Grove of Sparks

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Friday, June 19, 2020.

Based on a number of allusions strewn throughout the inscription, the researchers believe that Vamoth perished so he could join the army of the chief Norse god, Odin, in Ragnarok, the apocalyptic battle pitting the Viking gods against their enemies, the giants. In one section, the researchers have detected a reference to one of the chief giants, the monstrous wolf Fenrir, swallowing the sun, the act that sets Ragnarok in motion. Another section describes Fenrir facing off against 20 kings—members of Odin’s army—on the Grove of Sparks, a name for the Ragnarok battlefield. And, near the end of the inscription, the team has gleaned a reference to Odin’s son Vitharr, who vanquishes Fenrir after the creature kills his father. Only then can the sun’s daughter take her mother’s place in the sky.[1]

Every classic mythology, which is to say a mythology (including religion) with an historical basis of full functionality that allows for robust mythography and comparative study, has its unique strength. In Indian Asia, the rich Hindu pantheon expresses a thrilling sensuality and psychological vividness. In the Far East, an abiding sense of the eternal and the eminence and immanence[2] of Nature establishes a compelling spiritual refuge. The graceful, perpetually modern imagery and unsurpassed architectural majesty of Ancient Egypt evokes a spellbinding devotion to the magic of resurrection, to an afterlife that celebrates the delights of this one. Classical Greek mythology communicates our proximity and camaraderie with the Gods, their all too human foibles and failings and our shared cosmic predicament. Christianity, Islam and Judaism seek refuge in a personal relationship with a single omniscient, omnipotent Divinity, the eternity of our soul and the linearity of time which promises a coming salvation.

Then, within or aside from the general headings of Oriental and Occidental mythology, exists a panoply of compelling mythological sub-genres from the so-called prehistoric and pre-literate – equatorial, arctic, Meso-American, Northwest Coast, et al. – to uniquely localized and indigenous modern iterations. All share the four functions identified by J. Campbell, namely:

  • a source of awe
  • a cosmology that supports that awe
  • a sociology that establishes morality/ethics
  • a pedagogical, supporting psychology.

Moreover, all fully functional mythologies express or are expressed by way of affecting imagery – I agree wholeheartedly with Campbell when he suggests that there is no mythology without an image. Likewise, I agree with Campbell that mythology encompasses all the contemplative traditions, including so-called religion, the term currently in vogue, for whatever reason, among scholars even when they discuss preliterate and prehistoric evidence for myth.

Religion implies liturgy and worship, a kind of organized, otherwise structured administration of communal, contemplative tradition developed over many centuries or on the spot, but always limiting in the manner of its rigid identity, its rules and requirements; the idea of its unique, special access to the truth. I am a Catholic,” we declare, or, “I am a Buddhist.” Myth and mythology rather requires only the four functions to enable its relevance and legitimacy in contemplative or otherwise spiritual terms. To refer to a paleolithic image – so-called cave art, for instance – as religious is a silly abuse of the language. And today, if you consider yourself spiritual-but-not-religious, for example, you are nonetheless expressing a mythology, even if your expression of the four functions is utterly unique to you.

Years ago I presented a handful of guest lectures on the topic of mythology at a local community college and as a one-page study aid I developed the following chart in which I seek to capture key mythological themes, relevant historical conditions, a timeline and the idea that mythology can be thus described as a sheltering sky (to borrow from Paul Bowles) encompassing all contemplative traditions:

But back to the Norse. What is the strength of the Norse mythology with which I introduced today’s post? I point to its lyrical grandeur that in translation, at least, reliably communicates a preternaturally striking cosmic drama; a weighty, fearsome, ringing, narrative majesty and operatic spectacularity. One need only reference the Prose Edda, for instance, the famous Icelandic work from the thirteenth century attributed to Snorri Sturluson as proof. But what about something considerably earlier? Well, within the latest issue of Archaeology appears the so-called emperor of runestones, a monolith or rök located in Sweden and inscribed perhaps in 800 A.D. This link provides an interesting video and audio reading with text translation: https://www.archaeology.org/exclusives?slg=rok-runestone-reading

[1] Daniel Weiss, “The Emperor of Stones,” Archaeology, July/August 2020, p.9.

[2] The doctrine that the divine is manifested in the material world, hence, within ourselves.