Thursday, 9 June 2016

The Basis Of Mythology

"So [Braki] came back to Vagnhofdi's house. The giant took him in with gruff good cheer and they all sat about the fire, in a rank gloom, while wind hooted outside and from afar sounded the howling of wolves."
-Poul Anderson, War Of The Gods (Ballantine Books, New York, 1999), p. 31.

This paragraph seamlessly blends two strands. Vagnhofdi is a giant, three times the height of a tall man. Thus, the narrative is a fantasy deeply embedded in Norse mythology. However, it also describes and evokes the kind of bleak landscape that inspired Norse mythology. In their cold climate, Northeners imagined Niflheim. Hearing and encountering wolves, they also recounted that Fenris Wolf will devour Odin at the Ragnarok.

In the Norse creation myth:

there is a Void;
to the North, there is ice;
to the South, there is fire;
between, there is a thawing and the body of the first giant, Ymir, appears;
the gods emerge from ice;
there is no earth underfoot or sky overhead until the gods have killed Ymir;
soil is his flesh, mountains are his bones, the sea is his blood, the sky is his skull, clouds are his brain.

This mythology connects with two important strands in European philosophy -

materialism, the proposition that unconscious material processes preceded the earliest consciousness;
dialectics, the principle that change occurs, and life and consciousness emerge, because opposed forces interact.

In this case, the opposed forces are heat and cold, more fundamentally nothing and being. Modern scientific cosmogony has virtual particle anti-particle pairs and a quantum fluctuation in the void. I prefer the Norse account to Genesis. Of course, Northeners did not know that complicated chemistry was necessary to generate the first self-replicating molecule or that natural selection was necessary to generate complicated multi-cellular organisms.

No comments: