Hamilton briefly covers Norse mythology, which is very different from that of the Greeks and Romans. Everything is bleaker and more solemn, and the Norse gods live with the threat of their own inevitable doom. The gods live in Asgard, a different plane from the earth, but gods, mortals, and even the blessed dead of Valhalla all wait for the Ragnarok, the final day of destruction when the good gods and mortals will die, the universe will be destroyed, and the forces of evil will be victorious.
This section on Norse mythology broadens the perspective of the book, but Hamilton’s reason for including it again seems outdated. She implies that as (white, Eurocentric) Westerners Norse mythology is also part of the reader’s heritage, so she feels obligated to include it. This seems archaic and racially prejudiced, but her perspective on the myths themselves is still very interesting.
Because of this pessimistic, fatalistic worldview, the Norse heroes (and the gods themselves) seem much bolder and braver than the Greek heroes – the Norse heroes cannot escape their inevitable defeat, so their only choice is whether or not to die heroically fighting. Heroism and fighting to the death for a doomed cause are the highest of ideals, the only light in the dark future.
Norse mythology is much more solemn in its worldview than the mythology of the Greeks or Romans. The idea of Ragnarok – the day of the inevitable death of the gods – is unique, and gives even more weight to their concept of heroism. It is similar to the heroism of Hector and Achilles, where they know they are doomed to die, but they keep fighting.
Hamilton compares this worldview to that of the early Christians, but the Christians at least had heaven to look forward to, while the Norsemen did not. But she says that until Christian missionaries came to Scandinavia, heroism was apparently enough inspiration for the Norsemen to live for.
Again Hamilton holds up Christianity as the natural peak of civilization and religion, but it does indeed seem strangely bleak that the Norsemen’s only religious hope was in the concept of a heroic death.
Very little has survived of old Norse mythology, as most of it was destroyed by early Christian priests. The two most important texts come from Iceland. The Elder Edda was written around 1300 A.D., but its stories are all pre-Christian and very old, and the less-important Younger Edda was written by Snorri Sturluson at the end of the twelfth century A.D.
There are far fewer sources for Norse mythology than among the Greeks and Romans, and no epics or plays as famous as Homer, Virgil, or Sophocles. The texts come from Iceland, where the idea of Ragnarok and the bleakness of existence may have come from the long, harsh winters and frequent volcanoes.
Hamilton laments the lack of a Norse Homer, as Norse mythology is full of material for a great epic, but there was no “man of genius” to consolidate and make it into a beautiful, lasting story. The Elder Edda is written in a stark, often awkward way, but all its stories are tragic, and many of them are more powerful than those told by the Greek poets.
Hamilton rightly points out that Norse mythology has material of immense power and tragedy, but because of a lack of a unifying work or an accessible epic poem it is much less well-known globally than Greek and Roman mythology. History might have been different if this was had turned out otherwise.