Lately I’ve been reading Edith Hamilton’s classic book on mythology, in particular her chapter on Norse mythology. I was struck by what she describes as the dominating characteristic of the Norse mythos:
The world of Norse mythology is a strange world. Asgard, the home of the gods, is unlike any other heaven men have dreamed of. No radiance of joy is in it, no assurance of bliss. It is a grave and solemn place, over which hangs the threat of an inevitable doom. The gods know that a day will come when they will be destroyed. Sometime they will meet their enemies and go down beneath them to defeat and death. (314)
The only consolation for the Norse people in the face of ultimate defeat (the inevitability of death) was to face it with unrelenting courage. Despite being aware of their mortality, the gods were committed to resist their demise to the bitter end. Humans took their cue accordingly and sought to attain a place in Valhalla (one of the halls in Asgard) through similar acts of bravery, though even Valhalla was destined to perish all the same. Hamilton continues:
This is the conception of life which underlies the Norse religion, as somber a conception as the mind has ever given birth to. The only sustaining support possible for the human spirit, the one pure unsullied good men can hope to attain, is heroism. (314-315)
The few stories contained in her collection support this thesis. They are stark and border on nihilism, a line they would easily cross but for the unrelenting Norse belief in courageous suffering as the path to overcoming death’s inescapable reach.
A place called Midgard was the Norsemen’s Eden. There the first man and woman were created from trees, the man from an ash and the woman from an elm, and there also was an ash-tree called Yggdrasil which supported the universe. Its roots were said to strike throughout the world, with one reaching even to Asgard itself. Yet Yggdrasil, like Asgard and all the gods, was doomed to die. “A serpent and his brood gnawed continually at the root beside Niflheim, Hel’s home. Some day they would succeed in killing the tree, and the universe would come crashing down” (327).
So despite the buoy of the Norsemen’s conviction to suffer with courage, their mythology was in general undeniably fatalistic. What struck me the most, however, came at the end of Hamilton’s assessment where she quotes a prophecy from the Elder Adda, one of the few remaining manuscripts from the Norse people. “Even these sternly hopeless Norsemen, whose daily life in their icy land through the black winters was a perpetual challenge to heroism, saw a far-away light break through the darkness” (327). Reading like something from the book of Revelation, it tells of a time after Ragnarok (the day of doom when the universe is destroyed) when there will emerge a new heaven and a new earth:
In wondrous beauty once again.
The dwellings roofed with gold.
The fields unsowed bear ripened fruit
In happiness forevermore. (Qtd. 328)
Here the text must be broken because Hamilton inserts her own commentary: “Then would come the reign of One who was higher even than Odin (the greatest of all the gods) and beyond the reach of evil–”
A greater than all.
But I dare not ever to speak his name.
And there are few who can see beyond
The moment when Odin falls. (Qtd. 328)
Amazing. Amidst the bleak realities of life and an undeniable acceptance of ultimate death, even Norse fatalism gives way to that hope which springs eternal. Wherever you look, it just seems like we humans cannot live without it.