Wednesday, November 2, 2011

A High School Student Asks About Norse Mythology and Norse Religion

Woodrow Gardiner is a student in Mr. John Lodle's Advanced Placement English Composition class at Belleville West High School in Illinois. Mr. Lodle has asked his students "to think beyond the traditional research sources" and include an interview as part of a research assignment.

Belleville West High School

Woodrow asked me to be his interview subject and sent me a list of wonderfully insightful questions about Norse mythology and Norse religion. He asked about religious history, the meanings of the myths and the role that the mythology plays in today's world. Since he posed such interesting questions, I felt a responsibility to put some time into writing serious answers.

There must be other young people who are thinking about these same issues, so I'm posting the interview here for their benefit.

WG – How would you describe the characteristics of Norse gods as a whole? Are they generally reliant on brute strength or cunning?

KS – One of the things that makes Norse myth so fascinating is that the gods are as diverse and individual as the people you meet in your own life. Odin is wise, Loki is tricky, Thor is macho, Frigg is loving, Balder is kind, Frey is peaceful, Skadi is tough, and so on. What makes the gods even more interestingly human-like is that each one has a complex character that really can’t be summed up in a single phrase. Odin may have vast amounts of knowledge, but he can’t figure out a way for the world to survive the final battle at the end of time. Thor may be a simple tough guy, but he also manages to outwit a clever dwarf whose name is literally “All-Wise.”

Thor, his daughter & the dwarf he outwitted, now turned to stone
(1908 illustration by W. G. Collingwood)

The more you read Norse myth, the more you will find that the gods reflect people you know. Maybe you have a friend who – although you’re buddies and have fun together – sometimes drags you into trouble, even if it you had nothing to do with it. That’s Loki. Maybe you have a teacher who has dedicated himself to learning everything he can and sharing it with you. That’s Odin. It’s amazing to realize that people over a thousand years ago were thinking about the same issues we think about today.

WG – Why did the Norsemen have mortal gods? They were able to be killed (like Balder), and most of them die at the final battle of Ragnarök (“Doom of the Powers”).

KS – This is a very difficult question. Why do Christians have a god who is all-powerful and all-knowing? Why do Hindus have a complicated pantheon of gods? We can’t know for certain why the religions of the world developed in the ways that they did. We can only look at what records we have and theorize about the evolution of religious ideas in different cultures. Over many centuries of religious scholarship, learned people have come up with a variety of explanations. Maybe the gods were human leaders who were elevated to godhood after their deaths. Maybe the gods are natural forces that evolved into characters (Thor = thunder and so on). Maybe the religion of a people is a reflection of their psychology or so-called “collective unconscious.”

If you decide to really get into the study of religious history, you will find that the past can be just as magical and mysterious as the future. In the grand scheme of human existence, a thousand years is no time at all, but there's no way you and I will live that long. Since we won't experience it, the far future is merely science fiction to us. The distant past can be like that, too. When you begin to study history in a serious way, you realize how little we actually know about life a thousand years ago. The farther back you go, the more fragmentary the records are, and the more guesswork we have to do to fill in the gaps.

You could say that the Norse outlook is a little gloomy – everything dies, even the gods. However, that isn’t quite true, is it? Balder, the god of light and peace, comes back to life after the final battle and rules over a new world of joy and happiness. Maybe this is actually a hopeful idea that the “undiscovered country” of the future holds better things. The three-colored flag of Germany reflects this concept: black stands for the dark past, red for the bloody present, and yellow for the golden future.

The German flag flying over the parliament building in Berlin

You can read the myths as life-affirming, as well. In one of the poems, Odin says:
Merry and mirthful each man should be,
until the time of his death.
He also says:
Better blind than to be burnt:
no one has use for a corpse.
I would interpret both of these to mean, basically, carpe diem. Seize the day, live life to the fullest. This life is all that we have, but it is beautiful. Enjoy it.

WG – In what form has the mythology survived to today? Are the stories still told in Scandinavia?

KS – The stories are still told around the world. We’ll talk in a minute about how the myths have survived as living religion, but the stories themselves are continually told and re-told. Walk into any comic book store and you’ll see Thor on the shelf. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, two Jewish-American artists, created the Marvel Comics character based on the Norse god way back in 1963, and he’s been a fixture in popular culture ever since – including in the recent blockbuster Thor movie.

Every few years, someone publishes a new re-telling of the myths, turning the complicated collection of prose and poetry into a coherent storyline that a modern reader can understand and enjoy. The first book on Norse myth that I read was The Children of Odin, a wonderful version of the myths written in 1920 by the Irish poet Padraic Colum, with beautiful illustrations by the Hungarian artist Willy Pogany. There’s also a recent graphic novel by the American artist Erik Evensen called Gods of Asgard that brings all the myths together into a coherent storyline.

