This is an adapted and expanded version of an essay I wrote in a personal blog.
Recently I learned a new word thanks to the book Exploring the Northern Tradition by Krasskova and Kaldera. Urdummheit: A German word that means–basically–that those who came before
us are stupid. That there is a
primeval stupidity. People who believe this theory believe that we–in our enlightened, rational society–are somehow smarter than those who have come before. They believe that they made up myths and legends out of whole cloth and believed those legends literally and exactly, the way modern fundamentalists take the bible literally. It was believed literally by the people–not to be taken as symbol or allegory–because they were wholly ignorant and largely incapable of understanding the world around them.
Some of these people are militant atheists who view
that religious superstition as a primitive way of explaining what they didn’t understand before the enlightenment of modern science. Others are militantly religious, sometimes insisting that it was their principles of their religion which saved us from
the darkness. They conflate either
Modern Science, or
Western Culture with
intelligence. As I saw one person comment in a debate:
Judaeo [sic]/Christian beliefs lead the way to modern science by the mere fact that they taught that there was an order to the Universe and many of the greatest minds of the arts and science such as Galileo, Newton, Michelangelo, and Darwin were devout Christians
The truth is we know more, our processes have gotten better, and our lives give us a different focus than those who have come before, but none of that makes us
smarter. It is demeaning to both our ancestors and to ourselves. We should know better than to accept such a proposal at face-value and be able to actually ask “did they really think that way,” rather than just assuming they were stupid because they didn’t know as much as we (as a society, not necessarily as individuals) do.
Unfortunately we lose sight of the words of Dion Fortune:
Unsympathetic observers would probably conclude that [Christians] worshipped a sheep, and the Holy Ghost would yield some spectacular interpretations. Let us credit other people with using metaphors if we do not expect to be taken literally ourselves. The outer form of the ancient pagan faiths is no cruder than Christianity in backward Latin countries, where Jesus Christ is represented in topper and tails and the Virgin Mary in lace-edged pantaloons. The inner form of the ancient faiths can compare very favourably with the best of our modern metaphysicians. After all, they produced Plato and Plotinus. The human mind does not change, and what is true of ourselves is probably true of the pagans.
H. R. Ellis-Davidson commented at one point that:
The mythology of a people is far more than a collection of pretty or terrifying fables to be retold in carefully bowdlerized form to our schoolchildren. It is the comment of the men of one particular age or civilization on the mysteries of human existence and the human mind, their model for social behaviour, and their attempt to define in stories of gods and demons ther perception of the inner realities.
For example, the other day some friends and I were discussing flood stories and I brought up the Navajo myth. In the third world Coyote stole the water-monster’s children and hid them under his cloak, and so the water monster flooded the world in an attempt to find them. An atheist in the group snorted, marveling at the ignorance of previous people to believe such primitive nonsense (urdummheit).
But let’s extend the story ever so slightly and look at what happens next. The People and the animals dig their way into the fourth world, figure out that Coyote is to blame (and still hiding the children under his coat) and throw the children back to the water-monster before the fourth world floods as well. First Man takes a stick and says to The People
if this stick floats, we will survive. If it sinks, we perish. He throws the stick into the water and floats on the surface. Coyote then takes a rock and says
If this rock floats, we survive, if it sinks, we perish and throws the rock into the water.
The rock sinks, well, like a stone.
The People are angry with Coyote, and so Coyote explains: He tells The People that if they do not die, then eventually they will overwhelm the land and there will be no room for their children. That, in order to save themselves, they must also die.
One can look at this as an explanation of
why we must die, but it is also a message about living within your means and conservation of resources. There’s also a message in there about dealing with hard circumstances in our life. Why do we assume that they must have taken the entire story literally, when it could have been meant no more literally than Plato meant The Allegory of the Cave.
It is like holding Benjamin Franklin up on a pedestal for the statement
three can keep a secret if two of them are dead, but decrying the phrase
If you would keep a secret tell no one, or else one other. If three know, thousands will because it is is in Hávamál and thus attributed to Odin.
Sometimes myths and legends have other, more functional, purposes. Take the story of the Trolltindanes in Norway:
There was once a troll wedding and trolls came from all over to attend. At the wedding they drank and they partied and lost track of the time. They joked and laughed, and drank, and sang throughout the night, not paying attention to the approach of dawn. Night became day and the sun crossed the horizon and turned them to stone. The formations from which stand there still today.
