One of the most moving poems by the Viking poet/magician/farmer Egil Skallagrimsson was one he wrote lamenting the death of his favourite son Böðvarr who drowned at sea, and his son Gunnar who died of fever. In skaldic form the twenty-five verses give voice to his sorrow with passion and beauty. Normally Vikings assuaged loss with revenge but there is no one to attack for these deaths.
Egil composes the poem after vowing to kill himself by starvation, unwilling to live in a world without his son. His daughter Þorgerður tells him she will die with him, but tricks him into drinking some milk and spoiling his hunger strike. She then suggests that the best way to memorialise her brother is to compose a suitable poem in his honour so that he will live forever.
Across the many pantheons and even within single traditions, there are more than a few goddesses to be found personifying sorrow and grief. We can look to these mournful deities to help us through our own times of unhappiness, from mild melancholia to the throes of despair and even to the rising up and moving forward after the worst of the grieving has passed. In our times of need, we can turn to these goddesses for compassion, strength and renewal.
In the Christian tradition Mary bears seven sorrows as a mother who must accept the destiny of her son. Early in Jesus’s life, they are the typical sorrows of any mother, but Mary's heroic strength through the inconceivable grief of his persecution and execution is said to have prepared her heart for the joy of Christ’s resurrection. As a mother I can only imagine the depth of her pain, both emotional and physical. Her stoic countenance tells all. In the hostile atmosphere, she dare not carry on in fits of anguish lest she too be persecuted. Yet it is not likely that fear for her own safety restrained her as much as the knowledge that her son did not need one more added burden; that of worry over the wellbeing of his mother.
On Wednesday, I placed a soft blanket on my lap. I invited my cat to be comforted. His breath was labored. His body was clearly shutting down. The will to live is stronger than any other emotion or drive. He wanted to live. He was bewildered. He knew he was losing the battle. He collapsed on the blanket, took two long inhales and let out a long moan that was the end of his life. The sound of death is perhaps unlike any other. The sound of that sigh – I cannot describe. Poetry has no language here - my words utter only stupid rhetoric. To experience this is more than can be expressed, but I try. I try because it is vastly important to me to know what death is and to not hate life for its cruel finality. Right now, it is difficult to feel peace with this life. I struggle to understand why - despite the ache of the body and the deep, known suffering - the will to live is so strong. When he passed, it was not like some say, this ethereal light leaving. His eyes shone bright. His body, warm. It was my light that diminished. My eyes were those that shut, unwilling to see the end. I could not sense the sweat and blood, or hear the hum of awaiting insects near the dirt that would cover him.
My big plan was to finish up some loose ends so that I could truly enjoy my first winter holiday season in town, not working retail. Daughter was coming home, holiday cards were mailed away...even the weather was nice.
Did your December deviate from the plan, too? There have been unexpected rituals, several funerals, more than one friend or circle mate whose life took a turn for the...challenging.
I ease my students into Beowulf by having them read the Anglo-Saxon poem 'The Wanderer' first. It's a great introduction to the warrior ethos that the longer narrative celebrates, but in a short form. It's a poem about grief but the first thing we'll notice is that the loss mourned isn't a partner, child or parent, but the narrator's leader.