This is about the Divine-Animal, it’s origins and its impact in our daily lives.
In the ancient world a person could travel 100 miles in any direction and find others were speaking a different language. So they communicated in pictures. Following the adage, “A picture is worth a 1000 words.” Pictures are a universal medium of sharing understanding, not only because most everyone sees the outside world, but because everyone dreams…in an inner world. The first religious discussions used word pictures. We call these today, Poetry. All of the ancient texts, the Torah, the Bible, the Vedas, the Eddas were originally written in the poetry of their culture. So pictures and word pictures are the primary medium for communicating religious thought and experience.
The Sphinx is a primary example. It is one of the oldest constructs known to man. Yet what is it? It is a monolithic formation of a lion’s body with a man’s head, not just any man, mind you, a Pharaoh’s head, which represents what our folk would call a king. In the ancient world there was a common riddle, called the riddle of the Sphinx. This was not only an Egyptian puzzle, but also Greek and Roman as well. The puzzle is, “Why did the formers and shapers of the Sphinx spend so much time, so much effort, so much expense just to make a lion with a man’s head out of stone?” Of all the things they could have spent their time, money and energy making things, why that? The obvious answer is that they were trying to preserve a great truth, if not the greatest truth they had discovered, like a code in giant rock for future generations to know the ultimate truth. So what is the riddle of the Sphinx? What is the answer? What knowledge were they trying to convey and preserve for all time? The Divine-Animal.
That is, that WE are divine animals. They were not talking about an external truth as some have supposed, like creatures like the Sphinx used to really exist. No. They were talking about an internal truth in myth–a symbolic truth. The human head represents the divine nature within us. The animal body represents the animal nature within us. For instance, consider the Centaur of the European continent, a horse’s body with a man’s torso where the horse’s head would be. The Centaur was known for its archery and high level knowledge. Such as “Chiron” the mythical teacher of the Greek warrior-hero “Achilles” and the Roman god of medicine “Asclepius.” The centaur “Silenus” was the teacher of the god of wine and ecstasy “Dionysus.” Notice the repeated theme of a divine-animal being able to “teach” the gods themselves. So, mythically speaking, the centaur is a holy godly being.
(As a side note, the word “godly” we have covered before in the discussion of the word “good” originating from the Old English word “god”. “Godly” then, means “god-like” or good-like-god. “Holy” actually has a similar sensible origin. It comes from the Old English “hale” as in the phrase “hearty and hale.” “Hale” is the root of our English word “health” or “healthy.” So “holy” is merely a progression of the original meaning “healthy.” It took on spiritual significance when it was applied to “spiritual health.” When someone was “spiritually healthy” they were understood to be “spiritually holy.” Taken out of its original context and applied to foreign languages and concepts, such as in the Bible, took the word even further to mean “clean.” A lot of unhealthy and bad things have been done in the name of a “Holy God” of the Bible. But for our ancestors, to be a holy godly being, like a Centaur, meant to be a “spiritually healthy good” being. Which would you like your children to follow? A “Holy God” that has been used to justify blowing themselves up and others, as with Islam? Or encourage them to follow “Healthy Good”? Nowhere near could the harm be done to oneself or others with that as the clear spiritual objective.)
In contrast to the Centaur is the Minotaur. This was a man’s body with a bull’s head and mythically lived in a labyrinth or underground maze. It was a destroyer of humans, not a teacher. Many of the Egyptian hieroglyphs of their gods were with human bodies and animal heads, like Anubis, the jackal headed god, Horus, the hawk headed god, Thoth, the Ibis headed god, and so on. When you have a “god” with an animal head, it means that “good” is being guided by the power of the animal nature. Sometimes this is necessary to accomplish certain goals in the material world, overcome obstacles, defend the good in life, etc. On the other hand, it can also override the divine with animal desires, which would not be “good.” That is why the picture of good guidance of animal desires is represented by the divine ruling or riding the animal, not the other way around.
So what then does the Minotaur represent to us? Actually, we still use the same image today to communicate the ancient inner truth. When we say, “That guy is being bull-headed.” We are using the ancient image of the Minotaur to describe his inner state of being at that time. Sometimes, we may need to use our animal senses and power to accomplish our divine ends, but we cannot remain that way perpetually or like the Minotaur we will become destructive, lost in a labyrinth of confusion, underground shut off from the “light” we receive from above. Similar language can be employed when people are discussed in animal terms, like “Watch out for that guy. He is a snake!” or “weasel”, or “dog”, or even “He’s a bear in the morning!” It is referring to the animal nature that is controlling him or her at that time. It can be “cocky” or even “foxy”, but pay attention to how often we use animal terms to discuss our human existence and behavior and you will start to get an idea of how important this concept of the Divine-Animal is to us.
