Heathen Holiness: Padraic Colum’s Nordic Gods and Heroes

Winter is the season for readers. Bitter cold and polar darkness drive people beneath quilts and by hearthsides where the book is a quintessential commodity and companion, its pages aglow in the blended light of fire and frost. Whether engaged silently or aloud, a wintry volume should occupy every end-table in rooms where chilling temperatures are challenged. And what better tales for such seasons and scenes than those hearkening from the northern climes of everlasting ice and snow, where, once upon a time, full-bearded, fur-clad, broad-browed heroes bristling with brutal weapons stalked the sunless glaciers and sailed the frigid seas with their dying gods? The Icelandic myths of the Elder Edda echo through our cultural consciousness even now, from the days of the week to Marvel comics, and Irish folklorist Padraic Colum’s collection Nordic Gods and Heroes presents in its stylized yet straightforward retelling something that can be called a heathen holiness—a hibernating purity waiting to awaken more fully from frozen, benighted bondage to new life and light.

There exists in some Christian corners a frosty attitude towards the tales of antiquity—an attitude that would pass for Christian conservatism or traditionalism but is really Christian exclusivism. “Why,” those in these corners ask, “should anyone waste time over pagan tales when we live in a Christian age? Is it not better to be immersed in the lives of saints instead of the legends of heathens?” The wisdom of the ages is, however, the bedrock of Christian culture. The truth has ever been true, and so shall it always be, and those embers of truth that the ancients found and fanned, sparked the flame of the true Faith.

Even the pagan knew that he belonged to two worlds, the material and the immaterial, being himself body and soul. Although the spiritual world was largely hidden from him in his unredeemed and fallen state, he, as a child of that spiritual realm, was not satisfied with life isolated from beings greater than he. From this came the hunger for things holy, a longing to know the ultimate realities of life and death, of immortality. So, as man has ever done, he conjured up a catalogue of poetic figures and expressions to help provide a context whereby he might judge things beyond his ken. Though arising from heathen times, the myths of men, rooted in his mystical sensitivity, are nonetheless hunting after the holy, and the mythology of the Norsemen is no exception.

With great poise and poignancy, Padraic Colum begins his Nordic compendium with the end, with the Day of Ragnarök, the Twilight of the Gods, the end of the age of mortal heroes and mortal gods. By thus beginning with the end, Colum, master storyteller that he is, casts the pall of inevitable doom over all that is to be told, giving a taste of Scandinavian-Germanic-Anglo-Saxon fatalism. In that end which begins and informs all that came before it chronologically and after it in sequentially, the Fimbul Winter raged with wolf and wind while starving men slaughtered each other over scraps. Garm the Bloody Hound barked beneath the hill in Gnipa’s Cave, while Nidhögg the Dragon gnawed the root of Ygdrassil, the World Tree.

Then it was that the Giants launched Naglfar out of Jötenheim, the great warship made from the teeth and toenails of the dead as the witches writhed in Jarnvid, the Iron Wood. The Cock of Hel crowed. The Riders of Muspelheim cascaded in fire over the fog and frost of Niflheim. Shivering gods rode out of Asgard to die and show that the worth of life is judged in death. Then loud groaned the hinges of Valhalla’s five hundred doors and Valkyries descended screaming with the Einherjar, riding the thunderhead. Then Thor’s hammer, Miölnir, struck Jörmungand the Serpent. One-eyed Odin cast his spear, Gungnir. Loki and Heimdall slew one another as Bifröst the Rainbow Bridge cracked and collapsed. The gods, the Æsir, drank down their death like mead as heaven burned above the frigid earth and Surtur’s sword flashed. Wolves devoured the sun and moon and icy shadows reigned on Vigard Plain as all were swallowed in the broken jaws of Fenrir.

In this night, a dawn burst. A new earth shook off the ashes of the old. A new sun and new moon rose who were not chased by wolves. A new heaven opened its shimmering gates. A man and woman awoke from sleep and found the tablets where was written the deeds of the heroes and gods who had lived and died, securing for these two and their offspring the hope to conquer the evil that conquered in the age that was. For it was in the age that was that the gods toiled and were tried even unto their death, plagued by the grotesque Giants, and by Loki the doer of good and the doer of evil, and by the glittering hoards that corrupt. They resisted old age with the golden apples of Iduna. They prepared themselves for the Day of Ragnarök with wonder weapons forged by the Dwarves in the smithies of Svartheim. They were consoled in the Peace Stead by Baldur the Beautiful. They fought against injustice. They struggled to fend off care and foreboding. They filled Valhalla, the Hall of Heroes, with the brave. They prepared the pagan world for the fulness of truth.

