26 May 2006

Let's Ragnarok and Roll!

Have I told youse about Viking religion? I haven't, have I? I've mentioned the World Ash, of course, but I don't think I've said anything else about those savage ancestors of mine.
Yes, mine. It's a safe bet. I may have a Gaelic name, but it's fairly improbable that my Celtic blood hasn't been diluted by Norseman, Norman, and Englishman along the way.
So anyway, Viking religion was potent stuff. There was a real worldview in play there, a dark and fatalistic view of life in all its stages. It's no surprise that the imaginations of the young Tolkien and Lewis were captured and intoxicated by it. Taking a leaf from Rich Greydanus's book, allow me to quote the great Christopher Dawson on the subject:
'The Eddic conception of life is no doubt harsh and barbaric, but it is also heroic in the fullest sense of the word. Indeed, it is something more than heroic, for the noble viragos and the bloodthirsty heroes of the Edda possess a spiritual quality that is lacking in the Homeric world. The Eddic poems have more in common with the spirit of Aeschylus than with that of Homer, though there is a characteristic difference in their religious attitude. Their heroes do not, like the Greeks, pursue victory or prosperity as ends in themselves. They look beyond the immediate issue to an ultimate test to which success is irrelevant. Defeat, not victory, is the mark of the hero. Hence the atmosphere of fatalism and gloom in which the figures of the heroic cycle move. The Nibelungs, like the Atreidae, are doomed to crime and disaster by the powers behind the world, but there is no suggestion of hubris -- the spirit of overweening confidence in prosperity. Hogni and Gunnar, or Hamdis and Sorli, are conscious that they are riding forth to death, and they go to meet their fate with open eyes. There is no attempt, as in the Greek way of life, to justify the ways of gods to man, and to see in their acts the vindication of external justice. For the gods are caught in the same toils of fate as men. In fact, the gods of the Edda are no longer the inhuman nature-deities of the old Scandinavian cult. They have been humanised, and in a sense spiritualised, until they have become themselves the participants in the heroic drama. They carry on a perpetual warfare with the powers of chaos, in which they are not destined to conquer. Their lives are overshadowed by the knowledge of an ultimate catastrophe - the Doom of the Gods - the day when Odin meets the Wolf.'

Nifty, eh? All my life I've known what Valhalla was, but until recently never knew what it was for. It's not simply the place where those who've died gloriously, defeated while fighting heroically, would while after their afterlife in combat and carousing. No, it's a training ground, the world where the mightiest warriors to have been defeated in this life would train in the afterlife so that they would be ready to fight by Odin's side in that final battle at Ragnarok. And lose.
Don't worry, I've not quite given up yet. There's more bad news by the day here, and the forces of darkness seem to be gathering, but there's always hope. At night a candle's brighter than the sun, as they say.

No comments: