Monday, 27 November 2017

The Goat and its Relationship to the Northern European Thunder God

I have spent some time recently reflecting on the meaning and importance of the goat in relation to the Indo-European Thunder God. My article from 2013 is particularly relevant to this subject: The Goat, an Indo-European Solar Symbol

Misinformed bloggers on mythology would cite the evidence of Thor's goats in the Eddas as an indication of His 'lowly' status amongst the Aesir, particularly when compared to Odin. Believe it or not I have seen these foolish comments made by charlatans dabbling in mythology who have probably never even read the Eddas!

Most of my regular readers will know that I give great primacy to Thunor/Thunar/Thonar/Thor for He is more than likely the most ancient of our Germanic deities and unlike any other has close mythological cognates with the Baltic, Slavic, Celtic and Finno-Ugric peoples. However He is more often than not compared unfavourably with Odin but these who make such comparisons lack genuine understanding not only of our historical and sacred writings but of the very essence of the God Himself. I do not wish to digress further as this issue alone deserves a separate article and I wish to focus here on the goat and its significant relationship to the Thunder God amongst northern Europeans.

We know from both the Eddas that Thor's chariot was pulled by two goats. The Younger Edda gives the names of these goats:
"Thor has two goats whose names are Tanngniost and Tanngrisnir, and a chariot that he drives in, and the goats draw the chariot. From this he is known as Oku-Thor." (Gylfaginning, Faulkes translation)
Rudolf Simek defines Oku-Thor as 'driving Thor':
"He derives the name aka 'to drive a chariot', as Thor does indeed drive a chariot pulled by two he-goats; the origin of the idea of Thor's chariot driving could be the rumbling noise of thunder." (Dictionary of Northern Mythology
There is a close resemblance between Oku and the name of the Finnish Thunder God Ucco although Simek discounts this as an explanation of the term, arguing that the flow of cultural transfer tends to be from the Germanic to the Finno-Ugric peoples but that is not in my opinion a sufficient argument for ruling it out altogether! Ucco or Ukko is derived from the Finnish terms for 'old man' and 'grandfather'. Ukko may originally have been called Perkele, a Baltic term. Like Thor Ukko possessed a Hammer, called Ukonvasar, 'hammer of Ukko'. Sometimes His weapon is depicted as an axe and called Ukonkirves

Heathen Finns like their Germanic, Baltic and Slavic counterparts would wear hammer or axe shaped amulets. The Sami had a similar deity, Horagelles whose name is similar in meaning to Ukko: 'grandfather' or 'great grandfather'. Interestingly the Sami also called this deity Thoron and even Thor!

It is natural that our ancestors conceived of the rumbling thunder as the sound of a chariot being driven across the sky but we must ask ourselves why it was pulled by goats rather than say horses? Both the Germanic Thunder God and the Balto-Slavic equivalents feature a chariot being pulled by goats:

Perkunas. Lithuanian. The thunder god, the equivalent in LITHUANIA of PERKONS, PERKONIS, PERUN and PYERUN. Perkunas was perceived as a vigorous red-bearded man brandishing an axe who was drawn rattling, across the sky in a chariot drawn by a billy goat. "(European Myth & Legend, Mike Dixon-Kennedy, 1997)

The chariot of Perkunas is sometimes pictured as pulled by horses but often by goats, one black and one white which is a very obvious hint of solar symbolism. The goat is of course a solar symbol but the presence of both black and white ones strengthen this association. Additionally the male goat is a symbol of masculine virility, potency and vigour. The German Donar is particularly associated with mountains, many being named after Him. The Donnersberg in the Rheinland-Pfalz is a particularly well known example. The goat is also an animal which is at home in mountainous regions and its milk and meat would have formed a staple part of our ancestors' daily diet.

It is clear from Gylfaginning that Thor regarded His goats Tanngrisnir ('teeth barer') and Tanngnostr ('teeth grinder') as sacred due to the anger which He displayed when He discovered that Thjalfi had split the thighbone of one of the goats causing it to become lame. Scholars such as Simek point out that the names of the goats "are surely an invention and probably from Snorri himself as they are nowhere to be found except in Gylfaginning 20 and the thulur." The fact that the names are not mentioned in the Elder Edda does not make them an 'invention'. Snorri could have obtained his information from other sources including oral tradition but regardless of whether he 'invented' the names or not the fact remains that the goat has a long association with the northern European Thunder God as is evidenced from Slavic and Baltic sources. It is relevant for me to point out at this point that the Baltic mythology contains material so ancient that it can be traced back to Proto-Indo-European times.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

The Rúnatal-an Observation

We know from a section of the Hávamál  (Sayings of the High One) from the Elder/Poetic Edda that Odin gained the Runes or knowledge of them via an act of self sacrifice. This section of the Havamal is called the Rúnatal:

"I know that I hung on a windy tree
           nine long nights,

          wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin,

          myself to myself,

         on that tree of which no man knows

         from where its roots run.

         No bread did they give me nor a drink from a horn,

         downwards I peered;

         I took up the runes, screaming I took them,

         then I fell back from there. (verses 138-139, Larrington translation)

A more poetic yet older translation by Benjamin Thorpe translates the Old Norse as:

"I know that I hung, on a wind-rocked tree, nine whole nights, with a spear wounded, and to Odin offered, myself to myself; on that tree, of which no one knows from what root it springs.

         "Bread no one gave me, nor a horn of drink, downward I peered, to runes applied myself,                    wailing learnt them, then fell down thence." (verses 140-141)

As I am sure that my readers will agree the Thorpe translation being older is more poetic but it needs to be borne in mind that newer translations tend to be more accurate. Without studying the relevant passages in the original Old Norse I cannot at this stage comment on whether the version of this passage by Carolyne Larrington is more accurate. The translations though are essentially the same apart from one important point. Thorpe states Odin "applied" Himself to the Runes and "wailing learnt them". By contrast Larrington does not say that Odin learned the Runes only that He "took them".

The translation of the second verse by Hollander:

"Neither horn they upheld nor handed me bread;
I looked below me-
aloud I cried-
caught up the runes, caught them up wailing,
thence to the ground fell again."

Again, no reference to learning the Runes. The translation by Bray:

"None refreshed me ever with food or drink,
I peered right down in the deep;
crying aloud I lifted the Runes
then back I fell from thence."

The translation by Bellows:

"None made me happy with loaf or horn,
And there below I looked;
I took up the runes, shrieking I took them,
And forthwith back I fell."

The translation by Terry:

"They brought me no bread, no horn to drink from,
I gazed towards the ground.
Crying aloud, I caught up runes;
finally I fell."

The translation by Auden:

"They gave me no bread,
They gave me no mead,
I looked down;
with a loud cry
I took up runes;
from that tree I fell."

And finally the translation by Chisholm:

They dealt me no bread, nor drinking horn.
I looked down, I drew up the runes,
screaming I took them up,
and fell back from there. 

Out of the 8 translations the one by Thorpe is the only one which makes reference to 'learning' the Runes but that fact of course does not in itself make Thorpe's translation of the verse incorrect. When translating from ancient languages into a modern one the translator often does not know the exact meaning or the nuance of the word he is translating and just as in modern English a word with identical or similar spelling can have a radically different meaning. Despite Thorpe being 'out on a limb' with this verse it is his translation which I feel captures the essence of it best! It is quite clear that Odin after having gained the Runes would by necessity have had to learn and interpret them. The Runes did not originate with Odin but He discovered or more likely rediscovered them and then gave this knowledge to man for immediately after the Rúnatal we have the Ljóðatal which goes on to list 18 Rune charms or songs.

Readers of this article are advised to also read Odin on the World Tree