Frontispiece to The Children of Odin by Padraic Colum

Novelists continue to use Norse mythology as a source of material for original works. J. R. R. Tolkien based much of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings on Norse myth, of course. My favorite recent releases are by the English author Joanne Harris. She has two brilliant books out called Runemarks and Runelight. They tell the story of a young girl named Maddy who lives after Ragnarök and gets mixed up with all the Norse gods who have somehow survived (it’s complicated). The books are in the same Young Adult genre as the Harry Potter novels, but are full of Ms. Harris’s original take on the Norse myths.

You can see that the myths speak to people all over the world. There is something in them that appeals to writers in Britain, artists in Hungary, and high school students in Illinois. It’s up to you to meditate on what makes them so endlessly fascinating.

WG – Does Norse mythology have any influence on today’s society, like Greek mythology apparently does (i.e., Nike shoes, Midas Touch car shop, etc.)?

KS – Just look at your cell phone. The Bluetooth symbol is a bind-rune, which means that it is formed from two runes that are merged together. Runes are the ancient Norse letters that, according to mythology, Odin discovered and gave to gods and humans. Runes actually exist and were used for over a thousand years. They were letters (used to spell things) and symbols (each symbol stood for a specific word or concept). Harald Bluetooth (circa 935-985) united Denmark under his rule; the Bluetooth technology unites different devices under its “rule.”

If you take the rune for “H” –

and combine it with the rune for “B” –

you get the Bluetooth logo –

Also, next time you use the restroom in a public place, look at the paper towel dispenser. Chances are, it will have this symbol on it –

which is the logo of Svenska Cellulosa Aktiebolaget, a Swedish paper-goods company. It’s based on a symbol that is associated with Odin in ancient carvings like this one –

Detail of the Hammars Stone in Sweden (8th century)

So, think of Odin the next time you make a phone call or dry your hands!

WG – What are some underlying themes throughout Norse mythology? Maybe humanity being flawed, or that we are insignificant compared to the workings of gods and giants, or that maybe we are the next big thing?

KS – You can find all the themes you suggest in the Norse myths – and many others. Myths and poetry are open to interpretation. This is, in large part, why they do continue to appeal to people around the world, after all these years. You may find one message in a particular story, and I may find the complete opposite. The Norse myths do not give commandments or moral instructions; it is up to you to decide what they mean. In one poem, Odin says of the runes –
Do you know how to cut? Do you know how to read?
Do you know how to stain? Do you know how to test?
Do you know how to invoke? Do you know how to sacrifice?
Do you know how to dispatch? Do you know how to slaughter?
To understand this, you should know that runes were cut into wood or stone, and that they were stained with some sort of material (paint or blood, most likely) so that they were easier to read (or to magically “activate” them). That being said, I would interpret this verse as Odin inviting you to make your own reading of the stories and poems. He doesn’t tell you an interpretation; he asks to you to learn how to interpret. This is much less comfortable than having a god who instructs you very clearly on what is right and wrong, how you should behave, and what life really means. It is more difficult to struggle with these complicated ideas and make your own decisions, but it can lead to deeper understanding and be more meaningful for your own experience of life.

Runic inscription on Kylver Stone in Gotland, Sweden (c400 CE)

WG – Where and for how long was Norse mythology held as a main religion?

KS – I would make a distinction between mythology and religion. Mythology is a set of stories and poems that is connected to a religion; religion is a set of spiritual beliefs and practices in real life. That being said, you can argue that some form of Norse religion has existed for approximately 4,000 years. This is definitely open to debate, so let me explain what I mean.

I would define “Norse religion” as a set of beliefs that was common to the ancient northern world – what is now Germany, Scandinavia and Britain. These beliefs were greatly varied, complicated and contradictory over a very large geographic and temporal space. What we call “Norse mythology” comes mostly from two books that were written down in Iceland in the 13th century. This is where we get the stories and poems from – the tales of Thor, Odin, giants, dwarves, etc. I would argue that this is a very late form of the religion, as it was actually written down two hundred years after Iceland’s official national conversion to Christianity.

There are rock carvings in Sweden from around 1800 BCE that show “reverse echoes” of Norse myth. We can’t say that they portray Thor or Odin, but we can argue that they show an early form of a religion that eventually evolved into the one that we’re familiar with. For instance, does this carving show an early version of Thor in his goat-drawn chariot?

