Riemschneider’s journey into the world of pawns continues: human heads, heads of gods, ancestors? After all, Penates were truly surprising ritual objects. And in Celtic sagas, the heads of deceased kings were blessed.
In the various traditions, it is pretty easy to find how one generally avoids personalizing the god through the name of luck, and we prefer to call it with the proper attribute. Thus the Hittite god of fortune is called “deer”, the Celtic one “god equipped with horns ”, and Terminus is the “border”. However, the meaning of Lares is not known to us. Surprising is the name of the Penates, “those who are within ”, If it had meant to refer to the house or the hearth, it indeed could have been expressed more clearly, if it is to be understood in the Hittite sense, “those who are inside” would mean those “who have entered”, i.e., arrived in the center, in Paradise, those who have achieved happiness. If, therefore, among the Hittites, the pawns become statuettes’ lucky charms or little “mascots”, because it shouldn’t be the same with the Romans? They identify Lares and Penates in domestic worship and regarding their origin.
Among the Etruscans, the god of the sky, Tinia, has his own Penates. These are the “counselors”. This will also characterize Jupiter, And indeed the surprising fact that the maxim divinity cannot act without advisers occurs not only in classical mythology but in all mythology. Why have the counselor gods not become supreme deities and always maintained a subordinate position? The Hittites noticed this strangeness, so much so that at one point, they tried, but without success, to make a rebel “god of fortune” probably because they aren’t real gods but tools, dead and useless without a hand to move them.
The differentiation between Lares and Penates occurred only at the moment in which the ancient oracle has fallen into oblivion, and anthropomorphic deities have established themselves in place of instruments, those dancing twins who in the form of a dog and a cornucopia keep alive a last memory of initially much more limited tasks.
The Penates are clearly described to us by Dionysius of Halicarnassus. Aeneas took them away from Troy, wrapping them in his tunic and placing them in the temple of Lavinio, the city he founded. The Roman officials were therefore forced, for the sacrifices to Penates, to go to Lavinius. Later these objects of worship were transferred to the Roman temple of Vesta. The Penates wrapped up by Aeneas in his robe are indicated by Dionysius as “heraldic clubs of iron and bronze and objects of clay from Troy”: truly surprising ritual objects. It is challenging to carry many “heraldic clubs” with you in the raised edges of a tunic or even on the chest, in the folds of the garment, not to mention in a chest, if he then carries his paralytic father on his shoulders. It is likelier that they were sticks with an “indicative” character, suitable for the herald, herald of the divine will.
This automatically leads to the scrolls and candles. Also, “clay objects” are undoubtedly the same thing as “sigillaria”; in the sacrifices to the Penates, it was used to have not only small bowls of salt and flour but also a bowl with “sigilla”. The fact that you place them in a bowl rather than set them down characterizes them better than anything else.
Varro calls the Penates “sigilla of wood, stone, and clay” (“sigilla lignea vel, lapidea terrenea quoque”). This derives indeed from another equally well-informed source since no one can translate iron and bronze with wood and stone or heraldic maces with “sigilla”. Given the multiple possibilities of interpretation, some recalled bronze and iron, others wood and stone. We are here faced with a set of things not easy to define or describe, especially as a later writer he was not now able to understand them fully.
At the time of the invasion of the Gauls, the Penates were placed in two small barrels (“doliola ”) and buried. In some depictions graphics of Aeneas’ escape, Anchises carries a box in his arms, a small round barrel. This also proves the existence of a large number of small objects: and it is probable that at some point, the difference between the “sigilla” (which were placed as sacrificial objects near the Lares to be then burned) and the “sigillaria ” of the Saturnalia was no longer felt. From that moment on, the “sigilla” will have become no more pretty decorative trinkets whose origin and meaning no one wondered about. The most valuable ones were probably placed as Penates in the niches of the altars of the Lares. But they remained small and could not be considered real divinity. Thus Virgil describes the morning prayer in the house of Evander (Aeneid, XI, page. 542 ff.): “He (Aeneas) revives in the hearth the sleeping fire, and he calmly approaches yesterday’s Lare and the little Penates”. The two expressions “ yesterday’s Lare” and “little Penates” do not mean two different things. The “Lares of yesterday” is yesterday’s fortune, which he still meets today, at the hearth, in the form of the little Penates.
