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Friday, May 15, 2009

Gods and Myths of Northern Europe

I used to be a voracious reader of books; now, not so much.  After staring all day at a computer screen, most of my free time is now used otherwise, with the result that I usually wind up with a backlog of books.  And to tell the truth, most of what I've read lately has been disappointing.  So much to my amazement, I picked up Gods and Myths of Northern Europe by H. R. Ellis Davidson where I'd left it months ago and discovered a nugget of scholarly and, may I say it, religious delight.

List most children growing up in America in the 60's and 70's, my access to the religious, mythological and folkloric history of the world came through (1) ridiculous Christian tales mixed with dogma, incoherently presented as "Truth"; and (2) tales of the Greek and Roman gods presented as silly stories, which were somehow supposed to enhance our understanding of culture and literature (which they may have, had we in fact been presented with any of that culture and literature).  I may have heard of the Norse gods as a child, but I think I really discovered them in Thor comic books.  And Thor was nowhere near my favorite; the rather pompous blond(!)  superhero was nowhere as enticing as The Avengers or the X-Men for me.

All of which was really sad, but it just got worse.  The next inkling I had that there were options to pursue,  with regard to the the origins of our culture and mindset, were little pieces of Hindu art and lyrics from George Harrison albums, which led to the silly but fervent religiosity of the Hare Krishna's, and ultimately to my investigation of other religions from the East, and probably ultimately to Buddhism and Zen.  So here I was, of German and English descent, being led in a big cultural circle which intentionally or not -- and more of that later, I promise! -- circumvented by true  heritage, as a product of Northern Europe.

If you're of Northern European descent, the religion of your ancestors was that of the Celts or of the Germanic tribes.  Although most of what we know of the "Norse" religions comes from the Eddas written at the end of the period of the northern gods' dominance -- when the stories had degenerated a bit -- they had their origins in the Europe of prehistory, in the same tribes which ultimately spread them to India where they (when integrated with the lost culture of the Dravidians) produced the Vedic period and all its children, including Hinduism and Buddhism.  Which means that most of the gods of the Norse pantheon (which is usually presented by educators as sort of an alternate version of the Greeks and Roman pantheons, as opposed to an aggregate of the cults of separate deities, which it was) originated as German deities -  Odin was prefigured by Wotan, a darker god.

If you are of Northern European descent, your lack of acquaintance with your true cultural heritage is a crime -- and I mean that literally.  And there's no better way to catch up quickly than to find, if you can, and read a copy of Gods and Myths of Northern Europe.  It looks like one of those little summaries of dry culture or myth that you read in high school or college because some instructor asks you to -- usually the quickest way to speed-ingest little summaries of some dry myth or the other.  But those myths are dry because they're not presented properly, and because you don't have the background to understand them.

Davidson's book could easily be mistaken for one of those at first glance -- and in fact that's initially what I did.  It starts out with a terse summary of the the Eddas, written by Snorri at the twilight of the myths themselves, and the little stories of the gods, without explanation or background are pretty much unintelligible and seem silly.  So beware! because at this point I put the book down and only came back to it after reading some modern books on Asatru and wanted to know the scholarly versions of the myths.  Whereupon this little book, after the first fifty pages blew me away!

Davidson not only presents the myths so that they make sense, she makes them relevant and real - and all this in a book published in 1965, before the rise of Asatru.  For me, it brings it all home.  Not only do I understand now more about the culture of my pre-Christian ancestors, but I see in them the roots of my own personality.  The Nordic peoples were distrustful of authority but fiercely loyal to their kin and their own.  I can relate not at all to the grovelling of the spawn of the desert religions, and can only respect and acknowledge the deep but foreign formalities of the Asian ones -- but the Nordic peoples, their stories and their yearnings, I feel in my heart.

My exploration of my true heritage has only just begun, but nothing in quite a while has so excited me.  For the clarity to see, understand and accept what I feel in these things, I thank my Zen practice.  And indeed, for these books - this little tome and the Icelandic sagas -- I thank one of my Zen friends, without whom I'd still be feeling that vague lack of cultural identity I've had til now.  And now that my eyes are open, I have to know why this obvious connection to my past has been hidden from me, even denigrated.  

Sometimes when one sees the truth, one doesn't like what is revealed.  I'm often amazed at how popular "mystic" religion promote some sort of insight to be gained by practice or experience -- yet on the other hand tell you that they already know what the insight will be! What part of "unknown" don't they understand?

If you're not of Northern European descent, and you want true insight into a culture which is not your own, I still heartily recommend this book.  Presented without paternalism, and indeed with a fascination which the excellent scholarship does little to conceal, this is the best introduction to the true cultural heritage of the civilization which has dominated the world stage for at least five hundred years, and is only now heading toward - obliteration? Hard to say.  But maybe at least you can see now what is worth preserving.

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