The Spiritual and Psychological Implications of “Grimnismal”
Myths can be vehicles for the expression of truth. They can cast the chaotic swirl of existence into relief, plucking out crystallized gems of wisdom from the maelstrom of being. The Old Norse poem “Grimnismal,” found in the Poetic Edda, not only provides a wealth of mythological lore (people, places, and relationships); it also illustrates some fundamental truths about human relationships, our psychology, and the structures by which wyrd—causality—works itself out.
The story of the poem is worth recounting, if in a condensed form. Much of the poem is given over to a lengthy speech in which Odin—disguised as Grimnir—relates information about gods and other beings, about the mythological geography, and about mythological events. We’ll dispense with that and focus specifically on the poem’s plot.
The story begins with two young princes: Geirrod and Agnar. They are marooned on an island and fostered by an old couple, who the poem all but states are actually the deities Odin and Frigg. Odin favors Geirrod, whereas Agnar is favored by Frigg. When it comes time for the brothers, now grown, to depart, Odin advises Geirrod to indulge in treachery; Geirrod betrays Agnar and returns to his homeland alone. He is crowned king when, had Agnar also returned, he would likely have not.
Meanwhile poor Agnar ends up living a life of penury. He winds up cohabiting with an ogress in a cave—not the most vaunted lifestyle for a prince once destined for wealth and honors.
Over time, Frigg retains her anger at Odin for encouraging Geirrod to betray Agnar. And so she tells Odin that Geirrod has become a miser, a king who commits one of the greatest transgressions of Heathen culture—he turns away guests without offering food or shelter. For the old Heathens, hospitality and generosity were fundamental values which, given the harsh times and limited technology of their era, makes a lot of sense. And as Geirrod discovers, you never know what sort of trouble you could be sowing for yourself in being gratuitously unpleasant to an outsider.
Frigg’s insult to Geirrod’s reputation is on target, and Odin reacts accordingly. Because Geirrod was his protégé, the slur to his name reflects badly on Odin, and so the god resolves to find out for himself what sort of king Geirrod has become. Disguised as the raggedy wanderer known as Grimnir, Odin visits Geirrod’s hall to see how he might be received in his guise as a penniless wanderer. However, Frigg is a sharp one, and she anonymously sends word ahead of Odin’s coming, warning Geirrod to be wary of just such a traveler.
Thus, the normally quite hospitable and generous King Geirrod greets the wanderer called Grimnir with anything but kindness. Gripped with fear from Frigg’s warning, Geirrod tortures Grimnir, binding him between huge fires for eight nights. During this time, the only person who shows Grimnir any kindness is Geirrod’s son, who is named for the long-lost Agnar. Grimnir tells Agnar-the-son that his generosity will be rewarded with an imminent succession to the throne. It is at this point in the story that Odin imparts much of his knowledge of gods, giants, animals, worlds, and wisdom to the kindly prince.
At the end of his days of ordeal (one wonders if it ends up running for nine nights, a parallel to Odin’s nine-night ordeal on the world tree), Odin challenges Geirrod. He calls him out for the cowardly, contemptuous treatment he has received as a guest, and utters a prophecy of Geirrod’s death. Geirrod promptly slips, falls on his sword, and dies. The mysterious Grimnir disappears, and young Agnar assumes the throne that perhaps should have been his namesake uncle’s. The only winner out of the whole affair is Frigg, who has at least gotten her revenge on Geirrod for betraying his brother (and on Odin for instigating the situation).
There are a number of themes in this story that are worth exploring. I will consider them in turn; in doing so, perhaps their interconnections and implications will become evident.
Generosity and Hospitality
The fundamental importance of hospitality and generosity in Heathen culture drives the narrative of “Grimnismal.” The kindness that the old Heathens afforded even to strangers makes most modern folk look selfish and self-absorbed. We tend to be quick to carve the world into the deserving and the undeserving; in contrast, the ancient Heathens were circumspect about attributing individual worth. Today’s nobody outsider could be tomorrow’s wronged and vengeful deity, after all.
I suspect that there are two interlinked insights that underpinned the Heathen emphasis on hospitality and generosity. The first is simply that they understood game theory, which is to say, they realized that when people cooperate and share the rewards of success, they can achieve a lot more individually than they can if they gratuitously compete.
This way of thinking is rather alien to the logic of capitalist technocratic modernity, of course. Whether it stemmed from “enlightened selfishness” or from genuine filial love, the old Heathen appreciation for game theory is actually pretty typical of traditional, pre-modern cultures. Radical selfishness is a luxury usually reserved for the very rich and the very technologically privileged (to their ultimate psychological cost in many cases, and always to their eventual downfall).
