Friday, July 23, 2021

Sigurd, the Dragon, and Our World Today

Mythology matters. The tales we tell reflect our values, even when we tell ourselves that they do not. The old stories bring with them the old worldviews, yet we are not duty-bound to accept everything that is woven into the texts to which we still return after all these long centuries.

In the formulation of French philosopher Paul Ricœur, myths are spaces where symbols interact in narrative form. Symbols are notoriously slippery, and what they may have meant to the peoples of the long ago time are not necessarily the same meanings they carry to all of us in the now.

One of the stories that now seems particularly pregnant with contemporary meaning is that of the Sigurd and the dragon.

Sigurd and the dragon in Tales from the Far North (1909) by Maria C. Klugh

The Old Norse poem Reginsmál (“Sayings of Regin [the mighty one]”) tells the tale of the famously cursed treasure hoard that plays a major role in the tragic events of the Icelandic Völsunga saga (“Saga of the Völsungs”) and the German Nibelungenlied (“Song of the Nibelungs”), both written down in the thirteenth century.

The poem begins in the mythological world of gods, giants, and dwarfs before pivoting halfway through to the legendary world of Sigurd, the Odin-descended dragon slayer distantly connected to the historical sixth-century Frankish king Sigibert. Regin the smith, who is either a dwarf or simply “a dwarf in height,” tells his mythic backstory to the young Sigurd, sent to him to be raised as a foster-son. Here are the key elements, briefly retold.

The smith’s tale

The gods Odin and Hœnir and the giant Loki arrive together at a waterfall. Loki throws a stone to kill an otter sitting on the riverbank with his eyes closed, eating a salmon. The trio makes a bag from the otter’s skin and proudly show it and the fish to Regin’s father Hreidmar, with whom they spend the night.

The animal killed by Loki was actually Otr (“otter”), another son of Hreidmar, who had the habit of fishing at the waterfall while changed into the form of an otter. The father and his other sons grab Odin, Hœnir, and Loki, then threaten the trio with death unless they fill the otter-skin bag with gold and cover it with the same.

The two gods send Loki to find the needful gold. He borrows the net of the sea-goddess (or sea-giantess) Rán (“robbery”), returns to the waterfall, and catches the dwarf Andvari (“careful”) who had been cursed by a norn “in the early days” to swim in the water as a pike.

Echoing the deadly threat of Hreidmar, Loki demands that the dwarf-turned-fish hand over all his gold, including the ring Andvaranaut (“Andvari’s gift”). As he retreats into a rock, Andvari curses the gold and declares that it will cause death and strife.

When Loki returns to Hreidmar with the treasure, the gold is used to fill the otter-skin bag and cover it up. One whisker pokes out, and Odin gives up the dwarf’s ring to cover it at their host’s demand.

Loki passes along the curse, which immediately claims Hreidmar as its first victim. Regin and Fáfnir (“embracer”) demand “a share of the compensation from Hreidmar for their brother.” When their father refuses, Fáfnir kills him in his sleep, takes all of the treasure, and guards it in the form of a dragon wearing an ægishjálmr (“helmet of terror”) that causes abject fear in all living beings.

Sacred heart

The sequel to the smith’s story appears in the poem Fáfnismál (“Sayings of Fáfnir”), in which Sigurd is led by Regin to find and kill the dragon. The youth fatally stabs Fáfnir in the heart, but the two manage to have a lengthy conversation before the monster expires.

Fáfnir passes the curse on to Sigurd, who seems completely unconcerned. The dying dragon brags of his days of terroristic rule:
The helm of terror I wore among the sons of men,
while I lay upon the neck-rings [i.e. atop the treasure hoard];
more powerful than all I thought myself to be,
I didn’t encounter many equals.
With a final imprecation that Sigurd will die at the hand of his brother Regin, the dragon expires. The smith cuts out his heart, drinks the dragon’s blood, and instructs Sigurd to roast the heart for him while he takes a nap.

