Ghora – Gorgos – Yggr
Three names, Three faces, Three qualities .. That are actually one and the same. The Terrifying Face of the Sky Father; in Sanskrit, Ancient Greek, and Old Norse respectively.
But what do they mean in each of their original contexts? And how can we tell that these are, indeed, the same.
We shall start with Ghora. ‘Terrifying’, fierce, violent; and a well-known epithet and theonym of Rudra – the Roaring/Howling of the Storm Wind. It should probably not be confused with “Gora”, modern Hindi for ‘white person’; nor with “Gaura”, Sanskrit for ‘brilliant’, ‘beautiful’, ‘white’.
Given the qualities ascribed to Rudra, it is not hard to see how this terminology has been earned by Him. Indeed, in the context of the Shatapatha Brahmana explication of the SataRudriya [‘Satisfaction of Rudra’, to somewhat figuratively translate] rite, we are told in no uncertain terms that this God (as The Manyu) is One Who Terrifies even the rest of the Pantheon, so mighty is He in His Wrath!
A pattern which is further evinced in later Vedic developments, such as the sending of VeeraBhadra to the Sacrifice of Daksha – wherein, along with RudraKali, this Emanation of Shiva subjugates a would-be world-emperor and fights off any and all of the Gods arrayed against Him; as well as the Bhairava emanation, Whose Name literally means “Terror”.
However, it is also vitally important to note that this Terrifying Face and Conduct is not the only manner in which Rudra is regarded, even in the archaic RigVedic canon. He is also hailed as AGhora – Non-Terrifying; and is frequently praised in Vedic hymnals as a positive figure, auspicious (‘Shiva’), a bestower of boons, a protector and an inspirer of men. A duality that is encapsulated also in the modern English term ‘Terrific’.
The Proto-Indo-European root for this Sanskrit “Ghora” is ‘Ghowros’ – which effectively means “To Be Angry [Looking]”; although it is my belief [as influenced in part by the advocacy of my colleague, Oli Havranek] that there is a deliberate ‘resonance’ between both this term and its application, with Proto-Indo-European ‘Gerh’ – which refers to the making of a loud, harsh noise. Such as the Crackling [same root] of Thunder, the Roar, the Growl [again, same root]. In Sanskrit, we would term this ‘Garjati’ or ‘Garjana’ – and it turns up in one of my favourite Vedic theological concepts: Vacam Garjit Lakshanam – Thunder with the Characteristics of Divine Speech. [It also forms the etymology for various terms for the Crow and Raven – perhaps partially informing the strong and recurrent associations of Corvidae with the Sky Father, particularly as the Lord of the (Glorious/Ancestral) Dead]
This suggests that in its primal sense, the confluence of the quality of Terror with the characteristic of the Roar – and both affixed to the Divine Personage of the Sky Father (for such, Rudra truly is) – refers to the sound and fury of the onrushing storm front. The Face of the Heavenly Father when Angered, accompanied by the quite literally Thunderous Roar of oncoming death and devastation against which none may truly stand.
In Ancient Greek, we find mention of the Gorgoneion – the War-Face held by both Zeus and Athena. Despite the shifts which occurred within the Classical mythology (wherein the character of the Sky Father was ‘split’ thrice twice – both inter- as well as intra- generationally, and in the case of Zeus, then shifted further via re-alignment with the Striker/Thunderer figure), ‘Zeus Pater’ directly means ‘Sky Father’; and retains various of the characteristics and the qualities of the core Indo-European deific figure.
However, when we come to the Gorgoneion, this retaining of core features is done somewhat literally ‘at arm’s length’. That is to say, whereas the ‘terrifying visage’ of the Sky Father, or the furious form of the Mountain Queen is Their Own … in the case of Athena in particular, the Gorgon-face is a severed head – that of a vanquished foe held aloft. Which, to be sure, is not an entirely un-expected iconographic feature of many a war-like deity. Kali Herself is well-renowned for bearing just such a grisly trophy; as does, in somewhat modified saliency, KaalBhairavJi [‘Terrifying Black Time Death’], one of several Shaivite Warrior-Destroyer emanations of His Divine Wrath.
I have previously argued that what has happened here is quite simple. That the mythology around the Striker/Thunderer [‘Per-‘] slaying a serpentine adversary has become somewhat merged with a pre-existing iconographic and functional association of the Sky Father and Mountain Queen Indo-European deifics. Or, to phrase it more clearly – Perseus carving off the head of the serpentine adversary, the Medusa, and then this head winding up wielded or rendered a shield-symbol for Athena and Zeus … is a later innovation, a ‘just so’ story forged to explicate how and why these deities held (literally) some of Their qualities and attributes.
