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Ancestral Being, Part Four


Siegfried & Mime, Arthur Rackham, 1911

2,325 words

Part 4 of 4 (Part 1 here [2]; Part 2 here [3]; Part 3 here [4])

7. Concluding Reflections

I turn now to some thoughts on how the foregoing treatment of the influence of the past on the present ought to affect our own present, when we finish this essay and return to the real world.

It is a well-known fact that our ancestors acted with awareness of membership in the clan: trying to be worthy of their own ancestors, and not to disgrace them. But they also tried to surpass them.And in doing so they strove to be known as individuals – not just as “members of the clan.” They wanted their names to be remembered for all time, and their deeds to be celebrated. This suggests a fundamental tension – a real tension, not just a “philosophical problem.” The tension is between acting as a member of the clan – acting as a continuation of clannic being – and at the same time acting so as to individuate oneself, to distinguish oneself from the clan.

It is this striving for individuality that really sets us apart from other peoples.[1] [5] Others are content to efface their individuality and to merely be continuations of clan or caste. Insofar as they are exemplary, they are exemplary members of caste: perfect conformists to a pre-ordained standard. One sees this pattern in India and in the Far East, in China, and in Japan. The Japanese culture of the samurai has much in it to admire, but ultimately the exemplary samurai was one who effaced himself as a perfect servant of his lord. There are no “sagas” of samurai. One finds traces in the East of something like a saga literature, of something celebrating individual achievement and heroism, exactly where one would expect to find it: in the oldest Aryan epics and heroic literature. But it is still nothing like what one finds in Europe, where there are innumerable examples of this celebration of the individual in the traditions of both the North and South. It is present in Greek epic poetry, mythology, and tragedy. However, one finds many more examples in Northern Europe, especially in the saga literature of the Norse.

It is obvious that, on one level, when individual members of a clan strive to distinguish themselves, this may strengthen the clan, making it more powerful, more secure, and more likely to continue. Clans gain power and security through the actions of individuals, when those actions lead to success. And women are attracted to men who strive to distinguish themselves. But this striving cannot be reduced simply to a strategy for advancing one’s clan, let alone for passing along one’s genes. First, and most obviously, many of the ways in which men have sought to distinguish themselves are suicidally dangerous. In the past, men have been willing to die over affairs of honor that seem trivial to us today. They chose short and glorious lives over long lives and many children. They were also willing to risk ostracism – even by their own family – when heroism demanded it.

Second, we cannot dismiss the self-understanding of our heroic ancestors. When they considered what they were doing and why they were doing it, they thought in terms of the story that would be told about their deeds – how their deeds would add to the hoard of the past, and make for a great tale. The theory that, despite this, they were really acting to advance their reproductive fitness and that of their relatives is a just-so story advanced by flat-souled moderns who cannot conceive of any motives beyond survival, security, and continuance. (See the aforementioned essay “The Stones Cry Out [6]” for a critique of such evolutionary “explanations.”)

To think in terms of the story that may be told about our deeds is the same thing as thinking about the saga – to imagine that our lives will be the material for a saga. “Saga” is an Old Norse noun related to the verb segja, “to say.” The saga is literally “what is said.” There is a great similarity here to Greek logos, which also literally means “that which is said” and can be translated as “story” or “account.” It is related to the verb legein, which means “to say” (or “to gather,” “to count,” or “to reckon”). With logos, we have to distinguish between what is said and the saying, for logos can have the sense of “order, reason, or argument,” which is then said (expressed), and can be said in multiple ways. In Heraclitus we find the suggestion of a logos, a speech, which must conform to an objective logos, or order.

In the case of “saga,” what is said is also distinct from the saying. When we speak of the saga of some particular person (the saga of Sigurðr, for example), we could mean either a specific text or we can mean a story that can be expressed in different texts, or different sayings. This distinction is not unlike that between words and meanings, where the same meaning can be expressed by different words (cat/Katze/chat/pisica/kissa, etc.), both written and spoken. We can speak, therefore, of the life of an individual as a saga that unfolds over time – regardless of whether that life ever becomes the subject of a written or spoken saga. And we can situate that life within a larger saga that is the unfolding of the being of the clan itself. So that, in other words, “saga” can become another word for the clannic being that unfolds over time, as each individual in the clan comes into existence and adds something to the being of the clan. We are, each of us, living in a saga: continuing the story of the clan, acting from what has been loaded into the past, and acting anew, making our own additions to the hoard of the past.

However, where saga means a written or spoken account or story, we must note the obvious: that only the stories of certain individuals or clans will be worthy of becoming immortalized as sagas composed by poets. It can be said with some confidence that our ancestors – the best of them – sought to live lives that would become immortalized in sagas. And some of them sought to “complete” the saga-being of the clan by producing its crowning achievement. Each individual acts a part in his clan saga. Each of us has no choice but to receive the past. The only choice comes in how we respond to it. We can either be a pawn, merely manipulated by what has gone before, or we can respond heroically.

