Maria Kvilhaug is also known online as “The Lady of the Labyrinth.” Interpreting various aspects of heathen mythology is her life’s work, beginning with her Master’s thesis, “The Maiden with the Mead,” which has become well known in the online heathen community, and which is included as Chapter 3 in this book. The Seed of Yggdrasil is a very long book, and it could be intimidating for a beginner. It is written at a college reading level. Even advanced readers may find it easier to digest in small bites, because it’s very rich in ideas. Fortunately, it is organized in convenient bite-sized subjects with subheadings within each chapter. (An eARC was provided to me by the publisher, Whyte Tracks.)
In the introduction, Kvilhaug writes that she became interested in interpreting this mythology when she read the stories in English and realized that the standard translations were missing some information that made the stories more easily understood as parables, because the names have meanings which elucidate the metaphoric elements of the plots. I relate to this, because I had a similar moment of revelation reading a Russian novel in English in high school and realizing that I was the only one there who was reading not ‘character x lost his girlfriend’ but ‘Everyman lost his Faith.’ This is a good way to start a book that is a compendium of academic papers, because it gives the reader a sense of who the author is and what her agenda might be.
I usually go chapter by chapter through the books I review and write detailed reactions to each one, but this is one of those longer works that I will have to just sample in detail in my review, provide general impressions of the rest, and conclude with an overall review of the whole work, because otherwise I’ll end up with a book length review. So, in the interests of brevity, I will only review chapter one in detail.
The author starts off by recounting the story of how the world came to have the Poetic Edda, and then summarizing some of its myths and glossing their meanings. Most of the interpretations are not controversial, although there are a few which are not the standard interpretation. For example, she indicates that in Skirnismal, Gerdr could be the same being as Freya. The next story summarized is Lokasenna. After the author’s unique take on Skirnismal, it was disappointing that she went with the interpretation of Lokasenna which accepts Snorri’s explanation in the prose addition he appended to the end of the poem, in which he says Loki was bound in punishment for the death of Baldur. (Later in the book, the author recounts the alternate versions of the story of Baldur in which Loki played no part, and goes into why the stories of the gods do not have a linear storyline with each other and do not require a cause.)
Reading the various plot summaries of the myths with the names translated does add to the reader’s understanding of the myths, just as the introduction promised. The meaning of names as a way to illuminate the meaning of a story is a trail I was already on myself, but I was hacking a path with a dull machete, not being a fluent speaker of any of the ancient languages. In reading this book, my path converged on a broad road dug with professional earth-moving equipment. The way forward was not just blazed, but paved, and dotted with road signs.
The author goes on to write more about Snorri and the Eddas. This section contains a detail that intrigues me because it is simultaneously about words, magic, and the world-view on gender which historical heathens had: that the name Gylfi means a sorcerer who changes into a woman every 9th night. (Later in the book, when examining the story of King Gylfi, Kvilhaug points out that Gylfi is also a name of Odin, so the story could be interpreted as Odin asking himself King Gylfi’s questions in his effort to become wise.)
The summaries and commentary on the Eddas are fairly mainstream interpretations among heathens. To what extent this is because the author’s academic papers and blogging have already shaped public opinion among fellow heathens, I do not know. I think it’s likely that at least part of the consensus on these topics is due to the influence of Kvilhaug’s popular internet presence.
(I had a moment of humor when I ran across a spellcheck fail on page 31, asserting “pagan practices had been demonetized.” I usually ignore typos in eARCs because I know that ARCs and eARCS are created before final copyediting, but that one just struck me as funny and as oddly apropos.)
The author begins a section about names by acknowledging that some of her interpretations are nonstandard. For example, she translates the name Gullveig as “Gold Power Drink.” This translation makes more sense than the more usual “Greedy for Gold,” because “Gold Power Drink” is an obvious metaphor. If one’s crossword puzzle clue were “gold power drink” the answer would be “mead.” This hooks the name and story of Gullveig into Kvilhaug’s “maiden with the mead” construction.
The section “truth or fiction?” made me go into editor mode and try to rephrase it to make it easier to understand. The author was trying to express that the myths can be about real gods and yet also be about story characters that represent things at the same time.
In the next section, she asks the question, “Do the myths represent common beliefs, or the beliefs of spiritual elites?” The author states her preference for pantheism over polytheism. She proposes a hierarchy with polytheists at the bottom as laypeople, priests in the middle, and pantheist mystics on top as elites. This struck me as insulting toward polytheists. I wondered if this were an artifact of academic writing, as the intended audience was not fellow heathens and pagans but Christians and atheists to whom she felt a need to justify heathenry as civilized and not savage. But later in the book there turned out to be little digs against polytheists sprinkled into the informal writing about her experiences as well as the academic writing. The author’s version of pantheism — the proposal that some goddesses and other female entities are all the same being — is central to her argument that the “maiden with the mead” is a universal figure in heathen mythology. If you’re a polytheist, try to hold your nose and read this book anyway, because there is a ton of stuff to learn here.
