IF there is one thing that profoundly annoys me, it’s when I hear things like “X god did this thing so I despise them” or when someone reads something like the Poetic Edda or one of the Sagas and sees the character of a god described and thinks “that’s literally them”. It gets even more obnoxious when that literalism is compounded by a very christian moralistic outlook. It’s this kind of reasoning that makes people say “Odin=Good, Loki=Evil” as if the two were Yahweh and Satan. That is not the case.
For those who are wondering what in the world I’m talking about when I say Mythic Literalism, I’m talking about a particular mode of thought. It often pops up in American Christianity, and it’s a way of viewing biblical texts as literal truths about the nature of god, and the actions said god undertook. Now there are plenty of criticisms within Christian thought that handle mythic literalism, and how it handles when dealing with the nature of the christian Yahweh-Christ. My focus ain’t on that. My focus is when a contentious view designed for a monotheist religious outlook is attempted to be forced onto a polytheist collection of stories and gods. It’s akin to trying to force a square plug into a round hole.
Hellenic polytheists fight this kind of thinking all the time, seeing as the myths of Hellenic gods and heroes are some of the more common stories of ancient religious belief we have available to a lay audience. The problem they encounter, and that polytheists have to frequently remind folks of, is that myth was never designed to be taken literally.
Myths range anywhere from historical sagas to cultural explanations to possible revisionism to straight up theological fiction. Often these stories would be related to some aspect of the gods, but through the lense of examining human society and how divinity related to said society. Humans were the real focus, not the gods. For example, there was a festival in Greece honoring the Muses where stories and plays would be made up about the gods to be performed. The good ones would stick around and be performed regularly because they were popular. That’s where many of the versions of Greek myths that we know come from. Poets and playwrights and political authors were no theologians, though they had context of the polytheism of the day because religious culture wasn’t divorced from everyday living like how it typically is in 2020’s USA. In fact, philosophers would often decry these poets and playwrights for their stories because they misconstrue ideas about society with things divined from the gods themselves. (funny how the more things change, the more things stay the same)
That brings us to talking about the Eddas. To keep this from turning into a small textbook on the nature of Eddic lore, the biases of Snorri, the timeframe in which he’s writing, and the audience which would be reading Snorri’s works in compilation and writing in the style he is trying to preserve I’ll keep it brief. The Poetic Edda is a collection of older heathen stories from across the Scandinavian areas of the Germanic world. Given what I’ve already said about the nature of myth being tools for teaching about societal functions and how those related to various aspects of the gods, you can quickly see how Snorri was in over his head with his compilation. Here he was, a christian monk writing long after the conversion of large parts of the germanic world, trying to make sense of these old stories of the formerly pagan society. There is a whole lot of context he didn’t have. So he trimmed them up, streamlined them, and used his own christian understanding to make it make sense to his christian audience. In doing so, it fundamentally changes the very nature of said myths, and introduces an implied moralistic literalism that didn’t exist in pre-christian heathenry.
We have stories about Loki’s trickery, because cunning and the unpredictability of change were attributed to Loki. We have stories of the warband and it’s ties with Odin, because death and conflict and the passions in both battle madness and poetry were seen as tied to Odin. We have Baldur passing away in different stories because darkness slays light, and light arises from darkness, these are aspects of Baldurs godliness. These aren’t moralistic stories meant to show a god of evil and a god of good, there are teaching you about what you can expect if you do certain actions in society. Insult the host of your stay, and you’ll expect to have your ass kicked. Transgress against another, and there is a price you must pay. Be wary of the oaths you swear because you can’t take back what is said. Flyting is all well and good, but know where your boundaries are. Never make a promise too good that you don’t want to keep it when the other guy comes to collect. Change happens, and when it does it can make way for something better than you had before. Hospitality can make old foes into trusted allies. These are the roots of the stories in the Eddas.
In short, always look closer at you’re reading. Always ask questions. And always seek to learn more about the context of when a saga was written, and what version you have in your hands. And never assume a god is good or bad because of what one person might have read or seen. We cannot know all ends and all perspectives, so never let your gaze be hard or else you lose sight of what’s important.