Friday, December 1, 2017

Northern Antiquities

Paul Henri Mallet (1730-1807) was a Swiss historian who had a fondness for the Teutonic (Germanic and Scandinavian) tribes of northern Europe.  Their strength, ferocity, and devotion to total liberty eventually enabled them to reduce the Roman Empire into a bloody blotch of road kill.  Mallet had no fondness whatsoever for the corpulent, decadent, oppressive Romans <spit!> and their legions of slaves.  The Teutonic tribes enjoyed a life of magnificent freedom.  Listen:

“They were free because they inhabited an uncultivated country, rude forests and mountains; and liberty is the sole treasure of an indigent people; …and he who possesses little defends it easily.  They were free because they were ignorant of those pleasures, often so dearly bought, which render the protection of a powerful master necessary.  They were free because hunters and shepherds, who wander about in woods through inclination or necessity, are not so easily oppressed as the timorous inhabitants of enclosed towns… and because a wandering people, if deprived of their liberty in one place, easily find it in another, as well as their sustenance.  Lastly, they were free because, knowing not the use of money, there could not be employed against them that instrument of slavery and corruption, which enables the ambitious to collect and distribute at will the signs of riches.”

The second great achievement of the Teutonic tribes, according to Mallet, was eventually abandoning their demonic indigenous spirituality and converting to the one, and only, non-demonic religion, that was dedicated to the worship of a volatile Middle Eastern sky deity.  In Northern Antiquities, Mallet tried to sum up what was known about these tribes prior to conversion.  It provided a window between the early Roman observers, Julius Caesar (51 B.C.) and Caius Cornelius Tacitus (A.D. 98), and the later Christian historians, like Adam of Bremen (1076), Saxo Grammaticus (born about 1150), and Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241).  He also cited a number of less famous sources, now obscure, which help make his book unique, but not flawless.

Twenty centuries ago, Tacitus described the wholesome, old fashioned animism of the German tribes.  “They conceive it unworthy of the grandeur of celestial beings to confine their deities within walls, or to represent them under a human similitude: woods and groves are their temples; and they affix names of divinity to that secret power, which they behold with the eye of adoration alone.”  In the pagan era, northern Europe was still largely covered with a vast primordial forest.  If you wanted to travel, you used a boat.

Unlike modern multinational religions, in Teutonic spirituality, female deities played prominent roles, and the living natural world was sacred.  Odin’s companions were ravens and wolves.  Mallet wrote, “The earth, the water, the fire, the air, the sun, moon, and stars had each their respective divinity.  The trees, forests, rivers, mountains, rocks, winds, thunder and tempests had the same; and merited on that score a religious worship, which, at first, could not be directed to the visible object, but to the intelligence with which it was animated.”

A thousand years later, near the end of the pagan era, their deities had become humanized — wise, crazy, loving, gullible, brutal, lusty, fickle, and so on.  The pantheon of deities was patriarchal, headed by Odin, the All Father.  By now, the Indo-European influences were unmistakable.  Indo-Europeans were a culture from eastern lands that spread across the west, leaving a pattern of closely related patriarchal pantheons.  They spread from Greece (Zeus), to Rome (Jupiter), Germany (Wotan), and Scandinavia (Odin).  Half of humankind today speaks Indo-European languages, including almost all modern European languages.

Tuesday is Tyr’s day, honoring the war god.  Wednesday is Odin’s day (Wotan’s day), dedicated to the shaman, poet, magician, singer, and chief war god.  His wife Frigga was Mother Earth; the Saxons called her Ostara (Easter).  Thursday is Thor’s day, for the red haired, skull crushing thunder god.  Friday is the day of Freyja, the goddess of love.  The winter solstice was the shortest day of the year, Mother Night.  This was the time of the Jul feast (Yule), a celebration of Frey, the sun, with hope that the coming year would be bountiful.  Today Yule time has become a surreal marketing holiday.

In Denmark, every nine years, a ceremony was held in January.  “The Danes flock together in crowds, and offer to their gods ninety-nine men, as many horses, dogs, and cocks, with the certain hope of appeasing the gods by these victims.”  A similar ceremony was held in Uppsala, Sweden.  After the sacrificial humans and animals were killed, and their blood drained, their bodies were hung from trees in a nearby sacred grove dedicated to Odin.

From the perspective of ecological sustainability, the humanization of deities activates flashing red warning lights – it is not a characteristic of sustainable cultures.  Human supremacy is a standard symptom of self-destructive societies (see Jensen and Livingston).  Notions of superiority were also inspired by the domestication of plants and animals, which radically reconfigured ecosystems solely for the benefit of humans (see Scott and Diamond).  Finally, the northern tribes waged war with iron weapons and, as every school child knows, metal-making consumes nonrenewable resources, a habit that often leads to addiction and overdose.

In what is now France, the Gauls were farmers living in permanent villages and towns.  They were heavily dependent on domesticated plants.  To the east, across the Rhine, were the Germanic tribes, who were primarily hunters and nomadic herders, raising domesticated cattle and sheep in a wilderness of forests and wetlands.  When threats approached, they packed up and moved.  Their livestock was self-propelled, and capable of feeding themselves.  The Gauls were helpless sitting ducks who could not move their stuff away from danger.  Their granaries were not mobile, and their towns were quite flammable.

Throughout the centuries nomads have enjoyed being parasites on hard working farmers.  The Berber proverb is: “Raiding is our agriculture.”  Tacitus said this about the Germans: “They will much easier be persuaded to attack and reap wounds from an enemy, than to till the ground and wait the produce.  They consider it as an indication of effeminacy and want of courage to gain by the sweat of the brow, what they may acquire at the price of their blood.”

