I – ‘Flashing, His Eyes, The Young Serpent’s Shone’ – On The Dragon-Gazed Lineage of Odin
The Rigsthula describes one of the characteristics to the infant Jarl (that is to say – the archetypal member of the aristocratic caste amidst the Germanics) thusly:
“ötul váru augu sem yrmlingi”
What does this mean?
“Flaring / Piercing / Fierce [‘Ötul’], his eyes [‘Augu’] like [‘Sem’] the young serpent’s [‘Yrmlingi’] [shon].”
It is an epithet well-chosen, for the Gaze of the Dragon is its quite literally defining feature – the word ‘Dragon’ itself is from PIE *derḱ- (‘To See’), via Ancient Greek ‘Derkomai’ (δέρκομαι), a term for ‘Seeing’ and also for a ‘flashing’ illumination.
One might also consider Sanskrit ‘Drish’ (दृश्) to be pertinent here – derived from that same *derk root, it connotes a Seer, one who is wise; and when utilized as a verb, both one that ‘sees’, but also rather more actively than that, one who investigates.
Now this particular association, we hold, goes in two (not entirely un-entertwined) directions. It links to both (human) nobility, and also to the God Who is so closely correlated with same. A God, not to put too fine a point upon it, Who is rather prominently ‘Bale-Eyed’, Himself.
We can tell that we are on rather good grounds as applies this inference based around exactly this pattern of correlation showing up also in the Classical sphere (for example, the recounting in Book VIII of the Iliad of the supremely aristocratic figure of Hector “wearing the stark eyes of a Gorgon, or murderous Ares” [Lattimore translation]; the actual Ancient Greek is ”Γοργοῦς ὄμματ᾽ ἔχων ἠδὲ βροτολοιγοῦ Ἄρηος.”; rendered by Murray perhaps less illustriously as merely “and his eyes were as the eyes of the Gorgon or of Ares, bane of mortals.”) – and we shall cover that in due course.
However, we can also simply take things at ‘face value’ and sourced endogenously to the Germanic corpus. Ragnars Saga Loðbrókar features the eponymous hero declaring his infant son Sigurðr that i) “He will come to be known as the chief scion of Óðinn’s dynasty” (McTurk translation; the original reads “Sá mun Óðins ættar / yfirþáttr vera heitinn”); and ii) this should seem to be attested via the fact that “there is a snake in the eye of him [Sigurðr Fáfnisbani] who caused another [snake, Fáfnir] to die.” (ibid.; “þeim er ormr í auga, / er annan lét svelta.”) The aforementioned Sigurd Dragonslayer being a descendant, via the Völsung dynasty, of Odin; and thus it is interesting indeed that we have this ‘Snake-in-the-Eye’ characteristic identified as a phenotypical ‘house-marking’ of such descent. Various theories have been proposed as to what this might actually have referred to – and we would resile from some of the more ‘literalist’ interpretations of an overt serpent shaped marking within the eye of the child; instead preferring to link it back to that earlier mentioned Rigsthula situation – the ‘Fierce Eyes’ akin to those of a Dragon.
After all, the Eye(s) of Odin are amidst His most defining and recognizable of features. And are also the typological / defining trait – indeed, the outright eponymous one – for the Dragon in Western mythic perception. It only makes sense for such to be an inherited characteristic. Meanwhile, the notion of this linkage between the “snake in the eye” and “caus[ing] another [Dragon] to die” is also of significant saliency to our broader Indo-European situation. Not necessarily in terms of Sigurðr (either the Dragonslayer, or the Dragon-in-Eye descendant of same), but rather to the situation of the Sky Father Himself.
In many IE mythologies, we find a confrontation between a God (oft-wielding Thunder) and a Demon-Dragon. Not the Striker/Thunderer’s deservedly prominent iteration of this – but rather, His Father’s somewhat correlate combat. Think Zeus contra Typhon, for example – or Brihaspati against Vala. Odin’s version of the combat is a rather curious one, as there’s a direct 1:1 correlation of conceptry between the aforementioned circumstance of Brihaspati contra Vala, for Odin in the Ynglinga Saga … minus the fact that the latter text of Sturluson now features no Dragon involved. We have pondered the prospect that Odin against Fenrir may be another expression of the typology, given the Wolf-Serpent coterminity that seems surprisingly prevalent elsewhere … but this is purely speculative upon our part.
Our point here is a simple one – namely, that in these clashes, one might perhaps infer that if the Sky Father is also a Dragon (or, at least, possessed of the proverbial ‘Dragon Gaze’), then it is a circumstance of “Dragon [in-the-Eye or otherwise] causing another dragon to die”. It puts one in the mind of that aphorism full of braggadocio from the perhaps aptly named Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (albeit without taking the sibling relationship quite literally), “danger knows full well / That Caesar is more dangerous than he: / We are two lions litter’d in one day, / And I the elder and more terrible”. This notion of ‘like against like’ in some sense also being the nature of the clash between Odin and Fenris – even though in that case, at least per Sturluson’s retellings, even though Odin be the elder and more terrific, it is not He Who is said to (directly) triumph therein.
To this, we can but add the notation found in the McTurk commentary upon the verse proffered in the ‘Poetry in Fornaldarsögur’ edition. Namely, that the aforesaid situation of the young Sigurðr’s ‘Snake-in-the-Eye’ affirmation potentially “reflects the archaeologically attested practice of placing images of snakes over the eyeholes on masks fitted to helmets of a kind found predominantly in Sweden and dating from the Vendel period (c. 550-800) (Marold 1998a); and that it points to the warlike characteristics of its bearer through its association with Óðinn specifically as a god of war, not least because the adj. ormfránn ‘glittering like a snake’ is applied to the eyes of prominent warriors in Old Norse poetry”.
We would go further by also incorporating the intriguing occurrence in a verse of Kormáks saga [43, Hólmgǫngu-Bersi Véleifsson, Lausavísur 8] – wherein we find ‘Allstyrkr […] Yggr’ [‘Very Strong’ Yggr – ‘Odin’] in the context of the “vallar góins”, that is to say the ‘field of the Serpent’. We would take the ‘Field of the Serpent’, given the context, to be the ‘Battlefield’; the Terrific Lord thereof being a station of Odin … even though in the actual textual occurrence, the second section of the thirteenth chapter of Kormak’s Saga, has this as reference to the figure of Thord, it should seem. I digress.
McTurk then goes on to briefly mention three ‘Serpentine’ names which are also those of Odin – and we shall come to consider those in due course (plus several more which I believe are – at the very least – plausible further expressions of this typology), however that would be jumping ahead a bit.
Instead, I should like to introduce the one actual exemplar for Odin in Serpent Form that has come down to us – drawn from the Skaldskaparmal, as I am sure that many are already aware (and not least because I mentioned it only a few short paragraphs afore).
Now as for why we’re going straight there … the answer is simple: It’s In The Eyes.
This has been an excerpt from “Dyaus Draconis – The Dread Dragon Forms of the Indo-European Sky Father”.
Part two (of the excerpts from the Odinic section) shall be up shortly if you don’t feel like wading through the entire first piece all at once.
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As the picture at your header illustrates there have been a number of Scandinavian helmets discovered where serpents/dragons are depicted in close proximity to the wearer’s eyes, perhaps to demonstrate this Odinic quality. Interestingly, there are also Balkan/Thracian helmets that depict actual eyes in the same area which makes me wonder if this was also to connect the wearer with their Sky Father.
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