Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology (2017) reminded me of Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes, a book that as a child I found on the bookshelf of my grandmother’s front porch. Edith Hamilton was the author. It was a collection of the mythology of Roman religion and literature, and I spent many hours reading and browsing through it. Gaiman’s book is his version of Scandinavian myths as passed down through oral history and finally recorded by medieval scribes. In his introduction, he makes clear that he is relying on certain translations of the myths, so he makes no pretense of having translated them himself. He does suggest that he embellished and shaped them and put them into his own prose. I’d like to know the extent to which he was inventing and embellishing, and to which he was simply rendering translations.
In his novel American Gods (2001), which uses Norse mythology and other world mythologies in various ways, we see Gaiman’s imagination at work in creative and inventive ways. In Norse Mythology, the tone is more formal, a bit removed from the subject matter, and perhaps bound by the material—that is (I’m guessing) that while Gaiman could invent or embellish details he felt an obligation to honor the basic Norse tales themselves.
The myths of the Nordic people and of Greek and Roman civilizations have many similarities. But there are distinctive differences. Norse mythology shows the Nordic people’s love of nomenclature—everything, no matter how inanimate or insignificant, has a name—in one scene the god Odin bores through the side of a mountain with an augur named Rati, for example. Perhaps such objects are given names because they are the possessions of gods, part of an epic Nordic epic saga.
One point Gaiman makes in this volume is to illustrate the ways in which women were subjugated, how they were allowed little agency and had virtually no say in decisions that affected their lives. They were the possessions of men. One notable exception is the goddess Freya, renowned as the most beautiful of the gods. On several occasions when males try to bargain her away in marriage in return for rewards or alliances, she fiercely resists and makes clear that she will decide whom she will marry.
Gaiman begins with the origins of the Nordic world while at the same time anticipating its end. The tales are organized in order to highlight the final movement of the gods towards Ragnorak, a final battle in which all the Gods and the world itself will be destroyed.
The apocalyptic ending is foreshadowed from the start. The gods make mistakes and misjudgments that later come back to haunt them. They are not immortal—though they might live millennia, able to resist the effects of aging through various magic remedies, in the end they can die. Nordic myth according to Gaiman has more awareness of the end times, the final Battle of Ragnorak, the Nordic version of the Christian apocalypse, than I find in Greco/Roman myth.
The Nordic people, with relatively little knowledge of science, driven by superstitious and religious belief, by ignorance, had a more realistic view of the fate of the universe than the modern world seems to have, though I suppose the gradual cooling and dissolution predicted by cosmologists is a modern version of the Twilight of the Gods after all.