Evolution: An Odinist Belief
By: Osred DCG; Odinic Rite [Australia]
This article was originally printed in Renewal Vol 10 No 3 (December 2003). Reprinted with permission.
Renewal has frequently pointed out that the cosmology and cosmogony of the Old Norse poems dealing with our Odinist beliefs are fully in tune with the latest insights of modern science. Indeed, the overlap is as perfect as it could possibly be between a poetic and prosaic exposition. We believe, in fact, that if our ancestors had never been forcibly half-converted to the crude Biblical conception of the cosmos, the state of our contemporary scientific knowledge would be several centuries ahead of where it is currently.
The same can be said for the theory of evolution- as it applies to humans.
Christian creationist theory, which prevailed during the period of dual faith, insisted that Yahweh created the first couple, Adam and Eve, ex nihlo; and that once Eve had eaten her apple these first people were every bit as human as we are.
It wasn’t until the nineteenth century, which witnessed the towering intellects of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, that this superstition began to be queried.
Today, of course, most of us accept that modern humans have evolved- physically, intellectually and culturally- from earlier and more primitive versions of our species. But few, even among enlightened Odinists or the scientific community, are aware that this was precisely what our ancestors believed before they were led astray by Christian superstition.
The poem Völuspá mentions three ‘powerful and loving’ (ölfgir oc ástgir) gods who found two primitive beings, Askr and Embla, who were ‘feeble’, ‘weak’ and ‘fateless’. Each god then gave this couple life-enhancing blessings. These were: the breath of spirit; mind and feeling; the warmth of life; and a desirable appearance.
It should be noted that this paradigmatic proto-human pair was placed on the path to human status by an act of pure favour on the part of the ‘powerful and loving’ gods.
(Snorri Sturluson’s Christianised prose version of this event states that Askr and Embla were mere lumps of wood before our gods animated them with qualities that could only be bestowed by divine beings. We needn’t take this reference to timber too seriously. Old Norse poetical traditions frequently compared humans to trees. For instance, in Egil Skallagrimson’s masterpiece, Sonatorrek, the poet describes his son as a warrior by using a phrase that literally means ‘shield-tree’, and his own wife by a phrase that translates as ‘kin-timber’. One of the by-names for Odin is svinnr sigrunnr, ‘wise victory-tree’. Snorri himself notes that ‘...poets have called man ‘ash’ or ‘maple’, ‘grove’ or other masculine tree-names’- and that the same applies to kennings for women. These comparisons would have been as transparent to Snorri’s contemporaries as any modern reference to young women as ‘chicks’.)
Western science has long since accepted our ancestral understanding that we humans have evolved from vastly more primitive predecessors. But there are still recalcitrant individuals here and there who simply can’t understand how far we have evolved since the first modern humans with whom we could physically interbreed began to walk the earth. These people should read another Old Norse poem, Rígsþula.
According to Rígsþula, a god who goes by the name of Rígr visits three human-like couples and impregnates in turn each of the three females. His children are, respectively, thralls, farmers, and aristocrats. The thralls are unattractive, swarthy-skinned, dark-haired, dull-eyed. The Farmers are ruddy faced with sparkling eyes. The aristocrats are fair-haired and attractive- in appearance and accomplishment- everything you might expect of the descendants of a god.
Some scholars, basically following Georges Dumézil, have insisted that this myth is intended to account for the tripartite class system that existed in most early Indo-European societies. To some extent their views have merit. But myths can function on many different levels, just as poetic or artistic imagery can, and to restrict the meaning of Rígsþula to some sort of apologia for social class is plainly silly. A much more striking way in which Rígsþula functions is as a poetic accout of human evolution.
We have seen how the gods elevated the primitive Askr and Embla to something approaching human status. Snorri tells us that this happened by the sea-shore. Rígsþula starts in the same fashion, with Rígr travelling along the sea-shore until he comes to a ‘house’. The descendants of Askr and Embla have clearly progressed somewhat by this time. At least they can construct shelters for themselves. But the fire is set directly on the floor, suggesting that the floor was little more than rammed earth, and all they can offer their divine visitor is the most coarse and simple food. Given the ugliness of the child who was later born to the woman, she must have been downright hideous- just like some of the species that preceded homo sapiens. Still, that child’s own children (with names such as Howler, Stumpy, Swarthy and Stinker) were able to put dung on fields, head goats and pigs, and grub up peat.
Some time later Rígr again intervenes in human evolution. The emblematic couple that he visits this time are well-dressed, the man whittling some wood and the woman spinning yarn. Rígr impregnates the female, and the boy that is born is a pretty baby with sparkling eyes. He becomes a proper farmer, ploughing the land, erecting tall buildings, taming oxen and crafting carts. His children in turn have names like Man, Yeoman, Master, Franklin- and Woman, Wife, Maiden and Lady. By this stage the species is truly human, yet Rígr’s tasks are still not complete.
