No Better Than The Gods: Divine Incompetence in Norse Mythology and the Shortcomings of Humanity

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The gods have made terrible mistakes, it's nothing short of a divine tragedy. We came late in the movie, but the story goes, that by the time man entered the world scene, whether it was as a corrective measure, a supplement to the divine plan, or an act of cosmic love, the world had already started its downward tumble. You see, Norse cosmology describes a world plunged into a dramatic, continuous crisis that will outlast the universe.

As the senile resembles a newborn child, the end must necessarily reflect the beginning. Before the world that you and I live in, there was something else – a non-ambitious chaotic expanse where the giant Ymir lived. But he had to die to accommodate creation. And though the gods were happy for a while, it could not last. The golden age came and went. A world must end for things to return to what they were. A process nobody would survive. The gods of Norse mythology are flawed, like us. And like us they struggle to come to terms with things beyond their control. Incompetent beyond their talents, predestined to fail, doomed to drop cosmic turds where they eat.

It's frequently said that the gods of polytheistic ethnic religions have human qualities. But within the internal logic of these belief systems, it's really the other way around. It's mankind that resembles the gods. What does that imply about us in the context of Norse cosmology, where the gods are aware of future outcomes, yet try and fail to change them? I believe there are indeed a few profound philosophical takeaways.

It seems a certain wistfulness and ambiguity permeated the latter stages of the pre-Christian worldview. It could also be that these sources were curated by medieval Christian scholars who took the introspective, self-critical implications of pagan cosmology as a sign of weakness. We don't know why some eddic poems survived, and others did not, but in many of them the ghost of future doom looms, while ironic tragedy sits at the root of all. Then again, I am prone to sentimental gloom. I have my biases.

The Norse physical cosmos was imperfect, but unlike transcendent religions such as Christianity, there was no heaven, no immaculate and immaterial plane of existence beyond. Instead, the layer cake model of Norse cosmology worked in accordance with the axiom that whatever goes up must also come down. The afterlife, if anything, is like a waiting room for the cosmic reset.

These imperfections were not quite the result of any original sin. It makes more sense to think of them as engineering errors in the supporting structure of reality. The sandy soil that swallows the cathedral. Throughout the sources, the gods appear to make regular mistakes, and it probably goes back to the fact that they lacked the skills or means to make a singular, self-supporting cosmos. Certain things are always out of reach, even to gods.

 Ymir is killed by Odin and his brothers

Ymir is killed by Odin and his brothers

 

Ár var alda

In the beginning there was the death blow. In Norse mythology, the killing of the cosmic giant Ymir marks the first act of creation. Ymir becomes the first victim, the first product, and the first artifice. The dismemberment of the victim was equal to the parting of earth and sky. The body parts and fluids of the cosmic being were the raw materials of all creation, laid out across the periodic table of the elements. The act of killing as primary creative act, though mythological, is probably telling for how Norse polytheists perceived ontological reality, and I think the metaphor works still: No pain, no gain.

Take a step back and cast one glance at the greater picture, or reach for your nearest physics book. You'll see that perpetuity and permanence are not of this world. Nothing lasts forever. The gods gave their permanence for The World, which is defined by agency and eternal conflict between biological, chemical and geological processes. The world is entirely reliant on competitive balance and antagonism. The gods created the world not as an act of love, but to express their ambition, to spite nature and chaos, represented by the jǫtnar – the giants.

How can there be reconciliation. Gods and giants keep each other in check, like yin and yang. One cannot, should not, defeat the other. The cosmos would not survive as we know it. The world must seem bittersweet to the gods, who are doomed to maintain their creation – yet, the biggest threat is the very ground their creation rests on, as the sinkhole grows ever wider. In the tragic irony of it all, they themselves threaten creation. The world is a twofold and ambivalent place, without the luxury of a clear distinction between good and evil: The gods themselves carry double-edged swords.

 Conway's game of life. The fate of each cell is determined by the number of adjacent cells.

Conway's game of life. The fate of each cell is determined by the number of adjacent cells.

 

The age of man

The most common cosmic denominator in Old Norse is heimr, meaning «home, where something belongs». The universe of Norse mythology is full of such homeworlds. But there is also verǫld – which is a cognate of English world. The etymology concerns us here because it literally means «age of man». Perhaps it is a vestige of a prehistoric, non-linear view of history, where time was cyclical. The latter phase of Norse paganism as we see through our sources, is uncharacteristically eschatological for a polytheistic ethnic religion. It gives the impression that the Vikings were obsessed with the end of the world. They did not believe the world would go on forever, but come to a halt soon enough.

