Viking myths made men fearless. What do our myths make us?

A myth is more than just an old story. In their day, hundreds or thouands of years ago, myths shaped reality. WOAH! That’s a big claim, right? That the Ramayana actually shaped the reality of the people who read it two thousand years ago? That’s like saying Star Wars: Rogue One is shaping our reality today. Maybe it is. Story is how our mind works, and the stories we tell say everything about how we think.
“If Viking myths made humans fearless, I think ours tend to make us fearful.”
If like me you have a new addiction to the Vikings tv show, you’ve probably been doing some thinking about Viking myths. Stories of Odin One-Eye, that eye given to look in the well of knowledge, resonate especially in the frozen months of northen climates. Thor, Loki, Baldur, Freya and the other gods have never truly gone away. Their still on every cinema screen thanks to Marvel, and being read by millions thanks to authors like Neil Gaiman.
Viking myths described a world that was remarkably small. The world was only as wide a longboat could row. The gods lived just overhead, but out of reach, in the heavens above. And they watched and judged our lives. Men and women lived out their destiny, and fought bloody battles to pursue their fate, all to be judged well by the gods. Where today we see the universe as infinite, Vikings saw their cosmos as eternal. An endless battlefield, on which the eternal dramas of gods and men cycled forever. A mortal man was just a shadow of a greater reality. The point of life wasn’t to live a long life in safety and comfort. It was to commit acts that would echo in eternity.
Vikings weren’t alone in this worldview. The myths of the Greeks and Romans, and of the ancient Hindu world, all painted a similar picture. These were all pagan mythologies, and warrior cultures. We idolise these times, because they were well suited to the telling of great heroic tales. Of course they were, by our standards, brutal and unjust times, filled with terrible human suffering. But that’s to judge another reality by our own standards. Those who really believed the pagan worldview had no reason to fear death or suffering. Those things were just a gateway to eternal life.
Vikings is impressive as a tv show because, under the guidance of writer Michael Hirst, it dedicates a lot of time to the clash of Viking culture with the Christian culture of Anglo-Saxon Britain. In a memorable scene, a small band of Viking warriors in a “shieldwall” obliterate a far larger Saxon army. The Vikings are better warriors because they do not fear death. The weird mashup of pagan and juedo-christian beliefs that were Anglo-Saxon Christianity made them fearful of death, and of the judgement that would be made upon their sinful souls.
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If stories are the operating system of human consciousness, then myths are culture specific upgrades, each new version bringing new features and retiring some old ones. Viking myths made men fearless. Christian myths made us compliant. They took the wild heroism of Viking and pagan cultures, and tamed it into the more stable, communal Anglo-Saxon world. We’re a thousand years or more on from that cultural shift. What do our myths make us?
Our tv screens are filled with heroic tales. And you don’t have to look far to find overbearing patriarchal sky gods still stalking the world. But the real myths of the modern world are stories told by science. A universe some 12 billion years old, measured by the speed of light in a vacumn. Life emerging from a blind process of evolution. All of it beginning with a Big Bang. A very 20th century idea, reflecting all the bullets, combustion engines and nuclear bombs that kept recent history banging. And we do have all these stories of powerful machines, The Terminator or The Matrix, determined to enslave or kill human life.
If Viking myths made humans fearless, I think ours tend to make us fearful. Terrified specks of animate matter in a vast inanimate universe. Once the gods walked with us shoulder to shoulder. Now there are no gods. No eternal drama of life. Only an infinite empty universe, not even ambivalent to our cause, but utterly unaware of it. These are the stories that shape our reality. These are our myths. And even a fearless Viking would find them soul shudderingly bleak.
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We don’t out fight conservatives. We out create them.

This post is my answer to the political battles of the last 12 months. To Brexit, to Trump, to the resurgent racist #AltRight, and most of all to a kind of conservatism that I do not see as an enemy, but which seems to see me as one. But it doesn’t quite begin there.
I’m a writer, and the essay is one of my favourite forms. I love storytelling the most, but there’s also a need in this world to speak plainly about what we think. My best essay to date was published three years ago by Aeon magazine. Entitled “Sparks Will Fly”, it was an essay about what I call “Creator Culture”, the idea that technology and social progress are making all of us, instead of passive consumers, active creators.
That essay was brought back to my mind this week with the publication of a new and rather fine audio edition. Listening to this new narration, I realised that my essay of a few years ago had already answered, in part, the political realities I find myself chewing over today.
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Read more at Aeon magazine.
I write to understand. I write because, until I go through the disciplined process of composing disparate ideas into a coherent argument, I don’t truly know what my position is. Through the summer of Brexit and Trump I thought through a number of written responses. Most weren’t trying to understand. They were a call to arms. A fight-them-on-the beaches rhetoric, certainly a feeling many liberals hold today. But I don’t think fighting conservatism is ever the answer. Instead, we need to out create it.
