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Interpreting Myth

Mythology has a lot in it. The essence of mythology however, is often quite hard to understand. Are we to take these tales literally, did they get passed onto our ancestors as historic events, or are we dealing with symbolic representations of natural occurences? Or perhaps both?

Finding the essence of mythology

one of the older images of Wodan
The Edda's, the saga's, the tales of old. We all have read them or at least most of them, but there always seems to be some doubt or discussion as to how one can interpret them. Are they literal tales, historic events that took place? Are they symbolic in nature and meant to teach the people a lesson in terms of morals? Are they simply nighttime stories, fun and adventurous to be told at the campfire? All these and more options have been considered by many a scholar, but the truth is, most scholars are still not sure what to make of the origins of the myths. As a heathen, however, how can you take this up into your own religious beliefs?

A 'whole' mythology

One of the biggest problems when considering the lore and its origins is whether or not the lore was 'complete' at one point. Are we to believe that all tales and myths are in fact separate tales which have little to nothing to do with one another, or are we to believe the tales are mixed together in something of a collection of works? For example, if Wotan loses his eye in the one tale, can we assume he only has one eye in the next?

This is an especially strong point when it comes to cross-referencing myths to one another. If we want to be able to compare several myths and note similarities, we are to first ask ourselves if these tales are related. If we are to assume they come from a greater 'whole' concept, we must assume they are considered rational thus the whole of mythology being complete at one point in time. We have to assume the myths at some point belonged to a greater 'book' if you will; the complete Mythological works of the Germanic peoples.

This view of a complete mythology is often argued to be likely false by a lot of todays scholars. The problem mainly being here that it is impossible to proof and there are several points that seem to contradict this statement. For one we know many tribes had a view on their faith which seemed to differ from other tribes. We know of different names for the deities and along the ages their local mythology and concepts of faith have changed. To a rational mind this shows a transgression within Germanic Heathenry, thus allowing the idea that the faith is based on local culture rather than a large ethnic group and/or a true Germanic faith. In a sense, if we conclude that the mythology as a whole is not in fact a complete work, we also have to conclude that Germanic Heathenry was not considered a whole and we could not compare different tribes together as their faiths would differ too much.

This whole thesis is however based on the idea that the tribes would have created their own myths and believes based on their own traditions and culture. The similarities would be explainable by tribes borrowing traditions and including them into their own. This is the most safest approach to the thesis but in my opinion has a severe flaw. If we consider the tribes all come from a root Indo-Germanic tribe, we can also assume the tribes all shared a root Indo-Germanic faith system. In fact we can assume all Indo-European tribes share such a root. Scholars like Dumezil and Davidson have devoted large works to underline the similarities between Celtic, Germanic, Greek, Indian (Veddic) and Roman mythology and traditions. It would be sheer folly to allow the assumption into our reasoning that the tribes differences in traditions also means that their core of their traditions and faith has a different origin.

To illustrate, we would place ourselves a thousand years ahead in time and do some archaeological works on the current Christian faiths, we too would find multiple versions of it. Are we then to assume that these versions were all separately founded and that they do not share a core – and complete – mythology? We know this idea to be false, we know that the modern Christian schools are all simply different interpretations of the mythology presented in the Bible. If we take this into mind, we can assume our Germanic ancestors were little different. They of course did not have a bible, one book to define their myths, but there were the tales of old. The ancestral tales given to the next generation, again and again.

That said, we must also admit to the fact that a mythology based on an oral tradition is bound to be flawed in its survival. The old experiment comes to mind; take a group of people and whisper a short tale into the ear of one person. Let him/her whisper it to the next and so forth until the last person hears it. Let that one person speak the tale out loud and you will find your original version to have been changed in several ways. The tale has evolved, it has grown with personal touches, it has been changed to fit the mood and ideas of the person telling it. Certain details have been left out, others have been added. This is basic human psychology. Our brains are not capable of remembering large amounts of texts unless specifically trained for it (for example like actors do). Most people will be able to remember a specific tale, but the versions are likely to differ each time it is told.

