Hovering somewhere between fiction and fact, A. S. Byatt’s Ragnarök: The End of the Gods is a compelling reimagining of Norse mythology. Starting in childhood, the stark and bleak icons of a world where even the gods die captured my fantasy in a way that the more real myths of my own faith did not. Like “Greek mythology” the tales of the Norse don’t come in an authoritative canon. Like the tales collected by the brothers Grimm they are bits and pieces that Byatt brings to life with honest description and the willingness to trust the outlook of a child. Mythology is too often castigated as puerile and of no inherent worth. We would not, however, be human without it.
I suspect we all secretly envy the gods, begrudging them their strength, but especially their immortality. Most myths admit that gods might die, but often they come back or become greater for their demise. Ragnarök is the final death of the gods. In fact, it isn’t so far from the “heat death of the universe” that some scientists warn us is surely coming. All good things come to an end. Even gods. The Christian God, who becomes omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient over time, loses something of his likableness for it. Vulnerability lends us a sense of sympathy. Who cannot help but weep for Balder? Odin, the God hung on a tree, dead and brought back to life is swallowed by a wolf. Even mighty Thor succumbs to the poison of the serpent. The world feels impoverished for their loss. Victorious gods have a way of making warriors of their worshippers. Maybe we have something to learn from the gods of the folk.
Mythology is out of fashion among academe. The only money it brings in is from the movies it inspires. Truth may be had for bargain basement prices, so why pay to learn what makes us believe in the impossible? Reading of the end of the gods instills a kind of inspiration that orthodoxy only smothers. No, these deities never really lived. These events never really happened. Still, humans have always found mythology to be uniquely satisfying. Ragnarök explains a chaotic world where our ideas of justice and fairness are often left disappointed. As Byatt points out, Loki is a compelling figure perhaps because he represents what we all know to be true—visions of control are only delusions. In a world with one, monolithic, monotheistic God, we find things hard to explain. Postulating a world where the gods know that they too face an end, even if only in fiction, may help us better understand a world where facts just don’t add up.
Posted in Books, Classical Mythology, Deities, Literature, Posts
Tagged A. S. Byatt, heat death of the universe, Loki, Norse gods, Norse mythology, Ragnarök: The End of the Gods, Ragnarok, Thor
Once as I sat in the office of an Ivy League professor of Greek religion, I asked about the myths of the Classical gods. The professor (who knew that I had taught religion as well, but at more like a Noxious Weed League school) appeared genuinely insulted and told me in no uncertain terms that scholars of religion didn’t take that nonsense seriously. The study of “myths” was left to Classicists, not actual scholars of religion. Is it any wonder, then, that we don’t really have a grasp on what the average person believes? Being a blue-collar scholar, I always took seriously what students told me about their beliefs. It wasn’t really a great surprise, then, when my wife pointed me to a story in The Guardian about a temple to the Nordic gods being built in Iceland. According to the story, the modern adherents of Ásatrúarfélagið (thank you unicode) don’t really believe in a literal Odin or Thor or Frigg, but see them as metaphors to help them face the way life is. A millennium after becoming Christian, some Icelanders are apparently getting back to their roots.
There has always been, to me, a fascination with the Nordic gods. These rough-and-tumble deities inhabited the harsh and snowy regions where daily life was often a struggle to survive against the elements. Frost giants were enemies and nobody really emerges as the winner after Ragnarok. In the Bible Yahweh does sometimes come out swinging, but for the most part he seems a deity content to sit on his throne and issue commands. The Scandinavian gods were characters of action. In some sense they seemed to struggle just like the rest of us do. They are, of course, more powerful and as the movie makes clear, Thor has a charisma that more self-righteous deities appear to lack. Lest anyone be ready to run to their priest at this point, please be aware that this too is a metaphor.
On the other side of the equation there are sure to be critics who argue that building a temple to fake gods in this day and age is obviously a waste of human talent and resources. Such are people with no imagination. Religious belief, metaphor or not, has been part of the human psyche from the very beginning. Elsewhere I have suggested that animals show the same behaviors as what we Homo sapiens would declare rudimentary religion. Rationalism has not provided a reasonable alternative to religious expression. Even a Stoic knows to appreciate art, although beauty provides no essential element to simple survival. Simply put, humans enjoy the finer things of life. Perhaps unappreciated since long sublimated, among those finer things are the old Nordic gods. And their return is a kind of resurrection.
The Battle of the Doomed Gods
Posted in Classical Mythology, Current Events, Deities, Higher Education, Popular Culture, Posts, Sects
Tagged Ásatrúarfélagið, classical mythology, frost giants, Iceland, Norse mythology, Ragnarok, Stoic, The Guardian, Thor
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.
Posted in Classical Mythology, Deities, Literature, Memoirs, Popular Culture, Posts, Religious Violence, Travel
Tagged Binghamton, Der Ring des Nibelungen, Götterdämmerung, Grendel, J. R. R. Tolkien, Norse mythology, Ragnarok, Richard Wagner, Rod Serling, Thor, Twilight Zone
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.
Posted in Classical Mythology, Deities, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts, Religious Origins
Tagged ancient aliens, Chariots of the Gods?, Erich von Däniken, Loki, Marvel Universe, New Mexico, Norse mythology, resurrection, Roswell, The Avengers, Thor
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.
Posted in Books, Classical Mythology, Current Events, Deities, Memoirs, Mesopotamia, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts, Ugarit, Weather
Tagged Baal, Dagan, Day of the Giants, Greek mythology, Hadad, Lester del Rey, Norse mythology, Odin, Thor, Zeus
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
Posted in Classical Mythology, Current Events, Deities, Higher Education, Posts, Weather
Tagged frost giants, global warming, HAARP, Loki, Norse mythology, Odin, Ragnarok, Thor, Vikings