Sunday Night Journal, May 27, 2018
Having been immersed in the world of medieval Scandinavia for a couple of weeks while reading The Master of Hestviken, I wanted to get more acquainted with its mythology. I knew the main figures and one or two stories, but had never read anything very systematic or complete. So I started reading the Prose Edda, which I've now almost finished, and...well, as a somewhat naive acquaintance said many years ago on hearing a performance by a Captain Beefheart-style band, them dudes is weird. What seemed strangest to me are the creation stories. The Edda (written down in the 13th century) begins with what seems to be a tacked-on Christian creation, then quickly moves into what I suppose were the pre-Christian stories:
The sons of Bor killed the giant Ymir.... When he fell so much blood gushed from his wounds that with it they drowned all the race of the frost giants except for one who escaped with his household....
They took Ymir...and made from him the world. From his blood they made the sea and the lakes. The earth was fashioned from the flesh, and mountain cliffs from the bones.... They also took his skull and from it made the sky.
And so forth. Eventually the eyelashes are used to build a fortress around Midgard, which seems to be the world of men--I'm not really sure, to tell the truth. No doubt someone has taken these and set them into as much order as they'll bear, which I think is probably not all that much. Where did Bor and his sons and Ymir live before Ymir became construction materials?Does it matter? From the little I know most creation myths are comparable. There's Chronos eating his children, for instance, in the Greek/Roman myths.
The creation account in Genesis is a model of simplicity in comparison. "In the beginning God created...." No giants were harmed in this creation. The basic idea--that God said "Let there be...", and they were, is not necessarily incompatible with what science tells us.
One thing that can't be missed is that whatever is meant by the word "god" in these myths is not the same thing that either the Old or New Testament means by God. They're simply not commensurate. Whatever Odin, the father of the gods is, he's not in the same order of being as God. The latter is what David Bentley Hart refers to as the One God of classical theism. Odin himself has a father, and is born into a world that was long since created. You can find things in the Old Testament that might seem made of the same stuff as myths, but overall it's a pretty straightforward narrative of human activity, even if you don't think it's accurate.
Even more striking is the contrast between the remaining stories, all the doings of Odin and Thor and Loki and the rest, which are wild, and the New Testament. For instance: Thor in a test of his strength arranged by the magician Utgarda-Loki is challenged to lift a cat off the ground. With his utmost effort he manages to get one of its paws off the floor. Later Utgarda-Loki explains:
Truly all those who saw you raise one of the cat's paws off the ground grew fearful, because that cat was not what it seemed to be. It was the Midgard Serpent, which encircles all lands, and from head to tail its length is just enough to round the earth. But you pulled him up so high that he almost reached the sky.
In another incident Thor, out fishing with the giant Hymir, manages to hook the Midgard Serpent. In the struggle, Thor's feet go through the bottom of the boat, and he stands on the sea floor for the rest of the struggle, in which he is almost victorious, but when the head of the serpent appears Hymir is terrified and cuts the line.
Reading the Edda brought home to me just how silly it is to dismiss the Gospels as "myths handed down over the centuries." You'd have to be really quite thick to go from the Edda to the opening of Luke's Gospel and not see that you are dealing with an entirely different species of writing. It's obviously an account of events that happened in a specific time and place, and for a nearly-contemporary audience which is familiar with both. To borrow from Dorothy Sayers, it's as if it begins with something like "During the Carter administration..." It's plainly not a misty-dawn-of-time situation. The New Testament might be the product of delusions or lies or some combination of the two, but it is very obviously not mythology in the sense that the Eddas are.
Tomorrow is Memorial Day. Back on Memorial Day of 2004, the first year of this blog, I posted this quotation from John Ruskin, which has stayed with me since I first read it many years ago.
Philosophically, it does not, at first sight, appear reasonable (many writers have endeavoured to prove it unreasonable) that a peaceable and rational person, whose trade is buying and selling, should be held in less honor than an unpeaceable and often irrational person, whose trade is slaying. Nevertheless, the consent of mankind has always, in spite of the philosophers, given precedence to the soldier.
And this is right.
For the soldier’s trade, verily and essentially, is not slaying, but being slain. This, without well knowing its own meaning, the world honours it for. A bravo’s trade is slaying; but the world has never respected bravos more than merchants: the reason it honours the soldier is, because he holds his life at the service of the State. Reckless he may be—fond of pleasure or of adventure—all kinds of bye-motives and mean impulses may have determined the choice of his profession, and may affect (to all appearance exclusively) his daily conduct in it; but our estimate of him is based on this ultimate fact—of which we are well assured—that, put him in a fortress breach, with all the pleasures of the world behind him, and only death and his duty in front of him, he will keep his face to the front; and he knows that this choice may be put to him at any moment—and has beforehand taken his part—virtually takes such part continually—does, in reality, die daily.