But whether or not this was an indigenous feature of pagan Scandinavia, or a sneaking realization that came to them like a thief in the night, it must refelct how many pagans felt at the threshold of conversion, when the temples were razed, and the idols smashed. The world we see, the Age of Man, is an intermediate phase. It's not the first nor the last. If the mythical poem Vǫluspá, The Prophecy of the Seeress, in its most popular redaction is representative of a pre-Christian timeline of mythical and cosmic events, then man did not even exist during the Golden Age. Mankind is a later invention, perhaps even a trick of the gods, who struggled to maintain their work. As someone to stirr the pot as they tended to business. Whatever their reasoning, the gods were invested in man:

Vǫluspá says the gods were loving – ástgir – when they gave us life. It is noteworthy that this is the only instance in the eddic literature where the gods express love towards mankind. According to mythic time, man has experienced only a glimpse, a mere few frames of the grand cosmic display. Yet if man wasn't present when the world was young, the myths state he will live to see Ragnarǫk. He will witness the end of creation, and the end of the gods. Ragnarǫk comes from regin «the gods», literally «those who keep council» and rǫk, which can mean «something that belongs», or «development, destiny, verdict». This divine verdict is the natural result of the carefully balanced, yet delicate cosmic order. 

Acting against the inevitable

Thor's greatest enemy is Jǫrmungandr, the Midgard Serpent. It's imperative that he fights against it, even though it's coiled around the world, and keeps it from falling apart. Pre-Christian skaldic poets associate the creature with much dread, but Thor is locked in an impossible situation: He has the task of carrying out preemptive strikes against monsters and giants, but this protective function is itself a great threat to cosmic stability. When Odin seeks wisdom and advantage, he does so through self-mutilation and vulnerability. He gives up an eye, commits suicide, starves, and lets himself be taken captive.

Freyr gives up his sword out of love-sickness towards the giantess Gerdr. A compromise that later proves deadly when the giants carry it to the final battle against the gods. The gods sacrifice power, body parts, and technology for the vain hope of an upper hand against the giants. The protector destroys! The god of sexual fertility and social status makes himself and impotent! They are merely stalling. Ironically, it may even seem that all their efforts only serve to enable the coming disaster.

The wisdom they accumulate doesn't help them in the long run. The formula doesn't add up, the norns are drunk behind the spinning wheel. Any Norse and Germanic hero knows that is useless to fight one's forlǫg – the predetermined premise of every life: fate! Surely Odin, who sees everything, must understand that his battle can't be won. He sees everything, yet he is blind to the vanity of effort. He is doomed, yet he tries. How telling, how inspirational. This is wisdom we may draw from the poems Hymiskviða, Vǫluspá, and Skírnismál: All that exists does so at the expense of something else, and must be absorbed by something else once it ceases to be. The world clock ticks ever on towards the hour of entropy. The existence of the subject affects the existence of the object. There is no such thing as free lunch – everything has its price.

Thermodynamics and mythical reality

The root of this sad state runs deep. It goes all the way back to the Bronze Age, when Proto-Indo-European pastoral nomads scattered across Eurasia on horseback. Not wholly unlike the gods, these riders were armed not only with superior technology, but with martial ideologies and a will to power unlike anything else. A culture that realized that nothing comes from nothing, that nothing is forever, and that destruction is a sibling of creation. Though harsh as it first may seem, the thought is actually a beautiful one. An undivided theory of nature, a holistic space of equal parts joy and sorrow. Birth, death, and rebirth were allies then. Subjectively speaking, and this is a subjective essay, I believe there are truths in these ideas. Some less comfortable than others. To live includes the anguish of choice. And it is a recognizable feature to many Western cultures still. In many Western democracies, not voting is presented as an immoral lack of action. It is an expression of this line of reasining, that you should prefer the terror of choice over the comfort of inaction. Norse religious practice itself was not overtly speculative, but based around cult, ritual and sacrifice. Do ut des, something for something. I give so you may give in return.

The above view of reality, which I associate with a certain existential wistfulness, is not dreadful but conductive of a certain drive of longing. Action is a consequence of the natural order of things, and the view seems supported not by the Eddas, but also in the concept of prakṛti in Hindu philosophy. Prakṛti means «nature», and states that all things stand in relation to creation, preservation, and destruction. By analogy my mind drifts to the Norse concept of eðli, which may be translated as any living creature's innate nature, essential traits and tendencies, individually and categorically. The word is related to the contemporary Scandinavian word 'edel' (Old Norse aðal) meaning «noble, pure». It is the eagle's eðli that it flies higher than many other birds, to take a real example of its use in the sources. It would also apply to the fact that humans dream, create artifacts, and speak.

When the gods bound the Fenris wolf, they first needed to exhaust something – his fetters were fashioned from the breath of fish, women's beards and the roots of the mountains. These things are depleted, they no longer exist. But even this was ultimately not enough to contain the beast. There is still no such thing as a free lunch.

