Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Comparative sacrifice: Or a better version of the Odin v Jesus meme...

I'm sure most of you (well, maybe 12 of the 16) have come across the "Odin v Jesus" meme. Generally it looks something like this:

Funny, but not wholly accurate.
It's been floating around for some time now, and while there are some obvious problems with it: It depicts Thor for one. Two, Jesus never makes a promise to bring an end to "all wicked people", and certainly not within the span of when he was supposed to have lived. Three, Odin also never states that he will bring an "end to all ice giants"; after all, fighting the Jotun was Thor's job, not Odin's. Of course, it is a meme, and I'm sure many a polytheist at least chuckled at it; I certainly did. If nothing else, it provides some means of venting the sort of pent up frustration which comes when one is immersed in a culture where Christianity is the default. By positing that there are other deities mucking about, and not only existing but actually doing things to benefit humanity, it represents, albeit wryly, an alternative to the default setting.

The meme itself has little to do with the rest of this post, but it provides a nice segway into a more thoughtful theological issue; a comparison of the value of a divine being sacrificing themselves to benefit humanity. Further, to make the comparison one which is not simply based on my predisposition to favour polytheism, I'm going to do my best to evaluate the value from within the world view espoused by the narratives, and theological underpinnings of each example of divine sacrifice.


Method of Sacrifice: Crucifixion. Death is caused by asphyxiation, as the weight of the hanging body gradually prevents the diaphragm from functioning. Added to this, he was flogged, had a crown of thorns jammed onto his head, and stabbed by a spear.

Dedication: Jesus is sacrificed to the Christian god. In Christian mythology Jesus is understood to be both the son of the Christian god, and the earthly incarnation of the same god.

Duration: Three days. After which, Jesus resurrects and eventually ascends into heaven.

Lost: The god of the Christians gives up his only son, a perfect, sinless being.

Gained: Humanity is now able to get into a proper relationship with the Christian god, and can enter into an eternal paradise upon death.

I'll start with Jesus, in the traditional Christian narrative. Humanity is fallen; the first humans through their disobedience to the god which made them left their descendants a cursed inheritance, sin. Sin, being a slight or action which is inherently antithetical to their god's will or desire represents the corruption of an otherwise perfect thing. As such, humanity was forced out of the earthly paradise, Eden, and forced to toil, suffer and eventually die. The thing is that death is not the end of the existence of humans, as they each posses a soul. After their physical bodies die, their souls are then judged by their god, and worthy souls are allowed to enter an eternal state of paradisaical existence, heaven; whereas unworthy souls are forced to enter an eternal state of painful existence, hell. Christian theology really developed both conceptions of the afterlife in a very dualistic way, but the crux of their theology (especially as it differs from Judaism and Islam) is the necessity of Jesus. It essentially boils down to no human being worthy enough to enter into heaven, as humans are born stained with sin, and will continue to sin throughout their lives. As sin is a state of corrupted existence, and nothing which is corrupt can enter into heaven, humans are doomed to live meaningless lives and then be tortured forever. This is why Christ, and specifically his sacrifice, are necessary in Christian theology. From a broadly Catholic perspective, Christ's death redeems humanity, and allows the church to absolve humans of their sins, allowing them to become pure, and gaining them entrance into heaven. From a broadly Protestant perspective, Christ's sacrifice removes the stain of sin from humans, and by accepting him as ones personal saviour, from future sins as well. Essentially all past and future sin is removed through the sacrifice of Christ, and anyone who becomes his disciple, is guaranteed a place in heaven, and is spared the agony of hell.


Method: Odin hangs himself, by a noose, on the tree Yggdrasil, and is impaled with an ash spear.

Dedication: Odin sacrifices himself, to himself.

Duration: Nine days. Odin then resurrects.

Lost: Odin's pain and suffering for nine days.

Gained: Knowledge and wisdom, particularly in the form of Runes (or broadly literacy).

