Norse mythology is one of those things that schools in the US love to teach. It fits in nicely in a narrative, specifically the march from a polytheistic to monotheistic faith. It gives kids a sense of heroes, monsters and saviors.
And the culture! No one can deny that the northern tribes didn’t use agriculture or do raids. Their myths ended in an apocalypse that led to a different world. Like the Bible!
Missionaries were quick to pick up on ‘similarities’ between their end myth (Ragnarok) and Revelations. They happily took a dying and rising god and claimed Jesus and Odin were at least blood brothers.
So what does that make the Norse religion? A pushover? A proto-civilized invader faith? A heathen religion (like how the Romans claimed all non-civilized were)?
I won’t deny what the religion grew into, as the germanic–note that this name came from the Romans lumping a bunch of tribes together as an insult)–nations started to congeal.
I won’t deny that it was relatively easy to Christianize them, either.
However, here lies the question. Does their philosophy link to an animistic mindset?
The World According to Romans
The Romans had a name to connect to the pagan places they couldn’t fully conquer: “heathens”. The people of the heath generally lived in mountainous environments.
This meant that proper agricultural techniques, like those the Romans used, just flat didn’t work. And the Roman gods, centered around farming, wouldn’t work either.
This meant that Rome likely found faiths that set their animistic roots in these places than in tamed lands ready for farming. And they were persistent.
Were the tribes of the far north heathens?
They weren’t mountain dwellers. They definitely practiced agriculture by the point archaeologists were paying attention to them. But what about their gods?
Their gods… the story of the family of Odin. They lay out a strategy for living in the far north.
They do not emphasize farming.
A Faith Based in a Proper Death
From day one, the stories report the fact that they live inside the body of the world. A body that, like any corpse, endures for a while but ultimately falls apart when devoured by the elements and by life.
Their content was intensely queer (Odin, Loki, Bragi, Idunn, etc.). With edgy folks making immense changes in the status quo (like Odin storying in the landscape) and more common ‘heroes’, like Thor, portrayed as idiots.
In fact, for all his wisdom and reputation as a “great warrior”, Odin spend much of his time gathering knowledge and hanging out in the halls of Valhalla… watching.
They valued brewing and horticulture: apples and honey. They valued their neighbors, the Vanir, who are definitely agriculturalists, but they made sure to understand that no matter how important growing things might be, the Aesir way of life was superior.
Intense tool building, another indicator of being divorced from an animistic lifestyle was also repudiated. The Northmen laid this activity at the feet of the dwergar (dwarves), supposedly the descendants of maggots.
Even the craft involved in their apples of immortality resulted from dwergar activity and not the Vanir. The daughter of the brightest of all dwarves married one of Odin’s queerest sons.
Now, there is the potential that the dwergar were the children of Nemed (from Irish tales) and their ‘maggot-y’ behavior came from them living in upside-down beached ships, but that’s a different story to pursue another time.
Death is the End, and It is Not
Think about it for a moment: invaluable tools were linked to the very beings that ultimately would cause a corpse to come crashing down onto the creatures inside it.
At the time, people probably noted this.
Their entire world-view was woven on the premise that life there was fragile, that life as they knew it would inevitably collapse, but that from the compost of the End, something new and unexpected would emerge.
This wasn’t the framework of Tiamat, where her violence was only contained through an eternal death reinforced by slaves farming and devouring her forever.
This was an acknowledgment that life is a cycle, death a vital part of it, and that ends were only new beginnings.