Thursday, April 8, 2010

Odin and the Buddha

Watching the fine documentary about the life of the Buddha that premiered Wednesday,7th April 2010,on Public Television ( in the USA, I was moved by many elements of the Buddha's life story and message, but by one aspect above all: the emphasis on compassion in Buddhism. This is seen not simply as an ethical teaching--that it is nice to be nice to other people and living beings--but also as a crucial spiritual practice, that helps us to feel more connected to others in the world, and to the world in general, and to thus get beyond our egotistical selves. This spiritual dimension of connectedness and compassion is something that I find missing in most modern Norse Paganism, and I suspect that it is not well-developed in other forms of Paganism too. I see this as a failing both of Pagan spirituality and Pagan ethics, but I believe it can be remedied.

There is a lot of discussion of ethics in Norse Paganism or Asatru, but much of it revolves around the idea of warrior honor and loyalty to one's family and tribe. I don't doubt that these are good values, but I still see them as inadequate in comparison to the Buddhists' larger sense of connectedness and compassion, which is also echoed in other religious traditions, and might even be said to represent a universal human value.

Is there any basis in Norse Pagan lore for inferring anything like a concept of universal compassion? Certainly there is no direct statement of any such thing. On this basis, it might be deemed justifiable to reject this whole idea, and I don't doubt that some Norse Pagans might reach that conclusion on reading my words.

The closest direct parallel to a concept of compassion is the discussion of the importance of hospitality. There were a number of thoughtful essays on this topic in the latest issue of Idunna , the publication. The viewpoints on hospitality in Idunna and elsewhere in modern Norse Paganism tend to emphasize being a good host to visitors and reciprocity ("a gift for a gift," as this is often expressed) in relation to others within one's own circle of close and trusted associates.

Since we live in a world where we must interact and share the common social space with many others, not only people who we know well or might identify as our "tribe," I find this interpretation of hospitality intriguing and illuminating of the original medieval context of Norse writings, but ultimately insufficient both as a moral guidepost and as a spiritual practice.

Let me therefore explain how I see other possibilities inherent in Norse Pagan lore and traditions.The Norse text that probably contains the most discussion of hospitality is the Eddic poem the Havamal. There is much here about how a person should should behave cautiously as a guest and graciously as a host. The text clearly speak to a medieval world of dangerous conditions where travelers were much at the mercy of those they encountered. The text repeatedly states how good it is to find a friend, to make a friend, to maintain friendship through mutual caring and sharing. Nowhere does this poem state that one should limit their friendships to those within one's own tribe, village or kingdom. In fact, the idea of travelers relying on hospitality suggests a larger view of human relations, with the expectation that one might easily find themselves in a larger social universe and needing to behave in that larger community in such a way as to merit respect and protection. The text also says much about the need to protect oneself in potentially dangerous situations, so this is not all sweetness and light, but the focus is on protecting oneself, not attacking or provoking others.

I would therefore argue that there are thus at least two ways to interpret this text as regards social relations and hospitality. One way, which I have found often expressed among today's Heathens, is a conservative, suspicious view of the social universe, stressing the need to be on guard, ready to defend one's property, honor and person, hand on the hilt, finger on the trigger. Hospitality in this perspective is to be limited to those who prove worthy of close companionship. My own, alternative way of interpreting the text is to see it as arguing for the benefits of securing an ever-wider circle of friendly relations through behaving graciously and honorably both as guest and as host, whether at home in one's own neighborhood, or anywhere else one might travel to.

Having lived in different countries and not always been sure where I stood with those I met or broke bread with, I can certainly vouch for the practical value of this viewpoint. Beyond that, though, I perceive in this the kernel of a notion of universal compassion and self-transcendence. We are all vulnerable creatures in need of others' help from time to time; and we all have the opportunity, if not indeed the obligation, to treat well, and if possible provide assistance to those whose paths cross our own, both for the practical fact that good relations may redound to our benefit in the future, but also because it is the right thing to do by any reasonable moral analysis of the human condition that goes beyond simple selfishness and greed. Considering our mutual vulnerability and dependence can help us develop compassion, not unlike that preached by the Buddha. And, just as compassion in Buddhism serves as both moral value and spiritual discipline, this expanded sense of hospitality can connect us to a larger world that brings us beyond our everyday, limited view of who we are and who we belong to or are obligated toward.

Of course, this is just one man's view of how Norse Pagan lore MIGHT be interpreted and its meaning expanded upon in a certain direction. I would never claim this is the only meaning or "the" true meaning. We must each make of these things what we will, and I do not scorn or blame those who disagree with my thinking or sit back, shake their heads and laugh at my words. As your host on this page, I encourage you to enjoy yourselves as you see fit. Have a laugh on me if you like.

