What’s the first thought you have when you hear the world “death”? What’s the image that comes to mind? How do you handle it when someone you know dies? Does it devastate you with grief? Do you try to pretend it didn’t happen, or that it doesn’t effect you? Do you rejoice for them? Do you find skulls and bones spooky? Beautiful? Scary? Indifferent? How about graveyards? Do you find them scary, or peaceful?
Graveyards and cemeteries are odd things in our culture. We make pilgrimages to them on special days, we want them kept up, neat, beautiful. We want them taken care of, in honour of the dead, in respect for them. But most people want someone else to keep it up, not to have to go do it themselves, just like many people don’t like to visit the aged and sick. These things remind us of death, of our own mortality, and we don’t like to be reminded. Death is a subject even more taboo than politics and religion and sex (if the three really can exist separately). We avoid it like the plague, like we might catch death if we talk about it, like saying the name of the Dark Lord, that saying “Death” will summon her.
We’ve become a society that thinks death and aging isn’t natural, that we need to strive against it, get surgery to hide aging, do everything we can to prolong life, to avoid death. And when it comes, we still try to hid it. We take the elderly and put them out of sight, often not visiting them. We try to rush through the burial or cremation process, limit the grieving time to as short as possible, try to forget about it and pretend it didn’t happen as early as possible. If we ignore death, it will go away. But it won’t.
Life and death aren’t two separate things. You can’t eliminate death by prolonging life. You can’t break the two apart, any more than you can break day and night apart. Day bleeds into night, into day. Dawn and dusk. So life and death blend into each other, birth, the dawn of our life, dying, the dusk of our life. Yin and Yang. As I’ve discussed other places, from the Web That Has No Weaver:
All things have two facets: a Yin aspect and a Yang aspect.
Any Yin or Yang aspect can be further divided into Yin and Yang.
Yin and Yang mutually create each other.
Yin and Yang control each other.
Yin and Yang transform into each other.
These are true of life and death. Life is Yang, death is Yin. They ware one thing. Yang, life, is growth. Yin, death, is breaking down. What is to be built up must first be broken down. What needs to be n down must first be built up. Life becomes death, death becomes life. If we look, we see this everywhere.
I talked before about the lodgepole pine/beetle/fire cycle, of how the destruction and death the fire brings opens the cones that bring new life to the forest. How the life and expansion of the beetles brings death to the trees. How the death of the trees brings fire. How the growth of the fire brings death to the beetles, but new life to the forest.
Life leads to death, death to life. In Before the Beginning of Years, Algernon Charles Swinburne said:
Before the beginning of years
There came to the making of man
Time, with a gift of tears;
Grief, with a glass that ran;
Pleasure, with pain for leaven;
Summer, with flowers that fell;
Remembrance, fallen from heaven,
And madness risen from hell;
Strength without hands to smite;
Love that endures for a breath;
Night, the shadow of light,
And life, the shadow of death.
In linguistics, there’s a concept called “markedness”. In every pair, there’s a default word, the “unmarked” word. It’s opposite is “marked”. Marked means you have to specifically indicate a desired response, unmarked you’ll get either side of the pair as a response. For instance, you ask how big something is, not how small in general. Big is used in general for size, small only when it is assumed it’s small to indicate how small. There are many examples. Old/young. Tall/short. Happy/sad. Pretty/ugly. Soft/hard. Wet/dry. High/low. Bright/dark. Hot/cold. These vary with language but also with culture. Some of what I listed above directly link to Yin/Yang relationships, others reversed of them.
We tend to see Life/death that was. We presume Life is the default, unmarked, state with Death the marked. We want to know if someone is still alive, not if they’re dead, unless we specifically want them to be dead. The poem I quoted part of, however, states Life as the Shadow of Death, not Death as the Shadow of Life. Death as the norm, Life as the exception. Death as unmarked, with Life being specifically indicated when needed.
This brings to mind the 23rd Psalm in the Jewish Tanakh and Christian Bible. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; For You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.” Shadow of Death. By the poem above, we could infer the Shadow of Death is Life, so, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of life.”
