I-E Myth I: Compare and Contrast

OMGs!  I finally finished another essay!  I have been struggling with Indo-European Mythology I for, like, ever.  Mostly because I thought that I had to back everything I said up with primary sources which was a huge PITA.  However, it turns out that secondary sources are acceptable, so onwards ho!

2.  Summarize, then compare and contrast the myths of at least two Indo-European cultures with respect to the following topics (you need not use the same two cultures as a basis of comparison for each topic): (minimum 300 words for each)

Tales of Creation

As Puhvel tells us, creation myth amongst Indo-European cultures is a particular troublesome topic; many of the best known creation myths, such as that in Hesiod’s Theogony are demonstrably an import from other, non-Indo-European, cultures.  Setting aside these products of diffusion leaves precious little to work with.

Germanic myth reveals a creation tale related to the giant Ymir.  The Poetic Edda contains the poem Vafþrúðnismál which tells of how Ymir’s flesh became the Earth, the mountains were made of his bones, the sky from his skull, and the oceans from his blood.  The poem Grímnismál adds that Midgard was fashioned by the Gods from Ymir’s eyebrows and the clouds from his brains.  In the Prose Edda, we are further told that it was Odin and his brothers Vili and Vé who killed Ymir and created the world from him.

In Rome, older myths found themselves subsumed into mythic stories.  Here we have the foundation story of the foundling brothers Romulus and Remus.  According to legend, the brothers were brought up by a she-wolf until they were discovered by a shepherd.  Following some adventures, they decided to build a city but quarrelled over the location.  After an attempt at augury failed to bring them to agreement, the quarrel escalated until Romulus killed Remus and became the sole founder of Rome.

Puhvel suggests that these, and other similar Indo-European myths, point to a possible proto-Indo-European creation myth involving two entities, one representing ‘man’ and the other his ‘twin’.  According to comparative re-creation, man must kill his twin in order to bring the world into being, creation thus being an act of sacrifice. Mallory suggests that the proto-Indo-European myth likely echoed the tripartite functions, with the skull/brains representing the sovereign function, the arms/bones representing the warrior, and the genitals representing the fertility function (435).

Tales of Divine War

The stories of Indo-European speaking peoples, like most peoples on the planet, are replete with myths of divine warfare.  The Irish text Cath Maige Tuired tells the tale of the second battle of Mag Tuired.  The story opens with the plight of the Tuatha Dé Danann who are being oppressed by the Fomoire.  The situation is not helped by the Dé Danann king, Bres the Beautiful, who is himself half-Fomoire.  With the situation going from bad to worse for the Tuatha, Bres is finally forced to abdicate and returns to his Fomoire kin to plot revenge.  Nuada reclaims the kingship but quickly hands it over to a newcomer by the name of Lugh in deference to Lugh’s many skills, after which the two sides prepare for war.  The battle is fierce, and culminates in the face-off between Lugh and Balor, the king of the Fomoire.  As Balor prepares to smite Lugh with his evil eye and orders his men to lift the great eyelid that covers it, Lugh puts a sling shot through the eye, causing it to roll backwards and smite the Fomoire instead.  Bres is captured and is forced to ransom his farmer’s almanack for his life.

Meanwhile, from the Norse we receive the myth of the war between the Aesir and the Vanir.  Unfortunately we have only a smattering of tantalizing tidbits drawn from peripheral works with which to piece together the conflict.  These come from Snorri’s Prose Edda and Ynglinga Saga, as well as a small mention in the Poetic Edda.  The general outline of the myths seems to be that a Vanir witch named Gullveig came to the halls of the Aesir and was slain by Odin.  War between the two sets of gods ensued.  During one truce in the war, the gods all spit into a cauldron and from their spittle was formed a wise man who was then murdered by dwarves, his blood becoming mead.  The war ends with the killing and beheading of the Aesir Mimir and his subsequent existence as a magic 8-ball for Odin.

