Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Storm from the North

Today we're going to talk about a contradiction in terms: the Norse gods, and how insanely popular they are in western culture.

It's not that they aren't super neat or cool or awesome to read about - those are totally true, and very good reasons for them to be popular. And it's not even that they aren't relevant to modern-day readers, because thanks to being the gods of an influential religion that spanned Scandinavia, Germanic countries and much of the British Isles, they are "ancestral gods" for many Europeans and European-descended people (especially in the Americas). And of course, their adventures are classic tales of heroism, defeat and destiny, which have been popular themes in religion and literature alike for pretty much all of human development.

What's odd and contradictory about them is that there aren't very many of them, and we know so little about them compared to other religions' gods. There are not a large number of Norse gods - about sixty to seventy, all told, with much debate over how many of those are really distinct deities and how many might just be different aspects of a single god, which is a very small number when compared to the hundreds upon hundreds of unique figures in Egyptian religion or the literal thousands listed by the ancient Mesopotamians. And of those gods, only a handful are known outside of a single mention, with many referred to only by name and never expounded upon at all. Furthermore, we have very little surviving information about them; the tales of the gods preserved in Snorri's Edda are almost all of the written record we have, supplemented by a little archaeological evidence here and a little Germanic historical evidence there, and we know only the barest sketched outlines of how they might have been worshiped and what kind of relationship they had with their people. To an outside observer, it seems absurd that they get a disproportionately massive amount of press in western countries compared to cultures with much larger complements of gods or collections of stories (the Hindu gods, for example, blow them out of the water on both counts).

So, what's up with these guys? Most likely, it's a combination of influence from European settlement and conquest around the world, and their frequent use as figures of cultural symbolism in the pursuit of those conquests.

To begin with, the Norse gods (and their probably-close cousins, the Irish deities) are as close as you can get to the ancestral gods of several northern European peoples. They are clearly the dominant pantheon once worshiped in areas far to the north, including Iceland, Denmark and Sweden, and we have plenty of historical evidence that their cults and practices were widespread in ancient England and Germany as well. For most cultures, their own historical beliefs and past are more interesting to them than those of others, so interest in the Norse gods has been quietly booming in the parts of Europe affected by them for centuries, long after their worship was suppressed by the introduction of Christianity. Those European peoples, in turn, were the major forces for colonization around the world during the fifteenth through nineteenth centuries, which means that they brought and seeded their own cultural values and history in new places, spreading its influence. Modern North America and Australia both contain a very large population of people descended from Europeans from areas that were once under Norse religious control, which in turn extends the idea of the "ancestral gods" to them. They maintained those old stories, wrote books about them, were interested in them, and eventually created things like Marvel's Thor or the Canadian television show Vikings that continued their popularity to successive generations.

But, if the main reason the Norse gods remain so popular is European expansionism, why aren't other European pantheons equally as beloved? Why don't we have a glut of television shows about the Tuatha de Danann, the legendary deities of Ireland, or the anciently mighty gods of the Slavic lands?

Alas, all European countries' histories with one another are not equal. The Norse gods were a subject of interest especially for Scandinavian, Germanic and British people, and those happened to be the countries that had the most enormous influence in shaping culture and scholarship during the past several centuries (not to mention holding an overwhelming majority of the conquered territories during imperialist expansions). The Enlightenment in Europe, a period of increased interest in scientific examination of the world and historical study of cultures beginning in the seventeenth century, saw European scholars begin to heavily examine and discuss various mythologies, but while they looked at the ancient beliefs of everyone from faraway Japan to the barely-discovered peoples of the Amazon, they did not give all those cultures an equal amount of time or credibility in their discussions. Especially popular were the Greek gods, who had been the symbols of the Renaissance and represented many idea of philosophy that Enlightenment writers and scholars wanted to expand upon; the Egyptian gods, who were at the time considered evidence of an ancient master race of Europeans who had once ruled Africa and whose aesthetic and mysterious writings were very popular in art and fashion; and the Norse gods, who were the "locals" and were often looked to as symbols of the ancient values of the very people of Europe itself.

