Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Taking Leave of a God

One of my sabbatical treats to myself was to read an entire issue of Speculum because (true confessions), I have never done so. It was a great thing to do: felt a bit like going to a dinner party where each guest is pretty fantastic and brings great stories (here's the current Table of Contents). Christopher Abram's essay, "Modeling Religious Experience in Old Norse Conversion Narratives" opened up the confusion and intensity of conversion of Hallfreðr, an Icelandic poet, dubbed "troublesome" by the Norwegian king, Olaf I, who converted him to Christianity in 996. Abram's essay goes well beyond what Hallfreðr is known for: the five so-called "conversion verses" in which he struggles with his leave-taking of Odin, the god he's known his whole life. It was my first time reading them, though, and I can't quite leave them. [Here's a link to an article by the scholar who translated the poem in full that provides the verses in translation].

Viking Stele, 8th c.
The conscious and mournful leave-taking of a god. That loss. "It was different in former days, when I could sacrifice to the mind-swift... Odin himself." I think of intimacy, and ritual gestures, and surges of emotions, of a god who is mind-swift, coursing through thoughts, quickening a consciousness. I think of the honesty of this loss, this staring into new voids - none easily replaced, all felt gone. I think of Hallfreðr's having known Odin, of his trying to put his intimacy and knowledge (and love and admiration and thrill) of Odin somewhere. Where does a god like Odin go when a king like Olaf comes? Hallfreðr tries places. In words, which used to trip from his mind in praise of Odin. In sounds: I count how many times he says Odin's name in these verses meant to signal the god's negation. In memory, of course, in remembering ceremonies and pleasures that are now banned by Olaf, "the Sogn-men's sovereign." In the pathos of living with inexorable doom: "All mankind casts Odin's clan to the wind" - a god swept away, betrayed, longed for, dispersed back into a landscape (think of Iceland!) that waits to receive him. And it isn't just Odin, of course, it's the waft and weave of his clan, all the love and knowledge and fury and past of a god. "And I am forced to leave Njörðr's kin, and pray to Christ." In Hallfreðr, Odin and Christ co-exist. It's that simultaneity, which Hallfreðr maintains through the painful remembrance of what must somehow cease to exist for him, that keeps me circling around these words. It's Hallfreðr's knowledge of both, his intimacy with both; those two divine entities in one human psyche. It's this simultaneity of beings that also holds my fascination for the time when two genetically distinct hominid species interacted: when Neanderthal and homo sapiens were in contact with each other, when two hominid entities existed in one ecological psyche. I've circled around that loss, too: around knowing that we weren't the only human species, around never knowing what it was like to experience or communicate with a proximate consciousness. There was no leave-taking of that other species, no good-bye in song (is this when we debate Grendel?), was there mourning? Two gods in one poet - it will be a long time before I stop thinking of Hallfreðr's trouble.

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