Mallet added the master key to understanding all human history — “The weak had no right to what they could not defend.”  Today, liberals piss and moan about the horrors of capitalism, but capitalists are merely recycling the ancient tactics of nomadic herders, like the Mongols and Huns.  Consumers are their weak and vulnerable prey.

Thus, the Teutonic tribes were warriors, and war was their source of honor, riches, and safety.  It was essential that warriors die a violent death, with their arms in their hands, ideally laughing with their final breath.  Folks who died of disease or old age were sent to a low class afterlife in Niflheim.  Courageous fighters were sent to the premier afterlife in Valhalla, where they would spend eternity in bloody battle.  Every day, they would delight in cutting each other to pieces, and then magically recover, mount their horses, and ride back to the hall of Odin for a night of feasting and oblivion drinking.  Yippee!

Dying in bed was totally shameful.  Iceland and Sweden had ancestral cliffs (ättestup), where the sick and aged plunged to a violent death, to end their lives honorably.  Those too weak to jump were sent to Valhalla by a caring friend smashing their skull with an ancestral club (ätteklubbor).  Stafva Hall in Sweden had annual festivals, with singing and dancing, after which the wobbly geezers, beyond their expiration dates, leaped into the lake far below.

In the Teutonic tribes, women were considered to be equals and companions.  Society could not survive without their hard work.  Germans admitted them to their councils, and consulted with them on the business of the state.  In the north, it was common to meet women who delivered oracular information, cured the worst maladies, assumed whatever shape they wished, raised storms, chained the winds, travelled through the air, and performed every function of the fairy art.  There were ten prophetesses for each prophet.

The book concludes with a happy ending.  Once the freedom loving Teutonic people had finished rubbishing Rome, liberty was restored to Europe, and the victors leaped on the escalator to modernity.  As Mallet was writing in 1750, life was grand.  People and their belongings were now safe and secure.  Fields were filled with laborers.  Numerous cities flourished in peace and prosperity.  Paganism went extinct, and everyone flocked to the new religion, in which believers were promised an eternity in paradise as long as they did not kill, or lie, or steal, or fornicate, or judge others, or hate their enemies, or think blasphemous thoughts, or accumulate wealth.

Mallet, Paul Henri, Northern Antiquities, 1770, Reprint, AMS Press, New York, 1968.

Other sources:

Adam of Bremen, History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen, 1076, Reprint, Columbia University Press, New York, 1959.

Anderson, Rasmus Björn, Norse Mythology: Or the Religion of Our Forefathers..., 1875, Reprint, S. C. Griggs and Company, Chicago, 1884.

Caesar, Julius, The Gallic Wars, London MacMillan, London, 1908.  DOWNLOAD

Grammaticus, Saxo, The First Nine Books of Danish History, 1514, Reprint, David Nutt, London, 1894.  DOWNLOAD

Grimm, Jakob, Teutonic Mythology, 4 vols, 1883, Reprint, Peter Smith, Gloucester, Massachusetts, 1976.  This book provides the most information on Teutonic myth and folklore, but it is difficult to read.  All four volumes can be read at Google Books.

Metzner, Ralph, The Well of Remembrance, Shambhala Publications, Boston, 1994. 

Tacitus, Caius Cornelius, edited by Hadas, Moses, Complete Works of Tacitus, The Modern Library, New York, 1942.  This volume includes Germania.  DOWNLOAD


Anonymous said...

I recently stumbled across Bower and Varki's book and theory on denial

It has completely changed the way I view human behaviour. It may be worth a review as it fits into the theme of this blog in a round about sort of way.

I believe that ultimately the only way of life that is sustainable is hunting and gathering. There is no such thing as a sustainable civilisation and eventually at some indeterminate point in time all of humanity will once again live in the stone age. If course that its an uncomfortable truth so most will deny it to the grave.

What Is Sustainable said...

Hi Anonymous. I agree that civilizations have never been sustainable. Yes, hunting and gathering usually resulted in much lower impacts, but not always (megafauna extinctions). All I can see looking forward is turbulence and change. Mallet’s line describes the core challenge, “The weak had no right to what they could not defend.” Almost no hunter-gatherers remain today, because they were weaker than those who conquered them — and this is a consistent pattern throughout history.

I read a bunch of lengthy reviews of the denial book. I’m not a philosopher or psychologist, and I suck at abstract thinking. I got the impression that the authors — both scientists — consider themselves to be rational, and they struggle to comprehend why humankind tends to behave in remarkably irrational ways, resulting in fabulous destruction. They conclude that “denial” is our fatal flaw.

Humans are so intelligent that we can plan for the future! Except that the world is dying in front of our eyes because our power of foresight is so defective. The book I’m working on now looks at humans as animals. Virtually every other animal species has been on Earth for millions of years, without leaving irreparable scars. What could be more intelligent? All others continue to live as evolution prepared them to live. None screwed around with controlling fire or self-driving cars. None made chipped stone tools to use as artificial fangs and claws.

Cultural evolution enabled powers we should never have had. It accelerated our species beyond the speed limits of our brains. We’ve created a world that is so complex that nobody really understands it. The authors call this “denial.” Maybe “overload” is more accurate. Chimps and bonobos are our closest living relatives, and they demonstrate how to live sustainably for millions of years. This notion makes modern folks scramble for their cell phones, or any other distraction. We live in interesting times!