Roasting the heart on a spit, Sigurd pokes it to test how done it is, burns his finger, and sticks his finger in his mouth. By tasting the little bit of Fáfnir’s hjartablóð (“heart blood”), he is immediately able to understand the speech of birds. They warn him that Regin plans to kill him, tell him to take the treasure for himself, and send him off to waken the Valkyrie Sigrdrífa (“victory driver”).

The poem Sigrdrífumál (“Sayings of Sigrdrífa”) tells of Odin sticking the Valkyrie with a svefnþorni (“sleep thorn”), declaring that she will never win again in battle, and announcing that she will be married. In other words, he casts her out of the world of the gods and withdraws her Valkyrie status.

Even yet, she retains much wisdom regarding the magical use of runes and Odinnic aphorisms for right living. She shares all of this lore in great detail with Sigurd (and us) after he asks her to teach him wisdom and “news from all the worlds.”

At this point, the thirteenth-century manuscript source of the poems has a notorious lacuna where several leaves were cut out of the codex. When the story resumes in the next poem fragment, Sigurd has become fatally embroiled in the very human world of kinship entanglements and is killed “on the south side of the Rhine” by one of his brothers-in-law.

A stone’s throw away

How can we read this hoary old tale so that it has meaningful resonance in today’s world? One way of beginning is to follow Ricœur and consider the symbols that interact in the narrative.

When Odin wanders the road with Loki as one of his companions, it is the giant who has sworn blood-brotherhood with him whose seemingly inconsequential action – throwing a rock at a sleeping otter – does indeed have deep consequences. From the beginning of the story, the danger comes from within the family.

When the trio arrives at Hreidmar’s, they come into conflict with another trio and another family: the father and his two sons, all suffering the loss of the third brother as the wanton pruning of a healthy branch on their tree of kinship.

After the wounded trio threaten death unless they are given gold, Loki passes on the same threat to the dwarf, minding his own business under the waterfall just as the otter had done beside it before being killed by Loki. In this tightly constructed narrative, everything is echoed and reflected back on itself.

Indeed, just as the dwarf had been cursed by the unnamed norn, he himself curses Loki for taking his amassed hoard of gold. As Andvari attempted to hold back the last ring from Loki, Odin attempts to hold it back from Hreidmar. As Loki was cursed for taking the gold from Andvari, Hreidmar is cursed for taking it from Loki.

This particular section of the myth ends where it began, with the killing of a member of Hreidmar’s family. Loki kills Otr and gets a pelt; Fáfnir kills his father and gets a hoard.

In the twelve verses that (with prose interpolations) make up this section, Loki passes on the curse in the exact middle. Actually, Loki is truly in the middle of this set of concentric circles that spread out like ripples in the pool under the waterfall, as the dwarf-fish turns its tail and utters its curse on the gold.

Loki instigates the action with his apparently casual throw of the stone, yet the results pass through him without affecting him. He acts as conduit and conductor for threats of death and for curses of dark magic, but he seems free enough to walk away at any point with no ill effects.

Yes, Hreidmar’s family is destroyed, but the ultimate target of Loki’s throw won’t become apparent until the next bit of the story.

Ascent and descent

After receiving his death blow from Sigurd, the dragon passes on the curse to the young hero. The long arm of Loki begins to reveal itself, as the curse moves from Hreidmar’s family to that of Odin.

Sigurd is of the Völsung line and is the great-great-great-grandson of Odin the Allfather. He carries the reforged sword originally awarded to his father Sigmund by the god, but the gift of Odin is canceled out by the gift Loki gives – the dwarf’s fatal curse.

Death of Sigurd/Siegfried in Der Nibelungen Noth (1843) edited by Gustav Pfizer

Before the curse can take effect, Sigurd tastes the blood of his vanquished enemy and gains something of the dragon’s deeper powers of understanding. Listening to the advice of the birds he can suddenly understand, he sets off to climb the mountain and learn the lore of the mystic woman strong enough to disobey the orders of Odin, face his divine wrath, and live to tell her tale.