We can tell this, in part, via the manner in which the Gorgoneion is presented in various archaeological findings – as being a male face, bearded and all, in an array of them. Yet we can also tell this, far better, via the linguistic associations and etymology of the “Medusa” term that describes the identity of the actual head herself. It may surprise many (who have not already looked into it, say by reading my previous works upon the subject), to hear that the ‘Medo’ from whence ‘Medusa’ derives is a much more positive, powerful term. It pertains to ‘protection’, ‘rulership’ – functions quite closely aligned with both of the Indo-European deifics I have aforementioned, not with some cursed creature that is slain as an adversary by a questing hero (unless, one supposes, it is the vanquishing of a threat and bringing home the evidence of your success in this regard, which renders one fit to rule; although I do not consider that to be a solid explanation for what has gone on here, as there is no similar understanding for the quality of ‘Ghora’ in the Vedic comparative. The Sky Father, there, is Terrifying in and of Himself – and rules a-priori to the ‘proving’ of these qualities via the dispatching of a mortal foe. Although, as we can tell from the mythology around Bhairava decapitating the would-be usurper Brahma, rulership and sovereignty is a tree that must be stabilized by cutting down those who would otherwise destabilize it).
The Proto-Indo-European term from which ‘Medo’ derives is further intriguing – PIE ‘Med’, which also includes giving counsel and healing within its ambit. As detailed in the relevant portions of the third MythoLinguistics of War article, what we see Athena (Herself a ‘Roarer’ by both theonymic and theological/mythonarrative attestation) in particular carrying out is the ‘advising’ of certain figures – and Zeus, as well, is in possession of the ‘Royal Metis’. Meanwhile, as we explored in “Beating Disease Over The Head With The Serpent-Staff Of The Storm Wind – Rudra, Odin, Shiva, Hermes, Mercury, Maruts As Healers”, there has ever been a prominent portfolio area of Rudra the Terrifying as a Healer, a remover of disease [it is important to remember that for Their People, a more Kindly face may also to be found when in need].
I believe that this is no coincidence, and that what we see here is the Proto-Indo-European constellation of associations for ‘Med’ – wisdom, rulership, and healing – reflected also in the portfolio areas and functions of the later expressions of these underlying Indo-European deific complexes. Or, to make the linkage more explicit – the figure(s) bearing the Gorgoneion, Who are ‘Ghora’, and also ‘Roaring’ with the Voice of Thunder … are Rulers, Wise, and powerful in other areas pertaining to herbs and preparations and healing charms. Further support for this can be evinced by the derivations of the Proto-Indo-European ‘Meh’ – which refers to the ‘measuring’ of things, as well as the enforcement of regularity and rule upon them, giving us the aforementioned ‘Metis’ … and in Sanskrit, wherein ‘Mimite’ and ‘Mimati’ are closely aligned; the former referring to ‘measuring’, and the latter to ‘roaring’ (with another related ‘mimati’ referring to ‘movement’, perhaps in the sense of ‘traversing’; and a further ‘Meh’ derived Sanskrit term, ‘Mah’, relating to time and the Moon).
The ‘Medusa’ / ‘Gorgoneion’ symbolism, therefore, rather than merely being that of a terrifying enemy – a demonstration of power held aloft by those more powerful than the terror itself (although this is also preserved in some interpretations of the ‘KaalBhairav’ encountered above – ‘One Whom Even Death Is Afraid Of’) – is better understood as being emblematic of the Royal quality itself. Something which we can easily demonstrate via the Gorgoneion’s presence not only upon the shields of certain warriors whether mortal or Divine – but also the incredible frequency with which we find Greek coinage bearing the ensign. Even today, we still speak of our coins as ‘Crowns’, ‘Sovereigns’, and they tend to bear the signifer of the regime and the rulership that has rendered them legal, regal tender.
So, having demonstrated that the qualities associated with the Roaring, Terrifying Deity – whether, as it happens, the Sky Father or Mountain Queen – are also those of Rulership, and that these are ‘encoded’ within the relevant linguistics, the relevant theonyms and other such terms for Their qualities, role, and functions … the question naturally turns to how we might apply this understanding to another, hugely significant expression of the Sky Father deific complex.
Yggr. Ygg. Hrjóðr. Odin. The Terrifying. The Roarer.
Now it is, of course, necessary to note that just as with the Greek derivation, various elements of the Indo-European deific complex of which Odin is the Nordic expression and understanding … have shifted somewhat down the ages, and perhaps also in response to the changed ‘needs’ of the Nordic bearers of that culture. My personal explication for the reasoning of such alterations has tended away from the euhemeric in such cases as no clear mortal mistake can be inferred (such as the aforementioned Greek ‘Mess-O-Potamia’ influence-scenario), and toward a suspicion of Divine intent in guiding at least some of this. So the fact that the Nordic understanding might be regarded as different to the Vedic upon some points does not render either ‘inauthentic’ nor ‘inaccurate’ – rather, it means that these are appropriate for their peoples’ position within the overarching Divine Plan. At least some of the time, at any rate.
