Something that is going to be absolutely essential when it comes to reconstructing the ‘high religious’ rites for western Indo-European spheres – is working out where, in the depths of the mythology, ritual understandings are to be deliberately inferred.
Why? Because so much of Indo-European ritual is comprised of what Eliade eloquently termed the ‘Eternal Return’ – actions wherein we re-immanentize out into this temporal sphere of ours, essences of the mythic, the eternal. We drive off demons around us today, by re-enacting in some format how Gods once drove forth in despair the far mightier demons arrayed against Them. We remind these creatures of a time when the greatest amidst their number was painfully brought low. And in so doing, we re-secure the immanency of Rta, Cosmic Order, about us.
Other, less overtly bellicose utilizations for the concept are also clearly apparent – a marriage rite, for instance, which consciously emulates a Divine Marriage as its mythic template. But for me, the ‘spiritual warfare’ dimension has ever rung most resoundingly – for reasons that pertain to personal experience and temperament.
In terms of an explicit expression of this concept – we handily have just such a thing in direct application to the Upasads themselves. To quote Shatapatha Brahmana XII 1 3:
“6 And when they enter upon the Upasads they indeed offer sacrifice to those very deities who (receive oblations) at the Upasads: they become those deities, and attain to fellowship and co-existence with those deities.”
Now, what is also clearly apparent is that even in scenarios wherein there is no ‘obvious’ demonic adversary to be confronted (I say nothing of where there is ‘less obvious’ ones – for, particularly when pious rites are being undertaken, there is always the threat of malevolency in interference), this ‘warfare’ conceptry is deployed. And often, it seems to take place in one of several mythically resonant styles of confrontation.
One that we have previously touched upon is the ‘Siege’ (Upasad) – the attacking, smashing, and thence liberating/ransacking-of-the-contents of some fortification or citadel. It is an incredibly frequent mytheme or leitmotif within the Vedic scripture and ritualistic canon. And that is of significant salient importance to us – because I believe quite strongly that we should be able to find ‘cognate’ understandings for this elsewhere in the more westerly Indo-European mythic spheres … which should then facilitate the deployment of similar approaches (‘Upasads’ again, in a different translation) in, say, Greek or Nordic ritual reconstruction. Indeed, I have already identified two instances that would seem to conform rather closely to this typology within the Nordic textual corpus – and more upon those in a moment.
In order to begin, it is necessary to take a look at the Vedic understanding. Here we see that there is often a ‘two-layered’ aspect to such occurrences: they exist within the mythology, directly referenced and hailed in the scriptural materials (for example, the Vedic Samhitas) – and they also exist within the ritual sphere, correlate to a set of specific actions which allow their (not-quite-human-scale) re-enactment.
I can likely do little better to explicate my point than to simply quote from the Shatapatha Brahmana [III, 4 , 4 – Eggeling translation]. The context for this is a particular Soma production rite.
“3 Now the gods and the Asuras, both of them sprung from Prajapati, were contending against each other. The Asuras then built themselves castles in these worlds, – an iron one in this world, a silver one in the air, and a golden one in the sky.
4 The Gods then prevailed. They besieged them by these sieges (upasad); and because they besieged (upa-sad) them, therefore the name Upasads. They clove the castles and conquered these worlds. Hence they say, ‘A castle is conquered by siege;’ for it is indeed by beleaguering that one of these human castles is taken.
5 By means of these sieges, then, the gods clove the castles and conquered these worlds. And so does this one (the sacrificer) now, – no one, it is true, builds for himself castles against him in this world; he cleaves these same worlds, he conquers these worlds: therefore he offers with the Upasads.
6 They have clarified butter for their offering material. For ghee is a thunderbolt, and by that thunderbolt, the ghee, the gods clove the strongholds and conquered these worlds. And so does he cleave these worlds by that thunderbolt, the ghee, and conquer these worlds; therefore they (the Upasads) have ghee for their offering material.”
Now, the next steps of the ritual instructions (for such the Shatapatha Brahmana is largely comprised of – the actual ‘mechanics’ of how to perform various rites) congeal the actual ‘construction’ of the mythically resonant weapon of sacrifice. That is why it is spoken of as comprised of Ghee (clarified butter – we use it as a source of fuel for our fires and lamps in offerings).
