View Full Version : The Cross And The World Tree

Saturday, December 17th, 2005, 02:14 PM
The Cross And The World Tree

One of the most important doctrines of the Christian religion is that Christ died on the cross and in so doing took upon himself the sins of the entire world. After three days, he was reborn and after a brief period with his companions ascended into heaven. Through this selfless sacrifice, his resurrection and ascension into heaven, Christ overcomes death and offers us salvation and everlasting life with God. Furthermore, the Apostles' Creed reflects Church tradition that following his death on the Cross, Christ descended into hell and carried all the condemned souls up to heaven with him.
A core Christian doctrine, but what does it mean in terms of our folk faith?

Dream of the Rood
One of the most illuminating religious Anglo-Saxon poems is called the Dream of the Rood, or Dream of the Cross. This is a Christian poem, but with a decidedly Heathen pulse. It tells the story of the crucifixion - from the point of view of the cross!
Whilst this may seem odd to us nowadays, it would have been perfectly natural to our Heathen ancestors and seemingly to our early Christian ones too. The Heathen faith saw the spirit of God running through all things. Everything had a spirit, even apparently inanimate objects such as a wooden cross. The cross agonises over the impending death of his Lord, but Christ is portrayed as a warrior hero, bravely going to his death to fight and overcome the forces of darkness which represent death. In this sense, Christ is seen as Ing, the warrior God and perhaps as Thunnar, fighting forces of darkness and chaos. How very different to the way the modern Churches' portray his sacrifice!

The Irminsul or World Tree
To early Anglo Saxon Christians, the Cross was much more than just the apparatus on which Christ died. Indeed, the importance of the Cross to Christian doctrine and tradition may have only come into full prominence following the conversion of the Germanic peoples such as the English. The reason for this is that the Cross became the Christianised version of their concept of the cosmos, represented by the World Tree or Irminsul. This is central to understanding pre-Christian or Heathen cosmology. Known in Norse mythology as Yggdrasil and in Germanic mythology as the Irminsul, it is a representation of the cosmos as our ancestors understood it. It contains the different 'worlds' or realms of existence they perceived, including the realm of the Gods (heaven), the realm of humankind (Middengeard) and the realm of the dead (Hel). Beneath one of its three roots, according to Norse tradition, lies the well of Mimir, whose waters contain wisdom and understanding. This belief is so central to Heathen cosmology that it was almost certainly understood by all Germanic peoples in much the same way, although they would have used different terminology.


We know from archaeological finds, such as those at Yeavering Bell in Northumberland, that large stone pillars were erected at sacred sites in England It is generally thought that this tradition continued into the Christian tradition in the form of similarly shaped Christian crosses, such as the Ruthwell Cross just across the border in modern Scotland. Indeed, at least some of these may have been originally erected as Irminsuls and had the 'cross' shape added later. These Irminsuls may have provided the focus for religious worship, perhaps erected in wooded areas and sacred groves to be close to the trees. to represent the Irminsul.

At face value though, it is not apparent why the Heathen Irminsul should become so associated with the Christian Cross. One is a representation of the cosmos, the other the means by which Christ was executed. However, they have much in common and this is the basis for a fundamental part of English Folk Christianity - or indeed any Germanic Folk Christianity.
The first thing we need to bear in mind, is that the Cross is not simply the apparatus on which Christ died. It has become the symbol of his earthly death and rebirth. More than this, it has become a symbol of his victory over death and the means by which his followers are themselves assured rebirth and eternal life in heaven. No further sacrifice by humans to God is necessary as God has himself sacrificed himself to himself for our benefit. Through the Cross, Christ passes out of this world and into paradise. First though, he descends into hell and takes the souls of the damned up to heaven with him. The cross is therefore a sort of gateway between this world and the other worlds that lie beyond our human perception. By descending into hell, Christ overcomes death and the forces of darkness. In dying and being reborn he returns to the Father and sits within all time and space. As with the Father, he is everywhere and within everything at all times and in all places. The poet who wrote 'Dream of the Rood' managed to evoke this essential Christian doctrine very successfully in terms the early English converts would have understood. But he also recognised that much of this theology was already understood as Christ's sacrifice was not the first that our ancestors recognised.

The Sacrifice Of Woden On the World Tree
The Havamal tells of how Odin (Woden) sacrificed himself on the world tree in order to drink from the waters of the Well of Mimir:

"I know that I hung from that wind swept tree, nine long nights,

wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin, myself to myself,

of that tree of which no man knows,

from where its roots run.

No bread did they give me, nor drink from a horn, downwards I peered,

I took up the runes, screaming I took them,

then I fell back from there."

