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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