In particular, the ‘rulership’ role of the Sky Father is significantly altered for Odin – and we find a figure Who, whilst in possession of a Throne, and dispensing Guidance, Counsel, Advice, and Divine Justice At The Point Of A Spear(-Tongue), is not strictly, explicitly, regarded as “King”. The more technically correct interpretation of His Role is perhaps along the lines of one Chief amidst several – an integral part of the Divine power-structure, but not its Over-King. But that is a point of theo-political explication for another time.
In any case, vital elements of our Roarer-Ruler Petrifying-Protector (Counsel-Consul?) typology are still very much in evidence for Him. And that has important implications for our understanding not only of “Yggr” – but also of “Yggdrasil”. The World-Tree Axis-Mundi structure of Nordic cosmology.
Now conventionally, Yggdrasil is interpreted to mean the Steed of Ygg, and more figuratively, to a ‘Gallows’ in reference to the manner in which Odin’s Hanging thereupon provided a route to wisdom. I do not think that this is inaccurate, necessarily. Only that it is only a part of the story. As we have seen above, it is easily possible for single terms or phrases within our ancient mytho-linguistic terms, to bear multiple and simultaneously intended meanings. Almost as if they were .. designed that way, by minds far sharper than most moderns could hope to be, their secrets lost or otherwise obscured by the sorts of interpretation which insist that our ancestors were as simplistic in their thought and elocution as we inveterably often are today.
The etymology of ‘Yggr’ itself has not been satisfactorily reconstructed. I have seen, as well as personally parsed, a number of possibilities – a number of which link back to the aforementioned underpinnings of ‘Ghora’, ‘Garjana’, ‘Gorgos’ and ‘Crow’ briefly outlined above. But we shall not get into that vexed matter here. It is enough for us to know that “Yggr” refers to Odin, and refers also more specifically to the Terrifying Visage of Him. All the rest, quite literally, it would appear, hangs thereupon.
For what is ‘Drasil’? In one sense, it means a ‘Steed’. And that certainly informs a personal interpretation of the concept of ‘Yggdrasil’ which occurred to me some Moons ago, after the coterminity of the World-Tree with the World-Mountain was joined by the uncovering of references to the Arms of Frigg as being Branches [‘Badmr’]. Not for nothing is Odin ‘Faðmbyggvir Friggjar’. But that, too, we shall save the more complex explication upon for another time.
What intrigues me is that ‘Drasil’ is a markedly less common and more figurative term for a Horse than various other options available in the Old Norse poetic lexicon. It connotes something quite specific. The act of ‘dragging’, the sense of ‘dependence’ – something contingent upon, supported or set into motion via another.
Why does this matter? Because it implicitly tells us something about the nature of the Axis Mundi of the Indo-Europeans. Not that Terror Maketh The World(s) Go Round, necessarily. But rather, that there is a strong relationship between the Sky Father – the Terrifying One – and the unfurling rest of the Universe about and hanging down From (or, perhaps, ‘like’ – with deference to both the ‘Gallows’ interpretation and a certain line of the DeviSukta) Him. Or you could reason it the other way – that of the supportive structure of the Axis Mundi holding Him Aloft. Given what we know about both the Deifics associated with the Axis Mundi, as well as more especially the manner in which the Axis Mundi is an expression of Cosmic Order (‘Orlog’ – Supernal Law; ‘Rta’ in the sense of Brahman-as-Order emanating into the Universe), the latter interpretation makes a noteworthy degree of sense.
This set of prospective associations is strengthened when we consider the underlying etymology of ‘Drasil’ – Proto-Indo-European ‘Dher’.
Which gives us such gloriously resonant terms as ‘Throne’ in English, as well as ‘Firm’ and ‘Firmament’ which come to us from a Latin derivation referring to ‘strengthening’ and ‘support’ (the idea being that the ‘Firmament’ in a cosmological sense, is the structure that supports the world and holds fast the Stars in the Sky, which it also forms, as a Vault of the Heavens – great place for some Wealth, Pluto, isn’t it). So it is not hard to see how the ‘Steed’ of the Sky Father (Yggr) is also the Throne thereof. Which leads, itself, to the interesting metaphysical question of whether a Throne is a Throne, rather than merely a seriously ornate chair (or cage), because it has a King sitting in it (i.e. the Throne is dependent upon the King, ontologically speaking) … or whether a Throne is somewhat (no pun intended) ‘free-standing’, and has a power its own that the King is supported by (i.e. the King is at least partially contingent, dependent, upon the Throne and its control). The answer is not an easy one, and is somewhat beyond the scope of this already almost-too all-encompassing article.