The story contains striking parallels with the Christian crucifixion story. Woden sacrifice's himself on a tree. The Cross is often referred to as a tree. He was given no bread and no drink and neither was Christ. His side was pierced with a spear as was Christ's and he passed through Hel. It is not possible to say precisely to what degree the Christian story influenced this myth. However, it is generally accepted to be essentially non Christian in origin and referring to a shamanistic tradition in which the shaman uses a near death experience to travel into the different dimensions of reality. The story then, at its heart, is a fundamental aspect of our ancestors' understanding of the cosmos and the spiritual realms beyond our material world. The Christian story, as interpreted by our ancestors with their earlier knowledge in mind, provides a fuller understanding of this. At a deeper spiritual level, it is hard to escape the fact that we are being taught the same mystical lesson in both stories. The source of both is Allfather.
Woden underwent this experience, to the very brink of death, in order to gain insight into the nature of the cosmos. For this reason, he is known as the god of wisdom and the quest for wisdom. Yet his quest was for more than just wisdom and understanding. By journeying through Hel and into the core of the cosmos, he has been joined to it through the ever flowing web of Wyrd. In other words, Woden transcends time and space. He is able to be in all places and all times at once. He is all seeing and all knowing, not just because he has gained the profound wisdom and understanding of the universe, but because he exists within that wisdom and understanding. This notion is represented in the mythology by his all seeing eye and by his two ravens who bring him news from afar.
By undergoing this trial and passing through Hel, the realm of the dead, he symbolically died and was reborn in a more advanced spiritual and physical state. For this reason, he is also seen as the God of evolution - the process by which all things are born, live, die and then are reborn in an upward cycle of progression. He shows us the path towards this progression, the ultimate aim of which is to be at one with God in heaven. This is why we can see Woden as Allfather, even though mythologically he was 'born' of Allfather. He gives himself to himself, a clear parallel with the Christian notion that God the Father offers himself as God the Son upon the cross for the benefit of humankind.
The 'fruits' of Woden's mystical journey to the centre of the cosmos are the Runes. These are the symbolic expressions of the mysteries of the universe and through them we have a clear window and pathway to Allfather and Wyrd. The Runes are an essential component of our spiritual life. We can use them for meditation, prayer, spiritual journeys and prophecy. They are a window into the deepest secrets of the cosmos and a pathway to the heart of God. Woden has brought these mysteries to us so that we can better understand these things and make more sense of our spiritual journeys. Through the teachings of Christ, we can more fully understand this wisdom and make use of it both in our daily lives here on earth and as part of our spiritual journey towards wholeness.
The Norse word for the World Tree, Yggdrasil, is a compound of two words. 'Ygg' is another name for Woden and means 'awe inspiring'. 'Drasill' means horse. Together, the term Yggdrasil implies the means by which Woden made his spiritual journey to other dimensions of reality in his search for wisdom and understanding. The myth is in effect a recording of how the shamans of our ancestor's pre-Christian religion sought access to the spirit world and sought the wisdom of the universe. Interestingly, it is a similar tradition to those practiced by some Native Americans into modern times.
The representation of the horse is known to Norse mythology as Sleipnir. It was on Sleipnir that Woden rode for nine nights through the nine worlds. In passing through Hel, Woden released the souls of the dead and they rode with him. This myth is recorded in the English tradition of the Wild Hunt with the souls of the dead riding through our world with Woden at their head. Our ancestors were afraid of this phenomena as they believed they aimed to capture the souls of the living to take them back to Hel with them. Indeed, the entry for the Year 1127 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports just such a 'hunt'.
However, Woden is not gathering the souls of the dead to capture the souls of the living. We are being told the same story as we read in the Gospels concerning Christ saving the souls of the dead from Hell. Woden has travelled to the lower world and has set free the souls of its inhabitants. They are travelling with him upwards in a spiritual sense, through our world, and on to heaven. These are mythological stories that are clearly telling us how Christ and Woden, as personas of Allfather, symbolically free the dead from the lower world and carry them to wholeness and union with God in heaven.

Seo Engliscan Folc Circe/English Folk Church Society

Saturday, December 17th, 2005, 02:31 PM
There are some obvious parallels but they are christian appropriations of heathen parables utilized simply in order to sway the heathen populations during the era of conversion IMHO.

It goes the other way too though sometimes. For instance, I believe that the part of the Havamal which has Woden wounding himself with his spear in his ordeal to understand Futhark to be a Christian contamination of a heathen story. I neglected to incorporate it into the leadlight I had made for this reason.

The details of the whole episode of Balder would be interesting to unravel...

Top post regardless, good find!