Sigrdrífa inverts Loki’s role: where the giant served as a conduit to pass on the dwarf’s curse to Hreidmar – and ultimately to Sigurd and beyond – the Valkyrie serves as a conductor of Odin’s divine wisdom, passing it along to the young hero. Even further distinguished from Loki, she effectively filters the knowledge presented to Sigurd by absorbing the dark denunciations of her that Odin had made without passing them along as Loki did by giving Hreidmar both treasure and curse.

When Sigurd makes his Zarathustrian descent from the mountain, he leaves the world of mystic beings and enters the world of humanity. Despite the wisdom gained from the dragon, the birds, and the Valkyrie, he succumbs to the smothering web of jealousy, lust, hatred, and greed. But among these lowest of human drives, the hand of mythology reaches into the more mundane world of heroic legend, and the curse tips the emotional scales towards darkness and death.

Loki’s simple toss of a stone has resulted in the death of the greatest of Odin’s human descendant, and – according to the Old Norse material – the greatest hero of the northern world. Although some today still tie Loki to the tradition of the culture hero, here he spectacularly fails to meet the criteria of bringing direct help to humanity and instead seems to revel in passing on the curse to generations “not yet born.”

No decoder ring needed

Parsing the events of the myth in this fashion is a necessary first step, but it only provides one possible interpretation of the symbolic interactions within the world of mythology.

The simple act of choosing and enunciating an interpretation is dangerous enough in itself, as it runs the risk of offending those who hold other and differing interpretations close to their hearts. Taking the next step of forming new and modern meanings leaves one open to denunciations of blasphemy, an ancient concept that – like so much from the past that perhaps should have stayed there – has gained new life in this strange era we are all traveling through together.

There is a great deal in the old tales that resonates today, so there is nothing for it but to jump in with both feet.

The myth is saturated with betrayal from inside the family, from inside the community that has been bound together by oath and deed. We merely have to look around ourselves today to see that those who swear to protect and to serve are instead gunning down the unarmed and beating down the peaceful. Those who take oaths to preserve, protect, and defend our highest laws are instead openly breaking them. Those who claim to be defending their communities are instead eagerly seeking to harm their neighbors. We in the United States of America are a family, and we are hurting each other.

As the prophecies of the Old Norse Völuspá (“Prophecy of the Seeress”) and the Sanskrit Mahābhārata (“Great Epic of the Bhārata Dynasty”) both warn, the important relationships that sustain our societies break down in the darkest times of our history. A cursed hoard is the vehicle for the drive into disaster in the mythic world; in our modern world, we only needed an infinitesimal virus to enter our bodily systems for our social systems to begin crumbling around us.

Whether through manipulation of the curse or through his own flawed character, Fáfnir first commits patricide and then turns into a dragon to guard his ill-gotten wealth and snort poison around himself. The meaning of the dragon transformation becomes clearer when stood next to Regin being “a dwarf in height” when he first meets Sigurd. The overwhelming greed of Fáfnir – what J.R.R. Tolkien called “the dragon-sickness” – has made him into an actual monster, as the intense jealousy of his brother Regin has shrunk him down as it eats at him from the inside.

When the emoluments clause of the U.S. Constitution disappears in a puff of burning smoke before one man’s determined self-dealing, when consuming envy of the undeniably great African-American contributions to our culture leads fully grown adults to cheer on a teenage boy who crossed state lines to kill his fellow citizens, we don’t need a secret decoder ring to explain the symbolism of the mythic figures.

Who will tell the tale?

We have before us the story of a child who is sent off to be fostered in the smithy and develops into the greatest hero of the cultures that told these tales. That in itself should resonate with any who still believe in the fading memory of the so-called American dream. It surely resonates with those among us who face a daily struggle to make a better life for themselves and their families, whether the world is against them or no.

Armed with nothing but his own youthful courage, Sigurd defeats an amoral monster who is willing to kill his own father for money, to do anything to anyone to protect his stolen wealth, and who – in his final moments – wants nothing more than to hold onto to his terroristic power.

To each their own beliefs, but I believe in the young people in the streets right now who are taking incredible personal risks as they stand up to tyranny and terror, as they oppose lawless officers of the law, as they declare that black lives do indeed matter, as they insist that hate has no place here – and I believe that these brave youth are the heroes of our own story.

By tasting the heart-blood of the dragon he has vanquished, Sigurd is able to understand the speech of birds who fly far and know much. Aside from mystical interpretations, it is obvious that overcoming seemingly overwhelming difficulties brings us new insight into the world. We have to earn the wisdom we have, and it is acquired with difficulty as we struggle through our lived lives. The birds can be read as representing the promptings of the spirit to take action in the world, with “spirit” read in whatever way is most meaningful to the reader. There is definitely a need for meaningful action in this world of ours today.

The story of ascending the mountain to awaken the Valkyrie and seek her wisdom can understandably lead to mystical interpretations, but it can also be read as a reflection on the struggle to become enlightened in the “Age of Enlightenment” sense. Whether or not wisdom is hidden behind a ring of fire, it is never easily gained. In our time when even common sense is uncommon, when people take the random rantings of self-absorbed politicos over the considered advice of medical professionals, true wisdom is rarer than gold and worth more than any gem.

Sigurd descends the mountain, however, and is brought down by the failings of the human world. Both the curse and the inherent vices of human society are inexorable, and this too is a hard lesson for us to learn. Whatever our political persuasions, whatever our backgrounds and allegiances, all of us who call ourselves Americans are living under the curse of racism that reaches out from the year 1619 and strangles our nation still today. This curse is as powerful and as transgenerational as any called down by a righteously furious dwarf-fish.

Yet there is hope in myth, as there is in life. Before the curse can take effect and take his breath, Sigurd was able to slay a mighty monster and sit at the feet of divinity. What will we each of us do in the years that we are fated to live? Will we rise up from apprentice to hero, face down the monsters of our time, and welcome the wisdom of wise women? Or will we shrivel up in jealousy and grow monstrous in greed? Our stories are yet unwritten, and we ourselves will tell our own tales.

Quotations from the Old Norse poems are from The Poetic Edda, translated by Carolyne Larrington (Oxford World’s Classics, 2014). An earlier version of this article appeared at The Wild Hunt.

Friday, July 2, 2021

Following the Wanderer

We’re living through an era in these United States in which wisdom seems a scarce commodity.

Vísdómr, the Old Norse analogue to our modern English wisdom, has not only the meaning “knowledge, intelligence,” but also “foreboding” and “to know for certain.” These secondary meanings weigh heavy on the mind during these tumultuous times and years of plague.

Here in Chicago, the skies are filled with shadows. Dark clouds loom overhead. The natural world seems to express the national mood, as America’s nineteenth century landscape painters surely believed it did.

A Coming Storm (1863) by Sanford Gifford (1823-1880)

For practitioners of Ásatrú, the words of the god Odin on wisdom carry particular weight. Right now, they are even more weighty than usual.

“A wise-man’s heart is seldom glad”

One of the strongest impulses for my own turning to the Old Way as a modern religious practice was reading the twenty-third verse of the medieval Icelandic Hávamál (“Sayings of the High One”). In a section of the poem focused on the foolish man, Odin says (in Andy Orchard’s translation):
23. An unwise man lies awake all night,
brooding on everything;
he’s quite worn out, when morning comes,
and it’s all just as bad as before.
I did not experience a mystical revelation that a manifest deity was sharing esoteric teachings or a sacred epiphany that an ancient text contained the ultimate answers of our supposedly glorious Viking forefathers. Instead, I realized that living human poets over a thousand years ago had asked the same questions as I have, myself.

I felt a connection to that long-ago time – not a cultural, ethnic, or racial kinship, but a communion of mind and spirit.

Since I first learned what death was as a child, I’ve spent countless nights staring at the ceiling in the dark, trying not to think about the eternal cessation of consciousness at life’s end. The Hávamál poet is clearly correct; spending the night broodingly awake changes nothing about the ultimate fate of the self, but it does leave you exhausted the next day.

This isn’t the only mention of the subject in the Odin poem. Three later verses come at the topic from a slightly different angle (Orchard’s translation):
54. Middling-wise should each man be,
never over-wise;
for he lives the fairest life of folks
who knows not over-much.

