Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The awesomeness of Norse myth

I've a column in today's Canberra Times, 'Norse lessons from across the rainbow bridge'.

I'm looking into the virtues of old Norse literature, and what they say about the relationship between faith and morality.  A sample:
Today, atheists are sometimes condemned for their faithlessness - as if religion were a simple cure for violence and vice. But for the Vikings, piety and worship went hand-in-hand with invasion, slaughter, pillage. 
The difference between the Norsemen and the Crusaders was simple: the pagans were not hypocrites. Like all fiction, religion records and recommends varied values. 
Of course, we moderns can enjoy these tales with suspended disbelief: we need not invest in them, morally or cosmologically. But, like Thor's hammer, they certainly make a striking alternative to the cross.
(Illustration: Thor and the World Serpent, by Gjellerup)

2 comments:

writingbec said...

Don't forget the role of fantasy - many writers and artists take as inspiration Norse poetry and many in response do 'invest' in them. Tolkien is the most obvious one here, having spent an academic lifetime studying such things, and his interest and creations spawned a legion of imitators. Through such creators there are entire sub/cultures devoted to these worlds through games, books and comics, that through them, espouse aspects of the Norse mythos. Is devotion to these worlds like a devotion to a faith?
Further, what do you make of the cyclical Celtic revivals? Yeats was responsible, in part, for one (in a literary sense), then in the mid 1990s people rediscovered Celtic art and symbolism. Does either/both play into some kind of search for identity, a need for a tribe, or is it something else? If some have abandoned Christianity, are they searching for meaning, codes and symbols and found replacements in such places? And what of spiritualities and the experience of the numinous? What is the role of the mystical experience if all we take from any faith or culture are the 'tales'?
Interesting take anyway, you got me thinking.

Damon Young said...

Bec, your mead cup runneth over!

I agree that these myths - as with all ancient symbolic stories - can inspire art. Absolutely. The devotion can be as passionate as faith, but often without the belief. Tolkien, for example, was knowingly inventing - he didn't belief that his characters were to be worshipped.

As for the numinous, I suspect that tales like these - including Greek myth - can awaken reverence for things, without requiring literal belief in gods, legendary heroes, and so on. Yggdrasill, for example, suggests a cosmos of entropy and destruction, the futility of expecting perfection, and the nobility of suffering it creatively. Put in more general terms, the symbols suggest a world beyond themselves, without representing it in any straightforward way.