Heathen’s Journey: Isa and the Silence of Winter

It’s been a long time since I’ve sat down to write a column for the Heathen’s Journey. I’ve begun working with local Norse folkways teacher Kari Tauring, and it has shown me just how much I don’t know. There’s a gap between my own knowledge and what I want this column to be. And while I’m actively seeking that knowledge, it unfolds before me, and this column isn’t the straightforward journey it once was.

Then I have to remind myself that I started the Heathen’s Journey as a way of processing what I was learning in the Norse ways. In the beginning, I didn’t profess to be an expert. I still don’t, even though I work with the runes on a daily basis and study witchcraft near constantly. We are never completed, we are never finished: there is only the desire and urgency to continue forward. 

I think the energy of Isa, the next rune in our tour of the Futhark, has got under my skin. Barriers, stagnation, difficulty.

Isa represents Ice: That which is frozen. It is a barrier. It is water so still, it has been made solid.

“Ice is hard and without motion. It constrains the movement of waters, but those who try to walk on it may find themselves moving out of control.” – Diana Paxson, “Taking Up The Runes.”

To my Scandinavian ancestors, ice was a harbinger of difficult times. While life didn’t necessarily stop in the winter months, many things were more difficult. This represented a pause in the growth cycle, a time to hunker down with your family and kindred to withstand the long dark of Scandinavian winter. In the rune poems, Ice is ever present and represented as an element of hardship. When Isa is present, movement is difficult and it’s hard to trust yourself and your environment.

Isa feels like the defensiveness that follows the change Hagalaz brought on. While we stand in the rubble, the cracked foundation of our previous life, we feel like we must defend ourselves from everything that might further that change. We may not have accepted it yet. Our needs may be met at this point in our journey, but emotionally we still feel stuck. 

This is a great way of talking about the fear many people feel present with this rune. Fear can keep us locked, keep us from growing. The worst hell of the Norse wasn’t Muspelheim, it was Niflheim – the realm of ice, where you could be frozen. Both of these realms constitute an underworld journey. In Niflheim, you are forced into stagnancy. You can’t move, even if you want to. The cold freezes you, gets you so stuck in place that you can’t see beyond your own pain and suffering. On the other side, Muspelheim is what happens when the energy for change isn’t grounded. You flail, you burn, you perish. You burn away the foundation, unable to build because you are in constant motion.

The bridge between Muspelheim and Niflheim is how we can access the courage for making change happen. These are also the two realms that centered in the Norse creation myth. In the beginning, before chaos, there was a formless void. Then, the icy rivers of Niflheim met the dazzling flames of Muspelheim, and from this joining the giant Ymir was born, thus creating chaos. When Ymir was slain, from his body the world was created. It is the combination of fire and ice in Norse thought that created the world. 

So now, if you have seen your life go up in flames, know that the ice is here to bring a chill, to help you pause long enough to set order. Isa can represent a sacred pause, a time to gather ourselves and gather our strength. It is deep rest. It is making sure that we are protected. Hagalaz is the storm that breaks down the tower. Nauthiz is the action you take to get your needs met in the aftermath. And Isa is the chill that allows you to bring clear-thinking to your next steps.

That is the medicine to be found here. If you have a longstanding meditation practice or know someone with a meditation practice, you’ve probably encountered the movement within stillness. It may not feel like you’re doing much, but the cumulative effect is beautiful.

From times of deep stillness, you will find the ability to think clearly and calmly about your next steps. Sometimes you might feel anxious about not knowing your next steps, but it’s important to sit with these difficult feelings. Until you feel them, you will always run from them. 

Photo by Jonathan Larson on Unsplash

Winter is a time of silence.

Kari Tauring often talks about the importance of silence in Norse culture. With silence comes integrity.

“It (Isa) is the ultimate integrity, the core of stillness to which the ego retreats to resist or rest.” Diana Paxson.

There are many passages in the Poetic Edda that talk about the right time to speak, and when you should speak out on a subject. It is important to understand exactly what you mean to say and communicate thoroughly. Odin, the Allfather, is related to the breath, to speech, to communication. Frigg, his wife, knows all but says nothing. She is a goddess of secrets, and when Frigg speaks, everyone takes notice and listens. 

Isa is this way too. This rune helps you to create the stillness to begin to understand yourself, your position, where you come from. It is one way to stop yourself before you speak too quickly. 

Words that are said by Norsefolk have great meaning. Words that come from our mouths create reality. Therefore, you will want to think carefully before you speak. This is not meant to silence you forever – speaking truth to power is also an important aspect of the Norse path. But understanding the words that will do the job? Extremely important. 

Photo by Yaroslav Haris on Unsplash

Using Isa

Isa is a backbone – it is sturdy, and it is a part of all the other runes. One straight line, on its own. The beginning of every rune starts with one straight line on the page. This harkens back to Niflhel’s role in creation, as one of the first realms. It is the combination of ice with our own fiery energy that creates all experience.

But of course, this rune can also have a speciality all its own.

Powerful self-protection is the realm of Isa. Yes, you can imagine an ice shield protecting you from harm. It’s a great self-protection visualization. But there are other possibilities. Ice cools the temper – when people come at you, imagine Isa as a barrier, imagine that the ice touches their energy and calms them down. Isa is an amazing ally to work with when you need to set boundaries with others. 

There is so much wisdom in stillness. Your homework with this rune: find 5 minutes where you can clear your mind. Drink a glass of ice water. Imagine it moving through your body, calming you down and bringing clarity.

Or simply meditate. If it’s winter where you are, and there’s ice, go outside and interact with it. Feel it as the mirror it is, the sacred barrier.

Interested in other posts in the Heathen’s Journey? Check out the archives here.

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