I've met find it hard to maintain their "Heathen religiosity" from day to day because they lack simple, straightforward things like reminders of what it means to be noble, simple daily rites which orient them towards the chief messages of our faith, and a focus on what makes a Heathen life so powerful and desirable. I think about this a good bit, and I've shared with you, some essays back, a good and simple "righting" ritual that you can do each day, and which I hope you have continued to do regularly. But we can take this further, to the next level as it were.

When I find myself wanting to be reminded of why we do what we do, and believe what we believe, I think about a "human life-time" and think about what that really means. Most people, it seems, consider themselves to be waiting around to die; time (in the common view) is subtracting minutes and days from us, until we inevitably perish from this earth- and in the meantime, we make ourselves successful or comfortable however we can. This idea separates the concepts of "life" and "time". There is, in this way of seeing, a life, and time is "outside" it, working upon it, diminishing it.

But truly, a "Life-time" is a measure of time that is also a life. You really can't separate the two- this time that is wearing away from me and you and all of us- it IS our lives. Your life-time is a power given to you, not an abstraction born from knowledge of passing time. It is a thing, a force. What will you do with your life-time? This is your life force spreading out, interacting and communicating with so many other powers to which it is solidly connected in the web of Wyrd- and it was woven with a destiny. The Norns scored on wood the Runes of your life-time. What do those Runes say?

We can find out together, and you can find out in the company of others, but you alone must also find out. Spreading out your vital life-force, that "life-time" power, you can change this world... or should I say, the world will change along with you. That is how Wyrd's weave works.

My life-time means many things to me, but I didn't really begin to live perfectly like a Heathen until I grasped that my life-time is my precious gift from the Gods and Fate. I'm not sitting around, passively waiting for death, I'm expressing my life-time, every minute, every day. In one sense, you can describe the observation of your days as "waiting" for death, but in my way of seeing, I don't do much waiting for death. I do a lot of "doing" before it gets here.

Death has little to do with with a true life, in the final analysis; death is just a word, a name we give to the point in the perceptual sequence of events when my life-time no longer directly involves the living world above the ground, but goes on being woven off in deeper reaches of Wyrd's tapestry.

In the meantime, I have a life-time to live. So do you. Think about this carefully again- "time" isn't against you, or stealing from you. Your life-time is a power you are wielding, a power that is you, too- a power you are wielding in this world towards destiny. Your life-time is you happening.

Buddhists have their mindfulness, Christians and Muslims have their faith, and we have our destinies- our lifetimes and our inherited ancestral powers and dooms. By powers and dooms, I mean the assets we have inherited from our ancestors; their wisdom, their bravery, their beliefs, and our own urge to live well and with joy and peace (the "powers") and our fateful ends, the constraints laid upon us by Orlog or the Fateful unfolding of the world (the "dooms").

These aren't bad things to have, friend. We're rich and we are blessed- even our deaths and the end of all things at the collapse of the Nine Worlds is a blessing. The story is great and the story has a beginning and an end, before its new beginning. It's beginning is great. It's ending is great. The new beginning is great. It's all very fatefully enduring and exciting. The most important thing, I think, for any Heathen to remember is that the essence of our way isn't found first and foremost in rituals of religion or books of theology, but in how we live our lives. Your whole life-time, and the noble way you live it, is the essence of Heathenry.

While the story is being told, we have many great gifts to help us live well, to use those life-times in the best way we can. Beowulf, as a literary work and a part of the fund of Ancestral Wisdom, never fails to show me good ways to live and think about the world. I wanted to share some of those with you, today. I have the wonderful illustrated edition of Beowulf, with translation by Seamus Heaney- the best I've ever read.

The Blood Flood and Hrothgar's Speech

We haven't yet gotten to the detailed discussion on Voluspa, but from your own readings by now, you probably know that Odin the Allfather was believed by our ancestors to have shaped the world from the body of the first great giant, Ymir. This act of creation is tinged with an act of violence; Ymir had to be killed first, and his blood created a great flood that drowned nearly all of the giant-kind that he had spawned from his mighty bulk. This myth of the "blood flood" is our ancestor's reflex of the common "great flood" myth that you get in many Indo-European sources, and otherwise.

All acts of creation are, in a sense, acts of violence, of force- force for changing what is there into something new, in accordance with your own creative vision. Even the organic act of creation manifested by women- the shaping and birthing of children- is not without a bloody cost in pain, trauma, and danger.

