Wednesday, May 12, 2021

The Left Eye of Odin (or Right)

Every so often, one of the college students in my Norse mythology classes raises a hand and asks, “Which eye did Odin give up to drink from Mimir’s well?”

Related questions include which side of Hel’s face is the corpse side, what the size measurements of Freyja’s cats are, and what the design specifications of Loki’s mistletoe missile are.

Odin, Sleipnir, Huginn, and Muninn by Gerhard Munthe (1849-1929)

My first, gut reaction to this type of question was to reply that mythology functions differently from fantasy.

Myth is vague where modern fantasy novels give page after page of specific details. Myth is elusive and allusive where tabletop role-playing games qualify and quantify every characteristic feature in overwhelming detail. Myth compresses action into stark imagery where video games expand conflict into endless hyperreal performances.

Students raised on Harry Potter, Dungeons & Dragons, and World of Warcraft may find mythology disappointingly diffuse. So many myths lack direct speech or dialogue in the modern sense. There is often no sense of the characters having inner lives, and motivations can range from totally banal to utterly incomprehensible.

In Norse mythology, physical descriptions of mythological figures are few. Some of the details we are sure we have read are actually akin to mass hallucinations, as in the widespread idea that Thor has a red beard in the Eddas. He does not.

The image of the red-bearded Viking Thor comes from the Icelandic sagas, historical and fantastic prose fiction composed two centuries and more after the nation’s public conversion to Christianity and written in imitation of new forms of literature filtering up from the Christian continent.

Red Thor appears in strikingly Christian contexts, as a threatening figure of the pagan past who seeks to flip new converts back to the Old Way. Any similarities to the red devil are purely non-coincidental.

Yet the meme of the red-bearded Eddic Thor has long been embedded into the writing of even the scholarly giants of Scandinavian studies, in their standard dictionaries and public publications.

Christian accretions and pagan cores

There seems to be something in the modern mind that craves specificity, that imposes concrete imagery onto textual traditions where that type of descriptive writing does not exist.

Or perhaps it’s not so much an issue of the modern mind but of the post-pagan, post-polytheistic perspective. Snorri Sturluson, thirteenth-century author or compiler of what we now call the Prose Edda, determinedly included or invented small descriptive details that are not present in the poetic sources he prosified.

The closer we get to the present, the more people seem to crave these sorts of details. From the retellings by William Morris in the nineteenth century to the transformations by J.R.R. Tolkien in the twentieth to the repackagings by Neil Gaiman in the twenty-first, the Snorrian impulse to muddle about with the texts and fill in the gaps seems irresistible.

So much of modern reading of ancient myth views it as literature, as something that sits on the same shelf as the fairy tale and the fantasy novel. There is indeed a hostility in some parts of academia and some branches of postmodern Ásatrú and Heathenry to viewing the surviving Norse myths as at all religious, condemning them instead as products of medieval Christian authors that present hopelessly muddled and willfully distorted versions of what may never have been pagan tales in the first place.

In a nutshell, the counterargument (of which I am a determined proponent) acknowledges the general scope of this criticism but counteroffers the mountain range of corroborating evidence and explicative theory from archaeology, linguistics, history of religions, and neighboring fields to argue that what Christian accretions have been sprinkled over the myths do not nullify the pagan mythological core at the heart of the surviving texts.

It is the very turning away from reading the myths as literature to reading them in the wider context of specifically religious texts of related world religions that leads to a better answer for those students asking about eyes and faces, cats and mistletoe.

India and Iceland

“Wodan,” wrote Adam of Bremen in the eleventh century, “id est furor.” Wodan is fury, as his Icelandic counterpart Odin is furious (etymologically speaking). There are many historical accounts and semi-historical saga descriptions of bloody sacrifices to the bloodthirsty god who is often connected to the causes, manifestations, and consequences of killing and war.

Yet the image of Odin as the wandering wizard endures, shaped into the Wanderer by Richard Wagner and morphed into Gandalf by J.R.R. Tolkien. How do we reconcile the furious figure who hovers over the battlefield with the wise walker along ancient paths?

Thousands of miles span the distance from India to Iceland, and thousands of years passed between the composition of the Mahābhārata and the transcription of the Norse myths, yet the parallels between the Vedic and Eddic mythologies have been known, studied, and disputed since Sir William Jones laid out the connections between Germanic, Indic, and other surprisingly related language groups in 1787 as the Indo-European theory was first formulated.

Jones was part of the British colonial administration in India, and his theories were filtered through the Romantic nationalism of the nineteenth century to provide theoretical, rhetorical, and propagandistic fodder for the Nazi horrors of the twentieth.

The old ideas of blond Aryan hordes riding out of the Caucasus to conquer the world have rightfully and righteously been dragged into the trash icon of academia’s shared desktop, but the fact of linguistic, cultural, ethical, mythical, and religious connections between members of the wider Indo-European family remain.

My copies of the ancient Sanskrit texts from India are covered by smudgy spiderwebs of my penciled notes, such as “cf. Hávamál,” “cf. Völuspá,” “blót,” and “reciprocal gifting.” On nearly every page of every text I’ve studied, there are amazing parallels to the Norse material, from outlines of myths shared by Indra and Thor to very specific healing spells that appear in ancient India as they do in medieval Germany.

These finds can be so exciting to someone as excitable as me on these subjects that, at one point while I was in divinity school, Prof. Wendy Doniger had to limit me to a set number of “ooh, this is just like that bit in Norse myth” exclamations in each class session.

It was one of these moments in class that enabled me to provide my own students with a deeper answer to their questions about Odin’s eyes and to find for myself a more meaningful understanding of the wide disparity between the war-inciter and the wanderer.

Cold feet

By the sixth book of the Sanskrit Mahābhārata, the warring parties whose rivalry has consumed the preceding five books are finally ready to face off in their ultimate battle. In the last moments before the combat begins, the great and supremely macho hero Arjuna gets cold feet.

Looking across the battlefield, he sees that both armies are composed of his own “fathers, grandfathers, teachers, uncles, brothers, sons, grandsons, companions, fathers-in-law, and friends.” Consumed with compassion and despair, he tells his chariot driver that he will not fight against his own family members, and he throws down his bow and arrows.

His chariot driver tells him that he is behaving in an unworthy manner and warns him against becoming klība, a Sanskrit term with a range of meanings focused on “unmanliness” that is similar to the Old Norse ergi. “Shake off this miserable weakness of heart and get up,” the driver admonishes the languishing hero.

When Arjuna continues to complain of his concerns, his chariot driver begins an enormously lengthy lecture not only on the responsibilities of the warrior, but on a host of increasingly esoteric religious teachings.

In fact, the chariot driver is the god Krishna, and the teachings he recites to Arjuna are the sacred text known as the Bhagavad Gītā (“Song of the Lord”).

After Krishna finishes one section of his lessons for Arjuna by declaring that there is “no end to [his] divine manifestations,” the hero responds:
You are just as you have described yourself, great lord; but I wish to see your majestic form, supreme person. Master, if you think I will be able to see it, then show me your imperishable self, lord of yoga.
Krishna agrees to reveal his forms to Arjuna “in their hundreds and thousands: diverse, divine, and of many colors and shapes.” He tells the reluctant warrior to observe “the whole universe with its mobile and immobile aspects concentrated within [his] body.”

Because this vision is too great for human eyes, he grants divine sight to Arjuna.

It’s all too much

The narrator describes Krishna’s “supreme, majestic form” as revealed at that moment.
With many mouths and eyes and numerous wonderful aspects, with multiple divine ornaments and raised divine weapons, it bore celestial garlands and robes and was anointed with divine perfumes, composed of all marvels, godly, infinite, and facing all directions. If the light of a thousand suns rising at once were to appear in the sky, it might resemble the splendor of that great soul. [Arjuna] saw the entire universe with its various divisions concentrated there in the body of the god of gods.
Arjuna bows his head and speaks mighty words in praise of Krishna’s great cosmic beauty, but he soon begins to testify to the great panic and enormous fear he feels when he sees Krishna’s “mouths like the fire of time” into which all the “heroes of the world of men” rush into “like the many rivers running into the sea,” to be crushed and devoured. As revealed to Arjuna, the “blazing mouths” of Krishna devour “all peoples, all worlds.”

Krishna reveals his cosmic form to Arjuna in an Indian illustration from the early 1900s

Krishna responds to Arjuna’s fear by declaring, “I am Time, the world destroyer, ripened, and here I am busy crushing the worlds.”

The hero again bows, praises Krishna, finally realizing that the chariot driver he has palled around with is actually the mightiest of all deities.

