Myth and the 'Now' Part Two: Norse Mythology

A story works because it resonates with fundamental psychological and spiritual realities that remain true, active and potent today, right now, for any reader. That’s what I asserted in Part One of this series. And it applies to whatever type of story we are talking about, from ancient myths through to modern day Ironies. The exact elements that ‘resonate’ can be grasped, understood and communicated, if we approach them in the right frame of mind.

However, getting into that 'right frame of mind' isn't necessarily easy for a modern reader.

As I said earlier, a so-called ‘primitive’ creation myth has just as much psychological and spiritual value for a modern reader as it did thousands of years ago. To try to illustrate what I mean, I’m going to attempt something probably foolish: I’m going to examine a Norse creation myth to see how it might work for readers right now spiritually, mentally and emotionally. Why is this foolish? Well, because looking at a Norse myth in this way takes it totally out of its context, even out of its original language, and can only really look at the most superficial elements of it - that part of the iceberg, if you like, which shows above sea level. The rest of the iceberg remains out of our sight simply because we do not know the language or the culture which gave birth to the myth well enough to totally comprehend it. But we can discern enough for it to be worth the attempt, I hope, given that a story is as I've just defined it, an accessible work that potentially resonates for any reader.

Another reason why it might be foolish is because it requires a difficult shift in thinking for anyone born in the last hundred years.

When we come to read a story, and especially when we write one, we are potentially returning to the fundamental truths about the human condition. A story can play around the edges of this, using words and images that we understand but can fall too obviously into clichés and tropes that we are used to, over-using conventions until it slips easily into a genre and just ‘goes through the motions’ of storytelling. Fiction of that kind - which comprises the vast bulk of fiction available today - can still be satisfying and is still resonating with ‘fundamental psychological and spiritual realities’ to a degree, it just isn’t particularly doing anything new or exciting with them. Other stories delve deeper, taking those same ‘fundamental psychological and spiritual realities’ and re-envisioning them: in the hands of master authors, these tales become memorable and survive through time as ‘classics’ of one kind or another. In effect, the deeper an author can go into those truths, the further outside Time the work is pushed: there are a few works of fiction which are ‘timeless’ because of the depth of truth they contact or express.

Myths tend to be like that. Their truth is so deep that it ejects them from history and makes them eternal. But to examine a myth with any hope of comprehending this, we have to immediately and thoroughly strip away any preconceived notions we have about the so-called ‘primitive culture’ from which such stories came. Myths are the product of the human imagination, not necessarily its reason: the Norse storytellers who wove tales about the creation and structure of the world did so in order to build something that resonated with their listeners; today, we have our own ‘myths’ about the creation of the universe - the ‘Big Bang’, quantum physics, the endlessness of space - which have an imaginative function for us too. That ours is supposedly ‘scientifically measurable’ or somehow more ‘rational’ shouldn't be permitted to detract from our experience of the fictive Norse cosmology.

In effect, our own mythology gets in the way of understanding other myths, sometimes.

So when we enter the world of Norse mythology, we must take care to see it for what it is without prejudice: the nine homeworlds realms, unified by the world tree Yggdrasil, vaguely alluded to in the Poetic Edda, are an imaginative cosmic landscape, brought into existence in the gap between fire and ice, just as our universe is possibly just one in a void full of potential parallel universes according to our own myths.

The cosmic ash tree, Yggdrasil, lies at the centre of the Norse cosmos, its roots drinking the waters of the homeworlds, including Asgard, home of the gods, and the homeworld of the humans, Midgard. Think of Yggdrasil as a powerful image communicating something to us rather than falling into the trap of denigrating it as an irrational misconception of the nature of things: a tree, so vast that it draws strength from a number of separate realities. Beneath its root in the world of the frost giants is the spring of Mímir, whose waters contain wisdom and understanding, while the root in the Æsir homeworld taps the sacred wellspring of fate, the Well of Urðr. Explicitly, then, the Norse myth makers are conveying that the image of the tree draws symbolic power from wisdom, understanding and fate. It is the abstract made real.

Beings known as the Norns live near Yggdrasil, watering it and preserving it with clay: the water falls down to the earth as dew. Animals feed on the tree but it continually heals itself and nourishes life. At this point, looking at Yggdrasil as a poetic metaphor, we come close to an abstract ‘source’ of existence, something which sustains Life but is woven through everything wisely and deeply.

