Thursday, April 22, 2010

Hagalaz

For people living in the agrarian communities of pre-Christian Europe, hail in spring could mean a long and hungry winter ahead.  They knew their lives were in the fickle hands of fortune. The tender shoots which rose in their fields could be beaten down by a sudden storm and there was nothing they could do save hope for the best and set down stores in anticipation of the worst.

Today we are a bit more insulated from starvation, but not from the vicissitudes of fate. Our projects can go awry despite our best efforts thanks to a sudden turn of ill luck.  Hagalaz, the Hail-Rune, reminds us that all we do can be ripped asunder by a change in the weather. It reminds us to plan ahead, but also reminds us that there are disasters which are past all our planning. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said "into each life a little rain must fall." Hagalaz goes Longfellow one better: it reminds us that sometimes the rain will actually be fist-sized lumps of ice flung from the sky at high speeds. It is not a comforting rune: many runeworkers consider it the worst one of all when it comes up in a reading.

But Hagalaz nevertheless plays an important role in the functioning - indeed, in the creation - of the universe. When the fire of Muspelheim met the ice of Niflheim in the great abyss of Ginnungagap, the hail and storms of eitr (frozen poison) which arose gave birth to Ymir, the primal frost giant who would sire the entire race of jotuns (giants): later Ymir's bones and blood would be used to form the world of men.  Hagalaz may be one of the most baneful of the runes, but it is also one of the holiest.

Hagalaz teaches us humility: it reminds us of our mortality and our limitations. While we cannot avoid the storm, we can make preparations for the hard times to come.  And if we must be conquered by forces beyond our control, we can at least face defeat with honor, courage and dignity. As Hávamál 75-76 reminds us:

Cattle die and kinsmen die,
thyself too soon must die,
but one thing never, I ween, will die, --
fair fame of one who has earned.
Cattle die and kinsmen die,
thyself too soon must die,
but one thing never, I ween, will die, --
the doom on each one dead.
Used in magic, Hagalaz can cast a terrible curse on opponents, crushing their plans and destroying all their work and all they hold dear. It can also be used to destroy any magic sent against you: its icy hail can quench the fires which might burn you and transform the poison sent against you.  Many runesters use Hagalaz as a gateway to Helheim, land of the dead -- another realm associated with implacable change and destruction.  Others use it for journeys to Niflheim, realm of the Frost Giants. 

Today many who have faced tragedy or crisis are encouraged to "get over it," "forget about it" and "quit holding onto the past." (Of course, most would happily let go of their pain if only they could!)  While it is a destructive rune, Hagalaz can also be useful in healing those wounds it has caused. It can force us to face our loss, then give us the purifying grief which the Greeks called catharsis. It allows us to cast our poison into the void and let it bring forth new life.