Arjuna apologizes for past familiarities and begs for an end to the overwhelming cosmic vision, asking Krishna to revert to a limited form that can be comprehended with normal human senses – to conform to the common image of the god as a young man with diadem, mace, and discus. “Change into your four-armed form, thousand-armed god of universal form!”

Krishna obliges, and the lesson continues.

Fury itself

I’m not saying that Krishna is a parallel of Odin, and I’m not placing an equal sign between the Krishnavite “Song of the Lord” and the Odinic “Sayings of the High One.”

At least as regards the larger question at hand in this particular article, I’m not as interested in the specificities of the god or the teachings being promulgated as I am in this notion of a cosmic divinity too immense to be comprehended – a “god of universal form” that must shrink down into a conventional form so that we humans of merely mortal perspicacity can conceive of it without our brains melting.

When Krishna takes his guise of a human charioteer, he is a comforting figure who guides and helps. When he is in his regular religious depiction as a four-armed anthropomorphic deity with traditional weapons, he remains comprehensible. It is only when he reveals his ultimate universal form that he becomes overwhelming and terrifying.

In this light, there is an insight into the figure of Odin and the contradictions of his portrayals. It’s quite easy to follow the shape of the above paragraph and apply it to the Norse god.

When Odin takes his guise of a human wanderer, he offers advice and shares wisdom. When he is in his regular religious depiction as the far-seeing anthropomorphic deity on the high seat above, he remains comprehensible.

The final step, however, is often missing. It is only when he reveals his ultimate abstract form as fury itself that Odin becomes overwhelming and terrifying.

The surviving Old Norse texts do not contain the detailed theological discussion that is so deeply woven through the Sanskrit sources, so we are left to formulate this form for ourselves. Since it’s not clearly portrayed in the texts we have, where do we find the greater, non-anthropomorphic form of Odin?

Odin is there

Again, the “Song of the Lord” gives a hint. Krishna makes clear to Arjuna that he is in all the world and that he abides in all beings. I believe that we can find Odin within ourselves, for better or worse.

He is the fury that stirs poet, artist, dancer, and musician as they enter into a deeply creative state in which they lose track of time and mundane situation. When the guitarist is so concentrated on improvising in the moment that she doesn’t afterward remember making any conscious musical decisions, Odin is there. When the painter is so immersed in the work that she doesn’t notice the night’s passing until the beeping of her morning alarm finds her still brushing away, Odin is there.

He is also the fury that stirs runner, boxer, gymnast, and baseball player as they find the zone where conscious thought gives way to inspired action. When the boxer senses that the moment has come and explodes into a flurry of blows from all angles that brings the knockout, yet doesn’t feel or realize that his own nose is already broken, Odin is there. When the baseball player perceives the ball as floating gently over the plate in slow motion and hears no sound within an internal quietude as he slams the ball out of the park, Odin is there.

The overtaking of the conscious mind is not always so beautiful. Odin is also there when the abuser sees red and hurts without control. He is there when the police officer succumbs to fear and hate and empties his weapon into the back of a child. He is there when the soldier sees a friend fall and his mind snaps free of anything that would restrain his indiscriminate revenge. This is the truly overwhelming and terrifying Odin.

What all of these experiences have in common is the feeling that something has entered the mind and overwhelmed everyday thought. Seeing red, entering the zone, getting lost in the creative moment – all have a sense of drunkenness about them, of intoxication.

The Norse myths capture this feeling by telling us that Odin lives on wine alone and shares out the mead of poetry that inspires the mind of the one who drinks it. The tenth-century Icelander Egill Skallagrímsson famously rails against the bloodthirsty Odin for taking the lives of his sons but thanks him for the gift of poetic skill that allows him to express his grief.

Gather around the table

But this is all too abstract and has too many different individual manifestations, from the passion of the painter to the rage of the killer. It is also far too terrifying. Who among us would be able to gaze into the eyes (or even one lone eye) of the power of unrestrained fury itself?

So we shrink Odin down into a form in which he is more comprehensible, more understandable, and more relatable.

Although his eye may flash with fury from time to time, the wanderer with his beard, hat, cloak, and walking stick is someone we can look forward to meeting. How wonderful would it be to sit by a forest brook and listen to the wise wizard share his wisdom?

Finally, there is a better answer I can give to my students when they ask about Odin’s eye.

The specifics are up to the storyteller and to the one who hears the story. Imagine the gods as the tales inspire you, but always remember that Odin is not the wanderer. He is not the regal figure on his high seat. These are forms that he takes so we can comprehend him or forms in which we conceive divine powers so we can engage with them.

Enjoy the myths, but remember that – as the philosopher Paul Ricœur wrote long ago – myths are made of symbols interacting in narrative form.

Both historically and in today’s world, reading myths literally leads to a fundamentalist mindset with all of its awful outcomes. If we instead agree to gather around the table and discuss what meanings may lie behind the myths, maybe we can have a conversation about leading better lives together.

Quotations from the Bhagavad Gītā are from
Mahābhārata, Book Six: Bhīṣma, Volume One, translated by Alex Cherniak (New York University Press, 2008). An earlier version of this article appeared at The Wild Hunt.

Friday, March 12, 2021

Wyrd Science: Viking Equity in the Coronavirus Age

The national disaster of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States has shown us that wyrd really does weave us together.

Old Norse urðr, Old English wyrd, and Modern English weird have a range of definitions, but together they give a sense that the actions we have taken of our own free will in the past determine the fate that will await us in the future.

Macbeth and the Weird Sisters: Robert Thew engraving based on Sir Joshua Reynolds painting (1803)

Rather than an ideology of individualism, this is a concept concentrated on connection. Actions taken by others before we were born, actions taken by those close to us during our lives, and actions taken by faraway people we will never meet all color the thread of life that connects a person’s past to that person’s future.

We are now seeing how these interconnections near and far are shaping our wyrd, whether we will them to or not.

From one city in central China, the COVID-19 pandemic has spread to over 219 countries and territories around the world. In less than fourteen months, the United States has gone from one case to nearly thirty million. There have now been over 118 million cases worldwide. The global death toll is approaching three million.

From the baby infected in the womb to the doctors, nurses, and other health care workers whose personal protective equipment did not protect them from dying of this accursed disease, we are being affected by the deeds of others both close by and incredibly distant.

For those of us who practice the modern religions of Ásatrú and Heathenry, there are also threads that connect our perceptions and portrayals of the past to our deeds that impact the lives of others.

Vikings and berserkers

Two of the most popular images of the Viking Age in both popular culture and within Heathenry are those of the Viking raider and the berserker. In movies, television, comic books, video games, costumed reenactment, religious imagery, and texts by and for practitioners, the attacking Viking and the furious berserker appear with regularity.

What is behind these popular archetypes?

Whether the term Viking has roots in terms for fjords, rowers, or something else entirely, the portrayal today centers on the raider, the bearded pirate who sails across the seas to brutally raid and rape, capture and kill, poach and plunder. He buries his axe willy-nilly not only in the skulls of enemy warriors, but of any villagers or clergy who happen to cross his bloody path.

The berserker of legend takes this bloody-mindedness one step further. As the Icelander Snorri Sturluson put it in his Saga of the Ynglings of c. 1225:
Odin knew how to make it such that in battle his enemies became blind and deaf and fearful and their weapons bit not more than wands, but his own men went without coats of mail and were mad as hounds or wolves, bit into their shields, were strong as bears or bulls. They killed the menfolk, but neither fire nor iron worked on them. That is called the way of the berserker.
Fueled by the holy madness of divine inspiration or driven wholly mad by enraging ritual and the ingestion of mind-altering substances, the berserker was oblivious to the damage inflicted on enemies, comrades, and even himself. Between the onset of the excited mental state and the exhaustion that followed it, he gave no thought to the consequences of his actions.

There are shades of Vikings and berserkers around us, even now.

Parents who want their children to go back to school insist that all children must go back to school. Pundits calculate the number of dead students Americans would accept as the cost of getting the kids out of the house. Adults who choose to disobey public health recommendations and government orders on self-quarantining and the wearing of masks physically attack those who choose to follow them. Elected officials tell us that our parents dying alone in overcrowded hospitals is a small price to pay for businesses to reopen.

This combination of self-centeredness and willful disregard for the well-being of others shows those who make these selfish choices to be far closer to the grinning raiders of popular imagination than any earnest internet denizen who posts about their mail-order DNA test supposedly proving that they have the blood of Vikings flowing in their veins.

