Tuesday, January 30, 2007

TGD - expanding the field

Some primarily stochastic thought processes which occurred when I tried to apply Richard Dawkin's hypotheses to the Æsir. If your default browsing font doesn't contain a glyph for the ligature, well, tough ;-)

I suppose one of the first things to note is that whereas Xtianity is considered a religion, the Æsir and Vanir (the Norse pantheon) are thought more often as folklore or mythology.[1] In fact, upon reading the Eddas it's easy to have the impression that the sagas of Odin, Thor, Loki and chums have the same qualities as those associated with, for instance, Siegfried (of Das Niebelungenlied fame), King Arthur or Finn MCoul. Essentially, the gods have the air of being erstwhile real blokes (and of course blokesses), who have accumulated stories, feats and powers as people seek to glorify them, in order that when they later claim to be descended from same they can hope to persuade people of the existence of said powers.[2]

What I find interesting is that the only difference between a quirky set of historically interesting tales and gospel truth is how many people believe in what's said. For instance, it would be easy to apply the same distinction above between religion and folklore to the Roman pantheon, which equally was a major European religion relegated to providing saints and fables once Constantine got splashed in the font. Of course, to do so would be to ignore that there were multiple pre-Christian religions in the Roman Empire. Not merely in the same way that the Norse posh nobs worshipped Odin and the thains worshipped Thor, there were actually completely different mythological universes. I'm going to choose one, completely at random.

Between the second century BC and fourth (maybe fifth) century AD, a particular popular mythos in the Empire was Mithrainism.[3] If there are any modern Mithraists, I don't know about it. Which is not surprising, considering how wacky their religion was. [Update: apparently some Zoroastrians still venerate Mithras.]

Mithras was supposed to have been born around 270BC to a virgin Mother of God (the date of the celebration of his birth was December 25th). He was worshipped as a member of a trinity, as the mediating force between the heaven and earth. In fact, heaven was not only the celestial abode of God but also the place where atoned souls would go when they died, the true believers being absolved of their earthly sins. Those less fortunate were condemned to an infernal hell. Initiates (ceremonies were closed affairs, available only to men who had performed the appropriate rites) were baptised, and Sundays were a sacred time when the Mithraists ate bread, representing the body of their God, and drank wine, representing his blood; these were symbolic of the final supper he shared with his followers before ascending to heaven in about the 64th year of his life. Along with Odin and Osiris, he is supposed to have died and been resurrected before his final ascension.

You'd never get away with that rubbish these days, which is why this is clearly a deluded heathen folk tale as opposed to, um. You can clearly see why Dawkins didn't talk about this one in TGD...

[1] Actually, there is a religion with such a pantheon, called the Ásatrú - the word is Icelandic for Æsir faith. Despite widespread confusion, none of the major organisations of this faith are actually neo-Nazis or supremacy groups.

[2] I suppose this makes Finn and Aragorn the same being.

[3] Just through etymology I am reminded that I haven't yet covered Jainism. I need to.


Nigel Kersten said...

I take it you've read American Gods Graham?

It's all about "how many people believe what is said" :)

Not sure if you've read much Nietzsche, but there's a rather good book called In Search of Zarathustra that covers some Mithras ground.

leeg said...

I haven't read American Gods, but there's a good book on fairly dissimilar grounds called "The Long Dark TeaTime of the Soul" by Douglas Adams. I won't give away the plot but it starts with a Norwegian man called Thor blowing up part of an airport ;-)

Only Nietzsche I've read is Beyond Good and Evil...Thus Spake Zarathustra is on the to-do list though.

Nigel Kersten said...

I loved the Dirk Gently series, and in many ways I think they're superior to the HHGTTG books, but American Gods is a bit more grown-up about it all (which isn't necessarily a good thing...), and it's rather classic Neil Gaiman stuff if you ever read much Sandman.

I wouldn't expect to get too much in the way of philosophy out of Thus Spake Zarathustra without reading a fair bit more Nietzsche. I spent years studying him at university, and am still unsure as to what the layers of metaphor are really trying to say, or even whether it's the kind of book that works that way...

Reading it as a piece of messed-up, crazy, pseudo-religious prose is worth doing though. :)