The End of the Gods

RagnarokHovering 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.

Avenge This

Recently rewatching The Avengers I noticed a subtext that had escaped me the first couple of times I saw it. When Loki explains to his victims why he is spreading his chaos, he uses a concept that many of us have been spoon-fed since 9/11—that freedom is not free. When he is asked from what he is setting humans free he replies, “Freedom.” He further explains that people really don’t want freedom, but they want to be led. This sounded so much like Bush administration rhetoric that I was put on alert for the remainder of the movie. Indeed, in the climatic scene much of Midtown is attacked, and who launches the nuclear device at Manhattan? The shadowy government figures who wish to remain anonymous. “Freedom is not free,” they seem to say, “support your government without question.” The scene of police and firefighters herding frightened citizens out of harm’s way looked an awful lot like footage from near ground zero.

Comic books, I have often reflected, are already story-boarded and some make excellent movies. Some are funny and some are serious. As a child I had only a handful of comics, but they were like movies for kids with modest means. Like an adult going back to the old Warner Brothers cartoons, you see many things that escaped you as a child. Comics may not be high literature, but comic book movies, at their best, are not far from it. The X-Men movies likewise introduce themes that rivet adult attention: prejudice, discrimination, the ambivalence of evil. The stories are didactic as well as entertaining. In the case of The Avengers, the characters, while overblown, all have their own agendas but government has only one: compliance.

Sometimes I read about the early days of the American experiment and wonder what went wrong. Yes, there are certainly times and issues that demand strong centralized government for survival, but when did those who castigate such strong control decide that they should take over? Who gains here? It certainly doesn’t seem to be the average citizen. Looking over the landscape after the last laissez-faire government, the only one who ended up hands-off were the very wealthy. Left with no social responsibility, they reign, resisting any taxation so that the burden of the increase trickles down to those who, in the words of Loki, really don’t want freedom. That’s perhaps the only thing we have in common here; no matter how long ago our ancestors arrived, they were searching for freedom. Or so they believed. Like a comic book, it has become mere fantasy for most, while Richie Rich happily continues on his gilded, but vapid way.

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Puny Windstorm

Nothing says wrath of God like a hurricane. Those of us along the Mid-Atlantic coast of the United States are hunkered down wondering what’s to become of daily life when the storm is over. Responses to the situation have been, well, religious. Store owners spraypaint prayer-like sentiments to Sandy on their plywood protection, urging the storm to be kind. Interviews are laced with language appropriately placating to a deity. The storm named after a mythical monster has become a god. Such responses are not limited to Hurricane Sandy, of course. In fact, when death is expected pleading with the powers that be is routinely recognized as Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s bargaining stage of the dying process. We always hope that forces stronger than us might be willing to make a deal, cut us a bargain. The storm, given a human name, is personified as a deity. It is such a very human response to any phenomenon that forces us to realize just how small we are. Our egos may reach to the ends of the universe, but in reality we are fragile, scared children begging for the protection of a supernatural parent.

Last night as we were sitting here waiting to be hit, my family watched The Avengers. The juxtaposition of deities and heroes in the Marvel Universe fascinates me, and, of course, the movie has to explain that Thor and Loki are really only aliens perceived as gods. Compared with their human companions, they are immeasurably strong but they do not decide the outcome of the cosmic battle that devastates New York City. No, it is Tony Stark who flies the atomic bomb through the portal to the invading ice giants, saving humanity. Thor is too busy battling flying metal dino-whales. Humanity is responsible for its own salvation. The gods may help, but they alone cannot deliver. Against his protests of divinity, the Hulk bashes a protesting Loki into the floor of Stark Tower with the grunted huff, “puny god.” His only line in the movie. The portal, swirling hurricane-like over Midtown is forced closed and human technology, in the form of Iron Man’s admittedly cool armor, saves us all.

Hurricanes remind us that our technology can’t save us all. The advance warning may very well have spared many lives by the time this all blows over. As early as Thursday I was wondering if work would be called off or if I’d have to battle the rain and winds and storm surges to get to my office (which would have provided an awesome view of the final battle in The Avengers, facing, as I do, the Chrysler Tower and Grand Central). We have been warned. Our technology, however, can’t stop the force of the storm. Sandy may not be divine, but she is massive—much larger than any person who believes that there is some trace of divinity within him or her. As I sit here listening to the wind and the rain, I wonder what the weather is like in Asgard today.

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.

Religious Aliens

While surveying books purchased as texts in religion courses (something that an editor sometimes does), I came across a book called Interdimensional Universe by Philip Imbrogno. As I’ve often suggested on this blog, the study of the paranormal is related in people’s minds with the study of religion. I suspect a large part of it is because both deal with matters that go beyond mundane, daily experience. Indeed, the tiresome caricature of those interested in the paranormal is that they are individuals dissatisfied with their lives who project their disappointments into bizarre beings or situations to make up for the emptiness. Sometimes the same thing is said of those who are religious. What is really lacking in both fields, it seems to me, is people with strong critical thinking skills who remain open minded. There are serious scholars who study the paranormal—not many of them—and it is clear from the market-informed choices that Hollywood makes, people are intensely interested. So I decided to read Interdimensional Universe.