Others insist that visiting a hair salon or binge drinking in a crowded bar is an inherent human right that no governmental instruction or medical necessity can contravene. They think it’s nothing but a hilarious prank to cough on $35,000 worth of new food that must then be destroyed. They angrily threaten employees at medical offices who quietly tell them masks are required to receive treatment. They post online threats to lynch, beat, shoot, hang, and behead a governor who dared to issue social-distancing orders to slow the spread of the virus.

Like the berserkers, their disregard for the suffering of strangers extends to their friends, family, and themselves. They don’t care whether the imprisonment, sickness, and death that result from their deeds is that of others or their own. All that matters is the satisfaction of their desires and the expression of rage at any who stand in their way.

Is this selfish wallowing in desire and anger really the foundation of the Viking Age?

Moderation and equity

The Old Norse word hof is quite familiar to American Heathens, who use it to refer to temples and other roofed religious sanctuaries. Arguably less familiar is the term hóf, which has a range of meanings that encompass moderation, measure, proportion, equity, fairness, reasonableness, temperance, and justness.

The Peasant Dance by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1568)

Out of the many versions of the so-called “nine noble virtues” that are promoted across the Heathen political spectrum, I can’t find any that includes this concept among its listing of what are presented as ancient Norse pagan values but which seem suspiciously close to contemporary Protestant ethics.

In the United States, Heathenry often overlaps with a celebration of Vikingness in attitude, imagery, and garb; a recent academic work on “Heathenism in Contemporary America” was titled Being Viking. Given the state of our national character, it’s unsurprising that a quiet focus on moderation and equity is less popular in the U.S. than an embrace of macho posturing, oath-making over ale, and a claim that Odin’s ancient advice to take weapons when traveling on open land and to bring a spear when out on the open road is somehow connected to collecting private caches of guns in twenty-first century America.

Vikings and berserkers are admittedly fun to read about, but do we want members of our communities to take them as role models?

The seemingly endless American fads of genealogy tracing and personal DNA testing often lead their devotees to excitedly declare that they’re the descendants of Viking heroes and medieval kings. Much less often do we hear breathless giddiness over the realization that the vast majority of our ancestors were everyday working people – farmers, craftspeople, the salt of the earth whose names and deeds weren’t considered important enough by historiographers to include in their tales of the mighty.

In farm life and village life, hóf has always been more important than piracy and rage. In my father’s German village of Karavukovo (“the place of the black wolf”), wolves were seen as enemies who threatened the livestock at the center of rural life. What community welcomes the man who lives as a wolf?

In his book Viking Age Iceland, Jesse L. Byock writes that hóf was embraced by the mighty as well as the meek.
Success in maintaining reciprocal agreements and playing the role of advocate required conformity to a standard of moderation, termed hóf. An individual who observed this standard was called a hófsmaðr, a person of justice and temperance.
The one who refused to abide by this standard was censured by all.
The opposite of hóf was óhóf, a failure to observe restraint denoting excess or intemperance. Displays of óhóf alarmed both friend and foe. They called forth the exercise of peer pressure against an overbearing individual with the result that rarely did one leader succeed in imposing his will on other leaders for very long. The practice of óhóf was known as ójafnaðr, meaning unevenness, unfairness or injustice in dealing with others.
This self-centered behavior was recognized as harmful to the community, and the community did something about it.
Ójafnaðr, which is often translated as ‘being overbearing’ or ‘unjust’, disturbed the consensual nature of decision-making and set in motion a series of coercive responses; for example, when an individual’s greed or ambition threatened the balance of power, other leaders banded together in an effort to counter his immoderate behavior.
If we truly believe that the old poems and sagas are worth reading, that they contain wisdom that is worth remembering, here is something to embrace in today’s world. For any who are focused on learning the worldview of the long ago time, on reconstructing the Old Way, or on building a new religious movement upon the foundation of ancient Germanic paganism, here is a bedrock on which to stand.

It is profoundly Heathen to care about others, to resist our selfish desires, to moderate our behavior, to use good judgment, and to work for the good of the wider community. If we want to be truly Heathen, we must push back on the berserker individualism that says masks stifle freedom and instead do what is right for our families, our communities, our nation, and our world.

We the people

And so it comes back to wyrd.

Every action we take has consequences. Every deed has repercussions. The steps we take reverberate beyond our hearing, beyond what we can know. The web of wyrd that connects us all has never been more obvious.

When we prioritize our individual impulses over what the wider world needs now, our solipsistic narcissism does real harm. When we yank on the threads of the web and try to pull it in the direction we desire, the greater structure will snap back and pull us along with it in unintended ways.

2020 Green Party vice-presidential candidate Angela Walker said something to me that resonates with this idea.
I believe that, at the end of the day, that is the thing that will always save us. We take care of each other. We take care of ourselves. As long as we have a government that is insensitive to the needs of the people, we’re going to have to.
We. Each other. The people. This is the worldview that will get us through these dark times.

We the people of the United States, in order to follow the workings of wyrd, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common good, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of the Powers to ourselves and our posterity, must endorse and embrace the standard of hóf in our daily lives, our choices, and our interactions with others.

If we don’t, there is only more darkness ahead.

Quotations from Old Norse were translated by the Karl E. H. Seigfried. An earlier version of this article appeared at The Wild Hunt.

Friday, January 1, 2021

Ásatrú and Hindu: The Mythology Project Interview

A few months ago, I was interviewed by Utkarsh Patel, who teaches comparative mythology at the University of Mumbai in India. The interview was for The Mythology Project, a fantastic enterprise that Utkarsh co-founded and currently leads with comparative mythologist Arundhuti Dasgupta Singhal. Both Utkarsh and Arundhuti are also prolific writers and authors of groundbreaking books on myth and folklore.

The Mythology Project is designed to be “a meeting place for myths, legends and folktales from around the world.” Its founders describe its fantastic mission in detail.
The Project is an endeavour to create a space that preserves and nurtures this immeasurable intangible inheritance, and offer a platform that encourages debate and discussion on its influence on us as people and our understanding of the world around us. It will shine a light on the manner and form in which ancient cultures nourished themselves, through stories, songs, poetry, craft and performing arts—through the legacy that lives on in among us.
While being located within India and focused on its vast heritage of myth and folklore, the Project will not be exclusive to the region. It will work to uncover the intricate web of likenesses and variances that create a criss-cross of connections throughout the global, imagined landscape of our past.
The Project understands the past as an inheritance that goes beyond monuments and statues, as one that is manifest in myriad forms that seep into the routine existence of the present. Our aim is dig into this rich cultural stockpile, piecing together the puzzle of our existence through archival collections, by researching living myths and traditions and conducting public lectures, workshops and courses for adults and children.
It was a great honor to be interviewed for this wonderful project. There are so many paths to explore between Hinduism and Ásatrú, and I am extremely happy that Utkarsh and Arundhuti have decided to include Norse mythology and Ásatrú theology. I look forward to collaborating with them in the future.

Utkarsh’s questions are in large bold type below, with my answers in the normal font.

What is the significance of myth in Nordic culture?

In the past, before northern Europe was converted to Christianity and when Germanic polytheism was a living set of religions throughout a very large region for a very long time, the myths functioned as do the myths of any religion.

Myths are traditional tales told within a religious culture that express that culture’s worldview and/or explain beliefs, practices, and the natural world. There are Christian and Jewish myths just as there are Norse and Hindu myths.

To understand the significance of the myths, we need to understand the parent culture to the best of our ability. To divorce myth from culture – as do some widely read theories of the “hero’s journey” and so on – may be a meaningful literary exercise, but it tells us little of religious meaning.

The first step is to place the myths in cultural context, to place them in dialogue with what we know from history, archaeology, and other written sources of the time period. Without doing this, the myths become nursery tales that float free from any cultural weight.

There are elements in the Norse myths that tie directly to what we know of real-world practice. For example, Thor shrinks his hammer and wears it inside his shirt as northern European pagans wore small amulets of Thor’s hammer around their necks.

Stone Thor's hammer amulet found in farmstead from Viking Age in Iceland

As in the oldest Sanskrit layers of Indian mythology, the Norse myths discuss the sacrificial act. They tell of the god Odin sacrificing himself to himself in a double ritual – both stabbing and hanging – that we have evidence of as actual sacrificial practice.

Those of us who today practice the modern form of Norse religion known as Ásatrú (Icelandic for “Æsir faith,” referring to the main tribe of Norse gods) face the task of incorporating myths of long ago into our modern lives and finding meaning within them.

In India, there are not only vast numbers of myths and legends, but there are also many long centuries of theological writings that discuss interpretations of the old stories. In Ásatrú, we are faced with a relatively tiny number of myths and no surviving second-order theological discourse by the practitioners of long ago – that is, no reflection upon the meaning of the myths in the context of a living practice.