Shadow of Death is one word in Hebrew, צַלְמָוֶת, tsalmaveth, death-shadow, very deep shadow, basically shadow so deep and thick it’s like the grave, like the underworld, like the realm of the dead. It is made of two roots.
The first root is צֵל, tsel, meaning shadow or shade, from צָלַל, tsalal, to become dark, to grow dark, to be shaded, to be dusky. It’s the process of becoming dark, not the state of darkness. And a verb obviously. It implies hovering. It’s something hovering over and therefore darking or shading it. Like a cloud passing over the sun. But it’s connected to the darkening of dusk, implying night or darkness hovering over the earth, darkening it. It’s connected to the word צֶלֶם, tselem, meaning image, likeness, semblance, with a strong emphasis on an empty image, an image that looks like the thing but isn’t it. It is usually used in relation to idols, but looking at the idea of a cloud over the sun, think of the reflection of a cloud in a lake or on the sea, looking like the cloud but not the cloud. Looking at the letters of tsel, we find Tzaddi Lamed. צ, Tzaddi or Tzaddik, Fish Hook, To Hunt, Righteous One, Chaos, Side, Manna and Water, My Beloved, To Shout, To Rejoice, Wisdom. ל, Lamed, Ox Goad, Staff, Prod, Go Forward, Tongue, To Learn, To Teach, Secret Heart of Eve, Tower Soaring in the Air, Heart that Understands Knowledge. These two letters are the 180th of the 231. It’s interesting that one letter is a fish hook, the other an ox goad, both tools, one to catch, to bring in, fish, a wild, non-domesticated animal, to hunt it, the other to direct, to send away, a domesticated, non-wild animal. Very much a Yin/Yang relationship, wild/domesticated, bring in/send out. Sending out is Yang, bringing in is Yin. Tzaddi is Wisdom and Lamed Understanding, Chokmah and Binah, the first division, the Divine Twins. Combined, there can be many meanings, of course. Teaching the Righteous one, teaching my beloved, hunting for understanding of knowledge. It can also mean shelter, and is gramatically equivalent (120) to Support, Master, Foundation, Season (as in the time for something to happen), Strengthening, Prophetic Decrees, Veil, Imaginary, Vermin, Mocker, and Moth. Imaginary relates well to tselem above. Veil is an interesting one. It is טמר, tamar, used for veil or covering, which actually means palm tree. So in sense, the palm tree covering you from the sun or rain. Relating back to tsel, the palm tree shelters, and shades, the Tower souring above the Beloved. Notice that tselem is the same letters as tsel, with a ם, Final Mem added. Mem is water, so the reflection of the palm tree in water is implied.
The second root is מָוֶת, maveth, meaning death, dying, Death personified, execution, the realm of the dead, the state of being dead, a place of death. Maveth comes from מוּת, muwth, to die, to perish, to kill, to have executed, to be destroyed. Figuratively, muwth means the heart dying or failing, ie, dying inside, or the trunk of a tree, or land left untilled or fallow. The middle Vev can be removed, as it is the Hook commecting מ Mem and ת Tau. מת, Mem Tau, is the 195th gate, the letters of both the noun (maveth) and the verb (nuwth). מ Mem, the Third Mother, Water, Ocean, Sea, Fountain, Womb, Love, Oneness, Feminine, Severity, Shekhinah, Bride, Wisdom, Undergound, Underworld, Fountains of the Deep. ת Tau, Mark, Cross, Seal of Creation, Passing to Future Generations, Truth, Conclusion, Active Finishing, With His Hand, Year, Wives, Time, You Will, You Did. This Gate is the completion of pregnancy, the end that is the beginning. And so with death, the end of Life is the beginning of Death, and Death is the beginning of Life. Gramatically, it is 440 or 1000, so equivalent to Flashings, Zones, Members, Day, Seas, Times, Vases, Vessels, Space, Drug, Poison, Crown of Flowers, The End, Appointed Time, Terror, Horn or Rays, Tooth, Whole, Perfect, To Blossom or Bud. Many of these can be applied.
