Spring has been taking its time to arrive here in the northeast. Just when things seem to have set on a course of identifiable progress, the temperature drops twenty degrees and the rain sets in again. It’s been great weather for toadstools. There are bright patches, however. I read on the bus, but one day last week as we were trundling toward New York City I glanced out the window. The sky was mostly clear and a sundog shone brightly to the north like my own personal star of Bethlehem. Sundogs feel like good omens. I’ve read enough about meteorology to know that they are merely a refraction of sunlight due to ice crystals high in the atmosphere. Depending on your angle of view, they might appear as a halo all the way around the sun, at which point they’re no longer dogs, or, at certain times of day they may appear as a solid beam coming down to earth in the form of a sun-pillar. It’s only ice and light.
Those of us who stare long at the sky know that the weather is merely a metaphor. The earth spins. It revolves. It rotates. It’s cold at the tips and warm in the middle. The laws of physics—unbreakable they tell us—state that all bodies seek equilibrium. A constant California temperature. If humans should survive long enough we might find our globe of uniform temperature, smooth as a billiard ball, and utterly lifeless. We need the variations of our weather. The chill of a spring that just won’t warm up. The heat of a summer that wilts down to the roots. Ice and light.
I’m heading into a large city. It’s a quotidian trip that some might suppose to be void of meaning. The sundog follows us for a while until it’s lost in the skyscrapers of human devising. Towers that over-reach but which the gods have to bend down to see. Nobody knows the origin of the term “sundog.” My favorite explanation is from Norse mythology where wolves pursue the sun and moon to consume them. This feels so appropriate to me as I enter the artificial canyons of hubris, glass, and concrete. As the day progresses the sundogs appear to disappear. Towers continue to grow. Beyond them, high in the sky, ice and light will continue their play, even if the dogs never do reach the sun. Refraction of light may cause things to manifest as other than they truly are.
Coming back to a book you first read as a tween, in the days before tweens even existed, can be a revelation. Lester del Rey’s Day of the Giants introduced me to Norse mythology as a kid, and, along with Thor comic books, was my Nordic Bible. The last time I read it was probably in the Ford administration. As part of a reading challenge I’m undertaking this year, I had to select a book I’d read before and, amazingly enough, I still had my copy. Reading the book as an adult, however, proved a very different experience from reading it as a child. For one thing, I noticed quite a bit more of the implicit theology of the story. Del Rey was no theologian, of course. This little book, however, makes a statement that is difficult to miss regarding the gods: they are victims of tradition.
It is probably not worth worrying about spoilers over half a century after a book was published, but I’ll try to be sensitive nevertheless. Leif Svensen, our protagonist, finds himself in Asgard on the eve of Ragnarok. All the familiar Norse gods are there: Thor, Loki, Odin, and kith and kin. As they prepare for the battle with the frost giants, who, in the mythology win the contest, the deities are decidedly subdued. They believe their fate is sealed by a prophecy of defeat. Leif, being a true American, gives them a rousing speech about overcoming the old ways. Gods, by nature, are conservative. They don’t have to bow to tradition—they are gods, after all. The deities are not swayed by the logic of a mere mortal, even after his apotheosis. Fate, it seems, trumps even gods.
I’m pretty sure that Lester del Rey wasn’t attempting to make any profound theological observation here. One can be an accidental theologian. Ideas of gods and what they must do can be a detriment to their own future. Even with the evidence of the failure of their own prophecy, the gods can see no way forward other than that they’ve recognized as fate. They are, without saying too much, out-maneuvered by human resourcefulness. A man tames his god, and it can become a man’s best friend. I wasn’t expecting such theological insight from a sci-fi book from my youth. Then again, you never know what may happen when you come back to a book after leaving it on the shelf for four decades.
Posted in Books, Classical Mythology, Deities, Literature, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged Day of the Giants, Leif Svensen, Lester del Rey, Norse gods, Norse mythology, Ragnarok, science fiction, Thor, Tradition
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