When the author of a book on Germanic religion turns out to be Vincent Ongkowidjojo, you readily know that on facts, you cannot go wrong. He knows the material, partly because he brings to it the philological and mythographical methods he acquired as an Orientalist, being by training a specialist of the Ancient Near East. Meanwhile he mastered Old Norse, as shown once more in the present book, Doors of Valhalla, through original translations of two of the most important hymns from the Edda: Voluspa and Lokasenna. (A practical suggestion for the reader: read those translations, printed at the end of the book, first. At the end of your reading, you can go over them again and see how your understanding of them has deepened.)
For this book, he called in Maria Kvilhaug to write a preface on “the ‘worlds’ of Old Norse mythology”, and David Parry to contribute an afterword. Kvilhaug discusses the 7 heavenly worlds (heard of Breidablik, “broad view”, called “the most beautiful place in heaven”?—p.12) and the 12 worlds, corresponding to forces within us. These are different from the better-known 9 -heims or worlds on the Yggdrasil.
Parry analyzes why a return to Christianity would not be the right answer to the need for re-enchanting the world. He considers it ethically in error, and not genuinely resonating with us because not ancestral. He is a great fan of the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, whom he calls a crypto-Pagan. Wittgenstein was a conservative at heart, an anti-relativist who nonetheless was against the absolutism of limited causes (notably against Bertrand Russell’s self-righteousness about his liberal causes). Parry especially likes this Wittgenstein witticism: “Not how the world is, is mystical; but that it is.”
An aside: political shadows
On his mother’s side, Ongkowidjojo is Flemish, and on his father’s side Chinese. This explains his Indonesian name: the Chinese settlers there were forced by law to take an indigenous name. Some politically conscious well-wishers of the Norse religion, Asatrú or Vortrú (“Loyalty to the Aesir” c.q. “Ancestral loyalty”), will heave a sigh of relief upon hearing of his visibly exotic ancestry.
After World War II, Pagan Revivalism had acquired the odium of association with the Nazis. Thus, in the Baltic states including Finland, Pagans were mostly nationalists and fiercely opposed to the Soviet bid to annex their countries, so they sided with the Germans. (Not necessarily with Nazism, but in wartime psychology, those distinctions were not made, also because they sported the indigenous swastika, wrongly identified as Nazi.) In the Netherlands, the few who took scholarly interest in their ancient traditions, were roped in for the Nazi occupiers’ nativist cultural policy, and branded afterwards as having been “wrong” during the war.
In reality, the stereotyping of neo-Pagans as tainted with Nazism is a gross optical mistake. The Pagan revival started in the Romantic age, when nobody had heard of National-Socialism yet, and more in Britain than in Germany. Adolf Hitler ridiculed neo-Paganism, which he found flaky, past-oriented and thus un-Germanic. By contrast, the top anti-Nazi Winston Churchill was an ordained Druid. Today, there are actively Left-wing neo-Pagan groups, with the German Pagan scene split down the middle between Left and Right. This politicized stereotype, though definitely waning, is nonetheless a fact of life that one still encounters sometimes. Enters Mr. Ongkowidjojo whose very existence, by a sheer accident of birth, refutes that impression. As does his writing, which reveals what profound worldview had been obscured by this political taboo.
The fact that I am sensitive at all to this aspect of the matter bespeaks a trauma of my generation, now greying. In our young days, Pagans were battered by endless slandering from the mainstream media (whose then monopoly on the information and opinion flow was fearsomely absolute), together with their numerous dupes and parrots in the bourgeoisie. I am happy to see that this is far less the case for the upcoming generation. If they think I just made a bizarre and uncalled-for digression into politics, so much the better.
After Christianity fell out of favour among a majority of Europeans, numerous people set out on a search in all directions for an alternative religion to fill the “god-shaped hole” (as Salman Rushdie put it) that the parental religion left behind.
The first generations of neo-Pagans took the bare bones of whatever traditions they found, adding their own fantasy to give meaning to these. Or in some cases they even dogmatically refused to see a deeper meaning, arguing that all this airy-fairy spirituality is “un-Germanic” and “not fit for European man”. They took all the war scenes in the Edda stories literally, and their idea of Valhalla was as an endless battlefield where fighting was only interrupted with drinking: the life-style of a football hooligan. Their ideal of Paganism was what they had imbibed: the Christian stereotype of the Pagan as a rugged barbarian. The appeal of this sort of religion was consequently confined to hooligan types.
But then the realization gained currency that our ancestors were not all beer-benumbed, nor all that unique. The search for a deeper meaning in life, that animates the post-Christian seekers, existed already among our Pagan ancestors and certainly must have inspired their writings. The higher the spiritual reaches we go, the more the traditions converge. When speculating on the spiritual meaning of the myths, it is only right that similarities with other spiritualities are assumed, though at the same time we should warn against the temptation of facilely reading too many similarities in them.
