Northern mythologies are the stories, sagas and epics of Northern Europe; from Icelandto Scandinavia. Notable works would be Snorri Sturlusons Prose Edda, the Yngling Saga, and Beowulf. It is superior to the Greek styles of mythology for one main reason: Ragnarok, or the Day of Doom. In Tom Shippey’s The Road to Middle-Earth, Ragnarok is:
“…the day when gods and men fight evil and the giants, and inevitably be defeated. Its great statement was that defeat is no refutation. The right side remains right even if it has no hope at all. In a sense Northern mythology asks more of men, even makes more of them, than does Christianity, for it offers them no heaven, no salvation, no reward except the somber satisfaction of having done what’s right.” (156)
Compare that above statement with the Iliad, which while a historically important piece of literature, is not much more than a high-school drama, in which gods and warriors feud over women and wealth. Eventually the plot escalates to a full blown war between Troyand Greeceover the decision of a young Paris, who lures Helen to Troysimply because he cannot control his lust for her. In a marked contrast, in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, part 7, line 32 the hero, Sigurd, is forced to sleep in the same bed as his soon-to-be wife and lays down his sword in between them so as not to touch her while they are so close; a noticeable difference in conduct on the parts of the two characters in the stories. This single comparison shows what I believe to be the most dramatic differences between the two styles of mythologies, and why Northern is the superior form.
Essentially, the differing views on morality and conduct are what really make these two modes of storytelling so distinct from each other. The deities are more or less structured the same, with supreme god-like figures such as Zeus and Odin, and lesser characters like Loki. In both mythologies there are men who confront either deities or deity-like figures and come out victorious, and both have men who often face insurmountable tasks in order to free a loved one from some kind of bondage. It’s the manner in which the deities and mortals achieve such ends that shows the superiority of Northern to Greek mythology. Instead of an arrogant and egocentric Achilles, who ends up not being able to fulfill his boasting because of his heel, the Northern tales have Beowulf, who although proud and boastful, is 100% able to back up what he says, and does, freeing an entire kingdom from the oppression of the monster Grendel by doing so.
Morality and conduct then is the key to determining which style of mythology is better. The fact that beneath the surface of every Northern story lurks the inevitability of Ragnarok is something that really influences how I read Northern poetry; that no matter what good deed or heroic rescue is accomplished, it does not really matter because the good guys are doomed to be defeated by evil at Ragnarok. And yet, in spite of that, they continue to trudge on, doing the right thing for the sole reason that it is the right thing to do. To me, that is what ultimately makes the Northern mythology better than Greek. An unshakeable code of conduct, even in the face of ultimate defeat, as oppose to the Greek way of simply not caring and taking what you want regardless of the consequences; in the case of the Iliad the consequence was a devastating war.
One of the most notable differences between the two mythologies is their different stances on love and romance. For example, Sigurd refuses to touch his bride to be, Brynhild before marriage. Brynhild refuses to wed any man but Sigurd, and after Sigurd is killed, she kills herself rather than go with another man. That’s a far cry from the sexual politics employed by the Greek gods and mortals in order to get what they want.
As I stated above, it’s the conduct and morality that proves Northern mythology to be better than Greek. It’s not the stories themselves so much, it’s the morality and the ways of achieving the goals of the stories that separate the two. I simply do not think that god-and-men soap operas ofGreececan compete with the somber, sullen but morally upright stories of the North.
Now some might disagree with me on this issue, and a common claim is that Greek poetry so influenced writing of fiction as a whole (particularly tragedies) and that since it contains some of the first epics (Iliad, Aeneid) it is by default the ultimate form of mythology/storytelling. While it’s a good argument, I still disagree. Northern poetry, especially Norse, skaldic, eddaic, etc. is written to have an impact of the moment; that is, to paint a precise and powerful picture of an event, rather than drawing it out to extreme lengths like the Iliad or other Greek epics tend to do. This makes much easier to read and understand, as the reader doesn’t have to muddle through enormous numbers of words to get to a certain event.
While Northern mythology and poetry may not be superior in terms of impact on writing as the Greek style is, it is certainly the more noble and high minded of the two. With iron-clad devotion to doing the right thing even in the face of defeat by evil and a firm code of conduct regarding love and romance, Northern mythology wins out as the most noble and in my mind superior form of mythology. Perhaps it’s not as widespread as the Greek tales are, but when read, a Northern epic will undoubtedly have a much greater impact on the reader than a Greek tale.
Shippey, Tom. The Road to Middle-Earth. Houghton Mifflin. Orig. 1980, revised 2003. Print.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun. Houghton Mifflin. 2009. Print.