Engaging in this type of theological discourse now, I always come back to the idea of the French philosopher Paul Ricœur that mythology is “a species of symbols” and myths are “symbols developed in the form of narrations.” This is an important key to unlocking meaning in the modern world.

We must ask: what does Thor’s hammer symbolize? If we dig into our sources and understand that it is a symbol of protecting the community from all harm, then we must ask: what do those the hammer is raised against symbolize?

Following these chains of questions and answers can help us to understand not only the meanings in the myths, but what meaning they can have for us now.

Following this line, we can ask: how do we define “community” today? What harms does this community face, and what can we do to protect it? The broader the questions become, the wider the field of possible answers. The choices of interpretation that we make say much about our own values and how we relate to the world around us.

We are not bound to accept the ancient significance of the myths – we no longer make human sacrifices to Odin, for one very obvious example – but I do believe that it is important to ground our modern understandings in study of what Icelanders long ago called forn siðr, the Old Way.

Without grounding in an understanding of the past, there is always a danger of our own creations of meaning simply floating away, untethered to any tradition whatsoever. If we believe that there is no value in that older tradition, why turn to the old myths at all?

What are the stories that hold most meaning for the people?

Even without the second-order theological discourse that I mentioned above, there is still a way to survey which myths were most important in the old times. We can assume – although assuming is always tempting in this field and can be a dangerous method! – that a story told and retold is one that was important to the culture that told it.

“The function of repetition,” writes the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, “is to render the structure of the myth apparent.” When a myth is told and retold in various forms, there must be something in the myth that is very important to its parent culture and/or addresses some key point of contention and difficulty within the culture.

The myth of Thor’s fishing trip to catch the World Serpent is a very straightforward example. It is told in both of the Eddas, the thirteenth-century Icelandic texts that provide the most coherent surviving record of the Norse myths – one is in poetic form, the other in prose. The story also appears in the work of several poets active in the ninth and tenth centuries. In addition, there are visual representations of the story, both in surviving stone carvings and in contemporary poetic references to wooden carvings now long gone.

Stone carving of Thor's fishing trip from early 11th century in Altuna, Sweden

Why was the story considered so important? Possibly because it shows Thor, the great protector of the human and divine worlds, in direct conflict with his greatest enemy – the gigantic serpent of the waters who surrounds the earth and is the literally enormous threat to the worlds of both humans and gods. Thor risks his own life as he seeks to pull the serpent from the waters and smite it with his mighty thunder-weapon. Even a young child can understand Thor’s role in these images.

There are also more subtle stories with more subtle repetitions. The tale of a father with a son who kills his other son appears in Norse myth (Odin, Höðr, Baldr) and the Old English Beowulf (Hreðel, Hæþcyn, Herebeald). The variation of a son whose father is killed by his uncle(s) appears in the Icelandic Völsunga saga (Rerir, Sigi, unnamed uncles) and the Gesta Danorum of Denmark’s Saxo Grammaticus (Amleth, Orvendil, Fengi).

The difficulty embedded in these repeated stories is one of conflicting duties within the old system of kinship relations. A father is bound to avenge his son, but how can he kill his other son? A son is bound to avenge his father, but how can he kill his uncle?

Those who know the Mahābhārata are familiar with the idea of being stuck between conflicting dharmas; this is one of many points of contact between the Icelandic and the Indian, and the great literature of both nations wrestles with these moral issues.

Whether the tale provides a way to grasp the role of the deity in an immediate way (like Thor and the World Serpent) or to examine an ethical dilemma in the form of narrative (like the fathers and sons), the fact that the same stories are repeated in multiple forms and formats does gives us a sense of core concepts and conflicts within the wider cultures that created them.

What is the significance of violence in Norse mythology? Why do we have such vivid descriptions of a battle and, in this sense, how would you compare these motifs and patterns with world mythology?

On one hand, the ancient world was a violent world, and the tales reflect the tenor of their times.

The Icelander Snorri Sturluson tells us that the bright and beautiful god Baldr is “the most beautifully spoken and the most merciful, but one of his characteristics is that none of his decisions is effective.” Baldr will rule in the golden age of peace that will begin the next cosmic cycle after the end of this one (another point of contact with Hinduism), but he is simply too kind and peaceful to have a large role in the myths of the Viking Age. In fact, it is his shameful murder at the instigation of Loki that truly begins the slide into doom at Ragnarök.

On the other hand, tales need adventure.

If Bilbo Baggins never left his comfortable home and became embroiled in the dwarvish scheme to vanquish the dragon, The Hobbit would be a book about pipe smoking and vegetable gardening. These may be very nice things to do, but they do not hold the audience enrapt around either the campfire or the fireplace. Conflict of some sort is what drives narrative, and what is the ultimate form of this-worldly conflict than violence, battle, and war? These are awful things to be thrown into, but they do keep the audience engaged.

On the third hand, it’s always good to listen to Mahātmā Gandhi on the Bhagavad Gītā.

Illustration of the Bhagavad Gītā showing Arjuna and Krishna (India, 19th century)

Describing his first impression of the text in 1888, he writes of what he called Vyāsa’s “religious theme”:
I felt that it was not a historical work, but that, under the guise of physical warfare, it described the duel that perpetually went on in the hearts of mankind, and that physical warfare was brought in merely to make the description of the internal duel more alluring.
This allure is what I mentioned about keeping the audience enrapt, but there is something deeper in Gandhi’s words – the idea that stirring tales of violent deeds can be read at two levels: the physical and the spiritual.

I would respectfully add one more degree and say that mythology can be read or heard at three levels: dramatic, emotional, and spiritual.

At the first level of drama, myths can be enjoyed as grand tales of adventure by individuals both young and old.

At the second level of emotion, the tales can be returned to again and again as one’s life experience deepens – the same person as child, teenager, young adult, middle-aged person, and elder can hear the same story at these different life points and have very different emotional reactions as they relate the tales to their own experiences.

The third level of spirituality is seeking to understand the deeper messages that the myths encode symbolically, even if our own modern solving of the code is quite different from how the symbols may have been understood millennia ago.

The tales of Tyr and Thor are violent ones, but we can see beyond the violence to the message. In different ways, both gods stand up for their communities and put themselves in grave harm in order to protect those around them.

Tyr gives his right hand so that Loki’s enormous and terrifying wolf-son can be bound until the end of this time cycle, and Thor loses his life at the final battle of Ragnarök even as he finally defeats the World Serpent.

We can see these mythic actions embodied by those around us now – by firefighters who rush into the burning forests of America’s west coast and by front-line medical workers who offer up their own lives in sacrifice to save those stricken with this terrible virus.

Myth is life, life is myth, and both can veer between the violent and the sublime.

Which Indian god holds a close parallel with a Norse god?

The closest parallels are in the oldest layers of Sanskrit, for it is these that contain the most classic Indo-European motifs that are shared by the myths, legends, and fairy tales of the Norse, Germanic, Celtic, Greek, Roman, and other related cultures. These building blocks of story appear in so many different combinations across such a wide range of time and space.

Thor and Indra are the most obvious parallels.

Indra kills Vritra with his vajra, the thunder-weapon (India, undated)

In the great pagan temple of Uppsala in eleventh-century Sweden, Thor sat in the center and was considered the mightiest of all, as Indra was considered the great king of the gods in the older myths of India. Both have enormous appetites, both wield the thunder-weapon, both respond to challenges from enemies of the gods, and both face the great serpent of the waters.

But this sort of parallel isn’t really the most interesting. The mighty wielder of the lightning bolt is found throughout Indo-European mythologies, so the Iceland-India connection is not unique.

The creation myths of the Eddas and the Vedas have parallels that are much more fascinating. They even begin with similar lines.

The Old Norse Völuspá (“Prophecy of the Seeress”) tells of a time before the world was made:
There was no sand nor sea nor chill waves, no earth to be found nor high heaven, a gulf of gaping void, and grass was nowhere.
The Sanskrit Nāsadīya Sūkta, the creation hymn, opens in like fashion:
There was neither non-existence nor existence, no realm of air nor sky beyond... There was no death then nor immortality, there was no sign of night nor of day.
Thousands of miles and thousands of years apart, both mythic systems begin their creation songs by describing the unimaginable void as a list of what is not there, by placing the immensely ancient nothingness before creation in terms of negating what we can see around ourselves now. They both find the same solution to comprehending the incomprehensible.

According to the Sansksrit Puruṣa Sūkta, the hymn of the cosmic giant Puruṣa, the gods sacrifice the enormous figure and make the moon from his mind, the sun from his eye, the wind from his breath, the sky from his head, and the earth from his feet.

