The version of Norse mythology we see projected in popular culture tends to focus on overly macho Viking warriors longing for bloody, heroic deaths to earn their place in Valhalla and on the great cataclysmic massacre that will occur in the future battle of Ragnarök.
For evidence of the doom and gloom supposedly inherent to the myths, the character of Odin is presented as obsessed with fighting what he knows to be a lost cause. Wise giants and far-seeing prophetesses reveal the future to him, yet he continues to sow strife in the world to build his undead army for a battle he knows cannot be won.
The interpretation of the emotional core of the Norse myths and legends found its ultimate form in the Third Reich’s leadership distributing copies of the Nibelungenlied to German troops, intending the grisly eradication of the Burgundians as an inspiration for soldiers to continue fighting unto death, even when there was no hope of victory.
Is this dark fatalism the only way to read the trajectory of the material? Is the core of the lore built on an embrace of violence and a valorization of mass suicide?
The self dies the same
One of the most well-known verses from the Old Icelandic poem Hávamál (“Sayings of the High One”) features the narrator – generally understood to be Odin himself – reflecting on the transitory nature of life:
Cattle die, kinsmen die, the self dies the same, but the glory of reputation never dies for the one who gets himself a good one.
This can, and has been, read as a celebration of a heroic Nordic ethos celebrating glorious deeds that resound in ringing praise from other manly men. Yet there is also a theological nugget that can be found here.
The nouns of the verse are presented in ascending order of importance for the individual being addressed: one’s farm animals, fellow men, self, and reputation. They are also presented in order of increasing immateriality, from the animal whose meat sustains the body to the other humans of both material and spiritual composition to the soul on its own to the incorporeal concept of reputation.
These things are also presented with a divide between them; the first three will fade away, but the last will not. Interestingly, it is the most immaterial thing – the idea that those living after a person’s death will have of them – that survives.
For the subject at hand, the important idea here is that “the self dies the same.” The soul is grouped with cattle and kin as something subject to death. This idea of a non-immortal soul seems to have confirmation elsewhere in the mythological poetry.
According to Völuspá (“Prophecy of the Seeress”), it is not only the gods and giants who will battle at Ragnarök. Enormous monsters will take part, such as the wolf Fenrir and the Midgard Serpent. But men will also join the fray, as “warriors tread the path from Hel” once the guard-dog of the domain has left his post. Snorri Sturluson calls these warriors “Hel’s people,” and they seem to be the dead set free to do battle.
If they are, there is a suggestion that the dead can also die. Like the gods who must be sustained by Idun’s apples or decay unto death, the souls of men are not permanent and immortal. They can be struck down on the field of battle between the various powers with dominion over the worlds.
To understand why this is not a depressive outlook, compare the pagan worldview of the Hávamál verse to its famous parallel in The Wanderer, an Old English poem with a clear Christian worldview. The anonymous Wanderer poet writes:
Here wealth is temporary, here a friend is temporary, here oneself is temporary, here a kinsman is temporary; all this foundation of the earth will become worthless!
While acknowledging the transitory nature of life, the pagan poet emphasizes that right action matters because of its effect on future reputation. The Christian poet likewise remarks upon the fleeting nature of life, but concludes that nothing matters but the eternal afterlife in the Kingdom of God.
The difference between the two conclusions highlights an important pagan idea. Yes, the soul itself shall die, but life in the world goes on. Not one’s individual life, but new life. New members of the community will be born, and – if a person has lived well – they shall speak of their good deeds and right actions.
This idea is likewise supported by the poem Völuspá. After Ragnarök, after a new world has arisen from the ruins of the old, the children and grandchildren of Odin and Thor will gather and reflect on the legacy of those now gone. The new gods of the new world will tell tales of the old gods who have gone down into memory.
And here is the crux of it all.
The long line of human memory
Many myths of Odin show him traveling the world, disguised as on old wanderer in order to gather knowledge of the future. Everything he learns confirms the coming catastrophe. Despite his determined efforts to save Baldr and his gathering together an army of undead heroes, Ragnarök shall come and the world shall fall.
The Nazis read the determination of the old gods and heroes in the face of disaster through the lens of German Romanticism, understanding the worldview as one of dedication to the grand lost cause, no matter the consequences or end results. There is, however, another way to read these tales.
Yes, our loved ones will die. Yes, we will die. Following my reading above, even our souls will die. But life will go on, and the long line of human memory will continue to spin out from the past into the future.
In the poem Grímnismál (“Sayings of the Masked One”), Odin speaks of his two ravens, saying that he fears that Hugin (“thought”) will not return from his daily flight over the world, but that he fears even more that Munin (“memory”) will not come back. Greater than the very human fear of the dissipation of consciousness is the fear of the end of memory. This idea brings together the strands from Hávamál and Völuspá and makes a different reading of Odin’s wandering possible.
First, there is the assertion in Hávamál that even the soul of the individual will die, and only memory in the minds of others will live on. Second, there is the image in Völuspá of children in a distant future age celebrating memories of those who have been lost. Third, there is Odin’s fear of the loss of memory being greater than the loss of consciousness.
All of this leads to the conclusion that Odin is not determinedly fighting against the doom that he knows must occur out of some sort of bloody “lost cause” ideology, but because he knows that ensuring the life of future generations is intimately tied to the continuation of the human story. Odin works toward the lengthening of the line of memory from one generation to the next in a Fortspinnung that can transcend even the end of our time-cycle at Ragnarök and continue into the next age.
The inspirational element of Odin’s quest and of the progression of the myths is not that one must fight to the death in order to achieve Viking greatness, but that one must not give up hope in the face of the permanent death that we all must face as individuals. Instead, we each must fight to make a better future world and continue the struggle against the destructive forces in our lives in order to help move the pieces on the board into a better position for the next generation and all the generations that follow.
We don’t have to accept the Romantic reading of Norse and Germanic mythology and legend as validation for an ideology of either rugged individualism or blind loyalty to a lost cause. We can read the lore as showing that an eternal afterlife of the soul is not the focus. Glorious death in battle is not the focus.
Doing everything we can to provide a better foundation for future generations is of prime importance. The continuation of the human story is what really matters. The wider world is more important than the inner one, and we would do well by turning away from our spiritual self-absorption and into the bigger narrative.