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Author Topic: Rigsthula as an “evolutionary” tale?  (Read 2059 times)

Mark C.

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Rigsthula as an “evolutionary” tale?
« on: July 10, 2011, 01:09:25 pm »
I know that the most common interpretation of Rigsthula is of Heimdall (under the name of Rig; which means “king”) establishing the social groups of slaves, freeholders and nobles. However, I find myself reading another element in it too.

The social groups elements is explored in Dumezil’s “Gods of the Ancient Northmen”. While I feel he makes a good case, it seems to miss the important fact that the mothers of each group are referred to in turn as “Great Grandmother”, “Grandmother” & “Mother”. This would suggest to me that one group is created before the next. I therefore wonder if the poem also reflects the development of humanity?

The poem tells us of Great Grandmother’s children offspring that:

 “House they cared for, Ground they dunged, and swine they guarded. Goats they tended, and turf they dug”

We can see that they don’t use any technology and are simply working with nature as it is. Grandmother’s children offspring, however, do use technology and are actively shaping nature:

“Oxen he ruled, and plows made ready. Houses he built, and barns he fashioned. Carts he made, and the plow he managed.”

Mother’s offspring go further and start by acquiring the weapons of war, claiming land, and setting up kingdoms:

“Shields he brandished, and bow-strings wound. Bows he shot, and shafts he fashioned. Arrows he loosened, and lances wielded. Horses he rode, and hounds unleashed. Swords he handled, and sounds he swam.”

Rig / Heimdall also teaches mother’s offspring the runes:

“With Rig-Jarl soon the runes he shared. More crafty he was, and greater his wisdom; The right he sought, and soon he won it. Rig to be called, and runes to know.”

In the poem Heimdall (Rig) comes to Midgard and over generations takes man from slaves to nature, to working with nature through agriculture, to giving the skills of war, to finally imparting the mysteries (runes) so that man actually becomes called Rig.

Over generations Rig gives mankind the skills to survive in nature, to shape nature, to make and wield the tools to deal with violence, and finally to understanding the mysteries of the universe to the point where man becomes Rig. From the guidance of king (Rig) man progresses through various stages to become king himself.

Once we have food (agriculture) and are secure (war is mastered) we then have the luxury of pondering the mysteries of the universe ("learning runes"). And given enough time we know all there is to know and become “Rig” ourselves.
 
Loki has always struck me as being a metaphor for man’s baser instincts. Heimdall would be the counter to that as he is responsible for man’s upward drive from “slave” to “king”. Their constant battles and mutual destruction at Ragnarok would therefore seem entirely appropriate.

While all other living things remain slaves to the fickle whims of nature, mankind has managed to make life far better for ourselves. Heimdall could be seen as the force / deity that separated mankind from the beasts and that would be why mankind is referred to as “Heimdall’s children”.

It was Odin, Honir and Lodur that created man from the trees, but it was Heimdall that guided man into what he his now and what he will be.

All a bit of a swirling mass of undeveloped thoughts at the moment, but I do think there are “evolutionary elements” in the poem too and it is not just a simple tale of the division of society.

Any thoughts on this and help in clarifying my own thoughts will be appreciated.

Mark C.

catja6

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Re: Rigsthula as an “evolutionary” tale?
« Reply #1 on: July 10, 2011, 07:54:13 pm »
Quote from: Mark C.;3613

I think you're right, that it's clearly a statement about history: a fair chunk of myths are narratives about "how we got to this point in time."  Certain discourses and narratives are favored by various times, places and groups to critique/justify current culture: think of the way US history is often taught in schools as a story of American triumphalism.

But I'd be very, VERY wary about using terms like "evolutionary."  That kind of unilinear "onward and upward" language has rightfully died out among scholars (real scholars, that is, which "evolutionary psychologists," etc., are not).  It very clearly places the particular organizations of society closest to one's own as if they proceeded in some kind of coherent way from "simplicity" to "complexity," as if the society of the person making such claims was some kind of "pinnacle" or "achievement."  It's important to talk about that as a particular view of history that people/cultures often espouse (you absolutely cannot understand 19th c. folkloristics without understanding the nuances of evolutionary discourse), but it's just as important not to treat that as some kind of Objective Truth.
« Last Edit: July 11, 2011, 09:42:07 pm by SunflowerP »

Juniperberry

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Re: Rigsthula as an “evolutionary” tale?
« Reply #2 on: July 10, 2011, 11:05:41 pm »
Great post, Mark!