The last section in Chapter 1 is about gender. It’s also the introduction to Kvilhaug’s “formulas,” by which she means a specific type of symbol involving the appearance of characters in mythology along with other characters. She proposes that a married couple represents a permanent union between virtues, lovers represent a temporary union, parents represent the cause of something, and offspring represent the results. It’s an interesting new idea. The author promises to explore these formulas throughout the book when analyzing various stories and topics, and she delivers on that promise later in the book.
The section on gender roles is an excellent summary of Viking Age attitudes toward gender in all its permutations. The ancient heathens constructed their ideas about gender, gender roles, and sexuality differently than we do today, and also very differently than the post-conversion Christian society that immediately followed Viking Age heathenry. The author’s speculations on prehistoric gender roles dovetail with those of other modern scholars of heathenry, as do Kvilhaug’s explanations of life for women in historic heathen societies.
Further subsections in the section on gender deal with traits associated with masculinity or femininity in heathen literature, poetic ways of referencing men and women, et cetera. Kvilhaug confirms what modern heathens say about historical heathen women having great economic power. For example, she writes that women wore keys that both functioned as literal keys to their estates and as symbols of their ownership of their estates. This is similar to what I wrote in my beginner’s book, because it’s a detail that is important to modern heathens, although often overlooked by mainstream scholars. It is validating to find these types of details which are important to heathens in a noted work of scholarship.
General Impressions of Further Chapters
Chapter 2 starts off with an overview of scientific knowledge that ancient people had which modern people don’t know they had. The author then proceeds to relate the pagan origin story and other myths to scientific knowledge about nature. As with the detail about women’s economic power, this section agrees with my own work.
I love the translations of the poetry. It’s especially nice to have them side by side with the original. There is an excellent account of women’s mysteries, not just the usual presentation of actual rituals but also filling in the context of change over time in the culture, including the time period after the official conversion to Christianity, where most heathen histories end. The side by side translations of the creation stories are especially nice, as they reveal metaphors of nature and science. Like me, Kvilhaug sees the big bang in the heathen creation myth. Her translation of the name of the primal being Ymir as “Sound” helps make sense of the nature analogies in the poetry.
Although the author appears to have exhaustive knowledge in the areas of heathen literature that are her particular interest, when she writes about bersarkrgangr she does not seem to be as familiar with the range of current scholarship on that topic as she is on topics relating to mead, feminine powers, and initiation motifs. She mentions only one possible method a berserker might use to enter bersarkrgangr, and it is the mushroom thing, although she does state that the mushroom method is only a rumor, not an accepted fact.
Kvilhaug compares various gods and goddesses and their stories and relationships from the perspective that many of the gods are the same god and many of the goddesses are the same goddess. She details each one as a nature metaphor with her proposed structure of parent as cause and child as result, and male as knowable and seen and female as unknowable and unseen. She also details patterns of symbols relating to a sun goddess and moon god, and other sets of symbols.
Kvilhaug has an unconventional take on who Sif is and what part of nature she represents. The details are interesting even to those who want to stick with the usual wheat-harvest interpretation.
The various chapters are packed with details about their subjects. The ideas are sometimes surprising, whether the author is presenting her own novel thoughts or discussing others’ theories with which she agrees or disagrees. The translations of names remain a source of new insights throughout the book. Individual topics within the chapters are well marked and usually only a few pages long, so this book can be read a little at a time, and the reader can read one idea completely in a short time.
A reader can learn a lot from this book. Even if one disagrees with some of her points, for example conflating Aegir with Njord because they are both sea gods, one can still learn and appreciate other points and details. The comparative mythology is especially intriguing; like many heathens, I have studied heathen lore but not a lot of the mythology of other Indo-European cultures. For example, the motif of the Clashing Rocks provides new insights for those who have not studied other mythologies. This book has influenced my own work during the months I was reading it. I already found myself citing it before I had even finished reading it. It is no doubt destined to be influential.
The section on the Disir and Dhisanas reminded me of Beth Wodanis’s blog post “My Odin, and Other People’s Odins” in which she proposed that each person’s personal Odin is a distinct entity, not interchangeable with anyone else’s personal Odin, even though they are all ultimately Odin. This idea has spread in heathen and pagan communities because it explains people’s personal experiences which otherwise did not make sense. In this section on the Dhisanas, which are entities in Hinduism, it is revealed that this is not a new idea after all, but a very old one, written in the Vedas.
