A Problem with a Human-centric View of the Spirit Worlds

Angel joins the Wild Hunt

Angel joins the Wild Hunt, by Lykeia

To enter into the writing of this essay with the pretense that this is anything other than a rebuttal would be dishonest, so let me be as transparent on that front as I can be. This (and a forthcoming essay) is, indeed, a rebuttal inspired by Erin Lale’s Humans, Please Stop Misusing the Rainbow Bridge, published in
Eternal Haunted Summer’s Autumn 2014
issue. I will not pretend that I did not find her essay thought-provoking or inspiring; clearly I have, and I’ll give credit where it is due. It is not my intention to belittle or antagonize anyone’s experiences with the gods or the conclusions that they’ve drawn from discussions, meditations, omens, signs, or any other such interactions with the gods. (These things are incredibly personal, can be deeply meaningful and fulfilling; it’s not my place nor my desire to belittle these interactions) I am intending to share with my readers why, in my own beliefs, religious practice, relationship with my gods and spirits, the idea that we humans, in holding a certain belief or tradition regarding th the bodies of our beloved animal dead, could cause harm to the bridge that connects Midgard with Asgard, is at best appalling and, at worst, abhorrent.

To begin with, we must first consider: what is Bifrost?

Then spoke Gangleri: ‘What way is there to heaven and earth?’

Then High replied, laughing: ‘That is not an intelligent question. Has no one ever told you that the gods built a bridge to heaven from earth called Bifrost? You must have seen it, maybe it was what you called a rainbow . . . . strong as it is, it will yet break when Muspell’s lads go and ride it . . . ‘

Then spoke Gangleri: ‘It does not seem to me that the gods built the bridge in good faith if it liable to break, considering that they can do as they please.’

Then spoke High: ‘The gods are not deserving of blame for this work. Bifrost is a good bridge but there is nothing in this world that will be secure when Muspell’s sons attack.’ (1)

The above is the first reference to Bifrost from Gylfaginning in Snorri’s Edda; there are more, almost all of which are in Gylfaginning. Other references in ‘the Lore’ to Bifrost mention instead, either bilfrost (2) or call it simply Asbrú (3). Whichever name we call it by, it is the bridge that connects Asgard to the upper reaches of Midgard, where it is guarded by Heimdall, until the Ragnarok arrives with the destructive sons of Muspell, whence the bridge shall fall. Going on ‘the Lore’ (which I acknowledge as nothing more than UPG with the weight of tradition behind it), Bifrost (or Bilfrost, or Asbrú) is not to be confused with Gjallarbrú, the bridge on which the dead travel to the otherworlds. Bifrost, as we read about in the Lore, is a thoroughfare of the gods – not of mortal kind.

Now – I’m going to leave aside the broader problems I have with using Snorri as a primary source without keeping in mind that he was writing post-conversion, and that he was a gothi (and not a heathen one). Neither will I touch upon how authentic to our pre-Christian ancestors I believe the concept of the Ragnarok it comes down to us is (I don’t); I haven’t the time to dig up my notes on these particular subjects, and I’m not all that interested in convincing people of my view on these. I’m not even really interested in quibbling over the actual name of the bridge, though I very well may in the next essay to come. What I want to address here is: the problem of, as I see it, the inherent hubris when we decide that just because we humans are human-centric in our understanding of the worlds that the worlds are, in fact, centered around us.

Many people, in many faiths over the span of many millennia, have viewed human form as the pinnacle of animal existence. While dominion over the earth is a belief that is built in to Christianity, Christians far from the first to have such an idea (and the idea itself need not necessarily lead to abuse and destruction; there are many Christians who espouse the idea of sacred stewardship. Frankly, I wish there were more people like them.) So, this is hardly a new idea, and really, we’d be hard pressed to blame them. Most people see things from their point of view; why wouldn’t that be true as as a collective, as well? But, one of the perks of being as sentient as we allegedly are is, we can choose to move beyond such a limited scope of thinking. Or, at the least, we can choose to be aware that we are coming at things from a certain bias. It makes good, natural sense for humans to be human-centric – to think like a human, to experience the gods like a human, to make sense of the world around us in a way that a human can. I am in no way saying that this is wrong, or even small-minded. I think it’s natural, and I think that it can be useful.

I don’t believe it is the only lens through with to view the worlds, and frankly, whenever I see a pagan (someone I rightly or wrongly assume would have a worldview closer to my own) speaking as though it is the default lens through which to view the worlds, I’m always caught a bit off-guard. I’m reminded that, oh, right, there are even those among ‘my kind’ that don’t see things the way I do.

