Odin and Gunnlod: the celestial shamanic message of the world's ancient sacred mythology by David Mathisen

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Odin and Gunnlod: the celestial shamanic message of the world's ancient sacred mythology
By David Mathisen

David Mathisen

In The Undying Stars, I make the argument that all the world's ancient sacred traditions are built upon a common esoteric system of celestial allegory -- and that the message that these esoteric myths intended to convey includes a shamanic-holographic cosmology of tremendous sophistication and profound import.  

Some readers may initially find the claim that essentially all of the world's sacred traditions -- from the Vedas of ancient India to the myths of Osiris and Isis and Horus in Egypt, and from the legends of the North American native peoples to the stories of the Old and New Testaments -- share a common system of celestial allegory to be just too much to swallow.  

However, once one understands the ancient system -- which is expounded in the book as clearly as possible, with accompanying illustrations -- the connections between the ancient sacred traditions are undeniable.

Odin and Gunnlod

Although Norse myths are not addressed in great detail in The Undying Stars, they are very special and personal to me, having grown up listening to the stories in D'Aulaires' Norse Gods and Giants from before I could read them myself, and reading them over and over once I could read (it is simply one of the best books you can give to a child, and is mentioned in this previous post as well as many others).  Also, of course, my father's father came to America from Norway, and so I always looked upon the Norse myths as the heritage of my ancestors (or, as the Old English word puts it, my "old-fathers").

Currently, the recumbent form of the constellation Virgo is high in the southern sky (for viewers in the northern hemisphere) during the hours of darkness prior to midnight -- it is one of the best times of the year for observing Virgo. Behind her, rising up out of the eastern horizon, one can now see the dazzling sinuous form of Scorpio, and further north along the line of the eastern horizon are now rotating into view the twin forms of the two majestic birds of the Milky Way: Aquila the Eagle and Cygnus the Swan. 

These constellations are incredibly important in the sacred mythologies of the world. Together, they participate in one of the most important stories in the Norse myth-cycle: the stealing of the mead of poetry from Gunnlod, the beautiful daughter of the jotun Suttungr (or Suttung, as his name is rendered in D'Aulaires' version -- the name means "Old Giant," according to a note in the Henry Adams Bellows translation of 1923 of the Elder Edda or Poetic Edda, available to read online here at Project Gutenberg: see note at stanza 104 in the Havamal, on page 49 of the original pagination, which is indicated by numbers inside square brackets, thus [49]).  

The story of the stealing of Gunnlod's mead is told in the Elder Edda in the words of Odin himself, in stanzas 104 through 110. In the Bellows translation linked above, the verses read as follows (Bellows spells Odin as Othin, and Gunnlod as Gunnloth):

I found the old giant, now back have I fared.
Small gain from silence I got;
Full many a word, my will to get,
I spoke in Suttung's hall.
The mouth of Rati made room for my passage,
And space in the stone he gnawed;
Above and below the giants' paths lay,
So rashly I risked my head.
Gunnloth gave on a golden stool
A drink of the marvelous mead;
A harsh reward did I let her have
For her heroic heart,
And her spirit troubled sore.
The well-earned beauty well I enjoyed,
Little the wise man lacks;
So Othrorir now has up been brought
To the midst of the men of earth.
Hardly, methinks, would I home have come,
And left the giants' land,
Had not Gunnloth helped me, the maiden good,
Whose arms about me had been.
The day that followed, the frost-giants came.
Some word of Hor to win,
Of Bolverk they asked, were he back midst the gods,
Or had Suttung slain him there?
On his ring swore Othin the oath, methinks;
Who now his troth shall trust?
Suttung's betrayal he sought with drink,
And Gunnloth to grief he left.

The verses may seem mysterious to one not familiar with the story (again a reason to own D'Aulaires' book!), but some help is found in the so-called "Younger Edda" or Prose Edda of Snorre Sturleson (AD 1178 - AD 1241), which can be found online here. In that translation from Rasmus Anderson, first published in 1879, we find the story of the marvelous mead in Part IV, "The Origin of Poetry."  

The interested reader may wish to follow that link to take in the full account from Snorre, but the short version is that the mead itself traces its origin to a pact of peace between the Aesir gods and the Vanir gods after their terrible battle and subsequent truce, during which truce the Aesir and the Vanir both spit into a jar, out of which mixed spittle they fashioned an entity known as Kvaser, who was so wise that none could ask him any question he could not answer, and who traveled the earth to teach wisdom to human beings. However, two dwarfs treacherously invited him into their house and slew him, letting his blood run into a kettle known as Odrarer (in the anglicization selected by Rasmus Anderson in the Younger Edda translation linked above, or as Othrorir as rendered by Bellows in the translation of the Elder Edda linked above), and into two smaller jars called Bodn and Son. The dwarfs mixed honey with the blood and produced a mead with the magical property of giving to whomever drinks it the gift of becoming a skald and a sage. These three containers of the magic mead eventually came into the possession of the jotun Suttung (who came to avenge the deaths of his mother and father, also killed by the same dwarfs, and who put them on a rock at sea where the tide would rise and finish them; they begged for Suttung to spare their lives and he did so in exchange for the marvelous mead). Here is the rest of the story from the Younger Edda, as translated by Anderson:

Suttung brought the mead home with him, and hid it in a place called Hnitbjorg.  He set his daughter Gunlad to guard it. For these reasons we call songship Kvaser's blood; the drink of the dwarfs; the dwarfs' fill; some kind of liquor of Odrarer, or Bodn, or Son; the ship of the dwarfs (because this mead ransomed their lives from the rocky isle); the mead of Suttung, or the liquor of Hnitbjorg.

