History of Me, Part 1: A Journey through the Nine Worlds of Norse Myth

In this episode of History of Me, I read lots of books about Norse mythology and try to understand the psyche of Pre-Christian Europeans. Intrigued? Let’s dive in!

(P.S. If you are wondering why I’m reading Norse mythology and not German mythology, check out this brief note on what counts as “German” for this project!)

NOTE: I am looking into German/Germanic/European history as a function of my own familial cultural roots, and am attempting to do so in an anti-racist, anti-imperial way. For my full reading list and a further note about whiteness, see this post.

Opening the Word-Hoard*

Okay team, I ended up reading four different books for this section. Here’s the low-down:

  • First I read Gods and Myths of Northern Europe (Davidson) — which I actually really enjoyed! I LOVED learning about some of the ancient mythological types (e.g. the weeping maiden, the wounded/dying god) and seeing how they come up in Norse as well as Celtic and other myths. But it’s very academic, and while I learned a lot I was more interested in reading the actual stories themselves. So…
  • Then I read The Poetic Edda (which, I discovered, is NOT the same as The Prose Edda — it’s an entirely different document, not just a different translation). It contains some myths and some sagas about human heroes. I was glad to finally read some stories — and I’ll discuss a few of my favorites below — but the translation style was a bit hard for me to connect with. SO…
  • I found The Norse Myths (Crossley-Holland), which is basically re-tellings of ancient Norse myths (mostly ones in both the Eddas). The great part is, they’re geared to be read by kids, but there are EXTENSIVE notes on the source material, differing story versions, etc. Basically awesome!
  • I also read Czechoslovak Fairy Tales in hopes of adding a Slavic perspective… it didn’t really work, but I’ll discuss that a bit later.

Got all that? Clear as mud? Okay, great.

Odin and Freya and Thor – oh my!

I have to say, I LOVED my adventure into the world of Norse mythology. Being pretty knowledgeable (aka nerdy!) about both Greek mythology and Bible stories, it was really interesting to read through stories of the Norse pantheon and see both similar and differing themes.

I won’t go through the whole pantheon — for that you can review Wikipedia, or just read The Norse Myths! (which I do highly recommend) — but I’ll say a bit about my favorite “characters”: Odin, the Norns, and Yggdrasil.

Odin (aka Wodan, in the Anglo-Saxon version) is the “Allfather” — the leader of the gods (think Zeus) and the father of Thor. He’s known for his craftiness, wisdom, mysteriousness, poetry, unpredictability, and association with death, and is one of the few male gods associated with magic. (Lots of the magic folks in these myths are women, seeresses known as volva, including Freyja, the most prominent goddess.) I picture Odin as a rather dark, brooding figure — he had only one eye (he sacrificed one in exchange for the mead of poetry) and he was often to be found with his two ravens, Thought and Memory. Odin is the god of lots of things — but my favorite part is the mysterious knowledge bit (aka the Ravenclaw bit…). Odin is also really clever and enjoys messing with Thor, to the audience’s hilarity (I’ll come back to this later).

The Norns are mysterious, magical women who weave and decide the fate of every mortal and god — similar to the Greek Fates. I have always liked the Fates, so I loved reading about the Norns as well. Their main duty is measuring out people’s destinies — but they were also invoked in childbirth and function essentially as matriarchal protectors. I also love that part of their job is to tend to Yggdrasil, the world tree (see below).

Yggdrasil is an ash tree that provides the structure for the entire universe, comprised of nine worlds strewn about its branches and roots. Here, perhaps, is where I get my love of trees, since according to the Norse the entire world is built around a massive, god-like tree. (In fact, for a long time it was the custom for Europeans to have a “guardian tree” standing beside the house, perhaps as an echo of Yggdrasil’s embrace of the worlds.) There are also all manner of creatures that live in Yggdrasil’s branches, including deer that nibble its branches and a squirrel that runs up and down taking messages from the dragon in Hel to the eagle perched at the top.

Norse Cultural Values 101

For quite some time I’ve joked about traits in my family  (such as stubbornness, stoicism, etc.) that I feel are “typically German.” But it was really interesting to see some of those traits appear in these stories as “typically Norse.” Here are the cultural values that stuck out the most in these myths and stories.