Putting them together, back to tsalmoveth, death-shadow, we have the imagery of the completion or end casting a shadow over you. Your Death casting a shadow over your Life. This expresses the other side of the coin. Instead of pretending Death doesn’t exist, it’s living in fear of it, where Life becomes purely a pursuit of avoiding Death. In doing so, you miss the blessings of Death but also the blessings of Life. Without either, what’s the point of living? Is it really living? As Garth Brooks said, “Life is not trying, it’s merely surviving if you’re standing outside the fire.” To quote a bit more of that song:
We call them cool
Those hearts that have no scars to show
The ones that never do let go
And risk it the tables being turned
We call them fools
Who have to dance within the flame
Who chance the sorrow and the shame
That always come with getting burned
It truly live is to to risk death knowingly. A large part of the population of at least the Western World aren’t truly aware Death exists. They live their lives by script, puppets to Fate’s Strings, unaware that Time, Death, is stalking them. And there’s a small minority that are well aware of Death’s Sting and who know of Fate’s Strings, know how to overcome Her, but are too afraid of Fate and Time to do so. And there is a small minority of those who are aware, are awake, who actually take the Spear of Destiny firmly in their hands, and fight and strive and truly live, truly knowing and embracing both Life and Death.
Robert Cochrane, his article in Pentagram, On Cords, said:
Mrs. Basford has raised an interesting point about the real purpose of cords, harvest twine, string dolls, etc. They appear to have originated from the woven strands of Old Fate, the major deity of all true witches. They are, of course, the origin of such descriptive terms as “spellbinders.”
In his second letter to Joe Wilson, he said:
Some groups seek fulfillment in mystic experience – this is correct if one does not forget the duty of ‘involvement’ – the prime duty of the wise. It is not enough to see The Lady, it is better to serve Her and Her will by being involved in humanity, and the process of Fate (The single name of all God’s is ‘Fate’). In fate, and the overcoming of fate is the true Graal, for from this inspiration comes, and death is defeated. There is no fate so terrible that it cannot be overcome – whether by a literal victory gained by action and in time, or the deeper victory of spirit in the lonely battle of the self, Fate is the trial, the Castle Perilous in which we all meet to win or to die – Therefore, the People are concerned with Fate –for humanity is greater than the Gods’, although not as great as the Goddess. When Man triumphs, fate stops and the Gods are defeated – so you understand the meaning of magic now. Magic and religion are aids to overcome Fate, and Fate is a cradle that rocks the infant spirit.
Fate is the hand that directs us through life if we follow the script, if we don’t become aware, if we don’t bind or loose the Threads of Fate, rewriting the script, if we don’t overcome her. She is all gods, and the true deity of all witches, as Cochrane says, for Witch is aware of Fate and has the ability through that awareness to overcome her and write our own script, to bind and loose her Threads. In essence, she is Life, for all life is directed by her. Only Time operates outside her.
Cochrane says of Time is his fourth letter to Joe, “The Flood is again symbolic and represents Time.” The context, of course, is from Robert Graves’ version of the Song of Amergin:
I am a stag: of seven tines,
I am a flood: across a plain,
I am a wind: on a deep lake,
I am a tear: the Sun lets fall,
I am a hawk: above the cliff,
I am a thorn: beneath the nail,
I am a wonder: among flowers,
I am a wizard: who but I
Sets the cool head aflame with smoke?
I am a spear: that roars for blood,
I am a salmon: in a pool,
I am a lure: from paradise,
I am a hill: where poets walk,
I am a boar: ruthless and red,
I am a breaker: threatening doom,
I am a tide: that drags to death,
I am an infant: who but I
Peeps from the unhewn dolmen, arch?
I am the womb: of every holt,
I am the blaze: on every hill,
I am the queen: of every hive,
I am the shield: for every head,
I am the tomb: of every hope.
