(This is a partial rewrite of a post that first appeared on my old blog a couple of years back.)
Here and there around the Internet I’ve been seeing various ideas for reworking March 17th into a more pagan-friendly observance. I thought I’d remind everyone of my own re-fashioning of this holiday, which I observed for the first time a couple of years back: Bolverk’s Day, in honor of Odin’s connection with snakes. After all, it seems only fitting to me that the day devoted to St. Patrick, whose great claim to fame was supposedly driving all the “snakes” (i.e. pagans) out of Ireland, be renamed for Odin’s serpentine persona who “stole” the Mead of Poetry from the giants. There is, if you’ll forgive me a moment’s indulgence, a bit of poetic justice and even a kind of symmetry in that.
Setting aside the Mead story for now, however, I realize that Snake is not one of the animal forms or helpers (take your pick) most people would readily associate with Odin. Years ago, when I was only a baby seidhrkona, I subscribed to a seidhr discussion email list for a while, and one day the topic of animal helper spirits came up. Many, many people volunteered their own experiences with animals ranging from the expected (wolf, raven, crow, stag) to the less common (otter, salmon, mouse), until finally the entire discussion came to an abrupt standstill when one woman dared to venture that her own journey companion was a snake. Most of the list’s participants were simply struck dumb. The higher-ranking ones were clearly mortified and, through the magic of the Internet, I could almost see the moderator’s face turning purple.
Snake, he informed the young woman, was not an appropriate choice at all for a heathen’s animal ally, because snakes are dangerous and unreliable, not very useful as journey helpers, and appear only as negative forces in the “known lore.” To prove his point, he cited the fact that Nastrond (the worst region of Helheim, reserved for oathbreakers and murderers) is described as having walls and ceilings writhing with venomous snakes; that King Gunnar meets his death when Atli throws him into a snake pit (and although he is able to keep the snakes at bay for a while by charming them with music from his harp, he eventually succumbs), that it is a snake—Jormungandr, the “world serpent” who encircles the earth, biting his own tail—who “kills Thor at the Ragnarok.” And, worst of all, a snake was the form assumed by Odin while behaving at his most underhanded and reprehensible.
I’ve waited years before bringing up the subject again at any length, but I beg to differ, on all counts.
First of all, I hate it—absolutely hate it, more, even, than having to defend our shipping policies at work to the twentieth cranky customer of the day—when people refer to “the Ragnarok” as if it were going on at this very moment, while we watch (via live ESPN broadcast, one supposes), or, worse, as if it were a fait accompli. This rant really goes beyond the scope of this post, but I had to at least touch on it because the idea that a piece of literature written after the Christian conversion of Iceland should be treated as holy writ and never questioned really drives me up the wall. (This same criticism could, in all fairness, really be applied to the whole of the poetic and prose Eddas, but in the case of the Ragnarok tale, so obviously infected by millennial hysteria, it is even less tolerable.)
Second, it boggles my mind how anyone could reach the conclusion that a snake would make a useless and inferior journey animal. Snakes may not have legs, and their bodies may be constructed in a way that’s passing strange (alien, even) to those of us with two or four legs, but they are fast, they are silent, they are flexible (capable of changing direction or even retreating altogether at the speed of thought), and they have an excellent self-defense system (in the form of venom). They can fit through very tight places, just as Bolverk did when—in Snorri’s version of the Mead myth—he slithered his way into Hnitbjorg, as well as conceal themselves, if need be, in similarly tight places. They can tunnel underground—something, one would think, that would be especially useful on journeys to the lower worlds (Helheim, Svartalfeim, Jotunheim). They don’t need to eat as often as mammals or birds do, they can see in the infrared range (in other words, they can see body heat—a very useful ability for a predator), they can shed their skin and smell with their tongues, and they have heightened sensitivity—through their underbellies—to vibrations along the earth, and thus can feel prey, or a potential enemy, approaching long before they would be able to see or smell him.
All of these qualities—and more that I could list here but won’t because it would take us very far off track—contribute to making the snake an exemplary journey ally. I admit, I was a bit taken aback by this avalanche of anti-snake sentiment among modern heathens, especially those following a mystical path not fully accepted even by their co-religionists. Given that there is a long history of prejudice against snakes in our predominantly Judeo-Christian culture, going all the way back to the serpent who seduced Eve into disobedience, I have to say there may have been something else at work there. Cultural conditioning is a hard thing to exorcise, especially when you stubbornly refuse to admit that it exists.
