On the evolution of skin color.

On the evolution of skin color.

Our criminal justice system ensnares people from all walks of life.  Occasionally we’ll hear about the arrest of a wealthy sociopath with a penchant for child abuse, like Jared Fogel or Jeffrey Epstein.

But, let’s face it.  Justice in this country isn’t applied fairly.  If you’re wealthy, your behavior has to be a lot more egregious for you to reap the same punishments as a poor person.  If you look white, your behavior has to a lot more egregious for you to reap the same punishments as a black person.

There’s abundant statistical evidence to back up these claims.  But the Supreme Court won’t allow any particular individual to petition for reduced punishment based on the statistical evidence.  After all, prosecutors, judges, and juries ostensibly came to their decisions based on the unique details of each individual case.  Just because people who resemble you are often treated unfairly doesn’t mean that you were treated unfairly, too. 

Or so ruled our Supreme Court.

Because we apply punishment so inequitably, our jails and prisons are full of people who’ve been treated poorly by the world.  Compared to the average citizen, people in prison grew up with less money, received less education, experienced more trauma.  And, no matter what people’s earlier lives were like, if they’re in prison, they’re not being treated well now.

So they have a lot of justifiable grievances against the dominant political, cultural, and religious beliefs of our country.  Punished unfairly by their fellow Christians, people sour on Christianity.  Inside walls where the demographics make it blatantly obvious that our laws are enforced in a malignantly racist way, racial tensions boil.

At Pages to Prisoners, an organization that sends free books to people inside, we get requests for stuff about Norse mythology, Odinism, and Asatru.  Lots of folks ask for material to learn foreign languages – people want to feel like they’ve accomplished something during their time in prison – but I always feel skeptical when somebody wants help learning Icelandic.

Not that there’s anything wrong with Icelandic.  And Norse mythology is cool!  Unfortunately, a gaggle of violent white supremacists decided that Norse mythology should be the basis for their religion.  Starting in the 1970s, a right-wing racist from Florida began sending “Odinist” publications into prisons.

A photograph showing a book page in Icelandic.

During the thirteenth century, Christian scholars transcribed many of the old Norse myths so that they could better understand the literary allusions of old Icelandic poetry.  But they didn’t record anything about ancient religious practice.  We barely have any information about most ancient pagan beliefs.  Anyone who wants to adopt a pre-Christian European religion now – whether it’s Wicca, Druidism, Odinism, or Celtic polytheism – is basically forced to make things up.

I have nothing against religious invention.  All religions were made by human beings – there’s no a priori reason why a religion created long ago, by people who understood much less about the world than we do now, would be better than something you invent today.  Sure, ancient religions have been tested by time, suggesting that they possess virtues that their practitioners found helpful over the years, but most ancient religions have their problems, too.  Inaccurate cosmologies, scattered hateful passages in their texts, that sort of thing.

So I like the idea of neo-paganism.  You want to find a clearing in the woods and do some moonlit dancing?  You’d rather worship a feminine generative force than a norm-enforcing patriarchal deity?  You want to exalt nature as a hearth to be protected rather than a resource to be exploited?  Go right ahead!  All of that sounds pretty great to me.

A Wiccan-style gathering of artifacts including a statue of a seated green goddess, her pregnant belly painted as the earth; mums; a chalice; a string of green beads; a stoppered rectangular prism bottle; and a candleholder appearing to be carved of wood, again of a pregnant woman with hands holding her belly.

Unfortunately, neo-paganism as it’s currently practiced in prison tends to be pretty hateful.

That’s why I’ve been working on a set of anti-racist pamphlets about Norse mythology.  Currently, when people ask for The Poetic Edda or whatever, we send a friendly letter saying that we don’t have it, and also that we generally don’t stock that sort of thing because it runs afoul of our anti-hate policy. 

But the Norse myths are certainly no more hateful than Biblical myths, and we send plenty of those.  The main difference is that centuries of continued Christian practice have created a scaffolding of gentler beliefs around the stories in the Bible. 

The text of Psalm 137 states that “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.”  But the text is a tool, not the entirety of the religion.  The practice of Christianity frowns upon the murder of any human infant.  Whether you like the kid’s parents or not.

A sun-dappled photograph of a page of the Bible.

We’d be better off if Pages to Prisoners could send warm-hearted material about Norse mythology to people.  Sure, you can interpret the Norse myths as endorsing a war-mongering death cult.  You can interpret the Old Testament that way, too.  But you can also interpret the Norse myths as environmentalist.  Feminist.  Supporting the pursuit of knowledge.  Judging strangers based upon their merits, not their appearance.

Because contemporary Odinism is so entangled with white supremacy, though, our pamphlet will have to address skin color and genetic heritage directly.  It’s a fraught topic.  Lots of people in the U.S. don’t like any discussion of evolution.  Some people feel squigged out when they learn that contemporary birds evolved from the same set of common ancestors as the dinosaurs.  And that’s far less emotionally charged than a description of human evolution. 

A photograph of a model dinosaur, complete with feathers.

