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Skadi and Secret Mountains

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Skadi is the goddess of the high wild places, the white huntress that teaches us to ski, to shoot, and the cold bitter truth of testing our strength against the mountains. I did ten years as a soldier, and spent a lot of time learning Skadi’s ways in the high wild places.

She comes to us from the Jottun, Skadi Thiazidottir. Hers is the old way of teaching, the old relationship, as with Nerthus, where the lessons are edged with fangs, and mistakes paid in blood. She is a good instructor for those able to put aside their ego and listen. You cannot pit yourself against the mountain in defiance. The lessons of Thor to dig deep, of Tyr to endure unflinching, of Odin to hurl your defiance in the teeth of superior strength will get you killed, and the mountain won’t care.

Soldiers come to the mountain hard and strong, proud and cocky. They learn, or leave on stretchers, for Skadi loves her hunters, but it’s a tough love, a brutal instruction that spares no pride because getting it wrong upon the mountain gets you dead, even today looking down on our bustling cities, her truths remain.

One step per breath. When the going gets steep you do not push harder, you slow from a walk to mountain walk; one step per breath. At this pace you can continue. Your muscles will not overcome the mountain, it will overcome your ego. Heed Skadi, respect the truth of the place, and forget what you know you can do in other places. In this time and place, one step per breath is the way to win.

This pass isn’t safe. You plot your ascent, and many times you reach where you should have been able to get through, but a slide has taken it, or the snow pack is unstable, and there is no way forward. To go forward to your goal, you first must go backwards to the valley, and then ascend another slope to seek another pass. The only way forward begins by going back. Like it, hate it, deny it; the mountain does not care. If you want to reach your destination, first retrace your steps.

Right now you are asking, since I don’t plan on mountaineering, I have no urge to go hunting, why do I care what Skadi has to teach me? Ah yes. Her lessons were born in the glacier scarred peaks of the open mountains, but they become twice as important in the secret mountains.

What, you may ask, is a secret mountain. I mean they tower above our sky scrapers, force our planes to devote hundreds of miles just to get high enough to traverse them, how can they be a secret?

Life is filled with secret mountains, and they break people in horrible numbers every day. We don’t see them, or rather, we see them, but fail to accept what they are, and that denial is what allows them to break us in such terrifying numbers.

Many years ago, Skadi married Njörd of the sea. To his kingdom she went for nine nights, but could not sleep, for it was hateful to her. To her kingdom he came for an equal period, but could find no rest either.

The White Huntress passed from mountain to sea and back without effort because she knew the ways of the mountains, she lived the truth of the mountains, and she knew when she trod upon the secret mountains. Their ways she knew, and her lessons she gave are truths that work in secret mountains as well as open ones.

I can hear you gnashing your teeth about all this secret mountain talk, but the infantry in the crowd most likely already know what I am talking about. Swamps.

A swamp is a mountain turned into a board game. The board is flat, so you can expect to simply walk from edge to edge without effort, correct? Try it. Let people know where you are going, so searchers know when and where to go recover you. Hopefully in one piece.

Swamps are secret mountains, because they don’t rise up and show you “hey, slow down, no amount of pushing will help you. One step per breath. Don’t fight the swamp, accept its rules and adjust your pace”. No, a swamp just clings to you, drags at you, mocks you. It takes your one hundred percent effort and gives you thirty percent return. You push harder, give a hundred and ten, spending from your reserves, and it gives you twenty percent, or less. Then you collapse. You refused to see the mountain beneath your feet, and it beat you.

Swamps are secret mountains, they don’t show you a landslide in the pass, or groaning snowpack to demand you turn back, return to the last valley and try another slope. No, it will look all the same, but grow harder and harder to fight as you advance, letting you spend more and more strength for less and less progress, until you have given up all thought of looking for another way through, and spent the last of your strength on a way that was never going to go through.

Life is full of those swamps, those secret mountains.

