Clint recently made the point that we Heathens can learn a lot from the Indo-European traditions that are cousins to our own. In support of that potentially controversial claim, I intend to explain how one can deepen one’s understanding of Odin by reading the Odyssey.
The Odyssey is Greek myth, hence, like the Germanic myths, part of the Indo-European tradition. Odysseus as a figure shares many common features with Odin. Both are kings, but also vagabonds. Both are eternally in the beginning of their twilight years, though still possessed of great power.
Both are brilliant warriors, but more powerful still are their wits and wisdom, and it is for these that they are most celebrated. Both are ardent lovers, with many subtle and complex relationships with women. Both have vulnerability of feeling, and are not merely armoured caricatures of masculinity (though many of Odin’s followers seem to not understand this about him).
Both are exiled: Odysseus because Poseidon prevents his return from Troy; and Odin, according to Saxo, is exiled for a time, too.
Reading about Odysseus in Homer’s peerless writing gives one a deep and joyous appreciation of the subtleties of Odin’s character, too.
Of course, there are many differences, the foremost being that Odysseus is not a god! Clearly they are not identical figures, but they do both broadly partake of what might be loosely termed the Hermetic Current (which runs, achronologically, something like Thoth-Vishnu-Hermes-Mercury-Woden-Hermes Trismegistus, and probably includes others).
Is this shameless universalism? I think that so long as we have our faculties about us there is nothing to be lost and everything to be gained by comparing and contrasting different mythologies and figures. Surely it would be a very unimaginative and rigid dogmatism to argue against this. Just because I think the Odysseus-Odin comparison yields sweet fruit doesn’t mean I have to subscribe to some naïve idea that they are identical.
Turning to a theme that somehow feels related – though I’m not sure how – I have recently been reflecting on the Euhemeristic theories of Norse mythology, namely the theory that the gods were actually once mortals who were deified after death, and therefore that the mythology is more or less a load of empty hogwash.
This idea mainly stems from three sources: Saxo Grammaticus’s History of the Danes; and Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda and Heimskringla. There was also Sophus Bugge’s much later attempt to claim that Heathen mythology was just a really bodgy corruption of Christianity, but Bugge’s Christian agenda was blatant and his scholarship filled with implausible speculation and systematic ignoring of evidence that contradicts his ideas (yep, a great example of RAW’s “the prover proves what the thinker thinks”).
While we cannot be certain, I think there are many sound reasons to reject Euhemerism in relation to Germanic Mythology.
1) The Euhemeristic sources were written by Christians; what sources we have that seem to likely be genuinely Heathen (e.g. material in the Poetic Edda) only ever present the gods as being mythic. In other words, as far as we know, there is no continuous tradition of native Germanic Euhemerism. This suggests that the medieval and more recent Christian authors mentioned above almost certainly are the originators of the theory.
It is a purely Christian theory about Germanic mythology, conceived in isolation from actual Heathenry, and seems designed either to excuse writing about paganism at all (in the case of Snorri), or else explicitly as an attempt to undermine paganism (Saxo, Bugge).
Are we also to believe every other derogatory claim that Christians have made about other religions, particularly when there is no independent evidence for their views? I hope not.
2) The Germanic mythic corpus is very similar to the other Indo-European mythic bodies (Hinduism, Greek, Celtic, etc). It therefore seems far more likely that the Indo-European groups who became what we now call the Germanics brought the essential seeds of Germanic mythology with them into Europe. This is as opposed to the Euhemeristic theory, which says that Germanic mythology was only fabricated after they arrived, since it is based on their deeds on arrival.
It seems highly implausible that, if such a Euhemeristic scenario were true, this newly created mythology, based on arbitrary historical events, would accidentally bear such incredible similarity to the other traditions that, if we are not Euhemerists, we can declare with the precision of Occam’s Razor to be organic cultural cousins.
3) Heimskringla presents the gods, such as Odin, Njordr, and Frey, as a succession of kings. Of course, we know from Tacitus that for the early Germans Odin was more of a Mercury figure than a Zeus figure, so Heimskringla’s supposedly historical portrayal of him in the style of his late Norse Heathen manifestation seems like a bit of an anachronism!
It appears likely that Tyr was a more central ruler god in the earlier mythology, but Snorri’s euhemeristic dynasty doesn’t accord him much chop at all. This suggests that even on Snorri’s account some of the gods are actually gods, since again he is caught out in anachronism by seeing Tyr only in his late Norse form as a more minor god. If Snorri is stuck with some of the gods still genuinely being gods then I’d say that starts to make the whole Euhemerist aspect of his account look pretty limp.
4) Other historical accounts: Snorri says the Aesir came from Asia (on the basis of ultra-dodgy folk etymology), and they specifically came from Troy. From memory though, there are other nutty theories that say that the Trojans founded not a Scandinavian dynasty but rather a British one!
They can’t both be true, and neither theory has any evidence other than the say-so of its promulgator. Healthy scepticism induces me to reject both until such time as they can furnish more than the opinions of their promulgators (who were writing centuries after the fact) as evidence. It seems that at various points it was fashionable to claim that any exotic northern culture was descended from Troy, and such a fad should not be confused for a sincere attempt at recounting history.
5) If the Norse gods were a historical dynasty descended from Troy then the anachronisms get even worse! That means by the time of Tacitus, Odin has lost has his power to Tyr, only to get it back just in time for Snorri to write Heimskringla. Only Heimskringla mentions nothing of these back and forth shenanigans. Another blow to the Euhemeristic thesis.
6) Euhemerism doesn’t take anything away from the gods’ divinity or specialness anyway. Many important Hindu deities were living people who were deified for their amazing spiritual achievements and no one considers them less “godly” than those Hindu gods of non-human origin. Similarly, it seems likely that Bragi actually was a deified human, and no one thinks less of him for it (actually, I’m bloody impressed by his efforts)!
7) Spiritual experience. Given the vast range of truly intense experiences I have had with Odin (and other gods), and the vast age and power of this being as I have experienced it, I just don’t see how he could be “merely” a big-noted human. That is no more substantial a piece of evidence, of course, than the opinions of Saxo or Snorri, but at least it isn’t riddled with inconsistencies, coheres with the genuinely Heathen mythological corpus, and isn’t part of a blatant religious-ideological assault. Oh, and it is way more parsimonious to suggest that the mythology is mythological in my humble opinion.
8) Finally, how can the Euhemerists counter the possibility that the gods simply chose to manifest as avatars with their actual personalities at play, but that they nevertheless predated these historical manifestations? That general sort of thing seems to happen in other mythic contexts (e.g. Hinduism, Greek myth). In other words, even if the Euhemerists were right, there is still plenty of room to suppose that they might be wrong nonetheless. Such a theory does fall afoul of Occam’s Razor, but if the Euhemerists make that criticism then they’re totally throwing stones from a glass house.
I know, that was a quick and dirty little opinion piece, and I haven’t bothered to reference my ideas (I’m 99% sure they’re all based in sound academic research and actual primary sources though, I promise)! I think we all get the point though. I might be wrong, but it seems to me that the Euhemerists have a much harder job of making their case than I do.
One thing is for sure: to understand history you have to make a bit more of an effort than just taking one or two sources at face value without trying to grasp their context. Otherwise you’ll end up subscribing to all kinds of ideas without really having informed yourself at all. If you are lucky you might still get it right, but it is a pretty shabby way to proceed.
Oh, and none of this is to say that I have any idea what the true nature of the gods actually is. Honest perplexity beats smug dogmatism any day (I just hope I don’t start believing that dogmatically).