The Death of the World

‘They took the body down from the cross and one of the few rich men among the first Christians obtained permission to bury it in a rock in his garden; the Romans setting a military guard lest there should be some riot and attempt to recover the body. There was once more a natural symbolism in these natural proceedings; it was well that the tomb should be sealed with all the secrecy of ancient eastern sepulchre and guarded by the authority of the Caesars. For in that second cavern the whole of that great and glorious humanity which we call antiquity was gathered up and covered over; and it that place it was buried. It was the end of a very great thing called human history; the history that was merely human. The mythologies ad philosophies were buried there, the gods and the heroes and the sages. In the great Roman phrase, they had lived. But as they could only live, they could only die; and they were dead.

On the third day the friends of Christ coming at day-break to the place found the grave empty and the stone rolled away. In varying ways they realised the new wonder; but they hardly realised that the world had died in the night. What they were looking at was the first day of a new creation, with a new heaven and a new earth; and in a semblance of the gardener God walked again in the garden, in the cool not of the evening but the dawn.’ (G.K. Chesteron, ‘The Everlasting Man’, pp.212-213)

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In the Beginning

‘There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Ilúvatar; and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought, and they were with him before aught else was made. And he spoke to them, propounding to them themes of music; and they sang before him, and he was glad. But for a long while they sang only each alone, or but few together, while the rest hearkened; for each comprehended only that part of the mind of Ilúvatar from which he came, and in the understanding of their brethren they grew but slowly. Yet ever as they listened they came to deeper understanding, and increased in unison and harmony.’ (J.R.R. Tolkien, ‘ The Silmarillion’, p. 1)

Northern Mythology in Comparison to Greek Mythology

 

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.

Works Cited

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.

 

Beowulf as Medieval Christian Evangelistic Literature

Beowulf is considered the most important pieces of Anglo-Saxon literature for a number of reasons: it is the first epic poem written in the vernacular as well as the oldest English piece of literature currently in existence. However, it’s most often overlooked trait is that is also an example of fervent Anglo-Saxon Christianity and a brilliant example of primitive Christian fiction for the purpose of both defending and spreading the Christian belief throughout the pagan Scandinavian lands.

That Beowulf borrows enormously from Christianity and the Bible is no secret, but these traits are often cited as mere influences and do not have any purposes beyond showing the fact that the author was devoutly Christian himself.

The evidence for it being a work designed to legitimize Christianity on a large scale is as follows:

1. The author makes numerous attempts to show the superiority of the Christian god and the assistance given to those who follow Christianity, as the Anonymous poet tells us, “It was hard fought, a desperate affair that could have gone badly; if God had not helped me,” (1656-1657).

2. It is made clear that the Scandinavian people desire glory and power, and the Christian god is portrayed as a glorious and powerful being with titles like, “almighty,” occurring frequently throughout the text; descriptions of the Christian god’s wrath are brutal and simple, “They suffered a terrible severance from the Lord; the Almighty made the waters rise and drown them in the deluge for retribution,” (1691-1693)

3. The immediate adversary for the Danes is a monster named Grendel, who is the spawn of Cain, the first murderer, but is also a creature who is destroyed be Beowulf, who is empowered and equipped by God, “The sons of Ecgthow would have surely perished and the Geats lost their warrior under the wide earth had the strong links and locks of his war-gear not helped to save him; holy God decided the victory. It was easy for the Lord, the Ruler of Heaven, to redress the balance once Beowulf got back up on his feet.” (1550-1556)

Other themes of subtle contrast, comparison and praise for the Christian God abound and frequently echo Biblical styles and themes; lines 1724-1745 resemble both in style, tone and subject matter the Psalms of King David ofIsrael.

It is quite clear however that this is not simply a tract for conversion since pagan influences do have a strong hold. The more destructive ones are not mentioned and the more positive ones are, i.e. swords and armor have names and characteristics and even personalities as is common throughout the medieval period; meeting halls are filled with mead and warriors eager for glory and celebration; camaraderie and a father-like love between a commander and his troops is often showcased.

Thus, Beowulf is not just an anti-pagan tract, but rather a brilliant and subtle expression of Christianity’s superiority over the old pagan religions of the north. The Christian god is shown to not just be a powerful deity, but THE powerful deity, the almighty, who rewards valour and bravery in a far better way then the pagan gods of the time.  Hence, Christianity is portrayed not as the weak kneed religion of the infidels, but rather as the powerful belief system of the hero of the Danes and Geats, Beowulf. This makes it a powerful and effective evangelistic story and one that clearly had a large influence on both the culture and religion ofScandinavia in terms of advancing Christianity as a legitimate religion.

SOURCES –

Anonymous. “Beowulf.” “The Norton Introduction to Literature.”

Alison Booth. Kelly J. Mays.New York,London. W.W. Norton & Company, 2010. 1088-1098. Print.