Tuesday, May 21, 2013

A Sixth Grader Asks About Norse Mythology and Norse Religion, Part Two

Click here for Part One.

LL – What part of Norse mythology do you find the most fascinating?

KS – My answer to this is really the same as my answer to your previous question: Odin, Thor and Freya. Let me explain.

I love Odin’s quest for knowledge. I think he can inspire us to be the best that we can be in our own lives. Odin sacrifices an eye and hangs himself on the World Tree to gain wisdom; he travels throughout the Nine Worlds and risks his life for knowledge. I’m not saying that you and I should do these extreme things. These are myths – they are stories that present deep ideas in fantastical ways that can fire up your imagination. What you and I can learn from Odin’s quest is that we should dedicate ourselves to learning and then sharing the results of that learning – by answering questions from very smart sixth graders, for example!

Odin takes a deep drink from the Well of Wisdom.

I think that Thor is inspiring because he is so honest and so willing to stand up against the forces of darkness. He always speaks out against what he thinks is wrong, and he is brave enough to stand up against overwhelming and terrifying monsters (like the snake so big that it surrounds the earth). In the myths, he doesn’t just defend the gods; he also protects the scared little humans who would otherwise be overwhelmed by the destructive giants. I’m not saying you and I need to start running around and hitting monsters in the head with a big hammer. I think we can, however, learn how act bravely – even at the times when we are the most scared inside. We can learn to stand up against the monsters of our own time: prejudice, bigotry and bullying of all kinds. We can learn to speak up and defend those who maybe can’t defend themselves.

I think that Freya is inspiring because she shows that women are just as strong and powerful as men are – sometimes more so! Thor needs his goats and his chariot to ride above the clouds, while Freya simply leaps into the air and flies through the skies like a falcon. Odin is a great wizard (and the role model for Gandalf from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings), but he needed Freya to teach him how to perform seiðr. Even Loki, who is usually so clever, has to beg Freya for her falcon cloak when he needs to fly to Giantland on a mission for Thor. If I ever have a daughter, I want to name her Freya and help her to be as fierce and independent as the goddess of golden tears. My wife doesn’t agree with the name. Maybe you could have a little talk with her?

Freya hangs out high up in the clouds above.

LL – How does Norse mythology affect modern times?

KS – Norse mythology is around us every day. Have you ever heard someone talk about a bolt of lightning? The full name is thunderbolt. The English word thunder comes from the Old English word þunor, which was not only the word for thunder, but also what the Anglo-Saxons called Thor. Bolt is an Old English word meaning a short, heavy arrow. So, when we talk about a thunderbolt crashing to the ground, we’re keeping alive the memory of Thor throwing his mighty thunderweapon down from the sky. That’s pretty cool. If you study this material in more depth when you’re older, you’ll discover that there is a lot in modern English that can be traced back to ancient roots like this; many of the words we use every day are grounded in ancient myth and religion.

The Norse myths are around us in more obvious ways, too. Ever since Stan Lee and Jack Kirby brought Thor into the world of Marvel Comics back in 1962, he’s been part of American pop culture. As long as I’ve been alive (and I’m like an old greybearded Viking wizard), there have been Thor comics, TV shows, toys, dolls, stickers, plushies, advertisements, pillowcases, posters – and now even multimillion-dollar Hollywood movies. There are also authors, artists and musicians all over the world who use the Norse gods and heroes in their creative works; they are continuing a storytelling tradition with these characters that goes back well over a thousand years. That means that Thor definitely has Superman beat when it comes to the length of his back-story!

I think we can all agree that the Marvel Comics Thor
is totally cool, even if he's not really true to the myths.

LL – Around where and when did Norse mythology originate?

KS – The Norse myths that most of us familiar with really come from two Icelandic books that were written down in the 13th century – the Poetic Edda and the Edda. If you read popular versions of the Norse myths (popular meaning books for a non-scholarly audience, not popular meaning the mean girls in your gym class), almost all the stories that modern writers will tell you have been taken from these two books from Iceland. That’s actually pretty strange, and I’ll tell you why.

Iceland converted to Christianity in the year 1000. This means that the Norse myths were written down by Christian writers over 200 years after the worship of the Norse gods was officially ended in the country. I think it’s pretty obvious that the myths must have been around before the year 1000, back when the worship of Thor and Odin and Freya was the common religion. Scholars today believe that the myths were passed down as oral tradition for a very long time before they were finally recorded. The Christians who wrote them down changed bits here and there, but the stories they transcribed preserve some elements that go back many centuries earlier.