The full text of the story, of course, is substantially longer and more involved, but that’s the gist of it. Now, we can sit here and chuckle to ourselves about those
ignorant pagans who would believing anything, believing that those were actually trolls turned into stone on those mountains. But let’s think about it for a moment: the mountains in question are very distinctive and the Norse were a seafaring culture. There is a theory that many of those old folk legends were a way of remembering landmarks, allowing for sailors to navigate.
So perhaps they did believe it or perhaps not, and it is hard to say which came first, but it seems likely that such folk legends had a functional nature regardless of any
deeper truths about inner realities. The name
Troll Mountains in Romsdal is more likely to stick in my head as a navigational feature when I’ve grown up on those stories than if I am simply told
and those mountains–the ones over there–indicate you are approaching Romsdal.
Reading interviews with Native American Shamans, its pretty clear that they did not necessarily take the stories as literally true and that they knew a great deal about the nature of the world around them. Farmers didn’t just rely on superstition to know whether a storm was coming, but could sense subtle changes in the air. Thor is the god of Thunder, yes, but he is also associated with crops in such a way that it makes one wonder if they knew something about the specific relation between thunderstorms and crops.
We’ll leave this point with another story about Coyote:
It used to be that there was a city divided by a road down the middle and the people on the two sides refused to speak to one another. They would scarce acknowledge that the other side existed, and each would try and sway travelers on the road to come to their side while completely ignoring their neighbors.
One day Coyote came into town wearing a hat that was red on one side and white on the other. Since the people knew the reputation of Coyote they came out to see what he was up to. Coyote walked to the end of town, turned his hat around, and walked back to the other side. By the time he had reached the end of town on his trip back, everyone had come out to see what was happening. He exited the town on the other side and threw away his hat.
Coming back–without his hat–to the center of town he asks one side which color it was “Red!” they say. When he asks the other side of the village they reply “white!” Turning back to the side that said “Red” he asked them if they were sure, and then when they affirmed he turned back to the side that said “White.” This continued back and forth, until he managed to provoke the two sides into a fist fight over what color his hat really was.
Does anyone really think for a half a second that, sitting around a camp fire, anyone would believe that it is important to think that such a story is literally true and not an allegory or even just a story told for amusement?
There also seems to be a latent ignorance of the history of mathematics, science, and philosophy in these statements about previous cultures. Chong Wang wrote before the 1st century CE that:
As to this coming of rain from the mountains, some hold that the clouds carry the rain with them, dispersing as it is precipitated (and they are right). Clouds and rain are really the same thing. Water evaporating upwards becomes clouds, which condense into rain, or still further into dew.
The Islamic people wrote what would become the foundation of medicine for the next thousand years. The theory of contagious disease and the invention of quarantine came from Avicenna ( ابوعلی سینا بلخى, late 10th to early 11th century). George Sarton commented that:
If it is regarded as symbolic that the most spectacular achievement of the mid-twentieth century is atomic fission and the nuclear bomb, likewise it would not seem fortuitous that the early Muslim’s medical endeavor should have led to a discovery that was quite as revolutionary though possibly more beneficent.
What we call
While there have been advancements on various fronts, the concept of crop rotation is found throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa. The seafaring technology of the Norse was evidently a sight to behold, leading one individual to comment that
Plato may have denied the existence of ideal forms in this world, but Plato never saw a Viking ship.
It is easy when examining our ancestors superficially to come to the conclusion that they were ignorant, that their rituals held no purpose or were “merely superstition.” It is dangerous to hold the theory of Urdummheit without at least scratching the surface ever so slightly and figuring out what might lie beneath, and giving our ancestors the same benefit of the doubt that we might give modern humans.
I saw one militant atheist ask why would you do a sumbel–sitting around, saying what you will make yourself, and drinking from a horn–and not a dinner party, when in truth a dinner party is just as much of a ritual as a sumbel. He boggled about the use of a horn, when in truth it was just a drinking instrument and not substantially different from using a wine glass at a dinner party. With social taboos we tend to like to think of them as
those things other people do, when the most important taboos are the ones that we find in our own society and don’t even realize are there.
Body Ritual among the Nacirema from the American Anthropological Association