On Mythology and Innovation (in honor of Ragnarok)*

To those with more than a passing interest in Germanic and Norse mythology, it isn’t news that basically all of our sources are post-Christian. Northern Europeans were not generally a writing people before the Middle Ages, so many of the oldest texts we have are 8th or 9th century versions, often by Christian monks, of much older stories. There are some people who will tell you that these versions are wrong, by virtue of being Christianized.

I can’t get on board with that way of thinking. What that mindset says, in essence, is that there is a correct, original, or pure version of any story, and that version is necessarily the oldest version. This is part of a broader way of thinking that privileges certain groups of people as the handers down of authentic tradition, labeling versions of tradition from other sources as corrupt. It is, in fact, a rather Christianized way of thinking. Other words for this that you might be a little more familiar with are “orthodoxy” and “heresy.”

Recently some members of my community have encountered a source of Nordic mythology that seems to have bypassed Christianization. I don’t want to go into details because I don’t know all of them (in fact I know very few), but it’s possible that until fairly recently there was a small population in a remote area of northern Europe that had remained insular since before the Middle Ages. I do not know whether this group split from the larger population before or after Roman contact, or before or after the age of Constantine, and while I understand that they wrote, I don’t know if they produced written records of their culture before the 21st century, at what period those writings would have been produced, or whether and where any survive. What I do know is that a number of people in my community are very excited that they now can hear the “real” stories and get to know what the gods are “really” like.

Orthodoxy and heresy.

I have more than one problem with this. The first is obvious, a surface issue to many Pagans. Who is anyone to tell anyone else that their beliefs are wrong? We don’t all believe the same things about the gods, and few of us believe the same things about the gods that ancient people believed (even if we think we do). Declaring that, for example, the idea of Ragnarok is in error simply because it looks a little like Christian eschatology and an apparently “pre-Christian” source does not include it (more on that in a minute) undercuts one of the fundamental features of modern Paganism–one of the fundamental features of culture–which is our ability to assimilate ancient stories and beliefs into our own context. What is the difference between Ragnarok and any number of Dianic versions of the story of Persephone/Kore in which the goddess goes into the house of Hades of her own will?

The difference is Christianity. A lot of non-Christian westerners are pretty mad at Christianity, and I get why. I was pretty pissed at Christianity for a while. I get that the history of empire is a bloody one, and many, many things have been lost in part through the conscious and destructive efforts of Christians. But we come out no better by using the same methods for–get this–the same reasons. Saying, “We’re on the side of right,” doesn’t do any good, because, well, everybody says that. There is no Evil League of Evil, and at the end of the day we’ve silenced another thousand years of tradition because we don’t like who wrote it down.

Now let’s talk about historiography. Above I criticized the idea that an older form of a story or tradition is by definition a more correct form, and corollary to that is the idea that a less technologically advanced population necessarily has an older form of tradition. This is a (racist, classist) fallacy that was popular in the Victorian and Edwardian eras and was a fundamental impetus in the development of neo-Paganism. Romantic poets and artists romanticized (sorry) rural populations as “simple,” idyllic bastions of timeless wisdom untouched by history or the evils of industrialization. We can see this ideology at work in James Frazer’s writing: he equates a lack of technological development with a lack of cultural development, and assumes that the less a culture looks like an industrial European city, the closer its traditions are to the ancient traditions of all humankind.

Whether my community has an accurate estimation of this source I mentioned is irrelevant. Let’s say for the sake of the argument that they do, and let’s take it back even farther than I think they claim. It’s incredibly unlikely, but let’s say for our purposes that this Nordic population split off before the Gallic wars–that’s before the birth of Jesus, folks–and has had zero contact with any other culture since then. Not a hint of Rome or Byzantium or the Hapsburgs or Martin Luther or Rule Britannia. We’re still not looking at a time capsule, but 2000 years of parallel development. With no written sources, we don’t know what the mythology looked like before this schism, so we have very few ways of knowing–and no way of knowing 100% accurately–how much or what kind of development has occurred. This group has its own history, with unique events, needs, and struggles, all of which have the potential to influence its traditions and mythology. Even further, the idea that there was only one version of the mythology before the split is ridiculous. The traditions this group took with them were not necessarily the same as the traditions of the village down the road. All hope of orthodoxy is gone: everything is heresy.

The reason religion scholars don’t read Frazer anymore is because Frazer was wrong. I’m going to quote myself here, because I addressed this in a paper and I can’t think of a better way to phrase it: “The cultures and practices that [Frazer] labels savage are by necessity contemporary with him, or close to, and by that definition cannot be ‘primal’ in the way he would like. Native American practices, for example, while not showing the same kinds of philosophical development of 19th century British Christianity, were fully adapted to their particular environments and circumstances, and certainly were not the same as the practices of the groups who originally set foot on the American continent.”

*this entry is reposted from a previous blog that never took off and that I no longer update

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