Bohuslän rock carving (c1800 BCE)

This small Danish chariot from around 1400 BCE seems to portray the horse-drawn chariot of the sun that is described in 13th-century mythology, and its wheels look just like those in the Swedish carving below.

This Swedish carving from around 1300 BCE shows axe heads and wheels. Are the axes “thunder-weapons,” and therefore prototypes of Thor’s mystic hammer? Are the wheels the same “sun-wheels” that continually reappear century after century in Scandinavian religious art?

Scania rock carving (c1300 BCE)

This poor fellow was stabbed and hung, then thrown into a Danish bog around 300 BCE. Later mythology describes that those sacrificed to Odin were, strangely enough, both stabbed and hung. Was this man sacrificed to the leader of the Norse gods?

Tollund Man (c300 BCE)

In 58 CE, Julius Caesar described the religion of the Germans. In 98, the Roman writer Tacitus described it in much greater detail, portraying gods whom we understand as Odin, Thor and Tyr. So you can see that recognizable forms of the Norse gods had already developed by the Roman Age, centuries before the Viking versions that we are most familiar with today.

The story of the conversion of northern Europe to Christianity is long and complicated. Conversion occurred at different times in different European cultures; in Iceland, for instance, we date the conversion to the year 1000. Some Scandinavians argue that the Norse religion continued in secret after the conversion.

What is clear is that the stories of gods and heroes never completely disappeared, but were preserved in literature, oral tradition, folk tales, popular song, art and superstition. They pop up in England, Ireland, Scotland, Scandinavia and Germany – any place that was part of what we can call pan-Germanic culture. This doesn’t mean “German” (as in “from Germany”), but refers to the family of Germanic languages, of which English is a part.

The brown areas of this map give you an idea of where
the Germanic languages are spoken in northern Europe

In 1972, a group of poets and intellectuals formed a church in Iceland called the Ásatrúarfélagið (“Æsir Faith Fellowship” – the Æsir are the Norse gods) that brought the old faith into modern life. In 1973, it was officially recognized by the Icelandic government. Today, the members of the church form 0.6% of the Icelandic population. This might not seem like much, but it’s exactly the same percentage of Americans that are Muslims – so you are just as likely to meet a follower of Thor in Iceland as you are to meet a follower of Allah in the United States. Probably even more likely, because Iceland is so small! The members of the Icelandic group have been very involved in their country’s spiritual, social, cultural, ecological and political life – just like any other active church.

Yes, the old faith is a living religion in Iceland!

Given all of this, you can argue that the Norse religion has had a (very complicated) existence of over 4,000 years. Interestingly, Judaism is usually dated to the traditional birth of Abraham in circa 1800 BCE. This is also the approximate date of the Swedish carvings I discussed earlier, so these faiths are just about the same age.

WG – Who exactly followed Norse religion?

KS – It was followed, in one form or another, by people all over the northern world. We can find echoes of the old belief in place names from Britain, Scandinavia and Germany. There are historical and archaeological records from various locations over this vast area that show the geographical scope of the beliefs.

I want to emphasize that this wasn’t a continuous, coherent and clear religion. There were great variations over time, and each cultural group had their own particular version. However, we can see common elements that appear again and again in different times and places. Part of the fun of studying this subject is trying to make sense of such a large and complicated body of literary, historical and archaeological evidence.

WG – What is, in your opinion, the most interesting aspect of Norse mythology?

KS – There are so many! It’s both terrifying and hilarious. It’s both spiritual and vulgar. It has all of life in it, really. I find it somehow comforting to know that my ancestors (I’m German, English and Scottish) were struggling with the same questions that I am – about relationships, life, death, learning, finding your place in the world and so on. I love that there is always something more to learn about and that there are always surprises.

You could spend your whole life studying just the BCE period, the Roman Age, the Viking Age or the Middle Ages. Some scholars only study the runes, and they have plenty to keep them busy. Some professors work with only the literary records from Iceland; others work solely with archaeological artifacts. You can focus on oral tradition, you can focus on artistic interpretations or you can focus on the written poetry.

There are always new discoveries to keep things exciting. In the last few weeks alone, there were news items about a Viking burial in Scotland and an ancient Anglo-Saxon “weapon sacrifice” in England. Every new thing that we learn sheds more light on the great mysteries of the past.

From the English hoard (c675) - were these objects "sacrificed" to the gods?

WG – Why do you think it is that Norse mythology is so unknown? Some kids in my class don't know that it exists.

KS – This is another complex question. It has to do with the educational system in America, with individual religious upbringing and with intellectual curiosity.