Plus, skin color still has huge implications for how people are treated in the United States.  Consider, um, those prison demographics I cited above. And so discussions about the evolution of epidermal melanin concentrations are especially tense.  Although the underlying biology is simple – some places have more sunlight than others! – because people think it matters, it does.

I’ve found that these conversations are actually a decent way to get people interested in the study of archeology and biology, though.  After we’ve discussed this in jail, people have asked me to bring research papers and textbooks so that they could learn more.

Whenever two groups of an organism stop mating with each other, they’ll slowly drift apart.  This rift might occur because the groups became physically separated from each other.  Maybe one group migrated to an island.  In contemporary times, maybe the groups were separated when humans built a new highway bisecting a habitat. Maybe two sets of similar-looking insects mate apart because they’re eating fruits that ripen at different times.

Or the groups might stop mating with each other because a chance mutation caused members of one group to want their sexual partners to smell a certain way.  Various species of stickleback are able to interbreed – they identify other members of their kind based on smell.  But water pollution has overwhelmed the fishes’s senses, leading the fish to mate indiscriminately.

A photograph of a three-spined stickleback fish.

If humans hadn’t polluted their waters, though, these sticklebacks would have drifted farther and farther apart until it became impossible for them to interbreed.  No matter how many sense-suppressing chemicals we dumped.

We don’t know what caused the initial rift between our ancestors and the ancestors of contemporary chimpanzees.  About 4 million years ago, though, these groups stopped having children together.  By 2 millions years ago (at least 100,000 generations later), these groups looked quite different from each other.  Although it’s possible that these organisms could have still mated with each other and raised viable progeny, they rarely did.

One group of these creatures, which included our ancestors, had a tucked pelvis and mostly upright posture.  This allowed for a good vantage while scavenging and, eventually, hunting.  The other group, which includes chimpanzees’ ancestors, mostly moved on all fours.  This body plan results in fewer mothers dying during childbirth.  As ever, there are trade-offs to be made.

Image shows the upright skeletal postures of gibbons, humans, chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans.

Up until about 2 million years ago, all our ancestors lived in Africa.  But then they began to migrate.  Over the next million years, they explored much of the globe.  By about 500,000 years ago, half a dozen different types of humans lived in Africa, Europe, and Asia.  The difference between one population to the next was not like the racial differences among contemporary humans, but more like the difference between lions and tigers, or between polar bears and brown bears.  Scientists describe them as distinct species.  Although they were similar enough that they could have sex and raise children together, they rarely did – they lived in distinct parts of the world and had begun to evolve adaptations to their specific environments.

Evolution isn’t easy.  Nor is it quick.  Just because a certain trait would be advantageous doesn’t mean that creatures will acquire it.  In the desert, it would help to have adaptations for water retention like camels, or long ears like jackrabbits to cool the blood.  But a trait can only spread after a random mutation creates it.  And, even if a trait is very helpful, if only one individual is born with the adaptation, there’s no guarantee that it will have enough children for the benefit to spread through the population. 

Once a beneficial trait has a good toe-hold – present in perhaps 1% to 10% of the population – then we can expect it to flourish.  But below that amount, even great adaptations might die off due to bad luck.  That’s why it takes so many generations – tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands – before you see organisms become drastically better suited for the environment.  Even when scientists do directed evolution experiments in the lab, it takes about this many generations for a population of bacteria to evolve ways to consume a new food source, for instance.

By 500,000 years ago, the various species of humans were recognizably different.  Denisovans lived in the mountains, and their hemoglobin genes allowed them to avoid altitude sickness.  Their blood was less likely to clot and cause strokes, and they could extract more oxygen from the thin air.  These are incredibly beneficial traits.  Even though the Denisovans went extinct about 40,000 years ago, about 40% of people currently living in Tibet have copies of the Denisovan hemoglobin gene.

Our ancestors migrated east to the Denisovans’ homeland just before the Denisovans went extinct.  To be perfectly honest, we probably killed them.  But before or during this genocide, a few of our ancestors must have had sex with the locals.  And then the bi-racial children of these Homo sapiens / Denisovan couplings must have been significantly better off for the gene to spread so widely.

The Neanderthal lived at high latitude.  Over many generations, their average skin color became paler.  In part, this was probably due to the lack of selective pressure.  Think about a dodo – there was no advantage for these birds to lose their fear of humans.  But, because the dodos were living on an island that no humans traveled to, there was also no harm in the birds becoming fearless.

A sculpture of a dodo.

Dodos lost a beneficial trait – fear – because their fear wasn’t actively needed.  It’s kind of like the airbags in an old car.  If your car’s engine goes bad, you’ll notice right away.  Turn the key, hear it sputter.  You use the engine every time you drive.  But your airbags could get worse without you noticing … and then, in the moment when they’re needed, they won’t deploy.

Humans living near the equator need epidermal melanin.  If you don’t have enough melanin, you’ll get sunburns, which exacerbate the risk of infection and dehydration; you’ll suffer radiation-induced DNA damage, which leads to skin cancer; and you’ll lose folate, which means that pregnant women will have more birth defects.