In the course of the rite, we find that this Thunderbolt has several constituent components – I’ve taken a look at these in my recent work on the Arrow of Orion / Ardra / Rudra , but suffice to say that there are ‘Divine Essences’ from three Gods (Agni, Soma, Vishnu), and that we likewise find invocation for the ‘warhead’ and missile that is the Rite and its Fire to attain three forms. These are ‘casings’ of Iron, Silver, and Gold in that order. Why? Because per the mythology, this tri-spearing weapon is to be deployed against three demonic fortifications that are walled with defences constructed of the corresponding metals. In the Taittiriya Yajurveda version of the rite, we then have Rudra called upon to fire this arrow.
If you are aware of your Hindu mythology, then you shall instantly recognize that this resonates quite closely with a rather prominent myth – that of Rudra as Tripurantaka (‘The Destroyer of the Three Cities’). Wherein those Three Puras (Cities / Forts) were, indeed, demonic and comprised of iron, silver, and gold. As we can see – the mythology is resonant with what we find in the ritual corpus; however in the absence of the ritual corpus, it can be difficult to identify what the rites that blossom from the mythology may actually happen to be.
At this point it is necessary to observe that the specific function of this particular Siege – in the ritual format at least – is perhaps as we should expect it to be. To quote directly from the aforementioned Taittiriya Yajurveda [VI 2 3]:
” The observance of the Upasads is for the driving away of foes. One should not offer another libation in front; if be were to offer another libation in front [ 2 ], he would make something else the beginning. He sprinkles clarified butter with the dipping-ladle to proclaim the sacrifice. He makes the offering after crossing over without coming back; verily he drives away his foes from these worlds so that they come not back. Then returning he offers the Upasad libation; verily having driven away his foes from these worlds and having conquered he mounts upon the world of his foes. Now the gods by the Upasads which they performed in the morning drove away the Asuras from the day, by the Upasads (performed) in the evening (they drove away the Asuras) from the night. In that both morning and evening Upasads [ 3 ] are performed, the sacrificer drives away his foes from day and night.”
The Shatapatha Brahmana is rather less pointed in its reasoning for the (triplicate) performance of the rite:
“21 As to his performing in the evening and in the morning, – it is because only thus completeness is obtained. When he performs in the forenoon, then he gains the victory; – and when he performs in the afternoon, he does so that it may be a good (complete) victory; – and when he offers the Homa, (it is as if) people fight here for a stronghold, and having conquered it, they enter it as their own.
22 When he performs (the upasads), he fights; and when (the performance) is completed, he conquers; and when he offers the Homa, he enters that (stronghold) now his own.”
As we can see, in the Black Yajurveda presentation, we have this Siege mentality utilized as an effective ‘cleansing’ for the rite’s space and engagements. A necessary thing – given, as I had mentioned aforehand, the penchant and proclivity for demonic forces to seek to interfere and either steal (or otherwise disrupt) ritual occurrences .. or, worse, displace the intended beneficiaries of same and claim the empowerments for themselves. Meanwhile, the Satapatha Brahmana’s presentation makes the engagement one necessary for the role’s overarching goal: that of attaining sovereignty – ‘conquering the World’. This can certainly be understood in metaphorical terms – but given that the Upasads in question are invoked in the context of coronation, a literal reading of sorts should also be entirely plausible.
Yet while demonic expurgation is, understandably, of significant importance – and to be looked upon with pride and reverence, considering the frequency with which such motifs occur within the Indo-European mythologies featuring this or that Great God and Goddess carrying out just exactly that … why do I suggest that there is a greater saliency at hand here?
Because the actual scripture does.
Multiple RigVedic Hymnals (which we shall not collate here – although you can find several of them quoted more extensively in my previous work) present Brihaspati [‘Lord of the Songs of Prayer’] utilizing elements of ritual in order to smash apart a mountain or fortress housing a certain demon-dragon. The name of this dragon is likewise translatable as an ‘obstruction’, a ‘barrier’, a ‘covering’ – indeed, even a ‘fortification’ itself. Various hymnals depict this deed as being done not by Brihasati alone – but ably assisted by a coterie of chanting priests. This clearly references the intrinsic structure of the eternal resonance, the mythic return: wherein deeds undertaken out here in ‘sidereal’ reality, and ostensibly ‘after’ their mythic typology .. nevertheless ‘feed into’ the actual structure of the myth itself. Brihaspati’s conquest of Vala’s mountain fastness has already occurred – and yet, in invocatory terms, at least, priests carrying out the rite based upon the mythic instance … are also ‘participating’ in a sense in the mythic instance – they are not merely passively ‘observing’ it.
