Tag Archives: prose edda

Thor & Plato: Mythology and Philosophy

I recently finished reading Thor Visionaries: Walter Simonson, Vol. 1. Amongst the excellent tales gathered together in this volume, we are introduced to Malekith the Dark Elf. Most of us undoubtedly know Malekith best as performed by Christopher Eccleston in the film, Thor: The Dark World. Simonson’s Malekith is an excellent supervillain who blends together a bit of Norse, a bit of ‘Celtic’ fairy lore, and a bit of implication from the very name ‘dark elf’ (svart alf). In his return from exile in Simonson’s comic, Malekith — a capricious Dark Elf of Faerie — is seeking the Casket of Ancient Winters to unleash a new Ice Age and free the fiery being Surtur (adapted from the name Surtr) from Muspell to destroy the universe.

The film’s Malekith is an elemental being who has existed before the world, whose own element is darkness. Darkness, in Thor: The Dark World, pre-exists the universe. The goal of the Dark Elves is the unleashing of a substance called Aether that will turn the Nine Realms (the known universe in Thor cosmology) back into the darkness whence they came.

I was thinking about this, about Malekith, and the origins of the universe in mythology and philosophy. In the mythology of the Thor films, we see a universe born out of darkness. Or rather, in opposition to darkness. Darkness itself is pre-existent; it has its own substance, in fact. My first thought was that our modern conception of the universe tends towards seeing ‘nothing’ as darkness. But what we actually live in a universe replete with light? This is the implication of the medieval mind as described by C. S. Lewis in The Discarded Image. Looking up at the rolling spheres of night, rather than seeing the black between, the medieval mind saw a universe filled with light.

What if before everything else, there was light?

Darkness, in such a world, has no substance of its own.

Either way — whether darkness is pre-existent or light — it is still something with substance, still a thing. Substance is, as a result, co-eternal with the universe and, one imagines, its Artificer.

The pre-existence of the matter, the stuff, the substance of the universe as raw material to be worked upon by the Maker is not restricted to the cinematic imagination. In the issues of The Mighty Thor that follow the tale of Malekith, wherein Surtur tries to destroy the universe and bring about Ragnarok, Simonson has Odin tell the tale of his encounter with Surtur at the origins of the universe, with references to the story as we know it best from the Prose Edda and Poetic Edda, such as using Ymir’s skull to form the heavens.

In the Poetic Edda, the universe is born out of a void, as in the Voluspá:

3. Of old was the age | when Ymir lived;
Sea nor cool waves | nor sand there were;
Earth had not been, | nor heaven above,
But a yawning gap, | and grass nowhere.

In the Prose Edda, we learn of Surtr — the inspiration for Simonson’s comics:

Yet first was the world in the southern region, which was named Múspell; it is light and hot; that region is glowing and burning, and impassable to such as are outlanders and have not their holdings there. He who sits there at the land’s-end, to defend the land, is called Surtr; he brandishes a flaming sword, and at the end of the world he shall go forth and harry, and overcome all the gods, and burn all the world with fire

As the Prose Edda makes its way to the creation of the universe as we know it, we encounter a chasm of ice, Ginnungagap, from which Ymir is born. What we do not meet in Norse mythology, whether in Snorri’s Prose Edda or the anonymous Voluspá of the Poetic Edda, is creatio ex nihilo — just as in Thor: The Dark World, something was there. Substance already was.

Greek cosmology is similar. Chaos is where Hesiod’s universe originates — self-generating deities emerge from it on their own. From these, as well as Earth, Tartarus, and Eros, all other deities of his Theogony are born. Chaos is, according the Greek-English Lexicon of Liddel and Scott, infinite space, a chasm, the nether abyss, infinite darkness, the air, any vast gulf or chasm; obviously not all of these at once. It is a nothing with substance. For a chasm cannot be defined without the substances it divides.

The difficulty with the Prose Edda, Voluspá, and Hesiod’s Theogony is that they are richly symbolic and potent expressions of something in the poetic and mythic mode. But not science; not meant to be. Not philosophy; not an attempt to look at the chaos and sort out, using reason and experience, what the cosmos (order) is and how it came to be.