From the bloody tides of that first flood, a new order arose. The depth of these metaphors is not something we need to go into now; it is enough to hear it so that you know that the "God" of Beowulf- the one who is credited with drowning the giants who are mentioned in the story- is Odin. The christian recollection of the flood in this case was almost certainly laid over the original Heathen sacred tale of the blood flood.

In the transition from Heathendom to Christendom, Odin (as you will see) and Tyr end up being remembered the most in the new names, titles, and powers that are ascribed to the new conception of "God" that would arise. Odin, for his creation-powers, destruction of giants, and the like; Tyr, for his power guarding justice and right. You can 'see' the older divinities coming through in the new beliefs.

In Beowulf, lines 1687-1708, Hrothgar gazes at a relic from old times- a sword from the age of the Giants which was before a great flood that killed them, which was being given to him as a gift- and the narrative mentions the story of the giants. Hrothgar speaks his own honor and qualifications as a man, before he enumerates Beowulf's positive qualities as a hero, to thank him for this mighty gift.

Hrothgar spoke; he examined the hilt,
that relic of old times. It was engraved all over
and showed how war first came into the world
and the flood destroyed the tribe of giants.
They suffered a terrible severance from the Lord;
the Almighty made the waters rise,
drowned them in the deluge for retribution.
In pure gold inlay on the sword-guards
there were Rune-markings correctly incised,
stating and recording for whom the sword
had first been made and ornamented.
with its scrollworked hilt. Then everyone hushed
as the son of Halfdane spoke this wisdom.
"A protector of his people, pledged to uphold
truth and justice and to respect tradition,
is entitled to affirm that this man
was born to distinction. Beowulf, my friend,
your fame has gone far and wide,
you are known everywhere. In all things you are even-tempered,
prudent and resolute. So I stand firm by the promise of friendship
we exchanged before. Forever you will be
your people's mainstay and your own warriors'
helping hand."

The entire story of Beowulf is a focus on the duty of a man, a hero, coming to the aid of his kin, and those he has oath-bonds and bonds of affection with. He aids them in their darkest hour; his glory, in my opinion, is greatest because his song of honor, told down the ages, does not begin with Beowulf seeking some empty quest for personal glory, but answering a call to help kin and friends. Certainly there is an element of glory involved, but the duty he responds to is one demanded of bonds between people.

People sometimes wonder at this entire "glory seeking" ethic. In the Christian world, it came to be seen as vanity and ego to seek personal glory in this world. The Christian ethic is very much against the ancestral heroic way, and always has been. I myself can't see the harm in telling young men and women to seek glory in this world, to seek to be remembered for doing great things in the name of their people, their Gods, and their own personal power. This would, in my way of thinking, motivate our people to great deeds. And we know that the Allfather promises lasting memory for those who do truly great things. The more the merrier, I say.

Hrothgar's Goodness

In the verse I gave you above, two things stand out, with respect to ethics of living. Hrothgar describes himself in this way:

"A protector of his people, pledged to uphold
truth and justice and to respect tradition,
is entitled to affirm that this man
was born to distinction...

Hrothgar's praiseworthy qualities, which none in his assembly could or would dispute, were these: he was a protector of his people, a defender or upholder of truth and justice, and a defender of tradition. To be a protector of one's people needs little explanation. You have a family and friends, some of whom are Asatruar, but many who are not. They are all your people.

To be their protector is a great honor and a real duty. Wyrd wove you among them. Protect what is good in them. From the stone age till now, it is a primary duty of every man and every human. The Gods recognize it as virtue and it will increase your power and reputation in this world and the other. And it is just the right thing to do- in line with the right order of human beings and the entire world.

Truth and Justice are the two most common social virtues praised, right before the "American way" in these parts. Forget the "American way" (an oblique reference to capitalism) for a bit; let's talk about Truth and Justice. While I don't think they need much tossing about, it is interesting how much they both emerge in the ancestral literature. What does it mean to uphold the truth?

For me, it can't mean that we have to discover some universal, incontestable "truth" out there, as much as it refers to how we treat others right here, around us. It has to do with how we treat the world around us in our lives. When you know how you feel about something, don't mislead another on your feelings, in a conversation, just to manipulate their feelings (normally in the name of "protecting" them or avoiding their ire). Say what you feel, or simply say nothing; re-direct the conversation.

Those little "white lies" add up quick. We seldom ask ourselves why we say the things we say, but when we focus on truth, we add quality control to our words, which the Allfather suggests should be fewer rather than too many.