The Icelandic Eddas tell us that the gods kill the primeval giant Ymir and make the clouds from his brain, the sky from his skull, the earth from his flesh, the sea from his blood, the mountains from his bones, and the trees from his hair.

The Indian and the Icelandic are again parallel, this time sharing the idea that the gods create the world from the yet older being whom they kill together early in time. Everything that is created, both myths tell us, is made from what came before.

There are other parallels, of course. I dive deeply into these with the students in my “World Religions” course, in which we examine Hindu, Norse, and Celtic mythology and religion. I am also very interested in parallel theological ideas between modern Ásatrú and Hinduism, such as the twin concepts of wyrd and karma. We have much more in common with each other than many may think.

What is your opinion of the Marvel universe and its depiction of the Norse gods?

In India, you have a long tradition of multimedia adaptations of the great Hindu myths and legends. We have nothing that can begin to compare with something like the giant Mahabharat television series, which adapted the Sanskrit epic over the course of ninety-four episodes – plus the forty-five of the sequel series that picked up the bits that had been left out. Amazing! I show students in my “Religion and Social Movements” course the beginning of the Bhagavad Gītā scene when we study the text.

Nitish Bharadwaj as Krishna in the Mahabharat TV series (1988-1990)

There is no comparable adaptation of the Norse myths. There have been some animated features, but there is no serious film or extended television version for adults that I know. Instead, we have Hollywood films based on the comic book version of Thor created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee in 1962.

I very much believe that we should each of us read the myths, engage with them, and bring them in dialogue with our own life experiences. However, it is strange to me how much the first Marvel Thor film reforms Norse mythology as Judeo-Christian lore.

The movie Odin fumes like the angry God of the Old Testament, and there is nothing at all of his Wanderer avatar – of his taking earthly form as the old wizard who engages in riddle-contests with giants, advises heroes on how to defeat dragons, and shares his ancient wisdom with all of humanity. Instead, the film figure sits on his throne in Asgard and makes mighty proclamations – God the Father instead of the All-father.

Thor is very much recast as Christ, sent down from heaven to live as a mortal among mortals. He gathers followers unto himself and makes of them dedicated disciples by convincing them of his godliness. He proves himself worthy of divinity by being willing to sacrifice himself to save humanity and is thus restored to full godhood at the right hand of his father. Amen. This is not the Thor from Norse mythology, and this is not his story.

This doesn’t mean I don’t love the Marvel Thor comics. I do. I have shelves full of them, from the very beginning through the latest adventures. I also enjoy the movies, and I’ve seen every film set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Thor: Ragnarok is probably my favorite one, not least because they finally had the sense to use Led Zeppelin’s great Viking metal epic “Immigrant Song.”

I don’t see the comics and movies as any sort of blasphemy – not even a little bit. I enjoy Marvel’s tales of the mighty Thor as much as I enjoy stories of the spectacular Spider-Man and the invincible Iron Man. I’ve loved superheroes since I was four years old, and I was four a very long time ago.

I believe that one of the great powers of myth is that it is told and retold by each new generation. I’ve heard so many students from India say that they learned of Rāma and Sītā from their mothers or grandmothers, from being told the stories instead of reading them. There is an unlimited number of Rāmāyaṇas, and more of them are being told somewhere right now.

The fact that children and adults around the world are fascinated with Thor because of the Marvel version today is a wonderful thing. I first met him through the Marvel comics, back when he lived here in Chicago. It was very exciting to the child version of me that Thor lived down the street! It’s exciting to me as an adult that he lives wherever the storm arrives to chase away the stale air and bring the beauty of the rains.

And that’s how I hope it works for others. Not necessarily to become a practitioner of Ásatrú but to become curious enough about Thor to find the Eddas at the library or the bookstore – maybe to sign up for a course so that they can learn more about the culture that produced these wonderful myths and to reflect upon what they can mean for all of us during this dark time.

I know that the myths are helpful to me, and I am always happy to hear that they are of help to others.

An earlier version of this interview appeared at The Mythology Project.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

A Ragnarök of One's Own

In his 1936 autobiography, the composer Igor Stravinsky describes his 1912 visit to Bayreuth, Germany, to attend a performance of Richard Wagner’s Parsifal.

The opera tells the story of a quest for the Holy Grail by one of King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table, and draws upon a thirteenth-century Middle High German romance by knight and poet Wolfram von Eschenbach. Wagner freely mixes elements of the medieval work with his own idiosyncratic philosophical and anti-Semitic ideologies in his final opera, completed eight years after Götterdämmerung (“Twilight of the Gods”), the concluding part of his cycle of operas based on Norse mythology and German legend.

Richard Wagner as Wotan (Odin) in an 1876 cartoon

At the time of his trip to Germany, Stravinsky himself was in the midst of composing music for Le Sacre du printemps (“The Rite of Spring”), a ballet subtitled “Pictures of Pagan Russia.” In his autobiography, he describes the genesis of the piece:
I had a fleeting vision which came to me as a complete surprise, my mind at the moment being full of other things. I saw in my imagination a solemn pagan rite: sage elders, seated in a circle, watched a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of spring. Such was the theme of the Sacre du printemps.
Although both the German Wagner and the Russian Stravinsky turned to pagan subjects for inspiration, their music and worldviews were greatly at odds.

Religious mindset

For Stravinsky, religious subject matter was subsumed into a powerfully modernist artistic vision. He had a visceral reaction to witnessing the performance at Bayreuth, where Wagner – with the financial support of devoted donors and Bavarian King Ludwig II – had built an opera house in which only his own works were performed.

Stravinsky explains his reaction to the scene:
What I find revolting in the whole affair is the underlying conception which dictated it – the principle of putting a work of art on the same level as the sacred and symbolic ritual which constitutes a religious service. And, indeed, is not all this comedy of Bayreuth, with its ridiculous formalities, simply an unconscious aping of a religious rite?
It is not merely the showy theatricality of the Bayreuth production that disgusts Stravinsky; he is repulsed by the audience’s willing desire to be swept away in quasi-religious fervor.

After calling for the end of “this unseemly and sacrilegious conception of art as religion and the theatre as a temple,” Stravinsky forwards an argument against this conflation of attitudes.
[O]ne cannot imagine a believer adopting a critical attitude towards a religious service. That would be a contradiction in terms; the believer would cease to be a believer. The attitude of an audience is exactly the opposite. It is not dependent upon faith or blind submission. At a performance one admires or one rejects. One accepts only after having passed judgment, however little one may be aware of it. The critical faculty plays an essential part. To confound these two distinct lines of thought is to give proof of a complete lack of discernment, and certainly of bad taste.
This is, of course, a generalization about the religious mindset that takes the fundamentalist and literalist as synecdoche for the diverse world of approaches to religious belief and practice. This same process leads liberal American commenters to criticize “religious people” when they often actually mean “conservative evangelical Christians of rural America.”

But Stravinsky’s point stands regarding the suspension of critical faculties by the devotee of the artist. After all, the word fan is an abbreviation of fanatic. Whether the fan is a Wagnerite, a Tolkienite, or a #ReleaseTheSnyderCuttite, the move from appreciation to devotion often leads to both dissolution of discernment and hostility towards those who dare to discuss the object of affection on its merits.

Like the sacrificer in the Ṛg Veda who begins to see himself as the god Indra (earning the wrath of the thunderer), the fan’s identification of self with the object of veneration can become so great that the boundary between observer and observed dissolves. For the most dedicated, even the mildest critique of the work is perceived as an intensely personal attack on the fan.

Does Wagner’s well-documented anti-Semitism surface in his operas? Do Tolkien’s “quite obviously” Jewish dwarves embody anti-Semitic stereotypes? The true fan will not only deny it but will furiously denounce the person daring to suggest an affirmative answer.

Fundamentalist adherence

The conclusion of Stravinsky’s argument is deeply relevant to our current cultural moment. Written as Nazi Germany was expanding and the Axis powers were ascendant, Stravinsky’s polemic against the sacralization of the artwork ends with a turn to the political developments of his time.
But is it at all surprising that such confusion should arise at a time like the present, when the openly irreligious masses in their degradation of spiritual values and debasement of human thought necessarily lead us to utter brutalization? People are, however, apparently fully aware of the sort of monster to which the world is about to give birth, and perceive with annoyance that man cannot live without some kind of cult. An effort is therefore made to refurbish old cults dragged from some revolutionary arsenal, wherewith to enter into competition with the Church.
We again find ourselves living through a time of cultic thinking and fundamentalist belief creeping into public life.

