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Greek mythology and Norse mythology can teach us much about what it means to be human; what they cannot do, however, is provide ultimate hope. For that, we need a truer story…

Norse MythologyThis semester I heard the voice of the “Helikonian Muses” as they sang “the song again in our time” through Hesiod’s Theogony.[1] I love Greek mythology; few bodies of writing are so fertile for the imagination and have so many thinkers, writers, and fellow wonderers playing in the same space. Hesiod especially is a great poet to take a group of 9th graders through. He brings to life the Homeric wonder of the gods, the hidden enchanted reality behind all things. As Luc Ferry points out, Greek mythology also gives access to nascent Greek philosophy.[2]

Questions of transition of power (Titans to Olympians), the power of love (Eros, who can “unstring the knees of both gods and men”), the role of order and justice in combating chaos, the necessary conditions for human flourishing—all these and more are clear themes and motifs which arise through Hesiod’s poetry. My high schoolers appreciated the inherent structure of the mythology as Hesiod moves through creation (primordial gods) into the first generation of divine offspring (Titans) into the Olympian era where at last order, justice, and power have combined in the figure of Zeus to create a world where humanity can thrive.

Such thriving is always in the gods’ world. The vision of reality Hesiod puts forth is not one of the image-bearers of YHWH ruling creation, but rather puny mortals who live at the gods’ pleasure. At any point, humans could anger the gods. As Hesiod tells the Prometheus myth, we realize that the gods’ wrath can come in many forms: a storm, a curse, a beautiful woman. Regardless of how it works out, humans always have the possibility of offending the powerful gods and suffering in turn. For Greek mythology, tragedy is always a possibility (and in the works of the dramatists, a likelihood).

As we wrapped up Hesiod and prepared to move to the more anthropocentric Homer, Neil Gaiman released his long-awaited Norse Mythology.[3] Mr. Gaiman worked from the Eddas, and thus his edition of Norse myth reads like an updated edition of Padraic Colum’s Nordic Gods and Heroes. Mr. Gaiman employed sparse prose and dialogue to convey the world of beauty, death, joy, and sorrow which is the Norse cycle. His Odin seems both wise and mysterious, and the reader wonders whether the choice at Mimer’s Well was worth it all the way until the final tale. Mr. Gaiman’s Thor and Loki are marvelous, and their antagonism drives the humor of the myths.

While teaching Hesiod and reading Mr. Gaiman’s Norse Myth, I began reflecting on the differences in orientation. Both describe enchanted worlds, beautiful and strange. Both provide the narrative basis for pagan religious practices; both mythologies have intrigued hearts and minds for centuries. And yet, the two mythologies are marked by a profound difference in how they consider tragedy.

For Greek mythology, tragedy lies in the past. Cronos severed Ouranos’ testicles, letting time and space begin as the sky moved in agony; Zeus in turn attacks and wounds his father Cronos, letting his reign of justice (ordered power paired with law) begin; yet Zeus’ reign is not solidified until the defeat of Typhon, last child of Gaia and Chaos. The events of the Homeric world and the myths recounted by Apollodorus and Romanized by Ovid all take place in a present time which can look back at the rule of chaos. The tragedy, the threat of ultimate destruction, lies behind Greek myth.

In contrast, for Norse mythology, the tragedy always lies before them. Ragnarok, the ultimate battle between the gods and the frost giants (which the gods must lose) is always coming. Odin tries to stave it off by recruiting the best warriors to Valhalla, but several stories recount the gods’ giving away the tools they will need to win at the final battle. Loki and his strange children will triumph: Fenrir Wolf will gnaw; the World-Serpent will squeeze; Hel will receive everyone into her icy realm. In Norse mythology, these events are both determined and chosen. Odin perceived shadows, yet his actions drive the gods onward to Ragnarok. Frey trades his sword, which alone can defeat Surtur’s flames, for his giantess wife. Loki follows his winding way, and in fathering three monstrous children sets the world on a path of doom. Perhaps the best example of the tone of doom pervading the myths comes in the tale of Baldur, the most beautiful god in the pantheon. Baldur is fated to die, yet Loki conspires to have him perish at the hand of his brother. Though all the world mourned Baldur, at Loki’s disguised refusal to mourn, Hel retained Baldur’s shade for her icy bed. This tale foreshadows the inevitability of the world’s destruction. Gaiman ends his mythology with the inexplicable survival of four gods and their renewal of the world and beginning of the next cycle. Tragedy, for Norse mythology, is always coming.