[. . .]

Odin called himself Bolverk. He offered to undertake the work of the nine men for Bauge [one of the jotun brothers of Suttung; the nine men were Bauge's field laborers, whom Odin caused to slay one another with a scythe -- probably related to the stars of the Big Dipper], but asked in payment therefor a drink of Suttung's mead. Bauge answered that he had no control over the mead, saying that Suttung was bound to keep that for himself alone. But he agreed to go with Bolverk and try whether they could get the mead. During the summer Bolverk did the work of the nine men for Bauge, but when winter came he asked for his pay. Then they both went to Suttung. Bauge explained to Suttung his bargain with Bolverk, but Suttung stoutly refused to give even a drop of the mead. Bolverk then proposed to Bauge that they should try whether they could not get at the mead by the aid of some trick, and Bauge agreed to this. Then Bolverk drew forth the auger which is called Rate, and requested Bauge to bore a hole through the rock, if the auger was sharp enough.  He did so. [. . .] Now Bolverk changed himself into the likeness of a serpent and crept into the auger-hole. Bauge thrust after him with the auger, but missed him. Bolverk went to where Gunlad was, and shared her couch for three nights. She then promised to give him three draughts from the mead. With the first draught he emptied Odrarer, in the second Bodn, and in the third Son, and thus he had all the mead. Then he took on the guise of an eagle, and flew off as fast as he could. When Suttung saw the flight of the eagle, he also took on the shape of an eagle and flew after him. When the asas [that is, the Aesir] saw Odin coming, they set their jars out in the yard. When Odin reached Asgard, he spewed the mead up into the jars. He was, however, so near being caught by Suttung, that he sent some of the mead after him backward, and as no care was taken of this, anybody that wished might have it. This we call the share of poetasters. But Suttung's mead Odin gave to the asas and to those men who are able to make verses. Hence we call songship Odin's prey, Odin's find, Odin's drink, Odin's gift, and the drink of the asas.

Now, this incident is of tremendous importance, and I would submit that it is also clearly celestial in its major outline. The maiden Gunnlod, placed within the mountain Hnitbjorg by Suttung to guard the precious mead, and whom Odin treacherously deceives into giving him three drinks of her mead (after swearing a troth to her, as indicated in the Poetic Edda, upon his ring), is described in the Elder Edda as sitting upon a golden stool: this detail alone should alert readers of this blog to the possibility that the maiden (or virgin, which the word signifies) is a manifestation of the sign of Virgo the Virgin. See for example the discussion in this previous post (with links to supporting discussions in earlier posts).  

The outline of Virgo in the sky (which you can see this very evening, if you have good weather) clearly resembles a woman seated upon a throne or a golden stool, and goddesses who are related to this constellation are often depicted upon a throne in sacred traditions around the world (see image below of an ancient depiction of the Pythia or priestess at Delphi, seated upon her tripod, along with the outline of the constellation Virgo and a drawing of the titaness or goddess Rhea seated upon a throne):

Odin and Gunnlod

Further support for the identification of Gunnlod with Virgo comes from the fact that she is described as dwelling within the mountain or rock called the Hnitbjorg, which Maria Kvilhaug (following the analysis of Svava Jacobsdottir) translates as the "Collision Cliffs" or "cliffs which crash together" and identifies them with the Symplegades of Greek mythology, in her important examination of the maiden and mead theme in Norse mythology entitled The Maiden with the Mead (published in 2004; see page 49 for the discussion of Hnitbjorg and the Symplegades).

The Symplegades or "clashing rocks" are almost undoubtedly a myth-metaphor for the equinox, as discussed in some detail in this previous post, and in more detail in Hamlet's Mill (1969; see page 318), by Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend (as well as in my previous book, The Mathisen Corollary -- see page 85).  The constellation Virgo, of course, is located at the very gate of one of the equinoxes: in fact, at the fall or autumnal equinox, where the sun is plunging down from the bright world of the summer half of the year, in which days are longer than nights, to the cold world of the winter half of the year, in which nights are longer than days. In other words, Virgo is located at the gates of the metaphorical "underworld," and so (as Maria Kvilhaug convincingly argues in the text linked above) is Gunnlod.

The image below, discussed in previous posts such as this one (which explains how the lower half of the year is allegorized as Hell or the Underworld in various myth-traditions, including those in the Bible), shows Virgo at the edge of the fall equinox and the gateway to the underworld (she is drawn as a queen in the zodiac wheel shown in the image; the two equinoxes are each marked with a red X):

Odin and Gunnlod

Note also the point included in Snorre's prose version of the event in which we find that Odin (under the name of Bolverk), worked for Bauge all summer, but when winter came he asked for his pay. A clearer indication that we are discussing the transition point between the upper and lower halves of the wheel of the year could not be asked for.