Amalie Materna as Kundry in 1882 Bayreuth production of Wagner's Parsifal

Within the online world of Heathenry, differing theological views are denounced as blasphemy (seemingly without any sense of historical irony). Inside the Twitterverse, academics posting about their research are swamped by roving gangs of anonymous mansplainers who pose endless rhetorical questions that no sane answer can satisfy. Across social media, virtual communities of intent form to affirm preconceptions and reinforce prejudices, from Facebook support groups for racist police officers to a Russian social media platform where American neo-Nazis build international contacts.

In all of these examples, critical thinking has given way to the fervor of fundamentalism. Whether the doctrine is religious or political, adherence to its precepts overrides all rational evaluation. Questioning of basic assumptions leads to denunciation by the group and excommunication of the individual, a process that strengthens groupthink as the membership in the group becomes refined down to a harder core.

We now see this process exploding from the virtual world into the regular world.

During the election, Trump’s supporters brushed aside accusations of sexual assault as politically motivated and denounced any who even slightly questioned his proclamations as traitors who wanted the communists to win. During the election, Biden’s supporters brushed aside accusations of sexual assault as politically motivated and denounced any who even slightly questioned his candidacy as traitors who wanted the fascists to win. Grossly anti-Semitic imagery, homophobic declarations, and racist symbols are proudly displayed by furious protestors demanding the end of coronavirus mitigation measures and refusing even the most common-sense safety practices. Scapegoats abound as conspiracy theories and in-group loyalty trump all rational discussion.

Steven Colbert’s truthiness has been succeeded by a belief that reality itself is a matter of opinion, not in a theological sense of maya versus brahman – of illusion versus ultimate reality – but in a very basic and everyday way.

If the president says something is absolutely fake that he said was absolutely real just minutes earlier, and his supporters believe both statements are akin to holy writ, what is real? If #BelieveWomen and #MeToo are inherently powerful and essentially undeniable when the offender is a Republican but abused women are shouted down as gold-digging liars and political tools when the offender is a Democrat, what is real? If the coronavirus is simultaneously a leftist hoax designed to take away your guns and an unstoppable danger that requires trillions of dollars in corporate handouts, what is real?

Doublethink is the order of the day as groups across the political spectrum descend into a madness of fundamentalist adherence to whatever doctrine the day requires.

Modern Pagans declare support for diversity and inclusiveness while embracing sectarian tribalism as a positive way of structuring religious communities. White conservatives in central Michigan fly the Confederate Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia while demanding stoppage of best practices for minimizing the number of coronavirus deaths in their own community. The party that trumpets its belief that “all Americans have an unalienable right to life as stated in The Declaration of Independence” insists that “[t]here are more important things than living” and dead civilians (particularly dead grandparents) are a fair trade for business profits. The “party of inclusion” puts forward the most diverse Democratic primary field in history before choosing the elderly, white, straight, male, Christian multimillionaire.

A doom of our own making

The epitaph of this age of ours is likely to be “my party, right or wrong,” whether the party is political, religious, racial, or what have you.

To point this out is not to indulge in whataboutism, to say that there is no real difference between political ideologies. Quite the opposite. It’s the willingness to wallow in the basest sort of attacks on the other/outsider paired with the resolute refusal to allow any open discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of the home team that results in the atrophy of the critical faculty. We tell college students that they must take humanities courses to develop their critical thinking skills, but what living models do they have when so much of public life is built on slandering the other side and dehumanizing the dissenter?

Igor Stravinsky plays Le Sacre du printemps ("The Rite of Spring") in a 1913 cartoon by Jean Cocteau

In the current overheated environment, there seems to be a fear that admitting any fault at all is handing ammunition to the enemy. Don’t worry, we’ll fix our own problems later. We just need to win this election, promote this conference, get these membership numbers up, finish whatever project in the now that we’ve set up as the one thing that must be accomplished at all costs. The dream is deferred, the underserved are labeled as special interests, and the status quo rumbles on.

It doesn’t have to be this way. It is possible to be reflective about one’s own group while still standing strongly against real wrong. Somehow, we need to cultivate the inner voice that stops the fingers about to type the bullying, the harassment, and the death threat. We need to build the internalized critical apparatus that asks if the thing we are about to do is truly of worth and worth doing.

We are burning up in a blazing sea of hot takes pouring forth from the endless stream of social media opinions, deceptions, and lies, from the so-called coronavirus briefings that descended into hate rallies, and from our friends and family who insist we must vote for their chosen candidate, or everything terrible to come is our own individual fault. We need a cool breeze to bring us to our senses so that we can climb out of the heat and reflect on what we can all do to move forward out of this mess.

Stravinsky writes of living in a moment when “degradation of spiritual values and debasement of human thought necessarily lead us to utter brutalization.” In our own moment, how can we elevate spiritual values and enhance human thought so that we’re able to move to higher ground? Can we find the answers to today’s problems by turning yet again to ancient texts, or do we need new words to find new solutions? How can we improve our educational systems and social systems so that they develop engaged citizens instead of enraged strangers?

It is difficult to think of engagement in an age of stay-at-home orders and social distancing, at a time when conversations occur on Zoom or through facemasks of dubious efficacy, but the fact that it is now difficult makes it imperative that we do. Will we come through this era-defining trial determined to work together to drive fundamental and consequential change for the better, or will we crawl through with a hardened determination to screw the other guy?

Committing to real change is especially hard for anyone convinced that a holy text is inerrant, that the gods speak truths directly into their ears, or that the leader of their particular group can do no wrong. Stravinsky writes that “one cannot imagine a believer adopting a critical attitude towards a religious service” and warns of the danger of such a species of true and unshakable belief growing in the public realm.

Are we still capable of adopting an attitude that is constructively critical, or are we doomed to slouch towards a Ragnarök of our own making?

An earlier version of this article appeared at The Wild Hunt.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

New Gods of the Fourth World

I’ve known about Darkseid at least since he appeared on the cover of the first issue of DC Comics’ Super Powers in 1985. Since then, I’ve read dozens of comic books featuring the dark master of Apokolips and all the associated New Gods created by Jack Kirby.

When yet another reboot of Superman comics introduced Lex Luthor’s Apokoliptian armor and use of a Mother Box, I realized that I’ve never really had a particularly clear grasp of Kirby’s whole DC mythology. I know who the characters are, I know about the strange melding of mysticism and technology, but I’ve never really felt like I fully understood what all the fuss and bother with these strange figures was all about.

I decided to pick up a used copy of the first volume of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World Omnibus to start at the beginning and see if I could get a better understanding of the weirdness.

Mythological works of Jack Kirby (photo by Karl E. H. Seigfried)

From the first 1970 issue of Kirby’s run on Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen – the bizarre choice for Kirby to launch his new mythology after arriving at DC – it was clear that breaking free of the leash that Marvel editor Stan Lee held on his creativity led to some fundamentally strange storytelling.

As writer, artist, and editor of his own work, Kirby brought back the Newsboy Legion – a corny gang of kids he had co-created for DC way back in 1942 – even as he began introducing freakish concepts of hidden conspiracies that would quickly blossom into the complicated plot of what DC called (without explanation) the “Fourth World” storyline, which wound through the Olsen series plus the Kirby-created titles The Forever People, The New Gods, and Mister Miracle.

By the time the first issue of The New Gods arrived in 1971, Kirby had already introduced Darkseid and several of his accomplices, a secret federal genetic lab known as the DNA Project (morphed into Project Cadmus by DC after the 1985 Crisis on Infinite Earths series), a big green Jimmy Olsen that veered awfully close to copyright infringement on the Hulk (co-created by Kirby for Marvel), a new version of the Guardian (another 1942 DC co-creation of Kirby), a group of New Age hippie teenager gods from space in the form of the Forever People of New Genesis, and the mystical female sentient computers known as Mother Boxes.

It was clear that DC was giving Kirby free rein to spin out his strange visions of society, science, space, and spirituality, but things took a surprising (to me, at least) turn in that first issue of The New Gods.

The fall of the old gods, from the first issue of The New Gods by Jack Kirby

In a two page prologue titled “Epilogue,” Kirby writes,
There came a time when the old gods died! The brave died with cunning! The noble perished, locked in battle with unleashed evil! It was the last day for them! An ancient era was passing in fiery holocaust!
The full-page illustration shows figures who look an awful lot like the Asgardian gods Kirby had drawn for Marvel from 1962 until 1970. There’s even a shadowy portrayal of a powerful figure in a winged helmet wielding a short-handled hammer.

