Tag Archives: Norse mythology

Won’t Someone Think of the Gods?

The annual holiday tradition of fighting over peace on earth has begun. It’s difficult to attribute blame since the “Keep Christ in Christmas” crowd do have a certain historical parsimony about them. Still, it was with tongue frozen in cheek that the Freedom From Religion Foundation put up a billboard in Pitman, New Jersey, with the message “Keep Saturn in Saturnalia.” Won’t someone think of the gods? In just the short span of my lifetime (well, half-a-century is really not that long) many assumptions about American religiosity have come to be questioned. There are those who seriously believe the Greco-Roman gods exist and they do have a right not to have their religion belittled. Those who find all religions laughable, I suppose, have the right to belittle. Some are devoted to Saturn. Others take seriously the Norse gods. Belief is like that—rationality is not a huge part of it.

Megyn Kelly, an anchor on Fox News, boldly declared this past week that Santa is, by dint of historical fact, white. I suspect she wasn’t thinking of Nicholas of Myra, but rather the jolly (white) man with glandular problems and the magical ability to visit every house in the world in a single night. The historical Saint Nicholas was born in Turkey. Kelly also made an unequivocal claim for Jesus’ whiteness, although he was clearly Semitic and historical records about him are extremely dicey. Conservatism, it seems, can only be pushed so far. I tend to think the problem is with making people into gods. Once a person becomes divine, in a monotheistic system—apart from all the theological casuistry than ensues—the nature of godhood is irrevocably associated with one race only. Of course Kelly, and many Fox News fans, have co-opted Christ from Judaism and suppose he was rather Nordic, as an article on CNN’s Belief Blog notes. Kind of like Thor, for what carpenter doesn’t know how to use a hammer?

To keep (white) Christ in (white) Christmas does betray a lack of familiarity with the Christmas story. Apart from angels appearing to some shepherds, the event was obscure—in the part of town across the tracks. Even the wisest men in the world had to stop and ask directions because they couldn’t find the place. The first Christmas, in as far as we can reconstruct it, was a silent affair with only the sounds of birth and the quiet desperation of a working class family far from home. No malls stayed open late that night.

The solstice is literally the darkest day of the year, the time when the slow return to light begins its weary trek over the next six months. We think of the cold, the dark, and hope for peace. No matter the holiday tradition, you’d think that peace would be one thing we could all agree upon. But gods are jealous beings, and, technically, they belong to no human race at all.

O holy night?

O holy night?

Twilight Zones

It was twilight last night when I drove into Binghamton. My thoughts naturally turned to The Twilight Zone since one of my childhood heroes, Rod Serling, had grown up here. Binghamton University was also the professional home of novelist John Gardner, of Grendel fame. Seeing the colorful leaves fading to the gray of a falling evening, I thought of how evocative a word “twilight” is. We are creatures with an in-born fear of the dark and twilight is our last hope of light before the night settles in. Maybe it was having just so recently read Grendel, but twilight and gods together brought “the twilight of the gods” to mind (it might have helped that a sudden thunderstorm broke out at the moment). When I first saw the word Götterdämmerung, in junior high school, I thought it must be a potent swear word, what with all those doubled letters and umlauts. My German teacher calmly explained that it was the fourth and final cycle of Richard Wagner’s opera, Der Ring des Nibelungen and it translated to Twilight of the Gods. It is itself a translation of the Norse word Ragnarök, with its single umlaut. Even though it wasn’t swearing, the concept sent a shiver through me anyhow.

I’ve never sat through a performance of The Ring, but I have heard the music with its famous Ride of the Valkyries. Based on Norse and Germanic mythologies, The Ring has deep roots in a pagan mythology where night plays a prominent role. Although J. R. R. Tolkien denied having been inspired by Wagner’s work (there was a certain political incorrectness to it, along about the early-to-mid-1940s), both four-part cycles draw on the Norse mythology that continues to fascinate us with movies like Thor and The Avengers. What impacted my young mind the most, however, was the very concept that the gods could be defeated. How was such a thing even possible? We were raised to believe good conquers evil. How can the gods—even pagan ones—lose? It was a world-distorting concept for someone yet to face high school.