And what does Brihaspati attain as a result of these efforts?
Cows. Just what every man needs.
Cows, here, of course, are both “Wealth”, as well as an array of rather more specifically resonant mythological expressions – ‘Light’, ‘Dawn(s)’, etc. etc. Other variations upon the same basic structure, featuring for instance Indra contra Vritra, may change things in other ways and have the Wealth that’s ill-gotten and hoarded by the Obstructive Adversary be things like The Waters – or, per a rather confusing occurrence in SB I 6 3 17, Soma. [I say ‘rather confusing’, because casting Indra’s fight against Vritra as being necessary to obtain the Empowering Elixir … is a bit of a paradox considering the major Vedic narrative instead has Indra only able to fight Vritra having already obtained the Soma with which to do so. But, of course, as the myth is being used to garb and encode a ritual – the narrative flow of causality in the more general mythology is less important than it might otherwise be.] And there is, of course, RV X 108, wherein the Wolf Goddess, Sarama, undertakes Herself to find where the demonic Panis have stored their ill-obtained spoils and proceeds to threaten the creatures into abandoning their wealth … by invoking the specter of not only Gods but also Priests arriving to break open their fortress should She be denied in Her command to them.
In short, with ‘Cows’ and ‘Wealth’ standing for an array of longed-for and vitally necessary elements to be obtained through the complexities of ritual contribution – we can therefore see that the ‘Siege’ typology is not merely utilizable for banishing demons from an area.
And, we can also see how occasional hints in other Indo-European mythologies demonstrate to us where similar ritual understandings must clearly have once stood.
A good example for this comes to us from the Ynglinga Saga. Here, we have Odin as He Who “knew finely where all missing cattle were concealed under the earth, and understood the songs by which the earth, the hills, the stones, and mounds were opened to him; and he bound those who dwell in them by the power of his word, and went in and took what he pleased.”
Now, there are an array of elements to Brihaspati (also known by an array of related theonymics – Brahmanaspati, for instance; although it should be noted that these can also be used as more general titles in some other contexts) which make a coterminity with Odin quite abundantly clear. I shall not go into them here – it is enough to observe that the particular Deed of Odin recounted in the Ynglinga Saga matches up rather well with our typology. Namely, something strongly desired (Cattle / Wealth – something rather direct in terms of ‘Fehu’) having been absconded with, and placed within an enclosed space … yet found, liberated, and restored via the potency of ritual conduct. That ritual conduct being Odin’s command of magical potency via “the power of His Word”, Galdr, and other such associated elements.
While it is true that there have evidently been some ‘shifts’ in the mythology – and these we can perhaps attribute to Sturluson, yet also simply to the likelihood of there being some decline in the authenticity of the tradition and its transmission even prior to his writing drawing from what yet remained, in literary terms, of same – the pattern is nevertheless quite clearly unmistakable. Indeed, even the major overt difference – the obstruction being a rather genericized ‘earth’ rather than a mountain with a demon-dragon’s lair in it (i.e. ”underground”), or fortification with ramparts (of stone and earth or otherwise), is not hard to reconcile. Nor is the omission of a certain demon-dragon from the Heimskringla account – as, after all, Vala, Vritra and the like (especially ‘Vala’) can easily be construed also to mean a ‘covering’, for example made of earth. The nuance and ‘double meaning’ had evidently become collapsed down to just merely the one by Sturluson’s account (either by the time of it, or by it itself in his efforts – we may never truly know).
Nevertheless – just as, as we have demonstrated, Vedic myths inform Vedic rites … we can thus safely infer that as the specific Nordic myth referenced there has clear cognate value with a Vedic typology quite important for these rites, so too must there have been – at some stage at least – a Nordic or Germanic ritual which resonated also with their iteration(s) of the relevant mythology.
Another occurrence within the Nordic mythology wherein it would appear that such an understanding has been obliquely referenced, concerns the obtaining of the Mead of Poetry by Odin in the Skaldskaparmal and Havamal. Now, here we find the Mead hidden within the Hnitbjorg, and only accessible following engagement with Gunnlöð. I have detailed my observations about this schema elsewhere (see, for instance the Soma Kvasir series), however a brief synopsis would be that key elements of the tale match near-exactly with what we find in the Vedic understanding for the rites for the production of Soma. The Hnitbjorg [‘Clashing Rock(s)’], whilst usually understood as a sort of mountain that can open to allow passage, would seem to be correlate with the Press-Stones of the Vedic rites (also occasionally referred to in ‘Mountain’ terms) – although here, may similarly suggest a mountain fortress just as we often find in the Vedic ‘Siege’ or ‘Combat’ ritual frameworks.
