Irma: Odin's Lessons of Fury and Weathering the Storm
The name Irma is currently on the lips of many people throughout the US. Following on the heels of Hurricane Harvey, Irma is currently showing signs of potentially being a stronger and fiercer storm than its predecessor. That being said, Irma is an appropriate name for such a powerful and menacing cyclone.
Irma and the Etymology of the Name
Etymologically the name Irma is derived from the Old Saxon word Irmin which means “strong”, “great”, or “mighty”. Irmin may also mean world, as in Irmunsul (the world tree, or great tree of Odin). However, Irmin is not simply just any ordinary name, it happens to be a kenning for the god Wotan or Odin. Such a name is among the oldest attested by-names for this complex deity. Another avenue of thought is that the name Irmin may be related to Ariomanus (a name which means “great leader”). Odin is also known as ‘Fury” and ‘Frenzy’. Therefore, to name this hurricane as Irma is foreboding.
The Wild Hunt
The storm (wind, torrent, fury) has been associated with Odin since his inception. As one of the leaders of the Wild Hunt, his seasonal movements were accompanied by the winds. Grimm theorized that Odin himself had been perceived by the common folk through howling of the wind. Odin was well known to traverse the worlds mounted upon his eight-legged steed, Sleipner. As leader of the hunt, he led a ghoulish troop of the undead, summoned the recently departed to join his procession. The great din of this ghostly entourage was synonymous with the ruckus of the storm.
Odin in Modern Media
Odin is easily among the most recognized gods of the Norse pantheon. Yet he is also likely the most misunderstood. While many emphasize his presence in battle, his role as a trickster figure and necromancer rarely are present in his most popular representations. Certainly, wisdom is also among his best-known qualities. This wise sorcerer archetype is present within many modern works of fiction, most notably as Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s use of Norse mythological concepts is well known, and Gandalf has all of the hallmarks of Odin. In fact, in a 1946 letter Tolkien explicitly stated that he viewed Gandalf as an “Odinic Wanderer” a “man who bore a spear or staff, wore a cloak and a wide brimmed hat”. So, while various modern popular figures may appear to be straightforward in their descriptions, underneath the polished veneer, a rougher courser god appears. One that you might not wish to run into even on the brightest of days let alone during the darkest of nights.
Tacitus and Widukind
It was from Tacitus that we first encounter the name Irmin. Among the West Germans existed a tribe known by the name of Irminones. These people were named for their ancestor Irmin, a son a Mannus. These figures are likely to be euhemerized gods. Odin and his extended family would continue to be euhemerized during the Viking Age. Due to the evolution of the Germanic languages, the name Irmin became Jormun in the Medieval period a common by-name of Odin. The practice of interpretatio Romana resulted in Widukind of Convey to equate Hirmin/Irmin with Hermes and Mars in his work Res Gestae Saxonicae. Irmin did not fit either mold exactly, therefore he was equated with both deities as he had attribute of both. Mars is well known as the Roman God of war. It should be relatively easy for individuals to understand how this comparison was made with Odin. Yet, we have only scratched the surface. When we look deeper into this figure, unsettling facets begin to emerge.
Odin and Mars
Mars was an ancient figure even during the days of the Roman Empire. His worship had ebbed and waned over the years. The God had been rehabilitated during Augustus’ reign and taken into the fold with renewed dedication. Mars’ military prowess is world renown, which is fully compatible with the figure of Odin. Yet, his Greek analogue was not so revered. It was likely the fiery unpredictability of Ares disturbed the sensibilities of the Greeks the most. He was far from being honored in the same capacity as his Roman counterpart. Rather, he was viewed with suspicion. Yes, his war prowess was acclaimed, yet his unpredictability, instability, and destructive tendencies were viewed with contempt. The names of his familial relations enlighten the reader to those characteristics that accompany Ares and by association Odin (Son Phobos: Fear, Son Deimos: Terror, Wife Enyo: Discord). All of these attributes could easily be given to Odin and often were during the medieval period.