I am a Stag Who — survived the Flood,
I am a Flood — That destroyed the world,
I am a Wind — Of God moving across the desolate world,
I am a Tear –The sorrow of Fate,
I am a Hawk — The Child who survived the Flood,
I am a Thorn — The beginning of Fate (Death),
I am a Wonder- For I alone transform.
He saw the Flood as Time. The Flood is that which destroys the world, the end of the world, you could say. It’s working backwards. The Wonder comes before the Thorn, the only thing that transforms. Chochrane says, “The wonder is survival of Death – The Wizard is Merridwen, the Sky re-creating Life out of Death.” So the Wizard, who sets the cool head aflame with smoke, comes first, bringing Life out of Death. That which survived Death, the Life the Sky brings forth, is the Wonder, among the flowers (think of the flowers always placed on graves). The Thorn, beneath the nail, is the beginning of Death, the end result of Fate, for all Life leads to Death. It’s no coincidence that Christ was crowned with a crown of thorns and nailed to the cross, Thorn and Nail. Both pierce, of course. It’s also no coincidence that both whitethorn (hawthorn) and blackthorn are traditionally associated with harm, the woods often used for that purpose. Harm and it’s sting is what leads to Death, the breaking down, entropy. Clausius’ statement of the Second Law of Thermodynamics applies here, “Heat can never pass from a colder to a warmer body without some other change, connected therewith, occurring at the same time.” Basically, energy is lost in any process. This includes the process of Life. This is the sting of the Thorn, the bite of the Nail. The Hawk, Horus, the resurrected Child, the surviver of the Flood. The Hawk, according to Graves and the myths he connects to the Cliff, is on the Cliffs of Nonacris, in Arcadia (because everything comes back to Arcadia). From the Cliffs flows the headwaters of the River Styx, one of the rivers of the Underworld. In some myths, it is the River Styx that Charon ferries the dead across. Styx is firmly rooted in Death, and is where the gods go to make oaths, swearing them on the waters. Styx is Hate, and it’s followed by Sorrow, the Tear that the Sun lets fall. Cochrane said, “A Crafter is born not made, or if one is to be made, then tears are spilt before the Moon can be Drawn.” Sorrow and Tears are necessary ingredients to Witch. The Tears fall for the desolate world, the Wasteland. It’s hard not to think of the Fisher King here. The Wind, the Shekhinah as Cochrane says, the Breath of God over the Waters, the Spirit, Ruach, hovering over the Waters, the deep lake. A reference to Genesis, of course, “The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” The four classic elements are here, as I discussed in a previews post. Darkness is black Fire from Geburah, the Left Hand side. Bohu, “void”, and tohu, “formless” are snow in water, sludge. Tohu settles, becomes Earth, bohu is Water. And Ve-Ruach Elohim, the Spirit of God, the Breath of God, is Wind, Air. Bohu is the deep lake. Tohu Va-Bohu, Formless and Void, Desolation, the Desolate World. Why is it desolate, what destroyed it? What destroys it again? The Flood, across the plain.
Which brings us back to Time. “The Flood is again symbolic and represents Time.” Time is that which destroys. Graves equates Chronos, Time with Kronos, the father of Zeus, Hades, Poseidon, Hera, Hestia, and Demeter, the leader of the Titans. While the Online Etymological Dictionary says that the name Kronos is probably not related to the word Chronos, Cicero, in his De Natura Deorum in the first century BC says:
By Saturnus again they denoted that being who maintains the course and revolution of the seasons and periods of time, the deity so designated in Greek, for Saturnus’ Greek name is Kronos, which is the same as khronos, a space of time. The Latin designation ‘Saturnus’ on the other hand is due to the fact that he is ‘saturated’ or ‘satiated with years’ (anni); the fable is that he was in the habit of devouring his sons – meaning that Time devours the ages and gorges himself insatiably with the years that are past. Saturnus is bound by Jove in order that Time’s courses might not be unlimited, and that Jove might fetter him by the bonds of the stars.
