Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Well of Remembrance: Rediscovering the Earth Wisdom Myths of Northern Europe

Book Review - The Well of Remembrance: Rediscovering the Earth Wisdom Myths of Northern Europe by Ralph Metzner (Shambhala 1994)

I really enjoyed this book. It was quite thought-provoking and fascinating. It is divided into two parts: 1) The Indo-European and Nordic-Germanic Peoples and 2) Nordic- Germanic Myths and Their Meaning for Our Time. The first part contains a very nice summary of Neolithic history in Europe based mostly on the work of the controversial Lithuanian archeologist Marija Gimbuta. She postulated a series of Indo-Aryan invasions by nomadic pastoralists from the central Asian steppes who came west due to drought. These shamanistic Kurgans brought a patriarchal society with their sky gods and were greatly aided by the domestication of horses, wheeled chariots, superior weapons, and the military-like strategy of moving their herds. According to her archeological studies primarily in Eastern Europe the cultures there were agricultural matrifocal – goddess oriented and not prone to nor prepared for warring. Over the next few millennia these cultures mixed although the Aryans invaders were dominant. Metzner sees the story of the Aesir and Vanir gods of Nordic-Germanic mythology as a part of this story. The Aesir gods led by Odin were the invaders and the Vanir gods such as Freya and Frey were the local fertility gods. In the myths these god-tribes do battle and eventually reach a truce and intermix trading hostages. The idea of Rituals of Reconciliation based on these stories is seen by the author as having great potential value in healing rifts between peoples and between people and the environment. There is also a nice chart of the Indo-European language families and a great chronology of the pre-history and history of humans mainly from a Euro-centric perspective.

Odin as the wandering seeker of truth and knowledge is a key theme in this book. He practices shamanistic and ecstatic techniques, some perhaps taught to him by the old goddess-oriented society thought to be represented by the Vanir deities. The author relates personally to Odin. Metzner is actually known as a Harvard psychologist who was a grad student of Dr. Timothy Leary and did early experiments with LSD and other hallucinogenic drugs. He relates to Odin mainly in this context of exploring states of consciousness through not only psychedelics but shamanism, Native American vision quests, occultism, yoga, and meditation as well. There are a few chapters by friends of the author mostly about visions they encountered regarding their ancestral past through vision questing.

Key stories of the Eddas are given possible metaphorical interpretations and commentaries. Odin’s self-sacrifice on the great tree of the nine worlds is seen as a shamanistic vision quest which results in his discovery of the runes as a secret language of nature. The story of Odin drinking from the well of Mimir where he must offer one of his eyes as payment is related. Here Odin seeks knowledge of the past and the future – ancestral knowledge – he receives from a volva – a female seer. The volvas or seidrmages are diviners said to be the allied to the Vanir –particularly to Freya. The final reconciliation of the Aesir and Vanir gods involves the creation of the – Mead of Inspiration – where each god spits into the vessel to aid fermentation. This idea of reconciliation rites is apparently important to the author in his psychological practice and in his work reconciling Germans and Holocaust victims under the Nazi regime in his native Germany. There is also a prologue called - the Nazi curse on Germanic Mythology – which documents Nazi and post-Nazi ideas and taboos concerning the myths.

The last chapter is about Ragnarok – the twilight of the gods – which is the prophecy of the final battle where many of the gods are destroyed – but not all. The sons of Odin and Thor are left and Balder returns from the underworld. Freya and her father the sea god remain as does Hodur. Metzner interprets this myth to mean that the Aesir gods will no longer dominate as the return of the goddess culture with greater reverence for the earth becomes more viable. The cataclysmic earth changes forecasted in the ragnarok can be seen as man-induced environmental tragedies as well as natural disasters. Scholars have noticed that the violent volcanoes around Iceland certainly lended imagery to such prophetic notions. Metzner suggests that the coming of Christianity and materialistic science and its corresponding earth-damaging technology could be the ragnarok as it caused humans to be separated from the gods by force. At least the Earth goddess culture and the Aryan war-god culture developed a mutual society although dominated by the patriarchal concerns.

Finally there is an appendix about magical and psychoactive plants in Germanic history - plants that may have inspired the berserker warriors, plants that may have aided vision quests and those that may have assisted the seers in divination. There is discussion of psychoactive plants, particularly henbane, being brewed with beer or mead or wine.

There are some great etymologies in this book that show the possible relationships between Indo-European words from the many languages often traceable to Sanskrit words. There is also some interesting comparative mythology with Greek, Roman, Celtic, Baltic, Slavic, Indian, and Iranian peoples – all who are considered to be of the Indo-European mix or contributed to it. Interestingly, there is a suggestion in the chapter on plants that the characters of the runes were derived from a North Etruscan alphabet. That is interesting as some recent deciphering suggests that the Etruscan language may be related to Akkadian/Sumerian and Phoenician. Words and cultural values certainly traveled the world.

Regarding the Christian destruction of the ancient pagans he says,

"The extermination of the animistic pagans – including their last survivors, the witches – has been quite complete and is a moral stain on the spiritual integrity of the Christian church and a karmic injustice that will have to be righted, before true peace can be made."

While I don’t agree with every conclusion in this book and I think some ideas should have been expressed as opinion or possibilities rather than seemingly factual – I think it was a great read and would recommend it to anyone interested in paganism, particularly Germanic paganism. Marija Gimbutas’ conclusions about a peace-loving goddess culture that was messed up by war hungry patriarchal invaders is probably too simple and na├»ve a feminist fantasy but apparently the archeological evidence suggests that there is merit to an idea such as this though likely less extreme.

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