Odin’s Revenge

May 24, 2008 § 1 Comment

Just finished: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

One last brief note on Gibbon’s book. I was happy to find a glancing reference to one of my favorite passages in the whole work in the final chapter. Early in the work (chapter ten), Gibbon speculates on the origins of the Goths, and of the Nordic religion. He proposes that “we can easily distinguish [in the Edda] two persons confounded under the name of Odin — the god of war, and the great legislator of Scandinavia.” Things get really fun after that: Gibbon speculates that, if a real, human Odin had existed, he may have been the chief of a tribe dwelling near the Black Sea, until Roman troops approached. I have to quote directly from him after that:

It is supposed… that Odin, yielding with indignant fury to a power which he was unable to resist, conducted his tribe from the frontiers of the Asiatic Sarmatia into Sweden, with the great design of forming, in that inaccessible retreat of freedom, a religion and a people which, in some remote age, might be subservient to his immortal revenge; when his invincible Goths, armed with martial fanaticism, should issue in swarms from the neighbourhood of the Polar circle, to chastise the oppressors of mankind.

A real-life Odin creating the dark, bloody Nordic religion and ethos as a way to, eventually, avenge his expulsion from his native lands by the Romans! A flight this fanciful is fairly uncharacteristic of Gibbon, and it carried him away, I think, just as it did me; he clarifies in a long footnote that the story “might supply the noble groundwork for an Epic Poem, [but] cannot safely be received as authentic history.”

His book took up so much of his life — twenty years — that Gibbon had plenty of time to reconsider his earlier writing. Anyone who loves this book loves Gibbon’s last chapter, probably the best known part of the whole work, in which he discusses the causes for the ruins of Rome’s ancient buildings. He takes the opportunity to downplay the damage done to Rome by the Goths and Vandals, and in a very loosely connected footnote his embarrassment at his earlier theory is palpable: “I take this opportunity of declaring that in the course of twelve years I have forgotten, or renounced, the flight of Odin from Azoph to Sweden, which I never very seriously believed. The Goths are apparently Germans…”

Nevertheless, it’s one hell of a theory, and it would, indeed, make a great epic poem, were people still writing such things.

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