Last night I was literally in the twilight zone. Having driven through the Endless Mountains region where autumn’s reds and yellows inspired me with just how colorful death can be (a European friend once confessed to me that driving along a wooded road in Pennsylvania his first autumn here he had to pull over and weep for the beauty), twilight was already on my mind. October fades into the twilight of the year. The mythologies of the northern races, the Norse and the Celts, seem almost obsessed with the ominous, growing darkness. There is a beauty to it, but also an abiding fear. Are the gods powerful enough? It was a question first raised when my eye fell on that striking word Götterdämmerung that somehow became a part of me.

409px-Ring63

Alien Deities

What with The Avengers making such a big pre-summer splash this year and all, I decided to refresh my memory and watch Thor again this weekend. In many ways it is a very impressive movie—very loud in the theater last year, and necessarily quieter in our apartment over the weekend. Often when I see a movie on the big screen I can’t keep track of all that is said or implied, especially when there’s so much action going on. Of course, Thor is an unusual hero in the Marvel Universe, being a god. Being supernatural is not limited to deities in that universe, but the other mutants are the results of science: the Hulk and his gamma rays, Captain America’s experimental treatment, and Iron Man’s good, old-fashioned engineering. They are modified humans. Thor comes from a different place. Upon rewatching the movie, the line about the Norse gods as beings from another dimension worshipped as gods came through loud and clear. Jane Foster comes to believe in the ancient alien hypothesis.

As a solution to the lack of omnipotence on the part of the gods, casting Thor and Loki into the role of aliens serves comic-book universes very well. In reality there are well-meaning and serious people who believe that any entity recognized as a god by human religions might have been a space traveler mistaken for divine. This is an idea I first encountered in Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods? (Hey, I couldn’t help it—I grew up in the seventies!) The world has enough high strangeness without von Däniken’s hypotheses, but in the case of Thor we have a fictional realm that explains how heroes gain their strength. The same could be postulated, I suppose, for Superman, but then, he never commanded a formal cult in antiquity.

Beyond the theological conundrum, Thor also participates in the nearly universal theme of resurrection. Realizing that his arrogance has led to the troubles of the human race, Thor faces the Destroyer (a creature with origins in the Hebrew Bible and Israelite mythology) and willingly lays down his life. This is generally the prerequisite for resurrection in any effective mythology. Of course, Thor returns and, like any good savior, rescues the world. Setting the story in New Mexico only assists in reasserting the mysterious events at Roswell where, like in the movie, something strange fell from the sky. In this subtext the feds rush in and commandeer the data, for people are not capable of making the correct decision. Yet, they leave the god behind. Marvel Studios has been rightly praised for its mastery of the genre. For those willing to look deeply, even Thor has its social commentary.

Thor’s Day

Mythology has visited the big screen in many guises, but among the current spate of superhero films a god may rival mere mortals and mutants. Thor opens in theaters today, bringing a Norse god back into the public eye. Like many young boys I owe my early reading predilection to comic books. One of my favorite heroes was Thor (our birthdays were very close) but I couldn’t quite make out how he was a superhero with the unfair advantage of being a god. Why weren’t other gods down here with us? At some level I sensed Thor’s rage, and perhaps even his estrangement from his father. Was there a sadness to this mighty wielder of thunder? When I was a little older Lester del Rey’s Day of the Giants became one of my favorite books. Norse mythology is plaintive compared to the world of the jovial Greek gods. Even the beloved Balder dies.

Thor is the embodiment of one of the most ancient principles of divinity: control of the storm. A generation after Odin, Thor also experiences that generational divide that all ancient people felt marked the lives of the gods. Zeus likely developed as a more civilized form of Hadad (Baal). In Ugaritic mythology Baal is the lord of the storm; he bears a mace where Thor will grasp a hammer. Baal, however, is often described as the son of Dagan, likely an early Mesopotamian storm god. Back to the earliest levels of civilization miniscule humans have quaked in wonder at the power of storm gods. Making Thor into a superhero humanized him a bit, and with classic comic-book biceps he was sure to be a hit among scrawny boys with dreams of grandeur. We would never have been allowed to read comic books featuring Baal.

