Odin versus Loki

In today's Commentary magazine, John Podheretz poses seriously:
Trump, I’ve often said, is a manifestation of Loki, the god of misrule. Misrule breeds chaos. Chaos breeds violence.
This reminds me of a quote that Joel Leggett sent me a week ago, which I have been pondering. It is from C. S. Lewis.
"What business have people who call might right to worship Odin? The whole point about Odin was that he had the right but not the might. The point about Norse religion was that it alone of all mythologies told men to serve gods who were admittedly fighting with their backs to the wall and would certainly be defeated in the end. 'I am off to die with Odin' said the rover in Stevenson's fable, thus proving that Stevenson understood something about the Nordic spirit which (Nazi) Germany has never been able to understand at all. The gods will fall. The wisdom of Odin, the humourous courage of Thor (Thor was something of a Yorkshireman) and the beauty of Balder, will all be smashed eventually by the realpolitik of the stupid giants and misshapen trolls. But that does not in the least alter the allegiance of any free man. Hence, as we should expect, real Germanic poetry is all about heroic stands, and fighting against hopeless odds."
Odin is an interesting figure. Many of the Norse Gods have clear echoes in Greek or Roman gods, or (especially in the case of Thor) in Irish gods. They aren't quite the same, but the figures are recognizably similar. Odin, and the Germanic Woden from which the Norse got the name, is in many ways unique.

Tacitus thought Woden was the Germanic Mercury/Hermes, but that is not quite right. They are alike in that they are gods concerned with transitions over boundaries between worlds. Both are concerned with poetry and literature. But Odin is not a messenger god. He is a god of nobility of the soul. He is the patron of kings and warriors who aspire to a glorious life and a glorious death. The boundary they most wish to cross is into Valhalla. Odin inspires poetic flights, but like Bacchus rather than like Hermes: with the intoxicating "mead of poetry," which intensifies access to knowledge and allows wisdom to flow like honey wine.

And Odin searches always for wisdom, even through great personal suffering. When Ares is speared in the Iliad, his suffering does not produce anything glorious like wisdom: if anything, he slinks off to Olympus to sulk. Not Odin, who seeks out suffering for its mysteries and the wisdom to be gained.
Wounded I hung on a wind-swept gallows
For nine long nights,
Pierced by a spear, pledged to Odin,
Offered, myself to myself
The wisest know not from whence spring
The roots of that ancient rood.
They gave me no bread,
They gave me no mead,
I looked down;
With a loud cry
I took up runes;
From that tree I fell.

Nine lays of power
I learned from the famous Bolthor, Bestla' s father:
He poured me a draught of precious mead,
Mixed with magic Odrerir.

Waxed and throve well;
Word from word gave words to me,
Deed from deed gave deeds to me....

The Wise One has spoken words in the hall,
Needful for men to know,
Unneedful for trolls to know:

Hail to the speaker,
Hail to the knower,
Joy to him who has understood,
Delight to those who have listened.
It is strange to see the Norse gods invoked in our politics today. They have not been invoked in this way in a long time. I wonder what it means.

It is easy to choose between Odin and Loki, between seeking honorable wisdom at personal cost versus seeking power without the wisdom to use it well. It is better to die well than to live without honor. It is better to suffer in wisdom than to play in wickedness. The noble of soul know this.

What Tolkien added to the Norse mythology was a Christian concept: that the noble of soul, fighting with their backs against the wall, against certain doom, might be aided suddenly from the root of the world. Odin was written into the Lord of the Rings as Gandalf. He fought the Balrog and fell into darkness, only to be purified. Denethor was driven to despair by the strength of Mordor, and threw himself into fire. Gandalf led the armies against Mordor in the face of despair, only to see a miracle worked by suffering against strength.

We must do our duty, and hope. We ought to seek wisdom, but not trust too much in it. The world is bigger and wiser than we, and its author moves it in ways we do not understand. Strangely enough, Odin teaches this too, in the Havamal:
It is best for man to be middle-wise,
Not over cunning and clever:
The fairest life is led by those
Who are deft at all they do.
It is best for man to be middle-wise,
Not over cunning and clever:
No man is able to know his future,
So let him sleep in peace.

It is best for man to be middle-wise,
Not over cunning and clever:
The learned man whose lore is deep
Is seldom happy at heart.


Anonymous said...

Somewhere in my books is a German literature book describing the first Christian writings translated into Old German. One of the monks/missionaries argued that they needed to trim out Kings and Chronicles, because the Germans needed no encouragement to fight. :)

If you really read the lyrics to "Ein Feste Burg" even in English, there is a lot of Odin and ferocious defense of the right under the formal, polished phrases. But I'm also partial to "Once to Every Man and Nation," which has been deemed theologically incorrect.


Tom said...

I thought it was obvious that Obama was Loki's man. Podheretz's description quoted in the OP fits him perfectly.

Eric Blair said...

Again, I'm not willing to take any of these columnists at their word. Podheretez's knowledge of the Norse gods was probably got from the last Avenger's movie, and he's basically excusing the Bernie brownshirts, who in classic NSDAP style, were intent on breaking up Trump's rally with violence.

So no. He can dra til helvete.

Grim said...

Podheretez's knowledge of the Norse gods was probably got from the last Avenger's movie, and...


Joel Leggett said...

Very well said Grim. Great post. It's the sort of thing we need to read in these darkening days. I will share it widely.

Lars Walker said...

I could quibble about Odin, who was originally a darker and more amoral figure than we generally see in the mythology books. But I get your point, and it's a good one.

Ymar Sakar said...

Now instead of putting a king on the US Throne, now Americans are talking about putting gods there...