Apocalypse, now and then: Author Joanne Harris on Norse myths and the end of the world

The myths of the Norse gods still resonate with us, even though mankind’s concerns have changed, says author Joanne Harris

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The Independent Culture

Ever since mankind began to look to the heavens and speculate on how and why we came to be, there have been creation myths and stories of an apocalypse. Almost all myths and religions share this vision of an ephemeral world at the mercy of powerful gods wielding the might of the elements, and of a day of judgement, when the gods and their enemies will finally meet in battle.

Of course, a myth is just a religion that has fallen into disrepute. A god who loses his followers can no longer be a god, and his fate is usually to be relegated to the mythology shelves as other beliefs take over. Such has been the fate of the Norse gods, once revered across Northern Europe and Scandinavia. Though still worshipped by a small, but fervent minority of pagans known as Asatrú, to most, the Norse gods have become figures of legend, characters from a story designed to impose order on a chaotic world and to explain what mankind could not; the power of the sea; the storm; the joys and cruelties of life.

Their influence, however, remains. They have left their mark on our culture, our history, our landscape, even our language. The days of the week still bear their names. Their stories, passed down through the oral tradition and finally transcribed by Christian scholars as belief in the old gods waned, still have resonance today. For centuries, artists, writers and composers from Wagner, Tolkien, and Tennyson to Marvel Comics have taken inspiration from these tales of conflict, companionship and adventure.

Why? In terms of content, Norse mythology is frustratingly limited. The oral tradition has been lost. What has been saved is fragmentary, filled with inconsistencies. Worse, the Christian scholars to whom we owe their survival have added their own impressions; some scornful, some sympathetic, designed to help interpret something they themselves did not fully understand. Even so, the myths remain unusually fresh and immediate – more so than those of the Romans or Greeks, who left so much more written material. Perhaps because of the characters; larger-than-life, energetically-drawn, and recognisable, even today, with all their very human flaws, ambitions, fears and relationships. There’s Odin, the one-eyed leader; solitary, mysterious, isolated from the rest by virtue of his occult knowledge and the burdens of leadership. There’s his son, Thor; big, strong, loyal, brave (though maybe not too bright); plain-speaking, trusting, but terrible in anger. There’s Bragi, the god of music and song, and his gentle wife, Idun, the healer. There’s Heimdall, the watchman; eagle-eyed, suspicious. There’s Týr, the one-armed god of war, and Frey, god of battle and the harvest, with his sister Freyja, the goddess of desires both sacred and profane. A gallery of gods and goddesses, some better-known than others, but all with their distinct personalities and attributes; their personal feuds; their secrets. All living together in Asgard, the sky citadel, which joins on to the world of men by a bridge in the form of a rainbow.

This living in such close proximity makes for frequent clashes between the gods. Power-struggles between factions; conflicts between fathers and sons; flaring sexual chemistries. And to cap it all, there’s a traitor on board; Loki, the trickster in the camp, a demon brought into Asgard for mysterious reasons of his own by Odin, who is willing to tolerate his disruptive nature for the sake of his wicked intelligence. The result is pure drama; some comic, some cruel, all wildly entertaining. It’s a story of tremendous richness, some parts of it recounted in prose, some in verses of bleak and powerful beauty. One of the most famous of these is “Völuspá”, the prophecy of the seeress, which tells the story of the world, as a prediction to Odin, from creation onwards, including the rise of the gods of Asgard and predicting their eventual doom – at Ragnarók, the cataclysmic battle in which the gods will face their enemies and lose, and the world will be plunged into darkness, death, and perpetual winter.

Like so many prophecies, it’s a kind of Rorschach test. Visions of a new Ice Age; the breakdown of civilisation; the seas rising up; the walking dead; Sun and Moon swallowed by demon wolves; brother against brother. It’s vague enough, yet familiar enough to be meaningful to any place and time: which is perhaps the reason that some are predicting Ragnarók will fall this year, on 22 February (which also happens to fall during the week of the Jorvik Viking Festival).

However, much as I love a good apocalypse, I don’t think I’ll cash in my shares just yet. The world has “ended” before, many times, and yet the world has always survived. As a student of mythology, folklore and religion, I tend to see these stories of creation and apocalypse as part of an expanding tapestry, woven by human beings across the centuries as a means of understanding their world. As this understanding grows, mankind’s need for a more complex system of beliefs grows with it. Thus, our perception of the divine has to change accordingly. But the metaphors with which we try to explain the transience of our lives and works are strangely universal. Our stories, like our civilisations, come in cycles of expansion and decline, like the seasons of the year, ending in the promise of rebirth and new beginnings. And looking at our history, with its dark ages, its terrible wars, its fallen kings, forgotten gods, and ruined empires, it’s easy to see, with hindsight, that what may have once seemed like the end of the world was only the end of another cycle.

It’s an idea I’ve used in my fantasy books, Runemarks and Runelight, and more recently explored in The Gospel of Loki. We need not look to Ragnarók. The doom of the gods has come and gone, if not quite as literally as the seeress predicted. Odin and his entourage have been deposed in favour of new gods, new religions. And yet human nature has not changed as much. We still have the same fundamental concerns. We look to the skies with anxiety. We’re not afraid of demon wolves swallowing the Sun and Moon, but we are conscious of pollution, and smog, and of the hole in the ozone layer. The monsters we see destroying the world are not frost-giants, but giant corporations. The metaphor has extended itself to suit the world we live in. Which is maybe why those Norse myths are still so alive among us: we recognise, not a literal world picture, but a very human message passed down from another age; a message of shared humanity, of hopes and fears and striving and of a very human desire to tell the story of their world to a new generation. After all, myths or gospel, isn’t that what stories are for?

The Gospel of Loki, by Joanne Harris, is published on 13 February by Gollancz, £14.99