55. Middling-wise should each man be
never over-wise;
for a wise-man’s heart is seldom glad,
if he is truly wise.

56. Middling-wise should each man be,
never over-wise;
he never knows his fate before,
whose spirit is freest from sorrow.
Again, the words of the ancient poets resonated within me. The scribe who compiled the written version of the poem in the thirteenth-century Icelandic manuscript known as the Codex Regius (“King’s Book”) may simply be preserving three oral variations of the same basic verse, but there may also be a logical and poetic buildup to the third verse.

The first verse says life is better for the one who doesn’t know too much. But why? The second verse says that the one who knows much isn’t often happy. But why? The third verse says that knowing one’s fate burdens the soul with sadness.

This progression supports reading the “awake all night” verse as being about more than simply fretting over day-to-day cares. Taken together, the verses suggest that knowing one’s fate – that realizing that there really is a final ending to life – is the subject of the midnight meditation.

“Oneself dies just the same”

But didn’t Vikings go to Valhalla? Didn’t half of those killed each day go to Freyja’s hall?

Yes, there are definitely verses in the old poetry that support the idea of an afterlife of the soul in the divine realms. There is also evidence for northern European pagan belief in an afterlife within the burial mound and for continued life after death in the company of ancestors. There is also evidence for a belief in reincarnation.

The arguably most famous verse in Hávamál offers another possibility. Like the “middling-wise” verses, it comes with a variant. In Andy Orchard’s translation, it reads:
76. Cattle die, kinsmen die,
oneself dies just the same.
But words of glory never die
for the one who gets a good name.

77. Cattle die, kinsmen die,
oneself dies just the same.
I know one thing that never dies:
the judgment on each one dead.
In these verses, the Old Norse sjálfr is translated as “oneself” by both Orchard and Ursula Dronke. Carolyne Larrington, however, translates it as “the self,” and this choice is the one that sets my mind to wandering.

With this translation of that single word, the verse can be read as saying that what we own is impermanent ( means both “cattle” and “property”), the ones we love are impermanent, and even the self – the soul – is impermanent. There is support for this reading in Völuspá (“Prophecy of the Seeress”), another foundational Old Norse poem.

Illustration of Fenrir and Odin at Ragnarök (1928) by Louis Moe (1857-1945)

At Ragnarök (“doom of the powers”), the final battle of Norse mythology, “warriors tread Hel-roads.” In his Edda, Snorri Sturluson explains this as referring to Loki leading allir Heljarsinnar (“all of Hel’s companions”) to fight against the side of the gods. Not only do the glorious undead warriors of Odin’s Valhalla join the battle, but the inglorious inhabitants of Hel’s Hel also return from the dead to enter the fray.

Maybe the poetic image of treading the road to Hel simply means “to die,” and the warriors are going into Hel after being killed in the final fighting. But Snorri’s explanation makes theological sense: the dead return from both the underworld and world above to fight and die on either side of the battle.

And there’s the rub: at the end of this time cycle, even the dead shall die. The afterlife is not eternal. Within Norse mythology, it’s clear that nothing living lives forever, in this world or any other. The great gods fall at Ragnarök, and all humans are wiped out except for the single couple hiding from the final fire by seeking refuge in the wood.

Through those two, life goes on – but not individual lives. Combining this idea with the “cattle die” verses, there is optimism to be found. There is a small light that shines in the immeasurable darkness. We will indeed die – body, mind, and soul – but we will live on both in the memories of future generations and in the very fact that future generations will indeed come to be.

Yet even in this light, there is shadow. Yes, it is comforting to think that life will go on, even if our lives won’t. But these days – amidst plague, violence, and catastrophic climate change – it is often difficult to sustain faith that the long line of future generations will actually continue far into the future. The more we read, the more we learn, the darker it all seems.

On this, too, the poet of Odin again has something to say.

