Last week I was glancing through a book of Norse Mythology and remembered the sad story of Baldur, the beloved light-bearing god. When Baldur’s mother Frigg hears a prophecy of his death, she makes every object in the universe promise not to harm him. “She took an oath from fire and from water, from iron and from all metals, from earths and stones and great trees, from birds and beasts and creeping things, from poisons and diseases.” The evil god Loki, however, finds out that she has neglected one thing: the harmless-seeming mistletoe. While the gods are enjoying Baldur’s new invincibility, throwing every weapon they can find at him and watching it bounce off, Loki tricks one of them into throwing the mistletoe at Baldur, and he dies. The guardian of the underworld agrees to let him back into the land of the living if the gods can really prove that he is as beloved and universally mourned as they say; so Frigg again visits every creature, and every creature sheds a tear for Baldur. (Every creature but one. You can read the full story here.)
This time around I was struck by the anthropomorphization of inanimate things: fire, water, metal, stone, and so on. This seemed different to me than the kind of sentimental worldview that treats pets like people. The elements are only alive in relation to the gods; Baldur’s goodness and beauty is so powerful that even inanimate things respond to it. The implication is not that earthly creatures are as worthy as humans in themselves, but that they are raised to a higher level by contact with the gods.
Then on Sunday, we sang a hymn based on St. Francis’ Canticle of the Sun, which refers to creatures like fire, water, and wind as our brothers and sisters. Suddenly I realized that Christians also have a tradition of anthropomorphizing creatures. The Canticle of Daniel (Daniel 3:52-57) doesn’t just bless God through or for his creatures, as St. Francis’ canticle does; it actually tells the creatures themselves to bless the Lord.
Sun and moon, bless the Lord…
Fire and heat, bless the Lord;
Cold and chill, bless the Lord.
Dew and rain, bless the Lord;
Frost and cold, bless the Lord.
Ice and snow, bless the Lord;
Nights and days, bless the Lord.
We don’t believe, like pagans, that the sun and the moon really have consciousness and will; but in some mysterious way we believe that the presence of the Lord is enough to give life even to inanimate things. The prophet Isaiah says that “the mountains and the hills will break into singing before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands” (Isaiah 55:12), and Psalm 114 says that when Israel left Egypt “the mountains leaped like rams, the hills like lambs.” Obviously, there’s some poetic license here; but I think it’s more than that. The presence of God doesn’t just metaphorically bring life; it actually animates the inanimate, as it animates the dead. The difference between this and an animist or pagan worldview is that animals and inanimate objects don’t have life in themselves; they only have life in relation to God. The life is all God’s, and it is so powerful and superabundant that it animates everything around it. And just as the presence of God evokes joy and praise from all creation, the death of God on the cross evoked sorrow: the curtain of the temple ripped, and the sky was darkened. Just as the material world wept for Baldur, it wept for Jesus.
What do you think? Am I way off the mark? I love this vision of creation. I feel like it takes all the beauty of pagan mythology and gives it deeper meaning through the truth of Christianity.
picture from The Children of Odin by Padraic Colum, found here