In search of North poles: from the World Tree to First Nation totems

There is a lovely A. A. Milne story in which Christopher Robin and Winnie-the-Pooh and their friends go on an expedition in the Hundred Acre Wood to find the North Pole. It ends with Roo falling in a stream and Pooh fishing him out with a long pole, upon which Christopher Robin declares the mission a success.

“Pooh’s found the North Pole,” said Christopher Robin. “Isn’t that lovely?”

Pooh looked modestly down.

“Is that it?” said Eeyore.

“Yes,” said Christopher Robin.

“Is that what we were looking for?”

“Yes,” said Pooh.

“Oh!” said Eeyore. “Well, anyhow⁠ – it didn’t rain,” he said.

I was reminded of this sweet story by a fascinating book I have been reading recently called The Norse Myths That Shape the Way We Think by Carolyne Larrington. She talks about the World Tree of the Vikings – Yggdrasil – which is the same mythological object as the Irminsul (of the Saxons) which looms so large in my first two Fire Born novels The Last Berserker and The Saxon Wolf. Charlemagne (Karolus in my novels) destroyed the Irminsul on the fortified plateau of Eresburg (site of my fictional Fyr Skola, a berserker training centre), chopping the mighty tree down and building a big church over the roots.

The Yggdrasil is the axle of the world, a mighty column that runs through the universe and which holds all the Nine Worlds, the various realms of men, giants, dwarves and gods. At its roots lies a dragon, curled asleep awaiting Ragnarok, the ending of the world. The roots also contain Valhalla, home of dead heroes, three Norns weaving our fates and several wells of wisdom. At the very top of the tree is a huge eagle with a falcon oddly resting between its eyes. And various animals occupy the branches, goats, deer, swans, bees, and swift scurrying squirrels who take messages up and down the trunk, communicating between the worlds.

This idea of a World Tree may have come from further North than either Saxony or the Viking lands. Larrington writes: “Panarctic cultures, including the Sami [who live right across northern Scandinavia] and many subarctic peoples across Siberia, venerated tall poles; these have been connected with the idea of a ‘world axis’ around which the world rotates. A shining nail secures its tip to the heavens, anchoring it to the Pole star.”

There is indeed a band of culture that stretches all the way around the top of the globe, linking the Sami and the Siberians to the First Nations of North America. Shamanic practice is one linking activity – if you watch Siberian shamans on YouTube invoking the spirits, the chanting, the smoke, the trance-inducing activities such as drumming or humming, it is remarkably similar to the way the First Nations enact some religious rites.

Totem poles used by some First Nations to represent their family culture and lineage greatly resemble the huge wooden posts set up and worshipped (in imitation of the World Tree) in pre-Christian Scandinavia, sometimes beautifully carved and painted. Below is the Two Brothers totem pole created in 2011 by the Haida people of western Canada. The Haida have been compared to the Vikings by Canadian anthropologists – they are skilled ocean-going seamen, kept slaves and traditionally lived by raiding.

Some American totem poles are even used to shame particular people – which is reminiscent of the Nithing poles used by the Vikings to curse enemies or accuse someone of cowardice. A pole is erected with a horse’s (or other animal’s) head impaled on the top. Nithing poles are still being used in Iceland, to this day: one was erected in 2020 in protest at the government’s treatment of nurses in the pandemic.

Since we know that the ancestors of these First Nations came across the Bering Strait from Asia many thousands of years ago, so we should not be very surprised to see similarities between First Nations, Siberian cultures and Sami or Viking ones too. I sometimes wonder if, when Lief Ericsson discovered the New World in the 11th century and encountered the indigenous peoples, he knew he was completing a cultural circle. The Vikings coming west from Europe, meeting the ancestors of people very like his own who came eastward from Asia. But given the propensity to violence of both Vikings and some Native American tribes (and perhaps all humans) I suspect they just immediately started fighting each other.

Speaking of Vikings . . .

While we are on the subject, my latest Viking novel King of the North (Fire Born 4) is coming out next week. It’s an epic tale of berserkers and battle – and you do not need to have read the other books in the series, which begins with The Last Berserker (Fire Born 1), to enjoy it. You can order it from Amazon here.

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