Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Wyrd And Providence - Part III

I started the discussion of Norse paganism with the sentence
There are two intensities of North European paganism that set it apart from other beliefs: a multiplicity of creatures, and a belief in doom, destiny, or fate that is powerful but not absolute.(Wyrd and Providence - Part II)
and ended with
New England was a peculiarly fertile ground for a peculiar and intense version of Calvinism.
The creatures I dealt with in the earlier post.

The belief in fate or doom is found throughout the world, but was especially strong in Northern Europe, both in pagan times and extending into the Christian era. We see it in Beowulf, in the Siegfried legend, the Eddic sagas, and the Battle of Maldon. (It is less prominent in the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic, suggesting that the theme and philosophy may be more Germanic than Uralic). Most commonly in our era, we see it in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Gandalf suggests that Bilbo and then Frodo were chosen or appointed for their tasks, and senses that Gollum has some part to play before the end. In other parts of the world, the idea of luck, a more temporary situation of auspiciousness, or a cycle of fortune, or a blessing/curse changing a destiny is more dominant.

Norse Fate or wyrd is powerful, and treated in retrospect as if it were inexorable, but for those actually in the events, effort, choice, and wisdom seem to matter greatly. One's path is chosen, yet one can refuse it or mishandle it.

The Germanic settlement of England came in waves, sometimes by invitation and sometimes by invasion. For obvious geographic reasons, they settled most densely in the eastern and southern coastal regions. Essex and Sussex bear Saxon names, East Anglia named for the Angles, the Jutes to Kent, and the later Danes overlaying large sections of those territories. It was not merely that invaders came to rule and built some temples - the Romans did that but had little longterm influence on English religion. (They did, at the end, include some Christians, whose continuity was more impressive than their initial influence.) The Germanic tribes - throw in a fair number of Frisians and a few Geats as well - came in greater numbers and stayed.

The creatures, I have noted, did not seem to cross water well. But cast of mind certainly accompanies those who move. Here's the first leap: Puritanism in England was strongest in England in the areas where Germanic/Norse settlement was greatest. The Danes may have arrived in the 10th C and Puritanism taken hold in the early 16th, but there could be continuity. The intensity of belief in predetermination among the Puritans, even more than among other Calvinists, may have been due to a congeniality of temperament. The Puritans searched the skies, their ledger books, their crops and herds for signs that they were among the elect. They were in fact obsessed with the topic, for themselves, their neighbors, and their kin. In our sexualised age we think Puritans were obsessed with sexuality. They were far more obsessed with death.

I don't want to oversell this. Farmers and sailors everywhere watch the weather intensely, seeking to understand its portents. Almanacks were known in ancient times, but no one produced almanacks in similar number and variety to the English and later, the Americans. Distant second, third, and fourth place went to Germany, Holland, and Belgium, tending to support my supposition that this reading of the natural world has a Germanic tinge to it. In other parts of the world signs in nature were used to read the future: prophecy and divination. Among the Puritans they were used to read the present, or the recent past.

It is a fair challenge to my theory that one would expect the more thorough descendants of the Norse and Germans in current-day Scandinavia and Germany to be even more fatalistic than the English. I think that holds only for fatalism in the negative sense. I think those groups moved more toward the dualism of Norse religion. The war of the gods and giants is what the universe is really about, and human actions only a secondary phenomenon. We are on the side of the gods because they are noble, but they are going to eventually lose to the giants. Lutheranism is rivaled only by Orthodoxy in its dualism among the Christian sects. Garrison Keillor speaks humorously but accurately about the Light Lutherans and the Dark Lutherans.

The Puritans of East Anglia then, had a core temperament of doom (in the neutral sense) distilled by Calvinism. Those who moved to a harsh and dangerous new land in New England, especially the Bay Colony because of their piety were thus double-distilled. They strained to read all events as indicators of God's favor or disfavor - a redeemed version of reading events for clues to the friendliness or unfriendliness of nature and the universe, perhaps. They believed that striving did not affect salvation, yet they strove more than any other peoples because they considered striving evidence of salvation. Only the saved would care so much. This doesn't strike me as all that different from The Battle of Maldon:
Hige sceal þē heardra, heorte þē cēnre,
mōd sceal þē māre, þē ūre mægen lytlað.