I’m continually struck by new ideas and insights as I read this. Kvilhaug writes that the Valknut in the most famous of its ancient depictions is being generated by the third eyes of a sacrificer and the sacrificed. When I looked at it again, I saw it. Also I saw what she did not say, but only implied: two of the triangles came out of third eyes, and the third one interlocked between them, and that was the magic that came from the sacrifice ritual. The third triangle only manifests when the first two are functioning together, and this tracks perfectly with my novel-gnosis that Honir manifests as a third brother when Odin and Loki/Lodhur are working together, forming a trinity. Each time I have one of these epiphanies I have to stop reading for a while and digest it. This book takes a long time to read for that reason.
Although this is an excellent book, it isn’t perfect; a minor issue is that some of the illustrations are hard to read on my Kindle. One might think that in a book this size, none of the points would need more explanation, but there were a couple of translations that I would have liked to hear more about. The word “tyr” is usually translated as “god,” for example, “sword-tyr” would be translated as “sword-god.” Kvilhaug sometimes translates it that way, but in other places translates it as “animal” or “beast.” I wonder if by “animal” she meant “animate being.” If the word really meant “animate being” it could be translated as both “god” and “beast” and still be basically the same concept, but she did not explain why she translated it that way. Another point where Kvilhaug’s translation differed from the standard translation was in translating the word “fetr” as “armor” instead of “fetter.” Because “fetr” is used as a word meaning “god,” such that the plural would be translated “the gods” or “the powers,” Kvilhaug’s translation makes much more sense to me than the standard one, but again, she does not explain why she translates it differently than other translators.
I disagree with Kvilhaug’s opinion that Hel the being could not really be Loki’s daughter because the realm of Hel existed before the universe. Hel the being could have come to rule the realm after it already existed. Also, the concepts of “before” and “after” are dependent on the experience of linear time. The story of the beginning of our universe includes a story about how time came to be, symbolized by the first day and night and the first cycles of the sun and moon. Kvilhaug herself states that Hel rules over realms where the inhabitants experience death, and not over realms where the inhabitants are immortal. So, Hel is not only the queen of the realm of the dead, but she is herself Death. If Hel the being is Death, then she is a being that can only exist in a universe where linear time exists. Because we can only move forward in time, we can experience death as a permanent transition (aside from such concepts as afterlife, reincarnation, or magically assisted temporary resurrection, as portrayed in stories). Time has to come into existence before Death, because the end of a linear existence is a function of a three-dimensional life within the space-time continuum. So, Hel must be Death, and she must have come into existence after Time, and that was after the universe as we know it was formed. Loki is the same being as Lodhur, one of the Odin brothers who shaped the world, so he existed during the early universe when the world we know was being shaped. So, I see no reason Hel the being could not have been born well after our world was sculpted, despite her realm being a holdover from a previous universe.
This book provided insight for interpreting some of my own gnosis. I used the name translations to help me understand some things I had experienced.
I came to a better understanding of some of my favorite passages in the lore. For example, after reading so many references to wind as a metaphor for death, when the author got to Odin’s initiation on the tree I realized what the reference “wind-swept tree” must mean even before reading Kvilhaug’s explanation. Having a new insight about a passage that I had memorized for decades was astonishing.
The chapter on Thor concludes with the author’s two visions of Thor. The stories were exciting like an adventure, and revealed truths that the reader can recognize as such. I was surprised and delighted to find gnosis in what was otherwise mostly an academic work. I also enjoyed reading her vision of Freya in the chapter on the Great Goddess. The gnosis is in the section which is transcripts of videos. This section is less academic than the other sections, and covers some of the same ground as earlier sections, however, they transcripts are still worth reading. There were especially noteworthy interpretations in the one on Heimdall. The one comparing some aspects of heathen mythology to the writings of Carlos Casteneda was a bit eyebrow-raising. It had some interesting ideas in it, though.
This book will provide you with many hundreds of hours of interesting reading. It is thought-provoking, and an important expansion on Kvilhaug’s influential thesis. It’s a slow read, not only because it’s over 700 pages long but also because there’s no padding in it. Each sentence presents an important part of the total case for its chapter’s premise. A reader won’t get as much out of it by skimming as by careful reading with pauses for thought.
This book has sparked discussion, plans for future papers, and greater understanding of both lore and experience. The previously published chapter, “Maiden with the Mead,” was already influential, and the full book will undoubtedly be even more so. This is an important work elucidating aspects of heathenry that previous scholarship did not reveal. It is sure to become a must-read classic for all scholars of heathenry, both among heathens and among academics. The Seed of Yggdrasil is the most important academic book of the decade on its subject, and it belongs in every academic library.
[Reviewed by Erin Lale.]