A brief follow-up on last week's remarks about "toxic femininity" (TF): I should have mentioned that the discussions of "toxic masculinity" which had caused me to start thinking about what its feminine counterpart might be were not about seriously bad things like sexual assault but about rudeness, egotism, "mansplaining," and the like: things which I regard as being more in the realm of bad manners than of serious pathology. I was thinking of everyday human interaction, not crime and abuse. Obviously the story I linked to of the woman trying to damage a man's professional standing because of a remark made in bad taste is not in a class with rape.
Janet once said to me that she thinks it's displeasing to God when men and women criticize each other for faults attributed to their sex per se. Or something like that--that's what I took her to mean, and she can correct me if that's wrong. I think she's right, depending on the spirit in which it's done. It should never be done in a spirit of competition and domination, with the intention of elevating one sex over the other. But I also think sex and the whole male-female dance is one of the richest and most fascinating things in human life, and I often think about those differences, and sometimes write about them, not with the intention of disparaging either sex as such, but in an almost scientific sort of spirit: look, isn't this interesting?
And if you think about those things you inevitably find yourself comparing the different directions each sex tends to take when behaving badly. You can think about those without intending to find each member of the sex guilty of them. Or to deny the general mistreatment of women by men throughout history. Both sexes are equal in absolute worth and in importance to the scheme of things, and each is equally fallen. Some years ago someone--I think it was Grumpy, but I'm not sure--commented here, apropos some similar discussion, that "Men tend to be selfish; women tend to be self-centered." I think that's one of the sharpest observations on the subject I've ever heard.
Freight train a-comin' on a rainy night.
That's a good one.
When I was growing up, I read all kinds of mythology, and I think I liked the Norse best because it was so different and when Lewis talks about Northernness, I know just what he means. It is quite weird. It exceeds other mythologies in weirdness. You can visualize the weird things in other mythologies much more easily than the Norse.
About 20 years ago when I was reading a book about the different "discoverers" of North America, there was a passage from one of the eddas that fascinated me, and I read some other eddas, and enjoyed them, but all I remember is the story a woman, perhaps Gudridur, mother of Snorri Thorfinnson, who may have been the first European child born in America. The group she was with came across some Indians who were going to attack them, and she rose up, pulled out her sword, drew it across her bare breast, and scared the daylights out of the Indians, who ran away. Or something very like that. ;-)
Posted by: Janet | 05/28/2018 at 12:01 PM
Yes, that is pretty much what I said, but I do think that the humour which comes from the differences in the sexes is another thing, and I enjoy it. One of my beefs with the current feminist movement is that it pits men and women against each other. It's like racism in that way. The humour, unless it is just mean, tends to draw us together, I think.
That is a great quote from Grumpy.
I love the train picture.
The cover of that album reminds me of a girl I saw in North Carolina when I was visiting Sally. We went to a poetry reading at her friend's coffee house. It was an initial effort and turned out to be Sally reading two very good poems, and then an outpouring of young adult angst which was really prose recited as poetry, but hopefully it will grow into something better.
There was a beautiful young girl there with what may have been tattoos on her face that made her look something like a cat. It made me want to weep. I'm hoping it wasn't permanent.
That music almost immediately evokes the spirit of David Lynch in a big way.
Posted by: Janet | 05/28/2018 at 12:14 PM
As you may have noticed, that song is some kind of collaboration between the singer and Lynch. I feel pretty sure her face tattoos are not tattoos.
Ouch--that story about the Viking woman. If you are so tough that you scare those northern Indians who had dreamed up the tortures used on the Jesuit martyrs, you are scary indeed.
I kind of feel the same thing about Northerness. I don't know why. And it's odd that contemporary Scandinavians, and their descendants in this country, seem so mild. There is a very funny bit in one of the Hitchhiker's Guide books, maybe the first one, about a mild-mannered civil servant who now and then when annoyed wants to paint his face blue and slaughter people (or something like that--been a long time since I read it).
Posted by: Mac | 05/28/2018 at 01:21 PM
On Netflix here there's a Norwegian series called Norsemen, which spoofs series like Vikings. It's very variable, and basically three jokes stretched out and reprised in various ways, interspersed with slapstick – but near the beginning of the first episode I thought it was very funny when the returning war chief says something like "You don't think I went too far, there? It's not really my thing, that style of leadership by fear."
Posted by: Paul | 05/28/2018 at 01:54 PM
[laughter] Sounds like a more sophisticated version of Hagar the Horrible.
Posted by: Mac | 05/28/2018 at 02:02 PM
Yes, I suppose so. But it strikes me now that having the Viking chief pastiching the language of managerial self-assessment is basically this joke in a different form: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pQHX-SjgQvQ
Posted by: Paul | 05/28/2018 at 02:05 PM
That's great. I see Norsemen is on Netflix here, too. I think I'll give it a try.