The most recent ancestors that humans and chimpanzees shared in common had pale skin.  Contemporary chimpanzees are still pale.  They can afford to be – their fur protects them from the sun.  But our ancestors lost their fur, probably so that they didn’t overheat while running, and this led to the evolution of dark skin.

High concentrations of epidermal melanin distinguished humans from the other apes.

As humans migrated to higher latitudes, though, they gradually lost this indicator of their humanity.  Because the sunlight was less intense, there was less selective pressure.  Humans could lose their epidermal melanin in the same way that dodos lost their fear – not because it was helpful to go without it, but because the trait went untested in their day to day lives.  They had no way to “realize” how important it was. 

Your airbags aren’t helpful until you crash.  And then they’ll either deploy and save you, or they won’t.

Now, it’s possible that the Neanderthal also experienced some positive selective pressure on their skin color as they migrated north.  Over thousands of generations, the Neanderthals may have benefited from paler skin because it increased their production of vitamin D.  We don’t know for certain that the Neanderthal felt any evolutionary pressure to have more vitamin D – after all, contemporary Inuit people live at very high latitudes but still have a lot of epidermal melanin – but it’s true that vitamin D deficiency is a big risk among people with crummy diets.

In the past, hunter / gatherers typically ate much healthier, more varied diets than farmers.  When humans began to farm, they would mostly eat the one type of plant that they cultivated, rather than the wide mix of plants that could be found growing wild.  And when Homo sapiens farmers migrated to northern Europe, their diets were so poor that they even developed loss-of-function mutations in a cholesterol synthesis gene, probably so that they’d have higher concentrations of vitamin D precursors.  Among these people, pale skin was probably a big advantage.  They’d be ready for the cloudless days when their homeland’s feeble sunlight was enough to make some vitamin D.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Harvesters.

Around 40,000 years ago, our planet’s most recent ice age ended.  The world began to warm, and glaciers retreated from Europe.  By then, a group of humans living in Africa were recognizably Homo sapiens.  These were our ancestors.  Every human alive today – no matter what you look like or where your family is from – is descended from this group of people from Africa.  They lived in tribes of twenty to a hundred people, had darkly pigmented skin, made art, and spoke complex languages.

As the world warmed, some of these Homo sapiens began to migrate.  These journeys occurred over many generations.  Some tribes stayed in Africa; some tribes ventured north into Europe; others moved east toward Asia.  As they traveled, they encountered the humans who already lived in those places.  As I’ve mentioned, the newcomers occasionally had sex and raised children with the natives.  They probably also killed a lot of them.  Unfortunately, we Homo sapiens don’t have the best reputation for treating strangers well. 

Interbreeding happened rarely enough that most people living today have about 99% Homo sapiens DNA.  Some people, especially if their families are from Africa, have essentially 100% Homo sapiens DNA.  At other extreme, even people whose families are from Europe have 96% or more Homo sapiens DNA.

Among people living in Tibet, the Denisovan hemoglobin gene is common, but most other Denisovan genes are gone.

Everyone living today is human.  We are all Homo sapiens, all the same species.  But some of us do carry vestiges of the other human populations whom our ancestors killed.

Like the Neanderthal before them, the Homo sapiens who ventured north into Europe began to lose their epidermal melanin.  People who hunted and fished probably became paler simply because there was less risk of sun damage.  Remember, this didn’t happen all at once.  Average skin color would change only over the course of hundreds or even thousands of generations, not during the course of a single journeying Homo sapiens’s lifetime. 

Our ancestors spent almost all their time outdoors, which is why even dark-skinned people could probably synthesize plenty of vitamin D.  Among contemporary humans, vitamin D deficiency is such a big problem because we spend too much time inside.  As I type this, I’m sitting at a table in the YMCA snack room, lit up by flickering fluorescent bulbs.  This low-quality light won’t help me make vitamin D.

Instead, I take a daily supplement.  But that doesn’t come near matching the health and psychological benefits of time outdoors.

Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that people in jail – places not known for providing a rich, high-quality, varied diet – typically get to go outside no more often than once a week.  At our local jail, their hour of “outdoor rec” occurs in a little courtyard at the top of the jail, a cement space covered with a chain-linked fence.  Outdoor rec often happened at night – a friend who was recently released told me that “This was still nice.  You could see some stars.  And there’s that restaurant, Little Zagrib, down the street?  Sometimes we’d smell foods from their kitchen.”

Treating people that way is unlikely to help them get better.

Blue sky and white cirrus clouds as viewed through coiled razor wire atop a barbed-wire fence.

But back to our migrants!  Descendants of these pale-skinned Homo sapiens continued to explore new territories.  Some reached North America about 12,000 years ago, and some of their descendants continued farther, all the way to South America. 

As people traveled – journeys that lasted many generations – they continued to evolve.  Indeed, skin color was a trait that came repeatedly under selective pressure.  As people migrated south into the Americas, they were living progressively closer and closer to the equator.  Compared to their grandparents, they were bombarded by more intense sunlight.  They needed more epidermal melanin.

This is a process that takes a long time.  A family might have six kids; maybe the two palest kids get sunburned, which makes it more likely that they’ll develop skin infections and die before they have children of their own.  If this happens again and again, among many different families, then eventually the whole population will wind up with slightly darker skin.

