I love books. I am an avid reader and typically find myself devouring at least 2 or 3 books at a time. Mostly, I prefer fiction, but sometimes I'm drawn to pick up a non-fiction work. Mythology is one intriguing topic of mine. Over my life, I have read a number of books on various mythologies: Greek, Roman, Indian, Native American. This past summer I discovered an interest in learning more about the pre-Christian cultural and spiritual mythology of my own northern European ancestors. I knew almost nothing about these people, and felt a need to fill in some gaps in my own understanding of the indigenous people of my heritage.
I had always suspected that indigenous wisdom from different parts of the world had aspects in common, particularly around an inspiration from and curiosity about the natural world. After all, ancient humans recognized the power of nature to provide life, or threaten existence. Nature provided the means to calibrate their daily and seasonal lives and deepen understanding of our place in the natural world. Many indigenous cultures have retained this wisdom.
I picked up a large (seemingly 20 pound) reference volume of research into the mythology of various Nordic peoples of Europe including the northern Germanic tribes. According to the book, while some small differences existed between the mythologies of Scandinavia, England, and northern Germany, the basic elements were similar. Many of the details of the ancestral culture and beliefs of these people have been lost, having been purposefully erased by Christian conquerors. Yet despite this, many records and artifacts still exist to reveal some information. Some elements survived and were integrated into Christianity, such as mid winter Yuletide celebrations, and the Christmas tree.
Mythology is complex, and understanding it all is a lifelong study, impossible to articulate in this blog. However, among the things that I learned in my reading was the reverence my ancestors held towards the natural world and the changing seasons like other indigenous group beliefs elsewhere around the world. According to the authors of the book, research and records indicate that my ancestral people worshiped the spirit energy that was contained in trees, rocks and other landscapes, and wove these natural elements into their mythology. For example, my Northern European indigenous ancestors saw the northern lights, the aurora, as evidence of the Valkyries (the spirits) shepherding the dead to the afterlife. Another example, northern Europeans worshiped many trees and believed that a single tree, the World Tree, held and protected all of the world's creation. Living next to the frozen arctic, these people recognized plants and trees as life sustaining companions.
As I read, sitting in our front yard urban farm, my mind began to look around at nature around me, the trees whose branches seemed to resemble the lungs of the earth. The plants and flowers who were offering up food energy to many species were all woven together.
One idea that caught my attention in particular was the belief that the Germanic people held that the lone oak tree was sacred and a place for meditation and connection with the natural world. My mind quickly shifted to our backyard space where a large, lone oak tree stands. This tree is probably as old as our house itself, 1920. It defines our backyard space. It has lived through disruptions and challenges, both man-made and natural (our disturbances of its root systems during house remodeling and landscaping as well as a damaging lightning strike.) Yet, it remains solid and provides shelter to us and other species. It's an ecosystem all to itself. It offers a peaceful oasis in our backyard and second story deck space. It's magnificent, strong, resilient and beautiful.
I have begun to look deeper into the natural spaces as I explore my neighborhood, and wonder whether other people are doing the same. I think it provides a way to change our relationship with the Earth and heal ourselves. What sacred spaces do you have in your yard?
Since reading the story about the sacred lone oak in Nordic mythology, I have begun to see our lone oak with new eyes. Science has confirmed that trees and plants communicate with each other, and form physical support systems for each other. I see it as a sacred part of our earthly space and look to it as a symbol and reminder of my connection with everything in the natural world. It's winter here in Minnesota and the oak is bare now. It has slowed down as we have in this annual season. Yet as we go forward toward the winter solstice, on crisp cold days, I take time to visit our sacred lone oak, give thanks to it, and quietly listen for its wisdom.