Flowers writes:

To the individual who might be unconscious of his genealogical heritage, and who has not actualized the power potentially residing in his [kynfylgja], the forces of “fate” seem to compel certain actions and situations. Therefore, the fylgja is said to have a will of its own. However, once the individual becomes conscious of the past, and integrates himself into the power . . . of his [kynfylgja] through deeds of honor or through acquisition of numinous knowledge, or through particular rites of transformation, or a combination of any of these elements, then it becomes somewhat more evident that the “being” which seems to be other than himself is actually the sum total of all that he is, and all that he has done.[2] [7]

In other words, our kynfylgja is our being; it is what we are. My clannic being is my own being. However, as Flowers makes clear, unless a man has owned this being, it may appear as something alien, or even as an intolerable burden.[3] [8] The hero is one who responds to what fate has marked out: meeting it honorably or in some sense using it as a vehicle for surpassing what has gone before, including what the ancestors have done. It is only the man who responds heroically, in full consciousness of the fact that his life is a story, who is worthy of having his story sung, or written down.

In my essay “The Fourfold [9]” I wrote the following:

In concepts, in language, we create a new world that expresses the Being of the world around us, as well as the world within us. It is as if we are the beings who want to capture and preserve all that is through our conceptual capacity – to snatch it out of the fleeting moment and away from change and decay, and preserve it in the amber of our words. Heidegger quotes Rainer Maria Rilke: “We are the bees of the invisible. We ceaselessly gather the honey of the visible, to store it up in the great golden beehive of the Invisible.”[4] [10]

The sagas composed by our Northern ancestors are probably the finest testament to this human tendency. They have their parallels in other traditions, as I said earlier, but here we find the highest expression of the human desire to pluck the life of the individual out of the passage of fleeting time and to preserve it. It is this will to create the eternal that probably constitutes the central feature of humanity – the finest flowering of which is to be found in the West. As Bauschatz notes, the Germanic tradition emphasizes the lack of permanence in this universe: even the gods and the world tree Yggdrasil will pass away. Everything is going to end. This is an inherently tragic view of life,[5] [11] and it makes the Germanic attempt to preserve the past in story – which is really the attempt to create the eternal – all the more poignant.

While I live, I am never complete. My life cannot be truly defined or understood, as it is still unfolding. Any new event or action has the potential to completely overturn whatever might be my (or someone else’s) interpretation of what my life is “about.” Thus, my life is only truly knowable when it is over. But, of course, this means it is not I who will do the final knowing or interpreting. It will be done by others. Thus, what I am is partially to be defined by what others take me to be, or to have been. I live toward a future when my life will be a complete object and will be (I hope) celebrated. I live – or can live – in conscious awareness that what I am doing is continually adding layers to a story that will be told. I can made decisions on this basis, carrying always a conception of what is “worthy of me,” in the sense of what is in keeping with the character I wish to create. I can take action consciously with the idea in mind of adding to the store of what I have done to insure that I will be known, and known for the right things.

How different is the life of modern man, who has no knowledge of the past and is therefore controlled by it (while imagining he has transcended it). He lives for “the moment,” not for the eternal. Rather than seeking to be something, he wants above all not to be “pinned down” or “limited.” Thus, he seeks to be nothing. And he gets his wish, for instead of living a life always in awareness of death, and shaping himself accordingly, he fears death most of all and strives to live a life that is long and safe – and thus without distinction. He is replaceable, and he is forgotten. Despite being equipped with technology beyond the dreams of the science fiction of yesteryear, he is essentially reduced to a subhuman level of existence that alternates between the animal and the vegetative.

By contrast, the man who aspires to greatness at all times lives toward death, as the consummating moment of life itself. I will close with some final words from Paul Bauschatz:

For all men, clearly, the most significant moment of existence comes at the instant of death, the point at which man joins existence beyond this world. The wise man prepares himself for this instant when his individual life and the power of wyrd will be in closest conjunction; he attempts to place his life most directly in the main current of the flow of wyrd. He must act in accordance with prescribed codes of conduct received from the past; by so doing, he will protect his reputation and insure himself good fame. His actions will be governed by what he knows; therefore the wise man seeks to discover all he can. The force of past events, which surges so meaningfully into present life, offers him some information about the nature of wyrd itself, but man, as he lives within the realm of the tree, fails in knowing the past fully. As he values himself, however, he will strive to learn. He will attempt to associate himself directly with all he knows to be good and wise. By so doing, he will place himself in the most auspicious light so that he will die well; the moment of death is the moment of greatest significance in all of ordinary life.[6] [12]



[1] [13] See Ricardo Duchesne, The Uniqueness of Western Civilization (Leiden-Boston: Brill, 2011). And see my review, anthologized in North American New Right 2 [14], ed. Greg Johnson (San Francisco: Counter-Currents Publishing, 2018).

[2] [15] Stephen E. Flowers, Sigurðr: Rebirth and the Rites of Transformation (Smithfield, Tx.: Rûna-Raven, 2011), p. 56.

[3] [16] My essay “Are We Free? [17]” argues that it is the sum total of the factors that “determine” us that makes us who we are, and that only by “willing our determination” can we be truly free. The essay is included in What is a Rune? and Other Essays [18]ed. Greg Johnson (San Francisco: Counter-Currents Publishing, 2015).

[4] [19] Italics in original. In Rilke’s original text, the first sentence in the quote is in his native German. The second sentence is in French. “The Fourfold” appears in What is a Rune?

[5] [20] Paul Bauschatz, The Well and the Tree (Amherst, Ma.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1982), p. xi.

[6] [21] Bauschatz, ibid., pp. 28-29.