At the top of the tree sits an eagle whose wings cause the winds in the world of men, while at its root of the tree lies the great dragon, Niðhǫggr, gnawing at it continuously, together with other serpents. Natural phenomena within our human frame of reference are thus linked to this poetic image, while its potency as a symbol is also continually challenged by the also-symbolic dragon and serpents. Speaking poetically, this is quite an achievement: Yggdrasil is a world-embracing, wisdom-fed, eternally renewing cosmic linking device - it straddles universes and gives rise to Life, water and wind, but is not secure and insular: its heart is perpetually threatened by dark beasts. Not a bad summary of the indescribable essence of reality.

It’s a cosmological image which underpins ’events’ in the Norse creation story, which begin with the yawning emptiness of potential called Ginnungagap from whence two regions emerge: Muspelheim, full of fire, light and heat, and Niflheim, full of arctic waters, mists, and cold. Modern imaginations leap to compare these zones with our scientific understanding of space, but we should strive to put that aside and remain poetic in our apprehension of this if we are to get anywhere: think of Ginnungagap as an enormous vacuum, a void, spontaneously producing polar extremes. Combining elements from these extremes produces, again poetically, a living creature, Ymir, the ice giant. From his left armpit, the first man and woman were born.

Here a modern reader often pauses, and asks ‘Why the armpit? And why specifically the left armpit?’ It’s important to recollect the poetic track we’re following, and to be highly aware of the modern prejudices which seek to make unhelpful comparisons all the time. Understanding myth isn’t about making rational comparisons: it’s about apprehending the poetry of the thing. And in this case, poetically speaking, we have gone from the immense and inconceivable generalities of Muspelheim and Niflheim to a highly specific concreteness: an ice giant, with a humanoid anatomy, who gives birth to humanity not from any region of his body that we might expect, but from his left armpit. If nothing else, the incongruity and unexpectedness of that creates for us a startling mystery and compels us to pay attention.

Ymir, giving birth also to generations of frost giants, some named and others not, feeds on the milk of the cow Auðumbla. At what point, modern scientifically trained minds ask, and from where did Auðumbla appear? Modern readers tend to look for the Occam’s razor simplicities that they have been brought up with, they desire straightforwardness and rational progression - but that is not what myths are all about. A myth is a behind-the-scenes glimpse of how poetry (and everything else) is made, a dream-like journey into the mechanics of the construction of imaginative worlds. We have to become sensitive to the unexpected. Auðumbla licks blocks of salty ice, releasing Búri, and Búri’s son Borr has three sons, the gods Odin, Vili and Vé. These three then slay Ymir, and all of the jötnar (giants) except for Bergelmir and his wife, who drown in the blood of the others. From Ymir's body, Odin, Vili and Vé make the recognisable world: Ymir’s blood forms the seas and lakes, his flesh the earth, his bones the mountains and his teeth the rocks. The dome of the sky is made from his skull, with a dwarf at each of the four corners to support it. Odin, Vili and Vé protect this world from the jötnar with a barrier made from Ymir's eyebrows. And while they are doing this, they create time, and place the sun and moon in chariots to circle around the sky.

If we can grasp this cascade of images, we will do the myth more justice than trying to look at it as a modern, rational, scientific conception of the way the world works. Beginning with the metaphor of the tree Yggdrasil, binding everything together but perpetually gnawed by darkness, we progress to a bipolar universe, the extreme generalities of which come together to produce mysterious specificity. Symbols and archetypes appear to act as a bridges: Ymir, a humanoid figure who is too vast and alien to be human, a ‘jötnar’, nevertheless yields human-like forms - these forms are still transcendent, unimaginable, god-sized, but they begin to do recognisable things: killing, making, protecting, changing, setting things on motion. By the time we get to having a sun and moon in the sky we are almost home.

The division between this kind of conception of the world and the way in which we as modern readers demand that the origins of the universe are explained is as wide as Ginnungagap. But there are reasons for that too, as we shall see in forthcoming articles. Why has it been such a struggle to examine something as raw as a Norse Creation Myth? That's the next article in this series.

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