Conservatism is not a creative ideology. It relies, always, for growth and new energy, on liberalism. Five centuries ago, not torturing people to death was the new liberal idea on the block, along with the Earth not being flat. Conservatives were outraged. They always are. But deep down conservatives know they are always doomed to lose, because the the only true alternative to growth and change, is stasis and death.
“the strains on our social order created by high speed progress are the core of 2016’s many political conundrums”
In political terms 2016 grew out of two problems. The less serious, but more dramatic, is the huge new influence of crazed demagogues in our political system. Nigel Farage and Brexit, Donald Trump, Steve Bannon’s Breitbart, the various petty agitators conglomerated as the #AltRight, and their early cultural indicators like Gamergate and the Sad Puppies, are all the same problem. Social media empowers demagogues, and the left has a few of its own to admit to (Michael Moore, Oliver Stone and Adam Curtis, I’m looking at you…and anyone on the left who repeats the junk they put out without questioning it.)
But these demagogues are exploiting a deeper and far more serious problem, of which they are only one of many symptoms. It’s an age old social conflict, from which many of humankind’s greatest achievements, and worst failures, have sprung. We’ve had these same arguments at every stage of social growth, from the transition from hunter-gatherer to agrarian society,  to the emergence of industrialism, capitalism and of course communism. Today this struggle is out of control, and causing serious problems.
On one had we have the forces of social progress, most often championed in Liberalism. On the other hand we have the forces of social cohesion, represented in bulk by Conservatism. I choose to call the goal of conservatives “cohesion” because I think it’s important, actually essential, to acknowledge that the basic aim of conservatives – a stable social order – is not in and of itself a bad thing. And that the strains on our social order created by high speed progress are at the core of 2016’s many political conundrums.
What are people really saying when they talk about wanting manufacturing jobs back? Well, in large part they just a want a stable work life, that allows time with their family and friends. Instead, increasingly, we have debt fuelled lives, insecure jobs with crazy work hours, and crumbling family relationships. I’m sure everyone recognises that new reality, and feels a little grief at least for the losses. Nearly all of us can react in deeply conservative ways, when change places our basic happiness at risk.
“For decades, technology and globalization have made us more productive and connected. This has created many benefits, but for a lot of people it has also made life more challenging. This has contributed to a greater sense of division than I have felt in my lifetime. We need to find a way to change the game so it works for everyone.” Mark Zuckerberg
The balance between liberal progressive ideals, and conservative calls for social stability, must be a constant negotiation. Neither position is right, they are forces that must be forever balanced and rebalanced. That negotiation has, in recent decades, collapsed into polarised, partisan name calling, around increasingly illogical positions on both left and right. This failure allows the worst aspects of both sides, the demagogues, racists, regressives, bigots and outright criminals, to flourish.
Fighting conservatives won’t re-establish that negotiation. And, let’s be honest here, liberal progress is not achieved through conflict. Activism, of course, plays a part. But it has never been the primary tool of social progress, because it so eaily becomse self-defeating, unleashing exactly the forces of anger and hopelessness that liberal progress must stand against. Instead, liberal progress has a much more powerful tool.
We create the future we want to live in, then we invite others to come and live there with us.
The great stride forwards in progress between 1950 – 2000 weren’t the product of a fight. Millions of creative people, entrepreneurs, artists, technologists, writers, academics, executives, politicans and many more, just went ahead and CREATED a more interesting world, and the vast majority of people decided they would rather live in it. There was no single vote, no great battle, no president or CEO decided this. It evolved, and the engine of that evolution was creativity.
If you genuinely want to argue that the world of 1950 was a better place, you won’t get a serious answer from me. The world of post 2000 is riddled with problems. But a return to the past is an answer to none of them. Both the political right and left have fallen into a lazy disdain for modern society. Mindless hatred of state spending on one side is matched by mindless hatred of corporate innovation on the other. Again, these are forces to be balanced through negotiation, not absolutes to be won by force.
All of which is really a preamble to my simple point. Many of my very good liberal friends are preparing metaphorical (and perhaps a few literal) baseball bats, to combat the conservative enemy. A level of muscular resistance is useful. But. Please, please, please. Do not let your anger steal away your true power, which is and always has been your creativity. We can create a better world, but we can only fight our way to a worse one.
We may want to fight conservatives, but we don’t have to. Real victory will come from continuing to create a better world, for everybody, especially those who struggle most to see what we can all create together.
My new course on Creative Intelligence launches later in 2017. Join my writing school (entirely free) for updates, and get a taster with my free intro course on Storytelling for Writers.
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