Work situations, relationships, family, chronic physical illness, mental illness, and oh my word yes, financial issues are not something that you can simply put your will, your skill and your strength against and win through. These are mountains, and you had best learn this before they break you.

Skadi is a goddess, but a cold one. She is the White Huntress, the goddess of the high wild places, the Jottun who came down from the killing mountains to marry into our holy tribe, and bring with her the lessons of her mountain kin.

She does not pit her strength against the mountains. She masters the mountains by accepting their strength, and moving with them. She did not win her way to the sea and back by defying the swamp, but by understanding when a secret mountain lay before her, and she learned and mastered its ways.

Skadi is a goddess, as far beyond our strength and wisdom as we are beyond the insects we crush unknowing as we walk, yet she does not waste her strength against the mountains; she is too wise in their ways to court defeat when victory requires only accepting you stand upon the mountain, and act accordingly.

Why do we demand that we put one foot in front of the other, at the same pace, without bothering to see if we stand upon the firm flat ground, the slope of the mountain, the edge of the swamp? In our pride, in our blindness, we waste our strength, falling bitter and weeping hurling ourself against the pass that is blocked in front of us, when the way back was clear, and the way around was waiting for us to find it.

In full knowledge of our resources, physical, mental, emotional, and financial, we ignore the ground before us, the cost of each step, and push ourselves beyond our limits where we…..fail. Obviously, beyond our limits is beyond sustainable, also called stupid, also called avoidable.

It is easy to see a mountain when it is physical and in fills your entire field of view. That doesn’t stop humanity from trying to pretend it is still on the flat and level ground and can proceed without yielding to the laws of Skadi. This is where Search and Rescue and the Army get to pray to the White Huntress while seeking to recover your silly arses, preferably while still breathing.

It his harder to see the secret mountains. The physical swamp is still easier to see than the everyday worlds secret swamps, the secret mountains where each step costs more than the last, and sometimes you will break yourself before admitting you must turn back if you hope to survive, let alone find another way through.

We are terrified of the appearance of failure to the point that we ignore every chance to succeed while pouring out the last of our resources on steps towards the blocked pass, the bottomless bog. Skadi does not care if you accept her teachings or not. The mountain does not care if you reach the summit and pass beyond, or lie at the bottom of a crag bleeding out. Skadi teaches us what we need to learn, and more, what we need to accept.

Don’t break yourself against things that are obviously and inevitably beyond your power. That is not courage, that is stupidity. No one is strong enough to jog straight up the mountain. You follow the paths the mountains leave open, if one is closed, turn back and seek one that is not. You take one step per breath when it becomes hard; at that pace you can reach the top. Faster, and the wise will step over you on their slower way to the top.

Don’t be afraid to turn back. Do you wish to reach the other side, or simply waste the last of your strength failing against a pass that is now blocked? If you want to reach your goals in the mountains, in the swamps, or in life where the forces that you work with and against are vastly more powerful than you, you must adapt to reality, not die because you refused to admit your first plan no longer had a chance to succeed.

Weakness is real. Denial kills. The mountain doesn’t care. If you can’t keep going at this pace, slow down. Self care is how you win. One step per breath is all you can do, then do that. Can’t go forward, it just gets harder and harder? Turn around, this way only leads to failure. Find another one.

Skadi’s lessons are not gentle, but they are life saving. We spend too much of our lives defeating ourselves because we refuse to admit when we are standing on some pretty obvious mountains. The gods do not give us tools we aren’t meant to use. They taught us the ways of the mountains because they wanted to see what we could do with the choices we made in the struggles that matter, not so we could spend ourselves pointlessly against mountains that won’t notice our steps, nor value our bones if we fail.

Do yourself a favour, and when life gets hard, take a good long look and see if you might have not noticed you were on a mountain. If you are, listen to Skadi’s lessons, and stop sacrificing yourself on stone that will neither yield nor care.

— John T Mainer

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