Upholding truth goes a step further. The "truth" I'm talking about is the truth of your hall, the truth of your people, the truth of your social setting. This isn't an invitation to high-level philosophical speculation. If you know that people hate one another, you uphold the truth by helping them to stay apart, but not candy-coating the feelings of one side to the other. If you know that someone among your social gathering has harmed another in an unconscionable way, you cannot take part in the deception that covers it up. It is better for all to know what has occurred, especially the parties directly involved and anyone else affected, so that a fair resolution can be created. Truth is never about dividing, ultimately; it is about integrating and resolving.

Local Justice

If you keep the truth "local" you begin to see another dimension of it that has long been hidden, it seems, from our sight. Justice follows the exact same pattern- justice for the ancestors wasn't about some universal standards of right, but what was agreed upon as "right" and "fair" by local assemblies, by the people, by local custom. Hrothgar "upheld justice" by upholding his people's legal traditions, by judging matters that needed judging in accordance with what his people agreed was right and good.

When it comes to justice, friend, you are the local assembly. It begins with you. Search your heart. What things leap out of your heart as "fair"? The "assembly" needs to continue with your nearest and dearest. Talk to them about these things. Our sense of "justice" has become absorbed in a national legal code and a state legal code that tries to apply similar penalties across the board for crimes that may have amazing variance in motivation, impact, and the like. We forget that our legal codes are not universal codes; our current legal systems and doctrines are much larger and expansive than anything the Ancestors ever had, and they hold sway over many more people than the Ancestors ever knew.

And that can be dangerous. You know that in most cases, a person who shoplifts from a store and is caught will be arrested, held at low bail, and convicted for some level of theft or larceny and (the first time) given parole, made to return property or repay the debt, and later placed in prison for several months, and finally several years (if they keep it up). Most people don't think about it past this. But what do you think? Does it feel or seem fair?

You know what prison does to people. You know that anyone convicted of anything has an automatic lifelong negative record following them around, which definitely inhibits them in many ways for the rest of their life- our society has little notion of people redeeming themselves.

The penalty for shoplifting is "just" because it follows our social legal customs. That's all "justice" is- the words of the social jurists and the lawmakers, purporting to bestow equity and righteousness, penalties and decisions (theoretically) in accordance with "rightness"- the right way of things. Do all of our laws reflect RAIDHO, the Mystery of the Right Order, the true "way" of things? Absolutely not! I didn't even need to ask!

It is my belief that the smaller group-society of the Ancestors had a greater chance of evolving local customs of law in accordance with the "rightness" of things.
Don't let someone else's notions of justice drag you away from your heart and your home. Think about it for yourself. Speaking from the records of the ancients, "justice", even locally, seemed to nearly always involve a sense of fairly requiting wrongs with fair recompense. To "fairly requite" means that you don't expect a man who took a sheep from you to have his head sliced off, but you do expect him to repay you the value of what you lost.

The ancestral records reveal communities of people more or less concerned with those who were wronged being compensated, and those who wronged being given either expulsion from a community, or a chance to redeem their wrong through repayment or service.
There is a constant inter-personal exchange element in the ancestral thinking which speaks clearly and needfully to us today.

The ancestors fought long and hard to avoid bloodshed within their societies; despite the "barbaric" reputation which was manufactured for our ancestors by others, they had many amazing social mechanisms in place to avoid killing in response to killing (many preferring to receive compensation for dead family members or kin, instead of taking blood-vengeance) and they certainly used banishment or outlawry far more than simple "death sentences" on people who could no longer be tolerated in a community.

A "wrong" that went against local custom or law was not just a wrong against a victim, but a wrong that affected all parties involved- meaning that some were owed compensation, and others were simultaneously locked into a debt that needed to be discharged in a prescribed manner.

One might say that a whole "sub-system" of new relationships, bonds, and expectations was born when a wrong deed was carried out.
How the victims pressed for their rights, and how wrong-doers discharged their debts, said everything about the virtues of either side. This is relevant today, I think, when we are 'wronged' on any level, either by friends or even strangers.

When you live among your family and friends, you will all evolve your own notions of what "just" treatment of one another is. Uphold what conclusions you all come to, that your heart thinks is fair. Always remember the difference between the true local justice of the heart and kin-bound mind, and the "justice" of the nation and the states. What motivates so many of our laws? What motivates your own thinking on what is just? Our laws are motivated largely by concerns of money, protection for the greedy and powerful, and Judeo-Christian ethics. YOUR laws, your feelings about justice, should be motivated by something else entirely. And these thoughts will shape how you treat others.