We then, following Cicero and Graves, can go back to Cochrane’s Destroyer of the World, Graves’ Flood, as Time, Chronos, Kronos. Time, which devours its own children, Time, which is Death stalking us. Time, who cannot be separated from Fate, for Chronos, the three-headed serpent, is wrapped around Ananke, also a three-headed serpent, Past/Present/Future wrapped around Fate/Destiny/Necessity, their movements opening the World Egg, forming Ouranos (Uranus, Sky) and Gaea (Earth), and from the Egg comes Eros, who inspires the two to Lust. The movement of the two, of Chronos and Ananke, of Time and Fate, moves the stars and moon and sun, moves the affairs of men. Death and Life, Life and Death. The Puppeteer and the Devourer. The Weaver creating, the Devourer consuming. Brahma creating, Skiva destroying, balanced is Vishnu, the Maintainer. Chesed expanding, Geburah restricting. Yang and Yin, Yin and Yang, the Divine Twins.
The Devourer, Kronos, Time, the Raven God, Bran the Blessed, the Oracle of the Talking Head, like Mimir’s head that Odin consults. The Devourer like Fenrir, who will consume Odin in the end, dying in the process. His children, Skoll who will consume the sun, Hati who will consume the moon. Devourers all. The Death of Odin, the God of Death, is the end of an age. “O Death, where is thy sting? O Grave, where is thy victory?” “O Thanatos, where is thy sting? O Hades, where is thy victory?”
θάνατος, Thanatos, Death of the Body, Separation of Soul and Body, Power of Death, Thick Darkness, Netherworld, Underworld, Maveth, Death. From θνῄσκω, Thnesko, to die, to be dead, Muwth. Thanatos, in Greek myth, the daimon of non-violent death, brother of Hypnos, Sleep. Both children of Nyx and Erebus, Night and Darkness, Nyx ruling the Realm of Sky, the later Realm of Ouranus, Uranus, then Kronos his youngest son, the Zeus, Erebus the Darkness Below, Tartarus, the Underworld, the later realm of Hades. Their sisters were the three Keres, serving the Moires, the Fates. Hypnos took people to the Realm of Dreams, to Morpheus. Thanatos took those with non-violent deaths. The Keres took those with violent deaths, like the Valkryies gathering the slain in battle for Odin and Freyja’s Halls, while the non-violent deaths went to Hel’s Hall.
ᾅδης, Hades, Brother of Zeus and Poseidon, given rulership of Tartarus, of the Underworld, of Orcus, the Netherworld, Realm of the Dead, Tsalmaveth, Death-Shadow, the Grave, Death, Hell. Son of Kronos and Rhea (ruler of Earth after Gaea), father of the Erinyes, Furies, the Left Hand of Fate (Ananke), bringing Justice and Revenge on the wicked, the embodiment of curses. Hades, Aides, Aidoneus, sitting on a throne with a bird-tipped sceptre (like Thoth’s head, Thoth bringing the dead to the Judgement of Ma’ath), the Curser. Plouton, Pluto, Pater Dis, Father of Wealth, giver of wealth and fertility, the Blesser.
Orcus, punisher of broken oaths, Horkus, personification of Oaths, born of Eris, Strife, who’s nursemaids were Erinyes, the Furies. Eris, Strife, Discord, Discordia, sister to Harmonia, Concordia. Enyo, Bellona, Ma, daughter of Zeus and Hera, twin and companion of Ares, Mars, Destruction to his War, Destroyer of Cities to his Killer of Man. Horkus as Oath relates back to the River Styx as a place of Oaths.
Oaths. The future Olympians meeting at Ara, the altar in Arcadia where the gods swore an oath and made sacrifice before attacking Kronos and the Titans and taking over, overcoming Time and Fate. Who did they sacrifice to? By whom did they swear? Who was the altar to? Obviously not the Olympians. Obviously not the Titans. Also, the Norse gods meeting at the Well of Mimir to swear oaths and to plan. The Well where Odin sacrificed his eye for a sip to gain Wisdom. The Well from which Mimir drank. Mimir who was beheaded, like Bran, and whose head Odin kept as an oracle, as Bran’s head was an oracle.