 Gotlandic picture stone, c. 6th century

Gotlandic picture stone, c. 6th century

Ragnarok as inner struggle

As I've already gone into, man appears as a theomorphic being. That is to say, we resemble the gods, with all their faults and humiliations. We cannot naturally exceed our blueprints, or their faults and merits. We have our own demons to battle, and World Serpents to lift. We suffer in the crossfire of a deadly battlefield, wedged between the un-nature of lofty, self-righteous gods on the one hand, and the non-culture of cruel, venomous giants. This is the field of reality. If there feral meadowlands were kept in check, they would strangle the cultivated field. But a field unchained, which is a notion belonging in myths of bygone golden ages, where wheat fields sowed themselves (not unlike wild flora), would do equal harm to nature. In this day and age, the question is not whether or not such a field can exist, but how to keep GMOs from destroying ecosystems. This is far from a golden age.

If man derives from the gods, then we should recall that the gods themselves have giant ancestry. Reptile brains that betray the so-called better angels of our nature, grappling with the selfish gene of civilization. It's revealing that when Thor first raised his hammer to crush the serpent's head, their eyes met in symmetrical opposition – like mirror images of each other. The gazer into the abyss and the abyss that gazes back. Thor would finally kill the serpent at Ragnarǫk. In Vǫluspá it is in fact the very last thing that happens before the sun extinguishes, and the earth sinks into the ocean. Stars drop from the collapsing, flaming heavens.

The final blow that ends the universe as we know it, was dealt by its alleged protector. On a microcosmic level, Cultured Man raises the hammer against his own head. He hopes to smash the reptile brain contained within himself, where his urges and most primal, savage, troll instincts dwell. Seeking to beat the life out of the giant of Natural Man, the pre-human hominid, or troll man, in the heat of the moment unable to realize that he would only be killing himself. Man is himself ambiguous. He always struggles with the real and ideal, against the healthy and the unhealthy.

He struggles to balance the beautiful, true, and good, against that equal portion of his self that pertains to the ugly, false, and bad. That which unites beautiful and the ugly, the true and the false, the good and the bad, that is truly sacred.

The Faustian eddas

A common feature of many old cultures is that the world was perceived through the lens of biological processes. The German philosopher and speculative historian Oswald Spengler was inspired by this sort of thought when he published his magnum opus, The Decline of the West (Der Untergang des Abendlandes), in 1918. He suggested that human society mirrored the cycle of life and death, very much like we may perceive it in nature. Like a flower, cultures grow, bloom, then ultimately; they die.

Spengler considered civilization to be the final stage before a culture dies. Western civilization would be no different, though it might be too vain to realize it. In the eyes of Spengler, cultural decline is like a body that withers in old age. The ruins of the modern West will sooner or later adorn the museums alongside Assyrian bas-reliefs. A melancholy, but beautiful idea in its own way.

Spengler asserts that the tragic soul of each culture is embedded its archetypes, in their folk heroes and the beings they communicate with in their popular narratives. In his gallery of civilizational archetypes, the spirit of the West belongs to the archetype of doctor Faustus, the misguided alchemist who met his demise in accordance with the same methods through which he tried to achieve greatness. To Spenglers credit, it would seem that the Western world does tend adopt a can-do sentiment where whatever problem and obstacle is simply a symptom of transition, a childhood illness, that everything will work out if we just keep on trucking. Thereby not realizing that the transition is not temporary, all is flowing, all the time.

 Thor's Fight with the Giants (Detail), Mårten Eskil Winge.

Thor's Fight with the Giants (Detail), Mårten Eskil Winge.

Like the audience of a play, we observe that Odin and the good doctor Faustus should know better, yet the ironic fruit of their actions is lost on them. But we might realize that we are not so different. That the story is really our own. Laugh or cry, the means by which we survive in our day-to-day lives, and as a society, triangulate our ultimate ends.

Perhaps subconciously planned obsolecence is part of the eðli, the essence, of sentience. Are we alone in the universe? Drake's equation states that space – according to statistics – should be teeming with life, so where is everybody? The Fermi paradox tries to address this one fundamental problem since, considering the age of the universe, it should be expected that several civilizations possess sufficient technology for interstellar travel. Yet such civilizations are nowhere to be seen. It could simply be that no such life-form has yet survived itself. That they failed some ultimate test, whether they depleted their resources, died in a nuclear holocaust, or otherwise went the way of the dodo.

If so, what are the chances of mankind surviving its own obsolescence? Is life itself Faustian? We may write empassioned transhumanist manifestos, and ceaselessly launch rocket phalluses towards the star-spangled womb of space, but perhaps we cannot escape the ambivalent seed within ourselves.

The gods themselves are not eternal, and man is not destined for immortality. The amoral hero of the epics and heroic lays becomes a hero the moment he goes full circle in realizing his own vanity.  Only in death may he be elevated into godhood, to sit in the high seat and drink with the gods, as the poems describe. And so the tragic hero often bends his head, allowing the blow to occur. If mankind's genealogy is divine, we are no better than the gods.

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