I would however offer certain additional points in favor of my "Buddhistic" version of Norse Pagan morality. It seems to me that in the mythology of Odin, there are hints that can lead us to such a broader view of morality, self and universe.
Odin is first of all a constantly wandering god who acquires much of his wisdom and abilities through interaction with other beings in the universe. He does not stay at home, sitting on his throne, safely protected behind the walls of Asgard, and close off his relations to those outside his tribe or circle of trusted associates. He is always open, always voyaging, always learning. If we take this aspect of Odin as any kind of moral signpost, it is one which points us away from closed or narrow conceptions of our place in the world.

Then there is the myth of the death of Odin's son, Baldur. Without the warrior bravado that is indeed quite common in Norse mythology, this death is presented as a terrible tragedy that is an occasion for deep mourning. Indeed, the Prose Edda version of the myth tells us that if all living beings had shared in weeping for Baldur, he might have been saved from death, but a grim giantess, the trickster Loki in drag disguise, refused to cooperate, and so Baldur stayed among the dead in hell (Hel). What is this tale if not a provocative illustration of the need for universal compassion?

Of course, the narrow-minded could argue that the myth only tells us that the death of Baldur merited widespread tears; perhaps in the case of others, their suffering or death is of no concern, and we should all just take care of our own and to Hel with everybody else. This seems to me an extremely hard-hearted, if not thick-headed view of the text, and so I prefer the alternate view, seeing this incident as another possible Norse kernel of compassion.

My third example is of Odin's shamanistic self-torture on the tree of Yggdrasil, slashing and hanging himself in nine days and nights of agony in order to receive the magical wisdom of the runes. Why does he undergo such a wretched ordeal? To get the wisdom, of course, but what, and who is this wisdom for? It is to be shared with others, to help mankind and perhaps other beings as well. Killing and then reviving himself, he transcends himself, with the ultimate goal of aiding others. This parallels both Christ on the cross, as often noted, but also Buddha under the Bodhi tree.

Similarly, his position as the master of the warrior-hall of Valhalla is ultimately for the purpose of protecting mankind. Of course, the warriors there gathered are practicing the arts of war, not chanting Buddhist sutras, but the ultimate aim is to save the world, not to win glory or goods in war. As Odin has foreknowledge of the world's destiny, it would seem he knows that the whole enterprise is doomed to failure, Odin himself fated to fall against the Wolf, but he persists in preparing nonetheless. In this, he is like a Bodhisattva who undergoes self-sacrifice for the sake of others, even if the others may be deluded, unreasonable, or self-destructive.

And in the end, the world is miraculously renewed, but it is not restored by force of arms. The great battle is unsuccessful, the greatest warriors fail, but after all who fight have fallen and all seems lost, the world reemeerges, fresh and green. There is hope beyond war. I would argue that this sequence of events might even represent a critique of war, suggesting that war can destroy the world, for sure, but it cannot save it.

On this point, I would note that most people in the Viking period were not glorious warriors, but farmers, craftsmen and fishermen, who might well have dreaded rather than glorified war and violence. They might have enjoyed Viking war poems and myths in much the same way your average Joe today enjoys watching war movies and police programs, as colorful, larger-than-life entertainments, but not necessarily as a serious guide as to how to conduct themselves in daily life. I find it quite interesting that Thor, the most macho of Norse gods, the god who is famous for crushing giants' skulls with his hammer, is also the god who receives the most mocking and humorous treatment in such texts as the Thrymskvida . His hammer is oddly short in the handle, a little bit lacking in a way that Dr. Freud might find most interesting. Perhaps this also tells us something about alternate views of violence and war in the imagination of the authors and audiences of the Norse myths. Also, laughing is known to induce a sense of common human foibles and frailty, another step on the path to compassion.

These are just a few hints that I feel suggest the possibility of a moral system in Norse paganism that was, is and can be more than just tribal ethics or a code of warrior honor, as Norse Pagan morality is often taken to be, but include a vision of the world animated by a self-transcending sense of compassion, like other great religious traditions.

I would not deny at all that my interpretations here push Norse Paganism beyond what it is commonly thought to be. This is definitely not a strict and traditionalist reading, and I do not pretend that it is such. I believe this expansion and amplification of the meaning of Pagan tradition is, however, justifiable in light of a critical historical fact: that the natural development of Norse Paganism was interrupted at a rather early point by the rise to dominance of Christianity in Europe. I believe that the strongly martial character of many Norse texts may have more to do with the social conditions of the late Pagan age, when war with Christian forces was an overwhelming reality, than an essentially warlike cast to Norse Paganism. The points in the myths where war fails, where the war gods are ridiculous, where there is laughter and weeping, suggest something more to me. I furthermore would assert the view that if Norse Paganism had been able to survive the Christian onslaught and continue to develop in conditions of peace and tolerance, it would have taken on new forms and embraced a larger view of the world, a world beyond war and conflict, in which the more spiritual and compassionate sides would have been given greater play.