Thought shall be harder, heart the keener,
Mood the more, as our might lessens*

You will note that I used the verb read for the observance of nature. That was not accidental. Part IV on the Book of Nature.

* If one notes that sc is pronounced sh while the c in cenre is hard (and lytlad is littleth), you can get some sense of both the nearness and remoteness of English of a thousand years ago.

10 comments:

karrde said...

AVI, if the tale you tell encompasses all the important points, then I agree. I don't know enough to bring any contrary evidence, though.

With that aside, the connection between Puritan behavior and old Saxon culture is faint enough to be non-obvious. The similarities are enough to make the connection possible, and not easily dismissed.

One of the asides that comes to mind is this: the Saxons/Jutes/Frisians/Danes who settled in England seemed to have brought a strange ferment with them. While they kept pieces of their native culture, they didn't hold onto them tightly or remember the main themes well.

The tales that they told each other (like Beowulf) survived for a time, but were nearly-forgotten. The deeds the followed from the move to England were better-remembered.

Is there a similar pattern among those Englishmen who came to America? We remember what they did upon arrival much more than we remember the history that brought them here.

Jeff said...

Lutheranism is rivaled only by Orthodoxy in its dualism among the Christian sects.

Well, neither holds a candle to the Cathars if you care to include the heresies.

The Hile paper's germane, AVI, to a conversation worth having. If you were serious when you asked me to elaborate, check it out. No small overlap with the notion of a fate that is powerful but not absolute.

Gringo said...

So Jeff, were you really interested in understanding reasonable conservative thinking, which would have meant you would have gone to the Neo postings I suggested, to find out what she had actually WRITTEN on the matter, or were you just blowing smoke in our faces?

Jeff said...

Yes, Gringo, I've read them all and countless other posts and comments. It's been my primary conservative reading for many years and I've seen personalities come and go.

Jeff said...

Some of those close to me have also made it clear, despite the fact that we continue to have good relations, that they will never read this blog. Is it lack of interest, fear that their own point of view might be challenged, or fear that, if exposed to my turncoat ways, they might have to cut off the relationship? Whatever it is, it is a source of sorrow for me.

Maybe it's the tone.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Jeff, your first comment here:
"Ariana Huffington and a bevy of other liberals argue that Fox News cut away from the Q&A 20 minutes early (!) because the event didn't match the network's framing of Obama. And you're seeing the same thing here with Neocon sifting through a well-regarded event to find a negative upon which to focus. Is it possible she can express any gratitude (as discussed in the paper's conclusion) towards Obama for any aspects of that Q&A?"

That tone sounds fine to you. Neo's doesn't. I will re-emphasize that the escape from liberalism involves personal honesty, often painful.

As to the paper, you brought it up, I never asked for it. I asked for evidence, not redefinition. I have absolutely no need to get into more jungian discussions in my life, having found all previous excursions fruitless.

You seem absolutely unable to move out of your original framing.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

karrde, it may indeed be too faint to be worth noting. I may be stretching the data beyond legitimacy. What I know of the Sussex to Lincoln area in the intervening centuries is not enormous, and what I do know doesn't seem to point one way or the other. Its economy was maritime trade and agriculture, both sheep and crops. It had more contact with the continent, especially Holland/Belgium. It was a center of the Peasant's Revolt in the 14th C and Kett's rebellion in the 16th, suggesting the stronger sense of egalitarianism common to Northern Europe, but I can't relate that to wyrd especially. It was particularly hard hit by the Black Death, which might have distilled its belief in doom and destiny, but I have nothing to show that.

I assure you at least that I am not aware of leaving anything out that goes against my theory. I'd love it to be true, but accept that it may end up in ribbons.

Jeff said...

You seem absolutely unable to move out of your original framing.

You seem unable to discuss it.

Jonathan said...

I miss Copithorne....

Assistant Village Idiot said...

The association is inescapable, isn't it?