Resilience / Fatalism

One of the most interesting things to me was the Norse conception of fate and human free will. Throughout the stories, all people and even the gods are subject to the fate set out for them: eventual destruction at Ragnarok, the last battle before the end and rebirth of the world. As Kevin Crossley-Holland points out, this is likely at least somewhat influenced by the harshness of Viking life, especially farther north:

We glimpse in the myths, as in the sagas [non-god stories], the isolated, physically demanding lives experienced by most Norsemen. One farm was often a hard day’s ride from the next…; a traveller was less likely to meet other humans than some of the birds and animals that abound in the myths — a deer, an otter, a wild boar, a wolf, or at least a squirrel, an eagle, a raven. (p.xvii)

So probably, long cold winters a resigned Norseman make. However, As H. R. Ellis Davidson writes,

We find in the myths no sense of bitterness at the harshness and unfairness of life, but rather a spirit of heroic resignation: humanity is born to trouble, but courage, adventure, and the wonders of life are matters for thankfulness, to be enjoyed while life is still granted to us. (qtd. in Crossley-Holland, p.xx)

To me this is incredibly profound and beautiful.

The Viking belief in the pre-determination of one’s fate also lent itself to the desire for fame and glory while alive.

No Viking believed he could change his destiny, ordained as it was by the Norns [basically the Norse version of the Fates] who wove the fates of gods and men alike but, for all that, the way in which he lived his life was up to him. (Crossley-Holland, p.xix, emphasis added)

Here, in my view, is where I inherited my strongly independent streak (some might say pig-headed…). When your fate and even the day of your death is already set, you exercise as much agency as possible while you can.

Humor and cleverness

One way that Norse folks dealt with harsh climates and uncertain but unchangeable fate was to laugh. This is present throughout many of these stories, as gods found themselves in humorous positions or used their cleverness to try to outwit each other (or some giants, who were always quarreling with the gods). Clearly Vikings appreciated a quick wit and a hearty guffaw.

For example, in one story the gods are trying to trick the wolf Fenrir into “seeing if he can escape” from a chain, which is actually intended to bind him until Ragnarok (at which point he will kill Odin and swallow the sun, so no big deal). Fenrir, seeing how this might be a trap, agrees to be chained on the condition that one of the gods put a hand between his jaws as insurance. The “bravest god Tyr” volunteers… and when Fenrir is, of course, bound, sure enough he snaps his jaws and there goes Tyr’s hand. What’s telling is the final line of the scene: “The other gods laughed, they knew that Fenrir was bound at last. They all laughed except Tyr: he lost his hand” (Crossley-Holland p.36). I mean, what a punchline, right?? It reminds me of the joke, “It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye. …Then the game is Find The Eye.” These sorts of dry gallows humor lines are dotted all throughout the stories.

(Another favorite in this vein is what amounts to an epic rap battle between Odin and Thor, where Thor is trying to cross a river but Odin, disguised as the ferryman, refuses to ferry him and instead insults him until he gives up and walks around instead. LOL!)

Sadness / Emotional expression

I was kind of expecting the tough-it-out stoicism, and maybe even the laugh-in-the-face-of-danger humor, but what I was not expecting to find in these stories was an incredible range and depth of emotion.

My favorite story from the Poetic Edda is a series of poems that comprise the story of Sigurd (aka Siegfried), which is the basis for Wagner’s Ring cycle opera. First of all, it was really cool to have two women feature as basically the main characters of this ongoing saga. But the part that stuck out most to me was the part of the story called “The First Lay [poem/story] of Gudrun”. In it, Gudrun is dealing with the death of her husband, Sigurd. But her grief is so great that “Gudrun could not weep” (p.177). The structure of this story felt a lot like the biblical book of Job — various friends come and tell her sad stories to try to get her to cry and mourn appropriately — but she doesn’t. In the end, a friend realizes that Gudrun needs to process and grieve in her own way, and takes her to see the body of her husband laid out for the funeral.

Gudrun looked at him one time only;
she saw the prince’s hair running with blood,
the bright eyes of the lord grown dim,
the prince’s breast scored by the sword.

Then Gudrun knelt, leaning on the pillow;
loosened her hair, scratched her cheeks,
and drops like rain ran down to her knees. (p.179 vv.14-15)

Once the dam breaks, Gudrun, who has been silent to this point, talks for stanzas about her grief and missing her beloved husband. You can see it’s very raw:

So was my Sigurd, beside the sons of Giuki [her brothers],
as if a leek were grown up out of the grass,
or a bright stone were threaded onto a string,
a precious gem, among the nobles.

I thought myself also, among the prince’s warriors,
to be higher than all of Odin’s ladies;
now I am as little as a leaf
among the bay-willows at the death of the prince.

I miss in his seat and in my bed
my friend to talk to… (p.179 vv.18-20)

There’s a really beautiful, honest simplicity here — and I found this kind of emotional present-ness to be common among these stories. The Norse myths  — and by extension, presumably, the Norse — are not afraid of pain, or hardship, or loss, or messiness. There’s also a whole story where Balder, one of Odin’s sons and the kind, well-loved god of mercy and peace, is killed and the sadness is palpable during his funeral scene — and this is all the gods gathering! So the fact that not only the (female) protagonists but also the gods can express joy, sorrow, anger, and the whole gamut of emotion frankly is really refreshing.