Today, we have the opportunity to undertake such further development, to start imagining further extensions and directions, including borrowing from other traditions and perspectives, possibly even Buddhism. Though the more traditional minded might find this heretical, I would point out that there is indeed precedence for such borrowing. The Germanic tribes and Vikings borrowed much from the Roman world, including the runes, which many scholars believe to have been modeled on the Roman alphabet. The gods' mighty fortress of Asgard may well have been modeled on the then-impregnable fortress of Constantinople, where King Harald served in the bodyguard of the Byzantine Emperor for a time. Most interestingly, a small Buddhist figurine was found in a Viking hoard in Sweden in the eighth century, no doubt acquired through Viking trading across Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Though it was most likely simply collected as an exotic bauble, perhaps there was something more to it than that?

Make of it what you will.



Seeing Eye Chick said...

Having to genuinely live in a constant state of suspicion and defensiveness sucks. That is what the modern Pagan and Heathen Communities I interacted with, cultivated.

I got tired and actually started attending a Buddhist Temple. It was a nice change for a while.

I think what wears me out about people is how they have to turn everything into a "commandment".

Whether its keeping your Bible and your Ammo Dry, your sword or your tongue sharp, or whatever, even in the Buddhist tradition--there were extremes.

The Pragmatist in me finds all that patently offensive and uncessary. Its always someone who is trying to be "More than You."

They are more aggressive than you.
More Defensive, more compassionate, more holy, more powerful, more this or that or the other. Like some weird contest with no guideposts to or gunshot to tell you that the race has started or ever ends.

Kindess is good, Compassion is good. sincerity makes it all the sweeter.

There is a need to teach people to cultivate personal authenticity. So that when they say the words, those words carry weight from the soul.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if people gave kindness and compassion more weight than anything else.

Matthew said...


I enjoyed your this post a lot. I have a Buddha on my mantel with Thor and a raven. I have heard the PBS Buddha series advertised on the radio and I wanted to watch it, but I don't have TV reception.

I wrote an essay on Frith a few years back that is along the same lines as your look at compassion. Its a Worddoc now, but I would be happy to email it to you if you would be interested in reading it.

Take care,


Maelstrom said...

Thanks for these two thoughtful and heartfelt comments. Matt, I would like to see that doc. I cannot provide my email in this forum for various reasons, but if you could copy it into a comment box, I will receive it. I would love to see the whole thing, but if it is very long, perhaps a condensed version could be edited and posted on this site.

Matt said...

I copied the paper I wrote on Frith to my own blog. You can read it here I hope.


Maelstrom said...

Matt, I am not going to reproduce your essay on Frith for this blog, as it is simply too long. However, I want to strongly recommend that readers interested in a thoughtful exploration of how past Germanic social attitudes and concepts relate to a medieval context very different from today's world visit your blog and read this essay:

Mearcstapa said...

Just to add even more religious ideas to the mix you have already begun, the notion of adab in Islam is closely linked to the hospitality traditions of the Middle East. Adab includes notions of how to behave as both guest and host, but also such ideas as not staring (made literal these days by the veil). The veil seems to me to be a very literal interpretation of the idea that the relationship between the soul and deity is deep, private and intensely mysterious. Eg, Muslims will never quiz you about your religious experiences or how you pray or how it feels to be close to the divine (like some Xtians do) even if you are a fellow Muslim. It's just not done. It's utterly private. If we have the idea that the soul has an inward sacred nature that isn't to be violated by curiosity, possessiveness, desire, or anything, this is surely expressed in the sacred flame of the hearth, and the private space of the house, which links the dead and the unborn through the actions of the living? If you are a guest, you have already been shown great trust, and should show yourself worthy of it (eg. Sir Gawain, or the Green Knight, or Lancelot and Guinevere and the naked sword) Another thought I have come across: Some commentators I have read on Tolkien say his imagined world touches emotionally sometimes on the relief many must have felt in northern warrior cultures when they were told that under Christianity everyone was to be saved, including women, the sick, the lame and the halt, and not just those mighty warriors lucky enough to die in battle. They reckon it must have been a big selling point for non-warriors at the time, to have a universal value conferred on their souls, because they were beings in their own right, regardless of their worldly prestige. Just knotting up the threads a bit more...

Paolo said...

you might find this blog interesting.
more parallels between eastern/buddhist and early norse culture.

Maelstrom said...

Paolo, you mention some other blog that would have something about Norse-Buddhist connections? Could you tell us where to find this blog?


Paolo said...

oh shoot, i posted the comment but not the link. sorry about that, here it is:

Anonymous said...

I believe that the Havamal nods to compassion through its (weaker) cousins courtesy and hospitality.

The Havamal speaks of a(n) (unexpected) stranger who arrives at the door of an unknown person. It says the the stranger should greet the host and the host should tend to the needs of the stranger (food, water, warmth) and then be given a chance to speak and tell of himself.

Not quite the all encompassing approach to compassion that Buddha spoke of, yet it is the foundation upon which equal footing can be based. This "equality" is also eluded to in the story of where Heimdall becomes the common ancestor to all three classes of people. The noble, the skilled and laborers. As his is the common ancestor to all three, then all three are kin and due their courtesies.

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