The most influential Classical text that does that is Plato’s Timaeus. In this dialogue, Timaeus says:

This is in the truest sense the origin of creation and of the world, as we shall do well in believing on the testimony of wise men: God desired that all things should be good and nothing bad, so far as this was attainable. Wherefore also finding the whole visible sphere not at rest, but moving in an irregular and disorderly fashion, out of disorder he brought order, considering that this was in every way better than the others. (30a-b, trans. Jowett,Vol. 3,  p. 717)

Earlier, Timaeus had said that the created universe was made as an image of the eternal, rational one that the Artificer had access to. Plato has no chaos; nor does he have creatio ex nihilo. Lucretius the Epicurean Latin poet-philosopher writes:

when we shall perceive that nothing can be created from nothing [nil posse creari de nilo], then we shall at once more correctly understand from that principle what we are seeking, both the source from which each thing can be made and the manner in which everything is done without the working of gods.

For if things came out of nothing [si de nilo fierent], all kinds of things could be produced from all things, nothing would want a seed. (De Rerum Natura 1.155-160; trans. W. H. D. Rouse, rev. Martin Ferguson Smith – Loeb)

I have passed the 1000-word mark, so shall now descend to commenting and skip Ovid. Although the film Thor: The Dark World does not seem to follow either Simonson nor the medieval Norse mythological texts, it is consonant with them in envisioning a universe where some sort of substance was coeval with all that is, even with the Artificer-God(s) — and Norse mythology, in turn, resonates with Hesiod in particular, but also Plato’s Timaeus and Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura.

The material mind in a material world has difficulty conceptualising nothing, nihil. Indeed, it turns out that the ‘nothing’ of much scientific enquiry seems to have been a ‘something’ all along — that is, the ‘nothing’ of balanced equations. The ‘nothing’ of philosophy and theology remains literally ‘nothing’, no existence, neither darkness nor light, neither chasm nor sphere, without form or substance. Void.

But what if we turn back to hints in the Timaeus?

Now everything that becomes or is created must of necessity be created by some cause, for without a cause nothing can be created. … But the father and maker of all this universe is past finding out; and even if we found him, to tell of him to all men would be impossible. (28a, 29a)

What if the uncreated Artificer, in fact, created the matter ex nihilo? A universe with no chasm of ice, no chaos, no sphere of unformed matter. Rather,

In the beginning, God created …

(Quick note for the trolls: The above has nothing [ha!] to do with a literal seven-day creation, so save yourselves time and effort by moving on. Thanks.)

The Nibelungenlied: Variations

Siegfried and Kriemhilde

In April I was walking through the Universitätsbibliothek here in Tübingen and saw that there was a little display about the Nibelungs there, including some really fake-looking treasure to represent the hoard of the Nibelungs. I looked through it, at copies of editions and translations of the Prose Edda (blogged about here) and the Poetic Edda and the Nibelungenlied as well as a discussion of Richard Wagner and silent film director Fritz Lang.

This made me think, ‘Aha! I should re-read the Nibelungenlied!’ You see, I have a habit of reading literature of the country I am visiting. Plato in Athens, Maupassant in Paris, Ambrose in Milan, Dante in Florence, Burns in Edinburgh. So – why not the Nibelungenlied in Tübingen? To my delight, the uni library has a copy of this mediaeval epic in English, so I took it out (the Oxford World’s Classics translation by Cyril Edwards)!* And I recently finished it.

This is by no means my first contact with this familiar tale of Siegfried and Brunhilde, Etzel and Kriemhilde, Hagen and Gunther. Like oh-so-many people, it was through Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle (to which I am listening as I write), the glorious music and plot synopses, followed by watching Die Walküre live in Toronto with my uncle and a friend as well as, much later, Siegfried on DVD (my post on that here). At some stage, after having read the Nibelungenlied, I read Roy Thomas’ graphic novel of the Ring Cycle as well. I was a bit disappointed with the stylised vision of the Aesir, whom I would have made more early mediaeval, ‘Nordic’, as in Gareth Hinds’ excellent Beowulf. Wagner’s vision is most people’s primary, first, and very often sole encounter with this tale.

However, because of Wagner, many people like me exist! I thought to myself, ‘Hmph. I should read this Nibelungenlied someday, fan of Wagner that I am.’ In my fourth year of uni, I found a copy of the Penguin Classics translation at this fabulous used book store in Ottawa called ‘All Books’ but resisted. My then-girlfriend (now wife!) bought it for me! So I read it.

The Nibelungenlied is not Wagner. I like it, though. It is a High Mediaeval tale of Deception, Betrayal, and Vengeance. There are no Aesir. Fafnir is a mere reference in describing Siegfried’s background. There are jousts and large amounts of single-handed combat. And a cloak of invisibility. And full-scale slaughter. But it is not actually, despite the name of Wagner’s operatic cycle – Der Ring des Nibelungen – the main source of inspiration for those four famousest of operas.

