|The dude on the cover of the June 2013|
issue of Viking magazine totally isn't me.
VM – When and why did you begin to study Norse mythology? What role and meaning has it had in your personal life?
KS – I grew up with two philosophy professors for parents. As a kid during World War II, my father led his family out of anti-German death camps in Yugoslavia and into freedom in Austria. He was a monk before he left the Church to go into philosophy. My mother grew up in San Diego and was the first in her family to go to college. She was a nun before she left the Church to go into philosophy. You can imagine the conversations at the dinner table.
When I was a kid, my parents had me read the Bible and the Greek myths. They told me that I could believe whatever I chose as an adult, but that I needed to know the Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman traditions so I could understand our heritage of art, literature, music and philosophy. Growing up, I only knew the Norse myths from reading Marvel’s Thor comics. As a young German-American dual citizen (with Scottish and English mixed in), I believed that the Norse myths were really something just for Scandinavians.
At some point, I picked up a book of Norse myths while browsing at a bookstore. The back cover said
The age-old legends and tales of Nordic mythology are a common heritage of German, Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon peoples.This was something I had never been taught in school. I had chosen to read the Nibelungenlied for a grade-school project, and I knew the German fairy tales and legends, but I hadn’t ever connected the Norse myths themselves with my own family background(s).
|The Children of Odin by Padraic Colum|
(also known as Nordic Gods and Heroes)
I immediately started reading everything I could find on the Norse myths and the culture and history that surrounded them. The more I read, the more I came to realize that they really are the cultural heritage of the North. I tell my students that we may say Norse religion, but we really mean Pan-Germanic religion(s). The myths preserved for us by our Icelandic friends are the late flowering of a long and complicated tradition that took many forms and had many variations throughout a vast stretch of time and throughout the Germanic world – from continental Europe to the British Isles and throughout the Nordic countries.
When I read the Poetic Edda, I was amazed by the worldview expressed in the poems – especially in Hávamál (“Sayings of the High One”), in which Odin speaks directly to the reader/listener. It really moved me to find out that – long, long ago – my ancestors had asked the same questions about their lives as I had about mine. How do we lead lives of worth? What meaning can we create in our lives? How do we treat others? What is the value of wisdom if it makes us more aware of our mortality?
|Thor really doesn't get along with monsters.|
VM – What do we know about how the myths were told and used historically? Originally, who told them to whom, and why? When did they cease to be in wide circulation in the Nordic countries? When, how and why did their role change?
KS – The Norse myths that most people are familiar with really come from two Icelandic books from the 13th century – the Poetic Edda and the Edda. Strangely enough, they were both written down more than two centuries after Iceland’s conversion to Christianity. However, they contain our most coherent account of the mythology, based on much older oral traditions. Some of the myths have been connected to ancient poetry from Scandinavia, the British Isles and continental Europe.
|"I'm here to chop down your sacred tree|
of Thor. Also, would you mind telling me
your holy stories, so I can write 'em down
and they can inspire future metal bands?"
It’s really a miracle that we have the myths at all. We have to thank Snorri Sturluson and the anonymous compiler of the Poetic Edda for their pride in their cultural heritage, for having a sense of history that was strong enough for them to preserve the stories and legends of the older belief system.
To the casual reader, the Norse myths can be enjoyed as fantastic tales of adventure. The more serious reader will, however, quickly realize that something much deeper is behind these stories. They are the cultural artifacts of a religious system, and much of that system is deeply embedded in the poetry and prose. Imagine if all that survived of the New Testament was stories of Jesus walking around performing miracles, with no context or religious meaning attached. You would simply have myths of a Jewish wizard, and you would miss the deep religious and spiritual meaning of his life and message.
In order to really understand the Norse myths, we need to dive into archeology, history, comparative religion and a host of other disciplines. We need to read primary sources by writers from other cultures whose paths crossed that of the Norsemen – including Arab, English, Greek and Roman authors. In the twentieth century, the French philologist Georges Dumézil teased out the meaning of some obscure Norse myths by cross-referencing them with religious texts from India and Iran – distant cousins on the tree of Indo-European religious traditions.
|Today, even ancient religious practices|
can be packaged in a box and sold online.
VM – I've come across a number of examples of Norse myths being referenced in contemporary culture. What are some examples that you're familiar with and find particularly interesting and significant? Why?
|So the Norse gods didn't wear spandex|
and fight supervillains from outer space?
Over the decades, many brilliant writers and artists have worked with the Marvel version of the Norse myths, and some of them have taken the characters much closer to the ancient stories. I happen to love the comics, and I think that they continue to deal with contemporary issues in very interesting ways. How would Thor react to 9/11? What place does the World Tree have in the modern urban world?
I’m also fascinated with the whole phenomenon of Viking Metal and Pagan Metal. There are many rock bands from Northern Europe and Scandinavia that focus exclusively on mythology, history and legend as the focus of their lyrics, album art and stage shows. They come from all over; Týr is from the Faroe Islands, Heidevolk is from Holland, Amon Amarth is from Sweden, Ensiferum is from Finland.
|Heidevolk's reaction to a club owner saying "I'll mail the check."|
Like the comics, this musical genre blends ancient and modern in very interesting ways. Sometimes, the lyrics make specific comment on contemporary culture and politics, but through the lens of an ancient worldview. Admittedly, a lot of it can be macho Viking posturing, but there is some serious thought at the heart of the best examples of this type of music.
VM – What is it about the Norse myths that cause them to endure in the collective conscience and imagination?
|This scene is perfectly understandable,|
if you take the time to understand it.
There are so many ways to read the Norse myths: allegorically, mystically, psychologically, religiously. There is no doctrine being foregrounded in the myths; the reader can bring her own interpretations to the stories. As a mythologist, I would hope that these interpretations would be built on a study of cultural context, but the magic of myth is that it can actually be read at so many different levels of engagement and knowledge.
Also, there is something in Norse mythology for everyone. While a young person may be attracted to the strength and adventurous spirit of Thor, an older adult may feel a kinship with the melancholy wisdom-seeking of Odin. The appeal of the myths cuts across lines of gender and sexual orientation; the mystic glamour of Freya and the maternal strength of Frigg attract modern women and the sexual free-spiritedness of Loki speaks to members of the LGBT community.
VM – Do the myths hold lessons for present-day readers? If so, what are those lessons?
KS – Norse mythology holds many lessons for today’s readers, just like the texts of any great religious tradition. Much of the serious scholarship skips over this. Modern academics, for whatever reason, seem to be very uncomfortable drawing lessons from Norse mythology. They tend to lock the myths in the strongbox of the past, which really does leave them in the dustbin of history. I think that’s a terrible shame, since there is so much in the mythology that is meaningful to modern people.
|The Sayings of the High One still sound,|
if you simply take the time to listen.
In many ways, Thor can be seen as an idealized self-image of the common man. He is completely honest, he prefers an open brawl to devious machinations, he is strong and hard-working, and he has a salt-of-the-earth wisdom that is very different from Odin’s studied cleverness. He is completely dedicated to protecting the world from the forces of darkness, and he has a very endearing lack of any sense of self-preservation – he simply leaps in and starts hitting things with his hammer. He is the god of the regular folk, the guy you’d love to have a beer with. The fundamental lesson of Thor is that all of us must stand up for what is right and fearlessly take on the “monsters” of our time. We must be brave enough to stand up against whatever form of monstrous injustice rears its head in our own experience.
A big Viking “thank you” to Denise Logeland for asking such insightful questions!