Friday, January 18, 2019

Afterthoughts: Norse & Greek Technology Gods

In recent posts, I explored patterns in Norse and Greek mythology that might help me understand technology. Before I attempt to draw conclusions, here’s a rag-tag bag of afterthoughts.


There seem to be two patterns (dare I say archetypes) for the mythological figures associated with technology.

The first array of attributes includes cunning, trickery and theft, and is exemplified by Loki, Hermes and Prometheus. These gods are improvisers – they try one thing after another until something works, or to fix the problem the previous impulse created. It reminds me of the trial and error in building medieval cathedrals (just keep trying new designs until the thing stops falling down), devising steam engines (the tinkerers created the industrial revolution, and the scientists only came along later to codify their discoveries), or building software (writing code is the process of creating bugs and discovering problems that will be fixed in the next revision; some relevant quotes). They’re often rebels (Prometheus), marginal (Loki), or latecomers (Hermes, the second youngest of the twelve Olympians).

The second cluster of characteristics is represented by Hephaestus and the Norse dwarves: deformity, darkness, fire, earth, and an association with the Mother. Hephaestus was Hera’s son, and only tangentially affiliated with Zeus; the Daktyloi arose when the Great Mother gripped the earth in her birth pangs. Hephaestus is associated with fire and earth, in contrast to the sky and rain embodied by Zeus.

Both groups are at some remove from, if not opposed to, the ruling patriarchy. Prometheus came from the Titan lineage that had gone to war against Zeus, and he subsequently took the side of humans against him. Loki is the extreme example. The monsters he fathered (Hel, the Fenris Wolf, and Jormungandr, the world-encircling serpent) will destroy the gods at Ragnarok. Loki is also linked to motherhood: he not only gave birth to a foal after seducing a great stallion to save his skin during the building of the walls of Asgard but, after eating the heart of a woman renowned for many malicious deeds, gave birth to all the female monsters in the world. As Daniel McCoy puts it in his excellent The Viking Spirit: An Introduction to Norse Mythology and Religion, “the idea of a man giving birth was the highest level of dishonor recognized by the Norse. . . . Loki’s giving birth sealed his reputation as being the most transgressive, disreputable being possible.” (It’s intriguing to consider Loki being appropriated and rehabilitated as a patron of “trans” people.)

From the Bronze Age up to the Industrial Revolution, Hephaestus and his ilk were the ideal technologists. Mining, smithing and metalwork were the key transformative crafts in an Age of Atoms – but no longer in the Information Age. We’re now fully in the era of Hermes and Loki, when knowledge and cunning are more important than manual skill (though see Matthew Crawford's Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work).

Maker-gods in other cultures

Many mythologies have craftsman-gods. Here are a few that came up in a quick web search:

  • Ptah was the Egyptian creator god and patron of craftsmen, architects and sculptors (, Wikipedia); Herodotus claimed to see statues of Ptah as a dwarf, but he may just have been trying too hard to make the link with Hephaestus.

  • Lugh was the Celtic patron god of blacksmiths and artisans (

Different cultures factorize functions in different ways

While it’s easy (and perhaps too easy) to find mappings from a god in one mythology to a counterpart in another, the correspondences are fuzzy. For example, the Greeks had one Top God: Zeus is the all-father, guarantor of order, cosmic supervisor, and thunder-god. While Odin seems to be his analog in Viking mythology as the all-seeing patriarch who presides over the gods, his son Thor is the sky-god, with his hammer striking from the sky like Zeus’s thunderbolts. The Vikings had one trickster, Loki; the Greeks had many, notably Hermes and Prometheus, whose divergent attributes (Hermes is the playful thief, while Prometheus is the subversive rebel) are combined in Loki.

Even in one mythology, there are many ambiguities about who’s who. In some stories, Hephaestus is Zeus’s son by Hera, and in others he’s a virgin birth. There are many parallel versions of the Old Man of the Sea (Nereus, Proteus, Glaucus, Phorkys) and his female counterparts (Tethys, Amphitrite, Thetis, Thalassa). This resembles the many craftsman-gods, including Hephaestus, Prometheus, the Daktyloi, etc.

Each place had its local forms of the great gods. For example, Daniel McCoy says that “Freya was the most widely and passionately venerated of all the many goddesses who had a role in bringing fertility to the land and the people. While most of these goddesses were more or less local figures, Freya’s cult enjoyed a considerable popularity across the entire Viking world.” One of the old sources says that she went under countless different names; McCoy comments that “those many local fertility goddesses were probably identified with Freya on some level, making their names her names as well.”

Frigg, according to McCoy, was a nominally distinct duplication of Freya. While they had different domains in Asgard, their attributes were identical: they shared the same husband, Odin; both were noted for promiscuity; both loved fine jewelry; and both were sorcerers. Even though the distinction seems superficial, it’s found repeatedly in the sources; it can’t just be a misunderstanding of later writers.

This means that a mythology couldn’t be directly transported from one place to another even when the myths were alive, let alone transposed easily to today’s world. The myths are suggestive, not prescriptive; they need to be remade again and again to suit each place and time.

The numinous

Such a remaking requires a deep intuition. It’s work for storytellers, poets and mystics, not scholars. Since I’m no artist, my attempts at applying myths to today’s context will be pedestrian at best, and pedantic at worst.

What is needed, and I don’t have, is a sense of the numinous – that profound emotional experience that Rudolf Otto argued was at the heart of the world's religions. “Numinous” is based ( on the Latin word numen, "divine power." Rudolf Otto described the numinous as a mystery that is at once terrifying and fascinating (mysterium tremendum et fascinans).

I believe that this experience is the foundation of all spirituality, but that only a few people have it. They establish the foundation for a new religion, based on direct experience of the numinous. The managers and scholars come along later to build the edifice (think Jesus vs. St. Paul and St. Augustine). Most of us don’t have this grounding. The religious images we rehearse are mere reflections of the transcendent experiences that only a few have had. The closest we come to the mysterium tremendum may be in our nightmares.

The numinous lies at the root of mythology, too. When I find mythological images in technology, I believe they have a numinous core, but it’s one that I haven’t experienced first-hand.

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