I’ve been reading Graham Hancock’s unnecessarily lengthy tome Fingerprints of the Gods (hey Graham, if I wanted to read a travelogue, I’d’ve bought a travelogue: get to the point). It’s been slow going because every couple of sentences, my eyeballs roll into the back of my skull, and I have to wait for them to return to their normal position before continuing.
As I was reading, I began to get an idea for a blog post: I would write a parody in which I traced suspicious parallels between Mesopotamian, Mesoamerican and Old Norse mythology. Perhaps I’d begin with Hancock’s discussion of the Babylonian god Marduk‘s conquest of the chaos monster Tiamat:
…[A] great plan of world creation began to take shape in his mind. His first move was to split Tiamat’s skull and cut her arteries. Then he broke her into two parts “like a dried fish,” using one half to roof the heavens and the other to surface the earth. From her breasts he made mountains, from her spittle, clouds, and he directed the rivers Tigris and Euphrates to flow from her eyes. (Hancock p. 144. Hancock’s source is the New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology, pp. 60)
He compares Marduk to Quetzalcoatl, who
in his incarnation as the creator deity, took the role of Marduk while the part of Tiamat was played by Cipactli, the “Great Earth Monster.” Quetzalcoatl seized Cipactli’s limbs “as she swam in the primeval waters and wrenched her body in half, one part forming the sky and the other the earth.” From her hair and skin he created grass, flowers and herbs; “from her eyes, wells and springs; from her shoulders, mountains.” (Hancock p. 144. Hancock’s sources are Adela Fernandez, Pre-Hispanic Gods of Mexico, p. 59 and Inga Glendinnen, Aztecs, p. 177)
Well, one can hardly miss the parallels to Ymir, the primordial giant in Old Norse Mythology. Ymir was formed in the thawing ice of Ginnungagap, the great void that lay between the extreme heat of Muspelheim and the extreme cold of Niflheim. A male and female were formed from the sweat of Ymir’s left armpit, and one of his legs sired a son on the other. These were the first frost giants (Snorri Sturluson, Poetic Edda, Gylfaginning, ch. 5). Odin and his brothers Vili and Ve killed Ymir:
When he fell, so much blood gushed from his wounds that with it they drowned all the race of the frost giants except for one who escaped with his household. The giants call that one Bergelmir. He, together with his wife, climbed up on to his wooden box, and there they kept themselves safe. From them come the races of the frost giants….” (Snorri, Gylfaginning, ch. 7)
ZOMG! A flood that destroyed an entire race, except for just enough individuals to replenish the race! Hancock goes on and on about flood stories. It doesn’t really matter how dissimilar they are. If they involve floods (and sometimes even if they don’t), they have to be related in some way. But wait, there’s more! After killing Ymir, Odin and his brothers created the world using bits of his body:
They took Ymir and they moved him into the middle of Ginnungagap and made from him the world. From his blood they made the sea and the lakes. The earth was fashioned from the flesh, and mountain cliffs from the bones. They made stones and gravel from the teeth, the molars and those bones that were broken.
…With the blood that gushed freely from the wounds, they made the sea, and by fashioning that sea around, they belted and fastened the earth. Most men would think it impossible to cross over this water.
…They also took his skull and from it made the sky. They raised it over the earth and under each of the four corners they placed a dwarf.
…[The gods built a fortress wall to protect the world from the giants.] As material for the wall, they used the eyelashes of the giant Ymir and called this stronghold Midgard…. They took his brain, threw it up into the air, and from it they made the clouds. (Snorri, Gylfaginning, ch. 8 )
In my parody, I was going to ask a lot of rhetorical questions that began “Is it simply a coincidence that…?” and “Or is it perhaps possible that…?” Then I’d note the big fuss Hancock makes over Mesoamerican gods who are described as white and mention all the works of art that he identifies as “clearly” representing bearded Caucasians. Heck, you can’t get much whiter than Scandinavians and still have melanin, and their gods are generally depicted as bearded. Finally, I was going to mention the Mayan god Votan, whom Hancock describes as “pale-skinned, bearded and wearing a long robe” (p. 103). Hey, Wotan/Woden/Odin/Oðinn was pale-skinned and bearded and often wore a cloak. If only this Votan fella was one-eyed. Could this possibly be a coincidence? (yes, yes it could).