The second is that the Heathens took the possibility of numinous experience much more seriously than modern folk (even modern Heathens) usually do. Theirs was a world rich in poetry and mystery, with only a thin veneer between life and death, between the familiar and the unknown. Modern capitalism often bases its claim to validity on its power to pry at least those with sufficient privilege from the claws of mystery, but of course this is ultimately impossible. In the meantime, it denudes individuals and communities of a mindset conducive to personal, lived spirituality. It strip-mines psyches just as much as it does communities and the natural environment.
If we consider matters soberly, we are forced to concede that the world is just as mysterious, magical, and strange now as it was then (perhaps it is even more so now). Yet, we rarely have respect for this horizon of mystery that conditions, shapes, and embodies every act we undertake, every situation in which we find ourselves. And so we have contempt for those unknown to ourselves, for we have lost our sense of reverence, our sense of wonder for the magic in every small moment, place, and exchange.
Generosity and hospitality, therefore, seem like they could have been grounded in both simple pragmatism (through cooperative living) and in spiritual openness (through a sense of reverence for the mystery that composes all of being). And perhaps these remarks—if their speculative character is not too far from the mark—might help us understand just why Odin would be so concerned at the suggestion that his former protégé had turned into a self-absorbed, contemptuous monarch.
“The Prover Proves What the Thinker Thinks”
So said Robert Anton Wilson, and I tend to agree with him. Of course, now that I have encountered this belief, I seem to find evidence for Wilson’s dictum everywhere! Human consciousness is best served with a side of irony.
In all seriousness, there are a myriad of ways in which, as humans, we tend to focus on what we already believe we know. The rest we either actively or passively ignore. If I already dislike a person, I will tend to notice their worse traits and conveniently ignore their virtues. If I assume that people of certain appearance, gender, race, or age are more likely to be difficult or stubborn, you can bet my frosty interpersonal armor will be up, and I will be more likely to provoke the very response I expect. All of which will serve to blind me to the much more likely possibility that orneriness is an equal opportunity flaw. It will certainly enable me to avoid accountability for my own role creating a negative situation.
I won’t delve further into the wealth of research on confirmation bias; suffice to say that we tend to live and think in a hall of mirrors, but we act as though we had some kind of priority hotline to “the Truth!” Usually we can recognize that everyone else is vulnerable to such delusions and projections, of course, but not us! No, never.
Robert Anton Wilson’s slogan—that the prover proves what the thinker thinks—is active throughout the story of “Grimnismal.” Odin expects Geirrod to be an inhospitable miser, and so does not question Geirrod’s vile reaction to his visit. As such, the hospitality that Geirrod’s son displays does not give Odin pause or invite him to question the uniformly negative impression of Geirrod’s reign that Frigg has imparted.
Geirrod, primed to fear the coming of Grimnir, turns from his usual, hospitable customs, and behaves like a miserly despot. Naturally, Grimnir is hardly inclined to take the situation quietly, and thus bears out Geirrod’s expectation that he will be a threat. Expectation has a way of shaping outcome if we are not vigilant; “Grimnismal” shows us that even kings and gods are vulnerable to cognitive bias, prejudice, and undisciplined thinking, and it is not kind to them for their faults.
It is here that reverence for mystery—which on the surface seems rather rarefied and mystical—becomes brutally practical. Only if we can discipline ourselves to constantly face the vast, encompassing horizon of our ignorance can we have any hope of avoiding cognitive bias, prejudice, and self-fulfilling prophecies. Odin is certainly aware of this, for in another myth he undergoes a near-death ordeal in order to embrace the runes—Old Norse Runa, a word which means “mystery.” One wonders whether his decision to undertake this ordeal was not spurred on by his being deceived by Frigg in the narrative of “Grimnismal.”
If we are uncritically accepting of our own predetermined beliefs, then trouble seems determined to dog us. Thus, my jest about the value of irony is not really a jest; there is a fine art to maintaining both sincere convictions (without which one cannot act in the world) and yet being sufficiently non-attached that one can be willing to challenge one’s convictions or even release them.
Causality Works in Vicious and Virtuous Cycles
In the modern age, we tend to think of causality as being a linear process, but in doing so we have forgotten Newton’s first law of thermodynamics (itself, ironically, one of the harbingers of modernity)—the law of inertia, which states that things tend to continue doing what they were already doing. The corollary being that the longer a trajectory of events unfolds, the harder it will be to break its momentum. We might call this recursive causality—if the seeds of a trend begin to emerge, they can become self-reinforcing.
