The Tree of Salvation

YggdrasilRonald Murphy’s fine book Tree of salvation: Yggdrasil and the Cross in the North provides some intriguing insights into the relationship between mythology and Christianity. As the title implies, the main focus is on the Germanic cosmic tree Yggdrasil. Indeed, this Tree was converted to the Tree of life from Eden and the tree on which Christ was hung when the Norse cultures were converted to Christianity. Moreover, these people were told to abandon Odin and the other deities but were allowed to keep Yggdrasil, which became the structural principal of the stave churches and the round churches as Murphy demonstrates at length.

Although a Christian could hardly worship Odin, there are some interesting elements in his myth of interest to a Christian who uses Girard’s critique of myth. Odin had one eye, having sacrificed it for wisdom. Although the victims of primordial collective violence are arbitrary, anything, such as a physical blemish, that makes a person stand out makes that person a likely target. More interesting yet, Odin hung on the tree Yggdrasil to gain more wisdom. It is the Girardian thinker James Alison who coined the phrase “the intelligence of the victim” to indicate that the victim understands what the persecutor do not. As a likely target for violence because of his deformity, he would already have understood the sacrificial dynamics of society more than other people. The early medieval Germanic poem The Heliand and the old English Dream of the Rood both write of the cross as the cosmic tree, namely Yggdrasil. Murphy analyzes these poems well for their rich theological vision where redemption is glorious with no punitive aspects to it. (See Violence and the Kingdom of God.

Of greatest interest is the role of Yggdrasil in the Ragnarök myth. The Ragnarök myth is unique in world mythology as far as I can tell because of its future orientation. Normally the chaos  precedes civilization and culture emerges out of it. According to Girard this emergence is possible because of the collective violence that puts a tourniquet on the chaos. With the Norse, the chaotic violence concludes civilizatoin. All social order breaks down and Yddgrasil, always subject to attack by the serpent that eats at its roots, is subject to more intense attack. As humanity unravels and reaches the brink of destruction, Yggdrasil saves the couple Lief and Lifthrasir by sheltering them unto the danger is past so that they can start humanity anew.

When Murphy describes the Yggdrasil symbolism in the stave and round churches in Scandinavia with all the carved and painted leaves and the enormous central pillars in the round churches, he suggests that the church has become Yggdrasil that offers shelter from the culture of violence. Only, rather than sheltering only one couple, it shelters everybody who comes into it, making the church a symbol of what it ought to be in human culture.

The Viking culture is notorious to this day for its wanton violence and cruelty, especially for people like me who are descended from inhabitants of the British Isles. Horrible as their violence was, maybe it was that very violence that helped them understand the Gospel in new ways that we could profit from today. Their dread of eschatological violence is quite a contrast to the fascinated desire for the same in American culture today. Perhaps they had some instinct for knowing that chaotic violence would be the result of their sacrificial way of life if they were not turned around. With this emphasis on deliverance from violence, there is little or no room for a penal notion of Christ’s Atonement. Murphy’s book is a great place to start to learn about the Norse contribution to Christianity.

2 thoughts on “The Tree of Salvation

  1. Great! As a Finn, I would wish someone to do a similar reading of Kalevala. In the end of that epic, there is a Christ-like child (conceived through his mother having eaten a lingonberry!) who is about to be put to death by the shamanistic poet-hero, Väinämöinen. The child speaks out and points to Väinämöinen having escaped a similar fate when he was a newborn babe. Embarassed, Väinämöinen leaves his community which now converts to Christianity. In a way, Väinämöinen is sacrificed in lieu of the Christ-child. That is, if we comply with Girard’s book The Scapegoat according to which mythical departures are masked murders (such as that of Romulus who vanished into thin air, i.e., was lynched by his underlings). There is always a muddle between sacrificial and and anti-sacrificial stories, the middle-ground spelling a text of persecution rather than a clean-cut myth or anti-myth…

  2. If you’re interested in doing additional mimetic reading of Norse/Viking religion (surely, rather than mythology? as you say, it was their religion before they converted to Christianity), I highly recommend engaging with the work of historian/composer Ada Palmer of the musical group Sassafrass, who have over the past ten years created and performed a unified body of complex a capella pieces that comprise an interpretation of a Norse song cycle, titled “Sundown.”

    In particular, I cannot imagine a more perfect performance of mimetic twinning than Ada Palmer and Lauren Schiller as Loki and Odin in the duet “My Brother, My Enemy.” If you go to their website & click on the “Sundown: Whispers of Ragnarok”, you can hear it there. I’ve seen them perform it live (in the performance of Sundown, in fact, that will soon be available as a DVD) and it may be the most powerful performance I’ve ever seen.

    I interviewed Ada about Sundown a year and a half ago, and she provided a lot of good historical and contextual material – you can read it here:

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