Musings on Fire and Ice
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"Musings on Fire and Ice and Other Polarities"
“Of ice and fire the worlds are made,” declares the Hrafnar Seiđr “Journey Song.” The placement of this statement near its very end is no coincidence, as roughly speaking, the song runs backwards as it takes us on a quick tour (or not so quick to hear some tell it) of Norse mythology. Fire and Ice are our primal Polarities. My capitalization of these words is no accident. Fire and Ice function in the Heathen worldview somewhat as the “Four Elements” of Earth, Air, Fire and Water do in the Mediterranean-based magical systems. Everything around us and within us was ultimately born of and thus contains and partakes of both Fire and Ice.
There isn’t an “in the beginning” in our mythology. There really isn’t one in the Jewish creation myths (there are two of them in Genesis) either for that matter. When Yahweh said “let there be light” as his first creative act, his spirit was already “moving upon the face of the waters.” When Ice from Niflheim and Fire from Muspellzheimr came crashing together in Ginnungagap, the primeval “Yawning Chasm,” Yggdrasil, the great World Tree, was already there as were the two of the Nine Worlds just mentioned. No one, not even Ođinn, wisest of the Gods, knows from whence spring the roots of Yggdrasil, as is stated in “Ođinn’s Rune Song.” Still, like Ođinn, in order to fulfill our potential, we must keep seeking to know more and evolving to become more.
At the heart of Existence lies Mystery, and from that Mystery all that was, is and may yet be springs forth and ultimately must return to come forth again. Our Multiverse is in a state of constant flux, and this change was ultimately derived from the meeting of Fire and Ice, two “hostile” opposites whose collision led not to destruction, but to Life itself. The “eternal life” that some long for is not there. The Buddhist “doctrine of impermanence” is a closer match to the Heathen worldview. I for one am not complaining. Change and evolution are Ođinn’s stock in trade. Eternal life would be unimaginably boring. Fire continues to collide with Ice and thus creation in a sense is an ongoing process.
Here Heathenism’s viewpoint is simultaneously both ancient and very modern. Recent philosophers have emphasized learning to live with the “Mystery of Existence” as a solution to the existential dilemma of the modern, Post-Christian West. Just as the origins of Yggdrasil partake of Mystery in the deepest sense, so do scientific theories of the origin of the Cosmos. The Big Bang seems all but proven, but what made it happen, and why?
With the meeting and melding of Fire and Ice, the first polarities, cosmic evolution really got moving. They collided in Ginnungagap and from deadly heat and frozen rivers of venom, a warm environment conducive to the formation of life resulted. A Jotunn, Ymir was born. Male/female polarity did not yet exist, but from the sweat under his left armpit a male and female Jotunn were born, and one foot sired a son upon the other as he slept. Non-living Fire and Ice, by means of an arguably hermaphroditic primordial being, had produced male and female life capable of continuing the cycle of growth and evolution. However, this burgeoning new cosmic ecosystem needed nourishment. Just at the right time, the union of Fire and Ice produced a cow, Auđumla, who licked the salty ice blocks and produced milk for Ymir and his growing brood. As she licked, a man emerged over a period of three days. Despite the emergence of Male and Female, the spontaneous generation of life was not yet over! The man who emerged from the ice was the first Ćsir God, Búri. Perhaps there the Fire element was the heat and motion of Auđumla’s tongue.
Búri presumably married a Jotunn to produce his son, Burr or Borr, who in turn did likewise. His children were Ođinn, Vili and Vé, that is, roughly speaking Inspiration, Will and Holiness. Thanks to the union of another pair of Polarities, the primal Jotnar and the more “evolved” Ćsir, the Multiverse could move on to a higher level of organization. Miđgarđr and all it contains were about to take shape. However, another Mystery comes into play here. Ođinn and his brothers could only create by working with what was already there. Life feeds on Life. This can be a sorrowful Mystery but is a profound and necessary one, bearing much well-being and wisdom to those who can penetrate it, or more aptly, understand its penetration into them!
