ďOn the Interpretation of Lore:
A Gythiaís OpinionĒ
By Galina Krasskova
I have often heard it posited that 80% of our faith is derived from our lore. This has always puzzled me. I find the lore fascinating. I consider it essential. When I read, study and meditate on it, it takes me places and slowly has been opening up to me both in vision and understanding. But my love of lore, my understanding of its complexities, of our shared cosmology, of its secrets and symbology rests on the firm foundation of my direct experience with the Gods, to which the authority of lore must bow its head. I believe the secret to appropriately incorporating lore into oneís spiritual life is knowing HOW to interpret it, knowing which of the manifold meanings to pluck forth from within its often contradictory spectrum of interpretive wyrd at any given time.
I believe that it is a fundamental and all too common mistake to interpret or seek to interpret lore literally; not because it was funneled through Christian eyes (though that is a small part of it) but because it, in my opinion, forms the foundational Ďmystery schoolí of our faith. Lore is a doorway; it is a means, like the Kabballah of traversing the worlds, of entering that place between to pluck knowledge and power. I do not believe it was ever meant to be interpreted literally. The stanzas are doorways, keys to exploring the ever-unfolding process of creation, on a symbolic level one might say they form the very strands, the fabric of Bifrost. Yes it is absolutely foundational but not by itself alone. Study of lore presupposes oneís personal relationship with the Gods and is meant to enhance that bond. And it is that direct relationship, often passionately intense, that is the breath, blood and life-hue of any growing, evolving faith.
More importantly to the evolution of faith and the individual spiritual journey, inability to interpret lore beyond the literal levels of exegesis may negatively impact spiritual development. Locking one into a rigid preconceived stereotype of individual Gods most especially evinces this. Direct experience forms the closest relationship one will have with the Gods-- more than reading and analysis of lore, more than anything else because the Gods are infinite, and in trying to place them within limited confines like language we automatically lose something in "translation."
The most powerful moments in oneís spiritual life should be between a person and Deity. The completeness of that communion does not end with that initial experience but within the subtotal of the personís experiences when they relate that Divine communion to others. Each personís soul is shaped or limited by the experiences they have received up to that point so sharing of experience can complete parts of the spiritual soul-puzzle that might otherwise remain a mystery.
We cannot be limited by what is only in lore. Nor should we be so quick to completely come to a conclusion based on what piece of lore we happen to be reading at the time. There are no absolutes in the spiritual evolution and certainly lore is a complex web of ever evolving interpretations, all of which may be correct at any given time. And at any given time, what is correct interpretation for one person may not be for another.
The Gods do not fit themselves neatly into a wall of words. They do not lie frozen in time at the moment the last of the Eddas was transcribed, unless of course one considers Them fictional characters! On the contrary, They are living, vibrant Deities. Understanding evolves, as does the ability to interpret. Interpretation does not rest on a deification of our sources. Iíve seen lore used to marginalize the Gods too many times. (Had I paid heed to what was written in the Eddas about Loki Iíd have never worked with Him. However, I had no preconceived notions of this God when I began my spiritual explorations and He soon snatched me up and eventually deposited me at Odinís feet, a gift for which I am ever grateful. Suffice it to say, I find His motivations consistently misunderstood because He acts outside our comfort zones however the nature and role of the Trickster in general and Loki in particular is far outside the scope of this article and so must be left for another time).
To me, lore is like a guided meditation. Even when we (within our kindred) do our own guided meditations as a group, if we say go here and do this but someone sees something else or goes off on a tangent, we donít criticize them and essentially order them to stay with the program. The facilitator generally allows the divergence. This is because the whole purpose is to spark that communion with the divine. And that is the purpose of lore as well: to spark the communion with the divine not to limit it.
For example, one of my absolute favorite passages in the Voluspa is the strophe:
Breath they had not, nor blood nor senses,
Nor language possessed, nor life-hue;
Odhinn gave them breath, Hoenir senses,
Blood and life-hue Lothur gave.
(Taylor/Auden translation. Strophe 19)
On the most literal level of exegesis, this is fairly straightforward: it describes the creation of mankind. And certainly that would be a correct interpretation. However it is possible to go more and more deeply into the lore, rather like peeling away layers of an onion.
When I meditate on this stanza (and being an Odinís woman I beg the readerís indulgence: my primary focus is naturally given to the Old Man), the image comes strongly to mind of Odin exhaling life giving breath into oneís mouth. This brings to mind several different tangents at once: Odin as the wind and storm, the traditional alchemical meaning ascribed to air as that which opens the way, which clears away blockages and purifies, as cleansing. If Odin bestows breath which both cleanses and gives life then He is taking upon Himself both a nurturing and a healing function. If Odin gives us breath than with every breath we take we are in effect inhaling and imbibing the Divine essence of this God. He becomes sustainer and breath-giver. And such an intimate sharing has led me to utterly reinterpret not only his consistent quest for knowledge but the constant stereotype of Him as a God who is uncaring of His followers. This in turn has led to a deepening of my relationship with Him both in understanding, openness and intimacy. The cycle of breath both giving and receiving illustrates the profound reciprocity inherent not only in our relationship with our Gods (whether we admit it or not) but also with our ancestors. The macrocosm is revealed through the microcosm of word pattern and symbol.
Lore has potent symbols. That is never to be denied. It has powerful language and it provides a shared language in which to communicate the experience. One should hope that the purpose of lore is to share the Gods with like-minded people, not to completely define them. They, the Gods are sharing with us and what we take from that adds to our own experiences with the Divine. But no matter what it is, whether it comes from oneís own personal communication with Deity or from lore, the whole purpose is to add, not to declare this the Ďbe all and end all forever and ever amení complete interpretation, but just to add to oneís understanding and appreciation of oneís relationship with the Gods. Our whole spiritual lives, we are going to be adding to our definitions, our experiences, the level and intensity of our communication and relationships with Deity and lore is one of the many mediums in which these things can be accomplished. But it is by no means the only or the most important one.
Hail to the speaker,
Hail to the knower,
Joy to him who has understood,
Delight to those who have listened.
(Taylor/Auden Translation, "Havamal" final strophe)
1. The Poetic Edda Translated by C. Larrington. Oxford World Classics, 1996.
2. Poetic Edda, translated by P.B. Taylor and W.H. Auden. Faber and Faber, 1969.
3. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, by H.R. Ellis Davidson
4. Nordic Religions in the Viking Age, Dubois, Thomas. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999.
5. Shamanism, Eliade, Mircea. Princeton University Press, 1972.
6. Rites and Symbols of Initiation, Eliade, Mircea. Harper & Row Publishers, 1958.
7. Nine Worlds of Seid-Magic, Blain, Jenny. Routledge Press, 2002.
Special thanks to Rev. Jason Barnes, Fellowship of Isis for his thoughtful commentary during our many, many debates.
Galina Krasskova is gythia of Urdabrunnr Kindred in NY.