Sunday, June 1, 2014

What does death mean? Left Behind, Narnia, Norse Myth

Quite some time ago I thought of writing this post, if for no other reason than the fact that one does not expect deep questions in Norse religion to hinge on a seemingly pointless distinction made in bad Christian fiction by a bad writer who practices bad theology.  The PMD theology the Left Behind books is based on is all about avoiding death by... something that seems very much like dying.

Now in Ana's Narnia deconstruction we see a similar thing.  Reepicheep heads off to Aslan's country (Heaven) never to return.  Sounds an awful lot like dying.  He even leaves a traditional grave marker behind.  But this action that seems to be suicide because he's, you know, leaving this life for the afterlife never to return and doing it of his own volition, apparently isn't.  Hence him going to Heaven rather than elsewhere.

Again we see some sort of fine distinction between death and not-death that is functionally indistinguishable from death.

In the Rapture of Left Behind we are assured, repeatedly in fact, that those taken are not dead.  They've just left this earth to dwell in Heaven until all of the dead are revived on Judgement Day* AND THAT'S TOTALLY DIFFERENT FROM DEATH.

And the question of whether or not being banished from the land of the living to dwell eternally in the land of the dead is a very important one if we ever want to understand the falling out between Odin and Loki.

Loki had various children, you see.  Marvel's telling has probably done a lot to muddy waters, but the basic story is this:

Odin saw that Loki, a frost giant, was awesome.  Odin came down.  Loki saw that Odin, an Aesir god, was awesome.  The two became blood brothers, and it was good.  They even took oaths to never have a meal unless the other was welcome at it too.

Loki was unpredictable and occasionally annoying as hell, but he always made up for it in the end.

Loki joined the gods in Asgard, but being a frost giant (Jötunn), never left Jotunheim behind entirely.  He was a member of both worlds, and had a wife in each.  This was perfectly natural and nothing to be ashamed of and to be honest people were way more concerned about that time he spent as a human woman and gave birth to children than anything involving polygamy.

The fact that one of Loki's wives was a Jötunn was no big deal, that's where most gods got their wives anyway.  Thor's biological mom was a Jötunn and so too was one of Thor's wives.

Anyway, Loki saved the gods, did a lot of hanging out with his nephew Thor, and generally things were good.

Then... something happened.

With his Jötunn wife, he has three kids.  His two sons are a wolf and a serpent.  His daughter is a hag.  Not many people are born old, but Loki's daughter, Hel, was.

All three children were taken from their parents.

The wolf was exiled to an island.  For some reason that wasn't enough and so the gods tied him up.  They treated it like a game, "Can you break these bonds?" and at first he was ready to play along and eager to please, but eventually he wondered why they kept tying him up and looking disappointed when he got free.  When they finally got magical fetters that could restrain him he wasn't as willing to play, but he came up with what he thought was a good solution.

He said that he'd allow himself to be tied up and test the strength of the bonds (which is why the lying gods who lie of Asgard said they wanted to tie him up), but, so he could be sure they'd untie him if he couldn't break the bonds, he wanted one of them to place a hand in his mouth.  He wouldn't release the hand until he was released.  He reasoned none of them would lose a hand to bind him.  He reasoned wrong.  Tyr is the one handed god for a reason.

The serpent was cast down to earth.  It is the midgard serpent, who lives in the sea and circles the earth.

And Hel was... this is where the question of what death means becomes important.

Did Odin murder Hel?

He sent her to the afterlife never to return.  Usually we call that killing.  It's certainly called killing when Loki arranges for the same thing to be done to Odin's son Baldur.

Odin Raptured her, just not to paradise.  He sent her to Aslan's country, if Aslan's country were dismal and bleak and a place you'd really rather not go.

Is that killing?

That's a really big question.

Some think that Odin didn't kidnap the three children so much as take them hostage.  The difference is important.  Freyja is a hostage, and it hardly inconveniences her.  The trading of hostages was a common act in peacemaking.  The reasoning is that you're not going to attack a place with people you care about inside of it.