Oracles bring us indirectly back to the Hawk on the Cliff. I mentioned Horus here, the Falcon or Hawk. Horus can be seen as the rebirth of his father Osiris, but there’s also a story where his is killed by a scorpion sting, but brought back to life by Thoth. Death and Resurrection. Most people today would think of Jesus, but there’s another parallel (well many other parallels but we’ll look at one).
There are many different myths of the Greek Dionysus, Bacchus of the Romans, Liber in other cultures, often contradictory. And many theories of where they come from. Most scholars believe both the name and the myths came from somewhere else, not from Greece originally. Some versions tell of Semele, priestess of Zeus. Semele once slaughtered a bull on Zeus’ altar, then bathed in the River Asopus to clean off the blood. Zeus, as an eagle, flew over and spotted her and fell in love. He seduced her and visited her often in secret. Hera, Zeus’ wife, found out about the affair and sought out Semele, appearing to her as an old woman. Semele told her after a while about her affair with Zeus. Hera pretended to doubt the story and made Semele start to doubt that it was really Zeus. Semele asked Zeus for a boon, and he agreed, swearing on the River Styx (as we talked above). She then asked Zeus to show himself to her in his true form, in all his glory. Zeus tried to talk her out of it, but she insisted, so, bound my his oath, he did so, abet trying to minimize the effect, but it burnt her to death. She was pregnant, however, and he was able to save the fetus by sewing him into his thigh. A few months later, Dionysus was born from that thigh. As an adult, Dionysus traveled to Hades and rescued Semele, who became a goddess. Other versions, Zeus (or Jupiter) seduces Persephone and she gives birth to Dionysus, a horned child. Dionysus, still young, ascends Zeus’ throne while he is away, either by decree of Zeus or without it, depending on the version. While he rules for a short time, with Zeus’ scepter or lightning bolt, the Titans cut or tear him to pieces. Zeus, grieving, gave the heart of the child in a drink to Semele, who drank it and became pregnant. Other versions, Zeus swallows the heart, then sleeps with Semele with the same results.
The theme here shows a horned child who dies and comes back to life, giving him power over both life and death, allowing him to cross the borders of our world and the underworld and back. Dionysus is very chthonic, both in his death and resurrection and his ability to pass both ways to the underworld. This is a horned child, son of Zeus, allowed to sit on the throne and rule.
But how does this relate to oracles? Everyone knows of the Oracle of Delphi, with Apollo the oracle diety, but less talked about is the Oracle of Thrace, the seat of the oracle of Dionysus. Also, it was said Dionysus shared the Oracle of Delphi, that it was of Apollo in the summer and Dionysus int he winter. Greek deities are often described primarily as either Olympian or Chthonic. The dichotomy is the Olympians living in the high place, on a mountain, above the ground, and the Chthonic deities living beneath the ground, ie, in the grave or in the Underworld. In general, Chthonic deities tended to be concerned with fertility and crops, and were sacrificed to at night. Sacrifices were usually in pits or sunken chambers, sometimes on an altar, and the sacrifice was killed with throat down, then either buried or burnt whole. For Olympian gods, sky gods, sacrifices were done on raised altars with the throat up. Once killed, the sacrifice would be shared and eaten by the people. Olympian gods were more concerned about the affairs of men than the fertility of the land in general. Apollo, with his association with the sun, is very obviously a sky god, and his sacrifices reflected this. Apollo was a god of order, of reason, of control, of harmony. Dionysus was chthonic, having died young and tasted death. His sacrifices were of a chthonic nature. Dionysus was a god of disorder, of intuition, of ecstasy, of being out of control. All this would have been reflected in their oracles and prophecy as well. Their oracles would have been from two different viewpoints, from two different directions.
I’ve discussed very similar concepts in my article Living Amongst the Roots of the World that I hope to get published soon, when I discuss the differences between wands made from branches versus roots. A branch is outward facing, whereas a root is inward facing. So too with Apollo and Dionysus. Apollo is direct and to the point, outward and conscious. His prophecies and oracles, while still veiled and cryptic, would have sent out. Go and do so and so. It would have been daylight and the sun, actions and directions. Dionysus is indirect and symbolic, inward and subconscious. His prophecies and oracles would have called inward. Come and meditate on this, take this in and understand it. It would have been night, stars and moon, shadows and underground places, intuitions and riddles.
