Sunday, November 05, 2006

Ego Death, Destiny and Serpents in Germanic Mythology

These observations of stories from Germanic mythology are written with reference to Michael Hoffman's ENTHEOGEN THEORY OF RELIGION AND EGO DEATH, where the snake or serpent is seen as a symbol of the stream of consciousness (“frozen-time determinism” in Hoffman's EGO DEATH language), and also as a pointer to the entheogenic substance aiding that symbolic realization.

According to Hoffman's EGO DEATH site, “Time can be envisioned as a space-like dimension, forming a block universe [a cube] that includes frozen, unchanging, snake-shaped personal worldline threads, each snake or thread representing a person's entire subjective stream of thoughts during their entire life (Ruckner 1984).” In this sense, the snake can be imagined as fulfilling the same function as the threads drawn by the Norns (the three fates/ Weird Sisters) of Northern myth. It is the “Necessity” expressed by the tenth rune, 'Nauthiz'.

There are three stories from Germanic mythology of particular relevance and resonance to the concept of EGO DEATH and the serpent: that of Jormungandr (the World Serpent), Loki's punishment and, above all, Odin's transformation into a snake in order to obtain the Odroerir – the Mead of the Skalds – which he then returns to Asgard.

1. Jormungandr – the World (Midgard) Serpent

Jormungandr is one of the three monster-offspring of Loki and the giantess Angrboda (“the bringer of grief”; their other two offspring being the Frenris wolf and Hel, the goddess representative of the underworld). The first two monsters are essential to the story of the final unfolding of Ragnarok, while Baldr's release from Hel after Ragnarok allows the sun god to rule over a shining new world. The most famous story about Jormungandr is when Thor goes fishing with a giant into the middle of the ocean, in order to catch and kill the earth-girdling snake. His voyage is a failure. He finally succeeds in slaying the Midgard serpent during Ragnarok, but at the cost of his own life.

2. Loki in the Snake-Pit

Loki is punished by the gods (for having brought about the death of Baldr) by being bound to a rock in a cavern. Above him Skadi, the goddess of hunting, has placed a venomous snake, and Loki writhes in agony, causing earthquakes, whenever the poison touches his skin. The parallels with other bound giants in Aryan mythology, notably Prometheus, are striking. Prometheus is another cultural hero and inventor, like Loki. Interestingly in this context, Goethe's Prometheus is made to exclaim to Mercury, “Did they [the divine parents of Prometheus] protect my heart/ From serpents that secretly tormented it!/ Did they steel my breast/ To defy the Titans?/...Was I not forged into a man/ By all-powerful Time/ And eternal Fate,/ My masters and yours?”

3. Odin and Odroerir

In the story of Odin and the winning of the Odroerir, snakes and entheogens are directly linked. According to Edred Thorsson in RUNELORE (Weiser, 1987), “In the guise of Bolverkr (Worker of Evil) and by cunning and oath-breaking, he gains access to the mountain where an etin-wife, Gunnlodh, guards the mead. He bores his way into the mountain in the shape of a serpent [actually the bore-hole is created by the Baugi the giant, Odin merely slips through as a snake] and remains in the interior for three nights, sleeping with the etin, after which he gets to drink down the mead in three gulps from the three vessels – Odhroerir, Son and Bodhn – in which the mead was held. Then he shape-shifts into an eagle and flies out of the top of the mountain and back to Asgardhr, where he spits out the mead into three vats – thus returning the mead to its rightful place among the Aesir and humanity. It is specifically stated that some of the mead dropped to the earth when Odhinn flew away, and this anyone can drink (if she or he happens across it by accident). Thus, it is called the 'fool-poet's share'.
“This myth is vital to runic tradition..It describes the path of becoming, the pathway of transformational Odianism...Here is hidden the significance of the serpentine aspect of the Odhinic cult, well-known from snake-bands on runestones and the famous dragon ships of the Vikings.”

From the traditional literature, the Eddas, we know that Odin uses three paths in his eternal quest for knowledge; insights that he hopes will allow him to defy destiny at Ragnarok. The first leads to his sacrifice on the World Tree and discovery of runes. Along the second he drinks from the Well of Mimir or Urd's Well, for which he pledged one of his eyes, (in the Voluspa, Mimir the Rememberer is said to drink the mead Odroerir from the Well every day). Third, through the mead Odroerir itself, created by the dwarves and won by Odin from the giants, as described by Edred Thorsson in the story above.