Odin's sacrifice occurs relatively early in the general chronology of the mythic narrative, and unlike the example of Christ, is by no means his "defining act". This does not, however, mean that this act is without importance or even centrality. Not being as personally familiar with the theological understandings/ interpretations of Asatru as I am with Christianity, I sought out the opinion of an acquaintance of mine who is not only an Asatruar, but one of the finest wordsmiths I have had the pleasure of knowing. This sacrifice (which is also related to his other sacrifice, that of his eye for a draught from the well of Mimir) exemplifies the role which Odin plays, and the sort of god that he is. He is, among many things the god of forbidden knowledge; in this particular case knowledge which is gained through something I have myself touched on before, Necromancy. By hanging himself, impaling himself, he is able to exist in he liminal state between life and death; through his suffering he is given knowledge otherwise unattainable. Odin, like many who have foresight, is cursed with the knowledge of things to come, but also knows that he is unable to prevent these things. Instead of seeking for hope, or salvation he seeks for knowledge and for power and that which will be necessary when the time comes to ensure not his own survival, for he knows his own doom, but that of his children and humanity. In doing so, in giving up so much, he provides humanity he means to also grow and ready themselves for their own doom. Any immortality offered by Odin, particularly to those who are claimed by his psychopomps, the Valkyrie, is temporary. The war dead are given a respite, only so that they may die again during the end of all things.

Two very different gods, two very different purposes, two very different outcomes. This gets to the heart of the matter, and is really where the idea of compararing mythologies and evaluating gods against one another, basically falls apart. It falls apart, or the value of such a comparison fails, because the purposes are so different and will only makes sense when understood through the eyes of people who understand the narratives in their own contexts, and apply them to their own lives. What it comes down to is that each story represents a set of values, and these values are very different. Judging such values from "outside", necessarily means that those values will come under scrutiny and appear to be lacking.

Ultimately, the Christian is going to see the story of Christ's sacrifice and see the love of their god, and the redemption of humanity through the terrible torture and death of the greatest man who ever lived. They would turn to the sacrifice of Odin and scoff at such a petty "prize" for all the suffering of a "god", some magic letters. What kind of god is that, anyway, who isn't all powerful?

The inverse would have the Asatruar (or I guess me too, as I do understand the value) looking upon the sacrifice of Odin as giving humanity the tools to save itself, rather than relying on some god on a stick being needlessly sacrificed to an all powerful god who could just as easily change the state of things; after all the god is supposed to be all powerful, right?

Neither is terribly helpful in actually making a reasonable comparison, because there is no agreed upon scale to measure. For measurements to occur, there needs to be a system of measurement; something which is clearly lacking. For one thing, there would have to be some agreed upon middle ground, and as far as we are on that point tends to be acknowledging that the other person has the right to believe such cockamamie stories as long as we can also believe our cockamamie stories too. Hardly fertile ground for objective comparison and discussion.

So here it is, the values held as virtuous by each audience are too widely divergent to facilitate objective evaluation. Christians have it in their world view that virtues like forgiviness, compassion, meekness and repentance are central to living a good life. Asatruars, on the other hand, have it in their world view that virtues like self sufficency, struggle, valour, and the like are what makes for a good life.

I suppose in a broader sense, one could make the argument that the Asatruar myth engenders a certain amount of agency on humanity's part, as well as a more active role within the grand scheme of things. Humans play a significant part in the events of Ragnarok, and even if these warriors are doomed to die a second time, they are still active. Compartively, humanity has very little to do with the events depicted in Christian eschatology; they show up, get judged and are cast into a lake of fire or ascend into heaven. Christ's gift of himself to his father, provides him the means to redeem humanity in the eyes of his father/himself. Salvation is won, and it is up to humans to accept or reject this gift; dire consequence for those who reject it. Odin's gift is knowledge, which again humans are free to use or not use, but there is no forced hand here, no bifurcation leading to a moral judgement or dilemma. The knowledge was won, but it is up to humans to make the best use of it they can. Of course this moves the discussion from the context of the narratives themselves, and what they mean to adherants, to a broader examination of theological principles over all.

Coming up next time: Thor v. Jesus: "My god has a hammer, yours was nailed to a cross; any questions?"

On second thought...

1 comment:

  1. Dia dhuit-
    Good analysis. There are some Gods who called saviors- soteiros or soteira in Greek, who were believed to bring eternal life to their followers- Orpheus, Demeter and Hekate are examples. There are some dying/rising God myths that closer to the Jesus scenario- Mithras is said to be. But most of them are more about the cycle of seasons & life and death, whereas the story of Jesus & Christian mythology in general is linear.

    Lord Raglan I believe wrote an essay back in the '30's about various dying/rising gods I couldn't find it but here is his list of hero traits:
    Gee, I wonder where Joseph Campbell got his ideas...