Posted by: Mac | 05/28/2018 at 02:26 PM
I haven't seen Vikings, though. Possibly some of the jokes will be references to it. I don't usually do very well with movie and TV humor that depends on references to movies & TV.
Posted by: Mac | 05/28/2018 at 02:29 PM
I think I now understand more about where the gruesomeness of Nordic noir come from.
Posted by: Marianne | 05/28/2018 at 03:10 PM
Interesting point. I hadn't made that connection, but then I haven't read/seen much Nordic noir. The first episode of The Bridge just arrived from Netflix.
Posted by: Mac | 05/28/2018 at 03:32 PM
I haven't seen "Vikings" either (an interview with one of the writers about how "We don't really know what happened in that period, which leaves us free to make up what we like" decided me against it). Perhaps I would have enjoyed "Norsemen" more if I had.
Posted by: Paul | 05/28/2018 at 05:00 PM
Not surprised. It really makes me grit my teeth when a character in a historical drama acts and speaks like a contemporary American (or European). "Just follow your heart" and that kind of thing. Or just idioms, like an upper-class 19th c English woman saying "I need you to support me on this."
Posted by: Mac | 05/28/2018 at 06:29 PM
Posted by: Janet | 05/29/2018 at 04:07 AM
It's also like that when you see a quote attributed to an author or a saint that expresses a sentiment that wasn't present in the consciousness of people in their time.
There was a quote going around supposedly by Catherine of Sienna, and it was such a 21st century concept that I knew it couldn't be right. I finally figure out it was from a recent poem written, supposedly, in Catherine's voice.
Posted by: Janet | 05/29/2018 at 04:11 AM
I may have seen that, too. I remember having a similar thought but I don't remember the details.
In the "you need to" case I'm also bothered by what seems to be a missing preposition. Seems like it should be "I need for you to..." I don't know if that's grammatically required but it bugs me.
Posted by: Mac | 05/29/2018 at 08:18 AM
You need her to correct her usage.
Posted by: Janet | 05/29/2018 at 11:20 AM
"You need to do such-and-such" is normal usage where I come from. Perhaps it used to be UK English and then crossed the ocean. But I know the feeling; once or twice I've corrected students about some horrible-sounding "mistake" only to find that they'd picked up some common feature of US English which I didn't know about.
(I took up teaching English as a side job a while back and have turned into a professional grammar nazi as a result.)
Posted by: godescalc | 05/29/2018 at 02:20 PM
I found an interesting quote about Sigrid Undset today from a book called Faith Experiences of Catholic Converts by Rawley Myers.
She sensed that the religious beliefs of a large number of people were ridiculous. Religion is not a matter of a person's making up his own rules. It is, rather, following God's rules. Sigrid was seeking a religion where authority came from Christ, not from human beings, and, because the Catholic Church was the most ancient of churches, she began to seek out the Church's claims . . . .
Posted by: Janet | 05/29/2018 at 02:43 PM
I think there's something very much like that in her Wikipedia bio. I say that because it seems familiar and I read that page while writing that post about Master of Hestviken.
Posted by: Mac | 05/29/2018 at 04:37 PM
"You need to..." is pretty standard here, too. That doesn't bother me. It's the "I need you to..." vs "I need for you to..." that seems wrong, but I don't know if it is. I have the heart of a grammar nazi but have occasionally embarrassed myself by saying something wrong when it wasn't, according to actual grammarians. So I usually don't give it free rein.
Posted by: Mac | 05/29/2018 at 04:40 PM
I don’t like that use of "I need you to" because it attempts to hide what is really a command. Also makes the person being commanded look like a potential meanie. Wonder if it all started with psychotherapy.
Posted by: Marianne | 05/29/2018 at 04:48 PM
I have quit correcting people's grammar because at this point I am likely to make a grammar error while in the process of correcting someone else's error.
On the other hand, I managed to use italics twice in my earlier comment without italicizing the entire blog. I consider that a good day.
Posted by: Janet | 05/29/2018 at 04:54 PM
If Google Books is to be trusted, "I need you to [verb]" only became a common turn of phrase at the end of the 1970s (rather older are devotional and romantic turns of phrase "I need you to guide me", "I need you to drive the blues away", with the emphasis on you).
Posted by: Paul | 05/29/2018 at 05:48 PM
Interesting. I guess grammatically there is no difference between "I need *you* to guide me" and "I need you to support me on this."
Posted by: Mac | 05/29/2018 at 07:29 PM
I think it safe to say there's a pragmatic difference.
Posted by: Paul | 05/30/2018 at 11:25 AM
Posted by: Mac | 05/30/2018 at 02:23 PM