Concerning Mægen

In the following article we will explore the concept of mægen, comparing it to similar, metaphysical concepts in order to glean a more rounded understanding of how it might be understood by modern practitioners of Fyrnsidu.


MÆGEN
 (neuter noun)
MAIN, might, strength, force, power, vigour, efficacy, virtue, faculty, ability[1]


Within the Old English corpus, mægen is used to convey both
physical and metaphysical force. Modern scholars have typically employed ‘luck’ as a gloss for mægen when attempting to find suitable modern vernacular, and in so doing, reduced mægen’s definition to that of a fortuitous happenstance.

In his seminal work, We Are Our deeds, Eric Wōdening digs deeply into mægen as a metaphysical concept and explains it thusly:

“At the very least we know all living things possess it, from bugs to men to gods (the asmegin, which Þunor has in abundance). Mægen could be transferred from person to person; hence we see kings lending their men spēd (another word for mægen) before they went on any important venture. A man could also lose mægen through various circumstances. Finally, mægen could be manipulated through the various metaphysical arts, such as galdor and seiðr.”[2]

Drawing on this view of mægen as a pervasive, metaphysical force, we are now able to extract from comparable concepts such as Iroquois orenda, Polynesian mana, and Chinese qi, to explicate mægen as an important facet of the Anglo-Saxon religion.

Orenda

In Iroquoian and Huron religions, orenda  is the spiritual force inherent in all things. It pervades both the animate and inanimate, and all activities in nature were seen as the  “ceaseless struggle of one orenda against another, uttered and directed by the beings or bodies of his environment.”[3] Orenda is the power behind divination and prophecy, as well as blessings and curses. A seer or shaman with a wealth of inherent orenda was more adept at casting spells and warding against malefic entities. Likewise, a hunter with strong orenda was able to overcome his prey if the creature in question’s orenda was lesser.  Natural phenomena also possessed orenda, as storms were said to be the consequence of orenda exerting itself. Otgon is the term applied to orenda when it is used with malicious, malign intent.

“That life is a property of everybody whatsoever — inclusive of the rocks, the waters, the tides, the plants and the trees, the animals and man, the wind and the storms, the clouds and the thunders and the lightnings, the swift meteors, the benign light of day, the sinister night, the sun and the moon, the bright stars, the earth and the mountains thereof — is a postulate fundamental to the cosmologic philosophy of savage man ; and, as a concomitant with this, primeval man made the further assumption that in every body of his self-centered cosmos inheres immanently a mystic potence of diverse efficiency and purpose, by the exercise of which the body puts its will into effect, and which sometimes acts independently, and even adversely, to the well-being of its director or possessor.” [4]

Mana

It should be noted, because mana is attached to a variety of different peoples with differing theological beliefs, it is beyond the scope of this article to touch on each and every variation individually. For simplicity’s sake, we will give a blanket overview, based on mana’s shared attributes among Polynesian peoples.

In Austronesian languages, mana is defined as ‘power, prestige or effectiveness’, and is the spiritual force which exists in the universe. Like orenda, mana is not limited to persons, as inanimate objects, governing bodies and places can also possess mana.  For instance, the Hawaiian island of Molokaʻi is said to possess an abundance of mana, and many battles were fought between tribes in an attempt to obtain it.

Mana can also be received through deed and action[5], as well as through warfare, birth and sex. Joan Metge describes one’s mana as a “lake filled by several streams”, in which each stream is representative of a different means of obtaining more mana.[6]

“Mana was the practical force of the kawai tipuna at work in everyday matters. In the Maori world virtually every activity, ceremonial or otherwise has a link with the maintenance and enhancement of mana.”[7]

In Melanesian culture, mana can be gifted within inanimate objects which are imbued with mana through magical means.  If a successful hunter gives an amulet as a gift, the recipient is believed to receive a portion of their luck and vigour[8]. In this way we can identify similarities between Melanesian exchanges and underlying reasons behind the Germanic gift-cycle.

Qi

In traditional Chinese culture, qi is the active life-force or flow of energy that permeates all things and transforms the cosmos into a cohesive, functioning mechanism. Through careful practice and advanced learning, one could succeed in extending their qi, projecting it from the body.