Thus the chaotic, primordial, and unimaginably huge Ymir had to die, and die he did! Killing Auđumla, their source of nourishment, was of course out of the question. When they killed Ymir, as a welcome but evidently unintentional side-effect, all but two of the Jotnar drowned in the resulting gore. Those two went on to repopulate their kind. The Jotnar too have their place in the scheme of things. If nothing else, the surviving Jotunn couple ultimately gave rise to the Etin-Brides, such as Gerđ and Skađi. From Ymir’s death sprang the entire living World of Miđgarđr and all its inhabitants, and Ymir still lived on through his descendants, both Jotnar and Ćsir.
Polarity can give rise to new, more developed forms of Polarity: from Fire and Ice to Male and Female. Then, from Male and Female we see the emergence of Jotunn and Ás. The Jotnar are seen by many Heathens as primal, instinctual Godhood, although some of them are fair to look upon and possess great wisdom. However, the beauty, wisdom and “human-friendliness” of Divinity take a big step up with the emergence of the Ćsir. Where, might you ask, are the Vanir in the middle of all this? We have no myth of their origins. Maybe they were just “there” all along!
Notice that one set of Polarities does not just go away when another is born. Fire and Ice are still with us and within us today. Maleness and Femaleness became a part of Jotnar, Ćsir, humans, and other creatures as they emerged into the Nine Worlds.
According to Thor and Audrey Sheil, there is one other Polarity set, as primal as Fire and Ice and perhaps as old as they are, as it has been present from the beginning on Yggdrasil itself. This final set of polar opposites is represented by the Eagle at the top of the World Tree and the serpent or dragon, Niđhoggr, at Yggdrasil’s very roots. Niđhoggr has much in common with the Jotnar. That isn’t a bad thing in its place. Primal instinct is needed to survive. To the Heathen, appetites are to be satisfied sanely and in moderation. If we didn’t eat, have sex, and fight to protect ourselves, humans wouldn’t have gotten past Askr and Embla and Ođinn and his brothers would have had to go back to the drawing board, or rather to the seashore! We Heathens as a rule don’t have martyrdom complexes or consent to be doormats. In appropriate proportions, a little selfish individuality can go a long way to insure that the individual survives, reproduces, and passes his or her genes (and knowledge) on to subsequent generations! We see this in the names of the two humans who survive the Ragnarök, Líf and Lífţrasir, “Life” and “Stubborn Will to Live.”
For the Sheils, the eagle at the top of Yggdrasil is much like the Ćsir. They identify it with Hrćsvelgr, the Jotunn in the form of an eagle at the northern end of the world whose beating wings create the wind. Hrćsvelgr embodies “the inspiration for evolution of self and species” (The Old Norse Magical Universe, p. 11). All this sounds pretty “Odinic” to me, and Ođinn, of course, has been known to take the form of an eagle! Aside from the obvious fact that eagles sit on top of trees and as a general rule snakes are more likely to be found in holes under their roots, it is fitting that the eagle occupies the higher position.
In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as found at the following website:
there are eight levels:
1) Physiological: hunger, thirst, bodily comforts, etc.;
2) Safety/security: out of danger;
3) Belongingness and Love: affiliate with others, be accepted; and
4) Esteem: to achieve, be competent, gain approval and recognition.
5) Cognitive: to know, to understand, and explore;
6) Aesthetic: symmetry, order, and beauty;
7) Self-actualization: to find self-fulfillment and realize one's potential; and
8) Self-transcendence: to connect to something beyond the ego or to help others find self-fulfillment and realize their potential.
Level 1 is clearly “pure” Niđhoggr. His influence wanes and the Odinic element grows as we ascend to the top of the hierarchy (often represented as a pyramid, which by a curious coincidence looks a lot like an evergreen tree). Level 8, at the tip of the pyramid, is for me the very essence of what Ođinn Allfather is all about!
Just as all these needs do not exist in isolation, neither do Hrćsvelgr and Niđhoggr. A squirrel, Ratatoskr, runs back and forth between them conveying the insults each utters about the other. The two Polarities are mutually hostile, but we need both to survive! As balance maintains the great World Tree and thus the Multiverse, we must seek to maintain balance within ourselves. It is not always an easy task. Both Polarities and the levels between them are all needed and must receive due, appropriate and proportional attention. Notice that in our myths, even after Ođinn sacrificed an eye in Mimir’s well for wisdom, stole the Mead of Poetic Inspiration from the Jotunn Suttung, and hanged himself on Yggdrasil to win the Runes, he did not take up celibacy or withdraw from the Worlds!