Like all great tales, especially ones transmitted orally, as the heroic epic of the Nibelungenlied was, there are variations, equally aged, each a bit different, each worth investigating. And Wagner’s main inspiration came not from the continental, ‘German’ epic but the Icelandic/Old Norse versions of the story, encapsulated in The Saga of the Volsungs, various poems of The Poetic Edda, and The Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson. These were all written down after or around the time that the Nibelungenlied was but sometimes contains strata of story that go back much farther.

These I have read since moving to Scotland, first The Poetic Edda, much of which I have to admit I forgot because it’s so dense a read, and then The Saga of the Volsungs, and in April upon arrival in Germany, The Prose Edda. This version is the one with Otter’s Ransom, with cursed gold, with Fafnir, with Sigurd (Siegfried) and Brynhilt and that burning ring of fire (into which Sigurd fell; actually, he jumped with a horse – sorry Johnny Cash). Of the three, if you’re really into things Nibelung, I recommend The Saga of the Volsungs. It is a fairly easy read, and has much adventure, and is self-contained; it’s also shorter than the Nibelungenlied. The others contain a lot of other material from Norse myth, which is itself interesting and well worth a read. But if you’re looking just for the story of Siegfried, that saga is the place to go.

Between reading the Nibelungenlied and the mediaeval Norse versions, I read J R R Tolkien’s The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun (about which I’ve blogged here). This is a fabulous attempt at weaving a coherent narrative of the competing versions in modern English following Old English versification. It can get heavy at times, but I like it. This book was where I first actually encountered the Norse version un-Wagnerised, and with the Norse names Sigurd and Gudrun, rather than Siegfried and Kriemhilde.

I hope to soon see Fritz Lang’s silent films about Siegfried. Then, all that will remain will be seeing, rather than listening to over and over and over again, Das Rheingold and Götterdämmerung.

Each telling, whether ancient or modern, brings a different angle and flavour to this tale, and I like that. Sometimes what is omitted by one is fully stated in another, and so they make sense together. Sometimes I prefer the motivations of one plot over another. That sort of thing. This is the fun of the competing tellings of these old stories, whether of Troy or Arthur or Siegfried.

My Nibelungenlist – Editions/Translations of Variations

The Nibelungenlied. I’ve read both A T Hatto’s translation for Penguin as well as Cyril Edwards’ for Oxford. I don’t recall how the Penguin holds up to the Oxford, but I remember liking it!

The Saga of the Volsungs. Translated by Jesse L Byock for Penguin Classics. As noted above, this is a volume devoted to nothing but a Norse version of this story. It is heroic and big and wonderful. And a quick read.

The Prose Edda. By Snorri Sturluson, translated by Jesse L Byock for Penguin Classics. This is our major source for Viking myths and worth reading for that alone; along the way, the tale of Sigurd (Siegfried) is told. Like Byock’s translation of the Saga of the Volsungs, this is readable.

The Poetic Edda. Translated by Carolyne Larrington for Oxford World’s Classics. Our other major source for Viking myths, this is a dense volume of shorter poems covering the full range of the tales, including – again – Sigurd.

The Ring Cycle (Der Ring des Nibelungen) by Richard Wagner. Numerous recordings of this exist. I am listening to the Metropolitan Opera’s from 1989(?). For DVDs, my opera-loving uncle with whom I saw Die Walküre recommends the Toronto production and last year’s production from the Met.

  • As a subsection of the above, do not forget the graphic novel by Roy Thomas for DC. There is another, multivolume graphic novel by P. Craig Russell, but I haven’t read it. If Eric Shanower ever finishes Age of Bronze, I’d like to see him do something similar for the scattered hoard of the Nibelungs.

The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun by J R R Tolkien. I cannot say it better than I already have.

*Sadly, they lack Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan and Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival in English.

Mythology through literature

The title of this post is the name of a course my wife, Jennifer, was able to take in her fourth year of undergrad at the University of Ottawa. I, sadly, was only there part-time at that stage, taking naught but Latin and Greek. Unlike U of O’s very good, very popular Greek Mythology course which went through the standard versions of the myths with H J Rose to hand, or the equally good Homer and Vergil which focussed on the epics as literature, this course took a different approach — reading the ancient literature as sources for our knowledge and understanding of ancient mythology.

This is the sort of thing I like. I grew up reading Mary Pope Osborne’s tellings of Greek mythology or The Usborne Book of Greek Myths, and today I enjoy such items as Eric Shanower’s Age of Bronze (on which I’ve blogged here). But where do we get these myths? From the writings of the ancients themselves, of course! Finding the ‘originals’ of the myths has been a pleasure of mine since my first year of undergrad.

