Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Norsemen and their Gods

Edith Hamilton's widely read "Mythology," is devoted mostly to her great loves, Greek culture and mythology. Tucked into the book is a small section on Norse mythology. It is a short but shocking read. The Norse gods were not like the Greek. The Norse gods held a position in the universe that was more than vulnerable, it was doomed. And they knew it. Consequently they were capable of that one aspect of life denied the Greek gods: Heroism.

The references are few. Not many works survived the Christian cleansing. Two Icelandic "Eddas" have survived and are responsible for almost all of our information about the religion.

The "Younger Edda" was written down by a Snorri Sturluson in the last part of the twelfth century and is something of an academic work. The older one, the "Elder Edda," is dated about 1300 and is very old, a mixture of several poems--often on the same subject--and Hamilton writes, astonishingly, the epic material is "as great as the 'Iliad', perhaps even greater" but there was no Norse poet equal to the work, as Homer was. In it Goodness does not prevail over Evil. Righteousness is not rewarded.

In the "Elder Edda," the Norse gods live in Asgard, under constant threat from the Giants of Jotunheim. The mood in Asgard is somber; there is no lightheartedness, no carelessness, no joy. The structure of the universe is being constantly gnawed at by serpents and, at some point, will collapse. And the gods have powerful opponents; the Giants are the enemies of the gods and all that is good. Throughout the writings is the certainty that eventually the gods, and goodness, will fall. "The gods are doomed and the end is death." The only vindication that the gods--and men--can hope for is heroism in the face of certain defeat, the defiance of fate.

Odin is the sky-father, the king of the gods. He is a brooding, worried being as he waits for the fall to come. But he is not inactive. He constantly seeks and suffers for more wisdom for himself and, Prometheus-like, he brings it to man. But unlike Prometheus, he suffers not because he is punished; he suffers as a trade, a compact he makes to bring man his gifts. First he bargains at the Well of Wisdom for a drink and surrenders an eye for it. Then he achieves the knowledge of the Runes by suffering, by pain. Read the remarkable and shocking description of Odin's trial in the "Elder Edda" as he hung
                        Nine whole nights on a wind-rocked tree,
                        Wounded with a spear.
                        I was offered to Odin, myself to myself,
                        On that tree of which no man knows.

Yet these dark men in this dark land also write of a vision, a light that will penetrate the darkness when "The sun turns black, the earth sinks in the sea/ The hot stars fall from the sky," a new heaven and earth would emerge "In wondrous beauty once again,/ The dwellings roofed with gold" when One would come, greater than Odin and beyond evil
                                        A greater than all,
                         But I dare not ever speak his name

It is a small hope, but it this dark world any hope casts a lot of light.

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