Yet where this becomes relevant is when we consider possibly the most famous metaphysically resonant derivation of ‘Dher’ of all – Sanskrit ‘Dharma’. Which I have often translated as ‘Duty’ – as that is what is dependent upon one, and what we are all dependent upon. But which would probably more directly be rendered as ‘That Which Is Held’ [in the sense that a truth is held to be self-evident – that is to say, it has a ‘law’ function as well], but also ‘That Which Holds’ [both in general, it ‘holds firm’ ; but also more specifically – it holds us]. In a cosmological sense, I have explained the concept of Dharma as an in-universe expression of Rta [‘Law/Order’ Above The Universe] – that is therefore contingent upon it. That ‘hangs’ from it. And, in so doing, provides supporting structure for our world. In multiple, overlapping senses of the term. (At this point, I must acknowledge a Mr J. Jones for observing coterminity between ‘Dharma’ and ‘Drasil’ in etymology and thence more direct cosmological import, some weeks previously)
So, in the manner that Varuna is rendered in the RigVeda a Sky Father of High Heaven, ruling therefrom and ‘stablishing His Law (as an in-universe emanator thereof), so too could we perhaps view Yggdrasil as encoding a similar concept. An Axis Mundi that flows from, is contingent in a certain sense upon, the regal position and prominence of the Sky Father. The Terrifying Roarer. Or we could remember that one is right not because one is mighty, but mighty because one is right – and portend that what is suggested by the terminology of Yggdrasil, is that the Sky Father Rules as a Duty and an Expression … supported, in other words … of the Divine Order.
Which therefore illustrates why ‘Ragnarok’ [the ‘Ragna-‘ referring to a Regime, a Rulership; and the ‘rok’ or ‘rokkr’ to an ending or dimming] is correlate with the significant damage to Yggdrasil. The Rulership of the DevaRajya is, in effect, tangibly expressed thereby. And tangibly imperiled on an ongoing basis by the demonic gnawers thereupon.
There are further possible interpretations, including that if one possible etymology or figurative connexion of ‘Yggr’ is correct, ‘Yggdrasil’ may have some resonancy with the concept of the ‘Steed of Thunder’ – which might fit with some of my earlier postulations around the symbolism of the (1-4) Stag(s) near the top of the Tree, and the latent Lightning of the Stag’s Horns; may have some further utility as applies the notion of a (meta-)physical form that is a solidified expression of the ‘cracking’ (or ‘roaring’) noise at the start of the universe in various cosmogonical accounts. This would accord in a broader sense (Old Norse resonancy-pun perhaps somewhat intended), with the concept of Divine Speech [and in particular some instances of ‘Vacam Garjit Lakshanam’ – Thunder with the Characteristics of Divine Speech, not easily understood by mortal men] as the Words and externalizing ‘Forms’ of Creation. That Sound is the fabric as well as the resonancy thereupon, of the Universe Itself.
In any case, those are avenues of interrogation for another time. What is enough for now, is to be cognizant of the elements of the typology which we have thusly established above. That Roaring and Divine Terror are closely correlate, both also with Rulership – and all of these with Thunder. That these qualities co-occur in particular in various Indo-European mythoreligious complexes’ understandings of the Sky Father, and Mountain Queen; and that they are traceable via etymological as well as mythological correlates. Thus further, with various of the other constellation of associations of these terms, helping to demonstrate the singular identities of These Gods – Our Gods – even despite Their hailing occurring in a diverse array of (related) languages spread across thousands of years and thousands of kilometres.
There are but three more things I shall say, upon the Growling Grey of the Terrifying Sky, in order to more eloquently express portions of the ‘essence’ of that which has been extolled above. And perhaps fortunately for the long-suffering reader, chiefly by quoting two better authors – messers Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, and Terry Pratchett:
“There are some dogs which, when you meet them, remind you that, despite thousands of years of man-made evolution, every dog is still only two meals away from being a wolf. These dogs advance deliberately, purposefully, the wilderness made flesh, their teeth yellow, their breath a-stink, while in the distance their owners witter, “He’s an old soppy really, just poke him if he’s a nuisance,” and in the green of their eyes the red campfires of the Pleistocene gleam and flicker . . .
This dog would make even a dog like that slink nonchalantly behind the sofa and pretend to be extremely preoccupied with its rubber bone.
It was already growling, and the growl was a low, rumbling snarl of spring-coiled menace, the sort of growl that starts in the back of one throat and ends up in someone else’s.”
“The prayers of most religions generally praise and thank the gods involved, either out of general piety or in the hope that he or she will take the hint and start acting responsibly.”
“William found that he now thought of prayer as a sophisticated way of pleading with thunderstorms.”
These Deities Are Terrific!
They Beget Terror!