By Reva Sherrard
What is myth? Raven stealing the light, Athena bursting fully-armored from Zeus’ forehead, and so on? Where did these stories come from and why? Well — once upon a time — our primate ancestors lived, ate, loved, and died just like other animals and needed nothing more. Like wolves and chimpanzees, we hunted cooperatively and communicated using indicative vocalizations. Then language happened, and from thinking largely in concrete facts we started thinking in symbols. We made the cognitive leaps from grunting when we saw antelope, to having a specific sound that meant “antelope,” to using it when there were none around. Suddenly we had more to think about apart from whether or not we could run the antelope down; now we were concerned with meaning, and lo, through one of evolution’s stranger vicissitudes the human consciousness was born. Language and the super-complex brains it built gave our sorry, furless ancestors the cooperative and imaginative edge they needed to survive. But now, those complex brains found equal complexity in otherwise straightforward struggles to get food, mate, fight, and resolve fights. Life had a new dimension for which meat and copulation alone were not enough (well, for some of us). We needed to find a working truce with the loneliness and fear that go hand-in-hand with speculative thought; we needed not just physical but psychological strength to outwit death as long as possible and then to face it at the end. More than facts, we needed truth.
That’s where myth came in — not created the way a novelist sits down and cobbles together a plot, but coevolved with the human mind, a self-contained syntax for the symbols through which we perceive the cosmos, an almighty root system defining the individual’s and community’s relationships to the seen and unseen worlds, the present moment’s connection to past and future. Like language, it’s too big to take in all at once; stories are the bite-sized pieces by which the cosmic vision is communicated and consumed.
For an interesting layering of metaphors, consider Thor’s visit to Útgarða-Loki.
In the mood for adventure, Thor asked Loki’s help to meet his counterpart, Útgarða-Loki or “Loki-Out-There,” in a mysterious place far from Asgard.
“You don’t want to go there,” said Loki. “I don’t want to go there.”
They went anyway. After traveling a long time they and Thor’s servant Thjálfi came to an enormous fortress. Too small to open the gates, they slipped between them and entered a mighty hall where Loki-Out-There sat on a throne among a host of shadowy figures.
“Welcome, travelers,” said the giant, who looked just like Loki, or not at all, man-sized or impossibly vast, depending on the way the light hit him. “It’s the custom in this hall that guests provide entertainment. What are you good at?”
“Eating,” said Loki, who hadn’t done so all day.
In an instant a contest was arranged: Servants set a long platter of freshly roasted meat between Loki at one end and his opponent, Logi, at the other. On the count of three they set to devouring the meat as fast as they could, and met in the middle — but though Loki had licked his half of the platter clean, Logi had eaten the bones, the platter, and his knife, and bitten Loki’s hand, too. So Logi won.
“I can outrun anyone,” said Thjálfi — and promptly lost a race to Hugi, the fastest man in the hall, who moved so quickly that a blink lost him.
Then it was Thor’s turn. Loki-Out-There handed him a horn of mead saying, “Drain it in one gulp if you can. No one here cannot drain their drink in two.” Thor laughed, for he had a huge capacity for drink, and poured the mead down his gullet. Once, twice, thrice he swallowed, and gasping for air peered into the horn. He’d only lowered the level of mead by a hair.
“Bad luck,” said Loki-Out-There. “I hear you’re strong; why don’t you pick up my cat?”
Thor sweated and strained, but try as he might he could only lift one dainty paw from the floor.
“Enough!” he roared. “Let me fight one of you — anyone!”
“My grandmother Elli used to wrestle, though she’s past her prime,” said Loki-Out-There.
A bent and shriveled old woman rose from the benches and set to grips with Thor, who was hard pressed to keep his feet against her iron strength. Long they wrestled, till she finally wore him down and forced him to one knee.
Humiliated, Thor turned to storm out of the hall. “Wait,” called Loki-Out-There, “Why leave when you’ve done so well? Loki lost to fire, Thjálfi to nothing slower than thought itself; the mead you drank was the oceans, and my little cat is the great serpent that girdles the world. As for Elli, she is age, whom no one defeats.”
In a rage Thor flung his hammer at Loki-Out-There’s head. Before it could strike, the giant and the hall disappeared, leaving the three standing in an empty meadow.
“What did I tell you?” said Loki.
While I aim for themes of general interest, my focus in this article is on the myths of Northwestern Europe because they are what I study. The world is full of other rich, complex, and sometimes contradictory traditions I omit because of my lack of sufficient knowledge, not through a lack of appreciation and respect.
Reva Sherrard works at Peregrine Book Company, studies Old Norse religion, and is writing a novel.