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Ragnarök and the Bardo
For many years and across many traditions, spiritual texts have suggested that our current time period will bring humankind the possibility of Great Change. This is not the fearsome, apocalyptic interpretation of the era suggested by some traditions, but rather a Time of Opportunity. In the ancient spiritual traditions of the Norse/Germanic tribes1 of Europe, these times were thought about as Ragnarök (in the German, Götterdämmerung). The word Ragnarök in Old Norse is a compound of ragna, the genitive plural of reign ("gods" or "ruling powers"), and rök "fate." Rather than a great apocalypse it is a “twilight of the gods” or end of what has been known before to make way for a rebirth cycle.
To better understand the concept of Ragnarök, it is important to look at the historical evolution of the mythos of these ancient peoples. Prior to about 4,500 BCE, Europe was populated an original, aboriginal people. According to both physical, archaeological evidence and research done by Marija Gimbutas, this culture was matrifocused and worshiped an Earth Goddess who lavished well-being on the people through the richness of the fertile Earth. In addition, no weapons or fortifications have ever been found among the remain of these people. Theirs was a sedentary and peaceful, agricultural culture with women predominant in the hierarchy. In fact, evidence of this matricentrism stretches back well into the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age.
Around 4,00BCE , nomadic tribes of Indo/Aryan herders from Asia begin what is referred to as the Kurgan invasions of Europe. These invasions are believed to have been caused by a change in climate/rainfall which necessitated a literal shift to “greener pastures” in the West. These warlike, horse-riding herders are patriarchal in their societal structure and they control the people and the land into which they ride. Their spirituality focuses on a great Sky God.
Even if you dispute Gimbutas’ suppositions about earlier Old European people being overrun by Indo/Aryan invaders, one can see evidence in the mythic structures of the resulting Indo/European cultures. This is especially evident in the ancient Norse/Germanic pantheon in which there were two distinct groups of gods/goddesses who lived an uneasy coexistence.
Let’s look at the first group of deities known as the Vanir. These Earth/Sea deities are “the Giving Ones” and their home is in the West of Midgard or Middle world--the spiritual plane where humans also live. (Recall that it is in the West that the Indo/Aryans found fertile lands for their herds!) The Vanir are allied with the elemental nature spirits such as elves, dwarves, fairies as well as the giants. This holds an especially important clue as the giants are seen in most ancient Indo-European cultures--from the Greeks to the Celts--as the first or progenitor race of all beings. In fact, for some of the Indo/Europeans the Earth itself was created from the body of a giant. The most visible of the Vanir deities is Freyja, the goddess of Love, Healing and Prophesy. She was so beloved by her devotees that her cult existed far into the Christian Era. Perhaps it is because the earlier Earth-based spiritual traditions also lingered in the guise of the Vanir.
The other group of deities are the Æsir who are lead by the god Odin and live in Aesgard, their home in the sky. Among the Aesir, goddesses take a secondary place as either wives or sisters of gods. Their pantheon is populated by deities such as the thunder god Thor and may be equated with the Olympian gods of the ancient Greeks. At one point Freyja winds up in Aesgard--along with her brother Freyr--as hostages in the ongoing battle between the two groups.
The fact that these two groups of deities were always in conflict must also reflect the ongoing difficulty of mixing two very different cultural constructs! One matriarchal one patriarchal, one sedentary one nomadic, one honoring the Goddess(es) of the Earth/Sea the other the Gods of Sky. One can easily imagine just how uneasy and perilous this blending of cultures must have been and how it could lead to a belief that the only way to have peace was to destroy everything in Ragnarök and start over. According to the mythos, new human beings and new “gods” - that is, new ideas about what/who is considered sacred - will emerge. This could leave a post Ragnarök world which would be neither matriarchal or patriarchal--that is no longer dualistic--but rather fresh and harmonious.
In the Northern European myths, the new human beings are the man, Lif, and woman, Lífthrasir. Their names mean "Life" and "Eagerness for Life." It is they who survive Ragnarök by taking refuge in the World Tree. Inside Yggdrasil, they are made ready to emerge and begin the new world. This part of the Ragnarök myth has very important significance as cross-culturally, the world tree is the domain of the shaman. It is through entering the World Tree that shamans do their work of journeying and healing.
While in/on the Tree and through being in relationship with the spirits--a human shaman is changed. In essence, this is a shift in perception. One begins to understand that there is no separation between ourselves, the Earth and the rest of creation. According to the Ragnarök story, those who know how to enter the World Tree will bring forth New Life and Eagerness for Life, thereby creating a New World. Those that choose to be transformed are the people that can dream a new dream for humankind and nurture a remaking of the world into one of beauty, love and joy for all beings.
I believe this Great Shift is already beginning to happen. As such, we are in a transitional time and state of being where we experience the Unraveling of the Old and Outmoded. Beyond this lies the ultimate leap of evolution for our species. Even though what we knew is dying, it is a time of great hope and possibility. This is happening inside us as well as across human cultures.
