Friday, July 8, 2011

Religion Friday: Norse Myths

Norse mythology is a complex narrative, going into the origins of the gods and containing nine different realms, including Asgard, the land of the gods, and Midgard, the land of humans. It’s no wonder that the complexity, the number of magical creatures (elves, dwarves, giants), and the history of epic battles continues to be a source for so much literature written today.
According to the Sagas and Eddas, brother-gods Odin, Vili, and Ve were walking along the sands of the ocean, they came across two logs, one from an ash tree and one from an elm. Odin breathed life into them, while Vili and Ve gave them the abilities they would need such as the five senses, intelligence, and speech. The woman was called Embla, and the man was called Ask. While Odin was the most important of the gods, there were gods for work, family, agriculture, wine, etc. and people would pray to these gods for help.
There were no temples. Worship was primarily done at altars in the home or in sacred groves (trees grown in a specific shape resembling walls). There is some evidence of piled stone altars as well. Animals, and sometimes humans, were sacrificed to please the gods. Human sacrifice was not common however. It was usually done out of desperation during famine, though according to Sturluson (he is explained later) writings, the Swedish King Aun had sacrificed nine of his sons in an effort to prolong his life until his subjects stopped him from killing his last son Egil. Swedish kings sacrificed males every ninth year during the Yule sacrifices.

When trying to look up information on Norse mythos, it was easier to find comparisons of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings than anything of the Norse faith by itself. That is because the religion of the Norse has fallen into the myth category. It is now looked on more as a cultural artifact than a practiced belief. In a culture that greatly valued individualism, the human hero tale was held in almost as high significance as stories of the gods. While the figures of Odin and Thor recall the Greco-Roman gods, in truth, the Norse faith is much more similar to Celtic pagan beliefs.

So why is so little known about the actual faith of these people? In short, Christianity. As Rome and Christianity spread over the region, the new faith replaced the old. Hundreds of years later when men began to write the legends, the oral traditions were 1. changed to fit a Christian narrative 2. changed to point out how opposite (a.k.a. wrong) they were from the Christian narrative or 3. simply made up. Much of what is known about Norse beliefs comes from the writings of Snorri Sturluson, a Christian in the thirteenth century.

It’s impossible to ignore the influence of other religions, especially when a foreign religion is forced on a native people. They will adapt their familiar traditions to the new faith. Why is Christmas in December instead of April? Surrounding cultures (Roman, Iranian, Celtic, and yes, Norse) had sun festivals around the winter solace, and it was much easier to get them to turn their already established holiday into a Christian one instead of halting the holiday altogether. Same idea with Halloween/All Saints’ Day and colored eggs at Easter.

It’s wasn’t like Christianity wasn’t already infused with lots of Jewish ideas.

I’m quite aware some aspects of Christianity are from other faiths. But that doesn’t change my faith. It’s good to be educated on where the origins of some beliefs are, but there is no reason to cut out all outside influences in an attempt to purify a religion. It would be like taking the Latin and French and German out of English. You’d be left with a language more original, but it wouldn’t be English anymore.

I don’t know what the Forn Sior "Old Custom" was before the Christian influence. It wasn’t recorded until well after the Christianization of that part of the world. It’s unfortunate not to have a full picture of how it was in its unaltered form. However, the version we have now has touched people’s hearts and imaginations. It’s inspired operas, book series, and even board games that have shaped European culture. Even unpracticed religions can hold values and truths that help people.

Next Friday: Islam

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