On the bus, however, I fidgeted to find ways to hide the cover and contents of the book. I don’t want some urban, Manhattan sophisticate seeing the letters U-F-O in my reading material. Still, like most honest, open-minded people, I have to admit curiosity. After a couple of chapters Imbrogno’s work appeared to be a standard UFO book. Then it started to get weird when he suggested that angels and jinn are, like aliens, interdimensional beings. He went from citing declassified Air Force and FBI documents to quoting the Bible. And not just quoting. He assumed the historicity of biblical accounts that scholars have extensively exegeted (oh, that word!) and demonstrated to have more plausible explanations. For the jinn he draws extensively on Islamic lore, believing that they are responsible for much of the trouble in the world, tricksters like the Marvel Universe’s Loki.

I put the book down disappointed. I still consider myself open minded. I admit to not knowing what is really going on with paranormal phenomena. If the number of reports alone are anything to go on much of the human race is either insane or is seeing some unusual things. The subject requires some real academic consideration. When self-proclaimed experts, however, veer into mythology to start explaining the unknown, we are getting no closer to finding the truth that, as Fox Mulder assures us, is out there. At the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh I taught a course entitled Myth and Mystery. It was some of the most fun I had in the classroom. It was also one of the most difficult classes for which I’d ever had to prepare. Is there intelligent life in outer space? I don’t see why not—the universe is awfully big to rule it out categorically. Are there jinn literally lurking in the closet? For that I’m afraid for that there is a much more prosaic answer.

Avengers and Gods

The Marvel Comics Universe is a complex blend of juvenile and adult themes. At the suggestion of one of my readers (thanks, Erika!) and the urging of my family, we went to see The Avengers this weekend. Having grown up in my own complex circumstances (first of all, fundamentalist—therefore not prone to too much secular material, and secondly, of humble means—therefore not prone to too much material material), I was aware of only some of the group. I’d read Hulk, Iron Man, and Thor comics, and I knew who Captain America was, but I never realized they’d teamed up, along with Black Widow and Hawkeye, to form the Avengers. I guess I just missed that part. The amazing integration of gods, performance-enhanced humans, and technocrats, makes for a fascinating consideration of the boundaries of good and evil.

This became clear when Captain America first encounters Thor in the film and is told he is a god. His response, straight from Tea Party rhetoric, is “There’s only one God, ma’am, and he doesn’t dress like that.” Clearly a man from the early twentieth century would have expectations of Yahweh’s dress code. It would be a white robe, no doubt, but as the gods Thor and Loki duke it out, Yahweh is nowhere to be seen. The movie also toys with the concept of immortality. Dr. Banner, under the guise of the Hulk, is unkillable. In a poignant moment he admits having attempted suicide, but his alter-ego proved indestructible. The cheer of the audience was palpable when Loki tells the green guy, “I’m a god and I won’t be bullied by—” only to be divinely thrashed by the Hulk who responds with the word, “Demigod.”

Over the past several years I’ve noticed that hero movies have begun to declare Gotterdammerung, the twilight of the gods. No longer are supernatural beings the ones who rule humanity. Heroes are now in charge of their own destinies. And yet, that old time religion is still present. As Tony Stark is about to attack one of the wickedly cool flying leviathans he asks Jarvis “Are you familiar with the story of Jonah?” I wondered just how many in the theater got the reference—how many, like Captain America at the comment of flying monkeys, got the joke? When the movie was over, and I was convinced I wouldn’t have to go to work on Monday (I was sure my building was one of those destroyed in the mayhem), I pondered the resolution. The gods took their dispute to Asgard, out of the realm of humans. This was, after all, a dispute between deities. And humans, as so often happens in such scenarios, were simply caught in the middle.

My Myth is Bigger

“Do some people still worship those gods?” That is the question my daughter asked on the way home from seeing Thor yesterday. I had to staunch my immediate “no,” and qualify it. Revival movements exist for most ancient religions, although it is difficult to gauge how serious they are. Then I open this morning’s paper and see that conservative Muslims have been attacking Copts (by definition conservative) in Egypt again. Religion foments hatred more effectively than just about any other aspect of culture because it concerns belief. Beliefs must be held with conviction, we are constantly reminded, and conviction means convincing others that you are correct. This is the devolution from mythology to religion.

Mythology is a meaning-seeking system of stories that are true but not factual. The modern religious (and scientific) mind has difficulty accepting something that is true and false at the same time. No one requires convincing that life harbors plenty of difficulties. Even in this softer, technologically sophisticated environment we’ve created for ourselves, disappointments and difficulties abound. Religions often promise paradises that they just can’t deliver, and so true believers often grow frustrated. The myths, however, remind us that struggle is part of existence even for gods. For every Thor there is a Loki. The simplistic nicety of one God padding a harsh world with a comfortable lining simply does not match reality. Mythology has an answer for that, an answer which is more honest than many “sophisticated” religions.

In ancient times it really did not matter what you believed. Gods don’t really care what you think of them as long as you provide what they require. Offer your sacrifices, do your duty, and get on with life. Religion today is a matter of correct mental assent. If in my head I agree that this particular deity is the only one, and I love that deity, all will be well. Funny thing is, even monotheistic religions can’t figure out that if there’s only one God than everybody is worshiping it (him, according to many) already. Better to kill off those who don’t agree, just to make sure. All gods, after all, demand sacrifice.

Even scientists honor the gods: the Thor Delta