Caveats I need to include before we go further: I am extremely tribal in my understanding of how familial and societal groups work. I also do not see humans as having any inherent worth that is better or worse than other animal groups. We are adaptable, we are long-lived, we reproduce quickly, and the biggest natural predator we have to worry about is our fellow humans. I do not believe our success in covering this planet is because the gods have blessed us above all other creatures. I believe our so-called success is due to the four points mentioned above. Do the gods bless us? Yes. Do they love us, or support us, or have any number of beneficial feelings toward us, and do they gain something from forging relationships with us? I’m devoted to Poseidon and Odin, what do you think I believe? When I speak of my immediate tribe, I speak of: one fellow human, four presently incarnate felines, one presently incarnate canine, a variety of disincarnate felines and canines who come and go depending on the time of year and their inclination, two Gods, our house wight, and a smattering of other never-incarnate spirits. That is my immediate family, my hearth-tribe, my kindred. You need to understand – when we’re playing the “who would you save in a burning fire, this random child or other type of adult person, or your dog,” game, I mean it when I tell you, my dog is coming out of that building before your brother whom I’ve never met. I am tribal. If the question is between a human I don’t know and another animal I don’t know, there’s some wiggle room, but if it’s between my family and not-my-family, it is my family first, and I don’t understand the mindset of anyone who tells you differently. For me, species does not even enter into the equation. (Any longer. Once upon a time, it would have, and the humans would have had automatic points against them, just for being human. Poseidon has gotten me to the point I’m at now, which helps me be kinder and more compassionate.) Family. Not Family. This particular view has gotten me labeled ‘cold’ and ‘weird’ in the past – and worse – and truth be told, I understand that this view is not the norm.

What I don’t understand is why humans think that their view is the norm, is the default set up of the universe, if the worlds are made up of more than just mankind. If the gods are real beings, if the land spirits and the water wights are real beings, if the various spirits that make up the various worlds – and in heathenry we have a very populated, very varied cosmology – why are the worlds built according to our specs? I don’t mean to suggest a “if you believe the gods are really real, how can you believe/think ______?” challenge here. This isn’t a “you don’t believe the way I do and thus you are obviously wrong” accusation. This is me expressing bafflement without value-judgment. I literally do not understand, if these are all real and all not human, then how does this human centered ordering of the worlds and how they work make sense? This is me saying Why are our actions the ones that have the most weight? Why is it what we believe that effect the whole of everything, regardless of what other beings may be experiencing? Why, by all that is holy, would a prayer that is written to help people grieve for their beloved pets – in a world that by and large ignores death even as it’s happening and has a pathetically unhealthy approach to the grieving process for our fellow humans, never mind the family cat – have anything at all to do with the structural integrity of a cosmic bridge that was built to sustain the heavy foot traffic of the gods?

For those who are not familiar with the Rainbow Bridge (not to be confused with Bifrost) : Just this side of heaven is a place called the Rainbow Bridge. When an animal dies that has been especially close to someone here, that pet goes to the Rainbow Bridge. There are meadows and hills for all our special friends so they can run and play together. There is plenty of food, water, and sunshine, and our friends are warm and comfortable. All the animals who have been ill and old are restored to health and vigor. Those who were hurt or maimed are made whole and strong again, just as we remember them in our dreams of days and times gone by. The animals are happy and content, except for one small thing: they each miss someone very special to them, who had to be left behind . . . It goes on in that vein (you can read it in full here) and the end sentiment is that, when their special person crosses over, they are reunited.

The conflation of Bifrost with the Rainbow Bridge bothers me, for a number of reasons, and I’ll get into some of them a bit more a forthcoming essay (because yes, it bothers me that much – not in that I’m angry or mad, but rather in that the idea is unsettling and disturbing, and one I want to explore further, to better understand why it’s so unsettling and disturbing). I could use this space to point out that, if only the animals with “special connections” are waiting on that rainbow bridge, and that they are only waiting until their special connection dies to then move on with them, then the idea of Bifrost being littered with the dead bodies of cats and dogs does not mesh with the idea behind this other, different Rainbow Bridge. I could talk a bit about how, if visualization matters, then the fact that the vast majority (if not all) of the people visualizing their beloved pets waiting for them upon a rainbow have no idea and no intent in visualizing Bifrost, it does not follow that Bifrost is at such a risk. It’s very likely that I will talk about that more in a forthcoming post regarding the shit-tastic way our culture deals with death, dying, and grieving, and why I don’t believe Bifrost can be threatened by this other, different Rainbow Bridge, but fixating on these two pieces of writing and using them to refute each other really isn’t my aim here.