Kirby continues with a description of “the home of the old gods” being torn asunder into two halves and accompanies it with a drawing of an island in outer space with an outline that looks suspiciously like that of the version of Asgard he had long illustrated over at Marvel. The two halves of the old gods’ dwelling become the paired planets of New Genesis and Apokolips, the domains of Highfather and Darkseid, and new deities that arise to take the place of the old.

From Asgard to Apokolips

This was the point at which I realized Kirby was giving DC a direct sequel to the sagas of the Norse gods he had produced for Marvel. Indeed, he had already been working on the concept while still employed at Stan Lee’s company, planning out a Ragnarök that would kill off the Asgardians and give rise to new gods of a new mythology. Due to his ongoing and now well-known shafting by Marvel over creator rights and compensation, he refrained from sharing his plans until he had moved over to the Distinguished Competition.

The Fourth World mythos is a direct continuation of Kirby’s long project of bringing the gods of Norse mythology into modern settings – a project dating back to at least 1941, when Kirby created a version of the Roman god Mercury for Timely Comics who was soon renamed Hurricane and declared to be “son of Thor, god of Thunder.” In 1942, Kirby drew an incarnation of Thor with red beard and horned helmet for DC’s Adventure Comics, then created another bearded Thor in 1957 for DC’s Tales of the Unexpected. His deepest dive into the mythology of the Eddas was, of course, his long run on Marvel’s The Mighty Thor and its backup feature Tales of Asgard.

After seeing the Norse connections of Kirby’s 1970s material for DC, I picked up the insanely huge complete compendium called The Fourth World Omnibus. Containing all of Kirby’s New Gods tales from 1970 through 1985, the weight of the 1,481-page monstrosity felt like it was bruising my rib cage when I laid down on the couch to read it. It didn’t disappoint in the deity department.

Relaxing after Ragnarök, from the seventh issue of The New Gods by Jack Kirby

The seventh issue of The New Gods, published in 1972, tied Kirby’s new mythology even more deeply to the Norse myths. “In the beginning,” the narration begins biblically,
The New Gods were formless in image and aimless in deed!!! On each of their two new worlds, their races had sprung from a survivor of the old!! The living atoms of Balduur gave nobility and strength to one!! – And the shadow planet was saturated with the cunning and evil which was once a sorceress!!
I’ve written before about the fact that Kirby and Lee sometimes seem to know more about the sources of Norse mythology than prominent academics. I’ve also written about the blend of Judeo-Christian and Norse mythologies the two of them created. Both Stan Lee (Stanley Lieber) and Jack Kirby (Jacob Kurtzberg) were born in New York City to Jewish immigrants from Europe, and they both repeatedly mix elements from Abrahamic and Indo-European myths.

Here, Kirby moves easily from the opening words of the Book of Genesis to the final verses of the Old Norse poem Völuspá (“Prophecy of the Seeress”) and their revelation that the god Baldr will rule over a new world of peace after the devastation of Ragnarök. Kirby’s line about the aimlessness of the New Gods in their early days seems to echo the lines in Völuspá about the first age of the Norse gods, when sun, moon, and stars wandered about without knowing their own paths.

If the spirit of the bright god Baldr suffuses the beautiful world of the New Gods, who is the evil sorceress who gives her character to Darkseid and the dark gods of Apokolips? The obvious choice is Kirby’s own Enchantress, an enemy of Thor and sometime ally of Loki in Marvel’s version of Norse mythology. In his Thor comics published late in the first decade of this century, writer Matt Fraction explicitly equated the Enchantress with the Norse goddess Freyja. Did Kirby also make this connection?

In Völuspá, the prophetess speaks of a female figure named Heiðr (“bright”) who makes prophecies, practices sorcery, performs enchantments, and “was always the joy of an evil woman.” She’s usually interpreted to be Freyja, the Vanir goddess who teaches magical practices to the Æsir. Maybe this suggestion of a connection between Freyja, sorcery, and wicked women suggested the idea of the Enchantress to Kirby.

Kirby associates the sorceress progenitor of the Apokolips gods with “cunning and evil,” the core traits of his own Marvel version of Loki. The Old Norse Hyndluljóð (“Song of Hyndla”) has a striking description of Loki being impregnated by an evil woman and becoming the ancestor of every ogress that came after. Perhaps this connection between Loki and ill-working women was also in Kirby’s mind when he conceived the origins of Apokolips.

Loki looms larger in the character of Metron, especially as portrayed in this particular issue. Although one of the New Gods of New Genesis, he strikes a pact with Darkseid and is willing to provide services that harm his original tribe in order to further his own personal ends even as he brushes aside the fact that his double-dealing will “create the means for mass slaughter.”

In the Eddas, Loki is likewise a figure who plays both sides as he moves between the giants of his original tribe and the gods with whom he lives in the mythic present. Like Metron, he shows little loyalty to either side in the cosmic conflict, is motivated by his own needs, and moves everyone down the line to the bloody climax of Ragnarök.

The issue ends with Highfather and Darkseid exchanging hostages to – for a time – end the conflict between their two tribes of warring gods. Snorri Sturluson’s Ynglinga saga (“Saga of the Ynglings”) tells of the similar exchange of hostages that ends the first great mythological war between the god-tribes of the Æsir and Vanir. Given the obvious similarity between the names Highfather and Allfather (an English translation of the Old Norse Alföðr, a byname of Odin) it would seem that the patriarch of the New Gods is a parallel of the patriarch of the Norse gods as portrayed in the Icelandic sources.

Highfather rejects his war-staff and renounces war, from issue 7 of The New Gods by Jack Kirby

But Kirby’s Highfather is more closely connected to the Old Testament than he is to Old Norse. He bears a staff in the shape of a Mosaic shepherd’s crook, not an Odinnic spear. Indeed, the seventh issue of The New Gods shows him rejecting his “war-staff” as a weapon as he renounces war itself. After he does so, a wall appears in a desert waste and “a hand of flame” writes a message on it, stating that the inheritance of the man who becomes the Highfather is the Source, Kirby’s pre-Star Wars concept of a universal force that courses through the universe.

This fairly obviously refers to the mystic hand that writes on the wall of Belshazzar in the Book of Daniel, delivering God’s message that the Babylonian ruler’s kingdom will be divided. Division also relates to Kirby’s tale, as the exchange of hostages immediately follows and the two tribes of gods agree to stay apart on their own respective planets.

Highfather discards his staff of war and carries a staff of peace, eventually – at the conclusion of The Hunger Dogs, the 1985 graphic novel at the end of the Omnibus – raising his staff meaningfully as he leads the New Gods in search of a new home for his tribe in a not altogether subtle reflection of Moses as a shepherd leading the Israelites away from oppression and towards their eventual home.

So if Highfather is Kirby’s new Moses, where is his Odin?

Odinnic fury and a Broadway star

The same issue shows that Darkseid’s young son Orion has been given to Highfather as part of the hostage exchange. He grows up to be the great warrior prophesied to bring down Darkseid himself. Throughout his Fourth World mythos, Kirby portrays Orion as a figure whose rage continually threatens to overwhelm him. He pushes his allies aside in his furious determination to gather information that will enable him to win victory over his enemies and wreak bloody havoc as he obsesses over the prophecy of the final battle and his own ultimate fate.

Odin’s very name has etymological roots in terms for fury and madness, and his berserker devotees are defined by their overwhelming rage. I’m one of many people who give precedence to the Icelandic images of Odin as a wandering sharer of wisdom and inspirer of creativity, but he is also the bloodthirsty god of war who seeks information about the final battle to come, stirs up violent strife among men, and is identified by the medieval German chronicler Adam of Bremen as “Wodan, id est furor” (“Wodan, that is fury”).

It is this darker aspect of the god – himself the son of a giantess and the grandson of a giant named Bölþorn (“evil thorn”) – that Kirby transmutes into Darkseid’s universe-traveling son Orion, willfully mashing up Greek and Norse mythology as he names his Odinnic character for the Greek hunter.

Kirby may have chosen this particular mythic name to connect his character with Odin as the leader of a form of the Wild Hunt, but a penchant for Greek-Norse hybridization is already evident in his 1941 tales of Mercury, son of Thor. Even in this, he echoes Snorri’s Edda, with its insistence that the Norse gods can be traced back to the legendary heroes of the Trojan War.

Kirby also seems to be following Snorri in his portrayal of Lightray, the bright and shining god of New Genesis who dresses all in white and refuses to engage with the dark fury of Orion’s single-mindedness and bloody-mindedness. Much of Kirby’s characterization of Lightray parallels Snorri’s introduction of Baldr in the Edda:
He is so fair in appearance and so bright that light shines from him, and there is a plant so white that it is called after Baldr’s eyelash… He is the wisest of the Æsir and most beautifully spoken and most merciful, but it is one of his characteristics that none of his decisions can be fulfilled.
With only the smallest of changes, this could be modified to describe Lightray, the bright one whose words of peace are furiously brushed aside by the raging Orion.