The salient point, I suppose, is what makes a god a god? In the mythological mindset, deities are quite human except for their immortality and their strength. The might of gods clashes with the might of other gods. Omnipotence takes the fun out of the equation, for a truly all-powerful deity has orchestrated this whole cosmos and we are just pathetic players on the stage. Thor rages against the machine. If a god cannot be defeated, there is no story to tell. It may be difficult to predict how well Thor will perform on the big screen, but if I am not alone in my fascination of watching gods struggle against even greater gods, this may be like the Day of the Giants for grownups and kids alike.

Return of the Frost Giants

We have ceased believing in the gods, but we still feel their wrath. The recent winter storms encompassing much of the nation demonstrate our arrogance in the face of the uncontrollable. It has long been my contention that the chief god is a personification of the weather. No matter how many HAARPs we put into place or how many satellites we hurl over our heads, the atmosphere remains a chaotic system. Global warming triggers unpredictable weather and extreme conditions. Yet people claim the moderate level of snow in the northeast is proof against the facts. I say the gods are laughing. How quickly we forget the ice ages.

As a child Norse mythology was among my favorite pagan religious systems. Obviously those responsible for naming our weekdays felt the same. The struggles and weaknesses of Odin, Thor, and Loki are far more honest than claims of pristine intention on the part of the majority of gods. The most captivating aspect was the eventual victory of the frost giants at a kind of Ragnarök. In Scotland, so close to the landfall of many a Viking, I took advantage of indulging in Viking sagas and myths. My understanding remains that of a curious layman, but I sense a deep wisdom at work here.

A recent email from a university dean on a particularly treacherous weather morning admonished all instructors that classroom presence was a commodity that paying students have a right to expect. Deans, with their six-figure salaries, are not accustomed to not getting their own way. How hard it is to admit that the gods have bested us! There are those who’ve not bothered to study global warming but nevertheless like to make pronouncements about it. They claim such weather disproves that the world is heating up, despite the global warming models that predict erratic and localized colder weather. We have released the frost giants. The more we mess with them the more dangerous they become. So, what is my solution to the dilemma of too much weather? Well, I’m morally obligated not to say until I receive my six-figure salary.

The little wolf laughed to see such sport

Death of the Gods

Americangods

Ancient gods surround me these days. Surely part of it is due to having recently finished Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (I know I’m a few years late on this, but novel-reading time is at a premium even when teaching only part-time). Gaiman’s not the first to have taken on the theme of “what if ancient deities still survived?”. As a child I read Lester del Rey’s Day of the Giants with its science-fictionalized version of Ragnarok, and even earlier H. P. Lovecraft had resurrected Dagon and Cthulhu. Gaiman’s treatment, however, is contemporary and is a barometer of how the old gods are faring these days.

Dark and witty, Gaiman’s treatment is a fun-house ride through the fanciful concept that old-time gods and folk-heroes emigrated to American with their believers. The resulting adventure brings a multi-cultural mix of supernatural powers that end up mostly focusing on the Norse mythological cast. Same was true of del Rey — the Norse mythology reflects a stark world of raw power, betrayal, death and resurrection, that resonates with northern European experience. Anansi and Chernobog also take starring roles in American Gods, although the only ancient Near Eastern deities with any prominence in the story are the Egyptian Thoth and Anubis in supporting roles.

Casting an eye over the American landscape, this assessment is perhaps true to life. Ancient Near Eastern deities seem so distant and unfamiliar. Gods long dead. Despite recent movements to revive the worship of Mesopotamian or Canaanite deities, their powers seem to have dissipated at the middle of the first millennium B.C.E. as Yahweh gained a prominence he has never relinquished, and the Greeks and Romans paved over the graves of Ninhursag and Yarikh with European versions of the more prominent West Asian gods. Universities reflect this lack of knowledge with slowly dying departments of Ancient Near Eastern studies. Like Gaiman suggests, America seems to have gone after the more modern gods suited to our present-day lifestyle.