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The attraction of Norse lore, as O'Donoghue remarks in her summary of its development and its adaptation to the modern world, lies in its disrespect for the gods.

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Christianity and Islam have a mortifying reverence for divinities who are, after all, nothing but our inventions, or the projections of our cowardice. At least the gods of Olympus were no better than us, merely longer-lived and more powerful, more easily able to indulge their all too human vices. The Norse myth-makers actually deride their deities: Thor is a stupid blusterer, who in one of the poems collected in the 13th century Edda loses the hammer with which he confects the thunder and has to cross-dress in the feathery togs of the goddess Freyja to get it back.

This is why Wagner took Norse myth as the source for his Ring, which concludes with the twilight of the moribund, powerless gods.

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Wagner's Wotan is a politician compromised by his devious deals; coupling with Erda, he has populated heaven with warrior maidens like Brunnhilde and filled the earth with heroes like Siegmund, but he is merely a progenitor, not a creator. The Rhinemaidens, with whose babbling song the first opera in Wagner's cycle begins, are the source of life and the means of sustaining it, the vital, fertile spirit of nature that precedes religion and will outlive it.

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The Ring treats the saga as a Freudian family romance, which concludes with the destruction of the paternal deity. Wagner named his son after the sword-wielding Siegfried and unwittingly bequeathed a curse to the dynasty that still squabbles over his legacy at Bayreuth. To the fury of other ostracised members of the feuding clan, Siegfried's son Wolfgang's inexperienced daughter Katharina is his favourite to take over the running of the festival: her doting father has nominated her, a little prematurely, as Brunnhilde, the executrix of his wishes.

Wagner's descendants seem unable to hear the warnings propounded by the Ring.

But myths, after all, show how life slavishly and disastrously imitates art. O'Donoghue writes fascinatingly about the perpetuity of the myths.

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From Asgard to Valhalla: The Remarkable History of the Norse Myths by Heather O'Donoghue

Heather O'Donoghue considers the wider contexts of Norse mythology, including its origins, medieval expression and reception in post-medieval societies right up to the present. From Asgard to Valhalla is a book that will intrigue and delight anyone with an interest in how the Norse myths have so profoundly shaped the western cultural heritage.


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Includes delivery to Finland Out of stock Notify me when available Submit. Volume 48 , Issue 5. The full text of this article hosted at iucr.

From Asgard to Valhalla: The Remarkable History of the Norse Myths

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