Quote from: catja6;3723
I think you're right, that it's clearly a statement about history: a fair chunk of myths are narratives about "how we got to this point in time."  Certain discourses and narratives are favored by various times, places and groups to critique/justify current culture: think of the way US history is often taught in schools as a story of American triumphalism.

But I'd be very, VERY wary about using terms like "evolutionary."  That kind of unilinear "onward and upward" language has rightfully died out among scholars (real scholars, that is, which "evolutionary psychologists," etc., are not).  It very clearly places the particular organizations of society closest to one's own as if they proceeded in some kind of coherent way from "simplicity" to "complexity," as if the society of the person making such claims was some kind of "pinnacle" or "achievement."  It's important to talk about that as a particular view of history that people/cultures often espouse (you absolutely cannot understand 19th c. folkloristics without understanding the nuances of evolutionary discourse), but it's just as important not to treat that as some kind of Objective Truth.


That's an interesting perspective and it makes me much more comfortable than the news I've been following relating it to an attempt to avoid controversy amongst creationists and scientists. Like, how they'll say a new strain is emerging rather than evolving.

I had also heard that professionals are upset by wiping out the term evolution because if proper terms aren't used then it wont become public knowledge (and the reason creationist/ conservatives have worked to supress it, especially in schools.)

But the fcat that we shouldn't indicate a "progressive" change makes sense to.
« Last Edit: July 10, 2011, 11:07:23 pm by Juniperberry »
The pace of progress in artificial intelligence (I’m not referring to narrow AI) is incredibly fast. [...] The risk of something seriously dangerous happening is in the five year timeframe. 10 years at most.--Elon Musk

I am in the camp that is concerned about super intelligence," [Bill] Gates wrote. "First the machines will do a lot of jobs for us and not be super intelligent. That should be positive if we manage it well. A few decades after that though the intelligence is strong enough to be a concern. I agree with Elon Musk and some others on this and don\'t understand why some people are not concerned."

Waterfall

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Re: Rigsthula as an “evolutionary” tale?
« Reply #3 on: July 11, 2011, 12:23:21 am »
Quote from: catja6;3723

But I'd be very, VERY wary about using terms like "evolutionary."  That kind of unilinear "onward and upward" language has rightfully died out among scholars (real scholars, that is, which "evolutionary psychologists," etc., are not).  It very clearly places the particular organizations of society closest to one's own as if they proceeded in some kind of coherent way from "simplicity" to "complexity," as if the society of the person making such claims was some kind of "pinnacle" or "achievement."  It's important to talk about that as a particular view of history that people/cultures often espouse (you absolutely cannot understand 19th c. folkloristics without understanding the nuances of evolutionary discourse), but it's just as important not to treat that as some kind of Objective Truth.


I've never heard of the term evolution not being used. Now if you mean in a social sense and not a biological sense, that would make sense. I wouldn't know much 'bout that being a bio-nerd and all. Still, as a bio-nerd, the term evolution doesn't exactly mean things are somehow getting "better" or moving "upwards" or anything. It's just the progression from one thing to another, and it's not that at the later "more evolved" things are better than the simpler whatevers they came from. They're just different and were selected due to certain pressures.

If we're just talking about using evolution in non-biological ways, then I can understand not wanting to use the term, since people to tend to think that "more evolved"="better." Of course, I still don't think that's the case, because looking at say, the evolution of languages, there's no reason to think that modern English is in anyway superior to old English. I'm sure there's someone out there who would go ahead and make such claims, but they're also probably the type to say that a human is superior to a moose, or whatever other organism you want to use as an example. Not that I personally care if the term "evolution" isn't used outside of biology. If people are going to look at it the wrong way, then just let the scientists have it.

Mark C.