I was saddened–for many reasons–to learn that people have seriously made this argument (see here as well as Votan link above). So, I plowed on with my reading, when, lo, I came across the following in a chapter called “The Many Masks of the Apocalypse:”
There is one ancient culture that perhaps preserves more vivid memories in its myths than any other; that of the so-called Teutonic tribes of Germany and Scandinavia, a culture best remembered through the songs of the Norse scalds and sages. The stories those songs retell have their roots in a past which may be much older than scholars imagine and which combine familiar images with strange symbolic devices and allegorical language to recall a cataclysm of awesome magnitude. (Hancock, p. 204)
Yay! Hancock made the Norse connection! I’m not sure why he thinks that the roots of Old Norse mythology may be much older than scholars imagine, except that he thinks ALL old cultures are somehow much older than we imagine. In a lengthy indented quotation, Hancock describes a Norse apocalypse in which he sees similarities to Mesoamerican, and ancient Iranian stories, among many others. All these stories involve cold and dark. In the Norse version he recounts, a giantess gives birth to a brood of wolves sired by the giant wolf Fenrir, son of Loki. One of the wolves devours the sun. The disappearance of the sun brings about a period of intense cold and brutality (known as fimbulvetr, awful or great winter). Fenrir escapes from his bonds. The world tree Yggdrasil is shaken violently; mountains split. “Abandoned by the gods, men were driven from their hearths and the human race was swept from the surface of the earth. The earth itself was beginning to lose its shape. Already the stars were coming adrift from the sky and falling into the gaping void” (Larousse, p. 279 qtd. in Hancock, p. 205). The fire giant Surt sets the earth alight; then the seas and rivers overflow; however, an undisclosed number of people survive, enclosed within Yggdrasil. They are the progenitors of a new race of men.
Now, in reading Hancock, I’ve found some odd things about the way he uses and cites sources. Of course, many of his sources are of an extremely dubious nature (Velikovsky and Sitchin, to name two). But one thing that concerns me is that when he’s recounting mythology, he often does not cite primary sources (or translations of primary sources). In some cases, I suppose, the primary sources may not be accessible, or they may not have been translated into English. But in some cases, for one indented quote, he will name more than one source, at least one of which is not a primary source. This has led me to suspect that he is picking and choosing information that fits his ideas. His presentation of the Norse material confirmed my suspicions. Both the Poetic and Prose Eddas have been translated into English several times and are easily accessible. Hancock does not quote from a translation. He again quotes from the New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology. And I found the quotation odd in a number of ways. For one thing, there are some bits I don’t remember–for instance the dwarfs trying to find entrances to their underground dwellings–but perhaps I just missed or forgot those bits.
Larousse is available for free online. In consulting it, I noticed that Hancock has altered wordings here and there (or perhaps there is some variation in versions of Larousse: his page numbers don’t match mine, either). These alterations are trivial. A much bigger problem is that Hancock has omitted large chunks of the story without using ellipses. The story Hancock is recounting is that of Ragnarok, the doom of the gods. What Hancock has omitted from the story is…the doom of the gods. He doesn’t mention Odin, Thor, Frey, Tyr or Heimdall. He doesn’t even mention Loki who is the leader of the “bad guys” and the father or ancestor of some of the monsters (Fenrir and the other wolves and Hel, goddess of the underworld).
That’s a hell of an omission. Now, it could be argued that he left out those bits to save space, and it’s the other elements, the ones that relate to the fate of the sun and the earth, etc., that are most pertinent to the discussion. I don’t buy it. I think it allows him to skew the story. He follows the quotation with the comment, “The new world this Teutonic myth announces is our own” (p. 205). This statement is simply untrue. The events described haven’t happened yet. While Larousse recounts the story in the past tense, Snorri Sturluson uses the present tense in the Prose Edda. Vǫluspá (the Prophecy of the Seeress), from the Poetic Edda, tells the story partly in the present tense, but it is clear that it describes events that have not yet occurred, since the seeress is addressing Odin, who is still alive (his death is foretold in the poem). Hancock adds: “Needless to say, like the Fifth Sun of the Aztecs and the Maya, it was created long ago and is new no longer” (p. 205). Again, this is not true. Ragnarok doesn’t parallel the beginning of the Fifth Sun, the beginning of the present age. From Hancock’s point of view, it would fit with December 23, 2012, the catastrophic end of an age (again, according to Hancock’s view).
This is some impressive cherry-picking. The story of Ragnarok is not obscure. It always refers to a future apocalyptic event. Now, granted, since the stories were told or recorded by Christians, one could argue that the Teutonic gods had died, but not in some world-destroying cataclysm that somehow relates to a real event we don’t seem to know about. They were simply supplanted by a new religion. Most of the myths Hancock discusses do concern disasters that happened in the distant past, but not all myths can be forced to tell the same story.
Hancock, Graham. Fingerprints of the Gods. New York: Crown, 1995.
New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology. Tr. Richard Aldington and Delano Ames. New York: Crescent, 1987. http://www.scribd.com/doc/2176365/New-Larousse-Encyclopedia-of-Mythology.
Snorri Sturluson. The Prose Edda. Tr. Jesse L. Byock. Penguin Classics. London: Penguin, 2005.
Vǫluspá. Poetic Edda. Text with translation by Henry Adams Bellows available here.