Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Twilight Selves: Cannibalism, Werewolves and Identity Part #2

(This is Part 2 of a series. The first is available here.)

So, have you been thinking on the things you know that others do not? The mysteries of code, the runes of circuit and mechanism, the rituals of spreadsheet and year-end? All these and more are incomprehensible to many.

How do you accept such things as normal, as easy and mundane? There are things in your life which appear arcane to those not living as you. Whether it be a hobby, or occupation, take a moment to examine the things in your life which you perform and may sometimes use as an identifier.

I, for example, write things like this. If you look at my profile, you'll see 'writer' there. Not particularly arcane, you may think. Except I spend a good portion of my time stringing together words in varying combinations in order to affect *you*, the reader. I could no more cease stringing these words together than you could stop your heart beating without risk of damage.

Take away a keyboard, and I'll write with a pen and paper. Take those away and I'll compose pieces in my head, use my tongue and lips to form words and speak them out loud. It's like breathing to me. I cannot cease playing with language.

Thus I identify as a writer. Rhythm, language, communication; I love these things, I really, truly do. To me, there is glory and ecstasy in it; to evoke a response in the audience and lead you in a certain way to show you things - this is what I do.

For others though, the idea of choosing to write words on a page is a chore, a necessary evil rather than an attempt at art. It's not a matter of glory and and wonder, it's simply utilitarian.

And that's fine, because it illustrates the point we're making here; there is a difference between the two groups I have outlined. I could say that writers and thinkers will intuitively understand the compulsion I am speaking of. I might say that non-writers will not understand the brutal horror of the blank page, or conversely, are incapable of experiencing the thrill of possibility that same brutality engenders.

Of course, that would be elitist. A cadre of writers, artists and poets who intuitively understand the world in a unique and important way, vital to the rest of humanity; this would be the narrative I would be situating myself within, rubbing shoulders with all others who've identified as a writer.

But in the last post, I promised you I would show you how mythic analysis can help you to parse the seeming contradiction of the wolf-pack and cannibalism:

On my personal blog, I've discussed the Germanic conception of luck and might and how it ties into the notion of kingships, heroes and power. Such things were held as transferable properties, able to be lost or stolen, and more importantly, won through great deeds.

Whereas most feudal monarchies claimed their authority from the Divine Right of Kings, wherein God ordains the lawful king, pre-Christian Germanic traditions often claimed descent from the gods directly – by blood and affiliation rather than dogmatic assertion.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle gives the following genealogy for Penda, a pagan 7th Century King of Mercia, in a time when most rulers had converted to Christianity:

'Penda was Pybba's offspring, Pybba was Cryda's offspring, Cryda Cynewald's offspring, Cynewald Cnebba's offspring, Cnebba Icel's offspring, Icel Eomer's offspring, Eomer Angeltheow's offspring, Angeltheow Offa's offspring, Offa Wermund's offspring, Wermund Wihtlaeg's offspring, Wihtlaeg Woden's offspring.'

Both the Chronicle and the poet Snorri Sturlson mention such divine genealogies within the Angle and Saxon tribes. The latter, although a Christian, is mainly responsible for the preservation and recording of the tales which we know as Norse mythology.

Snorri was a renowned poet, historian and politician. Twice elected to the highest legal office of Iceland, he was influential enough to be a thorn in the side of King of Norway, which indirectly led to his death at the hand of a chief named Gissar.

History records that Snorri received a warning letter informing him of the intent to kill him, but as the runes were ciphered, he could not read it. For all his influence, it was the arcane and specialised form of writing which prevented him taking steps.

Those myths preserved by Snorri present the god Odin as the chief deity of the Norse – pater familias of a pantheon of gods including Thor, Loki and Freya. This arrangement appears to be something of an attempt to model the old gods along Classical lines.

However, regardless of any such attempts, archaeology seems to indicate that the majority of Icelanders honoured Thor in their pagan days, while Odin was reserved for poets and the aristocracy.

Often sinister and nearly always morally ambiguous, Odin shares a root name with his Anglo Saxon and German counterparts – Woden and Wodan respectively. This Proto-Indo-European root is *wodh which is variously glossed as madness, fury, or poetic inspiration. The suffix implies a mastery thereof, and so it is no surprise that Snorri, as a poet, might seek to place the god in his proper place.

Modern depictions of Odin often focus on his aspect as a god of war and slaughter – legions of metal fans know the name from countless songs. Death, sex, battle and darkness – all these thrill, and more importantly, sell records.

It is Odin who hanged himself for nine nights to gain the runes, pierced by his own spear. It is Odin who is said to have brought the gift of poetry, albeit indirectly, to the world of man. As an exemplar of cryptic wisdom, and even the physical image of the wizard – all long grey beard, funny hat and staff – the god stands squarely in archetypical territory.

But what has this to do with the wolf-pack and the cannibal?

Consider the previously stated fact that it was Odin who was honoured by the aristocracy - the kings and powerful folk in Germanic society. Now, imagine why these luminaries would ally themselves with a figure surrounded by wolves and ravens.

Conjure the images in your mind; the fields of corpses, a veritable feast for the black birds with shining eyes and knowing calls. Or perhaps the speed and lethality of the wolves, acting together to bring down their prey, pitiless in pursuit?

In society where most are illiterate, the power wielded by those who knew the runes as alphabet – quite apart from their purported mystic dimensions – is great. Consider also the notion of Valhalla; a post-mortem existence in which scarcity does not occur, where men may fight, fall, and rise again endlessly, until the final doom of all things where they may perish utterly in one last world-shaking battle.

At first glance this mythological reflex might seem similar to the notion of Paradise or Heaven so beloved by the Peoples of the Book, however it may be examined further in relation to the wolf-pack in ways which are useful to us.

