Bird, Book & Bone
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B is for BESTLA, BORR, BÚRI, BÖLÞORN AND BRAZEN HEADS

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:

140.
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


D is for DEVOTION

I’m still playing a bit of catch-up with the whole PBP exercise, but I’ve also been quite touched and inspired by the adorations that others have written.  When I saw Loki was tragically adoration-free, I had to write some, despite the twinge it gave my sense of strict alphabetization.  So with no further ado, here are 99 adorations to Loki (feel free to fill in your own Jay-Z joke here).

I adore You, Lie-Smith
I adore You, truth-teller
I adore You with Your scarred lips
I adore You, Silvertongue
I adore You, flame-haired
I adore You, Sigyn’s worry
I adore You, Sigyn’s joy
I adore You, Lady Death’s Father
I adore You, mother of monsters
I adore You, wolf’s father
I adore You, chaotic
I adore You, Lopt
I adore You, airy one
I adore You, hatchet man
I adore You, Thor’s boon companion
I adore You, father of Midgard’s boundary
I adore You who gifts us with vitality
I adore You who blesses us with blood
I adore You, Býleist’s brother
I adore You, insulter
I adore You, master satirist
I adore You, Waiter-Slayer
I adore You, Helblindi’s brother
I adore You, instigator
I adore You, sharpshooter
I adore You, pervert
I adore You, magician
I adore You, witch
I adore You, ergi
I adore You, spin doctor
I adore You, otter-killer
I adore You, friend to Rán
I adore You, burden of Sigyn’s arms
I adore You, cave-bound
I adore You, Laufey’s loving son
I adore You, son of Farbauti
I adore You, Surt’s kinsman
I adore You who keeps the home fires burning
I adore You, wicked tease
I adore You, clever trickster
I adore You, frustrater of scholars
I adore You, prompter of flame-wars
I adore You, mothering milkmaid
I adore You, Tyr’s cuckolder
I adore You, Skaði’s lover
I adore You, Sif’s seducer
I adore You, transgressor
I adore You, liminal one
I adore You, Skaði’s scapegoat
I adore You, maid to Lady Thor
I adore You, runemaster
I adore You, crafter of Lævatein
I adore You, amuser of Skadi
I adore You, tormentor of goats
I adore You, unmanned one
I adore You, tester of Logi
I adore You, horseman of the esophagus
I adore You who were blackmailed by Þjazi
I adore You, gambler
I adore You who risked Your neck
I adore You, winner of the gods’ gifts
I adore You, handsome devil
I adore You, cunning Áss
I adore You, troublemaker
I adore You, lover of Sigyn
I adore You, father to Narvi and Vali
I adore You, child’s champion
I adore You who eats women’s hearts and thinks to complain
I adore You, firestorm
I adore You, tempest
I adore You, falcon-cloaked
I adore You, shining salmon
I adore You, wild mare
I adore You, seal-shaped
I adore You, quarreler with Heimdall
I adore You, thief
I adore You, plotter against Baldur
I adore You, biting fly
I adore You, bitter crone
I adore You, unweeping one
I adore You, Angrboda’s husband
I adore You, chieftain
I adore You, bearer of Sleipnir
I adore You, grieving father
I adore You, Odin’s blood brother
I adore You, destroyer of worlds
I adore You, helmsman of Naglfari
I adore You, Hodur’s help
I adore You who forged the lock and hold the key
I adore You, unsilenced one
I adore You, raging fury
I adore You who are so sharp You’ll cut someone else
I adore You, friend of Freyja
I adore You, shapeshifter
I adore You, enchanter
I adore You, apple-trapper
I adore You, kinsman
I adore You, secret friend
I adore You, Loki Laufeyjarson.

 

Pagan Blog Project 2012


B is for BLACKTHORN

blackthorn

Plant wights have always been important to me, but were eclipsed by Animals until I moved to Ireland. Here, I haven’t any new Animals but I am mobbed by Plants: Dock, Plantain, Meadowsweet, Elder, Hawthorn, Apple, Rowan, so many others and — most importantly for this post — Blackthorn, the Mother of the Woods.

I like Blackthorn, and not just due to the bottle of sloe gin I’ve got aging in the liquor cupboard. I like Her sternness, the way white turns to purple-black, the sweetness of little flowers tempered with truly vicious thorns upon thorns. She’s hard to get close to. She doesn’t like many people. But She’s elegant and dark and powerful and Saturnine, like an aging Victorian dowager in mourning black.

It’s tangentally interesting to me, based on my understanding of Elder, who also has something of the grand dame about Her, that Wiltshire tradition says a hedge made of clipped elders and blackthorn is stronger than iron and will “last forever”. Blackthorn Herself is an excellent protectrix — at least for those who’re compatible — and I wouldn’t fancy trying to cross a boundary laid out by those two. And given how very local Queen Medb is to here, it’s also interesting that Her sons held an enemy force at bay by building a fence of briar and blackthorn.

Besides fences, clubs/shillelaghs were traditionally made of blackthorn, and wands were also common. Given the way blackthorn grows, it would be a fairly big, mean shrub by the time it was tall enough to make a worthwhile beating stick out of. A blackthorn wand is pretty zingy though, and while it’s generally reputed to banish fairies, it presumably doesn’t do much for the fairies that live in the blackthorn itself.

Lunantisidhe (or lunantishee) are the fairies that live in and guard Blackthorn, and they will seriously fuck you up if you cut blackthorn on either 11 November or 11 May. The 11th seems arbitrary, except that the calendar’s changed since the lunantisidhe laid down their edict, and it used to be Samhain and Beltaine. I think discretion is the better part of valor; probably best to avoid on either date, old or new. The dates make me think of the Oak King and Holly King archetype/tradition, and I have the nascent idea that Blackthorn and Hawthorn form a similar sort of feminine dichotomy, given — for example — the prohibitions on Blackthorn at Beltaine, but the gathering and decorating of Hawthorn at the same time. Likewise, some sources say that gathering sloes after Samhain is forbidden in addition to blackberries, and for the same reasons; I don’t get this feeling myself, especially given that they need to be picked after a hard frost, which isn’t necessarily forthcoming before November.

Blackthorn’s one of the Ogham trees — Straif, which likely means ‘sulphur’. Frankly, no one can adequately explain why, except that late medieval scholars attempted to shoehorn Ogham letter - Straifin trees for every single ogham letter. More interesting are the Bríatharogam kennings — “strongest reddening”, “increase of secrets”, and “seeking of clouds” (or perhaps that’s a corruption of “arrow of the clouds”, i.e. lightning). Nonetheless, the connections with sulphur — traditionally labelled ‘brimstone’ and alchemically fiery — suggest a subtle connection with fire, backed up by a trial-by-blackthorn-fire in ancient Irish law, and the fact that blackthorn makes a superior firewood, with little smoke and plenty of heat.

Definitely not one to cross.  But why would you want to?

Pagan Blog Project 2012


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