Many people who participate in Asatrú rituals, otherwise also practise yoga or qigong, as well as the related Oriental or Occidental martial arts. They will probably like Ongkowidjojo’s foray into universal spirituality, unlike a dwindling hard core that still reduces Asatrú to its ethnic dimension. In principle, he is right to go there. It is very likely that the tradition expressed through the Edda layer, is but the skeletal remains of a deeper spirituality. Partly this is unrecoverable, because it is the subtlest and most precious layer of the Pagan tradition that has been most thoroughly wiped out by Christianity. Partly it can be reconstructed with the help of living Oriental models, and partly, some motifs are just universal.
In the chapters on the Edda’s contents, Ongkowidjojo goes into great detail and reports a lot of background facts. He draws attention to numerous divine figures and narrative themes that even many Asatrúar will never have heard of. Norse mythology is far more complex than most of us had realized. This is specially true for the Edda’s celebrated Voluspa hymn (“prognosis by the seeress”), nearly impenetrable without competent explanation. An unforewarned reader would never get the conceptual background out of reading the bare Edda text itself. We refer to the book itself for that.
The Lokasenna (“Loki’s scolding tirade”, his outburst against the gods) is more straightforward.
Ongkowidjojo reviews and analyzes the many faces of Loki, the trickster-god. In some respects, the god is merely uttering a rough version of the received barroom wisdom, e.g. on the much-stereotyped topic of the weaker sex (p.285-287): “Loki regards the goddesses as inferior. Through them, he hopes to hurt the gods”, as when he “accuses all the goddesses of being unfaithful”. In more moderate tones, our omniscient writer sums up: “Their means of defence consist of words instead of weapons. (…) They care about reputation. They hope to gain standing through their husbands. While this makes the women dependent, it also shows their willingness to connect. One last major trait is shared. Almost everyone of the Asynjur [goddesses] possesses the ability to tell the future.”
Some critical readers of a Nietzschean bent might disapprove of the tinge of moralism in Ongkowidjojo’s analysis: “Loki’s true motive is to disclose the gods’ masquerade. (…) he senses their hypocrisy. Consequently, he make it his mission to shake the very foundation of Asgard’s ethics. (…) he wants to wake up the gods and point out their demise. While the Aesir become decadent and inactive, Loki incites them to action.” (p.291) Then again, it is a good thing that he triest o see the loftier motives behind this tirade by Loki, who is simply treated as the bad guy in the text itself.
Like many modern writers on the world’s mythologies, he sees the dramatis personae as symbols or personifications of a particular virtue or tendency. Thus: “Fenrir symbolizes fear. Odin faces him but proves unable to vanquish the wolf. His son Vidar takes his place (…) Vidar is responsibility.(…) and stoically deals with the situation. Vidar is known as the silent god. (…) Another of his traits in indifference. This explains his detachment from the material world and from the lower Self. Because of his dispassion he is able to defeat the wolf.” (p.100)
With his wide knowledge of other mythologies, Ongkowidjojo makes some conscientious comparisons. Thus: “The northern anthropogenesis is based on a heathen ritual in which wooden idols were prepared to serve as a medium for the spirit of a god. These so-called pole gods were endowed with the breath of life”, which points to an old relic of an inauguration ritual” common to much of mankind. (p.110) the author compares this with the “Opening of the Mouth ritual from Ancient Egypt”. I would add the very similar Hindu procedure of Prana Pratishtha (“establishing life-breath”), in which a sculpted piece of wood or stone is infused with the god’s presence.
The context here is the qualities of three gods that have to be infused in a cultic object. These three are personified as Odin, for önd, “life breath”; Hoenir, for ódr, “consciousness”; and Lodur, for lá, “skill, appearance”. Önd, “breath”, “is similar to Chinese qi”, and “in Christianized times, the term also referred to spirit, even the Holy Spirit”. (p.111) The Christian Trinity, which flies in the face of the strict monotheism of its parent religion Judaism and of Islam, must have been inserted into the monotheist tradition from the Hellenistic version of an Indo-European model, where threefold thought-forms are rife. So, our author analyses the Germanic trinity of three brothers (p.123 ff.): in the Voluspa, they are called Odin, Hoenir and Lodur, the same three with a wide area of application.
The myth of a drink conferring immortality, captured by a solar eagle sent by the gods, is quite widespread. The Norse mjödr, “mead”, corresponds both etymologically and culturally to Vedic madhu, “honey, sweet”, another name for soma, the psychedelic brew. It also ties in with the Gilgamesh Epic and other sources. He concurs with Svava Jakobsdottir that this Scandinavian myth “compares to other IE myths about the theft of a sacred drink” (p.162).
Sacrifice is a common theme in most mythologies, and Ongkowidjojo naturally ties it in with an equally universal spiritual path: “A sense of sacrifice is evoked by Odin’s death. Alfather sacrifices himself in the fight because he belongs to the old world. When he dies, he makes room for the younger generation. Vidar is one of those promising gods. (…) They are the seeds of new aspects of consciousness to be unfolded after initiation.” (p.100)
Number symbolism, here as in other mythologies, is very important. Often the names that are included in a sevenfold, ninefold or twelvefold are exchangeable for others, as long as the number remains the same.