A prediction for the distribution of human skin colors based on the intensity of ultraviolet light present at each latitude. Figure from Nina Jablonski & George Chaplin, “The Evolution of Human Skin Color,” in Journal of Human Evolution, 2000.
This figure depicts the (limited) data we have on the distribution of human skin colors before the modern era’s horrific set of forced migrations. In this image, white-colored regions indicate an absence of data, not low concentrations of epidermal melanin among a region’s prehistoric population. Figure from Nina Jablonski & George Chaplin, “The Evolution of Human Skin Color,” in Journal of Human Evolution, 2000.

Because human skin color has changed during each of the many prehistoric migrations, it isn’t correlated with other traits.  As we entered the modern era, people’s skin color was lighter or darker based on how close to the equator their recent ancestors lived.  But human populations migrated so often that there were many different groups, each with unique cultural and genetic heritages, living at every latitude.  Because skin color is so closely linked to latitude, this means many different groups shared similar concentrations of epidermal melanin.  And there’s no evolutionary pressure linking a trait that protects skin to brain size or intelligence.

As it happens, there are major events known to have caused a decrease in human brain size (and probably intelligence).  After all, human brains are costly.  Even though there’s a benefit to being clever, there’s also been constant evolutionary pressure against large brains.

Large brains kill mothers.  Because humans walk upright, childbirth is riskier for human mothers than for other primates.  Our posture constrains the width of our hips – both male and female – but a baby’s whole head has to pass through that narrow passageway.

Having children is so risky that we evolved to give birth about 3 months prematurely.  Human gestation takes about a year, but most mothers give birth after only 9 months.  This allows a baby’s head to continue to grow outside the mother’s body, but human babies are totally helpless at birth.  We have to be very devoted parents to keep them alive.

Also, our brains require a lot of fuel.  Human evolution occurred over such a long, long time that our ancestors lived through many droughts and calamities.  During the hard years, our ancestors would struggle to get enough to eat, and a large brain makes that struggle harder. 

A person with a smaller brain requires fewer calories, making that person less likely to starve in lean times.  And, again, it’s worth remembering that evolution happens over so many generations, among so many families, that even small changes can add up.  If mothers who have small-headed children can survive a dozen pregnancies, but mothers with large-headed children die after only a few, then the trend will be to have people with smaller brains.  Intelligence has to be extremely beneficial to overcome this sort of evolutionary pressure.

Similarly, if people with small brains are more likely to survive and raise children during droughts, then, after hundreds of generations of people who have survived dozens of extended droughts, you’d expect to see more people with small brains.

Many of us have the bad habit of reflexively thinking about evolution as the gradual development of more and more complexity.  But that’s not what it is.  Evolution is the process by which things that are better suited for their environment become more abundant.  If the environment is a hard place to live in, then evolution tends to push for more and more simplicity.  When it’s hard to get enough calories, why waste calories on anything that you don’t really need?

Starfish are descended from organisms that had brains.  But starfish are brainless.  The ancestral starfish that weren’t wasting energy thinking were more likely to survive.

Which should make you feel pretty good about your own brain, actually.  Your ability to think is so fabulous that your ancestors evolved larger and larger brains … even though these brains were sometimes causing us to starve to death, or kill our mothers.

That’s a valuable thing you’ve got inside your skull.  It cost our ancestors so much for you to be able to have it.

But, right.  Because the cost was so high, human brains did shrink sometimes.  Like when we first domesticated dogs.  Our ancestors began living with dogs about 30,000 years ago.  Dogs were willing to do some thinking for us – they’d sniff out prey and listen for predators at night.  Based on the behavior of my family’s dogs, I bet that they licked the faces of screaming children.  Maybe that doesn’t seem essential for survival, but I certainly appreciate every time our dogs calm the kids down.

Because we could slough off a few mental tasks – I don’t need to be so observant if the dog will help me hunt – our brains could shrink, making childbirth less deadly and reducing the caloric cost of maintaining our minds each day.

Pottery shard depicting a boar hunt in ancient Greece.

When humans switched from hunting and gathering to agriculture, our brains shrunk further.  A hunter / gatherer has to know so much about every plant and animal living nearby; the work asks more of a person’s brain than farming.  This evolutionary trend was exacerbated by the fact that people’s diets became way worse when they began to farm.  Instead of getting nutrition from a wide variety of different plants and animals, a farmer might eat meals consisting mostly of a single type of grain. 

There’s nothing we can do now about these evolutionary trends.  Dogs and farming swayed our ancestors’ evolution toward smaller brains, but it’s not as though you can get those neurons back by deciding to take up hunting, or never living with a pet.

But, honestly, our brains are so plastic that our genetic heritage matters less than how we choose to spend our time.  By nature, neither gorillas nor parrots will speak human language.  But individuals from both these species have been able to learn to communicate with us after we taught them.

Nobody is born with an innate understanding of mythology, religion, science, or mathematics.  None of that can be encoded in your genes.  If you want to understand this stuff, you’ll have to make an effort to learn it.