One could perhaps object that Lari, Penati, and “sigillaria” do not they had a place in the art of divination. But the Greco-Roman intellectualism is undoubtedly further from the oracles than the Nordic predisposition to mysticism. The Nordic people can even see precise figures in the structures and shapes that arise from the casting of New Year’s lead. More simple was the procedure in luck fishing, a custom recently disappeared East Prussian Christmas tree, in which objects very similar to “sigillaria” were extracted from a bowl or a hat like lottery tickets: they were for the more men, women, children, dead heads, keys, bread, rings, ladders, shoes, objects to which in South Tyrol they correspond mountains, coins, keys, rosary beads, bread, candles, combs, dolls, wayfarer’s bundles, Nine things each time since the sacred number ensures a link with destiny. But while the anthropomorphic “effigies” are still clearly recognizable, the “servitude” has been transformed into constellations, such as in cartomancy, where, however, a death’s head, candle, and doll have a much more ancient and profound meaning than the modern player can guess. Let us not forget, however, that the firecracker also imitates the candle in its shape. Making noise is part of the twelve nights ritual of preservation from ghosts. The combination with the oracle in the form of a scroll is an unconscious reminder of long-forgotten customs.
Head and Candle in the Nordic World
Let’s go back to the Edda. Immediately after the creation of the dwarfs, of which it is said in verse 10 that they give life to human representations, the gods find two tree trunks on the seashore, Askr, and Embla – that is, ash and elm – still lifeless and without destiny; and yet they must have spoken to them as to something molded, and not as to mere trees; in fact, there is no mention of an elaboration. Odin gives them breath, Hönir intellect, and Lodur – according to Snorri – speech, hearing, and sight. Snorri interprets the different qualities of the wood as a difference between the sexes. This will later turn out to be a mistake, however.
Among the Vandals, we find the pair of brothers Ambri and Assai – who are also ash and elm – and another pair of brothers, Raus and Ralfts – reed and beam – with which we certainly do not want to express a differentiation, but much more simply the depiction of Titius and Caius, of all the retinue, of the mass. In undertaking a military expedition, one could not help but think of the fatal disputes over the gaming tables. So they began to carry the table with them to war, thus trying to drive the impending evil. This information comes to us from the king of the Eruli, Rodulf (Paolu Diaconus, I, 20), and Protadius, the butler of Theodoric II (Fredegar, 27). If death caught them during the game, it was certainly not for lightness: it was instead the last attempt to ward off fatality. For this same reason, it is difficult to understand the word Asa as an idol, which means “beam”. If the poet talks about it so much, it is probably because it is the incarnation of the magical Odin.
As we have seen concerning creation, the reason was given to man precisely by Hönir, who is so little endowed with it. This, of course, can only come as a surprise. But it is incorrect to take everything literally. The same fact can have two different interpretations. Even in the hostage exchange, to which we will return shortly, initially, it was not the god’s wisdom or stupidity that was at stake but his ability to foresee the future. If Hönir, without Mimir, cannot give advice, this only means that he is closely related to Mimir. Mimir is nothing but a “head”. But on the occasion of the creation of mankind, Hönir grants tree trunks – we could also say men – the capacity for knowledge. This is just another version of the Prometheus and Epimetheus motif. Prometheus also creates “men” – pillars, candles, beams – with whose help he can peer into the future. Without them, he would remain forever an Epimetheus, who does not know things until after they have happened.
In the ceremonies in honor of the Lares, both those of the streets and paths, i.e. the “Lares compitales”, and of the domestic ones, slaves and freedmen, rigorously excluded from all other acts of worship, occupy a prominent place. Heimdal (Hynd. 43) is also said to be related to all peoples (“siöt”). The term “people” is fundamental here and perhaps should be understood as servitude; when in the Völuspá the priestess addresses her listeners, she calls them “children of Heimdal, high-ranking and humble”.
The differentiation between high-ranking and humble, between executed bosses, or, in other words, between figure and pillar, is truly unique. In the Völuspá, instead of the more frequent “kenningar”, “head of Heimdal”, or “a lot of Heimdal”, and “sons of Heimdal”, we find the «kenning», “head of Mim”, or “sons of Mim”; from the context, however, we understand that we are referring to the same thing, including the distinction between high-ranking and humble.
Verse 76 reads:
Mim’s children play. Destiny is unleashed by the sound of Gyallar’s clear (ancient) horn. Strong blows Heimdal. The horn is in the air (ie, raised). Odin talks to Mim’s head.
