Copyright © 1985 by Theosophical University Press. All rights reserved.
Each human being expresses to a degree the divine consciousness which animates all life forms — Odin-Allfather, source of all the gods — and we sense our spiritual link with a greater life, our individual hamingja. Mentally we are intrinsically part of the intelligence that informs and infills the solar system, personified as the Freya principle; emotionally too we draw on the impelling energies of Idun and the ambient world. Our outermost carapace, the physical body, is fashioned from the material which is available in the sphere where we imbody, though it is modeled on patterns we have ourselves shaped in our long past by numberless choices and decisions.
While all the kingdoms of nature comprise the same ingredients, the degree to which they manifest the various qualities depends on the stage to which they have developed them. We who make up the human river of lives, while we possess all the faculties we have brought into play in our passage through the dwarf kingdoms, also exhibit the peculiarly human characteristics of self-consciousness and intellectual fire and, in our inspired moments, we have an inkling of the spiritual awareness that will be ours in future aeons. So, being human, intelligent to a degree, we are able to pursue our evolution toward godhood with knowledge and intent and so accelerate our growth as to earn the greater destiny that awaits us on the next rung of the ladder of conscious life.
In the mythic scriptures, in fairy tales, legends, and folk traditions, surely no tales are more inspiring than those that tell of the heroes who precede us on the pilgrimage we are making through spheres of life, noble souls who have attained a grander perspective, a greater truth, a more enlightened vision than we possess. In all ages and races there have lived outstanding individuals — Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, Avataras, "One-harriers" (Odin's warriors) — who have "taken the kingdom of heaven by violence," who instead of drifting with the stream in slow meandering growth have gained the goal of human evolution, where "the dewdrop slips into the shining sea," to use Sir Edwin Arnold's inspired phrase.
All mythologies contain some tales of the struggle of a hero, his trials, and either failure or success in overcoming obstacles — the echoes of his own past — to reunite with his divine self. In the West the best known story of initiation is that given in the Christian gospels, which contain many of the recognized symbols attaching to such an event. Another popular mystery tale is the Bhagavad-Gita, wherein the human soul receives the counsel of its divine Self in overcoming the familiar and often fond propensities of the human ego which must be vanquished. The Edda too contains similar tales, one of the most revealing being the beautiful allegory of Svipdag. (1)
Such legends are object lessons for those who desire earnestly to lighten the burden of suffering that afflicts the human race. Those who undertake the rigorous training of self-directed, accelerated evolution must of necessity by so much aid the progress of the whole and by example and encouragement incite a chain reaction of spiritual growth. Therefore those who desire most ardently to help their fellows escape the endless round of error and suffering to which mankind is subject, embark on a path of self-training of their whole nature so that they may aid and encourage the evolution of all.
Those who successfully complete this course, of all human enterprises the most demanding, when known, are universally revered as saviors and redeemers for they are the "perfect" who have nothing more to learn in the schoolroom of earth, yet return to help and teach those who lag behind them on the evolutionary ladder. The sagas which relate the trials of the initiant are the most popular and best known of all stories and legends, even in exoteric literature, though seldom recognized as such. In these adventure stories the hero must first become totally fearless for himself; he must wrest from the "dragon" of wisdom the secrets of "birdsong": this means he must know at first hand the structure and functions of the universe; he must be willing to sacrifice all personal ambition, even his own soul's success, to an all-encompassing concern for the welfare of the whole. One who succeeds in attaining such selfless universality becomes a coworker with the gods, a beneficent force powerfully impelling the evolvement of the world in which he is a component.
The fabled home of the Edda's elect, where the heroes go after being killed in battle, is Valhalla (val choice or death + hall hall). Popularized chiefly by the Wagner operas, Valhalla is one of the best known but least understood of the Norse allegories. It has become superciliously regarded as a humorous parody of heaven where rough-and-tumble Vikings go to carouse. Brought to this realm of the warrior god Odin by Valkyries, they are regaled with pork and mead each night, and each morning return to the fray only to be slain all over again. Valhalla is protected by many barriers: it is surrounded by a moat, Tund, wherein a werewolf, Tjodvitner, fishes for men. Its gate is secured by magic, and on the door of the hall a wolf hangs transfixed, surmounted by a blood-dripping eagle. In addition it is guarded by Odin's two wolfhounds. To understand the significance of all this we must define the terms used.
