NORSE MYTHOLOGY AND EXPLORING THE SHADOW

DAVID ALEXANDER

Norse Mythology as an exploration of The Shadow and the Collective Unconscious.

December marks the one year anniversary of Between Two Ravens Podcast. It has been nearly weekly episodes where Shawn and I explore the myths from modern translations of the original source documents, historical and cultural context, and psychological significance of the myths, particularly from Carl Jung’s theory of the Archetypes. The Walled Garden has given me a great deal of inspiration personally, professionally, and artistically. But it was starting Between Two Ravens podcast which inspired me to even seek out something like joining The Walled Garden.

 

I often wonder if it seems like a strange connection to bring together Norse Mythology, Jungian Psychology, Mindfulness, and Stoic Philosophy.

It feels like a natural connection to me and hopefully this article will help to give insight into my thinking.

First of all these are all systems for finding Wisdom. 

The Stoics in particular are interested in finding practical wisdom (prudentia – prudence). How does a person live their life? These are the ethical questions of Stoic Philosophy. When you dive deep enough into Stoic Philosophy, you will find that it is necessary to understand the metaphysical world view of the ancient Greek Stoic philosophers. A providential cosmos directed by divine reason. It is a materialist world, the outer reality does really exist. But human consciousness is the spark of divinity to allow for some small room for choice, reasoning, and free will within a largely predetermined fate. To choose to live life in accordance with the grand Universal Nature.

Jungian psychology is also focused on finding truth. Your true nature. The true self. Clarifying self-deception and parts of the self repressed to the unconscious to create a unified, integrated self. Finding and understanding the soul, which is unique to you as an individual, yet at the same time, also a reflection of the archetypal soul. Our shared humanity. 

World mythologies were an important piece for Jung to understand the unconscious. How do you understand the parts of the mind that you are not conscious of? If it were conscious, it wouldn’t be the unconscious! The unconscious reveals itself when we are not overly focused or intellectual. It slips out. It is reflected in feelings and moods. It is the wisdom in poetry, examining dreams, and the work of a mystic. 

Norse Mythology brings a language of the archetypes. And the Archetypal hero’s journey which is the journey towards individuation for the Jungians or the path of the prokopton (one making progress) for the Stoics. The pantheon of gods can be seen as facets of the human soul. Of human potentialities. The archetypes are always extreme. It is not healthy for practical human functioning to aspire to be A God, A Warrior, A Sage, Odin, or even Christ himself. 

But we have the potential for all of these. And Jungian Psychology and Stoic Philosophy tell us that integration or balance of the parts, moderation, temperance, is what is needed to have a good spirit (eu-daimon-ia) or a smoothly flowing life in accordance with fate/nature.

The Greek and Roman mythologies and philosophies are more refined than Norse Mythology. The Athenians lived in a miraculous time, quite like our own, of relative prosperity and peace where people had time to sit and think, rather than work and fight. The Greeks did an amazing job capturing a wide range of human potentiality both in the masculine and feminine spirit of their mythology which still inspires our modern culture (See Jean Shinoda Bolen’s ‘Goddess in Everywoman’; Robert Johnson’s ‘She’).

But the Norse Mythology is raw, captured with relatively little revision in the Poetic Edda and some significant revision and interpretation in the Prose Edda. 

The Poetic Edda captures the oral poetry tradition of the Norse at a moment where the intellectual skill of writing from the Roman Catholic tradition met the archaic pagan spirituality of Viking culture. My favorite parts of the Poetic Edda are when it seems like the author(s) did not entirely understand what they were documenting and the story is disjointed and un-revised. That’s when I feel we are getting at some truth. 

Many cultures (‘primitive’ or ‘archaic’ as Jung might have said, which is no longer politically correct) made contact with the Western tradition of documenting knowledge (ethnology / anthropology) at a much later date. Imagine if the Viking oral poetry was documented in the 1940s, rather than 1100s. We would have audio tapes and interviews with native speakers. But the Norse tradition, which was one of the last vestiges of the Western European or Germanic tradition, is nearly lost, as we colonized and domesticated ourselves. 

But the archaic man is still present as a part of the human soul, even if repressed in the modern person. 