Mallory has hypothesized that these myths may reflect an older story which tells of a war between the first two of the Dumézilian functions (magic and warrior) against the third function (fertility) which results in the incorporation of the third function into society (436).  In the Celtic version, this third function is represented by Bres who is beautiful and knowledgeable in agriculture — both associated with the third function.  With the Norse story, the third function is represented by the Vanir, who are considered fertility Gods and Goddesses.

Tales which describe the fate of the dead

One of the most compelling tales of the fate of the dead from Indo-European speaking peoples is that of the Valkyries of Odin from Norse myth.  References to these battle maidens are scattered throughout Norse writing. The poem Darraðarljóð from the Njáls saga, for example, describes the Valkyries as women weaving on a loom made of human entrails and bones, in which only they have the power to choose the slain.  Davidson tells us that such women, strongly associated with ravens, would stalk the fields of war and decide which warriors amongst the dead were worthy of the journey to Valhalla and which were not (61).  Once within the halls of Odin, the Valkyrie would feast the dead warriors with pork and mead (149).

In rather stark contrast to this vivid picture of an afterlife of food, drink, and ogling buxom Nordic blondes stands the more enigmatic Celtic view.  Tír na nÓg, the Celtic Otherworld, is oft cited as a potential place of the dead, but there are no real attestations as evidence.  Meanwhile the classical writers are known to have linked Druidic belief to the reincarnation of souls.

However there is at least one compelling link between the Norse and Celtic myth here, for it is difficult to consider the Valkyrie as the Battle Ravens of Odin without then bringing to mind An Mórrígan, the Great Red Queen of the Irish stories, along with her sisters Badb and Macha.  Like the Valkyrie, she also strides through the battlefields, deciding which warriors should live and which should die (Jones).  Whether these Celtic Goddesses then ferried the doomed warriors off to an afterlife of beer and pork rinds seems doubtful.  Nonetheless, the resemblance of the Norse and Celtic battle women, and particularly their association with ravens and crows, both of which are famous as battlefield carrion birds, certainly seems to hint towards an earlier myth now long forgotten.

Paganism, Vegetarianism, and Sustainability

I just finished reading Lierre Keith’s “The Vegetarian Myth” and I have to wholeheartedly recommend it as required reading for all humans.   I don’t care what you eat — go out and buy this book!

Yes, Keith’s stated premise is to tear down the mythic pillars upon which the vegetarian philosophy is built and expose it as an unnatural and dangerously unhealthy lifestyle which is complicit with Big Agriculture in the ongoing destruction of the Earth.   Towards this goal she succeeds with a brutal efficiency.

However, despite the name the book is not really about vegetarianism.   This book is a deeply spiritual and scientific exploration of how life on Earth works.  It demonstrates how agriculture is a dead end; a project that has been depleting the resources of the planet faster than they can be renewed for ten thousand years.  Keith lays out the bare naked truth that at least three fourths of all humans on the planet are only here because we are turning fossil fuels into fertilizer into food, and those fossil fuels *will* run out eventually.

Keith at times employs a tone which is likely to turn off many.  Vegetarianism certainly takes the brunt of her polemic, but she also argues for Paganism / Animism over Monotheism, Radicalism over Liberalism, Feminism over Patriarchy, and Egalitarianism over Elitism.  In many ways the book is a political, religious, and social manifesto which will leave many feeling a bit uneasy.

Nevertheless I can guarantee that this book will compel and challenge you to re-think how you perceive the way life works on this planet and how the concept of food fits within.  You may very well end up not entirely persuaded by her recommendations, but you will be changed.

Indo-European Mythology 1.1 – Primary Sources

Wow it has been a while since I last finished an essay!

1. List and discuss the major primary sources for the mythology of three Indo-European cultures, including their dates of origin and authorship (if known). Discuss any important factors that may cause problems in interpreting these sources, such as the existence of multiple revisions, or the presence of Christian or other outside influences in surviving texts. (minimum 300 words)

Let us be very specific in the cultures which we are to consider.  Let us consider, first, the primarily Athenian culture of the Greeks in the Classical era (c.f. 500-400 BCE), the La Tène Celtic culture prior to the Roman conquest, and the Northern Germanic culture of the Norse up to the general adoption of Christianity in Iceland circa 1000 CE.