Gunnlod, meanwhile, ‘Invitation to Battle’, should seem to be rather correlate with the ‘Upasad’ conceptry – both, after all, entail an ‘approach’, a ‘combat’, and in the case of the Vedic schema a certain divine maiden that must be engaged with also in order that the empowerment of the ritual output is to be successful. (That ‘Engagement’, as it happens, is pointedly phrased in rather flirtatious and indeed sexual terms in one of the major Shatapatha Brahmana presentations of the ritual understanding at issue here – but more upon that, perhaps, some other time)
In any case, the presentation of Odin’s obtaining of the Meath of Poetry is in a seriously ‘chopped’ format – the Skaldskaparmal is not intended as a complete, cohesive, nor comprehensive recounting of the relevant myth … it is drawn-from as an effective ‘framing device’ to that work; and the Havamal only references the occurrence obliquely. There has been ample room for those who had a hand in the preparation of those texts to leave much upon the cutting-room floor, or simply to change understandings to make them more overtly fantastical or euhemeric. However, again, by placing what we do have from these sources alongside the Vedic correlate – a more fulsome picture emerges. One which, while it is perhaps not sufficient to actually allow us to fully reconstruct the ritual understanding to go with the relevant mythology in the Nordic sphere – nevertheless may prove of some degree of utility in various fashions.
Now I must emphasize once again, that I have not in the course of the above paragraphs set out the actual suite of correlations between the Myth of the Mead and the relevant Soma obtaining rites; instead choosing to focus only upon two rather key elements for our ‘Siege’ understanding here. Interested readers are, again, advised to consult my previous works upon the subject of Soma Kvasir for more details.
At this point, the question logically becomes – if we have these directly-attested Vedic constellations, wherein there is a clear and explicit link between a mythic occurrence featuring a siege or fort-breaking as a ritual occurrence … and the actual ritual which then references these understandings as its essential framework both narrative and metaphysical ; and we also have these Nordic situations wherein it seems prima facie reasonable to conclude something similar must once have existed based entirely around the Nordic mythology that we have in its textual format and the clear correlation between this Nordic mythology and its Vedic co-expression … what of the other Indo-European spheres?
I have not yet begun to seriously research this question in earnest; however I have every confidence that we shall soon be able to identify strongly coterminous Greek, Roman, Celtic, and other Indo-European mythic occurrences that fit this typology and logically imply ritual understandings, ritual correlates for same.
Our efforts in so doing are, we may say, an act of ‘Uncovering’ – and cognizant of the meaning of ‘Vala’ in Vedic Sanskrit … it would seem that we are most definitely engaged in the Liberation of the Light and Wealth from anti-Divine and occasionally outright demonic obscuration indeed.
The concluding verse of SB III 4 4 seems apt, if requiring some annotation.
“27 Verily, the world is conquered by austere devotion. Now, his devotion becomes ever and ever wider, he conquers an ever and ever more glorious world and becomes better even in this world, whosoever, knowing this, undertakes the Upasads that get narrower and narrower : let him, therefore, undertake the Upasads that get narrower and narrower.”
The ‘Narrower’ that is referred to therein is the production of a more tightly focused ‘Arrow’ – that it may penetrate deeper than a broader, shallower, and fundamentally ‘blunter’ instrument of Pious Destruction. By engaging in our work, seeking to get to the ‘heart’ of matters and really peering deep(a) in between to look beyond the oft-fragmentary state of myths as they have come down to us in the skeins of the Western Indo-European mytho-textual spheres … we are doing just exactly that. Going beyond mere concordances of textual elements like linguistics or overt (my)themes to really examine, probe, explore and explicate the actual Living Truth(s) behind these portrayals. Ones that, in order to properly be Living for us, must be actively engaged with in precisely the form that we find for the Vedic sphere. That is to say – not merely confined to dusty books upon shelves, nor even simply read by picking one up. Retelling them so that new generations come to regard the tales of their forebears with inspirational wonder is a great further progression – yet also, too, insufficient.
No, in order to truly ‘live again’ – it is necessary to explore how these stories can inform their aptly appropriate ritual re-enactment. So that their positive results and outcomes may come back amongst us too as well in earnest.
And you know, funnily enough, I may just be able to find a Myth for that …