However, as the experiment also shows, the core of the tale is often unchanged. The Belgian scholar M. de Meyer has made an interesting study on this phenomenon in which he has shown that myths and fairy tales (which we can view as a way of relating old myths in times of Christianity) are often found in different areas in different versions. His studies showed that tales can travel vast distances, but usually keep their core. One of the most interesting things he notes is that not all tales 'stick' to certain regions. For example a tale can be known in north Germany and south Belgium, but not in the rest of either countries or the whole of the Netherlands. His thesis simply states that the original tribes of these regions just did not take to the tale, for them it held little teachings and thus they stopped telling it to their children, resulting in the myth not living on.

Another interesting point of his studies, which has been studied further by Jan de Vries, is the difference in said tales across multiple regions. Meyer was one of the first to note that although tales would be able to travel great distances, they do change in their essence. For example a tale of a girl facing many challenges is considerably different in Belgium as it is in Germany. Some challenges the girls faces are the same, some are similar, but differ in context, others are completely different or do not appear in the other region at all. It is believed that across the regions, challenges were added or subtracted to fit the morals and experiences of the tribe in question. Regional influences form one of the strongest changes in how a tale is presented to the next generation. The core of the myth however usually remains untouched, it is merely changed to fit the people in question.

Literal or Symbolic

So if we are to assume that the mythology of our ancestors was in some way complete, be it in Indo-European times or at the times of moving into the Germanic regions, the question then becomes whether or not the mythology as we know it can be taken literally or symbolic. Are the tales we read about the Gods actual historic accounts, given by the Gods to mankind to learn from, or are they symbolic tales that are meant to teach us something and grant insight into the faith, a way for priests to teach their tribes to stay on the right path?

Some of the myths we have, show a clear moralistic nature. We see growth and understand the dilemma's faced by the characters as we can relate to them in our everyday life. Others however are there to explain certain events, like the creation of the world. Yet others seem to be created mostly for entertainment or to get more insight into the nature of a particular deity.

To understand the origins of Mythology, we would first have to define it. Modern day dictionaries simply state that a Mythology is a collection of myths belonging to a people and addressing their origin, history, deities, ancestors, and heroes. This seems adequate enough, but does not give us much insight into the concept of the myth itself. For a better insight I turn to Larousse's Encyclopedia of Mythology, one of the more renowned works on general mythology. In it's introduction, Robert Graves writes:

Mythology is the study of whatever religious or heroic legends are so foreign to a student's experience that he cannot believe them to be true. Hence the English adjective 'mythical' meaning 'incredible'.

(...)

Myth has two main functions. The first is to answer the sort of awkward questions that children ask, such as 'Who made the world? How will it end? Who was the first man? Where do souls go after death?' The answers, necessarily graphic and positive, confer enormous power on the various deities credited with the creation and care of the souls – and incidentally on their priesthoods.

The second function of myth is to justify an existing social system and account for traditional rites and customs.

-   The Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology with an Introduction by Robert Graves. p. 5


This is a rather detailed description of mythology, but it is one that shows it's very core. Why are myths different from an everyday experience? Because they are indeed incredible, they are hard to believe as 'normal' and adhere to the supernatural and incredible nature of Gods, Goddesses and other spiritual creatures. A myth is something that goes beyond our normal perception of life and all matters concerning life (fertility, death, creation and so on).

The function of myth as described by Graves is a very impersonal one, but one that hits the core of it's being. On the one hand they are there to explain the existential questions asked by the people, but also to keep the folks on path of social righteousness. They are there to strengthen the belief in traditions and rites, to strengthen the idea of community and social rules. Whether the latter reasoning finds itself within the control of the priesthoods or coming from divine intend and ruling, I will leave to the reader to decide as that opens a completely different topic beyond this article.

So if we define the myths in this sense, we have to rule out some of the historic and literal sense. The tales presented are a remainder of a once complete system of teaching, both about the nature and creation of the world(s) and the social structure within a tribe or group of tribes. As teachings go, they are quite often based on metaphors We read in the lore about a giant world tree, the tree of life. However, can we really expect there to be a giant tree at the center of the universe? This may seem like an odd question, perhaps even comical, yet a lot of people do tend to view our Gods and Goddesses as 'real' people somewhere on some plane. This is not to say there or not real, however we should commit to the thought that although we perceive them as humanly, we have no basis of actually knowing if this perception is purely our mind at work to comprehend the idea. If we think of the massive concept of an ever expanding universe so vast that we are but a small dot in it's greatness, we would have large problems picturing this in our mind. Understanding several dimensions beyond our own three-dimensional perception is close to impossible, so we think of the universe as a giant tree. This is a way of looking at it to make our minds being able to wrap around the concept. Much like the idea of our Gods being human-like. It makes it a lot easier for us to see Wotan as a wise old man, rather than as an energy form or some other inhuman kind in another world.