Seeker of doom wisdom

Immediately before the “middling-wise” verses comes this observation on human nature (Larrintgon’s translation):

53. Of small sands, of small seas,
small are the minds of men;
thus all men aren’t equally wise:
half wise, half not, everywhere.
This verse seems a bit on the nose in these days of an equally divided U.S. Senate and a split citizenry with diametrically opposed views of fact and reality.

In terms of the above discussion, this verse’s assertion that only half of us are wise means that only half of us are wise enough to seriously ponder the ultimate death of the soul. But wait! It’s the “unwise man” who loses sleep over pondering this dark subject. Is this whole poem just a jumble of incoherent and internally contradictory verses?

I don’t believe that it is, and I would organize the ideas like this:
1. Only half of us spend our time pondering the ultimate fate of individual consciousness.

2. The one who is truly wise does ponder it, and she realizes that individual life is finite.

3. This realization is not a happy one and leads to late-night existential crises and sleepy workdays.

4. By becoming too wise, the wise one becomes the unwise one.

5. The one who wants to be happy is better served by being middling-wise – half wise, half not.
Who wants to be happy? It’s a key question of our times.

We now know that President Donald Trump knew just how easily transmissible and just how deadly this coronavirus is all the way back in February 2020 but decided to actively hide the fact from the American people because he didn’t want “to create a panic.”

To be fair, I spent long nights early in the pandemic doom-scrolling through Twitter and reading threads and articles about the horrors of the virus and the mass death around us and ahead of us. Would I have slept better not knowing any of this and simply watching WKRP in Cincinnati reruns before bed? Yes, absolutely. Would I prefer not to know about the virus? Absolutely not.

Odin himself, as we know him through the Icelandic texts, is determined to be wisely unhappy. He takes on starvation and torture to gain mystic insight, he enters dangerous situations to gather intelligence, and he painfully gives of himself to acquire wisdom. His particular obsession is to learn as much as possible about exactly that subject that keeps half of us awake at night: the ultimate fate of all things, including himself.

He is a seeker of doom wisdom, and that is not a happy path.

The Wanderer’s path

As a child, my father survived, escaped from, and helped his relatives escape from anti-German extermination camps run by Marshall Tito’s Yugoslavian Partisans. In the camps, he saw death up close and the worst human evil eye-to-eye.

He later entered the monastery in an attempt to answer the question of how good Christian people could do such horrific deeds. Even later, he left the monastery and turned to the study of philosophy. He spent the rest of his life teaching about facing death, celebrating life, and fighting for human rights for all.

Was he happy? Yes, there was much joy in his life. But there was also deep sadness and powerful anger. I expect the children of Holocaust survivors understand exactly what I mean.

As Odin goes down the path that leads to dark answers regarding existence and non-existence, confirming and reconfirming the realness of death, he does not give up and turn to self-pity, suicide, or the hard comforts of self-induced obliviousness. He rededicates himself to the fight for the survival of all, even knowing that the quest is destined to ultimately fail for all – including himself.

My father followed a similar path. Having faced the pit of human cruelty and death as a child, he did not give up hope or seek to blot out his understanding. He craved more learning, more understanding, more wisdom. Like Odin, he shared that wisdom. He argued unstoppably for human dignity and civil rights, for openness to new ideas and welcoming of diversity. Like Odin, he never gave up.

We each decide on a daily basis whether or not to follow Odin’s path of troubling wisdom. As Neil Peart once wrote, “if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” It’s only by actively setting our feet on the Wanderer’s path, by consciously embracing the disorientation of deep knowledge that we follow that thorny way. It’s all too easy to slide down the other path of blissfully unaware happiness, and that’s where we slip whenever we choose to turn away from Odin’s way.

The path of study, of learning, of doggedly pursuing information even when it makes you more wise but less happy – it’s not for everyone. Maybe it’s only for half of us. Or maybe that estimate in the old poem is wildly off.

Whatever the percentage really is, I do think that Odin and his poet are fundamentally correct in their understanding of the dangers of knowing too much. What we do with their advice is for each of us to decide.

We would all do well to remember that sleep is a good thing! It probably is best just to be middling-wise, but I’ve chosen to follow the Wanderer.

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

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.
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