Tag Archives: odin

Sacrifice

17 Feb

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In Norse mythology, Odin, the father of the Aesir (the Gods), had an insatiable thirst for knowledge. He wounded, then hung himself upon the World Tree Yggdrasil in order to learn the secret meaning of Runes. He journeyed to the roots of the World tree to seek out Mimir at the pool of Urd in order to drink from his sacred well and gain the gift of insight.

The price of Odin’s wisdom was an eye. I have often wondered whether sacrifice is the key to wisdom.

A wise young friend of mine, told me he had made a sacrifice just recently, in order to, in his own words, “be able to socialise better”. A great conversationalist, he dislikes direct eye contact (classic autism).

Years ago I made the mistake of offering to play a game of chess with him, when I was working as a Ranger for the Parks and Countryside department of  Sheffield City Council and he was a volunteer. I do enjoy a game of chess, but within half a dozen moves I realised I was playing against a truly prodigious talent. My friend displayed an intellectual plasticity, and strategic flexibility, I had never before encountered. I resigned quickly, not wishing to experience a crushing defeat – it would have been physically painful to me.

Imagine my surprise then, when he told me recently that he had decided to quit playing chess!

In my case Bipolar disorder was the gift that just kept on misgiving.

I was diagnosed in 2001and when I came out of the psychiatric ward 18 years ago I discovered I had left a trail of destruction around me. Relationships damaged, trusts broken and fear left in its place.

Cognitive therapy helped me to understand that I could perhaps repair some of the bridges I had burned in those years, when I had lived without knowledge of or insight into my condition.

I took the first step by first learning how to listen. The second step was learning to let go.

I let go of ambition. Between 1979 and 1998 I had been a successful academic, but I felt I could not return to this because it was too solipsistic, too antisocial in a way.

I have been told I was a good teacher – a very social profession, but I could not return to teaching principally because the practise itself is emotionally stressful. I don’t have an off switch for needy pupils.

I took professional advice at the cross roads in 2002:

Advisor “What do you really like doing?”

Me:”I like being outside, fresh air, making things and I also like people”

Advisor “Have you ever considered environmental conservation?”

That led to 10 years as a countryside Ranger. Nice job!

I ignored the jibes – “You are the only person I know who has had a career in reverse Henk! Academia, Education, Parkie and now Chippie”

So, I gave up worrying about fitting in.

What did I gain after insight?

In the words of my wife who has loved me throughout the journey:

“What I found was that there was no more walking on eggshells, and not being frightened to say something. The laughter and fun returned.”

Losing  the ‘I’ is no sacrifice.

 

Trinity

12 Nov

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Yggdrasil – the World Tree of Norse Mythology – traditionally a gigantic ash, is the tree upon which Odin hung in his never ending quest for wisdom. He drank from the stream which courses beneath the roots of the great tree and he lost an eye in payment. Mimir is  literally ‘The Rememberer’.

I made this bed as a commission for the generous and thoughtful mother of a beloved daughter and her partner as the seal upon their hard won quest to design and build their own home. The bed frame is made from a very old and spalted Fraxinus excelsior or European Ash, and the posts and book matched laths of the head board are derived from a huge yew tree which had languished in a stack of 4 inch boards in a builder’s garage in Beighton for many years.

When I consulted the family of three, the daughter requested that I carve a celtic knot – also known as a Triquetra – in the foot board.

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The triquetra has a well known modern Christian resonance: Father, Son and Holy Ghost, and in ancient Celtic and neo-pagan traditions representing the Sacred Feminine – the three ages of woman: Maiden, Mother and Crone.

My Mam a single mother in the 1960’s and 70’s used to say that together, she, my brother and I were invincible because we were a ‘three’. She believed that the number 3 had immense power.

Pythagoras taught that 3 is the first true number because it forms the first geometrical figure, a triangle. Odin’s valknut, a symbol of three interlocking triangles is a symbol of great power and significance in Viking Folklore. This one is carved on the Stora Hammars Stone on the Swedish Island of Gotland and it is intimately associated with the All Father.

valknut-stora-hammars-iIn the words of historian H.R. Ellis Davidson, “Odin had the power to lay bonds upon the mind, so that men became helpless in battle, and he could also loosen the tensions of fear and strain by his gifts of battle-madness, intoxication, and inspiration.” She and others interpret the Valknut, with its knot-like appearance, as a symbolic expression of this idea (Ellis Davidson, Hilda Roderick. 1964. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. p. 147.).

To carve a Triquetra, one has to first draw three interlocking circles to form the outline these are also known as ‘Borromean’ rings (after the Italian family Borromeo’s coat of arms)

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And then you can get down to the business of carving…

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…which involves repeatedly stabbing vertically along the outline of the motif and then gouging into the wood toward the stab line. This takes a lot of concentration, especially when one has already made the foot board as a single modular piece.

Carving directly onto a completed piece of furniture requires concentration and what we might call ‘bottle’ or courage. I learned from my client that her daughter and co-owner of the bed is a hand surgeon – I can think of no greater need for bottle than when working to repair that quintessentially primate character, the hand. The hand is my instrument, my means of expression and so I decided to go for broke and carve straight into the finished head board out of respect for my clients.

Speaking of bottle my younger brother Simon who lives in San Francisco and is both a master carpenter, music maker and brewer of fine Pale Ales might approve of this Trinity – it is perhaps quite apposite for us Littlewood brothers.