From Europe, our only two complete mythological systems, so I’m told in The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings, are Greek mythology and Norse mythology. Of course, other myths and strands of folklore abound; I’m not well-versed in those at all. If we cast our eyes to other Mediterranean shores, myths of interest (to me, at least) are to be found in Mesopotamia and Egypt. Here are a few translations of the ancients themselves to go and find the ancient tales for yourselves!* The links are to Amazon, but I urge you to frequent local bookstores and libraries!!

Mesopotamia

  • Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, The Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others trans. Stephanie Dalley, Oxford World’s Classics. Many of our texts from Mesopotamia are fragmentary, and it is a great skill to recompose the stories. My favourites from this volume are: Atrahasis (flood story), Epic of Gilgamesh, Etana (incl. folk-tale-esque story of eagle and snake, and Etana’s ascent to the heavens), Epic of Creation (the world is created through murder and war, fashioned from the body parts and blood of slain divinites).
  • The Epic of Gilgamesh, trans. Andrew George, Penguin Classics. Dalley’s translation above is good, but so is this one, which also goes into great detail regarding piecing the epic back together. This was my first Gilgamesh, and I still like it very much. This epic includes a flood story and a variety of other interesting stories worth reading.

Ancient Egypt

I have to confess that I’ve not read any Egyptian religious/mythological literature except for a description of the contents of the Book of the Dead in the possession of the Royal Ontario Museum when it went on display. Nonetheless, I want to read more, and have learnt today about this three-volume set:

Ancient Greece and Rome

As the footnote from above shows, we have an overabundance of sources for Graeco-Roman mythology! So I shall give you two, both of which tell many tales, both of which I have read:

  • The Metamorphoses by Ovid, trans. A D Melville, Oxford World’s Classics. Here you will find many of the usual, expected tales of Greek mythology, as told by an Augustan Latin poet in unexpected ways. Melville’s English blank verse is lively and playful, just like Ovid. I highly recommend it, but not the old, prose translation for Penguin Classics by Mary M. Innes (I cannot speak on the other Penguin translations).
  • Theogony by Hesiod, trans. M L West, Oxford World’s Classics. M L West is one of the giants of Greek and Latin translation and textual criticism. I highly recommend his translation of this work, paired with Hesiod’s other poem Works and Days. Here you will find the stories of the births of gods and monsters from Ouranos to Zeus, with all the parricide you can stomach.

Norse Mythology

  • The Poetic Edda, trans. Carolyne Larrington, Oxford World’s Classics. I have to warn you that The Poetic Edda is not the easiest collection of texts. This is an anthology of (possibly) ‘Viking-age’ poetry telling the old tales of the gods and heroes, varying in levels of comprehensibility. Nonetheless, those that make good sense are well worth reading, for here we find Ragnarók and the tales of Thor and the Aesir in bold detail.
  • The Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson. This is our other major source for pre-Christian Norse mythology, dating to the thirteenth century and giving us all of our tales from creation to Ragnarók. I haven’t read it, but just today got my own copy of Jesse L Byock’s Penguin Classics translation; I liked Byock’s translation of the heroic and mythical Saga of the Volsungs; here’s hoping Snorri doesn’t live up to his name!

These are not the only world mythologies and bits of European-Mediterranean folklore worth reading. I have heard good things about The Táin, and the Hindu Vedas and Ramayana sound interesting; but I haven’t read them, so I cannot really recommend anything. I only recommended ancient Egypt because I’m really interested in learning more!

*For the full panoply of Greek (& Roman) myths, you need to read, amongst others, Pindar’s Odes, the tragedies of Euripides, Sophocles, and Aeschylus, Apollodorus’ Library, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the ‘Homeric’ hymns, Vergil’s Aeneid, Apollonius of Rhodes’ Argonautica, Catullus’ 64th poem, the various mythological poems of the archaic Greek lyric poets, bits of Plato, the many fragmentary Hellenistic poets, Callimachus’ hymns, Apuleius’ The Golden Ass, Statius’ Thebaid and Achilleid, Seneca’s tragedies, Claudian’s Gigantomachy and Rape of Proserpina, the Orphic Hymns and so on and on and on. Reading the primary sources for Graeco-Roman mythology is basically an entire career’s worth of reading! Use the above for some quick samplers. Then move on to the epics (Homer, Virgil, Apollonius) and tragedians.