On the Self and Human Origins

“When the sons of Borr were walking along the sea-strand, they found two trees, and took up the trees and shaped men of them: the first (Óðinn) gave them spirit and life; the second (Vili), wit and feeling; the third (Vé), form, speech, hearing, and sight. They gave them clothing and names: the male was called Askr, and the female Embla, and of them was mankind begotten, which received a dwelling-place under Midgard. … For this reason must he (Óðinn) be called ‘Allfather’: because he is father of all the gods and of men.” -Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda

I lunch regularly with my childhood friend Tony, now a rather successful Baptist pastor. We speak freely one with another about our beliefs (or lack thereof) and one day he asked me where I believed that I “came from”.

I explained that the bulk of my ancestors lay in the area of southeast England, and those people – before that – would have been in Denmark and northern Germany. Before that, probably the Caucasus (a region at the border of Europe and Asia, situated between the Black and the Caspian seas) because that seems to have been an earlier home for northern Europeans, and even before that, scientists tell us that we call came out of Africa.

None of this satisfied him, so I finally told him the story above about Ask and Embla and told him that if he insisted on having a god at the beginning, my money was on Odin. That, believe it or not, seemed to make him happier than the scientific account of our origins.

As a student of Buddhism, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the self. Buddhism teaches that there is no permanent and unchanging self but instead we are aggregations of cause-and-effect actions and responses.

Science has also tackled the issue of the self, as described here from a 2013 issue of New Scientist magazine:

“It would seem obvious that we exist continuously from our first moments in our mother’s womb up to our death. Yet during the time that our self exists, it undergoes substantial changes in beliefs, abilities, desires and moods. The happy self of yesterday cannot be exactly the same as the grief­-stricken self of today, for example. But we surely still have the same self today that we had yesterday.

“There are two different models of the self we can use to explore this issue; the empirical evidence we have so far points towards the rope view. …a rope holds together even though there is no single fiber running through the entire rope, just a sequence of overlapping shorter fibers. Similarly, our self might just be the continuity of overlapping mental events. While this view has a certain plausibility, it has problems of its own. We usually assume that when we think of something or make a decision, it is the whole of us doing it, not just some specific part. Yet, according to the rope view, our self is never completely present at any point, just like a rope’s threads do not run its entire length.”

Science and Buddhism seem to have come to similar conclusions. What you might find surprising is that the ancient heathens had similar ideas.

From studies of ancient heathen writings and languages, scholars have gathered many terms that describe the elements – the rope fibers, to use science’s example – that make up a human being. Some terms overlap one another and there’s a degree of ambiguity to the whole array, but this is not necessarily a bad thing; we don’t seek to create doctrine but to understand how the ancients viewed the world.

Based upon his analysis of Anglo-Saxon lore, author Swain Wodening produced an outline of the elements that make up a human. The following list offers simple definitions and a loose framework of relationships:

  • *ferth (the non-physical parts of the body-soul complex, excluding the fetch)
    • mynd (the mind; memory)
      • gemynd or myne (personal memories of deeds done in one’s lifetime as well as knowledge and wisdom learned)
      • orþanc (ur-thought; inborn thought, ancestral memory, and/or instinct)
    • hyge (high; intellect, or conscious thought)
      • andget (angit; the five senses, and information collected from them)
      • sefa (seat of reasoning and thought)
      • wit (the retriever of memories)
    • mód (mood; the seat of emotions; self-identity)
    • wód (wode; ecstasy, madness, passion, inspiration; Woden’s domain; emotions that bring inspiration, though not the same as desires)
    • wílla (will or self-determination; allows us to bring thoughts from the high or inspiration from the wode into physical reality)
    • mægen (ON hamingja; main; strength or vigor; seat of one’s luck. Affected by our deeds)
      • spæd (speed)
      • cræft (craft)
      • thracu
      • miht (might)
  • fæcce (an independent being attached to one’s soul for life; sometimes takes the shape of an animal, it is a manifestation of one’s own soul that is encountered in astral travel or spell-making)
  • hame/hama (ON hamr; hid (hide); scínnhiw (shinehue); the energy/matter form underlying the body; energy surrounding the soul which protects it outside the body and from external influences; the “ethereal image” of the soul.)
  • æþem (athem), also called the blæd (blead), edwist, and eldor; the athem is the breath of life, the link between body and soul
  • lic (raw or lich; the physical body)

These are the names that the Germanic tribes gave to science’s rope fibers.

I find this interesting on multiple levels. When I first encountered a similar list, I was struck by the similarity to ancient Egyptian thought. I also saw how such a model might explain phenomena like ghosts, if one wishes an explanation for such things.

On other levels, at the time of my discovering it, I found this concept troubling. Am I to believe that my emotions (mód) is a separate entity from, say, my memories (mynd)? Ken’s will to accomplish something (wílla) is somehow different from Ken’s inspiration when writing a computer program (wód)?

When thinking of these things as, well, things, then yes, it seems troubling… like a bad case of Multiple Personality Disorder. But if they are processes…

Think again about the metaphor of the rope. The thread of wílla (will) weaves in and out of mód (our emotions) which weaves in and out of hyge (logic and reason), etc. Sometimes emotions run high; sometimes our will is stronger. But in this interweaving of elements, there is also the lic (physical body), the hame, and the fæcce, all either physical or at least somewhat material in nature…

What if the physical and/or material merely weave in and out as well? “…spirit was an especially fine kind of material substance, much like air – and, as in many ancient cultures, spirit was synonymous with breath.” (Quote from Daniel McCoy’s The Viking Spirit: An Introduction to Norse Mythology and Religion)

Heady stuff, and I’ll admit that I do not have a handle on it all. I have come to see all things as part of a flow (wyrd, which will be addressed later) and that all things are connected. I have come to see myself not as a whole, but as a collection of processes, of thoughts and emotions and energy and memories, and that all of these things ebb and flow along with the many other processes that operate on our planet and in the universe.

And, ultimately, I think we’d all be better off if we thought less about “me” and more about “us”.

I do not think, literally, that Óðinn (or Woden, as he was called by the Angles and Saxons) once went walking on a beach and made humans from driftwood. That in no way, however, diminishes the story for me; while our origins may lie in the primordial soup of a billion years ago, seeded by the dust of comets, Woden is still “Allfather” and the ancient tales of gods and men still breath “life and spirit” into me today.

I do think, however, that these bold men and women who gave us so much of our language and culture were smarter – and wiser – than some might think. I believe that when they observed that we are made up of many components that might well act somewhat independently and go in different directions upon the death of the body, it might be because they actually knew something that I don’t. Or, well, that I didn’t… before I started listening to them. These men and women also knew Woden as an ancestral father; in fact, many Anglo-Saxon kings traced their lineage to him.

When I think of who I am, and where I came from, I stand by the answers that I gave my pastor-friend. I came from the British Isles, and before that, Germany and Denmark, and before that, the Caucasus. Before that… maybe India (as some think), definitely Africa, and then soup and comets and interstellar parts unknown. But, also, from “the sons of Borr,” and I see no conflict at all in those two statements.

As always, more to come.



I think coding is amazing. I like thinking about how the ideas of magic(k) are made manifest by our use of technology, and how we can approach technology in ways that make it feel as magical as it is.

Table of Contents

"Trace your roots back to the primordial soup or a son of Woden? From recent science and ancient heathen writings, discover the many elements - from the fetch to the wode - that make up a human and understand how they weave in and out of the body-soul complex. Honor your ancestors and discover who you truly are."

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to content