With that in mind, we have to nullify the concept of the myths being actual historic accounts, at least to some extent. At best they are representations, simplified so that our human minds can grasp the concepts presented. We read about wars, fighting, love and hate between various godlike beings, because our ancestors could relate to those. They were meant to teach and give insight, not as an historic recollection.

If one reads the Edda's with an alert mind, one will note that there is no clear time line to be found. There is no concept of 'this happened first, followed by...' in the order of myths. Some myths seem to stand on their own, others seem to find themselves before another myth which in its terms is presented as before the original one. A good example of this is the God Mimir, who is presented as an advisor to Wotan at the well of Urd, a being so wise and powerful that he guards the well of the tree of life. Yet later on we find this very being being decapitated by the Vanes. Only to be seen later on at the Ragnarök (with a full body) to advice Wotan yet again.

Yet to say there is no time line would be wrong as well. We do know of a time line in which the Gods were born, created the world and fought many battles until Ragnarök would come to end the cycle and start anew. It is the myths in between that seem to step out of that time line without a problem. The main reason for this has to be that the message the myth needs to have is more important than its place in the time line. Myths are not told as a historic account, they are told to give the listener (or in our case the reader) a sense of truth about the existential questions that haunt us as mankind. They are there to enlighten and to teach.

The message within

This however does not make the myths a lot easier to interpret, I'm afraid. Some of it's contents are obviously meant as symbolic representations of natural processes, whereas other content may be meant literal as to teach the reader a concept of social rules and morals. Where the latter is easier to note, the symbolic meanings are often harder to seek out. In a sense this is where our modern day scientific approach fails us. Our modern day scholars approach the myths with a scientific mind, needing to prove thesis on thesis within the rules of scientific society. A society with far different rules than myth itself.

Take for example the myth about the wars between the Ases and the Vanes. A myth with a very strong symbolical essence. It deals with some of the more unknown fields of Germanic Mythology that most scholars find themselves mystified with. Who are the Vanes and why do we not hear more about them in the myths?. Is the tale of Gullveig in any form related to the Vanes? Why do the Ases give Mimir and Hoenir as captives? These are the questions which scholars find extremely hard to answer, namely as there are close to no facts that represent themselves in other tales to cross-reference. The symbolic meaning needs to rely on insight into the faith and culture and as such is often biased on the reader, something quite far from science.

It is in that in mind that writers like Rydberg are so inspirational in their teachings. They dared to approach the myths with a different mindset and go beyond the factual representations and try and find a deeper meaning. They dared speak of insights that are quite often considered taboo by current scholars (think of the Asmegir or the role of Mimir in the myths).

That said, the myths we read today are based on a culture we know relatively little about. Even though we can learn more about the culture of those days, we have to admit we will never be able to truly view the world exactly as our ancestors did. We are left with a mere rational attempt at trying to piece together the puzzle that is presented to us within the myths. We must try and see the parts which are existential in nature and the parts which are social in nature. Which parts are to be taken literally and which ones are to be taken symbolically.

The positive side to this all is that part of the culture of old still lives within us. We still celebrate much of the old traditions albeit in a slightly altered way. We still adhere to a code of social control that our ancestors did (picture a hero in a movie and you will quite quickly see the old Germanic version of a hero with a sense of honor and bravery, not a Christian one). Our culture was founded on their believes and if you look hard enough you can see many traces of that foundation in every day life. It is with that gut-feeling that we can look at our myths and feel its essence. It is with that feeling alone that we can truly grasp the message. There will never be a scientific study that will adhere to the real essence behind the myth and one should not turn to scholars for their meaning, but to one's heart. The scholarly route can give you insights to the content, but it's true message will only be available to those who breathe the heathen faith.

 


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