K is for King: the Pagan Blog Project
First off, my apologies to those subscribed to this blog who received a false warning of a post last night. It was a post about handspinning and my creative process which I had intended to post to my Fensalir Fiber Art blog and somehow ended up posting here instead. I then deleted it and reposted it over there–hence the error message.
Secondly, yes, I am way behind in my Pagan Blog Project posts! I have spent the past few weeks being very preoccupied with my health; I had a fibromyalia flare-up that was so severe my doctor sent me for an auto-immune blood panel to rule out more serious explanations. Thankfully, it came back negative, the new medication the doctor switched me to has me feeling a little better, and I start on a slightly reduced schedule at work this week which hopefully should help too. I don’t know that I’ll be trying to catch up on all the letters I’ve missed since I have my Etsy business to work on and a book to write (about working with Odin), but I will try to chime in when I can.
This essay is one I wrote a couple of years ago but just revised and added to today, on Odin as King.
Paths to Odin: The King
Odin was not born to be King, in one sense, and yet in another sense He was born to that above all else. It was to be the first in His long lifetime of paradoxes.
His parents were not, strictly speaking, royal. His mother served the God-King of Her people as Sacrificial Priestess. Death Goddess, Yew Goddess, cloaked in white like barren winter, the twin skills of poison and healing equally at Her fingertips, it was Her sacred task to choose the sacrifices needed to feed a ravening hunger that could not be sated, to nourish an immense being–Ymir, the primordial First of the Jotnar, the Giant-kind–who grew endlessly and without profit to Himself or His people.
Unlike Zeus of the Greek pantheon, who was born to an incumbent ruler, Odin’s father was not a king. He was a hunter, a simple man who loved the silence and shadow of the woods, the solitary trails, the thrill of tracking prey, the ecstasy of the chase. Yet in what would become hallmark Aesir fashion He was also a politician, adept at using His golden handsomeness and easy charisma to win others to His point of view—skills and affinities, all of them, that He would pass on to His eldest son.
He was not born to be King—not literally, anyway—yet the Norns, those meddling women, ancient priestesses, always on the sidelines of things—chose Him for this role from birth. And when the moment of need arose—when the land cried out for deliverance from the waste and devastation brought on by the endless feedings required by the now truly gigantic Ymir, when the Tree and the worlds called out for a new protector—Odin stepped into the mantle of kingship as easily and gracefully as if He had known Himself to be born to it all His life. And who knows? Perhaps He had.
Although Odin Himself is not an archetype any more than I am (and I mean that quite literally; in my experience the Gods are concrete and distinct individuals, just as much so, or more, as our human family and friends, and ourselves), certain of His roles are archetypal in nature and can suggest ways in which a devotee might begin to approach Him and come to know Him better. One of the most obvious and widely accepted paths (throughout much of modern Heathenry, but especially in mainstream quarters) is that of King.
Odin as Allfather dominates the writings of Snorri Sturleson (in which He is referred to as a triple Godhead: High One, Just as High, and Third) and Saxo Grammaticus in particular, but is also evident throughout the Poetic Edda. For example, the following speech by Freyja (in the Lay of Hyndla) indicates the high esteem in which He was held—despite His reputation for subterfuge and often nefarious behavior, about which we will have more to say later–by the other Gods:
“Let us ask Odin, lord of hosts, to be kindly to us,
he gives and pays out gold to the retinue;
he gave Hermod a helmet and corslet,
and to Sigmund a sword to keep.
“He gives victory to some, to some riches,
eloquence to many, and common sense to men;
he gives following winds to sailors, turns of phrase to poets,
he gives manliness to many a warrior.”
Here stated, in brief, are the attributes of a Northern King: dominion over great numbers (“lord of hosts”—although, enigmatically, the “hosts” referred to here could also imply the hosts of the undead warriors of Valhalla and their dread allies–in other words, the Wild Hunt), wealth and the capacity to be generous with it, to be a “ring-giver” (a role beautifully symbolized by Odin’s arm-band Draupnir, the golden oath-ring, crafted by Dwarven magic, that sheds nine more rings identical to itself every nine nights), and the ability to arm warriors and servants, as well as to dispense less material gifts ands blessings (victory, eloquence, riches, manliness, etc.) at will. In Ynglinga Saga, Snorri tells us that Odin could perform the ultimate feat of taking luck and intelligence from one person and bestowing them on another of His choosing. This is the “ring-giver” role writ extremely large, kingship on an unmitigated Godly scale.
Odin as King of the Gods is all of these things, and more. And yet, in my own experience, His kingship is less that of an overbearing autocrat and more that of first among equals. As King of a tribe of Gods, obviously He recognizes and respects the power and contributions of the other members of His tribe, and of Their allies among the Vanir and Jotnar. The Gods of Asgard are not in need of a dictator or a drill sergeant. And so, Odin’s role becomes that of coordinator, drawing on the diverse talents, powers and ambitions of His colleagues to keep Asgard—and by extension, all the worlds under His dominion—running smoothly and productively.
In modern human terms, the closest equivalent role to the King is that of government or corporate leader, and on a smaller scale, the community godhi or Pagan/Heathen organizational leader also fits the bill. For the devotee to Odin, or the person who feels called to Him but does not yet know the extent of the relationship or what He wants from you, there is nothing wrong with experimenting with a community /religious leadership role to see if it fits, if it is a need you can comfortably fill in your community. It is possible to learn a great deal about Odin as Allfather—the face He shows to the vast majority of worshippers—by serving the community in this way. More men than women seem to feel called to try on this particular hat, though that may be simply because our society in general is more supportive of men taking on a leadership position. Regardless of gender, however, there is a shortage of effective and responsible leadership in our world today.