What is my aim here? My aim here is, in the end, to challenge our assumptions. The assumption I’m focusing on right now is the assumption that the afterlife of our animal companions is in any way, shape, or form, decided upon by us. I hold that all animals have spirits. It has been my experience, with the animals I’ve shared my life with, with animals I’ve held while they’ve died, with animals I’ve interacted with after they’ve crossed over (in some cases an animal I’ve shared all stages with; in other cases animals I’ve shared one or two stages with) animals are individuals. They are people. They are love and fear and pain and mortality embodied, and then disembodied, and they experience a wide range of emotions and ways of reacting to these situations. In my experience, they are not better or worse at any of these things than we are. In my experience, humans do not hold a monopoly on spiritual existence, and my belief that this or that companion of mine may do this or that thing after they’ve left their bodies behind does not mean it will happen. So, the idea that millions of people imagining their cats or dogs residing on this rainbow bridge while waiting for their humans to come join them and continue on their way to the otherworlds does not necessarily make it true. I might try telling Angel – the first dog I shared my life with, whose death was horrible and traumatic and exactly the way he wanted it to be (the stubborn ass), who has remained in my life and in my family since he left his body – that he’s gotta go wait for me at some other location until it’s time to for me to fetch him again, but he’s not going to listen any better than he did while he was alive (which was only when he wanted to. I still maintain he was half cat.) The rainbow bridge is not something I personally relate to, but then, in my understanding of things, my beloved companions have a ‘go directly to Bestla’s lap’ pass, so they don’t need to mill about waiting for me.

Now, anyone can point to these experiences and say, “But, Jo, that may be nothing more than a story you tell yourself to make sense of what you’ve experienced, to give your emotions and your grief some structure that you can live with,” and I’ll be the first to agree with you. Yup. It could be. Yes, obviously, I believe that my experiences with my beloved non-human dead being welcomed by the other not-incarnate members of my immediate family is real. We as pagans with (I hope!) a healthy respect and approach to death and dying, with an understanding that the otherworlds and their inhabitants are real, have the benefit denied to those who do not exist in a world where communication between the realms is encouraged or believed to be possible. It is one thing to say, ‘my experiences are framed in a way through which I can best understand them.’. It’s something else entirely to say, ‘The ordering of the spirit world is dependent upon my beliefs! My animals go where I decide they go, and they have no will of their own!’

I don’t believe for one minute that anyone is thinking things out to that much detail, that people are necessarily consciously deciding that is how the spirit world works. But I don’t know how else to interpret the idea that, because millions of people hold in their head an idea that gives them comfort in their grieving process, that Bifrost (which may not even be “Bifrost”) is becoming structurally unsound. That the weight of billions of ‘bodies’ of dead cats and dogs are as troubling to this great divine marvel as the destructive force of Muspell’s sons, who may or may not come. . . .

I find myself considering, all over again, what other people mean when they talk about spirits, and the spirit world, of these very non-human things being real . . . but being real, apparently, in a very human-centered way. Because I don’t know if it means to them what it means to me. I don’t think my experiences are really all that unusual, and yet . . . this comes up, and I’m taken aback. I understand that we are going to be human-centered in our understanding, by and large – what I don’t understand is why the assumption is that all of creation is set up that way.

edited to add: so much for credit where it’s due. Sorry Lykeia! Angel Joins the Wild Hunt was a commissioned painting, painted by the immensely talented artist Lykeia. If you haven’t checked out her work yet, please do so! You can see samples on FaceBook at Lykeia Botanica

Notes:
1 14, Gylfaginning, Snorri Sturluson
2 44, Grimnismal; 15 Fafnismal, Poetic Edda, Larrington
3 15, Gylfaginning, Sturluson

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7 thoughts on “A Problem with a Human-centric View of the Spirit Worlds

  1. Reblogged this on Wytch of the North and commented:
    A thought-provoking essay from Jo (the first of two) in response to Erin Lale’s article “Humans, Please Stop Abusing the Rainbow Bridge,” published in the latest edition of Eternal Haunted Summer. What offends me most about Lale’s essay, personally, is the idea that even IF our pets really were going to Bifrost itself at their death, they would 1) stay there, instead of moving on to other places (as specified in the “Rainbow Bridge” motif she is complaining about) and, most of all, 2) that they would be lying there STILL DEAD on Bifrost. The idea that this could happen, or would be allowed to happen, just because humans envisioned it, is ridiculous, but setting that aside for a moment, the imagery of Bifrost littered with dead animals is not only blasphemous (to me personally), but also extremely triggery. (Jo will be dealing with this idea more in depth in her follow-up post.) The “Rainbow Bridge” motif (something vets send out on sympathy cards to clients who have lost their pets) is a simple, comforting idea that has nothing at all to do with Bifrost (which is for the use of the gods alone, not the dead–as Jo points out). There are so few tools available to help people deal with this particular type of grief (which is not at all taken seriously in our society); why try to take this one away? And I’ll stop ranting now, because Jo has covered all of this and more in her post–go read it!

