Christian Bias in the Surviving Lore 2

Last time we looked at what Adam of Bremen had to say about the temple in Uppsala. Today, I would like to turn toward a more familiar name whose writings are more commonly relied upon by modern heathens: Snorri Sturluson.

Sturluson’s Edda is heavily reliant upon select poems from The Elder Edda, otherwise known as The Poetic Edda, a source of unknown authorship which is likely the work of multiple authors. Both are incredibly valuable resources in terms of uncovering what kinds of things the pagan people of Scandinavia believed in, though both come with their own set of complications.

It is from writings such as Sturluson’s Prose Edda, for which his chief resources were likely Völupsá and Grimnismal of the The Poetic Edda, (1) that we know about characteristics of the gods, cosmology, beliefs about the origin of the world, and humans, as well as beliefs about different afterlives. Though these writings were written in Iceland post-conversion, like the sagas they “probably tell us a great deal about traditions, beliefs, practices, customs, and values in early medieval Iceland…”(2)

Snorre_Sturluson-Christian_Krohg

Snorri Sturluson by Christian Krohg

Roesdahl asserts that Snorri’s Edda, being a detailed record of Norse myths and stories about the gods, “is as reliable as it could be, given that it was written some 200 years after the introduction of Christianity; Christian influence can often be discerned in these sources, however.”(3) For all its reliability, we must continue proceeding with caution as we interpret these written sources. Snorri’s own Edda, after all, opens with the lines, “In the beginning God created Heaven and Earth and all those things which are in them; and last of all, two human kind, Adam and Eve, from whom all races are descended.” (4) While this Christian influence is most blatant in the earliest portions of Snorri’s Edda, it must be taken into consideration even in areas of the work where it may be less obvious. To complicate matters, Sturluson’s source material may already have been corrupted by Christian influence:

Snorri accepted Völuspá as a valid source of information about the old faith in the Æsir, but modern scholars have long since recognized that much in the poem must be of Christian origin. The idea that the final doom is a punishment for the gods’ oath-breaking and for the moral decay of gods and men alike is not known in any other reliable pre-Christian Nordic source. The description of the torments of wrongdoers and of the terrible times that precede ragnarök are suspiciously consonant with Christian eschatology and the paradise enjoyed by the saved after the universal conflagration is reminiscent of Christian thinking…Völupsá is the revelation experienced by the sibyl, and is more of a piece with visionary literature of the Christian middle ages than with anything we know from Nordic paganism. (5)

This isn’t of course, to say that there is no knowledge about pre-Christian Scandinavian beliefs to be found in Völupsá. Once aware of the heavy Christian influence present in Völupsá and texts like it, and even Snorri’s text which drew from it, we are better able to discern that which may more closely represent pre-Christian beliefs. For instance, Ragnarök is not the only war among the gods that Völupsá records:

On the host his spear | did Othin hurl

Then in the world | did first war come;

The wall that girdled | the gods was broken.

And the field by the warlike | Wanes was trodden.

Then sought the gods | their assembly seats

The holy ones | the council held

Whether the gods | should tribute give.

Or to all alike | should worship belong. (6)

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This war between the Æsir and the Vanir or “Wanes” was, the Völupsá tells, the result of the Æsir’s attack Gollveig, presumably an important Vanic goddess herself, considering the described reaction of the Vanir. The outcome of this war, after the Vanir have utterly destroyed the Æsir’s defenses, was a council held by the gods to determine whether worship should belong “to all alike.” As a result of this council, the Vanic gods Njörd, Frey and Freya took a place among the Æsir, presumably as war hostages but also to partake in the worship of men, while other Vanic deities fall into seeming or near obscurity.

This story is an example of one which seems less influenced by Christianity despite evidence of the poem containing it being a largely Christian construct. It is very likely rooted in old pagan mythology, as the notion of two warring tribes of gods sitting down to discuss the division of human worship clearly clashes with Christian monotheism.

Of course, Christian influence hardly wiped the polytheism of old pagan religions from the myths which were preserved, but one might also point to the muddy morality which the story presents. Many Christianized Norse myths align their point of view almost exclusively with the Æsir, especially when it comes to Odin and his son Baldr. Here it’s important to note that Odin’s position and title of “All-Father” mirrors the “Father” aspect of the Christian trinity, while Baldr’s death and resurrection after Ragnarök mirrors Christ’s death and resurrection. This is one of the more subtle effects Christianization has had on the mythology, but the story of the war between the Æsir and the Vanir  doesn’t fall in line with this trend or generalization. It depicts the Æsir as aggressors and the Vanir not only responding in kind, but apparently winning the war before the council was called. The degree to which the Æsir are overpowered by the Vanir (consider how their defensive wall was broken by the Vanir) would seem to make Odin’s decision to attack Gollveig quite a lot more foolish than other Christianized myths tend to portray him and his actions.