Here is another Mystery to ponder: Ođinn is the transcendent Allfather, but at the same time is a part of the Multiverse and thus subject to Wyrd! Yet another Mystery to consider is a more “earthy,” even “Vanic” one, and while much less pleasant to dwell upon is at the same time essential to holistic living: the reality of our Being as both animal and sentient creatures, and what happened when Christianity fell in love with the Eagle and tried to kick the Dragon out of the picture. Pretty much from Day 1 of its existence, Christianity has had a problem with physicality and sexuality. Its parent religion, Judaism isn’t that way, so I suspect that the early church was reacting against excesses in the “decadent” late Classical world. The stock phrase “the world, the flesh and the devil” pretty much sums up the traditional Christian attitude.
The problem with all this is that Niđhoggr cannot simply go away. When he is pushed out of his normal spheres of action, which include such things as seeing that we look to our survival needs, isolating degenerate elements and tendencies into their own subcultures, and working as an agent of cosmic breakdown and recycling, he has to act where he can, and the result is not pretty. By the way, this is not a result of conscious volition. Niđhoggr is as much a blind primal force as anything else.
The Catholic Church of late has provided us with an exceedingly unpleasant example of Niđhoggr in action. It is absolutely no coincidence that the Christian tradition that has repressed sexuality the most and pushed celibacy the hardest has also produced the biggest crop of clerical pedophiles! Unlike Heathenism, Christianity tends to work against nature rather than with it, and the Catholic clerical environment, from my experience of it as a former seminarian, tends to make the well sick and the sick even sicker. Certainly, while I was never a pedophile, I have been much happier and better adjusted since leaving Catholic Christianity and eventually finding Heathenism. That decision partook both of the Wyrm and the Eagle. On a gut level, I came to understand that celibacy, both for me and for most of the people with whom I had surrounded myself, was profoundly unhealthy. Ođinn was also making his presence felt. I was having dreams about him and had just read E. O. G. Turville-Petre’s Myth and Religion of the North for the first time! Just as in the myths, Thórr was right beside him. Thank you very much, Ođinn and Thórr!
I hope that this article will inspire you both to explore the role of Polarities both within yourself and in your surroundings and to seek to make the process of growth and evolution in your life a conscious one. In that manner, your progress will become less a function of the Rune Nauđiz and more that of Ansuz. Inspiration is a great deal more enjoyable than constriction! I close with the words of “Ođinn’s Rune Song,” “from a word to a word I was led to a word, from a deed to another deed.” As it was and is with Allfather, so may it come to be with all of us.
Crossley-Holland, Kevin. The Norse Myths. New York: Pantheon Books, 1980.
This retelling of our myths is popular among Heathens. Highly recommended.
Sheil, Thor and Audrey. The Old Norse Magickal Universe: Polarity and Cosmology.
New York: Trollwise Press, 1992.
-----. The Road to Bifrost Volume I: The Beginning of the Journey. New York:
Trollwise Press, 1991.
-----. The Road to Bifrost Volume V: The Mysteries on Bifrost’s Path. New York:
Trollwise Press, 1991.
-----. The Twisting Trail to Bifrost’s Way: The Journey Through the Northern Mysteries.
New York: Trollwise Press, 1992. All these works by the Sheils, sadly, are long
out of print.
Simek, Rudolf. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Trans. Angela Hall. Cambridge
(UK): D. S. Brewer, 1993. You have to get this one. Very useable and exhaustive.
For the most part, I have used Simek’s Norse spellings for beings and places in our
lore. Covers the entire Germanic world and entries are usually in the original
language and thus this book is a very good way to access the original forms
of terms from the lore.
Snorri Sturluson. The Prose Edda. Trans. Jean I. Young. Berkeley: University of
California Press, n.d. Very readable and a popular edition. Reprint of a translation
done back in the 1950’s. Does not include all of the “Poetic Diction” section.
last modified 11/27/2003