One of the remarkable things about mythology—be it Egyptian, Classical, Norse, Arthurian, or what have you—is that the collections we have today may indeed reflect rather little of the original folk beliefs whence they sprung.
This first became obvious to me upon familiarizing myself with the history of Egypt, wherein local gods rose and fell in prominence, messily entering and exiting the pantheon along with the fortunes of their sponsor cities. Many gods, particularly solar deities, merged and re-merged, first with other Egyptian divinities and later, of course, with the Greek. The nice, neat little collections of Egyptian mythology we read today, with all the edges smoothed over and the loose threads tied, has more to do with Victorian tidiness and Britain’s post-Napoleonic Egyptology craze than with anything else.
As for the Classical myths, we in the Anglophone world have been raised (fortuitously) on Bulfinch and Hamilton, who wove and synthesized their raw material as skillfully and thoroughly as did the Brothers Grimm. We recognize Greco-Roman gods not necessarily as the Hellenistic world would have recognized them—amorphous, shifting, and contradictory in their tales—but as 19th Century Brits and Americans would. The only sacrosanct text for the Greeks came from Homer, and perhaps Hesiod, though even these paint rather different pictures of the gods. The myths don’t match and often contradict, necessitating a good editor. Aphrodite and Artemis have varying origin stories; Hecate emerges first as a new goddess, then as a new aspect of an older one. Who is to say how the Greeks themselves understood this stew of stories? It reminds one of the perpetual reboots and retcons suffered by modern superheroes.
The Norse are no different. The Norse myths enjoying resurgent popularity today stem primarily from two sources: Snorri Sturlson’s Prose Edda, and a collection of songs and short stories known as the Poetic Edda. Both were compiled and (especially in the former case) redacted by Scandinavian Christian monks. In them, pagan and biblical sources mirror one another. How many parallels stem from pagan responses to Holy Writ? How many from Christians emerging from a pagan culture? How many from shared reflections of mutually encountered truth? None can say. I’ll venture this much, however: that Odin only sacrificed himself on a tree with a spear through his side some 1200 years after Jesus made that look popular.
What we call the Norse myths have more to do with successive waves of Romantic, Darwinist, and Occult crazes from the 17th through 20th Centuries, drawing from and elaborating upon muddled sources. How could poor Tactitus know that his Germania would inspire industrialized eugenics millennia after the fact? Even the murderous Odin cult might well have quailed at the 20th Century racial myths grafted on to a supposedly Nordic mythology. Medieval Scandinavians, believe you me, had no problem vigorously interbreeding with whatever populations they met in their travels. I’m living proof.
In his 1993 Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles, Ronald Hutton argued quite persuasively, and in the face of neopagan assertions to the contrary, for an aggressive agnosticism: “I have no real idea of what pre-Christian belief and religion looked like in Europe, and neither do you.” (He later penned a very popular and somewhat apologetic follow-up volume on the history of modern neopaganism arguing, in effect, that the movement has nothing to do with actual ancient paganism but still has its positive aspects and contributions to society. So, thumbs up, I guess.)
The Church Fathers, for their part, having honed their skills drawing extensive parallels between the Old and New Testaments, enthusiastically embraced doing the same between Christian stories and their antecedent “pagan dreams.” (Once more, we find that the only sources we have for Christian opponents most often come from the Church herself, preserving past controversies as though in amber. One might infer that she respected her opponents as men made in the Image of God, if nothing else.) Again, no one can say how many of these parallels stem from coincidence, Providence, or syncretism, but one very popular line of interpretation came from Christian euhemerism: that is, the reading of ancient myths and folktales as exaggerated history.
Euhemerism made perfect sense in a world that regularly deified great rulers and heroes. Whereas Jewish pseudepigrapha such as the Book of Enoch (not to mention several of the Fathers) spoke about pagan deities as fallen angels, euhemerism argued that they were in fact great figures in human history posthumously divinized. St. Augustine embraced this situation for the Roman gods, peopled as that pantheon was with Caesars in apotheosis. But he wasn’t the only one: the Venerable Bede argued the same for the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon gods of Britain, as did Snorri for the Norse gods. Before you knew it, Odin (or Wotan) was taken neither for a demon nor for a symbolic embodiment of natural forces, but rather for the great warlord and Allfather of the ancient Gothic root-race that emerged from Asia (Aesir, get it?) to found the various Teutonic tribes.
Outlandish as such a history may be, this euhemerism—historically demonstrable amongst the Romans (Caesar), Greeks (Alexander), Egyptians (Ramses), and Celts (who never could differentiate between fairies, gods and ghosts)—strikes me as a plausible explanation for pagan pantheons. No wonder that pre-Christian gods seem so fickle, so contradictory, so mercurial—indeed, so dreadfully human. (Anyone who thinks that America has shed this universal human impulse to divinize emperors needs only spend an afternoon strolling about D.C. to be otherwise convinced.) Truly our tendency has been to deify all great men, good and evil: a desire quenched only upon reaching its fulfillment in the Cult of Saints. But that’s a tale for another time.
Were the pagan gods embodiments of natural forces and abstract concepts who only later developed personalities and well-defined stories? Or did they in fact start out with said personalities and tall tales, only later growing in stature to become absolutes? We cannot say, of course; Hutton stands ready to reprimand us should our speculation spool out too far. Our history reveals at least as much about the modern day as it does about our ancestors, and the past remains shrouded, vastly more inscrutable than we will ever care to admit. Nevertheless, as surely as I relish the idea of a historical Celtic war chieftain defending Romanized Britannia from Saxon invaders—only later earning the sobriquet of Arthur, “the Bear,” and all the mythical accretions of the centuries—so too must I admit that the idea of Allfather Odin as an ancient warlord and sorcerer—one-eyed and roaring, charging amongst his ravens and his wolves—impossible though such a figure would ever be to verify, warms the cockles of my bizarrely medieval heart.
RDG Stout was born and raised amongst the Pennsylvania Deutsch but has spent the last decade as a country preacher in the windswept wilds of Niflheim, a.k.a. rural Minnesota. He lives in a mead hall with his Viking wife, three kids, and a bizarre assortment of stories. His musings may be found here and at Grimly Optimistic.