Granted, the serpentine examples given by Snorri and the other saga writers (who were themselves Chistians writing after the Icelandic conversion) are overwhelmingly negative, but if you look at the archeological evidence of the migration and Viking ages, a very different picture often emerges from what’s portrayed in the myths. For one thing, what about all those snake brooches and other snake-embellished jewelry? What about the numerous runestones, weaponry and drinking vessels featuring a snake motif? Why would generations of clever, resourceful, successful people choose to ornament themselves and their sacred objects with an animal regarded as inherently evil?
The answer is simple: they wouldn’t. Clearly, the ancient heathen opinion of snakes was much different than ours. Oh, I’m not saying they romanticized snakes by any means; the ancient Germans were a levelheaded and pragmatic people, after all. They fully realized that snakes can be dangerous, wily creatures that are often best avoided, and that snake-like people (and gods) could be both deceitful and vindictive. At the same time, however, they valued the snake as a symbol of luck, wisdom, renewal (the snake’s ability to shed its skin has often been seen as a symbol of immortality), and healing (the snake’s venom being long associated with the twin dichotomies of poison and healing). Finally, they saw the snake as a guardian, a protector. In Germanic tradition it is dragons (relatives to the snake, and often referred to by the same terms, serpent or “wyrm”) who guard treasure, and—going by the archaeological evidence—the great World Serpent’s embrace of the earth was seen as a protective function. Similarly, Bolverk’s actions in the Mead myth as Snorri portrays it may have been deceptive and underhanded, but they also resulted in the gods’ acquisition of Odhroerir, a feat that would not have otherwise been possible.
Which brings us back full-circle to Odin and snakes. Throughout the modern heathen revival, Odin has had to struggle against a public relations problem very much like that of his serpentine cohorts. I am aware that many people within modern heathenry and its offshoots, as well as some in other walks of paganism, have problems with Odin and prefer to avoid working with him, even peripherally. I get that, I really do. For me personally, it’s a similar concept to not liking chocolate; still, some people don’t like it or can’t have it, and I can accept that. What I can’t accept is that they often refuse to look at the big picture, blinded by Odin-phobia just as much as our modern culture is influenced by the Judeo-Christian prejudice against snakes. Worse, they seem to assume that ancient heathens universally shared their views. And while Odin was certainly never as popular in Scandinavia (until relatively late in the Heathen period, at any rate) as He had been in England and among the southern Germanic tribes, the plethora of place names and folk customs associated with Him in the latter case, and the pride of place He was given at official rituals and in poetic works in the former, both testify that while He may not have been universally loved, He was certainly never dishonored or spoken of with contempt, as I have heard some modern heathens do.
It is true that throughout the surviving lore Odin is accused (and often rightly) of moving secretly and silently, of using underhanded means to work His will, of striking swiftly and without pity, and certainly of being essentially cold-blooded (towards the pleas of followers who have betrayed Him)—all of which are serpentine qualities that are often labeled as “evil.” On the other hand, however, the Anglo-Saxon charms cite His prowess with healing; he is renowned throughout the lore of all Germanic countries for His wisdom; as sacral King of the gods He holds their combined luck as well as that of Asgard—luck that, as Snorri reminds us in Ynglinga Saga, He will generously lend to his followers at times of need; He sacrificed himself on the World Tree only to rise up again, reborn and invested with the power of the runes; and He protects not only Asgard but also of Midgard, the world of men, with His hard-won knowledge and magic. These are all qualities that were, in ancient times, recognized as serpentine as well. So to my mind, at least, the snake is every bit as much an Odinic animal as the raven or the wolf.
With that in mind, I invite my readers to join me in celebrating March 17th as Bolverk’s Day in honor of the Old Man’s slithery alter-ego. While I would love for this to be the year I get my own temple snake to keep for Him, due to our new and smaller living space that will have to wait for a future Bolverk’s Day. However, I do plan to commemorate the day by visiting some snakes in a nearby pet store. I will be dressing in green (since the European viper, the most likely candidate for Bolverk’s serpentine persona, is a grayish green), wearing all my snake jewelry, and displaying my Bolverk bracelet tattoo proudly. I also plan to toast Bolverk with some green beer and offer Him a green-frosted cupcake. After all, why should the Irish have all the fun? This March 17th, let’s celebrate snakes and the god whose ally they are. Here’s to luck, wisdom, healing, magical protection, and Odin, the god who so generously gifts us with all of those things. Cheers!