  2. “If the question is between a human I don’t know and another animal I don’t know, there’s some wiggle room, but if it’s between my family and not-my-family, it is my family first, and I don’t understand the mindset of anyone who tells you differently. For me, species does not even enter into the equation.”

    I am so right there on the same page with you. I honestly do not understand why this is the minority viewpoint and this is considered “cold” and “weird”.

    I also don’t understand the conflation of Bifrost and the Rainbow Bridge. The idea that there can be only one bridge made of a rainbow ever on the astral plane and it’s Bifrost is something that really bothers me (for the same reason that I cringe when, even as a Heathen myself, I hear or read the phrase “the Nine Worlds”, like those are the only worlds that exist and the only ones known about to the Norse gods, you and Beth know as well as I do that the Norse gods have alliances and deals with other entities and other pantheons [I actually get into this in my upcoming book where I introduce a world outside of the standard Nine that borders a few of the worlds known to Norse cosmology]). And dictating to people who are grieving that they shouldn’t “ruin” the Rainbow Bridge also bothers me. Losing a pet is traumatic. Let people use what imagery comforts them ffs.

    Anyway *non-ironic slow clap* Thank you so much for addressing this.

  3. The original essay comes off like “It’s YOUR fault that Ragnarok is coming, because you visualized your beloved animal friend on the Rainbow Bridge.” Which, to me, sounds like blaming the bereaved for finding comfort in a story designed to comfort the bereaved. I don’t think the original writer had thought about Bifrost, and it seems strange to me to conflate the two.

    My husband and I were talking about the Rainbow Bridge imagery versus the belief we felt that, when our beloved cat died, he would become a local guardian spirit. In Rainbow Bridge, *they* go *there* (ie a paradisical afterlife) to be rejoined with their humans at our own deaths. We felt that Kitty was very much *here*, though not visible, patrolling his beat and taking care of his territory as he had always done. I called him “our tutelary spirit” after he died.

    I would not presume to know where or what form his consciousness is, but I hope he is happy.

  4. Pingback: On Grief, Grieving, and why I don’t think Bifrost and the Rainbow Bridge are the same. | Strip Me Back To The Bone

  5. Reblogged this on Coffee at Midnight Designs and commented:
    Putting my thoughts on this subject into words is very difficult; one of the reasons it took me so long to share this piece by Jo was that I was trying to get my thoughts in order. While yes, I do believe that human thoughts and feelings have an impact on the Universe, I find that we (as humans) are most able to affect the things most closely aligned with us. Our grief, sorrow, joy, ambition, and frustrations are not likely to, for instance, change the course of a stream in Alfheim or make a ripple in the deepest pools of Niflheim. A rockslide in Jotunheim is probably not directly related to the rise and fall of human achievements and connecting the two (without additional evidence) is probably giving us too much credit.

    Bifrost is not ours. It is not ours to harm or even to heal. It is not the only path between the worlds (else why would Thor have His chariot?) and even if it were, would the echoes of collective human grief so much as reach its foundations? What makes our grief so potent that it has such an impact?

    The story of the Rainbow Bridge came about, I believe, because we have no convenient way of talking about the grief we feel for losing the animals we love. English lacks even the vocabulary that might allow us to name what these relationships are. I always come up empty when I try to talk about what I feel for the animals in my life. I call them family, I call them friends, but these words are not ideal or even all that accurate. They are a borrowed vocabulary pressed into service because nothing else is available.

    The Rainbow Bridge is a symbol that provides a context for grief and a ritual of comfort in a culture that lacks meaningful ways to express love and sorrow for our non-human animal kin. Bifrost is a part of universal architecture. One is a product of human imagination created to meet our distinctive need to mourn, remember, and feel comforted. The other belongs to a highly specific cosmology and is primarily relevant to the Powers most closely aligned with that cosmology. I love and respect the Norse Powers and yes, I care about the integrity and well-being of the Nine Worlds and all that’s in them. However, the Worlds do not resound to my frustrations, triumphs, or even griefs. If they did, why is the sacred firmaments not trembling from the endless emotional pain of animals being slaughtered? Why have the holy halls not shuddered from the 7 billion suffering humans? If the agony radiating from this single World has not managed to upset the fundamental function of the sacred universe, I cannot be concerned with the impact of a single modern story of comfort. If I was, my priorities would be misplaced.

  6. Pingback: A Problem with a Human-centric View of the Spirit Worlds – Reblogging | Exploring Devotional Practice in Polytheism

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