Set forth and declared, for whom that sword was fashioned first,
That best of things of iron with wire-wrapped hilt and snake-like ornament.
This has been on my mind of late because I’ve been chewing my way through Lila, by Robert M. Pirsig. I’d written a post inspired by his book, Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. In Lila, Pirsig unveils a grand philosophical outlook revolving around the ideas of value, quality and meaning. I am interested here from the perspective that objects can possess a value deeper than just financial.
It wasn’t only the gods who possessed objects of power: Odin with his ring, Draupnir, and his spear, Gungnir, or Thor’s mighty Mjolnir, Freyja’s gold jewellery, Brísingamen — just as these supernatural powers enacted their roles in the higher realms, affairs were mirrored in the world of humans. The most famous objects were given names, they had pedigrees, history and power. Weapons were blessed with magical qualities and even personalities. Such items made powerful gifts, cementing relations between communities.
Smiths put a vast amount of skill, time and energy into the objects they created, they wielded uncanny levels of expertise and these skills linked them and their creations with the otherworld in lore. Their craft was regarded as magical and their artistry was more than purely decorative. There are examples in literature, such as Beowulf, of swords possessing great renown. The medieval scribe, Saxo Grammaticus, tells us of a mighty blade called Skrep, which was hoarded away by the Danes and only taken up in times of great peril.
It wasn’t only weapons that held such honours. Ceremonial accoutrements and jewellery were amongst the mix of special items. Some of these items might be inscribed with symbols, sigils, animal ornamentation, runes, etc — all part of the aspect of the item’s history and its power.
|Bronze disc from Venetia region, Italy.|
Within shamanic practice, many cultures use objects that are ‘possessed’ of spirits. For example, the Barama Carib shaman counts certain pebbles amongst his spirit helpers: these are the ancestral spirits of past shamans. Other tribes use rock crystals or carved totems. Whatever the medium, the Shaman draws power from them.
In all these examples the objects are not just lifeless material, they are alive and carry great prestige. They possess a value beyond the monetary. In our materialist society, value is set at a financial level. Yet, as Mr Pirsig points out, value is not an empirical quality. This type of Value and Quality don’t exist, you can’t hold them in your hand, you can’t measure them, even at a quantum level, yet they exist and we acknowledge them. This is an important point. The materialist quandary has always been that abstract concepts exist, and yet from the reductionist viewpoint, concepts shouldn’t exist at all, or should be written off (like philosophy).