Each of the barriers to the Hall of the Elect is symbolic of some weakness that must be conquered. The warrior who would cross the river of time (Tund) and the river of doubt (Ifing) must maintain unwavering purpose and self-direction if he is not to be swept away by the turbulent currents of temporal existence. He must evade the bestial cravings of his animal nature (the lures of Tjodvitner) if he is to gain the other shore. Many scriptures use the allegory of a river. Buddhism, for example, speaks of four stages of progress, beginning with those who have entered the stream, and ending with those who have successfully reached the other shore. All nature is said to rejoice when an aspirant gains his goal.
Next, the candidate seeking Valhalla must overcome the hounds Gere (greed) and Freke (gluttony): he must avoid desire, even the desire for the wisdom he is seeking, if he is to obtain it. To find the secret of the magic gate, he must have strength of aspiration, purity of motive, and inflexible resolve. The wolf and the eagle must be vanquished and transfixed over the entrance to the hall to guard against their intrusion. This means conquering the bestial nature (the wolf), and pride (the eagle) — self-seeking in any guise which, like Proteus of the Greeks, arises in ever new forms to challenge those who approach the realm of the gods. All weapons of offense and of defense must be relinquished and transformed into the constructive materials that form the sacred fane. The walls of Valhalla are built of the warriors' spears, the roof is of their shields. Within the hall even protective armor is discarded: "the benches are strewn with byrnies" (Grimnismal 9).
The surrender of weapons is a hallmark of the Mystery tradition. The candidate for universality cannot, by the very nature of his quest, regard himself as separate from the whole; he can therefore have no use for divisive means of any kind, in thought, word, or deed. First to go are weapons of offense, as harmlessness is cultivated. Thereafter all means of defense are dropped and finally all personal protection of whatever kind. The One-harrier has stepped beyond the notion of separateness. His work lies not in the immediate but in the eternal. He is no longer bounded by a self but extends unlimited; the hero soul has discarded all personal concern, placing complete reliance on the divine law he unconditionally serves.
If these myths had originated among the Vikings who, according to one of their codes, even slept on their shields with sword in hand, this would seem out of character. Rather does it corroborate the theory that the Norse myths far antedate these warriors and stem from the same archaic source as other early traditions. For there is clearly much more than meets the eye in the Edda's poetic enchantment even when it is concealed within its sometimes bawdy anecdotes.
The plain of battle where the warriors each day contend is called Vigridsslatten, which may be translated as "the plain of consecration." It is reminiscent of the dharmaksetra — the field of dharma (duty, righteousness) — of the Bhagavad-Gita where the struggle between the forces of light and darkness in human nature takes place. In that classic many of his antagonists are the hero's friends and close relatives whom he must oppose, meaning character traits and habits of which he has become fond and which therefore are difficult to overcome. In both allegories the battlefield is man himself, where are ranged in opposing ranks all the human qualities, which themselves are the reflection of the properties of greater nature. The daily contest profoundly affects the evolutionary course of all beings. From time to time a One-harrier crosses over from the world of men to join the ranks of the gods; such rare forerunners who gain access to "the shining abode" unite their forces with nature's divine intent. The Valkyries, our own inspiring deepest selves, are ever searching the field of consecration for worthy recruits who choose to aid the gods in their unending labors toward the consummation of the cycle when mankind as a whole shall enter into its divine heritage and responsibility.
"The Hall of the Chosen glows golden in Gladhome," according to Grimnismal (8). Here Odin daily crowns the heroes after the battle. Here too, the One-harriers are regaled with ale or mead and are fed the three boars of air, water, and fire, that symbolize different aspects of the earth, for they are the essence of their experience during human life on this planet. The boars that nourish the One-harriers also represent creative powers, the energic aspect of three of nature's elements. Verse 18 in Grimnismal, if we substitute these for the corresponding three boars, would read: "Spirit lets mind be steeped in will and desire." Thus the higher self or spirit of man permits the human ego to be tested in the fires of the soul to prove its integrity. If successful, the man brings to birth his inner god, the mortal earns its immortality, uniting with the indwelling divinity.
Odin, Allfather, is the essence of universal creative consciousness on all levels of existence. The name is a form of Odr, universal intelligence (equivalent to the Greek nous and the Sanskrit mahat), whereof the spiritual soul of man is a child. Odraerir, mystic dispenser of Odr, is one of the holy vessels which contain the "blood of Kvasir" — divine wisdom (Greek theos-sophia). Kvasir was a "hostage" or avatara sent by the "wise Varier" to the Aesir. This is an enlightening hint indicating the descent of divine inspiration from sublime cosmic powers to the god world beneath, which is still far superior to our own. We may infer from this the continuous evolutionary pattern wherein Odin, Allfather to our world and divine root of every living being in our sphere, has risen from a formerly lesser condition and is now progressing toward superior stages, aided by the inspiration of still loftier divinities.
