This week, I started reading Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman. Actually, I was a bit doubtful when starting this book. Norse mythology has after all been bandied about a lot. Almost all fantasy since Tolkien has made a passing nod at it or more often these days one of its derivatives and most fantasy works are terrible.
The names of Odin, Thor and Loki have entered pop culture with Marvel comics, was there really going to be anything worth reading here? Then there was Gaiman himself. Neil Gaiman is one of the most original writers in contemporary fantasy. At his finest, he rivals the best the field has ever produced. His works have been adapted to film (e.g. Stardust) and television (e.g. Neverwhere and American Gods). But he is erratic. At his worst, he can be plodding and obscure. If you are interested in trying out his work, I recommend the first one I read, Neverwhere.
I have been pleasantly surprised. The stories are crisp and brisk paced and do a surprisingly good job of building characters. As you would expect, at the center of the stories are the three, Odin the wise king of Gods, Thor the dull witted Hercules and the scheming Loki. The book is proving to be a very good read.
Thor’s Fight with the Giants, Marten Winge 1872
Legends are very useful in understanding the world view of the society they originate in and the image they paint of the Vikings is an interesting one. We see a people in love with art, craftsmanship and poetry. People who are so respectful of their tools that they name them.
We also see a place where human life is cheap. Violence and killing is a regular part of life as are cunning and deceit. In this respect they are not too dissimilar to myths from ancient Greeks and India. Empathy is rare and it is the most natural thing in the world for the gods to laugh at another’s misfortune. Cunning and treachery are celebrated as part of a hero’s life and the ends justify almost any means.
When Odin uses trickery to trap the wolf Fenrir, the beast growls, “You lie, All-father. You lie in the way that some folk breathe.”
Odin with Frea , Doepler 1905
Compare this with the Odyssey where Odysseus (described as a man of twists and turns) and Penelope lie and cheat at every stage to try and gain an advantage for themselves even as they are tossed about in waves of misfortune. The early fables of Indra also contain many instances of betrayal, adultery and deceit.
When did this change? When did trickery cease to be celebrated and start being reviled? In the west, we see a transition between the early Greek Homeric period to the later works of philosophers. In India, the dawn of Buddhism, Jainism and the Bhakti movements changed the very character of the Vedic religion into the Hinduism that is familiar today. According to German philosopher Karl Jaspers, world-wide there was a change in the outlook and morality of society between the 8th and 3rd century BC. This he termed as the Axial Age.
While many have criticized this characterization, the idea remains interesting. This was the time of Mahavira and Buddha in India, of the rise of Confucianism and Taoism in China, of Zoroastrianism in Persia and Platonism in Greece (which played an important role in the development of Christian thought during the middle ages). The effect was an overpowering change in the values and ethics of these societies.
The Norse however lived far from the center of the Axial Age. In their icy abode, they received the word of neither Christ nor Buddha for centuries. The old gods and stories remained and grew.
It is curious how much of our modern culture and language is linked with these old fables. Consider the word “hell”. In Norse mythology, the soul of heroes who died valiantly in battle were borne up by the Valkyries to the halls of Asgard where they would feast and fight under the leadership of Odin. But those who died ingloriously of disease old age or in childbirth faced a very different fate.
A legend tells of Loki’s illegitimate daughter Hel, born of an adulterous union between him and the giantess Angrboda. On one side, she had the body and face of a radiant and beautiful girl while on the other she had the rotting flesh of a decaying corpse. Odin sent her to the lowest and darkest level of creation. This was Nilfheim or the World of Fog. Here she had dominion over the souls of all the ingloriously dead. In her abode, she had a knife called Famine, a dish called Hunger and the bed Sick-bed.
Hel, Johannes Gehrts 1889
Her land was hence called Helheim or the abode of the goddess Hel from which we get the word Hell.