Chaos in Genesis and Germanic mythology

Dr. Enns has recently reminded us that the Ancient Near East conceptualized the beginning of creation as a battle between order and disorder, the gods vs. chaos. We see the chaos of the natural world represented as an antagonist in the Genesis cosmogony. The forces of chaos are never quite given the dignity of a name, but the functionless void upon which the curtain opens in Genesis 1.2 and God’s actions of appropriating already existing material in that chapter clearly demonstrate that He is not tasked with creating a world from scratch but with the more typically king-like duty of bringing order out of disorder, as John Walton has been arguing.

But this “cosmic battle” between order and chaos is by no means a peculiarly ANE leitmotif. Although separated by hundreds of years from the ANE, Germanic mythology as it shows up in the Scandinavian stories is characterized by the same dualism. As fitting for a people thriving in a harsh environment, the mythology of the Scandinavians as represented in Old Icelandic (“Old Norse”) literature shows this motif in the form of the continuous struggle between the gods and the ancient, formidable, grotesque giants, the frost giants in particular for obvious reasons. The world itself was born of chaos: from the gap between the realm of fire and the realm of ice a mountainous frost giant Ymir was formed, the father of all giants from whose body the earth was made after being slain by the gods (there is good evidence that many of these motifs go back to common Indo-European mythology). The delicate balance of power between the cruel and pitiless forces of nature and the order maintained by the gods is evident in Snorri’s highly entertaining rendition of “Thor and Utgard -Loki” (also called “Thor’s visit to Jotunheim”): while the two gods and accompanying human are clearly somewhat at the mercy of the giants in Jotunheim (“Giantland”), the prospect of encountering the wrath of Thor’s hammer keeps the giants from exploiting their better position.

As J.R.R. Tolkien pointed out long ago in his monumental lecture/essay, “Beowulf: the Monsters, and the Critics,” the Germanic outlook was thoroughly grim, for they anticipated that order as championed by the gods was fighting a losing battle against chaos and its monsters, and that valor was a matter of playing one’s part in a game that everyone knew could never be won.

“The Northern Gods”, Ker said [in The Dark Ages], “have an exultant extravagance in their warfare which makes them more like Titans than Olympians; only they are on the right side, though it is not the side that wins. The winning side is Chaos and Unreason” – mythologically, the monsters – “but the gods, who are defeated, think that defeat no refutation.” And in their war men are their chosen allies, able when heroic to share in this “absolute resistance, perfect because without hope.”

Tolkien notes that the eschatological conception of “the doom of the gods” indicates that the Germanic outlook was much bleaker than the Mediterranean mythologies in predicting that chaos would triumph. But surely in accepting this fate they were but extrapolating a macro view of world history from their most reliable source: each individual’s experience. Human life is born in travail, then thrives and pushes back against all odds; defying death in early years, maturing to fear and avoid it, growing more and more aware that an entire lifetime’s work of survival is but delaying the inexorable fate of all. Each of us must succumb to the destructive power of nature, so why shouldn’t the entire world work that way?

Polytheistic cultures generally envisage gods as beings of a different sort altogether from the Judeo-Christian conception of God: rather than ultimate beings supreme over the natural world, they are merely beings whose great power was essential for maintaining some control over the natural world — and not always successfully. Despite depicting YHWH in standard ANE terms as a king, Genesis 1 describes Him as in full command of all the chaotic forces of nature.

Acknowledging Genesis’ ANE pedigree does not by any means strip it of special meaning. Rather, studying commonalities among cross-cultural cosmologies highlights the sort of meaning the original audience of Genesis would have been wanting and allows us to appreciate the accounts for what they were intended to be.

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