The end of the World versus the Status Quo

Randall Anthony Schanze
Randall Anthony Schanze's picture

My kid likes Greek mythology, and I like Norse. He asked me why one time, and I said "Because Norse has more cultural relevance. It's Proto-Germanic, our culture is derived from Germanic. It just touches on more of our basecode than Greek stuff does, since our culture is in no way related to ancient Greece."

"How does it connect with you more? Example?" he said.

"The Greek gods are not brave. Nothing can kill them. They can suffer, but they can't die. Without real risk, there's no bravery. The Norse gods can die - and more to the point, they know they're gonna' someday. They risk their lives. That's brave."

"Ok, I can go with that. Got anything else?" he said.

"Well, I've always found the Prometheus myth interesting in that he created man and gave us fire, and then got his ass beat for all eternity for it by the gods. In the closest Norse equivalent, Odin sacrifices himself to himself in order to give the secrets of poetry and booze to mankind. Odin didn't create humanity, and he's kind of a bastard, but he does sorta' look out for us, and throw us a bone now and again."

"I'm not sure I agree with that one. Isn't Odin called 'The Evil God,'?"

"Yeah, that's one of his nicknames. He creates all war on earth. But he protects earth from giants and stuff," I said.

"I never got the whole 'sacrificed himself to himself' thing," he said.

"Yeah, I never really understood that either," I admitted. "But that brings up another difference that I respond to: Zeus never risked anything. He had everything he needed, he never strove for anything new. Everything thing was as it would always be. Odin, meanwhile, gouged out his own eye and gave it to the Njorns in exchange for foreknowledge. He knew the world was changing, he needed to see what tomorrow would bring. As it happens, it brought bad stuff."

"And how," the kid said.

Thinking about it a bit since then, it struck me that really that's why the Norse stuff appeals to me more: Greece was pleasant, static, comfortable, and so were their gods. Zeus was really only likely to nail you with a lightning bolt if you were causing disharmony. Think about that: disharmony. That's the thing that gets you sent to the principals' office. Olympus was all about perpetuating the status quo.

Asgard is all about change. Time is moving forward, the world will end. The gods will die. We're all screwed. The only real question is how we will face our fates. Are we brave? Do we fight against it? Do we fight against it, even though we know we'll lose? Because screw the Greek definition of Virtue, going down swinging for a lost cause is all kinds of virtuous. Better than virtue, it's brave. there wasn't much in the way of philosophy in Norse paganism, but those who fought and died were rewarded, and those who ran away were punished once they died. As Shakespeare said (Paraphrased) "We owe God a death, make it a good one."

In a larger sense, isn't this life? We're all going to die. You either face it, and keep on fighting, or you run away from it. Either way you're going to die. Everyone is going to die. How you meet it matters, though. To the Norse it was the only thing that mattered. I wouldn't go that far, but, dude, ya' gotta' keep fightin', right? The end of the world is nothing. The world ends for each of us when we die. Ragnarok, or Armageddeon or whatever you want to call the final eschateolon, is only that writ large. You need to make your life mean something. Existentialism, in its most amazingly violent form. <G>

Which brings me to my point: The Greek gods were all about preventing change, and the Norse gods were all about resigning yourself to it. 

The world is full of panicky idiots. All of them feel the world slipping away from them. In some ways Conservatives are like the Greek gods, desparate to return to a stable status quo. Liberals would seem to be the Norse gods embracing change, but in fact they're not. They're basically attempting to preserve the status quo as well, they just go about it a different way. One wants to maintain the standard of living by promoting trickle down economics, the other wants to maintain the standard of living by promoting bubble up economics. Both of them are simply trying to keep the ball from rolling, though. Both of them continually feel the world is at a tipping point. Both of them get all panicked. Both of them annoy the hell out of me.

Time passes. Things change. You can not unscramble eggs. You can not put the mushroom cloud back in the bomb. Embrace the change. 

Look, World War 1 sucked, right? But then the world got better, and the 1920s were awesome. Then the world fell to crap amidst depression and World War II. But then it got better, right? And it's consistently gotten better since then, right? And it's better now in most ways than it's ever been before, right? Our world is heaven to a Roman, and incomprehemsible to a cave man. The future will be better still. That's not to say it won't suck between now and then at some point. It will. That's inevitable, but we're humans, we don't suck, and we'll always come up with a way to make it better afterwards.

There. Is. No. Order. Not apart from that which we choose to impose on the universe, that which we make ourselves out of a great big pile of randomness. Panicky idiots can't handle this, but then they can't handle life, since this is the way it's always been, and the way it'll always be: flux. 

And this is why I like the Norse gods: the Olympans just want us to be housebroken, not make too much noise, be good little pets. They want the world to be locked in amber, unchanging.  The Aseir want us to be allies in the eternal war against fate itself. They know the world is a snowglobe that's already been hurled across the room, and there's only so much time left before it hits the wall. 

Also, the end of their world involves a ship made of human hair and fingernail clippings sailing out of hell with the souls of the cowardly damned seeking revenge, which is just cool...