Mim (Mimr, Mimir) is known only in conjunction with the head and source. Even where legend makes him a giant, it is only to explain why he is a head. Once the Vanir war is over, the hostages are exchanged. However, Gi Asi sends the handsome Hönir alongside him Mimir to make up for his limited intellectual abilities. The Vanir make him their chief. But when they realize that he asks Mimir for advice on every decision and that without him, he is wholly left to himself, they cut off Mimir’s head and send it back to the Ases. Odin subjects the head to herbal treatment fortifies it through magical formulas, and uses it for prophecies 31; Odin always kept Mimir’s head with him, and “this brought him news from other worlds”.
There is no doubt about the true meaning of Mimir’s head in relation to the “games of the sons of Mimir.” And the same is true when Mim’s head is said to announce “prophetic sticks,” runic to Odin.
After the end of the world in which the miraculous game tools are spared, Hönir can collect the rune sticks: the same Hönir without Mim cannot make decisions. And since the great fire emerges not from the gods but the miraculous tablets, he who can juggle them must also be preserved. Runes and board games are just two different forms of an essentially identical process, so even the gods who deal with them are the same.
In old Icelandic, “kollr” means “head”, and in particular, “bald head”; but also, each pointed pin is called “koll”. At the same time, “kollr” designates the “human being”, the “person”.
In Saxo Grammaticus, a certain Kollr is won in a duel by Orvendel, who cuts off his leg, causing his death. This duel, ultimately inconsequential, takes place on a paradise island. Kollr belongs to the “long field”, which appears in the myth as the golden age.
Even in the Celtic saga, a head is the guarantor of a paradisiacal situation. Seven warriors, the only survivors of a battle, set out to bury the head of their king Bran, the Blessed, in a place he indicated. Bran the Blessed had predicted that everything would go well for them as long as they were in the company of his head.
At the end of the year, they moved to Gwales in Penro. They found a graceful and regal place on the sea with a large hall. They entered it. Two doors were open, but the third, which faced Kernyw, was closed. They spent the night in abundance and bliss. Of what they had seen and heard and of their sadness, nothing. They stayed like this for 80 years and never had they experienced a sweeter and more serene time. Nor had they gotten any more tired. No one noticed that the others had aged during their stay there. And the company of that head weighed them no more than that of Bran the Blessed in his lifetime. Because of these 80 years, this time was called the “feast of the head”.
When one day they opened the locked door, it was the end of all that wonder, and everything went back to the way it was before. There is no doubt that the heroes are here in the wondrous land of Emain, where in another saga King Bran is led by a fairy who had kidnapped him:
Without worry, no pain, no death, no evil, no defect: this is characteristic of Emain. Extraordinary is such a land of wonder.
It is genuinely extraordinary and fairytale-like. But even for a fairy tale, it is surprising that all the magic is tied to a severed head; in research Bran’s head caused as much embarrassment as Mim’s or Heimdal’s. But the golden age, corresponding on the game board to Paradise, resolves every difficulty.
Nothing is known of the “children of Mim” except that they play. It must be assumed, however, that, as in Rome, they are distinguished from the “heads”, and have a shape similar to the pillars. In the Saturnalia, they became candles. The candles vaguely resemble logs, and this not only makes one think of the Hittites, who call pawns “logs”, but also establishes the connection between the “Phallus” of the Tarchetios hearth with the fatal log of Meleander. Fantasy always revolves around things similar in shape and purpose: therefore, we shouldn’t be surprised if a candle, log, “Phallus”, or roll are interchanged. In the legend of Nornagest, the candle occupies the same place that the log has in that of Meleander, without it being possible to say that the author had even a vague idea of the latter.
In those days, the Volves, called prophetesses, roamed the country, predicting the age of the people. Many men invited them into the house, offering them food and showering them with gifts when they said goodbye. My father did too. They came to him with a great retinue to foretell my fate. Then, when they were to pronounce the prophecy, I lay in the cradle, and two candles were burning near me. So they spoke to me and said I should have great fortune, much greater than my parents and lineage. But the younger Norn felt neglected by the other two, who had not consulted her. She resented it, and in anger, she yelled at the others to stop their rosy predictions: for I want to give him this lot, that he will not live longer than the time in which the candle that burns beside him burns.