Few things confirm the Holy Faith as splendidly as the symbolic conformance of heathen folklore, when pagan tales resonate and corroborate the principles and precepts of divine revelation. The Norse tales have their dramatic share of these consonances, with an artistic creation, a fall from grace, a great flood, end times, and, what is perhaps the most striking, a Christological pattern that is unique in mythology.

When All Father Odin learns that the whispers of Ragnarök are indeed true and that its terrors are imminent, he determines to change his knowledge into wisdom in order to share it with the men of Midgard and ensure that the tales that will be told of their ill-fated age will be worth the telling, being laden with the wisdom he would bring to the ways of men. In order to do this, Odin becomes Vegtam the Wanderer and moves among men as a man. Disguised as Vegtam, Odin suffers much to gain the wisdom of thought, speech, and writing. He plucks out his right eye to drink from Mimir’s Well of Wisdom. He enslaves himself to an evil Giant to gain the Magic Mead, brewed from the blood of Kvasir the Poet. He transfixes himself to the dizzying heights of the World Tree with his own spear and hangs in torment for nine days and nine nights above the nine worlds until the runes of wisdom are given to him.

This one thematic line of heathen myth is remarkably holy in its leaning. Odin is a god who becomes man. Odin is a god who suffers for the sake of mankind, and even a type of crucifixion, in order to bestow wisdom. Odin is a god who dies for the salvation of future ages. In these ways, Odin serves as a mysterious prefigurement of the Christ, a heathen symbol longing for a holiness not yet known, but already being prepared for in pre-Christian imaginations and intellects. Padraic Colum’s stalwart presentation of these sagas is alive with this ancient intuition, this instinct for the divine. Rough and rude as these myths often are, they shine with something supernatural, with that profound providence that did not allow man to lose sight of the truth even when he fell from the face of God. It was this quality, perhaps, that made these mythical traditions rich inspiration to artists and authors like Wagner, Rackham, Chesterton, Tolkien, and Colum.

To this day, despite all preparation and prayer, the world is constantly coming to an end. So it is, and so it was, and so is there always cause for anxiety. The wall around Asgard was built by a trick. The gods were robbed of their innocence. The wisdom of Odin did not save the men of Midgard from greed and murder. Baldur was condemned to Hela’s Habitation. Loki and Angerboda bred beasts that devoured and withered all that was beautiful. Sigurd lost the love of Brynhild the Battle Maiden. The stars fell and all was shattered—but in losing everything, everything stood to be gained. For in dying well when all hope was lost, the gods and heroes of the Nordic cycle secured by their example a hope for the future.

Nordic Gods and Heroes is a book that reminds us of our human heritage and destiny, which is essentially what makes these stories participate in a complete Christian worldview. In its characters and episodes are the ancient undertones of a reality that has, since its advent, shaken the world for the last two thousand years. To the Vikings of old, a hero’s death meant the grim reward of Valhalla: the privilege to die again side by side with the gods at Ragnarök; and, over time, that morbid concept broadened to one that made cautious mention of a heaven above Asgard, a heaven not yet known, a heaven called Gimli where Will and Holiness dwell—and where life perhaps had a fighting chance. All this, and so much more, is the providence of God at work in pagan hearts.

The icy sons of Odin died, sang the skalds and the scops, and, in so doing, prepared the way for the dying God of Life. The Norsemen were right: all must die to fulfill life and buried bodies are as seedlings sown, waiting to rise. The pagan gods who died hailed the Cross, though unwittingly, and showed that the Vikings understood, however dimly, that even the gods would suffer pain and death for our sake (a far cry from the lofty and aloof gods of other mythologies, most notably the Greeks). The Nordic gods did not die in vain, and neither are their tales vanity. Far from it. Their death, their story, their mythology once prepared a people for the death of the one true God, and those same stories can do so again during these same winter days. Readers read as they wait out the winter and await the resurrection of light and life. Nordic Gods and Heroes provides the perfect pages for such wintry meditations and a reminder that there is nothing so heathen that God cannot draw out the holy. Just as these lifeless winter nights precede the burgeoning spring, so heathen gods paved roads for holiness, making their telling a mysterious part of salvation history.


*Originally published in Crisis Magazine

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