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It appears on an American IPA, Ballantine and is of 7.2% alcohol by volume – potent!

 

 

 

 

Odin

2 Jan

There is a price to be paid for wisdom as Odin the chief the Aesir – the Norse Gods of myth discovered, when he went in search of Mimir’s well beneath the world tree Ysgadril. Upon drinking deeply from the well of knowledge Odin plucked out his right eye and gave it to Mimir, the well’s keeper, for the gift of insight.

The Vikings

I was born in 1958, the year in which “The Vikings” starring Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtiss was released. When I was little, my dad used to drive my mum nuts by shouting “ODIN!!!” at the top of his lungs whilst in the bath holding a scrubbing bush aloft in lieu of a sword. I’m guessing he identified with Einar the character played by Kirk Douglas, son of Ragnar (Ernest Borgnine) and not Erik (Einar’s half brother sired by Ragnar) played by Tony Curtiss – who, whilst very good looking was not as butch as Einar.

I still think of my dad as a Viking – he certainly had the strength in his day and was, with 5 children to his name our ‘All Father’.

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Our sister Abi had passed when this photo was taken: From left me, Dad, Nathan, Simon and Tim.

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Here he was pictured in Yosemite with Simon, the youngest of the son’s of Ragnar/Littlewood. He, like Dad before us and I is a carpenter and he plies his considerable skill in San Francisco.

Wisdom flows from insight. In my case, insight is the knowledge that I have a disorder which renders me ‘blind’ to people’s motives (see Two Towers). I am emotionally more labile than most and I am given to an empathic response to the emotional state of others –  especially when they are in need.

There is a word for this: Eideteker – from the word ‘eidetic’ (used in conjunction with memory to describe an ability to recall something in great detail) – it can refer to a person who can ‘see through the eyes of another’. It was famously used by Hannibal Lecter to describe the skills of the homicide investigator Will Graham in the 2002 film ‘Red Dragon’.

It is a curse.

Given that most people follow their own agenda, I will empathise by default and often offer (unbidden) assistance. Favours, money, well meant advice, a well tuned ear, intuition …. This behaviour can be taken as interference, or more commonly, generosity of spirit. People I know think it is a good thing that I am this way – they see it as a ‘generous nature’.

I find it bloody exhausting – because it is like having no skin.

As a secondary school teacher I was considered gifted, partly because I had been a professional scientist before teaching the subject (I had real experience of making new science). In the main I think it was because I had no ‘off switch’ to the needs of students. I was promoted to Head of Year within twelve months of qualifying, becoming responsible for the pastoral welfare of over 200 hormonal teenagers. I counselled many youngsters, some I helped, all made deep impressions on me, through their emotional and educational need.

I was advised by my Psychiatrist to give up teaching after I came out of hospital back in 2002, and by a very helpful careers adviser. So I don’t teach now, apart from the occasional carving or cabinet making tutorial in my studio to help pay the rent.

Making furniture for a living is a solitary exercise, and this is therapeutic for me. I like it when my fellow artists sometimes wander down my dusty corridor for a chat, giving me the chance to procrastinate. But sooner or later I crave the peace and quiet of the workshop. Chisels, planes, set squares and marking gauges make no emotional demands, wood sings a quiet song best heard in isolation.

The price I paid for my insight was to give up teaching. Having given up academia I felt the loss intensely.

The loss of an eye is a terrible thing, the loss of a career, twice, could be seen as carelessness (Lady Bracknell).

But I am lighter now in spirit and closer to the old gods and so I shout in my studio, axe aloft to my All Father, the God of wisdom, poetry, war, death, divination and magic.

“ODIN!!”

 

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Berserker

13 Mar

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When I am making I like to think that I am ‘at one’ with my materials and tools – that I am in a calm zen-like state of grace.

I was smartly disabused of this rosy notion whilst talking to a very talented artist colleague who makes the most divine wedding attire in her pristine studio. I was having a convivial cup of tea with a bunch of artists from Exchange Place Studios, when Debbie Carlisle described to me how she had looked in through the window of my workshop door out of curiosity.

What she saw was a man with a fearsome grimace on his face, gnashing his teeth, whilst forcing a screaming machine through a gigantic piece of wood. I had been routing a piece of oak in the process of constructing these enormous gates.

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She mimed my teeth gnashing stance with vivid skill.

The Berserkers were Odin’s wolf or bear skinned warriors who were capable of working themselves up into such a mighty warrior frenzy that they would gnaw the tops of their shields and howl like demons. Probably scarring bejesus out of their foe.

As a man I do experience the emotion of pure rage. Usually when I am in my van (much to my wife’s irritation) and when I am confronted with unkindness toward others.

I have come to accept that it is probably a product of too much ‘juice’ or testosterone. Having taught at a boys school years ago I learned early on that plenty of physical exercise in the form of rugby, PE, hiking, running around and yelling rendered boys quite teachable.

Much is said about the problems associated with uncontrolled male aggression and most of it is true. Brutality towards those unable to defend themselves is inhumane and unacceptable, so can it be controlled?

Without our fathers we men find it difficult to make sense of the Berserker in us. It is only from a paternal figure do we learn to play the long game, patience, kindness, gentleness and courtliness and grace.

In my studio I will continue to be Berserkr (literally – ‘wearing the bear skin’) for it in this transformed state that I can focus my all my energies in honour of the old gods, releasing the demons away from polite company.