Odin’s Ordeal

The Hanged Man tarot card, drawn by Pamela Coleman Smith
The Hanged Man tarot card, drawn by Pamela Coleman Smith

Odin is one of the Norse Gods, a warrior king who becomes a magician through ordeal and personal sacrifice. I didn’t know very much about him before last October, when I attended Hecate’s Sickle pagan festival in the U.S..

Except, I knew enough to spout off on facebook that he would smite Soldiers of Odin, a white supremacist group using Norse imagery, who had started chapters in Vancouver, where I live. I said things like Odin is the Allfather not the Somefather, and that as a Norse person (I have Norwegian heritage) and a lifelong Pagan, I oppose and resent the usage of my mythology and gods to promote hatred.

Someone was listening. And it probably wasn’t the white supremacists.

A few months later, I was in a car heading to Fort Flagler state park for the festival, this year themed on the Norse gods. My grandfather was Norwegian, and I’ve always known that I ought to know more about the gods of my heritage. We listened to Norwegian Pagan music in the car. I brought my set of deer-antler runes that I’d had for years and hadn’t yet learned how to read.

We were waylaid by the Ocean goddess of pirates and sea-farers on our way, getting stalled by a freakish set of ‘coincidences’ to wait through two sailings of the ferry to take us to the island, and then having to assert our very-unCanadian ire to avoid getting cheated of passage on the third.

When we arrived, because of the delay and another odd set of miscommunications, we ended up in Ran’s hall, the barracks floor belonging to the Norse goddess. We were field-recruited to Her hall, and obviously she wanted us there. I was later to find out why.

I was in my element. It seemed like all the rituals were a great fit for where I was in my life and I participated in my usual deep, earnest and focussed way. In the course of several rituals, I surrendered feelings of being a fraud as a musician, released unworthiness, and reached out to my ancestors to help me grieve a recently dead relative. I had an important conversation with Ran (through Her priestess) as well. I was feeling a bit… well… cocky, by the second to last day. Or maybe just full and completed by the deep work and connection I felt.

That night, we watched a sacred drama that enacted Odin’s losing his eye, and then hanging upside down, wounded, on Ygdrasil, the World Tree, for nine days to be receive the wisdom of the runes.

Later I would learn that Odin traded his right eye for the right to drink from a pool of wise-blood or a wisdom well, depending on telling, that imparted wisdom and the divine gift of poetry – a different way of seeing. He also performed the inverse ordeal to rejuvenate himself through the power of the runes.

About an hour later, I was attending an outdoor ritual in the dark. Someone called for us to kneel before the fates, the Norns. I was wearing a fancy long velvet dress I did not want to ruin, and so I rather unpoetically crouched before the fates. And then my middle aged legs started to ache while a long speech was proclaimed to the kneeling and crouching crowd. I decided to stand up and move to the edge of the crowd where I would not be blocking anyone’s view, ever the polite Canadian.

If you remember that cartoon with Wile E Coyote where he stepped out from the edge of a cliff onto blank air and hangs there for a moment till he realizes there is nothing under his feet? That is what happened to me when I steped through the back row of the crowd and the ground disappeared beneath me.

I hit my head hard and my hands light and rolled over onto my back. A medic was called and I lay there feeling stunned, but basically fine. It wasn’t till I got up that I learned the left lens of my glasses was broken and my forehead was bloody and swollen up into an egg.

One of my ‘boat mates’ from Ran’s hall, who had been a search and rescue worker before having a serious injury of her own, escorted me back to Ran’s hall, and helped me ice my forehead. 

And a mystery was revealed. My glasses had broken into the shape of a bindrune – a magical working made up of two runes, used for magic or protection. 

At a norse pagan festival.

In sacred space.

At a ritual dedicated to the Norns.

Who are the dispensers of runes.

The priestess of the eldest Norn Skuld (“that which should become, or that needs to occur” ) interpreted the bindrune as coming from two runes – Algis – protection of the Gods, and Tiwaz – (or Tyr, after the god of war, law and justice) tactical genius, courage, bravery. In combination, this bindrune meant that I either had already, or would come to achieve something great, that would bring me great honour, and which was protected by the Gods. Later on I learned that this bindrune is virtually identical to the life and death rune or the Wendehorn. The wendehorn symbolizes life and death or the hieros gamos (sacred marriage) of male and female, or the tree of life.

From all of this divine coincidence, I figured the Gods were sending me a message, and that I’d been meant to take this fall. My head hurt a bit. It wasn’t until a week or so later that I learned I’d had a serious brain injury, and I spent the next three months recovering, in fear of losing not only my brain, but my livelihood.

