Norse lessons from across the rainbow bridge
Looking around this cafe I see a very modern menagerie of faiths and spiritualities. Many chests are adorned with crucifixes; many backs by Egyptian ankhs, shoulders by buddhas. Even a Jedi T-shirt, which is almost a religious uniform.
But there is one ancient Western religion that is missing: Norse and Germanic paganism. Rare is a forearm inked with Mjollnir, the famed weapon of Thor. There are no statuettes of one-eyed Odin in living-rooms, or earrings of the Valkyries in chainmail. Despite revivals of interest with Wagner, white nationalism and, less worryingly, comic book superheroes, the sagas and myths of the Norsemen are largely ignored.
To the enlightened mind, they are no more or less implausible than the beliefs of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and the host of spiritualities in between. But due to a number of historical movements - brutal conversion campaigns by Charlemagne, opportunistic alliances, historical intermingling, and converted kings - Northern European religion slowly waned in favour of Christianity. And when Australians jump ship from Christianity, they often swim to the island of Buddhism.
Still, there are good reasons to keep reading Norse myth. If not for its gods-given truths - which are dubious in all religions - then for its literary virtues, and for its distinctive picture of the universe, mankind and their relationships.
First, it can offer some striking poetry. Compiled in Iceland in the early 1200s, the Poetic Edda, for example, is a collection of creation myths, ribald ribbing contests, heroic sagas and tragic romances.
The first, Voluspa (The Seeress's Prophecy), does not rhyme as so many classical Western poems do. Instead, it works with alliteration and stress on syllables, giving the lines a seductive beat and rhythm. Here is the third stanza:
r var alda ?ar er mir byg?I, / vara sandr n s?r n svalar unnir, / jr? fannsk ?va n upphiminn, / gap var ginnunga, en gras hvergi.
A translation, by poet W.H. Auden and Old Norse scholar Paul Taylor:
When Ymir lived long ago / Was no sand or sea, no surging waves. / Nowhere was there earth nor heaven above. / But a grinning gap and grass nowhere.
Note the repeated ''l'', ''s'', ''g'' in the English, which echoes the original's punch. It's foot-tapping, table-slapping poetry, composed to be recited not just read.
The Norsemen also used figures of speech, which they called a kenning - the root of the word survives in our ''ken'', meaning understanding or comprehension. For example, a ''sail-steed'' was a ship, a ''wood-fish'' a serpent, and to ''gladden the ravens'' was to kill men on the battlefield. More euphemistically, blood was ''slaughter-dew''. The point is not that we lack metaphors, but that these tropes can offer fresh ways of seeing things; each a verbal Tardis, which travels back a millennium.
The universe of the Norsemen is itself quite different, both from modern science and mainstream Judeo-Christian belief. Like the cosmos of Genesis, it is formed by supernatural creatures. But unlike Jehovah and his auteur work, this is a collaborative venture. It is made by the gods from the body of Ymir, a primordial giant, with help from the Fates. (Then they play chequers in a meadow. Honestly.) While Odin is the chief god in this, he has no divine rights, and no powers of omnipotence or omniscience. He has to be tough and canny to survive. And his reign will end. In other words, the cosmos is closer to a feudal kingdom than the godly tyranny of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
It is also a living universe, at the heart of which is Yggdrasill, the world tree. Importantly, Yggdrasill is in agony: ripped by serpents, eaten by stags, and always in decay. As written in the Bible, the Judeo-Christian cosmos is perfect in design and execution. Pain only arrived with original sin and exile: part of God's justice, in other words. In the Norse universe, pain is part and parcel of existence. Gods, mortals, animals and the cosmos itself: all suffer and decay. While some warriors go to Valhalla after death, they are troops for Ragnarok, the apocalyptic battle. After this war, many men and divinities are destroyed, and the world is reborn again - but only until the next war. In the Norse vision, there are no eternal perfections: all is process.
As this suggests, the Viking outlook was often brutal. The Saga of the Volsungs, for example, is a series of betrayals and murders, including horrific fratricides and infanticides.
But this makes an important point about the relationship between spirituality and morality. Today, atheists are sometimes condemned for their faithlessness - as if religion were a simple cure for violence and vice. But for the Vikings, piety and worship went hand-in-hand with invasion, slaughter, pillage.
The difference between the Norsemen and the Crusaders was simple: the pagans were not hypocrites. Like all fiction, religion records and recommends varied values.
Of course, we moderns can enjoy these tales with suspended disbelief: we need not invest in them, morally or cosmologically. But, like Thor's hammer, they certainly make a striking alternative to the cross.