Bird, Book & Bone
animism, ecstasy, knowledge, chaos

21 February 2012 @ 4am

deities, pagan blog project


For a god with scant ‘B’ names of His own, Odin has a hell of a lot of ‘B’ family. And also unusually — especially for a god at the helm of an unstoppable P.R. juggernaut — They don’t receive much attention.

To start first with Odin’s mother, Bestla, little can be gained from lore. For being the mother of arguably the most influential player in the entire Northern cosmos, She’s incredibly textually obscure. Bestla doesn’t merit even a single mention in H.R. Ellis Davidson’s encyclopedic Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. Admittedly, mothers tend to get little attention in the lore; Bestla and Laufey probably were more concerned with running their households than kicking ass and taking names and the recorded myths skew towards ass-kicking and name-recording.

What we definitively know about Bestla is nothing; the sources and interpretations vary. She is the Jotun mother of Odin (and of Vili and Ve), though one manuscript of the prose Edda (erroneously) suggests that She is Odin’s daughter. She’s married to Borr (which may simply be a title for someone, given that the name means ‘son’) and Her father is Bölþorn, though due to ambiguities in the primary texts, at least one scholar suggests that Borr is Bölþorn and that he is Bestla’s grandfather. Bestla has a brother, though His name is unattested.

The primary problem is the fragmentary nature of our evidence, which is an unsolvable problem short of a time machine. The secondary problem is the nature of translation, and in particular a problematic verse in Hávamál. Weirdly enough this verse is both the one that is unclear whether Bölþorn is Bestla’s father or grandfather and the one which implies who Bestla’s brother is. The verse:

Fimbulljóð níu
nam ek af inum frægja syni
Bölþórs, Bestlu föður,
ok ek drykk of gat
ins dýra mjaðar
ausinn Óðreri

I’ve translated it as follows:

Nine mighty songs
I learned from the famous son
of Bölþór, Bestla’s father;
and I got a drink
of the precious mead,
a sprinkle of Odroerir.

So either Bestla’s grandfather is Bölþór, and Odin learned the 9 songs from Bestla’s unnamed father; or more likely, Bestla’s father is Bölþór and Odin learned the 9 songs from His famous son, Bestla’s brother, Odin’s maternal uncle. (I will get back to this maternal uncle business momentarily.)

I strongly associate Bestla with the rune Berkana and birch trees; the whiteness of birch ties into Her frost-giant ancestry and Berkana itself has a cool, dignified, mothering quality. Berkana as the primal mother rune makes sense as a symbol for one of the most ancient mothers in the pantheon. Birch likewise is a ‘pioneer’ species: “When the huge glaciers of the last ice age receded, birch trees would have been one of the first to re-colonise the rocky, ice-scoured landscape.” Birch has a fascinating balance of emergent spring and wild winter aspects — the month of Beithe, the first month in the Ogham calendar, was celebrated following Samhain/Halloween; but Birch leafs early and is also associated with Beltane/May Day and the bonfires then — which seems an appropriate mix for the mother of a kin-slaying, world-building trio. Birch is also one of the trees with which fly agarics form symbiotic relationships, also appropriate for Odin’s mom.

I don’t know Bestla well, I’ll admit, though I know Her the best of Odin’s family. She seems like the sort of woman who’d be played by Meryl Streep in Odin’s lengthy biopic. Laure Lynch describes Her in Raven Kaldera’s Jotunbok as “a formidable lady — gracious and queenly, yet iron-willed and with a piss-and-vinegar personality that tolerates no nonsense whatsoever,” which fits my brief impressions precisely. (Lynch’s essay is by far the longest personal account I’ve read of Bestla, very thought-provoking and definitely worth reading.)

Of Her husband Borr, even less can be said: He exists in the myths only as Bestla’s husband and Odin’s father. By far more interesting is Búri, the first of the Aesir, Borr’s father, Odin’s grandfather. While He has little to do in lore besides being good-looking and starting a line of begats at least as impressive as the Book of Matthew’s, Búri does have the distinction of being licked from a block of ice by the primeval cow Auðhumla. Neither Búri nor Borr have any extant evidence of historical cults, nor are there any signs that They’re being honoured as part of reconstructed cults. Frankly, there’s no practical evidence that They’re even still alive (though Bestla certainly is); Kaldera’s experience (Jotunbok again) suggests They drowned some time ago. Odin is definitely a mommy’s boy and a ladies’ man anyway.

On the basis of the ‘Rúnatál’ stanza I quoted above, many scholars have suggested that Mímir is Bölþorn’s famous son who taught Odin the nine fimbul-songs. Given how important maternal uncles were in Viking society — John Lindow cites a medieval Icelandic proverb in Norse Mythology, “Men turn out most like their maternal uncles” — and Odin’s unique relationship with Mímir, this makes a lot of sense. It’s worth emphasizing that the actual evidence for Mímir being Odin’s uncle is circumstantial at best, though I keep seeing people repeat it as though it’s obvious fact.

Bölþór/Bölþorr/Bölþorn, Bestla’s father, another venerable frost giant is nearly as obscure: Odin's most plausible family treeall we know is that His name means ‘evil thorn’, which reminds me of Thurisaz (Búri has Úr, Bestla Berkana). His famous son, however, is of great interest. Kaldera also states that Bolthorn is the son of Bergelmir (another ‘B’). Bergelmir is the grandson of Ymir/Aurgelmir, which would make Odin’s family tree one of the non-forking kind: His paternal grandfather was licked out of the ice by Auðhumla, Who also suckled His maternal great-great-great-grandfather.

It’s also possible that a couple of different gods with similar Mím-type names have been conflated or syncretised long ago into a single Mímir figure. Lindow suggests ‘Mímir’ is etymologically related to ‘memory’ (like Muninn), so both His well and His disembodied talking head could be a fount of memory-related wisdom for Odin. Certainly the disembodied talking head thing is common throughout Europe: the Green Knight, St. Féchín and Bran all fit with Mímir. Diodorus Siculus recorded that Celts preserved the heads of enemies in cedar oil and a particular reverence for the head is distinctively Celtic, so perhaps Odin’s preserving Mímir’s head with herbs is part of a greater Northern pattern. (Mímir’s story has some similarities with Bran fab Llyr’s. It’s especially interesting given the Mímir -> Muninn -> raven -> Bran sort of thought train there. And Kaldera suggests that Huginn and Muninn were gifts from Mímir in exchange for Odin’s eye.)

A lot of ‘B’s in Odin’s background, but it’s most interesting and very telling to me that the two biggest influences were (and are) clearly His mother and his maternal uncle — the traditional mentor and the first in a long line of influential women in His life.

Pagan Blog Project 2012

1 Comment

Posted by
21 February 2012 @ 11pm

A very interesting and intelligent post. I’m using the project to inform and deepen my own understanding of heathenry and the runes. My B was Berkano. My D for this week is Dagaz. Hael and well met, fellow heathen!

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