For example, we have ancient literary records that the Norse landed in North America nearly five hundred years before Columbus (who never actually set foot on North America itself). In the 1960s, physical proof of ancient Norse presence was unearthed in Canada. Do you study this in your American history class? If not, maybe you should ask your teacher why the decision was made to ignore these historical facts. I’d be very interested in the answer, myself!

Recreation of Norse settlement (c1000) at L'Anse aux Meadows

It’s possible that some Americans with Norse heritage are embarrassed about this aspect of their own family history. If you are a devout Christian, do you want to admit that your ancestors were still making human sacrifices to the old gods 1,000 years after the birth of Christ? That’s a hard thing to deal with, both psychologically and spiritually.

If you’re not an intellectually curious person, it’s very easy to live a modern life – full of Facebooking, Twittering and YouTubing – and never come across this subject. Actually, it’s very easy not to come across a lot of subjects! I would guess that the average student in your class also doesn’t know that William S. Burroughs, Charles Mingus or Caspar David Friedrich existed, either. These are the times we live in.

WG – What does Norse mythology encompass? Obviously the gods, but does it also include stories like Beowulf?

KS – What we know of Norse mythology comes mainly from the two Icelandic books I mentioned earlier (The Prose Edda and The Poetic Edda), plus another Icelandic book (The Heimskringla), plus a Danish book (The History of the Danes), plus a limited number of other poems and stories. These are, basically, the main primary sources on the subject. However, you’re completely right to ask about Beowulf, which was written in a Christian era but contains many references to the older beliefs.

An 18th-century manuscript of The Prose Edda,
with pictures of the gods Odin & Heimdall
and places, objects & animals from Norse myth

As I mentioned earlier, there are records about the religion going back many centuries. However, I did make a distinction between mythology and religion, so you have to decide for yourself where to take your own research. Do you stick to reading the main stories? Do you start reading about the history of the various periods? Do you compare the German Nibelungenlied (about Siegfried the Dragon Slayer) to the Icelandic Saga of the Volsungs (about Sigurd the Dragon Slayer)? Do you search the Icelandic sagas for more information about myth and ritual? Do you check out books about the runes? It’s all related, which makes it a lot of fun.

WG – Is there anything else you would like to add, that you think everybody should know about Norse mythology but doesn't?

KS – I think that everybody should know about everything! I mean, the main reason that I like Odin is his endless quest for knowledge. He’s always disguising himself as an old wanderer and travelling through the world, trying to find out more about life and death. I’m an endlessly curious person, and I’m always hunting for new information. Each question I answer leads to more questions.

Odin the Wanderer by Georg von Rosen (1886)

Maybe the Norse myths speak to you. If so, you should learn everything you can about them. Maybe you think they’re just a bunch of nonsense. That’s fine, too. I would encourage you to find something that does speak to you on a fundamental level. Maybe it's mathematics, maybe it's music, maybe it's mixed martial arts. Whatever it is, make it a part of your life and learn as much as you can about it. The quest for knowledge will make you a deeper person and a valuable contributor to the intellectual and cultural life of our society.

Thank you for inviting me to participate in this interview. I hope that my answers help you a little bit on your own quest!


Johanna Hardardottir said...

Thank you Karl, as a priestess of Asatru in Iceland I must say that you are an excellent mentor. I am very happy to know that young people in America to have access to someone who has your knowledge and your talent to explain in a way that everyone understands.

Anonymous said...

This was great to read and I'm going to bookmark it to refer people to. It's hard to sum up all this in such a short piece. Thank You.-- Denise Bowen

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this insightful interview, which is an excellent overview while also giving meaningful details. You do Norse mythology and religion justice, both in the past and the present. -- Michaela Macha (Asatru in Germany)

Anonymous said...

Excellent article! Thank you for sharing this.

Ehatsumi said...

Thank you for this nice post, it's really interesting and informative, I am amazed to learn that the Norse Religion is still active today.

Hope to read more posts from you!

Anonymous said...

I learned a lot from this article. Thanks for sharing.

Just curious. Are there any people in the modern day world who attempt to live as the vikings did?

Thanks for sharing.

I just created an Earthy Metal blog that examines how themes of Paganism/Earth Based beliefs are cropping up in the modern world, underground culture, and how these beliefs can steer us towards a better - greener planet.

Vindaahr said...

There is a small error, even in Italy there are many towns where German is spoken. Type Bolzano, and Trento. the Lombards brought their influence in northern Italy, one of many examples is that of Asiago, where there are remains of an ancient pagan altar (Altarknotto) where the legend, from what I remember, is linked to the northern roots.

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