Ancient epics may tell more about past civilizations (and our own) than either science or history, though all three must be taken with a grain of salt.
Authority of Science
In the enlightened, rational west we tend to give absolute authority to science and history. Their pronouncements are “facts,” while epic literature is “myth.” The problem with this view is that scientists and historians can be wrong. For example, Aristotle’s assertion that flies have four legs was reprinted in natural history texts for 1,000 years. It seems that it would have been easy enough to check this fact by taking a look at a fly, but Aristotle had said so, and he was the authority.
Authority of History
What about history? Although most historians now try to abide by some standard of neutrality, this has not always been the case, and is sometimes not the case even now. The truth is, everyone is biased and this shows up in the choices of sources and certainly in the interpretation of information. Ancient history was often written as propaganda; to flatter a king and demonize the “barbarians.” This spin was scattered amongst many actual facts, but it is very difficult to separate the two.
Probability vs. Certainty
So what can be certain about? Well, flies have six legs and early the British historian Venerable Bede (673-735) was wrong that the air in Ireland killed snakes and even neutralized their venom. Where written history is backed up by archeology the probability of accuracy rises, but nothing can eliminate bias. For example, the spin in most western history called eurocentrism implies that civilization sprang fully-formed from the Golden Age of Greece, passed through Rome, then to Europe. American history implies that the U.S. improved on that already superior path. When you read ancient history, you find that this attitude is itself ancient: “Our nation is the epitome of civilization; all others are irrelevant.”
Epics and Sagas
We can continue to seek the truth and we can get closer to the truth (and we should,) but we probably can never achieve certainty. Or we can study what the people said about them selves with the awareness that they were biased (just like scientists and historians.) The difference is that people’s epics and sagas are in their own words. They will tell a story with spin, but even the way they spin it will tell you a lot about them.
A mighty movement to glorify Anglo-Saxons has not only shaped American history, it is still shaping history. it is probable that Anglo-Saxons have interbred with many other peoples (as have all peoples) until there is no such pure race. This does not stop racists and nationalists from clinging to the myths, though. This year Norwegian Anders Breveik killed 76 of his countrymen to draw attention to the fact that the Nordic race was in great danger of being assimilated by immigrants.
Values of the Norsemen
What were these Norsemens like? What did they value? How have they affected us? The Volsunga Saga gives us a peek into their minds. Old sagas and epics were no doubt passed down orally for many years before they were written; we have no way of ever knowing the date of their origin.
The Norsemen valued warfare; they were pirates and terrorists. They reported their slaughters, pillagings, and village-burnings only as accomplishments-so much gold-so many villages. The morality of these activities were never questioned. Morality for the Norsemen had to do with a code of honor which emphasized bravery in battle. In Chapter VI, of the Volsunga saga, when Queen Signy is told her son was afraid of a snake, tells her brother Sigmund, “Take him and kill him then; for why should such a one live longer?” Her second son met the same fate. Finally, unable to produce a brave enough son with her current spouse, she disguised herself, had sex with her brother and gave birth to a real man, with the DNA of the Volsungs now concentrated in his veins.
As Signy reveals to her brother later, “Take heed now, and consider, if I have kept King Siggeir in memory, and his slaying of Volsung the king! I let slay both my children, whom I deemed worthless for the revenging of our father…Sinfjotli is the son of thee and of me both! And therefore has he this so great hardihood and fierceness, in that he is the son both of Volsung’s son and Volsung’s daughter…”
This may bring to mind Nazi Germany’s doctrine of racial purity with an eye toward producing the perfect warrior, but elements of both race and war obviously appear in the British and American psyches as well. Prominent Americans have unequivocally stated that the original Americans (the “Anglo-Saxons”) were superior to all others and should be preserved lest civilization itself deteriorate. Americans still honor war heroes over scholars and America has by far the largest military budget in the world. Counting wars against Native Americans and covert and “police actions,” there are few years American has NOT been involved in a conflict somewhere.
The militarism and racism of the Anglo-Saxons still runs through the collective unconscious of Americans. That this is unconscious can be illustrated by the fact that in any debate about who discovered America, the debaters are trying to determine which white man discovered America, in spite of the obvious fact that it had been discovered by Native Americans long before it was discovered by Europeans. But that, apparently is irrelevant.