A word of caution, however: this role is not for everyone. Especially within Paganism; many people like to think of themselves as leaders, while few actually are. I can attest to this fact from bitter experience. When I was new to heathenry, I felt that Odin was calling me to a path as a gythia/priestess, and for several years I duly attempted to fulfil this role by pursuing clergy ordinaton from one of the large heathen organizations, trying to organize a kindred of my own, and going to great lengths (very great lengths, considering that travel was a big problem due to my car-less state) to attend the gatherings held by other kindreds in the area. Eventually I gave up, not only because I realized that succeeding as a community gythia required organizational and people skills I simply don’t possess, but also because Odin had finally gotten through to me that this was not what He wanted from me after all. I was to be a leader in one sense, but of groups of spirits rather than communities of people. It was then that I began my spirit work practice and the discovery of my true calling as Odin’s priestess began to be revealed to me.
However, if people have been telling you all your life that you have great leadership skills, and if you feel inspired at the notion of taking on the task of leading a group, coven or kindred, by all means try your hand at it. You will know soon enough (by whether anyone else follows you, and by the feedback they give you if they do) whether your self-assessment was accurate.
Anyone who decides to serve Odin by emulating His role as King should strive to keep in mind that leadership is—when done correctly—the ultimate act of selflessness. This is why there are so many bad leaders in our society; they think of being a leader as a way to puff up their own egos and feel better about themselves by lording it over others. But leadership is not about self-aggrandizement; on the contrary, it is about putting the needs of your people, your group or your community, above your own needs, and considering yourself last. A true king is the ultimate public servant.
Kingship is the loneliest of paths. Although to appearances a king is always surrounded by throngs of admirers, courtiers and well-wishers, this is deceptive; in reality, a king always walks alone. A king makes the hard decisions, the life or death choices, the decisions no one else wants to face, and although he may have advisors, ultimately the responsibility for these decisions rests on him alone. And neither affection for family or friends, or the wishes of his own heart, are permitted to interfere with what he knows must be done, what he knows to be in the best interests of the common good, the good of his people as a whole. Although at first glance Odin would appear to be simply a regnant King, as opposed to the sacral kingship cult of the Vanir, the truth is not so simple. For one thing, Odin is wedded to Frigga, considered by many to be a daughter of the Vanir, an embodiment of sovereignty; thus, Their marriage would be a holy union of Earth and Sky. The story of Odin’s sacrifice on the Tree could be seen as a royal blood offering to the land. And a deeper look at the tale of Balder’s death reveals yet another possibility. Many people in Heathenry today—especially in the more mystical factions—have come to believe that Balder took Odin’s place when the land called for a sacrifice, the son dying in the father’s stead so that the latter might continue to serve the land and people who were, and are, in such dire need of Him. This possibility throws the price of kingship into stark relief. It is not only the sacrifice of self that is asked and sometimes demanded, but the sacrifice of all that one loves, and even of one’s own legacy.
With these points in mind, here are a few simple suggestions to consider, for the person who is considering undertaking a religious or community leadership role as part of their service to Odin.
1) Remember, it’s not about you, but about the group you are serving. Don’t try to take everything on yourself; learn to delegate, and to work with others. Remember, an Odinic leader is more a coordinator than an all-powerful despot. There are going to be some tasks within your organization that others are better suited to than you are, and knowing who to give what job to is a vital part of leadership. Odin doesn’t try to guard Bifrost Himself, because Heimdall is perfect for the job. Nor does He try to oversee the network of cottage industries that comprise Fensalir, because that is Frigga’s domain. Put your trust in those who have proven trustworthy,don’t take on more personally than you can handle, and don’t be a micromanager. Other members of the organization are (or should be, if you’re any kind of leader at all) ready and willing to pitch in; give them jobs and trust them to get them done, without breathing down their necks.
2) Be generous, to your friends, allies, and even your opponents. In the Northern tradition, a leader is a ring-giver, remember? This is also related to the very important concept of Gebo, the idea that exchanging gifts—actual things as well as time and attention—solidifies bonds both between individuals and among the members of a group. Generosity may mean directly sharing any material rewards of leadership with others in your group, though it could just as easily mean giving others a chance to shine, not hogging the spotlight, sharing power, and refraining from being overly critical of those who have opposed you. A king is generous because he can afford to be, and because to be otherwise would be an affront to his royal lineage as well as to the Gods. Another concept related to this idea is that of noblesse oblige, which means roughly that much is expected from someone to whom much has been given. (Literally, nobility imposes obligation.) As a leader, you need to hold yourself to a higher standard than the one that would apply to the average person. If you don’t think that’s fair, don’t take on a leadership role; there are enough bad leaders in the world already.
3) If you find that you can’t handle the work you’ve taken on and delegating doesn’t seem to be working, or if you find that you’re not as well suited to the community organizer role as you had thought you might be, you may want to consider stepping down altogether (which according to Saxo Odin Himself did at one point, at least for a time). If you don’t feel up to doing the work on a consistent basis, or you never seem to get around to getting everything done, the organization is going to suffer for it and no one will be happy about that, least of all you. Be honest about the situation instead of trying to drag things on, and either disolve the group or hand leadership over to someone else.
Most of all, remember that kingship is only one of Odin’s many masks, one of His many faces. There are other ways to serve, and you are not a failure as a devotee of Odin if this role is not the perfect fit for you. Being a community organizer isn’t the end-all and be-all of Heathenry or Paganism. Often it is an especially poor fit for mystics—which may be why Odin is absent from Asgard so much of the time.