Neuron count only suggests a brain’s potential.  You could do incredible things with a low number – consider, by ways of analogy, the feats that 1960s NASA accomplished using computers much smaller than a contemporary telephone.  And, conversely, sensory deprivation will make it much harder to get things done, no matter what your innate potential.

That’s why I volunteer with Pages to Prisoners.  Our brains are capable of wonders.  At any age, we can learn and grow.  And yet, we lock people into prisons that seem designed to make them worse.

On resurrection.

On resurrection.

Achilles briefly reaped fame and glory, then died in battle.  But people continued to speak of his feats with reverence.  In the underworld, he was as a god.

Yet Achilles would have traded everything – lived in squalor as a peasant farmer instead of fighting alongside kings – if it meant he could still be alive.

“No winning words about death to me, shining Odysseus!

By god, I’d rather slave on earth for another man –

some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive –

then rule down here over all the breathless dead.”

(translated by Robert Fagles)

The mythologies of ancient Greece offered no opportunity for resurrection.  As best I can recall, only one person almost managed to live again, and only because she’d charmed the world’s greatest musician.

Most other religions postulate that the dead could return.  This seems to be a widespread belief because it gives people hope.  It’s easier to face death – our own or the passing of loved ones – if we think that we could be reborn. 

Even contemporary physicists speculate on the possibility of rebirth.  Our minds are patterns.  If the number of possible patterns is bounded, perhaps because physical space is granular … and if the universe is infinitely large, with an infinite quantity of matter to arrange and rearrange … and if time itself is boundless … then something very much like you will come back. Eventually. 

The most probable form of resurrection is as a “Boltzmann brain,” a hypothetical structure in which the random fluctuations of a gaseous cloud temporarily recreates the connectivity as your current mind, including every memory and every perception that you seem to possess right now.  Sure, you think you’ve lived here on Earth for years, which would seem to indicate that you’re not just a gaseous floating brain … but there’s no reason why the brain couldn’t blink into existence full of false memories.  Your entire past might be a momentarily delusion.  Even your present perceptions – everything that you’re experiencing right now, the sights and sounds and feeling of existence – exist within your mind and so could be recreated within a floating cloud.

Stardust is beautiful — but can it think? Image from Hubble/NASA Goddard on Flickr.

Indeed, the physicists who believe our universe to be infinite and eternal think that there would be many times more “Boltzman brains” than living humans, and so you now are more likely to be a floating mind than an extant creature.  Again and again, they believe, you’ll exist between the stars.

This speculation seems no different from any other form of religious belief.  Rebirth is rebirth, whether you think that the pattern that makes you will arise again as an animal, an angel, or a disembodied spirit in the sky …

But we, as individuals, are unlikely to return.

More often, it’s religions themselves that are resurrected.  They slip away; we strive to bring them back.  Like Daoism, Wicca, or Odinism.  From Ian Johnson’s recent essay, “In Search of the True Dao,”

Louis Komjathy, a scholar who diligently seeks authentic Daoism, searches for masters who can initiate him into a lineage, even though Daoist lineages have been largely destroyed by the upheavals of the twentieth century.  There is no direct transmission of the ancient wisdom; instead it is a recreation of a lost past.

Depiction of mountains by Zhang Lu (1464–1538) courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

At one time, the predominant religion in England was that of the druids and witches.  Roman soldiers, who were hoping to conquer the world, reported that these druids were rotten people, bloodthirsty and fond of human sacrifice.  Of course, similar slanders have been levied against outsiders throughout human history – Protestant Christians accused Catholics of human sacrifice, Muslims accused Christians of polytheism, Europeans accused Jews of all manner of imaginary ills, and even today many Americans believe Islam to be an inherently violent religion.  I don’t think the Roman reports about those evil druids are very credible.

Pagans managed to repel the Roman invaders.  But then, years later, Christianity spread throughout Europe, displacing the old faiths. 

No one recorded the original beliefs or mythologies of the druids.  Celtic mythology was written down only after the populace had converted; to make the stories “safe,” they were recorded as the memories of conquered giants who had been exorcised by Saint Patrick.

Similarly, the Norse myths we know today were recorded several generations after the populace had converted to Christianity.  Poets were worried that no one would be able to read the ancient literature that had inspired them, because Icelandic poets described everything obliquely.  For instance, you weren’t supposed to write the word “beer” in a poem; instead, you’d say something like “Odin’s gift,” since there was a myth in which Odin brought a special beer to share with the other gods, or you’d say “the eagle’s gift,” since Odin had changed shape to become an eagle in that story, or “Thor’s challenge,” since there was another myth in which Thor thought he was drinking beer but was actually slurping up the ocean. 

The special beer that Odin stole is said to have inspired all poetry.  Good poetry comes from the beer leaking out the Odin-eagle’s front end; bad poetry from the back.

And, yes, “Thor’s challenge” could also mean “ocean.”  The old poems strike me as standoffish – instead of inviting listeners to share an experience, the poets were challenging people to understand.  Poetry not as a gift, but an obtuse riddle intended to demonstrate how clever the poet is.  (Actually, some contemporary American poetry is like that too, and I think it’s silly.)

