I avoid myths and mythology for the same reasons I want to read them.
I love the idea of stories that have endured, somehow, for centuries. I love that they give me a glimpse into cultures made foreign not just by geography, but also by time.
But, I also don’t have any context. For me, opening a book of myths often feels like walking into a theater to enjoy a movie that is just about to end.
Neil Gaiman’s book, “Norse Mythology,” never left me feeling lost. Better yet, I didn’t have to slog through endless pages numbered with italicized letters.
Gaiman manages this by introducing “The Players” in two or three short pages, then diving right into the myths of the origins of the world. The myths take the form of short stories sturdy enough to stand alone, but timeless enough to tell a grander, more dangerous tale. Neil Gaiman’s Norse universe expanded organically. All I had to do was watch.
I watched poisoned rivers become huge glaciers. I saw the glaciers melt to reveal an androgynous giant named Ymir, and an enormous cow that licked blocks of ice until it freed Buri, the ancestor of the gods. I saw Odin and his brothers kill Ymir to make the worlds. And then I watched, sometimes laughing, as the gods lived out their charmed lives making mischief.
Norse gods are odd creatures. They love to make wars and to feast. If you kill one, you might be able to use his blood to make mead. If you drink this mead, you might turn into a poet. Also, a murdered god doesn’t always stay dead.
The gods can do extraordinary things, and yet they feel so very human. Take Frigg as an example. She is the wife of Odin, and she walks the whole world to save her favorite son. She makes every beast, every tree, every disease promise never to hurt him. She makes everything in the world promise, everything except mistletoe.
Gods pop up briefly in one story, then again in another. Much like strangers who become friends, the gods become familiar to us through repeated exposure. The first time we meet Hel, Loki’s daughter by a giantess, she is a child. One side of her body is youthful, delicate. The other side wastes eternally – a corpse seven days dead. When we meet her for the last time, she is a woman. Beautiful yet grotesque, she is as fascinating and as complicated as her father.
Loki and Thor and Odin appear the most often. These three comprise the brief section on “The Players” I mentioned. In his introduction, Gaiman laments that we have so few stories left of the other gods. He writes, “It is as if the only tales of the gods and demigods of Greece and Rome that had survived were of the deeds of Theseus and Hercules.”
By the end “Norse Mythology,” I too longed for more stories of beautiful Frey, of sweet Idunn, of the dwarves who invent ships that can fold up into your pocket. I craved not just their presence, but also their perspectives.
Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite story-tellers. His writing is often simple, in a beautiful, aching sort of way. In this book his prose is straightforward. This is quite helpful when you’re sorting through the names, deeds, and relations of supernatural beings you’ve never met.
“Norse Mythology” is a collection of short stories about gods, but it is also an ode to story-telling. Gaiman took something he loved, something people used to love long ago, and he did his best to tell it in a way that might make you love it too. Perhaps these myths will endure a few centuries more.
The gods will entertain and disappoint you. They will break your heart and destroy the world. And then they will show you that existence goes on, with or without them. Or, for that matter, us.