“Grimnismal” illustrates this principle perfectly. Based on prior expectation, Odin expects Geirrod to be troublesome. This leads to him acting in certain ways that conform to the misled expectations that Geirrod in turn has adopted toward his mysterious guest. The situation escalates with Grimnir’s torture between the flames, until it reaches its climax with Geirrod’s death.
It takes considerable maneuvering on Frigg’s part to get the ball rolling down the hill, but once it starts, it gains more and more momentum as it plunges towards the climax of Geirrod’s death. A god that at one time went to great lengths to aid his supplicant eventually becomes that supplicant’s downfall.
In other words, driving the narrative of “Grimnismal” is the phenomenon of the self-fulfilling prophecy, but this time it goes beyond just psychological tendencies (“the prover proves what the thinker thinks”) and goes on to characterize material, causal processes. The poem is pointing our attention to the structure of all temporal unfolding; once we begin to observe, we discover that the flow of events is always curved by the gravity of inertia.
Things tend to continue to do what they were already doing—this law implies two contrasting methods for changing the flow of events. The first is through dogged persistence and force of will—this is how, for example, the civil rights movement of the 1960s achieved its victories. It requires a profound moral conviction and an utter fearlessness. The second is through finding a critical causal juncture—a node where many causal streams intersect—and intervening at that point. Grappling martial arts such as jiu jitsu apply this approach in order to enable the weaker but more skilled combatant to overcome the stronger. It requires intuition, decisiveness, and empathy.
Both methods of defeating wyrd‘s inertial tendency are valid, with their appropriateness varying from context to context. Frigg uses the second method to set up Odin’s enmity against Geirrod. Geirrod hopes to use the first method (torture) to deal with Grimnir’s threat. In this poem, therefore, method two is favorably contrasted to method one, although this is a matter of context, and there are other cases where method one is the preferable instrument of change. (Just to contradict myself…the sheer duration of Grimnir’s ordeal implies that perhaps he also employed method one! The two work in concert, after all; method one creates opportunities, method two exploits them).
Note how Geirrod’s application of method one actually galvanizes Grimnir into becoming the enemy Geirrod mistakenly thinks him to be! The lesson here is that when we seek to manipulate the flow of wyrd, we run the risk of blowback. I borrow the term “blowback” from the CIA, who coined it to describe the way in which American funding of extremist Islam in the 1980s almost single-handedly created the present-day problem of Muslim extremism (before American interference, for example, Afghanistan was an extremely open country; in some respects, such as gender equality in education, it equaled or even outstripped the supposedly egalitarian Western nations).
So, Geirrod is reaping the whirlwind of blowback. Based on faulty information, he embraces a tactic that brings ruin upon himself, for Grimnir’s reaction is all too predictable. We can note that Grimnir is no more a free agent in this transaction than Geirrod; it would take tremendous effort of will to suspend judgment and thus consider the objective possibility that both parties have been manipulated, and even Odin is not strong enough of mind (in this story at least) to apply that sort of wisdom.
A dominant narrative in Western societies is that of free will, yet in practice we tend to be ruled by our beliefs, our expectations, our reactions, and our emotions. Free will is something we can have, but only if we work at it, to become conscious of all our psychic traps, to release the stored up emotional patterns that dwell in the body, to soften our insistence on a bifurcated, rigidly defined reality.
“Grimnismal” shows that without the cultivation of something approximating what the Buddhists call equanimity, even the victor in a conflict can still be a loser. We can wonder whether the events in this poem precede—and are the spur for—Odin’s adventures into the arms of death, mystery, memory, and illumination on the world tree and at Mimir’s well.
Fundamental Attribution Error
So what is the first step towards achieving the kind of equanimity that Odin eventually acquires in his mythic initiations? There are many ways, and here I offer just one of them: becoming conscious of the ubiquity of Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE) and cultivating the willingness to challenge its presence in one’s psyche.
FAE is a concept furnished to us by the psychologists, and it is one of the more empirically robust psychological phenomena. It refers to a common human tendency to attribute other’s negative actions to a flaw of their character, but to attribute one’s own short-comings to incidental or situational conditions. Thus, some other car driver cuts me off because that person is an inconsiderate egotist; but if I cut someone off, it is because I am having a hard day, or my errand is crucially urgent, or the road rules aren’t logical enough for my satisfaction. The misdeed lies in their character flaw, but is merely a product of my misfortune.
In reality, we are buffeted and shaped by external influences—our relationships, our memories, our expectations, our fears and hopes, our lusts and aversions, our knowledge and our ignorance. We are especially impacted by what often amount to arbitrary, situational factors—the things we’ve read, the beliefs that we and our friends confirm to one another, whether someone happens to accidentally look at us funny or remind us of someone else (who, naturally, we have strong feelings about), etc. Naturally, FAE can be a powerful driver for racism and other forms of irrational hatred; such things are a product of weak-mindedness and ignorance of self, flaws which are assiduously cultivated by the status quo in order to maintain itself.