Tibetan Buddhism refers to the time of transition between an individual’s death and rebirth as the Bardo, a word that literally means “intermediate state.” This is a period when the consciousness/spirit, which has been freed from the physical body, goes through a process which--if embarked upon in a state of true awareness--can offer spirit liberation and enlightenment. In the Bardo state, the dying person encounters brilliant and radiant visions as well as horrifying demons. During this process, those around the person, continue to chant the prayers from the Tibetan Book of the Dead. These prayers urge the dying person to remain aware--to notice without judgment or attachment--and to “just keep going” on the journey through the landscape of their own psyche/mind into the promise of Oneness. Cloaked in the powerful force of compassion, fears are neutralized and enlightenment unfolds--the spirit receives a deep, eternal healing.
If we are to take full advantage of the miraculous opportunity this time offers us, we need to be willing to let go of old desires and beliefs of separation. Clinging to the past does not serve us, rather it can create fear and self-protection. Rachel Naomi Remen, MD says, “Healing may not be so much about getting better, as about letting go of everything that isn't you - all of the expectations, all of the beliefs - and becoming who you are.“ I would add that the letting go must be done with great compassion for ourselves. Not with self pity or anger, not with the fight of a struggle but with a gentle surrender. This is not a surrender to an outside force, deity or dogma, but a surrender to our highest self--our most Divine Aspect.
When we were children, others around us--parents, teachers and other adults--provided the structure of what was “right or wrong.” We only had to follow the rules for the promise of safety. We learned that “others will keep us safe, others will provide for our needs--our happiness and survival depends upon others.” This can become so ingrained in us that we come to believe that our safety, health, well-being or happiness continues to depend on a source lying outside of ourselves. When that is the case, we may seek the promise of security in the absoluteness of a religious dogma or a rigid social structure. We cling to the belief that if we follow the very clearly outlined rules, everything will be OK. However, if we adhere ourselves to this illusion, we sacrifice our potential for the true power of a spiritual adulthood.
If we are willing, we can allow that old way of living and thinking to die. To, as it were, enter into the Bardo and confront the demons of our fears which cause us to wither into spiritual dependency. As we turn inward, to sort through that which limits our fullness, we can begin to recognize the impact our thoughts and beliefs have upon our physical existence. As we engage in this way, we develop into spiritual adults, that is, accepting the responsibility for co-creating our lives and our health. In so doing, we also begin to acknowledge the divinity that exists inside and all around us. We in essence, disassemble the old dependency upon a parental God/Goddess to fulfill our lives and enter into a deep partnership with All That Is instead. In that partnership, we recognize that we have choice and in choosing we accept responsibility for those choices. We exercise our ability to take action with an eye/heart on the consequences.
This sacred work requires us to live our lives in a more heightened and conscious state. From that place of more aware consciousness our actions become illustrations of our inner most attitudes and beliefs. In other words, in getting clear, our choices become those our heart truly wants to own! This clearing away usually means being willing to let go of the overlays placed upon us by others. It means letting go of blame on our parents, our schooling, our society, our genetics or even God. The birth pains of this Ragnarök time have been centuries in the making. Its origins go all the way back to society's conception in the European Neolithic Age.
Personal growth author Ken Keyes, Jr. once said, “You are not responsible for the programming you picked up in childhood. However, as an adult, you are one hundred percent responsible for fixing it.” I would further add that the action of fixing it requires a great deal of compassion. After all, it is a little death--a dying away of an old belief or perception--in this case one that has shaped our ancestors as well as ourselves.
In the recording Graceful Passages--which is a treasure for both the living and dying--there is a section spoken by the late Lew Epstein. It in he shares how, so often, we spend our lives judging ourselves and not realizing that we are both loved and Love itself. He says, “you have to listen that you’re loved and forgive all the time” not only to make a graceful transition into death but to really live the richness of this walk on Earth. This forgiveness needs to lavished not only on each other but on the Self.
Forgiveness is a powerful force. On January 2, 1998, ABC News reported “studies show that letting go of anger and resentment can reduce the severity of heart disease and, in some cases, even prolong the lives of cancer patients.” A study being done at the University of Pisa, Italy, by Pietro Pietrini, M.D., Ph.D. is looking at how forgiveness allows one to overcome a situation that would otherwise be a major source of stress, both mentally and neurobiologically--that is within the physical brain and nervous system. It seems that there is a great wisdom in forgiveness as it benefits us, as well as those we forgive.
Alden Nowlan, the late Canadian poet and novelist perhaps said it best, “The day the child realizes that all adults are imperfect, he becomes an adolescent; the day he forgives them, he becomes an adult; the day he forgives himself, he becomes wise.”
On the same Graceful Passages recording, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross urges the listener forward with her own form of a Bardo prayer, “concentrate on Love and look forward to the transition ...it’s the most beautiful experience you can ever imagine.” We can approach our “little deaths” and unfolding in the same manner. Each transition we experience in our lives presents an opportunity to walk through a Bardo landscape into a new and more beautiful life.
© 2008 Evelyn C. Rysdyk
Parts of this article were previously published in my Modern Shamanic Living column in the Inner Tapestry Journal.
1. These tribes included Angles, Saxons, Franks, Goths as well as the Germans and Norse. Denmark, England, France, Germany, Holland, Norway, Scotland, Sweden, Wales and much of the rest of Europe were all settled by these peoples.
About the author:
Evelyn C. Rysdyk, author of Modern Shamanic Living is a nationally recognized presenter. Included in the book Traveling Between the Worlds she is among the world’s most influential writers and teachers of shamanism. www.spiritpassages.com