Saturday, October 06, 2012

Mourn Not That Which Is The Meat Of Wolves, But Cleave To Immortal Honor

    In a certain sense, death could be celebrated by the poets as the rising-up from these wolf-meat bodies to be able to join a more eternal battle in the heavens. Blake distinguished between earthly and heavenly battles : in the heavens, such battles are spiritual and keep the universe alive, with the clash of contraries and the ever-overcoming of ill funding luck for us all. Many Hindu pundits have interpreted the battle of the Mahabharata, which features in the Bhagavad-Gita, as being an allegory for the spiritual battle. Although one hesitates to take this too far --- after all, there are earthly battles that in their fight for important values -- freedom, autonomy, defeating tyranny and evil -- also in fact enfold spiritual battles as well --- it can be a useful trope to be able to make the important distinctions between "carnage for carnage' sake" and the meaningful battle.

    With all this said, I suspect there is still a fair amount of syncophantage going on in the court poets, although it is probable that the best of skalds combined a secret symbolism we still have yet to fully unlock, whereby on the surface they would be praising their earl for his battles, while underneath a much richer symbolism was at work praising more cosmic battles. This is akin to the idea that every local tree is in fact the World-Tree for its local inhabitants. From this perspective, poets might treat every battle as if it were the last and final one, the one that matters.

    However, I do think we have lost the main of those poems,for which the skalds probably received their name as scolds, which are the satire-poems that we know every indigenous European poet wrote. We have examples from the Irish, where kings stepped out of line from justice and from authentic connection to the land, and were lampooned in a way which could result in the extreme in their losing their kinghood. We do know from Heimskringla that kings did lose their lives in Norse society from time to time due to this stepping out of line from the land and justice, and so we must imagine that perhaps at the spear-point of such popular resistance were satiric poems from disapproving skalds. Here was an opportunity for the skald to become a critic of such wars as seemed unjust.

    The Anglo-Saxon maxims, from the Exeter Book, have an interesting perspective to add into the mix on war, which I've taken the liberty to translate here :

god scop gumum,      garniþ werum,
wig towiþre      wicfreoþa healdan.
  (127 - 128)

"Good poet for the people, spear-battle for men,
war of resistance to hold peace amongst the dwellings (villages)."

    This emphasizes battle as a defensive war of resistance to protect and hold the villages, so they may stay in peace.

    The maxims also give their viewpoint on what kind of creature revels in carnage for the sake of carnage :

ne huru wæl wepeð      wulf se græga,
morþorcwealm mæcga,      ac hit a mare wille.

(150 - 151)

"The grey wolf certainly does not weep over carnage, the murderous destruction of men, but ever wills more."

    There is also this, which because of the close mythological parallel, I have taken a slight liberty in the translation (but which translates better for our mythology than the manuscript's Biblical allusion). The story of the brother who killed the other brother, and from whom strife spilled out into the world speaks to the heathen mind as well :

    Wearð fæhþo fyra cynne,      siþþan furþum swealg
    eorðe Abeles blode.      Næs þæt andæge nið,
    of þam wrohtdropan      wide gesprungon,
    micel mon ældum,      monegum þeodum
    bealoblonden niþ.      Slog his broðor swæsne
    Cain, þone cwealm nerede;      cuþ wæs wide siþþan,
    þæt ece nið ældum scod,      swa aþolwarum.
    Drugon wæpna gewin      wide geond eorþan,
    ahogodan ond ahyrdon      heoro sliþendne.
    Gearo sceal guðbord,      gar on sceafte,
    ecg on sweorde      ond ord spere,
    hyge heardum men.      Helm sceal cenum,
    ond a þæs heanan hyge      hord unginnost.

(Maxims, 192 - 204)

and my translation, with note :

"Came into the world enmity for kin, since the earth first swallowed Baldur*'s blood. Nor was that only one day's hate, for from those strife-drops sprang far and wide great wickedness for men, and bale-blended hate for many nations. Hodur* slew his own brother, who was protected from death ; afterwards it was widely known that hate ever scathes men, as citizens. They busied themselves in strife with weapons around the wide earth, invented and hardened the dire sword. The shield must be ready, spear on shaft, edge on sword, and point on spear, courage in the hard man. Helm shall be for the bold, and ever the courage of the dishonorable shall be a most unample hoard."

* "Abel" and "Cain" in the original manuscript, respectively.

    This suggests a perspective whereby warfare and lust for carnage exponentially increased after Baldur's death. This needn't mean in heathen minds that battle and struggle were missing before this time, but that Baldur's presence mellowed and softened the impacts, because of his great peace-making abilities. It was, as it were, kept within the circle, and quickly settled, to not get out of hand.

    The way I square most of this away is that the Age in which we now live, both us and the skalds of just before Snorri's time, is the Axe-Age, and shall be for some time. I think so long as the poets always remember that there was a time before, and there shall be a time after, so that the people's vision is never robbed of the imaginative alternative to this sometimes-sad world, everything is ok.

    In fact, the poets may in effect be saying, "Mourn not that which is the meat of wolves, but cleave instead to honor, which immortal wins a better home."