In contrast, Celtic deities, although studied, were less "important" and easier to ignore in discussions of "serious" philosophy; the Irish, as well as many other marginalized European groups at the time, were considered to be less of a noble and important people and certainly weren't at the forefront of fashionable scholarship at the time, so their gods simply weren't paid as much attention to as the Greek and Norse deities that most European scholars identified with most strongly. Their history was studied more as a curiosity than as a religion or a philosophy worthy of serious consideration, and as a result for a long time information on Irish beliefs survived as mere folk beliefs, practiced among people in Celtic countries as a matter of tradition or carried over by immigrants to new lands. Other European pantheons, including those of Baltic, Slavic, Finnish and Albanian cultures, were similarly underrepresented in scholarly work, although they were often included in a general way for completeness' sake.

So the Norse were part of the exclusive European Mythology Club, which shaped a lot of the literature and popular ideas of gods in Europe, Australia and the Americas for the next few centuries, giving them a leg up on several other pantheons in spite of their relatively small base of deities and myths. And finally, they got a popularity boost from somewhere that probably nobody really wants their popularity boost: Nazism.

Nazism in Germany is way too complicated, in history when it was powerful and now when it still survives in fringe groups, to really go into all the philosophical and religious ideas underlying it, but one of the possible motivating forces for its philosophy and eventual atrocities was Ariosophy, a philosophical branch of thought that claimed that the original European race (called the Aryan race in this context, in spite of the fact that the term originated in India and originally referred to the Indo-European races, rather than any ancient pure European line) was the pure and powerful super race intended to control the world, and that the current state of affairs in the world was a consequence of Aryans interbreeding with "lesser races" (i.e, everybody who did not meet their absurd standards for "pure" humanity) and diluting their bloodlines. Several branches of Ariosophy called for a rejection of Christianity, a religion that had clearly originated with "lesser peoples", and a return to the pure European religion of their ancestors... which of course was usually said to be the worship of the Norse gods, who were about as far north and European as it was possible to get, and who had a strong cultural resonance with Germanic people. The Norse gods were held up as examples of the power and values of the supposed master Aryan race, and their stories were revived as political propaganda to inspire people with their great deeds and draw a parallel to show them how great they would be themselves if they only got rid of all these other, inferior people.

The most obvious example of this boom of interest and political support of the Norse gods is Wagner's opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung), a massive operatic retelling of the myths of the hero Sigurd, the exploits of Odin and Loki regarding the stolen ring, and the eventual doom of Ragnarok. Wagner was sympathetic to the idea of the inherent greatness of the Germanic race and created the operas as a national epic to inspire the people, and the Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler, who was a fan of Wagner's work and believed it helped present the sort of vision of the master race that he wanted to advance, thereafter publicly supported the operas and used music from them at Nazi events and even in concentration camps.

(Seriously, though, Ariosophy is possibly one of the grossest things you will ever read about, and we barely scratched its surface here. If you want to go forth and learn more about it, the internet is your oyster, but be prepared for some examples of truly inexcusable human behavior. Alas for the poor Norse gods who were associated with it centuries after the fact.)

So it's been a long, weird road for the Norse gods, who have remained incredibly popular despite being smaller and less storied than some other pantheons. But then again, every pantheon's history and preservation is weird. I promise. Every single one. History is crazy.

And regardless of how they got here, with merchandising deals and curriculum in public schools and The Almighty Johnsons, the Norse gods are here, and they are awesome. Their exploits, slaying dragons, pranking one another, fighting large-scale wars, sneaking into giant territory, transforming into animals and more, are the stuff of classic heroic legend, making them ripe for rip-roaring stories and perfect as inspiration for great deeds. We love to read their stories and retell them in new ways, and at the gaming table we love to take part in those legends ourselves and create new and compelling characters to continue the tradition of the heroic saga.

Overcoming adversity to arrive in the modern day as conquering heroes is certainly a very Norse thing to do. Syngjum heilar!