The Meaning in Myth
Unpacking myth is a challenge that confronts many who are new to Heathen and Pagan practice. This process is made more complicated by how many in modern society dismiss Nordic myth as, like most other bodies of myth, nothing more than primitive peoples trying to understand the world around them. This assumption completely misses the point and requires replacement with a different perspective. In truth, the meaning of myth lies in that it is a language for shared understanding. The symbols, metaphors, and narratives of myth convey many layers of meaning, each of which hold their own value. This is especially true of Nordic myth where everything from the language on up is symbolic and a reference to some other element of the now-lost oral culture of these peoples.
This can sound intimidating at first though thankfully it is not as challenging as you may think. Approaching myth as a multi-layered text where many things can be true depending on interpretation is no different from other forms of reading a text. In the case of myth, there are three steps you can employ if this is something that is new or unfamiliar for you. These steps are analyzing the narrative and details of the story itself as it is best known, incorporating the broader context of that story, and then applying any modern perspectives you may have on the topic.
The first and clearest step is assessing what occurs in the narrative. This is the most basic level of any myth and is the foundation all other interpretations should draw on. Next, you should expand your view outward to the broader bodies of work the particular myth is a part of. No myth operates on its own, with all making up a much broader web of tropes and assumptions. You may find it helpful to also consider the lived, social and material conditions of the peoples who produced the myth in question. Finally, you can apply a modern perspective to the material which is informed by the expectations and assumptions already inherent in myth.
Nordic myth also has its own additional quirks which can complicate this process. The most famous of these are kennings, the poetic devices used in the sagas which describe things by making obscure references to particular names, places, objects, or events in the broader world of Nordic myth. Some of these, such as the use of the term, “water of swords” in the Fafnismol, are fairly direct while others, like referring to Thor as the Son of Fjorgyn, require knowing who Fjorgyn is and why this is an important reference. Unpacking the often symbolic, metaphorical language of Nordic myth requires both strong background knowledge and an eye for unpacking text which challenges the reader to consider many possible meanings at once instead of seeking a singular, discernible truth in the words.
The creation of Midgard is an excellent myth for demonstrating how this process can work. To give a brief summary, Midgard was crafted from the body of the great giant Ymir. The Vafthruthnismol, from the Poetic Edda, gives more details such as the gods using Ymir's teeth & bones to make mountains, utilizing their blood to fill the seas, and repurposing Ymir's skull to hold up the sky's edge. They reach their decisions by meeting in a great council which is described in the Voluspo from the Poetic Edda.
At the most surface-level this myth is very straightforward. It is what has been called a “just so story” by folkorists and anthropologists, or a story that explains why something is the way it is. Even so, there is a clear pattern at work in these sources. The gods are crafting an entirely new world from the components and materials that made up the old. Everything that exists came from something else that previously existed.
Moving this story outward to the broader mythic context reveals further dimensions of understanding. This process has happened before Ymir and is predicted to happen again. Well before the age of Ymir and Audumla was the time of Ginnungagap, the Great Void. This era was ended when ice and fire surged forward from the lands of Niflheim and Muspelheim & met in an explosive release of energy which made Ymir possible. The same cycle will also repeat in Ragnarok, when all nine worlds will burn before a new, green world emerges from the ashes of what was. Ymir’s body being used to craft Midgard takes on new significance in this context, reinforcing a core theme that what previously existed can be used to create something new through deliberate, concerted action and that everything which exists was made from something that came before.
A modern reader could then argue this is pattern is one that is present throughout reality as we know it. Everything from the water cycle to decomposition and conception all follows a similar pattern of previously existing material, components, and conditions being used to cause changes and bring forward new forms. Anyone stopping at the surface level, as some less charitable interpretations often do, will never arrive at this place because they often assume the story of a giant’s bones making hills represents a primitive people trying to understand the world, thus implicitly dismissing any deeper possibilities in this material.
It might even be fair to say the Nordic peoples had a similar understanding. Death’s place in creating new life was no mystery to peoples engaged in subsistence farming, hunting, gathering, and limited degrees of regional and long-distance trade. Getting meat, for example, required slaughtering livestock and no part could be wasted. Hides became material for clothing, bones were used for glue, fine tools, and stock for broth, and blood, the most direct representation of life, was given as offerings to the Powers. It would make perfect sense for people living in such conditions to conclude the gods must have done the same when creating the world they lived in.
In conclusion, the truth behind myth is a complex question. What makes myth is true is its status as a tool for conveying meaning and understanding. It is not literal and should not be taken literally. What happens in myth is more than just what is directly represented, it is part of a deeper web of narrative whose truth exists in what is present and how we interpret these things today within that broader context. Finally, the interpretations of myth by modern practitioners are valid because while our conditions have changed, the underlying dynamics and dilemmas have not. The deeper patterns in Nordic myth remain relevant because they are wrestling with similar problems, dilemmas, and problems to what we face today despite our greatly changed material and social circumstances while also providing more compelling, fulfilling answers than are offered by capitalist or Christian myth.