The very first page shows a magic-type square made up of 9 runes. Already on p.10 we learn that in the “hall of friends”, the number 12 is quite important. The All-Father has one seat, with twelve for the other gods; that is, the centre surrounded by a Round Table of the 12 signs of the Zodiac, just like the Greek 12 gods (Dodekatheon) and the Vedic twelve suns (Aditya), reproduced in Japanese Buddhist temples as the 12 heavens (Ten): “There are twelve Aesir. In ancient times, the number had more significance than the composition of the group.” (p. 245) The signs of the Zodiac are also linked to Hercules’ twelve labours as well as to the stages of Thor’s and Odin’s careers.
Similarly, the author devotes a chapter to “The seven and the nine” (p.21 ff.) Rather than just summarizing this very important subject, we would like to draw attention to what we consider to be a weak point in this otherwise excellent book.
The author endeavours to link Norse mythology with other systems of spirituality, where the symbol value of the mythic characters corresponds with themes on or phases of the spiritual path. That much is in itself very commendable, as we know little of the spiritual practice in the society that engendered this mythology. Greek and Vedic religions provide the historically most relevant points of comparison, but the author has opted instead for Theosophy, not older than the late 19th century, and related modern authors.
On p.23, he lists all the great names of Theo- and Anthroposophy, each with his own system of 6 to 9 “planes” of existence, from the physical to the spiritual. These 9 he doesn’t mention again, but equates them to the nine worlds: 1. Helheim = physical; 2-3. Niflheim and Svartalfheim = ethereal; 4. Jotunheim = emotional; 5. Midgard = mental; 6. Asgard = causal; 7. Vanaheim = intuitional; 8. Alfheim = spiritual; 9. Muspelheim = monadic. Further, Ginnungagap = the logoic plane, whatever that may be according to the Theosophists. This correspondence is questionable and will certainly be challenged by some lovers of Nordic mythology, but has no further importance for the narrative. The idea behind it, however, is essential for this book: that the nine worlds are not only a descriptive worldview but also a guide for action, a map on a path that we are expected to walk.
Another heritage from Theosophy is more pervasive: the Seven Rays. Take for instance, in the middle of a discourse on Eddaic psychology: “Hroering [= “stirring”, cfr. the Dutch word be-roering], whether emotional or mental, is connected with Ray Four and secondarily with Ray Six.” (p.112) What to make of this?
The doctrine of the Seven Rays finds its origins in the Vedas, where there is a sparing mention of the Sapta Rashmi, the “seven rays”. This notion is not further developed there. When Theosophist Alice Bailey takes it up in the early twentieth century, it has become a cornerstone of her worldview. They are detailed as 1. Power/Will; 2. Love/Wisdom; 3. Active Intelligence; 4. Harmony; 5. Concrete knowledge; 6. Devotion; and 7. Ceremonial Order. Ongkowidjojo links them to 1. Thor; 2. Odin; 3. Mimir; 4. Freyja; 5. Heimdal; 6. Vidar; 7. Balder. (p.37)
With any such “world models”, you can make approximations between one member of the list (one of the 22 great arcana of the Tarot, the 8 trigrams or 64 hexagrams of the Yijing, the 12 signs of the Zodiac etc.) and any given person, including each of the Nordic gods. Hence not much fault can be found with the author’s attempt to find a correspondence between hroering and Ray 4 or Ray 6. But the question is whether it adds anything that was not already present in the lore about the Nordic theo- and anthropology. Instead of saying that something “connects with Ray 6”, you might simply say that it is “devoted” or “devotional”.
I can’t see much surplus value in this esoteric angle. In principle, yes, but at least in this instance, no. The main reason is that his choice of esoteric tradition leaves much to be desired. Theosophy and allied esotericists like Dion Fortune and Rudolf Steiner were very second-hand. They didn’t fully grasp the Hindu-Buddhist traditions they were grappling with, and moreover tried to link it to or combine it with budding Western sciences like psychology. Note that after their heyday in the late 19th and early 20th century, their worldview has not evolved or put to creative use ever since, only widely parroted. A sure sign of their immaturity is their bombastic use of complicated jargon drawn from different existing traditions not forming a logical whole.
So, I would suggest the reader to skip the (usually brief) passages about the supposed Theosophical angle and concentrate on Vincent Ongkowidjojo’s explanation of the Edda, spiced up with comparisons with other mythologies and genuinely traditional worldviews. On that condition, you have a very good book before you, one that genuinely contributes to our more sophisticated understanding of the Edda.
Vincent Ongkowidjojo: Doors of Valhalla, An Esoteric Interpretation of Norse Mythology, Mandrake, Oxford 2016