He visits a third couple, known as Father and Mother. They are a loving couple, and well-off, with silver platters, fine clothes, and delightful food. Significantly, Rígr sits drinking and chatting with them all day long. The son that is born of this untion is the beautiful blond boy ‘Jarl’, who becomes a horseman, a hunter and a warrior. Rígr returns to visit him, teaches him runes, and acknowledges him as his own son and heir.
Now if Rígsþula were primarily intended to justify class divisions, it obviously does a very poor job of it. All the children are Rígr’s own, and if they are meant to be representative of different classes or castes coexisting at the same time each one of them could claim divine origin. As an exercise in politics the poem would therefore be inept at best, and at worst counter-productive to the point of being revolutionary.
On the other hand, as a poetic and religious account of evolution Rígsþula, especially taken as a sort of sequel to the gifts of the gods to humanity in Völuspá, makes perfect sense.
Askr and Embla can be viewedas a very early form of human ancestor, perhaps somewhat like the sloping-browed Australopithecus with his brain volume of about 500 cubic centimetres (by comparison the brain volume of modern humans is about 1400 cc).
Their descendants progressed culturally as far as they could, but were still living at a very primitive level, and by modern standards they were hideous to behold. They needed a physical evolutionary boost, and Rígr provided it.
This next stage in the human species as depicted in the poem represents a level of development somewhere between that of the Acheulian Period, about three hundred thousand years ago, and early historical times.
The third visit by Rígr ushers in a thoroughly modern type of person, participating in aristocratic sports of the Viking period like swimming for pleasure, and playing ‘tables’.
Unfortunately, Rígsþula is incomplete. The ending is missing. If we had the lost lines today they would perhaps shed more light on the moral and spiritual aspects of the poem- such as the symbolism of the doors of the three dwellings, the first of which is shut, the second half-shut and the third open.
We can speculate on these and other issues, but the purpose of the present article is to show that our heathen ancestors had at least a general and workable concept of human evolution.
Of course, this ancestral account differs in some ways from modern neo-Darwinism. In particular, it posits the existence of a god who ‘breeds up’ our ancestors with his own divine genes, just as modern farmers and stock-breeders have improved their sheep and cattle by crossing them with superior animals. But Rígr is definitely not a creator in the way that Bible-thumpers claim Yahweh to be. He is more like those Nobel Prize-winners who have donated their semen to sperm banks in order, they hope, that the next generation of humanity will be more intelligent than it would be without their generosity.
It could be argued Rígsþula is therefore not fully consistent with Darminism. Yet the poem is only claiming for Rígr a supervisory role in the direction that evolution has taken in one single species- humans. And as one of the most prominent neo-Darwinians of our era has written:
If there are versions of the evolutionary theory that deny slow
gradualism, and deny the central role of natural selection [through
random mutation], they may be true in particular cases.
~~Richard Dawkins, in The Blind Watchmaker
Rígsþula applies only to one such ‘particular case’.
What is truly marvellous about our ancestral concept of evolution is that it existed at all. As far as we know there was no understanding at that time of the fossil record. So how might our ancestors have known that humanity had undergone a very lengthy period of physical development before it could reach its then-present level of culture? There seem to be only two possibilities: either they made a series of incredibly lucky guesses, or they were informed by the gods.
The implications of each of these two possibilities are awe-inspiring. If our ancestors arrived at something extremely similar to the views of Darwin and Rusell by brilliant guesswork, we would do well to trust their other ‘guesses’- such as the existence of the gods and goddesses and the ‘nine worlds’ (dimentions?). On the other hand, if the gods revealed the truth to our ancestors in this particular matter, then we would equally do well to accept that their other beliefs may have been divinely inspired.
Either way, it seems that Rígsþula should be taken seriously. And that leads to the massive question of what Rígr’s purpose may have been. Why would he, and the other three gods, have intervened to give our somewhat sorry species such a series of massive boosts?
Ultimately, we cannot answer that question. All that we can observe is that the consistent purpose of the gods has been to improve us as a species. Furthermore, we have now reached the point were we can take our destiny into our own hands. We have enough understanding of genetics to transform ourselves within a few generations to the extent that our descendants may look back on us the way we ourselves look back on Australopithecus.
Whether we choose the upward evolutionary path depends on the moral values we hold dear, and these in turn depend on our religious or spiritual outlook. What is certain is that we humans cannot stand still as a species. Far more people like Howler, Stumpy, Swarthy and Stinker are being born today that people like Jarl. We can go forward, or we can continue to regress. Those are our only choices.
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