Icelander Snorri Sturluson wrote the Edda,
one of our main sources of Norse mythology.

Way back around the year 0 (that’s right – zero), Roman authors wrote descriptions of the Germanic tribes that they were encountering on the continent. Although these Latin sources tend to interpret the gods of the northern tribes through the lens of their own religion, it’s pretty clear that the northerners were worshiping gods very similar to those that we’re familiar with from the much later Icelandic sources. Scholars have picked apart what the Romans recorded and decoded which “Roman” god in Germanic lands was really a version of Odin, Thor and so on.

Even earlier than that, we can find what I like to call “reverse echoes” of the Norse gods. Almost back to 2000 BCE, we can find rock carvings in Sweden that show very early versions of Norse religious figures and symbols. We can’t point at any specific image and say, “This is Thor” or “This is Freya,” but we can see that there is a continuum of concepts that stretches back many centuries. I think it’s very interesting that these carvings come from around the same time as the traditional date for the birth of Abraham, which means that Norse religion has roots just as old as that of Judaism.

LL – Where did Norse mythology spread to?

KS – Norse mythology spread everywhere. Mythology is a set of stories. You’re reading the stories now in California in the 21st century. That’s pretty far away from where these tales originated!

Norse religion, on the other hand, is a different thing. I tell my students that a more accurate term is Pan-Germanic religion(s). This means that there were many variations of the religion over a very long time period and a very wide physical distance. We can recognize (and have records of) versions of the Norse gods all over the British Isles, the Nordic countries and continental Europe. There are even myths of Odin that are recorded in Italy!

The Germanic tribes moved around a lot, and they took
their religion and mythology along wherever they went.
This map shows movement of tribes from 378-439, and
it's just one part of a much longer story. History is cool!

Like I said earlier, the version of the myths we are most familiar with come from Iceland in the 13th century, long after the island was converted to Christianity. The stories we know from the Icelandic sources are a very late version – a version that has been arranged into a neat, logical order by medieval writers. If we travel further back and farther abroad, the sources are much more fragmentary and confusing. Part of the fun of studying Norse mythology is trying to piece together all these little bits and figure out what people may have believed in various times and places.

LL – When and why did people stop believing in Norse mythology?

KS – Again, I think we need to make a distinction between mythology and religion. Mythology never dies. Right now, somewhere in the world, a little kid is discovering Thor for the first time and is thrilled at the idea of this big Viking guy who fights giants with a mystic hammer. I think it’s really awesome that these stories still appeal to young people so many centuries after they were first written down.

Art by Andy Fairhurst

Religion’s role in history did not work out the same way. In different parts of the northern world, the Old Way was replaced by Christianity at different times. The conversion of England began in 597. The continental tribes were basically converted by 800. We’ve already talked about Iceland converting in the year 1000. Sweden wasn’t fully converted until around 1150. These official dates of conversion don’t mean that people completely stopped believing in the Norse gods, however.

There is evidence that belief in the gods and other mythological creatures (especially elves) continued in some places even into the 20th century. Jacob Grimm (as in Grimm’s Fairy Tales) recorded elements of the old belief system that were still practiced by rural European people in the 19th century. In Iceland today, more than half of the population says they still believe in elves – and five percent say they have met one of the Huldufólk (“hidden people”). Wow!

LL – Around what part of Norse mythology does your research center?

KS – Well, Lori, you’ve actually touched on most of it with your questions! I love learning about all aspects of history, mythology and religion. I think that these three things are really inseparable. In order to understand any one of them, you need to understand the other two. Every day, I read something related to one of these topics. I have books scattered all over the house with bookmarks in them, and my phone is full of digital books so I can read wherever I am.

I take every opportunity to read a little bit here and there. The other half of my career is as a professional musician, so I read a few pages on my phone when there’s a break in rehearsal or during a concert. When I was in Iceland a few years ago, I read all 782 pages of The Sagas of Icelanders. I started it on the airplane ride there, and I finished it before we landed back in Chicago. I simply read a little bit whenever we were waiting somewhere, or before bed, or when we were taking a break from exploring. The American author Henry David Thoreau once said, “Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all.” I wholeheartedly agree!

You'll have to wait until you're older to read
this big book, but it's pretty exciting stuff.

I’d like to thank you for contacting me and asking me all these questions. It’s clear that you’ve thought a lot about this topic, and I hope that my answers will help you understand a bit more about the Norse myths. I wish you the best of luck in your future studies as you continue to explore this fascinating subject!

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