Mythology in general has always fascinated me—I actually studied it a decent amount for the Piercing the Veil trilogy—but it’s rare to find a volume of myths so entertainingly told. Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology is timely, too, considering its characters have been on the big screen quite a bit recently. As I listened, I pictured Thor, Loki, and Odin as Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, and Anthony Hopkins—particularly since Gaiman’s humor fits perfectly with the kind of witty repartee you might expect from a Marvel script. I did not realize when I saw Thor: Ragnarok that Ragnarok is the Norse version of Armageddon, though. (Here’s my review of the film version of Thor: Ragnarok, in case you care).
What struck me most about these tales was how very similar some of them are to biblical stories. I noticed this when studying mythology in general, too: certain archetypes and tales recur across many different cultures. One of these is the dying-and-reborn-god archetype, fulfilled by Odin in the Norse tradition. In order to gain wisdom, Odin sacrifices himself to himself, hanging for nine days on the World Tree, after which he comes back to life. (Sounds an awful lot like Jesus’ death on a cross: a sacrifice to God, with whom he is one, and subsequent resurrection.) Other examples of this archetype are Enlil, the Mesopotamian god, Tammuz, the Babylonian god, and Osiris, the Egyptian god. The Mayans, Incans, and Aztecs had similar stories.
Ragnarok also sounds remarkably like the biblical book of Revelation. In most of the Norse stories, Loki is a trickster, more wily than evil (and he’s actually my favorite character). But in the end, he becomes the archetype of Satan, bound for his crimes in the belly of the earth until the end of time (as Satan is to be bound in Revelation for a thousand years). After that he is released, and comes to wreak havoc upon the earth. There is a Midgard serpent (like the beast in Revelation); the sun and moon are stripped from the sky, and there is a great poetical battle described in metaphor. In Revelation, this becomes a new heaven and a new earth—and in Ragnarok, one man and one woman (Ask and Embla—which sounds a lot like Adam and Eve) seek refuge at the World Tree (the Garden of Eden?) and become the father and mother of all mankind once more.
The fact that so many cultures independently develop such similar tales intrigues me, and this is part of what I explored in the Piercing the Veil trilogy. Perhaps it’s merely that there was an original source text from which they all derive, but that seems unlikely if the stories predate inter-cultural communication. In the case of flood myths, it seems the most rational explanation is that there actually was a great flood, and unrelated cultures all recorded it in their own fashion. But the death and rebirth of a god, especially one who dies on a tree and sacrifices himself to himself? The similarities of the apocalyptic prophecies, and the creation stories? It just seems odd. Not likely a coincidence.
Anyway, Gaiman’s narrative voice remains one of my favorites. I can’t think of a better author to make ancient mythology come alive. Highly recommended.
Also, that cover: wow. Gorgeous!
My rating: *****