Exploring Another Culture with Norse Mythology

Vikings are very popular right now with a number of exhibits, fiction books, and TV shows out about this popular but not well known culture. The people seemed to have simple lives and yet are larger-than life. Plus, most folks love powerful warriors… as long as they aren’t facing them in battle.

For instance, I enjoy Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid series, which includes at least one book of his character’s antics in the Viking mythos world, and the History Channel show, Vikings. I love cultures with strong female characters like Lagratha from this show. Their use of shield maidens provides more proof that a woman can be a valuable ally in battle, or a vicious enemy.

So when I saw Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology, I snapped it up, wanting to know more about this distant and unusual culture. In the introduction, Gaiman explains that he wants the text to read like a person storytelling across the fire during long winter nights. In that regard, he succeeds admirably in that the work has a clear narrator feeling.

The book reads like the Bible, starting with a type of Genesis and proceeding through time to the end of days. This is not bad though. The book is a history of the gods’ creation and lives. One can find some lessons in these tales but mostly they are just grand stories. Unlike the Bible, the book lacks a lot of boring “begats” passages or high-handed morality tales. In short, many of the tales seem more like frat boys playing pranks or having masculinity measuring contests.

From these stories, the reader gets the feeling that the Norse gods generally like common folks. They like getting gifts, gathering crops, feasting, fornicating, fighting and making general mischief. The tone of the book is simple and direct, without a lot of descriptive scenes or glorifying of characters, instead staying focused in the storyteller style.

In reading it, I understand the events in the Vikings show a bit better. The stories seem to glorify craftiness and guile. Loki, who I’ve always heard was a trickster, is less mischievous and much more of a selfish, rude, self-centered ass, increasingly so towards the end. Anyone who is a fan of the History Channel show will see similarities between the character Floki, and Ragnar’s punishment on him, and Loki’s actions and final punishment. As bad as it is, the reader is left with the feeling in part that Loki brought it upon himself.

Odin seems single minded in searching for wisdom but few of the stories go into him actually using it. Gaiman mentions that many of the stories were lost, which may be why Odin is not as well represented. Many of the stories don’t include Odin at all. Thor is featured often but come comes across as a rather dumb blowhard rather than any great warrior. The tales also doesn’t really show the gods interacting with or even caring much about human affairs, unlike Greek and Roman stories. Humans are simply occupiers of the Earth and little more. The gods were much more concerned with each other and the various giants, dwarves, and elves.

For the most part, it was a fun and easy read, that left me desiring more stories. Unfortunately, Neil Gaiman won’t be writing any sequels. So much information on this proud race is now lost. However, I feel like I now have a deeper respect for the richness of the Norse culture and can understand some of the references more clearly. That alone made the book well worth its purchase price.

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