One recent reader suggested that this blog had gotten bogged down in criticizing aspects of Norse Paganism that the author objects to. The suggestion was made that it would be good to devote more space to articulating a positive vision of the kind of Paganism that the author would like to see. This entry is a first step in that direction, building on ideas that have been hinted at and pointed to in earlier portions of the blog.
In Norse Paganism and many other European-derived religious traditions, as well as many traditions from other regions and peoples around the world, one of the most potent symbols of unity and interconnectedness among the many aspects of our existence is a tree often called a "World Tree," a mighty tree which rises from earth to sky, whose roots and branches reach out in all directions. In Norse tradition, this is Yggdrasil. In other traditions it has other names. It is the center of the universe in the Norse cosmos, containing within its expanse nine worlds in all, including ours, the world of mankind.
In Norse myth, the base of Yggdrasil is where the three Norn sisters, supernatural beings who may be more powerful than even the gods, carve runes that shape the past, present and future and determine the fates of all. The Norns also water the tree each day. Yggdrasil is also where the gods meet each day to hold council. It is on the tree that the god Odin hangs himself in a ritual of self-sacrifice, an action which gives him access to magical wisdom. "Ygg" is in fact an alternate name of Odin, and Yggdrasil means "the steed of Odin," as he "rides" the tree in his shamanic quest for knowledge.
The tree suffers from deer that nibble its branches and a serpent, Nidhogg, that snaps at it from below. When the end of the world comes in the poem "Voluspa," one of the indications of the coming doom is that the Tree begins to tremble. It is therefore something of a nerve center for the Norse cosmos.
We also have evidence that the World Tree was of great significance in pre-Christian worship of the Germanic peoples. The Saxons, a Pagan people who would ultimately be forced into Christianization by the armies of Charlemagne at the end of the eighth century, worshipped a great oak pillar symbolizing the world tree, which they called the Irminsul. When the Christian missionary Boniface came and cut down the oak, this act of disrespect and sacrilege likely contributed to the strife between the Saxons and the growing empire of Charlemagne, which would ultimately lead to a bloody war that was in certain respects a Holy War. The Saxons burned Christian churches, and the Christians demolished Pagan temples. On one horrific day in 782, Charlemagne had 4000 Saxons beheaded for reneging on an agreement to embrace Christianity. When the Saxons finally surrendered after 32 years of off-and-on war with Charlemagne, the terms of surrender included the death penalty for any further practice of Saxon Pagan religion.
The holy tree of the Saxons, the Irminsul, therefore bears a special meaning for Pagans today as a historical marker of the past suppression of Paganism by Christianity. Taken together with the Norse myths of Yggdrasil, as well as the similar World Trees of other traditions, we have a very good foundation in past tradition for seeing trees as proper objects of worship.
In our current time, when the world faces the possibility of environmental collapse brought on by unthinking human destructiveness, trees have become symbols of ecological awareness. Planting a tree has become emblematic of concern for the environment, and protecting trees and forests are key objectives of modern environmentalism, a form of "conservatism" that liberals, progressives, and even conservatives can get behind.
The World Tree is therefore a wonderful focus for a Paganism that is concerned with global welfare. It is a greater-than-human reality that suggests interconnection and the need to care and protect our world. It cannot be interpreted to support racism or narrow tribal concerns or self-centered individualism, but brings us out of our selves to a broader vision of human life rooted in the natural environment.
For these overlapping spiritual, historical and political reasons, the Tree is the perfect religious symbol for a progressive-minded Paganism. It also connects us to many other religious traditions in their own moments of reverence for nature.
Therefore, let us worship the Tree.
I invite readers to submit other myths and beliefs concerning sacred trees of other traditions.