The combination of the Volves, the mortal prophetesses, with the three Norns, the divine weavers of destiny, is truly significant. In the ancient world, the prediction and the determination of destiny are identified. Every destiny becomes undeferrable the moment it is expressed. Hence the eternal Hittite fear of evil sentences. The quarreling couple goes to the oracle priest to free themselves from the terrible consequences they have brought upon themselves with their constant curses. Even Cicero is still aware of this belief: “Our ancestors, believing that they (human voices) possessed an evil force, preceded each of their acts by the words of good wishes “may it be good, favorable, happy and fortunate” (quod bonum , faustum, felix, fortunatumque sit)”. But all this terminology – “bonum, faustum, felix, fortunatum” – is precisely what is hoped for in gambling. On the other hand, many other things are missing, which could lead to contentment, such as rest, peace, constancy, duration, and blessing. Even in the card game of “Skat” and in chess, the denunciation cannot be missing, as if precisely this determined the positive or negative outcome.
Identifying the Volves with the Norns is typical not only of the ancient conception but also of the Nordic world. In the Völuspá, which by and large is itself a saying of the völvas, it is said that the game of the sons of Mimir cannot take place unless Heimdal blows the horn of Gjallar. The sound is therefore inserted between the game of the children of Mimir and the consultation of the latter’s head by Odin. But its function is neither to underline the struggle nor to admonish; the sound is a component of the game in that destiny is set in motion.
Snorri says of Mimir: “He is full of wisdom, for he drinks from the well with the horn of Gjallar.” The image of drinking enters only through the name of the locality where Odin’s horn and eye are kept: the source of Mim. But let’s not forget that we are constantly dealing with Nordic “kenningar”, and, therefore, with a strong shift of images; therefore, it would undoubtedly be a mistake to want to give a rational collocation to the source, horn, and eye. As always, the “tertium comparationis” must be sought for individual comparisons. In Völuspá 29, we read that Mim drinks every morning at the eye of Odin. However, if Mim – as we have amply illustrated – is the pawn, Odin’s eye is the die used every morning for prediction on the game board (the source of Mim in which the eye must rest). And yet we do not know how to put Heimdal’s drinking or blowing horn into this context.
The identity between Mim’s children and Heimdal’s brings the latter into play again. Pering and Von der Leyen consider him an elf or a guardian spirit. And since the gods place the board game at the heart of governing the world, Heimdal is the protective elf of the gods, not men. In reality, the fact that the gods need them, at least during the golden age, is surprising: but it is certainly no more so than the presence, among the Etruscans and Romans, of the Penates as “advisers”.
Nor does the elf’s protection compare in any way to Thor’s. He distributes good advice, precisely like the Penates. If he is called “guardian of the gods” and has his place on the Bifrost bridge (the one that leads to the frost giants), probably, this is not simply due to a misinterpretation of the term for “guardian”. After all, this becomes clear if we identify the Bifrost bridge with the one that unites the round and the oval fields. The moist bile was found on the bronze liver of Piacenza; in Anterior Asia, there is the “sea”; therefore, Heimdal could rightfully stand here as a god of protection and luck. No one else was invoked more than he. When Loki, in his outburst, repeats to the god that he fulfills his duty of guardian “with a wet bottom”, he certainly doesn’t express himself elegantly. Still, he does nothing but refer to his position with his back turned to the swirling river and his eye always watchman at the gods’ fortress.
Heimdal’s nickname connects Roman and Hittite conceptions and clearly explains its horn. It is called Hallinskidi, which is “the inclined stick”. And since the Hallinskidi ram is also mentioned, we can recognize the shape of this inclination, which is a curve. In a ram, the inclined stick can only be a horn. Heimdal is therefore called a “curved stick”. If we think that the curved stick constitutes the most important distinctive sign of the Roman augurs and that precisely because of the curved aspect of the “lituus”, his name also indicated the trumpet, and vice versa, we can clearly explain how in the Völuspá the curved stick of Heimdal could have become a horn, without disturbing the sound of the Archangel Michael in the universal judgment.
Snorri also mentions another nickname Heimdal, related to Hallinskidi, almost as a synonym:
He is also called Hallinskidi or Gullintanni (the golden tooth). His teeth were gold.
Whose teeth? Those of Heimdal? Certainly not. Instead, those of Hallinskidi’s curved stick. As always, Snorri knew more than we did. The curved stick had become a toothed sickle, a harp in mythology and legend.
Previous Chapter: Rites and Games in the Ancient World: 4 Heimdal’s Heads;
Next Chapter: Rites and Games in the Ancient World: 6 the Sickle and Vexillum.