While in a general sense Allfather is implicit in all manifestation, Odin also has his own domain as a planetary spirit: his is the shelf named Gladhome, where is located Valhalla, the Hall of the Elect. Though Val means choice it also means death when it applies to Odin's warriors, the "One-harriers." Related to the Greek koiranos, "commander," the One-harrier is one who harries, commands, or controls, one — himself. Each has moreover elected to die as a personal ego and gained transcendency of consciousness into the nonpersonal, universal, realm of the gods. To put it another way, he has overcome the lesser human self and united with the cosmic purpose of life. This is a continuous process — of growth, hence of change, each change being a "death," a transformation from one state into another, usually from a less to a more perfect condition. The "crowners of the elect" (Valkyries) who bring the heroes to Odin's sacred hall are closely related to the hamingja or guardian angel, the spiritual soul, every human being's protector and tutor.
When Allfather welcomes his heroes to Valhalla, he is named Ropt, "the maligned," and in the Lay of Odin's Corpse, he is Nikar, the "ladler" of misfortune. These mysterious hints become clearer when we recognize that Odin is the initiator who, as well as instructing and inspiring, must subject the human ego to the contending fires of its own complex soul and cannot, may not sway the outcome of the trial. Hence it is only the successful initiate who knows the true nature of Odin, the hierophant, and recognizes the bringer of trials as Ropt.
Valhalla presents yet another aspect which links it with Eastern scriptures of remote antiquity: Odin in Grimnismal tells his pupil that there are "five hundred doors and forty more" to Valhalla; and that eight hundred warriors issue from each when Odin emerges to war with the wolf. Further we are told that there are five hundred and forty halls in bulging Bilskirner (the shining abode), the largest being "my son's" — the solar deity's. Multiplying 540 x 800 we get 432,000 warriors and the same number of halls. In both Babylonian and Indian chronologies this figure occurs in numerous ways. Multiples of it define specific astronomical cycles while, divided by various numbers, it applies to terrestrial events of greater frequency, even down to the pulsebeat of the human heart, generally reckoned as 72 beats per minute. It is itself the length in human years assigned to the Iron Age, in Sanskrit the kali yuga, when the forces of darkness are most challenging. Curious that this should be the number assigned to Odin's champions. It certainly hints vigorously at some common source from which these widely separated traditions have descended and at some hidden meaning which makes this figure recur in them.
It is significant that of all the Norse tales, the battles of the Elect should have gained the greatest popularity: even though we may be unaware of the hidden meaning, this theme has an appeal that will not be denied. On the plain of battle, or of consecration, we all daily meet formidable enemies: weaknesses of character and habits we have adopted, familiar foibles to which we have become attached — what the Gita calls our friends, relatives, and teachers.
For the human race evolution can be defined as developing awareness, an increasing comprehension of life. This is not mere knowledge of facts and relationships, nor is it just a growing understanding of ourselves and others; it entails a very direct realization and personal discovery of the spiritual unity of beings. With it comes a self-identification with all, well expressed in the words, "I am not my brother's keeper, I am my brother." The self is nonself. In the transition from a restricted inwardness of ego to all-inclusive self-transcendence, the human soul comes naturally to identify with all that is. The battle undertaken by Ygg's heroes, which gains them access to Valhalla, is the constant exercise of will, firm control of every thought and impulse, complete selflessness at all times, in all situations. The injunction, "to live to benefit mankind is the first step," (2) is tacitly confirmed in the epics of the Norsemen as is evident in the Song of Svipdag, where the hero, united with his hamingja — the Freya of his dreams — returns to perform "the tasks of the years and the ages." The ally of the gods seeks not merely to do good when opportunity occurs but to exist throughout with the paramount purpose of beneficence, constantly cited as characteristic of the deities, "the beneficent powers." The One-harriers have in fact died to their personal desires and been "virgin born," to borrow a metaphor from other myths, into universal concern, enabling them to take their natural places in what the theosophic writings call the Hierarchy of Compassion. Odin's heroes do not rest on their laurels but continue to play a vital part in the eternal struggle of life as allies of the gods.
