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They may reflect the cultural preoccupations of societies. For instance, it has been said that the Navajo people of North America are notably hypochondriac, and their myths, being largely concerned with healing and curing, reflect this though it might be difficult to distinguish cause and effect! Or myths may act as vents for anxieties which concern particular societies at particular times: fear of invasion, of social disorder, of the assimilation of immigrant groups.
It has seemed, therefore, that properly, sensitively decoded — if that were only possible! The important feature of this approach to myths is that they are treated as functional — as if they serve a social purpose. But it still tends to treat myths as historical or anthropological curiosities: again, as how other people in other times and places have understood the mysteries and difficulties of existence.
Myths can be understood as narrative responses to the universal human condition: creation, fertility, the struggle for life, and death. Myths confront the most difficult questions. What was here before? How did we come into existence? How can we ensure survival? What happens when we die? How will the world end? These are questions which all of us face, and questions which all mythologies address. An explanation for this is that these questions are not only part of our social existence, but also part of our individual experience of life — of our psychology.
By now, the intimate relationship between myth, religion, science, psychology and philosophy will have become evident. Fertility, both human and agricultural, has been dealt with by science in a completely satisfactory way. The conduct of life between birth and death has been, in different ways, the concern of all the disciplines: religion, science, history, philosophy and political science.
Science speaks of global warming or, by contrast, an extended ice age , or an asteroid hitting the earth and exploding in a ball of fire, or a nuclear war.
Religion — for instance, contemporary Christianity — speaks of a conflagration: Armageddon, the final battle in the Book of Revelation. Myths have come down to us in literary form — usually, in the form of stories. We are most likely to encounter literary myths at a very late stage in the re-telling process: myths collected, ordered, tidied up, perhaps re-told for children.
From Asgard to Valhalla: The Remarkable History of the Norse Myths
Norse mythology has been processed in just this way, but in fact most of the work had been done for modern editors and story-re-tellers by the thirteenth century, in Iceland, by an Icelandic antiquarian and scholar called Snorri Sturluson. The connection between Iceland and Norse mythology is a very basic one. At the beginning of the so-called Viking age — from, roughly, the beginning of the ninth century AD to the end of the eleventh — Iceland, which had been uninhabited, was settled by Scandinavians from Norway, and people of mixed Celtic and Scandinavian parentage from Ireland and Scotland.
Together they established a remarkable new nation, with a sophisticated legal system and a surprisingly democratic parliament. Life must have been very harsh for them in material terms; there were food shortages, bad weather and — as is still the case, of course — winter nights so long that the sun barely rises at midday.
But in intellectual and literary terms, Iceland was rich. To begin with, Icelanders would have recited the poetry and told the stories which they had brought with them to their new land. But around the year AD, Icelanders adopted Christianity, and Christian laws, and with this came literacy, the power to write down and record a great mass of material: all those oral traditions they had preserved in verse and prose, together with the necessary texts of their nation — laws, Christian literature, historical records.
And early on, new forms began to flourish: pre-eminently, family sagas — long, naturalistic, fictionalized chronicles of the lives of the first settlers. By the thirteenth century, literary production in Iceland was coming to its height, and this was when Snorri Sturluson undertook his treatise on Norse mythology.
Some of these sources are likely to have been oral ones, of unknowable, and perhaps very great, age. Others were already in literary form, mostly as poems.
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Snorri collected an enormous amount of material, sometimes quoting directly, sometimes paraphrasing, probably sometimes inventing. He imposed on all this material narrative form, and all the other things which come with a story: the onward drive of cause and effect, characters, motive and consistency. But what we call myths are always representations of the thing itself, which is tantalizingly out of reach, always absent. And we must then move forward, to later re-tellings of Norse mythology.
An obvious explanation of the enduring significance of mythologies is the argument put forward by the psychologists: that myths reflect the deepest preoccupations of the human mind. This would readily explain their appeal — not only the pleasure people have in hearing or reading them, but also, and more significantly, why writers and artists keep repeating them. In fact, this may even lead us to formulate another definition of myth: that is, a story which holds such appeal or significance that it is typically told and re-told throughout history. On the other hand, it has been argued, as we have seen, that myths reflect not universal preoccupations, but the particular concerns of particular societies.
Perhaps we can understand myths as having a double perspective: embodying both fundamental, universal, concerns and, in each successive re-telling, being elaborated with details which relate the basic story to the society which has recycled it. It is after all only to be expected that re-tellings of ancient myths may update all kinds of detail — one might compare modern-dress productions of Shakespeare plays, or cinematic adaptations of classic novels in a contemporary idiom.
Many mythologies also have the sort of structure which can accommodate almost any number of additional stories. For example, between setting out and returning home, Ulysses can have limitless numbers of adventures within the basic structure of the Odyssey.
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King Arthur has twelve knights at his Round Table, each one with his own set of adventures. Norse mythology, with its pantheon of gods, tells of many encounters between them and their old adversaries, the giants. The possibilities are endless — and there is always the option of attaching to the mythic base stories which might have come from anywhere: fairy tales, folk tales, bits of history, Bible stories, even improvisations by the latest re-teller. Even when an author seems to be neutrally collecting mythic material, the very action of collecting and ordering it may involve developing links from one scene to another, implying sequence and causality, and tending to smooth away jumps and discontinuities evident in an earlier version.
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The continuing literary or artistic life of a myth need not have much to do with its supposed spiritual or psychological content. Re-telling may be undertaken for a whole host of reasons. This may well have some truth in it. And whether he meant to or not, a thirteenth-century Christian like Snorri would inevitably recast his material in the light of his own spiritual and cultural norms.
It may be that Richard Wagner recognized in Norse mythology some timeless psychological archetypes. Conversely, he may have been attracted by its striking topicality for the proto-Fascist politics and philosophy of his day. But the connection was probably more complex than this: at the time, many Germans were passionately interested in what they saw as the prehistory of their race, and believed that Norse mythology was their window on to it.
It was not solely the content of the myth which inspired men like Wagner — let alone its transcendental or immanent meaning — but also its cultural identity, historical identity, and ultimately, of course, its supposed racial identity. But in re-telling the myths, authors and artists inevitably or purposefully imprinted on them the concerns of their own time. A mythology may acquire a desirable status quite independent of its original function — and this has obviously been the case throughout almost the whole history of English literature with regard to classical — Greek and Roman — mythology.
For English authors, allusions to and reworkings of classical myths established their credentials as educated people. Finally, it may be that the reasons for re-presenting myth are simply too complex to be reconstructed. I am, though, moved by the imaginative reach of the myths, by the high quality of the literature which expresses them, and by their enduring appeal over so many centuries. But there are a host of other accidental forces, at once too slight and too various — academic, commercial, personal — to set out, which have led to this particular representation of Norse mythology.
Who is to say that the motivation behind any other representation of any mythology was not equally complex? Norse mythology as it has come down to us cannot be confined to a single society or a single time. Throughout its early history of telling and re-telling, for all the reasons given above, it may have both changed its original forms, and gathered to itself material very widely, both in time and geographical space.
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As we shall see, some of its elements may not be Scandinavian at all, but borrowed from near neighbours the Finns, or northern Slavic pagans, or even the Anglo-Saxons. It is very likely that Scandinavian paganism was early influenced by Christianity. The first part of this book, therefore, will examine in turn the four great phases of Norse mythology — Creation and the Cosmos; the Gods and the Giants; Heroes and Humans; and Afterlife and Apocalypse.