Likewise their healing. Healing and prophecy are always coupled, those doing one do the other. Apollo would have healed by promoting growth, increasing the body (or mind or soul)’s ability to fight off the illness or damage or defect. Blessing and loosing. Dionysus would approached from the other side. Destroy the decease or blockage, fighting the issue itself. Cursing and binding it.
For the purposes of the main subject of this discussion, Apollo is Life, Dionysus Death. Each rolls into the other. Apollo gives way to Dionysus in the Death of Winter, Dionysus withdraws and allows Apollo to bloom come Spring. These two brothers, these two sons of Zeus, are Divine Twins, always dancing, spinning around, lovers and adversaries, loving and fighting, advancing and withdrawing. Death stalks Life, and Life stalks Death.
As anyone who has read my blogs for a while knows, I have a strong affinity to ravens (and crows and magpies and all other corvus). There are many very interesting and fascinating things about them, but we’re talking about death here, so, focusing on that. Corvus are mostly scavengers and carrion birds. The carrion bird part matters here, as it is part of the association with the dead.
You’ll notice Odin, who takes half the dead that die in battle, has two ravens (Muninn and Huginn) and two wolves (Geri and Freki). This is directly connected to his status as a god of war, of battle, of death. On a battle field, both ravens (corvus in general) and wolves would have been found consuming the dead. Consider the meaning of Geri and Freki, both coming from roots related to greedy. They are ravenous wolves, always hungry, always greedy for more flesh, the flesh of the slain. The corvus family are the only other animal wolves will allow around corpses they are eating. They will chase off or kill anything else, but allow corvus to feed along side them. In return, it’s been observed that corvus tend to stick close to wolves, and when they find carrion, they will call out and both other birds in their family group (often called a murder) and the wolves they live near will come to that call. There’s a symbiotic relationship where the corvus inform the wolves of food and the wolves allow the corvus to feed with them. Both ravens and wolves usually form close family groups. Both ravens and wolves mate for life. And they seem to form partnerships, family group to family group, murder to pack. So, imagine the scene for the Northern people. The battle is met, and the calls of ravens are heard echoing across the battle field. It’s said ravens and crows know where a battle will occur before the fighters do, lending power to the belief in Odin’s oracular and martial nature. The caws continue, and slowly increase, joined by the howls of wolves, as the ravens and wolves gather, watching on, waiting for their chance to feed on the slain in battle. Is it any wonder that Odin is associated with such animals, Odin who watches the battle and takes those he chooses? Is it any wonder Valkyries, gathering the chosen slain, are closely linked to ravens?
In Irish myth, we find the Morrigan. She, or rather they, as sometimes the title is used singular, Morrigu, sometimes plural, Morrigna, sometimes for a single being, sometimes for three though which three varies, is Terror incarnate. She is Death and War and Strife and Wrath. She sometimes appears as a crow, an eel, a wolf, and a cow. One name, Badb, means crow, and the Morrigan often flies over battlefields in the form of a crow. Another name is Macha, plain or of the plain, in association of horses used in battle (note Odin’s horse Sleipnir). Another name is Nemain, poison, or enemy or nemesis, or to seize or take, or wrath, or curse, or blame or crime, or greater twister or great bender. She is battle frenzy, taking the warrior and propelling them both to kill and to death (think of Odin as Gapþrosnir, the One in Gaping Frenzy, and as Gunnblindi, Battle Blinder). Another name is Anann, said to be the Morrigan’s actual name, probably from the Proto-Celtic *Φanon- meaning goddess. She is the personification of Death, oracularly prodicting death in battle, but also a goddess of fertility and prosperty, bringing to mind Pater Dis in Greek myth, the Father of Wealth, who became synonymous with Pluto and hence Greek Hades as god of the underworld. Badb and Nemain are listed as the two wives of Neit, a god of war, though sometimes Fea is listed instead of Badb, and sometimes Nemain alone. His name means passion or fighting. He may be connected to Neto, also called Mars Neto, the Iberian equivalent to Roman Mars.
