2010-04-14

What If...?

Finding myself not in much of a scholarly but rather a speculative mood today, I thought to present to you, my dear reader, an idle question which has passed more than once through my mind of late: what if the Norse gods had become prevalent in Europe, rather than Christianity?


Specifically, I've been considering the implications of our religious inheritance in respect to the cultural and social consequences which that legacy has in our own present. As my friends may know, I tend to view many of our country's contemporary ills and shortcomings as directly related to the conservative Christianity which accompanied European colonists to this continent, and subsequently has dominated American political and social discourse. The weight of this inheritance is felt particularly strongly and seen especially clearly in prominent issues in our country: ongoing opposition to abortion rights; more fundamentally the hostility to sex education and contraception; the insidious resistance to scientific ideas of evolution; and so on.

Since last Autumn, I've been casually studying and reflecting upon the Norse pantheon and some of the mythology of the Vikings. Impressed with the vigor of a religious idea system in which the ideal afterlife is a never-ending drinking party cum fight club, and taken with a goddess who manages to have her chariot drawn by cats (of all creatures), I began to wonder what our world might've been like had this hearty heathenism survived the medieval Christian incursion into northern Europe, and ultimately prevailed over abrahamic monotheism in the modern west.

My musings have included some of the following broad notions:

I imagine a richer festival tradition centered around the major astrological events and seasonal transitions which have been marked as holidays by many peoples, and peppered with other observances throughout the year, all of these probably including performance of the blot, a sacrificial gathering to make offerings to the gods and celebrate. I like to think these holidays would be more in earnest than the weak and morbidly commercialized occasions which linger in America. Then again, I suppose there's hardly any reason not to expect 'mall Odins' having pictures taken with children upon their knees.

I imagine an altogether healthier view of human sexuality and openness to learning sexual responsibility than has been engendered by a Christian background. While certain Eddic poems evince misogynistic sentiments as much as most any old literature will, these are much less central to the makeup of the idea system than, for instance, the notion of woman's responsibility for all the sin and suffering of humanity is to Christianity. Moreover, the presence and prominence of goddesses in a prevalent pantheon might do not a little to solidify the position of women in society.

Accordingly, sex might have a place in our culture less as an act of sin and violence, and more as a meeting of equals. Additionally, with the love songs I've read which advise one on the best time for sporting with maidens (and the like), I doubt the prevailing attitude toward sexuality would be repressive as it is now. With sex accepted as a healthy and good part of human life, perhaps we would be more readily inclined to ensure our people understood it well enough to engage in informed and responsible sexual relations.

I imagine we would have a healthier outlook on our own worth as human beings had we inherited a mythology in which there is no all-crushing burden of sin laid upon our collective shoulders. Inspired to courage and noble-heartedness, looking forward to an afterlife where we might ourselves live with the gods and prepare to assist them in their own ultimate battle, might we not have a sense of ourselves as strong and good alongside divinity, rather than humiliatingly insignificant, weak, and flawed before the incomprehensible perfection of a single almighty deity? Might we not think more of ourselves, and expect better of ourselves?

Finally, I imagine an open, pluralistic outlook, allowing us to see the world less in the black-and-white, us-or-them way which we must still struggle to overcome in this country. The world is painted all in shades of grey. Only rarely is there a splash of true white, or a stroke of absolute black. Growing up with many gods, and with stories of those gods which don't delude us with the illusion of moral absolutism, may've helped us in learning the world is inhabited by many peoples of different backgrounds.

The vague recollection of a cultural conflict embodied in the union of the Æsir and the Vanir — two separate pantheons which eventually mingled — and remembered in the myth of a war between gods which was resolved by deliberation in council would be ever-present in the back of our minds as a reminder of difference and an example of reconciliation. Such a mythological idea of conflict resolution could've done better by us than the unilateral disregard and wanton destruction of old religious traditions wherever Christianity found them.

I make no excuse for my romanticism in all of this, and indeed there no doubt would be as much ill as good from old Norse as from any religious baggage. If nothing else, forgive me the indulgence for this reason: that it is worthy to reflect upon how whence we came brought us where we are, and that in such considerations religion must be taken into account as a force which shapes our thoughts and actions, and thus shapes our history.

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