The message when you begin to survey the images in the ancient world that combined human and animal body parts is this, whatever is the head is the part that is ruling. The “Animal” was associated with natural “power” within us to live, or the life-force. The “Human” aspect was associated with the “god” in us or the “good” in us. So the Divine-Animal is another way of referring to the “powerful-good” within us, motivating us.
In ancient Northern Europe we have similar mythic beings, but with a twist. They are a fusionas applied to humans, distinct animal parts yet working together with the divine. The Divine-Animals of the North were called Satyrs, which were half goat and half man, such as Mimir was reported to be in the Danish writings of Saxo Gramaticus. They have goat legs and a tail from the waist down, then a human torso and arms, yet with a human head mingled with goat horns and ears. In Thidrick’s Saga Mimir was understood to be a magical smith and teacher (See “Weland the Smith,” H.R. Ellis Davidson). Notice the blend of natural and supernatural powers. Mimir, from which we get the English word “memory,” represents the highest blend of the divine and animal. The Heimskringla Mimir’s head is cut off by the Vanir and sent back to Odin with the god Hoenir (whose name means “thought”). Odin is said to restore Mimir’s head to life by magical herbs and consults it from time to time for its wisdom. Mythically speaking this means that “memory” (Mimir) comes with good “thought” (Hoenir) to “wisdom” (Odin) who can restore “memory” to life as “wisdom” learns what “memory” has to say. However, the point is here that this isn’t just any kind of “memory,” but the memory of Mimir is those experiences of living a blended Divine-Animal life.
There were also werewolves, such as Fenris. Fenris is the son of Loki his father and Angrabotha his mother (Her name means “Boding-of-anger”). The word “were” in “were-wolf” literally means “man” in Old English, as in the word “weregild” meaning “man-gold.” So “were-wolf” translated literally means “man-wolf.” Many stories are spun from this image as you know, but the roots are traced back to the berserker. These were Northern warriors who would often cover their head and bodies in wolf skins or bear skins when they went into battle, called “Ulfhednar” (Wolf-clad-men) in its earliest use in the 9th century poem Haroldskvaedi. The word “berserk” is un-translated because there is no foreign similarity to its wild untamed display of animal power. This was a state of mind taught by Odin himself to warriors going into battle. It would summon all of their animal power and reportedly make him (and them) invincible and indomitable. Notice however, when it comes to Fenris, the werewolf son of Loki, then another symbolic truth emerges. Fenris is said to be the consumer and destroyer of Odin when it breaks free of its magical bonds in the last battle between the gods and forces of Hel, Muspelsheim, and Jotunheim. (We will discuss later what each of these worlds represent in relation to the nine worlds.) Therefore, wild animal power will consume and destroy wisdom to those who lose control of it.
“Fairies” over time took on the image of half human and half dragonfly or half butterfly in the minds of Northern European folk. This mythic image of a semi-divine animal had magical powers. These were originally spirits or Teutonic “elves” (alfs) either black or white (light or dark) indicating their intent and nature. The Oxford Dictionary traces the origins of our word “self” from “s-elf” as a contraction from “god’s elf.” That would be our “good-self” also known as the “light-elf” (loss-alf) or light-self. There was also the “dark-elf” or dark-self, which were pictured as both consulting and even arguing with our minds to pursue some light or dark path. Today cartoons portray them as an angel on one shoulder and a demon or devil on the other whispering into our ears. Both fairies and elves have magical powers. The “magic” is the same as “miracle” or divine power. The animal aspect of butterflies or dragonflies represents the light or dark “flights of fancy” they can take us on in the mind, but often resulting in some physical pleasure or satisfaction mixed with a “wish.”
In the Northern myths when animals are seen in relation to the gods and goddesses the animals are working together for a common “good” but not fused together in the bodies of the gods and goddesses. For example, Thor’s cart is pulled by two goats “Tanngrisner” (Tooth-gnasher) and “Tanngnjostr” (Teeth-grinder). Freya’s cart is pulled by two cats “Bygul” (Bee-gold = Honey) and “Trjegul” (Tree-gold = Amber). Odin is attended by two wolves “Geri” (Greed) and “Freki” (Gluttony). He is also attended by two ravens “Hugin” (thinking) and “Munin” (remembering). Frey is attended by the dwarf-made boar “Gullinbursti” (Golden-bristles). Mythically, the cart is vehicle of our body that gets us around, the god or goddess is the divine “good” and “goodness” within our bodies. The animal or animals within us are the natural power or powers we employ to bring us to the “good” way of life or the “god” way of life of the Northern Way.
Each of these combinations of divine and animals are illustrations to us to find how to get them to work together for the powerful common good in our lives. What we must do then is not only get in touch with the gods and goddesses within to find their counsel on what that “good” life is, but also get in touch the animal nature within to “empower” us to live, strive and thrive in that “good” life of the Divine-Animal.
-Gothi Andrew Webb