The direction of the tragedy gives a certain tone to each mythology.[4] Greek mythology, for all the suffering of Prometheus, has the hope offered by Herakles’ freeing of the condemned. Despite the destruction of the town, Baucis and Philemon live to a ripe old age and receive their hearts’ desire. Odysseus returns home to Penelope, and they enjoy their “rituals of old.” Greek mythology has a hope because the gods triumphed over chaos and established a moral order in the cosmos. Norse mythology lacks this note of hope, replacing it with inevitable despair. The coming certainty of Ragnarok casts a shadow of doom over each hero’s achievement; even though Loki was caught and punished, he will one day escape to destroy the world. Even though the gods recovered the youth-giving apples, one day they will fade and die. Even though the wall was built around Asgard, one day the city will lie in ruins. Norse mythology offers neither hope nor true joy, but only despair and temporary pleasure; it reverberates with the words of the Teacher: “Eat, drink, and be merry,” for tomorrow you die.[5]

Each of these mythologies taps into truths about the human existence; because they do so, they will continue to endure as towering monuments of human literature. As explanatory narratives of the world, however, they fail to match the beauty of what Tolkien called the “True myth” of the Christian Gospel.[6] Where Greek mythology often hides horror under a guise of comedy (how many times should Zeus have been condemned as a rapist?) and Norse mythology leaves no room for actual human achievement, Christianity tells a different story. In this story, God saw that mankind had doomed itself to eternal torment. God took it upon Himself to satisfy justice, and died on behalf of mankind. The cross is the tragic event of Christianity; the moment where God died seems like the moment when all is lost. And yet, as Tolkien explains, this eucatastrophe is the “good disaster” where victory is achieved. In the death of Christ, salvation for mankind is won (proved by the Resurrection). The possibility of eternal glory in resurrected, perfected humanity is achieved. Rather than locating tragedy in the mythical ahistorical past or the forever future, Christianity locates tragedy and victory in time on a cross in Jerusalem two millennia ago.[7] In so doing, Christianity offers a real tragedy which concludes in real hope for mankind.

Greek mythology and Norse mythology can teach us much about what it means to be human; what they cannot do, however, is provide ultimate hope. For that, we need a truer story.

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Notes:

[1] Hesiod, Apostolos N. Athanassakis (Translator). Theogony, 2nd Edition. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004).

[2] Luc Ferry. The Wisdom of the Myths: How Greek Mythology can Change your Life. (New York: Harper Perrenial, 2014), 16-17.

[3] Neil Gaiman. Norse Mythology. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2017).

[4] My thanks to Fr. William F. Lynch for this insight in Christ and Apollo: The Dimensions of the Literary Imagination. (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2004), 106. He writes, “I have suggested that the tragic finite is a movement through and within the infinite which takes the ordered and significant form of a march through different phases, culminating in the final instrument of death and helplessness.”

[5] Ecclesiastes 8:15 (ESV)—“ And I commend joy, for man has nothing better under the sun but to eat and drink and be joyful, for this will go with him in his toil through the days of his life that God has given him under the sun.”

[6] J.R.R. Tolkien. “On Fairy Stories.” pdf. Last accessed 3/22/2017.

[7] Lynch, Christ and Apollo, 72. “But the truth is, of course, that Christian belief is in its essence belief in a person who, having ‘created’ time, could not possibly be hostile to it; who had directed it from the beginning by way of His providence and His having substantially and inwardly shaped it (so that He is the master both of history and psychiatry), who finally entered it and grew into it with such subtlety and power that He is not the enemy of it but the model for imagination and intelligence.”

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