A brief note about that fairy tale book…

Oh yeah — about that Czechoslovak book I read… yeah, I was hoping it would give a Slavic perspective on the Norse mythology stuff, but basically that didn’t work because as I read it was clear that these stories were from wayyyyy later, probably in or after the medieval period. (The stories in the Prose Edda, by contrast, were written down around 1100 but were told orally for centuries before that.) Very clearly Christianized. Which is fine, but doesn’t jive with the time period (Pre-Christian) that I was looking at this week.

Interestingly enough, most of them deal with money/economics — such as a really poor son finding a magician who helps make him rich and marry a princess, poof, the end. So I’m choosing to read them as medieval stories that helped poor peasants survive hard lives (escapism), and I will keep them in mind for when my reading list arrives at the Middle Ages.

Conclusion

As I said in the introduction to this project, to me stories are the best way to understand — like emotionally connect with and get — the culture of a people. I feel like I’ve just drunk from the firehose of Norse/Germanic story and I can tell that I’m still deeply processing some of these things at a level that doesn’t really translate into words, but I also feel like there are wisps and snippets where I’ve had flashes of “got it”.

When I finished reading Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, all I could think of was this song I sang when I was in choir — it’s called the Corpus Christi Carol — the text is believed to have been written in the 1500s, but I think this modern arrangement beautifully captures and touches the sense of mystery and ancient mythological types (a grove of trees, the weeping maiden, the wounded knight, the falcon) that are floating around in my rock tumbler of a brain right now. Take a look! (And read along with the lyrics here if you want.)

Overall, I feel that I’ve begun my reading journey with a good sense of groundedness and ancientness. I feel like now I know something of what the Norse psyche may have been like, and all these ideas about Viking values and culture will be a good foundation for the rest of the project.

Next up: We’ll dive into the earliest recorded history of “Germania” — contact with Rome circa the birth of Christ. (See reading plan here.)

*P.S. “Opening the word hoard” is a real phrase from these myths — it also appears in some translations of Beowulf. It’s kind of the best! 🙂

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Little House / Wounded Knee: A Pine Ridge Post Script

Hello, dear readers.

Yes, it’s been over a week since I got back from my trip to visit the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. And no, you haven’t missed anything — I haven’t written about it yet. In all honesty, I haven’t really been sure what to write.

There is so much input in my brain — so much that happened that affected me so deeply — that I’m not really sure how to process or express it yet. But here are a couple things I can tell you:

1. Seeing Mount Rushmore again was really weird.

Mount Rushmore - before & afterI’ve been to South Dakota / Mount Rushmore twice before. I figured going there again would be pretty run-of-the-mill — you know, been there, done that. But actually I was surprised at my reaction. After spending the previous day just looking at the natural landscape of the Badlands and the prairie on the Rez, when we finally got to where we could see the sculpture portion of Mount Rushmore it felt really unnatural. I mean, I had already been admiring all the natural rock formations and the faces and figures I already saw carved by the wind and the rain — the hands of God, if you will. To then see the strangely too-white, polished, tiny (compared to the rest of the mountain) faces of four little American presidents slapped up there… jarring.

Moreover, it felt… futile. And petty. Like kids playing “King of the Mountain” on the playground. I found a plaque on a display of a giant motor that had been used to help fuel the blasting of the mountain rock. It said, “…this is a testimony to the power it took to carve a mountain.” When I read it, it came out in this pompous windbag voice in my head… It just felt so… conqueror-esque and dominating. Like “Look at me, I carved this mountain! Take that!” Just so childish and immature and pointless, like peeing your name in the snow.

I’ve thought of our American culture as a lot of different things before, but I’d never before seen so clearly such childish self-glorification. It reminded me of the poem “Ozymandias”:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter’d visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp’d on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock’d them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away. (Percy Shelley, emphasis added)

Vanity, vanity, all is vanity. “No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them.” (Ecclesiastes 1)

2. The Rez was both more awful and more wonderful than I expected.

Until this trip, I had never been to an Indian Reservation. I wasn’t sure WHAT to expect, really — but I had read and heard a lot about poverty and suicide and hopelessness. So I guess a part of me expected it to be awful — ugly and dirty and full of dirty, sad people. We did see some of that. We drove briefly through the “town” of White Clay, Nebraska — hardly far enough over the border to notice a difference — where there are no houses, one gas station, and four liquor stores. It was early in the month, when people had gotten their checks, and although we only spent about 2 minutes driving down the street we probably saw 20 adults — all Native — sprawled everywhere, ostensibly drunk. The legacy of “manifest destiny.” It was… a soulless place.

hope on the reservationBut at the same time — the Rez was beautiful. The land was some of the most beautiful land I’ve ever seen. And some of the people we met are some of the most beautiful souls I’ve ever seen. I’ve never felt so welcomed by total strangers, especially when I entered with such apprehension and such an expectation of UNwelcomeness, because of what I know about the history of how people who look like me have treated people who look like them in this country. In a film we watched during our stop at Pipestone, MN, the narrator commented that despite all the death and oppression that has been unleashed on Native peoples here, “the people survive.” I was struck over and over again at the incredible strength of a people whose spiritual and cultural center is their connection to sacred God and sacred earth.