When I read the Norse myths, I can’t help but think that the Christian scribes’ prejudices seeped into the stories.  These scribes’ version of Christianity denigrated women – and most of the Norse myths about female heroes were coincidentally lost.

Indeed, some contemporary Christians’ prejudice against women is so stolid that when archaeologists sequenced DNA from a famous warrior’s skeleton and realized that she, the ceremonially-buried warrior, was female, many people suddenly decided that perhaps this woman was not a great warrior after all.

Her prowess had never been questioned until we learned that she had two X chromosomes.

And so, although we still have a story explaining that Thor’s greatest battle occurred while he was wearing a dress, other tales of feminine triumph (which are referenced throughout the cannon) were left out.

But, even if we still had the full set of stories, we wouldn’t really understand the viking religion.  With a copy of the Bible, you wouldn’t really understand Christianity; a copy of the Torah wouldn’t let you suddenly understand Judaism.  In practice, these religions seek kindness and community, but the underlying texts are violent and petty.  Yahweh felt slighted and decided to murder millions in a flood.  You’d have a pretty skewed vision of Christianity if that’s how you thought believers were supposed to behave.

As Anthony Appiah explains in The Lies that Bind, the traditions and practices of a religion are often more important than the foundational documents describing the creed.  In practice, the Jewish people of my home town don’t believe that sinners should be drowned in a flood, but rather welcome the lost into interfaith shelters, sharing warm clothes and a meal.

But when violent white supremacists decided to resurrect Odinism based off the preserved Norse myths, they created a strikingly unpleasant religion.  They do not know any of the traditions.  Instead, they base their beliefs on a handful of stories about the gods’ violent battles against giants, others about a human’s cursed wedding and betrayal. 

And, look – I’ve obviously never discussed theology with an ancient viking, either.  Maybe their beliefs really were brutish and unpleasant.  But I suspect that the vikings would feel puzzled, if not dismayed, were they to meet the tattoo-riddled milk-chuggers who self-describe as Odinists today.

On power and dignity in defeat.

On power and dignity in defeat.

Winning is pretty easy.  It takes effort to get there, but once we’ve done it, most people can act with grace.

It reveals more about a person’s character to see how they handle defeat.  In the Christian bible, Jesus is a more compelling character than Yahweh.  Jesus faces adversity, which sometimes he accepts calmly – he willingly submits to crucifixion despite knowing in advance that he has been betrayed – and sometimes heatedly – braiding a whip when he’s angered by commerce in the temple.

Luca_Giordano_-_Christ_Cleansing_the_Temple_-_WGA09000

So, sure, Jesus loses his temper.  Don’t we all?  It’s understandable to lash out when unconscionable behavior seems to be taking over the world.

Which is why, when Jesus rages, he still seems like a sympathetic character.  But when Yahweh does it, He seems small and petty.  After all, Yahweh is omniscient.  Omnipotent.  He always wins, and yet he’s still jealous and wrathful.

In Norse mythology, every champion is shown both at moments of glory and in defeat.  The latter episodes let us see the true depth of their strength.

In Laughing Shall I Die, Tom Shippey writes that:

image (7)Losing is a vital part of the Norse belief structure.  Ragnarok is like Armageddon, the battle at the end of the world.  In it the gods and their human allies will march out to fight against the frost giants and the fire giants, the trolls and the monsters.  And in that battle – and this is not at all like Armageddon – our side, the good guys, will lose.  Thor will kill the Midgard Serpent, the great snake that coils round the world, and then drop dead from its poison.  Odin will be swallowed by the wolf Fenrir.  Heimdal and the traitor god Loki, Tyr and the great hound Garm: both pairs will kill each other.  Frey, left swordless, will fall before the fire giant Surt, who will then set the world ablaze.

The gods know this is going to happen.  That is why Odin habitually betrays his own chosen heroes to death, and this is where the myth of Valhalla comes in.  Odin wants his best heroes dead so he can collect them in his own Halls of the Slain (Valhalla), where they will fight each other every day, for practice, and come back to life-in-death at the end of every day, to feast. 

The myths had a built-in answer for, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”  The Norse imagined that gods betrayed their champions in life because they needed allies in death.

Odin knows Ragnarok is coming, but since he does not know when, he wants his team to be at all times as strong as possible, even though the result is foreordained.  Even the gods will die, and their side will lose as well, and they know they will.  But this does not make them want to negotiate, still less change sides.  Refusal to give in is what’s important.  It’s only in ultimate defeat that you can show what you’re really made of.

All this shows an attitude to winning and losing markedly different from ours.  To us, calling someone ‘a loser’ is seriously insulting.  This must be the result of 150 years of competitive sport.  All modern games start off by imposing fair conditions.  Same numbers on each side, level pitch, no ground advantage, toss a coin at the start for choice of ends in case there is some advantage, change ends halfway through to cancel any such advantage, umpires and referees to see fair play – all the rules are there to see that the better team wins.   So if you lose, you must have been inferior in some way, strength or speed or skill, and if you lose consistently, then there’s something wrong with you: no excuses.

