The Cross And The World Tree
One of the most important doctrines of the Christian religion is that Christ died on the cross and in so doing took upon himself the sins of the entire world. After three days, he was reborn and after a brief period with his companions ascended into heaven. Through this selfless sacrifice, his resurrection and ascension into heaven, Christ overcomes death and offers us salvation and everlasting life with God. Furthermore, the Apostles' Creed reflects Church tradition that following his death on the Cross, Christ descended into hell and carried all the condemned souls up to heaven with him.
A core Christian doctrine, but what does it mean in terms of our folk faith?
Dream of the Rood
One of the most illuminating Anglo-Saxon religious poems is called the Dream of the Rood, or Dream of the Cross. This is a Christian poem, but with a decidedly Heathen pulse. It tells the story of the crucifixion - from the point of view of the cross!
Whilst this may seem odd to us nowadays, it would have been perfectly natural to our Heathen ancestors and seemingly to our early Christian ones too. The Heathen faith saw the spirit of God running through all things. Everything had a spirit, even inanimate objects such as a wooden cross. The cross agonises over the impending death of his Lord, but Christ is portrayed as a warrior hero, bravely going to his death to fight and overcome the forces of darkness which represent death. In this sense, Christ is seen as Ing, the warrior God and perhaps as Thunnar, fighting forces of darkness and chaos. How very different to the way the modern Churches' portray his sacrifice!
The Rood is described in the poem as “begoten mid golde; gimmas stodon” – “covered with gold – studded with jewels”. This is rather an odd description of the Cross of the crucifixion and certainly is not based on any account in the Gospels. But in the Germanic heroic tradition, the Cross can be seen as Christ’s weapon. It was not uncommon in Anglo – Saxon literature for weapons to be given names and personalities. The imagery is that of a heroic warrior going into battle with his jewel encrusted sword. The Cross is no longer an object of Christ’s suffering and humiliation, but rather his companion in battle – a symbol of his kingly power. The poem is therefore developing a degree of reverence in the audience for the Rood, as a highly regarded weapon of choice used only by the elite hero warriors.
The poem then goes on to describe how Christ strips himself and eagerly climbs up onto the cross:
Ongyrede hine þa geong hæleð,
þæt wæs god ælmihtig,
strang ond stiðmod.
Gestah he on gealgan heanne,
modig on manige gesyhðe,
þa he wolde mancyn lysan.
“The young hero stripped himself, that was God almighty, strong and unflinching; he stepped up on the high cross, brave in the sight of many, where he wished to redeem mankind”.
“Ongyrede’ is translated as ‘stripped’, which implies a preparation for battle. Gyrede, for instance, is used in this context in the Beowulf poem (line 1441). The symbolism of phrases such as, “strong and unflinching”, is one of a powerful king embarking on a heroic struggle – not the meek Christ of the Gospels, placidly offering himself as a sacrifice. And at the end of this battle, the hero warrior lies dead, the Cross covered in his blood, both pierced by spear and nails. But Christ is not defeated, he is victorious. In the Gospels he gives up his spirit. In the Rood poem, he sends forth his spirit, “siððan he hæfde his gast onsendeð” (“onsendeð” literally meaning ‘sent onwards’.)
As with the Gospel story, Christ rises from the dead and ascends into heaven, where he will return one day to middle earth to judge all men. But the Cross itself is now seen as part of the instrument of salvation:
“ac ðurh ða rode sceal rice gesecan
eorðwege æghwylc sawl,
seo þe mid wealdende wunian þenceð."
“But through the cross every soul who desires to dwell with the Lord shall come to the kingdom from the earthly way."
The Irminsul or World Tree
To early Anglo Saxon Christians, the Cross was much more than just the apparatus on which Christ died. Indeed, the importance of the Cross to Christian doctrine and tradition may have only come into full prominence following the conversion of Germanic peoples such as the English. The reason for this is that the Cross became the Christianised version of their concept of the cosmos, represented by the World Tree or Irminsul. This is central to understanding pre-Christian or Heathen cosmology. Known in Norse mythology as ‘Yggdrasi’l and in Germanic mythology as the ‘Irminsul’, it is a representation of the cosmos as our ancestors understood it. It contains the different 'worlds' or realms of existence they perceived, including the realm of the gods (heaven), the realm of humankind (Middengeard) and the realm of the dead (Hel). Beneath one of its three roots, according to Norse tradition, lies the well of Mimir, whose waters contain wisdom and understanding. This belief is so central to Heathen cosmology that it was almost certainly understood by all Germanic peoples in much the same way, although they would have used different terminology.
We know from archaeological finds, such as those at Yeavering Bell in Northumberland, that large stone pillars were erected at sacred sites in England to represent the Irminsul. It is generally thought that this tradition continued into the Christian era in the form of similarly shaped Christian crosses, such as the Ruthwell Cross just across the border in modern Scotland. At least some of these may have been originally erected as Irminsuls and had the 'cross' shape added later. These Irminsuls may have provided the focus for religious worship, perhaps erected in wooded areas and sacred groves to be close to the trees. It is interesting to note that ‘Rood’ literally means ‘rod’ or ‘staff’, implying a pillar shape rather than the traditional cross shape. Roman crucifixions often took place on such structures rather than the traditional cross with ‘arms’.