(A subsequent post will address the place of the eschatology of Christianity, Judaism and Islam in relation to these issues.)

First of all, one of Odin's by-names is anglicised as Valfather, literally 'Father of the Slain' implying that all those who fall in battle are inextricably connected to that god. Indeed, though first pick of the fallen warriors passes to Freyja, she takes only half, and Odin the other.

These warriors are hence known as the 'Einherjar', or 'lone fighters' in Old Norse. Bold and valorous, they have attracted the god's attention and are brought to Valhalla by the valkyries. Etymologically, both '-herjar' and 'harry' seem somehow connected:

O.E. hergian "make war, lay waste, ravage, plunder," the word used in the "Anglo-Saxon Chronicle" for what the Vikings did to England, from P.Gmc. *kharohan (v.), from *kharjaz "an armed force" (cf. O.E. here, O.N. herr, O.H.G. har, Ger. Heer "host, army"), from PIE root *koro- "war" (cf. Lith. karas "war, quarrel," karias "host, army;" O.C.S. kara "strife;" M.Ir. cuire "troop;" O.Pers. kara "host, people, army;" Gk. koiranos "ruler, leader, commander"). Related: Harried; harrying.

The former of these two has been linked to the Harii tribe by Orchard, Simek and Lindow, of whom Tacitus writes in his Germania c. 1 AD:

'As for the Harii, quite apart from their strength, which exceeds that of the other tribes I have just listed, they pander to their innate savagery by skill and timing: with black shields and painted bodies, they choose dark nights to fight, and by means of terror and shadow of a ghostly army they cause panic, since no enemy can bear a sight so unexpected and hellish; in every battle the eyes are the first to be conquered.'

Consider the bond between warriors in a given band; an elite grouping capable of striking fear into their enemies; they attack at night and use terror tactics to win their battles, combined with natural skill. By coming out of the night, they defy the usual rules of war, and with fear as their ally they become a feared foe, catching the enemy at its weakest and most unprepared; the victory may be achieved more easily than a straight fight, as proponents of guerilla warfare have found, the world over.

Military hazings, gang tests and ritual initiation – these are born of the same reflex. By ensuring all members are bonded by experience and activity, the individuals identify as part of the group. They are an elite, sharing qualities, experiences and knowledge; identity shifts so that the definition of individual self necessitates partaking of the group-self.

Indeed, the former identity may be destroyed, and the newly initiated pack-member may survive; in short they may 'die' and 'rise again'. Combine this with scenarios which subtly alter the position of consciousness - whether by ritual, ordeal, or entheogenic consumption – and we are presented with a journey of the psyche which may mirror those in other so-called shamanistic cultures.

Indeed, as god of magic, a figure such as Odin may be regarded as having strongly shamanistic overtones.

Plus, the runes themselves are held to be Mysteries, containing more than simple shape and sound values, rather like the notion of the Greek stoicheia - elements – or the mystic attributions to Hebrew letters. The sense of such mysticism is one which is grounded in elitism – only the initiated can comprehend the full utility of the symbolism.

Finally, one cannot invoke the idea of Odin without considering the notion of the berserker. The 9th century skaldic poem Haraldskvæði describes the ulfheðnar 'men clad in wolf skins' as follows, emphasis mine:

I'll ask of the berserks, you tasters of blood,
Those intrepid heroes, how are they treated,
Those who wade out into battle?
Wolf-skinned they are called. In battle
They bear bloody shields.
Red with blood are their spears when they come to fight.
They form a closed group.
The prince in his wisdom puts trust in such men
Who hack through enemy shields.

Further, in Ynglinga Saga, Snorri writes:

Odin could make his enemies in battle blind, or deaf, or terror-struck, and
their weapons so blunt that they could no more but than a willow
wand; on the other hand, his men rushed forwards without armour,
were as mad as dogs or wolves, bit their shields, and were strong
as bears or wild bulls, and killed people at a blow, but neither
fire nor iron told upon themselves
These two quotes suggest a significant change in consciousness which alters the berserker at the biophysical level, a frenzy which caused the Norwegian King Harald Finehair to make good use of them in battle during his campaign to unite the kingdoms of that country.

All these considered, these facts imply that there is a link between the extra-ordinary and the idea of power, something which is deepened when one considers that ravens and wolves are often eaters of carrion. This motif is intrinsically linked with cannibalism as an ability and desire to consume that which is thought beyond use through social convention.

Truly, when one opens up to cannibalism and consumption of the dead, more food becomes immediately available, removing one from the privations of scarcity. This allows prosperity when others are short on resources, something which is extremely valuable when enmeshed in dynamics of power.

The pillar of the community maintains their position by the employment of wolfish tactics; the state cuts the most vulnerable of services and repurposes its funding. The werewolf bite is contagious, and soon it becomes the case that the weaker packs are cannibalized, gobbled up.

The tactics which make the aristocracy/plutocracy so successful are hence demonised when they are external to it – wolves which are not part of the power-bloc are hunted down and killed, just as all berserkers were eventually outlawed in medieval Iceland – by the 12th century, berserker bands had all but disappeared.

But the nature of a werewolf is literally a wolf in human shape, and thus it might be said that it is difficult to discover their existence. Guerilla strategy and tactical dissimulation are still options, despite indications to the contrary. In the next post, we'll examine how eschatology and warfare combine to form acts of creative resistance – in short, how to remain in the twilight and prosper under seemingly impossible conditions, by being true to that '[O]ther who hides in me' as Machen puts it.

Until then,

Be seeing you.
Pre-order a copy of The Immanence of Myth, published by Weaponized in July 2011.

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