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Re: Rigsthula as an “evolutionary” tale?
« Reply #4 on: July 11, 2011, 09:22:38 am »
Quote from: catja6;3723
But I'd be very, VERY wary about using terms like "evolutionary."  That kind of unilinear "onward and upward" language has rightfully died out among scholars (real scholars, that is, which "evolutionary psychologists," etc., are not).  It very clearly places the particular organizations of society closest to one's own as if they proceeded in some kind of coherent way from "simplicity" to "complexity," as if the society of the person making such claims was some kind of "pinnacle" or "achievement."  It's important to talk about that as a particular view of history that people/cultures often espouse (you absolutely cannot understand 19th c. folkloristics without understanding the nuances of evolutionary discourse), but it's just as important not to treat that as some kind of Objective Truth.


That’s a very good point and I see what you are driving at. I was using the word in an everyday sense to mean “gradual change” and not in a scientific or literal sence.

I do like the fact that I’m living in relative comfort for much longer than my ancestors did. A bad winter does not result in starvation for me and mine so I do think there has been a movement towards a definite improvement. That does not automatically mean such changes were preordained in a scientific sense of course. I was, however, reading the tale as a series of gradual changes – guided by Heimdall – towards a better way of living i.e. a tale recording a given worldview, not necessarily literal fact.

Quote from: Waterfall;3804
the term evolution doesn't exactly mean things are somehow getting "better" or moving "upwards" or anything. It's just the progression from one thing to another, and it's not that at the later "more evolved" things are better than the simpler whatevers they came from. They're just different and were selected due to certain pressures.


I agree totally. I accept that “evolution” in a biological sense does not have any inherent pre-determined direction. However evolution is not “random” either; a mistake many creations are prone to making. There is process of natural selection that over time favours changes that are beneficial. Natural selection will therefore “guide” organisms to being better suited towards their environment. A blade of grass, a slug, a bacteria and a human being are therefore all just as evolved as each other.

What separates humanity from the rest of nature is our ability to think, fathom, reason and work collectively over generations to build a better society and increase the collective knowledge pool. From a mythological perspective, I would say it was the “arrival of Heimdall” that marked the development of those abilities.

I see the myths not as literal fact, but as metaphor. So from a scientific perspective, I understand we evolved soft skulls that would allow the brain to continue growing after birth. We also got better at getting the food needed to pay the energy dept for having such big brains. We also have the social structures that allowed babies to be looked after while they were still developing (i.e. we are not running a round a few days after birth like other primates due to the continued brain development). Things came together to permit human cognitive development. I see Heimdall as the mythic representation of that.

Was that inevitable? Maybe even “divinely guided”? Or simply something that looks planned in retrospect? Can we even tell the difference? Personally, although it matters scientifically, I don’t think it matters to me and how I live my life in the here and now, because I am where I am.

What we can perhaps agree on is that the laws of the universe – wherever they originate – separated us from the other animals. We are unique in that we can shape our world as well as being shaped by it.

One of the great questions is why are the laws of the universe the way they are? Alter them the tiniest amount and stars, planets and ultimately life could never form.

Some are of the view that that there are an infinite number of universes, and because we are in one that permits life, there is life to marvel about how finely tuned it seems. In the universes that don’t permit life, there is simply no life to ask that question. However, there is no proof of those other universes. By definition it’s an un-testable hypostasis because the other universes will have differing laws of physics to our own.

An infinite number of universes is a matter of faith in exactly the same way positing the deliberate fine tuning of this universe is. To me, it really does not matter either way.

The fact is that I live in a universe that permits the formation of planets and life. In the myths we see Odin and his brothers dismembering Ymir to make Midgard, the heavens, and mankind. So, to me, Odin and his brothers are those inherent universal laws that make that happen.

Once life is formed, it is subject to evolutionary and biological laws. I see Heimdall as the force that has separated mankind from the beasts and given us the “quality of divine” to shape and understand our world and not just exist within it.

It’s one of the things I love about the Heathen worldview is that the “divine” exists within nature and is not separate from it. We see Thor in the thunder, Idun in the spring, Sif in the crops, the giants in the destructive elements of nature, etc. I also feel that we see Odin as the shaper of the universal laws that bring all else into being. He is the “All Father”. And I’m starting to think we see Heimdall in the development of mankind?

Mark C.

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