Traditional scriptures hint that, ever since divinities descended among men and taught the early races, there have lived an unbroken succession of spiritual teachers, intermediary between the gods and humans, whose mission is to inspire and aid the human race in its evolution toward perfection. Such adepts in the art of living are the One-harriers. A divine ray may imbody among mankind from time to time as one of these superior men and women who have chosen the lonely road toward merging their human self with the divine essence at the core of being. Even among the highest gods messengers, "hostages," descend among their younger brother deities as avataric rays. Skirner (3) represents such a "hostage" to the human sphere.
Many are the tales linked with this motif, tales that relate how the evolving soul seeks its spiritual self, the Sleeping Beauty, or the Beauty on the Glass Mountain, accessible only to the valiant, pure, and totally selfless hero. He alone can draw from its scabbard, or from the anvil, or the rock, or the tree, the mystic sword of spiritual will placed there by a god. With this magic weapon he conquers the dragon, or serpent (of egoism), and gains inner knowledge, whereupon he understands the language of birds and all nature's voices. He must overcome all weaknesses, all temptations, surmount all fears, to be able, mounted on the steed of his obedient animal nature, to leap the flaming river that separates the world of men from that of the gods. There he gains reunion with his divine hamingja. The godmaker is become a god.
Incidentally, tales wherein the knight slays a firebreathing dragon, rescuing a fair damsel and saving the kingdom, may not all be mere allegory with no basis in physical reality. They are too universally prevalent to be lightly dismissed. While it is certain that they symbolize the hero's overcoming his baser nature and gaining his inmost heart's desire, it is also possible these symbolic tales may be superposed on a historical framework, which seems to be a common practice of myths. We may speculate on the possibility that the earliest human races of our round of life shared the earth with some at least of the giant saurians, whether winged, aquatic, or earthbound, before the latter became extinct. Who knows what lonely relics of once abundant species survived long enough to interact with early humanities? Any encounters with them which may have taken place would certainly have given rise to legends which would persist long after the events themselves were forgotten. If sea serpents qualify as mythic "dragons," we need not look very far back to find their traces; to this day we hear rumors of such "monsters" being spotted in Loch Ness and elsewhere. The mythic Scandinavian dragons are said to have emitted an overpoweringly nauseating odor which defeated many a would-be dragon slayer. Indeed it is daunting to think of facing some gargantuan crocodile with halitosis. But this is by the way.
The universal appeal of myths may stem from a slumbering yearning we all have, to perform valiant deeds of derring-do. Leading what may seem commonplace lives, we have a deep-rooted desire to achieve the conquest implied in the sagas, the inner victory of All-self over myself. The goal of human evolution must be attained eventually with or without our purposeful effort. We can drift along in a slow, unmotivated round of endlessly recurring mistakes and continue to suffer from the inevitable results of our unwisdom. We may also actively oppose nature's beneficent direction and with intense self-centeredness shrink our sphere of interest to a mathematical point and ultimate extinction. A third alternative is that chosen by the heroes who elect to pursue the purposes of the gods. Whichever course is embarked upon will inevitably lead to the moment when a choice must be made: either conscious existence as gods or dissolution in the waters of space as inert frost giant material, becoming ground on the mill of extinction. Skirner, in wooing the giant maiden Gerd on behalf of the god Frey, implies this as he threatens her with Rimgrimner, the icecold (frost giant aspect of) Mimer, ultimate matter-base of all universes. This would mean utter severance from the energic, divine power of the gods. Gerd is apparently a race of humankind who is given the opportunity to decide between immortality and annihilation.
To everyone there come moments when the whispered urgings of divinity are sensed within the silence of the soul. Those who answer the call to serve the gods and help alleviate humanity's future suffering are on the path to becoming One-harriers, heroes who muster the scattered forces of the soul under the single command of universal purpose, and who maintain this tenor through lifetimes of effort. It is simply an acceleration of the godmaker's natural evolution that these heroic souls undertake and by the destruction of personal egoism ally their powers with the long-range work of the gods in our world. It is this message we may find in myths: the initiation of a new kind of living. For initiation means "beginning." It is entering on a new sphere of duty, a more exalted and, to us, godlike arena of life. The "One-harrier" is crowned a warrior of the gods and undertakes to share with them "the tasks of the years and the ages."
1. Cf. Verywise's Exchange, p. 231 et seq. (return to text)
2. The Voice of the Silence, p. 33. (return to text)
3. Cf. Skirnismal, p. 248. (return to text)