Worse, our culture is so permeated with the ethos of sport that we mistakenly believe every victory reveals moral worth.  Ayn Rand argued that financial wealth revealed a person’s merit; many contemporary politicians have been suckered into the same beliefs.

Vikings were wiser.  They knew that in the real world, conditions aren’t fair.  Heroes may be outnumbered, betrayed, trapped, caught off guard or just plain run out of luck.  That doesn’t make you what we call ‘a loser.’  To their way of thinking, the only thing that would make you a loser would be giving up.  And there’s another factor, perhaps the most distinctive thing about the Viking mindset. 

The heroes of the Viking Age, both gods and men, fixated as they seemed to be on death and defeat, just did not seem able to take death and defeat seriously.  Unlike the ponderous heroes of the classical world, they kept on making jokes, coming out with wisecracks.  To them, the throwaway line was another artform.  They had no sense of their own dignity.  Or maybe, they had such a strong sense of their own dignity that they felt no need to stand on it.

Finally, and combining the attitude to losing with the attitude to joking, what was especially relished in story after story was the stroke that showed that the hero hadn’t given up, even in an impossible situation.  What was best was showing you could turn the tables, spoil your enemy’s victory, make a joke out of death, die laughing.

People who think like that, one may well conclude, can be beaten by superior force, but though they can be killed like anyone else, they are impossible to daunt.  If they’re alive they’ll come back at you, they’re not done until they’re stone dead; even if they’re dying or helpless they will try to think of some trick, and if you fall for it, then the joke’s on you.

Viking humor.  Their secret weapon.  Part of their mindset.  Take warning, though!  There’s a mean streak running through it.

The Midwest Pages to Prisoners Project receives many requests for material about Norse mythology, but unfortunately we rarely send any.  White supremacists decided that the Norse myths should underpin their religion, and so current publications of these materials are often laced through with racism and hate.  I’ve (slowly) been preparing my own anti-racist pamphlet about the Norse myths, though, because many are lovely stories.  And the above passage seems like it could be quite helpful for many of the people who get caught in our nation’s criminal justice system.

In jail, we often read Julien Poirier’s poem “Independently Blue,” which opens with the lines:

It’s easy to fly a flag when you live in a nice house

in a beautiful city.

Things have worked out nicely for you,

and you think everyone can agree

this is the greatest country on earth.

illustration

 The people who are “winning” in our country – the wealthy, the comfortable – rarely began on an even playing field with everyone else.  Their patriotism costs little.  Why wouldn’t you love your country if it provided you with everything?

deadpool_by_steelstrugglin-d9stlbzThere’s a chance that Deadpool’s current popularity is due to the fact that so many people feel like they are not winning at life right now.  After all, Deadpool’s superpower is the ability to suffer with a smile.  He’s a hero who embodies the ethos of Norse mythology, willing to joke about his own failures.

From Shippey:

A hero is defined not by victory but by defeat.  Only in defeat can you show what you’re really made of.  Only in final defeat can you show that you will never give in.  That’s why the gods have to die as well.  If they did not die, how could they show true courage?  If they were really immortal and invulnerable, who would respect them?

At a time when so many people feel as though the world is stacked against them, seeing Superman score yet another preordained victory isn’t so compelling.  Better to root for a loser, to see Deadpool grin through a mouthful of cracked teeth and make one more bad joke before he passes out.

Especially for people in prison and jail.  Many were born into crummy situations.  After they’re released, they’ll have to navigate the world with huge additional burdens impeding their efforts – if you haven’t read it, you should check out poet Reginald Dwayne Betts’s lovely essay about trying to become a lawyer despite having been convicted of a felony when he was a kid.

I hope the people we’ve incarcerated manage to carve out some form of success.  We should want that for everyone.  People can grow and change; why not do what we can to help others change for the better?

But maybe these people will not win.  Maybe they’ll submit dozens of job applications but receive no interviews.  Maybe nobody will want to give them a second chance.

That is, unfortunately, the way it often happens.

Would defeat hurt less if we celebrated myths in which our heroes suffer, too?  And not just the way Jesus suffered, undergoing a torturous death as a trial before his ultimate ascension.  What would our world be like if we venerated gods who died with no hope of rebirth or redemption?

George Patton said, quite accurately,

Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser.

But people at the bottom are strong, too – often stronger than those whom fate allowed to start at the top and stay there.  Our world will be a better place once we learn to show kindness to those who actually need it.

On the death of Thor.

On the death of Thor.

From the beginning, Thor was doomed.  The Norse gods were fated to die in Ragnarok, after which new deities would be born.

poetic eddaIn Jeramy Dodds’s translation of The Poetic Edda, this final battle is described as

                            Wolf-time, wind-time, axe-time,

          sword-time, shields-high-time, as the world

          shatters and no one is spared by anyone.

Thor finds himself grappling with the Midgard Serpent, a giant snake that had encircled the entire planet.  Thor bops the snake on the head with his magic hammer; the snake retaliates with poison.

[Thor] steps nine steps but is finished

          by that serpent who has no fear of malice.

Both Thor and Serpent die.