The Sacrifice Of Woden On the World Tree
The Havamal tells of how Woden (Odin) sacrificed himself on the world tree in order to drink from the waters of the Well of Mimir:
"I know that I hung from that wind swept tree, nine long nights,
wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin, myself to myself,
of that tree of which no man knows,
from where its roots run.
No bread did they give me, nor drink from a horn, downwards I peered,
I took up the runes, screaming I took them,
then I fell back from there."
The story contains striking parallels with the Christian crucifixion story. Woden sacrifice's himself on a tree. The Cross is often referred to as a tree. He was given no bread and no drink and neither was Christ. His side was pierced with a spear as was Christ's and he passed through Hel. It is not possible to say precisely to what degree the Christian story influenced this myth. However, it is generally accepted to be essentially non Christian in origin and referring to a shamanistic tradition in which the shaman uses a near death experience to travel into the different dimensions of reality. The story then, at its heart, is a fundamental aspect of our ancestors' understanding of the cosmos and the spiritual realms beyond our material world. The Christian story, as interpreted by our ancestors with their earlier knowledge in mind, provides a fuller understanding of this. At a deeper spiritual level, it is hard to escape the fact that we are being taught the same mystical lesson in both stories. The source of both is All Father.
Woden underwent this experience, to the very brink of death, in order to gain insight into the nature of the cosmos. For this reason, he is known as the god of wisdom and the quest for knowledge. Yet his quest was for more than just wisdom and understanding. By journeying through Hel and into the core of the cosmos, he has been joined to it through the ever flowing web of Wyrd. In other words, Woden transcends time and space. He is able to be in all places and all times at once. He is all seeing and all knowing, not just because he has gained the profound wisdom and understanding of the universe, but because he exists within that wisdom and understanding. This notion is represented in the mythology by his all seeing eye and by his two ravens, Hugin (mind) and Mugin (memory), who bring him news from afar. In this sense, Woden is a strong archytype of All Father Himself, something not lost on our ancestors who gave him this title. With Hugin and Mugin, we are reminded of All Father God as Logos (mind) and Christos (Spirit).
By undergoing this trial and passing through Hel, the realm of the dead, he symbolically died and was reborn in a more advanced spiritual and physical state. For this reason, he is also seen as the god of evolution - the process by which all things are born, live, die and then are reborn in an upward cycle of progression. He shows us the path towards this progression, the ultimate aim of which is to be at one with God in heaven. This is why we can see Woden as All Father, even though mythologically he was 'born' of All Father. He gives himself to himself, a clear parallel with the Christian notion that God the Father offers himself as God the Son upon the cross for the benefit of humankind.
The 'fruits' of Woden's mystical journey to the centre of the cosmos are the Runes. These are the symbolic expressions of the mysteries of the universe and through them we have a clear window and pathway to All Father and Wyrd. The Runes are an essential component of our spiritual life. We can use them for meditation, prayer, spiritual journeys and prophecy. They are a window into the deepest secrets of the cosmos and a pathway to the heart of God. Woden has brought these mysteries to us so that we can use them to make more sense of our spiritual journeys. Through the teachings of Christ, we can more fully understand this wisdom and make use of it both in our daily lives here on earth and as part of our spiritual journey towards wholeness.
The Norse word for the World Tree, Yggdrasil, is a compound of two words. 'Ygg' is another name for Woden and means 'awe inspiring'. 'Drasill' means horse. Together, the term Yggdrasil implies the means by which Woden made his spiritual journey to other dimensions of reality in his search for wisdom and understanding. The myth is in effect a recording of how the shamans of our ancestor's pre-Christian religion sought access to the spirit world and sought the wisdom of the universe.
The representation of the horse is known to Norse mythology as Sleipnir. It was on Sleipnir that Woden rode for nine nights through the nine worlds. In passing through Hel, Woden released the souls of the dead and they rode with him. This myth is recorded in the English tradition of the Wild Hunt with the souls of the dead riding through our world with Woden at their head. Our ancestors were afraid of this phenomena as they believed they aimed to capture the souls of the living to take them back to Hel with them. Indeed, the entry for the Year 1127 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports just such a 'hunt'.
However, Woden is not gathering the souls of the dead to capture the souls of the living. We are being told the same story as we read in the Gospels concerning Christ saving the souls of the dead from Hell. Woden has travelled to the lower world and has set free the souls of its inhabitants. They are travelling with him upwards in a spiritual sense, through our world, and on to heaven. These are mythological stories that are clearly telling us how Christ and Woden, as personas of All Father, symbolically free the dead from the lower world and carry them into union with God in heaven.