Recently, I re-read an early twentieth century presentation of Norse Mythology in the form of H. A. Guerber’s Myths of the Norsemen from the Eddas and Sagas. While this book presents the myths themselves in quite an aesthetically pleasing and thorough manner, the typical late nineteenth century interpretation of myth that it displays is a little grating. The main reason for this irritation comes from the trend of that era to only interpret myth from the viewpoint of what Georges Dumézil would term the “Third Function”—a function that is equivalent to the societal role of the farmers, peasants, and thralls. Although Third Function interpretations can help form a basis for the understanding of myth, ultimately, they are not complete, as they only account for the functions of the natural world to explain its meaning. And myth is far more complex than that.
The blurb on the back cover of Guerber’s book states that the “principle theme” of Northern Myth is, “the perpetual struggle of the beneficent forces of nature against the injurious.” This representation is pervasive throughout Guerber’s collection, just as it was in the general trend of the age in which he wrote. Of course, this interpretation is not entirely incorrect, but neither does it present the full picture. There are clear parallels
between certain mythological events, such as Odin’s winter departure from Asgard, and the functions of gods such as Frey and Freya, that have decisively naturalistic meanings. But this is an entirely one-dimensional way of interpreting myth, accounting only for the natural world of seasons, cycles, and catastrophes within its scope. Myth, just like the more conventional aspects of reality, has (at least) four dimensions.
We can interpret the machinations of the physical universe, those alluded to as the single point of relevance in the works of those such as Guerber, as the first dimension. This dimension accounts for the basics of existence—the physical world around us, climate, environment and the natural forces of decay, destruction, and attrition that constantly work against the natural forces of life, fertility and production. In Dumézilian terms, this ‘vertical’ axis can be loosely equated to the Third Function—that attributed to the Vanir Frey and Freya, the deities of fertility, and agriculture, and hence that of the natural cycle.
The next level of interpretation, the second dimension, is that which gives Breadth, or a ‘horizontal’ axis, to myth, and is that of the societal realm. This is the domain of the Second Function, which is that of the nobleman, warrior, and king, and deals with the events, cycles, conflicts, and order within the human, telluric realm, including the struggles and maintenance of political power, ethics, interpersonal relationships and other
timeless and distinctly ‘human’ societal manifestations. The god associated with this function is Thor, being the god of ‘common’ law, and of war. As a son of Odin and the giantess Jord, Thor represents a link between the destructive, impulsive forces of nature (represented by the giants, the enemies of the gods) and the higher forces of divinity. Like man, he represents a midway point between the wild barbarity of nature and the divinity of Asgard, and is therefore the patron of the distinctly human aspects of the world. Considering this as well as his defensive, protective function, it was understandable why Thor was more than likely the most popular of the gods amongst men.
The third dimension—that of Depth—is the First Function, which relates to the domain of the priest and the magician. This accounts for the highest aspects of reality, represented by the religious, esoteric, mysterious, and magical aspects of myth. This function is divided between the gods Tyr and Odin. Tyr represents a ‘higher,’ divine law and ‘metaphysical’ justice, while Odin, being the Father of the gods and the god of magic, is the manipulator and initiator of the higher functions of the nine worlds.
Both gods, but more specifically Odin, also represent and shape the deep, divine functions of the psyche and the unconscious, and form a link (which is also a barrier) between the highest regions of the psyche (Asgard) and the rest of the multiverse. This link is manifested in the form of the Rainbow Bridge and its attendant guardian Heimdall, who, in the Rigsthula, also shaped the trifunctional division of society referred to here. The mythological account of Odin’s sacrifice to himself on the world tree (another possible symbolic reference to the function of Heimdall, whose name has been interpreted as originating from *heim-dalthu – ‘world tree’) in the Hávamál (137-144), upon which he descends to Hel, the unconscious realm, in a death-like state to take up the runes before returning, transformed, to consciousness with them ingrained into his being, reveals more of this link and how it was and can be obtained.
The fourth dimension of myth is of course that of Time. Time is a key, yet silent and invisible, element in the context of myth. Unfortunately, as a historical power, it also acts as a force of attrition against myth, but can be countered by Memory, which is a bridge between the third and fourth dimensions. Memory, in this context, is an abstract concept that goes much further and deeper into the roots of Tradition than our common biological memory. It is not the memory of the grey matter, but that which is seen and felt by the eye sacrificed to Mimir’s Well.
Memory is the source of the call from the dark waters of the unconscious that, when realized, pulls our waking minds towards it with a force as unavoidable as death. This is the call that cries out to us when we feel the deep resonances of myth, culture, and tradition binding themselves anew to our beings. This is the call that stokes the flames of our deepest passions and longings; the silent, wordless voices of those who came before, sharing the soul, lore, crafts and wisdom of a less perverse age. It is the residue of the touch of the Allfather, the Ancestral god; he of the Regin who gave his people breath, speech and senses, though their Memory now fades as they become blighted and numbed by the frosts of Utgard.
This Memory is that of both the dead and of the living. It is the collective unconscious spilling into our own dark, vast chasms of waters that, in most, remain unexplored and unstirred. It is that to which we are all bound but are mostly asleep to except for the occasional, haunted sense of yearning; the sudden, brief urge towards Mystery; or
the innate sense of wrongness that grasps at man through his dreams, his lost hopes, and his lonely boredom. We can find this memory again, for it lives on within us and within the world. The keys to our lost selves lie in Tradition, where the spark of Memory is not dead, nor will it ever die. As long as even just a few minds sustain it, it will remain. Silent, unbidden, and elusive it may have become, but it cannot be repressed from the soul of man entirely, though the forces of blindness and forgetfulness, that exist in both man and in Midgard, will always strive for this end. And even though the gathering storm of convenient witlessness swells in the minds of many, a Memory persists in the core of man’s being that will tug and gnaw and burn its way to the surface of the soul of he who can hear its echoes through the ages.
All four dimensions (as well as the three functions) are vital to the understanding and interpretation of myth. To approach it from one angle alone will lead to gross misunderstanding. Coming before pioneers such as Dumézil, Eliade, and Jung, who saw the great depths inherent in myth, we cannot blame Victorian era mythographers for their profound lack of holistic insight. Yet it is vital to put the record straight to some extent, since overly simplistic works such as Guerber’s are still readily available and commonly cited as accurate depictions of the functions of myth today.
Article by Ruth Thornee.