The Chinese philosopher, Mo Di likened qi to a vapour, which could be emitted from the body and visibly manifested in clouds. He also suggested that a person’s qi needed protecting from the elements and could be maintained through adequate nutrition. The Confucian school produced a number of philosophers who tackled the concept of qi. Most notable among them was Mencius, who suggested exercise of moral capacities could enhance qi, while external forces could damage or diminish qi.[9]

Yuan qi is the vital principle inherited at birth, according to Chinese medicine. The yuan qi one is born with is considered finite and exhaustible. According to Manfred Porkert, this vital essence can be conserved, but will ultimately be exhausted at the culmination of a life.[10] In this we can draw a comparison between qi and mægen, as well as qi and the Anglo-Saxon concept of orlǣg.

“Heaven (seen here as the ultimate source of all being) falls (duo , i.e., descends into proto-immanence) as the formless. Fleeting, fluttering, penetrating, amorphous it is, and so it is called the Supreme Luminary. The dao begins in the Void Brightening. The Void Brightening produces the universe (yu-zhou). The universe produces qi.”[11]

Conclusion: Understanding Mægen

Although this does not represent an exhaustive list of like-concepts, it certainly serves to provide a foundational understanding of mægen through comparative study. Core attributes that we see in qi or mana, we also see in Hindu prana and the Stoic conception of pneuma, which is suggestive of a base universality in terms of a pervasive metaphysical force.

In Fyrnsidu, this metaphysical force manifests as a form of a “might” or “power”, which can be increased through renown and deed, similar to the Maori concept of mana. Mægen can also be increased through the exchange of gifts, through offering (do ut des) to the holy powers and through association with individuals or groups who possess mægen in abundance. As in yuan qi, mægen can be inherited. Ones mægen at birth is determined by the collective mægen of the family one is born into. Likewise, naming an infant after a lord or warrior whose mægen was plentiful may also impart some of that mægen, with the name becoming a gift unto itself.  

Mægen can be lost through misdeeds, or direct association with those who commit them. Poor rapport with the Gods, or offerings that are not well-received by them can result in loss of mægen as well. A man or a tribe who is rich in mægen will find success, good fortune and renown, while the opposite can be said for those lacking in sufficient mægen.

Bearing this in mind, we can view mægen as the exerting force underlying all action within Fyrnsidu. Offerings are made to the Gods, the Gods return blessings in the form of mægen, the mægen produces fortuitous outcome and we repeat this process for further blessings. Such is the gifting-cycle.


[1] Bosworth, Joseph. “An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary Online.” MÆGEN. Ed. Thomas Northcote Toller and Others. Comp. Sean Christ and Ondřej Tichý. Faculty of Arts, Charles University in Prague, 23 Feb. 2012. Web. 8 Apr. 2017.
[2] Wōdening, Eric. “We Are Our Deeds: The Elder Heathenry, Its Ethic and Thew.” White Marsh Press, Baltimore Mariland. Second Edition 2011.
[3] Hewitt, J. N. B. (1902). “Orenda and a Definition of Religion”.40 AMERICAN ANTHROPOLOGIST [n. s., 4, 1902
[4]Hewitt, J. N. B. (1902). “Orenda and a Definition of Religion”. American Anthropologist.
[5] http://www.maori.org.nz/tikanga/default.php?pid=sp98&parent=95
[6] Joan Metge In and Out of Touch: Whakama in a Cross Cultural Context (Victoria University Press, Wellington, 1986) 68 [In and Out of Touch]
[7]https://web.archive.org/web/20100522222543/http://www.justice.govt.nz/publications/global-publications/h/he-hinatore-ki-te-ao-maori-a-glimpse-into-the-maori-world/part-1-traditional-maori-concepts/mana-and-tapu#171
[8] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mana#In_general_usage
[9] Lau, D. C. (2003). Mencius (Revised ed.). Hong Kong: Chinese University Press.
[10] Porkert, The Theoretical Foundations of Chinese Medicine MIT Press (1974)
[11] Huai-nan-zi, 3:1a/19

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