Odin and Mercury/Hermes
Hermes on the other hand was the classical trickster figure. He was intimately tied to death and functioned as a psychopomp. Further, he was a patron of travelers. Each of these qualities are present within the divine figure of Odin. The Roman equivalent of Hermes was Mercury who was identified with Odin time and time again. Odin and Mercury are both identified as necromancers. This strengthens the notion that Odin was associated with death, and dying at an early period. You might also say that Odin is a God of contradictions. His first notable act was to engage in an act of patricide (an unforgivable offence in pagan Europe). Yet it was undeniably an act that was imperative, as the universe was fashioned from the body of Ymir. While he also strives to preserve the world, and stave off the forces of destruction as long as possible, the interim period has been full of Machiavellian schemes wherein Odin plots the deaths of warriors in order to fill his halls with battle hardened soldiers who will fight in the war to come. More often than not, these deaths are orchestrated through trickery, which gives him another similar attribute as Hermes/Mercury. With Odin, the ends justify the means. You could say many of his ingenious schemes put Littlefinger in Game of Thrones to shame (no offence to George R.R. Martin).
Havamal: The Wisdom Sayings of Odin
As a God of storms, fury, death, and trickery Odin has much to teach the living about adversity, and weathering both physical and metaphorical storms. He is a pragmatic god, and recognizes what is needed in order to live another day. One need not look further than the gnomic poetry of the Havamal (Odin’s Sayings) to gain some of the wisdom that Odin sacrificed his eye for. I have chosen Patricia Terry’s translation:
“At every doorway, what you have to do
Is look around you
And look out;
Never forget: no matter where you are
You might find a foe.”
In these opening words of the Havamal we find Odin emphasizing that we must always be prepared for the unexpected. While hurricane Irma still churns the ocean out in the mid-Atlantic millions are waiting in anticipation for what may happen. However, while weather forecasting is reliable to a point, anything is possible. Overnight a category 3 storm can become a 5. High pressure systems can ease, placing the hurricane into a completely different trajectory than what was expected. Those who were once apathetic to the storm now sit up and take notice.
“The foolish man thinks he’ll live forever
if he stays away from war,
but old age shows him no mercy
though the spears spare him.”
The storm (conflict), is a natural part of the human existence. We cannot shy away from it. Fleeing from every conflict may result in a longer lifespan, at the expense of one’s honor and reputation.
"A stupid man stays awake all night
pondering his problems;
he’s worn out when morning comes
and whatever was still is."
One can consume countless hours by worrying about what might be. This passage points out the futility of worry. Nothing is changed by fretting about what may come. Worry is useless. If the storm is bearing down on you, worry will not alleviate the torrential downpour or gale force winds. One can only prepare for the storm and adapt to the pressure it places on you. Worry will only fester and deplete your mental faculties.
"There must be a fire for the frozen knees
of all arriving guests,
food and clothing for those who come
over the hills to your hall."
Hospitality is among the most time honored and valued traditions from our Pagan ancestors. The wandering stranger could be Odin himself. Or, the person in need today might be the same person who will help you during tomorrows storm. Hospitality is an ideal that buttresses the ideal of community. While it is possible to survive completely on one’s own, having a community provides one with the interpersonal resources and collected wisdom that would not be available to a single individual otherwise
Honing Your Skills
"Don’t leave your weapons lying about
behind your back in a field;
you never know when you may need
all of a sudden your spear."
The tools with which we engage in battle are best served when we keep them at our ready. A sword and firearm might be those tools best utilized for physical conflict, but preparation for weathering the storm requires the honing of your mental and spiritual weaponry as much as keeping order of one’s physical tools.
“The pine tree withers in an open place
neither bark nor needles save it.
How shall a man hated by everyone
live for very long?”
If one does not have the support of community during a raging storm, the chances of survival are significantly lower. During hardship, it is natural for people to band together. It is not wise to alienate those who you might be dependent on for survival. One can prepare as much as his or her abilities allow, but as is often the case, best laid plans go awry. No amount of preparation can account for all factors during a storm. Therefore, while it is best to be as self-sufficient as possible, community is vital for one’s survival.
Finding Meaning in the Storm
"There is nothing men find better than fire
or the sight of the sun,
and to be allowed good health
and to live a blameless life"
The sun is life itself, every living thing is dependent upon it on one level or another. Yet, to appreciate all that it offers, we must first know what it is to live without it. The storm offers us a glimpse of what life is like without the sustenance of that life-giving orb. It is dark times, that gives meaning to the light. Opposites define one another
The Storm on the Horizon
As I sit here in Puerto Rico, I contemplate the intensity of the storm to come. Gray skies loom in the distance. Will this tempest consume me? In face of the approaching calamity I remain unwavering. Storms are unruly, threatening, and violent but they do not persist. The sun will return. Dawn will come and with it the power of night and the storm will fade into oblivion.