Hrothgar's last accolade was that he was "pledged to uphold tradition"- the ancestral traditions (including religion) that were passed down to him. You now have a tradition to uphold, namely the religious ways of Asatru. Kings in the old days were the chief priests of their people; the king is who made sacrifices on behalf of all. The King's goodness and rightness as a person was reflected in the luck of his people as a whole.

You may not be a king over people, but you are a king over your own mind and life. Your goodness and rightness- found in how you protect your family, uphold truth, think carefully about justice, and uphold the troth or faith of the Gods and ancestors- these things will increase your mind and your life, empowering your life and your life-time with an excess of might and motivation for great deeds. It will also carry you to a meeting with death that can come with serenity, and a destiny beyond that will be noble.

Beowulf's Honor

Hrothgar goes on to praise Beowulf, by saying:

"Beowulf, my friend,
your fame has gone far and wide,
you are known everywhere. In all things you are even-tempered,
prudent and resolute. "

"Even tempered, prudent, and resolute." This is a formula for a man or woman of intense power. To be even-tempered means that you are master of your tempers and moods, not the other way around. Even when you feel anger or grief, you can integrate those emotions in your soul in such a way that your own face and behavior and judgment does not become compromised or disturbing to others.

To be prudent means to wisely consider your deeds now and how they will affect the future; to be resolute means that you do not compromise with wicked powers or people, when your own people or virtues are on the chopping block. And Fate weaves many little chopping blocks for us to possibly lose a little more of ourselves relatively often. It takes strong men and women to stand against the temptations, the laziness, the greed, the malicious nature of other people and their attempts to intimidate us.

If you want your lifetime to have real meaning, it needs to be strong, needs to be a fertile ground for vigor, creativity and the capacity to be free. If you want it to be strong, work on being as even-tempered as you can be (steer the boat of emotions between the sharp rocks left or right!) be as prudent as you can be, and stand resolute against those forces and people who care nothing for you or your most sacred beliefs, and your friends and family. If it was praiseworthy in Beowulf's character, it is safe to say it will be praiseworthy in yours.

Beowulf's Declaration at Death

When Beowulf comes to death, he makes this final statement about his life as a king:

"For fifty years I ruled this nation. No king
of any neighboring clan would dare
face me with troops, none had the power
to intimidate me. I took what came,
cared for and stood by the things in my keeping,
never fomented quarrels, never
swore to a lie. All this consoles me,
doomed as I am and sickening for death,
because of my right ways, the Ruler of mankind
need never blame me when the breath leaves my body
for the murder of kinsmen."

Amazing! Here is a creed for life, recited at a man's death, which is most certainly in the "Right way" of things. Because Beowulf was so resolute, neighboring enemies would not face him, knowing he would not back down or be intimidated. He "took what came"- meaning he endured what Fate wove for him- he cared for what was in his keeping, the lands and people and customs entrusted to him. These are all the prime attributes of a Heathen king- along with generosity, of course. But it comes down to standing up for you and yours, being resolute and brave, and enduring what hardships come your way.

Beowulf was also a ruler who protect frith and peace- he, in his words, never helped stir up quarrels nor helped, through manipulation, to keep quarrels going; and he never swore to lies. Again we come back to the importance of the truth and the importance of peace. Last and most importantly, he never murdered kinsmen. I don't have to tell you how awful the blood of your own loved ones being spilled is; how exponentially more awful to know that you did it yourself, or colluding in the deed! This would be one of the ultimate crimes against the Right Way of things.

And in his last hours, these truths about himself- these simple truths- this way of life that put him within the "right way" of life, console him. Like they consoled him, they can and will console men like you and me if we make the effort to express these things with our life-times.

The "Ruler of Mankind"- Odin or Veratyr, the "God of Men and All Beings" from our lore, will face all of us when we die. We will see him, and he will pronounce a doom on each dead. What you can be sure of is that a man or woman who shows the qualities attributed to Beowulf and Hrothgar will not be blamed by the Allfather. In death, there will be no evil for them.

There is no room to worry; even the best Christians have to wonder about God's judgments, for none can really know, until the moment comes, where they will wear out their eternity. For we Heathens, however, we are blessed with a certainty about this. The Allfather and the Gods do not shun, hate, or despise men and women who live according to virtue. And the doom in death for those men and women is not tangled in any sort of doubt.

Be well,

Your friend, Ule Alfarrin

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