If they were taken hostage than it was done all wrong.  Hostages of that sort are not mistreated and the children all are, but that detail pales in comparison to the possibility that Odin straight up murdered Hel.

At least one of Loki's children will be murdered.  After things have soured, after Loki arranges for the death of Baldur and then keeps him dead (if everything and everyone could be made to cry for Baldur then Baldur would be the sole exception to the rule that the dead stay dead.  Loki didn't cry), after Loki became more concerned with pissing off the gods than his usual trickster fare, when the gods of the Aesir finally have had enough of Loki and violate every oath to get revenge, they do it by removing his blood ties with them: his two sons by an Aesir wife, Sigyn.

To remove the two sons they turn one into a wolf and make him kill the other.  Then use the entrails of the dead one to tie Loki up.  The Aesir are definitely not above murder.  There's no reason to think that they wouldn't kill Hel.  Sure, Hel never did anything to earn their ire, but neither did the son who they had disemboweled.

It should be noted that the attempt to cut ties with Loki failed.  Sigyn is Aesir.  Sigyn never left Loki.  She could.  It's actually kind of a big deal culturally speaking that she could.  But the point isn't how important it was that there was a choice given between which family to side with in that culture.  The point is that she had a choice and she chose Loki.

But Odin, leader of the Aesir, a group that we know is totally up for lies and murder, took Loki's daughter.  Did he kill her?

This is what he did do: he ended her life in all of the nine realms but one: the land of the dead, there she remains trapped until the end of all worlds just like every other being that dies and is not sent to Valhalla or Fólkvangr (which is where the ones who die in battle go.)

If a human were to do that to someone we'd call it murder.  But does using divine means --rather than, say, a knife-- mean that it's somehow not killing?

Did Odin murder Hel?

Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins say, "No."  That's a Rapture, not a death.

C. S. Lewis seems to agree, going to the afterlife never to return is not synonymous with dying.

But, um, what's the difference?


* Well, one of the judgement days.  In Left Behind there are multiple judgement days for various reasons.  One of which is that it's easy to deal with disparities in descriptions of Judgement Day and still maintain that you're reading things completely literally if you can say that the different descriptions of Judgement Day are describing different judgement days.


  1. I think the difference is that rapturing/physically travelling to Aslan's country is dying in a way that makes it clear you're getting an afterlife. Normal dying leaves you and those around you uncertain (to one extent or another depending on the person) of your continued existence.

    I'm not saying this is a very good argument, mind you. On closer inspection, it falls apart. (What about people who die in one of the various mundane ways that give zero warning? What about the left-behind bystanders who don't actually know (unless they've read the back cover) whether the vanished people were raptured or vaporised?) But I suspect that's the basic idea behind making the distinction.

    Or, on second thought, it might be something about taking your body with you. Maybe a combination of both.

  2. You make a good point, Brin.

    I said it was something about the body, which makes it wicked confusing. Baldur can hang out in Helheim with Hel. He's definitely dead... in whatever way that happens if you're a god. And his body was burned. Same thing with his wife, Nanna. I'm going to assume that, being gods, they can requisition/create/animate/etc. new bodies, so the main issue is getting Hel to let them go or the gates of Helheim to break or something.

    But what about Hel herself? She presumably started off with a body...does she still have it? Basically, when there's divinity and magic involved, matter and physics and biology and whatnot are not behaving the way humans might expect...

    Also, you can totally die and hang out in Midgard, and/or be reincarnated in your family line...Plus if you're kickass seeress Odin will wake you up to tell him shit.)

  3. Firedrake, catching upJune 6, 2014 at 2:27 PM

    I also think Brin makes a good point, but there's a more temporal angle too: rapture is a way of getting out of this life that doesn't involve pain or fear. It's more instant than a cinematic cardiac arrest, with no time for worries or regrets. The key phrase is "Jesus coming to get us before we die": yes, you are barred from going back to Earth, but the important thing is that you didn't have to go through the indignity of death to get away.