The Pagan spirituality underlying and influenced by Norse Mythology is another method or therapy of the human soul, just as Jungian Analysis, or the Stoic Philosophy inspired Cognitive Behavior Therapy attempt to address human suffering. 

Magic, to my understanding, is a process of seeking inner understanding, divination, and then creating rituals to behaviorally bring the wisdom found within into action. To make it real.

Norse mythology repeatedly comes back to the theme of fate (hence the need or desire to divine one’s fate). A pre-determined fate for humans and gods, where the Norns are three primordial weavers of fate. Odin is the King and Sorcerer of the gods, but cannot accept that he does not have power over fate. Loki is the trickster who seems to appear as an agent of fate. When you think you can deceive fate, the trickster clarifies that you are only deceiving yourself. Fate will occur as it is ordained, even if it is in unexpected ways.

In many ways, studying Greek mythology would make much more sense towards understanding the world view of the Greek Stoics and the Egyptian Hermetics which influenced Greek Mythology, Philosophy, and eventually the Christian Alchemists who inspired Jung to develop his system of psychology and individuation.

But the Norse Mythology has a peculiar charm. It is not corrupted by excessive wealth and leisure. The poetry being shared as late as 900 A.D. is completely foreign to the logical modern world view (Logical versus Mytho-Logical) but at the same time it is more contemporary to our time than the Mediterranean spiritualities beginning before 500 B.C. and passed through numerous translations, revisions, and analysis. 

The Philosophy of a Roman Emperor is particularly relevant today as advice for how to consciously (or mindfully) survive the failing empire we are living in. But the Norse give a path to understanding the archaic man within. The Shadow. As Shawn and I have discovered while taking a deep dive into each myth, the archetypal figures of the Norse Gods are predominantly the Shadow versions of archetypes. They are extremes. They are not ideals. They are not figures to emulate. But how do we make the unconscious conscious? To see the edges of our own shadow which “slips through” in the myth and then possibly see more of the parts of our whole self.

These are the “passions” to the Stoics, which are unhelpful for a virtuous, functional ego or governing faculty (hegemonikon), which allows us to function and contribute to polite society.

To feel deeply, to lust and desire, to take what we want. To deceive ourselves and others. To be lazy, cowardly, resentful, unmanly. To defy fate. These are all themes of Norse Mythology. These are parts of the human Shadow. To improve as a Stoic is to recognize these vulnerabilities. You have to catch these false impressions in order to not act on them. To pretend they are not there is to risk acting on them unconsciously (unmindfully).

For Jungians, it is similar. The personal Shadow must be integrated. The Archetypal Shadow is too powerful and must be clarified as outside of the Self. The personal Shadow must be acknowledged, respected, negotiated with. To find ritual to act it out consciously rather than rely on unconscious defense mechanisms or other mindless harm to the self or others. 

The Stoics (according to my reading of Pierre Hadot) say that because of the faculty of reason, we all want what is good for us. It is only due to assenting to false impressions that we do not clearly see what is ‘the good.’ That we do not see that what is good for others is what is good for us (Justice). 

The Shadow also wants what is good for us. But it does not utilize the faculty of reason unless we (the ego) bring it to the table. To negotiate with and integrate the Shadow is to acknowledge the passions, give them their due respect, and then be the adult in the room that makes a decision on action. 

In Dialectical Behavior Therapy, “all feelings are valid”. It is an experience that occurs. An impression that did arise. Then we have to notice it mindfully and make a conscious choice about what to do with that impression.

To deny the existence of the passions, the false impressions, or the Shadow’s good intention, is leave the Shadow to its own devices and allow it to build up stronger and stronger in a dark closet.

The Shadow is “us”, it is one half of the whole self. To find the whole Self is to face the darkness, but also to recognize the “gold” of the hero’s journey. The Mead of Poetry. The “goods of the soul” relegated to the underworld. Our strengths, passions, vulnerability, courage, joy, ecstasy. Some of the most wonderful aspects of human experience.

WRITTEN BY

DAVID ALEXANDER

 I bring to the Walled Garden my interest in writing and teaching about ideas integrating philosophy, psychology, mythology, and spirituality towards the goals of creating a meaningful life and self-transformation.

 

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