An exploration of the sacred feminine and its initiatory function in Germanic paganism
The next natural object of this essay is the nature of the sacred mead, and the spiritual meaning thereof. Depicting spiritual knowledge as a liquid is a central indoeruopean theme, from India to Ireland. The Vedas referred to the substance as soma, which means pressed. The greeks called it nectar, which means deathless, and the Norse-Germanic sources refer to it as either minnisdrikk, odreiri – meaning “memory-drink” and “frenzy-giver” respectively – or simply precious mead. Regardless of term, the drink is a symbol of initiation, and is both prepared, guarded and offered by female figures. This theme is found all across the indoeruopean religious sphere, which points to the fact that all of the later cultural variants of the initiatory rite have roots in a common, ancient initiatory practice.
Although discussions about the exact nature of the drought are interesting, the object of this essay is not the material substance, but rather the spiritual import thereof.
I will therefore refrain from speculating around the nature of the sacred mead. There are thousands of pages claiming it to be marihuana, DMT or LSD, and that ancient religion essentially was the result of someone tripping on drugs. I do not hold to those beliefs, namely because it negates the human mind’s ability to experience spiritual reality without the agency of psychoactive substances. I think the discussions about the material basis of the drink are beside the point. The fauna is radically different across the locations where the drink is attested to: extremely few of the same plants are found in Greece, India and Scandinavia, all of which are locations where we find mentions of the concept in question. The Rig-Veda, moreover, explicitly states that soma is found in all plants, and even in water (1). Another common denominator is the sanskrit word madhu (2), which means honey, or sweet, and which in old norse was rendered mjadr, or mead. As such, honey could also be a vehicle of soma, such as in the germanic and norse mead. Another substance mentioned as a good soma-carrier in the vedas is barley, which we know was used in the preparation of the psychoactive drink in the Eleusian mysteries in Greece. Regardless of the main ingredient used in preparation of soma, nectar or kvasir, fermentation seems to have been an important part of the process. There were in other words many different ingredients that could be utilized in preparing the divine draught.
The reason for this – I opine – is that the nature of the substance used in rituals was of lesser significance: what mattered was its transformation into a vessel for spiritual power, its ritual context. This is a formula still vibrantly alive in the holy mass of the catholic church, where bread and wine are spiritually transformed into the body and blood of christ. The spiritual formula of transubstantiation is however not an exclusively christian phenomenon: it’s an ancient sacred act rooted in the heart of the indoeruopean spirit. In transubstantiation, as the name implies, a material substance is consecrated, which imbues the matter with spiritual power. This formula was of prime importance in the Germanic religion, where the communal meal and drinking party (3) was the climax of all rituals. In Hinduism, to this day, one of the most important actions taken during a puja, or ritual, is the eating of the prasad, or food offered to the gods. This was also the central part of the old germanic blót.
Therefore, we should not discuss the elixir itself as one substance, but rather as a spiritual principle carried by the life-juices of different plants and natural substances. We can as such view soma or sacred mead as the essence of material food, the soul of the plant: what the yogic tradition calls prana, or the vital energy inherent in all forms, and which is responsive to the human mind. Prana, or vital energy, can be transformed by ritual interaction, and directed to specific purposes, such as healing.
Irrespective of that, what we are dealing with here is the spiritual mystery of transubstantiation, the formula by which the divine is realized in matter, and the divine incarnates in the world, fully aware of itself, partaking without reserve in spiritual and material nature alike. In this sense, soma and sacred mead point towards the initiatory journey itself, which we already have seen revolves around the idea of realizing – or rediscovering – one’s own divine nature not as something apart from the world, but as something embodied in the world: of becoming reintroduced to our own divine nature through the soul’s exile in world of matter. The challenges undergone by the hero distills that essence: pressing it out into full bloom from its mortal shell.
We tend to view the spiritual as something apart from the mundane, as something we make time for when we’re not engaged in our everyday lives. We therefore seek the spiritual outside of our daily surroundings, travelling to foreign places and seeking out exotic practices rather than looking at what’s right in front of us in the world we inhabit daily. The journeys described in the myths of the great heroes this text have introduced us to should not necessarily be taken literally. The hero’s journey is internal, and the nature of his feats universal, available to all willing to emulate his example and willingly undergo hardship on behalf of spiritual growth. If read this way, the physical world we inhabit becomes the threshold to the temple of initiation, and the individual weaknesses the adversaries we must face. The hardship of overcoming those weaknesses takes the mythic form of the hero’s trial, and the female initiator becomes nature herself, form, life – the great goddess.
- The soma-properties of water are particularly powerful in the rivers flowing down from the Himalayas. Rig-Veda 10:97:7 and 7:49:4
The sumbl in ON or symbl in anglo-saxon, known from the Norse sagas and the beowulf, and later as the gilde, was a vital part of the main germanic ritual, the blót, and one was legally bound to contribute to and partake thereof.
About the author
Henrik Lysøe - Norse Tradition
Norse Tradition is a Norwegian non-profit organization working to promote and convey the rich Norse spiritual tradition. We regularly host lectures, private training and rituals, and retreats centered around seasonal celebrations. We work according to a reconstructive method based on Indo-European syncretism. This means that in order to better understand the Norse heritage and tradition, we see it in the light of its roots in the proto-Indo-European culture.
We do not practice historical reenactment, nor do we intend to invent a modern spiritual practice spiced with Norse words and symbols; we transmit a living tradition. All lectures and rites by Norse Tradition are founded on recognized academia or historical sources of Norse, Vedic, Anglo-Saxon, Greco-Roman, or other Indo-European origin. We are thus not innovators; what we teach and practice has ancient roots.