It can be humbling to face up to the challenge that FAE presents, because it forces us to demote the ego back to reality. It forces us to own our fears, paranoia, wounds, and vulnerability. It forces us to take responsibility for our lives and recognize that “when you point the finger, three fingers point back at you.” This is an ongoing task to which there is no end and no perfection. Even the Heathen gods are not immune to FAE, though at least some of them distinguish themselves in their determination to overcome its blandishments.
Once we grasp the seduction of FAE, we discover something important: like all psychologization of our experience, it holds open a door to the mythic. It becomes a trigger for spiritual growth, at least if we have the courage to heed its invitation. Thus, we discover that by turning our awareness to the psyche, we do not lose the world but rather gain the opportunity to genuinely have what was previously illusory.
The spiritual implication of FAE is that people, places, and things are not what they are by virtue of an essential, inborn character. Rather, they become what they are because they are part of a vast, infinitely complex web of causal relationships. Indeed, there is no such thing as a “thing”; there is only a nexus of points of intersection of different histories, the threads and counter-threads of time’s unfolding, of the Norns’ artful weaving. Each thing dissolves into the nexus of wyrd, the web of all that is.
This does not therefore erase the significance of each particular entity, however, for the totality of the web is nothing without the infinity of nodes that yield its continuation. Once we begin to question our projection of essential nature onto the Other, we begin to give ourselves the opportunity to discover the mystery of existence, runa, wyrd, the heart-spring of Heathen cosmology. The more we bind ourselves in blinders of habit and expectation, of shallow judgment and objectifying projection, the further we wander from the lessons of old Heathenry, the more urgently we need to heed the warning that “Grimnismal” presents.
As we begin to decolonize ourselves of FAE, we come to recognize the ways in which it is a tool of control—one used by all ideologies, but most tellingly by the more authoritarian or totalitarian ones. In other words, with political absolutism comes FAE; with FAE comes spiritual alienation and nihilism. The psychology of tight-fisted control—the psychology of FAE—is strongly denounced in “Grimnismal.” After all, it is the accusation of miserliness that turns Odin against Geirrod. The suppression of the stranger, the excluded other, creates the very tyranny it is supposed to prevent.
As such, and at the risk of overstating the obvious implication, right-wing appropriations of Heathenry are in serious dissonance with the ancient lore, and there is nothing “reconstructionist” about such appropriations. Simply put, they are not fit to inherent the ancient Heathen traditions, and we would be far better off without them. This does not absolve progressive Heathens such as myself from the task to continue our own work on self-awareness, of course.
“Grimnismal” is an exercise in narrative ironies. The main actors become ensnared by self-fulfilling prophecies. I propose that this is indicative of the ancient Heathen worldview in general; they understood the traps of FAE, of self-fulfilling beliefs, of inertia, and the used myth to warn themselves against such traps, lest their access to the numinosity of the world be lost.
Multiplicity and Unity
The formulation of each entity as a nexus of relationships; the formulation of the universe as the gestalt of those relationships—these may be summed up by referring to “the oneness and difference of all things.” When Grimnir burns, he teaches Geirrod’s son, Agnar, about the names and places of Norse cosmology. Each entity he names, he names as the Aesir call it, as humanity calls it, as the giants call it, and so on. He is inviting Agnar to cultivate a multi-dimensional worldview, to recognize the many different ways of experiencing this cosmos, to appreciate the subtle differences of inflection that each perspective permits, to savor the contrast and interface of difference, to embrace a mind that has a spectrum of light coursing through it, that is more than just monochromata.
If Agnar can do this, he will become a great king. Through this multi-dimensionality, he will become attuned to wyrd. He will live according to what reality is, not according to his own wishful thinking. He will learn when to bide his time and when to act. He will learn the twin arts—resolute perseverance and skillful redirection—of steering the momentum of inertia. He will discover generosity and hospitality in his heart through his honoring of the Other, of mystery, and this in turn will render him immune to the panic and ego that brings down his father.
In this respect, Odin’s instruction of Agnar intimates that Odin is already beyond the very mental traps into which Frigg has woven him. That he is working on multiple levels of reality, both inside and outside what we as merely human observers may interpret or intuit. “Grimnismal” challenges its Heathen audience to refuse the lazy, weak, barren territory of the totalitarian, the prejudiced, the dualistic. Once we heed this challenge, we begin on a road of transfiguration in which we begin to become ourselves. To do any less would be to betray the gods, and the ancestors, and all beings past, present, and to come.