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Georg_von_Rosen_-_Oden_som_vandringsman,_1886_(Odin,_the_Wanderer)Thor’s father Odin spent much of his life obsessed with prophecy.  Convinced that great sacrifice would lead to wisdom, Odin stabbed himself with a spear and hung himself from a tree till nearly dead, nine days and nights.  Later, he traded an eye for a vision of the future – who needs depth perception, anyway?

But Odin still brought destruction upon himself.

According to the prophecies, Odin would be killed by a giant beast, the Fenris Wolf.  Like the Midgard Serpent, this wolf was a child of Loki.  By rights, the wolf should have joined the pantheon.  It would have been Odin’s ally.

The_binding_of_Fenris_by_D_HardyInstead, Odin deceived the wolf – you shuck shackles as easily as Houdini will!  But let’s try one more time.  If you can’t escape this set, we promise we’ll untie you.  We just want to see, so that we can all marvel at your strength – provoking his anger.

If Odin hadn’t been such a jerk, Loki’s children wouldn’t have hated him.  Ragnarok would not have come.  Thor might have lived forever.

Or perhaps not.  Because Thor surely died again when he was forgotten.  What good is a god without worshipers?  Pious humans keep their deities alive.

It’s not clear whether Thor was ever really worshiped, but libations were probably poured for him.  I’ve never studied spiritual husbandry, but I bet the occasional splash of beer onto the ground was enough to keep Thor ticking.

Then his people converted to Christianity.  They’d celebrate Jesus instead.  Thor might have been forgotten entirely except that a few Christian scholars, years later, decided that the old stories should be preserved.  Which means, of course, that our knowledge of Thor’s escapades is laced with Christian stereotypes.

In Christianity, women have a clearly subservient role – Job’s wife was a replaceable possession; Jesus’s teachings were conveyed to us solely by men.  It’s not clear whether the Norse shared these prejudices.

For instance, contemporary genetic analysis revealed that one Viking warrior – long assumed to be male because he was buried with weapons and the regalia of high rank – was actually female.  (As soon as this discovery was made, members of our modern Christian-ish society decided that she probably wasn’t that great a warrior after all, even though her prowess had gone unquestioned until she was revealed to have two X chromosomes.)

tomb
A sketch of the Viking warrior’s remains as found in her tomb.

In Thor’s greatest recorded battle, he wears a dress.  Within the world of Norse myth, the burly bearded man smites giants, but so might the presumed willowy beauty.  Thor was Thor, but someone you’d thought was Freya might be Thor as well.  In duress, man and woman alike could conjure the passions of battle.

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Thor limped along for centuries, partially resurrected, his stories preserved so that Christian readers would better understand the poetic devices used in Icelandic literature.  Wasn’t until the 1970s that anyone strove to worship Thor back to life.

In the beginning, the white supremacist movement in the United States was closely linked with Christianity.  Southern plantationers thumped their Bibles.  Specious theories about Noah’s grandchildren were used to justify slavery.

Drunkenness_of_Noah_bellini(Noah drank too much.  On a night while he was passed out drunk, one of his sons castrated him so that there wouldn’t be any more siblings to share the inheritance with.  Noah was understandably upset, and declared that this particular son’s lineage would become slaves.  A few thousand years later, a nation of ignoramuses convinced themselves that people with higher epidermal melanin concentrations must be descended from this son.)

(The version of this story that was eventually settled upon for the Hebrew cannon – i.e. the version in the Old Testament – is circumspect to the point of absurdity.)

The KKK hated black people, but they hated Jewish people, too.

In the 1970s, a subset of white supremacists decided that Christianity itself was a tool for Jewish mind control.  Jesus was just another cog in the great ZOG plot!  They reasoned that the whole love thy neighbor business was intended to make them weak, and that they’d been tricked into worshiping Yahweh, who was and always would be a Jewish god.  They conveniently overlooked the fact that Christians had been murdering Jewish people for millennia.

They spoke out against cultural appropriation.  White people shouldn’t latch onto other peoples’ cultures or beliefs, they said.  Instead, white people should worship their own gods.

They decided that Odin and Thor were white gods.  As though a person’s religion could be coded into DNA.  As though your genes determined which stories you should believe.

I_am_the_giant_Skrymir_by_Elmer_Boyd_SmithThor really was racist, it’s true – but he was prejudiced against the race of giants, not any particular population of humans.  And even though Thor was murderously prejudiced against the giants, it was still considered acceptable for him or other gods to drink and cavort with them, or intermarry.

The modern supremacists who’ve claimed Thor as their own think differently.  For instance Else Christensen, who distributed Odinist materials to prisons with missionary zeal, who wrote that “We, as Odinists, shall continue our struggle for Aryan religion, Aryan freedom, Aryan culture, Aryan consciousness, and Aryan self-determination.

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Thor first died battling a snake.  (This sort of bloody end would grant entrance to Valhalla – as opposed to Nilfheim, Hel’s dark cold misty kingdom, final destination for all who died of illness or old age.)

Then Thor died ignominious, his followers having dwindled, his worship having ceased.  For centuries, the mud drank no more mead for Thor.

But white supremacists still love him!

Were Thor to die again, it would be of shame.