For the Classical Greeks, we have a wealth of primary sources.  Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, written down probably in the 8th century BCE, are the most famous.  Also of significant value are Hesiod’s Theogany and Works and Days from the 7th century BCE and the Homeric Hymns, a collection of religious odes from various authors dating from the seventh through fifth centuries.  The extant plays of Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus, and even Aristophanes  from the Classical era provide fertile ground for exploration.  Beyond these there are numerous other texts from the period, including works of history, philosophy, science, and poetry which contain references to myth.  Finally there is also a significant amount of archaeological sources including statues and vase.  Insofar as there are any issues with interpreting the sources, there is only the quantity of them and the fact that they occasionally expose conflicting versions of many of the same myths.

In stark contrast to the Greeks, the La Tène Celts left few primary sources for their mythology.  What they did leave were entirely non-literary, the Gundestrup cauldron (first century B.C.E.) being by far the most important, requiring significant interpretation and correlation with later, post-La Tène era sources.  Even these remain quite sparse until well into the Christian era.  While there are a fair number of inscriptions and visual representations of myth in the pre-Christian Gallo-Roman culture, they largely demonstrate a syncretism of Roman and Gallic religious beliefs and divinities, and trying to extract information about the earlier Celtic myths from this material poses a significant challenge.  The Irish and Welsh literary renditions of Celtic myth were recorded a millenium or more later by peoples long since Christianized and would be of limited value indeed in trying to reconstruct La Tène-era mythic beliefs.

 Somewhat between the richness of the Classical Greeks and the sparseness of the La Tène Celts lies the Northern Germanic Norse culture.  Here, like the Celts, the mainland Germanic speaking peoples did not commit their knowledge to writing, with the exception of a few scattered runic inscriptions.  However, we are fortunately indeed for Iceland which adopted Christianity at a slow pace, retaining many of its Pagan stories and beliefs even as it took to writing.  Here there is a relative wealth of sources, the most important being the Prose Edda (~1223 C.E.) of Snorri Sturluson as well as the Poetic Edda, a collection of Icelandic poetry dating from the 13th Century.  Despite being written down more than two centuries after the official adoption of Christianity in Iceland, these sources seem to be quite faithful to the Pagan stories which they record, such that Puhvel notes that “Germanic myth ranks with Vedic and Roman as the third mainstay for triangulating Indo-European reconstruction” (191).

Introducing WikiMyth!

Recently I’ve become quietly obsessed over an idea that was triggered by two coincidental events.

The first such event was my struggle to write a good Lughnasadh ritual.  You all know that a lot of the “lore” around our High Days is so much modern invention.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, but I prefer to have my liturgies based as much as possible on the primary sources.  I had read that Lughnasadh is linked to the concept of Sovereignty, and had also read Lugh is married to the Goddess of Sovereignty.  But of course none of the websites where I was reading this cited their sources, so tracking down and finding the primary sources upon which to build my ritual was quite challenging.

So, while I was spending time in research I happened to read a blog post at Aedicula Antinoi.  In it, P. Sufenas writes:

A while back, I had a conversation … on the importance of theological commentary on myths, and how there needs to be more of it, because it is an extremely useful thing…  Some of the material generated in blog posts, comments, and even in some of the major spats within modern pagan and polytheist communities can qualify as this sort of theological commentary…But, independent of that particular matter, it might be good to not only have some formal and extended commentaries on some of the extant myths (especially as they reveal practical matters for our own use in modern ritual and devotion)…

That got me thinking; wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was a site where the Pagan community could work together to link the myths from the primary sources through scholarly research and theology into practice?  There is plenty of excellent research out there already, of course, but often finding it is a challenge, so this site would also provide links to the best secondary sources and research available.

So, I have set up a wiki site, WikiMyth, with that intention.  It is just a skeleton right now, but I invite everyone with an interest to come over and start working on it!