I began this trip expecting to feel grief and pity. Instead, I felt admiration, humility, and gratitude.

3. I don’t have many tangible takeaways right now… but I felt lots of feelings!

As our group shared some of our experiences with others from my church, I just kept feeling myself butting up against a fog in my head. So I said, “Well, when we started out talking about this trip we said it was a little nebulous and hard to describe exactly what our purpose was. And now that I went on the trip, I find it’s a little nebulous and hard to describe what happened.”

The trip was unquestionably powerful. We laughed, sang, drove (a lot), conversed, ate good food, worked together, shared stories, met people, cried, sweated, and took in both the hopeless and the hopeful on the Rez.

But as for how it changed me…. I’m still trying to figure that out.

I can tell you about some of the places we went — Pipestone, MN, a sacred site where many Plains tribes came and still come in peace to quarry stone for their sacred pipes; the Badlands, a beautiful and arid chasm of strange mountains in the middle of a treeless prairie; the Black Hills, a lush and rolling place where there are faces and images in the beautiful rocks (and also some white guys carved in a stolen mountain); Red Cloud Indian School, which began as a white-washing boarding school and is now a prestigious prep school where Natives can get a great education; Wounded Knee Creek, the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre, where the surviving soldiers from Little Bighorn mowed down women and children who were fleeing US artillery fire.

I can tell you about some of the people we met, or the people I traveled with and came to know — a gentle, grandfatherly man who became a mentor to the whole group; a strong, practical woman who learned deeply about what womanhood means; a thinker whose faith journey reminds me strongly of my own; someone (all of us, really) who wants so badly just to be a good human being; a collective of folks who are experimenting with ways to help the earth and help their people.

I can tell you about clouds for miles, or seeing a herd of buffalo on a not-so-distant hill, or feeling incredibly safe as we prayed together in an unforeign-foreign language in total darkness. Or receiving deep hospitality like we’ve never seen before. Or crying when I didn’t expect it.

A lot of stuff happened on our trip. But… I can’t really explain it. It’s just inside of me.

I feel disoriented… “unsettled”, as Pastor Jin says, maybe even a little like an “un-settler.” And maybe that’s a step in the right direction.

….

[Edit: P.S. If you want to embark with me on my next reading project about colonizing the land, you can check out the first post here.]

In which I keep crying…

I’ve been crying a lot more recently.

I never used to cry. I sort of hate it. I get all wobbly-mouthed and my throat seizes up and I can hardly speak. And then, my nose runs. Yuck.

I don’t know what has brought this change about, but more and more often I find myself tearing up at unexpected times. Like in the middle of a super logical sermon, after a not particularly emotional but rhetorically powerful statement. Or like when I re-read for the umpteenth time Walk Two Moons, a favorite book from childhood — even though I already knew what was going to happen.

Today I teared up bigtime — but this time I think I know why.

Today I had the privilege and honor of interviewing someone about his life story. I went to this man’s house, met him and his family, sat down at his kitchen table, and listened. And I was literally overwhelmed. With words that seemed to just spill out of him, for starters. Then by a tingly feeling of awe.

To make a long-ish story short, this man had previously been, as he put it, “Full of pride, and all about living for myself. I didn’t care about anything. And I did some bad stuff.” Then, he survived an accident and, as he also put it, “God was sending me a message.” He turned his life around. I could plainly see the fervor with which he talked about his love for his children, his devotion and respect for his wife. “Not every man would say this,” he said, “but even though I work hard, my wife works way harder than I do. 24/7. She is the pillar of our family, and I’m not afraid to say it. She has always been there for me, even when all my friends left me. She’s the reason I want to have a home for our family, because she deserves it.”

This, my friends, is a redemption story. When one who is selfish and lost (as we all are) can be so deeply transformed into selfless Christ-like-ness (as we all hope for). And this is why I tear up all the time. Because in the midst of the struggles and the bad stuff and the confusion and the brokenness and the pain — especially there — there is Jesus. And there is redemption. The kind of redemption that makes your heart squeeze and your eyes burn and your face flush because it just doesn’t make sense, but all the same it is so beautiful.

I don’t much like crying. But for this, for beautiful Jesus-redemption in the midst of the dry deserts of life, I will cry every time.