But the identification with Virgo is supported by much more celestial evidence than even this (in case any readers remain skeptical at this point). It is a clear fact that Virgo is situated directly above a constellation known as Hydra, the serpent (the longest constellation in our skies, according to H.A. Rey), upon whose back sits a constellation known as Crater the Cup. This cup features in many ancient myths from around the world, and it is almost certainly the inspiration for the containers of precious mead in the myth of Odin and Gunnlod.

Odin and Gunnlod

But that's not all, because in the myth of Odin and Gunnlod, we see Odin transform himself into a serpent in order to bore his way into the cave of Gunnlod, and then into an eagle, in order to fly away with the stolen mead after he betrays the beautiful maiden who gave him her trust and shared with him her bed. It hardly needs to be stated at this point that we find both of these constellations in close proximity to Virgo.  

The serpent of Hydra, of course, has already been stated -- although the slithery form of Scorpio (also nearby) was anciently depicted as a serpent in some myths and sacred stories as well.  

The constellation of Aquila the Eagle rises directly above Scorpio as one traces northward from Scorpio along the shining path of the Milky Way. Clearly, then, the Eagle is very close to the Virgin in the sky, flying as it does above the Scorpion, who follows the Virgin in the zodiac (behind the faint scales of Libra, which are between Virgo and Scorpio and can currently be easily located due to the fact that the planet Saturn is located in Libra in the night sky).

The forms of Aquila the Eagle and Cygnus the Swan, flying in close proximity in the belt of the Milky Way, are very important in ancient myth and legend, and they are breathtaking in the night sky (currently they are rather low in the east until after midnight, but later in the summer they will be high in the sky and together with the bright star Vega in Lyra they form the famous Summer Triangle with each of their respective brightest stars). See a diagram of their outlines, along with the outline of the Milky Way, in this previous post, reproduced below. With this image in mind, the next phase of the myth of Odin's acquisition of the mead, in which Suttung also turns into an eagle and chases after the fleeing thief, becomes quite evident: 

Odin and Gunnlod

If these celestial connections are not enough to convince the skeptical reader, there is yet one more that can be touched upon, and that is the conclusion to the chase, in which Odin spews out the mead that he has carried inside of him, most of which is collected by the Aesir in pots that they set out on the heavenly fields as they see the pair approaching, but some of which falls to earth for the benefit of anyone who finds it. Here is an illustration from an Icelandic manuscript from the 1700s of the pursuit of Odin by Suttung, and the spewing-out of the marvelous mead:

Odin and Gunnlod

Knowing that the two mighty birds of the celestial realm are both found flying in the midst of the stream of the shining Milky Way, is it not possible that the story of the spewing forth of the mead in this particular myth is connected to the band of the Galaxy, which can be seen descending to earth in a misty ribbon like a silvery waterfall during the time of the year that the constellations Aquila and Cygnus are aloft?

Now, some readers may object that showing the connections from this profound Norse myth, which is full of tremendous drama and pathos and insights into the human condition, to the constellations of the night sky will somehow rob it of its magic (just as Odin himself robbed Gunnlod of her poetic mead).  But I would argue that the opposite is true! For, as Maria Kvilhaug herself has powerfully demonstrated in The Maiden with the Mead, the import of this myth touches upon deep matters of initiation, shamanic transformation, and ecstatic travel across the boundary of this world and into the "other world" (the ecstatic or mystical or shamanic journey). And, as I labor to demonstrate in The Undying Stars, which I wrote and published before I even became aware of Maria's work, this is exactly one of the esoteric teachings which this universal system of celestial allegory was intended to convey (see this and this previous post). The constellations of Eagle and Swan can also be shown to be quite important in shamanic cultures worldwide, as argued in this previous post.

Not wanting to know the esoteric connections hidden in these exquisite and moving ancient myths is like never wanting to be shown how the trinomial cube (itself a beautiful piece of material artwork) relates to the higher concept of the trinomial equation which it represents and which it was intended to teach (see this previous post, entitled "Montessori and 'thinging'").

Finally, it is important to be able to show these connections between the events in a mysterious and austere Norse myth found in the Elder Edda, and the stories found in other sacred traditions -- including the stories of the Old and New Testament (in which Virgo furnishes the original for many Biblical characters, including Eve, Sarah, and Mary, among others). Some of these stories, the reader may note, also involve a deceiving serpent. He just happens to be named "Odin" in the Eddas.

This fact demonstrates that the ancient sacred traditions, as they were originally intended to be understood, were all close kin. It was only when the literalist tradition arose, and the esoteric understanding of the Biblical stories was rejected in favor of a literalist approach which insisted the stories be read primarily as historical accounts of literal persons who walked on earth, that followers of that literalist path declared their faith to be totally unrelated to all the other sacred traditions of the world.

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