Tuesday, April 27, 2010
Causing a Bear, Scandinavian-style
His name is Bödvar Bjarki, which means "Warlike Little-Bear". He has a typical Scandinavian genealogy: his father Bjorn was a were-bear (as a result of a witch's curse); his mother's name, Bera, means "She-Bear". He casts a long shadow through the sagas of the North. He is the perfect warrior, stronger and fiercer than the berserkers ("bear-shirts") who are the champions and bodyguards of kings but must yield pride of place to Bodvar at the royal tables when he makes his entrance, often by knocking the door or wall down. While berserkers whip themselves into the fighting frenzy of an angry bear, Bodvar causes a bear. While his father was condemned by sorcery to turn into a bear of uncontrollable appetites in in the daytime, Bodvar is free from the curse of the were-bear; he chooses when to project a second body, in the shape of a warrior bear. This recalls the practice of Northern sorcerers who project fylgjur, "fetches" or shadow selves. The fylgjur are sometimes phantom figures, used to spy on adversaries or confuse their minds, but Bodvar's bear is entirely physical to those who meet it, and invincible among men in battle.
Bodvar is the hero of the last chapters of the Icelandic Saga of Hrólf Kraki. He is now the champion of King Hrolf of Denmark. who is leading a tiny force into battle against a vastly larger army that has invaded his lands. As the battle rages, a great bear advances in front of Hrolf's men. Always standing next to the king, the bear kills more of the enemy with a single sweep of its paw than five of the king's best warriors can despatch with swords and axes. The bear seems impervious to blows and missiles. It crushes men and horses with its weight, and rips enemies apart with its teeth.
Against the odds, things are going well for King Hrolf until Hjalti - a boon companion of Bodvar - notices that his friend is missing from the field. He protests to the king that Bodvar should not be looking to his own safety in the midst of the fray. King Hrolf counsels that "Bodvar will be where he serves us best."
Not grasping what this means, Hjalti runs back to the king's chamber, where he finds Bodvar apparently "sitting idle", or perhaps asleep.  Bodvar is in a state of shamanic trance. Not understanding, Hjalti seeks to rouse him, protesting that it is a disgrace that he is not fighting. "You should be using the strength of your arms, which are as strong as a bear's." In his outrage, Hjalti threatens to burn down the house, and Bodvar in it, unless his friend goes into battle.
With a deep sigh, Bodvar rises from his place and complies. After affirming that he is a stranger to fear, and fully aware of his obligations to the king, Bodvar cautions his friend that"By disturbing me here, you have not been as helpful to the king as you intended. The outcome of the battle was almost decided. You have acted out of ignorance...Now events will run their course, and nothing we can do will change the outcome. I can now offer the king far less help than before you woke me." 
When Bodvar goes into battle, the giant bear disappears. Now King Hrolf's army is exposed to psychic as well as physical attack. When the bear was present, the dark arts of the invader's witchy wife Skuld were useless. Now she is able to project her own monstrous animal, a hideous boar that shoots arrows from its bristles. Bodvar Bjarki fights furiously, mowing down enemy warriors like grass. Yet their numbers do not diminish, and he begins to suspect thad ghost warriors are fighting among the living. The champions fall, and after them King Hrolf. Because the bear shaman was torn from his trance when the bear was most needed.
APOLOGY TO TOLKIEN
When I first came upon the 14th century Icelandic saga of King Hrolf, many years ago, I thought the tale of Bodvar Bjarki was a marvelous window into old European shamanic practice, even distorted through the lens of a medieval Christian chronicler. I have returned to it now, amongst wider researches into the worlds of the Eddas and the sagas, in the wake of my recent travels in Sweden, where I hope to return to teach further workshops and practice some "dream archeology" to reclaim the remembrance of old ways that have been lost or confused.
In this pursuit, I am finally acting on what my Tolkien urged me to do, more than a decade ago. In a powerful vision in the course of a group journey to the Dream Library, I found myself inside a space like the New York Public Library, where I was greeted by Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Tolkien urged me to study Scandinavian mythology. I baulked at the assignment. Years later, when I was writing my Dreamer's Book of the Dead, I had a visitation by my Jack Lewis (C.S.'s friends call him Jack). When I asked him, "Where is Tolkien?" he responded, "Tolkien isn't talking to you because you did not do what he said." I have not seen Tolkien again, but hey, you never know...
 In a paraphrase of the famous (but otherwise lost) poem Bjarkamal appended by Saxo Grammaticus to his Gesta Danorum Bodvar Bjarki (here called "Biarco") is in a deep "sleep" from which Hjalti has great difficulty in rousing him.
 Quotations are loosely based on Jesse L. Byock's translation of The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki (New York and London: Penguin Books, 1998).
Graphic: Bodvar's fetch on the field of battle in the shape of a bear, in "Hrolf Kraki's Last Stand" by Louis M. Moe (d.1945).