Friday, October 08, 2010

A Theory of Marginalization

Recently a cousin of mine was asking me about Norse mythology, picking my brain for good sources. In particular he asked me if there were any good images of a Norse god reaching out to a human follower. I imagine he was thinking along the lines of Michaelangelo's Sistine Chapel, with Adam reaching for God, or if he wasn't thinking it, I sure was. Then it struck me.

Do we EVER see the Norse gods really reaching out to their (human) people, engaging with them in an open and hands on way?

Now, I'll admit I haven't read all the sagas (yet) but I can't think of a single instance in which Odin or any other Norse god employs real godly power or hoo doo while engaging with a human. In fact, thinking back on the Saga of the Volsungs in particular, I don't recall a mention of anything that might be a religious practice at all, unless you count the use of runes and potions-- but they don't ever seem to invoke a god. People seem to be acting very much independently of the gods above them, acting by and through their own human powers. And maybe that's all it is: the sagas as a triumph of man without need of the gods or godly interference, because certainly the Norse people were of a fiercely independent nature. But if they were so intent upon rejecting the gods themselves, why hold on so tightly to such a rich mythology at all? Why give Odin ANY role in the story?

So often we hear of some saga hero being a distant descendant of Odin somehow, but never really the details of the circumstances resulting in the bloodline. And Odin himself keeps to the fringe, the margin of the stories. When he does play a role, it is usual a suggestion, or a bit of shared wisdom more than anything else, coming from a disguised man who may or may not be recognized for the god he is at all. The kennings themselves contribute to this marginalization even further. If a reader does not KNOW the common ways in which a god might be addressed without calling him by name, they're likely to miss the god's part in the story altogether. It all just becomes so much window dressing.

Now, in the one respect, these kennings are a poetic device, and probably were used in the same way that Homer inserted repetitive stock phrases into the Iliad like "owl-eyed Athena" or "white-armed Hera" but what if they served another purpose as well? What if Odin's marginalization in these sagas and stories was a direct result of the Christianization of the Norse people? I wonder if in order to keep their gods, their stories and histories, their cultural inheritance, Odin (and his ilk) had to be removed and made a lesser character in the recorded texts, the kennings added as further disguise for the pagan elements of the story.

What if the character of Odin as the wandering old man, sticking to the fringe of society and rarely interacting in any large way, is just the result of trying to preserve the sagas and myths in a form which would not result in condemnation by the church and those who took seriously the idea that the Norse gods were devils and demonspawn? The Church certainly did not hesitate to wipe out writings of other cultures they found offensively pagan whenever they thought they could get away with it.

I have no real proof of this as yet, but the feeling in my gut that this is not out of the realm of possibility. Call it food for thought, if you will. And now I'm REALLY curious-- what do you think? And do you know of any stories where Odin takes a larger role in engaging with his people? Norse Mythologists, Please! I would love to hear your thoughts on this!

(See, this is why I should be in a masters program for Old Norse Religion. Right here.)


  1. This post could only be written by you, Amalia. You definitely need that Master's! :)

    I've never heard of any stories, but I'm not a Norse expert. Of course, those darn Greek gods just couldn't keep their hands off humans. (Especially Zeus!)

  2. Exactly! The Greeks are all up in the human world's business. In Homer they're even wading through battle--albeit in disguise, but still taking an active part.

  3. Amalia, I never really thought about it... but you're right- there's not much god/ human interaction in Norse Myths. In fact, (though I've done no hard research) they may be the *most* distant deities. Most polytheistic religions have way more diety/ human interaction.

  4. Yes! It's very strange! They do a lot amongst themselves, fighting frost giants, etc, but don't really involve themselves in Midgard, from what I can tell.

  5. This is fascinating Amalia. I can't think of ANY. I'm not a mythologist or anything, but I like reading ancient myths and you're right on about Norse mythology. If you do come across any I hope you'll share. Stephanie makes a good point on Greek gods. Don't Hindu gods show involvement with humans too?

    Interesting stuff as always :)

  6. The Hindus have avatars-- gods come to earth to live among men (they count Buddha as one, and there have been 9 so far, with a tenth to come at the end of days--not really unlike Jesus), so there is definitely interaction there for sure.

    Honestly, there are quite a few similarities between the Hindu concepts of how the Divine engages with the world (to my eyes, from my brief overview of the religion) to the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God. One god, many aspects is not all that different from the Holy Trinity! We're just limiting the number of Aspects.

    The Norse gods, on the other hand, unlike our modern big GOD figures, are not personal gods even to the extent of the Greeks. Athena used to reach out and touch her champions, appear to them, direct them, shield them-- I've never seen that parallel in any of the Norse myths that have survived.

    So what does it mean? Were the Norse gods simply just distant? Do the stories that survived of them simply not involve those elements by... some bad luck? Or were the stories of distant figures DELIBERATELY chosen as those that COULD be preserved in the political/religious climate of the times?

    I'm not sure if there's any way to know the answer. :-/


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