The next morning, there’s no letter waiting for Sophie. Sophie is bored all day. In school, she makes sure that she’s especially nice to Joanna. When Sophie returns to her house, she finds a letter in her mailbox: it’s from Mexico, and it’s from Dad. Dad writes to Sophie about working hard, and says that he wishes he could come home soon. Sophie also finds another letter from her anonymous philosopher friend. Eagerly, she begins to read it.
Sophie latches onto her anonymous letters right away, suggesting that she was waiting for a little excitement in her life long before she received her first message. The novel contrasts Sophie’s literal, biological father with the more abstract father figure of philosophy/the philosophy teacher.
This letter begins, “THE MYTHOLOGICAL WORLD PICTURE.” It begins by discussing the basic history of philosophy, prior to the ancient Greeks. In ancient times, most people believed in the truth of myths. People believed in gods like Thor or Odin because they provided a convenient explanation for how things worked. For example, “Thor” was just the name the Vikings gave to the combination of rain, thunder, and the good crops that resulted from rain. The Vikings invented the idea of Thor to explain these events.
As the novel already implied, there’s something of a contrast between religious thinking and philosophical thinking. Religion attempts to explain complicated phenomena by deifying these phenomena—thus, the name of the cause of thunder is “Thor.” This isn’t to say that religion and philosophy can’t coexist, but in most cultures religion always preceded philosophy.
The Vikings believed in gods because gods explained why complex things happened in the world. But there was another element to their belief in gods: worship. It wasn’t enough to sit back and wait for Thor to make it rain—the Vikings had to worship the gods and make sacrifices in them, in order to ensure that it kept raining.
It’s comforting to think that the same figure (Thor, Loki, etc.) causes the same events every time—this sense of comfort and order (even when tragic things happen) is the essence of religious thinking.
The Vikings didn’t just worship Thor and other gods—they told stories about these gods. The letter then summarizes one famous myth about Thor. In the myth, the giants stole Thor’s hammer, the source of all his power. In return for the hammer, the giants demanded that the gods hand over Freyja, the most beautiful goddess. Instead of sending Freyja, Thor dressed up like Freyja, went to meet the giants, and then stole back the hammer and used it to kill the giants. The letter tries to explain the true meaning of this myth. Although it’s a perfectly good story by itself, the myth also had a particular use: if there was a drought, the Vikings could always say that Thor’s hammer has been stolen again—and that Thor will probably steal it back soon enough. In short, the myth of Thor’s stolen hammer was used to rationalize bad things happening. Moreover, the Vikings would try to speed up the drought by performing the story of Thor’s lost hammer.
It would be easy to say that the myths of Thor and Freyja are childish and irrelevant to modern thought—but this just isn’t the case. Even though the modern world has science and technology on its side, this novel can’t help but embrace philosophical narratives. Indeed, the novel itself is just one big “myth,” meant to be interpreted metaphorically (Sophie is the archetypal young, immature child; the letter-writer is philosophy personified, etc.). So even though we’ve moved past this particular story, humans continue to understand complex things (like philosophy!) using similar kinds of stories.
The Vikings weren’t the only civilization with vivid stories of gods, the letter continues. The Greeks also had myths like this. Famous writers like Homer transcribed Greek myths, allowing Greeks to discuss these myths in detail. Another important change in Greece at this time was the development of the city-state. In city-states, Greeks lived in close proximity o one another, allowing them more time to think about politics, art, and culture.
The very ubiquity of mythology in the ancient world is proof of a fundamental human instinct to understand the world. All people feel a deep desire to make sense of the complex—we’ve already seen this in Sophie. But perhaps in the modern world there’s a danger that science and the pressures of adulthood neuter this sense of curiosity.
Sophie takes a break and tries to make sense of what she’s read so far. She’s spent most of her life believing in the truth of science. But if she’d been brought up among the Vikings, there’s a good chance she would have believed in the myths about Thor. Even if she’d lived her whole life in isolation, she would have invented some explanation for things like thunder and rain.
It’s telling that Sophie doesn’t dismiss the fictions of Norse mythology entirely—even though she doesn’t believe that Thor causes thunder, she recognizes that the story of Thor served a useful purpose for her ancestors thousands of years ago: it satisfied their thirst for understanding.