I learned this: If you get a head injury such that you get a goose egg, lose consciousness or vomit, do not pass go, do not collect 200 dollars, go directly to bed, quietly, with no mental effort (ie: not on your phone), for two days. Your brain in an injury is like a plant uprooted. It instantly looses it’s ‘root system’ of vessels bringing in glucose to feed it and give it energy, but just like a plant uprooted takes time to wilt, you don’t know your brain has been cut off from it’s food supply at first. If you use your brain as little as possible for the first few days, the damage won’t have as big an impact, as your brain will ‘wilt’ less, by needing less energy and holding on to what is already present longer. The brain then takes several months to regrow it’s roots, during which time you have no mental endurance, having headaches and mood swings whenever sugar runs low. No alcohol, no sugar spikes followed by damaging low-sugar crashes, and constant resting interespersed with short periods of activity are the ticket.

About a week and a half later I had developed constant headaches, confusion, forgetfulness and sudden crying jags. It was like having intense PMS and Alzheimers simultaneously. I went to an information session for persons with traumatic brain injury and when I left to go to the washroom, I literally could not find my way back to the room. I stood in the hallway, crying.

I had work for clients to finish, so I stopped doing everything else, and worked a half hour at a time, with breaks sitting in a dim room with my cat in between. I was unable to drive, and held on to the hope that if I just did everything right, I’d get my brain back.

I’d lost the thing the most important to me, my intellect. I was hugely relieved to discover that I could still think (and work) at close to the capacity I was used to, but only in short bursts. I wore earplugs constantly as background noise was impossible to screen out and made me confused and quickly exhausted.

Given the severe impact on my life, I wanted reassurance that all of this really ‘meant something’ and wanted to make sure I learned whatever lesson the gods were giving me at such a high price. But given that my brain was so compromised, I wasn’t certain I was really getting it.

I called on two of my good friends and Pagan brothers for pastoral care during this time. They came over to my house, and ate with me, listened to my story. My brother Seumas said – “you’re over thinking it – (ha!) – you fell upside down, lost an eye (symbolically through the broken glasses lens), got a rune (the wendehorn), and now you are hanging on the World Tree. This recovery is your ordeal to earn the runes.”

“I know that I hung on a windy tree
nine long nights,
wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin,
myself to myself,
on that tree of which no man knows
from where its roots run.
No bread did they give me nor a drink from a horn,
downwards I peered;
I took up the runes,
screaming I took them,
then I fell back from there.
Hávamál (Old Norse ‘Sayings of the High One’) Carolyne Larrington translation

I read, in very short passages at a time, during many sleepless nights (insomnia is another effect of post concussion syndrome), the myth of Odin from a book of mythology I had been given by my brother almost 20 years before. I spent many long boring days alone, with little company, emotional and mentally exhausted, lonely and still. My cat, sitting purring in my lap through the long days and nights, was a great comfort to me.

I remembered that I had experienced a serious head injury as a 13 year old, and developed compassion for that young girl who had recovered with far less resources and understanding than I had now. I realized that my forgetfullness, and inability to ‘push through’ frequent bouts of mental exhaustion after intense experiences may have been caused by that injury. I realized that the coping methods I had for making sure I didn’t forget important things while I am forgetful, and I am often forgetful,  were probably rooted in that time and injury. I discovered some of these coping methods I had discovered on my own, were the same recommended for coping with a traumatic brain injury, and was proud of my teen and young adult self. 

I learned that it was okay to be ‘stupid’ and confused, and to ask for help when I was injured. I’ve learned how to take breaks to prevent getting overtired, which may allow me to do more overall.

But you know, I don’t know that I’ve yet learned, or realized I’ve learned, anything indespensable, or the One Great Truth that will justify my injury. I want to say that I’ve recieved an inestimable gift of great spiritual value, but I don’ t know if I have, at least not yet. Perhaps that is not how life works. Perhaps rejuvination ‘re-youthening’is in many learnings at once. 

I don’t sleep well. I really never have.  My doctor has been great, and has put me on a medication that keeps me from sleeping too lightly and waking too easily. It helps.  I do still feel like I’m never fully rested, or connected to that deep well of spiritual knowing I have been able to access in the past, so I know I’m not fully reemerged.

I’ve become much more focussed on my own healing lately, and recently have begun having post traumatic flashbacks again after many years, from some horrific childhood experiences. They are nothing I didn’t know, in vague terms, had happened, but the visceral detail makes it far too real. I’m no stranger to witnessing my child self’s story and allowing it to change me, but like recovering from concussion, it’s a very lonely business.

The ordeal, brain wise, is mostly over. My brain allows me to work a full day, do and learn music and connect with others again. I’m finding myself able to learn the piano again, to write, to work, to meditate.  I’m re-emerging like a sprout in spring, not ready to bear fruit, but on the path.  It won’t really feel over till I feel the rejuvination of the runes within me, or wisdom or something. But springtime and being in progress will have to be enough for now. 

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