Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
I should have read the Prose Edda before I went to Iceland, but I didn’t. Well, better late than never.
Despite its small size and population, Iceland has served as the keeper of memories of the Nordic/Germanic peoples. Around 1220, the Icelandic poet, lawyer, and politician Snorri Sturluson wrote the Prose Edda, which serves as a compilation of Norse mythology and culture that were threatened with being forgotten with the advent of Christianity. Indeed, one of Snorri’s motivations for writing was to explain a number of “kenningar” or periphrasis that appear in traditional poetry that drew on mythology, which future generations of Norsemen might no longer understand.
At one point, for example, Snorri writes:
How shall gold be named? It may be called Aegir’s fire; the needles of Glaser; Sif’s hair; Fulla’s head-gear; Freyja’s tears; the chatter, talk or word of the giants; Draupnir’s drop; Draupnir’s rain or shower; Freyja’s eyes; the otter-ransom, or the stroke-ransom, of the Aesir; the seed of Fyrisvold; Holgi’s how-roof; the fire of all waters and of the hands; or the stone, rock or gleam of the hand.
Then Snorri proceeds to tell the story behind each kenning.
Despite its purpose of memorializing the ancestral culture, Snorri’s Edda also adopts a Christian worldview and assumes that the Norse gods were all false. (If you read my post on Lāčplēsis, the Latvian national epic that makes Christians into villains, the contrast may strike you as much as it strikes me.)
The book opens with a euhemeristic or historical theory of mythology, i.e., the approach that takes divine figures to be based on real people who came to be mythologized. Specifically, Snorri claims that the Nordic gods or “Aesir” were based on the heroes of ancient Troy — Odin was Priam, the Trojan king, and Thor was Hector. Paralleling the Aeneid, the Aesir escaped Troy to sail to northern Europe. There they took advantage of the superior culture and technology that they brought with them from Asia, installing themselves as kings and convincing posterity that they were gods. The word “Aesir” Snorri supposes to have meant “Asia-men.”
If you recall another earlier post on the Norwegian adventurer and scholar Thor Heyerdahl, this account should be ringing some bells. Heyerdahl spent many of his later years trying to demonstrate a similar theory of the Aesir, arguing that they were warriors who came from present-day Azerbaijan. In his case, he thought “Aesir” derived from “Azov,” as in the Sea of Azov by Ukraine. Although the government of Azerbaijan is very fond of Heyerdahl for this reason, scholars have generally ripped his theory to shreds.
So similarly Snorri’s theory of Trojan origin cannot be credited. For one thing, Snorri contradicts himself. If Odin and Thor and the other Aesir escaped to Scandinavia to found new kingdoms, then how could they have also been Priam and Hector who died in Troy? According to Snorri, Troy was the real Asgard. Ragnarok, the prophesied fiery end of Asgard and the gods, was really the story of the fall of Troy. And Thor’s struggle with the Midgard Serpent Jörmungandr at Ragnarok, which ends with their mutual destruction, was really his deadly duel with Achilles.
Other Norse writers give similar and even more outlandish accounts of the Aesir. Odin, according to tradition, had fought heroically at Troy before escaping alongside Aeneas. He then became an ally of Mithridates VI of Pontus, a formidable adversary of the Roman Republic. Rome finally defeated Mithridates after Pompey took command. After that, Odin escaped with his people to the north to found the Germanic nations that one day would take revenge upon Rome. The preposterous nature of this story should be obvious as soon as one reflects that Troy fell over a thousand years before Rome made war on Pontus. Odin would truly have to be a god to have lived long enough to fight both Agamemnon and Pompey. Not to mention the Romans’ own mythology that also traces their founding to Aeneas and Troy.
As some kind of Chinese, I am also struck by this tendency in European myth-making to trace one’s own origins to another people. And it’s usually to a people from the east, who are for that precise reason more sophisticated than Europeans. What an inferiority complex. How strange to think that these same Europeans would come to colonize much of the world and to travel around it proselytizing the opposite view, that the white man from Western Europe was for that reason superior to everyone else.
“We” Chinese prefer the opposite story, that everyone else came from us. I am reminded here of the (unsupported) proposition in Chinese historiography that Koreans are descended from refugees escaping a tyrannical king in China. A zany group of Chinese “scholars” recently announced in Beijing their “discovery” that all European languages are secretly derived from Chinese. So — though you might not have realized it — when you’re speaking English or French or Russian, you’re really speaking a Chinese dialect.
Nearly as head-scratching is the theory proposed by the French historian Joseph de Guignes that China was founded by colonists from ancient Egypt. But, unlike Snorri’s Edda, that is not a theory that is likely to find a place in the story that the Chinese tell about themselves any time soon.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."