And what of Thor?

At the end of the 1960s, shortly before he left Marvel, Kirby made a series of presentation drawings showing radical reworkings of the cast of The Mighty Thor. The character and costume designs show a conceptual midpoint between his 1960s Marvel gods and his 1970s DC deities. He was clearly thinking of new directions for the thunderer, and two very Thor-ish, but very different, figures appear in his Fourth World epic – one male and one female.

In a backup feature paralleling his old Tales of Asgard series for Marvel, the 1971 fifth issue of The Forever People features Kirby’s introduction of a New God named Lonar who wanders alone (hence his rather transparent name) through the ruins of Asgard on New Genesis in search of remnants of “the elder gods.” He finds a “battle horse” of the past era who is given the name Thunderer in Lonar’s next backup feature, two issues later.

Perhaps echoing the hostility between Thor and Odin in the Old Norse Hárbarðsljóð (“Song of Graybeard”), the horse rears up and bolts when touched by Orion. Or maybe the horse, a survivor of one Ragnarök, recognizes that Orion is destined to bring about another.

Lonar wears "the trappings of the elder gods" in Hunger Dogs by Jack Kirby

When Lonar reappears thirteen years later in the graphic novel that brings a form of closure to Kirby’s mythology, he is drawn like a slightly redesigned version of Kirby’s Marvel Thor – a design much closer to the 1960s character than to the proposed updates Kirby created before leaving for DC. Lonar’s long hair flows from beneath a winged helmet as he returns to the city of the New Gods and Highfather remarks, “Don’t you look splendid in the trappings of the elder gods!” and tells him that he’s “not the first to be intrigued by the ancient past.”

As with several of Kirby’s characters – he openly said Ben Grimm of the Fantastic Four was a self-portrait – Lonar seems to be a reflection of an aspect of the artist’s self. In this case, he is an acknowledgement of Kirby’s lifelong love of ancient mythology and its tales of gods and heroes.

That said, the character who seems the most direct descendant of Marvel’s Thor in DC’s New Gods is Big Barda. She appears in all her glory on the first page of the 1971 fourth issue of Mister Miracle, wearing armor and helmet heavily stylized in the Kirby manner. Like Kirby's Thor, Barda is the tank of the party, always ready to rush in and start smashing enemies with her “mega-rod,” an hand-held weapon that – like Marvel’s Mjölnir – isn’t only a blunt instrument, but manifests whatever amazing powers Kirby needs it to have at a given point in the storyline.

She’s arguably the most macho figure of the Fourth World, bringing a direct Thor-like energy to what sometimes devolves into posturing Wagnerian space opera. Big Barda is also the leader of the Female Furies, the bizarre Valkyrie-like force that follows her lead from Apokolips to her adventures on Earth and elsewhere. In 1987, artist, writer, and Kirby devotee Walter Simonson strengthened the Thor-Barda connection when he introduced the new-look Marvel Thor wearing armor that was awfully close in color scheme, concept, and design to that worn by Big Barda.

Given his mixing of mythologies, it’s interesting that Kirby’s direct inspiration for Big Barda was the Jewish Broadway singer Lainie Kazan, then a rising star after stepping in for Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl and being featured in an issue of Playboy. Multiculturalism is a feature of the Fourth World, with three of the series having black characters in the core cast and the other having a prominent recurring African-American character.

“Mugged by the Word of God”

Kirby’s social and political concerns come through in other ways, such as in the depiction of Glorious Godfrey in the 1971 third issue of The Forever People. Based on the anti-Semitic and homophobic evangelical Christian minister Billy Graham, Godfrey smilingly encourages his followers to embrace “anti-life” as he issues helmets that enable them to hide their identities and – with the freedom from morality granted by anonymity – wield brutal violence against those they wish to eliminate.

Glorious Godfrey evangelizes for Darkseid, from the third issue of The Forever People by Jack Kirby

Kirby introduces Godfrey by showing him standing on a giant stage and preaching of a coming holocaust before smilingly telling his followers that they are superior to those to whom they will bring “Darkseid’s gift of anti-life.” Always ratcheting up his influences to symbolic levels, Kirby portrays Billy Graham’s manipulation of his enormous audiences in cosmic terms.

Sometimes the mythological and sociological influences coincide, as in Kirby’s portrayal of the “bugs,” humanoids who evolve in underground colonies from poisonous “micro-life” sent against New Genesis by Darkseid as the dwarfs of Norse mythology evolve “by decision of the gods” from where they squirm in the flesh of the dead giant Ymir “like maggots in flesh.”

In the 1972 tenth issue of The New Gods, Kirby shows the rulers of New Genesis – as imperfect as the gods of the various Indo-European mythologies – working to eradicate what they see as a lesser race by denouncing them as pests who seek to rise above their station. In case you miss the parallel with the Nazis gassing their Jewish prisoners in extermination camps, Kirby provides disturbing imagery of a field covered with dead and dying as the lone standing figure chokes to death and yellow clouds of gas drift over the scene.

Kirby’s idiosyncratic admixture of the mythological, sociological, and technological sometimes gives the work a prescient quality. At the beginning of his Fourth World saga, Kirby’s portrayal of the Mother Box as a small computer obsessively loved by its owner, always kept close to the body, and turned to for information and help in all circumstances predicts the ubiquity of and intense love for smartphones nearly forty years before the appearance of the first iPhone.

At the end of his epic, Darkseid becomes almost pathetic as he laments the rise of Micro-Mark, the new technology developed for him by the deviant New Genesis god named Esak that seems to portray digital technology and/or nuclear weapons. In 1985, the year the Hunger Dogs graphic novel appeared, Microsoft released its first iteration of Windows and began the digital transformation of postmodern life even as the Air Force began testing its Mid-Infrared Advanced Chemical Laser as a possible defense against incoming nuclear missiles. As always, Kirby reworked his concerns about real-world developments into symbolic form.

In his introduction to the first book of the multi-volume collection of the Fourth World comics, Scottish writer Grant Morrison discusses the effect of first attempting to read this material at age eleven. Kirby’s tales, he writes,
operated at a higher frequency than my pre-adolescent brain was wired up to match; his operatic visions of burning planets and snarling sci-fi deities left me with an inner shudder of the numinous and uncanny. Kirby’s dramas were staged across Jungian vistas of raw symbol and storm…. Kirby was too wild, too creepy, too raw.
He describes “experiencing a near-religious sense of awe and terror” and feeling like he’d “been mugged by the Word of God and somehow walked away.”

Despite being thirty-five years older when I first read this material, I had a similar experience. At every step, I felt like Kirby’s tales manifested at the level of mythology, of myth as described by the French philosopher and theologian Paul Ricœur as “symbols developed in the form of narrations.”

In Kirby’s sprawling epic – improvised and willed into material form as he furiously created page after page and issue after issue for year after year – the narrative is often difficult to follow, the dialogue is many times obscure, the motivations of the characters are regularly unclear, good and evil are sometimes not so clearly delineated, death is always a threatening presence, and there constantly seems to be some deeper symbolic meaning that is just out of reach behind the surface action.

Kirby really was transcending the medium in which he worked and creating a new mythology that followed and built upon the ancient Norse mythology that he so long and so deeply loved. Like the myths of ancient times, Kirby provided no key to decode his symbols – even though DC later attempted, in Snorrian fashion, to explain away all the inherent uncanniness of his vision as they sanded away the rough edges to fit Kirby’s characters into the mainstream of their own corporate mythos. Also like the old myths, Kirby’s work both expresses the deepest concerns of his time and speaks to the worrying aspects of our own age.

1944 self-portrait by Jack Kirby, colored by Rob Steibel

Last year, I wrote about baseball player, author, and activist Jim Bouton as one of my personal saints. The other very human individuals I consider in that category are John Coltrane, Jack Kerouac, and Malcolm X – all of whom challenged themselves to be greater while publicly speaking out against the failings of their own society. After reading the Fourth World saga and Mark Evanier’s excellent illustrated biography Kirby: King of Comics, I’ve now added Jack Kirby to that short list. Like the others, he is a prophet – not only in the sense of speaking of things yet to come, but with the meaning of being inspired with deep spiritual insight.

There’s much more to be said about Jack Kirby. As lengthy as this article turned out to be, it barely scratches the surface. Hail to the king of comics!

An earlier version of this article appeared at The Wild Hunt.
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