Heh. This one is sure to get me in trouble with some folk.
A lot of people are pretty convinced that the gods look like something out of Marvel, Wagner’s Opera, or <name your preference here>. Some followers of northern paganism, including Asatru, Heathenry, and even Odinism, are constantly insisting that the gods are at least human looking and have physical forms that look like…well, like white people. I’m going to drive a truck right over that belief.
Why the Gods Appear Human — Warning UPG Ahead!
It’s laughable to think that the gods are human. They can take human-like forms, but they certainly aren’t human any more than the natural elements being human. Because they’re Norse and Germanic gods, it’s not surprising that to most people they look, well…, like something out of Lord of the Rings. This, I suspect, is more because of cultural biases rather than actually what the gods look like or are. They relate to us in ways we can easily accept. If that means looking like an old guy like Gandalf the Grey with an eyepatch and two ravens on his shoulders, then that’s what Odin will look like. We have a cultural understanding what Odin is going to look like through our stories. Odin may look differently to another culture. In fact, unless he had a specific reason to look like Gandalf, he would look like whatever was appropriate to the culture of whom he spoke to. If that means that he needs to show up as Christ, an African American, or a fruit cake to tell us something, that’s probably what he’d do. At least, that has been my experience with Odin. As usual, Your Mileage May Vary (YMMV), and if you actually deal with the gods, you may have different experiences.
What are the Gods, Exactly?
I tend to think of the gods as natural entities and metaphors for what we see in nature. Their power is over certain natural phenomena. I’m not quite pantheistic, but I think I can make a case for it. But that’s another subject for another time. When we look at all the gods, they all have natural phenomena associated with them. Thor with thunder springs to mind, but there are certainly others. Sif with the earth and harvest. Freyr with male sexuality, fertility, and agriculture. Tyr with laws and the heavens. Odin with creation. Some, like Frigg, goddess of marriage and the household, are aimed more toward human constructs, but given they are universal, we can think of them as natural.
So, are the gods their elements? I suspect they are, or at least strongly linked. I know they’re not human or in human form, but I suspect they can manifest themselves in whatever manner they need to be.
Where are the Gods?
There’s been some debate as to whether a particular god is only in Northern Europe, or whether Northern Paganism extends beyond the lands whence they came. If we look at the actual roots of Norse Paganism, we can see it actually evolved from Proto-Indo-European Paganism. And that evolved from nostratic paganism.
I’ve shown this evolutionary tree of religion before, but I want to talk about nostratic paganism for a moment. As far as I know — and people can certainly point me in better directions — there isn’t really a lot of evidence concerning what people actually believed some 17,000 years ago. We know people believed in an afterlife and certainly gods to worship and sacrifice to, but given our ancestors didn’t have a written language then, we really don’t know exactly what tribe worshiped what. And while we know that our ancestors made the jump from animism to paganism, we don’t really know when exactly or how. We do know that our ancestors probably worshiped a set of gods because later iterations seem to suggest they came from one root. So, we’re looking at the same gods being worshiped (or similar gods being worshiped) across various cultures. Yes, the names change, and some of the roles change, but we see similarity between gods of various pantheons.
It seems unlikely that if we discovered our gods during the nostratic paganism times that our gods would be rooted in just one geographic location. And if they were in one location, we’d probably be looking more south than north. But this doesn’t make sense. Natural phenomena doesn’t change simply because it’s in another region. Hence, I think it’s unlikely we’re dealing with different gods.
Making the Case with Thor
Let’s take Thor and lightning (and thunder). I use Thor as an example because he’s easily understood and thunder gods exist damn near everywhere. Thor as a thunder god is one of our most powerful and revered gods, and yet, he has names throughout different cultures. But lightning is lightning, and thunder is thunder. While lightning may come in various shapes, it’s pretty much the same thing. I suppose you could argue that there is ball lightning, volcanic lightning, more violent thunderstorms with lightning, and even sprites, but I’d argue that it’s the same thing, just behaving differently according to its environments. Look at lightning and you’ll see pretty much the same phenomena.
If we argue that the thunder gods are different in the Western hemisphere than the Eastern hemisphere, then we should see marked differences in the thunder and lightning in the United States than in Asia or Europe or Africa. But we don’t. We see that the behavior is the same. The thunder and lightning follow the same behaviors as put forth by natural laws (physics aka Tyr). So, Thor is Thor, whether he is called Perun, Zeus, or the Thunderbird. It does, however, make me wonder if Thor is an Earth phenomena or whether he governs all lightning. No, I haven’t a UPG on that yet, but I suspect Thor isn’t tied to just our little rock.
Physics, Ethics of Reciprocity, and Tyr
We also see that the natural laws extend well past the borders of northern Europe. If Tyr’s laws didn’t
exist everywhere in our Universe, we’d be in a terrible mess. Imagine if gravity existed only in some parts of the world and not in others. That alone would be a scary thought because there wouldn’t be attraction between masses that would hold them together. Or energy isn’t what we understand it is. Or anything that we have come to learn about the universe suddenly disappears. There would be places on Earth where everything and anything goes. Or maybe gigantic rifts in space time because there are pockets of things that don’t follow Tyr’s laws.
On the human side, I suppose one could argue that Tyr doesn’t exist in all places as the embodiment of humankind’s laws. And you might have a case. And yet, we see at a basic level other religions point to codes of conduct that they approve of. “Golden Rules” if you want to take the Christian term, or Ethics of Reciprocity.
Do all cultures have Ethics of Reciprocity? I suspect so in some form. Whether they’re followed is iffy — humans aren’t exactly the best when it comes to doing the right thing.
So, there you have it, my take on the gods.