gullveig__thrice_born_by_samflegal_dd5aw8a-pre

Much as Odin’s decision to act aggressively toward the Vanir in the recollection of the wise-woman in Völupsá reads as a foolish blundering when considering the evident might of the Vanir, some other poems appearing in The Poetic Edda depict the gods in a humorous, almost satirical way. Among the most noteworthy of these are Lokasenna and Trymskvida:

Some scholars have argued that both these poems are late compositions, even the work of thirteenth century poets. They point to the satirical treatment of the gods. But this is to think that heathens regarded their gods in the same way as Christians regard their Trinity. A much more fitting approach is to consider what genuine religious sentiment of the pagan period may have inspired these poems. (7)

This is particularly important to note in large part because it is important to remember that the way modern, largely Christian people think and feel about the divine does not necessarily reflect how the pagan people who traded these stories and believed in these gods thought and felt about their deities. It is as important to be aware of what we ourselves project onto these myths as it is to be aware of what the Christian clergy who wrote most of these records projected onto the stories and people they were writing about.

Here I have only closely analysed one poem, but it is important to remember that we can all analyze the myths through this lens, and we all ought to engage in such critical study of our lore. When we forget to check our own assumptions we may easily miss telling clues about the beliefs of pre-Christian peoples such as the gods’ distinctly human characteristics, something which is common in polytheistic mythologies and belief systems. They struggle with themselves and with each other. They make mistakes which they must then correct. This certainly would have led to people of the time having a different relationship to their gods than people in religious traditions sporting one all-knowing and all-powerful god. Rather than dismiss this interesting detail because it does not correspond to more modern concepts of how people do and should relate to the divine, it is far better to note the distinct possibility that the people of pre-Christian Scandinavia may well have a relationship with their gods which included an ability to laugh at them and perhaps take and teach lessons through the stories told about their gods.

 

(1) Kristjánsson, Jónas. Eddas and Sagas: Iceland’s Medieval Literature. Trans. Peter Foote. Hið íslenksa bókmenntafélag: Reykjavík, 1988. Pp 38

(2) Nordstrom History of Sweden. Pp 22

(3) Roesdahl, Else. The Vikings. Penguin Books: London, 1998. Pg 148.

(4) The Prose Edda. Tr. Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur. 1916.

(5) Kristjánsson. pp 43

(6) The Poetic Edda. Trans. Henry Adam Bellows. Princeton University Press: Princeton. 1936.

(7) Kristjánsson. pp 39

The Importance of Myth in Practice

The easiest way to learn more about the gods is to read their stories, to study their myths, and to meditate on the meaning of what the gods show us about themselves in the stories.

One of the best ways to do this is to examine a myth through the lens of each god that plays a role in that story. In the myth that discusses the building of Asgard’s wall, the actions of Odin, Freyja, and Loki all show us different aspects of each of the gods.

Odin needs the wall built, and he is willing to do pretty much anything to do it – i.e. the ends justify the means. When the giant suggests that the price he wants for the wall is Freyja’s hand in marriage (alongside a few other key things, like the moon), it is Freyja who protests the price, not Odin.

That shows us that Freyja will not allow herself to be auctioned off or turned into a pawn in one of the All-father’s games, and it paints her as an independent, strong-willed goddess who can match wits with Odin himself.

The gods then turn to Loki to find a solution to their dilemma, and that immediately shows us that the gods trust in Loki’s ability to solve problems. He is a creative, cunning thinker, and he comes up with a scheme to prevent the giant from finishing the wall so that the ill-struck bargain cannot be completed. He is the ultimate con artist, and the rest of the story demonstrates that. It also shows us that he runs his cons for the good of the gods – and sure, his cons work out well for him too, but there’s nothing wrong with that.

Just from that one story, we get glimpses of the gods and their individual personalities. Odin is hell-bent on getting what he needs – there are no lengths too far for him to go. He is ruthless and determined and self-assured. He can be this self-assured because he knows that he can rely on Loki, and that is clear because he brings Loki in to find the perfect solution to his problem.

Being able to see these glimpses of the gods through the myths is why it is so important that people who come to polytheistic religions read the stories. The secrets of the gods are hidden in their stories.

Those stories, ancient as they are, were once the shared gnosis of entire civilizations. Myths are the collective understanding of the gods and their unique agencies in this world. That is why they are so important, why it is so imperative that people read the myths about the gods they wish to work with.

It is not about denying personal religious experience and gnosis when we experienced practitioners tell newcomers to read the myths and learn the stories about the gods they are wanting to honor. We tell them to do this because we know that the secrets of the gods are hidden in their stories. We tell them to do this because we know that those stories contain the key to unlock religious experience.

The more of the myths you read and seek to understand, the more you start to know the gods. The more you come to know the gods, the better and more reliable your personal gnosis becomes, and the greater your religious experience becomes.

If you want the key to your own greatest religious potential, read the myths. They are your greatest weapon and your greatest strength.

©Kyaza 2019