Death has always been a big part of human existence. As it has to be for mortal man. To quote Tolkein’s famous poem from Lord of the Rings, “Nine for mortal man, doomed to die.” The Christian Bible says in Hebrews 9:27-28, “And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment: So Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many; and unto them that look for him shall he appear the second time without sin unto salvation.” For mortal man, the reminder of our mortality and coming death are hard to avoid, as much as modern Western culture often tries.
The idea of immortality, of cheating Death, is a theme common both in myth and folklore and in popular culture. Take, for instance, the Highlander movies and series, with its immortals, who could only be killed by beheading (Bran and Mimir and John the Baptist come to mind), that any other death, they returned from. Yet even they, with the contest for the Quickening, killed each other to win, and the last immortal standing became mortal when he stood alone. Look at the Final Destination movies, with a vision saving people from impending death, but Death stalking them to take what is rightfully his. Take Death in Gaimon’s Sandman comics, a cute, young, goth girl who comes for those who will die and comforts them but doesn’t bargain, for when it’s time, it’s time. It also deals with a man that Dream makes a deal with Death to allow immortality. Every century, Dream met with the man to find out how he spent the previous century, and deals with both the joys and woes of immortality. In Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker Trilogy, there is a character that obtains immortality, and has no idea what to do with it. So he embarks to insult every being in the universe in alphabetic order. Tuck Everlasting also deals with immortality, where a family is immortal from drinking from a spring, and hated and feared by those around them because of it. The book and movie deal a lot with the pain of watching those you know and love grow old and die around you. Vampires fascinate us because of their immortality. Anne Rice’s vampire books deal a lot with the boredom and loneliness of immortality, and the need for companionship to be able to deal with it. In the movie Death Becomes Her, the characters take a potion giving them immortality, and then have to deal with the repercussions of that. The Order deals with a Sin Eater who is essentially immortal, and is hated because he is Other, salvation apart from the Church, yet he is sought out for his power to eat sin and remove it and its effects. The newest Pirates of the Caribbean movie deals with the search for the Fountain of Youth and also touches on the Other in relation to the Church, and with what the Fountain of Youth means to different people. Earlier Pirates of the Caribbean movies dealt with Davie Jones and what it meant for the dead at sea to serve eternally as his crew, and with a curse that meant immortality and the desire to break that curse. The World of Darkness Vampire: the Masquerade and later Vampire: Requiem deal a lot with the idea of what happens as vampires age and move further and further from the humanity of their origin, of the hunger and isolation. Robert Reed’s Marrow books describe immortality as the advance in technology necessary for a race to move from planet based to a space fairing race, and deals with the tremendous amount of time that passes to travel large distances of space, and what humans, and other races, become when Death no longer is a reality, and what murder and death can mean when natural death is a thing of the past. In James Clemens’ Godslayer series, we see a world where a group of immortals came and conquered a world, and are the gods of the people, ruling over them. The books deal with what happens when an immortal god who can’t die is killed and what that means to a society.
This search for immortality, the fascination with the same, and authors’ and writers’ pursuit of just what immortality would mean, is a reflection of both our fear of death and our fear of immortality. Both life and death hold our fascination but also our dread. So we seek to push off the questions of life and death, to dwell on the known past and avoid that part of the future where our future might end, and try to pretend life will never change. But life is change.
Cemeteries and graveyards are liminal places. We set them aside, so we can visit death, but then leave it and forget it. There is a terrible peace and silence in a graveyard, a sense of rest and stillness, yet a feeling different that other places, of a place where the Veil is thin, where the Dead are waiting just on the other side, waiting patiently and quietly, waiting for the Gate to open.
The Guardian of the Gate stands ready, waiting for us to understand. To understand Life and Death. To understand the Gates of Life and Death. To understand the Guardian of those Gates and who he, or she, truly is.