“The name Odroerir is sometimes used [in the Eddas and Germanic mythology generally] for the cauldron containing the mead of inspiration and sometimes for the mead itself. It means 'ecstasy-inducing,' or as we might say “ecstatogenic,” with the same word-root as Odin, god of inspiration and ecstasy. Since Odin was also said to drink mead from Odroedir when he came down from the World Tree after discovering the runes, this visionary mead is involved in all three of Odin's paths to knowledge.” - Ralph Metzner, THE WELL OF REMEMBRANCE

As with all myths, these can be interpreted on a number of levels. For instance the Arktion Federation published in its journal an explanation of Jormungandr as being a description of the water cycle. It could equally be the carbon cycle.

The three stories outlined above are amongst the most popular and recurrent motifs in northern pagan art. They are also inextricably bound up with the idea of the fate of the individual and the world.

Terror at the threshold of awareness

As Hoffman mentions in his EGO DEATH article, and as anyone who has experienced salvia divinorum or an LSD bad trip will know, the experience of entheogen-induced awareness of ego-loss and pre-destination can be disconcerting at best, and at worst a shattering of cosmic order from which it appears impossible to recover. At its best, it is humbling and ennobling, but when tainted with either physical or mental impurities it becomes an ordeal ending in a crushing nihilism.

Bad Trips, H.P. Lovecraft

“Saturn, as governor or gatekeeper of the outermost [ancient] planetary sphere which is associated with the sphere of the fixed stars, rides in a serpent-drawn chariot and eats the child or youthful self-concept as the price of passage across the boundary into the transcendent heavens beyond the starry Heimarmene[Fate]-boundary.” - Hoffman, EGO DEATH

“Both ego-less animal existence and man's ego, which is but matrical sensory cognition, originate in the same Matrix of Dream. This must be transcended. It is Polar insight, the inward-looking way that leads out of this cyclic Matrix. However, the man's ego, being the man-god, fears mystical dissolution, because it fears its “death”. Only if “death” is realized as illusion by experiencing it mystically in life, can essencification and spiritual unity be achieved. The ego fears “death” because it does not know that there is none. 'Fear' is the sword the ego wields, yet its iron melts away in the black heat of Wisdom.
“In Lovecraft's stories the elements of decay and death prevail. These are the emotional patterns of one approaching...The transformative Way across the Bridge of Fog, from animal-man to god-man, is painful. Everyone claiming the contrary, is speaking with a Minotaurian voice.
The Way leads through the Tomb of the Individual toward the Emergence of the Entity. The same is applicable to humanity. Saturn is throwing its charnel light toward this planet. But the Pilgrim must know that Saturn is but the Threshold, not the Destination.” W.H. Muller - Polaria p113

The Minotaurian voice that Muller refers to is the voice that asserts the supremacy of the ego. It is the animal-man trapped in the labyrinth of ordinary, uninspired consciousness.

Dialectics, Non-dual Synthesis and Tantra

It is interesting that these processes are always tripartite; EGO DEATH itself is a 3-stage process: ordinary consciousness is expanded by entheogens to an appreciation of frozen-time determinism (block universe) and the hidden transcendent control of thoughts, then to non-dualism: the non-dualism conveyed by Advaita Vedanta in Hinduism, the Diamond Sutra in Buddhism or Meister Eckhart and Georg Hegel in post-Christian Germanic tradition. “3-stage initiation paths centred around determinism are often posed as 2-stage systems: they both endorse and disparage the realization of determinism, which is the intermediate destination on the path to salvific regeneration” - Hoffman.

“...India was to be credited for the the ideal of liberation and the West was to be credited for the ideal of liberty. On the one hand, there is there is the impulse to escape from the human condition in order to become reintegrated in an absolute from which we separated ourselves only to end up in a world of illusion (maya). On the other hand, there is the impulse to feel free in a world that is no longer denied, but that is rather considered as a field for action and for experiencing all of the possibilities inherent in the human condition...In Tantrism we find a very interesting phenomenon; those ascetic techniques that were well-known in India are no longer employed to achieve an otherworldly liberation but in order to achieve liberty within the world. These techniques are supposed to bestow on a superior human type an invulnerability that allows one to be open to every worldly experience and that grants the power 'to transform the poison into medicine'.” - Julius Evola, THE YOGA OF POWER

Evola suggests a possible resolution of the mundane-consciousness belief in free will, and the heightened-consciousness awareness of predestination: through Tantra. Hoffman's “salvific regeneration” could then be understood as the Tantric moment of realization of non-duality; there is no “other” that sets the universe and the individual on a pre-destined course. Odin is still on the road to Ragnarok, Thor is still destined to be overwhelmed by the World Serpent, while Loki is fated to escape his own serpentine tormentor and unleash Ragnarok. But none of these events have yet taken place: the final battle between Odin as questing consciousness and the snake as inexorable fate remains unresolved.

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