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Seeking the roots of the rootless tree

For the last week or two, my head has been steeped in the mythology of a thousand years ago or more. Halloween, of course, brings up the old Celtic belief in Samhain as a festival when the world of the dead and the world of the living are brought together. At the same time, the Orkney Storytelling Festival was on, and I eagerly seized the opportunity to hear the ancient stories of Norse and Greek gods of old. And as if that wasn’t enough, at the same time I was also preparing to teach a seminar on early mediaeval religious poetry for the MLitt module in Early Scottish and Norse Literature that we do at the Centre for Nordic Studies. So as I entered the St Magnus Cathedral for an evening of “tales of the Gods”, my head was already swimming with the images of ancient beliefs, from the Celtic Earth Goddess and sacred trees, to the Norse god of wisdom and poetry, Odin, and of course, as we were in the cathedral, Christianity’s very own Jesus was naturally present in my head too.

It was Tom Muir, I think, who pointed it out at the storytelling event: Here we were, having an evening of stories of the old Norse and Greek gods, in a cathedral! But Tom had a nice twist on it, and that was that although it might feel wrong to tell stories of these gods in a building made for the Christian god and his martyr, St Magnus, the people who lived in Orkney at the time when it was built would probably have known some of the stories we were hearing that night too. Because it was a whole century after the building of the St Magnus Cathedral that Snorri Sturluson, in Iceland, wrote the Poetic Edda, where he tells us all the stories of the old gods. So even at that late date, Snorri managed to find enough memories of the Norse gods to write his book. Culture doesn’t switch abruptly, and even though the Norse people were converted to Christianity, they still retained some knowledge of the old stories and poetry. And even Christian skalds may allude to the old mythology in their poetry, such as when poetry itself is called “Odin’s mead”. And Earl Rognvald Kali Kolsson, who had the Cathedral built, was himself a skald. He couldn’t have crafted his poetry without the legacy of older poets – and thereby the poetry and stories of the old religion.

But let me start by quoting a verse that I found in the book Shetland Traditional Lore, by Jessie Saxby (1932):

Nine lang oors on da rütless tree

Hung he der for au ta see;

Nine lang days in a murky howe

Lay he, we nedder mate or lowe;

Nine lang winters gaed ower his een

Afore he cam till He’s ain ageen

Jessie Saxby comments: “I have often wondered to whom the following rhymes refer. Was it Odin when he lay imprisoned on Runo? Or was it Balder when he slumbered in the “Swan’s Bath”? Or is it a dim figure of the Christ? It was softly crooned to a melancholy tune, and with hands stretched upwards and outward in earnest beseeching” (Shetland Traditional Lore, page 59).

While I am not sure what she means by “imprisoned on Runo”, it is interesting that Saxby raises the question of whether the verse might refer to Odin, Balder or Christ. It is particularly the first two lines that I find fascinating: Nine long hours on the rootless tree hung he there for all to see. What is a rootless tree?

Well, for a start, trees seem to be incredibly important in ancient religion. The Celtic religion held trees sacred. No wonder, though, when the most basic condition for human survival is the dependency on the earth we live on. The Celts worshipped their earth goddess, who had many names, and it was always important for a ruler to form a positive union with the land in order for it to prosper. Within this mind frame, trees are naturally sacred because they belong in three worlds: Their roots are in the earth, in the underworld and the realm of the earth goddess. Their stems grow out of the earth into the world of humans. Their branches extend to the sky. In Norse religion, the whole world was carried by an enormous ash tree named Yggdrasill. In Norway it was common until recently to give offerings such as milk to the “tun-tre” – the big tree on your home farm. Some might uphold the custom even still. Even the Bible has its sacred trees: The Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life – and ultimately the Cross is also a tree.

The Cross’ identity as a tree is very eloquently described in an 8th century Anglo-Saxon poem called the Dream of the Rood, which is partly inscribed in runes on the Ruthwell Cross, standing in Ruthwell Church in Dumfriesshire. The poem is the life story of the Cross, from tree to execution instrument to holy relic, and much of it is written as if spoken by the Cross itself. The Cross is called the “splendid tree”, the “brightest of boughs”, the “triumph tree”, “the Ruler’s tree”, “heaven-tree” and so forth. From the moment the tree is cut down to become a cross, it is rootless: “That was years ago – I mind it yet – when I was felled at the forest’s edge, taken from my trunk.” After being used to crucify Christ, the Cross is transformed into a holy relic and is seen in the poem “soaring aloft” in a dream vision.

For Early Scottish and Norse literature, we were also reading Hávamál – a most remarkable Norse poem where Odin shares his wisdom. In stanzas 138 – 145 of that poem, Odin is being hanged on Yggdrasill, the World Tree. The reason he is going through this ordeal is in order to grow in wisdom – which he achieves, for in the following section (stanzas 145 – 164) he describes eighteen spells that he learned as a result.

Stanza 138 of Hávamál goes as follows: “I know that I hung on the wind-swept tree nine whole nights. Wounded with spears and given to Odin – Myself to myself, on that tree which nobody knows from where its roots run.” So here it is starting to sound like Jessie Saxby’s verse: There is the number nine (perhaps not surprising, as it is a “magical” number anyhow) and the tree, and the spear-wounds. So it is not unreasonable of Saxby to suggest that the verse she quotes might be about Odin.

The tree in Hávamál – Yggdrasill – is not “rootless”, however. Rather its roots are “unknown”. Still it shares the characteristic with the Cross in the sense that it doesn’t keep its roots in the Earth.

Another characteristic which crops up both in Hávamál and The Dream of the Rood, as well as in Saxby’s verse, is the thing about being wounded with spears. All Bible readers know that Christ was wounded in his side, and the Ruthwell Cross inscription tells of this when it says: “Wounded with spears, they laid him, limb-weary”. In a manuscript version of The Dream of the Rood, Christ’s suffering is taken on by the Cross, so it is the Cross which says: “I was all wounded with spears.”  Both Odin and Jesus are also denied food and drink while they are hanging there – Christ only has his lips moistened – and the mysterious speaker in Saxby’s verse is denied food and fire. Starving yourself may be a method of moving into a trance, as it also was described in one of the Greek stories we heard at the storytelling festival event, where a young woman fasted for three days before entering into a cave where she communicated with the Great Goddess.

What the hanging/crucifixion leads to, for both Odin and Christ, is a transformation into a new state. Christ, according to The Dream of the Rood, was bleeding when he “sent his spirit forth” – not simply died, but actively sent his spirit forth. Odin proceeds to enter into a state where he “picks up the runes” – that is, he learns secret wisdom, and John McKinnell in an article suggests that Odin actually travels to the realm of the dead to learn this new wisdom.

How does Hávamál relate to the Christian story of the martyrdom of Christ? Or does it relate to it? Could it have developed independently of any knowledge of the story of Christ? Was it perhaps composed by someone who had some knowledge of Christianity, but who didn’t understand the point about moral redemption on behalf of all humankind? For a person with such a partial understanding, it would indeed seem like Christ is a human sacrifice of “myself to myself” as Christ and God are one.  The section of Hávamál can’t be purely a Norse variant of the story of the martyrdom of Christ, though, because we know from other sources that there was a genuine tradition of Odin as “the hanged god”, as can be seen in many kennings. And where does Saxby’s poem come into it? The mysteries are many, and that is what fascinates me about mediaeval literature.

By Dr. Ragnhild Ljosland. Originally published in The Orcadian 17/11/11.

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